Notes from Colin Moorhouse’s Seminar

A big thanks to those who were able to attend our meeting last night. For those who couldn’t make it, here are some of the highlights.

A brief bio: Colin Moorhouse has been a freelance speechwriter for 15 years, writing speeches for private and public sector clients across Canada. Before specializing he was a generalist freelancer for five years. Prior to that, he worked on the “dark side” for 20 years. In two decades of freelancing, he has built up his business and learned many of the lessons all freelancers should consider.  His website, http://www.fearlessfreelancing.com, helps writers develop the tools to tackle freelancing challenges head on.

Rule #1: Never work for free for profitable companies.

If you do so, they will never want to pay you for your work as you’ve just set the value: $0. But, Colin does recommend doing your part for the community and volunteering. Choose the most credible non-profit in your area of interest and write for senior people in that organization. You can gain credibility from a byline in a non-profit magazine, which can lead to paid work.

This will help you to race to the top of the writing food chain. If you take low-to-no paying work, you are in a race to the bottom (think eLance.com or Suite101.com).

Rule #2: Choose clients with money

Colin likens choosing clients to dating. If he were to take a girl out on a first date and she admitted to him that she was selfish — and he continued to date her only to find that she was, indeed, selfish — he would only have himself to blame. The same goes for clients. If they tell you that they don’t have very much money it’s true!! You’re never going to get the rates you want and deserve from a client with no money.

Rule #3: Be a specialist. Or at least be *seen* as being a specialist.

Companies are willing to pay more money for expertise. There are two ways to specialize:

1) By genre. This could make you an expert in reports, newsletters, brochures or speeches (like Colin). You can then write for any subject in this genre.

2) By industry or subject. Such as real estate, biotechnology, fashion, etc. You can then write for all genres in this subject area.

The income is “day and night” between being a specialist and a generalist, according to Colin. Specialists can charge any price they set because clients will seek them out. He recommends picking something you love that suits you because you can get really lonely at your computer.

Rates

Remember: if you agree to a low price, raising your rates later on will be difficult. “Rarely will you kick yourself for losing work because you asked for too much,” says Colin. You’ll lose out because you didn’t ask for more.

Hourly rate vs. Project Cost vs. Per Word

When thinking about how much you want to work for and how to set your rates, sit down and do some math. Or arithmetic, at least.

Hourly Rates

The average desk jockey working a 9-5, M-F job will clock about 2,000 hours per year. They are paid for each and every one of those 2,000 hours. But, as a writer, you will not get paid for each hour you are at your desk. Think about your billable hours. Colin estimates 1,000 billable hours is more likely for a full-time freelancer.

Crunch the numbers.

___X____ billable hours per year.  ____Y_____ annual salary I want.

So Y / X = $_____ amount you should charge per hour.

Example:

1,000 billable hours per year. $75,000 annual salary  I want.

$75,000 / 1,000 = $75 / hour.

The client wants to know if they can afford you. You don’t want to undercharge or lose the client by quoting too much. Know what your walking away point is. What is the lowest rate you’re willing to work for?

(For many writers this would depend on the project — if it sounds fun or there are great perks they’d be willing to work for less.)

“Fifty bucks ain’t much these days,” says Colin, adding that $75 is far more reasonable.

Project Cost

In Colin’s experience, clients don’t care what you bill as long as it agrees with what you quoted. So he will quote in a bracket, for example “No more than $4,500 and no less than $3,000.” The high end allows for some “wriggle room” if they turn out to be a pain. Within reason, money isn’t the issue for the client — they either want the work done or they don’t.

In order to figure out in advance what the project cost will be, you need to have a good idea about the perimeters of the assignment. If you receive an email from a client, it gives you time to think. In your first reply, you should try to never talk money. Instead, say “I usually charge on project cost, so I will require more information.”

Per Word

Colin says that getting paid per word is “absurd.” Corporate writing never pays this way, although it is more common in newspaper and magazine writing. It’s hard to make a living doing solely newspaper and magazine writing, especially since editors will always offer the lowest price — you have to be willing to walk. Your best defense is knowing the going rates in advance.

50¢ per word is considered basic

75¢ – $1 is better these days

30¢ – 35¢ is what newspapers are trying to pay

You have to ask yourself how long the article will take and if it’s going to be worth your time. Again, you can crunch the numbers:

A 2,000 word article at 75¢ per word = $1,500.

If the article takes you 8 hours, you’ve just made $187.50 per hour. But if it takes you 50 hours to complete you’ve made $30 per hour. (Remember the time it took to brainstorm the idea, write the query, negotiate the rate, research, interview, transcribe, write, edit, archive, bill, etc).

Keep in mind that if you want to make your $75,000 annual salary and work 1,000 hours, you need to bring in $75 / hour.

And while we’re talking money, the writing food chain is led by Ad copywriters, who can pull in $300-400,000 annually. Speech and annual report writers follow them. At the bottom of the chain is starving poets and magazine writers.

Tricks for Savvy Negotiations

You are always in a better negotiating position when the client needs you more than you need them. Colin believes this is most of the time. But he admits ,”I’m an arrogant S.O.B.”

So how do you get this leverage?

1. They call you

If they call you, you’re in the driver’s seat because they’re dying for you to be the right person for the job. They don’t want to waste more time courting another writer.

Trick: “Shut up and listen,” Colin advises. Ask them to tell you about the project. Ask a few intelligent follow-up questions. They’ve now invested 15 minutes of their valuable time in this call and it becomes a done deal.

2. They need it fast

You can always get more money if someone needs a project finished faster than usual. Just look at the rates in your post office for proof!

3. You are an expert/specialist

People will pay more for an expert. Or someone they *think* is an expert. See above.

4. You’re the only one who can provide the service

There’s always someone else, but if you build your brand well and are seen as the front-runner, you’ll become the only writer they think about!

How do you get clients to call you?

Marketing and networking. Try emails with provocative and interesting subject lines. With emails (over cold calls) the client has time to reflect and think about what you’ve proposed.

You need to have an electronic presence. Even if it’s just a WordPress blog (like this one) where you post your resume, writing samples and testimonials. “There’s no excuse for not having a website,” says Colin. Hard copy writing samples are only for face-to-face meetings, if used at all. Most clients will want to snoop you online.

Being a new writer shouldn’t stop you from marketing yourself. You can put unpublished works on your own website to prove to clients that you are a capable writer.

“If your phone rings — answer it!” Colin insists. You need to be available for possible clients.

For networking, Colin recommends contacting someone in the area you want to break into and inviting them out to lunch or coffee. Then pick their brain. Ask them about their day, “I’d sure like to get an idea of what a day in your life is like.”

When you meet someone face-to-face, they are able to associate a real person to those electronic messages and they remember you. If your passion shows during the meeting, they may get back to you with some work. If you do a good first job, they’ll come to you with more work and possible recommend you to others. Show that you can bring your interest, passion, knowledge to what they do.

At the end of every new meeting, ask two things:

1. Ask permission to keep in touch. Don’t abuse this privilege — once every couple months is normal. Send a link to an article that person might like, or forward information about an event they might like to attend.

2. Ask “is there anyone else I should be talking to?” Leverage their network and get names. Then follow up with those people! Contact #1 might tell contacts #2 and #3 to expect to hear from you, so it’s very rude if you don’t follow through. When you get in touch with #2 and #2, drop the name of #1.

Repeat the process and you end up with a much larger network, more work and more work offers.

The Rule of 12

Slackers take note! Colin says you always need to have 12 proactive marketing endeavors out there. These are activities that after you initiate them, people have to get back to you. If sending queries is your method, you should have a dozen out there at any given time. As soon as you get a “no,” it’s time to send out another one.

You need 12 because you shouldn’t be too attached to any one idea, in case it fails. You need all these balls in the air to ensure that you have a steady stream of work coming your way.

Marketing when you are the busiest is the best — build on your momentum!

Strategize

What do I know?

Who wants that?

How do I package it?

Be your own brand and build your freelance business.

These five traits will help you:

  1. Competent writing
  2. A likable person (as Colin says “with a pulse — something going on in your head”)
  3. Professional
  4. Reliable
  5. Niche/expertise/specialty

Got them? Now make them work for you!! See you at the next meeting.

Notes written by Sheila Whittaker, thanks to Colin Moorhouse for a fantastic talk.

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3 thoughts on “Notes from Colin Moorhouse’s Seminar

  1. Thanks Sheila, great synopsis, sorry I missed the original.

    Did Colin touch on the current market for writers? An editor friend of mine assured me it was a buyers market. Wondering if Colin had any perspective on this?

    Ally

    • Colin specializes in speech writing and works for private companies and government. He was clear that writing for magazines and newspapers as a freelancer is one of the bottom rungs of the freelance-writing ladder, in terms of income (with poets being the very last). His own business seems to be doing quite well, and he’s booked up with assignments for the rest of the year.

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