Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson famously said, “If somebody offers you an opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later.” Great advice, as far as it goes. But not knowing how to do something is only one reason we turn away work. Here are three others:
“I don’t have time.“ How many times have you shot yourself in the foot with this one? If you’re too busy to do a job yourself, subcontract it out. Recommend someone and take a finder’s fee. Or recommend someone and build a network of people who will promote you later.
“It won’t pay enough.” You have nothing to lose by naming a price that works for you. Instead of asking “What’s your budget?” try leading with, “I’d love to do it. My rate is [amount that would feel really prosperous].”
“It’s not my wheelhouse.” Ten years ago, someone offered me the opportunity to write a legal brochure. The material intimidated me, but freelance travel writing wasn’t making me rich as quickly as I had hoped so I took the job. And actually enjoyed it. Law firm work now accounts for a substantial part of my income. Travel writing, not so much.
So next time someone makes you an offer that’s outside your comfort zone, try saying yes. (And let me know how it goes.)
My company hires home-based freelancers for corporate writing projects, so I spend a lot of time sorting through resumes and talking to people on the phone. It turns out that the freelance market is not as competitive as you might think. In fact, at least 80 percent of the candidates disqualify themselves, often in a single email or conversation. Here are some pitfalls to avoid.
- Don’t lead with your personal life. Just because many writers (including me) choose the freelance or entrepreneurial lifestyle in order to prioritize things other than work – such as time with our kids, writing a novel or spending winters in Mexico – doesn’t mean prospective employers need to know the gory details. One writer sent me, as her writing sample, a link to a Mommy blog entitled “So Long Suckers! Why I’ll never be on Deadline Again.” (Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only slight.) Another noted that he wasn’t available in February because “The powder’s waist-deep in Park City.”
- Get the chip off your shoulder. Freelancers often spend years fighting their internal or external naysayers before striking out on their own. This can give you a certain edge, as though you need to shout, “Take that, corporate slime! I’m doing it my way!” to everyone you meet. This is what friends are for. Clients are fine with, “The next couple of months are blocked out, but I’ll be available March 1.”
- Let go of the past. The past five years have been one long wake for the publishing industry. You don’t need to explain that you were the last man standing at the Times-Picayune or spend two paragraphs of your cover letter describing your depression when the Star-Ledger let you go. Nor are other sectors immune. I’ll back my former employer, LeBoeuf, Lamb Greene & MacRae, against anyone out there for Titanic stories, but the only relevant takeaway is that I’m good at crisis communications.
- Don’t act like you’re slumming. I receive frequent variations on the following theme: “After 35 years in my dream job as Gardening Editor for Country Living, I find myself looking for corporate work.” Is anything about that pitch appealing?
- Showcase the benefits, not the background. One of my most skilled and successful legal marketing writers spent 20 years doing obituaries for a major newspaper. He started his cover letter, “After profiling hundreds of complex personalities from virtually every field, I believe I am well-suited to writing for law firms.”
Finally, one piece of advice: Don’t devalue yourself. Set a fee that reflects your worth and experience, even if it costs you assignments. Then give every client who pays it your absolute best work. Exceed expectations for professionalism, responsiveness and work quality.
You’ll do just fine.
Want to reprint this post? It’s all yours. But please include this credit: Deborah Gaines spent 25 years as a freelance copywriter, journalist and chief marketing officer. Her company, Deborah Gaines Associates, manages editorial projects for law firms and other corporate clients. Follow her @DebGainesAssoc