Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting Paid

At what point do you panic over a missing paycheck? How long do you check the mail, waiting for the payment you’re due, before you begin hounding a client? As a freelancer, have you made any hard and fast rules on compensation?

It’s something I’m contemplating this week, as I’m assessing my finances. Then again, it’s something I contemplate nearly every week—and if you rely on those freelance checks to pay the bills, I’m guessing you think about it often too.

I’m blessed to have a number of clients who pay relatively soon after they have accepted my work. With one of my bigger clients, I expect I’ll receive my check just about a month after I invoice. It happens without fail, and I take comfort in that consistency. With another smaller shop, the check usually arrives a week or two after a project is done. And with a few individuals I’ve taken on small writing and editing projects for recently, they’ve paid immediately—we’re talking, as soon as they can write a check and get it in the mail.

But I do have a couple of clients who won’t pay until months—many months—after my story has been published. I’ve tried to assess whether there’s a rhyme or reason as to how soon they pay, and there isn’t. Sometimes, I’ll have a few checks trickle in a few months in a row. Other times, I’ll go months without any pay, even though I’m submitting stories regularly.

I’m sure you’re asking: So why don’t you dump the client if they’re so bad at paying you, Julie?

It’s something my hubby says regularly. In his world, a three-month delay in payment is unacceptable (then again, so is a three-day delay). In his world, I should stop working for them immediately.

But here’s the thing. Despite those slow checks, this client is pretty darn good to work for. I get plum assignments. They come regularly. I typically get a few names of sources to contact when I get the assignment, which makes my job even easier. It’s steady work that requires little stress or upfront wrangling on my part—no queries, no sending clips, the assignments just come.

So for that reason, I’m willing to deal with the inconsistent payments. Occasionally, I’ll send a reminder email to let the editors know I haven’t been paid in a while. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. And eventually I do get paid.

In the meantime, I just make sure to scrounge up other work that pays more quickly to supplement those slow checks. And I use these strategies to ensure those other checks keep rolling in at a reasonable rate.

Invoice properly. If the company you’re working with has specific way they like their invoices submitted, make sure you follow their guidelines—exactly. If they have a special form, use it. If they want that invoice submitted by snail mail, get out the stamps. Otherwise, your invoice may come back to you and the whole process begins again.

If there aren’t specific guidelines, be sure to include the most relevant information in a clear, easy-to-read format. Your name, address, phone number, and often social security number or federal ID should be easy to spot. Spell out what the project is, what the rate you agreed on was, and what the total is that they owe you. Make sure you include the date, too.

Say thanks. Whether you include a sticky note with a personal thank you, a standard “thanks for the work” on your invoice, or a few kind words in the email you attach your invoice to, that note of gratitude can go a long way.

Follow up.
If I know a company’s policy is to pay in, say, two weeks, I’ll follow up if I haven’t seen that check in two weeks. Usually this means shooting an email to the editor I worked with, who will check on things. Other times, I may contact the department that sends out checks directly.

Either way, be polite. Don’t write an angry email demanding payment or you’re suing. Don’t rant and rave on the phone. An informal, “hey, I just wanted to check in on that payment” works much better.

Follow up again. Still haven’t received that check? Send another note or make another call. Be a bit firmer this time. Odds are, your payment will come soon.

And if it doesn’t? Consider what kind of battle you’re willing to do. Is it a good client you want to keep, like the one I mentioned above? Then play nice.

Is it one you’ve never worked with before and don’t care to work with again? Then get a bit more aggressive—just remember, the world is a lot smaller than you think and you don’t want word to get around that you’re unpleasant to deal with.

Is it a big check? Then you may want to consult with someone (an attorney, a collection agency) who can help you get your money.

If it’s not that large of a payment, perhaps you're better of calling it a loss, scratching that company off your list, and moving on. (Remember, spending hours trying to get $30 probably isn't the best use of your time.)

What’s your strategy? Any slow- or no-payment horror stories? How long do you wait for a check before following up?

Learn more.
Freelancer’s Guide to Getting Paid–On Time (
How to get paid as a freelance writer in a timely manner (eHow)
Getting paid on time (Freelance Switch)

Photo by Betsssssy via Flickr

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Setting Your Rates

When I first started freelance writing as an undergrad, I couldn’t believe how much I could make for an article. I was fortunate to have the chance to write for a large national consumer pub, and even though I was probably making the least of all of the magazine’s freelancers, it was good pay by my standards. I figured I could only go up from there.

But then I realized that the rates a writer is paid vary considerably from publication to publication—particularly as you move from consumer pubs to custom, regional, local, or business magazines. It gets even trickier when you throw online writing and other forms of writing work into the mix.

There isn’t one set rate I get for my writing and there never will be.

So when I determine what’s reasonable pay, I take a number of things into account.

A while ago, I figured out what my ideal hourly rate would be—how much I need to get paid in order to make enough to pay my bills. It involved taking account of all of my business expenses, my personal expenses, how many hours I can actually bill (remember, you probably aren’t going to be billing a full 40 hours of work each week), and how much I hope to save after paying my expenses.

Handy sites online, such as the rate calculator at Freelance Switch, can help you figure all of this out in no time.

So then, each time a possible writing or editing project comes up, I keep my hourly rate in mind. I estimate how long I think each step in the process is going to take—background research, interviewing, writing, proofreading, communication with the editor, revisions if necessary—and divide the rate the editor has offered (if it’s a flat project fee) by the number of hours I estimate I’ll spend on it. If it’s close to or even more than my ideal hourly rate, I take on the project.

If that proposed fee is quite a bit lower than my hourly rate, I don’t shoot back a “no thanks” right away. As you know, times are tough, and rates for writing and editing work are getting lower and lower. So before I ditch the assignment, I consider whether there are places where I can trim back my time estimate. Can I keep the amount of time I spend researching or interviewing in check and still produce a quality article?

Other considerations come into play too. When the opportunity comes up to write for a publication I’ve been wanting to work with for years, odds are I’ll take on the gig even if it pays a bit less than my ideal (as long as the rate isn't ridiculously low). The same holds true if it’s an assignment for a topic I’m particularly passionate about.

Or, in the case of a writing gig that promises to offer consistent opportunities, I might sacrifice a bit on that ideal rate because getting regular work is worth it. (I write for almost every issue of one publication I started working for a couple of years ago, so the fact that I get such steady work makes up for the slightly lower rates.)

Besides, if the choice is between writing for a bit less pay than usual or having no writing work at all, I’m going to take on the job.

(One caveat about this: I will not go considerably lower than my ideal hourly rate, to the point where I am almost giving my work away for free, except for those instances where I volunteer my writing services to help out with a cause or publication I believe in, or when it helps build my writing business, as with my blogging. Writing mills and the ridiculously low rates they pay are a whole other topic I could spend many posts on, and perhaps I will someday. Suffice to say for now that I will not spend hours working on a project that brings in only a couple of dollars. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about why I don’t support writing mills, my writer-friend Kristine Meldrum Denholm has been posting on the topic recently and makes some great points.)

Then there are those times when a writing assignment comes with special stipulations—perhaps it's a rush job or it requires extra work that my usual writing assignments don't. In that case, I often will increase how much I am willing to take from the usual hourly rate, particularly if it means I'll be getting less sleep or won't have time to devote to other projects.

In other words, coming up with the ideal rate is an inexact science. But at least having that hourly number in mind ensures that I’m not taking on a project that isn’t worth my time.

How do you figure your hourly rate? How low are you willing to go? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Learn More:
How Much Should I Charge (njcreatives)
How to Set Salary Goals (

Photo by Benediktv via Flickr

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's All About the Money, Honey

It’s mid-January. Odds are, if you’re like me, you’ve been doing some goal-setting and planning for the coming year and perhaps even thinking about tax time. It’s hard to do any of that without thinking money.

Money is never far from a freelancer’s mind no matter the time of year. It’s what keeps us going. Money ensures we can pay our bills and live a comfortable life and do what we love. It’s a constant source of stress and worry and occasionally even excitement when a big check, or even a reasonably sized check, arrives.

That’s why, this week, I’m going to post a bit about money—specifically, about writers’ rates (tomorrow) and getting paid (on Thursday).

And, while we’re on the subject, I’d love to hear your thoughts on freelancing and money. What is the best part about the freelancer’s income? What stresses you out the most? Anything you’d like to hear more about? Let me know!

Photo by AMagill via Flickr

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hitting the Stacks

I’m busy pulling together a slew of queries this week. They stem from story ideas I’ve been jotting down in the past couple of months but haven’t had time to think about, and now I’m focused on getting proposals out the door within the next two weeks.

Before the madness of the holidays hit, I began by brainstorming potential publications to pitch my ideas to. Once I narrowed down the list, I headed to the local library and spent time thumbing through past issues of the magazines.

I’m pitching to magazines I haven’t written for before, so this gave me a chance to familiarize myself with them. It also allowed me to keep an eye out for similar stories that may have been done before.

It was a smart move on my part. One of the topics I planned to pitch to a women’s publication had recently been covered—in a different way, but too similar to make publishing another feature on the topic already a possibility. So I went back to the drawing board with that one and thought up fresh ways to approach the topic and new publications to pitch to.

With others, looking through the magazines allowed me to note the appropriate editor to send the pitch to and helped me figure out possible word counts for features, what department the story might fit best in for front of book pieces, and the type of sources and tone the stories in each publication used.

When I left the library, I came away with a page of notes and the confidence that I was sending the right ideas to the right publications.

I know some people don’t believe in querying and others send pitches blind, without any research into the publication, confident their idea will fit even if they’re not totally familiar with the publication.

For me, however, spending the time to familiarize myself is worth it.

It may not ensure that I land every story assignment I propose, but it at least gets me one step closer to success.

And now it's time to get to work on those query letters.

Photo by eclecticlibrarian via Flickr.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year, New Goals

It’s the first workweek of the New Year—a perfect time to stop and reflect on what you accomplished as a freelance writer in 2009 and to plan where you want to take your business in 2010.

I, for one, am grateful for the writing and editing opportunities I had in the past year—my first as a full-time freelance writer and editor.

Considering the state of the economy this year and its affect on publishers large and small, I was fortunate to land a number of steady writing gigs, to have the chance to write for a few publications I had never written for before, to launch my own online travel magazine, and to find copy editing and proofreading work to fill the rest of my time.

At the same time, I’m ramping up for an even stronger showing in 2010. I have been fortunate to have a graduate assistantship position to provide a bit of extra cushion to supplement my freelance writing since August. I’ll have that same cushion until May but, after that, it’s going to be all writing and editing all the time.

My goal, then, is to make the most of the next five months—to finish my master’s degree, of course, but also to position myself so that I have a full plate of freelance work, or as close to it, as I can once my assistantship is completed and I’m fully reliant on my freelance income once again.

That means I’m sending out queries like a madwoman this first couple of weeks before my graduate classes start up again.

I’ll also be working on freelance assignments I already have—this year, I want to sharpen my interviewing and writing skills even more, so I’m at the top of my game.

And I’ll be returning to some of the places I haven’t visited in a while—freelance job writing boards, old contacts in the publishing industry I’ve been out of touch with—to see what other work I can scrounge up.

What did you do right in 2009? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? What are your goals moving forward into 2010? I’d love to hear how you’re gearing up to make this year of freelancing your best yet.