The Struggling Writer

The chronicles of a freelance writer as he tries to make a living.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ah, liquid, my old nemesis

I have once again been chased out of my writing comfort zone by a spill. This one came from my water heater, which has apparently been leaking into the padding under the carpet in my office for quite some time now. I found it only because I finally decided to try and find the source of that faint but nasty smell that's been around for a couple of weeks. Now I'm poorer by the cost of a new water heater and I need to figure out what I'm going to do about the moldy carpet padding. Plus I have a friend coming in to stay the weekend. Oh, and I need to write and earn some money, just not in my office.

I got tagged by Brian Westover for the "Habits for Success" meme which reminded me that I got tagged for another meme a while back that I promptly forgot about.

Friday, March 16, 2007

There are good subcontractors out there

Yet another post I’ve had on my “blog about this” list was about subcontracting. It was directly in response to a post on another blog, but I can’t remember where it was so I can’t backlink.

This blogger was a writer who was overwhelmed with work and was debating about the merits of subcontracting. There were several comments from other writers who talked about how disappointed they had been when subcontracting their work. It is hard to find good, reliable writers. It is a problem when the primary writer spends as much time proofing the subcontractor’s work as it would take to write the article from scratch. And it’s frustrating to find a good writer then have that writer leave in three months to pursue an independent career.

Some writers, I suspect, are simply too controlling to subcontract their work effectively. When you subcontract, you are putting your name on someone else’s style. Some writers just can’t stand that, so spend all of their time massaging the contracted piece into their own personal style. Part of the art of successful subcontracting is learning to use a very light editing touch.

Personally, I love being a subcontractor. Before I started my writing, I subcontracted as a programmer for several years. It was great! This guy handled looking for new clients, collecting payments, and all the administrative nonsense. I just wrote code. Ultimately, though, it fell apart because he wasn’t very good at marketing. He was riding on a couple of big clients and when they both suffered major financial setbacks, he suddenly had very little work. We lost touch and I don’t even know if he’s still in business anymore.

I don’t want to do marketing. I don’t want to do collections. I just want to write. And I’m quite happy to let someone take a piece of the pie to handle those things.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Incentives that aren't incentives

I’m always trying to find good incentives to motivate me to work more. “Paying the bills” only goes so far. Recently I thought I had one, but I realize now it wouldn’t work.

I believe I’ve mentioned my niece one or two (thousand) times in this blog. Her father is Greek (meaning here-on-a-green-card Greek) and has to go back home for several months this summer to keep his sailing credentials up to date (for some reason there aren’t a lot of sailing jobs in Phoenix). He wants my sister and my niece to go out and visit him for a couple of weeks in September. My sister is a little concerned about taking a special needs child on an international trip all by herself so she’d like me to come. She’s reluctantly offered to pay my way, but she can’t really afford it.

Aha! What a great work incentive. I set some goal about how much money I have to make between now and September and if I make it, I go to Greece. Yay!

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this just doesn’t work.

Let’s say I set myself goal of $10,000 (which would be too low a goal, but is a nice round number for this example). What if I make only $9,999? Do I really cancel a trip to Greece, hosted by a local so I get to see the “real” Greece rather than the tourist stuff, because of one dollar? OK, so let’s say one dollar is close enough. What about two dollars? Ten dollars? A thousand dollars?

This may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He’s close to retirement and she can’t afford to run out there every year he goes back, so this might never come up again.

If I missed my goal, I know damn well I’d go anyhow. And I know I know that, so the incentive is gone. That’s the problem with being a cynical smart-ass like me. A lot of motivational stuff doesn’t work because I see through the psychology. I see the man behind the curtain and realize it’s all just a trick.

I read a lot of the advice on freelance success, but much of what I read just makes me roll my eyes. Obviously these ideas work because they are written by people who’ve used them, but I know they wouldn’t work for me. I keep searching because every now and then I come across something that strikes a chord.

(And I don’t know why I used so many parenthetical phrases today.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Avoiding burnout

I’ve been meaning to write this post since before my computer disaster but I haven’t gotten around to it. Recently, Deb Ng wrote her Put a Fork in Me post and that reminded me about this.

Her post brought out the usual real-writers-don’t-do-SEO crowd who are willing to use any opportunity to abuse that equine corpse. I don’t feel her post was about the evils of SEO. It was about the ignorance of clients who don’t really understand what SEO is, what keywording is, and how the web works. Mostly, though, it was about career evolution.

People get burned out in every career. Whether you shovel cow manure or do brain surgery, some people just get sick of the grind. At that point they can spend the rest of their life being miserable, or they can find a change. It could be a simple change of duties or a completely new career.

Freelancers run a great risk of falling into that trap. If you become known as a SEO writer, you keep getting offered SEO jobs. Your clients might think you could do more, but all they have is SEO. All of your job searching is focused on sites that specialize in SEO. It’s easy to keep doing it because it’s easy.

A while back I began to realize that I am getting a bit dissatisfied with my current work. The stuff I’m doing now is technically SEO, but it’s meatier articles that happen to have a key phrase in them. Generally I get assignments of 3-4 articles rather than 300. Most of what I do is basically copywriting. I just don’t really like copywriting.

Since I have at least one client who reads this blog, let me emphasize that I don’t hate copywriting by any means. It’s a solid way to bring in some money and I think it will likely be a core income stream for a good part of my career. I just don’t want to get trapped in it.

At heart, I’m a technical writer. I’d much rather write something like, “Although analytical solutions to this simple partial differential equation exist for simple boundary conditions, the time-dependent concentration boundary conditions at the inlet and outlet reservoirs in the diffusion cell experiments demand a numerical solution.” than “We don’t want you to find just a paycheck. We want you to find a career that will give you the lifestyle of your dreams.” (I’m rolling my eyes as I paste that last line, even though I’m the one who wrote it).

Right now I’m pretty much coasting on what this one client is giving me and that’s bad. I need to get out and do more self-promotion, including updating this blog more regularly. I need to find a wider variety of work so that I don’t get burned out. And, of course, I need to generate more income.