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Friday, September 28, 2012

An Overlooked (but Essential) Way to Become More Productive

What does it take to be a successful freelancer? Yes, you have to be able to write well, market yourself, develop relationships with clients, manage your time, and stay focused. You may know that already. When I speak to would-be freelancers about making the transition from employee to business owner, though, I suggest that they commit to a regular exercise program, if they don't have one already. 

Writing is a sedentary job. And while using your brain is mentally draining, it requires little physical effort. I believe one of the reasons I’ve maintained a fairly high level of productivity (essential now that I freelance part-time) is that I’ve made working out a priority, even when I’m busy.

In my 30s, I ran five or six days a week. It was a great stress-reliever--at least until I started getting injured regularly. Now that I’m a 40-something, I need a more balanced fitness routine. I still run but not as often; I bike, lift weights, and do yoga. I try to make it to the gym four or five days a week. I know that after two or three days of nothing more physical than hauling my toddler around, my back gets stiff. I get cranky. I have trouble sleeping. I need the physical challenge and release of exercise to balance out the mental stress of work and life, so I make time for it.

Almost all of the most productive writers I know are dedicated athletes in some sense of the word. They run. They dance. They swim. They spin. They do yoga. They’ve figured out that a healthy body doesn’t just look and feel good; it makes for a more productive brain, too.

As a freelancer, I need my brain. And I need to work. Yet it's hard to shut that brain off. I’m always thinking about the assignments on my desk, encroaching deadlines, the amount of money I’m making, my plans for the next year, when I’m going to find time to write another novel, you name it. One of the rare times that I’m able to turn off the incessant mental chatter is when I’m standing on the pedals of a spin bike pushing through another two-minute sprint interval or trying to balance in triangle pose during yoga. Exercise that demands your full attention—I’m talking high-intensity, focused effort—shuts off your freelance brain, at least for a while. I need that.
A stroll around the block is better than nothing, but pushing yourself produces bigger benefits for your body and brain. Physical effort that causes discomfort also produces endorphins, which ease pain, decrease anxiety, and improve your mood. In other words, suffering (at least a small amount of it for a short period of time) is a good thing.
Rising to physical challenges makes you more able to handle mental challenges as well. The reason is what researchers call self-efficacy. Studies prove that mastering physical skills (whether it’s doing a headstand or successfully training to complete a 10K run) improve your self-efficacy, or your belief in your ability to perform a task. That self-efficacy bleeds into other areas as well, which means you’ll be more confident, not only in your writing skills, but in your ability to weather an ever-changing freelance landscape and to continue to grow and develop as a self-employed businessperson. That’s a sizable payoff for producing a little sweat on a regular basis.

Convinced yet? (Hey, remember I’m a personal trainer too, so hopefully I’ve made the case for exercise.) If you already work out, you know all of this is true. If you don’t, start. If you’re worried about time away from your business, count your workout time as work time. The productivity and stress relief that result from working out will more than make up for "lost time" at your desk.

**This post was drawn from Secret 87: Get (and stay) physical from my latest book, Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. Last chance to win a free copy of it by entering the giveaway here!  

And readers, weigh in. What's your usual workout regime? Do you find that getting physical makes you more productive? How so? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Guest Post: 5 Things Your Letter of Introduction Needs to Make it Work

I've written before about the power of a compelling LOI, or letter of introduction and why it's an invaluable tool in your freelance arsenal (here's a template). So I'm delighted to host today's guest post from successful freelancer Mridu Khullar Relph, who talks about how to improve your own LOI: 

5 Things Your Letter of Introduction Needs to Make it Work

Mridu Khullar Relph

Of the questions I receive from writers on my blog, LOIs or Letters of Introduction seem to generate the most interest. Can you really get work from them? What if I don't have credits? What if I don't have expertise in the publication's area of focus? Do they ever actually work?

In my experience, Letters of Introduction not only work, they're a great way of initiating a conversation with an editor on a level-playing field so that they know more about you and you can find out a bit more about their publication--what they pay, what kind of stories they prefer, whether they have needs that require filling--BEFORE you've actually put in hours of work. In fact, a good LOI can bring in thousands of dollars worth of assignments, not to mention relationships with editors on an ongoing basis. My own LOI has netted me over $20,000 worth of assignments in the last two years alone and that's not even counting the ongoing assignments that I get as a result of it.

Here then are the elements that determine whether your Letter of Introduction will bring you long-term relationships with clients or immediately get tossed in the trash.

1. Credits
The thing with LOIs, and I hate to say this, is that if you have no credits or credits from only smaller publications, you're unlikely to get work (or even responses) as a result of them. LOIs aren't necessarily meant to get you ready-made assignments (though sometimes they do), but to tell the editor that you--a really established in-demand writer--are available to work for them, and that now that the connection has been made, if they're interested, you can discuss it further. A successful response to an LOI is typically a chat with an editor, which could result in one assignment, several, a column, or something else. The LOI is meant to convince them that it's worth their while to talk to you and if you have no credits or are very new to freelancing, it's a much better strategy to pitch ideas instead.

2. Style
You know when you're putting together a query letter and you make sure to write it in the voice of the publication you're submitting to? Same deal with an LOI. While the basics of your LOI will remain the same, it's important to match the tone of the publication you're targeting because it immediately lets your editor know that you understand the publication and its audience. If you're pitching a parenting website, for instance, the tone of your LOI will be different from if you're pitching a trade magazine. For one, you'll highlight different strengths and feature different credits, but also, you might want to make it fun and informal for the parenting market, whereas a business-like tone might work better for a magazine for executives in the construction business.

3. Humility
You may have some of the best credits in the world-- and if you're sending LOIs on a regular basis, you probably do-- but an editor will immediately have an aversion to you and your work if he or she suspects that you're just a hotshot expecting ready-made work. Remember that no matter how well-published you may be, and no matter how obscure the publication you're writing to, you're essentially asking someone to take time from their busy day to look through your portfolio and see where you could fit in with their publication. LOIs in a way, are asking an editor to do some of the work for you, and while this is why freelancers (including me) love them so much, it will work against you if you're just banging on about your accomplishments without mentioning what you bring to the table for the  
person you're pitching.

4. Service
Which brings me to the most important part of your introduction letter. What do you have to offer? Sure, you're a widely-published writer with experience in thirty countries, but what can you do for THIS editor and THIS publication? No amount of credits will help if you don't understand the business of a trade magazine (and are unwilling to learn) or the audience of a consumer website. In all business relationships, both parties are asking one question: What's in it for me? When your editor reads your LOI and asks that question, will he or she find an answer?

5. Passion
Finally, does your LOI demonstrate an interest or expertise in this topic or does it look like you've just plucked the editor's name from a listing of writing markets? Look, we all know that we do the plucking, because it's really difficult to be passionate about construction and data analysis and jewelry manufacturing all at the same time, but writing about these things helps fund the things we're really passionate about, such as that unfinished novel or that reporting on outsourcing of medical trials to the third world. But your LOI needs to demonstrate a certain interest and understanding of the topic because to the editor of that publication, that is the passion. Good writers are valuable, but good writers who actually care about the subject they're writing about, no matter how mundane, now those are the ones who're priceless. And the ones that keep on getting regular work. Be the writer they want to hire because you bring to them a lot more than just good writing.


Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, Time magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Ms., Elle,  and hundreds of other national and international publications. Check out her tips for writers on her blog ( connect with her on Twitter (@mridukhullar) or Facebook ('d love to hear from you.

***Thanks, Mridu, for an excellent and helpful post! If you're a seasoned freelancer who'd like to guest-post for me, please let me know via email--kelly at becomebodywise dot com. And don't forget about the latest giveaway!  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Can you Still Make a Six-Figure Living as a Freelancer? And Another Giveaway

I just had a reader of Six-Figure Freelancing contact me last week, asking if I still thought that freelancers could make a six-figure living writing articles. Five or six years ago, I would have said "of course."  

Today, I still think it's possible to make a six-figure living (or close) writing articles for print and online publications. But it's definitely harder to do than before, for a variety of reasons. Print magazines are assigning shorter articles than they did before, yet per-word rates are pretty close to what they were in the 1960s. And as ad revenue has dropped, magazines are smaller, which means they're assigning fewer articles overall. Add in the fact that competition for high-paying features is fierce. Unless you've already established yourself with a number of magazines as one of their "go-to" writers, I think it's tough to make six figures from articles alone. 

However, let's remember that there are countless other ways to make money from your words. There are more online publications and blogs that pay for content than ever before, so if you're not writing for online markets, you should be. There's copywriting. There's writing for corporate clients. There's ghostwriting. There's editing. There's writing books for traditional publishers. And what about publishing your own ebooks on a particular subject and making money from that? Or investing in a POD book to produce another source of income? 

My point is this--what worked for me (and many other freelancers) ten years, five years, even two years ago doesn't work as well anymore. I've found that diversifying my business has helped me survive in a tough economy. Yes, I still write articles, but I also write books and ghostwrite books and other projects for clients. I do some public speaking, edit occasionally, and do some consulting work with freelancers and budding authors. And I'm in the middle of a big new project I'll announce soon. 

But other successful freelancers have taken a different approach. Instead of diversifying, they choose to focus on specific lucrative areas like corporate writing, copywriting, or medical writing. Right now, I'm not interested in doing that--I like a variety of work. But in the future, who knows? 

***I promised a giveaway to celebrate 400 followers, didn't I? So to win a free copy of Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (and possibly a bonus prize I'll announce), please make a comment below. If you're a new writer, tell me what you'd like to know starting out. If you have some experience under your belt, tell me what you would have liked to know as a newbie. Feel free to pass this link along to other writers, and THANK YOU! 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

An Essential Word in Your Freelancer Vocabulary

I admit it. I have a hard time saying no. As a result, I often wind up taking on too much work, only to regret it afterwards. I’d rather say yes to just about everything, which leads to me being overbooked and overwhelmed.
As a former attorney, though, I should know better. As a law student, you study for and take what’s called the ethics bar exam, which tests your knowledge of the Code of Professional Responsibility that lawyers swear to uphold. The one thing I remember from the course more than 20 years later was this line: A lawyer is not a bus. Meaning that if you’re uncomfortable working for a client or don’t feel that you can adequately represent the person, you don’t have to take him on—and, in fact, you may be ethically obligated not to. (A bus, on the other hand, stops to let every waiting passenger climb aboard. Get it?)
This axiom applies to writers as well. As a freelancer, you don’t have to take every project that’s offered. Sometimes the gig doesn’t offer enough money or the contract terms are terrible or you’re already overloaded with work or you don’t feel right about the job. Sure, there will be instances where you take on work you’re not thrilled about because you need the money. After all, having to do things you don’t particularly want to do is part of any job. But if you never say no, you’ll lose control over your writing life and have no time for the projects you really want to pursue.
Still, many writers struggle with saying no, especially when they have a relationship with the person doing the asking. Years ago, my dad, who’s a dentist, came to me with a great idea. He wanted us to write a book together, on providing better-quality dental care to patients in nursing homes. (Imagine my thrill at the idea of covering this subject!) I had to turn him down.
I felt terrible about it. He’s my dad! But I knew that the project would take months, it wouldn’t produce much (if any) income, and it wasn’t a subject I had any interest in. He was disappointed and angry. But if I had taken on the book, it would have severely impacted my ability to make a living. As a self-employed businessperson, I can’t do that. (I would have also been resentful toward him and angry with myself for agreeing to do it, and those are not feelings I want to be embracing for months.)
When I say no, I start with a “thank you,” and then give a reason for my refusal, like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project, but I’m afraid I don’t have time to take it on right now.” Or, “I really appreciate you getting in touch, but I charge at least $4,500 for a book proposal, so unless you can afford that, I won’t be able to work with you.” You may feel bad temporarily but you’ll feel much worse if you take on work that you don’t want and then have to actually do it!  
Repeat after me: You are a writer, not a bus. Start saying no to the work you don’t need and don’t want. You won’t regret it. And you'll leave room for more lucrative assignments as well. 
[This post is Secret 51: Learn to say no from Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. If you're serious about freelancing, I hope you'll check it out. Thanks! Or if you're a total newbie to freelancing and want to know how to sell your first article, you won't find better, more practical advice than in my ebook,Dollars and Deadlines' Guide to Selling your First Article. Or check out my other ebooks here.]
***And finally, stay tuned for my next giveaway to celebrate hitting 400 followers on this blog! It's going to be a good one. :)  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Choose Relationships Over Assignments

You know I do a lot of reslanting, which means I often send the same idea to different markets at the same time. In the publishing business, this is usually called simultaneous submitting or simultaneous submissions.
            When I do this, though, I have two rules. First, I make sure I’ve tweaked the idea for the market I’m pitching. And second, I never simultaneously submit to competing markets. 
            Let me explain. Say I come up with a story idea on developing a better relationship with your in-laws. I might send that query to a bridal magazine like Bridal Guide and then tweak it to apply to marriages of all types (not just new ones) and send it to Family Circle at the same time. My logic is that readers of one magazine aren’t likely to be reading the other—and the publications aren't competing against each other for readers. (Note that if both pieces are assigned, I’ll write two different articles, with different angles, different sources, and different approaches.) However, I won’t query the same idea to Bridal Guide and Brides at the same time—even if it’s timely and I want to get an assignment as soon as possible.
            Here’s why: What happens if editors at both bridal publications want the story? Even if my contracts allow it (and one or both may prohibit me from covering the same topic for a certain time), I guarantee one of them (and possibly both!) is going to be upset when she discovers I’m also covering the topic for her competitor! There goes my relationship with the editor and the magazine … likely for good.
            If two magazines cover the same subjects and seek the same kinds of readers, I consider them competitors. I wouldn’t simultaneously submit to Men’s Health and Details, or O and More, at the same time. But I’d have no problem pitching a piece on middle-aged sex and how to make it better to Men’s Health and More simultaneously. 
            What if you’ve got an idea that’s highly time-sensitive and you don’t want to wait weeks (or longer) to hear back from an editor? I still don’t pitch more than one competing market at a time. Instead, I stress the time-sensitive nature of the pitch and either follow up on it right away (within a day or two) by phone or give the editor a tight deadline to respond by. If she doesn’t get back to me by that date (which I highlight in the query), I move on to my second-choice market. That keeps my query in play, while still showing respect for the editor at the first publication.
            I know some freelancers who take an “open market” approach, simultaneously submitting to competing magazines and selling the idea to the editor who jumps first. I’m not comfortable with that approach. Freelancing isn't about getting assignments. Well, it is, but only in part. At its heart, freelancing is about building relationships with editors.
So, if Bridal Guide doesn’t want the story, sure, I’ll query Bride's (and no, I won’t say, “Hey, so Bridal Guide isn’t interested…are you?” in my pitch!) If Self doesn’t want an idea, then I’ll take it to Shape. But I don't simultaneously submit to competing markets—ever. I’d rather lose some time on a pitch than run the risk of losing an editor—or a market—for good.
[This post is Secret 50: Choose relationships over assignments from Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. If you're serious about freelancing, I hope you'll check it out. Thanks! Or if you're a total newbie to freelancing and want to know how to sell your first article, you won't find better, more practical advice than in my ebook,Dollars and Deadlines' Guide to Selling your First Article.]