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Monday, January 13, 2014

Yes or No? Using The 4-Part Work Test

The beginning of the year is a good time to consider what type of work you're doing, what type of work you'd like to add to your freelance repertoire, and what type, if any, you'd like to phase out of. 

When I started freelancing, I said, “Yes, please!” (think Michael Myers in Austin Powers) to any paying work that came my way. I was trying to make money however I could. My financial goal my first year was to make … wait for it … $10,000. I have no idea why I chose that number, other than it was a nice, neat one and seemed realistic for someone launching a freelance business with no connections, no experience, and no clue.
However, having a financial goal (even a small one) made me focus on money, and it meant that every assignment I took that first year had to pay something—even if it was just $25 or $35 for a short piece for the local paper. Even the “small stuff” moved me toward making my income goal that first year. I exceeded my initial goal, grossing more than $17,000 my first year of full-time freelancing. 

Today, with a financial goal of $60,000 (which gives me a daily nut of $250), I can't say yes to everything, or even most things. Over time, I've developed a four-part test I use when deciding whether to take on work:

1. How much money does it pay? If you're freelancing to make money--as opposed to for fun--this question should be obvious. You should always be thinking about your bottom line.   

2. How long will it take? I've found that the work I've done for national magazines takes far more time (including the pitching and follow-ups) than the work I do for smaller publications. Yes, the big magazines pay more, but I'm always looking at my hourly rate, not just the size of the check. And sometimes the magazines that pay less per word actually pay more per hour.)
3. What's the PIA factor? PIA is my shorthand for Pain In the, um, rear-end. Some clients and editors are annoying to work with. I had an editor I worked with who would take forever to respond to queries, then assigns stuff with ridiculously tight deadlines. I didn't mind the fast turnarounds as I'm a speedy researcher and writer, but there's definitely a PIA factor to working with her. And if that PIA factor on a particular project is high, I'm either going to get more money … or I might even walk away.
A caveat, however--you can't always determine PIA factor at the outset of a project. Sometimes the client or editor who appears to be a dream turns into a nightmare. What do you do then? That's the subject of a future post.        

4. Will this work further my career—and if so, how? So, for example, when I wrote my first book, Ready, Aim, Specialize, I received an advance of only $2,500. I spent months researching (I interviewed 56 sources!) and writing the book. My hourly rate was abysmal. I made more as a teenaged lifeguard.

            But here’s the thing. I wanted to start writing books, and I had to begin somewhere. So I said yes to the book, added author to my CV, and even made royalties from it. My first book led to more than a dozen others, which has made the first low advance worth it.

            As a freelancer, it’s within your control to take on work or turn it down. The four-part test has helped me stay on course and prevent me from agreeing to work based only on what it pays. I suggest you look at other factors as well to help you determine what projects meet your short-term and long-term goals.

            Readers, what say you? Do you use a "work test" or something similar before saying "yes" to an assignment. Please comment below and let us know! And second, if you have a topic you'd like me to cover here in coming months, please let me know. Thanks and have a great week. 

           **This post was drawn from "The Four-Part Work Test" from Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. If you're new to freelancing, you'll find great advice there as in Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets


  1. At first glance, taking any paying freelance job sounds like it might move someone closer toward a monetary goal, but I found it actually can hinder me from reaching my fiscal goal. Once I actually decided to turn down a monthly writing gig with a magazine because the rates were too low for the amount of work I invested each month. The editor began paying me more than double my past per-word rate. Even though I planned to walk away, the rate hike made it feasible to continue writing because the magazine fell into the business genre that is one of my areas of specialization.

  2. Right now, I'm still on my first few months as a freelancer. I haven't used a work test yet. I'm still in the accept-whatever-comes phase.