We see plenty of tips on how to find freelance tech writing and editing projects, but rarely examples of how not to get the job. We also see plenty of advice on how to be business-like enough to make a living as a freelancer, but not so many examples of what not to do as a businessperson. I thought it would be fun to look at how freelancers can shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak, when going after new projects—or dealing with current clients.
This post was inspired by three recent incidents—a friend with a freelance editing business that uses other editors for large projects who forwarded a message he received from someone seeking work; a colleague’s mournful post to a discussion list about not charging for a rush job she did for a new client who was—at least as viewed second-hand—obnoxious, demanding, and unrealistic; and a couple of people coming to a conference without business cards in hand.
In the first case, my friend with the editing business got an email message from someone who said, “I am a graphic designer seeking opportunities in designing flyers, newsletter, logo creation, and multi-page layouts.” First indication that this is someone unlikely to get hired: He or she selected “copy editor” as “position applying for,” yet called him/herself a graphic designer.
Second hiring problem: applying as a graphic designer to a company that doesn’t hire graphic designers. Sure, almost any business needs skilled graphics professionals at some point, but if the only job-title option is “copy editor” or “proofreader,” that probably means one should look elsewhere for other kinds of freelance work.
Third problem element: saying his or her minimum fee is $90/page. I’m sure some graphics people get that much per page (of course, we also would have to define “page”), but I haven’t met any recently. And I know some tech writers and editors bring in sizable fees per hour, but I also haven’t seen many claiming to make $90/hour recently.
It’s good to aim high in setting our fees or rates, but it’s smart to be realistic. Even skilled, experienced tech communicators applying for freelance projects that fit their backgrounds have to think in terms of both how to get hired and how to get what they want from a prospective client or project.
This same business owner, by the way, asks all prospective editors and proofreaders to take a test. That makes good sense—a client can’t always tell if you really can do what you claim to do based on your claim. Taking a test is a great way to prove that you’re as good as you say you are. Many of the people who contact this colleague about working for him refuse to take his test. Those who refuse don’t get hired.
Lessons from this incident: Research the company before applying, apply for appropriate positions/titles, don’t price yourself out of the market, and take tests when asked. Your chance of getting the gig will improve dramatically.
The colleague with the unrealistic, demanding client accepted an editing job that involved working over a weekend, turning the project around in far less time than her standard schedule, and having to wait for the material to reach her in bits and pieces.
The colleague described the project to the discussion list in great detail, making it clear that she had warned the client that the limited timeframe and erratic flow of material meant she would not be able to do a full edit (which the client accepted, but then complained about). It looked like she did her best in a difficult situation. She wrapped up her complaint by saying she wasn’t going to charge the client for the work she had done.
The list erupted in shock and dismay over her decision, unanimously urging her not only to bill the client, but to consider adding a rush — and perhaps even a PITA—fee to her invoice. Her response was that she didn’t think the client would pay, so it wasn’t worth billing for the work, especially because she supposedly would have to pay taxes on the unreceived income (she’s in Canada, which may have different rules about income and taxes than the United States).
Several listmates are still shaking our heads over this. Not only did she deserve to get paid for going above and beyond the norm for an unappreciative client, but other Canadians said the effort of proving having billed for but not received payment should cancel any tax consequences (assuming she interpreted the rules correctly).
Lesson: If you do the work, especially in difficult conditions, you should at least try to get paid.
In the third incident, a couple of people arrived at this year’s Communication Central conference without business cards.
I was impressed with how at least two people responded to this. One had a PDF version of her business card with her on her laptop or smartphone, found a printshop in walking distance of the conference hotel, popped over there, downloaded the PDF, and walked out in under an hour with a box of 500 business cards. Another took a taxi to a Staples—located a good ways from the conference hotel—and did a quick design-and-print order there, returning to the conference with her 500 new cards in hand.
Both said later that having business cards in hand was worth the hassle of getting them done essentially onsite. Having business cards to share remains a good thing for your networking efforts, even in today’s digital world. Not everyone has the wherewithal to record contact information at a meeting. And the conference giveaway was done with business cards at this event!
Are you doing anything to harm your freelance tech communications business? How can you reverse any negative trends?
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (http://www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning, long-time freelance writer/editor, presenter at STC local and national conferences, and owner of Communication Central (http://www.communication-central.com), which hosts an annual conference for freelancers every fall in Rochester, NY.