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Notes on being a Professional Writer

My heroes were the Chinese poets who floated along the back roads of green mountains as, "banished immortals." They survived on the good intentions of strangers they met on the road.

I would always recommend writers to venture out and bum around for awhile. Some of the mountains of youth can be downright dangerous. When you come back, if you do, start thinking about the business of writing. If you don't apply a little bit of intelligence to it you'll get cynical and hard and lose that fine balance between imagination and intelligent common sense necessary for anything good and decent.

"So, Mr. Eide, how can I become a professional writer?" Yes, I got this note a few weeks ago from Melissa of Iowa. She explained that she had a degree in journalism but wanted to be a freelance writer; "...a real professional."

Well, it's a crucial moment of discovery. A writer will spend their college days focusing on the inspired art or craft of writing and then enter the world without a clue as to what to do.

I will offer a few clues and some excellent links that can better explain some of the foundations for a professional writing life.

* * * * *

A staff writer is a professional writer as is the full-time freelance or contract writer. And I have to recommend the link in For Freelancers Only below, "Contract Employee's Handbook." Insightful, resourceful, with nice comments on Sunoasis Jobs.

It's my understanding that staff writers are being cut at magazines in favor of freelancers. A magazine once called me a contributing editor because I wrote a lot of articles for them. It felt like I was on staff but I didn't get paid any benefits. In fact, that is one of the many tradeoffs in deciding whether to go solo or get hired somewhere.

Wrangling with Sunoasis.com I've come across many business problems that confronted me with the question, "do you really want to continue this?" And I know from the questions I get, many writers are lost when it comes to getting low- balled in salary negotiations or getting money from a publication that promised to pay in a timely fashion.

  ------- s o m e   c l u e s -------
  • Know how much work you do per hour.
  • Know how to pick up the telephone and call someone who owes you money.
  • Know what you can deduct from taxes.
  • Know how to invoice publications.
  • Know how to sell the rights that permit you to re-sell the same material to different markets.
  • Know how to stay flexible so when an editor is removed at a magazine that has accepted a piece you can approach the new one.
  • Know time-management.
  • Know what to do when no new assignments appear and the bills pile up.

Get into this habit: Whenever you do something you aren't sure about, like business, write out what your problems are, locate the key words and phrases and enter those into Google. I'm shocked when people don't know how to use Google. State the problem. Extract the key word(s) from the problem, and enter it in the search box at Google.

I recommended this article by Danielle Hollister, "What You May Not Learn in College." It's useful to freelance and staff writers.

According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor there will be an increase in writing jobs by 28% in the next five years.

* * * * *

One of the first acts of the professional is to write down a "mission statement." This helps define what and what-not to focus on as you develop.

For instance, a mission statement could be stated as: "My writing business is going to explore all the diseases dogs get, how they are treated, with poignant tales of dogs and their illnesses. I will find every publication, consumer and trade, that carries material on dog diseases. I will speak to dog owner groups and, eventually, this mission will evolve into writing books." Once that statement is down then you can start developing "tactics" to get there. What will you have to research, who are your circle of experts, what is the universe of publications to choose from? And most importantly, what sort of revenue stream do you calculate from this mission?

By doing so you've eliminated 99% of other writing activities or markets that would simply confuse the matter. Go up to your favorite mountain and think about the nature of writing you want to do.

The writer must define the business and set goals for that business. Some of the best advice deals with setting an income amount that will allow you to live and then quantify those goals down to a monthly, weekly, and daily total. The idea isn't so much to get exactly at the total as it is to set a goal as a target and see how close or how far you range from the target. Experience is invaluable. Experience will tell you how long it will take you to do a particular project. It will also clue you into the person you are dealing with and if they are going to pay you on-time.

Remember that up to one-quarter of your time is going to be spent in marketing. That means preparing cover and query letters, sending them to editors who might be interested in your material, going to writer conferences, approaching clients who might be interested in your services and so on.

Chip Scanlan chronicles his life as a writer; that is, "the life of a salesman."

We've said it before: Completely separate the business from the art. They do not mix. When the writing is good, everything else is good. When the writing is necessary, nothing else is necessary. Business is a chore and filled with a kind of dread. You have to get used to it. Accept it as a challenge and go forward.

Based on questions I get from young writers these are some common problems:

>>>>>>>>>Setting Fees/Collecting Fees<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Obviously, most freelance rates are set by publishers, although many will negotiate a fee. However, if you are writing for business clients or individuals you need to find out what others are charging. This is a tricky area with no fixed method.

It's a fact that professional writers make more money writing commerical material like annual reports, speeches, direct mail advertising and so on then they do writing articles for magazines and newspapers.

Don't charge the highest rate and don't charge the lowest. Here are some considerations when you take on an assignment. What is the level of your expertise? Are you simply going to write or will you proofread and copy edit as well? What are your expenses and is the fee you charge going to cover those expenses?

The links at the bottom of this summary will take you into involved ideas about how to set and collect fees. One thing to keep in mind: When you go solo, a free agent, you are adding a lot of overhead. Make sure you calculate that overhead into your per hour rate.

When you are researching a magazine look to see the range of payment (usually assigned articles get more) and method of payment. If a magazine says it "pays on acceptance," it's more favorable than if they say, "pays on publication." There are magazines that will sit on a piece they have accepted and contracted for up to a year.

Another item to look at is your invoicing system. At Sunoasis I created a simple invoice on a wordpad and FAX it to clients or e-mail it. It seems to work. On the invoice I put the date, client's name, company name, address, the invoice number, a description of the work, ending date for the work, fees, and some expectation of payment, as well as a thanks for your business. I used to wait a while before sending out an invoice but expereince has taught me to send it out the day a job comes in. If you are dealing with a large organization it's quite likely that the paperwork gets shuffled around and lost. Make sure you note down the day you sent the invoice and contact the person or company after a month. Be courteous but stay with the person until the invoice is cleared up.

My experience is that established companies pay. They might not pay in a timely fashion but they will pay. I've run into a fair share of non-payers, especially during the dot.com craze.

And I have had more than one freelance writer complain that a magazine hasn't paid her yet. One writer was owed $700 from a reputable magazine and it took months and months of haggling to get the money. And some publishers are out and out crooks. They usually don't last long but we've run into them.

The best thing to do is be persistent. Give the publication two or three tries at it. Don't be beligerent. Simply let them know they have an outstanding bill and it isn't going to be forgotten. The link above is useful.

Resource Links for Setting Fees:


Writers learn over time that ideas are what excite editors. It's an idea that will get an editor to ask the writer to develop a proposal. Even if the editor hasn't commited to the idea, his interest is significant.

Every writer has ideas or comes across them. If you are in the business of writing you need to take those ideas and transform them into articles, books, and web pages that can be exchanged for coin-of-the-realm. It's important that in the business phase of writing you review the ideas you've written down and get them moving toward a solid project. This may seem more like art than business and they do blend a bit, but the point is that the idea, hopefully collected in a folder or notebook, is nothing unless it is developed. And the development needs to take place in relation to the market you've studied.

Another important point is that when you begin to research the idea you build up a base of facts and information that can be transformed into more than one article. Always keep that in mind!

Anything and anyone can be the source for ideas. The newspaper, magazines, TV, radio, conversations, observations can all be the source for ideas. Once you have an idea or list of ideas you can isolate them and begin asking pointed questions. What is the problem? What is the solution? What is missing? What is too obvious? These questions are naturally generated when looking at an idea.

Read in your area of interest. And read with a large dose of curiosity. Treat ideas as the best friend you never had. Read philosophy and social criticism. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read as though your life depended on it.

For the purpose of professional writing an idea is interesting in the way it lays out facts and in the imagination brought to the subject by the writer.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Be The Boss<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Be a dream boss and a dream employee all in one. The thing that stymies freelance writers is that they aren't prepared for the hard work involved. Assignments don't come floating down from the trees. Payment is often difficult to extract even from a reputable publication. You run into all kinds of personalities who don't communicate well. Be the most productive employee you, as your own boss, have. And be a good boss to your favorite employee. And treat all you deal with respectfully and as equals.

Have excellent habits when it comes to doing tasks and managing time. Batch similar tasks together and do them at one time.

If you have any questions about careers in freelance writing don't hesitate to ask!

Back to the Freelance Resource Page

For those new to the Net or overwhelmed by the nature of the online job market I suggest you look at the Cyber Search Tutorial.There are more job boards and classifieds from metro newspapers.

Don't forget to visit Sunoasis Joblog for daily updates on the writing and publishing industry.

Cyber Search will show you where all the writing jobs are!

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David Eide
Copyright 2000-2005


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David Eide
copyright 2000-2005