Freelance Writers: What’s On Your Plate?

by Sep 10, 2015Models for Business and Career

Athought experiment: You have worked for ten years as a bartender in a restaurant. You’ve saved up some money and you decide to open your own restaurant. Instead of opening a cheap burger joint, a gourmet pizza parlor, or a sushi bar, you open a place called FOOD. FOOD serves whatever a customer wants. On a given Friday night, your first table is a couple on a romantic date. One partner wants Kobe steak, baked potato, and green beans; the other, an organic pork chop with rice and Brussels sprouts. They want to eat by candlelight. The next two tables both want pizza. There is a high school softball team expecting an 18” pepperoni pie for $8.99 with free soft drinks. They play Miley Cyrus on the digital jukebox you installed. Loud. There is group of high-level managers from a local corporation, celebrating the successful completion of an initiative. They order Chicago deep dish with sun dried tomatoes and caviar, and specialty cocktails, which they can expense for $300. You keep the kitchen stocked with a variety of ingredients and retain enough staff to run out for anything you might need for a customer order. Your equipment and tools range from sushi knives to a wood-fired oven. You hire both a sommelier and a clown. You carry extra insurance coverage for those customers who want to come into the kitchen and cook themselves. You advertise in the local college rag, the opera program, and Parenting magazine, and engage a service that will stick your fliers on telephone poles all over town. You recruit everywhere, too, from top culinary academies in New York to the public high school. Sound like a winner? Several years ago, I realized that my freelance writing business was just such a hot mess. Some clients would sporadically send me two or three hours of work on short notice for an hourly fee. Some clients would have me collaborate with four or five team members who did not agree on what was to be said. Still others assigned fifty pages of boilerplate copy to repurpose. I had a bunch of projects of different scopes, sometimes acting as a glorified secretary or an underpaid project manager rather than as a professional writer. I negotiated pricing and other terms individually with each client. Like so many freelancers, I could never predict what my workload would be the following month or how much income I would have. Some of my clients treated me like an expert consultant while others seemed to think they were my boss. The lesson: As it is with a restaurant, so it is with a freelance writing business. You, the owner have to decide what your business identity is. While you are a bartender, you can work at two different restaurants, slicking back the hair and covering tattoos with sleeves on Monday night, and sporting a Mohawk and a surly attitude at the place down the street on Tuesday. In your career as a corporate employee, you might fulfill a variety of roles at different companies under the title “Writer.” If you want a sustainable independent business, you must pull together a model that lets you work efficiently, price effectively, and market consistently. Your particular strengths and interests should guide that decision, so you can avoid burnout. One writer I know recently told me she sometimes generates 10,000 words a day for client projects. (That would exhaust me.) Another described a ghostwriting project for a person who wants her memoir written from her pet cat’s point of view. (Um. No.) Me? I spent the past two weeks interviewing executives; researching industry analysis; reviewing company slide presentations, technical documents, videos, and press releases — all to produce about 2,000 words of integrated strategic content in the form of a newsletter, an email message, and a proposal. Research, conceptual work, analysis. Multiple layers of communication. Density over volume. That’s my kind of dish. What’s yours? Your business is not a job. You decide what’s on the menu.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.