As a full-time freelance writer, I’m well-versed in the daily challenges of freelancing and the absolute 24/7 commitment that it requires to make a solid living.That’s one of the many reasons I give major props to Writing Matters founder Darin Painter, who supports a family of four on his writing business. Darin and I both graduated from the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where he and my husband were also editors on the school’s newspaper, The Post. It gives me great satisfaction to a good friend and fellow Bobcat succeeding the way Darin has — and he was nice enough to take us behind the curtain and share the secrets of his success. Take a read on Darin’s helpful (and often hilarious) hints:
Talk a little bit about how you started your business. Was it intentional or did it grow organically from your freelance work?
Darin: Actually, both – the move was intentional because the freelance writing was growing organically. Before starting Writing Matters in 2005, I was managing editor of an association publication in the Washington, D.C., area. I was also freelancing for newsstand publications such as HOW (for graphic designers) and Writer’s Digest (for aspiring writers), plus some business/trade magazines.
The job, the freelancing and the personal life were like flying balls overhead, and I can juggle about as well as I can prepare baked scrod or sew a nice pocket seam. I totally sucked. I had a hard time saying “no” to assignments when things were too busy, and soon realized it was more important to ingest compliments (to focus on writing well and making a difference) than to ingest caffeine. In 2005, my wife Laura and I decided to move closer to her family in the Cleveland area, and that move coincided with the decision to start my own business. It was liberating but frightening – we had a 1-year-old son (Gibson, now 7), a new mortgage and zero income.
What are your main sources of income and how do you balance out your time (i.e. 20% copywriting, 30% journalism, etc.)?
Darin: When I started, I focused on getting as much business as humanly possible, and spent a large chunk of time formulating story ideas, researching publications and crafting queries. Some hit, some didn’t, but looking back now, I made the mistake of casting too wide a net. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s healthy to feed both sides of the brain, and the variety of freelance work appeals to me more than writing again and again for the same audience – but I think it’s smarter to be a specialist than a generalist. When I picked a few niches and started to penetrate them, my marketing became more focused, my connection with those audiences increased and my position as a go-to writing resource improved.
Today, I spend 50% of my time on journalism (magazine features and newsletters, mostly) and 50% on content marketing (website copy, eBooks, case studies, etc.). Interestingly, though, about 70% of my income is on the content marketing side. The over-simplified truth is that marketing managers pay more than editors and publishers, especially marketing managers who view content as a way to inform and engage people without being overtly promotional.
I remember going to the mailbox one day and getting two checks – $900 for a 3,000-word, multifaceted personality profile in a regional mag that took me two weeks to research and write, and $2,250 for an eBook that took me less than two days to complete. Two things: (1) I understand supply-and-demand, but man, that’s just messed up. (2) It exemplifies the value of applying journalism principles to a company’s content – knowing your audience, writing tight, using a voice that resonates with readers, having no tolerance for fluff, etc.
Any tips on getting new clients or marketing your writing business?
Darin: Yes, which undoubtedly makes me a hypocrite! Marketing my business in a consistent, compelling way is a weakness I need to correct. I have a healthy number of clients I work for regularly, and any Marketing 101 class would tell me I should spend a block of time each day attracting new business, not matter how busy I think I am. That class would be correct, and my current “strategy” – having an outdated website that serves as an electronic brochure instead of an interactive and updated space, failing to take advantage of social media in a way that positions me as a helpful professional, not being active enough in writers’ groups and local associations, etc. – is really, really dumb. I suppose it’s almost as dumb as using “really, really” in an interview.
Marketing tips I’m not following but should be:
- Craft a marketing plan that includes an editorial calendar, so content is sent regularly and cohesively through a variety of media
- Launch an opt-in e-newsletter as part of that plan, highlighting recent and current projects with a friendly/funny voice
- Leverage past magazine features to get future ones, but doing so by theme instead of topic (“The attached PDF of a story I wrote last month for [XXX] is about [hope or loss or redemption, etc.], and here’s how I could apply that same theme in a similar voice to your February 2013 issue on [ZZZ], instead of sounding like, “I’ve written about health care! Your publication is about health care! Wow, I could write for you!”
- Start a podcast series of engaging interviews with local business leaders, using it as a platform to show those people how well I interview (my greatest strength on the job) and to meet people I will eventually aim to write for – writing about them and earning their trust, then writing for them
- Speak at local and national events, positioning yourself as a person who can help organizations clarify or change their “story” through timely content
- Write a piece for an online publication you love that’s new or not yet established, or an essay for a community newspaper about a topic that matters to you – just because.
How do you figure out what to charge? Do you have a flat fee (hourly or project) or does it depend on the project?
Darin: The best pricing advice I ever heard came from an episode of the sitcom “Taxi.” Danny DeVito was trying to get a rich prospective customer to pay as much as possible for a fleet of vehicles because the guy had a boatload of cash. He told his co-workers he wanted his price to cause two sounds: a pursed-lip eawwwww (as in, “Ouch, that’s more than I expected.”), followed by a tilted-head wuaaaaa (as in, “But I guess I can do that.”) There are five books on my office shelves about negotiation, but that one scene from “Taxi” is smarter than all of them.
Figuring out what to charge can be tricky, but essentially it boils down to figuring out what will be accepted. One rule of thumb: If you’ve never heard “I’m sorry, that’s a bit too much, so how about [$X]?” you’re not charging enough for your work. Of course, if the publication’s policy is, “This is the per-word rate we charge – sorry, take it or leave it,” then you can take it or leave it. But you could also suggest things like making your full-length interviews available for downloading on the publication’s site for an added fee, or suggesting a series of three articles rather than one.
Most clients of Writing Matters pay either a flat fee based on estimated hours (mutually agreed upon before beginning) or a monthly fee based on a larger block of agreed-upon hours spread over multiple projects. The more I can move into the Regular Work column of my brain – monthly newsletters, regularly published magazine departments, retainers for content marketing work, anything that can go into Quicken as expected monthly income – as opposed to “one off” projects, the better.
Other quick thoughts about pricing:
- Rush fees (especially next-day or two-day turnaround) are understood by nearly everyone I’ve mentioned them to.
- Asking to be paid within 15 days (rather than 30 or 60), and offering a small discount for payment within 10 days, is a good suggestion that can improve cash flow.
- It’s hard to find good writers, but writers too often position the art and craft of writing as a non-valued commodity. Our words can have tremendous value, so why would anyone accept the ridiculous rates “content farms” or online auctions pay? The writing community should think of itself as a group of word doctors. No one who values well-being would look for an oncologist on a site where the cheapest “professional” wins. No one who values words looks for a writer in the same way.
In September, you attended the Content Marketing World event. Do you find that those types of events are worthwhile and in what way?
Darin: That one in particular was outstanding. In fact, when you’re done reading this interview, you should check out the event’s site at www.contentmarketingworld.com. Aside from three new clients and lots of writer-friend contacts, the event made me realize that the former gap in my brain between journalism and corporate marketing is razor-thin. The reason: Every organizations is now its own publisher, or should be, whether they like it or not. Content doesn’t have to be filtered through a person judging the merits of a press release or story idea. It can be offered directly to a target audience through a blog, Twitter feed, YouTube channel and more.
That opens the door to what I call “corporate journalism” – people who hold dear to all the true tenets they learned in J-school about bias and ethics and writing skill, and apply those views to help businesses stop talking about themselves and start helping their audiences solve problems and become informed. Research shows the business advantage – new customers, more loyalty from those customers – follows. Credible, relevant content comes first.
What are your future goals for Writing Matters?
Darin: Instead of saying no to some projects because of time constraints, I’d like to form a small team of trusted cohorts to whom I could pass along those projects. This could work only for the content marketing side and not the journalism side. Writing Matters would accept certain jobs instead of me personally, and the business would be a blend of me plus others who act as regular contractors. I think that setup would be fun, different and rewarding.
That would entail a complete revamping of my website, which is a big priority anyway. Maybe I should position Writing Matters as a mini-agency of journalists who can handle a larger breadth of content. At the moment, I’m thinking of dividing the home page into two large sections, directing viewers to the one that applies – Publication Writer (for editors and publishers) or Corporate Writer (for marketing professionals). Appropriate clips, descriptions, awards and such would appear in each of those two sections. A new, prominent blog would tie it all together.
Not-so-humble brag: What are you proudest of?
Darin: I’m proud that Writing Matters’ revenue has grown by more than 15% each year since 2005. A series of former side gigs is now a six-figure-income business that involves lots of fun projects. I thought I’d “try out the freelancing thing” for a few years, hoping that I could keep it going. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to write for a living.
What I’m proudest of, though, is improving the juggling act – balancing freelancing with a happy family life (in addition to our 7-year-old son Gibson, Laura and I have a 5-year-old daughter, Anna), an active role in our church, frequent date nights and a now-unhealthy obsession called Rooting Like Mad for an Unexpected Pittsburgh Pirates Playoff Berth.
Writing should fulfill our hearts and excite our neurons. It does that for me on most days. When it doesn’t, it’s nice to fall back on faith, family and six-ounce pours of Woodbridge Chardonnay.