So I thought I'd share the questions here. I titled them,"Things You Oughta Know." And I meant, things you ought to know about yourself before undertaking the responsibility of self-employment. Since you have to market, market, market yourself like crazy in order to find, get and keep the work flowing, it's a good idea to know ahead of time that you will be able to do that--and more. So here's the list, with an explanation that I didn't include in the handout. Can you answer "yes" to them--even if you aren't a freelancer but still work for yourself?
_Do you know how to write a great pitch letter? (maybe in your case, it's a sales letter of some sort, or that elevator speech)
It's not that you have to know this on Day 1. You don't. But you must be willing to learn the craft of writing the pitch letter, selling yourself and/or your ideas to those who are willing to buy. Take a class if you need to, listen to podcasts on the subject, by the book. Whatever it takes, this is a skill you cannot ignore.
_Can you be nice to your fellow writers and public relations pros? (in your case, maybe it's your colleagues or peers)
People want you to play nice in their playground. Can you? Are you willing to share information with others, work with others, bend over backgrounds (sometimes) to make your editors/clients happy? Even though you work alone in your home office, teamwork is still a part of the game. There's a lot of back and forth sharing in the freelance world. It'll work in your favor to play along.
_Are you flexible?
Flexibility matters because this is a job for multi-taskers. You have to be able to research, pitch, write, edit, revise and start all over again--on a new topic, the next day. You have to be willing to learn the new technologies, because more and more clients want the blog posts and the video or audio feeds to go with the story. You need to be able to move from client to client at lightening speed. You need to be able survive the down times and get right back to work when it shows up on your desk, unannounced.
_Are you organized enough to develop a business plan and work it?
You must have a plan, even if it's just a single goal written down on a napkin. Without some kind of direction, you won't do much more than spin your wheels. You won't get anywhere. Plan to focus on attracting certain markets. Plan to write about a specific topic. Plan to make a certain amount of money by year-end. Whatever it is, plan for it. And then find a way to track your progress so you know you're getting there. Each year, or each quarter, or however often you think you should, revisit the goal and revise it as needed. Always look at ways in which you can increase your productivity, your income or your skills. That's what will keep you in business for the long haul.
_If you don't know how to manage the finances, would you be willing to outsource that?
Managing the finances is not my best skill set. So I hire out for that. I don't do my own taxes. I don't pick my own stocks. I don't want to send out my own invoices, but I do that for now. My goal is to hire a bookkeeper to handle that for me, too. I look forward to the day, because it's difficult to find time to run the financial mechanics of the office. And from discussions last night, about budgeting, insurance and retirement, I know I'm not the only one. So be willing to outsource. It'll save you a lot of headaches and help ensure that you're making the most out of what you earn.
_Can you say no to an assignment if it's not a good fit? (doesn't pay well, you're not interested in the topic, the PITA factor is too high)
PITA, by the way, means "pain in the ass." We all have nightmare clients, or editors who make unreasonable demands. Are you willing to say no to the next job they offer, even if means a loss of income? If you are, you'll soon realize that income can easily be replaced with a new and better client. And from a good point made last night, you can also outsource the jobs you've outgrown to other freelancers you know. That's expanding your business model, and it's a great idea. Because you're marketing regularly, you should be able to find someone you can trust to take on the job.
_Are you willing to take classes, learn new skills, and deliver your promises to editors and clients?
You must be willing to hone your skills and turn in your work on time--or at least inform your clients well ahead of time that you won't be able to, if that's the case. You'll find that clients will work with you. Everyone runs into difficulties that can alter a schedule or progress on the job. It makes sense to keep your clients informed. It's better for you, it's better for them. And they love it when they know you're growing your talents not just with the work you're doing for them, but on your own as well. Clients want quality. It's up to you to give it to them.
_Do you understand contract rights, copyright issues, and are you willing to seek advice when needed?
You need to understand the contracts that you sign. You can do that by visiting the U.S. Government's copyright site and also by checking in with a writer I know who blogs regularly about contracts and what's floating around these days. You can learn a lot from Erik Sherman. But he'll be the first to admit he's no intellectual capital lawyer, and you should consult one whenever you can. Or, join an organization that can steer you toward the proper legal advice, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, of which, I should note, I am a member.
_Do you know how to study a market?
This is important in order to pitch wisely and accurately. When you've chosen your markets, go through the past six issues. Read them cover to cover. Get a feel for how the headlines are written and what goes on the cover. Know what departments are freelance written. Check the masthead to make sure. Find out who's editing what section. Call if you're unsure. What kinds of stories are they running as features, front of the book and back of the book shorts? Where does the work you're interested in writing or want to pitch fit in? Read the editor's letter and the letters to the editor. What do the letters say about what they might like to read in the future? Look at the ads? Who are they targeting? You'll get solid clues about what the magazine might need from you if you'll take the time to flesh it out in such a review. If you do this for every market you want to target, you'll have a better chance of landing an assignment.
_Can you be a shameless self-promoter?
Can you talk about yourself to strangers without being annoying? Can you discuss the work that you do without overdoing it? Are you willing to pitch as many people as it takes before selling an idea? Are you online, using social media networking sites? Do you attend networking meetings in your hometown? Do you mingle in crowds or stand off to the side of the room? How willing are you to self-promote? You need to do all of this and more if you expect to be successful in this business. You are the best person to get your name out there. You can do it via your Web site, or your blog, but you also want to get in some real face time. People like to work with people that they like. Can you be that person?
_Will you be able to look beyond the daily rejection?
This is a business about rejection. Anyone who sells anything knows that. You want to grow your thick skin now, because you'll need it. If you can accept the fact that this is a business full of ideas and that yours won't alway be the right ones for that one person you targeted, but they might be right for someone else, you'll be better off. Be willing to submit and resubmit as many times as it takes, without taking the rejection personally. It's not you; it's the business.
_Can you make the most out of an interview and repurpose the material?
When you get that assignment, and you do the interview, be sure to make the most out of the time you'll spend with your source. Ask questions beyond the story you're there for. Find out where the subject went to college. Ask what else he's interested in? Find out about interesting hobbies he's involved in. While you're there, ask what other stories he might have to share besides the one you're there for. Find out as much as you can and then some, so that when you leave the room, you have enough information to finish the story you've been assigned but also have information to pitch other stories as well. Make the most of every interview you secure, and you'll wind up earning more than you expected.
_Will you be able to withstand the isolation of the freelance life?
You may not be a joiner just yet, but before you know it, you'll want to be. Working out of a home office--without anyone else present--can be a lonely experience. You'll want to find ways to get out, reasons to leave, people to see and discuss business with. Whether you do that online, in person, or over the phone, it doesn't matter. But you'll need outlets like this in order to stay motivated and healthy. Go to networking events, attend association meetings, join breakfast clubs. Whatever it takes, and whatever you're comfortable with, be sure to find ways to leave the office/work behind and socialize with other people.
_Are you aware that writing for free is not a business model or marketing plan?
I ended with this question for one very important reason: too many writers are too willing to write for free, or for very low pay. This is a practice that has to stop if that writer expects to make a living from a writing career. And let me make this clear. I could not be in business to provide content for other people unless I was being paid. A business must earn money in order to stay in business. Be a business that earns money. Don't work for free. It's not worth it, no matter how much "exposure" you are promised. If you're going to write free for anyone, write for yourself and start a blog.
You can do it!
(Photo of the Running Elvis taken by Jackie Dishner, Las Vegas)