Monday, May 28, 2012

Red Flags When "Hiring" a Client

I consistently see an attitude of desperateness among fellow freelance writers when looking for clients. Allow me to wax Steel Magnolia on you for a moment:


This grab-the-gold-first-before-someone-else-gets-it mentality is so carpetbagger. And it's beneath you.

Let me make things easy.

First of all, adopt the attitude that they're not hiring you. You're hiring them.

Call me arrogant, but it's the way I've always approached job interviews, and when I look at things through this perspective, I see things clearly.  For one thing, it rids you of that wholly unattractive stance of being the one who needs them more than they need you. And for another, it gives you strength of mind to cut through smoke and mirrors that may cloud your judgment on what working with them will be like in the future.

I've recently completed a divorce and am back "out there" among a sea of suitors. I realized that hiring a client is not dissimilar at all to dating. We all know the "red flags" we're supposed to heed when we go on a date. But how many of us apply the same rules to choosing clients?

Still scratching your beard in bemused puzzlement? OK, well at the risk of exposing too much about my personal approach to courtship, here are my guidelines to finding (and hiring) a compatible client:

Red Flag #1: They believe you're lucky to be with them, not the other way around. How do you know this? They say, "You'll get a byline" and 10 cents a word ... or worse than that, "You'll get a byline" and nothing else. If you want people to value your work, then act like a professional and demand fair compensation. Still confused about how much to charge? Go to for a list of suggested rates, or better yet, consult the U.S. National Writers Union for theirs.

Red Flag #2: They demand exclusivity immediately. It's one thing if you've written for someone for 11 years (like I have with one of my clients), and they're willing to pay you well in exchange for you not writing for a competitor. But if someone is demanding that you sign an exclusivity agreement for a first-ever assignment? Are you sure you want to commit so early?

Red Flag #3: They don't keep their promises.  I worked for a client for a couple of years who suddenly decided they were going to wait to pay me a grand until after the story ran. I asked, "When is the story going to run?"

They didn't know.


If you do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, it's only fair they deliver as promised. Now if you worry that by severing the relationship, you'll be back out in the cold alone .... think of it this way: If you don't kick this client to the curb, you could be missing out on someone else who will pay you on time and pay you well. Don't assume (warning: Jane Austen reference coming up) that because you're being courted by Mr. Wickham that it means Mr. Darcy isn't waiting for you to come to your senses.

Red Flag #4: They find fault with everything you do. You might be surprised to know that many writers will actually continue to write for people who insult their work, browbeat them, change their copy into an unrecognizable monstrosity and otherwise abuse them endlessly. This may sound extreme, but these editors are alive and well and seeking the next writer's jugular on which to feast. Don't become their prey. Just say no. Is it worth your peace of mind or self-esteem? Do you know what that type of person does to another one's creative output? WALK. AWAY. I make it my personal mantra to only work for nice people, and I heartily encourage you to do the same. Life is too short.

I'd put up a red flag about bad kissing but .... oh, never mind. There should be a law against putting the words, "kissing" and "editor" in the same sentence, and we are not going there.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Heidi and the Terrible Horrible No Good Rotten Day

I'm a freelancer, but I'm also a single mom, which means that we love the "new bedtime story classics," like "Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Rotten Day." This little book has been one of our favorites for bed-time reading.

Today, I'm substituting Alexander's name for mine, because quite frankly, I think I've earned it.

Ever wonder what a freelance writer's life is like on the home front? No, we don't spend the entire day in fuzzy pink slippers and Mickey Mouse T-shirts from Disney World, although I wish today I'd just stayed clad in that getup with my head under a pillow.

It all started with a little plastic toy named Chop Chop the Monkey. Before I could swig down a gulp of Moroccan green mint tea, my kiddo had demolished my room.

"WHAT are you doing?"

"I've lost Chop Chop, and I figured it must be in your bed," he said in a pile of disheveled down.

"Why ever would Chop Chop be in MY bed?"

"Oh, here he is!" and the little monster grabbed his monkey and went tearing off.

Now that wouldn't be so bad, but then I went into what I call "prep time" for one of my magazine interviews. If you're a writer, you'll understand this crucial time before you chat someone up for the pertinent details of their life and times. I researched the interviewee and assembled interview questions, all to the background sound of the kiddo singing a loud and off-key rendition of, "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" while he was doing God-knows-what in the bathroom .... and I had three minutes to go before I made my phone call ... when all of a sudden ....

"UH OH!"

The bathroom door SLAMS, and I hear the linen closet door open with many mumblings of, "I gotta take care of this before she sees it!" .... and of course, you have guessed that it was a case of too much paper in the porcelain throne with a nice flood of lovely items strewn across the floor ....

But NOW it was time for my interview .... so I commanded the little stinker to wash his hands and pull up Phineas and Ferb on the Internet while I called the poor soul two minutes late.

After the interview (yes, I pulled it off), I scoured the bathroom with rubber-gloved hands and Clorox, unclogged the offending toilet, threw towels in the laundry .... when I heard ...


.... only to peek into the room of the child who obviously was raised by wolves and had been dropped off at my doorstep ....

And if you're a parent, you know Legos, right? Well do you know about ultra tiny Legos, the ones that are so tiny that they're about the size of the top of your pinky finger?


Those were strewn in the nooks and crannies of the carpet divots, along the sides of the walls ....  and mingled with ... you guessed it ... popcorn kernels.

Apparently, this child popped himself a bag of buttery movie-style Orville Redenbacher while I was on the magazine interview and somehow the thing imploded along with the tiny Lego pieces delivered on Christmas Day from a sadistic relative.

We spent 45 minutes cleaning the room. Yes. It took 45 minutes.

I returned to my laptop to see that a response had come in for an interview request with another magazine.

What met my eyes pretty much was the cherry on the sundae, the pinnacle of Everest, the spindle of the Eiffel and the speed of the Concorde to this lovely day ...

"We want to participate in the interview, but just send us the interview questions and we'll write the story ourselves."

We'll write the story ourselves?

For one red-hot second, I forgot my laptop wasn't a pillow and almost threw it against the wall, because never in my 22 years of writing for a living has anyone said anything remotely like that to me.

As a freelancer, you have a choice at that point. You can get huffy and insult the intelligence quotient of the PR person who obviously just completed 3rd grade and moved right into the job "representing" their client ... or do what I did: Let the editor handle it.

In my newsroom days, we would've laughed in the person's face and used EXTREMELY COLORFUL language to tell them exactly what we thought of that little idea. But as a freelancer and single mom who has to keep a roof over my child's head and food on the table, these battles are not mine to fight.

I politely gave the person the editor's phone number and took out my frustration (which by now had reached Vesuvius-exploding levels) .... on my house. I walked around with Clorox for the next 30 minutes and scoured every surface .... took a deep breath, prepared my child's lunch and decided that after we'd eaten, I'd dive back into part 2 of my day, which involves more magazine interviews and story research for a second and third magazine, respectively.

Just as I was stepping out of the kitchen with a prepared plate of food, the little urchin comes tearing around the corner.

"I have to dig into the trash outside!"

Dead silence.


"I threw Chop Chop away when we were picking up the Legos and the popcorn."


And on that note, I hope your day is going splendidly.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sources Who Make the Cut

OK, so there is no real easy way to explain to PR professionals why some of your sources make the cut for a story and others don't.

But I had a scenario arise this week with a story I was doing on a tight deadline. The course of events are a perfect illustration as to how these particular people made the final cut into the piece.

First of all, let me say that I almost always (always!) only quote three people in the average story of about 1,000 words. That's been the rule of thumb during my 22 years in the business.

Now let me show you how that played out this week:

I've used a resource for about a dozen years called Profnet. If you're unfamiliar with it, Profnet allows journalists to post online the particulars of a story they've been assigned and who they would like to interview for the story. I've used it since I worked for The Associated Press in the late 1990s, and as a freelancer, it is my first go-to place when I need to quote people from around the nation who I otherwise would never encounter.

So on Tuesday, I put up a Profnet request for one of my stories, which is due this coming Sunday (in the next 2 days).

And just like in the past, the responses came flooding. Within about three hours, I had a list of about 10 sources from which to choose. 

If I'd been working for AP and had a deadline of "five minutes ago," I would have taken the first responders. As this was a magazine story with more flexibility on time, I could carve through the list at my leisure and choose the best options.

Now some people respond to Profnet with a very long email that lists their qualifications. Others respond by specifically addressing the story topic and citing statistics or data that pertain to it. (Those are usually my first choices.) And others don't need to go that far. For example, if one of my responders is a well-known politician, author or celebrity, they are an automatic "yes." Sorry to be blunt about it, but the big names carry a lot of weight and credibility and interest with my readers.

I have 1,000 words of copy to write, and my editors are strict that I keep story length. But everyone who responded looked great for this topic, so I chose five sources.

Now we come to a crucial juncture, because not all of those sources are still going to be in the story. Do you know who gets in?

Those who make it into the story are those who set up the interview immediately and then actually are there when I call them on the phone.

It's as simple as that. Line up the interview asap and then be ready to take the call.

You'd think that every person would make it.

But they don't.

And you'd think that each person who stands me up and calls me later will still get in.

But they don't. (Unless they're a celebrity, they don't.) 

The reason is simple.

My time is valuable.

Yes, I'm a freelancer, and as such, you might think my time is flexible. It's not. I freelance for a reason -- to be able to aptly balance my work life and personal life. If I say to someone, "I have five interviews on Monday, but I can get you in at 2:30 and have a hard stop at 3 p.m. to meet my child's school bus," that's what I mean. I make no apologies for mentioning the school bus. Some people may say that's unprofessional, but I'm an open individual and want others to understand where I'm available and where I'm not and why I'm not. If the interviewee stands me up and calls at 3:20 p.m. when I'm now engaged with doing homework with my child? Too bad.

The reason I can adopt this flippant attitude goes back to what I said earlier. Let's rewind it, shall we? .............. I had 10 people respond to the Profnet and selected five. Five are too many for 1,000 words. If you stand me up, you might be doing me a favor (unless you're a celebrity). If you stand me up and I still need a source, guess what? There are five more people in the wings who didn't make the first cut who are ready to be quoted in your place.

So now, I'm writing my story.

And do you know how many people are in it?


One stood me up. One didn't get back to me quickly enough. I only have enough copy room for three, anyway. 

One last thing. You may wonder, "What would you have done if all 5 had been available as promised?" Sometimes that happens. But there are always at least two of them who have their own agenda and don't want to play along with the story angle assigned by the editor. Always.

And they get chucked.

I always end up with three.

And now if you'll kindly excuse me, I have a story to write.