Category Archives: Freelance

We can’t understand falling payments for freelance writing if we don’t understand Google

On January 6 the LA Times published a compelling article on “freelance writing’s unfortunate new model.” It’s definitely worth reading in full, but to summarize, writer James Rainey makes the point (not news to most of us) that freelance pay is falling precipitously.

The story says that the trend began with the Internet but expanded to newspapers and magazines. It then goes on to provide examples in both electronic and print environments.

Yes, pay is plunging in both but the reasons differ between the two. It appears to me that print rates are falling because advertising and circulation are declining.

However, the principal driver on the Internet is Google. Much of the writing on the Internet is intentionally designed to improve organic (unpaid) rankings on Google and smaller search engines.

On the internet, therefore, Google, much more than the end reader, defines quality. While Google’s specific algorithms change, the fundamentals are well known.

If the goal of posting content is to build Google traffic, a good article is defined as one that optimizes keywords (or keyword phrases). The prescribed ratio of keywords to total text is unknown, but there is a moderate ratio that mimics natural writing (so as to prevent unreadable keyword overloading).

The title should prominently include the keyword, preferably at the beginning of a not-too-long title. So the best titles start with the keyword, often followed by a colon and the heading for a numbered list that will appear in the text.

Many writers then repeat the keyword in the first paragraph or two and sprinkle it throughout.

(While Google itself doesn’t blatantly recognize the keyword field itself, keywords appear to be necessary for effectively using Ezinearticles and other article banks to maximize the impact of each article.)

This template delivers content that is rather formulaic, even at best, and highly annoying at worst.

The second way to boost ranking is by quantity. Lots of articles in the article banks, lots of blog entries, lots of comments on other people’s blogs, etc.

Google is more attuned to the computerized measurement of quality than to human evaluations (though readers who “vote” for content via Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon and other social bookmark programs may be adding an element of human evaluation to the system).

As long as abysmally paid people can hastily write the same-old same-old, altering content that has already been published by someone else to flood the internet with trite stuff that works the algorithms, internet publishers have no reason to raise their rates.

Writers’ indignation is an interesting footnote to the story, but if those who hire writers get the results they want on the cheap, the battle is lost.

How can discerning readers influence the Internet to reward quality? Is conscientious social bookmarking an answer? Will willingness to purchase subscriptions to professionally-written online news services send a message to publishers’ bank accounts?

(Our profession is still looking for the answers. I’m not asking these questions rhetorically.)

Some of the “professional” writers I see are most concerned with churning out their own publicity faster. They frequently post abbreviated, shallow copy to their blogs to work the numbers.

There’s irony here. Writers want to spend more time on each paid assignment and be paid more, but they want to build their own visibility by throwing buckets of their own hastily written slop into the mess.

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Geographic choice: another great reason to solopro

Internet gurus love to tout the benefits to the individual of self-employment, especially the freedom and lifestyle it allows the individual.

(I myself have pointed out these benefits in past posts. See the end of this post for links.)

However, we give scant attention to an aspect of solproing that benefits the public: Freelancing and consulting can often be done at a distance, enabling people with professional, technical and administrative skills to remain in their current, economically depressed communities. This can be a win-win-win for the individual, extended family and society.

An interesting article in the January / February 2010 American Prospect contributes to the discussion about soloproing and its potential for rebuilding communities in decline.

The article focuses on Richard Florida, a big name in economic development who made his reputation in the early 2000s. He consulted with decaying cities in the Eastern U.S., providing locally customized recommendations on how to implement his three secrets for the 21st century—Technology, Talent and Tolerance—to attract young professionals, which he labeled “the creative class.”

More recently he has reversed his views (but as the article describes, in a manner that veers back and forth to accommodate two opposing outlooks). In general, he now contends that some communities on the decline cannot be saved and should be allowed to fail. People just may need to relocate to more “productive” areas.

However, advocates for sinking communities refuse to leave. Some of these individuals have a lifelong attachment to their home towns. “There is a remnant of people who aren’t going to leave,” one critic of Mr. Florida is quoted as saying.

The end of the article briefly discusses how freelance work arrangements can enable people to continue to reside in places like Detroit (specifically named in the article).

Soloproing benefits our larger society by enabling people to participate in the service economy while maintaining residence in less successful locations.

Many skilled solopro projects can be done anywhere there is access to telecom and overnight delivery services. In the U.S. that’s just about everywhere. Indeed, some of these locations have lower costs of living, making them desirable bases of self-employment where it is easier for start-up incomes to meet or exceed living expenses.

I don’t mean to sugarcoat the situation in certain urban areas—the article’s author, Alec MacGillis, certainly doesn’t. In fact, he comes down hard on Florida for his glib suggestions on urban solutions.

I’m just saying that freelancers and consultants with skills that are in demand can create a worklife that does not depend on where they live and can benefit their communities in the process.

More posts on why you should consider freelancing or consulting:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

How to write fast

Who else wants to write like a 33 1/3 record played at 78 rpm? Seven secrets to have you verbalizing like Alvin & the Chipmunks on Starbucks

I’ve been a professional writer for years now, but it’s been only recently that I have been alerted by online newsletter writers of a new, important challenge: how to write faster.

Frankly, even though I have written professionally for years, I never thought about how fast I write. I recognized a recurring problem in focusing my attention and sitting myself down to do the work, but I never thought about how fast I was writing once I got busy.

This has me reflecting back on my life and how much I could have accomplished if only I had recognized the importance of speed writing.

It’s kind of like I’ve never thought about how long it takes me to brush my teeth . . . but if I had been spitting once instead of twice all these years, I would have freed up enough time to write my answer to War and Peace.

The real reason I never contemplated actual writing time was because writing is but a small part of being a writer.

Take my years as a financial writer at asset management (mutual fund) companies.

Though my job title was “writer,” I’d estimate that I spent less than half of my time with my fingers curved above the keyboard, and much of that keyboard time was devoted to email and other typical corporate tasks. Perhaps a fourth of my time was spent on real writing.

So what did I do with the rest of my time?

  • Gather information from the “research” (i.e., stock selection) staff
  • Try to look intelligent and interested as accounting personnel debated the second decimal point on a single fund return for printing in the quarterly newsletter
  • Discuss how each concept, treatment and even word supported or detracted from our corporate mission and branding
  • Ferry drafts through the executive and legal review process
  • Attend meetings to monitor our firm’s market outlook
  • File draft and background data for regulatory review
  • Proofread for myself and others
  • Read the Wall Street Journal (boy, did that draw suspicious looks from passers-by)
  • Think about topics and what I was going to write (even more suspicious than reading)
  • Cut up coffee cake in preparation for department meetings
  • “Other duties as assigned.” Typical corporate stuff.

With all these other tasks claiming my time, speeding up my writing would not have made much of a difference in terms of productivity.

Freelance writing used to include many of these duties (with the obvious exception of cake cutting). However, as Elance and similar services reshape productivity expectations, I look like a slowpoke when others boast they can write and post an article in minutes.

Now let’s get down to business with seven secrets. Each of the following secrets leads with an explanatory bullet because I’m modeling how to write a quick article. Of course, my topic for this exercise is how to write an article fast.

  1. Don’t think too much about meaningful topics. Grab a long-tail keyword of three or more words and use this string in the title, first paragraph and sprinkled throughout.
  2. Don’t research. Quality consists of adequate word count and search term optimization, as well as passing through computerized plagiarism tests. You already know enough.
  3. Write about what you know. Like my next step for how to write quickly: coat your keyboard with oil to get those keys jumping up and down more quickly. Now’s the time to do it before OPEC raises its prices. (Well, I think they may raise their prices. I heard it somewhere and sooner or later they’ll raise prices so it’s right enough for me.)
  4. Write an introductory paragraph that uses the keyword phrase again and establish the relevance of the subject. Here’s the lead I should have written: You must learn to write quickly if you want to be a success by publishing articles on the Internet. How can you write quickly? Here are seven tips that will assure your success:
  5. Use bullets because they are easy. Why are they easy? Because they eliminate the need for transitions between paragraphs. Transitions take too much time relative to the word count they add.
  6. Fluff it up. If you don’t have enough words, fluff it up some more. And some more. And some more. Like air-popped popcorn. And more popcorn. And cotton candy. Whew, we’re at three lines now.
  7. Conclude with a summary paragraph that pulls it all together. In summary, it’s easy to write quickly when you understand the fundamentals. Don’t overanalyze. Don’t overresearch. Fluff it up while using your keywords at an optimal ratio (whatever that may be—it’s like fine art—I know it when I see it). Write what you know and summarize at the end.

Done! Turn off the stop watch!

Quality writing on the Internet: Good news and bad news

I’m heartened to see the marketplace demanding higher quality in internet writing.

Whether you publish online to market your own business or for direct payment as a freelancer, and whether your principal activity (and identity) is as a writer or as an expert in a subject other than writing, this is good news.

There’s no underestimating how low standards have dropped in some circles. You need only look at some of the lowest paying listings on Elance and similar databases to find companies looking for content to beef up online presence at unbelievably low pay. Quality be “darned,” I assume.

What are the “secrets” of writing such assignments and making any money at all?

Well, here’s how I would do it. First, I would search article banks for existing articles on my subject and paste them into a Word document. Then I would select and scramble paragraphs using cut-and-paste to create a “new” base document. Finally, I would substitute words and phrases and make other revisions until the article passes review by copyscape.com or a similar program. Considering that some of the job posters care little about the subject expertise of their writers, how else could such articles be written in a short time frame?

Is this plagiarism? I’m no lawyer but legally speaking, I’d guess not. If it passes the client’s software test, then it’s OK. (Of course, ethically we may see it differently.)

Good news

Here is a sign of positive change in the Internet articles marketplace.

Christopher Knight of EzineArticles.com (which claims to be the largest article bank) wrote in October that his company has “been raising our standards every single month since we started. The only thing changing is the pace at which we raise our quality standards.”

By changing the pace, he means faster, now slower.

One sign of a superior article, notes Knight, is word count. He recommends going for 400 to 800 fluff-free words rather than the minimum count permitted of 250 words.

He points out that of the 142,000 articles in “problem status,” 41% were under 399 words, while only 1-2% were over 750 words.

However, let me point out in the interest of truth in statistics, one reason that a higher percentage of the problem articles are shorter may be because such a high share of all articles submitted are on the short end of the spectrum. He did not say that 41% of all short articles exhibit problems, as compared to fewer than 2% of longer submissions.

I can tell you from experience that EzineArticles closely monitors what goes into their article bank. Several of my articles have been rejected the first time around, and Knight’s article assures that this is not unusual.

The service has a lot of rules and regs! The first time I scrolled through them, little registered in my thoughts as unusual or important. But when an article gets rejected for violating a rule, I sit up and take notice. So it is taking me awhile to learn all the tricks of the trade.

It also appears that EzineArticles reviews author responses to violation notices. One of my articles was rejected because of a grammatical problem. In a return email, I protested that I didn’t see any mistakes in my article. The article was OK’d (I did remedy another small problem) and posted without grammatical or spelling changes.

Not so good news

On the other hand, in October Google announced an agreement with Twitter to include tweets in Google search results.

Kind of interesting, given that Google uses carefully developed, secret algorithms to determine quality in ranking organic search results.

I was under the impression that the formula, though ever changing, tends to reward substance and relevance, translating into a preference for materials of at least moderate length and the sprinkling of keywords at an optimal level that proves relevance without excessive keyword “loading” or manipulation.

I don’t see how such criteria allow for messages of 140 characters or fewer, including spaces.

Google says its new policy gives readers access to in-the-moment news. Like if you want to know if it is snowing in Aspen, a Colorado twitterer may have posted on snow conditions a moment ago.

And I may have posted that I’m eating a tuna sandwich. Quick! Invest in Chicken of the Sea.

Oh, and by the way, there’s been speculation in the media that Google may purchase Twitter.

Is this a coincidence?

Google purchased YouTube in 2006 and experts galore have since reported that videos uploaded to YouTube fare quite well in Google rankings. Interestingly, SEO experts accept this with equanimity.

Admittedly, my research has not been exhaustive. However, I’d like to point out that no one with any prominence has suggested Google algorithms are subject to manipulation for the financial benefit of Google.

Hmmm . . .

What to do when a client drags out payment

When you are a freelancer or consultant (solopro), there are worse things than having no work to do.

Number one on the list is working hard but not getting paid.

So here are some tips to solve the problem.

Structure payment to get as much as possible up front or at least along the way. After you solve their problem and deliver the goods, you are just another creditor on their list.

How to do it

One effective strategy is to require full payment up front. When asked why, practitioners of this approach say, “It is our policy.”

No debate, it’s just policy.

Obviously, for a single-person business, policy doesn’t require any vote or top-executive decision back at the office. An individual can change “policy” at will.

But calling it “policy” cuts off uncomfortable discussion.

Those who follow this path tend to be highly confident, ready to cut their losses and proceed to the next prospect.

They remind themselves it is better to have no work and to spend your time prospecting (for instance, telephoning) than it is to use up time, your most limited resource, to do work that doesn’t pay on time and may never pay.

Sometimes the largest companies are the worst

A prospect may say it’s not their policy to pay immediately. You see this most frequently in large companies with lots of rules and lots of prestige. Like U.S. auto manufacturers in the good old days.

Before the recession, big-company executives, when challenged by solopros awaiting payment, would laugh and say, “Well of course we’re good for the money.” Then freelancers would end up waiting 60 to 90 days to get paid. I’ve heard stories of big companies refusing to pay after the work is done and forcing the individual to settle for 50 cents on the dollar. Simply because they can.

Some solopros add a penalty percentage for late payments. Bad idea unless you want to function as a financing company.

If clients are agreeable towards paying a penalty, they recast you as a source of capital for which they are paying interest. You loan them your fees and they pay when they’re good and ready. Seems totally legit to them since they are allowing the additional fees. No rush to pay if they don’t mind 1.5% compound interest.

Postponing payment is now a financial decision, not theft. (Normally it is stealing when you take a service and don’t pay for it.)

Do you have a contract?

If so, make them pay up under the terms of the contract. No more work until they pay. That includes free phone advice.

If there’s no contract, demand money right now or turn your attention to work that will pay off.

Don’t start a new project with an unreliable client until the last project is paid in full. With the next project, demand at least 50% (100% is better), paid up front.

They need help immediately? That’s why Fed Ex offers overnight AM delivery.

They want to postdate the check? Doesn’t work because you deposit within an hour of the check arriving.

Let them know you are ready to walk. If they are desperate they will find the money. Let the other creditors wait.

You may be saying that if you get tough, it will ruin your relationship with them. A relationship where the client doesn’t pay reliably IS a ruined relationship. You don’t want to work for someone like that.

I once had a bad feeling about a client for which I had completed a project. I phoned them every single day until they put the check in the mail. They had more important creditors I’m sure but I was the biggest annoyance. In this case the squeaky wheel got the grease.

You may think that small claims court is the answer. I don’t know about that, I’ve never been to small claims court. I simply knew that what I was owed (perhaps $2500) would not be a big deal to the courts or to an attorney; legal fees could eat up the full amount. While I could perhaps learn to represent myself in small claims, the aggravation would consume too much of my energy and attention. So I aggravated them instead.

Much of what appears above in this article is theoretical. I’ve never had a slow paying client return to me for further work after I’ve objected.

I’m not sure whether it is their awkwardness or my proven irritability that closes down the relationship, but I’ve never cared enough to ask.

How to check for bad freelance and work-at-home offers

The other day I was speaking to a Rotary club about how to start making money quickly as a freelancer or consultant when an audience member asked how to determine if the offers you find online are legitimate.

Good question.

Not quite my area of expertise—I recommend that you proactively contact the best companies, but I took a stab at it anyway.

The advice I shared has been modeled by husband Wayne’s example. A few people were nodding appreciatively so I’m presenting it here.

First, investigate the opportunity. Read everything you can find about it. Keep reading.

Ask the difficult questions and keep asking till you find the answers! Our natural tendency is to believe what we want to believe, but we can’t let this blind us to the truth.

Look for bad news. Welcome it.

Talk to people. Talk to lots of people. The more people the better, commensurate with your expected time and financial investment.

Go ahead and ask for references you can call.

Or post to online groups and ask for people to email you directly in the expectation they’ll be more open to you.

Finally, here is a technique I’ve seen Wayne use over and over and it works: Take the name of the product or company and type it in Google. Then add another word such as “scam,” “rip-off,” “fraud,” “consumer,” “evaluation” or “complaint.”

If you don’t add one on these terms, the in-favor fluff will take up so many pages of links that you’ll exhaust yourself long before you find anything useful.

By the way, as you watch late night offers on TV that sound too good to be true, try the same thing.

Always revealing.

This may be your freelancing answer!

You did a lot of things well at your last good job and you’re proud of your contribution to the success of your company.

You’ve got a lot of corporate experience. Carried out administrative or technical projects, worked independently, coordinated things, moved them along, team player. In other words, you’ve advanced the work of your employer and earned your pay.

Still, you can’t quite figure out how it all adds up to a career.

You’re vague as to how your what-I-do-successfully list translates into a freelance or consulting practice. It seems too scattered and the achievements seem hard to measure. Not like the fabulous sales figures and stirring project management achievements that make for compelling examples in the resume or website-writing books.

And you’re still figuring out what you want to be when you grow up!

Becoming a virtual assistant may be just right for you.

What’s a virtual assistant? you may ask. Well, “virtual” means taking place in cyberspace and “assistant” means, well, one who provides assistance. Like in an office except working from your home computer, even thousands of miles from the client.

VAnetworking.com defines a virtual assistant as “a highly-trained independent entrepreneur who provides a myriad of business support services virtually via phone, fax and internet based technology to support and meet the growing needs of businesses worldwide. … A VA is your right hand person helping you to succeed in your business. The irony is you may never meet your VA as odds are they live nowhere near you.”

Virtual assistants do all sorts of things, working as executive assistants, administrators, technicians and do-ers with specialties ranging from data entry and bookkeeping to medical transcription, web design, publicity, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s a video that tells the story:

If you think this may be the next career step for you, here are some VA associations that explain the concept more comprehensively on their websites:

International Virtual Assistants Association

Virtual Assistant Networking Association

International Association of Virtual Office Assistants