Posts filed under 'Ask the Cubicle Expat'

Ask the cubicle expat: Can I haz column?

Aspiring Columnist asks: I was wondering if you had any advice for securing a regular columnist position like you have with ABCNews.com (online or print). I am looking to derive more of my income from writing, but find pitching individual freelance stories to be very time consuming. I’m curious as to whether you think I need to start that way, or whether I could apply on my existing credentials. [Note: Aspiring Columnist has published a couple of popular career books with a major NY publisher and does have some national writing credits.]

I answer: Editors and website producers hate when people go to them and ask, “Can I have a column?” That gripe is all over Mediabistro, and I’ve heard editors say as much too, both on public panels and in private. (One editor’s cracks about a freelancer who demanded a column on more than one occasion even made it into my new book.) Despite all these warnings, I have tried to ask for a column before. And it just doesn’t work.

Most people I know or have met who write high-profile columns for indie and mainstream media landed the gig because they were tapped for it, either by a satisfied editor for whom they were already writing articles on a particular subject matter, or by an editor who admired their work (articles, books, high-profile blog) from afar. As frustrating as it might be, you have to hone your niche or beat and start writing one-off articles for an editor first — essentially, dazzle them.

There’s a decent chance that the editors you write for now won’t be the editor(s) who offer you a column two, three, or five years from now. But since the idea is to build up a solid portfolio and prove your mastery of a couple of topics, you’re laying the foundation today for a future column anyway. Of course, if you don’t want to wait, you could start your own blog or webzine and name yourself star columnist. Or you could try to get in with a smaller publication or website that’s looking for columnists (and not worry about the fact that the money will probably suck).

In case you’re curious, here are how three recent column-writing gigs of mine have come about:

ABCNews.com — Editor went to the bookstore in search of an author he could tap for a new career column. Picked up a handful of books, including mine. Called and ask me for CV and clips. The rest is history. Incidentally, this is not my best-paying freelance gig.

Nine to Thrive on NWjobs.com — I was a frequent contributor to the Seattle Times (which owns NWjobs), writing articles on women and careers and flexibility. An editor at NWjobs got my name from one of my Seattle Times editors and asked me if I wanted the gig.

How’d you land that great job? on NWjobs.com — Same as above, though this was an existing column that I took over from a previous writer. After about a year, my editor and I decided to kill this column and morph it into the above blog-style column.

2 comments October 3rd, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: How can I lick procrastination once and for all?

photo-from-tara-swords.jpgIn honor of My So-Called Freelance Life “officially” publishing today, I thought I’d post a short excerpt from a great Q&A that fellow freelancer Susan Johnston did with me on the fantastic webzine Women on Writing. It’s on my favorite topic: procrastination. You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate the sentiment.

But first (heh — geddit?), I’d like to thank Tara Swords for taking the day-making photo above, Toni Martin for rocking my world with the book’s first Amazon review, and the Feminist Review’s Brittany Shoot for her kickass write-up of the book.

Okay, back to the question at hand….

Susan/WOW asks: A lot of writers (including yours truly) find themselves procrastinating online when they ought to be working. How do you stay disciplined when you have a deadline coming up?

I answer: As you’ll probably glean from the book, I still fall prey to the dreaded P-word from time to time. (Damn you, YouTube!) When a deadline is dire, I’ll have to shut off the phone and unplug the modem. Otherwise, finishing the project just doesn’t happen, or at least, it doesn’t happen without involving an additional six hours of emailing and IM’ing friends about nothing of consequence.

This probably goes without saying, but if you don’t work, you don’t eat, so there’s always that motivation. I’m single and bootstrapping it all the way, so it’s not like I have anyone to pay my bills for me. Besides, the more deadlines you have on the calendar, the more you learn to just motor through the pile of articles or projects on your plate. When you’re mistress of your own schedule, it doesn’t take long to realize that if you have three 1,000-word articles due in a week — articles that require locating and interviewing sources — you need to start now, not the day before they’re due.

Licking procrastination is all about playing mind games with yourself. These days, I’m loving the piecemeal approach to writing articles (write the intro one day, the middle the next, and the ending the day after that) while I research and edit other articles on my plate. So, instead of having to write 1,000 words in one four- to eight-hour sitting, I may only have to write 300 words over the course of an hour or two. Much easier to face.

Bonus answer: In both my books, I talk about some of the tricks we freelancers have to play on ourselves to lick procrastination. The Pretend You Have To Be Somewhere At 6:00 P.M. approach is currently my favorite. Anyone who’s ever made plans with me during the past, oh, decade knows that, as weird as it may sound, I tend to get stressed if I have too many evening outings scheduled during the workweek (and by “too many” I mean, “more than one”). But that doesn’t mean I can’t pretend I need to leave my office by 5 P.M., a tactic that miraculously lights a five-alarm fire of productivity under my butt. Who knew that kicking the I Don’t Need to Crank Today — After All, I’m Here Till Midnight mentality could be as simple as telling yourself a bunch of lies?

11 comments October 1st, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Is your new book for guys, too?

Bart Motes writes: I am not a woman. Can I still benefit from your book? Why should work advice be gendered anyway? Also, don’t tell people to go to law school. It sucks. (Former law review editor here.)

I answer: Bart, I would never tell people to go to law school. (Okay, maybe I sort of would, but only if they really wanted to become a lawyer.)

As for your great questions, no, of course you don’t have to be a woman. There are about two out of 225 pages in My So-Called Freelance Life that speak directly to women (pep talk for getting paid what you’re worth and not feeling “guilty” for asking for it). But men can benefit from that message too.

The reason the book is gendered is because my publisher‘s niche is “books for women.” But I wrote My So-Called Freelance Life for everyone because I think it’s silly to cut out half the audience, especially when the advice is the same for all. Lots of men read The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and said it was really helpful to them.

Add comment September 12th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: LLC vs. sole proprietor?

Amy writes: I have a small boarding facility on my property. I board eight horses and I also live on the premises. I am trying to decide if I need to become an LLC. My concerns: If something does happen to a horse on my property due to my negligence, I don’t want to lose my house/land. What is the best way for me to go about this? I have spoken to my insurance agent and I am working on getting a policy in place to cover the liability, including an umbrella.

I answer: I’m no lawyer, but I would think an LLC would be a good idea since you’re dealing with people’s animals. As a I understand it, an LLC offers more protection than simply purchasing liability insurance. Here’s an earlier post I wrote on LLCs. And here’s a whole page on LLCs on Nolo.com that can tell you more. I suggest talking to other boarders to see what legal structure they’ve set up — as well as a qualified legal professional to get their recommendations.

Good for you for getting the liability insurance though. Hopefully you got business liability insurance and not a personal liability plan. (More on that here.)

Add comment August 27th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: To blog or to pitch?

Trina Sargalski writes: I’ve been blogging regularly about local and seasonal food in Miami. I just went part time at my school so I could devote more time to my freelance career. I’m wondering how you decide as a freelancer what to blog and what to save to pitch to publications and websites. Should I be worried about other journalists pilfering my ideas to use for their own pitches? I’m really confused on this one and would appreciate any advice either by email or on the blog!

I answer: This is such a fabulous question. Let’s start backwards: There are rarely unique ideas in the world of pitching, just unique spins on old tales (like, a new study comes out, or there’s a pop culture tie-in). To see what I mean, subscribe to Peter Shankman’s If I Can Help a Reporter Out, and marvel at how familiar all the story ideas sound (Greening Your Office, Losing Your Home, How Greening Your Office While Losing Your Home Affects Your Love Life, and so on). Or just go to the newsstand and read a few magazine covers or tables of contents. Then note how the headlines are virtually the same as they were last year, only with a few more “belt-tightening” and “tough economy” tips thrown in.

That said, if you have a stellar story idea, do not put it on your blog before you pitch it. Why tempt fate? And why waste it on an unpaid blog when you might be able to get paid cash dollar bills for it?

Here’s how I decide between blogging and pitching (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’ve been blogging a bit more regularly than I have been):

Could this idea make an entire article (rather than just a one-paragraph blip on my blog)? Are there viable media outlets where I could sell this article (or, do I know editors that might like this idea, or could I use it in my paid columns)? If so, then I pitch first. If I sell the article, I can always mention an interesting aspect of it on my blog later, once its been published.

I had your dilemma — to blog or save my ideas for paid work — when I was writing my new book earlier this year, which, like this blog, is on freelancing. Because I wanted the book to be fresh, I shied away from blogging about the topics in my book outline. I, of couse, had about 50 little sections or sidebars that I didn’t have room to include in the book. Some will likely turn into articles (some already have), or blog posts, or possibly even another book.

Once you start selling articles, you’ll get a better sense of what you don’t mind “giving up for free” and what you’d prefer to sell (said the gal who’s been having a hard time keeping up with her unpaid blog of late). But as always, I’d love to hear what others think on pitching vs. blogging. If you have a completely different MO than me (make money from my writing, get more national bylines), you may have a different take.

8 comments August 23rd, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Should I lower my rates if a client can’t afford me?

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with their burning freelance questions last month. I really appreciate it. This question really stuck in my craw, so I decided to give a quick answer now.

Frustrated Freelancer asks: I recently was negotiating a project with a client I really wanted to work for. After I told them my price, they came back with, “We think this could turn into a lot of ongoing work, so would you be willing to come down?” It made no sense. If they are going to come to me with more work (and therefore take up a higher percentage of my time, which is then unavailable for other projects), why would I lower my price? Maybe there is some logic to lowering your price for some situations? I’d love to know.

I answer: Your instincts are right. “We will give you more work later” does not justify a haggle-down now. It’s a pretty weak argument for the client to make. Not only are you forfeiting 5, 10, or 20 percent of your earning potential now, you’re doing it month and after month if you continue to work with this client. And since you’d ideally want to raise your rates in another year or two to keep up with the cost of living (a topic for another day), you’re starting out wayyyy behind where you need to be.

The client’s tentative language (“Would you be willing…?”) indicates they’re just bluffing and trying to save a few bucks. Something more hard-and-fast like, “We’d love to work with you, but $xx.xx is the highest our budget will allow” lets you know there’s no more wiggle room (say, because you’re negotiating with a non-profit organization or a small company with limited funds for outsourcing projects). So my answer would be, “No, but I could do [a price midway between what you initially suggested and what they're now offering].” If you’ve padded your first offer by 10 to 20 percent of what you actually want for the job and a haggle-down ensues, you have a much better chance of coming away with a price you like.

Before you enter into any negotiations with a client, I’d get clear on what “I really want to work with them” means. Would one sample in your portfolio from this company meet your needs? If all you’re looking for is to be able to say, “I’ve worked with Fancypants Client X,” then the answer is yes.

If, however, you believe strongly in the organization’s mission and want to do whatever it takes to forge an ongoing relationship with them, maybe you resign yourself to working for them at a discounted rate (if that’s the best you can do) in the name of community service and make up the difference with higher-paying bread-and-butter clients. Or, if the client’s offering some high-profile work that would get you noticed by other potential clients, industry bigwigs, and perhaps even the media, maybe you do a few pieces for them and reap the rewards in other ways (perhaps press for your business, which leads to more business) before moving on.

But back to the haggle-down at hand: Say the client’s shot down your counteroffer or shut you down with a “We simply can’t afford it” statement. You want to work with this client at least once, but you don’t want to get branded as someone who makes 80 percent of what she knows she’s worth. So you tell them you’d really like to work with them on their campaign to save the polar bears and will give them a 20 percent discount on this one gig so they can afford it. If it’s a for-profit company, you can add that you hope they can come up in price in next time.

Then on your project agreement and invoice, be sure to indicate that you’re giving a 20 percent discount. That way, the client won’t expect the same low price in the future. And neither will any of the colleagues they recommend you to.

16 comments April 3rd, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: My client didn’t send me a W-9 form — help!

Jasmine asks: I just started out as a full-time freelance writer/producer/creative consultant in NYC about a month ago. I am a little unsure whether it is my responsibility to offer a W-9 form to clients, or if it is up to them to ask me for one. (Obviously, I’d rather not hand out my social security number willingly.) I have good record-keeping practices to ensure I am able to determine the appropriate amount of taxes I will owe, but expect that without a W-9 I won’t receive a 1099, although I will certainly report the income on my own returns. Any insights as to who needs to initiate a W-9 are very welcome.

I answer: Congrats on going freelance! This question, cousin to “Help, my client didn’t send me a 1099!”, is one I hear a lot from new freelancers. For those who don’t know, a W-9 is a simple form that tells clients your tax ID number (your social security number if you’re not incorporated), which they need for their records and to generate those cute little 1099 forms they send you each January.

It’s in the client’s best interest to get this form to you, and 99 percent of them will. You’re right that you won’t get a 1099 if the client hasn’t asked you to fill out a W-9, either because they’ve never done this before and have no idea that they’re supposed to (in which case, your good records will come in handy at tax time) or because they’re just starting to use freelancers and are too lazy/busy/confused to follow proper tax practices.

Don’t worry so much about giving your social security number to a reputable business that other freelancers can vouch for. I understand the fear, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting their social security info misused by a standup client, and I’ve been doing this since the Pliocene Era. If, however, a new client is giving you the heebie-jeebies, that’s a clear indicator that you shouldn’t work with them. And if anyone has a juicy My Client Committed Identity Theft And/Or Sold My Social Security Number On The Black Market story, I’m all ears (and of course, sorry to hear it).

11 comments March 17th, 2008

Freelance tax FAQ #117

I subscribe to a lot of self-employment and freelance writing discussion lists. Not surprisingly, this month everyone’s been buzzing about how to file their freelance taxes. Here are a few recurring questions I’ve seen.

(Note: These answers are geared toward sole proprietors like me, not LLCs or corporations, which are subject to different tax laws, about which I know diddly. Double note: I’m a freelance writer, not a financial professional. If you want solid tax advice you can bank on, you’d best check with your friendly neighborhood accountant. Okay, now that we’ve got the requisite ass-covering out of the way, let’s talk taxes…)

Q. Help! I earned more than $600 in 2007 from a client, but they didn’t send me a 1099 form. Do I still have to pay taxes on that money? Do I need that form?

A. You do still have to pay taxes on that money. But no, you don’t need the form to do so. Also, in case you were wondering, if your client tries to claim the money they paid you as a business expense, they could get into trouble with the IRS for not sending you a 1099 form. But that’s their problem, not yours.

Q. Help! I billed Client XYZ for $3,000 in December of 2007 but wasn’t paid for it until January of 2008. Do I have to pay taxes on this money with my 2007 fed tax return or should I pay those taxes with my 2008 estimated tax payments?

A. Since the client paid you this amount in 2008, you will owe taxes on it for 2008, not 2007. You go by the year paid, not invoiced. If the client tries to put this amount on your 2007 1099 form, you need to talk to their accounting department about correcting this mistake. Otherwise, you’ll be paying taxes on money you technically didn’t earn in 2007.

Q. Help! I just measured my home office and it’s 20 percent bigger than I’ve been reporting to the IRS for the past three years. Can I tell them my office is actually bigger? Will this trigger an audit?

A. Congrats! You get a bigger write-off. It’s perfectly reasonable that your home office size would increase as your freelance business blossoms, so just tell the IRS that your office space has grown. (Actually tell your accountant, and s/he will know how to indicate this on your fed tax return.)

This minor change in office size alone should not trigger an audit, unless of course you’re unfortunate enough to be randomly selected for an audit (like jury duty, only more painful). As I understand it, if the IRS intentionally audits you, it’s because you have some serious red flags on your tax return — for example, an inordinate amount of expenses claimed. Your accountant is there to ensure this doesn’t happen. Yet another reason you should not solely rely on random internet advice when doing your taxes.

Final notes: There is a limit to what percent of your home you can write off as office space. Because I’m too lazy to Google it, you’ll have to ask your accountant about this. Also, the IRS wants your home office space to be solely dedicated to your business, so be careful that you don’t blur lines here.

You can find more of my freelance tax FAQs here and here. And you can find an accountant by asking your freelance friends who they use.

4 comments February 27th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: How do I use blogging to build a platform for my book idea?

Student X writes: I was in your class last summer on “Everything you Wanted to Know About Getting Published.” I am in the process of starting a proposal for a non-fiction work, but I want to start a little buzz about it and start a blog. How do you suggest blogging regarding this so that the publisher has something to look at? I’m not sure how to start. I’m not much of a blogger anyway, but I write reviews of books on goodreads.com all the time.

I answer: Congrats on working on that book proposal. Cool! Here are my recommendations for starting a blog. I’m sure others will chime in with their suggestions too.

  1. Sign up for a free blog account with Blogger, TypePad, or WordPress.
  2. Pick a template for your blog. These are also free.
  3. If I’ve already lost you, read a book on blogging. Or take a class. Or have a blog-savvy friend walk you through the setup.
  4. Pick a topic for your blog, a niche you’ll stick with. Don’t be a generalist. Since you’re trying to build what’s known as a “platform” for your nonfiction book, your blog topic should be the same as that of your book: wrench-wielding women, mimes who love too much, recovering Republicans, etc.
  5. Pick a relevant, catchy name for your blog.
  6. If you need inspiration, check out some other blogs by authors to see how their blog complements their book topic, or at least showcases their crafty writing. Some blogs by authors I know: Offbeat Bride, Single State of the Union, Bad Advice, Totally Wired, Watercooler Wisdom, The Renegade Writer, Lusty Lady, Felicia Sullivan, Marci Alboher, Boss Lady.
  7. Also check out blogs by people who went from blogging to book deal: Escape from Cubicle Nation, Breakup Babe, Happily Even After, Lifehacker, and Web Worker Daily are a few examples. Here are some more — these “blookers” were even nominated for an award.
  8. Read Galley Cat to learn more about who’s getting book deals from blogs these days. Sign up for Publishers Lunch. Skim Publishers Weekly. And google “blog to book.”
  9. Make sure your About Me page gives your real name, your email address, and your writing/subject matter credentials. Be sure to include a photo of yourself, and make sure you brush your hair and teeth.
  10. Start blogging! Preferably posts that are 300 to 600 words (give or take) in length.
  11. Use photos whenever you can. And links. Especially to other blogs.
  12. Proofread your posts and check your links.
  13. Send out a blanket email to everyone you’ve ever met in your life telling them about your blog. Do this after you’ve made a few posts you’re proud of. Only do this once.
  14. Add your blog URL to the signature of your email address.
  15. Join some writing listservs or online communities and contribute to the conversation, keeping that signature in all your posts. Ditto for online communities revolving around the topic of your book.
  16. Post to your blog at least three times a week. Stay on topic, and don’t be afraid to be opinionated, funny, and/or controversial.
  17. Never apologize for not posting for the past two weeks. No one cares. If you have a lot of readers, a better idea is to do a post like this in advance.
  18. If you feel compelled to blog about your cat, try to find the tie-in to your overall blog’s topic. Otherwise, maybe skip the cute pet posts.
  19. Read and comment on other people’s blogs. It’s the best way to get new readers to come to your blog — and to raise your Google rank.
  20. Read articles on how to blog. Here’s one that people seem to like, though I tend to shy away from all those Best/Richest/Smartest Blogger Ever types. Here’s an even better tip list by my friend Amanda; it includes some suggestions for books on blogging too.
  21. Get a free tool to measure your site traffic so you can see what posts people like the best and how many readers you have. Here are a few: Site Meter, Google Analytics, MyBlogLog. This is not my forte, so I’m sure others will chime in.
  22. Speaking of, know that blogging means putting yourself out there. Sometimes rude, nasty people with nothing better to do make obnoxious comments on your site, often anonymously. That’s the way of the web unfortunately. You have the option to hit Delete. More often than not, though, the comments will be supportive, encouraging, helpful. You may even make a new friend or two. Maybe even a book agent friend. And wouldn’t that be nice?
  23. Above all, have fun. If blogging sounds like a chore, maybe you’re better off publishing a couple of well-placed articles on your pet topic instead (think Huffington Post, Salon, Slate).

10 comments February 19th, 2008

Love letter to budding writers

Sometimes people who read this blog or were kind enough to purchase my book email me to say nice things. That makes my day. Last month one such note arrived from a budding writer named Jackie Leventhal, who recently formed a kickass-sounding writing group in her hometown. Jackie asked a bunch of questions on behalf of her group, which I had a blast answering. In case any of it’s helpful to you, I thought I’d put the edited-down version of our exchange here.

Jackie writes: I just read your book and completely loved it. Thank you for writing such a robust and spot-on book about my ultimate goal, that being escaping the cubed lifestyle. I’m writing to you not only as a fan of your work, but as a 24-year-old aspiring writer who recently launched Mimosa Musings, a monthly writing group for women in DC who love to write and relish the support of female friendships. Meetings are on Sundays, and mimosas are served to usher in the warm feeling of a weekend brunch. As I try to continually better the substance of the group — meeting topics, writing exercises, partner activities — I’m reaching out to writers I admire for advice.

Q. What was your “Aha!” moment that made you feel like you were meant to be a writer?

A. In the third grade, Ms. Fitzsimons (she had excellent red hair and wore kelly green suits!) told me I was a “real writer” after reading one of my book reports. I loved that she used “Ms.” back in the 70s and I totally hung on to what she’d said.

Q. How do you discipline yourself as a writer?

A. By taking deadline projects. Otherwise, I’m the laziest slug around. I have a book now due in about 50 days. If I don’t finish it, I don’t get the second half of my advance and jeopardize getting to keep the first half. For non-deadline projects (say, an essay I’m writing that I hope to place somewhere big, like Salon), I try to tackle it in bite-size pieces throughout the week (that is, when I’m not staring down a big hairy book deadline).

I write best in the morning, so I’ll try to do an hour or two before my other work two to three times a week. I also have a soundtrack: Derek and the Dominos. I love that CD and wore it out on a writing retreat in 2006. Now when I pop it in, I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs. “Oh, Eric Clapton’s wailing about being in love with George Harrison’s wife again? Must be time to write…”

Q. What are your ideal writing conditions? Setting, beverage, time of day, journal v. laptop, pen (feather?) v. pencil (mechanical?)…

A. Good night’s sleep (I’m useless when tired, cranky), morning, desk, computer. Sometimes I walk first. Or rock out to music. I have an office in my house (spare bedroom), but I can write anywhere if need be. You need to be able to write anywhere, in blood if you must. When I’m blocked on something, I leave the office, grab a pen and paper, sit on my couch or in my backyard if it’s summer, and scribble until something comes. Or I’ll shower. Or walk. All of which help.

Q. What advice can you offer to aspiring writers about the journey to the bookshelf?

A. As my friend Angela Fountas says, “Sit down and write.” It’s that simple. You just have to start. And you have to do it often. Any writing teacher/book tells you so. Make it a habit, just like yoga or running, so that if you miss a day, you feel antsy and can’t wait to get back in the chair.

You gals already have the community thing down, meeting with like-minded creative types, which is so important. Writing is such a solitary business that you NEED to have creative friends to bounce ideas/fears/successes/editor woes/finished stories off of.

Q. Finally, please suggest a writing exercise that myself and fellow Musers can do at a monthly meeting.

A. Think of a scene, a story you’ve been wanting to tell, whether it’s how you’re pissed at your landlord for not fixing your toilet or how you met some sweet young thing at the Barack Obama rally last month. Set the timer for 15 minutes. Now write it from the perspective of your archest enemy. Or the writer currently seated to your left. Or your grandmother. Or Hillary Clinton. Or John McCain. Or your favorite third grade teacher. Your favorite writer. Your dog.

(Also, Natalie Goldberg’s books Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones are loaded with inspiration and writing exercises.)

Add comment February 13th, 2008

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Who I am

Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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