Posts filed under 'Ask the Cubicle Expat'

Ask the cubicle expat(s): Should I sign up with

MB asks: I was wondering if you’ve had much luck with I’m trying to save money, so I don’t want to join unless I think I will make money from it. What do you think?

I answer: MB, here are three things you probably did not know about

  1. Back in the late nineties dotcom startup heyday (the first time around), was cool. I’m not saying Guru isn’t cool now, but back then it had personality, spunk, sass. It had articles, freelancer haiku*, and a bit more of a community feel. It had Free Agent Nation author Dan Pink as a columnist.
  2. I wrote several articles for in its first year or two, and was paid handsomely, before the dotcom bubble burst and the site went on hiatus, then was sold, then re-emerged as the you know now.
  3. While I loved writing those articles, I also had the worst editorial experience of my life on one such piece, where my editor introduced not only a rash of typos and inaccuracies into my story, but an embarrassing bit of outright plagiarism. It landed me some angry mail from readers. (Lessons learned: (a) Always ask to see the final article before it runs, especially when you’re not familiar with an editor or publication. (b) You can recover from even the most shameful of freelance experience.)

Of course that doesn’t really answer your question. Truth is, I have never used in its new incarnation, a freelance job bidding site. In fact, I have never used a job bidding site. Here’s why. Short answer is, I’d try getting work on your own first through your personal and professional face-to-face and online networks. Or go through a creative agency that doesn’t charge you a subscription (or make you bid) to get the work.

I just spent a few minutes on today’s Interesting business model. I’d be curious to hear if anyone reading this has had any luck with it (particularly the Basic membership, which appears to have no monthly subscription rate but allows them to skim 10 percent off your project payments). If you do go this route, be sure to pad your fees by 10 percent so you make up the difference.

Also interesting are the invoicing and arbitration services (which I presume cost extra; seasoned users, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Cool that they offer these services, especially arbitration, which goes after clients who refuse to pay up and gets you your money. But ick to having to route your pay through this site. I’d rather deal directly with a brick-and-mortar creative agency I can call up. Sometimes it’s not the easiest getting customer support from a “faceless” online service provider (paging Amazon).

In sum, I supposed if you’re starved for work, others say they’ve had good experiences with the site, and you can get a good rate for your projects, could be worth a trial run. But I’d put it in the “last ditch effort before I ask for my day job back” category.

*If I find the freelancer haiku of mine ran (with commuting monkey illustration!), I’ll scan it and post it here.

3 comments February 10th, 2008

Four reasons to skip grad school

Yesterday, I was on a panel of working writers/editors/authors/screenwriters, talking to students in the undergrad English department at the University of Washington for the school’s Career Discovery Week. One student asked whether we’d recommend getting a grad degree to those hoping to work full time as a journalist, novelist, or any other type of writer (or editor). I’m happy to report that the answer across the panel of five gainfully employed full-time or freelance wordsmiths was a resounding “Hell, no!”

Here’s why:

1. It’s not a job requirement. Take it from someone who’s applied for a heck of a lot of journalism and publishing gigs. It’s never on the list of job requirements. Also, I have hired many a subcontractor to write and edit for my clients. Experience in the task at hand (technical editing, marketing writing, whatever) is always my number one requirement; I don’t care whether they have letters after their name. And neither do my clients.

2. Everything relevant I learned in my undergrad journalism program you could learn in one class. Yep, I took countless classes on how to write a story about a city council meeting and avoid landing my employer a libel suit. But all those lectures and homework assignments were nothing compared to the (far more educational) real-world experience I got at my internships and first couple of newspaper jobs. In other words, take your undergrad classes, then get your on-the-job experience as an intern, volunteer, and rookie writer or editor. It’s the best training around. And in case you were wondering, all the college credits in the world won’t teach you how to write a book. The first time you do it, you still have to flounder around and figure it out like everyone else.

3. All the great contacts I’ve made over the years I made on the job. I hate the argument that you need to go to grad school to get to know the key players in the publishing industry. No you don’t. Save your money and get paid to learn as an entry-level writer or editor. Much cheaper, and gets you two years ahead of your grad school counterparts in the job market. If you want to network, join a professional association like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. Go to writers conferences, events like Blogher’s annual conference, and the readings/lecture series at your local community arts center (like Richard Hugo House in Seattle). Get out in the real world and meet other working writers, editors, bloggers, and publishing pros in any of the many professional settings they congregate — which, by the way, unless they’re a professor, isn’t at your local university.

4. It’s a dang expensive way to avoid working. As one twentysomething on yesterday’s panel said, don’t be afraid to leave college and enter the workforce. She fearlessly dove into the world of work two years ago, and now she’s the managing editor at a diversity consulting firm. And as the guidance counselor running the panel said, if you don’t know what to do next, get out there and get some work experience. Don’t risk burning out on too many consecutive years of schooling. Instead, sample the various types of writing and editing jobs and industries to see what you do and don’t like. To that I’ll add: You ain’t gonna “find yourself” in law school. Better to flit around Asia, help rebuild New Orleans, or take up any other adventure that gives you the time and space to figure out what’s really important to you.

There is of course one reason to get a graduate degree in a field that doesn’t require it:

You love the topic, can’t wait to learn more about it, and want to do so in a group setting. In How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, Ariel Gore advises getting an advanced degree not in writing, but in a topic that really turns you on, be it medieval lit, comparative religion, or the history of clogging in America. That way, you’ll always have something to write about. I couldn’t agree more.

My boyfriend got a grad degree in medieval literature a decade ago. He didn’t want to go into academia, which is what you have to if you want to work in medieval lit, so now he works in the software industry. As far as I know, he’s still paying off his student loans. But I asked him last night if he’d do the degree all over again, even though I knew what he was going to say. (“Absolutely!”)

That’s when you know you’re making the right decision to go to grad school — when it’s something you want to do as much as that summer roadtrip you’re planning, that craft business you’ve been nursing on the side, or that volunteer gig you do at your local pet shelter.

23 comments February 2nd, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Does doing corporate writing make me a hack?

Tiffany asks: A freelancer more experienced than me — she writes for national glossies like Gourmet, Smithsonian, etc. — told me that I needed to be careful about how much commercial work I take — especially copywriting — because editors at national magazines won’t see me as a “real” journalist/writer if I do a lot of corporate work. Basically, she scared the bejesus out of me, since right now as I’ve started off, all I’ve been doing is corporate work since it has paid well and allowed me to transition out of 9-to-5 work. Do you think her warning is something to heed? I know I want to eventually do some feature writing, and hopefully for national pubs eventually, so I’d like to not make a big mistake at the beginning of my career that can derail my plans.

I answer: This is a great question. My initial thought? Poppycock! You need to do whatever you need to do to pay the bills now. And as long as you’re not writing copy for serial killers, I wouldn’t worry too much about what some future magazine editor thinks of what you worked on two or three years ago. Think of all the people with staff jobs who move in and out of PR/corporate/copywriting/journalism work. Happens all the time.

But just to make sure I’m not on crack, I checked in today with an extremely successful freelance journalist I know and asked about her career trajectory. About a decade ago, she had a full-time marketing job. About three years ago, she had a part-time marketing job to pay the bills while she freelanced on the side. Now she’s a full-time freelancer with a column in a major metropolitan newspaper that’s sometimes syndicated throughout the country, three book deals, monthly clips in a couple of the leading online news media outlets, and clips in a dozen huge-circulation national newsstand pubs.

You can reinvent yourself as a writer at any time you decide to, so forget those killjoys who tell you what you do today will seal your career fate for the next decade or three. There is this bit of snobbery in certain writing sects, probably because the competition is fierce and, quite frankly, all print and traditional media are being pushed out by new media, blogs, even citizen reporting. Which means old-schoolers can be a bit territorial. (A newspaper editor I met at a party recently tried to tell me that freelancers aren’t real journalists. Considering how much newspapers have been downsizing lately I thought she might want to consider a bit more humility.)

To your friend’s credit, she may have been trying to warn you against writing some highly visible PR/marketing copy for businesses/megacorps that would cause a conflict of interest with the pubs you want to write for in the immediate future. Say, if you’re trying to get into Saveur but you’re writing press releases for Sur La Table.

At some point, you will have to make time for the journalism work if you want to break in, and to be taken seriously you will have to make room in your schedule to pitch and accept assignments. And you will have to be careful that you don’t work for any corporate client that might be considered a conflict of interest with the topics/pubs you write for/about. Otherwise, you may scare some editors off.

So start thinking about what pubs you want to write for (what topics? which readers? which niches?). Once ready to approach them, make sure you’re not or haven’t recently written about one of their advertisers or anything else that could be considered a conflict of interest. When you get serious about approaching publications, you’ll probably only tell them about your publishing credits anyway — not that you write the newsletter for your local supermarket chain. You want to keep your “consulting work” on the down low because (a) it’s not relevant, and (b) it might make you seem like a hack — unless the fact that you’ve written software manuals for five years makes you highly qualified to write reviews of new digital products for Cnet.

In case there was any doubt, many freelancers do part-time jobs, corporate work, teaching work, contract work, and other money-in-the-bank gigs. Otherwise, many wouldn’t survive. Then there are those freelancers who write for pubs like the New York Times and top glossies who can only afford to do so because their domestic partner picks up the financial slack. Others rely on their savings from their former corporate gigs (lawyer, communications manager, etc.) to fund their newfound high-profile journalism careers. So reinvention — and having other pursuits outside journalism — is entirely possible.

Ultimately you have to do what’s right for you. And if you want to be a full-time magazine freelancer, I say you start pitching small magazines now and start trading up as soon as you can. Why wait?

Add comment February 1st, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: If a client paid me less than $600 in 2007, do I have to report it?

Denis writes: I’m 23 and just started doing freelance work this year. I did work for three different clients and I didn’t receive more than $600 from any of them. So I’m not going to receive a 1099 from any of them. Do I still have to report that income? If so, then can I deduct expenses such as internet and computer accessories? I just wanted to know what you think based on your past experiences.

I answer: Congrats on starting to freelance. Exciting! As for your question:

(1) From what I understand, and what an accountant once told me when I was starting out more than a decade ago, technically you have to report to the IRS (pay taxes on) any income you earn as a freelancer. Your clients might report that they paid you $200 for a job, and through its omniscient brain, the IRS could catch wind of this and come after your self-employed ass for the money it’s due. Or something like that.

That’s not to say I haven’t heard of freelancers doing the occasional one-time $100 job they knew the client wasn’t reporting and electing to keep that information to themselves, not that I’m advocating trying to screw the government out of its hard-earned war funding or anything. Mess with Uncle Sam at your own risk.

(2) Without being a financial professional, and without knowing your situation, it’s impossible (and professionally irresponsible, not to mention risky) for me to advise you what to do. But here are a few questions for you to ask yourself:

  • Do the city and state in which you live require you pay business taxes? If so, you may owe them money too. Check your city and state licensing departments to find out.
  • How much income are we talking about anyway? If it’s just $100, you might be able to go away quietly into the night without any political entity being the wiser (see above), not that I’m advocating you do. If it’s $1,500, I suggest you talk to a tax pro who can advise you how much to pay up. H&R Block has a free “Ask a Tax Advisor” service on their site that might be helpful. Or you could get TurboTax, which supposedly walks you through every little detail of filing your taxes.
  • Do you also have a full-time staff job that’s taking taxes out of your paycheck? How much you’re already sending to the IRS through your day job might affect how much you’ll owe on your freelance earnings. Again, a tax pro who’s looking at the big picture is your best bet here.
  • And finally, how much are your business expenses? Yes, you can claim the internet bill and computer accessories if you’re claiming the freelance income. But if the expenses exceed the earnings, you might not owe Uncle Sam any money. Maybe. I dunno. But you still may need to file a form. Maybe. See why you need to talk to a tax pro?

(3) I can’t stress this enough: Don’t rely on people like me who don’t work as CPAs, CFPs, or bookkeepers for fine-grained advice on how to file your taxes. You need to talk to a professional who can assess all the variables of your individual situation and tell you what to do. Or you need to get a program like TurboTax to walk you through it. Don’t give the IRS a reason to audit you, which would only land you in an accountant’s office anyway.

AFTERTHOUGHT: You may also want to read this post, on business licenses and the IRS definitions of “hobby” and “business.”

Got a question about self-employment or career change I don’t need a financial degree to answer? Ask away.

3 comments January 27th, 2008

Greatest hits: Freelance tax tips

It’s the most wonderful time of the year (that is, if you’re a CPA). That’s right, folks, tax season is upon us. And not surprisingly, I’ve had a couple requests recently for a round-up of this site’s past posts on paying your freelance taxes.

Before we get to the round-up, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that I’m a freelance writer, not a financial professional. Tax laws change every year, and no one knows their nuances better than your friendly tax professional. So although you can get some initial pointers from a freelance blog, I wouldn’t substitute them for the almighty input of someone who’s trained to fill out tax returns. Capiche?

OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Additional resources:

6 comments January 24th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Should I use PayPal to get paid?

Traci asks: Do any of your clients pay you via PayPal? I have an account, and I’ve seen that other freelance folks sometimes list it as a payment option. Has it worked for you? Any pros/cons to consider?

I answer: I have not used PayPal to receive payment. Nor do I plan to anytime soon. Not when I can get clients to send me a check or make a direct deposit payment into my bank account, which, as far as I’m concerned, is accounts receivable nirvana.

Here are what I see as the pros of using PayPal for freelance work:

  • If you work with clients halfway around the world, it might be easier to get paid this way.
  • If you sell your wares (earrings, silkscreened T’s, hand-crafted journals) through your site or blog, it’s an easy way to accept credit card payments. You definitely don’t want countless people you’ve never met sending you checks for $25.
  • If you work in a super-tech sector where everyone uses PayPal, you might want to apply the “when in Rome” philosophy. Clients don’t appreciate freelancers who aren’t up to speed and throw a wrench in their carefully crafted systems, accounting or otherwise.
  • I imagine PayPal can enable getting paid faster. Like direct deposit, it does cut out the step of having to deal with a hard copy check. But there’s something that never fails to excite me about opening my P.O. box and finding a check there for a writing job well done from the comforts of my home office.

Here’s my take on the cons:

  • Doesn’t PayPal take a cut of your pay or charge an annual fee? Why should I do this when I can get paid for free?
  • Not all clients use or want to use PayPal. Again, if you’re selling a service (rather than a product), you want to make it easy for them to work with and pay you. Meaning, you want to abide by the payment systems they have in place. (See pros, above.)
  • I hate the idea of leaving my bank account or credit card info with an online service. Here’s a perfect example of how things can go horribly awry.

I realize I may be old school in my views on PayPal (and web banking in general), so I welcome your input, especially if you’ve used PayPal to receive or make freelance payments.

Got questions about self-employment? I got answers. And if I don’t, someone else around here is bound to. Here’s where you can reach me.

9 comments January 21st, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Can clutter and creativity co-exist?

Sarah Jio asks: As a fellow freelancer, I work from home. I’m pretty anal about organization, but when it comes to my office, it’s become a catch-all for baby stuff, the vacuum cleaner, STACKS upon STACKS of magazines, and plain ol’ junk! As I plan a big office remodel this year, I’m polling my freelancer friends about their work spaces. I always love to hear where others write, how they keep their spaces tidy, and how they make them an enjoyable place to work — so Michelle, please share! Do you keep your office super clean? Do you need it to feel organized to feel creative? What are your tricks for keeping your files in order — and avoiding chaos? Is it important for you to enjoy the space (i.e., have you painted it a cool color, splurged on a great chair)?

I answer: I write in the spare bedroom in my house. Besides the desk, phone, computer, fax, etc., it contains four bookshelves, a file cabinet, and stacks and stacks of neatly piled folders from past articles/gigs that I need to sort through this spring. It also has a door that shuts and two windows, one on either side of my desk. The natural light is key for me. Ditto for the door, in case anyone’s over or the dog decides to bark when I’m on a call.

I desperately want to repaint the office and get some taller bookshelves and make it cozier/cuter/more space-optimal, but that’s a project for spring or summer. (Ideas: Stencils on the walls and a bulletin board painted some bright color.) Right now I have a big, multi-week deadline to focus on, which is of course why I’m answering this question instead.

My big thing is that as long as my office is neat and relatively free of dog-hair tumbleweeds, I can work. A few months ago, the floor was littered with crap (books, magazines, old files, bulk office supplies, clothes that needed to go to Goodwill) and it was really distracting. In fact, I stopped using my office altogether and started working at the kitchen table!

Fortunately, an out-of-town family visit prompted me to pick up the floor. I moved a lot of the old files and bulk office supplies into the garage, filled the recycling bin with files and magazines I didn’t need anymore, and neatened the rest of the files into stacks that I’ve pushed against the walls and corners… to be sorted in a few months. (In an ideal world, I’d purge my files once a quarter. Also, I’m trying to print out less, but sometimes you just have to read an in-depth research doc or edit offline, you know?)

If my desk gets too crazy cluttered or I can’t find the printed contracts/research that I immediately need, I will stop right in the middle of my workday to deal with it. Not ideal when you’re on a roll with an article or chapter. And right now, I’m dying to spend an evening rearranging my bookshelves because it’s been hard to find the books I need for research during the past few weeks. That’s probably something I’ll tackle this month.

As for accoutrements, I recently bought a bigass flatscreen monitor, which I love. So much better than hunching over my laptop. My body is happier too. Ditto for the $300 chair I bought a couple years ago, which was an ergonomic necessity. I was living at the chiropractor’s office. I’m still looking for the ideal way to store hard copies of newspaper and magazine clips I want to save. Maybe I’ll spluge on one of those flat filing cabinets, if I can find a tall, skinny one that’s pretty. (If anyone has suggestions, I, too, would love to hear.)

Got questions about fleeing the cube and working from home? I got answers (that is, as long as you don’t want me to look at your resume and tell you what to do with your life — there are, ahem, books for that). Here’s where you can reach me.

2 comments January 18th, 2008

Ask the cubicle expat: Should I pay for one of those fancypants subscription-based freelance-gig websites?

One of the students in a class I recently taught asked: I have a question about a particular subscription-based website that lists editorial freelance projects. I have not joined (it costs $29.99 a month to do so), but they regularly send me emails about jobs about which I’d receive detailed information and would be able to pursue if I joined. Some sound legitimate (proofreading, editing), some not so legit (work-from-home typing jobs). Should I turn and run in the opposite direction and never look back? Or is this a service that would be worth shelling out $29.99 monthly — especially at a time when I’m trying to make money, not spend it?

I answered: That’s a pretty steep fee. I would want to get a sample or just commit to one month at a time if I was going to sign up for that website. But I’m not a fan of such sites and services, unless you’ve already exhausted all your own personal and professional networks, can’t get a freelance gig through one of the many creative agencies around the world, and scoured all the free freelance job listings you can find on the web (PublishersLunch, Mediabistro, and the like). But I would think any of those methods would pay off, possibly much better than a job site you have to pay for.

Such subscription services are likely culling their listings from free sites anyway, and even if they are all legit listings, you’ll have to compete with freelancers worldwide for gigs you have no personal “in” with. You also may have to bid on projects you know little to nada about, which is a bit like herding cats, shooting fish in a barrel, or any other elusive-animal cliche. In other words, I think there are better ways to spend $360/year. I also think you have to be very wary of any service that finds its way into your inbox unsolicited but promises you fame and fortune in exchange for your hard-earned cash.

That said, FreelanceSuccess is a similar service for non-fiction writers that has been around for years and used to be very reputable; it’s $89/year and has been since its inception. You can get a sample issue from the site to see what sort of listings they provide. I have no affiliation with the site but was impressed with the service when it first began a few years back, initially as an email newsletter. I haven’t checked out their offerings in a few years, just so you know.

Note: Anyone else with suggestions/warnings about such sites and services is welcome to post them in the comments below, none of which should be taken as an endorsement or critique by yours truly.

3 comments November 16th, 2007

Ask the cubicle expat: Can I quit my contract gig after a week if something better comes along?

burning-bridge.jpgIn honor of the last week of my work-from-home permatemp gig with A Very Big Corporation, I bring you this question…

L. writes: “I just started (as in, this week!) as a contract editor at a Big-Name Company That Shall Not Be Named and — wouldn’t you know it? — I just got a job offer for something full time with amazing benefits. Yes, it is my ultimate dream to go freelance full time someday (hence my writing to you), but I feel torn. I need the insurance the other company is offering me, plus the annual salary and other benefits are definitely worth writing home about. Thing is, I feel guilty. I know this is only a short-term, three-month contract. But can I really quit and give two weeks’ notice after only having been here a week? Any advice? I don’t want to burn bridges, but something better has indeed come along.”

L., yesterday after handing off one of the projects I’ve been working on since July to my officemate, I sighed, “I can’t believe that come next week I’ll no longer have to juggle freelance writing assignments with this 30-hour-a-week contract. If I wasn’t so exhausted, I’d be doing a soft-shoe. I mean, four months is a very, very long time to commit to one gig.

My officemate, who has been with the company since the twentieth century, gave me a blank look.

On the commute home (I had to go in for the handoff meeting), I called my beau: “Honey, four months is a very, very long time to commit to one gig, is it not?”

“Actually most of us are terrified to not have a full-time job,” he reminded.

I’m not sure how or why this came to be, but the thought of knowing where I’ll be reporting to work six months down the line scares me more than killer bees, fiery car crashes, man-eating rodents, brain-eating amoebas, Dick Cheney, and FOX news combined.

As this is not the visceral reaction you had upon being offered a cushy full-time gig, L., I say go for it. If the Big-Name Company That Shall Not Be Named wanted to ensure they could keep prized workers like you for the long haul, they’d offer more than temporary contracts. No one could blame you for feeling non-committal about a non-committal employer. Screw the bridge. Even if it catches fire, you’ll still have your cushy staff gig with benefits to wake up to each morning.

3 comments October 31st, 2007

Ask the cubicle expat: Help! My editor’s paying my friend more than me!

Rachel Kramer Bussel, writer, editor, and cupcake connoisseur, put this question to me in a recent interview for mediabistro. (Here’s part one of the interview, which came out weeks ago, and here’s part two, which ran this week and focuses solely on freelancing. You may need a subscription to view one or both pages.)

Rachel says: You talk in the book about setting rates and “knowing your bottom line.” I was once offered a rate from a certain magazine, which sounded good to me, and I agreed, only to find that a friend had been offered the same rate, insisted that her usual fee was twice that, and got it on the spot. How early on in your freelance career should you start asking for more money and what’s the best approach to take?

I say: That’s an interesting tale because it sounds like you never would have thought to ask for more had your friend not spilled the beans. I think you should start asking for more money as soon as you find yourself in the position of being offered a rate below what other editors or publications are paying you. Because if publication A is paying you $1/word and publication B is paying you $.50/ word, you lose 50 percent of your potential earning power each time you write for publication B. That said, you should have an idea of what a publication pays before you do ask for more.

To ask for more money, couch your request in language like, “You know I love writing for you and think your publication rocks, but I’m in the tough position of being offered twice as much money to write for all my other editors [or clients]. Any chance you can come up in price? I’d like to keep working with you, but I have to wear my business hat, too.” Subtext: Eventually, dear editor, you’re going to lose me if you don’t show me the money.

Want more? Read the rest of this week’s mediabistro Q&A with me on the freelance life.

2 comments September 28th, 2007

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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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