snow

From 4.50 per article to 45 per hour

It’s nearly two years since I started freelancing. I was asked the other day how I got from my first steps as a freelancer to running my own business. It’s quite strange to look back at when I started out, and to reflect on how I got to where I am now. It wasn’t always easy but over the past two years I’ve not only become a successful freelancer but I’ve improved my confidence and quality of life.

Why would anyone want to hire me?

I wanted to write this post because I remember how scared and nervous I was when I began. I was constantly anxious, filled with self-doubt. I had zero confidence, and I looked around me and saw all these successful people and convinced myself that it would never be like that for me. I was sure that there was some magic formula to being a successful freelancer or businessperson, and that for someone like me it just wouldn’t be possible.

But it was. Here’s how I did it:

How it Started

I started out on Elance, a website where clients can post jobs and freelancers can bid on them. At the time I was working in a restaurant doing admin and books, trying to pay my way through my Masters degree. I was totally unhappy in my job and I wanted to have more control over my means of earning a living. With a Philosophy degree and MA, I knew that there wasn’t many jobs out there. And anyway, I hated working for other people. I was sat in my office one day, faffing around, and I came across Elance. I spent ages worrying whether it was a good idea. I was sure that no one would want to hire me. After all, I lacked any portfolio or freelancing experience. Who would want to hire me over people who had loads of experience? In the end I thought “Fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?” I signed up, made a profile, read a bunch of articles on bidding on Elance, bid for a job and (to my surprise) got it.

Bidding on Elance

My Elance profile

The thing about Elance is that there are always people looking for cheap labour, but equally there are people looking for quality labour who are willing to pay for it. I got my first break from Hampton Catlin, a developer who was looking for some content for a project. Lucky for me my zero star rating made no difference. He said he was “a sucker for giving someone a start” (he’ll always have a special place in my heart for that). Hampton was fun to work with and he loved what I did. This was a massive boost to my confidence and I felt ready to bid for more jobs.

Here are some tips for building your profile and bidding on Elance.

In case you’re interested, here’s that first job I bid for, along with my bid.

Hampton’s job:

I’m looking for a writer with good explanatory writing skills and is very competent with computers. I’m looking to have a series of articles produced that help non-technical users understand about preserving family photos. I am running a website that allows users to upload their family photos for longterm storage and so I’m looking to partner with someone who can produce publicly-viewable articles to drive traffic to the site.

For instance, an article about “How to make images smaller?” or “Why is my photo so huge?” or “Easy ways to cleanup images” or “What is DPI?” or “What DPI should I scan my photos with?”

You need to be computer literate and have Photoshop/Office installed. The articles will need to use both of these bits of software.

Also, I’d love to produce some articles about people losing their family photos or having hard drive crashes. I have a bunch of people to talk to about it off a HARO request.

This project may be a long term project depending on quality and popularity of output!

My bid:

Most of us, at some point in our lives, come across a massive box of family photos that has to be dealt with. Recently my boss dumped a huge box on my desk and told me to start scanning. There were recent photos, photos from the turn of the century, photos from England, photos from Poland. Many of the photos have been sat at the bottom of a box for years, many are damaged and need to be touched up. But I love photographs, I love the nostalgia and sense of the past that you get when going through a box of old photos. Luckily I love Photoshop as well and it is a perfect tool for preserving the past.

Trained in advanced Adobe Photoshop use and a confident writer, I’m the perfect person for this job. Examples of articles that I can produce would be:

- Should I bulk scan my images? – How to batch crop and straighten in Photoshop. – How should I organize and store my images? – What does “resolution” mean anyway? And why is it important? – The importance of backing up. – Using the clone stamp tool to touch up damaged images. – Now I’ve got all these images on my computer on my computer, what can I do with them?

I would absolutely love to write about people who have lost their family photos, whether through hard drive crashes or other means. I’d be happy to carry out interviews to do so. Another angle could be some articles on the phenomenon of boxes of discarded family photos showing up at flea markets and on Ebay.

What I can offer you: 1. High quality, proofread articles; 2. A light and friendly tone that will engage your reader; 3. Articles produced on time, with screen grabs from Photoshop if required; 4. A good working relationship; 5. Full dedication to your project for its duration.

Please refer to my portfolio for examples of my work, and to my website: www.siobhanmckeown.com

The Next Step

About 6 months of doing piecemeal work on Elance for lots of different clients, as well as doing my MA and working a part-time job, I virtually met James Farmer, who needed to blog at WPMU.org. I had been working with WordPress for a while, mostly as a hobby but also building the occasional client site. I knew even then that making good money from writing fiction, or even about arts & humanities, was a dream. Even bestselling authors don’t make that much money. Because so many people want to do it, the pay is incredibly poor for that type of work. But I could, I figured, write about WordPress.

You don’t have to be paid at something to be good at it.

I think that this is something that people who start out freelancing don’t realize. You don’t only have to use your career skills, you can use every skill you’ve got. WordPress was a hobby, it became a job. Don’t be afraid to use anything you have experience in as a freelancing skill. You don’t have to be paid at something to be good at it.   I started blogging for WPMU.org with a few posts a week, but this quickly increased. After a while I was brave enough to ask for a pay raise (which I got) and then got another raise after a post that went viral. At the same time I kept on other clients who were bringing in steady income, most notably writing regular articles for Wix which provided me with steady income for months.

Quitting the Job

The only good thing about my job was the view from the office

The only good thing about my job was the view from the office

The jump from person with job who freelances on the side is a terrifying one. I can’t stress how much I hated my job. It made me totally miserable. I hated going in, I hated my arrogant boss who always thought he knew best. It made me feel like shit to sell my labour power to such an idiot. Despite things going well with freelancing I still needed that security blanket of a steady income. At the time I was working around 50-60 hours a week between freelancing gigs and work.

I had a particularly miserable experience just before Christmas in 2010. My office was at the bottom of a cliff by the sea, with a steep path through some woods going down to the sea front, or a windy road. When it snowed it was a nightmare to get to. We had particularly heavy snow one night. No one could get to work; all the roads were closed. But since I lived nearby I could walk. So walk I did. When I got in I said to my boss that I’d appreciate it if I could leave before it got dark as it was going to snow again and the path had been treacherous on the way down. He fumed at me, saying that he didn’t care about me, that I wasn’t going anywhere and basically I should fuck off to my office. Given that I did admin and there was no admin to be done, I had nothing to do but sit in my office, in the freezing cold (no double glazing), watching out the window as the snow fell over the sea. I nearly walked out.

The next week I went on holiday for three weeks. I freelanced the whole time and was totally flat out. When I went back to work after Christmas I managed 3 days before quitting. It was the biggest relief I’d felt in a long, long time.

Working a job you aren’t fulfilled by, or don’t care about, sucks, but working for an asshole in a job you aren’t fulfilled by is even worse. There are ways out of it. When I started freelancing on a whim I didn’t expect to be able to quit my job; six months later I was out.

Getting Comfortable

For the next year I wrote for WPMU.org, and did other things around Incsub. I found myself getting totally comfortable. I loved working there and having a team of people who were so much fun to be around. There were definite low moments, which people in the WordPress community will know all about, but mostly it was great and I made some fantastic friends.

Eventually, though, I started to get the feeling that I’d traded in having a job for having a job. I was working for one company, with the same group of people, but without any of the benefits of being employed (paid holiday, pension, bank holidays, etc). I wrote this up for Freelance Switch so you can read about it there. When the idea for Words for WP dropped into my lap I thought that maybe it was time to set up my own business. I created a Google form and sent it out to some contacts in the WordPress community. I was surprised when the response from many of them was “when can you start?”

Here and Now

In January 2012 I gave up writing for WPMU.org. It was a really hard thing to do, and I was again terrified that I was going to fail. Working there had become its own safety blanket and it was preventing me from going on and developing my own business and career. I was putting all of my efforts into someone else’s business instead of my own.

Now I focus 100% on Words for WP. I work with some fantastic clients in the world of WordPress and beyond, including ManageWP, OntheGoSystems, Sucuri, Piwik, PressCrew and Event Espresso. My client list is growing all the time and I’m always surprised and pleased at the emails that land in my inbox. I’ve recently employed a sub-contractor and am thinking about incorporating and expanding the business. The baseline $45 per hour I earn is considerably more than the $4.50 per article I got for those restaurant reviews. In fact, I work only 30 hours a week and I earn more than ever.

Highlights

my smashing magazine author profile

I have a clear memory from when I started freelancing: I discovered Smashing Magazine. I loved everything about it – the detail of the articles, their quality, the overall style. I remember thinking “imagine writing for them – it’s a shame that they’d never want me.” Now I write regularly for them, working with super-lovely WordPress editor Jeff Starr. The day my first post went live on Smashing Magazine it was a real milestone. That gave me the confidence to push even further and I started sending pitches to online magazine that I had always loved but been intimated by, including Cracked, Freelance Switch and, most recently, The Quietus.

Two Years On

I still fear rejection, and rejection still happens.

One of the most important things that this process has taught me is that if you don’t ask you don’t get. That may seem obvious, but I always used to second-guess people (I still do). I would think “they’ll obviously say “no”, why would they want me when they have all these other amazing, more impressive people?” And, if I’m honest, that feeling has not gone away. My most recent pitches for unsolicited work went to The Quietus about two months ago. I spent days in deep anxiety, with sleepless nights, and had convinced myself that they thought I was a dick. I (really) even dreamed about them thinking I was a dick. When they said they’d publish my stuff I danced around the living room, shocked and elated that someone wanted my writing. That still doesn’t go away, because, after all, I care about what I do. I still fear rejection, and rejection still happens. There is always doubt, but the doubt no longer induces paralysis.

The scariest thing when I started out what seeing all of these people who had already, in my eyes, made it. I had no conception of how to get from where I was to where they were. Even a year ago I saw a massive gulf and that gulf made me anxious. It’s not about getting from here to there in one leap, it’s about small incremental steps. I am naturally an impatient person, I want to be doing something right now, or I figure that it’s not worth doing. But starting out with that one job on Elance was the first step, and the rest went from there. And I’m still stepping, so who knows what will come next. I really don’t feel like I’m at the end, in many ways I’m just beginning.

Tips for Bidding on Elance

Here are my tips for bidding and being successful on Elance:

Your Profile:

  • Create a strong profile, being honest about how you are and your skills
  • Talk yourself up. Your profile is no place to be modest. Be realistic though, don’t make shit up, just highlight your real achievements.
  • Use the Elance tests to showcase your skills
  • Make sure to use examples of your work. I had no paid work at the time, so I used some university essays and a magazine article I wrote. If you need to, write something to show off your skills.
  • Once you get some jobs, make sure you ask for reviews, and leave reviews in return.

Bidding for Jobs:

  • Bid for jobs that are suitable to you and your skills. There’s no point in wasting your time, or the potential client’s
  • Read the buyer’s profile and see if you can find anything about them on the internet. Sometimes their username will easily tell you how to find them. For example, Hampton’s user name was catlinsoftware, making him pretty easy to track down.
  • Make your opening line grab the buyer. They are going to read potentially hundreds of bids, make sure that your’s stand out.
  • Be yourself and get your personality across. Some people are looking for long term relationships and the bid can be just as much about how well they think they’ll work with you as one specific job.
  • Think about how you structure your bid. Don’t just brain splurge. I always included information about me, addressed the specific project and how I would carry it out, and then what I could bring to it. These could be in any order.
  • Don’t use a template! It’s so obvious when people do. You need to hand craft each bid. It’s a pain, and you’ll write more than you get, but you’ll have a better success rate.
  • Be clear about rates and hours. Money can be a thorny issue but it’s best to be up front so you can manage expectations.
  • Proof-read. This is particularly important for writers. A grammatical mistake or spelling error in a bid demonstrates that you’re a pretty rubbish writer.

Some more Elance tips:

  • Accept that you may be starting out small. After I got lucky with Hampton, I got a job writing 44 restaurant/pub/attraction articles for $200. I like eating out so I figured it would be a good job. It was a painful slog. $4.50 per article and they each took about 30 minutes. I was cursing doing it, but it added to my overall rating and no doubt helped me to get future jobs.
  • Maintain relationships with clients – be friendly and helpful. Two of my clients came back to me again and again for work.
  • Accept that, after big promises, some jobs will come to nothing. I got a gig writing personalised biographies for an American company who promised me loads of ongoing work. After one job the whole thing seemed to fizzle out.
scrivener

How Scrivener Makes my Writing Life Better

This morning I was writing away and I came to the end of a Chapter 3 and I realised that I had to move Chapter 2 after Chapter 3, leaving a big hole were Chapter 2 is. Apart from the problems that leaves me in having to actually write a whole new chapter with some dramatic tension, it reminded me of how much I love Scrivener so I thought I’d put my madd screenshotting skillz to use right here on my personal blog (usually they’re reserved for tutorials) and review the shit out of it.

What the Hell is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a content management tool for writers (they call it a content generation tool, but I generate my content, Scrivener manages it, geddit?). It can be used to manage long pieces of writing that normally become unwieldy in a Word document. Not only that, but they have stripped out all the crap that comes along with MS Word, and have included just the essentials that a writer needs. There are lots of useful tools that make writing a long piece of work much easier. I’ve been using it for my book and it’s a dream to work with. Let’s take a look at my favourite bits of Scrivener:

Organisation

When you open Scrivener, on the left hand side is the binder. Here is mine collapsed:

My Scrivener binder

You can see how I’ve organised my book and my information. I’ve got a folder for themes that are in the book. I can jot down ideas about themes that are central to the narrative. It’s important for me to have some sort of threads that run through the book that I can look at and think about. Then is the book itself, split up into folders – the book is in three parts and each part has a number of chapters. Below that is information about characters and places, a folder that I can dump research into, some preset template sheets and my outline.

Here is the manuscript with the folders open:

Manuscript in the scrivener binder

Each part is broken down into folders of chapters, and each chapter is broken down into discrete scenes. When I turned Chapter 2 into Chapter 4, all I had to do was drag and drop the scenes into another folder and it was done. This made the act of moving the chapter much less painful than the fact that I have to write a new chapter.

When I click on a part, it brings up lots of information in the main writing pane. Here is Part 1 with some of the individual chapters extended:

scrivener outline of my book

I’ve chosen to display label, status, word count, total word count (gives you the word count for a whole folder). You can choose other bits of information to display such as synopsis and modified date.

Labels

I find labels really useful because there are two main styles of narrative in my book – investigation and re-creation. I can easily see which are which using a color code. And if I want I can show only one type of label and it’ll just give me that. This is helpful for ensuring the narrative remains consistent throughout. You could also use labels for characters, themes, or whatever.

Status

Keeping track of my status is really important. My documents folder is scary because I have files called “4th draft – to keep!” and “4th draft – this is the one!” and I’m kind’ve confused about which is the right one. So long as I keep updating my status I know where I am.

I still want to keep copies of old drafts, however, so I can use the snapshot tool to keep a version of the document in each state. That way I can look back when I’m finished and laugh at how shit I was.

the scrivener snapshot tool

 

The Corkboard

One of my favourite things about Scrivener has got to be the corkboard layout. It was ultra-helpful when it came to putting together the narrative structure in my book, and continues to be helpful as I move stuff around.  Each section of the document has got an index card which you can write the synopsis on, or any other notes you want to make.

scrivener index card

Clicking on the corkboard icon will bring up the index card for each part or chapter, all laid out on a corkboard..

scrivener corkboard layout of a chapter

I actually use the index cards for the manuscript  to make notes for myself about things that I want to do directly related to the writing. And I keep a separate folder called “outline” which I use for plotting. I can add synopses and notes on a chapter, and scenes within a chapter, and then move them around until I’m happy. When it came to putting together the plot I made index cards for every scene and drag and dropped them into chapters and sections and it really helped with creating my structure.

a part of my book laid out on the scrivener corkboard

My book laid out in parts on the scrivener corkboard

Inspector

The inspector is a great place. I’ve already talked about snapshots, labels, status and index cards. The other thing that I find really useful is document notes. While I use the index cards in my manuscript to remind myself of things I need to do in a section, the document notes are useful  for dumping anything else that is relevant – links to websites, notes, and I always like to make note of the music I’m listening to when I’m writing . Here’s my inspector for a section that I wrote about driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fog:

scrivener inspector

You can  see how I organize things. Index card tells me what to do with the piece, I can tag it with meta-data and use the notes for other bits and pieces. People writing non-fiction and academic books would probably also find the document references section useful.

So that’s the most important Scrivener functionality to me, although a few other things to note:

  • Scrivenings mode lets you see the whole document in one go, by chapter, part, whole manuscript, whatever you’ve got selected
  • You can compile a document to Word format, PDF, or whatever else you need
  • There are built-in templates that you can use for writing screenplays, novels, non-fiction books, academic books, recipe cards, essays, or whatever
  • There is a distraction free writing  mode so you can write without all the junk on the screen.

The Not-So-Good

This wouldn’t be a balanced review if I didn’t talk about the things that annoy me about Scrivener. Here they are:

  • The default font on the Windows version is Courier. Not necessary
  • I’ve not figured out yet how to have first line of a section not indented and then every other paragraph indented. That’s probably me being lazy tho
  • I have a PC and a Mac so I need two copies (still on trial version on my PC laptop). This isn’t a problem with Scrivener itself, it’s more that I’m tight and don’t want to cough up the cash for two copies of the same software. On the plus side, I keep my project file on dropbox and there’s no problem moving between the two (apart from fonts which don’t transfer Mac-PC and vice versa).

Finally, and this might be a big one if I can’t figure out a way around it. My agent works using track changes on MS Word (he is so last century). This means I’m going to have to compile my draft, send it to him, make any changes he suggests that I like in Word and then copy each section individually back into Scrivener. And that is a whole lot of blah.

Conclusion

I would totally recommend Scrivener to anyone who is writing anything of substantial length. The tools are exactly those that writers need. You can quickly focus in on details, but also come out of the book to look at it as a whole. For me, that’s really important. As a writer, you need to move in very close to your writing in order to be able to craft it, but you also need to be able to quickly grab an overview of your work. Scrivener lets you do that, and more. It’s awesome. I love it. Thank you Scrivener developers.

20120120_130407

Why I Type out William Faulkner Every Morning

Every morning I get up and I type out two pages of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It used to be Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, but every time I start a new version of my book I get a new book to type out. As soon as I am done typing up my two pages, I start to write. I have to write, as a minimum, the same number of words as I have typed of Faulkner. If I write more then great, but I’m never allowed to write less. I try very hard (and am 95% successful) to not check my email, Twitter, or Facebook until I’ve done it. Proust was great because I was writing about 900 words minimum a day, Faulkner is only around 600, although this is probably because the Benjy section is very dialogue heavy.

I spoke to D’s boss about this method of writing, and he was pretty fascinated by it, so I thought it might be worth putting down my reasons for it.

Structure

Obviously my book has a structure, but I want the act of writing itself to have a structure, and, for me, a specific number of words works. There is nothing more terrifying that sitting down in front of my computer to just write. All I can see is an endless stretch of white hopelessness. A blank page on a computer screen. It’s not even like writing on a notepad where there is a finite stack of paper. A word document goes on and on and on and on.

I type up Faulkner and I can say to myself “Okay, you’re writing 672 words today, keep going if you want, but really, 672 words is all that you have to do.” This gives me an easily achievable target, and also provides me with a definitive end point. So on the days where I’m feeling crappy or uninspired or pissed off, I can stop if I want. But usually while I’m writing I get inspired and I keep on going until I run out. It’s this type of structure that I need, a jump-start every morning, or I just stare at my computer, feeling sad and overwhelmed and hating writing.

Focus

Before anything else, I type up Faulkner, I do my writing. I make a cup of coffee, go down to my desk and start writing. It must be done before my brain starts to fill up with all of the things that happen during the day. I am of the YouTube generation, I have no attention span. I skip from thing to thing, a million different thoughts, wondering who’s said what on Twitter, what the comments are on my latest blog post, who has sent me an email.

Typing up another writer is an act of meditation. When I’m doing it (it only takes about 10 – 15 minutes), I am allowed to think of two things:

  1. what I am writing (i.e. currently The Sound and the Fury)
  2. my book

That’s it. And if I think about anything else I mentally bitch-slap myself into focusing. This process means that I am 100% focused on what I’m doing when I actually start my own writing. I can usually manage a few hours of decent, focused work before I start to feel the Gmail-twitch.

Consistency

One of the things everyone tells you when you start to write is that you must do it every day. Unfortunately this is true. I hate writing, and wish I could just spend my days hanging out at Nandos or watching back-to-back episodes of America’s Next Top Model and The Bachelor.

However, wanting to achieve something as a writer means that I must do it every day. Just this exercise of typing up Faulkner and then writing the same number of words of my own book, means that every day I produce at least 600 words. This may not seem like very much, but over a six month period that is around 100,000 words, and that is a whole book. Yes, a shit book that ends up in the dump folder, but writing 100,000 words over 6 months can only make you a better writer.

Being Told What to Do

I need to be told what to do, I need rules and I need boundaries. Since I’m an adult now, this is usually just a matter of me setting up a fictive big Other and projecting a disapproving eye on to it. This was why I did an MA, and now I have an agent he can be the big O without even knowing about it.

But on a day-to-day basis I have William Faulkner to tell me what to do. Not that he says anything (being long dead and all that). I feel like, in typing up his book, I have made a commitment to my own book. The book sits on a book chair, on my desk, accusing me, disapproving, if I haven’t typed it up that morning, reminding me of my  failings with regards to my own book.

Finitude

You know that feeling that you get when you are reading a tough book that you really want to finish and you get about half way through it and you’re pretty proud of yourself. You can feel the weight and texture of what you’ve already achieved. You get that. Only when you reach the half way point you can look at the book that you’ve been typing up and think “my book is also that length (or longer! hehe).”

In many ways, typing up someone else’s book helps you to see your own as a finite object. Something that you will be able to pick up and read. You can feel the number of pages and think “Yes, that is also the thickness of my book.” You can see your book as a book, rather than just as a story in your head.

So that’s what I do, every morning. If I don’t get back to your email until after 12pm GMT that’s why. I’m hoping that by the time I’ve finished writing Faulkner I’ll have finished writing my book. And then I’ll have to worry about what I’m going to type up next.