Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why (and When) You Should Consider Writing Under a Pseudonym

Back in the days when I was still just getting my feet wet as a professional writer, the concept of using a pseudonym used to baffle me. Now that I have as much experience under my belt as I do, I feel differently... but I also realize that I had my reasons for feeling the way I did at the time.

I consider myself to be a really honest, straight-forward person who fully owns all of her opinions and every grim detail of her existence (even when it doesn't make me look very good). Social networking accounts of mine have always been kept under the actual name I use in life, included real photographs of me, and so forth. If I didn't want to fully own something I thought or wanted to say, I didn't say it at all and I have always thought that other people had no business being any different if they actually wanted my respect.

For a long time, I felt that this mindset should extend to every word of writing I ever produced as well, whether it was for myself or for a third party. I thought that using a name that had no attachment to who you really are meant you had something to hide (which is usually never good). Then I actually started working as a writer and figured out that things aren't either black or white when it comes to this issue. Yeah, there are some crappy, dishonest reasons for not attaching your full identity to writing you produce, but there are actually some really smart, professional ones as well.

You want more control over what's published under your own name.

Prolific writers who write many different types of content will definitely want to think about this sooner or later. I certainly wish I had. I enjoy being known as a writer. However, I don't want to look completely scattered as far as what comes up under my own name when you Google me. I don't want people getting a false impression of who I really am either.

I want people looking for writing produced by Shannon Hilson to be able to find my creative writing, my poetry, my personal blogs, and anything out there written in my own voice that is indicative of my own opinions -- like the movie reviews I write for or editorials I've contributed to publications and other people's blogs. Basically anything that I feel promotes the real me, my real opinions, and my real pursuits is something I'd strongly prefer to attach my name to. What I don't want posted under my name is content written to order for clients -- particularly content that is expressive of their views and not my own. Pay attention here, kids, because I had to find this out the hard way. Don't let this happen to you.

Some douche I used to ghostwrite for decided that it would be a good idea to actually post the content I was writing for him in my name. He did it without my permission or say-so for reasons I still don't quite understand, but my guess is he liked the idea of making it look like a real and semi-reputable person made of flesh and blood was talking about his products and enthusiastically recommending them to her readers. I wasn't and I'm still not. In fact, because of what this person did, I now make it a point to actively discourage others from buying *cough* Mezzi briefcases *cough cough* or any of their related products. When they ask me why, I tell them about the theft and misuse of my identity on the part of their marketing director.

If I had it to do over again, I would probably do most (if not all) of my professional writing -- especially my ghostwriting -- under a pseudonym created specifically for the purpose. If I had, I wouldn't have to worry about people thinking I'm a walking, talking endorsement for Mezzi briefcases until the end of time. It's harder to wipe out unwanted attachments to your name than you think. You can press charges or come after people for sure... but there's nothing you can do to stop someone else from posting whatever they want and attaching it to your name in the first place. Their not actually knowing what your name is can be a huge asset, which brings me to my next point.

You want to protect your privacy.

If you've been reading this blog long, you've already heard me bitch ad nauseum all about how some clients have boundary issues. OK, a lot of clients have boundary issues, so you mark my words. If you are good enough at what you do to inspire curiosity about who you are or if you have the misfortune of seeming like an interesting person in any capacity whatsoever, your clients will take the liberty of Googling your name and hungrily absorbing any and all information to be found about you sooner or later. This includes all of your photos, your personal writing, the drunken tweets you like to post on Friday nights, and any information about your loved ones that's attached to you.

If you don't care about maintaining a strict separation between your professional writing life and your personal one -- or if you're just a huge attention whore who doesn't believe there's such a thing as too much exposure -- then don't worry about it. (I'll just sit right here and be quietly embarrassed for you when it all blows up in your face.) However, if you're like me -- grossly uncomfortable with the idea of some client creeping your Facebook or reading every last entry you have posted in your personal blog, a pseudonym can really help you out if you use it consistently. People can't creep what they can't find and most people aren't really willing to look very hard in the first place.

This doesn't just go for clients either. Maybe you want to start a personal journal somewhere without the hassle of everyone you already know asking to read it. Maybe you want to write My Little Pony fan fiction without worrying that it's going to get your ass kicked the next time you're around your macho buddies. Hello... pseudonym! Don't feel bad about using one either. It's OK that you don't want them to know... because it's none of their business. It's your life and your writing career. Manage it the way you want.

Some parts of your writing career just don't gel well with others.

Some writers want to keep different parts of their identity as a writer completely separate from other parts because they just don't go that well together. Maybe you write for competing publications (or you want to at least consider it). Maybe you're an established romance writer but you've always wanted to try your hand at writing a beekeeping blog because you're just that into bees. Perhaps you've always wanted to start a food blog, but you don't want your horror fiction writers to be confused as to what you're really all about.

Sometimes you'll find that some of the writing you want to do doesn't gel very well with preconceived notions people tend to have as to who you are as well. I'm still not a huge advocate for outright lying about such things... but I will admit that sometimes it's easier for me to be taken seriously as a technical writer or a business writer if people have no idea that I'm a youthful-looking, reasonably attractive, female writer. I'll sometimes use a unisex pseudonym and "forget" to attach a picture to something I'm writing when I'd just rather people form their assumptions about me based on my writer's voice and expertise, as opposed to my face or the particular sex organs I was born with.

"When should I consider adopting a pseudonym?"

The answer to this question differs drastically from writer to writer. However, I think it's safe to say that you should at least be considering using pseudonyms if you're at all varied as a writer (or even as a person). Think about what you do and don't want attached to your real name sooner rather than later and plan your presence as a writer accordingly from the beginning so you can avoid hassles later.

Maybe you're like me -- someone who considers themselves to be a fiction writer at heart... or a blogger -- but you want to try your hand at copywriting or technical writing to make a little extra money on the side, even though you don't consider that to be what you're actually about. Maybe you're a doctor, a teacher, or a police officer by day and want to start a personal blog without it interfering with the name you've already made for yourself or making you look like a serious multiple personality case. When you start having concerns like that for any reason? That's when to think about a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms are a great way to explore every nook and cranny of the writing world to exactly the extent you want without worrying about how it's going to affect the way your existing circles already see you, whether that's as a writer or otherwise. There's a reason why even famous folks like Anne Rice or Stephen King use them and really... that's it -- freedom to be exactly the writer you want to be and no less. Don't put limits on yourself as a writer. Just put limits on what's attached to your name.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How to Choose Freelance Writing Jobs and Manage Your Clients

I get a lot of e-mail in my inbox from friends and acquaintances who know I write for a living. Sometimes they just want to shoot the breeze about it, but mostly they're looking for advice on how to get into freelance writing for themselves and make wise choices in regards to the jobs and clients they take on.

Now... generally speaking, my best piece of advice -- especially to creative writers, poets, and bloggers who want to do the sort of writing they already do for a living someday -- is not to get started in content writing or copywriting at all. Not if you actually want to maintain the creative spark and unfettered enthusiasm about writing you currently enjoy. Trust me when I say that writing ad copy and web content for freelance clients the way I do will hijack your entire life if you let it just like any other profession will. It will definitely change the way you write and approach the act of creative writing in the first place and probably not for the better. You need to be really sure you're ready to make that kind of sacrifice, because content writing is definitely not an effortless, easy way to make money.

However, that's never what people want to hear, so the best I can do from there on out is try to give advice that helps reduce the chances of their being taken advantage of, winding up choosing the wrong people as clients, or getting so horribly burnt out that they never want to write again, because those things happen to everyone who doesn't know how to avoid them. I'm now passing on some of that advice to the intrawebs at large so everyone can benefit.

The Lay of the Land

The world of online freelance writing has changed a bit since I first started doing this on a full-time basis years ago and I feel the need to comment on it right off the bat, as it figures into a lot of what I'm going to say in this article. Whether or not it's changed for the better depends entirely on what you personally find more valuable as a would-be content writer -- being able to find plenty of work or being able to be paid more for the work you do.

If it's the former, you're in luck because there are more people out there looking for paid content writers than you can shake a stick at these days. If it's the latter though? Find yourself something else to do with your time, because you won't be happy doing this. The standard seems to be calling more and more often for a lot of content written quickly, priced "reasonably", and delivered via a tight turnaround schedule -- often within just a day or two. Whether or not you're able to complete enough jobs to make your efforts worth it depends entirely on how well you can write and how quickly. A freelance writer who makes good money doing what they do isn't just skilled; they're fast and capable of really churning out writing by the mile on pretty much a daily basis. Most people aren't prepared for that reality.

My job is work, people... and sometimes it's stressful work. It's always time-consuming work. It's not always easy and most of the time it's not fun either. It is something I'm good at though and even though I gripe a lot, I'm proud to be someone who writes for a living at the end of the day. Freelancing is also worlds better than trying to tolerate a timeclock job somewhere else that would ultimately prove to be just as stressful. For that reason, as long as you're approaching this expecting it to be work instead of a perpetual vacation or a relaxing break from responsibility, you'll be fine.

Who are your clients going to be anyway?

Your average paying client these days isn't going to be some bigwig at a Fortune 500 company or the editor of a glossy magazine willing to pay you $50-100 for a stunningly written 500-word article (although you will occasionally get lucky). They're not usually going to be throwing money at you to write fun stuff that people typically want to write either -- like movie reviews, personal essays, poems, or short stories. Those are generally the sort of things you get to do in exchange for a byline, a publishing credit, and a chance to have your "real" work seen and appreciated by a bigger audience.

Most people looking to actually pay for freelance writers are average Joes and Janes trying to make a buck or two on the internet, same as you. They're just choosing to sign up for affiliate sales programs and make money off of online advertising and whatnot, as opposed to pimping out a service they're able to offer the way you are as a writer. They will be paying you to research and write tons of content about odd subjects that are often pretty boring at best -- like black mold infestation, penis enlargement pills, van insurance, or anti-snoring devices (all things I myself have actually written about for money, some way more than once). That brings me to my first piece of advice.

1. Don't settle for clients who are unwilling to make an investment in their content.

Everyone and their mother is trying to make at least a supplementary income online these days with an affiliate program or a website and you need original web content in order to do that -- a lot of it. You need a perpetual supply of fresh web articles for the site you're building, as well as backlink content, newsletter content, advertising copy, and so forth. That's why there's so much work out there.

However, average people don't have a lot of extra money to throw at some writer to make their latest scheme to get rich selling Clickbank products a massive success. Some will, but most will expect you to churn out a ton of content for some ridiculously low price that barely makes it worth your while in order to stretch their dollar as far as possible -- probably just a couple of dollars an article. You will hear every sob story in the book all about what they can and can't afford and how they think you should give them all these discounts because there is just so much work they have for you. Surely you're willing to give them a break on prices because they're willing to keep you so busy.

Yeah... no. Let those people outsource their work to some non-English speaker in India or Pakistan who can barely string a sentence together, because that's all anyone has a right to expect for a dollar or two an article. Seriously, don't let them get better quality work from you for the same prices they'd get away with paying those guys because that makes Baby Jesus cry! It also ruins the writing market for the rest of us, because it trains otherwise decent clients to expect the moon for the price of a pack of gum.

Hold out for clients yourself who are practical in how they're approaching their products and are willing to make an investment in well-written web content from a skilled professional. Leave the guys who think it should all be a cheap piece of cake to be someone else's headache. A native English speaker from America, Australia, the UK, or somewhere similar who is capable of composing a coherent, well-written article should be making no less than $8-10 per 500 words for garden variety, filler web content. If we're talking about something that requires special expertise, experience, or a lot of research, it should be more. If a given project doesn't come attached to at least that amount of money, keep looking.

2. Know the best places to look for work.

Some sites used to be awesome for picking up freelance gigs or making solid connections, but aren't so much anymore. Helium is a pretty good example of one I used to take more seriously, but just can't anymore. They used to have a marketplace section where there were jobs that paid out up to $150 if your submission was purchased. Now they've done away with the marketplace altogether and have this "assignment program" to encourage writers to fill on-site categories that need more content. The best assignments pay out... like... $2-3 at the most. Their contests aren't worth it anymore either. I might be willing to spend a lighter work week competing to win $50-75 for writing a small but complete collection of articles, but $5-10? You must be joking.

Personally I see that as just one more manifestation of the phenomenon I mentioned above. So many people are looking for freelance writing gigs these days that things have gotten disgustingly competitive, especially for amateurs or people who are merely average as far as skill level goes. As a result, a lot of writers are working for that kind of chump change and it makes me sad. It also pisses me off, because I have to deal with more and more potential clients approaching me expecting to get my articles for just a couple of bucks a pop, forcing me to break it down and tell them how it is.

For fill-in work, I recommend checking out Constant Content instead. The quality standard is a lot higher there, so filling requests for desired content pays out much better. In fact, it's possible to score $50-100 per article just depending and you can make good connections with potential permanent clients as well. The rest of the time, I recommend staying on top of job boards at sites like Elance and applying for the gigs that strike your fancy. There are still a lot of tire-kickers and cheapskates there to sift through, but also a lot of reliable, serious clients looking for writers with solid portfolios and a good work ethic. Stay the hell away from sites like Get a Freelancer and Craigslist, at least for writing jobs. Seriously, those seem to be where all the freaks and scam artists hang out and it's more frustrating than it's probably worth to connect with the couple of serious individuals who keep accounts there.

3. Set your boundaries and stick to them like glue.

Sooner or later, your focus with your freelance writing isn't going to be about finding or getting jobs anymore. It's going to be about managing a group of regular clients if you're any good at what you do. There are a lot of bad writers out there just like there are a lot of bad clients, so decent clients almost always want to keep working with the same person again and again should they luck out and find someone who can strike a good balance between affordability and quality. One of the biggest challenges you'll start to run into at that point is the maintenance of boundaries... and mark my words. Let go of your boundaries and you're fucked.

For some reason, people don't seem to view a freelancer the same way they would an employee on payroll at a standard job. They tend to see us more as friends than business colleagues and some clients will even enter into their relationship with you actually expecting your friendship to come as part of the package. This can sound like a blessing or a positive, but trust me. It's not. People take liberties with friends. They expect friends to do constant favors and put up with treatment they'd never try to inflict on an employee. Before you know it, you're miserable because you're not getting the kind of treatment and professionalism you deserve in exchange for working so hard. This is double or triple the case if you offer creative services like writing, design, or art since many people expect creatives to be a lot friendlier, less structured, and more lax than average.

The best way you can make sure that doesn't happen to you is to set solid boundaries right from the get-go. Set your rates and availability as far as when you can work in stone and do not make exceptions. Not even once. So you don't work Wednesdays? State that up front and keep things that way no matter what. Sooner or later, even your most reasonable clients will ask you to work on a Wednesday even though they know what they've been told. A given article is just that important or urgent. They're in a jam. They're pleading with you to make an exception "just this once".

No. Decline by politely reminding the client that you're not available to work on Wednesday. You don't have to explain it or justify it to them either. An emergency on their end does not constitute an emergency on yours. The minute you bend one little bit, the floodgates are now open, because it's never an isolated occurrence. You'll be asked to make the same exception again some other week... and another after that... and the client won't see why they should take no for an answer, since you made an exception before. You'll never get that Wednesday back once you let your clients have it "just this once", so don't give it up in the first place.

Don't get too chummy with your clients either. Don't sit and chat on IM about your personal life or spend time shooting the breeze about non-work matters. Discuss business only. Lock up the social networking profiles you keep for personal purposes -- talking to friends and family, writing about your love life, sharing a lot of personal photos, and so forth -- and don't add your clients. Knowing little tidbits about you like how often you like to play with your FarmVille, how you dress to sit around the house catching up on True Blood, whether you're a cat person or a dog person, and whether or not you like ketchup on your eggs at breakfast only makes it harder to keep things professional, because you're now starting to seem way too human and easy to relate to. The more this is the case, the more likely your clients will start to friend-zone you instead of treating you like the professional you are.

There are, of course, happy mediums to be found though. Instead of adding clients to your personal page on Facebook, create a "like" page for your company or your business services and direct clients to that instead should they ask if they can add you on Facebook. Create public blogs that are sanitized as far as really personal stuff goes and let those satisfy clients or associates who want to know more about you and read some of your thoughts and insights. Keep your personal diary on LiveJournal where you bitch about your family, post web cam photos of yourself making funny faces, or share half-drunken TMI-talk about how much sex you had last weekend between you and your actual friends.

Generally speaking, I find that I have the best luck and make the best money doing what I do when I remember that my freelance writing is a job and treat it as such. I demand that people treat me like the skilled professional that I am. I make sensible decisions in regards to the rates I charge and the schedule I keep. I give myself regular days off. I look for opportunities to advance, get better at what I do, and make new connections. I'm hardly rich or anything because I do this, but I certainly make as good a living doing it as I would putting in the same amount of hours somewhere else. If you do the same, you won't be able to help but to do well, too.