Tag Archives: ABCs of freelance writing

ABCs of Freelance Writing: R is for Retainer


I’ve only needed a lawyer once in my life. When I met her the first time to discuss my problem, I decided immediately that I was going to hire her. She explained that she thought my particular problem would take about $800 to sort out, and that she needed to collect that amount as a retainer to get started.

I signed a contract and wrote a check without squawking, because I fully expected to pay up front.

She started work and billed me against the retainer I’d already paid. Time elapsed. The hours racked up. And, as it turns out, it took about $3,500 to sort out my little problem. (Don’t feel bad for me; it was worth every single penny.) Luckily for both of us, the contract I signed covered what was expected if it appeared the work would exceed the estimated hours.

I got billed again. She got paid again. She did more work.

How Retainers Work

Retainers are just a type of contract. The consultant, or freelance writer in this case, agrees to do work for a client who pays in advance. The specifics of each job are determined later.

So, you might know you’re going to be given a certain number of blog posts to write, for example, but you might not know the topics until the client calls you up after the weekly marketing meeting.

Retainers Work for Freelancer Writers

The retainer contract works to your advantage as well as the client’s, so don’t be afraid to try it just because it’s something the fancy lawyers do.

When working on retainer you still have the freedom to set your rates by the hour, by the day, or by the project’s clearly defined deliverables.

For example, you might receive a retainer of $600 to produce 3 articles each month. If the client has a particularly busy month and needs another article, this can be billed separately. (If the workload increases on a regular basis, consider upping your retainer.)

This set-up is win-win because you know you’ll have steady work, and the client knows he won’t be scrambling to find a writer.

Retainer Contracts and Client Expectations

Here’s the thing about a retainer: clients will expect you to prioritize their work. And with good reason! They’ve paid you upfront. Just keep in mind that if you take on retainer work, you need to be totally dedicated to communicating with your client and delivering on time. Put off returning calls or emails, and you could lose a client.

Helpful Links


ABCs of Freelance Writing: Q is for Quote

fingers crossedWhether you’ve been approached by a potential client or you’re bidding on a freelance writing job posted on a site like Elance, Craigslist, or oDesk, at some point you’re going to have to prepare a freelance writing quote (or estimate or proposal—whatever you like to call it).

And then you’ll wait.

With fingers crossed and teeth clenched you’ll wonder if you picked the magic number—the one that says to the world, “I’m affordable, but I’m no word whore!”

Once you’ve delivered your quote one of three things will happen: the client will accept or accept conditionally, the client will decline, or the client will leave you hanging with no response at all.

Yeah, sometimes people bail without reason or warning immediately following your quote submission. You should be prepared for that. You should also understand it’s not you; it’s them. In every single case it’s them. Because—even if they think your prices are exorbitant and ridiculous—it’s on them to say it.

Tips for Preparing a Quote

  1. Do the math, and charge a respectable wage. Use your brain to calculate a competitive rate. My personal philosophy is that it doesn’t matter how you structure your fees. Charge by the word, the hour, the page or whatever. Just make sure it’s respectable. If you think there’s a chance the client could go either way, you’re probably in the target range. Oh, and be prepared to lose the contract, okay? Make yourself comfortable with that idea right now. Because if you’re willing to win at all costs, it’ll be ramen noodles and tomato soup for you from here on out.
  2. Spell out the particulars. Let’s say your quote includes a flat rate for professional blogging. Then you need to be clear about what that includes. Will you format the article for HTML? Will you upload the content? Will you be responsible for selecting topics, or will topics be provided to you? Don’t even talk about fees until you and the potential client are on the same page about the scope of the project.
  3. CYA. Be clear about the payment terms too. If you charge late fees, require an upfront payment, or have a returned check fee, list it in the notes. You look pretty damn professional when you cover all the bases.
  4. Nail the presentation. If you’re submitting a quote on a gig site like Elance, this part is pretty much handled for you. If you’re writing your own proposals, you can use something as simple as a Microsoft Word template. Since I invoice through Freshbooks (that’s an affiliate link), I use it to send my quotes too. It’s pretty darn simple, showing me when a quote has been viewed by a client and allowing her to accept with the click of a button.

If you have a specific question about preparing quotes or a question about another freelance writing topic, contact me or leave a comment.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: P is for Pitfall

Notice the title isn’t “ABCs of Freelance Writing: P is for Pajamas.” Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s prepare other freelance writing hopefuls for some of the perils of choosing such a career.

I’ll start by creating a list of bad things that can happen to a freelance writer—a list born of my own trying experiences—and the lessons I learned as a result.

Consider the comments an open thread for discussing your own trials and tribulations.

Freelance Writing Pitfalls

Falling on a banana skinThe Disappearing Document: More than once I’ve lost entire documents and have been forced to start over. I have MS Word set to save backup copies. I use Dropbox for remote storage and access to my files. I save religiously as I write. And yet, I can think of at least three times in the last year that I lost a document. No warning, just poof! When it happens to me now, I give myself 30 seconds to whine. Then I take a big breath, and start writing again. Because a deadline’s a deadline.

Lesson: Sulking won’t bring your words back.

The Phantom Dry Spell: Sometimes legitimate contact form submissions get lost in the ether. I was down on myself for weeks because no one was asking me for quotes on their writing projects until I discovered several website queries had not been forwarded to my Gmail account (they were hung up in my domain’s hosting webmail mailbox thingy*) and a few others had been sent directly to my spam folder. Funny how three weeks later, those people had already found another writer.

Lesson: Check under the hood every 3,000 emails.

The Burnout Bitch: Churning out 25 plus 500-word articles in a week for a single client while you work full-time and maintain other projects can be done. But I dare you to pull it off with a smile on your face. I double dog dare you to pull it off without disrupting your sleep cycle. I triple dog dare you to do it without threats of break-up or divorce from your S.O.

Lesson: When you have money for movies and concerts and fancy-ass dinners, no one is willing to hang out with you.

*I know! I’m so technical.

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ABCs of Freelance Writing: O is for Organizations

writers organizationsJoining a writers organization can help you boost your career. Every group offers something different, so I recommend doing a little research before blindly joining any of these programs. Some are free, some require membership dues. But all require your time if you’re going to get much out them.

Joining organizations is a great way to extend your professional network. Don’t be surprised if, by joining one of these groups, you find opportunities to collaborate with other freelancers, learn more about how laws affect you as a freelance writer, and expand your business through introductions to new clients in new industries.

National Writers Organizations

National Association of Independent Writers and Editors: This organization will accept international members too. It pretty much covers writers in every field—freelancers, magazine writers, editors, business writers, writing teachers, and the list keeps going.

National Writers Association: I have to say that this organization could use a few more chapters across the United States. If you’re looking for something local, you might need to step up and spearhead the launch of a chapter in your area.

American Society of Journalists and Authors: This organization has been around since 1948. It’s headquartered in New York City, but there are also regional chapters if you want to get involved. One of its primary functions is to serve as a spokesperson for independent writers.

Women’s Writing Organizations

International Women’s Writing Guild: The IWWG was founded in the mid-1970s and touts itself as a personal and professional network for women writers. The group is open to all writers regardless of their portfolio.

National League of American Pen Women: The NLAPW is a 501 (c)(3) that promotes the creative works of women in “art, letters, and music.” You can participate through an active, associate, or student membership.

Unions for Freelance Writers

The Freelancers Union: This union acts on behalf of freelance writers as well as designers, consultants, etc. I’m a free member of this union, and have found the info in the organization’s newsletter alone is well worth the few minutes it took me to sign up.

National Writers Union: The NWU “represents freelance writers in all genres, formats, and media” and focuses on campaigns involving copyright defense, legislative action, freedom of speech and censorship.

Want to share your experience with these or any other writers’ groups? Leave a comment below.