Monday, March 28, 2011

7 Ways a Virtual Assistant Can Help Your Freelance Writing Business

(free-stock Paulus Rusyanto)

As far as I'm concerned, no one needs a virtual assistant more than the expat freelancing mom.   Man, do I want one.  I’ve dreamed of having one long before I ever heard the term.  

In my fantasies, I imagine this person to be sort of a doppelgänger: an alter ego who lives the freelancing life that I would if I were back in the U.S.  While I’m here in Paris writing in various cafes with a café crème at my side, my virtual assistant would loiter at the magazine rack Barnes & Noble, sipping a Starbucks chai tea latte, checking out new magazines and potential markets. While I’m snoozing away  or tending to a sick kid at 2am, she’d be listening to and taking notes at a freelancing webinar that takes place at 8pm EST.  Between the two of us, we'd make one whole freelancer!

Now, I realize that this could happen, at least in theory.  Even a quick perusal of the internet reveals a number of virtual assistants that specialize in assisting freelance writers.  What’s more, there are even freelance writers that have a “virtual assistant” component to their business. These are the ones I’d hire.  The most efficient virtual assistant would already be familiar with the freelance writing world and its networks, sources, terms, and perspective. 

But, alas, I can’t afford a virtual assistant right now.  Even though apparently prices can start as low as $25/hour (although I imagine that most cost more), I currently employ a real assistant without whom I could not do one. single. thing: a babysitter.  In a couple of years, when the kids are both in school, I’ll definitely reconsider the matter. 

If you’re short on time and have a few bucks to spare, here’s 7 ways a virtual assistant could help you  be a more efficient business person  -- and free up more time for you to write. 

1. Find markets/jobs.  God, wouldn’t I love this one.  A virtual assistant could trawl job boards, review magazine databases, or otherwise search for publications that would be a good fit for your ideas.  He could also help unearth writer’s guidelines and find out the names and email addresses of the appropriate editors for your pitches.  

2. Create a database.  As your VA does the above, she could (and should) create a database containing all this information so that it’s always at your fingertips.  Make sure the database is a flexible one that can be easily updated with your own notes regarding each publication.  

3. Fact-Check.   The very idea of getting my facts wrong scares me silly.  A VA could double-check your research, giving you a little extra comfort before hitting “send.”  Your VA could also check out the background of someone you’re considering using as an expert.

4. Attend conferences or webinars.  As I indicated above, I’m forever finding interesting webinars and conferences that are at hideously inconvenient hours or locations. Your VA could occasionally serve as your eyes and ears.  

5. Research potential clients.  You want to do a direct mail campaign but want to tweak each letter/email so that it’s tightly targeted?  Your VA can help dig out key details and fact to flesh-out potential clients so that you can add that personal touch to each letter.   

6. Interview Transcription.  Got a recorded interview?  No need to spend an hour or more transcribing it, when you’ve got a VA to take care of it!  

7. Administrative Tasks.  And of course, a VA can do the standard assistant type stuff: sending out invoices, contracts and other correspondence for you.  He can also keep track of payment status, scheduling and even take phone messages.  I imagine this last aspect can be particularly useful for an expat freelancer with clients in the U.S. – they get to hear a human voice even if they call at an inconvenient hour for you. 

Freelancers: Have you used a VA?  Care to share your experience? 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do You Really Want to Be a Freelance Writer?


 Every few months or so, I receive an email from someone newly arrived to Paris (usually a mother with young kids) wanting to meet to discuss how to launch a career as a freelance writer.  While I am always happy to talk about such matters, more often than not, our conversations aren't really about how to start a freelance career. Instead, we wind up talking about the reality of being a freelance writer and whether it’s a career she truly wants to pursue.

I figure we can all save time if I posted here five essential questions you should ask yourself before taking on a freelance writing career.  That way, you can think about these issues on your own and determine whether you want to go forward.  If you still want to talk after reading this, email me!

1. Are you looking for a career or a job?  Consider whether you’re interested in having a career as a writer or simply would like to use writing as a means to earn a little extra cash (emphasis on the little).  If you’re an expat mom, I can see why the latter option appears tempting.  Freelance writing offers you a flexible schedule, you can work from home, and you don’t have to speak a foreign language to do it.  But to be honest, there are more efficient ways to make money.  Writing is often hard, time-consuming work and you rarely get paid the amount your time and effort is truly worth, especially at the beginning of your career.  It can be done as “just a job” but I wouldn’t bother with it if making money were my only motivation (which brings me to my next question….).

2. Is writing your passion?  Most writers don’t start a writing career because it’s convenient, and they certainly don’t do it for the money.  We write because it is a compulsion.  I cannot imagine a day passing without writing, even if it’s just longhand notes in my journal.  I can’t walk down the street without turning everything I see into a story.  To embark on a writing career, I think you must have that compulsion. There’s a lot of annoying crap to slog through as a writer and often you’ll have nothing but your urge to write to pull you through.

3. Can you handle rejection, criticism, ridicule or being ignored?   Rocky Balboa should be the role model of every freelance writer.  Rocky or the Energizer Bunny.  ‘Cause as a freelancer you’re going to face some kind of “negative” feedback (or no feedback) on a regular basis.  Even if makes you feel as if you’ve been hit by a truck, there’s nothing to do but pick yourself up, brush yourself off and keep slugging away.  You must have confidence in your writing ability and know how to keep perspective.  It’s not personal.

4. Can you afford to be a freelance writer?  Unless you get extremely lucky and find a regular gig straight off the bat, the money will come in waves.  You’ll probably have to suffer some very thin periods, particularly at the beginning.  For print magazine work, many magazines don’t pay until publication. This means that you won’t see a dime for your work until the article is published, which could be several months after you’ve written it.  Payment goes much faster in the online world.  Nonetheless, you constantly have to keep the wheel turning to keep money flowing.

5. Are you ready to run a business?  If you really want to make a career out of freelance writing, better start thinking of yourself as a small business owner right. now.  Because that’s what you are.  As a freelancer, you’re responsible for finding clients, maintain clients, marketing yourself, handling the accounting, researching ideas, selling ideas, interviewing experts, keeping abreast of current trends…and, oh yeah, writing. 

I’m not trying to turn anyone off of freelance writing – personally, I love it, warts and all.  But it’s not a career to stumble into.

Freelancers with additional opinions,feel free to chime in!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Finding local freelance clients

As an American living in France, I’m always translating. I walk down the street mumbling to myself in French, planning conversations way before I have them. When I need to call the plumber or go to the doctor, I thumb through a French-English dictionary first. And when I read a book on freelancing or the writing business, I translate the advice given to fit my expat life.

As I expand my freelance business to embrace copywriting I’m doing that last kind of translation more and more. For example, many freelance copywriting books advise you to start your business by contacting local clients. Now, of course, with the internet and social media, you don't really have to do that anymore, but it makes sense. With local clients you have the advantage of sitting down with them, seeing their operations first-hand and making a more vivid impression than clients you contact remotely.

Some books recommend finding prospective local clients by subscribing to a local business paper or magazine, or heading off to the library to peruse industry magazines and journals, or using online contact directories. But when you're an expat freelancer, these helpful items may not exist, or you can't get your hands on them, or they don't have contacts in your region.

So, how to tap into the local English-speaking market in your country? Here are a few ideas:

1. Join your local American Chamber of Commerce. The American Chamber of Commerce Abroad (called AmCham) is an organization affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization has 112 chapters in 102 countries and its purpose is to “advances the interests of Americans businesses overseas.” Members are composed of businesses and individuals with business interests, and there are plenty of social and networking opportunities. Get involved, find out who’s doing what and be ready to offer your services. (Americans in Paris - here's the link to our local AmCham).

2. Get involved in your Alumni Association. Both my undergraduate and law school have alumni chapters/networks here in Paris. Every month I get email notifying me of local events and parties. Check to see if your school has an association in your country. If not, find out from your alumni office if there are others grads in your area. Maybe it's time to start a chapter.

3. Plan a Tweet-up. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Tweet-Up is a tweet way (sorry!) of saying “Meet Up” for people who follow each other on Twitter. I met my first official copywriting client via Twitter - not because we followed each other, but because we attended a Tweet Up and happened to sit next to each other. Why not organize a tweet-up of people in your area so that you can meet, greet and network face-to-face?

4. Join a private organization. Churches, synagogues, parenting groups, entrepreneur groups, volunteer organizations are all great ways to meet other English-speakers and find out what’s going on in the Anglophone community – and possibly land a few clients.

Expats - How do you find freelance clients?

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