“There’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut.” – Christine Lavin
When Geena called to ask for an appointment, I had a good idea what the subject of our discussion would be: Did I think she should keep trying to make it as a freelance copywriter?
She had an auspicious beginning, working for almost two years as an in-house reporter and writing assistant for a business I consulted with. In that position, she was in direct contact with some of the best copywriters in the world, and her own writing was steadily improving. But then, she floundered. The quality of her writing leveled off.
I wasn’t close enough to her to know why, but I do know that uninspired writing is the result of uninspired thinking. For whatever reason, Geena had lost the zeal to become a great writer and had settled into the ordinary. And that wasn’t good enough for her employer.
Having seen this happen before, I counseled her to take a chance and go freelance, even though she wasn’t technically strong enough to be out on her own. I had coached other, similarly uninspired writers to jump in the deep water, and it had worked.
Geena took the leap. I helped her by putting her in touch with a client – but they couldn’t agree on price. Geena wanted the going rate for her services, but the client didn’t want to pay top dollar for an unproven novice.
After that unsuccessful coupling, I wasn’t surprised when, nine months later, Geena was still struggling.
“Maybe freelancing just isn’t for me,” she told me.
I asked her how she felt about the freelance lifestyle – whether the benefits (control over your own schedule, working from home, upside income potential, etc.) still appealed to her. “Definitely,” she said.
What was discouraging Geena was that she wasn’t making the money she wanted – and the reason she wasn’t making the money she wanted was because she was losing, rather than gaining, clients.
Generally speaking (and assuming they aren’t involved in an industry-wide depression), there are two reasons why a service provider would be losing clients:
- The service they are providing isn’t good enough.
- The clients don’t enjoy working with them.
Geena admitted she was having a tough time “kissing her clients’ backsides” and that the copy she was providing wasn’t breaking any records. Neither of these revelations surprised me.
I was glad that Geena recognized what she was doing wrong, but, as I suspected, she was doing nothing whatsoever to fix what was broken. She was working on the copy that was assigned to her and reluctantly dealing with her clients. And she was devoting zero hours a week to getting new clients. “I was kind of hoping for word-of-mouth referrals,” she said.
“Why would you want that,” I asked her, “when the word of mouth would be that your copy is mediocre and you are a pain to deal with?”
Here, in a nutshell, is the 3-step program I recommended for her. If you are a freelance professional stuck in a rut, some of this advice may work for you:
Step 1. Become better at what you do.
I gave Geena about a half-dozen suggestions for how to become a better copywriter, all of which are in AWAI’s advanced program for copywriting:
- Learn from the work of others, particularly those who have mastered your skill. (Geena could learn so much just by looking at a single good or bad promotion every day and asking herself what caused it to succeed or fail.)
- Form a little collective with other fledgling professionals to exchange ideas, techniques, and encouragement. (Through AWAI, Geena has access to many other people who are in her stage of the copywriting game.)
- Continue to formally study your craft by reading books and taking correspondence classes. (Geena has plenty of choice here.)
Step 2. Become better at communicating with your clients.
Geena’s second challenge, communicating more effectively with her clients, must start with revamping the way she thinks about them. Instead of assuming that she knows more than they do, she’d do much better to realize that they have a longer and broader view of their market. Instead of arguing with them about their proposed changes, she would be wise to try to give their ideas the greatest possible respect. Instead of giving them a litany of reasons their suggestions don’t make sense, she should thank them, compliment them on their insights, and then do her best to incorporate them into her work.
“Now is not the time to stand on principles,” I told her. “When you are more experienced and greatly in demand, you will be in a position to do that.”
But the truth is that the very best copywriters in the business seldom fight with their clients. They realize that time is money and that arguing about copy points is generally a waste of time. (A reasonable amount of back-and-forth is good for everyone, but the marketer should make the key decisions, not the copywriter, because the marketer has more intimate knowledge about his customers and he is taking the financial risk.)
“Realize that there are two Geenas,” I told her. “The social you and the professional you. The social you can be as opinionated and as argumentative as you like. But the professional you has to master the art of communicating effectively with your clients so they will want to work with you.
Step 3. Go out into the marketplace and find new clients.
Geena’s final challenge – getting new clients – is something all fledgling freelance professionals must spend most of their spare time doing. Relying on word-of-mouth advertising is just another form of doing nothing. Like every start-up entrepreneur, freelance professionals should spend 80 percent of their time and resources building their business … and they should stop doing that only when their business has grown beyond their comfort zone.
I told Geena not to worry about how much other people are being paid. “Take every decent job,” I told her, “at whatever price the client is willing to pay. View those low-paying jobs as chances to practice and improve your skills.”
Geena agreed that she would spend 50 hours a week working at her job, and that if she wasn’t writing copy she’d be selling her services or practicing her skills. She agreed to look at every customer contact as an opportunity to develop her professional personality, and promised to try to achieve a 100 percent change in her reputation, from being difficult to being extremely pleasant.
“If you do everything I’ve asked you to do, what do you think your chances are of succeeding?” I asked her at the end of our counseling session.
“About 99 percent,” she said with a confident smile.
Getting stuck in a rut is a very common problem when you are trying to make any kind of a change in your life. After an initial burst of growth, you settle into a routine that is okay… but nothing great. If you continue at that level for long, you will almost surely wake up one day and wonder why you bothered to make the change in the first place.
The interesting thing about getting stuck is that the solution is almost always to do the basic things that got you moving in the first place: to work more hours on those tasks that will create the biggest and fastest improvements for you. You probably already know what those tasks are… so if you are feeling stuck right now, get to work on them![Ed. Note: If you need a weekly dose of motivation to help you achieve all your goals – personal and professional – sign up for ETR’s Total Success Achievement program.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]