What To Do When You Mess Up

Throughout the majority of my writing career, I’ve worked with long-term clients. Usually, my clients are business owners who need regular content for their blogs or their newsletters. We get to know each other fairly well. Lately, I’ve been diversifying a bit and adding in a few publications.

A few weeks ago, I pitched an article to an editor I’d never worked with. She liked my idea and gave me a rather short deadline. It was exciting because it was a topic that I love, and the pay was higher than

Perfection is over-rated.

Perfection is over-rated.

I’d expected it to be. I put the deadline on my calendar on the right date, but got it mixed up in my mind.

In case you are wondering how that is possible: The article was due on Monday, August 4. As I planned my schedule, I somehow thought the 4th was on a Friday. I scheduled time to interview, write, edit, and proofread on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Duh!

My subconscious, though, had a better grasp of dates than my conscious mind. I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday night — suddenly — and realized that Monday was the 4th, and that the article wasn’t started. Cue the panic.

I got up early Monday morning and went to work, cobbling something together. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t proud of it. In the email submitting it, I told the editor that since it was my first article for her, it would probably need revision. She responded that it was totally inappropriate, and asked if I could write something that included original interviews and was more suitable by Wednesday. I owned up to the mistake, agreed that the first draft wasn’t good, and said that I absolutely could send something better.

Feeling pretty good about getting a second chance, I went to work, contacting people who might be willing to interview, writing questions, and generally doing my job. I wanted the second attempt to be outstanding. And, at the risk of being a braggart, it was. The editor published it within 10 minutes of receiving it, and send another assignment the next day.

That is just one example of my many, many stories about messing up. Through years of stumbling along, screwing things up, and carrying on with life, I’ve come up with a list of things that help when you know you’ve messed up:

1. Own it. Confess. Admit that you screwed up. Honesty is the best policy, and you will really put some bad juju out in the universe if you try to blame someone else.

2. Apologize. Say you are sorry. You don’t have grovel, but once you confess the next thing to do is apologize.

3. Come up with a plan to make it better. Make some suggestion that may help remedy the situation.

4. Deliver superior results. If you get a second chance, as I did in with the new client, make sure you come through.

5. Remember: everyone messes up. Don’t spend time beating yourself up. Just do what you can to make it better and move on with your life.

Have you messed up in a big way? Did you recover? How? What are your best tips for getting past a screw up? 

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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Diversify & Other Lessons from the Freelance Writing World

There are some pieces of advice that turn up ubiquitously in articles and blog posts directed at freelance writers:

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

  • Learn to say no.
  • Always have a contract.
  • Never stop marketing.
  • Diversify your income.

Smiling Tree Writing has existed as a business for about six years now (I think. It might actually be 7. I’m losing track!). I’ve had the opportunity to learn why certain bits of advice show up over and over again.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about having a diverse income and what that means for me. Summer before last (the summer of 2012) was the lowest point my business has encountered to date (and hopefully ever will). My income was down to about $800 a month — a fraction of what my family needed. At that time, most of my income came from 2-3 regular clients and a couple of one-off projects each month.

At that time, I was reading “diversify” to mean that I should earn money from writing articles for publications, selling my own books, working with clients, and then create a few “passive streams” from things like ads or affiliations. My idea about what a diversified income looks like now is drastically different.

Back then, I was trying to diversify my income by adding more article writing to the mix. The majority of my work was with small business owners, creating site content, blog posts, and newsletters. I began sending out letters of introduction and writing for print publications, even if the pay was lower than it should have been. It wasn’t working.

It’s hard to pull out of that kind of downward spiral, and the thing that helped me was to take a job. It ended up being a short term thing, but it was exactly what I needed in order to mentally reset. In the year since, I’ve taken definitive steps to diversify my work activities, and have finally hit a comfortable mix.

I have two part time jobs, one of which is completely outside my realm of expertise and gets me out of the house for about 15 hours each week – I work at a restaurant 2 evenings a week. The other is a marketing job that I do from home for 10 hours each week. I got into marketing after going to https://www.springboard.com/workshops/marketing-career-track/ in order to fine-tune my skillset. Then, there is client work, which creates the bulk of my income and takes up the majority of my time. I also sell a few books, and am working on writing more with the goal of that portion of my income gaining significance.

Although working in a restaurant or as an hourly employee may not be the typical freelancer’s dream, it means that my income won’t suffer too much should any one client decide not to use my services. It also means that I have more flexibility to follow one of those other often-repeated bits of advice: I can turn projects down if they aren’t a good fit, without being terrified I’m making a financial mistake.

Now and then, I play with the idea of dropping a couple of clients in order to have more time to work on my own projects, or quitting the restaurant job to find more clients or to look for another part-time marketing job. This mix of work gives me options.

During that terrible summer of the downward spiral, it didn’t feel like I had many choices. I think that is why the advice to diversify is repeated so frequently — it gives you more room to wiggle. My particular working situation is also highly flexible. I can do client work in the middle of the night, we have been able to take several short trips this year, and I can make time to pursue personal projects (like writing fiction).

What piece of tried and true advice have you found to be of vital importance when interpreted correctly for your personal situation? Have you ever discovered any conventional wisdom that needs a bit of twisting to work well for you?

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There Is No Perfect Job

Yesterday, I wrote about my personal narrative – the story I tell myself and others. Contemplating work and life choices led me to think about Jon Morrow’s recent post How To Be Smart in a World of Dumb Bloggers. I’ve been pondering what my so-called ideal day would look like (there are actually several versions of it) and whether or not the activities I do on a daily basis are going to get me any closer to any of those versions of an ideal day.

Jon’s post is about getting smarter in order to become a popular blogger. He shares his own daily routine, including the deliberate steps he takes to get smarter. Those steps cover everything from reading nonfiction books daily to finding friends who stretch his mind. He is talking about the day to day activities required if your dream is to be a popular (or successful, or money-making, whatever you want to call it) blogger.

Jon does a great job of explaining the work that is involved in being a great blogger – great posts don’t just flow from a fountain of inspiration. There’s research, writing, rewriting, learning, and thinking involved. There are a whole lot of experts and studies that offer inspiration for people who are looking for something different, an alternative to a gray cubicle. You can find all kinds of advice on starting and running a small business. While that kind of inspiration abounds, posts like Jon’s are a different sort of inspiration.

Even the most perfect job involves, well, work. Some part of the day to day stuff will probably always feel like a grind. Calling it an “ideal day” is a

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

little misleading – wouldn’t most of us think of a vacation day as the ultimate ideal day?

When I am writing, I can get lost. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, a research article, marketing copy, or fiction – if I’m playing with words, I am having fun. (Unfortunately my dogs or the phone or some other minor interruption usually limits the time I’m lost in the fun part of my work.) But, sending out emails marketing my services? Ugh! That, for me, is a grind. A slog. The part of this job I’d like to skip. (And, I don’t mind the minor daily interruptions during this part of my work!)

My writing accountability partner is the opposite. She LOVES marketing. If you also have a passion for marketing then it might be wise to read these king kong marketing reviews before jumping headfirst into a job in this industry. She also likes doing interviews, creating outlines, and so on. The writing? She can’t stand it. She gets all tangled up in figuring out where in the outline bits of information fit best, and in writing active versus passive sentences.

There’s always going to be a part of the job that isn’t fun. What part of your job do you love? What part could you do without?

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Examining My Story

Early this month, I posted about being back in my place as a full time business owner.  A couple of weeks ago, I had several conversations with a friend about what her ideal job would look like, which led to some deep soul searching. Yesterday, I read Peter Shallard’s excellent post about the

I'm still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

I’m still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

power of our personal narratives. All of that together added up to me taking a serious look at where I am, how I got here, where I want to be, the best way to get there, the story of then, the story of now, and of then, and of the journey between the two.

In Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig, I shared a certain personal narrative – the tale of how I ended up back in an office. Today, I’d like to share my new story:

My Story, Version 2 (aka The Truth)

A quirky lady who never quite found her professional niche got laid off around the time she had an idea for a writing business. She drew unemployment and read a lot of books. Then she began finding clients.

It’s easy to get complacent, though, and she does. She has a few clients and is making enough money to get by, and gets lazy. Eventually clients start dropping off, as is normal, but she doesn’t replace them. She spends most of her time waiting on clients to come to her. She does some half-hearted marketing, then decides to find a job.

The job doesn’t work out, so the writer decides to work harder. She realizes that everything that came before was research, career prep, and important. She learned about all the different ways one can be a freelance writer, all the different ways a writing business can be run. She made a slate of contacts, and realizes that all of that will translate into a better business now.

She shines up all of her samples and past work and starts making lots of phone calls. She calls businesses, ad agencies, and nonprofits. She writes everyday. She pitches blogs that pay contributors. She thinks of a few unusual ways to market and begins trying different things. Sheh emails letters of introduction and queries to editors.

She tracks all of her ideas. And enjoys all of it! Even the calling. It takes a little motivation to make 20-30 calls a day, but she realizes that she likes talking to people, learning about their businesses, and finding out more about the world. She makes lists, becomes aware of time management and starts getting more done each day.

It takes a few months, but she soon finds herself in a position to pick and choose her assignments. She is writing nonfiction books and selling them, doing some editing work, blogging, ghost writing, and writing – and more importantly PUBLISHING – fiction. She is making more money that she ever did as an employee.

What about you? I’d love if you share your personal narrative in the comments!  

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Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Smiling Tree Writing is, once again, a full time operation. After three months as an employee, I’m back at my desk where I belong. Someday, I will write a post describing my short term employment, and probably it will be entertaining, but it needs a little distance first. In the meantime, I’ve been pondering my decision to re-enter the world of employment–what led to it? I love running my own business, working from home, collaborating with other business owners, choosing when and what I work on…so why did I seek out a position as an employee?

In order to answer that question, I had to take a look at the course of my business since its inception. Smiling Tree Writing began as a way to earn income on the side, and became a full time business after a lay off. The transition from side gig to full time business brought along an increased sense of urgency, though, and I strayed from my original plan–which involved calling businesses and offering my services as a professional copywriter.

Cold calling is a slow way to build a business. It takes hundreds of calls, follow up emails, patience, thick skin, and more patience. I found quicker success with local small business owners–many of whom clearly had a need, but not much of a budget. Over the course of a couple of years, I found myself lowering prices, doing more for less, and in a funk.

I decided to switch to sending query letters and letters of introduction to editors of print publications. By this time my savings were depleted, and things were critical. It’s hard to run a business when you’re against a wall. I did get some assignments, but by this point, my family needed a steady paycheck. You do have to wonder why you got no business. One of my friends actually said that it might be because I was operating this business from home. Apparently, some companies can find it difficult to trust a business that has a home address. My friend said I should’ve visited https://yourvirtualofficelondon.co.uk/ to see if a registered office address would have made any difference. My friend seems to think it would’ve got me a lot more assignments. I suppose it would have made the business look more legit and real.

This time, I’m charting a path forward more carefully. Planning, executing, and perhaps most importantly, measuring. There are multiple backup plans in place, set points at which to stop, take stock, and decide how to proceed. It’s awfully easy to lose your way without a map.

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