Writers Wednesday: Piles and Piles of Files and Files

An unexpected call came in earlier this week, sending me into frantic office cleanup mode. I tend to do two major sessions of office purging and reorganization each year, one in the fall as I catch up on summer work and get ready for year-end paperwork, and a second in the spring after all the tax jumble is ready to put to bed. It’s slightly early for the former still, but since I have a last-minute auditor coming first thing in the morning (along with the fellow who hasn’t finished making messes in my house), I’m chalking this one up to getting more prepared for year-end craziness. It’s nice to get things slightly more under control before the holiday insanity drives me to distraction.

As a college student, I spent a couple semesters working in my campus legal office, where two of my primary duties were copying reference and course materials, and following my boss around, pulling out staples from his messy stacks of papers and refiling everything. There was a bit of a friendly war going on, as the paralegal I answered to preferred everything to be neatly arranged, in reverse chronological order, and alphabetized, and my boss was a topical organizer, meaning that items relevant to a specific topic got chucked into a file of that name at random. Their truce of sorts mostly involved me spending a lot of time on student and client files and staying out of his personal office drawers until the rest of the office staff decided they couldn’t wait any longer to send me in there with a staple puller and a shredder bin.

In short, I am now very, very good at organizing a file drawer, and the system I now use seems to be something of an amalgamation of the two. I like things to be alphabetical in theory, but in practice, I tend to organize by topic. I have colored files, and a highly accurate ability to recall which color folder a given client or project’s file is in, and what the label will say, but I don’t typically “color code.” I like to break things up in the drawers visually instead of having rows of the same color. By nature, I am much more like my old boss. I’m not the neatest person you’ll ever meet, but at least my husband and most of my family have cut back on the biohazard jokes.

Whether you’re a born neatnik or a walking Pigpen,however, if you do any serious amount of contracting work or home office work, you’re going to generate a lot of paper. All that paper has to go somewhere, particularly since the government says you can’t get rid of some of it for a few years. And while I’m a big fan of digital storage, I still believe in maintaining backup copies. (I prefer to have backups of my backups of my backups, but that’s another story.)

If you work from home, you need a designated office space. Although there are a lot of things you can do to create a functional home office on the cheap, there is one purchase you shouldn’t skip. You need a file cabinet.

They don’t have to be expensive. You might be able to get by with expandable accordion files for a little while. You might find a storage bench or crate or some other unusual object to hold your papers. A banker’s box or a Rubbermaid bin might do the trick, short term. For long-term storage, however, you will need to come up with something that can hold a good deal of paper while keeping bugs, mice, and water out. I once found a standard metal cabinet used for $25, but I also like large, lidded plastic tubs, as long as they’re in a secure location.

How do you tackle your storage problems?


Adventures in Recruiting: When Bosses Want Your Salary History



Seasonal changes are a norm in many small businesses. Ours being no exception, I field the occasional inquiry from people asking whether we have new openings coming up soon. One such letter arrived in my inbox last week. The candidate, from all indications, appeared to be a young woman whose presented qualifications and experience looked very similar to those required for a position I fill pretty regularly. Overall, she looked like a possibly great hire and someone I would be excited to call for an interview. I just didn’t have a slot open. Regardless, she wouldn’t be free for another month or two. Accordingly, I gave her a quick update on our projected winter calendar, and her materials went right into my “definitely maybe” mental file.

She did make one tactical mistake, however. She gave me her salary history. This worrisome slip nearly prompted me to tell her straight up to take it off her resume immediately, before sending copies out to any more recruiters. An individual candidate’s previous salary information is none of my business. My hiring manager and I don’t need to know what someone is or used to be making in order to put a solid offer together.

It’s quite normal for a company to ask about your salary expectations as part of the interview process. It’s not at all appropriate, however, for total strangers to insist that you share highly personal data—yes, socioeconomic status is personal stuff—when you haven’t even met yet. Certainly, I’ve filled out my share of job applications where some office troll equivalent of my current self has posted a demand for such intimate details of my past life with other employers. But unless you’re dealing with pure government bureaucracy (taxpayer-driven craziness unfortunately gets a pass here, sorry!) you shouldn’t be asked to submit that data before you even get an interview. Private-sector employers could ask you to deliver homemade cookies and sing a jingle before your interview, too, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. And for goodness’ sake, don’t volunteer those details unsolicited. Your salary information does not belong on your resume.

Here’s why: Whatever somebody else paid you in the past has no bearing on what the job you are now applying for could—or should—pay. You might expect more than the new employer is prepared to offer. You might expect less. You may or may not be able to end up on the same page. Ultimately, your ability to come to an agreement on compensation has to do with all sorts of fun things, such as market rates and living costs and industry conditions and your ambitions and the nature of the work and benefits and perks and how reasonable everybody is. How a prospective employer treats you should never be determined based on what a past employer, for better or worse, thought your efforts were worth.

Figuring out the value of human labor to an individual organization is a management responsibility. So is coming up with the funding to pay for that labor and all its attendant costs. It’s completely unfair—and irresponsible—to put that weight on a candidate. Companies shouldn’t be taking potshots in the dark on salaries and hoping something sticks. When an employer creates a position, the employer also has the duty to set a viable budget for that position. Individual candidates, perhaps even the majority of candidates, may not agree with a specific employer’s budgeted salary. We all like to make money. But figuring out how you’re going to get paid is supposed to be your boss’s headache, not yours. (It’s worth noting, though, if you’re one of those people who hires people, that when top talent keeps walking out the door after you name numbers, the problem might be you.)

Prematurely demanding or volunteering salary history also opens the door to the possibility of socioeconomic discrimination. Sadly, people can and do have strong biases when it comes to money and social standing. Why give strangers the chance to form unflattering assumptions—that as a candidate, you might be “too old,” “overqualified,” “demanding,” ”naïve,” “unambitious,” “cheap”—if you don’t have to? Why give prospective employers an excuse to lowball you or toss your application because they think you’ll want more than they are willing to pay?

One way companies can avoid this potential quagmire is by setting rate floors for entry-level and incoming candidates. If company policy dictates that all candidates for Job X with Experience Y are offered the same starting salary, nobody is going to get lowballed or rejected based on salary histories (although some candidates may opt to self-select out). For example, if a business chooses to set opening salaries by the work being performed, the young lady from the opening example would lose nothing by coming in for an interview. This is because if she received an offer, her initial compensation would be based solely on the company’s valuation of the actual job, not her personal negotiating skills.

Salary history is not, I find, especially useful in conveying what I really do need to know, which is what the candidate wants. What are the dealbreakers? It’s pointless for businesses to spend a lot of time debating salaries only to find that their candidates are not pleased with something else—benefits, leave time, travel requirements. Nobody wants to recruit an applicant who isn’t going to be happy in the new position.

If you’re applying for private sector work and it’s possible to avoid giving out salary history as part of the application process, skip it. When you get called for interviews, come prepared. Know what you want from the employer, and be ready to make your case for it when the subject arises.


Freelance Fridays: Seven Ways to Find Freelance Work Without A Paid Service

freelance fridays coffee mug
Last week, we talked about the problems with web-based services that charge freelancers searching for clients. In today’s post, I’ll briefly cover several ways you can find your own work without paying one of those companies to funnel prospective clients to you.

1. Watch for casting calls. I’m deeply indebted to a New York-based pal who spotted an opening for New York Times stringers in my area and kindly tipped me off! That led to a written contract, and, more than a year later, an editor there finally called me for a paid, bylined assignment. Major news agencies put out these calls for freelancers in specific geographical regions or specialties every now and then. It pays to keep an eye out.

If someone reputable (I said reputable, remember) is actively hunting for people with your writing, photography, design, or other valuable talents, it never hurts to throw your hat in the ring.

2. Use your existing contacts. Do you have friends, family, social acquaintances in need of your services? Previous clients interested in repeat business? Industry connections? If you’re trying to get established, you need to talk to the people you already know as well as continue to network with other professionals. If your own circle is unaware of your capabilities, you cannot reasonably expect outsiders to know who you are and what your business offers.

3. Do a spec job. If you don’t have a substantial portfolio, build one! Create a sample brochure for a prospective client. Write marketing copy. Take your camera out and complete a few shoots. Research a story and pitch it to editors. Dig out your paints, craft supplies, beads, whatever it is that you use to create, and get to work.

4. Showcase your portfolio. Once you have a portfolio, curate it. Select your best work samples and find a way to display them publicly. These displays could be physical (a storefront, a consignment gallery, a catalog) or digital (a personalized website, an Etsy shop, a branded social media page). Set a schedule for adding new material or promoting your services. Will you be a regular vendor at select local shows? Will you post a new item online as soon as you finish making it?

5. Invest in a professional membership.Yes, for worthwhile professional associations this will probably be something you’ll have to pay for. Yes, that technically makes it a paid service. No, I’m not contradicting myself. The difference between a professional membership and the types of online services we discussed last week is that the former is a network of professionals in your field. Your money doesn’t get you in, your industry credentials do. There are, or ought to be, standards to meet, conduct and ethics codes, meetings and networking events, and other perks, such as regular newsletters or member forums. Ideally, you want one with a reasonably current website, active participants, and a comprehensive, searchable directory. You’re looking for a place that will increase your industry clout, enhance your professional development, and help potential clients locate you, preferably through an online bio or a link to your business web page. Bonus points if the organization provides access to job listings in some form.

6. Cold call. Or cold e-mail, or cold walk through the danged doors of your target client’s offices and seek out a live human. Being an outright pest may not thrill the people that you want to work for, though. That organization has gotten along just fine without you thus far, doing whatever it does, so do respect people’s time. Just try to at least make a decent first impression and exit with the name of somebody who has the power to give out assignments.

7. Advertise. Target specific clients and offer perks to those who sign up for your service or purchase your product within a limited time frame. Student discounts, non-profit rates, coupons, newsletters, white papers, e-books, digital downloads, prints, branded merchandise, videos, lessons, and accessory products are among the customer perks that could be at your disposal, depending on your budget and your industry. An instructor or coach may charge lower rates to work with high school or college students, for example, or a photographer might offer free wallet-sized prints with a minimum order for each senior photo booking.

Such perks may be acceptable for some writers, self-employed artists, and designers working in photography, graphic arts, fashion, or other creative industries, however, they are not considered appropriate for those working in traditional news media. Familiarity with industry norms is critical here. Generally speaking, if offering a perk can give the appearance of quid pro quo or otherwise create a potential conflict of interest, you should avoid it.

Do you have a client-hunting strategy that didn’t make my list?

Writers Wednesday: Work, Interrrupted

writers wednesday ink pen

Sometimes, life interferes with getting anything written down.

I spent this week battling a bug, dealing with late-season garden produce, scrubbing and repainting a bathroom in the midst of an ongoing flooring overhaul, accompanying my partner to review a prospective job site out of town, and catching up on some of my usual office tasks. While our fire crew successfully demobilized and the affected employees have gone back to their regular assignments, a series of work-related issues on my spouse’s end meant his schedule has been turned completely upside down as well. He’s been home a lot more than usual. Our sleep schedules are completely goofed up; we were up drinking tea and watching cartoons by 3:30 a.m. today before finally crashing for a couple blessed hours of actual rest.

In short, I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been editing. I haven’t been especially perky or fast-moving lately, thanks to the evil crud that tried to take me out for a few days. My workspace, never the neatest, could be nominated for a Hoarders episode. We’ve had to get creative with the shower schedule to accommodate drywall repairs and wet paint. I’ve hardly been sleeping, yet I feel like I have surprisingly little to show for it all. (This feeling may be slightly illogical, considering that my downstairs bathroom was a completely different color last weekend.)

These things happen. A week (or two, or three!) of workplace chaos will not stop you from reaching your writing goals unless you let it. So, hit the pause button. Deal with whatever is bothering you. Snatch some quick rest. And then, get back to it.


Freelance Fridays: Don’t Pay to Play!

freelance fridays money
Be a pro. Don’t fall for these games. 

An ad for yet another newish freelancing website popped up in my Facebookfeed the other day. I spent about five minutes clicking around the site and reading social media comments before I left, thoroughly horrified, with yet another so-called service on my nope list.

Contractors of all sorts are bombarded by middlemen promising to find us work. If only we’d shell out for their directories and databases and memberships and heaven knows what all else, we’d be rolling in the golden stuff. Can a freelancing service help you connect with clients you wouldn’t be likely to meet on your own? Yes, but a whole lot of what you’ll get out of it depends on how the company operates. Below are my top five criteria for evaluating websites pitching their client-matching wares to freelancers. While a few sites are named as discussion examples, I freely acknowledge the possibility that some sites may have made substantial changes in the interim. The following is based on my personal experiences, and this is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of individual companies.

The site should actively promote freelancers from developed, English-speaking countries. It may be controversial, but the above is the main reason I gave up on Freelancer (which still loves to spam my inbox to death) years ago. This is basic economics. If you’re an English-speaking creative from a First World nation hoping to make a viable income, the site should not be overwhelmed by competitors from developing countries offering to do craploads of work for pennies. Clients looking to outsource their work this way are interested in procuring super-cheap work, not necessarily high-quality or high-value work. You’re not going to be on the same page.

Plus, after a professional brush with this kind of dirt-cheap outsourcing, I find it just a little too far down on the sleazy creepy scale for personal comfort. While I realize standards of living differ around the world, nobody should be pressuring impoverished people overseas to accept just a few cents to do the same work that would cost several times more in the States (or Britain, or Australia . . . you get the picture). I believe that type of outsourcing is exploitive, and since it goes against my personal values, I’ll pass, thanks.

The job should pay at least $10. Your personal threshold may vary, but come on. At least give yourself minimum wage, ok? If you’re a self-employed American, you also have both halves of Social Security and Medicare taxes to pay. You don’t get unemployment or workers’ comp, either, and you’ll have to shell out for your healthcare. So at the very least, you really should be trying to net somewhere around or above the $10 hourly mark. Steer clear of places that pay pennies on the dollar, or that want you to get all hyped up about earning a couple bucks here and there while keeping high payment thresholds that ensure you’ll take forever to cash out, if you ever do. We both know they’re hoping you’ll just give up and quit.

You’ll find all sorts of “how to make money freelancing” articles telling you to try Fiverr in order to make some quick cash. I posted a few different gigs on this site a couple years back, and I wasn’t especially impressed. In taking a second look for this post, it appears to be easier to offer add-on services that go above the $5 mark now. After scrolling through several pages of offers in random categories, ranging from music mixing to video services to press release writing, however, I still could not find anything with a base price higher than $5. It would appear that pricing your initial product above $5, which used to be a no-no, is still not done. Even if you could set your base rate higher, you’d be swimming so hard against the current as to make it pointless.

Fiverr, in my view, is only going to be a moneymaker for you if you have a great idea for a quick product or service that can actually turn a profit at $4. Why $4? Fiverr takes 20 percent from every transaction. It’s right there in their advertising. On a $5 gig, that’s a buck. So you’ll want to offer something that’s actually worth your time for $4, and then you can add in the extras.

Here’s my beef with sites like this, though: They’re all about selling cheap services. The point is to get swarms of creatives like you to offer their customer base as much as possible at rock bottom prices. The above business model not only pushes you to compete for clients based on price instead of talent, it also ensures you’ll be charged a whopping 20 percent off the top for the privilege! Ouch.

Nobody should be spying on you. Elance and oDesk recently merged into something I have yet to deeply examine (Upwork), for whatever that’s worth. There are still older articles about oDesk software readily available, which reassures me that I don’t have my memory of these companies confused. I had been very excited about trying oDesk until I went to set up my account and discovered that I was expected to download the company’s proprietary software. From what I understood at the time, this software package was supposed to be capable of doing such fun things as recording my keystrokes, taking screenshots without my say-so, and logging my “work” time. Steaming pile of no. I walked away and never looked back. 

This was a few years ago, when I was short on work and ready to try just about anything, but my recollection of the big sell is that clients were supposed to be all jazzed because the company could keep tabs on my productivity. All that did was make me feel devalued. Give professional people a little credit, huh? We go into freelancing because we want control. We want to pick our own projects, set our own schedules, work on our own timetables. As long as your freelancer is meeting deadlines as agreed, there’s no need for cyber micromanagement. You might be able to make decent money this way, but loss of privacy and autonomy is a pretty steep business cost.

Companies shouldn’t force you to let them spy on you at home.

The job should be free to bid. Steer clear of any middlemen who want you to buy tokens, credits, coins, or whatever they’re calling it these days. You shouldn’t be asked to pay to play. If somebody requires you to exchange cash for non-refundable opportunities to bid on jobs, that’s a big ol’ bucket of poop. Run!

One caveat here. In the contracting world, it’s not unusual, in some industries, to have to put down a cash deposit when you bid on a job. This is usually called a bid bond, or bid guarantee, and it basically assures the people soliciting proposals that you’re serious. The cost of these bonds is typically based on the value of the job. The thing is, when you put down a bid bond, you’re supposed to get your money back if you don’t win the bid.

So, these kinds of deposits are normal in some cases. But although it’s quite common to see them in construction, vending, and heavy industry-type situations, bid bonds are not something I expect to find in the contract paperwork for your average freelancer. Regardless, if someone wants you to put cash down with your bid and you don’t get the job, you should be getting a refund. Read the fine print.

Nobody should be controlling the number of jobs you bid. You’re the contractor. It’s your responsibility to determine the workload level you can or can’t handle. Any site that demands payment in exchange for the right to bid more jobs, or that only allows you a set number of bids per week or per month, is a no in my book. This is just another thinly disguised version of pay to play, except instead of getting charged prepaid credits for the right to bid more work, you’re being sold “upgrades” or “membership levels” or some other fancy-sounding but equally meaningless load of you-know-what.

A freelancing site that doesn’t treat professional people like professionals is unworthy of my, and your, business. We are not amateurs or hobbyists, and odds are quite good that we are also not children. Qualified freelancers do not need babying throughout each project. We do, however, require the freedom to choose our own challenges and the discretion to charge what we believe our labor is worth.

Have you tried a freelancing service recently?


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