“I never grew up thinking that I’d have a regular 9-to-5 job. Growing up I felt my options were always either writer or scientist or both.” – Celine Roque.
I think Celine achieved her goal. She’s one of the most kick-ass writers online. Considering her experience in the field, I’d say she’s also one of the most strategic freelancers I’ve known.
This is the reason I appreciate Celine as a mentor. The Mastermind group she started is one of my major source of, not just credible info, but also motivation.
You’ll get to learn more about Celine in this article:
- Know how she started as a freelance writer
- Get tips for looking for and getting clients
- Read about her thoughts on productivity
- Find out what she has to say to newbie writers
- Discover what she’s reading
- Follow her most recent project
How did you get started with freelancing? Tell us your story.
The gist of it is that in 2004, when I was in my first or second year of college, I had to earn some extra money and had to be the family breadwinner. I had to pay my own tuition as well as the college tuition of another relative. At the same time, I had to find an income source that wouldn’t restrict my schedule.
Since I started making websites as a hobby in 1997, during my first year of high school, I already knew that it was possible to do online business. I just had to figure out what I could get paid for – hopefully it was for writing, which was the only skill I was reasonably competent at. I did a bit of searching online and found that I could get paid for writing, so I started applying for work. But I would also get other types of work like designing website banners, as well as some data entry work. I really needed to make money from all the skills I had, even if I wasn’t that good.
This seemed like a natural way to approach things for me, since I never grew up thinking that I’d have a regular 9-to-5 job. I just didn’t have that programming in me. Growing up I felt my options were always either writer or scientist or both. So there wasn’t a long journey between thinking “I need to make money now” and “Maybe I can try looking for work online?” These thoughts were just seconds apart.
I tell the rest of the story here – How I Got My First Online Clients [Transparency Report #1] It’s pretty detailed and shows exactly how I got my first projects.
I know you’re very strategic in looking for clients to work with. How do you do it?
It’s pretty simple. I just look at the businesses I like — maybe I use their products, read their blog, or have heard good things about them — and I send in an email introducing myself and pitch 2 or 3 article ideas I have for them and then take it from there.
If I’m responding to a job ad, I look at a lot of things. First, I read their existing content. Is this something I’d like to read even if I wasn’t paid to read it? If the answer is “yes”, then that’s a great sign.
I try to look for clues about their culture, too. Usually you’ll see this in their blogs, their “About Us” page, their social media accounts. Are they stiff and corporate-y? If they are, I don’t apply, because I know I won’t fit in. Every time I try to fit in with a client like that, it just feels weird. They’re not bad clients, often they pay really well, it’s just that it’s not my style and I can’t make as big of a contribution there.
Looking for clients to work with the simple part for me, since I’m just drawn to what I like. Where I’m really strategic is the job application itself. Of course if I’m applying or pitching, I want them to say “yes”. So I try to do it as if they have no other option but to say “yes”. I consider what their goals and problems are.
For someone like me, who’s a writer, usually the goals and problems that I can help with are that I can write content that:
a) will be very engaging to their target readers. I often do this by demonstrating how well I know the target audience, mentioning the things that are painful for them. In an application I sent in last year for a blog that was for international freelancers, I mentioned how I wanted to address the things that kept freelancers at night: the feast-or-famine cycle and getting new clients. I think mentioning that in my application helped me stand out and get the job.
b) and that I’m very gracious about receiving constructive criticism (because I am) and am communicative about problems (deadlines, other issues). I mention these things because this is what they want to know, plus it’s true. Editors often have to deal with writers who can’t take criticism or who flake out after a revision request. I’ve been getting revision requests since I worked at my first school paper (grade 5, 1995) so it doesn’t bother me at all.
I know these specific points might not be useful for your readers, who aren’t all writers, but the key takeaway here is to think about your target client’s goals and pain points.
- What are they hiring you for?
- Why are they in business?
- What frustrates them?
- What do they hate about working with freelancers?
Include these things in your application and you’ll stand out.
This works really, really well because no one does it. I remember that in an application to a high profile blog, the editor really emailed me saying she had read over 40 applications so far and was so happy to finally read mine because everyone else was so boring. I got that job. It was my first $100/article job, plus it helped my career take off. It helped me stand out from even US-based native speakers who probably just sent in their resume and a 3-paragraph cover letter about their writing background. Try it. 🙂
How can an aspiring writer without a writing portfolio pitch to clients? How can they get started?
Everyone starts without a portfolio! That’s the great thing about this. So don’t be intimidated if you don’t have one.
In fact, in my first applications, I just said I was a writer. I probably wrote 2 articles to include as my portfolio, but these were just articles I wrote either for myself or to serve as my portfolio. Don’t wait for someone to give you a project before you make a portfolio.
The best part about not having any projects yet is that you have a lot of time. Use that time to crank out 2 sample pieces for your imaginary ideal project. If you want to write about entrepreneurship, make that the subject of your samples. If you want to write about travel, write about your travel experiences.
The same is true for most other portfolio-driven work, such as design, development, etc. Just make samples.
Can you give us your top 3 productivity tips?
I’m not really into tip-based thinking, especially since the granular tips I have specifically apply to the type of writing I do rather than the workflow overall. In my experience the tips change when the project changes, and, as a writer, every article is a different experience.
So I just try to play by some universal rules that I’ve learned from experience in my 12 years of doing this. Maybe they won’t apply to you or your readers, but they’ve helped me make smarter decisions and avoid stupid mistakes.
Rule #1 – Think of how much something is going to cost you, instead of the reward you expect.
Sometimes when we hear of opportunities, all we can hear are the potential rewards and not the costs we have to pay for these opportunities. And these costs aren’t always financial.
For example, in a local freelancing group, I once saw someone post that he likes writing $1 articles because “I don’t have to think. If the client pays me more, I have to think.” At first, I thought this was ridiculous, but he has a point! If it’s too “expensive” for him personally to think about each article, why will he be willing to go through the costs of writing and researching a $10 article, especially if he doesn’t want to pay these costs?
Sometimes, when I tell people that I get paid $250 to $500 per article, they usually think they want the job. But the more I explain the costs to them, some of them realize that they don’t really want the costs of doing that kind of work. It requires rigorous research, audio interviews, and writing in a more journalistic story-focused way rather than just jotting down information. The editors are really tough on you, too. And it’s fine if you don’t want to pay any of that! We all should be aware of the costs we are willing to pay and the costs that we will not pay under any circumstances.
I’m very socially anxious, so in normal circumstances there is no way you can convince me to do audio interviews, but my drive to write a good story wins over that. I am willing to pay the cost to find and talk to sources for my articles, even if I end up with panic attacks sometimes. I’d rather have the panic attack than not write the story, you know?
Rule #2 – Aim for a good process rather than a good event.
There’s a lot of event-based thinking in online freelancing.
- “If only I had the right tools.”
- “If only I could find a client who will pay me $X/hour.”
- “If only I could find my passion.”
As if by achieving these events, your current problems will disappear and you’ll immediately reach your goals.
As an example, I don’t have any productivity tools. My productivity tool is not an “event” like turning on a Pomodoro timer or launching an app. It’s a process. The process involves sleeping by 10pm and waking up at 4am. This is because I do my best work between 3am to 7am (but am unwilling to pay the cost of waking up at 2am). I learned this through observing myself and watching the conditions when work seemed to come more easily.
The same goes for finding your ideal clients. Waiting for an event like that depends so much on chance. Instead think of the conditions that will allow you to have your ideal clients.
- What skills should you have?
- How should you present yourself?
- The people who attract your ideal clients, what do they have that you don’t have?
- How can you “copy” what they have?
And again, it’s not about events, because people often copy the wrong thing. You can’t just copy a top performer’s website design or logo or sales copy and expect you’ll get the same types of clients. A lot of their work is in process rather than events, so dig into their process. Ask them directly.
Rule #3 – Reject the inbreeding of ideas.
I’ve noticed that when I ask other freelancers about their favorite blogs or podcasts, they often just mention freelancing or business blogs and podcasts. While that can be helpful, it’s important to be skeptical of the same ideas being tossed around amongst the same people. You’ll often just end up agreeing with each other, not testing anything, and coming up with things that are “common sense”.
The real magic happens when you mix two different fields in a way that they don’t usually go together — or even “shouldn’t” go together!
For a writer it’s a deadly mistake to only read about writing, or to only be interested in the writing and publishing world. As a writer, you’re a vessel for ideas and if most of your ideas are just about writing, you can easily go stagnant.
The same is true for marketers. Marketers share and promote ideas, and if all your ideas are about marketing, how will you be able to create original work that stands out from the millions of others who are also just marketing about marketing? This is why a lot of the marketing we have is spam and people looking to get thousands of fake “Likes” on Facebook as “social proof”. Reject inbreeding and don’t be afraid to combine two radically different fields or ideas together, no matter how crazy it sounds.
What does this have to do about productivity? EVERYTHING. The bottom line is that when you get financially comfortable, where your basic needs are mostly met, you’re going to look for more than just paying the bills. It is when we work on something we’re excited about, something new, something only WE can produce that we actually get enough motivation to go through the difficult parts. And there are always many, many difficult parts.
It takes me more than two weeks to type a very easy article I don’t care about and don’t have to research, but I can take only two to three days to type a very difficult research-heavy piece that gets me excited. How’s that for productivity?
What websites do you regularly visit? Why?
I don’t really visit websites anymore and rely mostly on feedreaders and email newsletters. Here are the things I subscribe to that I really love getting updates from:
- Longform and Longreads. I love reading creative non-fiction, and they share some of the best. I especially look out for articles that I read from start to finish even if I am not normally interested in the subject. If I read about something I don’t care about, it means the writer is doing something right. So I deconstruct their work and try to learn from it.
- I love Ann Friedman’s weekly newsletter and the This. newsletter for the same reasons.
- I also love the Hot Pod newsletter which is about podcasts, a beat I often write about and a medium I’ve been obsessed with for 10 years. The Timbre also helps scratch that itch and directs me to the more obscure shows I never would have discovered.
- Nautilus, Aeon, and JSTOR Daily. Because my love for science never went away. I love JSTOR Daily so much I even wrote about them here.
Celine awesomeness doesn’t end here. Look out for my next blog post where Celine shares her tips on how to negotiate your rates.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Celine and her work, visit www.celineroque.com. Most recently, she’s been co-creating Long Distance Sister , a talk show podcast that’s a mix of comedy, culture, personal stories, and terrible life advice. It has profanity and offensive things. Don’t listen to it.
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