Jennifer Mattern’s Insights on Being an Independent Writer

Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer, blogger, web publisher, and independent author who owns several dozen websites through her company, 3 Beat Media. In addition to providing work for clients, Jennifer shares insights on writing, blogging, and publishing professionally through AllIndieWriters.com.

Below, Jennifer shares how to make the most of her site, her approach to establishing contracts with new clients, and her thoughts on specialization, the relationship between professional writing and social media, and the manner in which the freelance writing industry has evolved in the past couple of years.

How might one best utilize All Indie Writers on a regular basis?

Jennifer MatternOne of the best things about All Indie Writers (I hope) is the fact that users can pick and choose from so many features. It’s not just a blog (or three). It’s an all-out professional writers’ community with blogs, a forum, a marketplace, writer’s market directory, and a variety of tools to help writers in any phase of their careers.

The blogs and forum are probably the best places to start to get a feel for the community or to suggest new features. Right now the majority of the site is still tailored to freelance writers as All Freelance Writing was the largest of the three blogs merged to create the new site this fall. My hope is that indie authors and bloggers taking part in the community will tell me what they want to see resource-wise so I can continue to tailor site features to their needs as well.

For now, the blogs and forum are the best regular stops. But if there’s something pro writers want or need as a professional resource, then I’d like All Indie Writers to step up and give that to them. E-books, e-courses, and additional marketplace segments for authors and bloggers are coming in early 2014.

When kicking off a project with a new client, do you typically create a contract from a template, draw one up from scratch, or take a different approach entirely?

While I know this is a major no-no for a lot of writers, I don’t always use formal contracts. Once in a while I’ll draw one up. But if I use one I tend to let the client send their version over and I tweak it from there if necessary. This is usually for corporate clients, whereas most of my clients are solo professionals or small businesses. For most clients we simply spell things out in writing and get confirmation via email. It’s less about needing some specifc format, and more about simply getting things in writing, making sure both parties are clear, and making sure I have some verifiable agreement to start the project should I ever need it in court (not that I’ve ever needed to go that route). A project brief with a sign-off is just as valid as a more traditional contract, and it often makes more sense for the kinds of clients I work with.

Do you still specialize in work for independent and creative professionals as a freelance writer? What are your thoughts on specializing as a freelance writer as opposed to appealing to as many potential clients as possible?

Jennifer MatternI work with fewer creative professionals these days on a contracting basis and instead work with them through my various sites and communities. I do still work predominantly with independent professionals and small businesses though — largely online businesses.

I consider specializing vital when it comes to freelance writing. Some writers feel that would limit them too much. But that just isn’t true. Specialists almost always get paid more than generalists because clients want the specialized knowledge they bring to the table. So even if you bring in fewer clients, you can work with fewer clients and actually make more money. It’s not a simple numbers game where a larger client pool equals more income potential.

As for specializing leading to a shortage of prospects, only you decide how broad or narrow your specialty is. And you can specialize in more than one thing. The key with that is to work in specialty areas that share target markets so you don’t have to market those services to completely different groups (which would eat into billable hours). For example, I’m a business writer. I specialize in copywriting projects like press releases, business Web copy, and white papers. But I also specialize in professional blogging. I target my blogging services to business owners who either need a copywriter to bring a company blog to life for them or those looking for business-oriented content. The specialties are loosely tied together, but it leads to more opportunities than I could ever possibly take on. And I don’t have to waste time marketing blogging services to a completely different group of prospects. If a writer feels too limited by their specialty, I’d urge them to reevaluate it and see if they might be specializing in too narrow an area.

Through which channel have you garnered the most new clients?

I’ve probably attracted the most new clients through my professional website and blogs. The key is to make sure you can be found through search engines so prospects looking for a writer in your specialty area come across you first. It helps that I spent years at the top of search engine rankings in a specialty area where search engine optimization matters. If clients expect the copy you write for their sites to help them rank well, your own better do the same. After my site, most new clients come from referrals. But with most of my work coming from repeat customers, I don’t actually take on many new clients anymore.

What inspired you to transition from PR and social media to freelance writing?

The transition was easy for me. The majority of my PR and social media work was writing-related anyway (press releases, social media profiles and updates, newsroom content, company blogs, etc.). I was offering other business writing services on the side for years anyway, so I was already technically earning a full-time living from my writing even though I didn’t consider myself a full-time writer until 2008. I just got tired of consulting and the day-to-day aspects of things like media relations and social media promotion. Focusing exclusively on writing gave me far more flexibility with my work schedule.

In what ways does your previous experience with PR and social media help you as a freelance writer?

Now I can put those PR and social media skills to use promoting my own services and projects instead of someone else’s. I knew how important it was to build visibility and find a way to stand out from my PR experience, and I was successful at doing that within my target market early on. Without that background, I might have been just another writer who wasn’t comfortable with marketing. Instead, marketing and PR are things I’ve embraced, and now I try to help other writers do the same.

I’m actually slowly moving away from offering client services and moving more toward my own book and Web publishing projects, which is something I’ve wanted to do for years. I love freelancing. But focusing exclusively on my own publications is the next step in my career. I was well on my way to reaching that point a few years ago but let some of the projects slide while I focused on health issues and my freelance clients. Now I’m getting those projects back on track, and my PR and social media background are amazing assets in making this next transition.

What is the most significant manner in which freelance writing has changed over the past five years?

One thing I hear a lot from freelance writers is that they’re upset by how many new writers are out there (especially those offering sub-par work at bottom-of-the-barrel prices). The first thing I tell them is to forget those writers and the people who hire them. They’re not in your target market, and they don’t matter within the scope of your career.

But there’s a better way of looking at this shift brought on by the Web and online marketplaces. Don’t look at it as more competition. Instead focus on the fact that there are far more clients out there looking for top notch writers these days. Where small business owners couldn’t always hire writers from the next city over (nonetheless across the country or halfway around the world), now you can find clients from pretty much anywhere. The Web opens all kinds of doors. I’d say that’s the most important change over the last five years. But something even better has happened recently. These low quality content producers and their clients are finally being penalized for littering the Web with garbage. The emphasis is moving more toward quality, and I suspect we’ll see continued increases in clients looking for seasoned professionals in the future. Things only go up from here.