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The Diva List, Or How I Found Happiness As A Freelance Copywriter

I have something called a Diva List.

It’s a list of requirements to meet before I’ll take on a freelance copywriting (or consulting) gig.

The Diva List is something I’ve stumbled upon 100% by accident.

It’s also something that, before today, I only talked about with freelance copywriters in my certification program. Why only them? Because the very idea of a “Diva List” is potentially super-infuriating to clients, so it’s best to keep it under wraps. That said, the Diva List is critical for anyone that wants to be a happy, well-fed and well-respected freelance copywriter, which is why my certification students need to hear about it.

But here’s the thing about the Diva List: I don’t use it to be “a diva.”

The point isn’t to make demands for the sake of it.

I use the Diva List – and encourage you to use it – to play the game that clients are secretly begging us to play with them.

Because here’s something I’ve learned in my 10+ years of freelancing:

The harder it is to hire you, the more your best prospects will want to hire you.

Before we go any further, let me be clear. I like to keep the peace. Chalk it up to being the middle of seven kids, the youngest of three daughters and from a family of Mennonites (pacifists!) to boot. I suffer great anxiety at the idea of saying no. I have to look away when I see someone eating alone because why won’t anyone eat with them? I love when cars pull over to the side of the road to let an ambulance through – I know they have to, but that’s not the point. It’s nice when people work together and get along.

I’d rather live in a world where everything wasn’t a game.

But that would be a fantasy world. And I’d get paid in fantasy dollars.

In the real world:

  • The harder it is to reach a goal, the more we want it (Jong Seok Lee et al., Sept 2014
  • The harder we work for something, the more we value it, regardless of its actual value – like the endowment effect, but the trophy effect (Christoph Buhren, Dec 2013)

We are irrational beings.

That’s the way it is. So that’s why I play the game.

My Diva List is an interpretation of that game. But first:

Before you can make diva-ish demands, this needs to be true for you.

How do you get someone to put up with a list of demands before you’ll “let them” hire you?

You become an expert.

Here’s what I’ve done – and what I keep doing – to improve my brand and set me apart as an expert copywriter….

> I put in my time as a lowly copy slave.

For yeeeears, I answered to others, defended my work, saw my work torn apart, interviewed customers, did what the client said, ignored what the client said, lost to other writers, proved myself against other writers, made enemies of marketers – all of it. I did all of it for 8 years before starting Copy Hackers. And I encourage you to put in your time, too.

Because there is no repeatable hack for jumping to the front of the line.

I have seen people try to circumnavigate the path to experience, and I’ve seen them quickly – and slowly – fail.

With little more than an English degree and a few proofreading jobs, you are allowed to do the minimum: hang your shingle and charge $25/hr. You are not allowed to call yourself an expert and create a diva list.

Put in your time. Good Lord, put in your time. It will be worth it. Experience is good.

> I say yes to 99% of the promo opportunities that come my way.

Podcasts, interviews, guest posts, guest spots at late-night online copywriting classes. Only recently have I started to say no, and that’s simply because I have a new venture I’m working hard on, so I just don’t have time in my calendar.

The #1 reason anyone might think anything about me is because I put a good amount of stuff out there whenever I’m invited to.

And even when I’m not.

> I give away my best.

I started Copy Hackers as an experiment in writing and selling ebooks. So I started by charging for my best stuff. But I very quickly discovered that, if I gave away my top lessons in great guest posts and here on Copy Hackers, I’d do much better.

So that’s what I’ve done.

I’ve seen dozens of freelance writers and designers give away checklists, ebooks, courses, templates, teardowns and more on their site and on influential sites; do the same.

> I write books. Sometimes.

Write an ebook. You’re a writer, for cripes sakes! Write.

For best results, you should already have put in your 10,000 hours before penning a publication; if you haven’t, you will ideally have been deemed a copywriting savant by someone influential like Brian Clark.

Ann Handley's mention of me in her Entrepreneur Magazine article.

Ann Handley’s mention of me in her Entrepreneur Magazine article.

> I speak at conferences. Sometimes.

Your Twitter followers go up nicely when you speak, and you get to turn your talks into lots of great, shareable content. Plus, influential people hear about you. Example: Ann Handley saw me speak at Copyblogger Authority Intensive in 2014 – where she did a killer job – and later quoted me!

Yes it’s a lot of work, and no you won’t be able to say yes to every opportunity if you have client work. But do a few conferences, and you will be seen as an expert.

> I pat my own back. Regularly.

I don’t hold back on name-dropping when needed. All we’re talking about with name-dropping – when you don’t overdo it – is social proof. In the bullet above I name-dropped Ann Handley… and unless you’re super-sensitive to that kinda thing, it probably made me look better in your eyes, not worse.

Eventually, the CEO of Freelancer.com Matt Barrie tells his audience that your ebooks changed his life. (Name dropping.) Eventually, Google tries to hire you. (More name dropping.) Eventually, you get to pick and choose the clients you’ll take on. Which is when you really need a Diva List of your own.

For now, use mine as a starting point.

You should play the game better using my very own Diva List.

Here are the things I do that might make me come off like a diva… but that actually get the job of helping clients done faster.

  1. Never be immediately available.
  2. Try the product / service / solution first.
  3. Charge an “uncomfortable project fee.” (The fee is uncomfortable, not the project.)
  4. Charge a non-refundable deposit to get on your waitlist.
  5. Write a contract designed to get more clients than the one being signed.
  6. Protect your time and your effort.
  7. Be 100% ready to negotiate – and say no.

One:
Never be immediately available.


Don’t answer email requests immediately. I’m not suggesting you enforce an old-school two-day rule. But be careful that you don’t respond so quickly or in such a way that makes you sound like you’re looking for work.

Don’t start a job immediately. This is a biggie. You should have a $-number in mind for the size of project you need in order to make yourself immediately available for work. Anything under that project size gets put on a waitlist. Anything over it gets your consideration for an earlier start date.

SIDE NOTE: My Diva List started in late 2011 when a prospective client, after trying to reach me for weeks, jumped at the chance to hire me when at last I replied to him. (I was really busy at the time and just couldn’t email back. I wasn’t playing a game.) I kept telling him all the reasons he should find a different copywriter… and that only made him more insistent that he needed me. He hired me on retainer for a year: $150/hr for 10 hrs/wk. The experience gave me a whole new outlook on landing clients.

Two:
Try the product first. 


I once had a weightloss pill dude try to hire me to write his sales page. I wasn’t about to try the product, but I did want to experience what it’s like to receive said product. The box in which a product is delivered to you says so much about the quality of the product. I mean, could Apple’s packaging be any more confidence-inspiring? Unboxing is a key part of the Apple experience.

The package of pills arrived about a week later. And it was beat to shit. Like, it was a mess.

I turned down the job.

You and I both only want to work for awesome clients selling awesome products. Why should we settle for less?

TIP: Record your first-use experience. Think aloud as you do. This will help you infinitely should you decide to take on the client.

Three:
Charge an uncomfortable project fee. 


If you feel a little uncomfortable sending an estimate to a prospective client, you’re probably charging what you should be. The client, too, will feel uncomfortable when they see what you’ve quoted. That’s fine.

Naturally, you will lose a lot of the higher-priced jobs because you quoted high. Some businesses continue to believe that they should pay next to nothing for copywriters; they think they’ll find a diamond that doesn’t realize she’s a diamond and charges like a moron accordingly. You do not need to be that diamond-slash-moron.

I have lost way more high-priced jobs than I’ve won. But I’ve also won enough to know it’s better to charge uncomfortably. And I’ve never, ever regretted quoting what I did. Because there’s an opportunity cost to taking on jobs with clients that can’t afford you: what opportunities might you be giving up to work for less on a project?

Oh, and this goes without saying: don’t charge hourly.

Four:
Take a non-refundable deposit.


Starting today, create a second calendar in your Google Calendar (or whatever you use) called Client Work.

Block out 4 hours a day, 5 days a week on that calendar.

Those blocked hours are the only ones you’ll make available for client work.

When you sign a client, add your work for them to your calendar’s work blocks. So a project you estimate will take 40 hours should take up 2 weeks on your calendar. Put the client’s name in that block.

This is the core of your availability calendar. If you use it religiously, you will start to see:

  • Just how long seemingly short projects actually do take
  • How much of your month you’re giving to a single project
  • How much you need to be charging to make it worth your while to do any job, big or small
  • When you’re next available for work

For a prospect to make it onto your calendar, they need to provide you with a deposit. No cash? No calendar. This way, if they decide they don’t need to hire you after all, at least you’re not totally out for the time you blocked for them on your calendar; without a non-refundable deposit, you could be screwed. And that’s when being a freelancer sucks. So let’s avoid that, shall we?

What’s the size of the deposit? To get on your calendar, it may be a small standard fee like $500, which you’ll then apply to the balance of their actual contract when you get to that stage.

If you’re already at that stage – that is, they’ve signed the contract and effectively become a client – do a non-refundable deposit of 33% or 50%. This deposit must reach you by X date for the project to happen on Y agreed date; if it does not, insert consequence. In my case, I work with a lot of clients in the US, and cheques mailed across the border ALWAYS get held – so I write in that my client must FedEx or wire-transfer the deposit to me.

NOTE: Be careful about who’s paying the service fees. If you accept payments by PayPal, write into the contract that they’ll pay those fees – because you do not want to pay $500 on a $15,000 payment. The client doesn’t, either, but someone has to – and why oh why should that someone be you?

Five:
Write a contract designed to get more clients. 


Your contract is a binding agreement between you and one client.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to a lot more.

We tell ourselves that our freelancing businesses are based on referrals. And that is, in fact, how a good amount of your work will come to you. But what about when clients don’t refer work to you because they just don’t? Or what about when a happy client refers a friend to you, but you’re too busy at that time, and now that client will assume you’re always busy and never refer work your way again.

Referrals are good but unreliable. Know what’s reliable? Great content. Know what makes for great content for attracting new clients? Case studies.

You need case studies.

Case studies help you write awesome guest posts on influential sites, which drive leads to you. (My guest posts on Copyblogger and KISSmetrics alone have brought in more than a handful of $30K copywriting gigs.) Case studies look awesome on your site. Case studies prove you know what you’re doing.

So I build case studies into every contract. That is, in my contracts, I insist that my clients agree:

  1. To A/B test the work I do with them (I offer to run the tests at no additional charge), and
  2. To let me turn those tests into case studies.

Don’t be scared to ask for this. The Diva List actually works to make people want you more. Remember that. You put obstacles in their way. You make it harder to hire you, and they’re then more likely to want to hire you. …And, of course, you’re a copywriter skilled in the art and science of persuasion, so you’ll make the split-testing sound like the value-add it is, right?

Be sure to tell the client, in the contract, what you’ll keep private and what you’ll share. For example, you should be keeping these things private:

  1. Their actual conversion rates
  2. Their traffic numbers
  3. Their revenue

And you can make these things public in any way you see fit:

  1. Their business name
  2. The URLs of the page(s) you tested on
  3. The conversion lift (or AOV lift or lift for whatever you’re measuring)
  4. The statistical significance / confidence of that lift
  5. The before, during and after story

You want to be allowed to share the learning – no sensitive business data.

It may also help to tell your prospects how you’ll be sharing your study: a blog post, a conference, a free ebook, a paid course. Finally, if they’re hesitating, let them know that they can review the study before it’s first published and that you’ll use the version they approve as your base for any other mentions of it. (To be extra-careful here, write in that the client will have 5 business days to review and give feedback on the case study. Don’t make your use of the case study dependent on their feedback.)

Six:
Protect your time and your effort.


When I worked in-house at Intuit, I had more than one file with this appended to the file name: “V19.”

As in version 19.

As in the original copy I’d written, based on a finalized creative brief, had been revised 19 times. Not one time but 19 times based on 19 rounds of feedback from a group of marketers, product managers and C-levels – people who’d never written more than a line or two of copy in their lives, had no idea what great-converting copy looked like, scoffed when I said “let’s test it”, and could hand out feedback like a ban against it had just been lifted because, well, they didn’t have to stay late to incorporate 7 people’s conflicting notes on what they “liked” and didn’t like.

It wasn’t just at Intuit.

Every client will give you as much feedback as they feel like if you let them.

So do this:

  • Write into your contract that you will do one (1) round of light edits.
  • Write into your contract that feedback must be added directly to the Google doc or to Invision (if you supply wireframes, too) within X time period if it is to be incorporated. Do not leave it up to you to make sense of their feedback or you will be tweeting #fml for the duration of your project.

Here’s how to justify being such a tight-ass about taking feedback:

If they want to further edit the final copy you send them, they’re free to. It’s theirs. They own it. But you are not their typist. (Don’t tell them that last part! That’s for you.)

Side note: you’ll get better feedback and less of it if you work with the person who hired you in the first place. Do your best before taking on a client to suss out whether you’ll be handed off to someone else or not; if the person who loved you enough to hire you vanishes on Day 1, your first month of freelancing with someone who’s never met you will be hell.

Seven:
Be 100% ready to say no.


Just because someone wants to hire you doesn’t mean they get to.

Even if they meet all of your demands, you don’t have to write a sales page for that scuzzy dude selling male enhancement products. You don’t have to answer for being unavailable for three months. You don’t have to squeeze them into your calendar even though they’d really, really, really appreciate it. You get to say no if you want to.

The Diva List gives you more wiggle room when it’s time to negotiate.

I personally never negotiate on price. If a prospect has a budget in mind that I’ve exceeded but s/he still wants to hire me – and I want to work with them – the scope of the project has to shrink in keeping. If you’re on the fence about whether you should negotiate on price, take my advice: don’t.

Everything else is negotiable, though.

That’s why the more you have on your list – within reason – the more you can “give up” to make your end of the negotiation feel slightly more generous than it may be.

Over the years, Lance has helped me become a rather savvy negotiator thanks to these totally boss tips:

  • Once you’ve made your proposal, sit quietly. You do not speak next. You do not speak until the other person has spoken. If they know this negotiation tactic, it can make for some really uncomfortable silences. But sit in the silence. (If this happens on the phone, it’s super-uncomfortable… but kinda fun. If it happens over email, make sure you have something like Yesware installed so that, at minimum, you’ll know if they’re being silent because they’re thinking or they’re being silent because they haven’t heard from you yet.)
  • Never apologize at any point in the negotiation process. Don’t even say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” You’re not sorry; you’re not sorry about anything. You’re outstanding talent and they need you. No apologies.
  • Forget your worries and focus on theirs. You know all the reasons you want the project: it’s good money, it’ll be a great case study, it won’t take that long ‘cos you’ve got experience writing for that market. You know you’d take 20% less than you quoted. But none of that matters when you’re negotiating; you should’ve thought of all that when you were quoting in the first place – and if you did, then trust yourself now. This is all you should think about: they haven’t walked out yet. That means they want this.

Your  prospects are involved every hour of every day – except when they’re asleep maybe – in complex games.

Your interaction with them and your efforts to turn them from a Lead to a Client is just one more game. You must play that game right in order to win at it.

Of course, in this particular game, when you win, everyone wins.

Because your services are actually insanely valuable to your prospects’ businesses.

If you fail to win at this game – if they do not hire you because you didn’t play the game well – everyone loses because your client (and your client’s visitors) miss out on all the work you would do to connect people who need a solution with the solution that your client has.

Why listen to me?

I am not even sort of a diva. If we met, I strongly doubt you’d get the impression that I have something called a Diva List. I’m not a diva at all. (I hope!)

But I’ve had a fantaaaaastic run as a freelance copywriter.

I’ve not only worked with a ton of cool companies, but I’ve also turned down freelance copywriting gigs from hundreds of small businesses and dozens of biggies, like Google, Tesco and Microsoft. (To say nothing of the high-paying full-time positions I’ve been offered – jobs with impressive titles at brands that make Joanna Circa 2009 salivate.) Since I left Intuit nearly 4 years ago, I’ve never been without a client waitlist, and I’ve earned an easy five figures in consulting each month.

But I started out like most freelancers.

I started out terrified that I’d scrounge around for clients my whole life and be lucky to get $25/hr.

The reality has been anything but that.

So give it a shot.

Suspend disbelief.

And remember: the Diva List is to be used for good, not evil. 

The point is not to be a diva.

The point is to play the game that your prospective clients NEED you to play so they can make the best move for their business: hiring you.

~joanna

PS: I don’t do consulting or freelance work anymore, outside of Clarity. If you’re a freelancer, that means more jobs for you! If you’re looking to hire a great freelance copywriter, stay tuned – something wicked this way comes in the next week-ish.

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"The only difference between me and a madman is that I'm not mad."
~ Salvador Dali

About Henry Lake

Over 16 years of Internet Marketing experience with focus on list building. Enjoy sharing ideas with other marketers.

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