Okay, so it’s not really a war. Freelance writers are all part of the same occupational family, each of us offering a different creative version of the same service. We partake in forums where we help one another do the best we can do; we all go (or want to go) to the classes and conferences that help us define and refine our craft.
Even so, families have their rivalries.
For freelancers, that rivalry takes place on the bidding field.
But, before I get into how to write a great proposal, there are four things about the freelance writing market you should keep in mind…
HARD TRUTH #1: Even bad proposals get selected sometimes.
After all, many people looking to hire a freelance writer readily admit they don’t know how to write — like, at ALL — so chances are that eventually one of them will also not recognize what reads well. That person will probably choose a proposal that exhibits a feature they do recognize, like price, turnaround time, flexibility, responsiveness to messages, et cetera.
Or, heck, maybe they just close their eyes and point to their computer screen in order to randomly select a name from an applicant list (#itcouldhappen).
So if you think you’ve been getting jobs simply because your proposal writing skills are great… well, that doesn’t always jive. Think of your proposals as your advertisements, mind you they’re directed toward an individual person and not a broad audience. Just like there are a lot of good companies out there that run crappy ads and still stay in business, so can a good writer put out bad proposals and still find work. And maybe that works for you, but… what if you could get better work by running better ads? If that sounds like something you’d like to get in on, keep reading.
“Meh. Don’t care.”
HARD TRUTH #2: Clients may not care about your perfectly written proposal. At all.
This is a truth that really sucks because really great proposals take a lot of time to craft. And since time is money, it hurts when you don’t get a return on your investment.
Still, the fact is that there are some clients who don’t care about what a proposal contains or how it reads. They may not be the type of clients who are oblivious to what a good writer’s writing looks like (see Hard Truth #1) — in reality, they may know exactly what good writing looks like — but these folks actively DON’T CARE about your skills. Period.
Instead, they’re focused on other aspects of your candidacy. Things like:
- your rate
- project turnaround time
- availability (i.e. “Do you work weekends/nights/holidays?”)
- alternative skill sets (in case they want to hire you to do more than one thing at a time, like both write and illustrate, or both write and manage their company’s blog)
- proximity (I’ve had clients who’ve hired me just for being nearby because they prefer to meet in person rather than discuss the job over email or phone)
- how you want to get paid (e.g. fixed rate or hourly? in increments or in a lump sum at the end of the job? with or without escrow protection*?)
It’s our best guess as to which of these — if any — drive the potential client to select their ideal candidate. So while you may think the client wants to hear about your five award-winning novellas, they may only care if you can meet with them regularly on Sunday evenings to discuss the project.
Oh, and if you take checks.
“I feel like this is getting complicated. I’d just rather not.”
HARD TRUTH #3: The client’s commitment to the project may be… fickle.
I’ve had this happen many a time:
A potential client will reach out either on a jobs board, privately via email, or in person (if we happen to be crossing paths and talking about our work at the same time). They’re excited about their project. They have this great idea and they can’t wait to get started and ‘Do you think you could do it!?’ they exclaim.
‘Sure,’ you say. So you listen to their idea and draft a quick bid (even if only mentally) for the work you think you’ll have to do. Then you proceed to discuss everything concerning their project: outlines, time tables, budgets, contracts… you know, all that boring, business-like, non-writing stuff.
As you talk, the wind gets blown out of their sails. Suddenly this sounds like work; it’s not as fun anymore. Suddenly it occurs to them that they’re entering into a financial agreement (via contract*) and might have to — gulp! — pay you!
Once you show them the cost estimates, their eyes gloss over. You’ve officially lost them.
‘That’s a lot of money,’ they say aloud (or write) (or think) (or say via body language).
‘Well, writing is hard work,’ you say (or write back) (or think) (or say via body language).
Their interest deflated, they offer up an “I’ll get back to you about it” but never do. Should you have pushed the sale harder? Should you have fluffed your writerly feathers and wowed them with more amazing stats about your #skillz?
Maybe. But if it was either of the following two realizations that turned them off from their own project, there was really little you could do to get them to commit:
- They wanted their project to be fun and games, not work and business.
- They don’t want to pay you what you actually charge.
If the client wants you to work for free or to do it for “exposure” or “experience,” they can ask their Auntie Ava to write their memoir (unless she’s a freelancer, too, then I hope Auntie Ava charges a fair rate!).
HARD TRUTH #4: Even GREAT proposals don’t get selected.
Yours could be one great proposal among many. Or for another reason altogether your awesome proposal may not have been selected.
Sometimes, we just gotta chalk it up to “Not meant to be” and “Better luck next time. Because, let’s face it: Sometimes it really is about luck.
Though it’s frustrating to admit, we always can’t tell what, exactly, the client is looking for or how seriously they’re looking. But as freelancing spirits we’re not so easily deterred, so trudge ahead and do our best we must, despite detours, disappointments, and hurdles!
That said, here are my
Tips on Writing a Super Proposal
1. Take the time to know the job.
Seems basic, but sometimes out of desperation (or as part of their self-marketing strategy) freelancers will go for quantity over quality. Hey, I can’t say mass submissions never works, but they can be mentally draining without being financially rewarding.
Also, refusing to take the time to see what a job requires could put you in the hot seat in the event that you do (somehow, magically) score the contract. What if you find you can’t do the work and have to decline the job after you’ve been awarded it? Or, worse, find yourself mid-project and realize you can’t finish the work? That’s just embarrassing and a hard hit to your professional portfolio, especially on sites like Upwork where the client has the opportunity to leave a negative review on your profile.
2. Customize your cover letter.
While you may be able to get away with using certain aspects of a previously submitted proposal for a different job, don’t copy and paste your way into the freelancing game.
Potential clients can see right through this tactic and, unless they’re looking for one of those alternative aspects mentioned previously, submitting an impersonalized cover letter will only cause them to think (a) you’re too lazy to read the actual job description, (b) you’re too lazy to do the actual work of writing a good response, or (c) you don’t really care about the job (see ‘a’).
Either way, you don’t come out looking good and, like a resume cover letter that isn’t tailored to the employer’s needs, your proposal will likely get swiftly tossed in the round file.
3. Make clear your rates.
Take the extra time to be clear about how and why you’re charging what you do, especially if the job description expresses client concerns about rates. If you’re interested in the job but your price is higher than the client’s initial budget, it’s okay to still apply and offer up a solid explanation as to why your rate is higher than they might like and why it’s worth it.
This is a great opportunity to sell your skills as well as show you’re a professional who understands value. If you feel you need to, refer to the Writer’s Market’s “How Much Should I Charge?” report. It’s a little outdated, but certainly a usable reference when discussing various writing fees.
Just remember: You’re not defending your rates, you’re just explaining them. And don’t patronize the client when you clarify your rates, either. Nobody likes a smarty pants who makes other people feel stupid.
4. Offer appropriate samples.
Like your cover letter, get into the habit of being selective about which writing samples you share with a prospective client. If the job is for nonfiction work, share nonfiction samples. If it’s for blogging, share blogs you’ve written.
Offering samples of unrelated work is a great way to show you’re NOT paying attention. For instance, if you’re applying for an adult romance fiction writing gig, don’t share the latest nonfiction elementary school inspirational picture book you wrote (and/or illustrated).
A special note: If you’re often hired as a ghostwriter, be sure to obtain the permission of past clients before sharing their work as part of later bids. You can easily do this by giving clients the option of declaring permissions at the start of the project, as part of your written contract. Then you can simply refer back to the contract later on to see if you have received permission to share the work or not.
5. You’re a writer, so write well. (Always!)
Another seemingly obvious one, I see a lot of comments on freelancing forums from self-proclaimed writers who don’t take the time to type out complete sentences or use proper grammar or punctuation.
If you can’t offer me paragraph separation in your 250-word rant about low-paying work, it’s no wonder nobody is taking you seriously!
Learn to interact in every way (every day!) the way you want to be seen as a professional. Make good writing a personality trait, not just a profession. Whether it’s in your texts or emails, in private forums or in proposals, make it a habit to show your best abilities (and not only in writing, but in attitude as well!). Do that, and people will begin to remember you for those things.
Likewise, habitually communicating with bad writing will cause people to habitually remember that about you… even if, in your work, you’re a very clean-cut writer, nobody will know it!
6. Be confident, not cocky.
People don’t have time to wrestle with your ego and, trust me, it won’t do you any favors either. Confidence is professional and magnetic, but cockiness will just turn potential clients off from liking you as a person which, in today’s workforce, is critical.
When writing your proposal, describe relevant accomplishments and abilities without embellishing them.
For example, instead of writing, “I’m an amazing historical novelist with several award-winning publications under my belt,” and inserting a link to your author website, opt for the more relaxed and low-key, “I am a published author of three successful historic novels” and allow the client space to ask for further information if they’re intrigued.
(Never interject irrelevant information or brags into your proposal. #TMI!)
Learn to be likable and you’ll experience a more successful freelancing career. Likability involves traits like honesty, positivity, and the ability to build and maintain good co-working relationships.
And just because you’re freelance doesn’t mean you work alone! The saying “No man is an island” applies here, and you need to learn to [quickly!] develop positive working relationships with clients in order to gain their trust, respect, and, ultimately, their business.
7. Say “Thank you.”
Your mother was right: Kindness pays.
Sometimes it might just take a little acknowledgement to put your proposal over the top. End your proposal letter with a quick “thank you” to the client for taking their time to read what you’ve had to say. Finish with a closing — “Sincerely,” “With Kind Regards,” et cetera — and type out your name, just as if you were signing a real letter.
Where other proposals may end in terse business lingo (bor-ing), your offer’s clean finish may be all the client’s palette needed to initiate a conversation with you instead of your competitors.
As long as you digest the four aforementioned hard facts of freelancing — and can equally learn to not take every rejection or non-response as a personal insult (though some clearly are) — you’ll be able to dedicate yourself to writing the best possible proposals in a way that best expresses and sells your skills and abilities.
Have additional tips for fellow freelancers about writing proposals? Share them in the comments!
*Like those who refuse to sign contracts, be wary of clients who don’t want to put money into an escrow account, especially if it’s a large project and an escrow service is readily provided (like on Upwork). The client may be trying to swindle you into working for free. This has happened to me before, and being duped is not a good feeling to either your ego or your wallet.