crackers at christmas

It's nearly here and I almost didn't notice. The New Year, I mean, not Christmas. I only hope that 2010 is going to be good one, not just for me but for everyone else.

What? New Year Resolutions? Swim to France. Write a book on cars. Marry Gerard Depardieu (Update: sorry Gerard - you blew it by not talking to LeCRAN). That gets me off the hook for not keeping them because they were going to be impossible anyway.

However. Next year needs to be a turning point. Money is usually a word that makes me grip things hard and go white at the knuckles, and to tell the truth I'm tarrrrd of feeling that way. Worn out. On my knees. So for all you people who are also sick of the white-knuckle-ride through yet another year, and for me to have a good old stab at cracking the secret code of fluffy happiness, I've started on some articles about money and why we haven't got any.


No, not the "just save £500 a month, cut back to two crates of Krug a month and everything will be fine" or "speak to your financial advisers about stocks and shares and invest heavily in gold and rare dust from Mars" kinda stuff. Oh, and none of the "make a chart and work out your outgoings and  while you're at it do a rhumba with the Easter bunny" guff, either. That comes later.

No, what comes first is working out why people have a blind spot about money and why they've always struggled. I always have, have never known how not to, and it's only at this advanced age (over 50 and that's all you're getting) that I'm beginning to understand why, so with a little help from here and there I'm wanting to end 2010 solvent, out of debt and with a little heap of cash mounting up in the bank.

That gives me twelve months, with some time at the beginning to unpick some of that old destructive conditioning.

This is no mean feat, by the way. Like many others in the same rowboat, I get a physical, very visceral feeling of dread when it comes to dealing with money issues. Sometimes it's fear, as though I'm in a dark, closed room and somewhere in there is someone or something waiting to physically damage me.

I can track it all back. I know where it comes from and why, but the how - the prospect of unpicking it - feels about as easy as it might be to unpick all the red threads in the Bayeux Tapestry without ruining the pictures. It's not about assigning blame, either. This is about changing the way I deal with money so that I'm not affected or driven by what's gone on in the past. It's about time I drove the bus.

Phew. So that's my 2010. How's yours looking like from your end? About as much fun? Keep in touch.

Here's the link to the first article I prepared earlier. It'll answer some of those burning questions like "why do I feel like I'm being dragged over sharp gravel when the bills come in?" and "financial psychology. Isn't that when those "sell your gold" adverts come on and you laugh at the prices they're offering?". Well really. Who are they kidding.

recognising a pig in a poke when you see it

Image Hans S

There comes a time in every freelance writer's life when you know that staying on a particular freelance writer site is as sensible as crawling naked on all fours down the fast lane of the M4 in heavy fog, hoping to reach London alive.

There also comes a point when you know that posting up a particular URL on one's blog for other freelance writers who might find it useful is just unkind. Worse - it's downright cruel.

So anyway, and on a completely different subject entirely, iFreelance appears to be having a few administrative problems and isn't able to answer emails making complaints about racism in buyer projects. It seems that whether you post on this subject to the site itself or to the people who manage the site, no answers will be forthcoming, and so I can only imagine that their servers must be down, having coped with the massive influx of new buyers posting new projects.

These buyers are a new and vibrant breed, cutting to the very bone of finance and offering such challenging rates as $0.20 per 500 words. One can only applaud their marketing strategies and look forward to the truly mangled and nonsensical prose which will result from this pact and which will probably end up on one of these article mill sites adding to the general dross and fluff clogging up the imtertubes.

Personally I am lost for words at seeing iFreelance's change in standards, and I am particularly drawn to remark upon iFreelance's fiendishly clever subscription scheme which helps to pad their profit margin. Buyers don't have to subscribe of course, so for them it can be completely free. However - and this is the clever bit - writers pay a monthly subscription for the privilege of helping buyers see what the general market rate is, after which the buyers go away and fill the post somewhere else.

Now that's what I call inspired! Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen. That's the way to keep writers in their places. Jumped up little squirts who think writing is a craft and have the audacity to charge more than the cost of a pint of milk for a page of researched writing! Whatever next!! Everyone knows that all you need to write an article are the following ingredients:

1. Someone else's article thieved from some random site,
2. Article-spinning software,
3. Five minutes' spare time whilst waiting for the dog to throw up in the garden,
4. The ability to drag the resulting bunch of words through Copyscape before submission.

In fact, iFreelance have managed to adapt their standards to the extent that they can hardly be told apart from GAF!! Amazing!! That's what I call standardisation ...

freelance writing rates and outsourcing






















Illustration by John Leech

Well look at what we have here. Un petit billet-doux which explains (partly) why freelance writers are treated like so many cattle on bid sites. A little fluttering of printed cambric of the finest denier called the Outsource Report.

Now what's this on page 6 - "How to take advantage of other people to DO ALL THE WORK FOR YOU" .. well yeah 'taking advantage of' can simply mean making use of their resources .. but wait ..  'also, how to pay them a fraction of what you'd normally pay for online projects.' (My emphasis).

See, bidders ( those people in business) will tell you (another person in business) that they have no money (so they want YOU to subsidise THEM) and play on your heart strings and try to make you feel sorry for them (playing the victim, in other words).

Look, if you want a really nice dress you see in the window, you do not go in and say to the salespeople 'Hey, I want that dress but I only have $5. It's not worth any more than that anyway so just hand it over and don't argue.'

Or

'Hey that dress in the window is lovely. I'd really like it but I only have $5. I'm sorry, I just don't have any more money but you'd like to help make me look nice, wouldn't you?'

Or

'Here's $5. I'd like $200 worth of dress please.'

No, none of that works. It doesn't work because if you want something good, you pay for it. You don't try to bully people into accepting less and no-one should be selling their writing for less than it's worth, or devaluing their own skill. Fair enough there are some people around saying they're writers but then you have to go and look at their portfolios and make up your own mind, and I dare them to demand professional rates.

I've even seen a freelance site saying you only need to be able to string a sentence together. And the rates they offer for different standards of work? One of the categories is "legible". I kid you not.

The sooner we can make sure that there are more sites where you can find decent writing, professional writers, and clients who respect the value of a job done professionally, the less chance there will be for these charlatan Scrooges to bully freelancers into working for tuppence a feature.
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freelance rates on Odesk

Image by Scarab

Rates on iFreelance have hit a new low today with one buyer offering $0.20 per 400 word article. Yes that's right. $0.20. They want 25 articles a week at that price, leaving a writer with the total massive sum of $5.

Per week.

Now, that might be acceptable in a country where living costs are so low as to make $5 look like a fortune. I get that. But this buyer isn't even apologising for the low rates and is dangling this $5 a week as though it's a prize: come on, bid if you're tough enough to handle the work.

*eyeroll*

But what's this? An urgent communication from Odesk who are keen to recruit more writers to the fold, and have recently made some big changes in the fee policies for buyers. What? Yes! A rise in the minimum rate for a complete project, and also a rise in the minimum for a max price!

Higher minimum rates? Great stuff! I love it when a site stands up for its writers and requests that buyers pay a fair wage. Makes you want to go and work with them, and  feel valu ....

Uhhhh .. wait.

We've made a few small tweaks to job posts. (A) The budget for fixed-price jobs must be at least $5, and (B) the max hourly rate can't be less than $3. 

Sigh.

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racial discrimination, ifreelance
















Image: Karora

So there you are, sauntering through the offers being hung out of windows by buyers eager to attract the services of passing writers, and you find one buyer who is keen only to attract native speakers of English and refuses to entertain the idea of receiving bids from anyone from India or China.

Huh?

Let me read that again. Oh, OK. He says he will not "except" people from India or China. Oh! That's alright then. He won't exclude them after all (but why bother saying it ... ). Anyhoo ..

But wait another second! In the public discussion that follows, when the subject is brought up, he justifies racial discrimination in the ad by saying that it was approved by the website before it was uploaded. Oh, so he did mean to exclude anyone from India and China. And it's not his fault but iFreelance's fault for letting it through.

Riiiiiiight.

So. We are now waiting for a reply to an email sent to iFreelance, asking when this breach of US, UK and Canadian legislation will be dealt with, either by the buyer removing the offending sentence, or removing the offer altogether.

You can see why the poor dear is so confused about who can and who cannot speak English proper, like, innit.  He can't even speak it himself.
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even white rabbits have good manners

When you're a freelance writer you want enough work coming in to keep you in water and gruel, but not so much that you end up working 30 hours a day, 9 days a week. That is no fun and defeats the object of going freelance in the first place - i.e. to enjoy life again.

So, there you are on these bid sites and you're bidding on projects, planning your schedule, hedging your bets, keeping time free for this - and that - juggling ... and then  - NOTHING. The buyers don't award the projects and don't even have the good manners to end the project.

Even an imaginary white rabbit has a sense of urgency in meeting deadlines and arriving somewhere on time.

Maybe buyers don't realise when we bid, that unless we're a team of writers, we're making sure that whatever we bid for is factored in to a draft schedule so that we're not ever going to be overloaded. The end dates of the bids are important because that's part of our draft schedule.

The buyer, however, might have scattered the project round several freelance sites and found a writer somewhere else, but they don't bother to come back and let people know it's been awarded. Not a peep. Not a single solitary sausage of a hint.

Writers just want  to know if the project has been awarded! So we can get on with our lives! And bid for other projects, knowing that the buyer isn't going to suddenly appear after one, or two, or even six weeks (this has actually happened) and say, "you know that project you bid on six weeks ago? You're hired."

It just ain't gonna work like that, because by then we have a different schedule in place, with new clients and new deadlines. We were ready six weeks ago to dive into your project, or find new clients, but you didn't show!

And if that white rabbit is hiring, I'm open.  I like his commitment to deadlines.

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plagiarism, plundering and profit

Like most writers I'm very fierce about plagiarism. I don't do it and I despise people who do. Editors and buyers quite rightly get very sniffy about writers who turn in copy that contains work lifted shamelessly from other articles, but their reasons are about hard cash and reputation - plus Google rankings if you're an online purveyor of information. Not for nothing does Stephen Ambrose turn up as a keyword in an adsense search for plagiarism terms.

Just recently I followed up the work of someone who had done an article for a buyer and had used it in their showcase portfolio of work. The piece seemed stilted somehow, as though it had been hard to write, although the subject was easy to cover. It didn't flow, ideas were repeated, and there didn't seem to be the confident voice of a professional writer behind it. So I called up Google and did a search for the title. Up came some links and I visited the first one. Well guess what. This writer's article had been lifted and rejigged from another article, even including some comments that revealed the other writer's personality. It was so obvious this was a quick rehash done in what - 5 minutes? And clumsily.

The article may well have passed Copyscaping for sentence content and structure but the words were just in a different, mangled order. And yet - and yet!! - she had received good feedback for this article.

Does this kind of plagiarism and plundering matter in commercial writing? If you're up at the coal face, churning out articles for buyers who are trying to fill off-the-peg adsense websites with copy, then the buyer will get penalised by Google for duplicate copy and you as the writer will lose a client and probably not get paid. It's just a dumb thing to do.

Plagiarism certainly matters when you're working on long distance writing. This is the stuff you're sweating over, working long hours to pull off, hoping that this will be the next big novel or the last word in geophysical research or the dog's danglies in deconstructive criticism. Sticks in the craw when you discover that some smartass has lifted paragraphs from your blood-soaked manuscript and claimed it as his or her own.

So don't do it.


Image credit: PDClipArt

Where copywriting is concerned, there is a big divide between professional writers who do their own research, credit sources and write the whole damn thing themselves, and those who plunder, use article-spinning software, and turn out a load of horse manure. Maybe that's why many buyers on bid sites are not prepared to pay a decent rate. They're too used to horse manure and they know it's not worth much. Thank heaven for those buyers who know good writing when they see it.
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writing articles and marketing

If you're a freelancer, one of the most important skills you need to have is marketing. You can have the most gripping work, the most exciting writing cv and the most creative brain on the planet, but if no-one knows you exist you may as well knit socks and stare at the wall.

Marketing yourself needs to be added in to your weekly schedule so that you spend some time finding new outlets for your work, getting yourself noticed, and learning how to stand out from the crowd. There are x million writers out there and you are number x million +1. What makes you different? What makes your work better than someone else's?

Best not to rubbish the professional competition though or that will come back to bite you where it hurts. Competition is what makes you keen and hungry and competition raises standards. Competition is what sorts out the article-spinners from those writers who research everything and write each piece to the highest possible standard they can and deserve to be paid a decent fee for it.

I've already mentioned having a website but that's got to reach people otherwise your website will have no other visitors than the occasional friend and the webcrawlers.

Here are some ideas for putting yourself out there and finding new online clients:

  • Trawl the freelancer bid sites that have clients paying a decent whack for your work. Set up a good portfolio and profile for yourself on each one, and link to it from your website or put a link on your email signature.
  • Start a blog about something that really interests you and consider using adsense. Link to it from your website or your email sig.
  • Join freelance support networks and join in on the forum.
  • Link in to places like LinkedIn that will hold details of you and your experience.
  • Trawl web developers and contact them with a note about yourself, your rates, and some samples of what you've written.
  • Trawl websites that you feel could do with some spruced up or extra copy and contact the webmaster with your written samples.
  • Trawl print magazines and journals that cover an area of your expertise and contact them with a query letter.
When you put your profiles together, really sell yourself. I've seen a lot of portfolios that are hesitant and self-abasing because the writers aren't yet sure of their skills or their abilities. It doesn't matter how much or how little you've done in the past - a client wants to feel reassured that you're confident, able to do the job, won't mess them about and that you have a good writing style, so don't go apologising for not having a track record in freelance writing. Instead, hoik up some work in your portfolio that shows the kind of writing you can do, even if it's personal stuff that hasn't yet been published. Let that light shine, baby! Strut that stuff.



Image credit: PDClipArt

The other thing is that you cannot be precious about your work when you are finding markets for it and selling for hard cash. This is no different to selling beercan widgets or corn flakes or catfood - you are creating a commodity that people want to buy and that's it. You have to know whether your work will fit in with their business strategy too - no point trying to sell round plastic dongles to a company whose customers only buy square glass cubes. If that's the case you simply have to find a company who sells square glass cubes or you start making round plastic dongles as well. It's that simple.

The bottom line is confidence - you're a writer. Writing is what you do. Tenacity - don't give up. Adaptability - you really can write about a lot of stuff because it's all out there when you research it.

Put yourself out there, and enjoy the ride. Again and again.
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article writing

Here's a whizzy little Google tool for brainstorming ideas for articles and series of articles. Just stick something in the Google searchbar, and then when it comes up with all the links, click on "more options" and scroll down to the wonderwheel. A bit like Tony Buzan's mind mapping, this magical bit of techno-tweakery will spark off so many more ideas if you simply click on one of the arms of mind map and then continue exploring.




Warning. This is hellishly addictive. Before you know it, you're digging so far down and so deep you've forgotten what the original series was about. A bit like reading the dictionary.
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better pay for freelance writers

I think I need a lie-down in a darkened room with the blinds drawn. Is it me, or are there some freelance sites emerging which attract buyers prepared to pay the going rate? I've just been having a squint at Freelancer and knock me down with a cross-eyed duck but buyers are considering paying decent fees for a decent day's work without even flinching. None of this "£1.50 for 500 words" nonsense. Nosirree. Writers there are setting out their stalls with their range of hourly / daily / monthly / project fees and buyers aren't thundering into the hills or whacking all the writers with baseball bats studded with rusty nails.

The formula seems to be this: that you set out your minimum fees in your profile. You value your writing from the word go and you stick to it without being encouraged to bid ludicrously tiny amounts so as to be the lowest bid. Your fee is your bid. The buyers can have a look at your application letter, your profile and your body of work to see the standard at which you write, look at the fee, compare your application with the others who are also quoting their own going rates, and make their own decisions.

Finally, we have a place where providers can be judged on their professional writing skills. It had to come. There had to be a solution to the problem of buyers waving laughably miniscule budgets about and expecting professional writers to jump through hoops. Maybe the whole sordid business was a rite of passage for the concept of the freelance bid site to see what worked and what didn't, although we really could have done without the baseball bats. It comes down to this: pay professional writer fees and you get professional writers. Buyers had to learn the hard way that if you pay peanuts, only a handful of the vast numbers of monkeys on typewriters will write Shakespeare. The rest will groom each other, eat fleas and use article-spinning software.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond
Morguefile
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toggl-ing for fun and profit

And there I was, trawling the dusty internet hinterlands, and guess what I found for us luvverly people who do stuff freelance-stylee and need to keep a tab on the hours we clock up. This charmingly attractive little doobrie, the Toggl, gives you the perfect way to clock up your time for one, two, five, heck - ten clients at a time! And it's free! So that's nice.

Wall Clock Thermometer Indoor Outdoor Double Sided Weather Resistant

You can shell out some silver for the premium version too, so the choice is your oyster, as they don't say. But anything that takes the nuts and bolts of admin away from the actual task of getting words down on a page and making your squillions has to be worth a look. It's so easy to use, too. I still wrestle with videorecorders so I know what I'm talking about.

freelance writer fees

Up until recently it has been fairly easy to find lucrative online writing gigs by going to bid sites with good reputations for quality work and finding buyers who pay a good rate for good writing and who appreciate what you do.

Then the peanut merchants started sniffing around. People who offer work at below the market rate and dictate terms rudely and officiously in their project descriptions. They want professionally written articles, free of all grammatical and spelling errors, 100% original and packed with researched information. "Don't bother arguing about the fee," they snarl. "It's non-negotiable. $1 per 500 words. Take it or leave it and shut up about it."
















Image: The Simpsons

Gee, thanks. Does that come with or without a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.

And still people bid for work with them. What's happening to the self respect that writers have for themselves, and the pride they have in their writing? Since when did $8 a day / $40 a week, if you manage to write 8 x 500-word articles a day, ever pay the bills unless you live in a tent in a field (in which case how are you paying your internet bill ..).

Just the other day a buyer posted a project on iFreelance.com, the wording for which was confrontational and rude. In the discussion that followed he insulted a professional writer. I believe a few people wrote an email of complaint to iFreelance and to the company that runs them - he's still on site of course.

As long as these charlatans continue to post their projects, as long as bid sites accept the projects, and as long as a few providers queue up like slugs at a beer trap for the privilege of being slapped round the face, more buyers will believe that this is all we're worth and the quality of the writing on these bid sites will deteriorate. Pretty soon we will see a decline in the calibre of writers on bid sites and instead the sites will be heaving with article-spinners giving the impression that all you need for an article is a few words and a bit of software. Eventually, those bid sites will go out of business because they will have lost all credibility.

Can we please see bid sites being picky about the projects they allow buyers to post? Can we please see some form of standard to which buyers must adhere in terms of pennies per word?

Or are they too cynical to bother?
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english vocabulary

There is nothing lovelier, when reading a piece of writing, than finding that the writer has a vast and varied vocabulary. Ideas, colours, sounds and feeling leap off the page and drag you right in there and don't let go until the end of the last paragraph - and sometimes they still hang on like dogs to a bone.

When a writer uses vocabulary like an artist's palette, amazing things happen. The reader (you) is engaged and hooked. You stick with it. You follow that writer's thread to the very end because you're interested. You're seduced by the language.

All writers read, or at least, we need to read. We need to read everything. Adverts. Newspapers. Novels. Journals. Online websites. Reference books. We read because we want to know things, we want to expand what we know, we want to increase our fund of words. We need to be reading every day and immersing ourselves in whatever we can find - it's the best way there is of honing our language and using exactly the right words to say what we mean.



Image: Morguefile

The more we read the better we are at deciding what works and what doesn't. What makes a piece of writing leap off the page and what doesn't. And we'll know when we're writing whether we're just being lazy and using cliches and stock phrases, or whether we're making every word earn its keep on the page.

We don't have to spring about and do handstands and show how clever we are (Oh look at me! I used a long word! Go me!) or use the most obscure words we can find to describe the simplest of things. But we can use a different shade of meaning and give the reader a richer experience of what it is we're saying.

That doesn't mean either that we get a big jar of adjectives and adverbs and tip them all into the pot. That's as pointless as using long words and about as effective as eating garden peas with a ditch digger. What are you, some kind of crazy person?

Would you rather your readers were satisfied after a full meal and looking forward to the next one - or gnawing on half a crust of dry bread and looking round for a better menu ..
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alert! alert! deadline approaching!

What do you do when you have treacle for brains and you grind to a halt in the middle of a commission.

There are plenty of creative writing exercises which can fire your blasters up again and masses of writers' prompts to spark off new ideas. Tony Buzan's mind mapping for example, or using Julia Cameron's guides to discovering or recovering your creativity.

But cripes. The deadline is next day or tonight or in two hours' time. Deadlines! You don't miss deadlines. Not ever. Not unless you don't want clients.

First, don't panic!



Get things into perspective. Yes, you have a deadline, but be kind to yourself. As a dear friend of mine says, does anyone need a bandage? Is anyone bleeding? It's simply an arrangement between you and your client that you will have some writing ready for them. That's easier to manage than sitting there frozen in front of the computer and watching the clock as though Jaws is booked to chew your leg off.

It's a piece of writing. Start breaking it down into bite-sized - errrr - ! no, paragraphs. How many words does this need to be - break that wordcount into introduction, body and conclusion. Three main points for the body? Four? Write them down.

Now start anywhere but at the beginning. You can write the beginning last otherwise you will stare at it and be back where you were before, sweating.

Develop the main points and do whatever research you need for each one.

Put everything else out of your mind and imagine this is a piece of work to save a mate's life. No, really! It works, simply because your focus and impetus are temporarily motivated by an imagined urgency. It's important. It's not about you and your writing, it's about them.

Once you've got the middle and the end done, work on the beginning. And that's a piece of banana cream pie because you've just written what the piece is about so all you have to do is introduce it.

If you've got time, leave it to sit for a while so you can go back and look at it with a critical eye. If it's due any minute now, then still give it the once over for bloops and typos but remember right now that sense of calm you had writing the piece. All because you managed to distance yourself from your own worries.

Deadlines need a different name, anyhow. I call them work dates. Much more fun :-)
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freelance writing for hard cash

It's addictive, this freelance writing thing. Perhaps you've come to it having written print articles under your own name or you might decide that since you have a flair for the written word you'll change your career direction and get out from under.

No more commuting. No more being stuck in a queue of crazed drivers or standing nose to neck in the public transport system. No more shovelling the car out of a snowdrift at 6 a.m.

Instead you can lope to your laptop, turn on the radio, and get to the end of the day NOT feeling like a bag of last week's laundry.

There's such a toe-tingling sense of freedom that comes with taking on freelance copywriter jobs. You can find assignments that have you scribbling excitedly for hours, or they lead you to learn more than you ever thought possible about spitoons, and you can write all day and every day from your kitchen table parked right next to the fridge. Hooray!

Dilbert.com

All you need now is a full fridge. So just be careful about the jobs you pick. Not everyone out there understands that writing is a craft that you hone and that it deserves as much recognition as any other job that takes skill and effort. Don't sell yourself for half a shirt button.

On bid sites you may have to lower your hourly fees in contrast to those freelance writing jobs in the real world, but don't go rock bottom just to try and win the assignment unless you really are honestly wanting entry level writing jobs to practice on.

Some buyers will offer something like $1.00 (about £0.50) for 500-700 word articles that they expect to be well researched, professionally written and 100% error free. Pardonnez-moi. Unless your personal cost of living is practically zero that's not going to keep bread on the table let alone cookie dough ice cream in the fridge. The standards they're demanding are professional standards ('cos it does say 'professionally written!) and as such the writer deserves a fair whack in the form of a decent amount of hard cash.

OK as a newbie to the game you might do one or two of those jobs to gain experience and to get some positive feedback, but once you have, move on up. Expect and ask for more. Have a bit of belief in yourself and your writing skills. Sell yourself for half a shirt button and you'll soon end up tired, disillusioned and cynical about the whole business, and you'll have lost that go-getting, ass-kicking attitude as well as having to sell your shirt to stay alive and breathing.

You're a damn fine freelance writer. Tell yourself that every day and expect more than loose change.
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