Writing articles: self-promotion that someone pays you for

In a previous post, I talked about how self-promotion is not just for the self-employed. This post is going to tell you one of the most effective ways in which you can promote yourself and how you can make money doing it.

In their April 1991 issue, Home Office Computing magazine published a really good article on setting up shop as a consultant, “Surefire strategies for making it as a consultant” by Howard L. Shenson. It’s worth reading. (G’wan; I’ll wait.)

The reprint in the archive sadly lacks one thing from the original: a chart that shows the results of a survey of successful vs. unsuccessful consultants. “Successful” in this context was defined as “those consultants making at least 2x as much as the unsuccessful consultants.” That seemed like an awfully good working definition of the two terms and, even 20 years later, it’s still an excellent measure of success. (We’re not in this business for our health, after all.)

The survey was interested to find out what consultants do to drum up business. They found that successful consultants do three things in particular:

  • write articles
  • do public speaking
  • get referrals

In contrast, unsuccessful consultants find their work in more passive ways:

  • advertising
  • cold calls
  • mailings

Let me pause for a moment and say that just because the survey shows that some things tend to work better than other things at rounding up business does not mean that you shouldn’t try all sorts of things. I will digress here (so unlike me!) and tell you a story of overwhelming success.

About the same time the article appeared in Home Office Computing, Steve M., a whiz at sales & marketing, was telling me that he’d wanted to advertise his radio antenna business. (Steve’s a ham radio operator as am I, and did all kinds of antenna erection/maintenance/disassembly work.) He made a flyer that was the antithesis of everything we’ve been taught: he had pictures of balloons, some clip art, lots of exclamation points… the works for cheesy, used-car-lot-salesman sorta flyers. He then made 100 photocopies of this on AstroBrite hot pink paper (even worse!). And then he went to the ham radio stores in the area (Seattle) and shoved all 100 of these under the windshield wipers of cars in the parking lots to advertise his services.

If ever there was a campaign that seemed doomed to failure, this was it.

Some months later, Steve gets a call from someone. The caller was from the Washington State Department of Transportation. All those little low power radio transmitters by the side of the road (“Tune your radio to 1610 AM for road conditions”) needed maintenance, most of which was related to the antennas. Someone had gotten Steve’s flyer from someone else and had faxed it to someone at the WA State DOT. Steve never did find out whom… but Steve ended up scoring a $2M contract to provide transmitter maintenance services across the entire state. His marketing message from all of this: “Do something. It doesn’t matter so much what, but you’ve gotta do something!”

Just because you should really go do something, however, doesn’t mean you should try for the lowest possible thing and expect it to work. I am particularly fond of writing articles as a way of drumming up business for several reasons:

  • Writing is What I Do. Even though I’ve been doing it for so long that I am now capable of committing the perfect crime because I no longer have fingerprints, the joy has not fled. I like being able to pull things out of my head, out of pure air, and make them work. The hours are good and there’s no heavy lifting. Getting people to read the stuff I’ve written is kinda validating.
  • Writing articles tends to pay money up front. And fairly good money as a rule: depending on the venue, I make as much as $1/word, but even at, oh, $.10-.20/word, with a little practice, you can be bashing articles out pretty quickly. Some people have a knack for this and come into it with their engines already revved up, meaning they’re cranking articles out without a lot of warmup.
  • Writing articles has a cumulative effect. You can build a following. Editors will phone you up out of the blue and ask you to write for them. You can even end up doing a column, which means predictable work (and checks!). Depending on what you’re writing about, you can possibly turn your articles into a book, or at least use the articles as a way to publicize other things you’ve written or are doing. And you can peddle things to your fan base.

All this adds up to PR that you get paid for doing and people will say “Thank you” when you turn this stuff in. That’s everything and a Hershey bar in my book.

If you haven’t already written magazine articles and you want to find out more about it, you should pick up a copy of an incredibly complete book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles by Sheree Bykofsky, Jennifer Basye Sander, and Lynne Rominger. It’s an extensively detailed book and, despite one really egregious copyediting error (where around page 60 there’s a reference to “Citizen Caine“–shudder!), it’s a first-rate book about how to write articles and get them published.

If you have already written articles and you’re interested in a specific idea to pursue, here’s something that will give you some really good PR.  I’m the head of a Society for Technical Communication (STC) committee that’s looking for people to write articles about the technical communications profession that are based on survey results we’re gathering about how people view badly-written instructions. There will be survey data available to use to back up a number of statements about the frustrations consumers experience when they pay money for a product and the documentation is hard to use. These articles will be written for people who aren’t technical communicators, but for industry magazines, trade journals, and so on. You get to keep the money, you get your name out there, and you get the credit. Most of what you need to do is to mention the STC and fit in a quote or two about them and technical communication.

I’ll be able to give you data to work with and additional guidelines within a few months from now, but if this interests you, please let me know. I’m particularly interested in finding people with any of the following skill sets:

  • Healthcare: Remote Care Management, Medical Travel, Telemedicine, Wellness, and Aging-in-place
  • Green Technology: Energy Conservation, Alternative Energy Micro-systems, and Water Conservation
  • Alternative Financing: Privatization, Public-Private Partnerships (P3s), Social Enterprises

If any of this grabs you, ping me.  But even if it doesn’t, you should go write articles, do public speaking, and get referrals. You’ll be that much more likely to get work.  Or even try advertising, cold calls, and mail stuff about what you can do. Do something. It’s better than doing nothing at all.

14 Responses to “Writing articles: self-promotion that someone pays you for”

  1. I have discovered that writing articles is profitable, fun, and so much easier when you are consistently writing about a particular industry/topic. I used to always be writing on a wide variety of topics, and while it was fun to learn about new things, it was also VERY time consuming. By simply “writing what you know” and doing it well, doors seem to come open all around you.

    I also love writing for pay because it is quite literally like pulling money out of thin air. I told my husband just the other day that I love “wiggling my fingers and having money fall from the heavens”.

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