As with any independent contracting job, when you send out a project proposal to a potential new freelance writing client, you’re probably up against a good amount of competition. That client has probably reached out to a few freelancers trying to weigh options, and if you are responding to a job board posting, there’s a good change that client is going to receive a few dozen proposals. So how do you stand out above the crowd? How can you craft a proposal that catches the client’s eye, holds their attention, and makes them bump your name to the top of their list?
I’m going to share the steps I took in my recent proposals that helped me land two ghostwriting gigs over a half dozen other ghosts, some of whom were charging a good deal less than me (You can learn more about my most recent gig and how exactly I landed it in How I Landed a $7,500 Ghostwriting Project). I’m also going to talk about a brand new proposal creation tool from FreshBooks that will help you easily create professional-looking proposals that can seamlessly be turned into invoices and billed to clients once accepted. FreshBooks is my invoicing and accounting software that allows me to send invoices from which clients can pay via credit card in just a few clicks. I also use the software to keep track of my finances (all invoices are automatically logged into the reports, and you can add business expenses, too) and saves me headaches during tax time. You can read my full review of the FreshBooks system here, but the proposals feature is brand new for Plus and Premium package members.
So, what makes a freelance writing proposal stand out?
1. Professional Appearance
This is somewhat unfair, but true. To be taken seriously, everything you deliver to a prospective client needs to not only sound professional, but look professional also. You want your headings to be uniform, all contact information should be provided, and if you can include a personal/company logo at the top, you’re really cooking with grease. Don’t get super fancy with fonts. You want legible text over fancy flourishes. Serif fonts are great for body text, and sans serif fonts are great for headers. Avoid curlicues. You’ll definitely want to save a template to reuse if you’re creating your own.
The FreshBooks Proposal Feature starts you out with a clean, uniform, professional format that is easily customizable.
You can adjust font, colors, and insert at logo header with just a few clicks, and then that design is saved for all future proposals. You can also customize the headers and add as many sections as you want, inserting image files and rich text content. The extra cool thing about this is that if you fully utilize the FreshBooks system, your invoices, estimates, and proposals all look alike, and that uniformity exudes a professional standard, making your sole proprietorship or LLC look the same as a large company.
2. A Project Scope Breakdown
This is why I always suggest having a few emails back and forth with the prospective client before sending a proposal, no matter whether that client came to you or you’re responding to a job posting. You cannot accurately estimate a price for a project if you don’t understand exactly what the client is expecting from you as the writer. Sometimes the client is new to the process and is relying on you to help them figure out exactly what services they need. For instance, many of my clients don’t realize they need a proposal before anything else if they’re planning to traditionally publish a nonfiction title. Some clients aren’t clear on what type of editing they need. Some clients think they need copy editing but really need a ghost rewrite.
Once you’ve had your initial back and forth and figured out what this client needs, then you can break down exactly what you’ll be doing for this project. I usually break it down in bullet points. If I’m doing a book from scratch, those bullets will be things like “conduct interviews with client to establish book content,” “create outline,” “write approximately 50,000 words,” etc. If it’s rewriting, those bullets change to things like, “add scenes to fix all plot holes,” “rework select sections according to developmental editor’s notes.” Be as specific as you can. The more your client understands about everything this project will entail, the more comfortable they become with your price tag. They need to understand exactly what they’re getting for their money.
This is also the section where I occasionally break down how the client and I will interact (based on our conversations beforehand). For instance, for a nonfiction book where the client is the main source for the content, I might establish terms such as, “Ghostwriter will call Client for a phone interview before the creation of each chapter. All other communication will be conducted via email.” For both fiction and nonfiction, I will often establish whether the client wants to review each chapter as it’s completed or if he/she wants to wait and receive the whole book at once.
The project scope breakdown is so essential that FreshBooks’ Proposal Feature has it as a standard, pre-made section in their template.
3. A Pricing Breakdown
You don’t have to get super specific here. You don’t have to attach a precise dollar sign to every little aspect of the work. But I think it is important, if you are charging average professional rates, to let the client understand where their money is going and how you came to your final fee for a project. This makes them feel more secure because they understand where the money is going, and it doesn’t feel like a number randomly pulled from a hat. This is especially important if your niche entails long-form work and very large-scope projects, as mine does. If I’m going to send a proposal for $15,000, or even $7,500, you bet the client is going to want to know how I arrived there.
My price breakdown usually includes my base per word rate ($0.30) which I then apply to the estimated word count of the book to get the base number. Then, I explain how research, outlining, and/or major creative contributions to the book’s content raise the price to _____. I don’t get super specific. I don’t say, I estimate ____ hours of research and my hourly research rate is ______. You could totally do that if you wanted, but I don’t actually time track my research hours. I try to charge a fair rate that allows me to just get the work done and feel fully compensated without having to nitpick about exact word count or exact research hours. Back when my average price for a full book was $5,000 rather than $15,000, I did that whole song and dance, and it was a major headache. I much prefer charging an amount that allows me to just get the work done well without splitting hairs.
Lastly, I include a list of “Additional Included Services.” In my line of work, these are things like proofreading material before final delivery, 1-3 sets of rewrites (depending on the nature of the work), and sometimes I throw in an Amazon listing description if it is a project with a large scope and an extra large price tag. The proofreading and rewrites are things I do anyway to ensure that I deliver the highest quality work possible, but they are things many clients won’t think about as small detail-oriented services that are necessary in this sort of work unless you tell them. If they fully understand the sheer amount of effort and work you’re putting into the project for them, they’re even more likely to feel comfortable with the higher price tag.
The FreshBooks Proposal Feature lets you add multiple lines to your pricing section where you can name each feature, write a description of the work, post your estimated total for that portion of work, list the quantity (e.g., if you’re writing a proposal for a monthly retainer of, say, 4 blog posts a month at 1,000 words each, you can put all four in just one line while still showing what each costs individually), and then it adds them all up automatically.
4. Targeted Samples + Sample Descriptions
This is HUGE. One of my newest ghostwriting clients told me point-blank that my samples were the single most powerful influence in her decision to select me above the other applicants. Another recent client upped his desired word count after reading my samples.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first and then I’m going to dive into my secret for making my samples stand out. The obvious point: pick samples that align the closest with the sort of writing or editing you’ll be doing for the client. If the client wants a fantasy book written, I’m not going to send a sample from a self-help book or memoir I worked on. If you don’t have an exact match (say you’re branching out into a new genre of writing), you have two options. One, get as close as you can, using a sample that relates one one level, if not in full. For example, if you don’t have a memoir sample, you could send a sample from a self-help project in which the author provided personal anecdotes. Or, you could create a short sample on the spot. Client wants a fantasy book, but your samples are only in action/adventure? Get those creative juices flowing and write up a 1-2 page fantasy scene. Yes, it’s extra work, but having a relevant sample will make you more appealing to the client and you can use it again and again if you’re planning to make fantasy one of your staple genres down the road.
Now on to the not so obvious. I used to just attach sample files to my proposals and leave it at that. Sure, I’d use the document title to explain what type of sample it was, like “high fantasy sample” or “memoir sample,” but that was it. That worked okay. My samples were still strong, and I had prospective clients comment on them and thank me for them, but by taking one more small step, I’ve upped my response and success rate significantly. I now provide a brief explanation of why I’ve included each sample. I highlight what I believe the client will glean from each sample. For example, when I send the opening scene of my novel Arcamira as a sample, I usually say something like, “This sample highlights my experience with the high fantasy genre and also showcases my skills in the areas of dialogue, multiple character interaction, and character introductory descriptions.” Then, if the client has noted they want lots of action scenes in their novel, I might include a fight scene sample and explain that I’ve included it to showcase my skills in creating fast-paced, cinematic action scenes. Not only does all this sound professional and show that I understand what storytelling elements will be important for the client’s project, but it also gives the client clues on what to look out for while they’re reading. They’ll probably pay more attention to my dialogue, character descriptions, and the fluidity of my action writing. If they like what they see, they will equate me with expertise in those areas. They may like another writer’s samples, too, but if that other writer didn’t note specific skills to look out for, the client will still view it as a nice scene, but they’ll have a harder time saying why. My sample stands out as a result.
The safest way to send a sample is via a PDF or screenshot, as opposed to a Word document, especially if you’ve been given permission to send out samples from a past client’s project. It just lessens the chances of the sample getting manipulated and/or passed off as someone else’s. Such a thing happening is a rarity, but better safe than sorry.
FreshBooks’s Proposal Feature allows you to add custom sections to your proposal in which you can upload any sort of attachment, PDFs and screenshots included.
4. Project Timeline/Payment Structure
This is where you break down when you will deliver what, and when you will be paid. I always get a deposit unless it’s a small, quick job done for a trusted client. Anything with a larger scope with a turnaround time of two weeks or more, and anything done for a brand new client, has an upfront down payment. Then, depending on the scope of the project, I space out the further payments in installments.
If the project is straight forward and you can estimate all needed deliveries and their dates, list that in this section as well. I typically cannot do this, at least not very precisely. I can estimate how long it will take for the pre-writing work to be done (initial client interviews, outline creation, or reading through a manuscript I’ll be rewriting), and I of course have a final delivery date decided, but a lot of the in-between will depend on factors that can’t be predicted until I’ve fully dived into the project. Get as detailed as you can, but don’t feel like you have to plan out a large-scope project into week by week deliveries at this stage.
Proposals are the last thing standing between you and a new gig, and chances are, yours isn’t the only one the client is viewing. Even if it is, you want it to reassure the client of your expertise, showcase yourself as the ideal fit for the job, and make the client comfortable with your price tag. The best way to do all that is to exude quality from every section of your proposal. If the client can look at your proposal and say, “This writer knows what she’s doing and she seems to have every base covered,” you’ve shot yourself to the top of the list where the final contenders duke it out. After that point, you’re subject to the client’s personal tastes and budgeting limitations, but you have still greatly increased your chances.
If you want to read more about FreshBooks and their proposal feature, you can head on over to the FreshBooks Estimates Page. Just keep in mind that this feature is only available for Plus and Premium package members, not the Lite package. The major difference between the three packages is how many clients you can invoice at once.