How to Negotiate: The Tip No One Tells Writers

How to Negotiate: The Tip No One Tells Writers

 

Hi, my name is Jessie, and I’m a writer.

I can nail thriller scenes for novels, attention-grabbing article ledes, and persuasive product descriptions.

Yet one form of writing repeatedly eludes me: business emails.

Especially emails that involve my nemesis… negotiating.

Negotiation is an important skill for writers — freelancers dealing with prospective clients, novelists dealing with editors, indie writers hiring cover designers, and anyone who’s ever tried to organize a coffee date with a colleague.  

It seems like negotiating would be easier via email than in person or over the phone, especially for us writer types. After all, you can take the time to craft every sentence and make sure your point is clear and polite, right?

And yet it can be devilishly hard.

Jessie’s Big Deal: a case study

I recently went through a high-stakes negotiation with a prospect, which involved some of the biggest numbers I’ve ever quoted. In a panic over every word, I read my email drafts out loud to my husband, who works in sales.

His verdict? My writing sucked.

In my quest to be polite, he explained, I was weakening my position and opening the door for my prospect to walk all over my quote.

My first email went something like this:

Hi Prospect,

Thanks so much for getting in touch! I’d love to talk with you more about how we might work together. It sounds like what you’re looking for is [Project]. Based on [Variable 1] and [Variable 2] I feel like [My Proposal] might be a good way to proceed. My normal rate for work like that ranges from [$ to $$]. I think I’d need to know more about [Variable 3] before I could narrow that down. I hope that sounds all right to you. If so, let’s chat.

Cheers!

Jessie

“Is that nice enough?” I asked my husband, who was rolling his eyes. “Is it polite? Is it getting my point across? Am I quoting too much?”

After going back and forth about the wording for about 10 minutes, my husband finally asked if he could just write the email for me.

My husband’s email read, in a nutshell:

Prospect,

Thank you for getting in touch. Based on [Variable 1] and [Variable 2], my rate would be between [$ and $$]. Please let me know how you would like to proceed.

Jessie

The polite writer in me was appalled at his directness and lack of flowery ornamentation. But I had to admit, it would be much harder to walk all over my proposal in that email than my original version.

I touched up his version with a bit of my personality, but the lesson was clear: My tendency to hedge my bets was killing the negotiating power of my emails.

Minimize “minimizing language” for stronger emails

To show respect, many writers tend to use language that weakens their position. They aim for deference and end up timid. It’s part politeness, part impostor syndrome — and 100-percent bad for business.

The good news is that, like in my email above, it all comes down to a few problem phrases that you can learn to recognize and edit out. Business experts call it “minimizing language.”

It often sounds more polite to avoid direct statements. That’s why we say things like, “I think we need to turn left at the light,” instead of simply telling the driver to turn left.

Observe how the following deferential statements can be strengthened:

  • It seems like 3 p.m. would be a good time to meet up for me.” —> “Let’s meet at 3 p.m.”
  • I feel like [$$] would be a good rate for that type of work.” —> “My rate is [$$] for that type of work.”
  • I think I’d like to see a second draft by the end of the day.” —> “Please send me a second draft by the end of the day.”

In my original email, I used phrases like “sounds like” and “I feel like” to soften sentences that should have been direct statements. After all, it didn’t “sound like” my prospect was looking for a certain type of service; he was looking for that service.

“Do you ‘feel like’ making this proposal, or are you going to make it?” my husband asked. “Do you ‘think’ you need to know more about [Variable 3] before you can make a more accurate quote, or do you need to know it?”

Phrases like these introduce doubt in the mind of your reader and undermine your authority, but they’re not the only culprits.

“Just” is another insidious phrase that undermines everything around it. Look at how its inclusion in each of these sentences makes their meaning sound so insignificant:

  • “I just have a few pages to read from my new story collection.”
  • “I just want you to know…”
  • “I’m just calling to check in on…”
  • “My new novel? Oh, it’s just a story about…”
  • “Hi, it’s just me.”

You should also keep an eye out for reassuring tag lines: phrases that go on the end of a sentence to soften its directness and ask for reassurance. Look out for phrases like:

  • “OK?”
  • “Don’t you think?”
  • “Isn’t it?”
  • “All right?”

When in doubt, throw out your English degree

Tana French’s gorgeous prose and Margaret Atwood’s intricate sentence structures make for a wonderful reading experience – but in a business email, simple is better.

Take a look at my email examples from above again. In the first email, I was hiding my basic message — “here’s my quote, give me a call” — in a whole novel’s worth of subordinate phrases. That kind of email makes it harder for the recipient to know exactly what I’m saying and what I expect in response.

Clarity is critical whether you’re hoping the response will be “You’re hired” or “Great, I’ll meet you then!”

Next time you’re writing a business email, swap your writer hat out for your salesperson hat and cut out the fluff.

I just feel like you’ll probably get better results if you do, don’t you think?

How have your negotiation skills changed as you’ve gained experience writing?

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20 comments

  • Trish O'Connor says:

    I love this article.

    (Enough said.)

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com
    epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  • john graham says:

    In the background while I was reading Jessie’s article I was listening to a magnificent BBC Mozart concert coming from London’s internationally-famous Royal Albert Hall. A sell-out massed audience of about 6,000-7,000 people were packed into the Hall.

    At the end of the final breathtaking orchestral/choral piece the audience’s applause was thunderous and went on and on and on.

    The thought very much occurred to me that Jessie Kwak’s article deserves at least the same level of acclaim. It is so good.

  • Nancy Allison says:

    Jessie!

    Great article….inspiration and clear directions for me to get started on my website, blog, writing. Quite a bit on my plate of ‘to-do’s…Thank You for your clarity .

    Thanks,
    Nancy Allison

  • Vishnu Sahasranamam says:

    Great Post. Just the information I was looking for. I will be following your advice. Thank you !

  • Truphie Njiru says:

    Jessie this is such practical advice! I literally cringed remembering all those times I have tried to be ‘polite’ while all along I have been killing my negotiating power. Well noted, Thanks!

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Yep, me too. It’s a good first step to weed it out of emails where you can revise and revise…. But it’s so much harder to stop doing it in a live conversation.

      Good luck!

  • Lawrence Chikonye says:

    Great post indeed! Thanks Jessie.

  • Sandy says:

    Did the very same thing a few weeks ago and was rewarded with a ridiculous counter-offer to my rate (a quarter of my quote!). Somehow, the client believed I would be open to negotiation on that level, and it was all my fault with my squishy quotes. Needless to say, she went with the severely underquoting writer.

  • Mike Picray says:

    Ahhh…. ummm… Jessie? When writing ALL business correspondence, in a short sentence… “Stop being a girl.” ;-D

    When you need to write something like this… for a while… ask your husband to write it for you. Then separately you write what you’d write. Then contrast and compare.

    You don’t have to “be a guy” to write good business correspondence, but you also don’t have to “be nice”. The goal is to be “business-like.” Keep it short, to the point, and ON the point. Business letters and negotiations are not social correspondence. They are for BUSINESS!!! I’d suggest you grab an old English book, (college level) and look at the examples of “business letters.” Should be helpful. Might take some getting used to.

    Good luck!

  • Gary Hurtubise says:

    This is fantastic advice. We really need to separate our ‘writer’ side from our ‘business person’ side, if we want to be as successful as we deserve!

  • Janeile says:

    “I just feel like you’ll probably get better results if you do, don’t you think?”

    Perfect! Point made right there.

  • Gippy Adams Henry says:

    Great points! Kudos to your husband for helping you realize these errors, some of which I also make quite often. This is a great help to me. Thanks so much for sharing it–both of you.

  • Robert Bates says:

    Excellent information. There is nothing like being
    straightforward and to-the-point.

    For some reason, most people don’t ask for what
    they are worth. Hat off to your hubby.

  • Bryant Lloyd says:

    Needed this!

  • Ressa Francis says:

    This is what nobody writes on their “What To Expect When You’re a Freelance Writer” or “How To Become a Freelance Writer” guides and lists.

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s helped me send so many doubts up the vacuum-tube as well as gain quite a bit of confidence in my emailing skills – and it only took three minutes.

  • Ashri Mishra says:

    WoW, What a great Post it is.

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