Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Shady Writing Projects: What to Watch For

As a freelance writer, you'll encounter many types of projects. Most are completely aboveboard, but every so often you'll come across one that makes you stop and think--or one that's just plain wrong. Sometimes you don't know what you're getting into until you've accepted the job. This can be tricky, especially if you've already signed a contract and accepted a deposit. Here are a few of the most common shady writing projects--and how to recognize one before you're involved.

Students who want you to do their homework. I've seen plenty of people on Craigslist, Elance, and other sites looking for writers to do their school papers. One time I found a woman looking for someone to write her Ph.D dissertation for her. For about $300. And her subject was English literature.

Not only is plagiarism morally wrong from an educational standpoint--the student doesn't really earn the grade he gets--but it also has very serious consequences for the student. Students caught plagiarizing are regularly expelled from school. This puts the student out into the world with no degree and possibly thousands of dollars in debt to show for it, and he might have trouble getting into a new school with a record of plagiarism. Even if it's the student's fault for cheating, I wouldn't want to be an accessory to someone messing up his life like that.

You have to watch out, because these assignments can sometimes be disguised. I've applied for jobs advertised as article-writing jobs: "Write one six-page article on the history of Jazz," for example. Once, I didn't realize that the job was actually a school assignment until the student sent me the spec and said something like "make sure you follow this carefully; my professor is really picky." I told the student that if he needed someone to help him proofread his paper after it was written, I'd be happy to help--but that I don't do other people's homework.

Morally questionable topics. Once I accepted a project before knowing what the exact topic was; the client simply said the writing was for his e-commerce site. It turned out that his e-commerce site was promoting some type of pyramid scheme. Ordinarily, e-commerce copy is supposed to persuade the reader to buy into whatever the site is offering, but you don't want to be stuck trying to write copy that persuades people to buy into a scam. Now I always ask about the topic in detail before accepting a project.

"Rewrite it so we can't be sued for copyright." There are two types of rewrite projects. In one, the client has already written the project himself, and he wants you to come in and make it better using what's already written. There's nothing wrong with this; I've done it plenty of times for clients who have bad English translations done by non-native speakers, and for people who just want to make their copy better. Many writers charge less for a rewrite than they do to write copy from scratch, so it's a good way for clients to save money. But when the client wants you to rewrite the copy from another site so that it works for his own, you run into trouble.

Be careful, because a client looking for a rewrite may not tell you that the copy is from another source. If you have doubts, it might be a good idea to run the copy to be rewritten through Copyscape to see what comes up before taking the project on.

Blatant misrepresentation. Sometimes the client wants you to write something that's just plain wrong. I took on a project once for web copy promoting a weight loss product. After doing the research, I found that the product in question was known to be completely ineffective. It left me in a bind because I'd already done work for the project, but I felt like I'd be doing something wrong if I wrote articles talking about how effective these products were--when all the scientific research out there was saying the opposite.

There are plenty of situations where the project is definitely shady. But there are also some more borderline situations--projects that might bother some people but not others. There are no official rules against these projects, but they might seem dishonest to some. In most cases, the line is in different places for different people.

Ghostwriting--under certain circumstances. Much of my web articles are published under my clients' names, and I'm fine with that. Ghostwriting is an established wing of the writing profession--everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Charles Barkley used one for their memoirs. Business owners who want to establish themselves as professionals often need well-written articles to submit to trade journals and publish on the web. They may have the expertise to look professional, but their writing ability may leave something to be desired. That's where a ghostwriter comes in.

But sometimes ghostwriting can seem a little questionable. Getting a ghostwriter to write your profile for an online dating site is probably one of the worst examples. If you hire a writer to craft a more appealing profile than you can write yourself, you'll be misleading them into thinking you're more interesting, articulate, or funny than you really are. It's as bad as using a picture of someone else.

"Seeding" forums and question-and-answer sites. "Seeding" is the practice of writing questions and answers on forums where both are supposed to be user-generated. This can seem borderline to some, because it misleads users into thinking that the discussion is more lively than it really is. There's another side that makes sense to me, however. When you're trying to build up a user-generated question-and-answer section as a resource for readers--but the readers just aren't coming--your seeding can help the section become a better resource and attract an audience.

Writing "spinnable" articles. "Spinnable" articles have paragraphs that are interchangeable--the paragraphs of each can be switched around to make new articles without becoming nonsensical. Some SEO's use spinnable articles to generate content that won't set off Google's duplicate content sensors, and they have software that automatically switches the paragraphs around to make endless "new" articles. Some people find spinnable articles to be offensive because they disguise duplicate content and generally mess up the Internet.

I've been offered all of these projects in my time as a freelancer. Most I've turned down. With some, I didn't realize what was going on until I accepted the project. With some of these projects, the line between right and wrong is very clear; with others, it's a little more ambiguous. Make sure you do some investigation before accepting a project, and you'll have a better chance of avoiding the shady ones.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Should You Specialize? The Pros And Cons

I've always resisted specializing. Creatively, i write short fiction, poetry, memoir, and novels. Professionally, I write content articles, web copy, ebooks, autoresponders, e-courses, and a hodgepodge of other types of writing, as well as proofreading and editing. I've started to specialize slowly over time in web content with an educational (rather than salesy) tone, and this has happened naturally as I've chosen to pursue certain types of projects over others. But I certainly don't specialize as much as I could. Some writers write only one type of project (like Michael at Writing White Papers, for example) and others focus only on certain markets, like financial writing or medical writing.

Specialization is the way to go for many writers, and there are good reasons why. When I was first getting started, I heard a lot of advice to pick a niche--the more focused the better--when planning my business. Here are the most commonly-cited benefits to specializing.

You can command higher rates. There's a perception that if you specialize in one thing, you're better at that thing than anyone else. A writer who writes only brochures may be able to charge more for a brochure project than a writer who does brochures, website copy, articles, proofreading, et cetera. The phrase "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" certainly applies to client perception.

Clients hire freelancers in one of two ways: either by finding one writer they like and bringing him in for every project they have, or by looking high and low for just the right fit for each project. In my experience, higher-paying and more established companies tend to be the latter; the former tends to consist of small businesses who don't have the time or resources to look for a new writer on every project. Those high-paying clients look for writers with a portfolio of work that looks just like what they're looking for--not versatility.

You may get more work if you can corner a niche. If you're a generalist, your competition is every other writer out there--other generalists and niche writers for each specific job. But if you only write for one specific niche, word might get around that you're the "go-to" guy for that niche--and you'll have much less competition. You'll reach a smaller audience, but they'll only be looking at you.

Despite the benefits of specializing, however, i've never quite been able to bring myself to do it entirely. Here are a few reasons why I continue to offer a range of services, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Many types of writing may make you a better writer. I feel that the more versatile I can be, the better I am as a writer. Sometimes different types of writing inform on and improve each other. For example, the type of characterization and storytelling skills prized by fiction writers can make a nonfiction piece much more gripping, and the type of linguistic precision and discipline required by poetry can make any type of writing better.

Professionally, I feel that being familiar with a wide range of writing projects makes me better able to understand my clients' marketing needs. Because I handle a variety of projects, I'm well-placed to become that "go-to" writer for businesses who need a single partner they can trust. I can also increase my sales by offering an autoresponder series to an article marketing client, web page writing services to an e-book client, and so on.

Writing the same thing all the time is boring. Some writers have made successful careers in niche markets. But I couldn't imagine only writing about one topic all the time. I'd get burned out pretty quickly. I love learning new things, and if I focus on one topic constantly, there's a limit to how much I can learn. So I look for projects on a wide variety of topics. I can also get burned out by doing the same type of project all the time. One of the things I love about freelancing is that I don't have to focus on just one thing--I can learn new skills and offer new services all the time.

I used to stress a lot about finding my niche and what to specialize in, and now I hear sometimes from people just starting out on whether to be a specialist or a generalist. My answer now is to let it happen naturally. If you're new to freelancing, take on a wide variety of different projects. Write sales letters, newsletters, articles, and brochures. Try on lots of different writing styles, and write on any topic that appeals to you. Eventually, you'll find that you particularly like certain types of projects; when you write in a certain tone your clients tend to love it; or you just love writing about a certain topic. Give your specialty time to evolve--or stick to being a generalist. Peter Bowerman of The Well-Fed Writer makes a decent living at it, and no doubt you can, too.

Friday, January 25, 2008

When the Terms Change Mid-Stream

I just landed a new project with an old client I had a great experience with in the past. I gave him a price, he accepted, I drew up a contract, he signed it...things were chugging along smoothly. I've been waiting for some details on the topic before starting, and the client just got back to me recently. Along with information on what to include and the audience, the client casually mentioned a major change to the project--but assured me not to worry; he'd keep the page count the same so that the project could be kept at the same price.

That's where I had to stop and think. Although the word count would be the same, the changes did mean more than a little more work and time on my end. It was a whole different project requiring a new price. Sometimes the client isn't sure what he wants, or thinks a change is minor and won't affect the price. As a freelancer, you know better. Here's what to do in this sort of situation.

Don't be a pushover. I'm a Libra. We hate conflict. And I have to confess that my first instinct was something like "oh well, I guess I'll just do what he says. It's easier than putting up a fuss." Luckily I took a minute to think, and decided that actually, putting up a fuss would be easier. A lot easier. Be firm in the beginning, and you could save yourself weeks of hassle.

Keep calm. A more confrontational personality might automatically jump to the opposite conclusion, thinking the client was trying to get more work for less by throwing in a change at the last minute. This might be the case sometimes, but it isn't always. In this case, I believe the client probably didn't realize there would be any problem, since the page length would be kept the same. But page length often has nothing to do with the time and work required, and many people who don't write on a regular basis don't realize that. I've faced this issue many times with clients. At any rate, keep your cool if you don't want to lose the job. You'll get more business by giving people the benefit of the doubt, even as you stick to your guns.

Explain your position. Most people are reasonable. Explain the reason behind your change in price. If the client knows exactly what's happening and why, you're likely to prevent a misunderstanding.

Offer an out. Whenever this happens, I give the client two choices: to go ahead with the new changes and new price, or to go with the old price on the old project. This cuts out the third option: to completely cancel the project, which I don't want to happen.

I haven't heard back from my client yet--so you might want to take this advice with a grain of salt until I do. Hopefully, the project will move smoothly past these mid-stream negotiations. Be clear, firm and reasonable during the process, and chances are good that they will.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Four Reasons to Write Longer Blog Posts

I saw a post today at Writers' Perspective about how long blog posts should be. The author suggested that blog posts shouldn't be more than 300 words long. My first reaction went something like this: "300 words? Holy Truncated Blog Posts, Batman! That's too short!" Then I thought about it a while...and I realized that I agreed with myself. Three hundred words is a bit short. Here are the reasons why I fly in the face of convention and prefer blog posts that ramble.

You give your reader better value. How in-depth can you really be in 300 words? If you're just writing a filler post to get something out there, 300 words is fine. But if you really want to explore a subject or teach your reader something complex, 300 words might be too tight a space. Many readers come to business blogs to learn something--and if you're serving up puny posts on a daily basis, you run the risk of disappointing readers.

Miniscule blog posts make it next-to-impossible to put content first. One of the other pieces of blog dogma out there--one that makes a lot of sense to me--is the commandment to put your content first. You can promote the heck out of your blog, but if your content isn't great, you won't be successful at building an audience. At 300 words, it's extremely difficult to offer in-depth information readers will come back for.

Readers don't necessarily hate longer web writing. I wrote an entire post on this back in this blog's infancy: according to a Poynter eyetrack study, people are actually more willing to read online articles in depth than they are with print articles. This held true with long as well as short articles, which were read to completion online 63% of the time--compared with 40% of stories in broadsheets and 36% in tabloids. This turns on its head the old chestnut about how online articles must be short and sweet to get read.

Other bloggers are doing it. Check out some of the top flagship blogs out there--are they keeping their blog posts to 300 words? Here's a recent example from Problogger. This article is in-depth, interesting, well-written...and 1,080 words long. A quick check around the website shows that many of their blog posts are around this length; while a few are short, a lot are longer. Here's one of today's most popular posts from Copyblogger. It's 931 words long. Taking a look at all the other posts listed under "popular," it looks like only one is under 300 words long.

Speaking from personal experience, many of my favorite bloggers write posts both short and long--but I tend to enjoy, and return more often, to the blogs that have longer and more in-depth posts more often. In the Writers' Perspective article, the writer suggested paring down your language to get to 300 words. I agree that extra adjectives and flowery prose are bad--but I also think that when you edit a substantive post that closely, you can't help but snip off the meat of the subject as well as the fat.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hear Me Roar!

I just got tagged by Susan at The Urban Muse for a meme: "I am Writer, Hear Me Roar!" The idea is to post three tips on writing, then follow up by tagging five other writers. Here are my tips:

Read. Read a lot. There is absolutely nothing that will help your writing more. Read a lot of what you plan to write. If you're a sales letter writer, read all the junk mail that comes to your door. If you're doing article marketing, read what your competition is putting out there. If you want to write mystery novels, read everything you can get your hands on. Reading what's out there will help you learn and internalize the conventions of that market. Once you're "fluent," you'll have more to offer your clients.

Develop a thick skin. Even if you're the best there is, somebody out there won't like your style--or might just have some slight improvements to offer. It can be particularly tough for the best writers to accept criticism, because these high-performers are more used to receiving praise. But if you're going to do this professionally, that means a lot of people will see your writing--and it's impossible to please everyone. Do your best, learn from your experiences, and then make like a shark and keep moving.

Be persistent. Writing is all about endurance. Whether you're writing a novel or building a freelance business, the one who succeeds is the one who's in it for the long haul. Set an ongoing daily schedule you can live with, break big goals up into small, reasonable steps, and don't get freaked if you have to change the plan from time to time. Life isn't perfect, and you have to adapt to the situation on the ground.

Those are my tips for both the nuts-and-bolts and writing as a career. As for tagging, I'm now tagging: you. Put your own roar out into cyberspace, and post a link in my comments section once it's up. If you're feeling particularly generous, feel free to link to my site in your post. Happy meme-ing!

Friday, January 18, 2008

What Professionalism Isn't

I found a post today at JCME's blog about professionalism, and it got me thinking. You'd think that the word isn't hard to define, but my view of it has changed a lot since I started. While my definition of what it is might be a work in progress, experience has definitely taught me what professionalism isn't.

Being a robot. "Business" doesn't mean "no personality." Clients are more likely to bring you repeat business if they like you as a person. It's okay to loosen up a bit when talking to clients and let your personality come through. Naturally, you'll have to use your best judgment when talking about outside interests and family situations, or when making jokes. You'll have to pick appropriate times and places, and make sure your brand of humor isn't the type that might offend. But bear in mind that your clients are people too, and they can relate to you on a personal as well as a professional level.

Being a know-it-all. You might be good at what you do, but that doesn't mean you know everything there is to know. Talking with clients can be a frightening prospect for beginners, because you'll worry that you might not know everything. But people who come across like they know it all can strike clients as condescending and unwilling to listen to their needs--even if you think you're just sounding professional by lecturing the client on everything he's doing wrong on his current campaign. Sometimes when you're meeting with clients, the best strategy is to listen.

Taking on more than you can handle. I don't offer graphic design or programming services. I'm learning more about these things every day, but I still don't trust my skills enough to be comfortable selling them to clients, and I'm not sure I'll want to even when I'm confident in them. Sometimes being professional means knowing your limits and being able to tell clients when a job wanders into territory you're not too familiar with. It's fine if you're not good at everything; in fact, many clients prefer to hire freelancers who have a specialty in only one specific area.

Saying "yes" all the time. When I started, I thought that being professional meant never saying "no." As you might expect, this got me into some really bad situations--allowing myself to give deeper discounts than I should have; making myself accessible on IM all the time; even taking frequent, uncompensated, rambling phone calls after business hours. Every time I got into a situation like that, it was a learning experience--and eventually I figured out that professionalism doesn't mean that you have to give everything clients ask for. You do want to make your clients happy, but not at the expense of your business, your other projects, or your sanity.

Taking on every project that comes your way. There was a period of time where I thought turning down work was unprofessional. If I didn't get a great vibe from the client, I would think something like "well, Bob Bly would probably be able to handle it, so I should too." Actually, someone with more experience might have listened to his instincts and passed on that job--or added a hassle surcharge. It's okay not to take every job that comes your way. Some projects might not interest you, might not pay rates you can accept, or might just seem a little shady. Part of professionalism is developing good instincts about when a job will be more trouble than it's worth.

At the moment, my definition of professionalism involves being confident and knowledgeable in your area of expertise; being conscientious in dealing with clients; having high standards for quality of work; and knowing what you can and can't take on. Do the best job you can with every project and set limits both you and your clients can live with, and you'll be most of the way there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Five Things To Know Before Setting Your Prices

Setting prices is one of the most stressful aspects of freelancing for beginners. In my first few months of work, I used to get a bit panicked every time somebody asked me how much I'd charge for something. I'd run to my copy of Writer's Market to look up the average price for similar work; do Google searches for the going rates, and post questions on writers' forums about how much to charge. I'd gather it all together, pick an arbitrary figure somewhere in the middle of what seemed to me to be the range, let the client know, and hold my breath. Sometimes I'd be right on the money; sometimes I'd guess wrong.

My first year and a half taught me a lot about pricing. I'm still perfecting my skills in this area, but now I know that I need to pick prices that work for me as much as for my clients. Here are five things you should know before quoting a price on any project.

What other people are charging. It's not necessarily a good idea to charge a certain price just because others are charging it. But knowing what your competitors charge can give you a good idea of what clients generally expect to pay, and for beginners, it's a good benchmark. I remember being acutely worried that if I quoted too low, clients would think I was no good--and if I quoted too high, they'd think I was some kind of evil price-gouger.

When I was starting, Peter Bowerman's The Well Fed Writer was my bible. Peter suggested calling other freelancers and asking about their price range. I tried that, and it didn't work so well--the people I called were generally unwilling to talk specific prices, saying that every project is different and they couldn't possibly give me an idea of their range. I tried posting the question on Craigslist, however, and I got a very different response. I had about ten very helpful pros email me back with their own price ranges and advice on setting prices. I definitely recommend going that route.

What your particular market expects to pay. Some markets just pay more than others. You might write an article for one publication and get $.25 per word; sell the same article to a different publication, and you'll get $1 per word. If you start out on lower-paying clients, you could shoot yourself in the foot by offering the bottom-barrel price to a company that regularly pays many times that amount. Knowing what a certain type of client expects to pay for writing work will keep you from doing that.

The value of your work. An e-book, marketed correctly, can make its owner thousands of dollars. If you wrote that e-book for $250, that's all you get for it--don't expect royalties. A sales letter or landing page can also pull in big money--even though I've seen writers write these for $50 or even less. When pricing something like this, I don't just ask how much work will go into it--I also ask myself how much the client can stand to earn from my work, and try to price accordingly. A $2500 sales letter will definitely do a better job than a $25 one--the writer will be able to afford to put more time, energy, and research into it, and is likely pricing higher because experience tells him his work is worth it.

The amount of time it takes you to do the work. I charge very different prices for articles that require different amounts of research. Some articles are simple how-tos or overviews of a topic, written from research gathered from reputable written sources. Others require finding interviewees and conducting interviews in addition--and this can be much more time-consuming. A short how-to article based only on written source material can take as little as an hour to write, while a feature article that includes expert interviews might take days or even weeks. These articles could (and should) cost hundreds of dollars more depending on how much research is involved.

The least amount you need to make to meet your goals. Unfortunately (for me, anyway), setting your prices does involve working with numbers. Write up your monthly budget and figure out the minimum amount you need to make per month to meet your financial goals. From there, you can compute how much you need to make per week and even per hour. Bear in mind that you probably won't work every hour of a forty-hour work week, since freelancing can be a feast-or-famine business. To play it safe, I use 25 hours per week as my baseline. Once you know how much you need to make per hour, you can figure out how much to charge for each project based on an estimate of how many hours it will take you to complete. This will give you a solid figure, and in negotiation, you'll know the job just isn't worth it if the price goes below that point.

Setting the right price isn't just about finding out what clients expect to pay. It also involves knowing how much you need to earn, and how much your work is worth. Learning these things takes time and experience--but once you do, you'll feel much more comfortable quoting and negotiating prices.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Career in Writing: Four Things My College Education Didn't Teach Me

Like a lot of freelance writers out there, I have a degree in English. When I was in school, I remember a lot of people saying things like "So what are you going to do with it--teach?" and "Hope you don't mind starving!" But I never planned to give up food in trade for a career--and as much as I respect teachers, I never wanted to be one. All I ever wanted to do was write.

I loved earning my English degree. I loved reading different authors from diverse cultures and time periods. I loved writing, loved talking about writing like it was the one thing on earth that mattered most, loved critiquing other people's work. I think that my writing degree taught me a lot about writing as an art--and practically nothing about making a living at it.

I think that many liberal-arts schools fail students who study the arts. The cliche of the "starving artist" is so prevalent that a lot of schools don't expect more of their arts students than to continue their interest in art as a hobby. The tragedy is that so many humanities graduates leave school with thousands of dollars in debt and no idea how to have a meaningful career. Many of us wind up taking jobs outside of our interests out of necessity, and these can turn into a lifetime of work that feels meaningless and unfulfilling.

But for some of us, writing on the side just isn't good enough. We've got the talent--we see the pros at work and we think, "I can do that." But it takes more than just talent to make a living, and a lot of writers don't realize this until they get out of college and have to figure it out for themselves. Here are four things I wish my professors would have told me before I graduated.

It's not just about your creative talent. It's also about your self-promotion skills. Before I graduated, I thought that if I wrote well, opportunities would naturally come my way. But that's not really how it works. There are thousands--maybe millions--of people out there who want to be writers. Even if only a small percentage actually wrote anything worth reading, that's still a great deal of competition to deal with. When you're a professional writer, you'll be competing with other writers for the attention of agents, publishers, critics, clients, and readers. Many of them will write worse than you. Many will write better.

When competition is this fierce, you have to be able to promote yourself at every stage of the game. To succeed as a writer, you have to hone your self-promotion skills as much as your writing skills. I never took any classes on marketing in college--no general business marketing courses, and no specific courses on marketing myself as a writer. In my opinion, it should have been a required part of the curriculum.

Want to do your creative work on the side? It's harder than you think. When I was in college I just assumed I would have some sort of job, and I'd work my writing around that until my "real career" came through. After I graduated, I found that the reality was somewhat different. I worked full-time at several different companies, and I found that my employers didn't care about my outside interests: if the company needed me to stay late and come in early, I had to do it. I often felt too drained after a long day's work to put much time into developing my outside interests into a career I could live with.

Many people assume they will find fulfillment doing what they love outside of work. But unless you have a very undemanding job, it can be tough to find the spare time you need to truly live up to your creative potential. And when you have other outside responsibilities to deal with--like kids, for instance--the time you have to pursue your passions can quickly dwindle into nothing. I didn't realize how important flexibility would be to me until I lived without it for years.

There are plenty of ways to integrate your talents into a career that works for you. When I was in college, I assumed I had two choices as a writer: novelist or journalist. Nobody told me anything different. No helpful career counselor sat down with me my senior year and talked to me about career options that would let me use my writing skills. I talked to a career counselor, but they didn't really know what to do with me--I didn't want to go corporate or be a teacher, like most English majors.

I wish someone had talked to me in college about careers for writers--jobs like the one I have now. If you're artistic, you don't have to shove your talents into a dark, unseen corner of your life while you labor away at something you have no interest in. You can craft a career as a consultant or freelancer doing practically anything. Performance artists can become public speaking experts. Visual artists can become graphic designers. Writers can become copywriters. You can work for a company, or you can run your own business.

Business isn't as scary as it looks. I never considered running my own business as a college student. I thought that "business" and "creativity" were two extremely different, unrelated categories. I didn't see how businesses need--even thrive on--creative people. I just saw lots of people with conservative suits on and seas of drab cubicles, and I assumed I would never really fit in any business environment. I had classes that taught me to think like a creative person--like an artist.
But now, my "business environment" is my laptop. And business isn't just about wearing a boring suit and working in a boring office. It's about making your dreams a reality.

When I was in college, I had a very different attitude--and I faced a steep learning curve as a result. It took me years to come around to the fact that I'd have to be business-savvy in order to thrive. If I had had classes in college that taught me to think like a businessperson--and to use business principles to get what I want in the world--I might have had a plan right out of college. I might have been able to hit the ground running.

With the amount of money a college education costs nowadays, I feel colleges owe a little more to their humanities graduates. They owe them a solid education in their chosen field--but they should also take them seriously as future professional artists. Many creative types don't need a degree to succeed--nobody cares what Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, or Ian McKellan majored in. But we do need guidance in how to make a living at what we love. Give us that, and a college education will be more than worth it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What to Do When You're Stuck for Blog Post Ideas

It's tough coming up with great content day after day. Some bloggers make it look easy, while others intersperse in-depth articles with shallow posts that don't offer much value. Your blog is what you make it, though--and you'll do better if you make an effort every time.

The bad news is that Writers' Block happens to bloggers, too--trust me, you will occasionally sit down to write and have absolutely no idea what to say. The good news is that there are many things you can do to make it easier on yourself when you're stuck for ideas. Here are a few suggestions that go beyond reading the news.

Check out the forums. There are plenty of forums for just about any niche out there, and they can give you great insight into what people in your industry want to know. If you have a good answer to any of these questions--or you see an issue a lot of people are talking about--don't just post a response on the forum. Write a blog post about it. Then post a response on the forum offering some advice and a link back to your post.

Think about your worst-case clients. No matter what industry we're in, we all have horror stories. What are some of your worst ones? In the freelance-writing arena, people love to hear about problem clients and how the writer dealt with them. For best results, don't just write a rant--offer a strategy for dealing with these horror stories.

Write a "What So-and-So Forgot to Mention" post. Are there any industry leaders in your blogging field? In mine, there are several--including Copyblogger, ProBlogger, and Dosh Dosh. Find one of the top blogs in your niche--the one everybody knows about. Pick a post, and write a supplement to that post with your own unique spin on the topic. Put the top blog in your title--it's sure to gain notice from others in your industry, and possibly even the top blog's writer. That's a good thing; it might inspire him to link to you.

Write a rebuttal post. I like to check out other blogs in my industry when I'm stuck for ideas. I especially like to look for things I disagree with. If I find one, I can write a rebuttal post. Disagreement is always interesting to readers, especially if you're going against an established opinion.

Rebuttals can be good for both you and the other writer, because they generate links and traffic for both. But still, you never know how the other party will respond. With rebuttal posts, it's important to keep the tone civil and make it clear that you're not intending a personal attack. You don't want the original writer to think you're trying to attract attention by dissing him in public.

Go off on a rant. Are you passionate about something in your industry? Is there something that bothers you about the way things are always done? Your blog is the ideal place to write about it. Readers love controversy and strong opinions. When you're stuck, think about the last time you were ticked off by some condition or reality of your industry, and write a nice long, cathartic rant. Make sure to keep it at least semi-professional; an "I'm SO SICK of my customers!" rant is probably not the greatest idea.

Keep an idea log. Some days you're brimming over with ideas, and other days you come up empty. On days when you have more than one idea to choose from, write them down. Always keep a list of ideas handy for when you're having trouble.

Write a few "emergency posts." Some days you just don't feel like writing--or you might not have time to write at all. It's never a bad idea to keep a few spare posts handy to make your life easier on these days. These posts shouldn't be about time-sensitive information like current news or a response to a recent blog post from someone else. Make them timeless--how-to posts make great spares.

A great blog offers in-depth, useful articles day after day, and as a writer it can be tough coming up with ideas. Use these tactics to prepare for the dry spells, and you'll never be stuck for ideas for very long.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Is Perfectionism Killing Your Career?

I'm a perfectionist. And for most of my life, I saw that as a positive quality. After all, aren't successful people supposed to want their work to be the best it can be? And what can be better than perfect? For a long time, I was proud of my perfectionism. I thought it made me a better editor, writer, and employee.

But now that I'm writing full-time, I've started rethinking my idea of perfectionism as a good thing--and here's why.

Perfectionism isn't realistic. "Perfect" is like the Tooth Fairy. They're both pretty stories, but neither one exists. And no matter how much you try to make your writing perfect, there's always something you could have done better. Once you reach a certain level, some improvements become a matter of taste, not dogma--and then you enter into some very subjective waters. Believing in perfection means believing that there is one absolute perfect way to write something, and that just isn't true. Chasing after perfection is like chasing after a mirage.

Perfectionism wastes time. Now that I write for a living, I have to be careful of how I spend my time. If I'm not making a certain hourly minimum and charging a price that's in line with how long I take to do a job, I can hurt my finances. As a freelancer, it's best to work as efficiently as possible. However, I know I am fully capable of spending hours trying to get a simple how-to content article exactly right--even though the amount I charge is based on an hour-long completion estimate. I'm not advocating sending a client something that's not good--but sometimes chasing after perfection just isn't financially worth it.

Perfectionism can keep you from taking risks. The biggest risk I ever took was in leaving my full-time job before conventional wisdom would have said I was ready. I didn't have a year's worth of savings in the bank. I didn't have a bunch of lucrative leads for freelance writing. All I had was the belief in my own writing ability, a copy of Peter Bowerman's The Well Fed Writer, and a lot of impatience. It was the first time in my life I went against my own perfectionistic tendencies--and if I hadn't, I might still be working for The Man today.

I was lucky, I think--what I did may not be the right choice for everyone. When you're taking a big risk, it's definitely important to be prepared. But if you wait until conditions are perfect, you might never get started at all--because conditions never will be exactly perfect for anything. Life just isn't like that.

Perfectionism can keep you from finishing tasks. I struggle with perfectionism every time I sit down to write a novel--which I do when I don't have client work or marketing work to do. I want my novel to be absolutely perfect, so I obsess over each line and paragraph. The problem is, when you're trying to write a 100,000 word document, you can't afford to be that picky about each word. Maybe that's why I've been working on novels since I was in grade school--but I've never finished one. I know that if I ever really want to be a novelist, I have to learn to turn the nit-picking off while I bang out the first draft.

Perfectionism can inhibit your creativity. The problem with perfectionism is that it makes you judge your own work quite harshly. And nothing kills creativity like over-harsh criticism. I face this sometimes when I'm doing more creative work for clients. I sometimes find myself thinking of ten different ideas and discarding each one as not good enough before even writing them down. If I'm not careful, I could find my harsh inner critic shooting down every idea i have before I get a chance to explore it.

Creativity requires freedom. I have to force myself sometimes to write down every idea I have when I'm brainstorming, even if my initial reaction is "that's dumb." Once I have all my ideas down on paper, I can judge which ones are worth pursuing.

Perfectionism can be extremely useful during the editing stage. But if you let it take over all facets of your writing life, it can harm your career by keeping you from finishing projects, working efficiently, taking risks, and exploring new ideas. Someone once told me that perfectionists make great critics, but lousy writers--and I really believe that's true.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Best Writing Blogs of 2007: My Personal Top Ten

I was absolutely thrilled to see this blog selected as one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers this year. The list included some great blogs, some of which I've known about for a while, and some of which I found through the contest. But there were a few left out that I've really come to love. Here, in no particular order, is my personal Top 10 list for this year: the blogs Writing White Papers forgot to mention.

The Irreverent Freelancer. This writer says what we're all thinking about bad clients, unreasonable requests, and awful job ads. Kathy's writing style is brash, no-nonsense, sarcastic and funny, and she never fails to stick up for herself. In the isolating world of web writing, she's like a straight-talking best friend you can always vent to about the downside of freelancing. Of course, there's an upside too--but it's not nearly as entertaining.

My favorite post: Kathy tells a lot of stories about really awful clients who keep coming back, despite her attempts to "fire" them. One of my favorites is her Once a Freelance Scammer story, which actually gets drawn out for two other posts. After turning in a full first draft, the client writes back to tell her that they're only going to use less than half of what she's written--and try to talk her down in price. A war of words ensues. She's also got a great ongoing Get-A-Clue series where she finds job ads with ridiculously unreasonable terms--here's a recent example. Trust me, this blog is dangerously addictive.

Problogger. Problogger has really great, practical, easy-to-follow advice for bloggers of all levels of experience. They cover advice on writing good headlines and posts that attract links, and they also include advice on technical issues, monetization, and more--all in a clear, compelling style.

My favorite post: My favorite post is actually a whole section. Problogger's Blogging Tips for Beginners is very comprehensive and covers everything you need to know to run a successful blog. It's a great crash course in blogging for anyone who's just getting started or trying to take their blog to the next level.

The Article Writer. This was one of the first blogs I checked out when I was trying to decide what to do with my own blog. The Article Writer is run by an experienced web writer who is also very SEO-savvy, and the blog offers plenty of useful tips on online marketplaces, plus SEO tactics in general and social network marketing in particular as well as writing and blogging tips. Matt is also a good friend to have if you're a blogger. He's very liberal with the link love and if he likes your site, he'll Stumble it.

My favorite post: One of the reasons I like this site so much is that it feels like The Article Writer is dedicated to looking out for his colleagues. One example is his honest review of Helium, which helped me decide not to go that route.

The Copywriter's Crucible. Matt from CC was one of the first to comment on my site and to nominate me for the Top 10 award--so I'm a bit biased. But I'm crazy about his blog because of his dedication to educating clients about the selling power of educational, not over-hyped, content. He doesn't post extremely frequently, but his posts are always worth reading.

My favorite post: One of my favorites is this great article covering studies that show how people don't read ads, but they do read informational content. It cites Nielsen eyetracker studies, shows us heat maps of what text attracts readers on a print or online page, and discusses the history of the advertorial. It definitely helps prove Matt's thesis that salesy writing isn't as effective as many people believe.

The Urban Muse. This blog is generally written from a print-writing freelancer's perspective, but it definitely contains useful stuff no matter your focus. Susan from The Urban Muse is a creative, talented writer who provides tips on blogging, writing for print and online markets, interviews, and more.

My favorite post: I found the post on finding sources through social networking sites extremely useful. One of my least favorite parts of writing print-quality articles is the digging up and chasing around of sources, and this article was a big help.

Words on the Page. Lori from Words on the Page is like the big sister you (maybe) never had--she's seen it all, done it all, and is always willing to offer advice and spell out the more complicated concepts in freelancing. This blog is also one of my daily stops.

My favorite post: When Lori faced a slowdown in December of 2007 (a scary time to face a slowdown, with all those presents and plane tickets to buy), she put an offline marketing plan into action--and told us all about it on her blog. Many web writers often limit themselves to online marketing tactics and clients, and Lori's posts are great reminders that there are other markets out there--and it's not that hard to market to them. Her Marketing 101 series breaks down offline marketing tactics that can land you higher-paying contacts than you usually get online.

Bob Bly's Blog. I'm sure you know who Bob Bly is, but you may not know he has a blog. Bob doesn't blog the way most people advise you to--he posts about once a week, his posts are quite short, and they're really more intended to stimulate discussion than to educate. Bob posts questions that occur to him about copywriting, direct mail, word choice, and the industry in general. He gets loads of responses from some of the top copywriters and marketing consultants in the industry. Most of the time, the "comments" section is the best part of his blog. And when I post there, I get to "talk" to Bob Bly. I try not to make too much of an idiot of myself in the process.

My favorite post: Bob asked a simple question: is copywriting dying thanks to the Internet? My immediate answer would be an emphatic "of course not!" but on this site, there's always more than one simple answer to a simple question. The question led to a great discussion on the effect the online marketplace is having on the type of writing in demand--and how the profession of copywriting has evolved in the past decade.

Dosh Dosh. This blog is aimed at making money online through blogging and content marketing. In the style of Copyblogger and Problogger, their tips are practical and easy for the typical (non-techie) blogger to understand.

My favorite post: One of my favorites on this blog is their breakdown of different ways to make money blogging. The post discusses different types of monetizing strategies and their pros and cons. Like all their posts, it's thorough and exhaustive.

InkThinker. Kristen King from Inkthinker is smart, talented, and hilariously funny. She's always got something going on, too--from query challenges to cool guest posts and interviews.

My favorite post: This is an old one, but I love the post Kristen wrote on glamtastically inappropriate photos on freelance writers' websites. Makes me take a second look at my own photo--I'm starting to think it needs to be frumpier. Is "frumptastic" a word?

The Writing Frump. Speaking of frumptastic, Writing Frump is a kvetch blog where an anonymous freelancer writes about bad clients of all shapes and sizes. The writing style is cheery-sarcastic, and the tales of client woes are always way worse than what you dealt with last week. Like everyone else, I have a theory as to who's behind the blog--but I'm not tellin'.

My favorite post: I'm a fan of In the Kingdom of Overreaction, when a miscommunication led to a nasty blow-up from the client--and a subsequent shrugging-off when the writer corrected herself. We all work with some crazies from time to time, and I can definitely relate.

So there they are: my favorite 10 in 2007. Best of luck to all of you in 2008.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Don't Be a Comment Whore: Attract Traffic, Not Annoyance

I recently got an email from someone who had seen one of my other blogs. He sent me a note saying he had just started his own blog, and he had been advised to get the word out by posting comments on other sites ("a tactic affectionately known as 'comment whoring,'" he said). He said he didn't leave a comment on my blog because the topics were so dissimilar, but he was sending me an email to let me know about it anyway in case my interests included designer baby wipes.

This was timely for me, because I'd recently made the decision to delete a couple of comments here that struck me like they might be spam. I wasn't a hundred percent sure, but I didn't want anything up here that might make my readers think that I allow spam, so I deleted them.

I'm not against people posting comments on my blog to attract traffic to their own sites. Leaving comments on other blogs is a great way to introduce yourself to a community of bloggers and readers who share your interests. Here are a few tips for the people whose posts I deleted on how to make sure it doesn't happen again--and for anyone else considering comment whoring. There's a better way.

Don't write like a total cretin. I'm not saying you have to sound like a genius in every comment. But don't write so badly nobody understands you, either. One of the comments I deleted was barely intelligible, with lots of abbreviations like "ur" for "your" (that's my least favorite of all those Instant Message abbreviations. Ur is a city in Iraq, people. It doesn't even sound like the word "your.")

If you're just commenting for the sake of commenting, a few typos and non-perfect grammar won't get you deleted. But if you're really, really bad, the administrator might mistake your comment for spam. And if you want to attract traffic back to your own site, the last thing you want is to sound like a moron to everyone else on the blog. Nobody likes to read bad writing, and nobody will want to check out your blog after seeing a badly-written comment.

Avoid those "nice post" one-liners. Some administrators delete these, but I often let those comments slide in my blog and give the commenters the benefit of the doubt. But if you want to attract traffic and attention to your own blog, you're going to have to do better. Consider each comment you make to be a tiny "teaser" for the type of writing you do on your blog. Write something interesting and thoughtful that adds to the discussion. Most readers will ignore a link from a "nice post" comment, especially if this is a highly-trafficked blog with a lot of commenters. But if you write something interesting, entertaining or thoughtful, you'll definitely make people want to read more.

Be selective about the blogs you comment on. I'm not saying that people who aren't business writers shouldn't comment on this blog. I don't care if you blog on stock markets or Santa Claus, or if you don't blog at all. If you have something to say in response to one of my posts, feel free to say it.

But if you're trying to get the word out about your own blog, focus your efforts on blogs that cover the same or similar topics. There's a ready-made audience of readers on those blogs, and they're likely to be interested in your writing. Plus, if the blogger likes your site, she might write a post about you, link to you in her blogroll, or write a response post to something you've recently said. The more attention you get from other bloggers, the more quickly your audience will grow.

Plugging your product? Be careful. In general, it's usually best to avoid salesy writing and specific sales pitches when commenting for traffic. The idea is to sound like just another commenter, although smarter or more interesting than the usual. You do not want the administrator or the audience to think you have an outside agenda for posting there.

However, there are times when it's more permissible than others. If someone wrote a post in response to something I've written or on the same subject recently, I'm happy for them to link to it in the comments section for the post I wrote. It's better if you write a paragraph about the issue, not just throw up the link.

When I wrote a bunch of posts on Elance recently, somebody from oDesk, another online bidding site, left a few promotional comments. I considered deleting them, but decided that some of my readers might be interested in oDesk, so I decided to leave them up. If you're going to do this, do it only on posts that discuss something extremely relevant to that product. Try to keep your tone casual, write a thoughtful comment on the topic, and throw the link in at the end as an aside. You want people to think you're commenting there after work or on a lunch break--not trying to sell something.

Leaving comments isn't just about getting your link up in as many places as possible. It's also about introducing yourself to a community. Make sure you pick the right community, put your best foot forward, and avoid being promotional. Think quality rather than quantity, and grow your audience over time--and you're sure to see success.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

To Bare or Not to Bare: What Should You Reveal in Your Blog?

The holiday season has come and gone, and with it I've seen a few holiday-themed posts. While most weren't religious, every so often one wanders into church. In the midst of all this religiosity, I went onto JCME's blog a while ago and found a thought-provoking post on neutral language and how much of your own beliefs to reveal on your blog.

The quandary is this: revealing personal info is often a good move on a blog. It humanizes you and lets your audience relate to you. Reveal too much, however--or reveal the wrong things--and it could backfire. Here are my thoughts on how to get personal on a business blog.

Religious references: Few and far between. Talking about your religion on your blog is a tricky issue. Many religious people feel that their religion is so much a part of who they are, they can't not talk about it. And if your audience shares your religious beliefs, it can be a good way to show them you're one of their own.

However, on a business-related blog, religious talk can do more harm than good. It limits your audience; for every person it appeals to, there's sure to be someone who feels repelled. Most non-religious people I talk to who read business blogs say that an occasional religious reference won't always drive them away from a blog they like, but if it happens too often or it's too obviously preachy, it might. Unless your blog is aimed specifically at a religion-in-business niche, it's usually best to stay away from the topic.

Politics: Avoid like the plague. Religion can be an excluding topic, but politics can be even worse. Especially in America at this point in history, politics is increasingly polarized--more and more people identify with the extremes on either side, and neither side is talking rationally to the other. It's easy to fall into the habit of seeing those with opposing views as "the other" and assuming that your readers, being sensible people, share your views. But that's a dangerous assumption.

Make a blanket statement against a certain political topic, and you risk offending a lot of people--that's obvious. But even subtle jabs at certain political situations can be more incendiary than you'd think. Unless your blogging persona is provocative and you're writing to a political niche, it's best to stay away from all mention of politics.

Personal interests: Keep 'em relevant. I have plenty of interests outside business writing, but my audience isn't coming here to read about those. Still, I think mentioning your outside interests can humanize you--and advertise your niche knowledge to potential clients. That's why I link to my other blogs and don't make them a state secret. Still, I know the audience for this blog doesn't necessarily share my outside interests--and I don't write about those things here.

But you can talk about outside interests on your business blog. The key is to make the post relate to your regular topic in a creative way. There are a couple of great examples of this at Copyblogger: posts on what improvisational acting and jazz can teach us about blogging. These types of posts allow you to write about your outside passions in a way that keeps your business-blog audience interested.

Details of your personal life: Don't give away the farm. There are a few bloggers I've really come to "know" since I came on the scene, and I don't mind if occasionally they mention their personal lives on their blogs. But some writers take it a little far. I started reading SEO blogs a while back for a client project, and some of those folks talk incessantly about their personal lives. I had no idea so many SEO's were so into their cats.

My feeling is this: yes, talking about personal details can allow your readers to identify with you. If you occasionally talk about your kids, your spouse, your pets, or other things going on in your life, you'll seem more human and less like a business-talking robot. And some blogs, like Freelance Parent, are specifically aimed at a niche that spans business and personal life.

But this can be tricky, because some personal details can make you look less hireable. If you're going through a messy divorce or a difficult home purchase, for example, potential clients might assume you have too many distractions going on to focus on their projects. Talk about how much rum-spiked egg nog you drank at the Christmas party or how much you can't stand your brother in law, and you'll probably wind up hurting your professional reputation. And you always take the risk of boring your readers instead of intriguing them. Not everyone finds your cat, your two-year-old, or your irritable-bowel syndrome as fascinating as you do. If your blog isn't aimed at a niche that includes these topics, it's best to talk about these issues sparingly.

Bloggers walk a fine line when it comes to revealing personal information. And the position of the line can change depending on your niche, your persona, and your audience. Of course you want to be yourself on your blog, but to be successful you need to consider what your readers want to read about--not just what you want to write about.