Friday, February 29, 2008

Phone Conversations, Part II

I had a rather bad experience on the phone with a prospective client a few weeks back. The client sent me an email with the link to his site, and asked me what I thought could be improved--and to give him a call. I drew up an exhaustive list, and I felt ultra-prepared for the phone call. But when we spoke on the phone, I didn't get a good vibe. I was enthusiastic and confident and had plenty of suggestions. The person on the other end seemed unenthused, to say the least. When I got done with my thorough analysis, he said, "But I want to take my business in a new direction and appeal to a different audience. What about that?"

This wasn't information he gave me over the phone, but the problem was still on my end: I had drawn up a ton of suggestions, but I had not addressed what he specifically wanted to do with the site. I talked a lot, and I didn't listen much.

I could have avoided this problem by talking less and letting the client talk more. If he needed prompting, I could have asked questions: What are you trying to do with this site? What do you like most about what's already there? What do you most want to change? Who is the audience you're trying to appeal to? Once I had that information, I could talk about what to change based on the ideas I'd drawn up earlier. I made a decision to start with questions, not statements, in my next phone calls.

I've been on the phone a lot this week, and instead of being super-prepared and writing down every possible response to every question I might be asked, I've decided to go against my own advice and wing it. I've taken a careful look at the sites in question, but I made a conscious decision not to push my own ideas too early--not without knowing exactly what the client wants to do.

I've been thinking about it a lot since my non-successful phone call a few weeks ago, and I've decided that my lack of affinity for the phone is definitely holding me back. In the next few weeks, I'm going to be more pro-active with calling prospective clients. I'm going to actually suggest it. The more practice I have, the more confident I can be on the phone--and the more money I can generate for my business.

After I've done this enough to learn a thing or two, I'll write a post detailing my successes and failures--so stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Promoting Something You Don't Believe In: The Copywriter's Conundrum

I found this post over at Bob Bly's blog about what to do when you don't think the product you're writing copy for will sell. A lot of writers simply said they'd let the client know about their reservations but give it a try anyway. I have two things to say about this: a). I personally wouldn't want to work on a project I wasn't passionate about, but we can't be that lucky all the time; and b). people buy bottled water. If you spin it right, it's possible people will buy anything.

My work tends more towards educational web content than sales copy. However, educational content can also be promotional, in a more subtle way, and I'm under no illusions about the fact that my copy sells just like a sales letter does--sometimes better, according to my clients. Sure, I'd like to think of myself as an "educator" first and foremost. But if there weren't money to be made from my writing, I wouldn't be getting paid.

In some ways, it's worse when you run into a problem like the one Bob outlined and you're writing educational copy. With a sales letter, your job is to find the product's selling points. With educational copy, your job is to provide information the consumer needs, in the hope that he will come to trust and respect your company enough to buy from you. You can't just put the right spin on--you have to be honest, or you'll undermine your efforts the minute your customers decide to do a little more research. For educational writers, it's not about whether the product will sell--but whether the product works the way the client wants you to say it does.

Once I was hired to write content for a website promoting a weight loss supplement. It sounded fine when I started, but in the course of my research I found that all the scientific studies on this particular supplement showed it didn't work. My job was to write educational content on how the supplement works and how to use it effectively--but the problem was that it didn't work at all.

I felt stuck. I'd already accepted a deposit and signed an agreement. And yet I didn't feel comfortable writing lies. I brought my concerns up to the client--I didn't know what else to do. Eventually the client decided I wasn't the right writer for the project. I've thought about the situation a lot since; I thought maybe I could have handled it better, but I really couldn't bring myself to write educational copy that wasn't actually educational. It's tough to guard against these things, as sometimes you don't know enough about the topic until you've gotten hired and done the research.

So today's post isn't a how-to; it's more of a what-would-you-do. What would you do in this situation? Have you ever been faced with something like this? What are your thoughts?

Monday, February 25, 2008

PLR: Legitimate Business Model or Morally Bankrupt?

I went over to InkThinker the other day and found an interesting article on PLR (Private Label Rights) articles. For those who don't know, writers sell PLR articles numerous times rather than just one time. There are two basic ways to sell PLR articles. With the first method, you set up a cheap subscription service that delivers dozens of articles per month to customers on a variety of topics. With the second, you sell "packs" of articles on different topics, and you let your customers buy what they want without subscribing.

At first glance, PLR looks like it might be fairly lucrative. But I've seen writers argue that it's not only a bad business decision, but it's morally wrong. I'm on the fence about this. I'm not sure PLR is for me, but I'm not convinced it's the devil, either--and I know a number of experienced freelance web writers who include it as part of their business model. I don't sell PLR and I'm not promoting it here--I have absolutely no reason to--but some objections to it strike me as a bit overblown. Here are the arguments I've come across on why PLR is the spawn of Satan--and my responses to these arguments.

PLR articles simply rehash the same content over and over--and that's bad for the Internet. Many people buy PLR articles to provide quick, ready-made content to get a site going. I absolutely believe that original content will do better things for a website than rehashed PLR--but some people can't afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to hire a quality writer to build a comprehensive content library from scratch. That's where PLR supposedly comes in.

I agree that it's probably not great to keep recycling the same old content on the web, but I'm a bit of a hypocrite--I've already published quite a few articles on sites like EzineArticles, where they've been syndicated to other websites. I've increased my SEO rankings for targeted keywords a great deal this way--it's done a lot for my business. I've never heard the same objections raised against article marketing. Some writers might say "well, yes, but with article marketing at least you get lots of links back to your site." To which I respond: "well, yes, and with PLR at least you get paid."

In addition, not everybody who buys PLR just posts it on their sites without changing it. Most webmasters these days are aware that Google penalizes duplicate content, which is why those who buy PLR sometimes rewrite or use the articles simply for a research source--or they might use them for an offline newsletter, brochure, or report. That's not to say that clients wouldn't be better served with original content that's tailored to them; but not all PLR just gets posted online as-is.

PLR articles undermine the copywriting industry. The problem with PLR is that it's cheap. You sell a pack of ten articles fifty times for $10 each instead of once for $25 each. I've heard writers argue that PLR is bad for all writers, because it floods the market with cheap writing.

But just in case you haven't noticed, the market is already flooded. You can get original content for cheaper than some PLR packs. Somehow, writers who charge a fair wage still stay in business; that's because some clients know the value of professional, personally-tailored copy that's designed to generate sales or make their site the resource in a certain niche. They can already get original content for pennies on the dollars you're charging, but they don't. My hunch is they don't want PLR content, either.

From what I've seen, the people who buy PLR articles are not the same people who buy fairly priced content. They're the people who buy $5 articles from India. They're the people who reject your Elance bid because it's "too high"--you dared to charge more than a fraction of a penny per word.

PLR articles are crap writing. I've also heard some claims that PLR writing perpetuates badly written, grammatically incorrect and badly researched trash content. I don't subscribe to any PLR services, so I can't judge whether it's any good as a whole. However, I do feel that PLR can't be any different from other types of writing--some of it's probably crap. Some of it might be decent. Just because it's sold multiple times doesn't mean it's automatically bad. And I know that original content can be absolutely horrible--originality is no guarantee of quality.

I'm not convinced about PLR articles for my own business, but I'm in favor of keeping a fair, objective opinion on it--and I don't look down on writers who offer it. There will always be cheap writing out there that undercuts your prices. To compete, you can't expect to stem the tide. It didn't work for record companies to eradicate song downloads; instead, they joined the market by offering affordable, legal downloads--and made money on the new trend. I don't see anything wrong with writers doing the same thing. Selling one article for $10 might not be worth it. But selling one article fifty times for $10 might be smart business.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cold Emailing: Worth a Second Look?

Cold emailing has a bad reputation--it's typically associated with sending out spam. And I've heard a lot of people say it isn't worth the time it takes to do it. At first glance, this seems to make sense. After all, so much email comes into everyone's inboxes in the form of spam; we're all a little trigger-happy with the delete key. Even if your email isn't deleted in the first second or before it's even open, it doesn't seem likely that you could get through to decision-makers this way.

However, it's tough to reach decision-makers by phone, too--you usually have to bypass at least one gatekeeper to get there. Many companies publish the email addresses of key employees. And while these folks can easily delete your message, they could just as easily choose not to take your call.

I've had success with email marketing; during slow periods, I regularly email potential clients and I've landed quite a few lucrative jobs this way. I've also had it work on me. Here are a few tips for making it work for you.

Whenever possible, email a person. Avoid filling out generic contact forms or using the regular "info" email address if at all possible. Some companies publish staff emails, and whenever I've been able to start off my email with the person's name and title, I've always had better results than I've had using a generic "to whom it may concern."

Never send out a one-size-fits-all email. It can be tempting to fire off dozens of emails to potential employers and hope one sticks. But you'll get better results by emailing fewer companies with more personalized messages. When emailing potential employers, I usually write something that's completely tailored to them.

Don't be misleading. I remember a few weeks back I found an email in my inbox with "Copywriting Job" as the subject. Thinking I was looking at an inquiry for my services, I opened it up. It turned out to be from another writer looking for overflow work. The writer chose a subject line that was guaranteed to make me open the email, but it wasn't honest about the point of the message.

I don't think there's anything wrong with emailing other people in your business looking for overflow work, necessarily. But I couldn't help feeling a bit misled by the subject line of the message. I didn't get back in touch with the person, and I didn't hire him. In general, it's best to choose subject lines that are honest as well as appealing.

Do not talk about yourself. I've gotten better results when the majority of my message has been about the company: about its website, its possible needs, things it might be struggling with, and a link to an article I've written that could help. When I've written extensively about my own abilities and qualifications, my results are less impressive.

Keep your message short. You only have a second or two to generate a response. Keep your email brief and casual; try to sound more like a helping hand than a salesperson. I try to keep my email communications under 200 words.

Conversations work better than one-off emails. Cold emailing does work, but it's often better if you build a relationship first. Here's an example of how to do this.

A while ago, I had a person from an IT company comment on my blog. The comments were always helpful and insightful, and the person didn't push any products at all--although he did leave a link to his site. I mentioned some difficulty with something to do with his subject in a post, and the person sent me an email making a helpful private suggestion, which I appreciated.

He then sent me an email back asking if I had any questions. I didn't, at the time--so I didn't respond back. Here is where I believe he made a misstep. If he had simply sent a link to a resource on his site that could help me with my problem, he would get me onto his site. Hopefully, the article would educate me on how a company or service like his could be of help, as well as giving me ideas for fixing the problem on my own. This would help get me past any objections I might have about spending the money--and it might turn me into a customer.

Cold emailing might have a bad reputation, but I wouldn't discount it entirely. If you're a writer, it might just suit your talents better than other cold marketing methods. Next time your business is slow, do a Google search for businesses in the industry you're looking for, and fire off a few emails to companies you'd like to work for. Better yet, see if any of those businesses have blogs--and become involved in the conversation before making your pitch. If it worked for me, it could definitely work for you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gender Generalizations: Asking for Trouble?

Just now I had someone make a gender-based generalization on my blog. It was pretty inoffensive, and I even related to it--but even so it stirred the pot a little bit. I had planned to reply in the comments, but every time I did my comment turned out about as long as a regular blog post. I thought this topic was too interesting not to devote an entire post to.

I relate to some gender-based generalizations--for instance, I'm not as strong as most guys I know. I'm aware of it. I come with all the necessary equipment to give birth, and I'm aware that guys don't. However, I do think that if you make general gender statements in public--even about something as obvious as physical difference--you're asking for trouble. Here's why I think it's a bad idea to make gender-generalization comments on your business blog.

Because nothing applies to everybody. Okay, some gender generalizations seem really obvious. But even some of the really obvious ones may not apply to the particular people who are hearing you. And I know that whenever I hear a generalization about women that I don't feel applies to me, I always feel a little twinge of annoyance. I start thinking something like "this person doesn't know what he's talking about. I'm not like that." I get a little defensive. Often I look at the situation rationally a little later and realize that the person means well--but my first reaction is always negative.

When you make generalizations about gender, you run the risk of giving a definition of manhood or womanhood that doesn't include the listener. And chances are that even if the person you're talking to doesn't get all offended, he or she probably had an internal moment of annoyance.

Because you'd be surprised at what's offensive to some. You know the one that sometimes bothers me? That old stereotype that women are more nurturing than men. You'd think that statement wouldn't be offensive; after all, being nurturing is a positive thing and if anything, women should like that such a positive quality is associated with them.

But I don't see it that way. I guess because to me, it sounds like saying women aren't as "tough" as men; or because women are so nurturing they're biologically better suited to staying home and having babies than going out in the world and being successful. To me--and to some other women I know--that phrase "women are more nurturing" has a lot of negative connotations. Someone who doesn't understand those associations might make a perfectly innocent comment about the nurturing nature of women--and cause offense where it wasn't meant. That's the thing about gender generalizations--you think what you're saying is perfectly innocent or even positive, but you might not know what you're wading into.

Even "physical" generalizations might cause offense. There's a lot of science out there that says women and men problem-solve, listen, and see the world differently. But not even scientific studies are always the last word--this article in the Boston Globe makes a lot of sense to me. It discusses how the studies that back up gender-based stereotypes are not always as conclusive as they look.

How good is the science behind brain difference studies? I'm not sure. But whether they're right or wrong isn't the point, in my opinion. If somebody tells me women or men are a certain way because their brains or hormones or something else in their bodies are just different, it doesn't close the conversation for me. And it might not be closed for whoever you're talking to. I'll still get a little bothered when someone tells me women are worse drivers than men, for example, even though there's a study out there that backs it.

Because even if you don't mean to be sexist, you can come off looking that way. Some people might not be offended at all by gender stereotyping--they may even agree with some stereotypes. But unless you know how everyone you're talking to will respond, gender generalizations are definitely risky. Even if you don't mean to sound sexist, starting a conversation with "Women are all...." or "Men always..." might get people to see you as the type of person who makes assumptions based on gender--especially if they don't know you well.

Some people get annoyed at the fact that they have to watch what they say to avoid offending people. I know a lot of people who might say something like "well, if it's so easy to offend people, maybe they're the problem. Maybe they need to lighten up." I'm not really interested in judging whether it's wrong or right that people can get prickly over gender generalizations--but I think the reality is that they do. In a world where some social pitfalls are hard to spot, gender generalizations are obvious and easy to avoid--so why wouldn't you?

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Freelancer's Guide to Giving Good Phone

I don't like talking on the phone. I always get a bit nervous when a potential client wants me to call, rather than send an email. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I feel much more confident in writing. When I email a client, I can write out an articulate response, put the right tone in, proofread and check everything over to make sure I'm saying what I want to say, and think about it for a bit before I send it. When I'm talking on the phone--particularly to a new prospect--I have a split second to make a good impression. Here are a few things I do to make sure I don't screw it up.

Write down what you expect to be asked, and what you plan to say. Maybe you know exactly how to improve Mr. Prospect's website copy. But when he asks, your answer doesn't come out as brilliantly as it sounds in your head. Maybe you say "um" a lot. Maybe you suddenly forget the word "benefits" (I swear, stuff like this has happened to me before) and you suddenly find yourself groping for a synonym or going "um, you know, those things that tell customers why they, uh, you know. Starts with a B." To prevent any unfortunate stumbling, write down your responses to the questions and comments you expect. Read them aloud a few times to make sure they sound natural. You don't have to read from the script when you call, but the info is there if your brain suddenly freezes.

Do your research. Don't go into a call cold. Check out their website or catalog. Have a few things in mind to say if they ask you something general, like what you think of their website. Get a sense of who you think their target audience is, and look around to see what some of their competitors are doing. Make some notes to yourself before you call.

Remember: You know your stuff. Sometimes I get nervous because I'm afraid someone might ask me something I don't know. But it's important to remember to keep in mind what you do know, and keep the focus on that. I may not know a lot of things, but I sure as heck know how to write. Remember: you know your stuff. Have confidence in that.

Practice before calling. Nothing freaks me out more than having someone pick up and suddenly blurting out the wrong pronunciation of the prospect's name. Practice saying what you want to say before calling. If the prospect's name or the business name is long, complicated, and full of alliterations, say it to yourself a few times before calling. If you've jotted down your responses to questions you anticipate, practice saying difficult phrases--or better yet, break difficult phrases and words down into something easier to say. You want to make this as easy on yourself as possible, and you don't need big words to sound smart.

Breathe. You want to sound upbeat, energetic, confident, and delighted to speak to the person on the other end of the phone. If you're nervous, you probably won't come off that way. To keep the jitters out of your voice, take a deep breath as you call. Let the breath out on your "hi" and let the energy carry you through your opening sentence. Breathe deeply as you talk and support your speech with your breath. Breath support is important in singing, but it can also make your voice sound more confident, energetic and authoritative when you're talking to clients.

So next time you get an email from a prospect saying "give me a call," don't panic. Instead, get prepared, email back to set a time, and go from there. With practice, you'll be just as comfortable on the phone as you are in writing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This Post Should Be Simple and Easy--If You Know What You're Doing. (Heck, You Get a Free Education Just By Reading It.)

To get the background for this post, we're going to have to travel back in time to a post I did a few months back. The post was a reaction to those giveaway phrases people use in order to get a lot of work done for a little money--phrases like "this is an easy job for someone who knows what he's doing," and "heck--you're getting a free education just listening to us." Those phrases always rubbed me the wrong way, and I"m not alone--I found a post complaining about this exact wording on Kathy Kehrli's Flawless Word blog, which itself was a response to a press release from an e-business owner giving (bad) advice on how to attract writers to work for you. Anyway, the press release is no longer up, and it's been a long time--so I figured the case was closed here.

Recently, however, I got a ranting response to the above post from someone who passionately disagreed with me. I had never seen anything written before about the rationale behind using these words. I found the whole thing so intriguing that I took the time to write a detailed response--and since this is an old post, I thought I'd bring it up here in a more current issue. Here's the guy's comment (edited down, since it's extremely long; you can see the original by checking out the original post):

"Are you kidding me? ... I actually got this advice first-hand, that EXACT phrase, from two extremely successful individuals named Matt Bacak and Arman Morin, and let me tell you what - the information that someone gets from EITHER of these two is worth doing the job for a CUT rate, much less your standard rate. Matt alone charges $5k an hour for personal marketing advice, and 20k a day, cash, UPFRONT. Do you think these two might have something of value to share?...

The technique of saying that "This is a simple and easy task for anyone that knows what they're doing. Heck, you get a free education just listening to us." is a marketing technique used to appeal to a prospect's ego, weed out non-hackers who don't know how to write but just want a paying assignment, and offers the prospect something of value, which is the actual information the writer wants transcribed/ghostwritten, etc... No one's looking down on you by using these techniques. The raw information that people like Matt and Armand are seeking bids from writers for is sold for thousands upon thousands of dollars in it's edited form. It would behoove any person to perhaps let go of their own self importance and learn something from them...Anyhoo, just my 2 cents. (If u wanna delete this I'll understand.) Anyway, Make It A Great Day!"

Har, har. Here's my response (also edited down):

"You say that these people are worth listening to because they earn a lot of money for what they say. But the phrases they use are phrases characteristically used by people looking for very cut-rate work. If these people have so much money, you'd think they could afford to pay for the services of a decent copywriter--somebody with a proven track record of success in sales writing who could doubtless increase their earnings a great deal, instead of a bunch of cheap writing from inexperienced and/or unskilled writers.

On "this is a simple and easy task/you're getting a free education..." it's funny that you say this phrase is a marketing technique aimed at trying to entice writers to write for you for a cut rate by making them think they're getting something of value from you other than money. I'm in that target market--I'm a writer. That phrase strikes me as arrogant and condescending, and it tells me the person is trying to take advantage of me. Among professional writers I know, nobody really responds favorably to these phrases. So if that's marketing advice you get from people claiming to be professionals, it's bad advice.

About this phrase being intended to "appeal to a prospect's ego, weed out non-hackers who don't know how to write but just want a paying assignment, and offers the prospect something of value":

It certainly doesn't appeal to anyone's ego to infer that they need a "free education." It says you think they're not educated.

As for weeding out "non-hackers" (what's a non-hacker, anyway?) who are just looking for a "paying assignment", that's all of us. All professionals, anyway. Believe it or not, writers don't transcribe people's info, write people's sales letters and marketing material and content articles for the pure love of writing or just to learn something. People write fiction and poetry for the pure love; they go to school to learn something; and they write business copy for money.

You say nobody will look down on you for using these phrases, but the community of professional writers will. These are phrases everybody in that community knows. They're a clear marker that the person using them is looking to hoodwink someone into working for them at much less than they should be earning (otherwise, the person wouldn't have to offer "a free education" instead of fair payment).

Anyway, so that's my $5k. You "make it a great day" yourself."

Why am I sharing this? Because it amused me. Because I wanted to see if anyone else out there had any thoughts (maybe better-reasoned ones?) on whether or not it's a good idea to use these phrases. And to give writers a peek into the minds of people who think these phrases work. Apparently, they think that by saying a project should be "simple and easy" if you "know what you're doing" and suggesting you need a free education, they're appealing to your ego. Maybe they should run a few tests on that before taking it to the bank.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Top Five Myths About Freelance Writing

I'd like to think I wasn't terribly naive when I started freelance writing. I'd read a lot of books about the freelancing experience, I'd done some work part-time by the time I quit my job, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. But I definitely made the leap with a few preconceived notions that later turned out to be false. Here are my personal freelancing myths--and the truth about them.

I'd work in my PJ's all day. When I started freelancing, I was in love with the idea that I'd never have to dress in "business casual" again. I got ready to throw away all my dress pants and nylons. But after about a week of typing in my flannels all day, I got sick of it. I felt like a slob--and to be honest, no matter how much writing I did, I never really felt like I accomplished much if I never actually got dressed. As time went by, I actually started looking for opportunities to dress up. Today, I don't necessarily wear a suit to my home office--my dress code is pretty casual. But I do make an effort to look presentable each day, even if all I have in front of me is a solitary day of writing.

I'd have no boss--I'll answer to myself. I loved the idea of having nobody to answer to, picking my assignments, and cutting ties if something isn't working out. And while freelancing definitely gives you more freedom from authority than you'd usually have, I also found it doesn't free you entirely. You still have clients--and they're your bosses. Each time you take on a new client, you have to learn all over again about their likes, dislikes, communication style, and expectations. If you have a few regular clients (like I do), you may find you want to work extra hard to please these folks. And if something isn't working out between you and a client, it's true you can cut ties. But you have incentives to try to make it work first--you may have already spent their deposit, or maybe they're well connected and you don't want to get a bad reputation in their industry.

I'd have total freedom. I had visions of waking up at noon every day, taking vacations whenever I wanted, and working "only when I felt like it." A few weeks on the job quickly proved me wrong. As a freelancer you have to meet your deadlines religiously, respond quickly to client communications, keep up with your marketing, and work to grow your business. With all there is to do in a day, I've found that getting up early is the only way I can get anything done. Working "when I felt like it" is right out; I have to pay the bills, after all. And yes, I can take vacations whenever I want--as long as I have no projects going on that week. As with a regular job, I have to make sure my vacation doesn't interfere with anything pressing.

As a professional writer, I'd never have to do math. I used to be a bit of a math phobic. I avoided taking any math classes in college; my rationale was that since I was going to be a writer, I was never going to need it. This was probably one of my biggest mistakes. I need to know how much to set aside for taxes, how much I need to make each month to survive, and how much to charge. I also have to know a lot of other things I never thought I needed--including basic sales techniques, technical skills, and marketing.

I'd be back in an office in six months. When I made the leap, I wasn't sure how it would work out. While I'd made money freelancing previously, I hadn't made enough to completely replace my full-time job. I had a lot of ideas for getting more business, but I had a secret fear that I wouldn't last long. A year and a half later, it's worked out better than I had hoped--and despite the fact that some of my illusions turned out to be untrue, this is still the best job I've ever had.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Busy Week

It's been a crazy week for me. A client I was supposed to finish with last week took a while to get back to me on what she needed for the project, so I'm stuck getting her work done this week--on top of a last-minute project with a regular client and another project I had planned to finish this week for a long time. Not to mention I promised ages ago to speak at Career Day for my boyfriend's high school--so there goes Friday as a work day.

So, if you're wondering where I've been this week, I've been trying to cram two weeks' worth of work into four days. I'll be back Monday, when hopefully things will have calmed down.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Bad Writing Gigs: Tell 'Em Where To Stick Their "Exposure"

Last week I did a lot of poking around the job boards during a slow period--which is over now; I'll barely have time to blog this week--and I came across a lot of ads for scamtastic writing jobs. A few months ago I wrote a post on when writing for free might be a good idea, but it's usually not. After reading all these terrible offers on job boards, I've had it up to my ears with scam artists looking for freebies. So here you are: a list of things people will offer you to write online instead of cash, and why they're not worth your time.

Writing for Exposure: In Most Cases, a Total Waste. You've probably seen plenty of those job ads from people looking for free writing. "We can't afford to pay you," they say. "But we can offer you exposure." These job postings always annoy me--because I know that the people posting them are looking to take advantage of writers, and because I know there are writers out there who don't see these postings for the scams they are.

When you're writing for free, you have to consider what, exactly, you're going to get out of it. And when you write for "exposure," what are you hoping to be exposed to? What do you want to get from this gig, if not money? A website that really can offer you great exposure can probably afford to pay its writers, too.

A lot of writers are tempted by these gigs because they have an idea that some editor for some well-paying magazine will spot their article and fall in love with their writing style. But that's absolutely not going to happen. Editors for successful magazines don't troll around the Internet looking for the next big star. They're getting hundreds of query letters from professionals every day. They don't have time to look for you.

Writing for a Share in Profits: Good Luck. I saw a few employers dangling shares in their website's eventual profits in order to get free work. I don't know any writers who've earned decent money from a share of somebody's website profits. Think of it this way: the vast majority of new websites do not become high ranking or receive enough traffic to actually make a lot of revenue. For each website that succeeds, there are probably dozens that flop. There is absolutely no guarantee that there will be any profits to share. No self-respecting website designer, graphic designer, or SEO professional would ever take a job with the promise of "a cut of the profits" instead of a normal fee. Why should writers?

Writing for Pay-Per-Click Sites: Earn Pennies Per Page. The problem with websites that offer a share in advertising revenue is that they don't promote the content: they expect you to take care of that. If you do this really well, you might earn something like five or ten bucks over a period of months. If you just want to write the piece and forget about it, this type of earning stream isn't for you.

Take Associated Content, for example. At this point, they pay $1.50 for every thousand page views your article attracts. And if you think a thousand page views comes easily--even on a well-established site--think again. I've published two articles there so far and have done nothing to promote them. They've been up for several months now; they've had about 110 page views altogether; and I've earned a grand total of seventeen cents through PPM. It's not realistic to expect to receive a decent wage for your writing through these sites, unless you work really hard to promote your writing--and if you're successful at doing that, you should be promoting your own website, not theirs.

Writing for the Promise of Paid Work: Don't Hold Your Breath. I've also seen some job postings that say something like "we can't pay you right now, but we'll have a lot of paid work in the future and we're looking for just the right partner" or even asking for a custom-crafted writing sample in your application. They might promise paying work later if you work for free now--but that work is not going to materialize. Ever.

Here's why: when you work for free, you teach your clients that your work isn't worth money. You show them that they don't have to pay you. Why would they pay you--or anyone--when this is work they can get for free? I wouldn't pay for something if I could get the same thing for free somewhere else. Would you?

Taking writing gigs like these doesn't just hurt your own career. It also hurts the freelance writing industry as a whole. As this great article in Writers Weekly says, freelance writing fees have declined by 50% since the 60's. And a lot of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of people who think a byline, "exposure," or some sort of shaky profit-sharing scheme is worth working for.

If you're a beginning freelancer looking to make a start, don't take these gigs. If you won't do it for your own bank account, do it for the rest of us. Someday, you want to make a career at this too--and if you keep working for free, there may not be any paying clients left.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Interviewing: Phone vs. Email

Lately I've been giving a lot of interviews for some magazine-type articles I've been working on. I give interviews both via email and over the phone. Both methods have their pros and cons.

Email interviewing: quick and easy, but not always painless.

The best thing about sending an email questionnaire is that it allows the interviewee to think about her answers, rather than having to think of a response off the top of her head in a phone interview. Some people can feel put on the spot when speaking in person, and might be more articulate in writing. In addition, you don't have to type hurriedly while listening to your interviewee talk--and then try to decipher your typing later. Some people swear by recording their interviewees, but I'm not sure how that works when you're using a cell phone.

There are a few problems with this method, however. Some people don't interview well in writing--they prefer to speak to someone in person. If the responses you get are a bit thin, you can't really draw the interviewee out during the interview--what you get is what you get. In addition, you can't adjust your questions as needed--so crucial questions might go unanswered.

Perhaps the worst problem with email interviewing, however, is that you have to trust the other person to get back to you with the responses within your period of time. The first time I did email interviews, this worked beautifully; all of my interviewees got back to me well within my due date. The second time, I had to interview five people--and every single one didn't send me responses. I wound up scrambling for sources at the last minute even though I had given myself plenty of time, and I had to do most of those last-minute interviews by phone anyway.

I've found that those who respond best to email interviews tend to have some incentive to be in your article: they want the publicity you can bring them. If you're interviewing ordinary people with no incentive to be in the article other than to see their name in print, they may forget or decide it's not worth the effort to respond.

Phone interviewing: the traditional method.

Phone interviews can go really well if you strike up chemistry with your interviewee; or it can be like pulling teeth to get your subject to talk. It's a lot like casual conversation in real life; some people you "click" with, and some you don't.

The best thing about phone interviews is that there's no waiting: you set a date and time with your interviewee, and you get it done. Unless, of course, the interviewee has to reschedule, or for some reason you can't reach him when you call at the appointed time and you have to play phone tag for a while. Sometimes these things happen no matter what method you use.

In an in-person interview, you can adjust your questions as you go, draw out less-talkative people, and generally work to get better responses if you're not getting what you need initially. The drawback is that the subject might not give the best answers possible off the top of his head, plus you'll have to listen and type at the same time unless you have some way of recording the interview.

Both methods have advantages and drawbacks. Perhaps the most effective method, however, is a blend between the two. Send your subject a list of your questions beforehand, so he can look them over and think about his answers. Then schedule a time to call and do a phone interview. This way, you can get the best from both methods.