Friday, August 29, 2008

10 Best Blogs--Nominate CatalystBlogger!

Last year this blog won a coveted place among Michael Stelzner's Top Ten Blogs for Writers. I'd love to see it happen again this year. It can't happen without you!

If you feel this blog merits the recognition, head over to the nomination page and leave a comment nominating my blog. Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What's Wrong With This Website?

Every so often, I get a prospective client asking for me to take a look at their site and let them know what I think can be done to improve the copy. To be honest, much of the time I have to know more about the business and the audience before I can give a thorough critique. However, there are a few common problems I see often with client-written website content, as well as brochures, newsletters, and pretty much anything else written by businesses for customers to read. Here are a few of the common signs you need a copy rewrite:

Lax spelling and grammar. This is hands-down the most common problem. I know I harp on this a lot, and a lot of copywriters will probably say it doesn't matter as much as other things. But I just can't let it go. I will repeat this until the day I die: bad writing makes you look bad. Period. End of sentence. If you screw up your punctuation, people will notice. If you don't put the apostrophe in the right place in your title, people will notice. If you think "you're" and "your" are interchangeable, people will notice. If you have a comma splice in the middle of your tagline (Subaru, take note), people will throw things at the television. You may think this is just me talking and I'm a grammar Nazi, but believe me--there are more of us out there than you realize.

Absolutely no awareness of the audience and their problems. Every website should have its visitors in mind--and every word should be about how the company solves their problems. So many companies don't mention their prospective clients' problems at all. You don't leave with any impression of how the product or company can benefit you. There is plenty of copy explaining who they are and what they do, but no "here's what's in it for you" moment. No mention of why this matters, of how this will make people's lives easier. Knowing your audience and their problems takes some market research--you can't guess on this--but it's worth it.

The assumption that people care about you. Nobody cares that you've won a slew of industry awards. People do care that your product will work better for them than the other guy's and will cost them less, too. Much of the time, website copy is all "we" and "us" and not much "you" at all.

Attempts to "sound like we know what we're talking about." Jargon should be avoided for most audiences. I've seen a lot of websites--particularly in more technical industries--where the writing is all about how smart the company is and how many big words they can cram into a single page. Much of the time, their audience isn't people with advanced degrees in the subject who can understand that jargon--it's middle managers with little technical skill who have to make the case to their bosses to buy this technical equipment--and who need to understand why the company needs it first.

Writers bring clarity to website copy. They tease out what's special about your product--why people should want it--and they explain it in the easiest, most compelling way possible. Good graphics are important in a good site, but without good writing, your snazzy website won't sell like it could.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Is Being a Writer Less Prestigious Now?

I saw this post over on Bly's Blog the other day asking the question: is it easier to become a writer now than it was? And does that make the job less "prestigious"?

There's a certain glamour to being able to call yourself a writer. It's one of those jobs a lot of people wished they could do--and who succeeds and who fails, particularly in fiction, is often up to chance and the fickleness of the market. Like many "glamour" jobs--actor, artist, musician--most people don't make any money in this field, and a chosen few strike it rich.

But how prestigious is the type of writing freelance copywriters do? I would put forth the opinion that it's got more in common with other freelance business owners--like freelance graphic designers, coders, SEO's, and so on--than it does with fiction writers. We don't work at the whim of a market. We don't usually go through agents. And from what I can see, anyone with the requisite abilities and a smattering of business sense can make a living in this field. Sometimes people are impressed when I tell them I'm a writer. And I love being able to say that. But really, it's not as impressive as they think.

Bob brings up the fact that there is more competition than ever--and that more people than ever are becoming writers. That makes it less prestigious. But to be honest, I don't find myself tripping over someone who's a freelance writer every time I go out. To be honest, I rarely meet other people who do what I do. And I live in a pretty big city.

I think what's important isn't how "prestigious" your job is, but how much demand there is for your services and how much competition you have to deal with. While there is definitely competition out there, I still find there's plenty of work to go around--enough that I'm perfectly willing to refer a businessowner to another writer who specializes in the project they're looking for. There might be more competition due to the Internet and bidding sites nowadays than the old-school direct mail gurus experienced in the past, but let's face it: a lot of that competition is from people who write severely-misspelled articles for $3, not people who write expert direct mail copy that pulls in sales for $3. This is not the same level of competition that people like Bob are working at, and I don't feel professional writers should be threatened.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Your Niche: Walking the Tightrope

Reading over some comments from a previous post, I've noticed that there's some confusion out there surrounding finding marketable niches. I've definitely had the same problem: I want to focus on web content and copy, but I don't want to turn away clients looking for brochures, resume rewrites, editing, video scripts, and all sorts of other fun projects. I want to build a business brand that encourages a certain type of project, but I don't want to turn away other projects.

This isn't that organized, but here are a few thoughts I have on the balance between developing a profitable niche and avoiding turning away other work.

Don't actually turn away work until you're really established. There's really no point in turning away non-niche work unless you're doing so well in your niche that taking on an outside project means turning away a more lucrative, easier niche project. Your niche is supposed to make you money, not cost you.

Concentrate on your niche in your website. Experienced niche marketers will probably tell you that you should have a different website for each niche you're breaking into. I love writing web copy and am starting to build a website that focuses on that--but I'd also like to focus on scriptwriting for radio and online video in the future, and as soon as I've gotten enough credits in that I'll think about building another website that highlights my experience there. But while you're a still a generalist with specific tendencies--like me at the moment--it's okay to have just one website that features your niche, but still includes samples and services that are outside of that.

Market aggressively within your niche. There's no other way to become known in your niche than by putting yourself out there. Focus your marketing efforts on companies and projects within your niche. If a different type of project happens to come your way, no problem--don't turn it down, especially if you have the time to do it.

Develop a specialist network. Once you're established--and even before--it can be very beneficial to form a network with other writers who specialize in different things. Once your niche work starts rolling in, you can refer outside work to colleagues who specialize--and if they get offers for projects in your niche, they'll pass the business along to you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Finding Time to Write While You're Still A Wage Slave

I got an email the other day from a freelancer who asks:

"I am a freelance writer who is still in that 'trying to work full-time while finding time to write' phase. I'd love it if you could share a little insight on how you handled both before you left corporate America to write full-time."

I moonlighted for about two years before quitting full-time work. To be honest, I was very motivated to carve out time to freelance--at the time, it was the only thing that made me feel good about my professional life. But I was also lucky in certain respects. I didn't have kids. I didn't have a family to cook for or clean up after. When I came home from work, my time was more or less mine.

Still, it's not easy to freelance while you're working full-time. I definitely came home drained and had days when I didn't want to work. Here are a few pointers for people still stuck in wage slavery and doing their best to get a business going.

Set reasonable goals. It's important not to get discouraged. And if you set the bar too high, you might do just that. It's crucial to set goals--make contact with twenty new businesses per week, for example. But if twenty is too much, don't throw up your hands in despair and quit. Lower the bar. Try for ten instead. As long as you're doing something, you'll be moving ahead.

Carve out some time. You'll need some quiet time to write--and your family will need to honor that. Make sure everyone in the family knows that when you're in your writing room or writing space, you're still at work. Maybe for you that quiet time is right after work, or in the morning before work, or on your lunch break, or at night before bed. But make sure you choose a time that matches your temperament. If it's a struggle for you to get up early enough to write, you won't stick with it over time.

Keep phone contact to a minimum. Clients may or may not care whether or not you're moonlighting. But you do want to give the appearance of being professional and experienced and successful--and some clients, when they find out you don't do this full time, may assume the worst. Try to keep in touch with your clients primarily by email. If someone wants to talk to you on the phone, schedule some time where you won't be trying to talk to them at work. Your full-time job may not appreciate you devoting "company time" to your business.

Know your limits. Don't assume you need to take a million projects on every week to keep going. As you go, you'll learn how long it takes to do different types of projects. While you always have to be careful with time management as a freelancer, you have to be extra careful when you're fitting your freelancing around a full-time job. Quantity of work at this point isn't as important as collecting great samples, making contacts and impressing the hell out of the clients you have. This will keep the business coming when you leave your full-time job.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Five Things I Learned From My Blogging Sabbatical

I'm back!

I spent the summer in New York and in Vermont, where I have family. It sounds like a vacation, but it was really more of a working vacation--and I had to take a lot of client work with me. Of course, I wanted to carve out time in my schedule to have fun, spend time with loved ones, and even relax a little--that's what summer's for, right?--and something in my regular routine had to give. I couldn't give up the client work.

Most Probloggers would say it's blogging suicide to leave your blog dark for a month. I say it's not the end of the world. Here are a few things I've learned from my extended break from blogging.

Even the best laid plans don't always work out. You know how this is supposed to go. When you take a break, you need to write posts to cover that break. You need to timestamp 'em, turn off comment moderation, and lay low. If you do it right, your readership will never notice while you're away.

Of course, writing almost two months' worth of extra posts was way more work than I could've handled, even weeks before I left on the trip. And originally I thought I'd just continue posting as usual during the summer. It didn't work out that way, and sometimes things just don't work out the way you think they will.

Remember: you have a life offline. When I first started this blog, I had one rule: if it grows too onerous, it's OK to back off. I didn't want to commit to posting every day, not see enough return for my effort, and have blogging become a burden. But when I got started, I realized something: blogging is addictive. And I became a junkie. Before I left I had become addicted to checking my traffic, reading my comments, surfing other blogs, seeing who was linking to me. My blog was my way of connecting with others in my business--and I loved it. I still love it.

But when I was away, I realized that I had to spend time with the people who love me in person. And I had to spend time on real-life things that I love to do. No matter how much is at our fingertips online, depending on it too much can still reduce our world to the size of our laptop screens. I had developed tunnel vision and hadn't even realized it, and believe it or not, I needed the break.

Sometimes a break is good for your creativity. I was having a little trouble before I left thinking up great new blog posts. Sure, I was still enthused about my blog--but I was starting to feel like I'd written everything there was to write already. This blog is barely a year old, and I wasn't ready for burnout yet. But I was getting there. This break has recharged my creativity, and I've got a lot to talk about here in the next few weeks.

Your readers are more forgiving than you realize. I just checked my traffic scores on Feedburner. As expected, I saw a big drop in traffic in August. But I didn't expect my subscriber list to actually increase, which it did. My regulars stuck with me, and it looks like I even picked up a few new subscribers while I was gone as well. If your writing is good, people will stick around.

Traffic drops? There are ways to get it back. Regular posting will help. Commenting on other people's blogs will help. I'm going to go out of my way in the next few weeks to let people know I'm back and posting on a regular schedule again.

On a successful blog, you're supposed to post regularly every day. But that can take a toll. If you have to take a break, take a break. Tell people when you'll be back, and try to jot down a few ideas as they come to you while you're gone. When you do come back, you'll have some worthwhile things to say.