Friday, December 19, 2008

My Freelance Wish List

CatalystBlogger will be on official holiday hiatus until January 2. This has been my second full year in business, and it has been seriously eventful--I may not have accomplished everything on my resolutions list from last year, but I did a lot this year and I'm happy with my progress. Sometimes life doesn't go the way you plan it, and it's a constant struggle for me to be okay with that.

But anyway, if there's room in Santa's bag for gifts for freelancers, here's my list of requests.

A blessed absence of tech problems. People assume that because I run a more-or-less online business that I'm technically savvy. Um...not so fast. All I know about technical issues is I want the darn things to work. Period. End of story. I don't want to troubleshoot. I don't want to figure out new and better ways to do things. I just want to get the job done without any fuss or bother. And when things break, I can think of absolutely nothing I want to do less than figure out the problem myself. To people who truly understand technology, machines are predictable. To me, they're fickle and mysterious and go deviant for absolutely no reason. Don't make me muck around in there.

A long run of mediocre clients. In the face of a rash of stellar clients and difficult ones, writing buddy Lori brought up a desire for mediocre clients. Freelancing is an up-and-down business, and that's true of the people you work for as well as the pay. Sometimes the clients is off-the-charts in love with you, and you're a superstar. Other times you just can't do anything right. Instead of the ups and downs, I'm happy to work with a long string of even-tempered, easy-going folks who know what they want, say "thanks" at the end and pay you on time. That's the kind of client I'm wishing for more of.

More hours in the day. My workload has increased as my business has grown. I used to have a perfect workday pretty much all the time: I worked four hours a day on client work, four hours a day on work for my business, and I was golden. Now I'm lucky to squeeze in marketing and business-related stuff on weekends and lunch breaks. I wish for a return to that schedule sweet spot--or more hours in the day, whichever is more possible.

A successful year for writers.This hasn't been a banner year for most businesses. I've been booming--partially because even in a recession, businesses need to market; much of the time they need to market more. My final wish is that success will continue to come despite economic conditions--not just to me, but to all of my colleagues in writing, design, SEO, and other related businesses.

Have a great holiday, and I'll see you next year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Anyone Else Sick of Technology Prophecies?

There are a lot of predictions on the net about the demise of keyboards with the improvement of touch-screen technology and the development of better voice recognition and even gesture-recognition software. The breathless hype claims that soon we'll all be able to use touch screens, just talk or--better yet--act out the things we wish to type, and our computers will faithfully transcribe them with no actual typing on our part.

Maybe most people don't like to type. I love to type; I can type as fast as I can think thanks to a typing class I took a long time ago in high school. Plus, I'm better at organizing my thoughts on the page than I am in saying them aloud; I could never dictate a client project or a novel, but I'm pretty proficient at writing those things. (Well, maybe not novels. But dictating a novel would lead to a big huge incoherent mess.) I'm not looking forward to anyone rendering my keyboard obsolete. I intend to hang onto it with cracked and bleeding fingernails until the bitter end.

Tech articles that gleefully claim the end of the keyboard is just around the corner seem to forget that this isn't a desirable outcome for some of us. Not only do I not want to dictate, use a touch screen, or--God forbid--gesture my next client project into existence, I don't like writing on tiny screens. I don't need a huge, million-pixeled expensive desktop screen like designers use; I just need to see what I'm writing without squinting, and to see both sides of a page without having to scroll left or right. It's not much to ask. So please don't suggest that laptops will soon be the size of PDA's. You're giving me the heebie-jeebies.

This isn't the only dire prophecy for writers. We're all sick of hearing about the demise of the book. Since people are reading less and spending more time online, people assume that readers are reading online--and now that Google is scanning entire books to make their contents available online, who will want to read a stupid paper book?

Well, I do. Those who love curling up with a book don't love curling up with a laptop. You can't read a laptop screen in the bath. You can't read a laptop screen on the beach. Laptops run out of batteries and have to be plugged in; books don't. You're stuck in your uncomfortable desk chair when you're reading on your desktop; you can sit wherever you want and read a book. Plus reading screens for hours makes my eyes squinty; reading books doesn't. Yes, I read news and some blogs and articles online--but it is absolutely no substitute for a real book.

All of these advances in technology are bad for both writers and readers. My hope is that as technology evolves, it will consider the wants and needs of those who still love and live by the written word--instead of steamrolling over us in the interests of progress.

Monday, December 15, 2008

13 Signs You Don't Want That Project

I just found this hilarious list on "20 Signs You Don't Want That Web Design Project" (and thanks to Inkthinker for finding this page!). I had to laugh at this list--and I was inspired to write my own. As with Zeldman's list, this one is based entirely on firsthand experience.

1. Client tells you he's a "bit of a writer himself." In fact, he'd write the coming project himself, but he just doesn't have the time. Take my word for it: this one will criticize your copy to death in his efforts to prove to you--or to himself--that he's a writer too.

2. The client asks you why you're charging so much money for a postcard mailer when it's "just a measly couple of lines." He tells you he could write it himself in ten minutes.

3. Client asks if you can't just copy and paste the home page text from a competitor's site to save money on writing costs.

4. The client can't tell you why his product is better than the competition's. He can't tell you who his competition is. When you ask who his audience is, he says "everyone."

5. There's no real budget for this project, but he'll have lots of really highly paid work in the future and he's looking for a long-term partner who's willing to "get in on the ground floor."

6. The client sells purple widgets for the multi-pronged flange industry. He's looking for a ten-page brochure for his latest product. He demands to know how many ten-page brochures selling purple widgets you've written targeted toward the multi-pronged flange industry.

7. The client tells you he loves what you written, it's perfect, he's absolutely satisfied. Then you send the invoice. Then he needs extensive revisions.

8. The client tells you he has a million-dollar promotional budget for his new business venture. Then when you send him a quote for the work, he tells you it's too high and he could get the work for a fraction of the price from writers in India.

10. The client asks you why you charge so much when he could get the same work done elsewhere for $5 a page.

11. You deliver a quote. The client asks for a reduction in price. You tell him you can meet $x budget if he's willing to sacrifice y and z. The client tells you he wants a reduction in price without reducing the amount of work.

12. The client loves your first draft. Then he comes back a few days later saying he spoke to his wife, his cousin in marketing, or his father-in-law who writes technical manuals and they all think what you've written doesn't have "that WOW factor."

13. You send in the first draft. The client says, "that's a good start. Now make it better." When asked what he thinks should be improved, the client is vague to completely nonresponsive.

What are your signs of a bad business partnership?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Keeping Stress to a Minimum (It's All in Your Head)

My business is starting to grow. I'm landing higher-profile clients and more lucrative contracts. While this is definitely something worth celebrating--I'm not complaining, and I feel blessed to be doing well so far in this economy--I'm also feeling the level of pressure increase as the level of client and pay does. This is the ugly side of success that nobody tells you about.

Some people are naturally chill and relaxed, while others have so much confidence that nothing phases them. I'm a very high-strung individual, and I really, really want to please my clients. But this month I found myself under a lot of stress, and my traditional way of dealing with it--i.e. breathing heavily into a paper bag until the urge to pass out subsides--just wasn't cutting it any more.

At the beginning of the month, I landed myself in a situation where it seemed whatever could go wrong did. At the end of two weeks of incendiary contract disputes with a third-party client, I found myself on a bus to Boston on the way to a week-long business trip, stuck in traffic, twenty minutes from my flight's departure time. Under normal circumstances I would be banging my head against the window and shrieking at the driver to drive over the median to get there faster. But after all I'd been through up until then, I had to laugh. For what was probably the first time in my life, I thought to myself, "screw it. I'll either make the flight or I won't." And somehow, I did make the flight.

This taught me a big lesson: even though I have complete faith in my own skill as a writer, this job can still bring me enormous stress. I could handle it when I was just starting out. But at the levels I'm starting to compete at, it could easily consume me. I realized this month that this job could only get to me if I let it--and I had to stop letting it.

Here are a few mental tricks I'm putting into practice to lift the pressure.

Keep things in perspective. We're writers, not doctors. When we screw up, nobody dies. Nations don't rise and fall. Global economies don't crash. The worst that can happen is someone's promotion isn't as successful as hoped, or there's a typo in the headline of your sales letter, or your landing page doesn't beat the control. Not great, true--that typo thing can seem like the end of the world to us grammar perfectionists--but not exactly a national crisis, either. Whenever something doesn't go as planned and you feel yourself starting to stress, ask yourself this: in five years, will you care?

Pick and choose what you'll allow to stress you out. Let your family issues stress you out. Let your relationships stress you out. Let your dog's hip displasia stress you out. But do not let other people's stresses stress you out. As your business grows, you'll find yourself working with many, many people who are stressed themselves. They need your draft yesterday. They're dealing with pressures of their own. Do your best for them, but don't let their anxiety become your anxiety. Set boundaries when needed.

Let go of other people's responses. You don't want them to like your work--you want them to love it. As a professional with a very high standard of quality, i can totally relate to that. But bear in mind that the quality of your work and the client's response are not always tied to each other. No matter how on-target your copy is, you will almost always get nit-pickers and people who feel the need to mark their territory by giving you additional revisions. Take a deep breath and do the best you can, but do not let criticism of your work damage your confidence as a writer. That confidence is your livelihood.

There will always be another chance. Clients come and go. Projects come and go. Nothing is forever. If one business relationship doesn't work out, it could be a blessing in disguise--it could clear your schedule for that fabulous project or client just around the corner. When you let go of a troublesome business relationship, remember that the money will come back--you're freelance and flexible, and there are thousands of businesses who need your expertise.

Running your own business is always stressful. And in a creative field, you face myriad challenges from client attitudes toward writing in general, subjective direction, giant egos and third-party editors with agendas of their own, among other things. But as long as you're making enough money every month to support yourself, you're doing fine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interviews: Keeping Control of the Conversation

I've just returned from a big trip to a client site across the country. Hence not a lot of posting last week; I thought I'd get time to write a bunch of posts (again), but found myself wined and dined long after the traditional work day was over. I had a lovely time--but I also worked hard, interviewing multiple staffmembers at all levels of the organization.

Interviewing is hard work. It's tough to draw a person out, cultivate trust, and still keep the conversation focused and ensure you're getting all the information you need. I tend to be a very focused person--I want to get in, get out, and move on. But many people I interview don't work the way I do--they're less focused, and as the interviewer you need to be sure you can keep control of the conversation.

Here are several different types of interviewees I encountered on my trip--and how to make sure you get the answers you need from each of them.

The self-aggrandizer. The self-aggrandizer is thrilled to death that you're interviewing him. And he doesn't think you're interested in the company's services and the insight he brings to those--he thinks you're interested in him. Personally. So he might answer your questions perfunctorily, but he'll always wander back to himself--how he started working there, where he worked beforehand, his family and how they felt about his taking the job. When working with the self-aggrandizer, it's important to tell them at the outset why you're interviewing him and what information you're interested in. Sometimes it helps to give him his due and listen to his digressions, and act suitably impressed--once he feels he's been heard, he may be willing to move on to more relevant topics.

The befriender. The befriender can't sit down to have a conversation without trying to get to know you as well. And that would be great--if you didn't have six other people to interview today. She'll ask you questions about yourself and tell you personal details of her own life in an effort to build rapport. Let her do it for a bit--it will make her more likely to open up when you start asking the important questions--but don't let it continue for too long, or you'll have made a new friend without getting the info you need.

The clam. The clam doesn't have much to say. He answers your questions with one-word answers, and he's very difficult to draw out. When working with this guy, it's important to avoid yes-or-no answers like the plague; if he can get away with yes or no, he will. Be prepared to follow up with further questions and know exactly what information you're trying to get. With the clam, you may have to write your own quotes and then go back to him for approval; it's unlikely he'll deliver any memorable sound bites.

The confused soul. The confused one has difficulty staying on topic. He doesn't just want to tell you about the service the company offers now; he wants to talk about the services they're planning to offer next year, the services they tried and discontinued, and everything in between. With this one, it's key to tell him at the outset exactly what information you need at the outset and how you plan to use it. This way, he's more likely to focus only on the information that's useful to you.

Keeping control of the conversation is important for any interviewer. You need to make sure you get all the crucial information without wasting too much time--even though it takes time to build rapport and get someone to open up. When you're balancing thoroughness and efficiency, you always walk a tightrope. But with experience, you'll soon become adept at controlling the conversation without seeming abrupt.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What I'm Up To

November is over, and I'm re-committing to getting regular posts up this month. I have to admit this year has been crazy; I had to stop blogging regularly this summer and this spring when other commitments got in the way. This is probably why I'll never be a pro blogger--I tend to know when I've got too much to handle, and I tend to drop the least-paying commitments first.

A few people wrote in with offers to do guest posts, and I appreciate the offers. While I didn't take you up on it this time, I will definitely look into it next time I feel a hiatus coming on and will keep your names on file. If you'd like to be considered to write a guest post for me, get in touch. I may be able to work something out where you write a post, send it in, and I save it for a rainy day.

Anyway, here's what I've been up to this month instead of blogging:

A big fiction-writing contest. I'm one of those people who's always talking about writing a book, but I've never finished one. A lot of writers I know commit to National Novel Writing Month every year, but few finish the stated goal: a 50,000 word novel in one month. Granted, 50,000 words is a pretty short novel. Last year I gave it a good try, but finished well short of the goal. This year, with the help of a very close group of like-minded friends, I completed 50,000 words. Doing this involved writing about 2500 words of my novel a night. It was grueling--I gave up social commitments, time spent with family, and even stopped posting on this blog to get through it. But recommitting to my creative goals was really invigorating for me. I punched through a plateau that i thought was going to be endless in this novel, and now I'm finally feeling good about finishing it.

A new regular client. I landed a new regular a few months ago, and while the projects started small, they've been pouring in over the last few weeks. I've been taking on as much as I could possibly handle--more than I usually would--to save up for the holidays and for a move I'm planning in the next month or so.

A new website. I've been uploading samples, tweaking copy, and getting my new website up and running. Ideally I wanted to finish in November, but everything else took a backseat to my noveling and freelancing this month. I swear, guys, it'll be up by 2009.