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Friday, December 19, 2014

Traveling Truth (or Dare)

What's on the iPod: The Loneliness and the Scream by Frightened Rabbit

We're driving home today. I can't wait. As much as I've loved being on a road trip of this size (we're up around 3K miles at this writing), seeing people we love and want to spend time with, I'm ready to be back at my desk and in clothes that haven't been worn six times each.

While on this trip, we've seen some strange things. Maybe it's a good time for a little primer on traveling etiquette:

Wearing pajamas to breakfast at the hotel isn't cool. I really don't want to see your Sponge Bob pajama bottoms nor your Santa-themed flannel. These weren't kids -- full-grown adults who should know better. I'm eating here.

Bed and breakfasts aren't hotels. No one misbehaved this trip, but it's been needing to be said for some time now. You're not staying at a full-service hotel -- this is someone's home usually. Arriving at midnight, wanting a snack at 3 am, or expecting breakfast at 5 am is out of line. Your host/hostess is giving you a room and a breakfast. You can't order from a menu, nor can you fuss about not having free shampoo or shower caps. If you want to treat people rudely, stay in a hotel. No wait -- stay home. You should never treat people rudely.

Business calls should not be conducted in a museum. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. She was walking around the otherwise quiet museum, talking about project goals among the artifacts. Some people, armed with cell phones, become colossal idiots. Or maybe they just are idiots and the cell phones simply emphasize that.

Cell phones in general should be used wisely. I'm in a coffee shop now where cell phones are being used for business and other things. I think that's expected and perfectly okay. What isn't okay? Talking on the phone in a restaurant (at high volume), in a bathroom (I'm always tempted to shout "Be quiet! I'm trying to go to the bathroom!" just to "out" the person), or in a place where you don't want everyone hearing your personal information or gossip. And don't give me that look as if listening in is not cool -- airing your private business in public is what's not cool. In the last five minutes, I've heard the woman next to me reveal her birth date (twice -- to an automated system), her phone number, and her address. If I were a heinous person, she'd be screwed.

Talking to your kids constantly is annoying. Kids are excited to be places. Their enthusiasm is great and often is fine/unnoticeable. What is noticeable and not fine are those parents who have a running dialogue with their children (who aren't listening, I hope) about "Come this way... thank you, Evan/Rachel we don't do that, here let's go this way oh put your mittens on that way don't touch that there are germs like Ebola..." Shut up. Please. Your kids know how to walk, how to breathe, and how to survive touching something germ-infested like that handrail you're not concerned with. Unless they're acting like animals, let them be.

Publicly disciplining your kids is embarrassing--for you. Jerking their arms off or shouting like fools is so much more disruptive than what they may have been doing. If they're misbehaving, remove them quietly and have at them in private. It's uncomfortable to watch an adult lose their minds on their kids. If you're embarrassed about your kids' behavior, think of how they feel when you act like a jerk in public.

Your wild kids are ruining everyone's damn day. Don't just sit there saying "Oliver, please stop." Take your child out of the situation and refuse to bring them back if they can't settle down. I paid money for that museum or dinner. I do NOT want to hear your fights or have your kid looking at my food or trying to get my attention or running in circles around me when I'm trying to enjoy something.

Not everyone is a dog person. A lovely woman got on the elevator with her dog, but she asked first if we minded. Thank you. No, I didn't mind, but that you thought to offer that courtesy is refreshing.

Tailing someone isn't safe. Even in the slow lane, they were riding our tails. If we're in the slow lane and you're pissed because we're not going faster, change lanes or learn the rules of the road.

Consideration costs us nothing. I remember having my keys locked in my car at a car wash. The woman in line asked if something was wrong. I said, "Yes, I locked my keys in the car and need to reach my husband." She said, "I wondered what the damn holdup was" and closed her window. Thanks. She must have wanted to sit a while, for had she offered her phone, I could have been out of her hair in a heartbeat.

You're a guest in someone's home. Act as you'd like others to act in your home. A friend of ours related a story about a friend who'd come to stay for a few days and did nothing but complain. She hated the bed, hated the food (which they'd made for her), and when she asked for popcorn and they said they didn't think they had any, she went right over and opened their cabinet, pointed, and shouted "What the f*** do you call that?" The friend was too cordial. I'd have had that woman in a hotel (and I'd have paid to remove her) within minutes.

If you don't clean up after yourselves, you're not coming back. We washed our sheets/towels as we were leaving each person's home. Not everyone likes that or needs that, but picking up your dishes, making your bed, helping with chores is just common courtesy.

What have you witnessed in your travels?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thinking Like a Client

What's on the iPod: Naima by Angelique Kidjo

It's Thursday and I'm sitting in a Caribou Coffee shop in Chapel Hill. We're a day from home, where Christmas preparations are happening without me. It's weird, but in a way, freeing. For the first time in a while, I don't feel tied to tradition.

Not that I don't like tradition, but I don't like feeling like tradition is ruling every move. Will I die if the mantle isn't decorated or I don't string multiple light strands outside? No. But don't we act like we will sometimes?

Another way I find myself a slave to tradition is in how I market. It hit me like a train as I was editing a client's sales sheets two days ago (the only work I've done on this trip). Theirs is a simple approach to sales, and it's one I could be using as a template. Sometimes the simple stuff is the most brilliant.

If you work with clients writing their marketing or communications copy, you have an open door to learning a new way to attract more freelance writing clients. Watch what they do well and apply what you learn to your own marketing.

Here are some of the things clients can teach us:

Speak to a targeted audience. My current client has several business segments within their specialty. Funny, so do I. Yet I've never prepared segment-specific sales materials like they have. What a lost opportunity!

Show the full value of what you do. We think we do that already, but do we? When was the last time you made a list of everything your client can gain from your particular writing expertise? Ever? Don't be afraid to sound like you're bragging. You're conveying value - your freelance writing skills are a needed commodity. It's okay to assure potential clients that their projects are in good hands.

Adopt multiple channels of communication. Every client I've worked with has had more than one writing project for me. Websites, sales sheets, email blasts, mailers, media kits  - we writers can (and probably should) be doing the same kind of multi-channel communication. Think of how many "touch points" you have with your intended client base. Email? Website? What else? Try having at least three ways to get in front of your clients and your intended clients.

Increase personalization. Many of my clients attend trade shows and conferences. They put an emphasis on meeting people in person. People are much more likely to do business with someone they've met. Also, they're going to remember that person. I've had people I've met years ago call me recently. They remembered the connection. There's power in that. Phone calls work just as well if you're unable to meet in person.

Create a phrase that attracts clients and instills confidence. My clients have one. So do most successful companies. Find a phrase that fits you and describes what you have to offer. Mine is "Simply great writing every time." I approach every job with that in mind.

Writers, what habits of your clients have you adopted?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Remote Writer

What's on the iPod: Quiet Little Voices by We Were Promised Jetpacks

I've not mentioned it, but I've been on vacation since December 6th. Right now, we're on our way back from Florida. December was a good choice for time away -- nothing's happening, and client projects were finished at the beginning of the month.

Just two clients know I'm traveling, and it's only because they may have requests while I'm out of the home office.

Truth is, it doesn't matter.

But sometimes clients get the impression that you're not really working when you're on the road with your laptop/tablet. So we keep it quiet unless we really don't want to work while we're vacationing.

It's understandable. I remember a harsh reaction from a client who'd left me waiting for a month and a half on a project, then called on a Friday afternoon wanting to have it done right away. He'd said "We'll talk on Wednesday." I said, "I'm not going to be in the office that day."

His response: "Didn't you just have a vacation?"

That's the reaction we writers try to avoid. Yes, he was a colossal jerk for many reasons -- one, assuming a vacation (he was right), thinking it was his business at all what I did, and treating me like an employee.

It's why a writer I know who works from another country makes like she's working domestically. It's a complication to no one but those who perceive it to be.

Today I'm writing from a hotel in Florida. Tomorrow, I might be writing from a friend's house in North Carolina. As long as the project is completed accurately and on time, it doesn't matter.

There are a few habits I've tried to adopt so that when I do go out of town, clients don't panic or get another writer:

Keep regular habits. At home, I check email a few times a day -- morning, mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon an hour before quitting. I do the same thing on the road on my phone. If something comes in, there's little lag time between the note and the response.

Plan for requests. My schedule includes an hour or two every day that's reserved for work. If it's an urgent request, that's another matter, but right now I have mornings set aside for some work, if needed. If more time is needed, I get the deadline extended or I bow out of activities going on around me.

Let them know of delays. I might not tell clients I'm traveling (unless I know them well enough), but I will say "I can get to that tomorrow morning." That way they're not sitting by the computer hitting Send/Receive.

Keep the quality up. No way I'm rushing through a project to get to the beach. If I can't get it done in the time I have, I'll bow out of fun around me, or I'll tell the client I need another day. When I sit down, my focus is 100% on their project. It has to be. The reputation can't be compromised for a day in the sun.

Writers, have you worked remotely?
How do you handle working from the road?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Great, Unique Gifts for Writers

What's on the iPod: Under the Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers

We've all seen the usual lists of gifts for writers. Journals? Pens? Again?

Not this time. I've decided it's time we stop taking the word "writer" so literally and start being creative in our writerly gift-giving. Here are a few things that writers (and possibly anyone whose working environment is just like ours) would love:

Tablet pillow. Even those fancy kickstands don't work when you're curled up in a chair or on the couch. This little gadget makes it easy to write and surf anywhere.

Fingerless gloves. I use mine every winter. Even in the warmest of rooms, hands can get cold using the mouse or typing. Plus, they're great for using your smartphone.

Touch gloves. Or you could buy touch gloves for smartphones and touch-screen computers and tablets. Mine are "silver" gloves woven with silver threads. Not the warmest ones, but these look a bit warmer and a little more practical.

Desktop stand with USB and cup holder. What a great idea! Get more square footage on your desk and add even that much more functionality.

Computer speakers. I treated myself to these, and I love the sound.

Cup warmer. How I wish I had this! But it's a great way to keep the caffeine hot enough to drink. If you're a slow sipper. I tend to gulp mine.

Literary scarf. Ladies, wear a story around your neck. Well, just the words. A nice conversation starter.

Cards Against Humanity game. This game is so wrong, but you just can't help loving it. Fill-in-the-blank fun.

Story Cubes. Think Boggle for writer's block. They come in various editions -- original, actions, enchantment, voyages, Max, and mixed collections.

Course on Tape. My mother-in-law loved The Great Courses. There are courses on nearly anything you can imagine or want. There's an impressive Literary/Language section. All courses are taught by some of the top instructors and thinkers today.

Writers, what gifts would make you smile this year?

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Writer Face-to-face Guide

What's on the iPod: Relax My Beloved by Alex Clare

This week, my projects are wrapped up and I'm marketing like mad. I want to sew up a few project commitments for January, and I have a few clients who have promised to come back in a week or two with some other needs. I've already billed at my target earnings for the month, but that's November work that finished later than expected. I won't hit the goal this month, but I'll do okay.

Last week, a new friend asked for an introduction to one of my connections. I was happy to do so as she'd be a huge asset to their company. I realized it was not the same as an in-person interaction, but it was good.

Then it hit me -- both my friend and the connection I'd met in person. The power of face-to-face.

It's true you and I don't often get to meet our clients in person, nor would we want to meet a few of them (if we're being totally honest). Still, the power of a more personal connection is undeniable. Each time I go to a trade show, I end up with new clients. They want to meet you. They want to make that connection and know they're trusting their project outcome to someone who's worthy of that trust.

That doesn't mean a freelance writer can just show up and get the job. Once you get in front of the potential client, you have to make it count.

What if you don't have the chance to meet clients in person? There are other ways to get more personal without the in-person meeting.

Here's how I've done it. Feel free to adapt it to fit your needs:

Have a pitch. The first conversation you'll have is "Tell me about yourself." They're not asking for your family background, your hobbies, or your peeves. They want to know your work background. You should know in about four sentences how you'll start the conversation. Just remember to adapt it to the person in front of you. You don't want to tell them all about your consumer writing background when the client is in technology. Unless it relates, of course.

Have samples. I take along either a presentation book with my resume and sample projects or a tablet with a PowerPoint presentation of my portfolio. If you're using the phone, you can say "What's your email? I'll send you some links right now." If you decide to mail something (and yes, you should no matter how you start the conversation), you can print out a few relevant clips and send them along with a thank-you letter, or with your introductory note if you choose to keep it in snail mail.

Have a strategy. Mine is always to listen and take notes. I may not be looking right at the client every minute, but I'm showing that what they're saying is important. Or I'll ask to use my recorder so I can stay fully engaged in the conversation. But I have questions I ask that get them talking. Depending on the client, you can tailor questions to show you've done your homework.

Have a conversation. I've rarely used the face-to-face meeting to sell someone on hiring me right there. It's a courtship. It's a getting-to-know-you conversation. Listen, interject questions as they arise, and don't be so concerned with solving their problem right there. If you don't know, you say something like "Let me think about it and come up with some ideas for you." Once I'm done talking, I find something not related to business to talk about. People really appreciate feeling a connection beyond business.

Have more to say later. Follow-up conversations, email, snail mail or otherwise, are great for keeping your connection fresh in their minds and in yours. I like to send out thank-you notes, then send occasional emails with news they can use, or "do you need anything" notes.

Have no agenda. There are people whom I know will never hire me (there's no need or no match). but I stay in touch. Why? Because I like them. It can't be just about getting the job--not for me. And who knows? Someday they may hire me, or they may refer me.

Writers, have you had face-to-face conversations with clients? Phone conversations?
What's your strategy for creating a connection with potential clients?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Modern, Adaptable Writer

What's on the iPod: Backyard Skulls by Frightened Rabbit

It's been a very productive week. I've wrapped up two projects and I got the invoices out. Let's hope some of that shows up before the holidays.

Today and the rest of the week will be full-out marketing. I'd love to have some more work lined up now for either later in the month or January. I have one project coming to me in a week or two, but until it arrives, even though I'm 98-percent certain it will, it's not a project. You writers who have been at this a while know what I mean --there's no such thing as a sure thing.

In a conversation with a writer friend, we landed on the subject of the new role of writers, specifically journalists. In fact, the last episode of The Newsroom illustrated in detail the changes that have occurred in journalism. Now, journalists are tweeting, posting, and writing to get the most comments, hits, and traffic.

It's not better -- it's different. I'd argue it's worse, but only in terms of the topics being covered (I truly don't care to know what yet another Kardashian is doing). The line between true news and "info-tainment" has blurred beyond recognition. From a journalistic perspective, I'm old school. News is news and is as unbiased as you can present it. But that's not what's selling, and what's selling matters to those who are selling it.

And we freelance writers have to find our own way to come to terms with that.

The truth is our profession morphed quite a while ago. The minute you opened that Twitter account or signed in to your LinkedIn or Google+ accounts, you've become part of the morphing. News and information -- sensationalized or not -- is now instant and viral.

And there's no reason why, freelance writer, you can't capitalize on that. In fact, if you're good at your job, you're doing that already and have been for quite a while.

I'm not advocating taking on projects you clearly don't believe in (no one should do that). I'm advocating learning a few new tools, methods, or styles of writing and adding them to your skill set.

And don't forget to charge for it. Those skills come with a price tag. That's where freelance writers can improve earnings and expand the client base.

Here are a few avenues for you to consider:

Learn to tweet. Seriously, it's one of the most potent tools we have right now. And go beyond tweeting to understanding when, how, what, etc. Find the hash tags that reach the largest audience. Understand timing and how to promote without offending. Build it into your overall marketing and sale efforts. That way, when a client asks you to tweet for them, you're already on it.

Creating more buzz with your writing. That doesn't mean you have to go the way of the sensationalist news. You can create a bigger conversation in what you do right now. Create more noticeable headlines. Break up text into bite-sized chunks (an assignment I have right now is to write an article that can be used in a slide-show format). Your audience has changed -- they don't want to read 2,000 words online that feel like 2,000 words. But they're more inclined to read 400 words at a time in five visually interesting sections.

Tackle the controversial topic. When I wrote about the anti-vaccine movement, I knew it would be controversial, so I took extra care to present it without coming to conclusions or showing bias. Didn't matter -- there were still hundreds of comments. The editors loved it because they were able to stick to their focus area and capture tons of traffic without compromising their journalistic standards. That's a great way to stick to your own standards while giving editors and clients the traffic they crave.

Look for Top Ten list ideas. You don't have to present it to your editors as a top ten (or five or four...) but as an idea. List the points you want to make. Suggest the format could be a top list, if they'd like it that way. Lists sell. You can still retain your journalistic integrity by just switching your delivery format.

Learn effective use of keywords. You don't even have to promise them to your client, but knowing what keywords to pepper (lightly -- always lightly) into the content helps drive more traffic to their sites. Forget stuffing the damn article with random words that are just awkward as hell -- any idiot can do that. You're a writer. Show just how creative you can be while keeping your eye on the impact words.

Things I think you shouldn't resort to:

No exclamation points. I feel so strongly about this that I nearly used one right there. Exclamation points in a journalistic article makes it a fluff piece, in my opinion. Unless you're writing for a magazine that uses them a lot or a pseudo-publication that's a cover for an opinion magazine, don't succumb.

No random keywords in senseless places. It bears repeating. I remember years ago being given assignments that required six instances of this phrase, five instances of that phrase, and four repetitions of these three words -- within a 400-word article. How many ways can you say "business insurance policy" without it becoming obvious? One. However, I had to make that work six times. Thank goodness that company went under. You have to give quality, not quantity.

No skimping on the skills. I know one writer who bills herself as a "top writing professional" whose sentences are often unintelligible. If you don't care for the details, stop calling yourself a professional, I say. Proofread. Slow down. Be considerate of your audience and your clients -- deliver content that's compelling and understandable.

Writers, how did you/do you adapt to the demands of the profession as things changed and continue to change?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monthly Assessment: November 2014

What's on the iPod: Iceberg by We Invented Paris

This is one busy week. I'm trying to wrap up not one, but three projects before Friday.

That means getting my invoicing in order for this month and getting some leads in line for January work. At the moment, I do have some work coming in, and it may be enough. But I'd rather make sure.

November was a weird month -- I had work (lots of it), but most of it hasn't been invoiced. Projects I expected to have invoiced are in their final stages. I will be sending out two invoices this week, and one went out yesterday. They amount to my targeted earnings goal, so anything I earn in December is going to be gravy.

Too bad I can't say the same for November. Here's how it all played out:

I sent two. One resulted in an immediate assignment. The other is still in limbo. Time to tap the editor's shoulder, as it's a time-sensitive topic.

I sent two dozen out, and I did receive some leads. Nothing concrete, but I suspect December isn't the time to expect them to start new projects. Still, I intend to go back to them this month and get them talking.

Social media:
LinkedIn was my medium of choice, and I connected with a number of familiar faces this past month. From these, I hope to cultivate a few clients.

Job postings:
I found three very good matches that I applied to. I don't put a lot of effort into this as the competition is ridiculously fierce and it's way too easy for an application to never be seen. But, thanks to a friend's alert, I applied for one that fit like a glove. No word yet, but I the site through which I was to apply made it impossible to apply. I'm sitting here waiting for membership approval three weeks later. Not a good sign. However, I bypassed them and went straight to the source. I may not be chosen because I didn't follow protocol, but following proper channels was netting me nothing but frustration. And would I want to work with a client who's that much of a stickler?

I had one referral from a local writer last week, but nothing yet has come of it. Could be vacation lag, but it could be that I wasn't the right fit in the client's mind.

Existing clients:
All of my work came from existing clients, some of whom I hadn't worked with in a year or more. They kept me busy this past month.

New clients:
No new client work so far. I do have people interested, so I'm hoping the calendar turning over in December will trigger renewed interest.

I've redirected some of my time to poetry. It's paid off -- my first publication is in proof stage this month.

Bottom line:
Plenty of work in November, but that was the result of a doubling of marketing effort. Had projects finished sooner, I'd have surpassed my monthly target. As it is, December invoices have already met this month's goal.

I've been looking at new marketing methods to help improve the results, but I've not yet landed on anything that feels right. I've seen a lot more freelance job postings that hold merit, so I'm giving job listings just a few more minutes of my time per week. Plus I'm seeing good success in going back to people whom I've already done a good job for. December is going to be a tough time to market, but I'm going to reach out with some email ideas and see what happens from there.

How was November for you?
Any surprises, good or bad?
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