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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Word About Exposure

In all the years I've been freelancing, the job postings that bother me most are the ones offering writers "exposure" for their work. Let me tell you what you're getting--nothing.

That may sound mighty strong, but let's dissect this offer a bit more. First, have you ever heard of the publication or website offering to give you such great exposure? If today was the first day you visited the site or read the publication, that's a telling sign. Markets that offer you exposure should at least be somewhere within eyesight of a buying or viewing public. Writing for Fred's Fishing is not going to bring you fame.

Second, even if that publication or website did manage to crack through the barrage of information deluging people daily, exactly what kind of impression is that work of yours going to make? Is there an editor who can polish the work and make it shine? Or is it that Fred's off somewhere looking at lures while you write what you think is good, but what might contain numerous errors or false statements? That's not to say you're not a good writer. It's more to the point that we all make mistakes. It never hurts to have someone looking over our shoulders before we go live.

Third, even if you have landed on a fabulous site with a terrific editor, you've just managed to make money for someone who isn't returning the favor. Suppose you agree to write for your newfound media outlet once a month. Imagine that you're writing 800 words each month, which should take you about 12-20 hours depending on the subject and interview needs. If you're working for free (and folks, that's what you're doing), those are lost hours to you. During that time, you can't solicit new business, you can't network, you can't write your short stories or novels, and you can't get paid. It would be like taking a job at Wal-Mart and working part-time hours for no cash. Would you do that? No? Then why on earth would you write under those conditions?

Let me offer you some free advice; if you want to gain exposure, register a website domain, use your ISP's online templates to build a site, and put your work online under your own name. This is now your Internet resume and your own personal showcase of what you can do. Here your work isn't competing with mediocre work from writer wanna-bees all over the place, and your writing stands a much better chance of being noticed instead of buried in someone's idea of making money off the backs of talented (and some not-so-talented) writers. You look much more professional having your unpublished work on your own personal website than having your published work wasting away on some innocuous site that boasts the talents of those who think they can write and the few who really can.

Don't do it. Don't ever give your work away. If exposure is that important to you, build your own site and point all potential clients toward it. The exposure you receive will be much more positive in the long run.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Proofreading is Ded

It's to the point where I can't pick up Time magazine at all. It's not that I'm not fond of getting my news fix. It's that I'm not fond of typos and grammar slips.

I'd love to believe it's just a recent problem, but when I subscribed a number of years ago, I let the subscription lapse for the same reason. If I can't read past page four without encountering mistakes, how can I believe what I'm reading? And that for me is the crux of it. The moment I see mistakes in the copy, the copy somehow doesn't seem so trustworthy.

Oh, I'm no stranger to my own boo-boos and blunders. I've been known to let a few slip into print, too (and not on purpose, like the one above). But we're talking the difference between a Time Warner publication and little old me: the difference between Hollywood and Otumwa, Iowa; the difference between caviar and catfish.

I know publishing budgets have disappeared in the last decade. Thanks to the Internet (a venue where you can read just about anything for free), there are fewer subscribers, which means smaller budgets and smaller staff sizes. I was once an overworked editor myself. But one thing I did do--I made damn sure what we put out in print form was as technically perfect as possible. Sadly, my former trade journal had fewer mistakes in print in the four years I was on staff than Time has had in the past four months.

Which brings me to you. What exactly are you presenting to the world? Are you handing over your articles, books and worse, query letters to editors on the assumption that they will clean up your grammar and punctuation? What makes you believe that your overworked, underpaid editor has time to do your job? And in the end, it really is your job to deliver the best possible copy you can. Perhaps you should look at it this way; the more you trust someone else to catch your mistakes, the more you run the risk of having those mistakes hit print. I can't think of a worse impression to leave on potential clients.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Right now there's a fuzzy black spider roaming across the top of my desk hutch and along the edge of my fax machine. I'm watching him with a sense of curiosity and comraderie--the spider knows I'm here and I know he's here, yet we've decided to go about our business despite all that.

Sometimes, things like spiders (and in his case, humans) come along and draw your attention elsewhere. They pose some sort of threat to your routine, but only if you allow it. Such is the case with new projects or "emergency" client issues. You're tooling along on the project in front of you when something appears over the edge of your horizon (or comes barging in via phone or email) and it demands your attention. Yet you've got a good head of steam going on your current project. What do you do?

For me, it's simple. I go about my business. I do open the emails and look, and I hit the answering machine button and listen. If it's truly urgent, I dash a note back and arrange to talk whenever I'm done with my current thought or deadline. If it's a "we need it as the printer is holding up production" issue, I drop what I'm doing, if possible, and help. Some problems are five-minute fixes. Some are not.

Organization of your workload is a dicey area. If you're good at it, these little interruptions shouldn't even register on your radar. If you're not, you could find yourself sucked into something that threatens your original project deadline. If you get sucked into emergencies by the same client all too often, it's possible you've sent the signal that you're always able to drop what you're doing. If so, you need a new approach. Next crisis, try responding thusly: "Glad to hear from you. I'm happy to drop what I'm doing and help, but because I've been inundated with rush jobs of late, I've added a surcharge to my fee for rush projects. I can do it for XX dollars plus the surcharge of YY dollars. Let me know your thoughts and your timeline for this."

Chances are the emergency will suddenly clear up, and like the spider, you and your client will regard each other with a bit more caution and respect.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The editor-in-hiding strikes again! Had a brief email conversation with a former interview subject. I sent him the story I'd worked on, and out came his red pen! "No wonder that magazine didn't print it--that beginning is awful! Here's how you should fix it..." Mind you, "that magazine" had gone out of business, hence the reason the story didn't print. But it didn't stop this dude from giving me unsolicited, and very much unwanted, advice.

Don't get me wrong--if you're an editor, you have my undivided attention. I'm all for making the story a better story, and if you have suggestions, I'm open to them. But if you're a plumber, accountant or any other profession that is not involved in writing, your advice is unwarranted and unwelcome. I'm sorry to take such a hard stand, but many's the time I've had to fend off critiques and the ever-popular "This is what you should be writing instead" from interview subjects and public relations people and anyone with an opinion that's just burning up inside.

In almost every case of what I call The Attack of the Non-editorial Editor, the advice has been off base or just completely wrong. In this case, the dude didn't like that I started the article with part of a group's manifesto he took offense to. It "assaulted" his sensibilities, so it didn't belong, he said. Little did he know that the editor assigning the piece wanted that manifesto mentioned, and that the shock value did, in fact, make readers want to know more. No, this dude was suddenly a better editor (and a better writer) than either my editor or me.

How do you address this? Simple--thank them for their opinions. Don't make promises to fix or to talk sense into your editor. Just simply state "I appreciate your feedback" and move on. Sometimes interview subjects take a sense of ownership of the piece because they have contributed. While their contributions are very much welcome, their editorial advice is out of line. Perhaps these people also tell others how to perform their jobs. If so, the problem is certainly one you cannot cure, nor should you be trying. You owe them thanks for the interview, not total control over the piece.

The majority of the people you will deal with or interview will be terrific. Just remember that for those other few, control is not something to be handed over lightly. In many cases, it may not be yours to give up. Keep a professional attitude and guard your territory, and that of your editor, like a hungry, albeit polite, bulldog.

One more thing I have to address--the request for prior approval. In most cases, publications do not want someone outside the editorial department to have any say in what has been written or how it has been presented. Unless you're working for a magazine that specifically requires that the interview subject/company checks the work for errors or corrections, never agree to it. In fact, if you have those requests/demands, go back to your editor and ask what the magazine's policy is. I know in a few cases, I've worked with publications that allow that, but only because the interview subjects hold a particular expertise or are members of the association the publication addresses. In most cases, letting the interview subject, his company or his PR rep approve copy is like handing the keys to your house to a stranger. Unless the editor okays it, or unless the interview subject is signing your paycheck for that article, don't do it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In my "other" career, I'm an editor. Actually, I'm the entire staff of a monthly trade newsletter. Because most of my articles come in the form of contributed articles (written by industry executives), I've seen quite a range of knowledge and writing ability come across my desk.

What has become a standard "problem" for some of these execs-turned-journalists is length. When I work with a new executive, I set out the parameters at the beginning--no more than 1,000 words. In more than a few cases, I receive back tomes of 2,500 words or more. For an eight-page newsletter, that's just not going to work. Also, it's a sign that either A) the subject matter was too broad, or B) the author went off topic and down another path.

If you as a writer find yourself with too much information, consider carefully what I just said. If your editor wants 750 words and you're trying to whittle down your 2,000-word piece to fit, something's wrong. And please - in this case, more is not better. Don't you dare deliver three times more than your editor asked for! That's merely passing the headache on to her.

If your article is much longer than needed and you can't figure out how to shorten it, it's time for you to revisit your original query or assignment. What exactly was agreed upon? Reread your story for areas where you may have strayed from that topic.

Now would be a good time for me to mention an outline (actually, the time to mention that is at the start of your assignment but since I wasn't around then, I digress). If you find that you just can't see any flaws, take out a fresh piece of paper. Forget your completed story for a minute and concentrate only on the assignment details. Write down the main point you want to make. Under that, make "subheads" of what you need to cover in this article. Again, don't look at your current article. Think like a reader; if you were reading this story, what questions would you want to see answered? Jot those points down. Stop at three points for a short piece, five for a longer piece.

Go back to your story. Going over those subheads, try to locate those ideas in your original story. Once you've found those sections, paste them into a new document. If you've done it right, there will be a good bit of information left. Don't trash it just yet--save it. You never know when it will come in handy. Maybe even the start of a new article?

If you've done your outline and you still have too much information, your topic is too broad. Narrow the focus. For instance, if you're writing about the crisis in healthcare, you could easily narrow that down to how medical malpractice claims have caused healthcare costs to skyrocket. If you're writing about the Fall 2006 fashion trends, you could narrow the focus to a particular cut of clothing or the evolution of the little black dress. In any case, make sure your editor knows what you're doing. Have a conversation with her, and let her know that the larger story is too much for the word count, but that this drilled-down view has many interesting points to cover.

More often than not, a too-lengthy article can be fixed just by revisiting your original assignment details. While editors do appreciate about 50 to 100 extra words sometimes, more than that is just too much to edit, and it may cost you future assignments.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Things That Bug Me, Part One:

I saw one of those ads again today--the ads that beg good writers to check out their website, join, and bid on projects. Being the curious journalist, I looked. The jobs were certainly legitimate, so I looked a little further. Alas, the catch. The site is one of those "bidding war" sites where "writers" bid on projects and those bids are out there for the world to see. What's worse is how easy it is to be under-bid.

Here's a sample project:

"Article writer needed. Various subjects. Short articles, quick payment. Bring your experience to work for us!"

Sample bids:

"I can do each article for $4."

"I can do FIVE articles for $4!"

"Wait, I'll do them ALL for $4!"

I'm exaggerating, right? I wish. Are these people kidding? Four dollars for hours of your time? And if the last person can write what amounts to an endless supply of articles for $4, just how good (or factual) will those articles be?

It irks me to see sites like this. It irks me because it mocks my profession. Sleazy people get tons of work out of unnecessarily desperate people. It's a sick triangle--sleaze, work, desperation. I cannot believe anyone wins in this scenario.

Yet there were more than enough bids. I'd love to be looking over the shoulder of the person who paid four bucks for an article. My guess is the work submitted will be worth just about what that person paid for it. That's if there's any justice in the world.

I can tell you I've worked for nearly 15 years at some form of freelancing. Never have I been paid less than $50. Never EVER have I worked for exposure (only nudists need to work that way). I work for a fair wage. My clients pay it without complaint because they know they're investing in quality writing. I won't apologize for my fee nor will I apologize for expecting to earn a living at a craft in which I have experience and skill. I will charge what's fair--no more, no less. And I will continue to be bugged by others who think they need to sell themselves short in order to get their big break. I pray someday they realize the only way they're breaking in is if they value themselves much more than they do now.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Once again, plagiarism is rearing its ugly head. This time, it's the Harvard student who wrote a book and apparently referenced several different books--without attribution.

It makes me wonder about the people in my chosen profession. Who would knowingly swipe something from another person? And how could an author knowingly screw over another author?

Is any resemblence to another's work wrong? That got me to thinking; how far do you have to go in order to be accused? Would writing a book with the same message qualify? How about writing a few chapters that came to the same conclusion? What about characters that seem the same?

While I do NOT condone any form of plagiarism, I wonder exactly where we draw the line? I'm serious. Suppose I read nothing but Hemingway all my life. If I took up the pen and wrote a book, basing my knowledge of writing on his style, would I be in deep trouble for emulating him?

The answer is no. Good writers are often imitated. The problem arises when the work is lifted, reworded, and packaged as original. And that's where our young author got into trouble. You can almost hear her in her dorm room at Harvard: "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if I could take the best from all these books and make another story out of it?"

We all need to reread the AP Stylebook's Copyright section as a refresher. And while new ideas may be tough to come by, we should stick to creating our own realities--fiction ones, that is.
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