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Monday, November 27, 2006

The Duh Factor

I just saw a lame question on a forum, coupled with a post on :: inkthinker ::: Ignorance is not bliss; it's just ignorance, that reminded me just how bloody lazy some people can be, and they don't seem ashamed about it. The question: "Where can I find the contact information for the editor of XYZ magazine?"

How can you separate the good writer from the lazy one? Apply this simple test – ask the writer to go find something on the Internet. If that writer comes back with an answer, you’ve found a good writer. However, if that writer asks a million more questions and then seeks the answer from writers’ forums, you’ve found yourself one lazy writer.

I’m not saying that all people who seek the answer elsewhere are lazy – some questions are just too tough and the info too obscure. However, if you’ve asked the writer to find out who the editor-in-chief of Time magazine is and that writer posts the question on writers’ forums, beware. That’s someone who’s too lazy to learn the right way to dig. And it’s annoying as hell to those of us who will do the work. Just ask Kristen King, whose blog on this very subject has inspired this post.

Writers new and veteran – please, think before you ask. Gauge the importance of your questions. Are you asking because the answer is eluding you despite your best efforts, or are you asking because you don’t want to/know how to do the legwork? If it’s the former, God help you with your career. If it’s the latter, that can be fixed quite easily. Get thee to a coach, buy yourself a book on researching, or just get to know your Google or Yahoo! search engine. Most writers are quite willing to help out a fellow writer, but when the questions become so basic that any kid could figure it out, we begin to feel used. No one likes to do another person’s job, especially if that other person is collecting a check for it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Habit Forming

For those of you who have made the jump from office to home office, how are you doing on the whole “I’m working from home, so I gotta get serious” thing? A recent discussion over at Anne Wayman’s About Freelance Writing site talked about whether a writer should have an outside address or if working from home is really possible. Seems like a strange question? Not if you’ve been there, it doesn’t.

See, I’ve been working from home for a few years now, and this writer’s question echoed one of the biggest problems I’ve had with working from home – actually being able to work at home. For some, it’s tough to switch that mindset to include a space at home that is strictly for work. For others, the thought of sitting around in boxers while talking via phone to company presidents feels too weird. For still others, home has way too many distractions.

So some tips – if you’re making the switch to working from home, set yourself up for success from day one. Start with a clear starting time. Set the clock, put on decent clothes, brush your teeth and make the commute to your office space. Oh, and that’s a biggie – have an area of the house where you can set up shop. It doesn’t have to be an extra room, just somewhere that you can designate as your space. When I lived in a small condo, that area was one corner of the living room facing away from the television (yea, you should consider Oprah off limits – no fair calling it research!).

Make sure you budget your time for work. Start with a list of what you want to accomplish. Factor in marketing (and you must market – if you don’t sell yourself, you’re not going to work), billing, answering email and phone calls, and time for actual work. Assume you can write for about six hours and make sure you stay at that keyboard for those six hours. Set up a work schedule you can live with – if you write better in the morning, set your schedule so that you have time to start or finish those projects at that time. Once you decide what you’ll be doing all day and when, your ability to work from home will be that much easier.

Still, you have to sit in that chair every day, something you’re not used to. Don’t you spend much more “quality” time on the sofa? But your success depends on it, so in that schedule, work in something in the morning that will draw you to that chair. Perhaps it’s scanning the morning news, or maybe it’s reading weblogs to get the creative juices flowing. Whatever it is, make sure it’s a draw and not a distraction. For example, if your morning blows by and you’ve purchased three items on EBay, two on Amazon and ordered catalogs galore, you’re clearly not meant to open Internet Explorer until you’ve spent a few hours in Word.

Suppose you dress for success, you show up to “work” and you have your schedule, but nothing happens? Time for desperate measures. Chances are you’re still equating commuting with actual work. If so, pack up the laptop and head out the door. A nice quiet library or a bustling cafĂ© with Internet access may be just the ticket to stirring the creative jui

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fighting the Losing Battle
Just came across a brand-new client. In the short phone conversation we had, I managed to impress him with how flexible I was (he even said, “You sound very easy to work with”) and how qualified I was to handle his project. He did have one thing standing in the way, however. He was interviewing a designer in a few days, and that designer had said he has a writer he usually works with, so the client said he would have to check with the designer to make sure he doesn’t mind meeting with me in the same room. So guess what? An hour later, the client said that he didn’t need me after all (for this project – he hinted at others). The problem is if he likes this current writer, I could very well be forgotten. It’s a shame, because I took the time to research his company and I have experience in his industry. Does the other writer? It’s pretty unlikely, given that the designer is pushing hard for the assignment and grabbed the first available writer.

So what could I have done differently? In this case, probably not much. I did one thing – I left the door open for future work by being professional and cordial. I did manage to guide the client at one point because he was unsure of how to proceed and if it would be possible to work with a designer and a writer who didn’t know each other. I assured him that it happens all the time.

Maybe you see the underlying problem here already. The client was allowing one freelancer to dictate the terms of their arrangement. Maybe he’s fine with that, but I can’t really see it turning out well for him. While freelancers should guide unsure clients whenever they can, and while I believe we should own our work process, we should not say “No, I can’t work with that person because I only work with this person.” Sorry – if you’re an employer and you allow that much control over your business process, that’s just scary.

I’ll hear from him again. How do I know? Because this man is a business owner. He didn’t get that way by allowing people to run roughshod over him. This freelancer may have asserted himself this time and won the assignment, but I suspect that while he may be strong in design, he could be very weak in writing. The client will not fork over good money for mediocre copy. But even if the writer is knowledgeable in this industry, I for one would have a sour taste should a designer start a project by being unwilling to do the client’s bidding. I wanted to ask the client if he often let outsiders dictate his business decisions, but I let it go. There’s just no nice way to put that. And it’s not my place. Besides, it makes me look like the unreasonable one.

So I thanked him and let him know I’d be happy to help in any capacity on this and any other project. It was the best way to handle a delicate, unlikely position, don’t you think?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Editing For Fun And (not) Money
So what do you do when your great-uncle Ted asks you to look over his latest endeavor into the novel-writing biz? What do you do when your best friend's mother needs someone to "look over and edit" her newsletter for the Red Cross? When you've been volunteered to be the editor-at-large for every Tom, Dick and Uncle Harry, just how much editing should you do?

I know what you're saying - "Stop working for free!" But if you possess a pulse and a pen, you're going to be asked to do the occasional favor for your organization, your relative who used to give you $5 for Halloween or for your mother. You're not going to turn down your mother, are you? (If so, tell me how you do it without the guilt trip.)

I just got elected to edit copy for a group I belong to. I was asked in email with the attachment delivered at the same time. Back out of that one, I dare you! Because this group is near and dear to my heart and because this is a close friend, I took it on. And I gave that document the lightest editing imaginable.

Why? Because let's face it - the average relative/friend/acquaintance does not really want to be edited as much as to get a bit of recognition for his or her efforts. So I fixed misspellings, replaced commas, introduced transitions and reworded just one or two very unclear sentences. Beyond that, I dare not tread.

My advice - if you find yourself cornered with a freebie like this, go lightly with the red pen. VERY lightly. These are not seasoned pros who are used to editor's marks. These are people you've had Thanksgiving meals with or have chatted with at parties. Any attempt to teach the one-timer the difference between telling a story and showing is going to end badly. You're going to get a reputation (undeserved, too) of being a bit heartless and of not knowing what you're doing (that's the author's attempt to save some face). If it is not utterly critical that this person understand the basic mechanics of it, and if you're not getting paid, don't do it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I got a terrific email to start my morning. I'd just written an article for a magazine wherein I had to interview one of their advertisers and present a profile of the company and what they do. They do highly technical mathematics and analytics, which is not my strong suit. So I was nervous about misrepresenting, etc. It's the magazine's policy to let the advertiser look over the article for accuracy prior to publication.

The vendor loved it; so much so, he wrote to the magazine's owner/publisher to tell him what a terrific reporter I am. The publisher in turn sent the note to me, thanking me, and telling me that these guys are major advertisers and he loves getting this kind of feedback. What a way to start my day! :))

The point I'm trying to get at is this - even when we least expect it, we're making impressions on folks. In this case, I was lucky enough to make a good one. It was easy - the interviewees were great to talk with. But what if I'd had a bad day? What if I'd thrown that article together without caring about the topic (high-level analytical mathematics)? What if I'd allowed a grumpy customer to infiltrate my own mood/job? Things could've been much different. Not only might I not have had a nice letter sent from a publisher, but also I might have been told that the major advertiser didn't like my style. That, my friends, would have been mighty tough to overcome. Fact is I had no idea they were a major advertiser.

So I guess it's always critical (yea, I'm saying critical) that we treat the interviewees or the clients as though they hung the moon. That's not to say we have to roll over for a lousy client - there are some times when you just can't work with someone, and that's okay. Yet when we're working for someone else and we're putting their reputation out there along with our own, behavior and communication matters big time.

Lesson learned the easy way for me this time, amen. I hope you all take this to heart, too. It's amazing just how connected our reputations can be to our work and our future work, isn't it?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Writing a Good Query Letter

My recent foray into advertising for writing help has driven home a very important truth; few people understand the power of a good query letter. That may sound like an unfair generalization, and maybe it is, but my mail this past week backs up my theory all too painfully.

As I said before, please for the love of all that's decent do NOT send your potential employer a one-line note stating something as obvious as "My resume is attached." While you may think that a pat response is in order when you're not sure just what kind of work you're applying for, it is exactly the wrong reason to send out such a curt, almost automatic response. Anyone can do it. That point is again backed up by an alarming number of applicants in my In box. Your job is to stand out and make your employer want to hire you above the others. If this thought is too difficult to understand or if it seems too complicated, stop now. Change your career path to something that does not involve persuasion theory.

Still reading? Good. I knew there were more of you sensible writers out there than I've been seeing all week.

Next, make sure you address the topic at hand when you send samples. I know not everyone has experience in specific writing areas, but it's more to your benefit to explain in your query that your clips are ones you've chosen because they best show how you can write, or how you can handle technical/healthcare/consumer/business subjects. That at least explains why you've sent an article about gutter repairs to someone hiring you to write a fashion weblog.

Last, but most important, sell yourself. That's right. Go against what your mother taught you about bragging being a bad thing and let that employer know just how much talent fills up your hard drive on a daily basis. Give your background, your credentials and a list of where your work has appeared or been sold. Frankly, this should be the main part of your query letter if you're applying for a job, and toward the end of it if you're pitching an article or a book.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the process, visit the About Freelance Writing website for tutorials on how to put together a winning sales pitch. Don't let your talent and your opportunities go to waste because of poor presentation on your part.
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