Archive for the ‘General Musings’ Category

“Who Will Be Writing My Content?”

Friday, April 10th, 2015

ghostwriter1I get this question a lot from prospective clients. They visit my website, see “Words by Melissa & Associates,” and wonder “Who are these mysterious ‘Associates’?

I don’t blame them. After all, they have a right to verify that their content will come from a professional, trusted source.

When I started my Cincinnati freelance writing business back in 2007, I was a one-woman show. From technology case studies to articles about potty training to descriptions of Santa figurines, I wrote every word. Over the next couple of years — as my client roster, workload, and family all continued to grow — I realized I was approaching a line. And once I crossed it, I simply wouldn’t be able to keep juggling without dropping something important and breakable.

That’s when I began experimenting with hiring backup writers to handle some of the overflow work. I had mixed feelings about it at first. After all, the quality of my content was a source of pride to me, and the foundation of my business. It was a little scary to give up some control and put my trust in third parties. But every reward starts with some element of risk. This strategy seemed to be a viable way to cultivate as many client relationships as possible, while boosting productivity.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a handful of writers. I carefully hand-pick them to ensure optimal quality and precision of the finished product. I still do a large bulk of the client work myself, but during those periods when projects are coming in fast and furious — and the line between “writer” and “mommy” becomes blurred beyond recognition — I may leverage one or more writers to assist with initial drafts and research. All content is funneled through me for final review, editing, and any necessary rewriting before I submit it to the client for review.

For the projects where I’ve outsourced at least some of the content, the clients have reported that quality was not compromised. To the contrary, it’s often improved by the benefit of having multiple people’s eyes on the content. Plus, if a project calls for a specific type of knowledge or experience, I can tap a writer with that particular specialty. And if any revisions are required (which is rare), I personally handle them.

I’ve also found that working with other writers has made ME a better writer. I’ve honed my editing chops, learned to effective manage people and projects, and become a stronger communicator — all important traits for any successful freelance writer.

Ultimately, my freelance writing business is only as successful as my clients’ satisfaction levels. If they are receiving engaging, well-written, and fully researched content — along with my stamp of approval and quality guarantee — then I’ve done my job well. Just as a surgeon needs help prepping her patients before the main event, I believe there’s no shame in a busy copywriter enlisting some help in crafting an early draft.

Nothing trumps quality — regardless of who’s holding the pen.

Is Email Turning Everyone Into Bad Writers?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

02email7The widespread use of email has, for better or worse, transformed society. Now instead of making a phone call to a colleague, a business, or even a friend to find something out, we can just fire off an email. In fact, some people go to great lengths to replace all phone conversations with email. Even face-to-face conversations have decreased with the rise of electronic communication.

But is this reliance on email turning us into crappy writers?

The case for bad writing: Email is rushed and sloppy

Some people believe the medium of email promotes bad writing. It’s often informal and hurried, a quick note dashed off without any proofreading or even a simple scan. Many an awkward, hastily written email is tone deaf: riddled with poor word choices, spelling and grammar mistakes, and far too many exclamation points.

What’s more, people receiving email seem to have little or no expectations for writing standards. There may be some risk of professional consequences, such as not getting promoted because your grammar is terrible and management feels you’re not an effective communicator. But there are no email police to impose penalties for misplaced commas, all-caps subject lines, or barely coherent sentence fragments that are missing important elements—like verbs.

The case against bad writing: Volume improves quality

On the opposite side, some people view this explosion of email as beneficial. Relying on email as a primary method of communication forces you to write more—and theoretically, the more you write, the better you’ll be at it.

Email has brought regular writing into the lives of many people who would otherwise never write a thing if they could help it. Those who avoided essays and reports like the plague during their educational years are now pounding out paragraphs with ease, on a daily basis. Managers and executives who might have dictated their correspondence to secretaries are now writing out their thoughts directly (and secretaries are now administrative assistants, with considerable writing chops of their own).

The verdict: Email isn’t all bad

Atrocious spelling, grammar, and sentence construction continues to plague short-form written communication—just read the comments section on any YouTube video for proof. But as a whole, email may have actually improved the average writing skills of America, comma splices and all. And there are some pretty cool things you can do with email that can’t necessarily be accomplished with a pen and notepad.

Your inner grammarian may cringe at the homophone confusion or the shotgun approach to punctuation you see frequently in your inbox—but hey, at least they’re writing.

Robot Writers: Can They Replace Human Creativity?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

robot-penHave you read anything on Wikipedia lately? If you’ve come across entries on the world’s largest online encyclopedia that seem a bit stilted, like they could have been written by a robot—there’s a chance they actually might have been.

A bot program called Lsjbot, written by Swedish university administrator Sverker Johansson, is able to write up to 10,000 Wikipedia entries a day. Many of the bot’s entries are about either animal species or small towns in the Philippines, but Lsjbot has been incredibly prolific so far with more than 2.7 million articles posted on the site—or about 8.5 percent of total entries.

Lsjbot isn’t the only robot that’s written Wikipedia articles. The rambot, a U.S. based bot program written by Wiki user Ram-Man, began “writing” entries about U.S. county and cities in 2002. Rambot’s first entry was Autaugaville, Alabama. And rambot is just one of the 1,647 Wikipedia bots currently listed as contributors, both active and inactive.

Is this the beginning of the end for human writers?

Robots and writing sophistication

As technology has advanced, software programs have been developed that allow for vast amounts of data to be gathered, filtered, matched, and placed together in particular ways. This includes the English language. In fact, bots are used to generate a significant volume of news reports, including by the Associated Press—they can quickly turn a set of facts into a readable news story, and are available to “write” at a moment’s notice.

However, most experts don’t see robots as replacements for human writers. Instead, these writing bots can be relied on as efficiency tools, generating routine content such as financial reports or breaking news summaries. This frees up human writers to focus on more in-depth, emotionally charged content.

Kris Hammond is the founder of Narrative Science, a service that uses the Quill writing bot platform to provide narrative reports for businesses. Hammond recently claimed that by 2025, 90 percent of the news the general public reads will be generated by robots. However, he explained, “That doesn’t mean that robots will be replacing 90% of all journalists, simply that the volume of published material will massively increase.”

Can robots beat the real thing?

Writing robots are increasingly sophisticated, and some are able to produce copy that’s practically indistinguishable from human writing. And of course, they’re faster and more efficient. But are they better?

Human readers can breathe a sigh of relief, because while robots may become copy workhorses, there are many aspects of writing that a robot author simply can’t accomplish. Robots can’t get creative—they can only work with the resources they’re given. Robots can’t draw emotional connections or infer meaning. Robots can’t be subtle, or funny, or conversational.

So as long as people demand entertaining, interesting, and emotionally meaningful content, human writers will get to keep their jobs safe from the robot revolution.

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Writer

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

multi-task-mom-stress-400x400Ever wonder what it’s like to be a freelance writer? Naturally, most of it involves lounging by the pool with a cool, refreshing drink in one hand and a laptop by the other, idly typing away on assignments you’re really excited about while the money just pours into your bank account—or maybe not.

Here’s a look at a real day in the life of one freelance writer who doesn’t currently own a pool and hasn’t started drinking by breakfast (yet). Working from anywhere has its perks, but it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds…

5:30 a.m. Before I’m truly awake, I lace up and head out for a quick five-mile run. My body must move first before my mind will follow suit.

6:00 a.m. Mornings start the same way as any other family—get everybody up, fed, dressed, and ready for their respective days. Kids to school, adults to work. The big difference for me: “going to work” does not involve any driving. I can just walk across the hall into my office. Hooray!

8:00 a.m. Consider a shower, but that’s preempted by some early work. First order of business is to check my — oh, wait, the school’s calling. Someone’s forgotten a lunch, and someone else may or may not have lice. Good thing the school’s only five minutes away. BRB

8:36 a.m. The workday begins (seriously this time). First order of business is to check my email. I’ve set a rule in the interests of productivity: email is checked only three times a day. Morning, lunch, end of day. I respond to everything and feel very productive. No more email until noon—on to checking today’s calendar and getting things done.

9:00 a.m. Finish up an article I started yesterday that’s due today, and send it off to the client. Now everything I have is new work, so I pick the most complex one and start researching. It’s easier to write about a topic if I’ve read up and let it simmer in my brain awhile before I get started. Get a little sidetracked and lose 15 minutes following random links, but I’m back on track soon.

10:00 a.m. Thinking about that shower again… it’s okay, it’s not like there’s anyone around to smell me. Still plenty of time to shower before school’s out.

10:27 a.m. Broke my email checking rule (it was an accident) and found an emergency request from a long-term client, sent three minutes after I signed out earlier. They really need this press release to jump on an opportunity due to breaking news, and could I possibly have something for them by 2 p.m.? Fire off a reply—of course I can, I’m super freelance writer!—and start on the press release.

12:00 noon: Supposed to break for lunch right now but I’m almost done with this press release. I’ll grab a sandwich and eat at my desk. Take a break later.

1:47 p.m. Press release done, three assignments researched, one article outlined, one intro written. I could really use a nap right now. But the bus is going to be here soon, and that shower is still calling me… maybe I’ll just grab a Diet Coke and see if there are any Kit-Kats left in the kids’ Halloween baskets…

2:45 p.m. Heard all about the kids’ days at school, reviewed homework, got everyone a snack, and now they’re watching a movie while I get back to work. Must finish at least one of these assignments today. Background noise and the afternoon blahs break up the concentration a little, but I’m still making progress.

4:08 p.m. Wrapped up a blog post and made headway on a case study. Had to stop when one of the cats chased a squirrel up a tree and got stuck 10,000 feet in the air, promptly sending the kids into panic mode. After an hour of balancing precariously on a 12-foot ladder and plying Skippy with treats, he rolled his eyes and calmly climbed back down all on his own. Back to work.

5:00 p.m. The workday is over! Now to close the office door and spend quality time with the family, and relax for the rest of the night… just kidding! It sounded good, anyway.

6:00 p.m. Making lunches for tomorrow, battling homework wars, signing tests and permission slips, letting the husband vent about his hectic day in the corporate grind, cleaning the kitchen, navigating the rough terrain of prepubescent girl drama…

6:30 p.m. Dinner? A simple phone call puts an end to that dilemma.

9:00 p.m. Now that the kids are fed, (somewhat) clean, and in bed, it’s time to wrap up that case study I almost finished earlier, write the intro for the assignment that’s due first thing tomorrow, set up the next day’s calendar, update the website, check messages, reply to a few clients, and get that query out I meant to send three days ago. Oh, and maybe I’ll manage to scrape up half an hour to work on that novel that’s been mocking me from the taskbar for weeks…

10:45 p.m. Just remembered that shower… oh well, too late now. There’s always tomorrow.

11:48 p.m. Finally going to bed. Tomorrow I’m going to have everything done by 5, I swear. Okay, I’m at least going to finish everything by 5 on Friday and take the weekend off. All right, maybe just Sunday…

I’m Not That Kind of Writer

Friday, September 5th, 2014

GhostwriterIf you’re a freelance writer like me, you’ve probably had some version of this conversation before:

You: I’m a writer.

Friend/Relative/Stranger: Really? What books did you write? Can I read one?

You: I…don’t write books. Yet.

Non-writer: How can you be a writer if you don’t write books?

You: I’m a freelance writer. I write web copy, blog posts, articles, white papers…

Friend whose eyes are glazing over: Are you going to write a book? I never could, but I have all these great ideas for books. Hey, you could use them, and we could split the money! Writers are rich, right?

You: Well, I do get paid for my writing.

Oblivious stranger: It’s easy to get rich if you write a book. Everybody’s doing it. Why don’t you?

You: The thing is, I really like what I do.

Person looking for someone else to talk to: Well, tell me when you write a book. I’ll definitely read it. Can you give me a free copy?

I’ve learned that it’s best to be patient with folks like this. They usually mean well. It’s just that if you’re not working as a freelancer, or working with freelancers, it can be hard to understand that while all books are writing, not all writing is books.

People who aren’t writers don’t think about the simple fact that every word they read, every day, had to be written by someone. When you’re reading a shampoo bottle, someone got paid to tell you that this shampoo is specially formulated to remove oils and gently detangle, leaving your hair clean and silky smooth. When you’re on the checkout page of an e-commerce site, someone got paid to explain where you should enter your credit card details, and how you can calculate your shipping costs.

And if you’re a freelance writer reading a shampoo bottle, you’re probably thinking that it’s lousy copy, and someone should’ve paid you to do a better job.

No credit? No problem.

Another concept that’s hard for non-writers to grasp—and even some writers of the fictional persuasion—is the idea that you usually write content that ends up giving credit to someone else. For most freelance projects, your clients hire you as a ghostwriter. You work hard to craft a compelling and well-researched article, or an entertaining blog post, and it’s published under another person’s name…usually your client’s.

What’s hard to convey is that you’re okay with that.

Ghostwriters are well-compensated for their efforts, because they get paid. It’s nice to have public recognition for a piece of great writing, but it’s even nicer to pay the bills, put food on the table, and occasionally see a movie—all without having to leave your house and suffer through commutes, office politics, and Casual Fridays.

So the next time someone asks what you do for a living, tell them you get paid to make other people look good. They’ll probably think you’re an image consultant or a vice president, and the conversation will move on to less confusing things.

Meanwhile, find other freelance writers who get what you do, and make friends with them. Then you can compare notes about which shampoo bottle copy sucks the most, and how you could totally write something ten times better.

10 Freelance Writing Gurus You Should Follow

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Ideas never run out

In my last post, I wrote about why you should compile a list of the top experts for your industry and post it on your blog. Today, I’m taking my own advice and sharing my list of go-to freelance writing gurus that can serve as valuable resources for you.

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips

Every freelance writer needs to produce work with impeccable grammar. For smart, in-depth explanations of grammar rules in plain English, there’s no resource better than Grammar Girl, a blog run by Mignon Fogarty. You’ll never misplace a comma again!

Blog URL: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

Copyblogger

Freelancer Brian Clark has earned his crown as king of the freelance writing bloggers, serving up valuable and informative daily posts on all aspects of the freelance world.

Blog URL: http://www.copyblogger.com/

Chris Brogan

A prolific blogger, freelance writer, and entrepreneur, Chris offers a wealth of information for small business owners, with an emphasis on solo freelancing endeavors.

Blog URL: http://www.chrisbrogan.com/

The Urban Muse

Freelance writer Susan Johnston covers a variety of writing topics, including business, writing, and careers. She also features interviews packed with advice from other successful freelancers.

Blog URL: http://www.urbanmusewriter.com/

Thursday Bram

When you’re in business for yourself, you’ve got to wear a lot of hats. Thursday tackles many of those secondary but essential roles, offering tips on taxes, overhead, health insurance, and more.

Blog URL: http://www.thursdaybram.com/

Bob Bly, Copywriter

This freelance copywriter and marketing consultant has three decades of experience in the business, and offers tips and advice on writing, advertising, PR, online marketing, branding, blogging, and more.

Blog URL: http://bly.com/blog/

The Writer Underground

Successful freelance writer Tom Chandler combines entertainment with information in his frequent posts on the business of writing, covering a broad range of topics and writing industries.

Blog URL: http://writerunderground.com/

The Well-Fed Writer Blog

From award-winning, veteran freelancer Peter Bowerman, this blog is all about “income-boosting resources for commercial writers.” Enough said.

Blog URL: http://www.wellfedwriter.com/blog/

The Anti 9-to-5 Blog

A successful freelance writer since 1992, Michelle Goodman offers insightful, actionable advice for building a flexible, prosperous freelance career.

Blog URL: http://www.anti9to5guide.com/

Freelance Writing

The About.com guide for freelancers, written and maintained by Allena Tapia, provides an incredible amount of resources, tips, and informative blog posts, including salary information—a topic that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Blog URL: http://freelancewrite.about.com/

Freelance Fitness: 5 Exercises You Can Do at Your Desk

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

As a freelance writer, you probably spend more time at your desk than someone with a 9-to-5 office job. And if you’re like most busy business owners, you probably don’t have the luxury of heading to the gym every day—and sadly, all that typing you do doesn’t burn many calories.

On those days when you miss your workouts, there are plenty of exercises you can do right from your desk. Instead of staring guiltily at the elliptical machine that’s serving as a coat hanger, try these simple exercises to get your blood flowing and keep your energy levels up.

  • The one-person sports team: While seated, tap your feet rapidly on the floor, like you’re doing a football drill, for 30 seconds. Then give yourself a cheer—pump both arms over your head for another 30 seconds. Repeat this 3 to 5 times.
  • Lift those legs: From your chair, lift one leg and extend it out straight. Hold the position for 2 seconds, then lower your foot until it almost touches the floor. Hold again, for 3 to 5 seconds, before lowering it completely. Alternate legs until you’ve done 15 lifts per leg.
  • Seated squats: You’ll need a chair with arms for this one. Plant both hands on the arms of your chair and slowly lift your butt off the seat (hint: your feet don’t have to leave the floor). When your arms are fully extended, lower yourself back down but stop before touching the seat, and hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Repeat for a total of 15 times.
  • Hamstring situps: For this one, you’ll get to kick back and put your feet up! Push your chair back from your desk and rest your right heel on the edge of the desk. Sitting up straight, bend forward until you feel the back of your leg stretch gently. Flex your foot a few times, then point it and bend your body forward a bit further. Hold for ten seconds, and repeat with the left leg.
  • Neck flex: To help ease out those kinks in your neck, drop your chin and roll your head back and forth a few times. Then, lift your chin and bend your neck to each side. You can repeat this a few times.

Regular exercise is important for great health, especially when you live the somewhat sedentary lifestyle of a freelance copywriter. And when you work alone, like me, you don’t have to worry about anyone seeing you doing bizarre things at your desk.

Voices of Gratitude

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Happy Veteran’s Day! A heartfelt thanks to the brave, selfless men and women who have served our country in order to give us the freedom to do whatever completes or inspires us… even if it’s something as simple as working from home while having breakfast in bed in your PJs. (No video Skyping for me.)

Check out my most recent post for Mamapedia, one of my favorite clients. I love my country!

4 Ways to Drive a Freelance Writer Crazy

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Camera tests positive

So you’ve gone through the applicants, considered resumes, read dozens of portfolio pieces, and chosen who you hope will be the perfect freelancer for your project. Now what? Read on for four surefire ways to drive a freelancer crazy – and what you should do instead to get the best possible product from your writer.

  • Keep changing your deadlines: “It’s a rush job – can the press release be ready in three days?” If you’ve found a real professional, she might charge you a little bit extra but will probably find a way to make it happen. But then your web designer doesn’t get back to you in time, and you inform the writer that you won’t need the content for another week—so can she waive the rush fee? Perhaps she agrees to bill you at a lower rate, and then you find out that you’ll actually need the materials even sooner – tomorrow at the latest. Can she make the new deadline in time? Everyone has a complicated workweek once in awhile, but try not to flip-flop back and forth from urgent to relaxed deadlines.
  • Send documents in unusual or inaccessible formats: Most freelance writers are pretty experienced at working out software incompatibility issues—but if you’re one of the rare computer users who prefer a really odd file format, it’s always a good idea to convert your files to a more generic type before sending them. Not only will this foresight keep your freelancer from pulling out her hair, it will save you time and frustration, too.
  • Request keyword stuffing and other SEO “mistakes”: If you’re hiring a freelancer to create search engine optimized (SEO) content for your website, you’ve probably chosen someone who has extensive experience and skill in this type of work. Asking for an excessive amount of keyword use in your web copy is more than a challenge to your writer—it’s also bad practice and a red flag to search engines. If you’re going to hire a writer with keyword and SEO expertise, heed their advice to ensure the ideal combination of high rankings and proper protocol.
  • Ask for sources after the work is completed: Everyone wants something different, and your freelancer doesn’t know the details of your project as well as you do. If you need professional references for your writing project, or a particular kind of quote or citation, spell it out as early in the process as possible. That way, your writer won’t have to spend billable time digging up additional sources and instruction after the fact.

It’s easy to drive a freelance writer stark raving mad, but it’s even easier to provide her with the information she needs to deliver quality content on time, within budget, and a smile—with the promise of a long and mutually profitable relationship.

When All Else Fails…TALK!

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Alexia Tsotsis, Writer, TechCrunch, Brett Hurt, Founder & CEO, Bazaarvoice, & Mikkel Svane, CEO,  Zendesk @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-8892

When I left corporate America last year to focus on my freelance writing business, there were plenty of things I was thrilled to leave behind. No more waiting in line for the microwave! No more hovering cube lurkers waiting for me to hang up the phone! No more borderline-rude questions, like “Sure you’re not carrying twins in there?” or “Pregnant again? Haven’t you heard of contraception?” And in addition to those petty annoyances, I could bid adieu to wasting hours of my life sitting in construction traffic, to seeing the kids for five quick minutes before they were whisked off to the sitter’s before dawn, and frittering away vacation days on pediatrician appointments.

But for all the benefits of working independently, there are certain aggravations that have followed me home—like reading “tone” into emails. Given that I’m solitary by nature and notorious for avoiding phone calls, I’m a huge fan of electronic messaging, but every now and then I still get burned by the typewritten word.

Case in point: after spending 5 hours working on some sales letters for a client yesterday, the bottom fell out of my stomach when I received an email last night stating that I had “missed the mark” on the project. The client went on to imply that I hadn’t understood her instructions (which were so minimal as to be almost nonexistent), that I “hadn’t bothered” to review the product I was writing about (untrue; I’d practically dissected it), and that she was “very unhappy” with what I’d delivered. She topped it off by requesting—horror of horrors!—a phone call the next day.

Well! By the time I’d finished re-reading the message for the fourth time, I was torn between crying, puking, and firing off a vicious reply. I finally recovered enough to type a professional—if not slightly huffy—response, confirming our 2:00 PM phone call, then sat back and prepared to stew.

The rest of the evening was a bust, with all the wasted hours of work and the client’s hurtful email festering in the back of my mind like an uninvited guest who refuses to go home. I tossed and turned for much of the night, lying in dread of the inevitable phone call. Waking this morning, I considered sending a follow-up email and calling off the whole thing, suggesting that she just find another provider and chalk up the lost 5 hours (and the project fee) to a lesson learned.

By the time 2:00 rolled around, my stomach was churning and my palms were sweating. I took deep breaths as I dialed the client’s number, bracing myself for a chilly greeting and then a vicious rundown of everything I’d done wrong. I resolved not to suck up, knowing I probably would anyway.

Imagine my surprise when the client answered the phone and sounded—could it be?—pleasant! Surely this wasn’t the same woman who had read me what I interpreted as the riot act in her email the day before. Today, she made cheerful small talk, thanked me for my time, apologized for the limited instructions, and then stepped me through what needed to be changed. On the phone, her feedback was clear and straightforward. I promised a revised version by this evening, and we said our goodbyes—warmly!—before hanging up.

All told, the call took 8 minutes. 8 minutes to wipe out the nerve-wracking depression that I’d allowed to ruin the past 20 hours.

Don’t get me wrong—in today’s hectic world, email is a godsend. It’s quick, it allows you the luxury of thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it, and it gives you a written record of your correspondence. But for all its practical purposes, email can have a dark side. There’s no way to know for sure what the sender meant to convey with her word choice, no way to determine if she was smiling or frowning or giving the screen the middle finger as she typed. In some cases, when a stiff turn of phrase threatens to send you into a tailspin, picking up the phone can save you considerable heartache.