Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Surviving the B2B Review

Okay, this isn't me. This isn't remotely me. This is so not-me that it could be called the anti-me.
But it's a lot of writers. There is a tendency among writers to get very attached, even overly attached, to the created product that any change or even subtle deviation from it causes tremendous personal pain.
Most business-type writing is done in a regulated environment. If you work for a business, you have to get reviewed by the guy who hired you plus probably by a couple of other people and maybe the company's lawyer. Write for a financial company, and you'll have financial guys reviewing your material, too. Write for medical companies, as I often do, and you have a regulatory team look at your work before the FDA or overseas bodies get to put in their two cents. In short, writers who work the B2B (business to business) jungle have to come to terms with this.
Reviews would be wonderful if reviewers were all well qualified, objective, and contributed in the areas of their expertise. This is like saying it would be wonderful if Cherry Garcia ice cream had no calories and made you smarter.
Reviewers by and large are not writers, have no training in communication, and may labor under the misguided notion that if they don't make substantial changes to your document, they have not participated in the process. Many reviewers feel an urge to stretch their wings far beyond their area of expertise.
In my own experience, I have had lawyers urge me to "punch up a headline," clinical engineers inform me of better choices of wording (not for clinical terms, though), and a nurse who told me a presentation did not flow at all. I had a government agency once tell me to write a pamphlet about defibrillators for patients without using any word more than three syllables (can you say de-fib-ri-la-tor?)
In short, it can be brutal. So what do you do?
The first thing I do is realize that my name is off the final document. A B2B assignment is most likely a "work for hire," which means the company owns the rights to the final document. Your name will get pulled from it, so think what that means. It means it is not yours! The company that commissioned your work has every right to change it, and it is not up to you to impede it in the process.
Being nameless can have its rewards, too. Nobody will have to know that you submitted a text with a table called "Observed Observations" (a real comment that the reviewer insisted be added to the document). So while you were in the business of writing well in the first phase of the project, in the second phase you are in the customer relation business. Just as an interior decorator will allow a client to paint the kitchen black if he insists, you have to do your best work and then accommodate client input.
The next thing I do, with reasonable, if not ferocious, consistency is make counter-suggestions. Many comments by reviewers do not accurately convey what the reviewer wants to say, but do in truth communicate something. The nurse who said my presentation did not flow was simply stating that she did not find a logical progression there. The lawyer who wanted punchier headlines wanted to let me know he knew a thing or two about writing. The government agency that wanted a brochure without big words about a product that was called by a big word was just saying that it wanted patient materials written at a very basic level.
This is way different than educating the client, a rather presumptuous term I hear bandied about. I do not educate my clients; I let them educate me. I will suggest things, but never in the sense of trying to "educate" them, more in the sense of trying to find a good solution to their complaint.
The last thing I do is listen and try to learn. Most non-writers communicate only half of the story, and that's on a good day. You may find out that a legal reviewer's input is based on the threat of some future litigation or a marketing guy's comments are based on competitive intelligence which he never shared with you. Most reviewers do not object to a phone call to discuss their input. Such calls generally go better when they do not start out, "Listen, jerk."
Last but not least, count the money. Work for hire is about doing your best, then letting your customer hack at your precious creation, trying to salvage what you can, and then going to the bank. Sometimes it helps to think of that last part. It's a job, for pity's sake.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Specialist or Generalist?

When it comes to writing, you have to decide to specialize or be a generalist. A generalist roams around, seeking opportunities everywhere. Generalists can write about growing orchids, seeking sunken treasure, improving direct mail response, and childhood vacinnations, all in the same week. They essentially go where the market and their inclinations lead them.

A specialist, on the other hand, finds a specific area or maybe even a range of subjects, and then rigorously writes only about those things. A specialist might pick a big field, like medicine, or it might be a narrow area, like recent movies.

So which one is better? In today's post-modern feel-good culture, it's hard to say one thing is better, but in writing, the answer to this question may surprise you.

It's generally better to specialize. Most people would think that generalists would have more money-making opportunities and, hence, more money, but those two things do not always combine happily. There are a couple of drawbacks to being a generalist.

First, you have to learn everything. You aren't an expert. A generalist writer might decide (or get an assignment) to write about new tire technology. Knowing nothing about the subject means that the generalist has to do a lot of research, make a lot of new contacts, and figure things out. This takes time and, you know the old saying ... time is moolah.

Second, generalists are, by definitions, not experts. Nobody wants to entrust their pet project to an admitted newbie. If a business is looking for a top writer to generate content about their multimillion dollar new franchise opportunity, they don't want to hire somebody whose last article was, "How to Bake Your Own Dog Biscuits."

You would think that narrowing the range would limit opportunities, but it gives you depth. Depth means you know the basics, you have a lot of contacts, and you may even have established a bit of a reputation. If you're known far and wide for your articles on dogs, any time an article about dogs is needed, you get the job. A specialist can ace out a generalist for an assignment any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

The problem with specialist is range. A good specialty is broad enough to span a lot of topics. I once met a woman who (no kidding) was launching a career as a freelance writer. She had made up her mind (she was one of those sorts of pale women who "make up their minds") to write only and exclusively about German settlement to Fayette County, Texas in the 1860s. I am not lying. Needless to say, her career did not get off the ground.

That's a little too narrow, sparrow.

But dogs could be a great specialty or even pets. The reason is that there is a wide range of content and a wide range of media that sometimes has to do with the subject. Think about it: dog training, dog shows, pets for children, pets for therapy, veterinary medicine, dog breeding, naming your dog, celebrity pets, the dog food industry, new types of dogs, dog toys, pampered pets, and so on.

Pick a specialty like medicine, business, finance, marketing, pets, families, childraising, religion, movies, entertainment, or real estate (the list goes on and on) and you have a pretty broad range of subjects. Plus you have the narrowness that allows you to learn some of the lingo, key books, authority sites, opinion leaders, and contacts.

Now there is truly no right answer to whether or not you should generalize or specialize as a writer. I know writers who have succeeded as generalists, but I think they face a lot steeper climb. The biggest objection to specialization is the fear that one might be bored.

Know what to do? Find another specialty and launch out again. There's no reason you can't be both a dog writer and a travel writer. Hey, you'd nail any job that came up on traveling with dogs!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shhh, I'm Working on Something

I don't know why Internet marketers who write things are so secretive. Most writers are secretive, too, but for different reasons.

Internet marketers and other people who are not professional writers (and don't want to be anything even remotely like a professional writer) have a tremendous fear that something they write will be stolen. I am currently ghostwriting a business project that the business participants (a) want widely disseminated, shared, and used but also (b) protected by an ironclad copyright.

Those two things don't go together except in the non-writerly mind. If you want your ideas shared, discussed, your templates and formulas used, if you want to change business practice with your ideas ... then you have to let them loose.

The other thing is that most non-writers fear that their ideas will be stolen. That's because they labor under the mistaken notion that good ideas are very scarce. Ideas are cheap. Once you understand a bit about the creative process and really get "in the zone," ideas come at you so fast and furious you can't keep up. There is no idea shortage.

Besides, you can't copyright an idea anyway. If you have an idea as to how you can eat whatever you want and lose weight, that idea is public. You can't own it. I can't own it. At most, we can develop something around that idea and then copyright the specific sequence of words (or images or whatever) that we came up with.

Let's say that I'm an evil writing genius (I'm not ... evil, that is) and I want to steal your article on the weight loss program that combines eating whatever you want with losing pounds and inches. Legally, I could get in trouble if the article is copyright and I try to put my name on it. But if I make enough changes to it, I can get my own copyright on it.

In other words, people can take your content, rewrite it, and copyright it themselves.

Which brings us to the other reason that the panic over copyrights is so funny to me. What do you think that the copyright is really worth? Most writers give away more material than they sell (there are reasons for this). While J.K. Rowlings might have some great content that made her rich, most of the rest of us writers just slog out material.

That's amateur writers. Internet marketers are secretive about ideas, mainly because they know that ideas can't be protected legally. The ironic thing about that is (a) ideas are plentiful and (b) two people will never develop the idea the same way. Coming back to the crazy diet plan, six different people could work on that idea and come up with totally different books, articles, or other products.

What makes content or writing so powerful is the personal spin. It's not the idea. And what's funny is that other people can't really steal your personal spin. True, they could possibly swipe an article here or there, but let's face it. Oprah is Oprah not because of any single show she did but because of her personal spin. Same with Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, or even the unfamous people who dominate specific niches and industries. It might be possible to swipe a recipe from Marthan or a quote from The Donald, but it's impossible to hijack their personal spin.

That's why writers and Internet marketers should not be so leery about talking about projects in development. If I told you I'm working on a new method of using keywords in your articles, you could grab that idea and run with it ... and maybe wind up in a totally different direction.

Nevertheless, sometimes we all feel like we'd jinx our projects by talking too much about them. A lot of cool-sounding writing projects die on the vine, so maybe it's better we don't shoot our mouth off. But steal ideas? I wonder if that's even possible!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

It's Dangerous Work, But Somebody Has Got to Do It!

Writing has to be one of the most hazardous occupations in the world. First of all, it requires you to sit down, virtually immobilizing yourself, at a desk or workstation that may not be designed for optimal human endeavor. It requires very little exertion to be a writer. You can work hard all day and burn about 12 calories and still feel tired when you get home.

Second, it creates an insatiable urge to eat sweets. Maybe all Americans have this, but writers have motive and opportunity to eat more than their fair share of donuts, chips, soft drinks, and other things.

Third, a lot of writers don't earn as much as they would like, so they eat at the lower end of the gastronomic spectrum, tending to go to places where you obtain your food without having to exit your car (thus not burning precious calories).

Fourth, writing can be a fairly stressful job if you consider not having a steady paycheck and exposing yourself to every flamer in the world who wants to call you an idiot.

So why do we do it? I don't know. I suspect that if we had other skills or inclinations, we would have gone on to have successful careers. But I have always found a lot of satisfaction in the work. It's fun. It's challenging. It doesn't get boring or old. It's an adventure. I've met lots of great people through writing I otherwise never would have got to know.

I guess I became a writer because I didn't want to work for a living.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I just bought a Mac

My first computer was a Macintosh. So was my second. That was back in the dark ages before Brittney Spears was even born.
Then an in-house career in a series of corporations and crass circumstances put me in the Windows camp. I found PCs likeable enough, although it's kind of weird that to turn them off, you have to go to the button that says START. They wouldn't do that at Apple, but at Microsoft nobody thought it mattered and apparently they were right.
I just came back because of Vista. I'm a bit apprehensive about anything like a new operating system and I've been hearing bad things. So I went to a Mac.
Fortunately, the cross-platform thing is not as big of a deal as it once was. It's still imperfect, but it's nowhere near the problem that I remember it. And my own computer skills have increased enough that it's easy to make the shift from PC to Mac and back again. The only down side to Macs is that they're more expensive and the software they require costs bank, too.
The upside is that they actually work.

My Favorite Things About Writing

Writing is really easy. It's practically like not working at all.

Writing is particularly rewarding when a non-writer who cannot even compose an email without a thesaurus (and misspelling at least six words) criticizes your work.

Writing is really fun when a vice president stands over you as you type and from time to time puts his greasy fingers on your computer screen.

Writing is interesting when you have to write compelling persuasive marketing copy for a product that is much worse than the competitive offerings.

Writing is such a hoot when you go on Elance and see that somebody is seeking a writer and then says the assignment is "really easy" providing you are "somebody who knows what she is doing." Just like the space shuttle is easy to build if you know what you're doing.

I love to be a writer when somebody looks at 5,000 brilliant words in a draft layout format and throws it on the floor because there is a typo in one of the footnotes. It's particularly rewarding when that person is fat and says, "This is garbage!" in a way that makes drool fly out of his mouth and sounds vaguely like Daffy Duck.

It's a blast to be a writer because at the end of most days you do something that very few people can do in our increasingly illiterate, overstimulated, attention-deficit-riddled society. You articulate coherent thoughts.

Money and Writing

It's not a sensible thing for a writer to develop a fondness for money. Money is like raging alcoholism: it's one of those things that only a few writers actually have but most people associate with the writing life.
On the other hand, it's absolutely possible for a decent writer with a love of hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit, and high-speed Internet access to earn a good living.
Most writers who fail at this have either not persevered long enough (and it's one long dry marathon getting started as a writer) or they don't develop a sound business sense.
A sound business sense means understanding that writing is not about art work, creativity, or expressing yourself. Join a quilting club if you want to do that kind of thing. Writing is about earning a living and possibly saying something useful, although it's important to keep those two items in that particular order.
There are lots of writers who insist on writing only what they want to write. You can't run other businesses along that formula, so why should writing be different? For instance, if I want to make peanut butter sandwiches and sell them to movie stars for a million bucks each, that's a noble dream but it won't fly as a business. I can want it till I'm blue in the face, I can say affirmations, I can chant and moan and visualize it and write a business plan, but it is not going to work.
A long time ago I met a woman who asked me about writing advice. She told me this: I want to write about German immigrants of the 19th century who settled in Fayette County, Texas. I told her to find another career. Now you might be able to write something on that subject (there are a lot of Germans in Texas, for all you non-Texans reading this) but it would be more like a thesis or an article you could give away to some local heritage society. You can't make a career around this.
Many would-be writers are stubborn. She said that was what she was going to write about. She only came to me to find out how to make money.
You make money by selling what can be sold. It used to be that you sold your writing to businesses (very lucrative if you do it right) and publications (newspapers and magazines). Last I heard, nobody is clamoring for articles on 19th century German immigration to Fayette County. But learn to write about medical technology or the latest movies or economic trends or learn how to do a killer interview, and you could sell some work.
The big shift in my lifetime is the imminent demise of the traditional publisher (sorry to break it to you this way). Anyone can publish a website (which is really just an electronic magazine), a blog (electronic newsletter), or even a book (vanity presses which are now just called digital printers). Magically, we all got promoted to be publishers.
Unfortunately, being a publisher is even harder in terms of mindset than being a sales-minded writer. You can do a blog on 18 cool things my dog can do but nobody wants to read it. You need to marry content with market.
And that's where most non-earning writers fall flat.