Writer Way

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Big wow!

I just got an email from the son of the elderly woman that Smokey the cat "adopted." The cat has been living in her greenhouse for three or four years now.

We brought Smokey to our place to have him indoors during the cold snap, and returned him to them when the weather warmed on up Thanksgiving. After unboxing Smokey in the living room, they decided to let him stay inside the house for the day. That night, they put him in the laundry room so she wouldn't trip over him in the dark. As is so often the case with this sort of thing, once the cat was inside, it was impossible to put him back out in the greenhouse.

"He has already found a couple of favorite places to sleep, and has shown absolutely no interest in setting foot outdoors," the son wrote. "Wish we had brought him inside years ago."

I have been tracking and worrying over this unusual cat as he moved from elderly person to elderly person for the past 10 years. Now that this woman's son is involved, and the cat is indoors, I think Smokey has finally found a permanent home. I don't think I will be needing any more Christmas presents this year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writer Way is moving!

The Writer Way blog has relocated as of Feb. 21, 2009. You'll find the blog (including the complete archive of all past posts and comments) at WriterWay.com.

Please bookmark that new address!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Remembering Photonica

Doug Plummer blogged recently about trends in stock photography, mentioning the distinctive images ("dreamy photographs of flowers and water") available for license some years back from a company in New York called Photonica. (Some images from that collection still available through Getty).

Many of the images I purchased for Apple's iCards program were from Photonica, and those were often the most popular cards. The dreamy quality of the images captured the imagination and inspire people to customize them with their own captions and messages.

One of the most popular images was of a glass heart wrapped in barbed wire. I was so entranced by it myself that I created a little sculpture along those lines which now hangs in my office.

Happy (well, at least thought-provoking) Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

When should you write "for exposure?"

The economy is putting many experienced writers out of jobs and leaving once-busy freelancers fretting over shrinking contracts and vanishing clients. I've had one client go out of business and two others are capping my hours on particular pieces of work.

At the same time, there's still a lot of writing work available. Many companies are advertising for freelancers to come in and do the writing work previously handled by staff writers or agencies. But the bad news is that some of this work has plenty of strings attached and suspiciously little money.

What I'm talking about is a freelancing issue that's always out there, but which comes into greater prominence in tough times: Working for exposure.

It's tempting to work free ("for exposure") to develop a portfolio in an area where you may have some experience, but no published or bylined pieces to show to a prospective employer or client. It's even more tempting to work for exposure when times are bad, and you have available hours to fill.

As a rule, I don't think writers should work for little or no pay. It's demeaning to the writer, and it's unfair to others in the writing field who charge professional-level hourly rates so they can pay the rent and eat. 

But...rules are meant to be broken. And some "pay for exposure" gigs can be just the stepping stone you need to go on and land a great contract or position. Here are some ways to tell if a "pay for exposure" gig is going to be worth your time and effort:

• The people who hire you should be taking the same chances you are. A talented friend doing a start-up who needs you to write the website might be worth your time. A well-paid manager hired by an out-of-state company to recruit a herd of starry-eyed freelancers via Craig's List is not.

• The publication or website you are writing for should look professional. It should be attractive, sound intelligent, and be kept up to date. Otherwise your "exposure" is likely to be of the embarrassing type. If you find yourself being hired to post fake comments on a rival company's website, flee!

• The "pay for exposure" work agreement should be clearly seen by all parties as a short-term stepping stone for you — not the start of a system in which you work your way up in their organization. Sadly, it's not unusual for the types of companies that offer "work for exposure" to try to make the writer feel there is some obligation to stick with the company at low wages because it "gave you exposure." Keep in mind that when you work for free, you're giving a company hundreds or thousands of dollars of writing. You have absolutely no further obligation to them.

• You should be having fun, and truly developing your writing skills. This is your chance to prove yourself in a new area of writing, and, if you are lucky, to collaborate with a great editor or a great designer to make your work shine.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where the editorial grass is greener

Can a writer transition from technical communications to MarCom work mid-career? In the past few weeks several friends with extensive experience in technical writing and editing have voiced just such an ambition. One wrote:

"I want to shift away from computer-related content, but I'm finding it difficult to make the case that my experience in technical editing carries over to editing other types of material."

As someone who's played the role of a writer or editor in a wide range of areas over the past several years before settling in MarCom territory, I think I can shed some light on why technical writers and editors are rarely a good fit in marketing or corporate communications teams. The following remarks are in no way intended to disparage MarCom folks, or technical communications folks. But it's become clear to me that these are two quite different cultures, and a transition between them is far more drastic than most people realize.

These days I am blessed to work closely with an experienced technical editor (and procedures writer) who copy edits my work on websites and catalogs. However, on the occasions that I ask him to edit my writing for brochures, blogs, and sales letters, we both take a deep breath and know there are going to be some frustrations. Here's why:

• As a technical editor, he wants to correct everything; as a MarCom writer, I only want corrections done to a certain level. The document shouldn't embarrass anyone, but if two words are hyphenated in a footnote on page two, and don't have a hyphen in the index 70 pages later? Big deal.

• As a technical editor, he cringes at jargon, sentence fragments, hyperbole, and little gaps in logic. These are pretty much the hallmarks of MarCom writing.

• As a technical communicator, he'd like to see the style guide I'm using. Oh dear. Many of my clients don't have style guides, and, if they did, they probably wouldn't refer to them.

If things get a bit edgy when a technical editor and a MarCom writer collaborate, things can get even more stressful when a technical writer embarks on a MarCom writing assignment. Here are the areas where significant cultural disconnects tend to occur:

Balance. If a product has eight features, the technical writer wants to see each feature given equal space, or at least equal weight in the formatting. When I'm wearing my MarCom hat, I'm likely to go on at length about the hottest two features, mention a couple of others in the next paragraph, and completely ignore the rest; after all, they're covered in the attached specs. When I try to sell this approach to someone from a technical communications background, the reaction is either incredulity or contempt.

Time/money. I hesitate to describe actual incidents here, but my experience has been that technical writers are used to long timelines (measured in weeks) and a period at the beginning of the project in which many, detailed questions are discussed with the client. The technical writer often expects to be able to ask the client questions as they work.

By contrast, MacCom writers are used to getting a short, initial briefing and a 48-hour deadline for creating a strong document, or at least a sample section. When it comes to formatting and style, the writer is often expected to make independent decisions and recommendations to the client. Relying on the formatting or style of previous documents rarely works, because the client company is inevitably in the process of changing designs (or designers).

The MarCom team is also likely to change the scope of the project in mid-stream — dramatically, at times — and the writer dives in afresh. Technical writers tend to regard it as poor planning when what started as an eight-page brochure ends up as a two-page brochure with a sales letter attached. The MarCom writer accepts it as business as usual.

One technical writer was shocked to see a Marcom client of mine review something I'd spent several hours on, announce "We want something completely different," and send me off in a whole new direction — with a deadline in 24 hours. The technical writer viewed that at a scandalous waste of the client's money; I had to keep pointing out that the client was spending the money, not me, and my initial piece of writing may well have been an experiment the client needed to see as part of their process.

So, here's the bottom line, and my advice to technical communications folks who want to move into MarCom: If you can thrive in a fast-moving, free-form, sometimes dramatic environment, go for it. But if you love a good style guide, a detailed production schedule, and documents that emerge looking pretty much the way they were described in the initial assignment? Don't give up your technical communications job.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Way beyond blogs

A year ago, Peggy Sturdivant, a Seattle neighborhood news blogger, invited me to do a joint presentation for a PR class (the PR Certificate program) at the University of Washington.

We've been invited back to present again this year, and, as I'm putting together my notes, I'm discovering two things:

1. That the role of blogging in PR (and in several other areas of business and professional communication) has changed fairly dramatically in the past 12 months; what were emerging trends in January 2008 are so established as to be taken for granted today. (More on this to come.)

2. That the way information is presented in a classroom is pretty much light years away from how I communicate online. It's slow, it's boring, it's cumbersome. Classrooms need presenter computers connected to a large-screen TV or projector screen. In reality, they have nothing but whiteboards or a non-functioning setup that theoretically allows a presenter's computer to be connected to a screen, but which, in reality, never works because some cord is missing or some software isn't compatible. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the actual presentation.

Most of what I'll be presenting tonight are short tips that students can explore later by clicking through to these following links on this blog. Tips are likely to include:

1. Online PR has gone way beyond websites and blogging.

Suggested reading:
Barry's Hurd's "Social Media Demographics and Analytics 2008-2009" in which Barry comments that "such things as reputation and brand impact will be occurring real-time 24/7."

2. Fortunately for those of us who do PR, a much more realistic attitude now exists about blogging. It's been demystified; is no longer viewed as a magic bullet.

Suggested reading:
Darren Rouse's post on getting fast traffic to a blog.

3. Unfortunately, the new "magic bullet" that CEOs read about in airplane magazines and decide their marcom folks must create immediately is "community." That's simple but difficult to create and maintain. Instead, you need to participate in robust existing communities, a behavior with is antithetical to old-school corporate behavior. ("But is has to have our name on it!")

Suggested reading:
Barry Hurd's "PR is killing itself and it hurts to laugh"

Chris Pirillo's YouTube video on creating community.

4. SEO is now the "hot new thing," a PR essential for blogging and websites.
• Basic SEO is easy.
• More sophisticated SEO is not for amateurs and should always start with analytics before you throw money into implementing SEO.
• Gray-hat (shady) SEO is not as smart as the people telling your company to do it thinks it is. It can, and will, turn around and embarrass you.
• Make sure you understand "social bookmarking" and "tags" of all kinds. You may not need to use them, but you need to know if you need to use them.

Suggested reading:
Boing Boing's post "Motorola, could you please tell your viral marketer to get out of our comments?"

5. Twitter PR is free and powerful, but not easy. (Hint: It's not advertising, it's information.) And, watch how closely it's linked to blogs. Think of it as a headline for your blog posts or for your comments on other blog posts, plus a way to create the credibility that will bring others to your blog.

Suggested reading:
Sign up for a Twitter account and follow:
• moniguzman (Monica Guzman, writer of the P-I's big blog)
• hrheingold (Howard Rheingold, social media theorist and professor — you'll get links to his class materials)
• joehageonline (Joe Hage is putting social media principles into action, right in front of you, in his work as a MarCom director at a major corporation, and then explaining it on his blog)
• UDistFoodBank (excellent use of Twitter by a non-profit)
• chrispirillo (Chris epitomizes the concepts of branding and communication; watch how he uses Twitter to drive traffic)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book review bugaboos

Some years back, I did quite a bit of book reviewing for January Magazine; I miss that, and am looking forward to doing a small book reviewing project for Publisher's Weekly this spring.

This piece by Bob Harris in The New York Times was a painful reminder about some of the hackneyed adjectives book reviewers too often find themselves using. I've been able to avoid "poignant" and "eschew." But I have to admit, when it comes to "intriguing" — guilty!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Think before you shrink

Web 1 Marketing has a great post on how shrinking a URL (using services such as TinyURL or BudURL) works and how it affects SEO. Turns out there are two different types of redirects at work, and one is preferable to the other. If you are shrinking URLs for SEO work, you'll want to check this out.