Tuesday, November 24, 2009


When our kids were small and subject to dwelling on a bad day, we instituted a rule at bedtime: Each of us, including my wife and me, had to name the best thing that had happened during the day. If you wanted to list more than one, that was OK, but the idea was that you went to sleep with a clear positive thought even if you'd had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Nowadays our kids are up later than we are, and therefore no longer tuck-inable, but hopefully it is a principle that they can carry through the challenges that lay ahead in adolescence, young adulthood and parenthood.

It's a fine way to end a day. There's a great deal to be said for appreciating people and events that make us happy.

I'll be traveling tomorrow and unlikely to be online, so an early thanks to my readers--family and friends, peers and partners in all of your various media and with all your myriad talents, clients and your ideas and spirited approach to business--as we head into the holiday weekend. Happy Turkey.

Friday, November 20, 2009

7 reasons to reject lowball freelance work

How low will you go in accepting an assignment? In 7 Reasons Why I Won't Write A $15 Blog, blogger Carol Tice describes being lowballed by an agency and enumerates the principles that led her to say "no." Of the seven reasons, #5 "I want to take a stand," leads her to create a petition for writers who won't take less than $50 for an assignment.

It is an interesting tactic. If nothing else, Tice elicited emotion--she drove lots of comments by posting on LinkedIn, and the topic also sparked a separate discussion over at Freelancer Writerville II (free registration required) when I posted the link there. A while back, I posted a video of Harlan Ellison ranting about people who work for free, screwing up things for everyone else, so, yeah, I am empathic to the concept that people should stand up for their right to be paid a fair wage.

While I wish her the best of luck, I see a couple of challenges in formalizing such a cause:
  1. Although there is a Freelancers Union, we're inherently un-unionizable in any significant way. I cherish my independence, and I believe that the vast majority of freelancers feel similarly. I'm skeptical that a petition will carry much weight in the marketplace, and I'm confident enough in my own abilities to know that I'm my own best advocate.
  2. At the risk of retreating into a sports metaphor, writing is analogous to professional baseball--some are superstars and some barely make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority toil away in AAA, AA, or A for smaller bucks...and a lot of others play just for fun. A player with marginal talent who wants to make a six-figure income ain't gonna get it. One with scads of talent who is underpaid needs to do a better job of negotiating.
  3. I simply don't view this as a moral issue. As much as I disdain the content mills out there, I don't believe they're doing anything but meeting a need for low-cost, low-quality content. Nobody is forced to work for them, so using the word "sweatshop" is a bit precious. They're purchasing the editorial equivalent of cheesy clipart. Good luck with that.
Discussions about pay never fail to strike a nerve. Freelancing isn't unique in that respect, though it is very personal as far as what is acceptable. As Rodney Dangerfield once said, "Look out for #1...but don't step in #2."

Update: A great pricing anecdote via photographer Tim Gruber, Picasso and Pricing Your Work:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

101 Reasons Freelancers Do It Better

The Editorial Freelancers Association passed along this little item from HR World, of all odd places: "101 Reasons Freelancers Do It Better." Yeah, they stretched it a bit to tip it over the 101 mark, but they still get an "A" for blending humor & truth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

11 Myths of Owning a Small Business

No matter how creative you are, your success as a freelancer ultimately hinges on your abilities as a businessperson. So, the headline "11 Myths of Owning a Small Business" in the Nov. 17 Forbes.com Entrepreneurs Newsletter caught my attention. And, as is always the case in listy-number thangs, I sat down to see how my experiences matched up with their opinions.

My conclusion? It's worth taking two minutes to read the article and another two minutes to run through the slide show, since the text only reveals some of the myths. (Which seemed goofy to me, but whatever.) I found myself agreeing with most, particularly how you can't "do it all yourself" and how risk-taking and passion are often overstated or overrated. Some of the myths don't really apply, such as "you can set your own schedule," but that may be more aimed at the bricks-and-mortar entrepreneurs in the Forbes audience. (Then again, deadlines can surely box you in if you let them.)

By the way, you can sign up for Forbes's free email newsletters in the right-hand column at the link, about halfway down the page. I've found there's usually at least one freelancer-applicable article per issue, sometimes more.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?

I took a deep breath. I had scheduled a phone appointment with someone for a company newsletter article, but when I call, I get dumped straight into voicemail. When I finally reach her, 45 minutes later, she's in a meeting and...let's just say her demeanor is "gruff."

I provided an escape clause, "Is this an OK time? I'd be happy to reschedule," but she stepped out of her meeting and we did the very brief interview. I wrote up the article, and sent it to her for review the following morning.

To my amazement, she responded quickly, was complimentary and didn't have a single change. Interestingly enough, she also thanked me for "being patient" the previous day--so she evidently recognized that she'd been out of line.

I find it odd when people for whom you're essentially doing a favor act as if you're inconveniencing them. I was writing an intercompany article with the sole purpose of making her and her department look good. We'd booked a time that she neglected to put in her calendar--no big deal. Once you've blown it, however, in my version of The Game anyhow, you're supposed to default to an immediate, on-the-spot apology. You only get partial points for a day-after one.

I was "patient" because I recognized it as the only way of getting the job done, not because it's my preferred mode of operation. We're all busy, but courtesy makes life a lot more pleasant--and a much better impression.

Heading into the weekend, a video tie-in to the post headline. Elvis Costello cut the most famous version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," but Nick Lowe (who wrote the song) sets a more leisurely pace.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans and Remembrance days

With one foot in the U.S. and one in Canada, a Veterans Day thank you to those who served and a Remembrance Day thank you for your sacrifices.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playing grammar referee

As an editor, you break up your fair share of grammar skirmishes and pray no one gets hurt. Yesterday afternoon, one of my creative partners asked me whether "important" or "importantly" was the correct word in this sentence:
More important(ly), can you help us find XXXXX?
I'd long ago been taught that's a ly-free zone, with "importantly" being reserved as an adverb to describe to describe an action; for example, "The judge strode importantly to the bench." With a bit of nagging doubt in my head, I did a bit of research to ensure I wasn't wrong.

As it turns out, it's a bit of a sister-kiss: Either one is acceptable usage according to Merriam-Webster's and other authorities, though my web search indicated a slight lean toward "more important." The reasoning is that it's not modifying a verb, it's modifying the entire phrase that follows it--you could think of it as "[What is] more important, can you help us..."

Alas, as with all grammar minutia, whichever way you write it, a stickler on the other side will read it and think "AHA! You big dummy!"...forgetting that it doesn't mean a darn thing in the ability to convey or understand the message. I am reminded of the big-endian vs. small-endian argument among the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. Eat your softboiled egg any way you please.

UPDATED: While we're on the subject, Yolander Prinzel of Freelance Writerville alerted me to "Error Proof: How to defend yourself from grammar pedants" from the October 4, 2009, New York Times Magazine. Clever stuff.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Persistence vs. pestilence

Recently I was talking with a freelance writer/editor who quoted a stat that made me cringe. She'd been to a seminar where the speaker had declared something to the effect that, on average, it takes 7 follow-up contacts with a prospective client before they'll do business with you.

Not only do I call B.S. and question how the heck this seminar swami derived the magic number, I'd suggest that type of approach is hazardous to a freelancer's business.
  • My professional experience is that, after one or two calls, a prospect is either in or out. I need to use my judgment on how close I am to a "yes" and if and when a follow-up is appropriate.
  • My experience as a prospect is that, if someone calls me that many times, I am going to get irritated. You don't have permission to do that, even if I expressed initial interest.
  • Rather than trotting back to the same "maybe" target repeatedly, you're likely better served to devote your energies to finding new prospects elsewhere. Contact enough of them, and you'll undoubtedly find a few that are happy-to-talk-to-you, one-call deals.