Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Motivating yourself with a "win" board

One of my independent-creative friends joked that it's tough playing hooky when you work for yourself, because you're automatically busted. That set off a string of banter about there being no point to calling in sick, how it's awkward to give yourself an annual review, and the difficulty of reprimanding yourself.

The truth is, freelancing can be a pretty solitary enterprise if you let it. (Some prefer it that way!) And if you're in the business long enough, it can often seem like you've fallen into a feedback-free zone or a negative-feedback-only rut.

As a matter of practice, anytime I get an attaboy from a client--could be a thank you, or a compliment about a story, a positive anecdote, a great result from an advertising campaign--I print it out and push-pin it to a bulletin board on my wall. I'm a very internally motivated person, and I don't waste much time worrying about criticism, but there are times my "win" board serves as a reminder of why I do what I do. Even when things go sideways with one client, it sure helps to have a reminder that your skills have been appreciated by a horde of others.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies

The always-insightful George "Geo" Tannenbaum at Ad Aged is constructing a list titled "99 lies. A work in progress." The count was up to 43 as of a moment ago, but he's continuing to add if you want to give a shot at mocking ad agency/creative world prevarication.

His first five are:
  1. I will never lie to you.
  2. We're all in this together.
  3. The only thing that matters is the work.
  4. I'm a straight shooter.
  5. I like it.
For what it's worth, my suggestions were:
  • We're interested in trying something different.
  • I'm not worried about face time.
  • We're focused on the results, not the process.
  • It's not my call.
  • That's my final offer.

10 things you shouldn't ask a freelance writer

Susan Johnston at the Urban Muse posted a nifty little item yesterday, "10 Things You Should NOT Ask a Freelance Writer," assembled from an informal poll of her Twitter and Facebook followers. She was kind enough to h/t me for her #9 item--but all of them will surely generate a laugh or a cringe from anyone who's been in the biz for more than a few minutes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is self employment really what you want?

I recently had lunch with a longtime friend and business associate, let's call her Kathy, who got laid off a few months ago. She's been filling the time with intermittent freelance gigs, but her frustration is palpable--having been at her previous corporate employer for more than a decade, and given the state of the economy, perhaps that's no surprise.

So our conversation turned to what she has found most difficult about self employment and the freelance world. For Kathy, it's "Not knowing where my next project is going to come from, or when it's going to happen."

That intrigued me, because I'd say that's one of the aspects I like *most* about running my own business. I totally groove on the excitement of not knowing what's around the next bend, what that next phone ring will bring. Sure, sometimes it takes a bit longer than you'd like, but eventually the committed entrepreneur needs to come to grips with it. If not, you're likely better off in an office environment where the assignments (and paychecks) come more regularly. No shame in that, though probably best recognized early on. A desperate freelancer can't be a successful one.

Kathy also made an important point for those of us who are in a position to help someone who's unemployed or underemployed. She said it's amazing to see the number of people who she thought she could depend on who suddenly weren't available when she ran into tough times. If you're a writer, editor or graphic designer, a free resume/cover letter polish goes a long way; if you're a web guru, provide some help to someone who could use an online portfolio. Lend a sympathetic ear. Make a phone call. Send an email. Pay it forward.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

PR Pro, Part II: 3.5 reasons why I can't show you the story

Last week, I recounted one of the best encounters I've ever had with a public relations professional helping me with a story. (Go here; I'll be here when you get back.)

Today, I want to touch briefly on the reasons why the surprisingly common "Can I see the story before it runs?" request chafes me so terribly:
  1. By asking the question, you're subtly implying that I might misconstrue your story, make your company look bad, make your competitor look good, etc., etc. It's much nicer to operate from a position of mutual trust and respect. After all, I'm assuming that you're giving me the straight scoop about your client. (You are, aren't you?)
  2. Most editorial policies preclude me from showing you anything other than direct quotes. Thus, you're putting me in the awkward position of telling you "no" right after you did me the favor of providing resources for my story. I'm a nice guy, but my allegiance is to the publication that gave me the assignment.
  3. Even if I did show the story to you, I wouldn't change anything unless it was factually incorrect. I calls 'em like I sees 'em, and I pride myself on getting things right.
Finally, Reason 3.5 is this: Keep in mind that, if I have a question about whether something is accurate, I will certainly contact you.

Now, in defense of the PR pros who insist on asking the question, I suppose there is the occasional writer, editor or publisher who says, "Sure! I'll send it right over!" (I've even known a couple of ad salespeople who've sent a galley proof clandestinely, which is about the sleaziest thing you can do.)

Using the shotgun method to find those people is your right. At the same time, it's my right to stick to my own guns: Trust me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sex, violence and the freelancer

This past weekend, I headed down I-10 to the Tucson Festival of Books, where I staffed the Editorial Freelancers Association booth for a couple of hours each day. During one of my breaks, I attended a workshop titled "Writing Convincing Sex Scenes (the PG Version)." While I'm not currently working on a novel, the title broke through the cacophony of "how to get published" and "you can make a living as a writer" offerings that populated much of the schedule. I figured, why not?

David Fulmer, author of The Blue Door and Chasing the Devil's Tail, among others, taught the session. He was at turns hilarious and insightful about these sensitive topics, which he has taught at the university level. (The course title usually includes violence as well as sex, but it was truncated to fit in the festival program.) In his own books, he uses profanity sparingly, doesn't talk about specific body parts, and cuts the scene "when the clothes hit the floor" so that the reader has to do some of the work.

Obviously, most of us don't spend much time freelancing about sex or violence--at least the circles I travel in! Nevertheless, Fulmer made a number of points that apply to our craft in more general terms:
  • You can't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.
  • You can't care about what friends and family think, or you're in the wrong business. 
  • As a storyteller, everything you do needs to move the plot forward--if it's gratuitous, dump it. 
  • To succeed, you have to blend a writer's creativity with an editor's objectivity.
I'm not sure I've got the guts to write the ultimate steamy scene, nor do I know how many projects I'll get out of the festival, but at the very least I collected a pocketful of business cards and oddball stories. And in the meantime, heaven knows what kind of entertaining Google search word hits it'll drive having "sex" in the headline.

Friday, March 5, 2010

In praise of a PR pro

Public relations and its practitioners often get a bad rap. (I still have scars from a quick stint in corporate PR back in the early 1990s.) Sometimes it's self-inflicted--Exhibit A being the follow-up calls to ask "Did you get my press release?"--but just as often, it's the nature of the beast. Particularly in unskilled hands, PR comes across as a "push" industry in a world that favors "pull."

Today, I encountered a PR pro at the top of her game:
  • She wasn't dismissive or irritable when I told her my deadline is next week, even as she admitted that she couldn't get the interview that I was hoping for. I could tell she sensed I was in a bind, and guilt-tripping me wouldn't do her any good. It's amazing how many PR folk get crabby with an on-deadline writer...and equally amazing how much farther empathy, support and treating us like customers would get them and their clients.
  • When I asked her about the availability of hi-res photos, she had them and a media kit in my email box in less than 45 minutes. (And based on her time zone, she probably stayed late at the office to do it.) No effort required on my part, compared to the many resources nowadays that demand written requests in order to acquire a photo. 
  • She didn't ask to see the article, which a surprising number of PR people do. (Most magazines don't permit anything but direct quotes to be reviewed by sources.) This is such an important issue, I'll dig deeper in an upcoming post.*
  • What impressed me most, however, is how she clearly delineated what makes her company different, without lapsing into a sales pitch. The way she described the industry and how her company fits into it was brief and objective; her presentation was confident, smooth and simple, she didn't really need to brag.
I'm still writing the story, so I'm not at liberty of naming the person and her company. I will do so at a future date. In the meantime, I just thought it would be a proper thing to end the week by spreading some good karma, as well as sharing the handiwork of a skilled professional.

*3-18-10 UPDATE: Followup to bullet #3 can be found here: "3.5 reasons I can't show you the story."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

$100 and restoring my faith in humanity, kindasorta

Late last spring I did a small brochure project for a new client who'd been referred by a local designer. Slam-dunk project, total price tag of $400. Wrote it, revised it, invoiced it.

Then waited. Then sent a reminder invoice, then another with a cc to my lawyer, then a phone call. Etc., etc., etc. I continued to follow up regularly; not only did I never get a check, I didn't even get a response. The brochure was on a real-estate-related topic, so I chalked it up to bankruptcy (not the only such case in the past year).

Fast forward to yesterday. I stopped by my office mailbox, and--lo and behold!--there's a check in there for $100, with a hand-written note: Hope to send more soon. Thanks for your patience.

In addition to learning what a "debtor in possession" is, I'd describe the experience as similar to finding a twenty in a pair of pants I hadn't worn in a while--not life-changing, but a pleasant surprise. Mentally, I'd written it off to a project that was so small and quick that (naively, in retrospect) a deposit didn't seem necessary. But, the net effect of the $100 and note was to restore my faith...maybe not in humanity, but at least in small businesses willing to do the right thing despite financial challenges.