Saturday, March 31, 2012

Proper Care and Feeding of Your Freelance Writer

A long time ago, when I still had my full-blown website and before I decided that a collection of bare bones blogs was really a better fit for me, I had this article I'd written and posted all about how to piss off an artist. It was obviously written in a humorous vein, but it was at its core a resource for people who were looking to hire a freelance artist and wanted to make sure they knew how to treat them in order to avoid stepping on any toes or leaving them with a bad taste in their mouth.

A couple of people have asked about that one since I made the switch to this blog, so I've been thinking of coming up with a new version of it sometime soon. However, I've also had people I did freelance writing for in the past ask me about what writers look for and like in a client. Made me think an article like this one wouldn't be a bad thing to throw out there as well, since I write more than I draw or design these days.

I'd say the following tend to be things that a lot of clients don't always seem to understand about the writers they hire. It's not all clients or all writers by any means, but still. I'd say it's a good checklist to look over if you are thinking about enlisting the services of a writer and are looking to establish a long-term working relationship that's actually harmonious and mutually beneficial.

We have lives outside of your project and need to be treated accordingly.

Even the clients I've had who were the fairest and the easiest to get along with seem to occasionally lose sight of the fact that my life doesn't begin and end at the point with which it intersects with their project. Most freelancers -- especially if they do what they do on a full-time basis -- maintain relationships with multiple clients and juggle multiple projects at any given point in time, as they have bills to pay. They also have families, a social life they probably wish to maintain, and other obligations outside of work just as you do. Many freelancers also have day jobs or go to school full-time. What their life involves outside of their relationship with you as the client may vary greatly... but you can rest assured that it's something.
  • Do be understanding when we explain we won't be available to write for you over a certain period or when we occasionally need extra time to complete a given project because it turned out to be more research intensive or time-consuming than previously estimated.
  • Don't expect to monopolize our time or imply that we're not working hard enough if we're not able to give you the kind of time you want right when you want it.
We need you to pay us fairly, frequently, and on time.

As is the case with any creative pursuit, people sometimes seem to lost sight of the fact that what we do for you as the client is part of our living. That said, if we've made an agreement with you to write your web content, sales copy, or newsletter in exchange for money, we're in this primarily for the money just as with any job. Respect what we say our rates are and don't ask for discounts. (If we feel one is required or has been earned, we will offer you one.) 

I also can't stress enough how important it is that you honor the payment schedule you and your writer agreed to before you started working together, because it will make a big difference in the extent to which they prioritize your project over other things on their schedule. I'm not even gonna lie. If my schedule gets really super tight and I have to choose between one client's project and another client's project -- both of which are due around the same time -- I'm going to prioritize the guy that I know will pay his invoice immediately without having to be reminded, not the guy who always seems to have a convenient excuse ready as to why he can't pay me for another week or two.

It's nothing personal. I have to do that! I don't write content because I enjoy it or because it's fun. (I don't and it's not.) I do it because I have bills to pay and I'm apparently good enough at this stuff to make a living at it. That's all. Expecting more than that out of anyone who works for you is an exercise in frustration, trust me.

  • Do give your writer a bonus for a job extra-well done or offer them a raise if you can afford it. This will set you apart from the pack in all the right ways, as most freelance writers are used to being under-appreciated and they probably already undercut themselves considerably when setting up their rates. A pay boost they didn't have to ask for will be more appreciated than you probably even realize.
  • Don't ever make the person ask you for their pay if it can be avoided. If a payment is due, send it without delay and without waiting for the writer to request it. Definitely don't make them ask you more than once and do not leave them waiting for days or even weeks when it comes to seeing their pay. This more than anything else is the reason writers decide to part ways with clients -- trouble collecting payment in a timely, efficient manner.
Understand that we're business people and treat us like professionals.

Many freelance writers have one very big problem in common, so if you can avoid this as a client, trust me when I say you're really in our good graces. People who aren't writers or creative individuals themselves think that we're all lax, laid-back, friendly individuals who will welcome it if you try to make your relationship with us very casual. While this may be the case for some writers, it's better to err on the side of caution. 

Don't assume it's cool with a writer who works for you that you add them on Facebook or start commenting on their personal blog. Don't comment on an attractive writer's appearance or ask personal questions about someone's family life. You may think you're simply being friendly and showing an interest, but we may regard you as intrusive, inappropriate, or rude. In other words, don't cross any boundaries with the person that they haven't given you overt permission to cross. If you're working with the sort of writer who prefers to keep things casual, you'll know because they'll volunteer access to their Facebook page or tell you things about who they are as a person without you prodding them.

  • Do treat your writer the way you would any other professional you might find yourself working with. Yes, we're creative types... but that doesn't mean that we don't appreciate respect, professionalism, or clear boundaries.
  • Don't ask personal questions or expect your writer to want to add you on social networks, hang out or chat outside of work time, or anything else along those lines. Definitely don't act all butthurt about it if you try to cross a boundary and the writer expresses discomfort with it. Simply apologize and avoid doing it again in the future. 
Understand that freelance writing is actually hard work.

Because we work in a creative field, people think that writing just about anything must be a blast and a half for us, even if it's ultra-dry business manuals or something. They think we have limitless supplies of energy to devote to writing each day and that we write all day, every day without exception. That said, some clients are baffled that we would want or need the same number of days off or free hours in the evenings after work that anyone else at any other job would get. They think they're doing us a favor by over-filling our schedules and giving us something -- anything -- to do with every last minute of our time.

To that I only have one thing to say. Think back to when you were in high school or college and you had to write a paper on a subject you did not choose, that you weren't particularly interested in, that required you to do loads of research, that had to be a really specific length, and that had to be written to order according to someone else's standards (your teacher's, obviously). How much of a blast was that just for its own sake? Probably not much of one... and I bet on the days you had to write more than one of those papers, you were pretty tired afterward. 

Well, that's a pretty accurate description of what factual, business, or content writing is like. Freelance writers often have to produce thousands of words worth of content in a day and that uses up an immense amount of our energy for the day. Spending a solid 8-hour work day writing your company's brand new employee handbook for you is not the same as whiling away an entire Sunday afternoon updating our own personal blogs for pleasure or hashing out a short story idea for fun and self-expression. Please don't treat us like you think it should be. 
  • Do understand that what we do for you is a job and treat us accordingly. Respect our business hours, don't guilt-trip us for wanting or needing time off, and treat us like the professionals we are.
  • Don't assume that you're doing your writer a favor when you give them more work than they've clearly said they want or can handle. If they want or need more work at a given time, they'll be sure to let you know they're available for that and/or ask for it directly.
Understand that freelancers require freedom in order to be productive.

There's a common misconception out there about freelancers, especially freelancers who work in the creative arts. Many people think we must be hopeless, lazy dreamers who just don't like to work. Otherwise, we'd have "real jobs" like everyone else. However, the truth is most freelancers do what they do for the same reasons I do. They are self starters who don't fit well into an established office environment and who work best when they have the freedom to create their own schedules and set their own ground rules. 

That said, we don't like it when our clients make us feel exactly as we would if we were perpetually chained to a desk somewhere with a boss looking over our shoulder. We don't like to be micromanaged, badgered for constant status updates, or expected to stay in unbroken touch with you 24/7. If you send an e-mail or a message to which you need a response, send one and then patiently wait for your response to come along. Do not send one... and then another in 20 minutes... and then another 20 minutes after that... and two more half an hour after that. 

Yes, people do do this to freelancers -- at all hours of the day and night sometimes, as if we're robots or machines who owe you every last micron of our time and attention; never needing to log off, go to sleep, or work on other things -- and it drives us up the wall. Even when we are online and available to answer you, we can't work with constant interruptions like that. I'd say that after problems with payment, excessive badgering of this nature is the number one reason I've personally stopped working with particular individuals in the past. Don't do it!
  • Do give your freelance writer lots, and lots, and lots of space to work independently. It's not something that they'd like to have in order to be the best they can be. It's something they need to have.
  • Don't stuff your writer's inbox with multiple messages in quick succession, even if it's urgent. Definitely don't be insulting or condescending... ever. Send one polite, to-the-point message explaining what you need and then wait patiently for a response. To do anything else is nothing short of insulting, rude, and intrusive.
Don't assume we need you more than you need us.

Many people have this image in their head of what a freelance writer's situation actually is when it comes to their schedule. They think we're always starved for work or have a hard time finding people interested in our services. This actually isn't the case for a freelance writer who is any good at what they do. The writing market is saturated with amateurs these days who produce terrible work or people in other countries who can barely speak the language offering crap content for cheap. However, knowledgeable, skilled, and effective writers who can adhere to high standards are few and far between. Plus, everyone and their mother is trying to start a website, run an e-business, or get an affiliate program off the ground these days and they will need more written content than they themselves can produce in order to do that.

This means decent content writers who can produce results are actually in shorter supply than clients willing to pay for content. If you're lucky enough to find a really talented, hard-working writer, you'd do well to keep them happy any way you can, because the chances are excellent that they're very busy and most likely have all the work they can handle and then some. Every so often, they probably even need to cut clients from their line-up in order to keep their heads above water... and you know who gets cut? The guys who complain about rates, who don't pay on time, who think a freelancer's ground rules are up for interpretation or discussion, and who don't treat freelancers like professionals. Don't be one of those guys, because you don't necessarily have us over a barrel the way you might think you do. 
  • Do remember that your freelance writer is a free agent who makes a choice to work with you just as you make a choice to work with them. Treat them as an equal whose assistance you value. 
  • Don't try to short-change them or browbeat them into agreeing to terms you know aren't really fair to them. You will probably find yourself out of a writer.
At the end of the day, establishing a good relationship with your freelance writer is a lot like establishing a good relationship with any other professional. It boils down to respect, appreciation, and positive reinforcement. No, it's not rocket science, but you'd be surprised how many people don't get it nevertheless.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is Selling Just Another Form of Storytelling?

For someone who admittedly doesn't like dealing with people, I find it ironic that just about every career path I've ever explored has eventually boiled down to me becoming yet another incarnation of a salesperson, someone who engages in a highly social line of work. It's not inherently bad or anything. I just personally think it's... weird.

I think so do a lot of my copywriting clients, to be honest. Obviously, I have a strong sales background and a lot of skill in this arena or people wouldn't keep hiring me to produce sales copy. However, they're often surprised to find out that I've never been a people person and that I've never particularly enjoyed selling or sought out to do it on purpose. I always get "but you're so good at it" as if every person who is good at something must have studied hard and pushed themselves to become so at some point in the past out of passion for that pursuit.

Yeah, I worked retail for many years, but I never, ever wanted to be a salesperson. I wanted to work in gift wrap or -- better yet -- completely behind the scenes dressing mannequins, or folding t-shirts, or something. The last thing I ever wanted was to be spending my days all dressed up and talking to people for a living, trying to figure out how to get them to buy some expensive sofa or designer suit they didn't really need. I hate being social, I hate being judged on how I look or how I'm dressed, and I hate being the center of attention with all eyes on me. However, I was apparently good at selling nevertheless and was able to make a decent living at it without putting in a lot of hours, so... cool, I guess. Sure could have been worse! Thank goodness I have the ability to swallow my feelings and convincingly pretend I don't feel myself dying inside.

When I became a professional writer, the plan was to maybe write factual content here and there for a few extra bucks until I could manage to make a name for myself writing short stories, novels, or some jazz like that. It was never actually to become a full-time copywriter and to wind up with so many clients wanting to hire me to sell things with my writing that I really didn't have time anymore for the stories I originally wanted to write. I'm learning to strike a better balance there and ask firmly for the free time I want and need when it comes to my clients, but still. Most freelance copywriters aren't as busy as I am, it would seem, so again... weird.

I've often wondered why I'm actually good at any sort of selling, let alone apparently every kind of selling when it so goes against my nature and my preferences as far as how to make a living. Then I got to thinking and discussing the subject with Seth just for shits and giggles. It occurred to me that perhaps selling and creative storytelling really aren't all that different from one another. Perhaps there is an art to selling after all.

It occurs to me that selling a product successfully doesn't have a damn thing to do with thoroughly informing the consumer in regards to the product's actual merits or uses. However, it has everything to do with convincing a person that if they buy this product, their lives will ultimately change for the better with little to no effort on their part. They'll become thin without actually getting off of their doughy asses and changing their diets or lifestyles first. They'll be attractive to others without having to work on their annoying-ass personalities first. They'll be rich without having to cultivate a skill and work hard at something. They'll have everything they want, but for free and without toil or true self-sacrifice. It's not you that's wrong, it's the rest of the world... and we can fix that for you!

In other words, you're not selling a product; you're selling a fantasy that doesn't really exist. You're spinning a fluffy pink bedtime story, saying "now doesn't that sound nice", and getting people to see themselves as part of that. It has zilch to do with actually conveying information or delivering anything solid, but everything to do with making people believe in fairy tales... and trust me. People do want to believe in fairy tales and they need very little convincing in order to believe in yours.

It's like when your wife asks you if she looks fat in those jeans, she doesn't want to hear the real answer, because she already knows it -- that she looks like a sausage cannelloni ready to burst at the seams and that she should probably go change before she leaves the house looking ridiculous. She's not stupid. She has eyes and can see for herself. However, she doesn't want to go change and put on something that fits. She wants to wear the jeans, but she needs you to sell her the fantasy that they actually look OK first. Once you do, she could care less about the cold, clammy tentacle grip of reality.

Apparently all people are wired this way. (Not me, because really -- I just want to know the truth -- but then that's probably why sales pitches don't work on me and definitely why I wind up on the other end of things so often.) Everyone wants to just move into a sparkly sand castle that someone else built and live there for as long as possible, whether that comes in the form of a short story, a really good movie... or a really convincing sales pitch. And people will pay out the ass for the privilege of doing so.

All that said, I used to worry that my apparent status as a born salesperson (God, how it hurts even to joke about that) might mean that I wasn't born to be a fabulously imaginative storyteller, because it doesn't really get more ordinary and humdrum than selling, in my opinion. However, I think I may be having an epiphany. Ruminating upon where my selling talents apparently come from has led me to the conclusion that perhaps my success with copywriting is proof that I'm a good storyteller and that I have the talent to make people truly believe in the pictures painted by my words, not proof to the contrary. (It certainly isn't my natural love of people; that much is certain.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Oh, DeviantART

"Renegade Redhead" by Shannon Hilson
When I actually matriculate past my DeviantART profile, it's the weirdest experience. On the one hand, I have all these memories attached to that place, so there's a real nostalgic value to the site at large. On the other hand though, I've done so much growing since the last time I was anything like active there. It's almost... creepy in a way.

When I was younger, I almost considered myself to be the type of person who actually doesn't progress the way normal people do. I felt like I'd been much the same throughout my adult life as I had been as a child. I even think I recall writing all about the experience in my little personal locked blog at the time and illustrating the experience as only an emo poet/writer/wallflower could. I described myself as a tree planted on the side of the road, rooted in place while all the other humans in the world came and went, mobile and free. I felt so left out at that point and I really didn't think that was something that would ever change for me.

Eventually, shit happened as it has a tendency to do. I toughened up quite a lot and became way more realistic and even cynical than my little Piscean heart thought possible at one point. I grew the balls to actually put my art and creative writing out there for public consumption and the first place I ever actually did that was DeviantART. Now it sort of seems comical to me that I had any sort of stage fright or uncertainty about opening my profile and putting my shit out there like I did, but at the time, it was kind of a big deal for me.

I'd heard all my life that I was talented, but I never really knew what that meant. DeviantART was really my first time interacting with perfect strangers as far as my art was concerned and comparing myself to others like me who were doing the same things I was doing, so it was also the place where I think I truly learned that talent does exist and that it's something I do have. That site is probably directly responsible for the way I eventually became a professional as far as the arts and I sincerely don't think I'd be the same without it.


That was a while ago though and at this point in time, I'm realizing that I'm not the tree planted on the side of the road that I always thought I was. I've really outgrown a lot of things and DeviantART is sort of one of them. When I go there now and see that the dynamic on that site is exactly what it always was, I don't feel like I'm going back to be among peers or anything. People actually seem sort of immature, and needy, and insecure for the most part.

I was never totally on the same page as most of the other people on that site, even when I was active there. I wanted to make money with my art and get somewhere professionally with it while everyone else thought that the booty pats and empty compliments on my stuff should be enough for me. Now the differences between me and them seem even more pronounced, especially since I have been doing this professionally for quite some time now.

So many of the other deviants I used to know are still on the site complaining that someone left them a fave, but not a comment. (Oh, boo hoo hoo -- the humanity!) Others are getting all butthurt over the fact that they asked for "honest critiques" (code for "kiss my ass extra hard") and someone dared to actually say anything critical or constructive about the piece. Don't even get me started on the people who go around giving  critiques (code for "I don't know; I just don't like it") to artists who are light years better than they are while their own galleries are full of stick figures doodled on notebook paper. Every single time I think about becoming active there again, stuff like that reminds me of why I'm not anymore... and I stay away for the time being.

For whatever reason, that little profile I created on DeviantART still gets visits though. Every time I check in, there are new faves, comments, and questions to answer about my art. My visitors are still over the moon about this art even though I don't think I've uploaded anything new in years. It... baffles me really. Most profiles die when you neglect them and leave them to languish. My DeviantART profile hasn't. In fact, the weblink on my profile is still the number one source of traffic to this little blog of mine, which is sort of the reason it's on my mind today.

People ask me all the time if I ever plan on coming back to DeviantART, uploading content regularly again, and being an active part of the community. Officially speaking? Yeah, I think I do. At least as far as the uploading content and creating new prints thing goes. For the reasons I mentioned above, I think my identity will be different and my approach will be different, just as I am different. I'll probably recede into the background and become one of those assholes on that site that everyone hates for not really answering their comments or taking the time to reciprocate gallery visits and whatnot, but yeah. I'll be back one day nevertheless.

I don't miss the ass-kissing and immaturity that permeates DeviantART, but part of me really misses adding to my personal art gallery there, especially the wild, passionate creative spurts that would come over me and compel me to complete something like three original pieces of art in a single day. It's just been so long since I really spent any time on it to speak of though. Getting back in the saddle is now a "thing" and you know how it is once something goes to that country.