Monday, December 30, 2013

I Appear to Be Getting Better at All This

Ghostwriting for a living has been interesting to say the least. I know for a fact that this isn't what I imagined myself doing when I first thought: "Hey, I wonder if I could get people to pay me to write stuff". However, I'd be lying if I said the experience hasn't brought anything beyond a paycheck to my life or taught me anything about myself.

I've learned about a lot of different subjects that I know I wouldn't even have considered if someone hadn't made me write about them for money at one point or another. I've also developed facets to my skill set as a writer that I know I wouldn't have if I'd just been allowed to stick with the creative writing and blogging I'd always been more comfortable with.

This past year has been especially interesting in regards to how my career as a writer has been developing though. Thanks to a lot of Google's recent updates -- Panda and Penguin in particular -- it's become a lot harder to actually get content to rank. The days where you could just strategically plant a few keywords in a piece of writing that honestly isn't all that good and actually get away with it are over with. These days, Google can actually tell if something's well-written and valuable... and accomplishing that is about a lot more than keywords. Your ability to get social media users to share what you post is becoming increasingly important as well.

In other words, you can no longer cut corners when it comes to the content writers you choose if you want to succeed with what you're doing. They need to be really good technically, but they need to know how to write things people actually want to read as well. That's been bad news for a lot of the mediocre or low-end writers out there, but good for me. Even when it comes to the better writers out there, a lot of them have the technical part covered, but couldn't be truly creative or engaging if you put guns to their heads. Creative, articulate, experienced writers like myself are in high demand right now as a result and clients that are serious about their businesses are willing to pay us good money for our services. I've been able to raise my prices considerably as a result this year, so I've been earning money that I feel is a lot closer to what I deserve to be making. That's done wonders for my attitude about copywriting and content writing in general, especially when it comes to doing it on a long-term basis.

I've been having to reassess how I feel about certain boundaries that were never really problems before though. Attracting higher caliber clients that are capable of appreciating everything I bring to the table as a writer has meant that more people have been wanting me to produce "real writing" on their behalf. What people want almost always requires me to tap into my natural creativity. I'm still deciding how I feel about that, because that's not the paradise it probably sounds like. In some cases, that new turn of events has been wonderful. I've had the opportunity to do things like develop menu copy for restaurants and put together creative ad campaigns for really big brands. I could totally do things like that all day long and be a happy camper.

In other cases, I was actually left feeling a little violated. For instance, one client had me write a philosophy article that was actually based on my own ideas about a few things. Then he used it to secure himself a high-paying position at a major college, of course claiming the ideas as his own. I wonder what his superiors would think if they knew those theories belonged to some nobody California writer with electric red hair and no real education to speak of. Another client took something I wrote and got it published in the New York Times under her own name and has been getting a lot of praise for it. I... can -- at this point -- only dream of what it feels like to be published in the New York Times under my own name, so yeah.

I'm currently in the process of redrawing some boundaries in regards to things like that. I've definitely decided that anything I have to offer that's uniquely mine just isn't for sale -- stories, thoughts, philosophies, theories, experiences... anything like that. I don't mind letting clients take credit for writing I do that's based on their own ideas and whatnot, but I do have a problem with them taking credit for anything I consider to be a part of me or my own thought process. Plus... not gonna lie -- it hurt to see that clients were able to accomplish things with my writing and ideas that I personally haven't been able to. Getting people to take me seriously as a person has been a challenge my whole life. It sucked to kind of get proof that it's not my ideas and ability that are the problem. They just don't come in a respectable enough package to suit people.

I guess if nothing else, I get to know something interesting about myself beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt though. I know for a fact now that I'm smart enough and that my ideas are good enough to get a resounding thumbs up from authorities at major universities. I also know that my writing is good enough to be published in major publications like the Times. That means that my challenge is kind of what it's always been to varying degrees in my life. I don't look like a New York Times journalist... and I don't really sound like one or have the background you'd probably associate with one either. I probably never will, but I suppose that gives me a new challenge to tackle for 2014.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On Ethical Ghostwriting

As anyone who's been reading this thing long no doubt already knows, I don't really consider myself to be a career copywriter or ghostwriter. I'm doing what I'm doing at the moment because I'm good at it, I need to do something to earn money, and people are apparently willing to pay me to do this. However, this is strictly a living for me and not a whole lot else.

That said, there are quite a few things that bug me about my job sometimes. I don't always get paid what I think I should. I often have to spend hours writing on boring topics that don't interest me in the least. I don't get along with some of my clients as well as I do others. However, I would definitely say that my least favorite part of my job is dealing with people who want me to do unethical things in order to earn my paycheck.

Most of my clients are honest people who are looking to pay honest writers to write honest content of one type or another. It's not that easy to write advertising copy that is both persuasive and informative... or to compose truly good product descriptions for catalogs or websites.  Not everyone is a whiz at creating their own instructional web articles or brochure content either. Naturally, with more and more of today's professional world revolving around the internet, there's a real need for people who are good with written words.

However, there is definitely a brand of client out there that really is looking to pull the wool over other people's eyes and they have no qualms about expecting a ghostwriter to go along with it. The following are some examples of things I've been asked to do that really didn't sit right with me from an ethical standpoint at all:

  • Ghostwriting people's school papers or doing coursework that the person plans on turning in to their teacher as their own work.
  • Writing fake consumer reviews that will ultimately be planted on widely trusted review sites for the sake of encouraging the public to buy shitty products that don't work or buy into scams. 
  • Writing promotional material or copy for any product, service, or mindset that is potentially harmful or could do lasting damage to someone who makes it a part of their life.
  • Fake dating profiles, e-mails, and other forms of correspondence designed to help someone reel in a mark on whatever match site they use.
There are probably more I could think of if I wracked my brain trying, but you get the picture. Now... I'm a spiritual person and I sincerely care about the kind of karma I'm putting out there into the world. I know a lot of other people think that the most important thing about a business is that it make money and they honestly couldn't care less how that happens, but I personally believe it's very important to make sure you're an ethical ghostwriter, as opposed to the alternative.

Don't contribute to an already screwed-up work force situation.

Of the things listed above, I definitely think that the most serious is probably the one that involves ghostwriting people's papers for them. Think about it. When you let someone else talk you into doing their schoolwork for them in exchange for a few bucks, you're negatively affecting a lot of people.

Assuming you're good enough at writing papers that they're capable of earning the desired grades, you're helping someone who doesn't deserve it basically cheat their way through school. You're also potentially helping to take valuable opportunities away from people who worked hard for them and truly deserve them. Plus once that cheater you helped graduates with honors and successfully makes his way into the workforce as the result of a degree he didn't really earn, you've just succeeded in helping to lower the bar one more notch when it comes to what the employer (and the employer's clients) are actually getting versus what they were promised.

Yeah, of course the student can (and probably will) simply buy the paper from somebody else if you refuse to do it, but still. Don't be that guy. Don't contribute to this problem. Say "no"... and encourage other freelance writers you know to do the same. It's the right thing to do.

Do your part to protect the public.

When people tell you that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet, you think you know what that entails. Then you become a freelance web writer and find out just how much of the stuff you read on the internet is nothing but a pile of bullshit.

Take consumer reviews, for instance. You'd puke your Cheerios right back up into your bowl out of abject disgust if I told you just how many of the consumer reviews you've relied on to make important purchasing decisions were probably bought and paid for by the company they promoted. And I don't mean "bought and paid for" as in the person who wrote the review actually got a legitimate chance to try the product and then wrote up their honest assessment of it in exchange for some cash. I mean that the writer was basically paid to fabricate a complete lie from top to bottom.

They pretend not only to have used and loved the product, but they often claim to be someone they're not in order to seem more like a member of the targeted demographic. That single mom who claims such and such an air filter cured her little boy's asthma could well be a 45-year-old male bartender from a foreign country who's never owned an air filter or had an allergy in his life. You get the picture.


No, you're not going to be able to single-handedly clean up the internet and make it honest just by getting a little pickier about the freelance jobs you accept. However, you can certainly help by not continuing to contribute to it. And what are you really getting out of the whole deal in return? A few lousy bucks? The chances are pretty excellent that none of your clients are paying you enough that you should be willing to throw your conscience in as part of the deal, just saying. Besides... what would you want someone else to do if it were you on the other end of that fake dating profile or bogus diet pill review? Yep, that's what I thought.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What You Can (and Can't) Do With Art You Find Online

Not long ago, I was contacted through DeviantART by someone who actually thought she could win my friendship by paying me what she apparently thought was the ultimate compliment to any artist. She proudly announced that she likes to make crafts -- greeting cards and collages, to be specific -- and that she liked my art so much, she'd be buying some mini-prints of my work and using them to make her next batch of cards.

She also totally acted like she'd just given me an award or something and she definitely expected to be patted on the head for it. (In fact, I think her exact words were: "I think we should be best friends.")

When she got a message the next day telling her what a copyright is and making sure she knew that I hadn't given her my permission to use my work this way, she had the biggest case of butthurt. She proceeded to tell me how mean I am and how hostile my e-mail was. She then basically ran through every statement in the book that she thinks makes what she's doing perfectly OK.

Eventually, I had no choice but to give her a crash course on what she is and isn't allowed to do with other people's art. A lot of what was coming out of this person's mouth were indicative of statements I've heard a million times before from other clueless people. I also realized at the time that I'm long overdue for posting something about this here for interested parties who really do want to avoid stepping on the toes of their favorite artists. Eliminating the following mindsets from your thinking will make the online art world a nicer place to be for everyone.

"I'm giving credit to the original artist, so it's OK that I used their work to make something without their permission."

You are never allowed to use another artist's work to make art of your own without their express permission... never, ever. Even when it comes to stock art made especially for the purpose of being used for other people's creations, you still need to abide by the rules of the person who made the original image in order to avoid violating their copyright. Giving credit is great -- since a failure to do so often implies that you're claiming it as your own work -- but it's not a substitute for an actual permission. If you like someone's work enough that you're inspired to use it in a creation of your own, respect the person who made it enough to drop them a quick note and ask if it's OK first. It only takes a minute to send a quick e-mail.

"I can use another artist's work any way I want as long as I'm not making money off of what I make."

This was "best friends" girl's big argument as to why she was in the right and why I was nothing but a big, mean poo-poo head. She claimed that because she gives the ugly greeting cards and tacky crafts she makes away as gifts instead of selling them that it's perfectly OK that she steals other people's art in order to make them, as well as posts pictures of what she makes in her own gallery as examples of "her" work. No. No, it's not. It doesn't matter if you're giving what you make away for free or not. You still can't just take people's stuff and use it as stock art without obtaining proper permission first. You don't have to be making a profit on your theft in order to be violating someone's copyright.

"Everything on the internet is in the public domain. If that artist didn't want their work used, they shouldn't have posted it online."

LOL... no. No, no, no. And really, we're living in a day and age when there's no longer any good excuse for thinking this. Unless something has actually been placed in the public domain by the creator, it's copyrighted and subject to all the regulations that come with that. Art (written, visual, whatever) is copyrighted the second an artist creates it and it remains copyrighted if that same artist decides to post it anywhere on the internet for any purpose, whether that's to show their friends, to sell it, or just for the sheer fuck of it.

If you take someone's work and they catch you (and believe me, there's a good chance these days that they will thanks to Tin Eye and the new Google image search), they can actually take action against you. This includes reporting you for copyright violation to the sites you use or to your ISP. They can even attempt to take you to court if they feel like it. Most probably won't go as far as suing you unless you're making millions off of what you stole or something... but the point is that it's within their rights to do so if they decide they're honestly that pissed.

"Artists should take what I'm doing with their work as a compliment. If they don't, then they don't deserve my respect."

It's not your place to decide how a given artist should or shouldn't feel about their work being used without their permission... and really, this isn't that hard a concept to understand when you're honest with yourself. How would you feel if someone stole a picture of you from your Facebook account and did whatever they damn well pleased with it -- anything from making an art collage that they're advertising as their own work to posting the picture "as is" to a shady "hot girls" site to make money or get traffic? No permission is ever requested of you, nor are you ever even given the courtesy of having it mentioned to you.

Would you take it as a compliment? Of course you wouldn't. You'd be fucking pissed and you know it. That's how artists feel when trashy graphics sites and so-called "craftspeople" take our work without our permission and puke virtual glitter and animations all over it before slapping their own watermark right in the middle... or when they post what they make with it on some spammy site full of malware, offering it up for the free use of anyone who thinks it's pretty. Then there are the people that do show us or tell us what they did, thinking we'll be flattered. Sure... some artists might be, but most aren't going to exactly hand you a cookie. Quite a few will quite certainly be pretty angry with you.

"But I didn't steal this image from an artist. I found it on Photobucket, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. That means it's OK to use."

Yeah, and whatever artwork you're talking about probably made it to Photobucket, Facebook, or Tumblr without any sort of artist's credit because someone else stole at some point. Surely that can't be so tough a possibility to grasp. The fact that someone else stole it first doesn't make it OK for you to claim it as yours. You're still part of the problem when you think this way. All of the rules that apply to copyright still apply when you find things in random places.

Most artists really don't mind if you simply want to share their work with people who follow you, but whenever possible, try to share in ways that leave proper credit (as well as a link trail back to the artist's website or online print shop) intact. Look for art to share with your friends by browsing sites like DeviantART or looking through a given artist's personal website and using the actual share buttons provided. Just about every site has that option now to make respectful sharing as easy as possible. Don't just right-click-save and repost it yourself without any credit. That's just a shitty thing to do... and it's actually harder these days than just sharing the right way.

What should you do when an artist approaches you about using their work inappropriately?

The fact of the matter is, we artists aren't completely unreasonable when it comes to people using our work. We do realize that it gets stolen and posted around without our say-so. We also realize that a lot of people don't get that they're doing anything wrong. That's why most artists will just shoot you a polite e-mail explaining that your web header, forum avatar, e-collage, or whatever it is uses artwork that they created in a way that violates their copyright. They will then tell you what they'd like you to do about it. Most of the time, they'll just request that you take it down. Other times, they'll say that you can keep it up if you add credit and a link. It depends on the artist.

You know what you do? Apologize and do whatever they say without delay. You don't argue, refuse, or treat the person to a lecture for not feeling "flattered". You'll wind up probably being reported for copyright violation to whatever site or ISP you're using and you could lose your account.

Really, you'd be surprised how many people do argue though. I'm constantly hearing back from art thieves I've approached who think that they don't have to take my paintings down because they got their copies from Photobucket and not directly from my gallery. Or else I get shamed for not simply feeling grateful that people like my work enough to take it in the first place. And then I report the hell out of those people and they often wind up losing their web accounts or getting suspended. It's sad... and it shouldn't be that way.

Anyway, at the end of the day? Not stepping on the toes of anyone from the online arts community involves simply treating other people's creations the way you would want them to treat yours. Share properly and never, ever remove artist's credits or backlinks from shared posts when you reblog something on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, or Tumblr. Always ask permission before using photos or other images to make graphics or artwork of your own. Just be respectful in general. It's honestly not that hard.

Friday, March 29, 2013

What's the Difference Between a Blog and an Online Journal?

This is one of those questions to which there's not really a clear-cut answer, as everyone has their own opinion on the subject these days. Also, blogs and online journals honestly share a lot of the same characteristics, so which term you use to define yours is more or less up to you. However, if you'd really like to better know how to describe that ongoing loggy-rambly thing you like to type in and post to every so often, these are how I think I mentally differentiate as a writer myself... when I differentiate at all, that is. 

Content and Focus

For me, one of the biggest differences between a blog and an online journal is the type of content you post there. If you use yours mostly to record your personal experiences as you amble through life, your personal opinions and reactions to things going on in the world, or your various thoughts on whatever subject, I would say you're more of an online journaler than you are a blogger. Journals are all about the author, his life, and his thoughts -- little else. 

Blogs, on the other hand, tend to reach outside of themselves more often than not. Posts tend to revolve around one subject (like food, or astrology, or current events, or freelancing) and be expressly written for the consumption of others. Often, there is a lot of linking to other sites, article-writing about certain things going on in the news, lists of tips for people in search of advice, and so forth. Many blogs even have more than one regular contributor and those run by an individual may frequently include guest posts from other bloggers who specialize in the same niche.

Of course, there's a lot of cross-over in today's online world when it comes to written logs an individual might want to keep as well. 

Long-Term Goals and Motivation

In my experience, bloggers tend to have some reason for starting and maintaining their sites beyond simple self-expression. They might be hoping to make money or looking to gain exposure for their writing and expertise on whatever subject. They might be sincerely interested in offering a solid resource on a given topic, whether that's tech news, recipes, or career building. Generally speaking, making sure their content has an audience that continues to grow into the future is important to bloggers. Traffic building, self-promotion, and advertising are often major concerns for that reason.

Online journalers may or may not really care about building an audience or making money via what they write. They usually keep online journals for the same reasons they'd keep a paper one. They want to record their thoughts and opinions either for fun and self expression or possibly to share with a close circle of friends. They may keep their online writings completely private or -- if they're open to the idea of any interested party taking a look -- they may leave their journals partially or completely open to the public.

Where Does Your Site Fit?

This is a question I've been trying to answer for myself for a long while now in regards to my own blogs and I've come to the conclusion that a lot of us don't really fit on one side of the spectrum or another. Take myself, for instance, because I feel like -- as always -- I'm an excellent example of ambiguity here. (We won't even get into what the fact that that's a running theme in my life really says about me.) 

I actually do still have my personal journal over on LiveJournal that is closed to the general public, but open to people who are on my friends list there. It's where I talk about my personal life, my relationships, and my inner struggles when and if I feel moved to. Sometimes I'd like it to be less of a complain-fest and more positive for the enjoyment of the people who follow me there, but ultimately I'm not really on there to entertain anyone. I'm there so I have a place to write about whatever's on my mind.

Then I -- of course -- have other blogs like this one and my others here on Blogger. I'd definitely say that those are hybrids. They're each focused on a specific subject (or set of subjects), and therefore a different section of my life and interests. They're public and "out there" for anyone to read who's interested. When I feel like it, I write articles that are meant to be resources for other people looking for advice on whatever subject. 

I would still say that these are more personal than a lot of blogs are though. It's nice when people find them or like something I had to say, but I'm not really focused on gaining a huge audience or making money with any of these. That said, I'm not particularly worried about updating on a regular schedule, offending anyone, or living up to anyone else's standards as a writer either. My personal experiences and thoughts are still usually at the center of most of my postings, so yeah... that makes them a little more journal-like than you might want to go for if you're looking to take the blogosphere by storm or anything. (For instance, my food blog isn't so much a place to go for advice on how to roast an Easter ham a week before Easter actually gets here so much as it's a place to come after Easter's over in order to see how my ham turned out.)

You should feel free to make your own sites anything you want them to be though. After all, if there's one thing getting into professional writing has taught me, it's that having a place (or two, or three) to write the way you want to might be worth more to you than the possibility of getting e-famous. It certainly is to me... but everyone is different and needs to find their own balance.