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Category: Opinion

Why a Freelance Content Strategist Would Have Saved Pepsi

Brands are increasingly abandoning ad agencies or acquiring them and forming in-house marketing and content creation departments in the name of efficiency and speed.

Pepsi is no exception. At last year’s Cannes Lions Festival, president Brad Jakeman energetically talked up its decision to form a new in-house content creation arm, Creators League Studio.

“Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year. Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2 million, it needs to cost $20,000,” he explained, further complaining about complicated procedures and the time and cost involved with any campaign. “There is no infrastructure to advertisers to be able to quickly produce that content. You have to patch it together. Certainly, the traditional agencies can’t do it.”

Maybe not, but Jakeman might be eating (or drinking) his words now. One thing every writer and marketer knows is that you need a second set of eyes. However, not just any second set will do. You need an outside perspective, one with no stake in the outcome other than looking for errors and trying to create excellence.

This is why every author needs and editor, every athlete needs a PR spokesman and an agent, and why every brand needs a consultant of some sort. When something is totally in house, many sets of eyes can miss exactly the same thing.

The Story of the Pubic Restrooms

No, that isn’t a typo. But this story is about one. It is about a sidewalk sign that went through internal review at a museum where I worked. The eyes on the original copy were not dumb: they belonged to a copy editor and writer, a proofreader, a former military officer and accountant who was meticulous, and a former banking professional who consistently showed extreme attention to detail.

Every person made comments too, most related to layout, logo, and color. Not one of five sets of eyes internally caught the mistake before it went to the printers. Or when it came back, and before it went out onto the sidewalk.

A tourist came in and asked me if our sign was a sick joke. A quick look showed me it was. Our proudly created sign boasting of museum tours and public restrooms did indeed contain a tragic typo that had we left it uncorrected would have delighted teenage boys for days.

We needed an outside opinion, and unfortunately, we didn’t get in until the sign was, well, outside.

Making it Public

Not only did we pull the sign quickly and put in a rush order for the new one, corrected to “public restrooms” of course, but we did without a sign for a couple of days.

Luckily the mistake was caught early in the day, and our “focus group” on the sidewalk was small. Could we have prevented the disaster in the first place? Probably. Was it fortunate only a few early birds saw it? Yes.

Which is exactly the point. With an internal marketing or content department, you need someone outside, not related to your product who you can’t really fire for speaking the truth, and bold enough to be honest. A small group even, maybe a test market before you take something national.

Was Pepsi’s ad so time sensitive that another twelve hours would have killed its timing? Nope. And showing it to a small group or even an outside consultant would have taken only that long or less. Twelve hours, maybe even for someone to screen the idea before video shooting even happened.

Instead, the responsive, nimble internal department Jakeman wanted pushed the ad national right away. Resulting in embarrassment, an apology, and possible boycotts and business repercussions for an indeterminant amount of time.

The Nimble Workforce

So the traditional agencies don’t cut it for you? True, ad agencies have their own issues and sometimes get it wrong too. Just because you hire one is no guarantee that you won’t have an issue.

Still, bringing everything in house creates its own issues. If the CEO or CFO comes up with an idea, it’s hard for an employee to look them in the eye and tell them it doesn’t work. Also, when you live, eat, breathe and sleep a brand, you get internal blinders and the feeling that you and your brand can do no wrong.

There are alternatives, of course. There are smaller, newer agencies who can create the amount and kind of content you need at an affordable price. There are those who are combining creative content and more traditional approaches into a single agency to provide full service in an innovative way.

There are also freelancers. Those who specialize in helping small brands who can’t afford an agency or who even create and review content for marketing firms who need some supplemental talent or, <gulp here Pepsi> another set of eyes.

You don’t have to bring them in, give them an office, or even a permanent position. You can pay them a relatively small fee just to look at something and tell you if it looks okay or not.

The Honesty Factor

A freelance content strategist gets exposed to a lot of things. They don’t typically work for only one website or company. A freelancer can look at your web content or your campaign from a fairly objective point of view.

Because they have seen many well-done websites and campaigns, they can give you an idea of what will work, what won’t, and why. Without the expense of an agency, they can at least provide outside consulting and feedback.

The other advantage is that since they don’t work for you except on a tangential or contract basis, you’re more likely to get straight feedback. Whether you like their advice or not and whether or not you tell them to go pound sand doesn’t matter as much to them. You don’t hold the keys to their 401K, PTO, or even next week’s paycheck.

Freelancers want steady clients they can count on as much as possible. But they also want good clients with good websites. Bad advice or advice not followed reflects poorly on them as much as it does your brand, but unlike large agencies, they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with and mitigate that negativity.

A Finger on the Pulse of the Industry

A successful freelancer will be a busy one. Not only will they be dealing with regular and add on clients, but they will also be constantly learning more about the industry and networking. You can bet they know what trends are hot, what is working and what isn’t, and how to get results and quickly demonstrate ROI.

Your internal department can easily become siloed from the direction the industry is headed and the trend of brands overall. Marketing is about more than just your competition. It is about social and political trends and the overall consumer climate.

Yes, an agency can give you the same things, but probably won’t be as nimble and responsive. A few newer agencies are exceptions, but they are definitely harder to find, and not surprisingly they are busy as well.

Hey, Pepsi! Mr. Jakeman? Are you listening now? Did you get the point? It takes more than one perspective and another objective set of eyes to determine if a campaign will work or not. Your internal department let you down, and maybe it is time to ask why they weren’t listening. No one wants to end up with a sign for a pubic restroom.

Would you like to learn more about content strategy for your business, or even hire me in some capacity? Get in touch, and let me know what you think Pepsi could have done better in the comments below.

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Business 101 for Writers: Production Part 3: Self-Editing

So many writers never reach even this point in production, or worse, they skip it. They get stuck on writing and never finish. But if you are among the lucky few who finish a story, you must move on to editing.

This post is titled self-editing, but before we even get to that, let me say it as loudly as I possibly can, to wake up those of you who might be sitting in the back of the classroom dozing.

You cannot skip the editing process, and publish something unedited. You cannot edit your own work. You need to hire an editor.

Let me say it again, just in case:

You cannot skip the editing process, and publish something unedited. You cannot edit your own work. You need to hire an editor.

Now stop. I can hear some of your arguments already, so I am just going to make a list for you here of the ones that are invalid:

  • I was an English Major.
  • My mom is an English teacher, she does it for me.
  • I have an MFA.
  • My spouse has an MFA.
  • I can edit my own stuff. I use method “x” with “x” software.
  • I took a course on self-editing at “x” writer’s conference.
  • My favorite indie author, “x” just uses beta readers, not an editor, and his/her stuff is pretty good.

Here’s the thing. Probably 99% of the population cannot edit or even proofread their own work effectively. The rest of us hate the 1% who can. Even if you are one of the rare authors who can proof or edit your own work, you should not. Just like you should probably not create your own covers even if you are a trained graphic designer, although we will cover that (pun intended) in another blog post.  

Here are some of the reasons why you should never be the sole creator and editor, or in other words, the sole producer of your work.

You become word blind.

What this means is that unless it has been a really long time since you have seen what you have written (and sometimes no length of time is enough to cure this) you see what you meant to write. You see those words whether those are really what is there or not.

Recently I read one of my own blog posts I had written two years ago and found a typo. A typo I did not see at the time, that grammar check did not catch, but that was glaring all that time later. No one noticed it either, or at least no one who did pointed it out to me. The thing is, in context, it almost looked right even after that much time had passed.

If you are writing quickly, as you should be, and editing shortly afterward, there is no way you will catch these things yourself. I promise you will miss at least one or two in a medium length work. In a novel, you might miss several.

You are in love with your own words.

Go ahead, tell me you aren’t. Then show me that clever phrase, that joke you think is hilarious, or that gorgeous description on page 53 of your self-published (or hopefully yet to be published) novel. Those are probably things you should cut out.

As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” If you don’t believe me, take a journalism course and then write for a paper or magazine of any size. You will find that your editor and your readers do not love your precious words and phrases nearly as much as you do.

Here is the thing: as an author, you have built a fire with your story. The likelihood is that there is some damp wood in there, some moss, or some torn up cardboard. It makes for a lot of smoke. The job of an editor is to clear away the smoke so that everyone can see and enjoy the fire.

You cannot do this yourself effectively. Please, on this one point trust me. I can read a few chapters or maybe even pages in your book, and I can tell if you edited it yourself. There will be a whole lot of “you” in the way of the story.

Your project will feel narcissistic.

All of that you in the way will show through. Your book will feel like one of those body builders in the gym who spends as much time looking at himself in the mirror as he does pumping iron. It will probably feel like it is all about you. Because it is.

You need another set of eyes, another voice, one that is not close to you or at least can be objective about the way your work is presented. More on why you should not use relatives or those close to you in a moment.

A professional editor can see things you cannot: they see phrases you use too often, things you repeat often, and redundant descriptions you may miss. They can hear when your dialogue is stilted, and can offer advice about better word choices, sentence structure, and even point out when your plot has holes you may not notice, but that a reader will.

It is a good thing that you love your work. It is a good thing that you value your words. It is also good for you to be able to take critique and instruction from an editor at this phase in your journey. Hearing from an editor and changing things now is better than getting bad reviews on Amazon and damaging your reputation, which is your brand. (More on that later in our section on branding).

Note on Relatives: It is rare for a writer to have a relative that can honestly critique their work and make it better without also being word blind and leaving those phrases you love. It is also harder to argue with that person, as it can result in marital or family conflict.

If you are one of the rare people who has a relative who can edit your work objectively, thank your lucky stars and use them. However, I would encourage you to try something. Have your relative edit one of your short stories or novellas, something not too big. Then hire a professional editor to edit it, and compare the two.

If your relative does just as good or a better job than the editor, keep using them. If they do not, keep your eyes open.

Note on Revisions: A part of the writing (production) process we will talk about soon will be revisions. Revisions and rewrites are not a part of the editing process and are also not self-editing. You should revise and rewrite your work before an editor or anyone other than a writing critique partner or someone who reads your work as you go does.

Since we are on the subject, rewrites and revisions should be done quickly too, for the same reasons drafts are written quickly. You do not want your mind or heart to change during the process, or you will do a lot more rewriting than you need to.

Once you have started the editing process, do not do any more rewrites except those recommended by your editor to fix plot holes or other obvious issues. That is the point at which you have to let the story go: it is time to let someone else work on it at that point.

This is of course because we are talking about writing as a business. If your goal is not to sell lots of books, but rather to create a single literary masterpiece in your lifetime, you can revise and rewrite as much as you wish and take as long as you wish to produce drafts before letting anyone else see and edit them.

Exceptions to the Rules:

In the world of publishing and writing, there are exceptions to every rule. There are writers who can edit their own work. There are relatives who do a great job of editing their author brother/husband/son’s work.

There are also authors who can kill their darlings, and create work on their own that does not feel narcissistic. However, if you feel that you are one of these writers and have not tried professional editors, or had someone in the upper reaches of the field validate this truth for you, it probably is not true. If you send your work to a pro editor who hardly touches it, or says to you “You don’t need me, you just need a proofreader” or something along that line, go forth and do wonderful things.

Most of the time, this type of thinking is just self-delusion. If no one close to you is honest enough to tell you the truth about your writing, just try getting one professional, honest opinion. If I am wrong about you, in your case, please email me and let me know. I would love to meet someone who is so extraordinary.

In the next section, we will talk about money for a little bit. After all, this is the stage when you will invest more than just time. You will invest dollars, and a part of a business is working to get the best return on your investment. That does not mean always hiring whoever is the cheapest.

Have questions and can’t wait for the next section of this series? Want to hire me, or just need some coaching advice? Click here or email me at [email protected].

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Business 101 for Writers: Production Part 2: How to Write More

We ended the last post on a cliffhanger, something you should always do to yourself. I mean, it is great advice to write some words. If you are going to have a writing based product to sell, you need to have something written.

However, the first step in production is where writers often get tripped up. They get caught up in the business side, especially when they first become stoked about writing for a living, and they get so busy creating an author platform, getting their website ready, and being sucked into social media (Oy!) that they neglect the writing part of the business.

Before you know it, they wake up realizing their novel is stale, they have not posted an article on their blog or sent out outreach to new freelance clients in weeks. Here is the one line, simplest truth of the matter: You are a writer when you write. When you are not writing, you are no longer a writer.

So how do you make sure that this terrible tragedy does not happen to you? Here are some really obvious tips, but ones writers often neglect.

Write Every Day

I have tons of aspiring writers tell me they do not have to write every day. They are absolutely right. You can go for days without writing until you really start to take yourself seriously. Once you embrace writing as a profession, you can’t help but write every day.

Why? Writing, or engaging in any creatively based activity, changes something in your brain. It releases chemicals that make you happy when you write, and when you don’t, depression and anger take the place of that happiness. There is no one worse to be around than a writer who is not actually writing.

Your brain changes, chemically and in its thinking and habits, when you write every day. Nearly every professional writer I know writes something nearly every day, even if they are on vacation or it is their “day off.”

Try it. If it doesn’t work for you, email me. Honestly. I will talk you through it because I have never found any true writer who after giving daily writing an honest try, did not find that it changed things dramatically for them.

Have a Writing Schedule

I have heard all of your excuses. My kids, school, house, the laundry, you have five cats, four dogs, and your poor neighbor needed help with cleaning their gutters. So how could I possibly write every day? I am going to be frank and potentially offensive.

All of your excuses are bullshit. Nearly every writer I know who does write every day, who does it for a living, did not start out that way. They had full-time jobs, wives, kids, and pets just like you do. They started to write every day anyway.

How? They set a time, usually early in the morning or late at night, and wrote at least for a little while no matter what else was happening in their lives. Read that last sentence again. They set aside a time and wrote at least something, even a single page, no matter what else was happening in their lives.

It can be a page in a short story. A page in a future article. A page in a novel. 365 days of a single page a day means you have a full-length novel completed. Stop telling me how busy you are, and that you do not have time to write. Set a schedule, and keep it.

If your first schedule does not work for you, find one that does. Find your optimal time when everyone else is either gone or asleep, and keep your schedule no matter what.

Allow Yourself the Freedom to Write More

Wait a minute. I just spent a whole bunch of words trying to convince you to write every day, and schedule that time, keeping it sacred. Now I am telling you to give yourself the freedom to write more?

Yes, if you are using the 12 minutes a day method I mentioned in the last post, and you get to the end of the 12 minutes, your timer goes off, and you are on a roll, keep going. That’s right. Keep writing as long as the words keep flowing, even if you are interrupted. Get back to your work and follow the flow.

No matter how long you have been at this, there are days when the words do not flow as easily as they do other times. Don’t mistake this for writer’s block. Once you finish reading this series, you will never be allowed to have that, or blame it, again. But sometimes writing is hard, and so when it is easy, let it flow.

Especially when you first start out, or there are many distractions in your life, you will sometimes struggle in your daily, scheduled writing sessions. Write anyway.

Some days, the words will flow from your fingers quickly and easily, and your fingers will fly over the keyboard. Keep going. Write as much as fast as you can. That will probably be some of your best writing, and stopping can kill your spirit. If your flow is interrupted in those moments, you may even get angry.

Good. That means you are on the right track and your writing habit is taking hold. Control your anger, roll with life in general. But give yourself the freedom to write more when things are going well, and take the time you need to follow your muse when things are good.

Leave Yourself Hanging

Am I contradicting myself again you ask? No, not at all. Even if you get on one of the beautiful rolls above, where your words are flowing like the water over Niagara Falls, when you stop, leave yourself hanging.

Stop writing at the point where you are excited about writing what comes next. Be that the next point you are making in a non-fiction work or the cliff hanging, nail biting end of a chapter in fiction, stop there. I have heard of writers who stop in the middle of a sentence.

If you are excited about what is coming next, you will be anxious about sitting down to write again, excited about it instead of dreading it. Make no mistake, writing is work. It is a job. But you can make it much more enjoyable for yourself, to the point where most days you actually enjoy going to work.

This is just a small technique and not one that always works. Often as a freelancer, you have to finish the article and submit it. Or you are under deadline with a publisher for your next novel, or even your own deadlines (more on this later in the series). Sometimes you have to write “The End” as you finish a writing session or writing for the day.

The more you can do this for yourself, the better. The more excited you are to write, the less likely you are to quit, and the more likely you are to write every day, keep a schedule, and give yourself the freedom to write more when you are on a roll.

Don’t Stop Believing

Sorry for the cheesy song reference, and you can thank me for humming the Journey hit the rest of the day by buying one of my books. Or more that one, if you really love Journey or even just this one song.

But this is important. There will be times in your life when no one around you believes in what you are doing. It will seem like no one understands you, and you will never make it as a writer. Tell them to shut up, and keep writing.

Believing in yourself is an easy thing to say. It is much harder to do, and there have been some dark days, some dark times in my life. I have been where you have been, and if you struggle with believing in yourself or acceptance, reach out to other writers. We really do understand.

We also want you to be successful. That means that no matter what, you believe in yourself. No one else will ever be as big of a fan of your work, and you are your harshest, yet most important, critic and cheerleader.

So don’t stop. Keep writing. Keep working. Keep believing in yourself, and you will finish whatever it is you are writing. Then you can move forward in this process of production to the parts we will cover next.

Because once you have mastered writing some words, gotten yourself into a writing habit, and finished what you are working on, you need to move forward and do something with your writing.

I’m going to teach you exactly how to do that.

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The First Year: A Marriage of Ideas

When any two people come together in any kind of relationship, you can expect that certain ideas will clash, and others will meld perfectly. As a man I once knew said, “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” The adage is just as true today as the first time I heard it.

So I’m not going to tell you a fairy tale here about the first year of marriage. It will not be a tale that will inspire those of you who are single to rush into a relationship and marriage. The truth of the matter is that marriage is hard, and the first year could be argued as the toughest. Abby talked about our first year of marriage over at Unbound Northwest.

But I am not going to tell you a story of woe either. Instead, I am going to tell you about true love, and what that has looked like over the last year (and then some). Because true love is not the fairytale first dance. It is life, lived together as partners every day.

The Honeymoon from Hell

This year for our anniversary we are headed to McCall to redeem our honeymoon and will be staying at the Shore Lodge. And yes, I will call out the horrible experience we had last year at the Hotel McCall. I wrote a review of them here, here, and here. To put it simply:

  • I tore my calf muscle a week before our wedding, so I was using crutches and a cane to get around. Our room was on the second floor. Did we get help with our bags to our room? No.
  • The restaurant they use for room service was closed from Sunday until Wednesday, so we had no room service. Did they tell us this when we booked? No. Contrast: the Shore Lodge is doing some renovations this winter. Immediately after we booked, we got an email telling us exactly what was going on, and apologizing in advance for any inconvenience it would cause during our stay.
  • The Hotel McCall has an indoor salt-water pool. They had an issue with the heater, and so it was cold–unable to be used the only day we could have used it. Did they compensate us, or offer any discount or anything else in return? No.
  • When confronted about our poor experience (before I left the reviews) the manager offered excuses. There was no offer of a discount, refund, future free nights, nothing. Apparently they don’t care if we return (or if you ever go there if you are reading this). They have enough tourist who get suckered in when everything else is full. They don’t need the likes of us, paying customers in the off season, coming in and interrupting their staff’s time on Facebook. (yes, I saw a staff member on her social media, and it took her a couple of minutes to acknowledge me when I dared ask for something)

Needless to say, we were off to a rough start. Put a groom in pain and a tired bride in the same room for a few days without the capacity to be pampered, and although we made the best of it, we need some redemption this year.

The First Few Months

Often, newlyweds live in a place that is less than ideal, but we had a place we were making work. We also had our then 14-year-old son living with us pretty much full time, interrupted with rare visits to his mother. We had an agreement to stay there until December, at which point we would decide where to go next.

The time period was designed to give us space to save money, recover from the wedding, and be able to move.

Not to mention that Abby had a major medical issue in May, just after she also graduated from college, and that set us back even more. Recovery from one thing or another just seemed to be the theme of the moment.

Then our landlord decided to sell the place we were living. With two dogs, we had to scramble to move with no money saved up and only 30 days to find a new place. This meant, more than likely our 14-year-old who was already adjusting to a number of things, would have to switch schools. Again.

We did it, and with the new place came a new peace for everyone. It was astounding the difference it made in our family. The drama, however, would continue.

Career Choices

Abby struggled with what to do after college. From simply getting a different job than the one she was in (she hated it) to going for a Master’s degree in…something…she wasn’t sure what was next. During her senior year, she had a mediation internship at the courthouse and found her calling: mediating conflict was her happy place. However, turning it into a career? There were a ton of questions about how she should best do that.

The answer came in the form of law school. It was something she had thought about, but never really investigated. The investigation turned from casual to serious to filling out applications and attending interest nights at law schools.

She’s retaking the LSAT in June, even after an amazing first score in February, so she can get more scholarships.

In the meantime, I was used to being a freelancer but had taken a job with a local internet marketing company, a job I like and dislike at the same time. The steady income and benefits are good: but it comes at a sacrifice, and does not pay as well as freelancing once did.

It has worked out well, though. I am still able to freelance on the side, not write as much fiction as I would like, but I am headed toward doing more of that. I’m also going to school, but slower. I am taking a freelance writing course, and am enrolled in college online, going back with the eventual goal of getting my Master’s in writing and rhetoric.

All of these career things equaled stress. Every decision was agonized over. There were moments when my job was going well, Abby’s was not. And vice versa.

Conflict

If you have not figured out by now that we are both ambitious people with lofty goals, go back and read what is under the headings. Stop skimming this article. When two driven, strong-willed people come together, they are bound to butt heads. Not to mention we have different styles of dealing with conflict: Abby is a verbal processor, and I process internally. I need space and time, she wants to tackle things right away.

Big honesty moment here: it took us ten months to figure out how to balance this out. Every time we had an argument, even a small one, I would try to retreat, and Abby would verbally chase me. I did not always handle being pursued well, and she did not handle me trying to back away well.

I had trouble expressing my need for space and time, while Abby had no trouble expressing her need to verbally process (no shock there, that is verbal processing). I’d never before dealt with anyone who pursued me with such zeal at those moments of, shall we call them intense marital bonding?

Love and Partnership

Want to know the secret of how we figured it all out? The one thing that will make your relationship perfect like ours, since now we have how to do this conflict thing figured out? HA! There isn’t one, and we don’t. We do better every day. We love each other more. But we are far from perfect. However, here are some tips that might help you:

We love each other, and we are on the same side. This applies to so many areas of life, but especially in marriage. We both want to raise a teenager from a boy into a good man. We both want our family to be well provided for, comfortable and happy. Neither one of us wants conflict, and certainly not with each other.

We are team Bertmore, and both of us want that team to be the best it can be. Neither of us are trying intentionally to tear the other person down and assume some kind of dominant control. This leads me to the next point.

We are partners. It is one thing not to oppose someone. It is another to be partners with them, coming alongside and supporting their goals and ambitions. But it is not just about supporting the other person’s goals and joining with them to help accomplish what they want. There are two other key elements:

  • Your partner comes alongside you and supports you in your goals and ambitions as well. This is not always perfectly balanced. Sometimes one person’s needs or goals come ahead of the other person’s, but this is constantly in flux. It reverses as often as it needs to.
  • You make shared goals and work together to accomplish them. These can be relationship goals, financial goals, and even career goals. They are short and long term and show your commitment to each other’s needs.

When does disaster strike in partnerships? When you have goals that are pulling you in opposite directions. Your shared goals must take precedent over your individual ones, at least if you are determined to stay together, so sometimes those goals have to take a back seat.

We cannot afford for Abby to go to law school and me to go to college full time, and support a teenager in the house at the same time. Abby gets to go to school first, me second. While she is in school, I need to support her in every way possible.

It does not mean that my goals are any less important, or that our partnership is unbalanced. It means that, although it is hard, I need to put my personal goals on hold so we can accomplish our shared goals. The time of a reversal of that will come.

None of these final tips I have shared mean we will have a perfect relationship going forward. It hardly means that I will never retreat, and she will never over-pursue me to get a verbal resolution.

It just means that we know a few simple things. We love each other. We have shared goals. And we have promised each other to partner in achieving those goals, no matter what that looks like. Our first year of marriage was not a picnic filled with rainbows, unicorns, and tooth-achingly sweet love. It’s been filled with real life, real challenges, and real work.

That is true love.

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Doing What you Love for Money

It is said that writing is the world’s second oldest profession, and it is just about as respected. From a young age, I was taught that doing what you love was no way to make a living. In some ways, those who dispensed that wisdom were right: writing for a living is hard, and there are seasons where it is less hard, but it is never easy.

I was told this despite the fact that many who told me I needed to plan for a “real job” were Christian school teachers, pastors, and others who certainly had not pursued wealth, but were doing “ministry” work, something God had called them too. But the arts? Please. That was a dirty word.

Not to mention that I wanted to write the things I read: sci-fi, horror, and thrillers. These books and their topics were clearly sent to my mind from the depths of hell. After all, many of those sci-fi writers were atheists who believed in evolution. The horror!

It never seemed to resonate with me that I was part of the evil poor: that my single mom, a school teacher, might be somehow less because she chose to do something she loved for less money than she could have earned elsewhere because she loved it, and felt like she was making a difference.

Yet lately, we are bombarded with generalizations that say the poor are lazy, handle money poorly, and don’t deserve our respect. In fact, they are evil.

But musicians, artists, authors, even freelance writers are told to live frugally. Often we are told we should stop acting like children and get “real jobs.” Yet without writers, almost any business is dead in the water: you need artists, you need writers, you need musicians. Yet there is a strange aversion to paying for this type of work: when there is free music you can pick up on the internet (the equivalent of a dive bar) why would you purchase an album (i.e. hire an escort).

Art is Not Always a Choice

Here’s the thing. As a creative, making time for your art is not always a choice. Sometimes it is a need, and if you ignore it long enough, bad things happen in your life. A bored creative who is not creating is a monster.

It is good to understand this, even if you are not a creative yourself. If a creative person can get paid to do what they love, they should do so, even if it means sacrificing a huge income or grandiose career prospects.

As I stated above, as a musician, artist, or a writer, you must learn to live frugally. That has always been true. However, someone who gets paid for their craft, especially if they get paid well, is not a shameful thing. It doesn’t mean they have sold out. It simply means they have found a way to make what they are compelled to do into a job.

Art is an Honor

Have you ever read a book or an article that changed your thinking or your life almost instantly? Have you ever looked at a painting or read a poem that took your breath away? Someone created that art or wrote those words, and that person has bills to pay just like you do.

As a creator, it is an honor to inspire others with the things you do. As a writer, the goal is not only to make a living, but to touch others, and to be read and understood. When someone gets what you have to say, or even better is moved to action, the euphoria is amazing.

As one who has been inspired, it should be an honor to support the artist who inspires you, the writer who influences your thinking, or the poet who touches your heart.

Art Should not Equal Poverty

Despite what art does for us, we are often loathe to pay for it. We download books onto our Kindles or other e-readers for free. We listen to free music, complaining when we have to pay a premium to remove ads. We download art and photos through Google images, often without credit to the creator. We torrent movies, justifying to ourselves that they are just too expensive, and those Hollywood types make tons of money anyway.

We steal creative endeavors from the creator and then make snide comments about how no one can make a living as an author, an artist, or a musician. We laugh at them because they have to work a “day job” and pursue their hobbies in the wee hours of the morning or late at night.

It is not the profession that is the problem. It is our unwillingness to pay for things that are truly valuable, that add meaning to our lives.

Making a living doing what you love is hard. Not being able to pay your bills by doing it makes things even tougher. Your profession being treated like something that has no value is discouraging and depressing.

But loving what you do and making money should not be things that are exclusive. Being able to do both should be considered one of life’s highest achievements.

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Is Finding Freelance Gigs Using Job Boards Worthwhile?

The number one issue with being a freelancer is discoverability. Of course, you are already treating your writing career like a business, but how do you market your work and get your name into the hands of the right recruiters? Truth be told businesses are looking for freelancers with your particular skills and areas of knowledge. You just need to find them, and they need to find you.

While there are advantages and disadvantages to the disruptive nature of the freelance gig economy, businesses are hiring more freelancers for more tasks. They look for freelancers in several ways, and just one of them is through the use of job boards.

The one thing we freelancers never have enough of is time: marketing is vital, but not wasting time is essential. Job boards and content mills like Upwork and Demand Studios are a waste of time for the most part since well-paying jobs are so few and far between. So are there any job boards that are worthwhile?

The answer is yes, but very few. Putting in an alert for a freelance writer on job sites like CareerBuilder and other similar sites will fill your inbox with job suggestions from car wash attendant to security guard, but few if any will be for writing positions or have anything to do with your particular skill set.

Here are a few places where the search can be worthwhile. You will still have to vet clients, but they are more likely to be professional and the kind of gigs you are looking for in the first place.

DISCLAIMER: Job boards and these sites do not take the place of good marketing of your freelance business.

Ebyline

When looking at job boards, Ebyline is what is referred to by Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing as a “move-up board.” You are expected to be more professional, and clients who come to the board expect to pay, and for the most part pay well, or at least better than an Upwork or worse, a Fiverr gig.

This is also a good place to find fill-in work when things are slow, or you just need a gig to tide you over to your next client payment. Jobs typically pay quickly, something relatively important to freelancers when they are just starting out.

Skyword

Skyword is another “move-up mill,” and offers reasonable pay. For the most part, you will be creating branded content or other types of writing for the web. This is a place where you can potentially develop long-term relationships, and it is definitely worth being a part of.

As with any job boards, be sure to vet clients. There is nothing wrong with offering a free initial consultation, but don’t give away too much at the outset. Share your ideas in a more general way, and only get as specific as you need to to get hired. This is good advice for any job board, but especially more “content mill” like sites.

LinkedIn ProFinder

One of the better places to look for freelance gigs and to find other freelancers is LinkedIn, but if you have a strong profile, this can be a great tool for you. Since you are already using LinkedIn, it is a simple matter of upgrading to at least a Business Plus membership, and sharing your profile on their job board, ProFinder, designed to help businesses find the best local and regional freelancers.

This will cost you $59.99 a month, but it shows clients you are serious about your career. If you are going to make this move, be sure that your profile is complete, and that it includes all of your accomplishments and a job history. Ask your connections who know you for recommendations, and give them out as well.

LinkedIn can be a great place to showcase your skills and to find new clients, even using their regular job board. Due to the professional nature of the network, though, LinkedIn Profinder may be one of the best job boards currently out there.

There is a balance between working and marketing when you are a freelancer. You need to satisfy the needs of your current clients, but you also need to constantly develop new leads. Job boards, if used properly, can help you do that.

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Why I Bother to Write Fiction at All

There are times when I realize fiction is really hard work. It is perhaps the most time consuming of things that I do in the writing and publishing world, and if you work out the pay by the word or the hour, there are plenty of other ways to make more money writing.

At the same time, I love it. I am a born storyteller. Every article I write, every blog I post is a story of some sort. Even marketing materials take the reader on a journey, if a short one. The reader has a problem, and the writer leads them on the journey to solve it, even if it is as mundane as someone with dirty clothes looking for the best laundry soap to get them clean.

But every now and then, a reader or reviewer reaches out, and when you hear or read that your words, the story you have told, touches someone, you pause and realize those words, those touched lives, are why you do what you do. It is worth all of the pain, the hours of writing and editing that go into producing a book.

It happened to me again recently, when I got a notification of a five-star review of my Kindle short, The Angel. The reviewer said simply this:

“I’ve suffered several tragedies in the last few years. I thought I had dealt with each loss in turn. Yet Lambert’s prose is so deceptively innocent that shines a light on any darkness lurking on the fringes of your consciousness. I found the message of The Angel stayed with me for days.”

Her words warmed my heart. They made me smile in all the right ways. There was more, too. You can read her full review here. https://findingmeinwords.wordpress.com/2017/02/27/the-angel/

I write stories so not only will they be read, but the world will be changed for the better because they have been told. I have not always been successful in achieving that goal. Sometimes a story is just a story.

But The Angel was different. It was special to me and still is. When I read Hans Christian Anderson’s poem “The Dying Child” I knew it had to be a part of this.

When we read, we do so for many reasons. We want to feel, we want to escape, we want to travel to other places. But sometimes if I can make you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, if the light that shines from my stories can dispel the darkness in you at all, it is worth it.

That is why I write stories. That is why I bother to write fiction at all. Because words can change the world, even if only the world of one person, and only for a moment.

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Taxes for Authors: Before You File and the Year Ahead

I’m not an accountant, but I have seen the movie and written about a few in my books. Not that any of those things make me an expert, but I have filed my own taxes as a freelancer and author for the last 10 years or so, and for five of those I had no “traditional income” from an employer: I started with only stacks of 1099 forms and a list of business expenses.

Before you panic thinking I am going to launch into some professional jargon, don’t. I’ve got some solid, simple advice for you that might affect how you file this year, and will certainly affect how you look at the year ahead.

Get Organized

This used to mean getting out a shoebox, or a file box if you were really organized, and labeling and cataloging your receipts. It also meant sitting down with 1099’s and your company books and totaling up your income. Much of this can be done digitally now but gathering all of your data into one place is still a necessary task.

Note that small businesses have longer to file than individuals, and even though your individual return is actually the same as your small business return, you can take advantage of these extensions if you need more time to get your paperwork together,

Tracking Expenses

You sit in front of a computer all day, and that computer should do some work for you. You should use a single debit or credit card (or a combination of the two) for business expenses. You can then use an accounting program that will track and categorize your expenses for you. These programs are not 100% accurate, so you should check them monthly to make sure expenses are properly labeled, but you can keep the manual tracking you have to do to a minimum.

You can then export these into a spreadsheet to share with your accountant or import them directly into your tax software when tax time comes around.

Where You Work

There are many different places you can work if you are an author or freelancer, from coffee shops and libraries to your own office at home or outside of your residence. When choosing where you will do your work, taxes should factor into it.

Home: Even if you work at coffee shops and libraries, you should also have a home office if possible. For one thing, you will be more productive in a structured environment, even one you have created yourself. The second is that you can write off a part of your expenses including mortgage, rent, and utilities as business expenses.

A few things you should keep in mind about your office expenses, especially if you are a new homeowner:

  • Don’t Overspend. You may be tempted to buy a new desk and totally revamp your office, but not only are you limited on how much you can deduct, but you also need to stay within your business budget. Resist temptation and be patient, doing things as you can afford them.
  • Get Good Insurance. You will need good renters insurance that is enough to replace all of your items in case something goes wrong. Be sure you have enough in savings to cover the deductible so you can get back to work as soon as possible.
  • Save for Unexpected Expenses. Just as your household budget should include emergency savings, so should your business account. This should be enough to cover your operating expenses including the salary you pay yourself for approximately three months.
  • Keep Records of Everything. Printer ink. Paper. Batteries for your mouse and other computer accessories. Carpet cleaning and other cleaning supplies. Upgrades to furniture and decorations. All of these are deductible.

Even though you should be careful not to overspend, once you do undertake improvements and remodels, be sure to take advantage of the tax benefits that offers.

Commercial Space: Some freelancers do not work as well at home and find it to be distracting. You can office share or use other creative ways to rent your own commercial space. The best thing about a commercial office is that all of those expenses are deductible, and they are easy to keep separate. Remember to include all of the expenses related to an outside office when doing your taxes, including your commuting time and mileage.

Health Insurance Coverage

One of the toughest things about being an author or a freelancer ins finding and keeping health insurance, especially if you are not covered by a spouse or significant other. You have a couple of choices.

Individual Coverage: You can use an insurance agent or even on your own search for individual coverage. With the ACA, there are some tax credits available if you do so, but that may change under the current administration.

This is still more expensive than group coverage, but you can choose if you want a lower premium and a higher deductible plan supplemented by a health savings account, or a more traditional insurance plan with co-pays and lower out of pocket costs in the case of an emergency.

Group Coverage: Even if you do not have a regular employer, you can find group coverage. One of the best places to compare coverage and options for writers is Freelancer’s Union, although they do not have coverage in every state. However, there are insurance co-ops for contractors and other self-employed individuals, and you should search for those in your area.

Google has shut down its insurance comparison tool because it was not working well, but there are dozens of other places to compare insurance coverage, including healthcare.gov and private insurance comparison tools.

Retirement

As a self-employed person, you need to provide your own retirement. You don’t have the benefit of an employer matching your contributions, but you should still donate the maximum amount allowed each year into a 401 K of some sort. You can choose either a Roth or a traditional IRA, depending on how old you are when you start, and what you anticipate you will need to retire and maintain the lifestyle you want.

Since you are self-employed, limits are higher for you as you can contribute as both your employer (since you employ yourself) and as an employee. Be sure to factor in these limits when deciding how to handle your taxes.

These contributions are tax deductible, as are other investments. A large consideration of how you invest for your retirement will depend on your tax situation, and how much you can afford to put towards it. Remember that as a freelancer, you will have to pay your own social security as well, and because you do not have an employer matching your costs it will be more expensive.

Tax Savings Accounts

More than likely you will owe taxes at the end of the year no matter how diligent you are with deductions, investments, and savings. To prepare for this, you need to have a tax savings account. You should save approximately 30% of your income, and make quarterly estimated tax payments. The self-employment tax is the combination of social security and medicare that an employer would normally contribute to you paying and is 15.3%. This is separate from income taxes, which is why you should save 30%.

The IRS demands that taxes be paid on money when it is made, so if you fall behind on quarterly payments not only will you have a huge bill at the end of the year, but you also may face penalties for not paying on time.

There are countless other tax tips and deductions for freelancers, but these are a few of the more common and often overlooked ones. As you prepare for tax time, be sure you are organized and know all of the deductions you have a right too.  Use what you learn from preparing for your taxes this year to plan for next year.

While doing taxes is not fun, having a solid tax plan is essential to having a profitable business and being an effective entrepreneur.

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Why Self-Editing is Not Enough

Double commas. Simple typos. A word that is not misspelled, per se, but is just in the wrong place.

Software grammar checkers like Grammarly are getting better all the time, but we as humans keep thinking of ways to trip them up. Microsoft Word is even getting better without the Grammarly plugin, but it still misses things from time to time. That is because it uses a machine learning program: it learns from us as we type, tell it to ignore certain issues or add words to our personal dictionaries.

Google docs have another delightful feature: the dictionary will even correct the spelling of celebrity or popular athlete names, just as if you had searched Google for them. Once again, machine learning and an enormous database mean spelling and grammar correction is getting better all the time.

But it still isn’t human. Sometimes sentences are too long, or the word order just does not make sense. You are not clearly getting your point across.  This is where a human editor comes in.

Think of your story, or your article, or whatever you have written as a fire. When you created it, you created a lot of smoke. An editor’s job, really, is to clear away all of the smoke. The problem is, since you created it, you often don’t see the smoke yourself.

Repetitive Words and Phrases

As writers, no matter what level your experience, we tend to repeat words in close proximity to one another. “That” is extremely common, and most of the time unnecessary. But we repeat other words, like the phrase “as well” or “in light of.” We often use “though” and “however” much too often and too close together, especially in non-fiction.

You can catch these when doing self-edits, but it takes a conscious effort. Often, if you read your work aloud or have it read to you by a program like Natural Reader, you will notice your mistakes before you submit your piece or publish that blog post.

Someone else reading your work will probably catch the error right away. They can then flag the word for you so you can substitute a synonym or somehow reword your sentence to eliminate it.

Word Blindness

Sometimes we use the wrong word in place of the one we actually want. But when we read over our own work, we see the word we meant to put there. This is called being word blind and is why editing and proofreading by another set of eyes is so critical.

The editor will see the wrong or odd word usage even when software does not catch it. These types of errors not only make you look unprofessional in some venues, but they often throw the reader out of your narrative, making them wonder what you meant.

Clarity

A software grammar checker can tell if your grammar is wrong (sometimes) or if your spelling is off (most of the time) but it does not know the point you are trying to get across.

Hopefully, your work makes enough sense and you have structured it in a way that your editor can tell what information or plot point you are trying to convey. If not, and editor can simply say “I don’t get it. What do you mean by this?”

So far, software editors, at least those available to the general public, are not able to do this effectively. As machine learning matures, they may get better, becoming very IBM Watson-like in their evaluation of your work.

Until then, and maybe even then, you need another set of human eyes on your work, one that will see your repetition, decipher your word blindness, and help you clarify your language.

Self-editing is not enough. You need an editor, someone to take an objective look at your work with a fresh perspective. It is one of the many ways to make your work the best it can be.

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What Do You Know About That?: The Myth of Writing What You Know

If writers only write what they know, the world, and their writing, will be very boring spaces. Well, with a few exceptions.

Like many writers, I had a series of “careers” and a diverse education before I figured out a way to write for a living. I’ve described before how I do other things than just writing: editing, formatting, and other tasks, most of them relating to publishing. They all have one thing in common: writing about them is boring except to other writers.

So as an author, what do you write about? I mean, they say write what you know, but in many ways what I know sucks. There are only so many stories of fast food workers, Fed Ex delivery drivers, and ski bums that people can stand, right?

When we say “write what you know” we don’t mean your job, past occupations, and the criminal activities you may or may not have participated in in college. That is what research is for, and if you are not a writer you will often find them to be quite knowledgeable on several topics if you engage them in conversation.

This is because we, as writers, write what we get to know. We research, study, and become unqualified experts on any number of topics to make our stories richer. Therefore, from time to time, we get it wrong in our stories. Many of us are not police officers, doctors, lawyers, or other professions we write about. We’ve just researched them.

But there are things we can write about that we do know, and that is what we mean when we say “write what you know.”

Fear

If anyone is familiar with fear, it is a writer, regardless of how sheltered the rest of their life might have been. For the most part, though, writers have endured fear in many areas of their lives.

Every time you sit down to look at a blank page, whether it is to write an article or blog post or to start that next story or novel, a writer experiences fear: fear that the words won’t come this time, or that someone will discover how poorly we write, or worse that no one will read our work at all.

This fear is something we can put into our stories and our characters. When they are afraid, we can describe it accurately, show it to our readers. To do so, we must be open and allow our own fear to show through.

This is tough: it means we are making ourselves vulnerable. It means that in every moment of fear in our work, our readers catch a glimpse of what is inside us, and that makes for great fiction.


Blue October, Fear [Explicit]

Love

If there is one thing artists do an astonishing job at, it is love. We also tend to love imperfectly, because we are flawed, and our attention is often drawn to things it should not be. It’s hard to walk through the day and not be distracted by something that is the next story idea, even just an odd creative spark.

However, when we love, we love with everything we are and are loyal to a fault. Sometimes that love is misunderstood because our loyalties are so divided. We are loyal to our craft and our stories, often even our characters. It does not mean we don’t have enough love for others too, it just means we struggle with the balance between the real world and the fantasy we live in.

Writers are often broken and dark, and our writing is where the darkness goes so we do not spread it to those around us. When we are not writing and creating, we are dangerous, hurtful people, the gods forgive us. When we create and channel that darkness, we love with a fierce passion, and take our place among the gods.

Can we write of this struggle to love? Of course we can, because every story is a love story, whether it is in the romance genre or not. Every story has love of something woven into it. To be effective, though, we must show this love to our readers: the pain of it, the struggle, and the triumph.

Darkness

Speaking of the darkness we release through our writing, we must understand that to make it effective, we must not fear showing it to our readers. This is the thing we know so well, yet is difficult to write about. It reveals something inside us we don’t always want the world to see.


I don’t care what genre you write in, there is at some point darkness in your story. The moment the love interests part in a fight over some silly little thing, the moment the husband dies and the woman has to move on, or the moment the murder kills or the monster appears.

The monster is us. Those that are most real contain elements of our darkest secrets, our hidden flaws, the secret desire to destroy that lives within us, shrouded in the shadows of our hearts.

We must provide this darkness a place to play, to live in the light so that we do not harm those around us.

Triumph

Our victories sometimes are small. That one publishing credit. The one book or article acceptance. The one moment when we feel validated as a writer. The time when our child is actually kind or shares a story of their own. The time when we actually do get the girl (or guy), the one who understands us to our very soul and supports us.

These are the triumphs we know. These are the feelings, the emotions, the joy we can infuse into our stories the moment our hero slays the dragon, gets the bad guy, gets the girl, or finally overcomes that one issue in his life.

We must, whenever we can, balance the darkness with triumph. We must impart to our readers the one thing that keeps us going: hope.

You know more than you think as a writer. But it is the things you know in your soul that matter the most. These are the things you must write about. Write what you know. Learn what you don’t.

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