Dirty Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Forgive me, readers – for I have sinned.

I have aided and abetted those who would deceive you.

In the secret, sheltered quiet of my dark and cluttered home office, to the unholy tunes of Jay-Z’s greatest hits album,

I’ve been weaving a  sordid web of lies.

I have huddled over the fluorescent glow of my monitor, the tick, tick, ticking of my keyboard echoing through my dusty halls.

My crime?

Playing a ventriloquist. For a fee, I’ve reached my supple typing hands deep up the back-end of paying clients, pulled the strings – and lent them my voice.

And you soaked it up.
So entertained by the clacking of the puppet’s wooden jowls, so endeared by the message that you forgot I was even there.

You read. You enjoyed. You heaped praise on the beautiful imposter – and they smiled, waved, collected their bouquet and went on their way. But I lurked in the shadows, jealous – pale from lack of sunshine, savouring the bittersweet moment.

I had one job. I don’t get the chocolates, the groupies, the parade floats or the precious, precious retweets.

No, that’s not for me. I am the ghost.

I am the ghostwriter.

But you’ve seen this ghost. You’ve seen me on Moz. You’ve read me on SEJ. You’ve picked me up in magazines, scanned over me in corporate blogs, replied to me in internal communiques. I’m hiding behind the big bold letters in that clever headline, crouched beneath the snarky wit of that agency’s website copy that you liked so much.

“Great post! Awesome copy! Man, this is good stuff. ”

“Thank you, thank you.” I whisper shyly  into a dirty keyboard with the “A” and the “S” worn off, but known from memory.

I’ve made little leaguers bat like Babe Ruth out there. I love those home runs. So do they. We all go out for pizza after the game.

I’ve composed hit singles for teenage garage bands and edited them so heavily in the studio that they come out sounding like U2. Sometimes it’s just a makeover. Sometimes it’s skinning the wolf and handing it back to the sheep. Playing high-stakes dress-up.

This is my job. It’s what I do best.

Sometimes I help people lie. Sometimes, these people are your friends (and you don’t even know it!)

I make ‘em sound more interesting than they really are. I’m the guy that convinces your dentist you’ve flossed twice a day. I’m the fresh coat of paint on the Civic that barely runs – the strategic omission in that OKCupid profile.

Sometimes I help ‘em seduce you – give them the words to whisper in your ear to get the things they want.

It works. We high-five.

For all of this – the secret psychological warfare; the careful inflections and rhythms and timings I dole out to select and worthy comers – for that, I get to keep my lights on.

And drive a nice car that I constantly scratch.

Watch for me if you want. I’m trained to disappear.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

5 Things I’ve Learned Running a Sort-of-Secret Writing Team

For the past 7 months or so, I’ve been running a teeny-tiny, kind-of-secret content shop.

I realized early on in my writing career that while I can make a decent penny writing for clients who want solid work, I’ve got an implicit ceiling: myself.

To make more money, I either have to give myself a raise (and hope my clients continue to see the value) or burn the midnight oil and never leave my office again like some sort of pale monitor troll (nope).

So I set about building a team of capable sub-contractors – the goal being to find those who had strong work and who were open to mentorship and critique. It took some time, but I’ve now built up a solid little team (USA, UK, Canada) – and tested them in the field.

We’ve handled some great projects: product descriptions, blog posts – even a magazine article or two! But this ain’t your typical team, either.

In this relationship, I play the point man.

That’s been both great and awful all at once. Great because I maintain control. Awful because if anything goes wrong, I burn up hours with a quickness. 

But it works, for now, until I can expand a bit and get an editor other than me in the mix. Right now, I negotiate rates and spend my own time meticulously editing the work so that I’d be proud to be associated with it. I’ve been offering the team’s work as an alternative to my own when I get a lead who can’t afford my rates or whom I want to take but do not have the time. It’s not meant to replace my personal work (please, still hire me for stuff) - just mostly for volume-based projects.

Importantly, clients always know it’s not me doing the work (I don’t pass theirs off as my own), but they take comfort in the fact that I’m editing and guiding the whole process. I charge a little more than you’d pay at Textbroker or oDesk , because I believe in paying my writers well. I know it results in stronger work.

Anyways, during the process of running this team, I’ve learned a lot of things I think might be pertinent to other businesses trying to get content done. Here are just five of them:

1. Administration can (and will) kill you.

You know what stings? Accidentally saving over top of a brief with a different brief, then assigning the SAME brief to two different writers. Yup, I did that, and yup, I ate the cost by paying both writers for the exact same article – and then paying one again to write the correct one.

Another time, I sent a writer the incorrect brief and wound up having to burn my own hours writing the piece myself to hit the deadline, AND paying the writer for what they produced.  The client, of course, was delighted to have gotten a piece I had written myself – but… Oof.

I’ve also quickly learned that burning hours on menial tasks like checking in on deadlines or e-mailing confirmations adds up to a TON of lost money, so I’m beginning to tinker with Zapier to automate my processes – especially now that my team has grown to a modest but respectable 13 writers. I’ve learned to really mind the details, automate what I can and triple-check everything – because mistakes cost money I don’t want to lose.

2. Writers are frustrating, beautiful creatures.

Businesses – let me just say that I have a new respect for the challenge of finding a writer who doesn’t completely womp gorilla balls.

The writing talent pool is ten miles long and an inch deep – when you find someone who is good at what they do, you hang on to them. When you pay a writer, you are paying for more than their creativity – you’re paying for their professionalism, their rational logic, their ability to do business.

So many writers just don’t understand how to run a business. It’s frightening.

I’ve learned that great writers are absolute gold. One of my sub-contractors is a gem of a woman, who has the foresight to name her documents in batch-order and add her last name so I know who they came from. She foresees potential problems, understands the value of a brief and adheres to guidelines like a soldier listening to a general’s command. I send her as much work as I can and pay her before she’s typed a single word – because I can trust her. There’s something to be said for a writer who needs minimal editing and understands the big picture.

And then, there were the ones who didn’t make it. The pure creative types who had no respect for deadlines and thought style guides were “suggestions”. I’ve had people submit hilarious headshots that looked like they snapped them in their bathrooms. I’ve had people with strong portfolios turn in work that was not only late – it was obviously rushed (note to writers: If you’re turning in something late, it damn well better be spotless copy. Don’t double down on your mistakes).

I’ve also learned the value of a second chance. Some writers that I didn’t think would make the grade turned out to be really strong – it turns out I just needed to learn to guide them better and improve the processes surrounding how we get things done. I’ve learned how to spot and test for talent , how to cut people loose when you need to, and how to stay your hand and give deserving folks another shot.

All of this has also helped to affirm to me that I’m worth the rate I charge for my own, personal work (which maybe sounds arrogant – I don’t mean it to, it’s been a genuine relief to discover). Having been in the hiring position, I know how much more I’m willing to pay for someone who just gets it – and I actively look for writers who have a formal business education (or anything that proves they’re more than fancy words).

3. The devil is in the details. Mind them carefully.

There’s just little things you don’t think about that wind up costing you – any ambiguity in your process will create dissonance and waste. What do I mean? Well, as a writer, I’ve always just assumed it was best practice to include images, cite your sources (including images), start pieces by providing context (instead of just jumping into a list or a bunch of stats) and the like.

I took that knowledge for granted – and you just can’t do that. Every expectation, every guideline, every instruction needs to be documented. Never assume anything.

It took a bunch of pieces for me to establish guidelines for sourcing images (high res, please. No, don’t just steal from Google image search) and even how to include them in a document (don’t just paste them in there, save them separately and flag within the text). It took awhile to get the point across that you needed to cite sources for stats and figures. It took a bit to teach writers to use the proper formatting so that a client can easily pop the document into WordPress.

The tiny things – the little things you omit – they’re the things that wind up costing you. Leave off a critical detail in the brief, and the writer will write something completely different than you intended.

I’ve learned to be thorough in my processes, and to never stop refining them over time.

4. Content ideation takes time and practice.

Coming up with content ideas for clients is hard – and if you’re not careful, it’ll run up a huge tab. I’m still perfecting the ideation process, but I’ve learned the value of doing a lot of ideation at once; I’ve gotten better at lateral thinking, learned what questions to ask clients, learned the value of picking up a phone and going beyond the brief.

Rock-solid ideas don’t just happen. They don’t materialize in a dream. And, sadly, I didn’t really budget for that time. Oops.

It’s been exciting to find myself getting better and better at eavesdropping on conversations and putting together content calendars that clients are really stoked about.

5. There’s hope for quality yet.

I was worried, in the beginning, that the team would constantly lose out on jobs because people just wanted cheap work. I’ve been delightfully proven wrong. There are a growing number of businesses who, while they want to outsource, genuinely care about who is handling that work.

It’s a trend I’m happy to see – both for my personal work, and for the industry at large. It gives me hope – hope that I can help these writers build meaningful careers on their own (I do a fair amount of Skype calls, coffee dates and e-mailing, trying to help them grow their careers and earn their own clients).

To those who respect the writer – I salute you. Thank you for that.

In the months to come, I hope to offer this little content team as a boutique service for businesses.

I’m still ironing the kinks out, but I’m proud of what I’m building. I’m stoked to work with who I get to work with. I’m ecstatic that I get to pay these writers significantly better than other jobs. I’m elated to be able to mentor them and be a part of helping grow their careers outside of the sub-contracting I send them.

The goal has always been to build a content creation service that can handle work for people who need affordable quality. I want to build relationships with agencies, and be a part of solving the cost vs. quality problem (hell, I’m doing all the sourcing work FOR you!). I believe clients can get content they can actually use and also have the pleasure of working with a team who has a really high level of “give a damn”.

We’ll see how it all pans out.

Still a lot to learn.

 (Side note: If there’s a sixth lesson, it’s to pace yourself. I started working on this within three months of stepping out on my own to write full time. The stress of trying to spin this up while keeping my own work top-shelf has probably taken years off my life. But hey, learn to love the hustle, right?)

P.s. It should now make sense why I’ve been writing pieces on topics like how to outsource product descriptions, how to find and keep writing talent, how to work with copywriters and so on – I’ve been learning myself!

Posted In: Other Stuff

Every content marketing blog post ever

Let’s talk about how to do content right. Because you, my friend, are most definitely doing it wrong.

But don’t worry. In a mere 1,000 words or less, I shall dispense my infinite wisdom upon thee. Here is how to do X thing you are currently not doing right at all:

1. Start with your audience.

I bet you’re not even listening to your audience! Boy is that dumb. Your audience has all the answers to all the questions. They hold all the power in the marketing universe, so you better at least send them some surveys or sit them down and pry answers out of them with alcohol or gifts or pleading – whatever it takes. But this is definitely where you need to start, because it’s all about the user. It has always been all about the user.

And here you thought it was all about you and your hunches, huh? Wrong! It’s not. It’s about the audience. Get the point yet? Great, let’s go to number 2.

2. Do that thing you already do but do it better

Here’s a novel idea: why don’t you just stop sucking? Take all that good info from your audience and just do everything better than you were doing it. Did I mention that you need to talk with your audience? Well then now is the time to write about pain points and need states. I think I’ll also mention the buying cycle. Are you marvelling at my genius yet? Because your audience would be, if you stopped ignoring them.

3. I borrowed this point from somewhere else. Please do not research it.

Researching for pieces is really hard. You inevitably have to take someone else’s ideas and make them sound like your own. That is what I am going to do here. I will list the same points and borrowed statistics, but I am adding value because now it’s in my wording. And you love my wording. Almost as much as you will learn to love your audience. Are you listening to your audience yet?

 

 

Oh, also, tell a good brand story. And make sure it is relevant and impactful. Impactful is not a word, but then again, brand stories aren’t usually real stories anyway.

4. I am running out of steam, so I think I’ll wrap this up

I’ve been working on this post for like, 2 hours already. Content is hard. So here’s a reminder: Ask the audience. This is like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the answer is you, and the audience knows how to get you there. Audience. Audience. Audience.

 

 

The customer is always right.

Pay me a lot of money.

 

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Toronto is grey.

I hopped a plane to Toronto; mainly just planned to have a change of scenery for a bit – a different view out of a different window. Hoping to change that and get out to do a few things.

I’ve got a story from today running around my mind. Not sure of the significance, really – just feel like I need to write it down.

It starts when I almost lost my passport.

I had just finished shoving my oversize Adidas gym bag in an overhead bin six aisles away from my seat. Turns out overhead space comes at a premium on Toronto flights.

I swam my way upstream and back to my row, realizing I’d have to cross over the guy sitting in the aisle to get to the window.

“Sorry, I’m in 5F.”

We haphazardly shuffled around in the narrow aisle, he getting up and turning sideways, I bumbling past him with my equally oversize backpack, stuffed with my computer, an external keyboard and enough cords to descend the side of the CN Tower (or so it seems).

Sitting down, I went to tuck away my boarding pass and passport – only the latter wasn’t there. I did the frantic, “Shoot up, pat your pockets, make frustrated little noises” dance.  Making things worse, the floors of WestJet planes are virtually the same colour as the outside of a passport.

I’d need to crawl around on a thousand dirty shoe prints looking for it once we’d landed. 

Damn it.

Nervous resignation. I half tuned into the conversation of the guy who I’d stumbled over like a drunk trying to get to my seat.

“…..and I’m thinking, it ain’t mine, how did it fall out and…  oh, are you Joel?”

My passport had fallen onto his seat. He found it when he sat on it.

“Yeah. Yes! Is that my passport?”

It was. He handed it back. We shook hands, introduced ourselves. He said it was “A pleasure” – I liked that formality.

“Toronto home for you?”

“No, I’m from Calgary” I replied, still relieved at his find. “You?”

“Ohio.”

“What brings you up here?”

“Pain,” he laughed.

I knew he was only half joking. Nobody answers a question like that without a story behind it – or the expectation of a follow-up question. He wanted to talk. Needed to talk. He had his opening.

“I’m up here for legal reasons. A custody battle with my wife. It’s real messy.”

And so here we were – two people with a relationship two minutes old, and he was about to indulge deep, personal pains like it was a chat about the weather.

“Messy court case. And the lawyer, I just got this feeling about him. As I go to leave, he grabs my hand and pulls me close, and you know what he says?”

The most pregnant pause of all.

“I’m marrying your wife.”

How do you even respond to that? I got M. Night Shyamalan’d, all from asking where he called home. I laughed. What else can you do with that?

“That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”

“Gets worse,” he said, eyes wide. “My ex, she’s been known to cry wolf. When she got pregnant with her first kid – not mine – she told everybody she was raped. Didn’t say nothin’ until she knew she was pregnant.”

Holy crap. Heavy.

Do I believe this guy? Why not? I have no reason not to – but a moral twinge of doubt.

“Anyhow, she told the judge I was molesting the girls, beating her… see, I started to put the pieces together now when I heard that lawyer say he’s marryin’ her. They been coachin’ the girls on what to say, turnin’ them against me.”

I decided in that moment to believe everything he said.

In three hours we’d never see each other again.

He went on with his story; how he was going to investigate new options now that he knew about the conflict of interest, how the mother had lied to him about the daughters being too busy to see him. How he didn’t care about his job or the cash, he just wanted to see his girls – the same girls who had lied on the stand about him asking them to bed.

The conversation came to a close.

“I’m still processing all this, I guess.”

A few minutes later, just before take off, I leaned over and tapped his shoulder to point at the Bow Tower, the tallest in Calgary.

Now I was the one who needed to talk. I wanted to catch him off guard. I was in love with the idea of a conversation with a stranger – or maybe just a conversation with someone new. New scenery.

I wanted to spill my own secrets all over that ocean-blue floor.

“Most people don’t know this, but there’s two panic rooms in there,” I said meekly, pointing at the tower.

(That’s it?)

“Really? Huh.” he said, eyebrows cocked.

“One for each CEO. My Uncle was one of the head guys on the project.”

(That was it.)

The plane took off and the conversation came to a close. He pulled his jacket over his head to block out all the light and fell asleep.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Burned Out and Covered in Pigeon Crap: My Best, Worst Month Ever

TL;DR: It ain’t worth it if they find me in a padded cell with “content marketing” carved into all of the walls. Don`t write 20 pieces about the same thing if you don`t love that thing or want to be known as a “blogger`(shudder).

This has been a weird month.

I published some of my most popular pieces this month – including “8 Lies About Content Marketing You Probably Believe“, which went on to net me over 2,000 unique page views in 24 hours and exactly two links (including that one up there – boy, this link building with content stuff sure is grand!) and  ”Free Beer at the Daycare! (Traffic is Not a Goal)“, which.. well I won’t mention traffic, and now I feel a bit silly.

It’s also been one of the most mentally taxing months since I went out on my own, and it’s all my fault.

Yup. I’m to blame.

In February alone, I’ve written…

- 2 pieces for Business Casual Copywriting (the aforementioned)

- 2  pieces for iAcquire: “Getting Your Mojo Back: What to Do When You’ve Lost Your Audience“, “Don’t Get Bucked by Branded Content

- 2 pieces for WebMeUp: “Google Authorship: The Free Ride is Over” (and one more that will drop next month)

- 2 pieces for Positionly: “Content Marketing for Grown Ups“ (one has yet to drop)

- 1 piece for Isoosi (dropping tomorrow)

- 1 piece for PluralSight (Essential Off-Page Elements for Web Developers)

- 3 ghostwritten pieces for  a consultant (Not provided)

- 7 ghostwritten pieces for an agency (Thankfully, these are pretty straight-forward)

This on top of editing some 6 – 10 pieces written by members of my esteemed little writing team (way to go, gang!) and putting out the web copy content for my biggest client ever (*excited schoolgirl shrieking*).

Every single one of those TWENTY (holy crap balls!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) pieces was on the same general subject matter: online/inbound/content marketing. And while some people like the infallible Kristi Hines seem to have an endless bank of energy for that niche (how, Kristi, HOW?!) I will fully admit to staring blankly into a monitor, praying to the copywriting gods for sweet release and spending almost an entire day in the bathtub trying desperately to wash “content marketing” out from behind my eyelids.

The golden question, of course…

Why on earth would I do this?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

1. It pays well - Last month, I raised my rates for this kind of work and even posted my rates on my website, hoping it would help me cut down on the sheer volume I do. It didn’t. I know, first world problems, right? But I ramped up my output because I know I’ve got some trips coming up and some unexpected expenses to cover off (like refinishing my room mate’s nice oak table I totally ruined by setting my searingly hot laptop down on it for awhile).

2. I’m still learning to say “No” – I love building relationships with people, and have had a hard time turning down an offer to write (so long as they can afford my rate). This is great for relationship building, terrible for my sanity, and as I’ll get to in a minute, probably bad for my bottom line. It would make a lot more sense to limit my presence to those sites where I’ll get the most exposure – and devote more time to writing for my own site (hey, AJ Kohn, I’m listening.)

3. It’s relatively easy – I know these topics inside and out. The research time is lower (but still there). The writing time is less. I just take what I know, and wrap it up in a new, exciting package.

4. It leads to a lot more business – Outside of the ghostwriting, the work I do for iAcquire and the like is pretty visible. Writing for others has been my number one source of leads (and not just blogging leads) which is why I haven’t eliminated it from my repertoire.

But those are all actually pretty miserable excuses.

Why I need to stop:

1. The Value of My Name

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? This month was amazing for name recognition. Shouldn’t I publish EVEN MORE? Nope.

From day one, I’ve wanted my author byline to read like the bottom right of a Monet; I want a reputation for greatness. If I keep trying to push out this volume, not only will I not be able to maintain the quality of my work, but people will get so used to seeing my name on EVERYTHING that it becomes less special to have me write for you

I want to be a pinch-hitter, the guy you call in when you need something exceptional – not just “something”. That ultimately means revisiting this month and looking for places to cut down my output. Maybe that sounds arrogant – maybe it is – but I didn’t go in to writing for a living to be mediocre.

2. The Dreaded Pigeon Coop

I desperately want the world to know: I am not just an online marketing blogger. In fact, that is at the very bottom of the list of things I want to be referred to as – and the NUMBER ONE THING I get asked to do.

While I love writing the odd blog post, I also adore writing web copy, creative copy, video scripts, advertisements – I’m a writer, diggidy-dang it! I’m versatile! And I’m not only a writer, I’m a marketing head, I can analyze your data, I can whip you up a strategy that will earn you an extra zero on your bottom line.But nobody knows that because I’m so busy blogging.

Because you are what you write, and if I spend most of my time writing blog posts, I’m just a blogger. Yuck. Ew. Get it away. I need to keep my hours open for more compelling projects. 

If I keep this up, I’ll stay so far in the pigeon hole I’m bleached white (ewwww).

3. It’s Not the Only Thing I Love.

I’m currently missing out on some of the most important work I want to do: web copy, content marketing strategy – and funny stuff. I’ve started to lay plans for clients and websites I can open discussions with to bring my flavour of sarcastic, dry Canadian humour (the kind you read on Cracked) to market, and I’m excited to be working with the boys at Examine.com on some long-form sales copy (trying to get in the heads of a half-million monthly visitors).

I got in to writing because I wanted to be creative and work on projects I believed in. I wanted to work with awesome companies who “get it” and DO content marketing, not just write about it. I’m doing some of that now, but I’ll be happier when I’m doing more.

 4. My Sanity

I don’t care how much you love this stuff – there just ain’t 20 posts a month worth writing (or reading). I can’t keep this up, and I need the variety – and the time away from my desk. I want to be able to devote more creative energy to fewer posts and try to make sure they’re grand-slams as often as possible.

And I want to stop waking up in the middle of the night, running to my desk and scribbling out lines on B2B content marketing as though I’ve found the cure for cancer.

So… changes on the horizon.

By the way, thanks for reading this weirdly transparent semi-confessional. That’s awful nice of you, especially since I’ve sort of worn the “narcissistic millennial” attitude on my sleeve by even writing this and assuming people will care to read it (sorry).

Well, that was me having my moment.

Klettke out.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Business Casual Copywriting Income Report: January 2014

Well, that’s just none of your friggin’ business, now is it?

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Freelance Advice: Wear Socks at Home

6:30 am – my alarm goes off.

I roll out of bed, silently promising myself I’ll dial that alarm back to 5:30 one day – but given my old habit of going to work for 10:00, 6:30 is already a serious improvement. That I’m more productive in the morning is just one of the things freelancing has taught me – a lesson learned after several 16-hour days working late into the night and wondering where my energy went.

Morning hours are precious – the rare time of day where my reserves are topped up and even the ugliest projects seem manageable. Turns out creativity and focus are a bit like house pets – let ‘em rest up and give ‘em some food, and they’ll be around to play most of the day.  

Eyes a bit blurry, I head down the hall and into the kitchen to throw together some kind of breakfast. When you’re focused in on business, your health is one of  the first things to go. I’m trying to get back to eating right, a goal sandwiched between revenue targets, ideal body fat percentages and places I hope to travel in the next 12 months.  From the kitchen to the shower, from the shower to my desk room.  It’s a common ritual – why bother explaining it?

Because as a self-employed person, it’s easy to wake up, flop out of bed, throw on whatever’s close to you and head to your desk. No breakfast. No shower. And why do your hair? Nobody’s around to see you, right? You might be tempted to see this complete lack of obligation as a perk.

“Work from home in your underwear!” The dream.

Careful. It’s a trap.

Around month 5 of this little adventure, I looked up and realized some terrible things. For starters, pride in my appearance had reached an all-time low. I’d throw on a trusty plaid shirt, my best jeans and some dress shoes when I was meeting with a client – but at home, half the time I was lucky if I had a shirt on under my hoodie – the same hoodie I’d worn the day before. Probably the day before that, too. Cologne bottles gathered dust. No sense in trying to smell nice for the rabbit downstairs.

Worse still, I’d gained weight – devoting what was once gym time to squeezing out that next few hundred bucks. Days were cyclical and blurred together  - a hazy time spent rebounding between my desk and my bed, interrupted by the odd trip to the mail box and a walk to the bank to cash all my cheques. My left eye would spend up to a quarter of the day twitching – a sure sign of being sleep deprived, strung out on caffeine, or stressed.

At times, all three.

Let me stress that this sudden nose dive in basic life skills was not the usual for me. I’m no Martha Stewart and I won’t make Abercrombie & Fitch’s summer campaign, but I didn’t grow up a slob.  

When I started out on my own, I thought hustling hard meant giving 110% to my business. A work ethic that began as a means of avoiding failure (work hard so I don’t go under!) became a work ethic focused on earning as much as I possibly could by drowning my days in an office chair and avoiding frivolous things like eating.

I was thrilled to be building a business and excited by being greeted with early success. But I was exhausted, fattening up and dressing like someone from Trailer Park Boys. Worse, every conversation with friends began to be dominated by my work, what I was doing, my new leads. It became an unhealthy focus. I was missing out on the rest of life.

That’s when Derek (if you’ve been reading my blog, you know he’s someone I consider a mentor) shared a simple idea with me:

“Wear Socks at Home.”

Socks are usually the last thing people put on in the morning – and the first thing you stop wearing at home. If you’re wearing socks, chances are good that you’ve showered. If you’ve showered, you’ve probably shaved. And so on, and so on. In other words, bring structure back to your life, one small step at a time. Make time for breakfast. Dress up like you’re going out in public. Schedule in gym time. And know when to shut it all off and just be with friends. 

The basics – but it’s not hard to get lost.

I don’t work in my underwear any more. I’ve got alarms on my phone to wake me up, get me out of my chair hourly, remind me to eat, tell me to go to the gym. It’s okay to have ambition, okay to throw yourself into a dream, okay to work hard and sacrifice things to build the life you want.

But while you’re building your great big life, don’t forget about the rest of it – even the “small” stuff.

Wear socks at home.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Rudy’s Bus (An Unexpected Business Lesson)

When I was in junior high, my older sister and I would wake up early every morning, shlep our heavy backpacks and trudge down two blocks to wait for the school bus.

We’d hear that big yellow behemoth before we’d ever see it – a low rumble as it bounced its way down the hill, and then the high-pitched squeal of the breaks as it screeched to a halt on the unmarked pavement in front of the corner we stood on.

The door would swing open with a characteristic squeak,  and there would be Rudy, welcoming us with his big, wrinkled grin.

Rudy was our bus driver.

He was older – I’d put him firmly in his seventies – and heavy-set, a robust and unabashed Italian immigrant with hands like sandpaper and a voice that hadn’t faltered with his years.

Rudy was a bit of a firework – at one moment gentle as a spring breeze – and in another, he’d rumble louder than the bus bouncing down the hill. When he got angry, he was the total embodiment of that stereotypical “argue in the streets” Italian temperament (complete with hand waving). 

And boy, did he get angry.

See, Rudy had rules.

Or rather, one rule. It was simple: Respect him and his bus, and he would respect you. Disrespect either and you had one hell of a talking to coming your way.

Rudy absolutely refused to put up with kids’ crap. Shoot spitballs at him, and he’d be on you in a hot minute – in traffic if that’s what it took. Bully another kid, and he’d descend on you like a bear protecting their cub. He heard everything, saw everything – and when he saw something he didn’t like…

“GET OFFA MAH BUS!”

He wouldn’t hesitate to pull that thing over and make you walk the rest of the way. Some kids found it entertaining to push his buttons until he spewed a shower of expletives, threats and Italian colloquialisms. He found it entertaining to watch them haul their ass to school.

But he was no monster. As I mentioned earlier, Rudy could be unbelievably thoughtful and kind. When he learned we lived just up the street, he began dropping us off right at the door (we were the last stop). He gave my sister flowers. He spoke warmly with us. We’d give him Christmas presents; he’d give us a big smile and door-to-door service.  Despite all the thunder and lightening, he was a wonderful soul.

I didn’t know it then, but Rudy was teaching me something important.

Let’s face it – being a bus driver usually isn’t seen as a high position.  Tell people you’re a bus driver at parties and you’ll probably get sympathetic looks. And yet, millions of parents count on bus drivers just like Rudy to get the job done safely and get their kids to school.

Rudy took his job seriously, but he refused to be walked on.

It was his bus, and he commanded that space.

Rudy taught me that no matter what your job was, you ought to have some pride and a little backbone.

Pride doesn’t just mean getting the job done – it means standing up to those who would take advantage of you and throwing them off your bus, while doting on those who make it all worthwhile.

It’s an attitude I’ve carried into my writing.

Many businesses still view writers as disposable assets who can be walked on, pushed around, negotiated down and taken advantage of. I’ve taken flack in the past for my sometimes over-the-top approach to dealing with these people.

I do it because I love what I do and believe it is valuable enough to defend.

“Pull your head out of your ass, you’re not that important”

“Ha! Trouble is, writers are a dime a dozen. If you won’t do it, we’ll find someone who will.”

That’s the kind of feedback I’ve gotten from people who disagree with the apparently lofty pedestal I put writers on. But I’m not about to change.

I won’t stand for being paid extremely late – or never. I can’t sit quietly after the umpteenth e-mail asking me to work for free. I’m not going to undercut myself down to pennies on a service I know can make a business thousands – and yes, I’m offended when you ask me to.

It’s not ego. If I don’t fight for me, nobody will. That doesn’t mean that I get all worked up and mail a box to everyone who pays late – just that I’m not afraid to toss them off my bus. Why waste time?

But on the other side of things, I try to dote on the clients who “get it”. The clients that respect creativity, treat me fairly, look at me like a professional instead of a word-cow to milk… those clients, I aim to delight -whether with consistently strong work, extra revisions, surprise discounts, impossible deadlines…

I’m proud of the positive relationships I have with the “good ones”. I’m thrilled to see their ranks growing.

But a lot of writers are enablers.

They’re unsure how to stand up for themselves, unsure how to build a business instead of scrape together sentences for a few bucks. So when I do things like send non-paying clients a giant box with my invoice in it, it’s those folks whose attention I’m trying to get.

Like, “Hey, what you do is valuable. Don’t get walked on. You have alternatives.”

And that’s who I’m trying to reach now.

Sadly, Rudy passed away awhile back.

I was sad to find his obituary in my morning paper one day. It’s been years since I waited for that rumbling bus , but it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Ho Ho Ho…. Pay My Invoice!

Freelancers have all had those clients who seem to conveniently forget to pay their bills after the job is done. After 120 days without getting paid, I decided to take a rather… unconventional approach to getting a former clients’ attention.

This video tells the story:

The following is a copy of the letter I sent as part of my “special delivery”:

 

~*MERRY CHRISTMAS!*~

Dear ____________,

Wow, time sure flies, doesn’t it? We haven’t spoken in over 120 days now. I think that’s a crying shame. What happened to us, old chum? You used to e-mail me back within the hour – and call me at 8:30 in the morning! Ahhhh, those were the days.

Of course, the reason we haven’t spoken is not for lack of effort. I did e-mail you. Repeatedly. And I know you saw those e-mails, too – my invoicing software tells me so. Still, no responses, and ESPECIALLY no payment. You vanished like the ghost of sketchy client past.

I remember fondly the last time we met in person. You shook my hand, looked me in the eye and told me you would treat me like a professional. Then, you stopped writing back and decided never to pay me for the work you used. That’s enough to land you on my naughty list.

But the holidays are all about togetherness and good cheer – so I thought I’d look past that and send you a little something. You can consider it a thank-you gift.

Remember how you wanted me to learn the ins and outs of your business? I took that seriously. Rewriting your unfortunate attempt at a marketing guide taught me that when someone is ignoring your attempts to contact them, sending them some “3D mail” is a good idea. So I thought,

“What better way to get his attention than to send him a gift-wrapped, four-foot box?”
And so, here we are. You’ve opened my box, and now you’re holding my invoice. The system works! But that’s not all you taught me.

Thanks to you, I learned one of the most important lessons a new freelancer can learn: Always work under a contract. It’s a lesson you’ve taught some of my friends, too. Word gets around.

See, you might do “most of your business on gut feeling”, but from now on, I do mine with paperwork.

As an extra-special thanks for that lesson, I’ve included some condoms as part of your gift, just in case you want to screw some other writers.

Now, just because I got you a present doesn’t mean I want you to feel obligated to get me one – but if you do, I wouldn’t mind the money you owe me. Just a thought.

Merry Christmas!

Your friend,

Joel

Answers for the curious:

1. Why waste all that time and money sending a package asking to get paid? That seems pretty stupid/counter-productive.

Because I thought this would be infinitely funnier than small claims court – and I saw this as a chance to turn an invoice I thought was dead into a few new projects and some laughs. It was absolutely over the top – and it worked. Still, It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. I never believed doing this would actually get me paid; that they responded at all was a bonus. 

Honestly, I mostly did this for my own entertainment. Canadian winters are cold and boring, we have to keep busy somehow.

2.You didn’t have a contract? You totally had this coming!

No argument there – I was an idiot! And  if you work without a contract, you’re an idiot, too. I wasn’t joking when I said I learned valuable lessons from this experience. I was naive and agreed to the job without any paperwork because it was asked for in an urgent rush. I won’t make that mistake again.

That said, contracts aren’t magic cure-alls for getting paid on time (or at all). Choosing the right clients is a big lesson to learn, too.

3. Who is the company/person you dealt with?

I deliberately didn’t name any names and went to great lengths not to expose the business in question. To the business’ credit, they’ve offered an apology and told me they’ll pay the invoice. I believe they’ll follow through (Author’s edit: As of 2 minutes ago, I’m completely paid out!), it’s just a shame it took them so long.

I want this to be a happy ending for both parties and  I don’t have any desire to damage their business or hurt their character – they’ve got a lot of happy clients of their own. We just won’t ever work together again, as they have a rather ugly history of treating writers poorly.

4. Aren’t you worried this will cost you work/give you a bad reputation?

Not really. The type of people I want to work with will find it funny and see the creativity in my approach to solving the problem. They might even relate to the crummy feeling of not being paid for months at a time.

The people I don’t want to work with will think I’m an unprofessional, immature douche-canoe with too much time on his hands – a valid opinion they’re completely entitled to. You can’t please everyone, and I’m not bothering to try.

5. I have some scathing commentary about your big ugly mug/writing ability/filming quality/how much of a stupid idiot moron you are! Care to hear it?

Nope – but I’m terribly sorry you feel that way and invite you to mail me an enormous box full of glitter in protest. It’s vindicating, believe me! 

Merry Christmas – and don’t get taken advantage of.

 Like the cut of my jib? Banter with me on twitter, scope my business site or marvel at my hubris.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Why I Hate the oDesk/Elance Model (And You Should, Too)

Today, oDesk and Elance announced a massive merger. As a freelancer, you’d think I’d be excited (or something).

I shrugged.

I’ve never grabbed work from either one – and I hope I’m never in the position I’d have to.

I hate oDesk’s model – and so should any talented, self-respecting writer.

Let’s drop the robe and let the truth squirm around naked for a bit: People who use oDesk are looking for just one thing: Cheap work.

That’s problematic for a few reasons:

1. Businesses come looking for lowest bidder who shows an ounce of talent.

You’re in a race to the bottom to see who can undercut themselves the most. Do you want to work with people who value your abilities, or just your price point?

The freelancers who make a great living have changed the conversation from, “Here’s how much we can pay you” to…

“Here’s my level. Want to be on it? Here’s what I cost.”

Being on oDesk or Elance sends the opposite message. You’re a faceless “producer”, despite what the fancy profile and rating system tell you – chosen for being the cheapest option that’s the least likely to screw things up. Needless to say, talented writers vacate the oDesk premises as soon as they possibly can, so the talent pool is shallow. 

2. Businesses on oDesk and Elance see content as a commodity. 

The businesses every writer should want to work with aren’t won’t make you cram “lawn mower repairs” into a guest blog as many times as possible.

Serious businesses won’t outsource their content to a massive puppy mill of cheap labourers. They value their content enough that they dare to invest in it, knowing that actual people might read it one day.

The idea that nobody is willing to pay well for strong content is a big, stinky lie. Far away from oDesk is a great big world of companies who see strong writing as a critical business asset and will pay top dollar for it. Those companies don’t visit Elance.

If you’re willing to work for such low payouts, then you’re guilty too! You confirm their belief that good writing just isn’t worth paying for.

3. Low price points create terrible incentives.

If I’m a writer who makes $5 for every 500 words, my incentive is to try and do as many jobs as is humanly possible in order to scrape together something I can buy groceries with. At such a woeful wage, the incentive is to write quickly, not effectively.

I don’t care about your brand.

I don’t care about your business.

I don’t care about your customers.

Your project doesn’t mean a damn thing to me other than the $5 I get at the end before I go fart out another word count for another cheapskate.

This creates an economy where businesses get EXACTLY what they pay for – rushed, plagiarized, spun, barely-English content from writers who have found ways to cut corners.

4. oDesk/Elance is for the terrified.

If you’re a career writer on oDesk (as in, it constitutes most of your work), it’s time you got the backbone to stand up for your talent. Instead of building something out of nothing, you’re rolling around in a big, mediocre safety net.

THAT is why so many freelancers are willing to work for pennies: fear. Fear that jobs won’t come. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of not knowing where to begin. Ahhhh! Scary! Oh no!

If you really believed you were talented, you’d take a risk and invest in yourself. Grow some balls, take a risk and build yourself into a business. Not knowing where to start is no excuse – there are mentors, resources and helpful guides at your fingertips, if only you’d go looking for them.

5. Low-paying jobs attract more low-paying jobs

Ok, but what about using these platforms to build up your portfolio? Unfortunately, if your portfolio is full of  crappy guest posts, you only attract more of the same.

Nobody is going to comb through your portfolio and think, “Yup, this is the person we want to hand the big bucks to for a mission-critical campaign!”

By accepting jobs below your value, you throw open the door to more projects below your value. It’s a vicious cycle. If you want to exit that cycle, you need to set your own (justified) rates and refuse to take on projects below that threshold.

Things may be especially tight for awhile during the transition, but it’s better than things being tight forever. The longer you hover around in the oDesk work, the harder it is to get out.

Yes, I know you need to pay your bills, but there are better ways to find work: Alliances with local consultants/agencies/web dev shops chief among them. And if you’re good at what you do but the kind of work you want isn’t coming in, create it.

Demonstrate your talent by marketing yourself.

 Want to succeed as a freelancer? Get off oDesk and Elance as quickly as you can.

Like I said, most talented writers stay far, far away from these platforms, opting instead to approach businesses directly and earn jobs through referrals. You won’t ever build a career on these platforms, make what you’re worth or get the projects you really want.

I can’t give you any greater incentive than that.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings