500 Days of Freelancing: 6 Things I’ve Learned so Far

It’s been well over a year now since I went out on my own into freelancing;  511 days since I made the call to give writing full-time an honest go. If for nobody other than myself, I thought I’d write a quick little recap of some of the most important things I’ve learned as well as the challenges I’m working to overcome.

1. I’m (still) not sure how I feel about the word “Freelancer”

I’ve waffled on this somethin’ fierce. On the one hand is the argument that “freelance” implies cheap and unreliable, neither of which I want to be associated with.

On the other, there’s the thought that love it or hate it, this is the terminology people use when they’re looking for someone to write for them who isn’t employed by an agency.

Using something like “copywriter for hire” doesn’t really change the conversation that much.

I also feel like “Freelancer” is becoming less of a dirty word; I’m seeing – at least in my limited experience – a marked change in the way people seem to be thinking about outsourced help. So for now, I’m rolling with the word again and gauging how it impacts lead numbers and quality.

Early indications are that it’s actually helping – or at least not hurting.

2. Specializing is smart.

I think it’s almost inevitable that when you’re just starting out on your own, you’ll take almost any kind of project that’s thrown at you. I believe there’s actually a lot of merit in tossing yourself to the wolves and trying a whole bunch of things to challenge your assumptions about your own skill set. You can discover that you’re a dead ringer for something you never otherwise would have thought to try.

When I began, I opened myself up to every kind of written asset: Websites, blog posts, brochures, posters video scripts – hell, I even edited people’s LinkedIn profiles and CV just to see if I could have an impact. I learned a lot that way, worked with some fantastic people and rounded out my offering.

But at this point, I’m finding it’s time to put some boundaries on what I work on.

Offline assets are rarely worth the time invested, especially when I’ve got such a good rhythm with digital going. And while everyone and their dog wants blog posts, the return on time invested is lower than more permanent assets like landing pages or website copy, which I find more exciting and rewarding.

I used to oblige most requests if they could afford my rate; now I turn virtually all of them away.

I keep blogging relationships with a maximum of 3 agencies at a time and leave the rest of my month for more interesting projects. The main reason I hang onto blogging is a constant bit of exposure and a nice, reliable paycheck that covers all of my monthly expenses, from groceries to rent. If I didn’t land a single project outside of my blogging work (which has never happened), I’ll be financially OK, and there’s a value in having that security.

I learned that making yourself scarce is actually more valuable, and I’ve been able to significantly increase my rate for blog work because I’ve protected my name and kept those relationships special.

That said, at some point I’ll need to ante up and cut away that safety net. There are better income streams I can tap into that require less time and effort.

Speaking of which…

3. There’s money to be made in teaching/consulting that I’m definitely missing out on.

If you’re a freelance writer, would you like to learn how I made a 6-figure income  in my first year? Chances are, that information is worth a little somethin’ to you, especially if you don’t have a road map and you’re wondering how to get going.

If you’re a business who needs a fast, brutal assessment of your copy and a recommendations for success, wouldn’t you love to be able to get that kind of insight for $500 or so with a one or two hour intensive instead of waiting forever to have a top-shelf writer take a peek?

From writing ebooks and delivering lunch n’ learns to offering power-hour one-on-one consulting, I’m starting to play with some new ideas for taking what I know and what I feel I’m best at and offering it in condensed packages or products I can sell over and over again.

There’s a reason brilliant copywriters eventually stop writing and start teaching other people to write; it’s far more scalable than project work. I’ve known that for a long time, but haven’t been sure how to execute on it.

Now that I’ve got a bit of a story and a portfolio that’s growing more impressive, I need to start thinking about how I can head that direction.

4. Good help is (really) hard to find.

If you’ve followed me awhile, you might recall I had been building a little writing team. At this point, that team has been pared down substantially and I haven’t passed them a project in months. A few things I learned the hard way:

  • Even writers with great looking portfolios can be hellish to work with.
  • I paid my team too much too fast. There was nowhere left to go to reward writers who did exceptional work.
  • Bringing in an editor is a crucial step, but it also slices into margins. Unless you have a good process in place, prepare to burn cash in bundles.
  • You can’t be a perfectionist. I wasted HOURS revising pieces that probably would have been fine to go live, just because I didn’t let “fine” be enough.
  • My biggest gap was trying to find a software that could handle the project management for this, allowing writers to claim jobs. I had to do virtually all the organization via email, and even a jimmy-rigged Trello was a bit cumbersome to work with.

We did a lot of projects successfully – especially product description projects – but I was finding that given the rate I could charge for other work, the team was quickly becoming less and less lucrative – especially since it was sort of “make a killing or lose an arm”.
If things went well, I pulled a good number. If there were revisions, I’d lose money in spades.
So for now, that team has been reduced to a decentralized small few folks (5 or so) who I mostly just refer projects to or call in on bulk work. If I’m ever going to try to build a team for the long-term, I now know I’ll need to spend months up front refining the processes and finding a good platform. I’d also spend time digging into Copybloggers’ training resources – the reason they can do such good work is they invest into the team.
In any case, my focus on scaling up for the future will be with products and fast-delivery consulting. We’ll see what I learn there.

5. Saying “No” is awesome (and essential).

The very best, most wonderful position you can be in when working for yourself is being able to tell people “No” when the project doesn’t fit your game plan or a request is unreasonable.

Freelancing is all about confidence.

The confidence to charge what you’re worth. The confidence to pitch clients you don’t think you’re big enough for. And the confidence to push back, say no and have a backbone. You don’t need to be a jackass, but “no” is a word you’ll learn to love as soon as you start saying it in the right moments.

It’s somethin’ I am working on getting even better at.

6. It’s not all about the Benjamins.

The past two months have been some of the hardest of my short little self-employment. Not because the money wasn’t there, but because I simply took on more than I could handle. At this point, I’m working long hours to try and deliver on every project and I’m losing my mind a little in the process.

Exercise isn’t happening. Quality time is scarce. Diet is atrocious. And I’m not making music or putting time into endeavors that fill up other parts of my life.

But hey, I’m makin’ lots of money, right?


I realize how self-entitled and smug that might seem, especially if you, the reader, are dealing with a situation where money is your primary concern. But I think there’s sort of a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for freelancing, with cash right at the bottom. Once you’ve reached that comfortable “don’t need to stress” stage, you start thinking bigger.

My next moves are going to be ones that help me design a lifestyle I can actually live with – Time for travel; time for others and time for myself. Less time in front of a keyboard, more time taking advantage of the flexibility I should be enjoying as someone with no boss to answer to.

To that end, I’ve got some really exciting plans in the works. I’m going on an adventure, and I’m going to be inviting a lot of my agency friends to come along for the ride.

More on that later – but let’s hope it’s not another 500 days.


Posted In: Personal Ramblings

Sex & Violence: Are Your Words Making You A Worse Marketer?

“We’ve researched our target audience for this campaign  - now we need to execute on a deadline.”

Did the above sentence offend you?

Did it make you feel uneasy?

Probably not.  You’re also probably not surprised to see it’s riddled with words that have a military past.

How about “We want to create captivating, seductive experiences.”

Oooh, juicy. Seductive is a sex-addled word in today’s society. So are the words “provocative, alluring, tempting, irresistible, arousing..” and yet, again, you’ll find them both in the bedroom and the boardroom, and people hardly blush.

We hear these kinds of phrases all the time in business realms, to the point that they’re common jargon.

But – are they making you a worse marketer?

In his post on Ahrefs, “Beware of the Aggressive Language of Marketing“, Tad Chef (a talented writer I usually really enjoy) makes a well-intentioned argument that marketers ought to stop using words like “target” and “strategy” given their roots in a military past.

It’s a great argument for being conscious about the words that we use every day and their impact on the ways they impact our actions. “Words create thoughts”, says Tad, and I agree with that statement.

And yet, I couldn’t disagree more – and here’s why.

Language is alive.

Language is a living thing; it evolves over time. Words take on new meanings in different contexts, and it is context that colours our interactions.

Tad takes particular exception with the word “Target”. He borrows the definition as “A person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack.” – and he’s right, that’s one definition.

But there’s another:

“An objective or result toward which efforts are directed.”

Hmm… that’s decidedly non-violent. In fact, there’s virtually nothing aggressive about that definition at all.

Tad is also quick to cherry-pick the military definition of strategy:

“A comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat of actual force.” – and that’s  certainly what strategy means in a warzone. And yet, strategy ALSO means:

“A careful plan of achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time.” or  “The skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal”. 

Neither one of those definitions, which are every bit as valid as the first, has ANY kind of malicious intent or wartime connotation. It’s completely absurd to avoid using the word strategy because someone, somewhere uses it in a wartime context – in the same way you can “execute” a script or an enemy soldier.

One does not colour the other; they are completely independent of each other when used in differing contexts to the point that NOBODY who is a native speaker would ever infer that you are putting your coding to death.

So if “execute” can be separated linguistically from “death”, “target” can be linguistically separated from pointing a gun at someone or even an intent to cause them harm.

As an example:

“We exceeded all of our targets for this quarter.”
“My target weight is 180 pounds.”
“We’ve got a target date of October 31st.”
and, for sake of argument “The audience this content is targeted at is people bored enough to read a semantic argument between writers.”

Every single one of those sentences leverages an alternative definition of “target” that has no aggressive intention whatsoever.

I also take issue that he thinks that native speakers don’t “consciously” use words like someone who is new to the language. A new learner may be more aware of its origins (I agree!), but unquestionably, a native speaker is more aware of slang, jargon and modern usages of words beyond their limited histories.

Substitutes don’t always mean the same thing.

Instead of “targeting” an audience, Tad suggests you “help” them. Except those words don’t mean the same thing. At all.

“Target”, in this context, refers to a defining set of characteristics that make up the body of people you want to reach with your marketing efforts.
“Help” is an implied outcome – it doesn’t even begin to cover who you are helping or what defines them.

The words are not interchangeable.

Instead of “Strategy”, he suggests “Planning”.

But strategy comes with a richer definition than planning. A plan can be executed WITH a strategy – they are not the same thing. Strategy infers that there are processes and well-thought-out guidelines for executing on a plan.

Your statement would lose meaning without choosing to use the right word; in business, we ought to use the best words for the job, the words that best describe our intent, our goals and our actions. Military words have been adopted, dropping their violent histories – and now, they better describe business actions than softer, friendlier words that only hint at the depth of their meaning.

Bias influences interpretation.

“Even though I don’t live in the US where firearms are widely spread, I visualize someone shooting at people the moment I see the word combinations targeting people.”

Therein lies the REAL issue here: Tad envisions something when he sees the word based on his own experiences and interpretations. He grew up in Poland, where war has ravaged the country many times. Given that tough history, I understand his angle.

But subjective opinion does not equal fact, nor can you extrapolate your interpretation to the rest of the world.

As I opened this piece with, we use this language (consciously and intentionally) all the time without intending any malice towards those we’re speaking about.

I think most of the people who consciously use war metaphors never have been to a war.”

He’s right here. But I’d take it one step further: Most people rarely, if ever, question where the majority of their current vernacular came from – they operate using a current definition relevant to the context they’re in, because that’s exactly how language works.

We see this in language all. the. TIME.

“Mortgage” comes from a French expression meaning “Death pledge”.
“Villain” was a derisive slang word for the poor.
“Captivating” comes from a word rooted in slavery and incarceration.
“Loophole” (or “murder hole” !!!) originally referred to slits in castle walls where archers would shoot their arrows through.
“Hazard” comes from an Arabic word for “Dice”, which later evolved when games of dice were associated with gambling.
“Disaster” comes from a Greek word for “bad” and “aster”, meaning star – blaming calamities on sinister planetary alignments.

And hey, even “Nice” comes from a Latin word meaning “ignorant”.

But nobody thinks about any of that, because – well, it mostly doesn’t matter, so long as the word is used in a commonly understood context. If you want to avoid using any words with a dark, violent or military connotation, be prepared to also clean out the words “Sideburns”, “Bikini”, “Campaign”, “Deadlines” and more.

The author also makes a false association between “Targeting” and “Traditional advertising”, as though the fact that you’re “Targeting” an audience with something inherently implies you are annoying them, disrupting them or subverting their desires.

But this is, again, his own extrapolation. He is inferring intent based on his experience and letting it taint his definition.

You can “Target” an audience with a “Strategy” intended to help them. You can “Target” a piece of content at an audience because you know it will be useful to them.

The two definitions can be completely unrelated based on context and intent.

Where I agree:

That said, I do see a point in Tad’s argument – though not the way he intended. I am a big proponent of being very careful about how you refer to the people you’re trying to attract in business – because unlike “target” in a verb sense, “target” as a noun” IS something to be careful of when applied to living, breathing, nuanced human beings in a business context.

I would never call my audience “targets”, as this subverts their humanity. In the same way that there’s a big difference between calling someone a “user” and calling someone a “customer”. One underpins a far greater value and consideration, while the other is mechanical and distant.

Could you get around using “target” by saying “The audience we’re aiming to reach”? Sure. But you’re still aiming. And what are you aiming? Well that depends on whether or not you think “Aim” is inherently violent.

Could you say “The audience we’re directing our efforts at based on their characteristics?” – sure, but that’s a mouthful – and there’s a single word for that.


“Business and sales are not about war.”

True as that might be, no matter how rosy a picture we want to paint of business and sales, they ARE about a conflict: A quest to ultimately overcome obstacles and earn a sale. For as fluffy and friendly as marketing is today, the underlying motive for any business is always, ALWAYS to generate more business – otherwise, it’s self-defeating.

Being helpful is NOT, as Tad says, “perfectly enough”. Being helpful is a marketing tactic; a means of endearing yourself to a customer and building a relationship. If that sounds antagonistic – it’s not; it’s perfectly possible to be helpful, friendly and useful while at the same time trying to change perceptions and influence purchaser behavior.

So by all means: keep targeting audiences, hitting deadlines, crushing campaigns and killin’ it out there.

Just don’t forget your customer in the process.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

The shortest post on negative SEO you’ll ever actually read

I can prove that negative SEO exists without any fancy charts or data – just common sense.

1. Can regular SEO be performed? (Yes)

2. Can regular SEO be penalized? (Yes, when done poorly.)

3. Could I poorly do regular SEO for a competitor? (Yes: It’d be methodical, as though I was trying to rank them for real by using poor tactics.)

4. Could THAT be penalized? (Yes. Google won’t know or care who did it)

5. If penalized would that impact rankings? (Yes, making every site hit by penguin or a manual penalty a relevant case study on negative SEO)

Google doesn’t see “good guys” and “bad guys”. They see data and patterns.

Data don’t give a single solitary damn.

Thanks for your time, internet.

Posted In: Personal Ramblings

How hack jobs & bad projects can keep you in business.

I used to worry about the writing market being so saturated.

Everywhere you look, there’s a “writer” willing to pump out content for some ungodly-low fee. Some are talented, passionate folk. Others are hack jobs and hobby-writers with little talent and a lot of time on their hands.

When you look at platforms like oDesk or the Problogger Job Board and see jobs being paid out at $10/500 words, it’s bound to put a little fear in you.

Even Forbes only pays out $50/article (plus some tiny fraction of a cent based on impressions) – a woeful fee given how much research time goes into preparing something of that calibre.

It’s enough to make you wonder…

“Will I ever make any money at this?”

And that’s what I wondered, too.

But somewhere along the road I learned to love the fact that there’s so many people trying their hands at this game.

Because so many of them are bad at it.

And that leaves the smart businesses with a bad taste in their mouths and a desire to never get burned or humiliated again. All of the poor labour is creating a market for the top-tier jobs you want to be involved with.

It helps brands see the light when it comes to valuing talent and professionalism over word counts and bulk pricing.


“Good heavens! A writer who needs minimal editing, nails our tone of voice and sends periodic project updates? We’ve died and gone to heaven!”

Because while those sound like perfectly reasonable expectations, they’re rarely fulfilled. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has tried to hire a writer (but get a coffee first – you’re going to be awhile).

The door is WIDE open to show businesses you’re a professional.

Because the people you want to compete against for jobs aren’t the people taking on penny-work. It’s the people writing for agencies, brands, web developers – those are the folk you want to be in league with, not the guy who can churn out 200 posts a day for a four-figure yearly salary.

So the question isn’t “How many of these crappy jobs do I need to do to get by?”

It’s, “How can I step out and differentiate myself in a world where everyone with two hands can call themselves a writer?”

And when you start asking THAT, you start stumbling upon minor revelations like:

  • Pricing your services higher is a good thing. Perception is reality, and it weeds out those looking purely for price over talent.
  • You can’t just be a talented writer. You need to operate like a business, honouring deadlines, communicating like a businessman and seeing the  big picture. Your skills outside of writing are what differentiate you and what businesses value (even if they don’t know it yet).
  • Your personal voice and tone matter. Gag if you want to, but “personal brand” is important. If people like you before they’ve even sent you a contact form, you’re already holding more power in that relationship.
  • Specialization makes a difference. If you can carve out a niche where you get known for crushing it every single time you put finger to keyboard, that reputation will warrant a higher payout.
  • Focus on valuable assets. More often than not, blogs are a low-value asset to the client. Your post is one of 15 being published that month. Web copy, eBooks, guides, infographics and so on have a more permanent feel attached, so they also warrant a more significant investment. Shoot for the work that matters most to the business.

…. among other things.

Don’t fear the market. Don’t be scared of the competition. They’re screwing things up in such a wonderfully convenient way that they create a market for what you offer.

All you have to do is prove you’re worth it.


Posted In: Personal Ramblings

90 Seconds or Less: SEO is Mystery Meat (Here’s Why it Makes Content People Puke)

“It’s easier to teach content creators SEO than it is to teach SEOs to create great content”.

When James Gunter dropped the line at ConFab, the crowd went wild with applause. Several voiced how his was the first SEO session they’d ever seen that didn’t make them want to hurl into a bucket. SEOs were predictably defensive and confused as to why they’re so hated by the Content Strategy bunch.

Let me try to clear that up:

  1. Nobody agrees on the definition of SEO – not even SEOs themselves. It’s mystery meat.
  2. Outside the industry, public perception is generally that SEO ruins creativity/art, spits on user experience and thrives on greasy tactics- even if that’s completely unfair (it is). These people learned from both experience with sour SEOs (spam e-mails) and from misinformed big industry hubs like Forbes, who see SEO as black magic proliferated by hobbling basement dwarves. 
  3. That’s because for years, SEO was actually a whole lot like that. People got spammed, the internet was really ugly, website content looked like keyword madlibs. (I know you’ve been legit fo-ev-ah and whatnot, but SEO was messy on the whole)
  4. Instead of collaborating where their goals overlap, SEOs and Content Strategists would clash in an epic power struggle. SEO, for its part, was just too lucrative to ignore in those early days, ugly as it was. And importantly, the two different parties rarely share the same office – or even the same company.
  5. The Penguin update came. SEO’s favourite pet “died” (Links still matter a whole lot). On the positive side, they start recognizing the importance of branding and not being a complete dick online and creating awesome content (Yay!)
  6. Mass exodus by SEOs to have a controlling say in the creation and distribution of content as a means of securing links.
  7. Oops. Now there’s more clashing than ever.
  8. SEOs start mistakenly referring to having a strategy for the creation and proliferation of MARKETING content as “Content Strategy”. Content strategists, whose jobs are much bigger than this, do not approve of this misguided definition, nor the hijacking of an important part of their jobs by a bunch of people who were formerly spinning blog posts and outsourcing branding to Bangladesh.
  9. In the mean time, technical SEOs are like “Shut up everybody” because their job remains unique, difficult and COMPLETELY UNDERVALUED in light of all the unicorn fairy dust being thrown about the magic cure-all of content
  10. Overeager “SEOs” guzzle down their own kool-aid and start believing the whole of the industry can be summed up in “create and share good content and Google will reward it”, somehow forgetting the enormous reality that Google is still a machine and not an English teacher marking papers
  11. Everyone creating content thinks they’re an SEO now – and many SEOs would call themselves marketers (And in many cases actually are). Now, nobody agrees on what SEO is or what that job entails in its entirety. Tech? Content? Marketing? ALL OF THAT!?
  12. James Gunter (A smart guy!) makes a provocative statement, which, while well-intentioned and in many ways true (creating something truly amazing is very difficult), is also in many ways false (There are parts of SEO that are equally difficult get a mastery of) and steps on the toes of those who have spent years honing their technical chops, learning how to analyze data and building an understanding how the algorithm works (Hint: It’s not powered by platitudes)


  • I did SEO for 4.5 years in an agency. It was fun and I met many wonderful people (who are not black magic hobbling dwarves) whom I consider very talented friends.
  • We’d all do better if we collaborated instead of trying to steal each others’ jobs.
  • This was tongue-in-cheek satire.
  • Thanks for reading. If you want me to write funny, informative things for you, head here.


Posted In: Personal Ramblings

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?”


“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