Lessons From a Swiss Army Knife:
The other day I was approached by a company for a job opportunity. I had submitted my resume into a slush pile and came out on the short list above 100 other applicants. No cover letter, just the resume. I have worked and slaved over my resume. It’s good. I’ve had help creating it from a marketing expert.
I found him at a local community college. For a few years I’ve been interested in marketing. When I saw the writing on the wall about traditional writing avenues, I knew that companies would always need someone to tell the story of their products, and if I could learn to engage their customers, I could still write for more than peanuts. The current buzzword for this term is “content marketing.” I think it is a kind of writing that will never go away, even if it changes form and the writer has to re-adapt.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned about readjusting to writing in the 2010s:
1. Ask for help.
Yes, this is a DIY culture now, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. I recently had a writer friend explain SEO to me in a way that finally made sense. For years, I’ve been staring at this term and going, what does this mean? Algorithms? Cookie bots? Landing page? Then I had a WRITER explain it to me in terms a writer understands. I finally got the idea when she said, for a writer, SEO comes down to word choice.
2. Be an expert.
I am an expert at being adaptable. That may sound odd, but I can write for anyone (save erotica, not interested). That’s the one thing my degree taught me that has the greatest value to me. Some people are experts at writing about medical technologies for B2B publications, travel blogs, or interior design. I make myself more of an everyman, breaking down industry jargon and making the information accessible to readers at a more basic level.
3. Be patient.
Selling myself as a Swiss Army Knife hasn’t always gone over well. Some people want someone with more experience in their industry or topic than writing experience. My portfolio does show I have branched out a lot. I used to think of it as a detriment as I had no niche, but now I’m finding my versatility has value, because I can adapt to many different mediums.
4. Transferable skills
To write professionally, you have to be able to conduct interviews, record data, take notes, research, maintain a schedule, negotiate, and communicate with more than just words. I recently saw a Craigslist ad for a company wanting to hire an interviewer to record an important meeting on the history of the company. The ad didn’t say they wanted a feature article written; they just wanted the event recorded and transcribed. Anyone who has published an article can do that.
5. Know your value.
Kelly Blazek has a blog post about something that I’ve been trying to achieve with this blog for quite some time: metrics. I’m still an amateur about it, but I’m learning. More slowly than I would like, but I’m realizing how important it is. I wish other writers would ask how their work is of value. The most accessible way to measure that is metrics, the analytic data behind how much your content is being read. I check mine often and tinker with it when I find the time.
I spoke with a writer who has a good gig with a company, been writing there for a few years, and she was surprised when I asked her if she knew the analytic value of her work.
A month or two ago, I was at a writers’ meeting and a writer, when describing herself, felt the need to mention how many followers on Twitter she had. I shouldn’t have been laughing. Maybe it’s not the perfect measuring stick for readership or success, but she had the right idea before I did.
6. Keep boundaries.
Since our lives and work are both intertwined online, it’s a good idea to set some ground rules. I have two email addresses I use. One I use for personal reasons. The second is tied to this blog and my Twitter account to interact with readers and other writers. I enjoy networking, but it’s important to me to have that boundary. I think it can be unhealthy to be better friends with people you’ve never met than the ones who can be there for you in person. A hug does not compute through the internet in the same way it does in real life.
7. Don’t work for free.
I consider this blog fun. It’s my playground where I make up the rules as I go along. Not work. But I know a lot of writers who ask me if they should look at writing for this blog or freelance using this site. Some ads will say, “future articles will be paid once we build up a readership.” What they mean is a readership for ads. Ads online pay very little compared to print. The only thing going out of business faster than print magazines are new start-up online magazines with no money to pay for creative talent. So, decide on your rate, get paid what you feel comfortable selling your work for, and if you can’t get that, back out.
8. Read the Fine Print.
No one is holding your hand anymore. The old days of magazines having simple, clear-cut writing contracts are gone. As such, some of your clients will put legal gobbledygook in their contracts to screw you: indemnification clauses, rights to republish elsewhere without compensation, and ways I haven’t even come across yet. If you don’t understand it, look it up, pay a lawyer, but don’t sign unless you’re cool with every word of that contract.
Nothing makes some writers squirm more than the N word. But what happens if you don’t like #8? Do you walk away, or do you try and negotiate a contract you find uncomfortable? What good is knowing your value if you can’t negotiate with it? If you can get a regular readership of 50k on a bi-weekly column for a parenting blog, don’t you think you deserve a bit better than the starting rate for a new publication?
10. Be Proactive.
I harken back to my previous post where Patton Oswalt said his days of being given handouts are over. People don’t get “discovered” anymore. You have to work for it yourself until you get the results you want. Whenever I had a non-writing job, I wrote on the side. I think I’ll always have some kind of side project. Whether it makes money or not isn’t the point. It’s part of how I learn.
I think companies are becoming less afraid of side-projects. They have the potential to show a new way to approach a problem. I’m sure many writers and marketers had personal twitter feeds before they thought, “You know, this would work as way to talk to our customers.”
Wow, this is long, but I feel like some in my writing community ignore these career changes. I fear for them, not because I think I’m right or that they should have the same interest in marketing or analysis as me, but because they don’t seem to notice them at all. The unwillingness to change and adapt is why I fear for them. Even still, I hope I adapt fast enough myself.