Eric Ahrendt Writer

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Using a Morgue

Posted on January 1, 2015 by Comments are off

Using a morgue is a tip I picked up so long ago I don’t remember the source. I think it was in a book of advice for journalists. In journalism, the morgue is an archive of past issues kept for quick reference. But the advice I remember is to create a morgue for each writing assignment and use it to store relevant content you’ve found via research but don’t think you’ll use in your first draft.

I find this especially useful in my workflow for writing a longer document, like a white paper or solution brief. I collect all my sources—interviews, analyst reports, collateral, online articles—and extract the passages I think I can use. I put them all in one long document so I don’t have to keep going back to each individual source. Then, working in that long document, I put them in the rough order I’ll use them and eliminate material I think is redundant or not useful. But I don’t delete it. I create a Word document I name Morgue and cut and paste all the material there. I keep it open and minimized while working on the draft, and keep adding to it as I refine the content. If I later decide I want to use one of those discarded extracts, it’s easy to find it and put it back in the draft.

Fitting Documents Within Word Limits

The morgue is also a big time-saver when you’re writing a document that has strict word limits. I’ll write a draft that covers the subject and doesn’t, in my opinion, include any extraneous material. But what often happens then is that I’ll do a word count and find my draft is 1,600 words long for a document with a word limit of 1,200. So I’ll go back through and be ruthless about cutting entire paragraphs—but again, I don’t delete them, I cut and paste them into the morgue. That way, if the client later says the word limit isn’t all that strict and asks to expand the section on benefits, or alternatives, or related products, or whatever, and I know I cut copy from that section in an earlier draft, it’s super quick to grab it from the morgue and put it back in.

The morgue is also useful for context and for keeping an original version of the source material. I often heavily edit the source material and if it happens that I remove too much context or the client asks for changes, it’s useful to be able to go back to the original and see what it says. The advantage is that it’s a lot quicker to find the passage in the morgue than to search through all the source documents.

So try keeping a morgue on your longer assignments and see if it doesn’t turn out to be a time-saver for you, too.

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Pleasing Two Masters

Posted on April 25, 2014 by Comments are off

Like many freelancers, I usually work directly for companies, but occasionally I’m hired to work for an agency or an individual whose client is the company. In that situation, I have two masters: the agency person who hired me, and the marketer at the company they represent. Interposing the agency person as an extra boss/editor/client between me and the final decision-maker (the marketer) complicates my job—sometimes not very much, sometimes so much that I swear I won’t work for an agency again.

More Work, No More Money

The crux of the problem is trying to please two masters whose conception of the assignment may differ a little or a lot. The marketer hired the agency to be the go-between, so he’s going to let the agency manage copy development. That means it’s the agency person giving you direction based on her conception of the project. If it’s the same as the client’s conception, the copy you turn in will be fine. If it’s different, you end up going through several drafts to please your agency master, then several more once the company master sees it and finds out it’s not what he has in mind.

There’s usually no way around this. The agency often doesn’t want you communicating directly with the client, either because they haven’t told him they’re subcontracting the writing, or because they want to control the relationship. That means you get no chance to find out directly from the ultimate decision-maker what he wants. All the direction and feedback you get comes from the agency person, who may or may not get it right. When she doesn’t get it right, you end up doing extra drafts to please the marketer. Why would the direction from the agency person be off the mark? Maybe because she didn’t probe enough with the client to really nail down the elements of the assignment brief. Or because she has a different conception of the assignment that she’s never verified with her client.

In either case, if there’s a disconnect between what the agency and the company think the copy should be, it results in more work for me—for no more money. The agency wants to keep my fee as low as possible, because it’s an expense they want to mark up. The less they pay me, the more they can make on the assignment. So I often have to provide an upfront fee estimate based on a very sketchy project description, then stick to it, even if the scope of the project changes or I end up doing round after round of revisions. This is not a good arrangement, financially or blood-pressure wise, for freelancers like me.

Write Really Specific Estimates

What’s the solution? Don’t take assignments through agencies. Wait; they’re not all losing propositions, so that’s too extreme. But if you do accept the assignment, ask to see the agency’s assignment brief that was developed with the client; if there is one, and you use that as the platform for your copy, you’re less likely to be pleasing only the agency contact.

To head off the problem of doing more work than you’re getting paid for, define in your estimate as precisely as you can what you’re going to do for the fee you’re charging. That enables you to make a case for increasing the fee if the scope goes way beyond what you were asked to quote on. For example, let’s say you’re asked to write a series of HTML emails, and you specify in your written letter of agreement the steps involved and that you’ll do one draft, one rewrite (if necessary) and one round of edits. Then, if you find yourself working on draft five of the first email, you can show your client what you agreed to upfront and how it’s different from what you’re now being asked to do. Most reasonable clients understand and will agree to change the fee. If not, you’ve got one more reason you don’t want to accept another assignment from that agency.

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Close Enough for Marketing Work

Posted on March 27, 2014 by Comments are off

I’m always impressed when I hear how much time industry analysts, investigative reporters, staff writers for The New Yorker and others spend creating their exposés, nonfiction magazine articles, essays, and so on. To do the best job possible, they research the subject matter extensively in existing documents, interview experts, and write draft after draft—reviewed and critiqued by editors and yet more experts—before publishing their piece. I imagine, at the end of that process, the writer feels satisfied that he’s done as good a job as he can with the subject at hand.

If you want that feeling, don’t become a marketing writer. There’s just never enough time or budget to research a subject thoroughly, reflect on the material and organize it the best way, then write, revise and polish the document until it’s as good as you can make it. Clients, understandably, have deadlines for the assignments they give you, and a limited budget to pay for your time. So your job—my job—is to do the best I can within those constraints.

If the measure of success for the assignment is turning it in on time and within budget, and having it generate the desired number of downloads or hits or leads, then the things I write are usually a success. But if the measure is how good the document turned out to be, compared to how good it could have been, then my work falls pretty far short of success. Not that my clients seem to notice, mind you: They keep giving me assignments, so I guess they’re satisfied with the results. Even though, very often, I’m not. I hand in the assignment and think how much better it could have been if I’d had the time and access to interview more experts, maybe conduct some original research, and write a couple more drafts.

“Close enough for marketing work,” is often my thought as I email a client yet another case study or white paper or eBook that’s 60 to 70 percent of what it could be. I’m sure plenty of my fellow writers have the same thought. Accepting that you didn’t turn in your best possible work just comes with the territory. The consolation, I suppose, is that you tell yourself you did the best you could, given the constraints you had to work within. And that, someday, you’ll have the time and freedom to produce something that’s really as good as you can make it. But it’s not likely that’ll be a marketing writing assignment.

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Projects That Take Too Long

Posted on March 4, 2014 by Comments are off

I’ve been working on writing a fairly simple website for a client for five months. Not every day, of course. In fact, not every week, or even every month. And that’s the problem.

When you repeatedly start and stop a writing project, it’s harder to deliver good copy than if you work intensively and continuously over a short period until you’re done. Working in that compressed timeframe, you can keep the organization of the material in mind, along with the connections among topics, the objectives, and so on—all of which enables you to produce a more cohesive website or eBook or whitepaper with a consistent logic, tone and style. As you go over and over the content, shaping it and thinking about it as you write, it stays loaded into short-term memory and becomes so familiar that don’t have to keep looking up things in source materials. You gain momentum, write faster and revise less, find better ways to organize the material and express ideas, and recognize where you need to fill in gaps in logic or content.

In contrast, when you’re working on a project that proceeds in fits and starts, and you resume writing after not working on the project for weeks, nothing’s left in short-term memory, and you’ve forgotten what you wrote and why. In the interim, you’ve also been working on other projects, and thinking about those has further distanced you from that previous work. So it’s almost like starting over again from scratch. Before you can resume writing, you have to spend time reviewing the source materials again, refamiliarizing yourself with what you were writing before, and loading everything back into short-term memory. Spending all that unproductive time could have been avoided if you hadn’t had the long hiatus. You also have to retrace your thought paths and remember why you did or didn’t do something—and sometimes you can’t remember.

You can compare a start-and-stop writing project to a start-and-stop construction project. The contractor starts to remodel your house. He studies the plans, brings all his tools and materials to the site, and starts making progress. Then you tell him he needs to stop work and resume in three weeks. What does he do? Takes all that stuff away, works on another job for three weeks, then comes back. But at that point he has to read all the plans again, haul all the tools and materials back, remember where everything stood when he left off, and so on. Think how inefficient that is and how much better it would be to just keep him on the job from start to finish with no long breaks. It’s the same for a writer.

Unfortunately, more often than not, there’s nothing you can do about this. The reasons for the stretched-out timeline can relate to changes in company or product positioning, budget, who’s in charge, internal priorities, etc. You can tell clients that the long delays are a bad idea, but they probably already know that and aren’t causing them on purpose. Projects that take far longer than they should are just a fact of business life. The best way for you to help is turn around drafts quickly and get them into the client’s hands for review. There’s not much you can do beyond that.

Oh, and there is one more downside. You don’t get paid until the work is done, and that date keeps getting pushed out, too.

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What My Gardener Taught Me About Freelancing

Posted on January 3, 2014 by Comments are off

We moved recently and had to regretfully say goodbye to the gardener we’d had for 10 years. We have a different gardener at our new house. Comparing the two, it struck me that clients want a freelancer with an approach like that of our former gardener, not like our current one.

Taking the Initiative

Rafael, our former gardener, was possessive about our yard. He’d knock on the door to tell me he’d bought and planted new flowers to replace dead ones. He’d recommend we replace the transformer on our outdoor lights. He’d fertilize the lawn and tell me what the watering schedule should be for the next week. He was always taking the initiative to make the yard look better, save us money, streamline maintenance and so on. After 10 years of working with our yard, he knew it in some ways better than I did and cared for it as if it were his own.

Not So Much

Tony, our current gardener, isn’t like that. To be fair, he’s only been working on our yard for half a year, but I don’t think he cares like Rafael did. I noticed the lowest corner of our lawn had become a bog because the automatic sprinkler system has been overwatering it for weeks. So I changed the watering schedule. I don’t mind that, and I accept that I have responsibility for my yard, too. But I couldn’t help noticing the difference from Rafael. Then the weeds near the street were getting big. I cut them down once, they came back, and I had to ask Tony to cut them. I even had to tell him I’d found oil spots on the driveway from the blower and that they should get it fixed. Tony does an acceptable job, but doesn’t show any initiative and doesn’t make me feel like we’re partners in making my yard succeed.

Something You Can’t Fake

Clients want freelancers like Rafael, not like Tony. They want people who get to know their business, take the initiative to suggest projects that help the business reach its goals, and show by their actions that they care about the business as if they had a personal stake in it. They want you to volunteer to accept part of the responsibility for finding ways to succeed.

I do that for some of the companies I write for. I admit I don’t have that approach for all of them, and the reasons vary. But when I do, it’s because I’ve worked with them for years and write a lot for them; am friendly with my client contact; know a lot about their products, markets, audiences, etc.; and am part of their strategic planning. Having a partnership attitude isn’t something you can fake; and you can’t talk yourself into it. Either you genuinely care about the company and take it personally when projects go well or badly, or you don’t.

It Takes Two

How do companies get freelancers like that? It takes a commitment from both sides.

Some of the things the company needs to do are stick with the freelancer for years, treat him or her fairly, include him in important briefings on marketing strategy, be receptive to suggestions for projects (which doesn’t mean saying yes to them all), and give credit and praise when it’s due.

The freelancer needs to take the initiative to learn more than the basics about the company and its industry, make contacts within the company aside from the main contact, do more than what was asked (and sometimes more than what’s being paid for), and look on the degree of success the client enjoys as a reflection of the quality of his work.

Because a relationship like this takes time, I’m always suspicious of freelancers who claim to be “passionate” (a word I hate with a passion when used in business contexts) about their client from day one. Caring about a client and about the things they care about is a feeling that takes a while to develop, and doesn’t happen with every client. But when it does, it benefits both the client and the freelancer. I saw that with Rafael; we’ll see if it happens with Tony.

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Most of these posts are my opinions and observations about marcom writing; others are about somewhat-related subjects I felt were post-worthy. I'm just hoping none of my current clients leave me after reading these.

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