Eric Ahrendt Writer

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Write What You Know

Posted on October 31, 2014 by Comments are off

If you’re an aspiring creative writer, it’s a good bet you’ve received that piece of advice: Write what you know. It’s not often given to business writers, but the reasons it makes sense still apply.

If you’re a staff writer for an organization, you’re hearing, reading, talking and thinking about your company’s products, services, markets, etc. all the time. You’re also familiar with your industry, your audience, and your company’s overall objectives. When you’re given an assignment, knowing all that makes it possible for you to deliver a document quickly that’s very close to final, without having to interview experts, look up information in related documents, read websites to learn about the industry, and so on. You’re writing what you know—or, put another way, you know what you’re writing about.

In contrast, if you’re a freelance writer, you’re an outsider who doesn’t swim in that sea of company knowledge. To write an eBook, or web page, or presentation or other marcom document, you need to acquire that knowledge quickly and in enough depth to do your assignment. And even once you have, you’re not really confident in that knowledge because it’s still comparatively shallow. You’re feeling your way along as you write, like someone in a very dimly lit, unfamilar room. You can’t write very fast and are constantly wondering if the way you’re writing about the product will pass muster with readers (and your client) or will maybe reveal you right off the bat as a dilettante.

I’m often in that uncomfortable position, which makes it all the more enjoyable when I’m not. When I write about a subject I know little about, I’m slow and tentative. When I write about a subject I know well, I’m fast and sure-footed. I imagine staff writers must feel that way most of the time; for us freelancers, the only way to get that feeling is to write a lot for a client for a long time.

Over my career, I’ve reached that point with several clients. It happens when I’ve worked for them for more than a year or two and have had a constant stream of documents to write. I became like a staff writer—I know enough to just sit down and write a blog post or infographic or script with a minimal amount of research. Writing with that kind of facility is a pleasure because you actually know what you’re talking about.

I suppose if someone wanted that feeling all the time, they’d become a staff writer. I think about that sometimes, but I’ve done it before, and staff positions have a downside: After a short while, writing about a narrow range of subjects over and over is boring. You also lose your ability to get a fresh perspective on your products and come up with original creative concepts. And then there’s the whole world of corporate life to take into account.

My point is that writing what you know is an entirely different and better experience than writing what you don’t know. Whether you’re on staff or freelance, it’s the place you want to be.

 

 

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Negotiating with Clients About Deadlines

Posted on August 2, 2014 by Comments are off

In my experience, “When can you get it to me?” is tied with “How much will it cost?” for being the first question a client asks after explaining an assignment. Both are kind of hard to answer before you’ve had a chance to review source materials, decide if you need to do interviews, figure out how much you need to write from scratch vs. adapt from another document, and so on. But that doesn’t get you out of giving an answer.

Stall If You Can

If you answer the “when” question right there on the phone, it’s going to be a real guess, and, if you’re eager to please, as most freelancers are (and for good reason), you’re likely to commit to a date that puts pressure on you to finish quickly. Better to say, “Let me look over the materials and get back to you.” Clients accept that. They all want everything ASAP, of course, but they do understand that it takes a few days to write a multi-page document. Some even understand that you have other clients whose projects may be in line before theirs.
So if you’ve bought some time, you can look at the materials, find out what you’ll need to write the piece, check your schedule, and email them back with an estimate. I usually promise to get them a draft within a couple of days to a week. Sometimes clients call with a short assignment—a headline for a web page, a marketing email that’s very similar to others I’ve already done, title options and a paragraph about a webinar—and they’ll want it that very day. I almost always say yes, even though they’re cutting in line before others. Why not give outstanding service if you’re able?

Use Smart Negotiating Tactics

If you have to give an answer on the phone, follow the rules of smart negotiating: Just like in price negotiations, where you should avoid being the first one to name a price, in deadline negotiations, avoid being the first one to name a date. If you let the client name a date first, chances are they’ll be more lenient than you would be. They don’t want to appear unreasonable, so they may name a date that’s towards the end of the date range they need the piece. On the other hand, if you name a date first, you want to appear responsive, so your date is probably sooner. Better to let them go first, have them name a date further out, which is what usually happens, and just agree to that.

What’s a Rush?

Now that I’ve brought up cutting in line, I have to talk about its implications for deadlines, client service and fees. I know a graphic designer who always applies rush charges to assignments that cut in line in front of other jobs on his schedule. He doubles his fee for those assignments. I think doing that (a) compensates him for the inconvenience; (b) discourages clients from making a habit of asking for extremely fast turnarounds; and (c) risks alienating clients.
I think rush charges are justifiable, but I don’t assess them myself, partly because I have trouble defining a rush. Is it a rush if a client calls me in the morning and asks me to turn around a short assignment that day, and I have the time to do it and still stay on track with other assignments? Not in my book; that’s just being a good vendor. At the other end of the spectrum, if someone calls me on Friday with a fairly time-consuming assignment and wants it on Monday, meaning I have to work over the weekend, that’s a rush. But there are lots of requests in the gray area in between that constitute cutting in line but don’t make me work nights or weekends and don’t put me at risk for not meeting other deadlines. Are those a rush? Not in my book.

If you’re going to assess rush charges as a standard business practice, you need to define for your client, right at the beginning of the relationship and in writing, what constitutes a rush and how much extra they’re charged. I’ve never done that, so I’m not comfortable assessing rush charges on an ad hoc basis with no warning. The rub for spelling all this out up front, though, is that a client might not like that and go elsewhere. “If they do,” my designer friend would answer, “you’re better off not having them as a client.”

Fast, Cheap or Good

BTW, this whole discussion of rush charges and turnaround times should also include a comment on quality, because they’re all tied together. Remember the classic option vendors present to clients: “You can have it fast, cheap or good. Pick any two.” Writing something in a rush often does in fact affect the quality. Some assignments, like creative concepts for a marketing campaign, just can’t be turned around in a day. Well, they can, but the ideas you come up with won’t be nearly as good as they would if you had more time to spend thinking. So if you feel a turnaround time is too short to allow you to do the job right, ask for more time, and explain why. I’ve found that most deadlines aren’t drop-dead deadlines, except when they are.

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Good, Better, Best

Posted on June 22, 2014 by Comments are off

St. Jerome’s hoary advice regarding effort and work quality, which I find nearly impossible to apply to my marcom writing, is: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Till your good is better and your better, best.” As a priest (later a saint) living in the fourth and fifth centuries, he had a lot of time to spend on projects—unlike me and most other freelance writers today.

When I get an assignment, the client can barely finish explaining it to me before asking when I can deliver it. I know they want it right away, but I try to give myself at least the time to write it, get away from it overnight, and review and improve it the next day. (This goes for something short like a blog post or a marketing email. I clearly need more time for an eBook, website, etc.) Clients usually give me at least that much time, although it’s not uncommon for them ask to have something back the same day.

The issue is this: I know that what I give them back is not my best work. Why isn’t it? Because there’s simply no time to move the writing up the good-better-best ladder. The “good” is doable—that’s a draft that you spend time on and revise as you write and read through again and improve. The “better” is also usually doable if I’m given a deadline that’s a day or more in the future because I can improve that first draft. But the “best”? That takes more research, more thought, and more drafts—which means more time, and that’s something you’re not going to get.

It’s also a question of cost. I charge mostly by the hour (sometimes a flat fee) and the more time I spend, the more the project costs. The “better” version of the assignment is almost always perfectly acceptable to the client, and, in their eyes, spending more money to get an incremental improvement isn’t worth it.

You could say that I should simply spend the extra time necessary to produce my best work and not charge the client for it. There are two problems with that. One is that the assignment is due so quickly that I simply am not given any extra time, even if I wanted to use it. The other problem is that since what I’m doing is running a business and not producing Art, I can’t continually give away billable time for nothing. Still, that’s exactly what I do occasionally, such as when I need to do a stock photo search for a simple email and it takes me half an hour to find the right image. I don’t charge the client for that because it would make my fee unacceptably high for such a simple assignment.

I know advertising and other creative marcom assignments represent the intersection of Art and Commerce, and that producing Art takes time. But the Commerce side is dominant—no client is going to give you all the time and money you need to create Art. So you do the best you can with the time and budget you’re given, and let it rest. For a copywriter, that’s the equivalent of St. Jerome’s “best.” Even if you know it’s really only “best under the circumstances.”

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Clients and Their Wishful Thinking

Posted on March 14, 2014 by Comments are off

When they’re assigning writing work to a freelancer, clients tend to engage in wishful thinking. Consciously or not, they’re wishing they’ll get back a draft that magically resolves all the unresolved issues with their messaging, positioning, product descriptions, content organization, etc. that they couldn’t or didn’t figure out before handing over the assignment. Sorry, doesn’t work that way. Fuzzy underlying thinking always results in fuzzy writing.

What often happens is a client hands over a semi-developed marketing strategy, some but far from all the content I need, and a vague explanation of what the key messages are, and then directs me to start writing. So I do. The resulting draft is off target, though, because my writing reflects their fuzzy direction on what the piece is all about. What they were hoping is that, despite the admittedly incomplete direction and content they gave me, I’d be able to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, divine their unexpressed objectives, and give them back a draft that answers questions they couldn’t answer themselves. Wishful thinking.

Still, it turns out that I can in fact do a little of that, but only because I have the time and am being paid to sit and think through the assignment. They could do it, too, and better than me, if they had the time to spend on it free from other distractions. But they don’t. So based on input from them that’s 50 percent of what I needed, I give them back a draft that’s maybe 75 percent of a finished product. I highlight the missing 25 percent in the draft with questions and placeholders—a 25 percent that came into relief only when someone (me) tried to turn the material into a logical, coherent piece of writing. And my draft, while not solving all their problems as they hoped it would, does in fact solve some of them and helps solve the others by pointing out exactly what they are.

Even though it must sound like it, I’m not actually complaining about this. I just accept it as part of my job and part of what clients are paying for. David McCullough expressed what’s going on in an interview: “Writing forces you to think, to bear down on the subject, makes you think as nothing else does. It’s why writing ought to be stressed far more in schools. It’s a way of working out problems, working out your thoughts, and arriving at insights, conclusions, revelations, that you never could have obtained otherwise. That’s really the reward of it.”

Even though he was talking about writing nonfiction, what he says applies to writing of any kind. Even marketing writing, which is clearly not non-fiction.

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Why Bother With a Creative Brief?

Posted on February 10, 2014 by 1 Comment

What’s the fun part of developing branding campaigns, online or print ads, website home pages and other marketing pieces? Coming up with creative concepts. What’s the work part? Researching and writing the creative brief. So maybe it’s no surprise that clients are avoiding the step of writing a brief and—even if they’re working with a creative team—are diving directly into coming up with creative concepts themselves. What’s wrong with that? For starters, how about the creativity of the concepts, the degree to which they meet marketing objectives, and the ability to measure results.

Short-Circuiting the Process

Not only are clients not writing a brief for the creative team to work from, they’re developing the creative concepts themselves. After all, they think of themselves as creative people (who doesn’t?) and all the research and analysis that go into a good brief are hard. It’s faster, easier and more fun to go directly to thinking up crazy concepts. All that’s left is to tell the creative team to execute a couple of them and decide which you like best. Done!

But clients who consistently short-circuit the creative process in this way will get mediocre creative and results. One, because without a brief that specifies the target audience, the marketing objectives, the highest-priority message, the audience’s most-pressing needs or wants, and so on, there’s no guiding document to shape the creative concepts or measure them against. And two, clients rarely come up with concepts as good as those of the creative team.

No Yardstick To Measure With

Imagine two clients: Client A writes a solid creative brief, Client B doesn’t write one at all. Client A gives the brief to the creative team, which develops three ad concepts. Client A evaluates the concepts using the creative brief as the yardstick. The determining factor in which concept is chosen isn’t which one is the most original or edgy or funny, but which one best meets the objectives set out in the brief. She picks the winner, has the team execute it, and measures its success, again using the brief as the yardstick. The result for Client A is an ad that helps the company meet the objectives spelled out in the brief, which are part of an overall marketing strategy.

Client B, who never wrote a brief, developed the creative concepts for the ad himself. He evaluates them by showing them to a few colleagues in the office, all of whom have different ideas about who the audience is, what the key benefit to be communicated is, and different opinions on what works. He gets back a mishmash of opinions, none of them grounded in any commonly agreed-upon set of criteria, and makes a completely subjective decision to go with one of the concepts. He then gives it to the creative team to “clean up” and produce. He has no way to measure its success, since what it’s supposed to accomplish was never defined. Was it a good creative concept? Who knows—there’s no brief spelling out what the ad was supposed to do, so there’s no way to say the creative worked or not. And there’s no way to measure results.

Moral of the Story

The moral of the story for clients: You don’t have to write a brief that contains pages of quantitative research, a category analysis and so on (although that would not be wasted time at all), but you do need to write a short brief that spells out who the target audience is, what you want to accomplish with the ad (create awareness, change perception, differentiate your product, etc.) and clearly states the most important message to communicate. You should stop there, give the brief to the creative team, and let them come up with the concepts. You’ll get better creative that does a better job of meeting your marketing objectives. True, you didn’t get to do the fun part, but selling more product, getting credit for managing a successful campaign, and getting raises and promotions can be fun, too.

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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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