Eric Ahrendt Writer

Archive for March, 2014

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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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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Minimalism

Posted on March 13, 2014 by Comments are off

I’m a minimalist who believes less is more and Elaine is not. These examples show the difference that makes in how we organize our lives. (I’m not judging anyone here—but I hope you will.)

  • Like pre-calendar humans, I keep things simple by using only three time references: It happened in the past, it’s happening now, or it may happen in the future. If you need to pinpoint an event more precisely, you’ll have to ask someone else—like Elaine, who can tell you the exact year she got her first parka (1965) or when our kids were born. It’s beyond me how she does it.
  • Like most houses, ours has windows, and Elaine likes to open as many of them as often as she can. I wanted to keep things simple and install windows that don’t open, but was overruled. I don’t get why anyone would want to open a window—you just have to remember to close it later. Why would you want to let outside air into the house anyway? I accept that we need windows to let light in, but if you want outside air, go outside. Duh.
  • There are thousands of colors of toenail polish and Elaine likes variety, so she comes home with a different one every time. Russian Navy. Matte About You. Zillionaire. Nightbreed. Honk If You Love Opi. I don’t currently get my toenails done, but I’m thinking of starting just so I can make a point by choosing a single color and sticking with it forever. Maybe Phoebe.
  • To me, fewer clothes in the closet means less time wasted deciding what to wear. Steve Jobs felt the same way. (We’re a lot alike in other ways, too.) So I keep reducing the amount of closet space I take up, which Elaine happily takes over. She even has more than one of some items, like black slacks. I don’t get it; you can only wear one pair at a time, right?
  • Elaine always has several beverages available—tea, coffee, water, juice, whatever. I stick with water. I’m on edge at a restaurant when I have glasses of both water and wine in front of me. I quickly finish off one so I don’t have to keep choosing between them. There’s a practical side to this: What if I have to suddenly wash down a lump of food so I don’t choke to death? Clearly, that’s no time to be complicating your decision process with multiple options.
  • When it comes to relationships with business associates, friends, former neighbors, our children, etc., Elaine is like the Sun, with a powerful, far-reaching gravitational field that keeps people close. She even makes an effort to keep relationships alive when they start to fade. My gravitational field is more like Pluto’s, exerting hardly any pull at all. People are complex, so life is simpler when you have fewer in your orbit.

It’s not easy living with a minimalist, so I give Elaine credit for not smothering me with a pillow … yet. Maybe I should just let the black slacks thing slide and not push my luck.

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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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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