Eric Ahrendt Writer

Posts tagged with business writing

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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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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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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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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