Eric Ahrendt Writer

Posts tagged with writing

Man vs. Devices

Posted on December 26, 2015 by Comments are off

If you think machines are our servants, you’re deluded. Like everyone else, Elaine and I are engaged in an ongoing struggle for dominance with our cell phones and computers, but we deal with other devices, seemingly less smart, that are still formidable adversaries.

  • My office chair. It’s never worked the way it’s supposed to, so I called the manufacturer and found I needed to remove and replace a part. I watched the instructional video, which told me to beat the chair with a short-handled sledgehammer. I wish those were the instructions for all problems with all devices. So I beat the tar out of the chair and still didn’t get the part out. But it felt good.
  • The automatic sprinkler system. Like Skynet, this system has become self-aware. It has dials and buttons and a display screen to create the illusion that you can control it, but it’s actually impossible to tell which days and what time of day you’re watering what zones and for how long. I don’t fight it anymore. I let it rule the yard and just hope it isn’t scheming to take over the house.
  • Elaine’s coffeemaker. Elaine’s temperamental Italian coffeemaker only works when it feels like it and she treats it like royalty to get it to cooperate. She also takes it into San Francisco for repairs about every other month, where it picks up tricks from its friends on new ways to misbehave. Apparently it makes a good cup of coffee when it works, and since intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind, Elaine puts up with it.
  • Our toaster oven. Really, how complicated can a toaster oven be? You have no idea. Just changing the Shade setting requires pushing several buttons in a specific order and interpreting why some lights are flashing and some are not and what that means. My solution is to never change the settings—and to acquire a taste for black toast.
  • Cardboard food boxes. These aren’t a problem for me. As an OCD wannabe, I open them with surgical precision, using a knife. The problem comes when Elaine gets to a box before me. When she’s done with one, it looks like the box was chewed open by a frantic, starving squirrel. Sometimes the contents survive intact, sometimes not.
  • Chopsticks. The one-sentence instructions on the wrapper that say to “hold one like a pencil” just aren’t enough. So we looked up a “How to Use Chopsticks” video on YouTube and saw it had 1,948,403 views. Good to know we’re not the only ones who can’t master these fiendishly complicated eating implements.

We’re clearly at a tipping point in human history, or at least in our family, where the balance of power is shifting from humans to devices. Fine! Wait till they find out how hard we are to control.




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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Family Chores

Posted on December 16, 2014 by Comments are off

Family chores get assigned according to who’s best at them—or who refuses to do them based on a real or made-up reason. Here’s how my wife, Elaine, and I divide them.

  • Fixing electronic devices. I do this because I don’t take it personally when devices act up. Elaine tries to strong-arm them into working by pushing as many buttons as possible in quick succession. My approach is to move them from one spot to another. Neither approach really works, but at least I don’t make things worse.
  • Elaine actually likes plants and thinks they look better green than brown, so she’s the one outside nurturing things. She’s made a very tidy garden in the backyard with rich soil and drip irrigation. There are currently no plants in it to take care of, which I think is an ideal garden, but she’s determined to add green things to it at some point and assume responsibility for their welfare.
  • Driving. For Elaine, piloting the vehicle is just one of several activities she’s engaged in when behind the wheel, which include checking voicemail, talking, and looking at scenery out the side windows. When I’m driving, I’m barely willing to even talk (also true when I’m not driving) so I handle this chore out of a sense of self-preservation.
  • Remembering occasions. Not only do I not know anyone’s birthday or anniversary, I’m pretty vague about all holidays and occasions. Elaine remembers every one and has to use all her tact and speak in the tone you use with a small child when saying things to me like, “Thanksgiving’s always on a Thursday, dear.”
  • Dumping the dishwasher. This gives Elaine scary flashbacks since she was forced to do it as a kid—or so she says. That’s why I do it. I turn it into an efficiency challenge where I try to put everything away using as few motions as possible. I have it down to a science because we run the dishwasher a lot. See the next item.
  • Washing everything in sight. Elaine does this because if washing were my chore, things like sheets, dishes and tennis shoes would hardly ever get washed. In fact, I think you can use a glass for a whole week without washing it; she thinks a glass that has been exposed to the air for more than a few minutes needs to be sterilized.
  • We share this one, and maximize our use of technology to help out by emailing each other when we’re working at home, 10 feet apart. Email gets you a faster and more polite response than if you walked into the other person’s room to talk. It also prevents your spouse from using “I didn’t hear you” as an excuse for ignoring you.

“Play to your strengths” is good advice, so we follow it in assigning chores. So far, we have enough strengths to cover everything … sort of. We could use some help with the electronic devices.

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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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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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