Tag Archives: freelancing

Interpreting ‘lancing ads, and introducing ABSS

If you’ve ever been a ‘lancer, you’ve looked at the ads. If you are curious, head to your local Craigslist. Look under Jobs: Writing & Editing and Gigs: Writing. That’ll give you a fair sample of the usual offerings.

Don’t get me wrong; it is quite possible to get good writing gigs off Craigslist. It just means kissing a lot of toads along the way, and translating from adbullshitspeak to common English. In adbullshitspeak (ABSS), all faddish business jargon is in play. The ‘Lancer is here to help you parse the ABSS:

Academic writing: Professional cheating.

Best practices: Whatever makes the company the most money without giving you any extra.

Branding: Shoving stuff in front of people who would rather not see it; thus, fancy word for advertising.

Creating positive content: Writing fake glowing reviews for businesses whose business practices get them blowing reviews, trying to drown out the truth in lies.

Exposure: No pay.

Friendly environment: Chaotic environment, typically with a couple of half-nutso co-workers who can’t be fired for whatever reason.

Ghost writer: Person expected to accept minimal pay and maximum intervention/micromanagement. Will be lied to by client.

Other duties as assigned: Expect to be shunted into something else. Your opinion of it will not really matter.

SEO: You’re writing to game Google. Expect to be required to stick irrelevant HTML tags into your stuff for this purpose. Put another way, your job is to make the Internet worse.

Serious writers only: Yeah, in a buyer’s market, we have to advertise on Craigslist to get anyone interested.

Social media experience: Welcome to the world of comment trolls!

SME: Person who knows everything you will be required to document, but is incapable of conveying it to an uninitiated Philistine like yourself.

Top earning potential: This is the number you will never approach no matter what you do.

(we are not providing our company name): We don’t want you researching us until we get our pitch in.

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Commentary on “42 Dos and Don’ts from a Dick”, and a dirty little secret

First comes the original e-mail, a rejection letter sent to some 900+ applicants who didn’t get an online writing gig.  Read it within this Gawker article impaling it as “42 dos and don’ts from a dick.”  You can then read the original author’s logic and rebuttal at Salon.

When I look at the anger Shea’s long list of advice has generated, my thoughts include:

  • Wow.  No good deed does go unpunished.
  • These people are not cut out to be writers at all.  They cannot take constructive criticism.  I wouldn’t have hired them either.
  • This is a perfect manifestation of the “I’m So Awesome” generation that got a trophy just for deigning to show up.
  • What part of ‘follow the directions’ is so complicated?

I find this all very revelatory.  It’s helpful to me, because there are a couple of errors mentioned that I can easily see myself making, and would rather not make them.  (Thanks, Shea!)  What it reveals to me is that I haven’t been wrong about the Amazing Ego Based Upon Few Results mentality so common today.  Anything that sounds like negative feedback:  “That’s disrespecting me!”  Respect is earned, sorry.  Advice offered:  “How arrogant to think you know better than me!”  Uh, he does; he’s in a position to hire, and you are not.

Think on it.  They would rather have been ignored than receive help.  They would rather flounder in ignorance and mediocrity than take a bruise, suck it up and grow.  Anything less than “You’re so awesome!” is a boot in the groin.

How did we wind up raising young adults this way? Is this a young adult thing, or a writer thing, or a young adult writer thing? Feel free to educate me.  Because when I get a list of 42 things I might be doing wrong, I want to bless the sender.  That’s 42 things I should never do wrong again.

I promised you a dirty little secret, and you shall have it.  Truth:  I didn’t succeed as a ‘lancer because of busting my butt, nor by being a brilliant writer. That isn’t self-deprecation; I’m not saying I didn’t work hard, nor that I’m untalented.  I succeeded at freelancing because most of my competition took a look at its path ahead, sowed as many mines as possible in its path, concealed them carefully, went away for a while to forget where they were, then just waltzed on through the self-made minefield.  Over, and over, and over.  Most of my competition suicided on the way to the finish line.

I didn’t have to beat them.  They beat themselves.

Researching on the phone

One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, many will talk to you. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message. By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.

Why would they talk to me? Most are curious to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company. I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them. If a real person answers, most are helpful, especially historical society/museum curators. They like this. Someone wants to know the things they know! (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)

Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid. I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy. They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did their job: try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history–which is good to know, but is by no means the last word. I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.

Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path. A major MLM company got a taste of that. The firm (one I loathe enough that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder. Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder: was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius. They flatly denied this third founder. Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off: “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin. You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it. Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again. I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.

That set me to shoveling twice as hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor. What that meant, of course, was that it went into print. Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No. Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? It wouldn’t break my heart…

Working while sick

It’s one of the hardest parts of freelancing.  Suppose you feel like hell.  Are you going to do your work? Well, let’s put it this way.  If you have a tight deadline, if you are conscious and can function, yeah, you’re going to do your work.  Now, the editors I work with are generally very understanding and kind folks, but it isn’t that way everywhere.  Plus, understanding and kindness would surely wear thin if you played the card all the time, or even often.

So the bottom line is that yeah, I’m going to do my work.  I have a number of entries that must be rewritten by Wednesday, and a timeliness track record to protect.  What is more, it must be up to the standards my editors expect from me.  Never mind that I’m not physically or mentally up to the standards I expect from myself; an editor reviewing my MS will see only whether it’s okay or not okay.

This is one of the hardest things to convey to prospective writers.  There is a writing mentality that I call the “Oh, for a muse…” perspective.  It savors la vie litteraire, a world of bons mots and clever epigrams.  It yearns to sprinkle random French terms with deep savoir faire.  It imagines an ivory tower of eloquence, insight and not having to explain what ‘onomatopoeia’ means.  It is pensive people in berets sipping sophisticated coffees in proper coffee shops, as opposed to realtors sipping extra large super-skinny caramel lattes with four shots of mandarin syrup.  It hankers after a sense of intellectual superiority, the mojo of being able to say “I’m a writer” and have people coo over you.

Well, I’m a writer, and what it means right now is gluing myself to my machine and getting my work hammered out fueled by Ricolas, coffee, tea, a pizza most would consider toxic waste.  The upsides are that I don’t have to talk (I barely can; I sound like Darth Vader) or socialize (always a battle for me to begin with).  But I do have to write.  I don’t get to plead ‘writer’s block,’ a concept in which I don’t fundamentally believe anyway.  If I write, I will get paid and preserve my rep for producing (thus probably getting to write more later).  If I don’t, I won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

Writing: my hardest day

I’ll tell you a story of my most difficult writing day.  I’ve never told anyone every detail.  Maybe it’ll help me to do so, and if not, maybe it’ll interest you.

About four years back, I was working on Armchair Reader: World War II.  It was at once challenging and invigorating:  about thirty articles in forty days, with respectable research.  For some I had to blaze through three books.  As fate had it, my topic listing hewed to two general concentrations:  conspiracy theory/controversy topics (Rudolf Hess, the Rosenbergs) and atrocity-related subjects.

Now, I am not easily shocked.  I can be disgusted, or angered, but not shocked.  A side effect of the research I did for the articles on this book was the cumulative impact of the images one sees in the course of intensive research.  Had you asked me in advance, I’d have worried I would become desensitized.  I was pulling 12-14 hours days seven days a week during the holidays, I was anxious to please my editors…you might say I was pretty strung out.

It happened about 7 PM one December evening.  I was digging for details on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (“Juden Haben Waffen!”, pp. 151-53), specifically wrestling with the unending debate over the degree to which the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) assisted the Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.  To this day, that one gets ugly, and my best assessment is that both sides have fair points.  I suspect the AK gets less credit than it deserves for the help it did give; I also suspect that there were many in Poland who didn’t really see Polish Jews as Poles, or even as people.

As I read through yet another account of the way Nazi soldiers laughed at the ‘paratroopers’ (Jews leaping from burning buildings to their deaths), I came across a photo I would wipe from my mind if I could.  I hope you never locate it, and I’ve at least forgotten where I did.  Bear in mind, I had seen many very sorrowful images this day already.  The photo was of three captured ghetto fighters under the submachineguns of the SS.  All almost surely died within the hour, or were shipped somewhere to die.  One was a young woman or teenage girl, nude, attempting to cover up but at the same time standing in a certain degree of proud defiance.

I flipped the page in haste, but I couldn’t unsee it.  As I kept on with my work, I felt a growing sense of a deep melancholy I’ve only experienced twice.  Once was at Andersonville, Georgia (Civil War POW camp), as I washed my hands in Providence Spring.  The other was at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland.  About half an hour later, my research ground to a meandering halt in a mire of melancholia.  It came to me that I was nearing emotional collapse.  Professionally and personally, I didn’t have time for an emotional collapse.  And I realized:  I must finish this article tonight, while I yet can.  However I do it, I mustn’t go to sleep until it’s fully drafted and I’ve resolved my questions.  Tomorrow it will be too late, and I will fail in this assignment, almost surely damaging my future prospects.

While it’s not the ideal way to get through pain, there’s a reason people sometimes decide to have a drink.  I went to the liquor cabinet and got something; don’t remember what.  I drank some of it (not sure how much), sipping steadily through the evening.  I don’t remember when I turned in or how hammered I was, but I did get the research and draft done sometime after midnight.  What I edited the next day was surprisingly all right considering the circumstances, and I moved on to the next topic, something far tamer.

Unfortunately, to this day I still see the image too clearly.  Am I proud of the way I dealt with it? Yes and no.  Yes, that I did my job anyway.  No, that I wasn’t strong enough to do so without ethyl assistance.  But either way, I am reminded by it of a quote and a song.  The quote is Kurt Vonnegut’s from Slaughterhouse Five:  “So it goes.”  The song is Voodoo (Godsmack), and I can’t tell you exactly why this Goth tune associates with the experience in my mind.  Just that it does.

© J.K. Kelley, 2011

Why ‘lancers fail

There’s a lot of work out there for freelance writers.  While my editors don’t slather me with details about my competition, I’ve divined some reasons why people who think they could do it, really can’t:

1) Some just do not have the writing chops.  Editors can edit but they don’t want to have to clean up all your work.  You must be able to write in the way they want.

2) Some don’t comprehend deadlines.  You have to have your work in by the deadline.  No one cares why if you fail.  Business is business.  Do your work on time.  Do not have crises.  Do it anyway.

3) Some can’t deal with being edited.  Sorry, but you will be, and it’s probably for the best.  Sometimes not; I have had ‘fact checkers’ insert errors into my work.  But as Kurtis Blow teaches us, ‘that’s the breaks.’

4) Some do sloppy research.  Editors don’t want ugly surprises.  If you don’t have the research skills, and especially if you rely on Wikipedia or other fragile sourcing, they will get letters.  Back it up.

5) Some bitch.  It’s that simple.  Just don’t bitch.  People prefer to assign work to people who want it.  Be a pro, cheerfully confident and eager for assignments.  If you don’t like to write, you picked the wrong line of work.  Plus, if you always produce, eventually your editors will do what is easiest for them.  “Let’s see.  I could try and send this to Joe and Susan, and deal with their excuses and crap.  Or I could send this to my trusty Julian, who never fails, is eager for the work and obviously likes it.  What is to my best advantage?”

The distilled essence of ‘lancing is simple.  Be the easiest option.  If you are not the easiest and most attractive option for editors, you are doing it wrong.  You should adjust your attitude and habits as necessary until you are the preferred writer.  Be easy to deal with, be professional, be reliable.  You think it’s overrated? I ended up writing about 70% of a whole book just because I was the only one who could cut the mustard, and kept yelling for more work.  I did pretty well that year, owed a lot of taxes.  Keep on message:  “Or you could just assign it all to me, and just have it done and off your plate.”  Say so often enough, and you’ll get your wish.  And if you produce, it’ll come back to help you.  Because thereafter, when you say “I can,” they’ll believe you.