The Substance of a Blog Post

I’ve been reading Copyblogger a lot lately–it’s a great blog–and this post got me thinking hard about what I’m doing on blog.jamesbhouston.com

Conclusion: I am going to reduce posting frequency here to 2x/week, and am going to increase brain cell usage on each post by 20-30x. I started this blog to forge the discipline of having to produce something every working day, and I think I’ve got the benefits of that locked up by now.

My favorite moment as I comb through blogs in the morning is happening across something that I know at once is entertaining and is going to be valuable to me. Something that feels good to send to other people.

I want to have more posts like that on here, and I want to take a little extra time to be sure they’re that kind of good, at least until I have the hang of it.

And of course I mean I want to post things that are going to be valuable to you, dear reader and especially dear subscriber (P.S. Thanks subscribers! I owe you a beer or 12 oz. of whatever you like to drink.)

Also, as nice as this default WordPress theme looks, it’s inexcusable that I haven’t given this entire site a much-needed customization since breaking ground on it in April. It’s coming, believe it.

So, that’s a wrap for this week and I hope you’ll meet me here on Monday morning.

The Value of a Word

“I am seeking a writer to create a 30 page report on green smoothie recipes for weight loss. This will be a VERY FAST/EASY project for the right skilled writer. . . By applying for/accepting this job, you agree this is a WORK FOR HIRE job. I will require a signed contract stating you will neither own nor have rights to the work in part or whole, you agree your name will not appear anywhere on or in the work and that I own all rights to the work. . .The completed project is to be delivered in an unformatted MS Word document no more than 14 days of being hired. The report must have: – 1” margins all sides – 12 point Times New Roman font – Single spacing – No page breaks. . . I am not looking to spend over $75 on this job.” -Job posting on Guru.com.

If a single-spaced TNR page is around 500 words, then thirty of them are around 15,000 words. 15,000 words for $75 shakes out to a half a cent per word.

I’m endlessly curious about every aspect of a job like this–who posts it, who takes it, what the final product ends up being, where it ends up going, and how much money it ends up making for whomever.

I’m even tempted to take one (because there are many like it out there) just to get some of these answers, but it seems to be set up to be sure the writer knows nothing other than to chug out the pages and not ask questions.

More importantly, I don’t think I could finish it on the schedule this taskmaster demands, especially if it requires any serious research. I was going to say “research or expertise”, but I have to believe anyone who actually has green smoothie expertise knows how to get more money for it.

So the existence of these jobs is pretty discouraging for anyone not already raking in megabucks as a freelance writer. It’s said that anyone who takes a job like this harms the entire profession. Not just writing, any profession–witness the storm that raged when a law firm offered a $10,000/year position (and got 32 applications).

Especially in this economy, there will always be “employers” who prey on desperation plus general ignorance. But what do you do when you really do need work that badly?

Well, nothing, because taking a job like that almost certainly makes you poorer in the short and long term.

A substantive post on Copyblogger makes suggestions about how freelance writers can negotiate better fees, and so provides a good starting point.

We’d all like to be paid more for our work, but protecting its actual value–whatever it is or isn’t–is a whole other skill set than stringing together sentences and paragraphs. Understanding this better is the key to beating back the mysterious online hucksters who, as of now, know they can find someone who will work for half-pennies.

I’ll drink (a green smoothie) to that happening once, for all, and soon.

Seven-Month Review, Part I

 

It’s been seven months since I decided to leave my previous vocation and build a writing and editing business. I’m happy with how things have gone so far, while also acutely aware of how much more there is to do.

The greatest challenge has been staying focused, both “in the moment” (no Facebook!) and on crafting a long-term strategy that is open to questions but immune to doubt.

I’ve written a couple of posts on here before about the first prong of that pitchfork, the struggle for short-term focus. I can’t imagine there’s any characteristic more predictably found in successful freelance writers. Successful anyone, for that matter. But those of us who manage ourselves are particularly screwed if we drool away minutes and hours chasing after every blip that tempts our brains.

There are a lot of solutions offered for this major problem. Three interesting ones are described in this Harvard Business Review article. I’ve been trying some of the mental tune-ups over at Lumosity.com.

Nothing is a magic bullet, but I am pleased to have the motivation to focus better. My livelihood depends on it more than ever.

Almost there!

 

Hey, this guy looks familiar.

“But “almost” is also a stringer, a filler. Two extra syllables, like blush after makeup, just that requisite fuzziness, like ambiguity in an instance of total candor.”

-André Aciman, writing in The New York Times, 9/15/12

Even though he can’t resist taking a peanut gallery potshot at Strunk and White, André Aciman does a good thing for all of us “almost”-abusers who need that spoonful of ambiguity more often than is healthy. Namely, he forces us to examine our compulsion.

It just makes writing a lot easier, taking that extra second to install an escape pod just in case anyone calls us out on the claim that would have been without “almost”:

  • “No, no, the movie was almost as bad as Gigli!”
  • “No, no! I was so mad I almost split the kitchen table in half with an axe!”
A world without “almost”, where everyone is positive beyond any doubt about their every declarative sentence–or at least has the guts to pretend to be–isn’t a real one.

André Aciman’s article deftly analyzes more nuanced uses of the word, though what I ultimately understand as I finish it is that the meaning of “almost” is alm–no, IS!–worth an entire book.

Or at least a bloated Times Magazine twelve-pager.

 

The Aristocrats!

Looking over my early attempts at writing, I notice an over-reliance on punchlines. In fiction, lots of Sixth Sense/Usual Suspects plot twists or answer keys to convoluted puzzles. In essays, a too-well-explained acknowledgement at the end that an opposing viewpoint is very likely correct.

The mistake was my idea that making a major impact on the reader at the end was the most reliable way to leave them knocked on their arse. The thought that the setup (beginning with the first word) has to be just right for a big reveal at the end to be anything but ridiculous, didn’t compute at the time.

It does now, which is one more thing that makes writing, well, work. Poor development in the beginning or middle makes a wet firecracker of the end, however subtle the end is or isn’t.

And amirite that if everything until the end is great, a subdued or anticlimactic ending isn’t really so bad?

Boom!

 

 

 

 

Typing Skills Of The Future

 

I’m passing on the iPhone 5 release today, since the Droid Bionic has worked well enough for me since last November. Having just completed a cross-country road trip where the phone became my entire communications hub for eleven days (never texting while driving, of course), I’m acutely aware how much more I’m typing with my thumbs these days.

What percentage of your keystrokes each day are on a smartphone or tablet? Have you noticed that number increasing year to year? Were you texting and doing anything else with your phone nearly as often in 2001?

I and many others have been training for this for years. Executing shoryukens and hundred-hand slaps on Nintendo controllers (or Sonic the Hedgehog moves on Sega controllers) got a generation of thumbs in good shape for this trend that looks to continue until… who knows?

One question to consider is, will smartphones and tablets stick with the QWERTY keyboard–which was optimized to prevent typewriter jams–or find a more efficient layout that takes into account the ever-increasing amount of thumb-typing?

Another is, will the physical keyboard ever become functionally extinct?

Wax On

 

“Polishing is as much the rendering of complex words into simpler terms as it is de-cluttering the space between your periods, while leaving just a little stylistic juice to spice things up.” -Larry Brooks of storyfix.com, guest posting on problogger.net

The difference, measured in fun, between hacking through the kill-you-in-a-thousand-ways jungle of a first draft and the maestro wand-waving of the “polishing” stage is profound.

When you have a floor to stand on, a start and a finish and any damn thing connecting the two, you have the perspective you need to write the best you can. The barely-coherent first draft ends up revealing to you what you’re actually trying to say.

I don’t know what’s meant by “the space between your periods”–surely not some John Cage sleight of hand about the beauty of silence. Yes, de-clutter the space. What else can you do?

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Have you ever clicked on one of these? Have you ever looked at a comment and thought “This is a product that interests me, and there’s no way clicking on this will broadcast all my passwords, not to mention my entire sordid internet search history, to all of cyberspace?”

If so, let me know and I’ll start waving them through the (excellent) WordPress checkpoint.