The Struggling Writer

The chronicles of a freelance writer as he tries to make a living.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cash in on cheap content

I recently had a project where I had to rewrite the content of a website. When I looked over the site, I could feel the brain damage setting in. The content was...well, I can't think of a word that adequately describes how unbelievably bad it was. It was obvious to me that this site had hired one of these "half-cent a word" outfits. Every page was just keyword-stuffed, redundant gibberish.

I tried rewriting it, but there was just nothing useful there. I ended up punching out a bunch of original content. It was easy work and required no research, but I probably spent more time on it than the pay justified. And seriously, I'm pretty sure I killed off a few thousand brain cells.

My point is that freelancers shouldn't mind all the cheap outsourced material. As long as companies buy cheap content, there will be work for genuine writers as we go in and clean up the mess.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More musings on goals

I set my monthly goals by submissions rather than payment. As a freelancer, I can't depend on regular payments. All I can do is put out increasing effort each month until I am earning a level I am comfortable with.

Last month it occurred to me that there is a problem with this system. I near the end of the month, realize I'm nowhere near my goal, and have to scramble to get a couple of submissions in. I added a daily tracker that gives me an increasing target over the month. For example, on May 17 I should have met 17/31 of my goal for May. My monthly goal is to at least match my previous best month.

This month two new problems came up. One is that if I keep just meeting my best month, I never grow. My long term target is to be self-sufficient by August 2008, which will be my 2-year anniversary. I need to make 4x what I'm making now to meet that. If I set my monthly target to 10% over my previous best month, then I should just about meet my self-sufficiency goal. Yes, I realize that the flaw with that is that I'm equating submission with income. I will continue to tweak the system over the coming months.

The other problem is - how do I count project bids? I've bid on several projects this month so I'm out there trying to drum up business, but how do I count that, particularly when I'm bidding on a project of unknown size, and simply quoting an amount per piece, per word, or per hour?

For May, I'm just a hair behind the 10% goal for the entire month. I won't be able to write tomorrow, so I should try and find something to pop out today. Again, that ignores my project bids so if I include those I'm well past my goal. Still, that doesn't make it OK to slack off today.

That's one of the problems with these kinds of goals. If you hit your goal for the month on the 20th, does that make it OK to take the rest of the month off? Heck no, but it's tempting.

Monday, May 28, 2007

How not to "how to"

I gleaned another nugget of writing wisdom from my recent flooring project, and that is the difficulty of finding decent instructions.

I spent a lot of time looking around the web for advice on how to install laminate flooring. I found quite a bit and it was helpful, but I consistently ran into the problem of steps that weren't well enough explained. For example, you have to use spacers to leave a gap between the floor and the wall to allow expansion. However not one how-to article mentioned how the heck to keep the little buggers from falling over all the time! Every person I've talked to who has done laminate flooring had the same problem. All of us ended up just not using the spacers and hoping for the best.

When writing instructions, it's tricky to know the level of your audience. In a case like this, it is likely that the person needs explanations of even simple concepts. These instructions are generally written by people with a lot of experience and they tend to omit things that have become second nature to them.

I'm not immune to this. Once I was training a couple of employees. I was explaining that they needed to click on the such-and-such icon to start the software. This one woman looked absolutely baffled until the other one leaned over and said, "Icons are the little pictures on your screen," and the light dawned. It never occurred to me to explain the term, but it's not like we come out of the womb knowing what "icon" means.

The whole point to writing for the web is hypertext. That means you can give basic instructions with links to in-dept explanations for each step, definitions of words and acronyms, pages of tips, lists of tools needed, and anything else you can think of. That's the whole point of hypertext.

Of course, I realize these articles aren't written with that in mind. These are probably the "I need someone to write 500 words on how to install laminate flooring" types of projects with no real attempt to make use of the strengths of the web.

It's the cool thing nowadays to trash Wikipedia, but that is a good example of a hypertext document done right. Every article contains link after link, embedded in the main text, to allow the reader to explore every angle of a subject. It's great, unless you get caught up on one of those stream-of-consciousness explorations while you are supposed to be researching an article.

In a perfect world, every how-to article would actually link to a massive database of information, allowing readers to decide for themselves the depth of explanation they need. Then again, Wikipedia works because it has several gazillion people working to maintain it and most sites don't have that level of support. Still, I would think some sites dedicated to home improvement (or any other subject) would set up a more heavily cross-linked database.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Freelancers shouldn't DIY

After my last liquid disaster I had to figure out what to do with the floor in my office. I finally decided to install laminate flooring because it's something I could do myself and save money.

Well, no. Freelancers don't save money by doing it themselves. If you work a normal job, you don't lose income by tackling your own projects. For a freelancer, every hour you spend doing something else is time you should be writing. Not only that but, since I have no freaking clue what I'm doing, it took me a lot longer than it would have taken a professional. So it actually cost me more money than having someone else do it.

It's still not quite done. The floor is there and turned out fairly nice, but I still need to do all the cleanup: putting the baseboards back on, rehangning the doors, etc.

I'm facing the same problem with my yard. I have spend months trying to find someone competent and reliable to come by once a month and tame the wild flora. I've been looking so long I've even given up on "competent". I just want someone who just shows up occasionally. I'm still looking for that. In the meantime I waste time (and money) doing yardwork I despise, and I hate it even more since I'm being forced to do it. And I waste time calling another round of people who won't show up. And I waste time being mad about it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

April = best month ever

As I mentioned before, February was a record month for me. You may notice I didn't talk about March. I didn't do so well. I'm getting into the bad habit of coasting on this one client and that's bad. She doesn't give me enough work to live on and I want to diversify anyhow.

April was a new record month, though not by much. At the last minute I submitted an essay to Common Ties so that I could beat February. I'm now tracking a daily submission goal so that I don't have to scramble so much in the last few days of the month.

May is turning out to be great! I'm at nearly twice my daily goal so far with plenty of work over the next couple of weeks. In fact I'm a little concerned that if May goes TOO well it may set a goal I can't easily beat. Ambitious goals are great, but if they are too ambitious then you just give up. Well, I do at least.

I hope to have more posts up in the next few days, including "How Pergo Flooring Relates Writing" and "How I'm Cashing In on Low Paying Jobs".

Incidentally, you know you're a writer when the top application on your start button is Word.