Okay, time for a little levity. No sticky situations, anxious anecdotes or dicey dilemmas from the commercial writing world. Just some good old-fashioned griping – about grammar. Got the idea for this post a few weeks back when I managed to run afoul of a friend’s pet peeve by writing, “I’ll try and do _____.” Ouch.
Well. He wrote back, deservedly taking me to task, explaining in exquisite detail:
“I must say — with all due respect — I HATE when writers and others say ‘try and’ (as you’ve done here) rather than the more accurate and appropriate, ‘try to.’ ‘Try and’ suggests TWO different acts: trying something, and then something else (e.g., ‘Try and be a better person.’ So you’re saying, ‘try’ (whatever) AND ‘be a better person,’ too. Whereas ‘try to be a better person’ says precisely what you’re meaning: try to be better.”
Just getting warmed up, he continued, “Almost as bad as when 99.9% of people say ‘could’ care less, when they really mean, and should be saying ‘couldn’t’ care less.”
Voila! Blog fodder. My pet peeves? Beyond the ubiquitous “you’re/your,” “it’s/its” and “compliment/complement”? Well, I’ll let you guys tell yours, and perhaps delve a little deeper while we’re at, and maybe we’ll teach each other something new in the process.
I’ll leave you with this…
What’s one of your grammatical pet peeves (one at a time, please, so we can encourage more contributions from more of you…)?
If you’re an English purist, what are your “grammatical grudges”: those things that have been accepted into the vernacular, but IYHO, should never have been?
What are some obscure/esoteric points of grammar that so many people get consistently wrong, but you know better? 😉
Any fascinating grammatical/linguistic trivia you care to share (word origins, evolution of expressions, etc.)?
Got this great guest post from Wisconsin FLCW Clayton Grow. Great message certainly for all the commercial freelancers writing for technical clients, but really applicable to ANY of us. Every industry has its jargon and corporate-speak, and even if it’s not technical, it can still be just as incoherent to an uninitiated reader. And that’s the key – always know who the audiences are – all of them. Many may be fine with “inside” language, but if others will be reading it who aren’t, you need to factor that in. After all, the whole point is to make things clearer, not muddier. Or as the tongue-in-cheek saying reminds, “Eschew Obfuscation.” 😉 Enjoy!
Winning the War on Esoterrorism: One Writer’s Efforts to Stamp Out Excessive Cleverness
When I suggested adding a sentence to a press release to explain why boiler short-cycling is such a bad thing for a hot water heating system, my commercial writing client looked at me a little dumbfounded. He said that any HVAC technician would know exactly why it’s a bad thing, so why should we waste our word count? Then we talked about how the readers of these press releases aren’t exclusively HVAC techs; they are also building owners and building operations committees. We agreed that all parties involved in the equipment purchasing process should be educated (or re-educated) on the urgency of installing equipment to prevent boiler short-cycling.
Engineers pride themselves on their ability to use appropriate jargon. If you’ve ever walked into a conversation between two engineers working in the same field, you might get the sense that they’re from a different planet. They use terms like “modulus of elasticity” and “liquid desiccant dehumidification” in places where most people would use words like “bendy” and “deodorant.”
This esoteric style of communication (a.k.a. “esoterrorism”) directed towards those “in the know” worked well for me as full-time engineer. But when I became a freelance copywriter, I quickly came to the realization—with the help of our very own Peter Bowerman—that most people that read my stuff don’t care how many fifty-dollar engineering terms I know. They need to grasp the details of my piece quickly and clearly, without having to pull out their engineering pocket reference guide.
So I made a personal pact to obliterate the obscure references in my work and directly demonstrate my intentions using clear, concise, reader-friendly language. To remind myself of my new resolve, I made myself a little motivational sign at my work station.*
This sign has helped me put myself in my readers’ shoes and stop trying to be the cleverest cat in the room. I write mainly for the engineering and construction industries, so my audience consists of building owners, contractors, developers and city officials, as well as engineers. It’s safe to say that a large majority of my audience is better off without the jargon and engineering humor, so the more I strive for clarity, the more effective I am as a writer.
Esoterrorism may not be a problem for most freelance writers, but I’m certain there are many writing for technical fields that may benefit from being constantly reminded to “be clear, not clever.” This new labor for limpidity has helped me to come up with new ways to improve my clients’ more technically dense material. When working on technical documents, I’ve suggested brief definitions to accompany some of the lesser-known terminology, and these suggestions have been welcomed and widely implemented.
In a proposal I edited and re-wrote for a wind farm contractor, one of the steps needed to attach the wind turbine base to the foundation read simply “torqueing and tensioning.” Because the gentlemen who provided me with this section of text had been erecting wind turbines for many years, he, of course, knew exactly what “torqueing and tensioning” meant, and felt no need to explain it further on the proposal.
But then we talked a little more about it and concluded that not everyone reviewing this proposal has witnessed the entire construction process of a wind turbine, and may have no idea what “torqueing and tensioning” is. So, I added a sentence explaining that proper torqueing and tensioning of the anchor bolts was critical to ensuring the concrete base didn’t crack under too much tensile stress. It didn’t make the proposal any more interesting, but it conveyed the contractor’s thorough understanding of wind turbine technology to the developer.
People working in specialized fields often forget that their knowledge is unique, and often needs to be explicitly explained to many of their readers. These readers are potential customers, who will be grateful for the information we impart.
*I actually put this sign up well before the recent news of events overseas, but I figured I’d jump at the chance to blend current events with some writing advice.
What are some examples of clarity you’ve suggested to your clients?
Do you have a unique way to remind yourself to be clear?
Has anyone personally thanked you for clarifying a challenging concept in a piece you’ve written?
Have you been guilty of “esoterrorism” in your writing?
About the author:
Clayton Grow put his engineering stamp in the drawer to help explain the world of engineering and construction to engineers and non-engineers alike. More info about this freelancer’s fight against esoterrorism at www.TheWritingEngineer.com.
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
Retainers – essentially a guaranteed monthly income from a commercial writing client – can be wonderful things. Not to mention especially welcome in a tough economy – and as you’ll see in Tim’s account, they’ll not only benefit us, but our clients as well.
Tim’s had some solid success with this strategy in building his own commercial freelancing business, and generously shared his experiences. Then it hit me that it’d make an ideal blog post – perfect for gathering input and experiences from all of you.
Frankly, I haven’t had much firsthand experience with retainers in my commercial copywriting practice, but if you have, I hope you’ll weigh in! Take it away, Tim…
Being a commercial freelancer can be more than just “per project” work. There’s a way to enjoy our fabulous lifestyle without worrying where your next check will come from. Setting up retainer-based agreements with clients is a great way to ensure consistent freelance copywriting income.
This is exactly what I did a few years ago when I said goodbye to the corporate world. Instead of hurling myself into the freelancing abyss without a safety net, I approached my boss with a unique proposition: I would resign my position as a hospital marketing director, but stay on as a consultant to help groom my replacement (my assistant). This way, she could learn the ropes and I could have the time I needed to build my copywriting practice.
It was a win-win for both parties. We agreed on a three-month contract that paid me roughly the same as I was making full-time. I had plenty of time to build a healthy business base while spending a few hours each week training my replacement and writing all of the communications pieces for the hospital. Plus, I could still pay all of my bills! The arrangement worked so well, I decided to approach some of my recurring clients with a similar proposal.
The response was tremendous. Because of the economy, many of my prospects (large hospitals) had laid off much of their marketing and communications staff. Since the work still needed to be done, they jumped at the chance to bring in an experienced hospital marketer/communications writer to help them get through this economic downturn.
As things start to pick up, many of my clients are realizing that my services fill all of their marketing needs, and at a fraction of the costs associated with bringing someone in full-time. Though I still do some one-off project work, my most productive partnerships are retainer-based consultant gigs.
How to get a client to agree to a retainer? Here’s how I approach it:
1) Every long-term relationship starts with a single project. Once you land it, knock it out of the park. Exceed your client’s expectations.
2) Once you’ve floored them with your talents and professionalism, follow up with a phone call. If they’re local, take them out to lunch. Ask if they have an ongoing need for writers. If so, pitch yourself as the solution.
3) If they’re interested, find out what their needs are, and what their budget is. From that info, craft a proposal detailing the services you’ll provide (e.g., blogging, web management, e-newsletters, etc.), the hours you can dedicate to them, and your monthly rate. The proposal doesn’t need to be some extensive legal document; one or two pages will suffice. If it’s a large company, they’ll most likely have you sign a legally binding vendor agreement. Read it carefully.
Make sure to include language in your proposal stating what will happen if you exceed—or don’t reach—the hours you’ve agreed upon. When the client has a light workload one month, I still ask to be paid in full (that’s the beauty of a retainer).
On the flip side, during busier months, I reserve the right to charge my hourly rate for excessive overages. Now, I have strong relationships with my retainer clients. As such, I will often not charge for a few extra hours here and there. However, when there’s an unusually heavy workload, I will let my client know that I’m approaching the cut-off and there might be some extra fees involved. That way, they can plan accordingly and either give me the go-ahead to move forward or hold off.
Also, revisions to your proposal should be expected while negotiating the agreement. Be prepared to be somewhat flexible with your rates and the hours you commit to. You may also want to start with a one-month contract to see how the partnership works, then make changes to the agreement down the road.
If negotiations aren’t as smooth as you’d like, be patient. Remember that this is a mutually beneficial situation––you’re guaranteed consistent income for an extended period of time and they’ll have dependable access to an expert in their industry.
If you’ve had experience with retainers, how did yours unfold at the outset?
How did you structure them?
Has the tougher economy opened doors to possible retainer scenarios?
Have you had retainers that didn’t work out well, and if so, what would you have done differently?
If you haven’t done any retainers, do you have some clients who might be a good candidate for such an arrangement?
Want to be a guest blogger on The Well-Fed Writer Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
PB Note: Got this really intriguing guest post from Chicago-area commercial freelancer Melanie Jongsma – a great thought-starter to get your creative wheels turning. I invite you to view it not as one about someone doing “memorial folders,” but rather, as the story of someone who looked beyond the typical commercial writing box and found an income opportunity where most people wouldn’t. Ideally, it should make you go, “Hmmmm…what other arenas might I have overlooked that could be turned into a profitable copywriting direction?”
And no, projects like the ones described below won’t make you rich, but for the time expended, they’re great little “slot-ins” to keep your commercial freelancing plate full. And, again, what other even juicier untapped venues might be out there?
My best friend’s mother died unexpectedly in 2006. I sat with her and her family as they sorted through photos and told stories through their tears. There’s not much you can do to help in a situation like that, but I did the one thing I could: I designed and wrote the funeral program.
Three years later, when my friend’s father died, I was able to help with his funeral program too. It turned out to be a keepsake that the whole family treasured.
In both of those situations, Funeral Director Mike Matthysse (of Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf Funeral Homes) expressed appreciation for the work I had done. He recognized what a value this service would be to other grieving families, so we began to talk about how personalized memorial folders could become a service option for Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf’s existing ministry.
A proposal that worked for both of us
Having learned a lot from Steve Slaunwhite about pricing, I sent Mike a carefully crafted proposal. Mike liked what I had to offer, and he wanted to hire me, but he couldn’t meet the price I had quoted. So I adjusted the quote to make it work for both of us—that is, I brought my price down, but I also decreased the time I would need to invest. For example, I reduced the number of revisions Mike could expect from me, eliminated stock photography options, and asked if there were parts of the work his staff could handle. In the end, we came up with an arrangement that looks like this:
The staff at Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf gather photos and information from the family, scan everything, and email it to me all with the specifics of the funeral service.
Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf also posts their clients’ obituaries on the MKD website, so I’m able to access that information if I need additional details.
I review all the info, clean up the photos, write a “life story,” and lay everything out in a format that Mike’s staff will be able to print in-house without having to worry about trimming.
Mike shows a proof to the family and then emails me any corrections that need to be made.
I email the final version of the PDF along with an invoice.
For the above, Mike pays me $250. At first, this amount did not represent $50/hour, but now that I have my systems and templates in place, the work goes faster, so I make about $75/hour per memorial folder.
A few things I’ve learned
I’ve done several of these customized memorial folders since arriving at an agreement with Mike, and here are a few things I’ve learned:
Good questions are important. Because I’m not present at the family interviews Mike and his staff conduct, it’s been a huge help that they are willing to include some additional questions from me. These help fill in the blanks, so I can add some color to the deceased’s life story.
Work like this requires quick turnaround. Mike wants to be able to show the family a proof within a day or two, so sometimes I’m working late to get it to him on time.
Mike and his team were already providing a valuable service before I came along. My role is simply to add to what they already do so well.
Families really do appreciate having this special keepsake. It requires some sensitivity, intuition, and empathy to get the writing right, but it really blesses the people who receive it. And that’s good for Mike’s reputation as well as mine.
I planned to pitch the idea to other funeral directors in my area, now that I have some well-received samples to show. But I’m hesitant because of the quick turnaround required. I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where I need to produce two or three customized memorial folders in a day, in addition to other jobs I have!
A question for fellow writers
This income opportunity developed out of a desire to use my writing skills to help my friend and her family through a difficult time. It’s turned into a frequent (though unpredictable) paycheck with potential for expansion. That makes me wonder… Have there been other times my writing has helped someone, and I’ve overlooked a possible freelance market?
What kinds of writing “favors” have you done for friends that might represent business opportunities?
Have you stumbled on a profitable writing niche (that you’re willing to share) that you’d previously overlooked?
What other business or industries might offer hidden writing opportunities?
Was on the phone the other day with a commercial writing coaching client. She has an established commercial freelancing business with a number of solid, longtime clients that call on her regularly. AND, she wanted to land a few new ones, feeling she needed to broaden her base a bit.
Well, seems the prospecting process has been a tad frustrating of late, as most of what she’s getting are indecisive tire-kickers. People initially acting all interested in her copywriting services but then dragging their feet endlessly. A typical prospect was a woman who’s driving her nuts with request after request to the point where she’s about to give her the old heave-ho.
One day it’s, I love your writing much better than any of the other writers I’ve spoken with, but you’re too expensive. (Pause) Um…here’s a crazy thought, I know… But, uh, maybe you like me better than all the other writers, because, well, I’m a Better Writer. And uh… (slow here, don’t want her to miss this one….) that’s why I’m more expensive. Gasp.
But, then that’s the first and last time the prospect talks about money. Next, it’s, do you have this or that kind of copywriting sample? And then she wants to revisit a sample my client’s already discussed with her. Listening to all this, I harken back to my sales days, and tell her: When a prospect is all over the map with their objections, best thing to do is simply ignore what they’re saying, since it really has little to do with what’s actually going on.
Sure, she could outright ask, “Ms. Prospect, you seem to be interested, and I could be wrong about this, but it just feels like something else is going on that’s keeping you from moving forward. Could I ask what it is?” And that approach is worth a shot. Though, the prospect might tell her, might not, and might freak out that she’s been busted for being so transparent. But my client and I both agreed an even better strategy might be to step back, and as you walk away, leave them with this:
“Ms. Waffler, I’d really love to work with you, and I think, on some level, you feel the same. But, truth is, and I really don’t mean to sound like a rock star or something, but my schedule is filling up pretty fast for the next few months.
“So, if you’ve got some specific projects you want to move forward on, I’d love to discuss them, along with timetables, of course. I want to make sure I have the time to provide the high quality work I’m committed to delivering, and that my clients have come to expect from me. If you’re not ready to get going, no problem at all, but I just won’t be able to promise a quick turnaround if we get started in a few weeks…”
Or some reasonable facsimile thereof…
And here’s the funny part. She was hesitant to say the above to this prospect, despite the fact that, it was, in fact, completely true. She really was that busy (but is a veeeery smart commercial freelancer who looks ahead and tries to ward off the slow periods by continuing to build her client base – even when she IS busy).
She didn’t feel comfortable sounding like she was all that, even though, if you asked her clients, she was just that to them. And I can’t fault her for being modest. I’m not comfortable talking like that, either, but if it’s true, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. And more to the point, if it takes The Reluctant Rock Star Close to light a fire under an indecisive prospect’s behind, then rock on…
Hmmm…as a matter of fact, now that I think about it, who says it’s even got to be true to say it? We’ve all heard the admonition to “fake it till you make it,” right? Here’s Exhibit A of that strategy. Not something to use on every prospect, but if you’ve got a few whose middle names are, “Noodle,” “Mull” or “One More Thing…” and you find yourself gnashing your teeth loud enough for them to hear while you’re talking to them, maybe it’s worth a shot. What have you got to lose?
In addition to being good practice for being bold (which is a muscle like any other: it gets stronger the more you use it), it just sounds like a really fun way to startle the lost causes out of their torpor. And who knows? You might just learn how motivating Perceived Scarcity can be.
Have you ever used this approach (either when it was true or wasn’t) as a way to spur a prospect to action? (or perhaps, because you simply didn’t care anymore…)
Have you encountered more waffling-type clients of late, and if so, how have you dealt with it?
What other strategies have you employed over the years to motivate prospects to pull the trigger on projects?
Any other reflections on the Law of Scarcity?
Want to be a guest blogger on The Well-Fed Writer Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.