Monday, April 20, 2009

Why you need to break the rules

Did you ever think of why it is not just a good idea but a necessity to break the rules now and then? I'm not talking about breaking the rules like putting your less than favored in-laws in the big Indiana Jones people cooking pot and making a stew, I mean the the general rules of writing to eran a living. How many have I broken in this first paragraph alone that you failed notice until prompted to look for them?

Get the garbage can size of coffee out, this could take awhile.....

All too often you are going to find that everyone has guidelines wherever you go to write. Publishers have word counts and all those fun things, pay to publish sites have their own preferences, and you'll even find people that will tell you there is a specific formula you must follow to be a successful blogger. The protocol extends all the way down to how much you "MUST" make on your work. Everyone has rules and every writer must follow them right? WRONG!

Let's start with the easiest thing which is how much you "HAVE" to get for your work. You see a site you think you would be perfect for but have no idea how to get started writing for them. This is the simplest and for some most painful thing to do-- JUST ASK! Offer to provide a free column once a month for say three months just to see how things work. Sure 80% will turn you down, but the 20% that say okay are a goldmine -even if you never get paid. Sounds nuts to break the rules and write for free, but here's why it's not:

1. You get a broader name recognition. This is your leverage in later jobs you want to land for the actual money. This is when that freebie work pays off. Sounds unlikely? Not really. You as a writer are a brand. When your are starting out you aren't Cheerios, you're more like those Costco Toasty Oats. Just because you start as Toasty Oats doesn't mean you can't become Cherrios. Any shopper can tell you which one costs more at the checkout.

2. Sometimes those unpaid gigs turn into paying gigs. Even when you don't get actual cash, you can still get paid. I know, you're wondering how that happens. How would you like getting free site memberships? How about going to the mail and every 4 or 5 days finding a free magazine subscription, free books, CD's, DVD's, and products from people that just want you to write a review. Maybe you do, maybe you don't, either way it is yours to do whatever you want with it. Some people...ahem...find those freebie jobs get them free passes to conferences, sporting events, and all sorts of neat little things. It may not be cash but it's nice.

The rule that you alaways have to get paid isn't necessarily true. just keep that in mind, and keep the amount of freebies you put out there to one site reasonable. 2 per month is not a bad number if you keep it under an hour of your time.

If you accept a job with guidelines, well tough luck, you're stuck. Not many rules you can break there. Do you know why you're stuck though? You're stuck because you didn't negotiate a deal advantageous to you from the get go. Here's the deal, and trust me this is true - A good writer has way more power than they think in many cases. Publishers are more than happy to ACT flippant and tell you they have plenty of options besides you (And if that were true why are there so many re-writing jobs out there?) for their assignments and that trying to negotiate a better deal is poor form. Rubbish on both counts.

Negotiating a better advance deal only aggravates SOME publishers because they quickly find out you are not going to be pushed around and pressured into doing constant re-writes and "side work" for free because you don't know better or are desperate. A perfect example of this is the article you submit to specs that comes back to you once for a slight tweak like adding maybe an extra 100-200 words not in the original deal. Then it comes back with the request you plug some more specific keywords in. Then it comes back asking you do "a little polishing" just to make it sound better. Ever have that happen? If you take enough jobs you have or you will.

How about those cases when you complete the writing assignment yet the balance of, or all funds if you accepted a rotten deal, are frozen until you place some links out there on the web, or write a little companion piece, "nothing big" they assure you, just a couple hundred words. Believe it or not it happens.

Break the "unwritten" rules and set your own rules when you deal with publishers. Will you lose some work? Sure you will, but think of it this way, the work you lose will be with the people you really don't want to work with. You can then focus on finding the good clients that will give you solid repeat business and not only be reasonable, but APPRECIATE you. Is that really a loss?

The next place to look at breaking rules is in your writing. Some people are going to tell you to never use contractions and to never write in the first person. If you happen to be writing a textbook, technical article, or a how to article (And even with those it can be a loose standard) then that is good advice. However for the bulk of your writing those things are perfectly acceptable. Let's use paid to write sites as an example here since they are broad in their offerings and see why blowing off those rules often works quite well.

1- If your style is naturally casual and conversational forcing yourself into an unnatural mold comes across in your writing. To be blunt your article will read like a bucket of suck. If you've ever tried to read a bucket of suck you get my drift. When you use the style you are comfortable in then your article flows better, it isn't so choppy, it isn't artificial, and it's actually easier to understand. Furthermore you never make the reader feel like you are trying to put on airs and show off. Arrogance does translate to the written word, and readers can pick up on it.

2- Sometimes contractions should be avoided, however most of the time they are perfectly acceptable. If Stephen Hawking can use them so can you, and he's a pretty smart guy. Why are contractions good? Again it is a matter of flow and style. Look at the following passages and see which you as a casual reader prefer.

A) I do not understand why it is often believed you cannot use contractions. It is not just my opinion, it is one many people share. In fact it is so common they are used in almost every genre you will ever read. Using these words is not a display of a lack of knowledge, nor is it it poor form. It is simply a means of expressing something differently.

B) I don't understand why it's often believed you can't use contractions. It's not just my opinion, it's one many people share. In fact it's so common they are used in almost every genre you will ever read. Using these words isn't a display of lack of knowledge nor is it poor form. It's simply a means of expressing something differently.

If you are writing your thesis the first paragraph is correct. If you are writing for the average reader the second is actually more effective. For one it is speaking to the reader in the language they most likely use. If a reader feels comfortable reading then they will continue reading. If they feel something is too stiff or may start flying over their head they move on. Pretty simple right? We all do this whether we realize it or not.

3- Know your audience and what method is the best to convey your point. Not everything can be written to effectively using an objective voice. In fact, in many cases trying to makes you look like an idiot. Some topics scream for the personal perspective. A favorite example of mine concerning this is the following:

Your assignment is to write about coping with the loss of a child. Seeing as there is no real manual for this, all you can do is offer first hand experience or re-tell someones experience in your own voice. Why is this true? A reader looking for something on that topic is most likely someone that just lost a child. They do not care to hear a clinical process of "follow steps 1-12" or read something which constantly says "some people find" , "It has been said you can..."or "Some experts say." They are looking for something real from someone that has been through it. They want to connect, they don't want to hear about what Dr. Blowhard in Dusseldorf said worked for 2 out of 8 patients he dealt with in the sping of 2004.

While you will be constantly told such articles written from the first person perspective do not sell and have a very limited audience I say hogwash! Pick up any major newspaper, go to the society page and count the first person articles everyday for a week. You will see my point. Pick up Cosmo or any parenting magazine for example and track those awhile and you'll see the same thing. Then consider why aside from the front page, sports, and the comics the two most read sections in a paper are the society page and op-ed section which are a hefty dose of people expressing opinions, telling stories, or offering reviews/local guides in the first person.

On two different paid to write sites, every month (aside from one of those weird ones where an article go nuts for no visible reason), my top 5, and 7 of my top ten earning articles are first person every month. Not just the last couple months, but for actual years. Better earners than #1 google ranking how to's, financial advice articles, technical articles, or anything else. Why is that? Because people identify to them, they read those multiple times, sometimes bookmark, and email them to others they think may enjoy them.

Think of it this way...Writing a great third person article on how to build a bunkbed may earn a couple bucks in page views every month which is nice, and that assumes it is great and top 5 on google at a minimum. Writing a great article on how to get your teen to do the laundry without being asked will earn even more. Which audience is bigger, people that need to build bunkbeds, or people that want their kids to do the laundry? What audience is looking for advice on the latter? Most likely regular moms at the end of their rope that will relate to another parent that can say "I did this and it worked!"

The point is you can follow the rules to the tee and let other people tell you how you should be writing, where you should be writing, and what you should be writing. You can make some money doing that and if it makes you happy fantabulous! There is another option which is you writing how you want, where you want, and about what you want. I won't lie, it usually takes longer to get going when you choose this route. When you do though, I am willing to bet you are happier and that because you are doing what you love your work will be better which in turn leads to earning more.

It's too radical to be true...I know...That ditzy broad flipped her wig again. It's okay to think that. Just remember this -- there are countless writers that can follow a formula, there is only one of you! Your style and experiences are your own and there is a market for them. You just have to get off your butt and find them!

But what do I know? I'm just a hack.....


  1. I absofrikkenlutely loved this post - I thought it was fantabulous AND superdelicious!!

    I'm going to have to visit Mandy just so I can with her to a Yankees game - just one of those little perks the Baseball Goddess has scored.

    She's dead right - why work yourself to the bone to keep clients who don't appreciate you? There are as many different venues FOR writing as there are different styles OF writing.

    This doesn't mean we can't learn new ways to do things - but it does mean we don't blindly follow the latest trend.

    Well done, especially the point about bloging - I hear them say NEVER give your work away or no-one will appreciate you, NEVER work for less than you will be willing to work for forever after, or you'll never be able to get more -- excuse me?

    How many of you learned a trade by volunteering, then started at entry level and worked your way up? Will you never be a highly paid construction contrctor because you volunteered with Habitat For Humanity as a teen, then worked your way up as a helper on cnstruction sites to apprentice, to journeyman carpenter, to subcontractor?

    I didn't expect to get top dollar when I started. I paid my dues, and have doubled and redoubled my rates as I went along... and I still have some of my original clients - the ones who appreciated me, the ones who told me I didn't charge enough and gave me bonuses at the end of projects, the ones who gave me a nod or a credit even when I had only contracted to ghostwrite, the ones who refer other clients to me with glowing words.

    There is no shame in starting small. We all had to crawl before we could walk, and walk before we gcould run... and run before we cuold bungee off a bridge with no safety net, which is what freelancing feels like sometimes! :)

  2. I do so looove the clients who ask you to "polish it" a bit. Especially when I have sweat blood finding the precise way to phrase each sentence perfectly. The first time someone gave me that "it just needs to be tweaked a little overall" with no specifics I sent them a long checklist. I politely asked if they had noticed any of the following that needed to be corrected:

    Run on sentences
    Incorrect spelling
    Poor grammar
    Flawed syntax
    Factual errors

    And then asked them to direct me to the passages they felt should be reworked for:


    Or to include:

    More specifics
    Less detail
    First person experiences
    Scientific data/references

    This made my point that without actual guidance it was improbable that I would be able to identify which portion of the content they felt could be improved or how I could go about improving it. Needle in a haystack!

    That worked like a charm.

  3. GREAT post!
    There's nothing wrong with starting small or working on the cheap. I write penny rev articles on a few sites- not because I don't value my work, but because it's enjoyable and bulks up the portfolio. I can probably thank those articles for the better paying work I get now.

    As for writing rules- Amen! Some (most) of the greatest writers pay no attention to "the rules". Most of the grammatical rules don't even apply to free-flowing English. They. Are. Stuffy. (I love sentence fragments).

  4. Another great post for 'peeps' like me to chew on for awhile. The comments too! Thanks everyone.