Writer’s Block is a Myth

Writer's block is bad for pencils.You’ve heard the “writer’s block” story hundreds of times. Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Writer sits at desk to create amazing masterpiece.
  2. Nothing happens.
  3. Writer stares at a the wintery wasteland of a blank, white piece of paper/screen.
  4. Nothing happens.
  5. Agony/weeping/gnashing of teeth.
  6. Nothing happens.

There are few things more miserable for a writer than not knowing what words to put on a page, especially when there’s a deadline looming.

Yet despite its infamous reputation, “writer’s block” isn’t some wordsmith’s disorder that strikes without reason. In fact, it’s not what’s “causes” the block at all. It’s a symptom that appears when you haven’t done your pre-writing homework.

Writer’s block: fiction vs. reality

There’s a common misconception that writers just go into their lonely writer’s garrets, sit down, and start plopping words onto the page. This can work if you’re a fantasy novelist who practices “discovery writing,” but it’s a different story when it comes to marketing copy.

Writer’s block, then, is a sign that your brain needs you to do one or more of the following things before you hit the keyboard:

Listen to the client

What does your client want to communicate? If you’re working with someone who already has some marketing savvy, you’ll probably get a creative brief with background on the topic and some strategy guidelines. If not, you may need to ask the client for more details. Try to think like a member of the target audience when the client is filling you in. This will help you spot information the client may not have thought to provide because of their intimate familiarity with what they sell.

Identify the desired action

Every piece of marketing copy should focus on encouraging the reader to take one specific action. Download content. Request a consultation. Attend an event. Make a purchase. Make sure you know what it is before you write a single word.

Do research

Writer’s block sometimes strikes when you don’t know a key piece of information. For example, if you’re dealing with a very specialized or technical subject that you’re new to, you might need to learn about it before you can write about it. You’ll also want to learn as much as you can about the people you’re writing for. Who are your client’s buyers? What do they want and need? How do they talk? Do they think like your client, or do they have different motivations? The more you know about them, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate your client’s message and encourage the action they want.

Focus

Another common cause of writer’s block is being overwhelmed with information. When this happens, your job is to get organized. First, figure out what you don’t need. Compare your material to the goals of the project, and set anything that isn’t relevant. Next, organize the remaining information in a logical order for the reader’s action journey. Stuff that attracts and excites their interest needs to appear first. Everything else should build on that, with each additional point of information guiding them one step closer to the desired action.

Low-tech solutions often work best here. I frequently tackle complicated projects by making 3×5 cards with summaries of all the key copy points. I spread them out on the table, move them around to find the most compelling flow of information, then gather them up into a stack and use them as my guide for the finished piece.

Outline

Still not sure where to begin? Try mapping things out in outline form. Once it makes sense there, you’ll literally have a roadmap that tells you exactly what to write. All you’ll need to do is add a little polish and detail.

If you’ve done the 3×5 card exercise described above, you’ve essentially built your outline already. Just pick up the stack and start at the top.

  International Freelancing

international freelancingThanks to the Internet, international freelancing is easier than at any time in history. Here are a few tips to help your business reach across borders.

A world of opportunity

I never set out to become an international freelancer, but over the years I’ve attracted clients from many corners of the globe without ever leaving my office in Cincinnati. I’m currently serving clients in Canada, Spain, Italy, and Dubai. I work with partners in Great Britain, Eastern Europe, and India. Last month I even had a Skype call with a prospect in Sydney, Australia.

International freelancing can be exciting, challenging, and highly satisfying all at the same time. It offers new opportunities. It expands your horizons. It makes you feel like a connected global citizen. While it’s not without a few risks, it’s easier than you might think. And just about any creative pro can do it with a few simple tools.

You don’t have to know the language

Knowing more than one language is an advantage in international freelancing, but it isn’t necessary. Many clients come to me because they want copy written by a native English speaker. They know local partners will help them look and sound more natural while avoiding cross-cultural embarrassments.

Make sure you know who the client’s target market is, and how they prefer to communicate. For example, some of my international clients want American English (“the trunk is organized around the spare tire”), while others prefer British usage (“the boot is organised around the spare tyre”).

Managing communication

Inexpensive ways to communicate have been one of the biggest revolutions for international freelancing. While I still get the occasional long-distance phone call, most of my international clients are savvy about Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts and similar services.

When scheduling meetings, pay close attention to time zones. I’ve found the World Clock on my phone and iPad to be invaluable, especially when there are people in three or more places on a call. Be particularly respectful when someone has to dial in early or late in their workday. You’ll also want to take extra care in spring and fall when some countries have time changes. Not every country switches to Daylight Savings Time on the same weekend, and some don’t have a time change at all.

Finally, make an effort to be aware of cultural practices and holidays that may affect when international clients are available. In the Middle East, for example, the work week typically runs Sunday through Thursday.

Getting paid for international freelancing

There are numerous ways money moves between countries. I find the easiest way to handle international payments is via services like PayPal, Freshbooks, or Wave. You’ll pay a fee for these transfers, but they handle currency conversions for you and give you access to the funds quickly. If you have merchant services set up, they’ll also give your clients the convenience of paying with a credit card.

Checks in foreign currencies are a hassle, and you’ll pay a fee for the conversion that’s typically higher than what PayPal or a merchant service firm will charge. Direct bank transfers are another option, though some clients don’t want to go to the trouble. Once I even waited in line for a payment at a Western Union office, but I prefer to avoid that.

Make it clear up front what currency you’ll be working in. I quote most jobs in US dollars regardless of the client’s country of origin. Be particularly clear if multiple countries use a currency with similar names. For instance, despite occasional parity, US dollars and Canadian dollars usually have a very different value.

  5 crisis management tips for freelancers

emergencyA few years ago, my wife Toni was working at a school that didn’t allow teachers to have mobile phones turned on during the workday. As a result, I was the one who got the call informing us that her father had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

I was juggling multiple projects at the time, one of which was on a tight deadline, but there was no question about what to do. I dropped everything immediately and made the half-hour drive to her school to break the news to her in person. The next day we were on the road to her hometown to support her family and attend the funeral.

Unforeseen crises like personal illness, accidents, natural disasters, and the deaths of friends and loved ones are a fact of life for any business owner, not just solopreneurs. And since our business model means we don’t get paid when we’re not working, even joyful events like births, marriages, holidays, and vacations can have a disruptive effect on our businesses.

Thankfully there are steps you can take to minimize the impact on your bottom line — before, during, and after a crisis:

1.    Build time for the unexpected into your schedule

Many freelancers and other business owners base time estimates on their peak productivity levels. For most of us, however, reality intervenes in some large or small way practically every day. Keeping a small amount of time each week unscheduled gives you the flexibility to put out minor fires before they turn into bigger problems.

2.    Schedule marketing in advance

Having a few weeks or months of material loaded into your marketing machine requires some prep work, but you’ll be glad you did it. My father-in-law’s death wasn’t the only time I’ve had to take an unscheduled leave of absence from my company, but my automated self-promotion pieces still published on schedule while I was away. Precautions like these help prevent your pipeline from drying up when you return to the office.

3.    Communicate when crisis strikes

Notify everyone who will be impacted by your absence as soon as possible, and be frank about what’s happening. Failing that, try to have a colleague, family member, or friend contact anyone you’re currently working with. It’s much better for you to give them as much time as possible to react to your situation than it is to disappear for a few days with no explanation until after the fact.

4.    Maintain a savings cushion

You’ve already heard this one if you saw Jim Krause’s presentation at HOW Design Live last year. Sock away 10% of your earnings to keep your business afloat — not just when crisis strikes, but to cover the occasional “famine” cycle. Six months’ expenses in the bank will help you sleep much easier at night.

5.    Remember: your real life comes first

It’s tempting to bend over backwards so your business goes on rolling in an emergency, but keep your priorities straight. I did a project launch call remotely a few days before the funeral, but only after I had confirmed I wouldn’t be needed for a short while that day. The rest of the time, I gave my full attention to my family’s needs.

All of my clients were very supportive and understanding during this time, and were quick to revise their timetables. Even my contacts at a company I had just started working with the previous week were sympathetic and accommodating. Good clients understand that this stuff happens to everyone — and could just as easily happen to them — so don’t be afraid to be straightforward about your situation.

  Going Freelance? Project Confidence and Stop Apologizing!

confidenceLaunching a freelance career in the creative industry can challenge your confidence like nothing you’ve done before, especially at first. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. When I started my own freelance copywriting business more than 13 years ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it either.

Many things may feel new and uncomfortable, but you’ll need to get over these anxieties quickly to get your new freelance career off the ground. Here are six ways to overcome the urge to pre-apologize, boost your confidence, and build your credibility.

Read more on The Creative Group Blog.

  How’s Your Business Fitness?

workout-icnWhether you’re a solopreneur or the owner of a small agency with a few employees, many of the same skills you would use for staying fit — regularly setting goals, tracking progress, and measuring results — also apply to keeping a creative business healthy. And the healthier your business is, the less effort it takes to keep it in shape.

Read the full story on the Creative Freelancer Blog.

  3 software tools every writer should know

dashboard-menuOne of the perks of being a writer is that you don’t need a huge suite of software to break into the business. The days when a pencil and a notepad were enough are long gone, but these days you can get by with a cheap laptop or tablet, a word processor, and an Internet connection.

That being said, knowing a few of the most common software tools used by editors and designers can make you more versatile — and more marketable. It’s worth investing a little time to get to know them.

Reviewing tools of Microsoft Word

Have you ever looked at an edited document and wondered what’s changed? There’s no mystery with Word’s reviewing tools. From the moment you or a collaborator clicks the “Track Changes” button, Word highlights everything — and I do mean everything — that changes in a document.

You’ll know at a glance where a word was changed, where a serial comma was added, what was added or deleted, who did it, and when. A black line in the left-hand margin indicates where changes have been made. New text is highlighted in a color that’s unique to the user who made the change, and deleted text appears in a bubble in the right-hand margin with the same color code. Users can also add comments that don’t modify or become part of the body copy.

Buttons in the review bar allow users to click through each individual change, reducing the chance that you’ll miss something. As the editing process proceeds, reviewers can accept or reject changes, making them disappear.

The highlights are fairly intuitive and designed to keep the document readable. Be aware, however, that colors for each user are assigned locally on each individual’s machine — your editor’s comments might show up in red on your screen but in green on someone else’s.

Adobe Acrobat

If Word is the standard for text editing and proofing, Acrobat is the complement for graphic designers. In addition to text reviewing features, Acrobat adds annotation and markup tools that allow you to scribble, post sticky notes, attach files, apply pre-designed “stamps” and sign off with digital signatures. If you regularly work with designers or need to review text in draft layouts, Acrobat gives everyone on the team an easy way to interact.

Acrobat’s tools are a bit more free-form than Word’s, but you can still access everything in a Comments List to make sure you don’t miss anything. Better still, each item has a checkbox so you can easily keep track of what you’ve already dealt with.

If you’re working with a savvy designer who knows how to activate commenting for collaborators, you can access many of these features using the free Adobe Reader. If you do a lot of this sort of thing, consider purchasing the full version of Acrobat — that way your designer won’t have to jump through any hoops to make editing features accessible to you.

WordPress

A growing number of websites are being built in WordPress, partly because it’s easy for non-programmers to use, and partly because the explosion of content marketing has created demand for regular content updates.

A writer who knows WordPress has a competitive edge when working with clients like this, because he or she can load copy directly onto the site, freeing up the in-house team for other tasks. An editor or content manager still needs to review the work before it goes live, but can preview it exactly as it will appear. It’s also a godsend for the client when a blazing-hot deadline is looming.

Trust is essential in this type of workflow, so you may not want to dive in until you have a good feel for the working relationship you have with your writer. It’s also best for the writer and design team to agree ahead of time on key design conventions, such as how style sheets should be used.

Bonus tools (nice, but not essential)

Adobe Creative Suite

Writers who work regularly with designers don’t really need the Adobe Creative Suite, but having access to it and knowing how it works can give you a valuable window into the mind of your artsy colleagues. Designers who spend most of their time in Illustrator or Photoshop, for example, think about copy differently from those who build their masterpieces in InDesign. If you’re so inclined, you might also use the suite to offer additional services like indexing or variable data.

HTML

If you regularly work with web copy, whether in WordPress or some other tool, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics of HTML, the code structure that runs the Internet. Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” allows you to peek backstage.

Monkeying with code can quickly lead you down time-sinking rabbit holes, so you’ll want to carefully balance how much of this sort of thing you do against the time you spend writing copy. Knowing just enough can save a web designer time by enabling you to write code-friendly prose and do a little basic troubleshooting on your own. I also like to keep tabs on how hyperlinks in my web copy work, for example, by making sure that they open in new windows when clicked — something text editors sometimes overlook.

  Dance like your buyers

swing-dancing-feetA few years after I started my freelance business I attended a weekend-long series of Lindy Hop classes. I had already been dancing Lindy for a few years by then, and was looking forward to learning advanced techniques from a team of out-of-town instructors.

I arrived with one of my regular dance partners, who I’ll call Diane (because that happens to be her name). The first session was about to start but the high-level stuff was scheduled for later in the day. The cool instructors were kicking off the weekend with a workshop on the basics of Lindy Hop—moves Diane and I had mastered long ago.

Reviewing the fundamentals of any skill is a valuable exercise, but Diane and I were both craving something more that day. So we created our own challenge by swapping roles. Diane danced the “lead” part (what’s traditionally thought of as the male role in partner dancing) while I joined the circle as a “follower.” Diane literally doubled over with laughter the first time I did a hip swivel while waving my hand in the air. I looked—and felt—pretty silly.

Yet as it turned out, I learned a lot more from that hour or two of role reversal than from the rest of the weekend.

I haven’t been able to remember what the advanced classes were about for many years, but I never forgot how it felt to dance like a follower. It made me aware of things I was doing as a leader that could confuse or distract my partner. I also learned a few things skilled leaders do to help followers have more fun. Diane, in turn, discovered one of the biggest challenges leaders face—having to perform one dance move while deciding what the next one will be. We were both better dancers when we left that “basic” workshop.

This experience also illustrates one of the writer’s roles in the creative process. Whether you’re writing your own copy or preparing a brief for a hired scribe, part of the job is to get into the heads of the people you want to reach, whether they’re potential customers, voters, donors, or whatever. The more you know what it’s like to be in their shoes, the more likely you are to write in a voice that speaks to what they really want and need.

You don’t have to do hip swivels and wave your hand in the air to learn what it’s like to be your buyers (unless you’re selling dancing shoes, in which case I highly recommend it). The key is to do something, however small, to get a window into their world. Interview the type of people you want to reach—or think you want to reach—to find out where your strengths overlap their needs. Read what they read, watch what they watch, visit the websites and social media groups they like.

You may find that all your assumptions about your readers are correct. If so, great! But it’s more likely you’ll discover at least a few insights that will change the way you do business, making the marketing dance with your best potential buyers far more effective—and profitable.