Controlling Scope Creep

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Freelancers talk a lot about “scope creep.” That’s when a project starts with one set of parameters, and they keep expanding.

One of the joyful parts of creative collaboration is how a project grows and changes. When you’re writing a musical, it’s one thing – you have a development process, you’re being paid for the changes along the way, and your goal at the end is to have a viable musical where people walk out of the theatre humming the tunes, buy the CD, and sing it in the shower for the foreseeable future.

To get there, you need the project to grow and change.

But the “scope” and the vision are there from the beginning, and is covered by your contract.

There – the contract. That’s how you control scope creep.

I’m seeing more and more job descriptions stating “tasks will be added as needed” or “this description in no way encompasses all the tasks the job entails.”

Why not?

Why aren’t companies being upfront about what they want in the position?

Two answers:

The first is that the person who wrote the description has no idea what the job actually entails, which is common.

The second is that the company wants the option of dumping whatever they want into the position whenever they want, without additional compensation. Which is not acceptable.

As a freelancer, you have the protection of your contract. Because, as freelancers, who set our own hours and meet deadlines, we work on contract (or letter of agreement), which gives us protections that a salaried employee often does not have.

Contract Provisions

Your contract can protect you from scope creep.

Your contract will grow and change as your business does.

After your initial conversation with a new client, when you are setting terms, take some time and think about the parameters of the project as discussed, potential direction for “scope creep” and how much each direction will cost. Then, put those possibilities into the contract.

For example, I have a clause in the contract that states I include two rounds of revisions in the scope of the project; additional revisions are at an hourly rate.

When I receive the second round of revisions, I send a reminder that this is the second round of revisions, and anything beyond that will be at the hourly fee.

Often, far too often, I get this response: “Oh, this isn’t really a ‘revision.’ It’s just a few tweaks.”

No, it’s a revision. Changes are revisions. I have had clients where I actually put the definitions of “revision” and “tweak” in the contract.

Dates and Turnaround Times

I put in turnaround times for revisions, too. If I hit my deadline to turn in material (and I do), the party on the other end needs to get back to me in X amount of time with any revisions. Projects can’t drag on interminably, so a series of dates within the contract is vital:

–Deposit is due on X date

–When deposit clears, I start the project

–I get my first portion done on Y date

–Notes/revision requests are back to me by Z date

–My next revision is due on L date

–Response is due on M date

–Final work is due on N date

–Acceptance or additional requests for changes is due on O date

–final payment is due on P date

–late payments are changed with R fee, cumulative every 30 days (I start late payments at 20% of original fee)

Longer projects may have payments broken up over three, four, or even five dates. If payment doesn’t arrive on the date, work stops on the project until payment arrives.

“This is business, not personal” works both ways. Far too many companies expect you to take their business personally as far as emotional investment at higher stakes than they do, but if they default on payment or otherwise treat you poorly, it’s “just business.”

Works both ways.

Change of Direction

I also have a clause in my contract about “change of direction.” If a project changes direction from our initial agreement (and the parameters are listed in the contract), I have a clause that lists the fee. Sometimes it is necessary to come up with a new agreement, if the change of direction is going to change turnaround dates and deadlines.

Late Fees/Rush Fees

I have a clause for late fees. Late fees (more than 30 days after original due date) are at 20% of the project fee, cumulative. Which means if it’s 60 days late, it’s the original fee + 20% + the total of that.

Rush fees are for work turned around in less than three business days start at $35, depending on the project’s complexity, and whether I can move other work around or just have to stay up extra hours and push through.

I do make an exception on rush fees for script coverage, because industry protocol is often one or two-day turnaround.

When the Client Provides the Contract

In some cases, the client provides the contract, read it over. Negotiate changes. Remember that the first contract either side offers is the start of the negotiation. So yes, when I provide a client, often I will hear back on points the client wants to negotiate. I can decide if I want to change the contract to meet their request, meet them halfway, or walk away.

A client who offers a contract needs to expect negotiation on changes. If they won’t budge, decide if what they demand is worth it to you or walk away. Many magazines won’t negotiate their contracts for freelance writers, so again, you have to make the decision if having the byline in that particular publication is worth any aggravation caused by the contract.

What About Job Descriptions?

As we’ve discussed over the past weeks and months, the pandemic is changing the way we work, which can be an improvement. We, as the people actually doing the work, have to make sure that we help shape new work styles.

I’ve seen an array of articles in publications such as THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, BLOOMBERG, and FORBES pushing the negative aspects of remote work. Remember, these businesses are trying to protect their standard way of working, and how they see their bottom line affected. Far too many companies have useless middle managers who try to micro-manage and terrorize their “teams”.

There’s plenty of work that does not need to be done in someone else’s office with the countless interruptions and managers “checking up” on you every five minutes. I know I am far more productive in my home office. I need large blocks of uninterrupted time to be my most creative. I have set up my office to support the peak of my creativity.

There’s not a cubicle on the planet that could provide conditions even close.

Negotiation

If you are looking for a job as a salaried employee, you still have the right to negotiate. For decades, companies have pushed the toxic narrative that they get to decide everything and employees have no say in it.

Remember: companies need employees to do the work. Otherwise, their useless middle managers, or maybe even some executives, would have to do the work their damn selves.

Oh, horrors.

They push the “if you don’t take this, we’ll hire someone else.”

Go ahead.

Don’t be afraid of AI, either. That’s another narrative they push – that soon, jobs will be replaced by AI.

There are plenty of jobs that could and should be replaced by AI, especially repetitive ones. That frees creative human beings to learn new skills, to find their passions, and to do and create work that no robot could ever come up with.

With all the wonderful resources such as Coursera and FutureLearn and other online learning opportunities, people can try out different arenas and find their passions.

Yes, you might have to accept a drudge job in the interim to pay the rent and bills. But make sure it’s temporary.

When I made the commitment to a life in the theatre, I took temp office jobs as a way to keep a roof over my head between shows. But I stuck to my commitment that, if a corporate job got in the way of a paid theatre job, I ALWAYS quit the corporate job. Even knowing the theatre job was transient. That made it possible for me to work my way up to a career on Broadway.

If I’d stayed in a corporate job out of fear, I would have always been a “wanna be.”

Instead, I DID.

So, when you are in negotiations for a job, make a complete job description part of it.

You can choose not to answer ads that include language indicated scope creep. Or, early in the interview process, you can ask for more definition.

The other thing you can do is ask for a contract, rather than being an at-will employee.

There was an article on line (I’m not sure if it was BLOOMBERG, I think it was, or FORBES) touting hiring freelancers as the wave of the future, because then companies don’t have to pay for office space, health insurance, or benefits and can save money.

What they neglect to explore in the article is that savvy freelancers, with the level of skill many of these companies are looking for, will charge enough to cover those expenses.

And savvy freelancers work on contract, which means they’re not “at will” and can’t be just let go any old time the company feels like it. There’s usually a clause in the contract about how to end the work relationship if it doesn’t work out.

If there’s room for scope creep in the job description – negotiate it.

If the job description says you have to have certain computer hardware or software or phone or any other equipment – either the company pays for it/provides it and it is exclusive to the work you do for that company, or the company provides you a kit fee that covers the wear and tear on your own equipment.

If the job description demands that you have “reliable transportation” or a driver’s license – sweetly ask what kind of car they provide.

Negotiate.

Negotiations aren’t just about money.

We will talk about that in a future post.

How do you control scope creep? What points do your contracts over?

The Difference Between the Mythical “Full-time Freelance Job” and the Full-time Freelancer

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, because so many people are out of work and worried, the predators are out: expecting unpaid labor/samples/”assessments” as part of the hiring process, content mills re-branding themselves as “agencies” pretending to offer good work opportunities when they’ll just grind you to a pulp and destroy talent; writing jobs on “commission.”

But another disturbing trend I see in a lot of listings is this:

“Full-time Freelance”

There is no such thing as a “full-time freelance” job for a single company. If you’re working full-time for a single company, you are an employee for that company. Especially if they dictate the hours worked. Perhaps you choose to be an independent contractor on a 1099. But you SHOULD be on a W-2 at that point, and getting full benefits.

The only reason a company “offers” a “full-time freelance” position is to get out of paying benefits, sick days, holidays, etc. They are taking advantage of the non-employee to save money, yet expect the same behavior and hours and deference they would from a salaried employee.

There’s nothing wrong in working for a single company. But if you’re going to be working employee hours, you need to have benefits. Again, especially if they dictate which hours in the day they expect you to be working and available.

Or, if, for some reason, it suits you to remain on 1099, make sure YOU set the rate and it is what it would be to be on staff with the cost of benefits plus 20%. If they’re not going to give you benefits, make sure they pay enough to cover putting aside benefits and a little extra. You can find out what employees make through sites like Glassdoor and Salary.com. Or come in as a consultant, which bills at a higher-than-staff-person rate.

A full-time FREELANCER is an individual who works a full week (be it 40 hours or whatever that individual chooses to make the amount of money necessary) for a variety of different companies. There may be some overlap, especially across time zones, to communicate during mutually-acceptable hours. But the full-time freelancer arranges the hours and schedules in a way that best serves both the work and the life.

A full-time Freelancer chooses the clients with whom they do business, sets rates, works the hours that are best suited to the individual task and the energy needs.

In the best situations, the full-time Freelancer charges enough not to just cover rent, food, utilities, health insurance, car, home office equipment and supplies, etc., but also for retirement, vacation fund, and a little extra.

The full-time Freelancer is constantly in marketing mode, sending out LOIs, broadening networks, and keeping an eye out for new clients who might be a good fit – or recommending fellow freelancers to jobs that might be a better fit. That time needs to be built into the work week, without a loss of income.

Since most work in the US is “at will” and can end at any time, both types of work run the risk of loss of income at a moment’s notice. But the unsalaried freelancer working full-time hours will have to scramble, while the full-time freelancer has other clients paying in while replacing the recently lost client. Freelancing work tends to run on short-term contracts, which gives at least a little stability, but those contracts end, and not all are renewed. Other work can be one-off work, and the full-time freelancer has to ride the feast-or-famine cycle.

Even if working for a single company as a freelancer, that freelancer needs to always be aware of what’s out there, and ready to leap to a better situation.

Working full-time for a single company without benefits is good for the company, but rarely good for the freelancer, unless the freelancer gets a high enough to cover independently funding benefits.

Working as a full-time freelancer can be stressful – the constant client hunt – but it also gives more variety, flexibility in case of management turnovers and sourings, and expansive opportunities.

But if someone offers you a “full-time freelance” position – look at the details very carefully. Negotiate up to make sure you are getting as much as any staff member receiving a salary and benefits, set your own hours, and are free to take on other work as you wish.

Remember: every job offer is the starting point of negotiations. If they offer you their endpoint, they are not worth your time.

Happy negotiations.

What Do You Want (and Need) From Work?

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Last week, we talked here about the need to re-invent work. Then, over on the Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions site earlier this week, I talked about the need to re-establish one’s sense of self.

Far too many businesses are trying to gain for themselves by making us feel terrible – all this “free time” we have now, and all the things we “should” be doing because we can’t be out and about the way we used to gambol.

They’re also counting on us being so desperate to earn a living that we’ll take even less than we earned before the pandemic. “You’ll get nothing and like it” is their refrain.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how poorly most companies treated their employees in the first place.

Remember, without people to actually do the work, the company cannot exist.

If they hire people that do the work badly (which, if they don’t pay properly, that’s all they will get in the long run), they will go under.

Instead of listening to statistics by businesses for businesses, let’s look at personal realities, and use those realities to reshape how we are going to navigate both our work world and our social world.

Not everyone likes to work remotely. Not every job CAN be done remotely.

As an introvert, I realized how often I was forced to behave like an extrovert in a typical work setting, and what a toll that took on my health and my productivity. It didn’t matter if I turned in three times the work ahead of schedule – if I wasn’t in the building so the managers could interrupt me, ruin my productivity, and repeatedly put me in situations that caused stress and discomfort, it wasn’t “real work” and I wasn’t being a “team player.”

During the pandemic, the stress wasn’t from working remotely. It was that every foray off the property held the literal prospect of death to me or someone in my family. And, as time went on, it was the external pressures from those who wanted, again, to lower my productivity and add discomfort to feel powerful and force me to be “part of the team.”

I am perfectly capable of being “part of the team” without setting foot in the office. There’s this thing called Zoom (which we’re all tired of at this point). There’s email. There are scheduled phone calls (I only do phone calls by appointment). As long as I collaborate and hit the deadlines with quality work, I shouldn’t have to be forced, repeatedly, into onsite situations that cause misery in order to make someone else feel powerful.

I realized how many unhealthy compromises I’d made since I moved here. Far more unhealthy compromises than I’d ever made in the decades I worked in theatre and film production.

In the weeks leading to the Stay-at-Home, I was even talking with potential clients who insisted that I work onsite – even though I knew it would make me miserable.

So the past few months have made me redefine both what I want and what I need from work, and I encourage you to do the same.

I went into the arts because of the passion I have for the work. I loved my time working backstage and on set. Now, I love my time writing. I don’t consider the fiction and plays the “real writing” and the marketing/business/consulting a “day job.”

As far as I’m concerned, they are all of a piece.

Make a list of what you NEED from you work.

Mine includes:

Enough money so I’m not scrambling from payment to payment and don’t have to worry about basics like rent, food, utilities, health insurance, car, emergency vet bills, etc. It also must be reliably paid, not put off with excuses. Pay me per our contract.

A sense of purpose and passion from those with whom I work. This can be small business owners who love what they do; or larger companies with a bigger mission. But there needs to be more to it than bottom line profit.

Alignment with my values. I am not going to work for people/organizations/businesses I believe cause harm/fuel hatred, bigotry, racism, and misogyny. Even though those businesses usually pay more than those in alignment with my values as a person.

Creativity. My job needs to let me use the creative part of my psyche, maybe in ways I didn’t expect to use it.

Autonomy. Too often what is called “follow up” is actually “nagging.” If we’ve set a deadline, you will get what you need by that deadline. Suddenly asking for it a week early and bugging me about it doesn’t get it to you faster. If the deadline has changed for some reason, tell me it has changed and why it’s changed and we will deal with it. But don’t nag. Communicate clearly. And don’t micromanage every moment of my day.

Humor. I love to laugh, and a sense of humor is important, especially on tight deadlines when there’s a lot at stake.

Clear Communication. Don’t come at me with passive aggressive behavior. You want or need something? Be clear about it. Don’t lie to me, especially not by omission.

Respect for my boundaries. “No” is a complete sentence. I do not have to embellish. If an emergency comes up, I will take on additional work outside my regular scope or outside my regular workweek; but it needs to be requested with respect and not become expected. I have a life that is separate from my work and just as important.

Room for growth. I want to learn and grow both personally and professionally. I don’t want to be pushed into additional tasks because the company is too cheap to hire enough qualified personnel. I want to grow within my own scope of duties. I want encouragement to share ideas and have opportunities.

Fully Remote. At this point in the game, that is what I want in the foreseeable future. It was a “want” before; now it is a need.

If any of the above list is missing, I am miserable, and know I need to change my work situation.

What do I WANT?

That’s a little different. The wants are what make the job special and exciting.

Paid holidays and vacations. Which means, when I’m working freelance, the money and the ability to book that time without pushback.

Variety. I like to write across different topics and in different areas – blog posts or articles or social media posts or courses or press releases or strategic plans. Anything that is scripted, be it for a video, a speech, or radio/podcast, and I’m in heaven.

Positive Colleagues. An overall positive work atmosphere, even if it’s via Zoom or email, matters. We all have tough days, or even tough stretches. But if one particular person is ALWAYS unhappy, it starts to create a ripple effect of stress.

An environment where everyone is encouraged to use their strengths and improve their weaknesses, rather than being thrown into something that’s a weakness without support or training.

Encouragement to connect beyond the work, and get to know my colleagues as human beings. What do we all like to do when we’re not working? What are our other passions and causes? How can we work together to build a better world?

Recognize and value the work. Recognize and value the work of everyone in the organization. It’s not about a fancier title. It’s about daily treatment and being paid fairly.

Encouragement for learning opportunities and creative opportunities, even if they don’t immediately benefit the client.

No more “at will” work. Most of my clients and I are on specific contracts, which is great. I do have a couple of clients that have me on retainer, but it’s “at will” and I need to change those parameters.

I’m sure I could make a more comprehensive list – and I’m working on it. But as I restructure my work life during the ongoing pandemic and figure out how I want it to look post-pandemic, these are all elements that matter to me.

As this list evolves, I will take steps to bring anything out of alignment into alignment. Then, I will grow, change, and respond to the world, and will adjust more. Which is a good thing.

What are your needs in a work situation? And wants?

How have they changed over the past few months?

Your Business Bookshelf

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I am a bibliophile. Some would say a bibliomaniac. I buy books. I read books. I keep books. I use books to build the forts I need to deal with the world.

As a writer and freelancer, I love to read how others build their business, hone their craft, grow their creativity.  Below are some of my favorite books,  ones I read and re-read, by title and author:

THE ART OF WORKING REMOTELY by Scott Dawson. Scott hosts the Remote Chat on Wednesdays at 1 PM EST on Twitter. It’s a highlight of my week, and one of my favorite groups of people. Scott’s book is a great guide on how to build a successful work life with remote work, and avoid the pitfalls and obstacles that employers throw in your path.

A BOOK OF ONE’S OWN: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon.  I re-read my 1986 paperback of this book so often that it’s falling apart. I love this book. It has musings on and excerpts from a wide range of diarists. I learn so much about seeing, feeling, and articulating each time I re-read it.

BOOKLIFE: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer By Jeff Vandermeer. This is helpful for delineating the public and private lives. I am an inherently private person, an introvert forced by the needs of business, into extrovertism far too often for my liking. This book has some good ideas on handling that frisson.

THE COMPANY OF WRITERS by Hilma Wolitzer. Another wonderful book on the writing process and navigating the times you want and need to emerge from solitude. I am a huge fan of Hilma’s novels and those by her daughter, Meg.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE by William Shakespeare. I learn more about art and craft and stagecraft and structure and style from Shakespeare than I do anywhere else. I read and re-read his work constantly.

THE CREATIVE HABIT by Twyla Tharp. Far too many books are about breaking blocks into finding one’s creativity. This book is for already creative people to take their creativity to the next level, in any discipline.

CUT TO THE CHASE: Writing Feature Films with the Pros. Edited by Linda Venis. From UCLA Extension Writers’ program. Excellent book on screenwriting art & business.

ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN by Elizabeth Berg. The writing advice is great, and her blueberry coffee cake recipe is THE BEST.

THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Editor, agent, writer, Betsy Lerner talks about creating a writing career and how to work with editors and understand marketplace.

HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL by Michael Larsen. Still the best book I’ve ever read to teach effective proposal writing. I’ve used this for fiction, nonfiction, and adapted it for grants and multi-media or multi-discipline projects.

INSIDE THE ROOM: Writing Television with the Pros. Edited by Linda Venis. Another excellent UCLA extension book on art, craft, and business.

LIFE, PAINT AND PASSION by Michele Cassou and Stuart Cubley. Although the focus of the book is painting, I find that painting (or sewing or dancing or singing) frees up the writing. Switching disciplines helps fuel your primary discipline.

MAKING A LITERARY LIFE by Carolyn See. She has terrific ideas for maintaining your creative, often solitary work life, while still meeting the needs of the business side.

MY STAGGERFORD JOURNAL by Jon Hassler. The journal of a year-long sabbatical to write a novel.

THE RIGHT TO WRITE by Julia Cameron. I’ve found this small book the most useful of all her creativity and artistic coaching works.

THUNDER AND LIGHTNING by Natalie Goldberg. My favorite of her books, this mixes practicality with exercises to open creativity and work past stuck.

THE WELL-FED WRITER by Peter Bowerman. This book helped give me the courage to make the freelance leap. There are many things I do differently than Peter does, but his energy and enthusiasm inspired me. I re-read this book often to remind myself of the basics.

WORD PAINTING by Rebecca McClanahan. I’d developed my Sensory Perceptions class before I read this book, and now it’s become part of the Recommended Reading list. The exercises focus on choosing the best words for descriptive writing.

WORD WORK: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers. Again, a professional writer offers ideas on how to keep creativity flowing while dealing with necessary business aspects.

WRITE AWAY! by Elizabeth George. Although my process has evolved very differently than hers, I find re-reading this book helps me look at the way I write in a fresh way. It’s a great book when I feel tired and stale.

WRITER’S MARKET. This comes out every year. I prefer the print edition, although I double-check online to see if any information has changed. I like to sit and go through the entire large book with pen and paper, reading each entry and making notes on the markets I want to approach. Then, of course, I have to go and DO it.

Looking at the list, many of these are about art and craft more than business. Several of them deal with balancing the two. I have many more books on writing. In fact, I have an entire six foot bookcase in my office filled to bursting with them, and more packed in boxes downstairs. But these are the books I go back to re-read regularly.

In my opinion, you can’t maintain a solid career without the art and the craft. You can live on your marketing until they find out your lack of art and craft. But without it, you can’t sustain, even in this age of the “influencer” and marketspeak.

Art and craft matter. When you build a solid foundation and keep growing, you can add in the marketing skills and continue to learn the technology as it changes.

Many of these books remind you how to go back to the basics of art and craft, how to grow creatively. When you get tired and discouraged, these are great books to help you refill your creative well.

What are your favorite books for your business?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Research the Prospect

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Last week, I talked about the research for prospects.

I’ve gotten several emails asking me how I do that.

The first step is to read the company website. What does it look like? What can you read between the lines? Does it sound like marketspeak? Is it clean? Userfriendly?

I had a meeting a few weeks ago with a potential client. I read through the website. I still had absolutely no idea what their business purpose entailed.

In the meeting, when I asked about goals, target markets, vision — I couldn’t get any answers.

That was a less successful research/prospect experience!

Most of the time, you get a sense, from the website, about the company’s vision and their overall tone. My next step is to check out the typical social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. Sometimes, if relevant, Reddit or Medium or Ello or The Dots (for international clients).

From the social media sites, I get a sense of the conversational tone (if there is one) and of the level of interaction.

I also look for articles about the company and press releases for the company. I look for reviews of the company and its performance. I go through my contacts to see if there’s anyone I know who knows someone there and can give me information, either positive or negative. Word of mouth is always more interesting than something online! Small details come out in a conversation that wouldn’t make it to the page.

AFTER I’ve done all of that, then I go back to the website and look at the executive roster to see to whom I should send me LOI.

Some companies make it difficult.

I don’t blame anyone for not posting a photo. We are far too flippant about smearing our images all over the place. There are plenty of jobs where no one needs to know what you look like. It’s doesn’t make it friendlier and more personal, in my opinion. It needs to be a personal, individual choice, not a demand of the company.

However, I would like either a staff directory or an executive roster. Individual contact information is also helpful, even if it’s a catch-all email address for the department that’s sorted by an assistant.

When there’s no easily available information, that sends up a red flag for me.

Once I find out the right person for what I want to pitch, then I research the individual. Do we have any common interests that are relevant to what I’m pitching? What kind of tone does that person have in public communications?

I have a basic template of my skills, and then I tweak it to individualize it for each person I contact. Because I have an unusual, varied background in the arts, I have to point out how and why that’s an asset in business. I’m there to make their business lives easier and grow their audience, not become one more thing on a To-Do list. “This is why I’m excited by your company, and this is why I think we’d be a good match” is the approach I use.

I keep the tone friendly, professional, positive. It is an invitation to start a conversation. It is not a demand. It may be the wrong time or the wrong fit.

The length of time it takes to get a response, and the tone of the response give you more information as to whether it’s a prospect worth pursuing.

Each experience will be different, and that’s what’s wonderful about it.

I learn something from every LOI. Even the ones that don’t wind up as clients. It’s always worth the time and effort of research and writing the letter.

How do you research your prospects?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Trust Your Instincts

This will be a short post. Lots of things are up in the air right now, and we’ll see where we are when they settle.

As I’m having meetings and making new contacts, I’ve learned to trust my instincts more. When a red flag comes up, or when my gut tells me something is not right, I’m listening more and more. It’s saving me a world of pain.

Yes, it means I’m not landing some assignments. Actually, it means I’ve pulled myself from consideration on a few projects, because I knew they would be a bad choice. The potential client and I were not the right fit. Moving forward ONLY because I want the paycheck, would have been the wrong choice in the long run.

Each situation was different; some of the red flags were similar, some not. But the gut feeling of “wrong” was there. I listened. As I’m making these choices, the good meetings are even more positive. I’m redefining what I want and need from a work situation. I’m refusing to settle.

Settling doesn’t do either me or the client any good. Both parties need to want the best from and for a project. When it feels wrong, walk away.

One of the most helpful resources I’ve found lately is Liz Ryan of The Human Workplace. Follow her on Twitter. Use the resources on her site. Her commitment to dignity in the workplace and positive solutions are terrific.

On the flip side, I came across an article in a business magazine by a supposed HR expert. A reader had questions about red flags that came up in the interview experience. The HR “expert” ripped her a new one for unrealistic expectations. I found only one of the red flags in the interview process “unrealistic” (the interview didn’t start until 10 minutes later than scheduled, which sometimes happens). The rest of the flags were, to me, big reasons to worry.

The tone of the article was snarky in the wrong way, and deeply anti-worker, in my opinion. I’m not linking back to it because I didn’t keep track. But then I reminded myself it was written by an HR “expert” and appeared in a business publication. Of course it would be pro-management and anti-worker. The basic premise of the article was, “You should be grateful we deigned to give you an interview and take whatever’s offered, whether you like it or not.”

Yes, that’s the way too many businesses are run. When they whine about “not enough skilled workers” remember that if the people searching for those workers are going to treat them poorly and without dignity, the truly skilled will go elsewhere.

Trust your instincts. Learn the protocols of whatever business you want to work in. Make sure your instincts align with being treated with basic dignity and courtesy.

That will help you find the best fit possible.

Is this a pipe dream? What if you’re in desperate straits and have to take something, anything to keep a roof over your head? If that’s your current situation, and you have to take a subpar offer, do so. But don’t get stuck there. Keep searching. The minute you get something better, go. The days of 20 years with the same company and mutual loyalty are long gone. Too many companies believe that everyone is irrelevant and replaceable. While we are all replaceable, even though each individual brings something unique to the table, none of us are irrelevant.

Note: There have been some issues with the contact form on this site, with commenting, and adding the recaptcha in. The host and I are working on it. It’s frustrating, because they have me in an endless loop of repeating things that don’t work, but we’re working on it.

You can email me or connect on twitter @ink_fearless if you need to get in touch quickly while we fix things. I apologize for the inconvenience.

INK-DIPPED ADVICE: Chapter 5: Fred Attends The Chamber Breakfast

Fred Needs A Writer: Chapter 5. The Chamber Breakfast

Our story so far: Small business owner Fred needs a part-time marketing writer for his floor installation business. After advice from his friend, he put an ad on Craigslist and got a variety of responses. He asked for writing samples specific to his company; he received some, but his first choice of writer refused to do one for free. He interviewed several candidates. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and he’s not sure which one will be the right fit. He hires Brianna. At first he’s happy, but lately, he feels like she’s not giving him the time and attention the job needs.

Fred sees the email about the local chamber of commerce breakfast. He hasn’t gone to any events in over a year, although he keeps up his membership. To him Chamber of Commerce membership is a responsibility like voting and serving jury duty.

Kurt and Sandy are going, so at least he’ll know someone.

Fred is surprised by all the new faces, and people of all ages. Even at this hour of the morning, there are lively conversations and lots of laughter. The spread looks pretty good, too. It’s at a local restaurant. Fred’s known the owner, Bart, since they were in school since kindergarten together, and his wife Muriel since she married Bart.

Fred goes over to say hello. “This place looks great,” he says. “You painted? And is that a new logo?”

“We did.” Bart grins at him. “Same good, old-fashioned home cooking, but we freshened the look of the place.”

Fred thinks back to the past few weeks. “You know, I noticed you’re all over the papers. Margaret showed me the article. My daughter said you’re doing a lot on social media.”

“We hired it out,” says Bart. “I can barely Facebook with the grandkids. I don’t enjoy it, and don’t want to make the time.”

“Who’d you hire?” Fred asks. “I hired someone recently, but I think I made the wrong choice.”

“Some of your posts have been a little strange lately,” Bart agrees. “Muriel saw them. Said they don’t sound like you, and were confusing.”

“We were trying to be relevant,” says Fred.

“It seemed more like trying for irony, but came across as sarcasm,” says Bart. “Let me introduce you to the team I hired: Jenny Cotter and Gretchen Rojas. Jenny writes and handles all the posting. Gretchen does the graphics. They’re not cheap, but they’re worth every penny. They’re over there, talking to Jillian.”

“Jillian, of Jillian’s Treasures?” Fred asks. “That new store on Commercial Street?”

“Same Jillian. She’s new to town. Just opened at the start of the season.”

“I see her ads and her logo everywhere,” says Fred. “My wife and daughter kept seeing her name, and started shopping there. Now, they won’t stop.”

“Everyone’s heard of her thanks to Jenny and Gretchen. Come on and say hi.”

Bart introduces Fred to Jillian, Jenny, and Gretchen, who are having a lively conversation. Fred suddenly realizes this is the Jenny whose writing he liked so much, the one who wouldn’t do free samples.

“I wish I’d hired you,” he blurts out.

“You still can,” Jenny smiles at him. “Gretchen and I are a good team.”

They set an appointment to meet at Fred’s showroom.

Fred fills his plate at the buffet and joins Kurt and Sandy. “Don’t see why Bart’s wasting so much money on advertising when the food’s the same,” Kurt mutters.

“The food is good,” says Fred. “Now more people know about it, that’s all.”

“And the locals won’t be able to park and come in for a good meal,” Kurt frets. He changes the subject. “Does Margaret know you’re flirting with younger women?”

“I’m not flirting.” Fred turns red, because he was tempted to flirt. A little. “Jillian has a nice new store that Margaret and my daughter both like. I told her. Jenny and Gretchen do her marketing, and they’re doing Bart’s, too.”

“I don’t know where that Jillian woman gets off thinking she can come here and take over,” Sandy sniffs.

“She’s not your competition,” Fred points out.

“Of course she is,” says Sandy.

Fred has no idea what she means.

“All that over-priced eco-feminist stuff.” Kurt shakes his head. “Waste of money.

“Are you sure you mean eco-feminist?” Fred has no idea what Kurt means.

“Can’t say anything these days with all this political correctness,” Kurt moans. “You can’t mention color. You can’t mention sex. You can’t mention nationality. What can you talk about anymore?”

Fred thinks it has to do more with being a decent human being than politics, but changes the subject. “I made an appointment with Jenny and Gretchen.”

“Both of them?” Kurt snorts. “They’re taking you for a ride, buddy. You don’t need two more women working for you.”

“One writes, one does graphics.”

“Find someone who does both. You save half.”

“That didn’t work so well this time.”

Kurt shrugs. “Your money to waste.”

Fred starts to feel like he’s wasted a lot of time over the years with Kurt.

As they eat, the head of the chamber greets them, and then invites everyone to say a few words about themselves and their business. Fred enjoys listening to the people who run the businesses he uses, and he enjoys listening to the new people. He think Kurt sounds a bit bombastic, and Sandy a little desperate.

When it’s his turn, he feels shy. He tells an anecdote about his father’s time building the business and how his father always said, “You have to stand on something. It might as well be both sturdy and pretty.” It gets a decent laugh.

Jillian’s presentation is charming. Jenny and Gretchen do theirs together, and it’s funny and smart. Fred thinks it’s wonderful. Kurt looks annoyed, and Sandy bored.

He can’t even get near Jenny and Gretchen after the presentations, but waves in their direction as he leaves and looks forward to their meeting.

“Want to play a round this afternoon?” Kurt asks.

Fred shakes his head. “I’m on my way out to a house at the waterfront. They left the slider open on the deck in the storm last week and the floors buckled. I suspect the builder put in something cheap, so we’ll rip it all out and put in a good hard wood.”

Kurt is disappointed. Fred would rather talk flooring with a new client than listen to Kurt moan about the breakfast for 18 holes.

Besides, once he gets back from the client meeting, he’s going to fire Brianna.

Do you attend Chamber events? What is your experience? What advice do you have for Fred?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Mutual Information Sessions, Not “Interview”

Back in the days when I was starting out in the working world, before I worked my way up in theatre to a level where I was paid a living wage so I didn’t have to work temp jobs around show schedules (and then later supplement my income at the rack track), I had a specific attitude toward interviews. I interview them as much as they interview me.

Not much has changed over the years.

What is my purpose, my end game, when I meet potential clients? Why am I pitching myself to them?

My purpose is to be paid a fair fee for using my creative skills to engage and enlarge their audience. The “fair fee” is comprised of my skill, the unusual training and experience I bring to the table, what the work is worth in the competitive marketplace, and how well it achieves my clients’ goals of expanding their business and brand recognition.

I pitch myself to particular clients because what they do interests me, and I believe I’d be a good addition to their team so that they can achieve their goals of business expansion and brand recognition.

Work styles and workplace culture are important to this. If I’m working on site, there are certain things I need: dedicated workspace, the equipment to do the work expected, and uninterrupted work time. I want the environment to be upbeat, friendly, and creative. Preferably with a lot of laughter.

If I’m working remotely, again, I don’t want to be interrupted every two seconds by phone calls or demands. Let me do my work. I’m far more productive and, in the long run, it costs the client less money.

I think I mentioned on this blog (or maybe it was on Ink in My Coffee), the interview I had with a local business a couple of years ago where none of the above was true. It was supposed to be a marketing/writing position. Only my “desk” would be a board set up across two oil drums and a stool. They’d “prefer” I brought in my own laptop, but that it be one that was “dedicated” to their business. (I’m supposed to purchase multiple lap tops for different clients? I think not). I would have to cover reception at least a couple of times a week during lunch. I also had to accept that there would be inappropriate remarks or physical contact because “that’s who these guys are.” For a rate that was less than half of my usual rate, part-time, no benefits or paid holidays or vacation or anything else.

Uh, no.

I thanked them for their time and left.

I spend more time in the early conversations asking about a typical day, the environment, etc. than I used to. I spend at least as much time on that as I do on the actual tasks.

I’m not twenty, on my first job. I know I’m up to the tasks, or I wouldn’t have pitched in the first place.

I also ask where they see the company in the next year, the next three years, the next five years. What are their goals? How do they see the company growing? Do they see a shift in focus? Where do they see themselves in the political, economic, and social contexts? What do they see as their place in the world?

These are not questions for anyone in the Human Resources Department. In the decades since I’ve started my professional working life, I have yet to get any accurate information on anything other than a pay stub from someone assigned to “human resources.” These are questions I ask to the people with whom I’d be directly working.

Very often, I build on my answers to their questions to ask my own questions. This means we cover a lot of ground that is often left in their last question, which is to ask if I have any questions. I usually have one or two, but often I can say, “We’ve covered them in our previous conversation.” That shows that yes, I HAD questions, but we’ve talked about them, and there’s no point in repeating ourselves.

After the interview process (because it’s usually more than one talk), I send handwritten thank you notes. I used to do it after each conversation, but that got too complicated, especially if multiple conversations are set up over a short period of time. The more companies expand globally, the more people in different regions are factored into the equation.

I take notes during the conversation, to make sure nothing is missed — or later changed. I’ve had that, too, especially in terms of money. “That’s not what we talked about.” Actually, yes, it is, and I have the notes to prove it. I date the notes. Sometimes I’ll type them up, but I always, ALWAYS keep handwritten notes during a conversation, dated and timed.

When the conversation leads into a quote or letter or agreement or contract as the next step, I type a letter/memo based on the notes and the conversation to make sure we all agree. So we are, literally, on the same page.

And then we build from there, with the actual work.

How do you handle initial meetings and/or interviews? What are some of your favorite questions to ask? What are questions you’re asked that make you roll your eyes?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Personal Strategic Plan — Core Values

 

Back on January 16, I talked about a Personal Strategic Plan. Then, on February 27, I talked about putting together a personal vision or mission statement, and how the one I use for myself differs slightly from the one I implement for my clients.

Now, we’re on to the next step in the plan: Core Values.

What does that mean for a writer or freelancer or artist?

For me, it means defining the integrity behind the work. What is the core of personal integrity I use in my own work and toward my own work?

Part of it is how I explore characters, situations, and beliefs in my writing. I write to understand the world (or built/fictional worlds) better, even through characters with whom I don’t agree. Sometimes, I write to bear witness. Other times, I write to find a way to do better, as an individual and a society.

For clients, I shape their message to reach their best and widest audience.

However, if I don’t respect what they stand for, I can’t do that. I don’t work for people who want me to shape a message that I believe is harmful or contrary to who I am as a human being.

Which means I’ve turned down quite a few high-paid gigs. And I’m okay with that.

Other people make other decisions, and that’s up to them.

I practice conscientious consumerism. I don’t shop at places who treat their employees badly or who implement religious or racist or gender-intolerant policies. So what if they’re cheaper? I’d rather spend a little more to buy a little less at a place with ethics that align more closely to my own. I choose to put my money elsewhere. I work hard for my money (to paraphrase Donna Summers’s famous song), and I’m not turning it over to businesses I find loathsome. There are restaurants where I won’t eat and stores where I won’t shop. I politely decline invitations to them; I drive to other stores to get similar items. I don’t have to stand on a soapbox and denounce them or attack other people who spend money there; I make my own decisions and act on them.

Do I get it right every time? Of course not. But I make an effort, and if I find out something about a company that runs counter to my core values, it changes my shopping habits.

So what are my core values?

For my own work, it is to shape worlds through words that explore and expand understanding of different points of view, with an intent toward building a better understanding, and therefore, a better society for all.

By the way, I do not believe that runs counter to being able to entertain. So, for all those people huffing and puffing about how they write to “entertain” and stay away from current events or anything else that has meaning in our daily lives, I look at them and think, “cop out.” However, it’s their choice. I’m glad to know that’s their position. As a conscientious consumer, I then chose to put my money elsewhere; I also do not expect them to put their money into anything of mine. We are each acting on our core values. And can have long and happy lives far away from each other.

The most entertaining, deepest work deals with difficulties people face and how they triumph (or don’t). Humor, at its best, speaks to deeper issues in the vein of ha-ha-ow! when it hits properly.

Work that is “entertaining” is not necessarily “irrelevant” or “fluffy.” We all want entertainment we deem as “brain candy” sometimes. We need it. But the best of it works on multiple levels. Yes, it relieves stress and takes us out of ourselves and our daily problems. But when it endures, we can then do back and enjoy it again on a deeper level. That doesn’t disqualify its ability to please us and charm us and offer respite. True entertainment never condescends to its audience OR its own characters. It pleasures and uplifts all of them.

For my clients, my core values mean to work with people I respect; people who are passionate about what they do and want to share it with a larger audience. It is to work WITH them to create the most positive, engaging message to reach the widest possible audience.

Figuring this out took years. I had to figure out not only what I believed and where my boundaries are, but those beliefs and boundaries shifted as I learned and grew as a person. Eighteen-year-old me made different compromises than twenty-five year-old me than the much-older-me today. I learned, I grew, I tried different things, I made A LOT of mistakes, I learned or didn’t from them, I made more mistakes, I listened to other people and learned from them, and I grew. I improved as a human being, thank goodness. I hope I do that my entire life, even while I still make mistakes.

There were too many years when I tried to please people or make money by working for people whose behavior and values made me cringe because we’re constantly being told that type of behavior is “professional.” As recently as last year, I disengaged from a client because, although the client’s parameters were absolutely legal, I felt some of the ethics were questionable, especially in alignment with my values. I was uncomfortable being part of the organization. I felt I was hypocritical to my own integrity, and therefore I did not give the client the best of my work. Which was a negative for both of us. It made sense for us to part ways, and both go on to better for each of us.

Who I am as a person is not compartmentalized from who I am as a professional. Once I stopped buying into the myth that a professional can and will do anything for the cash without caring about ethics, and started doing work that I not only loved but believed in for people I respected, it all shifted. It’s often not easy. It takes more hustle, more energy, more disappointment, a bigger fight to get fair pay. But for me, it’s worth it.

What do you consider your core values, and how did you figure them out?

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Beauty of Guidelines

 

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a novel query or pitching a script, the guidelines of any particular publisher are important.

Following them properly are vital to success at landing a contract.

I’ve taught entire workshops on interpreting guidelines and following them.

Having worked on both sides of the editorial table, I sympathize with both editors who are frustrated by writers who don’t follow guidelines, and writers who are frustrated by the guidelines.

It’s important to remember that the guidelines and how the writer follows them are the first test to see if the writer and the publisher are a good fit.

The editor wants to know:
–can the writer demonstrate basic reading comprehension and follow instructions;
–can the writer understand and fulfill the requirements of being part of this organization;
–can the writer demonstrate fluency in grammar, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, understand the purpose of a hook, and distill the necessary information into a single page;
–can the writer demonstrate an intelligence and a flexibility that proves the individual is easy to work with and doesn’t need constant babysitting.

Guidelines are not there to make the writer’s life miserable. They exist to streamline the process for the editor/publication and weed out those who are more trouble than they’re worth.

I took a wonderful workshop, way back in film school, about pitching screenplays. A good portion of it was about developing a logline. A logline is a single sentence (not complex, compound, or run-on) that encapsulates the screenplay while enchanting the listener.

The workshop leader, who worked in acquisitions and development for a major studio, stated that if the writer could not distill the screenplay down into that one simple logline, the writer didn’t know the piece well enough, it needed another draft, and was not ready to pitch.

I remember that every time I prepare a pitch or a query. There are times when I decide not to pitch or query something because I obviously need more time with it, and I can’t distill it down to the basics while making it enticing.

The elevator pitch is more like a paragraph, but the logline is a good test of whether or not something is ready to go out.

On the flip side of guidelines, when I see demanding guidelines that take me so far out of standard manuscript format that I should be on staff for the publication and paid to reformat, it gives me pause. There’s a reason standard manuscript format uses the word “standard.”

I draft in standard manuscript format because it is far easier to format OUT of it than into it, should that be necessary (to create one-paragraph summaries, excerpts for media kits and interviews, etc). And, people, the default in Word is NOT standard manuscript format. It will mess you up. Set the document to standard manuscript format when you start the first words of your manuscript, and it will serve you well.

If you don’t know what “standard manuscript format” is — LOOK IT UP. Don’t expect others to do your research for you. The information is out there. Put in some effort to learn your craft.

Back from that little tangent.

When guidelines are overly complicated, or when there’s an edge of nastiness to them, I step back. I do more research. It’s a hint that perhaps we are not a good fit.

When I see something in the guidelines that I disagree with, with which I’m not willing to suck it up and do it,  I take a deep breath and move on.

I don’t email them to ask for an exception or to argue with them. They have the right to set whatever guidelines that work for them.

I have the right not to submit.

That’s the beauty of the guidelines. They give BOTH sides of the equation necessary information.

As a writer, if the guidelines don’t work for you, DON’T SUBMIT. Keep doing your research, and find a publication/publisher that’s a better match.

Submitting anyway, because you think you’re such a brilliant writer that they’ll make an exception for you will only cause frustration for both of you. You’ll be upset because you’ll get a rejection. If you don’t follow guidelines, chances are it will be rejected unread. They will be frustrated because you wasted their time and proved you’re not a professional.

If you ARE that brilliant, a different publication, where you’re comfortable with and have followed the guidelines, will contract you. If you ARE that brilliant, word will get around, and publications will wind up coming to you.

When you’re simply Very Good, you work a little harder to find the right fit, and don’t bother with publications that are the wrong fit.

Which you can often tell from the guidelines.