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: Fred Needs a Writer Chapter 2: Writing Samples

I apologize for skipping last week. We had tornadoes on the Cape. While I was not hit, there was a lot going on as far as power outages and damages and clean-up. I did not get this chapter finished and posted.

Our story so far:
Small business owner Fred wants to hire a part-time marketing person for his floor installation business. His buddy Kurt and Kurt’s wife Sandy hire part-time workers at minimum wage off Craigslist ads, and have them do other tasks in the office. Fred posts an ad and is surprised he receives answers from all over the country, that many of them are misspelled, and many of them don’t even send a resume.

Chapter 2: Fred Asks for Writing Samples

Fred and Margaret go through the responses. There are five people who sound promising: Jenny, Walter, Brianna, Cole, and Mallory. He likes the cover letters Jenny, Walter, and Brianna sent. They are friendly, and sound like they actually know what they are doing. Those three are also the only ones who included writing samples. Jenny and Walter sent links to online portfolios; Brianna sent links to some of her previous work.

Jenny’s focus is more on the words. She talks about “partnering with a graphic designer.” Fred wonders if she has that partner in the office, or if she expects him to provide the graphic designer.

“Just hire someone who does both,” said Kurt.

“Make sure they have Photoshop skills,” adds Sandy.

“Yeah, like you’re going to get a decent graphic designer who also writes for minimum wage,” his daughter snorts.

Walter seems to do both. Brianna seems to focus more on something called “gifs” that go on social media. He’s not sure what Cole and Mallory do.

He asks Cole and Mallory to send writing samples of their previous work. He can’t open the file Cole sent him (and he even asked for it to be sent as .doc). Mallory sends him something about a sale at a souvenir shop.

None of them have written anything about flooring. Well, maybe Cole did, but Fred can’t open the file, and he’s too embarrassed to tell Cole.

“Ask them to write something about your company,” said Kurt. “Ask them to look at your website and Facebook page, and write something as though they already worked for you. Then you can see whether or not they know how to write about flooring.”

Fred sends the email to all five of his prospects, asking them to look at the website and write an ad about an upcoming sale.

Walter sends him something that looks good, but there are typos in the words. “If he doesn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’ I am not impressed,” says Margaret.

Brianna sends a gif. Fred guesses it’s supposed to be funny, but he doesn’t get the joke.

Cole sends him a file he can’t open. This time, Fred asks him to re-send it in a different format. It comes in the same format.

Mallory sends him a long piece of something about how wonderful bamboo floors are for the environment. It’s about four pages long, and Fred has no idea how he would use it.

Jenny sends him a quick email asking, “How much do you pay for project-specific samples?”

It had never occurred to Fred that he was supposed to pay for them. He asks Kurt, who says, “It’s part of the interview process. You don’t pay for it. THEY are supposed to impress YOU.”

Fred responds to Jenny that he considers the samples part of the interview process, and doesn’t pay for them.

“I have a policy not to provide project-specific samples without a fee,” Jenny responds. “You have the link to my online portfolio. You can see if my samples have the tone and the quality you need for your campaign.”

“But they’re not about flooring,” Fred responds. He doesn’t say that he tried to put the word “flooring” in various articles, and it didn’t quite work.

“If I can write about biofuels, wind turbines, alpaca farms, and new kitchen gadgets, I can write about flooring,” Jenny replies. “Too often, companies ask for free samples, tell all the writers they’re not hired, and then use the samples without paying for them and without permission. My rate for project-specific samples is lower than my regular rate, but I don’t do it for free. Thank you for your time, and I withdraw from consideration.”

“She’s an arrogant little bitch and full of herself, isn’t she?” Kurt says, when Fred tells him what happened. “You don’t need her attitude.”

“But she said people use the free samples without hiring or paying the writer,” said Fred.

“Of course we do,” snorted Kurt. “Cost of doing business.”

That bothers Fred. To Fred, it seems like stealing. Besides, he liked Jenny’s writing best.

“Interview them,” Margaret encourages. “See who you like best in person.”

How do you feel about unpaid writing samples? What’s your experience?

Next week: Fred interviews the candidates.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Holding To Your Own Standards

I admit it. I have some pretty high standards and expectations when it comes to dealing professionally with others.

They often fail to live up to it.

I’ve discovered, however, that it is important to me to live up to my own standards for myself, even when they don’t.

One of the things that I find most insulting about so many so-called “professionals” is the refusal to give a definitive answer. I don’t care if you’re an agent, a publication, or a business. When you’ve interacted with someone and decide not to hire them, TELL THEM.

Only answering if you want to do business with them is not, to me, acceptable. You don’t want to hire me? Fine. Your choice, and I respect it. But have the professional respect to TELL ME, not just never contact me again.

Sure, I get it when X amount of time has gone by.

But it’s rude, infuriating, and unprofessional.

However, it also proves to me that the business wasn’t worth my time for the interviews/meetings. I lose respect.

The next time you approach me? I set stronger parameters with specific deadlines for answers. And the price goes up. Or, I just say no.

Am I always perfect? Of course not. I lollygagged about writing notes after a recent series of meetings that dragged over six weeks. Had I lived up to my own standards, no matter what the result, I would have written notes after each set of meetings. But I felt jerked around, especially when, a few times, the day after the initial meeting, additional meetings were requested, I cleared the time , and then . ..crickets.

Kind of told me what I needed to know.

Should I have sucked it up and written a polite note, even though it would have been difficult on my part to say anything polite that was also true? Yes. Because I am disappointed in myself.

No matter what the other party does, I demand a particular standard of behavior for myself. Small gestures that follow protocols WITHOUT hypocrisy are important to things running smoothly. They also indicate a level of professionalism, in my opinion.

When people choose not to fulfill those protocols, it gives me important information.

I’m not talking about pointless hoop-jumping fake “tests” where I expect someone else to read my mind. I’m talking basic professional courtesy. “Please.” “Thank you.” “Thank you for your time.”

These matter.

When a company or business or individual ignores the small details, how can you be sure they’ll pay attention to the big ones?

Decide what your professional standards are. Live up to them, even if those around you don’t.

What refusals of basic professionalism and courtesy bother you? How do you deal with them?

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: Positive Networking Practices

 

It’s been a busy time for me lately, and in a good way. But I’ve had some positive results of the various networking I’ve done.

When I meet people at events and exchange cards, I try to send them a note or an email within a few days of the meeting, just to say I enjoyed meeting them and to continue whatever conversation we began at the event.

Most places I’ve lived and worked — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Edinburgh, Australia, Western Mass, Vermont, Washington DC, etc. — this is standard. You exchange cards, you exchange messages post-event and build from there, or have the initial post-event pleasant exchange and put the information aside in case it’s needed down the pike. And then use the information when and where appropriate.

Here, it’s quite different. Most of the time, I do the follow-up, and it’s crickets. If it’s a visiting artist/instructor/agent/editor from somewhere else, there’s response, but local? Rare.

If I mention, the next time we run into each other, “Hey, I sent an email after we met last time; did I get the address wrong? I want to make sure I have your correct contact information”  — the answer is usually, “Oh, I don’t have time to respond to emails” or “I didn’t answer, because I figured I’d run into you again.” In my book, those are not solid practices that grow one’s business.

I try to reconnect with those I’ve met about once a quarter. Just a quick “Hey, how are you, thinking of you, how’s it going?”  When I have an address, I often send a postcard rather than an email. Whereas email response to quarterly follow-up is about 3% locally and 15% beyond the bridge, response to postcards (by email, since I add my email address) is usually 25% or more.

I attended an event a few months ago, a lovely networking event, with about forty or fifty people. I exchanged twenty or so cards. Followed up within two business days (standard) with all twenty. Heard back from four (which, around here, is a huge response).  From those four, one was a person with skills that was useful to one of my clients, and I got them in touch and he was hired; the other opened the door to an arts group with whom I hadn’t had previous contact, and we’re talking. So that was pretty decent.

Wearing my playwright/novelist hat, I was a reader at the Provincetown Book Festival a few weeks ago (which was one of the best festivals I’ve attended in years). After the festival, I thanked the organizers and the sponsors (I’m still tracking down contact information for the fellow readers in my event, to say what a pleasure it was to read with them). I heard back almost immediately from festival personnel (not at all a surprise, since it was one of the best-run events I attended). 

I also heard back from several sponsors, absolutely thrilled that I contacted them and told them how wonderful the experience was.

One sponsor stated that they support so many local events and hardly ever hear back from anyone. So they were delighted that the event went well, and that I took the time to contact them. On my part, “taking the time” took probably less than five minutes.

And now that sponsor knows the event was money well spent.

I attended two events last week. Followed up on both. From the first, I heard back from two out of the two dozen or so people contacted. From the second, there were thirteen of us at the event. I followed up with all thirteen. I’ve heard back from and made plans with six of those thirteen so far, which is positive.

Will any of those above contacts end in cont-RACTs?

Who knows? But these are interesting people who love what they do. Interacting with them improves my quality of life, even if it doesn’t end in a contract. I hope they feel the same way. And even if they don’t hire me, there’s a good chance they’ll recommend me if they feel it’s the right match. As I will do, in the same situation.

What’s the moral of this little tale?

Follow up and follow through when you meet people. Don’t just collect cards and stick them in the drawer. Think beyond being hired on the spot. Think about getting to know some really interesting people who enrich your life.

Even if I don’t get hired by any of these people — there are some of them in fields relevant to upcoming books. You can be darned sure I’m going to consult them on their areas of expertise and thank them in the acknowledgements.

Connections are about people. As much of an introvert as I am, I find other people interesting. So I make myself get out of the house and interact, and I am almost always glad I do. Because their stories are interesting, and fuel my work.

Remember, as a writer: Nothing is EVER wasted.

Ink-Dipped Advice: How To Lose A Customer

A few months back, a start-up that claimed to be dedicated to health and wellness offered me an invitation to an invitation to be one of the first subscribers to their new monthly box.

They sounded interesting, so I said yes, I’d like an invitation to the invitation.

I got on the mailing list, I got emails.

Then, the invitation came through. The same week that I had two deaths in 24 hours close to me, and was overwhelmed on many fronts. There was a flurry of emails, every day. The products were good, but not what I wanted at the time. I had questions about the pricing structure – the way the initial invite was worded, it looked like it would fluctuate, month-to-month.

Honestly, I couldn’t deal with it at the time. I put it aside and MADE THE CHOICE not to subscribe.

As a POTENTIAL customer, that was my right.

It was an INVITATION to an INVITATION. It was not a commitment.

About two weeks ago, I got an email from the company ATTACKING me for not subscribing, with language such as “did you not understand what we’re offering?” and further phrasing berating me for not subscribing. As though I was too stupid to understand the product.

As though they were supposed to be my priority, and as though I’d let them down.

No.

I understood the product. I CHOSE not to buy it. As is my right, in any such transaction.

I sent back a strongly worded email that not everything was about THEM, I was dealing with two deaths, and I’d never committed to purchase. I said I was interested in the invitation. I had the OPTION to buy or not buy, and I chose not to.

I unsubscribed from their mailing list.

I wanted an apology, although I knew I wouldn’t get one. I also realized that it wouldn’t matter. I wasn’t looking for anything free or a discount coupon. There was NOTHING they could say or do that would make me trust them with personal and/or financial information.

I also felt, that, as a supposed heath & wellness company, they were hypocrites.

Hmm — wellness meant THEIR well-being, not that of their customers. Got it. Moving on.

I understand that starting a small business is stressful. But this is not the way to woo potential customers.

I moved on and did other things. I have a subscription box already, with the wonderful, amazing, stunning Goddess Provisions, who always seems to know what I need and time the monthly box to arrive at the right time. For instance, the day after those two deaths, the Heart Chakra box arrived. It was exactly what I needed in that moment. Plus, they are kind and responsive and quick to answer questions or concerns.

I finally received a sort-of apology last week. The company stated they “didn’t mean” it to feel like an attack, and they understood it was an emotional time for me. If they didn’t mean for it to feel like an attack, then they shouldn’t have used phrasing that made it so.

I didn’t bother to respond.

While I know we all make mistakes and believe in second chances, I found the exchange revealing. Instead of actually supporting a potential customer going through a rough time, first they attacked, then they did nothing, then, weeks later, they sent a half-baked whatever it was.

Would a response within the standard 48-hour business protocol response time have changed anything? I don’t know. But a sincere response, instead of further defense, would have smoothed things over. Taking two weeks to respond, and then sending something mealy-mouthed didn’t cut it. Take responsibility. Work to fix it (which doesn’t necessarily mean offering something free )– just work on phrasing. As in maybe hire qualified writing/marketing people for your product and pay them fairly, instead of going off half-cocked and turning off your customers.

Not a way to run a business in my opinion.

Not a company I plan to spend my money with.

Does it make me more careful in my own interactions? I should hope I already am, but it also makes me remember not to send out a mass email in a moment of anger. The person who wrote/sent the email to non-subscribers felt angry and betrayed. Feelings are feelings, and valid. How you use them on other people is something to consider. Because there are consequences.

And perhaps, instead of sending something in a flash of emotion, you should have written it, taken a step back, a breath, and thought it through. Thought if, perhaps, there was a better way to entice those who had passed on the first opportunity you sent them. Where did it fall short for them? Was it only timing? Money? Content? Presentation? Ask for feedback. Don’t attack.

Frankly, that email should have remained in the “unsent letter” file that I learned when studying journals and their writers, and when I taught journal and diary writing. You write the letter to figure out your feelings. You use it as a tool to figure out positive ways to deal with the situation.

But it remains unsent, unless you are willing to burn that bridge.

As far as I’m concerned, the bridge is burned.

I wish them well, but I will not be one of their customers.

My conscious consumerism takes me elsewhere.

Thoughts? Comments? Anecdotes to share?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Pieces of Teachers

“Everyone wants a piece of the teacher, but you don’t get that piece until years later.”

That quote is attributed to author Kate Green by Natalie Goldberg in her book LONG QUIET HIGHWAY, which I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time.

That quote reverberates with me. I remember many teachers from my life. Far too often, I didn’t realize the gifts they gave me until years after.

My fifth grade teacher, who bought me a set of Rudyard Kipling at a yard sale because she knew I loved to read the classics; My sixth grade teacher, who let me read and write far off the reservation, and encouraged me to write stories during class time, even during lectures. Who taught me I could spit out a first draft any way I wanted, but then I had to shape it in order to present it to the world. My band teacher in high school, who knew I loved to write, and suggested I write articles about the high school band, orchestra, and chorus for the local newspapers (my first professional published byline).

In college, I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher who was also my advisor. At a competitive school like NYU Film School, that was vital. I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years, and even got together with him when I visited NYC a few years back. I’ve also kept in touch with one of my screenwriting professors from NYU. The two of them helped me get back on track when I got unfocused, especially when I put other people’s work ahead of my own.

I think they were both surprised when I went into theatre instead of film as my career, but were interested in how I looped what I learned in their classes to the rest of my theatre and writing life.

When I teach, students come away with handouts and workbooks (I am the Queen of Handouts – the bins I haul into a conference workshop cause eyes to widen and backs to groan).

I’m a strict teacher and don’t put up with excuses or not writing. I make it clear that during the scope of the class, things are strict, and then, AFTER the class is over, they get to keep what works and toss the rest. I see many of my students toss quite a bit initially, and then slowly work their way back to what we did, in their own time.

Either way is great. You find your process by trying many different things, not staying in a rut, taking chances, and building your skills with every piece you write.

I am deeply grateful to my teachers. Even the ones I didn’t agree with gave me something important. And I’m still realizing the pieces, and will continue, my entire life, as long as I pay attention.

Who are your most memorable teachers? Is there anyone with whom you kept in touch?

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Right to Love Your Job

 

I say this often, and figured it was about time an entire post was devoted to it:

Loving your job does not mean you forfeit the right to make a living at it.

Let’s break this down. For most of us who work in creative arenas, unless we are famous, we spend a great deal of time being asked when we’ll get a “real job.”

Being creative IS a real job. It’s a demanding one. Most of us work nights, weekends, holidays, because we CREATE others’ leisure activities.

I used to try to “educate” those who try to demean what I do for a living. Then, I realized that it’s not that they’re ignorant; it’s that they resent that I love what I do. So now, when someone asks that, I usually respond with something flippant or snarky. My subtext is always, “when you get a brain” but I don’t always say that.

How many people do you know, outside of the creative realms, who love what they do?

I’m always delighted when I meet a lawyer who loves lawyering or an accountant who loves taking care of the books, or a mechanic who loves fixing cars. Because that means I don’t have to learn more than the basics, and I can trust that individual, who loves the job, to do a good one. I can hire that individual, for a fair day’s pay to do a fair day’s work, and I don’t have to worry about it.

But most people I know don’t love their jobs. It’s something to pay the bills. Not only do they dislike their jobs and resent them, they are angry at anyone else who loves their job.

Being a creative person and committing to make a living doing what I love is a risk. It requires commitment. It doesn’t mean that I “don’t have responsibilities.” I have PLENTY of responsibilities to my family, etc. I am the breadwinner. It’s up to me to keep everything going. To point at me and claim I don’t have responsibilities because my family structure is different than someone else’s is not a valid argument.

For someone to say they “would” do something else if they “had time” or “didn’t have responsibilities” is simply a cop-out on their part. We all HAVE the same amount of hours in the day. How we choose to use them defines us. We prioritize. We make time for what matters. If we allow others to shape all of our time, that’s not on them, that’s on us.

If we are trapped in jobs we don’t like, then it is up to us to sock away as much as possible while we look for a job we like better that pays better. So many of us have to live paycheck to paycheck that it’s a challenge. We all know people who are working two or three jobs just to get by. Sometimes it’s us. We do what we need to do. But ANY job that is out of our creative work is only to support the work itself. As soon as you land something better and in your creative line, you take that opportunity and leave the lesser one. Too often, we remain trapped in a bad situation because it’s the devil we know.

Life will always change. Make sure YOU make the decisions, and they’re not made for you.

On top of that, REFUSE to do the work you love for those who don’t respect the WORK it takes to do what you do and won’t pay a fair wage. Especially in the arts.

I don’t have the patience for people who try to punish me because I love my job and they hate theirs. That is on THEM – the refusal to get out of being stuck.

When someone tells you they are giving you a “great opportunity” – chances are it’s great for them and not so great for you.

Do some research. If it’s a job with a company, check with salary.com to find the median range for the position. If it’s a freelance gig, do some research with other freelancers, the Freelance Union, and places like Writers Market, who, in their print edition, have a list of standard rate ranges.

Put together your quote from that. Give yourself some wiggle room. Decide what your bottom number is AND DON’T GO BELOW IT.

It is often better to not take the gig than to take it for content mill rates.

If you keep getting lowballed and accepting that, then you’ll get the reputation for being the “cheap choice” rather than the “most creative” choice.

Another trap freelancers and creatives often fall into – the self-deprecating comments. Undervaluing ourselves in our words. Often, we’re trying not to come across as boastful or arrogant. But, in reality, we are telling those to whom we speak that we don’t value what we do, so they shouldn’t, either.

When you’re in a meeting or a networking event, frame what you do and how you describe yourself in positive, active terms. No negatives. No passive or qualifiers. Positive verbs. Don’t make claims on which you can’t deliver, but keep your phrasing positives.

If you don’t expect and demand respect for your work, no one else will, either.

When we do work we love, our lives are better. When we do work we love, the work itself is better. When I’m excited about a project — whether it’s writing a play or researching my next novel or planning a marketing campaign for one of my clients — the excitement reflects in the work.

The work is stronger and better. The excitement I feel as I work on it, that energy, is absorbed by the words themselves. Good marketing people can communicate the energy of their projects to engage, enchant, and enlarge their audience.

Great marketing people are also excited by the work itself.

It’s a very specific talent to form words and images into engaging, sensory content, to be able to ignite energy and excitement, turning the two-dimensional form of a page or a screen into the three dimensions and beyond of imaginations.

We deserve to be paid — and paid well — for doing so.

Loving our jobs makes us BETTER at them. Which means we are worth MORE than, not less than, someone who does not.

Don’t settle.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Research To Prepare Your Perfect Pitch

 

The best freelance gigs I land generally come about when I get interested and excited about a company and decide I want to be a part of their team. Which means convincing them that their lives are better/easier/more profitable if I’m part of it.

When I was younger, I used to emphasize my flexibility – my chameleon-like ability to adapt to most situations (unless I find them unethical or feel my integrity is being compromised).

As I’ve aged and gotten more experienced and more confident, my angle has changed to be more about being very much myself instead of what I think they want. At this point in the game, I bring a lot to the table. Either it will be a good fit to move their vision forward, or it won’t. I’d rather know by the end of the first interview than find out six months in. The best way to do that is to be unabashedly MYSELF from Moment One.

But Moment One won’t happen if I don’t do my homework.

When I find a company that interests me, with whom I think I’d like to work, I go through the website. I go through press clippings. I read about the members of their staff, about what’s important to them as human beings as well as well as the overall company vision. I go through social media, articles, interviews, newspaper articles.

Then I figure out how and where I’d be an asset. Where do my skills, and, even more important, my energy and enthusiasm for what they do, support and fit their platform? How can I expand and engage their audience? Spread the message in a way that is positive, productive, and truthful?

From there, I craft the pitch/cover letter. I mention what I like about their company and how I think my unique skill set would add to what they do and what they WANT to do. I don’t tell them they’re doing something “bad” or “wrong.” I might not agree with the current approach in their marketing/web content/etc. materials, but I don’t know the story behind it. As someone who claims to be excited by their vision and want to work with them, why would I shame them? If there are things I think could use a different approach, I can talk about it in the interview, but within a positive construct.

As someone who regularly gets spammy emails from content mill marketers and faux writers stating my content is “bad” and theirs is better, I know how off-putting it is. Also, most of these generic emailers stating they want to “help” me reach a wider audience are full of errors AND have obviously not spent any time reading ANY of my sites – or they’d know my specific needs and vision.

If I wouldn’t hire someone like that, why would I want to BE someone like that?

I don’t.

I do try to find an individual to whom to send the pitch, not just a general, vague email. I have a cover letter template, but I slant each letter to highlight the parts of my experience I feel are best suited to their unique situation. I read carefully to decide which of my several resumes are most suited, what kind of samples to send. Of course, if they demand unpaid, project-specific samples written just for them, I stop the process and look elsewhere (see last week’s post).

Of course, there are always companies that, once you do the research, don’t look so inviting. I’ve ditched more than one pitch when they demanded that contact be to a specific individual at a specific email, but then didn’t have a staff list and stated “no phone calls.” If it means digging all the way back into the articles of incorporation filed with the state, it’s probably not a place that’s a good match. Or, if, as I do my research, I get that feeling that maybe they aren’t working along lines I can agree with. Of course, when I read negative or positive pieces, I then research THE WRITERS of those pieces, to see what the context of the article/interview/critique is.

I also keep detailed notes, much like my fact check sheets when I do an article, to follow the path in case I need to double back and reconfirm a piece of information.

I also see if any of my colleagues know anything about the place, and what their experiences were.

Yes, it takes time. But, if I really want a gig, it’s worth it.

In the course of my research, of course, I come up with some of the staff. Still, I prefer to check a current staff list just before I send something, to make sure I’m not sending a pitch to someone who just left. Or was promoted.

Or, if there’s an “online application” through a third party head hunter, and I have to re-enter, manually, everything that’s on my resume – pass. Waste of everybody’s time.

My rule of thumb now is, if I find the process of contact irritating, that’s probably a good indication of what it’s like to work with them. Best if we don’t put ourselves through the pain.

Because there are an awful lot of exciting, passionate, ethical entrepreneurs out there.

It just takes a bit of work to find them!