In college you learn to abide by AP style, write in neat paragraphs and an academic tone. In the traditional writing format, these rules transferred nicely. However, when it comes to modern mediums, otherwise known as web writing, these rules generally don’t apply. While grammar should still be pristine, it’s more about the content than anything else. As an editor, it’s important that you have an eye for these key differences. [Read more…]
It has been said that the two most sensitive people in the world are artists and writers. This is often proven in how the two groups take criticism, which is a regular part of our chosen professions. Perhaps this is because we all tend to put so much of ourselves out there when we craft our art. We are opening ourselves up to review, and we all want what we create to be well received.
As a blogger, you are even more vulnerable to negativity. Not only are you writing on a much more frequent basis, but you are doing so on a system that allows people to hide behind anonymity. This makes those who would usually refrain from cruelty much more willing to sling hurtful comments with no productive purpose.
Of course, there is also good criticism, and this is what we should use to further our own talent. Knowing what we are doing wrong might be hard to swallow, but it is a bitter pill that is necessary if we want to better ourselves. That makes learning to take it, accept it and use it so very important. But it is equally crucial that you know how to put aside your feelings and get the most out of other’s observations.
Criticism vs. Cruelty
The first thing you have to do is learn what constitutes constructive criticism and what is just nasty Internet shouting. I have had tiny typos turn into streams of angry readers eager to pick on me and others who have helpfully pointed it out for correction. There have been people hiding behind the anonymous posting button who have told me I am awful for no particular reason and even some who have threatened me.
If criticism helps you, then it is constructive. This means the posters will have a reason for their opinion, they will explain it to you, and they will provide a suggestion in which you can improve. This might be done pleasantly or unpleasantly, but it is still something you can use toward a positive goal.
Anything else, which is mindlessly malicious, angry or insulting, is pretty much just abuse and best ignored.
When you do get helpful criticism, you should be careful that you react in an appropriate manner. This is easier said than done. After all, just because you can use what they said doesn’t make it any easier to hear. Try these tips to keep you centered and reacting positively:
- Calm yourself before responding. If you immediately answer back, chances are you will lash out. You might even end up starting a flame war that could grow way out of proportion. Before commenting to your criticizer, take some time to get away from your keyboard. Go on a walk, take a bath, read, talk to a friend — anything that will loosen you up. Then go back and re-read it with a clearer head. You will probably find your response to be much less vicious than it would have been.
- Be objective about their opinion. My first thought is, “What do they know?” when I get a bad review. Sometimes that is followed by a biased, “They are complete morons anyway,” though in much more colorful language. But if I look at it honestly, I can usually see their point. This is a difficult process that takes practice and more than a little forcing to get done. However, if you can look at their side and find the truth in it, it will make you better at what you do, because you will be able to implement their advice and fine-tune your process.
- Thank the person who criticized you. Yes, the words may stick in your throat a bit, and it can be hard to speak past grit teeth. That is why it is fortunate we are talking about doing it over the Internet, isn’t it? Thanking them for taking the time and effort to address an issue they had with you is just polite and will also show that you can accept criticism with grace. Even if they were unpleasant, it will be a step toward seeing the value in their opinion. At the very least, it will be killing them with kindness.
- Learn from it. Even if you follow all of these tips, they will mean nothing if you just forget the lesson you took away from it. Take the criticism to heart, try to include it in your list of changes and then strive to be better in your everyday work. We are constantly evolving and should be dedicated to improving our own lives and work. Take advantage of this chance to make one of the improvements, even if it bruises your ego a bit.
Jennifer Moline writes about small business, graphic design, printing and freelancing for the PsPrint Blog as well as for other graphic design websites.
Some of us played a game on long bus rides. We called it “Three Bags of Gold”. It wasn’t much of a game. It was primarily an opportunity to concoct horrific, stomach-churning, soulless scenarios and to half-heartedly consider them in the context of our greed and morality. It was like a hypothetical version of Fear Factor with ethical elements.
Someone would yell out a test. “Would you cut off your little finger, grill it and eat it for three bags of gold?” We’d iron out the details. How would the amputation occur? Would there be immediate medical treatment for the lost finger prior to the barbecue? Could we season our severed digit when it was time to dine? Right hand or left? We discussed the current market price of gold and the size of the bags at great length again and again.
The scenarios weren’t always gross-out exercises. “Would you frame a friend for a crime that would result in his imprisonment for three bags of gold?” “Would you ‘pull the plug’ on a stranger who had requested to stay on life support for three bags of gold?” Under what situations would our morality bend in the face of three bags of gold? When would we finally lie, cheat or steal? Why?
We’d respond to the scenarios with a collective, reactive “no”. As the conversation progressed, someone might admit a willingness to engage in whatever twisted behavior under consideration.
It was all a silly diversion designed to kill time on empty stretches of interstate with open conversation and jokes. We didn’t take it very seriously, though we sometimes learned a bit about one another. Sometimes those lessons made folks a little less attractive.
I hadn’t thought about Three Bags of Gold for nearly twenty years. Yesterday, I realized that I was playing the game professionally now.
The email included a job offer. The client needed a variety of materials to assist in the marketing of Product X. He was willing to pay a fair rate.
The problem? I don’t like Product X. I don’t particularly like it in principle and I certainly don’t like it in practice. Product X isn’t dangerous and it isn’t obviously immoral. I just happen to believe that the world would be marginally better off if it and its competitors didn’t exist.
“Would you write copy for Product X for three bags of gold?”
I said it aloud as I considered the offer.
Then, I found myself thinking about the size of the bags and just how much that gold was worth to me right now.
Would I compromise my personal integrity for a check? Would the number of zeroes on the check influence my thinking? How should I weigh the value of that gold to my cash-strapped family against contributing to the potential success of something I dislike and wish would disappear? Would I be able to create compelling words in favor of Product X, considering my disposition toward it?
When you’re in your early twenties cruising down an empty highway late at night, Three Bags of Gold is all theoretical. No one has a knife and a portable barbecue grill waiting for your left pinky. No one has three bags of gold.
Now, the gold is real. It pays for electricity, cars, daycare, shoes for the kids, food for the fridge and laundry soap. The gold even makes payments on the student loans that financed Three Bags of Gold in the old days.
And the decisions are real. We all face them. We all make them.
“Would you write an anti-Semitic screed for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write copy for a crappy product for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write a political essay contrary to your personal beliefs for three bags of gold?”
Would your current bank account balance guide your decision? Would necessity force compromise? Would greed flex your morality?
These questions matter.
I believe that we are responsible for our words. Even if the contractual terms of a ghostwriting project relieve us of legal liability for our efforts, we are creating something that has the potential for impact and we carry with us some level of responsibility for any outcomes it generates. We’re also responsible to our clients. And to our readers. And to ourselves. And to the profession. I tend to believe that writers have a somewhat elevated responsibilities to use their gifts for the betterment of the world. Maybe that sounds hokey to you, but I believe it.
That’s a heap of responsibilities and they don’t always match up nicely. When they compete and cause dissonance, either we walk away or we compromise in some way. Compromise is all but inevitable in so many cases.
Sometimes, we just say, “screw it”. We take the three bags of gold.
Are Your Hands Clean?
My hands aren’t clean. I’ve written half-assed pieces of web content in order score a quick buck even though I don’t embrace the idea of filling the world with half-assed web content. I’ve written sales copy for things that probably didn’t impress too many buyers, if you know what I mean. I’ve made furniture sales seem like the second coming of Christ.
I can rationalize those transgressions. We needed the money. I’m not responsible for what people do, I’m just imparting information. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. Who am I to decide what’s valuable and what’s useless or to draw lines separating good from bad? This is how the world works. No one can advance through life in a market-based economy without compromise. Etc.
In the end, those rationalizations don’t really mitigate my irresponsibility.
I’ve chopped off my finger. I’ve betrayed my friend. I’ve pulled the plug. I took the gold and ran.
I bet you’ve done it, too. Maybe you’ve stayed pure in ways that I haven’t, but you’ve compromised your responsibilities. You’ve done something short of your best work. You’ve pandered to an audience, to a client, or to your own writing vanity. You’ve made your deals with devils, even if your devils are incredibly cute and small.
If you haven’t, I bet you will. Someday.
You’ll get that call about a project you don’t really love. It will come shortly after the water heater goes bad or on the heels of a medical bill. It will come a week before your daughter’s sixteenth birthday or right when your son’s tuition payment is due. The three bags of gold will be large enough to break a mule’s back and you’ll find yourself accepting the offer.
You’ll hold your breath while you peddle the snake oil or while you make the not-so-bright subject of a press release into an eminent expert in her field. You’ll crank through an article at Mach III, knowing that you’re not providing readers with enough meat for their information sandwich or you’ll realize that the client for whom you’re working doesn’t have the world’s best interests at heart.
Rationalization, Blissful Ignorance or Discomfort? Choose.
Three Bags of Gold isn’t funny when it’s real. The easiest way to handle the game is to pretend as if you’re not playing. Don’t think too hard. Keep yourself on the right side of the “morally reprehensible” line and don’t sweat the stuff that isn’t really obnoxious. Just keep on truckin’ and try to make up for the sell-outs with acts of kindness, confession and penance. Whatever gets you through the night, right?
The alternative is scary.
And that’s where I am right now. I’m tired of playing and I’m looking for a way out that can serve all of my responsibilities and that can be consistent with my worldview without all of that uncomfortable compromise. When I take the three bags of gold, I want to do it with plenty of pride and without even the slightest shred of regret.
This is all proof that ignorance is bliss, of course. Life is easier when you don’t realize the back stories of those with whom you’re working or the repercussions of your actions. Three Bags of Gold is an easy game when you don’t have a conscience, but it’s almost as easy if you’ve found a way to keep your head in the sand.
Writers, however, tend to be aware. We see through things. We dig, research and think. That’s what allows us to do remarkable things. Ignorance isn’t an option.
We play Three Bags of Gold and eventually we realize it.
Let’s play a round right here, right now.
What would you do for three bags of gold?
What would you refuse to do for three bags of gold?
And let’s create a little opportunity to come clean, while we’re at it.
What compromises have you made? What responsibilities have you ducked? How did you justify it at the time and how do you feel about it now?
I’d love to see some answers.
There are many sides to the content site debate and I understand them all, even if I don’t always agree. One popular argument for the anti-content site contingent is that the writers are unskilled laborers turning out crappy content. While I have seen some cases of truly bad content, I know this isn’t the case for all content writers. Some content sites take great pains to find experienced writers to create quality content, but there are also sites that don’t even check writing samples or credentials before hiring. To generalize and lump every single content writer in the “crappy content” category is wrong and shows ignorance. There are some incredibly talented people writing for content sites.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t writers turning out poor content, either. Because content sites don’t pay on the high end of the spectrum there are writers who don’t feel it worth their while to put out their best results. My problem with this is that they’re only adding to the “hack” writer stereotype and they’re creating to their own bad reputation. Writers who don’t give their best effort will have their names associated with poor writing. A potential client may come upon this and pass.
If content site writers want to avoid the “crappy content mill writer” reputation and show the world they’re indeed capable of putting out quality content, here are some points to consider:
Writing isn’t rewriting
Going through the motions only looks like you’re going through the motions. Don’t put your name on anything unless you’re sure you want potential clients to see it. Your byline should always be above your best work. In this business reputation is everything. Writing and researching doesn’t mean Googling other people’s work and rewriting their stuff. Whether you’re writing for a content site, a magazine or a Fortune 500 client, a thoroughly researched, unique, creative effort is required. Anything else is just copying from other writers. Also, take some time to proofread your work and correct any errors. Don’t give anyone a reason to call you a “hack.”
If the gig isn’t worth the money, find a new gig
The complaint among some content site writers is that the money isn’t enough to give a best effort piece of writing. To that I say, “then find something more worthwhile.” If the money isn’t worth the job, don’t do the job. A content site is a client and clients expect your best. If your best costs more money, then you’re writing for the wrong client. Everything you write is part of your portfolio. It has the ability to be on the web forever. Do you really want people finding your worst work? If you can’t do it for $20, find someone who will pay more.
Working for content sites day in and day out is fine, but it can also lead to burnout. It also puts you in a comfortable spot. The work is always there so you don’t have to troll for gigs, you can count on a regular payment and you don’t have to deal with phones or emails. The problem with this is that it doesn’t necessarily aspire you to go for higher paying markets and goals. Branch out now and then to stay fresh, try something new and jump start your creativity. Take a break from quick content once in a while to try something different. You might find some interesting higher paying markets and use the lower paying stuff to supplement in between.
Fighting for you…
I want you to know I’m on your side and I will always fight for you. However, I can only do so much. If you don’t want people to see you as someone who puts out poor content, put out your best effort every time. Show the naysayers their arguments don’t hold water.
If you hung out on Twitter for any amount of time today, you may have learned b5Media had yet another round of layoffs. This time both part time and full time freelance writers for that content site were locked out of their blogs and shown the door.
Some of the laid off writers were with b5Media since its inception about five years ago. It’s a sad day for a company that once held such a great buzz and terrific vibe. I was a blogger for b5Media and the experience was valuable (blogging lessons from Darren Rowse, I mean, does it get any better than that?) and enjoyable. As you can imagine, my heart was heavy when I learned the news. b5Media closed its entertainment portal in order to make way for a brand new portal called Crushable.com
Now many b5media bloggers are looking for freelance writing work. Last year, a couple of of writers were hired for full time work at b5Media, after many of smaller blogs where shut down and those bloggers laid off. For the full time writers, today’s discussion regarding the egg/basket thing doesn’t necessarily apply. However. many of b5’s freelancers were also let go. Some of them did nothing but blog for b5. Now, they have to scramble.
As someone who has seen many web content sites and portals close shop leaving writers in the lurch, I have been advising writers not to put their faith in one client and one client only. No client whether it’s a magazine, a business, a private client or a blog network is ever a sure thing. Businesses dry up, magazines cease publication and, yes, content sites close doors. I’ve seen this happen to at least a half dozen sites over the past ten years.
I’ve had clients provide me with enough work to keep me fat and happy for months and then all of a sudden have to put a halt on things when times get tough. I worked for a publishing company where several magazines folded leaving both full time and freelance workers out of steady gigs. I know what it’s like to lose work when a client doesn’t have money for freelancers anymore. However, I always had another client or two (or three) in place so the cash continued to flow.
No job is forever. No client is forever. Spread your eggs around, folks. Now isn’t a good time to be out of work.