Can robots replace human writers?

July 18th, 2014 by Bob Bly

It appears that they can, at least as far as content writing is concerned.

According to the article below, Wikipedia “bots” – software that writes without a human operator – write a staggering 10,000 articles a day for the site:

The quality is apparently good enough that the articles pass muster – people read them and don’t know a robot wrote them.

Does that mean content writers are obsolete and irrelevant, much like factory workers who have been replaced by robots on factory assembly lines?

For decades, my dad worked in an office building with a manual elevator run by an elevator operator, Frank. The day the building unveiled its new self-service push-button elevator, Frank was gone.

I know a number of older IT professionals who became obsolete and were fired when either their technical skills became outdated or were outsourced to India. Not exactly death by bot, but the same idea.

Do you believe that bots will become powerful enough to handle more sophisticated writing tasks – including poetry, novels, movie scripts, and sales copy?

Just because I cannot see my way clear to believing that what I do as a copywriter can ever be captured in software does not mean that it won’t happen.

What’s scary is the possibility that almost any worker living today may become obsolete in ways he or she never expected.

There are already robots that help perform surgery. Who is to say one day an AI (artificial intelligence) bot won’t eliminate the need for a human surgeon?

Do you feel sorrow for people who are being made obsolete and unemployable by advances in technology or do you see it as their fault: they didn’t keep their skills state of the art, and so they get what they deserve?


Category: General | 5 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

What’s a good idea really worth?

July 11th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The late, great speaker Dottie Walters once praised me by
writing, “Bob Bly is a magnificent idea man.”

But that actually made me uncomfortable … because I do not think
of myself as an idea man.

I am something that, in my humble opinion, is much more
valuable: an action man.

My writing hero, Isaac Asimov, said he was often besieged by
people who had an idea for a science fiction story.

Their offer: “Take my idea, write the story, sell it, and we
will split the money.”

Asimov’s reply was always the same.

He told the person, “Tell you what. I will give YOU an idea. You
write a story, sell it, and split the money with me.”

His point: coming up with ideas is easy. Implementing them is

In this regard, my pet peeve is marketing consultants who want
to look smart to the client, and so they spew out idea after
idea without regard to the client’s time and resources available
to execute — or whether the idea is merely creative or will
actually generate positive ROI.

But when it’s time to actually do the suggestions, they run for
the hills. And when you ask them for guidance, they tell you
they just concern themselves with the big picture and are not
“detail people.”

Recently I hired a marketing consultant and writer, GF, to write
an e-book for me.

Right away, he became hyper-excited and started spewing out
ideas for the book I hired him to write.

For instance, let’s have a contest … let’s start a Facebook page
for the book … let’s make online videos … let’s sell advertising
in the book … let’s partner with Amazon.

“Relax, Spanky,” I told him.

“Forget about all that hooey. Just write a good book for me.
I’ll be happy with that.”

Guess what, Mr. Smart Marketing Consultant?

An idea that you toss out and that just lies there … and that
you never help put into practice for the client … is worthless.

When I was a kid, my dad, whom I worshipped, had to lift Heidi,
our huge collie, onto the exam table at the vet.

He said, “I have a great idea. Build the table with a hydraulic

It was a great idea, and now many vet exam tables have a lift.

But dad didn’t make a dime from it, because he never did a thing
with the idea.

You see, the money’s in making the thing, not thinking of the

The Law of Attraction also places too much faith in ideas and

It says you attract abundance by thinking abundantly.

I prefer the guy — I think it may have been Edison or maybe
Stephen King — who said: “Success usually wears overalls and
looks like hard work.”


Category: General | No Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

Are you a good listener?

July 2nd, 2014 by Bob Bly

In the 1980s, when Burroughs announced its plan to merge with
fellow computer giant Sperry, they turned to a big NYC ad agency
for help naming the new company.

The ad agency turned to me … and a bunch of other copywriters …
and paid us for name suggestions.

My simple-minded solution, Sperry/Burroughs, was not chosen. Nor
was my alternative: Burroughs/Sperry.

The winner, as some of you may know, was Unisys – and I can’t
say the freelancer who sold that to the agency and its client
earned his fee.

I bring this up because, for reasons unknown, a few years before
the merger, Sperry ran a major corporate ad campaign around the
theme of “listening.”

Although I think the campaign was a dud, the idea of becoming a
good listener is a valuable one.

I will never forget a line in one of their content pieces on
listening: “Remember, you have only one mouth but two ears. So
you should listen twice as much as you talk.”

It’s relevant, because increasingly people ask for my advice
and counsel, and then when I try to give it, constantly talk
over me and never listen to a word I say.

For instance, entrepreneur CM called a few weeks ago asking for
advice on how to market his business.

He did not want to become a paying client. He just wanted to
pick my brain for free.

As is always the case, I said yes, with a line I learned from
speaker Patricia Fripp.

“CM, I charge $500 an hour, but I will give you 5 minutes,
starting now.”

By the way, if you charge $500 an hour, 5 minutes of your time
is a gift worth $41.67 — a nice freebie for a stranger you don’t

So CM told me his marketing idea. But instead of shutting up and
getting the answer, he proceeded to tell me why he was convinced
it was brilliant, his life story, and on and on.

Finally, I said in a loud voice what Charlie on “Its Always
Sunny in Philadelphia” loves to say to talkers: “Stop talking!”

CM stopped, and I said: “CM, you asked me the question. I know
the answer. Can you be quiet and let me tell you the answer?”

Actually, I insisted that he stop talking because (a) my time
is valuable and (b) since he was not paying me, he was wasting
it. And what would be my incentive to allow a non-client to do

The kicker to the story: When I told CM his idea will not work,
he began arguing vehemently. I (figuratively) held up my hand
and said once again:

“Stop. I don’t care what you do. Do what you want. You asked
for advice. I gave it. Five minutes up. Goodbye and good luck.”

Some days it does not pay to get out of bed, but despite that, I
am here at the PC every day by 6am, in case you have something
to ask me.

Only … whether you are a paying client or a freebie … wouldn’t
it make sense to stop talking enough to get my answer?

If you are a paying client, I will gladly debate its merits
until you are comfortable with my explanation and can make an
informed decision about whether to accept my advice.

If you are a freebie seeker on my 5 minute meter, I will not.

Action step: implement Sperry’s 2:1 rule in your life: Listen at
least twice as much as you talk — and you will be well served
whether you are a customer, a vendor, or a moocher.


Category: General | 5 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

Are you a digital potty mouth?

May 12th, 2014 by Bob Bly

One of the worst things about the Internet is the anonymity.

Reason: because anyone can post or e-mail without revealing
their identities or facing those they communicate with, people
on the Internet think they can say anything to anybody – and get
away with it.

A case in point: on a popular blog, a contributing author wrote
an otherwise excellent article about digital marketing in which
she said something she tried worked “like a mofo.”

I commented that, in my opinion, she should have communicated
her ideas without using an abbreviation for an obscenity.

I was widely attacked by the blog readers for being an old
fogey, conservative and out of touch with the time.

Incidentally, shortly after the incident, the blog suspended
comments. I do not think I am the cause.

Anyway, I was tempted to humorously reply “%&^(&* you” but

One of my critiques wrote: “Can’t believe you’re such a whiney
bitch on the blog post where the word ‘mofo’ is used.”

Maybe I am, but I was raised in a generation which, I believe,
had slightly better manners than the current one – though
perhaps I am delusional.

For instance, when I communicate with someone I do not know, I
don’t call them a bitch.

People love swearing and do it frequently, but they and I differ
on when and where cussing is appropriate.

I contend that in articles published online and offline on
business topics, it is completely unnecessary, and people do it
primarily to look cool and hip to their counterparts.

But by doing so, they turn off a large segment of their
readership, me included … mostly the 50 and over crowd.

If you are a marketer, I would warn you not to alienate
oldsters, as we control most of the money in the United States.

A survey reported on the Joshua Kennon web site found that
households where the head was age 35 and younger had a median
net worth of only $65,000.

By comparison, households where the head was 55 to 64 years old
had a median net worth of $880,000 – nearly 14X richer.

I have the same objection to gratuitous swearing in media other
than business blogs, by the way.

For instance, I find Chris Rock very funny. But his use of f–k
every other sentence is wearisome.

He may do it for effect, but listen to his CDs … they would be
just as funny without the F word, in my opinion: it adds nothing
to the humor.

I admit there are some comics who use occasional cursing to
good effect, George Carlin being one of them.

And I also admit the F word can enhance a character’s emotion in
certain tense movie scenes … though if he says it every 2
minutes, it again becomes tiresome.

But I believe swearing has no place in business or marketing

Of course, if you disagree, I suspect you will flip me off … and
keep on doing it.

Just remember: for every complaint you get, there are probably
dozens of readers who also don’t like it — but are not speaking

So the number of people you alienate may exceed the number of
those who think you are “with it” and groovy for cussing.


Category: General | 9 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

The awful truth about content farms

April 23rd, 2014 by Bob Bly

Subscriber SJ asks: “Can you give us your take on the
advisability of writing for the content farms like Demand Media
Studios (Ehow)?”

A content farm is a business that hires multiple writers to
churn out articles that clients post on their web sites to
improve their search engine rankings.

In my experience, the writers who write for content farms are
for the most part minimally skilled. Often English is not their
native language, which shows in their writing.

Articles from content farms are typically produced by writers
who are not experts in the subject. They just go on Google and
cobble together an article on the topic from 5 or 6 other
articles they find online – frequently without giving credit to
these sources.

Content farms are famous for the miserable fees they pay
writers. One I saw offered $5 per article. How good are those $5
per article writers? Not very.

And I know that from experience: I stupidly hired a content farm
writer to write content for my chemistry web site at

In an article on careers in chemistry, she actually wrote
“People interested in a career in chemistry should study
chemistry.” Duh.

Unbelievably, she also wrote in the same article “Chemistry is a
good career for those who are fond of atoms.” I am not kidding.
This at least gave me a good laugh.

Writers have a long tradition of getting started in their
freelance careers by writing for low pay or no pay.

Back in the day, it was mainly for small magazines that paid
writers in contributor’s copies. Today, the articles are for web
sites, and they are written more for search engines than human
readers. The content farms seem not to care much what’s in the
article or how well it is written as long as it contains the
right key words.

Subscriber MZ, a freelance writer, notes, “An infinite supply
of low, low, insultingly low paying outlets have cropped up like
an unkillable fungus. It’s made a lot of writers very angry. Not
only do we refuse to work for these absurdly low rates, we feel
deeply offended that our work could be valued so poorly.”

“But I am a beginner,” you object, “I need to get some writing
samples to launch my business.” However, if the samples are
articles published by content farms, good clients are unlikely
to be impressed.

A better option than working for peanuts for content farms is to
get hired by real clients for smaller, noncritical assignments
until they get to know you well enough to try you on a bigger

For instance, a newsletter publisher might not hire an untested
writer to write a full-length promotion for them. But they might
hire you to write an article for their free e-newsletter, a
special report used as a subscription premium, or some banner
ads. And they will pay you a fair rate for the work.

So my advice to SJ and all other freelance writers is to avoid
content farms like the plague. They are truly the cesspool of
the freelance writing profession.


Category: General | 9 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

Should the Author Even Bother to Finish This Book?

April 14th, 2014 by Bob Bly

According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor (3/31/14, p. 36), English Professor Anne Fernald has spent the past decade working on a scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway” — and she’s still working on it.

Mind you, Professor Fernald is not writing the novel. Virginia Woolf already did.  All Fernald is doing is annotating the book with extensive footnotes.

When I read that, two thoughts came to mind. First, a decade to annotate — not write, just annotate — a book? Seriously?

Second, is this something the world really needs and that Anne should dedicate more than a decade of her life to? I mean, to put it politely: does anyone care?

I ask because it goes to the deeper problem of being an author today: too many books already in print on virtually every subject under the sun — most that either no one cares about or else have already been done to the death.

When people send me a review copy of their new business book, usually self published because no publisher would take it, I groan.

And invariably, it sounds  just like the last dozen I was also sent for review.

Should you and I even bother writing more books, or just quietly slink away to relieve the world of its content pollution?



Category: General | No Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

The #1 difference between good vs. bad writers

April 9th, 2014 by Bob Bly

I was thinking about it the other day, and I reached the
conclusion that the #1 difference between good writers and
amateurs is as follows….

Many writers who are amateur, mediocre, bad, or just not worth
reading write mostly about their personal opinions, thoughts,
stream of consciousness, and feelings – in other words, whatever
bubbles into their minds.

This is why so many blogs are utter crap: Bloggers can write
whatever they want. There is no publisher or editor to say,
“Hey, this isn’t good – don’t publish this!” Indeed, they can
and often do publish everything that pops into their head.
Exceptions? Of course.

Good writers – those worth reading – have something unique,
valuable, or useful to say. And what they say is not just
whatever they think. It is a distillation of wisdom produced by
experience, observation, study, and activity.

In other words, good writers are good because they know
something and can offer value by sharing it with their readers.

Average or bad writers don’t really know anything, and so their
writing is vacuous, without valuable or hard-won ideas, wisdom,
or knowledge.

“Write what you know” is old advice. The problem is a lot of
people who write don’t know anything – or at least do not know
anything that other people also want to know. And so they have
nothing to write about.

Therefore it follows that if you want to be a good writer
instead of an average or bad writer, you must gain knowledge,
wisdom, or experience – so you have something of value and
interest to write about other than your feelings and thoughts.

Here are some suggestions for acquiring the base of knowledge
that can transform your writing from low value to high value:

1-Read widely and constantly. As insurance billionaire Arthur
Williams once observed, most of humankind’s knowledge can be
found in books.

2-At work or in your personal life, take on a difficult task or
project that no one else wants to do. If you succeed, you can
write your own ticket selling your expertise to others both in
your writings and as a consulting service.

Example: My old college friend EG led his company in an early
SAP (software) implementation and then made a handsome living as
a SAP expert.

3-Have more experiences. Instead of watching TV, be on the board
of a nonprofit like my colleague BK, or buy and run a bar like
my writer friend CF. Or be like my friend DY who built a shack
in the middle of the woods, lived there for a year, and then
wrote a novel about it. The more you do, the more you have to
write about.

4-Associate with successful people. Soak up their knowledge and
experience. Ask questions to find out what they know that others
don’t. Then distill what you learn and pass it on to your

5-Take or teach a course.

For instance, in my early days in NYC, I took some Learning
Annex courses on various career options such as music and
business. I then wrote about what I learned in my John Wiley &
Sons book “Dream Jobs: a Guide to Tomorrow’s Top Careers.”

I had been a technical writer at Westinghouse in Baltimore, and
when I moved to NYC, I taught a technical writing course at New
York University. The course became the basis for my McGraw-Hill
book “The Elements of Technical Writing,” which I wrote in 1981
and is still in print today.

Nicholas Baker: “If you think your writing furthers life or
truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling
stops, you have to find something else to do.”


Category: General | 5 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

Sifting the toads from the frogs

April 2nd, 2014 by Bob Bly

Subscriber WG writes, “How do you sift the toads from the frogs
with new client requests?”

In other words: How do you know whether a prospect will be a
good client to work with or a bad client?

There is a formula for qualifying clients I have given before:

It stands for money, authority, desire, fit, and urgency.

1-Money … does the client have a budget? And is it big enough to
cover your fee?

How to find out: Ask the client, “Do you have a budget for this

If they say yes, ask, “Would you mind sharing with me what it

If they say no, ask, “Well, do you at least have a dollar figure
in your mind of what you’d like it to cost?”

2-Authority … can the client make the decision to hire you? Or
does he have to get approval from others?

How to find out: Ask the client, “Who else is involved in making
this decision?”

3-Desire … if you are a copywriter, do they value good copy? Do
they want better copy than they have? Or do they view copy as a
commodity without any special value?

How to find out: When a prospect says “we are looking at many
other copywriters,” that’s a sign to me that they view what I do
as a commodity service, and it makes me lose interest in them.

4-Fit … are they a good fit for you? Are they in an industry you
are comfortable writing about? Are they the size company you
like to work with?

5-Urgency … if they need the service you provide now or by an
upcoming deadline date, the chances are good they will hire you
or someone else. If there is no urgency, your chances of getting
hired decline geometrically. Prospects in a hurry are the best

How to find out: Ask: “What is your deadline for completing this

Here are a few additional rules of thumb for client selection:

** Your instincts are right 95% of the time. Therefore, if you
get an immediate negative vibe from a person, don’t take them on
as a client.

Example: I got a call from a well known direct marketing
entrepreneur who wanted, he said, a “killer” ad. He asked me
“Can you write a killer ad?” five times in 5 minutes. And he
sounded like a used car salesman. I passed.

** If you don’t like or believe in the product, pass.

Example: I got a call a few weeks ago from someone who wanted me
to write a sales letter on using astrology to make business
decisions. I passed because I think that is a load of B.S.

** It’s a negative to me if the first question the prospect asks
me is “What will it cost?” That tells me they are looking for a
low price. They ought to be asking to see samples of my work, a
client list, and client testimonials and results.

** If they are poor speakers of English, this is a negative for
me as a copywriter, because they must be able to recognize and
appreciate well-written, conversational English prose when I
submit it to them.

** Having a prospect ask if I will waive my fee in exchange for
a percentage of sales gets an immediate “no” from me. From a
serious direct marketer, I will accept my fee plus a percentage
of sales as a bonus when such is offered.

** Also beware the prospect who asks you to lower your fee in
exchange for the promise of a lot of work down the road. It’s an
empty promise designed solely to get you to cut your price.

** I have had the occasional prospect tell me “You won’t be able
to understand or write about my product because my product is
different than anything else you have ever seen.” I agree and
tell them they are right and therefore I cannot help them and
wish them well.


Category: General | 3 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post