Archive for April, 2014

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
www.mychemset.com.

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
project.

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.

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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?

 

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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
readers.

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.”

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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:
MAD FU.

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
project?”

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

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
prospects.

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

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.

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