Ellen Cline, writer
Creative communication that markets, informs, and entertains

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What’s it like being a freelance writer?

Author: ; Published: Mar 28, 2011; Category: Business Writing; Tags: , ; No Comments

woman writing with quill

Students in a professional writing class at UNM asked me to answer some questions about being a freelance writer. I realized maybe the things they were asking about were questions others might have as well.

My work is mainly centered on helping people market their products and services. Whether writing web content or a press release, I’m generally helping organizations develop their marketing messages and materials.

The students wanted to know what qualities were needed to be successful. I said self-motivation and flexibility.

I told the students you have to be able to obtain and organize your own work, and meet deadlines. You have to be able to learn new topics very quickly. If something changes on a project, you need to be ready to switch gears. Providing good customer service is essential.

When they asked about the best parts of being a freelancer, I said the ability to choose clients and be in charge of your own work. If you have a variety of clients, you can also learn about a wide variety of topics. This is fun if you are a person who enjoys learning.

Then they asked about bad experiences, and if I’d had any. I said, of course, if you are in any type of business you are going to have bad experiences. The client needs to value what you do. If they don’t see the value in what you do, there will be conflicts.

Another dangerous category of work is when someone wants you to “fix” a project someone else has started. That generally is a formula for disaster. Start fresh.

Over the years, I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the strange with various clients and potential clients. Whether it’s slow payment or someone wanting to read my palm at a first meeting, I’ve seen a lot, although I’m sure not all.

Right now I genuinely like my clients and have good relationships with them. Is this a result of luck or my many years of experience? I think a little of both.

Style manuals and style guides—tools for building consistency

Author: ; Published: Apr 5, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Communications Tools, Editing and Proofing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , , , , ; No Comments

Guidelines icon

Choosing and using a style manual and producing and using an in-house style guide help a company create and maintain consistency in their communications. Consistency always furthers an organization’s professional image.

The style manual most people seem to have heard of is the Associated Press Stylebook. I’ve done work for organizations where I’ve been told things like: We follow AP style but we use the title Dr. for our researchers preceding their names which AP says not to do. Then the client might go on to tell me several other ways their house style diverges from AP style.

Exceptions like this should be covered in a company style guide. The in-house style guide might spell out items like the usage of the company product names and logos, but it also can detail where company usage differs from the guidelines set forth in the style manual.

I did not study Journalism in college so I did not learn about AP style until later in my career. When I had to follow it for some projects my first thought was, you’ve got to be kidding. To me, the book has always been difficult to use and illogical as it has:

  • No index. 
  • A system for filing items under alphabetical titles that seemed haphazard, at best. 
  • Rules that supposedly stemmed from the limitations of metal type.

Even though it is considered a guide for academic writing, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference. It has an index so you can find things. And there are a lot more things to find as the book is really comprehensive, including information about grammar. Not everything in it applies to every project. But it’s somewhere to start.

First, if your group does not have a particular style manual it follows, you might want to decide which would be best suited for your needs. Elizabeth G. Frick and Elizabeth A. Frick wrote an article in the Society for Technical Communication magazine, Intercom, which discussed style manuals and style guides and referred readers to a handy style manual matrix they created that compares the different style manuals. Their chart shows the history and purpose of each book, and can help you choose which you might want to use.

Style manuals do differ on what they feel is correct on topics like hyphenation, formatting of web addresses, and the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma. Believe it or not, people get excited about whether or not it is proper to use that last comma in a series before the “and.” I recently found out there’s even a Facebook group, "Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma." (For the record, I like the serial comma as it does add clarity in many situations. AP, however, says no to the serial comma.)

Style manuals give you rules and standards for writing and formatting different types of written materials. They do not all agree on what the standards are. Your company or organization may have decided which style manual to follow, but then there are inevitably exceptions to the rules. In that case a style guide might be created, just for your organization.

Your style guide doesn’t need to repeat what is in your chosen style manual; it can just talk about where your in-house style differs from the reference book and tackle issues of interest to your organization.

What was your major?

Author: ; Published: Jan 21, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , , , ; No Comments

Smith College 1902 basketball

Way back at the dawn of time, I went to college. I did not major in geology, biology or computer science. I majored in English. 

I was regularly told by my father and others how worthless this was.  Why bother majoring in English unless I wanted to be an English teacher? Wouldn’t it be better to major in something practical, like business?

Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate my Liberal Arts education. For one thing, it teaches you to think. Since I’ve ended up helping people with their marketing messages and materials, being able to think is a good thing.

Organizing thoughts in a way that others can understand is even better. In fact, it’s a very useful skill.  Here’s why.

Most people can tell me all about what they do. They do it well; they know their stuff and sound great.  Of course if you transcribed and analyzed what they told me, you’d see that their thoughts are scattered, and not always in a logical order.

That’s normal.Translating spoken information into written form generally takes a little work.

But here’s the beauty of interviewing someone and taking copious notes.  After the meeting I can organize the notes, grouping bits of information by topic and concept and voila, suddenly the person is not only brilliant to listen to, they also look brilliant in written form, whether it’s on the web or on paper.

Once, after a scientist told me all about his very technical product and I seemed to understand him, asking semi-intelligent questions, he asked me: What was your major? He just couldn’t believe that I was grasping this technical information without an advanced scientific degree. How could a mere English major do this?

But here’s the deal. This was our third meeting and I was going back and reading up in between each session. I was reviewing the notes and doing research. And I was grouping and organizing the information to make it easier to understand.

So the point is:  It’s not about my lack of a science degree, it’s about having the skills to organize information no matter the topic. It’s about listening and categorizing and coming up with ways to present what you do so your customers will understand it.