Kick the Rules to the Curb and Write

Steven King has an oft-repeated aphorism: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

I believe the road to hell for a writer is paved with hard and fast rules (known henceforth as “Da Rules”) that keep writers, especially new ones, from getting any words on the page.

Sure, King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is full of good advice and provides insight into the business and craft of being a writer. But when someone so influential makes a statement, it can paralyze us lesser mortals. After all, he’s famous and successful, so everything he says must be gospel.

It’s a great sound bite. It wouldn’t be as powerful if he added “sometimes” or “usually” or “unless it sounds better with adverbs.”

I don’t think King is entirely responsible for that particular rule – just a catchy way to say it. Unfortunately, it’s one of many so-called rules that keep writers from writing. It makes novices feel like they are “Doing It Wrong,” and that following Da Rules is the secret to publication.

It isn’t, but you should see the problems caused by Da Rules.

I belong to several writers’ groups on social media. I was surprised by the questions that are asked by those hoping to join the ranks of authors, but then I realized how rule-bound new writers feel.

One of the more common questions has been, “Do I have to read to be a good writer?”

The people who ask this question often justify it with statements about not liking to read (which seems odd for a writer), or getting inspiration for their writing from music or art. But I would have to say that reading is necessary to a writer’s craft, if only to answer certain types of questions about the structure of a book, something else that creates a lot of questions.

Like, “Do I need chapters? Should I title my chapters or just give them numbers? How many words should it be? In fact, what the heck should I write about?”

If you read widely enough, you will have noticed that not all books have chapters. Book chapters do not always have titles. The word count to shoot for is the one that allows the author to tell the story. And the topic you pick is up to you. What stirs your passion? What makes you argue? What are your fantasies?

“But do I have to read?” Reading gives your mind the tools to frame and shape your story. If a picture is worth a thousand words, reading helps you choose those words and some clues to putting them together effectively.

On the other hand, if reading just doesn’t do it for you, you may do just fine telling your story without reading everyone else’s. Nothing is set in stone.

“What point of view should I use? Does it need a prologue? Which style is the most popular?”

The point of view you should use is the one that tells the story the best. (Get used to this phrase; you will see it a lot.) You can find books written in every point of view there is — sometimes in more than one. There are books with prologues to help the reader get situated within the story. Many do not. Would readers understand your story without one? Yes? Then don’t write one. You know, unless you just want to.

There are plenty books that are written in an atypical style, without proper English or standard story structure. Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple in what she, herself, described as “Black Folks English.”

“By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time.”

Mark Twain uses flowery yet down-to-earth words and has characters speak the way he heard them in Missouri.

“The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time.”

Numerous books have been written in the style of diaries or journals.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Belzhar.

I’ve even seen stories that didn’t follow any of the established rules of structure, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Present the story in a way that complements it. Don’t worry so much about whether the reader will understand. Ask friends and family to read what you wrote, and tell you if it needs to be changed. But don’t keep yourself from trying it because you think it’s against “Da Rules”.

“Is an outline required?”

Do what works for you and your current project. Give yourself the freedom to outline the way that helps you. Your outline doesn’t have to be the rigid type you learned in high school composition class.

Outlines can be great tools if they make it easier for you to keep the details of your story organized. Have you seen the documentation J.K. Rowling kept for her Harry Potter series? That was probably necessary for staying sane.

But…if you absolutely hate outlining, don’t do it. You’ll just waste time on something you dislike and that stops you from writing.

Here’s a big one – “Do I need a college degree to be a writer? “

Prepare for heresy.

No. A college degree is not necessary to become a writer. If it were, there would be far fewer books in the world. That’s not to say that taking a few classes won’t help you learn to tell your story the best way you can.

In writing classes, you learn about story structure, and when to use those points of view you’re worried about. Besides, knowing Da Rules makes it easier to break them successfully.

College may help you make important connections and perhaps get the motivation you need not only to start your book, but also to finish it. If you intend to write highly technical nonfiction, a degree in your field will lend you authority and gravitas, but you don’t need to add an MFA in Creative Writing or Nonfiction Writing.

With the logarithmic increase in tuition over the past few years, you need a lot of justification to go for a MFA. A post-graduate education doesn’t necessarily guarantee great writing. You can learn without seeking a degree by reading and engaging with others in writing groups, workshops, and other gatherings, on and off-line.

Besides, aren’t you writing now? Haven’t you written in the past? Did the lack of a college degree stop you? How would a degree change the way you write?

What I’m trying to say is that there are no hard and fast rules. As long as your story speaks to the reader, it doesn’t matter how it’s presented. As long as the reader understands what you have written and can sink into your prose to experience the story, you’ve done your job.

You can break any rule you want to tell your story. If you have written a compelling tale that keeps the reader awake past bedtime or piques the interest of an editor, then the rules never mattered. Don’t let the inherent issues of using an atypical style or structure keep you from trying it. You may have to work harder to get it out to the world, but don’t let that stop you.

Don’t let your fear of “Doing It Wrong” hold you back from telling your story and saying what you need to say. Kick Da Rules to the curb, and write!

The Benefits of Hiring Freelance Writers

According to the Content Marketing Institute, 61% of marketers are planning to increase their use of written digital content, which means producing articles, ebooks, blogs, white papers, and anything else you may need to promote your business, generate and nurture leads, and build brand awareness.

Where is all that content going to come from? If you already have an in-house team of writers, that’s great! But if you find yourself running short on writing resources, look into hiring a freelance writer.

What Is a Freelance Writer?

A freelance writer is an individual who writes or produces written content who is not an employee of your company. Most freelancers perform project-based work and charge by the project, the hour, or the word.

In other words, a freelancer is a contractor. As a reminder, the IRS differentiates contractors from employees for tax withholding purposes. When you hire a freelance writer, you are getting a contractor as long as you don’t dictate too much about how the job gets done.

  • Don’t micromanage when or where the writer works or dictate the tools to use.
  • Don’t provide too much instruction for achieving the project.
  • Don’t measure “how” the work was done.

In other words, don’t treat the contractor too much like an employee. The IRS gets a little torqued about misclassifying workers.

The Benefits of Hiring a Freelancer

Hiring freelance writers provides several benefits.

  • A flexible workforce
  • No need to provide fringe benefits
  • Long-term freelancers get to know your business almost as well as you do

An experienced freelance writer often has experience in multiple industries with a deep well of knowledge about one or two. Depending on the business you’re in, you can find someone who can hit the ground running with very little in the way of onboarding.

Retaining Talented Freelancers

Once you find someone who understands your business and consistently provides content that is true to your brand, correct in all its details, and converts leads, hang onto that person.

Just like you lose historical knowledge whenever an employee leaves, allowing a freelance who is doing a great job for you to disappear back into the pool would be a shame.

If you found someone you would like to use long-term, set up a retainer. Many freelancers already provide retainer services. It’s a great way for both sides to control monthly cashflow. You don’t need to look for someone new every time you have a content project. With a retainer, you receive priority attention from the writer, so you don’t need to be scheduled into a larger pile of work.

Paying a Freelancer

You get what you pay for. The freelancer is doing this for a living, just like your employees who work for you day in and day out. If you want top-notch work, be willing to pay for it.

Sure, you could put those assignments into a content mill website and get a writer for a couple of pennies per word, but you have little control over the quality until you have tried out a few. You may get lucky and find someone who does a great job for cheap, but don’t be surprised if your chosen writers leave the service to make more on their own.

Besides losing cheap labor that is good quickly, hiring writers charging such low rates often indicates a beginning writer or one doesn’t write well. Either way, you could end up paying more than you expect if you pay a cheap writer $20 for a brief post and then spend several hours editing it and making it ready for publication.

Isn’t your brand worth more to you than that?

Obviously, you know how much you can afford to pay. But here is a glance at the appropriate payment for an experienced freelance writer.

  • Hourly rates – $50 to $100 per hour. If you need specific technical expertise, prepare to pay at least $100 or more.
  • Per-word rates – $0.10 to $0.40 per word for general marketing content. For print and specialized content, plan to pay $0.50 to $1.00 per word.
  • Project rates – typically based on a loose hourly rate, project rates are appropriate if you have a defined set of work to do. It can also include other tasks than writing, such as posting to your content management system or sourcing images.

One sign of an experienced writer is the experience to quote a reasonable rate and an estimate of time and cost.

A good freelancer provides value to your business without the hassle of employee administration. Just order your content and pay the invoice. At the end of the year, you can send a Form 1099-MISC to each writer for their taxes. They will love you for that!

As you brainstorm content ideas or if you have a large content project coming down the pike, consider hiring a freelance writer. In the long run, you will save money and receive quality work. You can also gain a long-term partner who can help you generate leads and expand your business.

How Old Are These People? Cohort Birthyears for Baby Boomers and Gens X & Y

Whenever I hear about Gen X or Gen Y, I can never remember when they were supposed to have been born. I can remember the Baby Boomers…that’s it. I don’t know why the information just won’t stick. Maybe because it doesn’t include me. Who cares about anyone younger, right?

Then I thought, maybe you aren’t sure about this either, so I decided to put this out there.

I found the following information on MentalFloss. According to them, the Pew Research Center is trying to lock down the years of birth a little better than it has been in the past. Here is how they have the demographics broken down:

Silent Generation 1928-1945
Baby Boomers 1946-1964
Generation X 1965-1980
Generation Y 1981-1996 (aka Millennials)
Generation Z 1997 to present (aka Post-Millennials)

Why are Millennials bound by 1981 and 1996? Pew Research says that this cohort is old enough to have experienced and understood 9/11 as children and the Great Recession in 2008 as young adults.

Another way to split the cohorts is by dominant technology.

Baby Boomers saw the television become popular.
Generation X was there for the computer revolution.
Generation Y grew up with the internet as just another utility.

Of course, there are those of us who upset the apple cart because we like to stretch out those generations. For example, by this reckoning, my parents were both born before the Silent Generation. My brothers and my husband are definitely Baby Boomers and so am I, by the skin of my teeth. My parents almost had 3 Boomers and a Gen Xer. (Sounds like a movie title.)

My kids are considered Post-Millenials, so a Baby Boomer skipped two cohorts to have kids. Don’t ask me why. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hmmm. I wonder what my kids’ cohort will be known as? Let’s cross our fingers it isn’t for fighting World War III.

Writing Content That Is Relevant to Your Audience: The Three I’s

Idea Writer

Inbound marketing strategy demands relevant content. Without relevance, your content won’t even make it past the first second of scanning. Don’t waste time writing about topics that your buyers don’t care about. Use the Three I’s to identify and speak to the needs of your target audience.

Investigate

There is a ton of data out there but only a subset is relevant to your buyer personae. Use relevancy as your primary filter when investigating existing content for ideas for creating new content. Select data sources that have a high probability of containing information of interest to those personae.

Your Popular Blog Posts

This is a key indicator of relevance; if prospects are reading it, it must mean something to them. Google Analytics can help you identify those blog posts with the highest number of visits, most conversions, and highest engagement.

Select the top 20% for your data pool. Then do the same with posts that were the most shared on social networks; again keep the top 20%. Merge these two lists, de-duplicate, and put this information on a spreadsheet:

  • Title*
  • URL
  • Visits
  • Conversions
  • Visit Duration
  • Shares in each social network

*from moz.com

Competition’s Popular Blog Posts

Now you do something similar with your competitors’ posts. Find the most shared posts on social networks and the most externally linked posts. Keep the top 20% and record the title, URL, social network shares, external links, and linking domains.

Community’s and Influencers’ Most Shared Content

Find relevant communities, influencers, locations, and popular topics on Twitter using tools like Tribalytics and Twtrland. Lay out the same data as for competitors. Highest relevance goes to influencer-shared content that is popular in your Twitter communities.

Hottest Trending and Relevant Content in Social Networks

Using a tool like Buzzsumo, you can find the most relevant and popular content in real-time. Take the topics from your earlier lists and match them to current hot topics and list:

  • URL
  • Title
  • Social Network shares
  • Type of content

Now merge all lists, categorize the content, and list by best performing content.

Relevant Web Industry Questions and Content Requests

To round out your data gathering, find out what questions are being asked on the social networks and forums such as Twitter and Quora and create a prioritized list of questions or those with the highest number of votes. Do the same for media outlet requests for content within each category.

Inquire

You now have a smaller and more focused mound of data. Massage it to determine action.

Differentiating Characteristics

  • Common denominators
  • Focus, style, and format
  • Patterns

Classification

Create a list of potential blog post ideas:

  • Ask who, what, when, why, where, and how to find the emotional triggers for your audience.
  • Determine the level of interest based on relevancy and search volume.

Coverage Status

Determine which post ideas have already been covered, which sites published the existing content, and level of success. Categorize by format, type, and date published. The high priority blog post ideas will be those of highest relevance and popularity that have not been covered recently if at all.

Identify

One last filter and you will have a list of kick-ass blog post ideas.

Take the final list of potential posts and narrow them further by asking about:

  • Topical relationship to your business goals
  • Interest and usefulness level for your audience
  • Level of helpfulness to issue resolution or improvement
  • Ease of production and consumption
  • Availability of resources
  • Profitability in ranking

Use ideas that match all of these bullet points for the best blog posts ever.

Reading Is Still Fundamental

(This post originally appeared May 2, 2018 on the Aubrian Cubed Blog.)

I come from a family of readers! We didn’t just read occasionally – we read All. The. Time.

I grew up with parents who were avid readers. Even though my father only had an eighth-grade education, which was not uncommon for children growing up in rural areas in the 1930s, he spent most of his evenings reading.

Mom and Dad Were Readers

Dad learned to love reading when he was in the army during World War II.  There was little to do to break the monotony, so the soldiers read whatever they could find. My Dad favored westerns for the most part, but Mom said one day he picked up one of her romances to read. (Wonder what he thought of it.)

  • Dad read the newspaper every day and used his reading skills to take a correspondence course in electronics and TV repair in the 1960s. (This was a class taken by snail mail way, way, way before personal computers and the internet.)
  • He read manuals and instructions for assembling projects.
  • He had a fascination with bicycling in the 1970s and read magazines and books on biking.
  • As a farmer and auto mechanic, he read books on gardening and tried to keep up with the automotive knowledge that was beginning to change so rapidly.

My mother also read widely. She read cookbooks, gardening books, fiction… anything and everything. She favored romances but engaged numerous interests while I was growing up. She researched everything from astrology to Zen Buddhism.

During her later years, she spent time reading about ways to manage her diabetes. Eventually, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy had made it impossible for her to read.

My Brothers and I Are Readers

My brothers and I all caught the reading habit. They enjoy westerns and science fiction among other things. They all read manuals and magazines and other material to keep up with the technology for their jobs in software engineering and radio technology. Their wives read. The family trades books to read.

Of course, I read every day. A. Lot.

  • I read the newspaper every day to keep up with what is going on in the world, especially about things that affect us and our children.
  • I read cookbooks to fix healthy and tasty meals for the family.
  • I read books about writing to improve my craft.
  • When I was a medical technologist I had to read and write laboratory procedures.

I read children’s, young adult, and adult fare from Harry Potter to Artemis Fowle to books by Mercedes Lackey. I like romances and mysteries and science fiction and fantasy. If the writing moves along well, I will read almost anything, including medicine, art, theater, and music.

My curiosity bump causes me to read articles about a wide variety of subjects in magazines and papers just because they sound interesting or catch my attention. Many are scientific in nature. I read textbooks to refresh myself on subjects I haven’t thought about in awhile to answer questions for the kids.  As a freelance writer, I read on different subjects for research purposes and to learn more about my craft.

I Married a Reader

My husband also likes to read.

  • He reads the paper every day and keeps up with the new using online resources.
  • He likes to read books about military subjects, having been in the Air Force for many years.
  • He is very interested in submarines and in the Titanic.
  • He also likes science fiction and Harry Potter but reads much more non-fiction for pleasure than I do.

He reads manuals and all manner of technical material in order to keep current for software testing. He read textbooks for a course in Project Management.

“I Get It! But why? Why do we read?”

Because we can’t NOT read…

  • For information and pleasure
  • Out of curiosity
  • To learn new things
  • To keep up with a world that changes quickly and constantly.

Reading is absolutely necessary to go online, read prescription instructions, or learn the best way to plant peas. When we read a book that really speaks to us, it can change our life!

Re-reading a favorite book is like visiting old friends. Finishing a book that we just can’t put down can be exciting but a bit depressing.

The story was great — Yay! but now it is over (Boo hoo) — On to the next!

Reading can make us want to try new things, take us to other places, and keep us in touch with family and friends. Reading can comfort us when we are tired or sad. Reading can inspire us in ways that television, movies, videos, and games never can because we are free to interpret what we read for ourselves.

Remember the program “Reading is FUNdamental”?

Even now, in the Age of the Internet, reading is still at the foundation of all we do.

Give your audience something to read.

Contact Aubrian Content Creation and Curation.

Evolve and Adapt to Remain Relevant in Today's Working World

Scott Burns, a noted financial columnist, posted a column about a woman who showed that the recent economic upheavals did not have to end in disaster. Kristen Hertel had been a successful employee of a large real estate brokerage firm. When the bottom dropped out, Hertel determined to go out on her own but she was smart about it. She got her licenses and opened, not one, but four small businesses, each of which answered a particular niche in the market. These businesses also looked at target customers who have a higher budget for the types of services she offered.

Two of her businesses that arose out of the housing crisis specialized in short sales. She provided sellers and realtors with the tools and services to complete the short sale with less hassle. Another business offered more mainstream services such as title and closing services. The fourth provides outsourcing for real estate agent support.

The word for quite some time has been to keep up your knowledge base and broaden your experiences and skills. Something else to think about is what you could do with those skills if jobs were scarce. Not all of us are cut out to run our own businesses, but with entrepreneurs like Hertel there will always be smaller niche businesses that could offer you a way to start a new career or advance the one you have. Granted, benefits may be slim, but if you are working, you are keeping up your experience and gaining new insights, much more so than acquiring a degree. Smaller businesses can also offer a broader range of experience because everyone tends to wear multiple hats.

With this in mind, when you are keeping up with news in your industry or interests, make sure to include start-ups and other new businesses related to your field. Find out what they do and keep it in mind if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of the proverbial pink slip.

Here are links to Hertel’s companies:

Advanced Title and Escrow
Advanced Short Sale Negotiators

No matter what field you are in, there are always support businesses for it. Don’t neglect them in your job search or when going out on your own.

Another Nail in the Post Office Coffin

Even before the Post Office’s current problems, stemming from a requirement for prepayment into retirement programs, it hadn’t been a place you wanted to business with. It has been the butt of jokes for years about their service record:

  • Slow service at the counter
  • Lack of technology for payment
  • Package and letter handling disasters
  • Attitude of workers toward the public

The USPS was pretty much a monopoly for years. As such, it engendered all the bad habits of a monopoly; the attitude that since you couldn’t get the same service elsewhere they knew you were stuck with the system. Granted, the United States has had the privilege of low costs for mailings for over a century. And it does still turn a profit.

But changes came fast and furious. Private enterprise had trouble keeping up. Could anyone actually expect a bureaucratic behemoth like the postal service to be any better? Or even as good as? Now revenues are dropping as more the post office’s work goes online. Talk about a new sense of convenience and efficiency…just what we humans like – everything made easy. Why go somewhere that went out of its way to make it hard to do business?

Even now, when I can see some workers trying to make a better effort at customer service, too often the post office doesn’t seem to be able to convince all their workers that the post offices future lies in being of great service. Now the USPS has another trouble of private enterprise: not enough revenue to pay for more workers, training, and technology to pull itself back to the top.

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