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The Positive Art of Saying No

Posted by southwrite on August 25, 2014

Engine start stopWe all really like to say yes. When someone asks you to do something – take on another job or head up another committee – more often than not we’re inclined to say yes. We’re flattered that people think of us – especially those who want to pay us for our yes – and we we believe that “the ask” is itself an indication that we can and should do it.

Far too often we’re wrong. We say yes to requests when we should be saying no. Saying yes becomes an addiction that gives us a short and temporary high that’s often replaced by guilt, stress and sometimes leads to failure.

Many of us have a hard time saying no – especially to people we consider friends or colleagues. I know I do.

There was a time not so long ago when I was feeling overwhelmed. I had a heavy work load of freelance assignments, but I had also taken on volunteer work for a non-profit. As I accepted more and more tasks to further a good cause, I was spending more hours every week on what became a non-paying job. As the commitment grew larger, it became hard to finish the work I was being paid to do.

I looked at the need and didn’t want to let people down. I thought “if I don’t do it, who will?” I saw others putting in hours and began to critically say “you’re not managing your time. You can fit it all in. You don’t want to let them down”

Guilt plays a big role in our desire to say yes. Take the ALS ice water challenge that has been sweeping America. Facebook and YouTube are filled with videos of the famous and the not so famous dumping water on their heads. While it’s certainly a good cause, a big reason for its success is the (small amount of) guilt that comes with being called out in front of all your social media friends.

It’s one thing to have ice water dumped on your head if you want to support a good cause. It’s another to give in even when you know you don’t want to do it and shouldn’t be doing it and it won’t benefit you in any way.

Most of us would be better off if we said no more often, but in a conscious and thoughtful way.

We have to start with the realization that saying no can be the best kind of yes. Blogger Courtney E. Martin in The Spiritual Art of Saying No describes a conversation she had with a wise taxi driver on why you should say no more often. “You got to, girl. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll either be miserable or die. One or the other.”

Saying yes to too many of the wrong things can lead to early death – even while you’re still living. We all bring to the table a certain number of skills and assets. These vary over time – particularly as we work to make ourselves better. At any one time we have a finite bank of working hours, energy and other resources.

As we show up in the world doing good things – more work, more assignments, more volunteer activities – we spend those reserves. At some point we reach the end of our bank account. Just as you can empty out your checking with donations to one or another good cause, we do the same thing with ourselves.

It’s easy to reach a point at which we’re drowning in new assignments. As we work frantically to make one deadline after another, things being to slip. We stop putting in the extra effort to polish a sentence or we decide not to call that next source – isn’t three or four enough? We run out hours in the day along with the ability to manage our time and work more efficiently. We start saying no to things that we should be doing – like reading, exercising, and just resting – in order to do one more thing and please one more person.

Here’s a strategy to use when people ask you to take on some task that you’re not really sure about – particularly if it’s a nonpaying volunteer activity.

Follow the Chinese proverb: “When in doubt do nowt.” If you’re not sure, do nothing (nowt). Say something like: “That sounds like a great thing to do, but I need to consider it and look at my schedule and other activities. I’ll get back to you in a few days.” Then you can make your decision deliberately – away from peer pressure. There’s a reason why fund raisers take along a friend or colleague of the potential donor they’re soliciting. It’s hard to say no to someone face-to-face.

Plan how you’re going to spend your time and energy. Just as we know we should budget our money to meet our goals, creating a budget for your time is also essential. You decide what means the most to you. Do you want to support your local church or non-profit? By crafting a plan, you avoid the risk of becoming scattered. Investing your time in one or two organizations can make a much greater difference for them than squandering it with a half dozen groups that you have only a marginal acquaintance with.

When you have your budget set, then it becomes easier to say no to things that will only distract from your goals. “You have a great organization, but I’m already spending all my volunteer time with these groups.”

Some people have no problem saying no. They’re confident and aware of their own integrity. They’re already spending their psychic and physical energies wisely and putting them into the things that mean the most to them.

We can join their ranks.

Posted in Life, Working | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

It’s Time for Writers to Say No to Nothing

Posted by southwrite on August 23, 2014

Money HandI don’t know how I avoided it. After all, I’ve been doing freelance writing since the late 1990s, so I’ve been through quite a few booms and busts in the business. Yet, here was the offer. It was delivered third hand through a friend and went something like this, “we would consider your writing for us, but the first article has to be for free. You know so we can determine if our styles match.”

Over the years I’ve written articles for a number of magazines, ghosted three books, and worked for numerous corporate clients. None of them ever said, ‘we want it for free – you know, to try you out.’

Writing, like any business relationship, carries a certain amount of risk for both the author and the publisher. I may not deliver exactly what you want. You may not hold up your end of the agreement or even pay me. Wanting it for free isn’t really about this risk, it’s about cutting expenses and boosting profits. These days, many very profitable publishers pay their writers and reporters next to nothing or nothing at all. (The most notable examples in this category are the Huffington Post and VICE.)

They have no problem finding takers for their nothing. Of course, it’s usually couched in the sweet melody of prestige. You’ll get noticed and the work you do will translate into big (paying) jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately that rarely happens. Writers who publish their work on sites like the Huffington Post find that the strong wind of notice tends to be a mild breeze or a dead calm. There are too many other toilers and too much material to get noticed. Meanwhile, the site makes huge profits for owners with little left over for those who actually produce the material that brings eyes to the site in the first place. Arianna Huffington sold the Huffington Post for a cool $315 million. VICE publisher Shane Smith is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. Most other web ventures and magazines don’t make anywhere near that level of profit, but to one extent or another they’ve adopted the same business model.

In one sense this is pure capitalism at work. In the modern marketplace it’s not about the product you offer, but the leverage you have over workers or customers. In publishing, the business model is often based on scamming the producers into giving away their work. Why pay real money that could pay real bills? Instead offer some intangible and mythical alternative based more on hope than actual experience.

Writers are especially vulnerable to this ploy. We create and we have an overwhelming desire to share our creations with others. We want people to read our work as much and sometimes more than we want to be paid. Many novices come to the profession with low self-esteem about their abilities and a fear that nobody will publish them.

This is a mistake and one that has consequences for all writers. The more of us who fall for the writing for nothing scam, the harder it becomes for everyone else to make a living. The profession, in which once many professionals of varying abilities could make a living, has been transformed into a hand to mouth existence in which only the biggest names with the deepest platforms can really make money.

Make no mistake about it, writing is a business in which you have to make money – or you need to do something else. Writing is labor that deserves to be compensated at an appropriate rate.

The long history of labor and management relations has been marked by conflict and even violence over wages and working conditions. As independent contractors, freelance writers aren’t represented by unions (although there are a few like The Freelancer’s Union that claim to be), but we are more like employed workers than we care to admit. We have all the responsibilities of self-employed business people, but are still servants to those who publish our work. As the smallest of companies in this Free Agent Nation, we have little or no leverage when it comes to negotiating with magazines or corporations.

So, how do we deal with this issue – with those who want our work without paying for it? The first step is by realizing that you are a business – no matter how small – and that you must run it like a business. You’re writing to make money and turn a profit. You won’t produce either if you succumb to the enticement of providing something for nothing. I realized that fact when I heard the offer I mentioned above. That’s why I said no and did so without reservation.

It’s time we all said no to nothing.

 

Posted in Working, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How Many Jobs Does it Take to be a Freelancer?

Posted by southwrite on July 24, 2014

Hire MeIt’s pretty clear now that the old way of working that our parents knew so well doesn’t work anymore. This won’t come as a surprise to freelancers like me who have forsaken the 9 to 5 for independent employment and our own particular brand of entrepreneurship.

This is the Free Agent Nation of Me, Inc. As many see it, the movement toward independent self-employment is reinventing “work” and the meaning of success.

Freelancers Union founder and executive director Sara Horowitz writes “Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding — it’s practical and efficient. Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.”

Having greater control over your own time and doing the work you love is what brought many of us to freelancing.

While most people still work for (mostly small) businesses, the number of freelancers has risen dramatically to about 42 million. While many have willingly chosen this life, quite a few are self-employed because their corporate job was downsized or outsourced. (They had to create their own business to be hired.) Of course, many of the people filling the cubes in offices are considered “contractors.” This legal fiction enables a company to employ someone without the expense of benefits or even a W-2.

A great many younger workers – the Millennials and their cousins – have embraced self-employment. Having watched their parents get downsized, they know there’s no more lifetime employment. That evaporated along with pension plans and retirement parties with gold watches.

While the idea of a Freelance Nation sounds very appealing, you have to ask how much of this is being driven by passion and how much is simply desperation?

Yes, freelancers have definitely redefined the traditional job, but that definition is not always as romantic and in control as our advocates would have you believe. Consider this: 87% of freelancers have more than one gig a month, and 35% have more than four gigs. Instead of concentrating on just one job, they’re cobbling together multiple jobs and employment – which could mean a part-time job at Starbucks when they’re not at a table working on an assignment. The number of gigs they work on a regular basis is a reflection of declining rates and the inability to make a living by sticking strictly to their own particular niche.

Is this the future of freelancing? You can download the entire report here and decide for yourself.

I became a full time freelance writer in 2002. At the time, I was working for a small college at the time that was in the process of imploding. A large number of faculty and staff had already been laid off in the chaos of the school losing its accreditation. I hung on as the atmosphere grew more toxic and my envy for those recently departed colleagues grew.

When I finally left it was more with relief than sadness. The next day I got up at the same time, got dressed and ready, but instead of driving to the office I walked a few steps to the spare bedroom that had become my home office and went to work on a stack of assignments. I’ve never had the desire to work for a full time employer since then.

I’m also realistic about the nature of freelancing in the modern global economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say you’re competing not just with the freelancer next door, but those around the country and around the world. If what you’re producing can be done by others more cheaply, then clients will seek them, find them and forget about you.

As freelancers we face the same challenges and the same prospects of having your market “disrupted” by wily competitors as any corporation – but without the advantages and resources. That knowledge doesn’t make me want to return to the office, but it casts a sobering perspective over this career I’ve chosen.

What to do? Maybe those multiple jobs and streams of income really is the future.

Posted in Life, Uncategorized, Working | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

When the Sharing Economy Becomes the Stealing Economy

Posted by southwrite on June 27, 2014

Frustrated womanIt’s beginning to look as if the sharing economy has become the “license to steal” economy for some big companies. Oakland, Calif.-based freelance writer and artist Susie Cagle discovered that recently when Yahoo used one of her illustrations as art for its Facebook promotion for a story on the sharing economy, but without any ask or compensation.

Even more galling the topic was one she had written about. In fact it was that story from which Yahoo swiped the art without the annoying bother of asking for permission or – God forbid – paying for it. You can see her article – The Case Against Sharing – and her art here. The article is a clear eyed appraisal of the sharing economy which tends to be very good for companies and their investors, but not so much for the ordinary people for whom it’s designed.

The Yahoo incident seems to be just another indicator of a well-established trend of devaluing the work of freelance writers, artists and other professionals. Content mills and large successful websites like VICE and the Huffington Post have made fortunes persuading writers to offer up their work for nothing or close to it. These sites and even well-established and respected publications like the venerable Atlantic Monthly have lately tried to get away without paying for work.

Like all trends it has filtered down from the big boys to the everyday schmuck trying to save a buck. A few years ago I was working at a university when the graphic designer came in to tell me the track coach had brought in a number of photos that he had copied from various website and wanted to use them in a brochure. Even after explaining to him the images were copyrighted and couldn’t be used without permission, he still wanted to do so.

As with Yahoo the people stealing should know better. I once found a magazine article I had written reprinted under the byline of a local blogger. Not only did she not pay for reprint use, but she didn’t bother to credit either me or the magazine. The article came down, but I wondered what were you thinking? You’re at least presenting yourself as a journalist, so you should have some idea of what it means to create something.

These are just a few examples, but there are hundreds, no thousands more.

Susie Cagle's illustration that found it's way to Yahoo article.

Susie Cagle’s illustration that was used to promote a Yahoo article about the sharing economy.

It’s hard to say where it will end, but in some ways we are at least partly to blame for this situation. Every time a writer agrees to contribute his work to a profit making site it cheapens the entire craft. The miserable writers who give away their work to enrich others make it that much harder for everyone else to make money. Soon it begins to seem that we’re not even entitled to make a living – of any kind.

So, if you’re thinking about not charging for your work not asking what you think you’re worth or not complaining when someone steals it, think again. You, me and everyone who makes this a profession are entitled to be paid.

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Running Your Business Like a Business

Posted by southwrite on June 26, 2014

computer moneyYou became a freelancer because you wanted the freedom of working for yourself, choosing your clients and setting your own schedule. That’s what being an entrepreneur is about, right?

Yet, many of us don’t act like businesspeople. We love the freedom, but don’t want to do the mundane things that companies do to be competitive. Sure you’re probably good at your core business – writing, design, photography or whatever – but, what about the business of business?

Here I’m talking about the common practices that companies follow to maximize profits and stay in businesses. You can run your businesses better and improve the bottom line – putting more money in our pockets – if we take a look at what companies do and adapt those practices to our own admittedly small time operations.

Be ruthless in cost cutting

Successful companies get to be successful not just by having a great product and sales team, but through the unglamorous job of keeping expenses in line. A good business will cut out unnecessary expenditures and search for better and cheaper ways to get things done.

One freelancer insisted to me that she needed a fax machine and second phone line. When I questioned how many faxes she actually received the number was less than one a month. When you calculated the cost of a fax [maintenance, ink and paper, and a second phone line] it was probably around $30 each or more.

More than likely you can scan your documents and email them. If you think you need a fax use an internet fax service. Although the service only costs $10 a month, over time it’s become increasingly inefficient. Few people send faxes these days and if you really have to send one your local office supply store can do it for you.

You can probably think of any number of cost saving measures that won’t cramp your business or your style. Did you really need the New York Times in the morning when every article [and more] is available on-line? The same goes for the magazines you buy. Nearly all of them are available online or e-versions on your tablet. Many can be obtained free through your local library’s ebook program.

Set a goal to identity common expenses – particularly recurring monthly charges – and decide if you really need the service or the product. If it’s a business expense, decide what it would mean to you if you didn’t have it.

Don’t drive when you can go direct

Do you have clients who insist on seeing you face-to-face? With telephone, e-mail, and Skype video conferencing, you really don’t need to actually drive to their office. The large companies that I’ve worked with never want to see me in person since all the work is begin done remotely.

It’s usually the small – and low margin – clients who want face time. Nudge them toward phone calls and e-mail. If they insist evaluate how much they mean to you fee-wise. I’ve sometimes found that travel expenses turned small jobs into money losers. It might be more profitable to stay at home and forego the job.

Better and faster

One of your greatest money savers can be you. How efficient are you at what you do? Are there graphic design programs that competitors are using, but you’ve only heard about? Research studies find corporation that invest the most in training also tend to have the highest valuations and stock prices. If you aren’t getting training and education, then you may be consigning yourself to the low end of business.

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Your Office Away From The Home Office

Posted by southwrite on June 22, 2014

Man working cupOne reason I started freelancing years ago was to avoid the daily commute to the office. Leaving the confines of a 9 to 5 job, meant setting my own schedule, finding my own work and clients, but most of all not getting in the car (very often) to drive somewhere in traffic that I hated.

So why then am I so fascinated by the coworking spaces that keep cropping up just about everywhere?

The truth is that after you’ve spent a few years in your home office – whether it’s the basement, a spare bedroom, a closet or even a brightly lit sun porch, you begin to miss the regular office. Not everything to be sure. Not the “boss” by any means. If you’re a freelancer than you’re the boss and you don’t like the idea of taking orders from anyone else.

You do find people  and stimulating conversation lacking. Not that you want to be back in the office with the same crew that sometimes made your life miserable. No, you want to talk to other freelancers and the self employed  about ideas. problems or maybe a collaboration.

Many of us feel that way and some are spending at some a few days in coworking locations. These arrangements usually involve a desk, internet access and lots of free coffee. But there’s usually much more. There are networking events in terms of formal programs and t the informal talks that can sometimes lead to something big.

Just getting out of the house for a while can do wonders for your creativity and peace of mind.

As I mentioned earlier, there are now many coworking arrangements. There’s probably one in your town or soon will be. Most have been set up by private companies, but now even city governments are getting into the act. I came across two good examples of coworking in suburban Gwinnett County right outside of Atlanta.

The small town of Grayson converted an old warehouse into a coworking and incubator space. The emphasis here is on fostering the development of new companies, more than providing an office away from the home office for freelancers. The goal is nurture growing companies that can jumpstart economic development in the town, according to Gail Lane, Manager of the Grayson Downtown Development Authority.

The 438 Grayson Parkway building in downtown offers both coworking space and Incubator programs for new businesses. Along with cheap space, the DDA connects the company with local mentors who can help them develop and hopefully avoid some of the problems that can hamper any new enterprise. She says that other professionals find 438 an “ideal for finding a quiet spot to either get some work done, catch up on e-mails with a cup of coffee, or for meeting with clients, having conferences and networking with other entrepreneurs. We’ve found the concept of “Getting out of the house and into Grayson” a overall positive experience for those who are part of our programs.”

The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill coworking space

The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill coworking space

In Sugar Hill, freelancers and startup companies are moving into a coworking space created in the old city hall. This marks one of the first times a city government has converted a city hall into a coworking arrangement. In fact, according to city spokesman Scott Andrews the town may be the very  first.

The structure became available after the construction of a new municipal center. Rather than sell off the not quite historic 1970s era property or turn it into a parking lot, city father saw an opportunity to foster development among the estimated 80 percent of local businesses that are home-based. The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill was born.

“We see it as a business incubator model,” according to Andrews. “We want to get young growing company or home based businesses in there at a very inexpensive rate. Our goal is to have them grow with the city and move on to the other real estate we will have available very soon.”

Still in the process of build-out, more than half of the ten upstairs office spaces have already been spoke for and a tutoring company called Grasp Learning about half of the bottom floor. The front sector of the columned building is set aside for coworking space and will have a “Starbucks feel,” he explained.

“We’re trying to give it the trendy industrial look with glass and metal. Some place that people want to come and hang out and work,” says Andrews.

That’s just the kind of atmosphere that a freelancer  finds inspiriting and a good place for an occasional office away from the home office.

 

 

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Be a Productive Freelancer Without Giving up Your Life

Posted by southwrite on June 19, 2014

HOME OFFICEIf you’re like me you became much more productive and got a lot more done each day when you became a freelancer. I was only too happy to say goodbye to the endless meetings and the talkative co-worker next door who spend more time in my office than he did in his.

Yet, you’ve probably also found that a home office has it own time wasting traps. I know I have.

You’ve gotten to day’s end with little to show. Oh, sure, you tweeted you commented to Facebook friends, and maybe you even cruised into Starbucks.  Did you finish that assignment? Sure, it wasn’t due today, but if you had, you’d be breathing easier tomorrow when it is due.

Maybe it’s time to look at how you’re working, what distracts you, and how you can make those distractions help you. Here are some tactics that have helped me – when I’ve used them.

The secret to productivity is to always keep the big picture in mind. Ask yourself: what is my purpose? The bottom line is completing assignments – writing a feature article, completing a newsletter design or other task. The productive freelancer doesn’t ask ‘what should I do today?’ Instead the question is ‘what do I accomplish?’ The next question is how can I use the tools at my disposal to get to those finished projects?

Fortunately the very things – like Twitter, email, and the like –  that waste our time can also make us more productive – if we manage them rather than letting them control us and our time.

1. Control social media. Schedule specific times during the day to log onto Twitter or Facebook rather than checking in constantly. Ask yourself what am I trying to get out each session. Is it to find a source, or a new client? Is to learn more about a particular trend or company? Don’t log on if you don’t have a purpose in mind. Sure you can also look at what’s being said about the World Cup, but don’t let it take up the whole session. [And, make sure it is a session – with a specific beginning and end time.]

2. Reset your email clock. The Post Office never delivered mail every minute and you don’t need to see every message as soon as it arrives. Reset Outlook’s automatic send/receive option to a longer interval – say an hour or more. And, turn off the funny sound and icon so they don’t disturb your concentration. If you just have to be available for client e-mail make sure that only true business messages are arriving in your primary mail account. Set a separate Gmail account for all those newsletter, Facebook and Twitter announcements so they don’t overwhelm the work day and more important mail.

3. Make an appointment. Block out time in your Outlook or other calendar for work just as you do a client appointment. Set 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. as a “writing appointment.” Then maybe follow it with “Check social media 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

4. Keep regular hours. I know most of us became freelancers so we could keep our own hours. We all work best when we pay attention to our own internal clock. Whether you’re up at 6 a.m. or just getting started at midnight, set up specific hours that you’re at your desk doing what needs doing. Then stick to your work day/night — whatever those times are for you. It can also make you more productive if you dress for the role. I rarely work in my sweats and I don’t really feel that I’m “working” until after I’ve showered and gotten dressed.

5. Use technology that works — for you. Letting others be trend setters provides you with more opportunities to do real work. Do you really need a fancy time management program to record your billable hours or will a plain old legal pad do? Setting up software programs can consume more time than they save.

6. Get out of the house and home office. In the beginning of this article I mentioned that daily trip to the coffee shop. I know the critics say it’s a waste to buy that overpriced cup of coffee, but there’s more in that cup than java, so don’t give it up. Getting out of the house will provide that change of scene that can re-energize you for more work – not to mention the effects of a shot of caffeine.

Put these suggestions to work and you can tame the technology beast, get more done and still have time for the pleasures it offers.

 

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You Didn’t Write That

Posted by southwrite on June 18, 2014

chris-hedges posterPlagiarism by famous and respected writers is back – with a vengeance.

Last week best-selling author Chris Hedges was caught extensively plagiarizing a piece for Harper’s Magazine. This is not some run of the mill hack, but a famous and respected journalist. The magazine described how he had lifted large portions of his own article about Camden, New Jersey from an earlier series by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz.

It’s always more disappointing when an author you admire and whose books and articles you’ve read closely for years is caught doing something considered so wrong. One of the worst sins in journalism is to steal someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. I’ve read Hedges’ books and article for years and considered him a clear and powerful voice for morality and justice in a world which often distains both. Here’s how the New Republic described him in its article:

Hedges had been a star foreign correspondent at the Times, where he reported from war zones and was part of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for covering global terrorism. In 2002, he had received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is a fellow at the Nation Institute. He has taught at Princeton University and Columbia University. He writes a weekly column published in the widely read progressive website Truthdig and frequently republished on the Truthout website. He is the author of twelve books, including the best-selling American Fascists. Since leaving the Times in 2005, he has evolved into a polemicist of the American left. For his fierce denunciations of the corporate state, his attacks on the political elite, and his enthusiasm for grassroots revolt, he has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.

With a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, Hedges’ writing possesses a highly principled and moral tone. It was one that I found appealing and it also contributed to my own feelings of betrayal.

Like a lot of others, I was reluctant to believe it was happening. Again. This is especially true after so many authors and journalists have done so and gotten caught and seen their careers collapse in infamy.

Blogger Nick DiUlio, who teaches ethics to journalism students, wrote “Once again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But part of me can’t help but hang my head in perplexed disenchantment, asking myself the same questions I ask my students: Why the hell would someone like Hedges decide to do this? And how did he go so long without being caught?”

Apparently, Hedges has gotten away with stealing other writers’ work for a long time – perhaps years. That’s surprising. Especially, as DiUlio notes, in an age when you can Google just about anything and there is even software to check whether you’re committing plagiarism.

As I said Hedges is not the first to plagiarize and get caught. The list of offenders is long and extends back into the past – beyond the Internet Age and even into antiquity. The 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi claimed the Book of Animals of Al-Jahiz to be “little more than a plagiarism” of Aristotle’s Kitāb al-Hayawān.

More recently names like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Jonah Lehrer have come to symbolize this journalistic transgression. In earlier years we shook our heads at the likes of historians and bestselling authors Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, when they used the work of others without citation in their books. Marvel Comics writer Bill Mantlo became famous for allegedly plagiarizing the work of comic legends such as Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin, as well as a television script by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. [Of course the prolific Ellison has sued seemingly everyone in Hollywood over plagiarism of his many novels, stories and scripts.]

After each scandal we always ask why? What motivated talented and often quite successful writers to steal – usually material from people much less famous than themselves. None of them would be considered hacks. All seemed to have the talent and skill needed to create original work and reporting. Why didn’t they?

Only Hedges and the others can really answer that question. I wonder though if perhaps their own fame and success didn’t become part of the problem. Were the expectations so high – Hedges part of a team of reporters at the New York Times awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for coverage of global terrorism – they didn’t think they live up to them?

Some writers have offered various excuses such as the pressure of time and the distraction of large amounts of source material. It’s understandable a reporter could mistakenly use information without attribution under pressure of deadline. [Hedges was accused of passing off a quote from Hemingway as his own writing in his first book.]  Once. That’s a mistake. Doing so consistently over a period of years is a lifestyle.

No, I don’t know the answer, but I do know the pain I and other admirers of Hedges feel now. Sadly, it’s likely to be one that will be repeated again – and again.

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Partings, Sweet and Bitter

Posted by southwrite on June 16, 2014

Hand Thermal

As a freelancer you’ve already – or will – have to part ways with a client. Face it, some relationships don’t work out. There’s a mismatch between you and client and you need to end it.

One of my first freelance ventures was ghosting a column for a chiropractor. He was a nice guy, fun to work with, had good ideas, and gave me considerable leeway in writing. He also paid in the low two digits. While that was fine eventually my rates went up – way up. I realized he wasn’t going up with me so – with some regret – I eased out of the relationship.

Moving from a good client to a better one is a positive thing, but that’s not always how it happens. Sometimes we have to confront bad clients – the kind who can make your life and career miserable. Yet many of us put up with them for far too long.

Maybe you’re experiencing a bad client who:

  • Never responds to (repeated) e-mails.
  • Holds a project for weeks and then wants extensive revisions done now!
  • Uses you to “think out loud” making and discarding designs because they can’t imagine how something will look.
  • “Loses” invoices and other documents as you waste time sending them over and over again.
  • Always gets “held up” and is late or cancels meetings.
  • Becomes abusive.

 

The people who buy your articles, photos, graphic design should pay your fee as negotiated, treat you as a professional and work with you in a reasonable manner that gets the job done.

If that’s the kind of client you want, you have to work to keep good ones and get rid of bad ones. So here’s a New Rule for freelances: if you have a bad client and you know they won’t change, sever the relationship and move on.

Recognizing a bad client is one thing, but getting rid of them can be something else.

After ghosting two books with wonderful clients I was approached by a new author for a motivational book. It sounded interesting and challenging and I was eager to experience the joys of book writing again.

In my eagerness to get the job, I accepted less than I originally wanted and then agreed to spread it out over a number of months. I thought, ‘I can continue doing my other freelance work and generate the level of income I need each month.’

Then the problems began. Instead of conducting interviews by phone the client insisted we meet face-to-face requiring a two hour (uncompensated) round trip drive. Frequently, I showed up to find the office door locked because he was “held up.”

The sessions themselves were unpleasant. Almost from the beginning he would express extreme displeasure with what I had written and say things like “I don’t know if this is going to work out. I can always end this deal.”  He repeated these lines over and over again during every meeting.

Then there were the interruptions. He made phone calls during which I could hear him screaming at the person on the other end of the line. .

Not only was the deal becoming a money loser, but I was unhappy with our professional relationship. Fortunately, I had inserted a clause in the contract that allowed either of us to end it after one month with no penalty.  When I told him I was done, he underwent a remarkable change of heart and tried to talk me into staying on.

That was when I made another mistake. No, I didn’t relent, but agreed to help him find someone to take over the book. The job went to a talented author who had written several books with other motivational speakers. If anyone could finish this project, it had to be my friend.

As you might have guessed, it didn’t work out that way. She fell victim to the same pattern. The book was never completed and she had to threaten legal actions to get paid. Like me she escaped from a bad client relationship. So, one more rule: never palm off a bad client on your friends.

But do get rid of them – fast – before they ruin what should be a beautiful relationship.

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Sometimes The Truth Can Be Hard To Find

Posted by southwrite on June 15, 2014

Press Pass

 

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

As writers we use words to describe events, convey ideas and – we hope – provide a glimpse of the truth. Words are our stock in trade and the tools that allow us to provide readers with glimpses of other realities.

But how effective are we in describing what we believe to be “reality?” And, what is our responsibility to ensure that we’re really telling the truth in our work? Most of us may not spend a lot of time musing about “truth” because we believe we’re usually doing a good job of being accurate and getting the facts straight. Yet, if we’re doing any kind of journalistic writing (whether for newspapers, magazines or trade journals) we need to be aware that our readers approach our work with more than a little skepticism.

A Gallup Poll finds that just 23 percent of the public trusts newspapers. Of course they’re ahead of Big Business, Labor, HMOs and of course Congress (just 10 percent have confidence in our legislators and you have to wonder if those who did actually understood the question.) Another poll revealed only 29 percent of Americans believe the media generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are “often inaccurate.”

That dismal showing should concern all of us – not just full time newspaper editors and reporters. The loss of faith obviously has many reasons ranging from partisan perceptions of bias to well published scandals.

As a writer and former newspaper reporter, I’m all too aware of how hard it is to capture an idea or even an event in words. Words become only an approximation of reality, but never reality itself. Writers of all kinds are limited by their own knowledge and access to sources of information. Even when they witness the event itself, they may only see part of what is actually happening.

The part that makes its way into the story may not be the part that critical – and highly biased – readers want to see. Both the political left and right believe the media isn’t telling the truth and is – fairly or unfairly – biased in favor of the “other side.” This partisan vise demonstrates that the middle of the road is sometimes the most dangerous place to be.

In recent times there has arisen a class of political bloggers concerned primarily with advancing their side’s cause. Truth or accuracy is not a big concern. The facts such as they are will work themselves out in the end. Bias is something to be celebrated, not pushed below the surface as mainstream news reporters try to do.

So what should journalists and all writers do? It seems obviously but we should do what we do best – report the facts the best that we possibly can. The partisan will always believe that journalists are lying if they don’t endorse their side’s claims. There’s just not much you can do about it.

What we can do is our job. What could be more important than that?

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