Telling stories

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

When It’s Not Cool to be Hip

Posted by southwrite on September 9, 2014

Bald WriterWhile there are many ways to improve your writing one quick and easy – if not painless – way is cut the clichés, the hip sayings, and (all kinds of) jargon that cloud rather than advance communication.

Let’s confess, we love them even if we don’t always see a cliché as a cliché. The job wasn’t easy. No, it was a slam dunk. You didn’t get chewed out (an aged expression if ever there was one). “No man, I got chirped!” Want to tell someone you scored something really good? It was “swag money.” Pass a test? No, you were “killin’ it.”

It’s not that they really describe a situation – they don’t – but we feel that by uttering them we have acquired a bit of the cache of the trend setters. It makes us feel cool and not in its original meaning of early jazz musicians like Charlie Parker. HIs 1947 classic Cool Blues aptly conveyed the composure and style that was highly creative and original. Cool is still with us – always; but its meaning has been appropriated by media – especially advertising. Now cool is no longer about the style and detachment, but about…anything. Everything is cool. And, nothing is cool.

Leslie Savan, in Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and Like, Whatever explained it this way: “The catchwords, phrases, inflections, and quickie concepts that Americans seem unable to communicate without have grown into a verbal kudzu, overlaying regional differences with a national (even an international) pop accent that tells us more about how we think than what we think.”

Of course, many of the expressions we use are much older than we think. Black Americans have gifted – not always willingly – white Americans with a host of expressions. Many phrases that we use every day comes to us from Shakespeare. (Think of too much of a good thing, one fell swoop, flesh and blood, sea change and the long and the short of it among others.)

It’s one thing to pepper water cooler conversation with pop references. At worst you’re only boring a few office mates. Once you start incorporating them into the written word, you automatically begin to date your work. If your article is posted on the web, it’s going to have a much longer life than you might imagine and buzz phrases will seem awfully dated.

Better to just admit you can’t keep up with pop. That phrase has already been uttered millions of times. Worse, the hipster who coined it has long since moved on to something else long before you got around to it. Thanks to the media you’re trying to feed, it’s disseminated over and over again. Every bit of life and originality has been painfully squeezed from every pop phrase.

The same goes for the endless stream of specialized industry jargon. Oddly, enough although most of the media including books, articles and blogs have been dumbed down to the point that it’s unlikely you’ll come across any unfamiliar word, business reports, white papers, sales copy and brochures are often filled with words that nobody outside the industry could possibly know. Don’t use them – unless you’re required to do so.

If all of the clichés and cool expressions are out, then what is left? Well, there’s plain old English. Using simple accurate words always work. You can also come up with your own turn of phrase — one that is more original and fitting.

When you do that, then you will be hip and more than a little cool.


Posted in The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

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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Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Even if it’s True

Posted by southwrite on June 25, 2014

1319095_90422633You know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read – whether in newspapers, books and especially on the Web. Yet, most people – including those who give you advice like this – often do.

You probably heard the story of three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, who was thrown out of a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Miss. after an employee decided that her scars—leftover from an attack by her grandfather’s pit bulls—were scaring customers. That angered a lot of people and you could hear the explosion on social media. And, rightly so. It was so bad in fact that KFC immediately apologized for its franchisee’s behavior and ponied up $30,000 for the child’s medical bills as a way of saying we’re sorry for this outrage.

As you also now know, it was all a media savvy hoax cooked up the grandfather and his girlfriend to boost thier  own fund raising campaign for the girl’s medical bills. This nationally reported story was uncovered not by the national media – which like KFC bought it completely – but by a local newspaper – The Laurel Leader-Call. It did the fact checking and basic reporting while everybody else was running with a tale that was too good to pass up.

I mention this incident not because it’s unusual, but because it’s so commonplace. There have always been hoaxes and frauds and misinformation. What’s different today is how fast these stories travel and how they can impact people and even corporations. KFC acted fast to contain what initially looked like a social media-fueled PR disaster. No doubt their publicity experts understood that it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not – everyone was going to believe it.

This particular story was corrected pretty quickly, but there are countless others that never get corrected. Tune into the cable news shows on any particular night and you will be treated to a veritable smörgåsbord of half-truths, misinterpretations and outright lies. Most of these tales are never corrected and even if they are most viewers continue to believe them. [A small, but stubborn percentage of the American population still believes that President Obama is a Muslim born outside the U.S. even after release of the birth certificate and considerable investigation and evidence to the contrary.]  Some of this is politically motivated lying, some is willful ignorance and the rest is…well…ignorance.

With many stories it can be hard to know the real truth – even if you’re not in the low information voter category. Consider the recent New York Times story about how the student debt crisis really isn’t a crisis at all.  It offers a Brookings Institution study that only seven percent of young adults with student debt owe $50,000 or more. In a classic case of making numbers mean whatever you want them to mean, it turns out this story too is not exactly what it seems.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-24-at-9_21_22-AM-e1403616118133The seven percent figure is correct for the skewed selection of households surveyed. You have to read the caveat closely to get that fact however. It is in fact “based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt.” Gawker’s Choire Sicha explains it this way:

Those aren’t households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: “households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to “young” households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

I suspect most readers of the story walked away thinking the student debt was no big deal. Yes, even the well-respected New York Times gets its wrong. [If you doubt it just repeat to yourself Judith Miller.]

Both of these examples – and there are many, many more – point to a need for a healthy dose of skepticism of many of the stories you come across every day. It’s good to check multiple sources, but sometimes it can seem that everyone is wrong as with the KFC story. Then you have to ask yourself just how plausible the story really is and extend that skepticism even to those stories that reinforce your own preconceived beliefs. Make that especially then.

Posted in Culture, Social Media, The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Only Good Words are Harsh Words

Posted by southwrite on June 24, 2014

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

There have been a lot of words – some of them quite extreme – about how rude and uncivil we’ve all become – particularly in our online lives. If you feel like being abused and attacked, then social media is the place to go.

Apparently, most people agree. An annual study by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick found “70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions.” Quite a few people even think it’s leading to violence as people react to those “fighting words.”

Of course, much of those “fighting words” can be found on the internet, in blogs, Twitter, Facebook and just about everywhere else on the Internet. It’s probably not a surprise that the language and the ideas expressed are extreme – and often highly personal. Dip into the comment section of your local newspaper’s website and you’ll find a virtual cesspool of racist and xenophobic comments, name calling, general stupidity and a lot of poor spelling. Recently, some newspapers have tried to enforce civility with real human monitors or by requiring that people use their real names or sign in with Facebook.

Others, like National Journal have ended comments completely saying they have better things to do – like actual journalism – than policing feuding and name-calling. “For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable,” wrote editor in chief Tim Grieve.

Extreme language isn’t limited just to the benighted readers of online sites. The writers, bloggers and journalists can sometimes be just as bad. A common piece of advice I’ve gotten is that to be an effective blogger, you need sharp opinions. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and seeing both sides of the issue may be realistic, but it won’t get readers. The more sound and fury, the better.

One of the reasons the name calling goes on is that using extreme language attracts readers.

To gain attention, the words you use need to be sharper. It’s not about being clear and concise and presenting fresh ideas, but about giving your readers more of what they already happen to be thinking.

It’s not enough to simply argue a point of view on its merits, but invariability you have to attack your opponents personally. They don’t just disagree with you, they’re evil and stupid. If your favorite political blogger hasn’t compared the other side to Hitler and the Nazi, just wait.

That helps explain why there are so many highly partisan bloggers with large and devoted followings. It’ can be disconcerting sometimes, but we don’t really want to hear anything that challenges our view of ourselves and the world. Fox News viewers don’t switch channels to see how MSNBC commentators are contradicting their conservative favorites. They watch more Fox News. It’s not all that different on the left.

And, it’s not just politics. Many so called religious bloggers, whether Christian or otherwise can get just as vile as any political partisan.

So this is what we have come to in our internet and social media lives. It’s a world that sometimes seems in an arms race of words. The more powerful and explosive they are the better. Words don’t usually end up killing people or maiming innocent bystanders, but they can still hurt. Words can be used to dehumanize. They can destroy a reputation or damage the psyche of the venerable. The more sharp words flying around, the more people tend to avoid getting involved.

And, that can be harmful to us all.

Posted in Life, Social Media, The Media, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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.

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

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.

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

When Self-interest Leads to Self-Censorship

Posted by southwrite on June 12, 2014


Not long ago a writer friend told me the story of a mutual acquaintance who had been forced out of his editor’s job for “not having the right political opinions.”

It’s not new or unusual. People are sacked all the time for expressing the wrong thought – either at work or elsewhere. Bosses, as much as anyone, like to surround by those who agree with them and that’s true even within the media that values freedom of the press. (My press, not yours.)

And, of course it’s not just writers and editors who know that the wrong opinion can be costly. Perhaps it’s this knowledge that causes most social media users to keep their opinions to themselves on Facebook (about 70 percent) and elsewhere.

We think about the government cracking down on dissident opinions, but at least in America most of the censorship comes at work. Employees quickly figure out the party line or the boss’ point of the view and endorse it themselves. That can be particularly true in the media which after all are businesses ruled by opinioned and self-interested owners.

That’s one reason that self-censorship is probably the most common form. We hold back on saying what we really think seeking shelter in silence. The more chameleon-like adopt whatever coloration seems appropriate to fit in and hopefully thrive. Many convince themselves their newly acquired opinions are their own and become even more committed defenders of the official line than the bosses themselves.

Often when the media censors itself it’s not folding under pressure from government officials, but to placate advertisers or the influential. Many publications and media outlets try to maintain a wall between editorial and advertising, but it can sometimes be quite porous. In 1998, ABC News, which is owned by Disney, cancelled a report on the hiring of convicted pedophiles at Disney World. Michael Eisner, Disney’s chairman at the time, had said publically that he didn’t want the network covering the story. They didn’t.

Consider the nervous dance New York public broadcasting station WNET did prior to the airing of Alex Gibney’s documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream. The film took a critical look David Koch, the billionaire industrialist. He and his brother Charles are known for their conservative politics and financing of a network of right wing advocacy groups. Koch is also a member of the station’s board of directors and had donated about $23 million to public television.

After some controversy the film aired. Another documentary critical of the Koch brothers called Citizan Koch was killed by PBS.

My first job out of college was at a small town weekly newspaper run by a hardnosed publisher who, for all his other faults, consistently stood up to pressure from advertisers. When the owner of the local grocery chain threatened to pull his ads if a certain story was published, we went ahead. The ads were pulled and for about a year, it was rough going. Eventually the merchant came back and I continued to think this was the way journalism always worked. It didn’t.

Even big city dailies kills stories that should have been told because of the publisher’s relationship with the organization.

At a lower level I’ve repeatedly seen my own stories altered in both big and small ways at the request of advertisers. In many cases the censorship came at trade magazines that made no pretense of being champions of a free press. My freelance career at one business trade journal came to an end when I protested the editor’s decision to gut a story that contained critical information about another company. For me that was rare. Since then I’ve usually gone along.

Freedom of the press is not a natural condition. It has to be created each day by journalists, editors, and publishers doing their jobs and taking stands that might be contrary to their immediate self-interest, but serve a higher calling and a grander idea.

Posted in The Media, Working, Writing | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

I Need a Job, so I Want to be a Corporate Writer

Posted by southwrite on June 11, 2014

Corporate Buildings

I once thought of myself as purely a journalist. I saw my entire writing career as taking place within newspapers and magazines. It was real journalism. It was making a difference. It was also old media and it was obviously dying a slow death.


My writing career began to shift in a different direction a few years ago and the decline (and even disappearance of many publications) has only accelerated that change.


Most of my work these days is for corporations – with some freelance journalism throw in for variety. I never really thought of myself as a corporate copywriter or aspired to be one, but these days that is where the work is to be found. As the traditional media has withered and shed writers, reporters, editors and even freelancers, the writing needs of companies and corporations of all types have increased.


Corporate copywriting is a large and growing market. We talk about the Fortune 1000 and the many smaller companies that make use of marketing and public relations materials. They need content producers because they are content factories.


Corporations need people who can write in many different mediums. That’s because their marketing and public relations departments produce many kinds of materials. These include not just the familiar press release, but white papers, feature articles for internal and external publications, case studies, video scripts, books such as corporate histories and executive biographies, ghost written articles for national and industries publications, technical manuals, employee newsletters, web content. Just about anything you can think of and probably quite a bit more.


The needs of corporate marketing and public relations are driven by the economy and another important factor. Downsizing has hit internal marketing departments just as it has every other part of the company. They’re producing the same amount of content, but with fewer people. The thinking is why keep content providers in the office when their work can be outsourced to freelancers at much lower cost and risk.


The secret to landing corporate clients – as with any job – is networking. You need to get to know corporate communicators so that they think of you when they have too much on their plate.


How to find them? First, think of what industry verticals interest you. Search the web to learn as much as possible about the company, their product, and their competition. Be selective in the companies you approach. If you’re active in the peace movement maybe a defense contractor wouldn’t be a good choice for you.


Pitch the marketing or media relations director with mailings including work samples that are relevant to their industry. This works best with those you have already made contact with in some other way. Email, but referrals and face to face contact is even better.


You can make contact by attending professional gathering and organizational meeting. Corporate communicators are usually members of organizations such as IABC, PRSA, and industry specific meetings. If you’re located in a major city the local chapter will usually have monthly meetings that you can attend as a guest. These organizations often have independent or freelance sections that can give you a base of operations for becoming involved in the organization.


There are other, less direct paths to corporate freelancing. Does the magazine you write for also have a custom publishing arm? Working for an outsourced company magazine gives you an opportunity to get to know the company.


Do you write for trade journals that publish articles by company executives? In most cases these articles are ghosted by someone else. Let the editor know you would like a referral to the company that placed the article. That helps both you and the editors by assuring them of a well written piece they can use.


Finally, the skills you’ve acquired pitching stories to newspapers and magazines can be quite useful in reaching out to potential corporate clients. In fact, all the skills you’ve honed as a freelancer will come in handy as you expand your client base in this direction.

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Lies, Myths, Tall Tales and Reporting

Posted by southwrite on June 9, 2014

Man in Hat Poker

This weekend I was on a travel writers’ tour in Macon. This Middle Georgia city is both historic and well preserved with an excellent stock of 19thhomes and buildings. Some of the best examples can be found in the College Hill Corridor where many pre-Civil War planters and post war industrials built fine and sometimes palatial homes. It also has its share of myths.

On a drive through this largely residential section of town surrounding Mercer University, our guide noted the widely believed and reported story that a certain celebrity had lived in one of the homes was simply not true. The story had been told until it took on a life of its own. It wasn’t true, however.

That happens quite a lot in journalism. Stories are reported and later found to be false or at least exaggerated. Sometimes these falsehoods are a result of poor research – not asking enough questions of enough people. A particular story may be reported and then picked up without question because it first appeared in a reputable and trusted source – like say The New York Times.

Then it continues to be repeated until it becomes fact. Other times bad information comes from sources who have an agenda to advance and are able to convince journalists they are telling the truth when they really aren’t.

That seems to be what happened in the case of Somaly Mam. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been backtracking from stories he wrote about the woman who “described having been trafficked into a brothel as a young girl in Cambodia, then escaping and helping others—and she came to run a couple of organizations in Cambodia that battled forced prostitution. She wrote an autobiography, was feted at the State Department and Kennedy Center, and celebrated by journalists. Including me. I wrote one column about her life story in 2008 after her autobiography was published in the U.S., and made several references to her after that, most recently in 2011.”

Now he along with other publications are being accused of promoting accounts that may have been false. While we won’t know for sure until the dust settles, the case illustrates the problems all writers have when they deal with sources. Are they telling you the truth?

Every serious reporter tries to verify what they’re told. In fact, there’s a saying in the newspaper business that “if your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” Kristoff went to some effort to verify Man’s story, but apparently it wasn’t enough. And, as he notes in this column he still hasn’t been able to verify that the story was true or false.

It can be difficult to vet facts under pressure of time and distance. Yet we all have to do so. Sometimes the extra research pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s left then is to go back to correct the record. That’s especially important when other sources are calling your work into question. CBS news anchor Dan Rather and other news personnel were forced to quit after a report on former President George Bush’s National Guard service was shown to be false. The problem was once again sources who apparently lied and even produced fake documents to support the claim.

For every writer who deals with sources in search of material for publication, there exists a fundamental need to question and verify. Sometimes it will be enough and other times it won’t. Sometimes it comes down to what you believe – what doe syour gut tell you? Does this story have the ring of authenticity or is there some nagging question in the back of your mind. If it doesn’t quite sound right, maybe it isn’t. and maybe you should keep asking questions.


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