Examining My Story

Early this month, I posted about being back in my place as a full time business owner.  A couple of weeks ago, I had several conversations with a friend about what her ideal job would look like, which led to some deep soul searching. Yesterday, I read Peter Shallard’s excellent post about the

I'm still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

I’m still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

power of our personal narratives. All of that together added up to me taking a serious look at where I am, how I got here, where I want to be, the best way to get there, the story of then, the story of now, and of then, and of the journey between the two.

In Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig, I shared a certain personal narrative – the tale of how I ended up back in an office. Today, I’d like to share my new story:

My Story, Version 2 (aka The Truth)

A quirky lady who never quite found her professional niche got laid off around the time she had an idea for a writing business. She drew unemployment and read a lot of books. Then she began finding clients.

It’s easy to get complacent, though, and she does. She has a few clients and is making enough money to get by, and gets lazy. Eventually clients start dropping off, as is normal, but she doesn’t replace them. She spends most of her time waiting on clients to come to her. She does some half-hearted marketing, then decides to find a job.

The job doesn’t work out, so the writer decides to work harder. She realizes that everything that came before was research, career prep, and important. She learned about all the different ways one can be a freelance writer, all the different ways a writing business can be run. She made a slate of contacts, and realizes that all of that will translate into a better business now.

She shines up all of her samples and past work and starts making lots of phone calls. She calls businesses, ad agencies, and nonprofits. She writes everyday. She pitches blogs that pay contributors. She thinks of a few unusual ways to market and begins trying different things. Sheh emails letters of introduction and queries to editors.

She tracks all of her ideas. And enjoys all of it! Even the calling. It takes a little motivation to make 20-30 calls a day, but she realizes that she likes talking to people, learning about their businesses, and finding out more about the world. She makes lists, becomes aware of time management and starts getting more done each day.

It takes a few months, but she soon finds herself in a position to pick and choose her assignments. She is writing nonfiction books and selling them, doing some editing work, blogging, ghost writing, and writing – and more importantly PUBLISHING – fiction. She is making more money that she ever did as an employee.

What about you? I’d love if you share your personal narrative in the comments!  

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The Power of a Spreadsheet

Last weekend, I got into an argument with a crowd of people about how many laps around a .3 mile track it would take to complete 6 miles. Everyone one involved possessed a high school diploma at the very least, yet there we were, a roomful of adults, disagreeing about some very basic math. If you have read many of my posts, you know that math is not my strong suite, and so I lacked the confidence to back up my assertion that it takes 20 laps – despite the fact that I had, that very day, thought about it quite a lot while running those 20 laps.

Spreadsheets are important to my business life because they remove the fuzziness inherent to mathematical questions for me. I have spreadsheets for prospects, articles written, publications Screen Shot of Smiling Tree Spreadsheetqueried, letters of introduction sent…I even use spreadsheets to organize books that I am writing. With the information so neatly laid out, it’s easy to figure out the ratio of queries sent to assignments received, and to compare time spent marketing to monthly income changes.

Last week, looking at a spreadsheet brought about an epiphany. Wait. “Epiphany” isn’t quite the right word. It connotes something good, right? This was not good. Maybe “startling realization” is a better descriptor. Or possibly “stark realization.” Yeah, that’s what it was. Stark.

In general, I think of myself as a pretty determined person. I tend to keep trying long after common sense says to stop. But, my spreadsheets tell a different story. Most of my freelance clients are business owners, and a great deal of the writing I do is ghostwriting. In other words, I don’t have many bylines. My name is generally not attached to my work, and often, it is a condition of my contract to not disclose I wrote an article or a book or whatever. Several months ago, I decided to query a few publications in order to have some work published under my own name.

I have a great accountability partner, and since most of her work has been for trade publications, she has been helping and encouraging me to send letters of introduction and queries. She helped me put together some good query letters and shared her own (very successful) process.

After a couple of months, I was ready to quit. I had gotten two assignments for print publication. Neither paid well, and one ended up being such a fiasco I eventually withdrew my article from consideration for publication.

My accountability partner encouraged me to continue. She said it hadn’t been long enough for me to make a judgement about whether or not the process of querying was working for me or not.

“But I’ve seen so many!” I whined, pathetically.

Pondering her advice, I decided to go to my trusty spreadsheet and count exactly how many. To make my point about it not working.

Of course, counting proved her point, not mine. It felt as if I had sent hundreds of emails to editors, some pitching story ideas, others simply introducing myself. In all reality, I’d only sent about 25. Determined, huh?

The same kind of thing has happened again and again. I feel like I’m working so hard, only to check my spreadsheets to find that I’m not, really.

How do you track your activities? Have you ever found that you are not working quite as hard as you thought?  

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Enough with the Navel Gazing

From Friday evening until Monday afternoon, the modem that makes the phone and internet service in my house work stopped working. At first, I was annoyed because I wanted to see what was happening on Twitter and Facebook. Then, I was worried because, “What if client’s were trying to get in touch with me?” So, throughout the day Monday, I was anxious, but also secretly a little excited that by the time I finally checked my email, there

Not my navel…

would be a couple of requests for work, or at least requests for more information in there.

Stop laughing. I can hope.

Of course my inbox was full of LinkedIn updates (I’ve got to turn those emails off somehow!) and spam from Amazon.

So then I started thinking about what I would have done all day Monday if I hadn’t been chasing a new modem. The answer has me re-thinking the whole idea of focus.

When you need clients (as I do) you need to spend a fair amount of time marketing. It’s awfully easy to put things under the heading “marketing” that probably shouldn’t be there. For example, reading through the discussion threads on LinkedIn daily is not really marketing. Posting updates to Facebook five or six times a day does not increase sales. Reading news stories, following election coverage, looking at photos of hurricane damage…well, you get the idea. I spend too much time doing all of those things.

This week, I am going to spend some time sharpening my focus. Here are a few important things, just off the top of my head:

Spend more time writing. Instead of checking Facebook, write a paragraph or two of this blog, on some of my personal projects, or guest posts. Those are better marketing projects than reading discussions on LinkedIn, or using any other type of social media networking. Social media has its place, but it is a limited place and should not take up much time during the work day.

Send more emails. Since my specialty is email marketing, you might imagine I’m right on top of clicking “send.” Remember the story about the cobbler and his barefoot children? Well, my own email list is sadly small because I have neglected it. When things are slow, I should focus on building that list, writing interesting stuff to send to the people on it, and otherwise following the excellent advice I give clients. (By the way, if you would like to receive my newsletter, go ahead and sign up.)

Make more marketing calls. I have always had good luck with just picking up the phone and calling people. It’s one of those things, like washing the dishes, that I dread for hours or even days before just biting the bullet. If you hate making calls, try only calling companies you have researched carefully. If you see something that indicates they might have a need for your service, it’s usually a pretty easy conversation. Making one or two calls instead of reading about the latest outrage committed by a politician is better for your business, and probably your spirit, too.

Keep a backup list handy. Your daily list probably consists of things that must be done right now. It’s really easy to waste time after everything on that must-do-now list is done. It is far more productive to keep a backup list of things that you want to work on but think you don’t have time to work on handy. I want to write fiction, but trick myself into believing I don’t have time to dedicate to it. If I limited the time I spend clicking links my smart friends on Twitter share there, I’d have more time for writing fiction.

What are your best focusing tips? How can I make sure that my time is spent doing things that will result in a higher number in my bank account?

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Don’t Be Another Boring Navy Blue Suit

When you are writing for business, there is this terrible temptation to “be professional.” Unfortunately, being professional is often the equivalent of being really, terribly, horribly dull. Think about suits. Suits are not interesting. To tell an expensive one from a cheap one, you have to look at subtle details. You don’t want your business blog to be like a suit because readers are not going to look for the subtle details.

Several years ago, when Smiling Tree Writing was just beginning, a new client told me to look at her biggest competitor’s web site to get ideas for her blog. Then she suggested I could save time and she could save money if I just “copied everything they did.” Aside from the obvious copyright issues, I tried to explain why that approach wouldn’t work. She insisted that her company did the same thing as this other, bigger company and since they clearly had a marketing department, the best thing to do would be to copy them. In her mind, it was like getting a marketing department for free.

Although this client was not sophisticated in stating what she wanted to do, she was also not unusual. If you choose any industry, in any particular location, then look at the web sites, blogs, and other marketing materials of several, you are going to see commonalities. I am not acquainted in any way with these three businesses, but take a look at how this establishment, and this one, and this one are visually similar. At one time, pretty much every photographer in Chattanooga had music and a flash intros on the landing pages of their web sites. Real estate agents tend to have lists of tag words longer than their posts on their blogs.

It makes perfect sense to look at what someone you admire is doing and emulate it. But, it makes more sense to evaluate what the others are doing, then do something a little different.

Be just a little different.

Stand out from the crowd. Distinguish yourself. Show your personality.

Standing out can be tricky, though. If everyone else is wearing a navy blue suit and yours is gray, you might stand out. If your suit is purple, you will definitely stand out, but it might not be a good thing. So, there is a balance to be struck. Most people try to stand out in some small way, and it turns into the equivalent of wearing a novelty tie when everyone else is wearing a solid color tie, and that might be enough, depending on your industry and audience. When I was researching photographers a few years ago, if I found one that did not have music that automatically played when I landed on their site, it was enough to make make me look at them closer.

All of this goes back to your uniqueness – your USP, or unique selling proposition. What is special about you? What makes your widget better than the widgets for sale down the street? Why should I choose your business out of a list of forty results on the first couple pages of Google results? You don’t want to copy the marketing department at Competitor XYZ because they are not you, and being you is one of the biggest advantages you have in the marketplace (even when it doesn’t feel that way).

Have you observed any industries where all of the copy reads the same, or all of the web sites look the same? Do you purposely toe the line that exists in your industry in order to be professional? When you are shopping for a good or a service, are you more likely to look for the business that is different, or do you find comfort in working with someone who seems to know what the standard for his industry is? 



*NOTE: Just in case you are wondering, the first interview with an independent writer will be posted on Thursday. YAY!

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Regular Maintenance You Probably Aren’t Doing

Years ago, my husband bought his “dream truck.” It wasn’t his dream because it was fancy or expensive. In fact, he said it was the perfect truck because he could fix anything that went wrong with it. It is a 1970 Chevrolet C-10. Recently, he replaced the engine. It took three times longer to do than he expected it to, and months later, there are still kinks that need to be worked out. He has to tinker with it just about every time he drives it. It makes him crazy. He wanted to do a bunch of work all at once, then just be able to drive for a while without worrying. However, sometimes it’s not that easy. More often than not, when a vehicle starts playing up like this, it usually means that you should start looking around for a new vehicle. He likes trucks, so one of my friends has recommended a rat rod truck to him. If he can’t fix the truck, perhaps we’ll have to start looking for a new one.

Just like cars, your blog, business web site, Facebook Page, and any other web presence you maintain is probably the same: you need to fiddle around with it pretty much all the time, and you probably hate it as much as my husband hates having to adjust valves and hoses and whatnot on his truck. And by “fiddle with it” I don’t mean updates, new posts, or new content. Those things are like washing your car. What I’m talking about is under-the-hood stuff:

1. Updating your key words. I try to keep a list of key words that I want to include regularly on each blog I write. For instance, on this site I often talk about writing, business, habits, customers, service, newsletters, learning, marketing. There are lots of other words I want to appear here frequently, but you get the general idea. You will want to revisit your list once in a while to make sure it reflects your current direction. When I started smilingtreewriting.com, I wrote very personal posts, and most of them didn’t really relate to business except tangentially. Later, my posts became colder (and less popular) and more business-oriented as I tried a more professional approach. Realizing cold and professional are not my strong points, I then returned to writing from a more personal perspective.

With each of those permutations and iterations, my list of key words needed adjusting. It wasn’t like an engine overhaul, but more like minor tinkering. The majority of the words stayed the same, but some had to go and others were added. If you use WordPress, the “Tags” section is perfect for maintaining your list of key words. It’s even in view as you write as a constant reminder. You don’t have to make a huge production of creating a spreadsheet or anything.

2. Adding images. It may be because I am a writer, but images are one of those things that I put off dealing with for a ridiculous amount of time, but having current, interesting, and relevant images on your web site and Facebook Page is important. The modern version of the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” might be “don’t judge a blog by its images” but that is exactly what people do. I don’t follow people on Twitter who don’t take the time to upload a photo, and if there are only stock images that I’ve seen a million times before appear on a blog, I assume it is not written by a real person.

The easiest way to handle the images on your site – if you have a blog – is to make sure each post has one. It took me a long time to acknowledge the necessity, and even longer to realize the best thing is to use my own photos. I spent an awful lot of time looking through “the commons” on flickr before deciding I have quite enough photos to choose from. Also, I do own a camera, and there is a memory card slot on my computer, making it dead simple to take whatever photo I need an upload it.

Other images that need review more often, though. If you have a profile picture of yourself, your staff, the outside of your building, your company car, or whatever, you should be updating it no less than once a year, and probably as often as once a quarter. I am guilty of NOT doing this. I’ve had the same image of me on this blog since I started it several years ago. That will be correct today.

3. Correcting typos, errors, and awkward sentences.Regardless of how many times I proofread a piece of writing, or rearrange the words in an uncomfortable sentence, I can just about always find something wrong with it three months later. If you find reading your own writing as painful as I find listening to recordings of my own voice, this maintenance suggestion will be tough for you. It’s a good idea to go through your old posts once in a while and make corrections. Add images to posts that don’t have any while you’re at it!

4. Updating pages that don’t change often. Your About page could probably use some work. There is a great post on writing an outstanding About page on Copyblogger, so I’m linking to it instead of attempting to re-invent the wheel. I have a Samples page that I need to add recent work to. If you have a Testimonials section on your site, what’s the date of the last recommendation? If it’s two years old, you might want to add some new ones! What about your Contact page? If your email, phone number, or any other contact method has changed, you should certainly update it.

Side note: Lately, I’ve looked at a silly number of business web sites that don’t have their hours of operation listed. If you are in a physical retail location, go check – right now! – and make sure your hours are listed. Please, for the love of your customers.

5. Making sure they really are Frequently Asked Questions. It is annoying when the FAQ section of a site is a blatant marketing pitch. I know that it really is all marketing, but it works better if it is sincere. Questions like “How can I order the most expensive widget you sell?” do not belong on your FAQ page. I am seriously considering removing the FAQ section of this site, because I’m not convinced it adds any value. Hopefully the really important questions are answered in an obvious manner in other places.

6. Look at your analytics and adjust accordingly.Before I decide whether or not to take down my FAQ page, I’ll look at the statistics, and if no one is looking at that page, it’ll come down. If your traffic is all coming from Facebook, maybe you should post there more often, or maybe you should dedicate extra time to Twitter in the hopes of getting more traffic from there – it all depends on your goals and your audience. Analytics are powerful, and can help you shape your strategy. Not using them would be like ignoring the fact there is a rearview mirror in your car. You don’t need to take a class or anything – I doubt many people use the information available to the fullest extent – but you should be checking your traffic statistics on a very regular basis. And if you are using some platform that doesn’t offer statistics, start looking for a new one today. Need help navigating your analytics? Try reaching out to one of the amazing marketing analytics companies out there. They can introduce you to valuable marketing and data analysis software and technology to help you to determine your next steps so that you can identify any areas for improvement. Ultimately, understanding your customer data is crucial where operating a successful website is concerned.

No doubt, I’ve left some important maintenance projects off of this list. Feel free to mention them in the comments!

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How To Banish Blogger Angst Forever

I haven’t posted here since April 12. That’s almost a full month. If I were my own client I would advise posting “at least every other week, minimum, and once a week would be much better.” But, if you suffer from blogger angst, you know that it’s a vicious cycle – the longer between posts, the more you worry about NOT posting and the harder it becomes to sit down and write something. Well, it’s easy to write something, but it’s hard to write something you think is worth publishing.

Then, you check your calendar and it’s been a month! Yikes! The pressure is on! You must publish a post!

I’m a believer in the benefits of procrastination. Sometimes we really do just need to slow down and give our mental processes time to do their thing. However, it can go too far. Like when you wait a month between posting on your blog.

Since I am pretty much an expert at identifying when I have crossed the line between “taking a mental break” and “becoming a total slacker” I feel comfortable offering some tips:

Take advantage of the times your mind is fertile. There are days when I think of about 15 blog post topics. If I can capture a few notes about each one, I have a start on some posts. Better yet, if I can sit still and write them out fully, I’ll have stockpile. Days like that can’t be scheduled in, but there are some things you can do to increase the likelihood of them occurring.

Boost your creativity. The easiest way to do this is to give yourself little challenges. No matter what you are doing, try to think of some way that it could connect to the theme of your blog. How is a road trip like what you write about? Are your kids’ activities in any way like what you write about? Is there a current trend in your city that you can relate to what you write about? The more you stretch to make these connections, the easier finding them will become. Of course, you won’t always end up with a post you can use doing these kinds of mental challenges, but sometimes you will.

Write at least a little, even when you don’t want to.This is just another way to say “keep showing up.” You don’t have to publish what you write, but you really should write on the days you think you are supposed to be writing. You can’t write just whatever for this one to work. Writing just a sentence or two of a post or editing an old post or making some notes for a future post is fine, but journaling about something totally unrelated to your blog will not help you overcome blogger angst.

Publish it anyway. Don’t let excuses stop you. It doesn’t matter if you can’t find a suitable photo to illustrate what you’ve written, or if you aren’t quite satisfied with it. Sometimes, you have to just let it go and publish it anyway to avoid being stuck forever. If most of your posts have all of the elements that are important to you, that’s what’s important. You may even find that a not-quite-finished thought resonates with your readers, or that a good photo is extraneous to what you are doing.

How do you overcome blogger angst? What makes it worse? Please share, because, to be honest, I’m still feeling a little angst-ey.

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