stevemedcroft.com
21Oct/180

When is it time to hire a writer?

I am a freelance writer, for hire, to work on content-production projects ranging from short, evergreen web articles to book-length non-fiction. Contact me for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.

If I told you I was a writer for hire, you might ask yourself why on earth would anyone want to hire a writer? Isn’t writing something anyone who is literate knows how to do? Don’t we write our own text messages, emails, notes to family, Facebook posts, Yelp reviews, Instagram hashtags? Don’t we write constantly? Communicate every day in a hundred ways?

Acknowledged. Not everyone *needs* a writer. I assume you’re capable of putting across your own thoughts in written word. But, there is an argument that writing is a skill that needs to be developed when applied to specific tasks. When you have a need for properly planned, focused, and easy-to-read content, a writer-for-hire can make written-word products that suit your need. Sure, you might be able to take care of yourself, but hiring a writer could ease the burden of actually completing the work yourself and, hopefully, give you a polished final result.

Here are six types of writing projects I, and writers like me, take on for clients. If you could use help on a project that fits one of these categories, contact me.

Web articles: Usually short and punchy, I’ve written web articles for all kinds of publications and clients over the years. I’ve written how-to articles, blog posts, and in-depth analysis into the various types of bicycle chain lubricant, for example. The client briefs and word-length requirements vary, but writing for the web is about getting to the point quickly, covering a subject that fits into its online home, and delivering to the allotted space and time. Do you have a website? Need content developed?

Catalog copy: Writing for product can be as important as the imagery. I work with clients in Europe that produce two or three product catalogs per year. They create the first English-language version (usually a translation from their primary language) and have me to tighten and smooth the language so it flows naturally for their English-speaking distributors and customers. I might also be asked to produce summary paragraphs for the introduction to the catalog. I am then tasked, at times, to write longer-form web content for the same product sets. Are you producing content about your products and services? Should we develop a plan to optimize that content for your audience and give it the best chance of being useful?

Interviews and profiles: There are seven billion human beings on the planet right now. That’s seven billion different experiences in the world, seven billion different perspectives on life, seven billion different stories to tell. My most-rewarding short-form work is done when I get to help someone tell their story though interview or profile. I’ve written prose and Q&A-style interviews throughout my writing life and would like to spend more time in the future helping people tell their stories to the world. Are there people in your orbit, with unique perspective or skills, that we should highlight to your audience/customer base? Or do you have a story you want to tell?

Event reports: I’ve reported on cycling races across the US (and even a few in Europe). There’s a journalistic satisfaction in writing a good race report; setting the scene for the reader, laying out the stakes for the competition, getting play-by-play from the finalists, producing the official results. The additional fun challenge in race reporting is also the timeliness; the attempt to publish the story as close to the completion of the competition as possible. Sure, it’s exhausting work, but once you develop a rhythm for writing competent race and event reports, the work is extremely satisfying and rewarding. The same editorial narrative style can be applied to any event coverage. Are you part of, or putting on, an event? How can I help you tell its story; the how and why it exists, the timeline of how it played out, and capture the top moments so those who couldn’t be there can still get the sense of what you were trying to accomplish?

Newsletters and round-ups (subbing): The editorial term ‘subbing’ means, simply, summarizing a group of content into one article. When I was the mountain-bike editor of www.cyclingnews.com, the worlds most widely-read cycling news website, I would take product press releases and summarize that week’s race reports, interviews, and technical review into a weekly news round-up. Subbing is an art and I enjoyed doing it. The skill can be applied to any collection of material that would benefit from being turned into a newsletter or periodic review. A great example is the New York Times' Your Weekend BriefingCan you imagine putting a periodic summary of content you’d like to share with your audience?

Whitepapers and book-length projects: Sometimes, a subject demands in-depth study. I’ve written two non-fiction books. Call Centers Made Easy was my attempt to help small businesses leverage communications technology to better connect and communicate with their customers. The book spoke to the fact that large customer-support-intense companies (airlines, insurance companies, banks) invested millions building out systems to optimize their management of customer interactions. My book showed small businesses how those large centers did it and how they could emulate some of the technologies and concepts (to the same benefits) using small-business telecom systems. I also wrote a book called The Telecom Manager’s Survival Guide which spelled out how to, well, manage the telecommunications infrastructure for a large company. What subject in your life would you like to develop into a longer written project? White paper (3-5k words)? eBook (5-25k words)? Full-length nonfiction project (50-100k words) you want to take to a publisher?

The price of a writer-for-hire

The cost for a writer to help you with any of these kinds of content projects vary. A writer looking to break in, or one that has the capacity for high-volume, short-turn-around work, could be quite inexpensive. You can find them online, as well as find marketplaces for freelancers to bid on your job. A pedigreed writer with background and history that is a testament to their skill, and who likely has the freedom to select the projects they work on, may be prohibitive.

I’m somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. I work on freelance projects when I want to; when I like the project, the client/collaborator, and feel like I can produce interesting work. I charge, in round numbers:

  • Fifty-cents per contracted word plus expenses. That means, if I am contracted to produce a 500-word blog article, I may turn-in 556 words, but the client pays for the budgeted amount of $250.
  • If a word-count price model doesn’t work (very short word-count projects, the editing of existing copy, or research-heavy book-length projects), I negotiate, in advance, either a flat fee or a financial arrangement tied to the income produced by the work (in the case of book-length projects).

If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, please reach out through the contact me page on this website, or find me on LinkedIn.

7Oct/180

Our stay at Steinbeck’s Traveler’s Cottage

Sleeping in a famous writer's guest house

I traveled to Monterey for a conference. The conference was spouse-friendly (short working sessions, plenty of free time, and excursions for spouses), so my wife came along. When I registered, I had the option to stay at the conference center hotels, but my wife and I like to stay in interesting and quirky places. The Steinbeck Traveler’s Cottage, which we found on AirBNB, was the perfect experience for us.

The story of Traveler’s Cottage appealed to me because I’m a writer. Steinbeck had a big influence on Monterey so we chose the cottage as a way to have an experience relative to the community we were visiting. Steinbeck owned this home in the 40’s and lived here while writing a couple of his earliest works. There are actually three residences on the property; a main house, a guest house, and the cottage. The cottage sits at the back of the property, furthest from the street, in a private courtyard with a private entrance and parking space off the alley that runs behind the house.

Check-in was easy. The host sent instructions for the lockbox before we arrived. The address and instructions that lead to the alleyway parking space were clear. The parking space was a bit of a squeeze but big enough for my SUV.

Walking into the courtyard for the first time is a treat, The well-groomed space contains a four-person seating group and a picnic table and presents the front of the cottage beautifully. The cottage itself is equally well-presented in baby-blue paint with white trim and neat landscaping. Everything outside is trim and clean and perfect. A great first impression.

Inside is just as nice. Wood floors, simple furniture, lots of light, interesting artwork, just lovely attention to detail. Inside we found fluffy towels, plenty of bed linen, a heater, a fan, an ironing board and iron, coffee, sugar, and a French Press, pretty much anything we needed for our stay.

Right in the heart of Monterey

Traveler’s Cottage is in a convenient location, close-enough to the Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row to walk (downhill one way and a bit of a hike home) and only a little over a mile to Fisherman’s Wharf and the conference center. We found the cottage and its surrounding neighborhood pleasantly quiet at night.

Speaking of night-time, the cottage had both good overhead lights as well as table lamps and night lights for a variety of moods. There was a bookshelf with mostly Steinbeck work (I had never read Cannery Row and got through most of it on this visit - a real joy to read Steinbeck’s work in a place connected to him). The guest book is super thorough and included background on the place, instructions on the remotes, the heater, and other appliances, recommendations for local restaurants. It also included guest letters and notes going back five or six years.

The hosts were great. I had a challenge with the lockbox and called for help. I got an immediate answer. We received a text the next morning making sure we were happy with everything. It felt like they had us in mind and that it mattered that we had a good stay.

The place does have a couple of quirks - there is not a lot of room for two to move around in the bedroom. The kitchen entry requires navigating a couple of mean steps with a low overhang that is tricky in the middle of the night. The cottage is also very small overall - the size of a hotel suite or a tiny house. But quirks are what make a place like this a unique experience compared to the homogeneity of the modern hotel.

I had only a couple of manageable challenges. Neither of things are complaints, just observations. There is a beautiful hand painted sign on the outside of the cottage facing the alleyway. The night we arrived was windy and the signs knocked against the wall annoyingly. I wadded some paper towels and stuffed them behind it to quieten it down and I hope the host amends this permanently. And under the category of beds-are-very-subjective, I found the bed overly soft and wished I could have done something about it (or, if there was some kind of control that I could change the firmness of the bed, it was more obvious than it was). This critique definitely falls under the category of personal preference though - my wife loved the bed.

That’s it. We would happily, gladly, without reservation, recommend Traveler’s Cottage to a couple (three people at the most) who are planning a stay in Monterey.

Here's a link to the Traveler's Cottage on AirBNB.

24Sep/180

Who decided blog posts have to be 500 words?

I have been freelance copywriting professionally for a couple of years now. When I write for the web for clients, I am often asked to keep my word count to 500. It’s so common a requirement I always assumed it was a hard-and-fast rule, born of incredible wisdom, marketers law that should never, never be violated. Sticking to this word-count limit is one of the greatest struggles I have with copywriting though.

When I sit down for a writing session, focus on putting an idea down into a Google or Scrivener doc, a thousand words come out before I can take a breath to see how whatever I’m writing is turning out. A good writing session on one topic may yield 1,500, 2,200 words or more. I start out my copywriting assignments this way - throwing down any and all thoughts, ideas, client quotes, and gathered research on the assigned subject. Cutting that natural flow back to 500 words takes time, three or four passes at least. The trimming is what stretches copywriting assignments from two-hour missions to six-hour slogs.

500 words is soooo brief? It’s a shackle of a word count. To get there, I have to suck back what I want to say. I have to buzz-cut paragraphs to make my point under the limit. I have to sacrifice one or more of my precious children so my whole family will fit neatly inside someone else’s idea that a family car should have only three-seat and headroom for little people.

The 500-word blog post recommendation is a fabrication

So why? Why am I being held to this punitive word count in a world where so many amazing words exist?

Google this question and the 500-words recommendation pops up over all kinds of web pages designed to tell YOU how you *should* optimize your web content. So search engines prefer it over longer pages. Because your audience won’t stick around for longer articles than that. So your point gets across with brevity.

I found this on an affiliate marketing website - “Many bloggers prefer to stick to short articles, generally between 500 and 750 words… According to Forbes.com, 200 words is the ideal length for a blog post because it keeps the reader’s attention, doesn’t leave room for fluff, and creates a quick and effective call to action (CTA).” This is a common theme among websites heavily focused on product listings and sales. Content whose purpose is to move a product.

The writer then goes on to immediately contradict themselves, citing the benefits of posting longer pieces. “...longer posts allow you more space and freedom to work keywords into your content alongside your overall message and a CTA. Forbes has the data to support the case for longer content too. Citing results from a serpIQ study, the top 10 results on Google all have a minimum of at least 2,000 words.” The same article then cites research on the site Medium.com that suggests 1,300 words (about seven minutes of reading time). This was common best practices on websites focused on quality and depth of content. Content intended to inform, educate, and inspire.

My 500-word assignments are coming from product-focused websites. Brands with a product mission. So it makes sense that they’re taking the advice that the online marketing world has to offer. And it makes sense that when I want to write something where I take a bit of time and complete a full thought, it lengthens naturally into something that lines up with what readers prefer.

So...

I’m just going to do what I want (unless someone is paying me)

The 500-word recommendation having a purely commercial origin makes sense. Websites designed to sell product need focused, shorter articles because the research span of someone looking for a product online is short. Understanding that it’s not just an arbitrary number helps me when I’m taking on these copywriting assignments. It gives me focus, a specific word target to hit, It challenges me to get lean with the words, to get right at the point when I’m writing the setup (where I usually like to take time to build up the product story that’s about to follow).

When I’m writing specialty content, the audience expects me to take more time, go further in depth, and let the writing tell whatever the story is your trying to convey. Which is a license to write in my more natural rhythm.

Okay, frustration is gone, I’ve worked out my resentment to the arbitrary 500-word blog-article recommendation. I can embrace it now. Can you?

PS: This article is almost 800 words.

29Jul/180

Don’t Tear Down Your Protagonist

When I gave her Succubus to read for the first time, my wife hated my main character. "He's weak and needy," she said. I worked hard to figure out what she was responding to and found that I had written scenes where he was bullied, dominated, and needed to be bailed out by others. I fixed it by instinct. Then, at a writer's group, a colleague used the term "Don't Tear Down Your Protagonist" when critiquing another writer's work and it clicked. That is a principle I want to adopt for my writing. I explain how I learned and what to do with it in the video.

 

Filed under: About Writing No Comments
1Jul/180

Short Stories – Release Two – For Family

 

Marsh and his team left Alpha for Delta Camp before sun-up. They hiked all morning without incident, but three hours after their lunch break, Garvin signaled danger and the three of them darted into the underbrush. From cover twenty yards off the trail Marsh, a three-share in the company, whispered, “What’s the problem?”

“Something is coming down the path,” Garvin said. “Right at us.” Garvin was a nine-share, a true executive, a member of the secretive board of directors. He was older than most people in the company, but still vital and strong. A leader. This was his mission.

“Some-thing?”

“I heard voices. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but it was definitely voices.”

“Scaff?” Hatch, an edgy one-share and the youngest member of the team, said in a nervous whisper. “Oh man. I knew this would happen.”

Swirling gusts rustled the tree tops and made it hard for Marsh to hear. It took concentration, but he finally detected the voices; two men in casual conversation. As they grew closer, he picked up the stilted dialect of the company’s only competition for the resources on this planet.

Scaff was the slang term for the group, a name they used for themselves as well. Just like lower-level staff members referred to the company as a family because of the way the executive board exerted parental-style control over member’s lives. Meaning, you were asked to put the company first, above everything else in your life. Also because the company operated on insular networks that took loyalty and maneuvering to penetrate. Marsh had no taste for maneuvering. And the word family had too much meaning to him to use it so casually.

The scaff were really separatists. Mostly service staff - cleaning, kitchen, and maintenance crews - the scaff were a tight community of men, women, and their children who broke away from the company when they all became stranded on the planet. The scaff rebelled for the right to live free from company rule, a right they would never have earned on their shared home world. Marsh didn’t blame them, they were second-class citizens because they chose to work in service of the company class, marginalize and ill-treated.

The scaff were about to the section of trail where Garvin’s detail had jumped for cover. Their conversation seemed to be about a women they both knew. Intimately.

“They’ve been tracking us.” Hatch said, his body rigid with tension. He was propped over the top of a boulder. His rifle was aimed toward the trail.

“Shut the fuck up, or they’ll hear you,” Garvin hissed and yanked Hatch’s belt to pull him down. “Stay focused and let them pass.”

The conversation on the trail stopped. One voice asked clearly for the other to wait. Marsh listened as someone stumbled off trail in their direction. Then he heard the whoosh of urination. “Hurry the fuck up,” the other man said from the trail. Only when the first man finished, and his heavy footfalls began to recede, did Garvin relax his grip. “I am thinking of the mission,” Hatch hissed. The footsteps stopped. The two scaff exchanged words in a low and urgent tone. Garvin put a finger to his lips and shook his head slowly.

They listened for two minutes to wind noise and the scittering of wildlife. Then Garvin nodded at Marsh and Marsh unholstered his pistol. He cocked the trigger, muffling the sound with the palm of his hand. He edged to the corner of the boulder he had hidden behind. He peeked until he could see the trail. It was empty. He nudged forward. Still no scaff. He stood and leaned forward to get a better view. Satisfied, he turned back to his teammates. He got halfway through the phrase “All clear” when he was tackled from behind.

He hit the dirt with a slide, the weight of a large man furrowing him into the ground. A strong hand tattooed in an intricate pattern of whorls and dots trapped his wrist and hammered it against the ground until he released his pistol. He resisted as best as he could, but was immobilized by a thick forearm at the back of the neck.

“Relax, fuck face,” the man said, then started to rifle the pockets of Marsh’s jacket. Marsh thought of the satchel, which he wore under his long coat, and of what it contained. He wriggled to keep it trapped under his body and out of reach.

“Take what you want and be on your way,” he said to the man on his back.

“Shut your mouth,” the man barked. Then, to his companion, said. “Herc. Get those other packs.”

The second man, smaller than the the first, had Marsh’s teammates at rifle point. He ordered Garvin and Hatch to drop their packs. Like most scaff men, tattoos covered every exposed patch of skin.

“Where are you all going?” the man on Marsh’s back said.

Garvin started to answer but Marsh held up a hand. “Delta camp,” he said. “I’m a doctor. I’m needed there.”

“You from Alpha?”

“Yes.”

“There are no medical provisions in your pack?” Marsh kept his mouth shut and his body against the satchel under his coat. The two men exchanged a look. “You look like an executive."

Marsh forced himself to not look in Garvin’s direction. “I’m just a medic. A member of staff.”

The bigger man narrowed his eyes. His hand hovered over the butt of his pistol. “What’s an executive doing traveling between camps with an armed escort?” Marsh focused on his breathing. He had sworn to protect the information in the satchel with his life if necessary. He didn’t want it to come to that.

“What do you think Herc? Is this the guy we’re looking for?”

Marsh formed his next sentence carefully, but then Hatch was already in motion, rolling toward his rifle. He came up in a crouch and got a shot off at one of the scaff. He missed, but not by much. The younger man sprinted for the nearest boulder. The man behind Marsh scrambled and started to bolt toward the trail. Hatch fired two more shots. One exploded a sapling just to the right of the running men. The second spat up a dramatic puff of dirt between the smaller man’s legs. The young scaff paused and returned fire. His shots pinged off the boulders and trees all around Hatch. Hatch retreated behind a rock, hugging his rifle.

“Stand down, dammit,” Garvin yelled.

Hatch took a deep breath, re-positioned his rifle stock against his shoulder, and steadied his aim against the rock face. He lined up on the running figures. Marsh hissed at him, “Boss says stand down, man. Don’t shoot.” Hatch calmly pulled the trigger twice.

 

To read the entire story, download it in PDF format here.

Or, you can listen to me read the story on my short fiction podcast here: