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Podcast Episode 44: Writing for different audiences – experts vs beginners

Writers must always keep the reader in mind when they are composing a piece of work, and one factor that should always inform how and what you write is the level of expertise that your audience will have. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I talk about different issues to factor in when writing for beginners, lay people, novices or experts, including a detailed look at the language, structure and formatting to use.

Show Notes

Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing

Creative people say NO!

30 easy ways to organize your work space

IKEA Hackers

Lonely Goatherd lyrics

12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms

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Transcript

LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 44 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.

Freelancing is tough, and it can be a really lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself  working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years straight.

To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of links and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….

PW And I’m Philippa Willitts. Today we’re going to be looking at the different ways you might finding yourself using language as a writer depending on whether your audience are beginners or experts. This can include the words and sentence structures you use, the layout and format of your writing, and the overall pitch and approach you take. It’s easy to make the assumption that writing for beginners involves using baby language and for experts you should use multi syllabic compounds at every opportunity, but that’s not how it works – it’s not a good or even an effective way to do it! In the first case you’ll come across as patronising, and in the latter as pretentious or like you’re trying too hard.

So, we’re going to start off by talking about, first of all, how you know who’s an expert and who’s a beginner.

LH: Yeah, we thought we’d get started straight away, but then we realised that it was a good idea to actually define who’s an expert and who isn’t. Now, if you have a look at any good dictionary, you’ll find that an expert can be defined simply as someone who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. So no surprises there.

L

L (Photo credit: duncan)

A lay person is, quite simply, someone who isn’t an expert. We’re all laypersons to a large extent – there’s no way any of us can be real experts in more than a few things at most – so knowing how to write for a lay audience, as well as an expert audience, is hugely important because you’re targeting most readers out there.

PW Sometimes, the level of expertise of the audience you are writing for is obvious from your brief. If, as part of a content marketing plan, your soft furnishings client wants a series of blog posts or video scripts with titles like,  “How to choose the right curtains for a small room” or “What colour schemes are best for south-facing bedrooms” then you’re almost certainly writing for beginners – people who may know all sorts about all sorts,  but who are seeking information about soft furnishings because they know very little about it.

Similarly, if you have a B2B client who sells to plumbers, then articles about how to change a washer will be entirely redundant – these readers are experts who want to know about the latest technologies, innovations and legal changes, not the basics they’ve been successfully doing all day every day for years.

LH: Yes, sometimes you can tell if you’re going to be writing for an expert of layperson depending on the kind of content you’re writing. There are trends, I would say, on which types of content go towards which reader but, at the same time, you can’t always say definitively “This is for an expert, and this is for a layperson.”

Now, the things that strike me as more appropriate for experts are: journals, academic reports, business reports, case studies, funding proposals. Now, lay person audiences (although not always) might be news stories for client websites – communicating news to a general audience – customer brochures, although B2C ones are more likely to be for lay audiences, press releases for non-specialist publications. So if a dairy farm client has some new technology and they want people to know about to because their production is going to go up, you could just send that to a newspaper and focus, maybe, on jobs being created.

PW: What’s interesting about press releases is that one piece of news might need to be re-written twice – you might need a press release for specialists and one for laypeople. So, as well as the “Yay, new jobs, more milk” press release, you could send one to Dairy Farmers’ Monthly, focusing on the implication for the market, litres per animal etc. Whatever dairy specialists want to know. So yes, one kind of writing can still need to be re-written depending on your audience and their expertise level.

LH: Very good point. And that’s why it’s so important to know the differences between writing for experts and laypersons – if you need to re-write something for a client and you don’t, you’re in a pickle.

PW: So we’re going to look first at writing for beginners, and as we’ve said, everyone is a beginner in a lot of areas. You’ll have your own expertise in areas you do or enjoy, but you’ll be a layperson in a lot of areas. So it’s quite easy to relate to what beginners can need. But there are some really good guidelines and advice that come from various sources that we’re going to talk about that will help you pitch it just right.

LH: Yes, one of my favourite sources for information on writing for experts and beginners is the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing (sounds like the kind of thing you’d get at Hogwarts!), published by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (AKA. MIT!), has some really handy information on how to write for laypersons and experts, as you would expect. Now, most of the focus of a lot of the content is for scientific and technical writing, as it says in the title, but you can apply what’s in there more generally.

Now, a lot of what we’ll be advising here is quite similar to what’s suggested in there, so I’d recommend going and having a read of the handbook if you feel like you want to become a bit more of an expert, so to speak! You can find PDF copies all over the place or your can get hold of a copy on Amazon.

PW: And we’ll link to it in the show notes.

LH: The first thing to bear in mind when writing for a lay audience is that the audience may have absolutely no prior knowledge of the topic you’re presenting to them.

As a writer, it’s your job to provide your audience with something they can read without having to open a dictionary or dive on Google in order to understand. But, at the same time, you have to be careful, as Pip’s pointed out, not to patronise your readers. It’s a tough balancing act sometimes.

PW: When I write for beginners, a big part of my job is diving about on Google and doing research so other people don’t have to.

LH: Yes, they always do say that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, or in this case, teach something via writing.

PW: Yes, if I can read 10 websites about something complicated and condense that into 500 words that people who’ve never come across the subject before can understand, then I’ve done a good job.

Experts Only

Experts Only (Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik)

One trick that is quite easy to fall into is that when you have become something of an expert in an industry, because you’ve been writing about it for a while, is to forget that others don’t know what certain acronyms or buzz words mean. The same thing can happen with references to good practice guides, governing bodies or laws. When you first start writing about a particular industry you will be fine, because what is unfamiliar to the lay person will also be unfamiliar to you. As you progress, and start to understand it all, don’t lose sight of how confusing the jargon was to you at first.

LH: Absolutely. The example that always springs to mind for me is the website for the UK tax body, HMRC. It’s a total nightmare. You’ll look up one thing on there and you’ll end up having to look up 10 more things just to understand what you’re being told. And the pages they have explaining complicated terms on there, but I end up more confused. It’s a really bad example of writing for beginners.

PW: And the worst thing about it is that it thinks it’s user-friendly, and it really isn’t. As Lorrie says, an explanation of one word involves looking up one word.

LH: Yes, and it’s even worse because their TV ads are so friendly and informative. They use news readers who were on TV when we were young, and you think, “Oh, I trusted that person for years! It’s all going to be OK!” and it never is!

PW: Haha!

LH: So yeah. Your laypersons might be absolute beginners, or what the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing terms it, “novices” – “persons who do not yet possess technical expertise in a field but are in the process of acquiring it.” But, because we’re not limiting this to specifically technical or scientific writing, you might well be dealing with a mixture of both, in which case, you have to cater for the beginners without sending the novices on a one-way trip to Yawnsville.

PW: So as well as looking at the level of specialism that your readers have, whether it’s absolute beginners with no previous knowledge or novices with a little bit of information, the other thing to consider is why your readers are reading the content.

LH: When it comes to informative content, laypersons tend to read in order to   expand their general knowledge, inform their decisions – say, researching products before buying them, reading up on current affairs and politics, to  learn how to use a device or perform a procedure (hello microwave oven instruction manual and DIY build-your-own-bookcase manual!), or simply to help them in becoming an expert.

PW: Yes, the joy of the net is that so much information is at the tip of your fingers. You might wonder how something got its name and within 10 seconds, you’re on Wikipedia. You can find yourself getting a lot of basic information on a lot of topics, so you need to make sure you tailor your text to those people as well as others, who want to become experts in the subject you’re writing about and are using your text as a starting point.

LH: Absolutely. When writing for laypersons, it’s best to introduce your topic in a wider context. Give your reader thorough background  information, either in your introduction – if you’re writing a formally structured piece of work like an essay or report – or at appropriate points throughout the text.

Don’t launch into the complex stuff. As I said, start off with a wider context where possible and visualise yourself zooming in, bit by bit.

A widely published press release for a technical client, for example, should start off with a few lines summarising the overall story, because that’s what press releases start with, before leading into general information about the subject at hand. Once you’re, say, half or two thirds of the way down the page if your text is about a page long, you can start delving into the details of the technological development or government legislation you’re discussing. You’re baby-stepping your reader into it without making a baby of them.

PW: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Reference Guide: technical detail sketches

Reference Guide: technical detail sketches (Photo credit: windysean)

LH: When deciding exactly which technical information to include, it’ll depend very much on your client and their sector, but consider your audience and ask yourself what they need to know. Say you’re discussing recycling technologies – what will your reader be interested in? Probably the basics – how much the complicated doo-dah costs. How big it is. How much waste material it can process in a day. Why are you writing a press release on it. What makes it ground-breaking or note-worthy. Cover topics such as these briefly but don’t go too far unless your piece is a strictly informative one, teaching people about said gadget.

PW: Yes, if it’s a “How are new gadget works…” that’s very different from “Hey, we have a new gadget!”

Now, as we’ve said, it’s important to look at why your reader is reading what you write. If they need to buy a new, say, washing machine, there’s a fairly good chance that they only want the information they absolutely need to make their decision. You need to be able to make them understand why they have to care about litres per wash or energy ratings, even if they only need to care for the 45 minutes it will take them to choose what to buy. Your job is pretty clear: work out what the consumer wants and needs to know; you also need to work out what your client wants them to know and that can be things like…if 10 different e-commerce sites are selling the same washing machine, it might be that your client offers next day delivery or particularly good customer service. Your jobs is to present that information in a way that is pitched correctly,  informative,  clear,  and neither unnecessarily detailed nor patronisingly lacking in substance.

LH: Haha!

PW: Hey, I said your job was clear, not that it was easy!

LH: No, it’s certainly not easy. And, you know, it’s a bit off-topic but it’s relevant as we’re freelance writers. Clients may want you to include information that they think their audience needs to know but that you feel shouldn’t be included.

PW: Yes, you’re a step away from your client’s business and can sometimes see that something they feel passionately about isn’t of real importance to consumers. It can be hard to handle. If they want to highlight that they *only* charge £200 to deliver your washing machine, you may have to do what they want or you may be able to raise the issue with them. And that’s something to look at on a case-by-case basis.

LH: Absolutely, and you have to be really careful. On a really mercenary level, if you do something your client wants but that you don’t think is right, your client might get bad results, then turn round and  say, “Your writing didn’t work.” But there’s nothing to prove that it was their preference and not your writing that was the problem.

PW: Something I’ve been known to do is to say to the client, “I understand why you would want that but I’d recommend against it.” I’ve then sent two versions of the work over: one with their suggestion and one without. I suggest that they use my version, but it’s up to them. Now, obviously I wouldn’t do this if I was being paid strictly for one piece of work only, but if it’s just something like the same email with two different subject lines, or a slight change in the opening paragraph, then it’s OK.

LH: Really good solution. Because then you can prove that the issue isn’t your writing. Unless you’re working on a strict payment term,  or the difference is very big, very good solution.

Now, going back to the topic, hopefully this next point should be obvious, but when using technical terms, make sure you explain them the first time you use them. Now, it can be tricky to remember it if you’ve been writing about that subject for a long time, and it can also be easy to miss these things if you end up rejigging the article after you’ve written it.

PW: Haha, yes! You end up clarifying it the third time you mention it!

LH: So yeah, same goes for acronyms – a common one I use is “WEEE”, which everyone finds super amusing, but that stands for waste electrical and electronic equipment. I always write it in full first, placing “WEEE” in brackets afterwards. From then on, I just write ‘WEEE’.

PW: That’s best practice, I think – write it in full first time, then just use the letters. And that’s got me thinking, sometimes when you write for a client regularly and you find yourself clarifying an acronym for the fifteenth time, you can start to wonder whether you need to. Say, in blog posts. But, you have to bear in mind that people rarely start at the beginning of a blog and read through, so it’s good practice to do it every time.

LH: And another point is that you can make use of the terms for SEO purposes – you can link them internally and externally. And just going back to what you said about best practice, I’ve seen some people writing the acronym, then putting the full term in brackets afterwards. I wouldn’t do that – I would do it the other way round, with the full term first, then the acronym in brackets.

PW: yes, I’ve seen the same and I agree with you!

LH: That’s always gratifying! Now, a handy way of explaining technical information if it contains too many tricky words or concepts is to use metaphors, similes and analogies. That might sound a bit abstract and complex, and I’m kind of tempted to explain what all those things are, but if you’re a write, you should really know.

PW: Yes, I’ve been watching a TV series called Numb3rs recently on Netflix. It’s a show about the FBI and a maths geek, and whenever something really mathematically complicated needs to be explained, the maths geek creates an elaborate story to explain it. While I have to admit that he comes across as quite smug and annoying when he does this, it does genuinely help to make it clear what on earth he’s talking about. It makes these complex things quite accessible to someone like me, who hasn’t studied maths since they were 16.

LH: Yes, if you can come up with a useful analogy or metaphor, then all the better for it.

In informative posts, where the key is to get the reader to understand a certain concept, the analogy might be clearly highlighted, introduced by a phrase like, “Imagine that you’re…”, helping to guide the reader through the unfamiliar concept. In other informative posts, such as press releases, it might be a little more discrete. A couple of examples I’ve found on the ‘net: “Glycogen acts as a kind of energy bank in the body…” or “An unreleased movie is like a commodity, whose value goes up and down depending on circumstances.”

PW: Absolutely. Now when you’re considering the expertise of your audience, another thing to consider is the structure of what you’re writing. Things like carefully placed headings, the size of your paragraphs can all make a difference to how easy to understand – or in-depth – a piece of writing is.

If you’re writing for beginners, then regular paragraph headings and small-ish paragraphs can be helpful. They provide information in bitesize chunks and make it clear about what you’re talking about right now. They’re easier to digest. On the other hand, if you’re writing in an academic journal and each paragraph has two sentences, people wouldn’t like that. And they might not want a heading for every paragraph – they might want one for every third page. They’re obviously extreme ends of the spectrum, but it’s worth considering: structure plays an important part in how comprehensible writing is.

LH: Absolutely, and the same goes for bullet points as well. They’re brilliant, and if you’re writing something particularly long, bullet points are a good way to sum up and drive home to your reader what’s gone on.

And to go back to headings for a second, the type of heading you use for beginners and experts will vary. When writing for experts, you can have infrequent, quite dense headings. When writing for beginners, headings can summarise or somehow explain what’s to follow so the reader knows what to expect.

PW: Yes, so if you’ve got an article on how to choose a lampshade, then you might have headings for colour, size, position in the room, for example.

Another thing you can make use of if you’re doing a very informative post is a numbered list. I think people often find it easier to follow instructions if there’s a number 1, 2, 3. It can be more accessible even than just bullet points on their own.

LH: Absolutely, and it won’t suit for every kind of writing. We’re just trying to give tips for loads of types of writing; be discerning when choosing which to follow!

PW: Yes, absolutely. We’ve looked quite a lot at how to write for beginners, laypeople, novices etc. So what we’re going to look at now is the different kinds of experts you might find yourself writing for and what kind of context this might be in.

LH: Now, experts often have different reasons for reading content than lay people. These reasons might include: to maintain and expand their own general expertise – to build on what they know and keep their level of learning quite high, to obtain specific answers to their own research and writing – so they might be writing a dissertation or report or theses, or even – and this is quite different to beginners – to evaluate a document’s technical or scientific content. And that sends shivers down my spine!

PW: Yes, it’s like peer reviews, isn’t it? And even if it’s not formal, a lot of experts can’t help themselves!

PW: There are other reasons that experts might read your content. One of these is that a lot of specialist fields are always developing. There might be new technology, new research, or new laws and best practice to keep on top of. Somebody who is already an expert in their own niche or industry will still need up to date information so they stay on top of industry standards or keep abreast of the competition.

LH: The handbook that we mentioned earlier helpfully splits experts into two camps and this can help you decide how you’re going to write for experts. Firstly, there are General Experts, who the book says “possess extensive knowledge about a field in general, but might be unfamiliar with particular technical terms, specific equipment, or recent advances in your document’s subject matter.” So basically, they’re experts but not in that particular niche.

PW: Yes, it might be someone who’s a general scientist, but someone who doesn’t know details about microbiology, for example.

LH: Yes. And then, there are the “Specific Experts”, who have either “equal or superior knowledge to you on a particular subject”. Now, if your audience includes general experts, the advice is to provide sufficient your readers with a bit of background information – an intelligent overview of your topic – and then to define any technical terms, acronyms and such like that they might be unfamiliar with. When writing just for specific experts, on the other hand (and it’s important to note that ‘just’) you’re as well omitting extensive background details, and you won’t usually need to define key technical terms or acronyms.

PW: No. And the thing about writing for experts is that they can tell when you don’t know what you’re talking about. And just as we said earlier than baby language is inappropriate when writing for beginners, using long, complex words for the sake of it when writing for experts is equally inappropriate.

LH: Absolutely.

PW: And there are times when you might be an expert in something yourself. Lorrie and I both have languages degrees, for instance, so can write pretty well on languages. And there are times when you can learn enough to write well on a subject, but there are also times when you have to admit that a subject is not just out of your comfort zone but really out of your capability.

LH: As we mentioned earlier, you can’t be an expert in more than a few fields. I had this discussion with someone recently – he’s a client with whom I’m quite friendly – and he was saying that writers could maybe price their work on three levels: super easy stuff, medium stuff and really complicated stuff.

I had to tell him, of course, that it doesn’t work like that. Writing for beginners can be just as tough as writing complex stuff for experts.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Plus, as I said to him with no shame, I wouldn’t be able to write something in-depth on finance, tax, law, astrophysics. Sometimes, you can’t learn enough to do a decent job, and it’s your duty as a freelance writer to say that, “I’m sorry, this isn’t within my capabilities.”

PW: Yes, you have an absolute responsibility to do that. A couple of months ago, an agency approached me to ask if I could write about computer viruses, so I replied very honestly to say, “I can write about consumer and business protection against computer viruses. I can’t write about the anatomy of a computer virus, or how to build a computer virus.” As it was, they needed something about consumer protection, so they hired me. But it would have been entirely irresponsible of me to say, “Yeah, sure!” and be allocated an in-depth, 4,000 long-form article about how to build the ultimate, self-replicating computer virus. I’d have done an awful job and while it feels wrong to turn down work, but there are times when you should for both your sake and the client’s sake.

LH: Absolutely. A lot of scientific writers actually have the scientific background.

PW: Yes, a lot of medical writers are qualified doctors or nurses. And it’s one of the reasons why specialising can be good – you can do more expert technical stuff.

So, it’s important when writing a piece of work to consider who your audience is. And one of the things to consider is their degree of expertise. That includes your client’s goals and targets for the writing, as well as your reader’s aims and goals in reading it. Now, writing isn’t all clearly delineated by either “expert” or “beginner writing”, so there are many things that you’ll need to do the same regardless of your reader’s level of expertise.

LH: Absolutely. To start with, both experts and lay people need engaging, well-written content that is easy to read, and as clear as possible. And it harks back to what Pip was just saying about not baby talking or slotting in as many big words as possible. Keep things on a level and target the reader.

PW: And there’s a belief, often, that writing for experts can be dull. But they’re just as human as anyone else. It might not need to jump out of the page, but an expert still doesn’t want to be bored.

LH: Yes. Complex writing will be denser, but it can still be engaging.

PW: Obviously the differences are the technicalities, the approach, the details of how you write. But like Lorrie says, keeping in mind your goals, and your client’s goals and target audience, are the same no matter whether you are writing for academicians or outright beginners.

LH: Yes, no matter who your audience is, you need it to fulfil its aims – whether that’s to inform, persuade, entertain or – as is often the case – a mixture.

PW: So, now it’s time for the Little Bird Told Me Recommendations of the Week, in which Lorrie and I share something we’ve enjoyed and think you might enjoy too. So, Lorrie, what’s your recommendation this week?

LH: I’m being frivolous again this week, so my recommendation is a cute and crafty one – it’s an article from Buzzfeed, which I love…

PW: Oh, we’re all loving Buzzfeed! I saw the CEO talk at the Content Marketing Show and they’re just genius. Even if you don’t like the site, you have to be impressed.

LH: If you don’t like the site, you have no soul. Not that I’m judging. I’m on it EVERY day!

PW: Hahaha! Every fourth link I click is a Buzzfeed link. Their content is amazing and if you want to know how to do catchy headlines, they’re a real help.

LH: So my recommendation is 30 Easy Ways to Organize Your Workspace. Now some of the suggestions are completely daft and seem to be more trouble than they’re worth – there seems to be a lot of stacking of plastic cups and covering things in wallpaper, for example – and I think they’ll only appeal to crafters – but others actually look really handy. Using a dish-rack as a desk-top filing system, for instance, is a fab idea, as is the idea of using tags from your bread to label cables so you can identify them in a tangle.

But, useful or not, one thing that all these little hacks have in common is that they’re intended to make life a little bit easier, a bit more handy and, in many cases, a bit more easy on the eye. And I just think that’s lovely. There doesn’t always have to be a serious point to something – sometimes, we all just need a bit of pretty in our lives.

I was reading an article by Kevin Ashton this week, entitled, Creative People Say No, and he makes an interesting point, which is that if you “Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work” And I agree. While the article is about freeing up your time so you have room to be creative, I really do agree with the point that you shouldn’t lose all the myth and magic from life. If you want to stack cups and put pencils in them, or you want to cover something in wallpaper, do it.

PW: Yeah, absolutely! You don’t want everything just to be functional, do you?

LH: No, completely. What’s the point of being a freelancer if you get no enjoyment from it? Don’t think that, just because you have a business and clients that you can’t be a bit silly and fun. When I logged into the Google Drive file that Pip and I were using to plan this podcast, I noticed that someone, who shall remain nameless, had pasted the lyrics to “High on a hill lives a lonely goatherd” into it. Now, that may or may not have been Pip, and I still have no idea quite why that happened, or what was going through Pip’s mind at the time, but it made me laugh.

PW: That was the whole point. And yes, I don’t quite know what I was thinking either. I had that song in my head and I thought, “I need to share this!” It was the obvious thing to do! Lorrie and I are very silly much of the time. If you heard the out-takes for this recording, you’d be shocked at best. And we also play tricks on one another, sneaking things into the other person’s text, sending each other daft pictures on our phones – and all because things shouldn’t be grey tedium. It doesn’t have any negative impact on our work because we’re totally serious when we need to be. It’s all good.

LH: Yes, it’s really important. Little bits of loveliness everywhere – from your work space to your Google Drive – are part of what make life worth living, I think. It’s why I take singing lessons, it’s why I do creative writing, it’s just – for no other reason – a way to nurture your creativity.

PW: Yes, we did an episode on what to do if you’re out of inspiration and we suggested going out and getting inspired.

LH: Yes, having a laugh, having fun, it’s all perfect.

PW: Brilliant recommendation – I’ll definitely take a look at those life hacks, because making life a bit nicer will help you through the day. Now, my recommendation this week is something I think will apply to 100% of the listeners of this podcast, and anyone with an interest in language and words. It’s a post at the Mental Floss website, which is often very good, and it’s called 12 Old Words That Survived By Getting Fossilised In Idioms. There’s a paragraph on 12 words, explaining the words and what they means, before looking at the single idiom that’s probably the only reason you know them. So, things like roughshod, sleight, dint. I get really sad about lost language and the words we stop using.

LH: There was a sad article I read a couple of years back, about the fact that there’s only one person left in Wales who only speaks Welsh. It’s tragic!

PW: When I lived in France, I used to know a man who was Swedish, had studied French and Spanish in Wales, and studied endangered languages as a hobby!

LH: Aww, I like him!

PW: I know, I did too. So yes, if you want to know more about ‘eke’ as in ‘eking out a living’ or leaving someone in the lurch, go to our show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and the links will be there.

LH: Brilliant recommendation! And so that just about wraps up episode 44! We’re getting old now! Can you imagine when we get to episode 100?

PW: It’s amazing. We both love that people are listening. Our download stats are impressive, so thanks for supporting us. We love the comments, likes, reviews, so do keep it up. Come and say hello, recommend us, send us reviews, embed the podcast in your blog…

LH: And tell your friends!

PW: All of them!

LH: and send us chocolate! So that wraps this up! I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn

PW: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next week.

Podcast Episode 43: Keyword research for SEO writing

It will often be expected of you, as a freelance copywriter, to be able to not only carry out keyword research but also to know how to use it in SEO copywriting. In this episode I talk about the basics of undergoing keyword research, and also provides information about writing for SEO in a way that does not alienate site visitors.

 

 

This episode also contains a first – a custom-made video especially for A Little Bird Told Me listeners. Find out how to carry out keyword research using the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool at http://www.socialmediawriter.co.uk/keywordvideo

 

 

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Audio transcript

Hello, and welcome to episode 43 of ‘A Little Bird Told Me’. The freelance writing podcast, about the high’s the lows and the no-no’s of successful self-employment.

I am Philippa Willitts and I’m here doing a solo episode today, without my usual co-host Lorrie Hartshorn and today we’re going to be talking about how to do key word research when you are doing SEO writing.

First though, a little reminder of how you can find us, we are generally based at www.littlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and from there you will find links to subscribe to the podcast, whether you want to do that on iTunes via RSS or whether you prefer Stitcher smart radio. You can also find links there to our Facebook page, so come over and say “hi” to us there and also links to my and Lorrie’s websites, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn pages, all that kind of thing. So do come over, subscribe so you never miss an episode and say “hi” because we’re friendly, mostly. Also before we get started, I want to mention and thank Susan Johnston from Urban News Writer, who recommended ‘A Little Bird Told Me’ in a blog post about five podcasts for free for freelance writers.

We were so excited and really, really, pleased and were also in some great company along with Grammar Girl, The Accidental Creative and so on, so I will put a link to that blog post in our show notes. But if you’re not already a reader of the Urban News, do head over there. Again, I’ll link to it from the show notes because it’s got some amazing resources, I’m a long time subscriber to that blog and its very, very, good for any kind of writer, I think.

English: Effective keyword competitive analysis

English: Effective keyword competitive analysis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So anyway, as I said today we’re talking about key word research. Now lots of clients will expect you to already know how to do this. You might be asked to do it when you’re preparing some website copy or you might also want to know how to do it so you can improve the success of your own website or your own blog. There’s a lot of confusing information around about key word research and so what I want to do is really just get it down to the basics, what it is, how to do it and how to make a start. If you want to know more from there, there are plenty of resources about the very, very, very, detailed information you can glean, but what I’m doing today is, a general coverage of how it works and how to do it. I’ve also made a video, which I will mention later on that will help you to use a free key word research tool.

Key word research looks at the search terms that people type into Google or Bing or wherever and uses those as a way to boost the popularity of their own website. The general idea behind it is that it helps you to find the exact search terms that other people are using, because if you don’t take into account the wording and the questions that people ask, you’re going to miss out on traffic, basically. It’s a form of market research really, it gives you an idea of how many people want to know about a particular thing and the precise language their using. So if you’re selling/writing for a client who sells clothing, then key word research can show you the precise words, phrases and questions that people are typing into Google, which will help you then to write that website copy in a way that people can relate to.

SEO writing is basically a way of writing, which helps websites to improve their SEO, SEO being search engine optimization. Now there’s a lot of good and a lot of bad in SEO but, from a writer’s point of view, the things you need to know are basically about how and when to use keywords and how and when not to, that’s just as important. There are a lot of myths, you’ve got to use a key word three times per paragraph and you just end up with ridiculous copy then that makes no sense. If you’re looking to buy a blue dress then we sell blue dresses because lots of people like blue dresses and blue dresses are attractive and we sell cheap blue dresses because cheap blue dresses, you know, it’s stupid. If you click on a web page like that, you quickly click back because it looks spammy and its ridiculous, but equally if you want to buy a blue dress and you come across a website that doesn’t mention them at all your likely to skip past it and go to another one.

English: seo block

English: seo block (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So SEO writing when done well and when done correctly, is a way of keeping search engines in mind when you’re writing but still primarily focusing on news ability, focusing on the user experience and actually writing for people because there’s no point writing exclusively for search engines, if you get to the top of the search results but people can’t relate to what you’re saying when they click through. Plus Google recognizes, it’s called key word stuffing, if you use a key word, you know, too many times. Google recognizes that now, so even if in the past it did help to improve your rankings, these days it’s more likely to damage them actually.

So if you read about SEO writing you’ll find lots of contradictory information, some people say that key words have to make up a certain percentage of the overall text and there are tools where you can input your key word and your copy and it will tell you what percentage you’ve used. But really, that kind of thing often overlooks that you are writing for people with search engines in mind, that’s how good SEO writing works and I will keep repeating that all day, because people don’t always get it first time. It can be a good idea to use the key word in your page title. It can be a good idea to use it early on in the copy. It can be a good idea to use it towards the end as well.

But what’s most important is inserting the keywords and key phrases in a way that is natural, in a way that doesn’t sound out of place and in a way that reads well. That key word research is still incredibly important even with all the changes with Google alga rhythms and Panda and Penguin, Penguin 2.0, which has just recently come out. A lot more people have found themselves losing, losing their position in Google because of bad SEO practices. But keyword research remains useful for both SEO and making sure you reach the peak that you want to reach.

When you carry out the key word research you find out a lot about your customers, or your clients’ customers. You might want to know how many people search every month for blue dresses but you might be pleasantly surprised to see that theirs actually a very low competition key word you could also use that could really help you to rank the website highly. The other thing that Keyword research does is it kind of qualifies for visitors in some degree. It goes beyond just numbers of site visitors what keyword research allows you to do is make sure you get the right sort of visitors, which might be visitors who are ready to buy, or visitors who are interested in a very specific niche area. The days of just having a visitor counter on your website and everybody impressed by a high number are long gone really. What matters now is getting the visitors that will be useful or more to the point, getting the visitors that you can help with your business or your clients business.

So, how to go about carrying out keyword research, first thing you need is a bit of common sense. Ask yourself what you would search for if you wanted the information you’re providing. Take out of your head the thoughts of what you have already done, think of yourself as the position of somebody who wants a blue dress, and think “what would I search for if I did?”, it’s a good place to start.

Now bear in mind the importance of what’s called ‘Long tail keywords’, now these are, it’s like a string of words really, a phrase that people search for usually when people search for a very specific thing. Now there are a lot of cases where you might have a keyword in mind but you have no hope of getting to number one in Google for that keyword. If you do a search for that keyword now and find that number one in Amazon, at number two is Tesco, you know it’s possible to beat them to the number one spot but it’s very, very unlikely.

And this is where long tail keywords come in. These are phrases that people use to search for something and the thing about long tail keywords is that they have a lower search volume, which means that not as many people search for them. However they often have low competition, which means that not a lot of other websites are targeting that key word phrase in particular and that you have a higher chance of rising through the search engine positioning’s. So long tail keywords are really useful for instance, you might not be able to rank for the word ‘teapot’ but you might be able to rank ‘small blue teapot with a red lid’ or if you can’t rank for something like ‘cheese’, you might have a chance with ‘best Lancashire local organic cheese’. Looking for the long tail keywords that people are using that people are genuinely searching for, looking for how many people search for that phrase each month, and I will show you how to do that in the video I mentioned using the free Google tool.

You have a much better chance of getting those exact customers who search for that if you do your SEO correctly once you’ve finished your keyword research. Another thing about long tail keywords which is really interesting, is that people who study this kind of thing, have found that long tail keywords are often better converters because they, the people using them are more likely ready to buy. So if somebody searches for, oh I’m sick of the blue dress what else can we be searching for, ‘new laptop’ they are probably researching and wondering if they search for ‘best price for new HP laptop’, which is a long tail keyword they are much closer to buying it suggests at that stage by looking for prices, they know what they want. So that’s another reason that long tail key words are good to be aware of.

Now the tool I’d recommend you start with, with key word research is called the ‘Google Adwords Key Word Research tool’. I will put a link in the show notes to it; it’s a free tool that anybody can use. If you have a Google account you can sign in, but you don’t actually need one you can use it without. Now I have made a video, which shows how to use the Google Adwords tool, in the video you will find out how to conduct a search and what the different results and numbers and figures mean. It can look, when you first open it, a very confusing tool but hopefully the video will show you how to find what you need to know, how to download the Google Adwords key word results to your computer, to a spreadsheet so you can analyse them further if you want to. It’s actually a very good tool, especially given that it’s free, and it’s not perfect and people want a lot more information for which there are much more specific tools, but for basic key word research you do get a good amount of information.

So what you need to do is go over to www.socialmediawriter.co.uk/keywordvideo, all one word, no dash or anything. www.socialmediawriter.co.uk/keywordvideo and that will redirect you directly to the YouTube video that I have uploaded for this episode. So do head over there to find out how to get the best out of the tool and it can really help your SEO writing, whether that’s for your clients’ or your own site.

So I’m assuming now, it may or may not be true, but I working on the assumption that you have paused this, gone over and watched the video and are now back. So you’ve got all this data from the Keyword research tool, you know which terms, which search terms have a high competition so maybe more difficult to rank for. You also know those that have medium or low competition so it may be easier to get to the top of Google for. However those that have low competition may have only twenty searches a month so spending a lot of time and effort to rank for a search term that has low competition but that so few people search for might be waste of your time. Similarly if you find something that 45,000 people search for but it’s got incredibly high competition that may be just as much as a waste of time, or it might not be, it just depends it really depends but often where people start is search terms that Google identifies as having medium or low competition. And which have, now the actual search numbers really vary for niche websites like AdSense websites or that kind of thing, you might just want say, 200 searches a month, or you might want 1,000 or 2,000. If you’ve got a big e-commerce site you might want 10,000 or 15,000. It very much depends on the context, but if you’re unsure and if don’t want to spend tons of your time doing SEO then something with low competition and a decent numbers of searches is probably the best place to start.

Now Google tells you generally whether something low, medium or high competition but you want to do a bit more study than that, and the obvious thing to do is to do Google searches of your own. So, say you choose twenty key words to target or key phrases the next thing to do is too search for each of those in Google, see what people find if they search for it already. If you’re very lucky you will find search results that are vague not that relevant, where you think you can really rocket to the top of the results in no time. Other times you’ll find results that you think I just can’t compete on this, at this stage there are too many good, big, well optimised sites in the first ten results that I wouldn’t be able to get on the first page let alone to number one. So get an idea of what results are coming up with the keywords you’ve chosen. Another thing to look at is the PPC ads, the pay per click search ads that pop-up in the right hand side column of the search results and at the top and the bottom of the search results. If there are lots and lots of search ads this suggests that this is a keyword that lots of people are really trying to target.
So it could feel that the competition is too high in that case or alternately it could mean well this is clearly a very lucrative keyword I really want to get to the top for this one. It also suggests that this is a keyword that converts well and that other people have done their keyword research and that this is a prized one. So again judge it based on the time you want to spend on SEO, judge it on how much you want or your client wants to invest in SEO copywriting, if it’s a lot, if they really, really, really want to dominate the search results for their entire sector then this is, these are the ones to target. If it’s a minor site that just wants to rank for a few small things then ones that are highly competitive are probably ones to avoid.

So as you can see keyword research isn’t 100% cut and dry, it’s not a matter of choosing the keywords that have 4,000 local searches per month with low competition. First of all there are fewer and fewer of those around because so many people do key word research. But also it very much depends on your or your client’s aims and goals for the site. When you have found your keywords and your writing, maybe, articles or blog posts or category pages on e-commerce sites then don’t use the keywords to a ridiculous degree write something that’s worth reading not that’s just good for the search engine robots. Write well, use the keywords there’s no point doing all the research if your then not going to use them at all, try and stick one in the title early on in the copy but really focus a lot more on the people that will be reading it while incorporating the keywords in a sensible, realistic way. If you haven’t yet watched the video head over too www.socialmediawriter.co.uk/keywordvideo and all will become clear.

And now it is time for The Little Bird recommendation of the week. Lorrie and I have talked a lot over the past 42 episodes about people asking writers and other freelancers to work for free. Now my recommendation this week is a stunningly good response form a writer who was asked to work for free. She was invited to contribute some writing for a company called Equal, which makes some kind of artificial sweetener. Now this woman Katherine Devani, found out that the company behind Equal, had a revenue of $232 million last year as so wasn’t too impressed with being asked to write for nothing. So this is how she responded:

‘Hi Ann, great to get your email and when I say great I mean hilarious. Just one question why would I work for a multinational chemical company for free? Do you? How incredibly unprofessional to develop an advertising budget where you do not pay for the content and how rude to ask people to work for nothing. Did you pay the graphic designer, the web developed, the Internet provider? Do you pay for the petrol in your car, the hairdresser?

“This is my job and, joining the debate about the choices women make, here is the choice I make: not to work for multinational companies for free or any businesses. I am a single mom and I pay every single person who works for me. Women are 50% of the population, do 2/3 of the work, earn 10% of the money and own 1% of the property and you have the gall to frame this opportunity to work for free as some kind of feminist jamboree. And while we are on gall, promoting a dieting aid with feminism, excuse me while I throw up in my mouth, sorry what? It’s about health, lifestyle and choices? No its not! It’s about selling to dissatisfaction and self-loathing; I think you’ve picked the wrong girl. You don’t give a rat’s about women and if you did you would not ask them to work for free, you would pay them. How patronising and unprofessional.’

She goes on ‘I will make sure everyone in my network hears about this – exposure don’t pay the rent, I look forward to your response’. Now I loved this when I read that far, but what’s even better, she has published the response she got which reads:

‘Hi Catherine, you’re right and I apologise for offending you and not being fair. I totally agree with your comments below, I do care about women and no one should work for free. I will let my client know that were being patronising and unprofessional. Every person who works on this project has to be paid fairly, I will also contact the other women I have reached out to and apologise. I will let them know they will be paid. It is my mistake for asking I’ll let you know how things progress’.

How incredible is that! Catherine Devani says underneath these texts, that she was tempted to take her post down before; she posted her letter on her blog before she got this incredible response. And so when she got the response she was tempted to take the post down because it had been responded too, so incredibly well, but actually she’s decided to keep it up on her website because she wants to show what she thinks of working for free. But she also wants to show what can happen, if you challenge somebody. And she says she wants to show what an excellent corporate response looks like. She says that in previous years she was offered paid work, and she refused it on the grounds that others were not being paid and the company changed their tune and paid everyone.

So what this goes to show, this blog post, first of all a great examples of a writer responding to a request to work for free for a profit making company. But what it also shows that sending these responses and refusing to work for free and demanding pay can actually change things, so I will put a link in the show notes so you can read the entire thing but I really liked it, not just her email which was very good but also the fact that it had such a positive effect. So big yay to Catherine Devani there, I loved it.

I really hope you have enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to head over to www.littlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and subscribe. Next week it will be Lorrie and I doing a joint episode and you don’t want to miss it. I have been Philippa Willitts and I will see you next time.

Video Transcript

This is a video from The A Little Bird Told Me freelance writing podcast, find us online at www.littlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

So in this video we’re going to look at the basics of how to use the Google Adwords Keyword tool. So we’re going to use the example, of having a keyword of ‘blue teapot’. Now the first thing you want to do is change the match type from ‘broad’ to ‘exact’ and then click search. If you find you don’t have enough results you might want to change back to broad, but exact is better if you can get that to work.

I'm a little teapot...

I’m a little teapot… (Photo credit: Joming Lau)

Now the first results you get will be under this tab called ‘add group ideas (beta)’ and what this does is group together different categories that it spots from the different keywords you’ve offered. So if you’re selling a blue teapot you want to look down and see which of these matched the most, and I’d say ‘tea set’, so click on that and it gives you suggested keywords: ‘tea set’ ‘tea sets’ along with the number of global monthly searches, local monthly searches and whether it’s high, medium or low competition.

So tea sets for sale have a high competition, flowering tea gift set has a higher competition; they all have a higher competition frankly. If you want more detail then head over to the keyword ideas tab instead. Now this gives you lots and lots and lots of keywords to look at. It shows you the phrase ‘blue tea pot’ itself has a high competition with 260 global searches. Now it looks at lots of other options and for each of them tells you whether it’s a high, medium or low competition, how many searches there are, and whether that’s globally or locally. And in this case there are 675 results it’s given you, so there’s plenty of data to work with.

If you want to order them in terms of, the highest searches then click on ‘Global monthly searches’ and it will order them so that the first result has the most. So it’s showing you that ‘Tea pot’ has 27,000. If you click it again then it goes to the opposite, it shows you the lowest and here you have lots and lots of options, fewer than 10 searches a month, which is pretty much a waste of your time really. Similarly, you can scroll through the results and find that it’s gone up to 12 global monthly searches here, so still not much use for you, and so on.

Now if you want to prioritise by the most local monthly searches, again, you just click on local monthly searches at the top of the column, we’re still three pages in there so, we need to go back to the first page for the highest results. And we see here that ‘tea pot’ has 4,400, ‘tea pots’ 3,600 and so on. You can also see that a few there have medium competition, so it may be worth looking at.

You might want to then, start selecting ones that seem relevant to your business or your client’s business. So here were selecting ‘tea gifts’, ‘flowering tea’, ‘tea pots’, ‘glass tea pots’ for instance. And if you click on download, you’ve got the option of downloading either my keyword ideas, which is the ones you’ve just selected or alternatively you can download all of the results you get, choose the format, click download and there you are.

Podcast Episode 42: Project creep: how to cope with clients who want to stretch your good will.

In this episode, Lorrie and I discuss what to do when a client project starts to grow and grow but annoyingly your pay cheque doesn’t. We talk about different situations where this can occur and how to extricate yourself from it, as it can develop into a really tricky situation. We also look at whether prevention is better than a cure, how to cope with clients who want to socialise with you, and where to find 37 free ebooks about journalistic writing.

Show Notes

Let me google that for you

Episode 24: The Art of Getting Paid

Writers: How not to suck at marketing

37 free e-books on journalism

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

Subscribe via RSS

Subscribe via iTunes

Find us on Stitcher Smart Radio

And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!

Transcript

LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 42 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.

Freelancing is tough, and it can be a lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself  working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years on the trot.

To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of linksydinks and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. The whole internet’s there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….

PW: And I am Philippa Willitts and today we are going to talk about what you can do if a project you are working on with a client starts to grow and grow, but annoyingly your pay cheque doesn’t. Clients can sometimes get pushy and expect lots of “little” extras, little revisions, little rewrites and so on, and at some point you have to extricate yourself from the situation.

LH: Absolutely, it tends to be “little” things and “can you just…?”s.

PW: They all add up!

LH: Yep! I read a tweet by another freelancer on this subject quite recently, actually, that said, “I don’t have “difficult” clients, but “dynamic” individuals that feed my children, support my agency and life long learning” And leaving aside the fact that that makes no sense whatsoever, I’m here to tell you that’s not only nauseating, it’s also total rubbish. It’s true! Clients are people like anyone else, and you can get good ones, bad ones and downright ugly clients. What’s more, add money into the mix and the sense of entitlement some clients can have sky-rockets.

PW: This is so true – as soon as they’re paying you for something, some clients think they can expect the world.

LH: Absolutely. It’s by no means all clients – far from it – but don’t be fooled into thinking that there are no difficult clients and that you must be the issue.

PW:  Yes, absolutely. I know Lorrie and I often check things out with one another, like, “Someone’s just sent me this – is this reasonable? Am I being reasonable?” It’s good to have someone outside the situation to talk to.

LH: So if you have someone like that, check things with them and if you don’t, come and chat to me and Pip.

PW: Oh yes – we’ll tell you in no uncertain terms if we think someone’s trying to take advantage of you!

PW: So what we’re going to do today is look at some ways of managing this kind of situation, often known as “project creep”, and – although this might not help if you’re slap bang in the middle of it right now – prevention is better than a cure.

PW: if you can be as clear as possible before you start work about exactly what is and isn’t included – how many revisions, how much consultancy and advice, how often you have to respond to emails, even – and make sure you and the client have signed off an agreed plan, because then you are in a much stronger position to nip it in the bud before it gets really difficult. If you can point to an original agreement and say, “We agreed 15 articles and I’m now on the 17th” – it’s a lot easier to deal with.

LH:  Yes, definitely. It’s by no means a guarantee, unfortunately, that clients won’t be difficult…

PW: Oh no!

LH: And, as you might discover from what we say later on in this podcast, they might well carry on being pains in the proverbial but, as with all things, being clear from the outset is the best option. Explain your working methods as clearly as possible from the word get-go. On longer projects, identify project goals and milestones where each party (that’s you and the client) will check in and contribute.

PW: Yes, if you’ve got a three-month project, say, you might want to put a weekly or fortnightly check-in in place.

LH: Or more – take your lead from the client as long as it’s not excessively.

PW: Absolutely.

LH: If your client knows what to expect – and you deliver the information with confidence – there’s less room for sneaking in extra bits and bobs here and there. If extra work is very clearly extra, you’re more likely to at least be in a position where you can highlight it as such and either veto it or get paid for it.

PW: Yeah, for instance, you might say at the start “I don’t tend to reply to emails at the weekend.”.  And then you’re in a much better position if you check in on a Monday morning to find six frantic emails from Saturday night saying, “Where are you? We need you! This is broken!” and another angry one on Sunday, saying, “Where were you?”

There’s a website called Clients From Hell and while it’s mainly designers, it’s all freelancers who are relating the various outrageous demands from clients. A lot of them are unreasonable expectations of availability. And so that can be one of the points you want to make. I know followers of the four-hour work week and all that…

LH: [sniggers]

PW: Haha, I know! They’ll answer emails perhaps only once a day, which I couldn’t cope with, but it’s what works for you. You have to be reasonable – don’t put so many rules up that you’re actually blocking access that your client needs. But at the same time, if you’re not going to check emails at the weekend, make that clear from the start. If you do one or two revisions for a piece of writing, make it clear so you don’t find yourself on your eighth with no recourse, really.

LH: Yeah, I think it’s also important to have a strict time-billing policy for emailing, phonecalls and meetings, as well. If you know how much time you’re happy to spend communicating and what you want to get paid for it, you’re less likely to resent the little interactions that keep happening. Set up catch-up points in long projects, regular catch-ups in long working relationships where you’re working on various or repeated projects, like blog posts, and then you’ll know what’s extra.

PW: Yes – because all people, and all freelancers, work differently and your clients might have worked with someone who works very differently from you. And similarly, often with repeat clients, you get to know them. Some are talkative, others just send you an email with a list of article titles. You want to pre-empt problems but make sure you’re flexible and responsive. There’s a balance, so make sure that balance isn’t to your cost.

LH: Yes, I think it depends what kind of ‘zone’ you’re in. I think, if you’ve had clients taking the proverbial for a while and you’re feeling a bit used and exploited, you can start to see clients as the enemy.

PW: Yes – you can get very defensive.

LH: And pre-emptively defensive, as well. “Right, well I’m not answering on evenings and weekends, and I’m not doing this, and I’m not doing that.” You need to make decisions like this when you’re in a good place in your own head.

PW: Yes! If someone’s just messed you about, you’ll imagine for a while that everyone’s messing you about. But sometimes, if it’s 7pm and there’s an email you can respond to in 20 seconds, just do it.

LH: Use your judgement. I don’t tend to work evenings and weekends, and I had one client who contacted me at 8am on a Saturday.

John Longanecker talking on a phone after eati...

John Longanecker talking on a phone after eating at Denny’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I didn’t take that call. I wasn’t in a position where I was going to be free – I had to get up and go out – and the client could have left me a message or sent me an email if it was important. The fact is, though, that if I worked in an office, I wouldn’t be available. That said, I had a quiet Friday evening recently, and I had a client get in touch at 4.45pm and say, “Can you do this for me…now?!” and I said yes, of course. I don’t normally work Friday nights, but I had nothing better to do, I valued that client and I had the time free so I did it. It’s good will – credit in the bank, literally and metaphorically – so why not? Use your judgement and don’t see clients as the enemies. You should be on the same team.

PW: Yeah. I often work Sundays and I enjoy it because it’s quite quiet. I find Sundays quite boring generally, I like having time off in the week, so if a client contacted me on Sunday morning, that would be OK. And, like Lorrie says, you sometimes make an exception because it’s a good client, you don’t have anything else to do or they’re offering a very good rush fee – say if they triple your rate.

LH: Yes, it’s amazing how you can find time when someone triples your rate!

PW: Haha, yes! So what we’re advising today isn’t about cancelling out everything we’ve said before about being responsive and flexible.

LH: Yes, it’s not about sticking to your principles so hard that no one can get past your wall!

PW: Yes, exactly. It’s work for you – there’s no point not being messed about when you have no clients at all! So yes, there’s a balance to be struck.

LH: Of course. Of course there is. So as we were saying, it’s best to set out ground-rules before you get started. But sadly, even with the strongest will in the world, it might not always be possible to set formal ground-rules before you start. And, even if you do, there’s no saying your client – or even you – will stick to them. Part of being a freelancer is being responsive and flexible. When a client has an urgent project, for example, or there’s a sudden change of circumstances, you might find yourself taking on more than you initially thought you would. It can seem churlish and awkward to stop everything in its tracks in the middle of a massive crisis at your client’s company and say, “Just to be clear, I’m only doing one amend on this – you’ll have to pay for more for the extras!”.

PW: Yes, absolutely. I know I have long-term clients to whom I was clear at the start that I wanted to be paid in advance, but when you’ve worked with them for 12-18 months, you stop demanding because you develop a level of trust.

LH: It’s give and take isn’t it?

PW: Yes. And also, the thing with client urgency is that it can be difficult sometimes because there are genuinely urgent situations, and others that just seem important to the client in the moment because they’re stressed.

LH: Definitely. I think that’s where the difference between short- and long-term clients comes in. With short-term clients, it’s best to stick to the rules. You don’t know when well enough to know what’s urgent and what’s just them panicking.

And with long-term clients, it isn’t always good to grab for the short-term benefits – say, getting paid for five minutes of amends. I normally offer one round of amends on work before charging extra. However, I’ve been known to chuck in a couple of freebies here and there, very frequently actually, for long-term regular clients, simply because I don’t want to charge them extra for ten or 15 minutes. I prefer to do them the favour of amending a date or a title here and there. I’m not going to charge them my minimum fee, which is normally half an hour.

PW: Goodwill is always important as a freelancer. You do someone a favour, you never know when it’ll get paid back. I critiqued a guy’s website for free, once, and when he needed a freelancer six months later, he came straight to me. That’s not why I did it, but goodwill goes a long way.

LH: Yes, people remember when you do them a favour. As long as you’re in control of the favours, when you give them and what they are, that’s fine. If a client wants a paragraph adding to something, I might not charge for it. If it’s every single time that I’m doing an extra 5-10 minutes, I’ll add an extra 30 minutes on to the end of another piece of work. Because it does add up.

PW: Some clients, rather than a particular project growing in size, find themselves relying on you for anything and everything, and we’re talking beyond things like amends and edits now. This is things that really aren’t in your remit in any respect.

LH: Yes, I think we’ve both had experience of that, haven’t we? It is problematic – you might not think it is if you’re technically able to do what they want, but a needy client can not only take up inbox or answerphone space; they often take up head-space as well. You find yourself getting caught up in their worries, their life in general, and their panic, even if it’s not logical, and you can find yourself dropping everything to respond to their every little query instantly.

PW: Yes, sometimes they’re so stressed, it can be contagious. Something Lorrie and I remind each other quite regularly is that “their urgent isn’t necessarily our urgent”. Being a step away can help you make a clearer judgement. It’s so easy to get drawn into someone else’s panic that sometimes it takes someone on the outside to put things back into perspective!

LH: Absolutely. You have to be a bit hard sometimes. Because you’re a freelancer, and a person not a faceless company, clients can come to expect the human reaction to their every drama. They sometimes expect you to invest emotionally in their dramas in the same way as them. While it’s good to help your clients out and respond to their needs, if your client is constantly panicking, you can’t let that become your problem.

PW: Yeah, the client I’m thinking of – one of mine – was technically and financially a small part of my week, but you wouldn’t have known that from the number of emails. Very nice guy, but we both agreed that it wasn’t working in the end – I felt like a full-time consultant by the end of it.

LH: No, I know the one you mean. I had a similar one – they started asking me about every little thing, CCIng me in on emails, asking me to do all sorts, asking my opinion on everything. It was as thought I’d become their life coach, and it’s nice to have someone think you’re super capable and marvellous, but that’s not my job and I don’t want to do that.

LH: So trying out the clingy client version of controlled crying can be a really good idea! With some needy clients, the more you give, the more they’ll take.

PW: Yes, the more responsive you are, the more they’ll see you as their go-to person.

LH: Yes, and if your client gets used to being instantly advised or reassured by you, they’ll start to expect it as standard. While that might be OK in quiet periods, as soon as your workload picks up, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of panicky emails and messages, with your client feeling as though s/he is getting treated pretty badly.

PW: And we’ve almost trained them into that by being so helpful. And again, we’re not saying be rude or obstructive, but it’s that balance again.

LH: Bear in mind they’re not your responsibility; they’re your client.

PW: Yes. They’re running their business; you’re helping them by writing for them or advising them, but you’re not their managing director.

LH: So, delaying your responses to a clingy client can be uncomfortable at first, particularly if you’re used to dealing with them immediately. As you say, you can train yourself to get caught up in their panic. You can see an email and think, “I must respond now, now, now!”

LH: But it’s better to do it sooner rather than later, as you’re establishing boundaries. Set a time in the morning, say, and another time in the afternoon to deal with your client’s queries all in one go. That’s one way to control how much you contact them and how often they hear from you. Second point is, don’t apologise!

PW: Yes, you’re not doing anything wrong.

LH: Yes. I went through a stressed-out stage fairly recently where I ended up putting an “Out of office” message on every time I was away from my desk. And then I thought, “Hang on, I don’t expect this of other people!”. I don’t take offence if someone’s away from their desk. And if I don’t pick up the phone, someone can email me. And if I don’t read an email, they can phone me. And if I don’t respond for a while, it’s because I’m busy doing something else. And that’s fine. I’d got into the habit of responding to email from an hour before with, “Sorry for the late response.” Because I’d got caught up in panic from other clients.

LH: So delaying your responses, and being confident and unapologetic, to clingy clients is an unspoken way to let your client know that instant responses are not to be expected. So be friendly, offer an explanation if one is requested – “I’ve been out and about today” or “I’ve been busy working on something for another client this morning” should do – and then carry on in a polite and friendly way as usual. If you behave as though there’s no problem – and there isn’t a problem – your client is more likely to take it on board.

PW: Yes, in my experience of this it’s important to not make a big song and dance about this. Just implement longer gaps between responses, and stay calm, positive and reasonable. This can be a strange experience if you’re used to replying to emails as quickly as possible – having unanswered questions that you know you could sort out in two minutes feels just WRONG at first, but it’s important to start putting something of a distance in place.

LH: Definitely, because 20 second here and there is fine but it can start to cut into your lunch-break or interrupt your work for other clients.

LH: Sometimes, sadly, a small amount of distance won’t do the job. A step up from this is to distance yourself from the client for a longer period of time. If your client isn’t getting the message and is, for example, starting to try and contact you on evenings and weekends, you may well feel it’s best to distance yourself from them for longer than a morning or afternoon, just to try and break the habit. A good way to do this is to help your client to help her/himself. As we’ve said, it’s not about leaving your client out in the cold. They might be sad and do puppy-dog eyes if they’re used to relying on you for everything, so help them to help themselves. Bear in mind that you may be limiting your own usefulness to the client in this case, but if they’re particularly clingy, this may be no bad thing. I’ve not seen it happen, but consider yourself warned!

The first thing to do if you find yourself in a similar position is to limit the assistance you give to the client, and to allow them to help themselves. Respond to their inevitably long and panicky communications with short, friendly, informative posts – as I say, not instantly, but in your own time. Include limited information including, where appropriate, links for the client to read up in her/his own time.

PW: Something that can be really helpful in this kind of situation is saying something like “a good place to find answers to questions like this is here.”. There’s a less tactful version of this – a website called “Let me Google that for you!” – it’s very sarcastic and passive aggressive, so I wouldn’t suggest it, but it’s quite fun so I’ll pop it in the show notes for you. But yes, point them gently in the direction of where you can find that information and they might not only start to find their own feet, they might also get the very gentle hint that it’s not your job!

LH: I’ve had clients come straight out and respond with, “I’d rather you did it.” Or “It’d be quicker if you did it.” And I’m like, “Yes, because I spent hours learning how to do it!”

If this is the case, you need to establish whether you want to do the work but get paid for it, or you don’t want to do the work full stop. One thing about freelancing is, because you’re an individual service provider who deals directly with clients, rather than a big faceless company, clients may start to see you as a bit of a go-to option for everything. You need to decide which services you’re willing to offer and how much of an attachment to one client you really want to have.

PW: This is very true. You might work with people who you genuinely don’t mind helping out a bit, or people whose work is so lucrative to you overall that it’s worth going the extra mile for. The key is to be conscious of this and actually make that decision, rather than just meandering into a situation where you find yourself inadvertently being someone’s on-call pa!

LH: I think that’s a really good way to put it – mindfulness in these situations is really important. You may not mind the client or the work, but if the work creeps to such an extent that there’s an expectation that you’ll do anything and everything, that can feel quite uncomfortable – it starts to remove the autonomy that’s a big part of freelancing

PW: yes, definitely. You became a freelance *writer*, that’s because you didn’t particularly want to be a general advisory-good-at-Google-searching person.

LH: Haha, yes! Clingy clients in my experience often do just want you to Google search for them!

PW: It’s incredible. And as a writer, you have to research a lot and you can get incredible Google results. But just because you’re good at it, doesn’t mean you want to do it all the time.

LH: I imagine clients would soon lose patience if you invoiced them on a Friday for all the Google searches.

PW: Or if they sent you a piece of work and you emailed them back and said, “Sure, but could you just Google “How to write a press release” for me.

LH: You’re right – you end up being that person’s PA.

PW: Sometimes the client is just lacking a bit in confidence and, because you are generally a very useful person, they start to over-rely on you. In these cases, being encouraging – actively so – about their skills can work miracles very quickly.

Something we’ve talked about before is looking at whether you should friend your client on Facebook, and both of us were unequivocal in saying no.  So we’re going to talk about what to do if a client is blurring the lines between business and friendship.

LH: It can be a whole can of worms. A worm factory, in fact. Don’t get me wrong, it’s genuinely lovely to have a friendly working relationship with your clients but it’s your responsibility to ensure that you and your clients don’t cross any boundaries. And it’s not just for the sake of it that I say this: experience tells me that clients who try to blur the lines between business and friendship will often try to blur the lines between work and “a favour”, as they’ll call it.

PW: Yes.

LH: Poor Pip! That was such a knowing “YES!”

LH: Now, the problem with this kind of situation is that, while none of us mind doing the odd favour for our loyal clients, odd favours have a habit of creeping when your client tries to blur the lines. And when the situation with favours creeps out of your control, it becomes a problem.

PW: Yes. It’s like in any aspect of life, there’s always that guy who’s a bit pushy, or that woman who gets into your personal space; this is just the business extension of that. If your boundaries aren’t clear, and haven’t been clear from the start, perhaps, then that kind of person in particular – someone who isn’t the best at reading subtexts – that can be when it starts to spiral. You can feel a bit trapped, as though it’s gone beyond an easy fix, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fixable.

LH: Yes, let’s be kind to them: they might not even realise they’re doing it.

PW: I like to think very few people actively seek to exploit your goodwill but some people do it. They may just be incredibly busy and just think, “Oh, Lorrie will do that”. It’s not automatically someone trying to take advantage.

LH: Yes, with my friendly clients, I’ll ask how their wife’s doing, or how the kids are doing, or how the house move is going. But it’s superficial chat, and it’s chat that tops and tails work-related discussion.

PW: A client of mine recently had a baby and I sent her a congratulations card. I’d heard a lot about her pregnancy, and it seemed appropriate.

LH: That’s nice. If you’d have turned up at her house with a bunch of flowers, that wouldn’t have been ok.

PW: Likewise, if she’d asked me to babysit, that also wouldn’t have been OK! Haha!

LH: Yeah, a closed communication like a Best Wishes card is perfect. And like we say about superficial comments, it’s nice to show some interest in your client as a person.

PW: Definitely – they generally appreciate the personal touch.

LH: And a client might genuinely really enjoy chatting with you, and I have clients who are so lovely, I sometimes wish I’d met them elsewhere. But – and this is where the but comes in – when they start calling you every other day to “get your opinion” on something or “just ask you a quick question”, it can really start to cut into your time.

LH: This can also be the case for clients who you’ve got to know through family, friends or other clients. You’d be surprised at what little excuse some people need in order to expect special treatment or “Mates’ rates” and it can leave you feeling really awkward and unsure of what to do.

Wedding dress of Grace Kelly

Wedding dress of Grace Kelly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW: Yeah, I’ve done work for various friends. One of my friends was setting up a dress-making business and I wrote her website for her, so mates’ rates applied. I’m not dead keen on that kind of work – it’s not the fees that bother me, because if that were the case, I wouldn’t have done it – but it’s that the lines can get more blurred. If your friend calls you in the evening, you don’t know if it’s work or chat about her boyfriend troubles. So I do work for friends if they ask and it fits, but it’s not something I seek out, really because it can be so tricky to navigate.

LH: In terms of friends, friends-of-friends and people like that, how you want to deal with a client like this depends on how well you know them, how far over the line between business and friendship you’ve got, and how much you value your relationship with them.

PW: Yes, because you do want referrals on the one hand – it’s the best way to get new business, because someone’s directly recommended you, and that’s brilliant. But if someone goes, “Well, I’m your mate and he’s my mate…” My barriers go right up, then.

LH: “I told him you’d cut him a deal!”

PW “Where did you get that idea?!”

LH: Yes! “You told him wrong!” So you have to really think about how much you really value the relationship because, as you can probably tell, listeners, it can be tricky to weasel your way out of this one.

As always, it’s best not to get yourself into these situations in the first place. But, as ever, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to find yourself in a situation that’s more than a little uncomfortable when you’re trying to be a friendly freelancer, especially when you start out as well.

PW: I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the advice we give is based on experience rather than on having taken the best action in the first place…

LH: God, we wouldn’t have a podcast, otherwise!

PW: Haha, yes! So don’t go thinking “those two handle it all brilliantly”. Mostly, we know how to handle it because we’ve done it wrong before.

LH: Yes, and the experience I’m going to share will clearly illustrate that. While I don’t have personal experience of a client blurring the lines between friendship and business, that’s only because, unfortunately, I’ve had my fingers burnt early on by friends who’ve effectively become clients. Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends – I hesitate to call them friends now – and friendly acquaintances, people I used to work with, say, and they’ve asked me to do a piece of work for them – be it some copywriting or a translation – on the understanding that they’ll pay me for my time. Now mates’ rates or not mates’ rates, the expectation has been that it’s work. Now invariable – and I mean literally invariably – once the work is done, all mention of money is forgotten, and it’s never mentioned again.

PW: My friend whose website I wrote – the dress-maker – needed website. She had a friend who was a web designer and they came to an agreement. He was getting married, so she agreed to make his wife’s wedding dress if he would design and build her website.

LH: I think he comes off better in that deal.

PW: Especially as she made his wife’s wedding dress and he never designed her website.

LH: [Gasps]

PW: And he was full of good intentions, kept saying he was sorry and still would…

LH: That’s so disgraceful.

PW:…he was just really busy. But this was a wedding dress. She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t make the dress of this women’s dreams. And yet the web designer did nothing. And he didn’t go into it to trick her, I’m sure of that – and she’s sure of that – but she became really low down on his list of priorities.

LH: That’s a shame isn’t it? Because if that was a paying client…which it was, actually, just because you pay with a wedding dress…

PW: Exactly. Her wedding dresses take weeks to make, and she’s very specialised in what she does – she’s very sought after. And that’s the kind of situation where it seems like a good idea, because she was a bit skint and couldn’t afford a web designer from start to finish.

LH: Likewise, I don’t know if the people I dealt with went into it to trick me – I don’t know whether they had any intention of paying or whether they thought it was just a platitude to trot out, “Oh yah, yah, I’ll pay you.” because people have funny ideas about freelancing – they don’t really see it as proper work.

PW: And especially writing – they think, “Well, I can write.”

LH: But it’s really weird. Because as I say, when the work was done, it was like, “Oh thanks very much…” then silence. And in some cases, towards the end, when it was getting towards invoicing time, I was treated to a side-eyed spiel about how tight money is at the moment, and “God, I’m so broke at the moment…” and…

PW: “In a couple of weeks, it’ll be fine!”

LH: Not even that! Just sad puppy-dog eyes, “I’m really broke at the moment…my husband’s not got much work on at the moment…I don’t know where I’m going to find the money from…thanks for doing this for me…I’m really grateful…”

And in other cases, the so-called friend I’ve done the work for has literally dropped off the radar once the work is complete. I’ve got one person I’ve never heard from again.

PW: And that’s horrible. On the one hand, you’re going, “I spent ten hours on that and it’d be worth X amount of money” but on the other hand, you’re going, “I thought this person liked me!”

LH: Yeah, I sat next to that person for 18 months – we worked together for a year and a half. Heard from them never again.

PW: And for the sake of a friendship, if I were on the other side, I’d think, “I can either give her £300 or I can lose a friendship.” And you’ve got to wonder.

LH: Yeah, in my case, I decided not to pursue the matter of money. It was too horrible and I felt stupid, and I think that’s what they were relying on: the embarrassment.

PW: Yes, we don’t like to push it, especially about money, especially if you’re British.

LH: Yes, we don’t like to push it and beg for money. But the invoices in my case varied from about £50 to about £300. And while that’s not a big thing anymore in terms of money, it absolutely has soured both my relationships with the people involved and taught me never to work for friends unless they understand entirely that this is my job. Even then, I’d be loath to work for someone who wasn’t another freelancer, to be honest. I’d happily work for you, Pip, and we’ve done that. We invoice one another professionally and the invoices are paid immediately.

PW: Same as we would with any client or contractor, because that’s the appropriate thing to do.

LH: And I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. It’s a pet hate, honestly. And as we’ve said, this podcast is based on our experiences. And I’ve been taken for a mug on several occasions. So now, there have been times when other friends have asked me to do some work for them, I’ve said no. I’m sure I might come across as a bit harsh to them at the time, but the fact is, I don’t want to lose respect for any more people I know! My advice would be never mix business and pleasure unless you’re more than happy to work for free.

PW: And earlier, we mentioned the fact that if you do get stung, you can get a bit defensive. That happened to me the other week, when a regular client got in touch wanting some extra work. Now I emailed Lorrie immediately and said, “Ugh, can’t believe it, look what this client is asking! So unreasonable!” and Lorrie quite rightly pointed out that he wasn’t pushing it, he was actually just asking. But I was so snowed under that it felt like a cheek. So yes, you can get overly sensitive, and it’s good to check it out with someone else. So yeah, you can find yourself a bit militant.

LH: Yes, you have to remember that, just because you’ve had your fingers burnt, doesn’t mean you should start to stick to your guns at the expense of other things.

LH: So yes, if your client is starting to blur the lines a little bit, my advice would be to pull back. It can sometimes be a shame – you might wish you knew them in other circumstances – but the fact is that sooner or later, mixing business and friendship gets messy. Don’t add clients on personal social media accounts, as we said in our last dual episode. Make sure that dinner or drinks with your client are professional – don’t get drunk or overshare information about your personal life: the terrible partner you had.

PW: Keep TMI for your actual friends. I’m a big fan of TMI, but not at work. And this isn’t to say you can’t have semi-formal semi-social business meetings. I went to the Content Marketing Show in London last week, and I emailed my regular London clients to see if they wanted to meet up for a drink.

LH: And I’d do the same thing.

PW: Yeah. And that’s fine – it’s when it goes beyond that.

LH: Think carefully, really, is what we’re trying to say. You don’t have to be specific about the fact that you’re pulling back. Maybe take longer to respond to emails and phone calls. Be a bit less available. Be busy next time an informal lunch comes up. Generally, there are ways to reset the boundaries without having to have The Chat although, of course, it’s not always that simple.

PW: Yeah, sometimes The Chat has to happen, and you have to uncompromisingly outline your boundaries. Other times, it needs to be more than that, though. It needs to be The Final Chat.

LH: Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you clingy client just won’t get the message and take the hint. Maybe they’re deliberately trying to squeeze as much work from you as possible, maybe they’re just over-reliant on your skills that they’re terrified to do anything without you, despite your encouragement and distancing techniques. Maybe they just think you’re brilliant and they don’t want to spend a minute without you.

PW: Yes, and you mustn’t let yourself get taken for a mug. Most clients are genuinely respectful and great, but there will always be the odd one who sets out deliberately to take advantage and get as much from you as they can. Or who’ll be so thoughtless and unable to see your point that you can’t rescue the situation.

LH: Yes, as you say, it might not be malicious, but it comes to the point where their convenience is more important to them than your convenience. In my experience, this final straw moment can be a real turning point for finding out which kind of person you’re dealing with – the evil client or the really clueless client. I’ve had clients who’ve stomped off in a huff when I tell them, “No, sorry, we’re not going to be working like this.” and I’ve had others who’ve respected me for it and stopped trying to push the boundaries (at least, as often!).

PW: I had a massive turn-around, as Lorrie knows, where I was treated badly repeatedly, then I was firm, firm, and firmer – as firm as I could be. And finally, when I was ready to end it entirely…I’ve never seen a U-turn like it. They can’t do enough to keep me happy. So you can be surprised sometimes.

LH: I’ve had a similar experience recently with a client who went off in a huff. As I advised with my episode of Professional Courtesy, I ignored the rudeness. A couple of months later, they’re back with an apology. And I feel vindicate – quite right that they should apologise; they were very rude.

PW: taking decisive action at this stage is vital, but can be hard. It’s safe to say that both lorrie and I have found ourselves – recently – having to be very firm with a client and, complex and scary as it was, we both felt a million times better once we’d done it.

LH: 100% – you start to feel a bit daft about letting it bother you so much – I get it from friends or my husband.

PW: Yes, it’s easier for someone outside the situation to see it more clearly.

LH: Yes, you often only realise once the clingy client is gone what an unhealthy relationship it had become; once your head is free from their clinginess and whininess. In the event that you dump a long-term or repeat client, it might be as simple as explaining that the situation isn’t working for you anymore and going your separate ways once all work is complete for them. Alternatively, tell the client you don’t have the time to give them the support they need; I’ve advised previous clingy clients to invest in a virtual assistant rather than a copywriter. You might have to be pretty insistent if the client has got pretty reliant on you, and maybe expect some huffy emails or phonecalls!

LH: In the case of a one-off project, it’s really important to have put an agreement in place to protect both you and the client in the event of issues like these.

PW: Yes, you don’t have to make a big song and dance about it, either – just pop the agreement in with your email and it’s generally fine.

LH: Yes, I send agreements after clients have decided that they’re happy with my proposal. If you don’t panic, clients don’t panic.

PW: Yes, and I always make sure to include terms that protect my clients. There are ways to do this without it being a massively awkward encounter.

LH: You may find yourself having to refund a deposit to the client, for example, or having to refund part of the price.  If you’ve got it down in writing who gets what and under what circumstances so that there’s no room for argument if the relationship ends or turns sour.

PW: this might sound like arguing over who gets the sofa during a divorce but if things are already difficult, you don’t want to make it any more complicated or open to misinterpretation than it needs to be.

LH: Yes, if you try and negotiate with someone who’s cross, you’ll get nothing.

PW: And you’ll be angry, they’ll be angry and the whole thing will leave you both with a bad taste in your mouth.

LH: So, hope that’s been a really helpful introduction to coping with Project Creep. Sorry if you thought we were going to be talking about creepy clients…

PW: That’s a whoooole other episode!

LH: That is a whole other episode! So yes, if you need any advice on dealing with clingy clients or project creep, come and have a chat to us. Google “A Little Bird Told Me freelance writing podcast” and all our links are there.

PW: So now it’s time for the legendary – no less! – A Little Bird Told Me Recommendations of the week. So Lorrie, what’s your recommendation?

LH: I’ve done it again – I’ve gone and found a recommendation that’s really old. My recommendation this week is a blog post from 2007 from Freelance Folder, entitled, Writers: How Not To Suck At Marketing. Now, I’m not naming any names this week, but it’s been a baaaaad week for marketing in my little circle. I’ve seen marketing faux pas after marketing faux pas and it seems like no one is taking our advice!

PW: Some people still suck at marketing, Lorrie!

LH: They do! They suck! If you’re listening to this, maybe you suck too! But we’re not giving up on you. So, number one in this article is, Treat It Like A Real Business. An example given by the author is that he received an application from someone with the email address “PrettyMissy456@aol.com”

PW: Hahaha!

LH: Now it says, “Would you hire an account or lawyer with an email address like this?” And it’s true you wouldn’t. But yeah, there are some really good tips. Tip number two is “Get a real website”, tip number three is “But act like a real person.” Tip four is “Spend some money”. And at first I was like, “Hmmm…” about that, but there are some really good points in there about the outlays that you really do need to make to set up as a freelancer. It’s why we suggest having some money behind you when you set up.

PW: Yeah, and it might only be small things like web hosting and getting a URL – those are the kinds of things I wouldn’t recommend compromising on. Don’t use a free blog to promote yourself as a professional. Even if you don’t want to go and put an ad in a magazine, there are some outlays that people go to ridiculous lengths to avoid. You can avoid them but sometimes the compromise you make…like, having a proper website with its own URL will probably make you more money than you spend, whereas if you go for a free one, you might well lose money.

LH: Yes, I mean, I like what the author’s written: “Is it your basic human right to be paid for doing what you love without spending a dime of your own cash? No.” He’s all for boot-strapping, but yes, it’s a good point: the world doesn’t owe you a living; some things cost money.

LH: Tip number five, the final one, is “Figure out what you’re good at and tell people about it.” And it’s just about promoting yourself properly and realistically, talking about any specialities you have. And what really swung it for me was the bonus tip, which is “For God’s sake, proof-read!”

PW: Hahaha!

LH: And it says, “I really wish I didn’t have to say this, but I clearly do. We got 68 applications for our most recent job posting and 51 of those had major errors. I’m not talking about using a semi-colon when I would’ve preferred a dash, I’m talking about starting an email with ‘Hello, my Lisa!’. And always check your attachments because you never know what you’re sending!”

PW: I always, always quadruple check my attachments.

LH: Me too. I’m laughing just thinking now about a specific example that’s famous on the ‘net. A girl applied for a job and said, “Please find attached my CV”, and instead of her CV, she attached a picture of Nicholas Cage!

PW: Hahahahaha! I once got an email related to a website I do the social media for. And someone had contacted me to ask if I’d promote this particular event they were doing. So she emailed me and said, “Here’s the link”. And then pasted a recipe and emailed it to me!

LH: Hahaha!

PW: So I replied with, “Um…did you mean to send me a recipe?” And she was mortified, and it was easily fixed, but yes, you do have to be careful.

LH: Aww. So Philippa, can you trump that recommendation?

PW: Well, rather than seeing it as a competition, I’d like to see it as compl-e-menting…

LH: Hahaha!

PW: I was trying to get across that it was compl-e-menting!

LH: I wondered why you suddenly went “Compleeeeementing!” Is it a compeeeetition?!

PW: Yes, I realised it sounded ridiculous! Hahaha! So, my recommendation this week is a post from the Online Journalism Blog and it’s 37 Free E-books on Journalism. It looks great and even if you don’t specifically do journalism, any kind of writer could find something relevant here. So, there’s one by Adam Westbrook called, “Ideas on digital story-telling and publishing” for example. So again, could be good for writers, editors, all sorts of people.

PW: The post is divided into segments: computer-assisted reporting, community management, staying savvy in the information war – because there’s so much information around that we need to know how to get it right – and there’s also an investigative journalism section that looks brilliant. There’s an investigative journalism manual from an African perspective, which is really interesting – we in the West might often overlook that. There’s a security guide for people who work in dangerous environments or have sources who need to be protected. So even if you’re not a journalist, learning about whether or not to download books illegally…this is all stuff that applies to many kinds of writers.

LH: Definitely. It’s widely applicable.

PW: The post is originally from January last year and the author is also updating it, so it’s a good one to keep an eye on.

LH: Brilliant. We were just bemoaning, like grumpy old freelance ladies, that it can sometimes feel like writing standards are dropping a bit. So yes, anything that will encourage people to good quality writing standards can only be a good thing.

PW: Definitely – to report more responsibly and legally, too. And more people like me and doing journalism without the formal training. So it looks great. And once you’ve absorbed this information, it’ll improve your work from then on.

LH: Brilliant recommendation!

PW: Thank you very much! So we really hope some of what we’ve said today will prove useful to you. Even if you’re in a brilliant position now, bear it in mind when working with people long term, and when taking on new business.

LH: Definitely – because starting off on the right foot is always easier than getting out of a pickle! So that brings us to the end of A Little Bird Told Me 42!

PW: Impressive numbers we’re at now!

LH: Hugely impressive! If there’s anything you’d like us to talk about, let us know. All our links are at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW:…and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next time.

Podcast Episode 41: The Importance of Professional Courtesy

We all grew up being told that manners cost nothing, and it’s never more true than when you are running your own freelance writing business. Treating your clients and fellow freelancers with courtesy is a must, and it is not unreasonable to expect the same in return. In this solo episode Lorrie talks about the importance of professional courtesy for freelancers and gives some handy hints and tips about achieving it, even in trying situations!

Show Notes

How to format an e-book. http://freelanceswitch.com/freelance-writing/format-an-ebook-for-kindle/

The sad smell of desperation: http://lorriehartshorn.com/episode-nine-of-a-little-bird-told-me-the-sad-smell-of-desperation/

Turning one-off clients into repeat business: http://www.philippawrites.co.uk/podcast-episode-39-how-to-turn-one-off-clients-into-repeat-business/

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Transcript

LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 41 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and there you can subscribe to the podcast via RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just there on the Podomatic page itself.  It’s worth clicking the subscribe button, it really is because you’ll get a notification as soon as our new episodes are out.

On the Podomatic page itself you’ll also find the links to our Facebook page where you can come and chat to me and Pip and ask us any questions you might have and give feedback on the episodes you’ve listened to so far, and you’ll also find links to our websites and our social media feeds, as well as to other episodes, transcripts and show notes, many of which are actually handy links to resources for freelancers.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and this week, I’m here without my usual co-host Pip, who has been off down South, gallivanting at this year’s Content Marketing Show in London. She’ll be back next week as usual, though, so stay tuned for what will hopefully be another really helpful solo episode.

English: Table Manners

English: Table Manners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This episode is all about professional courtesy. When you’re your own business, and you’re all that stands between you and oodles of work – or bankruptcy for that matter – it’s important that you keep your standards up and your interactions courteous. So here I am with a few dos and don’ts about dealing with people courteously. And, because in my world, the client isn’t always right, I’ll also be talking about what I think is acceptable – and unacceptable – behaviour on the part of your clients.

Whenever I chat to clients and other freelancers, one thing that most people can agree on is that they think professional courtesy is an important part of a working relationship. And yet, everyone I speak to has some kind of horror story they can tell about discourteous clients, churlish designers and grumpy, off-hand writers. The only thing I can really conclude is that most people think manners are really important but not everyone agrees on what constitutes polite and what doesn’t.

For that reason, I’ll be sharing my own opinions and those of other people I’ve chatted to. If you get to the end of this episode and find there’s something you think should have been included – either as a hallmark of manners or the height of rudeness, please do come and let me know on our Facebook page or on my social media feeds – the links to all those are at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

So first off, why is professional courtesy so important for freelancers? When you start out as a freelancer, it can be easy to get carried away and think “Haha! Now I answer to no one!”. There’s no gruff manager breathing down your neck, you don’t have to suck up to that evil woman in accounts who wields your payslip with an iron fist, and you’re not representing another company. Plus, you can’t get fired.

But, since I began freelancing, I’ve realised that it’s more important than ever to be really polite and show professional courtesy on a consistent basis. In person, over the phone, by email – you’re the sole representative of your own business, so first, second, third and 100th impressions count for a lot.

When clients work with freelancers, the relationship can actually become quite intimate. They’re dealing with one person for the work itself, the business relationship, the invoicing, the admin, and they need to find you approachable in all of those roles. To my clients, I’m a marketer, a writer, an editor, an advisor, someone to chat to when they don’t know what to do with a piece of work or a press release or a marketing campaign, someone to laugh with when a frantic last-minute project lands in their lap and they can’t handle it, and someone to talk seriously with when it’s all gone to pot and they need a hand fixing it. I have to be respectful, approachable, available, appropriate and courteous through it all.

Likewise, if you’re a client – and lots of us freelancers are clients as well as service providers – it’s important to treat your freelancer with respect and manners. I for one know that a rude, disrespectful client is almost never worth the hassle, and while I’ll never be rude in return, I might well not be available next time some work is needed!

A rude client really can be the bane of a freelancer’s life, even if they’re not relying on the income from that person. From personal experience – my own and other freelancers I know – rude clients can make you question yourself. They can ruin an otherwise really nice day or week, cause sleepless nights and wear away at a freelancer’s self-confidence, self-assurance and general enjoyment of their career. You don’t want to be the person whose thoughtlessness or actual discourtesy contributes to someone having a really rubbish time of it, so listen up.

These are my top six rules for professional courtesy – a lot of these apply to both freelancers and clients.

1) Do what you say you’re going to do. From the moment you get in touch with your client or freelancer, it’s important to do what you say you’re going to do. If you meet someone at a networking event and say you’ll drop them a line when you get back, do it. If someone’s expecting a phone-call or an email from you, make sure they get it – or let them know if you’re not going to be able to keep your word. If work’s due in on Monday, get it in on Monday. If you quote a client £200 for a project, charge them £200.

There are times, particularly with quotes and deadlines, where you face a choice between being inconvenienced and inconveniencing your client or service provider. In my books, it’s better to take one for the team if you’ve under-quoted or given a tough deadline. You might lose out on a bit of money or sleep, but it’s better than putting your mistake on the other person for the sake of an easy life.

2) Communicate. In the case of things not panning out how they’re supposed to, as well as other situations, I never usually mind so much as long as I know what’s going on. The same thing goes for clients. If, for some unavoidable reason, you’re not going to be able to stick with number one and do what you say you were going to do, let them know as soon as possible. Don’t give them rubbish excuses, or your life story, and acknowledge the inconvenience you might be causing them rather than taking a “like it or lump it” approach. Most importantly, don’t let them down more than you absolutely have to.

Likewise, even if there’s nothing wrong, make sure you check in often enough with your clients. This can be a difficult one to master – when I started out, I was wary of getting in touch with clients too often – besides which, it just wasn’t my preferred MO: with a predominantly academic background, I was used to burying myself in books and dictionaries and emerging only when I’d done a project. But clients like to hear how you’re getting on. Sure, they don’t want a minute by minute update, but if you’re working on a project that runs over more than two days, it’s best to check in with them and let them know that everything’s running smoothly. I’ll admit, this is still something I slip up with occasionally – I get so focused on my work that I find myself forgetting to drop a quick “Everything’s coming on fine!” message to clients sometimes, but they do worry, so it’s something I try really hard not to fall down on.

3) Don’t be clingy. This is one a friend suggested, actually. Although he works for himself, my friend – and fellow freelancer –  doesn’t really have clients that he deals with directly. What he does have, though, is a wide range of freelancers who work for him on a regular basis. And one thing that really gets up his nose is people harassing him for work. As Pip mentioned in her last solo episode, which was about how to turn one-off clients into repeat business, it’s great to check in with clients and see if there’s anything you can do to help them – any more work they might need doing, any advice they might need and any chance of repeat business in future. What it’s not good to do, though, is bug clients for extra work when you’re having a quiet period. As I’ve mentioned before, desperation is never attractive, and it’s not good to be interrupting your client to beg extra work from them. Likewise, if you’re a client and you have a regular arrangement with a freelancer, it’s fine to get in touch with them to see if they have any extra capacity to help you out, but don’t guilt-trip or penalise someone if they just don’t have time to help you. I’ve had this before and it’s really awkward when clients take it personally that you have other clients and commitments. If your freelancer is consistently not available as much as you need them to be, that’s one thing. But if you contact them on a Friday afternoon needing something by Monday morning and find that the answer is “Really sorry but that’s not do-able”, don’t take it out on the other person.

4) Ignoring someone is rude. This has to be personal pet peeve. Although it’s similar to tip two, which was of course to communicate with people, I felt this one deserved its own category, simply because of the number of people – both freelancers and people who hire freelancers – who go, “YES!” when you mention it. Not to mention (and of course I will – you know I will!) my own experience.

Many is the time, sadly, where I’ve had my emails and phonecalls ignored by clients. Whether it’s repeated requests for clarification on work they want doing, invoices that need paying or work that’s been completed, emails and phonecalls are commonly ignored by people for whom politeness is not high up on the list. What’s more, it always seems to be the most demanding clients – the ones who want to pay the least and give the shortest deadlines – who suddenly ignore you when they’ve got what they want. Now, forgetting to answer someone’s email is easy. I have lovely clients who are scatterbrained, and that’s different – I expect it from them and I’ll usually get an email or phone call a while later saying, “OMG, I’m so sorry”. And I do the same – say if a client tries to call me while I’m out and about for the afternoon, or emails me while I’m busy with something else, I do have to put off responding to the query, but I answer it eventually! What is really not acceptable is people for whom radio silence is a standard response.

Manners Count

Manners Count (Photo credit: jessamyn)

If someone’s sent you a query, answer it. If someone wants to know where they’re up to with you, let them know. If someone invoices you, pay them or let them know when you’ll be paying them. If someone pays you, email them to say thank you. A two-line email only takes a few seconds, but it pays dividends to acknowledge people. A recent client of mine – a one-off client – took to ignoring me once I’d completed the work they wanted from me. I asked for feedback on the final piece of work in the project and got nothing. I asked if the project was complete as agreed: got nothing. I waited a few days, sent the invoice and got nothing. I was fully expecting them to pay me late as well. As it was, they didn’t, but given that they’d ignored three emails from me, I was left really underwhelmed and frankly unimpressed. When you can see someone merrily tweeting away and updating their LinkedIn, all the while ignoring you after you’ve put some real effort into working for them, it’s a kick in the teeth. I wouldn’t work for that person again – although I’ve obviously got no idea whether they’d want me to!

5) Don’t run rough-shod over your client or freelancer’s feelings. As a freelance writer, you’re being hired because you’re good at writing and everything that entails. No big newsflash there. You’re supposed to be good at what you do, and have confidence in what you do. Confidence, when well-placed, can be a reassuring thing to demonstrate to a client. What it’s important to avoid doing, though, is being arrogant and high-handed with a client.

As a freelance writer, I am often surprised at how many people struggle with what I would consider quite basic literacy. Grammar, spelling, punctuation – all of these things can prove a struggle for even the most successful business people and executives. Unsurprisingly, then, more complex aspects of commercial writing and editing – anything from SEO copywriting to narrative voice in literary editing, can be a minefield. Every freelance writer I know has experience of being questioned by a client. Whether it’s “Are you sure those commas should be there? They look funny…” or “I think that should be a semi-colon. Why? Um…” or “This email subject line needs to be something like, “WE CAN SAVE YOU MILLIONS TODAY!” because everyone loves money…” everyone’s had a client who thinks they know best.

Other times, you might have an endearingly helpful client, who’s full of great ideas and wants you to love them. I find a lot of this with literary editing clients – creative writing is a hugely personal thing, so characters or scenes will often be based on an idea or experience that the author holds dear, so the idea of chopping or changing anything can hit really hard.

Alternatively, you might be a client – say, you’re a writer who’s hired a designer for a project. Your designer comes back with work that you hate. In all of these cases, it’s important to be courteous.

Firstly, avoid arrogance. Avoid the temptation to pull rank and wax on about what an expert you are. “Trust me, I’m an expert” is obnoxious, and absolutely not the same thing as reassuring someone that you’ve done your research and have lots of experience in A, B or C “so try not to worry”. It can be really frustrating to explain yourself to a client who might know absolutely nothing about writing, and who might be being aggressive or defensive or clingy, but slapping someone down with a “Please, you know nothing!” is never going to be appropriate. It takes more effort to send someone a rant by email than it does to send them a quick email saying, “Have checked the commas” or whatever it is, “and it’s all fine.”

In the event of a well-meaning but perhaps a bit inept client, be careful with their person’s feelings. If someone’s come up with a really bad idea, it’s your professional duty to voice your concerns, but it’s never OK to ridicule someone, talk them down, ignore them or go ahead and do something they haven’t OKed simply because you know – or think you know – it’ll be better.

At the end of the day, the client often has the final say. What they want might be plain wrong or it might just really not be to your taste, but if they’re insistent on having it, there’s not much you can do. Sometimes all you can do is voice your concerns, say, “Personally, I would advise against that because A, B and C” and let them make the final decision. If you need to be clear that you don’t want your name going on that piece of work, then so be it, but try to be sensitive about it. Same goes for hiring people. I’ve ended up cutting short projects with designers simply because I’ve felt that the work is so bad or unsuitable that it’s unusable. What I don’t do is insult people, start blanking them, or bad-mouth them.

6) My sixth and final tip is one that I always hope is obvious but that never seems to be and that’s Don’t get into flame wars! If you get an angry phone-call, email, website, social media or blog comment, don’t respond in kind. Stay professional, no matter how wrong the client might be and try and take the discussion private if it isn’t already. If you can talk the other person round, so much the better. If you’ve done something wrong, apologise, outline how you’ll resolve the situation and try to move forward. If you haven’t done anything wrong, explain yourself politely but firmly and take your lead from the other party. If they’re being abusive, you’re well within your rights to step away from the conversation. I’ve had to do it once or twice and I’ve never regretted it – being polite doesn’t mean being a pushover. But, no matter what they say or do, and no matter where they say or do it, don’t be rude or abusive. If you handle a situation with dignity and class, you’ll not only be remembered by anyone who’s privvy to the situation as a professional, you’ll be minimising stress for your own self by being safe in the knowledge that you did nothing to make the situation any worse than it already was.

So I hope you’ve found these tips a helpful reminder of the different kinds of courtesy you can show to your clients and suppliers. As someone said to me on Twitter the other day, “Manners at work, as in life, are vital. They grease the wheels and make everyone feel better about themselves.” And it’s true. You don’t technically need to be polite to anyone. Sure, clients might not come back if you’re rude to them (some might!) but you can always find more, even if it is less energy efficient. But being courteous to people is about more than just fulfilling a necessary duty. It’s about being the best kind of freelancer. It’s about making other people’s lives more pleasant, and it’s about not being one of those horrible people whose emails and phonecalls other people dread. Being courteous puts you in a league above, sadly, as there are still plenty of people who aren’t. And if you stick to your standards, clients and suppliers will thank you for it.

I know without a doubt that I’m willing to go one further and one better for clients who treat me with respect. I’ll hit tough deadlines for clients who have the manners to give me the time of day and say, “Hi, hope you’re well…” before they launch into a request. I’ll throw in bits of advice and consulting here and there for clients who pay me on time, thank me for getting work to them and keep me up to date with what they need from me. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people I hire – usually writers and designers – do a brilliant job for time and time again. I try to treat them as I’d like to be treated and, while I’m not the perfect client or freelancer, a little bit of effort and courtesy usually goes a very long way.

So now it’s time for this week’s Little Bird Told Me Recommendation of the week. This week’s recommendation is a little bit different to most of our previous ones, which often focus on commercial copywriting, SEO and things like that. Recently, on our Facebook page, a listened asked us about self-publishing on the digital market – ie. publishing an e-book. And while the query was about publishing in general, it got me thinking about a big bug bear of mine when I purchase Kindle books by independent authors: formatting. I bet you thought it was going to be editing, didn’t you? And you’d be right, usually, but not this time!

Poorly formatted e-books are a total pain. Bad formatting ruins the reading experience which, for me personally, is already compromised by the book being in digital format. I’m a traditionalist – what can I say?

Bad formatting seems to happen for the same reason as bad editing: through sheer laziness. It’s easy to focus on the content of your book and think, “Oof, finished it – now time to publish and make millions!” but there are boring things like proof-reading and yes, formatting, to be perfected before your book is suitable for sale.

Be courteous to your readers by making sure that they can enjoy what they’ve just purchased from you. If the spacing, margins, headers and pages are all to pot, you’re on to a loser.

A recent article on Freelance Switch offers a really in-depth tutorial on how to format an ebook. While the author, David Masters, is clear that he’d recommend using paid-for tool Scrivener, he goes through all the steps you need to go through if you decide to format your book using Microsoft Word or other free software.

The article has really clear guidelines, screenshots and links, and is the perfect go-to guide for anyone planning to self-publish online, whether you’re a blogger, marketer, copywriter or fiction author. I’ll pop the link to the article in the show-notes and I’d encourage anyone who’s thinking of writing an e-book to have a look. If you’ve got the time, inclination and talent, an e-book can be a brilliant way to promote your services, as long as you do it the right way.

So, there we have it – episode 41 of A Little Bird Told Me. If you’ve got any comments, queries or questions, or you just fancy getting in touch, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and follow the links to my and Pip’s social media feeds and websites.

Pip and I will be recording another dual episode next week, and you can subscribe to that and all future episodes right there on Podomatic. Until then, though, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn – thanks so much for listening.