Podcast Episode 46: How to deal with criticism and negative feedback
It happens to the best of us at some stage: a piece of work we send to a client is met with criticism. Whether it is your fault or the result of a misunderstanding, or whether we strongly believe the editor or client is wrong, this is a tricky situation to negotiate. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I go through different scenarios that can arise, with tips and advice on how to deal with them to maintain your good reputation while not alienating your clients or editors.
We also look at clients who are bullies, admitting your mistakes, whether the job title “freelance writer” has a limited shelf life and languages made up of whistles.
- Episode 19: How to proofread your own work
- Episode 41: The importance of professional courtesy
- Curious fact of the week: The whistling islands
- The state of freelance writing and why it will be dead within one year
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LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 46 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 super 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 am Philippa Willitts, and today we are going to talk about a particularly tricky situation, and that is what to do if you get criticism or negative feedback from a client. First of all, you can feel reassured that it happens to everybody at some point. You can be the best writer in the world but if somebody doesn’t like your style or approach then it doesn’t matter how good you are, you need to deal with their response. You can look at any writer – even someone like JK Rowling and Stephen King, who are very successful and highly thought-of, but there’ll be someone out there who hates what they do.
LH: JK Rowling was turned down by about five publishing houses, I believe.
PW: And I bet they’re kicking themselves now! So what we are going to look at is how to deal with it, both in terms of responding to the client, but also looking at what to do if you find it really dents your professional confidence.
LH: Yes, it’s the moment every freelancer – or at least, every decent freelancer – dreads! When you’ve put a lot of time and effort into a piece of work, and you hand it over thinking not just that it’s all a-OK, but that it’s really good, it can make your heart sink to your boots when you get it back and the client’s not happy.
Now, there are a couple of over-arching reasons that the client might not be happy: it might be that they don’t like something in the work itself, or it might be they don’t like something about your working methods – the way you interact with them or the way you do business. Either way, you need to listen to them properly, let them know you’ve listened to them, and decide what action to take from there. We’re going to look at a few ways to deal with feedback disaster in just a moment.
PW: The first thing to do, in most circumstances, is to establish exactly what has gone wrong. If you get an email or a call from a client who isn’t happy with something you submitted to them, you want to have your facts straight before you get into too much discussion.
LH: Yes, I think one thing to remember is that the urge to defend yourself can be quite overwhelming sometimes, particularly if you’re caught by surprise, say in a phone-call, and particularly if your client’s not delivering the news to you in the most pleasant of ways. Combine the two, say your client’s phoned you up for an ear-bashing, and it can be tempting to leap in and refute everything the client is saying.
PW: That’s very true. So before you dive in, you need to assess the situation as objectively as you can. If it’s a phone-call, you can say, “Let me look into this, I’ll call you back in half an hour.” If it’s an email, you can take the time you need. Some things to consider are:
Did you mis-read the instructions / guidance? Did you get an email asking you to write about Google AdWords and you wrote about Google AdSense, for example.
If you’re honest, did you perhaps rush it or not do your best?
Were you late in delivering it?
Did you proofread it properly?
Those are just a few of the things to check if you’ve been told your work wasn’t up to scratch. The exact feedback from the client might well tell you directly what they think is wrong, but it’s worth double-checking everything yourself because they might think they said one thing and you thought they said another – if there’s a mail trail, you can check. Perhaps there was a communication failure and you both had different expectations from a project. Don’t go straight to assigning blame – there may not be any – and if there is, it might be yours, theirs or someone else’s. Just try to establish what is going on.
Now, myself, I offer one revision within the fee I charge for my writing. So if anyone’s not happy, I’ll rework it once. In reality, it rarely happens, which is reassuring! But if I did get feedback with a problem, in most cases if I get feedback I just rework according to what the client has specified and re-submit it. That’s not a problem. But if you have got beyond that stage, or the client wants some significant reworking of a massive project then you need to look at it more carefully. So what we’re going to look at first is how to handle this if it was your fault.
You might realise that it is your fault. You didn’t double check your facts, or you know you rushed that piece of work, and in that case then it is down to you to fix your mistakes.
LH: Yes, this is quite often the case. And if you think about it statistically, it is kind of more likely to be the case – as the writer, you’re the one spending hours up to your eyes in the piece of work; there’s simply more time and scope for errors on your part than elsewhere. The only way the client can be at fault is in the initial communication stages or if they’ve thought there’s an error and there isn’t.
PW: If you want to be taken seriously as a freelancer then this involves taking responsibility when you mess up. Trying to get out of your mistakes, on the other hand, is a direct route to a bad reputation, frankly. So if you sent an article off with a huge typo in the title or an unfinished sentence in the middle then suck it up and fix it – if it was your fault, you fix it.
LH: Yes, words are complicated things and you can get a bit blind to typos after a while. It’s just the way it is – these are the kinds of mistakes that most freelancers will make from time to time, even though you should try not to.
PW: Yes, I did a solo episode a while back on how to proof-read your own work. It’s harder than it sounds – you read what you think you wrote, generally, rather than what you did write. Proof-reading is often where the problems arise because you do that or proof-read the whole thing but miss the title.
LH: I have a client for whom I do academic proof-reading and I was chatting to the editor-in-chief at that agency and he was saying that he’s an editor but not a proof-reader, simply because he finds most of the stuff he reads too interesting! He’ll get to the end of it and realise he’s not proof-read it – he’s just read it!
PW: Yeah, I proof-read a dissertation a few months ago that was so interesting that, what I had to do was read it and then go back over it and proof-read it!
LH: Yes, I find the same problem when I proof-read and edit other people’s fiction – I’m so caught up with what’s happening that I realise I’ve not been focusing on the spelling and punctuation!
Going back to what we were chatting about – regular listeners will know we go off on our little tangents! – I hired someone a while back to do some proof-reading for me and, when I opened the document they’d completed for me, there was a glaring formatting issue in the title – on the first page!
LH: Yes, it really worried me – I needed the document proof-read properly. Now, because I’m a freelancer as well as a client, I was able to take a step back – just as I would do if someone pointed out a mistake to me – and I went through the rest of the document and it was marked up so I could see the person had gone to a lot of care – the rest of the document was thoroughly proof-read but they’d missed that first page, which just had the title on it.
I got back to them and asked if there was any reason they’d formatted the title that way, and they were honest and admitted they’d somehow just completed missed the first page. They got straight back to me, sent me a short, to-the-point email with an apology and an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. So while it wasn’t ideal that it had happened, it was basically the perfect way to deal with it.
PW: Definitely. You must never fall into the trap of thinking that admitting you made a mistake would make you look bad. You won’t save face, you’ll just dig yourself deeper and deeper into a hole. If Lorrie’s freelancer had got back to her and said, “It didn’t look like that on my computer; it looked fine!” Lorrie wouldn’t have hired them again, I imagine.
LH: Yes, I’ve hired that person again. The document was otherwise well done, everyone makes mistakes and they handled it quickly and in the right way,
As someone who hires other freelancers on a really regular basis, including some who are pretty new to writing and need a bit of TLC before they’re up to speed. I don’t want to sound patronising but I’ve got to know some of the warning signs with people, in terms of how people respond to feedback.
PW: Yes, how receptive they are.
LH: And how likely it is that I’ll be able to have a long-term working relationship with someone. I do see people who will go out of their way – I’m talking ten miles out of their way – not to apologise for making mistakes. And I’m not sure if it’s a “me” thing or something that most people would also feel, but I really, really don’t appreciate it when someone seems to be giving reasons for their mistake but stopping short of apologising for it. It’s almost like they’re trying to excuse it while not taking responsibility for it, and that’s wrong, in my opinion.
PW: I had a situation a couple of months ago where a client asked for a series of blog posts. And one of the title was confused and conflated two topics. Now, they didn’t spot it and neither did I. So I obviously looked at one half of the title and wrote that blog post and it turned out that they wanted the other half writing. We both should have double checked – I sent them the blog post and we quickly realised what had happened. And I got back to them and said, “I’m really sorry – I should’ve spotted that, can’t believe I didn’t and I’ll do the other post for you this afternoon.”
They said, “Don’t worry – we should have checked it too. If you could get that article to us that’d be great.” And that was the end of it. We still work together now and it’s a very valuable relationship. Had I gone, “No you wrote it wrong!” and been defensive and obstructive, the relationship might have broken down.
LH: Yeah, you have to remember that making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person, or a bad freelancer. We all make mistakes, me included, and if you make one on a piece of work for someone else, you’re inconveniencing that client. They might notice it and know they’ve been inconvenienced, or they might not notice it and you can get them into real trouble if there are serious inaccuracies in your work.
If you do make a mistake in work that’s going external, it is a problem. It is up to you to apologise if you’ve left a mistake in a piece of work and handed it over – I think most clients would feel better towards you for doing so.
PW: This applies beyond work, too. If you spill your drink on someone in a pub, you apologise. It’s the grown-up thing to take responsibility when you mess up and I appreciate it in every aspect of life.
LH: Yes. You can’t expect a client to be happy about mistakes, so of course you might get a frosty reception, but I don’t think that it would be anything compared to what you’d get if they just denied the mistake was their fault. I would certainly treat people much better if they just own their mistakes.
So, one point I want to make is about how to apologise. Remember, it’s not about you – it’s about your client and how they’ve been inconvenienced, and their needs. They don’t need your life story about how your husband’s got stomach flu and your cat’s stuck up a tree and your favourite soap star just died so you just couldn’t concentrate – that’s the kind of stuff you’d tell your mates over a cup of coffee at the end of a hard day. That’s what you unwind with. That’s your story over a glass of wine. What your client needs to know is that it matters to you that you handed them some sub-standard work, and that you’ll make every effort to prevent it happening in future. That’s all.
PW: Yes, if you want to be respected, that’s how to handle it.
LH: Yes, there are things like a death in the family, or you’ve been really ill. You say, “I’m so sorry, I’ve been ill, I’ll make sure that…” Allude to something but don’t go into all the details, they don’t need to know.
PW: I had a situation like this recently – I was writing a blog post for a client and ended up having massive broadband issues. It was on and off all day and so, early on, I emailed the piece of work that was already done over to them and say, “I’m having broadband issues so I wanted to email you this piece now. I’ll get the second piece to you as soon as I can but I wanted to let you know – I’m sorry there may be some disruption.” The responsible thing to do was explain without giving all the ins and outs.
LH: That’s an interesting point you raise, actually, because what you could have done is hand in something sub-standard, skimping on the research because you had no net access. I think it’s better to, as you did, hand something in late rather than sending over something that’s below your usual quality to try and stop yourself being late.
PW: Definitely. Now, what we’ve been talking about there is how to handle things if you think you’ve made a mistake. But sometimes, you may get criticism from your client and fundamentally disagree with it. And this can be tricky to handle.
LH: This is the bit I like: like, enough of us being wrong! Let’s talk about how we’re right and how the clients are wrong – they can be horrible, dreadful people! Haha!
PW: Hahaha! And the vast majority of the time, we’re right! Now, if you have agreed in advance to a certain number of revisions then you are most likely contractually obliged to carry them out. Even if the legality of that isn’t clear, you have made an agreement and it is nearly always good practice to stick to this. Almost always, I’d say.
LH: Yes. I think, with many writing agreements, not many people will chase you, even if you are bound by contract. It’s not worse someone’s money to chase you. But, if you have an agreement in place, you should think extremely hard because I can’t see your reputation recovering if you break it.
PW: Yes, neither of us is a lawyer, but in terms of ethics and your reputation, it sounds awful if you break your agreements.
LH: Which is one more reason that it’s good to spend a good few hours preparing a template writing agreement to send to your clients. Get to know your agreement and what it binds you to, and it’ll pay dividends in future. If you’ve got an awkward client who finds a loop-hole that, say, allows them to request unlimited revisions for free, you’re going to be sorry you didn’t spend a bit more time! Projects can be huge – one round of revisions can be editing a book all over again. Or rewriting a report. If you’ve made a tone, branding or style mistake, that’s not easily undone.
PW: Now, in previous episodes, we’ve talked before about having to write things that a client firmly wants but that you think is a bad idea. Often, I think we would both recommend making suggestions to your client and discussing it with them if you think that is appropriate, but that ultimately if they are paying you, you may have to do what they want you to do.
One tricky exception to this, that you’d have to discuss on a case-by-case basis, might be work that will be going out under your name. If a client or editor wants you to make changes you feel very strongly against, or that you know are unwise, and it will be under your authorship, then you may well want to fight harder to make it right.
LH: Yeah, I’ve had similar situations with literary editing stuff. I’ve had clients who simply will not let me edit their baby, despite hiring me. It tends to be indie authors, I find, because there’s still that tussle, and if you go back to someone and say “All these things don’t work”, a lot of fiction is very subjective, authors can turn round and say, “I don’t agree. I wrote it like that. It’s artistic.”
PW: I don’t do literary editing like Lorrie does but I do proof-read some fiction work and I get the impression that some authors send things to editors as an ego-stroking exercise rather than a skilled look at your book. And because they’ve put so much work into it, they expect to get it back and hear that “It’s perfect”.
LH: You have to want to know what’s wrong with your book.
PW: And that can be hard to take, but if you’re going to send it to an editor – which you absolutely should – you have to expect them to do their job.
LH: And I think, if you’re an author, you have to make sure you understand your building materials – you need to be able to understand grammar, punctuation, narrative theory, structure, formatting – all the things that help you build a novel so when your editor comes back and says, “There’s a problem with X”, you understand what you’re being told and you’re in a position to debate it. If you don’t understand what an editor’s telling you, and you’re arguing with them anyway, you’re wasting your money and their expertise.
PW: The reason I don’t do literary editing is because I don’t have that basis in fiction writing and Lorrie does. So, if I had a query about something related to that, I’d ask Lorrie and respect her opinion because she’s far more expert than me on that. We have different expertise, and that’s handy because we check things out with each other a lot.
LH: Yes, like tech writing.
PW: Yes, which is what I do. I know how to do that. And if you’re asking for someone’s help with something – and that includes hiring an editor – it’s pointless from a financial view, it’s pointless if you’re not going to improve your skills, and it’s pointless for someone like Lorrie because you’re wasting their skills.
LH: Yeah, and going back to what we were saying about what to do if you think the client is wrong, a lot of people will try and pay you less with the promise that your name will go on the book.
PW: And if your name’s going on the book as the editor, you don’t want Amazon reviews to say, “Horrible editing!” just because the client didn’t implement your recommendations.
LH: I’ve had it before. I don’t want to be paid less – ever – but if the author wants to name me as editor, thank you very much. Literary editing is hard to get into, but if something is just terrible because the client has been stubborn, I have to say “I’m sorry, I think we’ve come to the end of this project, I’ve done the amends you requested and it’s not going to be possible for me to put my name to this.”
PW: Yeah, similarly – I write opinion pieces for various places. And so if I send something to a web editor and they edit it in a way that misrepresents my opinion, I’d feel very wary of that going up under my name. Whereas if I wrote something for a client under their name, and they wanted something I didn’t recommend, that would be for them to worry about, not me. If it’s going on The Guardian as by Philippa Willitts, then I want it to be what Philippa Willitts thinks, really. There’s no easy answer we can give you for “This is how you deal with that situation” but a big part of it is good communication, and not just emailing them and going, “Nooooooo!”
PW: It can be your initial reaction but get beyond that stage before you even reply and make sure you have a reasonable response. Don’t be insulting. Express anger in an appropriate way.
LH: When do you think you’d express anger?
PW: I know of some writers who’ve written opinion pieces and been misrepresented by a title put in place by the sub-editor.
LH: It’s link-baiting, isn’t it, putting a deliberately controversial title in place to get people to click.
PW: Yes, and with the nature of the Internet, people will just read the title and then get in touch with the writer and say, “I can’t believe you wrote that!” And in those circumstances, you have to contact the editor really quite firmly and express anger, saying, “I’m really not happy that this has gone up under that title – it misrepresents me and I’m really not happy.” When something’s happening in the now, that may be a time to express appropriate anger.
LH: I can’t think of many times in my sector when I’d need to express anger – I think opinion and media writing is quite unique in that sense. I think, one time I did have to express anger was when I was working in-house somewhere. I’d made amends to something as requested by someone high up on the board – they had no knowledge of writing and the amends were arbitrary. It almost seemed like a domination exercise – “Swap the order of these bullet points” . So I did it, and they asked me to do it again. And they got back to me again with more and more amends. We got to Round 17 of amends by emails and this person went and sent me something they’d clearly just Googled for, which was a “Guide to Technical Copywriting”.
PW: Ohhhhh dear!
LH: And at that point, I think it’s fair to say I expressed a certain level of anger!
PW: I think that sounds entirely reasonable. I can imagine your exact words to be honest.
LH: I didn’t get an apology from that person but they certainly did get a telling-off from higher-up. I was angry and extremely firm but I wasn’t rude.
PW: Yes, you lose the moral high ground if you’re rude and you end up in situation where you possibly merit criticism. That’s the last thing you want.
LH: I did a solo episode recently on professional courtesy and we were both talking recently, weren’t we, about clients who’d been rude and unreasonable to us. And we both said – as I did in that episode – if you’re rude to a client, you lose all right to complain, and you can end up reproaching yourself more than anything.
Having an argument with a client – or even just a heated discussion – can be extremely stressful. And if you look back on something like that and realise that you’ve worsened the situation by being rude, you won’t get any sleep at all.
PW: If in doubt, write an email and save it as a draft. Come back to it the next day and make sure you come across as firm and reasonable rather than rude and arrogant. Or send it to a friend who’s in a similar job. The number of times Lorrie and I check with each other…it helps a lot. We’re very honest with each other.
LH: And it can be helpful, when you’re starting out it can be easy to take mistakes on yourself. Some clients will point out every little thing.
PW: Especially if they think you’re new.
LH: Yes, it can be just them drawing lines because getting a copywriter in means having to lose control. So don’t assume you’re wrong because you’re getting lots of points back from the client.
PW: Yes – and don’t think you’re wrong because you’re new. If you’re challenged on something, read up on it. I can’t think of a situation where research wouldn’t help.
LH: One good point to make is that, if it turns out you’re right and the client’s wrong, try not to be smug.
PW: There’s nothing worse!
LH: Although you want to protect your reputation and make it clear you weren’t wrong, don’t pursue it like a dog with a bone.
PW: The words “I told you so!” should never be uttered.
LH: And likewise, if a client says, “Let’s drop it and move on.”, don’t push that whole “Yes, but I was right!” angle. Just reassure them that you do know what you’re doing, you do your research and training and you’re committed to doing a good job for them.
PW: Yes, some clients find it hard to apologise – that could be the best you’ll get.
LH: Yes, don’t expect a cookie for being right. It’d be nice, but you won’t get one.
PW: We’re supposed to be right!
LH: Going back to the point earlier about not assuming you’re wrong, I think it’s important to recognise that you shouldn’t be treated badly by clients. It can be tempting to put up with it, or just leave it, but when you put your foot down in a respectful way, it will usually go in your favour in the long-term.
PW: Yes, I’ve got much better terms from some clients by being very firm. And you need to remember that there are bullies in every aspect of life – that’s not something you should put up with just because someone’s a client, or because they pay you well. Even if you make a mistake, this isn’t something to take – you need to step away or challenge it. It’s not easy – it can be very hard.
LH: No, it can be really hard. I had a client who was really offensive to me for asking them not to pay me late. They sent me an extremely rude email and I ignored it. If that had been a long-term or regular client, I might have phoned them up and told them, “I wasn’t happy with your email because a, b and c, and I want to know how we can move on from that.”
PW: If you’re in a situation where you’re being bullied but it’s a company you’d like to continue working for, you can request to be assigned a different point of contact within the company. Now that is difficult and could well break the relationship down, but it’s one way forward. If you already have a slight relationship with someone higher up, you can contact them and say, “I’m really upset with how Steve is dealing with me. I would like to continue working with you but I don’t want to deal with him anymore.” So that manager may speak to Steve or allocate you someone else.
LH: Off the top of my head, I’ve had two situations where I’ve had to do that. One client, there are around 600 people in the company. The manager in one department was extremely rude about both me and my work. These weren’t mistakes on my part – they were communication failures on their part and I had evidence of that in a mail trail. So I phoned that person up and said that I was disappointed: 1) because we’d had a good working relationship before, 2) because that person is capable of respectful communication and 3) because they’d chosen not to raise issues with me before popping criticism in a mail trail with lots of people CCed in. Now, I got an apology over the phone but I’ve never dealt with that person again. And I think that’s kind of been mutually agreed because there were a lot of witnesses to it – those who read back through the mail trail realised I was right. I do know the department, though, and I know I’ve been given with other people in that department to deal with.
PW: You wanted to maintain the relationship with the company, and you wanted to continue the work, and you came to a way forward. If you have a one-off client who’s very rude, it’s easy – you deal with it, do the work and never work with them again. With a repeat client, you have more invested in making it work. If difficulties arise with a long-term client, it’s more worth fixing it.
LH: Absolutely. And one final point is that it’s very important to keep your courtesy levels high over your whole working relationship with the client – it’s why professionalism is so important. The first client I was talking about is a major part of my week, that’s a major client that I’ve had for a long time. If they didn’t know me to be a polite, friendly, reasonable person, they could have said, “Well hang on, “Bob” is nice, he’s our colleague, he’s our friend – you’re just a freelancer, get lost.” So the fact that I have that professional reputation with them, and also, that that mail trail was there, both of those things went in my favour.
PW: And it works the other way round. If a client hires you for a one-off project with a mistake, they won’t hire you again. If you send a mistake to a long-term client, they won’t be happy but they’re more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. You’ll be more flexible with long-term clients and they’ll be more flexible with you.
LH: Absolutely. I hired someone recently and they absolutely mucked everything up in the first work, from the work to the way they dealt with me to the customer service – there’s no chance I’d hire them again.
PW: Whereas if they’d worked with you for six months, you might have said, “OK, you had a really rough week, can we sort it for next week?”
One thing I hear a lot from clients is that they’ll hire a writer and, over time, they’ll get less and less impressive because they’ve got complacent. And they put less effort and time in. Now, I think most freelancers would probably admit to quadruple checking a piece of work for a new client where they’d triple check for a regular client. But anything more complacent than that and you’re on dangerous ground.
But if you’re in a situation where a client insists you’re wrong, doesn’t care about you being right, or if you actually were wrong, that can have an impact on you. It can dent your confidence. If you take pride in your work and you realise you sent something off with a big mistake, or if someone’s treating you like you’re useless, it can dent your confidence.
The first thing to do is evaluate it honestly. It might be that you did a bad piece of work, but that doesn’t make you a bad writer. If you do lots and lots and lots of bad pieces of work, however, you may have to genuinely reassess your priorities and skills!
LH: Yes, I’ll be honest – and I always feel like I’m being the bad cop on this podcast – I think there are a lot of writers out there who shouldn’t be and indeed are not writers.
PW: My recommendation this week relates to that very thing, actually, so stay tuned.
LH: I look forward to hearing it. It’s my pet peeve at the moment. Saying you’re a writer doesn’t make you a writer. I also don’t believe something that’s trotted out frequently which is “Everyone’s a writer.”
PW: “Everyone has a novel inside them.” I’m a professional writer and I don’t have a novel inside me.
LH: Are you sure?
LH: Have you checked?
LH: Have you looked in your socks? Still no novel?
PW: Still no novel.
LH: No, not everyone is a writer in the same way that not everyone is an astrophysicist.
PW: I’m not one of those either.
LH: Are you sure?
PW: Hahaha, yes!
LH: I think, if you are a writer – if writing is your job – and you have been getting some negative feedback (or even if you haven’t!) it’s important to make sure the things surrounding your writing work are sorted out. Are you planning your time well enough? Is your office a mess? Are there papers everywhere? Are you an excellent writer and a really bad proof-reader? There are all sorts of things to take into account. The biggest one for me is the issue of training. Some writers think that because they can put fingers to a keyboard, they’re a writer. But I’ve contacted so many writers and when you ask them, “OK, can you write a press release?” and they say, “Um, no…”
LH: And they can be quite polite and eloquent about that, “No, I’m afraid I don’t have any experience of that.” But press releases are basics!
PW: They’re bread and butter.
LH: They are. And as we’ve said and said and said, training is super important and it’s your responsibility.
PW: Anyone with internet access has no excuse.
LH: And if you don’t have net access, stop it! What are you doing? But yes, if you don’t know how to do the basic writing tasks, such as writing press releases, creating hyperlinks in documents, basic SEO, you should get some training immediately or someone will find you out for being a fraud. If you claim to be a writer and you don’t know the basics, you’re being cheeky to your clients.
At the moment, I’m taking an Open University course about fiction so I can understand where my fiction clients are coming from. Pip, at the moment, is doing ethical journalism training.
PW: Yup, from UCLA online.
LH: And this isn’t something that will directly benefit your clients.
PW: No, it will make me a better writer, improve my knowledge and training but these aren’t directly leading to a job.
LH: Both of these courses are something that Pip and I have chosen to take on because we understand that people are paying us to keep our work standards consistently high.
PW: Yep. If you are confident in your abilities, however, and you’re undergoing training, and you’re on top of your work commitments, and you believe that your client is being picky or over-critical or has unreasonable expectations, then this is the time to start reminding yourself that, actually, the vast majority of your clients are happy with your work.
Do clients come back for more? Then you’re probably doing alright. Do clients praise your work? Then you’re probably doing alright. Do blog posts you write get lots of retweets? Then you’re probably doing alright. I should also say, however, that if you don’t get lots of retweets or positive feedback that doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing it all wrong! There are many forces at work! There are personalities, there’s the weirdness of what twitter likes and doesn’t.
Don’t let criticism, valid or not, affect your confidence. As long as you can look at things objectively and say, “Yes, I am good at this.” and really believe it – as long as you’re not blagging clients, and you’re not giving in substandard work, sometimes you need to step back, say, “OK, I’m getting criticised by this one person; it feels hurtful and unfair but it’s one person. I have other supportive clients who are happy with my work, and what they’re saying isn’t a reflection on me, it’s more of a reflection on them.”
LH: To finish off, I won’t be bad cop. I’ll be nice cop. Criticism can be helpful. It feels hurtful and horrible but there are benefits to it.
PW: Yes, we can all learn.
LH: Yes, just because I’m sitting here saying, “I’m doing an OU course on fiction and Pip is doing a course on ethical journalism” doesn’t mean that a little guy from one of my SMEs can’t teach me a thing or two.
PW: Absolutely. If they’re living and breathing that company and have done for 10 years, there are a lot of things they can teach you.
LH: Yes, it doesn’t matter how clever you are, if your client comes back to you with any kind of mistake, take it on board. You’ll improve, and the more you improve, the better your work will be. And the better your work is, the more you can charge!
LH: And that’s the moral of the story! No, joking aside, the better your work is, the better everyone comes out of the deal. Everyone’s happier. Fewer mistakes, less criticism. Life is just a bit nicer.
PW: I think so too. And now it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week, in which Lorrie and I share something we’ve enjoyed over the last week, and think you might enjoy too. So, Lorrie, what’s your recommendation?
LH: My recommendation is a bit of a frivolous one: I’ve gone for something that’s not really useful unless for an obscure pub quiz, but I found it interesting and think people who like language, or languages as a whole. My recommendation is for a post from AtlasObscura.com, which is kind of like an encyclopaedia / freelance map, which highlights interesting places in the world.
This particular post is about the El Silbo whistle language, which helps the residents of one of the Canary Islands, La Gomera, to communicate over long distances. Now, anyone who doesn’t know the Canary Islands, they’re a Spanish group of islands off the coast of Africa and they’re volcanic, so lots of valleys and ravines. So the people of La Gomera decided that they needed to communicate and developed a ‘language’ of whistles, containing over 4,000 whistle ‘words’. It’s amazing.
One of the nice things about El Silbo is that it’s a tonal language – it’s lovely. It was on the verge of extinction at the start of the tech era, but there’s been a concerted effort to revive the language by – and this is my favourite bit – by adding it to the national school curriculum!
PW: Ahhh, that’s fantastic!
LH: And today 3,000 school children are in the process of learning it. And in 2009, UNESCO gave it protected cultural statement.
PW: That’s fascinating, and the fact that the language was borne of a need based on geography is really interesting.
LH: I remember when I was doing A Level English, we were talking about pidgin and creole languages – and I’m not sure if you know the difference, but a pidgin is a language that’s cobbled together so a particular example would be when people were stolen from their native lands to be slaves. They were taken to islands and forced together, so to find a way to communicate, they would take a word from here, and a word from there, and they would cobble together a language.
Now, when these people had children, what’s interesting about children is that they have something called a Language Acquisition Device and they automatically impose a grammar on any language. And this is the difference between a pidgin and a creole. A creole is a pidgin on which a grammar has been imposed.
PW: That’s amazing. It’s really interesting looking at child language development. There can be times when it looks like they’re taking a step back but it’s because they’ve started implementing grammar rules. They might have said, “I went” for ages but started saying, “I goed.” Even though they’re wrong, it’s a sign that they’re understanding grammar rules.
LH: Child language acquisition is fascinating. It’s interesting, too, that language has to be triggered. Back in the day, King James of Scotland took a pair of twin boys and locked them away with only deaf-mute servants. His theory was that they’d grow up speaking a Biblical language, but they didn’t speak at all.
PW: Presumably, they would have picked up some sign language.
LH: Yes, language acquisition can be triggered in deaf and hearing children using visual stimuli. I just think it’s so fascinating, and this thing about El Silbo is so lovely.
PW: When I was a child, I used to whistle all the time and I was told off because “It makes Mary, mother of God, blush.” And I used to try not to whistle, but no luck!
LH: Oh, I’ve never heard that! So yes, there’s my recommendation – a strange but charming one.
PW: Definitely! Now, my recommendation is a blog post and I mentioned it earlier, when Lorrie mentioned writers who can’t really be described as writers. Now, the post has a provocative title, but bear with it and it’s quite interesting. It’s called “The State Of Freelance Writing And Why It’ll Be Dead In One Year.”
LH: Ooh, link-bait title!
PW: Yes, and I clicked! Now, what it’s about is good quality content and the proliferation of bad quality content. And it starts by talking about the Google Panda algorithm, which de-ranks websites that are full of badly written content. And there was a big phenomenon a couple of years ago, where writers wrote lots of content, and people clicked on the ads, the writers were paid a proportion of that. Lots of writers did it, very few made good money. Panda pretty much killed the content mills.
The article goes on to talk about freelancing websites. Now, if you’re not familiar, freelancing websites are full of people who want writers to do 500 words for $2, and depressingly, writers who will write 500 words for $2. And the quality is generally very, very low.
And there’s a nice if somewhat snarky quote in the middle of the post, which says, “Unfortunately, there’s an excessive number of kids with laptops, a passing grade in English and a warped idea of what a writer is. Read what they write and you may arrive at the same conclusion.”
And so, the author is talking about people who take pride in calling themselves a writer but who write very poorly. He talks about the effect on other freelancers. He says, “Because the work is done and paid for online, the market can be influenced by anyone who’s willing to do for 50 cents what a real writer would charge $75 for. For instance, the Philippines has hundreds and thousands of writers working for next to nothing to support themselves and their families.”
Now he talks about the market being in a state of flux, and says there are unscrupulous people and people who really take pride in quality – and everyone in between. So with this context in mind, the writer believes that more and more of the poor quality content writers will find themselves penalised and there will be a growing disincentive to pay pennies for poor quality work and actually an increased incentive to pay for what he’s dubbed “content journalists”, who is someone who’ll have a degree in journalism or writing. They’ll be well-paid and smart enough to “unite in a field-protecting group”!
LH: Haha, sounds nice!
PW: His justification for the title that “freelance writing will be dead in a year” is that it will be replaced by content journalism. Which is basically a nice name for people providing good quality writing for a decent price.
LH: I’d be interested to know how many people are dubbing themselves ‘content journalists’ at this point.
PW: It’d be interesting, also, to see if it takes off. Will we start using that title? It’ll depend on whether it grows in popularity. If I used it at the moment, people wouldn’t know what it meant.
LH: I think, funnily, content journalism as a term is a bit tautological. A content journalist – a journalist is someone who writes content. It can be tempting to want to ring-fence yourself off from people who are making life harder for people in your profession. I recruit a lot and I have people contacting me saying that they’ll do work I’m offering £40 for for £3.50. No word of a lie. It’s terrifying and I don’t hire these people, but I think most people would. I’ve been on business fora and seen people leaping at the chance to get free content in return for a link. It’s pathetic.
PW: I get daily emails from people to my professional website from people offering me free articles in return for a link. From their point of view, it’s not worth it.
LH: It shows a real lack of understanding of how Google works.
PW: If they’re good at what they do, they’re also showing a lack of understanding of their own ability and if they’re bad at what they do, they shouldn’t be offering it in the first place.
LH: So yes, I can understand where this writer is coming from and the part of me that bridles when I see other people calling themselves writers when I work so hard to cement my position as a freelance writer would welcome the opportunity to separate myself from those people, but I just don’t think it’d work. You can’t control what anyone calls themselves.
PW: And if we start using the term ‘content journalist’ then all the rubbish so-called ‘freelance writers’ will just do the same thing. And then you’re back in the same position you started in.
LH: It’s not a solution really. I wish that writers would be more ethical, and that clients would be more discerning and research what they can get for their money.
PW: If nothing else – I’m sure you experience this too – the number of clients who come to me having already spent three or four lots of $5 to get something written and eventually give in and come to someone like us…they all say, I wish I hadn’t bothered going to those cheap people. And although it’s not a lot of money, it’s some money, and it’s a waste of time.
LH: Sometimes, if I’m in a good mood, I can sympathise and say, “OK this person is naïve”. But it’s naïve at best – often people are just clinging to their money so tightly because of a belief that they should get something for nothing or next to nothing. And that’s what you get.
PW: And seeing some of what these people write, we’re not even talking about something being a bit stilted – a lot of it is literal nonsense. And something I still see website owners do, which they really shouldn’t, is hire someone good for their money site – their main website – and someone poor to write stuff linking back to it. Even some who are aware that quality content matters are still only focused on their main site. And that is what Google Penguin is targeting – poor quality backlinks to your site. You’re asking for trouble if that’s your approach.
LH: Aside from Penguin, if you’re sending out poor quality content with links to your site. And if those articles shoot up Google, as these people think they will, they’ll be sitting there waiting for people searching for your business to find them.
PW: Yes, the first rule of SEO writing is to write for humans not search engines. Humans are the most important consumers of what you write.
LH: No, I think this is a good article and it needed saying, even if I don’t agree with the solution.
PW: Yes, I think I agree with you. But yes, a re-brand in a “brotherhood” (ugh!) of writers is naïve. And should the term ‘content journalist’ take off, it’ll be adopted by anyone and everyone. However, the article’s good and it’s appropriately angry as well!
LH: I wish he’d summarised by saying we need to stick together a bit more. He does say it, but I wish it was his main focus. Freelance writing has been damaged because of people charging ridiculously low amounts. The thing we need to do impress on clients and distinguish for ourselves what quality we’re offering and how that benefits people. It’s another good reason to really understand what you’re talking about so you can tell clients and prospects what’s what when it comes to quality content.
PW: Very good point. The onus is on people who hire writers. We can do what we like, but the people who do the hiring need the most profound shift.
LH: Yes, because if we band together, that won’t stop people offering cheap deals. Really interesting article though. And that just about wraps up episode 46 of A Little Bird Told Me! We’re getting closer and closer to 50!
PW: We’re really proud – it’s going to be a real milestone.
LH: I almost can’t believe it but we were very determined to start something beneficial, not just for us because of all the research we do, but to our listeners. We really hope you all enjoy each and every episode.
PW: Definitely. So, thank you for listening. Do head over to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com for all the links, transcripts and contact details. You’ll also find links to subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss another episode.
LH: They’re out every Tuesday morning, so head over to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn
PW: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll catch you next time!