Saturday, March 31, 2012

Before There Was the Blog, There Was the Newsletter

Some years back, in a fit of ecology, we ditched L.A. (and a good job) to go and live near Yosemite National Park.  We’d visited friends there a number of times and finally succumbed to the beauty of the place.  The plan was to produce handmade gift products and flog them by mailorder. I had some expertise in mailorder, and the other three partners had talent, so – we were in business. Why shouldn’t we succeed? 

The full answer would take too long. In fact I wrote a post-mortem (which becomes a cautionary tale by the time you reach page 30, nearly  7,000 words in, and has been suggested for a case study in failure at Harvard B School). For one thing, you can’t make it commercially in handcrafting without a lot more  hands than we could deploy or a machine that makes it look like handcrafting. And if you want to talk “underfunded” -- we re-invented the concept. However, the addition of a plant nursery gave us a shot in the arm, and we hung on for seven years.   

Seven long years. You have to understand that this was before the popularity of  the home computer (although computers might not have made a lot of difference where we were living – electricity wasn’t reliable, and the locals would have burned the infernal machines). But it was a kind of isolation you don’t run into any more.  I think seven is the magic number in some cultures, and it worked for us. We fled to L.A. and started over.   

If anything useful came of it, it was a series of newsletters we sent customers and prospects over the first four years. I’m usually pigeonholed as a technical and business-to-business writer, and I am, and that’s good for most situations I find myself in. But there are whole other worlds in the writing business, and I need to make my bones in those, too. The newsletters are my entree to the b2c market.  

You don’t sell handcrafted giftwares with spec sheets and application stories. But mailorder is selling at a distance. The assignment, then, is to give customers the nitty-gritty while maintaining a light touch; keep it conversational while telling them the doll’s innards are 100% new Kapok stuffing. So that’s what I did. Before it was over I had written ad copy for sunbonnets, patchwork aprons, caftans, sock dolls, cast iron pillows, enchanted frogs, boxed stationery, persimmon puddings, pinecone wreathes, wildflower seed, physocarpus capitatus, and our signature product, “Sierra Overleaves.”  You may have heard of them.  

If you haven’t, but you sell consumer products and need to advertise them, you might be interested. I’ve scanned the newsletters into jpeg files which, if I can avoid past uploading mistakes, I may be able to send you. Disclaimer if you get them: The products shown are no longer available, and sure as hell not at the prices we were asking back in 1968 and ‘71.   

Next: What we need is more iconoclasm

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Trouble With Acronyms

Acronyms are those convenient reductions of phrases to their initial letters. Shortening “Committee for the Advancement of Language Learning for Obese Undergraduate Students” to (CALLOUS) would obviously save significant space in a page-limited proposal, especially if you’re going to repeat if often, which proposals (in the defense business, anyway) tend to do.

There are schools of thought about how to introduce acronyms into a text, whether phrase-first followed by the acronym, or vice-versa. There can be good arguments for each. Sometimes the much-used acronym takes on a life of its own, to the point where the people using it will have forgotten what the actual words are. Called on in a pinch to define it for an outsider, the expert can’t, and finds his listener furtively checking his, the expert’s, badge to see if he really belongs in the building. This is the argument for the second variation above.  For the rest of us, who know the words and would like to forget the acronym, the first method works best.  

The convention is that the acronym, presented all-caps and in parenthesis, is defined with its full phrase the first time it’s used in the document; after that, the acronym appears alone. If it’s a huge document, has many sections, or different parts will be read by different people, you might want to refresh the definition at appropriate points. What you don’t want to do is keep repeating the phrase and the acronym together.

Somehow – that concept is almost impossible to put across to technical subject matter authors. They routinely persist in repeating the full phrase and its acronym every time. That doesn’t only defeat the purpose; it creates two practical problems. It expands the page count in what, 5 will get you 8, is probably an over-long document to begin with; and those capitalized,  parenthesized interruptions can disturb your concentration on what may already be difficult reading. 

But it’s the perverse nature of the acronym that, even used properly, it has undesirable consequences.  Occasionally, when conditions come together just so, an author can string together a whole series of acronyms triumphantly into a sentence-length jumble of letters and parentheses. This wins him the admiration of his peers and possession of the cup, but it makes it tough for an evaluator.  
Government evaluators, God love ‘em, must have to harden themselves to this sort of thing, I suppose. I’ve never been one, so it’s conjecture, but if I had their job I think the first time I was called on to decode one of those half-the-alphabet lines someone’s document would disappear quietly under the table.  I’m sure that doesn’t happen really, but they’re human; why not make it easier for them? 

If you win your new business with proposals, here’s a syllogism for you.
  • Everyone on the proposal team is a specialist.
  • Specialists in other specialties often don’t write well.
  • A writing specialist could improve your proposal.   
Next: Blog vs Newsletter; what’s the difference?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Introduction to Me

No sailing under false colors; I’m selling something here.

“Engaging”; “funny in a thoughtful way”; “subtly persuasive”; OR,  opinionated, carping, and florid – whatever way you find it, the intent of the blog is to advertise my writing business.  And it’s not just SEO articles. I write every way from technical to whimsical. I do documents you inform, instruct, and win business with, and written stuff you sell with. I write company and executive profiles for trade publications. Outside-the-box resumes. A novel, even, if any agents or publishers are listening.  Edging into online “content.”  Samples available. I also edit. I’ve done it for aerospace engineers, so I can do it for anyone. End commercial.

Segue-ing smoothly into Speaking of Engineers – I worked a number of years for Boeing, collaborating with engineers as an editor, on contract. The subject was new business proposals in response to Department of Defense Requests for Proposals for airplanes and similar military hardware.

The specifications you’re expected to write to for these things are prescribed at length, down to the type size for the callouts in your illustrations.  They’re huge documents, written under forced draft, usually on 45-  or, if you’re lucky, 60-day turnaround. Members of the team assembled to do it may never have worked a proposal before and can be scattered across the continent. That’s the good news. The other news – no offense, guys -- is that engineers are writing it.      

For starters, engineers (big generalization follows here) are inveterate improvers and will go on tweaking their answers for as long as they can. (It’s an attribute I fight against myself, but you can see where it would conflict with one of the requirements above.)

More to the point for someone who has to edit engineers’ work – they have a (big diplomatic euphemism follows here) unique style. Either it’s taught that way in engineering school and they all learn it there, or it’s a kind of virus passed from one to another on the job. The rules, near as I can codify them, seem to be (1) use lots of words, (2) use passive voice a lot, (3) use jargon a lot, (4) use acronyms, (5) use LOTS of acronyms, and (6) use them incorrectly.

Some editors are fanatically against passive voice, but I’m not; and I can live with jargon, in moderation. These devices serve real purposes: jargon can be a way of expressing an idea quickly, in few words, which I’m certainly in favor of; and passive voice deflects responsibility for an action from any specific actor – a valuable mechanism for those occasions when the test results don’t go the way you’d hoped.

Prolix verbosity is the origin of the most egregious inexplicabilities, but it can be cleared up with English.  That leaves only the subject of acronyms to deal with, and you don’t want to be around when I get started on that. 

That’s my next post, though, so if anyone is following this (!) you’ve been warned.    

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Introduction to the New Reality

It was like that iconic scene in “Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy steps from the black-and-white of her room into a technicolor world. 

For this writer, the transition from 40+ years of print into the bright world of online job exchanges was like that. Even to the part about finding myself surrounded by midgets. Piping voices were asking for things to be written for four and five dollars. 

I couldn’t figure it at first. I mean, I didn’t kid myself it would be four or five bucks a word; but $4 or $5 for a whole article? What had happened in the business I’d practiced 20 years before?

What had happened was that writing had been reduced to a commodity called “content,” and the business to a kind of linguistic delicatessen. “Gimme 500 words of that description there.” “I’ll have 800 of that noun and verb assortment, please. Throw in some keywords; the dog likes ‘em.”

How did that get by us? Other businesses and professions were upgrading their images and vocabularies, not trivializing them. Dentists don’t talk to their insurance companies about “cavities” and “fillings” today. When I was a kid you had cavities filled. (The memory is of a pair of large, hairy hands gripping metallic implements moving menacingly toward my mouth.) But Dr. Karpf only charged $3 per. Patching a hole in your tooth is a “restoration” now, and it starts about $100.

Well, it didn’t take advanced math to see that four (or even –whoa! – five) dollars for an article was lousy pay, but I penciled it out for that sample SEO article I told you about last post (which I can show you if you’re interested).

Half an hour on line, browsing the trade association’s newsletters to find the hook for the article. Two hours to write and polish it to the condition buyers demand: 500 words, 100% original, specified number of keywords inserted unobtrusively, something of value for the reader, conversational, “not run-of-the-mill,” perfect grammar and spelling, no typos, 48 hours delivery.  

It comes out $1.60 to $2.00 an hour. Minimum wage nationally is $7.25. I can’t park my car for two bucks an hour.

Some of the greats started out writing for the science fiction pulps for a penny a word, but it was the Great Depression. Ten words bought you a loaf of bread.  Only a note to a bank teller would do it today: “I’ve got a gun. Empty your drawers into the bag.”  You get what I mean. Even if you’re five times as fast as I am  -- you can research, think, write, rewrite, do the whole thing in half an hour instead of two-and-a-half -- you’re still underpaid.

I know there are still people who value writing, and jobs that pay. I’m just not meeting enough of them; that’s why this blog. I’m selling a service here.

Closing in on 500 words. Next: If anyone’s still with me, I make my pitch.