This Week On This Writing Life – 11/10/17

You can keep up with my Medium posts on my personal writing thoughts and experiences by following This Writing Life

Measuring Performance Comes Later: I truly believe how well a piece, whether it’s a 300-word blog post or a 40,000-word novel performs is any indicator of the quality of what’s produced or a signal of the value or health of the writer behind the keyboard.

 

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Dr. Formattinglove: …getting over my own stubborn adherence to the old way of doing things and embracing the same best practices I apply for other work is part of putting my best foot forward. It’s not enough to be a talented writer.

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Steadfastly Ignoring Advice: The problem I’ve always had with such advice is that it all seems to be geared toward creating a monoculture. Everyone’s output is basically the same because it all comes from the same foundation of ideas and practices.

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One Long Post or Several Little Posts?: Do what feels good for you and fits into your schedule and balance it with what goes over well with your audience and moves you closer to achieving the goals you have for your content.

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Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Call It. How It Feels Does

It used to be called “the groove” or “the zone.”

Coming from a family full of gearheads and car enthusiasts we used the phrase “running on all eight cylinders.”

They all mean the same thing: That feeling that comes when you just can’t do any wrong. Hours pass in the blink of an eye while you’re working on something you’re deeply passionate about or interested in.

For me, running on all eight cylinders means there’s nothing that can stop me. The words (it’s usually when I’m writing) are flowing like water from a spring as the winter snowpack melts. It’s organic and meaningful. Whatever time I have is too short.

Recently I’ve encountered a number of sources that refer to it as “the flow” or simply “flow.” The key to productivity, to self-actualization, is finding flow. It is our optimal functional state. We’re more efficient and passionate, bringing all our attention and skills to bear on something important.

If you do even a small bit of searching or subscribe to entrepreneurial or productivity news sites for a short while you’ll encounter no end of tips and advice on how to get into the flow or maintain the flow while working. As with most tips and advice, there’s some good stuff in there, but your mileage may vary.

You Do You

If creating an environment of complete silence and tranquility works, great. I work better with Rush or Van Halen or Bob Dylan or Huey Lewis & The News playing at a wholly unhealthy volume.

If turning off the internet connection to minimize distractions works, great. Jumping over to Twitter every now and again actually helps take my mind off something I might be stuck on and free up new ideas.

If scheduled breaks where you turn away completely works, great. I prefer to just keep going and rest when the day is done and I’ve accomplished as much as possible.

You Might Not Know What Works

For years I didn’t know what the right combination of activities, stimuli and other factors was. When I felt it, I felt it. But I couldn’t put my finger on how to recreate it. Eventually it came together when I realized there was no magic formula.

Flow is art, not science in my experience. One day I’m running on all eight when I’ve got The Grateful Dead going and I’m working down a list of writing projects and topics. The next it’s when I’m listening to St. Vincent and organizing files on a hard drive.

It doesn’t matter what you call it. It doesn’t matter how you get there. What matters is that you feel it. Find your groove. Find your flow. Fire up all eight cylinders. Make it happen.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Vast Beauty of The Blank Page

Yes, there are many terrifying things about the blank page that faces writers every day. It’s humbling to think that it’s your responsibility – to readers, clients and others, even yourself – to fill that void.

I’m occasionally reminded of Donald Sutherland’s line in Backdraft. While needling William Baldwin’s character, who’s looking for answers as to who’s been setting a string of fires, Sutherland’s imprisoned arsonist says “It looked at you, didn’t it?” Fire is a living thing he refers to as “the animal” repeatedly. It’s something to be let loose, a beautiful beast that destroys everything.

The blank page is sometimes that kind of terrible creature, threatening to engulf me.

Other times the stark whiteness of a blank page, either digital or physical, is beautiful. It’s a flat, endless sea of snow and ice, nothing there except for the potential for more. It’s calming and soothing, inviting exploration and adventure that defies description. You can walk for miles and never find the end.

Even in that apparent vacuum, there’s life. If you’re not driven insane by the intimidating emptiness devoid of oases, you step out and are rewarded by encountering the animals who have adapted to life there and delighted by the fauna uniquely suited to survive such harsh conditions.

Those are the days when it all works. When the words come easily and when, given the option, I could write for hours unending and be not only happy but proud of the results. I’m pushed on by the promise of finding more of those hidden treasures.

There’s beauty in unbroken blankness. It’s the writer’s job to discover it and share it with others.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Draft 3

It’s done.

Draft 3 of the first long-form story I’ve written in 20 years is finished.

I started this draft back in August, taking the hand-written second draft and retyping it, editing as I went and undoubtedly improving many aspects of the story.

It came in at a smidge over 20,000 words, which I know qualifies it more as a novella than an actual novel. That’s fine.

In the last four months I’ve been reading lots of tips for writing your first novel. That’s been educational. I’m almost glad I didn’t do all that before starting.

Now comes the hard part: Seeing if it interests anyone. Query letters, agent searches and all that. Research into self-publishing options.

To date no one has read it. The only opinion I have to go on is my own.

I have a complete story that I’m pretty happy with, as much as any creator is ever happy. I could go on revising and editing and will likely do a bit of that.

But I want it to be read and so will be working out the best and most realistic option for release.

Updates to come.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It’s Essential To Find Brand Voice

Here’s the key graf in this story (via FashionRedef) about how fashion brands have begun addressing their customers as peers instead of experts or cold, soulless corporations.

For sustainable direct-to-consumer brand Reformation, “hyper-growth” was also kick-started with a pithy newsletter in March 2013, says the company’s founder, Yael Aflalo. “We wrote about Coachella and the caption was: ‘It’s not that important but it kinda is.’ All my friends rung me to say how cute it was.” It wasn’t just cute; it was instantly profitable. Sales jumped from $18,000 in February (pre-newsletter) to $175,000 in March. Millennial-friendly Instagram captions and product descriptions (Aflalo describes the tone as a SoCal-esque “urgh, but yeah”) are part of Reformation’s USP. “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2”, puns their Instagram bio, where the brand has 818,00 followers.

What the story shows is how vitally important it is for brands to find a voice that truly connects with its customers. The “BFF Marketing” label that’s affixed to these particular examples shows that sort of tone and connection that has worked with these companies and indicates the role that worked for them. In this case they adopted the persona of the “BFF” of the women they were trying to reach and spoke to them in that language, with that cadence and using that sort of terminology.

Shown here are the results of adjustments to that voice that have worked out well for the brands mentioned. Unseen is the rigor that often goes into making those adjustments.

Brand “voice” is something that is vitally important and not just changed on a whim, at least not in most cases. Usually it takes a massive amounts of rigor and research before all the various stakeholders will sign off on adjustments to the approach taken with marketing copy.

I’ve gone through this process a few times in my career. Here are some of the factors I had to include when making the case to change what had been dry marketing copy into something more interesting and engaging for the audience.

Analyze the Audience

If you want to fit in with the audience, you have to know how they’re talking, both about you specifically and the general topics in your industry. What sorts of conversations are they having? Are they having fun or are they more serious? Don’t limit your research to civilians and individuals, but also take a look at how industry trade pubs and other news sites are sharing updates. See if you can find what’s working well for them and pick out the elements you can incorporate and which will work for you.

Define the Action

What I’ve found is that most marketing copy that doesn’t result from a defined style guide has almost no purpose. There’s no clearly defined call to action. The assumption seems to be that sharing the update, whatever it is, is sufficient and should light the world on fire. We know that’s not true, so make sure that adjustments in voice are made that include clear next steps for the audience to take. Interestingly, I’ve found these CTAs are easier to include in loose, informal copy than in the stiff marketing copy I’ve often inherited from other managers.

Set Boundaries

When I was working on a client project to redefine the social media voice for the brand, my counterpart in-house told me to present my recommendations in three ways: Minor adjustment, full-throated changes and ZOMG. Or something like that, but you get the point. He wanted to see what a small tweak looked like, what a moderate but still noticeable change would be and then what happened if I really cut loose. In this case we wound up going not quite all the way to 11 but definitely a 9.5. Knowing where the guardrail was helped us formalize that in the style guide and kept everyone honest, as well as giving him the supporting material he needed to show others what “too far” really looked like.

Remember the Big Picture

My colleague Dave Coustan introduced me to the following phrase: “Voice is cumulative.” What that means is that you’re never going to get the entirety of your voice attributes in one tweet, one blog post or any other single example. Instead, that picture only becomes clear when you step back and view several updates. Or even a whole month of them. If you have eight key elements to your brand voice, each individual one is probably only going to include three or four of them. Update A has Elements 2,4,5 and 8. Update B might have 2,3,7. Update C has 1,3,4 and 7. Taken as a whole, people will get the message.

It Helps To Have a Native

I’ve been lucky enough to be interested in the industries and products some of my clients have operated in and sold. That’s helped me write in the voice of the fan, because I am one. In other cases, I’ve done the research necessary to know how that audience and fanbase speaks and what they’re interested in to present an authentic message (not faking this is a whole other topic). It can be hard for companies to do this as they may not have this kind of genuine enthusiasm internally and it can’t be found in their agency partners. If there’s a case for working with freelance copywriters it’s here, as doing so allows companies to cast a broader net and find someone who brings that sense of excitement to the copy they’re creating.

Establish Measurement

So you’re starting at 3. Cool. You know that. But are you prepared to measure the impact of the voice experimentation you’re about to engage in? What’s the start date for the change? What metrics are you using to gauge success or failure? All of these are essential to know whether what you’re doing is working. The BoF story above shares some stories about increased engagement, a spike in sales and more. There’s no universal right answer here, just know what you’re hoping to get out of this work and be prepared to see if that actually happens.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Two New Looks at The Freelance Reality

Two new studies have appeared recently that give additional insights into the state of the freelance workforce and marketplace. The first comes from The Freelancers Union and Upwork while the second comes from financial services company Payoneer. There are a number of insights that jumped out at me as I perused both reports.

The Field Is Growing

According to FU/Upwork, there are over 57 million freelancers in the U.S. right now, a number that’s grown at three times the rate of the overall workforce in the last three years. In the next 10 years, most U.S. workers will be freelancers, thanks largely due to an influx of young people who are attracted to either the flexibility, the desire to earn a side income, the more positive perception around freelancing or the lack of other career opportunities.

What’s notable, especially as our political leadership continues debating various policy points, is that freelancers are not only more numerous, they’re contributing massively to the economy, with an impact that’s risen by 30% over the last year. But they’re concerned about healthcare coverage, the ability to save for retirement and more. 72% say they’re willing to move outside their regular political affiliation to vote for someone who advocates for issues important to them.

The Hustle Is Real

One of top concerns identified by freelancers is income predictability. Clients come and go, after all, and not every project pays as much as the last one. To combat that, freelancers more frequently update their publicly-viewable skill sets, work to diversify their income sources and more. According to Payoneer, IT & Programming and Legal service providers are most satisfied with their income level, while Writing, Design and Engineering freelancers feel there’s the most room for improvement.

How much time people spend looking for new work depends on the industry, with Legal professionals spending the most time ginning up opportunities. Overall, most everyone spends 3-6 hours a week trying to find new projects and clients. Those searches most often happen on freelance marketplaces, with personal referrals being the second major source of new work followed by social media activity.

Schedules Aren’t That Different

Freelance work doesn’t mean part-time work, at least not for most people. While about 22% of workers clock less than 20 hours a week, most everyone is pulling 30-50 hour weeks, which is in-line with the “traditional” idea of employed activity.

That doesn’t mean they’re over-extending themselves. While there are certainly some outliers, less than 20% put in over 50 hours a week. And 83% of freelancers top out at three active projects at any given time.

What Needs to Change?

If more and more people are freelancing (either out of necessity or by choice) and are going to demand accountability from their elected officials, it’s easy to see that some very basic assumptions are going to need to change in the near future. We’re going to have to have another conversation about affordable healthcare marketplaces, about universal supplementary income and the social safety nets that used to come almost solely from private employers. A growing freelance workforce is going to have subsequent increased political clout.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Writer’s Block Doesn’t Hit Me. Lack of Inspiration Does.

I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block. That’s not me bragging as if I’m too smart and too talented to ever fall victim to the same issues experienced by nearly everyone who’s ever attempted to arrange one word after another into a meaningful and engaging sequence.

It’s more me saying I’m not sure that writer’s block is a universal affliction. Instead it’s always seemed to me to be a generic label applied to any of a number of circumstances.

When I’m unable to write it’s more because of a lack of inspiration. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s that I’m not sure what I want to say or how to say it. I can be sitting here looking at a full list of things I can write about, but I’m not sure where to begin. What’s the first word? What’s the narrative? What’s the conclusion I’d like the reader to reach along with me?

Sometimes I’m just not feeling it deep down in the part of my body that usually drives me to write at all costs. It’s like the pilot light has temporarily gone out. It’s not even a universal outage, though. I might be able to write 800-word blog posts without batting an eye but my novel will sit untouched for a week or more. Or vice versa.

While your mileage may vary, here are the tactics I’ve used when lack of inspiration drags on for more than a day or so.

Just Start Writing

This is perhaps the most cliched advice that can be given but that doesn’t make it any less true. I’ll pick something and start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be there. Even “I’m not sure what I want to say about this but I was thinking about…” is better than nothing. It’s the proverbial snowflake that could become an avalanche, unleashing the creativity and getting my writing back on track.

I recently read “Draft No. 4” from writer/author John McPhee. Among the other advice he has for writers, he recounts the response he usually gives young writers who are feeling blocked. Take out a piece of paper, he says, and begin a letter to your mother about how you can’t write. Tell her about the hard time you’re having getting started on this story about a bear (or whatever the topic is). Eventually you’ll tell her about how the bear has a X# inch neck and an X# inch waist and can run as fast as a cheetah for short distances. Now go back and cut out everything except the bit about the bear. You’ve started your story.

Do Literally Anything Else

Sometimes you kind of need to just not write. That’s the simple truth. Sometimes I feel that because I call myself a “writer” I need to be writing all the time. But actors aren’t always acting and athletes aren’t always training or competing. Sometimes it’s alright to not be doing what it is you think you need to be doing.

In baseball a batter who’s going through a slump may be said to be “gripping the bat too tight” and I like that phrase. It means they’re trying too hard and are making changes to their approach that’s doing more harm than good. A batter needs to have a firm but loose grip on the bat to turn it around at the speed necessary to hit that ball coming at them. Similarly, writers need to not put too much pressure on themselves to be delivering at all times and in all ways. Blow off some steam on a video game, relax with a book or movie. Let go of the bat so you’re not just building up more frustration. Nothing good comes of that.

Engage In a Brain-Dump

Just because I don’t know what I want to say doesn’t mean I don’t know what I want to write about. That’s not the problem. Sometimes it’s the fact that the list of possible topics is too large, or that I’m carrying too much of it my head to allow anyone topic to come into clear focus.

When I feel that might be happening I’ll step away from the computer and pull out a legal pad or scratch piece of paper. I’ll sit down and list everything that’s on my mind, all the projects that are swirling around my conscious and subconscious. Personal writing topics, freelance projects I’m on the hook for, home repairs that are needed, topics I want to learn more about. It all gets out of my head and on paper.

It’s akin to defragmenting a computer hard drive. Memory space is limited and it can’t do anything more because it’s spinning too hard on what’s already trying to keep running. It doesn’t need to work that hard. Defragmenting your own mind can free up the mental space that allows one idea to more clearly come into focus and be executed.

Release Expectations

A lot of the RSS and email reading I engage in is done with the expectation that they will inspire or inform a future writing topic. It’s very purposeful, with specific intent and the belief that it will be used in a particular manner. That’s fine and it’s a useful way to keep up with the current news and conversations around topics that are important to my career and life.

Sometimes those expectations wind up backfiring. I’ll read all those stories and think “Oh, that seems relevant and useful” and save it and then spin my wheels on what I have to say about that topic or what perspective I have to add to the conversation. A story will sit in Pocket for days as I review and reread it, searching for an angle and feeling as if I need to address this before I move on to anything else.

At that point it’s not a source of inspiration but a roadblock to progress. I’ll eventually realize it’s not important that I do something – *anything* – with that story (or an original idea) and let it go. I’ll move on. I’ve freed myself from the expectations that I’ll use everything, or at least that specific item, and the world will continue to spin.

Thoughts?

Do you encounter what’s commonly referred to as writer’s block? How does it impact you? What do you do to get around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and tactics.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The List of Writing Ideas Never Ends

One of the productivity habits I’ve had to train myself to consistently engage in over the last few years is to write down any idea I have that might prove useful. If I have a thought about a client project, I’ll jot it down somewhere. If I have an idea for a fiction story I’ll write down what I’m envisioning. My bullet journal has been useful for this, though occasionally I’ll have to collect up a bunch of random notes scattered on pieces of paper or in random apps and consolidate them into something more actionable. But you get the point: I try not to lose those ideas or think I’ll remember them later.

There’s an entire document in Evernote that’s devoted solely to ideas for future blog posts. That ranges from single one-off topics to outlines for entries in an ongoing feature series. Some of these ideas are time-sensitive, but not many. Anything I want to write that’s more timely usually comes as a result of my ongoing RSS and email reading, which provide jumping-off points for me to riff off and add a perspective to. These ideas tend to be more evergreen, topics that can be tackled and addressed at any point.

That makes them good to have for those times where there isn’t a lot of news going on and my inspiration in other areas is a bit lacking. If I see gaps in my editorial calendar that need to be filled, I can turn to this list and see what resonates at the moment. Sometimes one will jump out at me as being particularly interesting and I’ll decide to snag it and finally write about it.

For every one removed, it seems, three are added. I rarely lack for ideas, just the time to execute them. And ideas can come at any time and in any location. The availability of a solid hour to research and write on that idea is a more finite resource, one that requires certain circumstances to be in place.

While I’m sometimes frustrated by the ever-expanding list of ideas that I want to get to but can’t, it’s better that it’s there. They’re necessary for, as I mentioned, an otherwise fallow publishing schedule. More than that even, I’ve found that capturing ideas and thoughts will often lead to other inspiration. I may think “Oh that’s a good idea” and in the process of jotting a note I’ll think of two or three other things, either wholly different ideas or variations on the initial theme, and capture them as well.

How about you? Do you have a list of “one day I’ll get to these” ideas for writing and other projects?

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Why I Write

Inspired by this prompt at Writer’s Digest, I pulled up a series of Tweets from last year where I went on a mini Tweetstorm sharing some of the reasons why I write.

I’ve expanded or discussed more in-depth most of those notions over the last year. They all remain very true, though, along with others. At the end of the day I write because that’s how I make sense of the world. Sometimes that’s through commenting on the news of the day, sometimes it’s through fiction that channels some idea or issue I’m pondering. Or it’s just to have fun.

I write simply because that’s what I do.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Spotlighting My Experience

I’ve leaned into the reality that I’m a full-time freelancer. In many ways that’s a freeing situation because I get to do what I love – write, primarily – without the hassles of corporate politics and other issues. I love working from home and being available to my family. While I’d welcome the chance to get back into a full-time job, that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. So I am doing what it takes to succeed in my current situation.

Part of that involves showing off my experience, expertise and skills. To that end, I’ve been spending some time recently expanding and editing the places where all that is on display.

Agency Blog Posts

As I stated before, I made sure all my contributions to the corporate blogs of MWW Group, Bacon’s Information, Voce Communications and Porter Novelli/PNConnect are all archived here or accurately linked to. Highlighting these posts is meant to convey and display the industry thought leadership I’ve worked to provide, show my thinking on relevant topics and communicate my ability to remain up to date on industry news and conversations.

They are also writing samples, hopefully showing how I can write in a “corporate” voice that is still opinionated but also professional, with the goal being to enhance the reputation and standing of my employer, eventually leading to more business.

Project Portfolio

Hosted on this site are a number of portfolio items/case studies involving the projects I’ve tackled and work I’ve done. These are offered here to show off the kind of work I’ve accomplished over the years.

A lot of people will offer case studies, but too often they focus on the work and not the results. Where possible, mine include not just an explanation of what the work was but also how I achieved success in execution. I’ve also added notes where possible of the kind of platforms involved in the program and the size and makeup of the teams I managed. I’ll be adding to this over time but here’s what’s on display now:

  • DC Entertainment (Content Strategy): How we took DC’s struggling social media marketing efforts and grew it into a powerhouse both with fans and internally through work on brand voice, live event coverage and other work.
  • Sony Entertainment Network (Content Strategy): How we help Sony Entertainment Network launch and maintain social media support for its video and music services, tailoring content to best resonate with the fans our research showed were interested.
  • White paper creation: How I helped Bacon’s Information get out in front of the emerging social media world, educating on new technologies while helping to collect leads. Also, how a series of internal knowledge-sharing documents were used within Voce/PN to help those not immersed in social media know how to speak about them with clients.
  • Freelance writing: An overview of some of the projects I’ve executed in the last year involving blog post writing, social media content creation, white paper writing and more.

In addition to those I have pages on this site that show off my professional experience as well as the skills I bring to the table, the latter linking to much of the work I’ve already mentioned here.

Freelance Portfolio

While the above link offers a brief synopsis of some of the companies I’ve worked with and what those project have entailed, my Contently-hosted portfolio has a number of additional items. Some of my ghost-written work is there alongside the bylined posts I’ve written for Adfreak, Ad Age, The Drum and other outlets over the years.

All of that should show even more examples of my writing abilities – including the ability to adjust to brand-specific style guides – and convey simply that I’ve been busy. While my resume currently lists me as “freelancer,” it’s important to show that time has been spent actively and that while it’s been 17 months since my last full-time job, there’s no gap in my experience.

Freelance Marketplace Listings

“Putting yourself out there” is an essential part of finding freelance work. That’s why I’ve established profiles on the following freelance marketplaces, all of which I can be contacted through:

A recent study on freelance trends showed that these and other marketplaces are where companies are turning when looking for talent to fill roles that aren’t handled by current staff. So it’s essential that all those are active and well-maintained. All have lists of my skills and services.

For years I shied away from doing the kind of showing off of my experience and work skills, believing that doing so took the attention away from clients or was unnecessarily boastful. Now I realize that making all of that information available is essential to success in the reality of the freelance life.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.