Take a tip from Copyblogger

The go-to guy for online marketing writing and blogging is copyblogger.com. Written by “recovering attorney” Brian Clark, Copyblogger walks the talk. I particularly like the clever headlines — take a look, and you’ll see the tricks he’s using and why they’re effective.

Copyblogger is in the running for the 2007 Bloggies (weblog awards).

Wrong writer

One of the little quizzes popular online this past week was “Which SF Writer Are You?” I noticed various people posting their responses, took the quiz (I was Arthur C. Clarke), and didn’t think any more about it until I came across this post by SF writer Kathryn Cramer. Apparently the quiz said she was Gregory Benford. She then found out from Cory Doctorow that the quiz had informed Benford that he was Arthur C. Clarke. (It told Doctorow that he was Robert Heinlein.)

This is clearly the problem with creating a quiz that that refers to real, live people. Much safer to play “Which Star Trek Character Are You?”

BTW, Neil Gaiman, who took the SF quiz some years back, turned out to be Samuel R. Delany. I just struggled my way through Delany’s Dhalgren, and all I can say is “Arggh.”

I have a new writing hero

It’s New York fashion writer Lynn Yaeger. I can’t imagine how I missed her, and can only assume that she was doing something else the year that I lived in New York and read New York magazine and The Village Voice cover to cover.

I found her not through her writing, but through a photograph taken by fashion blogger The Sartorialist. I then went on to hunt down some of her articles, and found a fabulous New York Times essay (“The Face; Age Appropriate?” — for purchase via Times Select). It’s about vintage clothing — and whether “vintage women” should wear it.

She consults a number of authorities in the fashion industry and the vintage field, including Iris Barrel Apfel, and, once again, gives in to temptation:

“Just when I resolved to mend my ways instead of my clothes, I found a sable coat on eBay (of course, this doesn’t happen unless you have typed ”sable” into eBay in the first place) and placed the winning bid on a luscious garment previously owned by a famous philanthropist who died last October at 99. Although this item is a good 40 years old, it is still remarkably lovely. Like all truly wonderful fashion, it completely transcends the vagaries of time. In fact, it makes me look younger than springtime.”

Just reading Yaeger’s stuff makes me want to buy something totally…ridiculous.

More on money

Seattle writing coach Rachel Whalley commented on my recent post “Is there money in blogging?” She says:

“I would totally agree that the blog itself isn’t a great moneymaker. I use mine to demonstrate my credibility as a service provider, and that’s why my clients create theirs, as well. Can you say what yours is for, or how you think about it related to making money?”

Great question, Rachel!

The Writer Way blog is intended to put me in the best possible competitive position for contract work. It does that by doing three things a resume can’t:

  1. It demonstrates to potential clients and collaborators that when I commit to a project, I stick with it, modifying it to meet a changing user/business environment. The blogosphere and the business world are full of clever writers with bright ideas who get bored in a month or two and flit off to the next trendy thing; Writer Way is intended to distinguish me from the pack.
  2. It showcases at least part of my wide range of writing styles. As someone who makes money writing for other people’s sites (both corporate and individual) I’m not selling “Karen’s voice.” I’m selling a set of writing skills that can be, as appropriate, inspirational or authoritative; buttoned-down or quirky; thoughtful or breezy; inquisitive or instructional.
  3. Finally, I’m hoping that Writer Way will occasionally contribute to the creative community by sharing information, taking stands, or raising questions about practical and ethical issues that confront writing professionals. Because much of my paying work is on collaborative creative teams, I’d like to be part of the discussions on many of these issues. (The recent posts on online plagiarism and writers tracking their productivity are two examples.) Not all potential clients will find this a positive, but the ones I want to work with will!

Fare rumore

I grew up reading the Washington Post in the 1960s — the heyday of political cartoonist Herblock and political humor columnist Art Buchwald. My father, who worked in the federal government, found both of them hilarious, and often left the Post on the breakfast table, folded neatly open to a column or cartoon he knew I’d enjoy.

Buchwald died Wednesday, a year after he was diagnosed as terminally ill with kidney disease and moved to a hospice — where he surprised everyone by recovering, and then writing a book about the experience, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

It was a typical Buchwald scenario.

His approach to political humor writing was to point out the lemons by making delicious lemonade out of them.

As a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Buchwald wrote often about his experiences as a traveler in Europe. One column was about the horrific non-stop racket surrounding his hotel in Rome. In classic Buchwald fashion, he disguised the complaint as a charming anecdote. It began something like this: “I am in Rome covering the world Fare Rumore Championships, ‘fare rumore‘ being Italian for ‘make noise.'” He went on to describe the events of the day, including, if I recall correctly, a pre-dawn can-banging event for the garbage collectors behind his hotel, a late afternoon shouting competition between little old ladies on balconies, and teenagers racing mufflerless Vespas through the streets.

I’ve been heavily influenced by Buchwald, but never more so than in this 1995 letter I wrote to the editor of a weekly newspaper in a beach town where we were vacationing. My husband and I were stuck in detoured traffic on a hot summer afternoon; as we sat and sweltered, one of his more printable suggestions was that we write to the local paper. Buchwald’s “Fare Rumore” column flashed into my mind, and I said “I know exactly how to do it.” Here’s what they published:

To the Editor:

We want to congratulate the community of Long Beach, Wa., on the fascinating new tourist attraction it is offering this season. We came expecting beaches, seafood, and kites but found as well the engrossing new passtime, “Detour.”

Each day, as visitors come and go on the peninsula, the Long Beach Detour appears and disappears along Route 103. Like a desert mirage, it is always just a mile ahead of you. In the morning it blocks the boardwalk. At noon it prevents access to the pharmacy. And in the late afternoon heat, it paralyzes vehicles for blocks. Who knows where it will be tomorrow? The peninsula now boasts not only the world’s longest beach, but the world’s longest traffic jam as well.

The Long Beach Detour is without question a classic Northwest landmark. We noted that the city has gone so far as to employ professional Eddie Bauer models in stonewashed jeans and flannel shirts as flag persons. Not only are these trim, tanned workers aesthetically pleasing, but they are able to stand stock still for long periods of time while retaining the beaming smile of those who are well paid for doing little more than looking good.

For a tourist attraction in only its first year the Long Beach Detour is becoming remarkably well known. You could say, in fact, that you simply can’t leave town without experiencing it at least once. We would, however, venture one suggestion for next year’s Detour. How about a t-shirt proclaiming “We Survived the Long Beach Detour” in orange and black with permanently sweat-stained armpits?

Most sincerely yours,

Karen Anderson

This cheery approach to satire, whether practiced by the late master or by an apprentice like me, is no longer in style. Sure, it’s still found in daily newspapers. But online, and in the alternative press, the current recipe for humorous commentary is a snarky attack offset by a conversational, detached tone. (In essence, it sounds like the columnist is having a conversation with someone he or she doesn’t like much.)

That, of course, is probably ripe for some good-natured parody. Now I’m trying to imagine what Buchwald would have written about a Dan Savage column. Any ideas?

…one more thing

Steve Jobs omitted his traditional “one more thing” announcement at the end of the Macworld keynote this year. So I thought I’d borrow the technique. (He hasn’t patented it yet, has he?)

I’ll end my Macworld coverage by calling the attention of those of you involved in branding and creating product identities to this article from CNET News.com. Writer Tom Krazit does a superb job of exploring the legal issues surrounding the Cisco suit against Apple over the iPhone name. Apparently there are several possible arguments Apple could take to defend itself against Cisco’s charge of trademark infringement. My favorite is “reverse confusion,” which turns out to be pure, classic, Jobs.

I came away from this informative and amusing article with new-found respect — not for the legal profession, but for its creativity.

Notes on Macworld 2007

The effect of the iPhone announcement on the Macworld gathering was intriguing. I believe it was the first time Steve Jobs had announced something you couldn’t go out and buy, or at least pre-order, at the show. And only a very few of the pundits, such as Glenn Fleishman and David Pogue, actually got their hands on what, pre-FCC, is best describe as the “working prototype” of the device.

Since no one could buy one, and almost no one had used one, people were reduced to photographing the two iPhones displayed in glass bell jars (like the Hope Diamond), or, as most of us did, going about regular Macworld business.

It took me a full three days to “do” the exhibit halls. Midway through I was invited to be part of the Take Control authors/editors panel on the Macworld magazine stage. Each panelist was asked to comment on show news related to our particular areas of expertise. Fortunately, I’d just picked up a demo of Storyist, new novelwriting software developed by an ex-Apple guy who writes thrillers, so I spoke about that.

For the past few months I’ve been using some nicely thought-out but rather buggy novelwriting shareware. I was excited to see that Storyist has many of the features I like (searchable and organizable lists of characters, settings and other elements) with a cleaner, more OSX-like interface. The cost for real software with more power under the hood? $59.

It was a little odd pitching novelwriting software to a sea of geeks, but a dozen or more faces in the audience lit up and people began calling out requests for the Storyist booth number so they could rush over and check it out for themselves.

So my first foray into Macworld punditry was successful. The following day I came across another writing-related product I wish I could have talked about. So I’ll pass along that tip here:

Blurb.com is a self-publishing site that’s been around for a while and seems now to have gotten its act together. It provides easy-to-use online software that allows you to turn blogs, manuscripts, photo collections, cookbooks, and more into attractive softcover and hardcover books (starting at $18 for a 40-page soft-cover “trade” paperback). The software interface is similar to that in iPhoto for ordering print books, which I’ve used successfully for years. The final products I saw at the show were high quality and quite stunning. I asked which blog apps you can import from using their “blog slurper,” feature and they said TypePad, WordPress, Blogger and LiveJournal. (Note that their website says the Blogger and LiveJournal support is “coming in 2007.” Hmmm.)

Apple announces a new era

“Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” — Wayne Gretzky

Steve Jobs ended his keynote this morning with that quote, but I’ll start with it because it pretty much sums up the news from Apple.

Jobs announced a new phone, a new iPod, and a new internet device. They’re all the same product — the Apple iPhone.

Is it as revolutionary as he claims? In a word, yes. I’ll refer you to apple.com or one of the Mac news sites for more information.

In my favorite part of the demo, Jobs was listening to music on the iPhone in iPod mode (he also could have been watching a movie on the 3.5″ screen — which automatically switches between portrait and landscape mode depending on how you hold the device) when a phone call came in. The iPhone automatically turned off the music (faded it out tastefully, of course) and gave him a choice with on-screen touch buttons of declining or accepting the call.

He answered the call, and the caller asked him for a photo, which he located in the phone’s iPhoto (did I mention the phone is running OSX? Yeah, really) and then he emailed it to the caller using an address in his Contacts (synced from his address book). He typed the message with a Qwerty keyboard that appears when you need it for email, search, or chat. With the caller still on the line, Jobs moved into internet mode (Safari is part of the iPhone software), went to his Fandango bookmark, and looked up local movie offerings.

After relaying the information to the caller, he touched the pulsing button that indictates an active call and ended the conversation. When he hung up, the song (remember the song?) faded back up.

Jobs then used Google Maps (part of the iPhone software) to locate the nearest Starbucks. He called and ordered 4,000 lattes, to go. “Sorry, wrong number,” he said as he ended the call with an astonished Starbucks employee.

Four other mind-boggling iPhone features:

  • The screen covers the entire device, bringing up an on-screen keyboard only when you need it for email or text messaging (the text message interface has colored balloons, like iChat).
  • All scrolling is done with your finger. A pinching movement (also tapping in Safari) increases the size of the screen image.
  • iPhone (developed in conjunction with Cingular Wireless) offers controlled access to voicemail messages. You see a list of the messages showing numbers (and, if available) the names of the callers. This means you can go right to the message you want instead of listening to a lot of blather. (I have to say, for me, that’s the “killer app.”)
  • If you have two calls on the phone, the phone presents you with a merge button (looks like a traffic merge sign) you can tap to create a conference call. This simple solution to a perennial phone nightmare of conferencing got gasps and applause from the crowd.

“You know, I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” Jobs said, as he ended the demo. “I was so excited about today.”

Jobs had opened the presentation by saying the new product would rank with the 1984 intro of the Mac and the 2001 intro of the iPod. I have to say I agree. And, as a former member of the iTunes Music Store team, I feel truly retired now. The era of the iPod is over. The era of the iPhone has begun.

Web content, and search engines, and plagiarism

An ad for a web content writer on Craig’s List in Seattle includes the following:

“You may rewrite existing articles you find online, but I want to avoid duplicate content penalties from search engines so no plagiarism.”

How about “We want to avoid losing a huge lawsuit, so no plagiarism?”

Apparently some company is willing to put its business on the line by hiring writers who usually plagiarize, but need to be told they should refrain from it on this project because it hurts search rankings. The mind boggles and the stomach turns.

This confirms for me what had merely been a suspicion — that plagiarism is rampant in commercial online web content. My suspicions came from my own experience with a high-end client (who will remain nameless). The client had a staff of very inexperienced content producers who blithely plagiarized from other websites. When I was called in to edit on the project, I had no idea this stuff was going live on a daily basis. I finally spotted the plagiarization when one of the writers grabbed whole paragraphs, verbatim, from a by-lined article in a national magazine. The borrowed text stood out from the usual marketing copy because it was balanced and articulate rather than one-sided and hyperbolic. I ran a few of the sentences through Google and my jaw dropped, as the publication they’d ripped off is notoriously litigious.

After that revelation, I scrutinized their writing closely and found myself flagging plagiarized copy at least once a week and insisting it be removed. This resulted in much eye-rolling from the producers, who clearly considered me to be an ancient fogey with all sorts of outdated ethical hangups. I’m sure when I left the project they went right back to borrowing other people’s work and publishing it on their employer’s site.

For more on the thriving business of online plagiarism, see Plagiarism Today. And, to protect your own commercial website, make your position on plagiarism clear to any writers you are considering hiring. Putting a phrase like “original content” into the description of deliverables in the contract might not be a bad idea, either.

Is there money in blogging?

Yes and no.

J. LeRoy explains the “no” part of the answer perfectly in this post. He says “Monetizing your blog is like going to a cocktail party and expecting people to pay to talk with you. It’s inappropriate and will cause people to avoid you.”

Personal blogs, even when written in your professional persona, aren’t supposed to make money. Certainly, they create opportunities for professional networking and marketing that may very well lead to contracts, jobs, and collaborative projects. But it’s bad manners to try to push a sale or close a deal at the online cocktail party.

The “yes” answer to “Is there money in blogging?” comes when you are blogging on behalf of a client company. Small, fast-paced companies that do much of their business online find that fresh web content, appropriately keyworded, puts their pages higher in search engine rankings and thus draws traffic to their sites. They pay professional marketing writers like me to reseach and then blog about issues that interest their audiences — just as they pay ad agencies to create their ads and PR agencies to handle their press releases.