And about 323,050,800 of those people are US citizens who are probably reading this in one of a few places: Shoved up into a stranger’s armpit on a train; illegally, while sticking their heads out the window and screaming at miles of highway traffic ahead of them; cautiously from their office computer in an effort to push meeting preparation until the last second; or, if they’re freelance writers, in the quiet corners of coffee shops where they weave solitary words into remarkable stories.
But let’s take a closer look at that work aspect. Because while many of us fall into that latter group of people who work in traditional offices, there’s a growing number (presently around 54 million, according to this study) of freelancers who are capitalizing on the growing gig economy and turning their passion for creativity toward brand storytelling.
Fifty-four million. At first, that sounds intimidating, but in a lot of ways, knowing you’re surrounded by like-minded people with unique skill sets should encourage you. After all, it leaves you with plenty of options for finding the perfect community to share and improve your skills, and a lot of people to learn from. It means that your mistakes and fears might not be things you suffer with alone, and that someone likely has an answer to your every question, no matter how small it might seem.
It also means you have plenty of peers (and that’s not counting editors, friends, and even family) you can turn to for career advice. And while their advice might be great when you’re stuck in the thick of a creative slump, sometimes it can feel like a campy nightmare on par with Freddie Krueger. Think about the worst, or blandest advice you’ve ever heard—I mean it probably haunts your actual dreams. Like when someone asks you to “be funny.”
What, like I’m a clown? I amuse you?
In the words of Italo Calvino, sometimes “you know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst.” But when the worst is coming from an editor (or your 366th Google search for career advice), it’s crucial to get proactive and respond in a way that nurtures your relationship. To that end, I’ve conducted some research and spoken with a few fellow freelance creatives to hunt down the absolute worst career advice around—and figure out the best way to face it head-on.
If I wrote one word for every time I heard someone give the advice “be funny,” I’d be James Joyce and this entire blog would be Ulysses. I wanted to try tackling this advice myself, but I knew I’d need some help. To get to the bottom of what “funny” really means, I crowdsourced, asking people for the funniest GIFs the Internet had to offer.
Here are some of the responses I received
What you’ll start to realize is that, while they’re all very funny, these GIFs have nothing in common.
When someone tells you to “be funny,” you have no idea what they actually want. Do they want snarky, Onion-style humor, or something a little goofier? Do they want you to start embracing absurdism in your writing and just inject each sentence with GIFs of animals bouncing across neon screens?
For whatever reason, they didn’t specify. But there’s a quick fix for this. Start by examining the audience of your content. Who’s reading this piece? Is it a tech-savvy 20-something with a sharp wit and a fondness for espresso? Then you could be looking for something a bit more tongue-in-cheek. Writing to an audience of new moms? Then you probably want riffs that are lighthearted and a bit more empathetic. This is a great place to conduct research and get ahead of the problem. Then, once you think you’re close, reach out to your editorial contact to ensure you’re on the right track. Try something like this:
Thanks so much for your feedback on this piece. As you suggested, I’ve been working to elevate the humor in this piece. Given what I know about our audience, I’ve been attempting to infuse humor with empathy to really connect with new moms. Please let me know if you think I’m on the right track. If you need me to go in another direction with this, I’m happy to do that, too— if you can provide any specifics to help me hone in on the perfect voice for this, I’d appreciate that input.
Thanks so much.
Writers have to read? (We have to write?) Unreal. Next you’re gonna tell me that mountaineers should take a hike.
What’s especially tricky about this advice is that though it’s awkward and terrible, it’s also key in moments of severe inspiration deficit. It’s just easy to deliver this kind of suggestion insensitively. So when someone tells you to “read more,” before you get frustrated or resort to verbal abuse, consider what sparked your conversation in the first place.
If someone (say, an editor or fellow freelancer) is telling you to read because you’re stumped about your approach to your next assignment, or wants you to write because she feels like you’re stifling yourself, she might have a point. But, as with the terrible advice to “become an influencer,” she isn’t articulating her thoughts. Ask if she has any suggestions for blogs you can follow or prompts you should try. And if you’re stuck on a particular problem, such as your approach to the umpteenth blog you’ve had to write on information security, consider asking her if she/d take a look with you and offer any insight. Working together on things like this can often be much more fruitful than picking up a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow just because you’re all out of pitches about dog food.
Seriously? The last time I tried this, I ran into a rogue group of pigeons on the corner outside of a CVS. They were gigantic, and they flew at me. I started running away from the growing cloud of potentially diseased, albeit lovely, winged monsters. I can tell you one thing: Walk all you want. Ain’t no pigeons gonna make you Ernest Hemingway.
Not even that one.
While well intentioned, this kind of advice might feel unsolicited—or it’s coming from some career advice tips for freelancers you picked up online. If you’re not someone who finds inspiration in exercise, that’s totally okay! Some people, no matter how brilliant, don’t realize how frustrating it is to be creatively blocked and unsure of how to proceed. If you heard this from your editor or a trusted fellow freelancer, simply thank him for the thought, then change the subject. Maybe you can talk about how bold those city pigeons really have become these days.
Yikes. Another vague ask. This one falls in the camp of such other feedback as “this is awkward, please revise,” but in a lot of ways, it’s worse. Why? Because you probably wouldn’t have written something you didn’t find interesting—and because you’re not a mind reader, you don’t really know what’s going to interest someone outside of yourself.
If you’ve looked to the guidelines and you’re still at a loss, this is a good opportunity to get proactive. Reach out to the offender with a quick note that shows you’ve considered his or her feedback, but you’d love a little more detail.
Thanks so much for your feedback. I’ve taken a deep dive into my list of the top five nutrients healthy dogs need in their diets, but I’m running into a wall. I absolutely want to make this piece interesting for our readers, but if possible, I was hoping I could get your thoughts on what you think would be more intriguing for readers. Would you rather me dive deeper into the foods that contain these ingredients? Or do you think it makes sense to go in a different direction and find some lesser-known nutrients that many dog-safe whole foods contain? Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to get on the same page with you so I can make this piece as strong as possible.
Linsey “Condescending Wonka” Morse
Um, duh. Meet people? Share thoughts and learn from the experience of those who have been in the industry long before you? These aren’t novel concepts. And yet people love to preach networking—sometimes when they have nothing to say.
But like, bills. And family. And then also meeting deadlines, right? It might feel impossible for you to get to every conference you want to, and to learn everything you should.
Don’t panic: There are definitely ways to get your conference on without breaking your budget! Start by conducting a conference audit to determine which conferences offer the most bang for your buck—and see if they offer any discounts or early bird specials. Sometimes keeping a spreadsheet is a great way to accomplish this. From there, see what you can do to attend conferences remotely (or watch recorded sessions after the fact), receive materials from conferences you can’t attend, and grab notes from peers who are planning to attend other conferences. If you have a very close circle, it might be worth splitting the conference circuit and swapping notes at the end.
With the way the traditional workforce has evolved over the past few decades, the word “professional” has grown to become a catch-all term that has very different meanings in very different sectors of the world. And if you pride yourself in your work and you hear it, you probably can’t help but take it personally. After all, you deliver clean copy, you’re on your way to developing a good social following, and your profile picture is even an actual headshot, not a very professional picture of your dog doing something you love!
So what could you possibly be doing wrong? Well, possibly nothing! Or, depending on your industry, maybe it’s something you never considered unprofessional. If you rely on emoticons or exclamation points to drive home your enthusiasm about projects, in some instances, that can throw people off. If you’ve followed up with your editor more than two times in the past month looking for more work, that might also be doing more harm than good. And if your six last tweets were about your obsession with Pretty Little Liars, it might be tough to connect with some of those major tech brands you’re hoping to charm. Sometimes it can be something as simple as one retweet of a piece that competes with a client you’re working with currently. All little things that seem harmless, but that can come back to bite even consummate professionals.
One good way to figure out exactly what it means for your field is to consider the old adage of dressing for the job you want. A professional app developer likely values states of professionalism that are vastly different from the CEO at a top banking firm—and they probably dress differently, too. The one thing they have in common? They know game when they see it, and they value people who are experts in their fields. The same is true in freelancing. If you’re a writer for Clickhole.com, your bio probably reads very differently than it would if you wrote for a Fortune-500 technology brand. And if you’re trying to write for the latter and your bio reads like the former, you’re not dressing (read: writing) for the job you really want.
First, consider reviewing your social media outlets and e-mail communications. Of course, it’s totally appropriate to have a personal Twitter, but you’ll want to remember that if you use that account to share your professional work as well, clients will be able to see everything you share. If you’re struggling to craft e-mails that are personal, yet professional, there are plenty of online courses you can take to help you refine your practices.
Take a look at your professional portfolio as well. Does your bio highlight all your areas of subject matter expertise? Is it a clear-cut representation of everything you have done for clients to date, and do you provide writing samples that support the specializations you cite? If not, take some time to work things through and make it easy for people to find your work and get in touch.
If you’ve done all that and you’re still unsure of what this advice means, you could always take steps to follow up with your editor (or whomever advised this) and let them know that you’re in the process of remediating, and would like to get some feedback on how you could improve your personal brand. Showing that initiative often sets you apart as a professional all in itself.
Like the winds across the sea, the shapes of the northern lights across the skies of Reykjavik, and the color of the hair on the stressed-out heads of freelance writers worldwide, things change. One minute you’re working on a series of pieces about the effect of advertising on the human brain; the next, your client is asking for a listicle that details five ads that had a huge emotional impact. And then some caped hero swoops in and reminds you that all you have to do is be flexible. (Todd. His name is Todd.)
So Todd comes in and all-but suggests that this is how you conduct your business:
Client: Hey! You’re off to a great start. Can you please refocus this piece and make it more snackable for our readers?
The thing is, you’re actually a highly savvy business person who knows how to handle your creative business, and you’re likely more than adaptable with your writing skills. If you’re hearing this from a client or editor, simply conduct a quick self-eval to see if you’ve been anything to imply you’re inflexible with your work. If you have been, it might be worth finding a local writing group that can help loosen your attachment to draft. After all, writing’s an iterative process, and sometimes things take drastic changes before they’re as good as they can be. If not, take it with a grain of salt—it could just be another case of unsolicited heroism.
Remember when you were a kid and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, and you maybe said Bambi? Well, unless your last selfie looks like this, your plans didn’t work out:
Like, you can’t just become an influencer. There’s a lot that goes into building an engaged social following. You have to actually listen to your sometimes whiny audience, craft and share stories that speak to them from a place of empathy, and give them credit for the awesome things they do. That is work, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Some people might even argue for purchasing a following. Don’t be those people. Numbers are only part of the story when it comes to measuring influence, and in fact people are just as interested in your ability to actively engage a smaller following than they are in your ability to coerce a huge crowd into hitching their wagons to yours.
So, what’s the best thing to do when someone tells you to simply become an influencer, as though you’re friggin’ Mystique? For one, recognize that they’re invested in you—they just don’t have all the tools to articulate their hopes and dreams for your success. Take it to heart; start putting yourself out there on social and following people you want to learn from. Occasionally reach out to your numb-tongued adviser and ask if he would be interested in sharing your work with his followers, too. Then each time you do something new, you’ll be building your personal brand alongside an engaged audience that wants to know exactly what you have to say.
This advice sucks. And it’s not because I don’t think it’s important to know your subject matter intimately, and to consider all relevant perspectives when crafting a piece; it’s the implication that research can be deemed useless.
Don’t settle for writing just what you know. Be a subject matter expert, yes—but always be mastering your subject matter. Have you written the definitive text on cloud security? Start interviewing small businesses whose tech teams are embracing a DevOps mentality. Grow your sphere of influence and your body of knowledge, and use it to reestablish your credibility as a thought leader in the tech space. Don’t know something? Consider scheduling an interview or two. Especially where brand storytelling is concerned, there’s danger in failing to write something just because you’re not done learning about it.
For freelance writers, confidence in yourself and your personal brand is crucial—but that’s not what I’m worried about here. When you ask someone to review your work and, rather than read it, they tell you to be confident, you’re opening the doors to some serious problems.
There are two reasons for that. First, the simple fact that you’re so close to your writing, that you have no idea if the jokes you’re making are too obscure, or if your syntax is clear.
Those two elements combined can create the perfect storm for writing like this disaster. Don’t be the guy who submits this to his editor (Note: Some themes in this piece might be NSFW).
If hearing that advice makes you immediately want to rush your keyboard and scramble together some defensive thoughts about your latest piece, I get that. After all, you just poured hours of research, possibly some interviews, and about 40 cups of coffee in an attempt to get your heart and soul on the page to craft the perfect brand story. But before you make any sudden moves, take some time to step back from this advice—then revisit your draft with less emotion. Think about it like this: Remember that time your roommate ate your last leftover crab rangoons? Remember that disappointment and rage all wrapped up into one emotion and covered in the grease left behind in the styrofoam container you thought was safe at home? Well, also remember what happened when you screamed at her: You had to keep living with her, day after day, or at least until your lease was up.
The same is true of your relationship with your editor (unless you really want to cut ties). Take a moment to review your work and see if there are any places where you missed more than a few typos or perhaps misunderstood the style guide. A lot of edits are suggested with the intention of aligning a piece with a brand’s voice. They’re rarely a reflection of the worth of your work or the way your editor feels about you.
Your support community is there for you to turn to and learn from at every stage in your professional development—and with 54 million people (and growing) to share in your struggles, you’re never alone when you need support. But as you well know, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t always the best thought, and sometimes even your most trusted editor will give you unintentionally tactless career advice. Remember to filter the valuable from the vapid, thank him for his time, and keep living that dream of one day maybe becoming Bambi. Or landing your dream client. Whichever you prefer.
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