A Story of Breakers and Fixers

Once upon a time, my father said something that has hung with me.  Essentially, it was that there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones that fix things and the ones that break things.

As a writer, you’ve almost certainly encountered the second type of people, though maybe not directly.  They leave a path of destruction in their wake. Sometimes that means bad content, outdated SEO practices, awful customer service, but it can really be anything that leads to the tearing down of a project and the trust that goes with it.

Obviously, we need to try to never be this kind of person, the destructive kind.  We’re creators and by our own nature, we should be the sort that fix things. But sometimes, even the most well-intentioned fixers turn into habitual destroyers.

Today I challenge you to take a good long look at yourself and your behavior.  Are you a fixer or are you a breaker?

It’s About So Much More Than Money

I’ve met lots of people in this writing life, many that are starry-eyed and dream of “being a writer,” not really understanding what that means.  For some, they imagine it’s the ultimate in professional self-expression. It’s the pinnacle of their art. It’s everything. For them.

For others, it’s a means to an end.  They’ve read that they can make a living on the beach!  They can work two hours a week and have a glamorous life.  They can write one half-hearted book and get a movie deal.

Both of these types are missing the point entirely.  

Writing isn’t about you.  It never was.

It’s not about bylines or paychecks (though both of those things are helpful to keeping you in sandwiches).  Writing is a service job. We are in service to our reading public, whoever that happens to be. We’re probably also in service to a client or multiple clients.

This is a service job, and the moment you forget it, you’re sunk.  We are as much part of the service industry as the guy at McD’s dishing out the French fries.  What we serve is different, but we still serve.

That, I think, is what the most destructive among us forget.  They, too, are in service.

But wait, I hear you thinking, I’m in charge of my destiny.  I own a small business, I’m a gig worker, I am free to be.

No, you’re not free to be.  If you were, you’d not be worrying about how much this job pays.  None of us are free to be. We have to work this like a real job and recognize what kind of job it is.  Like accountants and mechanics and fucking stockers at Lowe’s, we’re in service.

In fact, it might be argued that most people, simply by being employed, are in service, even if they don’t work directly with the public.  We’re in service to one another, we owe a debt to our communities, our households, our families. But this is about us and the writing life today.

Improve Your Service Skills

There are so many things we have to learn how to do as writers.  We have to nail new and exciting voices, push out content that we’re not necessarily 100% behind idealistically, we have to know the client and its audience in and out.  We have to deliver on time, because when we don’t, we fail more than ourselves.

Improving your service skills doesn’t take a lot, but it will make a huge difference to your ability to do your job well.  It will also help you gain a reputation for excellence, no matter who is asking.

You can make immediate leaps by:

  • Checking your work.  Believe it or not, you can’t just bang the keys and submit whatever shit comes out.  You have to check your work. Check your facts. Check your words and your style guides.  I’ve worked with a lot of writers over the years and there are too many still skipping their pre-flight checks.  They think they’re saving time, but the truth is that they’re hurting themselves. It only takes a minute to look back over everything when you’re done.  It’s not your editor’s job to rewrite your sloppy work.
  • Meeting deadlines.  We’ve all had those days when nothing wants to come together right and even weeks when those days ooze together.  But the bottom line is that if you miss deadlines, you’re telling your client and their readers that you don’t really think they’re a priority.  Sure, there are clients who will understand if there’s a bit of a hiccup. There are companies that will work around this sort of thing. But you have to hit more than you miss or you put even these types in major jeopardy.
  • Learning to communicate.  It’s funny how many people in our industry, who should all be masters of communication, fair miserably in keeping people in the loop.  If you need something, ask for it. If you’re going to be late, say so. If you need the barrage of emails to stop, make it clear. Communication is vital, and it’s what keeps teams functioning.  When we don’t or won’t talk to each other about projects, those projects are doomed. Say no when you mean no. Be clear.

Look, I don’t want to be breaking your balls here, but the truth is that you guys can really suck as a community.  And a lot of you spend more time breaking things than you do fixing them. The good news is that the year is still young and you have plenty of time to turn this thing around, so what’ll it be?  

In 2020, are you going to be the kind of person who breaks things or the kind of person who fixes them?

Breaking Free of Content Mills

I know I’ve been talking about content mills more than my normal zero amount, but I get an incredible number of inquiries about how to find them, how to use them to get to better work and on and on.  So, I’m making some blog posts about them.  For you.  My fucking audience.  You fuckers.

Content Mills and the Real World

The truth is that the content mills have a vital place in the writing food web, as I discussed here.  That being said, your job as a writer is to get the fuck out of there as quickly as you can.  There are several reasons for this, but these are probably the most important:

They don’t pay for shit.  Face it, that content mill you’re working for is paying you pennies for your work.  You may console yourself by saying that it’s better than flipping burgers, but believe it or not, those burger flippin’ motherfuckers get a great deal more street cred than you will at a content mill.  Get what you’re worth — even an eager youngster with an ear for language should be earning $15 to $25 per blog.

They’re incredibly unreliable.  In the last five years, I’ve watched numerous content mills crash and burn.  They’re full of assignments one day and totally empty the next, or worse, they simply fold and take your hard earned money with them.  That’s not great, so if you’ve got to be at a content mill, bust your butt, do your best work and get the fuck outta there as soon as you can.  Also vet your content mills to see who has the best track record for staying alive.  The ones I recommended above have all been around a while, even if they’ve not always had work.

They don’t allow you to develop as a writer.  Last, but far from least, working for a content mill means that you’re working with a million different editors doing exactly the same thing you are — trying to hang on, trying to break into this world.  The problem with working with a million random editors is that you never really learn anything.  One editor says to do it like this, another says to do it like that and a third will just fix everything to save time.  Working with an established editorial team helps you hone your craft — it’s a beautiful relationship you should cherish.

Gettin’ the Fuck Outta There

So how do you get off the content mill merry-go-round?  It’s not as hard as you’d think, actually.  After a few months of hard writing, you should have collected a decent number of words — and that means you’ve got a portfolio, whether you know it or not.  Make sure to keep copies of every piece you do, then you can use Google to track them down later.

Pick a sentence or two that aren’t terribly generic and paste them into Google inside quotes.  Like magic, your article should pop up.  Save the link!  Before you share it with the world, though, check it carefully to make sure that your random editor or mystery client didn’t introduce embarrassing errors.  I know it’s frustrating when that happens — trust me, I feel your pain — but there’s not much you can do there.  Just keep looking, you’re bound to have some other good stuff floating around on the net.

Once you’ve used all that content mill stuff to put together an organized and beautiful portfolio, you can build your writer’s package (resume, samples and cover letter) and start applying for grown up jobs on brokering sites like oDesk and the myriad of job boards across the web.

Now, it won’t happen overnight, but when that first job offer comes through, you can start to let go of your content mills.  You land the first one, then another and another until you’ve got enough clients that you don’t have to go back to the content mill, not ever.  After a few years of landing clients and doing good work, you’ll start getting referrals — and man, those are sweet.

We’ll talk about that some other time, though.