Freelance Fridays: What to Do When Your Client Wants to Cancel, Part 1

We’ve all been there.

Sooner or later, every freelancer will run across a client who wants to cancel services. Reasons run the gamut from cost expectations to design disagreements. Perhaps you just don’t work well together.  Worse yet, your client may never have intended  to pay you. Sometimes, it’s your fault.

Occasionally, it’s none of the above.

I ran into this situation this morning, actually. A prospective client had inquired about editing work. During the interview process I learned that the client had already consulted a competitor, but I agreed to review a copy sample and send her my comments so she could make an informed decision.

She loved everything. My work, my rates, my schedule flexibility, my payment options. But she felt somewhat committed to her first contact and was uncomfortable with the idea of letting that editor down.

In this scenario, the only professional thing to do was wish her well and send her back to her original editor. We didn’t have a contract; the only work I’d performed for her was a free service I’d chosen to offer, no strings attached. If it’s the client’s uncomfortable, the client’s uncomfortable, and no level of schmoozing

on my part is going to help someone else resolve a battle with her own conscience.

While it’s understandably frustrating for us writers to be spending so much of our time interviewing and attracting new work (freelancing can feel like an endless job hunt some days), it’s important to keep in mind that the client does not owe you a job. Until you have a set agreement in place, that client is a free agent. It’s up to you to make your clients want to stay.

Kate

Check back next week for Part Two of this series!

Top Ten Reasons We Still Need (Human) Writers

Within the last few weeks, a large but relatively obscure media company which shall remain temporarily anonymous has been drawing headlines for laying off an undisclosed number of people.

I was one of them.

We were given no explanation, no warning, no severance. Just a mysterious email from our supervisors dropped into our inboxes over the weekend asking us to call in to discuss “the week ahead.” I guess that’s the corporate idea of breaking things gently.

Before the ax fell, though, projects were underway to revamp the company’s proprietary software and content generation systems. It seems I’ve been replaced by a machine.

Cybot WIP. Stock illustration by macaruba, 2009


Modern technology, combined with offshoring, has made it possible to generate ever-cheaper forms of content to clutter up the Web. Some of the stories in your own newspaper may not even have been written by a real person. We journalists are now literally competing with computer programs. Or so we’re told.

No wonder the job market stinks.

There’s still hope for writers, though. Here, in no specific order, are my top 10 reasons why it’s impossible to fully replace us for the foreseeable future.

1. Emotion. Although an advanced program may be able to simulate emotion, it doesn’t actually possess any depth of feeling. By the way, robots, readers can tell when you’re faking it.

2. Creativity. “Fiction,” Mark Twain reminds us, “is obliged to stick to possibilities.” Your computer could mix a ton of hypothetical situations together in what looks like a creative function, but true creativity comes from considering –and pursuing — the impossible.

3. Voice. Perhaps a writer’s most valuable asset, an author’s voice embodies a perspective unique to that individual, forged by culture, circumstances and life experiences.

4. Clarity. We’ve all seen scads of those junk articles from non-native speakers. The word choices and grammar are so confusing that these pages don’t attract readers for long. If people cannot understand what an article is trying to say, they complain. They don’t link to it and they certainly don’t make an effort to find more stories from that “author.”

5. Sensitivity. When it comes to handling race relations, religion, politics or any other emotionally charged subject, the computer loses. Artificial intelligence cannot even begin to replicate the shared understanding of your fellow human beings.

6. Research. Again, creativity and perspective come into play here. Machines can make predictions and draw conclusions from data provided, but they don’t know how to pursue new information from offline sources.

7. Fact checks. Could you tweak a program to flag suspect numbers, names and other data for accuracy? Sure, but as the techies say, garbage in, garbage out. Software capabilities will be limited to sifting through information given and comparing it to reference databases you provide. If somebody’s name got misspelled by whoever stuck it in that file, too darn bad.

8. Analysis. No matter how many facts you input, the computer cannot generate meaningful, informed  commentary laced with a nuanced historical perspective. Graphs and illustrations, yes, insight, no.

9. Typos and homonyms. Ever missed a semi-colon or gotten words like “form,” “from,” “eliminate” and “illuminate” garbled in your spell-checker? Imagine that on a global scale.

10. Search engines. Duplicate content, irrelevant and nonsensical content, keyword-stuffed content — all of these can get your business dinged by the likes of Google. When it comes right down to it, bad writing doesn’t pay.

Artificial intelligence is increasing rapidly, though, to the point where some scientists think we’ll all just morph into cyborgs someday. Is it only a matter of time before the machines take over once and for all?

Kate


Writers Wednesday: Inspiration Elements Treat Writer’s Block

Sapphire Pool, Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Kate W, 2010

One of the methods by which I confront writer’s block is tapping into earthly sources of inspiration and renewal. Connecting with the element to which I respond most, water, helps me to relax and regroup. This is one of my go-to writer’s block solutions whenever I am struggling with a scene or attempting to perfect a turn of phrase.

The ancients understood the interconnectedness of life through the four elements: earth, stable and physical; air, fluid and mobile; fire, energetic and transformative; and water, flowing and dynamic. Today, we still recognize these elements scientifically (solid, gas, plasma, and liquid) as the four states of matter.

The pagan concept of individual elements — sometimes four, sometimes five or more — while certainly nothing new, does tap into a universal truth. Our bodies and our world are made up of these things. As writers, we recognize the soul, that part of humanity that drives us to spend our days attempting to communicate with one another and leave a memorable legacy through our work. One simple method for dealing with writer’s block, then, is to study the relationship between the soul and the classical elements that affect our day-to-day lives. If you’ve been searching for inspiration, study the list below and find the element that speaks most to you. Regardless of your personal spiritual leanings, you’ll at least be doing something different.

Earth

Create yourself a garden space and work in it, every day.

Scatter potted plants around your home.

Walk quietly in the woods or through a meadow or hayfield.

Get a little Zen rock garden for your desk.

Clean. Pick up excess clutter around your house. Scrub your bathroom. Vacuum your floors.

Bake bread. Find a simple yeast recipe and knead the dough.

Build something. Wood and stone are solid and come from the earth, making them especially appropriate media. Try mosaics, carvings, furniture and small woodcrafts.

Air

Go running.

Purchase a stationary bike, rowing machine or elliptical.

Ride a horse or a bicycle.

Stand outside on a breezy day.

Switch on some sort of fan.

Fly kites.

Simmer something on your stove and inhale the aroma.

Adjust your thermostat, adding heat or air-conditioning as the season warrants.

Practice simple breathing exercises. You can make this one part of your morning spiritual routine.

Fire

Light a candle. Better yet, light several and scatter them around the room, just be sure to set them in stable places and snuff them when you leave!

Burn incense or fragrance oils.

Cook dinner on a grill.

Install a fire pit or chiminea in your yard.

Buy a lava lamp.

If you have a fireplace, build a fire in it and keep it going throughout the day.

Play with a woodburning kit.

Work with tools that involve heat, sparks and ovens. Try light metalsmithing or pottery. You could learn to solder, weld or use a grinder disc.

Water

Take a long shower.

Go for a walk in the rain.

Place a portable fountain somewhere in your house.

Soak in your bathtub.

Do laundry.

Watch a thunderstorm.

Make soup or chili and leave it simmering for hours.

Give yourself the spa treatment! A steamy facial or warm foot soak would be good choices.

Hand-wash your dishes.

Pour yourself a glass of water and drink it slowly.

Visit the neighborhood swimming hole.

Stroll a lakeshore or river bank.

What’s your inspiration element? How do you tap into it?

Kate

Curiosity Photos: Megapixels Aren’t Everything, But They Help

Mars’ Mount Sharp, above, has been compared to the American Grand Canyon. All images courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

A color-corrected image from NASA’s 100- Mast Camera highlights the layers on Mount Sharp. 
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

Another shot of Mars from the 34-mm Mast Camera aboard Curiosity.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

In the past few days, the full-color Mast Camera pictures have finally begun coming back from the Mars rover Curiosity, which landed just over three weeks ago.

Surprisingly, these were taken with a two-megapixel camera, Extreme Tech reports. That’s right. Both of Curiosity’s color “high resolution” cameras actually have only two megapixels. For those of you without a digital photography bent, this technology went out somewhere between the dinosaurs and the turn of the millennium, so the news that the U.S. government just spent billions of dollars to send seriously outdated camera equipment to the Red Planet has been making waves in the tech world. 

Extreme Tech, though, does a good job of explaining some of the reasons NASA opted to send not one, but two color, high-res two-megapixel cameras to Mars. The main ones? Data transmission issues, parts (two other cameras aboard also use the same sensors), no perceived need to capture movement (guess the NASA scientists aren’t too worried about encountering Martians), and the hassle of preparing equipment to withstand extreme conditions.

Megapixel count has long been a bone of contention among camera nerds, who tend to see it as more of a marketing gimmick than a reliable indicator of device performance. Generally speaking, when you’re talking about anything you’re going to see on a computer screen, you don’t need big numbers. When it comes to camera selection, the entire package, including software, lenses and sensors, is a great deal more important. Megapixels are simply one component of a much “bigger picture.”

That’s also why a high-megapixel cell phone camera is still  no serious replacement for a good-quality camera and lenses, despite this silly commercial. Phones simply have less space to put everything needed for a top-notch picture, and even though photo technology has improved dramatically in recent years for cell phone users, the ability to share images conveniently is still considered more important than the ability to capture moving objects, shoot from a distance, or function in low light.

But these arguments fail to account for the differences among media. From a publishing perspective, the Curiosity cameras are lacking, because if you’re going to print images, megapixels do matter. In print photography, although eight megapixels would be passable in most cases, 12 or more is better. Try blowing up any low-resolution image and printing it onto a beautiful poster, and you’ll understand why.

It would appear, then, that print quality requirements were not a priority for Curiosity, whose main purpose is, after all, scientific exploration. One would think that with firsthand knowledge of the pace of modern technology, $2.5 billion to spend and years to develop, it would have occurred to somebody at NASA that perhaps the camera should have been a later project addition, but apparently that was not the case. There’s no denying that the images coming back from Curiosity are incredibly impressive as is.

NASA announced last week that InSight, a new $425 million mission to examine the Mars interior, has been scheduled for 2016. Several instruments are being developed for that spacecraft, which is supposed to carry two cameras. It would sure be nice if at least one of them got an upgrade, but since we’re still in a recession, I’m not holding my breath.

Kate

While we’re at it: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden got to be the first human to have  his thoughts broadcast from Mars. Check this out compliments of NASA; it’s just plain cool.

Freelance Fridays: Watch the Writer Weight Gain

I call it the “author pudge.” Or the writer pooch, the blogger bulge, the reporter gut.

Whatever you’ve dubbed it, it’s that stubborn five, 10, 20 pounds that creeps onto the front of your waistline, that not-so-welcome physical reminder of too many hours spent stuck in front of the computer screen trying to beat deadline. Yup. Writer weight gain.

Most of us desk-workers have been there one way or another; writer weight gain is a common enough complaint. But when you’re working out of a home office with nobody to hold you accountable and no real need to dress like a civilized adult (if you want to skip the shower, work in your underpants, and eat ice cream for breakfast, who’s going to notice, anyway?), suddenly that “freshman 15” you battled in college starts to look like a cakewalk compared to the “freelance 30.”

What’s a poor writer to do?

Take breaks

At least every two hours, make sure you get up from that desk (or couch). Instead of eating, try making this chore time. Throw a load of clothes in the wash, vacuum your living room, make your bed. If you have animals or children at home, spend ten minutes playing with them before going back to work.

Get a drink

On those breaks, make sure you top off your coffee, or better yet, pour yourself a glass of water. Drinking something helps control food cravings, and giving yourself a mental break every so often helps you regroup so you can stay more productive.

Go for cardio

At my house, I have to contend with ice in winter and hay fever in the spring and summer. I prefer low-impact exercise and am also not a big fan of sweating in public, so we opted to spend a couple hundred bucks and get a home elliptical machine. It’s bulky and takes up most of my dining room, but it’s awesome. Twenty minutes on that thing is a whole-body workout — abs, arms, legs. I don’t have to pay for a gym membership, but if I do want some outside time, I can always take my dog for a run.

Avoid liquid calories

Sodas, juice, creamy coffee drinks, booze, shakes… so many choices, and all so full of extra calories. If you can do it, try saving the fattening drinks till evening, and stick to water, tea and coffee during the day. I don’t recommend diet sodas because the artificial sweeteners can trigger sugar cravings, but if you must have a soft drink during the day, have one, and make sure it comes in a portion-controlled can, not a Big Gulp.

Watch the snacks

If you’re a natural snacker, don’t worry. I am, too. We’re not talking about skipping snacks, just choosing the right snacks. I do my best to make this easy on myself by keeping healthy choices on hand: nuts, dried fruit, cheese, lunch meat and an assortment of raw dipping vegetables (cucumbers, baby carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery). If you’re getting enough protein, you won’t want to binge on the junk.

Now it’s your turn. How do you combat writer weight gain?

Kate