craft, Writing improvement

A Reading List For Life

In the next couple of months I’m going to be rolling out a book review series of business-type titles I’ve read recently. These are on my list because others have recommended them to me as I’m building my freelance business, as I’m networking, and as I’m just coming across interesting titles. That’s for another time, though. For now, I’d like to offer a different kind of reading list.

A reading list for anyone, regardless of what business you’re in, what job you do, or where you are in your relationships, spiritual journey, or in your training to hike the Sonora Desert with just two tubs of peanut butter for sustenance.

These are books that I think anyone would enjoy. Moreover, these are books that anyone would get value from, either in a new perspective on the world, new insights about personhood, or an interesting, deeper view of a subject than you can find on social media.

 

Writing Books

Elements of Style; Strunk & White

Strunk and White cover

This is the classic “how to make your writing better” book. It’s short, to the point, and doesn’t pull any punches. Whether you write for a living or not, reading this will give you a more persuasive way to say virtually anything you write.

The 10% Solution; Ken Rand

10Percent solution

This short volume challenges anyone to go back after they’ve gotten everything written and then cut 10% . Rand gives some tips on how to do it, but, more importantly, it’s the why that matters. When you’re trying to influence another, whether it be through written or spoken word, forcing a cut of 10% while still keeping the main message ensures that you’ve critically thought about what you want to say and the most effective way to say it.

Writing Down the Bones; Natalie Goldberg

writing down the bones

My instructor introduced this book when I was taking a creative writing course in college. Written by a poet and writer, about the writing process, Writing Down the Bones has been my guide for directing my writing practice for over 20 years. Highly recommended for inspiration on how to break away from the world, some rules to follow when writing, and general ideas about what to write about.

 

Inspiration / Memoir

Into Thin Air; John Krakauer

Into thin air

Krakauer tells the true-life story of a tragedy on Mount Everest. He is a journalist, so he brings a deft touch to telling the story of loss and misfortune. However, more than simply reporting what happened, Krakauer tells a true-life story with an intensity and authenticity rarely experienced in other narratives, because he lived it. He was a member of the expedition whose goal was to summit the highest peak on the planet, and his unique combination of journalistic skill and mountaineering background give readers a perspective unmatched in exploration narratives.

Never Let Go; Dan John

Never Let Go

Dan John is a former weight lifting and throwing coach for the United States Olympic Track & Field Team (at least, that’s how I remember it). This combination of memoir / essay / just-do-it missive is the first book I’ve ever read cover-to-cover and then went immediately to page 1 to do it again. John talks about weightlifting, about training, about mental and physical discipline, about diet, and about how to actually achieve results, not just talk about them.

When Breath Becomes Air; Paul Kalanithi

when breath becomes air

What do you do when diagnosed with a terminal illness? Kalanithi, a highly-acclaimed surgeon, decided to write down his thoughts as he experienced them, and luckily for us decided to publish them. “That morning, I made a decision; I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a  different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

 

Reframe Everything You Thought You Knew About A Popular Subject

Why We Get Fat; Gary Taubes

why we get fat

The old adage is Calories In (minus) Calories Out (equals) Change in Weight. If Calories In is more than Calories Out, we’ll gain weight, and vice versa. Taubes distills his weighty academic tome Good Calories, Bad Calories into a popular version, and for the good. Why We Get Fat examines, and refutes, many simplistic notions of weight gain and loss using scientific research. And he points out places where it would be good for more science, but we just don’t have it yet. This is essential for understanding that sometimes (okay, often), complex systems are complex.

Dataclysm; Christian Rudder

dataclysm

We’ve all seen the rise in dating apps like Tinder and OK Cupid. Dataclysm is from OK Cupid founder Christian Rudder, and provides a lot of behind-the-scenes information and analysis. The point of this book is that as much as people may say they wish for certain characteristics in their romantic partner, their actions tell a different story. Applications to marketing, to business, and to personal life abound.

The Prophet; Khalil Gibran

the prophet

This is a blend of philosophy, religion, and poetry. In The Prophet, the Prophet himself educates a town on their ignorance of the true valuable priorities in life: what work is, what money is, what society is, what love is. I loved reading this simply for the different perspective it offers on how to live a good life and the interconnectedness of us all.

 

Good Fun

The Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book; Bill Watterson

calvin and hobbes

Watterson was at the top of the world with Calvin & Hobbes, his beloved comic strip about a young boy and his best friend. The 10th Anniversary Book explains much of Watterson’s thought process around developing the strip, the characters, even his arguments with his syndicate over licensing issues. Not just for fans,

The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russell

the sparrow

This sci-fi novel tells of the journey and return of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest sent to Rakhat to proselytize the natives and save their souls. Many times sci-fi completely glosses over or ignores religion, both of us and them. In my opinion, this book provides the best treatment of considerations of religion in such a context.

The Time Traveler’s Wife; Audrey Niffenegger

time travelers wife

Another sci-fi, and this one was just amazing. Henry and Claire have a fantastic relationship, despite his inability to control his time traveling. But be careful – Henry’s life and Claire’s intersect in ways too numerous to count, and with consequences neither could have foreseen.

Hooway for Wodney Wat; Helen Lester

wodney wat

I love this book! I read it out loud to my daughter one evening, and the first time through I could not stop laughing. Yes, it’s a great children’s story with a classical message, but the physical joy of reading this one out loud is what makes it special.

 

What Do You Think?

Have you read any of these? Would you recommend something different to add to this list? Think I’m completely off-base? Leave me a message and let’s start the discussion. Cheers.

business development, craft

6 Pros (And 5 Cons) of Working With Freelancers

Let’s see, we’re smart, funny, sophisticated, and we won’t drink all the good bourbon at your happy hour. That’s enough, right? Oh, wait, you want some value for your time here? Ah, makes sense. Without further ado, here are my observations on some positives and negatives to working with freelancers, whether they be for graphic design, creative content, project management, or something else.

Pro #1: You Don’t Need To Fill Their Schedule

Freelancers work project-by-project, or sometimes on retainer (which would be a set fee for a set amount of work each time period). This means you can get work done at the level you need, without worrying that you’ll have to continually find things for your freelancer to do to make her worth what you pay her. She can step in during crunch times and lend a hand to get you past a deadline, and afterwards you both can say, “See you next time!” without any hard feelings or obligations.

Con #1: They May Not Be Available Just When You Need Them

Because that freelancer has to keep her own pipeline full, she may not be as readily available to take on a large or urgent project right when you need the help. Her next two days to two months might be booked with work already, without any kind of flexibility to adjust for your project. This could leave you scrambling or working that overtime anyway, just when you thought you were in the clear.

Pro #2: They’ll Have Experience In The Tasks Your Asking For

People generally transition into freelancing from a previous career. Yet they don’t forget all the things they’ve done before, and that means when they’re promoting themselves as a freelancer in a certain area, they know what they’re talking about. Suppose you’ve got a new project or new expansion that you’re considering. If you have the choice of an internal employee with no experience in such projects or an external freelancer with extensive knowledge of best practices, you would probably do well to leverage that freelancer’s expertise for a project or two. If you give the whole thing to the new internal hire, it will probably get finished, but the after-action review will likely say “This could have been done so much better.” Adding that external freelance help can build your capacity while minimizing some risks.

Con #2: They Will Need Some Time To Learn About You

If you’ve got a niche product or industry, it might take a little time to help your freelancer understand just what your ideal customer is, what your unique market position is, or why you’re doing what you’re doing now. If you work with new freelancers often, this re-education process can get tedious. You might find that telling your own story becomes a hindrance to getting more of your work done, and so you’ll turn to internal people who already know what, why, and how.

Pro #3: They Can Focus On The Project At Hand

When you hire a freelancer to design a flyer, that’s all they’re going to do. They won’t get distracted by the March Madness pool, or reorganizing the mail process to make it more efficient. They will focus on what they’re doing for you, and not stick their noses into business they don’t belong in. You can get the work done without office politics, without losing focus, and with a sense of single-minded purpose that can often fade in a less-structure environment. Trust me on that one, I spent 16 years in offices. It’s easy to see why Dilbert hits so many nerves.

Con #3: Freelancers Aren’t Full-Time

That is, they won’t be devoting all of their time to your organization. They’ll be working on multiple projects at once, which means you might have to break down your project into various steps, when the alternative might be to just assign one big block of work and let it go. The freelancer will likely check in multiple times over the project lifetime, which may feel like dragging out the process and adding unnecessary feedback loops, but that’s because the freelancer doesn’t want to waste any time in the end redoing a project just because the final delivery “didn’t quite feel right.” As a result, you might feel like you have to “manage” the project more than with an internal employee.

Pro #4: Low Overhead

Freelancers are generally solo-preneurs, so interacting with them is talking directly with the professional. You probably won’t have a sales executive and an account manager in between you and your designer, a situation which, frankly, is easy to evolve into at larger firms. It’s a necessity of growth and specialization, but it does add some barriers into the communicative process. Plus, having such low overhead means you’re usually not paying for a fancy office space, multiple layers of middle management, and ancillary services that don’t add any value to your project.

Con #4: Their Hourly (Or Project) Rate May Look High Compared To Your Salaried Employees

This is a function of two elements. One, you are paying the professional directly, so they’ll likely need to allocate some of their revenue to support processes like bookkeeping services, supplies, etc. It’s not all profit for them.

And, two, your salaried employee is getting paid more than just the dollars on the paycheck. You’re also paying taxes, benefits, vacation, and coffee and Junior Mints in the break room. So a freelancer who’s charging $70 an hour is going to look real expensive, at first glance, compared to a salaried employee who earns $60,000 a year (really close to $30 / hour). But if you do the math on that salaried employee, they’re probably not being effective all 40 hours a week, 2,000 hour a year. Maybe 2/3 of their time is actually focused on work. The rest is bathroom breaks, quarterly meetings, and extra-long lunches. Add in taxes, benefits, and all the ancillaries, and I bet your hourly rate for your freelancer is really, really close. Don’t dismiss a quote out-of-hand just because it seems high relative to your current employees.

Pro #5: Wide Backgrounds Often Bring New Insights

While no good freelancer should be distributing confidential or proprietary information, when you work with someone who’s had a broad background of project experience, he is likely to have seen something that worked in another area that you had no idea about. You can leverage his broad base of knowledge to apply to a new situation. This wide reach approach means that you’re not just limited to things that all of your competitors are currently doing. You might be in hospitality and your freelancer can give you a feel for what works in steel production, or how an education group approached a similar problem. This expands your opportunities for success by expanding the marketplace of potential solutions.

This goes hand-in-hand with the next positive to working with freelancers, that they’re quick to learn.

Pro #6: They’re Generally Quick Learners

Freelancers have to be. They’re meeting new people, new industries, and potentially taking on new projects all the time. This means they need to know how to get up to speed quickly, to make connections on limited data, and to ask crucial questions that get to the heart of the matter. You might feel like this is “probing” or “intrusive”. Frankly, though, these quality questions will enable you and your freelancers to work better to create a more effective final product, and the discovery process can ensure that you’re able to clearly define what you want and why.

Con #5: Their Style May Not Be For You

Despite all the positives, working with a freelancer just might not fit your style. You might need to be able to check in more often than that freelancer is able to work with you. You may want to retain a lot of the creative control, rather than give your freelancer freedom to explore. You might not have payroll or vendor systems set up to adequately pay your freelancers. You may just like the regularity and security of having someone always on-staff that could do whatever you asked of them, without a project scope document and an agreement negotiation each time. And it could be that the freelancers you come across just aren’t that good at what they do, and so you’re willing to invest the time and money in a search for a permanent hire. If that’s best for you, then it would be a waste of time to try to convince you otherwise.

Conclusion

Hiring a quality freelance professional can bring new knowledge and insights to your team. She may also bring some headaches and challenges, too. Knowing beforehand what you want and why will smooth the process, and who knows? Your freelancer could even work herself out of a job by adding to the knowledge base and revenue of your team that you have the capacity and skill to hire someone else full-time. I’d call that a win any day.

craft, Writing improvement

How “Stanley the Mason” Helped Me Be a Better Writer

The Background

Measure twice, cut once. It’s a famous adage in construction. The point is simple: you don’t want to mark your board (or brick, or soffit, or shingle, or stud, or wire, or tile… you get the picture) wrong, and cut it based on that incorrect marking. You’ll end up with either:

  • A piece that’s too long, and you have to trim it again; thus taking extra time you don’t really want to spend; or
  • A piece that’s too short, doesn’t fit, and requires you to make a second fill-in piece, or to shove in extra fill material, or just scrap it altogether and add to your waste pile.

Neither of these is a good option.

But where does this education come from? It comes from those men who’ve spent thirty years or more on the scaffolding laying ten thousand bricks to build a wall; or standing in the hole laying blocks for hours and hours and hours to make a foundation; or in the 101-degree oven of a Midwestern July afternoon fitting a re-roof and sweating gallons. These professionals know the value of efficiency and the cost of inefficiency. They’re Stan, and John, and Darren, and J.D., who I worked with for many summers growing up. I labored for them, and they taught me lessons I’m applying 25 years later.

So when they say to “measure twice”, you know they’re talking truth. They know the value of maximizing the precision of your first effort and minimizing the chance of re-doing it.

The Current Situation

And how does this apply to writing? Or business in general? I can’t very well measure my paper, or my computer monitor. I mean, I could, but neither would do me much good. Instead of pulling out a ruler, I’m going to apply that idea to research and writing. I’m going to look for a way to be efficient with the set-up work I do and the production that results.

When I’m researching for a client, I’ll think not only about the specific piece I’m immediately delivering. I’ll also think about related pieces I could produce if I wanted to reuse a portion for another purpose. Or, whether what I’m doing for this first project might also make sense as part of another, broader project. For example, if I were to write an article about solar panel adoption in Missouri, I’d probably also make sure to gather background statistics on solar panel adoption in the Midwest in general, as well as alternative renewable energy sources in Missouri. Having done all that work, I can write one article, and be prepared to write others with minimal new research.

The Advice

Instead of Measure twice, cut once, let’s change that a little. How about, Research once, write thrice. That’s got a similar ring, and sets you up for better results. Because putting that mindset into practice will ensure your research is comprehensive enough that you don’t have to do the same searches again the next time you have an assignment.

Plus, it gives you an opportunity to suggest follow-ups to your audience. That’s what’s known as a win-win. Thanks, Stan. You really did teach me something. And hopefully, my audience will learn to Research once, write thrice and become that much better at what they do.