Archive for December, 2011

The Curse of Free Stuff for a Freelance Writer

December 13, 2011

So I have to go to the dentist, and I’m dreading it. Not because I’m scared of pain. It’s just that the last time I went to see him, he handed me a jar of fancy nuts.

Let me explain.

You see, his wife has a start-up nonprofit business, producing flavored nuts — spicy, sweet, tangy, etc. — and she donates all profit to animal welfare. And like the good husband he is, he saw an opportunity to get her some media coverage, knowing that I’m a freelance writer who frequently reviews new products.

“Enjoy them,” he said cheerily. “And don’t forget to tell me how you like them.”

Which, to my ears, meant, “Don’t forget to tell me when your article about them is published.”

Look, I know that free stuff is just about the only perk that writers get. And why should I feel indebted to this guy for one little jar of nuts? I’m sure he didn’t think he was tying a noose around my neck. I mean, come on — we all know that major beauty editors routinely bring home hundreds of dollars worth of free cosmetics each month without blinking a perfectly made-up eye. We all know that online experts get tons of free stuff from manufacturers hoping for high praise in a blog. And truth be told, I’ve gotten some free stuff in my time — some not so great (a cleaning liquid that claimed to remove red wine, but let’s just say I’m glad I tested it on a white rag and not a white blouse) and some pretty wonderful (a queen-size luscious down comforter–‘nuf said).

But no matter if I end up writing positively about the product (the comforter), negatively about the product (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done this), or not at all about the product (the stain remover and the nuts), I feel guilty, as though I’m getting away with something.

Which is why I felt bad about seeing my dentist.

Although when I finally went back and he charged me more than $400 for a filling, I stopped feeling that way…

Writers — how do you feel when you get free stuff?

Just another guilt-soaked day in the life of a working writer.


Many, Some, Most, Few..The Tools of a Working Writer

December 9, 2011

When I first started out as a freelance writer, there was a kind of unspoken rule among writers and editors regarding some common words. I could be writing a story about anything — strollers or refrigerators or even ways to get your baby to give up her bottle — but my method always started out the same: Interview somewhere between 8 and 12 executives or experts, and then see where there opinions intersected.

Here’s where the rule comes in: If, say, all the executives I interviewed said their companies were introducing new models of high chairs, I would refrain from using any modifier, stating simply, “Manufacturers are introducing new high chairs this spring.” If more than half were introducing new high chairs, I would use the same sentence, but start it with the word “Many” or “Most.” If just under half were doing this, I would use “Some,” and if well less than half were, the word would become “Few.”

Now, I was clearly taking some literary license here, as 8 or 12 experts did not  constitute the entire universe of high-chair producers. Counting importers and small regional manufacturers, there could be dozens, if not hundreds. I was extrapolating on a gigantic scale. Still, I always made sure to contact  marketing executives from the largest and most successful companies, etc. And my editors were okay with that. They never questioned me. I think my readers understood the context as well. And the conclusions I drew were sound and helpful.

Fast forward to today, as I continue to write about consumer products — but now, a word like “many” or “most” will make some editors I know apoplectic. “HOW MANY IS ‘MANY?'”  they’ll insert in red into my manuscript, the written equivalent of shouting. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY ‘SOME?'” And if I happen to  mention a particularly interesting new product, they’ll ask, “IS THIS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND?” or “IS ANY OTHER COMPANY DOING THIS?”

“Not that I know of,” I’ll answer, or “I haven’t found any other products like this one.” But it bothers me to say this, as it seems to indicate I’m shirking on the job. No, I haven’t located every single company making a particular product — how could I possibly interview 60,80, 100 companies for one article that has a deadline of about a month? It could take me a year to reach that many companies — and I still wouldn’t be sure I had contacted them all.

What do you think of the words “many” and “most” when you write — or when you read an article? How comfortable are you with an experienced writer who sometimes relies on extrapolation?

Another tense day in the life of just another working writer.


Cute Girl Again

December 8, 2011

I’m working on an article on mattresses, a business I have been covering for (gulp) more than 20 years, and I  need to reach out to some of my old contacts to find out what the latest product trends are. So I study the linked-in site and reach out to a few names I remember who are still marketing and selling beds. Will they remember me? Will they make time to be interviewed? Will they be really old? Will they think I am?

So one responds immediately to my linked-in invite with a message: “So glad to know cute girl I remember is still writing!”

He was just a few years older than I was back when I first met him, and he owned a small chain of mattress stores in the Northeast. I was doing a story on retailing, and I traveled down to his headquarters to spend the day exploring his business. He was very handsome, married with young kids, and totally charming. He drove me around that day to all of his stores, and he had such a delightful way with people, you could tell his employees all just loved him. He was flirty, but never crossed the line, which was one of the reasons I was crazy about him. His was the first car I ever sat in that had a seat warmer. I thought that was the height of luxury!

So in the midst of my interviewing, knowing that I had deadlines and tons of revisions and lots of editor comments ahead, I sat back at my desk and smiled, feeling like that cute girl  who was beginning her first real journalism job, thinking she had the best career anyone could have.

Ah, the pleasure of some nostalgic daydreaming. Sometimes its great being just another working writer!

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