How to Write When You Don’t Have the Energy

Unfortunately, this is a personal subject for me. For the past three years, I’ve dealt with a thyroid-related issue that causes me frequent fatigue (less so now that I have the right meds). On top of that, I’ve had many days where my brain was foiled by allergies (a bigger deal in Austin than the word “allergies” communicates to most people). But I run a business based around writing and I’ve had to keep it up on the bad days as well as the good.

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

Over time, I’ve become used to keeping my work going when my brain and body just want to curl up in bed and avoid anything that requires mental energy. And writing takes a lot of mental energy. Yet, somehow I still meet my deadlines.

Some days I’m amazed that’s the case, but apparently I’ve figured something out that works. Suspecting that there are others that struggle with similar issues or different ones that affect your productivity in similar ways, I’m sharing what’s worked for me in the hopes that it might work for you.

It’s unlikely that every item on this list will be useful for every person reading it. But if you find that even just one thing here makes a difference, then that’s something.

  1. Re-shape your to-do list based on priority.

Most of us start off each day aiming to do more than we absolutely have to get done. A lot of the time, that ambition serves us well and helps us stay productive. But some days it can feel like a burden pressing down on us making it harder to get anything on the list done.

When you’re having an off day an overwhelming to-do list isn’t doing you any favors. Carefully review the list and figure out which items on it can wait. You need the sparse energy you have for the writing that has to get done today. Move that to the top of the list, do it first, and then do whatever else you can manage after.

  1. Analyze where your energy goes.

This one’s personal, and extremely useful over the long term. Every person’s going to have different types of work and activities that require a lot of energy from them, while others require less. When you deal with any kind of issue that causes you lower energy levels for certain days or periods of time, knowing how to re-shape your calendar based on the amount of energy you’ll have available is a useful skill.

This is valuable even if you don’t struggle with depression or illness – tracking how your energy levels relate to the work (and play even) that you tackle each day can help you plan your weeks more efficiently. You can minimize tasks that require a disproportionate amount of energy for the value they bring to your work.

For instance, I’m extremely introverted. Adding a networking event into my day is going to use up a lot of the energy I have for work that day, even on a good day. So I know to be strategic in when I plan to attend social events, and know when to forego those plans when the energy just isn’t there. Figure out how the typical tasks you have to deal with in a week compare in this regard so you know which ones to cut down on to conserve the energy you have.

  1. Leave wiggle room in your schedule.

If you’re freelance like me, that will mean leaving money on the table. Sorry.

But when you can’t predict what your days will be like, you have to plan your life in a way that anticipates at least some bad days.

This isn’t a tip that will help much if you woke up this morning feeling fatigued or depressed for the first time, but if it becomes something that happens at all regularly, then you have to start planning on it. Worst-case scenario, if you have nothing but good days for a while, that extra wiggle room gives you time to tackle all those tasks that tend to get put off to later when you’re busy.

  1. Use a social media blocker.

Seriously, it helps. When your brain wants to be focusing on anything but the thing you know you most need to be doing, it can fall into the well of endless social media messages. That’s probably not the only distraction in your life you have to grapple with, but it’s one you can do something about.

I use Focus. It costs a small fee, but it’s probably improved my productivity enough to cover its cost several times over. When you genuinely want to be focusing and your brain won’t cooperate for whatever reason, getting a message that reminds you of your good intentions the moment you go to pull up Facebook can be a helpful reminder to get back on track.

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  1. Give work out breaks a try.

I get it. I understand if you’re looking at the computer screen right now feeling so tired or overwhelmed or beat down by life that this is likely the last piece of advice you’ll want to hear.

It’s counterintuitive when it feels like you have so much to do and not enough energy to do it to take time out of your day for exercise. But I’ve found that it sometimes kick-starts my brain and gives me a couple of hours of productivity afterward. It might not do the same for you, but it’s worth a try.

  1. Watch what you eat.

Pay attention to insensitivities or ingredients that regularly make your drowsy or distracted. I know having a carb-heavy lunch brings my productivity down in the afternoon, for example. How people react to food varies, so saving carbs for dinnertime might not make a lick of difference to you. But do some experimenting with cutting certain ingredients out for a period of time to see if you see any difference. Or start making notes of how you feel throughout the day and what you ate so you can see if there’s a relationship.

Changing your diet won’t make something like a thyroid problem or depression disappear entirely, but cutting out something that makes you feel a little bit worse will help you feel a little bit better. When you’re starting from a place of feeling crummy, that little bit of difference can help.

  1. Try supplements or herbal teas.

Look, for all I know it may be the placebo affect, but I’ve found this tea helps when I’m really struggling to focus. And making tea out of fresh ginger (I add in some mint and lemon or lime) seems to help with headaches or allergy-induced brain fog. Ginseng or gingko supplements work for some people. B-12 or vitamin D supplements may work for others.

Your doctor can run some tests to see if you’re low on any supplements that are good for energy and brain health. And you can try out some different options to see if something works for you.

  1. Give yourself a break.

The inspirational stuff you see on social media or in productivity articles for people that don’t have illnesses/depression/whatever you’re dealing with right now may be good for other people, but they can make those of us struggling to finish the bare minimum feel rotten. Know that it’s ok not to hold yourself to someone else’s standard when you’re having a bad day (or week, or month).

Feeling stressed out and hopeless won’t help you get the things you need to done. Do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up what you accomplished today is less than you’d hoped.

 

I’m not a doctor or medical expert, so if you’re dealing with something that you think may benefit from talking to someone who is, don’t let this post be a substitute. Getting the right meds made a huge difference in my ability to get work done without having to lean on these tips and tricks quite so often. But having a few more tricks in your bag besides to help out when things are hard doesn’t hurt. I hope these can help you get through the writing that has to get done today and that your tomorrow is better.

 

 

 

 

Should My Content Writer Be a Subject Specialist?

hire a content writer

Anyone that thought content marketing was a fad a few years ago is scrambling to catch up now. Businesses working to ramp up their content marketing efforts will inevitably need to hire someone for writing help, whether a full-time employee or a freelance content writer. Whichever route you take, you’ll find yourself faced with an important question: should you hire someone that’s an expert in your industry, or focus more on writing experience?

If you can find someone that has both, then you’ve hit the jackpot. But you may have a hard time finding that person, or find that once you do they’re either out of your price range or fully booked up.

If you do have to choose, which route should you take?

The Pros of Hiring a Content Writer That’s a Subject Specialist

When your hire someone who already has experience in your space, you’ll face less of a learning curve in getting them up to speed on the industry and audience.

They’re probably already following the top publications and blogs in your industry and will therefore have an easier time spotting trends and recognizing newsworthy topics than someone new to the space. They’re also likely to already have valuable contacts in your industry they can use as sources or contact about collaborative opportunities to strengthen your content and promotions.

And you know they’re interested in the subject. Someone who’s bored by what they’re writing about won’t be as likely to deliver good work as someone who actively cares about the industry or topic area.

The Pros of Hiring a Content Writer That’s a Generalist

If you find a content writer that’s written on a wide range of subjects, it doesn’t mean they’re not an expert on anything, it can mean they’re an expert at being a content writer. Most of the best content writers know how to dig in and do the research to learn about whatever topic they’re covering.

Those research skills are crucial to being a good writer at every stage in the process – even subject specialists need to know how to do research in order to produce quality content – generalists simply put them into use in overdrive in the first few months of working with a client in a new space. While a generalist content writer will never gain the level of expertise in a subject that, say, someone with a PhD or 10 years of experience would have, you’d be surprised at how quickly a good researcher can get up to speed on the main knowledge and topics needed to write content on the subject.

In addition, while a generalist content writer may be learning about your industry from scratch, they’ll likely already come to you with knowledge of writing in ways that are optimized for SEO and well formatted for the web, and come equipped with the adaptability required to learn about new subjects and audiences as they go. That adaptability also lends itself to staying on top of and responding to factors that shape trends in content marketing, like updates to the Google algorithm or new technologies that come onto the scene.

And sometimes a content writer that’s not a subject specialist will still have some experience or familiarity with the subject you need. Everyone’s got friends and family members that do different types of work than they do, and everyone has interests and knowledge that go beyond the things they do at work. Maybe a candidate has no clips related to elementary education, but it turns out their best friend is a 2nd-grade teacher so they have constant access to insights they wouldn’t get from a google search. You’d have to contact them first to find that out.

What to Look for in a Generalist Content Writer

Now that I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you all the great skills and knowledge a generalist content writer could have, I have to clarify that being a generalist doesn’t necessarily mean a content writer will be good at all those things. You have to do a little work yourself to figure out if a content writer you’re considering checks all the important boxes.

For a generalist to be a good content writer, they need to be:

How do you find out if someone you want to hire is all those things? To start, check their writing samples. You can get a feel for how much research goes into their work and how well they seem to know the various subjects they tackle.

Pay attention to the way they format things. Are their blog posts long lumps of text, or do they use ample white space and headings to make skimming easier? Do they turn lists into bullet points and link to relevant sources?

Finally, have an interview (over the phone is usually good enough). On your call, do they ask good questions? Do they pay attention to your answers and seem to get what you’re looking for? Ask them about their process and how they work on understanding the audiences they write for.

More Important: Find a Writer That’s a Good Fit

I’m writing about the question of subject specialist vs. generalist because it’s one that comes up a lot, but personally I don’t think it’s the right question. You should focus on finding someone that’s not only skilled as a content writer, but specifically a good fit for the way you work.

To do that, you first need to question yourself about what your work habits and preferences are:

  • Do you typically prefer to communicate by email or over the phone?
  • Do you usually plan things out well in advance (a month or more), or do you commonly need last-minute work?
  • Do you treat deadlines as set in stone, or are you ok with some flexibility?
  • Do you want someone that you can turn to for more than one type of work? For example, do you want someone who will run your social media profiles as well as write blog posts?
  • Do you want someone who brings their own strong voice to the work, or are you looking for a skilled ghostwriter who can write in the style of your executives?

If you’re a fly-by-your-seat kind of person and you hire a content writer that insists on a clear schedule in advance, then you’re going to have problems. If you prefer all your communication to be over the phone and you hire a writer who considers calls unproductive and insists on email, then you’re going to have problems.

Many potential problems you could have with a content writer can be avoided if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for in advance and seek out someone that meets those needs. If they’re a good writer and you can establish a positive business relationship that works for both of you, a lot of the rest can be learned as you go.

Navigating the Tricky World of Hired Guest Posting

hired guest postingWhen you’re a freelance copywriter, one way to keep up with the content trends of the day is to simply pay attention to the leads that come through your inbox. Last year the vast majority of my leads were looking for blog posts for their own website. Now, those leads still show up but they’ve been joined by two main new types of work: long-form content pieces and guest posts.

The former’s straightforward enough and makes sense, both readers and the ever powerful Google have made it clear that they value long-form content. The latter’s where things can get a little tricky.

Guest posts are a powerful method for promoting your brand and expertise. I’ve done a few myself on sites like the Content Marketing Institute Blog and Firepole Marketing to help raise exposure for Austin Copywriter. Both of those posts took time to write, but also, notably, took time to pitch and edit to the blog editors’ liking. You know what else took time? The pitches and guest posts I’ve written that didn’t get published for whatever reason.

I put in the time for my own business because I know the results can be meaningful, but being asked to do it for hire presents some complications.

How Not to Hire a Freelance Writer for Guest Posts

I’m sorry to say some businesses and agencies are going about this all wrong. They’re either skirting ethical boundaries in what they’re asking for, or grossly underestimating what’s involved in getting a high-quality guest post published on a popular blog.

  • Don’t act like it’s one job.

When you’re hiring someone to pitch guest blogs and write a post you’re asking them to do two different kinds of work: writing and PR. While some PR specialists are good at writing, and some writers are experienced in PR, these are two distinct skill sets. Many writers (myself included) will decline the PR part of the work, but you may get lucky and find someone prepared to take on both jobs.

Whatever pricing structure you set up needs to acknowledge the two different types of work at play here and the (often extensive) amount of time that goes into building relationships and sending pitches. You’ll probably need to consider an hourly rate for the PR work, along with a project rate for published pieces.

  • Don’t offer an insulting rate.

In doing research for this post, I came across a job ad looking for “experienced, well-connected bloggers” offering $30-$60 per published guest post. Sorry to break it to you, but you won’t find experienced bloggers willing to write high-quality posts for that amount. And the kind of rushed, low-quality work that might be worth $30 a pop isn’t going to get you featured on the big-shot blogs you want to target. This isn’t anywhere close to a reasonable rate for a guest post worthy of a popular blog. Don’t just think double – think 10 times this amount if you actually want to end up with a post worth using.

I know that’s not what you want to hear, but really high-quality posts – the kind these blogs will publish – take lots of research, lots of time, and lots of work. That’s going to cost you.

  • Keep your expectations reasonable.

Often a very good idea or post won’t get accepted for reasons no writer or PR person can guess – maybe the blog already has a post scheduled on a similar topic, or they just decided yesterday they’re moving in a new direction for their topic focus. Even if the freelance blogger you hire puts in the legwork, they can get rejected. Understand that there will likely be more misses than hits.

  • Don’t ask the writer to leverage their own contacts.

Carol Tice recently went so far as to call this kind of writing opportunity a scam. Freelance writers work hard to develop our contacts and earn the trust of our clients. Expecting us to ask those hard-earned contacts for a favor to promote another business just doesn’t make sense in most cases. If a writer sees an opportunity that’s beneficial for both parties – the client and the blog or publication they have a relationship with, then they might feel comfortable reaching out. But don’t demand it or be upset if they turn down that request.

On the other hand, one of the main jobs of a PR professional is developing contacts they can leverage on behalf of their clients. Consider hiring a PR consultant to do what they’re good at, and a writer to do the writing.

  • Don’t ask for posts that are overly promotional about your business.

I once pitched a piece on a relevant subject for my client to a publication, got accepted, wrote it up and passed it over to the client for review before submitting it. The client went through and added several specific mentions of the company’s product. You probably see where this is going – when I submitted the piece, the editor said “This is great! Except for all those brand mentions. I took those out and now it’s ready to run.”

Very few blogs or publications are going to accept a guest post that’s blatantly promotional. Your piece can’t be all about you. It has to be about something valuable to the blog’s audience. If you don’t get that, you’ll waste a lot of time working on posts and pitches that get no responses.

  • Don’t demand links within the post itself.

Many big blogs see a submission with a lot of links back to the company’s site and immediately label it spam. Every once in a while, there’s a topic that lends itself to internal links that are natural and useful to the reader, but most of the time they look spammy and will get your guest post rejected outright (or they’ll just be removed like the brand mentions in my previous example).

Guest posts will pretty much always earn you at least one link to your website in the byline, along with some links to social media profiles. Treat this as your goal, since it’s an actually obtainable one.

How to Get Hired Guest Posting Right

That’s a long list of don’ts, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to rule out the idea entirely. You can hire someone to write guest posts for you in a way that’s legitimate.

  • Do the pitching and relationship building yourself.

Or hire a PR person for that, as already suggested. Doing all the preliminary work of researching a blog, trying to understand its audience, generating relevant topic ideas, and sending pitches – that’s not writing. When you hire a professional writer to do writing, you get good results. When you hire us for something else that isn’t our specialty, the results will be more mixed.

Note: It especially makes sense to do your own pitching if you want a guest post to go up under your name rather than the name of the freelance blogger you hire.

  • Do be upfront about disclosing your company’s connection to the post.

You don’t get to casually slip in links to your website and hope no one notices. And you certainly don’t get to expect freelance writers to do that for you and risk their reputation in the process. That’s how you lose trust in the online marketing world and alienate the people who could be the best allies for your brand.

  • Hiring a writer to ghost write guest posts is fine, but will probably cost more.

Some writers aren’t crazy about ghost writing. I’ve read some eloquent criticisms of the practice, but I also know a lot of professional copywriters that are happy to do it for the right price. The thing you have to keep in mind though, is that if a freelance writer is going to do the hard work of writing a post worthy of a popular blog for the sake of someone else’s business and reputation, the price has to be right.

I know I keep coming back to price, but with good reason. It’s important for you to understand that if you want to take the road of hiring someone to write guest posts, you have to set enough budget aside for it. Guest posting is a competitive arena, especially on the blogs most worth landing a post on. You can’t go halfway on this. If you want to get the benefits of guest posting, you have to do it right.

Why It’s Time to Re-Consider How You Think About Competition

Austin is a city full of freelancers in general, and freelance copywriters in particular. In this town, meeting other people who do what I do is common. From a competitive perspective, that makes it sound like a terrible place to be a freelance copywriter. In my experience, the exact opposite is true.

Instead of viewing each other as the enemy, we help each other out. I’m part of a freelance referral network that has brought me thousands of dollars in business, much of it sent directly my way by other local freelance copywriters – my so-called “competition.” And I know some of them have profited from jobs I’ve passed on because I was too busy or they weren’t a good fit.

Befriending my competition may just be the best thing I’ve ever done for my business.

How Do You View Your Competitors?

Whenever I encounter clients who insist that nothing they publish can include links or references to their content marketing competitioncompetitors, I usually shrug and oblige, but I always think what a missed opportunity. These are the businesses that share your target audience, and that are probably producing content that would be of great use to them. Is trying to pretend they don’t exist actually going to bring you more business?

If you view your competitors as a threat to the degree that you worry any mention of them could hurt your company, take a minute to analyze why. Is this really a strategic decision, or one borne of fear?

Why Content Marketing Doesn’t Have Room for “Competitors”

The big goal is to provide value to your audience, right? Content marketing is a long-term strategy designed in large part to gain customer trust. You know what makes me really trust a company, if they’re not afraid to admit a direct competitor has done something good.

Whether that’s an impressive piece of content they’re willing to share, or acknowledging that a feature in the competitor’s product makes them the better choice for some customers. Man, I hear that and think: this company is confident in their product and positioning.

Still Skeptical?

All my arguing for this so far has been based on my personal opinions and anecdotes, so I could see someone being unconvinced. But I’m not alone in this thinking. KISSmetrics, one of the top blogs out there in the marketing space, gives tips for growing your social media following that include following your competitors, commenting on their posts, offering to guest post on their websites, and promoting their stuff. But that’s just social media; I argue that there could be a clear value to publishing content that directly mentions your competitors or links to them.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the first person anyone looking for products or services in your industry comes to when they have a question about what to buy. How different would your business be?

Marcus Sheridan pretty much pulled that off with his pool business by publishing content about his competitors – not negative content, just informational stuff. He paid attention to the kind of questions his clients had and he answered them honestly on his website, even when it meant saying something positive about one of his competitors.

If you’re interested in using content marketing to become a thought leader, or even just a trusted brand, then the fear of mentioning your competition has got to go. You don’t have to go out of your way to promote and interact with them (obviously), just be willing to do so when it fits in naturally with your overall strategy. If the product or services you offer are really and truly great, then what do you have to fear?

Sometimes Good Ideas Just Need a Little Boost: On WDS 2014

World Domination Summit

Image via Armosa Studio

At the professional conferences I’ve attended, there’s often a sense that everyone’s leaving with a few key ideas written down, tweeted, and held onto for inspiration coming home. At the World Domination Summit (WDS), I got the impression that every person was leaving there with a unique personal goal or idea top of mind.

The thing is, while attendance at WDS can offer some distinct professional benefits, it’s not a conference about work. It’s a conference about ideas. That means the takeaways for different people who attend are all over the map; whether that’s a more defined commitment to writing more often, an excitement to get started creating a course for digital nomads or the kick in the butt you’ve been needing to actually create that business plan and start your own business.

The result of attending WDS is that you really think about whatever it is in life that you want or need the most, and you leave with the inspiration required to start doing it.

Since this blog is about marketing and copywriting, it took me a little while to think of how best to tie in what I learned at WDS with the kind of topics I cover here. When it comes down to it, I realized one of the big lessons of my time in Portland could be applied as easily to content marketing or blogging as it can to a wide array of other tasks, professions, or goals: sometimes your ideas just need a little boost.

This guy hiked in a dress for charity. Image via Armosa Studios

Somewhere in the back of your head you probably know just what your life <ahem>, I mean marketing plan, needs, but you aren’t ready to put in the work or time or take the risk you’ve been considering. Ideas can have a lot of power, we just have to do something with them.

If you have an awesome idea…and then stop there, you won’t get much out of it. If you have an idea that sounds crazy like hiking in dresses for charity, building a tiny house (with no previous building experience), or walking everywhere you go for several years (all ideas turned into action by WDS attendees), sometimes you’ll get more out of it than you’d ever imagined. But only if you actually do it.

The Content Marketing Institute recently wrote about a new commitment their team is trying out: putting 10% of their time and resources toward brainstorming and tackling ideas that seem a little out there – either because they’re risky, untested, or just seem too big to accomplish. This isn’t a new idea, it was inspired by a policy at Google that was also employed by Jonathan Mildenhall in the marketing department at Coca Cola.

It might be tempting to say, “well sure, huge businesses like Coca Cola and Google can take creative risks, but we have a budget to stick to,” but that’s an easy excuse. The individuals at WDS get out there and take crazy risks on much smaller budgets than your average business marketing department has access to. You just have to be willing to give that good idea a boost, instead of getting mired in the all the excuses not to do it.

WDS gave many of its attendees that boost, but you can find your own. Think right now: “what’s the thing I’d really like to do next, but keep stopping myself from diving into?”

Now, just decide to do it. Good luck.