Plagiarism is the Writer’s Cardinal Sin

This whole Melania Trump plagiarism flap shouldn’t be a big deal. I think if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the Republican National Convention, we wouldn’t have even heard about it.

It’s never a big deal any other time a public figure has been caught plagiarizing. Sure, it makes the news, but most people could not care any less. But to creative professionals, especially writers, this is yyy-uge.

News analysts reported that Trump’s speech was 7% similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. That may not seem like much, but by college academic standards, that 7% can get you an F in your class, and even get you thrown out of school.

A PhD friend of mine commented on my Facebook status yesterday that she normally checks her students’ papers with Grammarly’s plagiarism checker. She ran a quick check on the two speeches, and found that roughly 7 – 8% of Melania’s speech triggered the plagiarism alert, which would have resulted in an F for the paper. Other friends in academia said they have failed students, including those in Masters programs, for 7%.

Some people are dismissing Melania’s plagiarism as “just common words.” That anyone could have used these words, and that we’re making a big deal out of nothing about these “common supportive phrases.” They think it’s a complete coincidence that the same common words and phrases discussing the same ideas were assembled in that same order.

Let’s take politics out of it for a moment. Forget that this is the wife of the Republican presidential candidate.

As a professional writer and adjunct professor, I can tell you that, common words or not, this is still plagiarism. When you take a series of words and string them together in a particular order, no one else may string them together in that order, unless they cite you as a source.

Even failure to cite your sources is enough to fail your paper.

Ernest Hemingway: Common Words Used Uncommonly

Ernest HemingwayOne of my favorite Hemingway short stories, Big Two-Hearted River, is filled with common words. It’s 8,015 words long, and written at a 4th grade reading level. There are no unusual words, and there’s only one character, Nick, who’s going camping and fishing. Two pretty common activities with common jargon. Here’s my favorite excerpt from the story:

Nick was hungry.

He did not believe he had ever been hungrier He opened and emptied a can at pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan

“I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it, Nick said.

His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue.

No big words, very few 3-syllable words. In fact, he used just 124 different words. But Hemingway could take those 124 words and make cooking a camp dinner one of the most interesting stories you’ll read all day.

Hemingway’s use of common words is not the issue; we’re all able to use them. I could even write a story that only uses these 124 words. The problem is, I can’t put them in that order.

I can’t use the phrase “‘I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,’ Nick said.” without either giving him full credit or suffering the wrath of academics and literary types. I can’t even change a couple of words and present it as mine.

That’s plagiarism.

To most of us who actually care about this — the academics, the literati, the word nerds — it doesn’t matter who plagiarized. The fact is, it was done, and it’s being dismissed as unimportant by people who don’t realize the importance of intellectual property.

Probably because they’ve never had their creations stolen for someone else’s benefit.

This is What Theft Looks Like

No Burglars signThis is an important issue to me, because I’ve been plagiarized on three separate occasions, all by newspaper professionals. Two editors, one publisher. Two Canadians, one American. Three people who financially benefited from something I do for very little money.

Three people who worked in a profession where there are only a few important rules:

  1. Don’t steal shit.
  2. Don’t make shit up.

That’s it. Those are two of the most important rules in journalism, and violating them is a career ender.

Of the three thieves — and they are thieves — the American editor and the Canadian publisher lost their jobs. The publisher lost his membership in the Alberta Press Council, and may have even stepped down as the president of the Strathmore and District Chamber of Commerce. The American newspaper editor will never have a job in newspapers again.

You can Google both their names, and their sins still follow them, five years later.

In the world of creativity, especially its written form, plagiarism is the cardinal sin. Of all the Thou Shalt Nots in the world, it is the Thou-Shalt-Nottiest.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who did it. I think it was an error of process, not malicious theft. If I had to guess, it was a speechwriter who watched a lot of different convention speeches by candidates’ wives, took notes, and used the phrasing without remembering where it came from.

(UPDATE: It turns out, Melania read some phrases from people she liked, including Michelle Obama. The speechwriter, Meredith McIver took notes, and used them in the speech. Then, she said she never checked Michelle Obama’s speeches to see if the phrasing had been used before. So, not malicious, just careless.)

Because despite what she said, Melania didn’t write this herself. Everyone who gets on that stage gets vetted, ghosted, and edited. There are so many people with so many fingers in every pie, nothing is written by a single individual with no oversight.

But worse, much worse, is the attitude that this isn’t a big deal. That the media is making too big of a fuss. Or that the Obamas did it eight years ago, so that makes this one less bad, or even acceptable.

Politics aside, this is never acceptable. Whether you’re an apologist or a grubby-fingered troll digging up dirt on the other side, plagiarism and theft of ideas is never acceptable.

If you have never created something and had it stolen, you can’t understand why this is a hot button issue for so many of us. As a writer whose books are regularly pirated, as a journalist whose columns are pilfered, I believe this is the one line that writers of integrity should not cross.

Do not justify the sin, regardless of who committed it. There are no excuses, you can’t buy indulgences, and it should never, ever be waved off as a staggering coincidence of “common words.”

Three Security Tips for Freelancers

This is a guest post written by Cassie Phillips, a blogger with Secure Thoughts, an Internet security company.

Maintaining a successful freelance career can be difficult. Oftentimes, the biggest difficulty is finding clients who are in need of your services and willing to pay a reasonable price. There’s another difficulty that is sometimes overlooked: staying secure on the Internet.

With money being moved between multiple accounts and contact with numerous clients, continual daily access to the Internet can be dangerous if certain security procedures are not put in place. To protect yourself against hackers, identity thieves, and other online threats, here are a few security tips for freelancers that can help protect you and your money.

1. Protecting Private Data (and Money) with a VPN

Woman working on LaptopUnlike traditional jobs, freelancers cannot expect to earn a steady income. There is no single employer who is going to regularly deposit money into your bank account. On the contrary, freelancers are likely to earn money from a myriad number of sources, processed through a variety of accounts. From private bank accounts to PayPal to Google Wallet, a freelancer’s money is always flowing from one account into another. Protecting the flow of your money and any associated data is of utmost importance.

Remember that securing your finances on the Internet is not as easy as making a few clicks. If this is all you do, then you remain in an unsafe position where a hacker could see your financial information, hack into your computer or accounts, and steal your identity or just simply empty whatever accounts he can get his hands on. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the key to preventing this from happening.

A VPN creates a tunnel between your computer and a third-party server elsewhere. When you access the Internet using a VPN, your data is encrypted and your IP address is hidden. When it comes out of the third-party server, it will appear as if your computer is accessing the Internet from that origin point.

In other words, your server and your connection point remain invisible so you can remain anonymous. However, not all VPNs are created equally. Some have different price tags; others offer different speeds, and others still host various numbers of third-party servers. Do your research to ensure you’re selected the best of the best.

2. Using Trusted and Secure Freelance Contracting Services

In addition to securing your Internet connection, you need to ensure that you are working with trustworthy individuals and companies and secure websites. There are many freelance contracting services available on the Internet serving different types of freelancers. No matter which one you choose, however, you should always make sure that is a reputable service that has not been hacked. There are several ways to do this:

Use Trustworthy Services: If you’ve been freelancing for even a short while, you may be familiar with some of the larger and more trustworthy freelancing services on the Internet, such as Upwork, Elance, Guru and Freelancer. If you stick with the large and trusted services, you will be safer than looking for fringe sites that are unknown and possibly dangerous.

Check for HTTPS: Because freelancing services are responsible for collecting personal data for freelancer’s profiles, facilitating private communications, and shipping money, you need to make sure that the site is secure. One simple way to do this is to look at the URL and make sure that it begins with “HTTPS” rather than “HTTP.” The “S” stands for secure and means that there are layers of encryption being used to protect users on the site compared to the unsecure alternative. Take a look at the address bar in the screenshot for UpWork’s home page and notice the “https” in green:

UpWork's Home Page https

Note the https in the address bar. That means this site is secure. (credit: UpWork’s front page screenshot)

Use Google: If a freelance site is using “HTTP” rather than “HTTPS,” double check its trustworthiness and reputability. You can do this with a simple Google search. Simply type in the name of the service followed by words like “review,” “spam,” “scam” or “hack” to see if anything alarming pops up. For example, if there are numerous reviewers claiming that the site has been hacked or is vulnerable to a hack, avoid that service.

3. Maintaining a Secure Virtual Workspace

There are a few more things you can do to maintain security as a freelancer such as adding a few more layers of protection to your virtual workspace. A firewall will alert you when intruders are trying to access your computer or when your computer is trying to do things without being asked. Anti-spyware or anti-virus software will scan your computer regularly to watch for malware. And a password vault, like 1Password can let you create complex passwords, but store them so you don’t have to remember them all.

These are only a few of things that you need to do to ensure you remain safe and secure as a freelancer. There are certainly other ways to protect yourself. What do you do to keep yourself safe as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, Cassie learned quickly that internet security is a must. She enjoys sharing her knowledge with others because, let’s face it, freelancers don’t make much money and they need to protect their equipment as much as possible!

Photo credit: Moleshko (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Five Ways to Make Your Written Content Suck

I’ve had an epiphany. Content marketers don’t really care if they create excellent written content. That’s the only explanation I can think of. Despite the mountains of classes, webinars, books, and “FIVE TIPPY-TOP MOSTEST IMPORTANT CONTENT MARKETING SECRETS IN ALL THE WORLD!!” blog posts, content marketers aren’t listening.

They seem to think, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me. Not old Stevie*. I can keep pumping out dreck, because my stuff is different/better/important, and my readers are big fans/generously forgiving/mindless drones.” And they double down on their bad content like a politician after a racist campaign gaffe.

Maybe they actually want to be bad. Maybe that’s their goal: to produce something so execrably bad that you can’t help but read or watch it — the Sharknado of content marketing.

If that’s your goal, here are the five best ways you can make your content marketing suck out loud.

1. Use lots of jargon.

Gill's Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

Use words that sort of sound like English, but not entirely. Use words that end in -ize whenever possible. And turn verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs.

“We’re going to incentivize learners to dialogue with their classroom practitioners as a way to optimize learning methodologies.”

If you use words your readers can easily recognize and understand, you’re not trying hard enough.

2. Use adverbs and adjectives.

Because no one believes what you have to say, unless it’s really super amazing and awesome.

“Our bleeding-edge new Mapplethorpe app isn’t like the other 900 photo filter apps. It lets you take some of the bestest, most breathtaking, wondrous, aneurysm-inducing photos you’ve ever taken. Until we release version 1.5.”

This is especially useful if you’re writing a press release, because it tells the journalists your product isn’t like all those other products in all those other press releases. You mean it! You have real news!

Combine these previous two tips to crank your content’s Suck knob up to 11.

3. Publish your first draft.

Writers — real writers, that is — are never quite happy with their work. They’re always wasting time, rewriting and improving their work, trying to squeeze blood and tears out of every word.

Which means you shouldn’t waste your time doing that.

Just splooge out whatever pops into that fancy brain of yours, hit Publish, and bada-bing, bada-boom! Blog post!

This is especially useful for those content marketers who try to publish something every day. Your practice of writing all five blog posts in 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon has been working perfectly for you. Keep up the good work.

4. Why use one word when five will do?

Journalists, especially newspaper reporters spend many long years honing their craft, learning to cut a lot of needless words from their written work trim the fat. So wWhy should you let all those extra words go to waste? They’re just lying around on the ground, waiting for someone just like you to pick them up and use them in their own work. Why can’t that someone it be you?

See all the mistakes I made there, all those fat juicy words I struck out? My sentences are usually spartan and simple, but this one was a ready-to-burst tick, until I ruined it.

One of the best ways to make your written content suck is to create a lot of it. Fill your articles with extra words. This way, you can write less, but their bloatedness adds to your weekly word count, and that’s all that really matters.

People are going to quit reading your stuff anyway, so why not make your message harder to find? Maybe they’ll stick around and search for it. It’ll be like a treasure hunt.

5. Why use one syllable when three will do?

Not only is it incumbent upon you, esteemed content marketer, to utilize an increased number of words, it’s imperative you leverage the greatest number of multi-syllabic words as possible.

Because if there’s one thing people love to do, it’s slog through a Master’s thesis answer to a simple question. If they ask you what time it is, explain how to build a watch. In German.

So retrieve your thesaurus and make extensive preparations to dazzle your readership with your encyclopedic knowledge concerning your lucrative speciality. I’m positive they will express their warmest gratitude to you.

* I’m not actually picking on content marketers named Stevie. I just needed a name to put in there. So if you’re named Stevie (or Steve), don’t worry, I’m not calling you out.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)

Shiny New Marketing Automation Tools Can’t Fix Sucky Content

In the content marketing world, you can’t swing a big stick without whacking some marketing automation tool that promised to not only drive prospects through your sales funnel, it will lovingly nurture your leads, walk your dog, and make handfuls and handfuls of fries.

People look at these new tools like a teenager gaping open-mouthed at a motorcycle, thinking, “Man, if I owned this, my life would be awesome!”

Ducati Supersport 620

I’m going to ride this to my 30th high school reunion.

That’s what it’s like with marketing automation. Marketers look at the shiny new tools, and dream of all the customers they’ll get, wind blowing in their hair, and Sarah staring after me, wishing she never dumped me.

Unlike the teenagers, marketers have the budget to bring their shiny tool home, where they promptly leave it in the driveway. They don’t have any fuel to put in it, and they don’t have anywhere to go.

Every morning, the marketer goes outside, sits on their new purchase, and says, “Okay, now GO!” And never moves an inch.

It sits, unmoving, from lack of content. No blog posts, no white papers, no videos, no podcasts.

Oh sure, they had the best of intentions. They got their entire mailing list uploaded into the CRM, and they even sent out content fairly regularly. For two weeks.

But then life got in the way, meetings popped up, and they stopped writing and producing content. They never had a chance to open the throttle and see how fast they could go.

You Need to Feed the Beast

The problem with marketing automation is that it always needs fuel. It always has to be fed. On top of that, it needs premium fuel. Your prospects expect great content. Not good content. Not even pretty good content.

It has to be stellar. Otherwise, they’re going to get bored and go away.

Which means you’re only as good as your content, not your tools. It doesn’t matter which tool you have, or that you paid for the platinum package, with all the bells and whistles and handlebar tassels that wave in the wind. If your content sucks, it will suck expensively.

But at least you’ll be able to track all the unsubscribes and put them all in a colorful report your boss can easily understand.

As content marketing grows and matures as an industry, and people rave about big data, customer journeys, and buyer personas, it’s still about the quality of your content.

If you can’t tell a story, still confuse features and benefits, and use enough marketing jargon to make the Harvard Business Review editors smile in their sleep, no tool will save you.

Focus first on the quality of your content before you start kicking the tires of a new marketing automation tool. Because once you make that big expensive purchase, you’re the one responsible for making it go. And if your shiny new tool can’t bring in the leads and convert them to customers, the fault isn’t with the tool.

It’s an operator error.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

5 Secrets Writers Can Learn from Actors

One thing I love about being a creative professional is the kinship with my fellow creatives. We understand the life — the instability, the random free time, and the unreliable flow of money — and we share a knowing-yet-slightly-sad smile when we meet. We get each other.

I had a chance this past April to talk with actor David Schmittou when he was in Indianapolis, playing “The Man in the Chair” in Beef & Board Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone (you can read my review of it here).

I wasn’t sure what I wanted when we sat down. I just wanted to see what I could learn from someone who got to be “someone else” professionally. Actors get to lie about who they are; writers lie about everything else.

So David and I sat outside at Paradise Café for nearly two hours, talking about the creative life. He told me about acting, what it’s like to be a working actor, and many of the different roles he’s played. He told me lessons he’s learned from working with people or taking classes from some of the biggest names in the industry.

That got me to thinking about how the keys to good acting are similar to the keys to good writing. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, short stories or content marketing, good writers can learn from good actors.

I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t want to disrupt his flow. As if I moved, it would startle him, and he would realize what he was doing and stop. So I made sure to remember the important points, and wrote them down in the car.

These are a few of the ideas I got from two brilliant hours with David Schmittou.

1. Create and absorb as many tiny details as possible.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone"

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards’ production of “The Drowsy Chaperone”

When you’re acting, these details will inform the way the character reacts in certain situations. It might even be a very tiny thing, like setting the needle on a record on stage in just the right place, even though no one is going to hear it, because that’s what we do in real life. Or making sure you put on side 1 in Act 1, and side 2 in Act 2. No one will see this, no one will know, but you will absorb it into your role, and it can have a powerful effect on your performance.

For Hemingway, details were crucial, even if you omitted most of them. That’s what he called The Iceberg Theory (the 1/8 of an iceberg that we see is supported by the 7/8 we don’t). If a writer knows a lot about a subject, he or she can leave certain things out, and the reader would still feel their presence. But if a writer doesn’t know a lot about a topic, and leaves certain things out, there’s a hollowness to the work.

An actor who only recites lines and offers up the barest of tiny details in their actions is wooden and not very memorable. A writer who does it is plain and uninteresting.

2. Live in the world of the play.

Don’t think of yourself as an actor on a stage, David said, be in that world. Absorb the character and imagine you’re him or her. Don’t think about after the show, don’t think about the argument you had with the director. Be present in that world, not this one. For David in The Drowsy Chaperone, he was in New York City, in his apartment, listening to his favorite record of his favorite musical, chasing away the blues.

For writers, especially fiction writers, this means being more than a story teller looking at their story as if they’re watching television. It means being in the world, notebook in hand, chronicling what you see, dodging bullets, storming the castle, and shooting at spaceships.

If you can immerse yourself in the world, you see more details, the experience becomes fuller, and you’re able to deliver a better performance/product to your audience.

3. Create a back story for your character.

Write scenes and short stories about characters. In his mind, David created a whole back story for the Man in the Chair, what he did for work, why he was single (“Since this was the 1970s, he had been married, but was unhappy, because he didn’t know what it meant to be gay,” David told me.)

Oftentimes, characters don’t come with back stories. They don’t have relationships spelled out. Did the Man in the Chair have friends? Why isn’t he with them? Does he get along with his mother? What kind of job does he have? Actors have to answer those questions themselves.

Writers, especially TV writers, will write create a “show bible,” which spells out character back stories, small details, likes and dislikes, and anything that might become important later on. They’ll write out scenes between characters that will never see the light of day, just to know how they would act and react.

If you can know why your characters are made the way they are, who influenced them, and why they like or don’t like other people, this becomes one of those very important iceberg details that shape your writing.

4. Base characters on yourself and other people.

David’s portrayal of the Man in the Chair was based on people he knew, and not past performances. He never even saw the play until he had already done the role once or twice. But he based the mannerisms and the back story on people in his life.

When Hemingway created characters for his stories, he modeled them after people he actually knew. He just changed their names. By using real people, he already had the back story written, he knew the tiny details, and he could more easily inhabit their world.

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway said:

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. . . You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

In essence, don’t make up people, because the characters will be fake. Instead, write about real people and make minor changes.

By using real people, you can create real characters who are emotionally rich and deep, not shallow caricatures or archetypes.

5. Listen carefully and react to the other actors.

Actors need to listen to their fellow actors on stage. Whether it’s traditional theatre or improv, listening is a crucial skill. You never know when an actor is going to make a mistake, say the wrong thing, or even change their mood or inflection of their next line. Actors have to be able to react to what was just said, not automatically say what they were going to say.

Sometimes fiction writers will “let the characters take over.” They let their characters act and react to what’s happening on the page. I’ve written stories where I have a basic idea of what should happen, only to have the two characters take the story in a completely different direction.

What’s really happening is the writers imagine how their characters would react in certain situations, and write that down instead. Rather than forcing actions and conversations to reach a certain end, the writer just holds on and goes along for the ride. This can only happen when writers live in the world of their story, create a back story for their characters, and base them on real people they know.

In the nonfiction world, sometimes “you” are the person you should listen to. Imagine yourself delivering your article as a speech, and write what you would say. Build on knowledge, feeding one idea into the next. If you can’t do step 2 without doing step 1 first, put the steps in the right order. This isn’t a mystery to be solved or a secret to be revealed. Listen to the way you would teach this knowledge, and write that.

When you get a chance to meet someone whose work inspires you, take it. When you get a chance to talk about the creative process with other creative people, take it. With a little lateral thinking, you never know what you might learn.

Three Questions Marketing Agencies Should Ask (and One They Shouldn’t) When Hiring Writers

Hiring writers at marketing agencies can be a crapshoot if you’re not careful. There’s really no one path that makes someone suitable to be a writer. But too many times, agencies think they need someone who fits a specific mold.

When they find the mold-fitting writer, they find he or she just wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The problem is, a candidate may look good on paper, but when you get down to it, they’re not even close to being an acceptable fit.

Maybe they studied English grammar, but they suck at story telling. Maybe they’re a brilliant creative writer, but they know absolutely nothing about business. Or maybe they’re a trained journalist, but they specialize in news writing, which isn’t just dry, it’s Sahara arid.

And maybe the best available writer was turned away because they didn’t have the “correct” qualifications.

If you want to find the best possible writer for your marketing agency, here are three questions you should ask every candidate, and one you shouldn’t.

1. When did you first call yourself a writer?
Search engine friendly content factory notebook and macbookThis is a tricky question, because a real writer has struggled with this question for years. (It’s how you can tell the real writers from the poseurs.) And you have to ask it in this way — “when did you first call yourself a writer?” — because real writers have a story about their answer.

We’re not quite sure when we “have permission” to call ourselves writers. For some, it’s when they publish their first book; for others, it’s the first time they sold a story or article. But the point is there’s a journey and a realization that goes along with finally calling ourselves a writer. And if someone has that story, they’re a real writer.

People who call themselves a writer without giving it any thought don’t give writing any thought either.

Don’t worry if a candidate still struggles with calling themselves a writer. That’s a good sign, because it means they take their craft so seriously, and they want to do such a good job, they won’t just slap that label on themselves without proving themselves first.

(In my own business, when I hire freelance writers, this is the only question I really pay attention to. It’s a strategy that has served me well for six years.)

2. What do you do for personal enjoyment?
Regardless of whatever else they say, one of the things they list must be “reading.” If they don’t read for fun, they’re not serious about writing. Every good writer I know does two things: 1) they write every day, and 2) they read every day for fun. It’s a form of practice.

High-performance athletes often use visualization as a form of practice. They imagine certain plays, techniques, or moves, or they watch game film. To sports psychologists, visualization is a form of practice that’s almost as effective as the actual physical practice.

When writers read, it’s like Peyton Manning watching hours and hours of game film: we’re still practicing, we’re still learning, we’re still honing our craft. We’re not just putting words into our brain, we’re absorbing styles, techniques, and new ideas.

3. What kinds of things did you write in college/What kinds of things do you write outside of work?
You want your candidates to have extra writing experience, and not just in the classroom or for work. A recent grad may have worked on the school newspaper, literary magazine, or school comedy troupe. A veteran writer may have a regular column in a sport fishing magazine. But they need to have something else in their portfolio.

Even if they regularly submit work to literary magazines that gets rejected, that’s fine. You just want to know they believe enough in their craft that they put themselves out there with it. You want the person who loves writing so much, they do it as a hobby as well as a job.

A computer engineer once told me the only college grads he hired were those who also did tech — software, robotics, whatever — for fun at home. It meant they were continuing to learn, and didn’t just limit their knowledge to whatever came from the classroom. He said these people knew more about their jobs than those who only did their coursework.

And the question you should avoid. . .

4. Do you have a degree in English, Journalism, or Communication?
These are supposedly the three writing degrees, but having one doesn’t necessarily mean the person can even write. I knew someone who had a journalism degree, but was hands down possibly the worst — and slowest — writer I ever met.

Having a degree does not equal having the ability.

Having one of these degrees could even mean the candidate studied 18th century British literature, specialized in photojournalism, or studied interpersonal communication.

Having a degree does not even equal having the knowledge.

Meanwhile, I have a B.S. in Philosophy and an M.A. in Higher Education, but I have a writing career many trained writers would envy. Yet, some marketing agencies won’t give me a second look because I have the wrong degrees. Don’t let your HR department dictate the kinds of people you get to interview.

Writing is a skill that can be mastered without the benefit of training and “proper” education. Plenty of famous and outstanding writers learned how to write without having a degree in the Big Three. They did it by reading a lot, writing as often as they could for as many publications as possible, and overcoming the struggle of whether to call themselves a writer.

If your marketing agency — a place that most likely prides itself on creativity and thinking outside the box — is looking for a new writer, ask these three questions (and skip the 4th) and you’ll find the best writer for the job.

Content, not SEO, Should Rule Owned Media (Guest Post)

Sean Sullivan is a digital marketer in Indianapolis, specializing in content marketing and analytics. He’s also a good friend. Sean is publishing guest posts in several places, and I’m going to start contributing to his site. This is his latest submission.

Writing should be storytelling. The Internet should throw papers on your door step every morning. Writers should expect their paper articles read. Since the Internet, content overload diminishes what the public can see. Readers want information now. And businesses scramble to publish where readers are.

Old News

Marketing is not an instant solution. Marketing takes a lot of trial and error. Companies need a balanced media approach. This would include owned, paid, shared, and earned media strategies. Since you can’t control earned media, and paid media gets expensive, let’s focus on owned media.

What is owned media?

Owned media includes content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). As the publishing company/entrepreneur, you “own” these medias forms because it’s your website and your content. Many industry experts are saying SEO is in the past, and content marketing is the future. That is not true. All media forms are important, and SEO sometimes means not doing certain things as much as it means using certain tricks. (SEO is not dead yet.)

For the last 15+ years, Google still makes the rules. And you have to follow those rules. Google created the sandbox. And we all have to play nicely. Or we get put in time out. Here are a few ways to play.

View Google Traffic as a Bonus, Not the End Goal. SEO has taken such a beating, and it’s such hard, ongoing work, that it’s not an effective long-term strategy any more. Don’t play old SEO tricks either, because Google will drop the ban hammer on your site. Instead, figure out how to build on online business by connecting with people. Look at Google traffic from inbound marketing as a bonus. You can build your business on SEO, but it can be hard if you don’t have the time to dedicate to always changing and adapting to Google’s new algorithms.

SEO Depends on Content. SSEO is a competition between people finding the best tactics and using them better than anyone else. Content has the potential to go viral and be shared by people who like it, but monkeying with SEO might prevent it from going viral, because Google can penalize your efforts. SEO can help, but your best content — your “hero” content — takes a whole lot more work to create than the actual SEO. It’s your hero content that people want to share and talk about, and that will always be more powerful than traditional SEO.

For Converge Street, I get much better organic traffic when writing about a name or a concept, but that doesn’t help SEO. Writing more quality content and sharing that with my networks is what wins traffic.

Editorial Writing and Tracking. Write in a news/editorial style while linking credible outbound links — link to help with editorial content, not because SEO says you need X number of links. Track results to expand your focus — check page views and time on site. Figure out who likes your writing (i.e. who reads and shares the most) — count social shares, social networks, and even regular sharers. This way you know what people and search engines like. Then, give them more of what they want.

Having good content and using SEO does’t mean readers will flock to your website. Those are just two legs of the three-legged stool. Understanding the different media channels will definitely help. Know where your audience is, write the things they want, and share it on the places where they’re found.

SEO impacts inbound marketing but it’s not main the reason people come to your website. SEO, analytics, and social media lands your paper on people’s doorstep. But good content compels them to pick it up and read.

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