Friday, December 7, 2012

. . . the need to maintain a good website for freelance writers.

The life of the typical freelance writer -- particularly writers who exist in the shadowy in-between world of traditional print and online publishing (a necessity these days as you have to go where the money is) -- tends to be a very predictable one in most respects.  

You may not know what you will be writing about from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, but you do know where in the world you will be in physical terms with some easy predictability.  These days the lion's share of the work that the typical freelance writer does is centered around their personal computer, with assignments arriving via their email inbox and delivered in much the same fashion (unless the publication has an online form through which completed assignments are meant to be delivered.

One of the consequences of this new way of transacting business is the necessity for every writer to create and maintain a personal website or, at a minimum, a personal web page that serves as both an online identity and the focus for their work; it becomes the center of their business in other words.  

Editors these days expect to be able to access a wide variety of information on those pages or site, from instant contact data to writing samples, as well as biographical information that will provide a sense of who the writer is as well as what they do.  While most (if not all) of that information will never make it into print, the function that it serves is to give the editor a sense that they know who the person is that they are assigning work to or hiring,and that the writer is accessible to them so in that respect the form that a writer's page/site takes is pretty important, because it ends up being a virtual extension of a real person.

First impressions count for a lot -- my mother told me that and I believe it -- so the first impression that you make as a freelancer through your site should be an accurate reflection of who you are but it should also have enough character and oomph to catch the eye.  Obviously you cannot risk going over the top with it, but it should be memorable enough so that the positive impression that it makes on an editor lingers.

With that in mind you would think that every writer would take pains to be certain that their website provides an accurate reflection of who they are, and offers at least a minimal slice of their character and personality, right?  Well, no, not so much really.  In fact if you took the time to Google the search terms "+freelance writer +home page "+portfolio"  what you end up with is a long list of sites with predictable content but pretty much lack any sense of personal identity.  

The effort that you make in creating a site that represents the identity of the author is especially important for the freelance writer, and not just respective of the impression that it makes on editors who offer potential assignments, but perhaps even more important is the impression that you make on your readers -- after all the reason that you do what you do is for your readers, right?  Right!

The treatment that they give is more like a brochure than a personal statement, and these sites and pages appear to have been stamped out of preset designs rather than serving as examples of the creative spark that exists in each writer.  A very strange trend if you ask me, because I know a lot of freelancers and they are almost all, to a one, characters in their own right.

Addressing the reasons behind why these creative and capable writers who are otherwise interesting and even amusing people have come to the conclusion that they are better served by bland lists and tend to rely upon blog-style cookie-cutter designs -- formats that have about as much to do with the individual writer as the ticket stub for a train trip from Boston to New York -- and I confess that I am left quietly surprised by this trend.

While this is a subject for another post, on another day, before I get to the real subject of this post I wanted to share with you the results of several conversations that I had with different freelance writers whose sites pretty much mirror what I have just described, the gist of the conversation being opened with the question of how they chose the design that they chose...

"The appearance of the site really is not as important as the information it contains so as long as that information is easy to access and easy to read, what does it really matter?  It is not like an editor is going to form an impression of me from the design of the pages where I stick my portfolio," was one thoughtful reply.  "Maintaining that (website) is such a hassle.  I used to write a blog on it but I realized that nobody really cared, so now all I have to remember is to update my portfolio," was another.  Clearly they have the impression that their online presence is mostly wasted effort when it comes to what amounts to personal branding, and that is a shame, because when I looked at the other side of that coin the position was diametrically opposite...

"You can tell a lot about a writer from their home page," an editor for an online gaming entertainment site I was pitching a feature to said.  "In my experience the freelancers who take the time to create an interesting site for their work and themselves are the sort of writer who puts in 110% effort in the assignments that I give them, and besides that if you think about it, the fact that they take the time and put out the effort to create a site that reflects their personality and their skills is always a good thing," they observed.  "I can choose from a hundred freelancers for each piece I need written, so the ones who make a lasting impression on me are the ones I remember first."

It is probably a good thing that you cannot see facial expressions through webchat and IRC, because the writers I was talking to would likely have been shocked by my needing to carefully pick my jaw up off of the floor at their replies, and the editor would have taken note of the smug expression on my face caused by their confirming a reality that I had long suspected.  

The writers seem to be convinced that the image that they present to the world -- and what is much more important to my way of thinking to their readers and editors -- does not really matter or have an impact on how they are perceived by both groups, but I know -- I know -- that is not true.  Coming up with a good (and accurate) site design that helps to communicate who you are as writer is a very important step in creating your personal brand and in introducing you to the world, and especially new readers who are just discovering you.  Then there are editors -- don't forget the editors!

Once you have decided on that design and its elements and you start building your site, you should borrow a trick out of the playbook of web design pro's though, and immediately begin tweaking your site by paying attention to the way it is being used.  You get that information through the site stats that most hosting companies make available to you free of charge.  And that does not apply just to your website either -- you can use the stats from different elements of your site -- this blog is a prime example -- to see how it is being accessed, how it is being used, and perhaps even more significantly you can obtain a snapshot of the people who are visiting -- and reading -- your pages as well...

At least some effort towards improving the effectiveness of your website needs to be made on your part as its creator whose partial goal is to introduce your character and personality to both your readers and new editors who might throw you a bone in the form of a writing assignment.   It is not enough to make it and then wash your hands and say "I'm done!" you have to set small goals for yourself aimed at improving it and then do it!

Tweaking Your Site

If you happen to care about how your website looks, the impression that it makes on the average visitor, and how they use it, you already have some props and respect from me; I am convinced that the presence of your website or page is as important as good telephone manners and punctuation when it comes to making an impression on editors, and even more important for your relationship to your readers.  I am also convinced that the care that you take in design of your site/page and the information you put on it besides the required things like contact information and your portfolio are worthwhile and worth the effort.

The choices that I made for the recent redesign of my site were very personal and reflect both my character and personality -- actually the creative spark that set me in motion and resulted in that puzzling design came from a casual comment from an editor that I had pitched a piece to, and in the follow-up call they made some comments and observations that, though personal, set my imagination on the course that eventually took me to the design you can see on my home page.

They did not end up commissioning that piece -- they wanted a variation of it, which I was happy to accommodate -- but in the midst of that conversation they observed that they found me puzzling; they commented that they admired my pluck -- that my appearance and personal situation (I use a wheelchair to get around) would probably depress most people to the point that they would not be out there pitching feature pieces but rather would be depressed and hostile towards life.  They thought that my can-do positive attitude was admirable, and wondered what the secret was to my staying upbeat in a world of constant pain that is largely hostile towards people who cannot walk. 

"Drugs," I replied.  But they knew I was joking.  The truth is that just like every other life-altering situation, you have to make a choice; you either make the best of what you have or you give up.  It is incredibly easy to blame others for your disabilities and your inability to have the things you want or lead the life you want; it is a lot harder to take what you have and build upon it, and when you are physically handicapped I believe that making the choice to be emotionally compromised in the bargain is the surest path towards self-destruction and self-pity.

When you consider the alternatives -- lead a bitter and unfulfilled existence, don't get the things you want, make other people miserable, and in the end when you tally up everything you did not get done and all of the failures that your life presents, you still only have yourself to blame.  I would much rather try and fail then to not try at all, and besides that when you try and succeed the impediments that you overcame tend to make those successes all the sweeter as a consequence.  Now that directly impacts the entire issue of both an online and real-world presence for me, and probably in ways you have not considered.

I never conceal the fact that I am disabled (the politically correct phrase would be mobility challenged) but on the other hand it is usually not a good idea to make that the first thing an editor learns about you if they happen to be looking for someone to cover an event that requires travel to another city or country -- and I have and will continue to accept those types of assignments, because I firmly believe that the struggles associated with travel are my personal problem, and not something that I want to encourage the average editor to consider.  With that in mind you can probably see how my website and online presence is incredibly important to me -- and why tweaking it and making it more effective is worthwhile effort.

Despite the relative importance of that destination and presence online, very few writers appear to have even the slightest idea of how that resource is being accessed, and which pages receive return visits -- the sort of raw data that the people who create websites pay particular attention to since it allows them to fine-tune a website to improve its results and make it more effective.  Considering the fact that for most freelancers they are the web design and development department for their business, as well as the creative team, and the standards inspector, writer, editor, and chief bottle-washer.  We cannot be all of those things without forming an intimate attachment to what we create, but we can be all those things and still remain completely ignorant of the actual use of and impact that our sites have on the readers.  Heck, you don't even have to try to reach that level of ignorance, you just have to let it happen.

Knowing what the device and Operating System are for the people who are accessing your site can be as interesting and as important as knowing where in the world they are, what the percentages are for the nationality of your visitors (change that to readers) are for each piece, and when the stats cover your actual writing, features, news, reviews, and the like, this information morphs from statistics to valuable data that can help you sell your skills to editors from publications you have never even considered pitching to before.  When you discover you have a large reader base in Germany that you had no idea existed, that is new you can use!

Stats for Speaking Of...

When I first discovered the collection of stats that are available -- at the click of a link -- I was blown away.  There was all sorts of useful information to be had, in fact I will share a sampling of that with you now:

-- Visitor Percentages by Browser --
  • 17% -- Chrome
  • 46% -- Firefox
  • 21% -- Internet Explorer
  • 01% -- Mobile
  • 03% -- Opera
  • 08% -- Safari
-- Visitor Percentages by Operating System -- 
  • 01% -- Android
  • 06% -- iPad
  • 02% -- iPhone
  • 02% -- iPod
  • 03% -- Linux
  • 08% -- Macintosh
  • 03% -- Other / Unidentified
  • 72% -- Windows
-- Visitor Percentages by Country of Origin -- 
  • 01% -- Belgium
  • 10% -- Canada
  • 04% -- China
  • 06% -- Germany
  • 03% -- Mexico
  • 01% -- Poland
  • 03% -- South Africa
  • 27% -- United Kingdom
  • 42% -- United States
In addition to the above stats I can also learn what pages on my various sites refer the most traffic to this blog, as well as what other sites online (mostly my home page and Google) refer readers in, where they are coming from and what search terms that they are using that ends up bringing them to my site and this blog, which blog posts generate the most views and how often, what the daily traffic looks like, and a plethora of other information. 

On the hosting account for my website I can get the same information but in far greater detail, and in fact the stats system can be custom configured by me to allow me to drill down to specific information such as what the percentages are for each of the Microsoft OS's that are covered by the entry for "Windows" -- if you are curious and I was, I recently took a look at that information displaying the data as daily stats and learned that over the course of the past seven days the presence of Windows 8 is steadily increasing, which suggests that contrary to the rumors online, people are actually buying and upgrading to the new Windows.

A jaded -- or clever -- writer might take these stats and use them to tailor the contents of their site in order to narrow them to the most appealing information, so for example I might start writing blog entries whose subjects include the Firefox web browser on Windows 8 and examine Internet interests of people in the USA and United Kingdom, which would nicely hit the top percentage of users already visiting my sites.  Or I could do the same thing but change the focus of habits to people from Poland if my goal was to improve the traffic from that country.  You get the idea about how this information and these stats are actually useful for improving the site, right?

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