The Words Are Dead! Long Live Words!

Writing as a craft has never paid particularly well except for a rarefied lucky few that can sell their words as dollars — I remember thinking in 1992 that I would never earn a good living as a newspaper type, which means I dodged a really large bullet the size of Manhattan — but lately, it’s been taking a real hit, as shown in this blog by Jeneane Sessum.

I write here, but I don’t claim to be a great writer. I do, however, understand the value.

Occasionally I write a catchy headline, but most of my work is long, verbose, and is sometimes off mark. That’s mostly because I write technical documentation and complex use cases, but I have a secret desire to fulfill my Nathaniel Hawthorne fetish with 798 854 949 word blog novels chock full of grammatical mistakes and typos.

Good writing is important not only to usability, but also to telling the story of social media: the best storytellers on the web like Seth Godin have turned those stories into real value, and they spread like wildfire. It’s about catching the reader’s attention, which is even harder on the web because sometimes all you have is a headline’s time to do so. Three seconds and you’re done. Period.

Not only do you use social media to talk to your customers, you use it so your customers tell your story for you. That only comes with a well crafted message that takes real time and real money.

And the next few statements will illustrate why the friends I have who initially chose writing as their profession now reside in other, much better paying careers.

I’m going to quote liberally from her blog because it’s part of my rant:

The first, a woman who uses elance to outsource writing work to folks in India. I was, she explained, overqualified for the kind of work (and pay) she was offering. I did the math. It was pennies a word. She said I was overqualified. I have to think she’s right.

The next was a social media blogging gig, two posts per day minimum, with pay of $200/month, preceded by a testing period where hundreds of interested applicants would compete to get this primo gig. To the company’s credit, they offered $100 for the testing period.

Next I tried another online micro-job site that posts small jobs requiring a tiny bit (and nothing more) of human intelligence. Sample writing work there? 1000+ word product guides. Pay: $5.00. In 1986 I would have made about $1,000 for that job. In 1999 I would have made $3,000 for that job. Today, some one will do it — maybe not well, but they’ll do it and search optimize it — for five bucks.

In several conversations that I’ve had with the resident writer on this site, Linda Coss, good writing means more money. How do I know this? Lately, I’ve been sending out my resume with a spiffy marketing pitch at the very start, and low and behold, I get hits. Lots of hits. Not all of them turn into closed deals (or some go on for months), but they get my foot in the door at consulting gigs that turn into real dollars.

I’ve worked with clients where we would obsess over three separate messages for over a week, and that included A/B testing of the message to see which had the higher conversion rate. When you are working with a company that is dropping close to $4 million a year in Google ad marketing dollars, even the lowest common denominator ad campaign gets attention.

I’ve also spent time as a product manager where the time we spent rewriting help text and marketing emails translated into a very real drop of overtime (to zero); thus, I’ve spend very real time showing very real value for words that we pulled out of thin air.

Back to Linda. I paid her real money (not a lot, but enough to establish the value of her ability to write great marketing copy), we got the message, and it works. I can track a very real return on investment for the money I spent and the leads I generated with that content.

I’ve found it puzzling that no one questions the return on investment of software developer when 70 percent of all software projects go down in flames, most of them because of feature creep or lack of market insight, but if the rate is too high for a writer, suddenly the intern is given a laptop and told it’s time to go to town.

The web is this vast wasteland of content not worth the blog, er, paper it’s written on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with a client that thought cutting the content budget was okay in favor of that “shiny new feature.” Or, just because there’s more people on Yelp (not that I don’t like Yelp, I think it’s a hoot) does it mean that real reviews should go by the wayside. They shouldn’t. The reality is that we need better filters more than ever.

Users don’t care about the shiny new feature.

They do care about brands reflecting a certain quality, and I’m not talking User Generated Content like You Tube or MySpace, because UGC is their target audience’s wants and needs. I’m talking about million dollar deals with Fortune 500 companies where the firms in question ask the marketing intern to write the copy because he happens to have Microsoft Word and barely passed American Literature.

Users want precisely the message of why I should should use this product or complete this offer, what makes them stand out. That message takes time, money, and hits the bottom line.

Now if that message were only clear.

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