Usability: Do you want the data or the conversion?

Over at Usability Counts they ran an article a while back about how Expedia generated $12 million a year in additional income just by eliminating a single, optional field from their form. The field was confusing to customers and resulted in many people abandoning their transaction right at the end of the process, just because Expedia wanted a little extra information and people didn’t know what to put there. Expedia might have looked for ways to make the request clearer, but instead they took the smarter step of just eliminating the field entirely. The extra information was a nice to have, the sale was the goal.

This struck a chord with me because I recently started an email account just for coupons, especially restaurant coupons. I then began going to the sites of all the restaurants I like and joining their email clubs. Thanks to Google, I can fill out most of a form automatically and the process goes quickly. The problem comes when a web site asks for more information than is necessary or expected.

All I want is for the site to email me their coupons so that I can use them for the occasional night out. I believe this is all that most people want when they sign up for a restaurant’s email list. We don’t want them to send us text updates. We don’t want them to call us. We certainly don’t want to register as a user on their site and give them a user name and password that we’ll never remember. Unfortunately, many restaurant web sites want us to do all of these things. It’s a waste of our time, and an abuse of our interest in them. I have to wonder how many potential customers give up when they see these fields.

The key, when you are trying to convert a lead, is to make it as easy as possible for the lead to say yes. That’s why I appreciated one site that simply asked for my name and my email address. That’s all they needed and I was happy to give it to them. A few seconds later, they emailed me a coupon and I used it the next day. That, my friends, is usability.

How to Talk About Yourself in a Query Letter

QueryA great article idea is the most important aspect of a good query letter, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. You don’t just need to sell the publication on your idea; you need to convince the publisher that you are the best person to write the article. Part of this process has to do with your overall writing style and the professionalism of your presentation. The other part is your discussion of your experience, writing credits and other qualifications. You need to show your potential publisher that you can handle the assignment. This is not the time to be humble. This is the time to brag a little about your abilities and experience.

Before I discuss what you should tell a potential publisher, I should make sure you know what you should NEVER tell them:

  • Never tell them that you are a first time writer who is looking for a break.
  • Never tell them about your personal or money problems.
  • Never tell them you don’t know the subject well but are looking to learn more.

Publications don’t care about your problems. They are looking for good writers. The last thing a publisher wants is to take a chance on someone who may not be able to deliver what they promise. Your goal should be to fill the publisher with confidence, not pity.

The best location to discuss your qualifications is just before the concluding paragraph of your query letter. You don’t want to waste time or space, so limit the discussion of your qualifications to those that are most relevant to the article you are proposing. For example, if you are proposing an article about retirement investment tax issues, it is relevant to mention that you are a financial planner with a track record in retirement planning, but those same facts would be irrelevant in a query for an article about living with chronic back pain.

You will want to mention a few of your past article credits. Again, they should be the most relevant credits you have. If you have nothing relevant, go with the most prestigious credits that you have, but relevancy trumps prestige. If you are employed as a writer for a particular publication, be sure to include that. If you have very few credits, just include the best that you have and don’t apologize for them. Just put them in and move on. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Here is a sample paragraph from a query letter:

I have been a certified financial planner for twelve years and a freelance writer for eight years. I have written extensively about the tax issues associated with retirement preparation. For the past two years I have written a weekly financial planning column for the Springfield Business Journal and have made several appearances on Good Morning Springfield as their retirement planning expert. I have also published retirement planning articles in Savvy Investor, Golden Years,  and Family Advocate.

Finally, you should include, along with your query letter, from one to three writing samples. If you are emailing your query, it is acceptable to include links to articles, but if you are sending a query by regular mail, you need to include the actual articles. Remember that you want to include whatever samples are most relevant to your query.

Nostalgia Punches Me in the Face

John Stewart is Stepping Down

I just finished watching John Stewart announce that he is leaving The Daily Show. It was hard to watch him make the announcement. I am not a daily The Daily Show viewer anymore, but there was a time when I wouldn’t miss it. In a sense though, I had moved on, just as he plans to do now. His show became a challenge to watch, from both a perspective of time and of emotional fortitude. Stewart, and the show, are always funny and insightful. The problem is that no matter how on the nose his commentary has been, it really changed nothing. The world is not a worse place that it was in 1999. It is actually better. Unfortunately, politics itself is a carnival of angry voices and poor decisions designed to make us think the world is worse. That isn’t going to change. Stewart couldn’t make a dent in it. It doesn’t make me any less fond of his attempts though. Sometimes is the the attempt that matters more than the result.

1999

John Hewitt is not Stepping Down

Right about the time Stewart started hosting The Daily Show, I started poewar.com. I had been writing (about writing) on the Internet since 1993, but in 1999 I formally committed to buying a domain and making the effort to run a successful web site. Amazingly, I succeeded. At the peak of its popularity (2005 to 2009), this site averaged over 150,000 page views a month. There were less than a half-dozen writing sites that were bigger. I was close to becoming a full-time blogger. At that point though, I made a series of decisions about life and the site that started a slow decline in traffic that was helped along by forces such as Facebook, Twitter, and hackers. There’s a lot I don’t miss about those days, but I do miss the excitement of having a successful site.

I could easily make a top ten list of things you should never do if you’re a blogger, and they would all be based on things I have actually done. I have made a lot of well-intentioned mistakes, and a few downright boneheaded moves. Nonetheless, poewar.com persists. What was 150,000 page views a month now totters between 40,000 and 50,000, which is actually up from a year ago, when I hit a low of 18,000. I have slowly but surely been rebuilding. Recently I said I was going to stop doing a lot of things on this site (put that on the list of things not to do), but with a month to reconsider I am feeling like poewar.com might have at least one good run left in her.

Bringing Things Back

I don’t know if it is possible to climb back to the top tier of sites, but I am going to try a few things. Toward that end, the jobs section is back (after a long absence) and the freelance section is back (after a much longer absence).

Beyond that, we’ll see what happens. I still plan to put in a new section for my fiction, but that is going slower than I would have hoped. As for new articles, we’ll see what I’ve got so say (and about what). One thing I can guarantee though is a lot of parenthetical statements (because that is just what I do).

What I’m Reading

Kevin Kaiser over at The Write Practice has an article about The Secret to Having the Most Productive Writing Year Ever. I could use a most productive year ever, and I like the advice about specificity and measurement.

Jamie Gold, paranormal author tells How to Place Turning Points on a Beat Sheet. Pay close attention to the four major beats and the four minor beats.

Tom Johnson at I’d Rather Be Writing asks Why do we need PDFs? I’ve been trying to move my company off of PDFs for a couple of years. In my opinion, they were once a great tool, but they lead to book-style thinking. In most technical communication cases, books are of limited use and PDFs do not age well.

Anne Wayman over at About Freelance Writing provides 10 Ways Writers Can Beat Self Promotion Fear And Market Themselves. Self-marketing is always a challenge. The balance between getting your name out there and annoying the hell out of people is a delicate one. Often, you think you are being worse than you really are. Sometimes though, you really do annoy the hell out of people.

Turnover, Freedom, and Standards

Turnover

At work this week, we are losing one of my favorite and most relied upon coworkers. He’s a programmer who helped build and customize our customer help delivery site. It is a massive site for a massive set of products. Beyond missing him personally, I will miss his understanding of the giant ball of code that keeps our systems running. If you ever doubt the difficulty of this, spend a little time reading this essay at Still Drinking. Last summer, we lost the other programmer who helped build this platform, and so all of the key builders are gone. We have another programmer who replaced the last, and he is good at his job, but the depth of experience with our little beast of a platform went from vast to minimal in the span of less than a year. That is a problem and it will have clear consequences when it comes to future development. I’m not sure if it was avoidable though.

Freedom

GlassesWhy did we lose these guys? I can only speculate, but I think the freedom to create is a big part of it. When the platform was young, there was much to do. As a small group without a lot of people watching over them, they were able to build it with a certain amount of freedom. Did they create the perfect platform? No, there are issues, but they created something good and useful. As time progressed and the visibility of the project got higher, the number of people who wanted a say in how it was built began to grow. Over the past couple years, there have been a lot of people who wanted a say in how this (now high profile) platform moves forward. The programmers were no longer creating in a vacuum. People were watching what they did and for better or worse, telling them what was wrong (real or perceived) with the platform that they built. The freedom to create was gone.

I’ve left a few jobs in my time (sometimes by choice, sometimes not) and one of the overwhelming feelings I’ve gotten every time, is one of freedom. Sure, leaving a job is scary, but when a job ends, so does a wall of rules that have kept you constricted. For a creative person, and most good programmers are endlessly creative, freedom is a necessary tool. I’m not criticizing usability studies, standards, and design oversight. They are an important component of a development project. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance. There are programmers out there who care only about the code. Give them a clear design with a set goal and they can do it. For most though, that much limitation starts to kill their passion for what they do. The desire to be free to create becomes overwhelming. In many cases, people just end up swapping one set of restrictions for another set at a new company, but even that can be better. At least the restrictions were there when you got there, rather than imposed along the way.

Standards

It is the same for writers as for programmers. At my job, I am the leader of the technical communications standards committee (I named us the Standards Heroes). We discuss and vote on everything from broad concepts to nit-picky word choices for our technical communications strategy. Some people might think I am a strange choice for this. I am not a member of the grammar police, as anyone who reads this site knows. In a way though, it is why I belong at the top of that standards heap. I don’t want to overburden us with rules. I want there to be a certain amount of freedom to create, even in a technical atmosphere. I understand that there are some writers, like some programmers, who only want to know exactly what to do and exactly how to do it, but I want to leave room for creative people who just want a path to guide them, not walls to limit them.

What do you think? What is the best balance between rules, standards, oversight, and the freedom to be creative?

What I’m Reading

Rachel Rachelle Gardner over at Books and Such has a nice article about How to Work With a Freelance Editor.

Some good advice:

  • Use it as a learning experience.
  • Make the changes yourself.
  • Start with an evaluation of the first few chapters.

Janice Hardy over at Fiction University discusses Balancing the Number of Characters and the Scale of Your World.

She talks about social hierarchies and bonds between social groups, using a school classroom as an analogy. She also shows some of the ways you can demonstrate the size of a community even without having a flood of characters.

Leslie Jordan Clary over at Make a Living Writing writes about How I Found a Steady Stream of Writing Clients in 9 Months Flat

I agree with her advice about developing a niche. I think it is important to have a writing focus that people can know you for. I make my living as a technical writer with a web development background. I’ve never made much of a living writing general articles, even though I have done so on occasion because I enjoy it. I’m not a true freelancer though; I mainly worked on contract and now have a “permanent” gig. Your mileage may vary.

Deb Ng over at Kommein lets people know that Freelancing Doesn’t Look Like This.

She critiques an advertisement for “freelance writing riches” that shows a woman sitting on a rocky beach, typing on a laptop. Beyond that fact that nobody sits for long on a pile of rocks expecting to get work done, she makes the point that a freelancer’s hours are long, clients often don’t pay on time, and people never really think of what you’re doing as a “real job”. I’ve had a couple of deadbeat clients in my time. It is very frustrating. I don’t miss it. As for typing on the beach, I would if I could but I’d prefer bigger, flatter rocks.

Eight Tips for Writing a Division Essay

The purpose of the division essay, also known as the classification essay or the division and classification essay, is to separate things into categories. For example, you might write about diseases that have similar symptoms, or about categories of comedy, or about the causes behind social unrest. The key to a division essay to discuss the differences and delineations between things that are in many ways similar or contribute toward a similar whole. Here are some tips to help you write a division essay:

  • A division essay must contain at least three categories. When you have only two categories, your essay would be classified as compare and contrast.
  • The best division essays find new categories that haven’t already been discussed to death. The three branches of the United States government have been categories a million times. An essay that categorizes the ways the executive branch and the judicial branch interact would be a more original approach to similar material.
  • Classifications should use the same elements for each item in the category. If you classify one category by size, speed, color and price, you need to classify every category by size, speed, color and price.
  • Give every category an equal amount of attention and discussion. If one categories merits a full page of discussion, all the categories should receive about a page of discussion.
  • Your introduction should mention all of the categories you wish to discuss and mention the criteria you intend to use to differentiate between the categories.
  • Try to be thorough, don’t leave a category out. If it looks like there are too many categories to discuss using the amount of space and time you have available, then look for a less complex topic. For short essays, it is usually better to stick to topics that can be divided into three or four categories.
  • Make sure that your categories can all be divided using the same criteria. If two categories are very similar and the rest are very different, your essay may feel unbalanced.
  • Outlines are useful for most types of essays, but they are especially useful for division essays because they give you the opportunity to quickly review the criteria you are using to differentiate each category. Make sure that, you have researched and identified the key comparison points for each category.