Interview: Amy Gahran

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Amy Gahran is a self-proclaimed info-provacateur. She’s a writer, editor, trainer, content strategist, and consultant who’s been freelancing since the late 1990s. The author of Contentious, a weblog aimed at “how we communicate in the online age,” she’s just returned from the BlogHer conference this past weekend in Santa Clara, California. Here are excerpts from our conversation, when I got the opportunity to ask her about her work and her enthusiasm for communication and technology, and how other writers can use blogging tools to their advantage. For more information about some of the topics discussed here, check out Amy’s weblog and her tutorial on webfeeds.

I’ve noticed on your website you have a wide variety of clients that you;ve worked for. How do you develop your clientele? Is it mostly through the web? Do you do cold calling? What sort of marketing do you do so that people know you’re out there?

Two main ways: the weblog is actually the main marketing tool for my services and there are a lot of reasons why that works well. Weblogs are a kind of website and you can put any kind of content you want on to them but they’re also a very interconnected tool. A lot of infrastructure exists out on the Internet so that if you post something on a weblog, word spreads fast and widely, far more so than if you just post something on a website.

Basically, if you posted a bit of information or news on a website you might wait days weeks or months for Google to index it. But if you post it on a weblog, and you have a feed going from that weblog, the feed would then go to places that collect a lot of feeds and instantly say, “Whoa, somebody just published something on this.” Somebody searching one of those search engines for a keyword would find it right away. (Here’s a link to Amy’s tutorial on webfeeds.)

Also, I’ve seen evidence that leads me to believe that a lot of the big search engines are now picking up on those feed services that aggregate webfeeds. So probably a faster way to get your stuff into Google would be to publish it on a blog and ping (alert) a service like Technorati or Feedster. I know a lot of this is going to sound pretty alien—the bottom line is it’s a faster, broader way to get the word out because of the way weblogs are structured and interconnected—it’s even better than the web.

Another way is not just my own weblog but the comments features on other people’s weblogs. A lot of times, people find me because I comment on somebody else’s weblog and they’re like, “Well, who is this person?’ And then they go find out about me.

And I’m always expanding my professional network. For instance, I’ve worked with the Society of Environmental Journalists in various capacities for fifteen years. You know, if you work with an organization like that, you get to know a lot of people.

I typically don’t do a lot of the traditional marketing stuff—this is just stuff I would do anyway, so I leverage it to build my business.

Seems like weblogs are able to give writers a bigger footprint than websites.

Easier too, just because there are so many hosted services you can use to create weblogs. Some of them are free but most of them are really cheap. And they just make it so much easier to publish than having to actually go into a program like Dreamweaver or FrontPage and build your own site and ftp everything up. It’s just so much easier to do it with weblogging tools.

What inspired you to start Contentious and what motivates you to keep it going?

Two things—first of all, nobody can shut me up and second of all, sheer frustration.

When I started Contentious in 1998, the web was just starting to get big at that point and I was reading a lot of stuff about what people were doing with websites. People were mainly talking about design and programming and things along those lines—either the technology or the design aspects and I didn’t really see anything at all concerning what they were saying.

Content was treated as if it was just popped out of thin air. People weren’t talking about quality of content and content strategy, how the audiences are different online and how you need to connect differently with them through the way that you phrase your information. Even basic things like how to write a link in the most useful way for people—that’s part of the content online, too, the connections—so I just got fed up with that.

I’d recently left my last full-time job, which was as managing editor for a think tank for the energy industry, managing a lot of white papers and things like that—I [thought]”I need to go independent and this web thing is getting big and what do I have that’s unique to offer?”

I had spent about three months trying to do the traditional freelance writer thing (sending out queries to magazines and all that) and getting nowhere. I was frustrated. I know three months is not a lot of time but I just felt like this web thing was so big and I was going to miss it so just out of sheer frustration I posted the first issue of Contentious in April of 1998. Basically I was considering it a webzine at that time because there were no blogging tools and nobody was using the word. I posted it, went out to lunch, came back an hour and a half later and had 500 requests for the email newsletter that I used to announce new content on the website.

The next day, AdAge and Wired Magazine and a bunch of places were calling to interview me and I thought, okay, right place, right time. I’ve pretty much gone in that direction ever since. I’ve done a little bit of traditional freelance writing here and there, mainly on energy and environmental topics but the online thing—specifically helping organizations figure out their content strategy and how best to say what they need to say online—that’s been my bread and butter. That and e-learning; I’m also doing e-learning course development now, too.

That’s a great field, too. I know a lot of writers think about professional writing as magazines, newspapers, books, white papers, and things like that and there are so many options to put good writing skills to use. E-learning is just one of them and when I talk to writers I try to encourage them to get out there, look more widely and start thinking more widely about how they can apply their skills.

What spurred you to make the transition from full-time employment to freelance work?

I’m a pretty bad employee. I’m way too opinionated. In any working relationship, it needs to be equitable on both sides, and in a traditional employment situation, unless you are very fortunate with a very good employer, most of the time they’ll talk to you really nicely, but when it comes down to making decisions, you’re the peon and they’re the kings. And I had a real problem with that.

I find being independent works much better for me. I get a lot more respect. I take bigger risks; I’ve had lean times, especially after the dot com crash. Those were a hard few years, not just for me but for anybody who was doing anything related to online media or technology. But the thing is, it’s rewarding in that I feel like I’m more in charge of what I do. When I see an opportunity, I get to go after it. If I see something stupid, I don’t have to go along with it. And I’m not trying to dis my former employers; my former employers were really great and they did their best. In the long run, my interest just lay elsewhere.

I really didn’t deal well with that culture of, well, we do it this way and we’re the boss so you have to do it that way—I can go with that on smaller things but on a day-to-day basis I can’t do it.

How important is it for freelance writers to be able to offer clients a variety of services? One of the things that struck me about your website and Contentious is the sheer variety of things that you’ve done: writing, editing, coaching, workshops, site critiques, research, ghostwriting, consulting. You’ve got a really comprehensive list of things that you can offer a client.

That works to my advantage. Because just by offering a diversity of services, that aids in my credibility and gets me into more communities. I can go and talk with people about content management systems or science writing or how to do effective lobbying. This is why I became a journalist in the first place, I’m insatiably curious. I think a lot of freelance writers are very curious, but they tend to always funnel that curiosity in the same ways. Let me see if I can sell a magazine on an article on this topic rather than actually going out and doing a lot of these things themselves.

A case in point is a very good friend and colleague of mine. Cathy Dold is one of the most accomplished science and medical writers that I know of, and she does a wide variety of work for a wide variety of —everything from patient information brochures to articles in Smithsonian Magazine. And when she sees something that interests her, she doesn’t just think about writing about it, she thinks about doing it. And that makes a big difference for her. She also is very forthright in being a leader in organizations, in getting people—especially media people—together and working on projects. That’s another part of it, because a lot of gigs come from who knows who and she gets a ton of referral business.

I know a lot of the things that I’m doing with e-learning and feeds and workshops might be far a field from what a lot of writers are dealing with but they could look at what Cathy Dold is doing and probably say, “Hey, wait a second, there might be some opportunity here,” like if you have a lot of expertise in the printing business. You might really be able to do some interesting things for content and communications for companies that are in that industry. And it might not be traditional articles. It doesn’t even have to be PR, although there are a lot of very interesting opportunities in PR.

For instance, in any type of industry where there’s a factory setting there’s a big need to provide simple, plain language materials explaining some of the complexities. Like for the printing business, how do you comply with all of the environmental regulations? How do you set your priorities? How do you help people make decisions? Those sorts of things are best handled by somebody who knows how to communicate rather than an expert in the topic because experts usually can’t communicate very well.

I know so many writers who are virtual experts or they are very familiar with how to learn a topic quickly and explain it quickly—that’s what a good writer does. They can use that talent in a lot of different ways and leverage that through all kinds of media. E-learning is just one example of that. Intranets are another. A lot of times companies build these intranets, kind of their own mini-Internet, and nobody uses it because nobody has put any thought into the strategies: how do we make this useful to people? A real writer could walk around and talk to people in a company and say, “What do you really need? How do you make that useful?” That’s not something the technology people should be doing and it’s not something that somebody who’s enmeshed in the internal politics of that company can be doing, because they’re not going to look at the practicalities. That is a good consulting job for an effective writer. To go in and see what the communication needs are and then come up with lists: here are some ways that you could use your intranet to be more practical for people.

I think writers underestimate the value of their skill for quickly digesting and translating information in a plain language way and there’s a lot of ways you can put that to good use and make money off of it.

In part two, Amy Gahran shares more on how writers can use blogs to establish their credibility, how you can keep up on new technology like blogs, and writers’ participation in the public conversation.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit Amy Brozio-Andrews’ Web site.