Interview: Amy Gahran Part 2

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 Gahran’s weblog. Here’s amy_gahran.htm”>part one of our conversation; read on for part two.

How-to articles for freelance writers often talk about re-slanting a piece and that sounds almost like what you’ve been talking about—re-slanting your work from writing the article to going out and doing whatever the project is. And you gain more credibility so it becomes easier to sell articles later on then if you want to. If you take the peon approach, if you’re constantly querying magazines and saying, “Please publish my article,” that’s not putting you in a strong position. That is not putting any power in your hands. Going out there and actually finding projects, making your own opportunities and having the guts to go after them is how you’re going to move your business forward and probably find more lucrative business opportunities. Let’s face it, most magazines and newspapers are very difficult to make a living with. Even if you’re staff, it’s difficult to make a living at that. It’s just the way that profession is, unfortunately.

You’ll also then build your credibility so that when you do go to magazines and newspapers or think about going to conferences you’ll have the credibility so that they might be coming to you.

A weblog is valuable because a weblog allows you to establish your credibility, show what you know, and also show your learning process. Prove that you can pick up quickly on things. A lot of people are afraid to admit that they’re just learning something but you know, the funny thing is, every time I’ve done a posting [along the lines of] “I’m just trying to learn this,” and “I’m confused by this,” and “I think I just figured it out,” I get a ton of traffic to it. Because that reflects the kinds of queries that people are putting into search engines: “How do I” or “what’s so important about.” The more you can put yourself in the shoes of your target audience—and a lot of that is thinking about what questions are foremost in their minds—the more likely they’re likely to find you. And then they’re likely to read you. And then they might link to you. And they might comment on you, and tell other people about you. It’s a slow build and it’s very diverse and very organic but it’s intense and that’s definitely one take-away I got from the BlogHer conference this past weekend, the first-ever conference for women bloggers: the power of just putting yourself out there and using that as a way to communicate who you are and what you do.

Almost everybody I spoke to there said that blogging has only been beneficial to their career.

I wouldn’t recommend that people start blogging before they take some time to actually read and comment on other people’s blogs; that makes a big difference. Its got its own rhythm and pace and flow. You’ll do a better job on your own blog if you spend some time reading blogs first. You don’t have to go out there and try to keep up with 500 blogs; find one or two that you like and see who they link to and follow those links and then gradually you’ll start to amass your own collection of blogs that are useful and interesting to you. That doesn’t just mean the things you’re already interested in; a lot of my favorite blogs are the ones that provide a lot of serendipity.

It’s very conversational. One thing that I’ve been thrilled about lately—and I’m actually going to write a book on this—is the incredible value of the public conversation. By that I mean not just people going back and forth about politics—one thing that annoys me about characterizations of blogs is that they’re either personal diaries or they’re diatribes about politics. I wrote an article a while back, “What’s a Blog? Bag the Stereotypes.” [In it] you’ll find my list of the major stereotypes of blogging and why they’re really stupid.

If you go and actually experience the diversity of blogs and other kinds of public forums– email discussion groups, online chats, just going to networking meetings or public meetings in your community, going to your church and getting involved in some of the discussions that happen there—it’s incredibly valuable to see how people construct value simply by putting ideas together. And that’s what the public conversation is all about.

By contributing a diverse perspective, weblogs are a very direct way to contribute to the public conversation. If you’re not comfortable with weblogs, I’d just encourage writers especially to find some key way to be involved in the public conversation on an on-going basis, to raise topics and to participate in discussions about topics, just because you learn so much from doing that. You can’t do it without listening a whole lot. And I think good writers first and foremost are observant, they’re good listeners, they figure out what’s going on around them, and they build on that.

There’s no such thing as an original idea, there’s just different ways of looking at things. Being part of a public conversation not only helps you gain confidence and credibility but is also has this magical way of bringing opportunities your way, all kinds of opportunities you never would have imagined. It’s just kind of a zen thing, I guess; there’s probably some sort of quantifiable mathematics or dynamics behind it but I just see it happening over and over. When people start speaking up—yes, you will face some criticism and dissent and that’s okay, you will also learn a lot, especially if you try to engage in a civil fashion people with whom you disagree. Opportunities will start coming your way just because you speak up and people know you exist. Most people never speak up. And that’s really sad. But it’s especially sad when writers try to limit their participation in the public conversation to selling articles. I think writers have a whole lot more to offer than that.

How do you keep up to date on trends in technology like blogs and podcasts? How would you advise writers who may not know much about them to inform themselves and to get started?

I constantly feel like I’m behind so it’s funny the illusion people have that I’m up to speed on these things.

The simplest thing I can say is learn how to use feeds. It’s basically a way for you to get instant notification anytime something has been published online—usually in a weblog but not only in a weblog—that is of interest to you. If there’s some topic that you want to learn about, say you’re a journalist and you cover the energy industry and you hear that there’s a bunch of stuff happening about distributed generation but you don’t really know what distributed generation is, you can go to a service like Feedster.com, BlogPulse.com, or Technorati.com and plug in that search term and generate a feed from it so it will let you know anytime something comes up that’s new about that topic. You don’t have to go out to the website to check it out, it all comes in to one place. It’s very fast to look at that information and see what might be most relevant to you. I do that all the time to keep up with new topics and trends.

Also, ask people. Don’t feel you have to do all this research yourself. If you see somebody doing something cool or talking about something cool or writing about something cool, say, “Hey, this sounds neat and I’d like to find out more about it. How can I find out more about it? What can you tell me about it?” Geeks love to talk, they really do, you can’t shut them up. They may not always talk in an understandable fashion but I find a useful point is to ask people, “Where can a total beginner start to learn about these things?” That’s how I learned about blogs, that’s how I learned about podcasting—just about anything that has moved my career forward has been by finding a way to get announcements about it and also to just ask people and they will tell you. It’s pretty cool.

So how do you keep up? That’s just how I do it; how do you keep up with new developments?

I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, which are what led me to blogs. Once it started showing up in there, I started looking at blogs myself to see what was out there, how they worked, who was commenting on them, and then working backwards. I’d read through the comments and when people included their own blogs’ urls, I started backtracking through them and through blogrolls (lists of links to other people’s blogs), too. I must have 20–25 blogs bookmarked on my computer and I’m always swapping them out and finding new ones.

Do you comment on blogs or publish your own blog?

I didn’t really comment on blogs very much—I recently started my own so now I comment a little bit more on blogs, just because I kind of feel like if you’re going to comment on someone’s blog—not that it’s necessary to have your own—it’s nice if you have your own, just being able to share. I feel more comfortable commenting on someone else’s blog because I have one I can point them back to.

That’s good to know. Most of the people who comment on my blog or other blogs either don’t have a blog or don’t do much with their own so it’s interesting—I’d never heard that perspective quite voiced that way before.

Like I said, writers are a natural to participate in public conversation so whatever way is comfortable for you and it feels like it furthers wherever you want to get to personally or professionally, do it. If weblogs are working for you, great. If there’s some other way to go about it, do it. The biggest mistake I see all kinds of people, but especially writers, make is to just keep their views to themselves. They’re afraid to get criticized or they’re just afraid to speak up and that impoverishes everybody.

Another thing I would encourage writers to do: Don’t just look at writing as a professional thing; yes, it is a professional thing but look at the rich texture of other kinds of writing that are happening out there. Blogs are really great for that because you get to see how that relates to specific people. It’s not just out there in the abstract. That’s made me look a lot more closely at the world around me and it’s blown a lot of assumptions I didn’t even know I had out of the water, which isn’t always fun but very important. Good writing comes from good observation and whatever you can use to observe and interact with people, your writing will be that much better for it and you’ll spot more opportunities because of it.

What would you say is probably one of the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made in terms of your freelance career? Something you would advise other writers to do or not do?

Two things: First of all, getting so wrapped up with my projects at hand that that I haven’t put as much energy into looking for new things—you always have to do that. Even if it’s just a matter of making sure you’re not forgetting about going and looking at sites that are good resources. MediaBistro, I try to check that out every week just because it’s such a rich source of ideas and leads. Even though I haven’t actually gotten a job through MediaBistro it gives me ideas of stuff that I want to look for and I’ll make my own opportunity.

Two: Getting so overwhelmed with communication that I sometimes fail to get back to people I really should get back to. I try to get back to everybody but I just get burned out sometimes. And I’m not even talking about e-mail with family and friends. I’m just talking about stuff related to my profession. When I get my fingers in as many pies as I do, I could really use a secretary. But then, you know, I think that if I had a secretary, I would have to invest a lot in training her as to how I do things and how I want things and—aw, I don’t want to do that. (laughs)

Those are the two things that continually trip me up. I regret that because I know sometimes people have felt dissed because I haven’t gotten back to them or there’s been times where I missed really big opportunities because I wasn’t looking for it because I was so wrapped up in meeting this one deadline that I just let everything else go. It’s not that you can be perfect about communication or about being vigilant all the time but sometimes I’m a lot better at it than others. And I need to learn how to recognize when I’m starting to get into a rut and get tunnel vision and have techniques to get out of it. That’s something I’m still working on.

A classic example: One of my projects right now is I, Reporter—it’s about citizen journalism. A colleague and I are putting together training in journalism skills for people who are not professional journalists and either want to do citizen journalism or who want to use utilize journalism skills in other types of activities. The London bombings happened right at a time when I was being hit with a couple of major crises in my personal life. I had e-mails and then phone calls from two major newspapers that were asking me to comment, and I was just so overwhelmed with what was going on in my life that I didn’t really get back to them on it. Doh! That would have been really good, but at the same time, I know other opportunities will come up. Even though that’s something I really should have been focusing on, I also had to give priority to what was going on in my personal life at that time. But you know, those kind of toss-ups’ you’re never going to get away from that sort of thing unscathed. There’s no way I was going to deal with that situation without beating myself up on it somehow.

What would you say is the proudest moment you’ve ever had as a freelancer?

I’ve had a lot of good ones’ the one that’s in my mind that just happened over this weekend was really cool. It was at the BlogHer conference. There’s a professor at NYU who writes a blog about journalism—PressThink—his name is Jay Rosen. I’ve been reading Jay for years and I have immense respect for this guy. I’ve never actually met him; I’ve commented on his blog a few times and he’s mentioned me once or twice but I just read it because I love the way this guy thinks. So he was at this BlogHer conference and he and I were sitting in on some of the same sessions and at one point he pulled me aside and he said, ‘Hey Amy, I like how you think!’ It was so cool—Jay Rosen likes how I think!

I guess a lot of the proudest moments have been when I have done something that ends up really helping someone, and sometimes I don’t find that out all in one fell swoop, it comes in in dribs and drabs.

I wrote a tutorial on what feeds are and why you should care; everyday it gets the most hits on my site. People are always writing me to say how much they appreciate that and how it’s really helped them get a handle on following things that had been difficult for them to keep up with before. Also when something I say really resonates with somebody else and gets another part of the public conversation going—if I can kick something into gear, that just feels really good.

I’ve had a lot of good gigs with interesting clients, but what matters to me is: What is the effect? Not what did I get to do, but what happened because of it? What kind of difference did it make? There have been a few times when things have made a big difference and I’ve found that out usually after the fact. I’m so glad because a lot of times that happens when I stick my neck out, which is scary. You’d think I wouldn’t be scared by it, I’ve been doing it my whole life. A lot of times when I stick my neck out, I’ll find out later that it was very useful for other people that I did that and that feels really good.

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