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.

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.