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  • eschuylersmith

Thoughts on plagiarism, personal work ethics, and giant broccoli monsters.


I am a professional writer. The reason I’m a writer is that I love the work. The reason I’m a professional is that I can make it work for you.


The Pitfalls of Professional Paranoia

But I didn’t always view it that way. Writers have a tendency to be protective, even secretive about their work. We fear missing out on the credit for our labors. It isn’t much of a problem for chefs or musicians, who must share what they do in order to be recognized. Even other solitary creatives like artists, who can work in a vacuum until the unveiling, are afforded some protection against imitators by their own technique and talent. Indeed, all of these employments I’ve mentioned involve doing highly skilled work that could be, at some stage in the process, ripped off, copied, or taken for granted. Yet the difficulty of their execution often speaks for itself. Copycats seldom succeed twice. Stealing a brilliant song or taking credit for a gourmet meal I didn’t cook isn’t going to advance my career much overall. Any success resulting from such theft is fleeting.


So why are writers so cagey? We are cagey, indeed, so much so that we had to invent a dirty word—plagiarism—to give name to the evil we fear. The thing is that writing well can be a difficult task, and the effort of getting the right words in the right order speaks to this. The rub is that once you know which words work well in what order, it doesn’t take much talent or effort to reproduce the effect (unlike a perfectly seared steak, or a jamming solo). Anyone can take credit for work that isn’t theirs, but writers often feel especially vulnerable.


Copycats, an Education

I was in the second grade when I first ran afoul of plagiarism. Every week we wrote in our journals and shared our work with the class. There were no statutes as to genre or subject, we simply had to come up with something that we could read aloud. So while most kids tended to share what went on in their home life or their last vacation, I started writing stories. That was fine. Then other kids started writing stories. Actually, they started writing mine.


Similarities were vague at first, but the trends were disturbing. Characters emerged with names that rhymed with my own protagonists’. I became (without appreciating it) a tastemaker of genre (would that I could accomplish that feat today). If I wrote a story about a detective cat, there would be an entire pet store of animals solving crimes in his wake. The incident that finally got my goat actually centered on a lizard. He was a knight in armor who fought a broccoli monster at the king’s banquet. Failing with the conventional arms of knife and fork, he did vanquish his foe with yon ketchup. And then in came ye olde copycats. My plagiarists had gotten pretty bold by this point, and when a story followed the next week in which a cat in knight’s armor battled a cookie monster, I decided to take the matter to court.


“Relax,” my second grade teacher told me. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”


The Upshot

Let no one say that academic standards have grown lax, because I knew in my marrow what a crock they were back then. It bothered me quite a bit at the time, but I’ve learned to let these things go. Right. Anyway, when it comes to writing, ideas are cheap. I’m sure you’ll want to write your own animal-knight’s tale where the hero vanquishes some unsavory foodstuff with a condiment, and ship the whole thing off to a children’s publisher forthwith. The fact is, I’ve come to realize that the industry is crawling with people who think they can do just that, and self-publishing platforms have only made the situation more ridiculous. There is no shortage of self-proclaimed “authors” lurking on freelance platforms waiting to recruit ghostwriters for their surefire book ideas. Good luck with that. Or not.


What Makes a Pro?

Concepts don’t make a professional, consistency does. In a world of imitators, you can’t beat the real thing. It doesn’t matter if you can do something once and get credit for it. That just makes you lucky. It’s making the shot again that makes you a pro.

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A tale of pies, dad jokes, and driving conversion


With Father’s Day upon us, it seems as good a time as ever to share a Dad Joke. Here’s one my Dad used to torture us with:


A man walks into a bakery and asks for a boston cream pie. The baker replies that he hasn’t got one, but that another bakery might. He directs the man to that bakery, where the same scene plays out. Embellishments include specifics about the bakers, the names of their shops, the circuitous directions to each destination (follow 7th Ave North until you see the old warehouse with the Beatles mural the Rotary Club painted back in ‘89…), and so forth. Rinse, repeat. The joke continues until the teller has relieved his audience of all will to live. At last the punchline arrives, like a mercy killing: the final baker has no boston cream pie, but he has got a banana cream pie. The guy happily takes it.


I recently inflicted this joke upon a group of glassy-eyed young sales people at a morning sales meeting (I’m not a complete monster, so I paraphrased it). We were discussing what sort of sales recommendations to make for Father’s Day shoppers. The group was about as forthcoming with their answers as an 8AM Trig class. Then one enterprising soul piped up with one of the most relevant sales questions you will ever hear:


“Can I…you know…ask what they like?”


Yes. You can.


This was the perfect segue to discuss the vital importance of asking open ended questions. It was here I employed the tedious parable of the baker and the pie guy. The anecdote clearly illustrates the dangers of closed-ended questions. Any time you settle for asking a potential customer a Yes or No question, you shut the door on a whole branch of possibilities. The same goes for how you follow up, which is the failing of the initial baker.


The core lesson is that even though you may not have precisely what a customer asks for, you may very well have something else they need or want. In fact, there are many cases in which the customer is simply misinformed about what they want, and they in fact really need something else (if you’ve ever sold hardware, then you know what I’m talking about). But if you don’t ask open-ended questions to qualify your customer, you may never find out what they might have purchased. They may walk away empty-handed or, worse, with something they will have to return.


So here’s a few examples of the types of questions you should ask a potential customer. Notice that they follow the basic journalistic questions you’ve known since kindergarten.


Who are you shopping for?

Never assume that the person you approach is the person who has to live with your product. I don’t care if you sell life insurance policies, adult diapers, or sex toys. You never know who may be shopping around on someone else’s behalf. Poor assumptions turn people off and waste time. Don’t assume. Ask.


Variations include: Who is this for? How will this be used?


Note that there is a double benefit to establishing this information. If the person standing in front of you is not the intended customer, then you now have access to two potential customers. Think about it.


What’s your goal?

I think people avoid this one because they’re afraid of sounding foolish. Obviously, if someone contacts you or walks into your business, they want to buy something, right?


Not always. They may be on a fact-finding mission, and that’s fine. Not everyone who walks into your store (whether digital or brick-and-mortar) is a customer. Establishing what they want (not what you can foist on them, but their actual purpose in contacting you) can save time. Taking time to ask this question in some form or another can also prevent you from launching into an unnecessary sales pitch, which is a waste of your time and major turnoff to the customer.


If you establish that the customer is looking to buy, you can further refine this question to point to a specific product. If someone is buying paint, for example, you can help them determine brand, finish, and color based on their plans for the room. If they need a gift for a birthday party, you can further specify a product based on their relation to the guest of honor.


Variations here include: What are you working on? What brings you in today?


How did you hear about this?

As you can probably infer, this question becomes relevant once the customer has requested a product or service. The request may be for something as specific as an auto part or the ISBN for a book, or it may be more general, like a request to see what evaporative coolers are available.


Knowing what first inspired a shopping excursion is a powerful thing. Online retailers and sometimes even physical locations collect this survey data with a mind toward marketing. From a marketing standpoint, it’s useful to know how people found you so that you can bolster that avenue of contact while reducing resources spent less effectively elsewhere.


But as always, qualifying a customer’s motivation helps you make a quality sale. Take my evaporative cooler example. When it comes to cooling an interior space, this is a lesser-known alternative to air conditioning. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that evaporative coolers (also called swamp coolers) do not produce the profound results of A/C because they don’t use a refrigerant. They draw in hot, ambient air and force it through a water-soaked filter, thus relying on the natural evaporative process to cool down the outgoing air. This means that they can only get the air temperature so low, and they need a dry enough climate for evaporation to actually occur (not a prudent choice in the South or Pacific Northwest). Their advantage is that they generally have a much lower energy cost to operate and are more environmentally friendly. Now if you live in say, North Carolina, and someone walks in asking for a swamp cooler because they heard it’s cheaper to run all summer than A/C, well, knowing that information helps you better serve their needs. Chances are, if you live in a humid region, you won’t even carry the product. Without asking open ended questions about the request, you might simply send the customer away to continue their search. Knowing their motives, however, can help qualify your recommendation. Yes, A/C costs more to run all August than a swamp cooler–but if you live somewhere humid, then you’d be wasting electricity anyhow. Better to go with A/C and run it selectively, perhaps with some quality weather-stripping or new windows to keep out the heat. Or, heck, have you heard of misters and box fans?


Where the product is less of a need and more of a want, say, a popular new book, then understanding a person’s exposure can help with additional recommendations. People who first heard about a book on a popular social media account may be interested in similarly popular items. Or if they’re interested because of the author’s background, or because they discovered the subject matter in a recent documentary, you may be able to sell them on a related title there. So for one request, you may end up selling two books. If you don’t have the book, instead of simply telling them “No we don’t have that,” you can offer an alternative. And, once this customer is dealt with, you have an even broader platform for making further recommendations in the future. Always remember that a quality sales conversation is also a future investment in market research.



What are you shopping for?

This is the last sales question you’ll ever need, and it should be considered not as the bottom of the list, but a summation of everything that preceded it. Just imagine that you and every customer you deal with are going to play a game of twenty questions. They are looking for a product (though it may not always be the one they have in mind), and if you can determine what it is, you’ll be rewarded with a sale. Sure, you can ask Yes or No questions to sidle up to them and hone in on it. That usually sounds something like this:


“Are you finding everything okay?”


“Where is your blah section?”


“It’s over there. Are you looking for something specific?”


“No, just browsing.”


“Okay, let me know if you need anything.”


Then later, if they don’t get lost and give up, you may find them in the blah section, leafing through tech manuals or reading labels.


“Still doing okay here?” You ask.


And they say yes, whether it’s the truth or not.


It’s true, some customers are not customers, just people who have come in to lurk or browse. You may never convert them if they have made a conscious decision not to buy. But you should never assume that you can recognize them on sight. It is actually less work to carry out the right kind of sales conversation up front.


Let’s say that your browser sort of has something in mind, but has some barrier to asking for it. Possibly they lack the terminology to articulate what they’re looking for, or they are simply too embarrassed to say they don’t know what it is they need. You can play twenty questions establishing its physical characteristics in relation to a bread box, or you can go for the jugular and ask the most obvious question.


“What are you shopping for?”


Just ask them. First question. Right in the door. You’re allowed to do that. It can even be the first sentence if you blend it with a greeting: “Hi folks, what are we shopping for?” Open-ended questions will not convert to sales 100% of the time–nothing will. But they will convert to sales in 100% of the cases where less-focused approaches would have. And they will do it faster, more efficiently, and generate more additional sales opportunities.


That’s my recipe for sales conversations that convert. Ask the questions that get your customers talking. Listen to what they have to say. Then sell them the pie that’s right for them.


  • eschuylersmith

Copywriting, Revision, and the Merits of Multiple Drafts


I didn’t get this right the first time. My original run at this site–complete with personal bio, a snappy intro video, and a headshot in a slick suit–was all wrong. It was adequate, in a kind of standard, professional way, but it wasn’t me.




That’s how copywriting works. You can deliver work that is complete and perfect in its own way, but is totally wrong for the client. That’s what happened with my initial website and introductory materials. I wrote solid copy that nevertheless failed to represent the client (in this case, me).


I had to go back to the drawing board, and that’s okay. Because if I’d gotten it right the first time, I only would have known what worked. What’s wrong with that, you ask? True, if you could get the work done right every time the first time, you’d be in a happy place. But that’s not going to happen 100% of the time (far less, I’m afraid). Skilled professionals are not rock stars with perfect pitch who nail the note every time. Professionals are the people who know how to pivot when things aren’t working to get a project back on track.


When you have to redo the work in order to get it right, you get two rewards instead of one. You have the correct, completed work, of course. But you also gain insight into why your process worked. Had you been successful on the first try, you would miss out on that insight, and be left hoping that you could recreate the happy accident again. Success is a poor teacher if it comes without a struggle.


In writing, we struggle to get the words right. How we go about this depends on the type of writing, whether it’s a personal poem or copy for a client. But the goal of any writing is almost always the same: to evoke an intellectual or emotional response. Struggling to get this right does not mean flailing. Skilled writers understand that their first draft will not be their last. They incorporate the time and effort of writing one version of the work, getting some perspective on it, and rewriting it into their process.


As with so many professions, clients seldom witness this process, and if they do, they don’t recognize it as deliberate exercise. This is what happened to me when I became my own client. I wrote copy for my website, including personal statements and descriptions of how I work. And I missed the mark completely. One glaring example is that I professed a love of storytelling on my About page…and then failed to relate any actual stories anywhere on the site. One of my goals for this blog is to rectify that discrepancy.


That’s how the process works. You miss things, you correct them. Better still, you spot opportunities in the shortcomings, places to expand, stories to unfold. Incidentally, what I’ve just described isn’t merely good for writing–it’s good for businesses, too.


Let’s remember that this process is not analogous to all work out there. If you pour the foundation for a house, you should definitely get it right the first time. Of course, we could re-frame that conversation and say that you should really, really, sweat over the measurements before you pour the concrete (which might be compared to publishing or printing the copy you’ve developed). Measure twice, cut once, any worthy craftsman will tell you. Perhaps for the copywriter that should be draft twice, publish once. But really it’s whatever works for you.

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