1,000 Words About Pictures


1,000 Words About Pictures

Do “people” really prefer visual Web content to text?

Me, I’m an outlier. I find a long, dense block of text as tempting as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. Still I’m inclined to believe there’s some truth to the common wisdom that a majority of people absorb and retain information better when it is presented visually. So why do Web sites that feature video, dozens of photos, and very few words so often subject us to a bad experience?

Technology makes it easy to produce Web sites, video, and infographics. People seem to have less anxiety about snapping photos than they do about writing. However, most people have less training in visual communication than in writing, and it shows.

Here are the three most common errors I see in visual design on the Web:

Problem #1: Illustrated verbal metaphors. You’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this image — a pair of hands holding a mound of soil with a green sprout growing out of it. My dynamo Web designer Jessica Albon wrote, “Stock photography can be great, but more often it’s generic. If you were on a site that had a photo like [that], what would you think they did? Business consulting? Environmental cleanup? Daycare? (I’ve seen this type of photo on sites for all three types of companies–and many others.)”

It’s as if the people designing the page thought:

“What would say ‘rich, deep’ experience that grows in the customer’s mind?” or “What says ‘health’”?

“Oh, yeah, dark, fertile soil!”

And that’s not the only such cliched image. How about:

  • Corporate team members poring over documents (“What says ‘collaboration’?”)
  • Fit young woman sitting in lotus position alone on the beach (“What says ‘peaceful, healthy’?”)

There’s not much visual communication happening there; the pictures symbolize verbal ideas.  A skillful writer might indeed use some combination of words to compare a sprout bursting from the soil with a growing business. The photograph is often a non sequitur.

The cure: Think like a filmmaker. Successful films tell stories through a series of visual images informed by dialogue and music. The words in the script give the director cues for things that will actually be seen. Films use symbolism, but the people and objects you see on screen are not just metaphors. Once the shot has been transformed into an image, that image can not be completely captured in words at all. This is one of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane.

Here is the passage in the script that forms the blueprint for that shot.

Camera now pulls back further, showing Thatcher standing before a table on which is his stove-pipe hat and an imposing multiplicity of official-looking documents.  He is 26 and, as might be expected, a very stuffy young man, already very expensive and conservative looking, even in Colorado.

For a peek into the minds of two master visual thinkers and storytellers, check out the film, Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Problem #2: Video that doesn’t communicate visually. Many Web sites link to a YouTube or Vimeo file of the author sitting at a desk and speaking into the camera. The shots are poorly composed. For example, the edge of some unidentifiable piece of furniture (but not the whole object) pokes into the corner of the frame. The lighting is off, with distracting shadows visible on the walls. Sometimes the video is blurry. Ironically, these authors neglect the visual dimension of the content.

Worse, this is not really visual communication at all. It’s oral communication bolstered by images. The same applies to a person reading from a PowerPoint. Even when there are a few slides of charts, graphs, or pictures, the dominant mode in these slide presentations is auditory.

The cure: Do video right or not at all. If you just want to talk, try a podcast instead of a video. If you want to give people a lot of information, written copy is more effective than an hour’s worth of reading from a PowerPoint. Use video where it adds value: in a demonstration,  like how to braid hair; in a mini-story with scenes; or when your talk makes entertaining use of props. If you use video for a lecture or interview, learn good technique or hire a professional producer.

Problem #3: Lack of visual design. The visual dimension of a Web site goes beyond the subject of the pictures posted there. In fact, a Web site communicates visually with no representational images at all. Typography, layout, white space, choice of color all contribute. The style of the images matters, too. Cartoonish illustrations send a different message than realistic ones and photographs send a different message than illustrations.

The cure: Don’t stop with pictures. Even better — don’t start with pictures. If you’re a wedding photographer or painter, images should probably dominate your Web site. If you are marketing yourself as the only psychotherapist in your city specializing in support groups for narcoleptics, you probably need to explain that in words. Of course the visual quality of your site, the “look-and-feel,” should match the quality of your message. Before prospective clients or referral sources even read the text, they should get the impression that you are caring and wise and professional. They should not think they accidentally surfed to the Web site of a rock band.

In sum:

  • Recognize when words should predominate. If that is the case, write or hire a writer.
  • When making a video, give people something to see.
  • To tell a story in pictures, make a logical connection between the image and your offer.
  • Finally, respect the discipline of visual design. An artist or graphic designer can do a lot more for you than a WordPress theme and stock photos.

I hope this post has been as filling — if not as tasty — as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. I’ll spare you the picture.

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

Hourly or Project: That’s Not the Question


Hourly or Project: That’s Not the Question

A Google search for “hourly vs project writer” yields 475,000 results. Each method has its fans. The debate has been covered exhaustively. Many experienced writers end up at, “It depends on the project,” and cite their typical arrangement and its common exceptions. Everyone agrees: If you charge by the project, you must have a sense of the underlying hourly rate. You don’t want to work for minimum wage. If you charge by the hour, you must have a way to determine if the total fee for any given project will be worth your time. One hundred dollars an hour may be a great rate, but, realistically, you cannot sell, deliver, and administer dozens of separate hundred-dollar writing projects per month. One popular tool is the “hourly rate calculator.” You can find many examples on line. My complaint about those calculators is that they perpetuate the faulty frame that leads writers to charge too little and ultimately harms the quality of their body of work. The typical calculator offers a formula something like this: Start with the amount of money you make on your job, say $25 per hour. Assume that you will bill some portion of that time and spend the rest of your time on marketing, bookkeeping, etc. Add in your business and personal expenses, from health insurance to internet connection to tax preparation. Subtract hours you plan to use for vacation, sick leave, and continuing education. There is a big problem with this method and the mindset that spawned it: The hourly rate you charge must be a price, not a wage. Freelancers who come from salaried jobs often confuse the business revenue with the owner’s personal income. In essence, you-the-business and you-the-owner are separate; the money you pay yourself for working is a business expense. Think of it like so:
  • Overhead expenses: Internet, phone, paper, postage, software, home office, business license
  • Direct expenses: travel to a client site, rent to host a client focus group
  • Labor expenses (may be direct or indirect): proofreader, virtual assistant, IT consultant, YOU
Profit is the difference between the money you collect (revenue) and the cost to deliver. Your personal income is equivalent to your pay for labor plus your profit. To earn what you want, you do not need to convince clients “what you are worth.” You also don’t need to bolster your self-esteem and convince yourself of “what you deserve”! The task before you is to define service offerings for which:
  • the price the market will bear exceeds the cost to deliver
  • you have (or can develop) the capacity to deliver — both time and skill
  • you have (or can attract) a large enough customer base willing and able to pay your prices
  • the total work you bill adds up to the revenue you need
Get the offerings right, and the right pricing method won’t be so hard; ideally, your price will reflect both good compensation for you and good value for your clients. Your prices, profits, and personal income can increase with the value you can demonstrate. This is not a pricing problem. It’s a business modeling and positioning problem. Writers new to self-employment, nervous about approaching big clients or selling more than “writing skills,” commonly rely on one particular type of high-maintenance client. (I know I used to!) You may  feel comfortable with these clients because they treat you the way you are used to being treated by a relaxed sort of boss. Often they are entrepreneurs who are unaccustomed to collaborating with vendors. These clients might be better served by a part-time employee or virtual assistant than by a freelance writer. They really want a dedicated person standing ready to take small assignments for them, but they are nervous about committing to meeting a payroll. In some cases, the prospective client just can’t afford what they want in the form they are convinced they need. In other cases, you will find the person is too disorganized to delegate efficiently to employees or vendors. Some clients might benefit from purchasing canned content but believe that only custom work can meet their quality standards. (You might eventually create additional revenue streams around those services or cultivate a network of providers to whom you can refer. Just don’t let these clients weigh down your freelance writing practice! Serve a lot of these clients and you train yourself to crank out high-volume, low-quality work.) Conclusion: Set aside the hourly vs project question. Stop thinking like an employee for hire who negotiates based on “level.” Figure out what business purpose you can serve by the kind(s) of writing you do. Design service offerings that fit the purpose. Calculate what it will cost to deliver each service, including labor costs. Test, research, and evaluate the market. Target clients who can afford you. Then, price accordingly.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

The Right Writer for the Job


The Right Writer for the Job

Ihear from writers all the time: “My title is ‘writer’ but it’s not really a writing job.” I’ve said it myself. I’ve also heard people who hire writers complain that the writers they hire want to phone it in, or think they’re too good for the client’s project. Any one of those perceptions is a red flag that the writer and project have been mismatched. The mismatch can be in project definition, hiring, or a failure of self-awareness on the part of the writer. Sometimes it’s all three.

Three distinct tasks are tangled up in writing work.

Mechanics are the foundation. Writers or not, we all learn mechanics — or should — in school. Mechanics includes grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. It includes what a paragraph is. Since we can’t learn mechanics in isolation, we’re taught to apply the lessons to basic forms. In elementary school, we write “what I did for my summer vacation.” In middle school we prepare a book report on Johnny Tremain. In high school, we crank out five-paragraph essays on topics like “the use of Christ symbolism in Magic Mountain.” In college, we write ten-page research papers according to the standards of our major field.

Most professionals add a few more of these forms to their repertoire, for example, the grant proposal, the business memo, and the cover letter.

If your company needs a high volume of formulaic writing, offering your employees a course in basic writing skills may be a better investment than hiring professional writers.

Craft skill entails mastering text structures, forms, at an abstract level. To realize an idea as a novel, a documentary film, or a newspaper article — or as a white paper, business book, or a television commercial — the writer must apply the conventions that make the final product recognizable for what it is to the intended readers. There’s room for innovation and experimentation, but at some point the form breaks. Some craft requirements are technical and practical. There is no such thing as a 2-hour television commercial or a 1,000-word tagline. Other requirements are not so tangible. For example, sales pages use emotional language, while technical manuals typically do not. Skilled crafters concentrate on mastering the forms required for various jobs.

On these kinds of projects, hired writers offer excellent value. An executive can hire a business book ghostwriter. A content marketing manager can hire a white paper writer. The company can hire a creative team to produce blogs, product descriptions, and sales pages.

Meaning is not really a skill; it is having something to say. People with something to say either master the mechanics and the relevant craft forms, or they hire other people who have done so to write for them. The meaning may be philosophical, artistic, instructional, or informational. Jerry Garcia once said, “There are guys working in instrument shops who are much better musicians than I am; they just don’t have anything to say.”

Jerry had something to say and spent a lifetime developing the chops to say it. The rub: Artists such as he was can’t easily turn it off. When Jerry Garcia plays on someone else’s record, you know he’s there. Writers like this perform best when given creative license. They can do commercial work; only this kind of writer will make a top-notch ad person, for example. They will happily lend their craft skills to well-scoped projects. There is likely to be a clash, however, if you engage this kind of writer to clean up other people’s grammar or sloppy thinking.

If you have something to say but lack the skills to say it, decide whether you are – or can become – an adequate writer for the text. If you cannot, delegate to a writer. If you can, hire a teacher, a coach, or an editor instead. Also, consider whether you do have anything to say. Maybe you need to purchase content rather than create it.

Trouble arises when people confuse these facets of writing. The client blames the “arrogant” writer; the writer blames the “cheap” or “disrespectful” client. One of my clients handed me a case study to rewrite. The subject was how a company was capturing waste methane gas and using it to generate electricity. The piece read like a mystery novel. The previous writer, I suspect, was not a prima donna who refused to suppress his creativity to serve the client; most likely, this writer lacked craft expertise in case-study writing.

A common source of frustration among writers is being asked to “polish” work created by managers or subject matter experts. The assignment, to improve the mechanics of the writing, doesn’t match what’s really needed: the author of the piece has not applied the proper structure to the work or, worse, has completely failed to articulate the meaning he or she wants to convey.

The most dreadful moments in any commercial writer’s career come when an “editing” assignment arrives and it is impossible figure out what the person is trying to say. In these cases, the authors need either a ghostwriter to draw out the ideas and write in the author’s voice, a delegated writer who owns the project but publishes under the author’s byline, or writing instruction.

Writers: Know your strengths as well as your interests, and get clear on what you will be expected to do. Are you a synthesizer of information, a formulator or ideas, or an organizer of data? Do you excel at interviewing people to gain your own understanding, like a journalist or scholar? Are you more adept at helping people articulate their thoughts, like a coach? Or do you have the skill to do both, like a psychotherapist who diagnoses, intervenes, and guides? Are you a perfectionist? Will it drive you crazy to “edit” material that doesn’t meet your standards for logic?

If you need a writer: Use the right selection criteria. For your Web project, a Web content writer who has not worked in your industry may be a better choice than someone in your industry who has never written Web content. A senior-level author may, paradoxically, have a harder time than a less experienced one churning out a quick article with no context. If you need someone to create “the voice” of your company, hire someone with samples that demonstrate an original style or point of view.

Whether you are taking on a writing project or hiring someone to join one, ask, “Does this project need a language mechanic, a text crafter, or an author?”

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

The Best Time to Start Is Now


The Best Time to Start Is Now

A year ago, my neighbor overheard me talking about reading poetry at an open mic.

“I write poetry,” he said. “I should go read sometime. I don’t have a working computer. I need to type up the poems.”

“You don’t need to type them up to read,” I said.

I told him about a few readings in town where he could share his stuff — at a couple of bars, a library, an art gallery, a senior-citizen apartment building.

“I’ve never done it before. I’m a little nervous about it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “All levels of talent there!”

This evening, we crossed paths on the stairs.

“I read at the library today. It wasn’t so bad. It’s the fourth Thursday of every month.”

He’s 70 years old.

I’ll have to check it out.

Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

Tira McDonald


Tira McDonald

Barbara has worked on a couple of projects for me that were initially started with another writer. Barbara asked pertinent questions and made sure she understood the objectives of each project before she took on the assignments. The final products were vast improvements over the originals. Barbara makes herself available throughout the project and usually turns around a draft ahead of schedule. I have recommended Barbara to other colleagues and will continue to do so. If anyone is in need of an excellent copywriter with great time management skills, I highly suggest giving Barbara a call. You will not be disappointed.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.