Look, I know… attorneys are the worst.
But you have to admit, trial attorneys are the best of the worst. Who hasn’t fantasized about emulating the protagonists of A Few Good Men or My Cousin Vinny?
I was a criminal trial lawyer for four years and loved every second of it, but competing priorities led me to a freelance writing career. Still, sometimes when my only audience is my computer screen instead of a jury hanging on my every word, I do miss the courtroom.
I may never have had a transcendent moment like Tom Cruise did when he got Jack Nicholson to admit to homicide, but I did learn a few lessons in court that you can apply to freelance blogging.
1: Be thorough but concise
I once prosecuted a man for writing bad checks. The case involved some tedious evidence.
After spending two days presenting that evidence, I spent two hours in my closing argument rehashing its tiniest details.
About 90 minutes in, I noticed that one of the jurors couldn’t keep his eyes open. His head kept bobbing up and down. It was very embarrassing.
Worse, my office came up with a new policy: any time you put a juror to sleep, you have to buy the whole office a round. As far as I know, it’s still called the Bauer policy, and I am the only offender.
The criminal was convicted, so I laughed it off at the time. But looking back, I realized that as I prepared my closing argument, I never really examined it for material I could cut. If I had, I would have found a lot.
It’s the same in writing blog posts. Your client’s readers spend their valuable time reading your client’s blog, and they’re not interested in wasted words. This is not to say that all blog posts should be short, just that all blog posts should be no longer than they need to be.
My rule of thumb is that if I’m writing a 750-word post, I try to make my first draft about 1000 words, and then cut it from there. In the end, I keep the best 750 words. My initial draft of this post was 1,585 words, but the first draft I sent to Lauren was 1,275 words.
2: Understand the subject matter
I understand as much about computers as I need to understand in order to be a freelance blogger… so not much. The first time I prosecuted a case involving computer crimes, I met my expert witness one day before trial and realized he spoke a different language: Computergeekese.
I learned the buzz words and tried to feign understanding, but I failed. I asked for so many short delays to consult with my expert that the judge eventually began refusing my requests!
That criminal was not convicted, so it was no laughing matter. As you decide what subjects you’re going to write about, remember that you need to understand the subjects, not just know the words that are used to talk about them.
Your client’s readers frequent your client’s blog because they’re genuinely interested in the topic. If all you know about the topic is what you were able to regurgitate from 10 other blog posts you read in one sitting, your shallow understanding will be obvious. If you want to write about an unfamiliar topic, take the time to understand it.
3: Exude confidence, even if you don’t feel it
I sat second chair (kind of like a co-pilot) in my first trial. It’s customary for the second chair attorney to do the opening statement and the first chair attorney to do the closing argument.
The other attorney told me I did fine, and we did win the case. But he pointed out that I could be more confident. Most significantly, and to my disgust, he revealed that I had even apologized to the jury twice about the nature of the evidence we would present. Why was I apologizing? The nature of the evidence wasn’t my fault. He told me that if I was going to reference those aspects of the evidence at all, I needed to find a way to sell them as strengths.
As a freelance blogger, you must be confident in your pitches. I’ve caught myself writing to blog owners and saying something like “I know this topic is a little overdone, but…” or “I don’t know how your readers will respond, but…”
Those are not confident tones. If your pitch is weak, improve it: “My post on this admittedly saturated topic is unique in that…” or “This post will really get your readers thinking because…”
If you can’t improve it or don’t have time, at least don’t telegraph the weakness to your potential client! Blog owners are looking for reasons not to publish your post. With the exception of a few helpful people like Sophie and Lauren, most blog owners and editors are not going to do your job for you and help you improve your pitch or post.
4: Know the rules
You’ve heard of hearsay evidence, right? In general, it’s not admissible, but there are some exceptions. Early in my career, I got an aggravated assault case involving rival gangs. Each gang member (including the victim) had conveniently forgotten who had cut up the victim with a broken beer bottle.
I asked my boss how I was supposed to prove the case. He looked at me like I was fresh out of law school (which I was) and just said “excited utterance.” Turns out hearsay is admissible when it relates to “a startling event or condition” if it is said while the speaker is “under the stress of excitement that it caused.”
Fortunately, when members of the offending gang surged out of the bar to avoid arrest, a passing couple heard one of them yell to another “Hurry up, we gotta go! Donnie sliced up Scarface!” (Names changed to protect the guilty.) That hearsay was admissible.
Every blog has its own rules. Some are written, like the technical specifications for drafts. Those are easy. But many rules are unwritten.
BAFB blog posts tend to have short, 1-3 sentence paragraphs. It also tends to use short sentences. This is hard for me, because I still have a tendency to write a little like a lawyer, with long paragraphs and long sentences that use too much punctuation; in fact, if I could get away with using a semi-colon twice in one sentence even though that sentence did not constitute a list, I probably would; let me try it! (Hmmm… I don’t think it works.).
But on my first edit of this blog post, I made sure to shorten my sentences and my paragraphs to adjust my style to the style BAFB’s readers obviously appreciate.
5: Work to live, don’t live to work
I was a trial lawyer for about four years. I did well, but worked long hours and most weekends. On one particular Saturday about seven months ago, I was going to take my first day off in over a month.
When my son got up and saw me in pajamas, he went into my bedroom to get the shoes I usually wear to work. When he came back, he said “Here your shoes, Daddy. You go to work.”
Then he leaned in so I could give him a kiss and a hug, just like I had for 30-something days in a row.
At that moment I knew that I was living to work, not working to live, so I quit (after six months of saving and planning).
As a freelance blogger, you can’t afford to let work become the only thing you do. It stifles creativity and often forces you to write about things you don’t understand. (See Lesson #2.)
Instead, let your life guide your work. Write about what interests you and what makes you interesting. If you do it creatively and with a passion that jumps off the screen, blog owners will buy it.
You probably have at least one former or second career from which you can draw entertaining anecdotes to use in your posts. What lessons about freelance blogging can we learn from your career history? Tell us about it in the comments!