Why Freedom Of Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism

I’m quite privileged to have grown up in a society that values freedom of speech — the ability to say what you think without certain consequences, such as being jailed or imprisoned for what you’ve said. But I’ve noticed lately that there seems to be a general and at least somewhat widespread misconception about what freedom of speech really means.

There’s a reason why I wrote “without certain consequences” above; freedom of speech protects you from government retaliation for what you say … but that’s only one very small potential consequence for exercising your freedom.

What might happen to you if you decide to let loose and preach your viewpoint? Well, depending on who you are and what you say, any number of things. You might lose your job. You might lose access to certain educational resources, like a scholarship or even your admission to a certain school as a whole. You might lose friends. Neighbors might shun you.

This isn’t a new development. The concept of freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequences or freedom from criticism. So why is this attitude emerging that it should?

Social media as a (the?) culprit

I have traditionally been a relatively early adopter of social media, from MySpace to Snapchat — though I’m not active on either platform anymore. Although I have a business and “ghost” profile on Facebook, I decided to deactivate my presence on that social media behemoth late last year … which I may or may not write about at some point; other more eloquent people have made the case for deleting Facebook already, and all I can say is that I’m not at all sorry I did it. Getting rid of it was one of the best decisions I made in 2018, in fact. (I’m still active on Instagram, that said, and have no plans to delete it!)

One big reason why I try and discard social media platforms is because I don’t like how we talk to each other on social media — as a species, as groups among a species, as individuals, you name it. There’s no “connecting with people” or “thoughtful discussion” when everyone is primed to think the worst of everyone else, including people you might know, like, and consider to be friends.

It’s like an internet comment section, but instead of a group of people who might or might not have read the article, it includes almost every single person you know. Shielded behind our computer screens and keyboards, it’s easy to forget that there are other actual real live human beings reading our words and reacting to them, and we often behave as though … there aren’t. So people (including myself at times) say things that they would never repeat to someone else face-to-face, and then those people are very surprised — shocked and hurt, even! — when those who read what they’ve written form an opinion about them based on what they’ve written.

The advice-seeking evidence

I’m a bit of an advice junkie, and I’ve seen a few requests for advice on several informal forums that tend to go a little something like this:

“I was arguing with a coworker/a spouse’s coworker on social media and I said some things that now have gotten me/my spouse in trouble with the human resources department. I might get fired/get my spouse fired for violating the company’s social media policy. Can I hire a lawyer to protect my freedom of speech?”

First of all, it is a sad commentary on our educational system that a significant number of people don’t seem to understand what, exactly, freedom of speech means.

And second of all, the answer is no. I mean, these folks could probably try to hire a lawyer, but this ties back into the “first of all” — freedom of speech protects you from arrest if you say something that someone doesn’t like.

That is literally it. You aren’t guaranteed a job that you get to keep even if you say heinous things. People don’t have to like you or invite you to their parties if you say heinous things. The higher-education program in which you were enrolled can choose to disenroll you against your will if you say heinous things. As long as you weren’t arrested? Your freedom of speech is intact!

Let’s take Roseanne Barr as a high-profile example. Now, at least she wasn’t talking about hiring a lawyer, so we’ll give her credit there, but if you post racist opinions on Twitter, guess what: You can be fired! Your employer has a right to tell you to hit the road, even if you’re the star of a show that was named after you. They are not violating your rights.

Everyone has the right to speak …

The thing that I love most about this country is the right to share your opinion. I have the right to talk about freedom of speech on my blog, or stand outside my house and tell anyone who walks by what I think, or to post a sign in my yard (I don’t belong to an HOA), or just to have a conversation with my husband in public about it. And as long as I’m not endangering the public by inciting violence or yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, nobody can arrest me for it! That is pretty amazing when you think about human history.

In the same way, everyone else has the right to say whatever they want about any race, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle, or way of being. This gets a little trickier on social media, where there are actually terms of use, believe it or not — you don’t have the right to use Twitter indefinitely if the powers that be at Twitter decide you are violating the terms of use. Or any other platform, for that matter. They can take away your right to post at any time if you don’t follow the rules, and you might argue that it’s censorship (we could certainly have that discussion), but your rights? Are not being violated. You are still free to walk around in the world and say whatever you like to your friends and neighbors live and in person, and you won’t be arrested for it, so your freedom of speech is actually intact even if you got banned from Twitter. Or fired from your job for what you posted on Facebook. If you tell a coworker that you hate them and that their kids should have been drowned at birth, your employer can fire you for that, and your rights were not violated.

… And everyone has the right to form opinions about what other people say

Here is what these freedom of speech crusaders seem to miss: Although they have the right to say what they like, other people also have rights. Those rights include the right to decide whether or not they want to be around you at all, or employ you, or invite you to a party, or be friends with you on Facebook, or friends with you in reality.

For a long time, certain groups of people (mostly minorities) didn’t really get to exercise this right as much as other groups did. It’s not always possible to decide you’re not going to interact with someone who has a history of making racist or misogynistic statements if you still want to have a career path and that person outranks you at work, for example. And the threat of violence if you speak up against someone who is saying racist or misogynistic or homophobic things is ever-present.

Things are changing, though — slowly, certainly, but still changing. It’s more commonly accepted that you can and perhaps should be shunned if you can’t play nicely with groups of people who don’t match your own personal group of people. That is not discrimination or reverse racism; it’s the rest of the world exercising their own right to decide how much attention they want to give you, and if past statements of yours has brought some people to the conclusion that they want to give you zero attention, then they aren’t infringing on your rights by ignoring you or blocking you, or reporting what you’ve said to your employer, or whatever recourse has been taken.

I love freedom of speech. I think it’s truly one of the rights that makes America a great country.

But freedom to say what you like without landing in jail as a result is not the same thing as freedom to say what you like without facing any criticism or consequences for what you said. Everyone around you has the right to decide how they feel about you at any given moment in time and make decisions about how they interact with you moving forward.

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

Do Writers Really Need A Website, And Why?

A couple of weeks ago, I delved into how emerging writers and editors can get a foothold in the industry. There’s one piece of advice that I always give but that might seem unnecessary, especially to those who are just getting started in their careers: Get yourself a website or an online portfolio of some sort.

I’m not sure how it works for fiction writers (I do write fiction, though not professionally), or influencers, or other people who make their living primarily through their online footprints — but for someone who’s trying to make it as a nonfiction writer, selling your services to clients or stories to publications, then a website is essential. Here’s why.

What’s the point of a website?

“Do I really need a website?” Believe me, I understand the hesitation that spurs this question; I was a decade-plus into my career before I invested in a website myself. Websites take time and cost money. Even if you go with a free version and do all the design yourself, the time it takes to build a website can still feel (and be) monumental — especially if you already have a part-time or full-time job and the website is for a side gig.

Plus, there are all of those lovely social media platforms out there, or even Medium, so why not just host your work elsewhere? Can’t you just put yourself out there on Facebook, Instagram, Medium, maybe Pinterest and YouTube, and call it a day?

I mean … maybe? Again, I’m not an expert on fiction writers or influencers. Those people might very well be able to get away with a social media presence and little (or nothing) more. But if you’re working in the news or marketing space, then a Facebook page and a Twitter account really aren’t going to suffice. These platforms might show how well you manage a social media account — which can certainly be beneficial — but most journalism and marketing tasks involve a lot more than posting on social media, and restricting yourself to just the social platforms is not going to do you favors.

There are three big reasons why I think writers and editors of all stripes need a website: They save you time by explaining what you do, they provide an easy-to-access portfolio of your work, and they show your prospective clients that you take your work seriously enough to invest in a website.

Websites save you time by explaining what you do

I’ve been getting paid to write things for almost twenty years now, and at this point, my experience includes … a lot. I’ve written news stories, website and app copy, big industry lists, marketing and email campaigns, white papers, research projects, and much more, spanning a range of topics — arts and culture, music, food, health care and health insurance, cannabis, and (most recently) real estate, to name the most prominent.

So if someone reaches out and asks me what I can do and about my areas of expertise, well, there are a few! I find it’s a big time-saver to direct prospective clients toward my website so they can learn what they want to know about me and I don’t have to repeat myself endlessly when someone new has a question. Of course, if the question is specific — “Can you help me with ghostwriting as a real estate CEO?” — then I can answer that quickly and direct the prospective client to my portfolio (more on that in just a minute), but if it’s a general “So what kind of writing do you do?” type question, then it saves us both time to deliver my website URL and allow them to explore my career at their own pace and according to their needs. Someone who’s mostly interested in website copy for a health care business probably isn’t going to care much about my food and music writing credentials — or my real estate background — and we can all be more efficient by focusing on what I have done and can do for them, specifically.

Websites provide samples of your work

When clients are hiring someone to do a specific job, it is not unreasonable for that client to request samples or some kind of proof that you know how to do that job. This will be increasingly important as your rates increase throughout your career; you want to be able to show clients that your work is worth what you charge. And it will also become increasingly difficult as you accrue more and more samples — it’s a nice problem to have, but getting the best examples of your work to a client quickly and efficiently is nonetheless a problem when there are dozens of items you could send and you’re not entirely sure how you named them and where you saved them on your computer.

One very easy solution: Create a portfolio page on your website and update it regularly, or at least semi-regularly — once a quarter, twice a year, whatever makes sense for your business. Eventually you can start dividing your portfolio according to type of project, area of expertise, or another method of segmentation so that clients can find what they’re seeking quickly and can browse several examples of your work at their convenience.

Maybe you don’t have much to show in your portfolio at first, and you’re concerned it might draw attention to what you’re lacking instead of what you can offer. That’s a valid concern, but the fact that you’ve bothered to gather any samples of your work and put them in a portfolio will show clients that you’re motivated, even if you’re just starting out in your career, and after you land your first client, you can start beefing up those samples. Sooner or later, you’ll have enough work that you can pick and choose your favorite examples for your portfolio.

Websites show clients you’re serious

Anyone can build a website. That’s true! But how many people actually take the time to build one, paying attention to structure and design, improving it as business grows? Just because anybody can do something, it doesn’t always follow that everyone is doing that thing, and your website can help elevate you from any competition you’re facing if it’s clean, easy to navigate and read, and includes all the details that a prospective client might want or need to know before they ask you to work with them.

Building your own website shows clients that you are invested enough in this business to actually invest some of your own time or money into the website. I know that cost can be a barrier when you’re just starting out, and if that’s the case, consider that it’s well worth taking a segment of your first writing-related paycheck and using it toward your website.

I spend about $175 per year to keep my website operational, which includes two domain names (polishedcopy.com, the name of my business, and ambertaufen.com, which I figured I would want to own just in case someone types it in — it redirects automatically), the software to build the website, several pre-existing templates, and my domain-specific email address (a little more on that below). You can get started for about $100 with one domain name and then add services and features as you grow. Platforms like WordPress are more expensive; platforms like Wix or Weebly are absolutely free, but you don’t get to control the domain name. Point being: There are options; you can use a free option, take some time to make your site look nice and polished, and then decide you’ll start paying (maybe) once you’ve been able to save up enough money.

One way you can get your foot in the door with clients is by offering to clean up or build a website for them — even if you’ve never done it for anyone else, the fact that you’ve at least created and manage your own website is one example of your work that you won’t have if you don’t do it. And it’s awfully convenient for clients, too. I try to include any information that someone might want to have before they hire me except for my rates, which range in scope depending on the project, and if someone is seriously considering hiring me, that gives them an incentive to reach out and tell me a little bit about their needs.

And this is no guarantee, but I’m 99% sure that I’ve landed at least one full-time job by way of my website because a hiring manager asked me during an interview to talk about a time when I learned how to do something on the fly and in a self-driven way. “Well, I built my website using tutorials and had never used the software before, if that counts.” (Full disclosure, I’ve had one of my designer friends help me revamp it since then, but it looked nice enough that I guess the manager was impressed, and I got the job.)

Bonus tip: The domain-based email address

I realize there might be some similar objections to the domain-specific email address, the biggest one being “but I can’t afford that!” I don’t know about you, but my personal email account has been active for more than a decade and if you email me there, I might see it immediately … or it might take me a few days or even up to a week to realize you asked me a question. So in my opinion, a business email address is worth creating even if you’re merely using “writer123xyz@gmail.com.”

However, there is a strong argument for forking over the $50 per year to Google to create a domain-specific email address once you own a domain. The confidence and authority that an @yourdomain.com address conveys over an @gmail.com address is huge — just like a website, it shows clients that you’re invested in your business and says “I’m a true professional” without you having to articulate it using words. And when you get the suite of products that includes Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so on, it provides an easy way for you to keep your personal and work lives separate; you can send and share documents and projects while maintaining version control, and everything will be easier to find.

(For what it’s worth, I wasn’t paid a dime by any products mentioned in this post; they are tools that I’m willing to pay to use because I really do think they make me look better than the alternatives and have elevated my business.)

Bottom line: Websites make hiring you an easier decision for prospective clients, and when well-constructed and updated as often as necessary, they also save you time. If you want to convey that you’re serious and professional about your business, then a website is an excellent way to start showing clients how great you are.

Photo by Grovemade on Unsplash

How Do I Get Started As An Entry-Level Writer, Editor, Or All-Purpose Wordsmith?

I’ve now had several people reach out to me on LinkedIn, asking my advice about how to break into writing as a career. I’m not sure if this is an assignment for college or if these people are taking the initiative to ask me — a random stranger! good for them if so. But after I’d typed out the same information three or four times, I thought maybe it would be easier to just put it here and send the next person a link, if that person ever emerges. (Heck, maybe Google will index it and then they can avoid sending a random stranger that question entirely!)

“So you want to make a career as a writer, eh, kid? Well, here’s my best advice for how to get your foot in the door in this day and age.”

What do you want to write?

As I’ve learned, writing for a newspaper is not the same as writing for a magazine, and both are vastly different from marketing copywriting. And editing isn’t remotely the same thing as writing, although it does help to be skilled with both if you want to excel in one area. You don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you want to do as soon as you graduate, but hopefully you’ve secured an internship or maybe two, and you’ve got some idea of what you like to write about and what really doesn’t interest you in the slightest.

One potential challenge is that a lot of people who like writing and words also tend to have other interests in common, such as music and food. Everybody wants to write about music and food, or be a music or food editor! That doesn’t mean you can’t write about either, but it does mean that it will pay off to think about specifics.

My own specific interests included electronic music and vegetarian/plant-based food when I was first getting started as a writer. Most of my colleagues at the publication where I started out were not all that interested in either of my specific interests, so I was able to write about them. Maybe you like soul food and bluegrass. If you don’t have a lot of experience (yet) as a writer, then leverage some of the experience you’ve gained in other areas to shape what you’ll write and use them to your advantage.

If you have areas of interest that aren’t very popular, then you should seriously consider using them. Not everyone cares about tech startups or business news or health care or real estate. If you do — and you could see yourself making a career out of writing about them — then think about starting now. The worst that can happen? You won’t actually care enough about your niche to keep digging in it. But if it’s a good fit for you, then you’ll have a head start.

Do you have to have a niche right out the door? Well, it helps — but not necessarily. I tried a lot of different types of writing before I settled on what I’m doing today. Dabble in what interests you, but you should at least know what interests you. Would writing website or app copy seem like fun? Do you want to write blog posts? Do you want to be an old-school shoe-leather journalist and write hard news? There are no wrong answers here, but if you have an idea of where you want to go, even generally speaking, that will help you figure out what to do (and what not to do) in order to get there.

You’ll need a portfolio

When I was in college, portfolios were not necessarily a common thing to build for yourself, though a couple of students I knew did it anyway. I always thought it was pretentious to have a portfolio in college, but you know what? Those students were a lot smarter than I was. Even if all you have to show right now are some college essays or stories that never got published, the fact that you’ve bothered to put together that portfolio speaks volumes about your commitment to the craft and your future as a writer or editor.

In 2019, this is probably going to require building a website. There are lots of ways you can go about this — free tools like Wix and Weebly, or you can fork over some money and get something a little bit more flexible and permanent, such as WordPress or Squarespace (my own personal choice). Heck, if you want to, you can even put together a Google Doc, Google Sheet, or Google Slide presentation and build your portfolio there.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, of course. The main disadvantage to opting for a free site is that you’ll have no control over the domain name, which probably doesn’t matter to you that much in the immediate future, but may be a reason why you’ll want to migrate your site to a paid provider sooner or later. The main disadvantage to a paid website builder/host is, well, it costs money. If you’re a brand-new graduate and you don’t have a lot of (or any) income to spend on a website, this can be a barrier.

If I were just starting out and didn’t have a website, I’d probably use a Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide format and then build a website as soon as possible. Having control over your domain name gives you a little bit of an edge, and for a little bit extra each year, you can create an email address with your domain name. Sometimes those little details can really matter to an employer or freelance prospect; they show that you care about the small stuff and that you’re serious about this writing/editing business.

… And some stuff to put in your portfolio

The hardest part about getting your foot in the door as a writer or editor is landing that first job. It’s a sort of catch-22: People want to hire writers and editors with experience, and how do you get experience with no experience?

It’s possible, but it takes a little extra creativity on your part. One option is to use your time in college to find an internship. Those can be difficult to land in the publishing world in 2019 because of laws and regulations about intern pay, which I’m not going to get into, but they do still exist (especially on the marketing side) and you may be able to find one. Ask if you can use some work samples from your internship in your portfolio.

Another option is to use your existing friends network. I’ll bet you have friends who are independently employed and who might want to build their own website and content for that website — but they don’t have the resources to hire someone to do it. I would never recommend that anybody, even an entry-level brand-new graduate, work for free, but what about a trade in kind? Can your real estate agent friend introduce you to their broker or other agents who need work done if you do a good job, or offer to coach you on home financing so you could one day buy a house of your own? Could your yoga instructor friend offer a certain number of private lessons in exchange for your help? If you have friends who are massage therapists, would they be willing to trade a few hours of massage for a few hours of writing or editing work?

Look at the people in your network who are also in the “just starting out” phase and reach out to them. Ask them if they’ve thought about blogging, building a website, launching their presence on a social media platform, or other work that you could offer. There’s even a lot to be said for having an eye for language and typos when someone is building a resume — can you offer to proofread some resumes for recent business graduates? Does one of your friends own a local boutique or restaurant that doesn’t have a website? Opportunities do exist, and even if they can’t pay you immediately, if they can trade services, you’ll get something to add to your portfolio plus a little bit extra for your efforts.

Your local newspaper or news outlet probably also accepts submissions, even from brand-new writers. Look them up, reach out, and ask what their freelance submission process is and how you can get started. Be aware that these people are usually quite busy and don’t have time to hold your hand — you might need to come up with story ideas yourself, and you’ll have to make sure your copy is as clean and compelling as possible before you submit it. But a clip or two from a local news outlet is a great way to start to build your portfolio, and once your editors there get to know you, they may even assign stories to you when something emerges that fits your style and niche.

Job boards and agencies: Do they work?

Here’s the thing about job boards: Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re awful, and oftentimes they’re a little bit of both. You’ll have to pick through a lot of truly terrible job offers to find the ones that are worth considering, and even when you find the gems, there’s a lot of competition from other people who are just getting started and want to get that foot in the door.

That said, sometimes it can be worth your time to go through a job board; look for one that’s specifically structured to your skill set. I would stay away from the websites where you can hire anyone to do anything and look at the ones that only offer paid blogging work, for example, or paid proofreading, or whatever your specialty happens to be. If you can, set up an alert or sign up for emails when new jobs are posted, then be diligent about applying to the ones that fit your parameters. Remember, no job lasts forever, especially not a freelance job; it’s OK to apply to something (or accept something) that you’re not sure is going to last forever if you think you’ll get some decent experience and clips or work samples out of the arrangement. When it’s not working for you anymore, or you move on to something bigger and better, quit! It’s that simple.

Creative agencies that connect employers with job-seekers are a step up from job boards, in my opinion; there are often more hoops to jump through in the early stages, but then you can set parameters for the level of work you’re seeking and how much you want to be paid, and the jobs will come to you. Some of them will be contract, some will be full-time, and they’ll have different requirements, but you’ll likely see something that’s a good fit for you sooner or later.

I also think that job boards on websites like LinkedIn can be very beneficial. Fill out your LinkedIn profile as best you can — recruiters do look at these things! — and set up a job alert for yourself; you can even set up your profile on LinkedIn to let recruiters know you are actively job-seeking, which can lead to job offers if you’re lucky.

Market yourself

If you have a portfolio, you know the basics of setting something up on the internet where people can find you. Why not build yourself a blog and maybe even a newsletter? Some people say the blogging golden days are over, and it’s probably true that you’re not going to get sponsorships and payment for writing about what you eat every day, but there is still a market for quality, well-written content — even if it’s just about your everyday life. At the very least, you’ll be educating yourself about how to set and stick to deadlines, how to build and send a newsletter, how to post about what you’ve written on social media, and other skills that will serve you well in your life as a writer or editor; at most, you’ll capture the attention of someone who might have the wherewithal to hire you for a full-time job with benefits, and that person will like what they see on your blog.

Don’t neglect the business side of things

One thing I’ve noticed is true about myself and many other people who have a propensity for words and language: We’re not always the best at business. I’ve already admitted that it took me a long time (too long, really) to put a portfolio together, and marketing myself didn’t always come naturally. (It still doesn’t, frankly.)

You don’t need to hire a business coach today or tomorrow or even next year, but understand that it is actually important for you to be aware of the business side of your, uh, business, and take steps to close your knowledge gaps. Plenty of coaches have free resources available that you can use when you’re not sure how to learn more about what you don’t know, and I’m also a big fan of Udemy, which has regular sales where you can buy online courses on everything from writing to SEO to business accounting basics for a smidge over $10 per course. And don’t forget about taxes — if you’re freelancing, you’ll have to pay extra when tax time rolls around, and once you get your feet under you, it is well worth the time and money to find and hire an accountant to help you file quarterly taxes or even set up your own business as an LLC or S-corp or another structure.

Getting started as a professional wordsmith isn’t exactly easy, especially in a market and environment where it seems like a lot of people want the same thing — but it is possible, and you can do it. Yes, you! Use the tools already at your disposal and follow these tips, and you’ll have yourself a skill set … and maybe even an entire business … that will carry you through an entire career. Good luck! And if you have more questions about what it takes or anything was unclear, please feel free to email me (you can find my contact information quite easily on this very website) or comment below, and I will gladly update this post with more details that will hopefully help you succeed.

Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

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