The Government’s How-Not-To Guide to Better Freelance Writing

When you need them, real friends are there.

Such was the case last week. I had to take off for eight days because my parents needed me. Dad was in the hospital. Reports weren’t good.

I bolted.

Somewhere about four days or so into my absence, Paula Hendrickson checked in. As did Cathy Miller. As did Anne Wayman. As did Joy Drohan. As did Dana Held.

Somewhere about five days in, Jenn Mattern checked in and offered to take over the blog until I got back.

Real friends do that.

Luckily, things stabilized with my dad and I was able to return home in time for my daughter’s baby shower. My sister took over helping my mom, and my brother and sister-in-law will take over this week until my dad is settled in back home.

But it’s what Jenn and everyone did here that made me realize how lucky I am. Thank you, friends. You helped without being asked, and you graced this blog with your talents. I love you all.

While I was with my parents, I had the misfortune of dealing directly with a few federal, state, and local government agencies. In particular, the federal Veterans Administration program caused mountains of grief and complexity at a time when we needed simplicity and compassion. Their system is a lesson in lack of cohesion, in policies being adopted (or not) as the people in charge see fit. In one completely bizarre and incredibly frustrating case, a director told us in her 43 years with that department, she’d never heard of the VA helping anyone with hospice coordination.

That was after a different office had dangled the carrot in front of my dad for five years.

Yet even in this circle-jerk debacle that has become the VA, there are lessons. Here’s what watching the almighty ineptitude and shifting policies of this particular organization has taught me about business:

Say what you mean.

It’s on their website, in their brochures, and being spread verbally by their own people — veterans are entitled to a host of wonderful benefits, including free nursing home care, in-home hospice, respite care for my mom… only they used these four words: “For those who qualify” coupled with the idea of any veteran with “at least 90 days of service” would be eligible. Not so. Seems there’s a different level of qualifying — they call it the “you’re not qualified enough” stipulation when you press them.

For freelancers, this kind of promise made to clients, followed by the “Oh, but I really meant to say” bullshit means you’re going to lose a customer. Make sure your language in any communications piece or any conversation is precise. Say it exactly as you want it to be perceived, not sugarcoated to the point that the real meaning is hidden.

Do what you say.

If you advertise freebies (much like the VA has done repeatedly) and you renege on those freebies, it doesn’t matter if your client is willing/able to pay or not. You’ve left a bad impression. Take for example this link to the federal VA’s list of benefits. Just for fun, click on Pension. Read the eligibility. By their own criteria, my father is eligible. And he is. Only they have to spend down their assets to $80K total in order to get him a modest pension (my calculations had it at $37 a month). How is my mother supposed to survive exactly? Don’t make an offer to a client without qualifying it with every condition first. If you bring your client to the same page at the outset, you can establish a trust-based relationship, even if the conditions exist.

Introduce your left hand to your right hand.

At one point in our VA office-to-office inconsistency debacle, I said in frustration “It’s as though they took the hand of a gorilla and the hand of a field mouse and used them to build the entire infrastructure.” In your own communications, make sure your message is clear and consistent. Don’t tell client A that you’ll happily write their articles while telling client B you don’t do that sort of thing. If you don’t want the job from client B, find a truthful way to tell them you’re not taking the job.

Keep it simple.

What continued to impress me in the worst possible way was how the VA made it extremely complicated to get any of their “free” benefits. And they do it at a time in one’s life when simplicity is required. If the goal was to discourage anyone from applying, it’s working. Luckily, my brother-in-law is well-versed in VA forms and requirements. And it’s really telling that the qualifications needed to get into a VA nursing facility are this arbitrary, moving target. We heard everything from his disability had to be 65% related to service to 100% related. Worse, the burden of proof is on the applicant. It truly is a game of the one with the best lawyer wins.

You, freelancer, need to spell out in simple terms what your terms are. What are you doing for what amount of money? How will your client pay you and when? What is included in your fee and what isn’t? Don’t assume your client understands any of it. This may be the first time they’re working with a contractor. Help them have a successful outcome by anticipating their questions and assumptions ahead of time.

Writers, have you ever had an encounter with an organization that’s taught you something about your own business? Describe what it was like.

Have you ever worked with someone who has made the process harder by their own lack of clarity and communication, or by some shifting requirement?


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  • Cathy Miller September 11, 2017 at 10:16 am

    So glad your dad has stabilized and your family is receiving the help they need. It is so frustrating that basic health care is so darn complicated and ridiculously expensive. I constantly feel sorry for those who have no advocate for care.

    Of course, you know I love the Keep it simple. 🙂 What is it about government agencies that cannot understand that concept? The other thing that drives me batty is rules for rules sake. We all have control issues but from a business perspective, I like to ask myself, what difference will this make? Look at the bigger picture for crying out loud.

    When my grandmother died at age 90, she had a lone health policy (secondary to Medicare) from her last employer (a large department store). It had a whopping $2,500 lifetime maximum. Yep, you read that right. And despite being retired for probably 30 years, she had never used one dime of it. So, imagine my outrage when they refused to pay a $52 charge that Medicare did not pay on her final hospital bill when she died. I told the supervisor, she paid waaaay more in premiums than the total benefit amount. Take a chance and pay the frickin’ $52. I doubt you’ll lose your job over it.

    • lwidmer September 11, 2017 at 10:47 am

      They refused that?? That’s absolutely crazy! That’s less than I spend at Target!

      Bureaucracy = Insanity

  • Paula Hendrickson September 11, 2017 at 11:40 am

    I hope your dad settles in well back at home and you’re able to get him every VA benefit he’s earned through his service.

    Do you get the feeling the VA “pension” is set up so the $37/month or whatever pittance they finally say one is eligible for simply isn’t worth the headache of navigating their paper fortress?

    I’ve encountered a few moving targets, something I find very disturbing when dealing with editors who should know how to clearly explain an assignment. In a couple of those cases it was clear that after the projects were completed to the editors’ specifications their bosses (or advertisers!) decided they wanted something different. Argh.

    • lwidmer September 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      Well, if by “every” benefit you mean the bare minimum, then yes. We’ve managed that.

      The VA is good at supplying equipment for free and medications at ridiculously low prices (he now pays $9 a month). They’re also quite good at the everyday healthcare for free. Where they fail is in the promise of free stuff that simply isn’t going to happen. They told him about the free stuff. I know. He called me and ran through the list of things they said he’d get. They didn’t say he’d have to be uber-qualified or have to fight them legally to get them, either. Until now.

      My sister managed 2 hours of free caregiver time out of them. That’s it. Two hours. For a man who needs a ton of help, I find it hard to believe they based it on anything real. Probably some formula.

      And I do believe, as you do, that the pension formula is meant to discourage. There’s no way that anyone can benefit unless they have no money left.

  • Devon Ellington September 11, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Lori, so sorry to hear about the problems. I’m navigating something similar with the insurances for my mother’s upcoming surgery (not that she’s a veteran, but still . . .) What infuriates me is that the doctors won’t tell me how much the co-pay is ahead of time, but I’m supposed to pay it when she has her surgery. I can’t prepare without knowing. It’s not like I have random thousands of dollars available in a moment.

    Sorry I was so wrapped up in my own stuff that I didn’t realize you needed help.

    Thinking of you.

    • lwidmer September 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Same here, Devon. I was lost in my own quagmire and didn’t realize you were struggling, too.

      It’s infuriating that the one with the best lawyer gets the benefits. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s shameful the way the system is set up as a promise of what will probably never come to pass.

      Much love and luck with your mom’s surgery. You’re right to push for answers. There’s no reason why they can’t know that ahead of time.

  • Jake Poinier September 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    So sorry to hear about this situation, but glad Dad is on the mend!

    I think your lessons here are excellent. I’ve always thought that “underpromise/overdeliver” is a B.S. concept. Promise, deliver, and everyone’s happy.

    On a side note, one of my Phoenix colleagues was among the whistleblowers at the VA here a few years ago. Navy vet, incredibly well respected, and literally ended up sequestered in the basement with nothing to do, simply because she exposed horrifying levels of misconduct. Absolutely disgusting.

    • lwidmer September 11, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      He’s on temporary mend, unfortunately. Long-term illness that won’t get better, I’m afraid.

      Good for your colleague, Jake. I think the VA needs plenty more of these whistleblowers. In one case, we were directed by a nursing home director to work with that county’s VA office. He meant well — he assumed like we did that they all operate the same. The woman in that county office looked at us as though we’d sprouted three heads apiece when we asked for help getting the hospice ball rolling.

      “We don’t do that!”

      “I’m confused. We were led to believe, from the VA website, that the VA offers free in-home hospice as a benefit for veterans.”

      “I’ve been in this office for 43 years and I’ve never heard of that.”

      Time she opens the door to that office to let the news in. We went home and called a different county VA office. Voila! Process started. And who helped us? The hospice care coordinator for… the VA.

      It’s that same level of frustration throughout the VA system.

      • Jake Poinier September 11, 2017 at 6:11 pm

        Yes, on the mend probably not the most accurate word choice on my part. In any case, hoping that you can help your dad get as comfortable as possible, and that you and your family are doing OK.

        Sure sounds like the VA system is straight out of Catch-22, or the Three Stooges (but not in a funny way).

        • lwidmer September 12, 2017 at 9:02 am

          It’s a combo of both, Jake. The shifting sands of regulation coupled with the random hilarity of stupidity… yep.

  • Anne Wayman September 13, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Oh Lori – while I’ve never had to work with the VA, I have had tangles with our federal government… just try and figure out Medicare, Medicaid, and Obama care when you’re retirement age… for instance. I often try to imagine how these tangles happen. I suspect that the initial regulation for Veteran’s pensions or anything else for that matter were pretty straight forward. Then someone noticed something that they thought needed to be changed… and so it begins.

    Best to you and your family.

    • lwidmer September 13, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      And so it snowballs, as I say. You’re right, Anne. The moment they start tweaking things internally, it all goes to hell.