The Panda God

Giant panda

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In the world of the web content writer, Google is god.

It’s simple: when Google sneezes, we jump. We sweat, we worry, we pace, we lose sleep, and we re-evaluate our entire portfolio to appease the newest algorithm changes. If Bing, Yahoo!, Ask, AltaVista, or any other search engine makes a change, we rarely even notice. We worship Google, in our own way, because the place of our work in the Google ranking determines how many views we make, how much money we make, how well we’re doing.

When Google released its latest “Panda” algorithm, the web writing world didn’t just jump. It had a heart attack. The “point” of Panda – at least as the web writing world understood it – was to punish “content farms,” websites that encourage a large amount of keyword-focused content to draw views and ad revenue. Panda prefers to reward focused sites, original content, high quality writing, and editorial oversight.

But even writers who were publishing independently on respected sites in the freelance domain, who met Panda’s original, high-quality content saw their page views and earnings plummet as the websites themselves were punished with a heavy swipe of the Panda’s paw. Some websites have seen page views drop to half of their previous levels, or lower.

All of this, of course, leads to “panda”monium in the freelance world. Content farms – from Associated Content and Helium to eHow and Examiner – are beginning to see a mass exodus of writers, while the websites themselves scramble to appease the new algorithm to earn their way back up in rankings. It’s no surprise that these writers are also finding that there are a lot less freelance jobs out there for them – and what is available is highly competitive.

Currently, the survival guide for web content writers seems pretty simple: focus on quality, look for writing jobs with focused websites that specialize in specific content, and avoid websites that don’t have editorial oversight for every piece of submitted content.

On my end, things have been shifted quite a bit on the downturn. Only two clients of mine remain reliable and have not been affected by Panda. I’m lucky in that case – some writers are having to literally give up their day job to bring in new money to pay the bills. Still, my goals are adjusting – as a writer, and as a person.

It’s not that web content writing is dead – the web will always need good, unique content. But the business has made a major shift, and writers must adapt and improve. Panda will, in the end, improve quality of life for searchers and writers. It’s the shuffle of finding new offerings to the search engine gods that presents the greatest struggle.

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Sorry for the dust…

I’ve been dealing with the after-effects of a panda attack.

When Pandas Attack

Stay tuned for more blogging in the near future!

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Cryptograms and the science of language

Language areas of the brain Angular Gyrus Supr...

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Puzzle-solving is one of my favorite hobbies, even if I tend to buy more puzzle books than I solve. I guarantee you I’ve at least a dozen hiding over the house half-finished! I tend to just pick one up and try to work from cover to cover, but which one I pick up, and how far I get between the covers, is another story.

Lately I’ve been working on cryptograms – the simpler kind in which a sentence is presented with each letter in the alphabet randomly replaced by another letter in the alphabet, and the solver must figure out which letter resembles which. For example (answer at the end of this post for the curious):

FGD YTIK UPK FY QDF MHX YL P FDSZFPFHYT HN FY KHDIX FY HF.

At first glance, a cryptogram can be mysteriously hard to solve. The key to solving cryptograms is primarily in recognizing word patterns which, in turn, means knowing an awful lot more about language than you think you really know.

For instance, if you’re making an attempt to solve the above, you might first look for common words – words like “the,” “to,” and “it,” for example. Another usual starting trick is to find any single letter words, as they can only be “I” or “a.” These, of course, are all whole words, easy ways to get started.

If this doesn’t work, or get things moving enough, the next thing you’re bound to do is look for patterns inside words. See a double letter together? That letter is probably an L, R, S, or T. Not sure if a three letter word is “the”? Look to see if you see the first two letters paired together in other words, as TH is a common digraph, as is CH and SC.

Wait, a digraph? Yes, even though you may not know the name for it as you have an “aha” moment while solving, your brain is actively working to reconstruct language from its intricate knowledge of how sentence structure and words work. You don’t have to be a linguistics major or orthographer to solve a cryptogram; you simply need to speak its language. Our brain does the rest: it knows all the sounds, the connections, the subtle nuances of letters and patterns that we use in every day life, without the need for specialized education.

If you’re curious about how language works, there’s no better way to start than solving word puzzles, including cryptograms. By letting your brain get to work, you can consciously study and learn more about the language you use every day.

Puzzle answer: The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

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The Wall: musings on self-publishing

A Picture of a eBook

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The path that I have chosen now has led me to a wall…
Kansas, “The Wall”

The review of The Greek Seamen by BigAl’s Books & Pals has been making its way around the Internet lately, and it finally made a stop on my twitter-step today. I should say, the review itself is not nearly remarkable as the interchange of comments below it, and the many responses it has sparked from readers, reviewers, and authors themselves.

The comments themselves on the article, and many linked pieces included in them, touch on a lot of issues I don’t feel a need to rehash. Nor have I any need to point fingers directly at the author; she makes a perfectly clear example of what not to do when receiving a bad review. There are, however, a few things that came to mind with the whole situation that lingered in my mind.

“Indie” authors – or authors who self-publish, “vanity” publish, or publish with small publishers – get an incredibly bad reputation, mainly due to the lack of editorial oversight. Despite this, self-publishing is getting an increasing amount of praise as the new age of publishing. It makes sense – not only because the old model is based around writing for profit, but because the new model puts focus on quick dissemination, modern reading formats, and the author-reader connection through social networking.

The above example is a strong indication of why many shy from self-published works – and why many look down on self-publishing authors. By removing the “big publisher” gateway, the authors who think they’ve got “the stuff” are no longer kept on the other side of the ivory wall. In an industry where readers have generally remained protected from these kinds of authors, its understandable that they wouldn’t want to let their guard down yet. That’s not to say that big publishers are perfect: not everything that passes through their gates is brilliant, and some brilliance is often skipped over.

Indie publishing lets the authors and the readers do the choosing; it drops out the middle-man. This doesn’t make it any easier for the author to get their book read; they have a great deal of work ahead of them whether they pitch to publishing houses or publish through Kindle. It simply shifts the attention and focus of the publishing industry to focus more directly on what the authors want to publish, and opens up new material for readers to discover.

In fact, I intended to go for self-publishing and small-press publishing myself; I prefer having the freedom to write as I’d like, for whom I’d like, without a heavy-handed company redirecting my efforts to suit their market. I’m also aware, however, that simply because I have no interest in going through the big-publisher route does not mean I am no longer accountable as an author. Whether it’s a 99 cent guide or a five dollar novel, what I write has to be worth reading. That means not only several rewrites and edits for the obvious, but using the services of beta readers and connecting genuinely with my audience to really go from “alright” to “good” to “amazing.” It means listening honestly to reviewers and critics. It means challenging myself to new levels of writing prowess.

There is one thing I can say for certain about self-publishing: it is definitely not the route for authors who are too proud or self-confident in their skills to not see writing as a constant learning endeavor. I believe there is no such thing as perfect writing, no pinnacle of perfection, and any honest writer should take the same approach. Any writer who suffers from sensitive artist syndrome should take a more traditional approach, not to prevent them from being published, but to give them the proper guidance they need to flourish in their craft.

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New Author Facebook Page!

Well, I’ve finally gone and done it – I’ve made a page for myself specifically as an author on Facebook. Ooh, I can feel that nervous energy tickling. Just follow the link!

This isn’t some dilly-dally, either: I am actually going to be slowly breaking out of the video game writing mold. I hope to start publishing some small, light e-books soon to start getting a feel for writing non-fiction books and the self-publishing field, and I’m meanwhile also working on putting together my first real novel. I may also start publishing some poetry and short stories!

For now, the author page will mainly connect with what I write on this blog, but keep an eye out in the future!

Jaime Skelton

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