Archive for October, 2008

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Make Editors and Clients Want More.

October 31, 2008

Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. ~ William Shakespeare

Happy Halloween to everyone! Halloween is definitely one of my favourite times of the year.  I remember as a child lugging a pillowcase over my back, grunting and swaying like some hunchback, determined to accumulate enough sweets to give myself a sugar-high for weeks to come.  I wish you all many tricks and treats.

Today I wanted to write a small post about what I have learned to date in establishing strong relationships with editors and keeping them coming back for more.  Feel free to comment and add to the list!

  1. Go the extra mile. Editors and clients appreciate writers who make their work easier.  This means you may have to extend yourself a bit.  Try your best to always get enough information about the writing project up front so you aren’t constantly harassing them for more details.  Understand the requirements ahead of time so there’s less editing and revision in the long run.  Make sure your piece is polished when submitted so your editor doesn’t have to almost entirely re-write your words.  Sloppiness will get you nowhere.  Try to work as independently as possible so your editor or client doesn’t feel like they have to make extra time to give you guidance and support.  If a photograph is required for a project and you’ve got the basic skills to do this yourself, why not take the initiative and provide a photograph yourself so an extra person doesn’t have to be hired to do the job?  Not only do you earn their appreciation for cutting down on their workload, but you can make some extra cash for handling both elements of the project.
  2. Be open to suggestions. If you’re writing for a living, part-time or full-time, then obviously you’re talented.  Sure, sometimes a client or editor makes a suggestion for revision that makes you gnash your teeth together and contemplate sticking your eyeballs with two straws and firing them like spitballs.  You’re the professional writer, after all.  You know best, right?  Maybe.  Whether or not a project is better the way you imagine it, if the hand that feeds you has something else in mind, take their needs and wants into consideration.  This is priority.  If you really fear that it will negatively impact the finished product, discuss this openly with them, state your reasons, and try to seek middle ground.  But never, never, never downplay their input.
  3. Don’t be lazy – respect deadlines. Unless you’ve been incapacitated by some finger-eating flesh disease or zombies have invaded your city, always make sure you get a project in by its deadline.  In fact, getting it in a day or two in advance will make editors kiss the ground you walk on and clients come back with more projects in the future.  Life happens and occasionally you may have to request an extension, but only do this under dire circumstances and do it well in advance so editors or clients have time to rearrange their own schedules if necessary.  If missing deadlines becomes a regular occurrence, you may soon find that nobody wants to hire you and you have a reputation that limits your opportunities.
  4. Always be professional. Don’t treat editors or clients like best friends by being overly casual.  You are running a business and should therefore conduct yourself accordingly.  However, this doesn’t mean you can’t meet for coffee on occasion or send greeting cards on special holidays.  You want to be friendly and approachable, but you also want to be taken seriously after all.
  5. Suck up…but just a little. Overt ass-kissing is never pretty.  You don’t want to come across as pitiful and desperate.  But you still want to show gratitude and appreciation for the business your editors and clients provide you.  A compliment here and there always helps.  Keeping the lines of communication flowing even when no current projects are taking place is important too.  If you show interest in your editors and clients, they will return it, and this increases the likelihood of landing gigs.    
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Nose-Diving into Economic Turmoil.

October 24, 2008

We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are. ~ Tobias Wolff

The economic recession. One could argue it’s the hottest topic on freelance blogs these days. Some are muttering low-toned warnings of hardships to come. Others are screaming – ready to abandon the freelance business like a bad date – unable to muster the courage to search for positive possibilities. And here I am, embracing it as I teeter on the tip of the diving board, ready to fall into a sea of uncertaintyI could sink or swim.  How can I even consider pursuing this career in its beginning stages when our financial grounding is so unreliable? I’ll tell you.

Men with Pens wrote this fabulous post about recessions being a good time to start up a business, and I agree with them.  So hold onto your quizzical stares and gaping mouths for just a moment.

I bet your current corporate job isn’t ‘secure’ either. Not only is the freelance business ‘iffy’ as far as financial security, but that steady office job you may rely on isn’t either.  In fact, you’re always at risk when your ability to work and make a decent income is dependent on someone else.  The economy has just served to worsen the situation due to increased lay-offs and more companies deciding to outsource rather than pay full-time employees that require extra compensation.  And in the freelance business, you can’t get laid off.  The only one in charge of your success is number one…you.

Freelancers generally have multiple streams and sources of income, not just one. If you work for a company that is going under, they’re all you have.  They sink, you sink.  However, most freelancers have multiple sources and streams of income…if one deteriorates, so what?  You will have other clients to rely on and in the meantime you can start marketing for new clients.

It’s cheaper for companies to hire freelancers than employees. In-house staff will decrease, giving freelancers more opportunities to get work.  Work still needs to get done, companies are still buying, and freelancers are the cheapest option.  More outsourcing means more work for freelancers, and more work means more money.

Freelancers aren’t new to marketing themselves, selling themselves, and relishing that entrepreneurial spirit. We’re flexible by nature, and marketing and selling ourselves is one of the biggest aspects of the business.  This gives us all an advantage over people who have been long-term employees and aren’t used to having to continuously search for employment.  Furthermore, many freelancers are taking advantage of the people in this situation by offering their resume writing skills up for grabs during a time when job-searchers desire any little extra ‘bling’ that will set them apart from the competition.

There’s a higher demand for marketing materials. Due to the recession, many companies are revving up their marketing output.  This will give copywriters a chance to increase their own business by helping struggling companies regain the cutting edge they need to continue being successful and rise above competing businesses.

So don’t push the panic button just yet.  Increase your marketing efforts, try to put a little more into savings, but take advantage of what opportunities are there.  And they are there…you just have to be open to them.

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My First Experience Interviewing A Source.

October 20, 2008

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror.  I can take the next thing that comes along.”…You must do the thing you think you cannot do. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

For those of you who have read my previous posts, you will recall that I said I had managed to land some steady assignments with a local newspaper.  I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to get some published clips to my name.  There was a catch, of course.  I’d have to learn how to interview sources, and this was something I was just a little bit (okay, a lot) nervous about.

 

I’m my own worst critic, as I’m sure most writers and creative thinkers are.  I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt and spine-tingling fear when I picked up the telephone to dial one of the main sources for my first story.  In fact, I think I hung up at least three times before I finally let it ring through.  I kept assuming my first attempts to interview a subject would result in: epic fail.  But I was wrong.

 

Instead, I ended up on the line with one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever exchanged words with.  He wasn’t the red-eyed, horned demon I was imagining.  He didn’t try to chase me back into freelance hibernation, guffaw at my questions, or challenge me with three-word responses.  He was open, honest, giving, and appreciative.  Even though he wasn’t my primary source for the article, I actually got more valuable information and quotes from him in the end.  As a result, I was able to craft the article into something I didn’t imagine it could become.

 

Here’s a few things I learned about interviewing subjects through my own experience:

  1. Act confident.  Even if you’re shaking like Little Red Riding Hood in her knickers, pretend you’re confident.  Pretending is often enough.  Wear the cloak of confidence and not only will you project this onto your interview source, but you’ll also begin to feel more confident yourself.
  2. Be prepared, but not too prepared.  Being prepared is part of what gives confidence.  By having a list of questions I wanted to ask my interview source rather than winging it, I felt more comfortable because I had a roadmap of where the interview was going.  But don’t be too prepared!  I skipped some questions if my interview source provided them as extensions of other responses rather than wasting time being redundant.  I also came up with a few extra questions that were jump-offs from something intriguing he mentioned that I hadn’t thought to cover or probe further with initially.
  3. Imagine it as a chat or discussion, not an interview.  I went into the interview with the frame of mind that it was not an interview.  I know, you’re like – what kind of dribble are you feeding me?  If you use the word “interview” with your source, they immediately thing formal and boring Q&A.  If you use terminology like “chat” or “discussion”, it automatically gives a different impression.  Like you’re just two strangers chatting over coffee in the middle of the afternoon.  Rather than just doing a strict question and response, also interact, throwing in the occasional “that’s quite interesting”, “uh-huh”, “oh really?”  Just having this flavour of exchange in mind while talking to your source opens up new avenues of communication.  They’ll feel encouraged to relax, open up, and be far more genuine.  And this is the golden material you want!
  4. Ask open-ended questions.  Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”.  You want to ask questions that allow for creative and developed responses.  Don’t ask: “Do you like being a teacher?”  Instead ask: “What do you find most fulfilling about being a teacher?”  This gives you material your readers will want to know about. 
  5. Ask easy questions first and last.  Starting off with the easiest questions builds rapport and familiarity.  Save the tough, detailed questions for the middle after you have some level of comfort with one another.  Then at the end – to wrap up and end on a positive note – throw in a couple more of your shorter, easier inquiries.
  6. Permit tangents, but only brief ones.  Some of your best material will often come from tangents that your interviewee takes you on.  But remember, if they aren’t providing fruitful information that will add to your article, re-focus and get them back on track.  Simply saying something like, “I’d love to get back to that point you made earlier about…” will suffice.
  7. Be unbiased and neutral.  Be as neutral as possible.  The interview is about them and not you.  It doesn’t matter if you hate them, worship them, or are indifferent.  Whatever your stance (if you have one going in or develop one during your talk), do not let it seep into the interview.  This will affect both the type and quality of material you get back.  If you’re meeting in person, meet on neutral ground – not at your house or theirs.
  8. Keep notes.  Even if you’re recording the interview, it’s best to take notes.  Record the correct spelling of terms or names you aren’t very familiar with.  Scribble out your brainstorming.  Add in comments about tone, body posture, etc. if this is applicable and you are in-person.
  9. Remember legalities.  In Canada, which is where I’m from, it’s illegal to record anyone without their permission.  However, no matter where my source calls home, I always ask simply out of respect.
  10. Always be considerate and show gratitude.  Make sure you schedule a time and day in advance that is considerate of your source’s going-ons.  Give them multiple openings and let them decide what is best for them.  Then stick to it!  Respect their time and don’t start the interview late or early.  If something comes up, reschedule well ahead of time.  And most of all – say thank you!  Show gratitude, send a little thank you card or note, whatever it takes.  Remember your source had no obligation to give you their time or attention.  They are helping you.
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Getting Started With Marketing.

October 14, 2008

I build confidence when I practice a variety of shots – hitting it high or low, working the ball. A lot of golfers go to the range and just hit full shots. That doesn’t build on-course confidence, because you won’t always hit full shots out there. My confidence is built on knowing I can effectively work the ball in any circumstance. ~ Joanne Carner

Although I may just be getting started in the business, if there’s one tidbit of advice I’ve heard across the board from fellow freelancers, it’s to market like a squirrel on speed.  I’ve had two questions:

  1. How do I market when I’m just starting out and don’t have many clips to show?
  2. Yeah, but what if I’m swimming in a sea of work – which I dream of while sitting in my bunny-tail pajamas sipping cocoa every night – what then?  No need to market, right?  Why should I if the clients are all running to me like a cup of coffee on Monday morning?

In response to question two I was told: You better market no matter how many clients you have!  Remember after the feast comes the famine, and unless you enjoy being in a slump, you do not want to neglect the marketing aspect of freelancing even when you’re up to your neck in work.  Good advice, I must say.  One must always set aside a small chunk of each day or a good portion of time once or twice a week to focus on the marketing aspect of the business to maintain steady work and cashflow.

When it comes to the first question, here is what I have learned to develop my own client base:

  1. Get a website.  Every writer in this technological age should have one.  So many freelancers have told me this is the prime way they have landed clients without really putting forth any effort.  It’s ideal to have clear contact information, details on rates and services provided, an online portfolio of your best sample clips (provided you have some), and also a little blurb about who you are so clients can recognize you’re human too…not just some static robot that pumps out a trillion words a second.  Having a face and personality to someone they are going to hire is surprisingly important.  And if you don’t have any clips to put on your online portfolio, why not start building it with fictional samples?  Even if you don’t have work published, create a sales brochure for a nonexistent company or write a few articles on topics you’re interested in to show potential clients that you’re capable.  Nowadays, many companies or internet services offer freebie website space.  Website builders will even allow you to design your own simple layout so money isn’t an issue.  I have a friend working on my website now.  She’s a freelance graphic designer, also trying to get samples for her portfolio, so she’s helping me out by designing a website for me and I’m helping her out in turn by giving her a sample she can use in her portfolio.  Win-win!
  2. Start a blog.  It doesn’t have to be about writing.  Mine is, but it can be about any topic you’re interested in.  Just make sure you have a ‘niche’ or focus, because this is more likely to develop an audience that follows your posts.  Sometimes having a specialization can also help you land writing gigs that require ‘experts’ in a certain field.  Blogs are great for driving traffic to your website and letting people get to know a more personal side of you.  Potential clients may even offer you blogging projects or pay you to guest post on their own blogs.
  3. Cold call and email.  This was pretty scary to me when I first heard it.  But guess what?  Cold call and email got me my first lucrative gig.  I didn’t query with a specific idea in mind, but you definitely should do this if you’re trying to break into a magazine.  I didn’t even send a cover letter or resume.  I simply contacted a local newspaper about getting an internship in order to develop my portfolio.  The response?  I was asked if I would like to try taking on a few paid assignments.  Now I’ve got my first reporting jobs and I can’t say how happy I am that I overcame my fear to try this kind of approach.  Just think of it this way…the worst thing that can happen is the person says no.  Call or email to introduce yourself, your writing interests, specify if you have particular talents or expert areas, then ask if they have any freelance writing opportunities.  Simple!
  4. Query letters.  Great for pitching ideas to magazines.  These take practice to develop, but there are a lot of great books out there that will help you with the specifics.  I personally recommend Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock.  This book not only shows you how to map out a successful query letter, but it also proves that sometimes breaking a few rules will set you apart from the crowd!
  5. Online job forums and bidding sites.  I have never used a bidding site, nor do I think I ever will so long as other options are available to me.  They’re usually low-paying gigs that won’t get you very far and you’re competing with a massive group to land the assignment in the first place.  However, it’s a great idea to check out online job sites for freelancers.  I regularly check Craigslist, but there are others out there such as Sunoasis Jobs, Online Writing Jobs, ProBlogger Job Board, etc.  In fact, I found my second writing job through Craigslist.  It isn’t the highest paying, but it isn’t the lowest either.  And it will also offer me some extended work rather than a one-time assignment.  So look for something that suits your qualifications and interests, apply, and see what happens!
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Reading to Write.

October 7, 2008

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me.  I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. ~ Malcolm X

Books have always been my lifeblood.  Ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you I’m known to have my nose stuck in a book.  My parents started reading to me at a very young age to help with my early mental development.  I was a natural, hungering for books of all kinds, feasting on them one-by-one until my teachers were struggling to replenish my supply.  In fact, my proficiency with reading was what caused them to push me ahead a year.

Perhaps some might think: What does reading have to do with writing?  My response…everything.  I truly believe that you must read enormous amounts in order to write well.  How else do we learn to write except from the words of others?  I personally view reading and writing as inseparable, one reflecting on the other.

These are the top three reasons I read to develop my writing skills:

 

  •  Critical reading skills translate into critical writing skills.  When researching subject areas, one must learn how to absorb and evaluate other texts.  From this ‘raw material’, a writer must then polish, refine, and shape these fragmented pieces of information, eventually connecting them into an understandable whole.  Learning how to read critically will inevitably help you write effectively.
  • Reading provides inspiration.  Reading can help you brainstorm and snowball your own ideas, providing valuable beginnings for your ongoing writing projects.  If you’re experiencing writer’s block, reading might be the best cure.  It will open your mind to new possibilities and perhaps invoke the inner muse you’ve been searching for.
  • Reading can make you aware of good writing vs. bad writing.  Ever read a book that made you snore in two seconds flat or gag due to poor style and flow?  How about one that made you turn the next page past the late midnight hour or tugged at your heartstrings?  Not only will reading help you recognize your own tastes, interests, and writing voice, but it will also signal the differences between good writing and bad writing.  When you learn to recognize what makes good or bad writing, this will help you avoid the pitfalls of those writers that made you cringe and imitate the ones that kept your attention.
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Postcard Stories.

October 5, 2008

A person’s worth is contingent upon who he is, not upon what he does, or how much he has. The worth of a person, or a thing, or an idea, is in being, not in doing, not in having. ~ Alice Mary Hilton

 

If you’re wondering what the quote of the day has to do with my post this weekend, I’ll save you the time in figuring it out because there actually is no connection.  In fact, it’s inspired by the ongoing debate I’ve been involved in over at WriterDad’s blog and his post I Said Stop.  You should really go check it out.  People have been getting pretty passionate about their feelings on ethics of the self, which has resulted in some profound commentaries.  The entire argument has made me proud – to be reminded that these questions still matter to us.

I would also like to mention that I really appreciate everyone’s comments so far on this blog.  Since it’s fairly new, your support and encouragement are greatly appreciated.  I’ve really been enjoying reading your responses.  And I’m tickled by the fact that I’ve landed some writing gigs for my community newspaper, which is what essentially spurred me to write my last post.  Every little bit of progress should be celebrated!

As promised last week, I decided weekend blog posts would revolve around the creative and innovative.  I don’t know how many of you have heard of postcard stories, but these are a great exercise to get imaginative while writing in a very concise style.  Basically, you have to write a mini-story, around 250 words.  What makes it really interesting is if you also make your first and last lines of the story random.  What do I mean?  Well, take any book off your shelf, open it to whatever page you please, and take the first full sentence you find.  That will be your first sentence in your postcard story.  Do the same thing but for a different page in the book.  This new full sentence will be the last sentence in your story.

Here’s an example.  The first sentence I ended up getting was “The cures are no damned good except for a while” and the last sentence I ended up getting was “I’m hungry”.  So then I had to fill in the middle and somehow tie those two sentences together in 250 words.  Trust me, it’s as hard as it sounds!

 

The cures are no damned good except for a while.  Four months ago, you were of the mind that you might actually beat the odds.  Now you’re lying in a hospital bed, cocooned in a tangle of off-white linens and hooked up to a myriad of miscellaneous tubes that make you appear akin to an octopus.  You look down at your hands, pallid and spider-veined, the skin stretched across the jutting bones of your knuckles.  You can hardly imagine what the rest of you looks like; the fleshy parts that cower beneath the comfort and reassurance of your hospital gown.  Before long, a nurse saunters into the room and checks the electrocardiograph beside your bed in a disinterested fashion.  She tries to mask her pity behind a forced smile and casual conversation, but you catch the flicker of it in her sidelong glance as she leans over to replace your intravenous drip.  Even so, you try to relish these fleeting moments of human contact whenever you can.  It’s not like you get a lot of visitors nowadays, and you’re constantly discovering new methods of capitalizing on their sympathy just to make them feel obligated to linger a little longer…but today will not be one of those days.  An unfamiliar nurse with a thick nose and burly frame ducks her head into a room, motioning to the caregiver at your side and insisting, “Let’s go to lunch.  I’m hungry.”

If you want some pre-made first and last sentences to try this creative exercise out, I have listed some for you below.

 

First:  He was a tall man, but he sat lightly in the saddle.

Last:  And then her expression changed.

 

First:  My stomach roiled.

Last:  At the hour of midnight, we gathered in the great hall to wait.

 

First:  “What the hell do you want?” I said through gritted teeth.

Last:  There was nothing else to say.

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Community Newspapers and Freelance Opportunities

October 2, 2008

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die for that roar which is the other side of silence. ~ George Eliot

It’s probably every writer’s dream to see their name in one of the glossy national magazines on the public stands.  Or maybe on that weighty hardcover book that will, almost surely, make the bestsellers list.  I’m not poking fun.  I have those aspirations too

However, in the spirit of my previous post on goal setting, I’m embracing the potential for small but achievable accomplishments.  For others that are just getting into freelance writing, I wanted to highlight the potential benefits of getting involved with community newpapers.

Community newspapers are a more accessible market.  Pick up your weekly newspaper and look at how many stories fill those pages.  Newspaper staff alone can not keep up with the regularity of community newspaper printing.  Freelance writers – even those that are unpublished with few credits to their name – are recognized as a vital source of interesting local copy.  Editors of small community newspapers are always looking for good, reliable writers to deliver the stories they need. 

You can try your hand at many different topics.  Community newspapers usually have a multitude of topic areas they need writing for.  These might include travel, business, entertainment, opinion pieces, and special features.  Generally, special interest groups also have corresponding newspapers.  Why not look into contributing to publications that focus on parenting, antiques, music, teaching, computers, and sports?  Or maybe even papers for senior citizens, single parents, or members of ethnic groups?

The pay is usually small, but the experience is priceless.  If you’re just starting out, can you really afford to be picky?  So what if community newspapers pay pennies.  You’re getting published clips to build an impressive portfolio that will later land you more promising and higher-paying gigs.  Secondly, because newspapers need more articles more often, and are quite open to new writers, you will have an audience already there ready to read and respond to what you write.  Plus, it’s very unlikely the staff will reject you because you haven’t been published in The Globe and Mail yet.  If one of your pieces gets rave reviews, you might even later consider reshaping it into a magazine article or book idea.

So while you’re querying those big magazines and crossing your fingers for that get-rich-fast book contract, freelancing for community newspapers can keep you prolific, get you valuable published clips to develop and enhance your portolio, and you may even get paid in the process.

Worth checking out, no?