Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year, New Goals, New Resolutions

I'm not one for lofty unrealistic resolutions. It's just a set-up for disaster and disappointment. I am however all for realistic goals and positive thinking. So here is my list of resolutions/goals for 2010 - I think these are ideas every freelancer can strive for.
  1. Become more confident in my own skill set and abilities. (women are especially bad at this.) But positive thinking. I'm a darn good writer and I plan to become an even better one by never selling myself short and pushing myself to reach beyond what is the easy answer.
  2. Demand to be compensated justly. If I've learned anything this year, it's never agree to work for free and never assume you are going to be paid for work already delivered. I got burned twice this year and plan to avoid that in 2010.
  3. Network more. With social media it has never been easier to network, share 'war' stories, and get advice from others in the field. By being active on LinkedIn, Twitter and various blogs I'm hoping to grow my base of contacts.
  4. Give back. Beyond giving my time to worthy causes, I want to make sure I give more to the younger set of journalists out there who are struggling to figure out what the hell they've gotten themselves into. Offer advice, encouragement, and the reality of the situation.
  5. Broaden my horizons. In 2010 I'd like to have more bylines from a wider variety of publications. Whether it is guest blogging or articles in publications the goal is portfolio growth and personal development in the process.
  6. Publish my novel. OK this one I have a little bit of a say in, but at this point it's the literary agents who make or break this first attempt at novel writing. I'm going to do my part... pitch, pitch, and pitch again. And then fingers crossed this goal will happen!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Novel Status Update

I have three major things to be excited for when it comes to the current status of the young adult novel I am trying to get published.

One: I FINISHED the edits. This is the third round of edits and I did some major line and scene editing to really sharpen up the book. I wanted to make sure each scene and each line furthered the story along and wasn't superfluous fluff. It was a task that has literally taken me 6 months! Hopefully the time spent editing was worth it.

Two: Since I am finished, I get to start writing another novel attempt. I've been very disciplined over the last year, refusing to start a new story until this one was fully edited and ready to be presented to literary agents. I'm so excited I don't know where to begin...

Three: Starting in the New Year I plan to send query letters and a portion of the manuscript to at least 30 agents. (I've already gotten my first rejection - which oddly enough made me very happy. I think it's because now this whole thing seems real.) I've already begun research on the agents that I hope to submit to, and like a super-nerd have bookmarked each person's individual requirements. I've even started a word document that details each agent so I can personalize the letters. The morning of January 14th will be spent e-mailing each individually. Yay!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Go Ahead Ask the Question in Writing

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn posed the debate about sources answering questions in writing. His blog entry 'Let Me Ask You This Question In Writing' debates that a written response from a source isn't anti-journalism as some claim it to be. And I'd have to agree.

Admittedly, I use written responses to queries/questions often in writing. To me it’s a way of getting the solid facts needed for a story and gives the source a chance to think through their responses. I’ve found that most of the time a written answer is more easily quotable and more factual than a telephone conversation.

Does it work for every type of story? No. The interviews where you need to dig deep and ask pointed follow-up questions in the hopes of catching someone off guard and getting the full truth need to be done in a person-to-person or at least voice-to-voice method.

To me, here are the benefits of written answers from sources:

  • Facts, facts, facts. The source can verify the important facts and figures before sending them over. And in the reporting, a writer is less likely to misunderstand or misquote information.
  • It values thought. When someone is writing out an answer they usually don’t fill a paragraph with nonsense. On the other hand when talking to someone, it is usually pretty easy for a source to wax on about a topic giving information that is neither crucial nor important to the story.
  • It works with both schedules. Receiving written responses to queries can work in a reporter’s favor. Maybe the source doesn’t have time to dedicate to a 15-minute phoner, but who doesn’t have time to answer a couple questions with the blackberry that is attached at the hip all day long? Likewise for a reporter working on a number of stories at once this helps clear your schedule.
  • Faster follow-up. After a phone interview you might have one or two small details you wish to follow up on. Placing a phone call to the source and then waiting for that person to call you back and hoping you are by your desk so you don’t begin a game of phone tag can be frustrating. With e-mailed responses it’s easy and time efficient to shoot an e-mail with a follow-up and have the source confirm or expand upon a particular point.
  • It protects your reporting. An e-mail trail of the conversation can protect you with solid proof that the source told you something exactly as it is portrayed in the article. These e-mails are a gold-mine especially if a PR person calls upset about the piece, or your boss wants to confirm the facts before the story goes live.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What's Urgent, What's Important, What's Both, What's Neither?

If you were working in cubicle life involving bosses looking over your shoulder, content meetings and brainstorming sessions you'd also have drop-dead deadlines from your editor. That knowledge is usually enough to scare you into producing content by the due time. But... It's a whole other story when you are your own boss.

Sure, your bank account will know if you didn't get that pitch sent out on time or weren't prompt with getting an outline to a potential client, but no one else will know. And let's face it, sometimes just staying on Twitter another 30 minutes is more appealing then getting the needed words down on paper.

When being your own one-man (or woman) show, you've got to establish the same sort of drop-dead time limits. If you train yourself to respect these self-imposed deadlines your work will get done better and faster than it would when put off indefinitely.
This takes a whole hell of a lot of self discipline.

What works for me is a simple chart.

Each morning take a look at your pendings. Separate them into four categories: urgent/important, not urgent/important, urgent/not important, not urgent/not important. For instance: the article that should be sent to the editor by the end of the day is urgent/important. The phone bill due in two weeks is not urgent/important. Painting your nails is not urgent/not important (most of the time). Taking advantage of a sale on a new bluetooth you don't technically need is urgent/not important.

Look at those in the urgent/important category and make reasonable but demanding goals for completing these items today. Still have time? Move to the items listed in the not urgent/important category and then to the urgent/not important division. Afterall it is crucial for you to get your phone bill paid. It's not crucial to get the new bluetooth, even if it would be nice.

True, this way the not urgent/not important things won't get done today and probably won't even get done this week. Fine. That's OK. Interestingly enough, if you break up things this way you'll see that when procrastinating you are a lot more likely to work on the not urgent/not important things because they are less stressful and usually more enjoyable.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Split Writing Personalities... Identity Crisis

As I logged out of one google account and into another one, I got to thinking how my brain is constantly running through a number of different professional and personal personalities. Somehow in person this does not come across as insane, but on my computer it means 10 constantly-open tabs, a handful of email accounts to track, several blogs on different hosting sites, two twitter accounts and general mayhem.

Even with all the craziness I still manage to get quality assignments completed on time. I'm just becoming the queen of short attention spans when it comes to the internet. 20 minutes posting on one blog, seconds on twitter, minutes responding to e-mails, 10 minutes reading someone else's blog and commenting, check the blackberry, seconds on twitter, a couple minutes on facebook, an hour writing and researching business articles, seconds on twitter, check the blackberry, 20 minutes photographing things in the day, check the blackberry, phone calls, an hour researching fashion ideas, seconds on twitter, minutes on facebook, an sporadic hour creeping on other fashion bloggers, 30 minutes on youtube, an hour reading literary agents' blogs.... you get the picture.

I'm crazy. I'm a freelancer. I love it.

Does anyone else have this problem? How do you balance?

For me I think the problem is the fact that I am interested in too many things:
Fashion - yep got a blog for that.
Commercial real estate - yeah, that too. I've got a great writing gig for that.
Fiction writing - never go a day where I don't pen at least a line or two.
Design - always thinking about creating new clothing pieces or accessories now I'm starting an Etsy shop.
Blogs - doesn't even matter too much what the topic is. I've pretty sure I could blog about rain daily.
Photography - Can I be creative with pictures? Let's do it.
Running - Ever since the Chicago marathon I'm interested in all things marathon related.

So with all of this in mind... my goal for December is to set a New Year's resolution to find ways to streamline life. Stay tuned for the final resolution, which could involve new business ideas, freelancing schemes, who knows...

Just for kicks....
My fashion blog: ModlyChic
My photography blog: UnHindered Photos

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What the Best Writing Teachers Do, How We Freelancers Can Improve From Their Teaching Tools

This afternoon I read an article published on Poynter Online titled "What the Best Writing Teachers Do, How Students Can Learn From Them." The points on what the best teachers do got me thinking about freelancers. We are often, our own teacher in the business. There aren't many bosses overlooking our work ethic, our start times, our lunch breaks. We don't have anyone holding us to daily quotas other than our own get-up-and-go. So without these teachers to learn from, how can we become better writers too?

Using the points from the article as a launching pad, here are my thoughts:
  • Encourage students to write every day... For a writer, a day not spent penning words is one we aren't working on our craft. And the more we write, the better we become.
  • Teach writing as a process... Writing is always a process. Don't be discouraged when there are days when writing a paragraph feels like counting all the grains of sand in the world. Sure, it's tedious at times. But that doesn't mean the words aren't there.
  • Confer with student writers throughout the process... Take advantage of opportunities to meet with other writers, especially other freelancers. This doesn't have to be face-to-face, even just creating a relationship via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and e-mail can be beneficial.
  • Connect reading and writing... You're a better writer the more you read. And to really stretch yourself try reading things that aren't in your specific niche. Reading things out of the ordinary can broaden horizons and increase vocabulary.
  • Offer appropriate praise and encouragement -- as well as correction... Take corrections like a pro. Instead of letting them get you down, or fuming over an editors changes take the opportunity to learn from it. Even if the change is off-the-wall-crazy there is still something you can take away from the experience.
  • Give opportunities for revision... For writers - the better wording would be: Give yourself time for revisions. How many times have we penned something under deadline, handed it in and then thought of a way to improve the sentence structure or paragraph flow? Give yourself time. (although I've yet to meet a journalist who doesn't claim to EXCEL under pressure)
  • Believe that all students, not just the "stars" can improve their writing... A personal story on this... in junior high I had to take one of those PSAT prep tests and at the time I had just started writing little stories about my family and friends. When the results came home, my parents wouldn't let me see them. They said it wasn't important. Four years later I found out they kept the scores from me because the area I scored the worst in was writing. It became my best score on all the tests in high school. Writing is inborn and learned.

Yup, I'm Writing a YA Novel

Actually... I wrote a young adult novel. I'm in the editing stages now. I've been in the editing stages for more than 12 months. Ouch.

I'm a firm believer in the concept that if something is written down it is more likely to happen than if it is just a personal thought/goal/ambition. So, to kick my butt in gear I'm going to chronicle this process on here. (Don't worry I won't only write about trying to get published.)

Here's the current status:
I've completed the third round of revisions on a hard copy of the manuscript and am 75% done with transferring the edits to the Word document. From there I am going to read through the book one more time for any glaring errors/problems/conflicts; and then... I'm sending it out to literary agents.
I've started looking into agents. A number of them have excellent blogs that talk a lot about their profession, the type of writing they are looking for, how to write a pitch letter, etc... I'm locking away all that info in the back of my mind to pull it out in a week or two when I am ready to take that HUGE leap and submit the book for consideration.

Scary. Exciting. I can't wait for the process to begin. (Is that weird?)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Difference Between A Writer and A Columnist

This may be preaching to the choir since most of the people who read this blog are in the writing industry, but I have to say it amazes me the amount of people who don't know or understand the difference between an editorial and an article.

Non-media types often comment to me "that paper is so liberal, didn't you see the editorial by XYZ?" I'll admit that simple comment has the ability to bring forth a deluge of words from me about misconceptions and generalizations about the industry and journalists. Just because an editorial board is liberal, the majority are, doesn't mean the article content is all liberal with a set agenda.

It's simple. The editorial board is allowed to take any stance they want on an issue but that has nothing to do with the article content in the paper. I sat in on many editorial board meetings at a major paper and watched the board members debate what take they would have on a particular issue. (Columnists are much the same, only they aren't caged in by the general feeling/opinion of a board. They get to make up their own opinion and write about it.) This, however, is not the way articles are written. A reporter talks to the sources, reads background information from press releases and other articles and then writes a piece, and if they are a good journalist those pieces are devoid of any opinion on the matter.

So, when people (like this piece) try to call the bluff on columnists like Nicholas Kristof for his column on boycotting Bing; it just gets me mad. He's a columnist. He's supposed to call for action and present his personal opinion. That's what the NYT pays him for. They don't pay him to write neutral articles. Plus anyone looking at this column can see the bold OPINION title sitting at the top of the page, just in case.

Last thing I'll say about this issue... If you are a reader of Kristof's column you'll know that he generally writes about world issues and focuses a lot on injustices. The Bing piece fits perfectly into his normal content.

What do you think? Is he overstepping his columnist position by calling for readers not to use Bing?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Revamping My Mindset

The last post I penned on here was in September - practically an eternity when it comes to blog writing. I know. But in the last several months I had some major freelancing drama to deal with, which included rethinking my way of handling writing and editing gigs. And at the same time I've been working on my totally-fashion related blog ModlyChic trying to build that up, gain an audience and post fun meaningful content.

But on to the freelancing side of life...

This fall I needed to make a very difficult decision about compensation and brand loyalty. I wrote and edited a publication that I loved. I agreed with the mission of the publication, had been involved with it since its inception and grew to love all the people I worked with and the readers we connected to. I helped grow the brand and became heavily involved in its social media (a personal interest). Sounds like a perfect working environment - right? Well it was. And if I had my choice I would freelance for that pub exclusively for the rest of my life.

But in October I walked away from the whole thing. Freelancers, myself included, write a lot about demanding fair compensation for work delivered. Too often we settle for jobs that give us little fiscal benefit. And while writing is not all about the monetary reward we can achieve it does have a large part to play in the ability for us to succeed in the business. This job paid me roughly the equivalent of $3 an article, which does not include the time spent on social media. The low pay was something I willingly did at the beginning of my freelancing career, but something I began to realize wouldn't benefit me much in the long run.

Unfortunately, since I am close to the people behind the publication I know that since it is a start-up the money just isn't there to pay me more. They aren't holding out on me, they don't have the funds. So after an intense, nearly month-long debate I resigned my freelance position and determined not to work for such low pay again.

I'll be honest. The first couple weeks was total torture. All I wanted to do was write and edit for them again. I saw potential stories every where. Started writing articles and blog entries several times before realizing they had no place to be published. Eventually, the newness of the resignation wore off and I realized that it was one of the best choices I made this year.

Now I'm moving on to new projects, new publications, and new business schemes. 2010 is looking bright. Stay tuned for updates on the new gigs and the lessons I'm learning this time around.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

If I Taught Twitter 101

In the last couple days several universities have said they will begin offering a Twitter class for communication students. (Like at DePaul.)Is this a 3 credit course?

That got me thinking… what have I learned from Twitter that I would teach in a class of eager-to-learn students?

  • Sign-up. If you are dragging your feet, stop it.
  • Post a pic.
  • Customize your background. Don’t know how? Google it.
  • Include your website/blog/LinkedIn profile on the Web portion of your profile.
  • Make your bio short and witty.
  • Include your e-mail in the bio.
  • Consider your name a brand – market it.
  • Don’t waste your first tweets on the mundane ‘I don’t know what to say’ tweets.
  • Tweet useful/interesting things.
  • If you want your followers to grow tweet key words.
  • It’s not all about the number of followers you have, but rather their quality.
  • Be selective in who you follow, more is not always better. Follow those who you can learn from, who you find interesting.
  • Begin building relationships through replies.
  • Use hash tags to make it easier for others to find your tweets on a particular topic.
  • Join the various #chat groups. And participate.
  • Tweet interesting articles by offering a link.
  • Shorten links using or tinyurl.
  • Add your twitter name to your automatic e-mail signature, your LinkedIn profile too.
  • Glance at trending topics from time to time to know what the day’s topics of interest are, this could help you catch breaking stories.
  • Keep at it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Harnessing the LinkedIn Potential

This week I've spent a couple hours researching, thinking and talking to others about how to take better advantage of LinkedIn. Sure, I am on the site - have been for years. Yes, I keep my profile current. Still, I've not seen significant results from the site; while from other social media outlets, like Twitter and Facebook, I can see direct results. So, thus launched my week of discovery in how to harness the power of the networking site.

So far, here's what I've learned:
  1. Make sure your profile is complete. As painful as it may be to post that pic, or fill in the details on the job you had five years ago it's key to success on the site.
  2. Join groups. Find things you like, areas you are interested in, knowledge you have and join the appropriate group.
  3. Become an active group participant. Most groups have an 'introduce yourself' thread in the discussion area. Utilize that.
  4. Throw your work around. You can't be afraid to leave relevant links to your work, blog, publication, in the groups and on your page.
  5. Update your status frequently. No need to update as often as you send out a tweet, but it doesn't hurt to post short, pointed status updates daily.
  6. Find your contacts. LinkedIn only works if you've got a big network. Grow yours by looking up the various sources, editors and writers you've been in contact with during the week.
  7. Utilize the tools LinkedIn provides. @KristaCanfield sent me this link via Twitter on Monday. It's all about the success stories from utilizing the site. Read a couple, take away a point or two. Or try skimming the LinkedIn blog.
  8. Use keywords. This is especially important in your status updates. Pick words that someone may search when looking for an expert like you.
  9. Get recommendations. While it is a simple sentence or two from a former client or editor, these help build transparency and build up your reputation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Unsolicited Articles = Fail

I get a lot of pitches, resumes and requests for more information. As I mentioned yesterday it is pretty jarring to get pitches full of emoticons, even if I’ve had a previous work relationship woth the person. Roughly once a week an unsolicited article arrives in my inbox with permission from the writer to use the article as I see fit. This causes problems for a number of reasons.

First. If you are a writer trying to make a living from the journalism profession why are you sending complete articles to a publication unsolicited. That’s selling yourself short. Basically, saying well no one will pay me to write so I’ll just send along my work for free and hope someone is so desperate for content they will post it. This probably does happen, but hold yourself in higher esteem and don’t offer your content for free without first testing the waters.

Second. As an editor, I have no idea who you are, where you found this information, what your background is. As a responsible editor I am not going to take an article that showed up and post it to my site. There are standards that I uphold; standards that are even more stringent for those I do not know.

Third. A lot of publications will not print something word for word that has been printed in another publication. If you are sending this article to more than one publication there can be serious repercussions to that. What if two of the publications decided to print the article and then the editor sees the article reprinted elsewhere and decides not to do business with you again.

Keep pitching, you can even pre-write articles and mention in the pitch that you have an article nearly ready to go on the topic. But don’t send the whole thing to an editor without testing the waters first.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Work-Appropriate E-mails

This week I got two e-mails from writers that made me cringe and, more importantly, made me put off responding for a day or two. The e-mails were rife with smiley faces and emoticons - something highly unprofessional.

When sending an e-mail to a business contact, even when you know them well or have been in contact for months, its important to keep the professional framework. Excessive use of exclamation marks, missing punctuation, emoticons and trendy abbreviations might be acceptable when writing your family and friends. It is not acceptable to send these to business contacts who you are trying to form a serious business relationship with. The content of the e-mail doesn't need to be altered just keep it 'grown-up'.

For instance there is a big difference between the two paragraphs below:

I just got off the phone with ABC Celebrity!!!! ;) She was SOOO great 2 talk 2 and has tons of ideas about the TV industry and other celebs. I'll write up my notes and put 2gether an article by Thur. :) The readers are going to love it, SRSLY!! :8

I just got off the phone with ABC Celebrity. She was so great to talk to and has tons of ideas about the TV industry and other celebrities. I'll write up my notes and put together an article by Thursday. The readers are going to love it, seriously.

Which would you prefer to read? Which would you want to give another writing assignment to?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Journalism Power Shift is Underway

Those of us who are freelancers and social media addicts know the one thing imperative to getting into and surviving in this business is building a personal brand. Is it going to happen overnight? No, of course not. Will you spend months working on it and still have little to show for it, quiet possibly. But like every idea it needs to start somewhere.

According to the State of the Media Report for 2009, which is put out by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, there is a power shift going on. The power is moving from institutions to individuals. The report states: “Through search, email, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand. Journalists who have left legacy news organizations are attracting funding to create their own websites... It would be a mistake to overstate the movement at this point. But for a few journalists at least, there are signs of a new prospect: individual journalists, funded by a mix of sources, offering expert coverage to many places.”

With this in mind, we all need to spend a little time daily thinking about how we can grow our personal brand. What little thing can we do daily or what larger things can we try weekly? For each person it will be a different answer but no less important. What are you going to do?

I'm personally going to work on more frequent blog updates as well as more interaction with my fellow freelancers in the blogging community.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How-To Pick a Place to Work From

While I wouldn't say I'm a freelancing expert, in the last several years I have become an expert at picking places to work from. Of course may freelancers have a home office that they created and are disciplined enough to work out of there year-round. I created an attic office but it's way too hot to work from in the summer months which has forced me to weigh my other options.

Here's what you need to consider when picking a place to write and file from:

  • Internet availability. Any place that makes you pay for the 'privelege' is just silly today. Not sure the free hotspots in your area? Google it. Many cities have listings of the best WiFi spots. And of course Panera, Kaldi's, Barnes&Noble, McDonalds all offer free WiFi. Also increasingly outdoor parks have access. Bryant Park in New York used to be a favorite of mine.
  • A generous amount of outlets. If you are working from the same place all day you are going to need to plug your computer in. (Unless you have a stellar, long-lasting battery.) Scope out the place to see how many outlets there are. This will vary from location to location.
  • Atmosphere. Is the place conducive to working? The McDonalds play area during the lunchtime rush is not going to help you pen that article.
  • Sales associates. This is crucial. Are the employees welcoming and yet able to give you your space? For example: I stopped going to one location a couple months ago after one of the employees began thinking it was her job to talk to me at least 30 minutes each day I set up shop there. She was sweet, but that didn't help my work get done.
  • Smell. Weird, right? Well some places smell pretty bad - or worse you smell bad after you've been there a long time. If you are going for an all-day spot try to stay away from places that have food fryers as that grease just infiltrates the air and as a result your pores, clothing, hair, etc...
  • Surrounding area. Since you'll likely need to get up, stretch your legs, order some food, visit the bathroom, it's important to trust the part of town you're working in - at least this is important if you don't feel like packing and unpacking your things everytime you need to get up and move around a little.
  • Parking. Some places make it very easy to park and stay all day. Other places you may need to pay a meter, which is fine for a short stay but running out with quarters every two hours can become a little overwhelming especially when the ideas are really flowing.

Friday, August 7, 2009

You Think English is Easy?

I got this as a forward, which, I will be honest, I usually delete without a glance. But this one caught my attention and I thought it was worth posting for all you word-people.

It's one of the most difficult languages to learn! Can you read these right the first time?

01) The bandage was wound around the wound.

02) The farm was used to produce produce.

03) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

04) We must polish the Polish furniture.

05) He could lead if he would get the lead out.

06) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

07) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

08) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

09) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

10) I did not object to the object.

11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row .

13) They were too close to the door to close it.

14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.

15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear.

19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let's face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indixes? If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

Sometimes I think all the=2 0English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital, ship by truck and send cargo by ship, have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill-in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

PS. - Why doesn't Buick rhyme with quick?

You lovers of the English language might enjoy this .

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is UP

It's easy to understand UP , meaning toward the sky or toward the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP ? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the
secretary to write UP a report ?

We call UP our friends. We use something to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, warm UP the leftovers, and clean UP the kitchen. W e lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car .. At other times the little word has real special meaning. People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work U P an appetite, and think UP excuses. To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special .

And this UP is confusing: A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP . We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night.

We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP! To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP , look the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions. If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP , you may wind UP with a hundred or more.
When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP . When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP .
When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things UP ..
When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry UP .

We could go on, but I'll wrap it UP , for now my time is UP , so: Time to shut UP !

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Standard Etiquette for Sharing Content

Last night on #editorchat (via Twitter) we discussed content sharing. Of course the discussion was particularly relevant this week after the Washington Post/Gawker debacle. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, I think most journalists in the industry would agree there needs to be some kind of standard for content sharing.

But setting down a list of rules that must be followed is not likely to be productive. Bloggers, who usually pride themselves in there ability to write without the confines of an editor screening their work, aren’t likely to follow some established rule book.

I suggest instead standards of etiquette. And just like some people don’t feel the need to use a napkin or refuse to rip their role into smaller bit-sized pieces, not everyone will follow these standards, but is most writers and editors did the situation would be much improved.

The standards of etiquette:

  • Any content taken from another source must be attributed to that source. (even if its only a paragraph or minor fact.)
  • If the entire story is basically a re-write of another person’s work that needs to be indicated up front. The last sentence in the first paragraph is the perfect place to insert the publication or author’s name.
  • While it is ideal to list both the original writer’s name as well as the publication, that isn’t likely to happen. For newspapers the publication should be listed, for blogs the author should be indicated (unless it is a widely known blog).
  • Somewhere in the article should be a link to the original article and it should not be hidden away in a smaller font after the last paragraph.
  • For non-media companies utilizing an article in a report or internal company note, the media source needs to be contacted and permission must be granted to distribute the article.
  • The publication taking someone else’s article needs to do its own fact checking on the article, realizing that no one is infallible and therefore a certain amount of research needs to be put into a piece, even if it just a quick rewrite.
[I had something like this happen just a few weeks ago. Thanks to an editing error, my first paragraph contained confusing information about the location of the property. Another publication picked up the article, rewrote it and then contacted me to find out what the actual location was. A simple google search or call to the company would have clarified but the writer ignored those normal paths and sent me several e-mails to make sure everything was clarified.]
  • It is irresponsible to use the phrase ‘according to reports’ unless in fact several publications have reported on this topic. Otherwise if one publication breaks news that pub needs to be referenced and the story linked to; this is the case even after several publication have rewritten that first pubs report.
  • Any publication that picks up full articles from another publication and runs it without a rewrite should indicate both the name of the original publication as well as the writer’s name.
  • It is the editor’s role to ensure standards of content sharing etiquette are adhered to. These should be clearly defined from the get-go.
Thoughts on this? What else should be included in this standard of etiquette?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Writing a Blog is a lot like Training for a Marathon

As I'm sitting at my desk today weighing my options for how to spend my afternoon, I realized something potentially profound - or at least to me. Writing a blog is a lot like training for a marathon. How so?

1. It takes discipline. You can't just willy-nilly decide to run when you feel like it. The same with a blog. You can't write on the days you are in a super writing mode with lots of ideas flowing.

2. It's got to be a daily focus. That doesn't mean you write or run every day. But on the off days you should be gearing up for the days you are going to be working on your skill. For writing on off days you should be brainstorming new topics to write about, new angles to take, guest bloggers you want to grab. And on the off running days you need to be cross training with weights or going for a slow relaxing bike ride.

3. Help is needed along the way. When I first started marathon training I figured you just ran a little more every day until it was the big marathon day. But there is so much more to it than that. You need to read about good stretching techniques and learn which powerbars will give you the extra energy you need on the long runs. For blogging you need to be reading others posts, and articles constantly gathering information and fodder for your own use.

4. It's always easier with others around. I didn't want to run with my dad, who is also training for the marathon, but when he suggested it the last time I was home I agreed. I dreaded the basic 5 miles we were going to do thinking either he'd leave me in the dust or I'd leave him. But it turned out that we went at a pace that was between our two strides and managed all 5 miles without a single cramp. Blogging with encouragement, like the May blogathon, is so much easier because you know you have a group around you struggling to meet the same goal.

5. Some days it's a pain in the butt. Today, for instance, it is nearly 90* with 100% humidity here. A run even once around the block is a daunting task, but if I'm really serious about the marathon I'm going to run despite the heat. Blogging today is equally non-exciting since I've been at my computer for more than 7 hours already. But to keep the followers interested and to keep my craft sharp I'm writing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stretching Your Skill Set

As writers, sure we write. Most days, we write, edit, write, write and then write some more. But as the journalism field changes, it's important to think outside the writing box and develop new skills.

I'm talked about the importance of learning social media before. I still think that's crucial. But the more I think about where we're headed the more I think video is going to be another must for the journalist. Several months ago, one of my clients surprised me with a request to interview a couple sources while being filmed. The video, much to my chagrin, landed on the homepage for an entire day. I avoided the homepage as much as possible.

Truth be told it wasn't so horrible. I supposed it could have been a lot worse. But I couldn't help but think if I had filmed even one YouTube video before that interview, things would have gone a lot more smoothly for me.

My goal this week... I plan on spending the rest of the working week and the weekend filming some videos and then figuring out how to splice them, move parts around and get an acceptable final project. To help me laugh at myself and this project I've decided to wear a goofy hat while doing this. At least it will give me a chuckle if all I end up doing is talking into a camera for a couple hours. And then in the future if a client asks am I comfortable with video I can honestly say yes.

What other things are you doing to expand your skill set and make yourself more marketable as a writer and a freelancer?

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Week Without Technology

I spent the last week running a leadership camp in the Midwest for junior high girls. It's a great program, one I look forward to every single year; but the hardest part is leaving civilization for 7 solid days.

The camp grounds sit in the middle of a cell phone dead zone, which means absolutely no ability to use my blackberry to check voicemails, respond to e-mails, or even tweet. Computer internet access? Don't even think about it!

No lie. I needed to push through the first couple days and pretend it didn't bother me that my cell phone claimed to have service but I never saw an e-mail come in. By the middle of the week I craved any kind of news from the outside world. And at the end of the week I rejoiced at the sight of my computer and 4 bars of service. (Good grief something as huge as Michael Jackson's death could have happened last week and I would have totally missed it.)

Now back on the rebound (trying to catch up on sleep and sort through hundreds of e-mails) I find I didn't feel the need to spend as much time on the computer as I did before leaving for camp. Of course I still got my work done. Sure I still spent too much time on facebook and twitter, but I also went out, left my computer behind and didn't frantically check my phone.

Maybe we all need a little respite from technology from time to time. Maybe severing all ties and living 'old school' for a few days can help us become more effective and creative writers. It was difficult, but oh so worth it.

Anybody else leave it all behind for awhile? Did you find any positive outcomes?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When You Hit the Breaking Point

This morning around 9:30 am it finally all caught up with me - the noon deadline I was writing for, the leadership manual that needed to be tweaked by 11am, the writers asking if the article submitted yesterday was alright, the marathon training, the 20 unreplied to personal e-mails. Bottom line: I was ready to explode.

I'm sure all of us, freelancers or not, hit a breaking point. At least if you're freelance you tend to hit that when no one is around, since that's the usual mode of working. But overcoming it is a whole different matter. After I calmed down and realized it was all doable and I'd meet all the deadlines, like I usually do, I got to thinking of the great detox methods. Here's what I've found as helpful:

  • Work through it. Don't stop to think about the stress and the amount of things pending just keep plugging along, working hard.
  • Make a schedule, timeline, to-do list, whatever. As long as it helps you calmly look at the things in front of you. (If lists stress you out avoid this idea like the plague.)
  • Step away. If you have the time to take a step back do so. Go out and do something you like, something that will help clear the brain and refocus your energies. This could be a run, bird watching, flipping through a 'brain-less' magazine, window shopping, taking the dog for a walk, playing with your kids, and talking to a friend.
  • Access your priorities. What really needs to be done? What can be put on hold till a later date? Am I doing too much? When is enough enough?
  • Utilize your skills but in a non-work format. Try writing a short story, poem, journal entry, blog post, whatever. Anything to take a mental break from the things in front of you while working on your craft.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pre-written Obits Are a Must Today

When attending college, the big joke on the student newspaper was the potential death of Pope John Paul II. (All due respect given to him.) We followed every twist and turn of his health; wrote, rewrote and tweaked a standard obit that we could toss up on the website the moment the news was confirmed. At the time I honestly thought it was a little over the top.

But yesterday the world witnessed the death of two American icons - Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. To watch the news of these two deaths unfold throughout the day proved to be an interesting journalism experiences. Fawcett had been struggling with anal cancer form months. Her death was expected an newspapers therefore had prewritten obits ready for the inevitable moment. Within minutes of the announcement of her passing, newspapers across the country had a story of her life running as the top news piece.

Then later in the day Michael Jackson went into cardiac arrest and journalist everywhere paniced. Michael Jackson? He wasn't struggling with a terminal illness. He hadn't even been in the hospital much lately. When the ultimate announcement came that Jackson had infact passed away there was, I'm sure, in every newspaper and magazine office around the world a mad scramble to put a story together. As soon as I heard the news I checked the NY Times expecting to see an obit like Fawcett's but instead the article running compiled statements about his death from a number of celebrities. Interesting to read but a fail in terms of what readers really wanted at that moment.

This just goes to show it's no longer ok to have a set of stock obits for the older or sickly people of interest. Sure every newspaper probably has a story saved on Patrick Swayze but what about Paula Abdul or George W. Bush? As we learn every day from life, it's not just the old and sickly who pass from this world. Heath Ledger is proof enough death doesn't have an age minimum.

Newspapers would be smart to have a stock of obits ready for every person of 'celebrity' status. The articles can then be tweaked from year to year or when something significant happens in the person's life. Now that we don't have time to craft an article for the next morning's paper we need to be responsible journalists and pre-write these pieces to be on top of our game.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Diversifying Your Experience

I've been out of pocket over the last week because of a business trip to Chicago that had me running around like a mad woman most of the week. Tons of fun but totally exhausting. I'm finally caught up on sleep and back in the swing of things.

While on this business trip I had the opportunity to expand my experience base by dabbling in broadcast journalism. I knew about this only ten days before the trip and barely contained my nerves as one 5-minute interview turned into three 15-minute interviews. As I reminded all my interview subjects, I'm a print journalist. The words and I go great together. Set me in front of a computer for days at a time with internet access and it would be hard to pry me away. Put me in front of a video camera and flee becomes the predominate thought.

Anyway, a fellow MU alum suggested I look at the opportunity as a way to expand my experience base. He hit the nail on the head with that advice. I conducted the interviews, suffered through a couple retakes, cringed as the video replayed and realized it wasn't as bad as I expected. In fact with a little practice and the right topic I could possibly do more of these.

You never know till you try. And just like starting that first blog, attempting a YouTube video, reaching out to your first freelance client or pitching your first editor - trying new things is an essential part of professional and personal growth. I'm proud to say I conquered that mountain. Here's to the next one coming up on the horizon.

In case you're in the mood for a good laugh, here's the video.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Creative Writing Can Help Your Reporting

There have been a lot of headlines lately about creative writing classes - can it be taught, should it be taught, who can teach it? In college I took one creative writing class as a journalism major. It didn't count toward my major but was an english credit, but I think it could have been a J-credit.

Here's what creative writing can teach a hard-core journalist:
  1. Show don't tell. The great thing about creative writing course is each week you focus on a specifc area, and most of those revolve around showing what the characters see, touch, taste, feel, etc...
  2. Abolition of the verb 'to be'. My teacher made us go through and circle every form of to be. OUCH. Then the assignment for the next class revolved around changing every single circled verb to a descriptive one.
  3. Think outside the box to tell the story. A basic way to tell the story exists, but sometimes the better article comes from a more creative, non-traditional approach.
  4. Take criticism and become better from it. Sure we've all probably gotten an email or note complaining about a particular article we penned. But in a creative writing class you sit in the hot seat and watch as your literary attempt gets torn to pieces. Then you need to go back, re-evaluate, maybe even re-invent the piece. Thick skin grows quickly in a creative writing class.
  5. Learn from the attempts of others. Peer evaluation acts as the main driving force behind the class. You read countless stories by the time the class ends. Just like reading other newspapers and publications forms your writing, reviewing your peers stories gives you the chance to learn what you love, what you hate and what you would do differently.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Improve Your Writing: Make An Editorial Calendar

When I first started this grand freelancing adventure, I literally jumped right in without any idea what I was doing. Several missed editorial opportunities and I realized the huge importance of planning ahead - far ahead.

Most publications work ahead. Newspapers have features planned for weeks. Magazines already have the rest of the year's content at least sketched out. The freelancers career should be no different. Whether you are writing your own blog, guest posting, filling website content or pitching major publications you need an editorial calendar.

Here's how to set one up:
  1. Buy a basic calendar. I recommend one that gives you the whole month at a glance.
  2. Fill in all the important dates. This will vary based on the publication. For the teen site I work on for instance, I include things like the release of the new Jonas Brother's CD, Harry Potter's theater debut, prom season, spring break, etc...
  3. Now count backward and with a different colored pen note the day you need to have content for a specific topic completed by. (If writing/pitching a mag look at their editorial guidelines. They often work 4-8 months in advance.)
  4. Count backward again and mark the day you need to begin working on your article, assigning pieces, etc...
  5. Find the lulls in your calendar. Brainstorm appropriate topics for that time of the year . Jot down all your ideas.
  6. Fill in the low points with these topical ideas. These don't have to be set-in-stone articles. Other things might take precedence at the time - which is fine, but at least you have an idea.
  7. There are going to be events you miss. Write them in the calendar when they come up so that next year the day won't pass you by.
  8. Also some events you won't know the date of right away. Make a note to check on the topic occasionally and mark it in the calendar as soon as you learn it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Keep Asking the Questions

I picked up the local newspaper this weekend and an article in the style section caught my eye. It featured a family of 10 children, in which all the daughter (6 in total) have vowed to get married on May 24th when their time to marry came. Pictures from the wedding of the second daughter who married this May 24th in a fairy-themed wedding littered the front page of the style section. If you read this what would be the one question you want to know, the one question you'd expect the reporter to answer? Perhaps WHY the girls all planned to marry on May 24th. I read the article twice thinking I'd missed it. Nope.

In J-school one of the very first lessons you learn is to ask the 5 Ws and the H. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? And not only as a reporter are you supposed to ask these questions when doing the interviews. But you are supposed to tell your readers the answers to all of these queries - and usually in the first graph.

For this local paper story...
Who - the 6 girls in this family.
What - they've vowed to all marry on the same date.
Where - here in small town MO
When - May 24
Why - Still wondering about that one.
How - in the style they want, and the year they want but all married with family nearby.

It's a good idea to look back at the story you've just penned and make sure it answers all these questions. For us writers it's really easy to miss one of these points especially if we get really into a specific story. We forget an important detail because it is so basic to us. But we write for others not ourselves. And therefore it's best to pretend the reader knows nothing.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Don't Burn Bridges (unless strictly necessary)

When it comes to a job - any kind of job for that matter - there are always going to be people we like and people we don't like; people we click with and people we can't wait to get off the phone with. It's pretty normal. And when people rub us the wrong way, it's totally human nature to cut ties and move on.

Maybe that works for some professions, although I can't think of one at the moment. But for a freelance writer/editor you can't afford to cut ties. In the future you never know what position that person may be in, or what project they might be in need of, or what pitch you are trying to send out. If you have a run-in with a health editor at a small town paper you might think no big deal, well maybe she'll end up the EIC of a major mag in the area and you're on her shit list - Not Good.

I recently was contacted by a client from several years ago who I assumed did not like me much, by the abrupt e-mails and sudden lack of communication. But she admitted to being busy and now needed my editing help again - was I interested? Um, Yup. Count me in.

So when dealing with difficult people remember these simple rules.
  1. Do not send an email (make a phone call) in anger. Things will be said that can't be unsaid.
  2. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes.
  3. You never know what happened to them that day, week, year to make them like that. Maybe their 11-year pet dog just died, maybe their spouse was diagnosed with cancer, who knows. Always give someone else the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Keep your communication sincere and business like. Remember proper salutations, etc...
  5. Sometimes it's helpful to butter them up a little. Don't lie, but find the person's good quality and mention that.
  6. Give it time. Maybe this relationship is something you need to put on hold (not in an I'm-ignoring-you way) and then return to later.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Expunge All Forms of 'To Be'

I finished reading another semi-boring, uber-predictable teen novel today (part of my job) and as I closed the book slightly disappointed it got me thinking... What did I dislike so much?

The story line followed the Twilight pattern with mythical characters (faeries in this case). Yes bad guys and noble warriors filled the chapters. And let's not leave out the damsel in distress, boring teachers, stressful high school situation, model-like beauty, nerdy boys.... ok the story ran along the lines of every other young adult novel popular today.

But the book's subject monotony didn't ruin it for me. The extreme use of all forms of 'to be' put me over the edge.

I might have noticed this fact because I am eight chapters into editing my attempt at a novel and am subsequently trying to expunge every is, was, were, am from the sentences. But for some reason with this book I noticed it more. Out of curiosity I pulled out the last three young adult novels I read to review. Sure enough nearly all of them relied heavily on all forms of 'to be'.

Maybe authors need to crank books out too quickly these days. Maybe they should tweet more. Maybe editors could demand more creativity. Maybe I just need to get used to it - but in my opinion a sentence sounds so much better with a descriptive verb; a task that's also more difficult to accomplish.

The same applies to writers of all sorts. Instead of liberally using 'to be' verbs, try to spice the story and your writing up.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pay Me, Please

Honestly, pretty much all I can think about lately is the compensation I am rightfully due and not receiving from a client. This is the first time this has happened to me. Sure, in the past, I've had clients send payments a couple weeks or even up to a month late; but it was nothing a carefully placed phone call or e-mail reminder didn't fix.

This time it's different. I phone conversation and e-mail requests have done nothing to speed the large check in my direction. And while the money is important I'm more upset that this time I, as the editor, look irresponsible to all the writers I worked with on this project. (My sincerest apologies to all of the writers.)

But I don't believe in letting a single experience go by without trying to learn something from it. So here's what I've learned from this:
  1. Never let two full pay periods lapse without compensation, no matter what the client asks.
  2. Acquaint yourself with a good lawyer. (Even if all they need to do is craft a well-written, legal-sounding letter telling the client to pay up.)
  3. Introduce yourself to other writers/editors that work for the company. Find out if they have any concerns.
  4. Do your research - if the company has a lot of failed/folded sites or mags maybe that's a clue.
  5. Ask questions up front. Why did the last editor/writer leave? How do you pay your writers?
  6. Sign a contract that details exactly how much you will be paid and when. (Thankfully I did this!)
  7. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. In case a gig doesn't come to fruition it's good to have a couple others in the works to make sure you can pay your bills.
  8. If it all seems a little too good to be true - unfortunately, it probably is.
  9. Be open and honest with those who work with you on the project. That will go a long way if you need to give them bad news.
  10. Suspect something is funny if the launch date gets pushed back, multiple times.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I've Learned from the Blogathon

It’s the last day of MayBlog2. Here’s what I’ve learned:
  1. It's more difficult to post daily than I would have thought.
  2. To post on the weekends it's best to think several days in advance.
  3. Guest blog posts are great for two reasons. a) you get a fresh perspective on your blog to prompt conversation and thought. b) you reach a broader audience by trading posts.
  4. It's a good idea to keep a running list of blog topics for the days you are blank. Jot down the idea as soon as it comes - remembering it later is tricky.
  5. Encouragement from fellow bloggers helps the process.
  6. It's not necessary to post daily and (more importantly) I should feel bad when it just doesn't happen one day.
  7. Reading and commenting on other blogs helps build your own and encourages the other writer - two great things.
  8. I should post more regularly at a specific time every day. So far it's been totally random, although usually in the afternoon.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Taking a Step Back Can Actually be Helpful

So I admit it, I am one of those writers who loves to push as close as possible to the deadline and then crank out an awesome piece under pressure. And to be honest, most of the time the articles are better written, clearer and more concise when I write in this manner. When I think too hard about it or start writing weeks or days in advance it will take me twice as long and usually ends up longer than need be.

But I'm learning that when it comes to novel writing the exact opposite may be true. I started my first official attempt at a young adult novel in August 2008. At the time I had grand plans of having it in the hands of agents by December. I completed the first draft in September and sent it to a number of close friends to read through. They sent back their thoughts, I added parts, changed character names, deleted a few scenes and went through a long editing process. By January I was at a point I thought appropriate to send off. Then I sent it to my mom...

She liked the story but went into teacher mode and highlighted every point she was confused about, every grammatical error, every incomplete sentence. At that point I started reading what exactly is required to get an agent - and discouragement set in.

I set the book aside and didn't look at it for almost two months. Then my early readers started hounding me about getting it completed and sent out. Just the thought - The fear. The anxiety, The likely rejection.

But I picked the book up again last week, printed all 280 pages out and pulled out the red pen to begin edits. This being the third time I've done edits I figured it would be a quick process. Um, Nope. I thought I'd have nothing else to add. Wrong again.

Letting it sit while I focused on other things - like this blog, twitter, securing freelance gigs - might have been the best thing for the book. I've realized in the editing process there are certain words I overuse. I use forms of to be way too often. I hate cliches and yet they littered my pages. And one of my characters is a little one-dimensional. I'm trying to change all of that now.

Is it good enough to get published? I have no idea. Do I hope it is? Heck yes. Will I bite the bullet and finally send it out after this round of edits. Yup, it's getting to a point where I'm proud to say I penned this.

Despite my insecurities about this, I've learned that at least giving the book a little space has given me a fresher approach and an unbiased eye.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Purdue Student: What I Learned in School about Writing

Written by Kristen Johnson

On May 15th, I graduated from Purdue University with a Liberal Arts degree in Professional Writing. While in school, I worked at our newspaper, the Purdue Exponent for two years, in addition to other journalism internships and my onslaught of writing courses. In hopes that I had gathered a plethora of useful writing knowledge, Katie asked me to compile some things I learned over my college career. Here’s what I came up with:

First, break the rules. Forget everything you learned in your high school English classes. Those old Elements of Writing books? Toss them. Writing is much more than simple sentence structures. Think outside of the box! Make non-existing words exist, use fragments when constructive, and be dangerously edgy when the risk is affordable.

…but never forget the basics. Ever. As a college senior in a 400-level writing class, my professor spent for first week assigning grammar exercises. Why? Because you can only be a rebel when you know what rules you’re breaking. No matter how long you’ve been writing, it’s still irresponsible to make spelling a mistake and it’s still inexcusable to be ambiguous when specifics are desperately needed.

Writing is like any sport. Practice truly makes perfect. Write, write, write…write!! Take any opportunity to write for any publishing venue, whether it be minimally paying, nonpaying, or your own personal blog. Any chance to have an outsider’s opinion is a great chance to grow as a writer.

Your mother has been preaching the truth - reading in invaluable. This lesson is one I’ve had to learn the hard way, growing up with only a strong fascination with the Harry Potter series. Beyond the wizarding community and my school assignments, it practically took a knife fight to get my mind focused on anything else bounded by a cover. Once college hit, I felt the burn. My overall knowledge of the world, let alone my vocabulary, poorly suffered. If you struggle to find intriguing material, use the internet! No matter what you’re interests include, I guarantee there is a blog and/or site devoted to your curiosities.

Master the internet, or at least research its limitless opportunities. Create a website and/or blog and update frequently. Learn the fundamentals of web design, even if it’s just a basic understanding of the how’s, what’s and why’s. For my non-tech savvy brethren, there are countless sites that offer shortcuts for these respected skills, such as web coding and photo editing. (Check out her site.)

Network. Network like it’s the air you breathe. Network with everyone in your life, both those you know in-person and those available online. Knowledge and mastery of social media has become a must-have skill for journalists. In a social networking class, my professor explained that every person should have at least 2-3 social sites they manage daily. An overall understanding of all the popular social medias will only assist in your career; MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogger, Flickr, YouTube…if the names of any of these sites are unfamiliar, you’re behind.

The editing process of any piece is half the battle. After you edit something, edit it again. And again, and again. No piece is ever perfect.

• Try to find a way to say what you want to say with less words, in order to get your point across more clearly and faster, as in: Tighten your language.

You can never prepare all the right questions prior to an interview, no matter how much research you do, (and research is always expected and required). A good reporter enters an interview with ideas of where to lead his/her questions, but listens to the source for the perfect angle to lead the discussion and therefore the article. While interviewing, the article should be slowly unfolding in your head. Focus on the interview, but remember you’re not simply getting to know someone – you’re writing a piece that needs to have a central message.

This world is full of writers, but it’s lacking great writers. You’re going to fail, time and time again. You’re going to get torn apart, and people are going to tell you you’ll never make it. The greats learn and keep writing. The regulars never adapt, or retire all together. If writing is your passion, you have to keep fighting and be prepared for people who think you don’t have “it.”

(Kristen Johnson is a recent college graduate. Her expertise, so far, is the music industry. She can write a killer CD review and bio piece on upcoming artists. Since I encouraged her to pursue writing when she consulted me about it, I thought it would be interesting to see what she got out of school. (In 5 years we should do a follow-up and find out what she really learned.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Freelancing Will Always Be a Leap of Faith

Yesterday I lost mega sleep over the thought that a new client of mine wasn't as legit as I thought. Of course at night, as I began putting pieces together and talking about it to a close family member who also happened to be up and available to consult, things looked pretty crappy. In the light of day, and after 3 cups of coffee, I could honestly say it was going to be alright, even if legal action needs to be taken to receive my compensation.

But the whole mess got me thinking... As a freelancer (writer or editor) you are always going to be taking a leap of faith when you sign on with a new client. Sure there are ways to check if the person and company are legit. There are red flags that she tell you to run, not walk, in the opposite direction. But sometimes the red flags aren't as obvious. Sometimes the person is legit even if the gig is not.

While obviously not fail-proof here are some ways to tell if your next gig is the real thing or a very elaborate hoax.
  • Does the client have a business e-mail address rather than a yahoo/g-mail/hotmail account.
  • What does the website look like? Is it modern or does it look like an 8th grader put it together? There is no website? Can that be legit in today's world - doubtful.
  • Is this person 'stalkable' on the internet? Can you find their Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter accounts?
  • Beyond the basic Google search. Take the time to google blog search and google news search the company and person you're dealing with. You might unearth some really eye-opening info.
  • Are you being asked to jump through hoops before a relationship is even established? Companies (spammers) often tell you to enter your info into a website - don't. They'll claim it's to see if you're legit - well if they are legit can't they just pick up a phone?
  • Proving yourself is to be expected, but submitting three trial 'free' articles and a list of the 12 articles you'd like to write about is out of line.
  • Are all the papers legit? Have you signed a contract?
  • With everything done online, sometimes you never even talk to the person via phone. That doesn't mean you shouldn't call the listed numbers and confirm they are real.
  • Have any of your freelancing buddies heard of or written for this client? Referrals are a great way to expand business, but it can also be a way to find out about the real clients and the crooks.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Things I Learned in J-School

I talked to a recent graduate yesterday and was reminded of J-school and what I learned there. The list just came to me. It's all true, although some of it is sarcastic - sorry.

Know all the rules of writing.

Know how to break those rules and do it.

Your AP style guides should never be more than an arm’s reach away.

Coffee is your friend - even when you think it’s not.

Sources and sources, friends are friends. Sources are not friends, friends are rarely ever sources.

Show don’t tell.

All the relevant information should be in the first graph. Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.

The inverted pyramid is the model for nearly every piece.

You’ll get more experience working at the school paper than in the classroom.

Emails and texts without punctuation drive me crazy.

Always ask, never assume.

Parents will never fully understand the need to write - do it anyway.

Not only is it OK to have a voice, it’s ludicrous not to.

While in school pimp yourself out to every and any publication that will take you on as an intern or part-time help.

Sleep is overrated.

To improve your craft practice every day, even if you don’t have an assignment or paper to pen.

Despite what the profs might say, all media types are integrating. Don’t integrate and be left behind.

Procrastination is in your blood - it’s not your fault.

Deadlines equate to high octane stress and that never really changes.

There is a proper way to quote a person. Follow that style.
Network from day one.

Never lift a sentence, phrase or story from anywhere. EVER.

Take a creative writing class to force you to think outside the strict journalism confines.

Late, late nights at the college paper is assumed - plan accordingly.

Other majors, especially math and nursing, will give you crap for not doing much. Remind them of their revulsion when it comes to term papers and the frequency with which you write.

That dream job is not going to be there when you graduate; but it’s not out of reach.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Freelance Failure - What I Learned

[Sidenote: Today I was drawing a blank on what to post, minus the rant. Tim Beyers (@milehighfool) blogger of The Social Writer sent me post suggestions. Special thanks to him for this idea.]

My first freelance attempt after college was a pitch to the New York Times real estate section. Sounds lofty, I know, but when I moved to New York I landed a job in the editorial department there and was encouraged to pitch the different sections in my free time. I sent ideas to the education, entertainment and real estate sections.

The real estate one was picked up and I got to write a feature on a new mutli-family residential building going up in TriBeCa, designed by Enrique Norten. The whole thing was simultaneously nerve-wrecking and exhilarating. From the experience I learned two invaluable lessons.

One - Always carry a map and contact information. I’m pretty good with directions, getting around new places and I’m a very punctual person. But this time I took the subway to a stop I’d never been to and by the time I hit street level I was so turned around I nearly gave up. Luckily I was early. I wandered around for nearly an hour - late by that point - and still couldn’t find the building under construction.

To make matters worse I had forgotten the cell phone number and work numbers of the people I was meeting to discuss the project. I asked the postman for directions, he’d never heard of the place. I asked a local drunk, a homeless man and a street vendor - nothing. (It was a new building after all so the address wasn’t exactly common knowledge yet.) I called 411, but they could not locate the site or the construction company. I called a friend and had her google it - nada. Defeated I went back down the subway steps stopped at the map for one last look and realized I was one block away from where I needed to be.

From then on I never went anywhere without all the contact information written down - almost to an OCD level.

Two - “Once you know the rules, know how to break them.” When I got the interview, transcribed the notes and wrote the story I had lofty ideas of writing in a style that was worthy of the Gray Lady. I followed all the journalism rules - all but one; the one about breaking the rules.

When I turned the story in to the editor she sent it back within 30 minutes saying it was boring and lifeless. ‘But it’s news,’ I thought. She suggested I liven it up. Add some flare to the piece, not make it so cut and dry. I inserted more descriptive words and sent it back to her proud of the progress. She sent it back.

The piece sounded better, but where was my personality? Where was my voice? She wasn’t telling me to add my personal editorializing, but what she did want me to do has been helpful ever since. A news piece, an article, a research paper doesn’t have to be boring and lifeless. You’ve got to make the reader want to get to the second paragraph.

When the piece follows all the journalism rules, lays out all the facts but has no soul it’s not going anywhere.

Lies, More Lies and the Freelancers Who Tell Them

This is not a post... This is a rant...

Earlier today I was contacted by a PR rep that I have been dealing with for some time now. She's got great connections, perfect for the publication. She gets the message, the theme, the types of people we look to profile and most importantly she is prompt and easy to work with. Almost two months ago she pitched a new artist and I immediately assigned the story out to a freelancer who had been basically begging for better stories, more exposure, etc...

Probably three weeks ago this PR rep contacted me and asked where we stood with arranging the interview. I thought the interview had already taken place since the freelancer told me she had the appointment set-up for the beginning of the week. Not wanting to interfere I asked the PR rep to refer to the writer directly about the interview time. (I tend to over-manage so I was trying to step back a little.) A week went by. I didn't hear anything.

I contacted the writer and asked when the article would be in, since we were now two weeks past deadline. She said I'd have it by Friday. But guess what... Friday came and went without an article appearing in my inbox. Then yesterday I got an e-mail from this great PR rep asking what the deal was with the interview and why it still hadn't happened. Um... WHAT???!!!!

Obviously, I've pulled the article from the writer, reassigned it to a new trustworthy, deadline-focused, polite freelancer and had to beg forgiveness to the PR rep, her firm and of course her client.

This whole scenario just goes right along with my earlier post about Freelancers Flaking Out. Sure, we're not all like this. In fact the large majority of freelancers are hard working, focused, non-flightly workaholics. But for those few who are just cruising through you're giving the rest of us a bad name!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Helium is a Training Ground - Nothing More

Oh course I’ve been following the Helium debate on Word Count. It started yesterday when Tim Beyers posted an article against freelancers using content aggregators to post their work. Then Barbara Whitlock, a member outreach manager, refuted his points and lauded the benefits of Helium. All the discussion has got me thinking about Helium and my use of the site.

When I was first starting out as a freelancer, I started writing articles for Helium. I posted about 16 articles over a couple months. But once I lined up real freelancing gigs I stopped visiting the site and posting articles to it. I can’t imagine utilizing the site now, but at its time it was great. Starting freelancers might want to consider this as a training ground - but be careful not to spend too much time ‘training’ instead of seeking out paying gigs. Because even if Helium tells you it pays, the amount you’ll make is less than one well-lined up article.

What I got out of Helium:

Writing practice. I’d been out of the ‘official’ writing arena for nearly two years when I decided freelancing was the way to go. While I never stopped writing short stories and an occasional article, I hadn’t been writing in the journalistic style in a while.

Writing confidence. You do get feedback from your posts. Some times people write you after reading an article with comments, suggestions, etc... Plus to watch your article rise in the rankings is exciting.

Marketing tips. To see any income from Helium you need to be a huge self-promoter of your work. Write and article and seconds late you should be jumping on digg, del.i.cious, reddit, etc... and posting the article. The more you do that, the more pennies you’ll see. While the money is low, it does teach you how to promote your work - a helpful skill when it comes to keeping your blog, freelancing articles and working to get your name out there.

Pride in your work. With sites like Helium you are forced to rate other articles. As an editor first and a writer second, I was appalled at the number of poorly written articles. Even more shocking was the number of articles written under a specific topic that do not deal specifically with the subject matter.

Realization of a passion. At the time I wrote for Helium the majority of my articles were penned in the fashion section. This is an area that I had never delved into before, but had always loved. I used a clip from Helium to land a guest blogging position at SparkleShelf and have since started my own humble attempt at a fashion blog.