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.