Friday, December 30, 2011

Taking Stock

For many writers, the New Year means a chance for a new beginning. For others, it offers a time to reflect on what happened during the past year. Whichever one it is for you, the New Year offers a time to set new goals and analyze your situation. Just as retailers set aside the month of January to take stock of their inventory, so should you take stock of not only what you wrote and published in the last year, but accomplishments you achieved and problems you need to solve.

To move forward, you have to plan ahead. Recognize problems early on—set down goals you want to reach, obstacles you need to overcome, and the resources you have at your disposal. Doing all of these things is almost as good as solving the problems, themselves.

No general ever goes into battle without some sort of plan. Military commanders need a map marked with all their troop units’ positions and weapons in order to make fast and effective decisions in the heat of battle. You need to do the same in order to assess your situation and draw on the resources or ideas best suited for each situation.

First, write down the problem or direction you’d like to take, followed by the goals you need to achieve to solve that problem or get started in your new direction. Together these are known as a situation summary.

Although you can use a situation summary at any time to resolve difficult business decisions, writing up one or more of them at the beginning of the year will set you off on the right foot.

A common problem facing many freelance writers is upgrading their markets. Perhaps you’ve published several articles or short stories in local newspapers or small regional magazines, none of which pay you enough to make a living. You want to continue freelancing but to do that you’ll have to sell to more reliable, higher-paying markets. This is where a situation summary can work wonders.

To begin, jot down a short concise statement of what you’d like to do. Next you need to write down your goals—both long and short term—as well as actions you’ll need to take to reach them. Be specific. Lay out a detailed plan, including relevant dates and resources required. For each goal, write down three actions.

Following your goals and actions, you should write down the benefits of the actions you’ll be taking. Will they increase your financial bottom line, increase your work schedule flexibility, or give you peace of mind—or all three?

How much time or money will be required to achieve your goals? Will you have to spend additional time writing and marketing that might be spent with your family? Will you need to purchase new or additional computer equipment and programs? Or will you need to do a good deal of research to go in-depth with a subject?

What if what you’ve got planned doesn’t work out? List some alternative solutions and why you should stick to your main plan. Some call this “Plan B.” However, often these alternatives present other problems that make reaching your goals for the new year doubly hard.

If you’re seeking to improve your markets, you must allow a block of time to study what’s out there. Are there editors out there that you know that might help you advance your plan? List anyone and everyone who may be able to help you. Can you build on what you’re doing now? Perhaps you can spin off a new specialty from a subject that you’ve written a lot about?

Lastly, set a date to review your actions—say in a month or two. And set a date to review your short-term goals to see if you’ve reached one or all of them, most likely at the end of the first or second quarter.

A situation summary, like a business plan, should be flexible and able to be adjusted as you go. Keep an open mind. Look for the positive side of whatever develops and build on it. And if you do, you’ll definitely have a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Make a List and Check It Twice

Everyone knows that Santa Claus makes a list and checks it twice before going on his merry way to bring gifts to all good little boys and girls. Most people do the same before going Christmas shopping. But I bet you never thought of making a list of not only all the places you could sell your writing, but also the different forms of writing you can sell, produced from the same research.

Too many non-fiction writers research an article or book idea, write and publish it, then forget about it. As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

First let’s look at the many types of articles you could write based on the subject matter. If you work in education, you might consider writing one for a journal in your field. But that’s pretty much a dead end to a freelance writer and either doesn’t pay anything or very little.

If you like to travel, you have a myriad of article types to choose from. There’s always the straight travel article about the places you visit, but you could write several on the adventure or sports side of those places. And don’t forget food and historical articles about them.

If you prefer a more scientific approach, you could write about new scientific discoveries and about how they affect medicine, commerce, or industry. Writing trade articles can mean steady work.

And then there’s business and finance articles. Pieces about new business ideas, new businesses, and business advice are always in season. How to market certain types of businesses is yet another approach. Interviews with top business professionals helps those on their way up.

You could also approach a subject by its effect on people. Family relationships, genealogy, art of living, and sociological influences are just the tip of the relationship iceberg.

Your second list should be all the ways you can treat the same subject. One of the easiest articles to write is the how-to piece. Combine this with the standard advice article, and you have a winner.

If you like helping others, you may want to work your information into an inspirational article.  Tell it from your own life, and you have a personal experience piece. An article told from your own insight is one of the most powerful out there. And readers love them.

Take a look at the past and put some nostalgia into your work. Nostalgia pieces are becoming increasingly popular with the ever-growing crowd of baby boomers out there. They like to remember how things used to be, even if their memories cloud over some of the bad things and make the past seem rosy.

Reader’s Digest always said that humor is the best medicine. But not everyone can write humorous articles. Just because you think something is funny doesn’t mean your readers will. Try your humor out on your friends first.

Perhaps you want to get serious and write exposés. These take a considerable more research and time, but in the end can be worth while. If the exposé is too much for you, then perhaps you’d like to try writing controversial essays, although the market isn’t too open for them. In today’s publishing world, a blog on a controversial subject will be more likely to succeed.

And for all those books you’ve read researching an idea, perhaps you can find time to write reviews of them.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Choosing the Hare or Tortoise Route

As the old saying goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Whether you choose to go the fast route or the slow route to freelance writing success depends on how you start out. If you sprint from the starting line, you may find that soon you’ll run out of energy and slow down considerably. If you start at slow and steady, you may find that you’ll have enough energy to go to big and better things.

You may find that you can jump-start your writing career if you do one of three things. You may get some pieces published in at least six top markets within your first year or so. If you play your cards right, you may find you’ll become a regular in one or two of those markets, thus affording you a steady income. From this early success, you’ll be able to pitch more articles and books to editors because your credibility will have taken a quantum leap.

Another way to jump-start your career is by coming up with a sparkling new and innovative idea for a book which might begin a new trend in publishing. Agents may be beating down your door to get a crack at auctioning it off to the highest bidding publisher. But if you go this route, you must be prepared to continue the trend and come up with even better ideas.

The third way to jump-start your career is by publishing your own work and promoting it every way you can until you end up with one or more bestsellers. Until recently, editors and readers looked up any writer who self-published his or her work as one who wasn’t good enough to get published commercially. However, in today’s fast moving publishing environment of the Internet and E-readers, that attitude is changing fast. So if you’re a good writer and have lots of good ideas and some technical know-how, you can easily produce some great material, bypassing the slower traditional publishing route and hopping on the fast freeway to potential success. (NOTE: I’ll cover self-publishing in future blog posts.)

If you’re an enterprising writer, traveling any of the above routes will get you on the fast-track to success. Being at the right place with the right idea at the right time will guarantee it. On the other hand, you could just get lucky. A magazine editor may love your work and welcome you into his or her stable of writers, sending you assignments faster than you can tackle them. Too many beginning writers only think of this route and pitch their ideas only to top markets, then come crashing down when the editors reject their work or, worse yet, don’t even reply, leaving them in limbo.

For the majority of writers just starting out on the path to success, going slow is the best way. Unlike the hare who starts at the top and then fights to stay there, you’ll need to start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder. It’s a tough climb from which you’ll be knocked down more than a few times, but eventually you’ll reach the top. With lots of writing experience behind you, you’ll have a better chance of staying on top longer.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Give 'Em What They Want

As a freelancer, it’s important to give editors what they want, not what you think they want or what you personally feel strongly about. This applies not only to periodicals—magazines and newspapers—but also to books.

Editors will tell you what they want, if you ask them. Their needs aren’t a closely guarded secret. But for the most part they’re too busy trying to fill those needs to broadcast them. They do, however, try to get the word out to writers by publishing writer’s guidelines for their particular publication. You’ll usually find these on the publication’s or book publisher’s Web site. These guidelines, and they’re just that, guidelines, cover all the basics about a publication—the number of readers, preferred subject matter, length of articles or books, method of submission, amount of payment and when you can expect to receive it, and, most importantly, the number of articles or books published in a year.

But these are only guidelines. Editors don’t often know exactly what they want until they see it. They’re kept busy trying to please their bosses, trying to make next month's issue better than the last, and trying to figure out what their readers will want to read six months ahead. At the same time, they’re keeping a watchful eye on the market—for magazines, paying attention to newstand sales and subscriptions, and for books, checking on print and ebook sales.

Magazine editors also have to worry about the amount of editorial space they have to fill each month. What if a writer doesn’t meet a deadline? What if the story submitted is badly written? What if the story doesn’t end up the way the editor thought it would? That’s a lot of “what ifs.”

And while book editors may not have to worry about one article, they have to think about whole books not working out. What if the writer fails to develop the book the way he or she intended? What if the writer drastically overwrites and the manuscript needs extensive editing? What if the market for the book fell apart during the time the writer worked on it? Again, that’s a lot of “what ifs.”

Sometimes it takes an on-the-ball freelancer to come up with a snappy new idea that grabs the editor’s attention. As a professional writer, you’ll need to have your fingers in lots of pies. You need to keep up with the latest trends. You need to prospect for nuggets of information, which you can assemble with other nuggets into a cohesive whole. In short, you need to be a gold mine of ideas.

Besides studying numerous writers’ guidelines, you’ll also need to analyze a magazine's or book publisher’s needs, so you can keep up with the changes, such as spot an editorial rearrangement or a shift of emphasis in editorial matter. Study at least a year’s worth of issues of a magazine or, for books, study the publisher’s latest book catalog to see what’s on the docket for the coming year.

Remember, editors think ahead—sometimes way ahead. Just like retail clothing buyers, editors think six or more months ahead. They’re planning their June or July issues in January. In July, they’re planning their December, holiday issues. If you’re submitting a proposal for a Christmas story in November or December to a magazine with a three- to six-month lead time, you're wasting your time. Length of lead time is the first question you’ll want to ask an editor. The second is when can you expect to be paid. Often you’ll find the answers to these two important questions in the writer’s guidelines. But just to be sure, it pays to ask. Magazines often plan their issues six months to a year ahead while book publishers often plan their projects two years ahead, depending on how long it takes them to get a book in print.

The only surefire way to find out what an editor wants is to try to give it to him or her. Don't query once, then stop after one rejection. If you do your homework and query repeatedly with different ideas, you’ll eventually hit your target.

Generally, editors want—or at least wish they had—what their competitors already have. They  want top-name writers, even if they can’t afford them. They want what their readership surveys to  tell them their readers want, even if they often don’t. They want writers to do their part and write stories that their readers will love, even if this doesn’t always happen. To hit the mark, you have to keep trying, again and again and again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Check Out Your Competition

Before any business owner starts a business, he or she first checks out the competition. Freelance writing isn’t any different. The mistake that most beginning freelance writers make is that they aim too high, considering top-name writers as their competition. Instead, you should be studying those closer to where you are while studying the techniques of those at the top.

When you examine periodicals and even books, pay special attention to the writers who appear over and over in them. Make note of those who seem to get the most mileage out of an idea or have the most prominent articles or the most books published by the same publisher. If one or two names appear in a number of markets, make a note to whom they're selling their work. Also see if  these writers seem to specialize in any particular subject. Most magazines publish a short bio of a writer below the article by that writer. Though brief, they’ll give you an insight into what type of work the writer has become known for and other works by him or her in past editions of that same magazine. These will help acquaint you with the writer behind the byline.

Make a list of the writers you find most often, then head to your local library to look them up in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, going back maybe five or six years.  Write down the other titles of articles or stories they've published, then find them and read them. As you do, you’ll want to make some notes as to what about these articles stand out. Afterwards, you’ll be able to make a few notes about the writers’ careers. Have they stayed with the same markets over and over? Did they progress from a bylined story to a spot on the masthead? Have they appeared in competing periodicals and, if so, did they seem to progress in professional stature? To find which magazines are competing with each other, head to your local bookstore or newstand and look over the magazines on the rack. Most will be grouped by subject matter, so it will be easy to determine which ones are in competition for the same readers.

Now that you know who is your competition, how do they write? What sort of style do they use? Is it slick and sassy or educated and intellectual? Do they thoroughly research their pieces? Does the writer seem bright and on the ball? Or is their writing just ho-hum, average, publishable? If their writing is way above average, you should be studying those writers to see what makes them tick.

Another way to look at your competition is to study what they’re writing about. To be a good writer, you must read widely and know what’s being published. While all writers write alone, the good ones are aware of the latest trends in their subject field. And keeping up with their markets is the best way to do that.

Editors constantly emphasize reading a publication before submitting. While this may seem like it would only apply to magazines, it also applies to books. Checking out the catalogs of book publishers will help you avoid sending your books to publishers who have no interest in publishing your book in the first place. By studying the pieces in a publication, you’ll learn what kind of pieces its editor wants and what subjects he or she doesn’t want—those that seem to be missing.

If you’re interested in publishing magazines articles, by now, you've chosen a few periodicals in each of the categories that interest you. Now try to figure out what types of articles or short stories these writers are writing. Not all writers write just one type of article, such as a travel piece, or one type of short story, such as a mystery. As a beginning freelancer, you may find it difficult to clearly define which category or genre an article or short story fits into. Study them carefully.

And even if you’ve been freelancing for a while, it doesn’t hurt to review your competition from time to time. It’s the only way you’ll get ahead.