Saturday, December 19, 2015

Building Your Online Home

In today’s high-tech world, a writer’s presence online is the key that can potentially unlock publishing opportunities. And although it’s not an end in itself, it’s not only a start but the keystone in creating your online persona.

Your Web site will be a resource for your readers and the media that’s available at any time. Through it you’ll be able to showcase your work and the writing services you have to offer. Sounds great, huh? Unfortunately, too great.

As you use the Internet each day, you come upon and use a variety of Web sites, all with slick layout and striking images. So naturally when you imagine a Web site for yourself, you visualize one like those you see every day. What you don’t realize is that many of the sites on the Web have been designed by professional Web designers. Normally, sites like these can cost a $1,500 or much more to create, depending on the site’s complexity.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a site that reflects your style and shows off your writing to your advantage. Since you probably don’t have a lot of money to spend on your site, you have two options—using one of the free Web site services or building your site yourself.

Before you can think about building a Web site, you’ll need to purchase a domain name, the Web address of your site. What you choose for your domain name is important, as it will guide visitors to your site. As a writer whose name is associated with your product, it’s important that it contain your name. Also, you should purchase a .com address since that’s the most common and the one that most visitors will search for. However, if the .com version of your URL is already taken, you might consider adding the word “writer” after your name. As with Email addresses, any little change, even a number, will enable you to purchase the .com URL. Avoid buying the .net and .org extensions of your URL. Sellers tell you that if you don’t, someone could use your name and take away potential visitors from your site. Since your URL features your name, that’s unlikely, unless if very common.

Your domain name should cost no more than $20 a year. It’s registered with ICANN, the international organization that controls Web addresses. Once you purchase it, no one else can use it. You will have to renew it every year or for multiple years, but if you purchase it along with hosting services, you’ll usually get it for a substantial discount.

After purchasing a domain name, you’ll need to find a host for your site. is one of the largest and most dependable Web hosts. Don’t let the name fool you. The company offers all sorts of Web products and provides excellent service, as well as guaranteed uptime. An economy Windows-based site with 10 GB of space (more than you’ll ever need) costs about $7 a month. And the company periodically offers generous discounts.

If you’re not yet published, then you should consider one of the free hosting plans available on the Web. These free sites use shared URLs, so you won’t be able to use your own domain name. Instead, your name will become part of the host’s domain name. However, a free site will give you the opportunity to try out your Web content.  Unfortunately, all free Web services aren’t created equal. All use templates to create pages, but not all make it easy to transition to a paid site when you’re ready.

One of the most popular free services is Blogger, run by Google. Another is WordPress. Both were developed to service bloggers. Every single screen on the Internet is a Web page. An entire site is also referred to as a Web page. It’s a bit confusing. So if you start out doing a blog, you could potentially turn it into a site. GoDaddy includes WordPress as a product within its hosting package, so all you’d have to do is transfer the hosting to GoDaddy from the WordPress site. Blogger, on the other hand, cannot be transferred. Also, with free site services, you won’t be able to access Web site traffic statistics in order to see what’s working or not on your site.

However, don’t think because you have a free hosted site that no one will find you. If you promote your URL enough—even a shared one—they will. In the case of Web sites, patience is definitely a virtue.

The other option is to create your site from scratch without templates. While there are Web design programs available, all demand at least a basic level of computer expertise to fully customize your site—to decide fonts, colors, and layout. Customizing your site is critical for your long-term career planning. That leaves you in a catch-22 situation.

A compromise would be to sign up for GoDaddy’s “Web Site Tonight” package. You’ll pay a hosting fee, but you’ll also get templates to use to build your site. The service is limiting, however, and cannot be transferred to a regular hosting package. You’d have to begin all over again without the templates. But you may be able to create a business-like site if you use the templates and such wisely. Don’t kid yourself. It will never look like the slick sites you use every day.

Next Week: Designing Your Web Site


Friday, December 11, 2015

Writing in the Fast Lane

Speeding up your writing doesn’t mean you should write faster but instead quicken the pace. Your readers will thank you for it.

Your writing most likely has a slower pace—the speed at which a reader reads it—than it probably should. This is the result of what you learned in school. Traditionally, most academics believe that the longer you make your sentences, the more intelligent you seem. That’s why the majority of textbooks are such slow reads.

Ernest Hemingway learned this same writing style when he was in school, but when he began to write professionally, he realized that it slowed down his writing. Throughout his career Hemingway experimented with style and, like any professional writer, constantly learned new techniques. This style persisted in most of his writing and changed the way many writers work today.

At the core of Hemingway’s style were short sentences. And while he’s known for simplified, direct prose, most writers don’t know that he worked hard for these effects and that he had a reason for using them—clarity. When he wrote for newspapers, clarity was his objective. Even today, newspapers continue to use a clear, direct style. USA Today took this style to a new level by producing tight, clear text that could be read in a much shorter time, most often with a person’s morning coffee.

Hemingway wrote sentences that were straightforward and clear so that his readers could understand the points he made even if they were skimming quickly through his articles. You, too, can achieve a similar clarity by writing shorter, more direct sentences. This is especially helpful to keep in mind when rewriting your work. Don’t hesitate to break up long complex thoughts into bite-size morsels for added readability. But clarity wasn’t the only reason for Hemingway’s brevity.

Another reason too use shorter sentences is for dramatic effect.  In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” when the lead character is nearing death because of a gangrenous leg, Hemingway writes: “All right. Now he would not care for death. One thing he had always dreaded was the pain.” Here the short sentences have a cumulative effect, pounding home the idea that the hero is nearing death. Try to achieve a similar effect in your writing by stringing together a series of short sentences when you want to stress a point or add dramatic punch to your prose.

Still another use for short sentences is to add variety and music to your writing. Hemingway often mixed longer and shorter sentences for a more rhythmic effect. In The Old Man and the Sea, he told his readers the thoughts of the old fisherman: “Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed? he thought.” The first sentence contains two conflicting thoughts: the old man’s sorrow for the fish and, in contrast with this, his continued determination to kill it. The next sentence suggests the old man’s motivation for fishing, namely to get food. The change in sentence length lends a musical quality to the writing and adds pleasing variety.

So how else did Hemingway speed up his sentences? First, he chose shorter words  and second, he often omitted commas.

Although Hemingway used commas in his writing, he often achieved his greatest technical innovations by omitting them in compound sentences. A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses. The clauses are usually joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet. By far the most common coordinating conjunction is and.

An example from The Sun Also Rises. The narrator is hoping to see the bulls run at Pamplona, Spain. Joining a crowd of spectators he rushes ahead with them to the bullring. At this point Hemingway speeds up the pace: “I heard the rocket and I knew I could not get into the ring in time to see the bulls come in, so I shoved through the crowd to the fence.” The absence of a comma before the word and increases the tempo, conveying some of the feeling of being in the crowd.

But omitting commas can sometimes make sentences confusing, so you don’t want to overuse this technique. But when you come to a section of your story where the action needs to move at a quicker pace, you may wish to try Hemingway’s trick of speeding up your sentences. Follow these tips and you’ll be writing in the fast lane.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Learn Something New

All writers tend to get stale over time. Most are rule-followers. They’re the ones who turned in their homework on time in school, played clarinet in the marching band, didn’t have premarital sex. As adults, most writers play it safe. They drive defensively, wear sunscreen, eat right, and consult experts before making big decisions. For the most part, they don’t take risks.

The primary goal of any writer is to produce work that resounds with authenticity. We must create detailed non-fiction that holds our readers and exciting fiction that leaves them spellbound. And taking the safe path won’t always cut it. Comfort zones hold writers back both in life and in their work.

Ernest Hemingway definitely took chances. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in World War I, recovered and skied the Alps, hunted lions on foot in Africa, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, and fought fish as big as him in the Caribbean.

British writer Rebecca West took to the streets of London to advocate for women’s suffrage, probed the guts of Yugoslavia to write her nonfiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, covered the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, and risked arrest while exploring the slums and prisons of Johannesburg to report on apartheid.

Both used their experiences to prime their creativity. They actively sought to learn new things, not only to keep their writing fresh but to make them better and more interesting persons. To keep from getting stale, you need to learn something new.

Though a glancing acquaintance with something is often all you need to extrapolate accurately when writing fiction, most fiction writers today do extensive research to make their locations and their characters come alive. It goes without saying that non-fiction writers, to get what they need for their articles and books, need to do detailed research. Sometimes, they even have to learn all about a subject before they can write intelligently about it.

There are lots of ways to learn—and not all of them involve school. The idea that taking a class is the only way to learn comes from years of schooling. But the whole world is a classroom, and today, writers can go anywhere by searching the Internet.

But let’s start with the obvious. You may want to take a class to improve your writing skills. Professional dancers continuously take classes to improve their skills. Most writers don’t. If you write non-fiction, what about taking a class in short-story writing to learn how to write in scenes and add new dynamics to your work. If you write fiction, why not take an article writing class. You may find being limited to the facts a challenge.

And how about taking a class to learn how to use your new digital camera effectively in your work. Digital isn’t at all like 35mm, no matter how much camera manufacturers and many professional photographers would like it to be so. The new technology opens up a whole world of visual possibilities.

You can also learn a foreign language or learn to search your family’s history in a genealogy course. And while you can learn the basics of any subject in a class, it’s not a means of intense study. Only you can provide that.

Travel is a great way to learn about other cultures. By observing other cultures first hand, you’ll develop a better understanding of how everyone fits together on this planet. But it may also offer the opportunity to develop a new specialty or a chance to expand on a subject you currently write about. You don’t have to go to the extremes that Hemingway did, but you should learn to see other cultures in depth. Avoid traveling with a tour. Instead, go alone or with a friend or spouse. Focus on one culture—don’t hop from country to country, culture to culture. Experience unusual things while there. Go off the beaten path.

If you can’t afford to travel much, take advantage of Google Earth Street View. With it, you can plunk yourself down just about anywhere to get the feel of a place. Perhaps you want to create a walking tour of an historic district, but it’s been a while since you’ve been there. Google Earth has probably been there much sooner. Viewing your route with it will jog your dusty memories and give new life to your writing.

Lastly, learn from experience. You experience new things every day. Some of them are so small that you don’t pay much attention to them. But everyone has some major experiences. Learn from them by viewing and analyzing them as a writer. Learn first, then put what you’ve learned into words.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Humbug Redux

Black Friday is upon us once again. When I first began writing this blog six years ago, one of my first posts concerned Black Friday. You might ask what Black Friday has to do with writing. Well, not a whole lot, but, then again, it could generate some interesting stories and articles.

As I prepare to give thanks for all the good things and the few true friends I have, I’m planning on what I’ll do the day after Thanksgiving. That particular day is now almost a national holiday, albeit without the blessing of Congress. Over the last six years, retailers have ramped up their sales and promotions for this one day when it seems like everyone goes shopping. But not everyone, for I have never given in to temptation. And I'm not any richer or poorer for it.

You see, I choose to stay home, avoid the crowds, and wait until a calmer time, say the day before Christmas, to do my shopping. Seriously, I shop for Christmas all year round. Why wait for the bargains on Black Friday? The stores all have them at other times. It's just that they have everyone trained to think that if they shop on the day after Thanksgiving, that something magical will happen to their pocketbook.

Today, I don’t even have to go out of my house to do my Christmas shopping. Last year, I did almost all of it online in the quiet of my home while sipping a piping hot cup of coffee. And for those of us who do use the Internet as our virtual shopping mall, Black Friday isn’t even that important. For us, Cyber Monday is the big day.

So what does this all have to do with you, the poor freelance writer? You, like me, probably can’t afford a whole lot of gifts anyway. With all the hoopla what has accompanied Black Friday in recent years—there’s always the controversy of if and when stores should open on Thanksgiving. Now let’s see, which one will open the earliest? On the local T.V. news last night, the consumer reporter presented listeners with the schedule of store openings. With all that’s happening in the world right now, how important is that?

Unlike in previous years, no store seems to be staying open all night. In fact, one group of stores promoted the idea of staying closed on Thanksgiving just so their employees could spend time with their families. Sounds great, but I’m sure that wasn’t the reason. In fact, that promotion got them more coverage than that of all the other stores combined.

Black Friday presents lots of ideas for writers, the most important of which is greed. Competition, between stores and between shoppers, is another one that offers lots of possibilities. And for those who write articles, why not find out how this whole blasted thing got started or how important is it to each store’s bottom line.

Look at Scrooge, Charles Dickens' lovable character in his story "A Christmas Carol." I think everyone shops like crazy because they don't want to be called a "Scrooge." But really that old guy was just depressed because the days got shorter and the London streets were dark, dingy, and smelly in Dickens' day. No wonder Scrooge wasn't all excited about Christmas. But through his story, Dickens does leave us with a strong message. It's not what you give, but how you give it. Remember that the next time you whip out your credit card.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

If at First You Don't Succeed

For most writers, writing a first draft of an article, short story, or book is still a lot better than going to the dentist. For some, cleaning the bathroom or folding the laundry is a lot less stressful. With a first draft you'll start from nothing and creating something, but not the finished product.

Before writing the first draft of any piece of writing, it pays to block out your idea. It makes writing an article or short story a lot simpler. But just because you block out the structure of your piece of writing, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to it religiously. Blocking helps you to think through some questions before you begin writing. If you’re writing fiction, the story, itself, can take an unexpected turn. That can change everything. Sometimes, it’s a dead end, and you’ll have your blocking to fall back on.

Think of your first draft as the clay, not the sculpture. You start out with a hunk of clay that you mold over and over. Much of it will be messy and unrefined. But don’t worry about that now. Your job is simply to get from the beginning to the end. Put down everything that comes into your head. Don’t worry about grammar. You’ll be able to correct any problems later. For now, get everything out.

Remember, no one but you should read your first draft.  Don’t show your first draft to anyone. Asking someone else to read it would be pointless and embarrassing. If you don’t know what your first draft needs, then by all means, ask for help. But just because you don’t show your first draft to anyone else doesn’t mean you can’t discuss your idea with a close friend or colleague if need be. Doing so might give you a different take on your subject.

Don’t stop to do research.  Depending on the type of writing you do, completing all your research before you start may be necessary, such as in writing an article. But if you’re writing a piece of fiction or even a book, it may be better to do some basic research—just enough to get you started—rather than doing all of it. Instead, you can insert words in uppercase letters in your first drafts to indicate where details need to be filled in later.

Set a deadline. It pays to set a deadline for your first draft. Otherwise you may be writing it for much longer than you planned. You really can't move on until you complete your first draft. And without anyone to prod you, you may not even get your first draft finished. Don’t start your next draft as soon as you finish your first one. Give it some time to rest. In the meantime, do some work on another project. When you come back to it, you’ll see the problems immediately.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dreams of an Indie Author

With the advent of digital book publishing, many beginning writers think that all they have to do is write a book and readers will rush to Amazon to buy it. Today’s indie (independent) authors have realized the sad fact that books don’t sell themselves.

Even when writers relied on print book publishers to get their books to market, the percentage of those who earned enough from royalties to make a living at book writing was relatively low. True, though royalty percentages have increased from lows of 8-10 percent of a book’s price—sometimes the net price (the amount paid by wholesalers)— to 50 percent for ebooks, the chances that they would have earned their advances were slim. While bestselling authors can make a killing—for example the author of the Harry Potter books—most only scrape by.

When writers had books published by big-name publishers, they assumed that their publisher would help promote their books. In recent years, publishers promoted most books less and less, leaving that up to the authors. Indie authors, on the other hand, must not only write their books, but promote them as well. Some spend twice as much time on promoting their books as they did writing them.

Before getting depressed and deciding not to write that book you’ve been planning, let’s take a moment to look at what you need to do to make it a success.

Write for  your readers, not yourself. While you may be writing a book on a subject that’s near and dear to you, chances are that it won’t be near and dear to your readers. Beginning writers often ignore that the reader’s interest is the most important part of the writing process. Whatever you write about, you must relate it to your readers in order for them to react to and enjoy it.

If you’re writing a memoir, don’t assume your story is of any interest to anyone but yourself, your family and your friends. Unless you are an A-list celebrity or have done something truly extraordinary that makes a stranger’s jaw drop, readers won’t buy your book.

Be sure to have someone else edit your book. Editing a book is an important part of the process, but it’s not something you can or should do. An editor sees your book with fresh eyes, not only to pinpoint grammatical problems but also problems with content and order. Find a someone who edits books rather then giving it to a friend to look over.

Start promoting on social media at least six months before you plan to launch your book. You’ll need to spend several hours each day on social media interacting with fans, building rapport by providing interesting content. Tease them with short excerpts and little-known facts about your subject. Above all, learn all you can about marketing and promotion.

Avoid writing about trending subjects. While it’s great to write about a subject that’s trending on social media, by the time you actually get your book finished, it probably won’t be trending anymore.

Don’t plan on earning a living from indie writing anytime soon. Print publishers are paying out shrinking advances, and many are only purchasing one book a year from each writer. Agents take 15 percent of that and the IRS takes 20-30 percent. What you’re left with isn’t much. In fact, indie writers without some additional sources of income will find making a living a challenge.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Structure Your E-mail Messages for Maximum Impact

Today, Email is an essential part of doing business. People use it to communicate daily. Some organizations have policies in place that treat E-mail as a business asset, not a personal asset. Thus, from a legal perspective, E-mail is admissible in court. Therefore, it should be given the same attention as traditional forms of correspondence. Let’s face it, for many business people Email has replaced traditional correspondence.

As a writer, it’s important for you to treat all your outgoing messages as if you're writing professional correspondence. Everyone judges you on how you write to them. They expect you, as a professional writer, to uphold the standards of grammar and sentence structure, no matter what the subject of the message.

And when you’re writing to a client or editor, it’s even more important. In most cases, the only way editors get an impression of you is through your Email messages.

Previously, freelance writers sent queries and text by regular mail, then sat back and waited for a reply. Today, using Email, replies come a lot faster. And while an editor may take a few days to reply to a query, it beats waiting weeks or even months for it. However, there are a few editors out there that still cling to the old ways. One editor of an online magazine insisted writers still send quieries and manuscripts by regular mail.

Follow these tips to make your Email messages communicate clearly:

    1. Address one topic per E-mail message.
        Many people reply to E-mail as they read it, so it’s easier to respond if you discuss only one topic per message. If you introduce several topics, they may postpone responding until they can address all the topics covered.
    2. Write an informative subject line.
        Phrase the subject line so that it tells the reader what to do in addition to what the message is about. A subject line may read "Send a copy of your  latest issue." A precise subject line can prompt a reader to read your message before others.
    3. Avoid long messages.
        Organize your message so that the most important information fits on the first screen. Try to avoid having the receiver scroll to read the remainder of the message.

    4. Make it easy for your reader to respond.
        Word your message so that the reader can get back to you with a "yes/no" answer or a short response. Where possible, use questions instead of statements. Instead of saying, "Let me know your thoughts on my article," ask "Are you going to publish my article?"
    5. Include the context of a message in your reply.
        Even if you read a message and respond to it quickly, your colleague may not read your response immediately. The topic may no longer be fresh in his or her mind. The "reply" feature on most e-mail systems allows you to reply to a message and attach the original document. OR, if it’s a longer message, copy section at a time and include your answer directly below it.
    6. Change the subject line to reflect a new topic when sending a new message from an old one. 
        Your Email program will automatically include “RE:” in the subject line of your reply. Should you click on a person’s previous message to send a new message, be sure to change the subject line to reflect the new topic. There’s nothing worse than going round and round with multiple “RE:’s” from previous messages. Changing the subject line to reflect a new subject also will help you and your receiver to catalog your messages.

    7. Don’t forget to follow-up if you receive no reply.
        Sometimes E-mail does get lost or dumped into an anti-spam folder and deleted. Allow a reasonable time to pass–hours or days–then send a second message, including a copy of the first message (forward your first message and add a brief note before the message. This is particularly important with time-sensitive material.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Communications for the 21st Century

Times have changed. Technology has changed. Communication has changed. And that means a lot to a writer since communication is the focus of any writing business. However, even though writers write to communicate with their readers, some find it hard to know which form of communication to use when communicating with their editors and clients.

For years, the only forms of communication were the telephone and the letter. Both worked well but they had their limitations. Then came fax, which allowed you to send documents and contracts over phone lines.  Businesses embraced fax as a way to send documents instantly.

When Email first appeared along with the Internet, it was basic—used for short messages between researchers. Students embraced Email as a way to exchange cryptic messages. They thought it cool to be able to communicate with one another in a language on they understood. But this wasn’t the way to communicate as a business owner.

Phone communication, while still a talking medium, has now become a text messaging medium. And while you can use this for personal communication with friends and family, you shouldn’t use text messaging for business communications. Cell phones now give you the ability to call anyone from anywhere. They also enable people to call you any time, anywhere. With cell phones dawned the era of instant communication. So how do you take control of phone communications.

Remember, you don’t have to answer the phone just because it rings—no matter how tempting. Voice mail, caller ID, and answering machines allow you to take control of your incoming calls.  In just about any business, Mondays are the busiest days for incoming calls.

Prospective clients shopping for services may choose whomever they reach on the phone, so you might miss an opportunity by not calling back. That thought is brought about by the convenience of a cell phone. You carry your cell phone on your person—it’s instantaneous. And while you may have the urge to answer every call, doing so will seriously eat into your writing productivity.

Also, answering every call no matter where you are at the time will seriously interrupt your life, as well as put you in potential danger if you do it while driving your vehicle.

When you talk to new callers, be sure to get their direct-dial number so you can save time going through the whole series of numbers for different departments—press one for this, press two for that—if you have to call them back.

Your outgoing message on your voice mail or answering machine should be your calling card to everyone who calls you. Make a good impression and elicit important information from your callers with a “power message.” This is a message you script, rehearse, and deliver with enthusiasm. Type up all the messages you use and keep them in a folder in your computer, then they’ll be available whenever you need to record a new message.

Finally, call editors when it’s absolutely necessary. They’re busy people. If you don’t hear from an editor in a reasonable amount of time or if your situation has changed and you can’t get the job done by your deadline, then do call your editor. Don’t send an Email since your editor may not read it in time. Another trick is to call during the lunch hour when your editor may be out. This way you can leave a detailed message that he or she will get when they return but not take up their valuable time.

Next Week: I’ll be taking a look at Email and electronic communications and how they fit into today’s business communications.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What Does It Take to Create an Efficient Writer’s Office?

When you decided to become a writer, you probably didn’t think of what you’d need beyond your computer. But it takes more than a computer to make a writer. In fact, while your computer may be the heart of your writer’s office, it’s only one small part.

As anyone who works from home will tell you, there are some serious benefits. You can't beat the commute or the flexibility you have when it comes to structuring your day. But there are also drawbacks. Creating a makeshift office at the kitchen table could mean important documents end up with a coffee ring or worse, go missing.

Working full-time from home means that you’ll be in your office for long periods of time. It shouldn’t be a make-do situation. Thoughtful room design can make all the difference. From task lighting to functional storage, here are a few pointers for setting up an effective home office:

Lighting: Ensure you have both general and task lighting to prevent eyestrain. Ideally, office lighting should illuminate your work space without adding glare to your computer screen.

Ergonomics: Arrange your desk, chair and the computer screen so you're sitting in a neutral position while typing. Avoid any positions that require twisting or leaning forward, as both put a strain on your back. A good adjustable chair is a must. And that adjustment should be more than just up and down.

Cable Management:
Computers are great but they and their peripherals require connecting cables—lots of them. Keeping them organized can be a challenge.  Keep control of cables with color-coded ties and clips. Identify each of them by taking an ordinary mailing label and folding it in half over the cable, then printing on it which device the cable connects to your computer. Don't forget to include a charging station for all of your electronic devices. Charging stations with multiple USB sockets are available online. Of course, you can always buy new wireless devices if you're on a broadband Internet network.

Since you’re going to be spending a lot of your time in your writing space, you’ll want to make sure it looks good. Don’t just put your computer in an existing room, but design the space to make it pleasant in which to work.  Consider the view from your office window. If you don't have the luxury of overlooking a beautiful outdoor space, add decorative touches indoors.

Storage: Integrate functional storage into your office space. Plan for future storage, for if you’re in business for quite a while, you’ll need it. If space is at a premium, go vertical, adding storage boxes and file holders to shelves. Today, you have a wide variety of storage containers and units to choose from. But think out your storage first and don’t succumb to building your office like topsy.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Passing Work Along

Most writers don’t even think of passing work along when they get swamped. But it’s good business to do just that. Instead of saying “No” as noted in last week’s blog, it might be a good idea to consider farming out some tasks. But which ones?

Obviously, you want to do all the writing. That’s only natural. But there are other more mundane jobs that could be done by someone else. Passing a task along to someone else in a more appropriate position to do it can maximize the value of your time—and help you make more money in the long run.

As the owner of a one-person business, you have only so many hours in a day to get things done, and that includes your writing and other household chores. So let’s begin with business tasks.

Whether an expert who knows something you don't, somebody under you whose time costs less, or a colleague with time to spare when you're in a crunch, delegating to the right person can be more efficient all around than taking on every task that crosses your path. To delegate work is not to dump, instead, it’s a way to assign a task in a clear, productive way.

Other tasks that could be delegated to someone else include doing background research, typing final drafts on another computer, taking photographs to accompany articles, sorting mail, and filing. The person you assign to take photos must be adept enough at photography to provide good results. However, the other tasks can be done by high school or college students looking to earn some extra money or seniors who are looking for something to do.

Either way, you need to pay these people. “Won’t that cut into my bottom line?” you ask. Yes and no. Paying them minimum wage to take care of these extra tasks will enable you more time to work on writing and thus to write more, increasing your income. Calculate what your time is worth and compare it to the cost of hiring out. It’s just good business.

So when is the right time to pass a job along? Usually, it’s when you face routine, technical, or short tasks or those you don't have time for.

An expert, such as a professional photographer, can often do specialized jobs better. And though they charge more, they can do the job faster and better than you can, saving you both money and time.

Tell the person who will be doing the task exactly what you want done. But unless you're teaching a brand-new skill, don't dictate how to do the job, itself. People learn more and are better motivated when they can figure things out for themselves. Communication is very important when you're delegating. And be sure to ask if the person understands what they are to do.

Tell the person exactly how much authority you're granting. In other words, how much they can do in your name. Is there a dollar limit to the job? A decision point at which you must be consulted? Defining authority helps the person perform the task within the bounds you consider appropriate.

Lastly, you have deadlines, and so should any person doing tasks for you. Set a deadline for any job you farm out and find out if the person can do the job within that time before they begin. What they’ll be doing for you may also affect your deadline, as in the case of outsourced photography. If you have a deadline on your end, make sure their due date is earlier in case they need extra time or you need to correct something.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Just Say No

After beating procrastination, you may have another challenge to getting writing done.
One of the biggest reasons work doesn't get done is that there may simply be too much to do. However, this rarely happens to a beginning writer. But one who’s been in the writing biz for a while can easily be overwhelmed.

Sometimes the biggest favor you can do for everyone involved is to just say "No." When the war on drugs, the Government adopted the phrase “Just say no.” But that can be a terribly hard thing to do, especially if you’re a freelance writer who lives from one project to the next. Saying no just may mean tearing up your meal ticket.

To get control of this situation, take these four steps:       

    ●    Know what's being asked of you and why. Determine if you’re in a position to handle a job. Do you have the expertise? And more importantly, do you have the time? If the answer to both questions is yes, then you understand the request and how it affects you.

    ●    Refuse the request—say "No." Sure, saying "No" is easier said than done, but just start with an "n" sound, and then put your mouth in the shape of an "o" and say "No, I'm sorry, I can't do it."

    ●    Follow your refusal with logical reasons. Simply and clearly state the reasons that you can't do the project. "No, I'm sorry. I can't do it because I have three other commitments." Some editors will take your “No” as a bargaining tactic and up the ante. But stick to your guns. If you accept higher pay but have to rush to get the job done and make mistakes, then you may put the relationship you have with that editor at risk.

    ●    If you can’t do the job, suggest some alternatives. If you understand the what and why behind the request, suggesting another way or another writer who may be able to do it is easier. "No. I'm sorry. I can't. but so and so knows just as much about that subject as I do and he may be able to do the job."

It’s important to keep the solid relationships you have with editors rather than risk losing them because you end up doing a bad job on a project Learning to say “No” will bolster your professionalism and encourage editors to call you when they have another project.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Procrastination—An Evil Lurking

To make any headway in writing, you have to get started, and often starting is the toughest part of the job. For many writers, perhaps you, procrastination is a force to be reckoned with. It can slow down or stall even the most creative of writers. Procrastination can be a deep psychological situation involving fear of failure or success, or a natural result of overload. Sometimes you simply don't know where to start.

In order to fight this monster, you must first know what it is. Procrastination refers to the act of replacing high-priority tasks with those of lower priority, especially if the lower priority ones provide enjoyment. Writing can be stressful at times—let’s face it, lots of times. Deadlines can loom overhead like giant alien spaceships. Generally, those lower priority tasks are things that you can do later or perhaps not at all.

Just because you procrastinate doesn’t mean that you don’t have the motivation or willpower to complete a writing project. Perhaps the project is too big or maybe your skills aren’t developed enough to handle it. While you may be motivated to write a particular book, for example, you may not have the resources or knowledge to do so. This leads to putting it off as long as possible. Simply trying harder won’t do it. You must understand what triggered you to procrastinate in the first place.

One of the most common triggers for writers is the fear of rejection. Every writer, from novice to experienced professional harbors this fear at some time or another. Too prevent the fear of rejection from overwhelming you, the best thing to do is have several projects going at once. If one fails, you’ve got the others as backup. And who knows, the rejection of one you had hopes for may cause you to put more effort into another which may go on to be a bestseller. Let’s face it. Not all writing projects are meant to be successful.

When battling procrastination, consider whether you tend to do better when working with other people or relying on yourself. Then choose your technique.

There are four ways that you can call on other people to help you do what you ought to be doing.

First, tell someone what you're going to do and by when. Accountability is built into an office work environment when you work for someone else, but when you work for yourself, you don’t have anyone to remind you to get to work. Tell your spouse or your best friend what you’re planning to do and by when. Ask either to check on your progress.

Second, if you procrastinate because you don't like or know your task very well, simply swap jobs with someone. Perhaps you can ask a friend to do some research for you or maybe some accounting while you get on with your writing. If each person does what he or she does best, you’ll both win.

Third, collaborate with someone on a project. Working with someone else can help get the job started and done faster because you now have a shared commitment and two minds and pairs of hands. Writers often collaborate on a book with an expert or another writer, especially if it’s a particularly difficult subject.

As the sole owner of your writing business, you can do only so much. There are only so many hours in the day. Why not ask for help? Delegate tasks to a student intern seeking experience or pay someone to do clerical work for you like filing.

Other things that may cause you to procrastinate are distractions. Is your office cluttered with papers that need to be filed? Does your house need cleaning? Does your garden call out to you to be tended? All of these can keep you away from your work. To make sure you don’t spend all your time on them, schedule each for specific times during the week. By doing a little each day of any of your chores, you’ll not only get them done but get your writing done, too.

If you need or prefer to lean on yourself to beat procrastination, there are plenty of ways to do that.

You can jump right in. Kids do that when they’re swimming at a pool. Most just jump in. The faster you get to work, the faster you’ll get finished.

You can also take it one step at a time. Any project can be achieved the same way, one step at a time so take a small step and beat procrastination.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Go With the Flow

Now that you hopefully are on your way to a better organized work space, you need to take a moment to analyze how you spend your time in your writing space—and better yet how writing fits into your daily routine.

Whether you're driving your car to go pick up the kids from school or shooting a few hoops on an afternoon break, churning out an article or researching a book, the ability to get in the groove so that you're working with time instead of against it is the key to increasing your productivity. Psychologists call this transcendent marriage between time and the mind flow, and when you get flow. you're good to go.

But first you have to find your flow taking control of your time and eliminating the interruptions and time wasters that waste so much of it during your day. Be prepared for good news and bad. The bad news is that unless you're practicing good time management or are a very organized person—most people aren’t—you probably waste a lot of time. The good news is that once you find that time, you can reclaim it. The extra minutes and hours are a gift, something you shouldn’t squander.

Keep track of everything you do in an average work day. Jot down each activity. Then take a red pen and circle anything that was, in light of your values and goals. a waste of time, even a phone call to a friend. How can you get these time wasters out of your day? Or at least take better control of them. For instance, you could talk to your friend after dinner.

Most people spend their time on things according to their priorities. How about you? Does anything stand out? Too much time texting on your smartphone? Too little time for yourself or with your family or friends or on your current writing project?

And don’t forget procrastination (We’ll take a look at that next week.) How much time did you spend procrastinating? How many interruptions did you have? What kind? Who were they with? Are there things you shouldn't have been doing because the activities could have been delegated or you simply should have simply said, "No"?

If you spend much of your time complaining about not having enough time to get things done, then perhaps you’re not doing those last two things—delegating and just saying no. By the way, that phrase just doesn’t have to do with drugs.

Look to see if you can bundle certain activities together? With the high price of gas, many people are grouping their errands by location so as not to be running all over the place. Try consolidating some tasks. Is it possible to get all your paperwork out of the way at once? Can you set aside a morning to take care of marketing calls and Emails?

And speaking of Email, how many times a day do you check it? For the average person, looking over and replying to their mail can take up to an hour each time. If you check your mail four times a day, that’s four hours you’re spending reading and corresponding. And if you’re constantly checking messages on your smartphone, who knows how much time you spend on your mail.

To find out how you actually spend your time, you’ll need to keep a Time Log—a record of all the time you spend on every little thing, from the moment you rise in the morning until you put your head down on the pillow at night. A Time Log is a powerful tool for discovering how you allocate the minutes and hours of your life. Sounds tedious, but once you do it, you’ll be able to take better control of your time.

To start your Time Log, take a sheet of ruled paper. In the left-hand margin, note the time you change activities, and on the line to the right list exactly what you're doing: getting ready for work or bed, projects or paperwork, making calls, talking to visitors, attending meetings, reading mail, making or eating meals, walking the dog, watching TV, and so on. Also note who else may have been involved so you can later determine how relevant each activity was to your goals and who tends to take up your time the most.

If your more computer savvy, you can create a spreadsheet, making each row on the sheet represent a 15-minute time block. Many people find this easier because the blocks remind them to log what they were doing. Accounting for time accurately on the computer spreadsheet can be harder, however, because not all activities neatly fall into 15-minute blocks. Whether you log an entire week including a weekend is up to you.

And, yes, keeping a Time Log, even for a couple weeks is a hassle, but it’s a hassle worth considering.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reclaiming Your Desk

As a writer, the center of your world is your desk. For some, perhaps you, that center is often hidden by a mountain of stuff—yes, stuff. Papers to file, mail to open and read, notes, books, pens, rulers, and a myriad of “personal” items that have moved in and homesteaded on your valuable desk property.

Can you see the surface of your desk? Or are you totally overwhelmed and need a miniature snow plow to clear it? Chances are that sometimes, perhaps most of the time, this is true for many writers.

So how do you reclaim this valuable space? As with the acronym P-L-AC-E that we discussed in this blog last week, there’s another one just as effectual—R-E-M-O-V-E—Reduce distractions, Everyday use, Move to the preferred side, Organize together, View your time, and Empty the center.

Let’s start with removing distractions. While it’s nice to have a couple of photos and favorite little items on your desk, they take up valuable space and distract you. A photo of a loved one may motivate you, so we’ll give you that, but too many other photos and what not will certainly distract you from your writing. So remove from your desk anything that isn’t directly related to your writing. Put those items on a shelf or some other place in your office.

Only put items you use every day on top of your desk. Everything else should go into drawers or cabinets underneath it. There’s no need to have a mug full of pens at your disposal. You’ll only use one at a time anyway. And while a few extra ones, especially with different colored inks are good to have, keep them in your top desk drawer for easy access. The same goes for notepads, paperclips, rubber bands,etc.

Everyone is either right or left-handed. And while some may be ambidextrous, they’re in the minority. Arrange the items on your desk to complement the hand you use. Move everything to the preferred side. Place pens, pencils, and pads where you reach for them most. Most writers don’t even consider this when setting up their desk. Rearranging everything to suit your most used hand will make working easier.

And just as you did in the general organization of your office, organize like items together. Grouping helps to establish centers so that you can easily find what you need.

Make sure you place a clock on your desk so that you can easily view your time. And be sure to make it big enough to easily see it at a glance. Don’t depend on looking at the tiny numbers on your computer’s task bar to find the time. Always keep time in view so that you can budget it better.

Keep the center of your desk clear by emptying it each time you finish a project. Clear space in the center of your desk so that you can work on the project at hand.

Finally, aggressively attack your mail, both regular and Email. Provide an inbox for incoming mail and one for outgoing mail. Designate specific times during the day to read your Email and turn off Email notifications on your computer and on your smartphone. They can distract you more than anything.

With these tips in mind, plan on reorganizing your desk space so that it’s an efficient and pleasant place at which you can work. You’ll soon discover that your productivity will soar.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Put Everything in Its P-L-A-C-E - Part 3

In the first two installments of discussing how to organize your office, we looked at organizing your files and books, but if you’ve been working in your office for a longer time, it may be time to take aggressive action against clutter. To clear it of clutter and organize items for easy access and appearance, you’ll need to use the P-L-A-C-E process.

You can start decluttering your office by using the five steps in P-LA-C-E—Purge, Like-with-Like, Access, Contain, and Evaluate.

Purge: First, clear your space of clutter by dumping, donating, or distributing everything you no longer need. Whether you toss the dried-up pens in your desk drawer, clean out old files, toss away outdated research, or donate the books you no longer need, purging can ernpower all your organizing efforts. And you’ll see immediate results. As you get rid of those things that have built up over the years you’ve been in business, you’ll uncover additional storage space that will help to get your office organized.

Like-with-Like: The second step in putting things into place is to organize like things together. It’s amazing how many different places you’ve been storing paper for printing or office supplies like pens and such. The latter seem to grow like Topsy with a mugful here and a small box there.  Not only does grouping help you know where to look, whether you're searching for a file or a pen that works, but placing similar items together also often creates “centers,” one-stop spots with everything you need to complete a task.

Access: Once you have things grouped, placement for easy access is your next priority. Where do you usually use these items? Put them there. Place all items used daily on, in, or near your desk so that you don’t have to go hunting for them. For example, store printing paper next to, above, or under your printer. Perhaps build a small shelf on which to sit your printer, underneath which you can pile several stackable, plastic desk organizers in which to place your printing paper. Allow a separate organizer for each type of paper.  Place file cabinets with recent files close to your desk. You might even want to consider building a new desk area using file cabinets with a hollow-core door placed on top. It’s much cheaper and more efficient than the office furniture sold in office supply stores.

Contain: Containers do double duty from an organizing perspective—they keep like things together, and move things out of sight to clear the landscape and your mind. You can contain things on shelves, in drawers, with bookends or magazine holders, in hanging files, or in baskets, boxes, or closed containers in a variety of materials, shapes, and sizes. Contain within containers by adding dividers to drawers. The more you contain, the better you’ll feel. Don’t opt for expensive containers sold in office supply stores. Instead, check out your local dollar or discount stores. You’ll be amazed at what you can find for a dollar. You might also consider making your own specialized containers from assorted boxes.  Cut on a diagonal, some boxes can work well as magazine holders, and you’ll get two from every box.

Evaluate: After you complete the first four steps of P-L-A-C-E, you’ll need to evaluate your results. Did everything work as planned? Organization is an ongoing process, and organizing can often be improved upon as your needs change or you sharpen your skills. When you evaluate and adjust over time, your organization systems become self-maintaining. A good time to assess your organization is when you change direction or start a new line of writing. Writing books, for example, demands a different type of organization than writing articles or short stories. For one thing, you’ll need more storage for all your notes and drafts. What would have been contained in one manila folder for an article may take one or two or more file boxes for a book. 

Finally, schedule a yearly checkup to help you keep everything working at peak level and up-to-date with your current needs. You might plan this over the holidays in December or even on New Year’s Day.

Next week, we’ll attack your desk. It’s the place where you spend most of your time, so you’ll want to make it as efficient, attractive, and ergonomically comfortable as possible.

Friday, July 31, 2015

On Your Way to Getting Organized - Part 2

Getting organized is a great way to increase productivity. If you’ve created a plan and an Organizing To-Do List, it’s time to get started.

By this time, you should have already begun to assess your file situation. Organizing your files can be a big job, especially if you haven’t done that from the beginning. You’ll want to do a little at a time. Don’t try to completely reorganize your filing system in one fell swoop. It’s best to start by listing the major categories under which you’ll fill your work and notes. If you write fiction, you’ll probably only have two categories—short fiction and novels—plus any other genres you work with. In this system, you’ll want to create a separate subcategory for each book you write since books tend to accumulate a large volume of notes.

If you write non-fiction, then your filing system will be more complex since most non-fiction writers work in several subject categories. You’ll not only have the subject categories, but also article and book categories. And as with fiction, each book will become its own subcategory under books. You may also have research materials—notes, clippings, booklets, etc.—to file.
Creating a filing plan is essential.

Since you’ll be working on our files for some time, let’s turn to organizing your overall office space. As to where to start, you have two choices—begin with the space that will be the easiest to organize or start with the hardest and most frustrating, better known as the “hot spot.” If you choose the latter, you may find it tough going for a while, but once you figure out the solution to the “hot spot,” you’ll find it much easier to continue.

While it’s best to organize things right in your office, you may want to designate a recycling area in which you can immediately put anything that needs to be recycled. This includes paper and cardboard, magazines, old books, plastic and glass, etc. Be sure to gather some sturdy boxes in which you can place these items so you won’t have to repack them later.

Before you begin organizing your office, you should gather containers in which to store like items. Check office supply stores, dollar stores, and discount stores for various types of containers. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, so you won’t have any problem finding just the ones you need. Look at the items you have now and figure out what types of containers you’ll need—trays, crates, baskets, drawers, etc. Match the container to the item that will be stored in it. Measure the item(s) and storage space first, then search for the container to fit that space.  Or start with the container, say plastic crates, and build shelves to hold them.

While filing cabinets may seem the logical way to store your files, you’ll never have enough filing cabinet space to hold all your files. Use filing cabinets for only your active files. All others can be stored in filing boxes in your attic or basement or another room.

As a writer, you’ll most likely have a collection of reference books, as well as books you’ve read or are planning to read. Book storage can take up a lot of space. Unlike non-writers who give away or trade books they’ve read as soon as they’re finished, you may want to hold on to more than a few as references or to read again for technique. The number of books to store adds up fast. You can never have too many bookshelves in your office. One small three-shelf unit won’t do. You’ll need floor-to-ceiling units with shelves of various heights to hold all the books in your collection. Plan these out carefully for the most efficiency.

And create a system to organize your books. The Dewey system works for libraries and a modified version can work well for your book collection. In any event, group your books by subject and in alphabetical order. And when you use a book, put it back in its original place. At some point, you may want to create database of your books—first, to help you know if you have a particular book and second, to make it easier to find it.

Next week, I’ll show you how to put everything in its P-L-A-C-E, an acronym for a five-step process to help you unclutter your office, the first step to true organization.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Organizing for Success

You’re in the midst of a project and you need some information that you know you have in a file from a previous article. But try as you might, you just can’t put your hands on that file. After an hour or more looking for it, you become frustrated and give up. By now, the motivation you had to continue writing has passed, so you do something else. Annoying as this situation may be, it’s an all-to-common occurrence among writers. If you were better organized, perhaps this wouldn’t happen.

Even in today’s seemingly paperless world, writers usually amass a huge volume of paper files and books. Most like to have information at their fingertips. And while you can easily search for anything on the Internet, there are some offline sources that you’ve gathered that you prefer to use.

So how can you organize your writing office for the most efficiency which will eventually lead to more writing jobs. Having information at hand means that you can complete jobs faster and in the end increase your income.

To get organized, it’s best to start out with a plan. Think like a journalist. The key is the five W’s—who, what , when, where, and why—plus how. Answer these concretely to know what to keep and what to discard.

Naturally, you’ll want to keep a file on each article and story your write and several, if not a whole file box full, for each book. All those files will take up valuable space. If you don’t allow for them in your overall plan for your office, then you will be undermined later on.

Photos of home offices in magazines and on the Internet show perhaps one or two filing cabinets. That’s just unrealistic. While they may contain frequently used files, all the rest of the files must be hidden. In fact, you should consider a second storage area in your home for your archived files. These are all the ones from finished writing projects. While you may be lucky to have a basement, attic, or garage in which to store them, others living in smaller spaces may have to resort to offsite self-storage, which over time can be expensive.
You need to get organized from the start to increase productivity, but it’s never too late to start. Don’t try to do it all at once. Organize one part of your office at a time----books, files, research notes, photos, etc.

Let’s begin with files, both computer and paper. Start by finding the right containers. Filing cabinets work for files used often while cardboard filing boxes, sold at office-supply stores, work well for archived files. In the beginning, you’ll probably combine subjects in one box, but later on, you’ll need to divide boxes up by subject. Keep your system logical to make it easy to find what you want. Alphabetizing always helps.

Do the same with your computer files. Don’t follow Window’s or MAC’s plan and put all your files in one folder. Think of the folders in your computer the same way you think of those in your filing cabinets and boxes. In fact, you may want to create dividers for your paper files that match the names of the folders in your computer that contain related files.

A good way to ensure that you don’t lose any of your work is put install a second hard drive—or  have someone else do it for you. Another alternative is to use an external hard drive that connects to our computer via a USB cable. Either way, your files will be safe if your computer crashes. Unless your second hard drive, dedicated to your data, fails, your files will be safe because when a computer crashes, it’s the main drive that does so.

Next week, we’ll look at continuing the process, but before then, create a plan of organization and make an Organizing To-Do List.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Boy, Have Times—and Technology—Changed

NOTE: Normally, I write this blog in the second person to connect directly with you, the writers who need help in getting started with your careers and those who need any tips they can get to prolong theirs. But this week I’m writing about a situation that I’m going through at the moment that has a lot to do with both my professional life and my office.

When I started out writing nearly 40 years ago (I’m not that ancient, really), I began in a world without computers, without email, without tablets, FIOS, and an Internet that has brought the world into my life. I didn’t realize just how different that all was and how it affected me until I discovered that I had a major structural problem with the floor of my office back in May and would need to deconstruct the last 30 years of my full-time career.

As writers, we’re so intent on moving forwards that we seldom look backwards. Even later in life, I don’t dwell on the past. But deconstructing my office bit by tiny bit has shown me just how much I’ve accomplished in the last 30 years.

Assembling my office began when I started freelancing fulltime. Until then, I worked in various rooms of wherever I happened to be living at the time. But even then I began accumulating informational materials, books, and files that would stay with me until now. Believe me, you don’t realize just how much you’ll accumulate as a writer until you have to go through it all.

I haven’t moved since I started freelancing fulltime. And while being in one place has its advantages, it also has its disadvantages. One project led to another and to another, each with its own set of notes, files, and reference books. When I began writing books in earnest, that all got bumped up a couple of notches.

The reason I’m telling you all this is to strongly advise you to review what you’re accumulating from time to time. While some of you may naturally do this and not save much, others, like me, save everything. And rightly so.

By saving notes and references, I’ve made thousands of extra dollars spinning off material from many projects. As a non-fiction writer, I often created new articles from parts of main ones and from sidebars. I’ve sold many a piece as a reprint, bringing in extra money for practically no work. And the wealth of material gathered in writing 15 books has given me information to spin off into any number of other projects.

One of the ways I chose to add to my income was by teaching adult evening classes and giving lectures. The material for over 75 courses and lectures came from my articles and books and from my knowledge of writing, specifically for my writing classes. But I also created courses based on my specialty of writing about antiques, for which I also wrote two books.

Another facet of my work has been in photography. From the beginning, I’ve always billed myself as a writer/photographer. For the most part, I’ve illustrated most of my articles and several of my books. This, in itself, created a whole other section of my office. Notebooks filled with negatives, boxes of slides, and a complete darkroom filled over half the space. With the advent of digital photography, I store my photos—over 30,000 digital images alone—in my computer. But I still have several thousand slides and negatives that are still useful and can be digitized.

My advice to you all, based on what I’m going through right now, is to plan ahead. Plan your office for efficiency and make an effort to review and cull through your files and other materials periodically to keep from getting overwhelmed later. I teach my students in my digital photography classes to start an organizational scheme right away before they accumulate so many images that they won’t be able to find what they’re looking for.

Even with the best planned file system, the shear volume of files can prevent you from using them as efficiently as possible.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss what you need to keep and what you can safely throw away. Since my office will be completely torn apart in August, I’ll do my best to post a blog or two, but I won’t be able to do one a week until most likely mid-September. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Efficient Note-Taking Tips

No matter how good your research skills are, they won’t do you any good if you don’t have an efficient note-taking system. Organizing all the information you collect is just as important as finding it. Without good organized notes, whatever you write will take twice as long.

While some writers still cling to the one-note-on-an-index-card system they learned in school, that’s not the most efficient way of organizing your information. First, it’s a technique that originated before the Digital Age. Today, there are far better ways of doing the same thing.

One of the simplest ways to take notes is to create a note file in your word processor. Into that, you can type in whatever notes are pertinent to the writing project you’ll use the notes for. At this stage, don’t worry about gathering notes in any particular order. Add them to your note file as you find them.

Let’s say your writing an article. At some point, you need to block it out. Blocking is a simple technique that lists the main parts of your piece. It’s not detailed like outlining. Try to stick to a half dozen or so sections for your article. Think of the phrase that you write for each section as its heading. Organize the sections in the order best suited for the article, beginning with the lead. Finally, number each section in order from the lead to the conclusion.  This should take about 10 minutes.

Once you’ve gathered all the notes for say an article, print out your note file. Read over your notes, underlining key passages. In the left-hand margin, jot down which section of your article that piece of information applies. After completing this sorting process, go back and place the section numbers to the left of each note. The numbers won’t be in order. But by following their chronological order, you can begin to write the first draft of your article. Depending on how many notes you have, this should only take 10-15 minutes.  If the subject of your article is pretty straight forward, you should be able to complete the first draft in 60-90 minutes. By allowing another 30-45 minutes for editing, you should be able to complete the finished article in about two hours, not counting your note-taking time.

There are lots of other ways to gather information. You could use a tiny digital recorder and take your notes orally, then transfer what your read into the recorder to a word-processor-ready file in your computer.

If you’re taking notes from written material, you can use a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking, to read selected bits of information into your word-processor directly. This program is extremely accurate and will cut down your note-taking time considerably.

Another option, especially if you don’t have the time at the moment to read through and select information is to use an OCR program like Omnipage Pro. In this case, you scan the pages you want to use and the program converts the printed text to workable word-processing text. Afterwards, when you have more time, you can either go through the text on screen or print it out and underline those parts you wish to select. You’ll then have to go back and using the side-by-side feature of your word processor, copy and paste the parts you selected to a separate note file.

Keep all the notes for each writing project in a separate file folder. Obviously, you’ll have many of them for a book project. In that case, create a folder for each chapter in which you may have several printed out note files.

Being a successful freelance writer demands that you work as efficiently as possible. After all, time is money. The less time you spend on note-taking, the more money you’ll make for each project.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tips for Effective Research

Research is an important part of most writing. The majority of writers don’t just pull ideas and facts out of their heads. While their writing may appear smooth, logical, even flawless, behind it lies good research.

What and how much you research you do depends a lot of on the finished format of your writing. A short article or blog, for instance, requires far less research than say an investigative piece or a book. Even short stories may require some research to help you become familiar with the subject.

Today, you have at your disposal a multitude of sources of information. Researching for your writing isn’t like anything you did in school. Too many beginning writers remember back to researching term papers and fail to get the right kind and amount of information they need to complete their current work.

The best research begins with good general sources. To fully understand your subject you’ll need background information. Details come later. A quick search for an article on Wikipedia, for example, should give you an overview of your subject. But be careful, some of those articles often have misinformation. You may also find the background material you need in brochures and press releases. This is especially true when writing about businesses, travel, or products. Before compiling a list of questions for an interview, it helps to know something about the subject and the person you’ll be interviewing.

Take profile writing. To write a good profile, you need to learn all you can about the person so that you’ll be able to ask intelligent questions that get to the nitty gritty about their life or business. The more you learn ahead of time, the better results you’ll obtain from your interview.

Sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious. If writing about a product that’s no longer made, you may want to look into learning about the company that produced it. The development of the product or the progression of ownership of the company will often provide interesting details to add color to your story.

All of the above pertain to writing non-fiction. If you’re planning a novel, especially an historical one, you’ll need to learn about the lifestyle of the times so that you can truly convey the atmosphere of life back then. This includes not only major events in history, but the clothing that people wore, the cultural habits and mores of the time, and even the vocabulary and speech patterns to provide authentic dialog.

Finding appropriate background information for a novel can be more complicated and widespread than for non-fiction. It may require you to make research trips to locations you plan to include in your book. While there, you may want to visit museums to find information to fill out the details like costuming and local history. Some novelists begin writing in a broad way and then fill in the details later after completing their research. Others research first and then begin writing.

Whatever type of writing you do, you’ll want to make sure not to do too much research. Overdoing it can be just as bad as finding too little information. Know when to stop. A good rule for an article is to compile twice as many pages of notes, single spaced, as the number of pages of your finished article. Doing too much more than that will result in your using far more material and, in the end, having to cut half of it out to get back to the length your intended publication requires.

If you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll use most of the research you’ve done. But if you’re writing fiction, you may use less than half since the majority of what you write will have to deal with characters and dialog. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

There’s No Guarantee of Success

Someone once said that success is one of those things that’s often impossible to predict unless you know you have it in the bag. With success, there are no guarantees.

Before you can be successful, you have to figure out just what success is for you. How do you define it? As a writer, is it getting published? And after you’re published, then what? When you first started out in writing—or if you’re just starting out—your main goal was to get published. You probably thought that getting published would prove to others, and more importantly to yourself, that you had made it as a writer. Unfortunately, one article, one short story, or one book does not a writer make.

So to truly understand what it means to be successful as a writer, you first have to understand what it means to be a writer. When someone asks you what you do, can you confidently say you’re a writer? You can and should do that only if you have a volume of work under your belt. Too many beginning writers are more enamored at the thought of being a writer—perhaps to impress your friends and family—than of actually being a writer.

Success can be and often is fleeting. There are those big successes in life, such as obtaining a college degree or raising a family, and there are those little successes, such as finishing the first draft of a novel. All of them are accomplishments. So to get a true handle on success, you must take into consideration all of your accomplishments. There’s something to be said for being an accomplished writer. That’s a person who has written and published a variety of things often in more than one subject area.

Even if you’re one of those lucky writers who publishes a book the first time out of the gate, having the book published, in essence printed, is no guarantee of success. In this case, your success amounts to how many copies of that book sold. And, even more important, how many copies have been read. Unfortunately, statistics only exist for how many copies sold, enabling you to get on a bestseller list. But a best-read list just doesn’t exist.

That said, you shouldn’t define your success as a writer by how many books you’ve written and perhaps published. Books are only part of the broader writing picture. Successful writers publish an assortment of pieces throughout their careers.

Some writers see awards as a gauge to success, collecting them at every opportunity. They figure that if someone chooses to give them an award, that they have made it as a writer. But the afterglow from an award often lasts shorter than a sunset. Once you’ve been applauded, everyone seems to forget, unless you constantly remind them.

To get an idea of just how successful you are as a writer, periodically list your accomplishments. Once a year or even every six months is often enough. You’ll be amazed at just how successful you’ve become. Remember, don’t count only the big successes in your career. Count the little ones, too. They all add up. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Don't Give Up

Just about every writer has wanted to throw in the towel at one time or another. Whether it’s lack of ideas, piles of rejections, or lack of motivation, the temptation is always there. And whether or not a writer considers quitting, most don’t. Why is that?

Writing for many is a compulsion. It’s a drive that runs deep. For some, it starts in childhood, for others later in life. But either way, writers feel compelled to write. And anything that gets in the way of this desire causes frustration.

To avoid getting into this trap, it helps if you know some of the causes, so you don’t get into this predicament in the first place.

Some writers just can’t come up with enough ideas. Do you begin working on what you consider a super idea, only to get bogged down because the idea isn’t developing the way you thought it would? This problem usually comes about because you haven’t thought the idea through. But thinking about an idea is only part of the process. You’ve got to plan it out, too—even roughly.

But not every idea is a super one, so it pays to stockpile them. The more ideas you have, the better. Not all of them will be winners. In fact, most of them won’t be. Having other ideas on hand will enable to you to try something else if the first one doesn’t work. No writer should ever quit for lack of ideas.

Rejections, on the other hand, have put an end to many a writing career. To get published, your work must be accepted. If it’s rejected, you don’t have a chance. One writer got 28 rejections on a book idea before he realized that it may be too specific or not in line with what publishers wanted. He didn’t give up. Instead, he tried another which got accepted immediately. He jokingly said that early in his career he got enough rejection slips to wallpaper his bathroom.

A young California food writer wrote a Moroccan cookbook. No one was interested in it, so she published it herself. She ended up with a room full of several thousand books. Did she quit? No. She contacted Nieman Marcus in Texas and got them interested in selling it in their gourmet shop. That worked out fine, so she continued contacting department store chains and gourmet shops across the country. Her first venture was such a success that she went on to publish six more cookbooks.

Lack of motivation causes a lot of beginning writers to think twice about further pursuing a writing career. Wanting to write is one thing. But have a purpose is another. Whatever you write should have purpose. Do you want to inform or entertain or advise? Giving a purpose to your work will make it seem that much more important. Ask yourself why you want to write. If you say it’s just to get noticed, you’ll fail for sure.

Finally, if you’ve been writing for a while and have had some success but are now in a slump due either to a lack of ideas or a lack of markets, think about all the work you’ve put into your career so far. Don’t let it go to waste. Keep plugging away and give yourself another chance.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dealing With Emotional Block

All writers suffer emotional stress from time to time. Some get through it fine but for others it can be devastating. The three top emotional stressers are the death of a loved one, the end of a long-time, loving relationship, and the onset of major physical problems. But there are many more. Dealing with any of these requires a full-time effort. Even the most creative person cannot work when such heavy burdens settle in.

For even the most emotionally stable of writers, dealing with difficult emotional situations can place a lot of stress on the creative process. Being creative is work. If you’re having toruble thinking that indicates impeded flow, just like the flow of water through the pipes in your house. If something blocks the flow, nothing comes out at the other end.

The creative process is more than what you write. There’s also a part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when your senses perceive the world around you and your heart and mind are thrown into dissonance. That’s when your soul stops responding.

Normally, your creative response doesn’t just pour out of your head. There’ s no such thing as pure expression. You formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It’s only that last part—at best about 25 percent—that shows as output or progress.

The sudden death of someone close to you can put you under a great deal of stress. Know from the start that the period of grieving will last from one to two years. Life gets better as the days pass by, but you will have to deal with it. It you find you’re unable to cope, get some grief counseling or join a support group.

Divorce can be traumatic, especially if your spouse has been having an affair. The main emotional trauma to deal with here is personal rejection by someone you’ve trusted, followed by self-doubt. When any long-term relationship ends—even one with a publication or one of your editors—you also need to grieve. While the process is as prolonged as when someone dies, it’s grieving nevertheless.

The sudden onset of an illness or a medical condition can be life changing. Besides medical care, what’s needed here is a lifestyle change. It may be that all the stress you’ve put yourself through as a writer finally catches up to you, causing your body to fail. If your medical condition can be dealt with, you’ll be able to go through rehab. And while that may get your body back in shape, you’ll also have to go through mental rehab. Severe or prolonged illness often brings on depression. Get help if you need it.

Another stresser is a perceived or actual lack of financial support. The cliched image of a starving writer working in a one-room garret is fiction. You need to have some sort of income otherwise your body won’t be in the best shape to create anything. You may have to face up to getting a part-time job to bring in enough income to eat and pay your bills.

Repeated rejection leading to making you doubt your ability as a writer can also lead to major stress. For some people, this is the primary cause of stress throughout their writing career.

So what are some ways of dealing with all of the above?
  • First, get enough sleep. Your body, including your mind, works better when you have enough rest. Sleeping an extra hour can make all the difference.
  • Cry. Yes, have a good cry. If the situation is that bad, you’ll get some emotional release by crying. If nothing else, it will make you feel better. But don’t let yourself get mired in the black hole of depression.
  • Get support from family and friends. Tell those you trust what’s going on. While they may not be able to physically help you, they can lend moral support.
  • Surf the Internet. See what tips you can find to help you deal with your problem. 
When faced with a decreased flow in productivity, many writers seek out the device or method to use to quickly raise production levels instead of asking themselves what might be interfering with their creative process. Let’s face it, most people today look for the easy way out. But there’s no easy way out of any of the above stressful situations. The best thing to do is just deal with it. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Experience the Real World

Writing is a reflection of life. If you write non-fiction, it’s a documentation and interpretation of life. And if you choose to write fiction, you convert what happens in real life into fictional drama. The important thing is not to just sit in front of your computer and forget about life.  Get out and live it.

You learned to write in school. However, the academic environment of school isn’t real life. And though you studied past writers in the form of literature, you never learned about their techniques, only their ideas. In fact, too many academicians infer too much from the works of famous writers. They inject symbolism and innuendo into everyone’s work, because they can’t see into the mind of these writers at the moment of creation.

Ernest Hemingway is most noted for his adventures in the real world. He was to some extent an eccentric, but he knew that if he didn’t try all sorts of things, he wouldn’t be able to write honestly about any of them. The old saying, “Write what you know,” is key to this way of thinking.

But in school, you didn’t write what you know. When you had to write a research paper, you searched out the facts and spit them out on paper in perhaps a slightly different form. You never took the time to digest them. After all, the only reader who mattered in this process was your teacher. Only his or her opinion counted. But in real life that’s not how it works.

A good writer writes from experience. And while you may not be able to afford the time or money to experience everything in life, you do experience a lot each day. Much of it you take for granted.

You don’t have to go to some exotic locale to gain insight. If you’re like most people, you struggle with relationships day in and day out. You know how you relate to people and how they relate to you. With some acute observation, you can study the relationship of others. Everyone knows about relationships. They just take them for granted and seldom look at them as material to write about.

You probably also take a vacation once in a while. Some people go to the beach and just lie in the sun. But you can see the beach and all who are on it as one giant resource to draw on. While lying there, try playing the “What If” game. Look at the group of people nearest you and see what you can gain from observing them throughout the day. Tune in to their conversation. Do they give you any ideas that you can work into a story?

Or perhaps you prefer to go on an historic vacation, visiting historic sites nearby or far away. What are you learning about these places and the people who inhabited them? One writer visited Fort Delaware, a former POW camp for Confederate soldiers. The fort has been lovingly restored by a group of dedicated volunteers and the State of Delaware. Recently, they reconstructed one of the prisoners’ barracks which reveals the lives of the 12,000 prisoners who were incarcerated there for the duration of the war. He learned a lot about their experiences. So much so, that he was able to create an article that truly captures the POW experience at the time. Being able to sit on one of the bunks in the barracks and seeing re-enactors portraying the roles of various prisoners put him right back in the war. And the knowledge he gained on that visit help put his readers there, too.

But writing isn’t limited to pleasurable things. How about documenting a tragedy. With all the news available to you, you should be able to glean a wealth of information to use later in a short story or novel. Because the media goes into overkill on most tragedies or disasters, you won’t be able to use any of the information right away. But you can put aside what you’ve learned for a writing project in the near future. 

To experience life, you don’t have to go zipping through the cloud forest on a zip line or get in the ring with a ferocious bull. Instead, look to experience those things in life that interest you. Then you’ll really be able to write what you know.