Saturday, April 30, 2016

Making the Most of Social Media Part 1

Are you taking advantage of today’s social media networks? If you’ve only been tuning in to popular networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, then you’re missing a golden opportunity to promote yourself and your work.

Today, it pays to be a joiner. Normally you’d want to stand out from the crowd, but in today’s social media world, it’s just the opposite. “Who you know” has always been as important in the writing business as “what you know.” But unless you traveled a lot and met key people face to face, it was difficult to network contacts.

There have never been more people participating in social networks. While there’s a personal dimension to nearly all such networks. But just joining isn’t enough. You must also use them.

Social networking demands a consistent investment of time. If you approach these sites simply as places to sell your book or service and never give back to the communities, you’ll find yourself losing “friends” faster than you add them. As with all types of marketing, what you do on social networks depends on what your audience will respond to and what your goals are. One of the leading social networks is Facebook.

Facebook can be as simple or complex as you like. You can simply tell your friends what you’re up to using text and photos or you can develop a following that will greatly enhance your marketing efforts.

Above all, Facebook is a network that can help you find other people interested in the same subjects as you. You can join groups of users specializing in different types of writing or in different subjects that you write about.  You can also create your own group around your blog. Once you establish a group, you can send messages to its members. With such a targeted audience, you can post content with real value.

Facebook also allows you to announce events, such as book releases and readings, bookstore appearances and such, and invite people to it.

The key to keeping your Facebook page active is keeping your profile current. Even if you don’t reveal too much about your personal life, your friends on Facebook will feel they know you better.  Status updates are just that—posts that keep your Facebook followers informed as to what’s happening in your life or your work.

As part of your profile, you’ll also be able to post an image. As a professional writer, you need to use good photos of yourself. Try to make these more than a snapshot. Don’t use bizarre images in place of your personal one. Remember, your Facebook followers will judge you by that image as well as your profile.

Unlike other social networks, Facebook offers you three ways to promote yourself. The first is the personal page. Through this page, you’ll assemble a group of “friends.” Some may actually be friends of yours, but most will be strangers who come to your page because of the posts you make.

The second sort of page you can create on Facebook is the professional page. This page is focuses on your business, putting you in the same category as the Coca-Cola Corporation. Instead of assembling “friends,” you must get people to “like’ your page. This becomes a select group of Facebook followers, known as “fans,” to whom you can send targeted information about your work.

The third kind of page you can create on Facebook is the author page, which you assemble for a particular book or series of books you have written. This is also a “fan” page, but differs from the professional page in that its posts go only to fans of your books—in essence, your readers.

Facebook most likely offers the most flexibility of all the social networks, but there are others that can be of help in different ways.

NEXT WEEK: Part 2 of Making the Most of Social Media

Saturday, April 23, 2016

What You Probably Don’t Know About Freelance Writing

To many people, writing professionally is a dream that never seems to come true. Sure, they dream about quitting their day job and writing for a living. They perceive writing as an easy life, but it’s far from it.

Articles on freelance writing often present writing as a glamorous profession. While a few writers achieve celebrity status, most live with the day-to-day struggle of finding work and paying bills. Doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it?

Some people work just to make money and many don’t really enjoy what they do. And while writing can be a more fulfilling occupation than working in an office handling expense reports or working in a fast food restaurant, the writing life can be hard and stressful if you’re not prepared. You’ll have to constantly search for new markets, make deadlines, work through times of little or no work, and manage finances. This last item is what brings down most beginning freelance writers.

Were you good at math in school? At the time, you probably had no idea how math might play a role in your success or failure of your freelance business. As a freelance writer, you’ll have to keep track of your expenses, report taxes, and manage submissions. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll need a budget that allows you to keep a roof over your head, food on the table, and the Internet powered up. That means you’ll need accurate record keeping to stay ahead of your bills. And you’ll have to be able to predict income throughout the year and figure out percentages of income at year’s end.

If you’re imagining being able to do what you want and living the life of Reilly, think again. You’ll need to be organized and disciplined. Record keeping will become a big part of your life. After all, you’ll be in business for yourself. Too many writers don’t see the similarity between what they do and what their dry cleaner or auto mechanic do. Both are owners of small businesses.

You’ll also need to back up information. You never know when you’re computer will unexpectedly die and you’ll lose all your data. You have to plan for fires, floods, and other catastrophes. So you’ll need to keep excellent records that you save in multiple locations.

To be a successful freelancer, you have to take risks. Someone once said that freelance writers should be brave enough to jump off a bridge even though they can’t see the water beneath them. You’ll have to believe that you’ll continue to find work, even though you may only have a handful of projects assigned at any given moment. If you’re waiting for the perfect conditions to become a freelance writer, they’ll never come.

Ask any freelance writer if what they do is worth it, and just about all will tell you—without hesitation---that they wouldn’t do anything else.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Improving the Readability of Your Writing

What is readability? Essentially, it’s how easy it is for readers to read your writing. Improving the readability of your writing helps your reader to comprehend what you’re saying more accurately in less time.

Figuring the readability of writing began in the late 19th century in the U.S. Schools didn’t use graded or grade level materials until around 1847. Somehow teachers expected students to learn to read all on the same level. This probably came about because so many schools were one-room affairs with students from all grade levels in attendance. And while educators established graded reading levels for students, no one ever paid attention to the reading level of adults until the U.S. military took a stab at it. They found that in 1937 general adult readers had limited reading ability.

In 1921, Edward Thorndike published his landmark book, The Teacher’s Word Book. In it, he noted the frequency of difficult words used in general literature. For the first time, a notable scholar suggested a means to measure difficult words through mathematical formulas. He showed that overall reading comprehension is directly related to the number of difficult words in any piece of writing. 

So how does this relate to your writing? While you may not know the reading level of what you write, you can take these steps to ensure that it’s readable to the majority of adult readers. Believe it or not, the average reading level in the U.S. is tenth grade. That means there are readers who read above that level and also those who read below it. The more educated a certain group of readers is, the higher their reading level.

As a writer, you can’t assume that everyone that reads your work has gone to college. Depending on your target audience, chances are that about half have done so.

To make your writing more readable, follow these simple steps:

Focus on Your Reader. Who will be reading your writing—young adults, men, women, seniors? Find out as much as you can about your readers' education, reading habits, age, sex, occupational background, and so on. Even knowing the likes of "the general reader" is better than writing in a vacuum. Analyze the advertisements in the publication you intend to write for to help you discover your what your readers like.

Focus on Your Purpose. Why are you writing? What do you expect your readers to do? Read your piece casually? Study it? Use it for reference? Read it for entertainment during leisure hours? Be sure of what you are trying to do and write accordingly.

Design Your Writing to Fit. Once you know your audience and your purpose, you can design your piece of writing to fit. Ordinarily, this means that you start raising your readability by increasing the number of "personal words." For easy and interesting reading, a story design is usually best--either sustained narrative or anecdotes, illustrative examples, and practical applications, sandwiched between straight description. For instructional pieces, the best design is the direct "you" approach, or cookbook style.

In other words, you can increase the number of "personal words" by using the first and second persons for yourself and your reader and by explaining your ideas through the experiences of people.

Use Direct Quotes at Key Points. Move your narrative along by using direct quotes at key points along the way.  After increasing the number of "personal words," increase the number of "personal sentences." In today's professional writing the proportion of dialogue to narrative is increasing steadily. Successful writing today uses a conversational approach

Break up Sentences and Paragraphs. Next, shorten the length of your average sentence. To do this, look for the joints in complex sentences and break them, changing dependent clauses to independent clauses. Also, there’s a natural relationship between the length of sentences and the length of paragraphs. After you’ve shortened your sentences, break up your paragraphs to fit the changed rhythm. And avoid using semi-colons. Put a period where a semi-colon should be. But make sure the new sentence following it relates directly to the previous one.

Use Simpler Words. While you should generally choose a simpler word over a more complex one, some of the long, complex words may be technical terms that shouldn't be changed. As for the rest, remember that complexity rather than length makes for reading difficulty. Many complex words are abstract nouns. Change these nouns into verbs, particularly simple verbs with adverbs. For example, instead of using the word “condescension,” use “look down on.”  And no, using simpler words won’t make you seem less intelligent. That’s a myth fostered by academics who like to show off how smart they are. As a writer, no one cares how intelligent you are, only that you communicate your thoughts well.

Help Your Reader Read. You’ll raise the level of readability indirectly if you try to help your readers read. Point out to them what’s significant. Using bold type, tell them to remember what they should remember, use headings to prepare them for what they’re going to read, and summarize for them what they’ve read.

Learn to Cut. The most common problem with beginning writers—and some advanced ones, too—is wordiness. Tightening up your writing by cutting non-essentials will make essentials stand out better and save the reader time.  If your piece of writing is too long, some readers may skip it altogether.

Rearrange for Emphasis. Readers remember best what they read last. Rearrange your writing with that in mind. Repeat important concepts towards the end so that readers will remember them.

Punctuate for Readability. Avoid semicolons and colons which tend to lengthen sentences. Parentheses make writing appear more formal and take away from its conversational casualness. Also, get in the habit of reading what you’ve written aloud to “hear” where punctuation should go.

Following these simple steps will help to drastically improve your writing with an almost immediate effect.

Friday, April 8, 2016

What It Takes to Write a Non-fiction Book

Beginning writers look up at that ivory pedestal and wish that some day they could be standing on it. But most of the time the writer that’s currently standing on it high above the masses is the one who writes fiction. Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because the majority of what a novelist writes comes from his or her imagination. Readers respect that. But those who write non-fiction books work just as hard—perhaps harder—since they deal in facts and can’t embellish those facts to enhance their story.

So what does it take to write a non-fiction book? It takes commitment and lots and lots of research. The subject you chose for your book has to be one that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. While other writers may have written about it before, you have to choose the right angle that will make your chosen subject seem new and exciting. In non-fiction, that’s known as a slant.

No matter how much you want to write a book, don’t start out doing that. First, your writing skills may not be up to it, and second, your organizational skills won’t certainly be up to it. And if you haven’t written and published articles, on the subject of your book or not, you don’t have the credibility publishers look for.

So you say, forget the publishers, I’m going to publish my book myself electronically. That’s all well and good, but unless you have a reputation as a writer, why should readers buy it. And after all the work you’ll be putting into it, you certainly want them to do that.

Writing a book direct from the starting gate is like going from grammar school to graduate school in one leap. Chances are highly likely that you won’t finish it, and even if you do, it won’t sell. You need to be comfortable with the writing process before you tackle a book. You should be sure you can actually write well enough to be able to focus your attention on other things, such as organization, process, and deadlines and not have to worry about your writing. .

Before you begin to write your book, you’ll need to plan it out. Writers call this blocking. While you may want to start with an informal list of what you want to include, eventually you’ll need to create a table of contents. The table of contents becomes your guide while writing your book.

But before you can even begin putting together your table of contents, you’ll need to do quite a lot of research. You’ll need to do two types of research—marketing research and content research. The first looks into what other books have bene published on your subject and when. The second digs for the facts you’ll need to produce the content of your book. Both are equally important.

If there are lots of books published on your subject, it may not do well because of a flooded market. If there aren’t any or few books published on your subject, it may also not do well because readers may not be interested in it. So you have to look for a happy medium.

Researching the content of your book is a big job that takes a great deal of organization. You may choose to do all the research and then write your book, or you may research one chapter at a time. Whatever you do, use your table of contents to help keep things organized.

If you’ve chosen to self-publish your book and before you start to write it, set a drop-dead deadline—one that you can work with—and work backwards to the present time. Include editing, copy editing, revisions, and extra time for the unknown and unknowable. If there isn’t enough time between then and now, change the final deadline or publication date

If you choose the publisher route, you’ll begin by composing a query letter and sending it out to publishers, that through your marketing research, you believe may show an interest in it. In this case, you won’t begin to write your book until you get a firm commitment from a publisher who will also set the deadline for completion of the manuscript.

There are two ways to write your book. The first is in chronological order, beginning with Chapter One. The second is to write it out of order, beginning with the easiest chapter first and working ahead to the more complex ones.

Edit each chapter as you finish it. This is much easier than waiting to edit your whole book. As you write, be honest with yourself. If you get that little pang of doubt, listen to it. Don’t con yourself and don’t fall in love with your own pearls on paper. On the other hand, don’t polish until you take all the luster off the page. Know when to stop editing.

However, the editing you do is to get the manuscript in the best condition possible. Even though you’ve edited your work, you’ll need to find a professional editor to edit it if you’re self-publishing. Otherwise, you’ll send it to the publisher who will assign an in-house editor to work with you on the final copy edit. Writing your book is only half of the process.

Unless your publisher gives you a short deadline, figure out how much time you’ll need to complete your book and plan accordingly. Writing can’t be rushed. You’re not trying to make the early edition. You’re writing a book, perhaps your first. Between writing times, do something other than think about the book. Leave space between work sessions. Take a day to review research, and then sleep on it. Write, reread, leave it alone, and sleep on it. Remember, your mind will be working on your book while you’re sleeping.

It’s important not to overdo it when writing your book. Don’t work for hours on end. Take frequent breaks and spread the work out over days and weeks. Also, eat well, sleep as much as you need to, stretch frequently, and exercise. This is work. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Do E-queries Work?

Not long ago, freelance writers had visions of no stamps, no self-addressed stamped envelopes, and no prepaid reply postcards. They also wished that someday they wouldn’t have to use 25 percent rag-content ivory stock for your query, contained on a single page surrounded by one-inch margins. Their dreams came true with the advent of electronic mail, commonly known as Email.

Email had the potential of liberating freelance writers from these hallowed but time-consuming and expensive procedures. Though the majority of queries still arrived  by regular mail, the electronic query would soon become standard.

But just as Email has done nothing to elevate the art of direct-to-consumer advertising, neither has it made queries any better. If anything, bad E-queries are even more annoying to editors than bad paper queries. If you do anything with Email, you know how aggravating spam can be in your own inbox, so you know how editors feel about inappropriate queries.

First rule of E-queries is not to send them unless you know the editor wants them. Believe it or not, an editor of an online e-zine refused to accept E-queries. Now how ridiculous is that? Don’t assume that all editors are fine with E-queries. If they’re under 30, they probably are, but those over 30 have the same problem as everyone else in that age category—they learned about computers after they were set in their ways. So check marketing directories to find out which editors are okay with E-queries before you send them.

Even if an editor accepts E-queries, it won’t be through his or her personal Email address. Search out their business Email or, better yet, find out if the publication has a special address just for E-queries. Do a search on Google for the publication’s name and go to their site for explicit instructions.

So what should an E-query contain? If you’ve sent paper queries by regular mail, you already know. What most people, especially writers, don’t realize is that the “electronic” in Email refers to the delivery system, not the format or content. In fact, you could send a copy of a one-page query you did previously, and an editor would receive it in exactly the same way. In either case, the editor looks at the content to see if he or she has recently run an article on this topic and then replies to let you know if you should send it.

The abbreviated message most often seen in Emails got its start with college students who saw Email as a way to defy the rules of letter writing and composition. So over time, everyone adopted this form and consequently some messages became almost unintelligible. Remember, an E-query is an electronic form of a business letter and must be professionally written and formatted.

Start by placing the proposed title of your article in the subject line. Then place your name, address, and phone number—both home and cell—in the upper right corner. Be sure to only use initial capitals, as anything else will be viewed as spam. The body of your Email query should be exactly the same as the body of your paper one, including the date, salutation and signature. It’s okay to just type your name in the signature line, but if you can create a signature using a script font in your word processing program, you can use it. Create this once and save it for future use

Keep the length of your E-query the same as your paper query. In fact, you may find it easier to write your query in your word processor, then copy and paste it into your Email. Remember, your main points still need to include why this topic will interest the publication’s readers, why you're the best person to write about it, how you'll develop the article, and when you'll be able to deliver it and with what kind of artwork or photography.

As with paper queries, use a block paragraph format and close by asking the editor if he or she is interested.

Response times tend to be faster with E-queries than with paper ones, because it's easier to respond. Some publications will acknowledge receipt of your E-query within a day. If you haven't heard back within a month, you should feel free to make a politely-worded inquiry as to whether the editor received your query and include a copy in case it wasn't.

The main difference between a paper query and an E-query is how you handle clips. While you would include copies of recent clips with your paper query, you’ll have to send them as attachments with your E-query. Scan each clip, saving it as a JPEG image file. Be sure the image is large enough for the editor to read. Then attach it to your E-query. Don’t send more than three clips as attachments. Be selective and send your best ones that are on the same topic as your proposed article or a related one.

Lastly, just as with paper queries, keep a record of the E-queries you have out, including the date sent and to whom, so that you can follow up on ones that for which you haven’t received replies.