Saturday, April 8, 2017

How Good of a Salesperson Are You?

No, you aren’t applying for a job in a retail store. But to be a successful freelance writer, you do have to be a good salesperson—as good as anyone who sells in a high pressure environment. You need to develop selling skills on a par with the best traveling salesmen.

Many beginning freelance writers are so consumed with the act of writing that they forget about selling their work after they’ve finished writing it. But writing and selling should go hand-in-hand. You need to do both jobs equally to be a success. So before you even begin to work on a project, have an idea of where you’ll potentially sell it.

The best salespeople begin their sales campaigns by developing a list of prospects. They glean names from whatever source they can, building a list of people to contact. Though over time you’ll amass a list of people you can count on to help with research, you also need to begin a list of potential markets—and not just markets but personal contacts in those markets. You can achieve this by sending out queries for projects or sending material out on speculation that some editors will begin to buy. Once you have your foot in the door, insert a doorstop and keep that door open.

After a top salesperson has a short list of contacts, they’ll sort through it to find the best-sounding prospects so they'll save time and money by avoiding blind alleys. They make their initial contacts, then review what happened, noting all reactions. Then they use these notes for follow-ups. They’re constantly looking to expand their markets. And you should, too.

While you may tackle the first step—creating a partial list—you probably don’t follow up on the remaining ones because, let’s face it, most freelance writers are lousy salespeople. While creative burnout and procrastination often plaque their writing, the same thing happens when they're trying to sell their work. In order to expand your freelance writing business, you have to avoid this. Remind yourself that at times freelancing may be 50 percent writing and 50 percent selling. And while large businesses have sales departments to handle selling their products, you don’t.

Be realistic about your markets. Remember, there’s loads of competition—a recent statistic puts the number of freelance writers in the U.S. at nearly 70,000. To get anywhere, you have to stand out from the crowd. Your material and your presentation of it have to offer editors the best and more of it than others can provide.

The first step is developing your prospect list. You’ll need to study the market and learn the possibilities so well that the market seems to evolve by itself. And don’t start at the top. You’re sure to fail. Begin at the bottom and work your way up. Start with the easiest markets, which most likely will also not be the highest paying. But the easier ones have less strict requirements and demand less work overall than the highest paying ones. Plus, you’ll have a much better opportunity to get published in them. But remember that you’ll only be working with them for a while to build up your credibility as a writer.

If you’ve already begin to publish your work, review your original markets. If you're working well with them, negotiate with the editors for higher pay or perhaps ask if can become a contributing editor. As such, you won’t get any more pay, and you won’t be doing any editing. But you will have your name on the magazine’s masthead, which will impress other editors higher up the pay chain.

When the same bland renewal notice for a magazine subscription arrives in the mail, you usually toss it in the trash. If you intend to renew, you most likely don’t do so on the first notice, but two or three later. The same goes for the reaction by an editor to the same presentation. If you want to renew an editor's interest in your material or build up assignments on a higher level than in the past, think about upgrading your presentation. How well does it sell your ideas? Is your timing and the sequence of your ideas logical? Is the market holding you back or are you holding yourself back through lack of expertise, timidity, or just plain fear?

Today, freelance writers have all sorts of sales tools at their disposal—Email marketing, Web sites, social networking, etc. But just like regular advertising, you also have mass mailing. Have you ever thought about designing a brochure showcasing your work and sending it along with your queries? Can you do the same digitally and send it along with Email queries? Have you given any thought to developing your own Web site. Not a personal one, but a professional business site that’s aimed at editors?

Remember, some of the nation’s top freelancers spend as much as three or four hours a day on the phone and the Internet keeping in touch with publishers and editors. Start making the time to do the same if you want to become a success in this business.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

What is a Story?

Writers tell stories. And it’s not just those who write fiction. No matter whether you’re writing an article, a short story, or book, you are, in fact, telling a story. But you’d be surprised just how many writers, both novice and professional, really don’t know what a story is.

The classic rule is that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end. Everything you write pretty much follows that format. But do these three things make whatever you’re writing a story?

Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an end, the beginning isn’t simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event. In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.

Your story needs a vulnerable character, a setting that’s interwoven with the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and, most importantly, reader empathy. Basically, a story is a transformation—either the transformation of a character or sometimes of a situation. But above all, you must have some sort of conflict.

At its heart, a story is about a person or persons dealing with tension. Without obstacles and without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them there isn’t to make more things happen to a character but to create more tension as your story unfolds.

The beginning of a story must grab your readers’ attention, orient them to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce them to your main character, whom they will grow to care about. If readers don’t care about your main character, they won’t care about your story.

So how do you introduce your main character to your readers? Begin by having your character perform some sort of action as your first scene opens. Remember, your story is part of a larger whole—a life that has been ongoing way before the story that your telling has even begun. So you must jump into the storyline as it passes you by. You want your readers to grab your main character and hold on tight. Your readers will be propelled through the story until they get to the point where they will let go—the point at which the story ends. But even though the story ends, life goes on.

The crisis that tips your character’s world upside down must be one that your protagonist cannot immediately solve. It’s an unavoidable, irrevocable challenge that sets the movement of the story into motion.

You can introduce this crisis into your story in one of two ways. Either you can begin your story by letting your character have what he or she desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying what he or she desires most, then taunting them with it. So, your character will either lose something vital and spend the rest of the story trying to regain it or see something desirable and spend the rest of the story trying to obtain it.

Two types of characters inhabit every story—a rigid one and a flexible one. The rigid one remains stubbornly unchanged while the flexible one will change as the story progresses. Your main character should always be the flexible one. The crisis in the story will forever your main character who will take whatever steps to try and solve the struggle.

Unfortunately, your protagonist will fail because he or she will always be a different person at the end of the story. If this doesn’t happen, your readers won’t be satisfied. By the time of your story’s climax, your main character will have made a discovery that changes his or her life forever.

Your character will make this discovery by being clever enough to piece together clues or will show extraordinary perseverance or tenacity to overcome the crisis.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Beyond Words

Words are the building blocks of writing. They’re what pulls readers in and keeps them there. But having a great vocabulary isn’t all there is to writing. In fact, it’s only half the story. Besides being able to choose the right words, a writer must also know how to assemble them to communicate a clear message. And part of that is mastering the language in which the writer is writing—in this case English.

The use of sentence structure, punctuation, and capitalization is called English usage. Grammar is part of it. As a writer, you cannot ignore grammar. Too many beginning writers today think that it’s the editor’s job to correct their sentence structure and grammatical mistakes. And while an editor may correct the occasional grammatical error, his or her main job is to make sure sentences read correctly and that the content is clear. This is the job of the copy editor.

If you don’t make sure that your final draft is free of grammatical mistakes, then you’re not much of a writer. And while good editors will make sure to point out all of your grammatical errors, it will take away from the job they were meant to do. Plus it will cost you since the more time an editor spends on your work, the more an independent editor has to charge.

If you send your work to a publisher, he or she will assign an editor to work with you. But before an editor even begins to edit a book manuscript, for example, a reader will be assigned to read it. If there are lots of English usage and grammatical mistakes, your manuscript will be rejected.

If you have a problem with sentence structure, punctuation, and the like, you’ll need to do something about it before you go on. A professional writer is a not only a wordsmith but has honed writing skills. They’re the tools of this profession.

Perhaps you felt that grammar and such were unimportant as you sat in English class bored to tears as the teach went on about participles and gerunds, for example. After all, you want to write—to create interesting stories. Why do you need to concern yourself with such mundane things. What you didn’t realize at the time was that those mundane things would become your everyday tools to help you create those interesting stories.

So where can you get help? You could sign up for a basic writing class at a local adult evening school. Or you could buy yourself a book on English usage. You can easily find a used one at a local library book sale or get it online at You can also improve your English usage and grammar online.

Begin with the article “14 Must-Visit Websites to Learn English Grammar Online.” Then check each one of them out and see which offers the best resources for you. Another great site is English Grammar 101. There are whole lot more to choose from, so take your pick.  Use the exercises provided to improve your writing skills. And before you know it, you’ll be writing like a pro because isn’t that what you want to be—a professional writer. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mastering the Possibilities

For years, Mastercard brought in customers with the now-famous slogan, “Master the possibilities.” You can also apply it to your freelancing career. But with freelancing it’s less about using your credit card than figuring out how to find outlets for your work.

Today’s publishing environment offers a wealth of possibilities. It used to be that freelancers had only the print world of magazines and newspapers to choose from when searching for markets. Now that rather closed market has been expanded to include all sorts of publications, both print and digital.

Readers resisted the digital publications for quite a while, but the appearance of e-readers and tablets like the Kindle and Nook gave readers an infinite number of choices.

Writers, too, were a bit hesitant to write for digital markets because most of them didn’t pay. Unfortunately, many still don’t. But breaking in is a lot easier digitally. You can easily study past issues of an online magazine or Web site just be searching for it. Searching offers another advantage—you can see easily see what subject matter is trending. You’re shots in the dark will be fewer. 

Before you go searching, however, you have to figure out exactly what type of writing you want to do. Are you planning to write articles for publication, either in print or online or both? Or are you planning on writing mostly books, using shorter pieces to promote them? And while both require the same writing skills, each requires a different mind set and marketing know how.

As little as 20 years ago, all you had to do was send your pieces to publications that might print them and you’d get paid—maybe not very much, but you would get something. Since there weren’t very many publications or writers, competition wasn’t as keen. But with the advance of technology and the creation of the Internet, all that changed. The publishing world has exploded with what seems an endless list of possibilities.

Unfortunately, just as there are many more opportunities to get published, so are there many more, especially online, that don’t pay anything. For at least the first 10 years, readers and writers looked at the Internet as a chaotic medium for amateurs. Publishers who did have online publications had very low budgets, so they didn’t pay for articles. And while they were a good way to build up your publishing clips, you can’t live on non-paying markets.

With the ease of online publishing and self-publishing through e-books, many more would-be writers are finding it easier to get published, even if they have to do it themselves, thus by-passing the hurdles of the traditional route.

A good way to start out and get your work out there is to write a weekly blog. When blogs first began, the recommendation was to publish a blog daily. But a weekly blog becomes more like a column and readers will follow it if you offer them information that they can use.

While you’re blog starts to build a following, you can study one of the annual market guides—Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace.

The first on the list, Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has been around since 1921 and is the least expensive with a list price of $50, although you can purchase it online directly from Writer’s Digest for $30. You can also get it by monthly subscription. It features over 8,000 listings of newspaper and magazine markets, book publishers, including small presses, playwriting and screenwriting markets, and even those for greeting cards. Each listing gives you the information you need to see if your work will fit. And while there are many markets in which your work will be a good match, there are 10 times as many that it will not. And while the book has it’s good points, it offers a lot of markets that just don’t pay well or not at all. Plus, it’s so widely used that many of the publications listed get overwhelmed with submissions.

Literary Marketplace claims it’s the “ultimate insider’s guide” to the publishing industry. For a whopping $360 for first-time buyers, it ought to be. It offers 54 sections in which it organizes publishers, agents, advertising agencies, associations, distributors, and events. It features twice the number of listings as Writer’s Market, but concentrates mostly on book publishing. Since its cost is prohibitive, you’ll have to use it at your local library.

Whether you use one or the other or both of these annuals will depend on how often you’re repeatedly writing for certain markets, how good you are at selling spin-off material, and where you wish to focus your publishing efforts each year.
As you progress in your freelancing career, you’ll find more markets that aren’t listed in the above annuals. Publishers of all kinds choose whether they want to be published in them. Many refuse because doing so opens them up to receiving tons of correspondence from too many wannabee writers who have neither the skill or talent to write well. They prefer to be more selective. Also, new technologies create new markets. In the last five years many opportunities have opened up for educational and recreational material for home and school computers.

Because editors play musical chairs and their requirements change regularly, it’s a good idea to use the latest edition of each of the annuals. It’s important to know the exact name, spelling, title, etc., of a publication’s editor. If you’re going to impress editors, you must get their names right.

In the case of Writer’s Market, you can check out last year’s edition from the stacks at your library, find what publications look good, and make a list of them, then go back to the library and find those on your list in the latest edition in the reference section and note the changes. Because of the high cost of Literary Marketplace, you’ll have to do all your work using the reference edition at the library.

Once you've decided on a specialty, you should subscribe to the best publications in your chosen field, or track them down regularly wherever you can. If you’re serious about book publishing, then you’ll want to read Publishers Weekly regularly at your local library or online.

Whether markets appear to be a broadening or a row of locked doors is entirely up to you, your energies, ambitions, and skills as a writer, promoter, and, most importantly, a salesperson.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Writers’ Block—Is It All in Your Head?

All writers face the inevitable—writers’ block—at some point in their careers. For some it’s a passing state of affairs, a sort of down time after working furiously on a big project. But for others, writers’ block can be as deadly as a fear of heights. In fact, it often results from a fear of success.

But writers’ block doesn’t just happen. Usually something triggers it, much like any other psychological condition. And, yes, it is psychological. To keep from falling prey to this condition, you have to keep your mind active.

The most common cause of writer’s block is trying to make your writing perfect the first time. Many beginning writers plod through whatever they’re working on agonizing over every word. You want to make whatever you’re writing your best, so you go back and revise every sentence as you go. Instead of trying to write the final draft, work faster and steadily to complete your first draft. Get everything down on paper and don’t worry about grammar or the words you’re using. You’ll be able to fix both in the revising process. Leave sparkling writing until your second or third draft.

Another thing that seriously affects novice writers, and many veteran ones, is hearing the opinion of others. Don’t allow yourself to be stymied by what your friends, family, or spouse may think of what you’ve written. And worst of all, don’t show your writing to strangers until you have finished the final draft.

If you write fiction, you should be doubly careful about showing your work to others before its time. As a fiction writer, you have only your own experiences to draw from for your stories. If your story centers around characters who are uncomfortably similar to people you know, you could find yourself in trouble.

Whatever people say, it will affect you. Beginning writers have thin skins and aren’t used to criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. Particularly harsh criticism can cripple you mentally, causing you not to be able to write.

To combat writer’s block, there are a few things you can do.  Keep several projects going at the same time. The more involved you are in different types of writing, the less likely you’ll be to be stymied by writer’s block.

Another trick is to re-read what you’ve written most recently. You’ll be amazed at how you’ll react to your own words, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while. Besides reading your own work, try reading books, stories, and articles written by others.         
Create an idea file. A stockpile of ideas will give you plenty to write about, should you get stuck on your current project.

You might also try to set a word quota—writing so many words a day. This will force you to move forward and not get mired in your current work. And reward yourself for achieving your daily word goal. This could be a walk around the block or a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.

Finally, be positive. Negativity about your writing will definitely lead to a block.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Keeping Your Writing Style Up to Date

Have you kept up to date with your writing skills? Unfortunately, after most people leave school–high school, college, or graduate school–they rarely brush up on their writing skills. And while their skills have stayed the same, writing has continued to evolve.

Writing changes about every five years. While most people don’t notice these subtle changes, they’re there, nonetheless. Sometimes, it’s a change in the way people use punctuation while for others these changes may manifest themselves in certain forms of sentence structure.

Probably the way writers use punctuation has changed the most. Take semicolons, for instance. Back when teachers taught that writing was a more formal affair, people used semicolons extensively. Today, many writers use them rarely, as they tend to slow the reading down. Instead, they substitute a period for the semicolon and begin a separate but related sentence immediately following it. Are you one of those who’s still using semicolons?

Another form of punctuation that has seen more frequent use is the dash or more specifically the “em dash,” the longer of the two forms of dashes. This form of punctuation creates a visual separation that readers can easily see at a glance. Also, today’s writers are using commas less frequently.

Lots of things influence changes in writing style, but none more so than the creation and appearance of electronic text, both on the Internet and in E-mail. Instead of writing in a longer, more formal style, writers today use a more concise approach. Writing is tighter and less flowery with fewer longer, more sophisticated words that many readers may not know.

There are lots of ways to keep your writing style up to date. The easiest method is to read more contemporary writing—writing done yesterday not even 10 years ago. And if you really want to improve your writing style, avoid most literature, except the modern variety written after 1930 or so.

You can also enroll in writing classes. Professional dancers constantly take classes to improve their technique and writers should, too. You don't have to enroll in college-level writing courses.  These can be expensive and more time consuming than you need. However, many colleges offer continuing education courses that are just right. Most of these target a particular kind of writing—novels, short stories, articles, etc.  They usually last only a few weeks and don’t have the added pressure of grades that you’ll find with credit courses.

Another alternative is to attend a writing conference. Here, classes are short and intense, usually  lasting only one to three days. These conferences also offer you a chance to learn from other professionals who are experts in their fields.  Do a search for "writing conferences and your area" to find one near you.
Whatever you choose to do, improving your skills will give your writing a boost. 


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Recycling Isn't Just for the Trashman

Recycling isn’t limited to plastics and tin cans. It can play a big part in your writing, too.  Over the years, you’ll gather a lot of information. Too many writers use that information once because many of their teachers drummed the concept of not repeating into their heads. So they use an idea once and forget about it. In the writing biz, that’s not the way to make money.

Information should be a valuable commodity to you as a writer. Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, you can use ideas and the information you gathered to flush them out over and over again. Your files are a gold mine. So if you’re one of those people who can’t stand clutter and throws everything out as soon as you’re done with it, you better think again.

So what are some of the ways you can mine all those ideas and valuable information you have on hand? First, let’s look at the facts—just the facts. If you write non-fiction, you gather a truckload of facts for every article and if you write books, a boatload. That’s a lot of facts to let go to waste. So how do you know where they are when you need them? The answer is a good filing system.

Every article or story you write should have its own folder, both paper and digital. You should put all the notes and clippings and such into the paper folder. Reserve the digital folder for information you find online and for drafts of your piece. The idea of going all digital may be nice, but it isn’t practical. If you don’t have a way of retrieving the information you’ve stored, then you might as well have thrown it out.

For some topics, you may want to create several folders of information, subdividing a more complex topic into categories for easier retrieval. Information you gather for one subject or project may often be used for another on a similar one or a different one altogether. For example, let’s say you’re writing an article about pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail. First, you’ll gather information about the Trail, itself, then you’ll begin to find information on the people who traveled it.

The information on the former can be used to not only tell the tale of the Oregon Trail when it was at its peak, but also about the remnants of the Trail in the present day. Information gathered about the latter can be used for stories about courage along the trail or articles about particular people or the lifestyle of the early settlers of the West. Right there, you have the material to write any number of stories and articles all based on the same research.

So much for the information you have on hand. But what about all those pieces you’ve already wrote and published? Taking pieces from different articles, for instance, can give you a whole new piece. With some rewriting and revising, you can craft another interesting piece without doing any more research.

And don’t forget about sidebars. Sidebars to one article can become short articles in themselves, especially if you do some quick rewriting to help them stand on their own.

Storing all that information can become a problem. Over your writing career, you’ll gather reference books, clippings, brochures, maps—you name it—and that’s not even considering all the notes you’ve taken on various subjects. But if you organize the material for easy access, you’ll be able to produce a variety of pieces for many different markets during your career.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Keeping Track of Your Ideas

Ideas are the fuel that keep writers going. These might be for future articles, short stories, plays, non-fiction books, and, yes, even blogs. They can be little bits of information, observations, profiles, or full-blown concepts. Unfortunately, the human brain can’t possibly remember them all. In fact, You can’t remember most of your ideas since they seem to disappear into thin air as fast as they appear. In order to keep ideas ready for when you need them, you’ll have to find a way to record and track them.

Keeping track of your ideas could be as simple as creating a folder in your computer in which you save any little tidbit of information that comes along. You probably can see where this is going. Soon you’ll have a folder full of tidbits but not way to tell one from another. So you create more specific folders and file specific information related to one idea category or another in them. Now you have a bunch of folders with tidbits but still no way to know what’s in each.

A rather simple solution to the folder chaos that is to keep an Idea Book–well, actually, a series of Idea Books. This notebook will become your most valuable possession—it will be what keeps you writing.

To start an idea book you’ll have to go low-tech—a standard 6x9½-inch, spiral-bound notebook will do nicely. You can either opt for a thicker one or several thinner ones. If you can find one with built-in tab dividers, all the better. If not, pick up a packet of divider tabs that you can stick some of the pages to create your own sections.

This large idea book will become your main depository for your ideas, but you may also want to keep a small, 3x5-inch, spiral-bound notebook that you carry with you. Then you can periodically skim over the ideas in it and transfer them to your larger Idea Book.

So exactly what should put into your Idea Book? First and foremost are lists of ideas on  particular topics. This is where the dividers come in handy. Perhaps you write a regular blog. You can’t come up with topics off the top of your head without some research. Your Idea Book will allow you to keep an ongoing list of ideas for future blogs. As soon as you finish writing your latest blog, you should take a look at the list and decide which topic you’re going to tackle next. This is also a good place to keep a log of all the blogs you’ve written so far in the order you’ve written them, so that you don’t repeat yourself.

Your Idea Book is also a good place to focus your ideas. Sometimes an idea is way too broad, so you may have to focus it down to its essence. It’s in this process that you can play around with variations on the topic—different slants, possible fiction adaptations, even Web page ideas. Most writers never write about a topic just once, and neither should you.

Another part of any good Idea Book is the resource section. Here, you should jot down information about library books you’ve borrowed in case you need to borrow them again and the addresses of Web sites that contain pertinent information about subjects I write about.

Lastly, you can use your Idea Book to brainstorm possible markets for your work.  This might be just a list of places where you can post your blog. If you write for magazines and such, you may also want to produce diagrams that help you figure out who will be reading your pieces and which markets cater to them.

The techies out there may argue why not use a tablet or phone to do the same thing.
While you can handle some of your items in your idea book—lists of ideas, Web sites, library books, and such—brainstorming, focusing, and figuring out who will read your work is best done on paper. Perhaps you can figure a way to combine the two.

For the digital side of things, you’ll most likely have to use an app, otherwise you’ll be using several programs to do all that an Idea Book entails. One that really works well is Evernote. This little program allows you to create messages to yourself, as well as to-do lists, but it also goes beyond what you can do with just a standard paper Idea Book.

With Evernote or some app like it, you can also clip parts or entire articles from the Internet and save them to it. Then you can go back later and read them. It also allows you to create categories in which to save information. With the free version, you can only save to two digital devices—a desktop and laptop, laptop and phone, laptop and tablet. But you can go for the deluxe paid version which allows much more flexibility.

You can certainly use your smartphone to record ideas on the go, as well as saving Web sites for review later.

Choose whatever works for your situation and digital expertise level. Whatever you do, get your ideas organized. And you’ll keep writing forever.


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Almightly Comma

Commas are an essential form of punctuation in any type of writing. But their use has fluctuated over the years. Because of this, writers and non-writers alike have become confused as to when to use them.

Everyone learns to write in school. Unfortunately, academic writing has its own set of rules, most of which lean towards formality. But today, writing outside of school is decidedly informal. In fact, even lawyers now attend seminars to help them write briefs in plain language.

The trend today is to use fewer commas and only in the essential places in a piece of writing. Some people use them like spices in cooking, peppering their work with as many as possible just in case they might forget to use one somewhere where it’s needed. Others don’t use enough commas, making their writing hard to understand.

All punctuation is meant to help the reader know when to breathe when they’re reading aloud. The same holds true for reading silently. Think about it.

Before the invention of the printing press, the only punctuation was a dot at the end of a thought. This made most manuscripts very difficult to read. But then, most people didn’t even know how to read back then. When the printing press came along, it allowed printers to insert other forms of punctuation to make it possible to not only know when to pause—using commas—but also when to raise the voice—exclamation points—when to stop—periods—etc.

To begin with, the typical comma is used to separate two independent clauses. That means that both clauses must have a subject and a verb. The comma comes before the conjunction—and, but, for, so, or yet—that links the two clauses. A comma isn’t used when there is an independent clause followed by another verb that continues the same thought. This is technically a compound verb.

There seems to be lots of controversy as to whether a comma should be used between the last two items in a series. Currently, it seems that a writer can place it there or not. And that, unfortunately, is how the English language evolves—by trial and error. Eventually, the majority of users will use it one way or the other making that the rule.

Another place that beginning writers and lots of other people get confused about commas is at the end of a quote, before the tag line. The quote and the tag line are usually all part of the same sentence. So at the end of a quote or piece of dialogue, place a comma, followed by quotation marks, followed yet again by the tag line—“he said” or “she said.”

Commas are also used to offset nouns of direct address. An example might be “Steven, please pick up some milk on your way home.” Or to set off phrases such as “of course” or following or surrounding words like “unfortunately.”

Finally, the use of the semi-colon is on its way out. Instead, many writers now place a comma. But a little caution is in order. Instead of using the semicolon in the first place, make the two clauses it’s joining into separate sentences. The resulting sentences will be shorter and easier to read.

Remember, commas are the signal to pause. So when not sure, read the sentence aloud to see if a pause is needed. Then insert a comma where the pause should go.

To learn the correct use of all types of punctuation, read "Punctuation in a Nutshell" in the Writer's Corner section of my Web site.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What to Do When?

In today’s hectic world, it seems there’s never enough time. But maybe that’s because you’re doing some things at the wrong times.  What if you could pack more into each day by doing everything at the optimal time?

Multi-tasking has caused old-fashioned time management to become obsolete. Research suggests that paying attention to your body clock—and its effects on energy and alertness—can help pinpoint the different times of day when you perform your best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.

Most people organize their time around everything but their body's natural rhythms. Do the demands of freelance writing, kids’ schedules, and social events frequently dominate your day? Inevitably there will be a clash with your body's circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping.

As difficult as it may be to align your schedule with your body clock, it may be worth it to try, because of possible health benefits. Disruption of circadian rhythms has been linked to such problems as diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity. When your body's master clock can synchronize functioning of all its metabolic, cardiovascular and behavioral rhythms in response to light and other natural stimuli, it gives you an edge.

When it comes to doing projects that require intense thought, most adults perform best in the late morning. As your body temperature starts to rise just before you awake and continues to increase through midday, your working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve. Taking a warm morning shower can jump-start this process.

But your ability to focus and concentrate typically starts to slide soon after Noon. Most people are more easily distracted from Noon to 4 P.M. Also, your alertness tends to slump after eating a meal—the more food you eat, the deeper the slump. Do you find yourself getting sleepy around 2 P.M.? You might want to consider taking a short nap.

Studies have shown that fatigue may actually boost your creative abilities. You may find that tackling problems that require open-ended thinking works best in the evening when you’re tired. Perhaps that’s why many writers get flashes of insight before going to bed.

Of course, everyone's body clock isn't the same, making it even harder to synchronize natural rhythms with daily plans. Research shows that some people operate on either of two distinctive timetables. Morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.

When choosing a time of day to exercise, paying attention to your body clock can help you improve results. Physical performance is usually best, and the risk of injury least, from about 3 P.M. to 6 P.M. Muscle strength tends to peak between 2 P.M. and 6 P.M. at levels as much as 6 percent above the day's lows, improving your physical ability. And joints and muscles are as much as 20 percent more flexible in the evening, lowering the risk of injury. These body rhythms hold true regardless of how much you've slept or how recently you've eaten.

Communicating with friends and colleagues online has its own optimal cycles. Sending emails early in the day helps beat the inbox rush. Messages posted early in the day are most likely to be read. For many people, checking their Email is has replaced reading the newspaper at the beginning of the day.

To start your day out on a positive note, check Twitter between 8 and 9 A.M.. That's when users are most likely to tweet upbeat, enthusiastic messages, and least likely to send downbeat tweets steeped in fear, distress, anger or guilt. Sleep will refresh you and will leave you alert and enthusiastic.

You should do other social networking later in the day. If you want your tweets to be re-tweeted, post them between 3 and 6 P.M., when many people lack energy to share their own tweets and turn to relaying others' instead. Posts to Facebook at about 8 P.M. tend to get the most "likes," after people get home from work or finish dinner.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Communicating Directly

Back in the 1950s and 1960s and forever before that, people looked at writing as something special. But in the realm of communication, it’s one of three parts— speaking, listening, and writing. If you look at writing from that perspective, you’ll see that whatever you write should be like whatever you speak. Readers are also listeners, except they listen to the printed page or screen.

Back then,  most people viewed writing as a formal activity not related to talking. That’s because that’s what they learned in school. Academics and a lot of business people like to throw their intellectual weight around, so they use big words and long, complicated sentences when they communicate. It says, “Look at me. I’m smarter than you.” Again, that’s because that’s what they learned in college. Intellectualism breeds more intellectualism.

If you listened to President Obama’s farewell speech the other night, you had no trouble understanding what he was trying to say. Write those words down on a piece of paper and they’re just as clear. You can say what you want about the out-going president, but one thing is crystal clear—the man knows how to communicate clearly with everyone. And as a writer, you should, too.

In today’s hurry up, chat and text world, many people have dropped their guards when writing, much to the chagrin of many working and retired English teachers. They say people are butchering the English language. But really, all everyone wants is to understand clearly what’s being said. And to do that as a writer, you have to write as you talk.

There’s nothing different between writing something like a blog and discussing the same subject in person. In the latter case, there’s probably a conversation going—a give and take. And that’s what you want to have with your reader. Online blogs and articles, as well as Facebook posts, all have a space at the bottom for readers to leave their comments. Sometime, you’ll see a lot of them. At other times, you don’t see any. Usually that’s because readers won’t leave a comment if they’re satisfied with what the piece said, but they will if they disagree with it.

Today, good writing is conversational writing—writing that reads and sounds like good conversation. The big difference is that the writer makes it go where he or she wants it to. The next time you sit down to write, pretend that readers are sitting across the table from you and then just tell them their story—only on paper.

A beginning writer is writing a memoir about a special time in his life. The word “memoir” may leave you with the impression that this will be a boring piece of writing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not only is it clear, it also includes such detail that it draws the reader into the story.

So a good resolution for this year might be to forget big words and write as you talk. Communicate directly with your readers. You’ll see an immediate change in how they react to your writing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bringing Nonfiction Characters to Life

Writing good nonfiction characters requires discipline and honesty. You can’t just make them do what you want them to do. You have to use the facts to structure your character. You have to report life, not imitate it. To do this well, you have to be observant. For readers, characters consist of four things—what they look like, where they are, what they say, and what they do.

Essentially, creating a realistic portrait of a nonfiction character is all about costume, setting, dialogue, and movement or action. It’s also about “business,” as actors like to call it. Business is the little things a character does while speaking or between dialogue, like putting on a coat, drumming a finger, sipping a cup of coffee, turning on a light, or texting with a cell phone. Each detail adds to the reality of the character you’re trying to portray, and at the same time provides hints about their inner being. Of course, every person has an inner life that is vibrant and active and changeable, but as a nonfiction writer, you can only guess at that.

When portraying a real person, you must use an actor’s tools. Can you, by showing a character doing this or that, make your readers see him or her as you did? It’s a movie or video—light on the screen, shadows on a wall, your marks on the page. Out of all of this a human being emerges.

You have to make the reader watch your character’s eyes as he laughs and jokes. You might even write out some of what the character is saying. You might show him tapping his foot impatiently. Whatever you choose to show influences how the reader perceives that character.

The most important thing in portraying a nonfiction character is honesty and then transparency. You try to show what you saw but with the lens open on the complete experience of the person, with all his subtleties and nuances.

The problem and fun of it is that while being honest, the meaning of your portrait must also be transparent to the reader. So you have to sharpen and shape your observation, much as a painter does. It’s up to you to make choices about detail and angle from all the information that another person in his full humanity offer to you. You strive for clarity and brilliance, position and attitude.

Even a painter of realism is always making decisions about framing and point of view, about light and color, about reflection and detail. He or she chooses which moment to capture on the canvas. It’s much like point and shoot photography. In writing about real people, you want your subject to live on the page, and you want to capture him or her for the reader. To do this well, you have to get inside your character’s mind.

This is the way of method acting. An actor studies the exact person he or she is playing or someone similar. The actor wants a deep and detailed experience of the exterior of their character, as well as how the character thinks, in order to present the character realistically on stage or screen. The actor must feel the character. He or she must steal their character’s soul—if just for a short time. In some way you, the writer, must possess the people you’re writing about, and they must possess you back.

But what happens when you’re writing about another time period?. How do you get into your character’s mind if you can’t meet him or her in person? The answer is research. You must learn all you can about a person through your research. What you don’t know, you must fill in by studying someone similar. To know exactly how a ship’s captain might react just before a storm wrecks his ship, you must study the actions and reactions of other ship’s captains in similar situations. Chances are the actions and reactions will be somewhat the same. Remember, it’s what you choose to show the reader that will bring your character alive. 

When you’ve observed closely and written well about a person, you can feel them looking out at you from the portrait you’ve drawn while at the same time you and your readers are looking back in.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's Time to Start Over

Happy New Year! It’s once again time to start again. Funny how this one day can make such a difference. Personally, I try to use this day to get myself reorganized for the coming year. And you should, too.  As the year rolls on, things may seem to unravel. Does your recordkeeping fall short? Do your about writing seem to get more vague? Does your mind begin to wander as emergencies and small crises pop up?

As another year dawns, it’s time to reflect on your writing career. If you just started out in 2016, then you’ve got your whole career ahead of you. If you’ve been writing a while, then maybe it’s time to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and make some plans for the future. Make 2017 the year you go somewhere with your work.

Let’s say you’ve just begun to work as a freelance writer. Did you find it hard to place your work in the marketplace? Did the process seem frustrating? Do you think you’ve exhausted every avenue?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, then you have most likely haven’t followed the path of least resistance. Most beginners start out by sending their work to top publications. That’s your first mistake. Remember, you’re a beginner. You haven’t been in the marketplace long enough to establish credentials. So maybe you ought to plan ahead for 2017 so that you can get at least one piece—and hopefully many more—published.

Here are a few tips to getting on track in the coming year:

Write about what you know. The first mistake many beginning writers make is writing about subjects they know nothing about. Stick close to home. Write about subjects having to do with work or with a special interest of yours. Doing so will help build your confidence and give what’s called a “voice of authority” to your work. (More on voice of authority will appear in a later blog).

Keep your pieces relatively short. Another mistake beginners make is writing everything there is to know on a subject. It’s not really their fault, however, since the only type of writing they learned to do in school that had anything to do with research was term papers and reports.

Write to communicate.
You’re not writing for a grade as you did in school. You’re writing to communicate information to your readers. Unlike your teachers, your readers want to learn about your subject and be somewhat entertained at the same time.

Start with small publications. Search for publications that work with beginning writers. The editors of top publications are too busy to fuss with the musings of beginners. They need writing that’s concise, accurate, and professional, leaving little for them to do but lay it out and print it.

Set reasonable goals. Create reasonable goals for yourself for the coming year and see to it that you achieve them. Check on them occasionally to make sure you’re on track. And if you get off track, get back on as soon as possible. Lots of things can knock you off your game—illness, even a cold, family emergencies, a death in the family, etc. Remind yourself to review your goals in six months to see if they’re still possible or if you have to adjust them to your present situation.

Good luck and make this weekly blog part of your regular reading for 2017.