Saturday, September 28, 2013

CAUTION! Hazards Ahead

As you proceed in your freelance writing career, you’ll come upon many hazards. Some of these are writing related, some market related, and others personal. Some of the main ones include the predators looking to use published writers for their own gains, the lure of cheap commercialism, the perils of success, and loneliness and fatigue, both mental and physical.

Other hazards come and go, such as market fluctuations, natural disasters, and legislation. As a working writer, you’ll have to get used to living with them all and continue to write.

One of the most frequent hazards concern pay. A market to which you frequently contribute falls on hard times and before you know it, the publication falls behind in payments to you. They still want material and promise to pay you as soon as things get better. While this may sound good, it’s really the death rattle of a publication trying to stay afloat.

And then you’ll run across someone who loves your work but can’t pay you. You’re not in business to give your products away, but, on the other hand, will this freebie possibly lead to some paying work? It’s a chance you may have to take. To turn this around, you may want to search out some Web sites that need content that you can provide. While they most likely won’t pay anything, they could lead to other work because of the promotion you’ll get from them. In this case, you’re in control.

Another hazard you’ll face from time to time is a lack of ideas. Try to stay ahead of this one by stockpiling ideas as you get them. Write them down or use an app for your smartphone to record them. You never know when they may come in handy. Chances are you won’t use many of them, but it never hurts to have an inventory of good ideas.

Markets come and go. You can never tell if a particular market for which you’re writing will be in business in a year or two. Editors change. That’s a biggie. An editor with whom you have had a good working relationship decides to move on. On the plus side, he or she may take you with them to the new and perhaps better publication. But on the downside, the new editor probably will want to work with his or her own stable of writers. There’s no “forever” in this business.

Another thing that can work against you is the economy itself. Upturns and downturns are commonplace today. The most recent recession is an example. While it may not have affected all the writing markets, it will have hit some—and hard. One of the hazards that occurred here was the massive layoffs of newspaper reporters and editors. Since the newspaper business is in the throes of change, they couldn’t find jobs there, so where did they turn? You guessed it—freelance writing.  Those who you may have worked for have now become your competition.

What happened in New York City in 2001 shows what can happen to a particular market. After 911, travel markets went into a state of turmoil. People were afraid to travel. Advertisers couldn’t pay for their ads so they stopped advertising. Many publications went under. That happened a dozen years ago, yet the travel publication market hasn’t fully recovered.

Writing is hard work. And after a while, it can get to you. Too many deadlines can be extremely stressful. And stress can then cause problems with your overall health. It’s important to eat right and exercise. Sure, I know you’ve heard that before, but this time it’s imperative that you live a healthy lifestyle. Remember, if you get sick or perhaps seriously ill, you don’t have workman’s compensation to help you. You most likely don’t have any backup at all. And that the biggest hazard of all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Plotting Along

In a video interview on YouTube, Stephen King recently told a group of students, “Forget plotting. That takes all the fun out of writing.” That may be easy for him to say. As a famous writer of over 35 books and numerous short stories, plotting is second nature. But to most beginning writers, plotting fiction and blocking non-fiction is a fact of life. A necessary evil that they need to master.

The more you write, the easier it becomes. Just as any other professional, writers develop skills that become part of the routine. While Stephen King may think he’s just winging it, he’s actually plotting out his stories in his mind. He doesn’t need to plan them on paper, but you do.

Whether you’re writing articles or short stories, non-fiction books or novels, you need to know where you’re going—you need to know how it will generally will end—so that you can finally get there. Too many beginning writers start a book and only get a third to half way through before they call it quits. The article, short story, book, or novel won’t guide you. Only you can do that.

The reason most beginning writers shy away from blocking or plotting is that they associate these with outlining—that dreaded chore they had to do in school for their term papers and such. Neither is outlining.

Let’s take blocking, for instance. Blocking out an article is easy. You start by putting the word “beginning” at the top of the page and the word “ending” at the bottom of the page. In between you list what comes in the middle in whatever order you choose. This is simplifying this a bit, but, nevertheless, it’s as simple as that. You don’t have to write each step out in sentences, just make notes to yourself as to what it will contain. You may also may want to make a note as to how you plan to start your piece and how you’ll end it since endings usually wrap up where you began. You can do all of this on a napkin if you want. This isn’t a formal outline, but a flexible plan that may change as you write. But it’s a plan all the same.

Plotting a short story is similar. There are some basic plots for all short stories. So after you choose which basic plot you’ll be following, you need to write a synopsis of your story. Pretend a friend asked you what your story is going to be about, then just tell him or her, but do it on paper and limit it to one page. This will help you plot out your story. Again it’s a flexible plan. It can change as you go, but by doing this, you’ll have an idea how the story will end. So you write forwards towards that ending.

Writing isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you that or gives you that impression is only telling you what you want to hear. Writing is work—hard work. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Once you start blocking or plotting, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. Yes, writing can be fun, but if you’re stressed out trying to write something, there’s no way it can be.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

So You Want to Write a Column

A regular option open to you as a freelance writer is to write a column. Though it sounds simple enough a column requires discipline, creativity, and most of all ideas—lots of them.

For many, writing one article is hard enough , but imagine having to come up with 52 of them—one each week—or at least 12 if you’re doing one monthly.

As you read this blog, you may ask yourself, “Isn’t this like a column?” Sort of, but not exactly.  A column is generally a short article on a theme that gets published regularly—weekly or monthly as a regular feature of a newspaper or magazine. A blog, on the other hand, may be posted regularly, but usually that’s up to the blogger. And while a blog may follow a general theme, it may stick to it loosely for a short time. A column, on the other hand, may go on for years.  The most important distinction is that a writer does the former for free and the latter for pay.

Over the years, the market for columns has changed dramatically. But one thing hasn’t: Publishers are still looking for new columnists. Generally, a column offers an insider’s view of a subject, of which the writer is an expert. It’s also a regular feature of a publication, either in print or online, and is personality-driven by the writer. It also contains an opinion or a point of view

A blog, on the other hand, provides for an interactive discussion with its readers. The blog writer  posts the blog, which the site displays in reverse chronological order—the most recent post appears first). Blogs can be the work of a single person or several persons, and often cover a single subject. And while a blog can be written by anyone, columnists are usually professional writers.

To be a successful columnist, you need to find a specific niche, but not so specific as to narrow your potential audience and topics of your column. You’ll have to find out whether other columnists are writing on the same subject and study their work to see how it differs from yours.

After you’ve done that , you’ll need to outline some topic ideas and write several sample columns to show to editors. It’s important to stay ahead of the game. You should continually update and add to your topic list so that you’re never at a want for ideas.

Because columns are short and published regularly, they don’t usually pay as much as even shorter regular articles. An advantage to writing a column is that you can publish it in several noncompeting market at the same time, thus increasing the amount you earn per column. 

In order to have a successful column, you need to come up with a unique angle or approach. You may wish to take the outspoken approach. Perhaps you’ll deal with controversial topics within you column’s subject area. If you feel knowledgeable about a subject, then a column may be just for you. You’ll need a substantial amount of knowledge and understanding about a subject to come up with topics week after week or month after month.

Next Week:  More on writing columns.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Smart To-Do Lists Get Things Done

To-do lists are great if they work. But just making a to-do list isn’t enough. You eventually have to act on it. Usually, these lists become a black hole into which everything you need to get done for your business, home, and life disappears. The result is that you end up doing nothing. But you do have that list. Isn’t that enough?

Creating a big long list starts to feel productive. It’s almost as if you’re actually getting started on a few of these items simply by acknowledging your need to do them. And finally, the act of writing a list can be so satisfying you don’t feel an immediate need to get started on the first item.

You’ve got a smart phone and a smart computer. Now it’s time to create a smart to-do list.

Keep it short. Can you accomplish two important tasks each day? A long to-do list of more than two pages can be intimidating. It’s actually better to have make several shorter lists. At first, you may think that all the items on your list have equal value, but that’s usually not the case. Limit your list to 10 items each week.

Prioritize the things you have to do. Put the important ones on your main list and the others on a secondary list. Often the items on this second list have no immediate deadline, so you can check them off as you have time to do them. If one or more of them becomes important, you can always add it to your main list.

Focus on what’s important first. Differentiate between productive tasks and satisfying time wasters.

When creating your list, use action words. Also, create a short command sentence for each item, not just a word or a phrase. For instance, “Research and write my writing blog for this week.”

Just as in your writing, you need to be as specific as possible when creating your to-do list. The more specific you can be, the better. Instead of “marketing,” write: “Identify five new markets for my articles and send queries to their editors.” The more specific you are, the more actionable your list will become. Once you know what you want to accomplish, it’s easy to make a to-do list of steps to get it done.

Use technology to create your list. You may prefer writing your list on a piece of paper. But with all the devices and special software programs at your disposal, you may want to consider trying something different. Take Evernote, for example. This neat application allows you to create notes, and, yes, a to-do list on any of several devices—desktop computer, laptop computer, cell phone, tablet—and then access them on all of the devices at any time.

Another great feature of Evernote is Evernote Web Clipper. With this application, you can save articles, links, and even full Web pages to read later. It’s better than a bookmark because you can only bookmark sites in a particular browser on an individual device. But with Evernote, your bookmarks or articles travel with you so that you can access them at any time.

The same applies to your to-do list. If you write your list on a piece of paper, you have to go into your office to read it and act on what’s listed. But with your list traveling with you, you can access it at any time and complete tasks using different devices, thus increasing productivity.

Of course, you can do much of what Evernote does on Google Calendar or on Yahoo. But saving notes, to-do lists, photos, Web pages, music, and more allows you to become more productive by making the best use of the time you have.

As you head into a freelance career, remember a large part of your success will depend on your ability to work through an ever-growing list of things to do. Creating a smart to-do list will help you prioritize what you have to do, so you get things done.