Sunday, January 24, 2016

Take Writing Seriously

Get in the habit—the writing habit, that is. The more you do, the better you’ll become. Unfortunately, life’s little annoyances—work, kids, grocery shopping, T.V. binge watching—all interfere with just plain getting down to work.  Such can be the life of a freelance writer unless you buckle down and take writing seriously.

There’s lots of advice for the taking—write every day, don't edit while you write, have goals. And while all of these are good, none are very helpful if you're trying to figure out just how they apply to you.

Before you can develop a new writing routine, you have to discover where you are. For how long do you normally write at one sitting? How often do you write? How many words do you produce in one session? When do you write—morning, afternoon, or evening?

To begin, figure out what type of writing ’s easiest for you to write—description, narrative, dialogue. You should be able to find out easily enough by paying attention to how much you write in any one session and what type of writing it is. You’ll soon see a pattern emerging.

Keep track of what you’re writing. Put a small notebook or pad of paper by your computer and note the following: type of writing, time you started, time you finished, and approximate word count.

When and how much you eat can also affect your writing. You’ll find that you’ll write more on an empty stomach. Your brain processes slow down on a full stomach, so your writing will also suffer.  And don’t think constantly sipping on a cup of coffee will help you to stay focused. In fact, it’s just the opposite. You’ll write better by reducing the amount of caffeine you have daily.

The same goes for exercise. A brisk walk before writing will get your endorphins going and thus make it easier to think and write. This doesn’t mean you’ll have to get up at sunrise and run five or six miles. Even walking briskly around the block will help get things going. Strength exercises, however, will have no effect on your writing.

If you’re addicted to your smartphone, as many people are today, turn it off when you’re working. Anyone who tries to call you will try to call you back later, or they’ll leave a message on voice mail. Answering just one call can distract you from your current train of thought. And if you don’t have a cell phone, make sure you have an answering machine and let it screen your calls.

The old adage is to write 500 words a day. That really refers to fiction writers. But if you can manage to write more, do it. Try to write a little more per day each week. It’s just like walking or jogging. Trying to do a little more each week will give you more stamina and, in the case of your writing, a way to increase your daily word count.

If you write non-fiction, the daily word count doesn’t necessarily apply. Most of the time you may be writing articles which are better dealt with in drafts rather than pieces. Non-fiction books, on the other hand, demand the same sort of daily word count objective as fiction.

In either case, if you can write more, you may want to switch projects. Perhaps work on an article in the morning and then on a chapter of your latest book in the afternoon. Switching subject matter or type of writing will stimulate you.

Do you just sit down to write, or do you know what you’re planning to write when you sit down? If you do the former, it will take you a bit of time to get started which cuts into your total writing time. But if you informally plan out what you’re going to work on, you’ll find you get a lot more done. And better yet, make a To Do List of the day’s or week’s work and check things off as you complete them.

Some writers, like athletes, are superstitious. They think they need to put on the right clothes, arrange their work materials in the right way, and turn on equipment in the right order. None of this will make you write more. These little rituals only get in the way of just sitting down and putting your fingers to the keyboard.

Above all, develop some good writing habits. Try to write for at least two hours a day. Don’t start writing and just go on and on. You’ll find you’ll have to redo most of what you wrote in the last half of the time. 

Strike when an idea is hot. If a good idea comes to you, even at odd times of the day, take advantage of it and get to your computer—or at least jot it down on a piece of paper. This could be an idea for a story or perhaps a way of solving a problem you’re already having with a passage. If you travel a lot, you may want to start carrying a small notebook with you to write down ideas as they come to you.

Work in your head. If you’re going to be writing full-time, you’ll find yourself writing even when you’re not at the keyboard. A good time is just before getting up in the morning. For many, that’s an ideal time to think out scenes or chapters.

Lastly, find the time to write that’s best for you. It’s different for everyone. Some writers get up super early and then knock off at Noon. Others start around 8 or 9 A.M. and write until perhaps 2 P.M.. And still others write in the evenings. Find your best time to write—not do research or read, but write—and stick with it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

You’ve Got a Site—Now What?

Okay, so you’ve designed your writer’s Web site or had it done for you, now what? Many people think if they design and launch a Web site that visitors will come. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it usually takes at least three and sometimes six months for visitors to find your site. Why is that and what can you do about it?

The answer to the first question is simple. In order for people to find your site, they have to see it in search listings, but getting into search listings is no easy task. The extraordinarily long time it takes for your site to appear in search engine results is because it takes time for search engines robots to crawl your site. The next time you view your new site, imagine little things moving all over your pages. They’re recording keywords in the content and what the content is about. Then they send that information back to the mother ship, let’s say Google, so the search engine can create a listing that appears in visitors’ searches.

But once search engines have found your site, things will change and visitors will start going to it. However, by promoting your site through Email and social media, you can get visitors to go to it even before search engines list it. It’s imperative to promote your site from the very first minute it appears online. And don’t stop—ever.

In this era of social media, it’s important to let readers know where else you’re active online. After you get your Web site up and running, be sure to create a professional Facebook Page. This isn’t the personal page that most people use, but one that shows you as a writing professional. It’s the type of page people “like.” You’ll have to work to get people to like your new Facebook Page, and this could take some time. But once you’ve created your Facebook Page, you’ll be able to download the code for widgets to put on your site, so that visitors can go to it.

Unlike your Web site, your Facebook Page is more to show fans what’s happening currently in your professional career. Don’t, as so many book authors do, create a Facebook Page for your book. Rather create a page for your writing business on which you can showcase your writing, no matter what kind you do.

If you have notable media coverage, good reviews, positive testimonials, or a significant following on a social media site, such as Instagram or Twitter, tell your site visitors about it. In fact, you may want to create a media page on which you post press releases and links to articles and reviews about you and your work. Doing so will show visitors that spending time on your site is worth it.

Give your visitors a reason to come back. Just telling them you’re a writer isn’t enough. Just promoting your book isn’t enough. You must offer them something. Don’t just post articles or stories you’ve written. Instead, choose them for subject matter that may be interesting to your readers, so they’re then actively reading your work. Inform and entertain them.

If visitors reach the bottom of a page on your site, that means they’re very engaged and will likely go to other pages on your site. Use this as an opportunity to add a call to action, such as an email newsletter sign-up or the sale of your book. If you don’t engage them first, you won’t sell anything.

To maximize the effectiveness of your website, install a site analytics tool. Google Analytics is a free and popular tool available to anyone with a Google account. Once you install it, you can  immediately collect data on your Web site traffic and visitors. It will also tell you which pages of your site are the most popular. This will help you plan for future additions to your site. And most importantly, your site statistics will tell you how people get to and use your site.

About 20–30 percent of your site traffic will come from mobile or tablet devices. Is your site optimized for those visits? While it’s important to keep cell phone users in mind, don’t design your site specifically for them, or for that matter, for any particular Web browser. Design your site for the majority of users. Owners of too many sites today are redesigning their sites just for cell phone use which takes away from how they look on a wide computer screen.

Remember, you don’t have to launch and perfect everything on your site at once. In fact, doing so is against the grain of the digital era. Start small but smart, and build your skills and presence over time. Customize and add more complex functionality as you get more comfortable with the technology, and as you develop specific skills and career goals that require the investment.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Designing Your Writer’s Web Site

As a freelance writer today, your Web site is an important part of your marketing plan. It will be your online home, the place where hundreds and possibly thousands of people will get to know you. It’s the place where you can present your products and grow your business by obtaining more work. Once you purchase a domain and choose a hosting service, you’re ready to begin designing your site.

Whether you design your site yourself or hire someone to do it for you, you’ll need to know what to include. Professional Web designers may know how to put material onto the Internet, but you can bet that very few know what’s needed on a writer’s site.

Every Web site contains the same basic parts—a Home Page, an About Page, Content pages, a Resources or Links Page, and a Contact Page. The Home Page is usually the first page a visitor sees. It’s the introductory page to your site and connects through a navigation menu to the other pages of the site.

The next most important page on your site is the About Page. Here, you’ll present yourself—why you chose to be a writer, what publishing experience you’ve had, and your social media connections. It’s important to let readers know where else you’re active online. You’ll also want to have a professional looking photo of yourself on the page.

Another important page is the Contact Page of your site. This should include ways in which visitors to your site—either editors or readers or both—can contact you. Here, you’ll post your preferred methods of cotnact—regular mail by street address, phone number for home or cell, and Email address.

A page which you may want to include is a Resource Page, which contains links to other sites that are of interest to you or are related to the subjects you write about. Many writers think that they don’t need outside links because they’ll take visitors away from their site. Actually, these links help visitors to find your site. The right links help to raise your rankings on search engines like Google which enables readers to find you faster. The rest of your site contains pages of your content—books, article listings, etc.

Before you decide on what your site will look like, you need to figure out its purpose. What do you want your site to do? Do you want to connect with your readers or do you want to connect with your editors, or perhaps both. Your site needs to have a direction and a unity that visitors will eventually associate with you.

First and foremost, your name should appear as an integral part of your Home Page. Under it you may want to add a tagline that clearly describes the type of writing you do.

You may also want to include an Email newsletter signup. Whether you send a newsletter once a year or once a week, you’ll want to stay in touch with readers who visit your site. MailChimp is one email newsletter service that’s free for up to 2,000 names, which helps automate this process for you.

If you write non-fiction, your site should contain a sample list of articles you’ve published. And if you also write non-fiction books, you can either have a book page or a separate page for each book, with links to so that your visitors can easily purchase them. In the beginning, you could easily combine everything into one page.’

If you write fiction, both short stories and novels, you can follow the same as above. You may even want to include a sample short story, one that’s one or two pages long. Novels can be listed much as non-fiction books, but if you write books in a series, then you’ll want to group them by series, with additional separate pages for each book, with a synopsis, reviews, and an excerpt. And always include links to where your work can be read or purchased in both print and digital form.

Depending on what you write, you may have been covered in the media. Create a page with testimonials and links to reviews or articles about you.

One of the biggest mistakes many writers make when developing their site is getting clever with menu listings or pages. Your Web site isn’t the place to get clever. It must be clear and straightforward, with logical navigational links to your various pages. Try to limit your menu to five or seven items. If you have a lot of content, group it into sections, then list the section titles in your Home Page menu. Create a separate menu with items pertaining to that section on the first page of each section, called the Landing Page. And always link back to your Home Page.

Another mistake many writers make is creating a blog page and calling it their Web site. While a blog is on a Web page, it isn’t a Web site. Your site needs to contain the four basic pages, plus various pages containing your content.

Don’t think you have to create all your pages at once. Start with the four basic pages, plus perhaps one page listing your work, then proceed from there. Creating new content keeps search engines happy and brings visitors back.

To learn about a basic Web site design package, check out BBC Web Services.

Next Week: You’ve Got a Site—Now What?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Reflections and New Beginnings

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

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

But you can’t move forward successfully without a plan. You need to assess each situation and draw on the resources or ideas best suited for it. To do this efficiently, you’ll need to prepare a situation summary. This is not only a review of each particular situation, but an analysis of it with goals specified for its improvement.

First, jot down each problem you had in 2015. You may have had only one or two, but if it wasn’t such a good year, you may have more than that. Tackle each one separately by preparing a situation summary for each.

Decide the best way to improve the situation, followed by the goals you need to achieve to solve the problem or get started in your new direction. Together these are known as a situation summary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A situation summary should be flexible, so you can adjust it as you go. Look for the positive side of whatever develops and build on it. And if you do, you’ll definitely have a Happy New Year.

NEXT WEEK: I’ll continue with designing a successful writer’s Web site.