Monthly Archives: January 2009

Assigning Your Own Stories? Advice on Getting Started

What happens when an editor decides to move from handing out assignments to making you responsible for finding your own stories?

At first, it can be a little scary.  How do you get started?  Where do you start?

It’s a little easier if you have been writing for that editor and for the magazine for awhile.  You know the topic areas the magazine covers and you know what kind of stories the editor likes.   But even if you haven’t, even if you are new to the publication, there are some basic steps you can take to begin to wrap your arms around being your own assignment editor.

First, hold a call with the editor or drop by for a quick meeting.  This gives you a chance to ask some questions and make sure that both of you have the same understanding of just what your new role is.  Here are some of the questions I ask and the reasons why I ask them.

  1. What story types are you looking for – cover stories?  Features?  Profiles?   One editor I work for covers 7 states and has two regional editions to fill.  I would love to do cover stories for her because I earn the most money from covers but I can’t assume that’s what the editor has in mind.  So ask where can you be the biggest help to this editor?  You will pitch the right stories but you will also begin to build a stronger relationship with the editor because you are making his or her life easier.
  2. Do you have an editorial calendar that I can review?   This can really help you start to think through topics that might fit into that month’s issue or this quarter’s volume.  Your story ideas will fit better if you know what the editorial direction of the publication is.
  3. Are there any topic areas of special interest?  Most editors know their audiences so well that finding stories is easy for them.  This question helps you to make it easier for you, too. 
  4. How many stories will you be able to take from me?  Editors usually have a stable of freelance writers that they like to work with so they may only be asking for one or two story ideas a month from you.  That takes a little pressure off your back and makes it easier for you to find and flesh out story ideas that really might interest the editor.

These few questions will help you to cut through the “gray” area that suddenly appears when you become your own assignment editor and makes it easier for you to start generating ideas.  The faster you generate them, the faster you can write them and the faster you get paid!

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Writing Around Work

I HATE it when I have to write around work…but like most writers, I have  a full time job to pay for my full time but low paying passion — the job of writing!

Sometimes I start work at 5:00 AM and don’t get back to my home office until 7:00 or 8:00 PM.  By the time I plop down in my favorite chair, I can’t even string words together in a coherent sentence.  So how do I keep my creative writing pencil sharpened?  I cheat, sort of.

I keep a small, digital recorder with me at all times and during my long commute — sometimes it takes me 2 hours to get home — I consciously push my brain in the direction of a writing project that I need to work on but can’t seem to get to.  Amazingly, after just a few minutes of thinking about the topic, article or story, words seem to flow from me.  I have written pages of my tween novel while driving! 

Has your work ever gotten between you and writing?  What tips and tools have worked for you?

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Writing for the Web – Just The Beginning

Anyone who has written for more than a few years might feel a little intimidated when someone asks, “Do you know how to write for the web?”

It’s writing, right?  I write for a living, right?  What’s the big deal?

Writing for the web is not a big deal; it still requires writers to pay attention to word choice but with an added consideration — making sure what you write is optimized for organic search.

Before you panic, stop and think about it.  When you need background on someone or statistics to round out a writing assignment how do you use search engines?

You put in a string of keywords related to the topic you are looking for and wait for the results to show up on your screen, just like everybody else.

Let’s say you were searching for statistics on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  If you want current data, the timeframe is important.  If you want statistics, you need to include that word, too.  Then you have to direct the search engine to the topic for which you want statistics.  So maybe you would enter this phrase:

2008 statistics prevalence Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

This phrase helps the search engine to know what sites to bring back to you.  Search engines scan millions of pages for those keywords and bring back the sites that match them most closely.  If you don’t choose your words wisely, you could get hundreds of thousands of sites, most of which won’t help you at all.  As specific as this phrase was, it still brought back close to 20,000 results.  The first page of results was spot on — and from reputable organizations like www.birthdefects.org/.

So what does this have to do with writing for the web?

For all the articles that my very directed search brought back, there are probably 10 times that number of relevant articles on the Internet that did NOT get found.  Why not?    The writer forgot to use the keywords that people searching for his or her topic used.  If the keywords that people use to search for information are not included, the search engine is going to skip right over your article.

Two questions probably popped up in your head as you read that last paragraph. 

How do I know how people are searching?  Even if I did know, why would I change a really well written article by stuffing keywords in it?

The first question is easy to answer.  Try using a tool like Google AdWords – https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal – to see how people are searching for this topic.    Select “descriptive words or phrases” then enter your search terms or search terms that you think are related to your topic, into the text box to the right.  Leave Use Synonyms checked and click on the Get Keyword Ideas button.

Google will bring back keywords in the order of highest search volume to lowest.  So, now that you know the keywords that people use to search for information about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, what do you do with them? 

This goes to the second question — if you write an article but don’t optimize it for search engines….they will not come unless they get lucky!  If you want your articles, pages or press releases to be found, you have to use commonly searched key words or phrases in them so search engines can find them.

Using keywords and keyword phrases in your writing is not as hard as it sounds.  If you can find out what the primary keywords are before you write, you can work them in while you are creating.   If you don’t, you can get a handle on how people are searching for your topic after the fact and revise your article to include them.

Either way, knowing how people are searching for the topic you are writing about then using some of the keywords and keyword phrases in your article may help your writing to rise to the top of the search engine results when people search for your topic.  And isn’t that what all writing is really about — getting people to read it?

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Write A Novel in One Year

Up before dawn and a lot to do this morning but none of it involves writing — except writing this post!

It’s 5:45 AM and I have already done yoga but I still have to muck stalls, exercise my horse and clean my chicken coop and water the five fruit trees waiting in my garage, in buckets, for Spring.    I should be finished long about noon!  And I mean finished.

There are some days, like this one, when it doesn’t seem possible.  So, on days like this, sometimes I think I will just read a book or do some research online instead of writing.   Then the inner voice that nags me starts to whisper things like “Real writers don’t take breaks.”  “You can’t really write anyway so why not read?”  Or my favorite, “No one will ever read your novel so maybe you should quit.”

While I don’t really believe that voice in my head, it is tempting to contemplate not writing sometimes.  What?  A writer who thinks about not writing?  What kind of writer does that?

An honest writer. 

When you have been writing for close to 2 decades, and I mean writing stories, articles, brochures, business plans and essays, you might also think about life without a keyboard attached to your wrists or a pen stuck to your fingers.  You might long for the days when you can lay in bed with a novel, a cup of coffee and no desire to put words on paper.

Writing is hard work.  It takes discipline.  It requires loving attention and long hours alone, just you and your thoughts and your writing tools.  It is the proverbial labor of love.  No magazine is ever going to pay you for the 5 hours you spend researching or the 2 hours of interviews you do to learn about and explore the topic.  Transcribing notes — 4 hours and not billable.  Contemplating how to start the story?  Not going to earn you a dime.

From assignment to finished article, it can take up to 20 hours of hard labor.  The most I have ever been paid for a cover story of more than 2200 words was $400.  When you do the math — that’s $20 an hour or 18 cents a word — you can see that this is not a job for those who want to make easy money.   Most magazine publishers pay about 10 cents a word.

Making a living as a freelance writer is hard.  I don’t know a lot of people who are successful at it.  Most of us have full time jobs so we can support our full time passion.  Working 45 hours a week, commuting about 2 ½ hours every day and trying to get a little time in for exercise, eating, cooking, cleaning, laundry and sleep leaves me about 10 hours a week when I might, actually be able to sit down at the keyboard and write!

So, how do I make time and save energy for writing?

I get up at 4:30AM every morning.  I write before I eat, before I go to work, before I head out to the stable or put in a load of laundry.  I write for an hour every morning.  Whether it is journaling or banging out two new pages in my novel or putting the finishing touches on an article, I write.

As early as that is in the morning, as hard as it sounds to put EVERYTHING ELSE on hold and just sit here and write, I do it because writing lives at the very core of me.  When I don’t do it, I find myself resenting all those other things that are necessary to living and all those other people who make my life so rich and full.

So, advice from one writer to another – write!

Find a time of day, early, middle or late, when you will take just one hour for yourself and write.  Then stick to it.  If you only write 2 pages a day, you will have more than 700 pages of your novel written in just one year.  And if you aren’t writing a Russian novel, you could have two full novels done by this time next year!

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Reading And Writing

Writers usually read a lot.  

Favorite genres for me are murder mysteries and, oddly enough, biographies.  Recent books range from Dorothea Tanning’s autobiography – Between Lives: An Artist and Her World — to the downright humorous look at death and dying recently written by Jonathan Barnes entitled Nothing To Be Frightened Of.  

When I’m not nose down in a book, you can usually find me browsing through a favorite magazine like The Equine Journal, Practical Horseman, Mother Earth News, Advance Magazine for Nurses, Mother Jones News or Countryside.  I have books and magazines in every room in my house, have a supply in the car for emergencies and keep a couple of each in my briefcase.

When I read, I sometimes feel guilty because I am not writing!  I find it hard to rationalize sitting around enjoying someone else’s words while mine remain bottled up in my head.  But a funny thought occurred to me over this long holiday weekend.  Reading is really good for the writer’s mind!

When I read, I am learning about new topics and maybe even new words and ideas but I am also doing a whole lot of subconscious and symbiotic learning.  Learning is occurring at a level below articulation.  This is how children learn spelling and punctuation.  Why should it be any different for adults who write?  Why can’t we learn about characters and dialogue and plot this way?

The trick to getting the most out of those hours I spend away from my keyboard with, as my Mom used to say, “My nose buried in a book.” is to read consciously.  If I find a chapter, paragraph or sentence I like I stop and try to work out why I like it.  Is it the order of the chapter?  Are the sentences growing and building and moving me to a new or different place?  Am I learning more about the characters?  Are the words that the author chose ringing true to the story and the characters?  Why did I like it?

If I can pause long enough to figure that out, I might also figure out how what I learned could work for me in my writing.  What’s good about learning to read for more than the story is that you can use this technique and learn, even from a bad book. 

Give it a try.  See what you can learn about writing from your favorite author.  It’s also a great excuse for grabbing a book and a cup of tea and spending an afternoon just reading.

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Writing Resolutions

We all make them but writers tend to make New Year’s resolutions that actually sound like they can come true!

Part of the reason our resolutions sound plausible is our facility with words.  Part of it is that anyone who writes for a living often thinks about the future and how they will manage as the economy shrinks and traditional publications fall to online magazines and, you guessed it, blogs.

So, what resolutions am I making?  The first one is to share as much of what I have learned in this freelance writing business with anyone who is trying to get started in it.  Why would I do that?  Why would I give away what it has taken me more than 18 years to learn?

Because I wish that someone had shared their knowledge, their insights with me.  It would have made the first 17 years just a little bit easier.  So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts about and tips on freelance writing.

Freelance writing is tough at the very beginning because everyone wants to see samples of your writing and prefers writers that are published…which makes it harder to get published.  That said, there are a couple of places you can look for freelance jobs. 

 

Of course, one of the first places I check is www.craigslist.org .  I look in both Philadelphia and Delaware.  Click on the Writing/Editing link almost at the bottom of your screen – just right of center.  I have found a couple of freelance jobs through this listing.  One caveat – for every writing job I got through Craigs List, I probably submitted 100 queries.

 

I also subscribe to one free newsletter which has job listings but, more importantly, has tips, ideas and stories about writing and how to get started and keep going.  It is called Writer’s Weekly by Angela Hoy.  You can subscribe by going to http://www.writersweekly.com.

  

You also may want to look into Writer’s Market.  It is published every year and half of it covers book publishers, editors and agents and the other half covers magazines.  You can look at it at Barnes & Noble or maybe your local library would have a copy.  The good thing about Writer’s Market is that it includes all the information about the magazine including the editor’s name and contact information, the percent of the magazine which is written by freelancers and story ideas the magazine is seeking.

 

Oddly enough, I got the writing job with Equine Journal by answering an ad in their magazine.  So another tip would be to read through magazines and see who is looking for freelancers.  The down side is that some magazines only pay a very small amount — $60 per 600 word article – just 10 cents a word.  But I love horses and love writing so it works for me.  I also write for Advance Magazine for Nursing and The Art Times Journal. 

 

And I write for businesses but that is harder to get into and stay into.  To get jobs with businesses, you really, really have to network.  More on that later.

 

Those are a few of the ways I just stay tapped in.    I hope they help you meet some of your New Year’s resolutions

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