Category Archives: Writing Articles

One Writer’s Mistakes – Buying But Not Reading

Writing has been in my blood for decades.  Words dance in my head from the moment I wake up to the moment my head drops onto the pillow.  Successful as a writer for magazines, professional groups and web sites, I still long for success as a writer of the Great American Novel — a wonderful goal that, at my current rate, I will never reach.

Why?  Because I persist in making all the mistakes that novice writers make starting with a common one — buying books — not reading or writing them.  I consider this…

Mistake #1

I am surrounded by books — on my desk, in the bookcase, on my nightstand, even in my car!   Pick a day or an hour and you will find me with two or three books “in progress.”  But somehow, with all that information filling every space in my rooms and in my head, this reader and writer has managed to ignore some of the best advice in the world.  I buy books on writing…but I don’t read them.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering The Craft languishes on my shelf beside Artful Sentences, Writing Dialogue and Modus Operandi.  I could start a lending library with all the books I own.  But instead of reading them, I dust them , look fondly at the titles and think about cracking one open until life intercedes and the books go back to gathering dust and fading in the sunlight.

Well, they did until last week when I idly picked up James Cross Giblin‘s Guide to Writing Children’s Books.  Giblin  has authored twenty-five books of his own and in his years at Clarion Books helped grow its titles to 400 books in print.  The man knows the children’s book market and he shares ideas, resources and just plain common sense advice in his guide.

I wrote my whole YA novel with that book sitting about six feet from my elbow.  Three hundred pages, three rewrites and my novel is still in the “shopping” stage.  Now, only two words dance in my head…if only.

So while I wrestle with the fact that I had insight and wisdom sitting on my shelf and chose to ignore it, here’s hoping that other, aspiring authors can learn from my mistake.  Don’t just buy books – read them!  Even the bad ones have something to offer.

There are many more writer’s mistakes to explore.  In the coming weeks, a few more mistakes that can derail your writing and a few more ways to avoid them.

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Filed under Business writing, Copywriting, Freelance Writing, Medical Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Articles, Writing for the Web, Writing Resources

Writing for The Examiner; An Exercise in Stupidity

Okay, I will admit it.  I was appealed to by the idea that I could write on a topic I love – horses – and get regional exposure.  So I signed on to write for The Wilmington Examiner.  I went through the application process and they did a background check on me that would have made a police department blush.  I was found “fit for writing” and given a chance to provide content to them.

I wrote for them from September 16th of 2009 until March of 2010.  Six months ago I stopped writing for them.  I held off posting this because I needed to decide if I was overreacting.  I don’t think I am.

I published close to 3 dozen articles that were well-written, well thought out, contained original content and included interviews with local, regional and national experts.  Then, one morning I received an email from The Examiner “auditor” informing me that an article I posted on natural fly control was not “local”, got  a verbal slap on the wrist and was reminded that I w0uld not get paid for articles that were deemed not local.

When I was done laughing, I sent them a note telling them why I would no longer be writing for them.

If you write for the The Examiner, you really cannot be writing for money.  Local articles earn the writer $1.00.  No that is not a typo – that’s 100 pennies.  The article in question took me several hours to put together.  At my usual writing rate, I would get $200 for 4 hours of work.  By writing this article, I lost $199.00 in income.

Beyond the obvious, if I had been writing for money, why would I have spent 6 months writing solid, appealing articles about horses, horse rescue and horse care to earn a total of $12.34?  I earn 4 times that, per hour, for articles written for three magazines for which I am a regular contributor.

So this is NOT about money.  This is about trying to contribute content about a topic I love so that people who live in the tri-state area (or anywhere in the world since the web isn’t geographically limited) would have yet another resource for solid information and entertaining stories about the equestrian world.  My average page views ran 1210; Wilmington Pets ran at a rate of 1228 and the average for pets, in general was 1457.  I’d say I had a readership.

The article in question covered a topic that a LOT of equestrians are interested in and used experts from several companies/places discussing their respective products.  It was linked to different web sites which should increase traffic to The Examiner’s site and was tagged for SEO.

So, who is the editorial genius that says writing from my desk in Pennsylvania has to be limited to….well, Pennsylvania?  And why?  This article was about flies.  Flies don’t limit themselves to the tri-state area.  They aren’t restricted to ADIs or zip codes.  Last time I checked, flies tend to hang around stables and barns.  And Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are… duh…in horse country.

If The Examiner wants to incent writers to leave their enterprise, this is the way to do it.  As a former journalist and a frequent contributor to several magazines with readerships in the hundreds of thousands, I find their approach short-sighted and insulting.  I have written my entire life and the product that I produced for their web site was  top drawer.

The operative word in that last sentence is “was.”  I officially resigned and have not written for the Examiner since the email from the auditor.  To their credit, the auditor did send me an apology for the email but the damage was done.  Theirs is a business model that works for them but, not, I would wager for 99% of the writers toiling over articles for this company.  If you are a writer and you are smart, you will save your words for someone who appreciates the effort, literally and figuratively.

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Filed under Copywriting, Equestrian Articles, Freelance Writing, Mid-Atlantic Horse Stories, Writing About Horses, Writing Articles

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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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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Filed under Copywriting, Freelance Writing, Writing Articles, Writing Resources