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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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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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Freelance Wanted, Sort of…

This is a story about a freelance job that looked good but, by the end of the process, smelled bad.

Like many freelancers, I troll Craigs List a lot, looking for opportunities.  Most of the time, I am looking for writing jobs but every once in a while, an ad of a different color attracts my attention like the ad for transcriptionists.

The company, Focus Forward, is willing to pay $10 for every 15 minutes of transcribed tape.  Since I transcribe my own interviews all the time and am pretty fast at transcription, I thought I could make a few fast dollars doing something interesting and easy.  I applied.  It wasn’t all that easy.

First of all, you have to download transcription software.  Then you have to download the “rules” for transcription, transcribe a test tape and send it in for “inspection.”  I was fine with the software download.  I was fine with doing the test.  I ran into trouble with the “rules.”  They have a LOT of rules that are not logically ordered and contradictory.  But I decided to play the game.

Here’s a company that states, right in the rules, that you have to transcribe the audio tape, verbatim.  Last time I looked, that meant word for word.  In those same rules, however, they have a whole list of words and verbalized pauses that they don’t want transcribed.  Problem #1.

They also carefully call out that you have to transcribe everything including the conversation at the end…but don’t mention the conversation at the beginning. So transcribe everything but not really.  Transcribe the conversation at the end…but no mention of the beginning.   Problem #2

And Focus Forward gives you ways to cover words that are either not clearly stated on the tape or not at all familiar to you.  You are told to use [PH] to indicate you are spelling the word phonetically if you can’t hear or don’t recognize it.  I used this device for a drug name I had never heard of but that was called out as incorrect in the transcript.  Problem #3.

I got a snarky email informing me I didn’t make the cut.  Failure to type the intro conversation about the weather and vacation was fatal.  I also use [PH], capitalized celiac and spelled Super Fresh as one word.

Freelancers everywhere probably have similar stories of making an honest effort to meet all the requirements of a prospective client only to be washed out NOT for lack of skill or lack of trying but for being utterly unable to jump through hoops that are tangled up like spaghetti.  If, when that happens to you, remember…it really isn’t your problem.

BTW Focus Forward is STILL looking for transcribers.  I wonder why?

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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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