Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

Inspiration for freelancing abroad

The first freelance panel at this year’s SPJ annual conference, Excellence in Journalism 2012 focused on international journalism.

The panel, Striking out alone in the world: winning strategies for International Freelance Reporting, featured Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, co-founders of the Bureau for International Reporting, Jina Moore, contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and others, and was moderated by John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.

In a well-organized, sharply presented panel, they drew on their extensive experience abroad and working with other journalists My summary of their remarks starts with this:  It is still possible to be a freelance correspondent abroad, but don’t expect a glamorous life hobnobbing with world leaders in posh hotels. Especially without putting in a lot of legwork.

Some quick points:

1)    Develop your contacts, sources and ideas while here in the U.S. Jina Moore suggested that if interested in Vietnam, go to Vietnamese restaurants in your area and find out what they’re talking about. Write about people from the country or with connections to the country that you want to visit. Develop a reputation for being interested in the place and it will help open doors when you’re ready to go.

2)    How to pay for it?

The message by and large was tap into foundations and international reporting fellowships. John Schidlovsky rattled off a number of sources for funding, including his own organization, the Pulitzer Center, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and the panel was sponsored by The Stanley Foundation. Kira and Jason have incorporated as a non-profit so their fundraising could help their administrative overhead and provide for a bit of salary. Not something that will work for regular freelancers (it’s worth trying to get a newspaper or magazine to pay a small administrative fee, but don’t hold your breath).

Jina Moore said it was still possible to string together multiple assignments from a place to cover your costs — John Schidlovsky noted that one IFP fellow did 11 stories from Micronesia just by being creative about story approaches. But know that it is difficult in the Web era to repurpose an assignment for different outlets. Jina has developed her skills so she can work in both print/text and radio, and that helps her do more stories while traveling.  She cautioned, too, not to expect to pay for a trip by getting a plum assignment when you’re on the road.

3) planning a trip requires setting up fixers and multiple interviews ahead of time, before you’ve gone. You also need to network, to develop a group of editors that you can ping before going some place. Spend time in New York or other places where you can try to meet editors in person, to develop relationships.

Don’t just jump into a hot spot looking for stories, the panel cautioned. Yes, you can find great pieces, but also great peril. Jina Moore said she had never gone to Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan because she feels like she’s not prepared to be there.  That is, she feels unprepared to deal with the potential for being kidnapped or worse, or asking her organization to get her out if tthings worsen.

Kira Kay said formal journalist visas are a good idea unless you can’t possibly get into a country with one. Having one has helped her get out of difficult situations where local officials wanted to take her equipment and notes, but could not do so because she had an official visa. She also said to make sure you know who to reach out to for help if trouble erupts.

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Four tips for better self-editing

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.

Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.

However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:

Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.

You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …

It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.

Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.

Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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The keys to good journalism

The moment I thought “journalism” had died and I missed it came before speaking to a college class.

“Oh no, this isn’t a journalism class,” the professor told me moments before I stepped into the lecture hall. “This is media communications.”

“Not the same thing?” I asked. “I thought I was here to address journalism students.”

“Well, yes,” the professor said. “And no. Which is why I invited you.”

Confused, I asked for clarification, which she gave: “Journalism is incorporated in all we do; it’s an element in all we teach. But journalism by itself, we don’t do that anymore.”

And my job here this day?

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” the professor said, sounding apologetic. “I was hoping you could explain what journalists like yourself do in your day-to-day routine — tell them how the theory comes into practice.”

This sounded simple enough. Problem was, the majority of the 45 students awaiting my sage instruction were seniors about a month away from sporting mortarboards. In my own college time, the “theory” we were supposed to learn came into practice almost immediately after freshman orientation. We all knew going in how to type on IBM Selectrics and use notepads, the professors presumed back then. Thus, their chief task was showing us how make something of the space between our ears, the most valuable news-gathering tool we had.

I doubted that anything I had to say to those 45 students would help them get a foot in a door at that point. Yes, they were savvy with networking and gadgetry. And yes, they probably knew how to knead an idea in as many ways as the prefix “multi” in multimedia allowed. But how much theory can anyone reasonably grasp when their eyes are focused on the space below the exit sign?

The key then, I believed, was offering the students less theory and more practicality. I didn’t know how much of the latter their in-class lessons provided. From my experience, the lessons I learned outside class were the ones still rooted in my mind. So, I opted to pass along some of the same tried and tested tips that no text or learned lecturer had awarded me at their age. If even a few students caught a clue, I figured, they’d be better prepared than a lot of their peers.

Among my hard-earned pearls of experience:

Read. Everything — We tend to reach first for whatever we like to read, not what we ought to read. Delving into assorted writing styles expands one’s mind for using words. It’s said that the best way to become a good writer is to first become a good reader, because you have to know and understand how words work before trying to make use of them.

Research. Everything — The habit today is to sift Wikipedia or the first couple of pages of a Google search for key sources, when the truth is that both of those venues are suspect. Wikipedia is vulnerable to prejudiced editing, while Google permits paid placement to influence its search listings. Real research — probing everything from pamphlets to databases and interviewing assorted subjects — takes time and effort, and is perhaps the hardest thing about being a credible journalist. Get comfortable with such sites as PACER and Pipl and Portico, and learn how to conduct advanced searches on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Listen. To everything — Rare is the interview when the subject gets to the point right away. Journalists may have to sit through speeches, musings, even homespun tales before the golden detail they seek rings clear. That’s fine — just listen. Chances are that other important information can be culled from what sources are trying to say.

Develop a strategy — Don’t go blindly into a topic hoping a story will somehow magically appear in completed form on your computer or tablet screen. In advance of pursuing a story idea, figure out how best to go about that pursuit. In other words, have a plan of action before taking the first note or conducting the first interview.

Develop living, breathing sources — The trend toward news aggregation is fine for those happy with merely repeating other people’s ideas. But for the rest of us intent on generating original content, it pays to talk with reliable experts, witnesses and trained observers to discover first-hand information, no matter who they are. And after that, it pays dividends to stay in touch and keep abreast of what they’re doing, find out what they’re seeing. Who knows: these once-used sources could provide insight to other story ideas later.

Ignore titles — Along this line, avoid depending too much on people with big or impressive titles. I struggled mightily in my first weeks of reporting by thinking the titled types possessed all the salient details when it was everyone below them — administrative assistants, clerks, servants, etc. — who had this information. I realized then that executives only make decisions; subordinates are the ones who make those decisions happen, and by extension know where all the signed documents are stashed.

Be skeptical — The saying among my college professors was, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” The point: Never take others’ word as gospel, for they may have less information than you. Furthermore, there are people out there whose job it is to mislead journalists. Don’t make it easier for them to do their job by trusting what they say.

Be compassionate, to a point — Understand that everyone has an opinion and the interview may be where the subject feels a need to express it. Let people vent, if it puts them at ease, but avoid getting drawn into an agenda.

Talk it over — It helps to talk about your stories with colleagues to get their input, though the solitary nature of freelancing can make that difficult. For journalists going it alone, professional organizations such as SPJ, the Online News Association and the American Copy Editors Society offer venues for discussion, as do the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelance Success and Freelancers Union.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


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What running taught me about writing

Thirty years I ran, in competition and at leisure, for my main source of exercise, pounding pavement and trails, hills and dales, until my body said, “Stop. Sit down. Take it easy now.” The pernicious announcement was broadcast through my feet, knees and heels. Nevertheless, I hobbled on until exactly the day 30 years after I started running, then shelved my 278th and apparently final pair of training shoes.

The downside was divorcing myself from a diversion that had become second nature. The upside was finding more time to write, my other favorite thing to do. So I jumped into blogs and social media with the same vigor as running, even finished that first book I always promised myself and started tapping out a second. I didn’t give up exercise, just reassigned it on my list of priorities.

Soon, however, I remembered that every leap has a fall, and mine came when the words suddenly didn’t. Writer’s block, a problem foreign to me until then, choked my confidence, turned sitting at a keyboard into physical agony, and made me wonder whether my decades-long love of words had waned. After all, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing …

I puzzled over this alarming change. I went on book-reading binges and to coffee-house poetry readings to try shaking my creativity loose. I tried even staring down my computer, hoping for the moment the screen was less blank than the look on my face.

It was during one of these stare-downs that I realized the problem: I hadn’t prepared myself properly to write so much.

As with running, writing requires a “training” method of sorts. Just lacing up the shoes and hitting the road without proper preparation invites injury and aggravation for runners; it makes sense then that sitting down to write without a plan can cause comparable aggravation.

So, before you type, think.

Have a plan — Blogs and books, tweets and treatises, they all require distinct writing styles, with the format for one unlikely to fit another. Settle on a style to suit the need. Be true to your voice. But do the research, determine word counts and writing time … in other words, have a plan before starting to type. Knowing parameters can help keep a project under control and palpitations to a minimum.

Have good equipment — In running, comfort is king. Shoes and togs that satisfy this royal priority reduce injury, frustration and boredom. For writers, comfortable equipment, and a dependably cozy, ergonomically suitable place to lay down ideas address those same issues. The key is to eliminate physical distractions that may hinder the creative process.

Have a goal or routine — At my peak, I ran 10 to 15 miles daily, regardless of speed, to satisfy my training expectations. As a writer, I aim for a minimum of 1,000 good words at each sitting, regardless of topic. Goals and routines serve as rulers; they help us see how far we’ve come and how much further we must yet travel. Of course, nobody starts running 10 miles their first day; one works up to that. The same with writing. Start small, then expand the goal as time and tolerance permit.

Have accountability — Did you miss your goal for the day? Mark it on a calendar as a reminder. Did you exceed your goal? Reward yourself in some way. The final arbiter is the person you see in the mirror. Be able to stare back at that person without the least twinge of regret.

Have some variety — For a while in my running routine, I chose the same route  because that one more than others gave me what I felt was the best workout. But opting for sameness invited a lameness to my training that curtailed my development. Writing the same way every day can be just as limiting. If prose is your forte, dabble with poetry. If long-form writing is de rigueur, break out with short stories once in a while. To help, keep a writing journal — a paper or electronic place to experiment with other styles and discuss progress with yourself.

Have a partner — Running, like writing, is an intensely solitary exercise, and solitude can be confining. Through partners, runners find motivation and challenge, especially if the partner is a somewhat better runner. Writers, meanwhile, benefit from partners who discuss ideas, edit their output, even nudge them along on daunting projects. Partners provide a perspective on writing that solitude may not permit.

Have healthy habits — To run or write, you need fuel. Lacking that, runners hit a wall and writers hit a blank. But not just any fuel works. The term “garbage in, garbage out” may be chiefly a computer programming term but suits writers well, too. You eat junk food, you’re going to have junk writing, because the mind is more efficient with a healthy diet. Additionally, a sedentary lifestyle has been found to diminish brain function. Get up and out on a regular basis if only to increase blood flow to the brain. Walk, run, bike, bend, stretch — whatever it takes. Writers will find the words come easier when there’s less garbage in their way.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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How Much Should You Charge?

There seems to be a little “rift” between the “my work is valuable” crowd and the “help! I need money!” crowd. Established freelancers say — rightfully — that you should get paid what you’re worth, but some beginners argue that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Last week I received an email from Briana, a 21-year-old beginner freelancer who says she is desperate for work — ANY work. She is deeply in debt and can’t pay her bills.

Briana said:

Since being laid off in January, I’ve been pursuing a career as a freelance writer, and while things are steadily looking up, the fact of the matter is I’m still not making enough for a full time income. 11 months later and the stress of getting a “real job” is even greater than before.

Briana lives in ultra-expensive Southern California. Although she wants to stay in that area to be close to her family, she’s willing to move to Nevada — where the cost of living is cheaper — while she establishes her freelance career. (That’s dedication!)

The problem is, her husband would need to find a new job if they moved to a cheaper area. Right now his job provides their main source of income, and they can’t risk upsetting that income stream.

As you can see, Briana has some big financial challenges that relate to being a beginner freelancer.

I wrote Briana an epic, 2,000-word response to help her figure out how she should price her freelance work. You can read it here, in a post I call: Give Me Money!

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Business Freelancers: Are You Using the Reynolds Center?

If you’re a business freelancer, then you’ll want to be sure to check out the Reynolds Center. It offers some great online resources as well as classes, some paid and some free. In addition, the Reynolds Center offers grants to apply for some its other programs. Here are a few items I found interesting during a recent visit:

Tumbler:  One of the Best Journalist Tools You’re NOT Using

Fellowship Opportunity:  Strictly Financials, Jan. 2 – 5, 2012

Journalism Job Listings

Self-Guided Training


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Free Webinar: Sales Strategies for Freelance Business Journalists

Hello, freelance friends! I heard about this free webinar being offered by the Reynolds Center next month:  Sales Strategies for Freelance Business Journalists. It is being offered by freelance committee member Maya Payne Smart, so I know it is going to be a good one! Thanks to the Reynolds Center and Maya for offering this series of classes next month.  Topics include:

– Who is looking for business freelance journalists
– How to decide whom you want to work with
– How to consistently turn leads into clients
– Branding, marketing and closing the sale

The webinar is being offered August 16 – 19, with a new topic each day. Sign up now to secure your spot!


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Developing an Expertise as a Freelancer

By Paula Pant, who writes the personal finance blog

Congratulations, you’ve just entered the world of freelancing. If you’re like me (and I know many of you are!), you ventured into the Freelance Jungle hot off the heels of working at a daily newspaper, where you never had to worry about finding clients, negotiating contracts, or following up with editors about your long-overdue paycheck.

Hundreds of topics have been posted about how to do all of the above things, but I’ve seen very little written about one of the biggest hurdles I faced when I became a freelancer: what should I write about?

At the newspaper I was assigned to the “education” beat, although the paper was small enough that all the beat reporters felt like we were general assignment. If there was an education story, I wrote it. But if there wasn’t, I covered murder, fires, and celebrities who came to town.

Furthermore, I never really WANTED to be on the education beat. I had no particular interest in educational issues. I was assigned that beat, and I ran with it. But I lacked the passion to continue writing about that same topic as a freelancer.

In short: I had no expertise.

Do I Need an Expertise?

At first, I didn’t see the need to develop an expertise. “I’ll just write about whatever!,” I thought, just like I had in my general-assignment days.

For a very brief second, it looked like that strategy would work. I had a regular stream of work for a local magazine, writing about a wide variety of local stories: store openings, profiles of local business leaders, stories about upcoming charity runs.

But there was nowhere to grow. My method wasn’t scalable.

Choosing an Expertise

After that I tried to mold my expertise to fit the magazines for which I was currently freelancing. I happened to be writing for a smattering of food magazines, so I figured, “Alright, I’ll be a food writer!”

Problem: actually trying to do that, without the requisite background or passion, proved to be much more difficult than I thought. I was competing against a pool of talented food writers with genuine passion and years of experience. Unless I was willing to put the work into rising to their level, there was no way I was going to scale up to the bigger and better-paying publications.

You Are What You Read

Years ago I heard advice that’s carried me through my career: write what you read.

In college, I devoured nonfiction: newspapers, magazines, books. I quickly realized I should write for the same mediums that I read. I forged into journalism shortly after making that realization.

When I became a freelancer, I applied this same advice one level deeper: what topic do I read most often? What’s my favorite magazine? What’s on my bookshelves?

The answer was astonishingly easy. My favorite magazine is Money Magazine. My bookshelves are stocked with Trent Hamm and Philip Fischer. As soon as I became conscious of this, I wondered why the idea hadn’t seemed obvious from the beginning: I should write about money.

But I Don’t Have a Degree in It!

Once you recognize the topic in which you want to cultivate an expertise, you may face the same follow-up concern that I did: “But I’m not an expert in it! I don’t even have a degree in that field!”

I don’t have a finance degree. I’m not a certified financial planner, certified public accountant, or certified anything else. How could I gain credibility? If this is your situation — how can you gain credibility?

The answer is simple: just do it. If you read about your preferred topic, chances are you’re already well-versed in its fundamentals. You already have a long list of innovative thoughts on that subject matter percolating in the back of your mind.

Keep reading books and magazines on that topic (this is the fun part of our jobs!). If you love it, then is exactly what you’d be doing in your spare time anyway. The more you read, the more ideas you’ll generate.

Get those thoughts down on paper. Pitch them as story ideas. Launch a blog. Tweet about it. The more you publish about that topic, the more credibility you gain.

Soon you’ll be able to say with confidence, “Hi, I’m John, and I write about cars,” or “I’m Jane, and I’m a landscaping and gardening writer.”

Hi, I’m Paula Pant and I write the personal finance blog Check out my popular recent post, If I had a Million Dollars, I’d Go Into Debt. Follow me on Twitter @AffordAnything

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Freelance Workshops in D.C.: April 15 – 16

SPJ freelance committee member Ruth Thaler-Carter will be leading several editorial freelancing workshops in Washington, D.C. next week for the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA):

Basics of Editing and Proofreading

Friday, April 15 (1–4 p.m.), True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street NW, Washington, DC

Learn or refresh your knowledge of the essentials of editing and proofreading, including marks and symbols, essential style manuals, levels of editing, using Microsoft Word as an editing tool, using Acrobat for proofreading, and working effectively with clients and colleagues, and expand your files of helpful resources, from publications to organizations and more. Applicable to in-house and freelance colleagues. Ruth E. Thaler-Carter brings more than 25 years of experience as a freelance writer and editor to this practical nuts ’n’ bolts workshop.

EFA Members $50 – Nonmembers $65


Getting Started in Editorial Freelancing

Saturday, April 16 (10 a.m.–1 p.m.), True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street NW, Washington, DC

You need more than writing skills and a computer to be a successful freelance writer, editor or other editorial professional. You also need business sense, knowledge of the market, and a firm grasp of the tricks of the trade, among other attributes. Ruth E. Thaler-Carter will share her 25-plus years of experience in this tough but highly rewarding arena, working from her booklet, “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer” and her EFA publication, “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business.”

Whether you are a writer, editor, indexer, graphic designer — you name it — you will find out how to jump-start your dream of living the freelance lifestyle with tips on setting up and organizing, finding work, networking, using resources, getting paid, combating isolation, and more. Energize your business with practical, upbeat insights into the joys and challenges of editorial freelancing. Even seasoned freelancers will garner new insights and useful suggestions.

Instructor Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has been a full-time editorial freelancer since 1984. She has published articles and reports locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally; desktop-produces newsletters for businesses, associations, and not-for-profits; and does proofreading and editing for a variety of clients. Her freelancing seminars have been popular with the EFA, the American Copy Editors Society, Cat Writers Association, International Association of Business Communicators, American Independent Writers, National Press Club, National Writers Union/DC Local, and other groups.

Attendees have called this workshop “fun and full of good energy” and “… lively and informative [and] very grounding.”

EFA Members $50 – Nonmembers $65

Freelancers and Their Websites

Saturday, April 16 (2–4 p.m.), True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street NW, Washington, DC

No matter what kind of freelance business you have (or want to have), it has to get noticed on the World Wide Web, and that means having your own website. Find out the basics of creating a website: getting a domain name and hosting service, planning content, and designing an effective, attractive website that will help attract readers and publishers to your work. Freelance writer/editor Ruth E. Thaler-Carter maintains her own website, manages content for several others and has created some sites herself. She will provide tips on why writers should have websites and how to get them started, show you how to find and use templates and basic design techniques, and provide examples of colleagues’ sites to use as inspiration—both what to do and what not to do. Note: This is a general class, not a high-tech offering.

EFA Members $40 – Nonmembers $55

20% discount for taking all three classes.

Lunch will be on your own.

Meter parking on U Street. The site is near the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metrorail Station, on the Green and Yellow lines (use the 13th Street NW exit and walk a half-block east from the escalator to the entrance of 1200 U Street NW).

Registration info at:


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