Posts Tagged ‘SPJ’


Active vs. passive in finding freelance work – a website isn’t enough

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, www.writerruth.com, “I can write about anything!”®

In a recent LinkedIn group post that had me shaking my head, someone recently said, “I found it very hard to get anyone to respond to my web site for editing. How do you all do it?”

That was it – the entire post. Not even a URL for her site so group members could take a look and offer advice based on how she presented herself, which might be a big piece of her problem.

My response was that a website by itself isn’t enough to find freelance work, whether it’s writing, editing, proofreading – or plumbing. I said: “I had a few years of in-house writing and editing jobs that gave me, in addition to skills and experience, an excellent networking base. Once I was freelancing full-time, I made a point of being active in professional organizations that provided job listings, among other services, and expanded my networking range. Most of my current projects come from people finding me, rather than my having to find them, but I still get new projects through listings from professional organizations. I also get some from being active in LinkedIn groups.

“The key is ‘active.’ A website is passive. You have to be active. You can’t sit there and wait for clients to find you. That means joining, and being visible in, professional organizations. Maybe joining a local writers’ group or writers’ center to meet potential clients, if you want to edit books. Sending cold queries to publishers and being willing to take their editing tests.

“You also have to tell prospective clients why they should hire you – what skills and experience you have, which style manuals you know, what your approach to projects and clients might be, etc.”

I also should have mentioned that, once you have a website, you have to make it as active as possible. That means refreshing, revising and adding information to it regularly – every time you do so, you improve its visibility in rankings. You have to learn a little about search engine optimization (SEO) so you can use language that will help the site do well in searches. You have to focus its content not just on how great a writer you are, but on what you can do for clients with that writing skill and experience. You have to take the lead in making the website work for you by doing something to drive people to it.

Readers of this blog, as members of SPJ, already have figured out the value of joining a professional association. Many of you also have figured out the value of not just being what I call a checkbook member, but of being active and visible. If you’re planning to freelance, you have to make sure that people know who you are and what you can do, and colleagues in SPJ are a good place to start. Just as you can’t just pay your dues and wait for SPJ to make you a better or more-successful freelance journalist, you can’t just sit there and wait for prospective clients to stumble over your website and hire you for freelance work.

It’s easier for freelance writers to find new business than it is for editors, in a way – it isn’t that hard to find publications to query with article ideas, while editors may have to be more creative in finding and connecting with prospective clients. Proving our experience may be easier for writers as well, because we can usually point to our published work, while editors and proofreaders often can’t display their projects – a lot of editing/proofreading work is proprietary, and a lot of clients don’t want the world to see how badly their projects needed our editing skills!

The key to getting more work is to be seen and heard. That means not just having a website, but being active in places like SPJ chapters and online groups, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook – and not just with questions or requests for help, but with the occasional answer, tip and help for colleagues. You can’t always be taking; you have to give a little, too. In fact, SPJ itself is a good starting point – contributing to the Freelance Committee and its blog will help get your name out there as someone with a writing voice, style and substance that is worth recommending and hiring.

It also can’t hurt to let everyone you ever worked with, and even everyone you know in the personal realm, know that you’re freelancing and available for projects. Keep it low-key and professional, but you have to get the word out about your freelance business, at least initially. You can’t assume that people who might hire you, or know of potential clients and projects, will magically know that you’re available.

Getting the word about your business isn’t easy, but no one ever said freelancing would be easy. Having your own business never is – it’s fulfilling, rewarding and often exciting, but it isn’t easy.

For your website to be an active element in your freelance business, you have to promote it and use it; it can’t just sit there waiting for people to find it. Overall, for a freelance journalism business to gain traction and succeed, the freelancer has to move past the “Build it and they will come” mentality and move into one that’s more of “Here’s who I am and what I can do for you.” Don’t be afraid to make the first moves in getting the word out about your freelance business. Once you establish that groundwork or foundation, work will start coming to you by referral, word of mouth and other passive outlets, including that website, but you have to make those first moves.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has made presentations on freelancing, editing & proofreading, and websites for national SPJ conferences. In addition to her freelance writing, editing and proofreading business (www.writerruth.com), she is the owner of Communication Central, which presents an annual conference for freelancers. SPJ members are entitled to a colleague’s discount for the conference: http://www.communication-central.com/2013/events/2013-conference/

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Staying Connected: Fostering Freelance Relationships

The corporate world has the water cooler, schools have the teachers’ lounge and kids have the playground. Everyone has a place to hang out, brainstorm, share ideas or simply to complain. What about freelancers? Where do we go to get encouragement or to vent about our latest projects or clients? Some would argue that we don’t have a place. But not me. I never feel lonely as a freelancer. I have exactly as much companionship as I want or need on any given day.

Jelly Bean Neuts

Jelly Bean Neuts

If I’m writing or editing, I’m likely alone in my home office which suits me just fine. Of course, I’m not truly alone then. Jelly Bean, my favorite eight-pound source of inspiration, is always there if I need a friendly face or just a break, and her siblings, Sammy and Ginger, are always handy with a meow or a purr to cheer me on.

When I need to feel a part of something bigger, or need human contact, I work at Starbucks or downtown at my favorite bakery. And when I really need to feel connected, I visit with friends online. I also connect with my freelance friends at local networking events. It might be at an event sponsored by SPJ or Media Bistro, or a meet-up that friends threw together to keep in touch. Regardless, I am only as lonely as I want to be.

For me, this ability to stay connected is crucial to my success, but also to my sanity. While I don’t miss cubicle life, I do miss seeing friends every day and being able to blow off steam when I need to. I make sure I maintain that camaraderie for myself but also to support my freelance friends. These relationships offer an intangible source of comfort and advice, as well as potential project leads. Even more importantly though, we are here to encourage each other.

Just last week, I talked to Anna Pratt, a fellow freelancer and member of SPJ’s freelance committee, to catch up. I asked her what her dream project is and how it was coming along. We both discovered that, while we have ideas, projects or stories we might want to work on “some day,” we need someone else to check in with us, to see how it’s going and to push us when we get stuck. We also like having someone to talk to about issues like collecting late payments, finding more work or firing clients.

  • Stay connected offline through networking
  • Stay connected online – Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Tumblr, etc.
  • Support and encourage each other

So even though we may work in a solitary environment at times, we are never truly alone. We have ways to connect with each other, virtually and face-to-face, and we should foster freelance relationships to support each other. It makes the freelance life so much more fun.

How do you support your freelance friends? I’d love to hear how you stay connected.

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Dana NeutsBased in the Seattle area, Dana Neuts of Virtually Yourz has been a freelance journalist for 10 years, specializing in business, feature and community writing. She is also the publisher of iLoveKent.net, which won a 2nd place award in the 2012 NW Excellence in Journalism contest for “Best Online Community Engagement.” Dana is currently serving as the national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer and will run for President-Elect in August 2013. Follow her on Twitter @VirtuallyYourz and @SPJDana.

 

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Fellow Freelancers: Friends or Foes?

Connect with your freelance friends for advice, suggestions and contacts.Last night I attended a Media Bistro event in Seattle. There are usually two or three of these every year, and I’m lucky to make it to one. Not because I don’t want to go, but because I can make a zillion excuses of things I should do instead. I asked a non-freelancing friend to go with me this time to ensure I’d go…because my introverted side (yes, I *do* have one) was taking over, and I wouldn’t have attended otherwise. Last night’s crowd was more on the freelance writer/journalist side, and I had the opportunity to connect with about half a dozen fellow freelancers — all of whom I had met via SPJ at one point or another.

I am so glad I did. The crowd is usually a mix of editors, journalists, PR and marketing folks, and the conversations were lively and informative. We shared ideas, contacts, success stories, pitching tips and a few assignments-gone-wrong tales of woe. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed mixing it up with my peers.

From the outside looking in, my non-freelance friend didn’t understand how this was possible. “Aren’t you competing for the same work,” he asked me afterward. My friend was particularly surprised to hear me offer concrete suggestions to a marketing copywriter in attendance who wanted my advice on growing his client base. Why did I do it? Because that’s what the freelance community is like, at least in my experience.

Whether I’m in Seattle or D.C., I have found the freelance community to be one that is warm and welcoming. People are willing to share ideas, connections and advice freely. Why? Because there are so many clients, media organizations, publications, nonprofits and government organizations out there that need our talent, that we rarely compete directly with each other for assignments or clients. We have each developed our own niche. My specialties are business and community stories, Annika Hipple is focused on travel and hospitality, Crai S. Bower specializes in travel, adventure and humor. Even when our specialties do cross over, there are so many stories to be told that the prospect of two of us pitching the same story with the same angle to the same outlet at the same time are virtually nil.

Here’s an example. I’ve been wanting to write for Northwest Travel magazine. David Volk and Crai Bower both write for that magazine. The geographic area is limited, so there is some potential for cross over. When I told Crai that I’d pitched the editor a few stories last month, Crai offered to introduce me to the editor. I didn’t ask. He offered, and I’ll take him up on it because the “in” will improve my chances of my pitches getting read. Crai doesn’t expect anything in return, but if I can ever repay the favor, I’ll be happy to do it.

This is how the freelance world works. Fellow freelancers are not foes. Far from it. They can be our biggest fans and our greatest allies.

The takeaway:  seek out your fellow freelancers in and around your community, through organizations like Media Bistro and SPJ, and online on your favorite social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. You never know where your next great idea or introduction will come from.

 

Dana Neuts, Freelance JournalistFreelancer Dana Neuts share tips to keep writers motivated.
National SPJ Secretary/Treasurer
2013 Candidate for President-Elect

Based in the Seattle area, Dana Neuts is a freelance writer, editor and marketing pro. She is also the publisher of iLoveKent.net, an award-winning hyperlocal blog highlighting news, events and more in the Kent, Washington community. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, 425 magazine, South Sound magazine, Grow Northwest and Seattle Woman magazine. For more information, or to contact Dana, visit her website, VirtuallyYourz.com.

 

 

 

 

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Freelance writers, this is your week

National Freelance Writer Appreciation WeekThis week, if you see a freelance writer, give ’em a hug.

Better still, give ’em a job.

The annual National Freelance Writers Appreciation Week starts today, and if you haven’t heard it’s a seven-day serenade to all the wordsmiths and keyboard-pounders who give shape and life to ideas on their own time, often on their own dime, so that others without the patience or aptitude to write still have a voice.

No proclamation made this week possible; no act of Congress, or act of God — just the goodwill and good sense of people who put a premium on well-rounded words and the diligent souls who smooth them into shape.

And there are many of these souls plying this heartfelt trade. Besides being responsible for the words you’re reading here, freelance writers create most of the grant applications, e-commerce strategies and advertising copy that shape our world. They break news and they build reputations; they churn out blogs and business plans, pastorals and poems. In fact, you probably can’t make it through the day without seeing a freelancer’s work in ink or digital print.

So, this week, show your appreciation by giving a freelancer more than just a smile. Become acquainted with and support such prime sites for freelancers as the Editorial Freelancers Association, Freelancers Union, and of course, become a regular reader of the Society of Professional Journalists’ own Independent Journalist blog.

SPJ also offers a Freelancer Directory, where one can shop for freelance help, as well as a Job Bank, where freelancers can shop in return. And there’s “On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism,” written and edited by SPJ-member freelancers and free of cost to SPJ members. However, a small donation for it is welcome from everyone, as the money goes to help support freelancers and their efforts.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Widbook: A tool for collaborative journalism

As the market for freelance journalism grows, so too has interest in the evolving tools for that job.

That interest is acute where collaborative journalism is concerned, because simply pitching PDFs of Word documents back and forth via email tends to be a clunky way of doing business in this demanding age of digital interactivity. Now, no matter the distance or purpose, teams of people with shared goals all want to work together as if sitting in the same room.

A relatively new website called Widbook tries to provide that goal-oriented environment and foster a social network to supplement it. Widbook is a writing and editing space that lets people alone or in groups craft book-length projects and shorter stories; insert resources such as photos, videos and animations; and add to or augment contributions by other writers.

Widbook also invites writers and readers to share and tweak favorite developing works, and create libraries of published works whether self-written or from other authors.

Early reports on Widbook, still in beta, call it a “YouTube for books” because of its heavy emphasis on interactivity. The central theme and interface are better suited for collaboration on projects. Writers who prefer to work alone can use Widbook as well, but they’ll miss out on many of its features.

And Widbook is free of charge to register for and use — surely the most attractive feature to freelance writers and hopeful novelists working with meager budgets. The only things that first-time visitors to Widbook need to get started is to create a user name and password. Options include creating a personal profile, linking with Facebook, and selecting favorite literary genres from which to build a library. Members also can send messages and “follow” one another through the site.

Because it’s in beta, Widbook has limitations and quirks. For one thing, it’s not possible to export a finished project to another platform, though that’s expected to come later as the site matures, and it’s not obvious to early users how the social media aspect will supplement the collaboration tools. The interface is also a tad balky with projects of more than a few chapters.

Still, for collaborative writers and editors, Widbook presents an intriguing new way for journalists to exchange ideas and bring far-flung talent together in the same room.

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

 

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Assignmint promises to change freelancing

There’s a new player in the marketplace promising to change the way freelance journalists do their jobs, and the results are supposed to be spectacular.

But so far, it’s only a promise.

Assignmint.com is the Web address for this ambitious operation and Jeff Koyen, a former New York Post writer, is the person said to be in charge of it. According to the early media buzz, Assignmint intends to consolidate all aspects of freelancing — from pitches to payment — in a cloud-sharing model designed to streamline the business in such a way that freelancers have more freedom to be productive.

The site and Koyen’s plan gained attention last week in articles by Fast Company and Mediabistro’s FishbowlLA. However, for now, the site itself only asks visitors to submit their email addresses if they want to be included in the limited beta release in June. Assignmint tentatively launches in a broader format later this year, and at least the basic memberships will be free, Koyen says.

Ideally, once registered with Assignmint, member freelancers can “filter and manage incoming pitches, issue assignments and then handle all related fulfillment (e.g. contracts and invoices) right from their dashboard,” Koyen explained in FishbowlLA. Assignmint is even expected to have features for matching freelancers with prospective clients.

Premium accounts meanwhile will have a broader selection of workflow and sharing tools, as well as advice on 1099 tax filing.

Assignmint is targeting writers and editors first, other media later. And if that relationship works as intended, the site will expand to include academia, and financial and IT services, among others, Koyen says.

Surely though the most interesting part about Assignmint will be its attempt to minimize hassle from payment collection. Assignmint proposes to act in the freelancer’s interest in exchange for a yet-to-be-determined service fee, sort of the way sites such as eBay and PayPal handle e-payments.

At least that’s the general idea. For now, however, Assigmint is like a story pitch that’s a long ways away from payout.

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

 

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Back to the Future: Advice for Those Who Hate the Whole Personal Branding Thing

By Carol Cole-Frowe

There’s so much advice out there these days about personal branding, also known as “Keeping Your Name Out There.”

You know what I’m talking about. You need to Facebook, Linked In, Google Plus, Pinterest, ad nauseum. Who has time for all that? I’m lucky if I can keep up with Facebook and play the occasional Words With Friends game with Alec Baldwin. Maybe update my website every other month if I’m lucky.

I get exhausted thinking about keeping up with all the social media sites, especially if you’re working crazy freelance hours and trying to have a decent family life. And when you’re freelancing –  trying to humor a few beloved pro bonos who think you can write their newsletter in no time flat? Every freelancer I know gets pitched at least once a month for pro bono. I don’t know about you, but I like to get paid when I write — except for when I don’t — and I prefer to choose those things, not have them choose me.

My advice is if you want to put yourself out there with the least amount of effort, I’d advise that you do these few things. First, I know what you’re saying. Gosh, Carol, I’ve never heard “get a website” before. But humor me for a minute. Here’s a couple of reasons you need these tools, and I’m just betting you don’t have one or you wouldn’t be reading this. In order of importance:

-       A Website is like leaving around a brochure about your wonderful self. It’s static, just sitting there working for you, and waiting for some lovely editor who’s interesting in reading your work. And then if it’s good, it will sell you while you’re napping. You can make one easily with GoDaddy.com,   FatCow.com or several other good hosting sites. I’m reasonably technologically challenged and I used FatCow and Drag and Drop Builder to build my website-work-in-progress at carolcolefrowe.com. And tracking my stats, I know a bunch of folks check it out. Categories to consider: About Me or Bio, Portfolio, Photography, Buzz, Blog, Contact Me. If I can do it, you can do it. Bare minimum — get a website.

-       List Yourself in the SPJ Freelancer Directory. It works.  In fact, I got a stringing job for the New York Daily News only yesterday from the Freelancer Directory that will pay my Society of Professional Journalists memberships for several years to come. List your new website on it.

-       Get Professional Business Cards. There are several sites on the web where you can get inexpensive business cards, like VistaPrint. Even better, see if you can trade out your favorite graphic designer some writing for their website for their talents on your’s. Or save up and get a really special individualized card. Make sure you note that you’re a SPJ member and your brand-spankin’-new website, mobile and fax if you have one.

-       Blog. I hear the collective groan from here. You don’t have to blog about stuff about your  job (unless your boss makes you.) Write about what you love, like hiking or recycling or gardening. Make it a habit to post at least once a week, then post the link on Facebook and Twitter (see below.) When I started seriously blogging at the first of this year about my gastric sleeve surgery and offering compatible recipes, I thought I was writing to myself for awhile, especially since I’m a newbie and still learning. Then all of a sudden I have thousands of visitors who’ve found me from several dozen countries including Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and Australia, and I was the most shocked person out there blogging. Then I monetized it and I’m actually making money writing a blog. Building it is easy and self-explanatory on WordPress or Blogger. Once again, pictures or graphics are key to keeping interest.

-       Suck It Up and Get on Facebook, minimum, even if you just use it to occasionally promote something your particularly interested in or your latest freelance article, book or blog. I’ve gotten freelancing jobs from people who wanted to find me and couldn’t figure out any other way than messaging me on Facebook. 160 million users? Not a bad potential audience. I recommend posting pictures, they’re the best point-of-entry into any article and that hasn’t changed. Folks love to look at pictures.

-       Twitter. I used to hate Twitter until I got the hang of it. It’s all in the hashtags, which is putting a number sign aka “#” in front of your key word, and you can find anything, complain about anything, reach out for any info, all in 140 characters. When I recently complained about an airline on Twitter, I got a personal letter apologizing for their “glitch.” Do I need to tell you to post pictures?

That’s the bare minimum for “Those Who Hate the Whole Personal Branding Thing.” Now go out and do it. In order.

What are your ideas for personal branding and marketing without sitting all day in front of your laptop?

Carol Cole-Frowe is a full-time independent journalist, based in Oklahoma and North Texas, and vice president of the Oklahoma Pro Chapter of SPJ. Her website is carolcolefrowe.com. Reach her on Twitter at @carolcolefrowe.

 

 

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Style, the law, and good writing

The two best tools for freelancing are a good idea and a comfortable place to write. Cobble together those things with confidence and conviction, and there’s no limit to a freelancer’s potential.

As far as the rest of the tool list, it varies for each writer. Some prefer pen and paper to keyboard when crafting first drafts; others are particular about the word processing software they use. Still others extend their devotion to include the hardware itself: PC or Mac, tablet or laptop or desktop system — it all matters only in the final product.

However, there are a few tools, mainly reference material, that freelancers probably should warm to before they sit down to write. These materials tackle presentation and precision, probe the law and explain the journalist’s right to information. Not every freelancer will need all of these, mind you, but those intent on practicing journalism alongside the best reporters out there will find them to be valuable assets on the journey to discovery.

Style guides — Clarity and consistency are hallmarks of good writing and reporting. Making sure copy is clean and crisp is the least that freelancers can do for their readers, and editors, as those qualities are what keep audiences engaged from first paragraph to last. No matter how good the story, if it’s not easy to read or understandable those failures will reflect on the writer long after the story is tossed in the trash.

Of course, a dictionary and a good thesaurus are crucial to have on hand. But consider, too, style guides and manuals that detail the writing standards established either for general good communication or for specific publications, such as medical and legal journals, academic and government documents, as well as magazines and newspapers. Freelancers should assess the style preferred by a particular publication before sitting down to write, because sometimes improper style is enough for an editor to shelve or discard a story.

Journalists everywhere tend to consider The Associated Press Stylebook as gospel and have now for decades. Though each newspaper or magazine may also publish a “house” style guide for reference points close to home, adhering to AP style should be enough. For general non-journalism purposes however, the Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most widely used guides on the market, and includes a wealth of detail the AP guide does not. And rising fast in esteem, the Yahoo! Style Guide covers a wide range of topics regarding digital and online media.

Among the field-specific guides are the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the American Medical Association Manual of Style, and The Gregg Reference Manual for business writing. But to satisfy uncertainty about which guides are out there, a long list of links to them can be found at OnlineStylebooks.com.

Shield laws — Also known as “reporter’s privilege,” these amount to legislation existing in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia that protect journalists from revealing confidential information or sources in court. Essentially, they prevent courts from forcing journalists to testify about how they obtained information related to a story. The laws vary with each state; there is no broad federal protection. Some shield laws apply to civil but not criminal cases, while others prevent revealing sources but not other information. Freelancers should educate themselves on the law in their respective states and the states they may visit to do their reporting. The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a good place to start.

Freedom of Information — Enacted in 1966 to promote and enforce government accountability, the Freedom of Information Act originally required unfettered access to much unreleased information and documentation that was in federal control but since has been amended several times. Consequently, variations on access exist not only in Washington, but also throughout the country, compelling many states even to establish their own “sunshine law” guidelines. As with shield laws, the degree of access can vary widely between states. The Society of Professional Journalists has a section of its website devoted to this topic and includes a drop-down menu listing links and contact information regarding sunshine laws in each state, as does the Reporters Committee.

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

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How to get a newspaper editor’s attention

The calls, emails and tweets started flowing in around during the holidays, coming across my desk at a rate of about half a dozen daily. Many more landed among my colleagues. They usually say something like this:

“I wrote this piece and thought you might like it,” says the introduction to one email.

“Sure, it’s a blog post, but it’s a subject that interests everyone,” says another.

“I’d love to write about sports. I’m a big fan,” says one caller.

This time of year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and whole unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. I think of it as a different kind of holiday tradition: as Christmas-related bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider “news” and expecting a newspaper editor to read it as such, thus publishing it in the next day’s paper and paying generously for the writers’ work by week’s end, or at least before the next credit card statement arrives.

But most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased, ignored, because their writers failed at good reporting.

Sure, newspapers long have relied on contributing writers or freelancers to report news particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work. The need for freelancers is acute now since newspapers nationwide have cut about one-third of their staffs over the past decade.

But today as decades before, newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as “news.” The stories appearing in today’s print pages or online are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it’s what journalists like to call “newsworthy.”

So, before you ship that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, stop for moment to understand first what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention:

First, you have to read the newspaper — This sounds pitifully obvious. In reality, it’s pitiful how many solicitations that come to newspapers are ignorant on their face, as the writers are blind to the newspaper’s greater purpose. Each paper serves as a kind of window onto the community, and the communities themselves are distinct. Thus, what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the newspaper carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear. In other words, study the newspaper before trying to write for it.

Sell the story, not yourself — Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Concentrate on explaining the story’s importance in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who what, when, where, why and how.

Remember, there is no “I” in news — What you think, feel or believe about the news is not important; don’t try passing off a recent blog post or journal entry as a news story. Cite only the facts in a story pitch; leave out your opinion. Because everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the facts.

Provide verifiable sources — Newspapers aim to steer clear of bias in its news, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, thus some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea before committing to it. Providing at least three independent sources that editors can contact if they wish will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.

Send your pitch to the proper place — Story ideas relating to sports should not go to the news or features editors. Find out who the editors are that work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically.

Pay attention to quality, quantity — Besides determining the proper editor for submissions, make sure to spell the editor’s name correctly. For that matter, pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to “style” guidelines outlined by The Associated Press. Furthermore, if a story calls for a specific length, say 500 words, avoid writing even one word more than that. Not following such a simple direction may prompt time-challenged editors to hit the “delete” key.

Keep an open mind about being edited — Even the world’s best journalists need editors, so don’t think your work is much better. But don’t take editing personally. Accept that stories may be trimmed or adjusted for length before publication. Tight, precise writing and rigid adherence to a prearranged story length go a long way toward preventing this.

Small potatoes are better than no potatoes — It used to be that newspapers paid well for freelance work. These days, big paychecks are rare, $25 to $50 per published story being typical and non-negotiable.

Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be a pest, either — Upon making a pitch, if a newspaper editor has not yet responded, wait three or four days before following up politely, professionally. It may be that the editor has been busy, or is keeping an eye open for other ideas.

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


 

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