Posts Tagged ‘society of professional journalists’


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.

Your first task in freelancing: Suck it up

Hall of Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky is synonymous with excellence on ice, but it turns out he also had superb advice for the prospective freelancer.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Sure, he meant that about hockey in particular. But in general, Gretzky’s wisdom stretches wide to encompass whatever we do in life and prompts thoughts about what we stand to lose when we fail to take chances.

For writers or editors eyeing independence as a way to a life-sustaining career, opportunities abound. Everyone, no matter their skill set, requires help with words, either creating them or crafting them, and your skill in these areas may be all another person or organization needs to convey the optimum message of the moment. Moreover, the market for effective, engaging communications continues to grow exponentially.

Yes, newspapers as a medium are going away, but the demand for what they try to offer their communities — responsible, accurate reporting — has not diminished and in the wake of social media has grown more acute. Besides personal engagement, we as a society also hunger for dispassionate views that help hone those engagements.

So, yes, the opportunities for freelancers are more and varied than ever. And it’s time to take your shot.

Your goal, then: suck it up. Don’t chicken out.

“But how?” you might ask. “Where should I start?”

The easiest, simplest and perhaps most flippant answer is, “At the beginning.” But aspiring freelancers can have trouble distinguishing the well-traveled path from the one least taken. They need advice, however small, and guidance, however approximate, to start moving in the proper direction.

In truth, the beginning can be anywhere. What matters is clearing the path beforehand, accepting sacrifice before reward. Biting the bullet.

Sucking it up.

Here are a few things that must be cleared out of your path:

Procrastination — The phrase, “Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” should hang from a sign in front of all freelancers. They are their own bosses, they are their own staff, they are the sources of their own motivation. Workers who are confined to cubicles have their environment as a sprawling reminder to stay busy; freelancers have only themselves. The best help in this area is a schedule that delineates working time and non-working time — and rigid adherence to that schedule. If the working time you set for yourself goes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with two or three breaks spaced between those hours, then stick to the schedule. If you prefer a more liberal structure to the working day, fine. Regardless, work when the schedule says “work,” and nothing less.

Distraction — This tends to provoke procrastinate and in general comes in the form of television, video games, social media, peripheral noise and activity, among other things. Remove them, or somehow set them aside, and keep them there. Author Anne Lamott says, “Turn off Twitter. … And don’t clean house.” Author Carl Hiaasen wears noise-dampening headphones when he writes. And I, presuming to include myself at their level, gave up television a couple years ago when it became obvious my remote was getting a better workout than my keyboard. Indeed, that sacrifice has helped, if not quite to the extent that I can join Anne’s and Carl’s company.

On the other hand, silence and isolation may only amplify the ringing in one’s own ears, whereas a distraction or two instead stirs the imagination. In author Stephen King‘s view, “Any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl.” In other words, be comfortable: cherish what you can work with, expunge — really expunge — what you cannot.

Surprises — Said expunging speaks to planning. The more one has even the dreary little details of freelancing mapped out, the better one can navigate through or around them. Work flow, illness, budgeting and networking all are issues that take time away from writing and editing but are essential up-front considerations for every freelancer. Attend to small details early and the bigger ones that arise later will be easier to handle.

Generalization — You could write or edit anything and everything with the notion that volume means security. Look around though and you will find that successful freelancers do not have vague notions about what they are doing. They took the time to research the marketplace for needs not already addressed, or rarely so, by other freelancers. They chose specialization and hewed closely to a small number of subjects, educating themselves each day on the finer details of those subjects. Armed with unique knowledge, freelancers can attract expert clients, instead of the other way around.

Boredom — Banality abounds. The key is not letting it slip into our work. A person in a cubicle somewhere may not have that option, but freelancers, as noted above, possess the power to chart their own course. In an earlier post on this blog I noted ways to stay busy between jobs and they are just as effective for helping break out of monotony. However, if the urge to leave freelancing as a career in pursuit of other excitement still seems too tough to shake, try talking through it with other freelancers; they may have been in the same hole and found ways to climb out.

Freelancing should be fun, something you want to do every day. Unless you suck it up and clear the road ahead of obstacles, the fun will seem only further and further away.

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.

How to stay productive even when you’re not working

Busy freelancers out there ― and you know who you are ― have the blessing of bounty on their plates with one or more projects stacked atop each other. But some of these time-challenged souls are pounding the keyboard one minute, interviewing and conducting research another minute, and plumbing the market for more work in between. A moment lost is a dollar lost, the thinking goes.

After a while though, this routine takes a toll and the constant churn can make one yearn to do something else ― anything else. Giving in to this feeling, however, may instill discomfiture, perhaps panic, if it’s believed that slowing down even a little could possibly reduce the steady stream of income to only trickle.

There are ways though to break the routine and still remain productive, because in truth there’s more to freelancing than incessant work. The key is to vary one’s routine during busy periods as well as slow ones in ways that actually are be beneficial to the creative and productive processes. At least three pursuits allow this to happen:

Taking classes ― No, this probably isn’t the first thing on a writer’s list of diversions; education and training require time and money. Still, acquiring a skill or honing a current one opens the mind to new ideas and possibilities and may also pave a path to new clients. As the freelance marketplace crowds with former newspaper journalists, the choices available to prospective clients varies and finer distinctions such as skill sets can become determining factors in which freelancers are hired and which are left hunting. Learning something new at every opportunity, whether in classes, seminars or online training ― particularly about the latest Web-based technologies ― can keep the mind and the client sheet fresh.

Social networking ― And no, in this case, we’re not talking about Twitter or Facebook; we’re talking about good, old-fashioned face-to-face networking. Sure, there’s the networking one does to find work, but there’s also the networking necessary to keep it coming. It’s this second kind that can be easy, laid back, with the investment of occasional lunches or dinners to show clients and valued sources they’re more than just tools of a freelancer’s trade. The result can be not just a better working relationship, but also more ideas for later stories.

Personal projects ― Here again, the question of time and money are bound to surface. Nevertheless, spending a little of both on projects not already on the assignment calendar, whether they’re hobbies, community services or pro bono efforts, can be restorative and salubrious, and they can enhance one’s portfolio.

A little diversity in routine, just like a little diversity on a résumé, affords more than a change of pace. Consider each non-work-related undertaking to be the buff and polish that a working life needs to maintain its shine.

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.

A one-stop shop for social media knowledge

The search for social media wisdom can be long and arduous, with trails and tips leading off in every direction. A frustrating day spent plumbing for facts can lead freelancers to believe they’re courting fiction.

A single source of reference would be better, and though no perfect thing like that exists Columbia Journalism School professor Sreenath “Sree” Sreenivasan has put together a generous, if not pretty, listing of social media links pointing to a wealth of information that includes basic as well as detailed information about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and a host of other connectivity sites.

Included are links to strategies for best practices in social media and interesting multimedia demonstrating the use and misuse of it.

Today, effective freelancing requires also making a name, or “brand,” for oneself online. With Sree’s help, freelancers now can spend less time surfing and more time writing.

David Sheets is a sports 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.

7 tips on how to spot a freelancing scam

As print publications retrench and online publications expand, both are trying to figure out what to do about generating fresh content at minimal expense. And with staffing costs rising, it makes sense for both to hire freelancers.

But apart from the reputable publications vying for their services are numerous shady operators trying to take advantage of a freelancer’s eagerness and talent.

It used to be that the quality publications were easy to spot — they had highly regarded, established reputations and stately brick-and-mortar addresses to house them. Plus, they carefully mined the freelance market for only the best contributions and set the bar for newcomers trying to put their names in print.

These days, all it takes is a computer and a Web connection to feign legitimacy.

So, when shopping the market for possible publishers, be wary of potential charlatans preying on a freelancer’s good faith. Here are a few things to watch out for:

Too little detail in ads — Sales pitches that are devoid of information, or those that merely highlight links to job-bidding sites instead of company websites, probably are trying to lure freelancers into something other than a job. Do a little homework on a potential employer before entertaining ideas of becoming a prospective employee.

Payment in advance — Some sites promise long lists of job offers or professional contacts and preferential treatment for a freelancer’s work in exchange for a monthly or annual fee. Don’t bite. Nobody should have to pay just to be considered for employment.

Specific requests for original work — Legitimate publications may ask writers to contribute general samples of their writing to better judge a contributor’s style and readability. But those that get specific regarding subject, format, keywords and source links may be only mining the marketplace for free content. A way around this: Suggest writing two or three paragraphs, or just the lead, to demonstrate an approach to a story. If they back away, do the same.

Exaggerated promises — Sure, the job may be a great opportunity for budding writers, with the promise of big pay later. Or the ad is hiding a larger truth: that the job really means working long hours for nothing in return. Avoid writing for free; the promised payout of regular assignments later as sole compensation now rarely works to the contributor’s advantage. Freelancers never should sell themselves or their talent short, because promises don’t pay the bills. Furthermore, jobs that sound too good to be true probably are.

A flood of ads — Requests for content that turn up everywhere, and repeatedly, suggest the purveyor is desperate and prefers volume over quality work. Steer clear of anyone trying too hard to attract attention.

Website sign-ups — Sites that insist on registration just to be considered for a job could be doing that to drive up their number of original visitors, especially if they are sites that also have forums encouraging reader comments. Not all sites utilizing this approach are untrustworthy, but exercise caution if they place a premium on comments and lengthy profile information, as they may only do that to bombard visitors with spam.

Grammar and spelling errors — What publisher that promises great things in exchange for quality content lacks similar quality in its sales pitches? Probably not the kind of publisher that’s worth a self-respecting freelancer’s time.

David Sheets is a sports 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.

Exercise care, and plan well, before freelancing

If you haven’t browsed the market for freelance writers and editors lately, take a look around. Even a glance on Google shows the horizon to be virtually limitless, with the scope of jobs available out there capable of keeping a person busy through this lifetime and perhaps another.

But how many of us want to dive that deep? A pool of bottomless opportunity, while inviting, may be difficult for some independent journalists to navigate for its potential to consume one’s life. So, before taking the plunge, weigh a few facts.

Time management is essential — The first thing newcomers to this line of work want to know is how much money they’ll make, and the answer is rather simple: as much as they want. If they throw themselves into their jobs, chances are the wages will satisfy. But we all have lives away from our careers, and those lives also must come into account. Therefore, set firm working hours and stick to them — avoid distractions during these hours such as Netflix and that new book just downloaded from Amazon.

It should go without saying that a good diet and plenty of rest are essential work tools as well, though even the most-committed among us need reminders of this from time to time. This usually happens when …

Sickness happens — There will be a day or two, probably more, when a scratchy throat in the morning devolves to low-grade fever by mid-afternoon, or a family member becomes ill, and working becomes impossible. Better to admit defeat and come back stronger the next day.

This means making allowances for sick time. Many businesses allow for up to 10 days of paid sick time per calendar year; use that amount as a guideline when drafting a work calendar. And by all means be honest and forward with clients when illness arises and threatens a deadline, so they can adjust their schedules, too.

Clients accept that sickness happens. Freelancers should be honest with themselves and accept it, too.

Bad clients are everywhere — Of course, for every five or 10 understanding clients, there’s one who’s impossible to please, or who’s lax giving instructions, or who’s shameless about taking freelancers’ ideas as their own. Like illness, these people require freelancers to make contingencies, but the key is to avoid them before they pose problems.

Prior to taking on a project, conduct plenty of homework. Find out some background about clients: scrutinize their websites to see who receives credit for content and how, and mine the freelance marketplace for feedback from other writers and editors for indications of trouble.

Then, when the time comes to discuss potential projects, insist that clients provide specifics instead of generalities. And listen carefully not just to what clients say, but also how they say it: rudeness or curt behavior may allude to larger problems later.

Self-promotion bolsters success — Freelancers can write or edit stories all day and still feel as though their careers are stuck in neutral. Thus, a measure of innovation may be required to move things forward.

To start, it helps to master social media — Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc. — the fastest form of communication growing. Story sources and editing clients may prefer one of these venues to share basic information, pass along content changes and, in general, stay in touch. (Having said this, I must stress that phone calls are still the most meaningful form of direct communication apart from face-to-face meetings.)

Social media also is essential for self-promotion, though it takes considerable time and care to develop it for that purpose. For example, in the publishing world, the informal time-management rule nowadays for book authors is “80/20” — spending 80 percent of their time promoting themselves and 20 percent actually writing their books. This large percentage devoted to promotion includes such things as teaching workshops, speaking at engagements, and working with other authors and editors to develop their craft.

Granted, an 80/20 split may not suit most freelancers, given that their success depends largely on volume. Nevertheless, a nod toward innovation can boost potential and expand one’s reach in the marketplace.

Freelancers are their own bosses — the greatest perk of the business. They’re also entirely responsible for their own failures. Extensive care and planning, and the willingness to innovate, will go a long way toward keeping those failures to a minimum.

David Sheets is a sports 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.

Do you plan to get sick? If not, you should

The moment I knew something was wrong my day already was booked, solid. I had a book-writing project to work on before sunup, interviews and reviews to complete before lunch and an evening of editing that would last past midnight. If I escaped my desk for fresh air and a glance at blue sky, I would be lucky.

But then an itch started down deep in my throat, past the point where coughing scratched it. A flood of morning coffee failed to drown the symptom; granola for breakfast just made it worse. By lunchtime, the odd dizziness accompanying fever joined in to knock me out of my desk chair and into bed.

Yes, folks, freelancers suffer illness, too. Not all of them, however, are prepared to handle it. As trouble sets in they could be like I was: enduring symptoms as well as guilt, the latter caused by my belief that inactivity at work meant lost income.

The trick then is figuring how to suffer in peace rather than panic. So, before considering a new project, freelancers also should consider what it takes to keep the money coming in when the work isn’t, particularly during illness.

To start, it helps to have healthy habits. A balanced diet and regular exercise should be tools of the writer’s trade because they help ward off problems and minimize the onset of others. Before my illness set in, weeks had passed since my last exercise; as a result, my back was sore from sitting all the time and my stomach had spread over my belt loops. Returning to exercise changed my mental as well as physical well-being — I could concentrate better and see more clearly the planning errors I had made that probably contributed to my illness.

Among those other errors was having a datebook that resembled an overstuffed suitcase, filled with too many projects and appointments and not enough time set aside for rest and relaxation. Sure, I love to write, but like the saying goes, “Too much of a good thing …”

Thus, I had to dispense with the mentality that caused the overloaded datebook. I had been piling up projects thinking that the more on my plate each day, the more money I would have in my pocket, not realizing that I was devaluing myself in the process. When billing for work, freelancers should look past the day’s expenses to the larger goal of possessing a lifestyle that allows relative comfort and benefits, such as insurance. Never ignore the possibility of becoming ill and losing a day’s worth of work, or more.

Finally, explain this larger goal to clients up front. Make it clear that good health and well-being means good work on a project. And if an itch in the throat turns into something worse, have no hesitation to call clients and explain the problem. In my experience, clients understand that sickness happens. Better that freelancers understand that, too, so they can keep the job and the life they love.

Tips from other sources:
* How to handle sick days as a freelance writer
* Freelancing during an illness
* Illness: The freelancer’s best frenemy
* Where can a freelancer find health insurance coverage?
* Employee benefits for freelancers

David Sheets is a sports 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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