Posts Tagged ‘writing’


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/

It’s National Grammar Day (insert exclamation point here)

This is it, the day all word mavens and grammarphiles relish with a fervency everyone else reserves for major national holidays, weekends, and end dates on the Mayan calendar.

It's Grammar Time!Yes, it’s National Grammar Day, and if you think itinerant commas or cliches stand a ghost of a chance on this auspicious occasion, think again. It is a day that all of us should spend paying greater attention to the craft of good communication and do, as Grammar Girl urges, “March forth … to speak well, write well, and help others do the same.”

That includes using “their” when “there” or “they’re” doesn’t work, correctly distinguishing “to” from “too” from “two,” slicing off dangling participles, and excising unctuous conjunctions, among many other attentions to linguistic and syntactical detail.

The day’s designation isn’t bound by law or scripture, but motivated by common courtesy. In our information-crazy world, precise use of language rises to the level of imperative. To serve society and convey respect for others, we are obligated to employ language precisely, appropriately. Poor grammar muddles our messages and implies ignorance or arrogance. It can cost reputations and dreams.

Journalists understand this perhaps better than most people, but as we enter the age of “citizen journalism,” when so many American citizens possess the tools and potential to stand in a position of authority on news, the grammar imperative becomes acute. The serious task of news gathering also demands serious presentation. Careful use of language conveys not only necessary detail, but also personal credibility. People who use language properly will be assigned more authority than people who do not.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who reads resumes for a living how many job candidates are passed over because of spelling errors and misplaced punctuation.

So, take care today to watch what you write and say. Recognize this sixth annual National Grammar Day by putting usage among your top priorities. If you’re smart, you’ll strive to turn that attention to detail from headache to habit.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, adjunct professor of journalism at Lindenwood UniversityRegion 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.

Editors are not the enemy

Believe it or not, editors are not the red-pen-wielding ogres we imagine them to be. In fact, many of them are just like us. They have a penchant for writing and editing, they believe in reporting the truth, and they want to do it as succinctly as possible. They want readers and viewers, just like we do.

I’ll go one step further and say that editors can be our best allies when trying to make our stories the very best they can be. They see the heart of the story that we can’t see, and they show us how to polish it up and make it shine. They check our facts and fix our mistakes, without credit or even a byline. They are the silent, steadfast professionals that push us harder.

Sure, there are a few I’d prefer not to work with again (and vice versa), but I encourage you to make peace with your editors and accept their revisions and advice graciously. For those who need more tangible reasons to peacefully co-exist with editors, consider these:

1.  They control the editorial calendar, assignments and budget.

2.  It’s a small world. Editors sometimes move around a lot, and they talk to each other, just like we do. If you have a good relationship, their future jobs could benefit you. If not, you may miss some opportunities.

3.  We can learn from the advice and experience of our editors.

4.  We can depend on them to be our internal advocate when we want to try a different type of story, have not been paid on time or need an introduction to a fellow editor.

5.  They can be the voice of reason when it is too painful to “kill our darlings.”

[This blog is dedicated to a few of my favorite editors:  Becca, Bill, Chris, Randy and Lisa. My writing and reporting is better because of you.]

 

Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveWashington.net. An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).

 

 

My Favorite Freelance Resources

Without an in house editor, newsroom historian or a librarian at our fingertips to help us navigate the freelance life, it is necessary to cull our own resources. While everyone’s list will vary, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite freelance resources.

Books:

Associated Press Guide to Punctuation

Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)

The Courage to Write (Ralph Keyes)

Get a Freelance Life (Media Bistro, Margit Feury Ragland)

My So-Called Freelance Life (Michelle Goodman)

The Subversive Copyeditor (Carol Fisher Saller)


Online Resources:

Christina Katz ~ The Prosperous Writer

Dr. Grammar

Media Bistro

Reynolds Center for Business Journalism

JimRomenesko.com


Organizations:

Editorial Freelancers Association

Freelancers Union

Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS)

SPJ, Freelance Resources

 

What are some of your favorite freelance resources? Please post them in the comments to share them with us. Thank you!

 

Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveWashington.net. An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).

 

Additional tips on better self-editing

Ignorance is one of those things that doesn’t improve with practice. Yet a lot of writers in all corners of the craft insist their prime obligation is committing ideas to words, and whether it’s the right word is not always their concern.

“The first draft, I’m just trying to get everything down,” a book author told me. “After that, I leave it up to my editor most times to clean it up.”

This approach is fine for getting ideas down as fast as they come to mind; in fact, I endorse it. Lately though, I’ve seen more blogs, short stories, novels and non-fiction works come out in final form that suggest the commitment to clean-up was abbreviated or lacking altogether. What these shoddy pieces portend is embarrassment for the author, the publisher, and potentially the readers who expected professional work in the first place.

Blame this boom in boo-boos on the ease of electronic publishing, which has reduced the gap between writing and marketing to a barely perceptible slit and goads us into stream-of-consciousness creativity. We are all just a keystroke away from fame and fortune, we’d like to think. Thus, we’re inclined to rush the process.

In a previous post I broached a few basic tips for freelancers to improve their editing. Here, I offer more to consider, such as:

Creating a “mission statement” — Have reason and focus when writing. Don’t hang the hope that “something will come to me” on protracted banging of the keyboard. A goal can guide thinking, and clear thinking guides creativity. Establish goals at the beginning so that your purpose is obvious at the end.

Thinking about brevity when writing briefly — Writing space always is at a premium, even online. So, too, is the readers’ attention. Research has shown that readers flip through Web pages faster than printed ones, which means writers have less time than ever to make a good impression online. Short, punchy words tend to help in this regard. Long words can trip up readers and force them to stumble through one’s prose, if they bother staying around long enough to finish.

Using active verbs — And speaking of brevity, active verbs take up less space than passive ones, because the passive ones are bigger and heavier and need modifiers to carry them along. Active verbs can stand alone and bear their own weight. Sure, passive verbs have a place in English — wherever slow, ponderous writing is a premium.

Avoiding redundancies — There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once in writing. Let me repeat: There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once. Unless you’re doing it for effect.

Trimming fat — Closely related to redundancy is excess verbiage — usually, the adjectives, adverbs and prepositions that pad our speech. Though it seems when first written that they help drive home a particular point, they in fact delay gratification or they overstate an idea. Use adjectives sparingly, limit adverbs to those times when it’s absolutely necessary to alter the verb’s definition, and make sure prepositions are always in their place, which is very close to, if not next to, the object they’re supposed to modify.

Doing the math — Just about all the journalists I know drifted into writing as a career in part because they were poor mathematicians, or had a natural aversion to numbers. Words were their passion. The thing is, good reporting often relies on making sure things add up the way they should, whether the scale of measure is math or logic. Take time to check the math. Or get someone else who’s good with numbers to do it for you.

Paying attention to personal quirks — This speaks broadly to everything said above. Our shortcomings are characteristic of our personalities. Detail-oriented people may miss seeing the big picture, while big-picture people may gloss over subtle distinctions. Still others have trouble in general with spelling or grammar or word usage. Subdue your ego long enough to gain perspective of personal writing or reporting flaws, even if it means asking other people about them, because those flaws could be the first things readers see in your writing.

Pacing yourself — Speed is essential in typing tests but not in thoughtful writing. Sure, deadlines constrain our penchant for doing things in free-form ways, but taking care to prepare for a writing or editing project can eliminate scheduling and organizational obstacles that slow us down. With careful preparation comes time to think clearly and carefully about what we’re writing, and given adequate time we can pace our production.

Editing more than once — In my line of work, however, speed counts. Newspapers never are casual places, and the closer to deadline my colleagues and I get the more prone we are to hurrying through our edits to news copy. This is not acceptable behavior, mind you, just one of the vagaries of deadline journalism. Freelancers, on the other hand, have rather more control over their schedules, and fortunately, more control over the editing process. They should understand that one re-read does not constitute a good edit; two, three, even four re-reads is much better. Because our minds slip into comfort zones as our bodies do, we’ll easily read past some errors while we’re keyed in to finding others.

If it helps, edit a piece at least three times taking three approaches: first, editing for story structure and clarity; second, for spelling; and third, for grammar. Dividing your focus on purpose improves the chances you’ll catch more errors and heighten your credibility.

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.

 

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 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.

 

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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