The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question focuses on freelance writing tips. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
The Write Question #51: Can I succeed as a freelance writer? - YouTube
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about freelance writing.
I’m answering a question from Jim Homme in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here’s what he asked via email.
“I sometimes think I can write better than the communications specialist at my office, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I can become a freelance writer. That leads me to the following questions: How do I know if I write well enough? How do I evaluate if I am the right kind of person in terms of personal and business traits when it comes to freelancing? What can I read to learn about the freelance writing world? How to evaluate myself and learn the ropes?”
Thanks for the questions, Jim. You are wise to consider the freelance world carefully before you try stepping into it. It’s probably harder to be a successful freelance writer than it has ever been in the history of the printed word.
Well, let me phrase that more precisely. It’s easier to get published than ever before, but it’s much, much harder to get paid for it. Our society reads a lot right now but it generally expects that writing to be free. There are more than 440 million blogs in the world and while some of them are poorly written or inept, many are excellent and they don’t charge you a cent. And, the other source of revenue for freelancers — advertising — is currently going mainly to organizations like Facebook, which has led to the collapse of newspapers and magazines around the world.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to write for money, but don’t quit your day job too fast. Now, I’m going to answer your questions one at a time:
How do I know if I write well enough?
Your email to me was clear and articulate. Based on that alone, I’m guessing your writing is fine. In any case — and I know this will sound counterintuitive — be aware that writing skill is not the number 1 requirement for a freelance writer. Instead, you need to be able to analyze the needs of other publications and figure out a way you can meet them. It’s all about finding paid publishing work. Some people might call this marketing. I’ve put a link below to a blog post I wrote on the topic recently.
How do I evaluate if I am the right kind of person for freelancing?
To be a successful freelance writer the main characteristic you need is determination and incredible persistence. Also, you need a thick skin, to be able to handle rejection. All of these traits are far more valuable than writing skill. In terms of business skills, you need to know how to handle your money and how to negotiate the inevitable cash flow crises you’ll encounter when clients are slow to pay.
What can I read to learn about the freelance writing world?
There are lots of books published on this topic. Here are two you might want to look for:
The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, and
The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.
Links below. Most experts will suggest trying to ease into the business so that you do your writing on the side while you’re also working at another job. I strongly endorse this suggestion, too.
If you’re a freelance writer, you’re essentially self-employed. To succeed at this business, you need to be both organized and determined and you can’t be a procrastinator. Being a good writer comes about fourth on the list. It’s important but far less important than other attributes.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from English writer, political commentator and TV personality Will Self: “The life of the professional writer — like that of any freelance, whether she be a plumber or a podiatrist — is predicated on willpower. Without it, there simply wouldn’t be any remuneration period.”
Thanks for your question, Jim. I hope you understand that you should never worry about your own talent. The far more important issue is whether you have the determination for this type of life.
I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors and similes from Kathryn Schulz…
As a longtime fan of the New Yorker, I keep an eye out for writers I like. Then, when my weekly copy of the magazine arrives, I can flip to the table of contents page and see which articles I want to read first. Kathryn Schulz (pictured above) is now on that list of preferred writers.
She joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015 and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her New Yorker article on a potential large earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.
I recently raced through an entire New Yorker article she wrote on, of all things, the brown marmorated stinkbug. It was captivating, filled with fascinating detail and, surprisingly, humourous. She also displayed superb skill with figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:
[The stinkbug’s] six legs prop its shield-shaped body up in the air, as if they were pallbearers at the funeral of a Knight Templar.
Its antennae are striped with bands of dark and light, while its eyes, should you get close enough to gaze into them, are the vivid red of an alarm clock at night.
The “marmorated” in its name means “marbled,” but “mottled” is closer to the truth. Entomologists, who have a color palette as elaborate as Benjamin Moore’s, describe the underside of its body as “distinctly pale luteous”…
Slightly less noxious but vastly more pervasive, the smell of the brown marmorated stinkbug is often likened to that of cilantro, chiefly because the same chemical is present in both. In reality, stinkbugs smell like cilantro only in the way that rancid cilantro-mutton stew smells like cilantro, which is to say, they do not.
Along with cheap yoga pants, mass layoffs, and the recent surge in nationalism, the brown marmorated stinkbug is a product of globalization.
Like a dance party that technically starts at nine but doesn’t really get going until one in the morning, there’s a long lag between when stinkbugs show up in a new place and when their population booms.
The injury they do to corn, for instance, is invisible until the ear is husked, at which point certain kernels—the ones into which a stinkbug stuck its pointy mouth—will reveal themselves to be sunken and brown, like the teeth of a witch.
A class of pesticides known as pyrethroids, which are used to control native stinkbugs, initially appeared to work just as well on the brown marmorated kind—until a day or two later, when more than a third of the ostensibly dead bugs rose up, Lazarus-like, and calmly resumed the business of demolition.
It is why Pam Stone found so many behind her paintings, and why Doug Inkley, the biologist who counted upward of twenty-six thousand stinkbugs in his home, could pull them out of his attic by the handful, like popcorn.
Worse, they will die with the sublime stoicism of a soldier who knows that ten thousand of his compatriots are lined up behind him, ready to take his place.
Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: marmorated…
I have little interest in insects but a March 12/18 New Yorker article on stinkbugs (one is pictured above) captured my attention this week.
Headlined, “When Twenty-Six Thousand Stinkbugs Invade Your Home,” (now there’s a headline that’s hard to resist) writer Kathryn Schulz relayed her story in the style of Hitchcock, complete with an opening sequence about a couple whose Southern California home had been infested with the insects. (The movie would clearly have been called Bugs!)
While the word appears multiple times in the article, here is how Schulz used it the first time:
That’s a stinkbug, a chorus of people had told her—specifically, a brown marmorated stinkbug. Huh, Stone had thought at the time. Never heard of them. Now they were covering every visible surface of her bedroom.
Interestingly, that’s not the bug’s scientific name. It is also known as Halyomorpha halys. Itis native to China, Japan, the Koreas, and Taiwan and was accidentally introduced into the United States at an unknown date, with the first specimen being collected in September 1998.
The word marmorated means having a marbled or streaked appearance. The etymology of the word is Latin, with marmoratus being the past participle of marmorate meaning “to overlay with marble.”
Have you ever heard of back-and-forth writing? This is a system that I use to make myself a more efficient and productive writer.
There is something wonderfully concrete about writing. If your boss or client asks you for 500 words, you can make a plan, do your research or interviews and then start writing. Your software will even tell you exactly when you’ve hit that goal.
Or, if you’re writing a book of 80,000 words you can subdivide it into more manageable chunks — such as 10 chapters of 8,000 words apiece — make a plan and then get started fairly quickly.
I see writers do this every day of the week. They focus on their ultimate goal — the finished product — and think that every minute they are not spending writing is wasted time.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is walk away from your writing.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Our minds get stuck in ruts
When we write, we usually become very focused. I picture writers as cross-country skiers stuck in a classic track, with snow carved up on either side making it difficult — and sometimes even slightly risky — to go in any other direction. When all we can see is the perfectly groomed tracks heading out for miles in front of us, it’s always easier to stay on the pre-determined route.
2. We don’t have anything new to say
Sometimes, after working on a piece of writing for 45 minutes we just plain run out of things to say. It’s not that these ideas don’t exist. It’s just that we can’t see them. And trying too hard, also known as over-thinking, doesn’t help one iota.
3. We need more time for reflection
Other times, we may need to do more thinking, in a more relaxed fashion. A certain pressure sits on our shoulders whenever we park ourselves in front of a computer. But when we remove ourselves from the computer our brains become free to wander in any direction and to think more creative thoughts.
All these reasons indicate that it’s often wise to consider a different path.
Recently, I’ve started following the path of what I call “back-and-forth” writing. What do I mean when I say that?
I’m guessing you might visualize “back-and-forth” writing as a group project in which a draft is passed between three (or more people) with each person adding their own point of view to the text, correcting errors and making comments in little boxes along the side.
Trust me, I’ve been involved in lots of projects like that, and I don’t recommend them. When I say “back-and-forth” writing, I mean projects where YOU go back and forth with yourself. Reconsidering that 500-word piece for your boss or client, for example, you might begin by writing an introductory paragraph, say 56 words. Then walk away for an hour or more.
Later, you return and add another 376 words. Then take another break.
Still later, you can add the remaining 68 words.
I know this sounds inefficient and tiresome, but it’s actually the reverse. I know because I had to write a story in exactly this fashion last week. I had a day filled with meetings and I also needed to finish a piece of writing, a blog post for a client. Instead of working late, I decided to squeeze the piece of writing into my already-full day.
Instead of being difficult, it was easier. In each writing session, I had very little time so I was motivated to write as quickly as possible. When I returned to the piece (each time), I was always cheered to see how many words I’d already accumulated. (There’s a big benefit to not having to face a blank screen every time you start working on a piece of writing!)
I also felt the quality of my writing was better because I came to it with fresh eyes on so many occasions during the day. This allowed me to do a better job of self-editing.
Back-and-forth writing might sound like a time-waster but, it’s not. Instead, it’s a way to make your writing easier, fresher and less daunting. Goals are always important, but they aren’t the only thing you should focus on. Instead, figure out a way to make the process better and more productive for you.
My next term of Get It Done term starts April 1. I have just had one last-minute cancellation so one spot currently remains open. If you are writing a book or a thesis and want some support, check out the details here and complete the application form. It should offer you just the boost you need.
Have you ever tried back-and-forth writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/18, will be put in a draw for a copy of The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.
This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about the editing style of Jane Austen….
When I edit on paper, I use a wickedly sharp red pencil. When I edit on screen, I use my wickedly sharp fingers on a keyboard. But it has never occurred to me to use wickedly sharp sewing pins.
But that’s what Jane Austen used to do. As, apparently, did many other writers in the days before computers. Archivists at Oxford’s Bodleian Library can trace pins being used as editing tools back as far as 1617.
When that library acquired Austen’s abandoned novel, The Watsons in 2011 it wrote:
The Watsons is Jane Austen’s first extant draft of a novel in process of development and one of the earliest examples of an English novel to survive in its formative state. Only seven manuscripts of fiction by Austen are known to survive.The Watsons manuscript is extensively revised and corrected throughout, with crossings out and interlinear additions.
I love to see this manuscript, complete with pin hatchings. But, for now, I’ve had to content myself with a photo, which you can see here. It reminds me of my unhappy days in sewing class, in grade 8, having to pin tissue paper patterns to fabric and always making mistakes.
I’m so glad to be able to use a computer to edit now. My thanks to reader Susan Soriano for thoughtfully sending me this link.
The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question focuses on how to stop editing email. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at email@example.com, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
The Write Question #50: How can I stop editing my email? - YouTube
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about editing email.
I’m answering a question from Emily Agnew in Rochester, New York. Here’s what she asked.
[recording] Hi Daphne, this is Emily with a question for you. I can’t believe this but I noticed I even edit my emails while I’m writing them. And I wondered if you have any suggestions about that. I want to be very responsive to clients — current ones and prospective ones — but it just feels like open season. And even though some of the emails are deserving of my attention —they’re sensitive and they’re important — it still feels as though I’m spending way too long on them. Do you have any suggestions for me?
Thanks for the question, Emily. But, oh my goodness, judging by the email I receive — and, to be honest, the email I sometimes send — MORE people need to edit their email. Email is often filled with typos, grammatical errors, factual mistakes and all around sloppy writing.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with editing email, particularly if the email is as sensitive and important as you describe.
I wonder if the problem is that you treat all email in a similar fashion. By that I mean, are you spending exactly the same amount of time on your garden-variety emails as you are on the sensitive and important ones?
Here are some tips on how to better manage your email:
Don’t let your email stream in all day. The ding you might hear when an email arrives is intensely distracting. And, even if you’ve turned the sound off, the little red number, showing how many unread emails you have is also a problem. Instead, collect your email manually, when it’s convenient for you and only when you have the time to respond.
Have one place to process your email and do it in the order in which it arrives. Don’t cherry-pick only the most interesting ones and leaves others to collect dust in your inbox.
I always try to keep my inbox mostly empty. Several times a day, I answer as many emails as possible right away. Then I file them. If it’s going to take me more than a couple of minutes to write an answer — and I don’t have that time right then — I put a note on my daily ‘to do’ list so I don’t forget about the email.
I like to deal with emails when I have a clock ticking. This is part of the Pomodoro method. I’ve included a link below. The sound of a ticking clock is a reminder to me that time is limited. It keeps me moving quickly.
But let’s return to your question about sensitive and important emails. I really support your desire to treat them carefully. Here’s the main thing to remember: the secret to good writing is good editing. And the secret to good editing is some distance.
Instead of spending more time writing or even editing those emails I suggest you take more time away from them before you send them. Do some other work for several hours and then you’ll be able to return to those important, sensitive emails with fresh eyes. When you do that, you’ll likely notice all sorts of ways in which you can make them better.
I call this time away from our writing the incubation period. I’ve talked about this before, and you can find a link in the description to find out more.
The main thing is not to lose track of the emails and this is why that note on your daily to-do list becomes so important. It allows you to keep track of what you need to do.
The important thing about dealing with email is to not let it control you. Answer it when you have time, and don’t let it take over your life.
For even more terrific ideas on how to handle email effectively, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of the book the Email Warrior. Details are in the link below.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the author of that book, Ann Gomez: “If we allow ourselves to work from a random assortment of messages in our inbox, we will always be scrambling according to others’ priorities and timelines.”
Thanks for your question, Emily. I hope this video helps you develop a new relationship with your email.
I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about simile and personification from Jon McGregor…
British novelist and short story writer, Jon McGregor (pictured above) had his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Thingslonglisted for the Booker Prize in 2002, making him the youngest ever contender at the age of 26.
His third novel,Even The Dogs, won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2012. And I write today about his fourth novel, Reservoir 13. I can no longer recall why I picked it up as the book is ostensibly a murder mystery, a genre I don’t typically read.
But here’s the surprising thing: the book isn’t so much a murder mystery as it is an examination of the natural world after a tragedy. And McGregor is an astonishingly graceful writer with a particular ear for personification, as you can see from the examples below:
The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged.
In November Austin Cooper and his wife came home with twins, and carried them up the steps to their flat above the converted stables. When he turned to close the door he stood on the threshold for a moment, looking down at the street, as if expecting or perhaps even hearing applause.
By noon the sun was out and the drains were gulping meltwater from the road.
Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scuttlebutt…
I’ve used the word scuttlebutt on many occasions — it means rumour or gossip, as in “what’s the scuttlebutt? And I’ve always enjoyed the way it trips off the tongue. But I’ve never before had reason to investigate its origins.
Then, I encountered it in the (mediocre) Frances Itani novel about a woman seeking to learn the details of her own adoption, That’s My Baby. Here’s how Itani used the word:
Excitement, now. Follow the main thread, punctuate. Someone adds darker bits with growly undertones. Bass all the way through. Low brass. Scuttlebutt.
I’m still not entirely sure how she meant the term, used here to describe a musical passage. (I can only assume she was comparing the gravelly sound of the music to the darkness of rumour and gossip?) But at least I now know the interesting origins of the word.
The word comes from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water on a sailing ship. Water was conventionally stored in a butt (a cask) that had been scuttled (had a hole bored into it) so the water could be withdrawn. (The word scuttle derives from the Middle French escoutille or the Spanish escotilla, meaning hatchway.)
Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours. These days the term has been translated to also refer to a water cooler in an office setting.
Some writers try to figure out what they want to say by writing. Here’s why you should think first, write later….
Here are the mistakes I see some (not all!) academic writers make:
They use the passive voice too much, hiding the ‘actor’ of the sentence (e.g. “Mistakes were made”).
They feel guilty if they don’t spend at least three hours a day writing.
They believe they can’t accomplish any writing in 15 minutes.
They figure out what they want to say by writing.
Each of these mistakes deserves its own column, but today I’m going to talk about the downside of the last one — writing to figure out what you want to say. Note that you don’t have to be an academic writer to attempt this wrongheaded manoeuvre. I have many non-academic clients who try it as well. Here’s why it’s a bad idea.
Thinking WHILE you write creates too much work
I acknowledge that I overstate the case when I call the problem “thinking WHILE you write,” but I want you to take this issue seriously. Of course, we all need to think — a little bit — while we write, otherwise, how would we get any words on paper? But starting to write before you spend some dedicated time thinking, is only going to create way too much work for you.
Let me spell out the problem with some numbers. If you’re working on a paper (or a book chapter) of 8,000 words and you write at a rate of 300 words an hour — which is what many of my academic clients tell me is their speed — it will take you almost 27 hours to write the first draft.
But let’s imagine you don’t know what you want to say. Instead, your plan is to start writing and figure it out as you go. The inevitable result? You’ll likely have to write 2,000 words (or perhaps even more) to figure out your point. That’s an addition of almost seven hours of writing time alone. Who would sign up for seven unnecessary hours of work? (And maybe more if your writing speed is slower than 300 words per hour.) Yikes!
Even worse, however, is the mindset you’ll need to adopt for this sort of writing. Here’s how I picture you: You’ll be staring at your blank computer screen until beads of blood form on your forehead. (Credit for that line goes to writer Gene Fowler.) This is no way to write! It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and your memory of these feelings is only going to make you want to procrastinate about writing in the future. Which will only cost you even more time.
What you should do instead
Instead of thinking on paper, plan some dedicated thinking time away from your desk. I know, you won’t be able to take notes, or look up references or check citations, but those are all jobs you can do LATER. Instead, go for a walk and think about what you’ve read and what you want to say. Your ideas are the most important part of your writing.
Our brains work better when we’re moving, which is why I write on a treadmill. But before I acquired that device, I always went for a walk in my neighbourhood before writing. (I still do that from time to time because the fresh air and the scenery I enjoy when outside also energize me.) If you don’t like walking you can do something else: running, cycling, swimming, house cleaning, cooking, whatever. I had one client who told me that she always thought about her writing when she groomed her dog. What you do doesn’t matter. Just get away from your desk!
Removing the pressure of writing will help your brain move into its diffuse mode, a term coined by engineering prof and Coursera teacher Barbara Oakley. And in this diffuse, day-dreamy mode your brain will be free to wander, to ponder, to reflect and to make new connections.
Many clients tell me they’re afraid of thinking away from their desks because they worry about losing or forgetting their best ideas. Here’s what I say to that: If your idea is really groundbreaking, you’re not going to forget it. Especially if you race home and get it on paper right after your walk. Or if that worries you, take your cell phone with you and record a reminder.
Try to do one thing at a time. When you are researching, research. When you are thinking, think. And when you are writing, write.
Here is what writer Michael Harris, author of Solitude, has to say about what happens when we try to avoid the single-tasking approach: “We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But, in reality, we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.”
How do you do your writing-related thinking? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/18, will be put in a draw for a copy of The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.
This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post advocating using fiction techniques in memoir…
I recently stumbled across a terrific blog post on Joanna Penn’s site The Creative Penn. (Aside: Is there a better surname for a writer than Penn? I think not.)
The post, which was the work of writer and book editor Michael Mohr (pictured above), argued that memoir should be written very much like a novel.
Here are the nine tips that Mohr proposed:
Like novels, memoirs must use details
Scene is just as important in memoir as it is in novels
ARC (transformation) is king
Readers need to see the narrator struggle
Every novel and memoir requires strong voice
Things need to happen (there needs to be plot)
Characters must be fully-developed and authentic to readers
You need to make readers care about the narrator
Plot your story before you start writing
I’m a big fan of memoir — it’s by far my favourite genre — and Mohr’s list resonated with me. I didn’t like his mention of the O-word (“outline”) but he could have easily replaced it with advice to mindmap.