Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mastering the Query Letter

You have a brilliant story idea. You’ve identified what you think is the perfect publication to pitch the story to. Now it’s time to write a query letter explaining the article you want to write, why it’s perfect for the publication, and why you should be the person to write it.

Writing a stellar query letter is key to landing a freelance assignment. If you can’t catch the editor’s interest with your opening lines and keep her reading until your signature, you don’t stand a chance. And with fewer editors on editorial staffs doing more work than ever before, you’d better make one heck of a first impression if you want to snag work with any publication.

Here’s how to write a query that gets results.

Make sure you’re pitching to the right place.
It’s all about picking the right publication and making certain you’re proposing a story that fits that magazine.

If you try to propose a story about pointers for tackling fall yard care quickly and easily to a parenting magazine, busy editors (or their assistants) are going to toss your letter without a second glance. Obviously, you didn’t take the time to look at the types of articles the magazine typically publishes, and your lack of familiarity with the publication will show. If, however, you propose a story on easy ways parents can get their kids interested in and involved with fall chores outdoors by turning easy tasks into games, you may be onto something.

Get to the important stuff. Treat the opening sentences of your query letter like you would the opening lines of a story. Make them snappy, interesting, appealing, compelling. You want to hook the editor you’re writing to and get her to keep reading. Jump right in with an anecdote you’d use in the story, a startling fact or statistic, or a brief bit of description. Then, just as you would with a magazine article, quickly transition to the “hardworking” details—in other words, tell the editor exactly what the story is about, why you think it’s a great fit for the magazine, and more.

Be specific. Don’t just say you want to write an article about fall lawn care or moms with minivans and leave it at that. Give the editor details. Who will you interview? Include names. How long do you expect the story will be? Give an estimated word count. What form will the story take? Give a brief outline of how you see it progressing, and mention if it’s going to be presented in quick bullet-pointed tips or if it’s a long feature divided into subheads. If you think the story fits best in a certain department in the magazine, say so.

It all comes down to proving to your editor that you’ve thoroughly thought this through—and that you’ve done your homework on the types of sources, the length, and the format of other similar stories in her publication.

Tell a bit about yourself.
As much as a query letter is about the story you’re pitching, it’s also about you and what makes you qualified to write the story. So once you’ve spent a paragraph or two on the story itself, talk about yourself. What qualifications do you have? What else have you written that you can mention to prove to them you’re a published writer who can pen the type of story you’re proposing?

If you’re a beginner, you might have limited experience to mention. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by saying you’re new to the field or apologizing for your lack of experience. Just state what you have done and move on. If your idea is the perfect fit, the editor may be willing to overlook that you haven’t done much magazine writing yet.

If, on the other hand, you have a fair amount of experience, be selective about what you include. If I’m introducing myself to a “green” magazine, for instance, I’ll write about my passion for the environment and will focus on my experience working on other green publications, my educational background in environmental studies, and any other relevant info. Other experience that isn’t as relevant in this instance—such as small business writing—might be left out this time around.

Show some personality.
Writing a formal letter that provides a basic rundown of the story, who you are, and what you do—and nothing else—won’t get you anywhere. This is your one shot, your first impression. You have to convince the person you’re sending this letter to that you’re interesting, that you’re reliable, that you’re a talented writer, that you’re everything they’ve ever wanted in a freelancer and more.

What are you going to say in the lede that’s witty, that’s intriguing, that will convince your reader that they have to keep going to learn more? Is there a turn of phrase or an aside you can insert into your second paragraph to give the person you’re writing to a glimpse of what you’re like or what you’re capable of? How will you close your letter to leave the reader wanting more?



This isn’t to say you should go over the top. But a well-crafted letter should leave a lasting (positive) impression on the reader. When you read back over your letter, does it bore you? Does your attention wander? Odds are, it’s going to bore the person you’re sending it to too.



Get the facts right.
Make sure you know the proper format to send your query, whether it’s by email or snail mail. Check that you have the editor’s name right. If you use formal salutations like “Mr” or “Ms,” be darn sure you know that Pat Cameron really is a man. It just may be a woman, and if you start out with the wrong salutation you’re not going to earn any points in her book.

Keep it short.
If you think an editor is going to take the time to read a five-page proposal for a 500-word story, you’re crazy.

As with the writing you hope to ultimately do for the magazine you’re querying, your letter should be written clearly and succinctly. Don’t waste words or ramble. Write well, make it interesting, but keep it brief. Unless you’re proposing a particularly in-depth, heavily researched feature, your query letter shouldn’t be longer than a page.

Proofread.
Then proofread again. Once you’ve penned that letter, set it aside for a while—a day or two is ideal. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and read it closely. Set it aside. Repeat. Have a friend proofread it too if possible to catch errors you might have missed. That attention to detail matters, because rest assured that if you let a typo sneak in, it will jump out at the person reading your letter immediately.



Follow up.
Your job isn’t finished just because you hit send or slapped a stamp on the envelope. Keep track of your queries, and when a reasonable amount of time has passed—say, a month—be prepared to follow up with a brief email or phone call. Sometimes that follow-up makes all the difference.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Celebrate National Punctuation Day

Did you know today is National Punctuation Day? It's true—an entire day devote to celebrating all there is to love (and loathe) about our favorite forms of punctuation.

It all started with Jeff Rubin, a former copy editor who got the day listed on Chase's Calendar of Events in 2004. Each year, he and his wife cook a meatloaf shaped like a question mark as an ode to the day.

You can learn more—and even enter a National Punctuation Day Baking Contest—at the official website, nationalpunctuationday.com.

I'm wondering: What's your favorite form of punctuation and why?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Apology

Hello dear freelancing friends.

I apologize for leaving you high and dry for over a month. I never intended for time to get away from me like that, but I discovered that it really is possible to be too busy.

Things have slowed down a (very little) bit now, however, so I hope to be back a bit more frequently with news and notes and posts of interests to you, my fellow freelancers.

In the meantime, I'm wondering: As a freelancer, is there anything in particular you'd like to learn more about? Anything you could use some advice or assistance with? If so, let me know. I'll provide my two cents when I can and track down answers from other pros where it makes sense.

In the meantime, happy freelancing!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Staying Sane

I'm sure you know the old cliche, "When it rains, it pours." Right now it's raining cats and dogs here—literally, because we've had some nasty rain storms (and tornadoes) in the area this week, but also figuratively, because suddenly I'm looking at my to-do list in alarm and wondering how I'm going to meet the deadlines I have in the next two weeks when I have a bunch of family visiting now through Monday morning and I start graduate classes again next Monday.

Don't get me wrong: I will meet my deadlines. Failure is not an option and when I make promises I'll do anything I can to fulfill them, even if it means forgoing sleep and ignoring my honey for a week or so. (Hopefully, he'll understand, when it means I'm actually contributing to the bills!)

And I'm not complaining, by any means. Any freelancer who has slow weeks (or months) knows better than to do that. I'm incredibly grateful for all of the work I have on my plate right now and am excited about all of it. It's a great mix of researching, writing, and editing on a variety of topics, which is just how I like it.

But you know how it is when things get way too busy, seemingly out of nowhere. All of a sudden it hits you just how much you have to do and how there most certainly can't be enough hours in the day. And then it's hard to breathe or think or even contemplate tackling the to-do list.

Then, after the initial panic, the only thing left to do is buckle down and get to work. That's all you can do. Well, that and these three steps designed to keep you sane when things get crazy.

1. Get organized. I can't stress enough the importance of staying organized when you're a freelancer. If you're juggling multiple projects, clients, and commitments at once, it's the only way to ensure you're on top of everything and able to focus on what really matters. I employ good old pen and paper to-do lists like it's my job—I have three different lists in front of me right now, actually.

Jot down everything you have to do. Now prioritize. Right now, my to-do list is organized by deadline. My goal is to work my way down it, one step at a time, crossing things off as I go. Just having those words in front of me that spell out exactly what I need to do right now help keep me focused and, hopefully, prevent me from staring off into space trying to remember what the heck I was going to do next.

2. Take some me time. Yes, even when you feel like you could work 25 hours of every day and still not get everything done, you need some downtime. Maybe it's just taking 20 minutes to pause and eat lunch in peace (read: no computer in front of you). Maybe it's going for a quick run or even—gasp!—bathing. You need time to take care of yourself. Otherwise you'll get to crunch time and be too exhausted to think. Or you'll be sick. Either way, you certainly won't be at your best, and if you're not at your best it's going to be pretty darn hard to turn in your best work.

3. Know when to drop a ball. When things get really tight, take a long, hard look at your to-do list. Will the world end if you don't clean the house this week? Probably not—so cross it off the list and worry about it later. Do you have so many paying projects right now that you can't possibly think about your personal blog (I admit, I'm about to be at that point, at least for a couple of days). It's hard to abandon your work, and you don't want to disappear for too long, but if you've built loyal readers they'll come back even if you're gone for a few days.

And the relief and knowing there's one less thing on your to-do list may be just what you need to keep going, to power through to the end, to find freelance success.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Government Sources

What are you researching or writing about this week?

Odds are, whatever it is, there's a government website that can lead you to information on your given topic.

I regularly use government sites for a variety of writing assignments—the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control, and the Small Business Administration have all been go-to sources for me recently.

And why not? Government agencies and departments offer a wealth of knowledge for freelancers and can be a great, reliable source for facts, figures, and expert sources depending on the topic you're exploring.

You wouldn't want to rely solely on government sources for an in-depth feature on a given topic, of course, but government websites can be a great place to start when you're tackling a new topic.

To find the right government agency or department, there's no better place to begin than USA.gov, which can direct you to government information by topic and allows you to search for info across all government websites.

This doesn't just apply to the United States, either. I've worked on projects before where I had to gather Canadian data, and the government of Canada offers a terrific network of sites teeming with specific, easy-to-find information on anything and everything you can think of.

What government sources, resources, and sites do you find most helpful? Please share!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The LOI


In the throes of my first couple of weeks as a freelancer, I sent out a flurry of letters of introduction (LOIs) to potential clients.

LOIs are a means of contacting editors, business owners, and the like to let them know who you are and that you’re interested in working with them. Think of it as cold-calling, only by email.

It’s a less time-intensive method of drumming up business than sending out query letters, and it can be successful if you do it right. Here’s what I’ve learned about crafting and sending LOIs that get results:

Know when to use an LOI.
If you’re pitching a major consumer publication, sending an LOI is probably a waste of time. Unless you’re pitching very specific article ideas that are a perfect fit for their publication, busy editors (or their assistants) are going to toss your letter without a second glance.

Who will take heed? If you’re finding work possibilities on freelance writing job boards, odds are those employers are looking for general letters of intro rather than specific queries. Smaller publications, b-to-b pubs that focus on very specific content areas, trade publications, custom publishers, web design companies that might be in the market for writers to assist their clients, and businesses that can benefit from your copywriting abilities are all possible targets for your letter.

Show some personality. Writing a formal letter that provides a basic rundown of who you are and what you do—and nothing else—won’t get you anywhere. This is your one shot, your first impression. You have to convince the person you’re sending this letter to that you’re interesting, that you’re reliable, that you’re a talented writer, that you’re everything they’ve ever wanted in a freelancer and more. But you can't just say that. You have to prove it.

Think of your LOI like you do an article you’re writing. What are you going to say in the lede that’s witty, that’s intriguing, that will convince your reader that they have to keep going to learn more? Is there a turn of phrase or an aside you can insert into your second paragraph to give the person you’re writing to a glimpse of what you’re like or what you’re capable of? How will you close your letter to leave the reader wanting more?

This isn’t to say you should go over the top. But a well-crafted letter should leave a lasting (positive) impression on the reader. When you read back over your letter, does it bore you? Does your attention wander? Then odds are, it’s going to bore the person you’re sending it to too.

Customize it.
Sending the same form letter to everyone on your LOI list might seem like a great time-saving move, but it’s not going to yield results. When I was an editor for a custom-publishing company, I could spot canned letters a mile away—and didn’t give them the time of day. Why would I consider hiring a writer who doesn’t even bother to demonstrate they know my company and what we do?

This doesn’t mean you have to write every LOI from scratch. I created a basic template that goes into a lot of detail on who I am and what I do. Then I customize that template depending on where I am sending it. If I’m introducing myself to a “green” magazine, for instance, I’ll pen a new introduction about my passion for the environment. Then I’ll move up my experience working on other green publications, my educational background in environmental studies, and any other relevant info. Other experience that isn’t as relevant in this instance—such as small business writing—is barely mentioned or removed altogether.

Finally, I add a couple of sentences here and there to make it clear I am familiar with who they are and what they do. (This means, of course, that I make certain I truly am up to speed on who they are and what they do.)

Include an offer.
An LOI won’t do much good if it isn’t actionable. Close your letter by stating that you’d love to discuss possibilities with the editor or business owner you are writing to. Or say that you’d be happy to send story ideas their way or provide additional information about yourself if they’d like to learn more. Then be prepared to do exactly that.

Proofread. Then proofread again. You’ve heard me say this before, but I can’t repeat it enough. Once you’ve penned that letter, set it aside for a while—a day or two is ideal. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and read it closely. Set it aside. Repeat. Have a friend proofread it too if possible to catch errors you might have missed. That attention to detail matters, because rest assured that if you let a typo sneak in, it will jump out at the person reading your letter immediately.

Be smart about sending. Root around online, place a call to an editorial assistant. Do what you have to in order to find out how your letter would best be received. Some folks still like a snail mail introduction with clips. But most prefer an email message, with a link to your work online. (Watch out for sending clips attached as large digital files—they might not make it to the person you’re emailing, and they may be a nuisance if they do.)

If you send by email, paste the LOI in the body of the email. Proofread it again. Check formatting.

And don’t forget to write an engaging subject line. Make clear why you’re emailing or what you're offering. “Introduction” or “(No Subject)” won’t cut it. But something like “Looking for a stellar writer?” may be enough to compel the editor to read your email before deleting.

Follow up.
Your job isn’t finished just because you hit send or slapped a stamp on the envelope. Keep track of your queries, and when a reasonable amount of time has passed—say, a month—be prepared to follow up with a brief email or phone call. That follow up works—really, it does. I’ll explain just how well soon.

In the meantime, start researching companies and publications you’re interested in writing for and get to work on those letters. The best way to drum up business is to be proactive.

Learn More
Introduce Yourself to Land Work: Why Freelance LOIs Matter (WordCount)
You Ask, We Answer: LOI or Query Letter? (The Renegade Writer)
Letter of Introduction: A Profitable Alternative to Queries (WritersWeekly)

Photo: Miky Jpeg

Monday, August 10, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Grammar and Usage Gurus

Grammar is incredibly important for any professional writer (or anyone who communicates, for that matter). Even copy editors and proofreaders occasionally are faced with grammar conundrums or need to brush up on the basics (a fact I personally can attest to).

For these reasons, it's always good to have a set of resources on hand to help you work around a tricky sentence construction or confirm that the way you hope to use a word or phrase is correct. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary 11th Edition: It seems obvious, but it's worth reminding you: When it comes to usage questions, one of the easiest places to look up a word and determine its proper use is in the dictionary.

  • The Elements of Style: This classic by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White clearly lays out the fundamentals. I reference it often, but even if you don't, it's worth having in your library.

  • Style Guides: Depending on what you're writing for, referencing the appropriate style guide—whether it's Chicago, APA, MLA, or AP—is a smart place to look for grammar and usage guidelines that vary from style to style.

  • The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL): Originally designed for student writers, this website also holds a wealth of information for pros who are stuck on a grammar or usage question. The newly updated site even includes a selection of resources for professional writers (although it's more for professionals who write in their jobs—aka workplace writers—than it is for pro writers).

  • Grammar Girl: Grammar Girl provides podcasts and daily emails with short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Sign up for one or the other (or both!) to get a daily dose of grammar and usage, or search the archives to find pointers on a specific topic.
What resources do you turn to first when you're on the hunt for a grammar or usage answer? Share here!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch

When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?

It's a complicated question for me, and a response usually involves a lot of hemming and hawing before I mutter under my breath, "I'm a freelance writer." Then I wait for the next question, which is inevitable, and usually is some form of: "OK, but, what do you write?"

I'm not very good at describing what it is I do because it's complicated. My honey can say "I'm a lawyer" and everyone knows exactly what that means, although they may ask what kind of law he practices. But "freelance writer" is a fuzzy term, one that isn't clear-cut, and that isn't familiar to many people.

It could mean I write magazine articles, newspaper articles, blog posts, website content, advertising copy, short stories, novels. It could mean I'm simply unemployed and sit in my bedroom penning terrible poems that I won't share with anyone (although, fortunately, that's not the case). It means a lot of things to a lot of people and nothing to most—in other words, it requires clarification.

Yet most of the time I end up passing along some vague description and changing the subject, because I'd rather not talk about myself for that long and figure the person asking is being nice and doesn't really care anyway.

But, I'm beginning to realize, that's not what a savvy freelancer should do. Even if you're meeting some random acquaintance at a party or are being introduced to someone in the park, you have an opportunity. You have the chance to promote what you do, to pique interest in your work.

Perhaps the person you're speaking to will simply have a better grasp of—and, likely, an appreciation for—what you do. Maybe you'll have scored another reader for your personal blog. Or, you never know, that person may file what you said away in their mind and later, when they overhear someone talking about the need for a stellar writer, your name will come up.

And that, my friends, is why you don't brush off career questions or mumble responses under your breath. Be specific, be confident, and explain exactly what you do to anyone who asks.

Often called "the elevator pitch," it's a brief description of your job, your business, or a service you offer. The premise is this: If you're stuck in an elevator with the CEO of a major company (or anyone, for that matter), what could you say in the span of that elevator ride to explain yourself and your skills (and, potentially, to land a job)?

In the process of creating my own spiel, I've discovered that the best elevator pitches are:

Interesting. I have 30 to 60 seconds to hook this person's attention and that's it. So I need to draw them in right away. Think of it as your lede—what can you say first thing to get your listener interested in your pitch?

Specific. There's no time to waste rambling on when it comes to an elevator pitch. Stick to clear, concise, active words so you can say as much as possible as briefly as possible.

Customized. Who are you talking to and what will interest them most? If you're speaking with an entrepreneur, play up the writing you've done for small business pubs or the copywriting project you just finished for a local company. If you're chatting with a dietitian, mention the series of nutrition articles you recently wrote for a parenting website.

Passionate. If you're not excited about what you do, why would anyone else care? There's no need to go over the top here, but the enthusiasm you show for your work may rub off on the person you're speaking to.

Actionable. Hand over a business card with your contact info and web address. Scribble down the address to a blog you write that you think the person you're speaking to might like. Ask if you can follow-up with an email explaining a bit more about what you do. Inquire as to whether the person you're speaking to knows anyone who's looking for a talented writer. You never know where your pitch might lead if you ask.

Ready to write your own elevator pitch? Check out a real-life elevator pitch, then share yours here.

Learn More
The Art of the Elevator Pitch (Business Know-How)
Elevator Pitch 101 (Chris O'Leary)
Crafting an Effective Elevator Pitch [slideshow] (BusinessWeek)

Photo: serakatie

Monday, August 3, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Your Turn

In the past seven weeks, I've shared some of the freelance resources I find helpful.

Now it's your turn: What resources (online, in print, in person, you name it) are must-haves in your book? Leave a comment, shoot me an email, or send me a DM on Twitter (@julietries) to let me know and I'll start sharing readers' favored freelance resources next Monday.

In the meantime, happy writing, marketing, editing, and whatever else you're up to today!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

They: The Ultimate Pronoun?

Is "they" the ultimate, universal pronoun? On Language is so bold as to say yes, although I hear that plenty of traditional grammarians are up in arms about the fact.

You decide: All-Purpose Pronoun.

Why I Use Twitter

When it comes to sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and the like, I have long been a reluctant participant. Most of my friends were hooked on social networking sites in college. I, on the other hand, refused to even sign up for a Facebook account until almost a year out of college, when they held me at gunpoint and made me sign up. (OK, I lied about the gun part, but they sure did hound me a lot.)

I was slow to hop onto the LinkedIn bandwagon too. And Twitter? A lot of my friends were tweeting away and I still didn't even really understand what the heck it was.


Recently, however, I've changed my tune about social media—particularly Twitter. Why? Because I'm figuring out how to use it and, in the process, am discovering that it's a great way to promote myself and my freelance work.

If you use Twitter right, it really can boost your freelance business. Here's how:

Snag sources. If you're writing an article and want to find someone who's passionate or knowledgeable about a given topic, Twitter is a great place to look for sources. Search for common words or phrases related to the subject matter you're writing about (the more specific, the better), and after you weed through some junk, you just may find a gem of a source.

Discover story ideas. By following newsmakers, media types, and just plain interesting folks, you can learn a lot about what's going on in the world. What topics do people keep coming back to? Anything particularly random that folks seem to be responding to? Not every tweet is newsworthy, but a lot of messages people post on Twitter contain nuggets that, with the right moves, can be shaped into stellar story ideas.

Connect with other freelancers. Freelancing can be a lonely life, and it helps to have a network of others in the same boat. Some of my favorite people on Twitter are writers or freelance creative types just like me. Following along with their trials, tribulations, and random rants on Twitter is interesting, inspiring, and comforting, because I realize I'm not alone.

Make contact with potential clients. If publications or companies you want to write or work for have Twitter accounts, are you following them? Keeping up with what interests them gives you an in, and you may even hear about opportunities to work with them through their Twitter accounts. Case in point: I just landed a gig blogging for one of my favorite publications, Natural Home magazine, because they sent out a call for bloggers on Twitter and I responded. Really. It's that easy.

Promote what you do. When I land a freelance writing gig or finish a project, I'm excited. I want to share that excitement, so I often tweet about what I'm doing or have done. It's a great way to share with friends and family who follow me, and it shows other folks that I'm busy, that I'm productive, that I'm the sort of person they want to work with. (At least, I hope!)

Land work without even trying. If you're an interesting creature (and I'm sure you are), just being your most creative, professional, engaging self through those 140 characters on Twitter may lead to work opportunities. If potential clients search for your name, see a link to your Twitter account, and like what they see on your Twitter page, they may call you up. Seriously.

Of course, the aforementioned scenario can also have the exact opposite effect if you're not careful. Twitter has its drawbacks—two of the most commonly mentioned are the fact it can be a real time-suck (or a great procrastination tool, depending on how you choose to look at things) and that people post really stupid stuff online. Insanely stupid.

Much has been written about how to use Twitter effectively, how not to look asinine. I say it comes down to commonsense. Don't post things you wouldn't want your grandmother to read. Don't post things that reflect poorly on you as a professional (even if it is your personal account). And whatever you do: Don't post things you shouldn't about someone you're working with or for or hope to work with or for in the future. That means "I hope I never work with someone like Client X again" is not going to fly. Nor is "Too hungover to work today. Going to sit on the couch and watch soaps instead."

You know what? If you're going to do that, fine. But odds are sometime in the future a potential client will search for your name online and find that random Tweet and it will reflect poorly on you. And I'm pretty sure that's just not worth it.

For this exact reason, some people believe business and personal tweets should be confined to separate accounts. I'm OK with mixing business with personal within reason, particularly if you're a generalist like me. I write about the things I'm passionate about, so if I'm doing something that I'm passionate about—gardening, cooking, doing yoga, what have you—I'll tweet about it occasionally, even if it doesn't directly relate to my work. If you look back at my messages on Twitter, you can get a pretty good idea of who I am and what I'm into. And that has helped me snag writing gigs, because then people know I really am into what I propose to write about. Or, if a potential client is looking for someone who's interested in a specific topic, like compost, they may come across my Tweets on the topic, see that I'm a writer, and there you have it. I'm in.

How else do you use Twitter? Or do you avoid it like the plague—and, if so, why? Do share!

Learn More
Embracing Social Media as a Job Search Tool (freelancewritinggigs)
Twitter Benefits for Freelance Writers (Quips and Tips for Successful Writers)
Putting Twitter to Work for Your Freelance Writing Business (Freelance Switch)
Twitter: The Freelance Writer's New Best Friend Parts One and Two (Thursday Bram)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Let's Talk Prepositions

What type of word are you not supposed to end a sentence with?

If I were to listen to the many well-meaning people who love to catch a writer or grammarian in the act of messing up, I likely would be called out on the sentence I wrote above. And, come to think of it, the sentence I just finished writing as well.

That's because of all the grammar rules the general public tends to latch onto and not let go of, the "rule" about not ending a sentence with a preposition is one of the most often-recited. Even though it's not really a rule.

The next time someone wags a finger at you for ending a sentence with "on" or "up" or "through" or any other particularly helpful preposition, go ahead and wag your finger right back at them and tell them this, straight from the text of The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition (which, you might recall, is on my brief freelance writer's must-have list):

5.169 Ending a sentence with a preposition. The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put." A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare Those are the guidelines an author should adhere to with Those are the guidelines to which an author should adhere. The "rule" prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

Take heed, all you naysayers. There's nothing wrong with where I put my prepositions. Enough said.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Seeking Expert Sources

Odds are, if you've written many freelance articles, at some point in your life you've gotten to the point where you just can't find the right source. Or you think you've found the right source, but you don't hear back from them and don't they know you're on deadline?

When you are in a crunch and need a source ASAP there are a number of resources you can rely on to help you find exactly what you're looking for.

Three to try:

HARO: If you're looking for sources, all you do is fill out a simple form on the Help a Reporter Out website. You explain who you are, what sort of source you're looking for, and what your deadline is, and your request goes out in an email digest with other requests to anyone who has signed up for the free service. Then, anyone who thinks they can help will get in touch and voila! you're off and running.

Bridge to Science: This relatively new service connects writers, reporters, and bloggers with researchers, scientists, and other experts—many of whom are from universities and research institutions including Harvard, Yale, Standford, and more. As with HARO, all you do is fill out a request a source form and your information is sent out in a daily email with other requests, so experts will contact you and pitch their take on the topic (for free).

ProfNet: According to its website, ProfNet is an online community of nearly 27,000 corporate, university, and other communicators—in other words, it offers a whole lot of potential expert sources to any writer who's game. Once you register for an account, you can browse expert profiles or query for specific sources, and you can manage all of your responses right in your ProfNet account.

What other resources do you use for tracking down expert sources last-minute? Share here!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making Rain

Two weeks ago I was frazzled. I was overwhelmed precisely because my work life was underwhelmed. I was starting to feel the pinch from my second month without a real, steady paycheck. I wasn’t getting responses to my freelance job applications and LOIs. In other words, I was starting to question the sanity of leaping into the freelance life. I was starting to question myself and my abilities. Maybe my resume wasn’t impressive enough. Maybe I didn’t say the right things in those emails.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

And then, just like that, last week I was busy. Really busy. I was writing like a maniac on a cover story for one of my go-to publications. I was proofreading an entire issue of an annual baking magazine. (Let’s not even talk about how desperately it had me craving sweets all week.) I was finally getting some media coverage for the online travel magazine I created (it’s called Illinois Adventures, and you can check it out here if you’re so inclined), which meant I was feeling the pressure to add more event listings and write more articles to post online.

At the same time, I managed to engage some fellow freelance writers in a conversation—online, in the comments section of this Renegade Writer post, as well as through email with some writers who stumbled upon my blog. The general consensus was: Wow, it’s a tough time to be a freelancer. We’re in drought. We’re scared. When is it going to pass?

During a week when I actually felt pretty good about where things were, it humbled me and brought me back down to earth. It reminded me that the freelance life is fickle—one week it pours, the next you’re desperate for one little raindrop.

Being incredibly busy often makes you wish you weren’t quite so much, makes you wish you had time to breathe. But last week, I tried not to think like that, knowing full well this week I could end up desperately seeking any writing gig or proofreading assignment I could find and not land a single one.

Last Friday, once I wrapped up the feature and sent off the last of the proofread layouts, I breathed a tentative sigh of relief that I was done, then looked to the sky. I wondered if it was time for another drought, if my momentary good luck would fail me.

And then another giant raindrop fell squarely on top of my head, in the form of an email asking if I’d be interested in serving as an editor for an annual publication produced by a company I have a connection with. And then—through Twitter!—I landed a blogging gig with one of my favorite magazines. And yesterday? I scored an assignment writing an article for the print edition of that same magazine. I wish I could say it’s just happy coincidence, luck. Perhaps it is, a bit.

But you want to know what I’m beginning to think the real secret is to avoiding a drought?

Putting yourself out there.
The reason I scored that editing gig? I read about it in a newsletter I received, had an “in,” and jumped at the opportunity to let that connection know I was just the sort of person they were looking for. The reason I got that blogging gig is because I responded immediately, enthusiastically, to the Tweet that mentioned it. And the reason I got that article assignment? Because I followed up—multiple times—after sending a detailed query. See? When it comes down to it, sometimes it’s not luck at all. Sometimes you can make your own rain.

As a freelancer, you determine your own success. You make your own luck. Sure, there are plenty of things beyond your control: shrinking magazine budgets, publications folding or keeping work in-house, writers who take on painfully low compensation that drives down rates for the entire industry. But there’s a lot you do control: how many freelance jobs you apply for, how often you send out queries and follow up, the steps you take to market yourself online.

My challenge to you: focus on the positive, focus on what you can do. And then, when you have that “up” week soon, share your success. I’ll gladly help you celebrate.

Photo: konomike

Monday, July 20, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Alltop

I thought about listing a terrific freelance writing blog for this week's Freelance Resource Monday. I mulled over which of the top blogs on the subject I might feature. Then I contemplated any number of lesser-known, but still incredibly helpful, options too. But I just couldn't decide. So I picked Alltop.


If that makes it sound like Alltop was a fallback, a desperate pick when I couldn't choose among the best, it's not meant to come off that way. It's just that if you want to stay up-to-date with news and blog posts on a specific subject, Alltop is your ultimate resource. So when I couldn't pick one freelancing blog, I decided to point you to a source where you can look at a whole bunch of them at once.

That's because, as the name implies, Alltop features all the top stories (or all topics, all the time, as the tagline goes).

Essentially, it works like this: The folks at Alltop collect the headlines of the latest stories from the best sites and blogs on a given topic. These collections (called "aggregations") are then posted on individual web pages sorted by topic, so you can view the five most recent headlines from each source (as well as their first paragraph if you leave your cursor on the headline).

The folks at Alltop liken their (free) service to an "online magazine rack." In other words, it provides an accessible way to get informed, to read about subjects that interest you, and—here's the real value for freelancers—to mine certain subject areas for potential story ideas you can pitch.

If you're still not sure about Alltop, there's no time like now to explore. You can search for subjects by category or alphabetically. As a freelancer, you might be interested in small business, writing, technical writing, and, of course, freelance. Hoping to find some ideas for a pet publication? Try pets. Looking for fitness ideas? There's yoga, fitness, and more. Heck, there's even a category just about Wal-Mart.

Create an account at Alltop to make a personal collection of the blogs and websites you want to keep up with daily. Or just view the personal Alltop pages of a slew sort-of famous and famous folks (including a ton of terrific bloggers and writers). You're bound to find something there that's fodder for your writer's mind.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Organization Procrastination

Sometimes when I feel the need to procrastinate, I flip through a magazine. Other times I stare blankly at my computer—at RSS feeds, at the cursor blinking on a blank page, at whatever random website I type in. But often when I really want to delay the inevitable or my brain is fried, I organize.

A bit anal retentive, yes. But it allows me to be productive without actually having to think.

The evening after I gave my notice for my job, I thought I’d have this intense motivation. I thought I’d dive right in with making a game plan, with sending out queries, with something. But I didn’t want to do any of that. Instead I began purging my office of the mess of files I’d let get out of control, of piles upon piles of paper that didn’t really mean anything anymore because they were random notes and page maps from publications I hadn’t worked on in ages.

It was productive in its own way. And it felt good, cathartic even. When spring rolls around, the urge to clean, to start anew, strikes. I suppose it makes sense that the same thing would happen when it finally comes time to make a major, life-changing decision like quitting your job.

I would’ve tackled additional piles—would’ve pulled out and sorted through the assortment of magazines that have overtaken my bookshelves, might’ve even tackled some of the files on my computer—except that by that point I was thoroughly exhausted and needed to go to bed.

And that’s the trick with organizing: You have to learn when to quit. Particularly when you’re using it as an excuse to put off other to-dos that need addressed.

Organization in small doses can be a worthwhile procrastination technique. For starters, according to Dawn Martin, the average person spends roughly 150 hours per year searching for documents, electronic files, and other information—that’s equivalent to nearly a month of work. So if you take the time to organize your desk, your computer, whatever it is, it may be worth it in the long run because you’ll be able to easily find what you’re looking for so you can get back to the task at hand.

Another benefit of spending some time organizing: it can help you clear your head. As a writer, it’s easy to get stuck, to fall victim to writer’s block. Sometimes the best way to find clarity and get your head on straight is to step away from the computer for a while and engage a different part of your brain. Filing papers may seem mundane, but often it’s exactly the break creative types need to return to the task at hand focused and thinking clearly.

Writers and other freelancers, just like any office workers, are human. We’re prone to procrastination at some point in our days, no matter how busy they may be. At least when you decide to alphabetize your books or shred papers you’re able to check something else off your to-do list, even if it means you’re not getting that article done. So don’t beat yourself up over the time you spent organizing. It’s productive in its own way, even if it doesn’t directly lead to a paycheck.

The trick with organizing, however, is to know when to quit. Or, the next thing you know, you’re down on your knees scrubbing dirt out of the corners of the room five hours after you started and you haven’t written a single word.

The next time you get the urge to organize (or are looking for something to do besides writing), try this trick: Set a timer. Give yourself five minutes, ten, fifteen max. That’s plenty of time to get through a pile or two or even more, depending on how much of a packrat you’ve been. And when the timer dings? Stop what you’re doing. Set those documents down. And get to work.

Learn More
If you want to organize ...
The Messy Guide to Staying Organized (Freelance Folder)
Freelance Writers Need to Stay Organized (Beyond the Rhetoric)

If you want to stop procrastinating ...
How to Avoid Procrastination as a Freelancer (Freelance Folder)
6 Causes of Procrastination (Freelance Writing)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Newswise

Magazines are great sources for story ideas. So are newspapers. And blogs. And everyday life experiences. But sometimes it helps to have a little extra information, to have ideas coming in straight from the mouth of researchers, academic institutions, and other trustworthy sources.

That's why I registered for Newswise a few years ago and regularly rely on its website and newsletters for story ideas. And that's why Newswise is this week's freelance resource.

Newswise maintains a massive database of current news, searchable archives, and subscription wire services to help you stay on top of research-based news. I often use its search function to find information on a specific topic. And, a couple of times a week, I receive email newsletters that fill me in on the week's highlights in categories such as science, medicine, lifestyle, green living, and more.

Perhaps best of all, the current news provided on Newswise come straight from press releases sent out by universities, colleges, laboratories, professional organizations, governmental agencies, and private research groups. Along with the basic info, you'll find contact information for sources, so you have everything you need to hit the ground running once you pitch your story idea and get assigned an article.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Magazine Love

I am now and forever will be a lover of magazines. I horde them. I subscribe to way too many (that pile up in my office because I can’t find time to read them all cover to cover like I want to do). And I’m always finding new publications I want to try out too. It’s an addiction, really. I’ll admit it.

Some are old stand-bys. For years, I’ve subscribed to Utne Reader. Yoga Journal. Real Simple. National Geographic Traveler. Natural Home. Better Homes & Gardens. These are my old standbys, the publications I can’t live without, that I dive into with excitement each time they arrive.

Each year, I seem to add a few new ones to the list. I used to steal my mom’s copies of Sunset every time I was home. Now I finally have my own subscription. After a childhood of reading Natural Geographic, I’m now a member myself. Speaking of membership magazines, I get Sierra and Nature Conservancy. I love Readymade. And Pink. I read Folio. Ode is terrific too.

Of course, each year that I add to my list, I also have to subtract a magazine or two from it. In high school, I used to read Sports Illustrated from cover to cover. Now I look at it infrequently, only when a cover at the newsstand catches my eye. Same with Newsweek. I read Wired for a while but let that subscription lapse. That’s what happened with Health too, which was a long-time favorite that got neglected a few years ago.

Plus there are those magazines that disappear of their own accord. I lost my beloved Jane. And The Green Guide. I enjoyed Country Home. I know there are many more that have disappeared, but thinking about failed publications is sad so I'm not going to dwell on that much-too-long list.

Now I’m thinking of subscribing to Mother Jones. Discover. Science. See my priorities shifting?

The only problem is, when the heck will I read them all?

I also picked up the new issue of Food Network Magazine at the grocery store yesterday, after looking for it for weeks. And there are a couple of natural, healthy living magazines I haven’t seen before I might have to flip through.

See? It’s an addiction.

But, and this is the beauty of the freelance writing life, all of these magazines are also part of work. I may savor them with a glass of lemonade on the weekend or read them while on the elliptical at the gym. But anytime I read magazines, I’m thinking of story ideas. I’m thinking of topics I might pitch to the magazines I’m reading and to other publications too. Magazines are fun to read, but they’re also resources. Inspiration.

At least that’s how I justify my addiction.

What magazines are on your must-read list? I’m always looking for new publications to explore, so I’d love to hear what you can’t live without.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 6)

Finally! It’s time for the last sign in the “Are you ready to make the leap?” series, designed to help you figure out if you’re really ready to move from freelancing on the side to pursuing a freelance career full-time. But first, let’s revisit the first five signs:

1.
You’re restless.

2.
You’re looking for flexibility.

3.
You have the right personality.

4. You have steady work.

5. You have a financial cushion.

And now for number six.

6. Your gut is telling you to go.
Trust your instincts. When you think about freelancing, about quitting your job and making a go of being your own boss, how do you feel?

Do you feel an adrenaline rush? Do you get excited thinking about the possibilities? Do you itch to get started immediately?

Or does your stomach twist into knots because the idea is so nerve-wracking? Do you break out into a cold sweat and stress about a slew of what-ifs? Some nerves are OK—they’re good, in fact. They’ll keep you grounded and ensure you’re thinking realistically about what you’re about to do. Because let's be honest: it is scary.

But if the thought of quitting now leaves you on the verge of a nervous breakdown, perhaps it’s time to take a step back. Think things through more. Wait a while.

It should come as no surprise when I tell you that this isn’t exactly the most cush time to make the leap into freelancing full-time. People are getting laid off. Budgets that normally would include funding for freelance projects are getting slashed. Magazines and companies that used to be great sources of freelance work are folding all over the place. So if you’re not ready—really ready—it’s OK to wait. You don’t want to jump into freelancing a nervous wreck. You want to be cool, confident, ready to take on the world.

And if all you can think about is the fact that freelancing feels right, that you’re ready? Then assess your financial situation, your work situation, whatever else you need to think about.

Still have that feeling?

Ready, set, jump.


Photo:
ClickFlashPhotos

Monday, July 6, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: Writer's Market

When I was in college, I used to spend hours at the bookstore leafing through a copy of the Writer's Market, on the hunt for listings for publications I wanted to write for. Now in its 88th edition, the Writer's Market is the ultimate resource for finding book publishers, agents, and paying markets for magazines, journals, and other fiction and nonfiction markets.

I don't bother going to the bookstore or lugging around a giant book when I need my Writer's Market fix anymore, however. I just go online to WritersMarket.com, this week's Julie Tries Writing freelance resource. For a one-year subscription of $39.99, you'll gain access to more than 6,000 market listing and contacts that are updated each day (so you can ensure you're not getting old info, which you always risk when purchasing the book). A search engine makes finding the market you're looking for easy, and you can even mark your favorites so they're easy to find later. A tracking program allows you to set reminders so you know when to follow up on manuscript submissions, too.

Another benefit of the Writer's Market website: access to industry news, agent Q&As, rate charts, and archives on writing advice from editors, agents, and writers in the know.

There are plenty of free sources of editorial information available online (or in the library), but if you're serious about seeking out specific sources to pitch stories to, joining WritersMarket.com may be worth it.

If you're not sure, start with a free 7-day trial. Or if you're in the middle of a marketing blitz, sign up for a $5.99/month subscription to get full access to the database for a quick dose of info.

Even if you don't sign up for the service, you can sign up for the free newsletter, which offers a preview of writing markets and writing inspiration.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Holiday Work

As a freelancer, do you keep holidays sacred and take them off? Or do you sneak in a few hours of work—or even a full day—while a good portion of the rest of the country is relaxing?

I'm working most of today, even though a lot of folks have July 3 off. And odds are I'll put in an hour or two tomorrow. But other than that, I'm trying to treat the weekend like what it is: a holiday. Otherwise, it's too tempting to log freelance hours like I do most weekends. And then, suddenly, I hit a wall and realize it's because I never give myself a break.

Besides, emails I send and stories I pitch will be ignored until Monday or Tuesday anyway. So what's the work rush? Better to enjoy the Fourth of July fun while it lasts.

I hope you do, too.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 5)

If you’re still not sure you’re ready to jump into freelancing full-time, never fear. I’ve shared four signs that you might be ready to make the leap, but there are still two more to go.

But first, let’s review the first four, in case you missed them:


1.
You’re restless.

2.
You’re looking for flexibility.

3.
You have the right personality.

4. You have steady work.

Now, for the fifth sign:

5. You have a financial cushion. There are no hard-and-fast rules that tell you exactly how much cash you should have saved before you quit your day job. Some people recommend a month’s worth of living expenses, some three, some six. My advice: The more you have saved, the better. Bills typically come in a lot more quickly than checks, and even if you have work lined up ahead of time, it can take a while to build up your business to the point where you can cover all of your expenses. That cushion makes a difference—really.

In an ideal world, I would have saved more money—a lot more—before I quit. But the timing made sense for me for other reasons. So I didn’t spend as much time saving as I should have.

If at all possible, save more than you think you’ll need. You’ll be glad you did.

Remember, too, that there may be additional expenses you didn’t have to worry about before. Setting up to freelance from home is a relatively low-cost endeavor—as long as you have a phone, a computer, a printer, and an Internet connection, you can get going. But you may decide to spend the money on a professionally done portfolio website. You might want to print business cards. You’ll have to pay for basic supplies like paper, ink cartridges, and pens that you might not have used as much of before. All of those little expenses add up.

And don’t forget about health insurance. Perhaps you are covered under your spouse’s plan and don’t have to worry about it. But many freelancers forget that once you cut the cord from that full-time job, you’re on your own for health insurance, retirement savings, disability insurance, and whatever else you might have had for benefits before. When you’re calculating your monthly expenses (and you should, stat), be sure to take those additional costs into account. Then, and only then, you can get a clear idea of whether you can make the freelancing life work financially.

Photo: ClickFlashPhotos

Monday, June 29, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: The Must-Have List

As a writer, what resources can't you live without?

For me, the must-have list includes:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (11th edition)
The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition)
Strunk & White's Elements of Style
Google (or any search engine that gets me to the background information I'm looking for)

What did I miss?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beggars Can’t Be Choosers—Or Can They?

I am looking at the freelance writing job board for possible gigs. Many of them are low-paying—much lower than the rate I’ve calculated I need to make per hour to cover my expenses and earn a reasonable living. So I choose not to apply for them. It’s the right choice, I know. I need to have standards.

But I need work. I have bills to pay. I need something now. Isn’t minimum wage better than nothing?

These are the sort of dilemmas freelance writers face every day. These are the sort of dilemmas I’m facing every day.

Freelance writing rates have spurred some hot debates recently (see below for links to a few of the many posts on the subject). And for good reason. The rates many individuals and companies post along with their job descriptions on Craigslist, freelance job lists, and the like are low. Terribly low. We’re talking pennies per word. Ten dollars or less for a fully researched, well-written blog post. We’re talking much less than minimum wage.

And the thing is, people are willing to do that work for those rates. So more potential employers post their gigs with miserably low compensation. It’s a vicious cycle, and one I refuse to jump into. I am worth more as a writer than those companies are willing to pay. I am not that desperate. I will get a gig waiting tables on the side or will take on teaching more composition classes to pay my bills before I’ll settle for giving away my hard writing work for free.

Unless, of course, a publication I’m incredibly passionate about pays paltry rates. If I get a chance to write about a topic that means a lot to me or for an organization whose cause I believe in, that’s a different story. But to pour my heart and soul into a writing assignment for some nameless person halfway across the country who’s willing to send me a check for less than $10? Um, no.

Still, if it comes down to crappy payment for work or no payment at all, is it any wonder that fledgling writers are taking what they can get?

Where do you draw the line?

Learn More
Why Bloggers Should Be Paid More (Men with Pens)
Why Some Freelance Writers Accept Such Low Pay Rates (freelancewriting.suite101.com)
Freelance Writing Rates (ScrawlBug)
Why Low Pay is Bad Pay, No Matter the Rate (Erik Sherman’s Writer Biz)
Harlan Ellison: Pay the Writer (Freelance Writing Gigs)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 4)

Hello again. It’s time for part four in the “Are You Ready to Make the Leap?” series. In case you’re just joining, I’ve already provided a rundown on three signs that you might be ready to pursue a freelance career full-time. But there are still a few more to go before we’re finished. So we’ll jump right in with number four, after I catch you up with the first three.

1. You’re restless.

2.
You’re looking for flexibility.

3.
You have the right personality.

4. You have steady work. Now, I don’t want to scare you, but if you’re making the leap without a single freelance writing assignment or project lined up, you’re going to be in trouble. Applying for open freelance positions, marketing yourself, sending out letters of introduction, writing queries—all of these things take time. Then you still have to do the assignment, invoice for it, and wait for the check. If you don’t have something lined up before you get out of your current position, you may be waiting a long time before you see any cash coming in—I’m not talking weeks here, I’m talking months.

Plus, if you haven’t dipped your toe in the water to see what work you can get, how can you be confident you can make a go of it? That’s why so many freelance writers get started part-time, writing in the mornings or evenings or on weekends around their full-time jobs. It gives them a chance to build their portfolios and their confidence, to make industry contacts, to line up assignments that hopefully lead to even more assignments.

There isn’t a magic formula for how much freelance work is enough to go it alone. I didn’t have enough to fully replace my full-time income when I quit, but I got to the point where I couldn’t take on any more work if I was still working full-time. I had reached the point of no return, where I either had to stop pursuing freelance work, focus on what I already had, and keep my day job or ditch the day job and forge ahead with freelancing. I chose the latter.

What will you choose?

Photo: ClickFlashPhotos

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 3)

I’m back with another installment in the “Are You Ready to Make the Leap?” series, designed to help you figure out if it’s time to pursue the freelance life. We’ve already heard two “start thinking about leaving if ...” situations. Now it’s time for the third.

1. You’re restless.

2. You’re looking for flexibility.

3. You have the right personality. Not everyone is cut out for the freelancer’s life. On the surface, it seems pretty cush. Work in your pajamas. Get up when you want, quit when you want. Pick work when you want to. Be your own boss.

But the reality is, it’s hard.

When I started working from home remotely for my previous career, I had plenty of people tell me, “Wow. I don’t know how you do it. I would never have the dedication to work from home.”

They’re a step ahead of many freelancers, who leap without realizing just how much work is involved.

It’s true: I could leave my office right now and go watch TV. I can go to the gym, the grocery store, the bank whenever I want. If I want to take a snooze, I could walk away from my computer at any moment and do just that. Yet for the most part, since I started my own full-time freelance writing business a couple of weeks ago, I’ve put in at least 7 hours a day (and sometimes many, many more than that)—mostly sitting like I am right now, at my desk, in my office.

Some people have the right personality for this kind of work. They’re independent, they can handle being alone without someone to chat with for hours at a time. They’re focused and dedicated and not easily distracted. They can juggle multiple projects and tasks at one time and switch quickly between them, without waiting for someone else to supervise and tell them what to do.

Does that sound like you? Then you may be ready. If not, think a little harder. There isn’t one personality you must have to make freelancing work for you. But if you’re easily distracted or are thinking about freelancing just so you can enjoy the free and easy benefits, I wouldn’t jump quite yet. Remember, it’s freelance work. Not freelance leisure.

Photo: ClickFlashPhotos

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 2)

If you’re trying to figure out whether it’s time to quit your day job and pursue a freelance career full-time, you’ve come to the right place.

This week, I’m giving a rundown of some of the signs that led me to pursue freelance writing and editing full-time. If you recognize any of these signs in your own life, it may be time to get serious about pursuing the freelance life.

1. You’re restless.

2. You’re looking for flexibility. When I decided to quit, I was trying to juggle 30 hours a week at my full-time job (after having dropped down from 40, thanks to an incredibly accommodating boss), graduate classes, and teaching composition at a local college. Oh, and I was taking on freelance writing and editing projects too.

Trying to squeeze my 30 “official” work hours in during prime work time for the rest of my company was tricky—and sometimes I felt like I was leaving my coworkers high and dry when I wasn’t around.

But I needed flexibility, so if I had a term paper due I could spend more time that day on researching and writing the paper, or if my students had turned in their term papers I had enough time to grade them in a timely manner. I didn’t want to forsake my full-time writing and editing duties, I just needed the time I devoted to them to be a bit more loosely structured. And that wasn’t really possible—the 30-hour workweek was a generous concession, but asking for even more flexibility would have been too much.

I realize, of course, that the flexibility of my 30-hour workweek (with a whacky schedule to accommodate mid-day teaching) is a rarity. But if you’re interested in sticking with your current job yet could use some freedom to pursue grad classes or freelance more, it doesn’t hurt to ask your employer what your options are. Particularly in this economy, some employers may even welcome alternative work arrangements. Just think hard before you do—what happens if she says yes? What schedule will you propose? Are you prepared to do more work in less time and bring home a smaller paycheck?

And if she says no? Are you ready to pursue more freelance work without the safety net of full-time income and benefits?

Learn More
Well, I Quit My Day Job
To Plunge or Not to Plunge: Becoming a Fulltime Freelancer
Free Download: Are You Ready to Quit Your Job and Work from Home?
Before You Quit Your Day Job: 12 Practical Ways to Build an Emergency Fund
The Transition from Part-Time to Full-Time Freelancer

Photo: ClickFlashPhotos

Are You Ready to Make the Leap? (Part 1)

I’ve been asked before by intrepid writers who, like I was, aren’t sure when to take the leap into freelance writing: How do you know? How do you know for sure when the time is right to go full-time?

My answer probably isn’t what they want to hear, but hopefully they give me points for honesty: You don’t. Unless you suddenly get laid off from a job or a dream writing project falls in your lap one day out of the blue, you can’t possibly know for certain now is the time to leap.

I thought about going it alone for months, agonized about it even, before I decided it was time to say goodbye to my job and take the plunge. When I did, I wasn’t hit with a big revelation. I wasn’t positive I could even make it work. But the stars aligned just enough that I decided it was time to try.

Looking for signs that it’s time? This week, I’m going to share (one at a time, so this post doesn’t stretch on for eons!) signs that I took heed to—and that you might want to consider as well.

First up: You’re restless.

I was lucky enough to have a job that I enjoyed, to work with people I appreciated. But I got restless and realized I needed a change—I wasn’t engaged in my work like I had been before, I had other interests outside of work that were suddenly more appealing. Despite the fact that I was working on some great projects and enjoyed my coworkers, I wasn’t as inspired as I had been in the past.

Stop and think: What would make you happy right now? What would keep you engaged in your work? Do you simply want a different position with your company? Is there conflict with a coworker or supervisor that's fueling your boredom? Or is it more than that—are you dying to get out on your own and be your own boss? Get to the root of the restlessness before you make any snap decisions.

Everyone gets an itch to do something new once in a while. But if all you can think about scratching that itch, and the only antidote appears to be a freelance writing career, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about moving on.

Learn More
Well, I Quit My Day Job
To Plunge or Not to Plunge: Becoming a Fulltime Freelancer
Free Download: Are You Ready to Quit Your Job and Work from Home?
Before You Quit Your Day Job: 12 Practical Ways to Build an Emergency Fund
The Transition from Part-Time to Full-Time Freelancer

Photo: ClickFlashPhotos

Monday, June 22, 2009

Freelance Resource Monday: The Renegade Writer

The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell was the first freelance writing book I ever purchased. I was in New York at a college journalism convention and for some reason, broke as I was, I decided I had to have the book.

I've read it a couple of times since then, and you'd know instantly it's an often-used tome by the pages that are dog-eared, by the underlining and stars and the notes throughout.

What I love most about The Renegade Writer is exactly what you'd guess from the title: It bucks the rules. It is, as the tagline states, an unconventional guide to freelance success. Many freelance writing "rules" are made to be followed. But a whole lot of them can be ignored, I learned from Formichelli and Burrell, and you can still reach success. In fact, you'll get quicker responses from editors, you'll earn more for your work, and you'll thrive as a freelance writer.

The other thing that really stands out about the book is the way it's written. It's conversational and casual and even a bit snarky in places. Formichelli and Burrell are honest and aren't afraid to share their insider secrets and fill you in exactly what has—and hasn't—worked for them.

Plus it's inspiring. These writers have made it and, armed with their pointers, it's possible the rest of us can too.

Since the relase of The Renegade Writer in 2003, the authors have also written The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock. (I haven't checked it out yet, but it is on my to-read list.) And, perhaps best of all, they blog away about their renegade ways at The Renegade Writer Blog.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let It Go To Your Head

Many freelance writers, myself included, tend to downplay compliments that come our way. Someone says something nice about our writing or our interviewing skills or whatever it may be, and we say thanks and shrug it off and go back to whatever it is we were doing before, without giving those kind words a second thought.

But when criticism comes our way, it’s a different story. We’ll latch on to every little word that comes out of someone’s mouth (or from an email) and agonize over what we did wrong and how we can make things right. We’ll toss and turn at night thinking about how we screwed up, about what we should’ve done differently, even if all we did was spell a word wrong.

I was reminded of this yesterday. Sometimes I can be a bit hasty in my blog posts, particularly when I’m trying to juggle wanting to write to my much-loved readers with finding time to write (for money!) on a tight deadline. When I get a chance, I try to go back and read through recently published posts with fresh eyes to catch errors. But every once in a while, someone will beat me to it and alert me to a typo. I'm grateful for it, but then I’m relentless about going in immediately and fixing it, and then re-reading as many posts I can get through afterward, because I’m just sure there are more problems lurking in there somewhere.

Why not spend that much time on the positive feedback? Don’t we deserve it? Aren’t the kudos earned, after all, for our hard work?

Later yesterday, I received an email from a source for a profile I wrote recently. Essentially, he said that he’s been interviewed for a number of publications over the years and he wanted to let me know “with absolute candor and honesty” that he was impressed with how well done and accurate my work was.

I responded quickly without thinking much about it and said, “Thanks, I think it’s because I type so fast so I can get down every word sources say.”

Ah, the freelancer’s knack for deflecting praise with a swift click of the “send” button.

Only this source wasn’t having it. He emailed me again and said, “More than that, it’s good listening and care toward accuracy.”

The fact that this gentleman (who happens to be a CEO of a multimillion-dollar company, no less), took the time to respond again and, essentially, tap on the glass surrounding my writer’s bubble to let me know I really needed to understand what he was saying, got me thinking.

In our society, we’re surrounded by people who spend their days promoting themselves, who do little else besides think about how awesome they are (or think they are). Yet as writers, we tend to lurk in the background, to write our words and then disappear in the shadows so no one knows we were even there. That’s all well and good. But why don’t we take the praise? Why aren’t we proud enough to show it, to say, “You know what, I am good”?

Hence this post. I gave myself permission for a moment to revel in the compliment, to appreciate what this source said to me and to think about other positive things people have said about my work. I have to admit, it felt great. It was a huge confidence booster, and I returned to my work with renewed energy and dedication.

Now I think you should try it. Think about the last compliment someone gave you about your work. Roll it around in your head for a while. Pat yourself on your back.

Well done, writer. You deserve it. Really, you do.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Music for Writing To

Writing under a deadline? Want to procrastinate? Suzanne Vega shares her list of top procrastination songs over at The New York Times.

Check it out, then let me know: What songs do you procrastinate to? And which songs make you more productive?

I'm writing under deadline right now and like a little background music–nothing too distracting. So far this morning iTunes has supplied Ray LaMontagne, Sara McLachlan, Jack Johnson, Norah Jones, A Fine Frenzy, Josh Ritter, and Lisa Hannigan. (I'm on shuffle, folks. I haven't been writing for that long already!)

You Might Be a Freelancer If You're ...

Patient. You send out queries and LOIs. You hear nothing. You do not throw things at the wall, because you know this process takes time.

Persistent. Once you’ve been patient enough, you follow up. Again. And again. And then you send out another batch of queries and LOIs because You. Will. Not. Give. Up.

Confident. You know you’re talented. You know you have a great concept to sell. You’re a terrific—terrific—writer. Just because the people you’re pitching to are too blind to see it doesn’t mean you're not great.

Creative. You’re an idea person. You come up with new story concepts in the shower. On the treadmill. When you’re washing the dishes. You create story ideas on the fly but also know how to take a pitch that falls flat and craft it anew for a different editor or publication.

Thorough. Your queries are thoroughly researched, and the stories you write are even more so. You ask the hard questions of your sources. And you have a proofreader’s eye when it comes time to make final changes to your own writing. In other words, you are methodical and meticulous every step of the way.

Flexible. You get a last-minute assignment and have to work through most of the weekend to get it done. OK. Will do. Your editor has changed her mind and wants you to write a totally different article from the one you originally turned in. On it. You don’t get pushed around, but you are accommodating to clients’ needs.

Frugal. When the assignments (and the checks that go along with them) are coming in, you’re happy as can be. You may even splurge on something nice—perhaps that new laptop you desperately need or even a new outfit for when you actually get out of the house. But you know better than to go blow all that cash in one place, because this month might be a monsoon but next month there’s a very real chance you’ll be in a drought. Serious money management is the key to many a freelancer’s success.

Business-savvy. You know what editors are looking for in a query. You know how to craft your words in such a way that readers say wow. But beyond that, you can also keep your own books. You know what you need to know to run your business—and you know that as fun and fanciful as freelancing can be, it is a business.

Passionate. There are ups and there are downs in the freelancer’s life. You’re willing to take them all in stride because this is what you love. This is what you want to do. You can’t imagine yourself in an office working a 9-to-5 or behind the counter of a 7-11 or doing anything besides this right here—even on the tough days, it’s the best job in the world.

Now, freelancers, it's your turn: What did I miss?

Photo: Steve 2.0

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For Love or Money

Here’s the thing. I want to write about the things I’m passionate about. I want to write for the publications I love. For the alternative press, for those small, savvy magazines that buck mainstream magazine formulas and somehow succeed. But a whole lot of those publications I want to write for don’t pay well, if at all.

Yes, I know I should be doing it for my love of writing, not my want for money.

But especially now that I'm freelancing full-time, those writing gigs I secure have to pay my bills. I have to eat. I enjoy traveling—and that’s expensive. I have to make a living.

So what’s an idealistic writer to do? What do you do?