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:

You’re restless.

You’re looking for flexibility.

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.


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, 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 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:

You’re restless.

You’re looking for flexibility.

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