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, 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


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!