Monday, July 8, 2013


I've had a few novel ideas floating around in my head for years. I think about them, refine them, mentally write parts of them off and on, here and there, when my mind wanders to them or sudden inspiration strikes.

Yet I've never felt ready to start writing.

I've always been waiting for the right time, for lighting to strike, for some sort of sign that these stories swimming in my mind are ready to be committed on page.

But a few weeks ago, it hit me. There never is going to be a right time. If I wait for the day when a perfectly constructed story simply begins flooding forth from my fingers, I'll be waiting forever. I just need to start—somewhere, anywhere. I just need to write and see where the words take me.

I think about how many people—full-time writers, yes, but also hobbyists who dabble in writing in their limited spare time between full-time jobs and family and a million other commitments. If they can do it, what's my excuse?

Fear, mostly. Fear that what I'll get halfway or even all the way through what I'm writing and realize it's crap. Fear that no one will want to read my words, let alone publish them. Fear that I'll agonize over the finer details of my story for hours upon hours, devote a good portion of my life to writing something I believe in, only to discover it isn't good enough.

But really, who hasn't had that fear?

So I decided to just jump in, word by word, and see where the story takes me. I started a few weeks ago and have only written a little bit here, a little bit there. It's not very much and it's not very consistent, but it's a start.

I'm not sure how often I'll visit here, but on occasion I hope to write about what the process of novel writing is like for a newbie, a beginner. I know it's something lots of people write about, but if nothing else I think writing through my struggles with writing might help me figure things out as I go.

Oh, and the funny thing about this first attempt at novel writing I'm undertaking? It's not even one of the two novels that I've been silently penning without pen for years. It's a completely different story that I've spent a lot less time agonizing over. Rather strange how these things work out, isn't it?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Saying No

I had to turn down an assignment this week. It pained me to do so, because I don't take saying no to freelance work lightly. Yet sometimes it has to be done.

On the rare occasions when I contemplate turning down an assignment, I ask myself the following questions to decide whether it's beneficial to say, "Thanks, but no."

What kind of client is it? If it's my first assignment with a publication I haven't written for before—or one I haven't done much work for yet—there are few if any circumstances when I would say no. Turning down work before you've ever even taken an assignment with someone is a surefire way to not get asked again. Sure, there may be extreme circumstances that the editor will understand. If, for instance, I was going into surgery that week or was going to be on a big family vacation we'd planned months in advance, I'd probably have no choice but to turn down an assignment—even if it was with my favorite magazine. But in general, I don't say no to new clients unless it's absolutely unavoidable.

That doesn't mean I say no to my regular clients with abandon. They aren't chopped liver. But if I have a rapport with a specific editor or publication and have consistently written for them in the past, I can feel at least a little more comfortable turning down an assignment on occasion if I absolutely must.

That was the case this week. I've written regularly for this same publication for years, and I normally take on every assignment I'm given. But in this case, the timing wasn't right because my son is home sick from daycare the rest of this week, which won't leave me time to do the interviews and writing I need to do. So I passed.

Can I give the assignment the time and attention it deserves? The 800-word rush job I turned down would have required at least two interviews and needed to be done in less than two full working days. It's something I could have tackled had I been working full-time (or even part-time) those days, but with the little guy home sick, I would have been hard pressed to have time to squeeze in a couple of interviews, let alone research and write. Had I said yes, I likely would have totally missed the deadline or turned in less-than-stellar work, neither of which is a reasonable option in my book. So I was better off passing on the assignment than turning in something second-rate that might have hurt my rep and just created more work for my editor.

Will my other work suffer as a result? Once in a while I pass on work when I am so swamped I can't possibly take on another project. (A good problem to have, I guess!) As a freelancer, it's easy to say yes to every assignment that comes along, only to realize you've overextended yourself. If you have too many tight deadlines at once, odds are at least one of them (and potentially all of them) are going to suffer as a result. Most of the time I can juggle multiple assignments at once, but if taking on one more project means there is no way I can get everything on my plate done in time, I say no and explain to the client why I'm passing this once.

Is it worth my time? Sometimes an assignment comes along that is too much work and too little pay to make it worth it. Granted, if you're a freelancer just starting out or you're in a slow period where you don't have other work, that low-paying assignment is better than nothing. But if I am asked to do a project that doesn't even come close to my usual hourly rate, I might turn it down so I can focus on work that does pay a decent wage. (There's also a bit of principle at stake here—by taking on a ridiculously low-paying assignment, are you saying your work is worth that much? Are you setting the expectation with that client that it's reasonable to continue paying that rate? But that's a freelancing issue for another day and an ongoing dilemma many writers face.)

Where are my priorities right now? Am I at the point in my career where I am looking to expand my client base and to get published in new publications? If so, and a new client comes along, I'm going to say yes. Or am I working on building relationships with my existing clients and need to spend time developing new pitches to send to them? Then maybe an assignment from someone new isn't what I should focus on at the moment. Or, in some cases, freelancers decide to specialize. If I'm focused on health writing right now and a decorating writing assignment comes along, perhaps it's not worth my time because I am focusing on building up my clips in my new specialty area. All things to consider.

Regardless of your reasons for doing so, if you do say no, be honest. Don't make up excuses. I told my editor my son was ill. She understood and said she'd be back in touch soon with another assignment. The last thing you want to do is turn down an assignment and make up an excuse, only to be found out later. (If you say you're sick but later Tweet about a day at the beach, and your editor happens to follow you on Twitter, you're not going to look like the most reliable character. But I shouldn't have to tell you that.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Write What You Know—Or Not

Odds are, you've heard the maxim spouted off by high school English teachers: Write what you know. At least I remember mine saying that over and over. But the thing is, in high school I didn't want to write what I knew about. That was boring. That was just my everyday life. Why would anyone find that interesting?

In college, I changed my tune. I grew up in a small (very small—hardly on the map small) town in Wyoming. When I lived there, it wasn't remarkable. It was just life.

What I knew for the first 18 years of my life:
Devil's Tower and the Black Hills of Wyoming.
Photo via Flickr by Spappy.joneS
But when I headed to college in Iowa, suddenly I realized all those daily experiences I thought were so normal were actually quite remarkable. I learned that it's not every day the old timer cowboys golf in their manure-covered boots or that you can say your family grew up owning a "mountain." And so I wrote about Wyoming. It was what I knew, and it made for interesting stories.

After college, though, I wrote about other things I was assigned to write about—remodeling, decorating, health and wellness on occasion, business, green living. They weren't things I necessarily knew, but I learned about them as I went and so came to know a fair amount about these topics.

At this point, as the distance between my time in my home state and my life away from it increased, Wyoming became less what I knew than a collection of peculiar-sweet memories that made for good stories with friends or random people who remarked with surprise on where I grew up.

Now, however, I find myself gravitating back toward writing about what I know more.

As a new mom, I have started a growing list of stories I'd like to pitch to parenting magazines. And as a woman who suffers from endometriosis, I am researching and writing more about what this chronic illness is and how it affects my life. I have started a new blog on the topic, am busy connecting online with other women who have endometriosis, and I have ideas swirling around in my head for articles I want to write, more in-depth research I want to do, and even a book I may want to pitch to a publisher someday down the road.

These are the things I know now, the things I have personal experience with, the things that interest me at the moment. Sure, I'd still have to do research and line up expert or "real life" interviews to write articles on parenting or endometriosis. But I'd also have my own unique insights to contribute, which is incredibly valuable.

Last week, my freelance writing students brought in lists of story ideas they had brainstormed. Many of them struggled because, they said, they didn't know anything. They weren't experts on anything, so what could they possibly write about?

I told them two things:

1. You know more than you think. And writing about what you know—what you have experience with and personal knowledge of—is incredibly valuable and can set you apart. Don't downplay what you know or think it's mundane. Odds are, if it's interesting to you, it's interesting to other people too.

2. You don't have to write what you know. Think of a topic that interests you, that you wonder about and think others will wonder about as well. As a journalist, you aren't expected to know everything you write about inside and out. If you have a great idea, can do the necessary research and find the right sources, and identify the right market for your story, you can write about you want, even if you aren't an expert.

In other words: write what you know—or not.

A brief public service announcement: March is Endometriosis Awareness Month and I, along with many of my fellow endometriosis sufferers, are trying to spread the word about this chronic illness that affects as many as 10 percent of women in the United States.

Odds are, whether you realize it or not, you know someone who has endometriosis. You may even suffer from it yourself. But it's an incurable illness that often goes undiagnosed for years—and most women keep silent about because its symptoms aren't something they are comfortable talking about publicly. That needs to change, so people are aware of the problems endometriosis causes, so doctors become more informed of what can be done to help women with endometriosis, and so researchers have more funding to support efforts to find its causes and new treatments.

Please take a moment to learn about endometriosis and spread the word about this illness that affects so many women's fertility and quality of life.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Common Magazine Terms Defined

As I jumped into a discussion of magazines in my freelance writing class earlier today, I discovered I was talking in what many students in my class thought was a foreign tongue.

As so many people do when they're speaking the language of their profession, I rattled off magazine-specific terms and phrases in my discussion as if everyone sitting around the table with me knew what I meant.

As it turns out, once I stopped to ask them, most did not.

So I slowed down and spent some time explaining a few of the most important terms to my students, because the truth of the matter is, if you're going to be a successful magazine freelancer or editor or even designer, you need to speak the language.

Here are a few of the most common terms we discussed or will be discussing soon:

Departments/Front of Book (FOB)/Back of Book (BOB)—Departments are the sections generally found at the front of the magazine (or front of book—FOB) and the back of the magazine (or back of book—BOB). Departments usually feature smaller articles focused on a specific topic, which are grouped together in the same section of the magazine. (Side note: At many publications, departments are a great place for freelancers to "break in" to the publication.)

Features/Feature Well—Features are the key content of the magazine. Most publications include a variety of types of features each month—say, a profile or two, an investigative piece, maybe a service article of some type. The length may vary, but generally these articles are longer and more in-depth than what you'll find in the departments. Feature articles are usually grouped together in the feature "well," located at the center of the magazine.

Coverlines—The short titles or article descriptions that appear on the cover of the magazine and are used to "sell" the content in that issue (sometimes called "sell lines").
Masthead—A partial- or full-page list at the front of the magazine (usually near the table of contents and/or editor's letter) that credits the magazine staff including editors, designers, proofreaders, photographers, and executives associated with the publisher. (Sometimes lucky freelancers even get listed in the masthead as contributors.)

Table of Contents (TOC)—The listing of all departments and feature articles included in that particular issue of the magazine—often with brief descriptions of each—found near the beginning of the book.

Hed—Magazine slang for "headline," or the title of each article.

Dek—Magazine slang for "subtitle," or the words located near the title that provide additional clues as to what the article is about. (Not all department pieces include a dek; most feature articles do.)
Subhead—Short phrases or words used within longer articles to break up different sections of the story and provide organization.

Byline—The name of the author listed with the article to give him/her credit.

Cutline—The words that appear near a photo to describe the image or its context (also called a "caption").

Folio—The line that usually appears near the outside bottom of most magazine pages, which generally lists some combination of the page number, name of the magazine, and/or date of the issue.

Initial cap—The first letter of a word designed in a different typeface and/or larger type size to stand out (sometimes also called a "niche cap"); it's often used to introduce the first letter of the first word in a feature article.

Dingbat—Also called an endmark, it's the small image or icon some magazines use to signify the end of an article.

Pull quote—Words pulled from an article that are designed to serve as a textual element on a photo or a visual break on a text-heavy page.

What common magazine terms did I forget? Let me know!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Your Assignment: Drop Everything and Read

I'm teaching a college freelance writing roundtable course this semester, and one ongoing assignment I'm giving my students is to read magazines. Lots of magazines. A variety of magazines.

When we next meet in class, I'm going to tell them that they should spend time each week perusing not only the publications they already know and love, but also any other magazines they can get their hands on.

I'm going to encourage them to go over to friends' houses and raid their coffee tables, to dive with gusto into whatever random titles they come across in the dentist's office or while they're waiting at the vet. (Yes, I know those public copies in waiting rooms are germ central. But come on. So is about every place on a college campus.) 

I'm going to suggest that they head to the nearest bookstore, grab a latte, and spend a few hours perusing the racks upon racks of magazines for sale there. They don't have to buy any, but they should at least loiter for a few hours and see what they can find.

I'm going to encourage them to step outside their comfort zones, to flip through AARP or Modern Dog or whatever other title they come across that might be new to them.

And then I'm going to take my own advice. And I suggest that you take it, too.

Because the thing I realized today is that I don't look at magazines enough anymore. I used to have a voracious appetite for them in college. I'd explore any issue I could get my hands on. It was a passion, perhaps even an addiction. Plus it was basically a requirement for a magazine journalism major.

Now I read a few of my favorite titles when I get a chance, but when it comes to work, I rarely pick up a magazine unless I'm eying it as a potential market.

And you know what? By doing that I'm missing out on markets I might not have realized are out there, on story ideas that might spring to mind as I read an article in a certain publication. I'm missing out on a potential creative spark.

Yeah, I know sitting with a stack of magazines is not anything I can bill time for. It's not something that will immediately yield a paycheck. But for a freelance writer who's always seeking new article ideas and new markets, it's a key step in the creative process.

What magazines do you rely on for inspiration?

Photo: theseanster93 via flickr

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Using the B Word

No, I'm not talking about that B Word. I'm talking about another B Word that many freelancers don't like to use: Business.
Are you open for business?
If you're like many freelancers, you start out dabbling, taking on writing projects here and there while you continue with your full-time work as a doctor, a lawyer, a grocery store clerk, or whatever it may be (really, I know examples of all three who freelance on the side).

That's what I did. Right out of college, I was fortunate to land a full-time gig in publishing. But I still freelance wrote and copy edited on the side because I loved the work, I thrive on being busy, and I liked having a little extra fun money. Any projects I did were tackled in evenings, on weekends, or occasionally on my lunch hour.

I'd track my time if I was being paid hourly but otherwise didn't pay attention to how long a project took. I wasn't worried about the rates I was paid; I was just excited to get some extra cash. I had three solid clients I was incredibly happy working for and could care less if I landed any others, although I did jump at an occasional one-time opportunity for some work if it happened to land at my feet.

That all changed when I became a full-time freelancer. Suddenly the projects I landed weren't paying for plane and concert tickets, they were paying for car and health insurance bills. Securing a random project here and there wasn't enough.

That's when I realized that full-time freelancing isn't like having a hobby. It's business.

Running a business means getting serious about the things I hadn't worried about before, like tracking how long different types of projects take so I know how much I'm making and how much I should charge.

It means staying on top of invoices and tracking income and setting goals for how much I need to make weekly, monthly, yearly to pay the bills. (Not to mention making sure those paychecks arrive.)

It's actively seeking new work—often—rather than sitting and waiting for projects to come to me.

It means diversifying the types of services I'm offering rather than relying solely on my bread-and-butter projects.

It means building relationships with clients—from those who have been around for a while to new ones I'm just starting to work for, with the hope they, too, will be around for a while.

It means marketing myself, my work, my business—yes, I said it again—anytime, all the time, as much as possible.

It's true: In the midst of running the business aspect of freelancing, it can be hard to find the time to actually write and edit and complete the projects that necessitate all this other stuff.

But finding a way to stay on top of the business is the name of the game if you're going to be successful.

What part of the freelance "business" do you like the least?

Photo: Studeo Grinta via Flickr

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year, New Resolve

I'm starting off 2013 on a mission to rededicate myself to my freelance writing and editing career—and, along with it, this blog.

 I stepped out of the full-time freelancing world a few years ago when I took on a job working as the sustainability manager for a community college. Although I still dabbled in a few writing and copy editing projects here and there, most of that work took a backburner to my full-time job.

(Although, thankfully, my job did give me plenty of opportunities to write, edit, and communicate in new ways—now I've added grant writing and communications consulting to my freelance skill set!)

But now I'm back to juggling a combination of college teaching and freelancing, and I couldn't be more excited.

Of course, diving back in comes with plenty of legwork. I started by reconnecting with editors and publishers I've worked with closely in the past to let them know I'm back in the game. (It's a great time to do so, as many are planning for 2013 and making assignments right now.)

I'm also trolling the usual sites, as so many freelancers do, looking for gigs worth applying for. I'm brainstorming story ideas I want to pitch to a variety of consumer pubs. And, of course, I'm updating my resume, my LOI, and profiles on freelance sites, all while trying to whip my freelance website into shape because it has gotten woefully outdated.

So much to do, and so little time. But it's only Jan. 4, and I'm well on my way.

As a freelancer, what do you do to kickstart a new year?

Photo: VancityAllie via Flickr