The Importance of Jotting It Down

In a perfect world, a writer’s brain would be like the notebooks (or laptop) he uses, capturing every brilliant idea for future sorting and elaboration. But alas, the brain doesn’t come with a “Save As” feature. It captures only what a person, for whatever reason, subconsciously or consciously deems important enough to remember.

In the moment, a writer might think that he’ll recollect a concept or phrasing, but depending on how the brain links the new concept or phrase with the writer’s existing ideas, experiences and emotions, this doesn’t always happen. The result is that when he comes back to a project later, he has a major “oh, crud” moment and realizes that his star of brilliance is destined to fade into the dark abyss of the forgotten.

Hence the importance of taking notes.

If you’re old school, you can jot down your ideas with your favorite pen and a notebook that fits in your pocket. If you prefer a technique that’s a little more contemporary, using a digital voice recorder or even a smartphone app works. There’s no right or wrong method. Just find what works for you and use your technique consistently. You might not use everything you save, but at least there’ll be something there for you to sort through when you want or need something to work on. That matters in the craft of writing, because creativity and options are inextricably linked.

Writing Lessons from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

Some works of literature are so monumental that it’s almost difficult to imagine that they once didn’t exist. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a perfect example. This work can make your work monumental, too, because it has excellent writing lessons hidden between the lines.

  • Go for universal appeal. Dickens tale works largely because he follows one of the major rules for making a story lasting–he incorporates universal themes. One of these is the idea of the struggling employee, personified in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s worker, Bob Cratchit. People might not always have a boss as miserly as Scrooge, but most people today work for a living and understand what it means to try to meet business expectations. Like Scrooge, people try to acquire as much money as possible, equating it with success and happiness. The universal ideas of finding what really matters in life, being compassionate, being able to feel sincere remorse and changing are also present.
  • Use activities to create a foundation of reality. Throughout A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses common activities to thread his story together. For example, both Cratchit and Scrooge work. As the tale progresses through the visits of the three ghosts, for example, we see characters going to school, learning a trade, working going through an engagement and breakup and attending parties. Not everyone does these things exactly the same way or feels the same way about them, so they aren’t universal, per se, but they are common enough that people can envision them. That makes everything else in the story seem real, even if some of it is a bit preposterous (a ghost in your bedroom? Three? Come on!).
  • Remember that time matters. Keeping a good pace in a story or other work is a challenge for any writer, amateur or professional. It’s important to do, though, because pace decides whether a reader continues reading. If the pace is slow, a reader won’t stick with the piece. If the pace is too fast, the reader might lose out on nuances or get confused. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens takes the ultimate control of pacing and time by letting Scrooge travel through past, present and future and back to the present. Even though Dickens already has dibs on the three ghosts idea, you can get his effect with techniques like flashback, dream sequences and present dialogue that has the past as the topic.

The Importance of Setting Goals in Writing

Enter any motivational conference or business office and you’ll hear over and over again that goal setting is what sets successful people apart from those who only try. Freelance writers need to heed this more than anyone else, because unlike many other workers, they are their own bosses. If they don’t crack their own proverbial whips, they won’t find their project carts going anywhere.

Writing is by nature a creative craft, but the goals within the art still can be quantifiable. In fact, they must be quantifiable, because otherwise you have no way to know whether you’ve progressed. Quantifiable goals in writing can include:

  • writing a particular number of pages, words or articles a day
  • completing a writing task within a specific amount of time
  • using specific numbers of words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, etc.
  • including keywords from a list a minimum number of times
  • having a certain number of projects open at a given time
  • pulling in at least x dollars a day, week or month from writing projects

Once you have set these types of measurable goals, you can come up with a plan to reach them. For instance, if you want to increase the number of projects you have open, you might engage in more networking, go to more job posting sites or contact former clients to remind them of your services. The only plan you can’t act on is the one you never make.

 

Tips for Making the Most Out of Your Freelance Day

Freelancers like me sometimes see projects trickle in like a bad toilet leak. Other times, we get caught in a flurry of projects, and the word “outsource” starts to run laps through our heads. Outsourcing work certainly can reduce stress, and it can give other writers great support, but sometimes being able to handle all the work and reap the financial benefits yourself is just a matter of making things more efficient.

To make the most of your writing work day, try these quick tips:

  • Keep your email organized.  Some clients communicate everything they do with a writer via email, especially if you’re working internationally and have time zone issues to consider. If you have a handful of projects going at the same time, you want all the directions and tools they send you to be in one place. Since the search feature of some email providers isn’t always that great, create a folder for each client and then toss the communication in the appropriate folder as soon as you’ve finished reading it.
  • Send more than one email. In a perfect world, we could write treatises to clients the length of Moby Dick and they’d catch every last word. The reality is that clients, like you, are busy. They scan a lot. The more you put in a single email, the more likely it is they’ll miss a point or forget to answer one of your questions. That means you end up taking more time to clarify things later, and that you sometimes can be delayed waiting for responses. Limit yourself to one or two topics per email if you can, and use bullet points when needed to make the email visually easier to digest.

    neat desk

    Keep your work desk looking like this . . .

  • Keep everything else organized. A pen that works? That contract you needed to sign? Your portfolio clips? All of it takes time to find. Pick methods and locations for storing the items you use or need most in your work, and put things away when you are done. Clear your desk of miscellaneous items at the end of every work day.

    messy desk

    . . . NOT like this!

  • Take notes. Never assume you’ll remember all the brilliant ideas or questions you have that relate to your current writing projects. (Nobody is that awesome.) Whether you use a regular pad and paper or your computer’s word processing program, jot down your thoughts as you work so you have your data in one location to reference quickly later. Use the notes as part of your outlines and as guides when you are writing your emails and making business calls.
  • Keep a snack around. I am a firm believer that you should take frequent breaks while you work and that lunch needs to happen away from your desk. BUT you can’t always predict when you’ll get serious hunger pangs that can distract you from what you’re writing. Keep some healthy, energy- and nutrient-rich snacks such as nuts or a protein bar near your desk to tide you over until your real break starts.
  • Take the break already! I know, I know. You’re not productive if you’re not working every minute of the work day, right? Wrong. Your brain needs a quick stop every now and then to process information, and your body needs to shift and refuel to prevent fatigue and injury. Plus, a change in scenery literally can give you new perspectives on project problems or concepts. Even if all you do is get up and take a lap around your house, do it.
  • Compare your tasks with your calendar. Some tasks you might have as a writer are fairly predictable in terms of the time they take to write. For example, I know that it usually takes me an hour to write an article of 500 to 800 words, and I know that one project I’m doing at the moment requires at least 15 minutes per day. Look at your calendar and try to arrange your project tasks so you don’t have to interrupt your train of thought. For example, if you only have 20 minutes, send an email instead of starting on a new article. Looking at your calendar also shows you the total amount of time you have available per day, which lets you identify whether taking on more work is realistic and how to pace yourself.
  • Find the areas where you can multitask. Normally I like to tackle one thing at a time, but to be really efficient, I sometimes have to let more than one thing run at once. For example, I might let a portfolio CD burn while I also send out an email. If it’s around lunch, I might fill out an invoice as something heats on the stove.
  • Create templates and use software when possible to automate. Probably the biggest time eater for a freelancer is just documenting everything. Try using programs that automatically can import data to other programs you use to reduce data entry time. Whenever you have a task that repeats or an invoice that’s super similar, create a template on which to fall back. Bonus? You’ll reduce instances of human error in the entries because you only have to do them once.
  • Use alerts. As things get more and more hectic, it’s more and more difficult to remember everything that needs to happen and when things need to happen. Use programs like Outlook or even your smartphone’s calendar or task list app to set reminders and alarms for important tasks. It does take some time to add the items to the program, but that pales in comparison to the fancy footwork you’ll have to do to keep a positive review with a client if you forget a deadline, and it keeps you from having to readjust the schedule because you missed something.
  • Get some serious shuteye. The more tired you are, the harder it is for your brain to work efficiently and come up with really good solutions and ideas. Get at least six to seven hours of sleep each night. If you can’t at your current work load, you’re probably taking on too many projects at once. Match your work schedule to your body’s natural rhythm if you can–don’t try to force yourself to write at 6:00 a.m. if you’re a zombie who can’t even process breakfast until 10:00 a.m.

 

Why Good Writing Fails to Get Published

Rejection from publishers is something that virtually every writer will experience in his career at some point. In fact, some professional writers acquire so many rejection letters that they probably could paper their walls with them. As a beginning writer, it’s difficult not to get discouraged by these personally hurtful little pieces of mail, but rest assured: Rejection letters often have no bearing on the quality of your writing.

The reality of publishing is that a book (or any other text) gets published when it is a good fit for the publisher. At the most basic level, this means you have to submit to publishers that produce your manuscript’s genre. Don’t submit a science fiction novel to a romance publisher, for example, no matter how confident you are you’ve written the greatest thing since Star Wars.

Beyond submitting within the right genre, you have to explore what the publisher is producing at the current time. The manuscripts a publisher receives vary over given periods. A publisher who publishes biographies, for instance, might get 100 biographies one year and 1,000 the next. If the publisher has an overflow of a certain type of work, it can be much more picky about what manuscripts it selects to meet the publishing goals within that genre. Your odds of having your manuscript selected go down as a result. Publishers may even announce that they are no longer accepting submissions within the genre that has the overflow.

The simple solution to this issue is to do a bit of research prior to submitting your proposal package to the publisher. Look on their website or use resources such as Writer’s Market to determine the types of titles and plots the publisher has put out recently. Then analyze whether your manuscript fits one or more of the publisher’s immediate production needs. You need to be able to show that your manuscript fits what the publisher is doing and thus prove marketability, but you also need to be able to show how your manuscript has fresh ideas compared to previous publications.

Some publishers reject great writing not because of improper publisher/genre/manuscript matching, but because they quit working when they write the last chapter of the text. They construct a so-so query letter that doesn’t catch the editor’s eye, has basic grammar or spelling errors and that doesn’t truly summarize the plot or the author’s experience. No query letter can be completely cookie cutter because ideally you should customize each query letter to the publisher to which it is sent, but every query letter needs to have an excellent hook, flawless presentation and prove your competence. As you try to promote your work, don’t make the mistake of judging the manuscript on the editor’s behalf within the query–let the editor decide for himself whether you’ve got a text that could propel you to fame.

Great writing sometimes doesn’t get published because, quite simply, writers don’t take a chance on themselves. For whatever reason, they don’t think what they’ve written will make the cut, or they are afraid of the possible rejection editors can give. Subsequently, they submit nothing and have their worst fear realized–they never get to see what they write in print. Meanwhile, less worthy texts find places on bookstore shelves.

Publication also can evade amazing writers because the writing isn’t right for the time. For example, stories with vampire themes have been wildly successful over the past decade or so (notably, the Twilight saga). Had these books been written in the 1600s, the period where witches, vampires, werewolves and the like were highly ostracized in the United States, they might have had no hope of publication. In the same way, people who write in the style of Charles Dickens might be labeled as too archaic and complex for modern readers, even though Dickens’ work is considered classic.

Finding solutions to these issues isn’t always easy, but you can do your best to send your manuscript to the publisher most likely to need it. You can customize and perfect your queries. You can get feedback on the manuscript to build your confidence before you submit it. And you can be mindful of the market, researching what sells and what doesn’t. All you have to do is start.

 

How to Write a Killer Query Letter

If you want to break into the writing business, your job isn’t over when you finish your final draft. You have to keep going and write a killer query letter. This document essentially introduces your work to an editor, so the better your query letter is, the more likely it is that the editor will take a gander at the manuscript you’ve sent.

Your first job with the query letter is to make sure you’ve listed the contact information for the editor/publishing house. Always address the letter to a specific person rather than using “To Whom It May Concern” or “Editor” unless you are specifically instructed to do so in the submission guidelines. If you don’t know to whom you should address the letter, email or call the publishing house and ask. Next, include your contact information–you want the editor to be able to contact you quickly and easily if they get interested in your work. Also include subject and date lines so the editor knows right away what the purpose of the letter is and how long ago you wrote it.

The first paragraph of your query letter introduces your manuscript. It includes a “hook” or engaging line that catches the editor’s attention. Don’t shortchange the time you spend writing the hook–if you can’t catch the editor’s eye here in the first few lines, he might not keep reading. Be creative and to the point.

The second paragraph goes into a little more detail about the manuscript, summarizing some of the main plot points (think dust jacket here). Include a specific word count. Explain to the editor how the manuscript fits his publication needs and tell why it is different from the competition. This shows you’ve done some basic research into the publishing house and have an idea of why your work could sell compared to other manuscripts in the same genre.

The third paragraph of a query letter details some of your publication experience, if you have it. This gives you some credibility, which helps the editor decide whether you’re prepared for the publication process and whether the public would accept or believe what you wrote. If you don’t have any publication credits, then focus on your education or other experience that has made you an expert in writing the manuscript. For example, if you want to write a book on anatomy, you might mention you are an M.D. or have taught anatomy for x years.

The last paragraph of your query letter brings attention to the enclosures you’re sending (i.e., the manuscript, your writing resume). At the end of the paragraph, invite the editor to contact you if he is interested in your work, and reference your contact information. End with a professional closing statement such as “Sincerely” or “Thanking you in advance.”

Once you print your letter, be sure to proofread it. The letter is the first experience an editor has with you, and he won’t take you as seriously if your first correspondence already contains errors. Have a friend or family member read it over, too–you might miss something, as people have a tendency to skim over document text.

After you know your letter is perfect, get your enclosures together, sign the letter, and get it all in the mail. Now all you have to do is wait for a response!

Creativity Versus Salability

Disney has produced some truly wonderful material over its decades of operation. Even so, after hearing and watching film after film, I can’t help but notice that Disney tends not to move away from general plots. For example, in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo dreams about leaving the confines of his church and being free to do bigger and better things. In Aladdin, Aladdin dreams about leaving behind the thief’s life for bigger and better things. In Hercules, Hercules asserts that, even though everyone else has quit or failed before, he will “go the distance”, become a hero and….you guessed it, go on to bigger and better things.

Now, I’m not knocking Disney alone here. A lack of truly new content is a problem just about everywhere writing appears–even reality TV is crafted around roughly the same ideas.

Why?

An easy answer is just that we aren’t very creative anymore, or that we’re just plain lazy. I don’t think this is the entire story, though. I think it very well could be linked more to money. When a producer is putting down millions of dollars to create a script or film, for instance, he wants to reduce his risks on the investment. One way of doing that is falling back on something that has proven itself before.

Any number of plots or characters might stimulate particular emotional responses in an audience. But as writers, we have to find the balance between what is new and what has been branded as salable. That is no easy feat.

The Editor’s Role

Editors have a bad rap. In the writing world, they’re often the stinky cheese in the refrigerator of fairness and creativity. But why?

During the editing process, it’s the editor’s job to tweak content in multiple ways. He first checks that everything is relevant to the topic and that the flow of the content makes sense. Then he starts making cuts or additions, trying to improve the amount of information or make the content more real to the reader. The final step is to check that everything is okay in terms of grammar, spelling and formatting. These steps often drastically improve a draft.

The trouble is, a writer takes writing personally. He gets attached to his creations, viewing them as little children who grow, develop and finally make their way into the world. When an editor starts fiddling with the content, the writer’s initial reaction is to wince rather than give thanks. It’s as if the editor is telling him he’s been a bad parent, as if all his careful effort still created one penny short of a dollar.

So the writer does what is natural. He shifts blame from himself to the editor, because it is only then that he can keep his self-developed illusion about his own mastery of his craft. The editor becomes the villain, and in the worst case scenario, the writer can’t help but argue with the editorial decisions as a means of defending his own ego.

The reality is, editors aren’t out for blood. They don’t purposely look for things to pick apart, and they certainly don’t like arguing with the writers with whom they work. They’d give their left kidney for a pool of clients who truly realized how much they want the writers to succeed.

So what does this mean for a writer? It means that, to really get good, collaborative effort going, to hone a text to the finest it can ever be, there has to be at least a little emotional distance from the writing so the editor doesn’t become the enemy. It is this distance that keeps the writer’s mind open to new possibilities, that lets him rationalize about what to do next and what writing path ultimately is best.

 

Has Facebook Created a World of Writers?

I’ll admit it. I’m a Facebook junkie. I usually have the site up and running in my browser as I’m working, and I check it pretty regularly on breaks. Although I don’t pay too much heed to the seemingly endless rope of changes Facebook initiates, I do pay attention to my friends’ statuses on the news feed.

Facebook is clearly social networking royalty, with even businesses having their own accounts. But from the content of the statuses I read every day, I see Facebook as much more than a social networking tool. It’s a daily, written journal through which people talk about their thoughts. Their hurts. Their dreams, frustrations and accomplishments.

Facebook has the potential to improve writing, although it can’t necessarily guarantee a particular level of improvement. For example, status messages are limited to a particular number of characters, so the site encourages users to get to the point and write succinctly. Real time chat pushes users to respond in a timely way, all the while getting users to consider the immediate connotations their words might have in the absence of body and vocal expressions. Even creating picture captions can develop writing skills, because users have to think critically about whether their captions accurately get the meaning and feeling of the picture across. Some people even correct their own grammar and spelling in posted status messages and comments to show they understand their mistakes.

I don’t expect or want Facebook to become a substitute for a good grammar or writing course, but the site is an example of how the right technology and ideas can promote massive amounts of writing in a platform. Coupled with such amazing social power, these types of sites have the potential not only to promote the writing world, but to change that world altogether.

Is Technology Killing the Printed Book?

These days, it’s challenging to find someone who doesn’t get at least a little daily screen time in one way or another, what with Kindles, smartphones, laptops, iPads and the like so readily available. The convenience of these devices is unquestionable, considering the amount of information and number of applications consumers can get. This raises the question of whether technology is killing one of my favorite things–the hard copy book.

The first fact writers and readers have to accept is that an electronic version of a book doesn’t necessarily have to connect to a print copy–that is, a publisher can opt to publish something solely in electronic form. This means that publishers won’t release some writing in hard copy format, ever, and from that standpoint, technology can limit the number of printed books out there. On the other hand, the reduced cost of e-publishing means that publishers can entertain more authors, so while the number of printed books might not reach its full potential, the number of works available in general goes up. That’s not a bad thing in an age when literacy is a hot topic in education circles.

Even though publishers can save a lot of money by putting out electronic books, they have some strong reasons to keep the more expensive print presses rolling. Lots of people like traditional hard copies of books simply because of the emotional and aesthetic aspects of holding them, flipping pages and even taking in the aroma of the paper and ink. These are things a digital copy of a book simply can’t offer. Some people also prefer hard copies because they can so easily write their own notes in the margins or highlight text. Additionally, certain types of books do not lend themselves as well to electronic formatting. A book on art, for example, might be better appreciated if the pictures in the books are not reduced in size due to screen size constraints. These types of books often hog the resources of a viewing device and have slow load times, or they might require plugins or additional applications for viewing to occur properly. Another good example is children’s books, because kids can be hard on electronics and often benefit from hands-on activities.

woman reading to child

Ebooks might not be suitable for everyone and might eliminate some aesthetic positives associated with reading.

Lower income individuals also can be at a disadvantage with strictly e-publishing, because it costs significant amounts to purchase and replace the devices that read the electronic files. Before publishers can eliminate print publishing completely, they have to address the problem of class and financial divides–failure to do so might widen educational and literacy gaps. This is particularly relevant to academic publishers. Lastly, some individuals might not be comfortable with electronic documents or devices, such as the elderly or those with a disability requiring special formatting or printing.

All these things considered, technology certainly is changing the way people read, and it’s giving people more options about what to read. But because technology is never perfect, it likely will be a long time before the hard copy book gets completely phased out.