Not “Just” a Writer

Recently, I had a friend of mine tell me how lucky I am that I am just a freelance writer.

Yes, she said “just.”

Although my friend meant well in context, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed by her comment, because I’ve heard it many, many times before. At the heart of the sentiment is always the idea that somehow, freelance writers are not serious professionals, that we are simply clickety-clacking away on laptops while sipping expensive coffee in some corner shop somewhere, totally relaxed and content.

The reality of being “just” a freelance writer is that we work hard–and I would dare to say, even harder–than those in more traditional jobs. We have no guarantee of having work the next day most of the time, so we are constantly anxious, constantly searching for the next project that could tide us over until we have to search yet again. It’s not unusual to spend just as much time looking for work as we do actually writing, and even when we find workable projects, the pay isn’t always ideal. So, often, we have to work more hours to make ends meet.

What’s more, being our own bosses isn’t all sunshine and roses. Sure, we can set our own schedules and such for the most part, and that’s great, but there’s no one to catch us. If we get overwhelmed or something goes wrong, we are the ones who have to figure the problem out, no matter how tired or frustrated we are. We spend a lot of time doing administrative work that we cannot bill for, such as handling invoices, updating spreadsheets and tracking tax information. Some of this can be automated, but not all of it can.

In short, the typical freelance writer’s day is very flexible, but as is true for just about everyone who owns their own businesses, it ends up being very long. A lot of the time, we don’t “clock out” after eight hours of work the way “normal” people do, simply because the administrative work and need to look for the next project is in addition to the standard work week that results in pay. Even when we do everything right, we still have the normal demands of household chores and family to handle once the pen is down or the computer is off.

Even if all this didn’t bother me, I’d still be a little upset by being called “just” a freelance writer, because this inevitably cheapens my craft. It perpetuates the idea that, even as major corporations around the world rely on writers to produce their website, general correspondence, marketing and other documentation, our work is not worth a decent, living wage. It implies that companies can push writers to the side, essentially discriminating in ways that would never fly with other workers. If writers do not fight this discrimination, the worth of what they do will always be in question and they will always struggle.

Why You Need to Grasp Plagiarism

Part of the joy of being a writer is being able to come up with something original, new and fresh. After all, it is this creativity and uniqueness that keeps content interesting enough for people to pick up or click on and which is the backbone of developing a loyal readership.

I am strongly implying here that true writing involves much more than putting words to paper. Anyone with basic grammar skills and vocabulary can do that. Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to–that’s the heart of research writing–but the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, you aren’t writing. You’re stealing. More specifically, you’re plagiarizing.

Plagiarism Defined

According to United States copyright laws, plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property, passing it off as your own. People usually think this involves only copying directly or almost word for word, but this is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property, so even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, you are plagiarizing.

Importantly, if you are stating common facts, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.

It’s not that bad to do, right?

Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work, robbing him of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents him from getting the monetary compensation he deserves. You also can look at if from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, you lose credibility as an author. Lowered or no credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.

Then of course there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen his intellectual property, they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.

Preventing the Problem

Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases like, “As reported by,” “[Name of author] stated that,” “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that” and “A [year] study by [authors] found that…” Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, the way to avoid plagiarizing is simply to use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.

More Information

A great online resource about plagiarism is plagiarism.org. This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.

Spotting Bad Writing Clients

In an ideal world, every client a writer has would be the most perfect, honest, well-paying person on the planet. To borrow from the Horton Hears a Who film, they would all be ponies who eats rainbows and poop butterflies.

Ah, welcome to the REAL writing world, kid.

First, let me say that most clients are pretty good. They might not always respond to your emails as promptly as you’d like, and an occasional payment might be late, but they give you clear expectations, sign contracts and compensate you for what you do. Others are more of the Voldemort type, however. They lurk passively in the background, quietly planning, scheming, drawing more and more people to their projects, until BAM! They show their evil faces, laughing as they betray your trust, wave their wands and pay only in despair. These Cients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

1. The pay rate is low.

Decent clients understand that writers have bills to pay. They also understand that much of what writers earn is pretax and goes to pay overhead expenses. These professionals are more than willing to pay their contracted writers a liveable, at-least-minimum wage. Some, bless them, even are willing to pay a percentage upfront or provide a bonus. If a client is offering just a few dollars, he likely either doesn’t understand what writers need to get by, or he doesn’t truly value the writing craft. In either case, it’s not a good situation.

2. They don’t want to sign a contract.

Some beginning writers are loathe to insist on a contract for their project, because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. Bad clients use this to their advantage. They say that a contract isn’t necessary, because they can be trusted. The truth is, bad clients try to avoid contracts simply because it makes it easier to get out of payment if sued. A good client will have no problem signing a contract because they know it guarantees you’ll do the work you promised. They might provide you with a version they’d like you to use because of their company’s policies, perhaps, but the use of the document is never an issue.

3. They don’t provide full contact information.

Some bad clients purposely withhold contact information, providing only a basic phone number or email address. They might say this is for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, but no legitimate business keeps their location secret. They withhold this information because it makes it easier to go AWOL when they don’t pay–in many states, a physical address of the client is necessary to serve legal notices, and file complaints, so starting work before you know where to get in touch is asking for trouble.

4. They postpone payments without prior notice.

Life happens. Miscommunications aren’t always possible to prevent. That said, the occasional payment postponement isn’t anything to squirt your pen ink over, especially if you’ve worked with the client before and he doesn’t have a history of payment problems. The problem is when they don’t follow through with the alternate arrangements they make. They say they’ll pay Tuesday. They apologize Wednesday and say they’ll get to it Friday, which comes and goes. They don’t offer a really good reason for the repeated delays, but they always make another promise. Don’t stand for this, because it sets a precedent that you’ll be tolerant of lateness and that you are not in true control of your business. Be upfront about the fact late fees will happen, let them know the next steps for collections (e.g., certified demand letter from an attorney, lawsuit, etc.) and give a precise schedule — to the hour — of when those steps will take place.

Getting Customers to Pay

As I write this, current clients owe me almost $2,000. This represents work spanning over the entire month of December and most of January.

The unpaid balances on my client accounts are not for want of proper documentation or billing. I know to the penny who owes me what and have records of all my Paypal invoices. The problem comes back to two simple facts of freelancing:

  1. Clients don’t always finish projects when they say they will, and
  2. Their correspondence sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

The first issue isn’t always the client’s fault. I sometimes work with people who are hiring me on behalf of others in a company. When they need approval from superiors, who themselves might be waiting on someone else, things get bogged down really fast.

I make it a point to send follow up emails to my clients, but even so, people have a tendency to push writers off to the side if they get busy with other things in their life. This reflects a larger problem: The general consensus is that, apparently, writers don’t need to make a schedule, nor do they need to get paid on time and, you know, maybe eat or pay rent.

The best thing a person can do to combat both of these issues is to establish clear communication policies with a client in writing, putting them in project contracts. For example, the contract might specify that the first mode of contact is email, then phone, then written letter and, lastly, an attorney contact. The policies also can indicate how much time may elapse between communications, such as 24 hours. Another good policy is to require at least one correspondence per week, even if it’s just sending a quick email that says, “Just checking in!”

This strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to foresee the exact pay date for every project (clearly, it isn’t in my case), but it does give you the ability to know what is happening with each project and to make some assessments about how to adjust your budget or calendar appropriately.

 

Top 10 Signs You Are a Writer

1. You have at least one type of notepad or word processing application on your smartphone and use it to jot down ideas on the go.

2. Paper and pencil are on your nightstand, just in case your dreams are novel-worthy or you get inspired at 3:00 a.m.

3. The amount you spend on office supplies is dangerously close to your income.

4. There is always some kind of pen mark on at least one of your hands.

5. Your computer is always on, and you leave Microsoft Word running no matter what else you are doing on the machine.

6. Coffee and breakfast are fairly synonymous.

7. You wonder what people mean when they say they “clock out” for the day.

8. People always give you gift cards to stores like Barnes & Noble for your birthday or the holidays.

9. You run through possible lead lines in your head while in the shower, wondering if they’re good enough.

10. You actually care what weight a pencil lead is and what type of ink a pen has.

The Writer’s Balance

As I write this, it’s about midnight. I have to be up in roughly five hours. When I do emerge from my comfy boudoir, I’ll stumble sleepily out to my kitchen, grab a bite of whatever-fruit-I-bought-this-week and a soda (horrible morning habit, I know, but I don’t drink coffee and need the caffeine), and sit at my computer again. Most mornings, I am writing within fifteen minutes of the alarm going off.

What, you thought writers got to lounge around in their pajamas clicking away at the keyboard all day?

(Ok. I’ll admit, my morning work does happen in my pjs.)

I know each morning that I would love some extra sleep. But I also know that I have bills to pay and that my keyboard clicking handles that. I know most people can clock out in the early evening, but I stay late (in my living room or home office) so that I can be my own boss. When I am writing about something drier than months-old rice cakes, I make it a point to listen to music that revs me up.

The point is, to be a writer, you need to fight for balance. Our craft is a  passionate one, and you need opportunities to be…not creative. To just be. Remember, the best writing rule is to write what you know. If all you ever do is write, you leave yourself no room to experience and learn, to give yourself the foundation on which to hang your plots and ideas. As a result, the range of believable, authoritative content you’ll put out will be ultra small.

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.

 

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.