How to Deal with Other People Finding Writing Success Instead of You

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You know those social media posts.

The exuberant ones.

The ones where people announce they’ve just found an agent, met some ridiculous word count goal or had a publisher snap up their book in a six or even seven figure deal.

On the one hand, I am genuinely over the moon for the writers who are putting up those messages on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. And that’s because I empathize. I know first hand all the hours that goes into creating the manuscript, editing it and sending it out into the world feeling crazily protective and hopeful. And so I make it a point to congratulate them. They deserve every kudos, and I mean what I say in my responses.

Yet, there’s also the side of those posts that’s kind of like a punch in the gut.

With brass knuckles.

Maybe some razor blades.

And you know what? Just throw in a random bomb embedded with rusty nails and screws in there, because you know, what the heck.

There’s something about those posts, which I admittedly and ironically dream of putting up myself one day, that holds a crappy message. Something that says, “See? If you were just ‘good enough’, too, then you’d have that agent/deal/paycheck/fame. Comparatively, your writing is stinkier than the rear end of a hippo.”

Talk about a motivation killer.

But the thing is, none of those writers is saying that. They’re not trying to rub it in. They’re just genuinely so elated that they can’t contain it. And deep down, I know better. I understand that the industry is highly subjective and very much about making the right editorial connections. And I understand that even “bad” writing that’s a grammatical mess still can have a great story at its heart. So the real question is just how to bounce back from the temporary blech that seeing others’ success inspires. Because if I (or you) can just bounce back from that, you can keep writing, submitting and pursuing the writing goals you have.

So here’s what I’ve found personally works:

  • Read other types of posts. I’m not going to tell you to go on a social media fast, because that might not be realistic given your need to promote your work. But what you can do is focus on particular types of posts. Look at how many people are still drafting, querying, or just looking for advice on which writing tool is best. You might not have the deal or agent yet, but there are tons of people right where you are who can offer support and remind you that you’re not alone. Pay close attention to the posts where people share little bits of drafts–favorite lines, for example–or talk about a beautiful moment they had with writing. Those kinds of posts reveal what matters to other people and can remind you that writing is about a lot more than money or other perks.
  • Stick to a plan. If you are going about your writing inconsistently or without a plan, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t making real headway. But a plan lets you measure progress based on a specific strategy. Every time you post something, every time you send a query or take the half an hour you slotted for outlining, you can say you really did something. You are trying. You are not idle. You’re moving forward. And that’s a heck of a lot better than feeling like you have zero direction.
  • Trash your own writing. This might seem a little counterintuitive, but ripping your drafts to shreds teaches you not to get too attached, and to be open to trying new options that ultimately could make the content work significantly better. Even if you end up going with your original version, the exercise in exploration can give you a sense of progress and development that’s a huge confidence booster. You also might end up with snippets or new concepts that could lead to entirely new works later on.
  • Do something other than writing. Writers are just like other professionals in that they can attach a huge part of their identity to their work. That’s why it’s so painful to see the other “I made it” posts from others–it’s not just about having your project validated, it’s about having you validated. So if the sting is getting too sharp, go spend time in other activities or hobbies. This doesn’t mean stop writing. It just means that the writing should be balanced with other aspects of who you are. Do whatever you enjoy to remind yourself that, although writing is part of you, it doesn’t define your worth.

People who find writing success deserve to celebrate it and brag a little. This applies to you just as much as to anyone else. But since it might be a while until it’s your time to celebrate, don’t just wallow. Be proactive about staying in a positive mindset. You’ll produce better when you aren’t depressed and stressed, guaranteed.

How to Tell the Difference Between Content Mills and Legitimate Writing Sites

When you want to write articles on a regular basis, one of your most basic jobs is to figure out which platform(s) to publish or find clients with. And within this, it’s critical to be able to spot the difference between content mills and legitimate sites that can help you generate real reputation and income.

Content mills

Content mills generally have the following traits:

  • Require fast turnaround of articles, often 24 hours
  • Will quickly reassign articles that are not completed by the deadline, often without pay to the first writer
  • May send out requests in batches
  • Typically do not allow writers to know who the client is or to contact the client directly
  • Generally offer rates well below minimum wage or fair practice for the writing industry ($1-10 per 500 to 1,500 words)
  • Does not list contact information, or provides only a postal address with no email, chat support or phone number
  • Frequently provide templates for writers that prevent assignments from veering away from a predictable pattern

An easy-to-spot clue you’re working with a content mill is the initial “test” period. The mill will ask that you submit a piece of writing based on a client request, supposedly to assess your writing ability. But the mill will not pay you for this work. It is merely a way to get a free article out of you, regardless of whether the mill grants you future privileges on the site.

An example of a content mill you can explore is Demand Studios. This company, once insanely valuable, basically imploded and no longer functions.

Legitimate writing sites

Legitimate writing sites have the following characteristics:

  • Allow clients to set the deadline for their articles based on the complexity involved in the research and writing process
  • Often allow the clients to screen, contact and select writers directly based on profiles and resumes provided, rather than assigning articles to writers on the client’s behalf, OR allow pre-approved writers to select projects clients post
  • Allow clients and writers to provide feedback for each other
  • Might identify large batch projects, but do not require writers to take those projects; allow writers to do as many or as few pieces as desired
  • Allow clients and writers to interact directly
  • Might offer some kind of payment guarantee or protection along with a means of tracking hours, although arrangements might be made on a fixed-price basis
  • Pays competitively based on client budget (often $20-25 per hour or $0.10 per word)
  • Clearly lists contact and support information
  • Does not work based on templates, instead allowing clients to specify the tone and requirements for the content

Like content mills, legitimate sites might ask that you submit sample work. Unlike content mills, however, the sites often allow you to submit previously published works or portfolio samples. If they do want you to submit a test piece to make sure you can meet their specifications and processes, they will pay you for it.

A good example here is UpWork. Although this site allows freelancers from many industries to connect with employers, it’s a popular way for writers to find on-demand work.

The middle ground

Of course, some sites don’t fit neatly into these main categories. For example, Constant Content does a fantastic job of allowing writers to post whatever content they like, whenever they have time. Buyers can browse the writer’s catalog and buy whatever articles catches their eye. Writers have full control of pricing, and each piece goes through an editorial screening by Constant Content staff to ensure quality to clients. BUT it can be difficult to get a response from the editorial staff, and the cut the company takes is a hefty one at 35 percent of the article price (e.g., if you price your piece at $100, you actually only get $65).

There also are sites like Verblio. This site allows writers to pick whatever projects look good when they want. Writers also are paid for their test work. BUT the site forces writers to work their way up the pay scale. Even if you have years of experience, you have to start out on the lowest tier. And while compensation gets better, those initial tiers are below the minimum wage in many states.

In my view, these sites aren’t doing anything fishy, per se. If you sell enough work, they can be a good way to pad your income or make up for gaps in other regular jobs. They also can let you consistently practice your writing with a real professional eye and purpose–it’s more serious than an everyday blog you do for fun. But they all operate on the principle of ghostwriting. So they will do nothing to get you out of the rut, since you will not be able to get any bylines from the work and build a resume. And since sales either aren’t guaranteed or pay can be lower than what you’d otherwise get in a day job, they aren’t necessarily going to be enough to pay your rent and all your other expenses. Don’t expect them to make you financially self-sufficient or put you on a white sand beach sipping a margarita.

Final recommendations

Generally speaking, even though there certainly still are mills operating, there’s been a huge shift away from the quantity mindset among publishers and independent clients. Now, the emphasis is on quality. And if you really want to get into serious article writing offers both pay and a byline, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned querying. Traditional magazines either have sister websites or have gone online completely, and thousands of publications started out digital to begin with. So there is still a great demand for good writing. Study sites that interest you and find ones that actually allow freelance submissions, and that pay fairly. Then send tailored pitches to the publications’ editors and do the footwork necessary to establish real relationships that can yield ongoing future assignments or even a column–a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach simply will not work. You can use legitimate or middle ground content sites to earn some cash as you build your portfolio, but don’t touch mills with a ten foot pole.

How an Investment Mindset Can Make You a More Successful Writer

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If you’re like most writers, you’ve probably heard that, if you really want to be successful, then you have to write a ton of content. The story is, the more you write, the better odds you have of getting your work noticed, and the higher the likelihood you’ll sell enough to be able to afford more than a chicken at lunch.

Evergreen quality, not one-shot quantity

It’s admittedly true that a lot of editors are going to pass on your work and that a fat portfolio can set you up to take more opportunities. But this idea of quantity content is pretty similar to another idea from finance–if you just work hard and put enough money away, you’ll be set to live out your golden years worry free.

That money advice might have served your parents or grandparents just fine. But today, the world is vastly different, and the reality is that, if you want to be rich, you can’t just keep working day after day and end up with enough money. As Warren Buffett would tell you, you have to find ways to make your money work for you, and to invest in opportunities that will continue to bring you income even after you stop putting funds, time or other resources forward.

As a writer, you need to develop this same investment mindset. You should focus not on cranking out content like a mill, but rather on creating more pieces that will continue to give you returns after you’re finished. On a very basic level, this means honing in on more evergreen topics, even if they’re more niche oriented. These are the kinds of pieces that you can repost on social media networks, and that will continue to get hits on websites long after publication, yielding royalties or pay-per-view paychecks.

An investment approach to writing also means that you choose topics that are easy to repurpose or expand. For instance, suppose you select the evergreen topic of female reproductive health and choose to get specific with toxic shock syndrome. With the same information, you could get several articles that redesign your information for different audiences:

  • What Really Causes Toxic Shock Syndrome
  • Your Organic Cotton Tampon Could Make You Sick. Here’s How
  • Cup, Tampon or Pad: Which Really Is Best for Your Health?

You can make each of these pieces have a specific feel or slant with anecdotes or interviews. But looking at how many ways you can present a topic saves a ton of time in the long run, since you only have to do your basic research once. You simply have to make sure that each presentation is unique enough to stand independent of the others, and that you’re adjusting for the tone each publication is after.

Within this, think about how you can transform the content for different media. For example, could you summarize an article as a video presentation? What about turning it into a podcast or audio article? Doing this might allow you to reach people in more demographics based on specific preferences and even can make your work more accessible to those with certain disabilities.

Think about submitting your work for syndication, too. Some outlets will accept prepublished pieces under these types of agreements. This can expand your audience and get you extra cash at the same time, and all you had to do was query, not create entirely new content.

Lastly, templates are very much your friend. For instance, even though a good query letter always is customized to the editor, 85 percent of the letter can be a default that offers your hook/summary, bio and contact information. In the same way, you can design article templates that allow you to quickly fill in information when clients want a lot of content with a similar structure or format.

So ditch the idea that you have to write your fingers to the bone. That’s not necessarily true. Although you certainly can spend some time on trendy or newsy pieces if they really interest you, your main priority should be to find something to write about that will retain its value and that’s viewable in many different ways or channels. So ask yourself how many other angles there are, and create your content according to what can keep delivering for you.



Is Your Writing Really Mediocre? Here’s the Truth

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In my usual browse of article headlines on Feedly this morning, I stumbled across this gem from Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic. Giorgis declared that much of what’s on Netflix these days is mediocre, and that we’re allowing our boredom to get the best of us when it comes to selecting what we watch.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with Giorgis–even if the content is well done, much of it relies on popular plot structures that are as worn as grandma’s 1947 couch cushions. The predictability can be a turnoff no matter how artistic the approach might be.

But of course, you have to ask, who ultimately gets to decide what “good” content is, not just in film and TV, but in all art?

In lots of cases, it’s just a few publishers or producers from a few big companies. In book publishing, for example, that means the big five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan).

Lots of writers dream of sending in a book query and getting a contract with one of the big five. There’s some prestige to it, the idea that your book was “good enough” to stand out from this enormous pack and get noticed.

The trouble is, the big five want sales. And much of what is on their list has nothing to do with how you write and everything to do with what the public happens to be buying at any particular time. They want stories that are going to yield a profit. And so when they look at manuscripts, if they don’t think it’s going to sell, they’ll pass.

Need an example? Try Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, who had publishers tell him that the books were “too positive” (heaven forbid we have some positivity as mental health concerns are on the rise), that the title was stupid and that people don’t read short story collections. He was rejected by 144 publishers, and even the 145th made him prove via signatures he had interest in the manuscript.

Sometimes, publishers flat out miss the mark about what the public is open to. 500 million copies later, Canfield’s earned the right to tell them they were about as wrong as it gets.

So here is the conundrum. We have a very small set of gatekeepers who, for all their talk of wanting something fresh, by actions prove that what they really want is to keep reproducing what seems to work from a sales standpoint. But in maintaining that model, the gatekeepers automatically ensure that the public can’t engage with good variety easily. Perhaps the public would get out of the rut and buy other stories, if the gatekeepers would only allow them into the market. It’s hard to know.

So perhaps the problem is not the mediocrity of the manuscripts that are rejected at all. Sure, there’s a lot of you-know-what that probably wouldn’t hurt anybody by staying in the bottom of a drawer or getting corrupted on a hard drive. But perhaps there glorious flowers we can’t see because we’re not truly allowed in the garden.

As a writer, I can say that the most agonizing element of this situation is that writers never really are sure whether they are the weed or the rose. Perhaps they are spectacular and have been rejected dozens of times simply because what they have written doesn’t fit the model. But perhaps, the rejections lead us to consider, the writing really is subpar and beta readers just tried to spare our feelings. It’s easy to get discouraged and confused.

My biggest fear with this system of things is that our most fragrant and rare blossoms are never cultivated. I would not be at all surprised, for instance, to see a publisher reject a modern Georgette Heyer (a romance writer critiqued as as close to Jane Austen as you can get), simply because “the writing is too archaic”. Perhaps that grossly underestimates what the public is capable of enjoying and understanding. Or perhaps, in a worse scenario, it suggests that the system has denied our experience to such a degree that we really do need some schooling on what mediocrity actually looks like.

In either case, I see independent and self-publishing as increasingly necessary. It is only through these channels that the bias of the gatekeepers can start to have less of an influence on individual and overall public choices. But alongside that, we also need systems that are going to make access to those books easier for everyone at every level. That can mean more e-readers or libraries, or it can mean more writing English programs, tutors, book clubs, etc.

But it also means reexamining what it means to be eloquent, how to recognize and reject plot tropes and how to create tension and conflict that doesn’t require an on-screen explosion or special effect. That is more complicated to build, because it butts up against other social issues and nuances, like the way we teach or even racial and income disparities.

Reading and any other art is for everyone. The minute that the critique and development of it falls into the hands of a privileged few, our ability to determine what has merit becomes incredibly diminished. But if we become more democratic, if we educate ourselves away from the gatekeepers, mediocrity will lose its grip. That, I think, is a vision that can’t turn to reality fast enough.

In the meantime, be open to practicing and improving what you do, and if you have excellent feedback from beta readers on a consistent basis, don’t give up. Find a way to get what you’ve made out there. When your sales prove you were right, hold your profits in your naysayers’ faces.