Making Time to Write

Anonymous Quote:

People always make time to do the things they really want to do.

Many of us rarely have big chunks of time to get started writing, so often we don’t start at all. But there are so many ways to begin spending time writing your novel, short story or magazine article that there’s no excuse for not starting at all.

If you don’t have a big block of time to get your writing done, you might consider using small blocks of time, including using some of the tips below. It has been said that there are three sure ways you can get writing done: Find the Time, Make the Time, Steal the Time.

Buy a micro-cassette recorder and talk your writing into it. when you have time, translate those random thoughts into coherent sentences and paragraphs, and then into your writing project.

Don’t check your email until late in the day, after you’ve put in your writing time. Email is very disruptive and eats up time that can be better spent writing.

Turn off your phones or refuse to answer them. A good answering machine can take your important messages and you can return calls later.

Put on some favorite music, especially classical, to play while you write. Music will help you focus and drown out background noise. Some people say that classical music stimulates creative brainwaves.

Don’t fiddle with the radio when you’re stopped in traffic. With a pen and paper always in the car, you can spend 10 minutes writing while you wait for a train to pass or traffic to speed up again.

A trusty notebook will also come in handy if you spend 15 or 20 minutes waiting in the dentist’s or doctor’s office, or standing in line at the deli counter. You could write a basic query in 20 minutes.

Ignore the television and the internet. Both can gobble up precious writing time. Turn them back on days later, for just a short while, when you’ve reached a goal in your writing.

My favorite way to make time to write: I make an appointment with myself. When I’ve set up the day and time, that appointment is just as important to me as a doctor or dentist appointment. I’ll make sure I’m in front of the computer and ready to write on time.

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Ethics and Writing — Are You on The Right Path?

Rather than spend time on the Internet over last weekend, I decided to reread passages from some books on my bookshelves. That’s where I came across a section called “Etiquette and Ethics” in Writing for Money, a book by Loriann Hoff Oberlin. I must say I agree with the basic rules she outlines in the book.

Oberlin knew that when you are granted an interview for a publication, it doesn’t mean you can market that interview somewhere else. As an example, she uses her working with Family Communications in Pittsburgh, the production company for TV’s Mr. Rogers series. When she learned that the popular show would be celebrating 25 years on public television, she began producing a series of articles about the show, based on an interview with Fred Rogers, plus faxed questions and telephone followups. Her stories appeared in Hemispheres, The Saturday Evening Post, parenting magazines and other publications — all the result of her good working relationship with the production company.

“They trusted that I would place stories only in reputable publications, and they also knew that I kept in touch with and ran my ideas past their public relations staff,” Oberlin said.

She cautions writers to be careful when people you interview ask to see your article before you turn it in. “Allowing sources to preview your story would be allowing a form of censorship,” she said. “The public expects reporters to work uncensored and free of such constraints. We journalists shouldn’t have to fear that our sources will change their recollections, words or ideas to a more acceptable point of view. Also, by giving this kind of advantage to one source, you would give that person unfair insight into the information your other sources give you.

“Don’t misrepresent your credentials,” Oberlin warns. “Never tell someone you are on assignment for a publication when you are not, and watch that others don’t either.” Months after an interview, she recalled reading in a source’s newsletter that she was “on assignment” for several publications, when in reality she had only answered an intern’s questions about what magazines she wrote for and where she would be pitching the proposed story. “I was not pleased with the way he had misrepresented me,” she said.

She would also not be pleased, I think, with an ad I saw recently that was looking for writers to produce fake testimonials for an ebook going into production. What is equally unpleasant, in my opinion, were the scores of writers lined up, eager to write those fake testimonials. When the ad was reproduced on a freelancer’s post, the comments were very much against writing fake testimonials. Evidently those applying for the job could not see that they were going way beyond acting in a truly ethical manner. In my opinion, this is in the same category as writing papers that high school and college kids can turn in as their own. Those writers all need some ethics classes to set them on the right path.

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Becoming a Business Writer

A long time ago, I used to be a business writer. After college, I began working for a business newspaper and although I came to dislike working for the paper, it was a great introduction to writing about business and business people. I did lots of writing in that job.

In my free time after work, I was also a freelancer, still writing about business, business people and many other subjects. I never wrote about anyone I met in my newspaper job but there were scores of others who made great articles. Freelancing gave me as much work as I could handle.

Sometimes it was a matter of writing one freelance article a week. On the whole over three years, I got to write dozens of business-related pieces. They covered real estate, office equipment, home furnishings, roofing, shopping centers, videos, physician seminars, freight rates and much more. Some were articles, but the majority of the writing was for news releases, box copy, brochures, sales literature and other pieces of information to help business prosper. I got no bylines, but I did receive lots of checks — and that helped my family budget.

Did I come up with the ideas for these pieces myself? Not at all. The ideas all came from advertising and public relations people who contacted me and asked me to write them after working at my regular job. And when I left the newspaper and began full-time freelancing, they began to give me even more work. Obviously they knew from my newspaper work that I could write and handle the assignments.

All that experience can be, I think, a lesson for other freelancers who want some checks in a hurry. They may not know that advertising and public relations agencies frequently use outsiders to do their writing. That may be because many of those firms are small — often only one person — or because they don’t like (or don’t know how) to do the writing themselves. Although I got a fair share of assignments from the largest agency in town, the majority of my work came from small shops who could not afford to hire full-time writers. Whatever the reason, it was a great way for me to write and get regular checks for doing what I like best — writing. And the pay was good and quick.

To work with agencies, you need to have some clippings to show that you can write acceptable copy. If you don’t have clippings, you might focus on getting three or four articles published as soon as possible.

You could even contribute copy to small local newspapers or magazines (be sure that you get bylines) or offer to do some free writing for a non-profit in order to get the needed bylines. Then you can concentrate on dealing with advertising and public relations agencies.

If I were a new freelancer looking for more writing jobs, I’d make it a point to contact every agency in my area and ask if they use outsiders for writing assignments. Send them copies of your clippings. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door.

It’s also a great way to get started as a business writer. If you like this approach, please let me know if and when you get writing assignments as a result.

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Writing and Getting Published After 50

So you’re 50 (or beyond) and you’re wondering how that will affect your ability to get your book or magazine article published. The answer? Depending on how you handle the situation, it should make no difference, according to lots of people.

Some time ago I read an article that covered the subject very well. The author was Scott Hoffman, one of the founding partners of Folio Literary Management. He said that writers should avoid all references to retirement, they should be an energetic presence willing to help promote their books, they should not date themselves, and they must convince editors that they have lot of other books inside them. Above all, he said, don’t reveal your age in a query letter to an agent or an editor.

Hoffman was talking about the problems some people have in getting their books published, but most of the situations also cover writers of magazine articles and pieces for the web.

For one thing, even though you are 50 or beyond, you are not retired. If you’re writing a book or magazine articles, you are doing it on a regular basis, not because you have extra time on hand. You might have a new career, but it is a full-time career. And, Hoffman said, “you want to convince your agent and editor that you’re not just a one-trick pony.”

Although you’re at work on more books or articles now, you’re eager to promote your work at the publishers and you have lots of ideas about how and where to do that. You don’t need to tell editors or agents about long-ago work history or about past military service (unless your work centers on those subjects), but do tell them about relevant credentials that don’t date you.

He says there are two times when you actually have to let your agent or editor know your age. When someone asks how old you really are, you must give him or her that information. Never lie. The other time to do that is when you think it might help. Be sure also to fill in the details when information about your experience or credentials will show why you’re the right person to write this specific book or magazine article.

Hoffman ended his article by detailing several specific over-50 writers who published books: Anna Sewell sold her classic novel, Black Beauty, at 57; Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa at 52; Laura Ingalls Wilder published the Little House on the Prairie series while in her 60s. And Bangladeshi writer Nirad Chaudhuri published his first book at 54, its sequel at age 90, and his final book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, when he was 100. Their experiences should be enough for anyone to follow.

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Some Basic Query-Writing Tips

Although I’ve been published many times since my first byline in 1974, I have a confession to make: I hate writing queries. I know they’re a necessary step in getting your work published, but I always found writing them most difficult. I still do.

To make it as easy as possible, I read everything I could find about how successful writers produce queries. I collected every scrap of that information and tried to use that advice when writing my queries. That strategy has served me well over the years.  Now I’m passing it on to others who want help with query-writing. It’s basic information, but I found it to be just what I needed.

Because a query is your first, and maybe only, contact with an editor, work to make a good first impression. And whether you’re sending the query by U.S. Mail or email, put it in the form of a business letter. It IS a business letter — you’re trying to sell the editor on your article idea and to convince him or her that you’re the perfect person to write it.

Address your query as you would to anyone you don’t know in any business letter, placing their names in the “Dear Mr. Editor” or “Dear Ms. Editor” format. Find out if the editor is a man or woman and spell his or her name correctly. Check the publication’s masthead or website for the name, or pick up the phone and ask someone at the magazine. And while you’re at it, make sure that every word in your query is spelled correctly. Editors reason that if you don’t pay attention to small details like spelling names correctly, how can they trust you to produce an article that is entirely error-free.

Start your query with a hook, much like the one you would use to hook readers of the completed article. Before you hook the reader, you must hook the editor. Concentrate on convincing the editor that your article is much too interesting to end up in the rejection pile. Just because it’s a business letter, however, your query doesn’t have to have a drab or somber tone. Make the tone fit the material you intend to present in your article. You can even use humor if it’s appropriate. Adapt the tone of your letter to fit the subject you’re covering. You won’t need dull statistics, for example, when you intend to write about a clown school or profile a local comedian. That’s the time to take a lighthearted look at your subject. Make your query sound like the article as it would appear in the publication.

Now describe the article you intend to write. Show the editor how readers will be captivated by your prose. Give the piece a working title and state the number of words you envision for the article (You did check the publication’s guidelines, didn’t you, so your word estimate fits the publication’s requirements?) Strive to assure the editor that he or she is dealing with a professional writer.

In the last paragraph, you get a chance to tell the editor why you’re the person who should write this article. Here’s where you include your writing credits, your background, and any other relevant information pertaining to your article. (Are you a culinary school grad, have your backpacked around Europe, are you a top athlete, have you built your own log cabin or traveled the Mississippi by canoe? Whatever relates to your article may gain selling point with the editor). Mention where the editor can find clippings of your previously published work, or offer to send clippings, but don’t send them with an email query unless the editorial guidelines request them.

Thank the editor for considering your query and end with something like, “I look forward to your response.” Sign it “Sincerely” or with some other business-like close. Add your name, address and email address. If you have a website, include that information, too.

If you’re sending the query by postal mail, be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. You should know that many writers send queries by email these days, with “Article Proposal” in subject line.  Check the editorial guidelines to learn which the magazine prefers. If that information is not in the guidelines, I sometimes make a quick phone call to the editor to ask if they accept email queries. There’s a big advantage to sending a query by email:  You usually get a response from the editor in a relatively short time.

No matter which mailing method you use, before you hit send or put the envelope in the mail drop, go over each word, each sentence, each punctuation mark in your query. Take out any excess spacing. Make your query as perfect as possible. You might even get someone you trust to read your query to see if you have overlooked anything important.

Then send it off and get right to work on another query or a writing project while you wait for the editor’s response.

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More Word Wisdom from Lydel Sims

Today I happened again upon some yellowed clippings from Lydel Sim’s old “Watch Your Language” columns. You may recall I wrote about him and his writing advice in my earlier post, Remembering My Mentor, Lydel Sims.

It has been more than 30 years since I first took one of Lydel’s writing classes at then Memphis State University (now it’s the University of Memphis), but I still am grateful for the help he gave during those long-ago classes, and for starting me on my writing career. Lydel’s advice was always tinged with his brand of humor — maybe that’s why I’ve recalled it so many times since then.

Here are two questions from the column along with his responses:

Sir: Plagued as I am by early English teachers, I’m still bothered by the use of “none” as a plural. But I’ve seen the use in many publications. Care to comment? — Bill C.

Gladly. The idea that “none” always takes a singular verb is one of the most potent, and mistaken, ideas of the uninformed. “None” may be either singular or plural and its use in the plural is actually more common. If your teacher taught you otherwise, ask for your money back.

Sir: A story in my newspaper said “she is one of those who was willing to speak out.” Is “was” correct? Shouldn’t it be “were”? “Of those who were. . . ” sounds better. Grammar can be so nitpicky. —J.S..

It can indeed, but I agree with you completely. It should be “she is one of those who were…” But I must regretfully confess that some authorities insist it’s all right to use the singular verb if you prefer. That leaves me feeling just as frustrated as the reader who thinks “none” should always take a singular verb. ‘Taint fair!

Since Lydel left this world, I’ve had to get my grammar help elsewhere. That’s okay, but I still greatly miss his advice and his unique humor.

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How to Become A Selling Writer

Selling writers know that you can become a selling writer only by keeping at it. Keep writing. Keep sending queries. Keep submitting your work.

Call it what you will — persistence, stick-to-it-tiveness, doggedness, determination, just plain old stubbornness — it’s the usual way to make that first sale and to follow up with more and more sales. It”s how most of us get started in the writing business.

If you have that stubborn streak and if you keep writing, you eventually reach the place where you can claim to be a selling writer.

That point was brought home by Robert Dugoni, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Jury Master,” “Damage Control,” and “Wrongful Death,” in an Off The Cuff piece he wrote in the February 2010 issue of The Writer. Dugoni says he bridged the thin line between trying and succeeding by learning the three P’s — Patience, Perseverance and Persistence.

And he compares his writing efforts to that of his nine-year-old son learning to hit a baseball. In “Don’t be afraid of striking out,” he says that in writing as in baseball, you have to stick with it to hit one out of the park.

“As writers, we can’t become paralyzed at the thought of rejection. We can’t fear it, or seek to avoid it. Rather, we must confront it head on, charge into it with reckless abandon. We must look at rejection like a ball player looks at striking out, that thin line between trying and succeeding, a line we must cross as many times as necessary, knowing that on the other side exist our dreams and goals.”

Dugoni is a fiction writer, to be sure, but his advice can help nonfiction writers as well to become published writers. The entire article could be the motivation you need to succeed. I picked up my copy of The Writer at my local Barnes & Noble, but you probably can find the magazine at another bookstore or read it at your local library if you prefer. I think it’s one article you won’t want to miss.

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