Five Blogs That Can Help Your Writing

It’s Sunday and I’ve been spending the afternoon reading blogs that other people write. A great way to spend Sunday afternoon.

Some were already my favorites that I’ve read for years. Others are new to me. All of them offer posts that can help you (and me) become better writers and to grow our freelance businesses.

I thought I’d choose five of the best that I read Sunday that you might want to read too. Here they are, along with their blog addresses. I’d really love to know which ones you like best.

One of my long-time favorite blogs is Kristen Kings InkThinker. Her post on “The Fine Line Between ‘Writing’ and ‘Being A Writer'” is a good one. One of her newest writing habits is to devote time each day to writing 2,000 words for herself before writing anything for anybody else. Kristen is a Virginia-based copywriter and consultant who offers tips, resources, advice humor and how-tos for freelancers and their clients.

Allison Winn Scotch’s Ask Allison is also a great blog. It’s said to help writers looking to break into the publishing world. Don’t fail to read “Talking Money: A Freelancer’s Salary.”

Liz Strauss Successful-Blog. In “26 Needle in the Haystack Blogging Topics,” you’ll find some great blogging information. What you won’t find is the author of the piece. I can’t tell if it was written by Liz Strauss or by Terez Howard, who Strauss thanks at the end of the post. But no matter the author, it’s a great piece. Don’t miss it.

A new one I’ve found is squarespace.com, the blog of R.M. Jacobsen. If you go there, you’ll come to “Agatha Christie and the Case of the Messy Notebooks,” a delightful little story about how Christie captured her notes in lowly notebooks. Lots of other clear and simple writing on this site.

I finished the day up at one of my favorite sites, The Urban Muse. This is the site for Susan Johnston. It has been twice named a Top 10 Blog for Writers, so you’ll know how valuable it is. One of the posts I read Sunday was “6 Ways to Liven up Your Copy.” I think you’ll agree that this is a valuable place to spend time on every week.

There you have my five Sunday afternoon blogs. I’d really love to know what you think about them. And I’d welcome comments from you about more blogs for me to explore.

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About Mistakes That Make You Look Bad

Today I ran across another post that can help me improve my writing. Mistakes That Make You Look Bad was on the WritingThoughts site and I think it is going to be a valuable addition to what I do here. You, too, might want to consider using the tips in your writing.

This is what I do on Sundays–spend time looking at what other writers are doing or have done. This is the first time I’ve seen WritingThoughts and I was impressed. Laura Spencer is a freelance writer from North Central Texas with over 19 years of professional business writing experience. I think we can all learn from her solid experience.

Mistakes That Make You Look Bad discusses twenty common grammar errors that are easily fixable. I won’t mention all 20 (some are spelling errors, including misspelling your own name!), but I will include these:

Misplacing a decibel (which project would you rather take–the job paying $10.00 or the one paying $1000?)

Using a double negative. Not only unnecessary, they actually make your writing unclear.

Run-on sentences. She says that connecting a bunch of independent sentences with the word “and” stringing them into one long sentence is wrong. It is.

Using text messaging abbreviations. Unless you’re absolutely certain that the recipient knows that TTYL means Talk To You Later, it’s best not to use the abbreviation.

Using too many big words. She says that filling your messages with all of the four- and five-syllable words that you know isn’t the best way to show them what you know.

I agree with her that using these and the other mistakes really do make you look bad. Go take a look at all 20 of them on her site. You will, I think, become more aware of what you are writing and how the recipients will respond to you.


How to Write and Sell How-to Articles—Part 2

In her article, “Ten Types of Magazine Articles,” Shirley Biagi wrote this about How-tos:

“The recipe is an easily recognizable how-to. However recipes for solar water heaters are just as much how-tos as recipes for hot Texas chili, and more marketable. How-tos are a good choice for the beginning freelancer. Offer step-by-step instructions and if possible, duplicate the process you’re discussing, watching for holes in your description. Think of yourself as a teacher explaining an experiment that you expect the class to duplicate. Be careful to avoid words that might confuse the beginner. “

Those are all excellent points for both beginners and experienced freelancers — plus there are multiple ways to write how-tos. Some may take the form of traditional articles, others may use unique ways to show how to do something. A how-to could even be in the form of an essay or a letter to a friend. And some are learning tools.

In her Recipe for Health column, registered dietitian Megan Murphy, my favorite food writer, gives readers a wealth of related information along with how-to recipes.

In one column, she showed how to make Spinach and Feta Focaccia using refrigerated pizza dough and leftover spinach. When she had no yellow raisins as the recipe specified, she just left them out. And she accidentally burned the pine nuts she was toasting. (I like it when people admit to making the same kind of mistakes I make.)

Megan wrote about how her eye doctor sang the praises of spinach for good eye health, and how the presence of beta carotene and Vitamin A in the dish can aid both the cornea and the brain. Because her article went beyond just how to cook something for dinner, readers got more than a basic recipe.

If you just want to write a simple article, however, here’s a basic plan using the hot Texas chili theme:

Introduction or lead — why hot Texas chili is delectable and why you should want to prepare it for dinner:

Ingredients — items you need to follow the recipe and produce a spectacular chili.

Instructions — how to put the ingredients together, and cook and serve your very special chili.

Results — how good it tastes and how much family and friends enjoy your special hot Texas chili.

Whatever the form of your how-to, and whether you’re writing about chili, solar water heaters or another subject, here are some points to consider:

1. Make sure the title of your how-to will interest readers of your target publication.

2. Capture attention with a lead that entices readers to stay and read the entire piece. A wikiHow article shows one way to use a question in the introduction to capture reader’ interest :

“An example of an opening line: ‘Have you ever wondered how to write an engaging introduction?’ And example of a closing introduction line: ‘Here’s how to do it in a few easy steps.'”

3. Present your how-to in logical, orderly steps. Begin with a list of needed supplies or ingredients, then discuss the steps your how-to requires. Use short, simple sentences and limit each step to one idea.

4. Include precautions, plus tips and advice so readers can carry out instructions successfully. Photos or drawings may be needed.

5. Credit others for facts and techniques used in your how-to. Get written permission for any copyrighted content that you use.

6. Be sure your completed how-to has a satisfactory ending.  If you can tie the ending to your lead (introduction), so much the better.

7. Don’t forget to proofread everything, including photo captions. Correct any errors you find.

How-tos can be fun to write and rewarding to see in print. Editors seem to welcome them. If you’ve never written one before, maybe now is the time to get started.

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How to Write and Sell ‘How-to’ Articles — Part 1

Years ago, I read an article about writing ‘how-tos’ for magazines and the author stressed this point: the main requirement for selling a ‘how-to’ is first-hand experience. Equipped as I am with two left feet and no green thumb, and being somewhat math- and technology-challenged, that approach was a difficult one for me to follow.

But I am interested in people and what they do. That interest led me to an African violet expert, so I wrote a ‘how-to’ about how that woman grows prize-winning African Violets in her basement. A local home and garden publication snapped up my article.

I took on a business assignment to write a ‘how-to’ about how an employee implemented Statistical Process Control techniques in the manufacturing branch of his company. I had never heard of SPC before and considering my limitations, my article would have been impossible if the employee had not explained the process in a way that was easy for me to understand and I, in turn, could relate that to others. The company’s employee publication ran that ‘how-to’ in its next issue.

And then there was the couple I heard about who used fifteenth technology to start up and run a modern-day printing operation. Using their expertise, I was able to write a ‘how-to’ showing how to put the centuries-old process to work in a modern setting. The article appeared in a national trade magazine.

The point is this: You don’t have to be an expert to write a ‘how-to’ in areas far removed from anything in your experience. I’ve found that editors eagerly grab well-written ‘how-tos’ aimed at their readership.

So, If you’re not an experienced outdoors person but want to write in that field, find an expert who fits the category. I understand that, despite the present economic downturn, ‘how-tos’ are the best selling category for any outdoors article.

And editors of publications in other fields also eat up ‘how-tos.’ Go to any newsstand and look at the covers and contents pages of diverse publications. You’ll find many promoting articles like these:

“How and Where to Paint” (Traditional Home)
“How to Drop 12 Pounds in 14 Days” (Prevention)
“How to Fake Flawless Skin” (Home Journal)
“How to Save on the Cost of Printer’s Ink” (Consumer Reports)
“How to Find Time to Write” (The Writer)
“How to Add Realism to Your Training” (Guns & Ammo – Handguns)

Whatever your the market you want to write a ‘how-to’ for, research well. Spend time examining newsstand publications, looking especially at lesser known magazines — they may receive fewer queries than others. Be sure to read guidelines and back issues of the magazines you plan to target.

Ideas for ‘how-tos’ may come from your own and your friends’ experiences, from your children, newspaper articles, local radio and tv features. If you find things in your everyday life that don’t work and you try to fix them, that may be the basis for a how-to from your own experience. But you still may want to include advice from experts in your piece, and be sure to mention the experts you want to quote in your query. That can help to sell your idea to the editor.

Where can you find experts? The same place you find ‘how-to’ subjects — check newspapers, radio and tv shows, ask friends, relatives and neighbors, look on the internet. Try Expert.com and Profnet.com. Google your subject and see what turns up. WritersWeekly.com has a special section where you can ask for expert help for articles. If you have a college or university nearby, you may find a wealth of experts on campus.

Be sure to come back here for How to Write and Sell ‘How-to’ Articles, Part 2, where we’ll get into the specifics of actually writing a ‘how-to.’

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A Roundup of Proofreading Tips

Sorry about the lack of recent posts here. A back injury kept me away from the computer for too long, but it had one unexpected, and welcome, outcome: lots of time to think about posts to write, including this one on proofreading.

To my writer’s mind, proofreading ranks right up there in importance with crafting compelling leads or marketing savvy, whether for a 150-word filler or a major article or book. My philosophy about proofreading is this: get all the help you can, from a responsible person or other reliable source, and try to make your work as nearly perfect as possible.

Over the years I’ve picked up some especially helpful tips from Internet sources like LR Communications Systems, Inc.; DailyWritingTips.com; Writing Consistently across Media; the Writer’s Handbook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison UW-Madison; About.Com Desktop Publishing; the University Writing Center at the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UWC); and The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.

Here are some of those tips:

1. Put it on paper and read it out loud. People read differently on screen and on paper, so print out a copy of your writing. If you read aloud, your ear might catch errors that your eye may have missed. (dailywritingtips.com)

2. Read through the entire document once to get an overall feel for content before you proofread for errors. (desktoppub.about.com)

3. Place a ruler (or a piece of paper) under each line as you read it. This will give your eyes a manageable amount of text to read. (UWC)

4. Don’t try to find every mistake in one pass. Read through the material several times, looking for different problems each time such, such as:

Typos and misspellings
Easily confused words (“to” for “too,” “your” for “you’re,” e.g.)
Ambiguity
Inconsistencies
Formatting problems
Factual errors
Missing words (Writing Consistently Across Media)

5. Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you’re likely to make. Search for “its” and “it’s,” for “-ing” if dangling modifiers are problem for us; for opening parentheses or quote marks if you tend to leave out the closing ones. (UW -Madison)

6. Proof backwards. Begin at the end and work back through the paper, paragraph by paragraph, or even line by line. This will force you to look at the surface elements rather than the meaning of the paper. (UWC)

7. Proofread once aloud. This will slow you down and you will hear the difference between what you meant to write and what you actually wrote. (UWC)

8. Use the spell-checker on your computer, but use it carefully, and also do your own spell-checking. Computer spell-checkers often make errors — they might suggest a word that isn’t what you want at all, and they don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, for example. (UWC)

9. Remember that the apostrophe is never used to form plurals. (dailywritingtips.com)

10. Call phone numbers to verify them. If addition, subtraction, or other math operations appear in text, double check the figures. (desktoppub.about.com)

11. Check the numbers. Stating the value of an acquisition was $10,000 instead of $100,000 is definitely not the same thing. What about the population of China, is it 1,2 million or 1,2 billion? Make sure your numbers are correct. (dailywritingtips.com)

12. Closely review page numbers and other footer/header material for accuracy and correct order. (LR Communication Systems)

13. Read down columns in a table, even if you’re supposed to read across the table to use the information. Columns may be easier to deal with than rows. (LR Communication Systems)

15. Double check names. Check spelling of all names and company names. (desktoppub.about.com)

16. And finally this from (UWC) : Remember that it isn’t just about errors.

You want to polish your sentences at this point, making them smooth, interesting and clear. Watch for long sentences, since they may be less clear than shorter, more direct sentences. Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing; try to use sentences of varying length and patterns. Look for unnecessary phrases, repetition, and awkward spots.

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A Gem of a Website

A website that I would classify as a Gem is one that is friendly, easy to read, and offers good, practical help to others. Susan Johnston’s website, The Urban Muse, definitely fits that category.

Every time I visit her site, I take away something valuable. That happened again today when I read her (Sept. 8, 2009) post, “Give Yourself a Raise.” (The site was voted one of the “Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2008/2009.”)

In “Give Yourself a Raise,” Susan not only assures freelancers that they can ask for more money for their work, she even provides sample letters to illustrate how to go about doing that.

“I know it’s scary to ask for more money, but you won’t get what you don’t ask for,” Susan says.

Here’s one of her sample emails to an editor:

Hi Sally, I’m so glad you liked my last piece! I love contributing to the magazine, and I’m excited to get started on this next assignment. Since this is my fifth profile for you and readers have sent great feedback on my work so far, I wondered if we could discuss a pay increase? I hope to continue contributing, but these pieces are fairly research-intensive, so let me know if you have any flexibility in your budget. Thanks!
Susan

Now that’s the kind of down-to-earth help that freelancers can appreciate.

You can read Susan’s entire post here.  You can also sign up there to get her monthly tips sent to your email inbox.

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© 2009 by Laverne Daley

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Guest Post: 19 Editorial Tips From a Senior Editor

We have a special treat today, a guest post by a prolific freelancer who knows a lot about getting along with editors. We are pleased that she agreed to share valuable tips on this blog.

Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen is a full-time freelance writer on Bowen Island, BC, Canada, who writes for a variety of national publications. She maintains 3 blogs: Quips & Tips for Freelance Writers, Quips & Tips for Achieving Your Goals, and Quips & Tips for Couples Coping With Infertility.

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19 Editorial Tips From a Senior Editor
by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

These writing and editorial tips are from a senior editor I write for regularly – and they include some of the most frequent errors she sees in article submissions. Pay attention, fellow scribes, because even when you think you’ve got writing down to a fine art, there’s always more to learn!

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly,” says C. J. Cherryh. Don’t let writer’s block or fear paralyze you. Instead, jot it all down…and edit until you can edit no more.

Quote Your Sources Properly

1. Always include your source list when submitting your article. Include references and links to any studies, research, findings, and people that you reference in your article.

2. Avoid using sources that don’t seem 100% reliable/trustworthy (such as authors of some self-help books). Avoid referring books that are old or out of print (unless it’s a classic), and avoid using too many sources in one article.

3. Don’t refer to a source as a book’s author, when he or she is actually a co-author. Be careful when identifying a book’s title. Make sure you get the title 100% correct.

4. Include and list a source’s academic credentials after his or her name (use Andrew Weil, M.D., at first reference, not Dr. Weil). Add Ph.D. to the source’s name if warranted; it may be taken for granted to you if a scientist is being quoted, but this adds an element of trustworthiness for the reader. Refer to dietitian sources as “R.D.,” not “nutritionist” (no academic degree or certification is required to call oneself a nutritionist). Seek out registered dietitians over “nutritionists” as sources.

5. Don’t unnecessarily cap the professional title of a source: “Chief Scientist” instead of “chief scientist.”

Write Accurately

6. Avoid making overly speculative comments and overpromising results, especially in articles about things like dieting. “You’ll lose 5 pounds in 2 weeks with this plan” is a statement that is dangerous and could result in a lawsuit. Avoid calling a weight-loss study a breakthrough, miracle, etc.

7. Include relevant information that would interest readers, such as where a certain product or procedure is available, when it’ll be available to the public if not yet on the market, etc.

8. Use reliable sources, especially for health information, such as nutrition or diets. Make sure your sources are government-endorsed (National Institute of Health) or widely recognized (Tufts University). There are far too many homemade/sketchy nutrition Web sites.

9. Avoid reliance on a very small study and attributing its results as conclusive/authoritative.

10. Don’t give medical advice that’s unsubstantiated or not evidence-based.

11. Make sure your articles present both sides of a controversial issue.

Pay Attention to Grammar and Punctuation

12. Avoid the overuse of parenthetical phrases for descriptions or details. Brackets are “speed bumps” to readers, and may cause them to stop reading.

13. Punctuate appositive phrases properly.
* Bad: Common-sense measures like washing your hands or getting a flu shot, can go a long way toward preventing or greatly decreasing your risk for getting one or more of these viral illnesses.
* Good: Common-sense measures, such as washing your hands or getting a flu shot, can go a long way toward preventing or greatly decreasing your risk for getting one or more of these viral illnesses.

14. Avoid using the plural instead of singular when referring to body parts.
* Bad: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brains.
* Good: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brain. (Each person has only one brain!)

15. Watch for sloppy construction.
* Bad: The FDA urged the public to only eat peanut butter until further notice.
* Good: The FDA urged the public to eat peanut butter only from jars until further notice. (Otherwise, it sounds like the public should eat peanut butter to the exclusion of every single other food in the world!)
* Bad: fatty foods you should eat every day.
* Good: 6 healthy-fat foods (Nobody should eat 6 fatty foods every day!)

Miscellaneous Editorial Tips

16. Avoid referring to readers in unflattering or unpleasant ways (eg, “chubby” or “dim-witted”).

17. For expert Q&A articles, focus on the reader’s question. Don’t supplement the piece with related topics until you have answered the reader’s question.

18. Include your proposed title and subtitle (dek) with your article submission or query pitch. Deks could be sentence case (not capitalized).

19. Do not submit your text in any color other than black.

Again, many thanks to Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen for sharing these tips.

© 2009 Laverne Daley

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