In college you learn to abide by AP style, write in neat paragraphs and an academic tone. In the traditional writing format, these rules transferred nicely. However, when it comes to modern mediums, otherwise known as web writing, these rules generally don’t apply. While grammar should still be pristine, it’s more about the content than anything else. As an editor, it’s important that you have an eye for these key differences. [Read more…]
If there’s one thing lacking in the publishing and journalism industries these days, it’s certainty. The world of writing and publishing is changing day-by-day, and no longer can you be a successful writer — whether your craft is journalism or novel writing, whether you’re writing for print or digital — merely by virtue of being talented. There are entirely new skill sets required for the modern successful writer, and whatever kind of writer you are, you’re going to find that these skills are a must.
You want to be a 21st Century writer? Here are three hats you must wear in addition to being a strong writer.
Readers in the 21st Century are more savvy than any in history. Whether or not we’re the smartest people to ever roam the Earth is an argument for another day, but every single reader today can smell a fake a mile away. If you’re not willing to put some time and effort into knowing the facts in order to make your words as legitimate and trustworthy as possible, your reader will know.
And they’ll check out.
Okay, sure, there are some instances where research might not be required. Like say, if you’re already an expert on a particular subject, or if you’re writing something less rooted in facts, like an opinion piece or poetry (although even poets should bookmark Thesaurus.com and use it religious). But sooner or later, you’ll have to do some good old fashioned research. Only thankfully, today’s writers aren’t limited to old fashioned methods. The Internet is a treasure trove; this is the Information Age, after all. The trick is knowing the right places to look.
Some of the best places online for fast, easy researching include:
- Wikipedia: Britanni-what? There is only one destination if you’re looking for an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe and our world and everything in it. You may come across an entry that’s in dispute over its factuality, but it’s a rare occurrence, and the intelligent arguments of user/editors can often be just as educational as established entries.
- Search Engines: Google, Bing, and a handful of others are great places for finding sources of information on a given topic. Searching for a particular topic will typically bring up millions of webpages, but if you want to be a power searcher, it’s all about specificity. The more specific you are with your search term, the more accurate your results will be. Say you’re looking for information on the writer of the movie The Dark Knight. You could search for just batman, but searching for dark knight screenwriter will take you directly to what you’re looking for. And don’t forget to use quotes when you want to search for exact phrases.
- Wolfram Alpha: If you need a quick answer to any factual question, Wolfram Alpha is your source. It’s not a search engine; it’s a computational knowledge engine. A search at WA won’t take you to other websites for what you need to know, it will draw from its own vast library of information to tell you exactly what you need to know. Ask it anything, and it’ll come up with an answer. It’s especially good with math questions.
- Online Maps: Thanks to satellite views from Google Maps and Bing Maps, you can get unprecedented levels of detail about just about any location in the world you might be writing about. Nothing adds realism to your words like real-world details, and if you want to write about a real place, now you can describe it in exact detail, just by looking it up on an online map.
Every good writer in this day and age has to be a strong self-editor. I can’t overstate the importance of good editing. And this goes well beyond proof-reading and running spell-check. You have to be able to look at your work with a critical eye and know when something’s working and when it’s not — long before you put it out there for the world to see.
If you have a publisher, then you’ve got a strong advantage, because you have a whole team of people who’s job it is to help you ensure that your work is not only readable, but that it makes logical sense. Typos and disconnects still occur in professional publications, but they’re very rare compared to what happens when people self-publish. The self-publishing industry and especially the Internet bring entirely new complications to the writing process, because they offer something that writers of the past never had to deal with: immediacy.
It’s ridiculously easy to write something and make it instantly available to anyone in the world. That instant gratification can be oh-so-seductive, but it has never been more important to resist that urge, because the quality (or lack thereof) of writing on the Internet has greatly lowered readers’ expectations. Want to stand out from the impossibly huge crowd? Want to be known as a true professional? A writer of integrity and intelligence that readers can put their trust in? Then you must become a good self-editor.
Excellent self-editing can require a number of various aptitudes — divorcing oneself entirely from ego, chief among them — but allow me to handicap the whole shebang by boiling it down to one key component. Jot this down on a sticky note and put it in front of your face wherever you go to write. You will never have an instance as a writer when what I’m about to tell you isn’t true.
Robin’s Cardinal Rule of Self-Editing: less is always more. I don’t care what you’re writing or who you’re writing it for… less is always, always, always more.
Put simply: Don’t use forty words when you can say the same thing with twenty. Don’t become so enamored of your brilliant, superfluous prose that you lose touch with the wants and needs of your reader. I promise you, writers who have no self-control over their own rambling and no sense of the virtues of simple clarity will find themselves with no loyal readers.
Everybody knows that writers have to always be on the lookout for ways of promoting their work. This is nothing new to the 21st Century. Authors have been doing book signings and advertisements and contests and whatnot for as long as books, magazines, and newspapers have been written. What’s new in the 21st Century is the level at which you have to put your own creativity to work as a marketer. It’s one thing to go down the tried-and-true path of scheduling book signings, running contests, keeping a mailing list, yadda yadda yadda. Anybody can do that stuff, and everybody does.
It’s another thing entirely to be a sharp marketer in a landscape that’s overcrowded and fatigued with advertising messages. Breaking through the noise requires ingenuity and persistence, and you’re going to need plenty of both. I’m a strong believer in guerilla marketing — marketing on a tiny (or non-existent) budget. There are lots of tried-and-true guerilla marketing tactics out there, but everyone’s always looking for the next great idea to get the word out, and that idea could be yours!
A good 21st Century book marketer should also be a social media maven, but that’s a topic for another article.
Success is going to happen. As a freelance writer, if you keep plugging away, success will happen for you. Sometimes it will hit all of the sudden. A deluge of articles, projects and client meetings suddenly appear in your email box. In between giddy high fives to yourself, you quickly say yes to everything and get to work. Other times it builds slowly, like a tide coming in and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by work.
Soon you’re slogging away frantically trying to meet all your deadlines and while steak for dinner is nice, you don’t really get to enjoy it because you’ve got to wolf it down between edits. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, it will soon. Too much success can kill your career.
While it’s nice to be popular, if you have too many projects you cannot pay due diligence to each one and you’re going to make mistakes. Silly mistakes you would have caught had you not been so busy. Or you’ll miss deadlines – the ultimate career killer.
“No” is the word.
As a successful freelance writer you need to strike the balance between the feast and famine seasons. It’s against a freelancer’s genetic make-up to turn down work. Yet, the word ‘no‘ must be reinserted into your vocabulary.
Do you have time to complete a 2,000 word article in two hours?
See? Easy! Be realistic with time. It doesn’t stop or rewind. Being the crack, go-to-writer for last minute stories is a great way to earn a reputation. What kind of reputation is up to you. If you know you would need two days to turn in a large piece, don’t commit to a tight deadline. This keeps you from making yourself crazy and ticking off an editor who counted on you to get the job done.
For pieces that have a little more lead time, no doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Insert a comma after your “no.” Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate deadlines – but do so in the beginning. Waiting until two days after your piece is due is a big no-no.
By now some of my intrepid freelancers are wondering how in the world are they supposed know what they have time to do. Honestly, it just takes knowing your writing style. Unfortunately, it takes time to get to know yourself as a writer. A simple tool can help you develop a good feel for your writing time needs.
Cue the editorial calendar.
Yes, I know, this horse is pretty much dead. I beat it often. It has personally begged me to stop, however I cannot stress the importance of having and MAINTAINING an editorial calendar. Simply putting due dates on a wall calendar is not maintaining a calendar. Jotting everything down dutifully once month and then never looking at it again is not maintaining a calendar. Regularly logging in due dates, carving out writing, editing, revising and “marinating” time for each article or project and noting when pieces are finished is maintaining a proper editorial calendar.
Planning for success means not just listing what you’ll do with all the money flowing in – it means planning for all the work as well. Establish a system now, so when the wave hits, you’ll be ready.
The lede is one of the most important components of an article. It hooks the reader, tells them what the article is about and encourages them to continue reading. Before writing the lede, ask yourself “What is this article about?” Go through your research and find the information, statistic or anecdote that best represents the article’s information and formulate your lede around it. Also check out “Driving Rules for Getting to the Point with Your Lede” and “Lede On, Hook Your Readers Every Time”
A good article has a great lede, satisfying conclusion, smooth transitions and an interesting angle. The ideas presented have solid supporting facts obtained from thorough research. A good article also has expert or anectdotal quotes and tight editing. Not to mention you get that satisfied-high-five-yourself-feeling after it’s completed.
Sources are everywhere – your neighborhood, local colleges and universities, Google, social media. Sources can be found through asking sources you already have “Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?” Professional organizations can also point you to sources, take care to anticipate bias from certain trade/professional organizations. The key to a great piece is compiling and utilizing a diverse mix.
2. How do you conduct an interview?
Essentially, an interview is simply asking a source questions and waiting for their response. As people have become more media savvy it has become difficult for interviewers to break through the barriers PR folks or media weary subjects set up. “How to Lose Control of an Interview,” “Email Interviews vs. Phone Interviews part one and two and “The Art of a Yes/No Question in Interviews” are handy references to look at the subject more in depth.
1. I don’t have clips, how can I pitch without them?
The old freelance writing catch 22. You need clips to get gigs, but without gigs you can’t get clips. You could always go the “write for exposure route,” but you risk writing for a less than stellar publication that may not last long enough to give you the clips you need. Instead, if you’re going to write for free, write for yourself. Create articles in your niche, with real interviews, real sources to showcase your writing. These are writing samples. They don’t count as clips as they are not published, but they will help you land a gig so you can begin to build a clip file.
Got a writing question for me? Post it below!
Follow Article Writing on Facebook!
The FWJ mailbag is always pretty full and there are a few questions that pop up regularly. Deb reposted her super popular Frequently Asked Questions and made me think about the most popular questions I receive over here at the Article Writing blog. So here they are in no particular order:
10. How do you write an article?
It’s true, I get this one pretty often and it’s kind of like asking someone how to cook – there’s a lot to it. So in pretty general terms: start with a topic, research the topic and based on your research find an interesting angle to the piece. Make an outline and be sure to include references (and locations if you’re smart) of source material. Decide on a format, create that all important lede (lead), then develop the article. Let it marinate for a day or so, then edit it with a fine tooth comb.
9. What’s the difference between plagiarism and inspiration?
Plagiarism will get you fired, inspiration will bring you fans. When you use someone else’s ideas, quote or material you must cite the source. Even on informal blogs. Inspiration gives you ideas on where you can take the material further. It inspires you to think of how you can enhance it, change it or develop it for a different market.
How long do you have for me to explain it? All jokes aside, the time it take to craft a piece really depends on the writer, length of article and complexity of assignment. I’ve had articles I sat down and birthed in an hour, while others have taken days of writing, editing, sulking, rewriting, etc. Really, the question should be, how long does it take to write a good article. It’s the quality of the piece that is important.
7. What are editors looking for in a pitch?
You should really ask them. Check the publication’s material for writers and/or send them a quick email asking a specific question about the work they accept. Whatever you do, don’t ask: “What kind of stuff do you like?” In general, editors are looking for fresh angles on evergreen pieces, fresh ideas in general, timely pieces and material that appeals to their target audience. Remember, many publications especially print magazines create an editorial calendar that operates several months ahead. Editors love writers who take the time to get to know their publication.
6. What are editors looking for in a piece?
Again, it’s a good idea to ask your editor. When you receive an assignment, it likely comes with a good amount of instructions. Editors want pieces that match the tone of the publication, follow the specific instructions given with the assignment and have a good number of cited, well researched sources. They love a clean copy so fix the easy mistakes i.e., spelling and grammar. Pay attention to the more abstract ideals such as tight writing and flow.
Stay tuned for Popular Writing Questions 5 – 1 coming up on Friday!
Got a writing question for me? Post it below!
I’d been thinking about writing this post for next week, but today I was reading through Deb’s job posting for the day and came across an article she linked to: “Driving Rules for Getting to the Point with Your Lede” and thought, “Hmm, that’s a good topic, interesting headline, I wonder who in the network wrote that one…” I clicked the link and realized it was my work. Oops.
Self-flattery aside, I realize I have fallen into a pattern of writing, editing, publishing and forgetting my work. When you first become a professional writer, once you get past the “Whoo hooo!” of seeing your byline, you read and re-read every article, noting every opportunity for improvement. Once you get the hang of it, you start skimming and finally when you have tons of work coming in and going out you scan for obvious errors.
I’m not saying writing for Freelance Writing Jobs is ordinary – it certainly isn’t unless writing for the number website for freelance writers is normal, I’m confessing to falling into a routine that can leave you high-fiving a piece before recognizing it as your own. When’s the last time you’ve read your own work?
Re-reading a piece after it’s been published is important for your self-reflection as a writer. It’s not just about what you can improve on, it’s also useful to discover what you do well. I’m great at adding humor and personality to a piece, which helps people relate to what I’m writing. Knowing my strengths helps me steer toward particular assignments and also helps me recognize when to turn that off because the piece I’m working on needs less personality and straight journalism.
And what about the times you discover the editing process has rendered your piece unrecognizable or worse, wrong? It happens and has happened to me fairly recently. If you don’t check up on your work who is going to tell the editor something’s up? A reader? Yikes!
After you hit send or publish, go back and check it out. You may discover new things about yourself (like you’re a better writer than you thought) and you may find a problem before someone else does!
Is there anything more fun than typos that are both hilarious and ones you personally didn’t make? Huffpost has some doozies that I’d like to share with you:
Regret the Error is another great sight site that’ll help you get you’re your editorial giggle on, but be careful – get two too cocky and you’re bound to end up on it yourself!
While creating an outline is an important part of the article writing process, it doesn’t have to be your 6th grade English version of an outline. Outlines can be made to fit your style including as many details as you’d like, however there are some parts of an outline that you must include in order for it to really work as a framework from which you can base your article:
How it begins
When outlining your article, it’s best to formulate your lede (lead) paragraph. The lede paragraph, depending on the type of article, can tell the readers what they’ll learn from the article, how the article’s information will affect them, or share an anecdote that relates to the information that follows. Creating this paragraph will tell you how to formulate the rest of your outline.
How it ends
The conclusion is usually not chronologically created after the lede, however it is second in importance only to the lede. The mark of a good article is a great beginning and a strong ending. The lede and the conclusion are often the sections on which writers spend the most time. Ask yourself, what do you want to leave the readers thinking about from the piece? Whether the reader comes away feeling satisfied that they’ve read good information or they are left with an action prompt, the one thing is to never leave them wondering what happened or worse, looking for whether the article continues on the other page.
The middle shouldn’t meander
An outline is designed to keep you and the article on task. List the points you want to cover chronologically with sub-sections. Every section of an outline can be complete sentences or fragments that serve as writing prompts for each paragraph/section.
The article’s body should be outlined to include source information, especially professional titles and quotes. It shaves time off writing if you have Dr. Snuffilumps, chief medical yogi and OTRA certified’ practitioner’s info right there on the same sheet. It helps the writer decide whether some information will be used as a pull out quote or clarified in shorter, easy to understand bullet points.
Play time counts
Outlines and their formats allow you to play with your article to enhance flow and accuracy awithout reworking an article repeatedly. Play around with the style that works best for you. List every detail or coordinate general ideas. This tool is also helpful in addressing any concerns your editors may have about your piece and vice versa. When an anxious editor wants to see your progress they can see the direction your piece is taking by viewing your outline.
It can also help protect a writer from writer’s block. Plugging information into an outline is like completing a jigsaw puzzle, there’s no pressure like there is when you finally start writing the article.
Here are some great article structure resources:
We talk a lot about the importance of being professional, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make some gaffes once in a while. I don’t think I’m alone, either. Plenty of freelance writers have unprofessional and even embarrassing moments. I’ll bet even some highly paid best sellers did a few things that don’t make them very proud. While they’re usually inadvertent errors, it doesn’t make them any less embarrassing.
Can you relate to any of these?
My Top 10 Most Embarrassing Freelance Writing Moments
10. Pretending I knew how to do something I couldn’t
Several years ago, I was offered a very lucrative deal – to create a couple of ebooks. My client asked me if this was something I could handle and I said, “of course.” The truth is, I didn’t know a thing about writing or formatting ebooks. After sending in the first few chapters my client asked me if I really had ebook experience. When I confessed that I didn’t he said he still would have offered me the ghost writing part of the project, but he would have hired out the formatting part. I admitted I didn’t want to lose the gig and we laughed. I ghostwrote several ebooks for this client but never had to format a single one.
Lesson learned: Honesty is always the best policy, especially with established clients.
9. Not proofreading the blog
Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t send me a letter complaining about my lack of proofreading on this blog. I tend to write in a hurry and post without going over my work. I know blogs are supposed to be less formal and we’re supposed to write the way we talk and all, but freelance writers want their freelance writing bloggers to take care with their blog posts. Eventually, I’ll hire an editor to handle that sort of thing, but until then I’ll try my best not to post and run.
Lesson learned: Proofread the damn blog already.
8. Didn’t change the info on a form letter
When I first began freelancing, I naively had a one size fits all, cookie cutter cover letter. I sent the same pitch to the different editors and potential clients. You can imagine how well that went over.
Wait for it, it gets better.
A couple of times I also forgot to change some of the info on the form letter. For example, I used the wrong editor’s name or didn’t name the correct publication or website. One editor called me on it and I was mortified.
Lesson learned: The obvious lesson is to proofread the cover letter. However, during my conversation with the above-referenced editor, she hinted at the importance of creating a pitch tailored to each individual market. It was an important lesson for sure.
7. Got sick before a speaking engagement
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference and some members of the FWJ community were in attendance. It was my first ever speaking engagement and I was overtaken by a case of nerves. I spent the hour before my talk in the stall of the rest room losing what little food I managed to eat that day. People came and went and commented about the woman in the stall. Some hinted at a night of drinking the night before. I felt awful, not only because of my nervous stomach but because I was embarrassed. Some of the people who saw me in the ladies room even attended my session, and one nicely offered me a breath mint. The talk went fine, but knowing people knew I was upchucking right before, or that I could lose what was left in my stomach at any minute, didn’t make it any better.
Lesson learned: No lesson here, sorry. I still get attacked with nerves before speaking but fortunately it’s not as bad. I have to no hard and fast lesson for potential speakers and that picturing people in their underwear thing never worked for me.
6. Didn’t take the time to read the guidelines before querying
You know how I talk about how important it is to read all the instructions and guidelines before querying or applying for a gig? I learned that lesson the hard way. I remember once applying for a job I felt was perfect for me. It was on a personal finance topic at a time when I was the go to person for these types of topics. When I received a thanks but no thanks letter, I swallowed my pride and asked the editor for feedback. She said she enjoyed my writing samples and thought I showed promised but I didn’t give her what she asked for. There were specific instructions and I didn’t follow them.
Lesson learned: Follow instructions. Also? Don’t be afraid to request feedback. Editorial feedback is valuable and every writer needs it to succeed.
5. Posted the wrong post on the wrong blog
Several years ago I blogged for about a dozen different clients. This meant twelve different dashboards and log ins and every now and then I got a little confused. Once or twice I even posted the wrong blog post to the wrong blog. While I usually figured it out pretty quick, I wasn’t quick enough for the feeds.
Lesson learned: Kind of obvious, but I’ll put it out there anyway. Pay attention to what you’re doing, proofread, don’t mix up clients, etc., etc., and etc., again.
4. Sent the wrong email to the wrong person
I hate that gmail thing that suggests addresses as you type. For example, once I was contacting someone with a very common name and sent the email to someone else with the same first name. The email was detailing a possible collaboration and the recipient was so excited I contacted her. Telling her the note was sent in error was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
Lesson learned: Don’t let gmail suggest email addresses… OK… and that proofreading thing too.
3. Didn’t proofread a query or cover letter
There was a time I felt freelancing was a race – a race to get to clients first before the competition. Remember the cookie cutter cover letters? In addition to those, I sent out some hastily put together cover letters. Once or twice after not hearing back about a particular gig, I reread my cover letters and found a typo or two.I don’t think I need to tell you I’m the worst proofreader possible. That doesn’t fly without potential clients, however. They want to know I’m going to take care with their projects and turn in clean work each time.
Lesson learned: Proofread, proofread, proofread.
2. Queried the wrong editor
I remember the first time I queried a wedding publication. I went to the library and looked up several wedding markets in the Writer’s Market. I didn’t have a laptop at the time and jotted the details down on paper. When I came home I sent out what I thought was a killer query. The problem? I sent the query to the right magazine but addressed it to the editor of a rival publication. The good-natured editor sent me a note back asking if I meant to query her publication. I apologized. (I do that a lot apparently.)
Incidentally that editor rejected my query because they were about to publish something similar, but I did land a successful assignment with their online edition a month later.
Lesson learned: Stuff happens. Own up to it, apologize and do your best to salvage the relationship.
1. Sent in the wrong draft
I always keep two drafts of my projects – one on an external hard drive or flash and one on my laptop’s hard drive. This way if something happens, I’m covered. My most embarrassing freelance writing moment happened when I landed an assignment I really wanted. I worked hard on this one. It was my highest paying gig yet at the time and I wanted to continue working with this client. So what happens? You guessed it, I sent the wrong draft – an unfinished work in progress. The good news is that I caught it before my client and sent the right draft before he could wonder what I was smoking.
Lesson learned: Read before sending, and, also, if saving two drafts always save the most current copy to both places at the same time.
Last week we talked about the first of five ways to enhance your writing skills with an editorial calendar: “5 Days, 5 Ways to Enhance Your Writing Skills.” Hopefully, everyone has either gotten one going or taken a second look at their current one with an eye on the details I pointed out, including using it consistently, as motivation and to plan more than due dates.
Today it’s time to talk about becoming an editor to improve your writing skills. Editing the work of others gives writers invaluable perspective on the writing process and their own work.
Learn about voice
Often when a writer becomes an editor, they become more aware of what it means for a piece to have a ‘voice.’ A key job of an editor is to make the article, blog post, etc. ready for print without losing the voice of the writer. The ability to give an article personality that works with, instead of detract from, the information in the piece is essential for effective writing.
Learn about writing for audiences
Every writer is aware they are writing for an audience when they craft their piece, however, when you’re on the other side of the keyboard with an editor’s pen in hand, you become the publication’s readers. For example, if you’re a gadget magazine editor, you see that guy in the city coffee shop reading the latest tech article online, you see the mom in the suburbs taking a brief pause in the middle of her day to read your magazine to determine which smartphone will make her life easier, you can hear the techies’ cyberspace arguments over a pros-cons article on the new PC tablet. As an editor, these people are as real to you as the dollars they bring to the website or magazine every month. Once a writer understands that they are practically indispensable.
Learn about the editing process
An editor has to coordinate so many things on their end. Whether it’s editing for grammar, content, tone or length, etc., they are working from a whole publication perspective. Writers taking a turn at editing can learn to pick up on common grammar mistakes, spot cliches and rushed work from a mile away and are better able to put themselves in their editor’s shoes which leads to cleaner, focused work and a better relationship and reputation with editors.
It may not be feasible for every writer who reads Freelance Writing Jobs to run out and get an editing gig, but you can still develop those all important editing skills through taking on editing gigs at local colleges for students, securing a few editing projects or even re-editing published pieces as test exercises. Believe me, there are plenty out there that will provide good practice. Ask yourself: “Who is the piece geared toward?” “How can I make the article flow better?” “What information is missing?” Asking these questions of other writers will make it easier to ask them of yourself.
Are you a writer who edits? An editor who writes? How does it affect your writing?