5 Tips for Productive Writing

When you’re freelancing, your income directly relates to the amount of time you can spend banging away on your keyboard. That makes time management a particularly important skill for any writer. These tips can help you make the most of the time you can spend working.

  1. Set clear priorities: If you can narrow your work load down to three specific things you need to do today — like write interview questions, finish an article and pitch a story idea to an editor — you’ll usually be able to get those things done. It’s okay if those three tasks seem fairly minor, even if you’re freelancing full-time. You can always work on the rest of your task list once you’re done with those three items, but you’ll be sure that you’ve accomplished the most important things in your day today.
  2. Have a work buddy: Because most of us work at home, by ourselves, it can be hard to stay on track. After all, there’s no boss breathing down our necks. Having a work buddy — someone who can hold you accountable for what you accomplish each day — can be enough to help stay focused on your work while no one else is around.
  3. Work in blocks of time: I tend to work for an hour and then do something else, if only for five minutes. If I’m really in the zone, I might work longer, but if I’m struggling, just getting up and moving around can get my brain working again.
  4. Know your own schedule: Are you one of those writers who does best when you first get out of bed? If that’s the case, it’s well worth your while to shift around the rest of your schedule so that you can write when you’re at the top of your game. That may mean getting up a little earlier or a little later, or even recording your favorite TV show, but during the time you write best, you’re typically more productive. That means that shifting your schedule may mean more free time in the long run.
  5. Take time away from the computer: Time may be money, but we’re also working in a field that requires a lot of creativity. The law of diminishing returns will kick in eventually — if you write for hours on end, the work you do as you get tired just won’t be as good as the work you do when you’re fresh.

A Few Thoughts From BlogPotomac

I had the pleasure of attending BlogPotomac last Friday, in Falls Church, Virginia. As far as conferences go, it was a little different than what you might expect:

  • there were only about 150 attendees
  • none of the speakers used Powerpoint
  • most speakers focused on creating a conversation with the audience than just talking

This format led to some very interesting discussions, primarily focused on social media in marketing — with some sidetracking into politics, personal branding and other topics. Beyond offering up some great insights into the current state of social media, I did catch some ideas that bode very well for freelance writers.

Marketing Needs Writers

This sounds like a ‘Duh!’ sort of idea, but stick with me. Marketing teams have always included writers: they’re key to turning out copy for ads, brochures and other marketing materials. But as marketers explore social media options, they need to bring in people (often on a freelance basis), who are capable of putting out regular content for the company blog, who can craft short snippets and answer questions on Twitter and who can put together ebooks and other promotional resources. The amount of work available to writers boomed when companies started going online and needing copy for their websites. I think we’re at the start of another boom as companies look for content for social media.

It doesn’t hurt that a contract with a freelance blogger is going to still cost most companies much less than a television advertising campaign would.

Writers Need to Educate Clients

If you’ve decided to focus on producing content for clients, you’re going to have to act as an educator for most of your clients — and that means that you need to be pretty knowledgeable yourself. If you’re creating a blog from scratch for a company, you’ll want to be able to make recommendations on which CMS is best to use (and which you’d prefer to work with), what metrics are particularly useful and similar details. Just as a copy writer who specializes in direct mail is well-versed in the technicalities of conversion, a web writer needs to know her niche well enough to teach clients how to work with her.

Attaching Your Personal Reputation to a Client’s Project is Good and Bad

Aaron Brazell and Amber Naslund spoke about personal branding — and how it’s become something of a cheat. Many people ‘build’ personal brands online by simply putting up a website and a LinkedIn page. But a brand is still something that must be earned. It’s your reputation, and it’s important.

Many companies are looking for bloggers and other social media help from people with brands / reputations, partially with the idea that such individuals can jump start a company’s online efforts. Others are shying away from working with such bloggers, on the grounds that they may focus on building their own brands rather than helping the company. Sticking to the reputation side of the personal branding argument and earning a great brand, rather than building one, can help you balance between these two approaches.

The Briefest of Summaries…

These three thoughts are absolutely minimal when you realize how much information was shared at BlogPotomac. I can’t even begin to describe all of the information that was shared. I have run across a few blog posts that focus on other parts of the conference: Jennifer Berk’s post on Advocacy Avenue and Julie Minevich’s post on her personal site.

Should A Book Be Your Goal: The Questions You Need To Ask

There’s a certain cool factor that goes along with being able to add ‘published author’ to your credentials. Having a book that makes it to print generally tells the world you know your stuff: you turn out writing that a publisher is willing to take to press. But just because there’s such a cool feeling that goes along with getting a book published, should you really focus all your efforts on getting a book out there?

I’m not going to tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — I certainly have my own opinions on the matter, but I can’t decide your priorities for you. I do have some questions that can help you decide, though.

Do you have a plan for after the book?

It may sound like I’m putting the cart in front of the horse here, but writing a book and even marketing it is a relatively short process in the grand scheme of things. Before you even get started, it’s worth at least thinking about your end game — after all, one book isn’t likely to support you for the rest of your life. Instead, you need to be thinking about how a book can help establish you as an expert in a certain area and help you promote your services, or how you can turn a book into another book or other paying projects. Depending on what you’re book to do for you, your book marketing and promotions can look extremely different.

What’s your timeline?

A book fills up your calendar pretty quickly: writing, revisions, promotions and everything else add up. Considering that most books don’t pay anywhere near what a full-time job might, you’ll need to decide just how much time you can devote to your book before you’ll need to resort to ramen. There are plenty of ways to solve this problem, of course, but it needs to be resolved now, rather than later.

Is there another option for the material I want to write?

Depending on the story you want to tell or the content you want to share, a printed book may not be the ideal format. Ebooks can be quite ideal for some sorts of publications — especially those which will regularly be referenced. There are also blogs (if you’re thinking about putting together information on lots of short topics) and a whole host of other options. There are some cases in which a book is just for the pleasure of seeing your name on the cover. If that’s the case, and your material is better off in another format, you can always run yourself off one or two copies on Lulu.

How much money do I really need to make from this project?

If you’re writing for money, books are rarely your best bet for good cashflow. If you’re just in it for the money, it really is crucial that you explore other options, such as an ebook. I suggest ebooks because you get to keep a much larger portion of your sales — you’re only out the cost of a designer to transform your manuscript into an ebook.

I Don’t Do Reprints — Much

Reprints can be a very useful way to make a little extra money as a writer. Most publishers are interested only in buying the rights to publish a given article once. Some have some restrictions on whether they’re interested in first rights or reprint rights, but with a little effort, you can often find some publisher ready to pay you to reprint an old article.

But I haven’t been making much effort to sell reprint rights to my work. One of the main reasons is that most of my writing these days is for online publications. Many online publications don’t want articles that have appeared elsewhere online — that’s because they’ll take a hit with Google if they have too much content that is duplicated elsewhere. At best, I can find a print market interested in reprints and sell my work there — but it’s becoming harder to find print publications that don’t also offer an online version.

It doesn’t help that I do a lot of blogging-for-hire. I try to write about very topical issues — many of my blog posts aren’t easy to reprint because by the time I get around to reprinting them, they are no longer relevant.

I don’t particularly feel like I’m leaving money on the table, though. I routinely rewrite articles for different publications. I reuse my research over and over again. And the contacts I’ve developed are always willing to give me a new quote for a different market.

There are certain pieces that I do make an effort to sell reprint rights for — especially when it comes to the occasional fiction piece that I write. It’s just not a priority for me: I can either spend time writing or hunting for markets that will accept my reprints.

With all that in mind, though, I do think it’s worthwhile for writers to hold on to reprint rights. It’s not always possible — while we all ideally get great contracts, many blogs and online publications hold firm on getting unique content. When it is, though, you do have a resource for future projects.

Comment Response: Three Thoughts

I write for a lot of online markets: blogs, publications and other places that post articles. Most of the sites where my work is published allow comments — when they don’t outright request them. That means that there are a whole lot of responses to my writing out there that I have to decide whether to acknowledge.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t really have time to acknowledge all the comments my work receives. From the sites that are set up to actually send me emails whenever I receive a comment I can easily receive 30 notifications in a day. And plenty of sites don’t automatically let their writers know about comments. Depending on how in-depth of a response you give, you can spend 15 minutes on just one comment. My strategy comes down to three thoughts that I’ve had over the past several years.

  1. There’s not really a need to respond to a lot of comments — and many commenters aren’t even looking for a response. If there’s a question, or a clear need for a response, I’m happy to add a comment, but I don’t feel that I have to respond to the equivalent of “Hey, nice article.” I appreciate those comments — I really do. But if I respond to every on, I can’t write anymore of those nice articles.
  2. I’m not getting paid any extra for responding to comments, in most cases. On some sites, I do get a traffic bonus and I’m happy to add lots of extra comments, assuming that extra commenting is reflected in traffic increases. But most sites just pay me for the article. Not to be absolutely mercenary, but if the editor wants me to comment regularly, we can work out some arrangement for compensation.
  3. I categorically don’t respond to comments intended to do nothing but attack me and my writing. I’m happy to issue clarifications and corrections where necessary, but if someone’s goal is to just be a jerk, I won’t egg them on. To be perfectly honest, if I had control over the commenting process everywhere I write, I’d probably delete trolling comments entirely.

That’s pretty much my entire policy on responding to comments on the websites that pay me to write. I have tweaked my policy for various sites, but in general my policy is pretty much across the board. What’s your policy on responding to comments? Leave me a comment — I’m much more interested in responding to comments on my own site!

Are You Still Listing Your College Clips?

If you scroll down far enough on my clips page, you’ll see a few articles I wrote for my college newspaper. I don’t honestly expect most prospective clients to scroll down that far, but I’m going to leave those links live, at least for the time being.

I started listing those college newspaper articles because — at the time — they were the best clips I had. I still think of at least one of the articles I wrote as pretty awesome and I’m proud to have it associated with my name. And the fact of the matter is that I just haven’t been out of college that long. I have a few clips from before I started working for the college newspaper — but they aren’t anything I really have any pride in. If I want to point a client to the fact that I really have been writing for publication for years, those college newspaper clips look a heck of a lot better than some of the ‘professional’ writing I was doing at the time.

I wouldn’t recommend leaving your college clips listed for the long-term unless you’re confident in their ability to sell a client or editor on your abilities, of course. And if you’ve got plenty of other clips and don’t need them to showcase your skills, at least giving your professional clips precedence will make you seem more focused on your career.

Personally, I’m figuring that I’ll get around to removing my college clips in a few years. Maybe. I really did enjoy some of the stories I got to work on for the college newspaper.

Interview: Katy Tafoya

Today, we have an interview with Katy Tafoya, a blogging consultant, and the owner and editor of ConstantChatter.

How did you get into freelance writing? Why did you choose freelancing over a full-time jobs?

I didn’t really choose freelance writing, for the most part, it chose me. I’m more of an accidental entrepreneur. I’ve always been a bit of a writer, but typically, it was always just part of my job. About five years ago, I found online journaling which quite naturally progressed to blogging. I realized at some point that I wanted to try my hand at writing for an audience instead of just writing the day to day details of my life. Two years ago this month, we decided to add a blog to my online women’s community, ConstantChatter. From that point on I started getting more and more comfortable with writing. This year I became involved with the Ladies Who Launch organization and out of passion for wanting everyone to understand Social Media, I started writing articles to get the information out there.

I haven’t held a job with a traditional sort of work schedule since I was teaching ten years ago. For the most part, freelancing has kind of chosen me and works very well with my workaholic husband’s schedule. I’ve gotten very used to working from home and having my own schedule, so much so that I don’t believe I could go back to a traditional sort of job. I love knowing that I control my environment (in particular the noise level and accessibility to others). Better still, I love knowing that I can take my work with me wherever I go. Earlier in the year, my father had a stroke and I flew back east to be with him. It was great knowing that I could spend time with him and help him get settled back at home, yet still get work done. And of course, being able to run errands and go shopping during the middle of the day, without the crowds sure is nice.

Why did you choose blog consulting to add to your writing offerings?

I actually started officially freelancing about the same time I starting doing small business visibility consulting. I was teaching workshops about blogging and social networking to women just getting started in business and realized that there was so much confusion surrounding social media. The Ladies Who Launch group has a weekly ezine and I started writing articles for them. I figured that if I took my teaching skills and combined it with my knowledge and experience in blogging and social media, that I could reach a lot more people by breaking things down into simple, easy to understand bites and getting the message out there through one-on-one tutoring and small group workshops.

How does your consulting work compare to your writing? Any major successes or challenges?

I absolutely love doing the consulting work, especially the workshops. I love helping people in anyway, so when I can sit down with someone and teach them something new that will help them and their business, I consider it a major success. Interestingly, I never really thought of myself as freelancer or even a writer. I’m completely comfortable blogging about whatever is on my mind, but I seem to fight myself a lot more when I need to write something that’s not quite so casual and has a real point to get to. It’s all still a work in progress, but for the most part, it’s all been quite successful. I think my biggest challenge is my own fear and my ability to engage in full on procrastination – if procrastination had a kingdom, they’d probably call me their Queen.

How has Constant Chatter allowed you to build on your freelance experience?

In the early days of blogging on Constant Chatter, I wrote all the content myself. In true Web 2.0 fashion, I eventually went to member-created content. That eventually got to be a lot of editorial and organizational work for me, so I recently changed tactics and started to reach out to “experts” that are comfortable writing about their area of expertise. We may have been blogging on Constant Chatter for 2 years now, but we’re still a work in progress.

Since I’m no longer involved in the day to day tasks around the Constant Chatter community itself, it’s freed up a lot of my time that has allowed me to focus on my consulting business, design more workshops and create some new goals of my own. I still do quite a bit of writing on the site, mostly in my blogs, but I rarely publish under my own name these days. My goal over the next couple of months is bite that bullet and take that step to actually start pitching pieces to magazines (yes, under my own name) and to start putting together a proposal for a book idea I’ve been toying with.

How much of a time commitment is Constant Chatter?

As I mentioned previously, I’m no longer involved with the community-side of Constant Chatter. Taking care of the day to day requests of the site became too much for me and didn’t allow me time to focus on other aspects of my business, so I hired someone to help out. This has been great though, as it has allowed me to focus completely on the blog side of Constant Chatter. As the editor of the blog, I mainly focus on looking for contributors, coming up with topics, promotions and giveaways, conducting the author interviews, handling the advertising, etc. I only post twice a week right now (but I also post daily on my blog and twice a week at my business blog), so for the most part, taking care of the blog-side of Constant Chatter takes only a couple of hours a couple days a week.

Any advice for writers interested in more entrepreneurial projects?

This is a tough one for me to answer. As an accidental entrepreneur, I basically fell into both of my most recent projects. For Constant Chatter, I was basically in the right place at the right time. I never actually set out to create a community or a blog, I just went with the flow. With my business consulting work, I was actually planning to get back into life coaching, but wound up doing a lot of work around basic web stuff including blogging, SEO and social media. Next thing I know, I was teaching workshops. Again, for me, it’s all about going with the flow.

My suggestions:

  • Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes (and there will be many). Just brush yourself off and move on. There’s a lesson in there when you can finally look back.
  • Don’t be afraid to go with the flow, even if you don’t know exactly where it’s taking you. At some point though, stop and allow yourself some time to create some goals and expectations around your new “accidental” project.
  • Take the risk. The worse thing that can happen is that you might fail and learn something. The best thing that could happen…you succeed and learn something.
  • Share what you know. You’d be surprised how much you know about something having experienced it. You’d also be surprised how much more you learn when you share what you know with others.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you’re first starting out or working as a solopreneur, it’s easy to get caught up in the I can do it all attitude. Trust me, you may think you can do it all, but in the end, you just can’t. Ask for help. Know your strengths and your weaknesses.
  • Don’t forget to spend time on yourself and with others. It’s easy to get single-minded and to spend all of your time focused on your project. Thing is, it’s not healthy – for you or your business.
  • Find a group of female entrepreneurs that you can relate to. Plan time together over lunch or coffee and chat about your day, your business, your successes and your failures. Again, you never know what might come your way (as well as their way – it’s all about the give and take) from a casual chat over coffee; new ideas, new information, new employees, new tools, new manufactures, new suppliers, new connections, you never know.

Interview: Allena Tapia

Allena Tapia, the talented freelancer behind GardenWall Publications, answered a few questions for us about her work. Allena is also About.com’s Guide to Freelance Writing.

How did you get into freelance writing? Why did you choose freelancing over a full-time job?

I had always freelanced “on the side” for local magazines and websites, so every time I did one of those projects, I thought about the possibility of doing it full time. I worked as an editor and as a marketing writer for two local colleges, but I really didn’t “like” going to work and writing the same things day after day. At this very same time, I felt like I was missing a lot of volunteer opportunities in my community and especially at my daughter’s school, which really annoyed me. I didn’t like giving away the bulk of my life just for material goods, while I was missing all kinds of other things. I am blessed to have a spouse who supported me in making the transition to pursuing freelance writing full time, but he is a numbers person, so I had to show him the job postings and writer’s markets available.

What services do you offer through your company, Garden Wall Publications? Do you have any plans to expand in the future?

I’ve really focused on editing more than writing through GWP. I guess that’s just the way it worked out, the kind of clients I got. However, I do have some pretty regular clients who need web copy and SEO, and I will always serve my loyal clients as needed. As for the future, I think I am going to try to go 50/50 between magazine submissions and editorial services. Since editing and copywriting pay the bills, they tend to take time away from querying print magazines, which is where I want to go. I also have a novel in progress (who doesn’t?) and will begin submitting poetry before the end of the year. I kind of follow my whim with writing, as long as the bills are paid, and that’s one advantage of freelancing — you can go where your interests take you.

How do you measure your successes as a freelancer? Have you had any major struggles in freelancing?

I know that some writers don’t agree with me, but what says success to me is being able to pay my bills and not have to go back to a day job (unless I absolutely want to). Writing is my career, and I view a career as the work that allows you to live outside of work. That’s not to say that I don’t get personal satisfaction from writing- I do- but my personal projects are my novel and my poetry, and my business projects are to support my life outside of work. So, if I can contribute to my household, I am successful.

I have had struggles in freelancing. For example, I’ve let my mouth and my attitude get away from me at times, but I’ve regrouped and moved on. Another struggle I have is work-life balance and keeping boundaries. Summers really do me in, as my children are home, and we travel a lot, so all of my time management skills are stretched.

As the About.com guide to freelance writing, you provide information for lots of beginning freelancers. If you had to narrow it down to just one piece of advice, though, what would you tell a beginning freelancer?

Everyone wants to know HOW to start or the BEST WAY to start freelance writing. Should I get a website first, or start getting clips first? Should I set up my fee structure or make a resume? Instead, I want to tell them, the first thing you have to do is START WRITING. Sit down and write something that’s been in your head. Get it out on paper, walk away, come back, polish it. Writing will only make you a better writer, so start with one piece that you love. You can then start selling it (or use it to sell yourself).

Interview: Mary Lewis

Today, we have an interview with the fabulous Mary Evelyn Lewis, of the brand new Blog Stop Book Tours, which organizes blog tours for authors, and the Virtual Wordsmith blog.
What is your background, writing-wise?
I’ve always been a writer. I took as many English classes as I could in High School. I had an editorial published in the Portland, Maine newspaper when I was a teenager. I worked as a writer, and editor, for a public relations company for six years. And, I love to read!
What prompted you to choose freelance writing as a career?
I chose freelance writing as a career for many reasons. First of all, it allows me the flexibility to work at home, so that I can be here for my four children. It’s incredibly important to me that my children know that they come first. Second, I don’t do so well in a corporate setting. Third, I suffer from an affliction I call got-to-know-itis. I’m incurably curious! So, when I discover something new, I want to share it. What better way than to write about it?
What prompted the idea of Blog Stop Book Tours?
The idea for Blog Stop Book Tours began a little over two years ago. A friend of mine was promoting a book for an author, and we talked about utilizing bloggers in the marketing plan. We could see the beginnings of what has become commonplace now – connecting the author with the reader via the blogging community. She decided not to pursue the idea, but it’s percolated in the back of my head ever since.
Then I was approached by another virtual book tour business, asking if I’d be interested in reviewing books for them. I agreed, and reviewed books and interviewed authors at Virtual Wordsmith (my blog). After doing that for awhile, I decided I’d like to start my own blog book tour business.
What have been the key differences for you between running a business based on writing, such as Blog Stop Book Tours, and freelancing?
The big difference between my freelance writing and my business is the process. Blog Stop Book Tours requires a lot of networking and organization – administrative duties. And I don’t actually do a lot of writing for it. Freelance writing requires fresh ideas, and focused original writing. I’m enjoying both activities immensely, but they are definitely not the same experience.
What advice do you have for writers trying to expand their businesses?
My advice to writers trying to expand their business is to remain open to possibilities and opportunities. Pay close attention to what’s going on around you, always keep a notebook handy, and when an idea pops, get it down before you become distracted and forget. And don’t limit yourself to the big glossy magazines. Trade journals, e-zines, newsletters, press releases, copy writing, writing for the web, all need to be written by someone.
Mary has upcoming articles in the following magazines:

Write Your Own Elevator Pitch

Maybe you’re at a conference, or maybe you’re just waiting on a ride, but you strike up a conversation with the person standing next to you. What do you say when he asks what you do?

Trick question. I hope you didn’t answer with “I’m a writer,” because this guy now thinks that you’re working on the Great American Novel in your basement. Instead, you should have an elevator pitch — something that not only gives some specifics about what you do, but shows how you can help the average business.

There’s a formula for good elevator pitches:

  • a 15 to 30 second statement that says
  • what you do, and
  • why you’re worth hiring

In general, you want to stand out. You don’t want to be a writer. Instead, you want to be a copy writer specializing in small business marketing or a freelance writer covering personal finance topics. Even if you do plenty of other things, you want your elevator pitch to be lean and mean, so pare it down to just one small area. Furthermore, you want to demonstrate why your services are a good investment. Maybe your writing has won awards and gotten attention for magazines, or maybe your copy is responsible for a 25% increase in sales. Think specific and concrete!

You may even need more than one elevator pitch in your repertoire. Maybe you have several niches, or a few sidelines. Keep it simple, though — you don’t need to try to remember fifteen different speeches. Furthermore, you need to be able to adapt your pitch on the fly: maybe that business man you were chatting up needs a copy writer able to deal with a large marketing campaign, but you normally work with smaller businesses. If you’re interested, adapt your elevator pitch to make it clear that you are capable of taking on big projects.

My elevator pitch?

I’m a freelance writer covering small business topics — especially the ones that teach small business how to use new media.

I’ve got my job description, and I’ve mentioned a deep specialization that is somewhat rare, showing a value that not all freelance writers have.