October 25, 2014

The Productivity Secret Every Non-Fiction Writer Should Know

ID-10046323By Bryan Collins

You know it’s not fair.

How can top bloggers write several quality blog posts a week while you struggle to produce just one?

Why are you finding it so difficult to research and finish your first book when other authors are releasing lengthier works every year?

What are your peers doing to become more productive than you, even though you know you work harder?

Writing is a difficult profession and it’s natural to feel frustrated (and even a little jealous), when others appear to accomplish more than you and with less effort.

Don’t worry.

There’s a simple but effective secret to becoming a more productive writer. Copywriters, authors and successful writers all keep a personal library. The good news is you already have the skills to create one and it doesn’t take a lot of extra work.

1. Create a Commonplace Book

Commonplace books were a personal, pre-internet repository of letters, medical information, quotes, facts, experiences, anecdotes and histories. They were also a way for families and communities to sort knowledge about their lives.

Historical figures, authors and poets like Marcus Aurelius, John Milton and Thomas Jefferson kept commonplace books. More recently, the author Ryan Holiday described how a commonplace book helped him write The Obstacle is the Way, saying:

“The purpose of the [commonplace] book is to record and organise these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Holiday prefers a paper-based system for his commonplace book, but you could use digital tools like Evernote or Simplenote. Whatever your choice, in your commonplace book record:

* day-to-day knowledge and wisdom

* quotes

* anecdotes

At the end of the week review your commonplace book and see if there are useful ideas you can extract and turn into something fresh.

This way, the wisdom you’re gathering will sink into your writing projects.

2. Use a Swipe File

In the season 7 premier of Mad Men, Don Draper tears a car ad out of Playboy and puts in his pocket. His wife tells him not to not ruin her magazine, but what the episode doesn’t show is the moment where Don takes this ad and puts it in his swipe file.

Don knows it’s better to build on what’s already out there than it is to reinvent the wheel every time (how else could he spend his time drinking, sleeping and hooking up?).

A swipe file is a place where you store facts, figures, headlines and ads relating to your industry. It’s a repository of information which, if it’s not relevant to your current writing project, will be of use at some point in the future.

Copywriters and advertisers use swipe files to keep ideas, research and information that they can use for future campaigns. A swipe file differs to a commonplace book in that it’s less about you and more about the work of your peers.

You could swipe:

* Headlines and first lines

* Inspiring videos and pictures (Pinterest is a social swipe file)

* Compelling emails

The copywriter and salesperson Dan S. Kennedy writes about swipe files in The Ultimate Sales Letter, saying that his huge “idea files” of “themes, words and phrases” helps him write sales letters.

Every productive non-fiction writer can make life easier by swiping and remixing old ideas to inform their work and to avoid burnout.

3. Have a system for annotations

If you’re a non-fiction writer, then you’ve had the frustrating experience of having to stop writing, look for a book and find a quote or fact to back up your work. This interrupts the process of writing.

You can get around this problem by annotating what you read, and then storing these annotations within your commonplace book or swipe file.

I annotate books by highlighting passages on my Kindle. I also record observations in Evernote, using Michael Hyatt’s method.

There’s nothing wrong with annotating books with a pen either. You could use color-coded stickies or Post-it notes so that these annotations are easy to find.

Prior to making annotations, I used to spend time searching old books for quotes that I half-remembered and points I wasn’t sure about. Now, when I’m writing an article or blog post, I return to my annotations for inspiration, for advice to back up a point.

Annotations will also get you to consider what makes a great sentence or argument, what makes a poor one and how accomplished writers succeed.

What you need to do next

Becoming the type of writer who comes up with an idea, puts it on the page and then finishes what they started is hard work. When you picked this craft for a profession you knew this, but you also know it’s important work.

If you want to become more productive, write an observation about an article you read in your commonplace book. Take a headline from a blog post you like, and put it in your swipe file. Finish that book you picked up about copywriting, and annotate the best bits.

Then, go out there and finish something.

BC-Headshot-264x300 Bryan Collins is on a mission to teach people how to become writers and finish what they started with A Handbook for the Productive Writer. He makes his online home at BecomeAWriterToday.com.

Upper photo from Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

7 Writing “Rules” You Should Break (and 3 You Shouldn’t)

ID-10046515by Mridu Khullar Relph

Writers, generally speaking, are rule breakers. We don’t like conformity and therefore, we write. Yet, by our nature, we’re insecure little things and like to be told little rules that we can follow to achieve success in our chosen paths.

Contradictory? Welcome to the life of a writer.

The problem, unfortunately, is for those amongst us who like rules and lists and systems, there are far too many out there that not only stand in the way of our success, but also limit our productivity and the risk-taking that is so essential to success in any writing career.

That’s why I’ve come up with a list of the seven most damaging rules that are going around that I assure you, you’re free to break. And three that I highly recommend you don’t.

Writing Rule #1: Write 1,000 words a day

Why you should break it: While this is a good goal in itself, setting a goal of writing 1,000 words a day can be detrimental to your productivity and your self-confidence if you have only, say, an hour a day in which to do your writing. We’ve all been there. By the time you’ve returned from that part-time job, cleaned the house, fed the kids, put everyone to bed, had about four cups of tea, and decided to sit down to write, you’re wiped out. A thousand words then is a goal so big that it’s almost unattainable. So you shut down the computer and go to bed. You’re not going to hit 1,000 words tonight, so why even bother, right?

What to do instead:  Instead of a word count, give yourself a fixed time slot in which to do your writing. In the days when freelancing took up my entire days and I felt I had no time or energy left to give to my novel, I’d show up at my desk every evening for half an hour. Sometimes I slogged through that half hour and wrote about 10 words, but there were other days when I easily touched 1,000. It didn’t matter how much I wrote, however, as long as I showed up every day for that half hour. I finished that novel a couple of months ago.

Writing Rule #2: Aim to earn $1 a word

Why you should break it: The difference between a freelancer and an author is simple: The author does the work once and gets paid for it repeatedly since the book is the product. But when you’re a freelance writer, you are the product. What this means is that you can’t scale up. Your hours are limited and therefore you need to earn as much as possible per hour if you want to make a good income.

What to do instead: Focus on your hourly rate. Whenever you receive an assignment, figure out how long it’s going to take you to do and then divide the total payment you’ve been offered by the number of hours it’ll take you to do the assignment. What’s your per hour rate? Is it something you’re happy with? Could it be better? Do this for every assignment for the next three months and you’ll start seeing patterns. You’ll figure out your hourly rate. And you’ll be able to work your way up more easily.

Writing Rule #3: Don’t burn your bridges

Why you should break it: This is generally very good advice and I’ve followed it in my career, but you know what, it’s not a rule because sometimes you just need to burn some bridges and be done with it. Like when you encounter abusive and nasty editors (it happens), when clients who owe you thousands of dollars refuse to answer your emails and take your phone calls, or when you’ve become part of relationships with editors and other writers in which all you do is give, give, give, and get nothing in return. Burn those bridges. You’re probably never going back over them anyway.

What to do instead: Build relationships with people you like, respect, and trust. You became a freelancer partly so that you wouldn’t have to deal with shitty bosses and crappy colleagues. So don’t.

Writing Rule #4: Don’t mix business with pleasure

Why you should break it: Um, so I suppose now is the time to tell you that I married my editor. We met to discuss work and ten hours later, we were still talking. Not really about work. The thing is, freelancers spend a lot of time inside our own heads and our own tiny offices talking to strangers on the Internet. The only people we see, meet, and often get along with? Other writers and, of course, our editors. It’s not surprising to see how a romance would flourish. In fact, I know two couples that each hooked up on the job. All four of those people happen to be my editors.

What to do instead: Be open to getting on with people, to falling in love, to living life. Just make sure that when you do marry someone you’ve worked with, either set ground rules or take work out of the equation altogether.

Writing Rule #5: Always get a contract

Why you should break it: This is one of those rules you’ll always hear American freelancers say, but if you have clients in Asia and Europe, I’d say there’s no need to be so anal about it. Your email conversation acts as a contract, and let’s face it, if you’re doing business internationally, you’re not going to be taking someone to court for that $1,000 they never paid you. It simply isn’t an efficient use of your time and resources and not only do you know that, but your clients do, too. A lot of business in Asia and even in Europe is done over a handshake and formal contracts only serve to take more rights away from you. (Most publications outside of the US only want first rights, so why complicate that?)

What to do instead: Make sure your e-mails are specific and that you’ve discussed rights, fees, and deadlines before you start work. Even better, do a bit of research on your clients before you start writing for them—ask other freelancers, for instance, about their experiences getting paid and how much time it took.

Writing Rule #6: You Need to Be on Social Media

Why you should break it: So last week a writer told me how she’d been interacting with an editor on Twitter for the last three months and yesterday, she finally pitched him a story idea in a tweet and he accepted. I’ve worked with this editor, as it happens. I don’t like pitching over Twitter. I’d sent him your plain old traditional query letter and landed an assignment. Same result, but two very different techniques. Should you have to choose one over the other? I don’t think so. I’m not comfortable pitching editors over Twitter, partly because I simply don’t like communicating with my editors publicaly but also because no matter how hard I try, I can’t fit my story ideas into 140 characters. So I am on social media, but not much, and certainly not with the intent of getting work. Nor should you have to be.

What to do instead: Figure out the modes of marketing (be that to editors or readers) that work for you and that you’re comfortable with. There’s no point being arm-twisted into having a Twitter or Facebook profile only to find that you resent having to talk to people through it. Find a method of connecting to your audience and your clients that you like, figure out the best practices of that medium, and then use it frequently.

Writing Rules #7: Give your client exactly what she wants

Why you should break it: I’m a journalist at heart, which means I don’t take orders very well. As it happens, I’m also a journalist who lives in countries far, far away from  my editors and that means I’m the person who’s closest to the stories and the sources. This means that if my editor comes to me and asks for a story that she thinks exists but that doesn’t, I have to not only not give her what she wants, but… and more importantly… give her something she doesn’t know that she wants.

What to do instead: Talk to your editors. Don’t just take their notes and their ideas at face value. Investigate them. See if there’s any meat to them. It’s great to be handed stories, but in the end, you’re the person reporting them and therefore, the person responsible for verifying that they’re valid. 

And the three rules you shouldn’t …

On to my favorite bit, which is the three rules I never break in my writing career and that I think you’d benefit from never breaking, too. Ready for them? Here goes…

1. Say no

My rule is that I should lose at least one out of four assignments offered to me because I’m too expensive. In my opinion, if you land every job you’re offered, you’re either not charging enough or you’re irresistibly charming. Either way, ask for more.

2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

I’m a huge fan of taking on new challenges and saying yes to opportunities, even when I’m not confident in my abilities to do them because I know I can learn. But I’m always wary of over-promising because under promising and over delivering is better than over-promising and failing to deliver.

And finally,

3. Don’t work with people you don’t respect

I learned early on in my career that the people I choose to work with will influence how happy and fulfilled I felt in my career. And so I make it a point to work with people I can respect and look up to.

What are the rules you follow in your freelancing life, and which ones are you happy to break?

mridukhullar2014 (1)**

Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, Marie Claire, Ms., and more. She runs The International Freelancer website (www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com) and will happily share 21 of her best query letters with anyone who signs up for her free weekly newsletter.

Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

grammarBy C. S. Lakin

In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.

I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?

I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don’t.

Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools

But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don’t know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn’t have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn’t a clue how to use any of them correctly.

For some reason, many writers feel they should get to “pass go” and proceed to “the bank” without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished at how poorly written some are. I’m not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I’m talking about very basic grammatical issues—punctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don’t expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.

A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish

Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.

I’m not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don’t expect all doctors to memorize Gray’s Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)

I’m afraid, though, that many writers haven’t a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don’t really care. They think it’s their editor’s job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that’s been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she’s written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.

A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer’s tools. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn’t know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

Well, no one is going to die if I don’t have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I’ll be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.

You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing “operations” efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don’t.

The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!


C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

5 Budgeting Tips for Freelancers Living on an Inconsistent Income

freelance incomeEd. Note: Most freelancers don’t get holiday bonuses or annual raises, so we have to budget carefully to ensure that we have enough moola to cover holiday gifts, extra expenses for travel and other costs, and of course run-of-the-mill costs like car repairs or medical bills. I recently reviewed The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed, which covers some strategies for smoothing out the financial ups and downs of freelancing. Here’s another take on this topic. 

By Jim Vela

If you’re a blogger like I am, you already know the many benefits of a full-time freelance career. You can generally set your own hours, work when you want, how you want, where you want, and enjoy a number of other freedoms that traditional jobs don’t provide. With all the perks, however, come a few necessary evils, one of which is an inconsistent income. Unless you’re one of the select few who has significant assets to fall back on, you likely face lots of financial ups and downs. Despite the precarious nature of your freelance career, there are ways to overcome it. For some helpful guidance, read on.

  1. Create an Accurate Budget
    Your first step is to make a personal budget. Detail all of your fixed expenses, including your rent or mortgage payment, utility bills, phone, cable, transportation, and food costs. Most of these expenses are either fixed or close to it, so you can give yourself a benchmark that you know you have to meet each month. The challenging part is estimating a variable income. Either calculate your average monthly income over the course of the past year, or, to make your budget virtually bulletproof, base it off the worst month you’ve had recently. Whichever income-estimating method you use, the goal is to get your monthly spending under your income, so if it’s not there on the first draft of your budget, it’s time to cut some costs. Be sure to include a budget line for taxes, which in most cases you’re going to have to pay quarterly. Estimate your tax obligations and always set aside at least that amount as soon as your money comes in — don’t fool yourself into thinking that money belongs to you. Dealing with your expenses as a freelancer is challenging enough, you don’t want to burden yourself with the consequences of failing to pay your taxes on time.
  2. Religiously Save Money on Expenses
    You can save money on just about every expense under the sun, if you know how. Start with food costs. Clip coupons to save on your groceries and look for restaurant discounts on deal of the day websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Request an audit from your home energy provider to discover ways to shave utility costs. You may be able to reduce your bill by more than 30 percent. Bundle monthly services like Internet, cable, and cell phone under a single plan, and you could knock $10 off each service. If you can get by without a home landline, drop it. That move could slice another $500 off your annual budget.
  3. Curb Spending
    Resist the urge to purchase the latest electronic gadget and instead keep that money in your pocket. Remember, your income is never guaranteed, so you want to establish as much of a cushion to fall back on as possible. For every big purchase you forego, that’s another handful of dollars in the bank to help you sleep easier at night. When you’re faced with a potential purchase, ask yourself if it’s something you truly need or simply something you want. Cut back on the wants as much as possible so you ensure having enough money for the things you need. Train yourself to understand the difference between the two.
  4. Limit the Celebrations
    If you have a great month, be sure to reward yourself for it, but don’t splurge. If you end with a surplus, set some of it aside for the leaner months, or use it to pay down your current debts. You could also beef up your retirement contributions or boost your emergency fund if necessary. Always feel free to spend something on yourself, but remember the importance of staying one step ahead of the financial game whenever possible.
  5. Commit to an Emergency Fund
    An emergency fund is essential for anyone with a fluctuating income. 9-to-5 workers have a steady paycheck to rely on – you don’t. Create an emergency fund so your finances aren’t thrown for a loop whenever your car breaks down or you get sick. Shoot for the recommended 12 months’ worth of living expenses as your eventual goal, and get there by contributing to it every time you earn a paycheck, even if it’s just a few dollars.

Freelancers, what budgeting tips would you add?

Jim Vela is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing his experiences and tips related to business, personal finance, frugal living, and travel.

Photo courtesy of sakhorn38 / freedigitalphotos