October 2, 2014

Guest Post: How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing

By Alisa Bowman, co-chair of the 2012 ASJA Conference

Many times, at the start of an important project, I find myself doing the following:

  • Drinking cup after cup of tea
  • Taking the dogs for an extra walk
  • Napping
  • Staring out the window
  • Going to Facebook-yet again-to see if anything is new with anyone
  • Eating cheese doodles

I’m good at justifying all of this, too, with the exception of the cheese doodles. The tea? It has caffeine in it and I need caffeine to think clearly. The walk? I get my best ideas while walking. Plus it tires out the dogs so they are less likely to distract me. The nap? Apparently I’m tired! What working mother isn’t? Staring? Similar to walking, this is often how I get ideas. Facebook? Everyone is always saying that social networking is important to career success.

In reality, though, what I’m doing is procrastinating. I’m hesitating. I’m holding back.

For many years, I thought that procrastination stemmed from three problems:

  1. Fatigue. Sometimes I just can’t think straight.
  2. Multitasking. My brain only seems capable of working on two to three big writing projects a day. If I try to add a fourth, I end up using up every tea bag in the house and noticing a lot of what takes place outside my window.
  3. Not being ready. Ideas are like panning for gold. They don’t always show up when one is looking for them.

While, at times, all of those reasons are true, Manhattan therapist Jonathan Alpert recently suggested a fourth to me: fear. I worked with Alpert on his book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Initially, I thought the project would result in a nice paycheck. It never occurred to me that I would learn something that would change the way I approach new projects.

Fear leads to procrastination, he says, especially when you focus too much on the end result: excellence. Suddenly little demons invade your brain, whispering demotivating thoughts like, “This editor is going to hate this,” “I’ll never get this done on time,” “I can’t believe I got this assignment. I’m in way over my head,” and, the ultimate, “I suck, and this sucks, too. I’m doomed. Why did I ever think a career in writing was possible for me? I should have become a waitress.”

Once I realized that fear was behind my inertia, I began approaching new projects differently. I broke them down into small tasks–tasks that I could easily finish in 15 minutes to an hour. For instance, an initial task might be, “Pick five people to interview for the Parents assignment.” Once I check that off, I might assign myself the task of contacting them and setting up interviews. Later on in the process, I might assign myself the task of “typing gibberish onto the screen.” After that is the task of organizing some of that gibberish.

I continue to approach the project in small chunks until, eventually, I reach a flow state where I no longer have to think about what I’m doing. I’m in the zone.

I learned so much from Alpert that I asked him to serve on a panel at the upcoming American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference called “Face Your Writing Fears.” For this panel, he and business coach Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty, will conduct an interactive workshop, helping writers overcome everything from procrastination to fear of pitching to writer’s block.

Below are tips for overcoming procrastination from Alpert and that panel’s moderator, Jen Singer, author of many parenting books and the creator of MommaSaid.net and ParentingWithCancer.com.

Set goals. “While the allure of Words with Friends is ever present, so is the appeal of a positive cash flow,” says Singer. “If you find yourself procrastinating often, set goals – daily, weekly, monthly and annually.” For instance, Singer sets goals to fix her router (a daily goal), finish interviews for an article by Friday (weekly), send out X number of pitches (monthly) and write book proposals and books (annually).  “That way, the nebulous goal of getting stuff done doesn’t get lost in a Triple Word Score,” she says.

Remind yourself of the dangers of putting things off. “Think about the amount of stress caused by putting off things and how much frustration will be caused if you continue not to take action,” says Alpert. “Imagine how good you’ll feel once you finally do act. Compare the cost of taking action to not taking it at all.”

Change your language. Alpert suggests you avoid phrases such as “I can’t” and “I have to” and replace them with “I will” and “I want to.”

Draw a line down the center of a page. “On the left side write down how life will be one year from now if you accomplish your goals,” says Alpert. “On the other side write how it will be in one year having not completed your goals. Both will yield powerful information that will drive your forward.”

Take a deep breath and jump. “I’m a soccer coach, and I have a soccer ball paperweight that reads ‘You always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,’ and it’s true,” says Singer. “I would never had made it onto the Today show or in The New York Times if I had succumbed to fear. So I heed what Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Do something every day that scares you.’ Even if you’re feeling weak, pitch as though you are your own client, and you’re trying to sell you and your talents to a golden market. Distance yourself from your product – your pitch – and do that thing that scares you even if it’s just once a day.”

For more help in overcoming writing fears, attend the ASJA Conference April 26 to 28 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. [Ed note: I'm moderating the LinkedIn for Journalists panel and speaking on the Secrets of Successful Freelancers panel, both on Friday, April 27.]

Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, which tells the story of how she went from the brink of divorce to falling back in love. She is also the creator of ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com, which is a gathering spot for recovering divorce daydreamers. She’s also co-chair of the 2012 ASJA Conference. 

Interested in contributing a guest blog post of your own? Check out the guest blogger guidelines.

Guest Post: Create 8 Story Ideas in One Sitting


By Steph Auteri

Having trouble generating new story ideas? In my opinion, that’s one of the toughest things about being a freelance writer. In order to make writing lucrative, you need to come up with ideas that are so fresh, an editor will actually pay you to write about them. And you have to do this over and over again.

One brainstorming tool I like to use is to consider all the different story formats I have at my disposal. Then I take a topic and try to apply it to each story type. What are the story types you should be considering?

1. One great way to break into the print magazine market in particular is with front-of-book pieces. The word counts are small and, sometimes, they don’t even carry bylines, but they’re a great proving ground if you’re a primarily untested young writer.

2. Another good way to build up a portfolio is by writing reviews. It can be quite easy to break into smaller, regional publications with a well-written review pitch, especially if you have access to advance book copies, screeners, etc. Or you could pitch yourself to a publication like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. Just send an LOI that highlights your specialty or niche.

3. Have access to a celebrity, public figure, or highly interesting person? Pitch an interview, which can be written in a narrative format, or a Q&A format.

4. Or there’s the personal essay, one of my favorites. While publications may be cutting down on longer-form content, there are still markets for well-written, insightful, and relatable essays. (mediabistro has a great series on personal essay markets they update fairly regularly.)

5. Or you may have noticed that confessional blogging has made way for a plethora of expert blogs. For this reason, how-tos and other service pieces have become the bread and butter of online content. Have a very specific area of expertise? Pitch yourself as an expert and convince an editor you’re the perfect person to tell readers how to choose the best wine and food pairings, or how to convince an ex to take you back, or how to save money in order to purchase a house.

6. Lists do similarly well, both in print and online. Readers love their content in carefully organized, easily-digestible, easily-scannable pieces.

7. Roundups are a type of list, and many readers go bananas for them. They’re penultimate collections of the best… the nerdiest… the most fashionable… the most whatever in a particular genre.

8. And finally, there are features. Sadly, such assignments are also the most highly competitive, as fewer and fewer of them are commissioned every year, leaving only the most extraordinary of writers (or perhaps the most extraordinary of self-marketers?) to land them.

Knowing all of these story formats can be helpful in brainstorming multiple story ideas around one subject. For example, as a crazy cat lady, I’ve written a couple stories for Petside. But I know the subject holds the potential for even more. How could I take this list of story formats and generate eight different story ideas about cats?

1. FOB: I could write a few hundred words containing stats on the most popular domestic cat breeds.
2. Review: I could write a review of Bash Dibra’s Cat Speak.
3. Interview: I could interview pet psychic Suzan Vaughn.
4. Personal Essay: I could write an essay on how the way my husband and I care for our pets makes me wonder how we’ll be as parents.
5. How-To: I could write a piece on how to introduce a new cat to the family.
6. Listicle: I could create a list of the items you should buy if you’re bringing home your very first cat.
7. Roundup: I could create a larger list of the best darn cat comics out there. (I was always a fan of Get Fuzzy.)
8. Feature: I could do up a feature on pet therapy, and how pets help people deal with depression.

I’ve already done at least half of these. And it looks like I have a few more query letters to write up. But before that, it’s your turn.

If you’d like to try this yourself, sign up for my mailing list in order to receive a free copy of Freelance Awesome: A Starter Kit, which includes this story-generation worksheet, among others. Then? Watch the assignments roll in!

Steph Auteri is a freelance writer, editor, and career coach to word nerds. Feel free to check out her blog, or stalk her on Twitter.

Interested in contributing a guest blog post of your own? Check out the guest blogger guidelines.

Image courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Sources for Free Online Writing Training

online trainingUsually we think of hitting the books in the fall, as students around the world head back to school. However, autumn can be a hectic time for freelancers as their editors and clients return to the office and ramp up holiday marketing efforts or plan content for the next several months.

If you have any downtime this holiday season, then it could be your chance to brush up on your reporting skills, learn a new tech tool, or otherwise boost your writing chops. Here’s a roundup of places that offer free training opportunities for writers, marketers, and journalists. I may write a follow up piece listing training opportunities that cost money, so if you have a favorite online class, be sure to leave a link in the comments section.

  1. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism
    I’ve tuned into several Reynolds Center webinars and gotten tons of useful information on slanting stories or reporting on local businesses. If you cover business–even if you’ve been on the beat for awhile–I highly recommend these webinars. In fact, they’re offering one on Quick-Hit Business Investigations next week.
  2. Freelance Writer’s Den Open House Calls
    Den Mother Carol Tice has invited me to appear on her monthly open house calls, which cover a variety of freelance writing topics including social media marketing, idea generation, and various writing niches. If you listen in real-time, you might win a door prize or get your questions answered, but I often download the recordings to my iPhone so I can listen while I’m folding laundry or running errands. The next Open House Call is slated for December 8 and covers effective email prospecting with Ed Gandia of The Wealthy Freelancer. 
  3. iTunes U
    iTunes U includes recordings of journalism courses from several prestigious journalism programs including Oxford, Yale, and Poynter Institute. This platform’s course offerings are vast, so it’s also an opportunity to further your subject matter expertise, learning more about, for instance, international relations, the stock market, or healthcare policy. These are also handy for listening on long car trips, train rides, etc., if you’re traveling over the holidays.
  4. Internet Marketing for Smart People
    This 20-part, email-based course from the smartypants behind the popular blog Copyblogger covers the four pillars of online marketing success: relationships, direct response copywriting, content marketing, and having something worth selling. I have all the messages in my in-box, and I’m hoping to set aside some time later this month to read through them. (Such is the challenge with email courses, isn’t it?)
  5. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Multimedia Skill Tutorial
    In addition to their week-long boot camps at UC-Berkeley, the Knight Digital Media Center offers a free multimedia skill tutorial available online. These self-paced tutorial covers web design tools, audio recording, video editing, storyboarding, and more. I haven’t gone through all the tutorials yet, but it’s on my to-do list.
What about you? Is there an online training program for copywriters or journalists that you’d add to this list?

Photo courtesy of Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In Defense of Passive Verbs

magnetic poetryI’m not afraid to break a few writing rules. In my world, ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t unheard of. Sentence fragments? I’ll use them when the mood strikes. And (gasp) I’ll even start the occasional sentence with a conjunction.

But until recently, passive verbs were a no go in a my book.

I heeded my AP English teacher’s advice to circle all the verbs on the page and rewrite any sentence that dared include a passive verb (confession: I often skip that first step but don’t tell Mrs. Englemeyer).

Then, while I was earning a post-bach certificate in writing, the professor shocked me by telling us that, when used judiciously, passive verbs are actually very handy.

Say your client has a nasty habit of inserting errors into your copy, then blaming you. Instead of saying, “you changed the copy yourself, you numbskull!!!” you could write, “The copy I filed had the correct information, but errors were inserted later on. Would you like me to resend the original version?” (In case you’re unclear on active vs. passive verbs, the phrase “were inserted” is passive because it’s unclear who is performing the action. In this case, inserting errors.)

It’s a diplomatic way of setting the record straight without assigning blame. The recipient can connect the dots for you.

Then last week, I took a copyediting class, and the professor made another argument for passive voice. After I suggested restructuring a sentence so the actor was more clear, she answered, “actually, passive voice isn’t so bad. In this context, it helps vary the syntax.” In other words, you don’t want every sentence to follow the exact same structure, so throwing in the occasional passive verb helps mix things up. *Hangs head in embarrassment*

I still think Mrs. Englemeyer was right to make us aware of passive voice, but I’m starting to see that there are a few instances where it isn’t so bad. In fact, there are times when it should be used. Embraced, even.

What do you think? Is there a place for passive verbs? Or do you side with Mrs. Englemeyer on this one?

Image courtesy of surrealmuse