Ideas for Nonfiction (Part Two)

Continuing our list of ways to come up with topics for nonfiction articles, which you can then pitch to magazines and turn into fees and a portfolio…

Springboarding

I touched on this in detail in an earlier post. Keep a note pad handy while researching and writing your assignments. A fact might grab your attention, but be inappropriate for your current assignment. A small section of an article might have enough juice to warrant a full-size piece of its own. Maybe your article for a regional magazine could be recast to suit the needs of a local, or national, publication. If you jot down a reminder, you can come back to these ideas later and pitch them as unique stories.

Library Time

If all else fails, go to your local library or friendly neighborhood bookstore. Spend an hour or so skimming through magazines and reading what kinds of articles they’ve published lately. Think of related, but unique, ideas that will suit them. If you want to write for magazines, you should be reading them anyway. You can combine this idea with your personal expertise and a mind map for ferocious onslaught of idea generation.

The Shower

From what I’ve been told, I’m not the only person who does his best thinking in the shower. I don’t know why, but it seems like humans do their best thinking wet. Your omnipresent, ever-ready notebook will get ruined in the shower. A grease pencil or kids’ shower crayon won’t. I keep one in the little caddy, between my razor and the shampoo. If I’m struck by inspiration, I scrawl it on the shower wall and jot it into my notebook when I’m finished.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’m certain others have their own methods, and I’d love to see some in the comments.

Thanks for listening.

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Ideas for Nonfiction Writing (Part One)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This question is normally associated with fiction writers. I think it’s Harlan Ellison who tells people that he subscribes to an idea service. Coming up with ideas for nonfiction articles is just an important, and in some ways harder. The nonfiction article market is enormous — and growing every day with the proliferation of internet content. All we need to do is come up with compelling pitches. Here are some of the methods I’ve used to get ideas and turn them into money. I’ll bring more to your attention in a later post, since this is a rich topic I could write about all day.

Plumbing Knowledge and Experience

Everybody is an expert at something. I got my start writing self-defense and safety articles as an adjunct to running a karate studio. I sold insurance for a while, and recently did the math to discover I’ve made more money writing about insurance than I did selling it. Industry and special interest publications are the best market for these, especially if you can apply your special knowledge to a related interest. I’m a middle-sized fish in the martial arts pond, which means I had to fight to get my stuff in Black Belt. Parenting magazines, on the other hand, eat my family safety stuff up. This may be the best way to break in to the writing market, since you’re selling your existing expertise rather than asking somebody to take a chance on a thin portfolio.

Mind Mapping

This is the shotgun approach to idea generation. Start by writing a word at the center of a piece of paper. Draw branches off that word, each with a detail or related subject. Draw further branches off each of those branches, filling the page with words and concepts. Some of them will remain words, while others will blossom into full story ideas. This is the method I use for blog subjects. It works well for general brainstorming, and for expanding on basic areas of expertise or interest.

Pre-Orders

Some ideas come to you prepackaged. The freelance writing job sites (more on these in another post) rarely have ads for general writing. Rather, they have ads for somebody to write about a specific — sometimes very specific — topic. The current boom of content mills is based on writers accepting prepackaged writing assignments based on common search engine queries. Small business owners want blogs written to topics that interest potential clients. If you’re a quick researcher, this is an opportunity for nearly limitless work at a pretty good wage.

I’m eager to hear your ideas, as well. Please comment with some tricks you’ve tried.

Thanks for listening.


Notes From the Front: Proposals

I got a new gig recently — a one-off blog content deal. It was about average in terms of money, a bit light in terms of size. Interesting content, fun to research. It’s nice getting new clients from time to time, even for the short-term. What’s nicer is when the client in question tells you that you beat out 150 other applicants for the gig.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you this because I was able to ask my client what it was that floated me to the top of his particular heap. What he had to say wasn’t all that surprising, but what was surprising what how many people — he said 98 percent — don’t follow these basic rules of successful proposals.

1. Read the entire job description/submission guideline/call for work. Follow any specialized instructions. Many editors and clients will insert a small detail, such as a specific email title, to make sure you did this.

2. Do some basic research. If you’re trying to land a company, cruise their website. If you want to write for a magazine, read a few articles. Don’t ask somebody to spend money on you if you can’t take a few minutes to learn about them.

3. Indicate in your cover letter than you’ve done 1 and 2, preferably with an insightful or praising comment about the work your client does.

4. Submit quality and relevant work samples. If you don’t have any, take half an hour and make one. If you had to make one, say so — it demonstrates how dedicated you are.

5. Provide a direct link to your writing samples. Editors and other potential clients aren’t interested in downloading a file that could be a virus. This means maintaining an online portfolio (like this one) and using the link features in your email. Don’t expect the person on the other end to spend the time to Google you.

6. Put your best foot forward, always. Be professional with your communication and intelligent in your approach. Never make excuses, or express doubts in your proposal. Your proposal is your brochure for the client — and you don’t see professional brochures giving you the bad news.

That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, people. The words of a man frustrated by how much rough he has to dig through to find himself a diamond. Everybody’s far more capable of being a diamond than I am — the trick is making sure the clients can see it.

Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: The Tao of Steve

The Tao of Steve was a romantic comedy from the turn of this century, a favorite of my friend and martial arts brother Kelly Dodge.  Personally, I prefer my comedies less romantic – and my romances less comedic — but that’s a matter of personal opinion.

In Tao, protagonist Steve has a foolproof set of rules for seducing women.

  1. Be without desire.
  2. Be excellent in her presence.
  3. Be gone.

You can apply these same rules to succeeding as a professional freelancer.

Be Without Desire. Of course you have desires, opinions, problems, difficulties and a personal agenda — but your clients and potential clients don’t need to know about them. When you’re pursuing and completing assignments, what matters are the job and the deadline. Save personal details for when you’re not working.

Be Excellent in Her Presence. Always put your best face forward whenever you’re interacting with a client. Check spelling on your emails, talk on the phone when you can give the conversation your undivided attention. Make certain you attach files to emails that need them. Meet your deadlines every time and without fail. Remain professional at all times. From my experience, this is the single thing that will set you apart from other freelancers.

Be Gone. Finish your work and move on to your next assignment. That doesn’t mean you can’t check in from time to time, foster a relationship and keep yourself in mind when they next need your services. But it does mean that you should complete your business in a timely fashion and wrap up each assignment as professionally as possible.

In the movie, Steve ends up meeting a woman who puts his system on its ear and turns him into a sincere and loving long-term partner. Like most romantic comedies with this storyline, the moral is that a long-term relationship is better than what could be called “romantic freelancing.” As a happily married work-from-home husband and dad, I have to agree when it comes to romance. For my work life, though, I’ll happily stick with freelancing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some of my clients for years, and value my relationship with them. But I have them because I observe these rules, and I’ve kept them because I don’t break them.

Thanks for listening.