Time Alone, Part One

Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs “a room of her own.” This is true of writers, too, but you don’t need your own office. Our house is pretty big, but I share it with my wife, two children, two housemates, a dog and two cats. My “office” is literally a recycled cubicle set up in our living room. No door, but the walls form a kind of symbolic barrier. It also helps that, during the day, the house is empty except for myself and our baby son — who is kind enough to sleep for four to six hours of my work day.

With summer coming up, I’m going to need a new plan. As much as my family tries to respect my writing time, it’s hard for them to leave me out of what’s going on. It’s equally hard for me to want to be left out. Last summer, my wife — who is a public school teacher — would take the kids to the park during my work day to give me the time I need. We might do that again this summer, or I might move my computer into the bedroom and close the door for a few hours each day.

The point is that writers, like everybody else, perform better when we are allowed to focus. Tapping away at your laptop in the middle of a busy family evening isn’t conducive to focus. Neither is working at the local library. We all have our own flow style and work habits, but everybody needs some time for uninterrupted writing.

I’m curious: for those of you who write at home, what sorts of things do you do to ensure that “you time” to get your work done? I’ll answer with some of my other methods in a couple of days, but I don’t want to muddy the waters with my opinions until I hear from some of you.

Folks who read this, but aren’t writers, I’m interested to hear how you secure time for yourself when it’s at a premium — either at home or at work.

Thanks for listening.

Multiple Stories

My Astoria guide is still on hold, likely until June. There were some problems with last-minute map stuff, or so I’m told. No worries, it will be great when it’s out there. Meanwhile, do you know what’s better than getting paid for your work?

Getting paid twice.

I’m not suggesting selling two identical articles to two different magazines — that’s a breach of the writing contract, and of the trust from your publisher. However, you can easily sell multiple articles from the same idea, and the same research. This maximizes your return on the investment of your effort. For example, I spent several weeks researching the Astoria guidebook. When it publishes, I get paid royalties…plus I have my first book deal, which is instrumental in getting more book deals. However, there’s a lot of information that didn’t get covered in detail during the book. Here are some articles that I’ve written or pitched for other publishers:

  • A detailed piece on golf courses in the area for GolfLinks.com.
  • A review of the new Indian restaurant that’s coming to town.
  • A historical piece for the 200 year anniversary of Astoria.
  • Another historical piece about the fires in Astoria.
  • A review of the bicycle tours in Astoria I’m pitching to cycling and travel sites.
  • An article for a writing magazine about getting multiple assignments out of the same research.
  • A book excerpt for local travel and lifestyle magazines, or possibly for an in-flight magazine that serves the Pacific Northwest.

In a year or so, some of the rights to those articles will revert to me based on the contract I sign with various publishers. At that point, I can try to sell reprint rights — with full disclosure to the new buyer — and get paid a third time with a new batch of sales. Because it’s Astoria, and not New York or another international destination, it’s a thin resale market. But I should be able to find one or two.

Writing professionally means spending at least as much of your time finding work as you do writing. Using this kind of cascading series of assignments from the same idea and research helps you make the most of that time.

Thanks for listening.

Accountability, Week Five

Not much to say this week. Had a lot of stuff going on, and I made my quota. Home now after a long trip to the beach and a generally long and rocky weekend.

I should be going to bed, but I’ m posting because I said I would. I guess that’s the freelancing advice for this post. Sometimes you have to do what you don’t necessarily want to simply because it’s what you said you would do.

Stats for this week:

  • Total Earnings Goal: $2,000
  • Total Earnings This Week: $2010
  • Earnings Compared to Benchmark: 100%
  • Total Earnings So Far: $11,010
  • Progress Toward Long-Term Goal: 55%
Thanks for listening.

SEO Writing

If  you’ve been writing, or trying to write, as a freelancer in the past two years, you’ve seen the term “SEO.” You probably saw it most often as something a potential client wants you to understand in order to apply for a job. From your client’s perspective, SEO — Search Engine Optimization — is writing web content in a way that drives search engines such as Google and Bing toward the site that contains the content. It’s fairly obvious why a business would want a web page that’s search engine optimized, and why they would be willing to pay somebody to do it.

From a writer’s perspective, SEO is gold mine. Writing advertising copy has long been a source or nearly limitless and lucrative assignments, and SEO is the new advertising copy. Old ad copy just had to get the attention of the reader. New ad copy needs to inform and inspire the reader, but before it can do that it also has to get the attention of the browsers potential readers use.

How Does SEO Work?

Search engine optimization works by taking advantage of the algorithms that drive a web search. Although some of these factors — such as page titles and linkbacks — are out of the control of a content writer, the appearance of keyphrases within the body of the page will drive traffic to your sight. Including three to five keyphrases, each appearing naturally in the text two to four times, helps search engines match a page with the search strings common to people who want to know about a product. This is a simplification of a complex topic, but it should give you a general idea.

As a writer, your job is to include keywords in the SEO content as naturally as possible. Random, arbitrary inclusion of keywords or key phrases feels unnatural, and can reduce the page’s performance in search engines. Some clients will also ask you to choose the best keywords for a piece of content, while others will hire you having already chosen the SEO content they want.

White Hat SEO

In SEO, “white hat” practices mean playing by the spirit as well as the letter of the search rules. White hat SEO includes practices like natural and organic use of keywords, including appropriate backlinks and receiving links to your page from service-oriented and related websites. The good news is that white hat SEO is easy to follow. If you write the best, most natural copy you can, it’s hard to accidentally stray from white hat practices.

Black Hat SEO

Every system is vulnerable to manipulation. “Black hat” SEO practices take advantage of those vulnerabilities with practices like link redirection, keyword stuffing and hiding text by marking it the same color as a page’s background. Although these tactics are sometimes effective, ongoing algorithm development makes them less and less viable. Worse, some of the major search engines will ban pages that use these practices. Freelance writers should avoid assignments that ask for black hat SEO. It undermines the system that provides us with work, and isn’t much fun to write anyway.

Finding SEO Work

You won’t find clients who need SEO work among the usual markets for nonfiction articles and works of fiction. Instead, look at job boards for writers including Craigslist, Online Writing Jobs, ELance, Journalism Jobs and Freelance Daily. You can also work with your local Chamber of Commerce to get started by helping a nearby business optimize their websites. Once you get some traction, you’ll be amazed at how much work is available. Consistent readers aware of my $20,000 in 9 week goal should know that it’s only possible because of how rich this writing market is.

Thanks for listening.


Getting Paid

Captain Mal of the oft-lamented, early-cancelled, just about perfect Firefly said “I do the job, and then I get paid.”

Freelancers need to take this attitude, although we should think a little longer than the Captain when it comes to the subject of shooting people who are slow to make good. I mention this today because I’ve come across a small hitch that’s all too common in the freelancing world: the gap between acceptance of work and payment for that work.

My accountability post on Sunday noted that I’m $130 behind — don’t worry, I’ve already caught up. But further troubles have reared their heads.

  • One client asked for revisions on $120 worth of articles, which I’ll need to do without further payment. Revisions are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • One client received $180 worth of work last week and still hasn’t gotten around to reading for approval. Lags like this are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • Another client has amassed a $470 bill for my work, but won’t be able to pay until May. This kind of payment cycle is part of the job for a freelance writer.
As another example, two weeks ago I got a check for an article that was originally accepted in 2007. You read that right. Accepted in 2007, paid in 2011.
I don’t post this to complain. The operative phrase from the above list is part of the job for a freelance writer. I post this to share a facet of your worklife if you think you want to take on this as a career. For the most part, money you earn this month should be earmarked for spending next quarter. If it comes in early, great — let it earn some interest until you need it. Budgeting, planning and strict personal discipline are absolute necessities if you’re going to go full time in this field.
That’s not to say I’m an expert at any of those three things, just that they’re important.
This payment lag presents a special problem for people who want to break in as freelance writers. You’re looking at a four to six month gap between the first month that you make your living expenses and the first month you can pay for them — and we’re not even talking yet about how long it will take you to land that much work. There are several different ways to make this work.
The way I did it was I worked a job I disliked, writing for extra money when I could. When I landed a long-term gig with a client who paid promptly and reliably, I pulled the trigger. That client won’t last forever — although they’re still going strong two years later — so I make it a priority to pursue other gigs as aggressively as possible.
Bottom line: expect to get paid late. Expect to get stiffed on occasion. Plan your finances so you’re always living off money already in the bank, not waiting for a payment to come in just so you can cover your mortgage.  Understand that this isn’t a special hardship — businesses face this payment cycle problem every day. It’s part of the price you pay for the privilege of owning your time.
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: Six Ways to Generate Buzz

The truth is that print publishing has been taken a beating. In 2010, eBook sales at Barnes & Noble and Amazon exceeded sales of any other kind of book (though admittedly not sales of all other kinds put together). It may not be long before the model of being a published author promoted by your book company is a thing of the past.

In the mean while, the best way to attract the attention of a publisher or an agent — aside from excellent writing — is to come to the negotiation table with an aura of buzz already surrounding your book. Celebrities and the new wave of “ce-web-rities” can still ink good deals because they bring fans with them when they sign a contract.

The rest of us have to generate buzz the hard way. Fortunately, the same factors that are killing the traditional book deal also make it easy for us to generate that buzz with inexpensive and convenient tools.

1. Set up and maintain a social media account such as Facebook or Twitter. Post frequently with the juiciest morsels from your book. “&%$# My Dad Says” started as a Twitter game and now it’s a book with a TV show.

2. Blog about it. For fiction, trickle out a few early chapters or especially beautiful scenes. For nonfiction, write a set of actionable advice posts that establish you as an expert and keep people coming back. Track the statistics to use as evidence when you go to sell your book.

3. Start a Webcast. Video and audio podcasts are growing in popularity every day. If you make it interesting or funny, it may go viral at any moment. Although you can cast about anything you want, you should always end the show by telling your fans about the book that’s coming up.

4. Employ your loyal army of ninja warriors. Okay. Since I came to this from a career as a martial arts teacher, I may be the only one with a loyal army of actual  ninja warriors. But you have your own loyal army of friends, family and acquaintances. If half of them get three friends to check you out, and half of them get three more friends…well, you can see where that leads.

5. Publish excerpts. This is sort of like the blog idea, but with more generally respected sources. Maybe you can take a chapter of your novel and sell it to Escape Pod as a short story. Or you can write about essential aspects of your nonfiction book in an article for a trade magazine. Not only will this increase your audience, you might even get paid.

6. Self-publish an ebook or limited print run. Nothing succeeds like success. If you can sell 2,000 to 5,000 copies of a first printing of your book all by yourself, you will get the attention of publishers as you look for a second run. Even if you don’t want to print more of that particular book, having a successful personal run will give you more credibility with agents and publishers.

There are dozens, hundreds, an infinitude of other possibilities out there. The main point is to use your imagination and beat the “new media” at its own game.

Thanks for listening.