Habits of Highly Effective Writers: The Magic Notebook

Ray Bradbury says that ideas are like cats and women: the harder you chase them, the faster they run away. Instead, inspiration comes at odd times and under strange conditions. It hits when you’re driving, or mowing the lawn, or standing in the grocery line. Or as you’re drifting off to sleep, or when you’re four-thirds of the way to drunk with your brothers on Christmas Eve.

All of this underlines the importance of one of the best habits a writer can take on: always carry your magic notebook.

When ideas stream through your consciousness, scrawl them down in the magic notebook. When you’re working later, you can review your ideas and work on what’s on your plate that day. This process accomplishes several things:

  • You stop forgetting brilliant ideas you had while away from your work area.
  • You can avoid writer’s block by having a list of ideas ready to hand.
  • You’re less tempted to abandon current projects for new inspiration, because you’re confident the idea will still be available later on.

Your notebook doesn’t have to be an actual pen-and-paper notebook anymore. Many writers use a digital audio recorder, or even a practically antique handheld tape recorder. Cell phones will do in a pinch with an integral audio recorder, or you can just call and leave yourself a message. The new app phones combine the best features of notebooks and audio. Me, I stick with my grid-ruled Moleskine notebook — just like Hemmingway and Morrow, but Odin knows I’m a bit of a Luddite.

One final word on the notebook for shower thinkers. By happy accident, my baby boy taught me a solution to the shower inspiration: tub crayons. These wipable, waterproof babies let you preserve those ideas without stepping out, chilling yourself to the bone and soaking the floor in the process.

Thanks for listening.

Other Tracking Ideas

Setting structured goals with set timelines is my favored method for accomplishing the things I want to, and it’s one of the most commonly accepted approaches in business, government and military planning. It is not, however, the only one out there. Some other ways to reach the same destination include…

Tickler Files

A tickler file is the organizational version of a nagging mom or accountability coach. You set up physical files, or a calendar program, or one of several apps, to “poke” you when it’s time to get something done. This works for set tasks and for ongoing projects. You can get a reminder a month ahead to buy a birthday present, or set up for daily reminders to write your three pages of manuscript.

To-Do List

You know this one. It’s a list of the tasks you want to accomplish. This method is so common you can buy notepads with check boxes specifically to make one. Google calendar and similar programs include this option. What you might not know is that to-do lists scale up. You can make a to-do list for the year, then break it up by month, week and day.

Inspired Seizure

For some folks, all the goal setting they need is passion for the current project. They work on what they want, when they want to, and come out the other end with a finished product. I know very few people for whom this works on a reliable basis, and even they generally have the luxury of somebody else taking responsibility for their daily upkeep and bills. Still, it is a method and it does work for some people.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your methods for goal setting? Do you use a structured approach, or are you more organic? What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to setting and reaching your goals? How do you celebrate when you cross a big item off your list?

Thanks for listening.

Accountability: The Finish Line

Thank you, one and all, for your support with my accountability project for April and May. With your help, I reached my productivity goals. I know you didn’t actively help, but that’s the beauty of stating goals publicly. It was simply knowing I would post — and that somebody might razz me if I didn’t post — that kept me on track even when it was hard.

I’m making a shift in my working goals going forward. I don’t need the kind of immediate money I did for the past cycle. Instead, I’m going to spend the summer focusing on speculative projects. This requires a different kind of accountability and a different approach to goal setting.

  • I can’t put a dollar total on the goals, because speculative projects don’t earn money immediately.
  • I shouldn’t set a hard goal based on things out of my control, like “five hundred daily visitors to my blog.” This leads to frustration and eventually abandoning my goals altogether.
  • I will need to include a minimum earnings per month so I can keep paying rent and spoiling my wife and children.

I have a basic plan, but will announce it next Sunday. In the interim, I’ll be focusing on programs of assessment and accountability for authors. It might give me some good ideas.

As always, I’m eager to hear what you all have to say. Please comment with your own methods for making sure you get done what needs getting done — especially for projects with no hard deadline.

Thanks for listening.

Accountability, Week Eight

Second to last week of my productivity drive. I started a bit behind, but got a payday from a forgotten source to put me over the hump. I hope this is helpful to somebody, rather than just serving me and myself alone.

  • Total Earnings Goal: $3,000
  • Total Earnings This Week: $3,275
  • Earnings Compared to Benchmark: 109%
  • Total Earnings So Far: $17,420
  • Progress Toward Long-Term Goal: 87%
Thanks for listening.

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 Six

Rough week, accountability-wise. I set my goal for this week low, because of my surgery on Tuesday, and failed to meet even that goal. I did make all my deadlines, in terms of articles I’d promised to deliver, but wrote very little more than that.

This was bound to happen over the corse of nine weeks of work, and I will need to adjust my goals going forward in order o make up for the shortfall. It’s all part of treating my writing like a business. Businesses have bad weeks, but they track their statistics carefully enough to catch trends before they become bad months.

Stats for this week:

  • Total Earnings Goal: $1,000
  • Total Earnings This Week: $735
  • Earnings Compared to Benchmark: 73%
  • Total Earnings So Far: $11,745
  • Progress Toward Long-Term Goal: 59%
Thanks for listening.

Freelance Writing

For folks who want to write for a living, everything I’ve learned boils down to one piece of advice:

Write nonfiction.

The market is bigger. The pool of competition is smaller. The assignments are easier, since we all wrote a fair-sized heap of nonfiction while in school. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write fiction if that’s what calls you. But eating and staying dry takes money. Writing nonfiction lets you practice writing while you pay the bills, and you can still keep submitting your fiction projects until you write that breakout novel.

Another thing about writing nonfiction is that there’s an amazing array of kinds of nonfiction to write. You can specialize in one to build a top-shelf reputation, or you can diversify to keep from getting bored. Some of the better options today include…

  • SEO writing…discussed in another post, this is writing short articles with strategically placed words that draw hits from the search engines.
  • Article Writing…classic nonfiction pieces you sell to print and/or online publications.
  • Copy Writing…not to be confused with copyright, this is writing advertising copy for brochures, sales scripts, websites, audio, video, direct mail and others. It’s a huge market, and often short on qualified producers.
  • Ghost Writing…writing work somebody else will present as his own. Celebrities and experts are the two best clients here, but some folks hire out ghostwritten blogs because they don’t have the time to make it happen.
  • Content Writing…providing informational or opinion copy for websites. This ranges from working for the “content mills” through doing large articles for major URLs. This is another enormous market.
  • Business Writing…somebody has to produce the reams of business manuals, employee forms and marketing plans. It may as well be you.
  • Technical Writing…understanding, and helping others understand, how to use technical equipment and software. This includes business-to-business and consumer-oriented writing.
  • Academic Writing…textbooks need experts to write them, and tests need somebody to write the questions. There’s also a growing “grey market” for people to “edit” or fully ghostwrite academic term papers.
  • Travel Writing…visiting places and telling people about it. This is a surprisingly easy market to break in to, but it can be hard to make more than you spend on the trip. My upcoming book is an example of this kind of opportunity.

There are other opportunities, but these are what I see popping up in the job sites most frequently. When you consider that each type will have a dozen or more subjects attached to it, you’ll see that just about anybody has the expertise to write one kind of nonfiction or another.

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.