Adam Gopnik has always been one of my favorite New Yorker writers. Most of the topics he writes about are interesting, and I always learn something. He consistently manages to make topics easy to relate to, which is a real gift. But I think the main reason I enjoy his work is that it always creates a subtle atmosphere of good will, a sense that he as the writer is in all this with you, whatever "all this" happens to be. This is a snippet from a recent article Gopnik did on languages in the May 26, 2014 issue of The New Yorker:
It's a good thought to keep in mind when you write to educate or persuade others.
When you're a freelance writer, obviously writing is your main focus. After all, if you can't do that competently, you won't get hired. But do you need other office skills too? I think you do.
For one thing, the task of invoicing is much simpler if you have basic spreadsheet skills. Some clients request invoices on spreadsheets, and it makes sense because it takes care of all the adding up for you. I've had clients who have sent me assignments in spreadsheet form, with different columns for things like contact information and links I should use. I don't pretend to be an expert on Google Spreadsheets or Microsoft Excel, but I have enough basic skills that when I need to use a spreadsheet for invoicing, organizing sources, or taking care of an assignment at the request of a client, I can handle it without the process costing me half a day figuring stuff out.
Same is true for word processing software. Sometimes clients want documents put in pre-made templates. If you're asked to write an eBook, for example, you may be asked to use a template provided to you. In these cases, having some knowledge about formatting techniques for Microsoft Word (the most commonly-used type of template I've been assigned) can really help.
My sore spot is usually Microsoft PowerPoint. Back when I worked in an actual office, it was in the days before PowerPoint, so I never really learned how to use it. But I've had to cobble together enough PowerPoint skills that I can use it if a client needs a product in that format.
Another skill you may be asked to use (and one you should include on your profiles on freelance sites if you have it) is experience in posting to blogs using WordPress. Many, many clients use WordPress to power their blogs, and the more you know about getting stuff uploaded and formatted correctly, the better. Some clients may ask you to do some basic SEO when you upload to WordPress, and this is also a great skill to have (and advertise).
OK, so how do you go about getting these skills? If there's a community college in your area, check their continuing ed courses, because sometimes they're offered either on the entire Microsoft Office suite, or on the various programs that make up Microsoft Office. If that's not an option, Microsoft offers a wealth of resources for training on all the Office products, and they're free. If you have a slow work day, this can be a good way to use your time.
Microsoft also offers a large number of free eBooks for training that you can download to your computer, Kindle, or other device that make good references, or that you can work your way through as you have the time.
If you're new to WordPress blogging and a client asks you to upload content to their WordPress blog, here is a good video to help you get the basics. If you have the basics of WordPress down and want to learn more advanced skills, try this site. You can learn the basics about the All in One SEO Pack Plugin for Wordpress with this video tutorial.
As a freelancer, you may never set foot in a traditional office, but having a solid grounding in the software used by your clients is a tremendous advantage. You can advertise these skills on your freelance profiles and resumes, and let clients know that when they hire you to write, you're going to make things as easy as possible for them.
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Some writers like to work in absolute silence, while others might prefer an open window to the natural ambient sounds of their environment. And many like to work with some sort of music playing.
Music can aid productivity, says no less an authority than a physician with the Mayo Clinic. Music is believed to encourage the release of dopamine in the brain's "reward" area, which can have the paradoxical effect of calming a person and increasing drive. In fact, music can reduce time on-task, increase work quality, and improve mood, according to a study by researchers at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
Working to a background of music may require some trial and error when it comes to choosing what works best for you. And you may find that some assignments and some moods respond better to one type of music than another. Here are four soundtrack sources I have used to help me work, in no particular order.
1. Nirvana Radio
This is great background music with minimal distraction. You have your choice of Ambient, Meditation, and Relaxation streams, but all are non-intrusive and great if you need to block out the sounds of the garbage trucks going by or the neighbors having a party.
2. BBC Radio 3
If you're a classical music fan and don't mind a certain amount of chit-chat mixed in, BBC Radio 3 is a great choice. You'll not only listen to a variety in terms of tempo, era, and style, you'll probably learn a few things about your favorite composers.
3. Tibetan Healing Music
I find this eleven-hour YouTube collection very similar to the sound of wind chimes. It's terrific for those who find themselves getting to caught up in melodies or tempos of other types of music while working. It's some of the most beautiful and calming background sound out there.
4. Get Work Done Music
When you need to get energized and crank out the content, this eclectic collection of mostly electronic music and remixes is just right. Sometimes you'll be hit with something a little too distracting with vocals, but just click on the "Next" arrow and skip right over it to the next song.
The web has many great streaming sites that can provide the perfect background soundtrack to your workday, so if you find that working in silence is less than ideal, you should have no trouble finding music to suit your task and your mood. And if you're not sure where to find the kind of music you're looking for, you can go to Last.FM and type tags into the search bar to find what you want. It's great for when you're frustrated with a client or assignment and need some angry metal to draw some of the venom out of your mind, or when you have a hankering for some Chopin or Gershwin.
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When you're a freelancer, there's no such thing as a sick day - at least not in the traditional sense. Some people think there's no need, particularly if you work at home because "you can just work all day in your pajamas if you want."
Well yes, but ...
I will be the first to admit that on days when I get a particularly nasty spring allergy attack, it's nice that I can take a nap when the antihistamines kick in and make me sleepy. But there are days when a person simply cannot work, even propped up on pillows on a snug bed.
I experienced this firsthand recently when my blood glucose got out of control (I'm diabetic). I was knocked flat for the better part of a week, and there were a couple of days when I could not work at all. This is demoralizing to someone who is used to seven-day work weeks. The truth is, even the healthiest freelancer should have a plan for sick days. Your mileage may vary, but this plan works for me.
1. Develop Your Track Record
I pride myself on meeting deadlines consistently and not turning in work that I'm not happy with, even if I'm ghostwriting something and an editor and I are the only ones who will know I wrote it. When clients know that you consistently meet deadlines, even with last-minute assignments, they're more willing to cut you some slack when you can't. This is the long-term foundation of your sick-day plan.
If I'm sick and know I'll only be able to accomplish, say, half what I would normally do, I go through my list of assignments and prioritize by how easy they are. There are some topics that I find it easier to write about, and I put these at the top of my list on sick days. Things that are new, need to be heavily researched, or that otherwise require a lot more of me I put off until I'm feeling better. It helps that my assignments generally come in with a weekly deadline. Sometimes it isn't possible to shuffle the order in which I do assignments, but when it is, I'll do the easier ones when I'm under the weather.
3. Rest When Possible
A nasty head cold may mean writing one piece, sleeping for a couple of hours, then writing another. I might work until seven or eight at night, but my work periods are broken up by periods of rest. I find that if I try to power through with the goal of finishing early, I don't do my best work and end up feeling worse.
4. Accept Help
If my daughter is running errands and offers to bring me a chicken sandwich and a Diet Coke, I take her up on it because it's one less meal I'll have to prepare. If my mother stops by and offers to return my library books for me, I'll happily hand them off knowing I won't have to get out (and possible expose my contagious self to others). You don't have to ask to be waited on hand and foot, but it's OK to accept offers of help. Just be sure to reciprocate or pay it forward.
5. Keep Clients in the Loop
When something out of the ordinary occurs, like the diabetic problem I had a few weeks ago, and you think you may miss deadlines, let clients know what's going on. If you're a valuable worker for them with a track record of doing good work and doing it on time, chances are they will gladly let a deadline slip to give you time to get back up to speed.
Paid sick leave is becoming a luxury perk in the traditional working world, and lack of paid sick days is something freelancers have been dealing with forever. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your health. Powering through can often mean substandard work that you're not proud of, but taking care of yourself and letting yourself heal is an investment in yourself as a person and as a writer. You owe that to your clients, but more importantly, you owe it to yourself.
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You can, and should, write whatever you want. But you may not be able to sell it. I, for one, have been working on a novel for the past couple of years that probably has no market. While it does contain some hints of the supernatural, there are no vampires, witches, or zombies, and there's no sex. It's basically a crime procedural starring two very flawed women who I really like and wish lived next door to me. But that's not what people buy.
People do buy the web content I write, and that makes me happy, however. The difference is, when I write web content, I'm writing to give the client what he or she wants, and not necessarily what I want.
Criticism hurts, no matter how long you've been writing for a living. But you do get to where you mentally file it under "Professional, not Personal," and that makes it easier. And when you handle criticism like a professional, you get happy clients and repeat business.
The more you write, the more you learn to recognize your particular shortcomings as a writer. I, for instance, have a tendency to make sentences go on and on. I have learned to recognize and correct this, thanks to some kind, constructive criticism of a short story I wrote ages ago. I also have a tendency to use certain transition words and reference words ("According to ...") repeatedly, but I've learned that letting a piece sit for several hours before editing it helps me catch and fix these.
When a client provides criticism that makes sense, it's a good sign they basically like what you're doing and want to continue working with you. Criticism like, "We like the points you touched on, but please use a more serious tone" gives you something to grab onto. Criticism like, "This is horrible," unfortunately doesn't indicate a client who is willing to help you get it right.
I have learned to deal with criticism by having a supportive network of professional and personal friends who help me out. I can complain to them, and they can complain to me. And I've been doing this long enough to be able to separate valid criticism from outright attack, and to be able to sense when an editor or client might just be having a really bad day.
Next time you are asked to make major edits or do a rewrite, the first step is to take a deep breath. If you really can't face all the red ink at that moment, go have a cup of tea, call up a friend, or work on something else for a little while. Then, bolstered by accomplishing other work or by a friend's encouragement, go look at it.
It may not be as bad as it seems. I have had several occasions where a "major edit" only included adding a couple of links or subheadings. The important thing is that you do what the client asks. You may not think it makes the piece any better, but it really isn't about you. It's about a client asking for something, getting it, and paying you for it. And when you do this and the client accepts the work you will have accomplished something and shown that you're someone who is reasonable to work with.
Keep in mind that this refers to reasonable edits. When clients really are unreasonable, say, repeatedly asking for rewrites and major edits on pieces they're paying you very little for, it's time to reevaluate and perhaps end the relationship.
After a morning or a day of dealing with criticism and making corrections, try to schedule some time to work on that cookbook, poetry, screenplay, or novel you have on your hard drive. In that little world of your making, you're in charge.
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Every single day (and I mean that almost literally) for the past five years I have worked from my home, occasionally speaking to clients by phone, but mostly relying on the internet for all my work needs, from research to buying equipment to submitting finished articles.
A couple of weeks ago I was traveling, and a client asked if I would be interested in doing some work while I was in that particular city. Turning down work is something I'm still afraid to do, plus I was offered a bonus, so I agreed.
Now, this work was very different from anything I've done over the past five years. It involved interviewing local business owners in person, in a taxi, riding around a city I'm unfamiliar with. The last time I had been in a taxi was in 2005, and it was in London, and someone else was taking care of the hailing, communicating, and fare. Before that the last time I had been in a cab was in 1988 in Baltimore.
I have interviewed people for work over the past five years, but always by phone or email. I hadn't interviewed anyone in person since my newspaper days about a decade ago. Honestly, I was terrified, but I felt like I needed to push myself to do it. Living and working in your comfort zone 24/7 is nice and cozy, but it gives you a very limited view of the world, even with the internet always there. I knew that conducting the interviews I had been assigned was going to be a classic "fake it till you make it" situation.
I made sure the voice recorder on my phone worked, put on my most comfortable sweater and jeans, and took several deep breaths before we picked up my first interviewee.
And it all went fine.
The taxi drivers were very nice (and I tipped accordingly), and the interviewees were great. All of them had created businesses or nonprofits from scratch, just like me, and they had as many reasons to want things to go well as I did. I don't think I exhaled that day until I paid my final fare and waved goodbye to the driver. But it felt really good to have done something that was so different from what I normally do.
Writing up the interviews was hard work too. Transcribing from audio is tough, and I now have a new-found respect for court reporters and anyone else who has to do it regularly. That was another "out of my comfort zone" experience, even though I accomplished it in my home office with my dog next to my desk as usual. My hope is that once the interviews are published they'll be well-received and I can look back with a feeling of pride in my work, and that my client will be happy.
I will admit that most of the time it takes a crowbar and a threat to get me to do something out of the ordinary. But I'll also admit that the times I've gone with it, it's been worthwhile. Getting out of your comfort zone, if only for a little while so it can air out, is something we all need to do periodically. And if you're a writer who has spent years typing away in your hidden lair, you probably need to do this more than most. I'm only speaking from experience here. ;)
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I do not have copies of the major style manuals, namely, the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. Maybe I'm shortchanging myself here, but I've never had a client request something be done according to a specific style manual, and I've never had a problem. That said, if a client did request this, and I expected a significant amount of work from the client, I would purchase an online subscription immediately.
The Chicago Manual of Style offers 30-day free trial periods, so if a client requests you adhere to the rules in this style manual, you can try it out for free and see if you're going to need it long term before making the purchase. A one-year, one-person subscription to Chicago costs $35, and the same subscription to the AP Stylebook costs $26. With AP, you can also buy software add-ons like Styleguard for Word to check your Word documents for adherence to AP rules.
Keep in mind that if you are self-employed, you can usually deduct the costs of these manuals and software add-ons on your tax returns since they generally qualify under "business expenses." Other common business expenses include membership dues to professional organizations, trade or industry-related publication subscriptions, or equipment you need to do your work.
The right style manual for you depends on the type of writing you do. For example, AP is widely used by those in the news business, and Chicago is widely used by magazine and book authors. Technical and academic writers have other style guides they may be required to stick to. Owning copies (or online subscriptions) to these guides can't hurt, but if you're like a lot of freelancers, even an expenditure of $35 needs to be carefully considered first.
There are also online resources that can help you without your having to spring for a subscription. For example, AP vs. Chicago offers plenty of answers as well as comparisons between these two style manuals for common questions. If you're on a tight budget, you can probably start here and do just fine, but if you get a picky client, it may be time to get your own subscription to the client's manual of choice.
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In my case the answer is emphatically "Yes." Not all of the work that I do for clients goes through an editor before publication, but a large portion of it does, and for that I'm grateful.
My editors make my work better by ensuring the work is right for the audience, that it has a cohesive and logical structure, and that my references are up to standards. They also catch any spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes that weren't caught by either myself or Microsoft Word.
A decade ago, I wrote for newspapers, and I eventually worked as a writer and editor for one of those papers, so I've had some firsthand experience of what editors do. I know that I seriously appreciated work that had thought and effort put into it. Even the basics like spell checking and making sure punctuation is used correctly make the editor's job significantly easier. When writers take the time to get the basics right, it gives the editor more confidence in the writers' sources and facts. These things still have to be checked, of course, but seeing 500 words of misspelled, ungrammatical text inspires many levels of dread on the part of the editor.
I have been lucky in that my editors are extremely professional, and when they assign me work, they give me enough information to lay out a cohesive structure and fill in what's missing. And on those rare occasions when a topic is obscure enough that I can't do much with it, they've gone to bat for me and come up with a better topic or assigned something else altogether.
I suppose the point of all this is, if you have an editor, do your part to send in clean copy that's well-structured, and use solid references, including links. Not only will you make his or her workday better, you're more likely to get good assignments, because you're reliable and make him or her look good.
Of course, if you don't have an editor, you have to act as your own. Ask yourself, "If someone turned this in to me to publish, would I be happy with it? Does it make sense? Is it mechanically correct?" Some clients are pickier than others, but if you act as your own editor and your own "picky client," you'll raise the standards of your work and maximize chances of getting the best assignments in the future.
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For the most part, writing life is very nice. You don't face the hazards of the firefighter, say, or the longshoreman. You can usually change up your hours far easier than the retail worker or administrative assistant can. But there are definite occupational hazards that writers face. Here are 3 of them.
1. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
This painful condition of the hands is caused by the pinching of the median nerve, which passes through a bony tunnel in the wrist. Symptoms include numbness, pain, swelling, and tingling, and normally the index, middle, and ring fingers are affected, though sometimes people experience symptoms in the thumbs, forearms, or shoulders.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes be treated by splinting the wrists at night, by taking anti-inflammatory drugs, or by doctors with steroid injections. Severe cases sometimes have to be treated surgically. To help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, make sure your desk and chair are situated so that your wrists remain straight as you type, and take regular breaks from keyboarding. (Surfing the web doesn't count as a "break" from keyboarding.)
2. Mental Illness
For years the debate has gone on over whether depressed people are attracted to writing or whether writing causes depression. Whatever the answer to this chicken or egg question, there is no doubt that writing as a profession brings along depression triggers: bad reviews, long periods of working in isolation, and near-constant introspection. Many writers are perfectionists too, and carried to an extreme, perfectionism can be depressing and crippling.
Fortunately, there are far better treatments for depression today than there were a generation ago. Furthermore, many of the most common and effective medications are off-patent and more affordable for those living on a writer's income. If you believe you may be dealing with clinical depression, seek help. Few things sap productivity like depression, despite conjecture by some that depression feeds writing.
3. Substance Abuse
Carson McCullers, Jack Kerouac, Mary Karr, and Hunter S. Thompson are just a few famous writers who have struggled with alcohol abuse. There are many theories concerning writing and alcoholism. Kingsley Amis said, "A writer's audience is and remains invisible to him, but if he is any good he is acutely and continuously aware of it, and never more so while it waits for him to come on, to begin p.1. Alcohol not only makes you less self-critical, it reduces fear."
With writers, substance abuse is hard to tease apart from mental issues like depression. But like depression, alcoholism and other addictions can be successfully treated, as the popular genre of "recovery memoir" can attest.
When the writing life is going along swimmingly, nothing could be better. However, when problems arise, like physical or mental illnesses, few things are worse due to the isolation many writers experience. Asking for help is often extremely difficult for writers, but it is an absolute necessity for those who want to continue to enjoy the benefits and joys of this unique profession.
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When I started out freelancing, turning down work was not an option, so I had to write about plenty of subjects that I didn't find the least bit interesting. I have been writing long enough that turning down work is now sometimes an option, but I am still occasionally offered assignments on topics that I find completely uninteresting.
And I still take them, for the most part.
Being able to write clearly about a topic you don't like is good experience for a writer. For one thing, you're bound to learn stuff you didn't know before. For another, you'll be that much more prepared should you have to write on the topic again later.
After I had been writing full time for a year or so, I was offered a series of articles as a sort of advice columnist on concrete. People wrote in with questions on how to make sure concrete cured properly, the different finishes and designs you could do with concrete, how to minimize risk of cracking, and the like.
I was reluctant at first, but once I did a few columns, I started to really get into it. Not only did I learn a lot, I got to draw upon my background and education in engineering. I was actually sad when that job was over.
If you have been asked to write on a topic you either know little about or don't find stimulating, here are a couple of tips. First, if it's a multi-article assignment, ask your client if you can send him or her your first article for feedback. This will give you valuable information that can keep you from veering off-track with subsequent pieces.
Second, if the unsavory topic is only one of many assignments you're juggling, try to break it up so that you do a couple of these assignments, followed by a couple of assignments on a topic you enjoy. It's tough to get through a day when you're writing article after article about a dull topic, and it can be reflected in the quality your writing.
Finally, when you're done with the work and the client is satisfied, mentally pat yourself on the back. A couple of weeks later, reread your articles. You will probably be impressed and may even consider putting one or two of them in your portfolio for future potential clients.
Even if you're in a position where you can easily turn down assignments you don't like, don't automatically dismiss them when offered. Sometimes a challenge is just what you need to sharpen your writing and maintain your reputation for quality.
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***Edit: There was no post last week because we were all in countdown mode with my daughter's pregnancy. Sunday she gave birth to a perfect and healthy baby boy, and if he takes after his mom and me, he'll be writing his own stories soon as he can operate a keyboard. Here I am holding him when he was less than 24 hours old:
Full-time freelance writer living in Tennessee