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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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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Full-time freelance writer living in Tennessee