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7 Ways Out of Writer’s Block

By Carol Tice

I haven’t written much about writer’s block in my year of blogging about writing, because it’s not a big problem in my life. But I’ve read complaints from so many other writers about it, I feel I should help here.

When the rare occasion comes when I do find myself stuck, I use one of these techniques to snap out of it:

1. Use your lifeline. That’s right, phone a friend, just like on the TV game shows. Then, tell them about the article you need to write. You’ll find that as you chat, your story will naturally organize itself. When you hang up, jot down a few notes and you’ve got your outline.

2. Write about something else. If this article is stumping you, write your blog entry for the week or a letter to your mom. Just something that starts you writing. You’ll probably find at the end of that writing task, it’s fairly easy to switch to the one that was causing you problems.

3. Read old clips. Sometimes, when I’m intimidated by a complex article I need to organize, I crack open my clip book and leaf through it. I realize I wrote those difficult pieces, and I can write this one, too.

4. Dummy outline. This is the one I use most. If the structure of your article is boggling you and keeping you from writing, just write the name of each source down. Then go through your notes and write succinctly next to their name the most important points they make. You now have a road map of all the most interesting stuff for your story. A good starting point will likely jump right off the outline at you, and you’re off and writing..

5. Write without notes, quotes or attribution. I learned this technique at a Reynolds seminar at the Seattle Times a few years back: Put all your notes aside and just write the story. Don’t worry about name spellings, exact quotes, figures, who said what, nothing. Don’t break your concentration by flipping around in your notes looking for factoids. Just pour it onto the page.
The important stuff will naturally rise to the top of your mind. Once you have a draft, go back and clean it up by reading through your notes for accuracy and plugging in the quotes.

6. Take a hike. I believe most writers don’t move around enough. Get out and oxygenate for a half-hour and then return to your task. Almost never fails me that on the walk I start writing the article in my head, and can’t wait to get back to the keyboard where I can put it down.

7. Talk to the mirror. Have a serious talk with yourself about this problem if it becomes a habit, because it’s just unprofessional. You cannot earn a good living from writing if you’re going to be one of those fussy-butt writers who needs all the planets in alignment before you can write. If you need to, get therapy – it’ll be worth it. Missed deadlines lead to fewer good-paying writing gigs. Take your career seriously and figure out how to write your pieces on time.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo via Flickr user Rennett Stowe

Sometimes, a Writer Needs to Say “No.”

In The Writing World it's ok to Say NOJudging by the emails I get, a lot of writers have trouble turning down gigs, no matter how low-paying, stressful or inappropriate to their talents and interests the assignment may be. So my thought for the day is, like Nancy Reagan used to say, “Just say no!”

Saying no is empowering. It establishes healthy boundaries for you in the marketplace. I’m not desperate, it says. I take jobs I want. Taking jobs you really don’t want or that radically underpay you kill your soul and eat up oodles of time you could spend finding good-paying, fun gigs that would help you build your career.

“You mean I just say ‘no’ to the $10 a post jobs?” one writer wailed to me on an email not long ago.

Yes, that’s what I mean. That job doesn’t pay enough. Don’t take it.

“You mean I should say ‘no’ to the book ghostwriting gig that pays $1,500 for 65,000 words?” another asked.

That’s it exactly. Say no. Practice it with me now. Let’s say it like a mantra: “NNNNnnnnnnn…..OOOOOoooooo, Noooooo, Noooo, Noo….No.”

Stop thinking the economy has collapsed and there are only crappy jobs out there. I got one $1,500 article assignment already this year, lined up three new copywriting clients, and have two $800 articles I’m working on right now. One of my mentees just got her first $750 assignment. You can still break into new markets and get good writing assignments. You don’t have to say  “yes” to whatever comes down the pike.

Recently, I received this question from new writer Tom Ryan:

I’ve been freelance writing for a year or so now, and was just presented an opportunity to ghostwrite a business book. The person I’d be writing for…[our personalities are quite different and]…I completely disagree with his philosophy of business. But I’d love to land the project.

So…wonder if you’d have any advice for someone aspiring to do this sort of work on how to best remain separate from your subject?

Can you guess what I told Tom?

That’s right–he needs to say ‘no’ to this gig. Tom, why would you love to land this project? Ghostwriting for someone you dislike and don’t find a rapport with isn’t going to work out. You’re going to knock your brains out, spend umpteen hours with someone you can’t stand, and end up with a product (should this project ever successfully wrap up) that you won’t be proud of. Don’t spend time on that!

The Kabbalists say we are never just “killing time.” It’s really the other way around. Time kills us. Time is your most precious resource. Don’t spend precious moments of your career doing work you abhor or that radically underpays you, even if you want to break into ghostwriting or book writing or whatever it is. The wrong project will not help you down the path to where you want to go.

Your gut knows the difference between a good ground-floor opportunity and exploitation and/or a nightmare project you’ll hate. Listen to it. And then, if it feels wrong, don’t be afraid to say “no.” Better gigs are out there.

Photo via Flickr user fotogail

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8 Reasons Why Writers Need Twitter

Get Twitter to Market Your Writing!Twitter. Yes, that crazy, 140-character insta-communication place everybody’s talking about. It seems like you’re either hooked on it, or you don’t understand it. I was a serious skeptic, but now that I’ve spent some time on it, I’m finding it an invaluable tool for me as a writer and blogger.

When I first heard about it, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” What can I possibly communicate in these short messages? How can I meaningfully connect with anyone?

But I believe the space limits on Twitter in fact make it more powerful and efficient than other social-media sites. Here are some of the reasons I’ve grown to love it:

1. #1 Internet brain-picking site. Would you like to be inspired daily by the Dalai Lama? Want a quick hit of what Guy Kawasaki or Chris Brogan is thinking? Don’t know who Guy Kawasaki or Chris Brogan are yet? Just follow them and find out. Twitter gives you instant access to some of the brightest minds around the globe, in various fields (especially social media and marketing). For starters, just hang out, follow some whip-smart folks, and learn.

2. Make new friends. I’ve connected with wonderful writers around the country, some of which I’ve chatted with on the phone since, from poking around on Twitter, and seeing who follows me.

3. Learn to be concise. The 140-character discipline of Twitter really teaches you how to write for today’s short-attention-span, online audience. Try to be witty in two lines while still including a link–it’s good practice.

4. Find sources…and let them find you. I’ve found Twitter a good emergency source-finding mechanism, even for arcane stuff. Also, some folks are so into Twitter that it’s the fastest way to get them–give it a try if you’re having trouble reaching someone by phone or email. Also, lots of marketing consultants are out there telling business owners they need to find journalists on Twitter to market their business…so if you get on, story ideas will come your way.

5. Meet editors. Lots of publications are jumping on Twitter. Can be a great way to find an editor name in this era when so many publications don’t seem to have mastheads anymore.

6. Get listed. Twitter’s lists feature has become a great way to get known (and to find people). I’m in 85 or so lists, and have made nearly a dozen–easy way for me to quickly save names by category, i.e. writers, business sources, etc.

7. Find jobs. Twitter is an increasingly hot place for jobs. I created a list for job sites that are on Twitter, so I can run a feed and just look at listings whenever I want. You can also use tools such as TwitJobSearch to run job searches on key words.

8. Get social-media skills. If you’re not working with clients yet who want you to do social media for them, you probably will be soon. So hang out on Twitter and learn the etiquette so you’re ready to combine  your copywriting skills with social media to earn more.

How are you using Twitter to help your writing career? Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything. And for more on how writers can use social media to help their careers, see my LinkedIn tips over on the WM Freelance Writing Connection.

3/15/01–Oh heck! I DID forget one more thing that’s great about Twitter — #WriterWednesday (or #WW). Every Wednesday, writers on Twitter tweet about what they’re up to, salute new friends or listers…fun dialogue to scroll through. Just search on the hashtag phrase and enjoy…great way to connect with other writers.–Carol

Photo via Flickr user 7son75

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Query Don’ts

Writing Query Letters For Dummies

Now that I’m looking over many of my mentees’ query letters, I’m finding some of the same mistakes repeated over and over again. So I’ve put together a list of query “don’ts” to help writers avoid basic errors that can be big turnoffs for editors.

• Don’t let your query exceed one page. Even if you’re emailing, don’t run on and on. Remember, most articles commissioned these days are fairly short, so show your editor you know how to be concise.

• Don’t begin with “I want to write an article about…” Of course you do. When you begin by stating the obvious, you tell the editor you are not a very imaginative writer. Begin with the proposed opening paragraph of your article, or with some interesting facts about your topic that draw the editor in and gets them interested in your idea.

• Don’t tell the editor how long your article should be. Often, writers include a sentence such as, “I’d propose writing a 1,200 word feature on this topic.” This is a very bad strategic move. Do you want to not get an assignment because the editor only has freelance budget for 800-word stories? Or be excluded from consideration for a 3,000-word feature? Let the editor decide how much space your idea should have in their publication.

• Don’t say, “I’m sure your readers would be interested in this.” Remember, you are writing to the person who knows the most in the world about what their readers like. Don’t ever presume to know more. Instead, say something that connects the publication’s audience to the idea and shows off your research: “With all the recent coverage of health insurance, I believe this update would be of interest to your small-business audience.”

• Don’t make your bio too long. A couple of sentences at the end is great. You’ll mostly prove you’re right for the assignment with the strength of your query, not your resume. This isn’t a college paper, so don’t put a long bibliography citing past articles. Instead, provide a few links to current clips online. If you don’t have anything online, make PDFs of a few articles so you can put them on your Web site and link to them there.

• Don’t throw in sources without explanation. If you mention sources you’ll use, be sure to connect them to the story – explain their expertise or how they’ll be used. Are they an example business, for instance, or perhaps an industry expert? Say, “I would interview the director of the Boys & Girls Club in Monterey about their years of experience helping the disabled,” not “Interviews would include the director of the Boys & Girls Club in Monterey.”

• Don’t fail to proofread. A single typo spells a quick trip to the trash can for query letters.

• Don’t forget to polish. This little query letter is your writing showcase! If you write a really standout query that shows you know the publication and its audience well,  you may get an assignment even if the editor doesn’t like this particular story idea. So buff it to a high shine. It should be so well-done you almost want to frame it instead of mailing or emailing it off.

Are there other query “don’ts” you see a lot out there, editors? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo via Flickr user Horia Varlan

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Why Editors Don’t Respond to Your Query

By Carol Tice

Has this happened to you? You write a query letter to a new publication you haven’t worked for before, you send it off…and then nothing.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this issue around this and other forums, mostly along the lines that editors who don’t respond with at least a ‘no thank you’ are thoughtless and rude. I find for the most part the writers making these comments don’t know a lot of editors.

Since I do, I thought I’d ask an editor or two about the volume of queries they get and the reasons they don’t respond to all their queries. I got feedback from several of my national-magazine editors about why this is–I’m not naming names here to prevent them from being inundated with even more queries!

Here are a few possible reasons editors haven’t responded to your query letter.

1) They get too many queries to respond to them all. One editor of a niche online vertical site for a national business magazine, for instance, let me know she gets 100 queries daily weekdays, and more come in on weekends. So think 600 or so queries a week. And she’s editing a niche online site for this publication, not even working for the print magazine! Imagine how many queries editors at big print publications are getting.

2) They haven’t looked at your query. Sometimes, editors fall behind–on long weekends, after vacations, on production day. They really may just not have read it yet, even though it’s been weeks.

3) They’re too busy with other tasks. Editors have a lot of responsibilities writers may not know about. They are not simply sitting at their desks editing copy and reading queries all day. They go on retreats, plan future issues, take meetings, work on budgets, work on layout redesigns, plan layoffs, take trainings to learn new technologies, interview prospective full-time hires, and brainstorm with their established writers. They are some of the busiest people I know. For instance, my BNET editor signed on to work at 3:40 a.m. one morning this week while also “upchucking” from a flu, and I routinely see him on at 11 pm as well.

4) They looked at your query, and it was lame. When editors get really bad queries–ones that aren’t remotely appropriate for their publication–they often just move on. I think they don’t quite know what to say. And they get so many queries that fall into this category–most editors I’ve ever worked with expressed disbelief at how many utterly amateurish, poorly crafted queries they receive.

Writers like to gripe about how editors can’t do them the courtesy of answering their query. Well, are you doing the editor the courtesy of sending them a stellar pitch?

Instead of focusing energy on perceived editor shortcomings, you’ll be better served by focusing on improving what you send them. If you’re not getting any bites, assume your queries could use improvement. Study your target publication carefully before writing. Read some of the great books out there on how to write query letters and ratchet up your skills. Query Letters That Rock is one good recent book on the topic. Also, send more queries to more publications and up your odds of success.

I’ve never met an editor who doesn’t live for the moment they find that rare query in their pile that knocks them out. It’s a fresh idea, sharply written, and they know right away this is a new writer they’ve just got to call. It just doesn’t happen that often. Good queries are like tiny masterpieces–they should be so great you almost want to frame them and put them on your wall instead of sending them in.

If your query is really strong but the idea isn’t a perfect fit, you can often still get a gig. This happened in the past week to one of my mentees–after we buffed up her query, a national magazine passed on her original idea but assigned her four marketing pieces instead. Invest some time and energy in mastering the art of querying and it’ll open a lot of doors for you.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo from Flickr user TheCreativePenn

9 Time Management Tips for Busy Writers

Improve Your Time Management Mom

Ariella gets an attitude if mommy works too much!

I wish I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “I don’t know how you do it all!” Many of the people who say this know that I’m married and have three kids–now aged 7, 8 and 17. And that besides my paying clients, I write this blog, blog once a week for WM Freelance Writing Connection, and am finishing up writing an ebook on freelance writing.

So given that this is productivity week, I thought I’d discuss some of the things I do that I believe make it possible for me to balance my busy family life with a good-earning writing career.

1. Exercise. I try to either walk uphill for an hour first thing in the morning, or do Wii Fit yoga before work, or I hike in the woods near my home or bike with my kids. Time spent exercising never subtracts from productivity-it makes you so much more creative and productive that it more than makes up for the time spent, I find. And it’s so important to stay healthy, or you won’t be earning well for long!

2. Have fun. I never miss my regular monthly Mah Jongg game. I go geocaching with my family. Last week, I learned to cross-country ski. I sometimes play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook with a bunch of my friends. These kind of breaks away from writing for high-quality family time and recreation are absolutely essential.

3. Rest. If you’ve read my previous post on the secret of my writing success, you know that I am always off my computer and away from all writing chores from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown each week. Remember, we’re not called human doings, but human beings. Our bodies weren’t designed to work all the time.

4. Outsource. I have housecleaners come twice a month to take care of all heavy cleaning. I send my teen to the mini-mart for a gallon of milk. I pay a Webmaster because tech stuff makes me cry. If it isn’t time-effective for me to do it, I find someone else to do it.

5. Let go. I do not have a pristine, utterly clutter-free house that looks like a design magazine is about to come take a photo. The pile of shoes and toys on my porch is atrocious. If we can walk about the house without tripping on anything, I’m pretty much satisfied.

6. Ruthlessly organize and prioritize. From my years as a legal secretary, I know to come into my office each day with an agenda. I know what the most important things are that need to get done, and the secondary objectives I’d like to get to, and I knock them out.

7. Turn down low-paying jobs. I focus on finding well-paid work and don’t waste time on low payers. That’s right, prospective clients call me and I turn them down if their rates aren’t in my ballpark.

8. Sleep and TV. I don’t do a whole lot of either. Six hours or so a night of sleep seems to do me, along with the occasional weekend nap. I frankly find the vast majority of TV shows really boring at this point in my life–a couple hours of shows is plenty in a typical week. I Tivo everything so I save 20 minutes watching commercials for every taped hour. Mostly, I’d rather read, write, think, or plan.

9. Say no. The fact is, I don’t really do it all. I turn down a lot of things. Will I organize the elementary school’s auction? No. Will I clean out the closet? No. Will I give a Torah commentary at the synagogue this week? No. Don’t try to conform to anybody’s idea of a supermom…those women are all having quiet nervous breakdowns, I believe.

What do you do to manage your busy schedule? Leave a comment and let me know.

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