Interview: Amy Gahran Part 2

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Amy Gahran is a self-proclaimed info-provacateur. She’s a writer, editor, trainer, content strategist, and consultant who’s been freelancing since the late 1990s. The author of Contentious, a weblog aimed at “how we communicate in the online age,” she’s just returned from a blogging conference for women,  BlogHer, this past weekend in Santa Clara, California.

Here are excerpts from our conversation, when I got the opportunity to ask her about her work and her enthusiasm for communication and technology, and how other writers can use blogging tools to their advantage. For more information about some of the topics discussed here, check out Amy Gahran’s weblog. Amy Gahran is on Twitter.

Here’s part one of our conversation; read on for part two.

How-to articles for freelance writers often talk about re-slanting a piece and that sounds almost like what you’ve been talking about—re-slanting your work from writing the article to going out and doing whatever the project is.

And you gain more credibility so it becomes easier to sell articles later on then if you want to. If you take the peon approach, if you’re constantly querying magazines and saying, “Please publish my article,” that’s not putting you in a strong position. That is not putting any power in your hands. Going out there and actually finding projects, making your own opportunities and having the guts to go after them is how you’re going to move your business forward and probably find more lucrative business opportunities. Let’s face it, most magazines and newspapers are very difficult to make a living with. Even if you’re staff, it’s difficult to make a living at that. It’s just the way that profession is, unfortunately.

You’ll also then build your credibility so that when you do go to magazines and newspapers or think about going to conferences you’ll have the credibility so that they might be coming to you.

A weblog is valuable because a weblog allows you to establish your credibility, show what you know, and also show your learning process. Prove that you can pick up quickly on things. A lot of people are afraid to admit that they’re just learning something but you know, the funny thing is, every time I’ve done a posting [along the lines of] “I’m just trying to learn this,” and “I’m confused by this,“ and “I think I just figured it out,” I get a ton of traffic to it. Because that reflects the kinds of queries that people are putting into search engines: “”How do I” or “what’s so important about.” The more you can put yourself in the shoes of your target audience—and a lot of that is thinking about what questions are foremost in their minds—the more likely they’re likely to find you. And then they’re likely to read you. And then they might link to you. And they might comment on you, and tell other people about you. It’’s a slow build and it’s very diverse and very organic but it’s intense and that’’s definitely one take-away I got from the BlogHer conference this past weekend, the first-ever conference for women bloggers: the power of just putting yourself out there and using that as a way to communicate who you are and what you do.

Almost everybody I spoke to there said that blogging has only been beneficial to their career.

I wouldn’t recommend that people start blogging before they take some time to actually read and comment on other people’s blogs; that makes a big difference. Its got its own rhythm and pace and flow. You’ll do a better job on your own blog if you spend some time reading blogs first. You don’t have to go out there and try to keep up with 500 blogs; find one or two that you like and see who they link to and follow those links and then gradually you’ll start to amass your own collection of blogs that are useful and interesting to you. That doesn’t just mean the things you’re already interested in; a lot of my favorite blogs are the ones that provide a lot of serendipity.

It’s very conversational. One thing that I’ve been thrilled about lately—and I’m actually going to write a book on this—is the incredible value of the public conversation. By that I mean not just people going back and forth about politics—one thing that annoys me about characterizations of blogs is that they’re either personal diaries or they’re diatribes about politics. I wrote an article a while back, “What’s a Blog? Bag the Stereotypes.” [In it] you’ll find my list of the major stereotypes of blogging and why they’re really stupid.

If you go and actually experience the diversity of blogs and other kinds of public forums—email discussion groups, online chats, just going to networking meetings or public meetings in your community, going to your church and getting involved in some of the discussions that happen there—it’s incredibly valuable to see how people construct value simply by putting ideas together. And that’s what the public conversation is all about.

By contributing a diverse perspective, weblogs are a very direct way to contribute to the public conversation. If you’re not comfortable with weblogs, I’d just encourage writers especially to find some key way to be involved in the public conversation on an on-going basis, to raise topics and to participate in discussions about topics, just because you learn so much from doing that. You can’t do it without listening a whole lot. And I think good writers first and foremost are observant, they’re good listeners, they figure out what’s going on around them, and they build on that.

There’s no such thing as an original idea, there’s just different ways of looking at things. Being part of a public conversation not only helps you gain confidence and credibility but is also has this magical way of bringing opportunities your way, all kinds of opportunities you never would have imagined. It’s just kind of a zen thing, I guess; there’s probably some sort of quantifiable mathematics or dynamics behind it but I just see it happening over and over. When people start speaking up—yes, you will face some criticism and dissent and that’s okay, you will also learn a lot, especially if you try to engage in a civil fashion people with whom you disagree. Opportunities will start coming your way just because you speak up and people know you exist. Most people never speak up. And that’s really sad. But it’s especially sad when writers try to limit their participation in the public conversation to selling articles. I think writers have a whole lot more to offer than that.

How do you keep up to date on trends in technology like blogs and podcasts? How would you advise writers who may not know much about them to inform themselves and to get started?

I constantly feel like I’m behind so it’s funny the illusion people have that I’m up to speed on these things.

The simplest thing I can say is learn how to use feeds. It’s basically a way for you to get instant notification anytime something has been published online—usually in a weblog but not only in a weblog—that is of interest to you. If there’s some topic that you want to learn about, say you’re a journalist and you cover the energy industry and you hear that there’s a bunch of stuff happening about distributed generation but you don’t really know what distributed generation is, you can go to a service like,, or and plug in that search term and generate a feed from it so it will let you know anytime something comes up that’s new about that topic. You don’t have to go out to the website to check it out, it all comes in to one place. It’’s very fast to look at that information and see what might be most relevant to you. I do that all the time to keep up with new topics and trends.

Also, ask people. Don’t feel you have to do all this research yourself. If you see somebody doing something cool or talking about something cool or writing about something cool, say, “Hey, this sounds neat and I’d like to find out more about it. How can I find out more about it? What can you tell me about it?” Geeks love to talk, they really do, you can’t shut them up. They may not always talk in an understandable fashion but I find a useful point is to ask people, “Where can a total beginner start to learn about these things?” That’s how I learned about blogs, that’s how I learned about podcasting—just about anything that has moved my career forward has been by finding a way to get announcements about it and also to just ask people and they will tell you. It’s pretty cool.

So how do you keep up? That’s just how I do it; how do you keep up with new developments?

I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, which are what led me to blogs. Once it started showing up in there, I started looking at blogs myself to see what was out there, how they worked, who was commenting on them, and then working backwards. I’d read through the comments and when people included their own blogs’ URLs, I started backtracking through them and through blogrolls (lists of links to other people’s blogs), too. I must have 20–25 blogs bookmarked on my computer and I’m always swapping them out and finding new ones.

Do you comment on blogs or publish your own blog?

I didn’t really comment on blogs very much—I recently started my own so now I comment a little bit more on blogs, just because I kind of feel like if you’re going to comment on someone’s blog—not that it’s necessary to have your own—it’s nice if you have your own, just being able to share. I feel more comfortable commenting on someone else’s blog because I have one I can point them back to.

That’s good to know. Most of the people who comment on my blog or other blogs either don’t have a blog or don’t do much with their own so it’s interesting—I’d never heard that perspective quite voiced that way before.

Like I said, writers are a natural to participate in public conversation so whatever way is comfortable for you and it feels like it furthers wherever you want to get to personally or professionally, do it. If weblogs are working for you, great. If there’s some other way to go about it, do it. The biggest mistake I see all kinds of people, but especially writers, make is to just keep their views to themselves. They’re afraid to get criticized or they’re just afraid to speak up and that impoverishes everybody.

Another thing I would encourage writers to do: Don’t just look at writing as a professional thing; yes, it is a professional thing but look at the rich texture of other kinds of writing that are happening out there. Blogs are really great for that because you get to see how that relates to specific people. It’s not just out there in the abstract. That’s made me look a lot more closely at the world around me and it’s blown a lot of assumptions I didn’t even know I had out of the water, which isn’t always fun but very important. Good writing comes from good observation and whatever you can use to observe and interact with people, your writing will be that much better for it and you’ll spot more opportunities because of it.

What would you say is probably one of the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made in terms of your freelance career? Something you would advise other writers to do or not do?

Two things: First of all, getting so wrapped up with my projects at hand that that I haven’t put as much energy into looking for new things—you always have to do that. Even if it’s just a matter of making sure you’re not forgetting about going and looking at sites that are good resources. MediaBistro, I try to check that out every week just because it’s such a rich source of ideas and leads. Even though I haven’t actually gotten a job through MediaBistro it gives me ideas of stuff that I want to look for and I’ll make my own opportunity.

Two: Getting so overwhelmed with communication that I sometimes fail to get back to people I really should get back to. I try to get back to everybody but I just get burned out sometimes. And I’m not even talking about e-mail with family and friends. I’m just talking about stuff related to my profession. When I get my fingers in as many pies as I do, I could really use a secretary. But then, you know, I think that if I had a secretary, I would have to invest a lot in training her as to how I do things and how I want things and—aw, I don’t want to do that. (laughs)

Those are the two things that continually trip me up. I regret that because I know sometimes people have felt dissed because I haven’t gotten back to them or there’s been times where I missed really big opportunities because I wasn’t looking for it because I was so wrapped up in meeting this one deadline that I just let everything else go. It’s not that you can be perfect about communication or about being vigilant all the time but sometimes I’m a lot better at it than others. And I need to learn how to recognize when I’m starting to get into a rut and get tunnel vision and have techniques to get out of it. That’s something I’m still working on.

A classic example: One of my projects right now is I, Reporter—it’s about citizen journalism. A colleague and I are putting together training in journalism skills for people who are not professional journalists and either want to do citizen journalism or who want to use utilize journalism skills in other types of activities. The London bombings happened right at a time when I was being hit with a couple of major crises in my personal life. I had e-mails and then phone calls from two major newspapers that were asking me to comment, and I was just so overwhelmed with what was going on in my life that I didn’t really get back to them on it. Doh! That would have been really good, but at the same time, I know other opportunities will come up. Even though that’s something I really should have been focusing on, I also had to give priority to what was going on in my personal life at that time. But you know, those kind of toss-ups—you’re never going to get away from that sort of thing unscathed. There’s no way I was going to deal with that situation without beating myself up on it somehow.

What would you say is the proudest moment you’ve ever had as a freelancer?

I’ve had a lot of good ones—the one that’s in my mind that just happened over this weekend was really cool. It was at the BlogHer conference. There’s a professor at NYU who writes a blog about journalism—PressThink—his name is Jay Rosen. I’ve been reading Jay for years and I have immense respect for this guy. I’ve never actually met him; I’ve commented on his blog a few times and he’s mentioned me once or twice but I just read it because I love the way this guy thinks. So he was at this BlogHer conference and he and I were sitting in on some of the same sessions and at one point he pulled me aside and he said,“Hey Amy, I like how you think!” It was so cool—Jay Rosen likes how I think!

I guess a lot of the proudest moments have been when I have done something that ends up really helping someone, and sometimes I don’t find that out all in one fell swoop, it comes in in dribs and drabs.

I wrote a tutorial on what feeds are and why you should care; everyday it gets the most hits on my site. People are always writing me to say how much they appreciate that and how it’s really helped them get a handle on following things that had been difficult for them to keep up with before. Also when something I say really resonates with somebody else and gets another part of the public conversation going—if I can kick something into gear, that just feels really good.

I’ve had a lot of good gigs with interesting clients, but what matters to me is: What is the effect? Not what did I get to do, but what happened because of it? What kind of difference did it make? There have been a few times when things have made a big difference and I’ve found that out usually after the fact. I’m so glad because a lot of times that happens when I stick my neck out, which is scary. You’d think I wouldn’t be scared by it, I’ve been doing it my whole life. A lot of times when I stick my neck out, I’ll find out later that it was very useful for other people that I did that and that feels really good.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit Amy Brozio-Andrews’ Web site.

Interview: Amy Gahran

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Amy Gahran is a self-proclaimed blogging  info-provacateur. She’s a writer, editor, trainer, content strategist, and consultant who’s been freelancing since the late 1990s. The author of Contentious, a weblog aimed at “how we communicate in the online age,” she’s just returned from the BlogHer blogging conference this past weekend in Santa Clara, California. Here are excerpts from our conversation, when I got the opportunity to ask her about her work and her enthusiasm for communication and technology, and how other writers can use blogging tools to their advantage. For more information about some of the topics discussed here, check out Amy Gahran’s weblog and her tutorial on webfeeds.

I’ve noticed on your website you have a wide variety of clients that you’ve worked for. How do you develop your clientele? Is it mostly through the web? Do you do cold calling? What sort of marketing do you do so that people know you’re out there?

Two main ways: the weblog is actually the main marketing tool for my services and there are a lot of reasons why that works well. Weblogs are a kind of website and you can put any kind of content you want on to them but they’re also a very interconnected tool. A lot of infrastructure exists out on the Internet so that if you post something on a weblog, word spreads fast and widely, far more so than if you just post something on a website.

Basically, if you posted a bit of information or news on a website you might wait days weeks or months for Google to index it. But if you post it on a weblog, and you have a feed going from that weblog, the feed would then go to places that collect a lot of feeds and instantly say, “Whoa, somebody just published something on this.” Somebody searching one of those search engines for a keyword would find it right away.

Also, I’ve seen evidence that leads me to believe that a lot of the big search engines are now picking up on those feed services that aggregate webfeeds. So probably a faster way to get your stuff into Google would be to publish it on a blog and ping (alert) a service like Technorati or Feedster. I know a lot of this is going to sound pretty alien—the bottom line is it’s a faster, broader way to get the word out because of the way weblogs are structured and interconnected—it’s even better than the web.

Another way is not just my own weblog but the comments features on other people’s weblogs. A lot of times, people find me because I comment on somebody else’s weblog and they’re like, “Well, who is this person?” And then they go find out about me.

And I’m always expanding my professional network. For instance, I’ve worked with the Society of Environmental Journalists in various capacities for fifteen years. You know, if you work with an organization like that, you get to know a lot of people.

I typically don’t do a lot of the traditional marketing stuff—this is just stuff I would do anyway, so I leverage it to build my business.

Seems like weblogs are able to give writers a bigger footprint than websites.

Easier too, just because there are so many hosted services you can use to create weblogs. Some of them are free but most of them are really cheap. And they just make it so much easier to publish than having to actually go into a program like Dreamweaver or FrontPage and build your own site and ftp everything up. It’s just so much easier to do it with blogging tools.

What inspired you to start Contentious and what motivates you to keep blogging?

Two things—first of all, nobody can shut me up and second of all, sheer frustration.

When I started Contentious in 1998, the web was just starting to get big at that point and I was reading a lot of stuff about what people were doing with websites. People were mainly talking about design and programming and things along those lines—either the technology or the design aspects and I didn’t really see anything at all concerning what they were saying.

Content was treated as if it was just popped out of thin air. People weren’t talking about quality of content and content strategy, how the audiences are different online and how you need to connect differently with them through the way that you phrase your information. Even basic things like how to write a link in the most useful way for people—that’s part of the content online, too, the connections—so I just got fed up with that.

I’d recently left my last full-time job, which was as managing editor for a think tank for the energy industry, managing a lot of white papers and things like that—I [thought] “I need to go independent and this web thing is getting big and what do I have that’s unique to offer?”

I had spent about three months trying to do the traditional freelance writer thing (sending out queries to magazines and all that) and getting nowhere. I was frustrated. I know three months is not a lot of time but I just felt like this web thing was so big and I was going to miss it so just out of sheer frustration I posted the first issue of Contentious in April of 1998. Basically I was considering it a webzine at that time because there were no blogging tools and nobody was using the word. I posted it, went out to lunch, came back an hour and a half later and had 500 requests for the email newsletter that I used to announce new content on the website.

The next day, AdAge and Wired Magazine and a bunch of places were calling to interview me and I thought, okay, right place, right time. I’ve pretty much gone in that direction ever since. I’ve done a little bit of traditional freelance writing here and there, mainly on energy and environmental topics but the online thing—specifically helping organizations figure out their content strategy and how best to say what they need to say online—that’s been my bread and butter. That and e-learning; I’m also doing e-learning course development now, too.

That’s a great field, too. I know a lot of writers think about professional writing as magazines, newspapers, books, white papers, and things like that and there are so many options to put good writing skills to use. E-learning is just one of them and when I talk to writers I try to encourage them to get out there, look more widely and start thinking more widely about how they can apply their skills.

What spurred you to make the transition from full-time employment to freelance work?

I’m a pretty bad employee. I’m way too opinionated. In any working relationship, it needs to be equitable on both sides, and in a traditional employment situation, unless you are very fortunate with a very good employer, most of the time they’ll talk to you really nicely, but when it comes down to making decisions, you’re the peon and they’re the kings. And I had a real problem with that.

I find being independent works much better for me. I get a lot more respect. I take bigger risks; I’ve had lean times, especially after the dot com crash. Those were a hard few years, not just for me but for anybody who was doing anything related to online media or technology. But the thing is, it’s rewarding in that I feel like I’m more in charge of what I do. When I see an opportunity, I get to go after it. If I see something stupid, I don’t have to go along with it. And I’m not trying to dis my former employers; my former employers were really great and they did their best. In the long run, my interest just lay elsewhere.

I really didn’t deal well with that culture of, well, we do it this way and we’re the boss so you have to do it that way—I can go with that on smaller things but on a day-to-day basis I can’t do it.

How important is it for freelance writers to be able to offer clients a variety of services? One of the things that struck me about your website and Contentious is the sheer variety of things that you’ve done: writing, editing, coaching, workshops, site critiques, research, ghostwriting, consulting. You’ve got a really comprehensive list of things that you can offer a client.

That works to my advantage. Because just by offering a diversity of services, that aids in my credibility and gets me into more communities. I can go and talk with people about content management systems or science writing or how to do effective lobbying. This is why I became a journalist in the first place, I’m insatiably curious. I think a lot of freelance writers are very curious, but they tend to always funnel that curiosity in the same ways. Let me see if I can sell a magazine on an article on this topic rather than actually going out and doing a lot of these things themselves.

A case in point is a very good friend and colleague of mine; Cathy Dold is one of the most accomplished science and medical writers that I know of, and she does a wide variety of work for a wide variety of — everything from patient information brochures to articles in Smithsonian Magazine. And when she sees something that interests her, she doesn’t just think about writing about it, she thinks about doing it. And that makes a big difference for her. She also is very forthright in being a leader in organizations, in getting people—especially media people—together and working on projects. That’s another part of it, because a lot of gigs come from who knows who and she gets a ton of referral business.

I know a lot of the things that I’m doing with e-learning and feeds and workshops might be far a field from what a lot of writers are dealing with but they could look at what Cathy Dold is doing and probably say, “Hey, wait a second, there might be some opportunity here,” like if you have a lot of expertise in the printing business. You might really be able to do some interesting things for content and communications for companies that are in that industry. And it might not be traditional articles. It doesn’t even have to be PR, although there are a lot of very interesting opportunities in PR.

For instance, in any type of industry where there’s a factory setting there’s a big need to provide simple, plain language materials explaining some of the complexities. Like for the printing business, how do you comply with all of the environmental regulations? How do you set your priorities? How do you help people make decisions? Those sorts of things are best handled by somebody who knows how to communicate rather than an expert in the topic because experts usually can’t communicate very well.

I know so many writers who are virtual experts or they are very familiar with how to learn a topic quickly and explain it quickly—that’s what a good writer does. They can use that talent in a lot of different ways and leverage that through all kinds of media. E-learning is just one example of that. Intranets are another. A lot of times companies build these intranets, kind of their own mini-Internet, and nobody uses it because nobody has put any thought into the strategies: how do we make this useful to people? A real writer could walk around and talk to people in a company and say, “What do you really need? How do you make that useful?” That’s not something the technology people should be doing and it’s not something that somebody who’s enmeshed in the internal politics of that company can be doing, because they’re not going to look at the practicalities. That is a good consulting job for an effective writer. To go in and see what the communication needs are and then come up with lists: here are some ways that you could use your intranet to be more practical for people.

I think writers underestimate the value of their skill for quickly digesting and translating information in a plain language way and there’s a lot of ways you can put that to good use and make money off of it.

In part two, Amy Gahran shares more on how writers can use blogs to establish their credibility, how you can keep up on new technology like blogging, and writers’ participation in the public conversation.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit Amy Brozio-Andrews’ Web site.

Career Smart Writing

By Ursula Vogt

The most important work any writer can do will never see an editor’s desk. It doesn’t make any difference what you write, where you publish, or even if you’re watching the mail for your first acceptance letter; the few pages you write for yourself can build a new career, or take an existing one to a much higher level.

If you’re looking for professional writing success, you probably use the one basic plan all writers have in common. Write. Submit. Cash the check. When the plan fails, and it will, a career smart writer survives while the rest talk about when they did a little writing once. For a lucky few, the basic plan works, but it’s not sophisticated, not focused enough to build a future. At some point, you need to write a career plan. Not just a general list of goals, because most of us have one of those, too; I mean a plan to reach those goals. It’s the best way to insure you have a career rather than a hobby.

Immediate gratification is priceless in our world. We want new ideas we can put to work right now, so let’s take that approach with a writing plan. Consider this a writing assignment from the toughest editor you know–yourself. Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to dream big. If you take it seriously and give it your best effort, your career plan will start producing usable results in about ten minutes.

Success Is A State Of Mind

Start by being clear about what success is for you. Everyone has a different definition, but the one thing most have in common is that you need to keep proving yourself. If you buy into that thinking, you’re giving someone else control of your career. Writers tend to focus on their lack of accepted submissions, their rejections, instead of focusing on their writing success.

Rejection letters are a big part of a writer’s life. You’re going to get them and sometimes your writing will deserve them, but notice I say, your writing deserves them, because rejection letters aren’t personal. Writing groups and chat rooms are full of that discussion, so don’t kid yourself into believing rejection letters are the reason you aren’t achieving goals. You might be a good writer who needs to polish up the submission and marketing skills, or one who needs to improve grammar and punctuation. It may be that the editor is shoulder deep in the same kind of thing you write.

Try a proactive approach that puts you in control. If you have successfully published before, you can do it again. If you haven’t—wonderful. You won’t make the mistake of starting out with the hit-and-miss approach. The key isn’t proving yourself; the key is training yourself to be the best writer you can be. Make it one of your goals to spend time improving your craft, and if you think you don’t need to learn anything more, think again. The markets change daily.

Despite our best efforts, eventually, we all pace the floor, coffee cup in hand, wondering what to write, where to submit, or considering real estate as a better career option. It’s a given that you will still have dry spells, but that isn’t a measure of success either. If you know where your writing is going, career dreams quit being dreams and become attainable goals. Dry spells stay dry, but they’re much shorter and they won’t take control. You will.

Playing Office

Have you ever had a day when ideas poured from someplace deep, someplace you didn’t recognize? It was so good you felt guilty for putting your name on it, because surely, creative elves visited your desk during the night?

The next day usually turns out to be one of those dry days we were just talking about. In the absence of a creative downpour, you start organizing file drawers and alphabetizing sticky notes, looking for that writer’s high. You can’t recreate that feeling any other way than by writing. Playing office is the ultimate denial. You can organize all day long, a few days like that are actually necessary, but if you don’t write, you won’t achieve the level of satisfaction we all look for.

Go ahead and use the dry time as effectively as you can. Maybe reading through old notes and files will jog the muse to life, but recognize it for what it is. Try writing, even if it turns out to be the most creative grocery list at the market.

Write The Plan

Once you are past the success crisis, it’s easier to be realistic about what you really want to achieve. Do you want to write a book? Good, write that down. How about a specific number of article submissions a month? Add that to your list. I have a conference I want to attend that requires submission of several chapters, two months in advance. It’s on my goals list.

Take an honest look at your desk. What do you have that needs work? What potential story dried up? What market possibility sits there unexplored? Maybe your desk is empty. Add, find potentials to the list.

The Daily Check

I have four or five questions tacked over my desk that I apply to everything I write, and I should be able to answer yes to at least one, and preferably all of the items on the checklist. Feel free to use mine or tailor it to your own goals, but keep it positive. Keep moving your career in a forward direction.

  1. Will today’s project improve my writing skills?
  2. Will this expand my knowledge base?
  3. Is the submission to a well-researched market?
  4. Will the publication be a good addition to my writing resume? If not, is there a strong reason for submitting it anyway? Sometimes volunteer work is a reason of its own. Maybe you just like the publication enough that your resume isn’t the goal. Allow yourself these rejuvenating writing projects, they’re important.
  5. Does it define me, as a writer, in a positive light?

Your list may contain things like targeting particular markets or specific genres. Maybe it moves you toward finishing that book and learning to market it.

If a project doesn’t fit the plan, don’t pitch it. File it away for another day when it can be tweaked to fit. As you expand your knowledge base, you may find one of these ideas to be perfect in the future.

Not Just Another Plan

The most important aspect of a career plan isn’t the actual writing. Have you ever wondered why simple writing goals weren’t met in the past? There’s a good chance the reason is that a goal was set, but no solid plan to achieve it came next. What makes your plan a success is that by developing the checklist, you commit to action every day.

Another crucial follow-up is to treat goals like you would any assignment. Show up at the desk ready to do your best. Go an extra step by scheduling time to evaluate your progress, adjusting either the plan or your approach, and be flexible. You may need to fill in gaps, or slow the pace if you’ve over-estimated.

Take a few minutes to write three pages today, and you’re less likely to give up on success tomorrow. By following your own plan, you spend time improving your writing instead of getting caught up in the hit-and-miss approach. Achieving the smaller goals will add up to a successful writing career instead of a writing hobby.

© Copyright 2001 Ursula Vogt

Ursula Vogt is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Writer’s Digest, Chronicle Online, The Writing Parent, Parenting Today’s Teens and Writer’s Exchange. You can find her at Looking for a Substitute Recap Writer

Hey, AWers – I just received an email from Christine Fix, the Editor-in-Chief at

Substitute Recap Writer: is seeking a strong writer who resides in Ontario Canada to write “day ahead” recaps for the following soap operas: “Young and The Restless” and “Days Of Our Lives.”

The candidate will be open to receiving emails and or calls to substitute for the regular writers without much advance warning.

The candidate must have a fast internet connection, be able to type at least 40 wpm, be able to recap the episode, proof and post on the website within an hour and a half of the start of the episode. Having a screen capture card will be an asset to you.

The episode recap should be no more than 800 words and be in the same format used by the website.
The pay is $25.

Applicants can contact Christine Fix at contact – at – with a resume and four writing samples.

If you’re an Ontario writer with a love of soaps, this just might be for you!

Ask And Ye Shall Receive (Most of the time)

By Sable Jak

A few days ago I got an email from an editor asking me if I was available to take an interview with a well-known screenwriter. I made a couple of phone calls to rearrange my schedule and became available.

As I was interviewing the writer about his latest work, I touched on something else he’d done. The “something” was a favorite of mine and we talked about it briefly, within the context of the interview. That was the end of it.

But all day after the interview I kept thinking, “I really have so many other questions.” I had been given the opportunity to talk to someone whose work I admired. I now made a new opportunity and emailed him asking him if he would be interested in granting another interview, this time specifically about the piece of work on which we’d touched so lightly. I assured him it would be an email interview so he could answer the questions at his leisure. The tone of his reply had a distinct “delighted” feel to it as he agreed to the new interview.

I had turned one opportunity into a second one.

One of the zines I write for didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering a yearly event. I don’t think anyone’s ever covered the event for the zine. I wondered if I could, and decided to follow my daddy’s advice “You don’t ask; you don’t know.” I fired off an email asking if I could cover the event. The editor agreed. The event offers many more opportunities to people willing to grab them while attending.

As you can see, I’ve had one opportunity lead to another, which leads to another which—you get my drift. The funny thing is, when a writer I know asked me what I was doing, and I told him, he said, “Gee, how’d you get those gigs? Wish stuff like that would happen to me.”

Well, “stuff” didn’t happen to me. Months ago I submitted an article to an editor, then another. Next I proposed an idea for another article and another. When the ideas were accepted, I delivered. And, most importantly, I also made myself available for other gigs that might lead to more opportunities. I’m not saying that opportunities don’t just “happen,” because they do. More likely, however, they happen because the people who get them have been busy setting them up. If you don’t believe me, think about some of the “opportunities” you’ve been presented. Weren’t most of them the result of something else? Weren’t they, in some small way, the result of a prior set up that you may, or may not, have set up?

Just how is an opportunity set up? That’s easy, by asking. For instance:

Several of my latest articles in Scr(i)pt ezine are the result of me asking if I could write them. I had an idea for an interview with a tax attorney. After all, a writer’s taxes can get rather sticky and who better to ask about tax stickiness than a tax attorney? Also, a woman I know had organized a rather extensive advanced screenwriter’s retreat. I thought it might make a good story and I asked the editors at Scr(i)pt if I could do an interview with the organizer. They said yes.

And if they’d said no? So what?

So what if they would have said no! Would I be worse off than I was before I’d asked the question? Oh, there’s always the possibility my ego would have been wounded, but Billy Keen pretty well wounded that for all time when he refused to kiss me in the cloakroom back in second grade. The fact is, no, I wouldn’t be worse off than if I’d never asked. As a matter of fact, even if they’d said no, I might still be better off. Why? Because, by suggesting articles, I’m (hopefully) showing that I’m willing to take on more work.

It’s a fact: you don’t ask, you don’t know. What will anyone do to you if you do ask for something? Cut off your hands? Scream at you? Turn you over to some secret organization that puts a black mark on your permanent record? (Wait, that permanent record was used back in the second grade too, wasn’t it?) The worst thing that anyone can do is say, “no.” In which case, once you’ve been given a “no,” you simply ask another question, or put together a question that can’t be turned down.

Once you’ve got a few of your own opportunities finished, relax and let all sorts of new “stuff” happen to you.

Remember, writing is a solitary activity shared by many.

Sable Jak is a screenwriter who is still questing after the secrets of screenwriting. She loves Celtic art and finds a correlation between its mesmerizing intertwining lines to both the craft of screenwriting and the business of film making. You can find her at her Website,

Both Sides of the Fence: What I Learned about Writing by Being an Editor

By Dawn Allcot

I just submitted a story to a trade magazine. This is nothing unusual for a freelance writer. It’s even less unusual since I regularly contribute to this publication.

Seconds later, in my mailbox, a manuscript appears. Not mine, thankfully. (Getting your manuscripts returned, even via e-mail—especially via e-mail—is bad.) This is an unsolicited story from a talented writer who hopes to be published in my magazine.

Call it “editor karma.” Here’s how it works: I submit my story, hopefully making my editor’s morning as she crosses one more story off her editorial map. I get a nice, 1,500-word story that fills a hole I thought I was going to go to sleep worrying about.

Such is the life of a magazine editor by day, freelance writer at night.

Sometimes, I get jealous of my freelancers. I spend eight hours a day cleaning up their run-on sentences, grammatical faux pas, and sloppy fact-checking while their names go in the magazine and I get nothing but a bi-weekly paycheck for my toils.

Sure, I’m “the editor-in-chief.” That just means when something goes wrong, I get to field the nasty phone calls.

Erika-Marie Geiss, editor-in-chief of theWAHMmagazine, straddles the editor-writer fence, too. “Wearing both hats—that of one who reviews submissions and queries and that of one who sends them—gives me a new appreciation for an editor’s job,” she says. “I know from the post-acceptance point-of-view that presenting well-organized copy is crucial!”

Geiss, who is far less cynical than I am about editing, highlights the importance of following writers’ guidelines, just one of many lessons of freelancing hammered home by her experience as an editor.

“As a freelancer, I’ve always known it is good etiquette to do so,” she says. “In developing theWAHMmagazine, I discovered first-hand that editors have some very specific reasons for why they want to receive submissions in a certain way. Paying attention to guidelines is very important. When someone writes something that is ‘spot on,’ but they didn’t follow the basic rules, the editor is faced with a tough decision. Do I accept the submission anyway, or do I not consider it because this person can’t follow directions?”

What Editors Want

Editors can be picky, but we have good reasons for it. We are not simply intoxicated with the power of doling out rejections and assignments; editors want the best content for our publication. We determine pay rates not by whimsy, but with a desperate desire to stay within our budgets. When we request a specific slant for an article or set a word length, we have our motivations.

And when we send a friendly e-mail asking, “How’s the story coming?” we are hoping that you plan to submit it any second—probably because we have an anxious art department asking us the same question!

I learned all this as an editor, before I started making anything close to a living as a freelance writer. Here are some other trade secrets:

Longer is better than shorter—unless the editor says it’s not.

Concerned that I was consistently submitting stories 100 to 300 words over the assigned word length for one publication, I asked one of my editors if this was a problem. “We’re more concerned about the writers who turn in 800 words for a 1,200 word piece, and you can tell they didn’t put the necessary work into the article,” he said.

Speaking from experience, it’s easier to tighten a story of 1,200 words down to a 1,000-word article, drop a photo, or even stretch the story to an additional page than it is to fill a page when a story falls short of the projected length.

Freelance writers and editors agree that “on target” is best—within about 10 percent of the expected length—and that writers should do everything they can to hit that target. But when you can’t (especially with magazines, which are a bit more flexible with space than newspapers), longer is better than shorter.

Give editors what they want—not (necessarily) the story you want to write.

Editors get paid to come up with ideas. We know our audience, and we know what’s been covered in the recent past, as well as the angles our competitors have covered. If an editor gives you an assignment, use the sources recommended and cover the points the editor has asked you to cover.

You may have a different angle in mind or a similar idea that you think is better, but—at least for now—the editor wants to print the story he assigned you to write. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in your execution of the article, but make sure you’re giving the editor what he asked for. The article might be scheduled to appear in a special themed issue, or it could have been a story requested by several readers, or even a topic tailored toward advertising interests.

If you find a compelling reason not to follow the editor’s suggestions for an article, tell the editor as soon as possible. Your idea may very well be better, but the editor doesn’t want to find out the day before deadline that you are not submitting the piece he expected. You can pitch your idea as a follow up, but an assignment is an assignment for a reason.

Do the legwork.

If you’ve agreed to provide photos for a piece, do so (in the format the editor requested).

If an editor wants a list of sources, provide it.

“Legwork” also includes fact-checking your article. If anything seems unusual but you have confirmed it is correct, point it out to the editor. You’ll save the editor some time, and she will look kindly on you when it comes to doling out assignments for the next issue.

You are not the only contributor.

This realization manifests in many ways: patience after submitting an article, politeness when following up, and providing as many identifying details as you can when approaching an editor you’ve only worked with a few times.

“Patience is a virtue,” Geiss advises. “Don’t fret if you don’t get an immediate response. It takes time to read submissions and make decisions.”

If you’re a freelancer following up on a submission after a reasonable amount of time, give the editor as much information as you can to make it easy for her to remember your submission. An e-mail asking: “Did you get my submission? Signed, Joe” can frustrate an editor on deadline.

Include the name of the article, date submitted, and your first and last name. Editors assign dozens of stories a month; don’t be offended if we don’t immediately remember which article we assigned to you.

Always include your contact information on submissions, too. I don’t care how well I know you. The office gets crazy around deadline time, and the less information I have to look up or double-check, the easier my job is. Editors love (and hire) writers who make our jobs easier.

Learn, learn, learn

I often find myself correcting the same mistakes—in style or formatting—from the same writers, time after time.

When your article hits the newsstands, take a few moments to bask in the glory of seeing your byline and story in print. Call your friends. Do the happy dance.

Then read the published version and compare it to your submitted piece. Analyze any changes the editor made, and think about why he may have made those changes. Each publication has its own style and voice, and the better you can adopt that voice in your articles, the more assignments you’ll earn from that magazine. Editors are at the mercy of the accounting department, too.

The editor is your first point-of-contact when it comes to payment issues. But very rarely does the editor actually cut your check. In fact, they probably have as little control as you do over when the accounting department decides to settle invoices.

If a magazine is late with your payment, inquire politely. The editor may direct you to the accounting department, or she may decide to take care of the situation herself. Either way, angry, accusing e-mails won’t accomplish anything. The editor might be as frustrated as you are with the situation!

Yes, writers deserve to be paid fairly and promptly. Yes, you have every right to try and collect payment. But editors switch jobs, and the editor you alienated because your check was late may just wind up at a publication that pays their bills on time. Too bad she’ll forget the good work you did in the past and just remember you as “the writer with a bad temper.”

I don’t want to pass the buck here (so to speak), but if you’re going to yell at anyone, yell at the accounting department. Although, before you do that, it may be wise to remember that old phrase about bees, honey, and vinegar.

Say thank you.

Editors are people, too. Really. We are. When you find an editor who prints your work, treats you well, and pays promptly (aren’t those the traits that make up the perfect editor?), take time to say thank you! Editors are busy—everyone’s busy these days—but no one is ever too busy to read a note of appreciation.

Not to toot our own horns, but editors who moonlight as writers often make the best clients for freelancers. We understand how writers pour their hearts into every submission; we know how they toil over word choices; we realize that prompt payments can mean the difference between living on Ramen or buying a roast.

“When it comes to responding to queries, I try to respond in ways I’d like to be treated by editors—despite being busy,” Geiss says. “I don’t think that being a busy editor gives someone license to be disrespectful or “holier-than-thou.’”

While editors who write tend to treat our freelancers well, it also means we set high standards. We expect to be treated by our writers the same way we treat our own editors. Editors and writers, really, are not that different, after all.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of RECON, the Magazine of Woods Paintball. Her blog, It Had to Be Said, covers her life as a writer and her rants as a New Yorker. Dawn lives on Long Island with her husband and four cats. You can find her at Alcott Media.

Thoughts on a Bicycle Going Nowhere

By Susanne Shaphren

My boring black bicycle traveled over 1500 miles last year without ever leaving the house

Day after day, I pedal furiously only to wind up in exactly the same spot.

The daily routine of well-disciplined writers is alarmingly similar to that bicycle going nowhere. Day after day, we write, revise and cross our fingers as we complete that last round of proofreading. Submitting online or stuffing manuscripts into neat brown envelopes with an expensive array of stamps is the beginning of a journey that ends all too often right where it started with nothing but rejection to show for the trip.

Perhaps the similarity between the bicycle going nowhere and the pursuit of a writing career is more symbolic. No actual distance is conquered by the exercise bike, but muscles are tightened and calories burned. At the end of the ride, I’m a bit more in shape.

Every day at the typewriter or computer accomplishes some small improvement too. We travel a bit farther down the road to proficiency by more clearly defining a character, constructing a sentence a bit more effectively, surprising the author as well as the reader with a wonderfully clever plot twist.

Before the exercise bike was uncrated, I’d decided that promptly at nine each morning, I would mount up for my daily quota of exercise. No matter how firm my resolve, it seemed Fate had other ideas. The dog couldn’t possibly get tangled in the fence at a more convenient hour. Friends I’d not spoken to in five years suddenly called. Neighbors just happened to drop by with freshly baked coffee cake or small emergencies that couldn’t wait.

Just like a not-so-instant replay of my humble beginnings as a writer. I’d set my alarm for the crack of dawn, vowed to swallow one quick cup of coffee and head for the typewriter no matter what. Had I but known the infinite variety of no-matter-whats, I might never have gotten out of bed!

Developing a schedule that was rigid in terms of total time but flexible about specific hours made all the difference in the world. Deciding that 30 minutes of bike riding would be enough, estimating a minimum of five hours at the typewriter, never failed.

If everything went perfectly, I’d ride my bike in the early morning when it was cool and save my writing for late evening when the phone seldom rang. But I was no longer a slave to the clock. I could turn on a portable fan and ride in the afternoon, take advantage of the answering machine and write any time of day or night. On really rugged days, I divided tasks into easily managed segments. A mile or two of bike riding between errands. Five or ten pages while the laundry dried.

My original goal of ten miles a day evaporated into frustration after the first mile made my out-of-shape muscles scream. Equally impossible was my novice’s dream of turning hours a day into a best-selling novel by the end of the year.

Setting more reasonable goals made all the difference between sticking to the task and giving up completely. So I couldn’t ride ten miles that first day. I could do one. By the second day, it was a bit easier and by the third . . .

The mere thought of that novel was enough to panic me into contemplating a career as a factory worker, but there was nothing scary about one or two pages of polished prose.

Something like the proverbial bird told me when it was time to upgrade my goals. No doubt about it, I was cheating myself by doing two miles when I could probably do three. Surely, it was time to leave the comfort of letters to the editor and plunge into the icy water of genuine competition.

I’ve worked up to the point where ten miles a day is fairly easy, but that daily ride on the bicycle going nowhere is boring, so dull I’m often tempted to just forget it. Stubborn pride prevents me from giving up. I quickly reach for a brand new issue of my favorite writing magazine, a crisp paperback, any traveling companion to keep me going that extra mile.

Many would-be writers have switched to “easier” professions like skydiving because of the boredom of daily routine. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the problem.

Something as simple as changing font color on all those preliminary drafts no editor sees may do the trick.

Working on a project short enough to complete in a single session does wonders for your morale. So can stretching out and immersing yourself in something long enough to allow the luxury of richly developing characters and ideas to their full potential.

A sure cure for boredom is taking a safari into an entirely different market area. If you make your living writing history texts but devour Ellery Queen for sheer pleasure, why not try your hand at creating a mystery short story? Is fantasy your bread and butter? Think about a solid piece of non-fiction for a change of pace.

Even a three-year-old knows better than to pedal his tricycle backwards. Can’t get anywhere that way. Why then do so many of us waste time agonizing over rejection? Forward. On to take advantage of editorial comments that might make the manuscript fare better at its next destination. Out to the next market on the list. Full speed ahead with a brand new project.

Years of dealing with rejection taught me that the more manuscripts making the rounds, the less pain caused by a single, “Sorry, this doesn’t quite meet our needs.”

No matter how many thick brown envelopes in your snail mailbox, how many “Sorry” emails, there should always be a few potential masterpieces on editors’ desks.

Is a published manuscript the only true measure of “success?” Not in the long run. Even the total failure you banish to the back of the file cabinet teaches you valuable lessons that will help you tackle the next project.

Developing a workable schedule, setting reasonable goals, battling boredom and refusing to be intimidated by rejection make your daily writing sessions more pleasant and profitable.

Anyone willing to invest time and effort can’t possibly stand still  . . whether pedaling a bicycle going nowhere or pursuing the craft of writing.

A slightly different form of this article was published in Freelance Writer’s Report.

Editor’s note: Susanne Shaphren passed away in 2009. She will be missed.

Finding the Appropriate Publisher for Your Work

By Jodi Brandon

With tens of thousands of books published annually and hundreds of thousands of magazine articles published annually, it’s easy to see how you (and your work) can get lost in the shuffle. If you’ve chosen the right outlets for your writing — and by “right,” I mean the most appropriate — that won’t happen.

The process is tricky because writers want to be published. We want the by-line or the book deal so badly that we sometimes lose sight of the long-term and instead choose the short-term gratification of having our work accepted and published. Choosing to work with any ol’ publisher or publication instead of waiting for the right one, though, can come back to haunt us. So how can we prevent that from happening?

The short answer is the one we all learned in Writing 101: Make a list of potential markets (by way of our old friend, Writer’s Market), study them, narrow down the list, study some more, and choose the best — most appropriate — fit.

What do I mean by appropriate? There are two aspects that need to be considered: topic and size of the publisher or publication. Let’s start with topic-appropriateness.


Let’s say you’re working on a nonfiction book proposal. Your first step is to weed out fiction-only publishers. You’re left with a huge list of publishers of nonfiction books of all kinds. To narrow down that list, be as specific as possible about your proposal. What kind of nonfiction book are you writing? Let’s say it’s a book about the crisis in the Catholic church. Now you can search for publishers of religion and current events books. This list would include American Catholic Press, Four Faces Press, and Regnery Publishing. This step will be even easier once you identify your approach. Are you tacking the subject from a religious perspective or a current events perspective? There — you’ve narrowed down your potential publishers list still further. You’ll find out what to do with that working list when I discuss finding a size-appropriate publisher later in this article.

Sticking with topic-appropriateness, let’s say it’s an article on the crisis in the Catholic church, not a book. To perfect your query, you need to focus that idea. Will your article be a commentary on the legal aspects of the situation? Will it be a commentary on the state of the church today? Or perhaps it will be a profile of several victims? The focus of your article will guide you to the appropriate market. Perhaps your list includes Christianity Today, Church & State, and Spiritual Life.

Writer Julie Hood, freelance writer and moderator of The Organized Writer recommends that writers do more than just read Writer’s Market to find the best fit for their work. Julie says, “They need to check the advertisements and ask themselves, ‘Would a reader buying X want to read my article?’” In her e-book, The Organized Writer, Julie recommends using a fill-in-the-blank form called a “Publication Analyzer” to study a market. The form has sections on demographics, article topics, and advertisers to help writers find the most appropriate publication.

Where Do Agents Fit In?

For book writers, often the path to the appropriate publisher is via the appropriate literary agent, particularly if you want to work with a large publishing house. Most of these houses don’t accept unagented material. You can find literary agents who specialize in your subject matter in the Literary Marketplace. Another option is to go to a bookstore or library, find the section that will host your book, pick up a few titles, and scan the acknowledgments for agents’ names. Some authors mention their agents; others don’t. Once you have a couple names jotted down, you’ve got a starting point: a list of agents who you know have worked with your genre, perhaps even your specific subject area or topic. These people will know which publishers to contact — and, better still, which editors at which publishing houses.


Once your topic is focused — and this applies whether you’re writing a book or an article — you should be looking at a handful of appropriate publishers. So which of these appropriate publishers is the most appropriate? Let’s look at the pros and cons of large versus small and mid-sized publishing houses as well as national, large-scale magazines versus smaller and regional publications.

Money is the name of the game in book publishing. The equation is simple: Generally speaking, the larger the publishing house, the larger the authors’ advances and marketing budgets. That’s a bit misleading, though, because if a publisher’s marketing budget is, say, $100,000, and that publisher has 100 authors, that doesn’t mean that each author gets $1,000. Big-name authors will get the bulk of the advance money and be sent on national author tours with book signings, TV appearances, and so forth. The majority of writers, unfortunately, get lost in the mix.

If you’re willing — and able, financially — to take on the bulk of marketing and publicity duties on your own, and the cache of a large publishing company appeals to you, then go for it. The publicity department will love you, in fact, because you’re doing its job: Promoting a book for as little money as possible — in this case, nothing out of the publisher’s pocket. You’ll be the one creating postcards and/or bookmarks, sending out press releases, setting up book signings, paying for expenses, scheduling interviews with media, and so on.

There’s less money to go around for all writers at smaller publishing houses, but as long as that money is spent wisely, you’ll be in good shape. Maybe you won’t go on a national book tour, and maybe you won’t make it onto Good Morning America, but maybe you’ll get a regional book tour and a national radio tour, in which you conduct phone interviews from home with radio stations across the country. As Massachusetts-based writer April Prince points out, “Especially if your work is aimed at a niche market, specialized publishers are a terrific avenue for getting your message out.” The reason for this is specific familiarity with a certain subject matter.

This familiarity translates into every aspect of the publishing process. Your editor knows the right questions to ask, the sub rights department knows which magazines to contact about serial rights, and so forth. Laurie Kelly, Sales Representative at The Career Press, Inc./New Page Books, notes that an appropriate publisher is critical to the sales process: “Publishing with a company with existing relationships in the marketplace in your subject is essential. It means I know which buyer to contact at bookstore chains, which mailing lists to use to target special sales, and so forth. Otherwise, we’re starting from square one.”

If you’re writing an article, certainly a publicity budget doesn’t apply, but the same principle does. A national magazine gives you national exposure with mountains of readers (and probably a higher per-word pay rate), whereas smaller, trade, and regional magazines have a more limited, and sometimes specialized, readership. Are you trying to establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic? If so, a subject-specific publication (as opposed to a general-interest publication) could be the way to go. The smaller per-word pay could be worth it in the long run if your clip gets into the right hands and puts you on your way to being the expert in a particular field.

Sure, it takes a bit of work, but finding the most appropriate home for your work is worth it in the long run.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she has also completed a number of writing projects on behalf of national and regional clients. You can learn more about Jodie Brandon on her website.

Beating Burnout

By Phyllis Hanlon

Your phone has been ringing regularly; your mailbox is stuffed with assignments for magazine and newsletter articles; every time you sign onto the Internet, the familiar “You’ve got mail!” announcement greets your ears along with several positive responses to your e-queries. The freelance life is looking good. The paychecks have started to roll in on a regular basis and you’ve stopped questioning your decision to leave the “9 to 5” world of suits, commutes, and office politics. So why are you feeling like you’ve gotten on a merry-go-round and can’t get off? After the initial euphoria at your growing success, could you be experiencing freelance burnout?

Much like a hamster that expends countless hours and an inordinate amount of energy “spinning his wheels,” freelance writers can sometimes feel as if they, too, have embarked on a frenetic, go-nowhere journey. Sometimes the more intensely you work, the less you seem to accomplish. As you feverishly make and answer phone calls, conduct interviews, send out queries, spend hours at the computer or with pen poised over paper, you may find your desk still piled high with last week’s assignments. Burnout can be distressing emotionally and might lead to financial backsliding if not addressed. By acknowledging that you need to recharge and then taking steps to accomplish that goal, you can begin the journey toward restoring balance and reclaiming that initial feeling of joy.

John McCollister, author of Writing for Dollars: 75 Tips For The Freelance Writer, notes that juggling several projects at once helps to keep ideas fresh and flowing. “If you’re writing a book, start a magazine article. Or write some verses for greeting cards,” he writes. “By changing gears, you lessen your chances of burnout.” According to McCollister, tackling a new niche area can potentially take you in a different direction and possibly result in additional assignments. He cites Charles L. Dodgson as a prime example. An Oxford mathematician, Dodgson switched from writing academic papers on calculus and trigonometry to creating a children’s book still widely read today. Using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Dodgson penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Although not the same as writer’s block, burnout might be resolved with remedies designed to replenish ideas and promote creative flow. In her book The Right To Write: An Invitation And Initiation Into The Writing Life, Julia Cameron speaks of the “writer’s well,” an “inner pond” that holds an unlimited source of ideas and energy. But much like a river or lake after a long, arid spell, that pool of resources can run dry. Cameron’s suggestions for refilling the well through an “artist date” may refresh the overworked freelance writer and reinstate balance.

The last thing you might want to do when your desk is piled high with assignments approaching deadline is to take time off. However, this counter-intuitive idea might be the answer to your problem. Cameron advises outings to museums, aquariums, craft, map or plant stores, and gardens among other thoughts—any activity that removes you from your present stressful and overwhelming situation. Her reasoning suggests that investing in one area of life, i.e., “self-enrichment,” will pay off in another. She writes, “If we lead a life that is too narrow, too focused, too oriented toward our goals, we will find our writing lacks flavor, is thin on the nutrients that make it both savory and sustaining.” Try expanding your world and your outlook. You might find the experience beneficial in a number of areas of life.

Another quick and inexpensive way to recharge is a mini-vacation. Unlike a vacation in the true sense of the word—after all, you wouldn’t hop a plane for an exotic island after each assignment—a shorter version has the power to jumpstart your energy, drive, and enthusiasm. This “vacation” might consist merely of a walk outdoors, an hour with a good book unrelated to business, 15 minutes of meditation or a vigorous weeding session in the garden. All of these activities serve to remove your focus from the job at hand and direct it toward a different, non-writing related event.

Vigorous exercise serves to work your physical muscles as well as your mental ones. Experts have proved that burnout resulting from stress can lead to a number of medical ailments ranging from hypertension, obesity, and depression to immune system disorders and even cancer. Keeping that in mind, a regular program of exercise will ensure your physical health, which directly impacts your emotional well-being. The natural chemical changes that occur in your body after exercise may even stir up the creative juices and bring a fresh perspective when you return to your desk.

John Clausen, author of Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal, takes the reader back to childhood with his suggestion for rejuvenating body and spirit. Take a nap! Seriously, he admits that he naps daily to refresh himself. “One of the best things I do for myself is a thirty-minute, post-lunch siesta on the couch in my office,” he writes. “I wake up refreshed and ready to work. I have no doubt that a little down time increases the quality of my writing. Plus, it makes me feel like a free man.” Clausen warns not to exceed the half-hour limit. He maintains that a longer nap will leave you groggy. “If you need more than half an hour to replenish your energy level, then you probably ought to be getting more sleep at night.”

If you notice the signs of burnout creeping into your day, don’t give up and call your former boss or study the “Help Wanted” pages. By varying the assignments that you tackle, taking regular “mini-vacations,” engaging in some kind of physical activity, and post-lunch napping, you can recharge those draining batteries. Like all precious resources, a writer’s mind needs to be protected and nurtured. By taking care of the body, your mental faculties will remain sharp and your outlook, positive. Now, excuse me, while I prepare for my afternoon nap.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible.

Interview with Brette Sember

Interview by Alyice Edrich

When did you begin your writing career and what inspires you to write?

Writing runs in my family. My mother writes college textbooks and I began working for her when I was in high school. I also was the editor of my high school paper and co-editor of the school literary magazine. I majored in English in college and then went on to law school. After practicing law, I decided I wanted to be able to stay home with my children. In a serendipitous twist of fate, I got a phone call from an editor who asked me to write a book about how to file for divorce in NY. This was how my writing career began.

I am inspired to write by many things. My self-help law books are inspired by the obvious need I see to make the law more understandable and accessible to the people it is for. My children, my hobbies, and my desire to reach out to other writers inspire my other writing.

What was the first market you queried and why did you choose that market?

The first market I queried was a national parenting magazine. I wrote an essay about how I wanted to leave my law practice and stay home with my children. At first, I was writing simply to try to understand my own feelings. Then I realized I could sell the essay. I got an acceptance from At Home Mother, which was my first sale.

When did you decide to start writing for parenting publications?

Writing for parenting publications seemed a no-brainer for me, since I was committed to being an at-home parent and my children were (and are) an important part of my life. I had (and have!) lots to say about families, parenting, children, and family life. I wrote for parenting publications from the get go. I became a regular writer for my local regional parenting publication and soon had a column there. I began exploring how to reach other regional parenting publications.

What have you found the most difficult about writing for parenting publications?

I think it is difficult to break into national parenting publications. I found that it was more efficient for me to focus on regional magazines, where I could re-sell a piece to many magazines, than to spend all my time querying nationals.

In your experience, what are the best articles to submit to these publications and how far in advance should you query them?

There is no reason to query regional parenting publications. The editors prefer to receive written pieces so they can toss it or add it to their file for a specific month. They don’t really have the time or interest to deal with queries. It is best to send a piece to regional magazines three months before it would need to run—for example, articles about Christmas should be sent no later than September to appear in the December issue. Pieces that are not tied to an event, holiday or season can be sent as soon as you write them.

Regional parenting publications are always looking for articles that tie into seasons or holidays. Craft articles, family activity articles, and parenting advice pieces are well received. There is also a growing emphasis on articles that deal with pre-teens and teens. Magazines are finding that their readers want information and suggestions about parenting these age groups.

What do you find the hardest about writing with children underfoot and how do you compensate?

The hardest thing is always feeling as if I should be doing something else. When I am working, I feel as if I should be spending time with my kids or doing some household task. When I am with my kids, a part of my mind is always worrying about the work I need to get done.

Most writers want that steady income level that says, “I made it.” What would be your income level that says, “You made it”?

I think for me, success is measured more in terms of satisfaction with my work and achieving my goals. I feel that in that sense, I have “made it.” Of course, the problem with this is that I always have more ideas and more goals to pursue, so in that sense I am forever working towards bigger and better things!

Let’s say you were a new writer and you decided that was your figure, what would you do to reach that level of “success”?

I don’t think it is helpful for a new writer to set a monetary goal. I think that new writers are often unrealistic about their monetary goals. To create a decent income as a writer, it is very important to be versatile. Write about a lot of different things and write for print as well as online magazines. Write book proposals as well as articles. Try a lot of things. You will find some things that simply are not a good fit for you, but you will also find some things you are quite good at that you never would have imagined. It is also important to be able to find a niche for yourself. I was able to do a lot of legal writing since I was an attorney. Being able to use a specialized skill or knowledge you have that will set you apart from other writers will give you the opportunity to find work.

When the writer’s life is such a competitive market, why did you decide to share your parenting list with others?

I felt it was an important tool that many people could benefit from. I’m not afraid of other writers infringing on my territory, if that’s what you mean. There’s room for other writers in this market and magazines will buy those pieces that are good. I enjoy writing about writing. Being able to help other writers find success gives me great satisfaction.

You mention in your e-book the possibility of using a pen name; do you ever use one and why or why not?

Yes, I do use a pen name. There a few magazines that I do extensive work for and the editors feel uncomfortable having a lot of pieces in the same issue appear with the same byline. So, some of the pieces appear under my pen name and others appear under my real name.

Although you are not a tax advisor, hypothetically speaking, what kinds of things have you been able to write-off at tax time?

Writers should always consult with their own tax advisors about their own expenses and deductions. I deduct office supplies; postage; long distance calls; books and magazines that are related to my writing; mileage to the library, bookstore or my book signings, professional organization memberships; home office square footage; and purchases of computer equipment or office furniture.

What brings you the greatest satisfaction in your writing career?

When I get positive feedback from readers, I truly feel as if I have touched someone or made a difference in their lives.

Visit Brette Sember’s

Alyice Edrich is the author of several work-from-home e-books, including Tid-Bits for Making Money With E-books—where parents earn hundreds of dollars selling information they already possess. She blogs at The Dabbling Mum Speaks.

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