Alternatives to NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a great writing challenge. Not everyone wants to write 50K words of fiction in November, the basic requirement for NaNoWriMo. That works out to 1,667 words a day, every day, for thirty days. Not all of us are writers of fiction, or have the time and space to write that much every day (more or less).

But there are alternative writing challenges instead of NaNoWriMo.

NaNo Rebels is a writing challenge for people who are writing fiction, even in script form, but includes people who are starting mid-novel, or possibly writing 50K worth of short stories. NaNo Rebels are officially part of NaNoWriMo; you can read this thread to find out if you’re a NaNo Rebel or not.

National Non Fiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo) also known as Write Non Fiction in November (WNFIN) is an alternative writing challenge for people who don’t write fiction. You can register here if you want to have a community of your own while you write non-fiction in November.

AcWriMo or Academic Writing Month was founded by academic Charlotte Frost of PdD2Published in 2011 as a writing challenge to encourage academics and scholars to produce a 20K word (or more) academic monograph during November. Currently the rules stipulate that you set your own goal (hours, words, or another milestone) and join. It’s a great opportunity for thesis and dissertation writers, people who want to draft a journal article or academic writers with a book idea. There’s an active AcWriMo Facebook Group and a Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.

NaNoBloPo is a challenge to write a blog post for every day in November. The challenge actually runs for all twelve months of the year, but November is the biggest month in terms of  participation. There’s no length requirement, and that pictures count. While NaNoBloPo assigns a theme for each month, and also offers daily writing prompts, these are optional. You can write about anything you’d like. NaNoBloPo is now sponsored by BlogHer, and while there’s a Facebook Group, I’m not seeing anything recent; that said, there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself. You might find the daily post prompts helpful.

750 words a day runs all year, but they feature a special November writing challenge. The challenge is designed to motivate people to start a daily private journaling habit. The challenge starts at midnight on Nov 01, 2016 and ends at 11:59pm on Nov 30, 2016. Write (at least) 750 words every day for this month. The words can be anything, as long as they add up to 750 of them.

Are you engaging in an alternative to NaNoWriMo writing challenge for November? Possibly a personal challenge? We’d love to hear about it the comments.

Writing Web Copy

 By James Guill

Copywriting for the Web for a wide audience

More and more freelance writing opportunities, including copywriting, occur in the digital realm, as more print publications seem to be closing their doors every year.

Providing copy for an online resource is obviously not as simple as it seems. If it were, there would be many more writers on the Web making a living. Many writers tend to be very focused in the specific topics they cover, and as such tend to have difficulty finding and retaining work. So let’s talk a bit about writing Web copy for a wide audience.

When writing Web copy, your writing needs to reflect that you have in-depth knowledge of the subject and you understand current trends in the area you are covering. For example, up until around 2007 anyone that wrote copy for poker sites could get away with just being knowledgeable in Texas Hold’em and the popular players of that game.

However, trends changed around that time and other poker games began to make a comeback. It was no longer enough for a Hold’em specialist to write content on Hold’em. Readers would begin to go elsewhere and look for content on Stud, Omaha, and other games. As such, those that have a broad range of knowledge and kept on top of the pulse of the industry were the ones that prospered.

Web copywriters need to get away from the notion that frequent posting and quantity is what matters. Going back again to the poker industry, several sites have proven that quality reporting and informative articles will draw just as well as regular updates.

Subject: Poker was a website that gained a large following after the events of April 15th of last year when the major online sites were indicted. Their objective was to bring hard hitting and informative reporting regarding the issues surrounding what was known as the Black Friday poker indictments.

There were periods of time where the site did not update for days or even weeks at a time. However, when they did update, their content was among the best in the industry and they quickly became the main source of news and legal information surrounding online poker in the United States.

While I don’t recommend going for a week or more at a time without posting, there is no need to update numerous times a day with every little piece of fluff news or information. After a while, viewers get tired of having to sort through the fluff and will go elsewhere. Remember: quality over quantity.

Every Website has its own approach when it comes to web content writing. Some Websites do things better than others. However, those that keep their fingers on the pulse of their industry and provide quality content are the ones that tend to survive over the long term.

James Guill is an online content writer who writes almost everything under the sun. He publishes numerous articles for travel, food and gaming sites as a freelance writer. As a freelance reporter, James has covered the poker world for the past five years.

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.

Why Wikileaks Should Matter to Writers

Guest post by A.L. Berridge

I lost my political virginity in Ireland, when I heard for the first time the reality behind the Troubles. English schools hadn’t been too hot on explaining why these nasty IRA terrorists wanted to blow us up, and I’d been content to accept a simple world of good guys and bad guys—as long as my country was the former and the foreigners were the latter. Overnight I had to bin all that, grow up, and start comprehending shades of grey.

I had no choice. I was there to work on scripts, but how can a writer understand her characters if she doesn’t know why they think or feel as they do? And if she doesn’t understand, then what right has she to write? Those months in Dublin were when I began to open my mind and take the first steps on the road that made me a novelist.

The loss of illusion was still shattering, which is why my heart goes out to Americans right now. The US isn’t the only country whose moral ugliness has been exposed by Wikileaks, but it’s the one where the biggest shock has been to its own citizens. I’d imagined the horrors of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew about Abu Ghraib, but what I hadn’t realized was how much the American press had suffocated the earlier story. Pictures were edited and withheld, and when Salon posted the first exposé the Pentagon claimed they ‘were damaging national security by publishing such inflammatory images’.

Sound familiar?

Similar charges have been laid against Wikileaks, although journalists from The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel have all worked on the cables to redact the names of anyone conceivably at risk. Where’s the physical danger in people learning a government kidnapped and tortured an innocent German national, that it threatened Spain if it took action against torture of its people, or that it ordered diplomats to get DNA and credit-card details of its allies in the UN? Where’s the risk to security in knowing Pfizer used the African meningitis epidemic to test drugs on 200 children, 11 of whom died? What those governments queuing up to condemn Wikileaks really fear is that people will think less of them. This is now a war over what we are allowed to think.

But we’re writers. Thinking is in our job description. We have to question the world around us, see it in a new and different light—and communicate what we see. If we live in a government-controlled vacuum, what can we say that’s of value?

And if we found something, would we be allowed to say it? It’s not just Wikileaks being threatened now, but the whole concept of free speech. For years now concerned US citizens have had to look outside the mainstream media to learn what everyone else already knows—as in this recent attempt to suppress news of fresh atrocities in Afghanistan. The NYT has published Wikileaks material, but with government censorship – and there are still calls for it to be muzzled further, with Senator Joe Lieberman demanding an investigation for possible espionage.

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter in these internet days when it’s simple to find out what other countries are saying—but even that’s under threat. Members of the US Air Force are already finding their access blocked not just to Wikileaks, but to the foreign newspapers that report on it. There are still international messageboards, we can still communicate with the outside world—but is that safe? Professor McNeal, specialist in national security law, warns students against reading about leaked cables on forums: “I don’t think looking at them alone could hurt anyone. The problem is when you’re looking and then supporting and endorsing, then you start running into trouble.”

It’s the casualness of that I find chilling. He says you can look—as long as you don’t think.

And will it end there? When the publisher is imprisoned on extraordinary rape charges while US politicians try to change the law to get him on something else? When the alleged whistleblower is kept in solitary confinement under conditions tantamount to torture? When companies like Amazon and PayPal appear to bow to government pressure to drive Wikileaks from the net? And we shouldn’t underestimate US power in this respect: the Department of Homeland Security has already made two web raids this year, taking over domain names of sites it doesn’t approve—even when they belong to businesses in other countries. The internet has given us unparalleled freedom to communicate with each other all over the world, but now that too is threatened.

It’s no wonder our fellow writers (and thinkers) are uniting to demand an end to this suppression of these most basic freedoms—to learn, to think, and to write. Daniel Ellsberg, hero of the Pentagon Papers, is a staunch defender of Wikileaks, and so is the respected journalist John Pilger, whose reports led to $45 million being raised for the relief of Cambodia. He is the first signatory in an open letter supporting Wikileaks, which is also endorsed by UK writers Iain Banks, Yvonne Ridley, Caryl Churchill, A.L. Kennedy, Alexei Sayle, and Andy de la Tour.

Banks, Kennedy and Sayle are novelists, not journalists, but fiction needs freedom too. ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is a novel, so are ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’—all banned at some time, including in some areas of the US. So is Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, which (incredibly) was supported by Soviet premier Khrushchev on the grounds that a society ought to be able to look itself in the mirror. Do we really lack the courage to do the same?

Suppression of this kind affects all writers, even if we don’t have an overt political message. Writers are receivers as well as transmitters – we need constant contact with the minds of those who lead different lives from our own. If there’s one essential quality a fiction writer must have it’s altruism—the ability to think ourselves into the minds of others. How else can we write a serial killer, a man on Death Row, a woman of a different age or culture or sexuality or religion? We have to learn, and to do it we must venture outside not only our own comfort zones, but those of our governments.

And once we’ve learned, we must be free to communicate. Words can be a weapon in the hands of an Orwell, but they can also be a lifeline, a channel for the vision that can bring enlightenment and comfort to others. When I saw the impact of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ on women who had believed themselves lonely freaks in the universe, I felt for the first time the power of words to reach out across borders of culture and geography, to break down walls and smash through silence, to link us all together in a community that recognizes truth.

A writer who turns her back on truth is unworthy of the name. I write mainstream commercial action-adventure, but even for me it would be a disgrace. My first two novels are about honour and humanity in a ruthless world, and if I’m to keep any writing integrity I need to own my words and act on them. This is the G.K. Chesterton extract that prefaces my first book, and it might have been written for what’s happening right now – human rights abuses, waging of unjust war, and the secrecy and lies of governments who don’t care:

From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men;
From sale and profanation of honour and the sword;
From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!

Most of all ‘from sleep’. Apathy will be the end of us if we don’t remember that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. The film of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ ends with the memorable scene of the living ‘books’: men, women and children walking up and down reciting sentences of Dickens, of Austen, of Tolstoy, preserving the forbidden words for the generations to come.

We are those people. We are the storytellers, and it is time to remember we are strong. The war on Wikileaks is one of words, and who knows how to use them better than we? We can sign that petition, we can write books and articles and blogs like this one, we can post on message-boards, on Twitter and Facebook, we can write on the bloody walls if we have to.

If we’re writers, then this is our war.

Let’s fight.

U.K. writer A.L. Berridge is a novelist and award-winning television producer, whose bestselling debut novel Honour and the Sword was published in April 2010 under the Michael Joseph imprint of Penguin Books.

Interview at Writer Unboxed

Image of several circular slices of an orangeIf you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings at Absolute Write and the Absolute Write forums, Jan O’Hara over at Writer Unboxed has just posted a two-part interview with me about Absolute Write, the community, the mods, and writing. Jan does a heckuva fun interview, and I’m not just saying that because she interviewed me—she’s got some terrific interviews on her own blog, Tartitude. And as a Web destination for writers, Writer Unboxed offers a lot of terrific information, insight, and conversation.

Part I
Part II

You can also find Jan O’Hara on Twitter @Jan_OHara.

Spam for Breakfast!

We talked about SEO and keywords, last time. I’ve got a post I’ve been working on about agents blogging, but in the meantime I’ve been deleting a fair amount of spam from the comments threads since we went live with comments here. (Thank you to HistorySleuth for the heads-up on this morning’s fresh batch.) So I’m looking at turning on more of the anti-spam tools. If you guys get comments hung up in moderation, please feel free to drop me a note and I’ll take a look. Real comments make me grin the rest of the day, so I don’t want to miss any.A smiling George Burns and Gracie Allen from an old SPAM canned meat advertisement.

But I’ll confess to being already a bit grumpy about spam in general, so I got just plain mad when I got to the AW forums to discover that an agent (and a legitimate agent at that) is apparently running a contest on her blog, and one of the rules for entry is to post a link to the contest site on your own blog or site, and two other venues. That means that a half-dozen comment-spam links had been posted all over the forums, already.

So I wrote the agent in question with my objections, and she blew me off with a cheerful but dismissive statement that this is just how it’s done, and “Obviously, I didn’t send them directly to you nor do I have control over where they choose to post.”

No, actually — requiring that people invade other sites with comment spam is NOT how it’s done. It’s a fairly astonishing breach of netiquette, in fact. There’s a good article about comment spam, what it is, and how to deal with it, here.

Requiring that people spam message boards and other people’s blogs? That’s a far cry from asking people to tweet a link, retweet the link, or post on their own blogs/sites. Dealing with spam takes up an awful lot of everyone’s time. Most bloggers, community members, and board moderators are actively hostile — and with good reason.

Why don’t we just ignore spam? Because it interrupts the conversation. When you have to scroll past post after post of links that have nothing to do with what people are actually talking about, it’s disruptive and distracting. It’s also a cheesy attempt to try and cash in on other people’s hard work maintaining a community.

So how does anyone get the word out about a promotion (or a contest) without making site-owners and bloggers actively hostile? That’s dead simple. You build a reputation with your participation, then you spend that reputation carefully. Participation. Real conversation. Posting good links in relevant places will actually enhance your credibility, in fact.

Message boards and blogs are usually equipped to let people link back to their own sites in their signatures and/or profiles. Often, there’s even an appropriate place to post a direct link if you have an announcement or are promoting something. If you’re participating in real conversations, saying interesting things, interacting and engaging with an online community, then people are going to be a good deal more attentive and curious about what you’re doing elsewhere, as well.

Content Isn’t King, Your Reader Is

Good content is about real conversation with real people. Remember that. We’ll be coming back to it.

Spiders and Bots
Write for people not spiders

I’ve been hearing a lot of writers talking about starting blogs, or buying domains and building Web sites, to try and increase their online presence and build a platform for their nonfiction, or to try to establish a Web presence for their fiction. I’ll tell you guys the same thing I tell everyone who asks me: Good content is about real conversation with real people.

If you’re thinking about starting a blog or Web site, or you’ve already been noodling around with Web content for a while, there’s a saying you’ve probably heard: Content is king. Now, that doesn’t mean that you just churn out as many words as you can, as fast as you can. It also doesn’t mean that you need to use just the right words, arranged in just the right order, to form some sort of keyword Web-traffic voodoo. That’s a common myth that some content sites persist in repeating like a mantra.

It should go without saying that if you’ve got a paying gig writing Web content, and the guy that’s writing the checks wants you to use his talismanic keywords, you use ’em, and cash the check. That’s what freelancing is about, sometimes. However, if you’re writing for your own blog or Web site, then what you really need to be thinking about is who your audience is, and how to be interesting to them. You want them to come back, right? And you want them to link to you, and send their friends to read, too.

If you’ve spent any time at all considering online writing, you’ll already have heard all sorts of bloggers, writers, and wannabes tossing around the acronym SEO with utter certainty. Even people who really ought to know better by now will assure you, quite earnestly, that ultimately keywords will win the internets.

If you’ve got a Twitter account, you’ll probably have already noticed that you can’t tweet anything that includes SEO—even something like “what the SEO weenies aren’t telling you…”—without having about a dozen new followers. Those new followers will all have things like “online marketing!” and “SEO specialist!” in their profiles.


Look, all SEO stands for is Search Engine Optimization. People use keywords to try to game Google and the other search engines into increasing page rank, because they’ve included specific words and phrases. Often, they’ve included those so-called keywords over and over and over again. That doesn’t make for entertaining writing. It also doesn’t make for return visitors, because readers can tell when they’re being used.

Pick out a couple of common keywords to do a search, and see what pops up on the front page of your search engine. You’ll get a couple of pretty good links. More than likely, though, your search is also going to bring up a lists of sites that describe themselves using the keyword search terms over and over again, and a fair handful of those links are going to take you to spam sites. If you go visit those sites, they’ll have entire pages consisting of nothing but keywords. Search engine designers are pretty regularly refining their algorithms to try and work around people who try to game the system this way.

Here’s an example. I run AbsoluteWrite. My audience is writers, people who want to be writers, and people working in various facets of publishing. So it’s only natural that I’m going to talk about writing, here—but whether or not anyone reads what I have to say depends entirely on whether or not I’m talking about that chosen topic intelligibly, articulately, and hopefully in reasonably entertaining fashion.

If I decided to maximize writing-related keywords in this post, it could read something like this: Writers writing blog posts or writing Web content must write targeted prose to maximize the visibility of their writing to anyone searching for writers to write for a website, or anyone writing or searching for writing that’s about whatever the chosen focus—in this case, writers and writing—of a site’s writing content might be.

That’s borderline gibberish.

If I choose to write a whole post that way, it’s going to discourage return visitors. It’s also going to discourage incoming links, because people want to link to people, not keywords, and not spam. Ultimately, the best lists of keywords in the world aren’t going to win the Internet. They can’t. Because keywords alone don’t actually say anything that anyone wants to read.

Good content is about real conversation with real people.

I footnotes