Your Home Office:
Haven or Hell?
9 Tips on How to Get Some Peace & Quiet
Do you write, report, interview, and query from your home office?
As a writer for a press office for a federal law enforcement agency in D.C., I was used to writing about mayhem: arsons, firearms, explosives, and murder. I couldn’t wait for the day that I wrote from my home—no more ninety-minute commutes into the city. No more battling I-95 after ten years of jammed highways.
So when I left the job and started a life of freelance writing from suburbia, I thought I’d never see mayhem again. Ha!
I didn’t realize that writing from my haven had its own inherent dangers. One afternoon, I left a phone message for a federal official for an article. I said I would be in my office until 4:00 p.m. (That’s when my kids got off the bus, and all hell broke loose.)
You know the rest of the story. She called back at 4:15...just as my twelve-year-old was bringing in six—count them, six—tween boys forming a basketball team. They traipsed in, in that middle school way, scavenging for snacks and drinks, teasing each other, and in an anything-but-quiet way. My office sat right next to the front door; and I was waving, mouthing “SHUSH,” until I heard the shriek, “MOOOOOOOOOOOOM!” complete with a door SLAM. This was followed by my six- and ten-year-olds throwing their backpacks down and asking if I could sign their latest forms. And did I know that they had a substitute today, and could I help with math?
The official heard the ruckus, and I profusely apologized and drained the humiliation off my voice. I prayed for my kids to be quiet because I couldn’t exactly yell at them. (I could just hear the official dialing her other phone. “Hello, Child Services? There seems to be children trapped in a house...” )
I finished the interview quickly, though I needed more time with the executive. I ushered them outside and posted to Facebook my plea for other working parents to give me advice. How do they handle the work-at-home distractions?
Turns out, I’m not alone. Within ten minutes, my e-mail notification box was full with comments from friends and writers around the country. Some complained of barking dogs during a teleconference, some shared about contracting work on their house during phone calls, and some commiserated about children slamming doors.
“Some [writers] complained of barking dogs during a teleconference, some shared about contracting work on their house during phone calls, and some commiserated about children slamming doors.”
So, I asked several others for their tips to share with writers working from their home offices, and here’s their advice.
1. Set boundaries. Tell your kids if Mom’s office doors are closed that means you can NOT be interrupted. “When I have an important call, I tell them well beforehand, and then repeatedly remind them that I will be working when they arrive home, to stay quiet and keep the dog quiet too, and only bother me if they are bleeding, barfing, or burning,” says freelance writer Kim Urig, who claims to be a “superhero without the cape.”
2. Take the show on the road. Hit a bookstore with Wifi if you can find a seat. “I work best when I’m out of the house. The library offers good lighting, quiet environment, and Wifi,” says writer Mary Jo Campbell, a creative writing teacher for young adults.
3. Use Caller ID and stick to your office hours. Freelance writer Holly Bowne says she’ll only pick up nonwork calls if her husband or the school phones. She returns all the nonwork related calls after she’s stopped working for the day.
“Freelance writer Holly Bowne says she’ll only pick up nonwork calls if her husband or the school phones. She, returns all the nonwork related calls after she’s stopped working for the day.”
4. The kitchen timer is your friend. Bowne has a writer-friend who suggested using a set amount of time to work on a project, which in turn allows her to be more productive.
5. Start Your Engines. Writer Kim Justice has run to the car to take a call, and so has recruiter Kristen Fife. In the car, there’s no noise or distractions like in our houses. In her blog for job candidates that are having phone screens, Fife advises: “Make sure you use a phone that has clear reception (avoid Skype), and go to a place where you will be undisturbed. No kids, pets, traffic, music, TV, or interruptions.”
6. Get the kids involved. If the kids are home from school that day, have them write with you. This works for Campbell, who’s “giving them writing prompts and then timed writing sessions to get mini-projects started.” If they’re preschoolers, set up a desk in your office with plenty of markers, scissors, a glue stick, and a snack. She adds, “If all else fails, a bowl of popcorn and a good rental will keep the kids busy for a few hours.”
7. Use the Mike Brady lectures. Remind the kids that the earnings from your work pay for their bunk beds and keeps them in clothes, gymnastics, and baseball camp registrations. (Be prepared for this method not to work when dealing with pets and their distractions, however.)
8. Tap your creative genius. What to do about a dog who’s barking incessantly when you’re taking that call? Debby Scott learned the hard way: Her dog once started barking when she was in a teleconference with the head of her organization. She solved her embarrassment, though. “I put a citronella collar on her whenever I’m working because she always wants to chime in when I’m on a conference call. The collar sprays a mist in front of the face if the dog starts yipping.” Urig agrees with Scott about pet problems. “The dog is more a problem than the children,” Urig says.
9. If all else fails, move out. During the daytime, that is. Writer John Ettorre traded his writing and editing consulting services for office space from a custom publisher. “I gave up working from home years ago,” he says, originally trading with a recruiter and producing a quarterly e-mail newsletter in return for office space. Now, he trades with a custom publisher. “I just donate about eight hours of my time a month, helping them brainstorm about developing new biz, helping them think about how to transition some of their print work online, and just generally how to webify what they're doing.
In return, I have the resources of a custom publisher for my clients; plus, I get to have an office right next to a designer friend whose been designing dozens of my magazine articles for about fifteen years. I wouldn't have it any other way. It doubles, triples, or maybe quadruples my productivity, to say nothing of not having to worry about the copier, the phones, and the Internet connection.”
“Writer John Ettorre traded his writing and editing consulting services for office space from a custom publisher.”
Anxious to put the tips to work, I immediately signed up for Caller ID. No more picking up calls from other moms who only need five minutes to arrange a ride to practice; carpools can be arranged during my nonwork hours. Five minute calls often turn into fifteen- or thirty-minute calls very easily. (“How’s Ben doing at school? What’s that teacher like?”) Caller ID also keeps you from uttering the words, “Sure, I’d be happy to help count box tops for the school.” Trust me on this one.
Over the summer, I also made more use of the tip of getting the kids involved: my daughter set up shop next to me with her Barbie laptop and markers. Then, with a $5 investment for her capital, I bought her a full ream of her own paper. I cringed at how much paper she was using (yes, it’s being recycled); but as a budding author, she began creating a constant flow of her own stapled novels. Then I used my active boys for more physical errands: to go to the newsstand and get a copy of the magazine I’ve been writing for, to run to the post office, or to help me stock up at Staples.
And the Mike Brady lectures? I attempt them often. (“You know, son, one day you’ll be on your own and can’t organize a pick-up basketball game when your boss is on the phone.” and “Don’t you want a ride [in the groovy van] to basketball practice? Then you must be quiet first.”) But I’m afraid my Greg, Peter, and Cindy don’t listen well to my words of wisdom. They’re just looking for the chocolate milk from Alice.
I do plan on trying out more of these options...as soon as I answer the doorbell. It seems the neighbor couldn’t reach me by phone.
Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance writer based outside of Washington D.C. She writes regularly for Cleveland Family magazine, and she’s also been published in the best-selling book Chocolate for a Teen’s Soul, Cleveland Plain Dealer, FundsForWriters.com, NJ Family magazine, Mahoning Valley Parent, Potomac News/Manassas Journal Messenger, and dozens of national law enforcement publications. She worked with the media closely and wrote for ten years in the press office for ATF. She blogs for writers at www.KristineMeldrumDenholm.com. You’ll find her writing from bus departure at 8:32 a.m. to bus arrival at 4:02 p.m
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Something to Write Home About:
Life as an Expat Freelance Writer
(Photo above of Suchi Rudra)
I had been working for two years as a staff reporter for a business journal in the U.S., and it was high time to escape. Not just the confines of the office routine, but the confines of the country. I had traveled a lot throughout my life with my family and a little on my own, and I was restless once again. I needed to get out, and the Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship turned out to be my ticket. (If you have ever been involved in community or nonprofit work, I highly recommend you look into this incredible opportunity.)
So, I arrived in Prague as a student; but after my one year course was up, I knew that I couldn’t go back home. I had always wanted to live abroad, really truly be part of an international city, and I realized that Prague was absolutely perfect in every way. Located centrally in Europe, I could be in an entirely different country in just an hour or two. I could walk everywhere, every day, and shop at local vegetable markets, butcher shops, and bakeries. I loved the challenge of everything being strange, and my goal was to make it familiar. This was how I wanted to live for now; and I would do anything to stay here—which meant starting out as an English teacher—something that every eager expat new to Prague usually must do to pay her dues (and rent).
But during the next two years of this unstable and exhausting work, I made sure to dedicate every free moment to researching new markets, where I could publish the dozens of article ideas that came to me every day. I signed up for freelance writing newsletters, scoured the online job boards and forums, queried editors en masse, and scribbled down article outlines, while the preschool kiddies were having naptime—all the while reminding myself that I was truly a writer at heart, not a teacher. I wouldn’t stop until I reached my goal of becoming a financially viable, full-time freelance writer.
“I wouldn't stop until I reached my goal of becoming a financially viable, full-time freelance writer.”
I finally began to accumulate clips—mostly from travel writing websites—but then I began to reel in the bigger fish based on my business writing experience. But where did I find such markets? Mostly, the publications were U.S.-based; but by then, I had built up enough confidence to call myself a freelance writer and hit up the local English language publications. Through this method, I found several steady and well-paying gigs. Because expats are a rather volatile bunch in general, companies requiring native English speakers, including publications, are often in need of new expats to replace those who have just left.
What is important to remember is that if you are living cheaply (like I was on the Czech koruna) and earning on the dollar (or euro or pound), your life becomes a lot more simplified and stress-free. You won’t need to be working all day, every day to keep up with your rent and bills; and you’ll have the freedom and flexibility to travel and explore your new world. Isn’t that the dream after all?
BEFORE YOU MOVE
You do need to know that you will be able to be financially stable during and after your transition abroad. I am going to assume that you already have a stable freelance writing income; but you need to make sure that when you move, your work can move with you—meaning that you don’t want your biggest client to be one that requires on-site meetings or in-person interviews in the city where you currently reside. If that’s the case, then you need to find other gigs that can make up for this loss—gigs that are telecommute-friendly and don’t care about interviews being done over Skype or e-mail.
But also know that as an expat freelance writer, you are in an excellent position to enter into areas of writing and markets that you never would have been able to before. Almost without trying, you are automatically a travel writer. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never written up a travel article—there are publications out there that are greedy for all the travel tips and destination reviews they can get their hands on. From smaller travel blogs to in-flight magazines to the high paying markets like Travel & Leisure, the editors are out there, waiting for your fresh perspective on the new world, which you now inhabit. But not only that, they (and their readers) want to know how you got there and what it takes. If you're already familiar with travel writing, then this move is a match made in heaven for you! Every day of your life abroad is a travel article or three in itself.
“But also know that as an expat freelance writer, you are in an excellent position to enter into areas of writing and markets that you never would have been able to before. Almost without trying, you are automatically a travel writer.”
You will want to start researching local English-language publications in advance, contacting editors or even other contributors to introduce yourself, and discover what opportunities might await you once you arrive. See if you can set up a meeting with the editor over a lunch or a coffee. If you can prove yourself to be a reliable and thorough writer, just like with any publication back home, you will receive steady work. What’s even better is if you can understand the local language enough to conduct interviews, do some copyediting, or even translation work. Once you are comfortable as an expat, you will find that working as a freelance writer abroad is even more exciting than freelancing has ever been before—and the sky’s the limit on the amount of articles you can generate and publish. It’s truly all about self-discipline and persistence.
EQUIPMENT TO TAKE WITH YOU
From personal experience, the less you bring with you, the better. You’re only going to accumulate more once you get there. It’s inevitable. But you do need some freelance writer business basics:
- Good camera for high res pictures, preferably with rechargeable batteries and charger. It’s important to have a good camera and have it with you at all times (with batteries charged!) because you never know when that perfect scene or image will jump out at you. For travel writing especially, you will need beautiful visuals to accompany your articles.
- Reporter notebooks, Post-it notes, index cards.
- Several USB memory sticks and maybe even an external hard drive.
- Portable-friendly laptop (light and easy to slip in and out of a backpack or laptop bag—especially for when you are going through airport security) with Skype for interviews, a good headset, and a Skype conversation recording device. (Pamela Skype Recorder is free.)
Great organizations to try include InterNations.org, CouchSurfing.org, HospitalityClub.org, and even Facebook pages dedicated to your city. Also, a very useful place to start networking before you relocate is through your university’s alumni directory. Look up graduates who now live in your destination country or city. Or if you are a part of any international societies or organizations (like Toastmasters or Rotary), contact the local chapter in your dream city, start up a good rapport, and let them know you’re heading their way soon. Once you arrive, search out and attend local expat meetups—you never know whom you’ll run into and what kinds of gigs you can get out of these meetings.
You can find expat groups and organizations in the city’s local English language newspapers, magazines, or websites. And don’t forget to look for a local coworking group for the ideal way to meet with other local freelancers.
“Once you arrive, search out and attend local expat meetups—you never know whom you'll run into and what kinds of gigs you can get out of these meetings.”
Each country has its own set of visa regulations and procedures, depending on your country of citizenship and on your purpose and length of stay. Contact your destination country’s embassy, and find out what documents you will need to apply for a long-term visa. In general, the basic documents for a long-term visa include proof of accommodation, proof of financial stability, personal statement regarding reason of stay, health insurance, passport copy, certificate of no criminal record, two photos, and processing fee. If you happen to have a relative or spouse who was born in the country you will be relocating to, then you can most likely use this connection as a purpose of stay for your long-term visa.
USE YOUR CULTURE SHOCK
Once you arrive, you’re bound to be quite overwhelmed—both fascinated and freaked out. What have you just done? What were you thinking? How can you really make it here when you don’t even know the language? Well, now’s your chance to explore the local cafes and parks and turn your befuddlement into a mini-therapy session. Write down all your fears and worries and excitement and curiosities in detail; write up e-mails and letters and postcards to your friends and families or even to yourself. And when you’re done, take a deep breath and look back over what you've just poured out. You’ve got a ton of article diamonds in the rough, just waiting for you to polish them up and pitch them to the right editor.
LANGUAGE LEARNING RESOURCES
http://www.livemocha.com: Excellent, highly interactive lessons.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/: Entirely free, very interactive, and very thorough.
Suchi Rudra, a full-time freelance writer and full-time expat, camped out in Prague, Czech Republic for the past four years and is currently in nomad mode once again with plans to relocate to the sunnier skies of the Old World. Her work has appeared in a variety of travel publications such as Transitions Abroad, Europe Up Close, PlanetEye.com and India Currents; and she also regularly contributes to several business journals on the topic of sustainability. Aside from frolicking across the globe and scribbling all about it, Suchi also sings at small cafes and works on her short stories. Her first novel, Kitaab, written after a year-long stay in Bombay, was published last summer by Six Gallery Press. Suchiprague[at]gmail[dot]com
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10 Tips for Making Money as a Keyword Writer
In 2001, I decided to become a profitable writer. Armed with a talent for stringing words together, but no practical knowledge of the industry, I stumbled into keyword and content-mill writing before I learned most authors scorned this practice. By the time I realized I was doing the freelance equivalent of crossing a picket line, I was making money—good money.
I’ve since expanded my repertoire to include many different kinds of writing, editing, and coaching assignments, but when the phone isn’t ringing and the job boards are slow, I still go back to my favorite keyword and content-mill sites to make ends meet.
Writing for content mills fixed my geriatric car several times, bought my cats their favorite brands of food and toys, and even took me on a two-week Hawaiian cruise.
Photo right: Debra’s cat, Archilles
There is money to be made on content sites; the key to success is learning to use the sites without allowing yourself to be used by the sites. These tips will help you get started.
1. Find the best flat rates you can get. Income-share content sites may promise you the sun and the moon, but most people end up writing dozens of articles and making only a few dollars...or cents. I’d rather take a low, guaranteed, flat rate than waste time writing pieces that may never earn a dime.
2. Write for several content sites at once. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to attempt to log onto your favorite keyword site, only to find it has vanished into Internet purgatory. If this happens to you, make sure you have other sites lined up that will welcome your work.
3. Write for sites that allow you to cherry-pick your assignments. Some content sites set a high minimum number of articles you must write each day or insist on assigning random content to you. These sites take up a lot more of your time and energy than they’re worth.
4. Select topics you know well. This means you’ll spend less time on research and earn a better hourly wage.
5. Choose sites that allow you to miss deadlines and “release” assignments without penalty. That way, if a private client requires your attention, a better-paying gig comes along, or the article just isn’t working out, you can jettison your content-mill assignment. Of course, as a reliable professional, you will use this option sparingly.
6. Practice good time management. It doesn’t make sense to spend hours on an article that will only pay a few dollars. Set aside a couple of hours for your keyword writing each session, and try to produce at least 10 to 12 articles during that time.
7. Turn in solid work. You don’t have to write like William Shakespeare, but your submitted assignments should follow the requested format and be free of spelling and grammar errors. Otherwise, your work may be rejected or returned to you for revision. Neither of these outcomes represents an effective use of your time. On the other hand, if clients come to know you as a reliable professional, they will sometimes steer you to other markets and better-paying opportunities.
8. Don’t compromise your values. To their credit, most keyword sites prohibit questionable content, but there may be times when a content mill asks you to write an article that is blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, or that promotes illegal activities such as street drug use or child abuse. The final decision is up to you, of course; you still have to face yourself in the mirror and decide whether or not you are proud of the work you have put into the world.
9. Re-evaluate your keyword sites on a regular basis. Have there been recent changes in payment and policy to your benefit or detriment? Do you still enjoy writing for the site? Are there better opportunities out there? You don’t necessarily want to burn any bridges, but don’t be shy about cutting down on your work for one site and putting the lion’s share of your time and energy into another, more promising site.
10. Spread your wings. Keyword writing is a good way to get started in the business and learn the basics of writing, but it can get old after a while. Always be on the lookout for other opportunities such as working for private clients, writing a book, or submitting material to a magazine or e-zine for publication.
Contrary to popular opinion, keyword writing can be profitable. It was also a great way for me to perfect my spelling, grammar, and time management skills, and find confidence in myself as a writer.
The Evolution of Keyword Writing
Keywords are the words people enter into search engines to find your articles. When I first started doing keyword writing, writers were expected to pack assigned keywords into the articles as many times as humanly possible. Often, the end result didn’t even make much sense. “If you want to lose weight, here are some of the top ten ways to lose weight, feel better, look better, and lose weight.”
The people programming the search engines got smarter. If the program detected “keyword stuffing” or overuse of the keyword, the search engines would downgrade the article.
There’s a vigorous debate going on in the keyword community about what constitutes a useful keyword density (or number of times your keywords appear in comparison with other words in the article). Google is somewhat secretive about its keyword thresholds, but it’s commonly thought that any keyword density over two percent will lead to an article being downgraded. Yahoo! and MSN accept slightly higher keyword densities—around five percent.
Typically, keyword writers today use the keyword in the article title, once in the first paragraph, once or twice in the body of the article, depending on how long the article is, and perhaps once in the closing paragraph. Never sacrifice clarity or flow just for the sake of sticking in a keyword.
If you’re new to keyword writing and want to get a feel for the keyword densities in your articles, one useful free Internet tool is Live Keyword Analysis. Simply enter the keywords you are targeting and cut and paste the body of your article into the box provided. The program will give you the ratio of keywords to other words in your article.
If you need help finding keywords readers might use to locate your article, another useful free tool is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Type a word or phrase that describes your article into the box in the upper left-hand corner and click on “Search.” The results will show phrases people use to search for the subject about which you are writing.
Give It a Try!
If you’d like to give keyword writing a try, here are a few sites to consider:
Pay: $7.50 (100-200 words), $15.00 (400-500 words)
Comments: Pays well for a content site, and offers a wide variety of topics and titles. Provides writers with specific instructions and easy-to-follow templates.
Pay: $1.80 to $2.00 per article
Comments: Very low pay, but lots of topics and article titles. Emerging Cast offers an online editor that catches spelling and grammar errors as well as questionable sentence structure. It’s a good place to start for beginners.
Pay: $5.00 to $10.00 per article (work-for-hire)
Comments: Usually operates on a revenue-share basis, but sometimes offers work-for-hire assignments that pay a flat rate.
Pay: Varies based on length of article and your rating as a writer
Comments: Topic availability varies based on customer needs. Textbroker provides the least user-friendly system for writers with no spell-check or grammar-check functions on the site. Writers must use HTML for bold, italics, bullet points, numbered lists, and other types of formatting.
Debra Stang is a writer, editor, and writing coach who continues to make a portion of her income from keyword sites and content mills. Her blog, Confessions of a Keyword Concubine, is available on her website http://www.debrastang.net. You can also follow Debra on Facebook.
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