You are a writer/editor/publisher. Which was your career of choice? Which was the scariest to embrace?
My original "career goal" was to be a "writer," to finish the novel that I'd been working on for about 15 years! When I applied to Dog Fancy, I wasn't thinking of becoming "the editor"—I was thinking more in terms of a position as a columnist. I love the process of pulling together a bunch of different elements—different articles, images, etc.—and creating something worthwhile and beautiful. (You'll see more of that in my travel website, TimeTravel-Britain.com.)
I don't really consider myself a "publisher," even though I am in the technical sense. I have self-published a book, and I am now titling myself the "publisher" of www.Writing-World.com to avoid confusion with Dawn Copeman, who is now the site's official "editor." Overall, I consider myself an editor.
Writing is by far the scariest of the three options; it always has been and I suspect it always will be. It's not even so much an issue of external rejection; most of us are our own worst critics. The question I deal with as a writer isn't so much "Is this good enough for YOU?" but "Is this good enough for ME?"
Web sites. Blogs. All some writers want to do is write, not become an expert at conquering the internet. How necessary is either or both of the aforementioned?
I'm not the best person to ask about blogs, because I don't blog or read blogs very often (though I'll give Patricia Fry a plug; I love her blog!). I don't have time. That leads me to wonder, is blogging the most effective way to use that precious writing time? There's also the question of WHY you blog. A great many blogs seem to be written by people who find themselves and their own opinions endlessly fascinating, and assume the rest of the world agrees. Conversely, I see writers obviously investing a HUGE amount of effort into creating useful, informative blogs that will benefit their readers—and again, I wonder if this is truly the best place to invest that time and effort.
Web sites are another matter. If you can write, you can develop a website. A lot of people get bogged down (or intimidated) by the design side of things, but websites aren't really about design. They are about content. There are plenty of programs and templates, or you can pay a designer a reasonably low fee to put something together for you. Often it's just a matter of getting past that "Oh, I'm a writer, I don't know anything about all that technical stuff!" attitude.
Today, readers EXPECT to find their favorite authors online. A website enables your readers to learn more about you, your work, to read samples, to find out what is coming up, and (if you so desire) to actually get in touch with you. Samples of your writing are always a good idea; if you write nonfiction, a website can double as an online portfolio. If you write fiction, it can serve as a "teaser" to entice readers to buy your books. You might also want to post tips on writing, or background information. You aren't required to "bare your soul" or share anything that you don't want to. Your site needs to have some "take-away" value (and, hopefully, a good reason for the reader to come back).
A website is one of the simplest and most inexpensive methods by which
you can promote yourself. And perhaps most important, it makes you look like a professional in today's online writing environment.
Does including too much personal information take away from the professionalism of the writer?
In my opinion, "too much" personal information is information that doesn't relate in some way to the message you're trying to convey. Let's say that your area of expertise is canine health topics. You put up some of your published articles, links to some useful resources, and perhaps a plug and a chapter excerpt from your forthcoming book. That's great. In your bio (or "about me" section), it would be appropriate to give some background information, such as how you got started as a writer, came to write about this particular topic, what your credentials are in this area, and perhaps some personal information about your five dogs and three cats. This is all "relevant."
As to whether too much inappropriate personal information can make you look unprofessional—of course it does!
What is too much information?
Keep in mind why people are visiting your website in the first place. If it is to learn more about canine health, they don't care about your grandchildren or your health problems. Your first priority is to put yourself in the shoes of the reader and ask, "Why is this person here? What do they want to know?"
Freelancing must be approached as a business for one to succeed. Yet the field invites creative-types. You've combined your flourishing creativity with the attributes of an astute businesswoman successfully. What advice do you have for women desiring to take on "full-time freelancing?"
First, let's rephrase that first line. It's not just that freelancing should be "approached" as a business. It IS a business. Freelancing is a business, just like plumbing or making shoes or running a store.
Creativity is your business ASSET. It is what makes it possible for you to choose THIS business as opposed to something else. Creativity is the source of the product you create and/or the service that you sell. But you cannot market the results of your creativity without mastering some aspects of "running a business."
I suspect many people (male and female) harbor the notion that "creativity" and "business sense" are mutually exclusive; how can you be a brilliant, daring, creative thinker AND a cold, calculating bean-counter at the same time?
First, being a good businesswoman and being a creative person are NOT mutually exclusive. You CAN be both. If you truly want to make a career out of writing, you HAVE to be both.
Second, yes, you DO have a head for business. Business isn't a mystical gift bestowed on a chosen few. It's a learned skill, and you can, in fact, learn most of the things you need to know about the "business" of freelancing by picking up one or two good books on the subject. (I do, of course, recommend mine: "Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer.") The ability to learn effective business skills isn't linked to a particular chromosome. If you want to do it, you can learn how.
The key is to determine exactly what you want to gain from a "career" in writing. If you want to earn an income (or a living, which is not necessarily the same thing), then it will be essential to learn the business side of this career. But it is also important to remember if you DO choose a freelancing career, you ARE choosing "business" as well as "creativity." You are choosing to direct your creativity toward business ventures that will earn income. These may not always be the type of writing you have dreamed about, and at times you may not even find them terribly creative. However, even at its least creative, freelance writing can still be a far more rewarding career than most "day jobs"!
Since most freelancers will be looking for gigs online, what can you tell us about the Tasini decision regarding electronic rights?
Let's start by addressing the first part of this question: Most freelancers should NOT be looking for "gigs online." The online marketplace has never developed the opportunities for writers that people anticipated, say, ten years ago. I've been tracking online markets for several years, and every time I've updated my list, it has shrunk dramatically. Freelancers still need to focus on the print marketplace; it offers thousands more paying publications, and typically, those publications pay more than online publications.
As for the Tasini decision, this started with the question of print publications using electronic rights they had not specifically contracted for. The result for writers today is that now, more and more publications have chosen to bypass the question of what rights to buy by simply demanding "all rights." However, this has caused so much protest in the writing community that publications are becoming increasingly willing to license BACK certain rights, such as granting the writer the right to resell the material elsewhere after a certain amount of time has elapsed since publication. If this isn't already included in a contract, one can often have such a clause inserted, OR be able to contact the editor later and receive permission, in writing, to resell an article.
How does a freelancer know if she's ready to query big markets?
The quick and easy answer is—when you are finding yourself successful in the smaller markets. If you are selling regularly and getting acceptances on the majority of your queries or submissions, then you are probably ready to start moving up. The ability to sell regularly means that you are able to write WELL ENOUGH to impress editors consistently. In particular, if you are getting assignments from editors (i.e., THEY are coming to YOU), and repeat sales to the same publications, that means you have what it takes to be a success—and you are ready to start "moving up."
More often, the question I want to ask writers is "Why AREN'T you submitting to the higher-paying publications?" Sadly, I believe a lot of women stay in this market niche because they feel this is all they are capable of. Breaking into the big markets means "running with the big boys" (and I use the term "boys" deliberately). It's not a safe or comfortable niche. The risk of rejection is much higher. The competition is much greater. But so are the rewards. And you can always go BACK to the markets that you're comfortable with, so you don't lose anything by TRYING to crack the bigger publications!
Networking is essential; what are some tips you would offer?
I'll offer just one all-important tip here: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It's an old axiom, but it has never been more true than on the Internet. You can be in touch with total strangers from the opposite side of the globe. And one thing that people on the Internet seem to forget is that today, you're not writing a letter that will only be read by the recipient. Your words can be transmitted around the world, and don't assume that they won't be. People will talk about you, and it's up to you to determine what they say.
There are many, many good reasons to "behave well" on the Web, so I'll just touch on a few. One is that, sadly, if you do, you'll stand out in a good way. Second, networking provides one with many new opportunities to be, literally, a blessing to others—look at the wealth of information that people have put online JUST to help other people, you can't help but be amazed at how inspiring this medium has become. Third, you NEVER know when helping someone else can turn into a blessing for you. You never know who is going to be able to help YOU—with information, with a market tip, with a word of encouragement, whatever. I'm not suggesting that you "help others so that others will help you"—if you network with purely selfish motives, it will show. Finally, be aware that anything you put out there on the Web may STAY out there forever. Keep in mind, again, there is no such thing as a private conversation on the Web!
Financial aspects of freelancing can resemble a roller-coaster ride. The impulse may be to grab what you can when you can. What are the inherent dangers in not pacing oneself?
The obvious danger of not pacing oneself is burnout. This is particularly a problem if you're focusing primarily on "making money" and not on whatever goals and dreams led you to become a writer. Going after money can mean taking on projects that bore you and that means doing a lot of work you don't enjoy. Eventually, you'll start to feel you don't enjoy BEING A WRITER, or so you imagine. But what you really don't enjoy is the KIND of writing that you're doing.
Writing for a living can be a wonderful thing, but it can also become a trap. When a different source of income is putting the food on the table, you are actually free to DO what you love. Maybe you love to write poetry, short stories, or a novel that has taken years. As long as you don't have to earn a living as a writer, you are free to do these things. But once your writing becomes the basis of your living, you are no longer free. You don't have a choice—you MUST find projects that bring in income, and generally, these projects have very little to do with love.
And yes, I AM speaking from experience here. For the past ten years, I've focused on earning an income (I won't say "living") as a freelance writer, and in that time, I've drifted farther and farther away from the things that I originally WANTED to write. So my goal in 2007 is, in fact, to CEASE being a "freelance writer" and to focus, instead, on figuring out what I want to do as a "writer" instead.
What one attribute, talent aside, would you say is vital to be successful as a freelancer? Why?
I'd say the most important attribute you can have is self-discipline. If you cannot discipline yourself, you'll never succeed as a freelancer or indeed as any sort of writer. The one huge difference between writing and other careers is that writing is almost entirely a solo effort, stressful and frightening and just plain TOUGH; you have to get past those obstacles to stay at that computer. You have to be able to set your own deadlines and schedules. You have to be able to motivate yourself.
I learned this, oddly enough, when I started writing "on the job," for Dog Fancy. Before that time, I tended toward the "write when the muse strikes" approach. If I didn't "feel" like writing, I felt certain that I wouldn't be ABLE to write. But at Dog Fancy, the first thing I learned was if you had to get an article on flea control written by 2:00, you WOULD get that article written by 2:00. You couldn't afford to sit around and wait for "inspiration." You just started typing. I realized the same applied to my "personal" writing—if I could sit down and start typing and produce an article in the office, then I could do it at home as well. I'm still a procrastinator (having outside deadlines REALLY helps), but I learned that you can keep working even when the muse is taking the afternoon off.
How would you recommend cultivating that characteristic?
I'm not sure. As I said, what worked for me was not having a choice. Once I learned that I COULD discipline myself to write an article without any sort of sense of "muse" or "inspiration," but simply a ticking clock, I realized that I could do it anywhere. It was more of an "a-ha!" experience for me than a matter of training myself to do it.
One technique I find helpful is to determine the two or three "essential" tasks that you wish to accomplish in a day. When you can look back at a busy day and realize, "Well, I DID get the priorities done for today," you don't have to keep wondering whether or not you are achieving anything.
Would you recommend setting aside time to read trade books, no matter how long you've been in the business? Or is that only for beginners?
This was a tough question, because I realized that I hardly ever read "trade books" (by which I assume we mean "how-to books for writers"). I asked myself WHY I don't read "trade books"—and the answer came as a bit of a surprise: Because there AREN'T any, to speak of, for non-beginners! The vast majority of writing books are written for beginners. About the only niche where you can find more advanced books is in the category of self-publishing or book promotion.
The word "beginner" can also apply to someone making, or trying to make, a transition in a writing career, and here's where I find the lack of "advanced" books a bit frustrating. One of these days, I hope to write a romance novel, and/or a mystery. However, when I pick up a "how-to" book on one of these topics, I find that as much as half the book is devoted to the same information I find in every OTHER book on writing: How to format a manuscript, write a query, etc. I feel as if I've wasted half my money.
Obviously, publishers of writing books know the big market IS the beginners. One reason for this is that there is no "one size fits all" niche for more advanced writers; if you gathered a hundred freelancers into a room you'd find we were all writing very different things and earning our income in very different ways. So it's hard to come up with trade books that are going to achieve any type of sales at the advanced level, because THIS writer may be writing advertising copy and THAT writer may be writing for trade magazines, etc.
I think this is why, at the more advanced level, writers tend to gain more information through organizations that focus on their specific area or genre, from articles online, and from other writers. The romance community online is huge, for example, and absolutely packed with how-to articles that are helpful to all levels of writers. So it's not so much a matter of whether advanced writers still search for information; it's more a matter of WHERE they look for it.
How did being open-minded help you get www.writing-world.com published?
Ah, a short one. Very simply, I pitched one idea to the publisher, they didn't like it, they asked me to pitch some other ideas, I came up with the idea for a book on how the Internet is affecting the business of writing, and... the rest is history. Though I did have the last laugh. My first pitch was for a book on "how to become a freelance writer." They didn't want it—then. A few years later, just when I was getting ready to self-publish that book, Allworth suddenly decided that they DID want a book on the topic—and would I be willing to write one?
How important is it to "write about what you know?" Could you give us some tips on doing this successfully?
I think this is a useful place to start, but it can also be very limiting. You can get stuck writing about what you know because it's safe and a lot easier than doing research into areas that you're less familiar with.
I find a more useful axiom is not so much "write what you know" but "write what you would LIKE to know more about!" This enables you to focus on a subject about which you may have questions, or an interest, but not necessarily first-hand knowledge. Your own questions will help you shape an article that will answer OTHER people's questions on the same topic. Your interest will inspire you to go out and hunt up information you need and that information will fuel exciting articles, because it excites YOU.
When I first started writing about "writers and the Internet," this was something I didn't know very much about-yet. No one else was writing on this topic at the time, so I got the chance to become Inkspot's "expert" on Internet-related topics (and make a market niche in the process).
You write articles and books, do you do one project at a time or intertwine them?
If I'm working on short projects, I prefer to do one at a time. That enables my subconscious to work on that project and that project alone, even when I'm not ACTIVELY working on it.
If I'm working on a long-term project like a book, obviously it's not always feasible to just put everything else on hold. It also can be frustrating to do so. Sometimes I use short-term projects as a distraction, as something "easy" to focus on when I know I really OUGHT to be working on the longer project. Also, short-term projects have the advantage of giving you a sense of having completed something-because with that book, there may be no end in sight!
Your husband helped you believe in your ability when you became editor of Dog Fancy. As opportunities become greater, how can we be reasonably certain we're not biting off more than we can chew or realistically evaluate ourselves?
I tend to think that your gut will tell you when you are taking on more than you should. Sometimes it's not so much a matter of what you CAN do, but of what you're WILLING to do; if something doesn't feel right, no amount of money can make you glad that you did it.
As for self-evaluation, writers have a hard time here! We walk a fine line between being able to recognize the quality of our work AND recognize the areas in which we need improvement. On the one hand, there's that famous "inner editor" or "inner critic" that speaks disparagingly of everything we do. If you listen to that voice too much, you'll never send anything out. Or, you'll avoid trying to stretch yourself as a writer or reach for higher markets because you're sure that you're not good enough to succeed.
However, I see an awful lot of writers who have become convinced every word that falls from their fingertips is pure gold. They grow livid when an editor revises their work, and they regard rejection as evidence that the editor just doesn't know quality work. You have to accept the possibility that you NEED improvement before you can actually ACHIEVE improvement-and that is why we're always stuck walking that line!
You have to be able to accept that your work today is as good as it gets-TODAY-and send it out. At the same time, you have to accept that you can do better TOMORROW. But what you must NOT do is berate yourself TODAY for not being where you should be TOMORROW.
How important is it to learn the rules and follow them as a freelancer? I mean, it takes a lot of time to learn everything and I have a great story for a specific magazine. Is it smart to wait or should the query be shot out there?
There are some basic rules every freelancer needs to know before they send anything out the door. You need to know how to write a query, how to determine if a particular publication is appropriate for your article. You need to have some idea about how the business aspect of writing works-what to expect if your article is accepted, what sort of rights you have and what you might not want to sell for peanuts, the difference between paying on acceptance versus publication, and so forth. You need to have sufficient professionalism to avoid arguing with an editor who rejects your work.
But nobody can possibly "learn it all" before they start sending out material. The stuff I've just mentioned can be picked up in a couple of days of reading on a site like www.Writing-World.com, and it's all free; you don't even have to buy a book. Or, you can BUY a book on "how to get started" and spend two or three days reading that, and you should know enough basics to send that first article or query out the door. Then, you will find as you progress, you have more and more specific questions that you want answered, and you learn as you go.
If, however, ones does not have the patience to take even the most basic steps to find out "what she need to know to get started," then she should prepare to fail. These are the writers who are convinced there is some sort of "magical secret" to getting published, and those of us who ARE published are jealously guarding that secret to prevent anyone else from breaking in. It's a bit ironic, when writers seem some of the most open, generous people there are-many can't seem to refrain from sharing their "secrets of success."
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Since I honestly can't think of anything I WISH someone had told me, I'll leave you with a couple of things that people DID tell me that made a difference.
First, one of the most important things my husband told me was, "If you don't try, you'll never know whether you could do it or not." That's been a guideline for most of my career. Second, a lawyer phrased a similar sentiment slightly differently: "If you don't try, you'll have failed by default."
What is the most common mistake freelancers make? How can it be avoided?
Here's a mistake I commonly make, and I think many other freelancers make it as well: Putting all your eggs in one basket. It's said that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your clients, and writing is no different. As you become established, you're likely to end up with one or two PRIMARY customers. Because you don't constantly have to "sell" them on your credentials or ability to deliver, these can become your primary revenue stream, and life is rosy.
And then-wham! Everything changes. The editor quits or gets fired and the new editor doesn't know or care who you are. The magazine gets gobbled up by a giant conglomerate, suddenly you're faced with a contract that demands all rights to your first-born child. Or the magazine simply folds, leaving you with nothing.
When that happens, you haven't just lost a client. You find that you're back to "square one," having to find NEW clients, new publications, new editors. You have to remember how to write winning queries to total strangers. And since it probably took at least a year or two for you to build up that kind of relationship with a publication in the first place, this means it can take a year or more to REPLACE the income that you used to get from that one source.
As I said, it's happened to me several times, and the ONLY way to avoid this trap is to avoid becoming complacent about your markets. If you have two or three great markets, that's wonderful; keep feeding them. But always spend at least PART of your time cultivating new markets, so that you have something to fall back upon when one (or more) of those great markets suddenly disappears.
You've seen freelancers become successful, do you see common characteristics?
Since I've already talked about self-discipline, I think I'll just talk about one other characteristic here: A genuine LOVE of writing. I have seen a number of women who could write well and who enjoyed "dabbling"-and who could probably have become successful. But writing was never important enough to pursue to the degree necessary to become "successful".
To be successful as a writer, I think you need to have that sense, not that you "like" to write, but that you can't imagine NOT writing. You must love writing enough to find time to write even when you're stretched between the demands of your day job and family. If writing is always something that you're going to do "later," when you "have time," then it will always BE something that you put off until "later." The writers I encounter who are successful are those who would rather write than do just about anything else.
I think this also indicates that a successful writer regards the process of WRITING as being a "success" in and of itself. The WRITING matters more than the money or even the bylines. If you're only writing for the money, and the money doesn't come, you will stop, the same for bylines. The successful writer is the one for whom the money and the bylines are the BYPRODUCTS of doing what they love. They're a nice benefit to be gained from writing, but they're not the reason a successful writer writes.
And now, with one finger pointed outward and four pointed back at me, I think I'll just bring this to a close and creep quietly off into the night...
Moira Allen is the founder of WRITING-WORLD.COM (www.writing-world.com). Her site offers more than 650 articles and columns for writers of all interests and every level of expertise. Their free monthly e-mail newsletter offers articles, contest information, and publishing industry news. It is edited by Moira Allen, author of "Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer," "How to Write for Magazines," and "The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals"
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