Freelancing 101

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit with your computer or pad of paper, write your stories, and then have them magically appear in print? And make money? Yes. Well. That might work in a fantasy novel, but we live in a non-fiction world that runs on contracts, deadlines, accounting, and—sorry, we cannot avoid it—taxes.

Although writing is a creative process, talent alone will not move you forward if you want to earn a living as a writer. You must start with administration and finish with marketing. Think of these two brackets as the bread and your creative work as the innards of your sandwich. Without the layers, you basically end up with salad. Here are some ways to make your first layer solid.

Partner with God

Before you do anything else, bathe your assignments in prayer. Ask God to give you discernment about what stories to write, to open doors for your story to get to where it needs to go, and to touch the hearts of those who read your story.

Quantify Your Goals

What do you want to write? Where do you want to see your work published? What steps will get you there? How long will it take? What will you let go of to make the time? It’s fine if you don’t know the answers to all these questions right away. Just do the first thing you know to do and that will lead you to the next step.

Manage Your Time

Figure out your routine. How many hours will you work per day or week? What time will you start and finish? Keep in mind that the time you spend on a project includes not only writing, but also reading, researching, brainstorming, and learning. Leave ample margin for revisions and unexpected setbacks. Make sure family and friends respect your work schedule.

Run a Tight Ship

Few people enjoy paperwork, but developing and sticking to an efficient administrative system will mitigate headaches in the long run. Use downtimes (when you don’t feel like writing) to clear away paperwork. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb for keeping paperwork off your desk is the “FLAT” approach: File it, Let someone else do it, take Action, or Throw it away!

Keep detailed accounts. Learn about rates, rights, and income tax rules for freelancers. Keep all your business-related receipts. Invoice as soon as a job is finished.

Keep track of your assignments, too. Whether you use a planner, a wall calendar, a computer program or an app on your phone, mark deadlines as soon as you have a confirmed assignment. If your article requires interviews, set up those calls or meetings before you do anything else. Don’t assume that your subject’s schedule will coordinate with yours.

Be Professional

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your manuscript is if you are a nightmare to work with. Remember that your editor or publisher is your client, and the customer is always right (in theory, at least). Show humility and grace when your work is criticized or corrected, even if you have to disagree, and resolve to be teachable. Not only will this show good character and make you a pleasure to do business with, but you will actually learn things and get better at your craft!

Meet your deadlines. Call when you said you would. And never, ever get “under-promise and over-deliver” mixed up!

4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

5 Questions to Ask Before Challenging Your Editor

by Michael Foust

For most of my journalistic career, I have see-sawed back and forth between the role of editor and writer. I began my career as a writer, then served as a newspaper editor, then switched jobs to become a writer again, then switched jobs once again to become an editor. And now, I’m back to being just a writer.

This means I’ve experienced both sides of the give-and-take that occurs between editors and writers. I’ve sat at an editor’s desk when a clueless writer submitted a supposedly perfect masterpiece. And I’ve sat on my writer’s couch at home, stewing that an incompetent editor turned my masterpiece into a heap of unreadable trash.

So no matter which side of the fence you find yourself, I feel your pain. This column, though, is for writers.

Over the years as a journalist/writer, I’ve developed the following five questions that I always ask myself before challenging my editor.

1. Are They Right?  

Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility serves any career well, but especially within the field of writing, in which you have a gatekeeper—the editor—who can become either a good friend or a thorn in your side. I’ve written thousands of stories during my life, and I have yet to pen one that didn’t have an error in the first draft.

You’re not infallible, and your copy isn’t inerrant. Maybe, just maybe, your editor is right.

2. What Can I Learn?

To be humble is to be teachable. Think of your editor as a college professor who is giving you free lessons. More than likely, they know something you don’t.

My first editor taught me to use quotes sparingly. My second editor improved my transitions and headlines. My third editor taught me the significance of keywords for social media.

Unless a kindergartener is editing your copy, you likely can learn a thing or two.

3. Is It Worth It?

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Are your editor’s changes tantamount to a person with a minor cut that can be ignored? (They changed “said” to “says.”) Or are the changes equivalent to a deep wound that requires surgery? (You wrote “Bob shot Jim,” but they changed it to “Jim shot Bob.”)

By my experience, most editorial changes are like minor cuts that can be ignored. Rarely does an editor make a change so severe that it impacts the story’s intended meaning. Besides, editors often improve the story. Guess what? The reader won’t ever know—and you’ll get the credit.

4. What Might Happen?

If you gain a reputation as a constant complainer, you may forgo future writing opportunities with that publisher, who might look for a different writer who is more manageable. Are you are willing to cut those ties? If not, it might be best to swallow your pride in order to build a relationship. Then, after you’ve written additional stories and gained the editor’s trust, you can speak up more often.

As the old maxim goes: Pick your battles wisely.

5. Are You Being Charitable?

Perhaps you’ve decided this battle indeed is a “hill upon which to die”—or at least one that can’t be ignored.

If so, write your email carefully. Be charitable in your wording. Sprinkle compliments in with your concerns. (“Great job editing this.”) Avoid sarcasm. Begin your sentences with phrases like, “I may be wrong but …”—thus indicating you are bringing an item to their attention they may have overlooked. That way, you don’t come across as haughty, and they’re able to hear your opinion.

Finally, proofread your email before hitting “send.” You don’t want misspellings and typos in an email that’s complaining about shoddy editing.

Recipe for the Perfect Interview: 5 Easy Steps

My brownies are kind of famous. When people ask for my recipe, I laugh and tell them I use a box mix. Then I let them in on my secret: I literally count out the suggested 50 strokes when mixing, instead of stopping when the batter looks well stirred. This trick ensures a perfectly gooey texture.

Successful recipes—even those on a box—work because they’re tried and true. This principle has proven true in my writing, too. When someone I interview says, “That’s a great question!” they might as well have complimented my brownies. I grin and think: Nailed it! Strong interviews are the backbone of news reports, profiles, and feature articles, but the same skills are useful when researching for a novel and other types of stories.

Here’s my recipe for the perfect interview.

1. Gather everything you need.

First, set up the interview immediately. You may have a few weeks until deadline, but that doesn’t mean your subject is available throughout that timeframe. Leave room for last-minute rescheduling and follow-up questions. When scheduling the interview, mention how much time you anticipate needing (always overestimating in case the conversation runs long). Be clear about the purpose of the interview but do not send your questions in advance. Your subject should be able to think about the topic without rehearsing responses. Before you call or meet with the person you’re interviewing, do your research. Collecting biographical information ahead of time (personal and company websites are a good place to start) eliminates the need for unnecessary questions—and the risk of annoying your interviewee. Identify secondary sources of information, such as other people you can talk to. If your story is about a conflict or controversial topic, explore both sides of the issue.

2. Write every question you can think of. Then write some more.

Go through your questions and prioritize those pertaining to your topic. Ask off-topic questions only if they may shed light on the interviewee’s personality and add interest to the story. Ask a couple of these at the beginning and, if there’s time left over, at the end. Avoid questions that diverge from the topic with no purpose. Mine for interesting anecdotes and not only dry facts.

3. Be punctual. Be pleasant. Be professional.

Show up for the interview or make the phone call when you said you would. Be friendly but not overly familiar, and address the interviewee respectfully regardless of your personal views. If your subject says something you disagree with, don’t debate. Your job is to record what is being said, not to assert your own opinions. Be empathetic but not too chatty when reacting to your subject’s comments. Don’t make assumptions about the topic or the interviewee. Resist the temptation to write the story in your head before the interview is done. If there is a pause in the conversation, allow a few seconds of silence before jumping in with your next question. Some of the best quotes come after such pauses because the interviewee was processing what he or she just said.

4. Always end with “Is there anything I didn’t ask but you want to tell me about?”

. . . or some variation of this question. Nine times out of ten, I get excellent quotes when I ask this, especially if my interviewee is passionate about the topic. A freelancer I know even asks if the other person wants to ask her a question. This could give you additional clues on how to move your story forward.

5. Review your notes right away and follow up on anything that’s unclear.

Do this while the conversation is still fresh in both your minds. Don’t try to decipher your notes or guess what was meant. It’s better to ask than to publish something inaccurate or misleading.

Serve warm.

Sorry, wrong recipe!

Ann-Margret Hovsepian