Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?

We need a realistic view of our history to plan a reasonable vision for our future

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?My wife sometimes says I view things as though my glass is only half-full, that I’m pessimistic. I counter that I’m simply being a realist, but the truth is I’m not sure who’s right. Perhaps a bit of reality resides in both perspectives. So it is in viewing my past year as a writer.

As such, I share two perspectives:

Best Year Ever:

  • After years of talk, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. What a great experience.
  • I wrote two novels, the second one in about three weeks. (I’m still editing them both.)
  • My work as a commercial freelance writer really took off this year, with more clients, more work, and more income—all new records.
  • I grew my Twitter followers from 2,400 to 11,500, surpassing my year-end goal of 10,000. I’m enjoying good connections and engagement there.
  • I took LinkedIn seriously and made 100 posts to a growing audience of 2,300, which more than doubled in 2016.

Epic Fail:

  • I didn’t publish a book this year.
  • I didn’t win any writing contests.
  • I wasn’t published in any anthologies.
  • I didn’t accomplish my number one goal for 2016. (Which is now my number one goal for 2017.)
  • Work/life balance continues to elude me. (It’s even harder to achieve when you work at home.)

I could reasonably adopt either of these two perspectives as my primary view of 2016. While it’s easy to dwell on disappointments, missed goals, and wasted opportunities, a better outlook is to focus on what went great this year. Though I might need to reread this post to remind myself, I can truly say that 2016 was my best year ever, and I look forward to 2017 being even better.

As you review 2016, I encourage you to celebrate the mountains and not allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Though everyone is at a different place as a writer, no one had a flawless year and everyone has something to celebrate. Focus on these things as you move into 2017.

May it be your best year ever.

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What I’ve Learned as a Commercial Freelance Writer

7 tips to succeed as a freelance writer and not go crazy in the process

What I’ve Learned as a Commercial Freelance WriterAs I earn more of my income as a freelance writer, I’ve learned some important lessons in the process:

Say “Yes”: At a former job, I’d quip to my sales staff: “The answer is always, ‘Yes, we can do that. Let me tell you how much it will cost.’” The same applies as a freelancer. Never turn a job down. (And if you’re not all that excited about it, quote more.) While most of my work is content marketing, I’ve also written website content, PowerPoint slides, marketing materials, case studies, whitepapers, outlines for presentations, resumes, and likely a few more things I don’t recall. Each one broadens my confidence, increases my capabilities, and enhances my marketability.

Quote with Care: I tend to underestimate how much time it will take me to do a project. Yes, I know how many words I can write per hour, but there is also research, editing, proofing, and sometimes just thinking. If I’m not careful I overlook the time to complete these other tasks, so I try to quote high. It’s much easier to give clients a discount than to ask for more.

Batching is Best: At first I tried to spread out my work, doing one item a day. Yet, this is inefficient. It’s better to batch work. For example, I owe one client two pieces a month. I write them both on the same day, back to back. The second piece always writes faster and flows better. Another client wants content every Thursday and a third client every Friday. I’m more effective if I write both on Thursday. Plus that opens up Fridays for other opportunities.

One at a Time: I learned the hard way not to bring on two clients at the same time. Neither receives my focused attention, and it’s easy to confuse projects and preferences. Instead I complete my first project for one client before I onboard a second one. It’s fair to them and keeps me sane.

Know Your Capabilities: I know how fast I can write, but I’m not as aware of the amount of time it takes to edit a piece and then proof it. But the more work I do, the easier it is to home in on these. I also know the time of day when I write my best and when things take longer, as well as certain seasons to not take on new work.

Collect Fast: For one client I spent almost as much time chasing his payment as I did doing the work. Now I have a credit card on file for each client. I do the work, email it to them, and then charge their card.

End with the Beginning: Most of my work for clients is ongoing. I write content marketing or articles along a specific theme, month after month. Each time I finish one piece, I make a note for the next one, such as a title, outline, thesis statement, the end, or even the opening. Usually it’s just a one line prompt. This is when I have the best ideas, and they come quickly. This makes it easy to start the next piece when the time comes. I never want to sit down with a deadline looming and ask myself, “What should I write?”

I’ve been doing commercial freelance writing for a couple of years. This is what I’ve learned so far, and I’m sure I’ll learn more as I move forward.

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How to Always Know What to Write When it’s Time to Blog

Maintain an idea repository to jumpstart your creativity every time you sit down to write

How to Always Know What to Write When it’s Time to BlogEach week I create several posts for my blogs. I also compose posts for others (content marketing). In addition, I need to produce columns for my various publications. At a minimum, I write five new pieces a week, sometimes upwards of ten.

Yet I seldom struggle with what to say. I always have at least one idea waiting for me when it’s time to write, usually many. Here’s my process:

  • Keep a Running List: For each blog, client, or publication, I have an idea file. Sometimes I note a concept or a title. Other times it’s the first line or even the last. Occasionally there’s an anecdote to serve as the focal point for me to package. Then there is a bulleted list, the result of a quick brainstorm session during a moment of inspiration. Such is the case with this post.
  • Look For Fresh Ideas: Life and living provides a treasure chest of ideas. We merely need to recognize their value when we see them. This takes practice, as well as discipline. Reading provides creative fodder for me, too, as do podcasts and especially movies. The key in this, which I learned the hard way, is to seize these gems as soon as I see them. Trusting my memory has cost me too many good ideas.
  • Retain What You Can’t Use: Sometimes a piece doesn’t develop as I expect or I need to skip a thought or go in a different direction. Other times I need to cut a section. I always stuff these untapped nuggets into my file for another day.
  • Build on Feedback: Some people comment on posts. Others email me their thoughts and questions, and a few react in person. Each source of input provides the potential for a future piece, which I add to my list.
  • Tap Your Muse as You Write: Perhaps the most common source of inspiration occurs during my writing process. As I develop one piece, other gems for future posts pop into my mind. I stop writing immediately and capture them in my idea file. This happens with about half the pieces I write. Sometimes I receive multiple ideas in succession. I eventually use most of them.
  • Bonus Tip: Sometimes when it’s time to write, I simply ask myself, “What do you want to write about today?” Without even peeking at my list of ideas, another concept pops into my mind, and I can’t help but develop it. This saves all the ideas in my file for another day.

I polished this process over time. First it was to minimize frustration over lost ideas; then for the sake of efficiency. But now it has become necessary for me if I am to meet all my commitments and make my deadlines.

Do you use a variation of an idea file? What process do you use to generate ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing Style

Our writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and grow an audience.

When people hire me they often say “I like your writing style” or share some similar sentiment. (I do content marketing, ghostwriting, commercial freelance work, and whatnot.)

I’m glad they appreciate how I write. It helps us start our working relationship from a good place. At the same time I wonder what they mean.

Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing StyleIf you asked me what my writing style is, I would sputter at my response. I strive to write logically. I work to have a smooth flow from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. I use complete sentences, avoid clichés, and like to write in triplets. Occasionally my words have a playful tone, and I hope my writing is always interesting. Does this describe my style? Or does this merely delineate my technique? Is there a difference?

Regardless, I know that having a writing style is critical to me finding work. So I’m glad I have one. My writing style has emerged over time. How that happened for me is likely the same as for any writer.

We need to:

Put in the Time: I have logged my 10,000 hours and long ago hit the million-word mark, both milestones that writers must reach. All writers need to invest in the craft of writing. This takes time.

Write in Public: I blog, and I write articles. My work is out there for everyone to see. Many of the people who hire me have read my words for years but not everyone. My last ghostwriting client was a referral. Until that moment he had never heard of me, but he found my words online, liked my writing style, and hired me.

Get Feedback: When we write in public we sometimes receive criticism – both constructive or otherwise. We can also seek feedback from people we trust, such as other writers, a critique group, beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. Their reaction to our words today helps make our words tomorrow better.

Strive to Improve: Not all aspects of our writing style are necessarily good. Everyone has weak spots. So we work to write better. As we do our style morphs into something grander. How I write today, though similar to last year, is better. The same is true for anyone who writes with intention.

Even if we don’t know our writing style, the people who read our words know what it is. Perhaps they can’t articulate it any more then we can, but they know our work when they see it.

Having an engaging writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and serve an audience. That’s why I write. How about you?

What is your writing style? What have you done to hone it? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How I Became a Better Writer

There is no single path to becoming a better writer. Instead we have a myriad of options before us. Here are some of the opportunities I encountered on my writing journey:

  • How I Became a Better WriterWrite Columns: Early on I contributed articles to a small newsletter (back when newsletters were still mailed). Having a deadline to hit each month was great preparation. It also taught me to always look for ideas and to work ahead. I did this for several years.
  • Get a Writing Job: Later I worked for a company in a seeming perpetual state of reorganization. During one such reshuffling I ended up doing tech writing. I wrote for eight hours-a-day, five days-a-week, every week. Though another restructuring soon moved me elsewhere, during this stint I learned how to write all day long.
  • Blog: Years later I jumped into blogging. What started as an experiment, moved into a hobby, and later acquired a purpose. At one time I had eight active blogs. Now I’m down to three and may whittle that down to two. (But don’t worry; this one will stay). In the past eight years I’ve published some 1,500 posts, amounting to nearly a half million words. During this time, I found my writing voice.
  • Listen to Podcasts: I don’t listen to music on my iPod; I listen to podcasts, mostly about writing. I learn about writing as a craft and as a business. I listen for several hours each week. It’s like going to school – without the tests.
  • Get Feedback: I also participate in critique groups. My friends help me improve. Yes, it’s wonderful when they like my words, but it’s even better when they point out shortcomings. They encourage me and keep me on track.
  • Study Writing: I also read magazines and books about the craft. Though I own more writing books than I’ve read, what I have read has helped me greatly.
  • Read Broadly: For too many years I read only nonfiction relating to work or faith. After a while everything I read bored me. Now I read mostly fiction, from just about any genre. As I read more widely, I can write more broadly.
  • Form Community: I spend time with other writers. Only writers understand the isolation of the work, the frustration of when words don’t work as we wish, the agony of rejection, and the joy of publication. We need a writing community to journey with us, be it online or in person.
  • Content Marketing: In pursuing freelance work, I do a lot of content marketing, which for me is much like blogging. Here I write with a purpose, have deadlines, and earn money. I think every writer – whether they admit it or not – wants to make money with their writing. I do.

These are the highlights of my writing journey, haphazard for the first three decades and more intentional in the last one. Your journey will be different.

May we all move steadily down the path of our own writing roads.

What has been a key part of your writing journey? What steps will you take this year to move down your writing road? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How Many Words Do You Write Per Hour?

How Many Words Do You Write Per Hour?Do you know how many words you typically write per hour? Do you know how long you can sustain that rate? This is a critical number to know when estimating how long a project will take. We need this for meeting deadlines and for quoting projects. Without having a firm grasp of our typical writing speed and sustainability we run the risk of not meeting deadlines or of under quoting projects. No one wants to turn in a project late or end up working for next to nothing.

But what we shouldn’t do is compare our writing speed with others. If we write more than most people, then we may feel pride or look down on them; if we write less than others, then we might feel discouraged, assume there is something wrong with us, or even try to change our writing process to write faster than we should. None of these are good outcomes.

Also, we need to realize that our writing speed is for our first draft, which will require additional work, such as re-writing, editing, and proofreading. Some people who can crank out high word counts on the first draft often spend much more time bringing their work to its final form. Conversely, other people with slower writing speeds often have much less work to do afterwards.

We need to know how fast we can write, how long we can keep up that pace, and how much more work is required to polish it to final form.

I’ve talked to writers who write about 100 words per hour. On the other end I have heard of writers pushing two thousand. But people seldom share with me how much time they spend later on to bring these words to their final form.

On most projects I write in the neighborhood of four to five hundred words an hour, though it occasionally goes higher, approaching one thousand; my record is 1,750, though I’m not sure how I pulled that off. I also know my second hour is often more productive than my first, which is an important reason to set aside a block of time to write. I also know I can keep up this pace all morning, providing I take periodic breaks.

My “first draft” is in decent shape and seldom requires re-writing, so I just need to polish and proof the results, which takes 15 to 25 percent additional time. (Remember that I mostly write nonfiction.)

Though I don’t like working on the same project for more than four or five hours, I often switch to something else in the afternoon, which seems to reset my mental focus and I’m off again. In the morning I can consistently produce two thousand words or more, assuming I don’t need to do too much research or fact-checking. When I write in the afternoon, it’s always smaller projects, such as articles or content marketing. In this way I can hit up to four thousand words a day (my personal record) if I need to, but that doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

Armed with this information, I’m now able to set realistic writing deadlines and hit them. I’m also able to give reasonable quotes for contract work. And it only took me about five years to get to this point and figure these things out.

Do you know enough about your writing to set realistic goals? What things affect your speed and productivity? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What Spurs You On In Your Writing?

Are you fortunate to love what you do?

In last week’s post I said writing is fun. While acknowledging that some writers don’t like to write, I am the opposite: I love to write.

A number of things contribute to my joy of writing:

  • I see improvement in my writing: Whenever I read my past work, I’m struck with the realization that my writing is better today than it was five years ago, one year ago, and even a few months ago. I am always learning and seek to apply new techniques. Though I will never complete my writing education, seeing progress is one cause for joy.
  • What Spurs You On In Your Writing?I find satisfaction in each completed writing project: Each time I finish a project, regardless of its length, I take time to celebrate my accomplishment. For smaller works my congratulatory pause lasts only a few moments. (When I finish this post I’ll celebrate with breakfast.) For longer works, such as a book, I might even take a day to revel in my accomplishment. And these emotional boosts cause me to anticipate finishing another project and re-experiencing the thrill of a job done well.
  • I make money from my writing: For freelance work and ghostwriting there’s the added joy of a paycheck awaiting me at the end of each job. The payoff is quick, and that motivates me. While some of my writing will never earn a paycheck and other work has a payout far into the future, each check I do receive makes me want to write more.
  • I give to others through my writing: Writing has many purposes. It can entertain, encourage, teach, or challenge. As others read my words I serve them in one of these ways. I write for my readers. I give them something of value. Your appreciation gives me joy.

These are reasons why I write. I’m fortunate I can do what I love.

What spurs you on in your writing? Why do you write? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Turning a Dissertation into a Book

Ever since I finished my dissertation three years ago, my plan was to turn it into a book. Actually a dissertation is already a book. Mine weighs in at 40,000 words. What I mean is that I want to turn dissertation into a marketable book. Dissertations are not marketable. They are academic and boring. I suspect the only people who actually read dissertations are the instructors who have to and other students doing research for their dissertations.

Turning a Dissertation into a BookIn fact, turning my dissertation into a marketable form was one of my goals for 2013. Alas, I didn’t achieve that objective. In truth I never started it. Other writing projects were more interesting and got in the way.

However, the project is back on. I recently generated some interest in the book version of my dissertation, and an editor asked for a proposal. Book proposals are arduous affairs – at least for me. You need to talk about platform and marketing. You need an annotated outline and you need three sample chapters. Yuck.

The outline was easy enough, but it also revealed that the order of my dissertation – as necessitated by academic requirements – would not work for a book. I would need to move sections around and merge others segments for people to actually want to read it and not give up.

For the sample chapters, I pulled out three of the more straightforward portions of my dissertation and set down to edit them. My plan was to pull out the arcane requirements, remove the formerly required repetition, simplify long sentences, and replace the big words. I often do this type of editing at work, so I thought it would be easy for my book. I was wrong.

Turning my dissertation into a book is not going to be an easy edit but a complete rewrite. It won’t be something I can crank out in a week or two. It will take months. I’m not complaining – because I desperately want a larger audience to read my ideas – but the amount of time and work required discourages me.

This points to a larger issue for me. Though I can accurately estimate the time required for smaller projects, such as blog posts, articles, short stories, and freelance assignments, I often struggle to realistically project the amount of time it will take to write books.

Though I know how many words I can write per hour, after a few weeks of staying on track, something inevitably conspires to derail me.

The book version of my dissertation is presently on hold as I await feedback from the editor. However, I may be starting another book next week. And this one will have a deadline. I hope my time estimate is realistic and feasible.

How are you at estimating writing projects? How have you done with deadlines? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Why Writers Can Excel at Content Marketing

Ever since I first heard of content marketing, I understood it conceptually. Content marketing is providing interesting and useful information to our audience without trying to sell them anything. But I didn’t comprehend what it meant in practice. I was unable to connect theory with reality.

Why Writers Can Excel at Content MarketingI think my confusion resulted because I was reading about content marketing from a marketer’s perspective. They made it hard, perhaps because they didn’t really get it either. But now, thanks to Rachelle Gardner’s recent post Use Content Marketing to Grow Your Following I understand. All her posts are good, but this one was brilliant – simply because she explained content marketing in a practical way for writers.

My two key takeaways from her great post are:

  1. Content marketing is writing. As writers we write, so content marketing should be easy for us.
  2. Blogging is a great format for content marketing.

I write; I blog; therefore, I am a content marketer. I would have never guessed that if not for Rachelle.

Now for the embarrassing part. I have a couple of freelance clients I write blog posts for. I thought I was providing a blogging service, but now I know I am providing a content marketing service.

Do you know what else? Not only do I enjoy writing content marketing material, but I’m good at it, too. Ironically, I do a better job at content marketing for my clients than I do for myself.

My next step is to take what they pay me to do and apply it to my own work. Thank you Rachelle.

What are your thoughts on content marketing? As a writer, do you see yourself as a content marketer? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What Was Your Week Like?

Regular readers of this blog know that I write every day. Another goal I have is to spend weekday mornings writing and afternoons working (which involves some more writing). I seldom realize that goal, but I am moving in that direction. Then in evenings, when my schedule permits, I work on my platform. Again, this goal is only somewhat realized.

This week was a whirl of activity. Here’s what I remember:

  • I write blog posts on weekends but had one unfinished. I wrapped that up first thing Monday morning.
  • I’m working on a book proposal that an acquisitions editor asked for. I hoped to complete another section of it on Friday, but I didn’t so I finished that section (with two more to go).
  • I had talked with a literary agent about a couple book ideas. Inspiration hit, so I wrote the opening chapter for one of them.
  • I think I spent the afternoon following up on emails for work.
  • That night I listened to some platform building podcasts, adding more items to my to-do-list.
  • On Tuesday, I wrote a chapter in another book about the church we visited on Sunday. I needed to capture my thoughts quickly before the details faded.
  • I tried unsuccessfully to connect with a writers group before lunch. Since that didn’t work out, I went to a different one in the evening.
  • Work that afternoon was a blur, but I begin working on a freelance project for three blog posts.
  • Wednesday, I made edits to the piece I shared at my critique group the night before.
  • I went to edit the piece I wrote on Tuesday but realized I hadn’t edited the prior 12,000 words. Major distraction.
  • In the afternoon I worked on TAStrader that will go out next week. Now I just need to write my column for it.
  • I reviewed cover options for another book. Both are great; now I need to pick one.
  • I finished my freelance project and sent it out. Then I charged the client’s credit card. Both are great feelings.
  • The evening brought more platform work – and another item on my to-do-list.
  • Thursday I came up with the concept for the other book the agent and I had discussed. I outlined it before I forgot. I’m itching to start writing, but that will need to wait.
  • Then I finished editing the 12,000 unedited words I discovered on Wednesday.
  • Next I made a final edit to another book. (A book is never done, but this one is now on hold for a while).
  • Email at work stacked up, and I whittled that down to a manageable level.
  • I sent out my writers newsletter (WriteOn!). It only takes about an hour to do, but it also takes an hour to do.
  • I worked on something Friday morning, but I already forgot what. I’m behind at work and cut writing short to start work early.
  • In the afternoon I edited some submissions for the next issue of Connections Magazine. One article came in at 1,200 words, and it was supposed to be 750. I knew I could edit it down to hit the needed length, but that took time.
  • I ended the week finishing another freelance project and charging the client. Plus the words were really good ones. Triple bonus.

I never did get back to my book proposal, and I’ve not started my newsletter column (but I do know the topic). I have a nagging feeling I have something else, but right now I can’t recall what. In the midst of this week I had a near meltdown and a couple times of overwhelmed lethargy-producing frustration.
What Was Your Week Like?
I don’t share my week to complain or to boast.
I’m happy I have work to do, am overflowing with ideas, and have an agent and editor interested in my work. It is good, so very good. But the multitude of projects and ever-present distractions are insane. Sustained focus is illusive. It’s not manageable. I need to cut something out. Change starts today.

My purpose in writing this is simple: Be sure to guard your writing.

Is your writing schedule out of control, barely starting, or just right? What steps do you need to take to make things manageable? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.