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The Freelancing Fallacy: You Believe a Freelancing Career Means You’re Your Own Boss

Enraptured by the idea of running your own business so you’re your own boss? Sick and tired of answering to a tyrannical boss at work? Love the idea of getting up whenever you want to without having to apologize to your manager and team at work?

Please, please listen to me when I say this: When you run your own business, you have lots of bosses. They’re your clients, vendors, and, yes, even the government.

So don’t quit your day job to start your own business just because you can’t stand the manager you have right now.

Freelancing is Like School

One of the best things our education system teaches us is how to adjust what we produce to meet the needs of the person in power. In school, college, and university, that’s your teacher, instructor, professor. At work, it’s your boss, and likely even your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, and so on.

You had to look at the course requirements, you likely listened for hints from other students on how to succeed in a teacher’s class, and you may even have visited rating sites to find tips for profs you were stuck with.

School was the perfect training ground for running your own business. Some clients will be happy with almost anything you produce, and some will have exacting standards you need to meet. If you want to find success, you’ll have to learn to adjust to each client’s preferences.

Running by Your Own Rules

There are also consequences if you ignore your clients’ wishes and requirements. Yes, you can set your hours without asking anyone for permission. That’s true. But if a good client calls you up and says they have $1,000 worth of work for you to do the week of your vacation, what will your answer be?

There are ways to mitigate such situations, and I thankfully haven’t lost any business yet because of family time away from home. But I have taken on last-minute work that needed weekend time to get done, because otherwise I would’ve lost out on $700.

Choosing Your Clients

The plus side to needing a variety of clients is choice: you can choose whom you want to work with. For some, that is the ultimate freedom. If a potential client is already very demanding on the phone before you’ve even agreed to a contract, you can politely decline, saying you’re busy. Or you can refer them to someone who may be willing to work with them. (Just because you don’t jive with that person doesn’t mean someone else will have that same feeling.)

If your client roster is full of people you enjoy working with, then almost every assignment is fun and fulfilling. Unlike in an employment situation, where you have the same boss, no matter your feelings about them, you have some leeway with your clients.

 

Employment Laws

I love freelancing, and I don’t want to turn you off running your own business if that’s what you really want to do. But if you’re doing it to escape the nightmare boss you’re working for right now, you may be better off just getting another job.

Running your own business can cause a lot of financial insecurity, and you have no employment laws to protect you. Client not paying on time? Can’t call the labour board. Client shouting at you over the phone? Can’t talk to their boss about harassment. Did someone choose not to work with you because of your sexual orientation? I’m certain you won’t have much of an argument at the human rights tribunal.

If you need to force a client to do something, it’s up to you to get a lawyer involved. And it’s up to you to pay for it.

Do This Self-Test

If you’re planning to freelance, write up your business plan. In it, include your ideal type(s) of client AND where you think you could find them. Then gear your marketing plan towards that. Estimate time and cost, and add 15% (because it’ll often take longer and cost more than you think).

You still run the risk of finding less-than-ideal clients, but once you sit down and think this through, it should help clarify if running your own business is really what you want.

Why?

Because you will hopefully find out how hard marketing is and think twice before you strike out on your own. Freelancing is extremely fulfilling, but some aspects of it are extremely hard, and finding the right clients can be one of those aspects. But don’t go into freelancing because you get to be your own boss.

Because you don’t.

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Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

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Even Groups That Don’t Cost a Dime Cost You Time

Make the Most of Your Group Membership

Unfortunately, when I started writing, I didn’t have the equivalent of my 20 years of dancing training to teach me how to do it. I’d taken an online course, contacted a magazine I had a vague connection with, and pitched an idea. They took it! AND they paid me for my work! But I wasted A LOT of time on those assignments, because I didn’t belong to an appropriate group:

  • I spent an hour interviewing people instead of 15 minutes.
  • I wasted hours trying to find a “creative angle,” not accepting that standard formats exist for a reason.
  • I spent so long trying to figure out HOW to write that I’m certain 20 hours passed before I finished a 1,000-word article.

You could argue I was learning how to “make it,” “putting in my sweat and tears,” as it were. And some of that is true. But, as my grade 11 teacher said, pushing harder on a pen cap to take it off the pen may be working harder, but it isn’t working smarter.

No matter the goal, a journey is par for the course. But if you’re going to go on that journey, take the highway, not the country road.

How Groups Help

Look at the goals you’re trying to achieve, then take three minutes to watch this video that illustrates, using jelly beans, how many days in your life you have to achieve them.

Now ask yourself this question:

Why on earth would you waste time re-inventing the wheel and trying to achieve your goals on your own?

7 Suggestions to Get the Most Benefit From Your Group

I’ve been a member of a group for non-fiction writers for, I think, seven years now. So it’s my turn to pay it forward and share with you advice that will help you get the most out of your group.

  1. Show up. Even if the meeting topics don’t sound interesting, show up. You may be reading the writing of someone who makes even a visit from Elton John sound like you’re going to watch the fireplace channel the entire time. You joined the group for the people, but you won’t meet them if you don’t show up.
  2. Bring questions. This will help you stay focused during your meeting. If you don’t get a chance to ask them, see if they can be emailed to members. After all, you’ve joined this group to get something out of it: Don’t sit on the sidelines and wait to be asked if you have any questions.
  3. Volunteer, if you can. This is how you meet more members in larger organizations, e.g., national ones, and how you get to better know some of the members in your local group.
  4. Know your members. That way, if you have questions you’d rather not ask publicly, you can ask them privately. If your group is large, focus on getting to know a few, and then branch out.
  5. Give your opinion if asked. If someone asks your opinion, assume they actually want it. You can show respect and be honest at the same time, and, speaking as the leader of my group, I want to know what my members think so I can improve their experience. In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up.
  6. Take home one action item after every meeting. And commit to completing it (or at least starting it) before the next meeting. This cadence will help you assess your investment (even if it’s only time): the membership is either helping you or wasting your time and possibly your money, but you won’t know what it’s doing if you don’t put what you’re learning into practice.
  7. Be prepared to say something about yourself. Most groups start off with some informal chit chat before everyone gets down to business. Having something to share in those situations will help others get to know you.

Take advantage of your membership, even if you have to push yourself at the start. You joined for a reason, and you won’t see any benefits if you don’t jump in.

In other words, don’t wait for the group to do something for you. Take an active role and get something out of it yourself.

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Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

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Are You a Forest Type or a Tree Type?

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From unsplash; photographer unknown

 

“This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake. As you now know well, such attention switching and perspective switching is depleting, and like multitasking, it uses up more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind

 

The old forest vs. trees spectrum, but I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’ve been reading this book for the past week or two, trying to learn more about how my brain works and how I can work more efficiently with it. On the one hand, many things aren’t new to me, e.g., it’s more efficient to stay on one task, multitasking doesn’t actually exist (he means multitasking as in “flipping between tasks,” not as in actually doing two things at once), etc. The difference here, though, is that Levitin goes into the science, using examples and highlighting individual studies to make his point. That makes the information more alive for me, and that’s when I start to see connections and start asking more questions.

Volleys of Insult

For example: Is this energy-draining task a reason for many of the insults firing back and forth online?

It’s a bit of a scary time in the world right now, I feel, because of the high-noon stand-off between the American and North Korean governments. Although I’m starting to see that humanity will always be scared of something and claim the world is coming to an end (i.e., Chicken Little), I have to admit, I’m a bit more nervous about this one.

With how often the President of the US has been in the news, I’ve noticed on Quora recently questions about conservative thought in the US, how liberal Europe is, questions about Canada’s prime minister, and comparisons among all three parties. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have often turned into Facebook-style exchanges, where very generalizing comments get catapulted around, and invariably someone says, “If you don’t like it here, then you can move.”

But It All Started Out So Innocently

What does this have to do with Levitin’s quote above? Usually, the first few answers on such contentious subjects are detailed and considerate, regardless of the person’s opinion. Someone took time to write them and to explain their point of view to anyone reading the string. Some respond in kind.

These are the answers that are most interesting, whether I’m reading a Republican’s or a Democrat’s answer. I may still disagree with the answers, but these kinds of answers are the closest I have to being in someone else’s shoes.

This Q&A process, when done with respect, lets you find commonalities between both parties (e.g., “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for my children”), and you suddenly realize you’re not that different after all, even if you disagree on the subject.

And Then Came the Slingshot

But why the mud-slinging? Because it’s easier? Mud-slinging involves insulting someone and cutting down their ego through generalizations and assumptions about the person. I’ve often wanted to engage in it myself, simply because someone’s ego grates me the wrong way (we’re past rubbing) and I want to shoot them down using the written word.

Instead, I start writing down a more detailed answer, and before I know it, 20 minutes have passed and I haven’t even posted my thoughts. Looking at the time I’ve already wasted, I delete everything and move on.

What Levitin is saying above is that it’s hard for us to switch between the general and the detailed, the forest and the trees.

Tornados and the Blues

Last night, my family and I went to the local blues festival to catch Steve Strongman, a singer-songwriter we’ve all come to really enjoy. The entire festival was cut short by a tornado warning. This usually only happens maybe once every year or two in our area, so it was scary. While I was waiting with the kids for my husband to get the car, I was frightened that lightning would hit any of the many trees we were near – the festival was in a park. The lightning was bright and thick and flashed down from the sky. (If you’re wondering if I’m overreacting, a student on the campus where I work got struck by lightning three years ago, because she stood under a tree.)

My husband drove up the street, and I was waiting at a four-way stop with the kids. The motorists all waited for me to cross and get the kids into the car. That’s when I saw the trees – that people are kind and compassionate – instead of the forest – the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It’s Not All Hellish

It’s easy for us to read the headlines, whether we get them via social media or traditional media, and start to worry. And I will be the first to say that this old-fashioned pistol-drawing going on between these two governments does worry me. But it also makes it far too easy to have a negative view on the world.

Back to my original problem: I know hurtful things cause feelings of hurt, and I see the natural reaction in kids, namely, to hurt back. But what if we stepped down from the forest and into the trees and actually took 20 minutes once every week or two to explain our points of view instead of three minutes everyday slinging insults? I think we’d come a little closer to humanizing all the arguments out there and seeing that, yes, we actually have more in common with each other than we thought.

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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

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3 Don’ts and 6 Dos for Attracting Good Writers to Your Company

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Photo by Carson Arias on Unsplash

If your company is having a hard time finding good writers, then read on, because I have a few tips for you.

I was recently headhunted for a writing position at a company. (Yay, me!) I did apply, but then I pulled out because I understood they were looking for a part-time employee when in fact it was a full-time position.

However, the tone of the initial email, plus other job descriptions I’ve seen for professional writers, have brought me to this week’s topic: What professional writers are really looking for when they read a job description.

What Good Professional Writers Don’t Want

  1. Don’t begin any emails to a writer with generic attempts at boosting their ego. Writers write, so they can see through that kind of writing in two seconds. For example, an email I received once said, “You probably get emails like this all the time.” (Their emphasis, not mine.) These sorts of words waste the writer’s time. Just say hi, introduce yourself, and explain what you’re looking for.
  2. Don’t say you’re looking for a writer who delivers perfect copy all the time. Professional writers know they can’t attain that. Yes, they absolutely strive for it, but I’ll bet you anything that someone will find an error in this post somewhere, no matter how often I proofread it. (Always happens when anyone, including writers, complains about writing.)
  3. Don’t toss away resumes because the writer ends sentences with prepositions or doesn’t use “whom” or uses “their” in the singular (see #1 for an example). Although the first scenario is a leftover from the days when people thought English should be more like Latin, using “who” as an object and “their” as a singular have their time and place. If you otherwise like the writer’s applications, ask them about their writing during the interview.

What Good Professional Writers Want

  1. Do mention that you’re a workplace that understands how to balance the company’s needs with the writer’s desire to produce good copy. In other words, you won’t expect a creative, well-researched, 15-page whitepaper in one day, but you do need a writer who can occasionally pump out a 100-word eblast in an hour (after appropriate company training).
  2. Do move language requirements to the very bottom of your description, because listing them at the top of your description sounds like it’s the most important thing you’re looking for. Consider these questions: What style of writing do you want? How much experience? In what industry or industries? What kind of personality would fit your team? Those are more relevant to a professional writer and should encourage more suitable applicants to apply.
  3. Do list a pay range. Pro writers know what they’re worth, and it isn’t $15/hour (even in USD). Listing an appropriate range can help you attract writers who believe their value is in that range. (You’ll also get bad writers who drool at the dollar signs, but you’ll see them from miles away. They’re the ones who start off with “I started writing at the tender age of 5” or “Writing is my passion.”)
  4. Do emphasize the co-operative nature of the team the writer will be working with, so long as it’s a true statement. E.g., “We expect a high level of writing, and in return, we offer you team members who proofread each other’s work. It’s how we all learn and create copy that is as close to perfect as we can get.” (Now, that would attract me.)
  5. Do feel free to ask for company-specific writing samples, but only once you’ve whittled your selection down to those you’ll interview. Asking for company-specific samples during the cattle-call phase signals to pro writers that you have little respect for their time, and many believe you’re just looking for free copy for your website. Ask for applicable portfolio samples first and then a company-specific sample later.
  6. Do understand that many (but certainly not all) writers are introverts. Offering a quiet corner where your new writer can work with relatively few disturbances would be incredible.

Just as job searchers can increase their chances of getting hired by customizing their job application to your company, you’ll likely increase your chances of finding good writers if you follow these tips when trying to recruit a good pool of applicants.

*I edited the order of the top paragraphs before the first headline. Sorry – saw a better way to order things.

*And I edited the entire post for point-of-view consistency. I apologize for that, too.

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Being Interviewed for an Article? A Few Tips

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Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash

Whether you’ve just launched your book, are announcing a new tour, or celebrating your next opening night, you’ll likely find yourself talking to media at some point or other. I interview people from many industries for the magazine articles I write, and some interview better than others.

Why does this matter? Because it’ll affect what information I can use for the article.

I’ve got a few tips here for you so you, too, can become a better interviewee.

Watch Your Pronouns

If you’re talking about two guys and a gal and you keep saying “he,” the writer may go back to her notes and suddenly realize she’s not entirely sure which “he” you’re referring to. Although the writer may try to reach you for clarification, if she can’t, then she’ll likely go for one of the following solutions:

  • Strike the quote, no matter how good it is.
  • Assume which person it refers to and change the quote.

In my opinion, the first one is the only option unless context is very clear. If I’m not 100% certain whom the pronoun is referring to, I will definitely cut the quote. Because I do much of my writing evenings and weekends when those I interview aren’t always reachable, this means the information doesn’t make it in to the article.

Don’t Use the Writer as a Subject

It’s annoying when I get used as an example. Not because I’m insulted at all, but because I can’t use the quote. Using the writer as a subject looks like this: “Let’s say Lori is trying to improve her pirouette, so she focuses on her teacher’s old advice of pulling up straight. But this causes Lori to pull up her shoulders…”

I’ve had phenomenal illustrations given to me this way, quotable material. But I can’t quote it because my name’s in it. (And no, I won’t change the name. I have no issues changing a pronoun if I’m 100% certain of the antecedent, but I won’t change the name.)

Yes, the writer can call you up to clarify or ask your permission to change the name, but again, this is an extra step that may not happen.

Let the Writer Jump in Once in a While

Although limiting your answers to two sentences can make it difficult for the writer to get any quotable material, if the writer hasn’t asked you anything in five minutes, wrap up your thought and then pause. Some writers are too polite to interrupt, some need a moment for formulate the next question (and that’s hard to do when someone’s talking), and to be honest, it can get really boring listening to someone talk for 45 minutes straight.

Treat the interview like a conversation, and just ease into it. Yes, you should be talking the most, but let the writer participate.

Understand Time and Space Allotment

Unless you’re told otherwise, assume that others will also be interviewed for the article. I consider it impolite to ask who, but I think there’s nothing wrong with asking how long the article is.

Knowing the assigned length of the article will give you an idea of how much information the writer is looking for. For example, if the article is 1200 words, even if you’re the focus, the interview will likely last only 30 minutes or so. You’ll have certain information you want to share, so prepare with that time limit in mind.

And if the writers says they’ll only need five minutes of your time, plan accordingly.

Have Respect for the Writer’s Time

I generally like interviewing, because I get to meet some really interesting people. I expect the person I’m talking to to share information, anecdotes, personal reflections, and the like. However, even for a 1,200-word article, I don’t want someone’s list of their personal 10 Commandments.

(I once interviewed someone who kept me on the phone for two hours, even though they were one of three people I was interviewing for a 1,200-word article and knew that. Needless to say, I was livid, and I certainly wasn’t going to transcribe the entire two hours. If that subject had wanted something important in the article, there was a good chance I missed it.)

Although erring on  the side of more information is generally a good idea, you can go too far.

Just Think of Your Own Projects

In the end, it comes down to the same guidelines that likely apply your own art: stay on topic, keep the overall framework in mind, and respect everyone’s time. It’ll help you get the information you need into the media and hopefully bring you more leads down the road.

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What is Good Writing?

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Photo by Hisu lee on Unsplash

No one definite answer to “What makes for good writing?” exists. Some people focus on mechanics, others on plot. Some label a piece of writing as “good” simply if it holds their interest.

However, when it comes to the debate of what makes a good writer, I often feel one element gets ignored: context.

Context is why a very strong report writer, who excels at sifting through information and can organize it in such a concise way that the right information is presented at the right time to the right eyes, may suddenly become a “bad” writer if asked to write poetry.

Literary = Good, Commercial = Bad?

Let’s say you’re reading a commercial-style writing giant, like Danielle Steele, and you’re comparing her to a literary-style writing giant, like Alice Munro. Judging by mechanics, I’d say both are equal. If we judge by plot, some will prefer Steele, others Munro. Same if we talk about what holds your interest.

If I reflect on my own experience reading both authors, Steele’s was the book I opened up on a sleepless night, staying awake until it was done (and paying for it at work the next day). Munro’s book (a collection of her short stories) was far too complex to read with half a brain in the middle of the night. I also couldn’t finish it, because I eventually lost interest.

Does that make Steele the good writer and Munro the bad one? Absolutely not. We’re not talking about popularity here, and both certainly have very large followings. (Not to mention, Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

Munro writes deeply layered portraits of people, real people, with desirable and undesirable traits. What bored me was, in part, the absence of a novel; I couldn’t get deeper into her characters. (I know she’s written one, but I haven’t read it yet.)

Steele’s plot moved at a fast clip, and I found myself easily cheering for the protagonist. Her writing was tight, she clearly knew how to tell a story, and her characters were interesting. But I was left feeling like I hardly knew any of them, because she only wrote what was needed to further the speedy plot, and nothing more.

How This All Helps

When I judge if someone’s a good writer (and let’s face it, many of us do), I still include the basics among my criteria: conciseness, strong command of grammar, an appropriate vocabulary, respect for the reader, staying on point, and many others.

But context is why a chatty blogger can get away with not being very concise, a technical writer doesn’t need similes and metaphors, and millions of viewers accept that people just break out into song and dance in a musical.

There is most definitely not one clear definition of what makes a good writer, and I don’t purport to have the answer, either. But I think many writers would agree that what makes a good writer in one genre or style does not necessarily apply in other genres and styles, like a brilliant comedic actor who suddenly falters in a drama.

What do you consider when you’re debating if someone is a good writer?

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A Quick Note on Gut Feeling

7K0A0075I know gut feeling is highly debatable: No one has more impeccable intuition that Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he’s a fictional character. Some argue that gut feeling is just our five sense working with our brain to come to a conclusion. Others feel it’s a sixth sense. I’ve also seen people claim that something is intuition when it’s really just their ego masquerading as this undefinable gift or skill.

Whatever it is, though, I still go against it even though it’s proven itself right on numerous occasions. The other week, an acquaintance presented me with a wonderful volunteer opportunity where I would have gotten to meet lots of incredible musicians. My gut feeling was telling me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why: my calendar was clear, and although I had several assignments on the go, I could certainly squeeze in such an opportunity.

Something was urging me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why, so I said yes.

We often think gut feelings are there to protect us, but in this case (as in others, too) it was there to protect this person. You see, I’ve been fighting this cold for over a month. And as embarrassing as that is (it’s been a few years since I’ve had a cold that lasted longer than two days), I assumed it would be gone by that night.

You know where this is going.

Not only had the cold not left by then (a good week after the initial phone call), it had gotten worse. There was no way I was going to infect over 100 singers with some kind of bronchial infection. That morning, I had to call her up – sinuses congested and my trying to suppress the horrible-sounding cough – after I’d arrived at work and cancel. (I also left work a couple of hours later to go home and rest.)

Had I listened to my gut feeling, my acquaintance would’ve had time to find someone else to help her out that night. The night went ahead, and from what I can tell, all ended well. But sometimes that gut feeling – whether it’s your mind just knowing something or it truly is some kind of sixth sense – needs to be listened to.

Have a good Canada Day long weekend!