Archive for the ‘Advice for writers’ Category

While this post is about fiction writing, I think it contains much truth about commercial writing and how a real professional will go about doing his job for a client. Go read John Scalzi’s blog entry where novelist Marcus Sakey confesses, “I don’t have big ideas.” What he says is quite insightful for anyone who makes a living or who wants to make a living writing:

What I have instead is a string of little ideas. Observations about a situation, bits of dialogue, a flash of character. Incomplete notions rather than perfectly formed a-ha! moments.

Obviously, by the time, you have completed a project, you have to have articulated notions that are no longer incomplete. But you have plenty of time for that in the four stages of production.

(Oh, I haven’t mentioned the four stages yet? I like to use the acronym ASAP because deadlines are, well, deadlines. ASAP stands for:

  • Amass data.
  • Shape your research.
  • Author your content.
  • Perfect your content.

See, you get to wait until “P” before everything must be, duh, perfect.)

The problem happens when you lack confidence to start. If you are paid on a contractual basis, almost certainly your client isn’t counting on you billing him for time spent looking out the window. You have to start producing ideas right away.

So be satisfied with small ones. As you amass data by research and shape it into an outline, you will surely find your better ideas growing while shedding the ones that were never that promising. By the time you are done you will find that you gained inspiration through the process.

On the other hand, if you expect to find the magic bullet before you begin, it is likely you may never get started.

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Hourly rates

Here’s an interesting post on figuring out your hourly rate for writing.  It’s ancient history in blog years but it is new to me.

I mentioned here that simply offering educated literacy means you can save people time–people whose time is worth a great deal and will pay you for saving it. I wrote this to especially encourage beginners to be willing to start out without lacking confidence. Even beginners have something valuable to offer.

But that’s not the only thing.

Let me introduce this idea by repeating something I read from mystery-writer Lawrence Block many years ago. He wrote (somewhere!) that writing a novel is easier than writing a short story. A longer work gives you room to make everything in the story fit together. Short stories require a great deal more thought and work to make all the elements fit together.

Nonfiction isn’t quite the same deal. Sometimes it is easier to write a short piece because the topic can be covered in a short amount of space.

But it does hold true that sometimes people who are passionate about a large topic are sometimes not, for that reason, the most qualified to produce a short piece. Their passion may help them write a book but, if they need to put out shorter writings, their passion may just get in the way. Many an editor learns this when forced to tell an expert author that the article he or she just submitted is twice as long as it should be.

Whether you are writing a voters guide for a political group or a sales brochure for widgets, the person hiring you may need you the most precisely because you are not as involved in the topic. Your distance allows you to think about what matters: how to get the reader to act in the desired way. The client may be too focused on on all the information he possesses. He is too close to the subject to make the quick decisions necessary to get the writing project completed by deadline.

That’s how I would summarize, “Want to Boost Your Writing Productivity? Have a Baby!” by Michael Stelzner.  Definitely worth thinking about.  I you know you have a limited time to work in, you will tend to be lest wasteful with it.

Thinking about my post on the problem of trying to make money writing articles and my follow up on how much to expect from how-to books, I want to say something more (or more specific) about why writing can pay and why a pastor needing side income might want to consider this line of work.

It is easy to think that writing should pay almost nothing. Look at blogs! Lots of people like to write. Why should you get paid to do it?

And that is why my instinct is to advise you to avoid articles. When you are competing in a field of writing where writers typically think it is desirable to write, then you will not get paid well. There are too many out there who think writing is fun. They bid down the price you can expect to get for your services.

But as soon as you offer to do writing that no one wants to do, you are in a completely different economy.

On the other hand, when you start writing for hire pieces that have no real attraction to “the artist,” you have a chance to make some real money. The basis for this is that there are people out there who need to produce writing, but whose time constraints make it hard for them to do so. Sure, they could, in theory, write a sales piece or construct direct marketing copy. But they have other things to do with their time.

And that’s where you can step in. Sure, in one sense, “anyone” could do it. But really, that is not true. It requires someone who you can trust to be literate and intelligent and educated. It simply won’t work as a low-paying wage job.

To put it another way, if you are saving a guy time who makes a high hourly rate, you can expect a high hourly rate yourself.

A final word: my biggest regret right now is that I did not try to do this as a side-business back in Oklahoma. Instead I waited until I was out of work and was forced to “hit the ground running.” Yet, while I have a long way to go, it has actually started to work for me. Still, I might be in a much better business position if I had begun earlier developing contacts for part-time work. Don’t make my mistake. Start now.

You may have noticed from this last post that I am reading many books on writing and making money at writing which don’t all agree with each other. In fact, many of them don’t really give you all the steps, even if they promise pretty fast results.

This is not a bad thing, in my opinion.

No matter how much they tell you that the book will provide step by step instructions, you will always feel like some part of the process is missing.

My advice is to not worry about it. Just think about where you can find a client.

Because this is the deal: Those authors, no matter how experienced, are not you. They aren’t living in your town with your background.

I’ve read these books. I’ve even started to prepare in one case to follow specific instructions (basically, to call everyone and their mother to see if they have need of my services). But I have held off in execution because, in the meantime, I have discovered other ways to connect to customers. In fact, the vast majority of my pay comes from writing jobs that aren’t even mentioned as possibilities in most or all of the books I have read.

Frankly, one of the most important things to do in starting a commercial writing carreer is probably simply one of the most important things to do in starting any business: leverage every friend you have. Do you know anyone who needs writing done who will trust that you are competent to do it? Get them to hire you. If you have to agree to a one-time reduced price, then do so (though make sure this is understood) and execute the project. Get a copy in your portfolio and keep working.

To put it another way, writing books can be real helpful in three ways:

  1. Giving you guidance about specific kinds of writing projects you might do.
  2. Giving you tidbits and ideas about starting and maintaining a writing business (which may or may not work for you at the time).
  3. Giving you encouragement.

But, no matter how much the cover copy leads you to expect a day-by-day start-up manual, don’t expect that sort of direction. Rather, use what the book does provide to simply think about your own circumstances and how best you can move from where you are to where you need to be.

While you need information, ultimately, only you know really what you need to do next. And if you don’t know it yet, keep thinking.

By the way, there is another reason why it is good that these books don’t give us much step-by-step instruction in starting as you might expect: you can’t step into the same river twice. All these writers got their starts in a different economy. Not only is the economy shifting, but the very fact that you are reading their books shows that they are altering the landscape. After all, they’re not sending you private email. All your potential competitors are out there reading the same book! In fact, to read some of their promotional web pages, they are giving regular seminars to billions of troops ready to go out and destroy your business. It is the attack of the clones in real life.

So make sure you think and innovate. Let others look for generic steps that work for everyone. You look for the best, reachable rung on a ladder that is available where you live, not in a book on how to make a six-figure income as a freelancer.