Social Media as the Writer’s Best Friend

I’ve been an avid Facebook user for years now, and I’ve just recently signed on to the Twitter bandwagon. Most of the professionals I know emphasize the value of social media for social networking and climbing the business ladder, but for a writer, it has other benefits, too.

Social media is valuable to writers first because it serves as an inspiration source. Browsing through the posts on your feed can expose you to news, product advertising and the trails and successes of those around you. That might start you brainstorming about specific topics, such as how to find a babysitter in a pinch or the most creative activities to do with a drone.

Secondly, social media is a highly cost efficient way to post what you publish online, either through links or direct text. If you use the former option, you can up your rankings with Google and other search engines. In many cases, you can share what you write in other applications/sites via Facebook or other channels, simply by clicking a few buttons. This process gets your work more views, which can translate into more revenue, either from your work catching a new client’s eye or from pay based on the number of views for the work.

Social media is terrific for getting feedback at any point of the writing process. For instance, you might ask your followers or friends to throw some random writing topics at you, tell you which headline they prefer or read a work you’re about to publish an objective set of editorial eyes.

Lastly, social media can work as sales channels. You can announce you have new works for sale, that you’re having a writing event (e.g., a book signing) or even link to retailers that sell your work.

In this technological age, social media is transforming business dramatically. There’s no reason it can’t transform your writing activity, too. Be careful about security preferences, but take the time to create and connect multiple social profiles–the creative and financial rewards might surprise you.

 

What’s in a Name? How Discrimination Forces Women to Pen Names

These days, one of the most popular sayings is “Come on, it’s [year].” The implication is that modern individuals have progressed and are more accepting, and that equality and tolerance have made leaps and bounds from the past. In writing, women are finding that this is not necessarily the case, experiencing discrimination that forces them to make a heartbreaking choice: hide their real identities to let their work thrive, or be true to who they are and watch their careers never get to first base.

In the past, when it was beyond clear that a woman’s place was to be in the home and raising children rather than spewing her own opinions to “polite” society, women who wanted to write routinely worked out deals with publishers to get their words on the printed page. To make sure that their writing was not dismissed as female dribble, they took pen names and portrayed themselves as male to their audiences. For the most part, this strategy was enormously successful. Writers such as Emily Bronte and Louisa May Alcott are just two well-known authors who tricked the world by writing as men to be taken more seriously.

Little has changed in this century. Not convinced? Joann Rowling was told boys wouldn’t respond to a book written by a girl, hence the publication of the famous Harry Potter series under the more gender-ambiguous pen name, J.K. Rowling. Nora Roberts, famous for her romance writing, wrote as J.D. Robb to enter the male-dominated genre of detective fiction. Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey worked together under the male name Magnus Flyte to produce City of Dark Magic, specifically citing their worry of not being published or losing readers as female authors as the reason for their choice. The problem doesn’t just affect fiction writing, either. A recent 2012 study from the University of Washington showed that women are not as likely to receive primary credits as senior authors on scholarly papers, and that women are less likely to publish than men.

Now, you might argue that much of the blame lays with publishers. After all, it is often the publisher that makes the final call about what will make the book successful, who convinces a female author that her writing quality and style alone is not enough to garner praise. This attitude, however, ignores the fact that publishers are responding to their own perceptions of what audiences want and will do–that is, the gender gap in writing is reflective of a still-pervasive overall gender gap in society. To close that gap requires the shifting of cultural norms, which is both complex and difficult to do.

Researcher and Decision Maker: The Writer’s Hidden Roles

The old saying is that, to be a really good writer, you write what you know. The idea is that you write based on your experience, because those experiences allow you to provide details and emotional nuances that establish a sense of realism.

This was how it worked “back in the day,” at least. Although some freelancers admittedly are in a position to sit back, leisurely sipping coffee as they let their fingers fly on their laptop, most aren’t. The majority work project to project, hoping they’ll find enough jobs to stay in line with their set budget. That means most wordsmiths take an entirely different approach to this colloquialism.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Today, I started my day out writing about the definition of discourse communities. (Yay! A language-related article!) After breakfast, I moved on to the benefits of chiropractic care. This was followed by articles on why cats spray, types of rice cookers, and lastly, the best exercise DVDs. Naturally, I am not an expert in all of these topics. But I know how to research. So for each article, I diligently used the Internet, scouring page after page for relevant information. After taking notes, I knew enough to be able to construct a decent, coherent piece for each topic.

The modern writer generally no longer can draw only from a specific or previous knowledge set to be successful. He has to be a continuous learner, or the number of projects he can complete will be ridiculously slim (slimmer still, when you consider writers don’t get all the projects on which they bid). What’s more, given the proliferation of information online and through other sources, he has to be highly analytical, having the ability to discern very quickly what data is most relevant or pertinent to a reader. In other words, writers are no longer just writers. They are also researchers and decision makers. This is important because research and decision making are not necessarily skills a person has in addition to command of linguistics. If you aren’t good at them, you might need to hone those skills before your writing process truly becomes efficient and your content is of exceptional quality.

 

 

Not “Just” a Writer

Recently, I had a friend of mine tell me how lucky I am that I am just a freelance writer.

Yes, she said “just.”

Although my friend meant well in context, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed by her comment, because I’ve heard it many, many times before. At the heart of the sentiment is always the idea that somehow, freelance writers are not serious professionals, that we are simply clickety-clacking away on laptops while sipping expensive coffee in some corner shop somewhere, totally relaxed and content.

The reality of being “just” a freelance writer is that we work hard–and I would dare to say, even harder–than those in more traditional jobs. We have no guarantee of having work the next day most of the time, so we are constantly anxious, constantly searching for the next project that could tide us over until we have to search yet again. It’s not unusual to spend just as much time looking for work as we do actually writing, and even when we find workable projects, the pay isn’t always ideal. So, often, we have to work more hours to make ends meet.

What’s more, being our own bosses isn’t all sunshine and roses. Sure, we can set our own schedules and such for the most part, and that’s great, but there’s no one to catch us. If we get overwhelmed or something goes wrong, we are the ones who have to figure the problem out, no matter how tired or frustrated we are. We spend a lot of time doing administrative work that we cannot bill for, such as handling invoices, updating spreadsheets and tracking tax information. Some of this can be automated, but not all of it can.

In short, the typical freelance writer’s day is very flexible, but as is true for just about everyone who owns their own businesses, it ends up being very long. A lot of the time, we don’t “clock out” after eight hours of work the way “normal” people do, simply because the administrative work and need to look for the next project is in addition to the standard work week that results in pay. Even when we do everything right, we still have the normal demands of household chores and family to handle once the pen is down or the computer is off.

Even if all this didn’t bother me, I’d still be a little upset by being called “just” a freelance writer, because this inevitably cheapens my craft. It perpetuates the idea that, even as major corporations around the world rely on writers to produce their website, general correspondence, marketing and other documentation, our work is not worth a decent, living wage. It implies that companies can push writers to the side, essentially discriminating in ways that would never fly with other workers. If writers do not fight this discrimination, the worth of what they do will always be in question and they will always struggle.

Why You Need to Grasp Plagiarism

Part of the joy of being a writer is being able to come up with something original, new and fresh. After all, it is this creativity and uniqueness that keeps content interesting enough for people to pick up or click on and which is the backbone of developing a loyal readership.

I am strongly implying here that true writing involves much more than putting words to paper. Anyone with basic grammar skills and vocabulary can do that. Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to–that’s the heart of research writing–but the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, you aren’t writing. You’re stealing. More specifically, you’re plagiarizing.

Plagiarism Defined

According to United States copyright laws, plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property, passing it off as your own. People usually think this involves only copying directly or almost word for word, but this is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property, so even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, you are plagiarizing.

Importantly, if you are stating common facts, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.

It’s not that bad to do, right?

Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work, robbing him of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents him from getting the monetary compensation he deserves. You also can look at if from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, you lose credibility as an author. Lowered or no credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.

Then of course there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen his intellectual property, they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.

Preventing the Problem

Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases like, “As reported by,” “[Name of author] stated that,” “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that” and “A [year] study by [authors] found that…” Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, the way to avoid plagiarizing is simply to use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.

More Information

A great online resource about plagiarism is plagiarism.org. This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.

Spotting Bad Writing Clients

In an ideal world, every client a writer has would be the most perfect, honest, well-paying person on the planet. To borrow from the Horton Hears a Who film, they would all be ponies who eats rainbows and poop butterflies.

Ah, welcome to the REAL writing world, kid.

First, let me say that most clients are pretty good. They might not always respond to your emails as promptly as you’d like, and an occasional payment might be late, but they give you clear expectations, sign contracts and compensate you for what you do. Others are more of the Voldemort type, however. They lurk passively in the background, quietly planning, scheming, drawing more and more people to their projects, until BAM! They show their evil faces, laughing as they betray your trust, wave their wands and pay only in despair. These Cients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

1. The pay rate is low.

Decent clients understand that writers have bills to pay. They also understand that much of what writers earn is pretax and goes to pay overhead expenses. These professionals are more than willing to pay their contracted writers a liveable, at-least-minimum wage. Some, bless them, even are willing to pay a percentage upfront or provide a bonus. If a client is offering just a few dollars, he likely either doesn’t understand what writers need to get by, or he doesn’t truly value the writing craft. In either case, it’s not a good situation.

2. They don’t want to sign a contract.

Some beginning writers are loathe to insist on a contract for their project, because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. Bad clients use this to their advantage. They say that a contract isn’t necessary, because they can be trusted. The truth is, bad clients try to avoid contracts simply because it makes it easier to get out of payment if sued. A good client will have no problem signing a contract because they know it guarantees you’ll do the work you promised. They might provide you with a version they’d like you to use because of their company’s policies, perhaps, but the use of the document is never an issue.

3. They don’t provide full contact information.

Some bad clients purposely withhold contact information, providing only a basic phone number or email address. They might say this is for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, but no legitimate business keeps their location secret. They withhold this information because it makes it easier to go AWOL when they don’t pay–in many states, a physical address of the client is necessary to serve legal notices, and file complaints, so starting work before you know where to get in touch is asking for trouble.

4. They postpone payments without prior notice.

Life happens. Miscommunications aren’t always possible to prevent. That said, the occasional payment postponement isn’t anything to squirt your pen ink over, especially if you’ve worked with the client before and he doesn’t have a history of payment problems. The problem is when they don’t follow through with the alternate arrangements they make. They say they’ll pay Tuesday. They apologize Wednesday and say they’ll get to it Friday, which comes and goes. They don’t offer a really good reason for the repeated delays, but they always make another promise. Don’t stand for this, because it sets a precedent that you’ll be tolerant of lateness and that you are not in true control of your business. Be upfront about the fact late fees will happen, let them know the next steps for collections (e.g., certified demand letter from an attorney, lawsuit, etc.) and give a precise schedule — to the hour — of when those steps will take place.

Getting Customers to Pay

As I write this, current clients owe me almost $2,000. This represents work spanning over the entire month of December and most of January.

The unpaid balances on my client accounts are not for want of proper documentation or billing. I know to the penny who owes me what and have records of all my Paypal invoices. The problem comes back to two simple facts of freelancing:

  1. Clients don’t always finish projects when they say they will, and
  2. Their correspondence sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

The first issue isn’t always the client’s fault. I sometimes work with people who are hiring me on behalf of others in a company. When they need approval from superiors, who themselves might be waiting on someone else, things get bogged down really fast.

I make it a point to send follow up emails to my clients, but even so, people have a tendency to push writers off to the side if they get busy with other things in their life. This reflects a larger problem: The general consensus is that, apparently, writers don’t need to make a schedule, nor do they need to get paid on time and, you know, maybe eat or pay rent.

The best thing a person can do to combat both of these issues is to establish clear communication policies with a client in writing, putting them in project contracts. For example, the contract might specify that the first mode of contact is email, then phone, then written letter and, lastly, an attorney contact. The policies also can indicate how much time may elapse between communications, such as 24 hours. Another good policy is to require at least one correspondence per week, even if it’s just sending a quick email that says, “Just checking in!”

This strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to foresee the exact pay date for every project (clearly, it isn’t in my case), but it does give you the ability to know what is happening with each project and to make some assessments about how to adjust your budget or calendar appropriately.

 

Top 10 Signs You Are a Writer

1. You have at least one type of notepad or word processing application on your smartphone and use it to jot down ideas on the go.

2. Paper and pencil are on your nightstand, just in case your dreams are novel-worthy or you get inspired at 3:00 a.m.

3. The amount you spend on office supplies is dangerously close to your income.

4. There is always some kind of pen mark on at least one of your hands.

5. Your computer is always on, and you leave Microsoft Word running no matter what else you are doing on the machine.

6. Coffee and breakfast are fairly synonymous.

7. You wonder what people mean when they say they “clock out” for the day.

8. People always give you gift cards to stores like Barnes & Noble for your birthday or the holidays.

9. You run through possible lead lines in your head while in the shower, wondering if they’re good enough.

10. You actually care what weight a pencil lead is and what type of ink a pen has.

The Writer’s Balance

As I write this, it’s about midnight. I have to be up in roughly five hours. When I do emerge from my comfy boudoir, I’ll stumble sleepily out to my kitchen, grab a bite of whatever-fruit-I-bought-this-week and a soda (horrible morning habit, I know, but I don’t drink coffee and need the caffeine), and sit at my computer again. Most mornings, I am writing within fifteen minutes of the alarm going off.

What, you thought writers got to lounge around in their pajamas clicking away at the keyboard all day?

(Ok. I’ll admit, my morning work does happen in my pjs.)

I know each morning that I would love some extra sleep. But I also know that I have bills to pay and that my keyboard clicking handles that. I know most people can clock out in the early evening, but I stay late (in my living room or home office) so that I can be my own boss. When I am writing about something drier than months-old rice cakes, I make it a point to listen to music that revs me up.

The point is, to be a writer, you need to fight for balance. Our craft is a  passionate one, and you need opportunities to be…not creative. To just be. Remember, the best writing rule is to write what you know. If all you ever do is write, you leave yourself no room to experience and learn, to give yourself the foundation on which to hang your plots and ideas. As a result, the range of believable, authoritative content you’ll put out will be ultra small.

The Importance of Jotting It Down

In a perfect world, a writer’s brain would be like the notebooks (or laptop) he uses, capturing every brilliant idea for future sorting and elaboration. But alas, the brain doesn’t come with a “Save As” feature. It captures only what a person, for whatever reason, subconsciously or consciously deems important enough to remember.

In the moment, a writer might think that he’ll recollect a concept or phrasing, but depending on how the brain links the new concept or phrase with the writer’s existing ideas, experiences and emotions, this doesn’t always happen. The result is that when he comes back to a project later, he has a major “oh, crud” moment and realizes that his star of brilliance is destined to fade into the dark abyss of the forgotten.

Hence the importance of taking notes.

If you’re old school, you can jot down your ideas with your favorite pen and a notebook that fits in your pocket. If you prefer a technique that’s a little more contemporary, using a digital voice recorder or even a smartphone app works. There’s no right or wrong method. Just find what works for you and use your technique consistently. You might not use everything you save, but at least there’ll be something there for you to sort through when you want or need something to work on. That matters in the craft of writing, because creativity and options are inextricably linked.