“Write What You Know” Is Actually Brilliant Advice

Who’d have thought when I started this blog that it would launch my freelance writing career?

Since starting my journey as a budding freelance writer, I’ve poured over writing blog after writing blog in order to gain new knowledge. Almost without fail, each one has at least once recommended that you write what you know.

I’d always thought that it appeared to be sound advice, and as most of my writing is about being an expat (which I am) and living in the Netherlands (which I do), I figured I already followed that advice and could move on.

But recently, I’ve been working on a submission for Cynic Online Magazine’s 7th annual Not-So-Cynical Christmas writing contest. I wanted to enter again this year as I won an honorable mention in 2009 and figured my chances would be far greater after a year’s worth of writing experience, right? Well, we shall see later this month.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand…

The contest calls for gushy, sentimental, what-Christmas-really-means pieces and last year, I wrote about what I knew: a first Christmas away from family in a new country. But what was I going to write about this year? I love Christmas, but there were no other real-life stories I could think of.

So I began thinking of the submissions that won last year’s contest and what they were about. I tried to delve deep into my imagination and come up with a story that would be a sure-fire winner. And the harder I thought, the fewer ideas came to mind. The ones that did sounded hollow and contrived. They were!

Just when I needed it the most, that piece of advice resurfaced… write what you know.

Again, I dug deep into my imagination, but this time it wasn’t to concoct a Christmas fable. It was to recall my own childhood and Christmases past.

Before I knew it, I found myself rushing to my laptop, tearing open a new Word document and pounding away at the keys. Suddenly, I had 1,000 words. Then 2,000. And then just shy of 3,000. In what seemed like no time at all.

Who knows how it will do in this year’s contest, but I feel wonderful about my work on this story and regardless of whether it wins first prize or comes home empty-handed, I am more proud of this story than I’ve been of anything I’ve written in months!

So if you hold onto only one piece of writing advice, let it be this: write what you know.

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The Writer Trap Known as Content Mills

Quick! Get out of that content mill trap – FAST!

I don’t condemn content mills or the writers who write for them. In fact, as I’ve stated before on this blog, I think there is some merit to them.

They offer writers a way to make quick cash and polish their writing. They teach writers valuable skills like sticking to a word count, writing to a deadline, following guidelines, using SEO and keywords in their writing, and working with an editor.

It’s also a nice way to pick up some clips and credibility when you are just starting out.

At the same time, writers need to be extremely careful when it comes to writing for content mills as there are also a lot of negatives involved.

The revenue system is sketchy. There’s a lot of fine print that the content mills make almost impossible to find, only to pull out to stab the writer in the back with later on down the road.

Much of the writing produced by content mills is extremely unprofessional and many editors, publishers, and agents won’t take you seriously if they find out you write for content mills.

There are also a lot of “as long ases” involved.

Content mills are great for making money “as long as” they don’t sell the site to another company that will change the payment policy, guidelines, or decide to cut back on writers.

Your articles will continue to make you money “as long as” the content mill doesn’t decide to take your article(s) off the site or change its revenue or payment policies.

Money will continue to roll in “as long as” the content mill doesn’t go under or the owners don’t decide to abandon it for another project.

The other thing is that the payout is often only a small fraction of minimum wage. When you consider the hours that go into researching, writing, and editing the article and then the time that goes into promotion, you’ve done far more work than you’re actually getting paid for.

But writers get sucked into the content mills, making mere pennies per article and think that this is as high as they can reach. The big paying glossies and trade magazines, the small business clients and high paying blogging gigs are for the big-time writers.

Truth is, many content mill writers are actually just as good as, if not better than the top earning freelancers. The difference is that the top earners didn’t let themselves get sucked into the content mills.

Rather than writing $15 articles on watching paint dry, they sent out pitches and queries to national and trade magazines. They proposed columns and article ideas to the local newspaper. They entered writing contests and sent their manuscripts out to agents, and cold-called companies about hiring them as a writer. They searched the job boards for ghost writing, blogging, editing, and freelancing gigs.

And they got results.

When I was “accepted” to write for Demand Studios and Examiner.com, I was elated. I was going to be paid for my writing which meant that I had made the “big time.”

I took my initial assignments for both sites very seriously and spent quite a lot of time researching, interviewing, writing, editing and proofreading. Then I tweeted the articles, shared them on Facebook and LinkedIn, emailed the links to friends and family and blogged about it.

While I was guaranteed $15 per Demand Studios article, Examiner.com proved to be much less “profitable.”

I joined the site as the Netherlands Travel Examiner two years ago. In that time, I’ve written and promoted 26 articles. And earned $36.

Now, I say earned, because although I’ve earned the money, I have yet to have seen a penny of it. Which brings us back to the danger of “as long as.”

The way Examiner.com works is that you earn $0.01 for every “hit” your article gets. Your earnings can increase depending on how long visitors stay on each page, any comments left, advertisements clicked on, and how many times the article is shared via social networking sites.

What’s interesting is that, if you refer to your stats (which keep track of how many hits your pages have gotten and how much money you’ve earned), you’ll find that the earnings are quite a bit less than $0.01 per hit.

When I first signed up for Examiner.com, the policy was that writers would get paid on the 20th of the month, but only after they had accumulated $20 on their articles. It took me a year-and-a-half and 22 articles to earn $20.

At the same time I hit the $20 marker, Examiner.com changed it’s payment policy. Now, writers would only be paid if they accumulated $25 in one month. So, in order to get my $20, I would have to make an additional $25 on my articles in a month’s time. My articles were only making a little over $1 per month. In order to get that many hits, I would have to write over 500 articles.

My assumption is (and you know what they say happens when you assume…) that complaints arose from the Examiner.com community after this change was made. Because less than a month later, the policy was changed again.

This time, writers would have to earn $10 per month in order to see a payout. On top of that, you also have to produce at least one new article each month in order to get paid. And, should you go more than 60 days without posting, you lose all the money you earned prior to those 60 days.

For instance, in 2010, I earned $14.95. My last article for 2010 was written in September and I didn’t pick up writing for Examiner.com again until June 2010. Because more than 60 days passed, I am no longer eligible to receive the $14.95 I earned in 2010.

To earn $10 a month, I would have to have over 200 articles in my Examiner.com stable. As it was, with my 22 articles (assuming it took me one hour to research, write, proof and promote each one), I had made an average of $0.90 per hour.

Then it hit me. There was no reason I should be making less than $1 per hour when other freelancers were making $100 or more per hour.

If I had sold those same articles to travel magazines at a low price of $50 per article, I would have made $1,100. And I wouldn’t have had to promote them. In fact, I probably would have gotten a free copy of the publication they appeared in. I’d also have made connections with the editors at those publications, which could have brought me even more work in the future.

And that’s just at $50 per article. Imagine if I sold each one of those 22 articles for $100? Or $200? Even if I’d written the articles for Demand Studios at $15 apiece, my earnings would have been $330. Not as attractive a total, but still a far cry from $20.

The sad thing is, I’m not the only one who fell into the Examiner.com trap. Examiner.com “employs” hundreds of writers who punch out 22 articles in the span of a week or a month. Some Examiners have contributed hundreds and hundreds of articles to the site.

Yes, some of these writers make hundreds of dollars each month on articles they wrote long ago, but they still have to produce one new article each month and ensure they get enough hits in order to see that money. They can’t go longer than 60 days without posting or else they forfeit any earnings accumulated prior to their 60-day haitus.

And they have to hope that Examiner.com doesn’t decide to delete their content, or go out of business, or sell the site to another company, or change the payment policy again, or change the guidelines so that their previous articles are no longer up to standard, or decide to downsize.

I for one, am eager to leave Examiner.com behind. To delete all my content and rework it to be sold to other, better paying venues. To warn other writers about content mills who take advantage of their writers.

It’s just a shame that companies like Examiner.com feel that their writers and the content they produce are worth so little. And that writers continue to gravitate toward writing opportunities like this, not realizing that there is so much more and so much better out there.

Please tell all your writer friends and acquaintances not to make the same mistake I did and leave the content mills behind for venues that appreciate their work and pay well for it. Or at least to be sure to do their research and read all the fine print before signing up.

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How I edit

No way this cup of coffee’s gonna get me through the entire editing process!

Personally, I can’t stand reading things with mistakes in them. My own work included.

It doesn’t irk me enough that I’ll stop reading whatever it is, but it frustrates me and immediately lowers my opinion of the writer or author responsible for the content.

With my own writing, I try to get it as close to perfect as possible. I’m not perfect, so there will always be some mistake. Even now, I’ll go back and read old blog posts, finding something new and racing to the edit window to fix it.

But that doesn’t excuse poor writing and silly mistakes.

I’ve always been a proofreader. Even in grade school, I’d re-read my work dozens of times before turning it in. That doesn’t mean I get everything, of course, but poorly written work and easy-to-catch mistakes drive me nuts and I want to get as many as I possibly can out of my work.

To this end, I’ve developed a pretty rigorous editing regime.

Everything I write is first typed up in Word. I use the spellcheck feature to catch any glaring mistakes. Then, I’ll read through it silently, then again while saying the words under my breath, and then a third time reading my work out loud.

Once I’ve gone through everything, I send the document around to be proofread. With blog posts, I just have my husband read through them. This is particularly handy because he’s a non-native English speaker, so he sometimes needs things explained to him. If he doesn’t get the piece, odds are other readers won’t either. The hubby is always my first proofreader for this reason. He’s also a perfectionist, so I know he’ll be as harsh as he needs to.

For newspaper and magazine articles, I’ll pass those along to my parents once my husband’s through with them. My dad’s an avid reader and an extremely intelligent man, so he picks up a lot. My mother also writes as well as teaching high school and college courses, so she’s excellent with a red pen.

If it’s a manuscript, it goes from my husband to my parents to an army of proofreaders. These include my 5th grade teacher, members of my writing group, editors I’ve worked with that are willing and have the time to help me out, and someone hired for the express purpose of editing manuscripts.

After each proofreader returns to me with their comments, I go through and make changes accordingly. Sometimes my proofreaders or spellchecker will want to change something that I don’t feel is necessary or don’t agree with. In which case, I leave it as is. However, if more than one or two of my editing defenses report the same issue, then I know it’s something that needs to be dealt with, no matter how I may feel about it.

Once I’ve incorporated all the notes, I print the work out and read through it silently, under my breath, and finally out loud. I often use my dog Turner as an audience as you tend to read things differently when others are listening.

At this point, there’s not much else I can do but send it off to blog readers, editors, agents, and publishers and hope for the best. They always seem to catch things as well and, when all is said and done, you end up having a pretty excellent piece of writing.

How do you edit?

 

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Hoarding copies of your work

I remember, as a young girl, hoarding the free magazines and newspapers at La Guardia’s Marine Air Terminal. Not much has changed!

Yes, I am one of those that hoards copies of my work. If something of mine gets published, I need at least one copy. I even print out work published online so that I have a hard copy of it.

Interestingly, all my work is scattered willy nilly around the house. You’d think as a hoarder of something as personal as my writing, I’d have everything in binders and plastic covers. Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a rainy day project!

I have copies of books, magazines, newspapers, print outs and I even go back and read through them from time to time just to remind myself of why I do this writing thing. I love love love looking back over and re-reading my work. Talk about an ego boost!

I like to think that I’m not the only one who does this. I’m pretty sure I’m not. But I do know that there is a breed of writer that doesn’t have a single copy of their work. Doesn’t want copies. Won’t even read what they’ve written once it’s been published.

Granted, I’m sure their offices, computer rooms, and attics are a lot less cluttered! The idea is that it has been written and published and people have read it, so the author doesn’t feel the need to keep a copy for posterity.

Then there are those for whom simply being published is enough. Some people avoid collecting copies of their work for superstitious reasons as well.

And I guess you could argue that, in today’s day and age, pretty much anyone can get published (whether it be online, through traditional or self publishing, or in the school newspaper), so having your work published perhaps is no longer that big a deal.

I think it’s very interesting that although we are all writers and creative minds, we each go about the process, the journey and, yes, the business so differently.

Are you a hoarder of your work? Why or why not?

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My biggest writing pet-peeves

My Great Bambinos of writing pet peeves

Of course there are the standards like their/there/they’re, ending sentences with prepositions, and — one I’ve seen a lot lately — congrads/congradulations.

And I have my own that kill me every time (Choose and chose — which one’s which? When do I use it’s and when do I use its?).

But the two that I see that just annoy the heck out of me are these bad boys:

Double-spacing between sentences
Yes, it used to be taught in writing classes that you must leave two spaces between sentences. The reason being that all typing was done on typewriters.

On a typewriter, all letters take up the same amount of space, whether it is a skinny letter like ‘i’ or a wide letter like ‘m.’ Because of this spacing issue, it was difficult to tell where one sentence ended and the other began. The double-spacing made this clearer.

Computer fonts are more proportional in size and spacing, making the double-space unnecessary. In fact, double-spacing can throw off the typesetting of a magazine, newspaper, or book layout, making the final product look skewed.

Your editor and layout designer will not be particularly happy with you if they have to go through your work and correct your double-spacing spree. It also makes it more difficult for readers — who are now used to the single-space format — to read.

So, save everyone involved some time and spare a few trees by putting an end to your double-spacing days.

Using hyphens instead of dashes.
A hyphen is a small bar (-) used to connect words and keep syllables together when the full word does not fit on the same line.

Connecting words: dim-witted, so-and-so, fine-toothed, double-spaced.

Keeping syllables together: “The police were disturbed by the young man’s indiffer-
ence to the property of others.”

So many people-for some unknown reason-use hyphens when they should be using dashes.

‘People’ and ‘for’ should not be connected. The same goes for ‘reason’ and ‘use.’ Who ever heard of a people-for or a reason-use? Nor are they syllables of the same word that need to be kept together with a hyphen for spacing purposes. Yet hyphens are used in both instances in the sentence above.

A dash is a longer bar (–) that is meant to separate thoughts and put in asides or extra information pertaining to the sentence.

“So many people — for some unknown reason — use hyphens when they should be using dashes.”

See, now isn’t that so much better?

What is your biggest writing pet peeve? Any suggestions or tips on how writers can avoid making those mistakes?

 

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Why I should have known I’d become a writer

Turns out I knew this was my calling long before I knew it was my calling

When I was little – 3rd or 4th grade – I wanted to be a paleontologist. At age 9 I knew everything there was to know about dinosaurs. I’d spend hours at the Museum of Natural History studying their dinosaur exhibition.

So when my 5th grade teacher gave us the assignment of writing and illustrating our own books to then share with the 2nd graders at the school, of course I chose dinosaurs as my topic.

We came up with the story text and our teacher typed it up, one or two sentences per page with room on top for illustrations. When we came back from recess, she had our pages ready for us to come up with illustrations for.

The next day, much to my delight, a GBC-bound copy of my ‘book’ complete with plastic cover was on my desk waiting for me. Over the next several weeks, all I wanted to do was go through my book, reading it aloud to anyone who would listen, admiring the way my writing looked and sounded, brought to life by my drawings.

That one project set me off on a year-long book writing kick. Everything I did or saw or experienced had to be turned into a book, bringing my parents such treasures as “Ticks, Ticks and More Ticks,” my first non-fiction work.

Authoring turned into journal writing and then, in middle school, song writing: hits such as “You Yused To” (unfortunately my spelling never got much better). In high school, however, writing became a most dreaded form of torture – boring term papers and book reports, grammar exercises, and the monotonous copying of vocabulary words.

College wasn’t much better. Though the paper topics became more interesting, by the time I’d finished all the required writing, there was no juice left to do any leisure writing. Though I did manage to keep up with my journaling.

This high school and college-inspired writing slow down made room for other interests, and before I knew it, my writing aspirations were replaced with dreams of becoming a Broadway actress.

But I quickly realized that the harsh world of the performing arts as a career was not where I wanted to be. So I headed back to university to see what else I could find.

This time, I chose Renaissance history, a topic that interested me greatly. It was here that I was reminded that writing was fun. I loved writing term papers. All I wanted to do was research and analyze and edit and rewrite until I had come up with the perfect paper that I felt did justice to the topic at hand.

When I married a Dutchman and found myself in the Netherlands, there was so much that the language barrier kept me from doing. But, thanks to the internet and the large international community here, writing was not one of them. Soon I was writing every spare moment I had and loving every minute of it.

It was during this time that I thought, “You know, I could make a living doing this!” It was something I enjoyed that I was good at and the thrill I feel every time I see my work published reminds me of that day I saw my dinosaur book lying on my desk in the 5th grade.

To this day that feeling makes me shake my head and chuckle as I whisper to myself “I should have known I was meant to be a writer.”

When did you realize you were meant to be a writer? What kinds of things have you always enjoyed writing about?

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