Monday, October 20, 2014

Small Writers Group Nets Big Results

by Theresa Sullivan Barger

New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,, Columbia Journalism Review, Family Circle, Parents, The Atlantic, Philanthropy, Poynter Online—these are just some of the places the bylines of our small writers group members have appeared for their first time since we started meeting 10 months ago.

We originally formed as a monthly accountability group, but soon evolved into much more. We set up a closed Facebook page where the eight of us could post questions and share the wisdom of the group. Our virtual newsroom replicated the days when we could slide our chair over to a coworker to ask how she would handle that day’s challenge. We soon switched to meeting every two weeks.

We’re each other’s support system, cheering squad, and sounding boards. The group is helping each of us advance our careers while addressing the isolation we freelancers face. We recommend each other to our editors and share links to helpful webinars or websites.

When we started, most people in the group had never met. I was the only one who knew everyone, and I didn’t know most of them well—but I knew them enough to know that we all shared a desire to grow as writers. We’ve become trusted colleagues who offer honest critiques, ideas for sources, and a gentle nudge.

Freelancers By Choice

Our members range in age, specialty, political views, and freelance experience, but that’s part of why the group works. We’re different enough to not be in direct competition. We have diverse strengths and weaknesses, so we learn from each other.

We come to our meetings with lists of stories we’re working on or thinking of doing, and the rest of the group offers suggestions on story approach and where to pitch. When we hear of editors looking for writers, we share that news.

Success Breeds Success

When one of us gets a “yes” from a prestigious pub for the first time, we’re all happy. Each person’s success propels the rest of us to aim higher and keep trying. If one of us can break into that coveted market, so can the rest of us. Our celebration of breakthroughs seems to be happening with increasing frequency.

Since rejection—or simply being ignored—is so much a part of the job of being a freelance writer, it really helps to have encouragement from writers whom you respect.

One of our members—a talented, experienced writer—had never pitched to a national publication. A challenge from the group propelled her to commit to a date for pitching. When she stumbled on an idea worthy of a national newspaper, she pitched it to the New York Times. When they passed, she refined the pitch and immediately sent it to the Journal, which said yes. We felt like proud parents.

(This post originally appeared on The ASJA Word)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Biggest Mistake a Writer Can Make on Twitter

by Jonathan Rick

Don’t just tweet the headline. Comment on the article. Explain why you’re sharing it.
Don't create a Twitter crime scene. (Photo by Andreas Eldh)

Tweeting has never been easier. Just click that turquoise bird alongside nearly every kind of content on the web today, and a ready-to-go message presents itself. All you need to do is click “tweet.” The whole thing takes less than five seconds!

Yet there’s no decree dictating that you must use this prewritten gruel. In fact, you shouldn’t use the default text, which is tantamount to a robot announcing the Oscar winners: it’s generic and devoid of any shout-outs, styling, or personal commentary. After all, what you tweet is transmitted over your name and avatar, so it behooves you to stamp it with your own style.

What’s more, if you want to stand out, you can’t just put out what everyone else is typing. You need to offer up something new—even if it’s just your two cents. Indeed, with this little bit of extra effort, you can make each tweet count.

Consider the widely read post, “Facebook: I Want My Friends Back,” by Richard Metzger of the Dangerous Minds blog.


Here’s what happens if we click the “tweet” button:

FACEBOOK: I WANT MY FRIENDS BACK via @dangermindsblog

While the essentials are here—and, to the blog’s credit, the Caps Lock key is employed for emphasis—this tweet typifies the bare minimum. This is an opportunity lost.


Now let’s tweak a few things:


  • We used Facebook’s handle to ring its bell.
  • We separated the link by way of a hyphen, thus making the tweet easier to scan.
  • We capitalized @DangerMindsBlog in accordance with how the blog stylizes itself.

And if we overhaul everything…

Is Facebook scamming you? Check out this eye-opening post by @RichardMetzger - (via @DangerMindsBlog)

… our followers benefit from:
  • A teaser (“Is Facebook scamming you”?) in sentence case
  • A call to action (“Check out”)
  • A shout-out to both the writer (“by @RichardMetzger”) and the blog (“via @DangerMindsBlog”)
In other words, we’re no longer mindlessly broadcasting. Instead of repurposing a headline written for a blog, we’re now issuing a call to action tailored to Twitter. In short, we’re explaining why whatever we’re sharing is worth reading.


As usual, sometimes you need to break the rules. Consider these alternatives, which play off key points in Metzger’s post:

How Facebook killed more than 50% of @DangerMindsBlog’s page views -

Don’t let Facebook get away with the biggest bait and switch in Internet history -

C’mon, @Facebook. You’re better than this! - (by @RichardMetzger)

An important analysis from @RichardMetzger: “Facebook has taken a pee in their own pool from quite a lofty height” -


So which publishers embrace the great model? Unfortunately, not many—with a few exceptions.

Here’s how Upworthy, the website known for making serious subjects go viral, masters the medium:

Article Headline
You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate how amazing @StandWithFrank is.
This is why it’s good to have strange people like @timminchin give your commencement address.
Zach Sobiech: “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living,” by @soulpancake.
Watch this @getup video and just TRY not to be open-minded.
THIS JUST IN: @SirPatStew is a friggin’ amazing human being.

Similarly, as documented by Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent, Slate has woven this twin-titling into its content management system. A few examples:

Article Headline
It’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Stop Eating at Lunchtime.
Everything Electronic You Own—iPhone to Subway Card to Power Strip—Can Be Hacked. So How to Defend Yourself?
Doctors Spend 36 Seconds or Less Talking With Teen Patients About Sex. Grow Up, Doctors!
Yeah, it’s cold out. But wind chill is a lousy measure.

The bottom line (in less than 140 characters, of course):

Don’t be afraid to change the prepopulated, default text. Those 140 characters are yours—own 'em. Make each tweet count.

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. Tweet him your biggest Twitter pet peeve at @jrick.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Most Reliable Source of Grist for the Speechwriter's Mill? The Obits

by David Murray

As I like to say, the obits are a great place to meet people. They're also a great source of ideas for speechmakers, speechwriters, and speech editors.

In one week late last month, I got to know the Chicago theater kingpin Sheldon Patinkin, got reacqauinted with Ohio politician Jim Traficant, and met the writer Alastair Reid.

From Patinkin—or actually, his friend, the actor Jeff Perry—I learned the true size of the job of criticizing a creative product. Directors and actors would beg Patinkin to give them notes on their work, because he was a "world champion note giver," according to Perry. "His process is gorgeous; like movements in a symphony or rules of comedy, it comes in threes."

First are the Socratic questions that lead you to this pleasantly shocked re-understanding of your intent. Then he continues with a great, blunt, nonjudgmental articulation of what he saw compared to what you intended. And finally, as you launch into a spin cycle of anxiety and self-justification about all the obstacles sabotaging your genius, he has the knack of being able to steer you, like a shrink, bartender and rabbi rolled into one, into the belief that the fixes are easy, they are absolutely in your reach, and there’s plenty of time to work them in.

U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant liked to make references to Star Trek, often ending speeches with a request: "Beam me up." Traficant wore an outrageous hairpiece, spent time in jail and had a lot of crazy ideas. But he got heard, with soundbites like this one, from a 1998 speech:

Mr. Speaker, the Lord’s Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, the Declaration of Independence is 1,322 words. U.S. regulations on the sale of cabbage—that is right, cabbage—is 27,000 words. Regulatory red tape in America costs taxpayers $400 billion every year, over $4,000 each year, every year, year in, year out, for every family.

Beam me up.

And then there was Alastair Reid, who only occasionally returned from reporting trips around the world to visit his office at the New Yorker (where the dope smoke often curled out from under his office door). What drove him him to travel all his life? Same thing that drives everyone to travel, to whatever extent they do. Here's Reid's poem, "Curiosity":


may have killed the cat. More likely

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious

to see what death was like, having no cause

to go on licking paws, or fathering

litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious

is dangerous enough. To distrust

what is always said, what seems,

to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,

smell rats, leave home, have hunches

does not endear cats to those doggy circles

where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches

are the order of things, and where prevails

much wagging of incurious heads and tails.


(This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Writer Poll: How Do You Find Community?

Freelancers’ Union recently unveiled a new feature on their site called Hives. The intent is to give freelancers a place to connect, support one another, and discuss every aspect of the freelancing life. Freelancers’ Union encourages members to use the Hives to “talk, form groups, organize events, share videos and photos, and meet up with hundreds of thousands of freelancers.”

This got us thinking. Writing is notoriously a lonely job, and freelance writing can be even more so. So we polled our writers to find out what they do to build community, and we got some ingenious responses.

Unions and Workshops
Robert Woodcox is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as well as the Writers Guild, a writers’ labor union, which he finds is good for discussing political action, financial issues, and other writer-relevant topics that aren’t about the writing process itself.

Temma Ehrenfeld has run a monthly poetry workshop in her home for ten years, where she, a professional editor, and a grant writer read their own and others' poetry. She also has a friend who texts her most days telling her what creative projects he's worked on that day, and asking what she’s accomplished. She finds it’s good to be kept accountable: “Just having to report on what I've done helps,” she says.

Meet Ups
Sheila Lewis organizes “writing dates” with a buddy or two. “Barnes & Noble cafe is a favorite venue, and we reward ourselves with a break for novel browsing,” she says. Sometimes she’ll connect with others at a “destination writing” spot, like the Atrium near Lincoln Center. “Take it offline when you can—at the gym, the JCC, the Y, a school, church, synagogue, or weird hobby group. When you're with real people, something magical and synchronistic happens.”

Catherine Dold is part of a Colorado group called “Boulder Media Women,” which has been going strong for twenty-four years. The group, which started out as informal meetups of a few freelancers, has grown to more than 500 people who get together for Friday morning coffees, monthly potlucks, and Tuesday evening schmoozes.

Shared Space (Physical or Digital)
The Writers Room popped up several times, with several writers saying that the shared work space is where they go to find community.

Sarah Greesonbach stays in touch with other freelance writers and entrepreneurs through Facebook groups and blogs. “These groups give me a good opportunity to ‘check in’ with others throughout the day when I want to, and to not engage when I'm not in the mood.”

None of the Above
Alex Dwyer finds that he simply doesn’t interact with many other writers—and he’s fine with that. “Perhaps its the millennial work/life balancer in me, but I fully enjoy the four-hour blocks when I write in solitude. In non-writing hours, I do non-writing things and interact with all kinds of folks in other facets of life, but I relish and am protective of my solitary writing time.”

Do you have a different method for creating community? Let us know in the comments!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seven Books to Inspire Your Writing

Got a bad case of the end of summer blues? Or just feeling stuck in a writing rut? One of the best ways we have found to get re-inspired is to read some of our favorite books on writing. So for all of you laboring to dive into your post-Labor Day work-load , here’s a handy guide to seven of our go-to collections of words of wisdom.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
"Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!"

This book, a collection of reflective essays, and is essentially Bradbury’s love letter to writing. It’s exuberant, joyful, and incredibly invigorating.

On Writing by Stephen King
This one is practically obligatory. Not just because it is penned by one of the most prolific and gripping writers of the last half century – but also because of how revealing King is about his own struggles with the craft.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
This book is a little more about the actual mechanics of writing, focusing on grammar and punctuation. Halfway between how-to and humor, this hilarious book will nurture your inner grammar nerd.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' …This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

The witty, insightful, generous Anne Lammott shares many incredibly useful pointers like this one about how to get through the day-to-day process of writing and living.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Kleon’s little handbook took off a few years ago – and for good reason. It boils a lot of thought down into some simple, applicable truths about the creative process. If you don’t feel like buying the book, take a look at the Ted Talk, which contains all the same information (and is free!).

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
A classic. Any writer worth his salt will have at least skimmed this beauty – it’s pretty much unavoidable if you’ve received an English degree from any accredited university.

Insert your favorite book here
There’s nothing like reading a piece of writing that you find truly incredible to show you what words can do when used correctly. Reading your favorite book can remind you why you started writing in the first place.

We hope these help! Let us know what books you find inspiring in the comments.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Write Spot: A Survey of NYC’s Best Writing Havens

A recent listicle on the best places to read in New York got us thinking that it would be nice to have a similarly handy guide to the best places to write. Luckily for us, we know a few wordsmiths or two to consult. So we polled our network to find out their favorite fortresses of scribbling solitude.

Here’s a quick travelogue of the top nominees, which we hope will be useful to New York vets and occasional visitors alike. (P.S. Stay tuned this fall for guides to other cities.)

The Writers Room

One of the most popular answers was The Writers Room, a membership-based space created specifically for writers. Located at Astor Place and Broadway, The Writers Room has 42 partitioned desks, a writers’ reference and research library, Internet access, a kitchen/lounge, and panoramic views for inspiration. At the end of every year the covers of all the books published by members are reproduced on a celebratory cake!

Find out more about TWR here. (

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

GG friends Thomas Cook and Carla Jablonski visit the Met when they need to work. Tom visits an exhibit, and then heads to the cafeteria to work (just make sure you avoid the lunch rush). Carla likes to find an exhibit that relates to what she’s working on: “I wrote my adaptation of the Bacchae among the Ancient Greek statues, my master's thesis on 19th Century Circus in several 19th Century Paintings rooms, and a book partially set in ancient Egypt sitting beside the Temple of Dendur!”

Libraries Big and Small

Michael Laser recommends the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library at 40 West 20th Street. “They welcomed me, although I'm not blind, and I was able to write my novel there. Quieter than any cafe, and more peaceful than most other libraries. I miss it.”

Several of our other colleagues – including Michele Hollow, Thomas Cook, and Paul Marks found peace and quiet under the watchful eyes of the librarians at the the NYPL’s fabled Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street (don’t mind the tourists).

The Science, Industry and Business Library is a formula for inspiration for David Kronfeld -- a quiet, clean, convenient branch of the NYPL. Located at 188 Madison Avenue, the building is large and well outfitted with carrels and wi-fi.

Allan Leicht’s office away is the Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It’s the seating as much as the setting, Leicht reports: “It is the only library I know of that has Herman Miller adjustable mesh chairs rather than wooden or plastic. As writers know, the chair is the second most important writing tool, second only to the nap.”

Odds And Really Odds

Josh Nanberg, who does his best work when there’s a buzz around him, visits the Ace Hotel lobby. “Also, they have great coffee,” he adds. “And - for when I'm done - a killer Old Fashioned.

If you need your caffeine fix while writing, Amy Klein recommends the Aroma espresso bar on West 72nd and Broadway. “Great food, free wi-fi, outdoor space and outlets.” They also have locations in Midtown and SoHo.

Lisa Schiffren writes at home, but walks through her words while walking her dog in Palisade Park in Riverdale, along the Hudson.

And the winner for the most unorthodox nominee came from Francis Levy, who said the best place to write in peace was in a coffin show room “in the basement of a prominent NYC funeral parlor.” Words to live by, indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Spotlight: Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Our friend across the pond and ghost extraordinaire Andrew Crofts is generating a lot of well-deserved buzz for his provocative new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, which was officially released this past Friday by Harper Collins.

With four decades of ghosting experience, and multiple best-sellers to his credit, Crofts had plenty of beans to spill. We caught up with him last week to get an inside look at his inside look and get his take on some of the tricky questions his professional confessional raises for our traditionally veiled field.

Before you click over to pick up your copy, check out our exclusive Q&A with Andrew Crofts below.

What prompted you to write this book?

Whenever people hear that I am a ghost they always say “you should write a memoir yourself” and I have always resisted, preferring to hide behind other people. Then I realized that I had been in the business for 40 years and had seen a lot of changes in the publishing world, and that I might actually have something of interest to say. At the same time I came up with a formula of “anecdotes as chapters” which I thought worked well. An enthusiastic publisher persuaded me that I was thinking along the right lines.

What sorts of ethical questions did writing this kind of book raise? How did you work through them?

There are of course many stories that I can’t tell due to confidentiality, but there are equally many that can be told as long as I change the names and obscure some of the details so that the subject cannot be identified. If I thought it would be okay to mention someone, (mainly people in the publishing world rather than the authors I wrote for), then I asked them if they were happy about it. The publisher had previously published “Confessions of a GP” (Doctor), where the problems were very similar, so there was a formula in place to deal with it.

I have also talked a lot about ghostwriting in general terms, including jobs that I auditioned for and didn’t get, that sort of thing, where there are no confidentiality conflicts.

Were you concerned that this book might impact your ability to get work in the future? What sort of precautions did you have to take?

Well, I took the precautions that I have mentioned above, but since I get two or three inquiries a day, (about a thousand a year) and seldom take on more than three books a year, I think this will probably not have a significant impact. The fact that more people will have heard of my name because of the book will probably compensate for anyone who might worry that I would write about them, (although if they read the book they would see that they were quite safe and I very much doubt I will write another book on the same lines). If anything, I suspect it will increase the inquiries I receive rather than decrease them, particularly as it is receiving very complimentary reviews in England.

Has there been any blowback from past clients?

None at all.

How did you get into ghostwriting?

I was working as a general freelance writer, straight out of school, when someone I was interviewing for a magazine told me he had been commissioned to write three books but didn’t have the time. He asked me to ghost them for him so that he would benefit from the publicity without the problem of doing the writing. He told me I could have the money from the publisher.

It seemed like such a good idea I advertised, “Ghostwriter for Hire” in the Bookseller Magazine and other people started to approach me. The next book I ghosted was “Sold” by Zana Muhsen, which was her story of being sold as a child bride in the Yemen. It went on to sell more than five million copies. After that more and more people approached me with stories, including publishers and literary agents.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ghostwriting?

Find people and subjects that interest you and approach them with the suggestion that you help them write a book. Then just read a lot and write as well as you possibly can. Practice is everything. Put your ego on hold, nobody needs to know your thoughts and opinions, at least not in your clients’ books!

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a ghostwriter?

Just staying at the keyboard long enough to get the job done. It can be a long haul some days.

The most rewarding?

Meeting the most interesting people and getting to ask them every question I can think of, traveling to the most interesting places on Earth and being able to earn a good living as a writer.

You end your book with the line “perhaps that uncertainty is one of the reasons that make writing and publishing such interesting professions.” A lot of people seem to be in a panic these days about the future of the writing and publishing industries, you seem to have a very optimistic view of this. What would you say to someone who’s worried about where writing is going?

Don’t panic. Storytellers were around long before publishers and the craft of writing came long before the printing press. People will always need storytellers and scribes, either for education, entertainment or commercial reasons. All we have to do is work out the best way to bridge the gap between us and our audiences, and ensure that we earn a living while we do so – which basically means “business as usual”, except now there are even more options than ever before and more of the world’s population is literate than at any time in history. How can any of that be bad?

Andrew Crofts is a ghostwriter and author who has published more than eighty books, a dozen of which were Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He has also guided a number of international clients successfully through the minefield of independent publishing.