Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Writers Can Learn from the Animal Kingdom

The idea of the “survival of the fittest” often applies to the writing industry. As a freelance writer, can you beat the competition and stay afloat?

In order to strengthen your competitive edge, let’s look to our friends in the animal kingdom who’ve been doing this survival thing for centuries.

Here are some (r)evolutionary writing tips:

1. A dragonfly’s panoramic vision

A dragonfly has the ability to see in all directions, and can process up to a thousand images into one picture.

How this applies to writing: It's important to think small and be opportunity-focused, but also to think big and create your own opportunities. In some situations there could be a clear toss-up between writing what you're good at and writing what you love, so which to choose? The answer: choose both.

Projects may come by that don't necessarily fall into your range of interests, but are a perfect fit in terms of your expertise or educational background. Stay engaged in commissioned work, but don't forget your goals: finish that screenplay, or book, or story you've been thinking about for months. The key is to balance your vision.

2. A tortoise’s immortality

Successfully avoiding senescence for centuries, the tortoise ages but never grows old. Most tortoises die of old age, unafflicted by disease or injury.

How this applies to writing: You need to focus on constant re-invention. Whether you write literary fiction or fantasy, memoir or morbid exposés, business papers or blogs, your writing style and perspective must continually expand to include new ideas and technologies. Embrace changing modes of publication and writing platforms to stay relevant; otherwise there's the possibility you could be rendered obsolete by newer entrants in the field who are more tech-savvy and have better outreach.

With a change in perspective, you're also likely to develop versatility in your own work, regardless of whether you're a niche or prolific writer. French author André Gide wrote: "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again." This is true of your own work: even within the realm of what you've written about before, you should constantly seek out new ways to express yourself.

3. An elephant’s vocal range

Elephants communicate at different frequencies, some of which are too low for humans to hear, while others are loud enough to travel huge distances—up to five or six miles.

How this applies to writing: Target your audience. Recognize your voice and identify who your readers will be, and then determine what your goals are in terms of outreach. Just like in any other product-based industry, understanding where you fit within your readers’ expectations and preferences can help you develop a loyal fan base.

Moreover, try to focus on communicating in different ways. To reach a dedicated, niche audience requires a contrasting approach to what you might take if you want to connect with a broader crowd. Consider things like your subject-matter, exposition, language density, and publishing platforms when evaluating these options.

4. A hummingbird’s effort

Though some weigh less than a penny, the hummingbird must beat its wings almost 80 times per second just to stay afloat.

How this applies to writing: Write a lot, write every day, keep writing even when you don't want to write. To stay on top of anything requires hard work, and writing output is directly proportional to input: the more you write, the more you'll sell, and the likelier you are to stay afloat.

Freelance writing jobs are not stable or guaranteed. They require constant initiative, a proactive mindset, and a drive to seek out new opportunities on a regular basis. It's simple: the more you'll reap, the more you'll sow.

5. A dolphin’s multitasking

Being mammals, dolphins must come up for air frequently. When asleep underwater, only half of a dolphin’s brain is actually sleeping, while the other half is responsible for making sure it doesn’t drown.

How this applies to writing: A writer’s work is never done. When you’re not writing, you should be editing. When you’re not editing, you should be thinking up new ideas. Whatever aspect of the process you’re focused on, keep part of your brain focused on the others. To be effective you'll need to get everything done well, and to be efficient you'll need to do it in the shortest amount of time.

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Be organized. Check your email regularly. Stay on top of your deadlines. Understand your personal capacity so you know how many projects you can handle at once. With proper calculation, you'll know when you're going to be ready for new work, thus minimizing the risk of drought periods.

Writers and writing are constantly evolving—and that's what makes this such an exciting job. Do you have any animal-inspired tips that help you in your writing career? Share them in the comments!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Guest Post: 5 Golden Rules of Freelance Writing Success

by IJ Schecter

What’s the easy part of becoming a writer? Learning how to write. What’s the hard part? Making that ability work for you. Whether you write in the basement or on the terrace, about high finance or low golf scores, for national glossies or local circulars, success comes ultimately from developing, and embedding, positive, productive habits. Yes, the freelance battleground is formidable, but it’s also continually expanding. Start ingraining these principles and you’ll be well on your way to staking out your own territory in a field ripe with possibility.

1. Get organized. 
Many writers feel that a chaotic environment is a stamp of creativity. Um, no. The few steps required for a highly functional personal office—file folders, properly labeled storage devices, logical configuration of equipment—can make a world of difference, and it will help you keep your head on straight as you cast about for assignments and engagements. In this business, you get exactly one chance to make a good first impression. Part of being organized is knowing exactly which queries, articles, or manuscripts you’ve sent when and to whom. There is no greater poison to freelance success than inadvertently sending a query to an editor you already contacted about the same idea two months earlier! If you’re going to be diligent about anything in your career, make it this.

2. Never stop when you think it’s great.
“Easy reading is damned hard writing,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he was damned right. Whenever you read through a query or manuscript and pronounce it ready for sending, put it aside and then come back to it at least a full day later, committing to making it just a little bit better, even if that only amounts to tightening one paragraph or replacing one “almost” word with a better one. Since you possess a talent most others don’t—the ability to make words sparkle—you owe it to yourself to set your standards high. Once a piece is done (that familiar feeling of quiet elation will let you know), get it out there, and don’t worry if another edit occurs to you three days later. There is scarcely a writer in existence who looks back on a manuscript and believes it’s perfect. Or, as Anthony Burgess put it, “You don’t say, ‘I’ve done it!’ You come, with a horrible desperation, to realize that this will do.”

3. Practice equilibrium.
Every writer needs to learn to resist with equal vigilance the exhilarating highs and desperate lows that are occupational hazards of the trade. Mostly this requires time and experience, but bullheaded practice helps, too. Query rejected? Curse up a storm, give yourself a pep talk, have a piece of chocolate—then get back to work. Land a sweet assignment? Fist-pump the air, tell someone important to you, have a piece of chocolate—then get back to work.

4. Don’t work in a vacuum.
Even if you don’t think it’s for you, force yourself to network with others, whether via a local writing group, a national association, or the numerous writing-related groups on social media sites like LinkedIn. Yes, writing has traditionally been a solitary pursuit, but those days are long past. Even for writing groups that charge dues, one or two assignments typically make you back your original investment. Plus, these days, things happen much faster than they used to: information gets circulated instantly, assignments get snapped up, research is done fast, and fact-checking even faster. The good news is that there are more opportunities available to more writers than ever before. The bad news is that you can’t afford to fall asleep at the wheel. Being connected to others writers, and to the writing and publishing world at large, will keep you plugged in.

5. Embrace the writing experience.
Says lauded British novelist Julian Barnes, “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm has come to them.” In other words, since your choice to write is probably less a choice than a fundamental, irrepressible need, take it in your arms, squeeze it, cuddle it, and love it for all it’s worth. Don’t buy into the stereotype that writers are lonely, unkempt figures forever despairing over what they haven’t published. Instead, celebrate every single word you write, even the ones that never see the light of day, as part of a lifelong process. This difference in attitude will translate into better consistency, higher productivity and, in the end, greater success.

IJ Schecter is an award-winning author, essayist, and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in top markets throughout the world. He is the author of two recent bestsellers, the golf humor collection Slices: Observations from the Wrong Side of the Fairway, and the insider’s guide to freelance success, 102 Ways to Earn Money Writing 1,500 Words or Less. He is also the ghostwriter behind several leading titles, spanning genres from business to true crime, and a popular webinar host.