5 Questions to Ask Before Starting a New Assignment



You’ve just landed an assignment from a new-to-you editor. Congrats! Pat yourself on the back, do a little happy dance, bust out the champagne, whatever you do to celebrate. But before you dive into the writing, there are a few questions you should get answered first. Many editors will include these details in your assignment email, but not all do. Ask these questions to minimize revisions later and ensure that your article hits the mark.

1. What types of sources should I interview? You might be surprised by some of the quirks you’ll run into with different publications. For instance, if you’re writing for a website that’s published by a credit card issuer or an insurance company, they probably won’t want you interviewing anyone who works for a direct competitor. Would they prefer professors? Or can the editor hook you up with an expert who’s affiliated with that company? Many companies are entering the content marketing space so it’s not unusual to have restrictions like this. Even on the traditional publishing side of things, they may have sources who’ve recently appeared in the publication and they’d want you to find other experts.

2. Is there a style guide I should follow? Does the website or magazine follow Associated Press style? Do they have a house style guide? Few technical writers worry about these nuances, but I’ve had editors thank me for asking because it shows attention to detail and a desire to meet their needs.

3. Do I need to gather photos? Some magazines have their own photo staff, but many websites expert freelance contributors to turn in photos with their assignment. Often, this is as simple as asking the PR person for photos or downloading them from the company’s online press room. But it’s easier to request photos as you’re gathering information than it is to email your source months later when they’ve all but forgotten about you. Oftentimes art directors can “make it work” with what you send them, but sometimes there are more specific requirements about size or resolution, so it never hurts to ask.

4. What’s the fact-checking process? Nowadays, many publications expect writers to fact check their own stories, so if that’s the case, you should spend the time to cross-reference job titles, geographic locations, spellings of names and companies, and any other information. If the publication has a formal fact-checking process, you’ll want to know that upfront so that you can give your sources a heads-up and be ready to send in your notes along with a source list.

5. Any pet peeves I should avoid? Writing styles and pet peeves vary from editor to editor so the sooner you know your editor’s preferences, the quicker you can become her go-to freelancer. Some editors hate excessive exclamation points or over-use of quotes, others despise anecdotal leads or paragraphs longer than three sentences. They’ll usually tell you these preferences if you ask, so be sure to follow their advice to the letter.

Narrow Your Freelance Focus: Six Reasons to Specialize


As a freelancer, you’re constantly pitching yourself and your work to clients. What if there was a way to stand out from the pack and create a memorable identity in the minds of editors? What if you could save time pitching and writing articles? What if you could increase the number of articles you sell? And what if you could boost your hourly rate regardless of the kind of work you do?

There’s an easy way to do all of these things. Specialize.

Yet freelancers often resist the idea of limiting themselves to a subject area or two. After all, we’re often attracted to freelancing because of the freedom it gives us. We’re able to choose the types of work we perform, the clients we work for, and even the hours we work. The idea of being told what we can write, or can’t, makes us itchy, right?

It shouldn’t. I’ve been freelancing fulltime for more than 14 years and more than 90 percent of the writers I know who make a good living as self-employed writers specialize. They’re not trying to write about anything and everything–they’re choosing to limit what they write about for these TK reasons:

1. Deeper background. Much of your time as a freelancer is devoted to researching articles. Specializing lets you develop a knowledge base in a particular area, which means you spend less time researching and more time actually writing. If you write about nutrition, for example, you probably already know how many grams of protein an egg has, or why coconut oil is a hot topic right now. If you cover parenting, you’re familiar with terms like “family bed,” and “attachment parenting.”

2. Higher assignment rate. You’re an editor who gets two pitches on the subject of growing your own herbs. One is from a generalist; one is from a writer who specializes in cooking and food. If the queries are of similar quality, the editor’s more likely to choose the specialist because of the perceived value that the specialist knows more–and she probably does.

3. More money. That perceived value I just mentioned? Editors will pay you more when you have experience covering a subject. I’ve used the fact that I’m a health/wellness writer to ask for, and get, higher per-word rates for stories.

4. Memorable identity. You want your editors to remember you, and think of you for assignments. I just had an editor contact me today asking if I have any articles on breast cancer, because she knows I cover health. Other editors contact me specifically because they have fitness-related stories to assign and know that I write workout pieces.

5. Deeper inventory. Most content writers don’t bother trying to sell reprint rights to their stories because the publications that purchase them don’t pay much for reprints. Well, when you specialize, you have a whole trove of stories to offer, which makes you more likely to sell multiple reprints–and again, develop an identity that editors will remember.

6. Potential platform. Want to write a book or e-book in the future? Then you’ll need a platform, or an ability to sell the book to readers. For many writers, including me, specializing is the first step to developing a platform.

Still waffling? Remember, specializing doesn’t prevent you from writing about anything you want to. You still have that option. (Even I venture out of my health/fitness/nutrition pigeonhole occasionally to tackle new subjects.)

Specializing does mean that you focus on your unique strengths and background, especially as a new writer. Specializing can get you into print. It can help you sell more of your work. And over time, it can transform a so-so freelance career into one that lets you reach your dreams and monetary goals.

How To Find Writing Inspiration From Unlikely Sources


They say inspiration springs up from the most unlikely places. But Tracy O’Connor at the Ghostwriter Dad blog has found that gazing at a computer isn’t the best way to encourage creative growth. “Have you ever sat for hours, staring at your screen, hating yourself for procrastinating, but struggling to think of a single sentence to write? The blinking cursor mocking you from a blank screen might be the world’s worst place to search for writing inspiration.” As an antidote to a creative drought, O’Connor wrote about 34 unexpected places to find inspiration. Take a look at some of her tips:

1. Walk as much as possible. Sometimes you’ll tune out the world and let your thoughts roam free. Other times you’ll absorb the details you would never notice while imprisoned behind the wheel of your car. Either way, some of your best ideas and flashes of inspiration will come from walking and observing the world around you.

2. Visit the public library and lose yourself among the stacked spines looking for a single spark to start the crackle in your creative fire. Don’t worry if what you find isn’t relevant to your current project. You’re not doing research, you’re feeding your mind.

3. Eat or have a drink alone and people watch. Resist the urge to bury yourself in a book or your phone every time you find yourself sitting outside. Tune into your surroundings and take note of what’s around you instead.

4. Watch a foreign film or television show without subtitles or dubbing.
 Make up your own story and dialogue. You’re not trying to win an Emmy, you’re trying to tap into the natural flow of human emotion –– the same ingredients that can spark your ideas, or even better, help you become a great writer.

5. Visit or call elderly family members or friends. Ask them questions about life. What was life like when they were young? What were the main similarities and biggest differences? What is the most shocking change they’ve seen happen in the modern world? How about their biggest heartbreak? A single conversation could give you enough food for the soul to keep you writing with a full mind for a while.

To read the rest of her inspring article, please read: 34 Unexpected Places to Find Writing Inspiration (And Become a Better Writer) at Ghostwriter Dad’s Blog.

Freelancer Operating Costs You Can’t Afford to Live Without


It was 10: 43 on a Sunday Morning. Anxious to tie up some loose ends, I clicked on my computer to check my emails for the status of clients’ projects. Much to my horror, there was a warning message in the bottom of my screen that alerted me to “corrupted files.”

I panicked. The last time this happened, I ended up losing some important files and some unbillable hours to boot. Both of which were difficult to recover.

Immediately, I picked up the phone to leave a message of S.O.S. to the tech support hotline associated with my recent computer club membership. To my surprise, a live person answered on the third ring! I almost fell over in disbelief.

In a matter of minutes, the person  was able to troubleshoot my troubles, and get me back in the mix. This was proof positive that my decision to pay for a more expensive form of virus protection was worth the investment. The peace of mind that it provides is priceless.

Let’s face it: often times, in an effort to operate “lean and mean” in our freelancing businesses, we cut fat more than the local butcher. And we should. Part of being able to go the distance and stay in the black, is contingent upon our ability to be good money managers and strategists.

But be forewarned: being penny wise and pound foolish can be very costly. Here are four expenses you should never nickel and dime yourself on.

1. Virus protection-–I learned the hard way when I originally opted for a “free” software program recommended by someone else. Though no virus protection program is 100% effective in combating attacks, paying a little extra money to get the best you can afford, makes good business sense. Go even further and invest in backup and technical support through a computer club.

2. Image in marketing materials—Have you ever gotten a business card that looked like it was created by a kid in an art class, or one where the person scratched out old info and wrote in the new information? No doubt, It looked cheap and sent the message that the person might be a little less than professional. Don’t be one of them. Remember, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

3. Professional affiliations—Even if you can afford just one a year, choose wisely. The benefit is that the better ones offer perks like medical insurance, press passes and a job bank. And keep in mind that it’s also a business deduction at tax time, perfect for freelance writers on the go.

4. Eyewear—Okay, so admittedly, I used to wear reading glasses that I scored at the local Dollar Store. But, after a lecture from my mom, I upgraded. And boy, am I glad I did. It really helps if you can read clearly as you compose your creative pieces. It typically means fewer errors, less eye strain, and a greater acceptance rate with editors. As they say, “there is none so blind as he who will not see.”

Building Your Personal Freelance Brand


So your passion has helped you persevere in the media business and you’ve made a name for yourself. But making a name is one thing and building your brand is another. A brand is something that viewers will come to recognize, and if you hit the jackpot it will become household words that people will automatically associate with a specific product. The brand will serve as the umbrella that covers all the products (articles) you produce as a writer, whether they appear in print or online mediums.

For the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll use my work as the example. After years of writing feature stories for an online media company, I’m on my own now and hard at work building a new brand — which also is the name of my website — StrictlyCinema.com. But starting over doesn’t mean you have to leave the past behind. In fact, the connections I’ve made as a film reporter and reviewer have been vital in laying the foundation of my new brand. As you embark on your own plan, here are five tips to help you get started.

5. Start A Blog Or Web Site: While some content writers are gifted with words, the language of HTML and other web code can definitely be a challenge. But thanks to numerous user-friendly web hosts, their technical people have already laid the groundwork for you. True, you should know some basic HTML coding, but for the most part, setting up your own site or blog can be relatively easy. The great thing is, a site or blog can serve two vital purposes in establishing your brand.

For one, you can publish your original work there. Secondly, you can link to your work published by others from your site. Most important is what you name your site or blog. Initially, using your own name is what seems to make the most sense. When I began, in fact, I used TimLammers.com, until I quickly realized that my name wasn’t one you automatically associated with movies, like say, RogerEbert.com. So instead, I registered and now use a movie-centric name for my site, which is StrictlyCinema.com.

4. Get Social: For a film reporter and reviewer building his own brand, social networking has been a blessing. The two biggies are Twitter and Facebook, which afford you to share your work with like-minded people. If you establish yourself as film reviewer on Twitter and stick to posting news related to films, chances are you will pick up followers who are interested in films. It will go a long way in building your brand as you tweet links to your work. Facebook can be used in two different ways: You can post links on your personal page to keep your friends and family updated on what you’re doing, or you can start a fan page to attract fellow users who are interested in the subject matter you are promoting.

2. Join An Organization: While the media business by nature is a competitive one, there’s no reason you can’t be allies with your colleagues. Find strength in numbers by joining an organization, which in my case is the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which is the largest association of film critics in North America. Of course, you need to meet certain qualifications to join an organization (for film critic organizations, it usually means that you review for a broadcast or online outlet that are viewed by a certain amount of users). If you are accepted, it helps you establish credibility — and credibility is a vital element in building your brand. Plus, your organization will in all likelihood have a website, which provides you with one more place — and a huge one at that — to promote your work.

2. Be A Guest: No matter how you establish your credibility, it goes a long way when you’re looking for other gigs, and often times those gigs can benefit you in more ways than one. For me, it’s the frequent guest appearances as a film reviewer for the NBC television affiliate and CBS radio affiliate in my market. Not only do I review films for the outlets, they are gracious enough to promote StrictlyCinema.com in the process. As a bonus, the TV and radio sites post the video and audio of appearances, respectively on their sites, and direct viewers to mine. The television site links to my site as well.

1. Syndicate Your Work: Perhaps the biggest key to building a brand is gaining exposure for your work. And if you can manage to strike a syndication deal, where your pieces can be distributed across any number of outlets — that means all the more eyeballs are reading your work. Please read my basics to getting syndicated in this previous eByline blog entry. And of course, if you’re reading this blog entry, chances are you familiar with tools EByline.com has to offer in establishing your own syndication efforts through their multitude of clients. If you’re not familiar with EByline, get with the program and start branding!