Archive for January, 2012

The Art of the Quote: A Cautionary Tale for Freelance Writers

January 24, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on a 500-word article for a local, glossy magazine about backyard decks.The focus of the piece was on sun management, and my assignment was to give some options for — and discuss my personal experience with — cooling down a deck that gets too much sun in the summer.

The most familiar and popular option, of course, is to install an awning — but because of the angle of my deck relative to the sun, I found that there was no way an awning could provide me with shade during hot afternoons. Instead, I got a builder to create an inexpensive pergola — a simple wood structure with vertical poles and latticework — and installed sun-blocking shades on the sides and the top.

To round out the article, I interviewed the owner of a major local awning retailer to talk about the types of awnings and their benefits — and then called the owner of the small company that manufactured the shades I bought, to ask her about the benefits of outdoor shades.

Now, my editor doesn’t like a lot of quotes in an article. She typically just asks for one overview-type quote, because she feels quotes slow down the flow of a piece. So I used a quote from the awning guy, because it was clever and succinct, and  awnings are a more widely used product. Then I discussed my own experience and praised the shades for being well priced, easy to clean, and effective in blocking the sun.

When the article was published, I emailed the shade manufacturer and sent her a link to the online version of the article. I expected her to be pleased with the nod that I gave to outdoor shades, so was completely unprepared for her snarky email response.

“I’m not sure why you sent this,” she wrote back. “Is something missing? I don’t see my quote, only the quote from the awning store.”

What? Couldn’t she read between the lines? Didn’t she see that while I quoted the awning retailer, the experience I described showed that shades were a better option? Didn’t she realize that I may have opened people’s eyes to a product they didn’t even know about? Wasn’t that more important that stroking her ego by including her name and her exact words?

I haven’t responded, because I don’t know what to say. Should I apologize for not quoting her? Blame it on my editor, who discourages quotes? Or try to explain to her that I actually did her a bigger favor by describing my success with her product?

What would you have done?

Another defensive day in the life of just another working writer.

Why I Love Being a Writer: A Reminder

January 19, 2012

Those of you who have been following my blog probably realize by now that I’m a bit of a complainer. I complain about boring assignments or tedious tasks that accompany the writing of a new piece. I complain about editors who hang onto a draft for a month and then demand that the revise be turned in two minutes later. And as for crazy-low payment rates…well, don’t get me started.

But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember that what I do is actually pretty cool

Last night, my daughter told me about a discussion in her history class. Her teacher was beginning a unit on the Civil War, and asked the students if they or a member of their families had any special interest in or connection with that time period.

My daughter raised her hand to say that I was working on a project about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I had spent time researching documents and journals from the 1860s. She said that when we go on family vacations, we occasionally end up visiting outlying historical locations to scope out new details about Lincoln and the course of the war.

“What does your mother do?” the teacher asked.

“She’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and some websites.”

At this point, the teacher’s eyes widened, and she threw up her hands in a kind of surrendering motion. “Well, we may as well stop the conversation right here,” she said. “Because I don’t think any of us are going to be able to top that.”

I laughed when I heard this story. “Come on,” I said. “I write about mattresses and kitchen gadgets, and occasionally get involved with some historical thing. It’s not all that impressive.”

“Well, she was impressed,” my daughter said.

That conversation stuck with me all night and into this morning, and actually, I’m still smiling as I write this. Maybe my daughter’s history teacher secretly dreams of writing, or maybe there’s another reason why her reaction was somewhat over the top. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that what we do –interviewing people, researching documents, making sense of seemingly random events, and then creating a piece of writing that never existed before — takes skill. And a bit of magic.  It may seem simple to people like us, who do it all the time; but simple, it’s not.

Let’s promise not to forget that, ok?

Another proud day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Article Assignments: Why Do I Keep Saying Yes?

January 13, 2012

So one of my best clients emailed me toward the end of last summer to offer me two major article assignments. The pay was relatively good, and I was skilled at the type of research and interviewing that would be required.

I hesitated, however, to accept the work, as I estimated that it  would fill my working time for the next four months. I wouldn’t be able to accept other assignments, prospect for new assignments or clients, or–most important–devote time to my favorite new project.

You see, I had  spent much of the summer working on my first young adult novel, and I was having a blast. I loved the freedom of fiction writing. I loved making stuff up, which was refreshing after so many years of stressing accuracy and sticking to the facts. I found my characters fascinating, especially my spunky 11-year-old protagonist, and I loved throwing obstacles at her and figuring out how she would get through.

Still, as a working writer, I couldn’t see turning down the work. I needed the paychecks. I wanted the money. I promised myself that I would work for the four months–but then I would slow down and give myself the luxury of time to work on my novel.

So now the four months are now almost over, I’ve got just two more days’ work at the most, and the reward of time to write fiction is so close, I can taste it.

And then, out of the blue, So another client called yesterday to offer me a basic product story. What do you think I did?

You’re right — I said yes.

Why.

Of course, a big part of it is the paycheck. I can’t deny that. But I think there’s more.

I think I said yes partly because I always overestimate the time it will take me to do stuff. I’m often convinced that I can make time to both do my paying work and have my writing fun. The truth is, I rarely do. The paying work always takes over.

I also think I said yes partly because even though I complain a lot about tedious assignments, the truth is I get a kick out of article writing — interviewing business executives, motivating them to reveal some tidbit of news or surprising comment, boiling down research into the assigned wordcount, hearing “good job!” from an editor.

But I think I also said yes because writing fiction is so…unpredictable. It takes a lot out of you. Maybe it’s because I’m new at it and I’m not very good, but it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to get started on a page. Once I get going, it becomes great fun, but before I sit down at the computer, I feel so doubtful. Will I write something great today? Am I getting anywhere? Would anyone else love this the way I do? Is this just a big time waster?

I don’t have those fears with my paid work.

Still, if I keep pushing off my fiction, I’ll never find out if it could amount to anything at all.

I see the days and weeks and months passing, and I wonder if I’m spending my time in the best way, or just the safest way.

How do you choose the way to spend your writing time?

Another conflicted day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From a Silent Writer

January 9, 2012

A friend of mine started working at home recently, and she said that she finds the weirdest thing about it is not leaving the house until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when she has to carpool her daughter from school.

I said that didn’t bother me so much — to me, the weirdest thing about working at home is that I can’t do it when others are in the house. So weekend working is out for me — I just cannot be productive as a writer unless the house is totally empty.

What’s that all about?

Well, I finally figured it out yesterday. It’s because I talk out loud when I write.

And it’ s not that I mouth the words that I’m writing (which I do). The problem is that I…well, I sort of cheer.

For example, for the last few weeks I’ve been working on some…don’t get me wrong, I love my clients and my assignments, but I would have to say the recent work has been tedious. It’s a product story, and part of my research has involved digging into websites, press releases and interview notes to compile lists with pricing, warranty, features, and other dry information for almost a dozen brands. I wanted to get it done in one sitting, so I wouldn’t have to return to it ever again.

So because I was thinking about the whole experience of working at home, I ended up listening to myself.

When I finished a paragraph, I said in a loud whisper, “Good.”

When I finished two more, I said full out, “Almost done!”

And when it was almost dinnertime and I was hungry and tired and this close to giving up, I started furiously typing as I basically sang to myself, “You can do it, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it…”

A few time my kids have come home and walked in on my when I was in the middle of one of my “cheers” — what an embarassment. Sometimes they’ll say, “What?” because they thought I was talking to them. So I have to explain that I was just talking to myself, which of course makes them laugh out loud or roll their eyes like I’m nuts.

I have a writer friend who works at her local library every day. I tell her that I can’t work that way, because I do a lot of phone interviews, which is true. But I’ve never told her the real reason — which is that I’m scared I’ll blurt out “There you go!” or some other embarrassing word of encouragement intended entirely for myself (although she’ll learn the truth if she reads this).

Ooops…just screamed out “Finished the blog, YES!” Did you hear it?

So come clean: Do you talk out loud when you write? What do you say?

Another chatty day in the life of just another working writer!

 

 

 


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