How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

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I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

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A Day in the Life of This Freelance Writer

Yesterday, I stumbled across this article at Wait But Why, proposing a new way to think about the value of our time and how we use it. It works like this:

If you sleep about eight hours a night, that leaves about 1,000 minutes a day in which you’re awake. Think of these 1,000 minutes as 100 ten-minute blocks of time.

What do you do with each of your 100 blocks? Is what you’re currently doing worth the number of blocks out of 100 that gets devoted to it each day?

While neither the author of the piece nor I recommend trying to schedule every block every day (it’s an exercise in hair-tearing), it has provided me a useful way to consider exactly where my time goes.

So Where Does It Go, Exactly?

The 100 Blocks method is especially intriguing to me in the context of one of the most commonly-asked questions I receive on Quora: “What do freelance writers do all day?” “What does a day in the life of a freelance writer look like?”

While I won’t subject you to a list of where my 100 ten-minute day-chunks go, here’s what an average day in my freelance life looks like.

A Day in the Life of this freelance writer

Morning

6:30 am: I roll out of bed, because if I don’t, I’ll miss a chance to get a hug from my husband when he leaves for work. If I don’t get a hug, I am cranky the rest of the day.

6:40 am: I feed the cats before the sheer force of their STARVACEOUS YOWLING tears me to pieces. The cats wish it to be known that they WILL DIE if they are not given canned food at 6:40 am. No, the bowl of kibble is NOT SUFFICIENT. THEY WILL STARVE. I AM A TERRIBLE CAT PARENT.

7:00 am: The yowling has subsided. I sit down with my toast and tea to read the Internet. If the Internet is terrible, I read a book instead. The Internet is usually terrible.

8:00 am: I decide I should probably do something useful with my life. I load the dishwasher and clean the litter boxes in order to avoid selling my labor for money.

8:30 am: I sell labor for money. I may also blog, work on things for rehearsals (see “Evening”), send invoices, and so on.

12:00 pmish: I am done selling labor for money, unless it is Tuesday. On Tuesdays I get done at 1:00 pm, because 12-1 pm Tuesday is the Holy Hour of Client Meetings.

Not-Morning

12:30 or 1:00 pm: Having eaten whatever tasty glop was leftover in the fridge from the previous evening (or microwaved some chicken nuggets), I proceed to the gym for a hot date with the elliptical, weight room and/or pool. On nice days, I go into my backyard and throw things.

2:30 or 3:00 pm: I get home from the gym, or I run some errands, depending on which needs doing. When I have to schedule appointments, they’re nearly always between 2:30 and 5:00 pm. If I’m not running errands, I might do some composing, or photography, or spend 12 of my daily 100 timechunks murdering werebears in Skyrim.

Evening

5:00 pmish: Usually, the husband is home by this time. He makes food. We eat food. While watching Netflix. This is literally the only time we spend watching television at all, so I have no guilt whatsoever about abandoning the upper-middle-class manners of my youth to cram nachos into my face on the couch in front of the boob tube.

6:00 pmish: Time to go to rehearsal. Which rehearsal it is depends on the time of year and the day of the week. Candidates include marching band, wind symphony, drum ensemble, colorguard, and winterguard. Sometimes I perform in these ensembles and sometimes I yell at them.

8:30 pm: I feed the cats, because once again, they will STARVE without canned food, even though kibble magically appears in their bowl on the regular. Then I write fiction.

10:30 pm: I sleep.

On Wednesdays, I clean the house instead of selling my labor for money. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same.  A few times a year I go on vacation, during which I might spend an hour or two working in the mornings.

Your schedule as a freelancer may, of course, vary. My work time is scheduled with two major constraints in mind:

  1. When do I have the focus to do this work most efficiently?
  2. How can I get my work done in the handful of hours I have allotted per day to do so, which I cannot exceed because addiction?

As For the Blocks….

It’s interesting to me how quickly things fall into perspective when I analyze them in terms of the 100 blocks of time.

For instance: The gym costs me 120 minutes, or 12 of my 100 timechunks every day.

Prior to thinking of it as 12/100 timechunks, I struggled to go to the gym. It felt like recreation. It felt like “wasting time” or “ignoring my responsibilities” (because I wasn’t checking the clock every five minutes to make sure I hadn’t dissociated into some frivolous project, because ADHD means I have no idea what time is).

Now, however, 12/100 timechunks feels like a total steal. That time I spend at the gym manages my chronic pain, alleviates my anxiety, provides the only workable method for me to meditate, lets me catch up with my best friend by snarkily texting her between sets, and enables me to kick people twice my size through windows should I ever wake up in an action film.

I get all that for twelve percent of my day. That’s what we call “good value.”

It’s also made it easier to stop hating myself for things like scrolling Twitter, while simultaneously helping me put limits on things like scrolling Twitter. Yes, sometimes I just need to sit and scroll Twitter for 1/100 timechunks. That’s okay.

But I rarely need to do it for 3/100 timechunks. That’s when I start getting restless. So I can allot 1 timechunk to it totally guilt-free, then go do something else, again totally guilt-free.

For the record, I have allotted 11 timechunks today to selling my labor for money and 3.6 timechunks to the writing of this blog post. Now I will go devote about 2 timechunks to eating food and a few to preparing for this week’s Holy Hour of Client Meetings. Happy Tuesday.

Real-Life Writer Lifestyle Blog!

I have been glamorously fighting a cold for the past week, which has involved ingesting copious quantities of glamorous chicken soup, Vernor’s and Tylenol; glamorously sleeping 15 hours a day; and glamorously sneezing into an ever-expanding pile of glamorously wadded Kleenex.

At some point during one of my virus-fueled fever dreams, my muse came unto me and told me I should start a lifestyle blog. Featuring my actual lifestyle.

I’ve already fielded a couple different questions about writer lifestyles on Quora this month, and I’m also full of cold medicine, so my response was a resounding “Yes!”

…Followed by a resounding “What’s a lifestyle blog?”

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Since Googling things and then pretending I knew that all along is completely on-brand in my particular writer lifestyle, here’s what I have learned have sagely always known about lifestyle blogging.

1. It’s basically a digital zoo exhibit.

This post at MediaKix says:

A lifestyle blog is best defined as a digital content representation of its author’s everyday life and interests. A lifestyle blogger creates content inspired and curated by their personal interests and daily activities.

I’ve been trying to write content inspired and curated by “things I find interesting about writing and creativity that other people might also find interesting about writing and creativity.” Apparently, my illness-impelled muse says this is all wrong, and I should just be badly Instagramming my food instead. (“How to Take Photos That Are Definitely Not Insta-Worthy,” coming soon to this blog!)

2. …Except it’s supposed to teach you how to brush the cheetahs.

Meanwhile, blogger Ashley Coleman has this to say about the difference between personal blogging and lifestyle blogging:

Personal blogs will rely heavily on personal narrative, essay, opinion. Lifestyle blogs include personal elements but often give you some really tangible things to take away. How to make a great cake. How to design your workspace. Meanwhile, personal stories will either inspire you, inform you, or maybe make you laugh.

…I mean, I can definitely teach people how to emulate my glamorously snotty  writer lifestyle. In fact, here’s a free printable (I guess that’s a thing now?) for emulating my glamorous writer wardrobe!

writer dress infographic

Actionable takeaways! This lifestyle blog thing is really taking off.

3.  I’m supposed to make people jealous, I guess?

I’m a little confused on this point, because Googling “lifestyle blogging jealousy” turned up a ton of posts on how to stop being jealous of other people’s perfectly-curated lifestyle blogs and Instagram accounts, but the whole point of perfect curation seems to be to make other people jealous of your lifestyle in the first place.

So here’s my best shot at making you all jealous of me:

I write for a living, which is to say that I have no day job or side gig: Writing is what I do. I’ve been doing that for about ten years now. I live in an adorably venerable house with three adorable cats who adorably destroy things for fun, I have a husband who thinks I’m the greatest thing since sliced greatness, I have spent the last week sneezing my brain matter into handfuls of tissues, and I only sometimes wear pants.

And I can show you how to do it, too. I guess.

4. Write about everything but also only these things.

So: My muse wants me to present my life the way it is in order to engender jealousy in others, which is obviously not going to work. I mean, just check out my totally cute and enviable kitchen:

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WRITER LIFE is all about the deluxe-sized bag of corn chips, empty food containers nobody’s put in the recycling yet, and a sinkful of dishes I’m ignoring in order to write this blog post. You, too, can have this amazingly glamorous lifestyle!

What the heck is my lifestyle blog supposed to be about, then? MediaKix recommends:

Lifestyle bloggers share a broad variety of content centered around and inspired by their personal lives — most notably family, home, travel, beauty, food, recipes, fashion, makeup, design and decor.

*rubs hands together* *cracks knuckles* Okay, I got this.

Coming soon, from my totally awesome writer lifestyle blog that is totally awesome and definitely not something I got told to do by the Nyquil-addled voices in my head….

  • Family: How to Spend Quality Time With Your Manuscript Instead of These Weirdos!
  • Home: My Favorite Houses to Not Die of Consumption In
  • Travel: The Bright Thing In the Sky: What It Is and Why You Shouldn’t Stare Directly At It
  • Beauty: Hey, This Ink Smudge On My Hand Kinda Looks Like a Cat
  • Food: How to Make Coffee Part of Every Major Food Group
  • Recipes: Coffee, Coffee With Milk, Coffee With Vodka, Coffee With Milk and Vodka, Okay That’s a White Russian You Literally Just Invented a White Russian Now Stop It
  • Fashion: *points to infographic*
  • Makeup: 1.2 Ways to Make Yourself Presentable Before You Run Out for More Creamer (You NEED to Do At Least Number 0.2, Okay?)
  • Design: Creating Your Perfect Writing Space (and Then Ignoring It In Favor of Scribbling on the Toilet)
  • Decor: 50 Fun Organization Hacks to Avoid Your Looming Deadlines

…Y’all, I am so excited about this new lifestyle blog! Praise to my plague-prompted muse!

 

My First Year as a Freelancer Was a Decade Ago and OMFG: A Retrospective

I started freelancing in late 2009, when the recession was eating everyone’s lunch and then scolding them about missing their lunch.

“There’s no such thing as lunch, you slacking moocher,” the recession said. “If you want lunch, maybe you should create some jobs in the lunch industry, you mooching slacker.”

2009: The year everyone understood Atlas Shrugged, even if they didn’t read Atlas Shrugged.

Here’s what life is like in my world, ten years later.

My First Ten Years as a Freelancer_ A Retrospective

Do The Hustle

Ten years ago, freelancer platforms like Upwork and Fiverr were only just getting started. Most people avoided them, because they were inconsistent as heck: The pay was in the fraction of a cent, the available clients were utter shit, and living at the mercy of a digital Limbo competition was no way to survive.

(They haven’t changed, by the way. It’s just that a lot of people no longer avoid them.)

Content mill platforms, however, were a gold mine.

At least, some of them were. AOL’s SEED took nine months to pay me $30. Associated Content never gave me a single lead.

On the other hand, despite the terrible attitudes of its editors and its brutal ratings system, I made half my first year’s freelance income from Demand Studios. Demand paid up to 10 cents a word; if you were really good at writing quickly and meeting their style demands without thinking too much about the drivel you produced, you could make $200 in an hour or two, easily. Which is what I did.

(I never did more than a couple hours of DS work at a time, because the drivel truly was mind-numbing. Check out The Worst of eHow for some stellar examples of total crap Demand Studios produced, or read the forum archives at Demand Studios Sucks for just how badly the site treated its writers.)

Content mills weren’t my only source of income; I picked up several law firm blog clients right out of the gate, and I hung on to several of them until the bottom fell out of mass-produced law firm blogging. In 2009, I was making about 15 cents a word for 300-word, SEO’d posts on generic topics; by 2017, the same content paid about 3 cents a word.

Using Keywords to Keyword Your Keywords While Keywording for Keywords

I started writing before Google Panda launched, and holy hell did it change this industry.

It took a while to sink in. Prior to Panda, the number-one goal of most content was to stuff in sufficient keywords for the search engines to see it. Back in the day, search engine algorithms couldn’t account for factors like the length of a piece, how long people spent actually reading it, its connection to other highly-regarded information, and so on.

Pre-Panda, search engines pretty much only looked for one thing: How many times a certain word or phrase was repeated. Repetition was the engine’s number-one determiner of “relevance.”

As anyone familiar with the Kardashians knows, “relevance” is not equivalent to “quality.”

Panda and its later additions changed that. Google got smarter at determining how humans’ actual Internet behaviors function as indicators of quality, and it started rearranging search engine results accordingly.

Panda and its successors didn’t eliminate content mills, but they did knock the legs out from under content mills. Suddenly, everyone who had come up in this business by dashing off 300-word articles that repeated a specific keyword once every 100 words started seeing their pay rates drop precipitously, from 6 to 10 cents a word in the early 2010s to a penny per word or less today. If you can find one of these gigs for three cents a word, laugh all the way to the bank.

I Can Lead You WITH MY MIND

I haven’t done 300-word keyword-stuffed nonsense content for years. I can’t afford to. Times have changed, and I’ve changed with them.

Today, I’m still making ten to twenty cents a word, and I’m still writing only about eight to 12 hours a week. I’m even writing for law firms. But my business model has moved from quantity to quality.

In 2010, I might have dashed off eight or ten nearly-identical articles for eHow or LegalZoom and called it a day. Today, I spend that same 2-3 hours writing one piece for a SaaS company or a law firm.

I do my research. I cite legitimate sources. I use tools like BuzzSumo to help me determine what parts of industry conversations are not currently being had, and then I have that conversation.

What I do today more closely resembles “thought leadership” than the content mill races of the past. It’s more work. It requires more thought. I’m not convinced that writing for content mills taught me a single thing about how to do the job I have now.

But wow is this more interesting than that was.

Advice (This Is What You Came For, Right?)

I do think it’s harder to make a living as a freelance writer straight out of the gate than it was ten years ago. Back then, you could make decent money with no knowledge of any topic, as long as you could cannibalize anything else you found online and stuff it with the keywords your client demanded.

Today, making a living at this job requires more thought. Getting the types of clients who don’t pay a fraction of a cent does, too. In 2009 all I had to have was a fluent grasp of English and a pulse; today, I have to be able to articulate my specific skill set and explain how it intersects with a client’s industry-specific knowledge and marketing needs.

The advice I’d give new writers today, then, is this:

  • Don’t even bother with content mills or freelancer platforms. Seriously. Skip ’em. The pay isn’t worth the access to clients, and you’ll waste time grinding out mindless works that you could more profitably spend creating a writer website, articulating your value proposition, and finding clients who pay market rates.
  • Craigslist and LinkedIn are your friends. Yes, it takes longer to find jobs you’re equipped to do this way (although sites like Freelance Writing Gigs make it easier by aggregating jobs from Craigslist and similar sources). It’s also where you’re going to find clients who will pay anything like a liveable wage. All my best clients have come from one or the other.
  • Have a second area of expertise. I cannot stress this enough. Your biggest selling point for clients will be that you understand their industry and you can write. While companies are increasingly tolerant of hiring employees with the latter and training them in the former, those who hire freelancers don’t want to train you at all. If they did, they’d be looking for an employee, not a contractor. Know something other than writing, and look for jobs in that topic/industry.
  • Don’t quit your day job. This wasn’t an option in 2009, when so many people (myself included) turned to freelancing because we couldn’t get a day job to begin with. But if you have one, don’t quit it until you can live off 50 percent or less of your freelance income.

As for the industry itself, I think we’ve hit a plateau when it comes to the pace of change in writing demands. Search engine results are much more attuned to what humans find relevant than they were in the past, and what humans find relevant is content that addresses old topics in new ways, with excellent citations, and in sufficient depth to teach the reader something worth knowing. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so I also don’t see an upheaval like Panda happening again anytime soon.

The next big wave of pressure on freelance writers is most likely going to come from our own current clients. The STEAM revolution is waking up companies and schools alike to the fact that a tech education isn’t enough: Our next generation of coders, scientists and engineers needs to be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences, as well.

As students who got a more rounded education in communication and the humanities start to fill jobs in the STEM sectors, many of us who are making a living as these companies’ communicators are going to feel the pressure from their internal hires. We’ll need to reinvent ourselves again. I have no idea how, but I’ll be there for the ride.


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Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.

Your “Thought Leadership” Was Written By A Freelancer

Ah, thought leadership.

What is it? We don’t know, but it sounds cool. Let’s do that.

How do we do that? We create cutting-edge, inspiring content, and we get it “out there.”

Okay… How do we do “cutting-edge”?

…I have no idea. Just call the freelancer.

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It’s hard to pin down what “thought leadership” means these days. In some circles, it seems to involve hiring a specific brand of motivational speaker to waste your team’s time in the name of feeling good about not adding anything to your bottom line. In others, it’s all about regurgitating old-school business wisdom in 21st-century packages. Once in a great while, someone will point out that “thought leadership” should, y’know, lead somewhere – but the reason folks are fed up with it is that is so rarely does this in practice.

I first got introduced to “thought leadership” in 2016 or so, when a client asked me to “position [them] as a thought leader in [their] industry.”

At the time, I had no idea what this meant. I was a little intimidated by it.

Like so many others, I assumed that “thought leadership” implied I needed to communicate ideas worth having but that no one was talking about. That’s hard to do when, like me, you write for a half-dozen different industries every week. I’m good, but I’m not a top thinker in six different industries good.

Or am I?

Here’s why your favorite “thought leader” is probably a freelance writer in disguise:

1. Thought leadership isn’t about actually being at the top of your game.

Sure, it helps. But as with everything under the sun of late-stage capitalism, what you know is less important than how well you can distribute your image as a source of that knowledge.

To succeed as a “thought leader,” you don’t actually have to have cutting-edge, five-years-ahead-of-their-time thoughts. You need to be able to rearrange the ideas that are emerging today in a way that makes other people say “Eureka!”

You know who’s really good at finding current conversations, gleaning out the relevant bits, and repackaging them into a shiny, shareable 1500 words of new car smell? Freelance writers.

In fact, I’m about to drop that last paragraph into my LinkedIn profile.

2. Most thought leaders really want to be influencers.

I have never had anyone whose life work was research ask me to “position [them] as a thought leader,” and I never will.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that wannabe (excuse me, “emerging”) thought leaders occupy industries in which turning your own name into a trustworthy brand is part and parcel of success. You don’t just need to be good at what you do; you need people in your industry to know you’re good at it.

The goal of thought leadership, in most cases, is to turn the emerging thought leader into an “influencer,” or someone whose platform is so large that others turn to them for access to their audience. That’s why “thought leadership” itself has become a commodity for which people are willing to pay money.

But how do you make the transition from nobody to thought leader and from thought leader to influencer? The right people to ask are those that sit at the nexus every single day: content writers.

Iv’e been in this business for about ten years now, and in that time, I’ve seen innumerable people, ideas, and methods come and go. I started writing in the “cram keywords into barely comprehensible content” era; today, I wouldn’t dream of writing for anyone but actual humans. I remember when we didn’t have names for “influencers.” Heck, I remember the screechy noise my 14k modem made.

In short, I understand how thought leaders and influencers get made. For someone who wants to make that climb, I’m the one to ask for advice.

3.  Writing is a separate skill set from thought leadership.

Some people who want to become thought leaders are legitimately great at what they do. It’s in everyone’s best interests for these folks to keep doing what they do.

But what they do isn’t building a personal brand, or writing world-class content, or connecting it to the work of others in their industry. To do that, they’d have to step away from what they do and learn how to research trending keywords, identify existing influencers, or strike the right “candid, yet professional” tone.

It’s a waste of their time and talent. That’s where freelance writers come in.

We’re the nerds who buy ourselves subscriptions to Buzzsumo for Christmas. We installed Pocket because we got sick of crashing our phone’s mobile browser with open tabs. We wouldn’t dream of committing to a headline for this post without comparing “thought leader” and “thought leadership” in Google Trends.

(Don’t believe me? This post’s draft headline was “Your Thought Leader is Actually a Freelance Writer.”)

In fifteen minutes’ time, I can tell you what conversations you should be having today, which ones everyone else will be having tomorrow, and which ones have already been consigned to the purgatory of memes and dad jokes. In twenty-five minutes, I can also tell you how your industry’s biggest conversations affect [insert other industry here] and vice versa.

We don’t want subject-matter experts to be able to do that. We want them to go on experting at their subject matter. Context and communication are freelance writers’ area of expertise.

Is it worth taking so-named “thought leaders” seriously? As someone who writes an awful lot of the content that appears under their bylines, I’m going to say:

Don’t take the title seriously. It’s a bit silly these days, and even Google Trends is predicting that it’s had its time in the sun.

But read the work. Some of it cuts right to the heart of topics you’d otherwise have to distill from ten or twenty articles on the same topic. Some of it will frame problems in a way you never considered before, leading you like magic to an answer that has eluded you. Some of it is just plain interesting.

I know. I wrote it.

 

5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Freelancing Before I Started

I started freelancing full-time in 2009. When I did, I was unemployed, bedridden with multiple disabilities, and typing on a five-year-old laptop in my parents’ basement.

That is not how I recommend anyone else get their start.

Now, nearly ten years in, there are some things I wish someone had told me when I started – things I didn’t get from all the “how you can has freelancing too!” blogs or the books on how to write. And here they are.

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1. Job posting quality is directly proportional to client quality.

You may be tempted, at first, to reply to every job posting you can find. You may be especially tempted to respond to the pathetic one-liners from late-night college students: I need some1 to rite my final xam email me plz.

Don’t. The clients you’ll actually want to work with are the ones who write organized, cogent job postings in standard English that summarize the job, its requirements, and its pay.

Why? Because those are the clients who have their business together enough to know (a) what they’re looking for, (b) how to explain what they’re looking for, (c) how to provide useful feedback (if any), and (d) how to pay you on time.

Speaking of your pay….

2. Sometimes you will have to shake clients down.

Life happens. Your contact at a client’s business leaves, their payment processing system collapses, their project management software eats your hours, you think you turned in your hours but turns out you’re remembering last month and not this month. Whoops!

When the problem isn’t on your end, you’ll have to get persistent. Re-send your invoice with a brief note: “Here’s a copy of last month’s invoice, which I sent ten days ago. Let me know when I can expect payment. Thanks!” If they skive off altogether or still don’t pay, a phone call may be in order. And never, never accept more work from a client if they have an outstanding bill.

(Tip 2.5: Make sure you’re getting paid slightly more than your usual rate if the client demands you learn a project management system of any kind. At one point, I had to navigate four different systems just to get paid. Not worth it.)

3. (Certain) lies are okay – even necessary.

“Samples” are the “experience” of the freelance world. You can’t get samples without working, and you can’t get work without samples.

But if you’re just getting started – in copywriting, say – you may not have relevant samples. This is especially true if you’re attempting to work as a freelance writer during or just out of college (not recommended).

The good news? It’s okay to fake your first samples. Write a press release for a fictional company. Write a blog post covering a how-to you already know how to do, like “How to Start a Student Organization That Gets Things Done” or “How to Do Your Laundry In Half the Time.” Ask a friend if they’ll let you guest post on their blog or write some web copy for their site.

Tip 3.5: DO NOT WRITE ON SPEC. “On spec” ostensibly means “you write this and if it’s good enough, we pay you.”  Increasingly, however, “on spec” is code for “we’re going to tell you this isn’t good enough and not pay you but we’re going to use it anyway.” Assume anyone asking for “on spec” work is asking you for free work, and skip them.

4. Don’t quit your day job.

If your day job has already quit you, you’re probably frustrated just hearing this. So let me say: don’t quit your day job if you can avoid it.And if you can get another day job while you boot up your freelance writing business, do it.

I started freelancing with no day job, and it sucked. The stress was incredible. People make bad decisions when they’re stressed, and I was no exception.

Because of the stress, I did some really stupid things in my first few years as a freelancer. I took work from clients who never paid me. I groveled to clients whom I should have quit outright.

Freelance relationships are a lot like other relationships: Clients are more likely to respect you if you respect yourself. Set boundaries around the time and types of work you take. Enforce them.

A Special Note for college students: Don’t plan on freelancing as your “job” when you finish your degree if you have no other type of career experience. Most places looking to hire freelance writers want someone who has actually worked in the field or industry about which they want you to write. Get a few years’ experience doing literally anything, then build your career on that.

5. Treat 50 percent of your income like it doesn’t exist.

I mean it. Set up a savings account. Name it “The Black Hole” or “Where That Half Of My Freelance Income Goes When It Does Not Exist” or even “Steve.”

Honestly, it doesn’t matter what you name it. What does matter is that you put $0.50 of every dollar you make in this business into that account. Put it in right away, the moment you get paid. If you get paid via PayPal, set up an automatic transfer that moves half of it into that account the moment it clears PayPal.

Why 50 percent?

Thirty percent, approximately, goes to pay your taxes. Taxes are the number-one thing that shock every new freelancer, and for good reason: Self-employment taxes are higher than taxes for conventional employment. Between self-employment tax and income tax, you’ll be paying a higher percentage on your income to the IRS than you ever have before. (Now is a really good time to learn what you can and can’t write off as a business expense when you’re a writer.)

The other twenty percent is your retirement fund. Remember, no one else is paying this for you: there’s no pension with this job, no 401(k). Once per year – ideally, right after you pay your taxes – take this other 20 percent and put it in an investment vehicle. A CD. A money market account. An IRA. It literally doesn’t matter, as long as you keep it where you cannot spend it.

If you’re like a lot of freelancers, right now you’re probably saying “but I can’t afford that! I need all that money so I can eat!”

….This is the other reason I highly recommend not quitting your day job. Do whatever you can to avoid relying solely on freelancing until you can live on 50 percent or less of your gross freelance income.

Your future self will thank you.


Freelancing is great once you know what you’re doing. Share this post, support my work, and help other freelancers learn from my mistakes.