Studio Blog: Guest Bloggers
I'm a busy guy, and I’m constantly looking for different approaches to boost my productivity, streamline my freelancing work and squeeze every profitable penny out of my day. For better or for worse, the Internet and mobile phones seem to be everywhere these days and give me all kinds of new ways to stay connected to my work. Several specific web-based and mobile apps have helped me get the most out of my work, whether I need scheduling help or tools that help me better research a story.
I’ve ditched carrying around my spiral bound notepad for EverNote, which lets me jot down story ideas or business plans on my computer or on my mobile phone. It then automatically syncs the note across my account so I see the same thing whether I’m on my phone or sitting at my laptop. And it’s not just for taking notes. For example, I can take photos on my phone’s camera or screenshots of my browser for future reference while writing a story. It’s available on Windows and PC computers, as well as on the Android, iPhone, BlackBerry and other mobile operating systems.
Time is money, and FreshBooks allows me to keep track of both. The web-based app helps me stay on schedule with timers that record how much time I spend writing for each of my clients. It also lets me generate and send out invoices, because freelancing is only profitable when my clients actually pay me the money they owe. For mobile tracking, FreshBooks offers an app for the iPhone with all the same features.
A lot of my clients stay in touch using Skype and instant messaging programs, but it can be troublesome to run several IM software programs at the same time. Fring solves that. It works on every major mobile platform, including the iPhone and the Android, and connects to most major IM platforms to let me chat and make free phone and video calls from a single interface. I can even follow my favorite Twitter users or chat with friends on Facebook—which might not be a good thing.
I love budgeting. It lets me see exactly where my freelance income is going, and helps me identify areas where I can save money. My favorite budgeting app is Mint, the online budgeting tool from Intuit, because it works in any browser. It also runs on the Android and the iPhone. I can stay on top of my bills and check when a client has deposited money in my bank accounts. I can also tag different deposits with custom categories, quickly allowing me to segregate my freelancing income.
Google Mobile packs up all the important features of Google that I need and lets me take it with me on my phone. It works on numerous phone platforms, including BlackBerries. I can read the news, check my email, search the web and use Google Maps in a simple interface. It’s helped me when I’ve needed help finding my way to a client’s office, or when I’ve been trying to track updates on a news story that I’m covering.
For countless mornings over the past few years, I've slipped out of bed at 5 a.m. while my children slept on, stealing the precious early-morning hours for myself as a writer before facing the day ahead as a mom. The time alone, the chance to write and the opportunity to build a business all motivate me past excuses of tiredness and lack of inspiration. And through it all, writing has been a central part of my early-morning life.
My limited time, due to family commitments stemming from my role as primary caregiver to my children (aka “Mom”), necessitate a certain approach when building my writing income: I make every effort to maximize my long-term residual income so that I continue to earn from my writing during the days and even weeks (welcome, baby No. 4!) when I am unable to write at all.
When I started as a Studio writer, I wrote hundreds of flat-fee articles for upfront income while also building up a large library of revenue-share articles on eHow.com through the Writer's Compensation Program.
Now that Demand Studios is the exclusive writing platform for eHow.com and they have lifted the five-year limit on revenue-share article earnings, I've returned to the Studio for article writing, choosing almost exclusively to build my long-term residual income through the revenue-sharing model. While the platform change from eHow.com to Demand Studios was unexpected by many eHow writers, I think most will appreciate the transition. The better article input tool, extensive writing guides, helpful article editorial process and robust community found within the Studio site give writers the resources they need to create and publish quality articles on eHow.com while earning a steady long-term residual income from their efforts.
The process for creating titles and writing profitable eHow articles is virtually the same through the Writer's Work Desk as it was on eHow.com. Title research, subject knowledge, keywords and search engine optimization are all very important, as is clear and concise writing.
Don't fake it or write off the top of your head; the content editors and your audience will know the difference between a well-researched article and fluff. Do your background work on keywords and even more research on the subject itself--even if you think you know it already. If you need motivation, make a goal for your monthly residual income and look at each revenue-share article you write a step toward that goal.
I'm working toward a full-time residual income goal, and plan on eHow articles contributing about half of the total. Even the highest-paying flat fee article titles available on Demand don't really tempt me because, as wonderful as they were to write when I was a new Studio writer, they don't come with the promise of pennies and dollars trickling in week after week--something I've come to appreciate. There's a certain satisfaction about knowing my writing is paying me even when I'm knee deep in the baby pool, busy pushing swings or making organic sandwiches, something that makes 5 a.m. worth it.
We asked Suzanne DeRouen if she wanted to share what she was working on with her colleagues as a follow-up to our interview with her earlier this month. She stated, " I had to put down my lesson plans and pick up my heart instead." Here's what followed:
Lessons Learned in Kurdistan
by Suzanne DeRouen
If you’ve been to the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan as a member of the military, I am humbled by your service. If you’ve been as part of a nongovernmental organization, I have great admiration for your commitment to helping others. Or, if—like me—you went there because you had business to conduct, then I ask you: What did you learn? I won’t ask you what you did there, but I will ask what you learned, because northern Iraqis, who are Kurdish, have something to teach all of us--not so much about journalism or business, but about living to the fullest day to day. They imparted more wisdom to me than I could ever have given back.
While working part-time as a copy editor at Demand Studios, I commit a lot of my time to working as the Senior U.S. Editor for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of northern Iraq. If you aren’t familiar with Kurdistan Region’s government, here’s a brief breakdown: Iraq is led by two separate governments—the central government based in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. Kurdistan Region is autonomous. It borders Syria to the west, Iran to the east, and Turkey to the north. It is not an Arab-dominated society as is the rest of the country; rather, Assyrians, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Armenians, Arabs, and Kurds--but mostly Kurds--live together peacefully.
As a long-time editor and lover of words and the free press, the older I got the more I felt that I had to put my efforts into something that mattered. My many years in New York City working for an educational publishing company (think Harry Potter!) were some of the best, most meaningful years of my career, but I needed more out of life—something combined with an edge. Now I edit not only the first and only English-language newspaper printed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, but I also edit academic books about genocide and the plight of the Kurdish people in general. My first completed project, a 287-page book entitled “Kurds, Genocide, Annihilation and the Stance of International Law,” is probably my pride and joy.
After over three years of working on the Iraq job while stateside, I finally took my boss up on his offer to travel to Erbil to work with the young writers and live in their shoes for awhile. I packed up many of my trusty journalism sources, including my AP and the timeless Elements of Style, and I even threw in laminated grammar cheat sheets. I laid out lesson plans. With the best of intentions, I left Louisiana for Iraq—sure I could make a difference in the lives of young journalists there.
One of the first lessons I learned (not taught) was that I needn’t pull out any of lesson plans I had diligently prepared. Disappointment was my initial reaction. Why? It didn’t make sense.
I tried to help my esteemed colleagues understand that it was imperative to learn from their mistakes if they wanted to improve at all. In all my years with them, they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, week after week. I even covered some of AP’s basic rules. You name it. But still, they just didn’t care about it.
I explained to them that if I made one mistake in my job in the United States I would be called to task for it. If I made two I’d be on probation. But if I made three after being told not to, then I’d probably be fired. Their response? “Well that would never happen here. We aren’t like that.” Indeed they aren’t. Their priorities are most likely the opposite of ours.
Slowly, I came to understand why my colleagues weren’t too concerned. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t looking to get ahead in their careers. There is no almighty dollar for which to slave away. In working as young journalists for the government, they are sometimes paid—but more often than not they aren’t paid or they are forced to wait months for small salaries. On the other hand, the government gives every Kurd a stipend regardless of whether he or she works, so there is no need to improve in whatever it is they do for a living. The people rely on the government to take care of basic services, and there are few long-term career paths to take.
Here’s what you might not know. During the reign of the previous regime, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were gassed during the Anfal genocide campaign in the 1980s. So today, what matters most to Kurds is staying alive. They are the largest stateless-nation peoples in the world. Their Diaspora reaches all of the bordering countries and continues into Europe and even parts of the United States. While in Iraq, I often felt ridiculous for even trying to get them to understand their mistakes, because in the big scheme of things and the history of their lives, these mistakes mean nothing. They only try to stay alive. Anything else, like a job writing for a government paper, is simply a gift to them. It’s not about improving their skills, although their boss would like to think differently.
But that’s not to say that these young Kurds don’t care about their destinies. They are all well-educated, some with master’s degrees in literature or English, one with a doctorate in political science, one currently earning his master’s in business administration, and still another currently studying for a bachelor’s degree in international studies. In Kurdistan in particular, education matters. The Kurds see education as their key to freedom and security. Their textbooks are mostly current, while textbooks in Baghdad and elsewhere below the no-fly zone can be 30 years behind.
So I arrived with my heart intent on helping to improve lives, but instead I learned that they were more concerned with the words they choose to write than the style rules that were universally followed.
Their focus is on family. Instead of long hours spent teaching them what my 25 or so years in journalism have taught me, I let them teach me how to relax. I learned the value of gathering extended family for mountain picnics. I also came to like the two-hour lunches we had every Thursday—just me and the guys.
The guys I work with are true gentlemen—but they aren’t too concerned about serial commas or possessives. I do think they understand the need to name their sources when they can—but even that’s a tricky issue to discuss as freedom of the press is barely a concept there, even if it is being addressed fully. Let’s not even mention that there are often three ways to spell one name of a city or person, depending on who is speaking it or writing it. It was up to me to learn to let go of the stringent rules I’ve had ingrained in me over the years. It was up to me to loosen up and understand--after over three years on this job--that I needed to be happy when my salary arrived weeks or even months late and stop complaining about it. I learned to be much more humble and appreciative of the plight of my colleagues. Toward the end of my stay, I stopped trying to teach and became a part of the fabric of their society. I was just another coworker and my heart would remain in Kurdistan long after I left.
There is one young Kurdish writer of whom I am particularly protective, however. I cannot mention his name, but he hasn’t learned anything over the years. At times his writing gets worse, and then surprisingly one day it will be better. I asked him straight up why he didn’t even try to learn. His three-word response broke my heart: “I cannot concentrate,” he said. I cannot imagine what he has seen in his life that makes it hard for him to learn or concentrate. That was a lesson for me. You cannot push people who have seen so much death and destruction and for whom survival is a daily chore. You can, however, try to understand them and see all sides of the equation. And so I did.
Back home now and at Demand Studios, I know I cannot make a single mistake. I know I cannot allow myself to ever get distracted on the job. But I also know what’s important in life. My lesson plans in Iraq were cut short, but life lessons learned while there cut deep and strong.
Do you have a story about something you are a part of? Please let us know by emailing email@example.com with "Outside the Studio" in the subject line.
Author and scholar of English literature, Austin T. App once said, “Three things are necessary for writing: a good head, a thick skin and a soft heart."
The ability for a writer to make connections, catch on to patterns and see deeper implications in seemingly simple events is inherent. We are an acute bunch. This ability, applied to everything “out there,” makes for a good head. The reader reads the details we pull from traditional data differently than the writer does. Many stories are up for interpretation, and even more fall to the mercy of opinion. As long as the knowledge out there is provided clearly with supporting evidence, a reader’s scrutiny should only encourage a better product. After all, sometimes, we need to be shaken. After putting so much time into the research, dotting the final sentence and sending a piece in for publication, it’s easy to become resistant to criticisms. Keeping that in mind, try to remain open to reactions from copy editors or readers that rings true, even if it makes you twinge a little to admit it.
A soft heart and the openness to change are both essential qualities to advancing as a writer.
You know what else?
Some of the most vocal anti-content site writers and bloggers also used their content site clips to land more lucrative opportunities.
I sometimes read that editors won’t consider Demand Studios clips when looking for writers, but that’s not true in most cases. Just about every editor knows it’s about good writing and will hire writers as long as they provide excellent writing samples -- regardless of where they came from. That isn’t to say you’ll land every gig that comes along simply because you used your Demand Studios clips in your portfolio, but if you’re a good writer, and have solid samples to share, you could land other opportunities – even some that are quite lucrative.
If a cover letter or query letter is the first impression you make to an editor, a sample is the second. As the Demand Studios team will attest, you won’t get your foot in the door without a strong sample. The hiring editor wants to get a feel for your writing style and skills as well as your voice. He also wants to know that you know the subject matter. When choosing a writing sample, use one that is representative of the website or market you wish to break into and is relevant to the subject matter. In other words, if you’re looking to write for a gardening niche, don’t send in your automotive writing samples.
Choose your best writing. Use the articles that received the best response and the highest ratings. You can even ask your fellow writers and editors at the Demand Studios forum to help you pick your strongest clips. Make sure your personality shines through. Editors don’t necessarily like flat writing that only recites facts. Show you have a passion for writing and a flair for words.
Editors are impressed when they see writers’ bylines under mastheads for USAToday.com Travel Tips and LIVESTRONG.com. Don’t be afraid to take your clips from the Demand Studios websites to advance your career. Sometimes writers will tell you it can’t happen, I’m here to tell you that it can and it does, many times over.
At Demand Studios you’re gaining valuable freelance writing experience; why not use it to your benefit?
Deb Ng is the founder of the Freelance Writing Jobs network of blogs and Conference Director for the BlogWorld and New Media Expo. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @debng.
The power of a writer to reach large audiences is obvious. In travel journalism, it is even more so. I recently got a print gig writing a guidebook on South America, an area of the world that I know and love. The thing about guidebooks however, is that the hotels, restaurants and tour companies that are listed for each destination are going to receive more business than other similar establishments in the area and are probably going to be more financially successful. That's just the nature of receiving international exposure.
Although I absolutely love sharing my favorite hole-in-the-wall eateries, local nightspots and little-known retreats in the high mountains or steamy jungle, I keep my status as a writer under wraps. This is not just because I want to avoid any potential bribe or business offer, it’s because I can't risk having a different experience than any other tourist would. I don't want the establishment to go out of their way to impress me for a better review. I need to provide an accurate description of what someone is to expect when visiting said attraction, and in order to do that, I need to experience it myself. This is why the audience is reading my writing instead of an advertisement. This is what it means to be a journalist, even a low-level foot soldier like myself.
On the current assignment for USATODAY.com, we are literally scouring the world in the interest of the millions of everyday people who search for the information around which we base our articles. The integrity of the publication relies on our objective opinion. In fact, the whole integrity of the Internet rests on foot soldiers in the information age who provide honest, factual and objective feedback. It really is that important.
I am not trying to make this whole thing nobler than it really is or blow it out of proportion. In my opinion, it’s just common sense that our ethical responsibility is to remain objective.
The good news is that I can point you out to some helpful resources to assist you with any questions you have regarding taxes. So if it’s OK with you, today will be lots of links to other places, mostly (for disclosure purposes) my own freelance writing blog.
From the Freelance Writing Jobs Network:Tax Tips for UK Freelancers
What Every Freelancer Needs to Know About Taxes
How to Solve Freelance Tax Problems
When a Writer Needs to Hire a CPA
Easy to Forget Income Tax Deductions
Introduction to Quarterly Taxes
3 Ways to Reduce Your Freelance Writing Taxes and Help Yourself
Tax Tips for Freelance Writers
20 Tax Deductions for Freelancers
Year End Tax Tips for Freelance Writing Businesses
When Your Freelance Writing Business Gets Audited
From other resources for freelancers around the web:
1. The IRS has provided a guide to estimated taxes that you shold keep handy.
2. Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about freelance taxes from the Anti 9 to 5 Guide.
3. One of my favorite freelancing blogs, Freelance Switch, has a terrific post about Saving for Freelance Taxes.
I hope this helps to answer any of your questions. Taxes are confusing enough, when you freelance it can get overwhelming. One thing I finally did this year was to hire a tax professional to handle my business taxes just because they were becoming such a headache. My husband is a talented accountant but his happiness is essential for my happiness, if you know what I mean. Some freelancers don't mind taxes. I don't feel the love.
Whether you pay annually or quarterly, it's in your best interest to brush up on all the rules and ensure your taxes are paid on time. To not do so will only lead to fines and audits and worse.
Deb Ng is founder of the Freelance Writing Jobs network. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @debng.
Here I sit, waiting for brilliance to pull alongside me, third mug of coffee turning as arctic as my moribund brain cells. Tom Waits moans in the background, slurring the relentlessly optimistic lyrics of “Somewhere”—the Bernstein-Sondheim meditation on the redemptive power of love—into a dirge.
No, I’m not namedropping. Waits isn’t actually sitting at my elbow, poised to spike my cup of java with a shot of Wild Turkey (I can’t envision the ramshackle singer guzzling Johnny Walker Blue). It’s true I did meet him once, at a theater event where he offered me one of the beers he had secreted in the pockets of his forlorn overcoat. A story for another time, unless I want to continue stalling. Always a temptation.
I’m listening, of course, to a CD, part of the “soundtrack” I program each morning before beginning work. That music usually doubles as a muse, but inspiration refuses to arrive. Repeatedly, I look at the assignment. Not a single thought enters my head.
The assignment being for me to compose a blog on the culture of the CE community.
All the usual jumpstart tricks fail. I free-associate, and I cluster. I write the old-fashioned way, with pen and legal paper while employing my “opposite hand.” I switch from pen to goose quill to no avail. I put on sunglasses and pretend I’m Lady Gaga assembling her memoirs (don’t recoil, it’s only an exercise). Legal pad tossed aside, I try composing in cuneiform script on ancient parchment. Still nothing comes.
Nothing but panic. This is due within the hour.
Can’t be done, that’s the conclusion I reach, at least not by this reporter. The words won’t pour onto the page because no single culture exists within this community. Instead, we represent a collection of diverse cultures, experiences and perspectives, such a hodgepodge of biographies that the mind boggles at how magnificently this group functions as a team.
You want a culture? Okay, I’m ready to take a stab. Ours is a culture of perfectionism. We relentlessly hone, and that can be something of a curse. Most people can sit at home and read anything—a novel, an op-ed piece, a comic book, the ingredients on the back of a cereal box—and accept it for what is. We rarely can peruse any form of written material, including works by professionals of the highest reputations, without finding some flaw, without mentally rearranging the order of a phrase or a passage, or revising the words entirely to serve the perceived intention of the writer.
Our passion for excellence, that addictive longing to “get it right,” defines our culture as much as it defines us. Why else would we plant ourselves in front of these screens and obsessively squint at all those words upon words upon words, thousands of them daily, until they start to blur?
Chalk it up to love, love of language, love of elegant phrasing, and an overpowering lust for clarity. And it is that last, this devotion to clear expression, that makes this intermittently tedious but exhilarating vocation so valuable, so ultimately rewarding.
We do nothing less than teach the world how to communicate, and we should never forget what a noble enterprise this represents. When we mentor writers through our detailed notes, we help them to reveal themselves, their hopes, their needs, their fears, their secrets, the things they know. We help them to find the words to tell us who they are. We create an atmosphere conducive to the compassion that engenders respect, and we facilitate the flow of ideas. We elevate the human spirit.
We teach people how to push nouns against verbs to topple the illusion that we are irreconcilably different from one another. Our culture—whatever that word means to you—promotes and enhances the exchange of feelings and opinions, an ongoing communication in which we can learn that there is more that unites us than divides us, that ambition in different guises, our glorious human frailties and strengths, and our simple need to be heard and understood, to emotionally touch and be touched, serve as common bonds. Ultimately, we recognize how we share everything with everybody.
And you thought we were just editing.
The main thing I ask for in rewrites is clarification. You know what you mean to say; I’m making sure you’re saying it. If a statement can be read two ways, I’ll ask you to rewrite—even if I’m pretty sure I know what you meant. My job is to represent your readers, and if they might get confused, I’ll ask you to clear up the confusion. Along the way, I’ll point out if you’re slipping into passive voice or straying from the guidelines—in that way I act as your personal trainer, reminding you that while you’ve been focusing on your abs, you’ve been neglecting your glutes.
Of course, CEs need trainers too, which is one reason we might seem inconsistent at times. We have our strengths and weaknesses, and those vary from person to person and day to day. If I’ve been working out on Fact Sheets for a while, I might not be at my best when I open your Strategy article; another CE could have the opposite problem. Luckily, we have our own trainers keeping us in shape: our leads, the copy chiefs who review our work, fellow CEs—and you.
So talk to me. Point me to that thread on the General Forum where a higher-up settled a debate, or say, “I don’t know if you saw this, but the rules on international phone numbers changed again.” If I ask for something you think is contrary to DS style, take it to the HelpDesk and then report back—or offer me a revision but explain why you think your original interpretation adheres to the guidelines where mine doesn’t. Resist crying out, “But I’ve written 3,000 articles this way and no CE has ever questioned it!”; instead, find support for your argument and point me to it. After all, maybe I’ve requested this change on 3,000 articles and no writer has dared to tell me I was wrong. As long as you’re polite (and as concise as possible), I’m happy to see notes from you—it makes our collaboration feel more … collaborative.
No, we can’t have a real back-and-forth conversation about the article. Yes, we’re limited to that one rewrite. Within those constraints, however, we are collaborators. We share a goal: to publish an article that readers will trust. The rewrite is our chance to make your article the best it can be.
Guest blogger Greg Perlstein is the Coordinator of Strategic Alliances at First Book, a nonprofit partner of Demand Media that provides new books to children in need.
Demand Media’s wildly successful “Write for a Cause” program has returned! Beginning today and continuing through the end of March, Demand Media will generously donate one new book to a child in need for every eight articles that writers and copy editors create. Here at First Book, we are thrilled that you, the Demand Media community, came to us wanting to re-launch this wonderful program. We are extremely grateful for your continued support and excited to see you all Write for a Cause once again!
In December, Demand Media writers and editors worked together to donate over 16,000 new books to children who need them most. Eighty percent of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income children have zero age-appropriate books for their children. First Book, with the help of incredible partners like Demand Media, works to supply these children with the books and educational resources that they need to learn and thrive. During the past 17 years, First Book has distributed over 68 million books to children from low-income populations.
This month, every article that you write and edit will help make a difference in a young person’s life. When you give a child access to a brand new book, you also give that child a chance to have a brighter future. Thank you for all that you are doing to brighten the futures of thousands of children this month.
For more information about First Book’s partnership with Demand Studios and how you can help, please click here. Visit the Write for a Cause Facebook page to track the program’s progress, and to donate directly to First Book, please visit our donation page.