Why you should stop apologizing for your work. Yesterday.

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Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

I want to share something very personal with you.

In addition to the YouTube videos I watch about how to rid my computer of malware or how to set up a portable air conditioner, I also watch videos on health and beauty stuff, like how to bump out my hair (yep, that’s a thing) or to create a natural-looking full eyebrow.

I’ve noticed a particular theme in the beauty videos. Many of the narrators serve as effective demonstrators and some have developed a cult following. People watch them, trust them and do what they say. Judging from the high number of views these videos get, I’d guess that their content is useful to hundreds, if not thousands.

Yet, so many of these narrators feel the need to begin their videos with, or interject with, and apology.

As in, “I’m sorry the video quality is so poor today” or, “I’m sorry I look so tired today” or, “Sorry my voice sounds so ______ (choose one: raspy, quiet, loud) today” followed by an explanation.

I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing.

In the past, when handing in an assignment, I’ve caught myself beginning the accompanying email with something that goes like this:

Dear ________,

Here’s the latest draft of the _________ story. As you can see, it’s a bit long, and the tone might be a bit too heavy …

We must do ourselves, our readers / watchers / listeners and our clients a favor and stop apologizing for our work. Yesterday.

Here are two ways to kick this nasty habit:

1. Revise, don’t apologize.

It has taken me a long time to realize that, if my work warrants an apology or disclaimer of some sort, it means it wasn’t ready to be packaged and sent off to begin with. The word count may indeed still be too high or the tone might very well be missing the mark. Whatever it is, it’s not my client’s job to fix, it’s mine. After all, they’re paying me to do the work as specified. So, my advice to you is, if you ever find yourself apologizing for your work on submission, hold back. Re-work it until it no longer needs an apology. Then, it will be worth your asking fee.

2. Ask yourself: What if this work were food?

I’m serious! Say you’re at a restaurant and you’re about to shell out for an expensive meal. Hey, any meal. You order, the food comes to you, and as the server hands it over, she says, “Sorry, this smoothie may not taste like it should. I used way too much agave.” Or, “I know you wanted that steak medium, but mid-well is the best I could do. Let me know how it tastes though, ok? [smile] I’ll remake it if you want me to.” It would be a total career killer for a chef or restaurant proprietor to deliver her creations with a smile and an “I’m sorry.” No one would take the time to taste the supposedly subpar stuff and wait (and then pay!) for the better stuff to appear. Don’t diminish your own work’s value before others have the chance to draw their own conclusions.

You must first create quality work worthy of no apologies. Then, be confident enough in its effectiveness to serve it straight up.

Grow Your Business: The Three Elements of a Great Query Letter

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

So, you’ve built a solid prospect list and maybe you’ve even made a few cold calls. Perhaps you’ve promised a prospective editor that you’d have a few great story ideas in her inbox very soon. Good for you!

This week, we continue our Grow Your Business series with some helpful hints on how to write a great query (pitch) letter.

Here’s why you should write formal query letters.

I firmly believe that formal query letters get more attention and garner more business than one or two-sentence story idea descriptions embedded in the body of an email. The problem with firing off a short list of topics in an email message is that, just like lots of other content, your ideas are likely to get lost in the barrage of emails editors receive each day.

Instead, I prefer writing my queries in a separate word document and sending them as an attachment. I figure, if the editor or content manager is invested enough to open my document, she’s likely to sit with it for a while and read it all the way through.

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to structure query letters. But after doing a little research, I was able to begin writing them with success. My single, most beneficial, source was a little ebook by writer Linda Formichelli called “Query Letters that Rock,” which features examples of actual query letters that resulted in the writer of the letter getting the assignment. If you’re not sure where to start with regard to querying, you must get this book. I’ve modeled my query letters after the ones featured in Formichelli’s dynamo piece for the past three years and they’ve worked wonders for me.

“Query Letters that Rock,” or another book like it, will likely be your most important tool. However, to get you going, I want to list a few elements every successful query letter should have. Here goes:

1. A great query letter reads like a mini-story.

Begin with a catchy introduction or lede. Draw the reader in with a sentence or two explaining a recent experience you had or a problem you encountered that your story is likely to solve for readers. For example, if you want to write a story about the trend toward soda-fountain craft beverages, tell a story about how you came upon the trend. Were you walking through town and happened to spot signs advertising soda drinks everywhere? If you want to cover a vintage store that regularly supplies to big-name movies and TV shows, consider beginning with an anecdote about the proprietor helping to outfit one of the show’s main stars. Be interesting from the start, and your story idea will pique the editor’s interest, too.

2. A great query letter proves the story’s relevance.

If possible, provide links to other research, books or consumer media outlets, especially authorities on the subject or in the industry, that support your assertion that your idea is, indeed, worthy of a story. For example, in the aforementioned vintage clothing piece, track down pieces national affiliates or industry publications have written that feature similar businesses. The editor needs to know that your writing will either announce a current trend to a larger audience or introduce the reader to a new piece of research or product. Make sure you prove your idea is relevant and timely by showcasing other coverage in the area.

Note: If you find more than three pieces that have already been written on the subject matter you wish to cover (especially if all three of those pieces are in publications that cover a broad audience), it’s likely the trend has tipped, and is no longer worth announcing. When pitching stories, you’re looking for little-known but corroborated issues or story ideas, not stuff that people have been talking about for a while. As Sandra Rinomato of HGTV’s “Property Virgins” once said, “Think, up and coming, not been and gone.” It’s hard to strike this subtle balance, but do enough research and you’ll get the hang of it.

3. A great query letter marries the publication to the idea.

You may have the best story idea in the world up your sleeve, but if it’s not right for the outlet you’re pitching to, it won’t matter. At the end of your pitch, you’ll want to briefly explain exactly why your story belongs in your target publication. In our vintage-clothing store case, something as simple as, “I think your readers would be surprised and delighted to know that one of HBO’s most exciting and popular shows is being outfitted right here in our little town of Mayberry” is a great way to marry publication to idea. If you’re pitching to a local media outlet, your story must have a sense of place and local relevance, and a unique local spin, even if it describes a nationally-relevant idea. If the publication or Web site is national, or even worldwide, in scope, you must be able to show how your story is different from the other stories the publication has written in the past, or how it is a continuation of ideas the publication regularly covers. No matter what, you must be able to tell the editor why the story is the right fit for her publication.

Tell me about your querying process. What querying techniques have you used successfully? What didn’t work for you? Drop me a comment.

Grow Your Business: Who do you want to write for?

Photo: pakorn, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: pakorn, freedigitalphotos.net

Happy Friday, everybody!

I’m not writing from my air mattress today. We’re still living in an unfurnished house (our stuff arrives in another week and change). But since I last posted,we’ve found some lovely patio furniture and I’m outside. Turns out, California mornings are nice and cool and great for patio dwelling, even in the heat of August.

So, from the red Sunbrella couch comes the first post in my new “Grow Your Business” series:

Who do you want to write for?

Prospecting and courting potential writing clients is like any other sales process: It takes tons of time and perseverance. So, you don’t want to waste your time prospecting editors that aren’t a good fit for your strengths and areas of interest.

Here are my top tips for prospeting effectively:

1. Don’t get stuck in a content mill.

We’ve all seen them. Big, homogeneous Web sites, such as about.com, ehow.com and wikihow.com, designed primarily to pop up quickly in google searches. While it may be relatively easy to get a gig with these companies, they pay terribly low rates ($15 per article according to some recent reports) and eat up your time. Sure, you’ll be able to say you’re a “published writer,” but let’s be real: These sites are rarely, if ever, the most trusted sources out there for the subject matter you’re interested in writing about. Know what your time is worth and don’t settle for less.

Carol Tice, at Make A Living Writing, wrote a fantastic blog post on this topic, in which she featured lots of testimony from content-mill writers. It’s worth a read.

2. Aim high, but start in the middle.

If you’re relatively new to the industry, it’s important to structure your prospects accordingly. Many budding writers make the mistake of pitching only to small, local media outlets believing that larger national publications with broader readership are out of their reach. Make no mistake: If it’s a good idea, the big guys want it, too. However, if you don’t have lots of previous work to show a national editor, a national publication isn’t likely to take you on. You’ll need to establish some history first.

I suggest applying a two-pronged process when identifying prospects. Approach high-quality local publications in your physical area (an established city or regional magazine, for example). You can also approach midrange and top Web sites and blogs in your area of expertise. Begin pitching to those outlets right away. Choose a few more with national and global reach and begin establishing relationships with their editors at the same time. Once you build your portfolio base with high-quality work at the local and / or regional level and online, those national prospects will already be familiar with you and they’ll be more likely to give your pitch a second look.

3. Find good matches.

Don’t make your prospect pool too broad. Instead, make sure you’re targeting publications that specialize in content that also falls within your areas of expertise. Choose the subjects you’re most interested in and that you’re also most skilled at. The more you specialize, the easier it is to find good media matches.

For example, I specialize in family life, agricultural equipment, ecofriendly living, home decor and pet care. I’ve written extensively on solar technology for residential applications in the past. I’ve also done some work in the personal-finance area. When I prospect, I choose publications, blogs and Web sites that specialize in these types of content.

If you’re into emerging technology, vintage car restoration or triathlon training, don’t bother yourself with an article on makeup application or how to find the right pair of jeans for the price. You’ll be a better, more effective writer (and be likely to get more jobs) if you stick to what you love and what you know. Bonus: If you’re into something super esoteric (like residential solar) you’re probably one of few. Use that fact to your advantage!

4. Find your magic number. Then create a spreadsheet.

I get it. You’re not a spreadsheet person. You’re a writer. Why deal with the drudgery of organization and administration? The answer is, because getting clients requires a certain amount of hardcore sales and the sales process is built around method and repetition. Once you’ve done your research, decide on a master list of prospects you plan to approach. There’s no magic number. Rather, the number of people you contact will be based on the amount of time you can spend prospecting, the size of the pool of media outlets in your interest area, and the amount of time you plan to spend writing.

In my experience, for every ten editors I approach, I’m likely to start one good relatioinship. So a prospect list of 100 yields me about ten clients per year. While that sounds defeating, it’s really not. Ten clients per year can keep me working more than full-time.

Once I have my prospects identified, I create a spreadsheet, complete with contact names for each publication, phone numbers, emails and Web sites. I leave plenty of room in the sheet for entering in status updates every time I contact the potential client. It’s an ultra-methodical approach, I know. But it’s designed to keep me on top of my process and it works for me. Sure, there are other ways to do this, so if you don’t like the idea of a spreadsheet, feel free to work with some other sort of method. If you’re interested in the spreadsheet / 100 prospect model, you can read much more about it in The Wealthy Freelancer.

Note: I know the previous tip advises readers to hone in on a few areas of expertise and that can limit your prospect pool to less than 100. But I’ve found that, even with the few areas I cover, I’ve been able to discover at least 100 local and national outlets to target. There’s more media out there than you think!

Follow these four steps and I promise you’ll feel great about your prospecting plans. That’s all I’m going to cover for this week. Trust me: setting up your prospect list will take you at least a week if you do it carefully and thoughtfully. So good luck! And please let me know if you have any questions. I’m here for you.

I’d also love to hear your prospecting advice. What techniques have you used to plan your pitch list?

Have a fantastic weekend, everybody. I’ll be on the red Sunbrealla.

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

Photo: Scottchan, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Scottchan, freedigitalphotos.net

I was tagged by the fantastic Northern Virginia writer Amanda Miska to participate in this blog tour and I’m tagging Hawaii freelance writer Brandi-Ann Uyemura and Wiesbaden, Germany-based Melissa Gillam Shaw of Marrying The Army. We’re going beyond coast-to-coast now. Enjoy!

What am I working on?

Some really fun stuff. I recently wrote a piece on wellness tourism for Virginia Living magazine during which I got to try a cosmetic acupuncture session. I also just submitted my first story for Dog Fancy on dogs who accompany their owners to unusual job sites (think: Parliament, Congress, the cockpit of a plane). Let’s see … I have a story on plastic surgery trends coming out soon for Northern Virginia magazine (hint: the backside is back) and I just finished writing the eighth annual edition of Green Hawaii: a 32-Page Guide to Living a Greener Life for Hawaii Home + Remodeling magazine. Oh, and my latest story for Farm Life magazine, on the trend toward small hay farming, is out now, too. I got to get up-close and personal with a few gorgeous horses for that one.

Truth be told, I’ve got a bit of deadline whiplash right about now, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love totally immersing myself in my work.

Next up? Hmmmm … I’m in the beginning stages of proposing a style book with a potential co-writer — drafting the proposal this week, actually — and I just signed on to review an awesome new version of one of my favorite small-business software programs. I can’t tell you which one yet. The launch is a huge secret, so stay tuned to this blog for details.

Deep breath …

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s a great question. Honestly, it’s one I’m still trying to figure out. My cadence is pretty direct and my humor can be dry at times. I love Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist style, so my goal this year is to try to become more concise. I tend to write long and detailed copy, so the endeavor is paradoxically tough for me. I also tend to lean more toward the formal than the casual in tone, so I’m working on loosening up a little bit. Not too much, though. I don’t want to lose my voice. Look to your right. See the collar I’m wearing in my “About” photo? My writing is like that collar: colorful, but still comparatively buttoned up.

Why do I write what I do?

I’ve been a lifestyle magazine addict since college. I’ve always loved solution-oriented and how-to content geared toward foodies, runners, moms, investors, small-business owners and style seekers. Lifestyle magazines are aspirational and I embrace that thought wholeheartedly. But they must also inform and tell the truth. Therein lies my goal: to make content that is always beautiful, true, unique and lasting.

How does my writing process work?

I’m very methodical. As soon as I receive a new project, I create a timeline in my listing-software program that includes both internal and external deadlines. I research sources for two to three days and create a source list from that research. Then, I begin contacting my sources and setting up interviews. The actual interviews follow, then transcription, outlining and finally, writing. The writing part actually takes the least amount of time (about a day). I like to work in at least three days, five if i’m lucky, for revisions before turning my work over ot my client. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I’m trying to improve. You can read more about my writing process here.

A note about process: A lot of people think the job of a freelance writer is a romantic one that involves furiously scripting large amounts of amazing prose whenever inspiration strikes (meals, sleep, kids, pets, spouses and obligations be damned!). Many believe this type of inspired work is perfect from the get-go. But the reality is, even the ever-imaginative Roald Dahl was regimented in his process (read about that here). I don’t wait for inspiration to write (I’d never make a living!) but when it does strike randomly, I make sure I have something on hand to record it with and a place to store it for later use. I’m terrified of losing the ideas that pop into my head, and that’s how I keep my phobia in check.

If I could impart just one bit of process advice to would-be freelancers, it would be this: Don’t be so hard on yourself if inspirational lightning bolts don’t strike daily. Treat your freelance writing career as a business. Schedule in time to write and do it, whether you feel like it or not. Trust me, the words will come.

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