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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Doing The Maths

Now, you're probably wondering why the word maths is cropping up in my blog? After all, I usually write about writing, don't I? Well, you're right. Numbers are not my strongest point. I'm OK with the basics - I can add and subtract (and occasionally multiply and divide) but that's as far as it goes. As a freelance writer, you often find yourself having to deal with numbers. And if you want to be known for accurate copy, you'll need to have a grasp of more than just the basics. That's why I was so pleased to find this guide to Statistics Every Writer Should Know by Robert Niles. Robert is a writer of long standing, who describes himself as having been caught up in the collision between computers and journalism in the 1980s (check out his home page for the full description). In Statistics Every Writer Should Know he gives a guide to the basics (mean, median and percent) as well as some more complex figures, tests and analyses. Read his guide and you should avoid being taken for a ride. It's easy to read and very useful. Why not take a look?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Keep In Touch - Freelance Writing Tip #15

If you're a freelance writer, then you need contacts. Contacts are either people who can give you stories or people who can give you work. Let's have a look at these in more detail.

Contacts who can give you stories

Many of the stories in magazines are spin-offs of events that have made the news. For example, when deep-veined thrombosis hit the news a few years ago, the magazines were full of tales of sufferers, investigations into legroom on airlines and a few stories of those who had actually died after a long-haul flight. My point is that the people that you would get in touch with for news stories will also be able to give you good leads for writing feature articles. So, who are these people, anyway?

Media research shows that most reporting is based on a limited range of sources. The main ones include politicians and government officials, the courts, the emergency services (police, ambulance, fire) and hospitals, the representatives of local businesses and industries and the unions. Other good places to look for information are schools and universities, churches, local clubs and societies, the military and national pressure groups and charities.

Much of the information that will spark a feature idea comes in the form of a press release, saying what that organisation or individual is planning. These days, most press releases are available on the internet (often on the organisation's or individual's own website), and are therefore relatively easy to find. Press releases usually have a name, number or email of someone you can contact for further information. Once you've actually got past the PR person to the person who has the information you want, try to get their direct number and email and make a note of it. The next time you've got a similar subject to cover, you've got a ready-made, friendly source.

As a writer, your contacts book is one of your most valuable resources. Be obsessive about collecting contact details for people you meet or speak to, even if you can't see how they will be useful. You never know when a chance encounter will lead to something useful. A former colleague of mine overheard a conversation and was able to break a story about a company that was up for sale. So make sure you get email addresses, web addresses and phone numbers (as well as physical addresses and fax numbers, just in case). Keep in touch with your contacts (a friendly email every so often) so that your name stays in their mind.

Contacts who can give you work

You should collect the same details for people who might be able to hire you. If you belong to writer's forums or if you blog, then you'll probably get lots of leads from other writers who have found places that are hiring. Even if they don't want what you're looking for right now, keep the details so that you can query about other writing. Again, you never know where the next commission is going to come from. My most recent paying gig came from one of my ex-students who wanted me to review a charity concert he'd organised. A few hours listening to music, food laid on and I got paid fairly for my 500-word review. Now, that can't be bad, can it?

I write for Constant Content

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Don’t Do It! How To Improve Your News Writing

My first news story came back with red pen scribbled all over it. The editor told me to go away and start again. I blinked back the tears, held my tongue and rewrote the story. Over next few months of my career in journalism, my work was red-penned again and again, though slightly less each time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write, but I hadn’t yet learned to write a news story. About six months in, I handed a story to the editor and waited for the inevitable rewriting advice. To my surprise, it came back to me with a grunt, but with no red marks on it. I’d finally learned how I should craft a news story. Here are 12 points which may improve your news writing.


1 The headline should say what the story is about and should be short. It usually encapsulates the information in the lead. If it doesn’t, start again.

Intro and structure

2 Remember the 6Ws.
3 Lead with the most important information.
4 Pay attention to structure. Make it logical, so that readers can follow events easily.

Style, tone and content

5 Make sure the style and content are appropriate for your target publication.
6 Keep sentences short, clear and simple wherever possible.
7 Avoid passive constructions – active sentences bring the news to life.
8 Check spelling of names you’re not sure about
9 Don’t editorialize – news should be about facts, not opinion.
10 Try to avoid repetition – one mention is usually enough for each fact.


11 Don’t believe the hype – are you being sceptical enough?
12 Proofread your work for inconsistencies in spelling, grammar and tenses

Monday, January 23, 2006

Getting On The Net

I've previously outlined four reasons why freelance writers need a website, including the crucial aspect of branding. Here are some of the aspects you need to consider if you decide to get one.

1. First of all, you need to choose a domain name. This should reflect the product or service you're going to offer. When I chose my doublehdesign.com domain name, I was planning to capitalize on my experience in doing desktop publishing and a few small business websites, so it seemed to make sense to have design in the domain name. The 'doubleh' was for the initials of my surname. On reflection, that was a poor choice. I didn't think about it enough. The reasons it's a poor choice are:

  • I always have to spell it out
  • I've decided I don't want to focus on design work but on writing

That’s why two months ago, I also purchased sharonhurleyhall.com (my name is my brand, remember) which at the moment redirects to doublehdesign.com. At some point, I plan to switch them round so that sharonhurleyhall becomes the main one, but at the moment I don't want to waste all the traffic I've generated.

2. Once you've decided on the perfect domain name, you'll need to register it. You can do this through your hosting provider. Nominet provides a good guide to some of the issues to consider. Rosalind Gardner recommends GoDaddy for cheap domain registration. You don't have to have registration and hosting from the same provider, but if you don't you need to make sure that you can transfer the domain name cheaply or free.

3. For the professional look, pay for hosting. Although there are lots of companies that offer 'free' hosting, you'll still end up paying. Either they'll use your space to advertise their products, add their name to yours or you'll pay an invisible price through loss of features. (One of the hosting providers used by one of the business sites I manage only allows dialup access, so uploading is slow and painful).

I use Dataflame, but there are thousands of providers out there. The main feature to look for is 99.9% uptime; that means your site will almost always be available. Mine hasn't gone down since I've had the domain name. You'll need to look for easy web-based management (including webmail), good statistics (for tracking who your visitors are, where they're coming from, what they're looking at and how long they're staying), large bandwidth limit (especially if you're going to have large media files on your site), and unlimited email addresses. The single most useful feature I've found with my hosting provider is a catchall email address. That allows me to create an email address on the fly and to block it later if it starts being spammed. This works well with Mozilla Thunderbird’s Virtual Identity extension.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Keeping Track Of Your Writing

As a freelance writer, you should be writing regularly and submitting your work to as many places as will take it. If you're doing that, you'll need to keep track of what you've submitted, when and to whom.

Now, I didn't have a huge software budget when I started submitting my work, so I did some research and found a submissions tracker you can get for free. It's called WriteAgain from Asmoday Enterprises.

WriteAgain manages projects, markets and contacts, submissions and deadlines. I've been using it for about seven months and haven't used all the features yet, but here's what I've done with it:

  • I have started a project file for an article series. Each time I complete an article I add it to the series
  • I have input the titles and genres of all my articles, stories and other writing (adding genres as needed)
  • I have put contact details for all the publishers to whom I have submitted work
  • I have made a note of the date of submission, whether it was email or snail mail and how long it should take for publishers to get back to me.
  • I have viewed submission status reports, which allow me to keep track of all my work (and to decide whether it's time to chase for a response)

The software also includes a time planner, finance manager and market viability reports. A full list of features can be found here.

The software comes in three editions: Professional, Standard and Light. The Light edition will be enough for most people and is free. Why not give WriteAgain a try?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Press Here: Freelance Writing Tip#14

Whether you're publicising your own services or doing a writing job for someone else, as a freelance writer you're likely to be asked to write a press release at some time. Here are the basics of what you need to know.

What is a press release?
A press release is essentially a news story written to interest a specific publication or audience. It consists of three main parts: the headline, the introduction and the body. There may also be a note to editors at the end of the story which contains extra information for those not familiar with your organisation or product.

As with a news story, the intro (lead) is crucial and the facts that you want to organize should answer the who, what, where, when, why questions, right from the start. The press release should sound like a news story, with short sentences and paragraphs. Your story needs a clear angle, and no loose ends.

How do I decide what to put in a press release?
News is essentially about people, as Harold Evans says in The Practice of Journalism:

"news is people. It is people talking and people doing. Committees and cabinets and courts are people; so are fires, accidents and planning decisions. They are only news because they involve and affect people."

It is therefore important to stress the people aspect of your story.

Four other techniques you can use are:

  • controversy - examples could include attacking a government decision, making a prediction about the future or suggesting a new policy
  • conflict - examples include price cuts, fighting for an elected office or a battle for market share
  • novelty value - describe a coincidence, a chance event or a surprising statistic.
  • empathy - show how your product can help the reader, a survey on issues that concern people, provide tips to handling a common problem.

A successful press release should be:

  • relevant to the people it is sent to
  • focused: that is, correctly targeted
  • timely: fitting in with the publication deadlines of the organization you’re sending it to
  • readable: if it bores the person who does the initial read, the chances of getting it published are slim
  • presented in the right format.

Most of all a press release should be news.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Keep It Fresh - Freelance Writing Tip #13

As a freelance writer, your words need to be fit for purpose. One of the ways you can ensure this is by doing adequate research into your target publication. What does the publication claim to be about? Who does it say it caters for? How many people does it reach? Those questions are a good starting point, but you should also ask a few more.

How old are the publication’s readers? What’s their education level? Are they mostly men, women or children? Most of this information can be obtained from the publication’s own website or via a bit of judicious googling.

Having found this information, you’ll then be in a position to write appropriately for your target audience. There are lots of people on this site giving good writing advice and I don’t propose to replicate that here. Some of the people I’ve been reading are:

  • TheScribe24
  • Ed Butts
  • Phantascene
  • red

    However, I will point you to advice given by David Randall (2000) in the Universal Journalist. This is a book I have recommended to all my students over the last five years, because it is easy to read and clearly written. Even students who speak English as a second language have found it accessible.

    Randall suggests that writers should have six aims to keep their writing lively and understandable. These are:

  • Clarity – the story should be clear in your mind (i.e. you should understand what you’re writing about) as well as the reader’s
  • Fresh language – don’t use the same old similes, metaphors and clich├ęs
  • Honesty – lose the hype and let the story stand on its own merits
  • Precision – be meticulous about names, dates, values and quantities
  • Suitability – make sure the style, tone and pace of the story are appropriate for the subject
  • matter (you’d write about a state funeral very differently from a surfing competition)
  • Efficiency – make every phrase count

    This advice from David Randall provides a useful checklist for making an honest assessment of your own writing. No-one gets it right every time (there are some cringe-worthy articles in my own past) but if you make the effort to apply these rules, you’ll be a better writer.

  • Friday, January 13, 2006

    Feature Attractions - Freelance Writing Tip #12

    Many people who decide on the freelance writing life are thinking of writing for magazines. If that's you, then you'll need to know something about feature writing.

    Most feature articles do at least one of four things:

  • Inform
  • Help
  • Entertain
  • Persuade

  • Feature articles have almost as many structures as there are writers. Throw out the inverted pyramid common to news stories or, better yet, turn it upside down, so that your story is building to a big finish.

    Features are stories and should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Think about what you want to say and arrange it in a logical order (not necessarily chronological), so you lead the reader along the path you have in mind.

    As with news stories, the intro (lead) is vital. This is what will draw your readers in. You can start with an example, an anecdote, a scene-setter or a quote from someone you’ve interviewed – anything that will grab the reader’s attention. I once started a feature on the YWCA with the fact that the leader of the Oxford branch had a buzz-cut and roller-skated into work. This is not common in the UK. The intro establishes your authority as a writer to inform the reader – don’t waste that opportunity.

    The middle of your story will contain the bulk of the information, anecdotes, quotes, assessment and analysis, depending on the type of feature article you are writing. This is a good place to include any useful statistics. If you’ve interviewed someone, use their words where possible to tell the story. This will make it lively and engaging.

    Endings should also be planned and shouldn’t be left to chance. This is your last opportunity to impress your reader. You may want to make a contrast with the intro (which should NOT be repeated) or to include a relevant quotation.

    Once you’ve written the story, read it back to yourself to see if it flows or if there are any loose ends to tie up.

    Don’t worry if you’ve got additional information that didn’t fit in the main story. This is the perfect chance to impress an editor. Editors are always looking for added value, so any sidebars or tables a freelance writer can provide will earn brownie points.

    I’ll be looking at feature types and feature preparation in more detail in future tips.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2006

    How I Put My Site On Steroids

    I’ve previously given several good reasons why freelance writers should have a website. Once you’ve got that showcase for you and your work, you’ll need to make sure that people see it. When I launched doublehdesign.com in June 2005, I had 26 unique visitors (and I knew most of those by name) and a paltry 757 hits. By the end of January 2006, that had risen to 620 (Dec: 472) unique visitors and more than 16,000 hits. How did I do it?

    I took some advice. Early last year, my husband bought and downloaded a book that promised to share the secrets of the super-affiliates. These are a handful of people who have made megabucks from the internet. Naturally, I was interested to see how this was done. What I didn’t anticipate was that Rosalind Gardner would show me free ways of increasing traffic to my site and raising my profile.

    So what were the steps I took? First of all, I wrote some free articles for article directories, with a link back to my site. One of the best of these is ezinearticles.com, in my view. Signing up was simple and seven days after writing my first article for them, I appeared in the search results on Google. I also wrote reviews for a number of consumer reviews sites, which I then linked to from my own site.

    I did some keyword research and found the best keywords for my site, using the tools she recommended. I followed some of her advice on site design, though I admit I’ve not implemented that as well as I might. I also got a blog and an RSS feed for my site and submitted both to several directories. I put a search box and a sitemap on the site and made sure there was a place for people to contact me. I also put some free-to-reprint articles on my own site. I also got an Adsense account.

    So far, there’s just one recommendation I haven’t agreed with. Rosalind Gardner recommends Elance as a good place to find freelance work, but it hasn’t worked for me. Guru is far better, in my opinion.

    So what’s the bottom line? Although Rosalind Gardner’s primary aim is to tell you how to build an affiliate marketing business, the content of her Super Affiliate Handbook works just as well for general profile raising. My stats (which have increased even more this month) prove that. And I’m not done yet. Every so often I go back to the book and look for the next step, and when I’ve got more money to spend, I’ll be carrying out some of her other recommendations. I’ll keep you posted.

    Monday, January 9, 2006

    Blogging and Creativity

    I have never been so creative. Since I started blogging here three weeks ago, I’m always thinking of ideas for new posts, usually at two in the morning. Why is that?

    Part of the reason is that blogging frees me from the dictates of an editor’s commission. In other words, I can write what I like, within reason. This doesn’t (for me, at least) mean extended rants, although I’ve enjoyed reading some of the rants published here.

    Blogging is also a good way of testing ideas – sharing the stuff that you think about with others and getting their feedback – sort of like an online editorial or features meeting. This is a key part of offline publishing and I think it lends a lot to online publishing as well. Again, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about what I post. I tend to agree with others that a bit of thought is in order before opening your online mouth.

    The learning that I’m doing here is keeping my mind active and stimulating me to ever more creative thought. I’m not making grand claims. Some of the ideas have been for improvements to my website; others have been ideas for posts; still others for work that I might publish offline.

    For me, this is the continuation of a process that started when I decided to devote all of my working time (currently half the week) to writing, and I’m loving it.

    How has your blogging life affected your other life?

    Friday, January 6, 2006

    Fifty Words: Writing Challenge

    One of the key aspects of writing and journalism training is to be able to write concisely, highlighting the essentials of the subject you want your reader to grasp. This also works well when selling yourself as a writer.

    If you've taken my advice and got yourself a website, you'll want to be able to sell yourself quickly to the thousands of visitors who spend less than 30 seconds on your page. That's why the home page of my website has a short version of my bio, under the heading 'In 50 words or less' (actually it's 47). How would you describe yourself in 50 words or less?

    Monday, January 2, 2006

    Making It As A Freelance Writer - Tip#11 - But First, The News

    In the very first tip in this series I talked briefly about structuring articles. Now it's time to go into that process in a bit more detail, starting with news stories. In many ways, news stories are the building blocks of journalistic writing - and they're quite useful for other forms as well. That's because when you write something, you're telling a story to your readers. A good news story is the simplest way to do that.

    Most journalism theory describes news story structure as an inverted pyramid (or, as I explained to some of my spatially challenged students, an upside down triangle). Apparently, this goes back to the dark days before desktop publishing and digital printing, when newspapers were laid out by a method known as 'cut and paste'. In order to edit a story, you had to literally cut bits out. It therefore made sense for the most important parts of the story to be at the top.

    Because of this, the key part of your story is the intro or lead. This should contain the key elements (known variously as the 5Ws, 5Ws+H or 6Ws). The lead of a news story should tell the reader who is involved, what happened , where it happened , when it happened and how and why it happened. If you don't include those elements, you have no story.

    Brevity is another key feature of news stories, so you should be able to cover those elements in two or three short sentences, which would make up the first couple of paragraphs of the story (as laid out in a typical newspaper). You then need to continue writing. Not surprisingly, there's a handy acronym for this, too. It's called the WHAT formula: what happened, how did it happen, amplify the introduction and tie up loose ends.

    Amplifying the introduction means saying more about the elements mentioned in the intro. This is where you put in any relevant background information. This will vary depending on the angle of your story, so I won't attempt to give examples. Just have a look at your local newspaper and you should get the idea. Once you've included all of this you need to follow the last part of the WHAT formula and tie up loose ends. This means reading your story to see if there's anything you've left out and checking to make sure that readers won't be left with any questions when they've read it.