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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How WritingUp Helped Me Get A Writing Job

It's no secret that I love being on WritingUp (despite the frustrating downtime) - and now I've got one more reason to love it. I've said elsewhere that blogging is good for writers. One of the reasons is because it gives them a chance to show off their writing skills. The other benefit comes with having a thriving blogging community, where you can network and make contacts. But enough of the preamble. This is how WritingUp helped me find a writing job.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the site, when I found a remark made by gracepub on someone's post. (No, I have no hope of ever finding it again.) That led me to her blog where I discovered the InspiredAuthor site, which was looking for writers at the time. The site is relaunching as a free information site for all writers, with an emphasis on providing help, tips and free online courses. Here's what InspiredAuthor says:

Anyone can become a published author. It only takes determination and a little know how. That is where inspiredauthor can help.

No memberships, no fees, and no enrollment is required. Learn to write fiction, non-fiction, articles, and short stories from hundreds of articles, free online courses, and free tutorials. Twenty-four hour access to Topic Editors, published authors and freelance writers, who can answer questions and answer both fiction and non-fiction writing questions.

I emailed in for more details and discovered that InspiredAuthor was looking for topic editors for the site - and had seen and liked the stuff that I'd written on this blog. So now I'm managing a topic for the site, on freelance writing. Canny readers will recognise some of my blog posts in the articles that are already up (another reason that blogging's good for writers), but I've also written new content, which I'll link to in my sig once it's up.

As part of the deal, I also get to manage a forum thread (on freelance writing, what else?) to answer people's questions. This bit is new to me (I've posted on forums but never run one) so any tips would be welcome.

Anyway, I'm having a great time writing as much as I can, and I've got even more reason to keep blogging here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Without Word: Free Online Tools For Writers

I'm just starting a new gig for a writing website. (Sneak preview is available here.) While I was checking over my articles, I noticed that some strange characters had appeared in the text. I knew immediately that the error came from Microsoft Word. Word is one of the best of Microsoft's programs, but all its functionality relies on special codes which usually mess up your formatting. (Don't, whatever you do, write and upload HTML pages from Word. Your code will be messy and will break in some browsers.) I've known this for a long time, which is why I usually use Notepad or Wordpad to write my articles. However, both these programs have two major failings: no spell-check and no word count.

Now, wordcount is the most useful tool in Word, IMHO, because writers, editors and publishers always need to know how long a piece of writing is. What I normally do to avoid the problems caused by Word is compose in Notepad or Wordpad, paste into Word to spellcheck and count the words, and paste back into Wordpad or Notepad. As I found out today, that doesn't work quite as well as I thought it did.

Instead of tearing my hair out, I got on the net and found two tools that appear to solve the problem. A free online spellcheck is available from spellcheck.net and a free online word counter can be found at allworldphone.com.

I can't make any grand claims about these two services, as I've used them only once each, but they did what I needed at the time. And I'm sure there won't be any strange characters in my next batch of articles.

And by the way, if you want a program that saves in rich text format automatically (no funny characters), and has a built in spellcheck and word count, you could do worse than Jarte. And it's free, too!

My Squidoo Lens On Website Promotion

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Feel The Fear ...

Everyone's afraid of something. I've always felt confident about writing articles and I know that one day I will finish my novel. Yet despite writing lots of poems, I'd never shared them with anyone. Part of the reason was that I could still remember the voice of my snooty English teacher. She tended to play favourites, and I was definitely in the OUT crowd. But when she repeatedly slated the poems I wrote as assignments, I decided never to show them to anyone, a promise I kept for about 20 years. But then something changed. And it wasn't the poems, it was me.

A few years ago I had a friend and fellow writer staying at my house. She's someone I've known for years, whose opinion I respect. We did a kind of 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours' thing. I read some of her poems and she read some of mine. She thought they were good, and that gave me the courage to show them to a few family members.

Fast forward to 2006 and I still had done nothing with my store of 50 poems. (The only exception were a couple that were inspired by particular people. In those cases I showed them the poems before putting them away). I looked at them again and decided to risk submitting some of them to a couple of poetry mags. I heard nothing - still haven't. Then one day, I needed something for my blog urgently and I published one of my poems. A couple of days later, I got an invitation to join Todays-Woman.net (a writing group). I was elated, signed up and posted a couple of poems, to which I got a great response. Encouraged by that, I posted Gratitude here (97 reads and counting).

So when Katryn published a call for submissions to RITRO, I decided to go for it. It was hard to let my babies go, but to date, I've submitted three poems and all three have been accepted. I'll post a link when they're up.

My point is that if you want to get your work published, you'll have to show it to someone other than the cat and dog. So why don't you have a look at all your unpublished work, pick one thing you're really happy with and send it off somewhere. What have you got to lose?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ask A Stupid Question ...

Even on holiday, I couldn't stop thinking about my blog. I knew it was in good hands, but I kept having ideas for blog posts. One particular incident made me think of revisiting a post I did on interviewing. In that post I gave the following advice about interview preparation:

Interview preparation recap

  • People want to read about other people
  • Preparation is key
  • Go with the flow
  • Use both a notebook and a recording device
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Don't be afraid to look stupid

So what did I forget? Before I tell you, let me backtrack to a week ago. I was in Barbados

Learning from my mistake

Before I tell you, let me backtrack to a week ago. I was in Barbados and had to go to one of the government departments there to collect a piece of paper. I arrived bright and early and asked to see the person I needed to see (let's call her Miss F). My name was put on a list and I sat and waited. Even with the famously slow pace within such departments, I thought I could get out within half and hour. No such luck. When I'd been there an hour, I returned to the front window and asked for Miss F again. It was then I discovered my original mistake, because Miss F wasn't there. Instead of asking if I could see her (which I could), I should have asked if she was there (which she wasn't). Had I asked the correct question the first time, I could have done something else and returned when she was there. As it was, Miss F turned up just after I'd been to the window for the second time and I was ushered inside for another wait.

So what does this have to do with freelance writing and interviewing? Simply this. Asking the right question will get you an answer that will help you. Asking the wrong question may well waste your time - as it did mine.

And by the way, you don't need to get paranoid about interviewing. A bit of preparation will help you ask the right questions most of the time.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Would you pay $900 for a book?

You would have realized from my posts that I’m all about “the job�?. Preparing for it. Landing it. Keeping it. Getting paid for it. Today, I thought I’d write about “being good at it�?. So as I cast about in my mind for how to handle today’s topic, I was inspired by an amazing book that would help me stick to my theme of excellence in copywriting: “Breakthrough Advertising�? by Eugene M. Schwartz.

It’s one of the greatest, most sought after books ever written about the craft of copywriting (apparently a used copy was recently sold online for over $900.00)…by one of the most legendary copywriters in the world (it is rumored that Schwartz was once paid $54, 000.00 for 4 hours of work.)

Is the hype valid? Who knows? But I do know that it has helped me “up my game�?, and especially improve my headlines. In fact “Breakthrough Advertising�? gives over 35 creative ways to strengthen headlines. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Measure the SIZE of the claim: (lighter, bigger)
2. Measure the SPEED of the claim: (faster)
3. COMPARE the claim: (less, more, whiter, easier)
4. SENSITIZE the claim: (appeal to taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing)
5. REMOVE LIMITATIONS from the claim: (no effort required)
6. Tie AUTHORITY into the claim: (used by the pros)
7. Stress the NEWNESS of the claim: (announcing, now, new)
8. Stress the EXCLUSIVITY of the claim: (not available anywhere else)

Of course, Schwartz gives lots of actual headline examples in the book, so if you’re ever stumped, you’ll get tons of ideas to start the creative juices flowing. “Breakthrough Advertising�? really is an excellent how-to for anyone who writes direct mail or advertising copy for a living.

Three Post Scripts:

1. I’m still working on my headlines. They are always a challenge.
2. One of my favorite “real world�? headlines: Gone today. Hair Tomorrow. For a hair transplant doctor. Priceless.
3. No. I did not pay $900.00 for the book. I got it in my company bookstore for $2.00!

©Lisa Downer 2006

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

How To Build A Portfolio That Gets You The Job

Freelancing is tough. What’s even tougher? Finding that perfect job on craigslist…and then realizing you have no samples to send.

So do yourself a favor, build a portfolio.

Here are my top 5 tips for showcasing your clips:


The First Shall Be First

Lead with your strongest work. One killer campaign is better than hundreds of mediocre efforts.


Poll The Audience

Not sure which are your best pieces? Ask. Canvas qualified industry contacts, fellow-writers, former professors…they’ll be happy to help. Every piece should be a blockbuster.



Choose clips that match the position you’re looking for. This establishes that you are serious, and have at least a basic understanding of tailoring message to audience. This’ll get you closer to the top of the client’s shortlist.


Matchy-Matchy #2

Use a portfolio format that matches your desired job as well. Applying to be an interactive copywriter? Use an online portfolio complete with web links. For a job that’s targeted to print, it’s easier to get away with printed samples (although you should have electronic copies/PDFs just in case).


Save Me!

Save like a maniac. Save every single thing that you work on. Be completely obsessive. Create a master file, and maintain it like a librarian. If you have only one original, make copies. So when you find the next dream job, look through your master file first, then start again at point number 1.

© Lisa Downer 2006

Sunday, March 12, 2006

What the Heck Happened?

Has this ever happened to you? You submit the best copy you’ve ever written. On time, too. You feel really good about your work. Got a good vibe from the client…and then they never call you back. What the heck happened?

Read on and weep.

The Proof Is In the Proofing

Take the tale of the copywriter who didn’t want to proofread her own work. I know. Gasp of horror. She wrote waaaaaay to much copy, submitted it to the designer, and figured her job was done. Once the designer had the copy in full layout, he requested that the copywriter proof it to make sure that it all still made sense. She refused. “Put it through Copyedit,�? says she. Alrighty-then. We most definitely will. Only problem is, the designer that this copywriter pissed off was the ACD (Associate Creative Director). You know: the person who makes the hiring decisions. So this smarty-pants saved herself a few minutes of doing what’s actually her job to do, and sassed herself out of potentially thousands of dollars in income in the future. Bottom Line: Proof your work. Write. Revise. Fine tune. Submit. Revise. Re-Submit. PROOF. It’s your job. So do it. Then submit to Copyedit.

Type A, B, C…

This is the tale of the copywriter who thought he was a designer. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s actually good for a copywriter to have input into the layout. But that’s more useful once there’s a, you know, design. This creative soul submitted his copy deck complete with every single font style and size that Word contains: Algerian. Brittanic. Curlz. You get the idea. Very, very distracting. Not to mention extremely difficult to read. Did we hire him as a designer? Noooooooooo. We hired him as a writer. And the thing of it is, we briefed him in advance of our submission requirements. Font size 12. Times New Roman. No bells, whistles, or, heaven forbid, Curlz. Bottom Line: Follow instructions and keep it simple. Do the job you were hired to do, and let the designer do theirs.

I could go on, but you already get the point. It really is the not-so-little little things that count. There are many more tales where this came from, but I’m interested to hear yours. Do have any horror-stories to share? Let me know.


© Lisa Downer 2006

Friday, March 10, 2006

How To Write Copy That Pays The Bills - Part 2

O.k. Students, in yesterday’s lecture we covered the importance of research, the supremacy of “the offer�?, and the necessity of clarifying the response mechanism. You are now one step closer to writing money-making copy!

Once you’ve laid the groundwork, here are your next steps:

4. Decide concept and format. What’s your slant? If, for example, you’re promoting a book about controlling blood sugar, do you go the serious “diabetes health report�? route? The indulgent “eat anything you want—even sweet desserts�? route? Perhaps the “Glycemic index�? slant? How about the vanity/weight loss approach? (Here is where you use your research to determine prevailing consumer interests/POV) Will your copy be long-form-full-disclosure, short and teasing, or a mixture of both? Deciding your point of view and format up front make it easier for you to craft copy that speaks to the consumer in the way that will make them place the order. Use your research or test results from previous rollouts to figure out what they respond to best, and write in that style. Speaking of which…

5. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. The copy is the single most important element. Shoddy copy usually results in suppressed response. In addition to the offer you also need to focus on benefits. The question you’re answering is “What’s in it for me?�? This is what every prospect/buyer wants to know. Other vital elements: powerful headline and sub-heads, scannable copy with lots of white space for easy reading, numerous hotlinks. People often only read headlines and bolded copy, so make sure that your headlines and subheads tell a cohesive, compelling story on their own. Make sure your call to action is prominent and powerful. Dumb it down. Use complex words for your novel. For direct mail, keep them short and sweet: call, free, gift, order, phone, now, today, free, free, free. Did I mention free?

6. Rinse and repeat. So your campaign rolled out, the orders rolled in, you cashed your cheque, and now you’re on to the next client. They need the deliverables yesterday. (Isn’t that always the case?) The great thing is, you now have a winning format/formula that you can apply to multiple jobs.

This is not an excuse to get lazy—the copy must still be snappy, zingy, on-brand, and on-strategy. But there’s nothing better than knowing you have a template to follow when it’s the midnight before your full copy deck is due…and you haven’t yet started. In this case, repetition is good.

© Lisa Downer 2006

Thursday, March 9, 2006

How To Write Copy That Pays The Bills - Part 1

As a freelancer, there’s nothing sweeter than hearing: Congratulations! You’ve got the job.

Except maybe for being told: Your copy was so on target last time, we want to extend your contract.

You smile, nod and shake hands with your new employer, all the while dreaming in delighted relief of the car you can now afford, iPod you can justify buying, or, more practically, light bill you can finally pay.

So how do you, the freelance writer, best leverage this potentially lucrative income-stream?

How do you write copy that puts YOU at the top of your clients’ callback list?

All you have to do is follow these simple rules:

1. Research, Research, Research. Boring, but crucial. Use your client’s creative brief, or develop your own. Clarify objectives. Identify the USP (unique selling proposition). Ask questions. Acquire samples. Google like crazy. Even (if people still do this) go to your local library and do some reading. Lexis-Nexis is your friend. Get the picture? This is the basic black underwear of your writing wardrobe. Not sexy, but absolutely necessary. Well-conducted research gives you greater insight into your client, their brand, their consumer/target, market trends, and more, and is the foundation for on-strategy copy. And on-strategy copy is what gets you repeat business. Repeat business pays the bills. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

2. Clarify the offer. Remember at all times that you are not selling the product, YOU ARE SELLING THE OFFER! The offer is what piques prospects’ interest and gets them one step closer to the purchase. Sometimes, the offer is the product (client sells 10 widgets, customer pays $10.00). Often it is not. Again, this is a good thing. Once your client has the good sense to offer a FREE trial, FREE gift, FREE shipping, buy one get one FREE (get the hint?), this gives you a tool to pull the target customer in with. A pull is always an easier sell than a push. So sell the offer. Not everybody wants widgets, but everybody loves free stuff. Never underestimate the power of greed.

3. Clarify the response mechanism. This really should be covered in your creative brief, but if for some reason it isn’t, you need to be absolutely clear on how you want customers and prospects to reply. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to give your client their money. They’re asking: “How do I get my free stuff?�? and you’re saying: “Here’s how. It’s really easy�?. Here’s where you give prominence to phrases like: Call 1-800-xxx-xxxx today! Order now, or go to www.asdfjkl.com more info! Click here to claim your free gift! Sit back and watch the orders come rolling in.

So there you go. You’re ready to start your first draft, so get to work.

Come back to the blog tomorrow for more tips on how to craft effective DM copy that pays your bills!

Monday, March 6, 2006

Stop Blinking At Me

Two weeks ago, my sister, Sharon, asked me to write some posts on her blog for her while she's on holiday in Barbados. "Sure", I said. "No problem". (After all, how hard could it be? I write for a living).

Only thing was…I couldn't think of a thing to write about. So here I am. It's like two days before she leaves. Still nothing.

Nothing but the blinking cursor.

The silence from Sharon's end (but for the one strained email reminder she permitted herself) is deafening.

On my end? Garbled, panicked, incoherent thoughts: shootshootshootI'll never






But the assignment remains…

So here goes. Here are my very un-scientific techniques for overcoming writer's block.

The very first thing you do when you have writer's block is:

1. Write. You've heard that before, right? Probably rolled your eyes then, just like you're doing now. I mean, how cliché is that? But that is truly the only solution to the problem. Unless there are words on your screen, or on your page, there is nothing to edit, critique, love, revise, accidentally lose, or intentionally delete. So write. Write something. Write anything. All the stuff you wanted to say, but felt you couldn't because your spouse, boss, teacher, editor, mother, whoever, would disapprove. It really doesn't matter what you write at this stage, because this is for your eyes only. The aim is to GET SOMETHING ON THE PAGE.

2. Get inspired. By a change of scene…cool music…a stiff drink…good, old-fashioned desperation…all of the above…whatever works for you. For freelancers this last motivator (desperation) is particularly effective. You don't work, you don't get paid. Magically the words appear. It's that simple.

3. Read. Preferably something trashy and sensationalistic. National Enquirer (News of the World?) springs to mind. Anything to get the juices flowing—and give your eyes a break from the blinking cursor. Being confronted (or affronted) by crap makes your inner Shakespeare come to the fore. It's an ego thing. I mean, you know you can do better than that…and so you do.

4. Hydrate. Caffeine works best. Being buzzed always helps.

One final thought: Persevere, but keep it light. Play. Make it a game. Think of yourself as a 3-year-old batting at a piñata. Keep at it, and eventually the good stuff will come out.

My proof that it works? I just completed my first blog post.

© Lisa Downer 2006

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Keeping It In The Family

When I decided to go away for a few days I couldn't bear the thought of leaving my blog unattended, so I got permission from John (Admin) to have a guest blogger.

Choosing a guest blogger is a serious undertaking, especially on WritingUp where I have to reveal my password for the blogger to post. I had to think of someone I could trust implicitly, who wouldn't get involved in clickfraud and who could write about writing. I didn't have too far to look to meet all the criteria.

My sister Lisa is a copywriter and songwriter. She'll be sharing her writing and internet marketing expertise here at WritingUp and doing more general writing at my Writing Lab. This is the first time Lisa is blogging (so she might need advice on a couple of formatting things), but I've had a sneak preview of some of her posts and she's got some good stuff planned. She'll take over temporarily from next Monday or Tuesday for about 10 days. And if you like her stuff, the good news is that I'm trying to persuade her to write regularly on the Writing Lab blog. Just keeping it in the family.

Back soon!


Friday, March 3, 2006

Don't Waste My Time - A Mini-Rant

In my other life I taught journalism and media at university. Gracepub's post on people passing off classics as their own work and a conversation with her reminded me one of my pet peeves.

Plagiarism is one of the banes of a teacher's life. Stupid plagiarism especially. What do I mean by stupid plagiarism? The kind where you'd have to have your head in the clouds to miss it. The kind where there is nothing to suggest that the student in question has applied even a small bit of brain power to the essay question.

So here's my advice to those students:

  • If you don't speak English very well and turn in a paper of PhD standard, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If you are living in the UK, but all your quotes refer to the US from an insider's viewpoint, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If your writing style, spelling and grammar change from paragraph to paragraph, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If you copy something from one of the set books (which I've probably read 100 times) and try to pass it off as your own, I will find plagiarism.
  • If you copy something from my lecture notes and pretend it's your own, I will KNOW you have plagiarised, since I wrote the original content.

And here's a heads-up: lecturers use Google too. If you can find something to copy by using a search engine, I can find it too. And even the essays that you have to pay for can be found in Google's cache.

Plagiarism wastes my time. When I suspect it, I have to spend a long time searching for the sources, printing them out, marking them on the student's essay and then jumping through the necessary university hoops to prove it. That involves meeting with the student, another colleague, the head of department and the school registrar. All of this gives me less time to spend on reading and research, and on marking essays from the hundreds of other students who have put some effort in and done some work.

I almost felt sorry for one student, though. We set up a meeting to discuss the 'substantial unacknowledged sources' in her work (in university-speak, it doesn't become plagiarism till it's been proven) and she was obviously in shock. It turned out she'd 'borrowed' some work from a friend at another university. And this friend had managed to plagiarise without being caught.

I know that in some cultures copying from the best is normal. I know that some students panic because they feel they don't speak the language well enough to present their ideas clearly. My advice to those students is to talk to your teachers. We're there to help.

I also know that some students approach university education cynically and will make the ride as easy as they can. But plagiarism is taking someone else's content without permission and passing it off as your own. If you did that with my car or my money, it would be considered stealing. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Why Should I Care? The Values of News

You may not know they're there, but they guide every piece of news you read, watch or listen to. The people who prepare the news probably don't think about them either.

What does it take for a story to make the news? Not every event that happens makes the news. In fact, you may sometimes wonder why certain events get more prominence than others. The answer lies in some research published by two Swedish sociologists, Galtung and Ruge. Galtung and Ruge came up with a list of factors that need to apply for events to make the news. They called these factors news values.

How does this help me?

As a freelance writer, if you want to sell a news story to a paper or magazine, the first eight news values could help you to craft it correctly. The same applies if you are writing a press release. Have you ever asked yourself these questions? (Applicable news values are in brackets.)

  • Am I submitting at the right time to get published? (frequency, composition, consonance)
  • Have I told the story clearly? (unambiguity)
  • Is the story important to my audience? (threshold, meaningfulness, continuity, unexpectedness)

If you have, then you're already using news values. And you didn't even have to think about them.

What are news values?

Here's the list:

1. Frequency. This refers to the time taken by an event. An event is more likely to be reported if it happens at a time that fits in with publication deadlines. Worrying, but true.

2. Threshold. How big is the event and how many people have been affected? If only a few are affected, we may never hear about the event at all.

3. Unambiguity. How clear is the event? Can the reporter tell it easily without confusing the reader, viewer or listener? Is it a complex event or a simple one?

4. Meaningfulness. This is divided into cultural proximity (are the people in the news 'people like us'?) and relevance (does what's happening affect us?)

  • Example: If you live in the US and a disaster happens in the US, it's news. If you live in the US and a disaster happens in India, it may be news if US citizens are involved or if thousands are dead.

5. Consonance. If we already think it's newsworthy (such as a royal wedding or presidential funeral) then it probably is.

6. Unexpectedness. An unexpected or rare event will make the news.

7. Continuity. This relates to a running story. Once something is on news agenda it will stay there for a while. Examples are court cases or issues such as road safety.

8. Composition. This relates to mixing different events for balance. You would have a mixture of domestic and international news; or a mixture of political and human interest news, for example. If you've ever wondered why newscasts often end with fluffy kitten stories, that's the reason.

More news values

Galtung and Ruge didn't stop there. They found a few more news values applied mainly in the West (though I think they are more common everywhere). These are:

9. Reference to elite nations. Countries in the 'developed' world usually make the news at the expense of those in 'developing' countries. So wars, elections and disasters in economic and cultural superpowers make the news wherever you are.

10. Reference to elite persons. This is to do with the cult of celebrity. Stars, major politicians, royalty make the news by virtue of their status, whether they've done anything newsworthy or not.

11 Personalization. This refers to a tendency to emphasize people rather than faceless structures. In the UK, news tends to mention Tony Blair rather than the Labour party he heads.

12. Negativity. We always hear that bad news is good news and this is what Galtung and Ruge found. Nothing sells a paper or grabs viewers like a disaster.

These news values give a guide to the events and people that make the news. The more of these criteria an event matches, the more likely it is to survive the selection process. The news values also affect the priority a story is given. The more news values apply to a story, the more prominent it will be.

If you examine the news that is published and broadcast, you'll find that Galtung and Ruge got it right. Not bad for research that's 33 years old.