Category Archives: Priceless Writing Tips for Free

Priceless Writing Tips for Free: Observe Hemingway’s Dictum

Hemingway as a young manHemingway’s dictum for better writing was simple: Run it through the typewriter one more time. We no longer have typewriters but the advice is still sound.

Almost without fail a second draft is better than a first: shorter, smoother and less of a burden on your reader’s attention. What, you don’t have the time to write well? For this item I went through three drafts. 1) I wrote my thoughts down on a legal pad. 2) I typed up the piece on my Powerbook. 3) I left it for a moment, came back and made a few last edits, and I was done.  The whole process took twenty minutes.
Your next paper or report or article can be better than the last one you wrote. Just send it through the word processor one more time.

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How to Write a Successful Query

Last week I appeared on Scott Shafer’s radio program, The California Report, on KQED-FM, and it prompted some thoughts, curiously enough, about query letters.

What’s a query letter? A query letter is basically a short, succinct sales pitch that writers send to newspapers, magazines and websites to see if they’re interested in their idea. If they like the idea, the hope is they’ll hire you to write an article about it. For Scott and The California Report, I was pitching him about appearing on his radio program. This is what I said to him in an e-mail at the start of this year:

“Dear Scott,
How are you? It has certainly been a while since I had contact with you and your staff, but I wanted to throw my name back into the mix as a possible guest for your show. The last time I heard from your staff I was writing a book, Wheels of Change: The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile, which will be published by Heyday Books in the fall of 2009. That book took a huge amount of research and time, but I finally finished it and now I get to think about and do other things again.
The 2009 baseball season is coming up in April, and you may want to do a preseason look at the California major league teams as you have in the past. If you do, consider me as your possible go-to guy in this regard. I’m also tapped into other pro sports and activities with good California stories that may interest you. In any event, I hope all goes well. The show sounds wonderful as ever and let’s have a great 2009.”

Now, I want you to do some compare and contrast. Around this same time (actually, a while before) I sent a query to an editor at The Writer Magazine, pitching him on another type of writing I do: scriptwriting for business conventions. This is what I said:

“Dear Editor,
“Every freelance writer needs to consider business conventions as a possible market for his or her work. A number of companies in a variety of fields hold annual conventions, and many of them hire writers to script the on-stage speeches and other segments. Convention scriptwriting pays well, involves travel around the country, and is both exciting and demanding.
I have written scripts for two business conventions in Kansas City and New Orleans. In addition, I have written articles for a variety of publications and published 17 books. For this article I would draw on my experiences as a scriptwriter and interview other freelancers who have also written for conventions. I will provide details about the business convention market, how freelancers can get jobs at conventions held by Apple, Microsoft and other companies, and advice on scriptwriting. Interested? Call me at [my number], and thank you for your consideration.”

Neither query I would describe as brilliant, but which one is better? The second is professional and to the point; it tells who I am and my experience in the field; and it touches on how writers-the main audience for The Writer-would benefit by hearing about this topic. But the first query is far superior because of two simple words: “Dear Scott.”

I know Scott Shafer, I’ve been on his program before, and he’s a friendly fellow who likes baseball. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to go along with my pitch, but at least I’ve got a fighting chance with him. On the other hand, I know no one at The Writer and sent my query to the “Editor.” (I sent it to the top editor there but for some reason did not use his name.) One sure sign that it had landed with a deathly thud was the nearly three months it took for an associate editor to finally get back to me. But Scott and his producer Suzie Racho, bless their hearts, remembered me, got back in touch, and Scott and I spent an entertaining few minutes on the air giving a preview of the upcoming baseball season in California. I’ll have more nuts-and-bolts advice for writers about queries and pitch letters in a future post. In the meantime you can listen to our segment here.

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Writing with Children in the House

It was a quiet Sunday morning, and in a relaxed and optimistic mood I sat down on our family room couch with a mug of hot black tea, some papers and a pencil, thinking I could grab a few minutes alone to edit a piece I had written.

Then my son Gabe started shooting nerf darts at my head.

This ever happen to you? My sons seem to have built-in radar that tells them when I’m trying to steal some time for myself and do something other than cater to their every whim and desire. This is their cue to pop out of nowhere and shoot nerf darts at me. If you are a writer and a parent as I am—actually, if you run any home-based business or telecommute—it is unavoidable that there will be times when you must work when the children are home with you. How do you get your work done when the li’l darlings are running around fighting and screaming and raising a wild rumpus? I have three children, and here are some things that have worked for me over the years:

Work while they sleep. Before they get up in the morning, after they go to bed, during naptime (that is, if they’re very young and still napping). Getting up early works best for me because I’m fresh and write better in the morning than at the end of the day. But you may be someone who comes on strong after dark. In any case, the house becomes amazingly quiet when the noisemakers aren’t making noise.

Expect interruptions. You can plug your kids into the television or a movie or the Wii—and this certainly buys me valuable time, especially if the crunch is on and I’ve got a tight deadline to make. But even with a house full of these miraculous electronic babysitters, my sons still find ways to interrupt me. I am perpetually stopping to do something for them—fix a snack or clean up the plate they’ve broken while trying to fix their own snacks. Once I’m done dealing with whatever crisis they’ve created, I go back to work.

Go easy on yourself. Working at either end of the day, and in small blocks of time during it while being interrupted, you simply cannot get the same amount of work done than if you had the full day to yourself. A job that might take a day or two in a nine-to-five schedule might take a week or more. I try to keep that in mind when I set deadlines for myself or agree to a deadline with a client.

Have a Plan B. Sometimes I start the day with a work plan in mind; my sons have a different plan in mind, however, forcing me to be nimble-footed. After Gabe appeared with his nerf gun my editing ended and I switched over to roughing out this blog longhand. If a child invades your office and refuses to leave, maybe she can play on your computer while you do something that doesn’t require as much concentration, such as filing.

Strike a balance between work and play. Some days I work hard in the morning when the boys are plugged into electronics, then take the afternoon off and spend it with them. If you give fully of yourself when you’re with your children and they’ve gotten a good dose of you, they’re often willing to release you for a little while so you can be in another part of the house alone. (No guarantees, of course. Nothing works for long or all the time with small children.)

Fit your kids into your work life. Many an afternoon I have spent sitting on a park bench reading or editing while my sons have played. For my upcoming book on cars, Wheels of Change, I often took my sons on research trips to car and truck museums and other places I was interested in seeing. And they often came up with questions that I didn’t think to ask because they look at things from a different perspective than I do. If you have more of a fictional bent, see your children and family life as the raw stuff for your novel. What can be perceived as a negative—all the demands that children make and how they distract you from your work—becomes a positive. Spending time with them does not detract from your writing but instead enriches it.

But don’t kid yourself. Even if you find ways to grab time for yourself with the rugrats constantly underfoot, you will need at some point to work in a sustained manner on your writing. The kids must go to school or daycare or your spouse or parents must take them on the weekends to give you longer stretches of time alone. Being a writer does not just require a room of your own, as Virginia Woolf so famously said. You also need uninterrupted time in which to work and think. Go to that room regularly, get that time, and then when you emerge you can embrace your family and children, nerf guns and all.

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Stating My Brief

Let the trumpets blare: This is my first blog on my brand new deluxe author’s website. Tra la la!

Never having blogged before, I am naturally reading lots of stuff online and getting to know the work of fellow travelers in the blogosphere. I have even looked at a few self-help articles for bloggers.

One of the imperatives of blogging, they say, is to be brief. Net surfers hop from site to site and do not have the time or inclination to tarry for long. One should therefore write bite-sized nuggets in the traditional pyramid style of the old, nearly obsolete medium of newspapers, with the most important information contained in a catchy lead and the less important stuff following after, according to its priority.

I am sure this is good advice and I plan to follow it. But writing short, and doing it well, is not as easy as one might be led to believe. As Mark Twain said (or was reputed to have said; Twain is sort of like Yogi Berra, always getting credit for things he probably never said), “I don’t have the time to be brief.” Writing short and well can take a long time. Anyone can be sketchy and shallow and formulaic. The trick is to be brief—and interesting. Boring your readers is a far greater sin than taking their time.

Two vows: I promise never to overstay my welcome in this blog. And, to the best of my abilities, I promise to be interesting, stimulating, entertaining and compelling (and when I am not, I encourage you to let me know about it in the comments section. But for heaven’s sake, please be brief!)

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