Tips for Creating an Online Portfolio for Your Writing Business

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Whether you’re beginning your career as a writer or you’ve been writing professionally for a while, you’ll want to show off your best work. That’s where an online portfolio can help you present your best pieces.

According to The Free Dictionary, a portfolio is a collection of works or documents that are representative of a person’s skills and accomplishments. It’s one of the most important marketing tools you have to demonstrate the type of work you can do for potential clients. It’s in your professional interest to make your online portfolio look as clean and compelling as you can.

If you’ve never had a portfolio, you might feel unsure about how to create one. Or perhaps you have one but it hasn’t been updated in several years. Consider this a primer on portfolio management.

Basic tips for creating your portfolio

The following tips from The Vault and Make a Living Writing can help you get started.

  1. Understand the purpose of your portfolio. What do you want to achieve with it? Are you using it to look for a job or to apply to graduate school? Are you trying to build your brand and find new freelance clients? Whatever the purpose you decide will determine what types of samples you should include in your online portfolio.
  2. Know your audience. If your audience is comprised of non-profit groups, you may want to include a few samples of work you’ve done for other non-profit organizations. If your audience is made up of professionals, such as insurance agents, CPAs and attorneys, you’ll want to include samples that contain content for those groups. Know who your audience is and what they are looking for. Then tailor your portfolio to your specific niche or ideal client.
  3. Curate the best and most relevant samples. Make sure your samples you choose represent the best quality work you’ve done. Your collection should also showcase the type of work you’d like to do in the future. The best quality projects will speak for themselves with little or no introduction from you.
  4. Include a brief introduction to each sample. The intro may be helpful so visitors understand the why of the project. Not everyone will get it with just a visual link alone. Besides, the introduction gives you a chance to show of your copywriting skills.
  5. Don’t overcrowd the portfolio. Keep the site neat and tidy so it’s easy to see the samples. Focus on quality, not quantity. Ten high-quality pieces may be more appealing to potential clients than 30 that are mediocre.
  6. Use thumbnail sized images. Smaller images take up less space on your site, making it appear more neat and clean, and more appealing to visitors. While having a list of links, (which many writers maintain for its simplicity, including yours truly), providing images adds visual interest. 
  7. Make sure you keep your portfolio updated. As you complete projects and get fresh clips, you’ll want to add them to your portfolio. In addition, you’ll want to review your portfolio every six months to one year to make sure it’s current.

But what if I’m starting out and don’t have many clips to show?

If you’re new to copywriting or freelancing and don’t have many clips, start with the few you do have and slowly build from there. Experts suggest beginners create a few samples of their own, such as a newsletter or blog post. Another possible suggestion is to offer copywriting services to local businesses, such as revamping their website with fresh copy or creating a newsletter for a non-profit group. Yet another strategy is to pitch stories to websites you’d like to write for to add to your portfolio once they’re published.

For some outstanding examples of online portfolios, check out these on portfolio site Format.com.

Your portfolio can be created on your own website, which most writers I know prefer to do. Sites like Squarespace and WordPress offer a portfolio layout. You can also check out the various external portfolio sites, such as clippings.me, pressfolios.com or Contently.com.

When you’re done creating your online portfolio, remember to promote it everywhere you have a profile. Include a link on your LinkedIn profile, on your emails underneath your signature and on your business card, if you have one.

When you’re building your writing business, your portfolio will reveal much about your experience and capabilities. So make sure your portfolio look its best.  

For more suggestions about setting up your online portfolio, check out these articles:

The Muse: 4 Secrets to Building a Portfolio That’ll Make Everyone Want to Hire You
The Balance: Your Writing Portfolio

Is an MFA Program in Your Future?

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Like many writers, I’ve often wondered if I would benefit from attending an MFA program to boost my writing capabilities. An MFA degree – Master of Fine Arts – gives writers an intensive educational experience about the writing craft. Did I have the desire to go back to school, to go through the application process? And did I want to spend money I really didn’t have on a program I wasn’t sure would help my career?

For me, the answer was no. I’ve been fortunate to find numerous workshops and classes about writing so I never felt compelled to apply for an MFA program. Other writers I know have found the MFA to be a valuable asset in their careers. BUT an MFA is not for everyone.

Before you take that leap, there are several factors to consider, such as costs, location, and the type of program. As of 2019, there were 158 full residency programs in the U.S. and 64 low-residency programs, according to Poets & Writers magazine. Full residency programs require students to be on-site and attend classes full-time. In a low residency program, students might need to attend sessions at the university location over a 10-day stretch twice a year while they work on their own the rest of the time. Some programs even offer class sessions abroad.

Every year more programs are launched. With so much to choose from, it can be difficult to know what to look for. Worse, there are tons of articles written on this subject. I’ve done some initial research for you here so you can sort through the key points. I’ll also share some valuable tips and resources to help you decide if an MFA program is right for you. But the rest is up to you.

Why would anyone want to pursue an MFA?

People decide to pursue a master’s program for a number of reasons. They may feel they lack proper knowledge about the writing craft or feel uncertain about their technical skills. Maybe they seek feedback for their writing, or want to be part of a community. For others, it’s learning to teach others, since some programs require attendees to teach classes. Whatever your reason may be, the long-term benefit is learning and growing as a writer.

When searching for a program, there are several questions to ask yourself.

* Do you plan to attend full-time or part-time? If you already work full-time, a full-time program may be more than you can handle, unless you are willing to quit your job for it. Full-time residencies may require you to live near the campus to participate in writing workshops and teach classes. Part-time programs don’t have nearly the time requirement that full-time programs do. Some of the classes may also be delivered online, which makes it more flexible for some students.

* What size program do you want to be part of? Depending on the school, you may attend small group sessions of less than 10 students, or larger programs with more than 30. Then there are programs with medium-sized classes.

* How much money are you willing and able to spend? While some programs are fully funded, meaning they offer all students in the program with financial assistance, others are not funded at all or are partially funded. That means you will have to find ways to finance your education. MFA programs aren’t cheap. Some can cost more than $20,000 a year.

* Do you have any desire to teach? Full-time programs that offer fellowships may require you to teach classes in exchange for income. That’s great is you want to work on your presentation and teaching skills. But if you have no interest in teaching, the full-time programs may be a waste of time.

* What kind of writing do you want to do? As Jacob Mohr writes on the TCK Publishing blog, most MFA programs frown on commercial and genre fiction. So if you want to publish your collection of horror stories, don’t expect a lot of support from program faculty. Most programs lean toward poetry, non-fiction and literary fiction.

Pros and cons of writing programs
Once you have these answers nailed down, you can examine the pros and cons of MFAs.

Pros:

  • You get feedback for your work from instructors and fellow students.
  • You can sharpen your writing skills so you write, edit, and critique more efficiently.
  • You receive intensive training on the writing craft, learning everything from plot structure, grammar and punctuation, and character development. You learn a lot in a short amount of time.
  • You have a chance to work toward a final project, usually a book or performance.
  • You can join a community of fellow writers who are working toward similar goals.
  • You don’t need to take the GRE or other standardized test to gain acceptance into a program.
  • Some programs are fully funded and provide financial assistance to support your education.

Cons:

  • Most MFA programs are pricey, unless you find a fully-funded program. Not everyone can afford to attend an MFA program, not even on a part-time basis.
  • MFA programs can be time-consuming and too intensive to fit into your schedule. Most programs are a 2-3 year commitment, which most people may not be able to give. In addition to attending classes, you may be required to teach classes or fulfill other obligations.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll find writing success after you complete the program.
  • Most MFA programs do not address the business side of writing, such as submitting work to editors, marketing yourself, how to get published, finding a literary agent, etc. It’s up to you to learn these hard skills.
  • MFA programs are highly competitive. Many universities receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of students, as few as 10 or 20. So the chances of being accepted are slim.
  • As Mohr mentioned above, most programs focus on literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing. Commercial and genre-based fiction is frowned upon. If you wish to write a sci-fi/fantasy series, don’t expect to get a lot of support for your work.

If you decide that an MFA program isn’t right for you, there are educational alternatives (thankfully). Try the slow, steady pace of the self-study or DIY MFA. This way you learn about the writing craft at your own pace. Take classes from local writing studios or schools, attend conferences and read self-help books about writing. This approach might take longer to teach yourself the proper techniques, but you control the subject matter and the timing of lessons. The self-study route also provides more flexibility so you can fit lessons around a full-time job or other obligations.

You can also join a writer’s group to get feedback for your pieces. Most important, write, write and write some more. Most published authors agree that writing a little bit every day is the best way to learn to write.

Still not sure whether an MFA is right for you? Check out Flavorwire’s roundup of opinions from 27 writers. The opinions are mixed. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), advises people to get “an advanced degree in the school of life…”

“After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly,” Gilbert writes.

For more information about MFA programs, check out these additional resources:
Association of Writers and Writing Programs: Guide to writing programs
Poets & Writers Magazine: 2019 MFA Index and Guide

Good luck and happy writing!

Is Self-employment Right for You? First, Ask Yourself These Questions

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my home page.

Many of us have dreams of hanging out our own shingle and taking charge of our livelihoods. For most of us, that’s all it is – a dream.

Many people who have started a business often wind up closing up shop within a year or two. They had difficulty finding clients or lost money before deciding that they weren’t as prepared for the solo gig as they thought. So they went back to working for someone else, preferring the stability of a steady gig and paycheck.

Working for yourself is hard work. Harder than most people expect when they start out.  The fact is, not everyone is cut out to own their own business. It’s more than the financial support and resources that can keep the business going; it’s your own mental and emotional make-up that can put a kink in your plans. Some people simply don’t have the fortitude, organizational skills and network to make the business work. Others don’t like the uncertainty about the future or fear rejection.

I fell into my solo writing career accidentally. I had left a job to manage a small business part time, but I was miserable. I quickly realized that this was not what I wanted to do. My former boss reached out to me to do a writing assignment for him, which led to other assignments. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do (although I knew I wanted to get out of the business management gig). Did I want to freelance full time, or were these writing assignments just a temporary fix until I could figure things out? Seven years later, I’m still trying to answer that question.

Looking back at that period of my career, I wish I had taken more time to think things through. I would have liked to have had a handbook or a self-assessment worksheet to help me figure out whether going solo was the right path for me.

The folks at the career site Vault have put together a really nice infographic that outlines a number of questions to ask yourself before deciding if freelancing is right for you.

Below are some questions taken from this infographic as well as a few of my own I wish I had asked myself. Hope these questions help you decide whether you’re ready for a solo career or not.

  1. Why do you want to work for yourself? Knowing why you want to work for yourself can help you feel grounded, especially when things don’t go as smoothly as you hope. Whenever you feel lost on your solo journey, come back to your why. It will help you refocus on your career goal.
  2. Do you have an established network and support system in place? Just because you decide to go solo doesn’t mean you work alone. You still have a support team around you, such as an attorney and/or accountant, a marketing person if you don’t plan to do it yourself, maybe someone to handle social media. Then there is your personal support team – your spouse, friends and family, and former colleagues who can pitch in when you need help.
  3. Do you enjoy working for yourself? Some people love working alone and have no trouble being in quiet surroundings. Others need to bounce ideas off other people. They’re more productive working in a collaborative environment. If you need to be surrounded by people in order to be productive, you may struggle working on your own. Then again, there are always libraries and coffee shops to make you feel you are surrounded by “co-workers.”
  4. How much of a financial foundation do you have? Most financial experts suggest having a nest egg of six months for living expenses while you launch your business. I would suggest more than six months, at least a year. For one thing, things are more expensive than you realize. Second, you’ll need cash on hand in case of emergencies, like a root canal or household emergencies.
  5. Do you have your first client or project to start? It might help your solo venture if you already have a client or two in place. They’ll provide the moral and financial support you need to build on for the future.
  6. How do you respond to uncertainty? Once you’re on your own, you’ll no longer have a steady paycheck, which means the future is very uncertain. That uncertainty can be too scary for some people. If you prefer the steadiness of a routine paycheck, then working solo may not be right for you.
  7. How are your time management skills? When working on your own, you won’t have to follow someone else’s schedule. You’ll be in charge of your own, or that of your client’s. In fact, if you have multiple clients, you’ll have to juggle priorities and that means having solid time management and organizational skills to keep track of them all.
  8. How much of a risk taker are you? This question might be easier to answer on a spectrum of one to 10, one being not much of a risk taker at all and 10 being “bring it on.” Knowing your comfort level with risk can help you determine what you’re willing to put up with as a solo artist – and for how long. Taking the leap into your own business is a huge risk, one that not many people are willing to take.
  9. How long are you prepared to go it alone? Experts say that most businesses don’t last longer than one year. One year is the barometer to decide if a solo venture is going to work out or not. For others, they simply run out of money or they lose heart in the project after six months to a year. If you’re in it for the long haul, then going solo may work out for you.
  10. How much experience do you bring from your chose field? Someone with only five years’ experience may not find as much success on their own as someone who has done the same work for more than fifteen years.
  11. How do you respond to new challenges? Some people welcome new challenges, and in fact, actively seek them out to spice up their lives. These people are more likely to succeed as solo business owners.
  12. How do you deal with rejection? Rejection is part of business. The most successful business owners will likely let the rejection slide off their backs or use it to fuel their next venture. They don’t give up. If you are easily discouraged by rejection, then working for yourself may not be right for you.
  13. How confident do you feel about your skills and prospects for success? The more confident you feel about yourself, the more positive impression you will make on clients and customers.
  14. How resilient are you? This question goes along with the rejection question. Are you able to bounce back after disappointment, such as a lost client or failed sales call? Most successful people working on their own are able to bounce back more easily because they understand that it’s only a temporary setback.
  15. Are you comfortable wearing many hats? Working on your own means doing a variety of tasks, everything from accounting, marketing, recruiting, even housekeeping. All of this in addition to your own unique skill, whether that’s copywriting, graphic design or pet care. You might be good at what you do and the reason you want to work for yourself, but you may not feel comfortable or have the skills to do the other tasks. You’ll have to figure out what you are willing to do and what you should outsource.

As you can see, working for yourself requires more than just basic business skills. It requires emotional and psychological strength to withstand the challenges of business ownership. By answering these questions honestly, you can decide if working for yourself is the right career path for you.

Eight Content Ideas to Make Your Newsletter More Read-worthy

Be sure to check out this week’s writing prompt.

Newsletters are one of the best marketing tools you can use to reach clients and customers. Whether you’ve had a newsletter for your business for a while or you’re thinking about starting one, it’s helpful to share good, strong content can put you in front of readers and keep them informed and engaged.

But most business owners and bloggers know little about newsletters. What kind of content should they include? What will their readers want to know and read about? The answers will depend on what type of business you have. For example, a yoga studio might include tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, healthy recipes, profiles of instructors and studio news. It might be a good place to promote a special offer too.

Or perhaps you provide a dog walking service. Your newsletter might include news about new dog treats, pet grooming tips and a list of local veterinarians.

While I have yet to start a newsletter for my writing business, I’ve worked on several others for employers and clients. I also subscribe to several newsletters from writers and publishing professionals, including Kat Boogaard, Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman. Each of their newsletters are unique based on what information they want to share with their readers and what services they want to promote. Some are sent out weekly (Boogaard’s) and C. Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers while others are shared monthly.

Those are some of the issues you will have to ask yourself as you determine your newsletter content. How often do you want to send it out? What kind of information do you want to include?

One thing is clear. The best newsletters offer helpful advice and information to their readers. They put their readers’ interests first. Further, the least helpful ones focus too much on marketing themselves with little thought about their readers’ interests.

So what kind of information can you include in your newsletter? Here are a few ideas.

  • Start with a brief opening to welcome readers. Keep it brief, no more than three or four paragraphs. Make it timely, referring to current events or the latest news in your life such as a conference you attended, a holiday or family event. Keep it casual and conversational as if you are speaking to friends, (which of course you are).
  • Link to your own blog/website. If you post to your blog frequently, perhaps a few times a month, why not share links to the most recent stories? We used to do this at one of my employers since we posted to our company blog nearly every day. In the weekly e-newsletter, we shared the headlines to the latest stories and linked back to the blog. This is a great way to generate interest in your work and give people a reason to visit your site. It’s one of the easiest things you can do to promote your business or services. Don’t post every single link, but only the top three or four that your readers may find useful.
  • Link to the most interesting news stories and blog posts that you’ve read. No doubt you subscribe to numerous blogs and online magazines. What is the most interesting and memorable things you have read from these sources? Make a list, then link to those articles in your newsletter. Freelance writer Kat Boogaard shares her favorite stories in each weekly newsletter issue. It’s a great way to share industry news that readers may not have known about.
  • Conduct interviews. Is there someone in your sphere whose work you admire? Or perhaps they’ve done something remarkable, like finish a marathon or got their first book published. Reach out to them for a brief interview. I like the Q&A format because it’s easy to read. But keep it brief, no more than four or five questions. Keep in mind that readers don’t have a lot of time to read and will skim through the material. So keep your questions on point.
  • Consider sharing a guest post or article. If you don’t have time for a short feature for your newsletter, why not recruit a fellow writer or business owner to prepare something. I’ve seen this done on several newsletters I receive, which adds a new dimension to your offering. Plus it helps build rapport and support among fellow writers and business owners, especially if they have a product or service that would benefit your readers.
  • Include a book review or recommendations. Have you finished reading a book about a topic pertinent to your business? Why not write a short review and share it in the newsletter? An alternative is to list books about a common theme or topic that may interest readers. For example, find three or four book titles about time management and share links to Goodreads or Amazon for details. This is another way to provide valuable service to readers.
  • List upcoming conferences and workshops. Since so many conferences are being offered via Zoom or other online platform, more people can participate in them that couldn’t before. Your newsletter is a great vehicle for sharing links to upcoming conferences, workshops and events that may interest your readers.
  • Close with a positive message. Ending with a quote from a famous person can inspire readers  and motivate them to be their best. My daily news brief from my health care provider always concludes with a healthy recipe, three tips for a healthy lifestyle, and a quote that makes me feel positive about the future. You can do the same for your readers.

While there’s no guarantee that readers will share your newsletter with their friends, it’s nice when they do.

Remember the best newsletters focus on the readers’ interests, so avoid too much self-promotion which can turn off readers. A little promotion of a product or service is okay, but when it’s done with a relentless force, people may give up on you.

Another piece of advice: browse the newsletters that come into your in-box every week or every month. Notice what you like and what you don’t. Then make a list of components you’d like to include in your own newsletter.

Focus on providing tips, tricks, tools and resources that will make your readers’ lives better. Make sure you are consistent with your timing too. For example, if you decide to distribute your monthly newsletter on the fifth of the month, make sure you do it every month. Readers will begin to look for it in their in box.

Keep the newsletter brief. Most people don’t want to spend hours reading lengthy articles because they suffer from information overload as it is from all the material they already receive. You want your newsletter to stand out. It’s not how long the newsletter is, but the quality of the information you provide.

What about you? Do you have a newsletter for your hobby or business? How often do you distribute it? What kind of content do you include?

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing (and everything in between)

At a recent meeting of my writer’s group, we were talking about how we planned to publish the books we were working on. The vote was split between self-publishing and traditional publishing.

When I researched options, however, I learned that there’s more than those two paths. Thankfully, the publishing industry provides numerous options for aspiring writers, nor do you have to aim for the Big Five to be successful. Many small presses can provide the same benefits as the larger ones, and hybrid publishers can give writers more control over the final product, though it comes at a price.

Which path you choose depends on a number of factors, such as the type of product you’re creating, how much time and money you want to invest in it, and what you hope to gain. As new technologies emerge that impact the publishing business, authors have more options to choose from than ever before. It helps to understand what they are, and to ask yourself several questions to clarify your goals.

There are three primary publishing options: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. Each is explained below. For an even more detailed overview of publishing options, Jane Friedman has published this fabulously informative chart that describes and compares each option more fully.

Traditional publishing. Traditional is as it sounds, the conventional path to publishing where an author signs a contract allowing a publisher to produce and deliver a book that the author has written. The defining characteristic is the signing of a contract. Authors have few expenses to worry about in this option, but they share in the profits. Many traditional firms offer an advance against royalties. Authors usually need an agent to get their foot in the door and should have a completed manuscript to submit.

The traditional path is dominated by the Big Five publishing firms: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. Each has dozens of imprints.

Then there are numerous small and medium sized firms that provide the same benefits to authors. These traditional firms have marketing teams that can help promote the finished product, although they may also request an author’s involvement in the marketing process, such as promoting on your social media and website, doing live readings at libraries and appearing at book signings.

However, there are some downsides. For example, this may not be the most profitable option for authors. Once the publisher and agent get their cut of the profits, there’s less available to the writer.

Self-publishing. With this option, authors publish their works on their own and at their own expense. It helps to have strong business acumen to understand both the creative and business aspects of publishing process. While self-publishing provides greater creative freedom to write what you want to write and publish, you absorb all the expenses. It may require more work and more time than you’re able to give it.

Authors oversee all aspects of development from editing and formatting to book cover design and distribution, which is great if you like to get your hands dirty and be involved in all aspects of production. Writers are also responsible for doing their own marketing to make sure the book gets noticed in the marketplace. If you’re not skilled at certain things, like book design or editing, be prepared to hire designers and editors to help develop the book the way you envision it. That means paying for those services too. It’s why self-publishing is not for everyone. That said, the profits are all yours because nothing is going to a publishing house.

Hybrid publishing. As the name implies, this option combines the benefits and flaws of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many of today’s authors opt for this approach because it gives them more creative freedom and control in the process. As Barbara Lynn Probst explains on Jane Friedman’s blog, hybrid publishing:

“resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus it involves an investment of your own capital. It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document from your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.”

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. When choosing the best option for you, it may be helpful to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. What type of product are you publishing? Is it a non-fiction book, a novel or an e-book? Smaller products like novellas or business e-books might be better suited for self-publishing while larger works might be better suited for the hybrid or traditional model.
  2. Do you have an agent? Most large publishing houses don’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers. If you’re a first-time author, you might be better off at a small press or hybrid.
  3. How much time are you willing to spend on the production and promotion processes? Some paths require significant time on your part while other paths require less. How involved do you want to be? If you have a full time job, you’ll likely want the path with less time involvement. Either way, be prepared to put in some time and effort to make your publishing dream come true.
  4. How much of a risk taker are you? How much risk are you willing to take on? Self-publishing requires more time, money and energy on your part, but the rewards are greater too.
  5. Are you a DIY-er? Do you like do-it-yourself projects? If so, self-publishing will allow you to get your hands dirty and get you involved in all aspects of the publishing process.
  6. How much control and creative freedom do you want? If control and creative freedom is important to you, then self-publishing is your best option. If you’re willing to give up some of those factors, the hybrid or traditional path will work best.
  7. How involved do you want to be? Some people like being involved in every phase of the publishing process, while others are only interested in writing. Knowing how involved you want to be will determine the best option for you.
  8. How much money are you willing to invest? Publishing costs money, and some of it may come from you. Depending on which path you choose and what size publishing house you work with, be prepared to invest some money on production and marketing. Most beginning authors don’t have a lot of money to invest. My advice is to set aside some cash to cover costs.

No matter which publishing path you choose, be sure to know your writing goals and be prepared to wear several hats.

Five Signs That You’re Ready to Share Your Writing


Remember to check out the weekly writing prompt on my website.

Most writers I know are private people, especially when it comes to their writing. I’m certainly one of them. It’s always been difficult for me to share my writing with others because I have a terrible fear of criticism. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get few minor comments on my drafts. It’s why I take great care to make my writing as clean and complete as possible before I submit it to an editor or share it with anyone else. I want to minimize the chance of painful criticism that damages my confidence.

You may be torn between sharing your story and keeping it to yourself. The words you put on the page are personal, and you wonder if it’s worthwhile to share something so personal with others. Getting it down on paper is the first step, of course. It’s the direct path from inspiration to reality. But reading it to others, and letting people view your work, is a huge and difficult step. It’s like crossing a rushing stream when you can’t see how deep the water is, and you don’t know how to swim. Or it’s like crossing a rickety bridge that you fear might collapse under your weight.

But there’s comfort in knowing that most writers have survived those moments. They realize that to be taken seriously as writers, they had to share their work at some point. As Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist, writes, “Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

As you continue your writing practice, you may notice several signs that you’re ready to share your work with others.

Sign 1: You feel stuck in your current work-in-progress.

After working on a story for weeks, you’ve made steady progress toward the conclusion. Then at about the midpoint, you hit a brick wall in the plot. Your brain draws a blank. How do you get unstuck? Maybe you’re too close to the story or too emotionally involved in the plot to see what needs to be done to move it forward. Sometimes having someone you trust read the piece can provide insights on what to do next. It might mean having to rewrite an earlier scene or introduce a new character who interrupts the status quo. Sharing your writing at this point can provide the insight and motivation to keep writing despite the road block.

Sign 2: You feel the story is “finished” as far as you can take it.

When you feel the story is finished, or as good as you can make it, it might be a good time to share it with others. Perhaps this is the third draft of the story and it’s as complete as you can make it. Sharing your piece with others at this point can tell you if readers will appreciate the story. You might read it out loud to a writer’s group or class, have a teacher or mentor review it, and get it published in a small literary magazine. On the other hand, reading out loud may reveal cracks in the foundation of the story that you need to fix.

Sign 3: You’re too excited about the story to keep it to yourself.

You’ve finished a piece on a topic that excites you and you’re eager to share it with others. Maybe you’ve labored over a 3000-word essay for weeks and you’re thrilled with how it turned out. Thrilled too at the topic you wrote about because it has a lot of personal meaning to you. It might be time to share your work with others to revel in your accomplishment.

Sign 4: You’re bored with the current work-in-progress.

This might seem counterintuitive, writes Michael Gallant at the BookBaby blog. But when you’re bored with the piece you’ve been working on, it might help to share that piece with someone else. Their excitement at reading your piece can galvanize you into further action, and their joy can be contagious. With their input, you may look at the piece with fresh eyes and see that it isn’t as boring as you first thought.

Sign 5: You sense that someone can benefit from the story you’ve written.

You may write because they want to inspire readers and share your experiences with them. Maybe you write with someone specific in mind. Perhaps that person has gone through some difficult times, overcome hardships. Sharing your work with that person or with others just like them can cheer them up, and motivate them to stay optimistic despite those difficult times.

There is one caveat to these signs. Never let anyone see your first draft. Wait until after your second draft before allowing someone else to see it. The first draft is usually a disorganized mess where you are still working out the structure of the piece. The first draft is usually written just for you, not for outside consumption. Better to wait for a cleaner second or third draft to get an objective opinion of your piece.

Another rule of thumb, writes Patrick Ness at the BookTrust blog, is don’t show you work to friends. They may be overly enthusiastic about your work and may not critique it the way you need in order for you to grow and improve your writing. It may be better to have an agent, editor, fellow writer or mentor review your work because they have the knowledge and experience to know what will work.

As many writers and published authors can tell you, writing is meant to be shared. So don’t hold back. Don’t keep it to yourself. If you’ve written something, no matter how good, bad or indifferent it may be, don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. It will allow you to see your work through a reader’s eyes.

More than a hobby: Getting serious about your writing

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my website.

For many published authors, writing may have started out as a hobby. They did it for fun, and writing was an outlet for their creativity.  

These are the people who enjoy writing for the sake of it. They don’t care about being published, or getting reviews on Goodreads or doing public readings at libraries and bookstores. They simply want to spend time creating stories. The writing process is a personal endeavor, not a professional one.

Many professional writers frown on the concept of writing as a hobby. They argue that writing is too hard and too much work to be considered a hobby. Writing might be hard work, but if you get enjoyment from the process, if it gives you joy, then it’s a hobby. To say that hobbyists can’t be taken seriously as writers is garbage. There’s plenty of room in the writing world for professional writers, aspiring authors and hobbyists to co-exist.

But I digress….

Hobbyists separate themselves from their professional counterparts with several notable differences.

* Hobbyists have no set goals for their writing. They write for fun simply because they enjoy the process of creating stories. They write for themselves, and may not be interested in sharing their work publicly.  Hobbyists don’t care if they get published or not. That is not their ultimate goal. They write to express themselves.

* Many hobbyists may not have professional writing experience; in fact, they may be starting from ground zero. Other hobbyists may have different occupations and want to try their hand at writing fiction or their memoir. Perhaps they are testing the waters to see if they’ll enjoy writing for the long term or turn it into a professional endeavor later on.

* Hobbyists have more freedom to experiment with different writing styles and genres. They can experiment with poetry or essay writing or fiction to determine what is the right lane for them. Or maybe they’re content to work on one work of fiction or their memoir for their entire lives, experimenting with different ways of telling the story or writing from different points of view. There are no restrictions in what they can and cannot write.

* Hobbyists may not have a set schedule for writing. At least not at first. They fit writing in whenever they have time or are inspired to create something.

* As a hobbyist, there’s no pressure to perform professionally, writes Meg Dowell. Editors and publishers aren’t waiting for your project at deadline. Without that pressure, writing hobbyists can create whatever their heart desires without the fear of missing a dreaded deadline.

* There are no barriers to entry to writing and it costs nothing to start. All you need is a pen and paper and your imagination. Writing as a hobby keeps your mind active and alert too, which is always a tremendous benefit for older adults.

You may be content to remain a writing hobbyist. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who write for the sheer enjoyment of it.

But what do you do when you decide you want to do more with your writing that just maintaining a journal or contributing to your blog? How do you know that you’re ready to take your writing to the next level? How do you know it’s time to get serious about your writing? Author Bethany Cadman at the Writer’s Life offers a few suggestions, or you can follow a few of my own ideas below:

* You spend more time reading up on your craft. You follow writing blogs and subscribe to magazines to learn about different aspects of writing, such as plot development, humor writing or finding an agent.  By attending classes and workshops, you develop your skills and learn more about the writing process, and get feedback on your stories. You might go so far as to apply for an MFA program (which can be pricey) or a fellowship, though neither are necessary to be successful in the publishing business, say many published authors. In fact, most published authors I know did not graduate from an MFA program.  

* You seek out other writers and expand your network. Perhaps you join a writer’s group or find a writing buddy to share your written pieces with or help keep each other accountable. The online writing community is huge, and you’d be amazed at how many fledgling authors are out there, all seeking the same professional advice as you.

* You harbor a desire to get your work published. Or at least get it read and get it seen. Once you decide you want to be published, plan how you can accomplish that, and give yourself a deadline, say of five years. You begin to look for opportunities to be published, perhaps offer to guest post on blogs or submit material to literary magazines. Each piece you produce builds a body of work that you can show potential publishers.

* You develop a consistent writing practice. You write almost every day, usually at the same time. Perhaps you find you spend more time at your desk writing than you do watching television. You keep notebooks with you to jot down story ideas on a whim or note things you hear and see as you go about your day. With a consistent writing practice, you produce more work that can be shown to editors and publishers.

* You treat your writing as a business. You set regular office hours for writing and building your career. You constantly look for ways to earn money with your writing, even beyond publishing. That could be teaching, coaching, or editing others’ work. Perhaps you may consider starting a freelance writing business or explore self-publishing opportunities. Most important, you show up every day and make consistent progress toward your goals.

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, you should be proud of your effort to make writing an integral part of your life.

A Writer’s Guide to Managing Deadline Pressure

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Remember the movie The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Benning (one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time)? At one point in the film, Douglas (as the U.S. President running for re-election) gives a riveting speech to reporters about character. Afterward, his press secretary (played by Michael J. Fox) rushes to rewrite the President’s State of the Union Address – with only 35 minutes before the scheduled speech. Talk about a pressure-packed deadline!

While those kind of tight deadlines don’t happen often in a writer’s life, deadlines in general are part of the process. Most of the time we can handle those deadlines without feeling stressed or anxious. But other times, the pressure to perform under strict deadlines can be a challenge.

How do we manage to stay calm and focused on the project at hand while the deadline hangs over our heads like a guillotine blade?

Examined closely, this question can be divided into two separate issues. How are we able to deal with  the deadline themselves? How are we able to deal with the stress and anxiety it produces (stress management)? Looked at another way, the anxiety we feel about deadlines may have more to do with feelings of insecurity about our ability to do the job than about the project itself.

One online dictionary defines deadline pressure as “the sense that there’s a shortage of time to complete a project, producing feelings of anxiety and stress.”

That begs the question: is deadline pressure a management issue, or a stress management issue?

If there’s a silver lining at all, it’s that deadline pressure is a universal experience that affects all industries, not just writers and creative professionals. Accountants and finance people have year-end reports to file, and tax attorneys must prepare tax returns by April 15. Manufacturers must produce large quantities of their product before clients run out of stock. Hospitals race against time to find the perfect match for a patient that needs a new heart or kidney.

Deadlines are not the enemy. It’s our attitude about them that slows us down. While too many deadlines at one time can make us feel overwhelmed, deadlines can be motivating tools too, writes  Psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett. Without them, students may never finish their homework on time. Deadlines, he concludes, can help increase focus and boost perseverance.

If deadlines can help us meet goals and stay motivated, then why do most people struggle with the pressure? More important, how do we deal with that pressure so it doesn’t adversely affect our work?

Ironically, it may be our organizational skills that can keep the pressure to perform in check. Here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Set up a schedule for your project. Start with your deadline, and work backward toward the current date. In your schedule, allow for time for research, time for outlining, time to write the first draft and time to rewrite and proof before submitting it.

2. Start your project as early as possible. Granted, you may have other projects you’re working on. Try spending an hour doing the initial planning and research. Don’t wait until the last minute! Spending a brief time thinking about what you plan to write can give you a head start toward your deadline.

3. Divide your project into bite-sized chunks. This will allow you to work on your project a little bit at a time. You’ll make slow and steady progress. When you know you’re making progress and seeing the results of your efforts each day, you’ll feel less stressed.

4. Set short, intermediate deadlines. Allow an hour to perform certain tasks related to your project. Maybe it’s sending out a bunch of emails to set up interviews, conduct background research or draft an outline. When you know you have one hour to work, you’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

Most important, don’t wait for the last minute to begin your project! I know I said that once before, but I needed to say it again because it’s soooooo important.

As for the emotional aspect of deadline pressure, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself centered.

  • Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths before diving into your project. Following your breath will allow you to slow down your thought processes, and consequently, reduce your anxiety. Repeat this every time you feel stressed about the project.
  • Trust your instincts. When you’re racing toward a deadline, dealing with a difficult task or trying to solve a problem, sometimes the instincts kick in. Trust them. They’re usually spot on.
  • Trust your abilities. You know you have talent, you have experience and you’ve trained well in your chosen field. Once you’ve done your research and prepared your notes, trust your ability to get the project done on time. When you have confidence in your abilities, it takes a lot of the stress and panic out of the process.
  • Manage your time well. Doing small tasks each day will produce better results than a marathon at the finish line.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re really feeling stuck, walk away from the project for an hour. Go for a walk or take a snack break or watch TV to get your mind off of the problem. When you come back an hour later, you may notice a solution that you didn’t see before.

There may be another aspect of deadline pressure to consider: performance anxiety. There’s a pressure to perform at your highest level, usually because something is at stake – a grade at the end of the semester, winning a new client or repeat business, or a coveted promotion. Meeting that deadline shows you are serious about your work.

For more great tips about writing under deadline, check out this article courtesy of the Public Relations Society of America.

Deadlines will never go away, and neither will the pressure. If you plan your time well, you’ll meet deadlines with greater confidence and less stress.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal Can Spark Inspiration and Curiosity

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When I began taking my writing seriously – and I mean, writing almost every day – I decided it was time to keep track of all my story ideas. Little did I know then that there was such a thing as a writer’s journal.  That’s exactly what it was used for – to keep track of all things related to writing.

A writer’s journal is a place to track everything related to your writing. It can be based on a single story, a theme or your own writing journey.

Much of that depends on what you want to achieve from your writing. For example, I focus strictly on my writing projects. The writer’s journal is my place for developing story concepts, plot structures and character sketches.

I also keep a personal journal to record events in my life, which I keep separate from my writing journal. It’s my place for emotional venting. The second one is where I keep all my notes from all the workshops and classes I’ve taken related to writing. It’s more about the craft of writing.

I keep these notebooks separate because it keeps me organized. I know I have a designated place for each of them and I don’t have to search through countless story concepts to find that one nugget of information I learned in a workshop three years ago.

I use a simple notebook, but you can use a hardcover journal or use your computer. I prefer a notebook because it’s lightweight and easy to carry with me, and I don’t have to worry about having to turn on my laptop to add something to a document. I also carry a smaller notebook in my purse so if I am inspired by a setting or a conversation I overhear, I can write about it then and there.

Other writers use the writer’s journal differently, but see its value just the same. Writer Rebecca Graf uses the journal when her mind goes blank while she’s writing. “No matter how hard I try, I cannot get all those precise details pulled up from my memories. If I go to my writer’s journal, I can find those details and really enhance that one scene. It is a valuable resource any writer can use.”

Dolly Garland writes at The Writing Cooperative that she has used her journal to collect tips and inspiration for improving her craft. It’s also a place where she gets to know her characters and have dialogues with them.

Every writer is different, so you may want to set up your journals differently depending on what you want to achieve. Here are some common elements to include in your writer’s journal:

Basic story concepts. If you’re like me, you’re constantly coming up with story ideas. It’s important to  jot them down before you forget them. Start with a brief plot description or the premise, then brainstorm the rest of the story. The details about scenes and characters will come later.

Characters sketches. Have an idea for a unique character for your spy series? Or perhaps you met someone or saw someone at the bus stop who inspires a new character. Write it down. Describe their appearance, motivations and quirks. Give them a name to help you visualize them better. Like Garland, try having a dialogue with them.

Places you’ve been to that inspire setting. Think of some of your favorite places to hang out. Spend an afternoon at the beach, a coffee shop or the library. Describe the sights and sounds around you. When you need to describe a setting for a conversation between two people, you have only to refer to your journal to recreate that atmosphere rather than jog your memory for details.

Drafts of scenes. Perhaps you don’t have an entire story figured out but you have one or two scenes that appear vividly in your mind. The writer’s journal is the ideal place to get it all down on paper before you forget it.

Memories and flashbacks of your own life.  You might be going about your business when something you hear or see reminds you of a situation that happened to you a long time ago. Now you can’t get that memory out of your head. It’s time to write it all down, and write it as a real story with real characters.

Middle-of-the-night musings and revelations. If you’re like me, you have moments when you’re wide away at four in the morning and you brain is abuzz with different things: a song you can’t get out of your head, a movie that’s playing over and over, or an argument you had earlier in the day. Instead of letting it disrupt your sleep, get up and write it all down in your journal.

Research related to your next project. Include feature articles and news stories that provide historical background. In my files, I have several articles about women who have worn their grandmother’s wedding dresses. They’re handy references for the story idea I have about a similar situation.

Dreams, especially if they’re reoccurring. I’ve taken vivid dreams I’ve had overnight and written them down the next morning so I don’t forget them. Then I may rewrite them as works of fiction. You never know if you need a dream sequence for your work-in-progress.

Snatches of conversation. Ever sit in a restaurant, a coffee shop or a retail store and overhear conversations between other people? The best ones are the public arguments where the participants aren’t aware they have an audience. Jot down as much as you can remember in your writer’s journal. What were they wearing? What were they discussing? Even if you can’t recall the conversation or can’t hear it, make it up. You never know when you need a lover’s spat for your romance novel.

Some writers say it’s important to write in this journal every day. I usually write in it when I know I have something concrete to add, usually when I’m inspired by something I see or hear, or something directly related to what I’m working on. The choice is up to you, of course. Your writer’s journal is your own.

No matter how you use it, you’ll find the writer’s journal is one of the most valuable resources you’ll ever use.

Strategies to Maintain a Consistent Writing Practice during the Summer

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With summer just around the corner, the weather is heating up. Little by little, COVID restrictions are loosening up in many parts of the country. Like most people, writers are eager to get out to enjoy the season.

Along with the summer comes changes in schedules. The school year ends, families go on vacation and some businesses offer summer hours to allow employees time off. Everyone everywhere is in a more relaxed state of mind. They’re eager to enjoy the season, more so this year than in the past because of what we’ve all been through with the pandemic. Things may be so relaxed, in fact, that activities you were so diligent about – such as a regular writing practice — may slack off.

Is it possible to maintain a consistent writing practice while enjoying summer vacation? The answer to that is yes. You just may have to make some adjustments to your schedule.

If you’ve been diligent about writing every day (or almost every day), you probably want to keep momentum. It might help to have a plan for maintaining your writing during the active summer months, so you don’t lose track of your writing goals.

Now is the best time to develop strategies to maintain your writing practice, no matter what the summer holds for you. If writing is important to you, you won’t want to let it slide. If you already have a consistent practice, you’ll be more motivated to keep writing through the summer months.

Here are a few ideas for maintaining a summer writing practice.

Start your writing session earlier. With the sun rising earlier in the day, you have more daylight to play with. Why not use that daylight to your advantage? Rise a half hour earlier and begin writing when you wake up. Even if you already write for an hour a day, by starting a half hour or hour earlier, you’ll get your session done sooner and you’ll have more of your day to spend doing as you wish.

Condense your writing sessions. If you’re really stretched for time or you prefer to use the time to spend with your kids or your friends, you can shorten your sessions. Instead of writing for two hours (if you’re lucky) write for an hour. If you write for an hour a day, cut back to a half hour. You’re still writing every day, and you’re still making progress toward your goals. You’re just doing it at a slower pace.

Write in multiple short sessions. Another option is to write in short blocks of time, such as fifteen minutes. But schedule them throughout the day. So rather than write for an hour in a single session, break up that hour in four 15-minutes sessions. If all you have are little breaks throughout the day, use them to your advantage. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes. Check out my blog post about this topic.

Give yourself an occasional day off (or two). Sometimes you need to take a break from writing altogether. Summer vacation is a prime time to do that. If you’ve been working on a tight deadline or writing every day without a break in between, treat yourself to a couple of days off. You’ve earned it. You’ll come back to your writing with fresh eyes. Just be sure not to keep extending your break for too long or you will lose momentum.

Focus on non-writing tasks instead. There’s more to writing than putting words down on paper. Other aspects, such as research, interviewing subject matter experts, outlining and developing character sketches, are just as important. But sometimes they can be relegated to the back burner until we have to deal with them. Even daydreaming and people watching can be counted as non-writing tasks if they lead to story ideas and developing character descriptions and plot lines.

Capture experiences right away. Remember to carry a small notebook with you as you go about your day. You may notice something in your environment or experience something special that you want to capture while it’s fresh on your mind.

Make yourself accountable. If you don’t want to slack off too much, tap into your community of writers. Reach out to a mentor or writing buddy when you feel your motivation is lagging. Better yet, team up with them to write once a week in a coffee shop or at the beach. When you know someone else is along for the ride, it’s easier to keep on the path.

It’s tempting to let your writing slide during the summer months. By planning ahead and establishing a regular routine, even if it’s different from your non-summer schedule, you can make progress toward your writing goals.