On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Uncovering Fake News: Advice from a TV Journalist

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News stories are everywhere – on TV, the Internet, social media and good old-fashioned print newspapers and magazines. But how do you know whether the news stories you  read are true or fake?

In a program sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters in late September that I attended, journalist Dorothy Tucker of the local CBS affiliate addressed these issues. Fake news, she said, is deliberate misinformation. Sometimes called “yellow journalism,” its roots can be traced back to pre-Civil War and slavery. During those days, newspaper cartoons often depicted slaves as content and at peace with their role in society, which was not true.

When immigrants began moving to America, they were portrayed in political cartoons negatively, often as ignorant and subservient, which was also not true. The intent in both these cases was to depict these minority groups in ways that gave the wrong impression to the public. These stories were the original “fake news.”

Fast forward to the 21st century. Facebook is the by far the biggest source of fake news. Tucker said an estimated 22 percent of news stories funneled through Facebook prior to the 2016 elections was fake news. These stores were planted by Russian agents with the intent to deliberately mislead the American public about the candidates. In some cases, pages were set up by and for non-existent groups to feed off people’s fears and create divisions within the public.

To complicate matters, there are more news outlets covering events today than ever before. Twenty years ago, there might have been only a handful of journalists covering a story, five or six at the most, Tucker said. Today, with the impact of the Internet and blogs, there may be 50 or 60 people covering a story. Not all of today’s bloggers and website owners have a background in journalism or understand basic journalistic standards and practices. They often report events without checking the facts.

It’s a crowded field, and with so many people vying for a chance to break a news story before the next person, the truth can get lost in the shuffle. And with so much news out there, how does an individual like you and me decipher what is real and what is fake, or gossip, or just plain wrong?

It is up to us, as individuals, to be more discerning about the stories we hear and see. We can’t assume what we read on the Internet is truthful, nor can we assume that what we hear in any news media is fake. Tucker outlined some things we can all do to check out a story.

1. Check out the media source or news outlet that ran the story. Do a Google search to see if news outlet exists. If so, what other stories has it published? Does the organization have a website? If so, check it out. Is there an About page? What does that page say about the organization? Is there an editor or editorial board? Is there a way to contact the news organization? If there is no About page, no information about the news organization and no ways to contact them, chances are they are a fake organization publishing fake news.

2. Check out the author of the story. Search Google to see if their name exists. Have they written other stories at other news outlets? Do they have a website? Check their bio on their website, and make sure there is a way to contact them. Most legitimate author sites will have this information.

3. Check the published date of the article as well as any photo or image that accompanies it. Check the source of the photo or image. It might have been “stolen” from another Internet site, often without the knowledge or consent of the person photographed. The photo or story might have been published a few years ago. Fake news outlets have been known to take a story from a few years before and embellish it for their purposes. If you can trace it back to the original story, then you found a fake news story.

4. Check the content of the news story against fact-checking services like Snopes.com, Poynter Fact-Checking Tips and Factcheck.org. Insert the URL of the story into the space provided and these services will scan the story to determine how much of the story is factual.

As we move forward into the mid-term election season, we all have to exercise better judgment and stronger awareness of news sources. We need to look at each news story with a keen eye and healthy dose of  skepticism about what is factual and what is fake. We all have to take greater responsibility for the news we share with others too, especially on social media sites. We may inadvertently be spreading fake news. Like the old adage, if it sounds too good (or ridiculous) to be true, it probably isn’t.

Idea-Generating Tools for the Not-So-Organized

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Ever have those moments when you’ve come up with what you believe is a brilliant idea and forget to write it down? What happens to your idea then? More than likely, it fades into oblivion, never to be implemented for your personal or professional purpose.

Whether you’re a creative professional or are someone who simply is involved in many projects, you may need a system for keeping track of all your ideas and projects. I’m a bit old school, so for me, keeping notebooks for each story or project idea is the simplest, easiest solution for this purpose. There may be other systems or platforms available on the Internet, but I prefer handwritten tools so I can write things down as I think of them.

At times, I wish I had a pensieve like Professor Dumbledore used in the Harry Potter series. With a tap of his wand at his temple, he could extract a memory and save it in the pensieve to review later. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar container for all our ideas so they didn’t clutter our brains?

At the moment I have about four different notebooks for four different purposes. This helps me to keep one idea or task related to one project separated from the others. When you have so many ideas coming at you at one time, this process helps to organize them so they are easy to access later when you may need them.

Here are a few ideas for organizing your ideas for creative and business projects.

Writing Logs: 

Personal journal – For most people, the journal is where they recap their personal experiences and insights about work, relationships, and the struggles of daily life.

Poetry – Write poetry? Keep drafts of your poetry in a file or notebook to separate it from other types of writing that you do.

Writing – Notes from writing webinars, lists of books to read (not necessarily about the topic of writing but stuff you want to read), writing tips from other writers, and lists of unfamiliar words to look up. Also keep ideas and bullet point for short stories, essays and other types of writing you may be doing.

Blogging log – If you manage your own blog, keep a notebook of ideas for potential postings. Include any research related to these story ideas, blogging tools and resources to help you be more productive, blogging apps that might aid your blog, and advice and tips from other professional bloggers.

Personal Development: 

Dream log – Ever have a dream and wonder what it means? The next time you remember having a dream, write it down in a journal to keep it separate from any writing journal you keep. Either use a dream dictionary or an online dream interpretation tool to look up potential meanings and jot them down next to your dream.

Inspiration log: Collect items that inspire you, such as photos, positive and uplifting news stories that you read in the paper or on the Internet, and motivational quotes.

Health/fitness log: On a diet or trying to make a lifestyle change, like quitting smoking? Use a log to monitor the foods you eat, your workouts, vitamins, water intake, etc. It might be helpful to record your thought processes as you change your health and fitness regimen.

Home improvement/buying or selling a home – Whether you are planning on selling your home or simply renovating it for your own enjoyment, it may be a good idea to track home improvements. In particular, note what type of work was done and when, and the name and contact information for contractors, real estate agents, lenders and other professionals. This type of log may be especially helpful if you are doing a series of renovations before selling the home, so you can refer to your notes when buyers have questions about the home.

Business Related: 

Job search – If you’re looking for a new job or changing careers, a career log or job search log can help you  stay on top of your progress. Keep track of all your network contacts, and write down names of people who you meet. Keep track of the businesses you approach for jobs, including when you sent your resume to them and what kind of response, if any, that you received.

Business startup – Got an idea for a new business start-up? Jot down everything you want to do to get your new business venture off the ground, including products, potential competition, potential clients, tasks to accomplish, forms to complete and deadlines.

Legal/Lawsuit: If you ever get involved in a legal issue, keep a log to recall incidents related to your case, record conversations with your attorney and list any tasks you need to accomplish.

Medical log – If you’ve ever had an injury or illness and needed medical care, keeping a medical log can help your sort through the details of your medical care. Keep track of everything, from the names and contact information of medical doctors and hospitals involved, dates and results of medical tests, conversations with medical team, and any drugs that were prescribed.

These are just a few examples of idea-tracking logs, whether it’s to keep track of your writing projects or your personal ones. You don’t have to do them all. Focus on the ones where you get the most ideas so you won’t feel so overwhelmed as you progress. It may seem overwhelming to have a log for every little segment of your life, but I find it helpful to separate – and in some cases, compartmentalize – all of life’s projects so they don’t feel so overwhelming.

Experiment with one or two types of logs, perhaps a dream log and a poetry log, or a business start-up log and a blogging blog, so you can develop ideas for your business blog. Find what works for you. If written notebooks aren’t your style, check the Internet for other possible platforms.

Whichever format you use, you’ll find that keeping multiple log books helps clear your brain of the ideas.

Tips for Naming Your Blog

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Last week, in my post Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Business Blog, I wrote about how to determine whether a blog is right for your business. The next step is coming up with a name that best captures the focus of your blog business.

But coming up with a name for your blog or website can be an arduous task. So many names to choose from, so many URLs available.

But I found as I went through this process, that not every name available was suitable for my business, and the names I really wanted had already been taken. I had to get creative to generate a blog name that best reflected who I was and what I offered to the business community. I also had to keep in mind my own personal brand. How did I want clients and colleagues to see me?

For many business owners and entrepreneurs, their full name is their brand, like J.K Rowling or Derrick Rose. In most cases, the full given birth name works because it’s short, snappy and memorable.

But other names are not. I did not think my given name was memorable or snappy enough to use for my blog. I also had a potential dilemma with my last name – Ludes – which has alternative connotations that I did not want associated with my writing business. (Ludes is the nickname for a drug called Quaaludes, a sedative and hypnotic drug. Its official name is Methaqualone.) Naturally, I did not want my writing business associated with a drug. It is not how I want clients and colleagues to remember me.

An alternative is to use initials or a different form of your name. It’s a way of personalizing your blog without revealing your full name. For example, Regal is an abbreviated version of my full name – Regina Ann Ludes. It made sense to use an abbreviated version to create my brand identity. It captures the essence of my personality and matches my ability to communicate with tact, diplomacy and integrity in the business world, just as any member of royalty might.

This naming process also helped me define the focus of my blog – to write stories identifying situations that demonstrate proper use of communication tools and strategies, to show what works and what doesn’t. How you and I communicate is an extension of our personal brand. When you communicate well, you present yourself well. How I write also speaks about my personal brand.

A third option is to create a name that defines the purpose of your blog or website business. For example, writer Carol Tice created a blog devoted to sharing tips and advice for writers called Make a Living Writing (www.makealivingwriting.com). Although she also has her personal website that promotes her own writing business too (www.CarolTice.com).

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating a name for your blog or business.

Determine your brand identity. How do you want people to remember you? Is there a quality about you that stands out – a phrase you use, a piece of clothing, a unique name? Ask friends, colleagues and family members what they think of when thinking of you or talking about you. They are in the best position to know how you stand out. Their responses can help you pinpoint the strengths that you want to emphasize in your blog name.

For example, perhaps they see you as a passionate person, someone who cares deeply about certain issues, like animals, women’s rights or the environment. Consider using the word ‘passion’ as part of your brand identity, then use it as your blog title.

Make a list of possible names. Play around with variations of your key word or phrase, and make a list of them. Then do a Googe search of these names and variations to see which ones have been used already. Check out the availability of the URL on sites like Go Daddy or Register.com. Test out different names with your family and friends and get feedback from them. Which one works best for your blog or website? Does the name accurately reflect what you do and who you are?

Be clear about your business focus. Choose a name that matches that focus. I almost chose Regal Ink as a blog name. But when I searched URLs, Register.com offered an alternative name, Regal Tattoo. Apparently, my initial desire to use Ink as a symbol for my writing business may be better suited for a tattoo parlor – not the impression I wanted to give. So I scrapped that idea.

Consider the cost of the URL. Most URLs are inexpensive, less than $10. But some words are determined to be more popular and sought-after. The word Regal fell into that category. For some URLs, I’d have to pay nearly $2,500 to use it for my business. No name is worth that much money. So I was forced to find another alternative, like hyphenating the URL or adding the word “the” before my blog name.

However you go about identifying your blog name, remember that it should be unique and easy to remember. A well-crafted blog or website name is key to marketing your services to others. Make sure the name you choose accurately reflects who you are and what you have to offer clients.

Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Business Blog

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Does your business really need a blog?

Whether you manage a start-up or have worked at a small business for a while, you might wonder whether a blog will help your business grow. One of the biggest mistakes many business owners and managers make is assuming that they need to be on every social media platform and have a blog in order for their business to succeed. But that may not be the case. I know plenty of small businesses that are successful, and they became successful without having a blog.

For example, my accountant and her business partner have been in business together for nearly 20 years. Their business is thriving. They don’t have a blog and they don’t need one because they provide good service to their clients. They built their clientele the old-fashioned way – word of mouth advertising. Good service always breeds repeat and referral business – with or without a blog.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to have a blog. Small businesses with blogs generate 126 percent more leads than businesses that don’t have a blog, according to Social Media Today. (Check out their awesome infographic about blogging.) Also, 81 percent of consumers trust the advice and information from blogs, and 61 percent of consumers made a purchase based on a blog post. Think of a blog as one more tool in your arsenal to market yourself. It’s the cherry on top of your banana split.

But deciding whether to have a blog often depends on two main things: what type of business you operate, and who your clients are. For example,  not-for-profit groups can benefit from a blog as a way to build community support for their cause. Likewise, it’s important for associations to keep a blog to keep its members informed of industry news and association events. While it’s important for a business start up to have some sort of online presence, a blog may not be the most important concern for the short term. Business owners have many decisions to make; whether to start a blog should not be one of them. Focus instead on providing good customer service, and clients will reward you with follow up business.

Before starting a blog for your business or group, here are a few key questions you should ask yourself to decide if having one is worth your while.

1. Do you have the time to devote to it?

Blogging takes a lot of time. Writing one story can take up to three or four hours, especially if you do a lot of research for it. Multiply that time by three to five times per week, or whatever number of weekly posts you strive for, and you can see how easily the work load can pile up, just for your blog. That can take a huge chunk of time away from managing other aspects of your business.

To have any impact, your blog must be updated frequently with good, valuable content. For example, I commit to posting to my blog twice a week. Other businesses I know post at least once or twice a day, while smaller businesses might only post once or twice a week. As long as you post regularly, your readers will learn to expect it from you. Any sudden absence of posts and your readers will wonder where you are. If you cannot commit to working on your blog on a consistent basis, your clients may wonder how committed you are to them.

Bottom line: if you don’t have the time to commit to writing regularly to your blog, then you may be better off without one. Of course, if you still desire to have a blog but don’t have time to work on it, the best solution is to hire someone to manage it for you. Be sure they are good, experienced writers who understand your business and are available to prepare stories on a regular basis. Be prepared to pay them well for their time.

2. What kind of business are you in?

Some businesses are better suited for a blog than others. But I know plenty of small businesses that are successful on their own, and they don’t have a blog. Their success comes from building strong relationships with their clients. Dental offices, accountants, attorneys, and other service professionals usually succeed without a blog, while not-for-profit groups and associations who want to stay in touch with their members or promote their cause can benefit.

3. Why do you want to have a blog for your business?

Are you trying to sell a product or service, demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, or attract new clients? Be clear about your goals. If you want a blog just because you think you should or because your techie nephew says you should, then you may be better off not having one for the time being. If you don’t know why you are doing it, your blog will lack focus and you will quickly lose interest in it.

4. Who is your audience?

Knowing who your clients and customers are and why they do business with you is key to understanding whether or not they will read your blog. Are they reading it because they like the content you are sharing? My accountant doesn’t have the time or the inclination to write a blog for her business. She doesn’t need to because she knows her audience well enough to know that they will keep coming back to her for her service and expertise, not because of a blog.

5. Do you have specific expertise or perspective that other professionals in your industry do not have?

Clearly, if this is the case, you might want to invest the time and energy to manage a blog. However, if you have nothing unique to share, it will be more difficult to come up with compelling content for your blog that sets you apart from competitors.

6. How comfortable are you with writing, and are you good at it?

Let’s face it, many folks just don’t have good writing skills. You could have the best ideas for stories inside your head but if you don’t write well, those ideas will come across as inarticulate and confusing. You could hire a professional writer to translate your ideas, but be sure that the writer has industry knowledge and is able to grasp the concepts you are trying to convey.

Experts say 95 percent of blogs are abandoned after only 120 days. There is nothing more frustrating than visiting a blog that hasn’t been updated in several months. If your blog looks neglected, what does that say about the way you handle your business? Will your clients feel neglected too?

While having a blog can help you attract new clients and showcase your knowledge and expertise, it is not a requirement for success. If anything, it’s a luxury. If you can’t do a blog right – post consistently and provide meaningful, valuable content for your readers – then you are probably better off not doing one at all.