How Writers Can Develop Stronger Skills and Knowledge

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer is that writers are lifelong learners. They are naturally curious about the world around them and they tend to ask a lot of questions. They’re intrigued by new ideas, or even a fresh take on an old one, and are usually willing to experiment with a new ways of doing things.

Fortunately, there are plenty of situations in which writers can continue their learning. Our profession requires it. Stop and think about how you learned to do what you do, and you’ll realize that there are more sources of learning than you thought were possible.

It’s important to keep up with the latest skills, technology and tools available to help us do our jobs better, or at least help us become better writers. Where to find that information will depend on what type of knowledge you seek. You won’t find it all in one place. Yes, at the same time, you find opportunities to learn all around us.

Think about all the different types of learning you’ve gained on your writing journey. Notice what areas you need to improve.

  • The craft of story telling. It’s one thing to be a good writer, it’s quite another to know how to tell a good story. I’ve always been a good writer and had strong technical skills. But I knew nothing about creating a work of fiction until I took several classes at a local writing studio. Not until then did I begin to understand plot structure, character development and how to create tension and suspense. I’m still learning. Different rules apply for writers of poetry and memoir. If you want to specialize in a particular style of writing, you have to learn the craft.
  • Research. As a freelancer, I’ve been assigned to write articles about some of the most obscure topics, such as high-performance homes, blockchain technology in real estate, and refrigeration phase-down policies affecting facilities managers. But with each assignment, I’ve become a mini-expert. I had to so I could prepare for the interviews.  Whether you’re working on an essay, a magazine feature or a full-length novel, it’s necessary to do research so you understand your topic inside and out.
  • Communications skills. Writers may be called upon to make a speech, negotiate their fees or interview sources for feature articles. That requires solid communications skills, but not all writers have mastered these skills. That requires confidence and a lot of practice. If you’re lacking in any one of these communications skills, you might consider taking a class to build that confidence.
  • Copy-editing and proofreading. Writers need to master copy-editing, proofreading and grammar skills. Many editors expect writers to proof and edit their own work before submitting the final draft to them. While it helps to have another pair of eyes review your work, it’s also important to be able to proof your own if no one else is available. If you lack these skills but are a good writer, you can easily develop them with practice.
  • Organizational and time management skills. Writers may get so caught up in the act of creation that they might lose track of time — and deadlines. Writers need to balance their work load, especially when working with multiple editors and projects. Whether you develop your own system for tracking projects and deadlines, or you use a platform that does most of the work for you, you’ll learn to stay organized no matter what clients or employers throw at you.
  • Math aptitude. Writers may work with words, but there are times when a basic aptitude for math will be necessary. Sure you might have an accountant who does your books, but when it comes to writing, there are times when you need to solve a complex math equation or calculate percentages?  Math is necessary to balance the books, and your checkbook.
  • Marketing and social media. Many writers I know aren’t very comfortable about marketing themselves, including yours truly. The thought of promoting themselves makes their stomachs churn. Yet successful writers know that marketing is a part of their arsenal of skills. Marketing is necessary to showcase your writing and attract new clients. Just like the communications skills above, it might be helpful to take a course in digital marketing or social media to know how to navigate the landscape and build confidence in your marketing abilities.
  • Technical know-how. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would need to know certain software programs and configure my own computer equipment, I would have rolled my eyes. I’m not known for my technical ability, but I know enough to get by. Anything more difficult and I have to call in an expert. I enjoy the challenge of learning new software. As technology continues to grow, writers need to keep pace to stay relevant in our industry.
  • Business side of writing. Writers might focus so much on the creative side of their careers that they overlook the business side. If your business acumen is lacking, it might be time to update your knowledge in that area. Consider a course in basic accounting, project management, or business planning. At first glance, these topics might seem dry and dull, but they can help prepare you for the day you hang your own shingle as a self-employed writer.
  • Advanced degrees. If you feel an advanced degree will help your writing career, there are plenty of MFA and MGA programs. (Personally, I don’t think you do need one these days.) However, some industries require it. For example, some health and wellness blogs require articles be written by nurses, doctors and psychologists. Another thing to keep in mind is that MBA and MFA programs are pricy and require a huge chunk of time. You need to weigh the cost of getting specialized advanced training against your future career goals.
  • Informal mentoring from other professionals. Whether meeting with a former boss over coffee or networking with other professionals at a workshop, you have a chance to learn from others. You can bet that whatever work problem you may be grappling with is something that someone else has already dealt with. The beautiful thing about networks is the opportunity to learn from others.
  • Volunteer work. Many years ago, when I wanted to expand my portfolio, I sought volunteer opportunities to write newsletter articles for a local membership organization. By contributing articles and planning some of their education programs, I was able to gain valuable experience that I could share with potential employers. Don’t overlook volunteer work as a means of gaining hands-on experience.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The key to becoming a better writer is to practice—and practice often. Even if you spend only ten minutes each day writing, you continue to improve your skills. It’s much like learning to play the piano. You get better with practice.
  • Life experience. Don’t overlook your life experience, which can fuel your most creative stories.  That experience can be anything from moving to a new neighborhood to fighting with your best friend or finding out you have cancer. Tap into those deep emotions from your life experience to fuel your writing.  

When you consider the many ways we acquire knowledge, writers are well equipped to handle any kind of writing project that comes their way.

How to Be Productive During Downtime at the Office

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As summer crawls to an end, you may find yourself in the middle of some serious downtime at work. Every business has its busy seasons and not-so-busy times. For some businesses, the months of July and August are the slowest, while for others, the slow time may fall in January and February.

No matter where your slow season falls, don’t hang your head. Those slow times happen for a reason. Think of them as breathing room, a chance to catch your breath, recharge your batteries and prepare for the busier season that lies ahead.

Instead of feeling bored or hanging out on Facebook trying to look busy when you’re not, here are a few ways to be more productive during those inevitable downtime periods.

1. Follow up with your clients. If your company relies on regular or frequent client interaction to be successful, downtime might be an opportune moment to check in on them. What’s happening with their business? How are they using your products or services? With a more relaxed pace at work, you can take your time with your client and enjoy an easy conversation with them. No pressure. Not only are you helping to maintain your business relationships, you might unearth a need that your business might be able to solve for them.

2. Do some housekeeping/clean out old files. Got any old files still lying around the office taking up valuable space? Downtime is a good opportunity to roll up the sleeves and dig through them. Depending on how old the files are, you can either put them in storage or if they are really, really outdated, say more than seven years old, bring them to a recycling center. Just be sure to clear things with the bosses before you destroy any important documents. If in doubt, ask.

3. Catch up on billing and record keeping. During busy times, it can be easy to let receipts and bills stack up. Downtime is the perfect time to sit down and go through all your receipts, process paper work to your accountant and just get organized. Imagine how good you will feel when you are all caught up.

4. Catch up on reading and studying industry news. Like most professionals, you probably have a stack of magazines or clipped articles from your favorite business websites that you never had the chance to read. Now is the time to do that. You might pick up a tip or two that you can implement right away.

5. Brainstorm and innovate. Throughout the year, you’ve probably had a few insights about how your business operates. Perhaps you realized that there might be a better way to get customer feedback or an easier way to update your database. Jot them down. Grab a note pad and brainstorm all the different ways you can improve your business. Better yet, keep a small notebook with you throughout the year and jot down ideas as you think of them. Then during these downtimes, review these collected ideas to see if there are any worth implementing.

6. Attend a conference or workshop. Perhaps you’ve read a few magazine articles that have whetted your appetite for more knowledge about a particular topic. Take the next step. Check listings to see if there are any workshops or conferences that would fit your interests. If you can’t step away from the office, consider one of the free online courses that you can do at your desk, such as Udemy.

7. Review your business and marketing plan. Plan for the year ahead by reviewing your business and marketing plan. Are you on track with meeting your goals? Is there something you can do differently now to meet those goals by the end of the year? Downtime is ideal for reviewing your business goals, revising them if you need to, and figure out way to market your business so you achieve them. Don’t have a business and marketing plan? Downtime is ideal for getting started on one.

Don’t let downtime go to waste. Downtime is a gift to catch your breath after a long hectic stretch of meetings, sales calls and presentations. Downtime is the best time to review the past and prepare for the future.

Four Things to Know Before Hiring a Copywriter

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

There will come a time in your business when you need to outsource certain professional services, such as bookkeeping or copy writing. I can’t speak about hiring bookkeepers, but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about hiring copywriters because I’ve been hired as one.

Not all writers are alike. Some have different areas of expertise, such as legal writing or advertising. Some have years of experience while others are new to the industry and are looking to gain experience. Finding someone to write your marketing copy is not for the faint of heart. How do you know that the person you hire has the skills and experience to get the job done? More important, how do you know that they are trustworthy?

A discussion among several writers on Facebook revealed their advice to businesses before hiring a professional copywriter. Here are a few of their suggestions.

1. Beware of cheap copy. If you think you can get good writing for a cheap price, guess again. The old adage, “You get what you pay for” is true here. Good copy writing is not cheap. Don’t expect to plunk down $10 for a 500-word blog post and expect a well-researched, well-written piece. Don’t be surprised if what you get is copy with poor grammar, misspelled words and other problems that will need to be fixed. Be prepared to pay a little more for better quality. Check sources like The Balance Small Business or the Editorial Freelancers Association to get an idea about pricing.

2. Ask for samples of the writer’s work. Their samples will demonstrate their ability to do research, their knowledge of the subject and the presentation. If they don’t have samples to show you, give them a writing test. Ask them to write about a topic of your choice covering specific points. Their final product will help you see their process. It will also show you if they are able to follow instructions.

3. Look for someone with whom you can work. What kind of personality do they have, and is that personality compatible with yours? Obviously, similar personalities can lead to a mutually productive and beneficial relationship.

4. Outline your expectations for the project and put it in writing. It will help the hired copywriter to see the details of the project up front. The more detail you can provide and the more clearly you present what you envision for the outcome, the more likely you will receive a fair and accurate quote. It’s important to be clear about what you want the writer to achieve. It can be frustrating to be sought out for a writing job only to learn that the person hiring you is unclear about what they want or they want too many things. Putting your expectations in writing can avoid any potential confusion.

These tips may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many businesses overlook these steps. Instead some business owners may rush into hiring a friend’s college kid out of loyalty.

If you want good, quality copy writing for your business, be willing to do a little leg work up front and pay a little more for their services. Professional writers might cost more, but they will produce better results and they’ll likely do it in less time. And that’s money in the bank.

Business Lessons from the World Series Champions Chicago Cubs

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It’s been nearly a week since the Chicago Cubs clinched the World Series championship, ending 108 years of futility on the baseball field and finally putting to rest any further talk of goats and curses. While still in the throes of celebrating their victory, it’s also helpful to look at their rise to the top of the baseball world. What can we all learn from the Cubs’ championship run? How can we apply these lessons to our businesses and our work life? Here are a few of my observations.

* If things aren’t working out, start over. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward. That means cutting the dead wood, so to speak, letting go of the pieces that no longer work, fixing what can be fixed, and rebuilding the business from the ground up.

In the case of the Cubs, that process started at the top rather than the bottom of the organization.  A change in ownership in 2009 brought the Ricketts family on board, followed by the hiring of Theo Epstein and Jeb Hoyer to manage the team’s operations and begin the rebuilding process with the players.  With each new trade and draft pick, the Cubs slowly created a team that was built to win for the long term.

* You may need to go through a few lean years before seeing results. Like any other business, you have to take a few risks and make some tough decisions that may not be popular with your clients. For several years, the Cubs did not have a good team on the field. In 2011, they lost 100 games and fans were doubtful of the changes the Cubs leadership was making. But Epstein and Company stayed the course, knowing they had a game plan they were putting into place, and they repeatedly asked fans for patience. The fact is, whether you run a baseball team or a small boutique business, success does not happen overnight.

* Develop a long-term strategy for success. Create a strong vision of your business. Write down your business goals, and figure out how to achieve them. Develop a detailed plan and make adjustments along the way as needed. The Cubs had a clear vision for the team and knew what it would take to achieve it. Without that detailed plan, owners would have lost faith, and the fans would have too.

* Acquire the best players that can help you achieve your goals. Make sure those team players complement one another in terms of temperament and talent. When they like and respect one another, it’s much easier for them to work together toward a common goal. That likability and respect was on display during the Cubs’ World Series play, both on and off the field.

* Hire a good, strong leader to motivate the team to perform their best. Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon is a master of motivation. He respects his players, and encourages them to have fun, even if they’re on an extended losing streak. A good leader will always bring out the best in your team, so hire the most qualified person you can find.

* Have fun. You don’t want to create an environment of all work and no play. Have fun doing what you are doing, and share that joy with the people you work with. People who infuse humor and fun in their workplace are more productive and are better team players. And that bodes well for the success of your business.

* You need to work hard every day to improve your performance. There is an old saying, “Work comes before success only in the dictionary.” The Cubs have a lot of young players they have drafted over the years. With the assistance of coaches and several veteran players, the young Cubs are still developing their talents, and must continue to work hard each day to learn and grow as individually and as part of a team.

*Savor success and share it with others, especially your clients and your fans. The Cubs’ shared their achievement with their fans in one memorable parade and rally. Likewise, when you meet certain productivity goals, celebrate. Break open a bottle of champagne or treat your team to a pizza party. Recognize the important roles they play in your business success. Without them, your business would likely dry up.

No matter what type of work you do, or how you define success, whether you work for yourself or for an organization, there’s always something to be learned from seeing the success of other organizations. Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from the Cubs’ success is their own motto: Never give up.