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.

Supporting a Favorite Cause Can Be Good for Your Professional Life

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Today is known in our gift-giving season as Giving Tuesday, a day devoted to giving back to the community. The movement, which began in 2012, shifts public attention away from the commercialization and consumerism of the holiday season toward more meaningful, community service activities. Giving Tuesday is intended to bring the focus back to what the Christmas season is all about – giving to those in need.

As an independent worker or small business owner, giving back not only makes you feel good, it can be good for your business. Getting involved with a charitable group, especially one aligned with your professional identity, can give you added exposure in the community and attract new clients.

For example, if you work as a graphic designer, volunteering for a small theater group to design their sets can not only improve your skills, but put you in touch with people who may need your services. Likewise, if you write for a living, you might consider volunteering for organizations aligned with your writing interests, such as libraries, literacy programs or be a writing tutor.

Before you sign up for a volunteering program, there are several factors to keep in mind.

1. Why do you want to volunteer? There are many different reasons for getting involved with a cause. For some, it’s important to give back to their community. Others want to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Yet others get involved to build their skills or improve their community. Whatever reason you have for volunteering, make sure it’s honest and sincere. The more sincere you are and the more passionate you are about the cause, the more likely you will stick with your commitment.

2. Do your homework. If you want to get involved and aren’t sure where to start, there are plenty of resources available online that can help you figure out what’s important to you and put you in touch with organizations that need your help. Check out Volunteer Match, Serve.gov, and Allforgood.org. These sites are a good starting point to find out what types of volunteer opportunities are available and the types of organizations that need help.

3. Assess your interests. Before you begin volunteering, take time to reflect on issues that are important to you. What issues get your blood thumping or makes your heart swell with joy? Are you concerned about the environmental, poverty, homelessness, literacy or women’s health? Make a list of these issues, then prioritize them in order of most important to least. Then choose one or two that are most worthy of your time and attention.

Next, find organizations that best represent those causes that are important to you. Do a Google search, entering key words that match your interests. For example, enter “literacy programs, volunteer” and see what pops up on your list. As you find these organizations, take the time to research each one. Review their website, read their mission statement, understand their requirements to volunteer. Some organizations may require a background check, especially if you plan to work one-on-one with children or seniors. If the group seems suitable, contact them to learn more about them. Most groups have a new volunteer orientation so you can see what they do.

Other places to look for volunteer opportunities: a local place of worship, library or park district. Don’t forget to ask your friends and family too since they may already be involved in an organization and can give you the inside scoop about what kind of assistance that group needs.

4. Consider your time commitment. How much time can you give to the cause? A few hours each week? One afternoon each month? Volunteering doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, but make sure you have time to truly commit to the cause. Be honest with yourself. If all you have to contribute is one or two hours per month, then be clear about that with the organization up front.

5. Consider your skills and talents. Volunteering is a great opportunity to develop your skills. Maybe you want to gain experience fundraising, event planning or grant writing. The opposite is also true. If you have strong organizational skills or communications skills, you can put them to work by negotiating contracts or teaching people how to read or write.

Once you know what causes are important to you and how you can contribute, getting involved with your favorite non-profit group and contributing to the community can be one of the most satisfying experiences you’ll ever have.

The Battle for Your Brain: Classroom Instruction vs. Online Learning

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September has always reminded me of the start of school. And like the young students who return to school to continue their education at this time of year, I often turn to adult education classes to learn something new or refine my skill set. For example, last week I participated in an hour-long webcast about interviewing skills, a topic that never gets old in my field of work.

For many professionals, this is a time to ramp up their education by attending conferences, updating their skills or completing a certification program. Now as September quickly comes to a close, it seems fitting to explore educational opportunities to keep our skills fresh for the rapidly changing business world.

Education comes is different shapes, sizes and formats, and they don’t always have to be expensive. While online learning may be more convenient for many professionals, a study by Pew Research Center in March 2016 finds that a majority of adults still prefer learning in a physical setting over online-based programs. Respondents cited the desire to ask questions of a real live person and the tendency to get lost in all the information that’s offered on the Internet. “Learning is still very much a place-based thing,” says Pew researcher John Horrigan in the study. “The Internet plays a role, but it’s secondary in most respects.”

In today’s post, I’ll explore the pros and cons of online learning and classroom instruction. Depending on your educational goals and lifestyle, you may have a preference for one format over the other.

* Classroom instruction provides real-time interactions with instructors and classmates. You can put faces to the names of your fellow classmates. Online you may never meet your classmates.

* Students receive hands-on experience and learn by doing under an instructor’s guidance. Anything from auto repair, home improvement or gardening may be better suited for on-site, in-person learning rather than online.

* In a physical setting, students can obtain immediate feedback from instructors about their class work.  Attendees also have a chance to ask questions and get responses in real time. With online learning, there may be a time lag between the time you submit work for review and your instructor’s critique.

* There may be more and better opportunities to network with your peers in a classroom environment and maintain those relationships when the course is done.

On the other hand, online learning via the Internet may be more convenient for professionals who travel a lot or who don’t have time to take a classroom course.

* Online learning allows you to learn at your own pace on your own time or from any place that provides an Internet connection.

* Information is shared in smaller chunks so it’s easy to digest in short, compact time periods. For example, most podcasts, webinars or online class sessions may only be one hour and may only cover one specific topic, such as interviewing skills or using Linked In for a job search.

* Students may work in isolation rather than in a group setting, even though there may be other participants. There’s less opportunity for interaction with other students. Even online discussions lack immediacy and personalization.

* Online learning may require greater self-motivation to keep up with the course work. For example, when I participated in an online writing course, I found it difficult to stay motivated because of the limited interaction with the instructor and classmates. I quickly lost interest. I realized I needed the camaraderie, interaction and feedback from fellow writers.

Whether you take classes online or in a physical classroom at the library, place of worship or local school, education is important to not only keep yourself relevant in business but for also introducing fresh new ideas that you can use at work or in life. Knowing what your educational goals are and what your learning style and preferences are can help you determine which format of learning is best suited for your needs.