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Title:The Urban Muse 鈥 Adventures in reading, writing, and the creative life
Description:Adventures in reading, writing, and the creative life
The Urban Muse 鈥 Adventures in reading, writing, and the creative life
May 26, 2014
The Urban MuseAdventures in reading, writing, and the creative lifeHome
Guest Bloggers
Popular Posts
Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?
By Susan Johnston By C. S. Lakin
In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.
I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?
I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don鈥檛.
Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools
But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don鈥檛 know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn鈥檛 have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn鈥檛 a clue how to use any of them correctly.
For some reason, many writers feel they should get to 鈥減ass go鈥 and proceed to 鈥渢he bank鈥 without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.
I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year鈥攃ritiquing and editing鈥攁nd I鈥檓 astonished at how poorly written some are. I鈥檓 not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I鈥檓 talking about very basic grammatical issues鈥攑unctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don鈥檛 expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.
A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish
Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.
I鈥檓 not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don鈥檛 expect all doctors to memorize Gray鈥檚 Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)
I鈥檓 afraid, though, that many writers haven鈥檛 a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don鈥檛 really care. They think it鈥檚 their editor鈥檚 job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that鈥檚 been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she鈥檚 written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.
A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer鈥檚 tools. Shouldn鈥檛 writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?
Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence
One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a 鈥渕enu鈥 of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn鈥檛 know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he鈥檇 find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.
Well, no one is going to die if I don鈥檛 have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I鈥檒l be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.
You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing 鈥渙perations鈥 efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don鈥檛.
The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!
C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book鈥擲ay What? The Fiction Writer鈥檚 Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage鈥攊s designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.聽Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.
Filed Under: writing Tagged With: grammar5 Budgeting Tips for Freelancers Living on an Inconsistent Income
By Susan Johnston Ed. Note: Most freelancers don #8217;t get holiday bonuses or annual raises, so we have to budget carefully to ensure that we have enough moola to cover holiday gifts, extra expenses for travel and other costs, and of course run-of-the-mill costs like car repairs or medical bills. I recently reviewed The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed, which covers some strategies for smoothing out the financial ups and downs of freelancing. Here #8217;s another take on this topic.聽
By Jim Vela
If you #8217;re a blogger like I am, you already know the many benefits of a full-time freelance career. You can generally set your own hours, work when you want, how you want, where you want, and enjoy a number of other freedoms that traditional jobs don #8217;t provide. With all the perks, however, come a few necessary evils, one of which is an inconsistent income. Unless you #8217;re one of the select few who has significant assets to fall back on, you likely face lots of financial ups and downs. Despite the precarious nature of your freelance career, there are ways to overcome it. For some helpful guidance, read on.
Create an Accurate Budget
Your first step is to make a personal budget. Detail all of your fixed expenses, including your rent or mortgage payment, utility bills, phone, cable, transportation, and food costs. Most of these expenses are either fixed or close to it, so you can give yourself a benchmark that you know you have to meet each month. The challenging part is estimating a variable income. Either calculate your average monthly income over the course of the past year, or, to make your budget virtually bulletproof, base it off the worst month you #8217;ve had recently. Whichever income-estimating method you use, the goal is to get your monthly spending under your income, so if it #8217;s not there on the first draft of your budget, it #8217;s time to cut some costs. Be sure to include a budget line for taxes, which in most cases you #8217;re going to have to pay quarterly. Estimate your tax obligations and always set aside at least that amount as soon as your money comes in #8212; don #8217;t fool yourself into thinking that money belongs to you. Dealing with your expenses as a freelancer is challenging enough, you don #8217;t want to burden yourself with the consequences of failing to pay your taxes on time.
Religiously Save Money on Expenses
You can save money on just about every expense under the sun, if you know how. Start with food costs. Clip coupons to save on your groceries and look for restaurant discounts on deal of the day websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Request an audit from your home energy provider to discover ways to shave utility costs. You may be able to reduce your bill by more than 30 percent. Bundle monthly services like Internet, cable, and cell phone under a single plan, and you could knock $10 off each service. If you can get by without a home landline, drop it. That move could slice another $500 off your annual budget.
Curb Spending
Resist the urge to purchase the latest electronic gadget and instead keep that money in your pocket. Remember, your income is never guaranteed, so you want to establish as much of a cushion to fall back on as possible. For every big purchase you forego, that #8217;s another handful of dollars in the bank to help you sleep easier at night. When you #8217;re faced with a potential purchase, ask yourself if it #8217;s something you truly need or simply something you want. Cut back on the wants as much as possible so you ensure having enough money for the things you need. Train yourself to understand the difference between the two.
Limit the Celebrations
If you have a great month, be sure to reward yourself for it, but don #8217;t splurge. If you end with a surplus, set some of it aside for the leaner months, or use it to pay down your current debts. You could also beef up your retirement contributions or boost your emergency fund if necessary. Always feel free to spend something on yourself, but remember the importance of staying one step ahead of the financial game whenever possible.
Commit to an Emergency Fund
An emergency fund is essential for anyone with a fluctuating income. 9-to-5 workers have a steady paycheck to rely on #8211; you don #8217;t. Create an emergency fund so your finances aren #8217;t thrown for a loop whenever your car breaks down or you get sick. Shoot for the recommended 12 months #8217; worth of living expenses as your eventual goal, and get there by contributing to it every time you earn a paycheck, even if it #8217;s just a few dollars.
Freelancers, what budgeting tips would you add?
Jim Vela is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing his experiences and tips related to business, personal finance, frugal living, and travel.
Photo courtesy of sakhorn38 / freedigitalphotos
Filed Under: business of writing Tagged With: budgeting, money7 Ways to Turn Gigs You Already Have Into More Writing Income
By Susan Johnston
Ed. Note: As 2013 draws to a close, it #8217;s time to look back over the past year and consider how to better our freelance businesses in 2014 and beyond. If you #8217;re trying to increase your income next year, then read for tips from veteran freelancer David Geer on using the writing gigs you already have to generate more income.聽
By David Geer
It is often easier to draw more income from the freelance writing assignments and projects that are already coming in than to gain new customers. Here are some tips on how to make that happen.
Ask for a better contract.
Ask for a better contract when you #8217;re giving up too many rights without receiving additional pay, when you can #8217;t figure out what or when you #8217;re getting paid , or if you are an authority or have a demonstrable specialty. Ask for more money when the rights they want seem excessive such as all rights. Better contracts can also ensure you are better paid over the long haul by establishing exactly how much you are to be paid, and how and when you will be paid, in case you want to negotiate for more money or quicker payment terms or simply want to ensure that you will be paid what you agreed on together.Finally, if you are an established writer, use this to your advantage. Published rates are often for new writers whereas rates for veteran writers are seldom published since not everyone can expect to receive those rates. Ask for a better rate than is offered in the first contract you receive. 聽In a specific example of the latter case, I received almost double the advertised pay rate simply by asking. This happened with a technology publication I ended up writing for for many years.Just ask, #8220;Do you have a better contract? #8221; Let them ask you why you want it. Be prepared with an answer. They may not ask. They may ritually give better contracts only to those who ask. I have had this happen on several occasions. I think some publications respect writers for knowing enough to ask while others may want to save themselves from being reputed among established writers for dolling out bad contracts. In either case, they will give better contracts, but you have to ask. It can be as simple as that. If the contract still doesn鈥檛 measure up, negotiate further.
Get reimbursed for expenses.
If you see an expense reimbursement clause, use it. Adhere to the publication #8217;s instructions on how they will reimburse you and what charges they will reimburse. Items they take seriously may include phone charges for interviews or research (I have read lists of acceptable reimbursements from specific publishers that include phone charges); postal mailing charges; travel expenses (discuss before signing) and costs for other goods or services vital to the assignment. Ask for a list of the kinds of charges they will reimburse . There may also be a total amount they will reimburse. Don #8217;t forget to invoice separately. And if the publication does not reimburse for certain charges, consider taking a business expense tax deduction for those charges.
Ask for a raise after four articles? Maybe not!
In an exchange on the topic among established freelance writers on a writer forum, the consensus seemed to be that if you have turned in about four acceptable pieces without a hitch, you have just become a known quantity, a measurable asset, and you are probably worth paying more to keep. In my experience, however, that has seldom worked in actual practice.I then decided that if I expected a raise as a freelance writer, I might want to negotiate the terms and conditions under which a raise would occur and how much my pay would be raised up before I ever started writing for a publication. Otherwise, I might never see a raise. Again, in actual practice, that theory seldom held water for me either.Here鈥檚 what did work. I decided to bid the highest rate I thought I would ever get from the publisher right from the start. Once I determined an amount, I bid that. Sometimes I got the work and sometimes not. Later, as my work and relationships improved, I was able to ask for more from the start and get it. Often this was from new clients who typically paid more anyway. That was one form in which a 鈥渞aise鈥 actually came. In other cases, if people gave me a raise, they just gave it, based on my work and not based on me asking for it. That also came later in my career rather than sooner, but I would try these approaches.
Pitch a follow-up or series.
Be aware of related stories that break just as a publication is publishing your piece or thereafter. Get the story and pitch a follow-up or series, first to the same publication, then as a scoop on that publication to their competitors if they reject the idea. In your query, cite not only the first article but also its popularity by sharing reader mail. When writing the piece, compare information from the first story #8211; this will enlarge the readership for both.
Turn interviews into profiles.
You take an interview for an assignment. You already know a lot about the person. Depending on their import, fame, or popularity, you may be able to publish their profile in a national magazine. If not, you shouldn #8217;t find it difficult to publish in a smaller magazine (try the alumni magazine at their alma mater) or better-paying newspaper. When you write them properly, profiles stay fresh, requiring only occasional minor revisions. This is a built-in #8220;freshness guarantee #8221; that means you can pitch profiles endlessly until someone publishes your profile and pays you!
Keep a journal as you write.
By keeping a journal of your professional writing life, you store up a slew of material for courses on writing, or even a book! More than memoirs, you can turn these slices of your writing adventures into articles, features, fiction, or meat for your bio or query letters. Journaling is impassioned, eager writing about what you know well. You generate twice the material without doing any additional research.聽 Then you cherish it, learn from it and people pay you for it too!
Tap into editors you know.
Current work can lead to new customers too. On one occasion when calling an editor who I really hit it off with, I got a lead right away to write adjacent material for the editor #8217;s friend! Another time I queried an editor who, unbeknownst to me, happened to work in a building full of editors in a publishing district. She gladly volunteered to give my information to all the other editors in the building! The lesson here is to be proactively personable with editors.
David Geer is a 13-year veteran technology writer, journalist and content producer whose work appears in numerous publications, such as CSO (Chief Security Officer). Follow David @geercom on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn.聽
Image: Stuart Miles /
Filed Under: business of writing Tagged With: writing clients, writing incomeBook Review: The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed
By Susan Johnston Most personal finance advice assumes you #8217;re bringing home a steady paycheck so you can predict your income week to week and automate contributions to retirement or short-term savings goals. But for freelancers and others with not-so-regular jobs, it #8217;s not so simple. We might have a $9,000 month after finishing a big project followed by a $2,000 month in which an invoice gets lost or an anticipated assignment falls through. Yet we still have to pay fixed monthly expenses like the mortgage or rent, the electric bill, and those self-paid health insurance premiums. And we know we should be saving for retirement, since there #8217;s no employer to set up a 401(k) for us.
In their 2010 book, The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs,聽freelance journalists Joseph D #8217;Agnese and Denise Kiernan tackle these and other challenges associated with irregular paychecks. I #8217;ve been freelancing full-time since 2008, so it #8217;s surprising even to me that I #8217;m just now reading The Money Book.
Up to this point, I survived the feast or famine cycles of freelancing by maintaining a cash cushion and living well below my means (I can be pretty darn frugal at times). In fact, a few months before I left my full-time job, I completed a month-long spending fast where I only paid for the barest essentials like groceries and rent, forgoing new clothes, books, restaurant meals, lattes, and all other frills. It helped boost my cash reserves before I went out on my own and also proved that I could drastically cut back my spending if needed.
But, of course, it meant missing out on a lot of social outings and delaying purchases I otherwise would have made. I survived the month without any major cheats, but I don #8217;t recommend a winter spending fast because the weather is already pretty brutal and there aren #8217;t nearly as many free activities as there are in the summer months. And while spending in moderation is a good thing, freelancers especially need to get out of the house every once in awhile, which makes that $10 glass of wine or $5 latte more worthwhile.
D #8217;Agnese and Kiernan, in contrast, take a more moderate, sustainable approach to spending and saving rather than the all-or-nothing experiment I did. Instead of cutting out all discretionary spending as I tried to do, they suggest taking a percentage of each freelance check and immediately transferring it into sub-accounts for retirement, taxes, emergency savings, everyday spending, and savings goals. They even suggest (and I love this idea) giving each account a name that gets you fired up like #8220;Experience Fabulous New Wines Account #8221; or #8220;Cabin in the Woods Account. #8221; The idea is to fund each account instead of having one big pot of money and stealing from your emergency savings to pay your taxes (umm, not that I #8217;ve ever done that #8230;)
I #8217;m still tweaking the percentages but here #8217;s my plan (that cushion mentioned above is now emergency savings rather than an all-purpose pot o #8217; money):
Tax Fund #8211; 25%
Retirement* #8211; 10%
Susan #8217;s Condo Fund #8211; 10%
*I have a SEP IRA and used to transfer one lump sum per year after my accountant ran the numbers and told me how much to contribute. But now I contribute monthly to take advantage of dollar cost averaging. The Money Book doesn #8217;t mention DCA but it explains the ins and outs of various retirement savings vehicles for the self-employed.
The remainder is for rent and other expenses. Their plan makes a ton of sense for those with irregular paychecks, in my opinion.
Overall, I #8217;d recommend The Money Book to newbie freelancers or more seasoned freelancers who want a better way to manage their money. I did have a few minor quibbles, though (and this is the personal finance writer in me):
D #8217;Agnese and Kiernan suggest using cash to become more mindful of your spending and avoid credit card debt. That advice makes perfect sense for people who are digging themselves out of debt or can #8217;t seem to rein in their spending. But cash and even debit cards don #8217;t have the same protections as credit cards so if your wallet is lost or stolen you #8217;re SOL. And cash doesn #8217;t earn rewards points or miles. Rewards credits cards don #8217;t make sense for people who carry a balance, since they typically carry a higher interest rate, but for people who are disciplined about paying off their balance each month and not over-spending, rewards credit cards can be useful.
It doesn #8217;t mention聽mobile check deposits, since they weren #8217;t as popular in 2010 when the book came out, but I think they #8217;re a huge boon to freelancers like me who get a lot of paper checks. Instead of running to an ATM, now I can deposit checks from my phone! If there #8217;s a new edition, I hope they #8217;ll include information on that.
The book has lots of advice about cutting back on non-essential spending and understanding wants vs. needs. But while prioritizing expenses is helpful, so is making more money. Undercharging is often a bigger problem than a Starbucks habit. Unlike salaried employees who typically have to wait for a promotion or annual review to make more money, freelancers have a lot more control over their income. The second to last chapter includes basic tips on asking for what you #8217;re worth and building client relationships, but that information is so fundamental to freelancing, I would have liked seeing it earlier in the book and in more depth.
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