The Struggling Writer

The chronicles of a freelance writer as he tries to make a living.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

...or maybe Thursday

I'm still getting caught up on everything. Plus, since everyone has been sick, I'm pulling double duty caring for my niece this week. I'll do a real update on Thursday.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

I'm still here

Today is the first day I've been moderately coherent. Between this cold and the two hours of sleep a night, I've been a basket case. Everything I would try to read or write would sound like gibberish. I'm taking today to catch up on a few hundred loads of laundry and dishes and I'll get back to the whole writing thing tomorrow.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

One problem with freelance... that you don't get sick leave. I'm battling a nasty cold, but I really need to get some work in today.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In defense of content writing

At some point I plan to post several articles on content writing. However, I recently discovered this article by Denise Kincy. I started to comment on her blog, but it was getting to long so I’ll post my response here.

She makes valid points, but I feel she is painting the content industry in broad strokes.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a controversial subject in both the writing and webmaster communities. Web writing is not like magazine writing. SEO is an important tool in helping your site be seen when someone does a search. Keywording is one of many SEO tools. Although it is important, it is also overemphasized by people who don’t really understand SEO. The concept behind keywording is to repeat a given magic phrase often enough in your article to get noticed by the search engines, but not so often that the engines think you are spamming and ignore you.

Denise says, “I think [SEO is] underhanded and I also think it’s death to the creativity of writers”, which I think is greatly overstating the case.

SEO is not underhanded. You find information on the web differently than you find it in print. You can write the greatest article in the world, but it is no use to anyone if they can’t find it. That’s why SEO is so important.

I also don’t think keywording kills creativity any more than the rules of grammar and spelling do. One of the great challenges of writing is running the wonderful creative ideas of your right brain through the rigid editor of your left brain. Some writers can break the rules of grammar to create very powerful pieces. Most can’t. If you are writing web content then keywording is going to be useful, so learn to do it right.

In the webmaster world there are whitehat and blackhat methods to SEO. Keywording is whitehat, but some people use it in a blackhat manner. This is the root of the controversy

The problem lies with MFA (Made For AdSense) sites. AdSense is an advertising program from Google which creates ads targeted to the content of a web page. AdSense, again, is not a bad program by any means. In fact, I think it is one of the best things to happen to internet advertising for both consumers and advertisers.

Google’s stand has always been that content is king, and keyword spamming is frowned upon and in some cases a flat-out violation of their Terms of Service. Publishers are expected to provide good content for users. The page’s content and Google’s ads are supposed to compliment each other.

MFA sites dance right on the edge of Terms of Service violations. They provide no useful content. Their goal is to intercept web searches and skim off some advertising revenue. If you do a search on Blue Widgets, you might come up with a website for Widgetworld where you can buy what you need. Or you might hit an MFA site which has an article filled with useless information like “Blue widgets are neat. Everyone should own blue widgets.” You see this content, realize it’s useless, and start to hit the back button. But, wait – there is an ad for Widgetworld. You click on it, and the MFA site just made money for leading you to a site you could have found on your own.

The other controversy is that most MFA sites don’t even write their own articles, but farm them out for pennies. The ads are easy to recognize. They run something like “I need 50 articles of 500-700 on widgets. They pay only $2 each, but if you know what you are doing you should be able to create them quickly and make lots of money.”

Here’s one place I agree with Denise – don’t write this junk! Yes, there are people who make a good hourly rate doing this. Good for them. My concern is that if you are writing junk, you are going to pick up bad habits. If you dream of being a chef in a 4-star restaurant, working the fryer at McDonalds isn’t going to help you.

“Content” is not a bad word, and neither is “keywording” nor “SEO”. They are all valid techniques that, although misused by some, are perfectly respectable ways for a writer to work. Don’t be fooled by the penny-a-word (or less!) ads, and don’t let desperation make you say “just this once”. But also don’t let a few bad eggs scare you off of content writing completely. There are legitimate opportunities out there, they just get lost in the MFA noise.


Two sites I like, Writers Row and Absolute Write have been inaccessible for a couple of days. I finally looked up their whois records to get their IP addresses. Both sites just have placeholder pages. I wonder if the sites got hacked. I hope they are back soon. They have good forums and Deborah Ng's job leads on Writers Row are invaluable. It's odd that they both went down at the same time, as they are on different hosts.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A new web site

I didn’t write those articles today, but I have been busy.

Although I want to write articles, my main focus will be on technical writing. Since I have done software documentation and field reports, I have good experience that I think can translate into lucrative contracts.

As a first step, I want to establish a professional web presence. Among other things, I want to create a brochure site. A brochure site is a small web site for a business. It’s generally just a few pages that showcase the business’s offerings.

With that in mind, I’ve been lurking over at the Digital Point forums. It is a forum for webmasters. I’ve been to others, but I like the crowd who posts there. There is a lot of information, overkill for this kind of small site, but at some point, I may be interested in creating a content site (a site with articles that is supported by advertising) so I’ve been researching that.

Based on advice on those forums, I went and registered with NameCheap. This will be the site for my technical writing business. I signed up with A Small Orange for web hosting (tiny sites for only $30 per year). I currently have a personal site with Ready Hosting. I’ve been reasonably happy with them, but lately they have been making a number of changes that are irritating mewith so I decided to go with another host for my business site. A Small Orange was, again, recommended at Digital Point. They offer much more than Ready Hosting does. I logged into the control panel (the site was created within minutes) and started to drool at all the features. It’s paradise for a geek like me.

Right now, there is nothing at the site but a placeholder page placed by NameCheap. I’m going to create a brochure highlighting my technical writing experience and posting examples of my past work. I’ve checked with my former employers and they are fine with me using the things I’ve written for them as clips. That's an important step both legally and as a professional courtesy.

Next I need to build the site and then start networking. If I can manage to pull in a few search engine hits, that would be nice as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


The point of this blog is for me to talk about my daily efforts to make a go of this writing thing. The posts I’ve made so far are summaries of information I’ve gathered over the last few months and, though they might be helpful, are distracting me this goal. I’m smart enough to realize that I’m doing that on purpose :)

Today, let’s talk about procrastination. In fairness, I was going to talk about this yesterday. But it wouldn’t be a fair analysis of procrastination if it was on time.

I suffer from a serious problem for a freelancer – I’m lazy.

Well, lazy isn’t really the right word. I work hard when I have a project and a deadline. I’m not afraid of long hours. My record so far is, back when I used to do field work, I put in 12-hour graveyard shifts 22 days in a row. I usually have better hourly production than other people doing the same work. Dedication isn’t the problem.

My problem is self-motivation. When I’ve got only myself to disappoint, I often disappoint. I don’t want to get into some heavy self analysis, but I think it’s important to be aware of your shortcomings so you can figure out what to do about them. Heck, that’s part of the reason I started this blog. If people are watching my efforts, then it’s not so much about self-disappointment.

Since I work from home I am surrounded by distraction. I don’t just mean TV or web surfing, though those can have a strong pull at times. I mean yard work and laundry. There are all those things that I used to find time for when I had a “real” job, but suddenly they seem to be more pressing and more time consuming.

Even things related to writing are distractions. Reading writer forums, checking freelance job postings, researching tax issues on owning my own business, even this blog are all things that I use as an excuse to avoid actually writing. There is nothing like a blank page to fill a writer with anxiety.

For example, I have an email from an editor saying they are interested in an article I queried them about. The email is a month old, and yet the article isn’t done. Sure I’ve worked on it some, but it’s not finished. There have been problems (the article is way too short and the first draft was just awful) but any of those could be resolved with a little actual work.

Another example, Learning Through History is looking for articles on the Ancient Near East aimed at 9-16 year olds. Although I don’t know much about the subject, it seems interesting. I could probably do all the research and get at least a good first draft in a few hours. Have I? No. I’ve done a little preliminary work, but haven’t even narrowed down a good subject yet.

Self-motivation is going to be an important skill I have to learn. I need to figure out what system works best for me. A rigid schedule is not the right answer. Instead, say I have to do a certain number of hours a day of writing and querying. Right now, I’m going to shoot for 4.

Four? I hear you say. Ha! You should be putting in 8-12 hour days. Yes, you are right. But I won’t. I might for a while, but I won’t keep it up. I’d rather get a solid four hours of work than eight hours of looking at my watch wishing it were over. With time, as I start to get work and get a rhythm going, I hope increase that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Article writing - the article

You sent your query to an editor. You got a message back that says, “Sure, I’d be happy to take a look.” Now it’s time to write the article. No problem. After all you’ve got the whole article written in your head. So you sit down at the computer, pull up a new document, and...



It was so clear a moment ago.

I’ve found it is often very hard to translate ideas to words. Your creative right brain comes up with the idea, but your rigid left brain has to put it into terms other people can understand. I don’t know about you, but the two sides of my brain don’t get along well.

Now it’s time to think back to all those things you learned in school. Scribble down some notes. Organize them into ideas. Create an outline. Turn the outline into an article.

Sometimes I can sit down and write a decent first draft off the top of my head, but I’m discovering that is rare. Formalizing the process helps me to write a more coherent article.

Eventually you get a first draft. So you go over it again and make revisions. One trick I find helps is to read it aloud. It’s very easy to skim over words because you already know what it says. Reading aloud forces you to listen to the sentences and spot the ones that are clumsy or just plain nonsense. It can also be helpful to get someone else to proof your work or to put it aside and come back to it a day or two later.

Length is something to think about as well. If an editor asks a specific word count and your article is significantly off, that's a strike against you that may get the article rejected. As a rule, it’s better to target a word count greater than what you need. It is easier to remove material than to add it. If an article comes up short, it might be time to rethink the concept, maybe approaching the subject from a broader perspective. You are probably better off rewriting from scratch rather than trying to add a paragraph here and there. This is not high school. If you pad your article, the editor will spot it.

Once you are happy with the content and length of the piece, it is time to proof for spelling and grammar. Although word processing software has tools to help you, I find grammar checkers to be completely useless. They are wrong far more often than they are right. Spell checkers are helpful, but nothing replaces good old-fashioned human proofreading. Proof it at least twice. Then proof your first paragraph a couple more times. Then proof the first sentence a time or two. The best writers make mistakes, and editors understand that. But if you have a typo in your first sentence, you’ve just blown your first impression. Even if the rest of the article is fine, the first thing the editor sees is a mistake.

Once you are satisfied, send it off. Just like with queries, don’t wait for a response. Start your next project.

I guess I’m not going to get to talking about rejection today after all.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Article writing - the query

A common mistake for the beginning article writer is to write a piece then try to sell it. That’s actually backwards. Different magazines have different requirements. Each magazine has its own unique voice and you have to craft your article for that publication.

Let’s say you have come up with an interesting idea. Rather than writing the article, the first step is to find publications that might want it. A common source of information is the Writers Market. Writers forums and websites often will have their own lists of publications geared toward their own specialization.

Once you’ve found some publications, look at some back issues. Many magazines will post online versions on their websites. If you can’t find an issue online, head down to your local newsstand and pick up a copy. Get a feel for how their articles are crafted. One magazine might have a formal style to their pieces, while another one prefers more folksy writing.

It should go without saying that you should also review their submission guidelines. Some magazines don’t accept freelance work or have restrictions such as requiring a certain expertise. You also can see how much they pay. Early in your career, you aren’t going to get published in the large national magazines so you may not want to waste time querying them. On the other hand, smaller magazines often can’t afford to pay much and sometimes don’t pay at all. This is not necessarily a bad thing as at least you get some exposure, but don’t spend too much time on these markets.

Now is the time to craft your query. Most magazines accept email queries, but be sure you send it to the correct email address. If you send an article query to the subscription office, it might get forwarded, but it might not. Take the few seconds to get the correct address.

Query letters are a whole subject in themselves and I will probably devote a post or two to them later. However I can give some quick advice here. The query should give a solid idea of the article you want to write. Don’t make vague statements (“Widgets are very popular”). Be concrete (“In 1995 approximately 3,000 widgets were sold in this country; last year that number ballooned to 412,000”). Tell them why YOU are the best person to write the article (“I worked for three years in widget retail”) and why THEY are the best magazine to publish it. For the latter, I like to use examples from their back issues just to show them I’m paying attention (“In September 2004 you published an article on widgets, however events since then such as the Great Widget Crisis in Boston last year have changed public perception of widgets.”) Give an idea of how long the article will be.

Send the query off and move on with your life. Start thinking of your next idea and your next batch of queries. Don’t wait on any one project.

Next post, I will talk about writing the article and the sting of rejection.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My story - what kind of writing?

“Writing” is a very broad term and there are many different specialties. I knew I wasn’t interested in poetry or scriptwriting. I tried fiction writing a long time ago. I even finished a novel (and parts of several others) and sent it around to publishers. I got “good” rejections from it. A good rejection is a personal letter from an editor rather than just a form response. Every personal response listed the same problem – my characters were too flat. I came to the conclusion that I just can’t write good characters. Plus, I suspect that fiction writing is harder to make money from, though I have no evidence to base that on.

I see three areas of writing that interest me: articles, technical writing, and content writing.

Articles I think are what most people think about when they think of freelance writing. You think up an idea (or five), find an appropriate magazine (I’m pretty sure Guns & Ammo doesn’t accept articles on cat care, but they probably get queries about it), send off a query and, if they are interested, send off the article.

Technical writing is a fairly broad field. I’ve written software documentation and quality assurance reports so those are the areas I will focus on. However there are other kinds of technical writing such as scientific articles, business plans, and educational writing.

Content writing means writing for a website, either your own or someone else’s. That, again, is a very broad subject and I will do several pieces on all the ins and outs of content writing.

I am going to expand on each of these subjects and talk about what I’ve learned about each field.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

My story - the decision to write

I accepted that I need to find some additional work, but I had some limitations. I take care of my niece two days a week and that is just non-negotiable. That means that in addition to my personal aversion to a “real” job, I am simply unable to commit to that kind of schedule. Temp jobs are a lot of work to find and don’t pay that well, so it seemed that some kind of self-employment was the way to go.

More programming was out. Although I have some experience with the “sexy” languages like C and Java, I don’t have enough to be taken seriously. LabVIEW serves a limited audience, plus my contract requires my to funnel any LabVIEW work through the company I’m subcontracting through.

I’ve been building computers for years for myself, friends, and family but I just wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do for a living. Besides, past experience trying to get into help desk and network support has shown me that the computer industry has been flooded with people who have heard that that is where the money is, making it hard for the people who are actually good at it and enjoy it to get jobs.

Even though it’s been only a few months, I honestly don’t remember how I locked on to writing. I’ve always liked writing and I’ve considered trying to make it my career before, but I was concerned about the pressure of writing on demand. Now, though, it doesn’t seem so scary. Maybe because I have less choice in the matter.

“Writing” is a pretty broad subject, so now I needed to figure out what areas to focus one.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My story - early freelance work

The LabVIEW job I mentioned yesterday was my first taste of true freelance. The ad was placed by a man who was already doing freelance programming and needed to subcontract some of the work since he was getting overloaded. He freely admitted that he wanted someone with more experience, but the only other applicants were looking for evening/weekend supplementary work. He needed someone who was available weekdays, and that put me at the top of a list of one.

The set up was just what I needed. He’d give me a project, a deadline, and walk away. I could work whatever hours I liked. I could work at home or on site. Once he saw the quality of my work, he pushed more projects my way. For the first time in many years, I was happy at my job.

After a year at this, my sister had a baby named Maria, and again my life changed. Maria was born with significant medical problems, including hydrocephalus and substantial hearing and vision impairments. My flexible freelance schedule allowed me to fly out after the baby was born and help out. My plan was to go for a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks turned into a couple of months and finally I bought a house here in Phoenix because it was clear she needed the help.

Through all of this, I continued my programming work. By coincidence he had clients out here and my realtor even found us another customer. However, all was not well with his business. He lost two large clients due to economic factors that had nothing to do with us; when companies start to struggle, the contractors are the first ones to get cut loose. Months passed with no more work coming in. The problem is that he is, at the core, a programmer not a businessman and not a marketer. He continues to look for new projects, but hasn’t had new work for me in a long time.

Late last year I finally faced up to the fact that it was time for me to find some additional sources of income.

Monday, February 06, 2006

My story - the early years

I want to start by talking about how I ended up pursuing a career in freelance writing.

After high school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was one of those highly stressed, straight-A students and was burned out on education. So I took a temporary data entry job at an insurance company while I figured out what to do with my life.

Suddenly, ten years had passed. Whoa! This was never supposed to be my career, so how did that happen? I decided to go to college to get my degree in chemical engineering.

Biggest mistake of my life.

I’m not down on education (hey, kids, stay in school) but for me, pretty much everything bad that happened for the next decade or so could be traced back to my decision to go back to school. I got my degree and couldn’t get a job. There were lots of entry-level engineering jobs, but lots of people applying for them. I was overqualified to do anything else, and was getting desperate. Finally, with no money left in the bank, and only enough credit left for one more rent payment and two weeks of groceries, I managed to get a job working for my cousin at a national laboratory.

This wasn’t really a reprieve. The job was awful. It was groundwater research, and I was interested in neither groundwater nor research. It was a government job, and coming from a business background it was terribly frustrating to see how impossible it was to get anything done. It took months to accomplish things that would be done in days in private industry. Every day was miserable, far worse than the job I had left to go to college. On top of that, I was actually taking home less money than before I got my degree.

However, I got two important things out of my time there. I did a lot of technical writing, from field reports to 800+ page software quality assurance documents. And I learned a programming language called LabVIEW.

After four dismal years, I finally left. I was still overqualified for other work, but now I was also unqualified for engineering work. Nothing kills an engineering career like research experience. I was out of work for over a year, buoyed up only by the thought that unemployment and imminent starvation was still better than that job. Then one day, I answered a one-sentence blind ad in the newspaper looking for a LabVIEW programmer, and my life changed.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

You, too, can own a business

There was an interesting article in the Arizona Republic today entitled You, too, can own a business. Some good advice here. I particularly liked the section on time wasters as I am the king of procrastination. I would think "wanting to know the why of everything" would be a real occupational hazard for writers.

The Struggling Writer

My name is Andy Humphrey, known in a few places on the web as Cyjon.

Recently I’ve started down the path of the freelance writer. I am going to chronicle my journey through this intimidating land, describing my exhilarating successes and (more often) my humiliating failures. I hope to provide some guidance for people considering this as a career path, either to help them avoid the mistakes I am bound to make, or to scare them off entirely and make them realize that nice, safe job as an insurance adjuster is a better choice for them.

I also am quite happy to be a source of amusement to the more experienced writer who will just roll their eyes at my naivete ;)

My plan is to blog daily, or at least bi-daily (yes, I often make up my own words). I will discuss the events that led me to this crossroads in my life and why I ended up wandering off in this direction. I will talk about my long-term goals for writing. There are many different ways of making a living from writing and I’ll talk about the ones I’ve chosen and why.

Eventually I will settle down to the real purpose of this blog. I will start to discuss my daily struggles as I seek to find a source of paying work. I will post links to resources I’ve found to help you build your own library of references. And I will occasionally inject nuggets of wisdom or foolishness based on my experiences.

Let us begin our journey.