How to rock at good content writing – tips from this freelance writer to you!

My first consistent job as a freelance writer was churning out social media content. I had never done this before, but I had been doing a lot of networking, created this website to serve as my resume, and picked up free or small paying articles to generate a modest portfolio. Thanks to a connection and my website, I snagged the job.

I have now been writing social media content for small businesses for about three years.

I’ve learned a few things:

  1. Content is the most important thing. Blog posts matter. It’s not a fading hobby from the early 2000s. When you write great content based on important keywords for your business or industry, which turns into traffic and growth.
  2. Write a short but strong title. People won’t click on the post if the title doesn’t make sense, is screaming “CLICKBAIT!!”, and has a focus. One idea is to determine that for these two months, all of my articles are going to be about this specific keyword. Then include that word in every single title and include it in your meta tags.
  3. Use images. For the company I work with for my consistent social-media-content work, they have partnered with a stock-image site for us to use. This is rad because I don’t have to make my own images or search for free options on the web. On my own website, I do create my own so I often draw doodles to go with my content or reuse my typewriter drawing. It’s my personal branding. Images matter because they look good (instead of just a bunch of text), and they make it prettier for others to share your post. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media sites will automagically pull an image to post with your link when somebody shares it. Give them a good image and the likelihood that others will re-share goes up. Share all the love!
  4. Write clearly and concisely. Lists are good. People like lists.
  5. Be clear about the point of your blog post. What is the goal you have in mind? Do you want somebody to buy a service you’re offering? Tell them at the start, in the middle, at the end, and throw in a graphic to remind them how they’ll love your service. Don’t hint at your goal. State it and mean it.
  6. Link to your own content. The longer you can keep people on your site, the better!
  7. Cite correctly. I will never forget the day that I had an email from an editor stating that my blog post I submitted looked like plagiarism. That was absolutely NOT my intent, but I didn’t cite correctly. If in doubt, link to the source. Thankfully, I could fix my issue with the post prior to any publishing and had worked with the editor long enough that we still have a good, working relationship today. But learn from MY mistake and be safer than sorrier.
  8. Remember the DESIGN of your site. If your font is too small, the typeface is difficult to read, the background is distracting, you don’t break up your content into small paragraphs, and you neglect to use lists, people will leave because they’re turned off by the look of your online presentation.

I hope these tips help you rock content creation. What have you found that helps?

Want more tips on freelance writing? These are good ones!

24 writing prompts to get you going on your memoir

typewriter-memoirI meet with my writers’ group once a month; we share our writing, critique each other, laugh, eat, and love being together. We schedule and coordinate our monthly gatherings using a Facebook group where I’ve been dubbed honorary President. (It’s because I have computer skillz, yo.) For each month, I include some random writing prompts with the invite, and you know what? I just realized I now have a decent list of these because we’ve been meeting for several years now. Here you go, enjoy!

Writing prompts for your memoir:

  • explore your immense love for parent-teacher conferences
  • write about the last time you baked a pie
  • open a journal entry, share the first several lines, and expound
  • describe your workout routine
  • what’s straight up rad about your life right now
  • when was the last time you learned to do something new
  • what happened to your long lost love
  • are you surviving the school year
  • write about that time you drove across the entire country to live in Canada during the bleak and cold winter in spite of your SAD
  • profess your love of cats on the internet
  • I start to write by…
  • My writing environment works for me because…
  • The last time I had a dream and tried to write about it, but it just didn’t come out like Megan’s dream posts…
  • write about a conversation that had an impact on your life
  • write about one of the memorable nights of a writing class
  • write about your biggest challenge right now
  • write your own obituary
  • which parent are you most like
  • write a summer memory
  • write about a trip to Disneyland
  • write a letter to an impactful high school teacher
  • what did you dream about last night
  • what did Megan dream about last night
  • what does your life look like through the “eyes” of the traffic camera at an intersection near your home

How to overcome the curse of knowledge in your writing

typewriter-curse-of-knowledgeWe are plagued with information imbalances.

Have you ever tried explaining a grammar concept to a non-writing friend and it just doesn’t stick?

“Passive sentences start with the BE-VERBS. It’s the be-verbs!”

“Bee verbs?” Confusion.

“You should have used lay, not lie.”

“All I did was put my purse down, geez.”

When we know something, we don’t remember what it’s like to not know it. At least, not easily. We have to overcome what’s known as the Curse of Knowledge.

You’re likely familiar with the cliché, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Sometimes, we think this saying is a dig at teachers, but more truth lies in what is says about somebody who knows the ins and outs of their area of expertise. They’re buried in a wealth of knowledge and can’t see above it to give the novice a high-level introduction. The CEO of a company has decades of business wealth filed away into his brain and comes up with this incredible corporate goal that sums it all up: “Achieve efficient manufacturing!” When his employees are at a loss as to how to interpret this into achievable steps, he’s at a loss for how to explain it to them. You might be better at teaching a concept to somebody else by sharing your discoveries with them as you learn.

What does this have to do with your writing?

Everything.

You have a wealth of knowledge in your head about your story. If you’re writing a fiction, you can picture your characters’ world simply by closing your eyes. You know your characters perhaps better than you know your own family! If you’re writing a memoir, it’s all about you and, of course, you’re the expert. You know and lived your history.

You need to watch out for the Curse of Knowledge in your writing. Will your reader be able to follow your story?

Here are a few of my favorite tips for trying to overcome this:

  1. Revisit your writing later: When you’re in the midst of your words from chapter twenty-two, it all makes sense to you. But when did you last review the first chapters? When you go back to your writing after a long enough break, you can see it with a fresh perspective and notice areas of confusion.
  2. Tell don’t show: You’ve likely heard this phrase over and over and over throughout your education and career. It matters. And this is an example of where it matters. The CEO example above is the boss telling his people what to do instead of showing them. A quick way to find places where you’re telling is to search out all of your adverbs. When you find them, ask yourself if you need to rework that section to better show your story.
  3. Tell a story: Uh, that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re writing a story so duh. You’re telling it. But, are you using stories within your stories? My example comes from my memoir I’m writing right now. The focus of my story is one summer spent during college selling books door-to-door, but many of my experiences need my back story. My story includes my stories: the high school boyfriend; the freshman roommates; the calculator from high school math; the accounting class that stole my scholarship away from me. These didn’t happen that summer, but by weaving them in, they give a better understanding of the me from that summer.
  4. Take your story to your writers’ group: Others don’t suffer from your Curse of Knowledge so ask them to read and respond. Get feedback. I use my writers’ group for this, as well as some friends and family. The writers’ group is the best bet for me, because they are there for that purpose and don’t feel imposed upon. And they’re lovely.

Do you have any tips to add to my list? How do you overcome the Curse of Knowledge in your writing?

Sweet Christmas gifts for the writer in your life!

typewriter-christmas-gifts

Hooray for the holidays and finding just the perfect gift for that writer in your life whom you love so much. Here are some sweet gifts you can get them because that incredible, antique typewriter is crazy expensive and who can find one of those at a pawn shop anyway?!

A sweet typewriter t-shirt: What better way to tell the writer in your life of your undying devotion to them than by spelling it out on a sweet, old typewriter? Yes! They’re just your type. They’ll love it. And Woot! does a great job of putting out quality t-shirts as well so you’ll be happy with the fit, too. Feel free to buy a whole slew of t-shirts. Dress the entire family in them. When the kids get to match with mom and dad, everyone wins. Woot woot! While you’re on their site, browse the other shirt designs as well. Woot does an awesome job of gathering work from lots of independent artists so when you buy from there, you’re supporting an individual’s creative work. That’s pretty rad in my book.

Document scanner: writers may not WANT to stay organized, but keeping on top of work and taxes and doodling to go with their creative posts would be much easier with a highly rated scanner. I like (and want, hint hint) this one. Some people have scanners through their all-in-one printer and that will do the trick for scanning receipts or a signed contract, but it can’t cut the mustard for scanning in artwork. I like to draw something to go with posts on my personal blog and until I have this printer, my clunky workaround is to use my phone and then open the picture in Photoshop. Like I said: clunky.

The writer in your life is also a reader so here are five books you might buy as cherished Christmas gifts:

Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2017: Who They Are, What They Want, How to Win Them Over. This book wins as the best guide for getting published and all writers desire the covetous publishing contract. Even the published writers are looking for improving their publishing game! Okay. Unless it’s Rowling. She’s probably in good shape. Last I checked, though, Rowlings are far and few between so guides like this are fabulous additions to a writer’s library.

The Art of Memoir. I would put this one near the top of my personal list because I’ve been working on my own memoir for the last two years. This book is an excellent guide from both Karr’s experience writing her own memoirs to other authors whose experiences she includes in this book. Plus, in the end, it will remind you: your story is worth telling.

All the Light We Cannot See. Some books don’t live up to the hype. They’re on the bestselling list because a celebrity wrote them, or perhaps a 15-minutes-of-fame-youtube celebrity. Or there’s some sappy ooey gooey going on that some book clubs have jumped on. Not this one. This one is a NYTimes bestseller, yes. And, this one is the real deal. I used to be in a book club with coworkers, several of them professional writers. They often shot down the latest and greatest crazes, but this book was highly enjoyed. It’s a lyrical beauty.

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. If you’ve talked much with the writer in your life, you’ll know that the evil hand of distraction is constantly looming over their daily word-count goals! That’s why this book is such a gem. Wouldn’t you love to understand the science behind why your brain works better under certain circumstances than others? Brains are fascinating. David Rock has the experts tell you how they work.

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. Not all writers come from a renowned MFA program! Take me for example: my master’s degree is in technical writing. Boy, let me tell YOU: I can whip out a riveting user manual, yo. When I purchased my copy of this book, it was a few years ago, but from its pages, I got to relive some of the brain-churning challenges of my bachelor’s in English. This version is updated and expanded. That’s cool. You’ll find a reading program outlined in this book, but it’s a program set up more like a study of the masters that you might have gone through in an MFA degree. To be honest, I don’t know for sure because I don’t have one, but I have a good feeling about the things I learn from this book. It’s a brilliant guide.

A beautiful dot journal from the classic Moleskine. But, why a Moleskine? What’s all the hype about? Here’s my brief list about why (based on personal experience, of course): Durable (two of mine are now 17-years old and well loved); they treasured and therefore used; they feel amazing as you hold them in your hand; they have many styles and options to find your perfect match. Your writer will love you for buying them such a treasured gift.

Pens!!! No writer wants to be without a pen and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Seriously. One of the favorites of many writers (according to some website I found once years ago so trust my memory on this one, people) is the Pilot G2. So stock up with a whole slew of black, blue, and red pens. You’ll get a big hug for this gift. Really big.

An antique typewriter. Oh my wool socks, I would give up so much to get my hands on my very own truly genuine beautiful piece of work in the form of an antique typewriter! Seriously. One day, I hope I am able to add one to my life. Until that day comes, perhaps this pencil holder would be nice next to my monitor. I mean, it is pretty adorable.

Creating an invoice as a freelance writer

Once I’ve finished some good, hard freelance work, it’s always satisfying to get to the final step: sending in the invoice. I’ve heard that for some, this step can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t be because you’ve already done these things:

  1. Agreed on your pay rate
  2. Kept track of your hours
  3. Your final work has been approved/accepted

Now all you have to do is put it together and send it along. Hopefully, the payment comes back shortly and your bank account is a little richer (until tax time!).

freelance-invoice-exampleIf you agree on pay rate based on project then the invoice is super simple as it will be one line item: ‘this is my project that I did for you and here’s how much we agreed I would be paid’. Send that in. Get paid. Fist pump!

I recently did a project where my contract was hourly. This was a first for me so I had to figure out a different way of writing up my invoice. I used Excel because: free! Obviously, if you have software for your accounting then you can figure out how to use that for an invoice. My Excel template took a little bit of finagling to calculate the dollar amount based on hh:mm in the time column, but once I had that set up, I could track my rate down to the minute. If that’s not in your wheelhouse, then feel free to download my template example and set it up for your own needs: Lauren Elkins’s Hourly Invoice Template. You’re welcome!

So how did I know to the minute how much work I did on each day? I use a really simple (and free!) time tracking tool: TopTracker. With it, I track both my hourly and project work. I don’t need it for invoices with project work, but I do want to know if I’m getting better with managing my time so that I’m making more per hour or minute with each project. That’s how I make more money, which is just one of my many goals as a freelancer. Once I’ve completed a project, I can use TopTracker to generate a csv file with my tracked time each day. Then I write that up in my invoice and send it along.

I also enter information into Quicken to keep track of my books using that software, but I despise their invoices. Hence creating my own in Excel.

Hope this was helpful for you. Now, go and freelance your way to riches and power!

Three rad writing posts I read today

typewriter-redShould writers blogThis post is nearly a year old so in the internet world, that’s ancient, yo. The two reasons why you should NOT blog were a good reminder of my lack of commitment. I promise, I am going to improve! I’m going to write the three reasons I SHOULD blog on a piece of paper to stick in front of my monitor to help with my commitment: connect with others; improve writing skills; increase site traffic.

15 ways to coin a successful book title Because this has an infographic. I like infographics.

The only reason your story should have flashbacks Because I am writing my memoir and it’s full of flashbacks, but really: how many of them should I include and are they used well? Just another box on the checklist of editing my own work!

What have you read today?

What’s killing your ability to focus?

distractedI have many distractions in my home office. As I am sitting here right this very second, the cat is on my lap (he moves constantly), there’s clutter on my desk, toys are all around me, and the task board on the wall keeps whispering to me, “I’m not up to date!” My daughter is napping and my son is finishing the last few minutes of his quiet time, otherwise, there would be two additional distractions.

And then, there’s the distractions of my own mind. I can come up with really good ideas for some piece of furniture we need for a space in our home to improve the organization so I should run and measure it then look up possible purchases on Ikea but I’m actually supposed to be working on some technical editing assignment due in a day.

And last, there’s the distraction of your phone. If there’s a notification light flashing, tell me: how strong is your will to ignore it until you’ve put in your next 30-60 minutes of writing? Or do you really need to know who posted a comment on that Facebook pic you posted a couple of days ago? I do!

I recently read a great article on Harvard Business Review, “The Two Things Killing Your Ability To Focus.” Check it out for yourself and here are the highlights and a thought about what I really liked about it. First, the two things killing your focus:

  • We use digital media (tablets, phones, etc) for over 12 HOURS A DAY on average!
  • We spend two much time in meetings.

Then, the meat of the article is what I liked the most: 5 practices to remain focused and improve effectiveness.

  1. Practice mindfulness. I used this to change how I start my day and resist the temptation to immediately check my phone. Before I was worn out from the sleep habits of an infant, I would start with a morning yoga sequence: the sun salutation. I need to go back to that!
  2. Organize tasks. I have a task board that reflects my former life as a Scrum master. I have fallen out of practice of using it, but in part, I think it’s because it’s missing more tasks in my “blue category” which would represent more creative tasks. Instead, I get overwhelmed with all of the red-orange tasks on my board: clean clean clean! (I choose to ignore them instead.)
  3. Clean up. I do a very excellent job of keeping my desktop of my computer clean. Ever since Windows moved over to launching everything from the Start, my desktop rarely needs icons. My digital world stays pretty clean, but I’m terrible at keeping things tidy in my real, tangible world. If anybody can help me out (besides telling me to buy Marie Kondo’s book!), I’m listening. I think I’ll start by doing a better job of making the bed in the morning. That gets ignored, oh, 99 percent of the time.
  4. Shrink meetings. This step is for those in lots of meetings. That was once my life, but we had learned how to make those meetings pretty effective and they worked best when it was only the core team. Others jumping in (invited or not) turned into impediments. I do not miss my former life of meeting mania!
  5. Preserve buffers. In the meeting world, schedule breaks in between meetings. In the working-from-home-as-a-mom world, I’m not entirely sure how to do this, but I had an idea the other day that might be just what I’m looking for and it involves graph paper and adding more “green” to my task board (health/wellness). If I take a graph paper and set it up with large boxes for each green task, then as I am consistently doing them (things like reading scriptures, attending  church, working out, meditation, etc), I get to fill in one of the graph squares. So over time, I can see which green tasks I am doing consistently as I color in the corresponding box. If it works out, I’m going to blog about my experiment.

Now, I need to focus on redistributing some dirt in my front yard. If you want to help, bring a metal rake!

Finding your writers’ group

writersgroup“The best way to handle the madness that is publishing is to join a gang.” What do you think? Interesting writing advice. When I read this in an article about writing advice, I nodded my head, smiling.

Because I am in a gang!

I am part of a gang of other writers. When I sit down to write my blog, content for small businesses, or more of my memoir, I do this alone. But then, I take my work to my fellow writers and we read, edit, comment, praise, and enjoy each other’s words. So far, our group has celebrated small publications and some big time, real deal books.

I cherish my gang. They are a gift.

How did I find them? By taking a writing class.

I read about the class on the blogs of the two giving the class, authors/writers Louise Plummer and Ann Cannon. I read it on my phone, standing in my parent’s cabin in Midway and I immediately asked my husband what he thought about it. It was a weekly class for a couple of months so that meant I wouldn’t be around for Thursday bedtimes for a while with our toddler. And my husband was supportive. Yes! I married a good one.

At the time, I wrote for fun. I had my personal blog and that was pretty much it. I worked full time as a Business Systems Analyst, paying the bills at the time while my husband was in school to earn his master’s and “working” for free as an administrative intern in a nearby school district.

The class was amazing because of the others that I met there. Some had published writing, one had published books, others wrote blogs, and a few just took the class to stretch themselves. And we learned that we loved being together, sharing our writing and our stories, so as the class finished, we turned to email to coordinate a monthly get together.

That was two years ago and we haven’t missed a month yet.

We’ve celebrated a book launch, we’ve gone on a retreat, we’ve gone to a writer’s conference (splitting the hotel costs and sharing beds), and we’ve gone through life together, too: death, birth, loss of faith, true joy, and a wedding.

My writing gang is a gift to my life now that I’ve quit the full-time job, chosen to stay home with two small kids, and work on my writing as a means of making money! My writing gang is also a gift to my life in a group of very real friends.

So I agree with the writing advice I quoted at the start, but would also add, in addition to handling the madness that is publishing, my gang is also the best way for me to handle the madness that is LIFE.

Managing my online writer presence

my-online-brand

Not long after getting married, I bought laurenelkins.com. I could finally purchase my own name domain name. My maiden name was purchased years ago by somebody doing nothing with the site. Infuriating much? I mean, come on, laurencampbell.com owner. What a waste.

But I’ve got my name now and that’s a big step for me in creating my online writer presence. Because when the day comes and my book is good enough to pitch, I expect any interested (or even slightly curious) agents will ask the almighty Google what it knows about one Lauren Elkins. So I want ME Lauren Elkins, to show up as THE Lauren Elkins from the search. Not OTHER Lauren Elkinseseses.

Here are the things I’ve done to try and claim and create Lauren Elkins online:

  1. Own my name domain.
  2. Create a clean, informational site on my domain.
  3. Share my portfolio.
  4. Blog about writing.
  5. Blog about whatever I feel like.
  6. Be active on social media.
    1. Twitter
    2. Facebook
    3. LinkedIn
    4. Pinterest

So what can I do better? A few things:

  1. Optimize my social media impact.
  2. Increase my blog traffic.
  3. Blog more frequently.
  4. Include good images with each blog (pinnable images).
  5. Keep checking Google to see what it might tell a literary agent about me.

Now I just need more time in my life between raising little kiddos, writing content for small businesses, sleeping, eating, and showering, to actually do the above in addition to finishing my memoir. Maybe I should quit showering and use that time. Every little bit counts!

SEO Sleuthing

Once upon a time, I worked for a small company that made and sold girls clothing. They had a website that brought in a little bit of traffic and they asked me to get more traffic to it so I began researching SEO. I improved things for them and they were happy enough.

Well, let me tell you that SEO from 10+ years ago is NOT the same as SEO today. It changes constantly. So if I’m to stay on top of it, I would need to research it constantly. Which I won’t. But I did research it lately and found a few helpful tips for me. Perhaps they’re helpful for you, too.

  1. Keyword research is important. I won’t go into detail on this because you can stop over on the website I linked to and read up on it. Helpful stuff. Think of it like finding the trending hashtags on Twitter.
  2. Do something with those keywords. When I’ve done my research, I plan to post blogs in the next few months around these subjects. It’s helpful to have content suggestions when writing.
  3. Write about what you’re an expert in. People like hearing from somebody who knows what they’re talking about.
  4. Interview an expert.
  5. Shoot for 300 words, at least. The magic number seems to be 1,500. Search engines like in-depth, which surprises me, because personally, I prefer to read short, specifically lists. So I want to mix it up: lists for my reading enjoyment, lengthier posts to make search engines happy.
  6. Optimize the content. Apparently since I’m on a wordpress platform, there are some good ones out there I should look into and start using such as Yoast and Shareaholic. This one needs further research on my part.
  7. Be your own editor. Content reads better with more white space so avoid long paragraphs. Don’t make typos. Use grammar well (not good). Sometimes, I walk away from a blog post before publishing, then come back and read it once I’ve let it sit. I’ll catch mistakes better this way.
  8. Do your own PR. For my personal blog, I do this some by sharing my posts to Facebook. Other places to share: instagram, reddit, twitter, digg, and stumbleupon.

So that’s the start of my research. What did I miss? What else is important for SEO?