Monday, May 30, 2011

Bread-and-Butter Writing vs. Bliss Writing

Writers often bemoan that they can't get paid to do the type of writing they love to do.

So I have a solution.

Do both.

I call this, "Bread-and-Butter Writing vs. Bliss Writing."

Here's how it works for me: I write for trade magazines. Those stories are my "Bread-and-Butter Writing." Sometimes, the topics I'm covering are less than interesting to the average bear. And that puts the onus on me to make them sparkle as much as possible.

How do I do it?

I do it with my "Bliss Writing."

Besides this blog, I have two others that focus on my Christian faith. In those, I do the research and writing that I love to do. I don't get paid for these blogs, mostly because I feel that if I'm sharing my faith or information about God, I shouldn't make people pay for that.

In addition, I'm working on a novel. Research for that will require travel to Turkey. While I'm researching the novel and studying the Turkish language, I'm also coming up with story lines and the way in which I want to spin my tale.

Now suppose I'm in the middle of a HORRIBLE Bread-and-Butter assignment. I mean, mind-numbing awful. You know the types of stories I'm talking about, right?

Even if I'm on a deadline, I will take a break from my suffering with my Bliss Writing. I'll head over to one of my blogs, or I'll dig up some more novel research. You may think that this takes away valuable time from the matter at hand. But it actually has an opposite effect.

When I focus on the writing I love to do, something happens creatively with me. Truthfully, I don't know if anyone has done a scientific study of this (and if they haven't, they should). But when I dive into the creative story ... suddenly the Bread-and-Butter story takes shape in my mind. Suddenly, I have my lead, my focus, my structure. Suddenly, the words just FLY.

Does it matter that I get paid for my Bliss Writing? I won't lie -- I would love to see my novel published and on book shelves in Barnes & Noble. But life is short! Why not dig into what I love while I also use that same skill to make my livelihood?

We'd all love to write the things we love to write AND get paid for them. But if you want a life where ... say ... you make enough money to travel to Turkey to interview people and research a novel in archaeological digs for a splendorous work of art ... then take the Bread-and-Butter assignments.

Be grateful for them.

And then let your Bliss Writing fuel your Muse. Because I guarantee you, that Muse WILL awaken. The Bread-and-Butter Writing will no longer seem a chore ... but actually, you might be surprised when it transforms into Bliss.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Power of Positive People on Your Freelancing Business

During the past couple of days, I've been engaging in an online freelance writers' forum. The person who posted the discussion topic was frustrated with people who would write for a nickel a word.

What poured out from that was a deluge of negativity. People discussed how the economy had affected their ability to land assignments paying a decent wage.

I was surprised by the responses. I've been freelancing solo for 10 years (June is my decade anniversary). I've never been without clients, and I've never worked for anyone who paid me the pittance that was described in that writers' forum.

As I reflected on this last night, I realized the reason I've succeeded:

From the get-go, I surrounded myself with positive people.

These people were writers, journalists, editors ... but they also were friends who were solo entrepreneurs. One is a public speaker, for example. (Denise Ryan of Firestar speaking is a dynamo! To see what I'm talking about, check out her positive site at

And, I made a habit in those early days of attending a local coffee group of entrepreneurs. We were all in different businesses -- from real estate to masseuse professionals. But we all had one thing in common. We were positive that our efforts would succeed. We shared tips on how we grabbed the cream of the customers, while our competition lagged behind with the dregs.

Those people infused me with so much energy and optimism! Back then, I think I realized something without even knowing it -- that successful people will always see the gold in the clouds, while everyone else sees the rain.

Yes, we are in a dire economic period.

But let me tell you some of the things I've survived during the past decade:

Three months after I launched my business, the Twin Towers fell. Talk about a bad time to start!

My former husband was sent to war 3 times.

I had a horrific pregnancy in which I was told 4 times that my child was dead. (He was born healthy.) And 3 weeks after a C-section, I bid adieu to my husband as he crossed the sea to Iraq for several months.

I've gone through four moves since I started my business.

I've had five surgeries in a 7-year period.

Last year, I had to leave my marriage ... for reasons I really can't state here. Suffice it to say, the past 12 months have been nothing short of hell.

OK ... the reason I tell you all of this:

I have never gone for one month without business.

I have the best editors in the world.

I have the best paying-people in the world.

I am surrounded by kind, positive and compassionate professionals.

I talk to people globally for my stories.

I'm able to balance my crazy single-mom-hood status with a full plate of stories. Every month. Every month. Every month.

And on average, I'm paid $1 a word.


If you listen to people in chat rooms and forums, if you drag yourself into their negativity, guess what? You will be convinced that they're right.

Surround yourself with positive individuals. No, I'm not a Pollyanna. I am a realist. And I am realistically telling you: If you give yourself the gift of positive influence, you will thrive as a freelancer.

Feel free to contact me if you need a boost of energy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mastering the Motivated Interviewee

Part 4 of this series ...

If someone approaches you and asks you to do a certain story about them, their issue or the person they're representing, it's important that you examine their motive.

Sometimes this type of interview is really quite innocuous. You're covering the local school district, and the PR person requests a story about a kindergarten class that is learning Spanish by emailing pen pals in Peru. Puff pieces like that are no-brainers. Of course, the motive is to garner public support, but the copy is good filler for your publication and a fun story to write at that.

But what I'm talking about are those stories where the motive is a little more fuzzy and where ascertaining it is akin to snatching at vapor.

In those cases, you actually have to work at the article for a while before you really find out what lies beneath the story request. Sometimes, the person does have a valid reason for approaching you: A social injustice has been done, or they really are in the midst of a personal plight that needs to be exposed.

On the other hand ... beware of the glad-hander, the enthusiastic smooth-talker. If you've been a journalist for a while, you know the type of person to which I'm referring. But if you're a novice, the best advice I can give you is to trust your gut when you meet a person like this.

OK, so ... let's look at one example.

When I was at the AP, I covered the state House in Pennsylvania. A politician who was known for his family values platform and was generally well-regarded came into my newsroom one day, personally looking for me. Now this was a red flag. For a politician to seek out a reporter openly? They were hard up to get press. Usually they had "people" to do that for them.

Anyway, this guy was launching an "investigative committee" into organizations that had in the past received strong support from the Legislature.

I have to admit that I was intrigued. Anyone who tosses around the word, "investigative" is either a pit bull looking to expose wrongs -- or someone with a hidden motive to use their power for personal gain.

I started covering these "hearings" and discovered that the "investigation" was on groups like The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As I listened to more and more of the testimony, it became very clear that this was a Republican legislator who was bent on pursuing his own agenda and using his party's political strength to harass legitimate groups with whom he disagreed.

So I continued to cover the hearings, but behind the scenes I did interviews with those who had been targeted -- and with legislators who disagreed on the premise behind the "investigative committee."

After I wrote up my story, the committee was disbanded.

Now ... was I duplicitous? Yes, I admit it. I was. When interviewing someone who comes to you for a story, sometimes it is necessary to keep your own questions to yourself and mask your skepticism. If you start barraging them with things like, "Why are you doing this?" or, "This smacks of impropriety," you're not going to get anywhere in finding out the truth.

So here's my advice on mastering the Motivated Interviewee:

Play along.

Cover the story.

Don't commit to writing the story, though. Just cover it. See what's going on. Allow the person to lead you through it. If they have people they want you to interview, interview them. Give everyone as much face time as possible. Be enthusiastic when talking to them. Let them go on about whatever it is for as long as they like. You know the phrase about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves? In this case, unfortunately, it applies.

And then ... go find the people who don't agree with what's going on. Find out from them the reason behind the story request.

Always be vigilant about hidden motives. Sometimes, the Motivated Interviewee will be extremely convincing about the justness of their cause. If you're a novice reporter, make sure you discuss all of this with your editors before diving in.

Then trust your gut.

You got into this business for a reason, and if you're like me, it was probably to unearth untruths.

So listen to your instinct.

If, after interviewing the naysayers, you decide this is a worthy cause after all, then pursue it with rigor.

But 9 times out of 10?

You'll discover that the Motivated Interviewee is after one thing:

Personal gain.

And after that, the story will look nothing like the one you thought you were getting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mastering the Hard-News Story Interviewee

Part 3 of this series ...

When you're sent out on a tough news story, of course you're going to encounter people who don't want to talk to you.

At all.

So how do you get information from them? Keep in mind these are people who hate to see you coming. They could be politicians hiding something ... victims of a crime or tragedy ... or lawyers or police who are guarding information about their case. You get the idea.

These interviews are not for the faint of heart, and what it comes down to is a psychological war. You, the interviewer, need information. They, the interviewees, are not about to give it to you.

But it can be gotten.

You may think some of these tips are over-the-top simplistic, but believe it or not, this is what worked for me when I was an Associated Press Newswoman:

1) Dress like you mean business. I know, I know, I see the eye rolling right now. But you wouldn't believe how many reporters show up to a story in a pair of jeans and expect people to take them seriously. Whether I was working as a cub reporter and only making $13,000 for the year or was at the top of my game at the AP in Center City Philadelphia ... I dressed to the nines. And it ALWAYS had the desired effect. People want to talk to a professional over a slouch. So be professional. If you're male, wear a tie. Yes. Wear. A. Tie. If you're a woman, get your groove on with those nylons and skirts. Yes. Nylons. And. Skirts. (and heels.)
Listen, I know you think you need to wear that devil-may-care-I'm-a-hot-reporter attitude on your shirt sleeve (literally). But other people just see that as hubris. Get over yourself and dress professionally. Then be surprised at how people will treat you differently when you show up for a quote.

2) Be sincere. I once was assigned a story about the murder of a teenage girl at the hands of her father in the back of their mini van. I'd driven 3 hours to the story in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and I didn't even have the house number on the street where it happened. I spent an hour knocking on doors. Finally, a neighbor pointed out the house. As I turned my head, I saw an elderly woman walking down the street with a policeman, and I ran over. I explained I was from the AP and asked for an interview. The woman hesitated and was near tears.

"Listen," I told her. "I'm very sorry for your pain, and I can't imagine what you've endured. You don't have to talk to me."

She stared back into my eyes. "Thank you," she said.

Now if you're an editor reading this, you're thinking, "I'd never hire that girl!"

But that's not the end of the story.

I got into my little car, and because the house was on a dead-end street, I drove to the intersection and parked. And I waited for the police cruiser to leave the house. About 15 minutes later, his black-and-white sedan pulled up to the stop sign. I jumped out of my car and ran into the middle of the intersection, palms up, telling him to stop.

He rolled down the window.

"I need this story," I told him. "I NEED it. Can you help me?"

He smiled at me. "In all of my years as a cop, I've never seen a reporter with compassion like you showed that lady. Here's what I'm going to do. Get your notebook out. I'll give you the names of everyone in town who knew that girl and their phone numbers and where they're located."

He then gave me the goldmine of all goldmines -- each and every person who painted a story that I never would have received ... if I had not been sincere.

3) Be a pain in the ... okay, you know the rest. It's true that you get more bees with honey. But when the honey pot is dry, you have no other choice than to pull out the vinegar bottle. Yes. I could be (and still can be) such a pain that people will beg me to take the information so that I'll leave them alone. How do you accomplish it?

First -- this is assuming that you've already tried the honey route. Always try the honey route first. When you're working the story in "sweet" mode, you are able to glean information, even if it's just bits and pieces. Take those mosaics and start getting your picture together, even if it's not complete. As you work the story throughout the day, you'll find that you'll get some tidbits that hint at impropriety ... or that have a clear-cut window opening to evidence that you know someone doesn't want you to have.

This is where it gets dicey, because now it's time to bluff and bluster.

Suppose you have an interviewee who isn't budging at all on the information you need. After you've assembled these picture pieces and you see your glaring holes, go back to the person.

Tell them: "This is what I know. This is what people have been willing to tell me on the record. We can do this one of two ways. You can fill in the missing pieces for me, and we'll have an accurate story. Or you can withhold from me, and I can print a story that has the following information. (Then tell them what you know.) This information may not paint the story correctly, but I can trust and verify that it's correct. It's up to you on how we tell the story from here on out."

Watch the alarm register on the face.

You'll find that after that, people would rather give you what you're missing than have you print a story where the public derives inferences from what you've independently gathered.

One caveat: In order for this tactic to work, you really do need your ducks in order. You must have verifiable sources, and you must know for a fact that the "mosaic pieces" are definitely connected to the missing pieces. Otherwise, you'll be laughed out of the person's office. However, if you've adequately done your reporting, you'll be seen as a force with which to be reckoned. It may result in getting the missing story pieces off the record. But you can work with that. The point is to get the information you're lacking so that you can unearth the very foundation of your story.

Now what happens if a source approaches you and ASKS you to do a story? Sometimes you need to be careful with that. It's all about ascertaining the motive. Tune in for part 4.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mastering the Feature Interviewee

Part 2 of this story series ...

So you've been assigned what we in the industry call a "puff piece," or, to put it another way, "a thumb sucker" -- the simplistic feature profile.

But is it really that simple?

A lot of "serious journalists" I know get these stories and immediately assume that this is one of the easiest pieces to write. Perhaps it's because features, unlike hard news stories, connote feelings of good will between the interviewer and interviewee. And in that case, my colleagues would be correct about its facileness.

But have you ever had an editor say to you, "This lead is flat?"

Basically, what they're telling you (in a phrase that equates to: "This sucks.") is that you haven't captured the essence of the person. You haven't made us want to read more. This copy is just filler, nothing more. Couldn't you have done something better to rub some sparkle into it?

If you approach the feature interviewee with this shoulder-shrug attitude, your story WILL be boring, and no one will read it past the first sentence.

So how do you master the feature interviewee? Here are some thoughts:

1) Get serious about story prep. Research, research, research this person before you walk into their realm and ask them questions. The more you know about someone beforehand, the more likely you'll begin to care about who they really are. And face it. Caring is the central component here.

2) Put the person at ease. If they're nervous about being interviewed or if they don't look at "the media" in a favorable light, you're going to get a lot of stilted one-word answers and superficial replies. So right at the get go, make sure this person knows you're a friend, not an enemy. You're there simply to tell a story. What I normally do is start off with saying a simple word: Thank you. I thank every person for spending time with me, for making an effort to clear their busy schedule to chat, for being willing to share with the readers their insights or experiences. I let them know that my readers will derive great benefit from their story -- and I do this even if I'm interviewing a child. People appreciate that idea, and you'll find that the stiff body language will soften. Soon, you'll get the answers you desire.

3) Use positive body language. Smile a lot. Laugh. Even if you're on the phone and they can't see you smiling, your positive vibes will come through to them. No one likes to talk to a grouch. So be nice, and your story will begin to take shape even as you type the person's words while they talk.

4) Decide in advance that you care. If you go into a story like this with the attitude that this is just a simple slam dunk assignment, your story WILL be boring. Convince yourself before you meet with the interviewee that your editor gave you this piece for a good reason (even if you don't see it). Then work like crazy to find out that reason for yourself. When you care about something genuinely, the questions will become profound, and the interviewee will sense that you have their interests at heart.

5) Don't let the interviewee's nervousness derail the interview. Be professional but courteous. If you're doing an interview where you're the one who is nervous (have you ever interviewed a celebrity?), then get a grip! This person is a regular person, just like you, although they may have accomplished fame in one way or another. So focus on what you have in common with them, and the rest will fall into place.

Now what if your interviewee is the subject of a controversial issue or news story? That requires another approach altogether. Tune in for part 3 of this series.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mastering the Interview

When I tell people that I've been a journalist for 20 years, their first question is, "What magazines? What topics?"

They're surprised when I list the variety of publications, which range from military, to real estate, to engineering and information technology, to human resource issues, to entrepreneur issues.

"How do you know how to ask the right questions or have enough knowledge about each of those things to ask the questions?" they then ask.

Basically, I tell them, and I'll share with you, too -- it comes down to knowing how to interview people.

So let's start with the basics: What makes up a good story interview?

I'll sum it up in one word:


Convey curiosity to anyone -- anyone -- about their topic in question, and you'll open the floodgates.

And how do you do that?

In my situation, I have the luxury of deadlines that are far off. In my newspaper days and wire service days, sometimes my deadlines were "five minutes ago." I didn't have time to think much about interview questions. But regardless of whether you have a lot of time to prepare, if you always convey to the person that you care about what they have to share, you'll get your story.

Think about it this way: You're sitting at a bar and in walks your favorite movie star. He or she sits down right next to you and starts small talk. What questions would you ask them? And what do you think your demeanor would be towards them? If you're like me, you'd probably fawn over them a little, smile a lot, make eye contact, nod your head ... and ask questions that would give them a little bit of an ego boost.


Now every interviewee from now on is that movie star.

I'm serious.

If you're just a small-town news reporter doing a profile on the local elementary school janitor who has worked for 50 years among children ... give him that movie star treatment.

If you're covering a highly-technical story on an engineering firm that will be giving a nuclear power plant an overhaul ... give that expert the movie star treatment.

If you're on a crime scene and need to glean information from a hard-as-nails cop ... give that cop the movie star treatment.

It works. I kid you not, it worked for me every time.

But sometimes the story does call for a little extra prep and thought.

So tune in for part 2 of this series, when we'll discuss Mastering the Feature Interviewee.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cold Calls: The Bane of the Freelancer's Existence

So if you think that being a freelance writer entails a life of sitting by the fire with a steaming English teapot while you craft brilliant prose by channeling your Muse ...


That's part of it.

That's the delicious part of it.

But, to get to that point, you also have to be willing to do the unthinkable.

Cold Calls.

You heard me right.

I see the shudders now through my computer screen.

Listen. Cold calls, when all is said and done, are the only way to go when you're trying to beat your competition. Don't sit there and tell me, "But I have a great query idea!" If you want to pay your mortgage and your bills ... if you want to feed your children and put clothes on everyone's back ... if you want to collect so much business that there's plenty left over for that trip to Yosemite, or better yet, a cruise or a flight to Paris ... you have to be willing to make cold calls.

When I started freelancing 10 years ago, I read this little tip in a book and thought, "You ARE kidding me." But then I decided to carve out just one week to do nothing but cold calls.

I won't kid you.

It's not for the faint of heart, and I hate every single blasted second of it.

And you may not think the results are that great. Expect a 1 percent return. That's right. For every 100 calls you make, expect one to turn into a client.

Here's the thing, though: I've had those clients (2 of them) for 10 years. Now let's do the math. If each of those clients gives me an average of six to eight stories per year, averaging $1,000 per story ... over 10 years ... do you see the income we're generating here?

If you just block out one week -- ONE WEEK -- for cold calls, yes, you will hear a lot of "Nos." But the YESes far outweigh them.

And just think -- if one of those out of 100 pays you $1 per word and hires you again and again, wouldn't you say that week spent of eating crow and begging for work over the phone was worth it?

You betcha.

So tomorrow ... I am going to suck it up and do the unthinkable.

I am going to embrace the cold call. And you can bet that instead of focusing on the rejections, I'm going to be dialing with dollar signs in my eyes.

Because I WILL land that one client who will make it all worth it.