Monthly Archives: February 2011

When writers run out of ideas

Here’s some irony for you: I’ve been wondering for days what this week’s blog post should be about, but I kept coming up blank. No ideas.

That was my eureka moment. Writers run out of ideas all the time. Despite public perception, we’re not necessarily a fount of amazing thoughts, of visions brought to life on the page. Sometimes the space between our ears feels pretty useless for generating anything more than our to-do lists.

For freelancers, this isn’t necessarily as big a problem as it may seem. The vast majority of my stories are assigned to me from editors who already have the ideas. They typically know just what they want, and when they lay out the parameters of the topic I can almost always oblige. Happily.

See, here’s my shameful secret: I’m not an ideas person. Rather, I consider myself an excellent tactician, someone who can skillfully execute ideas in a way that pleases both the thinker and the doer. I’d much rather my editors continue feeding me topics, because I feel it’s a better use of my time than mentally fumbling for something that will light up the page.

When some brilliant thought does pop into my head (obviously an intermittent event), I seize the chance to flesh out a story from the ground up.  I get that fire-in-the-belly feeling that comes from creating the idea that creates the piece. It’s an awesome moment.

But the raw fact is, being the doer instead of the thinker works best for me, and luckily it seems to be a win-win for my editors too.

And that’s my big idea for this week’s post.


The single-shot client

I almost never search for writing clients who offer a single project for hire. Except for magazine pitches — which may win an assignment with no guarantee of future work — I consider the single-shot client a waste of time. It all comes down to economies of scale, really. It pretty much takes the same amount of hustle to chase a client for a one-time gig as it does to chase another for an ongoing stream of work. If I’m trying to work smarter instead of harder, the choice is easy.

But what about when the single-shot client comes to you? That’s what happened just before Christmas, when someone who’d read one of my articles contacted me asking if I could write a lot more just like it. He runs a website with a very particular health focus and asked me to go wide and deep to create content to expand that focus. I was flattered, but also a little flummoxed.

Who was this guy? How could I be sure he wouldn’t just use my work and leave me with an unpaid invoice? Would my writing be edited and displayed in a way consistent with my wider body of work? It would have my name on it, after all — a name I have been careful to associate with quality writing.

But I realized this was the right challenge to have. And it forced me to figure out some of the vagaries of the writing business that I usually leave to the larger companies I write for. The contract, for one. That would have my name on it too, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t screwed.

I found an online template of a standard writing agreement and customized it to my needs, requiring 50 percent of my fee up front and laying out who owned the rights to the completed work (him) and where else it could be published or adapted (nowhere). I was happy to see him follow the agreement to the letter and amazed to receive final payment two days after I completed the project. I have to say, it was also very nice to pad my bank account by that much more in addition to my expected income that month.

Would I do it again? Well, the client emailed me this week asking for more articles. Looks like my single-shot has turned into a double.


Should writers specialize?

Spinning off last week’s terrific guest post by Wendee Holtcamp about how to break into “green” magazines — a specialized niche if ever there was one — it seems a lot of writers lately have been debating the essential question of whether to specialize at all.

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean you write about only one subject area. I’ve seen writer’s bios saying they “specialize” in about seven things, ranging from technology to parenting to food writing, and wondered how their background and expertise could possibly span such divergent topics. Nevertheless, it’s a personal choice to specialize your writing abilities, whether that means one topic or 10. Only you can decide.

Awhile back, around the time I realized it would be wise to transition from print to online writing, I also decided I really wanted to be a health writer. I’m what I call a health news junkie, and looking back even to early childhood, I always was. I remember eagerly opening the Reader’s Digest each month and quickly flipping to the action-packed narratives about people’s health crises, lapping up the medical lingo and details others might find tedious. To me, it was fascinating. (Geeky? Yeah, but I own it now.)

This was more of an impulse than a decision. It felt natural, and so was my decision to specialize in health. It seemed the ideal melding between my years dissecting cow eyeballs and cats (yes, I really dissected a cat) and my eventual foray into writing. The perfect blend, as they say.

Specializing brings other rewards as well. Health writing tends to pay a bit better (and sometimes, a great deal better) because people like me need to know — and be able to seamlessly translate — minutiae about anatomy, diseases, treatments and a lot more. What’s the difference between MS and Lou Gherig’s disease? Or laparoscopy and da Vinci surgery? It’s my business to tell readers without confusing them, and ideally to entertain them in the process.

Some writers have blogs that perfectly reflect their niches: Kelly James-Enger’s “Dollars and Deadlines” [http://dollars anddeadlines.blogspot.com] and Meagan Francis’ “The Happiest Mom” [http://thehappiestmom.com] are two of my favorites. In a nutshell, Kelly writes about writing and Meagan writes about mothering, but if you take a peek at their blogs you’ll quickly see that it’s not as simple as all that. Each of them bring their specialties alive in a way that’s enlightening and educational and makes you want to come back for more.

That’s why I specialize — because health writing never grows stale for me, and if I do my job right, my writing won’t be stale to those reading it. But not every writer agrees that specializing is either smart or necessary. What do you think?