Mary’s Muses

5 Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Writer

I’m a decent baker. I make pretty awesome chocolate chip cookies, but I’d never dream of baking a wedding cake. That takes real expertise.

So why are companies having “decent” writers create web and brochure copy? If you’re a geophysicist or a banker, go ahead and write your own emails and business letters. But when it comes to creating sales, marketing, editorial and web content, those things require expertise. Here are five reasons you should hire a writing professional:

  1. A pro can identify your communication needs. It’s not unusual for a client to call and say, “I need a brochure.” When I follow up with questions about what messages they want to include and what action they hope clients will take, I’m often met with a blank stare. They just want a brochure because their competitor has one. A professional writer will help you identify your message and the best channel – website, social media, brochure, article – through which to send it.
  2. Audience matters. Your basic message may be the same, but the way you need to say it will vary depending upon who you’re trying to reach. Are you talking to potential clients? Long-time customers? Vendors? Regulators or governmental officials? A communications professional can help identify your intended audiences and tailor-make messages for them.
  3. Sometimes you’re too close to the subject. For example, a real estate agent who sells a couple dozen homes each year, doesn’t think twice about terms like “amortization,” “adjustable rate mortgage” or “bridge loan.” But if you’re a first-time home buyer and you encounter a website filled with these foreign words and phrases, your heart will start to race and your anxiety level will rise. A professional writer can make even complex subjects easy to understand.
  4. Mistakes make you look bad. Sure, Spellcheck will catch a lot of errors, but it won’t stop you from using the wrong there/their or its/it’s. You may argue that no one is hiring a plumber or landscaper based on their spelling ability. You’re right. But people do want to hire someone who projects reliability and professionalism. Silly errors make you look amateurish.
  5. Efficiency matters. Unless your expertise is content creation, you’re liking spending far longer writing and editing than you should be. Wouldn’t your time be better spent doing your real job? You have processes and knowledge that allow you to get your job done efficiently and effectively. The same is true of professional writers. By hiring a pro, you’ll save time and money and end up with content that draws people in.

 

It Only Takes One ‘Yes’

If you submit your writing for publication you will, someday, receive a rejection letter. It’s inevitable. If you haven’t gotten one yet, you either haven’t submitted enough or you are the next coming of Ernest Hemingway who, by the way, received a rejection slip for The Sun Also Rises. The 1924 publisher’s rebuff called his writing “both tedious and offensive.”

When I first started submitting my work, I saved all my rejection letters. A few years ago, realizing how horrifically unhealthy this habit was, I spent a therapeutic afternoon shredding the entire folder – except for one letter.

The sole survivor was a note that stung badly when I first received it. Now, years later, I can laugh at its bold insult. The letter was a blurry photocopy which the rejecter “personalized” by handwriting my name after the typed “Dear.” My favorite line reads: We are sorry to tell you that we cannot publish your work now or in the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future? That seemed so cruel, almost threatening.

The snub could have knocked me to my knees. I could have sworn off writing forever. Instead, I remembered the advice a college professor had given me years earlier: It only takes one “yes.” He’d convinced me that my writing was strong enough that if someone didn’t want the book or article I was pitching, it was actually a blessing. I hadn’t yet reached the right editor or publication. If I believed in my work, I had to keep trying to find the right match. He was right.

Don’t believe me? Let me share this story about my friend, author Garth Stein:

Garth and I were both teaching writing part time at a Tacoma, Wash., high school back in around 2000-2001. We met one evening after a student event to have a beer and talk with another author friend. Garth, who’d already enjoyed critical success with his first two novels, was frustrated that his agent had told him she was taking a pass on his new manuscript.

He went on to describe the project: An adult novel told from a dog’s point of view.

The notion seemed pretty crazy and our third friend and I delicately suggested maybe the agent was correct. Could the book be reoriented?

No, insisted Garth. This was a good project, he just needed to find the right agent and editor. He believed that strongly in his work.

He was right. He found a new agent – one who shared his love of his manuscript. The resulting book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was released in 2008 and has since sold more than 4 million copies in 35 languages. The book has spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list and is in development with Universal Studies for a major motion picture. Imagine if Garth had given in to rejection…

Getting a “No” shouldn’t mean “The End.” If you believe in yourself and your project, you must keep plugging along. Keep looking for the right match. If not now, perhaps the market will change in a year or two. Try again.

Above all, remember: It only takes one “Yes.”

Reading about Writing

Stop by most any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of books dedicated to the craft of writing.

There are books about writing memoir, developing memorable characters, creating suspense, and refining your writing practice. There are grammar books, agent and publisher directories, and books filled with story prompts for “reluctant writers,” “modern women,” and “bored writers.”

There are even books about writing about writing.

I’m sure many of these tomes are terrific. But, the fact is, you don’t need most of them.

The best way to become a better writer is to read. I know, every teacher you ever had and every author you ever met probably told you the same thing. That’s because it’s true. To write, you must read. Don’t restrict yourself to the genre in which you’re writing.

The more widely you read, the more you’ll learn. For example, I’ve taken participated in workshops and read books about “Setting the Scene,” but reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder was like a master class on the topic. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, but Meyer’s young adult book, set in futuristic China, had me seeing and believing – with multiple senses – from the opening scene:

Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square.

Meyer expertly uses sensory details to quickly give the reader an idea of who Cinder is and where the story takes place.

Similarly, you can read books and articles about the importance of choosing the right Point of View for your story. Or, you can read and learn from stories that obviously wouldn’t be as powerful if the author had chosen a different POV. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a prime example. The book’s first-person perspective makes protagonist Starr’s pain more raw and relatable. The moments immediately after her friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer take on a horrifying intimacy as seen through Starr’s eyes:

An ear-splitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.

“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.

“No, no, no.”

Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to unearth these sorts of writing lessons. Read with a writer’s eye. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to particular characters and how an author was able to keep you guessing until the very end of a book. Draw inspiration from descriptions of sensational scenery or especially villainous villains.

It’s OK to buy yourself a handful of  “How To” writing books (check my suggestions at the end of this post*), but save the majority of your book-buying cash for good literature and learn from it. Not all readers are good writers, but most every good writer I know reads.

* If you’re ready to invest in a few good writing books, here are three of my favorites:

1)         The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. – I bought this book for a college class and continue to use it 30 years later. Sentence structure, over-used words, unnecessary words, and active voice are among important reminders here.

2)         Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I’ve lost track of how many copies of this book I’ve gifted to friends. This collection of essays is equal parts inspiration and instruction. It speaks to me. I hope it speaks to you.

3)         On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This classic reiterates fundamentals and preaches about eliminating clutter from writing. First issued in 1976, this book has been updated and continues to be a best seller – for good reason.

 

 

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.

It’s a Solitary Life

I have been a work-from-home freelance writer/author for about 15 years. The freedom is amazing and the flexibility has allowed me to work around my kids’ never-ending school conferences, concerts and sporting events. My husband envies my 30-second commute and my friends wish they could fold a quick load of laundry during their lunch breaks.

It is a good life. It’s also a solitary life.

I have no coworkers, no office parties, no company lunches. It’s just me and, when she drags herself up to the attic, my dog Iris. It can get pretty lonely.

Sure, I could rejoin Corporate America but I’m smart enough to know that not all co-workers are good co-workers. So, instead, I turn to these tried and true tips for battling the isolation. If you’ve felt it, you should try them too:

  1. Plan Lunch Dates

When I first started working from home, I pledged to set up one lunch date per week. Pretty soon, work got busy enough that I switched my goal to a biweekly luncheon, then monthly, then – well, you get it. Priorities. Whenever you start feeling you can’t spare 60 to 90 minutes to talk with a friend about something other than work – that’s when you most need a break. Commit to a schedule. Start with two dates – for lunch or walking or coffee – each month and, if you can, build from there.

  1. Work Off Site

I’m not at my most productive when I write in a coffee shop. But sometimes it’s less about productivity and more about being around other people. Pack up your stuff and work off site for a morning or afternoon each week. Greet others in the coffee shop or library or shared office space. Before you know it, you’ll begin to know regulars and conversation will blossom. Let it.

  1. Look for Reasons to Get Out

As a writer, I can conduct many of my interviews over the phone. It’s easy. It also adds to the disconnected feelings I sometimes get. Whenever possible, I try to meet up with the subjects of my research. Researching copying costs? Drive to the store instead of looking online. Looking for a book? Spend some time at the library instead of ordering it online. At least a couple times each week, come up with a “business” reason to get out and about.

  1. Network

Join a group like Rotary or Toastmasters. By attending regular meetings, you’ll make new connections – some of whom may be potential clients and others who may, like you, be looking to build a support network. Don’t join the first club you come upon. Look for one that aligns with your interests and has members with whom you’d like to spend time.

  1. Turn on the TV

I admit it. I have the TV on in my office all the time. I rarely watch it, but the noise makes me feel like I’m not completely alone. This background “conversation” helps keep me sane. Music doesn’t have the same effect for me – I need to hear other people talking. I’m not picky about content; I’ll play shows about cooking, home décor, reruns of 1980s TV shows. My only rule is that if the show is so interesting I find myself actually watching it, I need to switch channels.

What are your tips and tricks for battling work-from-home loneliness?

When Words Won’t Come

Writer’s Block is real and, if you haven’t already experienced it, you will at some point. It’s not just a time when you’re not writing. It’s a time when anxiety grabs hold of your brain, strangles your confidence, and convinces you that YOU CANNOT WRITE.

Writer’s block is indiscriminate. It takes down novelists, screenwriters, songwriters, technical writers and it’s been known to choke the life out of PhD candidates during dissertation writing.

Good news: Writer’s Block doesn’t have to win. Sure, it may derail you for a day or two but, with some effort, it can be defeated. Next time WB threatens, try one or more of these tactics and you’ll be back to work in no time:

  1. Nix the blank page.

Clean, white pages are daunting. What if your words aren’t good enough? Your thoughts aren’t clever enough? Instead of fretting, write anything. Type the first few lines of your favorite song or the names of all the pets you’ve ever owned. Once you have a few words down, you may find you’re able to move forward with your actual project.

  1. Change things up.

If you typically write at your desk, go to a coffee shop instead. If you usually write in the morning, try writing flipping your day so you can write at night. If you write on a computer, try writing longhand. Sometimes a simple change is all it takes to get the words flowing again.

* A note about writing by hand: If you’re one of those people who prefer writing longhand, ditch the hand-milled, hand-stitched, handcrafted artisan notebook. Those things are idea quashers. How could any first draft or plotting session be worthy? Instead, opt for a 99-cent composition notebook. Lower your expectations, increase your productively; it can all be cleaned up later.

  1. Get moving.

Go for a walk or run. Do some yoga. Swim a few laps. I’m a firm believer that exercising your body can help kick your brain into gear. If you’re completely opposed to exercise, take a shower. Wash away all those negative “I’ll never write again” thoughts and start fresh.

  1. Write with weights on.

No, you’re not actually going to do bicep curls while typing away at your computer but the concept is similar. Imagine you have to run a mile carrying a heavy backpack. When you take the pack off, running will be easier; you’ll feel nimble and light. Instead of running, your assignment is to write using only one-syllable words. Write the next paragraph of your book or the next chorus of your song. It’s going to be hard. The text will sound choppy – but that’s part of the drill. When you finish, rewrite the piece with no limitations; let the words flow.

  1. Talk it out.

It’s likely the words won’t come because you don’t know exactly what story you’re trying to tell. Put away your laptop, close your eyes and pretend you’re sitting across from your best friend. Tell her your story. Tell her about the characters, their flaws, their dreams. Tell her about the scene you’re writing. Tell her what happens next. Talk and keep talking until you know what your story is really about. Then, open your computer and start writing.

Don’t Make Writing Punishment

I’ve been an adjunct artist at Tacoma School of the Arts for the past nine years. In this position, I get to “teach” creative writing to high school students.

I use the term “teach” loosely. I think, instead, I’m more of a facilitator. I encourage experimentation, let students sample processes, and promote the notion that writing may be the best lifelong hobby/therapy/entertainment you could ask for.

That’s right, I strive to make writing FUN.

So many students come into my classes with the mindset that writing is punishment. Of course they do. If they did something wrong in elementary school, they had to write sentences. If they performed poorly on a test, they had to write an extra term paper. If they got caught talking in class, they were assigned an essay on the virtue of silence. For so many, writing has become a penalty.

I spend a lot of time in my class, retraining those students to understand that writing can be fun and beautiful and creative.

Not every piece of writing is going to turn into the Great American Novel and I’m more realistic than to think many of my students will go onto earn their livings as writers. But I know for a fact, that many have taken the lessons from my class and made writing a regular part of their post-high school and post-college lives. Some are journaling, blogging or cartooning. Some are using writing to share joy and heal heartache. For some, words are the best way to connect with friends or revisit memories.

No matter how they use words, my heartfelt wish is that they find the process of writing both stimulating, rewarding and, yes, fun.