Story ideas

ideaThe end of the year makes me think of something I spend all year pursuing: elusive story ideas. They’re the freelancer’s best friend and also her bad boyfriend who doesn’t always call.

If you ever want to perk up a freelancer, tell her something improbable that clearly hasn’t become widespread public knowledge yet. Doesn’t happen that often, but occasionally I’m at a party listening to someone tell me about something and all I can think of is “pen, pen, I need a pen so I can write this down.” If you’ve ever dropped a piece of news like this on me, know that I’m no longer listening to you and am just repeating your idea over and over in my head.

But livelihoods cannot be sustained on random chance alone, so there are a few other ways that I try to pursue those elusive ideas. In exchange for your keeping an eye out for ideas for me, I’ll share a few here:

News releases: they appear in my inbox, on the sites of clients and potential clients. Every few weeks I try to scroll through them on the lookout for something new. I rarely know what I’m looking for until I see it, but when I do, it’s gold. That is, as long as I can sell it to an editor.

Evergreens: these ideas are ones that come along in your writing niche every few months or years. I am always thinking through my repertoire of past stories to think about what’s changed in that field and where I could do something fresh.

Lateral shift ideas: I’m always reading magazines outside my specialities, or outside the geographic areas I usually write for, trying to think if there’s a way I could write an idea for a different market. If I read about a new trend in business or the style world, I think, how does that translate to the world of careers or higher education?

I file these away in a long Word document (lately I’ve been experimenting with Evernote as well) for my next approach to editors. But I’m still open to random chance, so keep those anecdotes coming.

Favourite grammar mark?

semicolonFor another blog that I help produce, for the Professional Writing and Communications program that I help administer and teach in at Humber College, I do regular Q&As with instructors and staff. And a regular question I ask in our Q&A posts is about the interviewee’s favourite grammar rule. Because we’re all grammar nerds to varying degrees, and generally proud of it.

So, I thought I’d turn this on myself.12

Our associate dean already took my favourite answer, in her statement about loving the way that language changes and how the best way to look at grammar was as a living breathing thing. And declaring her fondness for the Oxford comma.

I think if I had to choose one rule it’s appropriate use of the semicolon, only because it’s the worst abused by students. Despite grammar literacy being fairly low among students, because it’s not taught as rigorously in high school, somehow students feel like they know about the semicolon and free to drop it everywhere.

I think the semicolon is a precious thing that should only be used in the rarest of situations.

I’d probably be fine if it were to disappear altogether, and have a conspiracy theory in the works that speculates the semicolon is kept in play partially by these students who don’t know how to use it.

I’m usually a friendly and sympathetic corrector of grammar, but the semicolon addiction baffles me. Stop using it; you’ll only make the situation worse. See what I did there?

Newsletter reflections

newsletterI’ve written a newsletter for over two years now, and it’s been a good experience for several reasons. At the top, it’s a great way to keep in touch with valuable clients and prospects.

Since my newsletter is focused on writing and marketing tips, it’s also been a good motivator to keep my eye out for interesting content in that vein. Yet another bonus after a few months is that it’s become a personal repository of the best such articles, and I often find myself looking through my archives to forward one of the links I included to a friend or colleague after the fact.

I was inspired to start my own newsletter after reading Ann Friedman’s . The success she’s found with her newsletter is no secret, with over 25,000 followers. Seeing how much work she puts into it (and also her vast output as a writer) is inspiring. While I’m not aiming at this point to make my newsletter the centre of my business, go weekly (!), or sell ads, it’s interesting to watch Ann’s trajectory doing just those things.

I also think it’s interesting that the newsletter has been having a bit of a moment lately, with many organizations and even individuals choosing it as their main promotional vehicle.


editI never miss a deadline. That’s something I take pride in as a writer. If I think I’m going to, I reach out for an extra day, but I’m careful to stick to that.

I’m flabbergasted about when I hear other writers blowing theirs off, or worse, also disappearing.

That said, I am one of those who works well close to deadline, finding my best focus with a little pressure.14

I’m also a writer in search of a deadline, as my worst experiences come when a well-intentioned editor tells me to “get it to me when you can”. That is not good for either of us. Because the other hard deadlines creep in and take priority.

When I don’t have a deadline, I try to artificially impose one. For the self-employed, deadlines make us get out of bed in the morning, so editors, keep it up.

Shrinking word counts

Pen!I recently met with a client who dropped a bombshell: instead of the 300-400 word stories I’d been writing regularly for them, they were looking into shorter. Behind my placid smile and nods of encouragement, I thought: how is this possible? Storytelling was already a challenge at 300 words. What would it be at 150 or 250?

But the argument is hard to make in the face of analytics: the client showed how their impulse was based on that fact that their target audience (mostly students) were consistently clicking through on shorter stories.

So now it’s up to me, or I guess, us, writers, to figure out how to engage that interest. I think we writers in a time of analytics have it the hardest, because it’s hard to argue with the quantifiable. Before we could imagine how many readers we got. Now we know that the cat videos are winning, and issues-based journalism, not so much. Okay so that’s a bit cynical, but really, it’s the call to action to make the medicine more like the candy. Our livelihoods depend on it.