don’t be a writer

stacked blocksI read an interesting post on Write to Done this morning offering tips on how to break through writer’s block. The first tip: remind yourself that you’re a writer.

While I generally find the advice on WTD to be both useful and on target, I have to disagree with that particular tip (the rest were pretty handy). Regular readers know that I don’t call myself a wordsmith; but it might surprise you to know that I prefer not to call myself a writer either.

No, I don’t eschew the term in favor of buzzwords like “communicator” or “content provider,” either. When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them that I’m a writer.

I tell them that I write.

A pedantic distinction? Maybe — but it’s a distinction that can clear up the crippling paralysis of writer’s block once and for all.

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time management for freelancers

Screengrab of Apimac Timer ProFreelancers who manage multiple projects understand the importance — and the difficulty — of effective time management. But simply dividing your day into discrete blocks isn’t enough.

Writing, editing, and designing all require different mindsets; jumping straight from one type of project to another — say, from carefully proofreading every word in a technical report to staring at the wall for an hour while an article composes itself in your head — wastes more time than it saves, as you try to adjust your frame of reference from one to the other.

Through trial and error, I’ve developed two-step a time management technique that seems to work well. Try it and see if it works for you.

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tracking telephone interviews

Drawing of a telephoneWhile I wait for a call-back from an interviewee for an article I’m writing, I thought I’d share my technique for tracking telephone interviews.

Over the years I’ve developed a breadcrumb system that allows me to assess the status of the interview scheduling process at a glance. My note-taking technique is pretty standard, but my scheduling trail is a thing of beauty.

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goal-oriented productivity

Simple Critical Path Management diagramIn the course of designing and testing hPDA templates, I have found that many of the people who organize their planners also follow a productivity methodology such as David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) system.

As a freelance writer and editor, I understand the importance of good workflow management, so I looked into GTD and other popular methodologies. To my surprise, none of them felt like a good match with my style.

Curious about why, I took a serious look at how I manage my own workflow. What was different? What was similar? The answers that I found were personally illuminating. They also offer interesting possibilities for other freelancers too.

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paperjamming your computer

Cluttered DeskFor freelance writers, it’s all about the clip. All your research files, interview transcripts, and notes are there to help you create a professionally written product. But what do you do with the rest?

Considering how inexpensive external storage is these days, it might seem easier to just keep buying more — and larger — external hard drives or to upload your old files to an online storage provider. But those options have some very tangible drawbacks for freelancers.

As a freelancer, you have contractual and legal obligations to keep certain records for a specified time. Beyond those, disposal significantly reduces the amount of time that a program like Blacktree’s popular Quicksilver requires to index your files. It also cuts down the time — and narrows the results — of keyword and metadata searches.

In short, the less stuff you have to manage, the less you have to manage stuff.

That’s where PaperJamming techniques and templates come in. PaperJamming is personalized file management made fun. Here’s how to implement it on your computer:

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my hpda configuration

My first hPDAI discovered Merlin Mann’s hPDA concept around the same time I discovered the Rollabind disc binding system, and for me the benefits of combining them were immediately self-evident. I hacked my first “field-strength” ring-bound hPDA using covers from an old poly folder, a strap made from an elastic hair band, and three small Rollabind rings; it proved to be rugged, reliable, and indispensable.

The only problem I had was that the thin covers allowed the rings to torque sideways when stored in my back pants pocket, flexing the covers and the cards at their weak hole joints. So when Levenger introduced its CircaPDA this past summer — using the same extra-thick clear poly covers as their other Circa notebooks — I quickly retired my original covers and have been proudly packin’ Circa ever since.

Quality-wise, it was like moving up from a kit car to a Lexus. But regardless of the bodywork, it’s what’s under the hood that ultimately counts. Here’s what’s under mine:

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getting to “thanks” #2: the power of appreciation

This afternoon I e-mailed a client, the editor of a bimonthly national magazine, with an update on an article I’m writing for her. She promptly wrote back to thank me, and also to let me that she’s been receiving many compliments on another article that I wrote that is about to go to press. “I SO appreciate your valuable contribution to [the magazine],” she wrote. “And I haven’t forgotten that you would like to do more.”

Not surprisingly, for this editor I am willing to walk through fire.

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adapting fiction techniques: character development

Person with books“Nagle was forty years old then, a thin, deeply tanned former Snap-On Tool Salesman of the Year. To see him there, waiting for the fisherman in his tattered T-shirt and thrift-shop sandals, the Jim Beam he kept as his best friend slurring his motions, no one would guess that he had been an artist, that in his day Bill Nagle had been great.” — Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers (Random House, 2004), p5

In one masterfully crafted paragraph, author Robert Kurson not only creates a visual impression of deep-sea diver Bill Nagle, but also conveys the trajectory of his life and imbues him with tragedy. Sure you can get character descriptions like this in any decently written novel. But Bill Nagle was a real person, and Shadow Divers is nonfiction.

Can you draw a portrait in a few pencil strokes? If you want to grab and hold your reader’s attention, you need to be able to create lasting impressions in readers’ minds. Among the most important — and hardest — impressions to craft are those of people.

Fiction writers describe characters as a matter of course. But nonfiction writers must be able to do this as well, and perhaps for them it’s even more important. They are, after all, writing about real people.

Whether you’re writing a celebrity profile or interviewing the new CEO, you can adopt techniques for developing fictional characters to turn real people into memorable characters.

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adapting fiction techniques: the freitag triangle

Freitag TriangleNo, it’s not the title of Robert Ludlum’s latest thriller. But it is something you might remember from high school English. The Freitag triangle is perhaps the classic graphic representation of story progression (click on image for full size). Remember? “Every plot has to have a climax and a denouement.”

Did you know that you can apply the same structure to your nonfiction articles to make them as readable as — well, as readable as the latest Robert Ludlum thriller? Here’s how:

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