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After a gaffe, the decision to be more deliberate

Like every other freelancer I know, I get stuck in the not-so-mentally-healthy “feast or famine” mode way too often.

That means one or more of the following:

-I take on a little too much work, work I can do, and do well, but which makes me a little nutty and has me in front of the computer too much.
-I take on a job I don’t really want or that doesn’t pay as well as I’d like because I’m afraid that if I don’t take it I might regret my decision when a dry spell rolls around.
-I spend extended periods in triage mode, ordering and reordering my to-do list by deadline rather than other factors that should probably take more precedence.

This isn’t good, of course, but for a long, long time–far too much of my career–I’ve felt that it’s inevitable, just part and parcel of life as a freelancer.

I’ve made incremental improvements every year, saying no to projects with ridiculously low fees or turning down some projects that felt far too fluffy, but there’s always more progress to be made… as I was reminded yesterday after making a terrible online gaffe involving an overly candid email sent to recipients who shouldn’t have been cc’d on the message.

The email, sent late in the evening, long after people with 9-to-5 jobs stop working, was a symptom–and an embarrassing one–of a larger problem. Despite recent vigorous efforts to scale back–unsubscribing from mailing lists that clutter my inbox and waste my time and saying no to a couple projects that didn’t pay well and were puff writing I don’t want to be doing, for example–I realized that there was (is!) still a lot of work to be done. I need to be more deliberate in every area of my work, and the first order of business is developing a better system for dealing with email.

I don’t know about you, but pretty much every time I look at my inbox these days, I already feel exhausted, even before I make a keystroke. There’s so much junk mail masquerading as important messages demanding my attention. There’s the feeling that I have to have my inbox open from the moment I’m awake until the moment I go to bed, in case an editor or source sends a message requiring urgent attention. And on and on and on. But the reality is, the less time I’m looking at my inbox, the happier and more productive I am. The less urgent everything seems–and is. And, obviously, the less likely I am to feel so depleted that I hit “Send” when I really need to give a message a second look and make sure that it’s appropriate… and addressed to the intended recipients.

This isn’t about slowing down, necessarily, though I feel like lots of freelancers write posts about that, setting goals that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The reality is, this is not a profession for folks operating at a slow pace. It is, however, about being more thoughtful about each action, about taking the time to make sure that every word counts (and those that don’t stay in my head or between myself and my most trusted confidante, my husband), and about devoting time and attention to communication that truly matters.

Have you or do you struggle with similar challenges as a freelancer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Help out with my next Contributoria project: Puerto Rico’s New Makers’ Movement

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo

Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the use of the platform Contributoria as a way of funding longform features I want to research, write, and have published, as well as a means of expanding my audience.

For the most part, this has been successful. While the site could improve in some significant ways, it has allowed me to work on projects I’d otherwise be hard-pressed to actualize with limited resources, including one about The New York Botanical Garden, one about the Blaschka glass collection at Harvard, and the most recent one about the enduring fascination with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Not every one of my proposals has been successful. A project about c-sections has proven to be challenging when it comes to attracting widespread support, and both times I’ve proposed it, I’ve failed to attain the backing needed to be able to pursue it. Yet each month opens with the opportunity to propose a new project, and my goal for 2015 is to do my part to propose a compelling project each month and then hustle as much as needed to round up the support to get each project fully backed.

If you’re a newer reader, I’ll explain again how Contributoria works. As I mentioned a couple months ago, “Contributoria is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to ‘back’ projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.”

My current project is about an emerging makers’ movement in Puerto Rico. As with my previous projects, this one requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it with your points if you feel so inclined. A full description of the project is on the same page where you have the option to back it.

You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

Why I’m Not Afraid to be a Pest Anymore

I’m happy to report that the frequency with which I use variations on “to be a pest” is on the decline. 25 is the number of times I’ve used “Sorry to be a pest, but” since 2008. None, so far, in 2015!

I belong to several online writers’ groups in which members talk process, vent gripes, offer support, and share tips and contacts.

Certain subjects come up over and over again, and one of them is whether a writer should follow up on a quiet pitch and, if so, when: One week? Two weeks? Longer? How often should they follow up before they give up? These writers often preface their question about follow up with the same line they will inevitably use with the editor they’re hoping to hear from when they do send a follow up email:

“I don’t want to be a pest, but….”

Writers–especially women writers–worry about a lot of things, and being a pest is toward the top of that list. Most of us want to make our editors’ work easier. We don’t want to be pegged as the pain in the ass writer who gets blacklisted for being difficult. We don’t want to be the writer whose email hits the editor’s inbox and makes their eyes roll and their finger hover over “delete.”

So we decide we’re not going to follow up on a pitch we worked hours or longer to craft for an editor whose email we either trawled the bowels of the Internet to find or or leaned on our network to obtain. We shrug our shoulders and move on… because we don’t want to be a pest. Or we spend a couple days talking ourselves into and out of sending a follow up, and when we finally talk ourselves into composing that follow up after all, we open with the line, “I’m sorry to be a pest, but….”

Like a lot of things in life, you see your own shortcomings and fears only after noticing and disliking them in others. When that happens, you have to change your behavior. I got so very tired of reading “I don’t want to be a pest, but” messages that I decided I was never going to write those words together in a sentence again. I couldn’t think of any other profession where people are so servile and apologetic with their colleagues, and I didn’t want to have any part in perpetuating those dynamics.

There is no reason to feel that you are being a pest for following up to check on the status of a message you’ve sent to someone whose job it is to answer. Yes, editors are busy. Yes, they’re tasked with to-do items that shouldn’t really be part of their job description. Yes, they get hundreds of emails a day. Yes to all of that. I know that and I empathize with it because I have been an editor. But none of that means that their problem should be your problem. There’s nothing wrong–I repeat, nothing wrong–with sending a polite follow up to ask whether the editor has received your message and had a chance to consider your pitch.

“But what if they still think I’m pesky and I burn a bridge?” writers have asked when I’ve told them this. My answer, as it is to so many of the dilemmas writers create for themselves, is this: Do you really want to work with an editor who has so much trouble with the basics of communication?

Until we start valuing ourselves and our work more, and until we start expecting to be treated like the professionals we are, the dynamics of this industry will be unlikely to change. And when you start to check up on your pitches, you’ll often find editors are grateful that you’ve done so.

5 Things I Learned from Judging a Writing Contest

I’ve just finished judging two categories of a major international writing and photography contest–no, I can’t disclose which one yet–and I learned A LOT in the process. Here are some of the lessons worth sharing with you:

1. People who don’t enter because they think they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning should throw their hats in the ring.
You’d be surprised how few people, relatively speaking, enter contests, even those sponsored by prestigious organizations.

A lot of people think about entering but never get around to starting the application process. A lot of people start the application process but never get around to finishing it. And if an entry fee is involved, even fewer people tend to apply.

In other words, the pool of competitors tends to be considerably less populated than you think. Anytime you see a contest extending its deadline, you can be relatively sure that the organizers feel they haven’t received enough submissions. Get your material together and get it submitted. If you apply to contests regularly, you should have files with basic documents that you can edit as needed and print out or prep for electronic submission based on the specs of each contest.

2. A lot of people who enter are disqualified. Don’t be that guy.
There are relatively few people who end up getting all of the application materials together and submitted on time, but there are even fewer who make it past the initial round of judging.

A recommendation that someone promised to send on your behalf never showed up. Sorry, you’re out.

The resume you were supposed to include is still sitting in the printer’s output tray. Sad but true, your application’s headed for the recycling bin.

The work samples you sent didn’t meet one or more of the criteria outlined in the application. Tough breaks: you’ve been disqualified.

3. The best candidates aren’t always the ones who win.
Speaking of disqualified… I was so bummed for the photographer whose submission was #1 on my list for the award… until I realized one of his three portfolio links was dated 2013. Since all work submitted in support of the application was supposed to be from 2014, his otherwise strong submission, which was leagues beyond the other applicants, had to be disqualified. It wasn’t solely the strength of his work that mattered; it was his ability to follow instructions.

4. Most people don’t double check their entries before submitting them.
Or maybe they do, but they simply don’t catch all the typos before they hit “send” or before they postmark their materials. Every entry I reviewed had one or more glaring errors. One of the criteria we used to judge submissions was quality of writing, so the more typos, the lower a submission was scored. There were also entries that pointed me to URLs generating 404 errors. Bottom line: Double check everything before you complete your submission.

5. Most people really don’t read instructions well. At all.
One entrant in two categories didn’t submit the necessary samples of work required by judges. It wasn’t that she submitted too few or too many (though there were folks who did that, too); it’s that she didn’t submit any. She simply pointed judges to her website, where I suppose she expected we’d click around at random and read whatever struck our fancy. The only problem was, those weren’t the rules. Each judge was expected to evaluate the same set of materials. If those materials weren’t provided, or if too few or too many were provided, they had to be disqualified as well.

Contests are a valuable use of your time. They help you establish some degree of credibility, they provide some sense of validation about the value of your hard work, and they tend to draw more attention to you and your projects. And even if you don’t win, applying for contests can be an extremely useful exercise, showing you whether your body of work is that: a coherent, cohesive whole. Taking the time to put together a solid submission puts you ahead of the pack.

Help Wanted: Back My March 2015 Contributoria Project (No Money Involved!)

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo

A mural on a Head Start  preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

A mural on a Head Start preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

One of the most common challenges writers and journalists face is that of funding the research phase of their work. Unless you’re on staff (and even then, there’s no guarantee), it can be tough to cobble together the money that allows you to do the work that’s necessary to investigate and report a story responsibly and thoroughly. All too often, we pay out of pocket in the hope that our investment will pay off– that we’ll be able to sell the story once we’ve committed money and time into writing it.

It’s a gamble I’ve made time and again, but one that has become harder to make now that I have three children and more financial responsibilities. Investing money in a project that may not have a sure outcome isn’t the best business strategy when you’re a writer.

That’s why I’ve been very grateful for Contributoria, a platform that supports journalists and writers by funding their project proposals. I’ve been able to research and report two stories thanks to their support, one of which has been republished in The Guardian, which is a partner of the platform.

The way Contributoria works is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to “back” projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.

My March 2015 project is about c-section rates in Puerto Rico and requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month… which is just a few days away. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it if you feel so inclined. You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

The Downside of Digital Projects

Apologies in advance; this first post of 2015 might be a bit of a downer. Nonetheless, for those of us who have at least one foot in the digital world–and most of us do–it’s worth talking about the downside and drawbacks of digital projects. Moreso, it’s worth talking about how to protect yourself and your work in the digital world.

I was already thinking about this before I met, earlier this week, with a colleague who is a digital content director for a major media brand. “My outlook is bleak,” she said, as we talked about click-bait articles that are sensationalized and not fact-checked and lamented how often digital “strategy” is determined by variables like number of social media followers rather than a writer’s or subject’s actual skills or interests. We talked about the never-ending to-do list of the media property she oversees, a site that could have way more views and engagement–the end-game of any website–but which is crippled by limited staff, micromanagement by people who pretend to know a lot about the digital space but have little actual fluency in digital media, and, she admits, her own flagging motivation.

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this subject though is because so much of my own digital work has been lost or is beyond my own control. Click on any of the links on my published works page and you’ll find that far too many of them generate 404 errors. As editors learn more about how user engagement works, they rewrite URLs or rename stories, and, poof!, my article is floating around in space. But maybe I can’t find it and fix the link (a time-consuming task even if it is discoverable) because the search function on the same website has disappeared completely (the elimination of search functions is one of the worst ideas ever, by the way).

Then there’s the phasing out and shutting down of platforms. If you’re one of those folks who crows about digital’s advantage over the supposedly dying medium of print, check yourself: have you been keeping tabs on how many online properties–even legit, big-name properties with big-time funding and old-school media brands behind them– have turned off the lights and pulled the plug? The New York Times regularly eliminates blogs it has invested time, money, and staffing in nurturing. So does The Washington Post, as my friend and colleague Tracie Powell reported recently for All Digitocracy. And my own former employer, Matador Network, recently decided to eliminate its community blogs, which were the platform many of its writers used to get started in the field. If writers didn’t back up their own work, it was scrubbed from the site and their servers. Fortunately, I’d anticipated that possibility and made print copies of all my past work a few years ago, but the investment of time was hours, as there was no native back-up system that writers could use.

Other downers? Digital editions of print magazines pull their archived issues after a certain period, decide to put them behind a paywall, or another publisher acquires them and they disappear from the Internet in a flurry of renaming and rebranding. Your work gets copied and pasted by someone who knows more about SEO than journalism, perhaps attributing your work to himself or herself or some invented “author,” and it gets more page views, praise, and pennies than your own piece did.

And those are just for starters.

Most recently, I’ve been confronted with a dilemma related to mobile apps. Back in 2010, I signed on to an app development project, the promise of which was that with a core group of talented writers, many of whom had bona fides from the print world, we’d be able to corner the travel app market, which was still young. For me at least, that promise wasn’t realized, and my app never made much more than $20 a month, a sum that never compensated for the time invested in the making and marketing I did for it.

Now the company that owned the platform upon which the app was built and maintained is defunct. When it folded, the ability for authors to access the back-end of their apps–the place where updating is done–disappeared while the business partners tried to figure out the answer to “What next?”. They still haven’t resolved the question, at least not for authors, who have been left hanging, along with their reputations. Our names are associated with guides that are outdated, yet we have no control over those guides. Several writers have pulled their apps from iTunes since they, like I, don’t want their names on out of date material they can’t correct. Others have said that the decision to scrub the considerable amount of work they did just makes them sick to their stomach and they can’t bear to hit the delete button because… where does all that effort go? {Please, don’t answer that question.}

I don’t sit around lamenting or worrying excessively about any of these scenarios or situations; after all, the bumps and jostles are part and parcel of figuring out a media landscape that is changing constantly. I haven’t even taken care of certain tasks that may be within my control, such as ferreting out those broken links and finding the new ones that replace them, because frankly, that’s not the best use of my time. I need to be generating new, paying work.

That being said, I do think there are certain precautions and protections that we can take when exploring new digital opportunities. Here are a few that come to mind based on my own experiences:

1. Get a contract. Read it.
For new and emerging media especially, it’s important that you temper your enthusiasm about the platform by ensuring that you’re holding it to the same standards of professional treatment that you expect of traditional media. If you’re offered the opportunity, for example, to develop an app, make sure that you receive, review, and sign off on a contract first. One important clause of that contract should address what happens if the developer goes bottom up. Where does your content go? Can you control it? What kind of money are you entitled to?

2. Ask about the monetization plan.
So many Internet ventures are launched on a wing and a prayer rather than a solid foundation and, crucially, a monetization plan (much less a viable one). For most players online and in the digital space, it’s getting harder to make money online, not easier. If you’re a writer or journalist who wants to make a living from your work, don’t accept “exposure” in exchange for some pay-off, whether that’s actual cash or equity, down the road. It’s rare for that pay-off to come. There’s nothing wrong with asking about a project’s monetization plan. You may not need proprietary specifics, but you do need to feel comfortable that the people steering the ship have a clue about what they’re doing and that you’ll be compensated appropriately for your work.

3. Back up everything.
Don’t rely on editors or publishers to keep digital proof of publication for you. If your work is destined for an online or digital outlet, find a way to preserve it. Maybe that’s a PDF, maybe it’s a hard copy of your article, or maybe it’s a screenshot or a file uploaded to the cloud. Whatever system works best for you, use it.

4. Keep in close communication with editors and publishers.
Keep an eye on your outlets, especially regular ones. When you notice that a site or platform is stagnating, ask about it. If you’re seeing gaps or problems, so is the average user/reader and these may foreshadow the twilight of the project. You’ll want to make sure that you migrate your own content (especially if you haven’t followed through on the preceding tip) before the site goes dark and your work disappears.

5. Confront content scrapers, then move on.
Content scraping–the act of someone else cutting and pasting your work and trying to pass it off as his or her own– is becoming more and more common. When you notice that your work has been stolen, confront the person who did it. Mobilize your network of readers and friends to call out the offending party on social media. And then move on. Otherwise you’ll spend far too much of your time on a battle for which the odds are not in your favor.

What advice do you have to add? Please share your tips in the comments.

Wave Accounting: An Early Review

I always get a little nuts this time of year, nuts in a good way, in a “I am going to OWN next year” kind of way. I revisit my goals for the existing year and assess my success. I analyze how I can be and do better next year, not just as a writer, but as a business owner (because, you know, writing is a business). I take a close look at how I’m managing finances and at my overall systems, not only for money (expense receipts, invoices, and the like) but also for communication and task management.

As I started the process of assessing 2014, I realized that I really needed to get some new systems in place before 2015 rings in. My accounting system, in particular, needed an overhaul; it was scattered and inefficient. By drawing up original invoices every time I needed to bill a client, I was wasting a lot of time. And by doing this in Word or Excel and simply storing invoices in a folder on my desktop, I was creating extra and unnecessary work for myself with respect to tracking payments.

I started talking with colleagues, asking them what systems or software they are using. Some said Quickbooks or Freshbooks; others sang the praises of Harvest. I took a quick look at each of these, but was discouraged by the fee-based structures. I’m always looking for ways to trim my expenses, not add to them, so despite the glowing recommendations for some of these services, I was more inclined to look at free apps. Sure, I could try Quickbooks or Freshbooks free for two weeks or a month, but did I really want to go through the hassle of setting up accounts, inputting my financial information, and then shutting down the accounts in a few weeks? Instead, I decided to set up a new system on Wave, a free service.

It took about 30 minutes to establish an account and link several of my bank and credit card accounts to Wave. The interface was fairly easy to use, though I had difficulty with one bank account, and it was clean and uncluttered, too. The dashboard is a one-stop-shop for useful information.

I set up the invoicing system right away, as that was my primary reason for signing up for a Wave account. Creating an invoice is easy enough, but I wish the “Memo” section was offered in the default template as opposed to the customized one. When attempting to edit the invoice, the system got hung up and I had to refresh the page, which cleared the invoice, requiring me to start all over again. I’m also not thrilled about receiving daily (so far) emails from Wave informing me about features or services that I could be taking advantage of; perhaps I need to play around with my settings to turn these emails off.

I’m a little bit concerned about having all of my accounting information in the cloud rather than on my own desktop, but overall, I’m happy with the service. Wave tracks what I’d rather not, which is whether invoices have been paid, and has helped me to create a standardized system for billing clients. There was widespread agreement among friends that each accounting program has its pros and cons, and if the choice is between a paid service and a free one, I’ll take the latter.

What system do you use for accounting? Pros and cons? Share in the comments.


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