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Take a Class with Me in 2016

I’m pleased to announce that I am now an instructor at Writers.com, and I have two classes coming up:

Pitch Like a Honey Badger

and

The Nuts and Bolts of the Freelancing Lifestyle.

Pitch Like a Honey Badger” is intended for freelancers who want to improve their pitching skills and, by extension, their rate of acceptance and number of assignments. The class starts January 20 and is asynchronous, meaning there’s no set meeting time; you can work through it at your own pace.

In “The Nuts & Bolts of the Freelancing Lifestyle,” I’ll be teaching something almost no other writing course teaches: the finances of freelance writing. This course is designed to help you define what financial success looks like for you as a freelancer and to assist you with developing a concrete, practical plan for achieving it. It starts March 9 and is also asynchronous.

If you’ve ever worked with me before, you know that I’m very hands-on with students and colleagues, offering honest, useful feedback and support that’s rooted in the values of transparency and giving.

I hope you’ll consider registering for one (or both!) of these classes. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly at writingjulie [AT] gmail [dot] com.

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How to Get over Impostor Syndrome

I wasn’t familiar with the term “impostor syndrome” until I joined a group of women writers.

Comprised of several thousand accomplished journalists and authors in a variety of genres, many of them quite successful by any objective measure, there was also a contingent that frequently expressed doubts about their knowledge/skills/abilities/quantity and quality of work, and on and on. Among them were writers who spoke of challenges they faced in dealing with “impostor syndrome,” the sense that they were really just posing as writers, that somehow they simply weren’t good enough.

Here’s the best definition of impostor syndrome I’ve found:

… a term coined in the 1970’s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. (Wikipedia… of all places)

Although I felt glad they had a safe space to express their feelings and receive support from the rest of us, I also felt astonished and troubled by the number of women who felt this way, how acutely, and how much it was affecting their work– not only what they were doing, but all that they weren’t doing because they were occasionally paralyzed by self-doubt.

There’s a lot of advice offered to women who experience impostor syndrome, but I think most of it isn’t very useful. It tends to fall into one of two categories: (1) Think or act “like a man,” which, frankly, is insulting to men and women, and/or (2) “Fake it ’til you make it,” which suggests that if one merely pretends to be confident, assertive, and self-assured, those qualities will magically develop over time.

Neither category of advice offers concrete actions or a permanent fix that will help a woman writer kick impostor syndrome to the curb. With that precise goal in mind, I offer the following:

1. Do a professional self-inventory.
If you don’t know, objectively, what your skills and worth are, it’s time to sit down and do a self-assessment. What do you know really well– inside-out? What can you reasonably claim as your area of expertise? When you’re doing this, think only of yourself: the goal isn’t to compare yourself against anyone else. It’s to become as self-aware as you can.

2. Fill in the gaps.
Maybe your self-inventory revealed that, hey, you ARE an impostor and you’ve got no business being a writer. But I doubt it. In any case, though, it likely helped you identify areas where you need to shore up some skills or knowledge. There’s no shame in that and it doesn’t mean you’re an impostor. It means you’re a person and professional who understands that we are all always growing, learning, and changing, and that we can all always learn more.

Not sure where to go to fill in your gaps? Poynter, Dart Center, and EdX are just a few organizations that offer a number of free courses online. Prefer one-on-one coaching? There are lots of talented journalists and writers who offer personalized sessions and/or ongoing small-group workshops. I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld for fiction writers; Faith Adiele for memoir; Christine Gilbert for blogging; and myself for journalism and general non-fiction (you can contact me at writingjulie[at]gmail).

3. Identify and cultivate your sources.
In some respects, a writer is only as good as her sources. Do you already have a go-to list of experts and stakeholders in your particular niche or beat? If not, identify a few and start cultivating contacts. Listen to them carefully. Learn from them. Live in a state of constant curiosity.

4. Keep up with developments– not the Joneses.
It always boggles the mind when I talk to writers who don’t read every single day. You must read. Your goal should never be to compare yourself against another writer, but to know who’s covering what, how they’re covering it, where it’s being covered, and how you might be able to cover it in your own way. I keep a hand-lettered sign above my computer: “What’s the story not being told?” Whether I’m thinking about writing a feature or a quick Q&A or profile piece, and whether I’m covering someone who’s famous or someone who’s unknown, that’s usually the question that drives my approach.

5. Gather your tribe.
There’s a lot about the writing life that is solitary. The extrinsic validation so many writers crave isn’t always accessible, particularly when there are people who live to troll in the comments section of online publications. If you really struggle mightily with nurturing your own intrinsic motivation (and even if you don’t), identify a small core group of colleagues who will help buoy you during your bouts with self-doubt. Choose people who know your work and respect it, who will give you concrete reminders–not just vacuous pep talks–about why your work is good and important. Lean on them when you need it and reciprocate in kind.

6. Work on your monkey mind.
All that mental chatter rattling on about how you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy? You know it’s not going to go away magically on its own, right?

You have to work on your monkey mind, all the self-talk that undermines your self-esteem and your good, productive work. And I’m sorry to say that that work isn’t easy. As a former psychotherapist, I’ve worked with several hundred people actively working to change a habit or behavior that was what therapists call “maladaptive” (ie: not good for them); only a tiny fraction of them successfully broke the old habit and replaced it with one that was more adaptive.

Change is hard. Really really hard. But it’s not impossible and it’s worth working–constantly–on contesting the negative self-talk that makes you feel like an impostor. Though my own clinical orientation was oriented more toward psychodynamic psychotherapy and the creative arts therapies, there is a great deal of value in the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which anyone can use at any time. Basically, CBT involves practicing changing your “negative scripts” (ie: crap self-talk). There are loads of resources online where you can read more about CBT. I recommend The Beck Institute as a good point of departure if you’re interested in learning more.

Struggling with impostor syndrome or have a kick-ass way to deal with it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Writing Advice: How to Work Your Way into More Work

As the completion and delivery of a big project near, I always get a familiar twinge of anxiety: What next, what next? And this: Where’s the money going to come from?

If you’re a freelance writer, you are probably familiar with the feast or famine nature of this line of work, a cycle that can tend to produce thrilling highs and epic emotional (not to mention, financial) lows. In my own experience, everything always works out, but I’m regularly seized by that one moment, however fleeting, when it looks like, just this time, I might be without work.

This happened recently, and I decided to test out a few strategies for keeping work coming in when it looks like the flow might stagnate a bit. Here are my favorite–and most effective– take-aways:

1. Use a rejection to expand the conversation.
I was bummed out recently when a feature I’d been discussing with an editor for a national magazine–one where I’d never had a byline and one that pays well–got axed. “I love the idea,” she wrote in an email after we’d been discussing the story for a couple weeks, “but I’ve just run out of space for the summer.”

Cue the sad clowns.

I didn’t want to lose her attention while I had it, though, so I decided to be the one to close off the conversation by thanking her for her time and letting her know I’d be happy to be considered for any one-off assignments–especially last-minute pieces she needed filed–if they came up. Though it hasn’t result in an assignment yet, this approach has been very effective for myself and other colleagues. If you’re the type of writer who can deliver solidly fact-checked, well-written text on a tight deadline, being willing to take on a last-minute assignment can make you the go-to writer for a busy editor, and often results in repeat assignments.

2. Deliver an assignment with an idea for the next one.
This idea is so blindingly obvious, but it’s also one that I started trying only recently. After filing an initial article with an outlet I’d really enjoyed working with and that would be an ideal space for my work on certain urban topics, I realized that the editor, however much she liked my work, probably wouldn’t be the one pinging me for new ideas. Instead, each time I delivered an article, I would send it in along with an idea for the next piece I wanted to write. Not only did the editor see that I was eager to continue writing for the outlet, it got me in the pattern of always being on the look-out for stories that would be a good fit for the outlet. Suddenly, I had a fistful of fun, interesting assignments.

3. Branch out.
When you’re in that spot of anticipating a possible slump in confirmed assignments, start branching out. A clear schedule is the perfect time to start pitching some new beats or working your way into other genres. I recently picked up an assignment for a book review and a feature about women artists in Latin America; these are a form and subject that interest me, but I hadn’t actively pitched in either area because I’d been focused on other projects. I’m pretty excited about both assignments and am looking forward to seeing where they might lead.

4. Follow-up on dead pitches.
For the longest time, I avoided sending follow-up messages to editors. I didn’t want to be that writer, the annoying one who might be perceived as pestering for an answer about my query. But when I started scheduling follow-ups into my daily work schedule, I discovered that most editors aren’t bothered by them at all. Email gets hung up in spam filters or it hits an editor’s inbox when she’s busy closing an issue. Things happen. A polite follow-up message won’t faze a professional editor, and may result in a confirmed assignment.

What are your tips for ensuring you’ve got a steady flow of work? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

5 Things You Should Be Doing to Get More Writing Work

Apologies for the title of this post, which sounds like something that would appear on a late night infomercial for desperate writers, if such a thing existed. Really, though, it tells you exactly what you need to know.

Let’s get right to it.

Most writers are always looking for new assignments (they’re also looking for better-paying assignments… note to publishers), and they can get demoralized when they enter those periods–as we all do–in which pitches and queries seem to be dropping into a void. “Not interested” is hard enough to hear, but even harder is hearing nothing at all.

I don’t advocate changing your pitching rhythm, but here are five things you can do–some obvious, others not so much–to keep assignments coming in when editors don’t seem to be checking their inboxes:

1. Talk to your writer friends about your dead pitches.
We all have story ideas we just can’t seem to sell but we know would do well if they just found the right home. Get together, whether in person or online, with a group of writer friends (even one other writer will do) and share your dead pitches. The perspective of other writers can be incredibly valuable; they can help you see holes in your pitch that you might not be able to see, and they may have ideas for outlets you haven’t considered. They may even have editorial contacts they’d be willing to share. Be sure to reciprocate generously.

2. Introduce yourself to new editors at old publications.
Every time I see that an editor I’ve worked with is moving elsewhere, I feel competing emotions: happiness for their career move and frustration for myself; I’m going to have to work to develop a new relationship at a publication where I had an “in.”

In these cases–and they’re getting increasingly common–it’s smart to reach out to the new editor. Congratulate them, introduce yourself as a writer with X, Y, Z, areas of expertise and a history with the publication/previous editor, and express your interest in and enthusiasm about continuing to contribute to the publication during his or her tenure.

3. Work yourself into a new/extra gig by sharing hidden areas of expertise.
A friend who recently took up an editorial position reached out to me with an offer of an assignment. I was thrilled and grateful he’d thought of me. After completing the first assignment, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed working with the publication and said I’d love to work with them again, especially if they had assignments related to some of my other areas of interest and expertise, which I named. Within a week, I had three more assignments, which would have gone to another writer had I not spoken up.

4. Set up push notifications on twitter.
Too many editors are dinosaurs when it comes to social media, but there are some who use twitter and other platforms to announce when they’re commissioning writers, especially when they’re in a pinch. If you set up push notifications to receive tweets from editors at publications where you’d like to have a byline, you can be among the first to receive such information.

The other way I use push notifications on twitter is to source breaking news in specific topical niches. For example, I’ve set up push notifications to receive tweets from a few chefs who are rumored to be in the process of making some big career moves, but who, so far, have been pretty mum about those. On twitter, though, they tend to have looser lips, and by receiving push notifications, I can be fairly certain that I’ll have a lead on their big news before it breaks elsewhere.

5. Stay in touch with the folks in your outer circles.
I was recently surprised and touched when another writer remembered a particular area of expertise of mine and recommended me to an editor for a print magazine assignment. That assignment has turned into something pretty special (sorry, can’t say exactly what just yet). What was particularly touching to me was that this writer and I aren’t close; I’d say we’re in each other’s outer circles. We like each other, but we live far apart and just aren’t in regular touch. We follow each other on Facebook and twitter, but probably only have a substantial one-on-one exchange every other year. This was a reminder to work harder to stay in touch with people who are more loosely connected to us.

What are your tips for keeping assignments coming in? Share in the comments.

How to be motivated and productive when you’re just not feeling it

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
**
It was way too early in the new year for me to feel the way I did last week– unmotivated and unproductive– but such is life. Yucky weather, an energetic 3 year old who was sleeping less than usual, and the tedium of a project I appreciate but am not passionate about were circumstances that conspired to make me feel a certain dread each time I opened my laptop or looked at my to-do list.

What I felt like all last week... minus the sunsh

What I felt like all last week… minus the sunshine.

I couldn’t not make progress, though, not only because I knew I’d get buried by the growing to-do pile, but also because I know the cumulative effect that not doing my work has on me: it makes me feel guilty and, in turn, even less motivated. Though I knew I wouldn’t make significant progress on the biggest project, I also knew I needed to feel like I’d done worthwhile work and that I’d accomplished something meaningful.

Here’s how I stayed motivated and productive even though I wasn’t feeling it at all:

1. Step back from the most pressing project.
Even when you’re on a tight deadline, taking a breather from the priority project on your to-do list works wonders. Go for a run, make a cup of tea or coffee, research something that interests you, write a letter, post a banal status update on Facebook… whatever will take your mind off the project that’s most demanding. Give yourself 30 minutes or an hour and don’t think about the project at all.

I made valentines with my daughter and read a lot offline.

2. Do something that requires less effort…
I’m not opposed to doing nothing, but if you’re like me and you need to feel like you’ve gotten somethingdone, then choose something easy.

I edited a few hundred of the 2,000+ photos we’ve got on our hard drives. It was a task that didn’t take much thought or energy, but it left me feeling like I’d gotten something–anything–done.

3. Or do something that will produce an immediate sense of accomplishment.
You probably have projects that are the ones that interest you most… and they probably occupy the bottom third of your to-do list. They’re the ones you hope you get to every day, yet never quite seem to. Give yourself the time and permission to at least start one of them.

I started editing some videos that have been backlogged on my to-do list forever, some I intend to use on my own blog, and some that are actually promised to editors for paid assignments. Getting one video done and sent off helped me feel that I’d made progress on an item that had been on my plate for ages.

4. Just be where you are… no excuses.
This one’s really hard for me. I don’t like to admit to myself, much less anyone else, when I’m just not feeling it, you know? And I hate the feeling itself, even though I know it’s temporary. But telling myself, and then an editor, I was having a tough week and giving myself permission to accomplish less helped me feel a little bit better. Fortunately, I feel back on track this week.

How about you? How do you stay motivated and productive when you’re not feeling either one? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.

Confession of an overshot deadline

As in two months overshot.

You may be aware of my tendency to fall deeply in love with researching the subject(s) of an article, so much so that I find it difficult to end that phase of the writing process. The research about Catalan food, however, set a new personal record, and I overshot my deadline for Real Eats by a full two months.

This would have been bad enough, but I compounded the issue by not even communicating with my editor about the delay. I did this because I hate being late, I was embarrassed about it, and I was sure (no, really I was!) that I’d finish it in just a couple more days.

But a couple more days turned into a couple more weeks and then, here we were, two months past my deadline. Finally, it was time to send the editor an email and fess up:

The only excuse I have for not submitting my article on time to you two months ago is both a real one and the true one: I became obsessively immersed in the story and ended up going back to Catalunya twice. All I can say is that it was (and remains) an absolutely delightful rabbit hole. That does not excuse me, however, from (1) not having delivered the story and (2) not sending you an email just to let you know the status of things. I could happily stay in the rabbit hole for the rest of my life (where I would nibble on a very special cheese made by a local producer), but it’s like a dissertation: you’ve got to know when to stop. I could easily eke out three different stories, but I wanted to get in touch to apologize for my lack of communication and to see if you’re still interested in the volcanic cooking piece we originally agreed upon, which I could deliver to you next week.

Within an hour or so, she had replied:

And it is entirely my fault for not telling you that Real Eats went out of business very early in May. So no worries on both our parts…. Sorry there is no longer a potential outlet for this story with Real Eats. Such is the way of the digital publishing world these days.

Though I felt relieved, I still felt badly about my lack of professionalism.

**
Have you ever overshot a deadline? By how much and why? Fess up in the comments.

What’s the secret to becoming a full-time paid writer?

Of all my writer friends–and there are many–I don’t know a single one who lives solely off the writing he or she really wants to be doing.

A good many of them live off their writing, yes.  But this kind of writing–the best kind of writing, in my book–doesn’t pay the bills for them.

Instead, their daily bread (or tortilla, as it were) comes from other gigs: technical writing, text book writing, test-writing.  In short, the kind of writing that is vaguely interesting, but not the kind they’d be doing if they had their druthers.

*

This morning, I woke up thinking about the news that National Geographic’s Adventure magazine had folded. I wasn’t sad, exactly. I don’t think I’ve ever even read the magazine. But when one of National Geographic’s magazines goes belly up on the heels of one of America’s best food magazines going under, you have to wonder what’s next and if the whole glossy market as we know it is headed for the graveyard.

“It’s all about a diverse income stream,” I thought as I started on the first coffee of the day.

*

David wrote about all this over on the Notebook, and I was struck by a quote he included from former USA Today travel section editor, Chris Gray Faust:

“I’ve been learning all the tricks that a modern multi-platform journalist is supposed to know. In the past 22 months, I’ve blogged, tweeted, shot photos and videos, and handled speaking engagements. I edited my section, managed my high-personality staff and then in my spare time, I wrote cover stories – something that very few other editors at USA TODAY do. I hustled and I cajoled and I ended up out on my ass anyway.”

The problem, though, was that Chris was using all these “tricks” for a single publication. She placed all her professional goals and income needs on USA Today, and, as she reflected, “ended up out on [her] ass….”

The secret to becoming a full-time paid writer is simple. Really. Don’t ever, ever, ever put all your words in one place.  Until the world values writers more–and sad to say, I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon–if you want to be a full-time paid writer, you’ll always need to make sure you have a diverse income stream.