A classic will always be a classic

I recently picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo at a local book sale on the second day where a bag of books cost $2. I figured, I’d never read it and it was one of those things that I *should* read in my lifetime.

IMG_20140304_105932161I mean a classic is called a classic for a reason, right?

I slipped it into my bag with the personal promise that if I hadn’t touched it by the next book sale, I would donate it back.

But then a funny thing happened. It was a cold New Hampshire night, I was sitting by the heater covered up in a wool blanket and I wanted to read something but didn’t want to get up (and risk losing all my heat.) So I looked around and the closest book happened to be that very same copy of The Count.

Why not? I opened to page one and started reading. A few hours later I was still reading.

“Griffin,” I called out to my son, “you are not going to believe this story. It’s got justice and injustice, deceit and naivety, good guys and bad guys, and a hero who shows incredible patience and grace under the most incredible conditions. It’s a story where good behavior is rewarded (finally) and bad behavior is, well dealt with. In short, it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t put this book down!”

“I know,” Griffin replied to me when I was done gushing over the story,” We had to read it in high school. It’s one of my favorite stories.”

“You do know that classics are called classics for a reason, right?” He then asked me.

What I want to know is just when did my kid get to be so smart?

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Pitching to a magazine in your niche

Because this blog is all about sharing information on being a writer, I’m going to walk you through how I just recently snagged 3 paying articles in a national magazine.

1I had noticed on a facebook post that a magazine about chickens had just gotten a new editor.  He had written a refreshingly honest first editorial where he openly admitted that, while he was an accomplished editor, he still had lots to learn about chickens.

I read the editorial and then I immediately composed a letter of introduction. I started it off with a sincere warm letter of congratulations on his new position.  The chicken community is actually a fairly tight-knit group of people, we know of the writers, the experts, and we will go out of our way to help anyone who needs assistance.

I gave the editor a short list of my chicken credentials (I hold workshops, have a backyard flock) followed by a short list of my writing credentials (chicken blog, blogger for Grit and Chicken Communities, and regional journalist.) I also provided links to some of my online articles.  

I then pitched 6 article ideas, here are two of the pitches –

  •  Shaming chickens – we all have them. Although we’d like to think that our chickens are angels on earth, at times, they can be very naughty (like when my hen pecked off the “H” key from my husband’s new laptop keyboard.)
  • House chickens – because of medical needs and bad timing with the seasons, we ended up having a chicken live in our house for 6 months. It’s not as crazy as you might think, chickens do make good pets (except for that poop thing and even then, people have come up with solutions for that.)

 Lastly, I offered to provide all the photos for any of my stories.

In essence what I had done was:

·         Said hello and made a connection
·         Introduced myself
·         Established myself as an expert in the field (why I mattered)
·         Established myself as a competent writer
·         Pitched article package ideas
·         Finished up with saying that I’d love to work with him

That afternoon, the editor sent email requesting 3 stories roughly 1000 – 1200 words each with photos.

So what are the take-aways from this?

Be known for a niche. This particular niche happens to be chickens. I’m also known as a disability rights, parenting, and thrift writer. I tailored this pitch to a very specific niche and only used the credentials that supported my experience in this particular area.

Pitch, pitch, pitch. A few weeks back, I answered a question  from a reader of this blog where I described the process for a formal pitch. In a formal pitch, you have to include estimated word count, photos, an outline of the article, and a list of the references and resources you’ll be tapping for the article. In this case, however, I had already established myself as a competent writer, what I wanted to do was to let him know that I could come up with quick, quirky, and interesting article ideas.  So I used the multiple “headline” version of a pitch where I throw out an idea (possible headline) and then describe it in a sentence or two. I was trusting him to let me take it from there if he wanted me to pursue an idea.

Be ballsy. Seriously, I am so busy that I didn’t have time to think “oh gee, but if I send him this email, he might think I’m being overly-confident or needy.” I sent the email with absolutely no expectations. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have some hope, but I knew that this was nothing more than a shot in the evening dusk which quite surprisingly turned out to be a direct hit.

 

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

 

Chipping away at the statue that is our story

You know when you are watching a movie and the camera stays a heartbeat too long on the kitchen knife and you just know that something pivotal is going to happen with that knife? In most cases, this sort of cinematic emphasis to a prop means that the prop is going to be used later on in the film – the knife will be used to cut the ropes for escape, used to stab the bad guy, etc.

Statue_de_David_à_MarseilleAnd likewise, I’m sure that you’ve seen films where you’ve noticed the knife and only after, you frustratingly realize that the knife was meaningless to the story. In that case, it was a poorly directed movie, where no one paid attention to that major rule of storytelling.

If you emphasis a prop, then you need to use that prop later on.

You’ve probably heard the advice for carving a statue – take a block of marble and cut away everything that does not look like the final statue. Easy enough huh?

The same advice goes for writing.

When you write a scene, you are obligated to incorporate detail. Think of the five senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Obviously, you don’t need to use them all but you need to strive to “paint” a textual picture of where your characters are. Everything in your scene must exist to propel your story’s action or plot.

The problem is that many writers rely on their own interpretations of the scene. You might recall a fancy restaurant where you had a memorable dinner once as the scene for your characters to have a heated argument over a pending divorce.

Even though you remember the forks as being incredibly study (and trust me, I appreciate a heavy fork as much as the next person) it’s not necessary to mention the forks in your scene, no matter how impressive they are.

If, however, one of your characters is going to steal a knife and then stab the other and then frame someone else, you might want to mention the sharpness of the steak knife, the way the lighting glints off of the blade. Even if they use another knife, attention to this knife might be warranted in the guise of foreshadowing.

As writers we must use our personal filters for all of our writing. It’s a given and that’s what makes our work individual and unique. However, as crafters of stories, we need to recognize that even though we see our stories through our own eyes, we need to be vigilant about chipping away all of our words that don’t leave behind the finished statue.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

For the record, I’ve even “borrowed” a heavy fork that had impressed me.

5 Things to Consider When Writing Webcopy

When I write for someone else’s website, the first thing I do is hold a face-to-face meeting. I want to be able to hear the owner’s actual voice and figure out what it is about their business that makes them stand out from the competition. Some of the information I’m specifically looking for is:

What is the voice? I talk about voice a lot in my marketing writing. It’s something you hear about all the time with regard to internet writing. People want to hear your voice. But what does that mean? You, as the writer, need to gauge whether the client’s voice is friendly, authoritative, funny, or motherly to name just a few examples.

A company that offers services to declutter someone’s house is going to have a far different voice than a company that offers international shipping options. When I sit down with the client, I listen to their physical voice when they explain what it is their company does, and that gives me an idea of how they want themselves represented on the internet.

What benefits do they offer the customer? I recently saw a client who showed me his introductory slide presentation for prospective customers. It started with how his company got started (30 years ago) and continued until today. That’s clearly a presentation that was designed for a person who is very proud of his company. It was not designed for someone who wants to know what it is you can do for them. Find out what the benefits and then use that information in every piece of writing you create.

What are the Keywords? I always ask my clients, what words would I use to describe your business? Those will often be the SEO words you’ll use for much of the documentation. I then ask, what words would I use to describe you? Those are often the words by which the company wants to be known  – trustworthy, intelligent, competent, etc. It will be those attributes that you’ll  be showcasing in your writing.

What’s the best way to present the information? Is what the company does visual? If so, like in the case of a decluttering service, perhaps before and after photos would be effective. Is the company more results oriented, as in, they save the customer money? Then charts and graphs might be effective. . Does the company showcase or teach skills? Well now, there’s a case for video clips.

Figure out, based on the product and services, how best to represent that information on the web.

To whom are we targeting the information? In almost all cases, it starts with a blog. That part is easy, what becomes a bit trickier is figuring out how then to broadcast that blog material.

Figure out who the company typically sells to? Is it the CFO? If so, then don’t spend a lot of effort on Facebook and instead concentrate on sending articles and blog posts to LinkedIn groups and out on Twitter. Does the company have a more “friendly” community? If so then go guns blazing to Facebook. Get those blog posts up and invite discussion in a community format.

Not all web promotion is created equal. It’s up to you to match what you hear and understand from your discussions with the client to what is available out there and that would bring the most bang from their investment dollars.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

An important part of being a good writer is being a good listener.

The Trick to Getting More Freelance Work

Many of us writers pitch our articles and blog posts. We do all the right things for those pitches, we identify the audience, explain why our article fits the publication, and we include the word count and resources we’ll be quoting. Perfect.

And when our pitch is accepted, we are overjoyed. We set about writing the article and we send it in, knowing that we’ve done a good job. We’ve finished the job and it’s time for a celebratory beer, right?

Photo credit: FontFont

Photo credit: FontFont

But not so fast. If you’ve forgotten to include this one single trick when you pass in your article, you’re missing out on easy opportunity to consistently get more work.

That trick? Always be sure to include a suggestion for another project.

“Like this article on the behavior of local bears at the dump in the winter? How about another one on how the local fox population is dwindling due to residential development?”

“I’ve included a blog post on the best way to use social media, how about another follow-on post on best practices for using social media to create a network?”

I *never* return a project without suggesting topics for new ones. In fact, I have one editor with whom I rarely even return an email without pitching another story. Fortunately, she and I have a good working relationship and I know what kinds of stories she is looking for.  But still, I’m not going to wait around to be assigned a story especially if I have a few ideas in mind.

I want the work now.

The same goes for marketing work. Whenever I submit work (website content, blog posts) I’ll always include suggestions on how to make something else better.

“You know your “About Us” page? It’s not clear exactly what it is you offer your customer. Want me to take a look at that to make it stronger?”

“Here are 4 blog posts, want me to get started on another 4 for next month so you’ll have a queue ready?”

When you make additional project suggestions, not only are you seen as a go-getter, but you are also viewed as someone who is a critical thinker. Someone who is always wondering “how can we make this better?” and “what will keep the audience engaged?”

Editors tend to like those kinds of people.

I don’t know of an editor or a marketer who doesn’t appreciate additional article and work suggestions. In the case of the editor, you are helping to fill the publication. You’re actually making her job easier. In the case of the marketer, you are helping to sell work, and guess what? Marketers like to sell work, that’s their job. When they know you can upsell like that, they are going to come back to you for work.

Again and again.

This past week I was contacted by an editor who sent me a request for an article idea I had submitted last summer as an attachment to a finished project. She couldn’t use the idea then, but she did want me to write the article now. Could I still do it? She asked.

You betcha.

Not only will I do it, but you can be sure that when I send the finished article over, I’ll be pitching a few additional articles ideas for her consideration.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

How about a post next week on the top 5 questions to ask when writing content for a website?

Are you a “where” or a “how” writer?

I know of some writers who can’t start a project until they have the “perfect” title. Although I do admit, I’ve have stumbled across some title-worthy phrases (like “The Joy of Six” as a memoir title for our family of 6 kids) I have never really understood this approach.  Pardon my bluntness but for *me*, these writers seem to have it literally ass-backward.

I think that a more effective approach to writing stories, articles, and blog posts is to come up with the ending first and then create the story to justify that conclusion.

Remember the brilliant and hysterically funny movie “Blazing Saddles?”(Seriously is there anyone who didn’t fall on the floor laughing over the beans scene?)  I’m convinced that one of the reasons Saddles was created was so that Mel Brooks could film the ending. From the final dialog with the town’s people to the breaking of the fourth wall by having the actors get off their horses and enter a limousine. Brooks lets us know that although he makes some strong social statements, in the end, the movie is just that, a movie. Let’s all have a good laugh.

Every line, every scene led up to and justified that final gotcha image.

 

 

 

I suppose it comes down to whether you are a “Where do we go from here?”  type of person or a “How did we get here?” kind.

The “where” people’s stories tend to go all over the place, they never know what their characters are going to do or say from day to day. There is a certain freedom in this type of writing and I’ve spoken to many successful writers who use this method. They sit at the computer and let their stories dump out of their brains.

Others (like myself) are the “how” people. We know where our characters are going to finally be, but we need to work backwards in order to make sure that all steps lead to the ending. I have created what often look like reverse flowcharts for my stories.

Is this approach a little too analytical? Too stilted and restrictive of creative freedom? I don’t know. I’ve tried to work like a “where” writer and I always find that I get lost, I go down rat holes and spend time on material that ends up being cut in the end because it gets my characters nowhere. I tend to waste a lot of time.  But is that such a bad thing? Sometimes those who wander are not lost.

I’m not saying that either approach is better or worse, in the end if you are successful, then whichever method you use is the best. What I am saying is that you, as a writer, should be aware of how *you* compose a story. Do you tend to compose forward or backward? Identify which approach works best for you and then the next time you write something, don’t waste time with something other than what works best for you.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

Yes, I keep a flowchart on my wall of the book I’m working on. It helps me see where I’ve been.

It’s about them, dummy

This post is in reply to a request for more marketing writing information.

My sister is in a Social Media class and she pointed me to this little gem of a video that brilliantly shows the relationship between the “Advertiser” and the “Customer.”

Advertiser vs. Customer

It’s a point that I need to state time and time again when I’m working with businesses.

It’s not about you, it’s about your audience.

Yeah, sure, you think your business is great (and maybe it is), but if you can’t sell your need or products to a customer, you’re going to be nothing.

So many people still don’t get this. They write about all the good things their business has done. They start marketing material off with “We are.” We are doing this. We are doing that. We’ve won this award. We are great.

But what they really need to do is write about how the good things they are doing can create a benefit to their audience’s lives. Will it make things go bigger, faster, or more efficiently? Will it amuse them? Why should they care about what you are doing?

When I’m reading marketing material, and it starts with “we” I sigh. It’s the pompous Uncle at the Thanksgiving table who’s going to dominate the conversation for the next 15 minutes, isn’t it? Pass the potatoes and it’s time for a little daydream, I know where this is going and I’m checking out.

Here, in a nutshell, is the ultimate challenge for the marketing writer – to always, always present the business’s accomplishments in the context of the audience’s needs and to not fall victim to the bloated, playground bragging style that far too many companies feel is the better way to go.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

It’s not as easy as it looks, which is why a good copywriter is something that a business will hold onto.

The Art of Persuasive Copy Writing

I was reading an article in Writer’s Digest on creating written ad content (yeah, I also write marketing content for businesses) and the author, Athena Schultz,  did a great job in breaking down an ad into its major formulaic parts. The author proposed that most ads consist of:

  • Attention –the ad grabs your attention and hooks you
  • Interest –the ad fulfills a promise
  • Desire –the ad appeals to your wants and needs
  • Action –the ad identifies a call to action

Now, not all ads are going to fit this formula but I’m going to show you one that does. Below is an ad for Garnier Hair color. What you are seeing is actually part of a two page spread, on the facing page is a photo of a very happy (orgasmically happy) woman with perhaps the world’s most beautiful hair. She’s smiling, wearing bright red lipstick, has perfect teeth, is probably going home to a clean house – basically, anyone would want to be her.

ad 1

Except that all she is, is really just a show pony. She’s there to simply get your attention (which is not a bad thing in the world of advertisements.)

ad 2

If you break the written content of this ad down, this is what you get. (If you click on the photo, it will enlarge enough for you to read the text.)

Attention – Not only does this amazingly happy woman get our attention but take a look at that headline on page 2. HAIRCOLOR WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.  Whether you agree or disagree, it’s got your attention because immediately you are asking yourself “why not?”

Interest – Well there it is. There’s the promise that the ad will fulfill. Garnier has a technological breakthrough where oil can do *more* than condition hair (we can clearly see from the woman that it does more.) Garnier’s oil propels color deep inside the hair.

Wow, right?

Desire – Now look at the list that follows the promise. If you use Garnier, you will get: Maximum Color Performance, Visibly Improves and Restores Hair, and, if you were still on the fence, Unique Sensorial Experience.  Those are all things that appeal to my wants and needs. I don’t want to just color my hair, I want performance *and* a sensorial experience. (Seriously, if I’m going to play with chemicals, I want to have a good time.)

Action – there are actually two actions here:

  • Take care. Garnier – a clever tagline which is a signoff, as well as a command
  • “Try it and share your hair story with 1, 000s of others at ganierUSA.com /Olia”

Take care, try and share. That’s the call to action in a nut shell.

Now not all ads will follow this format as clearly as this one does, but many do.

So why am I teaching you about ad copy? Because it’s also a way to effectively organize a persuasive essay, a white paper, or an email to a boss requesting something. It’s also a nice way to organize an article pitch, a book query, or an article on why your book rocks. Basically, it’s one of those skills that should always reside in your back pocket.

You want to get attention, present your case, support your case, and then ask for action.

Go ahead and try using a formula like this in your persuasive writing, but don’t forget to use your head. I’ve had students in writing classes, who, when given a template like this, don’t know enough to make any personal deviations. Their writing ends up being stale and anything but persuasive.  However, if you are a skilled writer, there’s nothing wrong with putting this kind of a formula down first as the skeleton of your work and then going back to add the flesh making it the breathing creature that your writer’s soul needs to create.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

And yes, this formula (with a few liberties) also works when trying to teach your kids how to write an essay for the SATs

When to write – advice from the past

No one expected me to become a writer. I was supposed to become a pharmacist, then a microbiologist, and then a computer specialist. The career of “writer,” for whatever reason, was never mentioned.

later onOften I have wondered how things might have turned out differently had I been guided at an earlier age. I wish, when thinking about my days spent in youth, that someone had given me words of advice specific to a writer – a bit of inspiration, a smidgen of insight on going forward. How I would have held on to those words and cherished them. How I would have believed that they applied to me, to my life.

But no one did and as we all know, unless you want to mire yourself forever in the tangled webs of the past, you need to move on. You didn’t get what you thought you needed in the past, get over it. You’ll just have to find it elsewhere, life goes on.

This past weekend, while visiting my brother and his family, I was gifted with a box of family photos saved from my parents’ house when they recently moved from Virginia to Connecticut. Amongst the pictures of relatives and childhoods long gone, I found a simple, yellowed newspaper clipping, no date, just very old. I was almost about to throw it away when I took a second, closer look.

I don’t know who saved it, I don’t know who it was for, but the words rang as loudly to me as if a mentor were leaning over my shoulder and speaking directly into my ear.

Quite by fortune, in a box of near-forgotten memories, I finally found the words of advice from my past that are missing no more.

When to Write

by Edgar A. Guest

Now’s the time to write a letter,

Now you have it on your mind.

Never moment that is better

In a lifetime  you will find.

The thought that prompts you to it

Seize immediately upon,

For you’ll seldom get to do it

If you wait till later on.

You may think: “I’ll write it tomorrow,”

But it’s ten to one you don’t

Write it now or to your sorrow

You’ll forget it and you won’t.

In an minutes you’ll have penned it

And be glad to know it’s gone,

But you may not live to send it

If you wait till later on.

Oh the time for iron smiting

Is the moment iron’s hot,

And the time for letter writing

Is today – upon the dot.

Seize the minutes and to do it,

For the odds are ten to one

That you’ll never get to do it

If you wait till later on.

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

And yup, that clipping is currently framed and hanging by my desk.