Archive for October, 2011

The Writing Life, Chapter 13: Old Friends and New Ideas

Earlier this week I spent a day in Rye, New York, where I presented a workshop on using poetry in the classroom to teachers attending the New York State Reading Association conference. While there, I had the opportunity to say hi to a number of old friends from NYSRA, the IRA staff and Board, and a few people who contributed to Reading Today while I was editor. I appreciated the opportunity to renew friendships, and I was reminded how much these relationships continue to mean to me during my life “after IRA.”

From a freelance point of view, one always questions the value of going to an event such as this in terms of balancing the cost of travel and registration versus the potential gains. All in all, I decided the event was a great success—and for reasons that went far beyond my workshop itself. Both in the workshop and outside, I met several people who expressed interest in possible author visits, and that’s always a good thing. Establishing personal contact with folks in the field is far better than simply sending out an author brochure or making a cold call.

Even better, I found myself recharged with many new ideas. After perusing the program and attending a few sessions, I got several ideas for articles to pitch to various publications, as well as some new ideas for marketing myself and my writing. Sometimes it’s helpful to step outside the normal routine for a day and just think about possibilities, and to do so in a conference center full of bright, talented educators is a perfect setting.

As I made the 3-hour drive home on Monday night, I felt physically tired but intellectually exhilarated. Once again I was reminded just how energizing it is for an author to work with engaged teachers in the critical process of developing students who not only know how to read and write effectively  but who also respect and appreciate the value and beauty of the written word. That’s why I enjoyed working for more than 30 years with the International Reading Association and why I enjoy my current role as an author and freelance writer/editor so very much.

Random Writing Thought of the Week: Ideas are all around us. Sometimes we get so caught up in the day’s activities and deadlines that we can’t really see them. Taking some time to step back and reflect can help us regain our focus.

The Writing Life, Chapter 12: Juggling

One of my favorite children’s books is Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God, which tells the tale of a street urchin who achieves fame and fortune as a juggling clown. The book ends by describing his last and most special performance. I’ve always envied jugglers, mostly because I can barely handle one object at a time, let alone juggle three or four or more. But lately I’ve been practicing the art of juggling in my writing.

After a slow period this summer when I began to question whether this freelance writing career was really a good idea, I have recently found myself with as many projects as I can handle. The challenge has been to keep various stages of multiple projects moving forward while meeting all of my various deadlines and commitments along the way.

I’ve always preferred working on multiple projects each day rather than zeroing in on just one. I find that my attention stays sharper if I shift back and forth rather than spending hours upon hours focused on just one project. Lately, however, I’ve felt a little like a ping pong ball as I’ve bounced back and forth between speaking engagements, a white paper, several newspaper and magazine articles, marketing activities, trying to move two books forward, and more.

Sometimes the biggest challenge for the day is figuring out a schedule that will allow me to stay on top of everything. One night this week I did a telephone interview at 10 p.m. and then finished the article draft at midnight.

Don’t get me wrong—this is all GOOD! When you’re a freelancer, it’s always better to be too busy than not busy enough. So for right now I’ll just keep practicing my juggling.

Random Writing Thought of the Week: One of my theories of successful freelancing is to always have LOTS of queries and proposals circulating, realizing that many of them will never come to fruition. When several of them happen to come together at the same time, then I end up with the happy juggling situation I have now. I hope it continues!

The Writing Life, Chapter 11: Leftovers

When preparing a meal, cooks are always faced with the dilemma of what to do with leftover ingredients. These ingredients usually are perfectly good; they just didn’t make it into the recipe, or we bought more than we ended up using. We hate to throw them away, but sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to decide how best to use them.

The same holds true for writers. When researching an article on student activism, I learned about the remarkable story of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith, who was trying to raise $300 to build wells in developing countries through a nonprofit organization called charity: water ( when she died following a tragic automobile accident. Word of her campaign spread, and now more than $1.2 million has been donated in her name. I wrote up a capsule summary of her story, got quotes from Rachel’s mom and the founder of charity: water, and used it as the lead for my longer article.

Then the editors decided they wanted a different slant for the article, emphasizing youngsters who were actively involved in projects rather than raising money for them. I found a new example and crafted a new lead, but I’ve still got this wonderful material about Rachel I’d like to use somehow. With that in mind, I’m looking at other markets for a separate article. Likewise, I have other recent instances where I’ve done interviews for an article and ended up using only a quote or two due to space constraints. I’m exploring ways to use some of that additional information in other ways as well.

Leftover food ingredients often can be combined and used in tasty ways we might never have imagined when we began preparing the original recipe. I hope the same thing may prove true for my writing leftovers!

Random Thought of the Week: Learning about the work of student activists gives me hope about the leadership this next generation may provide.

The Writing Life, Chapter 10: Wrapping Up

For many writers, the hardest thing about a project is getting started. When faced with a blank piece of paper or a blank Microsoft Word template and realizing they need to fill it with words that make sense, they panic.

Sometimes I find it hard to begin, too, but I can usually solve that problem by getting something down on screen, even if it’s not very good. Once I get started, the words begin to flow naturally. They may not all be the RIGHT words at first. But that’s OK. I can go back and edit again…and again…and again.

For me, the hardest part of a project is wrapping up. First of all, I’m almost never totally pleased with my writing. No matter how many times I’ve polished a piece, each time I read it I find new things to change and new ways to make it better. Thank goodness for deadlines. Without them, I’d probably never be able to let a piece of writing go.

The other challenge involved in wrapping up a project relates to the fact that when I’m preparing copy for outside clients, it isn’t done until they say it’s done. I may think the piece is perfect, but if the client doesn’t, it’s back to the drawing board.

I recently wrote an article that I thought had turned out really well. The client liked it, too—except for the lead, the sidebar, and one of the key examples. So now I’m wrapping up that project for a second time. When you’re a freelance writer, you have to curb your ego. It’s not about how you want something; it’s how the client wants it.

Isn’t that how life is as well? First, our parents and teachers tell us how they want things done. In college, our professors set the standards. In the work world, whether we are writers or engineers or lawyers, our bosses let us know when a project has been “wrapped up” to their satisfaction.

My only boss for this blog post is me. I’ve been through it a couple of times, rewording and reshaping it in places. If I let it sit for a few more days, I could probably make it even better. It’s time to post it, however, so I think I’ll “wrap up.”

Random Thought of the Week: We’ve all heard the phrase “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.” After watching the Eagles and Phillies on Sunday, I think they’ve found a way to reverse that, with both teams “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” Oh, well, such is the life of a Philadelphia sports fan. Fortunately, the Phillies turned it around yesterday, and perhaps the Eagles will do so on Sunday.