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Here due to popular demand, is a condensed compendium of all that I have learned so far as a freelance writer. You can use this either as a reference by skimming down to the parts you need, or are interested in, or simply reading straight-through the entire article.
Be sure to follow and thank @mnmblackwell for suggesting this article! If you wish to suggest an article, you can email me or send me a tweet on twitter: @twps. Please note that I do my best to reply to your emails, but due to the large number of emails I get on a daily basis, please understand if it takes a few days (or more) to get a reply. I also respond directly to all human comments left on blog posts (I do not reply to pingbacks or automated blog mentions).
Please note that this article is going to be quite lengthy, but will ultimately be a start-to-finish guide to all that I have learned from my many years as a freelance writer. Just a reminder… You can see all my writing by following this link, and be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates!
Inspiration is the key to start any creative process, and writing is perhaps the most creative and mentally challenging task many of us writers commonly take for granted. Anyone can write, most of us can write well, but to write something extraordinary takes hard work, dedication, patience, and time. Time itself is a very valuable thing, and during times of inspirational drought, writers may seek out alternative ways to inspire creativity.
Before I progress further, I should mention that by no means am I encouraging any sort of ritual, drug or substance use or abuse, or any other activity that puts yourself or those around you at risk. Addictions are counter-productive and can eventually threaten a persons life or well being. The examples presented here are examples of challenges faced by a handful of selected writers and are only presented here for article completeness.
Writers are a very curious bunch, who find inspiration in a multitude of places. I use my past life experiences as a huge source of inspiration, and accordingly I express it through my writing and photography. In a previous post titled Sex, Drugs, and Writing, I detailed a few basic facts about addictions, and then I wrote about the odd habits and pre-writing rituals of some famous writers (be sure to see this post at The Atlantic). Everyone has some sort of addiction, or has overcome a prior addiction; it’s just another part of the human experience. For reasons beyond my scope of rational understanding, it seems to me that writers with addictions typically succumb to the most dangerous and destructive addictions, typically those that are shunned most by society. Some writers, especially the prolific and/or famous ones allow their addictions to become an active role in their writing process (again, developing an unhealthy addiction for any reason, including writing, is never a good idea). Perhaps the greatest source of inspiration for many writers (myself included) is life itself. When all else fails, most writers turn to writing prompts.
Read The Classics
I speak from experience, having received a formal education in The United States, that I was made to read the classic works of literature from grade school, then all the way through college. There seems to be a disturbing trend in modern society to detest reading, especially classic works of literature despite the proven benefits of doing so. The goal of education is to prepare the student for a lifetime of autodidactism, not the mere memorization of facts and figures as most believe, perhaps as a direct result of standardized testing procedures that despite their overwhelming popularity, only measure a students ability to pass the test. Despite my overwhelmingly high IQ scores, I was never good at taking standardized tests, which ultimately led me to leave college before obtaining a degree.
If you haven’t yet read the classics, don’t despair, there’s still time. Make a list of your favorite works, and use this list for future reference. I have posted My Literary Canon.
It makes little or no difference what genre of a writer you are (and even if you are not a writer at all), everybody needs a notebook of some sort. Moleskine notebooks are easily my absolute favorite. Some people keep multiple notebooks, one for each subject or topic, for example. Others (like myself) prefer to keep all my notes and writing in one centralized notebook. The choice in the matter is, however, a very personal one. More tips and secrets can be found here. Great note-taking venues include, but are not limited to: coffee shops, museums, libraries, or any other public place where one can observe others or generate original ideas.
Ideally, a writer should have a notebook filled with writing ideas waiting to be written about. A good writer has at least twice as many ideas in their notebook than they can complete in an average span of six months; this way, at least in theory, there will always be a good supply of things to write about.
Making Time To Write
With our busy lives, it may be difficult to allocate any specific time to ourselves specifically for writing. Unless you are a professional full-time writer, or you are lucky enough to have the time to devote your entire day to your writing craft, you will need to have a way to collect your thoughts and ideas when they come to you. Our minds are always changing, so what we think of today will likely be forgotten by tomorrow, so taking notes is vitally important. I keep a notebook with me whenever possible. In certain circumstances, a pocket sized notebook is not convenient, so at the very least, I bring along a sheet of blank paper and a pen to write with.
I should probably note that anytime I take notes on a piece of paper, find something worth remembering on the Internet, or even something extraordinary written on a wall, I will hand-copy it into my notebook for archival storage as soon as it becomes possible. On a side note, the correct term for writing found on a bathroom wall or fixture is latrinalia. Here is an example of something useful I found written on a bathroom wall:
“Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Sadly, 99.9% of what I’ve read written on bathroom walls should not be discussed while in the presence of polite or enlightened company.
Finding YOUR Place To Write
Before I write about the places I go to write, I would like to mention a few more famous writers and their preferred writing locations. (Source)
What do all of these famous writers have in common? They each have a space of sorts set aside specifically for writing. Making arrangements for a place to write is just as important as setting aside time to write.
Whenever I write, I prefer to do my writing in lined Moleskine notebooks. I also prefer space to myself that is free of conversation which requires my attention and in the process, completely distracts my thought process. Music is also helpful, both as inspiration, and as a social cue that lets others know that when I’m listening to headphones and intently writing something in my notebook, I look too busy to be disturbed.
As a child, I was lucky enough to have my very own room (which just so happened to have a handful of floor-to-ceiling book cases filled with books). I was also lucky enough to be an only child. At the time, my parents had three amazon parrots downstairs from my room. They were three of the loudest and most obnoxious birds I have ever had to deal with, and despite the two closed doors and a flight of stairs separating me from the birds, I could still lose focus from their shrieking. My favorite writing spot became the base of a great big tree in my parents back yard.
My dreaming tree, as I became to describe it, was a large maple in the center of the back yard that was hundreds of years old. When I wrote, I would sit at its massive base and gaze up into its lofty branches; I would sit and write there for hours at a time. Now as an adult, I prefer to write in one of three places; at a table in my living room, at a coffee shop table, or (weather permitting) at the base of a large tree in the forest. I have always felt as if I have a spiritual connection to nature.
Many writers are curious and eccentric folks. My eccentric vision is to have my very own personal writing studio, but perhaps compared to the most eccentric writers such as Oscar Wilde (who had a pet lobster on a leash), or Francis Egerton (who held fancy dinner parties for dogs and counted days with shoes), (source) my eccentric visions might seem totally normal.
Keeping A Personal Journal or Diary
Scientific studies have shown that keeping a personal writing journal not only helps people keep track of their daily lives and memories, but it may also help improve writing ability.
I started writing in the summer of 1993. Back then, I was simply taking notes of my daily thoughts and activities in as much detail as possible. I can still recall as a child, I met the likes of some amazing and successful poets and writers. I had the experience of meeting (on numerous occasions) Charles Kuralt and Alan Ginsberg. The two would always tell my parents that some day I might make an excellent writer, and they were always encouraging me to consider a career in writing, though at the time I was not even considering such a career, though I did continue to write simply for my own personal enjoyment.
It wasn’t until 1998 that my writing really took off. Under the guidance of my high school English teacher, and my faculty advisor, I started writing poetry [but suddenly stopped] and page after page of written prose. Then, under the permission of the headmaster, I was given permission to write in my notebook during study hall as long as my other homework was completed. Despite the steadfast efforts of those around me, I still dismissed the idea of writing as a career.
Shortly after meeting my true love, Angie, in 2002, I began to finally pursue writing and photography as a side-job on Angie’s advice. If there is one person in the world that gives truly good advice, it has to be Angie, and the fact that she tells it is just one of the many facets of her existence that I’m in love with. Angie is also the only person I have ever allowed to read through my notebooks. Here’s a tip: if an established writer allows you to read through their complete and uncensored notebooks to learn all about the intimately personal thoughts and ideas, then changes are, the writer loves, or respects, and ultimately trusts you. The only complaint Angie has ever voiced about my writing is that I tend to write in a very journalistic fashion that is far and beyond my age group, and in a manner that is enough to bore all but the most epically engaged reader. She is right perhaps due to the fact that my writing and my writing style is as unique as my signature, is literally the product of decades of daily practice of writing in my many sequential notebooks.
To become an eloquent and well-versed writer takes years of practice, dedication, perseverance, determination, and skill. And while the pay-off is sometimes financial, the return is always emotional and spiritual satisfaction and enlightenment that no amount of money can buy. That is the ultimate gift and value of keeping a writing notebook.
Honing Your Writing Craft – Blogging, Networking, and Social Media
If you are a writer, and you don’t yet have a blog, NOW is the time to start one of your own. Just as writers have throughout history written about every conceivable topic, there is a blog on the Internet about every possible topic. My recommendation is to start a blog at WordPress.com; the same software is used to run TomSlatin.com as well. Here are a few example blogs I like (and read… time permitting) are:
The benefits of having your own blog are too numerous to list here, in other words, the return on your hard work and creativity is enormous. If you are seeking to improve your writing, network, and get some really fantastic feedback (a.k.a. comments), then a blog is the place to start. ProBlogger.net has far more information and resources than perhaps any other blog or website on the topic.
After starting a blog, be sure to mention it on Twitter, submit it to StumbleUpon, and add links to your blog in as many places on the Internet as possible.
If you are an aspiring or established writer, be sure to follow this list on Twitter. You can also follow me, the author of this article, too: @twps!
A Few Notes About Publishing
As any writer will tell you, writers are often judged using numbers. Writers sometimes base their success numerically by the numbers of times their work has been published, and if it has been published, the number of copies they have sold. Sometimes writers ourselves will judge one another metrically. It is a system that despite its archaic nature, still remains vogue. During the research phase of this article, I came across a ground-breaking reality; a very famous author who has topped the bestsellers list many times had to read through over 800 rejection letters before getting a single acceptance letter from a publisher.
Why is it so hard to get published? It all goes back to business 101: supply and demand. Books that are written about celebrities, or by an already high-selling author are most likely to be in higher demand. I make it a point to frequent used and independently-owned bookstores at least once a month. Why? The books that didn’t get sold-out in bookstore chains end up here at tiny bookstores at near-to-production cost prices. It has been my personal experience that these independent places are where the books that are worth reading are sold (your results may vary, sometimes books about forgotten celebrities end up here, too).
Used books are great, too, especially books in which the previous author scribbled extra information in the margins! Used books being sold is another reason why publishing companies are all going to digital e-book formats.
Thoughts And Discussion About Archival And Destruction Methods
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but not everything a writer writes is worth releasing. It’s part of the human experience. We all, at one time or another, think stupid thoughts, do stupid things, make mistakes, and of course, write things that make no sense at all. It happens to everyone, even the most experienced writers. Knowing what to keep, what to destroy, and what to share or publish is a skill that requires many years to learn, and and many more years to master. I have released writing into the world that I should have destroyed before anyone else had the opportunity to read it. It is something that, while it can be embarrassing, can be turned into a learning experience, and a source of inspiration based on the knowledge that we need to improve.
As I have mentioned, now many times, the vast majority of my writing starts on paper. When I talk about archiving, I am speaking of a secure place in which to store ones writing, photography, art, etc. In the case of a blog, your archive will probably be some sort of database, similar to this; if you are using a typewriter or pen and paper, your archive might be a notebook or binder that sits on a shelf. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that your archive is a concept along the lines of a specific place, either in a database, on a website, on a computer hard drive, in a notebook, etc.
We will start with the traditional writing archive: a paper-based writing archive. I have a friend who is an English professor who absolutely hates using a computer for his writing. He does all of his writing solely using an antique manual typewriter, and edits the typed text using a pencil. As far as he sees it, nothing can ever happen to his writing as far as he protects it physically. Whenever he sends a copy of his work for publication, he simply uses a photocopier to make a duplicate of his writing. If the publisher only accepts digital (a.k.a. online) submissions, he simply pays a friend or a college student to type his work into a computer. Such a method, although being the safest and most reliable archival method, is also the most outdated and difficult archive to maintain and use. Imagine having to scan through thousands of pages of text just to find something you were looking for. Unless you had the foresight to create an index volume (many early encyclopedia companies did this), you could theoretically spend a very long time searching for the text you were looking for.
The modern methods of archival have gone into the digital era. When something is entered into a computer database, searching is easy, the writing can generally be produced on screen almost instantaneously, and cross-referencing other works is generally simple. While going digital saves time, is environmentally friendly (less printed paper), it can also be extremely volatile. In other words, a single failed hard drive can literally wipe out years or even decades worth of writing. If you decide to keep all of your writing digital, as most modern writers do, then I suggest doing regular backups to solid-state media such as CD’s, USB flash drives, and SSD drives. Ideally, if one can afford the expense, and has the knowledge, a RAID hard drive array is the absolute safest way to protect digital assets. There is also the solution of paying for online backup, which can be somewhat costly, and over the course of a lifetime, can be very expensive.
My writing archive makes use of both digital storage methods, in a sense, one might regard this as a hybrid archive method. I store my writing on my hard drive, a second copy on a USB flash drive, and a third copy is printed on paper either in my notebook, which is hand-written, or if it was originally written using my computer, I will have a printed copy in a binder. I am lucky enough to have found a web hosting service (DreamHost) that not only keeps a backup of my blog, but also offers secure online storage at no additional cost, so in a sense, I really have my writing backed up in several places to be sure to avert the disaster of losing what I consider to be my lifes work.
No matter what method or methods you choose, make sure that you are diligent in keeping your archive up to date, completer and organized. Above all else, you should have at least one main copy, and one backup copy, preferably stored in two separate locations, such as one copy at your central place of writing, and another in the care of a trusted friend or family member, at a safe deposit box, or other secure location.
Now we will discuss destruction methods. Knowing what to get rid of is a skill that takes a very long time to master. Once you have determined that what you have is crap, then it is time to get rid of it forever. For general destruction of paper-based materials, I simply use a paper shredder, and feed the pages one-at-a-time through it. If you are increasingly paranoid about someone putting the pieces together and reading what you have written, then you have the option of either cutting the pages in half, vertically down the middle, shredding one side now, then the second side at a later date, or simply burning the shreddings. One writer I know (not me!) shreds pages one at a time, burns the shreds in a metal bucket, then scatters the ashes in the nearest fast-flowing stream, while this might be overkill, it is a very effective measure to ensure that the writing will never be recovered.
About 10 years ago, I did a mass-burning of several of my notebooks that I really wanted to destroy and never recover. They were written during a time in my life when I was going through some difficult times, and all I was writing about was the details of being abused and depressed. Angie was the only person to have ever had access to them, and they were so totally depressing that she needed time to deal with the reaction that she had to reading them. So while I saved the poetry entries by literally tearing the pages out of the notebook, the rest was burned in a very hot fire, and the ashes were then collected and buried.
Digital destruction is a little more complicated due to the fact that once something is entered into a computer, it can be recovered, given the right set of circumstances, software, expertise, and resources. Given this fact, people should really be aware of the things that they post online, search for, and save on their hard drives. Believe it or not, but the technology exists to recover almost anything that is ever saved to a hard drive, even if the hard drive is formatted, wiped clean, or physically destroyed. Although extreme, the use of an electron microscope to recover magnetic data from magnetic media is slow and expensive, it is still available and used by many governments. In other words, if you want to be absolutely sure that nobody ever reads what you want to keep completely private, do not use a computer. And anything that is posted to the Internet is theoretically impossible to remove once it is posted; there will always be at least one copy of it stored somewhere.
To destroy digital media files, I use a program that overwrites the file with several passes of random data to ensure that recovery would require time, effort, and expense that is far and beyond any feasible benefit of data recovery. For the ultimate in security, all my files are encrypted, and the only persons who know the password are myself, and Angie. Linux is the preferred operating system for security and reliability as far as I am concerned. Whenever I erase a file, be it writing, photography, etc., I use destruction standards that exceed that of the NSA. The NSA uses a system that overwrites data with 7 passes. I use a system which overwrites data with 35 passes. It may sound extreme, but advances in computer technology and forensics are always improving, and this ensures that even with the best of technology and resources, it will never be worth recovering what I have written.
The other end of the spectrum is people who absolutely refuse to dispose of anything. There are people who will hold onto every piece of writing they create, or come across. Known more commonly as digital hoarding, these people will literally build massive digital archives of information that are too massive to serve any purpose. It often makes me wonder why someone would spend so much time doing this when Archive.org has archives like this already (archive of TomSlatin.com).
Books You Should Read ASAP That Are Related To This Article
Special thanks to the following people on twitter who helped with research, and post-publishing promotion of this article:
@geraldobigstuff, @jetts31, @sydweedon, @stevebomford, and @mnmblackwell.