(More) top posts from 2013

220px The sun1 (More) top posts from 2013Earlier this week, I posted the top 13 blog posts from 2013, according to my analytics data. Today, I’d like to link to some posts I have available elsewhere that I think you might find interesting.

Putting together this list was ridiculously difficult. I’ve interviewed so many rock stars this year for articles that didn’t make the cut (including some of my personal heroes) , but really wanted to focus on the content that would be most helpful and relevant. (Since we’re in the throes of shopping season, I also didn’t include posts that were behind a paywall, such as Medical Decision Making, and Hacking Paleo With Patrick Vlaskovits). In addition, I didn’t include ghostwritten work (which was the majority of my writing this year), pieces that aren’t timely or fresh, or any of the pieces that’s in print only (in magazines, trade journals, etc.) and is not available online. In addition, I removed posts that are difficult to link to directly (such as a piece for Costco Connection) which require a lot of scrolling. It’s all about good UX, right? With only a few exceptions, I also removed posts that highlighted just one specific product or service, but instead focused on the bigger picture and on concepts you can implement (or ideas you can draw from). This somehow helped me narrow it down to 15. Enjoy!

 

Content strategy

Business building

Health, fitness and sports

 

Top 13 posts of 2013

imgres Top 13 posts of 2013Each year around this time, I write a series of posts recapping the year. To start, I’d like to repost my most popular pieces this year, based on Google Analytics data.

This year, I taught a workshop on PR for startups, and put a lot of time behind the content to promote the event as well as the video course. Some of the posts around this resonated.

I did a bit of self-reflection…

…and even wrote about some dental work I unfortunately needed.

On a brighter note, I also wrote about some products I like, including some interviews.

I use this blog as a forum to delve into political issues, and this year that included some writing about sexual assault…

..as well as a post in memory of a dear friend who died, and a fundraiser for a local non-profit organization I support. This wasn’t as big as last year’s fundraiser for Children of the Night, to support child victims of human trafficking in the US, but it was still significant. Thank you to those who donated in Chris’ name.

Last but not least, remember that you’re beautiful with this poem!

That concludes the top 13 of 2013. I’ll be posting some of my top posts and articles on other sites (and magazines) soon, so stay tuned.

2013 Year In Review

2013 Desktop Background Free 1024x640 300x187 2013 Year In ReviewI’ve been following in the footsteps of Chris Guillebeau, completing an annual review each year and making goals towards next year. I’ve always appreciated Chris’ transparency and so I thought I’d share my list publicly this year in that same spirit.

What went well this year?

2013 was pretty amazing for many reasons.

Professionally, this was the best year of my life. I taught a workshop on PR for startups and a class on breaking into freelancing, spoke on a panel about social media marketing at Content Connections, had my highest annual revenue ever, and got to write for some places I’ve had my eye on for a while, including the Costco Connection and the Men’s Journal website. This is in addition to continued relationships with many amazing clients I already had.

I was lucky enough to interview so many of my heroes: Alexis Ohanian, Jason Fried, Adrian Holovaty, Nate Kontny, Brian Clark, Andrew Warner, Chris Kluwe, Derek Willis, Ethan Marcotte, Joshua Benton, Michael Brito, Charlie Gilkey, Marissa Bracke, Brant Cooper, Patrick Vlaskovits, Joe Kristoffer, Laura Roeder, Derek Halpern, Ryan Evans, Stella Fayman, Mana Ionescu, Michael Psilakis, the list goes on and on. I wish I could get them all in a room for a cocktail party.

I met amazing people, including Noah Kagan (whose HTMYFD program really contributed to my professional success), as well as Sheryl Sandberg, Michael Pollan, Maryn McKenna, Seth Mnookin… I even attended Chris Guillebeau’s CreativeLive session on travel hacking!

Speaking of travel, I did a LOT of it. I visited Boston, Kansas, Milwaukee, Seattle, Duluth, San Francisco, Madison, Chicago and Costa Rica, attending conferences and events and seeing friends and family. This even included an ironic segway tour. icon smile 2013 Year In Review

I did some fun volunteer projects (including the Overnight Website Challenge) and helped with a couple of other fundraisers and volunteer events.

I got to spend time with friends and family, which was great. And I got to work with some amazing people, helping mentor newer writers, learn from seasoned professionals and collaborate with people who had so many strengths to complement my weaknesses (and vice versa).

What went badly?

Tragedy struck this year, as one of my college friends lost her battle with depression. This hit me like a ton of bricks. Many loved ones had other health concerns and issues that put a bit of a damper on things, but also helped me keep things in perspective.

I had serious health issues, mostly dental work which finally caught up with me after much neglect, and a lot of physical therapy to rehab a sports injury. This amounted to several thousand dollars in medical expenses and probably about 30 days total inside a medical facility of some sort (not including the fun stuff like massage and tuina). This is a very good reminder to keep up with things!

I also calculated badly and ended up owing a LOT in taxes for last year, so all that extra income I was so psyched about went towards taxes and medical/dental bills. Fun.

Not all of my work life was perfect, either. (I’ve written extensively about all the things I’ve learned the hard way in my four years of freelancing, and many of these mistakes are ones I’ve made long after I should’ve known better.) I have some failed projects and project attempts, some painfully lost audio files (thanks, Retronyms!), and, worst of all, a site that rewrote a balanced article of mine into linkbait… This kind of blindsided me, especially since the source who was on the business end of this hack job is someone I think the world of, and it hurts to know that I (albeit inadvertently) contributed to the type of journalism I hate. I had to take some time to really think about how to prevent that from happening again, which led to, well, less work.

The biggest overall problem I had this year, though, was that I worked way too much. This led to some serious burnout at times and some really preventable mistakes on my part at others. And I made some bad decisions about people to work with on a couple of occasions, the common denominator was actually when I tried to be too accommodating or helpful and didn’t set good boundaries. Because I was working so much, not all of my goals came to fruition. I made progress towards almost all of them, but ultimately didn’t accomplish everything I set out to do this year.

2013 was supposed to be the year of consistency, and I was consistent in how often I did things I set out to do, but could’ve really ramped things up a bit. I felt very unbalanced, and have been unsuccessful the time I work from when I don’t work. I definitely had some events that I’d define as “rock bottom” including very little sleep and last-minute revisions requested in the wee morning hours. I’d really love to have the type of lifestyle where work doesn’t spill into every other portion of my life, and a serious course correction is part of what I plan to work on going forward.

Looking forward to 2014

I have two themes for 2014. I’ve declared it The Year Of Balance, and The Year Of Wrapping Things Up.

Wrapping things up has to do with things I’ve started but haven’t finished. I’m planning to finally wrap them up for real in 2014.

The most exciting thing on the list is getting married to the man of my dreams in July (!!!), so I obviously need to do a bit of planning and wrapping up for that. It almost feels trite to list this as a “thing I’m wrapping up in 2014″ on a goals list, but planning a wedding really does feel like finalizing what will be seven years of an amazing relationship… and a million logistical odds and ends as far as the actual event itself.

There are so  many other unfinished projects this year. These include an improv class I started but didn’t finish, an at-home nature correspondence course I began ages ago but never finished, meeting some health and fitness goals (this year I got my 4th stripe in BJJ, but I really want that blue belt, and I’m also hard at work on getting in the best shape of my life for my wedding, but haven’t gotten where I need to yet). Also, this year I started learning how to code, but am really hoping to make considerable strides next year to learn Python/Django so I can analyze large data sets and present information in innovative new ways. I made huge strides in cleaning my office, but still have some piles and boxes to work through, and I want to finish it once and for all.

My professional goals are based on the type of content I want to create, not just financial goals. I’m wanting to move away a bit from ghostwriting and short blog posts and into feature writing and real reporting/storytelling, and cover business and tech. I want to blog more often, on my own blog, and to do some more in-depth reporting (whether it’s for a book or an in-depth post). I am really hoping to start pitching some publications and websites I’m really trying to break into (my hit list of dream publications includes Wired, as always, but also Verge, Inc., Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and a few others).

Balance has a lot to do with what I mentioned before. I’ll be separating work from non-work, not taking client calls in the evening or on weekends, and using the extra time to sleep more, work on activities other than writing, time with friends, and so forth.

I want to work actual vacations into my year, not just working vacations. I also have some epic trips planned, and am hard at work on some travel hacking goals.

Also included in balance is getting past what Danielle LaPorte refers to as “rage lite.” I’ve been trying to put my stress and frustration to bed every evening, and I think not working 24/7 will not only increase my productivity in the hours I do work, but help me with my overall mindset throughout the year.

I think this about covers it, and I hope it helps you with your own annual review–whether you choose to make it public or not. Here’s to a great 2014, for all of us!

Four years of freelancing: 20 things I learned the hard way

Chocolate cupcakes Four years of freelancing: 20 things I learned the hard wayI’m celebrating my fourth freelancing anniversary today (hence the cupcakes), and after much reflection, I’ve compiled a series of tips–things I wish I knew ahead of time. Grab a drink and celebrate with me by taking some of these to heart, and feel free to leave your own tips in the comments.

Quality of life

Use good tools.

I got a smartphone my first year of freelancing because I realized that I was afraid to leave my house (due to lost assignments; editors would email me at the last minute and I couldn’t respond quickly enough). I also got my trusty MacBook Pro because my Dell, which had never worked properly, now had the added bonus of having keys from the keyboard falling off. (Shades of Gadsby.) My second year of freelancing, I started using Freshbooks for easy invoicing, and a recorder app for phone interviews. At the end of my third year, I started coworking, which has helped me a lot with networking and camaraderie. This year I’ve been madly in love with Trello (project management), Do it [tommorow] (daily to-dos), Draft (for collaborating) and Scrivener (for organizing long articles with multiple interviews and resources). Many of these resources are free or cheap; others are far worth the cost.

Take time off.

When you first start a business, you are glued to your computer screen 24/7. That’s okay. As your business becomes more solid, you’ll have to slowly wean yourself off this schedule. It’s okay to go out for dinner, go to the gym, go on vacation or have non-working hours in your day… or even to turn your phone off. Really.

Worst-case scenarios happen. It gets better.

Whether you completely lost audio footage from a once-in-a-lifetime interview (thanks, Retronyms) or got screwed over by an unethical website or publisher, chances are good that your career isn’t over and your reputation is salvageable. Explaining your situation (publicly or privately, as warranted) and eventually moving on is almost always possible. It’s okay to take a day or even a week off to recover, though. So much of freelancing is about your energy and mindset.

Learn journalistic principles.

If you didn’t go to J-School, at least read and understand the SPJ Code of Ethics. Know the difference between custom content and editorial writing, and learn about conflicts of interest. You may not follow all the “rules” of journalism, but you should at least know what they are and make informed decisions. Join professional groups, attend trainings, and soak up as much as you can from the people around you. Always keep improving your writing. A lot of this will happen on the job, but some will take your own initiative, research and even courses. Keep at it–you can always improve.

Go to conferences and take courses (but not all of them).

Some conferences will yield a high ROI (particularly ones with editor meetings);  others will be all but a waste of time. Similarly, some online courses will help you hone a skill you really need to develop–and others are marketing hype. Some trial and error is expected, but getting out of your home office is usually  more than worth it. Try travel hacking and AirBnB or HotelTonight (or stay with friends) to save some cash. Make sure to network and enjoy meeting other writers as well as attending informative sessions.

Let’s talk about money.

It’s not always worth it to write about things you know nothing about.

In my first year of freelancing, I wrote an article about bees for a trade journal. Yes, I made some money, but it took forever since I had to learn some material from scratch. Once I created templates to analyze data from complex financial documents that I didn’t understand. I pulled it off, but it took a very long time. I seem to relearn this lesson every year, whether I’m trying to learn a new style guide overnight or just accepting work against my better judgement. It’s always obvious to me when even the best editors of mine don’t understand the subject matter (and they usually don’t last long in that position); although expanding one’s horizons is a good thing, if you’re doing specialized work, it pays to be specialized.

Set a minimum-both for pay and for expectations.

It always seems that clients asking for work on the cheap are also the first to demand add-ons not normally included in low prices. It’s up to freelancers to explain to them what is and is not included. Remember: pay per hour is a thing. Someone who pays well but insists on long phone conversations, etc. may pay less per hour than that low-paying blog post where you don’t have to find images or do a lot of research, but when the person at the low-paying gig suddenly asks for you to find and crop photos, spend 15 minutes on their new SEO software, do extensive research or rewrites/revisions or learn a CMS, you can decide whether or not you think it’s worth it.  Setting a minimum is an option (and it can be a different minimum for leaving your house, or for a variety of tasks that you decide on.) We all want to do amazing work each and every time, but spending hours perfecting an underpaying post time and time again isn’t the best option since your hours are finite.

Small work can add up.

On the other hand, low-paying work with a good pay-per-hour can be totally worth your while, if it’s not one-off assignments. Especially if there are other perks involved, or you’re really enjoying the work. I would probably cover tech for less than I typically charge if it was for a high-traffic site and I had a lot of say over the angle, for example, and I do some non-profit work for practically free. Just make sure you’re not accepting underpaying, tedious work out of desperation. If you’re not having fun and you’re not getting good exposure, then you damn well better be getting paid a decent amount. And if you’re writing for something other than money (self-promotion, etc.) be very clear and upfront about it. It’s disappointing when you don’t get what you expected.

Have an anchor client.

If you can find just one client (or even a part-time job) that will help you assure your rent and bills are paid, you’ll be far less likely to pitch out of desperation or take work you really shouldn’t accept.

Diversify.

I started freelancing by doing writing, editing and SEO work. I’ve since gotten paid for writing test items, helping with research, editing manuscripts and academic papers, consulting, teaching classes, and even social media marketing. I’ve sold reprints, proofread transcripts, written ad copy, etc. Now I’m learning how to code. The more you can offer (within reason), the better.

It’s okay to ask for more money.

Very few professionals get upset if you do, and they often say yes (or at least work with you on scope). Oh, and don’t write on spec. Don’t write for pay based on page views. Don’t write for free or for “exposure” (beyond, say, one single article to get a single clip). Editors are not scouring the web looking at articles written for free to try to find writers to pay.

Presell.

Thinking of selling a product, an ebook, an online course or a new service? See how many people you can get to sign up and pay before you create it. Otherwise, there’s no point.

Look at your contracts very closely.

That “all rights” contract means a magazine can reprint your article as an ad, which could make you look like a corporate shill. A lack of contract may not hurt in small claims, but it might. And some bozo might think that writing articles “as staff” means that he can take your name off your own work, or replace it with his own, even if your worst work is a million times better than anything he could ever write. The percentage of bad people in this industry is relatively small (almost all of my clients, past and present, are amazing people with integrity), but getting signed copies of contracts, asking for clarification and negotiating out bad terms helps you protect yourself.

Get health insurance. Dental insurance, too.

Before you need it. Trust me.

Soft skills

Rejection is a good thing.

It took me over twenty tries before I ever wrote for Men’s Journal, and Wired turns me down every month. You have to aim high. Pitching more often, and being persistent with follow-ups, is crucial for freelance survival. One of my biggest wins this year was writing an unpaid piece on spec for Lifehacker, which they rejected (despite green lighting the original idea), and immediately turning around and selling it elsewhere for $300. Another win in my career is getting rejected from a tiny no-name site and writing for one of the biggest sites in said industry. If your pitches are on-target, your writing is solid and you keep trying, you’ll get there eventually. Just don’t avoid pitching the places you really want to write. The worst they can do is say no.

People are really nervous about being interviewed.

I used to think they were acting all weird because they thought I wasn’t good at my job. Now I know that “are you sure this angle is actually interesting?” or “do you think anyone will care or understand?” isn’t an insult towards me, but just someone being self-conscious about how they’ll look in print. Had I known that earlier, I would’ve responded a lot differently.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

A magazine may sit on an article for a year or longer (as Black Belt did to me) or even decide not to publish an assignment, whether they paid for it or not. They might use an embarrassingly off-topic image for the piece, edit in errors, rewrite something poorly, or even completely re-spin an article to make a source look bad (in which not writing for the site any longer is completely warranted), even if they have no history of doing this (that you know of). Just be aware that you can never know for certain, so don’t promise a source fair coverage unless you get to review revisions before a piece goes live (for example).

Just because someone else had a bad experience with someone, doesn’t mean you will.

Right now, two of my best clients have reputations for being difficult, but we work very well together because I’m good at setting boundaries and they’re good at responding. People have different work styles, so make sure to use your own judgement combined with what you’ve heard or read.

Sometimes you need to be loud. No, louder.

Even if you’re brash and abrasive like me, sometimes you need to set your boundaries even more clearly. If you’re collecting on unpaid, past due invoices (or something like that), you can even hire someone to do it for you.

Help other writers.

It’s good karma. And be nice to people, even if you can’t get anything in return. Especially if you can’t get anything in return.

 

How to have a blast meeting up with near-strangers

Depositphotos 8500510 s 300x300 How to have a blast meeting up with near strangersAs much as you love traveling, there’s probably times when you’ve felt pretty lonely on the road or wished you could surround yourself with some of the amazing people instead of sitting at a diner by yourself or hanging out in your hotel. When I knew I’d be trekking out to San Francisco for CreativeLIVE, I decided to avoid this scenario by some pretty extreme measures. A friend of mine recently asked me how I ended up hanging out with so many near-strangers in a city where everyone’s really really busy all the time, so I thought I’d write up my strategy. Despite outward appearances, it really is more about putting in time to reach out to people than being naturally charming and charismatic.

Social media contacts

It’s really easy to go on Twitter and Facebook and say, “Hey San Francisco! I will be in you on October 16 through 18!” It’s much harder to ask people you don’t even know to try to hang out, but that’s exactly what I did.

Obviously I first contacted people I know well in town, but I decided to take it a step further. I happen to have a fairly robust LinkedIn and Facebook network of contacts, and I searched by location and emailed every single one of them to let them know I’d be in town and invite them to one of two meetups. These were personalized messages (though they did have an element of cut-and-paste) and I sent to literally everyone I knew, even peripherally.

This is obviously time-consuming (it took me about two or three hours), but I think I myself would love a warm, personalized invitation to hang out and be more inclined to show up than if I got a random Facebook event notification or Eventbrite notice in my inbox.

I didn’t discriminate. I emailed developers and writers, marketers and athletes, people I’ve worked for and who have worked for me, all ages, people who are well-connected and those who are not. Everyone.

Meetups

Instead of asking 200 people to meet with me one-on-one, which would be a logistical nightmare for a three-day trip in which one day was completely booked, I also set up two events where people could come hang out at two different times (one was evening and one mid-day) and in two different locations. I put this on Eventbrite so people could actually register, which gave me a good idea of who was coming (and was easy to keep track of).

I did a meetup on a smaller scale, too, when I was in Seattle. I got together some online friends from various communities as well as old college classmates, and of course my brother and his friends. But since I had drawn from a wider net this time, one concern I had is that people from very different communities would show up, which could leave some people feeling left out. I worked hard in the wording of the invites and the Eventbrite page to emphasize that we’d be accessible and friendly, and it’s easy to help influence the tone of events when it’s a very small group.

Visit people

Another way to meet people is to just show up. I decided I was dropping by the office of one of my favorite new startups, even though we didn’t exactly figure out the specific timing via email. I just stopped by anyway bearing gifts. The timing was bad, but it was still fun to visit… and I bet the next time I’m in town I’ll get that tour I wanted. icon smile How to have a blast meeting up with near strangers Obviously dropping by somewhere big probably wouldn’t work out as well (some places even have warnings on their site asking people not to show up without an appointment), but I think if it feels right, it’s always worth a shot. It’s not like I was selling anything or trying to get a job.

Housing

I was lucky enough to find a place to crash the first night with a friend of a friend, which is always a good way to meet people as you’ll likely go out for dinner and spend time together. The next night I had to try out AirBNB, and really wanted to meet the other person staying at the same house but didn’t want to knock on his door and be creepy. However, I think housing is still a nice way I felt to meet people, and maybe get some insider tips on what’s cool to do in town without having to go to Yelp or FourSquare. I’d rather rent a room or crash on the floor of the house people are clustered around for an event, unless I’m feeling overwhelmed in which case I’ll hide out elsewhere. But where you stay is definitely a place to talk to strangers.

Bring people with you everywhere

I typically try deliberately to get people to meet others, and it works well when you’re traveling because things are sort of randomly thrown together anyway. And who knows when you’re connecting someone to a new friend in their city or wind up at a cafe or event in their area that they’d be interested in returning to.

Local friends are awesome

Also, that friend who lives in town who will show you which bus you need to go on or which street you want to take or walk you to the hipster donut shop and the BART station is the coolest person ever. I try to be that person for my friends who visit. As much as hanging out with strangers and organizing meetups is fun and interesting, nothing beats your really badass local friend.

The responses

But what happened when you sent out dozens of emails, you’re wondering. Emailing everybody you know in an area is not for the faint of heart. I got a lot of rejections. SO many rejections. The worst one was an editor for my dream magazine, who wrote, “Maybe. At the risk of sounding like a jerk, what would we be discussing?” My clever follow-up email about post-apocalyptic fiction was met with silence. I got rejections in various forms on every social media platform, as well as a lot of people who didn’t respond at all…because everyone has a different comfort level with random messages from near-strangers, right? In addition to the rejections and no-responses, I got a lot of cancellations. All at the last minute. Things come up; I don’t take these personally.

The trick for me with the rejections was to differentiate between people who really couldn’t make it, often for logistical reasons, but wanted to hang out… When they start talking about trying to take a taxi to skip out of work, that’s a sign, but in general it’s usually fairly obvious when someone really really wants to meet up and just can’t and when they just aren’t all that into the idea. When possible, I tried to make arrangements with people who really wanted to hang but couldn’t.

The outcome

I also got a lot of positive responses, and the most interesting thing for me about this experiment is that they weren’t from the people I’d expected.

I had a really wonderful lunch with a writer who’d given me some much-needed tough love back in July 2008. If I had just picked out two or three people I’d want to hang out with, she wouldn’t have been on my list, but it really was lovely, lively conversation. She brought her coworker and I brought my badass local friend and we had some of the best conversation I’ve had in a while.

I had a small meetup with just 2 other people (my aforementioned friend and someone I know from How to Make Your First Dollar), and a larger meetup with a total of 7 people, including someone who’d done some web design work for me in the past (and who I knew through my friend), two fellow MMA writers, as well as this great personal trainer and his awesome wife (the strangers who put me up for a night). Again, these are mostly people I probably wouldn’t have expected to actually spend time with me but I am so glad they did…and I think we had enough ‘waves’ of conversation to keep everyone engaged at least part of the time.

Make your own luck

My event was amazing and I learned more than I ever thought possible about travel hacking, as well as meeting some great new people, but we’ve probably all traveled with excitement to something that ended up sucking. Then we wonder whether it was worth the time away from home, money on airfare, etc. I think arranging our own events while traveling helps with this. Even if the reason I was in town for didn’t work out well, I would’ve still hung out with so many great people who were only words on a screen, so it would’ve all been worth it. There is always the possibility nobody will show up, so pick a place you’d totally hang out at all by yourself if necessary. (I love cafes, for example, but could just as easily picked somewhere outdoors.)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

I get that not all of you are crazy like me, and emailing every single contact in an area might be a bit out of your comfort zone…but the next time you’re visiting a new town, try contacting say 15 or 20 people to meet up and see what happens. The results may surprise you!

Free Travel Hacking Class This Tuesday!

World traveler Chris Guillebeau will be teaching a day-long class on travel hacking this Tuesday, and you can watch it online at CreativeLIVE for free!

I’m lucky enough to be in the studio audience in San Francisco, which I’m so excited about. Although I’ve been lucky enough to traverse the continent, I feel like most of my trips have been very regimented. I was born in Israel, but have never explored on my own. I’ve visited family in Costa Rica, studied abroad in Oxford, and gone on media trips to places like Huatulco, Mexico. I went on a social justice tour of El Salvador right after high school. I’ve visited Scotland, Ireland and Wales. These were all great experiences and I had amazing people showing me around, but part of me yearns to go somewhere and explore on my own. The press trips and scheduled tours in particular involved a lot of shuttling around, and I’d love to go off the beaten path a bit. I’m hoping to spend time in India or Thailand, and away from my Lonely Planet guide. And then there’s that dream trip to Brazil I’ve always wanted.

Chris is not only an incredible person and a great writer, but a travel ninja of sorts as well. He earns over a million Frequent Flyer miles and points each year, and has visited every single country in the world. He’s an incredible person to learn from, both because of his experience and because his actions are always incredibly deliberate and well thought out. I’ve learned a lot from Chris’ writing on running a business, among other things.

I’m particularly grateful to him because he went so far as to donate a free ticket to the World Domination Summit as a gift for a donor to a fundraiser I hosted a year ago in memory of a dear friend. With the help of some incredible people including Chris, we raised a total of $1600 for Children of the Night, a non-profit organization that helps child victims of human trafficking right here in the U.S.

But this isn’t about my desire to travel or even about why Chris is an amazing human being. It’s about you and how you can learn some tools to go far away from home (or to spend less money doing it). Check out the video below, and make sure to enroll on CreativeLIVE’s site if you’re interested.

Stop Breaking Things

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895 232x300 Stop Breaking ThingsI’m all for pushing forward. Racing around the clock. Doing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. It takes constant ongoing effort to reach our true potential, and those who complain about finite opportunities may very well just need to try harder.

But you can’t just have hustle; you also have to be able to take a step back. Because if you’re going to put the pedal to the metal, you should be damn sure you’re not going so fast that you can’t recover if you veer off course. Why break the speed limit only to get somewhere you never wanted to be?

A few days after a recent project with a disappointing outcome (to put it mildly), I decided to stop blaming others and to instead take a closer look at all of the decisions I’d made in the process. In hindsight, I saw that there were many warning sings I missed while boldly charging forward. With all of my focus on racing around the clock, I forgot that the pressure on me was largely self-imposed. The cycle was one I could have broken any time I wanted to.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s not inevitable. Just remember: you don’t have to stay in the abusive relationship, at the boring party or with the exploitative employer. You can walk away from any aspect of your life that isn’t working for you.

You don’t have to do what a client asks when something about it seems wrong.

You don’t have to harass people to get them on board with a project when there are other options.

You don’t have to find a way to meet a deadline when extenuating circumstances make it unreasonable.

You don’t have to drop everything to make something work when it clearly isn’t going to.

You don’t have to cut corners on a race to the bottom, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

You can just get off the train.

You can take a step back and ask yourself if you’re finishing something just for the sake of finishing it. You can look for the red flags suggesting that it might be better to simply cut your losses.

You can take a moment to ask ourself if you’re doing soulful work that will change your little corner of the world. You can ask ourself if other people’s expectations are worth taking shortcuts or risks for.

You can say no. Turn down the partnership or the client or the opportunity, even if you’re not sure about your alternatives. Maybe you have to pick up a part-time gig washing dishes to make ends meet, but at least it’ll let you stop your great self-destruction.

There are times to keep going. There are times to miraculously pull things off, to keep your promises, to drive full speed ahead. But there are also times when “finishing” is just something you do because we’re afraid of consequences.

You might need to use your hustle to deal with those consequences, but that means that having hustle gives you the power to say no. So say it. Deal with the consequences. And then keep pushing forward, but in the right direction this time.

Lost In Translation: What To Do When You’re Heavily Edited

Depositphotos 8188007 xs 300x233 Lost In Translation: What To Do When Youre Heavily EditedYesterday, the published version of a post I wrote which went live looked very different from a draft I’d sent in, to the point where I felt like I inadvertently misled the person I interviewed by promising something very different from the final product. The post came across in a way I work hard not to present myself, and I was extremely disappointed with the outcome.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 24 hours trying to figure out where things went south. As such, I’d like to share some strategies I came up with that I’m going to pay close attention to from now on. I hope you can use some of these to learn from my mistakes, whether you’re a writer or an editor or just someone wearing a content marketing hat along with the other responsibilities you’re juggling.

Most editing is good at best and harmless at worst

Before I delve into some strategies I’ve concocted with my 20/20 hindsight, I just want to point out that although editing is common, editing that makes you cringe is not. I’ve sent out over 400 invoices (many with multiple assignments, since I typically invoice monthly) and can count on both hands the amount of times I’ve been really upset with edits (other than minor typos).

Once I used every bit of hustle I had to track down a source and my otherwise exemplary editor insulted the magazine this guy (one of my heroes) wrote for.

Another editor (also a very good one) rewrote my lede to quote a book I’d never read, making for some awkward conversation with people who’d read the piece.

Once I was asked to delete information that would impact sales (a men’s fitness site did to my Q+A when the best-selling author I interviewed pointed out that post-workout shakes aren’t good for weight loss…a fact which would’ve cut into the site’s sales for shakes that people didn’t need).

Once a sentence was thrown in that I felt contradicted a previous assertion in the piece and undermined a point my source (who is also one of my heroes) had recommended based on her experience as an industry expert running a 6-figure business.

And, as mentioned, recently a post of mine was rejiggered so it read more like link bait than the nuanced piece I’d submitted.

(Yes, I know that’s only five, but I also do some ghostwriting. I can’t share those examples but feel that some of the headlines and information in health pieces I penned were misleading, but at least they didn’t have my  name on them. Also, once a magazine allowed an advertiser representing a source I wrote to reprint my article as an ad, making me look like a corporate shill, but that’s not exactly an editing error. Beware all rights contracts.)

But I digress. My point is that it’s important to recognize that most editors will make your piece a lot better or at the very least not do that much damage to it. I love good editors, and there are a lot of them. And the ones that make mistakes aren’t always wholly bad editors.

Before you accept an assignment…

Step #1: Follow your intuition

If you even have an inkling that something you’ve been asked to write might be dodgy, pay attention to that feeling. Even if you’re writing for a site or publication you’ve previously had a great experience with, if one particular assignment makes your spidey sense go off, listen to that. Of course, you may think you already do this, and some things are really obvious, but I’ve found that if I get really excited about a story and start to think how I’d write it I forget to do a gut check.

There are a million reasons you might ignore your intuition. Sometimes it’s money (either because the piece pays well, because it’s quick and easy or because you don’t have a lot lined up). Sometimes it’s prestige (wanting to do anything to get a certain byline or write about a certain topic or interview a certain person). Whatever the reason, moving fast and breaking things is fun, but after my most recent botched post, in retrospect I really wish I had sat and thought about the implications of an assignment instead of instantly accepting it.

Step #2: Ask around

If in doubt, you can always check in with other writers to see what their experience has been working for a specific publication. Sometimes writers will complain about a bad experience on a writer’s forum (like UPOD or Freelance Success or in a professional group (like ASJA) or on review sites like Freelancer’s Union. Many of these places have areas to post about experiences anonymously. I admit I don’t often listen to just one warning, but when I read that two or three people have had a bad experience with the same editor, magazine or site, In the past, I’ve assumed that another writer’s poor experience didn’t mean mine would be that way, and I’ve gotten burned.

If you can’t find a single person who’s written for the place you’re interested in, take a look at the quality of the content on their site. Does it seem like legitimate journalism, or is it sensationalistic? This won’t always be a telling factor (the sites where I felt edits damaged my articles were loaded with high-quality work, in my opinion) but may weed a few out.

After accepting an assignment…

Step #3: Don’t work too hard to get a source.

It’s almost addictive to try to track down someone you really want to talk to. I love the thrill of the chase (the more high-profile and the more I love someone’s work, the better). I actually use a wide variety of tools to aid me in my quest–LinkedIn Premium, Twitter, Rapportive, Reachable, ‘chance meetings,’ etc.

I think being ridiculously persistent and having a lot of hustle is great, but I’ve also found that if someone really doesn’t want to do an interview and I manage to somehow talk them into one anyway, the results are usually not that great. Luckily, companies like SourceSleuth can help track specific sources down. I also ask for referrals, contact organizations (for example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has spokespeople at the ready for health-related articles), look for Meetup hosts in specific topics I’m writing about, and so forth. Lastly, sometimes PR firms can help you find a match as long as you’re very clear with them about what you’re looking for.

Step #4: Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

This is where I really failed. I thought I could balance a story with nuance, but my editor had a different post or article in mind. Sometimes when a writer tries to get rid of something taken out of context, the editor sees it as burying the lede. Solution: unless your editor specifically stipulates in writing (ideally in your contract) that you have final approval over edits, don’t bet on it.

You may write a great article that’s fair and well-researched, but when it gets rejiggered to fit someone else’s agenda (or for page views), it’s a really powerless feeling when you can’t do much about it. If this is a source you care a lot about, recognize that they’ll likely think the final product is exactly what you wrote and won’t care about your good intentions. You are the one who will take the heat when the information is inaccurate (or whatever), either because you don’t want to run your editor under the bus or because nobody believes you. So before you’re promising someone the sun, moon and stars because you really really want to interview them, make sure you can deliver.

After submission

Step #5: Consider taking the piece back.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a post or article before it goes live. If you have strong (factual or ethical) disagreements with the changes, and your editor isn’t in agreement, remember that you can always take your piece back. Yes, you’ll lose a check, but believe me that it’s never worth it to sell out your sources or write inaccurate or misleading articles. It’s your byline. I recognize that saying this is somewhat privileged, in that I have enough clients that I have the luxury of turning down work or taking back submissions. This is why it’s really important to have a savings account and 2-3 anchor clients, or a part-time job. You don’t want to have to decide between paying your rent and making sure every piece with your byline is something you’re really proud of. And spending days doing damage control isn’t cost-effective either.

Step #6: Compare edits to improve your writing

Assuming there are no factual errors or other issues with your piece, you can really improve your writing by working with your editor. One of my favorite things to do is compare drafts to published pieces to see what was reworked. It’s helped me in the past with my transitions, conclusions and context, and it’s what’s made me realize more recently that I really need to work specifically on strengthening my ledes.  If your work has been edited, especially if it’s  to the point where it doesn’t even feel like something you wrote, comparing drafts to final pieces can help you realize why they made those changes and what you need to do to continue writing for the site (if that’s what you want to do). If you’re lucky, your editor will use a site like Draft so it’s easy to see changes, but in any case, you can always print out the two versions and use a highlighter.

Make sure to look at specifics when comparing pre- and post-edited drafts. Freelancing means changing your tone for different sites and publications, and it’s hard to remember everything. I keep notes for each publication, noting when anecdotes are removed, internal links are added, and so forth. I try really hard not to take edits personally and to learn from them. We can always get better at our craft, so make sure you take the time to see how edits might strengthen your piece and what an editor thought was missing.

After it’s posted

Step #7: Discuss edits with your editor.

As I mentioned, getting to compare my draft to an edited piece before an article gets posted or published and hashing out the differences with my editor(s) has really helped me improve my writing.  I’ve even hired a freelance editor to work with me on this before submitting a piece to a new-to-me client, when working with absentee editors on sites I care about, or when working on something very emotional or that I feel strongly about. You can do this after the assignment’s been posted, too.  Barring any issues (like the ones I mentioned), ask your editor what they felt was lacking in your piece. This step isn’t about asking for changes or getting super defensive, but just about understanding where your editor is coming from. Assuming they have time, their suggestions could be very helpful.

The reason I mentioned discussing edits in this step and the last one, aside from its obvious benefits, is because having a good working relationship with your editor makes it a lot easier to address concerns. Bringing up a problem with an editor who knows you as a reasonable person who cares about their work means they’re less likely to think you’re crazy when you react strongly to edits you are embarrassed by or find unacceptable.

Step #8: Ask the editor to make revisions or remove a post.

Obviously this doesn’t work for print media, but just for websites and blogs, though print media will sometimes print a retraction. I always asks for corrections if there are factual inaccuracies (whether they’re editor-introduced or my own), minor typos or outright distortion.

Sometimes sites won’t change a post, and I’ve never had anyone agree to take a piece down (I’ve only asked once), but if it’s something you feel strongly about, it’s always worth a shot.

What am I missing?

Send me a message or leave your thoughts in the comments.

Remembering Chris McBride

 Remembering Chris McBrideEach September 20th, I like to take a moment to remember my dear friend Chris McBride, who passed away on this day in 2005. The circumstances of his death are tragic; he died as a result of an unprovoked attack while he sat quietly reading a newspaper. I do the best I can, however, to remember the amazing person Chris was when he was living, and to find some small way to honor his life by making a donation to a non-profit organization in his memory.

(TL;DR: Chris was amazing. We were lucky to know him and miss him dearly. To honor his memory, please consider joining us by making a donation to BRIDGEdotMN to help teens in need access technology and gain digital literacy skills, giving them a solid foundation for lifelong success.)

I met Chris while studying in Oxford in 2001/2002, shortly after I’d decided it was impossible to make friends as an American in England. I was homesick and lonely and felt extremely out of place. I had my classmates and roommates, of course, but as an extreme extrovert, I wanted to branch out a little from the insular community of fellow Shimerians. I’d met some people while doing some volunteer work and attending events, but they were more like acquaintances and I felt very isolated.

Chris was my first true friend in Oxford. I’d met him when he was working as a bartender. I was that weird chick who came in asking for one of the highest-proof beers in the UK (which I got to try in Scotland), and when they didn’t have it, settled for a cup of tea instead.  Despite my eccentricity, Chris never treated me like I was crazy. He had a warmth about him that instantly made me feel comfortable in a strange new town with grey clouds and roundabouts and mushy peas and overly manicured gardens surrounded by fences.

I was super stoked when I’d run into Chris at various events around town. It makes sense that he’d be at every protest. He was a relentless advocate for change, always working to help others. Although he was introverted, he was always quick to strike up a conversation. Chris was so easy to engage with in deep discussion about the best ways to create social change and make an impact. He was extremely open-minded and always willing to entertain an alternative perspective, even if he didn’t agree. (I was a bit of an extremist at the time, and he was far more moderate.)

I’ll have to admit that I had a lack of focus while I was in college. Typically I’d lose interest in whichever guy I was dating that month fairly quickly, but Chris was an exception. I was really lucky to know him and realized it instantly. He was a joy to spend time with and cherished by those around him for his kindness and thoughtfulness. As I’ve touched upon, of course his compassion extended to strangers in need. He lived his entire life in the spirit of selfless service. Whether he was working on the Make Poverty History campaign, fighting tuition hikes or writing letters in support of human rights, Chris was constantly putting himself aside to help others.

Aside from his desire to change the world and strike up conversations with anyone who would listen, he was also incredibly thoughtful and really went out of his way to help me feel more at home in Oxford. For example, he’d patiently explain subtle nuances in British expressions I’d tried to incorporate, letting me know the way I came across in certain instances (which was different than how I’d intended to). I always appreciated his candor as he explained to me the way that both Americans and Jewish people were perceived (I had a double whammy), giving me just a little more knowledge of what may have been going through people’s minds in social situations I’d find myself in. Non-verbal communication has never been my strong suit, and being in a different country, I needed all the help I could get.

The last time I saw Chris was in the summer of 2002, right after the May Day protests in London. We’d email from time to time after that. One day his sweet face crossed my mind and I did a quick Google search to find out what he was up to. I was pretty crushed when I found out that he’d been killed. A pacifist, Chris did not retaliate when he was attacked without provocation, as he sat quietly reading a newspaper and drinking a pint in a Liverpool pub. I read that Chris died in hospital of head injuries nine days after the incident.

Even after his death, Chris was still selflessly serving others. He was an organ donor, and his liver saved a 21-year-old man and a 10-month-old girl. His kidneys were also donated to two people.

Chris was only 25 years old when he died. He was so smart and so full of hope and dreams, which were tragically cut short. To honor his memory, Chris’ friends would run the Liverpool 10K for charity in the fall of each year, raising donations for some great non-profit organizations: Amnesty International, ActionAid, Support After Murder and Manslaugher (Merseyside), and The British Red Cross Society.

Last year, I ran an online fundraiser for Children of the Night, a charity supporting child victims of human trafficking. With your help, we raised $1600 in Chris’ memory. I also made a lot of mistakes, and the fundraiser was also mentally and emotionally taxing, for reasons I delve into in a post on online fundraising tips. I am very grateful to the dozens of people who either donated monetarily or contributed gifts for donors.

I always joke that I wouldn’t have graduated college if it wasn’t for Chris, but it really is true. My schedule included classes with tutors all around town, and I’d take the buses or walk or try to ride my creaky bicycle. I was never at Plater College’s tiny computer lab, which we were permitted to use. It closed even earlier than the cafes with internet access around town. And the cafes with internet access had high fees. I’d lost my job at a cafe as quickly as I got it; I’d arrived 15 minutes late one day while miscalculating the length of my bicycle commute, and after struggling counting change since I was working with a currency I was unfamiliar with. There was no work study in Oxford, and paying by the hour to use a computer was out of the question. Luckily, Chris would let me use his computer to finish my thesis in the evenings while he’d be out meeting friends for drinks. I’d type away into the wee morning hours and managed to finish multiple rewrites and graduate as scheduled.

I’m well aware that it is a position of privilege to be able to study abroad in Oxford and complain about not wanting to pay to use a computer lab, or have to share computers in a lab but deciding not to because the hours were unsuitable. I’m also aware of my extreme privilege in that I can pick up a new laptop or phone whenever I decide I’d like an upgrade. As a former middle school teacher in a low-income community (Tucson’s South Side), I know that many children don’t even have internet access at home, and that  technology can be a game changer.

Instead of running a fundraiser this year, I just wanted to bring some awareness to BRIDGEdotMN, which is where I’ll be making my donation this year. BRIDGEdotMN equips young people with the resources to increase their digital literacy skills. For more information, or to donate, check out the link below.

Whether you knew Chris or just know of him, I hope you’ll consider investing in a local student’s future by helping BRIDGEdotMN provide them with a computer, mobile broadband and technical training at the link below.

A Week Without Apologies (My Best Attempt)

 A Week Without Apologies (My Best Attempt)I have some confessions to make.

In the past week, I startled a cyclist who came whizzing by and didn’t realize I was approaching my car door. (I’m pretty sure I had right of way.) I went to Trader Joe’s and a little old lady parked in the produce aisle had to move her cart back because I needed to get to the broccolini. At the co-op, I was in the express line when a cashier gave a long-winded explanation of all the benefits of membership to the person in front of me. When he asked if I was a member, I said, “No, and I don’t want to be,” hoping to speed up my prolonged checkout process so that I could get home and eat dinner with my fiancé. That same night, I didn’t get the chance to say good night to him because I was on the phone for longer than expected, sharing some business tips with a friend of a friend who wants to be a writer. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’d also decided we had to go see X-Men, even though I picked Superman, meaning that I selected two movies in a row. (We usually take turns.)

I wasn’t saintly in my professional life, either. At one point, I was unable to immediately respond to an editor who expected an instantaneous reply to an email. A meeting ran late and then I went to the gym and sat down for a delicious home-cooked dinner when I got home, so I wasn’t blowing him off, just doing other things. The following day, a friend asked me to take on a small proofreading project, but I told him I was booked until the following week. An article I wrote didn’t include a backlink to a source I cited, which was in the copy I sent in but unfortunately removed during the editing process. I posted information about a course I’m teaching on a listserv, without realizing only the owner is allowed to advertise courses.  I declined to give a product testimonial for a product I don’t use. A delay occurred for reasons outside of my control. I also misread an email and responded too quickly–nothing terrible, but I had to reply again to point out my own error. 

I’m aware of all these examples because I spent the week following a challenge to stop apologizing…and see what I learned in the process.

I learned that not apologizing is easier said than done. I did as much as I could not to, and yet I found the words just slipping out time and time again and then it was too late.

I learned that I apologize all the time when I don’t really mean it, simply to try to smooth things over socially. I apologize when I say hi to someone I really want to talk to who’s chatting with someone else, as a way of pointing out that my intention wasn’t to rudely barge in on what may have been an ongoing conversation. But clearly I wanted to talk to them for a reason. I apologize when people expect me to make decisions to accommodate them and I choose not to, like when someone expected me to leave a workshop I was attending which was running late because he’d made plans for me with someone I had never met… or chose to wait for me even though I recommended otherwise. I wasn’t really sorry–I was put in a no-win situation–but I apologized to try to ease the tension and allay any guilt for prioritizing an event I really wanted to be at, rather than what I felt I was “expected” to prioritize. Although I think apologies are often warranted and startlingly missing when they really are called for, I learned that there are other ways to ease tension and show people I care. (An exboyfriend of mine once pointed out that there is no word for ‘I’m sorry’ in some native cultures. I told him he should therefore stop doing things he’d otherwise have to apologize for.)

I learned that I’m not comfortable with how I take up space, and that I’m quick to take responsibility when I feel I am in someone’s way, even if they’re the ones being rude or not paying attention. My hope is that I will one day proudly take up space, without shirking back or worrying about whether I may be in someone else’s way. It reminds me of the wisdom in the Desiderata, which states, “you have a right to be here, no less than the sun and stars.” Yes, I do.

I learned that strangers expect apology and that I have to be comfortable with what I choose to say, which is much better than being passive-aggressive by being brash and then apologizing and then repeating the cycle ad infinitum. I like Goldilocks.

I learned that “the person who’s nice to you but isn’t nice to the waiter is not a nice person” may have an important caveat, and that’s that situations are all entirely different. Someone who looks like that bitch at the co-op checkout line may just be wanting to get home to spend time with a loved one. I learned that things are situational, and that behavior should be judged over time. There’s a difference between consistently ignoring the people you care about in favor of late-night phone conversations with strangers, and just taking one call that happens to run late.

I learned that I need to fiercely protect my own time, that editors and clients will only expect me to always be available and to respond within seconds if that’s what I always do, and that the only way to stop working 24/7 is to stop working 24/7. And even though I adore all of my clients and am reveling in abundance, I deserve to spend time cooking and eating and gardening and sleeping and cycling and weightlifting and grappling and even doing nothing sometimes. Without apology. (John Lubbock said it best: “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”

I may not ever be able to entirely stop apologizing, but I do hope to stop apologizing for errors I made by accident or that other people made, or for circumstances outside of my control. I hope to stop apologizing for taking up space, having a life outside of work, and fiercely guarding my own time. I hope to stop apologizing for decisions I’ve made for good reasons, unpopular as they may be. Instead of taking a stand and then trying to soften by immediately backpedaling with an insincere apology, I am working towards standing by my decisions and instincts without wavering.

And I hope to show people I care about them in a way that’s more meaningful than acting falsely apologetic.

“I’m sorry but / I am just not sorry” – Ke$ha, the Warrior album