Monday, March 25, 2013

A Writer's Advice: Tips for Beginners

I've been approached a lot lately by friends and strangers alike about my writing. People who, like me, love to write, but don't know how to get started. So if it's writing that fuels you, here are my top 10 tips for getting there.

1. Look for Local Clubs or Organizations.  When I started out, I found the St. Louis Writers Guild.  Here was an entire group dedicated to the craft I loved. I was intimidated, but I pushed through that fear and went to a meeting. It was here that I met some amazingly talented people who helped me take my writing to the next level.

2. Take Advantage of the Internet. Believe it or not there are people out there looking for someone like you. If you want to write, google "writers submissions" and the year. You'll get multiple hits for anthologies, publications and writing contests to which you can submit your work.

3. Just Ask.  When I began freelancing, I picked up the phone and called established freelance writers and asked for their advice. What should I charge? How do I find clients? Believe it or not, most creative people love helping each other out. Everyone started somewhere, and we all love to pay it forward. My last year of college, there were several agency presidents and principles who came to speak to our classes.  I would take their business cards and then invite them to lunch so that I could pick their brain. People love to talk about themselves! I would offer to write something for them - free of charge. It certainly fit their budget, and it beefed up my portfolio - a win-win! Nine years later, I'm in a position to help those just starting out.  Hey, take me to lunch... I'll talk!

4. Start Small.  Don't be afraid to write an article for a local newsletter, a sales letter for a local non-profit, or a blog post for a friend.  Anything that gets your name out there, your words read and confidence up is worth your time.  You'll be flexing those writing muscles in preparation for larger publications.

5. Set Goals. My original goal was just to get published.  Just once...somewhere, anywhere! I sent dozens of query letters and submissions and collected an entire file folder of rejection letters. And then, one day, I got an email from an online magazine accepting my submission.  I could not have been more excited. That acceptance led to two more.  So I made a new goal.  I wanted to publish a story in an anthology. And I did. Again and again. Then, I wanted to be published in a regional magazine.  Done. Six times. My latest goal is to be published in a national publication or newsmagazine like WSJ, the NewYorker or The Atlantic. Now, that would be cool.  Oh, and then there's that book I'm working on...The point is to always set new goals.

6. Speaking of Rejection... Remember that a rejection letter is a reminder that you are working at your craft.  Everyone gets them (hell, Stephen King wallpapered his entire bedroom in them).  Don't let one rejection letter stop you. In fact, let it drive you to send out two more submissions. I still get them, and I've kept every one of them in a file folder.  They remind me to keep trying.

7. Market Yourself.  Take advantage of the $0 price tag of social media. Share links to blog posts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, pin published articles on Pinterest. Become a resource, share knowledge, and talk about what you do to anyone who'll listen.

8. Gather Your Peers.  I could not write this blog post without mentioning my amazing WWWPs - Linda, Tammy, Lynn and SiouxThis is a group of talented, kind, smart writers who have helped me immeasurably.  If you can find yourself (or put together) a critique group of peers who can help each other reach their goals, you're one lucky writer.  I know I am.

9. Act Like A Writer.  If writers have one thing in common, it's that we have a hard time admitting that we are, in fact, writers.  We feel unworthy of the title until we reach a certain goal, a certain status. Bullshit. You write. You are a writer. Act like it. Get yourself an annual subscription to industry pubs like Writer's Digest (I really like this one - lots of helpful articles). Go to the bookstore and invest in the latest issue of Writer's Market. This is your bible. A big book chock full of every magazine, trade publication and publisher, with information on how to submit your work.  And when someone asks you, "What do you do?" Answer: "I'm a writer!"

10. Just Do It. Listen, the hardest part is just to sit down and get started. You must make time, even if it's just a few minutes a day, to work on your writing (drawing/painting/whatever). The more you do it, the easier it will become.  I can't speak for those other passions, but writers must not only write, but READ.  Read the type of books/magazine articles/short stories you want to write. And then find a quite, comfortable place and get writing. Or if you are as bold and fearless as my friend Jean, grab your dog, jump in the car and get moving!

There are my top 10.  Your turn writers - what's your best advice to those starting out? What's worked for you?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Do You Lean In?

I was flipping through Cosmo the other day while I was getting a manicure (a blissfully peaceful 45 minutes) and came across an interview with Facebook's CEO Sheryl Sandberg.  She has started a movement (based on her new book) called "Lean In." Since I read that article, I've seen her all over the morning talk shows, on facebook and twitter.

This movement is very apropos for me right now, as I've recently been asked to give a presentation on Marketing and Social Media to a "Principles of Marketing" class at Washington University here in St. Louis.  Wash U students? My first thought was "They're all probably smarter than me! What could I possibly have to tell them?"

And herein lies the problem.  I'm fairly confident. And when it comes to writing, social media and marketing, I know my stuff.  But I don't believe I know more than the next guy. When I'm complimented, I immediately play down whatever success or achievement I've received. I don't know if this is a product of being raised a girl with nice manners, or just my own insecurities bubbling way too close to the surface. In any case, I've been asked to give this presentation, I've accepted the invitation, and now there's no backing out.  So, okay, I'm going to stand up in front of 50 college students and teach them something (I hope) about social media marketing.

But I digress.  Ms. Sandberg has created an organization called Lean In, where women are encouraged to tell their stories about speaking out, gaining more confidence and helping each other achieve their goals.  Are there times in your career where you've sat in a conference room against the back wall, rather than taking a chair right at the table? Are there times you've wanted to speak up, share your opinion, or disagree with decisions being made, but stayed silent?

Then this book - this organization - might be for you.  I'd like to think that by the time my seven year-old daughter begins her career, she won't even have to think about leaning in.  She'll just do it. Not because someone told her to, but because she believes she can. Because she has a voice, ideas, intelligence and drive. And she's worth listening to.

Listen, we do tend to underestimate ourselves. We must realize not only our potential but our current worth.  When I look back over the past 20 years of my career, I see more than a dozen articles and essays published, client projects created, managed and executed, ideas shared, thoughts given, lessons learned. Sure, there are people out there who know more than me, who've had different experiences, but what I bring to the table is my history, my experiences, my successes - and failures - and the sum total of all of them is nothing short of fantastic. It's true that I'm never satisfied, I'm always looking for what's next - what new social platforms are there to become an expert in, what marketing tools are trending, what topics can I write about that are new and interesting to readers? But sometimes, in all my desire to do more, write better, think smarter, work harder, I forget what I've already accomplished, what I'm doing right now. Today.

Every time I see a statement like this one, that compares men and women, I have mixed emotions. On one hand, I couldn't agree more with this statement. On the other hand, I have two sons and a daughter. And I don't like people labeling my sons any more than I like them labeling my daughter. But in my experience, men do seem much more comfortable talking themselves up, whereas the women I know are much more liable to talk each other up.  Interesting, isn't it?
The truth is, we women tend to let other people sway the way we feel about ourselves.  I am definitely guilty of this.

But I digress. If there is one piece of advice I can offer, it is this: No one else has had your exact experiences, your education, your training, your life. Use these to the best of your ability and you will certainly have something unique to offer.

This movement is growing daily. I'm just a writer who happened to be moved by what I read. Enough so that I want to share it with you.  More than share, I'd like to add my two cents... offer you something more, maybe inspire you to visit and learn more - maybe even share your story. What I do know is this: If it's true that women tend to underestimate themselves, it can also be said that we always have each other's backs.  When we're young - well, that's another story. If you don't mind me generalizing, young girls tend to be catty, competitive, dare I say - bitchy.  (Hey - I spent four years in a Catholic all-girl school - I should know!) But as we mature, and come into our own, we become supportive, empathetic, empowering. We realize that without each other we can't be nearly as strong. And that the female friendships we've forged over the years are the most important relationships of our lives. So, if you have the urge to compete with, criticize, or judge another woman, let it be yourself.

But don't be too hard on that woman you see in the mirror - she's smart, beautiful inside and out, talented and kind. And she has so much to offer. Go ahead... Lean In!

Was there a time when you didn't lean in? When you did?  Finish this sentence: "I am leaning in because..."