Working for Yourself (Esteem)

Rejected_Stamp_shutterstock_65298541_260Freelancing is hard. I got a rejection email yesterday, for a project I thought I was perfect for. I was surprised and disappointed. It caused me to question myself, my career choice, my direction, my abilities. A bit of imposter syndrome snuck in. I don’t have a degree in journalism; I don’t have an MFA; I didn’t write for the school newspaper. Maybe I’m just a hack.

It’s easy to become insecure when something you truly want and think you’re good at doesn’t work out for you, especially if you get no feedback as to why. It’s even more likely you’ll question your worth if you’re taking an unconventional path.  You read what other people in your field are doing, what official qualifications or experiences they have, and you contrast yourself against them. You don’t have what they have, and that breeds self doubt.

Of course you don’t have what they have, but if you are pursuing you passion, don’t let doubt creep into your brain. If it is your calling and you are committed, you DO have something to offer – likely something unique that springs from your own path to where you are now. There’s a reason you love this thing – photography, graphic design, real estate – and it’s probably not because you suck at it. And, if you love it, you breathe it. You read professional journals, talk to others in your field, go to seminars; you are constantly learning and growing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a PhD in underwater basket weaving. Grab your snorkel and raffia and dive in! (unless you’re a surgeon, in which case, we all kind of want you to have gone to school)

In your quest for knowledge in your chosen field, you may…no, you will come across experts that give you six tips on how to be successful in the biz or the “one habit every successful person has.” That does not mean you have to do it that way. Read up, by all means, but not all advice applies to you. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Above all, be true to yourself. If going to every godamnned networking meeting within fifty miles of your house makes you want to vomit, don’t do it. Find another way that suits you. We all have to do things we’d rather not from time to time, in order to be successful, but we still need to be ourselves.

It takes bravery and a thick skin to freelance or run your own business. It takes the kind of person who can get knocked to the ground repeatedly and get back up and move forward again, even if it makes said person kind of feel like shit. You don’t have to have a positive attitude all the time. You don’t have to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt or cause you to question your abilities. You just have to keep moving forward. Keep fighting the good fight and stay open to opportunity. Something good will happen, and it may or may not be what you expect.

If you’re an unconventional aspiring writer (or aspiring anything) check out Jeff Sommers blog, The Unconventional Writer.

The Balancing Act: How to Stay Focused Working at Home

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An inviting workspace can make all the difference.

I love working from home, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it comes with it’s own unique set of challenges. Officing out of the house, I don’t have to put up with morning rush hour or comply with workplace dress codes, like the silly prerequisite that one must wear pants. But, there are a lot of distractions at home, so I’ve developed a few techniques to keep me focused:

Set up a designated workspace.

We form associations with places. You want to associate your workspace with work, whether you have your own room for an office or a little nook off the kitchen. Take time to tidy and organize it; clutter is distracting. Decorate it with attractive objects — photos, artwork, plants — so it’s an inviting space. If you have a door to close when you need quiet, all the better. Similarly, it can be useful to avoid working in your bedroom, so you associate that space with sleep, not busy brain work.

Make a schedule.

Write it down, and stick to it, as if your boss were watching you. Working from home affords us greater flexibility, but allowing yourself to get distracted by washing dishes or going down the Facebook newsfeed rabbit hole isn’t conducive to getting things done. I put not just my work hours but individual tasks on my calendar, color-coded by task type (work, family, personal). That way, I can ensure I have a balance of each. Yes, it has to be flexible; unexpected things come up. But, then I can rearrange my predetermined tasks for another time, without worrying I’ll forget something. I actually print my calendar page each day, so I can take notes on it and have it visible to me at all times. Avoid wandering into your office after hours to do “just one thing.” Write yourself a note for the next day, if you’re afraid you’ll forget it. Not working during off hours is just as important as working when you’re supposed to.

Pick the right time.

I work most effectively while my children are at school (no surprise there). I delegate tasks that require the most focus to those hours. If I feel productive during the day, I can relax and enjoy my kiddos when they get home. On busier days, I save the tasks that require less focus for the time when the house is lively with the laughter and occasional fighting of children. Some people work best in the evening, when the rest of their family is in bed. There is no one right time; the key is to pay attention and find your own most-productive hours.

Turn off your phone.

Texts are a constant distraction. Ever end up on a group text with 26 other people? Turn off your ringer, or leave it in another room when you really need to focus. Even if you aren’t checking it, hearing the constant buzzing and beeping shakes your concentration. This extends to the TV and any other distracting noises.

Working from home can be wonderfully flexible. You can more often work how, when and where it suits you. But, because you aren’t living by someone else’s rules, you have to be intentional and make your own. And, when your rules cease to work for you, the beauty is you can change them or throw them out all together. Rules weren’t made to be broken, but they were made to bend and be reshaped from time to time.

 

Building Your Business…or Not

I originally posted this on my personal site, but it’s actually more of a business post on gaining a little perspective. This is not about working harder, but taking a step back.

IMG_2515When my children were babies and toddlers, people would often tell me, “Cherish these years. They go by too fast.” But, there were many times when I thought they couldn’t go by fast enough. From the day they were each born, I loved my kids unconditionally and with an intensity that overwhelmed me, as if my heart would explode with the hugeness of that love. But, I also struggled.

Not getting enough sleep was hard. Failing at breast feeding was devastating. Not having time to myself and being constantly “on” for my children, the first of whom never did nap regularly, was something I wrestled with constantly. I was, at times, bored with staring at an infant who’d yet to even make eye contact with me, bored with playing  trains for the eleventh hour, bored and defeated by the unimaginable loads of laundry small children produce. Ironically, in addition to needing more alone time, I also craved adult company, as evidenced by my constant chattering at Jason when he got home from work.

There were good times, though. There was the time I watched Jack run and laugh carefree through the wildflowers in the park and wished he’d stay that uninhibited forever. There was the first time he planted a big, wet, sloppy kiss on my cheek. There was toddler Gage, dressed in only a diaper, dancing to techno music in his bouncy way and the thrill of watching each of them take their first, unassisted steps. I’m smiling now, with the memory of these milestone events, but I am relieved children don’t stay toddlers forever.

Now Jack is nine and Gage is six. Time has started to speed up, as they both spend a good portion of their days away at school and then, afterwards, often at their friends’ houses. I promised myself when they were young, I would not tell people with babies to cherish the moment; enough people tell them that. My message to them is this: it is hard when they are little, but it gets easier.

As my kids have gotten more self-sufficient, and it’s no longer necessary for me to follow them around, making sure they don’t maim themselves on sharp corners or walk into traffic, it’s been easier to lose myself in my writing. They go off and play, and I have the time and energy to plot advances for my freelance business. This is good for me, but I have to be mindful not to swing too far the other way – get so caught up in work that I miss the kids’ ever-dwindling childhood. Jack only has two years left before we hit the dreaded middle school years, and I want to invest my time and energy into fostering a close relationship with both of them, so they’ll come to me when they need help. This is why, despite my overachieving, perfectionist brain, I have decided to be okay with taking freelance work as it comes, and not intentionally growing the business like I could. There will be time to grow business later, but I don’t get a second chance at being present for my kids in their formative years. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, would I regret not building a business? Maybe a little, but knowing the tradeoff was being there for Jack and Gage, my first, foremost and most important responsibility, I have no doubts my priorities are in the right place. And that makes every decision, business or otherwise, so much simpler.

Two Tools For Your Small Business: Simplicity and Intuition

I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions, but this year, I made an exception. My personal goals for the year are to to focus on simplicity and listening to my intuition. This works in business life as well, and it’s not a huge leap to see how.

Simplicity

There are millions of tools available to help grow, maintain and organize your small business – CRMs, finance software, newsletter programs…It’s a long list. How do you know what will truly help you?  While there are a variety of useful tools out there, some will actually make your life harder and cost you money, because they are designed to be much more complex than what a sole proprietor needs. Simplification: does this app, feature, program, gizmo make your business life easier or harder?  Does it save time, or does it waste it? My father and I owned a consulting business for a number of years, and I was often dragging him, kicking and screaming towards new technology, but I learned something from working with him. Sometimes, the latest and greatest is not what you need; sometimes simpler is better. This is why I track my business expenses on an Excel spreadsheet instead of with QuickBooks (or whatever the kids are using these days.)

Intuition

Do you ever get a sense about a particular project – a bad feeling? Oftentimes, we ignore those feelings and jump in anyway, because we are programmed to ignore what we can’t immediately explain. Sometimes, when your gut feeling tells you not to accept that client or that you don’t have the bandwidth for a new project, you need to listen. One of the beauties of working for yourself is you can choose what and whom you work with. Exercise that right and try to get past your people-pleasing tendencies. Don’t be a “yes” person; if a client asks you to do something that’s outside of your expertise – something that deviates from the intent of your business – don’t do it simply as an effort not to disappoint them. People you want to work with will respect you for setting clear boundaries. And, you can develop a referral list. A lot of people ask me about social media marketing. I am a content writer, but I know a good social media consultant, and I refer people to her. That way, everyone wins. I don’t have to post to Facebook for people, my friend gets business, my clients gets what they need, and it comes back to me in the form of referrals she sends me for people who need content.IMG_7279

Simplicity and Intuition – they are two aspects of life that are hard to find under all of the information, advice and products we are exposed to, but if you trust your intuition and search out the simplest answers to your problems, business or otherwise, everything is a lot less daunting.

Do It Again: How to Cope With That Task You Hate

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I have never liked calling people on the phone. Save a couple of teenage years when the receiver was permanently affixed to my ear, I’ve always avoided phone conversations when possible. When texting became prevalent, I and a billion other introverts jumped for joy.

So, imagine my chagrin when I found myself in an occupation – one I love – that required an occasional phone conversation. Not only that, but (cue scary music) I HAD TO CALL PEOPLE I DIDN’T KNOW. I would put off these phone calls repeatedly for more important things…like picking lint off the carpet or lining up all the notebooks on my desk. And then, oh look, it’s really too late to be calling people now.

You may not fear the phone, but we all have business tasks we are required to do to get our jobs done – ones we’d pick a root canal or a fork in the eye over tackling, necessary though they may be. I’ve overcome my anxiety about calling people I don’t know with a few tactics that apply to any hated task:

Just Do It. Then, just do it again. The more you practice that task you hate, the more you’ll do it automatically without wasting energy on mental excuses. I have even called people by choice on occasion, just for the phone practice. The more the calls go well, the less I fear making them.

Do It First. I make calls in the morning, so I don’t have time to come up with avoidance tactics. It takes self discipline to do chores (whatever you view as a “chore”), and self discipline takes mental energy, which I have more of in the AM.

Break It Down. Divide the hated “to-do” item into smaller chunks and approach them one at a time, so it feels less overwhelming. For example, instead of calling a long list of people, I do a few at a time and take breaks to do more palatable tasks in between.

Reward Yourself. It worked on Pavlov’s dogs, and it works on humans, too. For example: “After I make all my calls, I’ll fix a second cup of coffee.” This way, your brain is focused on the reward and more motivated to get the task done.

Farm It Out. Hire someone else to do that thing you hate. Odds are, there’s someone out there who loves it as much as you revile it. Then, you can spend your hate energy drumming up more business for yourself.

You may never learn to love that thing you hate. I still don’t get giddy over calling people to solicit content for the magazine, but I don’t get hives over it, either. Once you get over that hurdle for the thing you avoid, you can spend more time and energy on the things you love. And, if that thing you hate is writing blog posts or content for your website or newsletter, well, you know who to call.

Woman & phone image: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_bowie15′>bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

IN ALL CAPS! (not)

IMG_1433“Capitalization and punctuation.” How many times did English teachers write that on our papers? We still haven’t learned.  Most adults remember to capitalize the right things – proper names,  days of the week, specific geographic locations – but what do you capitalize erroneously? I bet, if you go back and look at the last thing you wrote, you’ll find some word you blessed with a capital letter that doesn’t warrant it. I know this, because I still find random capitalizations in my own writing, and I’m the writer! Here are seven things we needlessly capitalize:

Professions

I would like to be a Writer, but I’m just a writer. Unless words like “doctor” directly precede a person’s name, they are always lowercase. So, it’s like this: “She is a doctor,”  but “I saw Doctor Sangi yesterday.”

Degrees

I have a degree in child development, not in Child Development. Even if one’s degree is held in high esteem in the professional world and took blood, sweat and tears to complete, it’s all the same in the eyes of English. It’s a “bachelor of science in microbiology” or a “master’s degree in psychology.”

Plant Names & Animal Breeds

Plant lovers are inclined to write of Lavender or Rosemary, but these are common plant names. So, unless you name your lavender “George,” it and the rosemary get lowercase letters. Similarly, “golden retriever” is all lowercase, but if the breed includes a proper noun like “English setter,” the proper noun part is capitalized.

Names of Seasons

This one always trips me up, because the seasons seem like proper names, but, according to every English authority, they are treated as descriptors of parts of the year. Thus, “we feel spring approaching, and winter is almost over.” Exception: If it’s part of a proper name, like “Winter Olympics” the season is capitalized.

Our Own Special Things

This is the most ubiquitous error I see. When something feels important to us, even if we know better, we grace it with a capital letter. Someone whose specialty is interior design may automatically capitalize not only the profession but words of import for their specialty, like “contemporary” or “mid-century.” We have to check ourselves here; reread carefully and google* it if you’re not sure.

School Subjects

Unless it’s a language, like English or Spanish, school subjects are all lowercase, from “anatomy” to “zoology.” When they are specific course titles, however, they become proper nouns, for example: “Biology 101” or “Early American History.”

People’s Titles

Titles of books are capitalized, but we humans must stick to lowercase, whether you are the secretary or the vice president. It gets a little more complicated when you attach it to someone’s name, though. So, it’s “the vice president, Amanda Smith” but “Vice President Amanda Smith.” In the second version it is treated as part of her name.

The bottom line: proper nouns are capitalized, common nouns are not, no matter how special we feel about those common nouns. The trick is to tease out which one you’re dealing with. So, go easy on the capitalization, even though there’s no longer an English teacher to scribble bright red corrections all over your writing. And, if you miss all that red ink, or if this very brief look into the arbitrary world of grammar makes your head hurt, contact me or visit my home page. I can help.

* Interestingly, (to me, at least) there is no consensus on capitalization of “google” used as a verb. As a noun it is always proper, so…”I heard Google changed their algorithm,” but as for “If you wanna know, google it,” capitalization is up to you.

Kill Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it br39099097 - creative writing concepteaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I read these words in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, and they stuck. They percolate to the surface of my mind whenever I am editing a piece, especially my own. Whether you write for a living or are in a business that only occasionally involves writing, it’s good advice (and appropriately stated, coming from the master of horror.) What it means is this: cut out the unnecessary parts, even if you love them. Why, you might ask, would you love those parts if they were unnecessary? Several reasons:

Issue #1:

You feel strongly about a point – perhaps it’s political, possibly it’s part of your chosen profession. When we are passionate about subject matter, we tend to re-state the same points over and over again in consecutive sentences, rephrasing it each time.

Fix It:

Pick the sentence that says it best, or combine parts of sentences for what most accurately says what you mean. Cut the other ones out.

Issue #2:

Your thoughts on your subject matter are not well-formed, but you know it’s an important subject. Let’s say you want to write about tips for exercising, but you haven’t thought through the details. Your sentences are full of passion but ramble without ever making a point, and suddenly you’re up to 1,000 words without having said anything of real value.

Fix It:

Two words: research and organize. If your thoughts are more broad-scope than specific on a topic, do some digging online. Then, write up an outline of the specific points you want to make. Afterward, as you edit, ask yourself, “does this sentence serve to help make my point, or is it off topic or vague?” Example: There is no need to tell people what your are not going to talk about. Anything you follow with, “…but this is beyond the scope of this article,” can almost assuredly be cut out.

Issue #3:

You know a lot of detail about the topic – the opposite of problem two. If you are writing about your profession, you may be tempted to go into more detail than your audience can bear. Sometimes we lose touch with what a lay person knows and will find intriguing when we are entrenched in the minutia of our own craft.

Fix It:

As fascinating as you may find the technical details of how your particular widgets are made, the general public is usually interested in a broader stroke they can relate to in their own lives. Have a friend not in your profession read your piece. Consider cutting anything they find confusing or boring. Again, stick to your overall point. More detail is not always better.

Sometimes, keeping to a certain word count can be helpful, whether it is created by the publication for which you are writing or self-imposed. If you are determined to get something down to, say, 500 words for a blog post, you are less likely to indulge yourself in rambling. And we all like to ramble about our pet topics, so it can be a little painful to cut it down to something manageable for the general public. No matter what you’re writing, if you are publishing it on paper or online, you want people to read it. So kill your darlings, because they are just that – yours – and not necessarily your audience’s.

How to Write a Business Blog

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Photo by Michael Mandiburg

So, you set up a beautiful, fully-functional website for your business. Now, how do you get people to visit it? One of the best ways to drive traffic to your site is with free, valuable content that can be linked to on social media. That’s right – start a blog. Here are some tips to making your business blog successful:

 

Pick a Simple, Relevant Topic

There’s no need to go into grand detail on the technical aspects of your business. Address questions people commonly ask you, or overview-type topics. Imagine you’re talking to a curious friend who doesn’t know anything about your area of expertise. Seasonal topics also get a lot of attention; focus on the holidays, spring cleaning or New Year’s resolutions.

Keep It Short

In the case of content blogs for businesses, less is more. Just be sure you’ve explained yourself enough to actually add value. Around 500 words is a good length.

Use List Format

Readers attend more to well-organized information. If you topic lends itself to list format, use it. Or, consider separating paragraphs into sections with bold headings.

Be Informal

A casual tone will connect more with your audience. Avoid overuse of technical words specific to your industry and explain any you do use. Again, imagine how you would explain it to a friend, verbally. Just leave out all the “ya’ know’s”  and “um’s.”

Proofread and Edit

It’s helpful to write one day and proofread a day or two later. Even better, ask someone else to proofread it for you; they are more likely to see your errors and can tell you if something isn’t clear. Note, editing is mostly about cutting out extraneous words and phrases and eliminating inadvertent, long-winded rants.

Include a Graphic

Even if your post doesn’t lend itself to them, a picture gets people’s attention when it shows up in the thumbnail image on social media. Pick something at least loosely related to your topic, and, if the photo isn’t your own, be sure to give proper credit in the caption. Wikimedia Commons is a good resource for free stock photos and they provide the photo credit, as well.

Avoid Shameless Plugs

This isn’t a hard, fast rule; you’ll notice at the end of this post, I’ve inserted my own shameless plug. Blog posts, though, should be mostly educational information related to your field. Stay away from making entire posts into advertisements.  An occasional link back to your main page at the end of a post, though, is useful and tasteful.

Post Regularly

This can be the hardest part – coming up with material on a weekly basis. But, if you truly want to stay in front of your target market, you should post at least once a week and put it on social media pages your audience visits. Be sure to add a “follow” button to you blog, so those interested can receive notification every time you post.

If you are consistently in front of your target audience, offering free information and advice, when they find themselves in need of services, they’ll call you. You might be thinking, “I could do this, if only I weren’t so busy running a business.” If, like many business owners, you’re pressed for time, consider hiring a freelance writer (like me) to ghost write your posts. Then, you’re ensured regular, quality content, which will drive potential customers to your site and build you a reliable reputation in your community.

Farm to Girl

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earth-friendly packaging

All-Natural. How many times do you read that on a package? Does it even have meaning anymore? Farm to Girl’s skin care products are natural, but it was the Women Helping Women on their labels that got my attention. Farm to Girl’s creams are actually what I’m looking for in a natural product; their ingredients come from small farms run by women who use traditional processes without harsh chemicals. The fact that Farm to Girl is a local Austin business is a bonus.

In a world where much has gotten irritatingly complicated, where I can’t pronounce the ingredients on the back of my “all natural” cleanser from the grocery store, Farm to Girl keeps it refreshingly simple with a handful of recognizable ingredients in each product. They even extend “simple and natural” to packaging; my order arrived in an eco-friendly box, with newspaper for padding. And the products’ jars allow me to use all of the creams, unlike some pumps or sprays. I was surprised at how small the containers were (one ounce) but as sparingly as I used them, they’ll last a while.

Okay, admirable backstory and simple ingredients and packaging aside, does it work? I tried three products, and here is what I found:

Organic Raw Coconut Lip Balm ($3.95)

It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Two ingredients: coconut oil and beeswax. It has a light, pleasant coconut scent and the creamy moisture felt great going onto my dry lips. On the downside, it didn’t stay put as long as I would have liked, and I had to reapply often; a little more beeswax in the formula might remedy this. Also, the small container can be hard to open.

Namibian Miracle Face & Skin Repair ($17.95)

This cream has a slight, pleasantly nutty scent. It’s not as thick as most face creams, but it goes on easily and feels light and refreshing. I followed Farm to Girl’s advice and kept it in the fridge, which thickened it up a bit. It is non-greasy but moisturizing. I like this as an all-purpose day cream, applied in the morning.

Fountain of Youth Face Cream ($17.95)

This one is the polar opposite of the Namibian Miracle as far as texture; it is thick, rich and creamy. I found that emulsifying it between my fingers before applying worked wonderfully. It has a subtle coconut scent, and is heavier than the Namibian Miracle but still not greasy – just very moisturizing. I like it as a night cream.

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Farm to Girl

Overall, I was pleased with my experience. Farm to Girl’s products, at affordable prices, work as well as or better than expensive creams I’ve ordered in the past. After several weeks of using the Namibian Miracle and Fountain of Youth creams, my skin’s moisture is more even, and I have noticeably fewer breakouts. When you throw in the fact that Farm to Girl is local, helping women in other countries and uses simple, healthy ingredients, it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m a fan.

Why I Write

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The other day, someone asked me what I was qualified to write about. I thought and came up with a very long list. Sure, I have my favorites, but, because I’ve had various careers and  come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, I have a colorful array of experience upon which to draw.  I have…changed the oil in cars, shingled a roof, taught elementary school, read plumbing plans, done presentations, built websites, made hand cream, studied gardening, used social media marketing, done taxes, changed spark plugs, made play dough, taught fitness classes,  bought and sold houses and potty trained over 30 children. I even know a little about fashion and finances.

This is part of what makes me such a good freelance writer. Business owners don’t want blog posts full of technical jargon your average person has no desire to wade through. They want articles written with the general public in mind. So the fact that I have a base knowledge of a lot of things and I’m a good researcher, means I can craft a piece that educates on a level that interests the average person. I have the advantage of having a little pro-knowledge while maintaining the perspective of the consumer.

The last piece to the puzzle is my writing talent. All that knowledge, perspective and research is no good if I can’t communicate it effectively, efficiently and eloquently. I’m naturally good at it, and I continuously study and practice to improve.

The bottom line, though, is this: I love it. I love writing, and I love doing it with purpose. When I craft a piece for a business, I don’t just take the facts and put them on the page. I look for glimpses of personality. What’s important to this business owner? How does she see herself? What’s his demeanor? That’s the really fun part – putting personality on the page and bringing it to life.