Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Be Enterprising As A Freelancer

February 9, 2011

Apologies if you’ve been trying to access the blog and had trouble. The blog is shortly to undergo a re-design and we have hit a few speed bumps along the way. Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned for RealDelia 2.0, coming soon to a theatre near you!

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

On her inspiring e-zine, The Prosperous Writer, Christina Katz has a great post this week about the need for writers to be enterprising. Christina defines enterprising as “ready to undertake projects of importance or difficulty or characterized by great imagination or initiative.”

For her, it’s about undertaking projects that will change you and cause you to grow. It’s about getting inspired. And it’s definitely not about being passive, timid or cautious.

Christina’s exhortation is well-timed. If you’ve been following the news this week, you probably know that shortly after midnight on February 7th, AOL announced that it had purchased The Huffington Post and the two companies will now merge into one media behemoth.

AOL is the parent company of Politics Daily, where I’ve been freelancing for the past two years along with a slew of other journalists. At the moment, the future of our publication is somewhat uncertain.

As that process sorts itself out, both practical and emotional factors come into play. I’ll have more to say about the emotional side of things some other time. On the practical end, however, the sudden, overnight upheaval at Politics Daily is a fresh reminder that freelancing is an inherently unstable endeavor, especially in the current economy.

Which means that in order to survive, you really need to be…well, enterprising. Here are five ways freelancers can be enterprising in their careers:

1. Diversify Your Projects. There are lots of reasons to take on different kinds of projects as a freelancer. It keeps you fresh. You learn new skills. You increase your chances of getting more work. But in today’s economy, it’s also a necessity. Relying on a steady gig is great…until it’s no longer there. So by all means get out there and expand your portfolio. It hedges against risk…and you might just discover something new that you love.

2. Exploit Your Network. One way to diversify your skill set is to draw on contacts you have in other parts of your life to drum up new business ideas. Through a casual acquaintance at my daughter’s school, I landed a gig last week writing about home improvement for a magazine targeted at retired people. What did I know about the Small Office Home Office (that’s SOHO to me and you) before I started? Zip. But I learned. And now they’ll likely ask me to do more. In a similar vein, the other day I was working in the cafe attached to my yoga studio when I struck up a conversation with the owner. Afterwards, it occurred to me that he might be interested in advertising on my new blog once it’s up and running. And so on…

3. Experiment. And while you’re at it, try something completely new. Career guru Marci Alboher recommends taking an inventory of your skills and talents to devise a list of potential paths you might pursue. If you teach, write or consult. If you write, teach. Etc., etc. I’ve recently signed on to teach a series of journalism workshops to secondary school (high school) students around London. That in turn led to an offer to teach adults in a continuing education program. A freelance consultant friend of mine who normally analyzes political risk for a living is working with a programmer to launch a new company. Experimentation is crucial to growth. And it will also sharpen your core skills.

4. Protect Your Assets. In what would now appear to be a particularly prescient post I wrote a few weeks back, I talked about the importance of backing up your files, especially if most of your work is Online. And that’s because while it’s generally true that things live forever on the internet, plenty of publications will  – without warning – decide to yank your URLs and not link to them anymore. So yesterday – while monitoring the fate of Julian Assange – I went back and made PDFs of all of my Politics Daily articles…just in case.

5. Carry on. Change is distracting…and can be debilitating. So unless and until you know what’s coming next, the best thing you can do is to carry on with your work. In my case that means that all week long, I’ve kept pitching and I’ve kept writing. Because, to paraphrase a colleague, “We ain’t dead yet.” To wit?

Here’s my latest on the Berlusconi sex scandal.

Enjoy.

Image: My Online Business Card by Michael Kwan via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Cheer Up This January

January 19, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

So in case you didn’t hear, Monday January 17th was allegedly the saddest day of the year. Based on a mathematical formula, sadness is predicted to peak on the third Monday of each new year. This is usually a result of post-holiday blues/failed New Years Resolutions/bad weather and the like. Some even refer to it as Blue Monday.

If you found yourself inordinately down on Monday – or any day this month – here are five reasons to cheer up:

1. You’re not Sarah Palin. Although she can seem sometimes like America’s Princess Diana, former Alaskan Governor and ex-Vice Presidential running mate Sarah Palin is having a bad month. In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Arizona, Palin failed to adopt a sufficiently conciliatory and empathic response. Instead, she went on a tear, aggressively defending herself from insinuations that she was to blame for the massacre and painting herself as the victim, rather than the 6 people who died and 13 who were injured. (The press also played a hand in this, mind you.) A post-Tucson Gallup poll commissioned by USA Today found that Palin’s rating is at its lowest level since she burst onto the national political scene in September 2008. She is seen in a favourable light by 38% of US voters, while 53% have an unfavourable view.

2. You’re not Amy Chua. Amy Chua – a.k.a. Tiger Mother – wrote a chilling oped in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks back about the draconian tactics she uses to exact perfection from her two daughters. And the blogosphere hasn’t ceased talking about it since. (Initial WSJ article has 6,800 comments and counting…) As someone who wrestles with having high expectations for her children – albeit without denying them food, drink or bathroom breaks as Chua claims to – I’m not entirely immune to Tiger Mother-like tendencies. But, boy, is she in the dog house this month, especially among Mommy Bloggers. My colleague Joanne Bamberger likened Chua’s child-reading tactics to child abuse. Ouch.

3. You’re not Ricky Gervais. British comedian Ricky Gervais hosted this year’s Golden Globe Awards in Hollywood and the consensus in the American press, at least, seems to be that he bombed. I actually thought that with one or two exceptions, Gervais was pretty funny. (Watch his opening monologue and judge for yourself.) But the rumor is that he is persona non grata at the awards ceremony next year, which – not that you asked – he has no interest in hosting anyway.

4. You’re not Robert DeNiro. If you think Gervais stunk the place up at the Golden Globes, then Robert DeNiro really tanked. As a huge fan of award shows, I was totally befuddled by his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. De Mille Lifetime Achievement Award. This man needs to stop working in the Focker franchise and go back to real acting so that he remembers show to properly thank people for recognizing his amazing career.

5. You’re not Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Not a household name? This is the now-exiled former president of Tunisia who was just tossed out as leader of his country after ruling for – oh – about 25 years. We won’t feel too sorry for Mr. Ben Ali, who fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold worth more than $60 million. Still, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t a great month for him, either.

*****

And speaking of having a bad month, in case you want a quick update on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s latest sexual shenanigans, here’s my post for Politics Daily.

Image: BAFTA 2008 – Ricky Gervais by claire_h via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Economics Of Abortion

January 17, 2011

For the first time since 1981, the long-term decline in U.S. abortions has stalled. And experts are pinning the blame on the recession. In other words, when it comes to abortions, American consumers behave much as they do when buying cars: when they have less money, they are more likely to opt for a used car, rather than splurging on the latest model. I’ll explain that further shortly.

The new data comes from the Guttmacher Institute in New York, which periodically surveys U.S. abortion providers. Researchers found that in 2008, there were 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. While this is significantly below the 1981 peak (29.3 abortions for every 1,000 women), it is virtually unchanged from the 2005 rate (19.4 abortions). Likewise, the total number of abortions in 2008 (1.21 million) was essentially unchanged from 2005.

While there are many possible causes for this latest trend, the chief suspect is the recession that hit in 2008, which altered the economic calculations (and savings accounts) of many American families.

“Abortion numbers go down when the economy is good and go up when the economy is bad, so the stalling may be a function of a weaker economy,” said University of Alabama political science professor Michael New.

In this sense, abortion can be thought of as an “inferior good” — i.e. something a consumer would demand less of if they had a higher level of real income. While abortions aren’t cheap (in 2009, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the average amount paid for a non-hospital abortion with local anesthesia at 10 weeks’ gestation was $451), they are far cheaper than having a baby. (The average cost of having a child in the hospital in America in 2005 was between $5,000 and $10,000.)

If that all sounds like a very rational and clinical account of an issue that is usually portrayed in red-hot, polarizing terms, that’s a good thing, at least as far as I’m concerned. Because if, like me, you’d like to envision a country where — in the immortal words of Bill Clinton, abortion is “safe, legal and rare” — then we need to start looking at the cold, hard facts around abortion rather than crafting policy based on our emotions.

Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: P3123372 by jessica_trinity via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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PTA Burnout: Is Parent Volunteering A Waste Of Time?

December 7, 2010

I was walking down the street the other day when I saw an attractive-looking poster advertising a Christmas fair. As I stopped to read the fine print, I did a double take. The fair was the one held annually at my daughter’s school. And for the first time in four years, I realized that I had no earthly idea how many raffle tickets we’d sold. Nor had I been the one to obtain the local business sponsor for the fair.

And then I remembered: Oh, yeah, right. I’m not on the PTA anymore.

As I wrote about several months ago on this blog, there’s a natural life cycle to being a member of the PTA. You come in — usually when your kids are new to the school. You do your thing — raise some money, run some bake sales, or in my case, achieve an alter-ego, rock star-like status in your community as “Raffle Lady,” which you’ll never quite manage to shake.

And then some combination of increased work demands, changing family priorities and one too many times jamming the PTA laminator sets in. And you hand off to the next gang, who come to that very first organizational meeting in September brimming with exactly the same irrepressible enthusiasm you once evinced, but now can barely manage to fake.

Read the rest of this post at http://www.PoliticsDaily.com…

*****

I’ve been on the Julian Assange beat this week. Here’s a longer post previewing his arrest at Politics Daily, and here’s a short update now that he’s been arrested. Stay tuned, folks!

Image: Fondant Roses and Colorflow Butterflies by angegreen via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Cleaning Up After Your Dog: Welcome To Adulthood

November 23, 2010

It would seem, on the face of it, to be another one of those cardinal sign posts of adulthood: cleaning up after your dog.

After all, it’s the very first thing we teach our kids when we give them a pet, isn’t it?

“Now, honey. If you want to have a pet, you need to learn to be responsible for it. You need to walk it. You need to feed it. You need to clean up after it.” Right?

So why is that basic lesson seemingly lost on so many adults?

Or maybe it’s just here in London where I live. As I ranted a few weeks back upon returning from the pristine, dog-poop free streets of Berlin, many Brits just don’t seem to get the whole dog mess thing.

A few statistics to back that claim up. According to Keep Britain Tidy, in 2008 the UK dog population was estimated to be 7.3 million, with dogs producing approximately 1,000 tonnes of excrement each day. In a recent survey of over 19,000 sites, dog fouling was present in over 8% of these sites. The highest level of dog fouling can be found in areas where people actually live.

It’s not because there aren’t plenty of signs around telling you to clean up after your dog. There’s even a 50 pound ($75) fine for not doing so, which can go as high as 1000 pounds ($1500) if you need to go to court.

But how do you enforce that penalty, short of cycling around Hampstead Heath and chastising random strangers when they let their dog crap all over the place? (Trust me: I’ve tried it. One lady responded “Oh, I didn’t see it.” Um….excuse me, lady, but isn’t that precisely *why* we take our dogs out in the first place?)

Please know that this is not an anti-pet rant on my part. (I’ve actually grown more fond of pets lately, at least cats, ever since that crazy lady up in Coventry casually tossed one in a bin.)

This just seems like a matter of civility and community…not to mention public health. (Read this charming little explanation of all the lovely diseases you can get from dog poop, even long after it has disintegrated.)

But unfortunately, it does rely on establishing a set of norms around this practice, and I’m just not sure how one goes about inculcating a culture of cleaning up dog mess.

In my old house, I lived in what’s known as a Mews, which is somewhat akin to a courtyard. Every day for a two month period, some person (not one of us) was apparently getting up really early in the morning, taking their dog for a walk, letting it poo right in front of our Mews and then leaving it there. The amazing thing about this little period in our lives was that the dog did his business in *the very same spot* – literally – every day. For two months. It was absolutely outrageous.

It really bothered all of the residents of the Mews and we talked about setting up a patrol to bust this person in the act, even if that required creating shifts to man the watch tower at all hours of the day. But we never got that far.

Because a 90-year old resident of our Mews – literally, someone’s Grandmother – took the law into her own hands. One night she got out some chalk and went and circled all of the poop left by said dog. And then, in huge capital letters, she wrote the following: “Shame on you! Naughty Dog! CCTV is watching you! We know where you live!”

And just like that, it stopped.

Granny’s tactics might seem a bit draconian to some, but I think she had it just right. And – tellingly – there’s actually a town in Buckinghamshire that’s using high-tech surveillance techniques along highly trafficked dog walking routes to film dog poop offenders in the act and then follow them home and bust them. (Interestingly, the person who developed this surveillance method previously used it on cheating spouses. Yikes!)

But I’ve got another idea. You know that whole Great Society thing that David Cameron and Co. are actively pushing as the signature initiative of their new administration? It’s all about volunteerism and civic virtue and getting citizens taking over some of the things that local government previously did for them.

To which I say, Hooray, Boys. And here’s your first charge: let’s develop a citizen’s brigade to go out and clean up our streets and free them of dog feces. It ain’t pretty, but somebody’s got to do it.

I know I’ll raise my hand.

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the latest egregious human rights abuses in China. Have a look…

 

Image: no dog poop by monicamuller via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

November 17, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travellers who have something you need to edit – it could be a poem…a short story…heck, an office memo…and, like me, you need to find your mojo.

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take 4-6 weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that – if you can manage it, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I’m sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

 

Yikes.

What works for you when you’re editing something?

*****

I’m over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.

 

Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Why I Joined A Writing Group

November 9, 2010

I’ve started a writing group. We met for the first time last night for an organizational meeting.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Back when I stepped down from the PTA (a full month and a half ago!), I vowed that I’d take a break from organizing things. So much for that.

But this is different. First of all, it’s only five people. And second of all – unlike the PTA, which was loads of fun but fundamentally about raising money for a cause – this one’s about me. I’m doing it for precisely the same reason that I encouraged all of you to join a club this Autumn: pursuing hobbies in adulthood is fun.

Of course, I’m not only doing it because it’s fun. I’m also doing it because I think that it’s going to be worthwhile professionally. Why is that?

For starters, the people in the group aren’t close friends. I know all of them socially, but what links me to them first and foremost is that we all share an interest in writing. (Most of us are interested in pursuing fiction within the confines of this group, though there’s one TV/Film writer.)

And that means that while it’s a friendly crowd, we’re not there to chit-chat about our lives. We’re there to get feedback on our work. So unlike, say, a book club, which is – at the end of the day – a fundamentally social experience, this club feels more serious. And that suits me just fine right now.

I’m also joining this group because I think that as a writer, working across genres really helps you to stay fresh. You exercise different parts of your brain. You get out of your comfort zone. You keep yourself from getting bored. I was thinking about this yesterday when I happened to be working on two different projects that took me away from my ordinary blogging duties. One was a travel piece and the other was an interview that I did for a commercial outlet. At the end of the day, I felt really refreshed. And I think that’s because I stepped away from my routine. So I’m hoping that by adding some fiction writing back into the mix, I’ll continue to keep myself crisp as a writer.

But mostly I’m doing this because I need to confront the beast. (That would be my novel…you know, the proverbial one that sits in a drawer somewhere, only to be very occasionally dusted off and sent out to greet the world?) It’s time for a fourth down, kick-0r-stick moment with that sucker. (Forgive the cheesy football analogies. I think we all know that sports isn’t my thing.) Either I’m going to go back to the drawing board, and use this writing group as way to workshop the hell out of that thing…or I’m going to have a fancy new footrest as I embark on some new ideas. Either way, it’s time to make a move.

Wish me luck.

How do you keep yourself fresh at work?

*****

For those who are interested, here’s a piece I wrote for Politics Daily on how some people in Germany seem to be forgetting the Holocaust.

Image: Writing Challenge by Starbuck Guy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.