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Simple Advice For Freelance Writers

Freelance writing isn’t often glamorous.

In fact, it’s probably better described as tedious. But it is all in how you meet each task that really determines what kind of experience you’re going to have – positive or negative, boring or engaging – and that is, ultimately, going to affect your productivity. Your profitability. Your success as a freelancer.

So there is the big question for the freelance writer. You’re a hired gun. A wordsmith out on loan. How do you bring everything you write to life, even if you’re not fascinated by it? How do you make every sentence pop with infectious excitement, or full to the brim with useful, digestible information?

I’m not here to pawn some snake oil off on you. There is no real secret. Like with any craft, the real answer is discipline and hard work. If you have a love for the written word it will go a long way, and perhaps there are a few tricks to stretch out whatever natural affinity you have. But outside of that, it’s mostly about keeping your nose to the grindstone. Yet how you appreciate – or fear, or loathe – that grindstone will determine your ultimate success.

With that warning in mind, I do have three very simple things which I find truly beneficial that I’d like to share with you. They aren’t “secrets to succeeding as a freelance writer” or any kind of trumped up hoopla like that. They are just a few things I think go a long way in getting the most out of what you write.

1. Appreciate the Descriptive Process

In my early days of freelancing, I got a job writing 300 word category descriptions for an eCommerce site with thousands of automatically generated product categories. I would get massive lists of category names and would have no instructions other than the name of the category.

Some were easy. Writing 300 words about, say, All Terrain Vehicles is a cinch. Something a little more mundane, like a pasta maker, might prove to be a bit more of a challenge, but it’s still functional. It does something and you use it to produce something else. But what happens when you get even more mundane? What happens when you get to “green bow tie”?

A Green Bow Tie

The guy I was working for had a contract. His contract had a simple mandate: write a 300 word description for every product category. It was uncompromising. So, I dutifully wrote 300 words on many products which, really, there aren’t 300 words that need to be written.

Now when I wrote my “green bow tie” description, it took a lot longer than most of the other descriptions I’d written. I had to wrack my brain trying to find ways to stretch out this incredibly dull item into 300 words that were at least somewhat useful. It was a challenge, but I got it done.

Imagine my chagrin when, just a few items down on the list, was “blue bow tie.” And below that, somewhere a few dozen entries down, “red bow tie.”

Here I had found true Tedium, with a capital T. But it wasn’t just tedious. It was preponderantly difficult. I could barely come up with 300 words for the first bow tie, and now I needed 300 unique words over and over again for a series of incredibly mundane items that vary only by their color. I couldn’t just change around my initial description, or I’d lose the job for plagiarism.

To be honest, the job was more or less as it sounds. Pretty boring. Yet I had learned to appreciate something that I now take with me into everything I write. An appreciation for the Descriptive Process.

Every time you sit down and write in an effort to describe something, you engage an incredible mental process of transformation. You take your experiences, your sensory data, your knowledge of the world, and synthesize it all into words to be shared with others. You extrapolate one reality from another.

Even with something as seemingly uninteresting as a bow tie, this process is going on. It is an incredible mental exercise which freelance writers are lucky enough to get paid to perform day in and day out.

If you can appreciate that, you can go far with the written word.

2. Just. Write.

There is a classic image of the writer staring at a blank sheet of white, agonizing over what to put down. A more accurate image might be of the blank paper or word processor sitting alone on a desk, while the procrastinating writer fiddles away his time elsewhere. Both of these visions have the same thing in common: nothing is being written.

The truth is that sometimes you simply need to act. Don’t know what to do? Learn by doing. If you think about anything too much you’ll create a crisis of confidence. The truth is that, in some capacity, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you only ever vaguely know how you’re doing it. That’s part of the beauty. Of the “flow” that comes with the human experience.

“But I’m a writer!” you protest, “I demand exacting precision!”

Beautiful. I’m on board with you. But that is why we write. Writing is an exercise in refinement. The process of writing itself requires some refinement of thought, but the magic has only begun there. Once you have it on the page, it’s no longer an ephemeral thought or a fleeting verbal utterance. Now you’ve captured it. Now you can toy with it, tease it from every angle, tear it apart and put it back together.

If you don’t take the first step to write it, to capture it, you can never begin the process of refinement. You’re left wandering in the morass of an infinity of possibilities, all the while realizing none of them.

3. Get A Nice Keyboard

Today’s writers have, indisputably, the best tools mankind has ever had available to them to write. The modern word processor is a truly splendid revolution in productivity. Yet, something has been lost in the way we value a writer’s tools.

In the past, writing instruments have been a cherished part of a writer’s toolkit, be it an exquisite fountain pen, or a mechanical marvel of a typewriter. These days, I see far too many people typing far too many words on sub-par keyboards without even giving it a second thought.

A quality mechanical keyboard can seriously enhance your productivity. It can enable you to type faster and more efficiently with less strain on your hands and wrists. Plus, the tactile feedback makes them “feel” far more pleasant with every keystroke.

It might seem like a minor thing, but as with any job, the tools used are essential to the final result. I don’t type a word without my Filco Majestouch-2.

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