In the writing training I’ve delivered, I’ve found that people tend to face a couple of common challenges when it comes to getting going. Either they don’t know where to start, and they sit staring at that blank Word document and the blinking cursor, or they can’t prioritise information and form a coherent train of thought, so they “vomit” huge amounts of info on to the page and end up with what teachers call a “dog’s breakfast”.
I’ll chat about the latter some other time, but as someone who writes for a living, I thought I’d share my tips on beating the blank page today.
Yes, that was totally a mixed metaphor. But we’re not dealing with those today, so I’m hoping you’ll let me off.
When it comes to how to get started writing, the best piece of advice of advice I can give you is to do exactly that – get started writing. “Just do it”. Write your name if you have to. Write whatever random crap comes into your head. It really doesn’t matter. As a writing coach once told me, the only thing that all writers have in common is that they write.
That brings me neatly to my next point…
I actually used to have a sign over my desk with this written on it. It was a piece of advice Ron Irwin gave me during an online creative writing course many years ago, and it has stuck with me.
If you begin editing while you’re just getting started writing, you may end up fiddling and rewriting the same first paragraph over and over again. I have done this. It’s a big time suck.
Finish what you’re writing (or least get the first page down) before you start editing. In fact, I find I work best when I take a break after I’ve finished writing, have a cup of tea or a quick walk, and then edit my work with fresh eyes. I tend to be much better at catching little typos and at reassessing the flow, so I can move things around as needed.
Well, pretend to at least. I can’t remember who passed on this wisdom to me, but one of the most helpful “how to start” tips I’ve been given is to think about how you would explain what you’re writing to your best friend, and write as though you’re having that conversation.
Yes, you may need to make the tone more formal later, or include technical details your bestie might not care about, but starting out by literally telling your story in letter format to someone you know is a good way to get started.
I hope these three tips help you. I’d love to hear your ideas. Mail me at tamara at wordchef.co.za, or leave a comment below.
2016 has been… worthy of many different adjectives, I’d say.
It’s been a humdinger of a year for the world between political upheaval, celebrity deaths and various other plot twists. Personally, it’s been a challenging year, but one that’s yielded many lessons and opportunities nonetheless.
As I prepare to leave for a holiday to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary with my long-suffering husband, I’m quite ready to say cheers to 2016, but I guess I do have to say thank you too.
So, to 2016, thanks for:
Wishing you and your loved ones a beautiful, blessed Christmas if you celebrate it, and a wonderful holiday period making memories with the people who are important to you. May 2017 be good to you.
Please note that Word Chef will be closed from 15 December 2016 to 9 January 2017.
One of the things I love about freelancing is the variety it affords. I’ve written feature articles on everything from musician profiles to start-up marketing advice, whisky collecting, the state of gender equity in local business and even perfume bottle design. I feel like I get to learn something new every day!
Sometimes, however, I get the chance to work on something that really is completely outside my comfort zone. It’s been one of those seasons for the last few months. I’ve had to chance to:
I’m looking forward to sharing news of these projects over the next few months, but for now I wanted to take the time to reflect on the benefits of taking on new work that scares you a bit. This season has reminded me of how important it is to be a little terrified once in awhile.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
What have you learned from taking on work that terrifies you a little?
It’s been an incredibly busy season for me this last while. Whenever people ask me how I’m doing and I tell them that, they inevitably say, “Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
As a freelancer, yes – it is, generally. But there’s a difference between a good level of humming along with lots on the go and working until 2.30 in the morning because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. And my busy has been tilted towards the not-so-good kind this last while.
After a decade of working to article deadlines and six years as a full-time freelancer, I have become much better at managing my time, learning how much I can take on, and saying “no” to unreasonable projects / clients (or even wonderful projects that I just don’t have capacity to do at the time). I mostly stick to my limits. This protects me from burnout and ensures I am able to deliver on time and meet the client brief.
Sometimes, however, life doesn’t play along with my planned production schedule. There are so many reasons that this can happen – many out of my control. There have been a few of these sorts of mini-dramas during this latest busy season:
None of these things was a big deal on its own. But, Murphy being a jerk, they all happened together, along with a slew of rush jobs and personal challenges. And it was not fun. There were lots of 16-hour days and working weekends. In fact, I have injured the tendon in my right hand from spending so many hours typing. I must be the only person I know who has contracting a typing injury. It’s a little bit ridiculous.
Check out my keyboard in the pic and you’ll see it is
being worked to death well used! I put keyboard decals on the keys three weeks ago because the letters had worn off. As you can see, the stickers haven’t lasted too well either.
Now that things have slowed down to a less frenzied level of madness, I’m looking back at this crazy time to see what I can learn from it. There are a few things I could have done better, and there are also the good things that got me through this period, which I want to reflect on and try to do more of when life gets overwhelming again.
Here they are, to remind me, and in the hopes that they might help you too:
I’d love to hear what gets you through tough work times, or if any of these notes above helps you during a mad period. Leave me a comment or drop me a mail.
April’s been an interesting month for me, with a number of different projects on the go. I’m splitting my time between developing a custom business writing workshop for a client, finishing up some textbook chapters and researching a non-fiction book I will be ghost-writing. This is in between writing website copy for two new clients and doing the usual magazine and content creation for my regulars.
Most of the work I’m busy with at the moment has a business focus, so I’ve found myself looking at the common mistakes people make when it comes to their business copy and content, and thinking about what makes great writing stand out.
If you and I were sitting down together with a cup of coffee and discussing these things, here are the seven steps I would likely give you if you wanted to improve your business content:
These are just a few thoughts from my business writing and editing experience. I’d be interested to hear what business owners and other writers say. Feel free to drop me a comment or to get in touch.
I have always wanted to take good photos. I nagged my parents for a camera from when I was about five or six years old. I still remember the first one I owned – it was a kiddie friendly point-and-shoot film jobbie that was shaped like a clown’s face. It’s the only clown I can ever remember having an affinity with (I don’t quite suffer from full-blown coulrophobia – a phobia of clowns – but let’s just say I am not a fan).
From then on, I snapped away, handing my poor mother one roll of film after another for processing. I think the clown camera conveniently broke at some point, but I then started buying those throwaway cameras with my pocket money instead.
In high school, I asked for a decent camera of my own for my birthday and was gifted a beautiful little Olympus compact camera. I took it with me when I did an exchange programme in Australia, and despite dropping the thing in Sydney and damaging its auto focus, I just kept snapping. This resulted in a full album of blurry images and an ensuing game of “guess who’s in this picture”.
For my 21st birthday, my uncle, Dave Esmonde-White, who was then an amateur photographer (he’s recently turned pro), granted my wish and paid for me to do a basic photography course at the Cape Town School of Photography. He also gave me his old Ricoh SLR film camera. I remain grateful for both of these things.
It was my first SLR (single lens reflex) camera and it opened up a new world to me. I finally started to learn how to control the camera to get the image I wanted from my head on to the film. I remember the magical feeling of picking up my processed images and flipping through them and occasionally finding that almost perfect shot. It’s something I will always miss about film.
Then I finished my degree, got married the week after I graduated and started working as a junior copy writer. Like many newlyweds, my husband and I were living mainly on love and Salticrax, so getting photos developed was a luxury I couldn’t really afford at that point. I got a little Canon digital compact camera and mainly took weekend snapshots that stayed on my computer and never got printed.
In 2010, again for a birthday, my wonderful parents gifted me my first digital SLR – a Nikon D3000. Since then, I’ve done a few courses at the College of Digital Photography here in Johannesburg, and tried to improve my photography skills. I’ve bought a proper tripod, a second lens and a bit of other camera equipment, and I’ve learned to occasionally get up early (I am SO not a morning person) to chase the best light.
The more I learn, however, the more I realise how little I know. I am still such a beginner! And for some reason I find it very difficult to “put my photos out there”. It feels like sharing a bit of my soul and opening it to judgment. I’m used to sharing my writing because that’s what I do every day and I have some confidence that if I wasn’t an adequate writer I wouldn’t still be eking out a living from writing. But photography is another matter entirely!
This year, when setting some goals and re-looking my dreams, I was forced to admit that I am being a bit of a wuss.
So I have taken a brave and bold step (or so I keep telling myself – it fells more like mad sometimes). I have joined Snapwire – a stock photography site that aims to “make photography human again”.
It’s been enlightening:
That’s my photo journey so far. I hope it keeps progressing. I’d like to be able to sell my feature articles with photos to boot one day. Shew… I can’t believe I am going to publish that statement. It kind of makes it real if it’s “out there”.
Well, so be it! Here’s to new adventures in painting with light!
Travel is one of my great passions in life. I have been fortunate to visit some interesting places, from a ghost town in Namibia where the sand dunes have swept into the old homes, to the largest firefly colony in the world near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Travel writing is tricky, however. Unfortunately, cliches abound in this genre – possibly more so than in any other (well, excepting maybe sport). But I have recently begun to explore the possibility of channeling some of my love of travel into short features, and I am grateful to Caroline Hurry at Travel Write for providing me with a platform. Here are some of the blog posts I have shared:
In 2014 and in 2015, I had the pleasure of editing a portion of a magazine called Celebrating Women, published by Business Times in partnership with the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA). I handled the BWASA content for the mag, which is distributed as a supplement of The Sunday Times to all subscribers, and also wrote some other articles for the publication.
One of my favourite parts of the 2015 project was getting to interview Dr Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi, who was the 2015 keynote speaker for the BWASA Businesswoman of the Year Awards (BWOYA). She is an inspiring woman who is passionate about many of the same things I am, and has led magnificently by drawing from her own tough personal experience.
We didn’t have enough space to publish the full article in the magazine, but here it is:
Leadership notes from Dr Joyce Banda, BWOYA 2015 keynote speaker
Dr Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi, is an entrepreneur, activist, politician and philanthropist. She was Malawi’s first female president (2012 to 2014) and was voted Africa’s most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine for two years running. She is a champion for the rights of women, children, the disabled and other marginalised groups.
Before her tenure as president, Dr Banda served as a member of parliament; minister of Gender and Child Welfare; foreign minister and vice-president of the country. While serving as minister of Gender and Child Welfare, she championed the enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill in 2006.
Dr Banda believes that addressing the challenges facing African women today begins at household level, with the way children are socialised differently according to gender. “Sometimes I want to lay the blame on us mothers!” she says. “We need to continuously educate women and mothers. I am a gender activist, but I have decided that I am going to fight for gender equality the African way.”
She explains that her father took the counter-cultural decision to let her live with him and attend school in town, instead of being raised by her grandmother in the village, as was custom with the firstborn girl child. Her father convinced her grandmother that he would send her to the village on weekends, where she could be schooled in cultural skills, while still receiving the best possible formal education.
This move ensured opportunities that she would not otherwise have had. “I am an example of what we can do when we move to achieve gender equality in an African way, without confronting anyone or antagonising anybody, but building the capacity one brick at a time.”
Dr Banda’s leadership journey has been filled with personal challenges – from watching her childhood village friend struggle to access opportunity because her parents simply couldn’t afford the $6 fee to keep her in school, to being locked in an abusive marriage due to a lack of empowerment, to almost dying in childbirth. Yet these issues have become the foundation of her life’s work. She has tackled the challenge of securing education opportunities for African girls and empowerment for women, implemented laws that protect women and children against domestic abuse, and championed better healthcare for women, particularly in terms of maternity.
“My mission in life is to help women to gain social and political empowerment through business and education,” she says. “In low-income households in Africa, women are not even in a position to decide how many children they will have. I believe that economic empowerment is key to their social and political empowerment.”
Dr Banda says her greatest leadership lesson has been that leadership is a love affair. “You fall in love with the people and the people must fall in love with you,” she says. “I agree with what Madiba said: a good leader is like a shepherd. The flock will follow him into the wilderness because they trust and love that leader.”
To women in leadership positions, such as the BWOYA winners and finalists, her advice is not to kick down the ladder to the top once they’ve climbed it. “We must keep hauling one another up that ladder,” she says. “Graça Machel invited me to Mozambique in 1992 and she taught me that you are not a good leader unless you reach out and mentor younger people. We must take responsibility and realise that we are not true leaders until we’ve helped others up. If it’s just you at the top, that’s not empowerment or success.”
Dr Banda has worked hard to ensure that she has taken other women with her on her own journey to the top, and she continues to work towards seeing more women in leadership, particularly at parliamentary level. The Joyce Banda Foundation is launching an initiative in October this year in Accra, Ghana, called “Elect her into office”. Her own experience in passing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill in Malawi taught her that, for there to be regulatory decisions passed that benefit women, there need to be as many women in parliaments as possible, working together for the benefit of all women.
Under Dr Banda’s presidency, Malawi saw its first women chief justice, head of the Secret Service and solicitor general, as well as two female deputies of the Reserve Bank and eight district commissioners. In total, she appointed over 100 women.
“That is the advantage of getting women into positions of influence,” she says. “When we get there, we focus on improving the lives of other women and children.”
I read a vast amount of web content. I try to convince myself that it is all for work, but the internet is a rabbit hole and sometimes I start with a bit of research for an article and end up following an interesting trail of links, landing up somewhere completely different.
Here are a few fascinating pieces I’ve stumbled upon recently:
This was a great (although fairly long) read with lots of pithy insights into why we do what we do on social media. Snippets:
“Humans devote about 30–40% of all speech to talking about themselves. But online that number jumps to about 80% of social media posts.”
“A survey of more than 7,000 consumers found that only 23% said they have a relationship with a brand. Of those who did, only 13% cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship.”
“A survey of 7,000 U.S. mothers revealed that 42% have “Pinterest stress”—they worry that they’re not crafty or creative enough.”
This is a very useful and quick piece from ijnet – ideal for journalists or journalism students who want to use a phone (or computer) to record interviews.
Whether you’re a freelancer / independent contractor or you’re starting or have started a business, there are some great ideas (some obvious and some less so) in this comprehensive list of strategies to consider.
My favourite: ask for feedback when the answer is no.
I do a lot of work for non-profits, so I’m always interested in how we can improve our communications to boost our donations. This is a quick and useful checklist for charities wanting to increase online donations.
South Africans can get very caught up in the doom and gloom of news headlines, so with all the talk of currency woes and politics, this is a refreshingly positive and practical two-post series from Brett Fish (although it seems aimed mainly at white, SA Christians. But then, maybe we do the most moaning?).