How to Make Your Writing Stand Out to Editors

As a freelance writer, much of your time will inevitably be spent sending your work out to various publications. Whether you’re a poet, blogger, or journalist, much of your career will involve submitting samples to editors/editorial boards for consideration.

And it can feel intimidating — especially when you’re a new writer — to send your work out into the world in the hopes of getting published. I touched on this briefly in my first blog post, 3 Free Ways to Get Published as a New Writer, but today’s article will dig into more specifics on this entire process.

As someone who’s been on both ends of this — as an author seeking publication and as an editor selecting pieces for publication — I’ve got some handy tips to keep in mind.

I also recognize that the best advice will vary depending on the type of writing you do. So, I’ve divided these tips up based on genre:

Tips for creative authors submitting literary work

This advice will be best-suited for authors of poetry, creative non-fiction, and short stories. Most publications you’ll submit to will be literary magazines and journals which ask for pieces of polished, high-quality writing during their call for submissions. If you’re a poet, this will usually be around 1-3 poems. If you’re a fiction writer, this will usually be one piece of approximately 1000-3000 words. 

Here’s how to make your work stand out:

1. Know your audience. 

Try to get a good sense of what kind of publication you’re submitting to. Do they typically publish experimental work, or are they more “high-brow”? 

Better yet, have you submitted to this publication in the past? If so, did they accept or reject your submission? Let that guide you; if you’ve been successful before, aim to take a similar approach. 

If you’ve been rejected by their editorial board in the past, make a conscious effort to tailor your selections to the kind of work they do publish. This doesn’t mean that you need to change your writing style altogether. It just means looking at your catalogue of work and selectively picking the pieces that seem to suit their tastes. 

For example, if you submitted a long-form poem to a publication in the past and they rejected it, take a look at their past issues. Do they seem to prefer snappy, short, and minimalist poetry? If so, next time, pick one of your shorter pieces to send instead.

2. Make note of how much they pay upon publication (if they do at all).

Next, you’ll want to be sure that you understand exactly what publication entails. Read the call for submissions carefully.

Will contributors be paid for their work? If so, how much? Will contributors receive free copies of the publication? If so, how many copies? 

If the publication doesn’t offer compensation (which is quite common), ask yourself: Is it really worth it? Will this specific publication look good on my writer’s CV? Does this publication offer a wide reach in terms of their audience? If so, it may still be worthwhile.

You should also keep in mind that when you later go to apply for writing programs, residencies, or grants, many review boards will refuse to count publication credits as “professional” unless they involve some form of payment. So, choose carefully. The most realistic strategy is to submit to a mix of both paying and non-paying publications.

3. Follow their instructions closely.

Again, I’ve touched on this in a previous blog post, but it’s absolutely imperative that you follow the guidelines listed in the publication’s call for submissions. 

It’s useless to send your work out if you’re rushing through the process and ignoring specifications like font style, font size, file format, length, or title format. Messing up just a single specification can immediately disqualify you from consideration. Some editors are more lax than others, but there’s no way to tell how forgiving a certain editorial board will be. Always play it on the safe side by following the rules.

And, as mentioned before on the Writing Advice blog, you’ll want to make note of whether or not a magazine/journal allows simultaneous submissions. If they allow you to send your work for consideration to other publications at the same time, they’ll likely ask you to reach out and let them know if — in the meantime — it gets accepted elsewhere. 

If they don’t allow simultaneous submissions, then don’t send your work to other journals while waiting to hear back. Of course, this rule can be restrictive for authors and make you wait long periods of time to send your work out to multiple places, therefore limiting your chances of getting published in general. If this bothers you, simply don’t submit to publications who maintain this policy.

4. Take your time, and then be patient.

It doesn’t make sense to rush through this process. Don’t try to bang out 10 different tailored submissions to various journals in one day. Take your time to carefully choose the right publications, understand their compensation rates/guidelines, and prepare your writing sample for submission. 

Many magazines and journals only accept submissions from the same author once per year, so you need to make your one shot count! Put adequate time and effort into your submission. 

But once you’ve done the work and sent your submission in, try to be patient. Editors are often strapped for time. Many publications take several months, or even up to a year, to respond to submissions. 

Try not to take it personally if you’re left waiting — and many calls for submissions will include an estimate of how long it will take to hear back. If it’s been a while and you’re unsure of the status of your submission, you can (politely) follow up with the editors. But — again — try not to take it personally if they don’t respond for a while.

I know that — as an author — the waiting period can feel grueling and frustrating. But I also know that — as an editor — it’s a really lengthy and complicated process to sort through submissions, read them, and correspond with all the potential contributors. Try to have a little grace with us, if you can!

Tips for submitting/pitching your non-literary work

This advice is more applicable to freelance writers of articles and blog posts. You’ll likely be pitching to websites, magazines, or newspapers. This differs from literary work in one very important way: submitting creative writing usually involves sending a sample of “finished” work, whereas pitching an article for a website involves sending an overview of a proposed concept (before even writing the article). 

Here’s how to master the pitching process:

1. Figure out the voice of the publication you’re submitting to.

Your pitch will be most effective if you’ve read several different articles from the publication in question. Get to really know the tone of their writers, and get a sense of what topics they generally cover. There’s no use pitching a light, fun lifestyle piece to a website that solely focuses on tech.

Keep in mind that you want the pitch to both fit in with their current overall voice while still adding something unique to the conversation. Search their website to make sure they haven’t published a story like yours in the past. 

2. Keep it brief.

A pitch should feel snappy, concise, and interesting. You want to pique the editor’s interest while not overwhelming them with excessive details. This is a pitch — not a full article — after all. In general, a pitch of 100-300 words is a good starting point. Be sure to include a potential title (or two) and a summary of your article concept as a whole. 

3. Make sure you’re contacting the right person.

The biggest mistake you can make when pitching is to send it to the wrong person. A pitch is doing nothing if it sits in the incorrect inbox. Take the time to figure out who you need to contact. Checking the “submissions” or “guidelines” page on their website is a good place to start.

Their website will likely list a specific person (like a managing editor) to send your email to, or will simply list a centralized email address that they use to accept submissions (without mentioning who you’re sending it to exactly). If you can find a specific person, all the better! That way, you can address them directly in your email. 

Think of it like applying for a job — you want to get your work in front of the right person, and if possible, you’ll want to address the hiring manager (or, in this case, editor) directly to show that you’ve put in the effort. This is not necessary, but it certainly helps.

Wrapping up

There you have it — my top tips to get noticed as a freelance writer. I hope you found them helpful. As always, be sure to subscribe to the blog to be notified of each new article.

Happy writing!

And let me know in the comments: What’s your favourite way to make your writing stand out?

How to Set Up a Cozy Writing Nook During Quarantine

With coffee shops closed for dine-in service, there aren’t many places left to get freelance writing work done. Even co-working spaces — a popular coffee shop alternative for digital creatives — are mostly closed during the pandemic.

Suddenly, our homes are now also our only offices. And whether you’re a freelancer or even a full-time employee now working remotely, you’ve likely had to adjust to this new way of living. The separation between home and work has become incredibly blurred.

One way to stay motivated, focused, and on top of your freelance work is to set up a dedicated writing nook. 

The basics

To get started, pick one area of your home that you could feasibly use as a workspace. This could be as simple as a desk in your bedroom, a specific spot at your kitchen table, or even an entire room/home office if that’s realistic for you. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy!

You’ll also want some essentials, such as:

  • A desk/table
  • A functioning computer — with an accessible power outlet/charger/etc.
  • Stationery (notebooks, pens, pencils, highlighters, sticky notes)
  • Office supplies (stapler, scissors, tape, pen holder, organizers)
  • Adequate lighting (natural or artificial)
  • Headphones, a speaker, or a white noise machine

Try to make do with what you have —like a table/desk you already own, your existing laptop, or whatever headphones you have on hand. (You can also check out a past article on the blog called Freelance Writing on a Budget, which gets into the specifics of financially starting out as a writer.) Get the basics down — the items you really need to get work done — and upgrade your office equipment as you go along, if necessary. 

One important consideration, from a practical perspective, is how you’ll keep audible distractions to a minimum in your new workspace. A white noise machine left playing in the background can help drown out distracting sounds, or you could try playing classical music (either via a speaker or your personal headphones). 

And no matter how small the space, there are many simple steps you can take to make it feel a bit cozier. 

I always find myself referring back to a book I’ve discussed on the blog before called The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. The book breaks down the concept of hygge, which “has been translated as everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy’ to ‘cosiness of the soul’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things.’”

For me, hygge just means creating an environment that feels welcoming, warm, and comfortable. So, here are some tips for creating that sense of coziness in your writing nook:

Create cozy lighting

A big theme in The Little Book of Hygge is the importance of mood lighting. For example, something as simple as lighting a candle at the dinner table can seriously elevate the experience and make everyone feel a bit more at home.

Wiking writes, in his chapter on Light

“You guessed it. Bring out the candles. … However, you may also want to consider your electric-light strategy. Usually, several smaller lamps around the room a more hyggeligt light than one big lamp set in the ceiling. You want to create small caves of light around the room.”

Similarly, when you’re creating your dedicated workspace, try to strike a balance between keeping the room well-lit but also with a homey feel. You obviously want to have enough light to be able to see your desk — especially your notebook and laptop — in order to get work done.

But you also don’t want to have the space kept super bright with harsh, fluorescent lighting. It shouldn’t feel clinical or cold — it should have a certain level of coziness. (You’re still at home, after all!) So break out your favourite candle or bring in a lamp from another room that you really love.

(Alternatively, if you’re someone who really thrives with plenty of light, you might want to set your writing nook up next to a big window with lots of natural lighting. Personally, I do better with low lighting, but everyone is different!)

Get a really nice cup of coffee

Another big focus of The Little Book of Hygge is coffee. And I don’t know about you, but my writing habits and my caffeine consumption are definitely intertwined. Whether I’m working away at home or at a local cafe, I’ve pretty much always got a coffee going beside me. 

But during quarantine, those habits have certainly changed. Here are a few of my favourite ways to get that caffeine fix while working from my writing nook:

  • Find a way to make your own coffee that feels luxurious and elevated. For me, this means taking some time the night before to set up some cold brew in my French Press. That way, in the morning, I’ve got a really tasty, strong cup of coffee waiting for me.
  • Support your local coffee shops. Another great way to stay caffeinated is by purchasing takeout or delivery from a local shop. Obviously, this may not be financially feasible as a daily habit, but it’s always a nice treat. And while Starbucks is great, try to find small businesses in your area that may really be struggling during this pandemic. Getting money into the hands of local business owners is a great way to help your city’s economy. (And you get to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee, too! Win-win.)

If you’re not a coffee-lover, substitute in whatever beverage you prefer, such as a nice cup of tea. The importance is less on the coffee itself and more so on the act of maintaining comforting rituals in combination with your writing practice.

Keep your desk clear & organized

Lastly, when it comes to creating that perfect writing nook, it’s crucial to keep things tidy. You don’t need to go overboard with complex organizational systems, but just make a deliberate effort to make sure things stay clean.

Keep things like binders and folders handy to store important documents/sheets/etc. Nothing is more distracting than a desk covered in random papers, pens, and other materials. 

If your writing nook is cluttered and disorganized, you won’t be able to get much done. In fact, just looking at your desk could send you into a spiral of anxiety and even make you dread the entire writing process.

To make this a regular habit, at the end of each writing session, make a point of putting everything away — file away loose documents, put your pen back into its holder, and close/put away your laptop. Maintain this habit every time you write, and pretty soon, staying organized will feel like second nature.

Wrapping up

There you have it — the basics of setting up your very own writing nook that feels cozy and pleasant to work in. As always, be sure to follow the Writing Advice blog to stay notified of each new article.

And let me know in the comments: What’s your favourite way to spruce up a workspace?

6 Purchases — Big and Small — That Have Boosted My Productivity as a Writer

A lot of the suggestions given here on the Writing Advice blog are rather conceptual in nature: I recommend strategies, ideas, and practices to up your writing game.

But there are plenty of items — many tactile and physical — which are just as crucial to maintaining a writing career. So, here are six purchases that have helped me stay productive as a writer.

Disclaimer: This is not — in any way — a sponsored post. The recommendations given below are based on my genuine thoughts about the products, and I make no commission or affiliate income if you click the links provided here. 

1. Cute Notebooks

Perhaps the most essential purchase for a writer is a plain old notebook. Having readily-available stationery is a must for any author. 

Of course, you can buy whatever type of notebook you like — whether it be from a pricey bookstore or your local dollar store. 

For me, I find that I work best with cute-looking, distinct notebooks. This is because — in the past — I’ve purchased random, plain-looking, cheap notebooks, and always lost track of them. Since they all looked the same and none of them really caught my eye, I had a hard time staying organized. 

The solution? To spend a little extra on nice notebooks with designs that I love. That way, I feel motivated to grab them and always keep some handy at my desk.

My personal favourite is the Ssuiem & Cclim Compact Notebook, which is from a Korean stationery brand that I found at a local paper shop, Hanji Gifts (more on them later).

The notebook comes in a variety of adorable designs — so I always make sure to have a few on hand: one to consolidate all of my current rough work, and a back-up or two for when the first copy runs out. I like to rotate different designs just to keep things interesting.

But again, you may have different taste; perhaps you prefer leather-bound notebooks. Find a company, store, or style that you enjoy, and stick to a standard one for the sake of simplicity.

2. Easy-to-Use Pens

What is your favourite brand of pens? It may seem like an inconsequential detail to most people, but I think most writers would agree that having an easy-to-use pen makes a huge difference in terms of productivity.

Again, this is all up to personal taste, but my personal choice is the PaperMate InkJoy brand. I find them to be a pleasure to write with, and I use them for most of my freelance writing, personal journaling, or just for making to-do lists.

I often find them at my local dollar store (Dollarama here in Canada), with a box of 12 pens running no more than $2-3. I find that they strike a nice balance between affordability and quality.

So, find a brand that you enjoy using, and make a point of keeping your desk stocked with them for whenever inspiration strikes.

3. Music Subscription Service

This is by no means a required purchase, but I’ve found that having a Spotify Premium subscription (which I split with family members to keep the cost low) is extremely useful. 

Paying the $4.99 a month for ad-free listening is worth it to me — both personally and professionally. For a long time, I opted for YouTube as my source of playlists to use while working on my laptop. If you’re on a budget, it’s a solid option — but the increasing number of ads on each video is kind of excessive at this point. 

Shelling out for an ad-free service makes it easier to stay in my workflow without going back and forth between tabs to skip through ads. I like to listen to instrumental playlists to keep me focused and in the zone. 

Other people might also prefer using a white noise machine, which can play ocean sounds or rain tracks to relax you in the background. That might be a worthwhile purchase if it suits your needs (I have one to keep running in my room at night, as well). Since it’s a one-time cost, it might make more financial sense, too.

Depending on your budget, find some type of music or background noises to help you stay focused on your writing work. 

4. Quality Laptop

Again, this isn’t a must-have, but I’m a big fan of my MacBook Air. I purchased mine seven (!) years ago after saving up money from my part-time job for years and years. It was an investment I made right before starting university (since my dying, old laptop just wasn’t cutting it anymore).

Of course, everyone is working with a different budget. Some people have the funds to invest in a high-quality laptop, while others might resort to using computers at their local library. 

Wherever you are financially, try to strike a balance between a computer that is within your budget but will still serve you well over time. Even though I paid over $1000 for that 2013 laptop, it has served me well throughout university and beyond without a single problem. 

The only thing I’ve ever had to replace is my charging cable, and in the next year or so, I’ll probably shell out for a replacement battery. But when you break that purchase down into its cost-per-use, it’s actually pretty low at this point. 

Having a reliable and fast computer has certainly helped me stay productive as a writer. Try to find an option that works for you.

5. Simple Pen Holder

This item certainly costs less than a laptop! For me, another invaluable purchase has been a simple pen holder that I bought at my local dollar store (again, Dollarama for us Canadians). 

It’s pink, it’s cute, and it helps me stay organized. I keep it beside me at all times while working at my desk, and I can easily access pens, highlighters, pencils, and scissors as needed. This may seem silly and insignificant, but it has genuinely helped me stay on top of my work without having to interrupt my flow to search for a pen.

6. Zine Paper

Lastly, another worthwhile investment has been in high-quality paper to print my zines on. A couple of years ago, in between writing my two poetry collections, I wanted to take a less-structured approach to creating and publishing new work.


So, I opted to make single-page zines on which I’d copied and pasted miscellaneous new poems. I made them using my at-home printer/photocopier, and whenever I table at zine/book fairs, I still sell them in addition to my poetry books.

I found it useful to pay for high-quality, handmade paper which I also found at Hanji Gifts here in Toronto. You can always check out your local paper shop or office supply store for different options.

If you choose to go the self-publishing route, quality paper is a worthwhile investment to make your work look professional and catch the eye of a potential customer.

Conclusion


And there you have it: six essential purchases that help me stay productive as an author. 

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice blog, and be sure to subscribe to receive notifications for each new article. 

Let me know in the comments: What is one purchase — big or small — that you’ve found essential as a writer?

Happy writing!

Freelance Writing on a Budget

Introduction

Starting a business can be overwhelming.

If you’re looking to become a freelance writer but are working with a limited budget, you may be nervous about up-front costs.

One thing I’ll say is that you should avoid going into debt if at all possible. Don’t take out a small business loan if you can avoid it.

Writing doesn’t require a lot of special equipment, so it’s possible to keep overhead costs very low at first.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Use your existing tech devices (if possible).

When it comes to freelance writing, you’ll definitely want to have a functioning computer.

A laptop is ideal, since you can travel with it easily, but a desktop computer is fine if that’s all you have.

Don’t just go out and buy an expensive computer in the name of starting your freelance writing career.

If you have a computer that works, try to stick with it (at least for the first several months).

A smartphone with data coverage is also pretty crucial, since you’ll need to follow-up with clients in between work sessions.

But, again, don’t go spend hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a new phone just because you’re starting a business.

In the beginning, you’ll want to keep costs low as you build your clientele.

2. Opt for a home office, coffee shop, or co-working day pass.

Again, you shouldn’t be spending tons of money at the beginning of your career.

You’ll want to first build your business (and figure out if you’re truly passionate about the job in the first place).

You might end up not liking the gig — so it’s not worth signing the lease for a new office if you’re still in the early days.

If you have a comfortable amount of space in your home, designate a workspace for your freelance writing.

A spare room, nook, or corner of your bedroom could all work.

And keep in mind that you can often write off part of your living expenses as business-use-of-home (contact your national revenue agency for specifics).

On the days that you want to get out of the house, a local coffee shop is ideal.

Starbucks is great, since their business model is built on the premise that many people come in to use the WiFi while sipping their coffee.

But if you have a local coffee shop that allows customers to linger with their laptops, that’s fine too. 

Try to spend minimal amounts of money ($3-10 per visit is ideal) so that you don’t have to invest too much money in the beginning.

Also make sure to keep your receipts, so that you can claim business meals as expenses on your tax return (again, consult your national revenue agency for specific guidelines).

A step above would be to purchase a day pass at a nearby coworking space.

If you’ve never been to a coworking space, they’re basically shared offices for freelancers and other digital creatives. 

They usually include unlimited coffee/WiFi, and offer meeting spaces (for an additional fee).

If you have the funds, purchasing a drop-in day pass every now and then can be a nice treat. (Here in Toronto, they typically cost $20-30 CAD per day.)

3. Utilize free online tools.

When it comes to your digital toolkit, go for free options wherever possible (at least in the beginning).

Google Drive

As I’ve written about here on the blog before, Google Drive is a solid word processor for freelancers (with a comprehensive free version).

The fact that it’s cloud-based makes it simple to move from device to device, no matter where you go. And freelancers in particular are often on the go.

Grammarly 

Grammarly is also a must-have for anyone who writes in a professional capacity. 

It’s the most thorough spelling/grammar check I’ve ever used. Even the free version is more than enough.

Never submit an article to a client without running it through Grammarly first. I can’t tell you how many times it’s picked up minor errors that I would have never noticed on my own (even as an editor).

4. Maximize your local library card.

Many people overlook the offerings of their local library.

The average library card can offer much more than access to free books.

For example, a valid Toronto Public Library card includes free use of Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning), which usually costs $20+ per month.

Those types of online learning platforms can help you get a leg up while also saving money.

[Another digital learning platform is edX, which anyone can use for free. Users can choose to pay for a certificate of completion upon passing a course, but it’s entirely optional.]

Most public libraries also offer plenty of access to digital magazines, ebooks, and audiobooks (all of which can help you stay on top of current industry trends).

5. Use paid services wisely.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s good to keep expenses low when you’re first starting out.

But some costs are truly worth the money, such as:

Plagiarism checkers

I pay for the Premium version of Copyscape, which is a comprehensive plagiarism checker. 

It costs me pennies per article, and it gives me the confidence that my work is 100% free of accidental plagiarism.

Also, many clients will request or require you to use Copyscape, so it’s a good thing to have available.

Accounting software

I don’t know about you, but I’m horrible with numbers.

I tried to do all of my business accounting by myself at first, but it didn’t go too well. I kept losing track of important receipts and missing out on possible deductions come tax season.

So, I now pay $4.99 CAD per month for QuickBooks Self-Employed (which is a promotional rate I got when I signed up). 

It syncs with all of my bank accounts and credit cards, so I never have to worry about keeping complex spreadsheets on my own.

This is one area that is genuinely worth spending on.

In summary

Every business has unique needs. And these are just my general suggestions.

Take into account your own situation: your finances, goals, and preferences. 

Maybe it’s totally worth it for you to upgrade your laptop or spring for an office space in the beginning. 

See what makes sense for you personally, and try to avoid massive up-front costs if possible.