Chatham University

Tips for Writers

Whether you’re a freelancer, a student, or a full-time staff writer or editor, you can benefit from tips, best practices, and perspectives from across the field of professional writing. That’s what we’ll be continually assembling here. Enjoy, share, and if you have an idea for a post you’d like to write or see, please contact kcruger@chatham.edu.

+Creating a Writing Portfolio 101

Picture this scenario: Editor X receives two nearly identical pitches-one from Writer A and one from Writer B. Writer A uses snappier language and a more appealing tone but doesn't reference any previous publications. Writer B, meanwhile, concludes her pitch with a link to an online portfolio of her work. With one click of the mouse, Editor X can read through her best stories and find out where they were published. She likes what she sees. To whom does she respond? Writer B, of course.

Your ability to represent yourself online-and be readily found-is a crucial part of establishing yourself as a writer and building your credibility. As you seek work, you need a portfolio that is digital in format, easy to navigate, and professional. In most cases, it is your published clips or commissioned projects that should come to the fore, rather than you as the writer-though a headshot of yourself (not a selfie), an About section, and a link to your resume or LinkedIn profile can all be appropriate.

Steps to building a successful portfolio:

  1. Know your niche. The first thing you want to consider when building a portfolio is how to tailor it to your particular industry. If you want to pursue a career in copywriting for an ad agency, your portfolio will look different from one intended for the nonprofit sector.

    Check out the websites and online portfolios of a few writers you admire in your industry to see how they represent themselves before building your own. Perhaps you have multiple specialties as a writer-in that case, you may want to build separate pages or even separate sites for each topic area or genre.

  2. Choose your work wisely. Don't be tempted to pile everything you've ever written into your portfolio. Now is the time to be selective, and to put forward only that work to which you want to draw an editor's attention. This may mean you begin with only 3-5 pieces, which is fine.

    If there is a new category of work you want to pursue, consider creating sample content to represent how you would handle an assignment. Want to break into PR? Draft a press release for a new business in your neighborhood. As long as the sample is highly professional-and you make clear that it is not a commissioned or published work-then it's fair game to include.

  3. Select a professional platform. There are endless options available for creating a portfolio that is highly professional in appearance and affordable-or even free! Some of the most respected sites include Contently, Squarespace, Clippings.me, Pressfolios, and Issuu. Take a look at their sample sites and portfolios to get an idea of the aesthetic and organizational possibilities before you begin. Remember to keep your design simple and uncluttered. If you can, customize the domain name to your own name or your business name.

  4. Get feedback. Once you've built your portfolio, consider sending it to a couple trusted colleagues, classmates, or mentors for their review. Ask them what sort of impression your portfolio conveys. Once you've made any needed adjustments, you can begin linking to your portfolio each time you correspond with an editor or client, and perhaps even including it in your email signature, adding it to your LinkedIn profile, etc.

  5. Keep it fresh. Finally, as you acquire more writing samples and published clips, don't neglect to keep your portfolio updated with new content, and weed out the old. Your online portfolio should evolve as the trajectory of your professional writing evolves-and keep helping you win new business.

+Crafting a Pitch, Selling a Story

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose-anytime you need to approach a publication from the outside. It bears some resemblance to a cover letter for a job but is much more specific to the piece of work at hand. No longer than 3-4 concise paragraphs, the pitch must make a strong positive impression in a limited number of words.

Steps to crafting a winning pitch:

  1. Understand the outlet. Before you set pen to paper or finger to keyboard to write your pitch, your first task is getting to know the publication. Understand its mission and tone, what genres of stories or articles it publishes, any authorship or word count requirements, etc. Luckily, these are often spelled out quite clearly on publication websites, usually in an area called "submission requirements."

    Know that you must tailor your writing to an outlet's editorial specifications. These might include whether the editor prefers to receive pitches with or without finished articles attached. Ideally, you would become familiar with these requirements not only before you write your pitch but also before you write the story itself.

  2. Entice and educate. As you begin your pitch letter, your first challenge is to entice the reader. This is the "hook" you've heard about before-the sentence or two that reels the reader in. It should contain the central idea of your story and be presented as a snappy lead. You should then inform the editor how you plan to flesh out the story from this extremely compelling beginning, with specifics on what you'll include.

    This part of the pitch also works to convince the editor that your story is a good fit for his or her publication and audience. It's important to demonstrate that you "get" the editorial vision and want to write for this publication specifically-for this reason, you should never use a templated, one-size-fits-all pitch.

  3. Establish your credentials. Next you need to prove you're the one to write this story. Start with a brief 1-2 sentence bio. Then let the editor know how much research or writing you've done so far (including a word count of anything you've written) and what you plan to do to deliver a successful finished piece.

    You might also include how long you've been writing, any particular expertise you have in this subject area, a couple examples of your most recent pitch-worthy publications, and a link to your writing portfolio.

  4. Make it easy. Finally, the cardinal rule of pitching is to make a busy editor's job easier, not harder. Mention anything additional you can provide-such as photographs or sidebars-and be sure to include everything he or she needs to be able to say yes to your story.

The challenge is to achieve all this in 3-4 short paragraphs that exude confidence-not desperation. You're much more likely to receive a response if the editor can read the professionalism in your pitch and gain an impression of you as a talented and reliable writer with whom he or she wants to work.

+Networking for Writers: It's Not What You Think

For many a writer, the idea of "networking" causes cold sweats. Those who gravitate to the profession of the pen often tend toward the solitary, introverted end of the spectrum, more comfortable behind a computer screen than a podium. So approaching a stranger with the goal of "selling yourself" can feel about as natural as writing in a foreign tongue.

But networking doesn't have to feel so forced. If it helps to choose a different term-and language can be a powerful motivator for writers-ditch the word "networking" and try calling it something else. Like "introducing myself to one new person" or "learning one new thing about someone else." Being sincere and taking an interest in others eliminates the pressure to conduct an interaction that feels like a thinly veiled quest to get something you want professionally.

Networking can-but does not have to-mean putting on a suit and tie and attending a happy hour event among a crowd of strangers. Nor does it have to mean marching up to a stranger in person and sticking out your business card. In fact, it can be as non-threatening as joining a Facebook group, getting back in touch with an old friend, or saying hello to the person sitting next to you at a class or meeting.

As you pursue a career as a professional writer, there are many places you might look for new contacts. But before you do, consider the contacts you already have. Chances are, you had classmates, roommates, and other friends in college. You likely had a bunch of different professors there too. What about the people from your bowling league, volunteer gig, language lessons, office, church, or knitting circle? What about your Facebook friends, Instagram or Tumblr followers, and LinkedIn contacts? The best contacts are often those who already know and like you (or your work). You can "network" with them simply by getting in touch and letting them know you are pursuing a career as a writer.

When you're ready to branch out to new people (and perhaps it's friendlier to think of them as "people I haven't met yet" rather than "strangers"), start first with friends of friends. Thanks to social media outlets like LinkedIn, these extended networks are readily searchable, and you can easily view your friends' connections and ask for an introduction.

When you do resort to the cold call, try to find something in common with your prospective contact, such as a shared interest, background, alma mater, or hometown. If you are asking for a favor - Would you mind passing my resume along to your boss? - be prepared to offer one in return. Always follow up with a thank you, especially if your new contact leads to a job or assignment.

Here are some of the best places, both online and off, to network as a professional writer:

  • Writing groups, classes, and workshops
  • Facebook groups for writers in your industry
  • Author readings
  • Writing-focused conferences
  • Trade shows in your industry
  • Book fairs
  • Twitter
  • Co-working spaces
  • Shadowing opportunities or informational interviews in your industry
  • Alumni networks
  • LinkedIn
  • Professional organizations
  • Lectures and events
  • Meetup groups
  • Bookstores and libraries
  • Volunteer projects in your area of interest

+Top 10 Must-Dos for Establishing Yourself as a Professional Writer

The leap from writing your first article to calling yourself a professional writer can seem vast. But there are a number of small steps along the way that add up to a successful career.

  1. Write. A lot. Just like any other skill, writing takes practice. The more you do it, the better and more efficient you will become-which often makes the difference between earning and losing money on a project. Set up a routine for yourself in which you write everyday. Soon, you won't waste time staring at a blank screen-you'll be in the habit of sitting down and getting straight to work.

  2. Define your expertise. Often the only way to know what you're good at is to try it. You can gather experience-and figure out what you like-by completing assigned projects as part of a graduate program in writing, by volunteering your services, and also by self-assigning writing challenges. If you think you might like grant writing, try your hand at putting together a grant proposal for a nonprofit organization you're passionate about. If you want to try technical writing, see if you can pair with a local software developer to create documentation for one of her projects.

  3. Find feedback and support. One of the best and most straightforward ways to find what you need as a budding writer is to enroll in a graduate program, which offers two key things most writers need: deadlines and feedback. You'll gain discipline and the invaluable benefit of constructive criticism.

  4. Build a community. Gaining a community of other writers and members of your industry can be a game-changer. Try joining a writing group or professional organization, attending author readings and events, enrolling in writing workshops, going to conferences, etc. The people you connect with will become your professional network. See Networking for Writers above.

  5. Create a writing portfolio. Nothing says "professional" like a well crafted writing portfolio. It won't be the first step in your journey, but it will be a vital part of establishing yourself. Read more in Creating a Writing Portfolio 101 above.

  6. Make your online presence known. It's not just your writing portfolio that counts, but your blog, LinkedIn profile, social media accounts, etc. Create a consistently professional brand for yourself as a writer-and publicize it.

  7. Put yourself out there. Unless you're extremely lucky, writing work does not fall into your lap-you must actively pursue it. This means that in addition to writing everyday, you should be answering calls for submissions, entering contests, and pitching your story ideas to editors (see more above).

  8. Volunteer selectively. Everyone likes to earn cash, but sometimes offering your services for free can pay dividends, especially if it allows you to gain valuable experience. See When It's Okay to Write for Free below.

  9. Own it. Once you've put in the time and gained the confidence, don't be afraid to take ownership of the empowering phrase, "I'm a professional writer." And don't forget to pay the goodwill forward by helping other new writers get into the game.

+When It's OK to Write for Free-and When to Just Say No

By Andrea Calabretta

As I writer at the beginning of my career, I once got a job offer by email from the managing editor of an online literary magazine: "We really like the work you've published with us, and were wondering if you'd be interested in coming onboard as our nonfiction editor." My heart gave a little leap. Of course I was interested! And so very flattered. I wrote back in the affirmative. But after a couple more enthusiastic email exchanges, the managing editor dropped a bomb: "Unfortunately we can't pay you at this time." I felt as though the rug had been pulled out beneath me. At the time, I was working a part-time job and freelancing as much as possible to support myself. Now I was looking at spending additional hours each week volunteering.

My writer friends discouraged me, saying I shouldn't give away my talents, and the advice I found online said that working for free undervalues the whole profession. I was torn. I certainly didn't want to contribute to undervaluing my fellow writer. And yet, I really wanted to do this job. As I'd been drawn into more high-paying assignments in marketing and development, I had left behind a certain amount of creativity. I missed the days of grad school, when I was regularly in dialogue with other writers in my program about their work. I liked the idea of taking a break from some of my more mundane endeavors each week to read stories and help make them better. So I decided to try it out: I would give it six months.

Since then, there have been other instances when I've been asked to work for free, and I have mostly declined them. At a certain point, I became too busy with paid work to even consider doing something for nothing. But I still wouldn't say that all unpaid work is worthless. For a writer starting out, achieving the milestone of a first published clip can be just as valuable as a token payment for said clip. And building a portfolio of work-paid or unpaid-can be the first step toward winning new assignments and making a living wage as a writer.

When considering whether to work for free, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this gig be of value to me beyond the (lack of) pay?
  • Will it allow me to take a creative risk or do something I wouldn't otherwise get to do in my professional life?
  • Does it have networking or other opportunities that might lead to something more lucrative or compelling in the future?
  • Would another company/organization/outlet pay me for this same work?
  • Can I afford to spend X hours doing something that does not contribute to my income?
  • How does this gig support my professional goals?

As it turned out, my volunteerism at the literary magazine did not last long. I was soon offered a job teaching writing that satisfied the same creative urge and paid me for my efforts. But I never regretted my time at the literary magazine-nor the opportunities it offered to hone my editing skills and meet interesting people.

+Think twice about adjectives

by Carolyn Morrison

Long ago, in high school, I had a writerly friend. Together, we would share poems we had written, exchanging notebooks in a breathless moment; he took my crazy, cursive loping stanzas that leapt across margins, I accepted his stark blocks of prose, looking rubberstamped except for the extremely distinctive character of his hard-pressed, penciled, all-capital lettering.

His advice was merciless – Kill the adjectives.

I was always most incensed when he rallied against my adjectives. What harm did they do, adding life and color (or, more likely, a miserable mood befitting adolescence) to nouns in need of support?

An article by writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant found in the latest Conversion Chronicles newsletter, a website dedicated to helping people write highly-effective content for their own websites, suggests that adjectives themselves may help to kill off your audience if you let them run amok in your writing.

Gray-Grant's 3 Adjective Pitfalls

  1. Adjectives are imprecise.
    "Stunning" is a much-overused example of an adjective with a broad meaning. Especially common in social media, this is the go-to kudos comment for a great posted photograph. But, with some in-depth analytical thinking, stunning just sounds shocking, electrifying, and downright painful…and a great macro-shot of a gerbera daisy shouldn't hurt.

  2. Adjectives mean different things to different people
    This problem is similar to number one, but advances the vagary of many adjectives to account for different social and cultural perceptions. Take for example the emotional state of someone feeling "blue." Considering emotive and psychological color representations are not the same the world over, this state of being is sure to cause confusion somewhere as digital writing travels around the globe.

  3. Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y
    In many situations, overuse or misuse of adjectives leaves an audience with a bad taste in their mouth. Take redundant food descriptors for example, like "doughy", "cheesy", "rich" and "creamy." All of these tasty tidbits may be true to the product, but they are so standard, the product has no chance of standing out if standing by its written bio alone.

So, how do you add pizazz to your writing without bedazzling the pants off of it? Gray-Grant chooses to highlight a sentence's verbs in a powerful way, while limiting the baggage that comes with the adjective + noun relationship.

Gray-Grant reminds us that verbs don't have to be lackluster:

"Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline."

Sometimes, it's just about role reversal to add a new dynamic to the sentence. Instead of "whispering pines", let the pines actually do the whispering, as in "the pines whisper in the breeze."

For more adjective admonitions, try guidance from Writer's Digest, a list of the internet's most played-out adjectives from Motherboard, and adjectives to avoid professionally.

+Seeing Red? Seven Tips for Working with Editors

by Amanda Bernhardt

"Why did you change this?!"
researcher had just stormed into my office. He was holding an issue brief I recently edited and sent back to him.

"Because it's jargon. This brief is for laypeople. They're not going know what ‘substantial gainful activity' is."

"But our client-the guy paying our bills-likes that language. Shouldn't we do what he likes?"

As editorial disagreements go, this one was minor-mostly because we have a corporate rule about it. But writers and editors always seem to be butting heads over something. And if you're a writer, eventually you'll be dealing with this, too.

I can hear you groaning already. Writers don't love the idea of having their work napalmed by an editor. But editors aren't the enemy. In fact, their goal is to make you and your writing look great. A good editor sees your work as your readers will see it. She can tell you what to cut, add, and correct to get the attention and response you want.

But what if you disagree with the edits? What if the editor doesn't catch everything or changes your intended meaning? Here are some tips for minimizing the amount of red ink spilled:

Before the edit

  1. Revise your work. Just because you're working with an editor doesn't mean you can skip your own revision. Get your draft into good shape before editing. Have someone else read it, if needed.
  2. Get your facts straight. A good editor will catch things like simple math errors or that Austin (not Dallas) is the capital of Texas. But if your standard deviation is off by 2 points or you cited the wrong source, that may be on you. Find out how much, if any, fact checking your editor does.
  3. Know your style guide. Save yourself and your editor time by learning your style. It's easier to put in the serial comma yourself than to have your editor do it and have to accept a ton of commas in Track Changes.
  4. Have a pre-edit chat. Tell your editor the purpose of your document, your audience, the style guide you're using, and your deadline. Be sure to ask any questions you have about the editing process. Chat with him in person, if possible, to establish a rapport.

After the edit

  1. Don't take it personally. Getting a red-inked document back can make you feel like a fifth-grader getting an F on a paper. Don't worry, you're not grounded. Many writers, including great ones, get heavily edited-it's a normal part of the process. Your editor's goal is not to punish you but to make you look great and to make your writing shine.
  2. Have a post-edit chat. Review the edits and note any you disagree with or have questions about. Go over those with your editor. There's a lot of give and take in editing, and not every edit is set in stone.
  3. Take another look. If you revise your work post-editing, you may introduce errors. Feel free to ask for a follow-up edit or a proofread to catch any typos. (Remember to budget time for this.)

Further reading:

+Basic Interview Advice for Writers

by India Johnson

After you've submitted your writing sample and/or portfolio, it's time to prepare for the in-person interview. Take a deep breath, relax, and follow these interview tips:

Learn about the company and position. Do research. Learn about upper management (LinkedIn is a great tool). Read about the projects the company has worked on. Carefully read the job description to familiarize yourself with the required responsibilities.

Prepare brief answers to typical interview questions. Your answers should be clear and concise. Typical interview questions include:

  • Tell me about yourself
  • Tell me about a recent project
  • What do you love most about writing?
  • Tell me about your writing process
  • What do you do in your free time?

Prepare questions for the interviewer. This shows your industry knowledge, and also it reminds them that they are being interviewed as well. You must decide if you want the position if it is offered. Typical questions to ask include:

  • What will a successful year look like for this position?
  • Why is the position open?
  • How do you train new writers?
  • When are you looking to make a hiring decision?

Arrive early. If you are not early than you are late. Don't make a bad first impression

Dress Professionally. Here are some tips for what to wear for the job interview.

Take Notes. You may not remember everything that was discussed during the interview. Take brief notes for reminders once you get home

Send a ‘Thank You' note. After the interview send an email or mail a note to thank the interviewer for their time.

+3 Ways You Can Write Like Cicero

We can learn a thing or two from the ancient Romans. How to build the perfect stone arch, for example, or how to throw an incredible dinner party.

Writers looking to persuade an audience should take a page from the book of one Marcus Tullius Cicero, an ancient politician famous for his speeches and mastery of rhetoric. And with election season upon us, you will almost certainly hear the same strategies echoed today.

Here are 3 Ciceronian techniques that can help add oomph to clear, concise language:

  1. Anadiplosis: Yes, it sounds a little like a disease. But this trick can help you more effectively link successive ideas to make a point. Anadiplosis is the repetition of the last word of the previous clause, and looks like this:

    "Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to anger. Anger leads to suffering."
    -Yoda, the wise mentor in Star Wars

  2. Chiasmus:This term means "X" and describes an A-B-B-A pattern. It helps you emphasize a contrast, like this:

    "It's not the men in my life that count: It's the life in my men."
    -Mae West

    Or, in more presidential terms:
    "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
    -President John F. Kennedy

  3. Tricolon:Ancient speakers knew there was something almost magical about the number 3, and tricolon is simply a set of 3 parallel words or phrases. (How weird does this sound: "Location, Location." You just need that third one!)

    Tricolon is one of President Obama's favorites-consider this snippet from his 2008 victory speech:
    "If there is anyone out there [1] who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; [2] who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; [3] who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
    -President Obama

    When the third item serves as a climax or exclamation point, it's called tricolon crescens(crescens means "increasing"):

    "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."
    -Benjamin Franklin

+Writing for Global Audiences

Writing for Global Audiences