Do You Manage Your “To-Do” List, Or Does It Manage You? (Guest Post)

Got this great guest post from writer, author and coach Daphne Gray-Grant, with an intriguing take on “To-Do” lists. I must confess, I never looked at it this way, but, when you stop to think about it, it makes all the sense in the world: if you don’t tackle the things that are important, but not urgent, then you’re simply operating in reactive mode. I’m going to put these ideas to work. Enjoy. Thanks, Daphne!

I’ve been addicted to “to do” lists since I was 13 years old. They taught me that putting tasks on a list helps me to remember to do them. They helped me learn that really understanding my priorities makes it easier to say “no” to the things that will waste my time.

They gave me the undeniable thrill of being able to stroke a firm line through a task I’d just completed. And when I started using them for tracking my writing progress, they reminded me that writing is not just about letting my fingers move over a keyboard: it also involves research and phone calls and fact-checking.

But, recently, my “To-Do” list had gotten out of control.

Frequently 30 items or longer, it daunted me every time I looked at it. Instead of inspiring me to action, it made me shiver with dread. One writing job, in particular—some 9,000 words of angst—lurked on it like a mild tooth ache certain to erupt into a tooth so decayed any sensible dentist would call for a root canal.

But, here’s the interesting thing: Because there was no immediate urgency/penalty attached to this job (the deadline was still three weeks away), I didn’t even feel a sense of failure about it. [Aside: Isn’t it easy to let big writing jobs lurk?] Although, of course, I had a growing unease as time ticked inexorably by.

As there are few things I like better than organizing myself (for me it’s like a back massage, a glass of really great red wine and fabulous haircut all thrown into one), I spent a couple of hours thinking about how to make my “To-Do” list work better.

Eventually, I remembered a column I’d written about Steven Covey, and reflected on his four quadrants. Remember those?

(1) Tasks that are important and urgent
(2) Tasks that are important but not urgent
(3) Tasks that are unimportant but urgent
(4) tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

Many people think items in quadrant one should be the highest priority, but Covey argues—and I agree—that box number 2 is actually the most crucial. After all, if you allow the urgent stuff to take control of your life, you’re constantly rushing to put out fires. Only by making time to do what’s really important—for example, planning, reading, writing a book—can you be really productive.

I decided I needed better names for my list—titles that would inspire me. Here’s what I came up with:

(1) Things I Most WANT to Do Today. I liked the way this sounded. Strong, determined. Motivated.

(2) Must Do Today. Here was the note of urgency and a realistic assessment of the time required. I now try for no more than three per day and I really do them. And, by the way, I always do them using pomodoros. This intense 30-minute commitment is like a magic bullet for writing procrastinators.

(3) Quick Things Due Today. Each of these tasks can be done in five minutes or less. As such, I can knock something off the list when I’m between phone calls or wanting to take a quick break after some difficult writing.

(4) Optional Tasks. Quickly, I realized that I should outsource as many of these jobs as possible. I have three teenagers in my home and they’re always eager to earn $12/hour.

I also added a column titled “Personal” for the personal things I need to do during the day and another one called “Meetings” so I don’t forget about them, either.

Did this new system help me get my big writing job done? Sadly, I’d left developing this new list too late for that. I had ended up leaving the job to the very last minute and shocked myself by writing 9,000 words—while keeping up with my other urgent tasks—in four days. It was absolutely exhausting and involved my starting work at 5:30 a.m. and going until 8 p.m., twice.

Since then, however, the new list has worked like a charm. I’m getting more done, sooner. I’m not feeling a clench in my gut every time I think about my “To-Do” list. Best of all, I’m accomplishing more of the things that I really WANT to do.

In short, it’s done more than make me a more organized human being. It’s made me a better writer.

Typically, how long is your daily “to do” list?

What special tricks do you have for getting the really important stuff done, despite the deadlines you have to meet?

How do you stop yourself from frittering away time on fun but (mostly) inconsequential stuff like Facebook and Twitter?

If you haven’t before identified the accomplishments that are most important to you, how might doing so change your writing life?


DaphneGrayGrantPicDaphne Gray-Grant is a former daily newspaper editor, a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book “8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.”

Sign up for her newsletter, Power Writing—weekly, brief and free—through her web site.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Living This Crucial Sales/Marketing Principle Will Make You a Better Copywriter

I ran this piece below as a feature this month in the March edition of The Well-Fed E-PUB. But I wanted to also post it here, so I could get feedback from all of you (and partly because I’m on an extended trip away, and want to make my life easier…;) Would love to hear your thoughts!

Websites that are wildly unclear about what the company does or sells. How-to guides that assume far too much knowledge and understanding on the part of the reader. Brochures and sales sheets that leave the reader with more questions than answers. Emails that have you scratching your head as to their meaning.

Pretty much every day occurrences for all of us, right? And at the heart of all of them—and many other scenarios—is a principle so important, I unhesitatingly add it as #4 to the big three of sales/marketing (IMHO, anyway): “Who’s the audience?”; The Features/Benefits Equation (arguably, this new one is related to these first two); and USP (Unique Selling Proposition), all outlined in detail in Chapter 3 of The Well-Fed Writer.

What is this foundational principle? The Curse of Knowledge.

While I first encountered the idea of TCOK in the wonderful book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” (Chip and Dan Heath; buy it), according to Wikipedia, “The effect was first described in print by the economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber, though they give original credit for suggesting the term to Robin Hogarth.”

Its definition (also from Wikipedia)? “The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias, according to which, better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.”

Understanding and deeply internalizing this principle will pay huge dividends for your commercial writing practice (or any business you’re in) in how you present your business to the world, how you interact with clients, and how you help clients market their businesses.

Why? Because the effect of this principle is at the root of so many poorly executed communications materials, as well as marketing/advertising campaigns in general.

It can potentially rear its ugly, clueless head in:

1) How you showcase your own copywriting business on your web site, or in your marketing efforts—whether direct mail, email, cold calling, etc.

2) How you communicate with clients and prospects while working on projects.

3) How your clients communicate with their prospects and clients, with you potentially aiding, abetting and exacerbating the problem with your copy.

What’s the magic incantation to lift this curse? Simple. Not easy, but simple. Any time you need to successfully convey information to someone else (i.e., in all the scenarios described above, and, for that matter, any other time you’re communicating with anyone else for any reason), ask yourself this question:

If I knew absolutely nothing about this subject (very possible), was in the middle of doing something else when it crossed my path (highly likely), and had a short attention span (a given), would I “get it” quickly?

And if not, rework it until you can say yes.

And no, your audience won’t always be totally lacking in knowledge about a subject, and may in fact, be able to devote more than a miniscule sliver of their attention to the piece of writing in front of them, but it’s far wiser to assume they’re ignorant and distracted than the reverse.

It’s not easy to put yourself in a position of ignorance when, in fact, you are so close to something, but it’s an exceptionally valuable skill to develop.

Can you share any real-world examples you’ve seen of TCOK in action?

Any tips on cultivating the ability to view all writing with “fresh eyes”?

If you’re familiar with TCOK, how have you put it to work in your copywriting practice?

If you weren’t familiar with it, how can you envision applying an understanding of it to your business?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Why Aren’t You B2B Writers Doing More of these Lucrative Projects? (Guest Post)

PB Note: Gordon Graham is the reigning guru of white papers, and he sent me this great overview of the craft (and its exceptionally promising potential). Seriously consider picking up his brand-new new book, “White Papers for Dummies,” an excellent soup-to-nuts primer that’s been called a “must-read that contains priceless information you just can’t find anywhere else.” Take it away, Gordon!

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It always surprises me that more B2B writers aren’t doing white papers.

As you may know, white papers are fact-based marketing documents used by B2B vendors to generate leads, build recognition, and nurture prospects through a complex sale. They typically run six to eight pages plus front and back matter.

If you’ve done any journalism, a white paper is much like a feature article for a magazine, only it pays 3 to 10 times as much.

In fact, the “average” fee for writing a white paper today is $4,200. Typical fees range from $3,000 to $6,000. Writers with domain knowledge or experience writing white papers routinely charge $5,000 to $7,000—or about $1,000 per page.

Why do companies pay so much?

1) B2B buyers expect them: Survey after survey pegs white papers as the #1 or #2 favorite content that prospects look at.
2) The competition has them: Any vendor that doesn’t can be out of the running for a million-dollar sale.
3) They work: White papers help B2B vendors sell billions of dollars worth of products and services every year.

All these factors add up to an unquenchable demand for these documents, which are now a standard part of the toolkit for any B2B marketer.

But writing a white paper can be challenging. It requires an unusual mix of writing to explain and writing to persuade. It demands that you find and assemble a mass of impeccable facts, figures, quotes, anecdotes and rhetorical devices into a compelling argument.

Not many writers know how to do all that or have had enough practice at this format. But any experienced business writer has all the essential skills it takes: researching, interviewing, writing smoothly, meeting deadlines, handling comments from reviewers, and so on.

A white paper is essentially a long-form, fact-based piece of marketing collateral. To write an effective white paper, you and your client need to identify a compelling topic, pinpoint a specific audience, gather persuasive proof points, construct a logical argument, and spin all this material into a 6- to 8-page narrative that holds readers’ attention and compels them to take the next step in the sales cycle for the associated product or service.

To do that effectively, you need to leave out any hype, buzzwords and marketing-speak. Focus on providing useful information, not a sales pitch. Help your readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. Stick to the facts or to well-argued logic. Given today’s jaded prospects with their finely-tuned radar for hype, this low-key or “educational” approach can actually help “sell” a prospect far more effectively than outright promotional copy. This is why well-written white papers are crucial marketing tools for many B2B companies.

Okay, but how many clients need white papers anyway? Aren’t they all in software or some technology where you have to understand gobbledegook to get work?

Yes, white papers are popular in technology firms, but they’re now used in many other sectors. I’ve done them for clients in advertising, construction, healthcare, insurance, printing, sports—even children’s toys! Any B2B company selling something relatively new, relatively complex, or relatively expensive could benefit from a white paper.

Being extremely conservative and counting only the traditional users of white papers—B2B equipment manufacturers, software companies, and scientific and technical services—I found 454,244 potential clients in the U.S. alone. Adding in other countries from the developed world that use English—like Australia, Canada, and the UK—that climbs to more than 600,000.

I know for a fact that many of these companies are desperate for a writer who can help them tell their stories. I hear from one almost every day.

How can you learn more about writing them?

1. Go to websites of companies in your B2B specialty, and find half a dozen white papers to download and study.

Chances are, you’ll soon be thinking, “I can write better than this!” You’ll see how most white papers are not nearly as persuasive or compelling as they could be. That’s a great confidence booster when you’re starting out.

2. Visit my website to see dozens of free articles about every aspect of white paper writing.

3. Check out the free cheat sheet for my book here and a lot of extras here.

4. Join my LinkedIn group “Get More From Your White Papers” and post your question. The group members will do our best to answer you.

If you’re an experienced business writer or a laid-off journalist, give white papers a try. You’ll find a ready-made demand with high fees, and lots of interesting work to be done.

Have you done some white papers? If so, what was your experience like?

Did you find them to be easier or harder to do than you’d originally thought?

Have you been surprised at the quality (or lack thereof) of the samples you’ve seen?

If you haven’t yet tried doing white papers, what’s stopped you?

GordonGrahamPicGordon Graham (a.k.a. That White Paper Guy) has written more than 175 B2B white papers for clients from Australia to New York City, on everything from selecting enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for everyone from tiny startups to Google.

GordonGrahamWP4DummiesCvrCheck out his new book White Papers For Dummies

“Commercial Writing” Has Many Faces (as these Unusual Projects Prove…)

So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…

Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.

Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.

To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.

I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).

P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).

Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.

Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.

In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.

But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?

So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.

Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”

So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.

Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?

Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?

Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Trying to Make the Transition from Employee to Full-Time Commercial Writer? (Guest Post)

Great guest post from fellow commercial freelancer (and fellow Atlantan), Don Sadler. Don’s carved out quite a lucrative niche in his area of specialty, and how it all came about is a good story. I hope it can serve as a good discussion catalyst, and can spur others who’ve either been there as well (or may be in the future) to weigh in! Thanks, Don! Enjoy!

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It’s probably the most challenging (and scariest) part of becoming a freelance commercial writer (FLCW): Making the transition from a full-time job, with a regular salary and benefits like health insurance, paid holidays and paid vacation, to a full-time freelancer — with none of the above.

I made this transition myself almost four years ago. I wish I could say that I was fearless and brave and decided to make the jump on my own, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I got the dreaded layoff call, letting me know that my position as an editor with a major custom publishing company “was being eliminated.”

Not exactly the best way to start your weekend! But now, nearly four years later, I can see that it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me professionally. I had wanted to strike out on my own as a full-time commercial freelancer for a while, but the (apparent) comfort and security of the salary, benefits, etc. were tough to give up. And I had a pretty good job, so there wasn’t a lot of urgency to jump ship.

What follows is a brief account of how I made the transition from full-time employment to full-time freelance. Everyone’s situation is unique, so my intention isn’t to provide a step-by-step “here’s how to do it” guide. Rather, I hope that by reading my story, you might pick up a couple of nuggets that could help you make the transition if this is something you want to do. Or at least be inspired that it doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems!

Going Back to the ‘80’s
My first professional job out of college (where I majored in Journalism) in 1985 was as a staff writer with a newsletter-publishing firm in Ft. Lauderdale. I worked there for 12 years before moving to Atlanta to work for another publisher in 1997, which in turn was acquired by another custom publisher in 2005, for whom I worked until early 2009.

So, I had about 24 years of professional experience as a writer/editor before going full-time freelance. But the biggest factor in the success of my transition was this: I had spent pretty much this entire time specializing in a couple of content niches: business and finance. As a result of this specialization, I was able to immediately “brand” myself as an expert when it came to writing content in these areas. This turned out to be huge for two reasons:

1. There is a high demand for freelance writers who can tackle these subjects without having to be brought up to speed on basics like the difference between defined contribution and defined benefit plans or the nuances of various banking and financial products and services.

2. Therefore, these freelance writers can generally charge relatively high rates for this type of writing.

The second thing that helped me make a successful transition fairly quickly was the fact that I started doing freelance work “on the side” long before I ventured out on my own as a full-time FLCW.

One of the first things I did when I moved to Atlanta in 1997 was start looking for freelance work. It didn’t take long to land gigs with a couple of business magazines, from which I was able to get pretty steady assignments. Over the decade-plus that I did freelance work on the side, I built up a nice little freelance clientele that eventually formed the foundation for going full-time freelance.

In addition to providing a little “mad money,” this part-time freelance work was invaluable in helping me get my feet wet and learn about how the freelance world worked. Just as importantly, it gave me a sense of “entrepreneurship” and what it was like to look for and gain clients on my own. I found it tremendously exciting and rewarding to land new freelance clients, make them happy and get paid for doing it!

What Should I Do?
Due to these three factors—my long history of experience as a professional writer/editor, albeit as an employee; my well-established content niches of business and finance; and my 10+ years of on-the-side freelance experience—I was about as well-positioned as you can be to make the transition to full-time freelance. And since I kind of saw the layoff coming for at least six months, I had even started to think about what I would do if and when I lost my job: Try to go full-time freelance or look for another job?

I got my layoff notice at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon (which is by the corporate textbook, by the way). Since I was a remote employee and worked from home, I immediately fired off emails to two of my freelance clients letting them know what happened and that I was available for as much freelance work as they could send me. They both replied before 5:00 and said they would have work for me Monday morning.

I took that as my sign that I should give full-time freelancing a real shot before looking for another job. And by the end of my first year of full-time freelance, I was consistently meeting or exceeding my old monthly salary.

Are there other challenges to being a full-time freelancer beyond just landing clients and generating income? You bet! Health insurance, for example, is one of the biggest, but that’s been discussed in another post on this blog. But in my experience, if you can get the freelance ball rolling down the hill, it tends to pick up speed if you are diligent and work as hard at building your freelance business as you did working for an employer.

Lay the Groundwork Now
Like I said, I didn’t write this with the intention of providing a step-by-step guide to transitioning from full-time employment into full-time commercial freelance writing. I realize that not everybody out there has more than two decades of professional writing and editing experience as an employee, or has been able to cultivate a profitable content niche like I was fortunate enough to do.

But if going full-time freelance is something you think you’d like to do one day, I encourage you to start laying the groundwork now. For me, success as a full-time FLCW was far from “overnight”; it was actually more than two decades in the making!

The best advice I can offer is to start doing freelance work on the side from your regular job now. This will help you learn how the freelancing world works and start to build up a small clientele that you can expand when you devote your full-time energy and effort into your own freelance writing business.

Oh, and buy The Well-Fed Writer! I read it about three years after I struck out on my own and I can’t imagine a more practical, hands-on guide to getting started as a freelance commercial writer. Peter confirmed some of the things I was doing and offered some great new tips and insights I hadn’t thought of.

And no, Peter didn’t ask me to say that—it’s really that good!

1. What has held you back from making the transition from an employee to a full-time FLCW?

2. If you’ve made the transition, what are one or two tips you can offer to others who hope to do the same?

3. What is one mistake you made during the transition that others should guard against?

Don Sadler is an Atlanta-based freelance commercial writer specializing in the areas of business and finance. He writes content for all different types of media, both print and electronic, and in all different formats — print and e-newsletters, magazines, search-engine-optimized websites, white papers, blogs, ghost articles and books, etc. Visit http://www.donsadlerwriter.com to learn more.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.