Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Top 5 Online Research Sites

I miss lots of things about living in the U.S., but whenever I sit down to research an article, one thing I really miss is the libraries. I practically get misty-eyed thinking of libraries of my past: the majestic staircase and dusty stacks of Olin Library at Wesleyan University; the noble, marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, outside of the New York Public Library; the gilded ceilings of Library of Congress. I remember with special affection the tiny, musty Southwest Library in Washington, D.C, where as I kid, I came to scoop up my favorite friends (The Little Princess, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time) and bring them home for a visit.

It’s hard to get so worked up about online libraries.

I do work in brick-and-mortar libraries here in France sometimes. We expats in Paris are lucky to have the wonderful American Library in Paris as a resource. And French libraries have a surprisingly large number of English-language books available as well as a digital system that makes these books easy to find. But the vast bulk of the research I do takes place online.

Here are 5 of my favorite resources:

1. Project Gutenberg. I just love this site for doing historical research. The scent of old parchment practically emanates from it. This digital collection has some 34,000 texts, many dating as far back as the 16th century. As a bonus, if it doesn’t have the book you’re looking for, it provides links to other free libraries that might. Awesome.

2. FindArticles.com (BNET). This site is as close as an expat freelancer can get to browsing the magazine racks at Barnes & Noble. Here you’ll find back issues of some 900 magazines. The site’s not only great for research, but it’s good for checking out whether and when a magazine has covered a particular topic.

3. Google Books. Using Google Books makes me feel slightly dirty. I didn’t like the broad, careless way the company interpreted copyright laws when they initiated the project, and it creeps me out to think of how they could restrict access to information, if they so chose. But, damn it, the resource is so freakin’ useful. I’ve turned to it many times when I couldn’t find a particular book in the American Library of Paris, or didn’t have two hours to wander the mammoth halls of the Bibliotèque Nationale. The expat freelancer’s job would be a hundred times more frustrating without it. So I can’t help but recommend it. I mean: 7 million digitized books. Holy cow.

4. Questia. Questia is an online library that requires a subscription for access to most of its books. But a portion of their library, particularly academic journals and periodicals, are free. It has nowhere near the number of digitized books as Google Books (only 1.5 million), but unlike with Google books, you can read the entire text of the books offered.

5. The Internet Public Library. This site, created by a group of graduate students at the University of Michigan, is a new millennium concept of a library. It not only provides you with access to countless newspapers, books, magazines and articles from all over the US and abroad, but it offers features of a brick-and-mortar library. For example, it has a “Reading Room”, presents special exhibits, has an online librarian, and houses a variety of collections. I’ve found good information on this site and it’s extremely easy to navigate. The only downside is that it offers the same dangers as a “real” library: it’s easy to get sucked into fascinating rooms that you didn’t mean to be in. I love it.

What are your favorite online sites for research?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Developing an Annual Business Plan for your Writing

When I think about how little I knew about freelancing when I first started a few years ago, it takes my breath away. Amazing that I plunged head first into the business without every really thinking of it as a business! I thought – silly me – that being a freelance writer simply meant coming up with good ideas and writing about them well. I had no idea that being a freelance writer meant also being a salesperson, accountant, marketing expert, techie, researcher and more.

Well. Now I know better. Although ideas and good writing skills are definite prerequisites for becoming a freelance writer, having a directed plan for your career matters almost as much. A business plan isn’t just about writing down your goals. It’s about developing a strategy for a successful career. It’s about figuring out how to juggle all those hats you need to wear. It’s about knowing who you are as a writer and who you want to be. And when the year comes to a close, you’ll be able to look back and clearly track your successes and failures, and understand what tactics you need to keep, improve, or abandon.

So what does a writer’s business plan consist of? Here’s my take on it:

1. Mission Statement

Your plan should begin with a description of your mission as a writer. What kind of writer are you? Who are your clients and what kind of service are you providing to them? For example, if you’re a print or online magazine writer your mission statement may be: “To provide editors with a steady flow of original ideas and high-quality, well-researched articles that leave the reader with some new knowledge or insight.” If you’re a copywriter it may be: “To help my clients achieve their marketing objectives by providing clear, snappy, and informative copy.”

For those of us writers that have our fingers in several pies, from copywriting to blogging to ghostwriting, write a mission statement for each type of writing that you do. Having separate mission statements can help you transition your focus as you take off your magazine writing hat and put on your business writing hat. Finally, your mission statement should indicate the percentage of your business each type of writing should comprise.


2. Objectives

Record your annual and monthly goals. Yes, do your monthly goals – to the extent possible – right now! Don’t wait until the beginning of each month. Writing topics are often seasonal. In January, you might already need to be thinking of tax-related articles. In June, you might need to start thinking of Christmas. Also, as expat freelancers, we need to think about when we might be next in our homeland and how we can work that to our advantage.

Be moderate with your goals. I’m not saying don’t reach for the stars, but if you give yourself a overwhelming number of goals or set goals that aren’t practicable given the amount of time you have available, you’re bound to become quickly frustrated. Make sure that your goals are commensurate with the percentage of time you’ve allotted to each aspect of your business in your mission statement. If you’ve said that you want your copywriting work to comprise 50% of your business, but 70% of your goals relate to another form of writing, you probably need to re-evaluate your mission.

3. Strategy

The heart of your business plan should consist of a step-by-step strategy for each annual goal. These strategies should be comprehensive, but not so detailed that your ultimate goal becomes lost in a sea of tasks – aim for five to seven clear, actionable steps. Your strategy is where most of your non-writing duties come in: marketing, networking, research and so forth. As you draft your strategy, think about all the hats that you can – or should be – wearing to achieve your goals. Also, consider which ones can be delegated to others.

4. Financial Plan

Now comes the sweat-inducing part of the plan: figuring out how much you can reasonably expect to make a year. Your financial plan should follow the same model as your overall business plan: annual goal + strategy.

When setting your annual goal, be realistic. Pick a figure that is challenging but also feasible. Consider the type of writing you do, the rates you can charge, the likelihood of obtaining the work, and the amount of time you have available to work.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a realistic annual figure, try setting a monthly, weekly or even daily financial goal. This approach has a couple of advantages. First, it can make your annual goal seem less daunting. Second, it can help you to determine your strategy. By knowing how much you want to earn each week, you’ll also know the type of work you need to seek, how much to charge, and the particular publications or clients you should to target to meet this goal. For example, if your goal is to make $500 a week, you’ll know that you’d have to write 10 articles worth at least $50 a piece, write 5 press releases at $100 a pop, or find some other combination that works. If you find that you’re not anywhere near meeting your goal of $500 a week, you need to make some changes to your rates, your clients, or to the goal itself.

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Of course, there’s no single way to create a business plan that works. What does your elements does your business plan contain?