My 5 Favourite Productivity Tools for Writing

I have often discussed with budding writers how a good portion of the writing life is staying organized and productive when we actually have time to write. If I let something interrupt my flow, I may not get it back again in the same sitting.

Time is a precious commodity these days, between helping my husband with his photography business, running a media company, and…right – motherhood. So, I thought I’d put together a quick post for you about the tools I use each and every day to keep me on track. The great thing about these tools is that most of them are useful in any field of work, so even if you’re not a writer, you can still benefit from incorporating them.

Google Docs

Gone are my days of endless files tucked away in folders on my hard drive. In many cases I have moved my projects on to Google Docs. My best advice is to get set up fully on Google (Gmail, Calendar, etc.) so that you can maximize all of these amazing tools from one account. Using Google Docs, I can share a document, work remotely on a project with a colleague and see them making changes, and in cases where I want them to “View” only, there are permission settings that allow for that.

Wunderlist 

This is a relatively new app that I’ve adopted and I’ve fallen in love. Wunderlist allows you to create categorized to-do lists, and it instantly synchronizes between your phone, tablet and laptop. I particularly love the pop-up desktop tool that allows you to quickly add a task. That way, you can get it off your mind and move on with your work. I also like the way you can share lists with colleagues or family members.

Google Calendar

I mentioned this tool already, and it has been my “go-to” for years. Ditch the paper agenda and go electronic to keep you on task and on time. Google Calendar allows you to set up both Tasks and Events, so that you can outline projects for each day and move them around as you need to. Set up reminders and alerts, colour code your events, and share your calendars with others.

Hootsuite 

I was an early adopter of Hootsuite, and have seen it continually improve. This is one of the best social media productivity tools on the market, and once you get to know how it works, you’ll never look back. I use this platform to monitor all of my professional Twitter feeds, including Lists and specific keywords or search terms. I want to stay active on social media, but can’t afford for it to eat up my writing time. This is the perfect answer.

Thesaurus.com 

This one could also be slotted simply under “writing tools”, but anything that saves time allows for more productivity. Not only has using a thesaurus helped me to overcome that feeling that I have a word on the tip of my tongue, but it has also helped me to expand my vocabulary! There are many tools out there, but I generally turn to Thesaurus.com. I like the way you can click through words to dig deeper into nuances and meanings, so that you can be sure to get the right one.

What are your favourite productivity tools?

Finding Inspiration at the Banff Mountain Book Festival

Considering the quantity of sold out events this year at the Banff Mountain Book Festival, I think it’s safe to say that it is no longer a best-kept secret, and no longer the ‘little sister’ to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. On a more personal note, the book festival has always been my favourite part of the festivals – not only because it offers a more intimate experience, but also because words are my medium of choice, the way I process information, my lifeline.

As a writer, the Banff Mountain Book Festival encourages me to dig deeper, to find the story really worth telling and to continue sharpening my skills so that perhaps one year it will be me up on that stage presenting my own book. But for now I’m content to learn from others, to absorb from a seat in the audience, and bring the stories of others to you.

I can’t recap the entire book festival, but the events today offered a particularly good mix of topics and styles. They also brought with them lessons we can apply to our own lives, which I’ll summarize here:

The Calling.Barry Blanchard kicked off the with the presentation of his book, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains. I was familiar with his book, having reviewed it for The Campsite a few weeks ago, but it was refreshing to hear him reading his own words. In fact, the book read better aloud than it did in my head, and listening to Barry gave the stories new life and the audience an opportunity to laugh. It is clear the crowd – a home crowd for Barry – simply loves this man, and that spoke as loud as his words. One thing I learned from Barry, both through his climbing stories and his account of challenges writing the book, is the importance of perseverance. If you eventually want to see something in print, you need to work away at it, letter by letter, word by word.

Paddlenorth.Next, author Jennifer Kingsley presented her book, Paddlenorth – an account of a 54-day, 1100-kilometre journey she made with friends on the Baillie and Back Rivers in Nunavut. While she didn’t intend to write a book about the trip, the experience motivated her to do so. She didn’t reveal too much about her book (I’ll have to read it!), however a few things she said caught my attention. First, she made a comment about how modern travel allows you to get from one destination to another very quickly, but that does not mean that you have caught up emotionally and psychologically. This also ties into a comment she made about returning home from such a voyage: “This is the kind of trip that when I got home, it wouldn’t lie down,” she said. Having been on a few longer stints of travel, I can relate to both of these comments – to needing time to catch up to my destination and needing time to unravel the threads of the experience once I’m home.

Great Bear Wild.Finally, photographer, conservationist, and author of Great Bear Wild, Ian McAllister, took the stand. I was familiar with McAllister’s incredible photographs, just not the stories behind them. Walking the audience through the backstories of his images, McAllister conveyed a deeper understanding of these magnificent creatures. By explaining their contexts through human analogies, I could relate to the wildlife in a way I never had before. I appreciated these stories because these are the creatures and habitats (alongside First Nations communities) under threat due to the plans to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Through McAllister I learned that the Great Bear Rainforest is actually an area that is seeing regeneration and a resurgence of life. It would be a shame to see that compromised. Be sure to check out PacificWild.org for more information on what you can do about that.

The festival doesn’t wrap up until Sunday night, so be sure to check out the Banff Mountain Festivals to snag any remaining tickets.

Keep following along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for dispatches from the field!

8 Things I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

On April 15, 2012, I set out on a mission.

I was feeling discouraged by the lack of feedback in the world of writing. We live in a fast-paced culture where editors are often too busy to include us in their editing process, and in which readers often consume without providing any response, whether they are tight on time or just don’t think of it. The Internet seems to have raised a new generation of “scanners” – readers who quickly gloss over a piece, check the length and read the headers and sub headers before deciding if they are even going to continue reading at all. Bloggers are actually encouraged to cater to this type of reader by compartmentalizing longer pieces into smaller chunks with catchy subheadings (I’m doing that in this very article). Throw in a few photos to make things interesting because, my goodness, a page full of text? We’re lucky if readers get to the bottom of our articles, of pieces we work so hard to produce.

I know this because, at times, I am that reader. So, how can I expect to hear from my readers if I don’t provide feedback to others?

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. Frank A. Clark

Why do I care so much about feedback?

I realize that not every writer cares about receiving feedback. Some are content to throw ideas out to the universe without any sense of where they end up. But that’s not my approach. My eagerness for feedback isn’t some superficial need for attention. It’s a genuine desire for information that will help me sharpen my sword and produce better stories. It’s a longing for discussion around the ideas I’m presenting. Like many writers, it’s the need to know that someone finds my words helpful, insightful or inspiring – that there is a purpose to what I’m doing. Call it affirmation, but I’m not talking about a pat on the back or a gold star. For me, it’s the force behind what I do, the reason I see the world in words, the result of a lot of hard thinking and hard work.

The Challenge

So, on April 15 of last year I set out on a mission to choose an article (mostly online) each week and provide feedback to the author. This could be a comment about the actual writing or the ideas presented. I kept my comments positive and shied away from offering constructive criticism since this was all occurring on a public forum. Some writers asked me to choose their pieces to provide feedback on, and so I provided more constructive criticism privately. If I couldn’t provide genuine feedback, I didn’t provide any at all. As tempting as it was sometimes, I never wanted to comment simply for the sake of commenting. I only gave my feedback when I had time to think it through, and provide an authentic, thoughtful response.

You might be wondering, if it was 52 Weeks of Feedback, why did it take me 80? The most basic answer: I had a baby. Things got busy and I missed a week here and there. But I stuck to it and still provided feedback for 52 weeks. You can check out my reading list here.

So, let’s get down to it. What did I learn after my 52 weeks of reading and commenting?

What I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

1. Providing comments on a regular basis paved the way for new relationships with other writers and bloggers. The majority of authors who received my feedback were thankful that I took the time to comment, and this sparked the beginning of a meaningful exchange. Sometimes it didn’t go beyond that first exchange; in other cases, I am still in regular contact with some of these writers.

2. The weekly challenge encouraged me to keep reading. I have heard many times that the best thing a writer can do to improve his or her craft is to read. As much as the project was about providing feedback, an unintended benefit was that I read more than I would have otherwise.

3. Keeping track of the articles I was reading helped me clarify which topics I am most passionate about. Looking back on the list, here are the dominant themes: parenting and the outdoors, motherhood, adventure, goal setting, thoughts on the writing process, creativity, and women in sports.

4. Knowing I had to provide feedback forced me to read more attentively. I fought the temptation to skim or skip ahead so that I could provide an informed response. As a result I also took more away from the article and invested myself more in the ideas that were presented. I allowed myself the time to think, even if it was on a topic I wasn’t particularly interested in.

The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write. ~ Ernest Gaines

5. Often my first comment was the beginning of a meaningful discussion, not just with the author but with other commenters.

6. This wasn’t a reason for my feedback, but looking at my web traffic, referring links increasingly came from articles I commented on. This proves to me that meaningful feedback will eventually loop back to its source.

7. I learned a heck of a lot about writing – from techniques that make for effective storytelling to the power of anecdotes as a way of making ideas stick. And after 52 Weeks of Feedback, here is the one piece of criticism I came up with the most (something I am also working on): cut the fluff. Be rigorous with your choice of words. While I’m a strong believer that long-form pieces belong on the web, longer is not necessarily better. One editor put it this way: learn to distinguish the pepper (relevant details) from the fly shit (details that don’t ultimately serve the piece). Help your reader get to the end of your articles.

8. Committing to a challenge helped me to create a new habit. I can’t promise I’ll continue the process weekly, but I will take the time more often to provide feedback for other writers.

There you have it! I encourage you to take on your own feedback challenge, whether it’s weekly, monthly or whenever you feel like it. As I have written above, I learned a lot from the process, and the practice has resulted in some long-term benefits: relationships with other writers, meaningful discussion and helpful tips that will improve my writing.

Is feedback important to you? Why or why not?

New Directions: Moving on from Editor Position at Highline Magazine

Some news for you today!

After two and a half years as Editor of Highline Magazine, the mountain culture magazine here in the Canadian Rockies, life has called me onto new adventures! Many of you know that I welcomed a daughter to the world back in March 2013. With my new responsibility of mamahood, as well as some other exciting opportunities with my writing, I knew I needed to make a change. It has not been an easy decision. I know this publication is a very special one, and the team members behind it are some of the most inspiring, creative, talented and hilarious people I know. Please read my Letter from the Editor, which we posted this week over at HighlineOnline.ca, to read my full announcement.

You can access all the digital versions of the magazine here.

As always, I’ll keep you posted on what I’m up to and the exciting projects calling my name. Keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook for the latest news!

15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing

About once a month a friend, colleague or stranger will ask me the very same question: “I have been wanting to take my writing to the next stage. How did you get started in freelance writing?“.

Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Just start.” How do you train for a marathon or big climb? You start running, you start climbing.

But I know it isn’t that straight-forward. There are definitely some pointers I wish I had known when I started out – things I had to discover on my own in a fairly long, drawn-out process that continues to this day. So, I often let these curious writers treat me to coffee and I download my knowledge. After some time, though, these conversations became repetitive, and time-consuming for both parties, so I decided to write this article.

These tips are based on my own personal experience. There are many ways of getting started in freelance writing. In my research I definitely looked at a few options and picked the one that resonated most with me. I welcome any tips from other writers out there and encourage you to use the Comments to provide your feedback.

15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing

1. Keep Writing and Reading

You’ve probably heard it before, but spend some time writing each day. Sharpen your tools so that they are as effective as possible when someone is willing to give you a chance at being published. Tips #8 and #9 can provide you with a great platform for this.

Equally important to writing, however, is that you continue reading. Read the authors who inspire you, deconstruct their sentences and develop a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. Last year I dedicated myself to 52 Weeks of Feedback to help me commit to reading other people’s work more regularly (and provide some feedback to them).

Also, read the publications you want to write for so that you have a good sense of what they have published recently, as well as their tone, style, departments and article lengths. Many libraries have a good stock of back issues from magazines.

Just some of the books I reference regularly.

Just some of the books I reference regularly.

2. Research the Industry

Some people have the advantage of a degree or certificate that introduced them to the ins and outs of freelance writing. I came out of university with a Theatre Degree. But thanks to the World Wide Web there is a flurry of information already available online and websites ready to help you get started. I spent an entire winter just researching what it meant to be a freelance writer, what kind of outlets existed for my writing, and what the process was for getting published. I met with the only freelance writer I knew to learn how she got started. As it turns out, the path she took (ie. writing for newspapers) had no appeal to me, but at least I learned this was an option.

3. Learn How to Write a Query Letter

Learning about the infamous “query letter” was my first big “aha!” moment when I was researching how to enter the freelance market. Most publications, especially those that pay for material, don’t want to receive a complete, unsolicited article. Instead they want you to pitch your idea in the form of a query letter.

Editors are busy and likely won’t read a full article, but they can make time to browse through a well-written query. If an editor likes your idea, this also gives him or her some space to suggest possible angles and fulfill the current needs of the magazine. Check out this article by Paul Lima for How to Structure a Query Letter. Keep track of your queries so that you know where and when you submitted.

4. Find a Home for Your Words

Writers Market produces an annual volume of publication listings (by category/topic) and writing advice. The Canadian Writer’s Market offers a listing of Canadian publishers, which is handy for the Canucks out there. Otherwise, you can use the web to research magazines and journals that might be interested in the topics you like to write about. Figure out which publication (and department within that publication) is the best one for your idea and submit your query letter to the appropriate editor.

5. Attend Writing Conferences, Workshops and Seminars

I could write a whole post about why this is so important. As a writer, you need to keep learning and these types of events not only help you to perfect your craft, but also teach you about the writing industry (and its current state) and allow plenty of opportunity to network. Sometimes the opportunity to be published is a “right place, right time” kind of thing, and meeting editors face-to-face can really expedite the process. Some of my most valued relationships are with the magazine editors I’ve met at conferences. Meeting them in person enabled me to discuss ideas and turn them into reality almost on the spot.

Thanks to the Internet, online seminars (or “webinars”) now also provide writers with the opportunity to “attend” a workshop without even leaving the house.

6. Read the Masthead

You might have flipped past this before, but it’s a good idea to read through the masthead – that list of names, departments and circulation information at the front end of a magazine. You might see the names of other writers you know, notice that the magazine has a new editor, or learn that the magazine accepts interns (more on that in Tip #10). All this information will serve you well when you are querying a magazine, and particularly when you’re wondering whom to send your query to.

7. Subscribe to Newsletters and Blogs

These appear in my inbox once a week and while sometimes they go straight to the trash (depends on how busy I am) I often scroll through to see if there is any content that appeals to me. My favourites include Worldwide Freelance, Funds for Writers, Masthead and Show Me the Money.

8. Write for Free (at first)

I hear some freelancers screaming out there. There is a debate in the industry about how writers can undercut the market by providing their services for free or cheap. To a large extent this is very true, but there will always be grassroots publications, non-profit organizations or websites in need of content and they simply can’t pay. To get some experience, I wrote for organizations like the Alpine Club of Canada, CPAWS and the Stephen Lewis Foundation – all for free. You need to be published to get published. Start small and work your way up.

9. Start a Blog

I’ll start this tip with a warning: be careful what you put out there. The first blog I ever maintained is now offline. At some point in my career, I simply couldn’t have a lower quality of writing floating around the Internet. My writing has improved hugely since I set off on this journey. But that being said, I now maintain a few websites, including The Campsite and The Adventures in Parenthood Project, which allow me to publish my own words, explore with my writing and position myself as a pseudo-expert on certain topics. On another note, these websites have helped me to nurture relationships with people involved in the industries I like to write about, including other writers, bloggers, gear companies and organizations. Blogging is also just plain fun.

10. Seek Out a Magazine Internship

If you live in a larger city, you’ll likely have more opportunity to find a magazine that is looking to hire an intern (this could be paid or unpaid). I leaped for joy when I discovered that Alpinist Magazine was looking for an Online Editorial Intern and didn’t mind if that intern worked remotely. I spent six months with that magazine, working from Banff with regular Skype calls with my editor. And though I slaved away for free, the experience taught me a lot about the industry and my own writing. I emerged a much better writer, with new connections in the industry I never otherwise would have made, and with a bit more credibility behind my name.

11. Build a Website and Get “You” Online

Once you have a fair amount of credible publications under your belt, and you’re keen on pursuing freelance writing, I recommend you start up a website. There are plenty of platforms to help you do this and my personal favourite is WordPress.com. This can be attached to your blog somehow or kept separate. A website, such as the one you’re on right now, will provide people with an online resume, help to attract potential clients and provide you with credibility. Go ahead: buy a domain with your name in it right now, even if you don’t plan to build a website for a year.

Furthermore, in today’s world I believe it’s absolutely essential for a new writer (well, anyone) to take control of his or her online profile. When people Google your name, what comes up? Google mine. You’ll notice that I share names with another U.S.-based writer. After discovering this, I realized the importance of 1. adding the “J.” to my name (to distinguish us) and 2. further “branding” myself as an outdoor, travel and adventure writer. (From time to time we have been confused but both gladly assist people in finding the right Meghan).

You need to be the one that makes sure your online presence is clean and accurate. Having a website will help.

12. Join a Writing Organization

Once you have a few publications under your belt, you may benefit from joining a larger organization that supports freelance writers. Again, this will broaden your network and provide you with numerous professional development opportunities. I am member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (you’ll also want to check out their writers.ca) and the Alberta Magazine Publisher’s Association.

13. Build a Social Network

Building a strong social network online will not only help you get your work and name out there, but perhaps more importantly will introduce you to people and publications you may never otherwise have encountered. These people include other writers, editors and potential sources or experts. I use LinkedIn to expand my professional network and Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to create community around my work, to crowd-source and simply listen. If I had to pick just one, I would use Twitter (check out my 5 Reasons Why Writers Should Be On Twitter).

If you’re interested in connecting your business online I highly recommend you read Six Pixels of Separation, by Mitch Joel.

14. Don’t Quit Your Day Job…Yet

We only have 24 hours in a day, and many people struggle to find time to pursue writing when they are working full time. For a few years I worked full time while I built up my portfolio. Then I moved down to 30 hours a week, and took on more writing. At one point, I was working 30 hours a week at a local retail store, 20 hours a week for Alpinist, and freelancing on the side. Eventually I took the leap to writing full time but only when I saw that I had enough work to get by.

It’s worth mentioning that there are not many people in Canada who make a living purely off of freelance writing for magazines. My income comes from 1/3 freelance for magazines, 1/3 web/brochure/marketing copy, and 1/3 social media and marketing consulting. Those ratios are always in flux, but at least that gives you an idea.


15. Be Resourceful

One of my favourite quotes is by Ben Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Naturally, we like to write about topics that interest us. And one of the coolest things about writing is that you can take something you do anyway, write about it and make some money.

In April 2011, my husband and I went ski touring in Auyuittuq National Park, within the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island. While I was writing an article for IMPACT Magazine about ultra runner, Ellie Greenwood, I got talking with the editor about that trip. He asked if I would write something, so I did (you can read about it in The Land That Does Not Melt).

I’ll admit it’s not always easy to find a balance when anything could become fodder for an article. You can read about that in the 6 Things I’ve Learned From Living Off My Lifestyle.

Be persistent. In can take years to build up a portfolio and gain credibility in the industry. If you really want to make it happen, even as a side business, you need to stick with it. To this day I still have many query letters rejected each year (and often I don’t hear back at all). Keep your love for writing at the center. Give yourself a pat on the back just for showing up and watch this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I would appreciate any additional ideas that other writers have for getting started in freelance writing. Please use the Comments feature below to share your ideas!

Olé! for Showing Up

Ever since I announced my challenge, 52 Weeks of Feedback, I have received a fair amount of…feedback! I didn’t expect to ignite discussion simply by raising the issue of the lack of feedback in the world of writing, but I did.

The challenge has incited a variety of responses. Some writers love the idea and realized that they love getting feedback but leave far too little for other people. One writer asked why I feel that there is a lack of feedback. Another said they liked the idea, but couldn’t commit to making it ‘a chore’ by formalizing the process of giving feedback.

The responses got me thinking about how we all operate as writers, and what drives us. I personally enjoy the sense of community that is created around my writing. It feels good to know that I have struck a chord in a reader or generated some kind of discussion. It also feels good to get positive feedback from an editor and to see progress. On the flip side, I appreciate the things I learn about improving my writing through the smallest of edits. I carry each of those lessons forward into the next article.

That being said, as a writer I need to be able to write to my highest standard and do my job without feedback. I can’t rely on a pat on my back to know I’m putting something good out there. I need to learn to know this for myself, have confidence in my skill and my creative flair – that touch that I, and only I, can put on a piece.

Writers are some of the most passionate people I know. When we become hooked by a particular idea, story or controversy, we dive into it, swimming in the depths of the material, research, interviews – anything we can get our hands on – before bringing the story to the surface. I know that I can’t comfortably bring anything forward until I’ve done the best job I can to get the story right and bring something new to the table. So, after all that work, I have to know for myself that I’ve done the best job that I can. No one else can do that for me. It’s icing on the cake if someone does.

I have a note on my bulletin board that says, Olé! for showing up. It comes from a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I’ve embedded below. Reflecting on the success of her book, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert muses on the expectations we have for writers and other creative people who create works of genius. I have never created one of these works (to my knowledge). But in every word there lies potential for genius. It is not something we can guarantee. All we can do is show up and let Genius do the rest.

highly recommend you take 20 minutes to watch this video. The last two minutes give me goosebumps every time.

Things Are Getting adVenture-ous

I have the amazing opportunity of being out at Hollyhock, Canada’s Lifelong Learning Centre on Cortes Island, British Columbia. And while the scenery and the feel of the place is enough to make the trip worth it all, I have the added bonus of being here for the Social Venture Institute, “an intensive, interactive inquiry into how to face the day-to-day challenges of running a socially conscious enterprise” (from their website). What does this all mean for me?

Well, I’m not quite sure…yet. For one, I’m here wearing a number of different hats. First and foremost, I’m here on behalf of two very forward-thinking clients, who have me doing some ‘research.’ I’m here representing my own freelance writing and marketing business. I’m here as Editor of Highline Magazine. I’m here to learn on behalf of other partners I work with, including a very exciting health and wellness website to be launched by the end of this year. So, depending on whom I’m talking to, I’m here for slightly different reasons.

If I had to spell it out, though, I’m here to be inspired, rejuvenated, to regain hope, narrow my focus and to scope out the possibilities of seeing a similar gathering of like-minded individuals in Alberta.

I’m also here for me. Ah yes, that little person inside just waiting to be spoken to again. “Hello, Meghan, it’s been awhile.” In juggling multiple contracts, writing gigs, editing requests, trying to play outside during the beautiful summertime and planning a nine week trek in Nepal – let alone clearing the decks completely before I depart – I have been so busy I have somewhat lost myself. All (most) of my projects are very fulfilling, but reading The 4-Hour Workweek lately has got me thinking about how much I take on when I really don’t need to. Call me “Yes Woman.”

So, I am here to get some perspective and to “check out” of life for a few days, even if my email inbox is telling me I should do otherwise.

I look forward to sharing my learning with you.

Ciao (for now) from the coast,

Meghan