The Writer as Entrepreneur

I’m going to a conference in a couple of weeks. Nothing unusual about that; I seem to be going to about a million of them lately. But this one is on a subject dear to my heart, the elusive publishing deal. It tells you how to sell your manuscript to a publisher and to the wider world.

Once upon a time, securing a publisher was all that was needed to be successful as a writer. The writer could simply write and let their writing speak for itself. But in a world full of noise and competing mediums, this is no longer enough.

I was once told that writing is a private act with public consequences. The reality for the modern writer is that when their book is finished, they must then transform themselves into an entrepreneur.Their book becomes a product to be sold and once they grasp that fact, writers can work it to their advantage.

The notion of selling themselves is distateful to many writers, yet the link between writer and entrepreneur is stronger than you might imagine. Like the entrepreneur, the writer comes up with a unique idea. They develop this idea into a book and recognise that there is a gap in the market for that book. They have the self-belief to carry that idea through.

And to lure a publisher, they must use sales techniques familiar to entrepreneurs, outlining what makes their book special and what it offers to readers. They may not be entrepreneurs in the Bill Cullen mould, but they could be described as creative entrepreneurs.

Once their book is with a publisher, the writer must be proactive in selling it. It is unwise for them to leave their fate entirely in the hands of their publisher, because publishers are often too busy to give books the individual attention they need.

Fortunately, there are more opportunities than ever for writers to sell their books. They can organise their own local media campaigns, set up websites, participate in online forums and engage with social media. One of my Facebook friends, Olive O’Brien, is launching a children’s book and has set up a page to promote it called Silverchair Publishing. It’s an example of creative entrepreneurship in action.

By their very nature, writers tend to be private people who don’t enjoy talking about their work.  But the truth is, if they don’t talk about their work, how are people going to know about it.  They deserve recognition for  all those lonely, doubt-filled hours creating their masterpieces. This is the most valuable lesson writers can learn from more traditional entrepreneurs.

Homage to my 10 favourite words

I have a confession to make. I am in love with the English language. This is a lifetime love affair. In this week’s blog, I have decided to pay homage to my love by sharing some of my favourite words. And since I also love lists, this homage will take the form of a top 10.

There is no great scientific reason for my choices. Mostly I just like the way these words sound, dignified, elegant, playful. Saying them makes my mouth tingle. And it just so happens that they frequently have positive meanings too. Here’s my list, in no particular order.

1. segue, a term used when two pieces of music follow each other in a seamless flow.

2. rhombus, really a four-sided shape, but sounds like a dance.

3. Funky, generally fashionable and cool. I imagine that merely saying the word is enough to make me cool too.

4. squish, variant on squash, satisfying onomatopoeic sound.

5. spangly, sparkly, generally refers to clothes. Since these are the kinds of clothes I favour, I use it quite a lot

6. subliminal, below the level of consciousness. Because everyone needs a word that will make them sound intelligent

7. lickety-split, immediately, as soon as possible. Gloriously retro wor

8. ubiquitious, everywhere at once. Satisfyingly long and twisty

9. yoink, used when you’re snatching something away from someone. Again, very onomatopoeic

10. discombobulated, confused. Hearing it always makes me smile.

The English language offers a rich menu of words  to choose from. Why not venture beyond the every day and explore what it has to offer. Feel free to share your own favourite words with me. I’m always on the lookout for choice titbits

How to Chase Down Editors

Editors are elusive beasts. I should know. I have dealt with many of them in my years as a freelance writer. They operate according to a strange code of behaviour that wouldn’t be acceptable under ordinary circumstances. Yet because they wield a lot of power, both writers and business are eager to jump through hoops to gain access to them.

Newspaper and magazine editors are like circus ringmasters. They are required to juggle many balls. They balance budgets, lay out pages, pounce on copy errors, organise their staff and keep an ear to the ground for interesting new ideas. Surviving on coffee and adrenaline, they keep all these balls in the air, to ensure that the publication ‘goes to bed,’ on time.

Budgetary constraints are making the lives of editors even more difficult. Perhaps this is why some of them play cat and mouse games, leaving you dangling while you wait for their verdict on your article proposal or press release. Perhaps the worst situation of all, for writers at least, is when they accept your proposal and you send your article in after hours of sweat and toil, only to find that it has sunk into a void.

Fortunately, there are good editors out there. Editors who tell you clearly what approach they’d like you to take and how long they want the resulting article to be. Most of all, they’ll tell you what you’ll be paid without you having to put your hands out in supplication. If you are a business, they will give you a swift verdict on your press release and work with you to make sure the final copy accurately reflects what your business offers.

A particular approach is required to butter up an editor. Budding writers often believe that they need to slave over an article before sending it to a publication. But what editors like is a pitch, a concise explanation of your idea and what it offers to their readers.Your pitch should reflect your knowledge of their publication, its tone and content. This will flatter their egos and show that you’re serious.

In your pitch, begin by introducing yourself and briefly outlining your writing background. Don’t worry if you haven’t published much before; you may have expertise in a particular topic, or be aware of a particularly interesting issue the editor might not have considered before.

Then give them an indication of the approach you’re going to take. This gives the editor an indication of what will make your article stand out. Explain the relevance of your idea to their readers. For example, you may want to turn the spotlight on a little-known health condition that actually affects a lot of people. Then outline how you plan to approach the article, who you will interview etc.

If you’re a business, the opposite applies. Editors receive hundreds of press releases. Make it easy for them to access yours by including it in the body of your email, with an introductory note about you and your business to give it personality.  Remember than when it comes to being included in newspapers and magazines, the editor is your customer. Give your customer what they want. (Refer to my previous blog post, The Write Angle, for more on this).

Once you’ve sent in your pitch, it’s time to follow it up. Most editors won’t get back to you straight away. Often, it’s a simple case of their inbox being clogged. Send them an email to check whether they got your idea. It’ll jog their memory. If they haven’t received your idea, it will pique their interest. A phone call is also a good idea, particularly if you want to be included in a newspaper. Give your follow up a day or two for ewspaper editors and a week if it’s a magazine editors.

The stress editors are under makes them a grumpy lot. If they’re unfriendly to you, it’s a good sign. It means they’re taking your idea seriously and will expect you to deliver the goods. If they are friendly, it’s quite likely that they’re humouring you. This gem comes from the mouth of an editor of several high profile magazines. Good luck.


Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Last week, I found myself at a medical conference, among rows of doctors, scientists and researchers, as gene therapies for treating degenerative eye conditions were revealed. It was all thoroughly fascinating and I typed like fury as the speakers unveiled their discoveries. But what was I doing there? I have no medical qualifications; I gave up all science subjects while still at school. I was armed only with my lifelong fascination for matters medical, which has enabled me to pick up enough information by osmosis to write an article about the conference for The Irish Medical Times.

When you’re starting off in journalism, you’re often advised to develop an area of expertise. Given that my areas of expertise, the arts and disability, yielded little possibility of ongoing work, I ended up not heeding that advice. And I believe it has benefited my career. Journalism is about stories and the journalist’s main duty is to find these stories and transmit them to an audience in a way they can understand. They do not need mastery of their chosen topic to do this.

In fact, it can work to their advantage. Though the Irish Medical Times is a trade publication, it’s aimed at a general medical audience. If I were an expert in the field of gene therapy, I might have weighed down my article with so much complex terminology that it would have been gobbledygook to all but the most specialised practitioners. Instead, I was free to think about what would interest my audience, in this case, the benefits of these therapies to patients. Because I was viewing the conference with fresh eyes, I like to think I let a little of my wide eyed wonder leak into my article, reminding the doctors that even in difficult economic circumstances, incredible medical advances are still being made.

A journalist is required to have a good base level of general knowledge to work from. But what’s more important is that they know who to talk to. A journalist I met at an NUJ conference spoke about the envy some of his colleagues felt when he landed an interview with artist Tracy Emin. After all, what did he know about Tracy Emin? He pointed out that it didn’t matter that he didn’t know much about art. He knew how to track her down and coax interesting, relevant information from her.

Again, this has worked well in my own career. A few years ago, I was given a tip-off about the effects of the recently imposed salmon-driftnetting ban on Waterford fishermen. I was freelancing for The Irish Examiner at the time. I was put in touch with some valuable contacts and won myself a spread on the regional newspapers. I realised that there was further potential in the story and contacted a fishing magazine with it. I was given my own column, covering South-East issues. I was chosen not because of my in-depth knowledge of the EU quota system, but because I knew how to reach the important people on the ground.

That was almost three years ago and I’m still writing the column to this day. While I don’t come from a fishing background, I’ve developed a library of trusted sources who supply me with all the information I need. This gives my column an air of authority and makes it relevant to the fishermen. If you’re an expert in a subject, you’re thinking about the issues involved. Because I’m not weighed down by that baggage, I can concentrate on the people behind the news, both those who feature in it and those who consume it.

If you feel that you’d like to write, but don’t have a particular area of expertise, there are plenty of other routes to success. Your own contacts could yield a bounty of stories and provide you with a ready made source to draw on. If there’s a local story that you  feel needs to be told, let that be your guide when you approach media outlets. It could be about a historical figure who made a significant contribution, or a unique scheme that’s making a difference to the lives of the people in your area. Once you’ve attracted the attention of your chosen outlet, you can do all the research you need to ensure that your story rings true.

Most Irritating Business Cliches

I’m taking a stand at an exhibition event in a little over a week. Making your stand interesting is a challenge when you’re not selling a product. I’ve decided to get around that obstacle by offering people the opportunity to nominate the business cliché that annoys them the most.

In poll after poll, there is a certain set of culprits which set people’s teeth on edge. We help our customers swim down the sales channel; we talk about what will happen going forward and we work 24/7. All of us are guilty of using this cliches. We rely on them as crutches when other words don’t come. The very nature of a cliché is that it’s true.

Here’s a breakdown of 10 common offenders, my view of them and alternative phrases which could be used.

Going forward

The classic bugbear. Going forward where, I always wonder.

Alternative: in the future, in the coming months,

Blue sky thinking.

I presume this refers to innovative or creative thinking.

Alternative: Why not just say innovative or creative thinking.


A plastic substitute for real connection between businesses

Alternative: points of connectivity, chemistry


Conjures up an image of a soulless executive in a suit, BlackBerry in one hand, paper cup of coffee in the other

Alternative: all the hours God sends. May be more unwieldy, but implies dedication. Also more accurate. No one actually works 24 hours a day.

At the end of the day

Not the worst offender in my view, but still used often enough to have lost meaning

Alternative: Ultimately, in the end

Levelling the playing field

I do think this one is quite acceptable. It’s a strong image which people can relate to.

Alternative: creates balance, evens things out

Singing from the same hymn sheet

A meaningless phrase, but not as bad as its counterpart ‘on the same page.’

Alternative: on the same wavelength, in agreement

Green shoots of recovery

An optimistic phrase, again with an image people can relate to

Alternative: signs of recovery, light on the horizon

With all due respect

Possibly the most insulting phrase ever, ostensibly used to soften the blow before launching an attack.

Alternative: None. If you feel a need to make your point, go straight for the jugular.

Content is king

Have to say I like this phrase, since it justifies my existence.

Alternative: None needed!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on which of these phrases annoy you, or indeed, any that I’ve left out. I’ve heard about a fascinating book by Jeremy Butterfield called Damp Squid, The English Language Laid Bare. It examines the tautologies and sloppy language used by public figures. The title originates from a remark by an English footballer, who referred to his Scottish opposition as a ‘damp squid!’ Don’t fall foul of such linguistic laziness. Reach for a more accurate alternative.