In Writing, a Little Encouragement Goes a Long Way

unicornSo, a couple of months ago, my friend Stephanie asked me to do the Writer’s Weekly 24-Hour Short Story Contest with her. I hadn’t written any fiction in about, oh, six or seven years, but I’d been wanting to start and thought this would be a good way to get my feet wet.

The contest worked like this: 500 participants had 24 hours to write their stories. On the morning of the contest, we were issued a prompt and a word limit. That way the judges could ensure our stories were written specifically for the contest.

Our prompt was this:

“The cold wind battered the fortune teller’s wagon, threatening an early frost. The girls climbed down, simultaneously giggling and shivering about the message the old witch had delivered. As their feet pushed through the red and orange leaves, a shadow emerged from the gnarled maple trees. A bent man in tattered layers stepped in front of the girls, leaned over, and put his crooked finger to his lips…”

I was stoked to find out a little more than a month later that I won an honorable mention! Okay, I know it’s not the Pulitzer, but I was really encouraged. It felt great to write an imaginative story. And it felt wonderful to know someone out there liked it.

So now I’m doing NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month. Writers all over the world attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. I didn’t think I could do it, but thought that even if it got me going it would be worth a try.

It’s November 20 and I’ve written more than 45,000 words.

I think fiction may just be my new favorite hobby! 🙂

Thanks for reading,
Sara

P.S. If you’re interested in reading my 24-hour short story, it is here:

A Strange Impulse

A cautionary wind rose as Suzette climbed from her station wagon. She was uncertain the old car would make the long trip, especially loaded with all her belongings. But here they were.

Maple leaves swirled – crimson, amber, and rust. There was something about autumn that evoked a distinct feeling of new beginnings, even as the leaves shriveled and the cold crept in to end the year.

With every new beginning, though, comes an end. Behind her in New Orleans, Suzette was leaving a life she loved. Katrina had destroyed her home and her well-established fortune-telling business. Once regulars and tourists flocked to her storefront, filled with hope for good readings and futures. Now the space stank from black mold and stagnant puddles, curled tarot cards strewn about the shop.

The insurance check arrived too late to save Suzette’s business, but it didn’t matter. After one look, she left her home and shop and never went back.

But the hurricane’s greatest tragedy for Suzette was that she’d lost Cole. Grief flooded her heart and remained after the waters had washed from the streets. Suzette’s one relief was her fiancé would never see what happened to their city, Cole’s professed “second love.” He’d come to NOLA to study jazz in college and stayed, building a life of passion and performance among the rich music scene.

The past year taught Suzette there was no use looking back. Yet, she couldn’t find anything worth looking forward to – until she found the ad in the paper.

When she spotted it, she was struck by its perfection. Instantly, she knew the ad was meant for her, that the universe was offering direction. It was impossible to resist.

She never read the newspaper, and had purchased it on a strange impulse that day. This is what she found:

Farmhouse and Clairvoyant Business for Sale

Available: Well-maintained 200-year-old house in upstate N.Y. with 7 acres of fertile land and mystical shop where retiring owner performs psychic readings for numerous long-standing customers just waiting to be transferred to a kind-hearted and talented new owner.
In one paragraph, Suzette was reborn. She was an avid gardener and the self-sufficiency of farming seemed comforting in contrast with the uncertainty of her recent hardships. Even more appealing was the change of scenery to one lacking reminders of Cole and her former life.

She rapidly planned her new existence, which included purchasing the property with insurance money, raising produce and livestock, and earning additional income telling fortunes. Excited, she wrote the owner to arrange a visit.

Standing before the house, doubt whispered. She’d visited Cole’s family in the Northeast enough times to know it was early to feel this kind of chill in the air. The threat of early frost reminded her that farming was far from certain and her fate could, once again, be dictated by nature’s whim.

Two young girls slammed the screen door as they emerged from the house. Their giggles quickly escalated into shrieks and the old man raking leaves in the yard put a finger to his lips, kindly reminding them to respect the Sunday morning quiet.

“My wife’s waiting inside for you,” he told Suzette. “Go on in.”

“Hello!” Helen called brightly as Suzette entered. She hoped her enthusiasm disguised her true emotional state: an awkward quandary. “Why don’t we get to know each other before I show you ‘round?” She turned and filled a kettle. Suzette reluctantly sat, impatient.

“I apologize. We’ve been so busy,” said the woman. “I actually hoped to postpone your visit, but couldn’t find a phone number or e-mail address for you online. It was too late to write.”

“I don’t have a cell or e-mail,” Suzette said. “I like to be disconnected. Helps me feel more in touch with my instincts and the signs around me.”

“I certainly understand that,” Helen said knowingly as she poured their tea. “How long have you been aware of your gift?”

“Since puberty. You?”

“Early childhood,” Helen replied. “It started with dreams.” Suzette didn’t know one of these dreams was responsible for her trip here. Or that Helen was fraught with panic at her arrival.

Three weeks earlier, Helen woke with a start. In 70 years, such dreams had never been wrong, so she followed her sleeping premonition and submitted the ad – despite having no intention to sell. She would’ve declined Suzette’s request to visit, but intuition demanded she allow it. Long ago, she’d learned not to ignore the urgings of the gift.

When Helen saw the fully packed station wagon pull up, her heart sank. She still had no insight into the dream. Across from her sat a girl who apparently left a great deal behind and was eager to start a new life in her not-for-sale house.

“Let me tell you about the place,” she started, delaying discussion of the transaction.

Several minutes later, as Helen finished recounting a winding history of their life and farm, Suzette heard footsteps.

“Is someone else here?” she asked.

“We take in boarders,” Helen explained, happy for the subject change. “Perhaps you could stay here until the, errr, closing?” She squirmed, desperate for stall tactics, hoping the meaning of this debacle would be revealed in the meantime. “We’ve just one boarder now. Quiet fella. Doesn’t talk much. Kinda sad. If you’ll stay for supper you can meet him. You know? I think you two might get along –”

Suzette dropped her teacup and it shattered loudly as her eyes grew wide and filled with tears. Deep within the farmhouse, a trumpet played a familiar Storyville melody that rang out like the blowing of Gabriel’s horn, its unmistakable trill resurrecting all Suzette had lost.

7 Easy Ways to Make Your Web Articles More User-Friendly

Loads of studies have shown that web users are an impatient bunch. (Here’s a link to the seminal study on how people read on the internet.)

The findings:  internet users don’t read — they scan.

How does this little fact impact how web content should be written? A whole bunch! If you’ve been writing your articles the same way you’d write for a magazine or whitepaper, you may want to check out the tips below.

Here are 7 tried-and-true ways to spruce up your style and get more readers:

1. Include bulleted lists.

  • Readers can’t resist bullets. Often, they are one of the first parts of a post that gets read
  • Bullets look different from the rest of the article, and make the article seem easier to read
  • Bullets are a simple way to present a bunch of diverse points on a subject

2. Press enter often.

Line breaks are your best friend, so keep your paragraphs as short as possible. Four sentences or less is a sound goal. Believe it or not, even one-sentence paragraphs are a good idea when writing for the internet.

3. Break things up with subheads.

Compelling subheadings make the content seem easier to consume and allow the reader to find what they are looking for more quickly. Posting an article that is comprised of one giant block of text is a sure-fire way to make readers bounce.

4. Make important concepts bold.

Bolding key topics and ideas also helps the reader find the info they seek more easily. I probably don’t need to tell you that you shouldn’t go crazy with the bolding. Just pick a few.

5. Include nice long captions with your images.

This isn’t just great for search engine optimization, it’s also an excellent way to engage readers. Captions are one of the first elements of an article that users read, so creating 3-4 sentence descriptions for each picture might just be enough to pique their interest.

6. Linky, linky, linky.

Include internal links to the best content on your site and external links to reputable sources on the web. This is great for SEO and allows readers to delve deeper if your article has interested them. This type of positive “customer service” experience will also make them more likely to return to your site.

7.  About those numbered list articles . . .

You know, 7 Ways to Lose Weight Quickly. The 5 Worst Movies Ever Made. Improve Your Career in 9 Easy Steps.

They’re everywhere. And there’s a good reason for it: people read them.

Why?

Breaking things down into a set number of steps or pieces of information seems manageable for the reader. They know exactly what they’re getting into. Traffic studies consistently show that these types of lists achieve strong readership.

Additional fun-fact: lists with an odd number of items achieve higher readership.

If you want your content to be successful under Google Hummingbird and in the future, it is so important to make your posts as user-friendly as possible. Luckily, there are tons of ways to achieve this.

If you’re part of an in-house team that is considering using a freelancer to help with content development, give me a call at (315)264-8514 or shoot me an e-mail at saralrfurlong@gmail.com. I’d love to discuss your goals, help you out with writing, and brainstorm ways to make your content more engaging for your target audience.

If you’re an ad agency that needs help delivering content, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’ve helped many agencies provide great content for their clients and would love to help you, too.

 

5 Tips for New Freelance Writers

The title says it all so there’s really no need for a lengthy introduction. Here are a few tips I hope will help a new writer or two:

1. Customer service and communication are every bit as important as your writing skills.

Let’s be real. A lot of freelancers are flakes. I’ve noticed that many clients would prefer to pay agency prices even when a freelancer could do the job just as well for a third of the cost, simply because they’ve had a bad experience with a freelancer.

If you get your foot in the door, consider it your #1 priority to wow them with your reliability, commitment, and service. If you do, I can almost guarantee the project will blossom into a partnership that provides you with a steady stream of work.

2. If you are charging your hourly rate from your old job, you’re charging too little.

First of all, self employment taxes are ridiculously high. Be sure to take that into account.

Second of all, your old job package consisted of much more than your salary. We’re talking things like health insurance, paid time off, retirement benefits, disability, life insurance, equipment, utilities, and (most important) coffee. Comparing your salary then to your income now is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

3. If you’re not on LinkedIn, get on there. Now.

Seriously, finish reading this post later. Skedaddle!

 

. . . Well, now that you’re back, I will tell you that LinkedIn is an absolutely fantastic tool for marketing all things B2B. Freelance content and copy writers should spend much more time on LinkedIn than on Facebook or Twitter since that’s where their target audience is tuned in.

4. Save a substantial emergency fund and cut unnecessary expenses.

This will not only give you peace of mind, it will make you less likely to feel the need to say yes to every project that comes along. As a beginning freelancer, you might be wondering, “why would I ever want to turn down work?!” But trust me. There are times when your gut will tell you that a job goes against your goals as a freelancer. It might be a crazy schedule, an abrasive personality, or a red flag hinting at financial instability. Whatever the reason for that feeling, you want to feel free to follow it. If you don’t, nine times out of 10 you’ll end up enduring a period of misery.

Also, if you feel like you need to say yes to everything, you will be so overworked you won’t be able to provide your best possible work — and that should always be your goal.

5. Understand your true value.

I used to be so nervous every time I had to speak with a prospective client. Then one day it hit me: I am offering something of immense value. This is not just an opportunity for me, it is an opportunity for them.

To provide a company with skills, knowledge, experience, dedication, and a genuine desire to do a great job all without having to hire a full-time employee is huge. They can utilize your talents and pay only for the number of hours you work for them. And they don’t have to pay for benefits, insurance, and all the other stuff that goes along with full-time employment.

Realizing this has made me feel much more confident when meeting with new clients and more comfortable with the uncertainty that comes with freelancing. If you’re finding that your confidence can be a little shaky, take some time to write down all the benefits of working with you. I bet you’ll be surprised at just how strong they are.

Best of luck!!
Sara

PS – Are you a new freelancer? What challenges and successes have you experienced?

Been freelancing for a while? What tips would you have for a new freelancer?

Google Hummingbird, Content Writing, and How I Can Help

In Fall 2013, Google announced the changeover to the Hummingbird algorithm. Unlike previous changes like Panda and Penguin, which were merely updates, Hummingbird represented a complete algorithmic overhaul.

Google insiders explained that the aim of Hummingbird is to pay attention to each word in a search, account for spoken mobile search tools, and determine the intent of the searcher. Basically, they’re trying even harder to get to the bottom of the user’s needs by analyzing context. So the way we approach content development is more important than ever.

Why should online marketers care about Hummingbird? 

Because it means we can no longer rely on the keyword techniques that once drove users to our pages. The practice of finding the most frequently searched keywords or terms with the highest KEI and incorporating them as much as possible into copy and meta data is no longer relevant.

When creating online content, we can no longer fake it. We need to:

  • Always put the quality of the content first, before rankings
  • Conduct keyword research, but only incorporate keywords and phrases where they sound completely natural
  • Incorporate synonyms to account for potential search breadth
  • Anticipate the user’s needs and desires beyond the search. Our number one goal should be to figure out what questions and needs they are looking to have answered and provide that information
  • Still incorporate keywords into headers and other strategic positions, but never at the expense of clarity. The second most important goal should be to ensure users know exactly where to look for the information they seek
  • Keep mobile users in mind. With more and more searchers using functions like Siri, it’s important to keep language conversational and natural
  • Continue all social media efforts, focusing on getting shares from high-authority users rather than a specific number of likes, follows, or shares
  • When appropriate, entertain

Steve Masters wrote, “The Hummingbird approach should be inspirational to anyone managing and planning content – if you aren’t already thinking like Hummingbird, you should be. In a nutshell, think about why people are looking for something rather than what they are looking for. A content strategy should be designed to answer their needs, not just provide them with facts.”

How can I help?

If you’ve been thinking about using an out-of-house writer to produce content and improve your SEO, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

In a nutshell, I can benefit your company in these ways:

  • EXPERIENCE. I’ve had lots of experience writing online articles, blogs, web copy, press releases, success stories, social media material, and all sorts of other content you might find on the internet. There is nothing more professionally fulfilling for me than seeing a client’s traffic and conversion rates increase
  • KNOWLEDGE. I’m passionate about following the most recent developments in the ways we are connected to one another via the web. You can expect that the content I create is based on solid marketing strategy and current best practices
  • COST. I will probably save you a pretty penny, while delivering great value. Hiring an in-house writer is expensive and using a cheap pay-by-word-count service sacrifices quality. Incorporating a dedicated freelance writer into your team is a cost-effective way to build a strong body of great content
  • FLEXIBILITY. I can provide content on any schedule you need, as often as daily
  • COMFORT. When it comes to process, you can be as involved, or as hands-off as you desire. Some clients like to come up with their own topics and provide me with a content calendar. Others prefer I research topics and send them a list for approval. Either way, I enjoy taking initiative and my goal is always to exceed your needs

Sound good? E-mail me at saralrfurlong@gmail.com or call (315) 264-8514.

I look forward to chatting with you!

Brilliant Use of Groupon: 60% off…College Tuition?

Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deals sites are trendy marketing methods right now, but like all strategies, they are are more appropriate for some goods and services than others. Groupon can be a revenue-killer and for many products it just doesn’t make sense.

However, last week I read about a use of Groupon that struck me as particularly brilliant — and unexpected! National Louis University of Chicago offered 60% off tuition for their introductory graduate teaching course, dropping the price from $2,232 to $950.

I thought this was a great way to get people who are thinking of going into teaching to take the first step! And don’t worry about revenues — the students will have to take another 33 credits to graduate, so the school will make around $30,000 for those who buy the deal and continue on in the program. Plus, the school is getting lots of national attention since offering the deal.

I have a few questions I like to ask when clients are considering Groupon or the like. I’ve found these questions to be helpful in deciding whether offering the discounts is likely to be profitable. NLU passes this test with flying colors!

  1. Are new customers who are attracted by the Groupon (or other voucher) likely to return after using the deal? If not, you’re really not accomplishing much by advertising deep discounts on Groupon. But in the case of National Louis University, the answer is yes. This deal does a good job of qualifying buyers. You can be fairly certain that if someone buys this deal, they are genuinely interested in pursuing education in teaching since they have to spend nearly $1,000.  Plus, customers who spend that $1,00o and the time required to take the first course are likely to feel committed enough at that point that they are compelled to take more courses. Many will probably even finish, making the university tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Is the deal likely to be bought up by many long-time customers wanting to get discounts on products or services they already use? If so, think carefully before offering extreme discounts. NLU doesn’t have to worry about this, because they are offering discounts of an Introductory course. Current students of the program have no use for the offer.
  3. Are the Groupon demographics you’re targeting very different from your usual customer demographics? According to Ben Edelman of the Harvard Business School, his research “shows that merchants will find discount vouchers most profitable when the population claiming vouchers differs greatly from the merchant’s typical clientele.” So the Groupon audience should be different from the advertiser’s usual audience, probably to avoid targeting those who would buy the products anyway at the normal price. For National Louis University, the “usual demographic” would be students. So, once again, they are a great candidate to be profitable on Groupon because, most Groupon subscribers work and only 12% are students. (See chart for more detailed percentages).

4. Does the product you’re offering have low marginal costs? If your answer is no, then no Groupon for you. In most cases it makes no sense to offer a deep discount on something with low margins. Not knowing the margins of NLU, I’m going to guess that the perceived value of education allows them to raise tuition as needed to keep their margins solid.

As with any campaign, it is important to measure the results of your Groupon effort. I sure hope to be able to get my hands on the results of NLU’s offer!