End hiatus

Several friends and loyal readers have commented about the lack of activity on my blogs lately. I'm sorry to have worried some of you... and deprived others of you of my brilliant insights (haha). Michael did recover, but two days later his mom came to visit — and promptly got sick, too. And throughout all of this, I was struggling to meet end-of-the-month deadlines!

Last night I had quite a scare when I started feeling a little queasy, but today I've felt fine, so perhaps it was nothing. My mother-in-law is leaving in the morning, so tomorrow I'll be back to work as usual. (I'm staying up late tonight to get a jump start.) Stay tuned for catch-up blog posts on all of my blogs!

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, June 30, 2008 At 11:54 PM 0 comments

Michael is sick today

Michael is home sick today, so right now I am sitting beside him in bed with my laptop, preparing to get to work.

The last few days have been extraordinarily busy. I have a lot of end-of-the-month deadlines, which have kept me too busy to even keep up on my blogs as well as I'd like. I really can't afford to not work today, which is why I'm settling for working next to Michael. Luckily, he is sleeping for the most part, which leaves me plenty of time to work with only a few interruptions.

On days like today, I'm really glad I freelance and have this flexibility!

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, June 24, 2008 At 11:42 AM 0 comments

Freelancers, unite!

One of our own, Kathy Kehrli of Screw You!, is getting screwed by a client named Madelyn Wattigney. The woman hired Kathy to "finesse" a press release and never paid her for it. The story has even made it into WriterWeekly.com's Whispers and Warnings.

Kathy recently tracked down Madelyn Wattigney online. She left a comment on her client's blog — a blog, of all things, about her activities for charity — and asked us all to do the same. I'm asking all my readers to head over there and leave her a comment urging her to pay up. If the freelance writing community gets together on this, I bet we can get results!

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By Katharine Swan On Thursday, June 19, 2008 At 8:00 PM 1 comments

Beware: Leslie Lomax

On the request of another blogger, I am posting a link to her warning about non-paying client Leslie Lomax. She did the typical deadbeat client thing of praising the first article, asking for more, then never getting back in touch with the writer after she turned in the additional work. Unfortunately, the writer didn't have any contact information for her other than her email address, so she has no way to pressure the client into paying the rest of what she owes.

Two lessons to be learned from this situation:

1. A deposit or partial upfront payment protects somewhat against you getting screwed, but doesn't make it impossible.

2. Always get contact information for a client before entering into any agreement with them — not just an email address, but also a phone number and physical address.

And of course, stay away from Leslie Lomax!

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By Katharine Swan On At 7:30 PM 0 comments

Got something you just never get done?

Yesterday was what I affectionately refer to as "Newsletter Day" — the day of the week when three different newsletters I subscribe to come out. One of the newsletters is Marcia Yudkin's The Marketing Minute.

Yesterday's Marketing Minute really hit home for me. Referencing a book by Julie Morgenstern, Yudkin suggests that if there's an item on your to-do list that is always there because you can never seem to get it done, maybe there's a reason why.

Maybe there's a reason why you're procrastinating on that item.

Instead of stressing out about it every day, Yudkin recommends doing one of three things: delegating it to someone else, doing an abbreviated version of the task just to get it done, or making the decision not to do it after all.

I have had these persistent to-do list items before, and I have to say that after writing it on my list every day for weeks, making a conscious decision to ditch the task can be the most satisfying things. By deleting the task, you're giving yourself permission to not do it, and not worry that you should be doing it. If it's really something you didn't want to do, it's amazingly liberating to make that decision.

Have you ever had perma-tasks on your to-do list, and what have you done about them?

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By Katharine Swan On At 9:03 AM 0 comments

The telecommuting trend

A few days ago, I posted about gas prices and freelance writers. Of course, while rising gas prices do affect many of us, they don't as much as, say, someone who commutes an hour in each direction every day. Even if rising fuel prices impact us in other areas, we are lucky to be able to do our work from home.

Michael and I have often talked about whether fuel prices will lead to telecommuting as a standard for office-type jobs. Judging by this story on NPR, it seems the answer is yes — many companies are already trending toward telecommuting, or at least toward a condensed workweek. For these companies, breaking with tradition is preferable to losing valuable, experienced employees because they can no longer afford their commute.

The other thing that is happening is that people are looking for work closer to home. This is something Michael and I have talked about too — how we're either going to have to develop a better public transit system in this country, or go back to a structure where people live in small, self-sustaining communities and have everything they need within walking (or biking) distance. The latter is really a return to the way things were 100 or more years ago, which I find interesting. Our gas-guzzling way of life just wasn't sustainable over the long term.

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By Katharine Swan On Wednesday, June 18, 2008 At 9:17 AM 4 comments

An awesomely productive day

Today was an awesomely productive day!

Do you ever have those days where everything just clicks — you work so quickly that you feel like your fingers are on fire? Today was one of those days for me. Even with the long break I took to treat my dad to a late Father's Day brunch, and even with a walk up to the post office to mail my quarterly estimated tax payment, I still got a ton of stuff done.

It probably sounds a little corny, but I knew when I got up this morning that something was different. Michael woke me up around 7:20 to walk the dogs with him — a habit from last summer that we're trying to get back into. Rather than feeling exceptionally tired, I actually felt well-rested and energetic. After we got back from our walk, I pounded out several client blog posts before going out to brunch with my dad.

When we got back from brunch, I felt a little tired, but resisting the urge to take a nap I took a hot bath instead. Rather than making me feel more sleepy, it revived me, and I went back to work for the rest of the afternoon, taking a break only to walk up to the post office and back (an errand that only took 30 minutes).

It was a day when everything went right — and technically I'm not done yet, since I plan to work on a few more projects this evening. This sudden productivity is a huge change for me, as for the last few months I've really been dragging. But this week, for the first time in ages, I'm starting off the week ahead instead of behind!

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, June 16, 2008 At 6:31 PM 0 comments

Low-paying work in other arenas

It appears freelance writers aren't the only ones who have to put up with insultingly low offers for contract work: I was browsing my local Craigslist last night when I ran across a listing for a contract horse job. Follow the link to read about it on my Pony Tales Blog.

In my mind, this is even worse than many of the low-paying writing jobs you see online. At least the authors of those job ads can claim to be looking for writers from other countries. But to deliberately try to circumvent the local minimum wage when hiring for local work — now that is (or should be) criminal.

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By Katharine Swan On At 3:45 PM 0 comments

Checking email: Not just a freelance problem

One common theme I see on freelance writers' blogs and discussion boards is the problem of being distracted by email. Many writers cite checking email too frequently as being one of their main vices.

And yes, before you ask, I have an email problem, too. I have my Outlook set up to download email every five minutes, which can make for a lot of interruptions.

I think a lot of us consider this a freelance problem, but it seems that it's not: Some major tech firms are discussing ways to discourage email and increase productivity in their employees.

I don't agree with trying to eliminate email entirely one day of the week (one of Intel's experiments), but Google's Email Addict sounds like a nice way to remind yourself to get back to work.

Do you have a problem with obsessively checking email, and what techniques do you use to keep yourself on task?

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By Katharine Swan On At 11:32 AM 1 comments

Pay-on-publication markets

I just recently read and reviewed Entrepreneur Press and George Sheldon's Start Your Own Freelance Writing Business and More. I found the book's hardline approach against pay-on-publication markets quite interesting. The author writes:

These publications can hold your work for years. You may never be paid... Pay on publication is a scheme in which publishers are stealing from you. They are keeping you from eating or paying your bills. You cannot sell the piece elsewhere while they are holding it, especially if they bought First North American Serial Rights.

Interestingly, I have seen markets recently that are even worse than pay-on-publication: They state that they pay within 4-6 months of publication. Can you imagine seeing your piece in print, and then waiting another half a year to get paid for it? With a 6-18 month lead time that most publishers fall into, this could mean that you could be getting paid fully two years after doing the work!

That rant aside, I actually don't advise that writers avoid these markets entirely. Most magazines pay on publication, so eliminating these markets means that you are giving up one of the most common goals for a writer: to get published in a magazine. Personally, I think a mix is the best — about 75 percent of my work is paid on acceptance, and the other 25 percent is for publications that pay on publication.

Finally, there is something you can do to avoid being at the mercy of your editors. Angela Hoy of WritersWeekly.com recommends adding a clause to writers contracts, so that you get paid on publication OR by a specific date, whichever comes first. This ensures that even if the publication decides at the last minute to ditch your piece, you'll still get paid for your work!

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By Katharine Swan On Saturday, June 14, 2008 At 6:05 PM 0 comments

Are gas prices affecting you?

I think many people assume that because we're freelance writers and we work from home, rising gas prices don't affect us. And for some of us, they probably don't — I know writers who very rarely drive. But others have kids to drive around, errands to run, spouses who still need to commute to work, etc.

Gas prices affect our household in two areas: Michael's commute, and my trips to the barn. Since we're sharing a car right now, when I need to drive somewhere during the day I take him to work, which means two round trips to work that day, plus whatever driving I need to do. It's really unfortunate, because I have virtually everything I need within walking distance except for a horse boarding facility — literally the only thing I need on almost a daily basis.

The end result is that Michael and I are talking about alternatives to driving, as I'm sure half of America is right now. Once Michael starts taking classes again in the fall, he'll be able to commute via Light Rail for free. And I've been going out to the barn in the evenings instead of during the day, so that I don't have to spend an hour and a half each day taking Michael back and forth to work.

Are gas prices affecting you? And if so, what — if anything — are you doing (or thinking of doing) differently?

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By Katharine Swan On Friday, June 13, 2008 At 4:38 PM 3 comments

Beware of automatic updates

I heard a story today on KCFR, our local public radio station, that I thought would interest other writers because of its connection to the most important tool we use in our trade: a computer. It was a short radio story that was (I think) done by the BBC and syndicated.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the story online, but basically it was about how software companies are beginning to use automatic updates to hijack our computers. Apple/iTunes, Windows, and even Google are all apparently succumbing to the temptation to get their proverbial feet in our doors — in most cases, without us even noticing.

I can think of one example in the last year. When the iPhone came out, hackers discovered a way to convert songs in their iTunes to ringtones without paying the extra one-dollar conversion fee. Apple found a way to block the hack in iTunes, and sent around an automatic update to fix the problem. I think this went round a few times. When I found out what all the updates were for, I stopped installing them — not because I have the iPhone, but because of the principle of the matter. If the song is already paid for (not stolen), and converting it to a ringtone is as easy as changing the file extension, why should iTunes essentially be making people pay for the song twice?

The reporter recommended that people look at updates before installing them, and I completely agree. Never install anything on your computer without making sure it's something you want on your computer, no matter who it is from!

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By Katharine Swan On Wednesday, June 11, 2008 At 7:30 PM 0 comments

Second quarter estimated tax payments due Monday

This is just a friendly reminder for my fellow freelancers that your second quarter estimated tax payments for 2008 are due on Monday.

Remember, if you are freelancing enough that you will owe more than $1,000 in federal taxes at the end of the year, you need to make estimated tax payments in order to avoid having to pay penalties at tax time. Or, if you have a regular job and just freelance on the side, you can have a little extra withheld from each paycheck to help cover the additional taxes.

Whatever you decide to do, you had better decide it soon, because the next estimated tax payment is due on the 16th — and there are penalties for late payments!

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By Katharine Swan On At 10:22 AM 2 comments

Computer problems

I think a freelance writer's biggest fear must be computer problems. Without our computers and Internet access, we're pretty much useless — we can't communicate with clients, research, or write efficiently. (Phoning clients, driving to the library, and writing by hand all take much longer — not to mention, not many clients will accept a hand-written manuscript!)

I bought a brand-new laptop in the fall of 2005, just before I started freelancing, and so far I've been pretty lucky. I've only had one real crisis: My laptop fan stopped working the following summer, and the entire computer had to be sent back to Averatec to have it replaced. My battery also finally started to lose capacity a few months ago, but it hasn't been a major problem, just a little inconvenience.

Yesterday, though, I experienced the full panic of computer problems. While preparing a post on a client blog, my computer crashed and spontaneously rebooted, something it's never done before. It took me an hour to get up and running again, as Outlook took forever to load on startup.

I was ready to pitch my laptop through the nearest window at that point, so I took a break to run an errand and ride my horse. After dinner, I got back on and rewrote the blog post (which, naturally, I'd lost). While attempting to publish it, my computer froze again. This time it took fully two hours to get back up and running, as I did a System Restore as well; by the time I finished, I was too tired to do anything more than rewrite the post and publish it (no problems this time) before I went to bed.

I did set my computer up to back up overnight, but when I checked it in the morning, I found that the backup had taken considerably longer than it was supposed to. Certain things were still running slow, too. As a result, I've spent much of my time today renewing and updating my antivirus software (which I hadn't done in two years — whoops!).

Hopefully my computer crisis is now over, and I'll be able to get some good work done today. After all the excitement last night, I'm a little behind, so I need to get crackin' if I'm going to meet my deadlines tonight and tomorrow!

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, June 10, 2008 At 1:45 PM 2 comments

Looking forward to a better week

After a couple of hectic weeks and a grand finale on Friday, today feels almost like vacation — I have only a few small projects to work on.

I actually have a good amount of work this week, not to mention a lot of work for one of my regular clients scheduled throughout the month, but in comparison to the last couple of weeks it feels like I have too much leisure time. After all, I had time to blog today, and I'll have time to visit Panama this evening!

Now if only I could shake that feeling that, since I'm not insanely busy, I must have forgotten something...

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, June 09, 2008 At 6:30 PM 0 comments

Finding old colleagues

When I worked at my technical writing job, I worked with some really great writers. We were all pretty close when we worked for that employer, and after we all left we stayed in touch for a while. In the last couple of years, however, I've lost touch with them somewhat.

The other day, though, I realized — from a group email the editor of one of the magazines I write for — that one of my old co-workers was writing for the same magazine! I sent her an email to catch up.

My old colleague had left the technical writing firm back in 2005 when she found another job at a local daily newspaper, which was more along the lines of what she wanted to do. (Not to mention our boss was terrible. I still need to blog about that sometime.) She left the newspaper earlier this year to freelance full-time. (I started freelancing full-time when I left the technical writing firm in October of 2005.) It was good to catch up with her and to find out that she is now a fellow freelancer!

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By Katharine Swan On At 4:46 PM 0 comments

My crazy Friday

Friday was the perfect end to another crazy week.

I'd already had several commitments — a doctor's appointment for me in the morning, a vet appointment for my horse in the afternoon, and babysitting in the afternoon and evening. To make matters worse, I discovered late Thursday that an article I had just been assigned several days before would be due Friday evening.

Somehow I got through it, working on the article in between commitments. After dropping Michael off at work in the morning, I hung out at Starbucks and worked for an hour before heading to the doctor's office; then I worked a little more at home between my doctor's appointment and Panama's vet visit. After the vet visit, I rushed home and squeezed in another 40 minutes of work before going to babysit; once the kids were in bed, I was able to finally finish the article and email it to my editor from there.

Not the kind of day I want to repeat any time soon.

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By Katharine Swan On Sunday, June 08, 2008 At 12:42 AM 5 comments

Update on Grace

Earlier today I blogged about how distracted I was with Grace at the vet. I just wanted to let everyone know that Grace got through surgery just fine — her cyst was removed successfully (as well as another one they found), and her teeth were cleaned without needing to have any pulled.

The bad news is that she was major hip dysplasia (and, as a result, arthritis) in her right hip. I rather suspected that was the case, but it's worse than I had hoped. The vet said we may be able to control it with painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication for a while, but indicated that might not be the best long-term plan.

Unfortunately, for a dog her age, there are only two surgery options available — a femoral head ostectomy (FHO), where the "ball" on the femur is cut off to eliminate friction in the socket, and a total hip replacement (THR), which basically replaces the problem joint with an artificial one. Here is a comparison of FHO and THR.

An FHO isn't really recommended for a dog Grace's size (83 pounds as of this morning), and my vet seemed a little skeptical, even though he did mention it as an option. I think we will probably need to control it with medication for the time being, and opt for surgery in a year or so.

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, June 02, 2008 At 7:38 PM 2 comments

I feel like whining

I mentioned on Friday that last week was a rough week. Between helping the in-laws get settled and dealing with a colicky horse, I didn't get much done.

Unfortunately, the weekend wasn't much better. And today, I'm fretting too much to concentrate effectively: I took our dog Grace to the vet to have a tumor or a cyst removed, as well as some dental work and an X-ray of her gimpy leg. She was terrified when they took her away from me, and I can't get that image out of my mind.

Usually I'd allow myself a reprieve on a day like this, but I can't afford to today. With all of the other distractions lately, I am already running behind, and I have several clients counting on me to turn something in today!

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By Katharine Swan On At 11:32 AM 0 comments

Judging a book by its cover

There have been a lot of articles about book collecting online lately. A couple of days ago, I saw this blog post about a company called Book Decor that sells books by color scheme, for the purpose of interior decoration. (And no, the books are not meant to be read — they're not even in English.)

Among book-loving folk, of course, that's a cardinal sin — buying books for looks, rather than for the enjoyment of them. Even most book collectors buy a book because of what it is — not nameless books in a foreign language just because they have a cover that matches your decor.

I also saw two other articles on book collecting: The Book Collection that Devoured My Life, an essay about one collector's (read: packrat's) effort to cull his collection, and A Passion that Speaks Volumes, an article about the rare and antiquarian book market in Denver.

Each of these three pieces demonstrates a different approach to collecting and enjoying books. I can't completely understand the first approach, buying books solely for how they compliment your living room. I also can't fully understand the second approach, acquiring books indiscriminately (or, for that matter, buying primarily paperbacks). No, I am a book collector at heart, which means I love books as much for their covers as much as for their contents.

When I buy a book for its looks, it's from a collector's standpoint, not an interior designer's: For instance, some of the things I gravitate toward are antiquarian children's copies of classics with beautiful illustrations, Victorian novels with pretty covers, and matching sets of books (such as my set of Brontë books). However, I rarely buy a pretty book if the topic doesn't interest me in some fashion, and I have no compunctions about reading them, either.

Here are a couple of pictures of my books. I have many, many more, but this will at least give you an idea of what my bookshelves look like:

An amateur book collector's bookshelves

In the picture above, two-thirds of the books on the top shelf are Victorian copies of the books by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. The others are classics such as The Scarlett Letter and an old edition of The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as a few old children's books. A few are there simply for being collectible — for instance, one is part of a numbered, limited-edition print run from 1899, and another is the oldest book I own.

Of course, the shelf beneath houses all my modern writing and reference books, so you could say my collection is rather eclectic.

Another bookcase housing antiquarian and collector's books

The bookshelf in the second picture (above) is dedicated to my collectible books. I collect several old children's series, which is why there are blocks of books that look like one another. This is also where my Brontë collection resides.

It is without shame that I confess to judging books by their covers, but I don't believe I am the only one — if people didn't care about a book's cover, publishers wouldn't spend so much money on cover design. I just don't think a book should be judged solely by its cover.

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By Katharine Swan On Sunday, June 01, 2008 At 3:09 PM 1 comments

Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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