A centuries-old issue

Not long ago, Kathy Kehrli blogged about writing rules that it's okay to break.  Although most of us writers are sticklers when we see spelling and grammatical errors in everyday life, it seemed like most of us agreed that the rules listed in the article were okay to break.

NPR did a story yesterday, on a book called The Use and Abuse of Literature, that reminded me of Kathy's post.  The author of the book says that disagreements over the "proper" use of the English language have been around for centuries.  So to have efforts to ban books that weren't deemed appropriate — heck, even Shakespeare was challenged, once upon a time.

The author makes the point that if we are still bickering over language usage, still dealing with challenges to books, it's actually a good sign, because it means that people are reading.

It may look as though reading is declining in importance. After all, yesterday's readers are today's video game players or text message obsessives. But the fact that these controversies still crop up — for example, over a new version of Mark Twain's Huck Finn being released with every instance of the n-word changed to "slave" — is, Garber believes, proof of literature's power. Books are labeled as dangerous "precisely because [they] can enrich the mind, challenge, disturb, and change one's thinking," she writes. So let the naysayers bemoan the shifting tides. Literature has been through much, much worse.

Obviously, there are things that aren't such good signs, such as the apparent lack of editors lately and the dwindling importance of teaching handwriting in schools.  But if we can still have a healthy debate with someone over whether the singular "they" is correct, or if there are still parents rioting over whether Huckleberry Finn is appropriate for their 14-year-olds, I'd have to agree with Marjorie Garber.  The point isn't who wins these little battles, it's that they are still being fought in the first place.

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By Katharine Swan On Thursday, March 31, 2011 At 10:57 AM 2 comments

The art of writing

It's slightly off-topic, but I was dismayed to see this article in my local paper the other day:

Colorado schools are beginning to write off cursive handwriting

Really?  Really?  Just because we are living in "an increasingly paperless world" means that kids don't have to learn to write legibly?  I mean, have we stopped teaching math because we have calculators?

Maybe it's old fashioned of me, but I think that handwriting is a skill that children ought to be learning, no matter how paperless our world gets.  They will have to be able to write something that someone else can read at some point, such as a note to a lover or child, or, heck, a shopping list.  And let's face it, even with schools teaching cursive, there are still plenty of educated people whose handwriting I can't even begin to make sense of.

Like I said, it's a little off-topic, but maybe not much.  I've always been fascinated with my own handwriting, and it went through several transformations before I arrived at a script that I like and use regularly.  I still prefer to write on the computer, because I can type so much faster than I can write, but I'm proud of having nice handwriting.

What about you?  Do you think this is a skill that we should continue to teach, despite our digital age?  Do you think you benefited from learning cursive when you were in school?

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, March 29, 2011 At 9:47 PM 0 comments

How much will people pay for news?

Don't click this if you've already reached your 20-article limit for the month:

The Times Announced Digital Subscription Plan

Basically, the Times is shifting to a paid subscription plan.  You can access 20 articles on their website for free each month, not counting what you find via search engines and links on social networking sites such as Facebook.  However, if you search via Google, you will be limited to 5 articles per day.

This is an interesting concept, because it comes at a time when publishers are also trying to figure out how much people are willing to pay for ebooks.  I think the Times is doing the right thing by ensuring that people can still access their articles for free via search engines and social networking — can you imagine the frustration if you are researching something, and come across an article that you can't see unless you pay for a subscription?  (Okay, there are some sites that do that, and it's really annoying — but they aren't major news outlets, so I don't think most people run into that very often.)  Or if someone you know links to an article on Facebook, and you can't view it because you're not a subscriber?

I have very mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I agree that a newspaper should be able to put a value on their work and charge some money for online subscriptions.  A lot of people read the news online now, and I'm sure it cuts into subscriptions for the physical paper.  But at the same time, I'm not sure if people will be willing to pay $195 a year (for the cheap plan) when they can just go to a different news site and get basically the same information there.  The mobile app is a good idea and may actually provide enough incentive for people to pay the fee, but again, I think the price is a little steep.

Of course, depending on how the NYT fares with their digital subscription plan, other news sites may follow suit — and then you may not be able to just go to another site in order to read the news.  This scares me a little, because I think it will seriously handicap the Internet if people can no longer access authentic articles online.  The deluge of crappy content is already a serious problem — what will happen if that becomes the only thing that users have free access to online?

What are your thoughts?  Do you think the NYT's move balances the value of writing with the ideal of the Internet as a source of "free" (or at least readily available) information?

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By Katharine Swan On Thursday, March 17, 2011 At 9:47 PM 2 comments

Cat business

Cat business cartoon

At Barnes & Noble a few evenings ago, I was flipping through Cockatiels for Two, a book full of cat cartoons by Leo Cullum.  Many of them were business-related, but the one that really cracked me up was this one, because of the similarities to my work day.

My animals pretty much define my work day.  I plan my office hours around the best times to ride Panama; my dogs make sure I get regular breaks from the computer by demanding to go in and out; my cats keep me company by sleeping beside me while I work.  In fact, right now I'm working at the kitchen table, and my cat Cleo is happily rolling around in the sun on the other side of my netbook screen.

Some people would consider all the animal stuff to be distractions, and maybe they are, but in my opinion they make up for the social stimulation that you lose when you work from home.

What about you?  Writers with pets, how do your animals define your work day?

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By Katharine Swan On Wednesday, March 16, 2011 At 1:20 PM 1 comments

A wrench in the works

I had one of those unexpected things come up today that completely derailed my plans for the day.  I had a doctor's appointment for an insulin trial I'm doing, and since I'm almost done with it, they wanted to dilate my eyes.  It was going to be a scheduling nightmare to try to come back and do it a different time, so I changed my plans for today (which included a riding lesson) and just got the eye exam out of the way.

Unfortunately, not only can I not ride, I can barely see my computer screen.  Every time I get my eyes dilated, it usually takes until evening to wear off.  I can't see close up right now with my glasses — in order to see my computer screen, I have to take off my glasses, and then lean waaaay forward since my vision is so bad.  Not a particularly comfortable way to work, so I'm going to take my usual approach and read (without my glasses) or nap for an hour or two, or at least until the worst is passed.

Are there things that come up sometimes that make it impossible for you to work?  Where do you draw the line and say, "Forget it, I'll do it later"?

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By Katharine Swan On Friday, March 11, 2011 At 12:35 PM 0 comments

Spring fever

Today is a beautiful day — one of the nicest days we've had yet this year.  We actually had a very warm fall and winter up until about two months ago, when we started getting a number of deep freezes, but judging by today's weather that's over.

I love the warm weather for a couple of reasons.  Not only does it bring trail rides and long mornings at the barn, but it also enables me to work outside.  I like moving around a bit throughout my day — the occasional change of scenery seems to help me focus — but two of my favorite places to work are the front porch (in the morning) and the back patio (in the afternoon).

What are you looking forward to as the weather warms up?

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By Katharine Swan On Thursday, March 10, 2011 At 3:19 PM 0 comments

Are content farms on the way out?

This is a bit late, as I meant to blog about it last week, when I first heard about it: Google has changed their algorithm in order to try to get content farms — websites that churn out massive amounts of poorly written content — off the first couple of pages of search engine results.  A high ranking in search results is generally considered to be the jackpot, since most people looking for something online don't search past the first page or two, but content mills often dominate the first page or two.  (I assume it's not this way anymore, but as an example, it used to be that almost no matter what you were searching for, Associated Content had an article on the first or second page of results.)

Google, however, has apparently found a way to try to clear spammy content from the top results to make room for the good sites.  Here are a couple of articles:

Google declares war on lousy websites
Google's working on saving 'good' websites

I wonder a couple of things, though.  First of all, how do they decide what is a "good" content site or a "bad" content site?  For example, let's take Yahoo.  Yahoo has news articles, community pages, email, etc. — seems like a good content site and online community, right?  But not long ago they bought Associated Content, which I would describe as a content farm.  So how does Google decide whether or not Yahoo deserves a high ranking?

What are your thoughts?  Is this going to be harder to implement than Google thinks, and is it going to have any impact on content farms?  Since content farms are a contentious issue for writers, I'm interested in what the rest of you think will happen as a result of Google's new algorithm.

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By Katharine Swan On Wednesday, March 09, 2011 At 12:22 PM 2 comments

Read an eBook Week

Read an eBook WeekIf you read my book review blog, you know that I'm pretty gung ho about ebooks these days.  I started reading them on my iPhone over the summer, and once I discovered this fall that I can now read library ebooks on my phone with Bluefire Reader, well, I've given up physical books almost altogether.  I don't love "real" books any less, but ebooks don't require any driving to pick up or return to the library, don't fine me if I'm late returning them, are never any heavier than my iPhone, are always with me, and can often be had for free when the publisher or author has a promotion.  Plus, I can turn the pages one-handed.  What more can you ask for?

But I digress.  This week is, apparently, Read an eBook Week, celebrating 40 years (?) of ebooks.  Forty years might be stretching the definition a bit, but hey, whatever gets the word out.

To celebrate, a bunch of websites are offering free and steeply discounted ebooks — click here for a list of sites offering free ebooks.  One of the most extensive offerings is at Smashwords, an ebook publisher for independent authors.  They have a list of free and discounted ebooks so long that I ran out of steam long before I found the end, but I did get a dozen or so free ebooks.

One interesting free ebook I downloaded was Are You Still Submitting Your Work to a Traditional Publisher? by Edward C. Patterson.  It's free with the code, until March 12th only, but it's normally pretty inexpensive — just 99 cents.  Adobe Digital Editions page counts aren't exact, but it's about 125 pages, and is presumably about e-publishing.  The ebooks ratings are quite good, which is how I found it (I was filtering by highest rated ebooks first).

Who here reads ebooks?

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, March 07, 2011 At 12:19 PM 0 comments

The importance of good record keeping for freelancers

Usually I'm pretty good about record keeping.  I record every payment in an Excel spreadsheet as they come in, and create a PDF of the payment details if it's a PayPal payment or scan it if it's a check.  I do the same with expenses.  I've been doing this since I first started freelancing part-time in early 2005, and it has made tax time relatively easy every year.

Last year, however, I was BAD.  I stopped recording payments and expenses about halfway through May.  As a result I had no idea until last night how much I'd made for the year, and only vague impressions regarding which were good months and which were not-so-good.  (This was actually one of several things that I was slacking off on last year, but I'll talk more about that in a future blog post.)

What I learned last night is that when you don't keep up with the record keeping throughout the year, at some point it makes you pretty miserable.  I spent the entire day yesterday on getting caught up through December.  (I did start this year off by staying on top of it, so my 2011 records are up to date.)  The best I can say about that is at least I did it in February instead of on April 14th, but still, it was a brain-numbing process that I'd rather not have to go through again for a long, long while.

I still have to get caught up on the expenses, but at least that is a much smaller task.

So, my fellow freelance writers, take it from me — it is definitely worth your while to take a few moments to record it every time you receive a payment or buy something for your business.  I like to have two separate spreadsheets, one for income and one for expenses.  My income spreadsheet has a separate page for each client and a main page that that gives me a grand total, as well as totals per month.  My expenses spreadsheet is much the same, except that I have a separate page for each expense category on the Schedule C.

In past years, when I've kept up on my record keeping, tax returns have always been a breeze to do.  I've never understood why freelancers complain until this year, when I had to do all that work to catch up... and I'm still not done yet!

What about you?  Do you do your record keeping throughout the year, or do you do it all at tax time?  Do you have a system in place, and how does it work for you?

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, March 01, 2011 At 12:55 PM 3 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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