Putting fingers to keyboard

You can make writing easier for yourself by mastering the following steps.

Consultants are famous for advising clients to focus on those things they do best and leave the rest to others. The rule of focus applies equally to writing. Before you begin to write, identify a topic that you're truly qualified to write about, focus on exactly what you plan to write, and develop your point of view on that topic.

Don't start writing if you only have a vague or general idea and hope that the central theme will emerge. Start only when your focus is clear and when it's something you're ready to share with the world. Then plan how to go about it.

► Maintain a Clippings File

Create a clippings file where you can save articles, quotations, reports, and other information that you cut or copy from newspapers, magazines, and newsletters. Also include information that you print from the Web. Make sure that each clipping has the date and name of the publication. As your collection of clippings grows, organize it by subject matter.

We all cringe at the thought of outlines with Roman numerals, subpoints, and other creativity-sapping techniques. Even so, it's imperative to begin with an outline of some kind. Find a method you're comfortable with, whether it is mind-mapping or writing key words and phrases. Don't stick with Roman numerals just because Mrs. Kelly, your seventh-grade English teacher, said that's how it's done.

Whatever technique you use, make a list, in no particular order, of all the important points you want to cover. Write either key words or complete sentences (whatever helps you identify essential ideas). Then organize the entries you compiled in the order that you plan to address them. If you feel that you have too many items for the article or for your target publication, consolidate or delete.

When you've completed your initial outline, name each section and under each, list in detail the information you want to discuss. Identify all facts, information, or leads that you need to research or check further. Jot down where you would like to include a quote, anecdote, illustration, sidebar, or other device. At this stage, you should be able to create a brief abstract of the piece that potential publishers can review.

► Identify Targeted Publications

The old saying "all dressed up and nowhere to go" applies to unfocused, nontargeted articles. As you put together your thoughts, identify the publications that might be suitable for your piece. The rules and schedules for submitting articles to publications vary. Some require you to submit a query letter asking if the article is suitable for publication; others don't. Some publications have yearlong lead times for publication; others can get you in their next issue.

If you understand the rules of the publications that you target, it will make your job as an author easier. Contact publications to obtain their requirements for submissions—what type and what subject matter they accept, the style and format required, and their return policies. Determine which publications accept pieces from freelance writers, who owns the rights to published works, and if the staff prefers to communicate by e-mail or postal mail.

Numerous resources can help you identify appropriate publications. One useful reference is Writer's Market, which is available in print or online and includes information on thousands of editors.

► Create a Research and Writing Schedule

A consultant's to-do list is usually overwhelming and your desire to research and write often falls to the bottom of the list. There never seems to be enough time. Consultants often find it difficult to write for publication simply because they don't set aside enough time for this task.

It's usually preferable to complete all your research before you write. With the Internet, however, you may be able to do both simultaneously. For most people, writing goes more smoothly when their research is complete. But proceed according to your own preference and style.

Block out the days and hours that you'll actually write and what you plan to accomplish in those time blocks. Build in sufficient cushion for editing, which invariably takes longer than expected, and the many other delays that always seem to arise. They include postponed interviews, difficulty getting crucial materials, those pesky client commitments, and the unavailability of others on whom you depended. And frequently, you have to go back and do additional research and fact checking.

You can write anywhere, so seize on all opportunities. If you're waiting for a flight, standing in a supermarket line, or attending a meeting, take a few minutes to jot some notes or organize your thoughts. Although it's nice to have multihour blocks of time, you can train yourself to write effectively in short intervals.

As you're writing, you may find that one of your key concepts no longer holds true, that your organizational structure misses the mark, or that a celebrity's quotation, around which you built a major point, is simply too stupid to print. Be prepared to make necessary adjustments that will maintain the integrity of your original idea and the value you're trying to deliver.

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