Learn, Assimilate, Write

Capt. Picard as a Borg
Learn to assimilate your material before you write.

If you are having some success as a freelance writer, you are used to receiving unanticipated gigs on a wide range of topics. If you’re lucky, you already know the subject area or have at least written about it in the past. Too often, the assignment covers something new and quite possibly obscure. Oh yeah, I almost forget — the client usually wants it NOW! What should be your game plan? Here’s one that works for me.

1)     Decide whether to take the assignment. Newer freelancers sometimes feel that if it’s offered, take it. However, if you really don’t have a clue about the topic and the topic is not trivial and your client needs it yesterday, just say no. Taking this kind of assignment is not fair to the client and it’s not fair to you. If I was approached to write on ladies fashions, trends in hip hop, or baby rashes, I would respectfully decline and suggest my client find a more knowledgeable writer.

2)     Learn the material. If you’ve taken the assignment, you may be very familiar with the specific topic, acquainted with the subject area or are completely in the dark (see #1, above). Unless you know the material cold, you’ll be spending some time on Google and Wikipedia investigating the topic. I have found that it pays to go beyond the first three search engine results pages when researching a topic – there is a ton of information in the higher-page wilderness. In terms of time, I spend roughly an hour of research time to prepare for a 400-word article. Try to find confirmation from two sources on any facts you decide to use – Wikipedia is great, but by no means perfect.

3)     Assimilate your research for the assignment. This depends on whether the topic is already well-established in your brain. My strong suit is finance, and I can get comfortable with just about any financial topic within an hour. That’s because my long-term memory is well-stocked with financial facts and theories. If instead the topic is electronics, it’s the job of my short-term memory to grasp the facts just enough so that I both understand them and can recite their implications. How do you know whether you’ve assimilated enough to begin writing? For me, it’s a certain loss of anxiety coupled with an uncontrollable need to open Word.

4)     Write in your own voice. If it’s not in your bona fide voice, you’ve wasted a lot of time and perhaps are in the wrong job. Web writing is often much closer to the spoken word rather than to hard copy (i.e. books and magazines). If you have half a wit (and I’ve been told I do, often), applying it to even the driest of topics will help bring them to life. Certainly no subject is so constrained that you can’t inject a touch of enthusiasm, irony, even skepticism. As long as it’s in your voice, it’s authentic. I always try to wait an hour before replacing my writer’s hat with an editor’s cap. It’s a little humbling, but I find I rewrite more if I cool off following the initial write.

One other thing – say goodbye to your article quickly, because it doesn’t linger in your mind for very long; well, at least not in mine. Maybe it’s my age or my workload, but I often can’t remember what I’ve written about the day before. But it’s in there somewhere, and it will come out when I next need it.

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Copyright 2011 Eric Bank, Freelance Writer

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