Top 25 Books for Writers and Writing-related Topics

Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 8:39 AM | Category: Books, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 33 comments

Thank you to all that nominated and voted for the top 25 books for writers on writing. The list is in order beginning with the book that received the most votes. It’s a great list as I’ve read or heard great things about many of the books.

  1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White: “Though I’ve read two other great books on writing, this one really got me rolling down my writing journey, so it stands out in my mind. I also give it points for being so concise and as a result not very intimidating. For those starting out on their writing path, this is a good bet. It’s basic and effective.” – Bamboo Forest
  2. On Writing by Stephen King: “Simply the best.” – Craig Cardimon
  3. On Writing Well by William Zinsser: “I’ve re-read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well every year since I first read it in high school. Excellent book.” – Will Sansbury
  4. Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: “Wonderfully sincere, funny and helpful. Just made so much sense to me – loved it!” – Amy Palko
  5. Chicago Manual of Style: “It’s huge, thorough, honest, authoritative, entertaining, and always there to refer to. Knocks Strunk and White into a cocked hat.” – Katy Evans-Bush.
  6. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg: “The one I gift the most to writers.” – Mike Sansone
  7. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron: “For a different kind of direction, certainly. And it is early yet in my focused writing.” – Karen Hohman Almeida
  8. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose: “It has given me the ability to break down why a piece of writing is good, and there’s no better way to learn.” – MeiLin Miranda
  9. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland: “Great for inspiration.” – Joanne aka soulsprite
  10. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  11. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  12. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
  13. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande: “For inspirational and ‘pull-your-socks-up.'” – Katy Evans-Bush
  14. The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell: “…because I’m always one for breaking the rules!” – Mary
  15. The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters that Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  16. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (Mentor) by Gary Provost
  17. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
  18. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass: “One of the best I’ve read.” – Dawn Herring
  19. Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
  20. Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell – “The knowledge that Morrell imparts is educational and constructive.” – Meryl
  21. Between the Lines: The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell
  22. The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law by Norm Goldstein
  25. The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on The Wall Street Journal Guide by William E. Blundell

I’m going to try to always be reading at least one book on writing at any given time. (I have two or three books I read at a time.) This list will make it easier to decide which one to read next as I own some that I haven’t read.

What books have you read? What did you like most about them or what did you learn?

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Links: Happy Birthday, Dad 2010 Edition

Friday, February 5th, 2010 at 8:01 AM | Category: Books, Language, Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing No comments

Al Kaplan, 1953

My dad passed away two years ago. Today would have been his 79th birthday.

Nominate a favorite social media book.

If you receive this post by email, please tell me what’s the best time of the day you’d like to receive these. It used  to go out in the mornings, but I felt overwhelmed by emails in the morning and thought late afternoon / early evening would be better. It doesn’t mean that’s the best time for you. Just reply and let me know. Thank you for reading!

Brain food…

And for fun because we’re allowed…

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What I Learned from My Children: Simplicity

Thursday, February 4th, 2010 at 8:14 AM | Category: Business, Life Tips, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 7 comments
A 19th century architect at the drawing board
Image via Wikipedia

The day before a state-wide math assessment test, my husband humorously asked our oldest who took algebra at the time, “Do you remember how to add, subtract, multiply and divide?”

“I don’t know. When I do a math problem now… if the answer is simple, I think it’s wrong because it has to be more complicated than that,” she said.

That’s how many adults think. We never believe the obvious and forget that it’s possible for the answer to be a simple one.

Simplicity in Writing

A former client contacted me about a new web content gig for a company that sells products outside of my expertise. However, one of my kids LOVES this category of products. So it was an exciting opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone. She asked me to write a sample. I went to work in writing a story around the product. I studied the other products to see how much technical information to provide in an attempt to get in customers’ minds of what they want to know.

In reality, all I needed to do was capture highlights of the products and the experience of using them. After all, the web site had detailed information elsewhere. The client was delighted with the sample as well as the content that followed.

Simplicity in Quoting Projects

How are you with giving quotes to new clients? Is it a struggle? It has gotten easier for me, but I wish I had John Hewitt‘s formula when I first started freelancing. His World’s Simplest Freelance Rate Formula is a simple yet effective process that works with new and experienced freelancers — no matter what you do.

For those in freelancing careers outside of writing, substitute “per word” with “per page,” “per design,” “per call,” “per marketing project” and so on. Meet John’s amazing and powerful formula:

  1. Start at $20 an hour or $.20 a word. This is a fairly low level. Feel free to start higher.
  2. Increase your fee by 5 ($25 an hour $.25 a word) with each successful gig.
  3. When your prospects start telling you that you charge too much, don’t raise your rates for six months.
  4. Try raising it again.

I won’t begin to quote the many articles I’ve read that recommend avoiding a per hour charge. Some cases may call for it — and I do work per hour for several clients. Why no per hour charge? Let’s look at an example.

A client asks for a quote to blog for him. For an ongoing project, charging per page would be wise. Here’s a very simple example why this works better:

  1. Your hourly fee is $50.
  2. You write a blog entry in 30 minutes, which is $25 if you charge per hour.
  3. Charge $50 per blog entry and you’ll come out ahead.

Of course, not all entries will take 30 minutes depending on the subject and length. But you can see how a per blog entry works better than per hour.

Update: A Twist with the Youngest Child

My six-year-old brings home a math pack every Thursday. It consists of games and puzzles related to math. The latest one required he pick one of the word problems to solve. Then three of us (11-year-old joined us) create a solution using words, numbers and pictures and share it. We had to list how our solutions were the same and how they were different. A great lesson because it shows there is more than one way to solve a problem.

The 11-year-old took the easy way out and simply wrote, “7 – 3 = 4.” So our only option for the “same” was that we all used numbers. My six-year-old didn’t like that. “It’s too obvious. It’s too easy,” he kept saying. Really, the simple answer was the only answer.

I started reading The Little Prince and it makes a references about how children look at things differently from adults. Much like this theme. The narrator drew a picture that looked like a hat. It was a python swallowing an elephant, but adults could not see that. The Little Prince did.

What I learned from my daughter: Sometimes the answer is a simple one.

What problems have you come across where the answer turned out simple?

This entry is part of Middle Zone Musings: What I Learned From… Children groupwrite project.

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5 Easy Ingredients of a Successful Online Marketing Formula

Monday, February 1st, 2010 at 10:27 AM | Category: Blogging, Business, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media 8 comments

Image credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian

I avoid in-person events as much as possible. It’s not because I’m an introvert. It’s not because I look hideous. (Although we should know better than to let our looks get in the way of meetings.) It’s because I’m deaf. Most people understand me when I speak. It’s the other side — the more important part– of the conversation that’s a problem for me: Listening.

It’s true that the average lipreader catches only one-third of what people say. Try reading every third word in this post or another and see how much you understand. I can usually fill in the gaps, but not always. “My name is [mumble]” is a biggie. I might ask the person to repeat once, but no more. In a book club meeting, someone mentioned that reading the book and seeing the movie version was not a good movie. I asked the name of the book. Missed it. Repeated once and missed it again. Gave up.

While this sounds innocent and no big deal, it is. People judge you when you don’t catch things because it makes a person look obtuse or not smart. With online marketing, I don’t miss a single thing and I catch every name and title. What you see of me online is all me without the barriers or presumptions. Writers can do more than just publish content to market themselves. These work well and take up whatever time you put into it.

1. Create a web site with a personal URL. It’s easier and cheaper than ever to build and update a web site. Using blogging applications like WordPress and Tumblr work well. They also have a lot of free and low-price templates available. A customized design adds a personal touch to your brand, but sometimes people don’t have the funds available right away. You can work it out so the only cost you incur is the yearly fee to buy your own URL. writer.blogspot.com hurts the professionalism. You have a lot of options for creating a web site using a blog app. Whether you should blog or not is a different discussion.

2. Set up social media profiles. The web site and blog is your home on the Internet. Social media sites give you a meeting place. Many, many social media sites exist. Forget that. Don’t let it faze you. Pick two or three and completely fill your profile on those sites. Currently, the biggies are LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. That can and will change. Remember MySpace was hot? I have a page that receives updates from my blog and Twitter account, but I don’t visit it. I’ll set up accounts on other social media sites, but only on a “come across it” basis. Usually I get an invite from a colleague and join up then. I fill in the profile as much as I can.

3. Join conversations. It doesn’t matter where. I go to blogs and leave comments, participate in scheduled Twitter chats, respond to people’s Facebook messages and reply and retweet tweets. Some people love to talk in forums. Notice this says “join conversations,” not “give soliloquies.” People who talk to no one in particular or don’t acknowledge other people’s existence are not listening or becoming a part of the community. The only folks who can get away with this are celebrities.

4. Do the guest thing. Invite and ask. Invite others to be a guest in your blog or community, and ask if you can do the same for others. You’re reaching two new audiences: the other person’s audience and the other person. The other person has a following and will ask people to check out the guest post in your community. Most guest posts come with a byline, which means link juice for your site and getting your name out there.

5. Link to your site and accounts. On your web site, link to your Twitter and other IDs. In your email signature, link to your web site and important IDs. Make sure everything points everywhere else. Do you have an email newsletter? Put your links there, too. This covers all your bases. Those who prefer email updates, RSS feeds and social media IDs.

These five I do on an almost daily basis. It works because I have a comfortable workload. You can do much more with online marketing, but other online marketing tools take more time. Some people do videos. Some do podcasts. Some do webinars. Some do email newsletters. Doing a video or podcast requires thinking about the goals, writing the script, recording and editing before you can publish. With social media, you have control over how much time you spend.

What online marketing tools work well for you?

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Links: Stock Show 2010 Edition

Friday, January 29th, 2010 at 8:26 AM | Category: Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Tech 1 comment
Will Rogers Tower, Fort Worth, 1936
Image via Wikipedia

Growing up in Fort Worth, we always had a day off from school at the end of January and received a free ticket for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Radeo. You didn’t have to go or use the ticket. I went a couple of times to the cattle and sheep barns to see the animals and to watch the rodeo in Will Rogers Coliseum.

Vote for your favorite books on writing.

Nominate a favorite social media book.

Brain food…

For fun because we’re allowed…

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10 Actions for Writers in Providing Great Customer Service

Thursday, January 28th, 2010 at 12:49 PM | Category: Business, Customer Service, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 6 comments

Image credit: Karl-Erik Bennion

I had a whole box of party favors leftover because I overestimated the number of kids attending. I contacted the company to ask if I could return the unopened party favors for a refund. The company said to keep it, and they’ll issue a refund. Sure, it may cost more for me to send it back and for the company to deal with the return. But to me, the company surprised and delighted me. I have made more purchases after that.

My daughter is a hostess and waitress at a nearby eatery. She had a great day until our family dined there. We were her last customers and she messed up our order. We did not complain. Instead, we told her it was OK and we know mistakes happen. Nonetheless, our drinks were free.

I’ve posted other customer service experiences. In looking at how I land new clients, I find the majority come from word of mouth recommendations. That tells me customer service must play an important role in my career as a writer. I represent me and what you get is me. Customer service is more than just doing great work with a smile. Customer service is also a marketing tool.

I believe the following actions make up the customer service element of a writer’s business:

  1. Provide excellent results: You can be the nicest and easiest person in the world, but it won’t save you if you repeatedly submit poor quality work. The client will give up. This isn’t the same thing as perfection. I could keep perfecting this post, but I had to stop and let it go.
  2. Meet deadlines: Are you on schedule? Late? Or constantly asking for deadline extensions? Good writers plan ahead so they don’t fall into the last minute trap, which could lead to sacrificing quality.
  3. Listen: Let go of what’s on your mind and listen to what the client says so you can understand. Don’t be in a hurry to share your thoughts and experience. It’s easy to miss what the client really wants. Respond by reflecting on what the client said instead of turning it around to make it about you. I received an article request from a client, but the client didn’t like the direction the article took. Several colleagues reviewed the article request and the article. They all agreed I met the request. It doesn’t matter if it was the client’s fault or mine. I collected more information from the client and rewrote it. (See #7.)
  4. Make it easy to work with you: Are you easy to work with? Do you fight every edited word? Are you listening to the client’s preferences and styles? Do you follow the client’s process? Are you accessible? Some of the busiest authors are also the most accessible. More accessible than plenty of unknowns.
  5. Stay cool: No matter how the client behaves or acts, your attitude and response to the client should never burn bridges. Even if you go separate ways, the client can still talk about you. Sometimes your personalities and styles don’t mesh. It happens. One client wanted web content that didn’t reflect content standards. It was better to separate than to give the client what he wanted. What he wanted wasn’t what I could deliver. Furthermore,  I would not have enjoyed the work, which brings us to…
  6. Enjoy the work: Do you hate the work? That will affect your attitude and everything else about the project. Maybe you need to let go. It’s OK to work toward assignments you love and enjoy. Your passion will shine through and make a difference in your outlook, which in turn affects service. I find I procrastinate more on work that I dread. I’m lucky that’s not an issue anymore.
  7. Fix mistakes: Problems happen. We all make mistakes. Really. It’s HOW you handle those mistakes that can make the difference between great and lousy customer service.
  8. Respond quickly: How quickly do you return calls and emails? Even if you’re swamped, at least acknowledge you received the message and will get back to the person.
  9. Solve problems: Do you work to help clients with their problems? Find another or better solution? Some people try to push their solutions on the clients to make it work rather than adapt to clients’ needs.
  10. Be honest: A client overpaid me. I emailed the client to let him know and subtracted the overpaid amount in the next invoice. Yes, it’s hard to be truthful in some situations. Telling the truth can do less damage than telling lies and getting found out. Besides, you feel better about yourself. It also creates goodwill.

Regarding perfectionism, Christina Katz said it better than I could. “I’ve given up the tireless quest for perfection for a looser, friendlier style of working with myself and others. I also no longer worry, inordinately, about what other people think of me. I don’t fret about whether they think my service is or isn’t up to snuff. Instead, if my service isn’t momentarily the greatest–because I’m human, so of course this happens from time to time–I apologize and move on,” she says.

How do you provide great customer service?

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Links: Happy 11th Birthday 2010 Edition

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 at 9:59 AM | Category: Business, Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Tech, Writing 3 comments

Sunday is my middle child’s 11th birthday. The biggest of my three babies, he weighed 9lb, 1oz and measured 21 inches long when he made his arrival one Sunday morning. This big guy (he’s the older of two boys) loves sports cars with his favorites being the Lamborghini, Bugatti, Koenigsegg, Aston Martin and Saleen.

Vote for your favorite books on writing.

Nominate a favorite social media book.

Brain food…

And for fun because we’re allowed…

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The Foolproof Way to Separate Fact from Fiction on Twitter

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 at 9:34 AM | Category: Social Media, Tech, Writing 8 comments

Do you believe what you read in Twitter? This is from an ABC News story on Twitter:

Despite the micro-blogging site’s [Twitter] many successes — as a lifeline during emergencies, a direct line between the famous and their fans and an open line for anyone with something to share — Twitter’s instantaneous nature can make it all too easy to pass along fiction as fact.

If writers believe everything they read on Twitter and use it as a single resource, then they would report:

Nothing on Twitter or the Internet is safe. When I saw the tweets about Zach Braff supposedly committing suicide, I searched for non-Twitter resources to confirm this as I was not going to blindly retweet (RT) the news. Within five minutes, I confirmed it was another cruel hoax.

Foolproof Tip#1: Check tweets before you RT.

These hoaxes and other silly tweets can make the trending list in Twitter. I recall a popular DJ asking his fans to tweet about a topic so it would land on Twitter’s trending list. And it did.

Foolproof Tip #2: Know that Twitter trending lists don’t always reflect fact.

While working on a story, I came across a needed statistic. It sounded valid, but I wouldn’t take the article’s word for it. So I set out to find the primary resource, or another research that produced similar data. I found nothing. I remember my daughter working on a history assignment that discussed the difference between primary resources and other resources. She is learning a valuable skill that needs teaching at an early age as possible because of the Internet.

Foolproof Tip #3: Validate sources with a primary resource and other resources.

Yes, I first learned about the miracle on the Hudson and Iran’s protests on Twitter. When something pops up, I start reading and putting the pieces together before I start believing and retweeting.

As I drafted this post, I received Matt Singley’s Blog Thoughts update. In it, he echoes the theme of misinformation and the problem with assumptions. Short version: Singley refers to Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist MLK Day post. Trunk talks about the All-Star Rodeo event that she calls “racist rodeo” where Ronald McDonald makes an appearance.  At the end of her post, she encourages her readers to tweet: “@McDonalds Racism is not okay and neither is hate. Please stop your support of the All-Star Rodeo.” Tweetmeme records 256 retweets of this message and Twitter search for “@mcdonalds racism” has pages of this. Singley called All-Star Rodeo and confirmed that McDonald’s was indeed NOT a sponsor and posted a comment to this effect.

Unless you’re working with the primary source, verify secondary resources no matter the medium. Twitter is just one medium that makes it easy to spread fiction that looks like fact.

What foolproof tips do you have to verify your sources?

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Links: Happy Birthday, Paul 2010 Edition

Friday, January 15th, 2010 at 9:20 AM | Category: Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Tech, Writing 2 comments

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. I wish I could come up with some other way to say this, but it’s true though cliché. I’m lucky to have him in my life and that we grow together as we encounter new phases in our lives. We enjoy spending time together in simple ways such as our recent discovery of Gilmore Girls. What more can a gal ask for? Oh, and he remembers our special dates, too.

Please vote for your top 25 books on writing.

Brain food…

And for fun because we’re allowed…

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Self-Respect and the Writer

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 at 9:41 AM | Category: Business, Life Tips, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 10 comments

Image credit: Cecile Graat

In her latest issue of The Prosperous Writer, Christina Katz asks, “On a scale of one to ten, how’s your self-respect? Can you say no? Do you say yes to yield to social pressure and supposed-tos and then suffer for it? Are you catering to too many other people’s needs but burning out in the process? Do you listen to and trust your instincts about what is and isn’t the best way to proceed?”

I aim for balance when it comes to my writing business and personal life. I love the flexibility that comes with my business. Spending time with my family, taking care of my health and contributing to my community are all priorities in my life.

  • Family: I chose to have a family and that involves spending time with them. It doesn’t mean spending hundreds of dollars on vacation or expensive activities. It can be as simple as reading a book together, playing a board game or sitting at the dining table.
  • Health: If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t perform my best for clients, family and others. I believe in “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” When I don’t get seven to eight hours of sleep, I function at 50 percent the next day, if that. Staying up a couple of hours late isn’t worth the effects it would have on the following day.
  • Community: Contributing to my community matters because it takes a village to take care of our world. Without programs and people, many things would never happen to make a difference in people’s lives.

Every year, I gain a couple of new assignments, which often take me out of my comfort zone because they’re new.  Already, I have a new gig that is different that pushes my boundaries while I have fun. I maintain a variety of clients because I enjoy the diversity of the work. Plus, if one should go out of business (knock on wood), my business won’t fall apart because I still have other gigs. I’ve been fortunate that I bring in new clients on a consistent basis.

I thought about creating a course that I’d teach by email. After long deliberations, I opted not to do it. Developing a course not only requires pulling together strong, interactive content, but also promoting it and keeping it fresh. As much as I love the subject, I didn’t have enough confidence that I’d have enough enrollment on a regular basis. Furthermore, I’ve noticed those who do well in offering such classes tend to speak a few times a year and have at least one known published book.

I’m comfortable with giving presentations, but uncomfortable with the answering questions part — a very critical part of the two-way interaction. So that’s not a priority in my business, but I wouldn’t turn down free travel and the opportunity. If it happens, I bring index cards so people can write their questions down or send it  to me on Twitter. Sure, I’ve written two books, but they’re not focused on my expertise.

Because I’m not a high energy person, every opportunity that comes my way receives careful consideration. I do what I can to avoid overwhelming myself and keeping my work streamlined.

How’s your self-respect?

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