Look Like a Pro: Interview with writer Susan Johnston

As part of the Look Like a Pro! Series, I’m proud to present the very first (of hopefully many) Writer Spot Interview. I’ll probably come up with a catchier title than that, but that’s beside the point.

Today’s interview features freelance writer Susan Johnston, better known to some blog readers as the Urban Muse. Her website was recently highlighted as an example in personal branding by JibberJobber, a site specializing in networking and marketing yourself.

On to the interview!

You were recently named JibberJobber's Pick of the Month for March. What has that been like?

I'm flattered. It has definitely boosted my daily traffic, but it's too soon to tell if those readers will become regulars.

Your website is relatively new; tell us a little bit about setting that up and working through Vista Print.

I logged onto VistaPrint to order new business cards and saw that they were offering a free month's trial of their web hosting service. After upgrading to the personal package to the basic business package, tweaking one of their templates and setting up a domain-based email, I was sold. No coding required and very friendly customer service.

Your 5Q's interviews have featured a number of highly regarded writing professionals. How has that helped you?

It's a win-win situation. The writers get to promote their books and other projects, and I get a virtual informational interview to pick their brains about publishing. It's also a draw for other aspiring writers who read my blog. I've even gotten free copies of books before they're available in bookstores (called galleys), which is great because I'm not making big bucks (yet).

Why did you decide to start a blog?

I was encouraged by one of my writing mentors, and it took off from there. She stressed that it's important to specialize, rather than trying to blog about everything and that advice has served me well.

The photos on your site look great. Were they done professionally?

Yes. I hired Rachel at Decent Urban Lifestyles (http://www.decenturbanlifestyle.org), and I think she did a fantastic job of highlighting my personality in a flattering and fun way without being too staged.

What led you to get your photos professionally done?

I'm also a semi-professional singer/actress and I needed new headshots. I met Rachel at a women's networking event and LOVED the photos on her blog and website. She does a great job of capturing life's little moments in unexpected ways. Plus, she's also trying to establish her photography business, so her prices were reasonable and I wanted to support an emerging artist. After I got my 8 x 10's printed in black and white, it occurred to me that I could do so much more with them, so I posted them on my website and use them anytime an editor requests a contributor photo.

Why did you choose to put your photo on your website and not your blog?

When I first started my blog, I wanted to be cautious about online safety and that was a clever way to show my personality without showing my face to potential predators. I know it sounds a little paranoid, but young women can't be too careful with that sort of thing. After a few months, I realized that wasn't as much of an issue as I'd expected, in part because my name is so common, but I stuck with the cartoon because it had become my "urban muse" alter ego. I chose photos because I wanted something more professional-looking for my website, which is where I send editors first.

Where did you get your first clip?

I think it was a book review in Teen Voices, a glossy magazine that helps teenage girls boost their self-esteem through writing. I also wrote for my junior yearbook and my high school and college newspapers, but I'm not sharing those clips on my website. Those were limited edition!

Do you have any advice for new writers that are just starting out?

Yes. If you really want to write for a certain publication, be willing to take on assignments that might not initially interest you, because it's important to build up your clips and build relationships with editors. Once you've done that you can afford to be choosier. But you may also discover that you like writing about the topic. I've written a ton of articles on entrepreneurship and personal finance. I love it, but it wasn't originally what I set out to write.

What, in your opinion, separates the professional writer from the amateur?

It's about attitude. A professional attitude means not making silly mistakes like forgetting to spell check and fact check or demanding that your editor put your article on the cover. It's also about knowing your worth as a writer and not accepting projects that don't benefit your overall goals as a writer. If you're not getting paid and the clips aren't very professional-looking, you need to take a look at why you're doing it. If it gives you personal satisfaction, that's great, but it won't help reach your professional goals.

I'd like to thank Susan for taking the time for this interview, and would heartily recommend that you check out her blog, The Urban Muse.

Source: Photo


You're only as good as your picture

This picture perfectly sums up anything I could say about why you need a good headshot. Look at the two, and ask yourself the following four questions:

Which picture is more professional?
Which is more likely to land an assignment and get paid more money for it?
Which one will have editors calling him with assignments?
Which photo do you want to be?

In a perfect world, you'd be judged solely on your writing ability. The world, unfortunately, is not perfect. In fact, even if it were, your picture would still come in to play.

When choosing between two writers of equal skill, an editor has to make decisions based on perceived intangible qualities, such as punctuality, dependability, and professionalism. One of these photos effectively communicates all of those qualities.

In a world where your picture can mean the difference between a paying assignment and a rejection, why would you put anything but your best foot forward?

Source: Photo


Habits for Success: the meme

I’m going to take a one post break from the “Look Like a Pro” series to participate in the “Habits for Daily Success” meme. Carson Brackney, the copywriter extraordinaire over at Content Done Better has tagged me with the latest meme: “List the top 5 to 10 things you do almost every day that help you to be successful. They can be anything at all, but they have to be things you do at least 4 or 5 times every week.”

Well, I honestly don’t know just how successful I really am… I’m a very fledgling rookie in the freelance writing field. I’m still in school, and making progress a lot more slowly than I would like. I may not have what others consider to be success, but I still consider myself to be reasonably successful.

I don’t necessarily think that success is simply defined as a simple end point. Being done eating a burger isn’t necessarily the point of a burger. The point is that you love every delicious, greasy moment of eating it. Eventually you do finish it, but being done with a burger is nowhere near as wonderful as eating one. I’d know, I’ve eaten plenty.

I’d have to say then that habit numero uno is my mindset. I’m successful because of how I define my success. I’m married to my best friend, the girl of my dreams. My studies, my hobbies, my work and my passions all intersect in my writing. I spend every day doing what I love. I have a home, food to eat, and friends and family. My success depends largely on recognizing the successes I have already attained and enjoy. As a result, I’m a happy man. If happiness isn’t success, what is?

If we continue on defining success as daily happiness, we come to my next habit, which also isn’t necessarily writing related. The second habit has to be my overall lifestyle. I lead a life that conforms to certain standards of decency and conduct. My religious/spiritual life is an active and vibrant one. While I am far from perfect, I do my best to live according to the knowledge I have. At the end of the day, even though I make mistakes, I’m able to sleep peacefully.

While these first two habits might not sound all that related to success with writing business, they are. If you can’t learn be happy now, no amount of money, recognition, or expertise will satisfy you. You may achieve some visible measure of external success, but inside you’ll feel like a failure.

On to things more relevant to the writing profession:

I feed my mind constantly. The mind works according to the old computer programming maxim – “Garbage in, garbage out.” Along the same lines, if little goes in, little can come out. I’m a voracious reader, with a love for new ideas. I seek out new perspectives and experiences. As a result, I’ve got ideas coming out of my ears.

I write daily. Everything I’ve ever read on the subject tells me that good writing is the product of regular, daily writing. As a writer, words are the clay you sculpt with, the tools you work with. The more practiced and familiar you are with your tools and materials, the better you’ll be at your craft. To quote a couple writing heroes of mine:

“Runners don’t say, ‘Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.’ Each day they warm up and stretch.” – Natalie Goldberg

“Set up a daily writing schedule. That is the best advice I can offer any aspiring writer. If nothing else, the schedule will make you think of yourself as a writer. … After a few months of sticking to your schedule, you should be rewarded with an astonishing improvement in your writing.” – Patrick McManus
I set goals, and pursue them. Am I happy with what I have now? Absolutely. If things never changed, I could be happy for the rest of my life. The only problem is that things always change. Growth and change are inescapable, but not uncontrollable. If my life must change, it might as well be for the better and according to my own plan. I have educational and career goals. Though I love the apartment my wife and I are in, we’d like a house with a yard. I’d like a better workspace, with nicer equipment. I’d love to get published in certain magazines. I would love to be wealthy, influential, famous or whatever else. I don’t know where my life will ultimately end up, but I do know that anything worthwhile tends to be the result of patient hard work.

Finally, I study others. I try to adopt the things that work best, and discard what doesn’t. I’m not too sure that I’m necessarily any good at that, but I’m making progress. I’m a little bit better today than I was yesterday, and that’s good enough for me.

I’m passing this along to…
Kristen King, at ::inkthinker::
Andy Humphrey at The Struggling Writer
Mridu Khullar at her blog


Photo resources

In the first post of the "Look Like a Pro!" series, I've rounded up some informative bits of advice from seasoned professionals, writers and non-writers alike. In addition to the talented and successful writers here, I've also found some useful information from real estate agents, publicists, entrepreneurs and web professionals. Enjoy!

Photo via Flickr
Inkthinker's Kristen King looks at the problem of unprofessional, overly glamorous head shots, and covers what a photo should say.

[Professional writers are] using their photos to further a point, to strengthen the message they're conveying with their site copy: "I'm classy." "I'm dependable." ... "I'm real." ...
They're all making writers in general look good by being professional and appropriate. So stop screwing it up! Take that glamour shot off your site and be a grown-up already.
You're better than that. We all are. (

Publicist Joan Stewart weighs in on the necessity of a professional photo, and gives a few simple tips.

If a newspaper or magazine … called you today … would you have a good-quality photo that you offer?

Most people don't.

Many of the bad-quality photos I see are too dark, out of focus, grainy, scanned incorrectly, or taken against a busy backdrop—often by amateur photographers... One writer gave me a photo that shows him with his eyes closed. A woman gave me a photo of her in a sleeveless blouse, with her bra strap showing... (

Longtime freelancer Patricia Fry gives the complete lowdown on using your photo for your website, published pieces and marketing materials.

Don't just ask a neighbor to take your picture while posing in the backyard. Put some thought into the image you want to portray and hire a professional to capture that image. Here are some guidelines to note when planning your photo shoot. (More)

Real Estate agents, like freelancers, also market and brand themselves. Real estate marketing consultant Jim Cronin chimes in on how your image impacts your professional pursuits.

If your headshot is unprofessional, then you look unprofessional. The world can be very superficial, and appearances do matter - people want to work with someone they feel looks "nice." (More)

Business columnist Penelope Trunk blogs about her own experience with a professional photographer.

I went without showering, I brought one, black, dirty shirt, and I had not slept well for weeks. I walked into the room and there were seven people there to take care of all the stuff I needed: hair, makeup, they brought clothes for me, they had a caterer, it was amazing. There was a person in charge of making wind blow my hair. And the photos were incredible. No one would ever know how crappy I looked. (More)

I recommend checking each post in full.


Look Like a Pro! (A Series)

In the next week or so, I will be in the process of reorganizing, revamping and otherwise sprucing up my personal marketing materials. As I do this, I’ll be detailing, step by step, what I’ve changed and how it’s better. I’ll be posting all of this information as a series, including all sorts of informational goodies for readers.

Some of the topics I’ll cover:
The Mug Shot - Why every writer needs to look sharp
The Portfolio - Putting your best foot forward with your best work
The Business Card - If you don't have a card, you might not exist
The Website - See above.
Building Your Personal Media Kit - Putting it all together into a professional Grand Slam.

I may include as part of this series interviews related to these topics. Do you know a lot about any of these areas? Drop me a line: BrianWestover[at]gmail.com

Any suggestions as to what else I should include would be appreciated.

Writing Quote: David Allen

"When I’m...writing, I really have to think, and thinking is a rare commodity. It actually takes horsepower.

It’s not just regurgitating information, which is just the computer stuff the brain does — it really is tapping the intuition, the intelligence, the creativity."

- David Allen, author of Getting Things Done

Sources: Quote, Photo


Dan Rather at SXSW

Dan Rather dropped by the new (and indie and web 2.0) media mega-conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW for those who have been confused by the omnipresence of this abbreviation). He was interviewed by Kate Weidaw, and there are both excerpts and video available online.

Rather said he views the Internet as an important part of journalism and chooses to get his day's news online, as well as from newspapers.

KXAN's Kate Weidaw sat down with Rather and asked what he thinks of today's journalists.

"To be a patriotic journalist is to ask tough questions and to follow up and dig because American journalism has an integral role to play, and over the last five or six years, I don't think we've been doing as good of a job as we could," said Rather.

What do Rather's comments mean for freelance writers and blogging citizen journalists? I think his best advice, from the video clip of his interview, was this.

"Do the hard, rugged investigative digging work that's so often required in all quarters."

While all writers can benefit from his views on integrity and ethics in journalism and writing, I think that his call for work is timely. Especially in this day and age of Internet research and desktop publishing, it's easy to stay in our comfort zones and pluck the low-hanging fruit. Perhaps we need to hustle a little more in the real world.

Writing Quote: Gore Vidal

The brain that

doesn't feed itself,

eats itself.

Gore Vidal

Sources: Quote, Picture

Writer's Glossary: About the Author

About the Author

Usually a couple of paragraphs to one page describing relevant information about the author. Used for books, book proposals and sometimes articles. Written in the 3rd person.

Source: http://www.writefromhome.com/writingtradearticles/197.htm

Usually a few paragraphs to one page that describes the author. Written in 3rd person. Used for books, book proposals and sometimes articles.

Source: http://bellaonline.com/articles/art3115.asp

See also: Bio, Bio Note

10 Tips: Time Management and Organization

The issues of time management and organization are the twin demons that plague most writers. We generally have lots of papers, lots of great ideas and no time in which to get everything done that we'd like. So, to help us all out, we've got some great tips on each from Boston columnist Penelope Trunk and workflow consultant Matthew Cornell. (Found via Lifehack.org)

5 Ways to Stop Being Late, from Penelope Trunk

Schedule the event into your calendar. I discovered I had enough on my schedule to last 48 hours a day. It would have been impossible for me to be on time for anything.

Practice saying what you need to say. Here’s a great thing to say: “Excuse me, I hate to cut you off, but I have an appointment.” It is hard to cut someone off, but they will respect you for sticking to a schedule.

Be a time pessimist. Assume everything will take a little longer than your first estimate.

Prioritize. Face the reality that you cannot get your whole list done. Figure out what’s most important and just get that done.

Be honest with yourself. Often, we are scared to make the decisions that we must make in order to get control over our time and become someone who runs on schedule. But there is no other way to run a life. To run on schedule is to plan the life you want to live and execute that plan.

5 Filing Hacks, from Matthew Cornell

File Bookmark
When you pull a file, simply lift up the file behind it a few inches and let the remaining files in front of that one lean back. You’ll find they keep the bookmark file up above the rest until you’re ready to return the pulled file.

Fold Crease
Have you ever noticed that set of horizontal creases at the bottom of most file folders? Guess what - they’re amazingly useful! When you have a file that’s grown to more than a dozen or so pages, it starts to bow outward, messing up your nice filing drawer. Terrible! To fix the problem, simply open the file flat on your desk, choose a crease that will give you enough extra room, fold the crease, and - bingo - neat, expanded file.

Staple, Don’t Clip
To keep your files as thin as possible, replace paper clips with staples. For thick bundles that you don’t want to staple, you might prefer the so-called “ideal clamps” (such as these) rather than paper clips.

Unfold Before You File
This one is real simple: To keep files thin and make easier future perusals, always unfold any papers before you file them. Also, take them out of the envelope if you feel the need to keep it (staple it to the pages if you like.)

Magnetic Bookend
Trying to keep files condensed and neat? Try one of these magnetic bookends. You can adjust them easily, and they help things stay put.


Clipless doesn't mean Hopeless

Every new writer faces the rookie dilemma. Without experience and clips, many editors won't hire you. If editors won't hire you, you'll get no clips. It's an infuriating problem in circular logic, and it's one faced by new writers every day.

How does one overcome this hurdle? What can the rookie do to land those first few assignments, the meager start of a truly professional portfolio?

Here are three articles to read that may help you out:
Build Your Clip File - Kathryn Lay
Clipless? Don't Worry! - Beth Ann Erickson
Five Tips to Getting Published ASAP! - Beth Ann Erickson

Blog turns to Book Deal!

Sometimes, I just love the Internet. (Actually, that's most of the time.) One of my favorite things to watch of late has been how the occasional "new media" player (be it a blogger, YouTuber, whatever) will occasionally show such creativity that "old media" picks it up.

The best example, of late? One of my favorite blogs, Indexed, has been offered a book deal, with Penguin's Viking Studio. For about seven months, Jessica Hagy has been doodling absurd little diagrams that explore and explain the relationships between all sorts of things, like the correlation between money and nihilistic fashion trends, or the futility of New years resolutions. In a surprisingly insightful manner, these doodles on index cards poke fun at fashion, politics, television and every other area of culture and human nature.

This site is a hoot, and I'm looking forward to the book.


Letters to the Editor: Allison Winn Scotch

Allison Winn Scotch has answered a question of mine that's been bugging me for a while.

I've read (or think I've read) about new writers using letters to the
editor as published clips. What's your take on this? Is this a legitimate
practice, or one of those new writer pipe dreams?

Noooooo!!! Don't do this.

That's pretty much what I figured. It sounded fishy when I first heard of the idea, and because of said fishy-ness, I've never done it. However, she says something in her answer that rubs me the wrong way just a wee bit...

If LTTE counted as published clips, then everyone from my grandmother to a
second-grader could be considered a published author, and sorry, they're not.

Well, if their written words are published, then by definition, they are. They may not be a professional, but they most certainly are a published author. A published author of a letter to the editor, but a published author none the less.


Writing Quote: Ben Franklin

“Either write something worth reading
or do something worth writing.”

– Ben Franklin

Total Writing Improvement

All writing involves three elements. Whether it’s scribbling in your journal, landing a byline in a major magazine, or writing for a TV show, these three elements are present and inescapable.


All writing begins with thought. Words and sentences only have value because they represent ideas and concepts and do so in a way that many people understand. Without those ideas and concepts, language is meaningless. What we actually create and sell, as writers, are thoughts.

Words and Language

Now, in order for those thoughts to be accessible or intelligible to anyone else, they need to be translated from raw thought into some form that others can understand. Communication of thought is the sole purpose of language. As said before, the value of words lie in the thoughts they convey to others.

Media and Technology

Finally, once we’ve figured out the words that represent our thoughts, we must record them in some way. Cave men painted on walls, the Egyptians wrote on papyrus, we use computers. Whatever the technology used, regardless of the medium that conveys the message, it isn’t writing until it’s written. Media and technology are the form and means used to record the thoughts we originally had.

The Bottom Line

We all want to write well. Many want to also write more, and thus earn more money. Both quality and quantity can be improved by focusing on improving how we use and work with each of these three portions of the whole writing process. By improving our initial thought processes, we improve both the crafting and marketing of our writing. By fine tuning our use of language, we are better able to write clearly and reach audiences effectively. By training ourselves in media and technology, we become more skilled with the tools we use in our art.


The 6 Best Board Games for Brainstorming

Looking for a fun way to brainstorm? Are you lost in aggravation from a bad case of the block? Play a game! But not just any game – try one (or all) of these excellent Brainstorming Games. These games are designed to tickle your mind, to tease your intellect and to tap in to your brainpower.

The classic word game, Scrabble challenges you to find words using a limited number of letters and spaces. Maybe you'll play a whole game, jotting down ideas as you go, or maybe you'll just have some fun shuffling the tiles around to form words and phrases. In either case, this game will help you use words you didn't even know you knew.


Boggle is a crazy game that could be called "Scrabble in a box". Shake the letter dice and then watch them as they settle to find as many words as you can!

Apples to Apples

The great game of finding the ultimate non-sequiter is also the best party game you'll ever find. Match any one of your crazy nouns (like Britney Spears, Poker, Fuzz, Nintendo, and Lava Lamps) and choose the one that best matches a randomly selected adjective (like Classy). If you've got the best match, you win the round. (My pick would have to be Fuzz.)What Apples to Apples does best, however, is force you to find connections between seemingly disparate concepts. For the freelancer, that's an essential skill.


As one Amazon commenter puts it, Balderdash "combines wordsmithing and bluffing" - can you think of a better pair of skills for the freelance writer? Neither can I.


This may very well be the big mother of all brainstorming games. Why? Because all you do in this game is brainstorm! You're given a list of categories, you roll a mondo-alphabet-die to select a letter, and then it becomes a race against the clock to fill each category with an entry that starts with that letter.

It may just be the best game ever.


With four categories challenging your trivia knowledge, vocabulary, artistic abilities and performing talents, Cranium is a great game to play when you're looking to stretch your creative muscles beyond the realm of the written word.

How many great ideas have YOU lost?

You never know quite when an idea will pop into your mind, do you? Surely I’m not the only one that finds inspiration in the shower, am I? (Actually, I believe the shower was a favorite of Stan Freberg.) At any given moment, whether I’m pounding out a rough draft, researching a topic or just doing a bit of “mind grazing”, I may have an idea that strikes. Maybe it’s something I read that strikes my fancy. Maybe it’s a tangent I wish I had the time to explore. Maybe it’s just a fun word that I like.

The fact is that you need a place to record these thoughts and experiences. Chances are high that you’ve lost a lot of great ideas simply for lack of scrap paper. How many times have you jotted down a name and phone number on the back of an old receipt? Just how many of those stray scraps of paper actually get used later? If you’re at all like me, the end up going through the wash the next time you do laundry, and you’re stuck with a little wad that used to be paper.

How to solve this problem? My dad always told me that if you have a weakness, use a system to compensate for it. If you have trouble remembering where you put your keys, then give them a specific place where you always put them. During the day, they’re in my left hip pocket. Once I walk in the door, they go in a small basket on the desk that’s by the door. If they’re not in the basket, they’re in my pocket. See? The system provides a simple solution.

My system for capturing important information and ideas is equally simple. If I’m away from the computer, I have my hPDA with me at all times, allowing me to jot it down then and there. I use a Mead Index Keeper, and I can quickly file away any index cards or scraps of paper I might need to save. This way, these clippings and musings have a designated place and are always accessible.

When I’m at the computer, I’m able to remove an entire step from this process by having a similar document there on the desk top. I have it labeled “Open Jotter”, because that’s exactly what it is, a running document that I can jot notes into. Cool bit of info? Jot it down. Any insights, factoids or flashes of brilliance are jotted down, in whatever order they happen to come in.

At the end of the day (if I remember, sometimes it’s the end of the week…) I go over everything and refile it as needed. Contact information goes in one place. Blog post ideas go another place. Large chunks of fitfully typed ramblings go into a folder all their own.

The two most important points are these:
1. There is a designated place for all of these stray thoughts.
2. This place is always immediately accessible.

Thus, I’m able to get stuff out of my head and recorded in some way, and I can do so with minimum hassle. This allows my mind to focus on the tasks at hand without trying to keep track of everything else all the time. Like my keys, I don’t need to remember where I set them down last, I already know that if they’re not in my pocket, they’re in the basket on my desk. Likewise, I never have to scramble to record a thought; I just whip out my handy Hipster or go straight to the Open Jotter.

How do you corral your thoughts?


Ubiquitous Thought Capture

One of the beauties of the Hipster PDA (which I've been using religiously for months now) is that it offers an extremely portable note taking system. For writers, especially those who are always on the look out for article ideas, this thought capture is essential.

Here's a wonderful video about a man who writes/designs crossword puzzles. I love everything he has to say, so just watch the clip.

Another thing I use, which I'll elaborate on later, is an "Open Jotter" document on my computer. It's an ongoing file of anything that floats into my mind. Whatever I'm doing, I can quickly jot it down, and get back to whatever I'm working on, secure in the fact that my brilliance (or lack thereof) is recorded to return to at a later time.

Writing Prompt Calendar: Toasted Cheese

You may want to check out Toasted Cheese, a website for writers that may just have the best name ever. More importantly, they have a calendar which includes a daily writing prompt - that's right, 365 days of writing prompts!