Resumes & Portfolios for Writers: Part One

The bane of every inexperienced writer’s existence is building a resume. Having a strong resume that lists your written work is so important, and it is a useful tool for several reasons. First, it sends the message that you are serious about your writing. Second, it helps potential “clients” and editors have something to refer to when you try to convince them to publish or hire you to write. Novice writers often make several mistakes when they build a resume, however, because they often don’t tailor their experiences to the business they are writing for or worse—don’t provide any references. The good news is that there is a way to pad your resume honestly, so there is no need to stretch the truth.

Through your writing experiences you probably have written dozens of “published” work that normally wouldn’t even register on your radar. For my own resume, my list of uncredited publications is 10 times as long as my list of credited works. What constitutes an uncredited publication? Think about all the times you’ve written business letters, proposals, ad copy, programs, reviews, article summaries, flyers, book or movie descriptions, concert reviews, and so on. Technically, any time you write for someone else—work or play—that piece, regardless of what kind of writing it is, turns into a potential resume builder.

Resumes for writers, just like other career, need to be tailored, written well, and easy-to-reference visually. It’s easier to build a list of written works before you worry about who you’re trying to impress with your resume, but it’s a bit harder to sift through and remember all you have.

Before you write your resume, have a few brainstorming sessions about what work you’ve done. Separate your work into three categories: uncredited publications, credited publications, and jobs where writing was part of your work. Next, “tag” your work by identifying what type of writing it is: technical, business, fiction, non-fiction, etc. After you have a completed list, systematically build your resume according to the writing job requirements you’re trying to get.

In many cases, written work that is “uncredited” can not be listed individually on a resume for confidentiality reasons, but you can list your work in two other ways—either as your employer, or as a reference. Of course, you’ll need to contact your references beforehand to let them know what you’re doing, but many clients, editors, and publishers will be more than happy to give you a reference for your efforts. Really, a recommendation is the least they can do since you can’t include uncredited assignments in your portfolio or as a single publication. By turning your writing experiences into talking points, even a writer who has never published a short story or article can have a decent resume that will lead to your next publication.

Writing Exercises #1: Learning Word Conservation

One of the things that is extremely important to a modern writer’s style is something called “word conservation.” In other words, how can you say what you need to say in the fewest number of words possible? Most people understand word conservation intuitively; ask someone about any legal, insurance, or financial documents and you’ll hear them say things like, “Wow, I can’t understand these documents. It’s so wordy.” Or even things like, “How did I miss that?” when referring to a decision or a sub-clause that didn’t work in their favor. Others, who have read 18th or 19th century literature, know exactly what it means to read long-winded, fancy prose that takes forever to get to its point.

Many modern writers opt to use a writing style which doesn’t mince any words. This is especially true for technical and business writing, since busy schedules require people to ask for information that leaves out the details for water cooler conversations or meetings. In fiction and non-fiction, word conservation is a function of a writer’s style. Of course, styles change for any number of reasons—time being one of them—and you could easily spend years researching the progression of word conservation through different authors, historically. Yet, there is also such a thing as “too much” word conservation—you can easily spot this style attribute when the prose sounds clunky and flows unevenly, making it difficult to read.

Whether or not you decide to use word conservation in your own writing style, it’s still important to know how to write succinctly because in this day and age there are many occasions that will call for a clear, direct writing style that has more of an impact on the reader.

Try these word conservation writing exercises:

Flash Fiction: Flash fiction, or flavor text, is a great way to put word conservation skills to use. After you decide on a word count (typically 500 words or less), spend a few minutes brainstorming about a story idea. When you brainstorm, don’t hold your imagination back and let the ideas flow. Once you have a basic plot formulated, then channel those energies into a story. Don’t worry about how long or how short it is, just get the words out on paper. After you have your new story, whether it’s 20 pages or 2, then pare it down to a 500 word piece of fiction. By forcing your story into tight constraints, you’ll find yourself stripping down your extra words until you get to the bone. Some writers find it best to get it all out before they edit; others can edit in their mind. Definitely work with whatever method is best for you, but often times if you’re not experienced writing in this format, it’s easier to hone and polish your work when you have something down on paper.

Editing: One of the ways to learn word conservation is to edit someone else’s work. Choose the wordiest, passive tense passage you can find; it doesn’t matter if it’s from “Last of the Mohicans” or your life insurance policy. Read through the passage a few times, then hack it to pieces until it makes sense. Change passive verb tenses (ex. was singing) to active (sing, sang, sung), slash prepositional phrases (books of poetry to poetry books), and change indirect phrasing to direct. By editing passages you already identify as wordy, you’ll become an expert at catching verbose phrases that may pop up in your own work.

Classifieds: Imagine you’re selling a product and want to write an ad for it in the newspaper. Limit your word count to 50 words or less. While 50 is typically more than what you might get in a media publication, the point here is to utilize words to sell your product. A variation of this is would be write a personals ad or an “employment-wanted” ad about “you”; highlighting a particular aspect of your talents, abilities, or personality. While the intent of writing an ad is different than writing a piece of fiction, mechanically you are still writing for an audience. The only difference is this time, you’re trying to use as few as words possible to sell an item or service—and not tell a story.

Media Synopsis: If you’re up for a challenge, try writing a movie, video game, book or other media synopsis. Take as much time and as much length as you need to fully describe the story. Once you’re done, pare your description down a couple of times until you can tell what happened in one paragraph. You’ll find that you’ll lose some of the action details, but as your description gets more and more focused, you’ll find yourself able to describe your own work—an essential concept if you want to sell or pitch your work to someone else.

See if you can come up with your own word conservation writing exercises. As you become more and more aware of the way you craft your sentences, you’ll find that you overall writing will improve, regardless of the way that you want to communicate or tell a story. Regardless, remember that while your writing style is your own, in these hurried times there are plenty of occasions that call for “tight” passages that is packed with words that engage the audience and retain readership.

Happy writing!

Freelance Writing Tip #18: Unpublished? Unread

Whether you freelance write as a hobby or professionally, when you’re a novel writer, your business model is based on attracting and retaining readers. Simple, right? You’d be surprised how many “new” novel writers state that they are “holding out” for the best deal–no matter how long it takes. Unfortunately, when you’re an unknown author, you don’t have as much leverage as an established one.

Think about that for a second. As an unknown, you don’t have a track record with any publishing company to prove that your books sell. The more unpublished work piles up on your computer, the less people are reading it–and the less you are getting paid. Subsequently, if no one is reading your novel, the less chance you get for developing fans who will look for your next piece or start to recognize your name. Then, the chance of you reaching your goals of becoming a full-time novelist get pushed back even further.

Freelance Writing Tip #17: Don’t Get Too Personal

Many writers “write what they know,” that is they use personal experiences to fuel their stories, articles, and essays. Believe it or not, this happens quite a bit because some authors intentionally get personal to use “writing as therapy.” Generally speaking, this isn’t a good idea, unless you’re an established writer, because it’s infinitely harder to look at your work objectively if your words are infused with emotional, personal memories. Passages about powerful childhood experiences that are very clear to you could be unreadable; it’s also easier to take criticism more personally and your work will suffer as a result.

Above all, if you’re writing with the intention of getting paid, remember that most folk don’t care about your personal issues—but they do want to be entertained and/or informed. If you are using a personal experience as a backbone for an assignment, keep in mind that you are writing your piece “for sale.” That alone should help you tailor your assignment toward an audience.

Freelance Writing Tip #16: Write to Sell

All too often, it’s easy to write a short story that you absolutely love–only no one wants to buy it because it doesn’t fit within the confines of their publication. One trick you can use to get around piling up flash fiction pieces that are hard to market is to pick a few markets that you want to target and get a grasp of their publishing style, even before you put any words on the page.

Another trick is to read short story authors in a similar vein and pay attention to where they are getting published; this usually requires you to be brutally honest and objective about your own work and its quality. Once you get used to “marketing” your unwritten story ideas, you’ll be able to make better decisions intuitively to write a short story or flash fiction piece that you can sell.

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