In the Face of Fear

Intruder breaking into a home.

Image from: Wtop News


By: Rehann Rheel

Frozen in Fear:

I paused where I stood and stared at the form lying on my living room couch. My brain, still slow to process information this early in the morning, slowly ticked off the things it knew I wasn’t seeing. I wasn’t seeing my mom or my aunt, because I could hear them a few yards away, in different rooms. I wasn’t seeing my sister, because she does not have man feet or such holey socks. And I wasn’t seeing some employee of my mother’s that she’d asked to house sit for the night because that didn’t even make any sense. So that meant…what I was seeing was…

An intruder.

In my house.

Sleeping on my couch. 

I had to warn somebody. My sister, my mom, my aunt—and myself, of course—were all in danger. But when I tried to call out, nothing happened. Like whatever neurons connected my brain to my vocal cords didn’t exist. 

Stupid, stupid. 

Plan B, then. Getaway, go to the adults and warn them via the most intense game of charades I’ve ever played. 

I had better success with Plan B. Slowly backing away (because I was afraid that the intruder wasn’t sleeping and that he’d leap up like a ninja the second my back was turned and stab me), I left the living room, then the breakfast nook, and finally reached the kitchen where my aunt was pondering wooden pieces on the ground; wooden pieces I knew must be from the door the intruder came through. 

When there was finally a wall between me and the intruder, I got some control of my vocal cords back. Enough to rasp, “Look! Look!” as I gesticulated at the living room.

The concept of “fight or flight” is thrown around a lot—in TV, books, anything. But what I did that day—at least at first—was neither fight nor flight: it was freeze. 


The Science of Fear:

Fear is a not-so-dear friend of mine. You see, I am an easily startled person, and can hardly make it a day without being scared by some unexpected sound or presence. But despite my frenemy status with fear, I don’t actually know how it works. Turns out, fear is an extremely complicated, multi-step process that happens in less than a second.

First, comes the object of fear. Maybe it’s a speeding car or a murder hornet or just a strand of hair you thought was a spider because you forgot that you dyed your hair a darker color. When faced with this object, the eyes and/or ears send the sights or sounds directly to the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in processing emotions. The amygdala looks at the information it’s been given and sounds the alarm, sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus. (Harvard Health, 2020).

So, next, the hypothalamus takes charge. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that talks to all the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two very important parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The former is what lights a fire under our feet, so to speak, and triggers the fight or flight response (Harvard Health, 2020).


 

 

Labeled view of brain.

Image from: The University of Queensland


Fight or Flight:

The term “fight or flight” has been in use since the 1920s (fight or fight or flapper, anyone?). It describes the reactions we exhibit when faced with a threat—perceived or real (Schmidt et al., 2008).

“Accurately or not, if you assess the immediately menacing force as something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. In such instances, the hormones released by your sympathetic nervous system—especially adrenaline—prime you to do battle and, hopefully, triumph over the hostile entity,” said Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. (Seltzer, 2015).

However, if you take a look at the threat you’re facing and realize that there’s no way you’d ever make it out of that particular battle scratch-free, the body wants to flee (Seltzer, 2015).


Fear response model.

Image from: The Royal Society


…Or Freeze:

Okay, so both fight and flight make biological sense. But what about freeze? How can a (seemingly) total loss of bodily control when faced with some foe be beneficial? Turns out, it is. Because sometimes, a person can find themselves in a situation where they know they can’t overpower the object of their fear, but neither can they outrun it. That’s when the freeze response kicks in (Schmidt et al., 2008).

Let’s say that—heaven forbid—you’re being attacked. It’s too late to run, and your assailant is stronger than you. In this situation, the freeze response can help you to escape the physical, mental, and emotional pain you’d be otherwise experiencing. And this disassociation can actually preserve your sanity. In such a situation, some of the chemicals our bodies secrete, like endorphins, can act as a kind of painkiller. Also, it’s possible that if an attacker—be it human or animal—feels that their victim isn’t playing along, they might just get bored and stop the attack altogether (Seltzer, 2015).

It’s important to note that the freeze response is a little different from the concept of “tonic immobility,” which is something demonstrated by animals in the wild when they play dead. Playing dead often means “motor and vocal inhibition,” but these two characteristics aren’t necessarily tied to the freeze response (Schmidt et al., 2008).

It’s also important to note that the freeze response isn’t a passive state, or the failure to act. Instead, it’s more like the information gathering stage of fear. The senses take in the situation, the brain develops a plan, and the body prepares to act on that plan in various ways like increasing muscle tone and suppressing pain (Roelofs, 2017).

In addition, studies have shown that people might be predisposed to the freeze response. A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that, “The majority of items that were more highly associated with freeze included those focused on cognitive symptoms of anxiety (e.g., confusion, unreality, detached, concentration, inner shakiness) as well as fear of losing control” (Schmidt et al., 2008). This is supported by numerous fear studies involving rats; those with a genetic predisposition to anxiety were significantly more prone to freezing than non-anxious rats (Roelofs, 2017).


In the Face of Rheel Fear:

Thankfully, that day with the guy on the couch ended without anybody being harmed. All four of us escaped the house while the intruder continued to slumber, and he only stirred when the cops woke him up (Talk about a rude awakening). But the “what ifs” still sneak up on me, even 12 years later. What if my hesitation put my life at risk? What if my hesitation put my family’s lives at risk? 

Betsy Huggett, director of the Diane Peppler Resource Center, went through a similar dilemma. A trained soldier, Betsy was confident that she knew what to do when the base’s sirens went off. However, instead of going to the station as she’d trained to do, she ran. “My training failed me,” she thought at first. “But what I really felt was that I failed. I didn’t feel like my training failed; I failed” (Huggett, 2019). 

But we didn’t fail. I didn’t fail. Freezing is part of the natural human reaction, just like fight and flight. It serves a purpose, just like fight and flight. And it has its pros and cons, just like fight and flight. If the intruder had been a light sleeper, too much sound or movement could have awakened him, and then the story I tell as an ice breaker might have had a much more sobering ending. 

Still, I have to admit that, if I ever find myself in a similar situation again, I hope I draw the Flight card, so I can get me and mine the heck out of Dodge.

My Path Through Anorexia Nervosa Recovery

Image of butterfly on window sill.

Photo by Jian Xhin on Unsplash


By: Keara Hozella

The content of this blog may be sensitive to some readers. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s website or call the hotline at 1-800-931-2237. 

My definition of recovery started when I returned home from the fall semester during my sophomore year, noticeably thinner than when I had left in August. Terrified of any food with carbs, protein, fat, and most of all, any significant number of calories, I truly was a shell of myself. I wasn’t prone to cracking a smile and preferred to sit off to the side with my carbonated, artificially flavored water in at least three layers of clothing (the former my choice, the latter a necessity as my weight loss had made me intolerant to cold).  

A week later, I sat in a doctor’s office—one that specialized in the treatment of eating disorders—as she told me I couldn’t return to campus. She listed all the reasons it wasn’t medically safe for me to go back to school, including the typical mental and physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa, such as extreme weight loss, fatigue, thinning hair, intolerance of cold, exercising excessively, preoccupation with food, irritability, and insomnia. She also mentioned she would be arranging a spot for me to begin inpatient treatment within four days. 

Return to School or Recover 

My world as I had known it was rocked. I wanted to go back to school, where I could continue to soak up as much as possible from my English classes, reading, and writing (and continuing to feed my eating disorder while starving myself – a secret I came to realize I wasn’t keeping that well). As I sat in the office, I focused on all the things I would be losing: my apartment’s closet with the scale where I weighed myself four times a day, the ability to closely monitor what food I ate and when, my hour-long sessions at the gym, the strict timeline I had set for myself on when I would graduate, apply to grad schools, and hopefully get accepted into my dream program of choice – one that was a niche program on Shakespeare that required nearly perfect GRE scores. I also ruminated on what I wouldn’t gain (namely, weight). I do remember feeling relief that someone saw how hard the charade was to keep up, and how many numbers and calculations ran through my head daily.  

Missing Pieces  

While I can remember some of my thoughts and feelings during my sophomore year of college, there are huge chunks of time missing from my fall semester. I don’t remember most of what I read or wrote for classes and retained only about a quarter of signs from my American Sign Language course. According to Carrie Hunnicutt of Monde Nido Treatment Centers, trouble concentrating is a common occurrence in people with anorexia nervosa, because food restriction means the brain doesn’t receive an adequate amount of nutrients. I would learn more about the less commonly talked about symptoms as I continued along my recovery journey.  

For example, the disconnect between my still-disordered mental state and my no longer thin body as I gained much-needed weight in recovery was a hard one. I still had the anorexic mindset, but no longer with a body that reflected it. In the hospital, my treatment team had set a goal weight for me to achieve to be considered weight restored, far lower than my original healthy weight I had had for the majority of my life. As I continued to gain weight, I shot up above the target weight set for me, another anxiety-producing aspect of recovery, where I didn’t feel I was succeeding or “doing it right.” Yes, even in recovery, my anxiety, depression, and perfectionism were rearing their ugly heads, a Cerberus that threatened to take down my progress in recovery so far. 

Clarity Restored 

As I ate more and became more accustomed to eating a range of foods, it was easier to see just how disordered my relationship with myself, others, and food had been. The thick fog that had surrounded everything throughout this year-long period was beginning to lift. I call this the second phase of recovery. I was gaining weight, eating foods that scared the hell out of me, and learning to confront the issues that had led to me developing anorexia nervosa in the first place. Along with “fear-food Fridays,” where we all chose a food that we never would’ve previously eaten in days with anorexia nervosa (my choice often being a peanut butter doughnut), my recovery became even more complicated. 


Image of donut.

Photo by Kenny Timmer on Unsplash


Here was where the harder work began. I started to address my anxiety through the lens of generalized anxiety disorder, finally a name for something that had been with me for as long as I could remember. It affected me during regular, day-to-day things like going to the grocery store and driving, along with more intense affairs such as public speaking and job interviews. The research on co-occurring disorders in people with anorexia nervosa is a well-researched one. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, conditions such as anxiety, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder go hand-in-hand in those with eating disorders.


Chart describing eating and co-occurring disorders.

Photo from: nationaleatingdisorders.org/eating-disorders-co-occurring-conditions-0


Recovery Now  

Even now, nine years into my recovery, the underlying issues that so strongly permeated my life during my eating disorder and recovery, including anxiety, are still there. Sometimes it shows up in ways I don’t think would happen had I not struggled in the past. There are times where I give myself a pep talk to not skip breakfast and count a cup of coffee as a “meal.” The understanding that a snack in between lunch and dinner is something I’m allowed to have from now until forever is still one I’m working on. Glimpses of nutrition labels don’t throw me as much as they used to when I had every food’s calories memorized. But when they’re in size 100-point font on a restaurant’s menu, it is hard to pick one that I really want as opposed to one with the less caloric one. I’m able to do it, but not without stress and a shake of my head to get rid of the pesky thought.  

I’ve thankfully added some tricks up my sleeve to help me when things get rough, including therapy and anti-anxiety medications. Even these are hard to admit as things I need to keep my strong stance in recovery, and I don’t keep up with either as much as I would like. My path to recovery has been a rocky one…one that is constantly changing and evolving as I do. It’s taught me recovery is possible, especially with proper care, help, and support from others and medical professionals. 


Image of hiker along a path.

Photo by Arina Wong on Unsplash


While the definition recovery can be easily found online, what recovery from anorexia nervosa looks like in practice, and the paths taken to get there are not as easily discovered. 

Just as each person who has an eating disorder is a unique combination of stories, history, and experiences they’ve had, each person’s recovery is a winding odyssey into the unknown, with an ending that hopefully includes healing and an understanding of their own definition of recovery. 

Writing for Global Audiences

With the rise of the Internet, the world is smaller than ever before. Whether you’re designing websites for a global marketplace or managing translation of user manuals, you need to make sure your content can reach a global audience.

Don’t worry; you won’t have to dust off your high school French. Translation is part of a broader process called localization. Localization adapts a document for a different target market. This goes beyond translation to include changing number and date/time formats, currencies, symbols, graphics and more.

Although localization is a task best left to specialists, writers can make this process easier by keeping global audiences in mind when they’re writing. This is called internationalization – i18n for short.

Tips for Internationalizing Text

Following some standard guidance can help make your document easier to localize.

  • Avoid Idioms and Metaphors – Because idioms are not taken literally, it can be difficult to translate them into other languages. Sports metaphors and cultural references are also problematic. “We’re batting a thousand” will be readily understood in America. In Russia? Not so much.

 

  • Avoid Synonyms – Synonyms can confuse readers whose vocabularies are limited. They can also cause translators to wonder if you’re referring to the same thing in both cases.
  • Beware of Embarrassing Words – You can’t know all of the words that might have embarrassing meanings in other languages, but avoid those you do know.
  • Write Out Dates – 01/05/15: Is that January 5th or May 1st? It depends on where you are. You can avoid ambiguity by always writing out month names.
  • Avoid Holiday-Specific References – References to holidays are culture- specific, and often include religious overtones. Saying that someone was “as excited as a child on Christmas morning” will mean little in a culture where they know as much about Christmas as you do about Diwali.
  • Avoid Discriminatory Language – Use multicultural names and examples, and avoid stereotypes.
  • Be Clear and Concise – If something is hard to understand in English, it’s going to be harder to translate. Complex syntax can confuse non-native speakers.
  • Leave Space – Translated text will take up more or less space than its English counterpart. Web pages and software applications are particularly vulnerable to layout issues when the text is suddenly too big to fit in the size allotted.Tips for Internationalizing Images

    When your document contains images, internationalization takes on a whole new dimension. Following these tips can save you lots of headaches when you need to localize your images.

  • Avoid Words – An image that contains text can be a nightmare to localize. You can keep text and images separate using captions or HTML overlays. Even better: use images that need no description.
  • Avoid Offensive Symbols – Even common symbols can be offensive in some cultures. Facebook famously changed its “Like” button from a thumb to a stylized “f” because the thumbs-up sign has different meanings in different parts of the world.

  • Use Layers – Most image software allows you to separate text from the underlying image using layers. Provide the original files to your localization team so they can easily change the text.
  • Leave Space – Words often expand in length when translated, which can mess up your carefully composed diagram. Make sure your image has enough room to accommodate longer translations.
  • Save the Data – If your document contains charts or graphs, be sure to save the original data or spreadsheet. That way you can simply re-generate the chart with the translated text instead of having to perform costly and complex image editing.Bottom LineNow, more than ever, professional writers need to be aware of their global audiences. By taking the time to consider internationalization up front, writers can save their organizations (and themselves!) a great deal of time, money and effort in the localization process. You can be the one to help your company go global.Further ReadingThe Top 10 Ways to Cut Website Translation Costs

    Think Globally, Write Locally

    Guidelines on the Use of Non-Discriminatory Language

    Text Size in TranslationW3C Internationalization

    Common Idioms and Metaphors

How My Creative Writing Helped My Professional Writing

Alison Albitz

I began my undergrad with only one major: a BFA in creative writing. After one semester, I knew that pursuing only one major would mean taking a lot of extraneous courses that wouldn’t necessarily add up to much, so I decided to simultaneously pursue a BA in communication with a focus on print journalism.

This addition initially seemed like a very logical one: I liked writing and felt that I was good at it, so why wouldn’t I try a different style? How different could it be? As it turned out, switching between AP style and MLA, fact and fiction, and no-nonsense and poetry ended up being much more difficult than I had anticipated. Once I began working professional writing seemed like a whole new beast to tackle.

It wasn’t until my senior year of undergrad that I understood that switching between these styles of writing was difficult because I saw them as completely different entities, when I needed to view them as supplemental to each other. As I’ve mulled over the similarities between the three, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

They all have the same end goal

At the end of the day, writing is all about communicating effectively. In journalism, the goal is telling a story or sharing information. In creative writing, the author attempts to get a reader to feel something, understand a character, and see the world from a different perspective. Professional communication is all about conveying information succinctly and efficiently. When I realized that the ultimate goal of these different writing styles is so similar, I began to see that I could use skills I’ve learned in one area to better improve the others.

None of them are allowed to be boring

Whether you’re writing a press release, a newspaper article, or a novel, it has to keep the reader engaged. The art of storytelling is not easily learned, but is integral for maintaining the reader’s interest. Click here and here to learn about the role of storytelling in grant proposals and nonprofit campaigns.

Never assume that one skill cannot translate to other areas

In a newswriting course, my professor constantly reminded us that we weren’t writing creatively when we wrote news stories. In other words, this wasn’t creative writing; this was journalism. However, my creative storytelling skills added to both my newswriting and professional writing skills, and the succinct style of journalistic writing has aided my creative writing, too. Any skill learned in one area of writing is transferrable to others, and trying to limit certain skills to specific mediums only limits the potential for great writing.

Seeing Red? Tips for Working with Editors

by Amanda Bernhardt

“Why did you change this?!” said a researcher who had just stormed into my office. He was holding an issue brief I recently edited and sent back to him.

“Because it’s jargon. This brief is for laypeople. They’re not going know what ‘substantial gainful activity’ is,” I said.

“But our client—the guy paying our bills—likes that language. Shouldn’t we do what he likes?”

As editorial disagreements go, this one was minor, mostly because we have a corporate rule about it. But writers and editors always seem to but heads over something. And if you’re a writer, eventually you’ll be dealing with this, too.

I can hear you groaning already. Writers don’t love the idea of having their work napalmed by an editor, but editors aren’t the enemy. In fact, their goal is to make you and your writing look great. A good editor sees your work as your readers will see it. She can tell you what to cut, add, and correct to get the attention and response you want.

But what if you disagree with the edits? What if the editor doesn’t catch everything or changes your intended meaning? Here are some tips for minimizing the amount of red ink spilled:

Before the Edit

  1. Revise your work. Just because you’re working with an editor doesn’t mean you can skip your own revision. Get your draft into a good shape before an editor sees it. Have someone else read it, if needed.
  2. Get your facts straight. A good editor will catch things like simple math errors or that Austin (not Dallas) is the capital of Texas. But if your standard deviation is off by 2 points or you cited the wrong source, that may be on you. Find out how much, if any, fact checking your editor does.
  3. Know your style guide. Save yourself and your editor time by learning your style. It’s easier to put in the serial comma yourself than to have your editor do it and have to accept a ton of commas in Track Changes.
  4. Have a pre-edit chat. Tell your editor the purpose of your document, your audience, the style guide you’re using, and your deadline. Be sure to ask any questions you have about the editing process. Chat with your editor in person, if possible, to establish a rapport.

After the Edit

  1. Don’t take it personally. Getting a red-inked document back can make you feel like a fifth-grader getting an F on a paper. Don’t worry, you’re not grounded. Many writers, including great ones, get heavily edited; it’s a normal part of the process. Your editor’s goal is not to punish you but to make you and your writing shine.
  2. Have a post-edit chat. Review the edits and note any you disagree with or have questions about. Go over those with your editor. There’s a lot of give and take in editing, and not every edit is set in stone.
  3. Take another look. If you revise your work post-editing, you may introduce new errors. Feel free to ask for a follow-up edit or a proofread to catch any typos. (Remember to budget time for this.)

Further reading:

Basic Interview Advice for Writers

by India Johnson

After you’ve submitted your writing sample and/or portfolio, it’s time to prepare for the in-person interview. Take a deep breath, relax, and follow these interview tips:

Learn about the company and position. Do research. Learn about upper management (LinkedIn is a great tool). Read about the projects the company has worked on. Carefully read the job description to familiarize yourself with the required responsibilities.

Prepare brief answers to typical interview questions. Your answers should be clear and concise. Typical interview questions include:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Tell me about a recent project.
  • What do you love most about writing?
  • Tell me about your writing process.
  • What do you do in your free time?

Prepare questions for the interviewer. This shows your industry knowledge, and also it reminds them that they are being interviewed as well. You must decide if you want the position if it is offered. Typical questions to ask include:

  • What will a successful year look like for this position?
  • Why is the position open?
  • How do you train new writers?
  • When are you looking to make a hiring decision?

Arrive early. If you are not early than you are late. Don’t make a bad first impression.

Dress Professionally. Here are some tips for what to wear for the job interview.

Take Notes. You may not remember everything that was discussed during the interview. Take brief notes for reminders once you get home.

Send a ‘Thank You’ note. After the interview send an email or mail a note to thank the interviewer for their time.

Must-Do Writing Tips to Establish Yourself as a Professional Writer

The leap from writing your first article to calling yourself a professional writer can seem vast, but there are a number of small steps along the way that add up to a successful career.

  1. Write. A lot.Just like any other skill, writing takes practice. The more you do it, the better and more efficient you will become—which often makes the difference between earning and losing money on a project. Set up a routine for yourself in which you write everyday. Soon, you won’t waste time staring at a blank screen—you’ll be in the habit of sitting down and getting straight to work.
  2. Define your expertise.Often the only way to know what you’re good at is to try it. You can gather experience and figure out what you like by completing assigned projects as part of a graduate program in writing, by volunteering your services, and by self-assigning writing challenges. If you think you might like grant writing, try putting together a grant proposal for a nonprofit organization you’re passionate about. If you want to try technical writing, see if you can pair with a local software developer to create documentation for one of their projects.
  3. Find feedback and support.One of the best and most straightforward ways to find what you need as a budding writer is to enroll in a graduate program, which offers two key things most writers need: deadlines and feedback. You’ll gain discipline and the invaluable benefit of constructive criticism.
  4. Build a community.Gaining a community of other writers and members of your industry can be a game-changer. Try joining a writing group or professional organization, attending author readings and events, enrolling in writing workshops, going to conferences, etc. The people you connect with will become your professional network.
  5. Create a writing portfolio.Nothing says “professional” like a well-crafted writing portfolio. It won’t be the first step in your journey, but it will be a vital part of establishing yourself.
  6. Make your online presence known.It’s not just your writing portfolio that counts, but your blog, LinkedIn profile, social media accounts, etc. Create a consistently professional brand for yourself as a writer and publicize it.
  7. Put yourself out there.Unless you’re extremely lucky, writing work does not fall into your lap. You must actively pursue it. This means, that in addition to writing everyday, you should be answering calls for submissions, entering contests, and pitching your story ideas to editors.
  8. Volunteer selectively.Everyone likes to earn cash, but sometimes offering your services for free can pay dividends, especially if it allows you to gain valuable experience.
  9. Own it.Once you’ve put in the time and gained the confidence, don’t be afraid to take ownership of the empowering phrase: “I’m a professional writer.” And don’t forget to pay the goodwill forward by helping other new writers get into the game.

Think Twice about Adjectives

by Carolyn Morrison

Long ago, in high school, I had a writerly friend. We would share poems we had written and exchange notebooks in a breathless moment. He took my crazy, cursive loping stanzas that leapt across margins, and I accepted his stark blocks of prose that looked rubberstamped except for the distinctive characteristic of his hard-pressed, penciled, all-capital letters.

His advice was merciless—kill the adjectives.

I was always most incensed when he rallied against my adjectives. What harm did they do, adding life and color (or, more likely, a miserable mood befitting adolescence) to nouns in need of support?

An article by writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant found in the latest Conversion Chronicles newsletter, a website dedicated to helping people write highly-effective content for their own websites, suggests that adjectives themselves may help to kill off your audience if you let them run amok in your writing.

Gray-Grant’s Three Adjective Pitfalls

  1. Adjectives are imprecise.
    “Stunning” is an example of an overused adjective with a broad meaning. Especially common in social media, this is the go-to kudos comment for a great posted photograph. But, with some in-depth analytical thinking, stunning just sounds shocking, electrifying, and downright painful, and a great macro-shot of a gerbera daisy shouldn’t hurt.
  2. Adjectives mean different things to different people.
    This problem is similar to number one, but advances the vagary of many adjectives to account for different social and cultural perceptions. Take for example the emotional state of someone feeling “blue.” Considering emotive and psychological color representations are not the same the world over. This state of being is sure to cause confusion somewhere as digital writing travels around the globe.
  3. Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y.
    In many situations, overuse or misuse of adjectives leaves an audience with a bad taste in their mouth. Take redundant food descriptors for example, like “doughy,” “cheesy,” “rich,” and “creamy.” All of these tasty tidbits may be true to the product, but they are so standard, the product has no chance of standing out if standing by its written bio alone.

So, how do you add pizazz to your writing without bedazzling the pants off of it? Gray-Grant chooses to highlight a sentence’s verbs in a powerful way, while limiting the baggage that comes with the adjective + noun relationship.

Gray-Grant reminds us that verbs don’t have to be lackluster:

“Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.”

Sometimes, it’s just about role reversal to add a new dynamic to the sentence. Instead of “whispering pines,” let the pines actually do the whispering, as in “the pines whisper in the breeze.”

For more adjective admonitions, try guidance from Writer’s Digest, a list of the internet’s most played-out adjectives from Motherboard, and adjectives to avoid professionally.

When It’s OK to Write for Free and When to Just Say No

By Andrea Calabretta

As I writer at the beginning of my career, I once got a job offer by email from the managing editor of an online literary magazine. It read: “We really like the work you’ve published with us and were wondering if you’d be interested in coming onboard as our nonfiction editor.”

My heart gave a little leap. Of course I was interested, and I was so very flattered. I wrote back in the affirmative.

After a couple more enthusiastic email exchanges, the managing editor dropped a bomb. “Unfortunately we can’t pay you at this time,” the editor wrote.

I felt as though the rug had been pulled out beneath me. At the time, I was working a part-time job and freelancing as much as possible to support myself. Now, I was looking at spending additional hours each week volunteering.

My writer friends discouraged me, saying I shouldn’t give away my talents, and the advice I found online said that working for free undervalues the whole profession. I was torn. I certainly didn’t want to contribute to undervaluing my fellow writer, yet I really wanted to do this job. As I’d been drawn into more high-paying assignments in marketing and development, I had left behind a certain amount of creativity. I missed the days of grad school, when I was regularly in dialogue with other writers in my program about their work. I liked the idea of taking a break from some of my more mundane endeavors each week to read stories and help make them better. So I decided to try it out: I would give it six months.

Since then, there have been other instances when I’ve been asked to work for free, and I have mostly declined them. At a certain point, I became too busy with paid work to even consider doing something for nothing, but I still wouldn’t say that all unpaid work is worthless. For a writer starting out, achieving the milestone of a first published clip can be just as valuable as a token payment for said clip. Building a portfolio of work, paid or unpaid, can be the first step toward winning new assignments and making a living wage as a writer.

When considering whether to work for free, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this gig be of value to me beyond the (lack of) pay?
  • Will it allow me to take a creative risk or do something I wouldn’t otherwise get to do in my professional life?
  • Does it have networking or other opportunities that might lead to something more lucrative or compelling in the future?
  • Would another company/organization/outlet pay me for this same work?
  • Can I afford to spend X hours doing something that does not contribute to my income?
  • How does this gig support my professional goals?

As it turned out, I didn’t volunteer at the literary magazine for long. I was soon offered a job teaching writing that satisfied the same creative urge and paid me for my efforts. But I never regretted my time at the literary magazine, nor the opportunities it offered to hone my editing skills and meet interesting people.

Crafting a Pitch, Selling a Story

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose.

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose—anytime you need to approach a publication from the outside. It bears some resemblance to a cover letter for a job but is much more specific to the piece of work at hand. No longer than 3-4 concise paragraphs, the pitch must make a strong positive impression in a limited number of words.

Steps to crafting a winning pitch:

  1. Understand the outlet. Before you set pen to paper or finger to keyboard to write your pitch, your first task is getting to know the publication. Understand its mission and tone, what genres of stories or articles it publishes, any authorship or word count requirements, etc. Luckily, these are often spelled out quite clearly on publication websites, usually in an area called “submission requirements.”Know that you must tailor your writing to an outlet’s editorial specifications. These might include whether the editor prefers to receive pitches with or without finished articles attached. Ideally, you would become familiar with these requirements not only before you write your pitch but also before you write the story itself.
  2. Entice and educate. As you begin your pitch letter, your first challenge is to entice the reader. This is the “hook” you’ve heard about before—the sentence or two that reels the reader in. It should contain the central idea of your story and be presented as a snappy lead. You should then inform the editor how you plan to flesh out the story from this extremely compelling beginning, with specifics on what you’ll include.This part of the pitch also works to convince the editor that your story is a good fit for his or her publication and audience. It’s important to demonstrate that you “get” the editorial vision and want to write for this publication specifically. For this reason, you should never use a template or an one-size-fits-all pitch.
  3. Establish your credentials. Next you need to prove you’re the one to write this story. Start with a brief 1-2 sentence bio. Then let the editor know how much research or writing you’ve done so far (including a word count of anything you’ve written) and what you plan to do to deliver a successful finished piece.You might also include how long you’ve been writing, any particular expertise you have in this subject area, a couple examples of your most recent pitch-worthy publications, and a link to your writing portfolio.
  4. Make it easy. Finally, the cardinal rule of pitching is to make a busy editor’s job easier, not harder. Mention anything additional you can provide, such as photographs or sidebars, and be sure to include everything he or she needs to be able to say yes to your story.

The challenge is to achieve all this in 3-4 short paragraphs that exude confidence, not desperation. You’re much more likely to receive a response if the editor can read the professionalism in your pitch and gain an impression of you as a talented and reliable writer with whom he or she wants to work.