Sunday, July 17, 2016


Nine years ago my professional editor wrote this piece on the active voice. It's important enough to rerun. While most authors and freelance writers know about this, many who write for their jobs don't.  Using the active voice when appropriate ups your game and here's how from Joyce Gram, editor and writer.

The non-fiction guru William Zinsser says, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
Life and death? Wow!

He goes on: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.” For example, “Joe saw him” (active) is strong. It’s short and precise and leaves no doubt who did what. “He was seen by Joe” (passive) is weak. It’s necessarily longer and has an insipid quality. It’s also ambiguous: How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A passive style, says Zinsser, will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

All the books on writing and style that I’ve read contain similar advice: the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Every writer must learn to spot the passive. Invariably, a passive clause contains a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in ed). “The deadline was missed by the student” and “My wallet got swiped” are passive constructions. “The student missed the deadline” and “Some low-life swiped my wallet” are active—and better.

But, hold on! There are good reasons to use the passive. Here are some: when the actor is unimportant or unknown; when you want to hide the actor’s identity (maybe that’s why the passive has become so common in business and political writing); when the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted upon; when you want the punch word at the end of the sentence; and, my favourite, when the passive sounds better—which it sometimes does.
Know what you’re doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser: “life and death!”).

Books mentioned above:
Zinsser, WIlliam. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 2006
Strunk,William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 2000
Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. 2003

© Joyce Gram 2007

Sunday, July 10, 2016


When people are evacuated at short notice to save their lives from floods, forest fires, and earthquakes, etc, what's the first thing they grab? Even before their pets? Family photos.... Writers and photographers choose their work.

March 30 was World Backup Day, which brought with it dismal stats. According to Backblaze's 2015 US survey, they estimate twenty-five percent of computer users never backup precious data at all. Backblaze believe this figure is probably much higher, and these results probably reflect similar behaviour in most countries.

I often ask writers how they backup their manuscripts and judge that the figures are more like 35% are not doing it at all; 30+% put files on an external hard drive kept beside their desktop or laptop; and maybe under 20% upload to cloud platforms. The rest? Who knows? 
Almost no-one backs up daily and should fix this by automating the task. Serious photographers are bit better at taking precautions to preserve their work — perhaps they are more concerned about it because they work in the field not in the perceived security of an office or or at home. 

Everyone I know, including me, has had a hard drive crash that taught us a lesson, but there is a risk today few know about. This can be just as devastating and more costly. Ransomware is malicious software that deliberately encrypts all files on a hard drive on a desktop or laptop rendering it impossible to decipher or use without paying a large sum to the company that did it in the first place. Sometimes, the files are lost forever, but if you're backed up, you're safe from disaster. I run Malware Bytes anti-malware's app at to reduce the risk.

Sensible writers and photographers ensure they back up in two places as one could fail. If you only use the cloud, be aware it can go wrong — in fact, this  happened to me about a year ago when a company folded. However I had everything backed up on external hard drives as well. 

Don't despair if you recognize you don't have two back ups. Dan Misener of CBC says, "Many cloud services let you download a copy of everything you have stored with them. Google has their 'Takeout' service. Facebook lets you download all your data, including photos, as one big file." Smartphones can backup your data to Dropbox or an equivalent.

So what's the best route to prepare yourself for any eventuality affecting your precious data? Here's how I do it for my writing, which may suit you too:
    I mostly work on a desktop at home where I keep my current writing projects on the free version of Dropbox, which also allows me to access them on any device I own wherever I may be.
    I also backup my manuscripts to an external hard drive

every evening, which I unplug every night. (I give my drives to a friend when I'm on the road in case the house is robbed.) If I'm traveling I still use Dropbox, but backup onto a USB drive that I carry on my person at all times.

    When my work is published, all versions of the manuscripts, edits, etc. that are already saved on the external drive, are then also uploaded into a special folder on Google Drive, a service I now pay for. I consider the money well spent and the price of doing business. I write it off against taxes.

I manage my images a bit differently. The higher risk of losing 3000 photos scares me when I'm on a long trip of a onth+ because I earn money from them when they illustrate my books and articles. So here's my process for images:

    I download them from the camera to my laptop (a tablet would work too) every evening without fail however tired I am. Two reasons: Memory cards need to be reformatted regularly to reduce the likelihood of corruption; but the main point is to get my images out of the camera. A young friend of mine lost every photo of a three month trip to Europe when his camera with two big cards was stolen while waiting to board his flight home. 
    If I have Internet, I'll immediately upload the image files, now on the internal hard drive, to folders on my Google Drive. But sometimes in remote areas this is impossible if the Internet is slow or non-existent. (When I get to a location with fast reliable Internet, I do upload them.) But I can't afford to lose them if my laptop is stolen or dropped in the meantime.
    So I backup my images to 128Gb USB drives that I always

carry in a pocket, well separated from my camera and laptop. Why? If my baggage is stolen, my camera or laptop can be replaced with insurance, but my photos are irretrievable.

    And BTW I never carry my laptop and camera in the same bag. The reason should now be obvious!!
    Once I'm home, I backup the original RAW files onto an external hard drive as well, later adding the edited TIFs and JPGs.

Start assessing your situation by asking yourself some questions. Firstly, what data is crucial to you? For your livelihood and memories? Secondly, which files are only backed up in one place? Thirdly, how many gigabytes of storage will be needed? Then set to work to research the products and services that suit you.

There are many services for backing up to the cloud that offer free storage space. Read the fine print as they are all different:
     Dropbox (2Gb - ideal for text files)
    Google Drive (15Gb)
    MS One Drive (if you are a monthly subscriber to Office 365, 1Tb is free),
    Amazon Web Services Free Tier (5Gb lasts for only 12 months after sign up),
    iCloud (5Gb). 

I started with a combo of the above, using two free services for images as I couldn't fit them all in one, and one for my works-in-progress. Later I opted to pay USD$9.99/month for Google Drive (not to be confused with Google Docs) and I now store both types of file there.

I've mentioned my external hard drives— I have two, a small one for text files (above) and a 3Tb one for my images (left). I use five 128Gb USB drives on lanyards because they're easier to find when traveling and can go round my neck if my pockets are full. I number them.

And, yes, you may think I'm paranoid but I haven't lost any data since 1990, despite two hard-drive crashes, one stupid deletion of a folder containing 350 original images, and one laptop dropped on concrete! My methods have changed as technology improved, but not my habits.

Sunday, July 03, 2016


Surrey International Writers' Conference

It doesn't matter if it's a big or small conference, or it's your first or tenth attendance! All delegates to a writers' conference need to arrive willing and able to get the last drop of value from the event. Here are some ideas on how to prepare yourself ahead of time and how to benefit once there:

Before you leave for the conference: 
  • Identify what you most need to learn
  • Choose the workshops and panels in the program that provide it
  • Pick the editors and/or agents you wish to meet and submit requests for appointments with your registration – early
  • Prepare a short list of questions to ask editors and agents, in case you are struck dumb
  • Develop a terrific one-sentence description of your book/work. (See Marketing Your Book Out Loud posted on January 7, 2015)
 Take with you:
  • Layered clothing – it can be hot in the breakout sessions
  • Samples of your best writing, properly formatted
  • Masses of paper and pens or take your laptop, although they are often a liability in crowded breakout sessions
  • Business cards (very important)
  • Money/credit cards with which to buy drinks, meals, books, etc

Once there:
  • Accept fatigue – you can sleep afterwards
  • Separate from your friends and move out of your comfort zone
  • Take full advantage of the social events and groups that form on the periphery
  • Talk to everyone you can, not just those you know – many are attending alone and feel awkward as well
  • Collect ­all the breakout session handouts if possible and try to get them for workshops you don't attend too. A buddy system works well to achieve this.
If you do these things you will be guaranteed to have a very valuable conference experience. And, you'll be panting to return.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


A word about email addresses for writers.

A while ago I moved my email accounts and website to another provider. In the process I had to import my email contacts and distribution lists onto the new web server and I lost a few and had to hunt for them. Some I never found.

The experience taught me that many writers on my e-lists do not use their names in their email addies and are thus at risk of not being found when editors, readers, or colleagues search their address books for them. I discovered others use slightly risqué handles that are definitely not professional. Here are a few I found that I can safely post in a blog as examples of what not to use: downspout@, bestseller@, authortreasure@,
and dragonsbreath@.

So, here's the thing: Keep your weird/funny/naughty email addies for your personal life and Aunt Agatha. Open a more professional account using your name for your writing career's correspondence as soon as you start communication with writers, editors, periodicals, andassociations.  It's okay to use a free service like gmail or hotmail if you must, though I wouldn't. Instead secure your own domain using your name and you'll get email accounts with it; e.g. (This is not my real email, so don't try using it.)

But in the interim before you register a domain, most writers pay for connection to the Internet and have the use of several emails on the account. Use one for your writing life only and ensure that your last name, at least, appears in the address. Ideally use both your firstlastname@... because it makes searches accurate and quick. 

I can hear many of you saying, "Oh, but, my name's not available." Yes that happens with common names all the time. You have options:
  • Add an initial or two — juliehferguson@... or juliehtmferguson@....
  • Hyphenate the name, even better — julie-ferguson@... or julie-h-ferguson@....
  • Use periods - julie.ferguson@....
  • Add a meaningless number after both names. I would use a number that I'd never forget!
  • Use underscores as a last resort — they are easily confused with hyphens, especially when hand-written – julie_ferguson@....
There is always a way to achieve a searchable email address, so please open a separate, professional email account for your writing correspondence. It's too important to take a chance.

© Julie H. Ferguson 2015 (

QUESTIONS: Have you separated your email addresses for personal and professional use? If not, why not?

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Pitching a novel or non-fiction idea verbally at a writers' conference causes an epidemic of tangled tongues and sweaty palms, at least in first-timers. The remedy is in three Ps - preparation, practice, and pauses.

As you have about ten to fifteen minutes for each appointment, which includes the niceties, it's best to define exactly what you want to get out of the meeting before you go. Do you want a contract, advice, or just info?
Prepare by researching the editors/agents you are meeting. If you're pitching a book, compose a 'zinger' sentence describing it to open the discussion, otherwise explain your reason for meeting. Flesh out your opening sentence to a 50–60 word verbal pitch and figure out some questions. Write a one page synopsis or non-fiction overview to leave with the editors/agents. Don't risk ad libbing – you're likely to babble. Bring a business card. Note: Your zinger sentence is also invaluable if you are informally asked about your book, e.g. at a conference lunch and later with the media.
Practice the pitch until you can say it aloud with passion and precision. I know of one writer who practised role-playing her first editor meeting to get comfortable. It was that important to her.
Pauses  these are the gaps that give you what you came for. Pauses let the editor/agent ask you questions and give advice to you. Talk for no more than 25 seconds at a time, then stop and listen!
Top 3 mistakes editors/agents complain about are explaining why you wrote the book, talking too much, and presenting poorly formatted work.
I suggest you try it out at your writers' group well in advance of the big day too. Good luck!
More detail about how to write a verbal pitch and manage the meeting is available in Julie's Book Magic: Turning Writers into Published Authors here.


Sunday, June 12, 2016


I had a pen but no paper on which to record their wisdom. Quick! Something, anything!

This dilemma occurred over a decade ago while I was listening to four well known freelancer writers talking about why they were so successful in global markets. The only paper available to me was a greasy paper bag that had held my muffin five minutes before— it would have to do!
What I heard from the writers that day was so valuable I follow it still.
Unanimously, the foursome agreed that a good freelancer has "To live hard, write free." They were referring to having to experience life to the fullest before you can write about it with passion. "Get into situations," they said. "Live on the edge." Okay!
Starting out, each wrote prolifically with high aspirations and for little money. Three said that they analyzed the publications, which they yearned to sell to, for 'gaps'. All said that they quickly evolved into go-to experts in a key area of interest. "Write, write, write for that 'killer clip' that will launch your career."  (This is the one pubbed in a big-name magazine and that has appeared within a year of the event, experience or adventure that spawned it.)
The queries that worked best were "lively and spoke with their own unique voice." The freelancers talked about grabbing the editor by the throat and not letting go, and it's advice I still give emerging writers today. All agreed that each query had to have a unique slant on a story. "Remember," they said. "Local events have international impact." For example, Europeans had a surprising appetite for stories about the wildfires that threatened the city of Kelowna in 2003. At that moment, I realized I had a front row seat to an event of worldwide interest. The idea became my next book: Sing a New Song (Dundurn).
These writers discussed the art and science of research and advised that writers must know what they are looking for in a story: weirdness, conflict, universal appeal, melancholy, irony, truth, to name a few angles to follow. Then when a writer writes the piece, these freelancers insisted that you must storytell it; another tip I have followed as much as my editors allow.
Articles must always have human interest . After all the elephants you may be writing about are not going to be reading the article! 
Most importantly their advice, which many writers minimize, revolved around the editing of the piece. Every one of these successful, international writers also advised that writers must make it easy for magazine editors to buy our work, i.e. nothing less than perfect manuscripts and be sure to add value such as images, video clips, etc. Also, never pester a magazine editor and submit your articles with three to six month lead times for the top publications; never miss a deadline.
Since that salutary experience without paper, I carry a small notebook everywhere. Today I'm mostly paperless and voice-record ideas on my smartphone, but the notebook remains for spelling names and places. And, no more used paper bags are mouldering in my "morgue"!

Sunday, June 05, 2016


The maddening answer to the perennial question about writing for no fee is that it depends.  When I began freelancing for magazines as a new writer in the 1970s, I was always paid. It was a given. Now periodicals, whether print or online, have a habit of attempting to get your work at no charge. Some even want your copyright as well.
Offers like this are frequently explained with, "It's great visibility for you." 
I always respond with an emphatic, "No, I don't write for nothing. Nor do I need more visibility." Freelancing is part of my livelihood and when you've been writing as long as I have, it's easy to decline unpaid work on principle and sell it elsewhere. But it's not so easy to refuse at the outset of your career when you are building a portfolio of published work. 
Today's editorial budgets are slim for most periodicals except the huge international ones like the New Yorker and National Geographic. An emerging writer shouldn't start with these as disappointment will surely follow.  Instead focus on smaller markets close to home and build up to the biggies slowly. If small, local magazines or newspapers won't pay but will publish you, give yourself a deadline for moving into paying markets once you have a few articles in your portfolio. You may hear complaints from some established freelancers who believe unpaid writers encourage the practice of not paying fees and were the cause of the drop in fees over the past twenty years. I don't fully agree with this opinion because new writers have to start somewhere and proven writers can always find other markets. However at my stage in the game, forty-five years and counting, I want a fee.
There is another aspect to the issue of writers' fees. Some freelancers never accept pro bono work; others do. Once you have made your mark as a freelancer, you'll be surprised at how often you are asked to write for nothing by friends, companies, non-profits, and associations, etc.
I do write for nothing, but I pick my moments carefully. Early on, I developed clear parameters for pro bono writing that have become my guiding principles. Writers must make their own decisions on this issue that are firmly rooted in their knowledge, common-sense, ethics, and circumstances that best suit them — then you will have a fair set of guidelines to apply whenever you're approached.
One way to develop your own philosophy about pro bono writing is to tell you how I select when or if I will work for no fee and my reasons for doing so. Promotion is a prime reason for choosing visibility over dollars and the other is philanthropy:
  1.  When I am writing a new book: I sometimes want to get articles into specific print or electronic publications ahead of release, which do not have editorial budgets, but my book buyers read regularly. However I do ensure that the majority of my articles relating to my books go into paying periodicals.
  2.  When I want to target a specific audience to increase sales of my books post-publication and my speaking services: For this choice to work for me, there must be strong potential for the return on my investment.
  3.  When I choose to support a charitable organization or an association: I write for only one or two each year and decline all other requests. I explain my decision to decline by saying that I could end up writing for no fee all the time and suggesting that the organization pitch me for next year's slot. As many professionals donate their skills occasionally, and I consider myself a professional, this is the “right” thing to do for me and I choose causes to support that are dear to my heart.
In the first two situations above, I negotiate energetically over my by-line and the rights that I am giving away to the publication. I want a longer by-line than the standard one sentence so that I can mention my upcoming book and the services I offer, as well as my contact information. I limit the rights to first print or electronic only and never give exclusive e-rights. In other words, I retain the right to immediately sell the piece, which I have given away, as a reprint and to put it up on my website. Thus I can still use/sell the no-fee article exactly as I wish.
In the third case, I make no demands and let the charitable organization do whatever they like with my work. Sometimes this means I even donate copyright, and my name might not appear on the piece, especially if my writing is to be used for promotional purposes.
Here is another consideration for pro bono writing:
I usually restrict my freebie articles to about 800 words and I often aim for as few as 500. Why? Because articles of this length are quicker to write and can be fleshed out to 1200 words, the standard length for many magazines, then subsequently sold for first rights. However, I do breach this personal guideline if the visibility is too good to miss. If it is promotional copy, I do not restrict word count, but find that the client usually does.
So there you have it – some ideas to assist you in determining your own parameters for charging a fees and selecting how and when to write pro bono.
For more info on freelance writing fees, find your national association on Google. Canada's is the Professional Writers' Association of Canada at, which maintains a current list of appropriate fees.