Saturday, January 26, 2008

My friend the bee fly: A mystery solved

I thought this was just too cool to pass on blogging about.

In September or October of last year, when visiting with Panama in the pastures at his new home, I saw a really strange little critter. It was about an inch long, fuzzy, and greyish in color. It had the shape and size of a bumblebee, but moved like a hummingbird, darting and hovering in midair. I also saw it drinking nectar out of little flowers in the pasture.

I'd wondered about the mysterious creature, but forgot about it for a while. The other night I thought about it for some reason, and decided to see if I could find out what it was.

My first thought had been that it was a tiny hummingbird. I looked it up tonight, and found that there are two kinds of hummingbirds that small: bumblebee hummingbirds, found in Mexico and the United States, and bee hummingbirds, a nearly extinct bird found only in Cuba (and the smallest bird in the world!). Obviously it couldn't have been the Cuba bird, and it didn't have the vivid coloring of the other one.

I also ran across pictures of hummingbird moths. These live in Colorado, apparently, but are way too big and colorful to be what I saw.

Finally, I decided to search for "gray bee." (See, this is where knowing how to milk Google really pays off!) Almost right away, I found this: a picture of a gray bee fly. Here's a picture of a similar bee fly. They look kind of grotesque when magnified to that size, but trust me, they look really cool in person.

The final test was whether they could move like hummingbirds. According to a description I found, bee flies hover and dart just like I saw. I'm thrilled — my mystery has been solved!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Research resources

An issue I've seen debated on other writers' blogs is whether researching your articles on the Internet is acceptable. Some writers say that it's not, because it perpetuates the problem of regurgitated content: existing content that is simply rewritten and republished.

While I see the logic to this argument, I think this argument can be applied to any resource used for research. If a writer picks out a magazine at the newsstand, paraphrases an article, and sells it to a content site, what's the difference from the Internet-based scenario?

The basis for quality work lies not in the source of the information, but in the individual writer's skills — how good they are at researching, and then weaving the information they find into a unique new article.

Many writers (like me) enjoy being able to do all their research and writing from the comfort of their own home, but that doesn't mean the quality of our work has to suffer. Here are my tips for researching your articles online:

1. Use multiple sources. If you have an English degree, you learned this one in college: The best way to not inadvertently plagiarize is to use many sources on the same subject. I was taught that for scholarly papers, you should have at least as many sources as you have pages. That means a separate source for every 250 words.

I think that should probably be almost doubled for good content writing — I typically have 3 to 4 sources for short (500 or 600 words) articles, and 5 or more for longer articles.

2. Find a slant. Think of a new way to approach the material. The individual facts might still be found elsewhere online, but by finding a new way of looking at the material, you add to and improve the available content on the subject.

3. Know how to use your sources. A lot of writers scorn anyone who uses Wikipedia as a source. Personally, I think Wikipedia is great for two purposes: as a source for background information or commonly known facts, or as a jumping-off point for more in-depth research. In particular, I've found the outside links listed at the end of each article to be extremely helpful.

4. Do more than just Google. There are ways to search more traditional sources without venturing away from your computer. Online databases such as EBSCO are a great way to access traditional and scholarly print publications, and may be accessible for free through your public library or school website (even as an alumni). Also, some public libraries allow you to "borrow" ebooks via services such as NetLibrary (which I also blogged about here).

This post was inspired by the news that my public library is now offering access to EBSCO and other resources. Even though I still have access through my school's website (more than three years after graduation!), I was pretty excited about this new resource. It just goes to show how easily technology can replace — and redefine — traditional processes such as research.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tax relief update and more tax resources for freelancers

I'm staying on top of the income tax news this year, it seems: I've already blogged about 2007 tax forms for freelancers, and potential tax relief that could affect freelancers.

As an update on the latter, it sounds like Congress has worked out the details of a tax relief package. Everyone will be getting a rebate of at least $300 each, though it'll probably be summer before anyone sees the money — the IRS can't issue special rebate checks and process 2007 tax returns all at once, it seems.

The package is also supposed to provide "tax breaks for businesses," including "more generous expensing rules" for small businesses. Presumably this should all take effect for 2007 tax returns, since the goal is to stimulate the economy NOW, but I just don't see how that's going to work. Most of us only keep receipts for things we know we can expense, so I doubt changing the rules at the last minute will be very effective for 2007.

For 2008, though, it might be great — if they tell us soon what the new rules are. Which brings me to my second reason for this post: to share more tax resources I stumbled across.

* Tax Law Changes for Individuals This page sums up all the changes in tax law that you should be aware of before filing your 2007 tax returns.

* Small Business and Self-Employed One-Stop Resource This page contains numerous resources for small businesses and self-employed individuals, including a page for recent business-related tax news.

I'm hoping that when they make a more formal announcement about the current tax relief plan, the changes will show up in these places.

I also was interested to find that the IRS offers online lessons to help small business owners and self-employed individuals learn what they need to know about filing their taxes: running your business with tax requirements in mind, and running your business out of your home.

There seems to be a lot of good information on these pages, so I hope you find them helpful!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Business cards for writers

I'm not sure how, but at some point I got signed up for some jobseeker's newsletter. I haven't opted out because periodically they do have good articles. Recently they ran an articles about getting free business cards from VistaPrint.com to aid in a job search.

The article made me think of two things: business cards for writers, and my own experiences with VistaPrint.com.

First of all, I think highly recommend getting yourself some business cards, even if you only write part-time or do all your business online. Business cards are great because clients are more likely to hang on to an attractive rectangle of cardstock than they are your invoices or old emails. Here are some of the ways I use my business cards:

* Handing them out to interview subjects
* Attaching them to invoices, contracts, and other paperwork sent through the mail
* Passing them out at events (I'll tell that story another time)
* Giving them out to anyone who might eventually become a client, or know someone who could become a client

As much as I think business cards are a necessity, I don't particularly recommend VistaPrint.com. Here's why:

* They charge you to upload your own design, even on their "free" cards.
* Their cards are slightly smaller and thinner than most business cards. The differences are slight, but they're striking when you're comparing them side by side with other cards.
* They charge for a nice finish on their cards. If you don't get the nice finish, your cards look like regular cardstock. If I wanted that look I'd make them myself!
* The "free" cards are only available once. After that, you have to pay, and they cost almost as much as higher quality cards do from other places.

For my current business cards, I used OvernightPrints.com. Here's why I like them better:

* They don't charge you to upload your own design.
* Their cards are full size and made of heavier stock.
* They offer a free U/V coating, which creates a professional shiny finish. Even without the coating, though, the finish is professional — satin matte, instead of shiny.
* They offer small quantities, something that not all print shops do.
* Their prices are pretty reasonable: for one-sided cards, $9.95 for 100, $24.95 for 250, $34.95 for 500, and $39.95 for 1,000.

I'm quite proud of my cards (which were, by the way, designed by one of my clients). Here is a picture:

You'll notice the intesting job title on the bottom card. Those of you who have read my blog for a long time will remember when I decided to list my title as Literary Goddess. I ordered a small print run of these ones, which I give to friends and clients with a sense of humor, and a larger print run of the regular cards for the more serious clients.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Extinction, sex, and plagiarism

This has to be the weirdest instance of plagiarism that I've ever heard of.

I spotted this headline on NPR: "Ferret Article Allegedly Plagiarized in Romance Lit." Who wouldn't click?

Anyway, evidently the work of nature writer Paul Tolme has been spotted in the latest book by Cassie Edwards, a long-time writer of Native American romance. This was discovered by Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, a blog that reviews, well, trashy books.

The NPR story focuses on the plagiarism of Tolme's work, which he says is inserted nearly word-for-word as dialogue after the hero and heroine have *ahem* made love for the first time. The reviewers at SBWLTB (there's no way I'm typing the full blog title every time) noticed that the dialogue seemed rather stiff and scientific, which led them to discover the plagiarized source: an article Tolme wrote about black-footed ferrets.

Although the NPR story doesn't go into it, SBWLTB says that they perused four Cassie Edwards novels, finding lifted passages in all of them. The Wikipedia page on Cassie Edwards reads:

Her publisher, Signet, initially stated that they believed the passages were used under fair use and would not be considered copyright infringement. Two days later, however, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards' books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred. In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not "lift passages".

Tolme says in the NPR interview, "Cut-and-paste plagiarism is pretty rampant, from what I hear, in colleges and high schools these days. It's a phenomenon of the Internet age." The problem with that analysis is that Cassie Edwards isn't some green college student, as in other recent plagiarism cases. Edwards has been writing romance novels since 1982; in other words, she ought to know better, at least in my opinion. Yet "she did not know she was supposed to credit sources"? How the #&$! does any writer get away with not knowing that?!

I actually read quite a few of her books when I first discovered the genre, back in middle school. (And yes, for the record, they definitely qualify as trashy books.) Now I'm regretting every one that I ever bought (at the tender age of 13), and wondering how much stolen content I feasted my eyes on.

Tolme is taking the entire thing graciously, to say the least. He claims he's not even angry, and seems more intent in using this opportunity to spread the word about the black-footed ferret's plight. (And he's not kidding — several minutes of that interview are filled with him discussing ferrets.)

I don't disagree with Tolme's motives. Educating the public about endangered species is important. However, so is integrity in writers.

A little late-night blogging

Last Sunday, I mentioned the inordinate amount of work I had to do in the next week. I'm very sorry to say that I didn't get it all done, which leaves me working at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday night.

I actually was pretty productive most of the week. I divvied up all my tasks at the beginning of the week, and although I didn't meet every goal for every day, I still successfully carried a much heavier workload than usual (and without losing too much sleep, either).

Unfortunately, on Friday I completely lost my groove: After my riding lesson, I spent the afternoon with my mom, and then watched TV with Michael in the evening. Saturday and Sunday saw very little work, as well.

I have a couple of things I'd like to finish tonight, but I'm quickly losing steam. Even if I only finish the one assignment, I'll still be up for another couple of hours for sure. Ideally I'd like to stay up all night, finish both projects, and crash for a few hours in the morning, but I just don't know if I'll make it that long tonight. We'll see if the tea I'm guzzling right now helps at all...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Big news at the L.A. Times

News from the writing/publishing world: The Los Angeles Times got rid of their top editor, James O'Shea, because he was refusing newsroom budget cuts. Pretty much the same thing happened last year, when the L.A. Times fired former publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson for refusing to make newsroom layoffs.

According to the article, this is "the fourth time in less than three years that the highest-ranking editor or the publisher has left for that reason."

Journalists aren't exactly a highly-paid bunch, so I have to say I respect O'Shea and Johnson for standing up for their writers and other newsroom employees.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Possible tax rebates

Evidently the White House is looking at instituting tax rebates, possibly as much as $800 per person and $1,600 per married couple.

I haven't found anthing that says whether the tax rebates will be on the 2007 tax returns, but I would think that's the point, since the tax rebate is an attempt to ward off recession. Also, the Washington Post article quotes President Bush as saying that the rebates should "take effect right away."

For whatever reason, less money spent on taxes is always welcomed by freelance writers. I get delirious just thinking about what Michael and I could do with an extra $1,600.

There's other good news for freelance writers. This is from an article in USA Today:

Bush said a key provision of the package should be a tax incentive for American businesses "including small businesses" to help them make major investments in their companies this year.

I'm not sure what exactly the tax incentives will be, or what they define as "major investments in their companies," but I'm anxious to find out.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Clients who compliment

Yesterday I received a call from a client. I've been writing for this particular client for over a year and a half now, and she's never called me before, so at first I was worried that there was something wrong.

As it turned out, though, she called to tell me personally how much she appreciates my hard work. She had received an article from another of her writers on the same day that I turned in one of my articles, and evidently the difference was so striking that she felt compelled to call and compliment my work.

I've already mentioned that I have a lot of work to do this week. I've been busy and a little stressed, so getting a compliment like that made my day — maybe even my entire week! It certainly was a nice reminder of why I do what I do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Protecting your PayPal account

A fellow freelancer, Amy Derby of Write-From-Home.com, blogged a couple of days ago about her PayPal account being hacked. The hacker paid themselves thousands of dollars, and PayPal never questioned the transaction (though they froze Amy's account afterward). As a result, Amy hasn't been able to access the money she ought to have in her bank account, and has had a multitude of overdraft and related fees to contend with.

Although most of the fees were recoverable, dealing with the fraud has been a nightmare for Amy. Her warning to other freelancers (many of whom use PayPal as well) inspired this post.

Here are some suggestions for protecting your PayPal account from similar intrusions:

1. Use a secure password. I know, your dog's name is easier to remember, but it's also easier for someone to guess. I personally prefer to use words in combination with numbers or symbols, usually with the numbers and symbols mixed in (or replacing letters) to make it more difficult to guess.

The PayPal site agrees:

We recommend that your password is not a word you can find in the dictionary, includes both capital and lower case letters, and contains at least one special character (1-9, !, *, _, etc.).

2. Change your password frequently. I know PayPal and similar websites already say this, but I also know that many people don't take it seriously enough. Some businesses require that their employees change their login passwords once a month, and I think that's probably a good rule of thumb for PayPal accounts, too.

3. Use a different password for your PayPal account. After doing some digging, I found a blog post that claims hackers can hack less secure systems to get your password, and then use it to access your PayPal account.

A while back, one of the email subscriptions I belong to sent emails to everyone saying that their system had been hacked, and suggested that everyone change their passwords if they use the same ones elsewhere — but if they hadn't notified us, I could well have been in Amy's shoes myself.

4. Use PayPal's Security Key. The PayPal Security Key is a little keyring device that displays a "temporary 6-digit security code every 30 seconds." When you sign in, you also have to enter the code that is currently displayed on the device. Presumably, hackers won't be able to get in (though I wonder if they can duplicate the codes if they know the algorithms the specific device uses).

The Security Key is only $5, and sounds like a great investment. However, I'd still suggest using the other three tips in order to maintain the highest level of protection possible for your PayPal account.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A new reason to raise your rates

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard a short spot about a new study regarding wine and pricing. Essentially, a bunch of people tasted a bunch of different wines, for which they knew (or thought they knew) the prices. The study found that the price was linked to people's enjoyment of the wines.

Here's the trick: Some of the wines were the same, just with different prices on them. Even so, people enjoyed the wines more if they thought they were more expensive.

I find this interesting on so many levels. One, it demonstrates the power of the mind. It's obviously related to the placebo effect, where people report feeling better just from taking a sugar pill or getting some other phony treatment that they believe is going to cure them.

In this case, they believe the wine is going to be exceptional, and as a result their brains show more enjoyment of the wine.

Two, it demonstrates the importance of pricing your product appropriately. (Which is why I'm blogging about it on my freelance writing blog.) Think about it. When you buy something for a very cheap price, you expect the quality to be cheap — perhaps it's subconscious, but you do. When you pay good money for something, on the other hand, you are more likely to be satisfied with the product.

By spending a lot of money, you have essentially committed yourself to being happy with the results.

This is a good lesson for freelancers, particularly those who waffle on raising their rates. When you write articles at bargain-basement rates, you are essentially ensuring that your clients will perceive your work as lesser quality. However, if you charge more along the lines of the standard industry rates, your clients will see your work as at least as good quality as the established professionals in your industry.

As I'm sure my husband and sister would point out, this proves that there are all kinds of things you can learn from wine!

Free books or VHS, anyone?

One of my fellow freelancers, Jessica Mousseau of JM Writing, is giving away books and VHS that she doesn't want anymore. All you need to do is cover the cost of shipping.

If I weren't perpetually in the process of culling my own book collection, I'd take her up on it. You just can't beat free books!

As it is, though, I've run out of even overflow space: My books reside not only on bookshelves, but also boxes in storage and in stacks on the floor in front of said bookshelves. The library has become my best friend, not only because it's free, but also because I just don't have any more room for books I'll only read once.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Meme: Tips for better blogging

Michele got me back for tagging her for the roaring writers meme: She just tagged me for another meme. The point of this one is to give tips for better blogging.

As a little background, I started this blog in December of 2005, but at that point I already had six months of experience as a paid blogger. But no matter how long you have been blogging, I think there is always more to learn.

Here are my tips for better blogging.

1. Write in a conversational tone. The blogosphere is all about being laid-back. When you blog, imagine your audience as a bunch of your buddies.

2. Keep your posts short. A good guideline is to write posts that are about 300 words in length — long enough to contain useful or entertaining information, but not so long as to lose the reader's interest. (Okay, so this is something I don't always do myself. However, I figure other writers are more likely to read a long post than your average blog reader.)

3. Interact with your readers. Encourage readers to comment on your blog, and respond to comments promptly when you get them. This creates a welcoming atmosphere and encourages readers to come back more often.

4. Mind the fine line between allowing opposition, and allowing your blog to become a hostile place. While as a writer, I'm all about the right to free speech, you also can't allow your blog to become a war zone. Set boundaries, and enforce them by moderating comments.

5. Be keyword-conscious...but not obsessed. The best places for keywords are in your title and the first paragraph of your post. However, if you pay too much attention to keywords, your blog posts will be stilted and uninteresting. Although I write keyword-focused blog posts for clients, I don't pay much attention to it on my own blog — for one, it's more personal than commercial, and for two, I figure if I write about writing, I'll probably get at least a few of the keywords anyway.

6. Read this book: Publish and Propser: Blogging for Business. Although I've blogged about it before (here and here), it's worth mentioning again, as it is an excellent resource for bloggers at all skill levels.

7. Have fun. Yes, blogging can be a great marketing tool. It can improve your site's ranking and drive traffic to your site. But it is also an enjoyable writing exercise and an opportunity to network with the online community, so have fun with it!

I'm tagging:

1. Kathy Kehrli — with a fun blog like Screw You!, she ought to be able to give us some interesting advice!
2. Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who in addition to her Inkygirl blog, does one of my favorite Wednesday diversions, Will Write For Chocolate
3. Kristen King of Inkthinker

I can't wait to see what tips they have to give!

Heads up, freelancers: Fourth estimated tax payments due tomorrow!

If you pay estimated tax payments (which you should, if you make enough to owe more than $1,000 in federal taxes at the end of the year) then take note: Your fourth estimate tax payment for 2007 is due tomorrow, January 15th.

There is one exception for this: You don't have to pay the fourth estimated tax payment if you will be filing your taxes (and paying the amount due, of course) by January 31st.

(I find that caveat amusing, by the way. If you don't have the money to pay the amount due on your taxes by January 31st, you're probably even less likely to have the money to pay the estimated tax payment by January 15th. I suppose they have to say that to avoid creating any loopholes, though.)

In any case, I'm stuck paying the last estimated tax payment: Michael and I are filing our tax returns jointly for the first time, and there's no way he'll get his W-2 from his employer in time to file by January 31st.

New credit for my portfolio

I am in the process of updating my portfolio right now (or at least, I will get back to work on it once this crazy week is over), but in the meantime I wanted to direct your attention to my most recent project: a website I wrote for a Kansas City cleaning company.

I'm quite proud of this website: I not only wrote all of the copy, but designed the website as well. You'll no doubt notice some similarities to my website — I used the code from my own site as a template, changing things such as color and spacing in order to create a different overall appearance. I figure the company's potential clients will never see my website, so the similarities won't matter.

I've also written the first three blog posts for the company blog, though it remains to be seen if I'll continue blogging for the company.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Working weekends and a consolation prize

I have a lot of work to do in the coming week — and I mean a lot. I didn't get as much done as I should have last week, and with my fourth estimated tax payment and Panama's board coming up (the 15th and the 20th, respectively), I can't afford to slack off at all right now.

This essentially means that I'm working today. Although it's not unusual for me to work a couple of hours each day on the weekend, I've already surpassed that — and still have more to do.

With four or so hours' worth of work for this evening, there's no way I'll be able to enjoy my evening in the normal way: by watching a movie with Michael. My consolation prize is a fruit tart from Devil's Food, our favorite brunch restaurant in Denver.

I'm saving the fruit tart for later this evening, when I'm an hour or two into my workload (and after we've had dinner). While it's small consolation for having to begin and end my Sunday with work, it'll definitely help make the burden easier to bear!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Doggy Christmas pictures

Earlier, I posted about my horse's Christmas present. Our dogs got Christmas presents too this year: Emma got an extend-a-leash and Grace got a new bed.


Emma was an only dog for four years, so she doesn't really understand the concept of anything not being for her. (We've tried getting them each an identical dog toy, and Emma just takes both.) So when the bed arrived in the mail, Emma assumed from the get-go that it was for her.

She was right there, acting very excited, while we opened the box — though how she already knew it was something for a dog, I have no idea. And as soon as we put the cover on it and put it on the floor, she got on it and didn't get off again for quite a while.

Eventually, we were able to get Grace onto the bed for a few pictures.

Unfortunately, the bed has become 85 percent Emma's, leaving Grace to take over Emma's old bed. This arrangement satisfies our ultimate goal, which was to replace Grace's lumpy old bed with something a little better for her hip. Grace does occasionally get the opportunity to sleep on the new bed, so I guess her Christmas present wasn't a total failure!

Panama's Christmas present

Amy Derby recently blogged about Christmas with her rabbits. Her posts (and her crack about a "Christmas in July" post) reminded me that I had some similar posts I wanted to make. This one is about Panama's Christmas present; I'll post later on about the dogs' Christmas presents.

For Christmas I bought Panama a Jolly Ball to keep in his stall. The in-laws had one in their pasture when Panama was there, and it was cute to see his little donkey friend carry it around by the handle.

Unfortunately, I haven't had the pleasure yet of seeing Panama play with his Jolly Ball. It keeps moving, so I'm assuming he does. It also appears that he keeps trying to share his toy with his neighbor, since the ball often ends up in her run or under the fence between their runs.

Just recently, I decided to tie the Jolly Ball up on the fence. We'll see how they like that.

Next up: Grace and Emma's Christmas presents. (And for that one, I have pictures!)

Friday, January 11, 2008

More on multiple blog categories or labels

Several of my readers expressed interest when I blogged about the multiple categories/labels penalty, so I wanted to share some additional information with you.

According to my client, they've found that there are two ways choosing multiple categories can hurt you. The worst is when the search engines decide not to index your blog post at all. You can test that by searching for your post title, or a unique phrase in your post, in quotes. If the post doesn't show up in the results, the search engines aren't indexing it at all.

The other way that it can hurt you is more subtle: Essentially, choosing too many categories or labels can hurt your blog's PageRank, even if all of the pages are still indexed. When I learned that, I remembered a time when my blog's PageRank dropped suddenly and inexplicably. While I can't remember if the drop coincided with when I started using labels, I'm going to play it safe from here on out!

Roaring writers meme

Kathy Kehrli of Screw You! has tagged me for an interesting new meme: Having been tagged with the Roar for Powerful Words Award, I now have to blog about three writing tips and tag five other writers.

According to the Roar for Powerful Words Award page, the idea is for me to list "three things [I] believe are necessary to make writing good and powerful." So here goes:

1. Write about what you believe in (or, conversely, believe in what you write about). I've written copy for topics I don't particularly support, and it sucks. Not only is it difficult to make the copy compelling, but it also makes you feel rather dirty, like the quintessential used car salesman.

2. Write when you are inspired. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't write if you're not inspired, but it does mean that when the light bulb suddenly turns on, when you are hit with a great idea or find yourself writing the material in your head, DO NOT simply take notes and save it for later. When you are feeling the most passionate about the subject, the words will flow out onto the page with little or not effort — but it will take a lot of effort to try to recapture that mood later on.

3. Don't forget to revise! Although I recommend writing when you are most inspired, I also will be the first to admit that passion doesn't always come out neat and clean on the page. When the inspiration hits, get your rough draft down, but plan to go back over it after a period of time has elapsed — after the impassioned frenzy passes, you'll be better able to catch mistakes and see room for improvement.

Sharing the Roar:

I am awarding the Roar for Powerful Words to the following five people:

1. Harmony, because I am SO glad she's back!
2. Amy Derby, because I don't know of anyone who works harder at being a freelancer
3. Michele Tune, who has done amazing things...and survived to write about it
4. Mariella, whose dedication — to her writing, to her family, and to the writing community — I respect very much
5. An honorary Roar goes back to Kathy; even though she has already participated in this meme, I can't deny that her blog is one of the most powerful writer's blogs that I know of.

Have fun!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Perfecting my blog

I'm making some changes to my blog that I hope will improve its ranking.

I found out from a client of mine — an online marketing company for whom I write press releases, articles, and blog posts — that choosing multiple post categories (or labels, as Blogger calls them) can get you dinged for duplicate content.

I'm really bad about choosing multiple categories — sometimes I'll choose four or five for a single post! For each category I choose, my post shows up on a page with all the other posts with that label. So if I choose four labels, my post shows up on four label pages, as well as the main page, the archive page, and the individual post page.

I don't know if that really results in getting dinged for duplicate content, but I might as well try limiting my posts to one label each. And anyway, it'll make things simpler, and perhaps even help me focus my blog posts a little more.

An unscheduled day off

I don't often take time completely off of writing, but yesterday, after spending the morning at the barn, I decided I needed a day off.

My unscheduled day off went great. Here's how I spent it:

* I bought myself lunch at Burger King on the way home from the barn to satisfy a craving I've been having off and on for several weeks.

* I watched a movie in the afternoon (something I've only done once or twice since I started freelancing).

* I browsed the Internet for about half an hour, without even a pretense of trying to work.

* Michael and I made and ate dinner together, then went to the grocery store.

* We watched a couple of episodes of The Sopranos.

* I finished off the day with a hot bath.

Although I started feeling a little guilty a little later in the evening, I still maintained my day-off mindset. I have days when I don't get much of anything done, but this is the first time in a while that I've planned it that way.

The relaxed mood was difficult to shake today, but I still don't regret my day off. There is something amazingly satisfying about watching a movie in broad daylight — it made me feel like a kid on summer break. I also think it was more fun to take it off at the last minute — if it had been a planned day off, it would have been filled with other obligations, and I wouldn't have had the same ability to kick back and relax.

I highly recommend the experience to any of my over-worked, over-stressed fellow freelancers!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Getting back on the horse (literally and figuratively)

Today, for the first time in my life, I fell off a horse.

I'm not a terribly experienced rider; a family friend taught me to ride about 15 years ago, but I never took professional lessons, and it turns out there are some things — rather important things — our friend didn't teach me.

In any case, Panama freaked out and bolted today when I was riding him. My first response was to grab onto the pommel, which my trainer said tends to make them only run faster. Then I tried a one-rein stop, but a little too late — I was already starting to fall, and when Panama broke free of that and started running back to the barn (we were in the pasture behind it) I fell off.

Luckily we still have a lot of snow on the ground, so I had a relatively soft landing. Even so, falling off a horse wasn't as bad as I had expected. I'm actually relieved that I fell off today, because now I won't dread it anymore.

Of course, I made sure I rode Panama again before the end of the training session. For one thing, I didn't want him to think he could get away with bolting on me, and for another, I didn't want to allow myself to develop a fear of it.

Writing about falling off a horse, and getting back up on again, made me think of my current situation with work. I've worked through most of the holidays, but with a relatively light load — in other words, only doing what I had to do, whether for deadlines or income. However, today is back to business as usual: Michael is back at work, and won't be allowed to take any time off in January. Meanwhile, I need to get back up to speed if I want to be able to make my fourth estimated tax payment on January 15th.

Getting back to work after the holidays is always difficult, but I think it's also important to do so. Just like falling off a real horse, if you don't get back on again quickly, you start dreading it and putting it off. And since self-motivation and self-regulation are vital qualities for freelancers, we simply can't afford not to get back up on that horse again.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tax forms for freelancers: 2008 tax season begins!

With the end of 2007, we've begun not only a new year, but also a new tax season. That's right: It's time to start thinking about your taxes!

If you are making your fourth estimated tax payment (due January 15th), your taxes are due on April 15th, just like everyone else. However, if you opt not to make the fourth estimated tax payment, you will need to file (and pay any remaining owed taxes) by January 31st.

Here is a list of forms for filing your taxes as a freelancer:

Form 1040 - Income Tax Return

This is the regular form for filing income tax returns. As freelance writers, we don't get to use the "EZ" 1040. Sorry.

Schedule C - Profit or Loss from Business

Form 1040 Schedule C is where you get to deduct your business expenses from your gross freelance income. This is where many freelancers get hung up, particularly if they haven't kept good track of their expenses throughout the year. I have an Excel spreadsheet that has a separate page for each category, as well as a page for an overview; I enter each expense as I pay for them throughout the year, and the spreadsheet calculates category totals and a grand total.

My income is kept track of via another spreadsheet. Each client gets a separate page, with a page for an overview that shows the total income from each client, as well as monthly totals and a grand total.

I highly recommend using spreadsheets or a similar setup to keep track of your income and expenses throughout the year. It makes tax time much less stressful.

Schedule C-EZ - Net Profit from Business

If you are lucky, you can use the simpler version of Schedule C. There are a few requirements if you are to use this form:

* You have to have made a profit or broken even in 2007 — this form doesn't allow you to declare a loss

* You have to have less than $5,000 in expenses for the year

* You can't claim the home office expense (which I think is risky and should be avoided, anyway)

* You can't claim the office equipment expense, which requires another form (Form 4562) on top of the regular Schedule C

* You have to declare your income in real-time (i.e. when you receive it, known as the cash method of accounting)

* You have to have only one business, and can't have any employees in that business

This form is definitely easier and faster to use, because it doesn't require a breakdown of your business expenses into categories. However, I still recommend keeping extremely detailed records just in case you are ever asked to prove your expense claims were accurate.

Schedule SE - Self-Employment Tax

Yep, that's right — our government, which is supposed to be so supportive of small businesses, penalizes us for being self employed by throwing extra taxes our way. Luckily, half of the self-employment tax you pay is deductible on Form 1040.

Form 4562 - Depreciation and Amortization

If you are expensing office equipment, such as a computer or printer, this is the form you will need. Please note that the form asks you what percentage the equipment is used for your business, and whether you have evidence to support your claim. I advise keeping track of business and personal use for each piece of equipment you claim, in case you are ever audited. For instance, I keep written time sheets that show when I use my laptop, and for what purpose.

Form 8829 - Expenses for Business Use of Your Home

This expense is a really tricky one. For one thing, it's a huge risk: I've heard that the home office deduction is the biggest reason the IRS decides to audit people. They also have strict rules as to how and why you can claim the home office deduction:

* The space needs to be used solely for business. No personal checkbook or personal office supplies in your desk drawer, no games on your computer, etc.

* The space needs to be your primary place of business. In other words, you need to actually work there most of the time.

* The way I read the IRS's definition of a home office (page 2 of Publication 587: Business Use of Your Home) is that you also need to use your home to meet with clients. I have also read books on freelancing and filing taxes that support this interpretation.

I advise only claiming this deduction if you rent your home. If you own it, the portion you claim as a home office becomes business property, in effect, and you'll end up owing taxes when you sell your home.

That's it — all the forms you'll need to file your taxes for 2007. I hope this list of links helps! As for the advice, please remember that I am not by any means an expert on the subject, and that the best way to be sure about something is to consult an accountant or a tax attorney.


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