Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to Improve Your Writing Skills

If you had some articles deleted for poor writing or "other," or if you just want to be a better writer, here are some of the things professional writers do.

1. Take a class. There's really nothing better than to have a teacher who can help zero in on your writing weaknesses, and a group of classmates to help you see problems from a different perspective.

2. Read writing books, magazines and blogs that are NOT about how to make money at writing. Really. Seriously. Honestly. Those "how to make money writing for eHow" guides don't teach you how to write. Go to your library or bookstore and read Writer's Digest. Do the "Grammar Grappler" column there. Read The Writer. Subscribe to Grammar Girl's blog or podcast on iTunes. Get grammar books like "Eats Shoots and Leaves". Get yourself a big fat style book like the Chicago Manual of Style (or even the "easy version") and a Dictionary. Not only can you look stuff up, you can improve your writing by just browsing for 15 minutes once a week.

3. Use Perdue University's Online Writing Lab.

4. Play Free Rice. Free Rice is a charity website with a vocabulary game/quiz. Their sponsors donate a certain amount of rice to feed the hungry for every answer you get right. The quiz has an algorithm that will give you easier questions when you get an answer wrong, and harder questions when you get the answer right. That way it's always helping you expand your vocabulary at just your level.

5. Read William Safire. He's a more advanced resource, but he became America's top guru on the English language and he never went to college, so he also understands lack of education. His How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar is smart, clever, and it does a wonderful job of giving examples. The book is an expansion of his "Rules For Writing" in which he breaks each rule as he writes them. For instance in "Eschew Obfuscation" - Eschew means "give up" or "stop" and Obfuscation means "hiding your meaning behind big words like obfuscation."

6. Sign up for eZine Articles, or just read their blog. eZine Articles has an excellent set of tutorials to help you become a better writer. They are focused on internet business people and marketers - but that can help you with other aspects of your writing too.

7. Read the best writing in your field. This means, I am sorry to say, that you should spend less time reading and rating your fellow eHowers, and more time reading professionally written magazines. Read them at the library. Pick up articles for a dime a dozen at garage sales. Heck, buy them. (But also recognize that these magazines have different requirements than eHow.)

8. Practice with your own blog. Writing is like sports or music. Nothing boosts your skills better than just doing a lot of it. So start a blog. Write something every day. Get out of the eHow "how to" straight jacket. Practice anything you've learned from all of the above suggestions. Heck, concentrate on writing good posts on Twitter to practice your skills at being quick, short and direct.

9. Use a spell checker, BUT DO NOT RELY on a spell checker. Spell checkers are machines and they can't understand what you meant. They can't tell you when you've used the wrong word. For instance as I was typing the previous paragraph, I accidentally wrote "wrong work". A spell checker would not have caught that mistake.

Next up - Blog/Opinion. (Back to Series Index.)

Reasons for Deletion - Poorly Written Article

eHow expects people to make a few mistakes here and there. However, when the mistakes interfere with reading the article, or there are so many problems it just looks bad, eHow will delete the article for being poorly written.

Of the deleted articles I've seen posted, I see two kinds of problems. One is simply people who are just not good at English. It may be their second language, or it may be people who just never did well in English in school. Poor spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

The other kind of "poor writing" is more a problem with organization and structure. The writer spells things right, and has a good grasp of grammar, but the article wanders off on side points, or the main point is buried. Or perhaps everything is put into one long solid paragraph per step, or it's the opposite and everything is broken up into illogical fragments.

Articles in the second group are sometimes deleted for being "not in how to format," usually because it's hard to find the actionable step, or the layout is odd.

The next post will be about ways to improve your writing skills, but for now here are some tips for those who are just having a little trouble with the format:

  • eHow's form creates a structure for you - use it. Don't try to break up steps into smaller steps or divide a step into sub-sections. A step should be a single unit. It may help to think of the first sentence as like a header - but make sure it's a complete sentence starting with a verb. It's not a title, so use regular capitalization and punctuation.
  • It is okay to break up paragraphs within a step. A paragraph should be two or three sentences. If it is longer than four lines it starts to get hard to read online.
  • If you don't want to break up your really long paragraph, then consider making it shorter. Cut out the extra words and phrases and ideas. Maybe some of them belong down in the Tips and Warnings section below anyway. A shorter, tighter paragraph will not only be more inviting to read, it will also have a better keyword density - and make your article more attractive to search engines!
  • Your title should be perfect! No mistakes. People decide on whether to read your article based on the title. eHow does delete articles just for title problems (which will be the subject of another post).

Next up, How to Improve Your Writing Skills. (Back to Series Index.)

Reasons for Deletion - Is it Really Spam?

Spam is another word eHow uses as a shorthand term for something broader. For the most part, they mean articles that tend to promote a particular thing. That thing may be a government service, or a charity or a non-profit website, or a product - and it doesn't matter if it is a worthy item, or if the writer is not making any money off of it.

The key to understanding this rule is to think about whether the article is actually offering its own solution to the reader's problem, or just telling them that the site or product is the solution.

If your article is about how to find free health care, for instance, that is a noble subject. But if the answer is just a list of organizations or sites that will help you, the article will be deleted for spam. The article may be valuable and it should be posted somewhere, but it still doesn't belong on eHow.

Of course, sometimes an article like that is also deleted for "common sense" or because it's "not in how to format". I, for one, wish that eHow would change it's terminology for spam. It is so easy to misunderstand and it offends people unnecessarily. Call it "promotional" and if some other rule applies, use that one instead.

One other note about "spam": stay away from name brands. If there is more than one product that does a particular job, then try to use the generic term for the item, or use a "such as" to name the item. If your recipe says "Use Crisco to fry your chicken" you could be accused of promoting a specific product. Try "Since butter burns so easily, many people prefer to use a shortening such as Crisco to fry their chicken." The best solution, though, would be to just say "use shortening".

Next Up: Poorly Written Article. (Back to Series Index.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reasons for Deletion - Common Sense?

You'd think common sense would be a good thing, wouldn't you?

And actually you'd be right. Common sense is something that eHow believes its prime readership has. There may be a lot of people who don't have common sense, but eHow is not catering to them.

When eHow deletes an article for "common sense" what they mean is that the article that conveys basic information that most readers can think up for themselves, and if they are motivated enough to Google it, they probably have already thought of it.

The classic "common sense" articles are those that tell people how to do simple everyday things that we all know how to do. One common example is the article that tells people how to look something up on the internet. (Think about that for a second. The people likely to find our article about how to look things up on the internet are those who looked it up on the internet!)

If your article could be summarized by "go to this site or reference" or "follow instructions", it doesn't matter how many additional tips, hints, and explanations you add. The article will eventually be deleted.

On the other hand, there are some excellent articles that are written for people who don't know some very basic things. These are often written by people with a very high level of expertise and skill - either in the subject matter or in training beginners. These articles often have a lot more substance and depth. If you feel your article fits in this category, you may want to write it anyway and risk deletion. Of course, you should realize that writing such an article requires a lot more skill than other kinds of articles. If your article has any other flaws, the two combined will certainly doom it to deletion.

Now...not all "common sense" articles are basic topics. Sometimes an article on a more advanced topic is still handled in a simplistic way. We usually write these kinds of articles when we are pushing the envelope - trying to write an article where we are not fully expert, or trying to write too many articles at a time. (We all do that sometimes.) For instance, if you are not a Human Resources expert and you wrote "How to Negotiate a Big Raise" just from ideas you got by thinking about it really hard, then odds are our reader (who is deeply concerned about getting that big raise) has already thought harder and deeper than you have. What value are you bringing to the reader?

NOTE: that article still may be of use. For the person who never even thought about asking for a raise, your ideas may spur them to action. But it's NOT an eHow article. It actually is the sort of article that can be great for a blog. So if you like to write these kinds of articles, you should consider starting a blog (or at least saving them up for a blog later on).

In the end, "common sense" is one of those subjects with a big gray area. It's a judgment call by eHow's editors. Just don't forget that "common sense" articles are seductively easy to think up, but they are very hard to write well. (This is a subject I'll probably come back to.)

Next Up: Is it Really Spam?. (Back to Series Index.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reasons for Deletion: Not in How To format

eHow wants practical, hands-on kinds of how to articles. Not everything has to involve a hammer and nails, but it is good to think of your article as aiming for that kind of approach. An article about writing an essay should focus on the process and break it down into proper steps, as though writing an essay were like building a bird house.

eHow's publishing tool helps us with this. They have an introduction area, a place to list things needed to complete the task, specific spaces for each of the steps, and an area for tips and warnings.

Articles which are deleted for not being in proper format usually try to find ways around this form. The introductory material should be limited to the introduction. The steps have to be actual actionble steps - not places to talk about various aspects of the task.

Lists of materials should be in the materials area. (Some people do like to put their materials in the first step too, but if you do this, make sure you put it in proper sentences and paragraphs. "Gather your materials. You need a hammer, three nails and six pieces of wood." I am wary of this. I prefer to repeat the items and quantities within the steps as you use them.)

If you don't really need to put something in the "things you'll need section" leave it blank. Don't put things like "Determination. A desire to change the world." We all do that at some point (I think it's just something writers have to do) but it really doesn't belong there. This is for tools and materials.

Your steps should start, if at all possible, with a verb. "Do this. Cover that. Open this." A really excellent article is not going to be deleted just because a step started with "Once you have finished chopping the carrots, put them in a pot on simmer." However, the longer it takes to get to that verb the more likely the editor is to think, "this isn't really a step." Other flaws plus that could get you deleted.

Just remember NOT ALL ARTICLE IDEAS ARE SUITED TO A HOW TO FORMAT. An awful lot of the best keywords are just not suited to it either. A lot of people try to force an article into the format. They put a verb at the beginning of the steps, but the steps themselves are really "about" type articles, or "informational."

For instance: "Consider how bees affect your daily life. They make honey. They pollinate more than just pretty flowers. Agriculture is dependent on bees to produce most of the food we eat." That's not a step, even though it has a verb at the front. That's what we call informational. There is no outcome that leads us to the next step.

And that is a clue to help you decide whether an idea or article is suited to a "how to" format. Summarize each step into the essence of what you want to get across. Is the point to "consider the bees" or is the real point "bees are important to all life"? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference - so think about this, if you JUST gave somebody the outline with little short sentences for each step, would the article make sense? And would each of these actions lead to a particular result.

In writing an article about how to write an essay, you might have a step that starts "Consider your topic" but that should really be an action that leads somewhere - and odds are, you will find that the "consider" part can be removed. "Consider your topic. Write down the first five ideas that come into your mind when you think of it." You can just cut out that first sentence. Get to the action.

"Not in How To Format" overlaps with a few other problems, the most common of which is "Blog/Opinion."

But next I'd like to talk to you about Common Sense. (Back to Series Index.)

What Does eHow Want?

To really understand the meaning behind eHow's rules, you have to understand what eHow wants.

First of all, they want to focus on their identity as a "how to" site. They envision the perfect eHow article as one about how to make something or build something. They aren't looking for background information or opinions. They want articles that focus on a clear and simple set of directions.

Second, they see their audience as reasonably intelligent, thoughtful, and proactive. Most of the traffic on the site comes from search engines like Google. They are not like the audience who browses through a magazine, sees an article and thinks, "Hey, I never thought of that. I think I'll try that." eHow's readers have already done some thinking and have actually committed to taking some action - they searched for the article.

Third, eHow wants to maintain its reputation as the best "how to" site on the web. While they invite amateurs to write articles, they need to maintain certain minimum standards of writing. They need to keep spam and inaccurate articles off the site. They try to follow Google's 'best practices' rules.

When you look over your articles, you have to look at them in that context. Are they the right kind of article? Art they aimed at eHow's core audience? Do they meet eHow's needs as a business? You can write a great article that doesn't meet any of those needs, but to suit eHow, you have to meet ALL of those needs.

Now, on to specifics....

Next up - Reasons for Deletion - Not in How To Format. (Back to Series Index.)

Recovering Your Deleted Articles

I hope that everybody who writes for any purpose whatsoever knows that you, the writer, are responsible for keeping your own back ups. No publication or site will guarantee the safety of your articles. Even so, many writers don't think to keep back ups of their articles, or just forget.

If you had an article deleted, and you didn't have a back up, you may be able to recover it if you act fast. Google keeps a cache with back ups of everything it indexes. (They keep it for a limited time, however, so SEARCH NOW.)

You need the exact title of the article, if possible. You may be able to find it in the email you should have got from eHow. Sometimes emails get lost or come late, so you can find the name in your "my earnings" monthly lists. Although the article may disappear from your regular articles list, the earnings are still active, and so the article appears in your earnings page. If you don't have the exact title, you can type it in as close as possible.

In the Google search box, put your title in quotes. If the title is a common phrase, you can add your screen name outiside of the quotes. Like this:

"How to Find an Article on Google" toogie2

If you type it in, rather than copy and paste it from another source, you may want to type in all lower case, because if you use any capitals inside a quote, Google will want EXACT capitalization. But if you use all lower case Google will be more flexible.

If your article comes up in search, you can click on the "cached" link just below it, and that will bring up whatever version of your article is still in Google's database. If you've made many changes, it may bring up an older version. (This will happen especially if you've changed the title - try the newer version of the title, in that case.)

Save the page, or copy it to Word.

Now that you have your article, you can publish it elsewhere, or you can show it to others to get help figuring out what is wrong with it.

Next up - What does eHow Want?. (Back to Series Index.)

Introduction - Dealing with Article Deletions at eHow

eHow currently allows people to post articles without review. However, they have guidelines and standards. Over the years, a LOT of articles have accumulated on the site that do not meet these standards, and this past year eHow has been making an effort to clean up the site.

Every two months or so, they have been making a "sweep", and they go through and delete large numbers of articles. Unfortunately, eHow is not the best at communicating with the membership, and people are often caught unawares. This series of articles is to help you survive these sweeps and avoid having articles deleted in the future.

Here is some quick info for people who have had articles deleted:

  • Your earnings on that article are safe. They did disappear from your articles list - and therefore they are a negative on your list if you are using Q's Earnings Tracker software - but they are still in your "my earnings" page. You will still get paid.
  • If you didn't get an email telling you which articles were deleted and why (or if you got an incomplete email) Julie announced last night that they will be resending the messages "tomorrow morning (Pacific Time)" which I believe means today. It could be Friday.
  • Your article is not necessarily being judged as "bad." It may be an excellent article that just doesn't fit eHow's style or specific rules.
  • eHow's uses inexact terms for some of their reasons. "Spam" for instance, doesn't mean exactly what most people think it does. Upcoming posts will deal with the defiinitions of these terms.
  • You can NOT rewrite and post the same article again on eHow, but you are free to publish it anywhere else.
  • If you didn't keep a back up of your article, there's some advice in the next post on this blog.
  • The links to your deleted article will redirect to another article in eHow's library. This is not an attempt to steal your thunder. Google demands that redirects go somewhere relevant to search. More on this in a later article.
  • They only get through a small portion of the articles in any one sweep. So yeah, there is still a lot of junk left on the site. It isn't that those articles are better than yours, it's just that the editors haven't got around to them yet. (And the bad news is, the articles you have left may not have been reviewed yet - they can still be deleted in a future sweep.)

Next up - Recovering Your Deleted Articles. (Back to Series Index.)

Surviving the Sweeps!

If you haven't noticed, eHow is doing another round of article deletions. I'll be posting a series of articles over this weekend to help people deal with the article deletions, and perhaps avoid them in future.

This post will act as an index post.

  1. Introduction - Dealing with Article Deletions at eHow
  2. Recovering Your Deleted Articles
  3. What does eHow Want?
  4. Reasons for Deletion - Not in How To Format
  5. Reasons for Deletion - Common Sense?
  6. Reasons for Deletion - Is it Really Spam?
  7. Reasons for Deletion - Poorly Written Article
  8. How to Improve Your Writing Skills
  9. Reasons for Deletion - Blog Opinion
  10. Reasons for Deletion - Missing Steps
  11. Playing Not to Lose vs. Playing to Win

More to come this evening.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stoic's list of Common Mistakes

StoicSentry has posted an excellent list of common beginner mistakes on the eHow forums. Check 'em out!

Increase your Passive Income with Diversity!

Most people know you should diversify your sources of income to protect from loss, but it's also a way to make you more productive.

Consider this: How many times have you come across a lucrative keyword that you know something about, but you've had to struggle to come up with a "how to" type article for that subject?

Now just imagine if you didn't bother with that struggle. You just went straight ahead and wrote the best article for that keyword that you can. Maybe it's an "about" article, or an opinion piece, or maybe it's one of those borderline articles: "Seven Ways to Do Something-or-Other" which you could force into how to format, but then you have to worry about being deleted in a sweep.

What if, in the time you normally would have sweated and flustered over how to turn an 'about' article into a 'how to' article, you just wrote the 'about' article and were done and ready to go on to something else? Or what if you wrote that "about" article, and that opinion piece, and the "Seven ways", AND wrote a how to? What if you ended up with four articles rather than one?

You can do that if you write for more than one site. (And they can all provide backlinks to others.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Earnings Schedule

NOTE: eHow appears to have updated their accounting system, and the information below no longer applies. I will update it when we have more confirmation of what the new terms mean.


The beginning of the month is often fraught with earnings concerns. What's it supposed to say? Is it taking too long? Here is the norm:

Your earnings for the month, on the "My Earnings" page, will say "Carryover" at first. It will say this even if the total for the month has not updated. It usually changes within the first day, but it can take longer if it's on a weekend. (And sometimes takes longer just because eHow is like that.)

If you have accumulated more than $10 in earnings, it should then switch over to "Pending." (If you've made less than $10, it will remain at "carryover" until you have earned enough to be paid - i.e. "made payout.")

Sometime within the next week or so, they will start processing payments. You will start to see reports trickle into the Community Chatter forums that payments are in, but the overall processing seems to take a whole day or two - not all at one time. (NOTE: eHow's policy is that they have a month to pay you - however, they usually process payments in the first two weeks.)

When you get paid you get an email from Paypal, and sometimes an email from eHow too.

If at any time in this process, your status says "Failed", go to the Feedback forum and check to see if there is already a discussion thread for people who have "failed" payments. Either add a post to that discussion which says you have the problem too, or if there is no discussion, start one with the following title:

BUG: earnings say "failed"

It's important to title your discussion properly or it may be deleted or ignored. Also they really hate if there are duplicate topics, so be sure there isn't already a topic before you start a new one.

Finally, if you find your earnings status is out of sync with the rest of the population (if it says "carryover" or "pending" more than a day longer than everyone else, for instance), then you should also check the forums and if necessary start a topic on that subject.