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If you’re thinking about doing some charitable giving this holiday season, why not give the gift you know best—writing? There are many ways to put your talents to work for others, and doing it for free actually benefits you too. Volunteer work not only teaches new skills, it improves self-worth and confidence and provides an outlet for networking. You might even land some paying gigs in the process!

Ready to give a little year-end writing for free? Here are 12 ideas to get you started:

1. Write Grants for Nonprofits

If you’ve never done grant writing in the past, it’s never too late to start. Seminars and courses on grant writing are widely available, but you might also find a grant writing mentor to guide you through the process. Check with your favorite nonprofit for volunteer grant writing opportunities or go to volunteermatch.org for ideas.

2. Volunteer Your Editing Skills to Schools

Students of all ages and backgrounds could use a little writing help, and many teachers welcome writers to share their expertise. See how you can help a school in your community by volunteering your writing and editing skills—or just visiting to discuss your profession.

3. Guest Blog for a Website

Whether you get a link back to your website or not, guest blogging is a great way to volunteer your talents to another writing professional or startup business. Be willing to blog about whatever would help the website gain exposure and readers.

4. Write for a Community Newsletter

Newsletters contain valuable information for the community. If you have a newsletter you like to read, why not contribute to it? Animal rescue groups, arts councils, chambers of commerce, and other local organizations put out newsletters regularly. Find one that interests you and get crafting!

5. Write a Letter to an Inmate

Check with local and regional prison and correctional facilities for direction on writing letters to inmates. Or, see if a local church has a prison outreach program that encourages inspirational letter writing.

6. Draft a Response to a Newspaper Editorial

Did you read an article recently that got you thinking? Newspapers like to print responses to their editorial pieces from readers. You won’t get paid, but you will get noticed—and read.

7. Contribute to a Nonpaying Magazine

Nonpaying magazines may not be your first choice when it comes to submitting your work, but your contribution can pay off in more ways than monetary reward. You’ll help the editors fill their calendar, support your peers, and give readers the gift of the written word. Submit to a nonpaying children’s magazine or e-zine, and impart your knowledge for the benefit of the next generation of readers and writers.

8. Host a Writing Workshop

Got kids in the neighborhood who like to write? Invite them over for a fun day of writing activities. Play word games, write stories based on a popular theme, or have the kids rewrite a favorite fairy tale. You might also volunteer to host a writer’s workshop at your public library or other venue.

9. Help Fundraise with Free Content

Fundraisers help a worthy cause or an individual in need. Write content to help fundraise, and see how your writing can bring in money to improve the lives of others. If you don’t know where to fundraise, look online for fundraising options where you’re work might be needed.

10. Write a Review

Holiday books and movies are popular this time of year. Volunteering to write a review helps people decide which one to pick. When writing a review, avoid going on a rant. Try to find the positive in everything, but be honest about your opinions and experience. You might also write a review on a new restaurant in town.

11. Tutor for Adult Learners

Want to help adult learners become better writers? Sign up to offer tutoring help. Check with the library or a community center for information on volunteer tutoring work.

12. Volunteer with Distributed Proofreaders

If you like to proofread, volunteering with Distributed Proofreaders might be just the ticket. Distributed Proofreaders welcomes help from anyone who enjoys working with words. You’ll help proofread public domain e-books as part of Project Gutenberg and can do it a page at a time or whatever fits your schedule. For more information, go to https://www.pgdp.net/c/.

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The holidays are fast approaching—which means it’s time to get writing! Put aside any thoughts of a pre-holiday writing break and get ready for some festive and productive fun. Holiday writing is plum full of opportunities that can bring bounds of joy, not to mention some well-earned cash. Try these ideas, and prepare for holiday season 2017 the writer’s way:

Get Ready for the Winter Olympics

Craft a story or article about the 2018 Winter Olympics, just around the holiday corner. Write about the host country of South Korea, a new sport being added, a rising star athlete, or whatever angle strikes your interest. Olympic topics are engaging, plentiful, and lucrative.

Write a Holiday Recipe

Got a unique holiday recipe you’d like to share, like a festive cookie or a favorite dish from your great-grandma’s recipe box? Food publishers are always on the lookout for tasty holiday fare. Be sure to test your recipe out, write it well, and include mouthwatering pictures.

Go on a Shopping Spree

This one will pay off big; you’ll get a jumpstart on holiday shopping and first dibs on the inventory, plus you can sell a piece about your shopping experience—like tips on finding the perfect gift, how to beat the rush, where to shop, and ways to get the best deals this season.

Write Your Personal Gift List

The holidays are all about giving and receiving. Focus on receiving for a minute and consider what might boost your writing potential in 2018. A new style book? A different desk or lamp for your office? Don your thinking cap and put together a gift list that’ll help further your career.

Draft a Holiday Game

If you enjoy playing games during the holiday season, here’s an idea: create one of your own. Draft holiday trivia questions or a word game or puzzle. Holiday games and puzzles are in high demand, especially in the children’s market. And who better to write an intriguing game than you!

Research Holiday Writer Events

Lots of events for writers come to town during the holidays. See if one of your favorite authors is scheduled to speak, look into a writer’s workshop, or attend a local bookstore’s holiday event. Listening and learning from the pros can go a long way in enhancing your writing efforts.

Don’t let the holidays slide by without taking advantage of the many opportunities available to utilize and hone your craft. Try these activities, and prepare for a productive season of writing.

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Every writer produces work they’re not proud of. But if you feel stuck in a pattern of bad writing, don’t get discouraged. Chances are you’re not losing your mind—or your talent. In fact, good writing gone bad could be due to something much simpler and easier to fix than you think. Here are some possible culprits that could be harming your work and what to do about them:

Your Office Setup

Is your desk chair comfortable? How about your office—is the temperature too hot or too cold? How’s the lighting? Do you have enough space to spread out your research? All these things can affect comfort level, which in turn can harm your writing quality. Try rearranging your office or investing in better equipment if necessary. Make your workspace one that makes you feel good and inspires you to write your best.

Hunger

Hunger pangs aren’t just loud and annoying; they can compromise your brain power. When you’re hungry, you may feel lightheaded, tired, and fuzzy. Get your mind in good working order by making sure you’re satiated. Food boosts creativity, focus, and mental acuity. And while you’re at it, drink up. Staying hydrated keeps you energized, so be sure to sip on water throughout the day.

Unsolved Personal Problems

Has something been nagging at you, like an argument with a friend or an upcoming stressful event? Whatever’s distracting you, get it off your mind so you can devote your brain to your work. If you can’t address the problem immediately, jot it down in a notebook to deal with later. Then refocus your attention on your writing. You can return to your troubles after a good writing session—and maybe they won’t seem so bad after all.

An Overworked Mind

Sometimes bad writing days are the result of overwriting. If you haven't had a break lately, it could be time to take one. Breaks can do wonders for writers; they offer an opportunity to refresh, rejuvenate, and brainstorm for new ideas. Set your work aside, and catch a movie, have a lunch date with a friend, or go on a mini-vacation. You’ll return with a renewed sense of enthusiasm that will show in the quality of your writing.

Lack of a Mentor

When writing goes sour and you can’t figure out why, consider consulting a writing mentor or friend. Often it takes another set of eyes to figure out where you’re going wrong. It could be that your writing isn’t as bad as you think or that it just needs a few tweaks here and there. On the other hand, another writer can help you fine-tune your work and clear up any major writing problems you don’t see.

It's easy to blame yourself when the quality of your work slips. But what’s wrong with your writing could have nothing to do with your talent. Give the above ideas a try, and get back to crafting the quality stuff you’re used to.

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Fall is almost here, but are you prepared for a new season of writing? Whether you’ve been punching away at the keyboard all summer or not, autumn is a great season to refresh, recharge, and renew your writing life. Here are five tips to help you get ready for fall writing—and produce some of your best work yet:

Collect Fresh Ideas

Think about the summer and what you learned or experienced in the last few months. Tap into your senses to discover a new twist on the changing colors, air, and pace of this time of year. Attend a lecture or do some reading. Ideas are everywhere; find something unique to share.

Write a List

Goals are important for successful writing because they keep you organized, on task, and productive. Put together a list of them. Make it as detailed as you can, knowing you can alter your list as needed. Then put it somewhere visible to serve as a reminder and motivator.

Make Some Useful Purchases

Need a new writing desk? How about a new dictionary or a style book? Now’s the time to buy. There’s a full inventory of office and school supplies available, many at discounted prices. Take advantage of the deals and get your writing tools updated.

Join a Group

Writing groups are an ideal way to advance your craft, network, and keep you inspired to write. Find a group online or in person and get connected. You might also join a writing organization related to your genre. Many writing organizations have national and local chapters.

Prepare a Schedule

After the unstructured months of summer, it can be hard to get back to a routine. Take the time to prepare a schedule—and a plan for following it. Decide when you’ll write during the weekdays and weekend. Spend a day or two trying out the new schedule to see how it feels.

Fall is one of the best times of year to get serious about your writing. In fact, many writers create some of their best work during the autumn months. Let the above tips help make this writing season a success for you.

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Semicolons get a bad rap for being a punctuation mark that’s outdated, pointless, and confusing to use. But many of those arguments have no merit. In fact, semicolons can serve an important purpose in writing, no matter what it is. Knowing how to place semicolons in the right spot for the right reason, though, is key, and can make this underrated punctuation mark a writing tool worth your time and attention.

Here are five things you need to know about semicolons. Use them mindfully, and see why there’s nothing semi about them.

They’re Effective for Emphasis

If you want to emphasize your point by reinforcing it with a similar thought, the semicolon can help you out. For example, “She never works late; only a crisis would keep her at the office past five.”

They’re Best When Not Noticed

Don’t let the semicolon stand out and distract the reader. Instead, slip it in where it won’t be noticed. Too many semicolons are noticeable. Just one strategically placed within a paragraph on a page is all you need for a subtle break from the usual punctuation.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Period

Semicolons can often be replaced by periods, but sometimes a semicolon is a better choice. If the sentence needs splitting up but doesn’t make two different points, try the semicolon. It might be just the connector you need.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Comma

That’s especially true for complex lists—like those that already include commas. Example: She did three things this morning: read the paper; planned her trip to Washington, DC; and made a yogurt, berry, and granola parfait. Choose semicolons over commas with transitional adverbs, too: She knows how to knit; however, she only learned the skill yesterday.

They’re Nothing to Fear

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. They won’t make you look like an amateur. In fact, semicolons are completely acceptable and even a good thing when used properly. Practice using the semicolon and get comfortable with it. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your fear.

If you’ve wondered whether you should use a semicolon, wonder no more. It’s a useful punctuation mark that’s full of value and function. Go ahead and get on the semicolon bandwagon; just be wise with it for the most impact.

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Health and wellness is all the rage these days, so it’s no wonder people are making career choices in fields related to healthcare. As a writer, you can too. Not only is health writing a lucrative niche, you’ll gain important knowledge about how to keep you and your family healthy. Plus, it’s easy to get started as a health writer. There are various paths you can take to work your way up to a health writing expert. Here are a few that’ll put you on the right and robust track:

Begin with Schooling

Many study programs are available to help you learn the ropes of health writing. One of the most well-known and respected options is the Essential Skills Certificate program from the American Medical Writers Association. The AMWA also offers a variety of individual online classes in health writing. Another idea is to take courses through a local college on subjects related to health, like pharmacology or nutrition, to acquire background knowledge for writing in the health field.

Be a Self-Learner

Not the student type? With a little dedication and perseverance, you can learn to be a health writer on your own. Start by getting to know the world of healthcare. Read about health topics online, pour over health journals at the library, do some research on health topics that interest you, or talk to people in the health and medical fields. Then starting writing and submitting your work. Build a name for yourself as a health writer, and enjoy the perks that come with your newly acquired expertise.

Draw from Experience

Many successful health writers got their passion from experience. Maybe they’re longtime health and fitness nuts, perhaps they’ve been dealing with a lifelong medical issue, or possibly they know someone in the field who inspired them.  If you have any life experiences with health, use them to your advantage as a writer. Dig into your repertoire of health knowledge and start writing about it. You might be surprised at how much information you already have that can help educate the public.

Join a Group or Association

Sometimes your writing peers can be your biggest career boosters, so make a point to make contacts in the health writing world. Become a member of a health writing association, like the American Medical Writers Association, the Association of Healthcare Journalists, or the National Association of Science Writers. Look for local chapters and attend meetings and events. Or, join a private writing group of like-minded health writers. The important thing is to make a point to get connected!

Health writing is a fun, lucrative field with endless possibilities for writers. If you’ve wanted to delve into this high-opportunity niche, don’t hesitate. You’ll set yourself up for a thriving career for years to come.

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As writers, we don’t have to be told to sit down and write. It’s what we do and what we enjoy doing. But asking kids to write can be a whole different story, especially during the summer season when school's out. If they don’t have to write, why would they want to?

Actually, there are plenty of reasons. Writing during the summer is a great way for kids to practice their skills without being graded or judged. It’s a chance to write about topics they enjoy and explore their creativity in a leisurely fashion. Writing can also be highly therapeutic for kids; it helps them manage stress and promotes mental well-being. And here’s the best part: getting kids to write during the summer might not be so hard after all.

Try these five writing activities for a fun way to keep your kids thinking, creating, and engaged this summer:

Find a Writing Camp or Class for Kids

Kids love camps, and writing camps are filled with fun projects, social time, and learning. Check with local colleges, community education, writing organizations, or the public library for offerings.

Host Your Own Writing Workshop

Can’t find a camp or class nearby that suits the kids? Why not host your own. Make up writing projects and invite their friends over to join in. Add some snacks, and watch your writing workshop take off.

Journal with Your Kids

Journaling isn’t just fun; it’s a way to express and communicate your feelings. Get your kids to open up via a two-way journal. Start by writing a journal entry individualized to your child. If he likes thunderstorms, write about a thunderstorm memory. Then get your child to respond back.

Fill a Box with Writing Prompts

You’ve probably experienced writer’s block more times than you can count. Sometimes getting kids to write is simply a matter of finding the right topic. Fill a box with writing prompts and have them pick until they find an idea that inspires them.

Take It Outside

Writing indoors can be stifling. Have your kids grab notebooks, pens, and a lounge chair, and head outdoors to write. You can supply the encouragement—and the lemonade.

Don’t think your kids won’t enjoy dabbling in your profession this summer. Give them a fun way to explore their writing talent, and watch them grow and thrive at an art that will serve them well for years to come.

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One of the greatest things about writing a cookbook is you don’t have to be a writer to do it. But writers know something that cookbook creators might not: editing is key. And when it comes to writing cookbooks, editing a cookbook can make all the difference to the book’s success. After all, an error in quantity or a confusing instruction can affect the outcome of the recipe—and the usefulness of the cookbook.

As time-consuming as it may be, reviewing a cookbook for accuracy, clarity, and consistency is well worth the effort. Here are four steps you don’t want to skip when editing a cookbook:

1. Look for Writing Errors

Some of the most common writing errors in cookbooks involve abbreviations of cooking terms and measurements. For example, tablespoon is often abbreviated with a capital T, whereas a teaspoon is a lowercase t. The best way to avoid confusing the two is to write out the words or abbreviate them as “Tbs.” and “tsp.”

When editing a cookbook, if you come across something that looks wrong, it probably is. That’s why it’s important to check the original recipe for accuracy. Sometimes, quantities, ingredients, oven temperature, and descriptions (such as “heaping” or “scant”) are left out or copied wrong, which can change the recipe drastically.

Finally, spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, while they may not alter a recipe, look unprofessional and can affect the book’s readability. Proofread carefully and fix any errors in mechanics.

2. Check for Clarity of Wording

As you’re reading through the recipes for writing errors, ask yourself if the instructions are clear. Do the words explain how to make the recipe without confusing the reader? For example, if a recipe calls for cooking an ingredient, this may mean sautéing, frying, baking, boiling, or broiling. Edit to specify the proper method.

Also, be specific about certain ingredients. Is dill supposed to be dill seed or dill weed? Does the beef need to be a particular cut? Should the oats be rolled or quick? For many recipes, this won’t matter. But check to make sure.

Instructions that are out of order can also be confusing—and disastrous. If part of a recipe should be completed and set aside before the next phase begins, make sure that’s noted. Or, if an oven needs to be preheated, the recipe should say so at the beginning, not halfway through. Instructions should be easy to follow, organized, and reader-friendly.

3. Be Consistent When  Editing a Cookbook

Is “cup” spelled out sometimes and abbreviated others? Are all numbers written as numerals? (Note: Numerals are more reader-friendly than written numbers, especially in ingredient lists and instructions.) Be consistent, whichever style you choose.

Pay attention to the ingredients listed and those used in the directions as well. Are they the same? For example, if a recipe lists egg whites under ingredients, make sure the directions don’t say egg yolks. Ingredients should also be listed in the order they are used.

Consistency also applies to recipe book formats, which can take a number of shapes. The most common is a standard recipe format, where a list of ingredients is followed by step-by-step directions. Another popular format is where the ingredients are embedded in bold within the context of the directions. Whichever format is used, keep it the same throughout the recipe book.

4. Edit and Organize Cookbook Sections

Cookbooks aren’t just a compilation of recipes. They usually contain some front and back matter, too. This might include a preface, acknowledgments, table of contents, index, and glossary. All of these sections must be reviewed for errors, clarity, and consistency.

Sidebars, or separate bits of information related to the recipe (such as helpful hints, baking tips, brief histories, etc.), are also not to be overlooked in the editing process. A cookbook reader will pay close attention to sidebars, so getting them looking and sounding perfect is worth the work.

Finally, make sure all cookbook sections are in order. For example, start with the preface and table of contents, follow this with recipes that are organized in a sensible manner (appetizers, salads, main courses, and so forth), and end with an index. Pay close attention to the recipe section of the book to verify that each recipe falls in its proper category.

Editing a cookbook for errors, consistency, clarity, and organization will help make the recipe book as useful and valuable as it can be. And for the book’s cooks and writers, there’s no better recipe for success than that!

See also Nine Reasons to Take Self-Editing Seriously.

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It’s that time again in Minnesota—time to get ready to enter a spring writing contest. This year’s offerings target everyone from fiction writers to poets to students in the great North Star State, so you’d be hard pressed not to find something that suits your style and interests. Check out the list of Spring 2017 writing contests for Minnesota writers below, then gear up to get creative, share your writing, and earn some recognition—and cash—for your work.

2017 GPS (Geek Partnership Society) Writing Contest

Topic: Sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, graphic, poetry & short fiction pieces, youth and adult.

Deadline: May 1, 2017

Prizes: $50 - $75 Amazon gift cards

Basic guidelines: Submit original, unpublished works on the above topics to open, youth, poetry, and graphic novel (comics) divisions. No entry fee. This contest is not exclusive to Minnesota writers; the organization is simply based in Minneapolis. For more info, click here.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 2016-2017 Student Essay Contest

Topic: Can the U.S. economy still grow the way it once did?

Deadline: March 31, 2017

Prizes: $100 (for 30 finalists) - $500, plus a paid internship for first place winner. Cash prize for teacher of winners, too.

Basic guidelines: Open to high school students in the Ninth Federal Reserve District, which includes Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, northwestern Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For contest rules, check here.

2017 Great American Think-Off

Topic: Has the 2016 election changed our perception of truth?

Deadline: April 1, 2017

Prizes: Four $500 cash prizes and invitation to debate in New York Mills, MN

Basic guidelines: This contest is sponsored by the Cultural Center of New York Mills. Submit an essay of up to 750 words on the topic using personal experience and observations. Enter online, no fee, and all ages welcome. See the website for further details.

Minnesota Christian Writers Guild 2017 Writing Contest

Topic: Everyday people who are making a difference for Jesus.

Deadline: March 13, 2017

Prizes: $25 - $75 cash, plus a mentor session with an editor

Basic guidelines: Submit a personal experience article between 800 and 1,200 words. You must be a member of MCWG to enter, plus pay a $5 entry fee. For more information, click here.

2017 Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest

Topic: Unpublished sonnet written in Shakespearean, Spenserian, Petrarchan, or Non-traditional rhyme scheme.

Deadline: June 1, 2017

Prizes: Cash totaling over $2,000 in several categories, including Local Area (Winona, MN, and adjacent counties), Best Youth, and Laureate’s Choice.

Basic guidelines: $5 entry fee; free for youth 17 and under. Click here for more info.

2017 LSW (Lake Superior Writers) Writing Contest

Topic: Rivers: mapped and unmapped

Deadline: April 1, 2017

Prizes: $250 per category for winner, plus publication

Basic guidelines: Theme of submissions must be real or metaphorical rivers. Categories include poetry, short-short fiction, creative nonfiction, and short story. Free to LSW members, or you can join and pay a membership fee of $35 to enter. Visit the site for complete rules.

BestPrep and Thomson Reuters High School Essay Contest

Topic: Martin Luther King famously wrote: “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Why is it important for students to develop their character alongside academics? How has your educational journey and life experiences developed your character?

Deadline: April 15, 2017

Prizes: MacBook Air, iPads, Beats headphones, Google Home, and Walmart gift cards, plus an invitation to an Education Forum and private reception at the Saint Paul River Centre in October. Visa gift card for teachers of top five winners.

Basic guidelines: Open to Minnesota high school students. Submit an essay of 600-750 words on the above topic. See website to download essay competition packet.

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Valentine’s Day is all about love, sweets, roses—and writing ideas. What better way to prepare for the upcoming holiday than to write about something reminiscent of it? These Valentine’s Day writing ideas won’t just inspire and uplift you; they’ll help set you up for a sale. So head to your computer and get your creativity—and heart—flowing:

Valentine’s Day History

For history buffs, Valentine’s Day is more than a holiday; it marks an important day in history. Check out this list of key events that have occurred on Valentine’s Day. Any would make an interesting story topic.

A Famous Couple

Bonnie and Clyde? Franklin and Eleanor? Kim and Kanye? Whoever interests you—or not—find a juicy detail about a famous couple and bring it to life.

Puppies

Who doesn’t love puppies? And what puppy doesn’t remind us of love? Craft a story for kids, a piece for a pet magazine, or a personal essay about puppies.

The Color Red

What does the color red signify besides the color of a heart? Write an article on the color red—or pink, white, or purple, other common Valentine’s Day colors. Research what the color signifies to others, or write about an object or event associated with a Valentine’s Day hue.

Heart Health

Heart health is a popular topic today—and not just physical heart health. Broken hearts and how they affect mental well-being makes big headlines too. Actually, just about anything related to the human heart is a marketable story idea and one that's gratifying and potentially lifesaving.

Chocolate

Writing about chocolate might be the sweetest idea yet. If you like this tasty treat, you’ll have even more reason to pen a story or article about it. Plus, there’s plenty to talk about—a new type of chocolate, a favorite family recipe, a country known for its chocolate, you name it. When it comes to writing about chocolate, the sky’s the limit.

Flowers

You might think roses are the flower of Valentine’s Day, but many people get bouquets of lilies, carnations, tulips, or a mix. Which flower do you like best? Find out what’s unique about it—does it have medicinal properties or an interesting past? Even if you’re not a gardener, writing about flowers is a great way to recognize Valentine’s Day, prepare for spring, and sell your work.

Valentine’s Day is more than a time to celebrate love—it’s filled with unlimited writing ideas, too. Pick one of the above, and take advantage of all the great writing potential packed into the sweetest day of the year.

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