The Local Wild: Goldenrod: The Innocent Blooming Bystander

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 22, 2018.


Goldenrod in full bloom. Photo: Jessica Woken.

About this time of year we start seeing them powder the landline in their trademark golden hue, their tops looking like miniature yellow-flocked Christmas trees dancing in the summer breeze atop gangly, thin-leaved stems. They are goldenrod, the perennial herb often considered a weed and even more often blamed for a season crime it does not commit.


A goldenrod plant, pre-bloom. Note the thin, opposite-growing, smooth leaves along a single stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

If you suffer from hay fever you may groan and give goldenrod flowers the stink-eye, thinking the pretty posies are adding to your daily torment of itching, sneezing, coughing, and all other manner of suffering. Well, I’m here to say: Don’t, because goldenrod doesn’t induce allergic reactions usually associated with seasonal allergies (aka hay fever).

What, you say? That doesn’t make sense! Then why do I get allergies whenever goldenrod flowers appear? The answer lies in the precise time during summer when goldenrod goes into full bloom, which is right when a less showy weed also reaches maturation: Ragweed.


Ragweed. Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz (Wikimedia Creative Commons).

Ragweed pollen is a very potent and lightweight allergen that disperses on the slightest breeze. Goldenrod’s heavy pollen, on the other hand, spreads with the help of insect or animal and not via the wind and because it doesn’t travel on wind it’s nearly impossible for goldenrod pollen to induce hay fever. Why? Because seasonal allergies are triggered when offending particles are inhaled through the nose or when contact is made with sensitive eye mucous, and the only way for particles to reach the nasal cavity or eyes is—you guessed it—through the air.


It’s common and normal to see these leafy “bundles” atop a goldenrod stalk. Note the flowering stems projecting out of the stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

Once you know that goldenrod is innocent of all charges, you’ll find the plant isn’t only a pretty marker of the waning of the summer season but that it also offers a number of benefits. It has medicinal and dietary applications; serves as an important source of nectar for bees and butterflies; can be used as a base for yellow dye; and is recognized an indicator of an ecosystem coming back to life after environmental trauma (goldenrod is often the first plant to grow following wildfire).

Goldenrod has also become a popular addition to bouquets for weddings, though florists refer to them by their more proper and more romantic name, Yellow Solidago.

So next time you’re out and about enjoying the fresh air, give good ol’ goldenrod a break. Instead of mistakenly loathing it for the hay fever it hasn’t given you, snip a few of the fluffy yellow tops to display in a flower arrangement or take them home to make a caffeine-free tea that is used by herbalists to reduce inflammation, treat UTIs, break up kidney stones, and as remedy for other common ailments. In doing so you may inspire yourself to develop a new local wild affinity for this pretty and regularly misjudged herbaceous bystander.



The Local Wild: Hellgrammites: Bizarre Bugs

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 1, 2018.

I’d never seen one before. They only live in the Eastern United States and, as a transplant from Southern California, when this big guy crawled out from the rock I was standing on after I turned on my barn’s well faucet I took a wary step back and gasped a huge “What IS that?” to myself.

The “that” turned out to be a 2.5-inch long hellgrammite, the devilish-looking larval offspring of the quite impressive Dobsonfly.

The name hellgrammite alone sounds bizarre enough to be humorous, and any fan of the monster film Tremors might laugh as they recollect the giant Graboids of the 1990 cult classic. However, the fictional underground monsters share enough similarities with hellgrammites that one may begin to think the larva were the inspiration for the film in the first place. Bizarre, indeed.


An angry, 2.5-inch hellgrammite poses on a leaf. Photo: Jessica Woken.

First, like the Tremors monsters, hellgrammites have seriously oversized mandibles. Clearly, one ought to stay away from that end! I did just that with my specimen and was able to pick it up, chopsticks style, and bring it inside for a quick photoshoot. A little research proved my instinct correct: The hellgrammite’s mandibles are strong enough to break skin and, in some cases, draw blood.

Second—and this was quickly observed during my chopsticking maneuvers—hellgrammites have ridiculously limber bodies. My specimen was able to twist and bend his body into fantastic coils in order to evade and bite at my makeshift chopsticks. Surely that kind of mobility helps in satisfying their voracious predatory appetites, the third item on our comparisons list.

Like graboids, hellgrammites pretty much eat anything of appropriate size that moves. They snatch aquatic insects, worms, other larva, and even small minnows or froglings as a meal.

Fourth, a combination of 6 legs and 8 or more tufted projections run the length of the hellgrammite’s body, helping it to maneuver both in water and on land. (Graboids had rows of spikes along their snaky lengths that helped them move through soil.) And maneuver it did! The hellgrammite I caught was adept in moving both forward and reverse, running at the same (and quick) speed in either direction.

After finding these bugs are aquatic, I was surprised that the insect had been so agile on dry land. The only time hellgrammites emerge from water is when they’re on their way to dig a burrow in preparation for pupation or when they’re disturbed, as was the case in my situation. Oops.

But, alas, as fun as it may have been to compare the two, that is where the hellgrammite and graboid similarities end.

Instead of being a danger to humans like the famed Hollywood monsters I jestfully compare them to, hellgrammites actually pose a number of benefits to us humans. They’re adored by anglers and fishermen because they make excellent bait. They’re known by ecologists to be indicators of the health of waterways: Where there are hellgrammites, life flourishes, because the Dobsonfly larva can only survive in clean, well-oxygenated water. Finally, hellgrammites are known to eat the aquatic larva of mosquitos, something anyone who lives in Minnesota can well appreciate and be thankful for.


A male Dobsonfly lands on a photographer’s camera, showing off its impressive size. Photo: Creative Commons. Pavel Kirillov, July 14, 2013.

Forgetting everything else, mature Dobsonflies are simply magnificent. At about 5 inches long, females look like a larger version of their hellgrammite selves but with a pair of huge wings to glide them along. Males are equally aerial and are additionally fitted with a pair of 2-3” mandibles that can’t be missed by any eye, trained or not in the entomological sciences. Despite their tremendous size and intimidating presentation, Dobsonflies are harmless to humans unless provoked, in which case both the larva (hellgrammites) and female adults should be given a wide birth as their mandibles can do painful damage. The poor male, however stunning his display, is really more bark than bite: He cannot create enough leverage with his lengthy jaws to cause much, if any, pain.

If you spot these insects in flight consider yourself blessed: Adult Dobsonflies only live for about a week before dying and, though they aren’t rare insects, their very brief adult lifespans and nocturnal natures make them hard to find.

Furthermore, Minnesota is about as far westward as the Eastern Dobsonfly will travel, making a sighting in Cannon Falls or the surrounding local wild even more, well, bizarre.



The Local Wild: Creepy Jenny: Charlie’s Sister

Published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on July 18, 2018.

All too many Minnesotans are familiar with the quick-spreading wild groundcover commonly referred to as Creeping Charlie. His bundles of cat-foot shaped dark green leaves are easy to spot in early spring when it seems everything else has yet to even thaw.

But, as familiar as you may be with Creeping Charlie, did you know good ol’ Charles isn’t an only child?

CreepingJenny-climbing steps

Creeping Jenny with its signature arrowhead-shaped leaves. Photo: Jessica Woken

Creeping Jenny—proper name Field Bindweed—is a creeping, vining groundcover-type plant that can be just as troublesome as the Charlie version. The two plants aren’t related by scientific name even though they do share a number of other qualities. However, giving them the shared “Creeping” nickname makes it easier to remember field bindweed’s true intentions when you can laugh—or, alternatively, cry—that Creeping Charlie has an equally annoying little sister.

Both creeping and flowering weeds are perennial herbs, meaning they’ll sprout up year after year after arduous year. In some areas of Finland (yet, it grows there, too) patches of Creeping Jenny have been growing in the same locations for centuries.

The reason for field bindweed’s impressive durability?

First, Creeping Jenny’s roots can reach depths of up to 30 feet, which makes them almost impossible to pluck out in their entirety. Pieces of root remaining below the ground surface after weeding will sprout new vines in a short time. If you’re more into spraying than weeding, know that unless herbicide reaches the farthest stretches of the root, chemicals won’t get rid of it either.

CreepingJenny-with Charlie to choke sapling

Creeping Charlie and Jenny join forces to choke a sapling. Photo: Jessica Woken

I know all of this sounds awful, but it is possible to live in harmony with Creeping Jenny as long as you know what to expect of her.Second, like Creeping Charlie, Creeping Jenny is rather possessive about her personal space. Prone to choking out other vegetation, the thin yet surprisingly tough vines will wrap around taller plants like tiny green constrictor snakes, choking them out or weighing them down. If the vines can’t go vertical they’ll gladly spread horizontally up to seven feet from the root center, blocking sunlight and stealing water from less durable flora.

A careful landscaper can use Creeping Jenny to create dense groundcovers that nestle stepping stones along a path and prevent soil from washing away. In addition, Jenny’s possessive tendencies to claim a space for her and her alone will help keep weeds at bay (that is, if you don’t consider dear Jenny a weed herself), which means less pulling and spraying for you. As long as you don’t mind doing a little trimming to keep it in check, Creeping Jenny also works well as a filler for windowbox arrangements and as a low-maintenance vine to create a flowering trellis privacy fence.

CreepingJenny-cluster along stone step

Creeping Jenny cascades over a stone step. Photo: Jessica Woken

Gardeners with an affection for pond greenery and waterscape gardens will find that Creeping Jenny is a beautiful and easily cared for addition. The perennial will actually grow in one inch of water or in floating planters. If left with nothing else to cling to Jenny will hug herself, creating beautiful, tightly bound cascades of bright green leaves and delicate flowers for gardeners to enjoy almost year-round.

Whether you hate her or love her, there is one thing for sure: Creeping Jenny is determined to stick around for a while, so you’d best get properly acquainted.



The Local Wild: Rhubarb: Is it Edible or “Wild”?

Published in the Cannon Falls Beacon, 20June2018.

If you’re a fan of the tart flavor of the rhubarb fruit commonly found in the grocery stores in the early to mid-summer months, you may feel delighted when you happen upon a rhubarb plant growing out on the edges of a farmer’s field or in the bushes along the Cannon bike trail.

But take heed, enthusiastic forager! The plant you see is likely not what you think.

Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but it’s green- to red-hued stalks are treated more like fruit when it’s cooked to make desserts or chewed raw as a tart garden snack. However, an invasive species of broadleaf weed, more commonly known as burdock, also goes by another name: wild rhubarb. It has several features in common with the edible rhubarb plant we all love but, unlike its lookalike, the stalks of the burdock are not considered edible in the common sense (though the plant can be eaten and is frequently used medicinally).

The most distinguishing and immediately noticeable feature of both edible rhubarb and wild rhubarb (burdock) are the broad, fanning, gently ruffled, bright green leaves. The key visual differences are these: the veins of edible rhubarb leaves are red, like its fruit, and thicker than the green, thin veins of the burdock; and rhubarb’s leaves are smooth and glossy while burdock leaves are matte and have a slightly velvety underside.

The key ingestible difference between the plants’ leaves is very important: Burdock leaf is safe to consume but rhubarb leaf is poisonous and ingesting them can cause respiratory failure or even coma as a result of the oxalic acid in them. (Forager’s Note: As always, do not consume any part of any plant until you are completely certain of that plant’s identification!)

The Local Wild_Rhubarb-Edible-or-Wild

Photocopy of images provided on the original June 20, 2018 printing of “The Local Wild” depicting burdock (wild rhubarb) versus edible rhubarb.

An even closer look and a little time will show that burdock leaves actually stem from, well, a stem, while rhubarb stalks jut out of from rhizomes, or a rootstalk, underneath a broader area of ground. Just remember this: Burdock grows up; rhubarb grows out.

And up is no joke! At its maturation, burdock can reach heights of six feet and their various stems are tipped by the burdock’s characteristic seed, the burr, which adheres so well to almost anything – even leather – that its design was replicated and used as the blueprint for the hook and loop fasteners that go by the generic name Velcro.

Beyond the leaves and height, the stalks (also called stems) of the two plants are nearly indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Because even stalks of ripe edible rhubarb can be bright green as well as deep red, the stalks of burdock are easy to misinterpret since they start as a deep, straight-veined pink or red at the base and fade in a gradual gradient to the same bright green color of the leaves. Side by side, stalks of “immature” or green rhubarb and burdock are hard to tell apart.

A simple taste of the stalk will tell you if you’ve found edible rhubarb or not. Burdock will have a distinctive, slightly bitter vegetable flavor that some foragers compare to raw artichoke; rhubarb will simply taste like rhubarb! And, not to worry: The stalks of burdock are safe to consume, even if they don’t have the best flavor when you cook them up for a pie.

Note: I didn’t take any photos for this initial column, though the Beacon’s editor ended up publishing the piece with the photos shown. In all later columns I’ve submitted original photos with the article text.


“The Local Wild”: Exploring Nature & Writing About It.

I’d like to share an exciting development (at least for me): I’ve been writing a bi-monthly column for my local paper since late June called “The Local Wild” that focuses on educating the community about the wonders that abound in the local ecosystem.

I’ll be sharing each of those columns here on WordPress, starting with the first one that was published June 20. The paper doesn’t have the headline room to print the titles I give each column, but I’ll be using them on this page to help you (and me) identify the topic at hand.

Since moving to rural Minnesota in 2014, I’ve fallen in love with the diversity of the ecosystem here. For some reason it’s many times more interesting than that in my homeland of Southern California; perhaps it’s just because it’s new to me? Who knows.

All that matters is that I’ve had a great time writing these articles and I feel so grateful that the local editor has agreed to both print my column and allow me permission to also share the column on my own page.

In closing, I hope you enjoy reading and learning about my local wild as much as I enjoy sharing with you what this Minnesota implant has learned.


Read the first of “The Local Wild” here.


The Local Wild: Weather According to the Woolly Bear.

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on September 13, 2018.

As the cool autumn weather eases us into another winter the woolly bear caterpillars are out and about, inching across many a road in search of spots to hibernate the winter away. These fuzzy little creatures are more interesting than one might think, with a biology that makes them a local wild marvel and a history that offers them up as any old school outdoorsman’s winter preparation guide.


An all-black woolly bear (Isabella Tiger moth) caterpillar creeps across a sidewalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

The banded woolly bear caterpillar is typically identified by the band of reddish-brown around its middle sandwiched by a black head and tail. This larval insect will emerge in the spring as the abundant and unimpressive Isabella tiger moth, that fuzzy, bland orange moth fluttering around springtime porch lights in almost annoying numbers. But, as unimpressive as the bug may seem, this caterpillar actually creates its own “antifreeze” (glycerol) within its body chemistry, enabling it to survive frigid subzero temperatures and even, if it so happens, a winter encased in ice! In addition, instead of spinning a cocoon made solely of silk like other species of caterpillar do, woolly bear cocoons are made largely using their own fur. Little fuzzy marvels, indeed!


A white woolly bear (Virginia Tiger moth) caterpillar munches on a leaf outside Cannon Falls Mayo Clinic, a cute but daunting predictor of heavy snows to come. Photo: Jessica Woken

Each year I seek out the road-crossing woolly bears with anticipation. Not only are their first appearances a clear sign my favorite season (autumn) is fast approaching, but folklore says the size of the woolly bear’s band is a good predictor of the upcoming winter: more brown means a milder season, more black means a harder one. Some even claim that spotting pale yellow or white woolies indicate heavy snow and blizzard conditions lie ahead.

In light of that, my personal sightings this season have caused me some anxiety. First, I found an all-black woolly; days later, an all-white one. What does this combination mean in folklore land? A very hard, long winter, with heavier than average snowfall. Oy vey.

According to science, however, the bands of the woolly bear caterpillar have little to do with future weather and more to do with temperatures when they hatched and how old the caterpillars are. Woolly bear coats get more brown with each molting or shedding, which can happen up to six times before the insect reaches its final larval stage. Also, white or pale-yellow woolly caterpillars are technically an entirely different species from the banded variety: these will transform into the Virginia tiger moth, basically an all-white version of the rust-orange Isabella.

Hard-core believers in the woolly bears’ abilities claim the caterpillars can predict winter weather to a stunning 80% accuracy. Interestingly enough, both The Old Farmer’s Almanac and The Farmers’ Almanac tout that they, too, achieve 80% accuracy. The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts that winter 2018-2019 will be milder than usual, with less snow than average. Their rival publication, The Farmers’ Almanac, is on the woolly bears’ side: They claim a harder, snowier winter is on the horizon.

Who can we trust? Old Farmer’s, Farmers’, or woolly bear wisdom? It won’t be until we spot the pileated woodpeckers and hungry robins (the avian signs of springtime) that we’ll be able to say for sure who will have predicted correctly.

Author’s Note: Look out for other fuzzy caterpillar varieties out and about right now in the local wild, including American dagger and white-marked Tussock caterpillars. But beware! Individuals with sensitive skin can acquire itchy, burning rashes from the stinging hairs of those furry guys. Sometimes it’s best to look and not touch our local wild friends.

Left: An American dagger moth caterpillar held hostage on a red Solo cup. Right: A white-marked Tussock moth caterpillar with its signature red head and row of thick, stinging tufts. Photo: Jessica Woken



No Longer “Just Writing”: Why Mountain Owl is Now “Creative Services”

When Mountain Owl Ink was in its infancy I was bound and determined not to make it a one-stop shop of bookish services. I cringed at the idea of offering that kind of general, overlapping service; I felt that providing services other than writing would water down my writing work and dilute my skill set.

Even so, potential clients would ask me, “Can you do layout and design?” No. “Can you help me publish?” No. “What do you do?” My answer: “I write. I edit. I don’t want to muddle that in publishing, drawing, layout, graphics, blah, blah, blah.”

“I just want to write. That’s it.”

My, how my perspective has changed!

Bunny is frustrated with Phil and Mieux's recent, um, "activity."

Gaining Perspective. Aug 23, 2017.

Mountain Owl Ink has transformed over the past five years, especially since adopting one new motto per year for the last three years to keep us on our toes: 2016’s “Just Say Yes” (no associated blog post–the motto was quite unofficial back then!); 2017’s “See Farther”; and 2018’s “Baby Steps”), I’ve come to realize one very critical detail about writing that I had absolutely wrong when I first started out in 2013:

Writing isn’t just about writing.

It’s widely understood that communication is about 80% body language and only about 20% the words we use. (Of course communication is much more complex than that, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick with the 80/20 rule!)

Body language (the 80%) is the visible: what we can see, feel, and touch. Speech is the invisible: those things spoken, the audible words we hear but cannot touch and the feelings elicited by those words.

The experience of reading is much the same.

In the same way a conversation has a speaker and a listener, so the act of reading has two participants: The writer and the reader.

Let me break it down for you:

The Reader’s Reading Experience

Everyone–with the exception of the dyslexic–hears a voice in their head when they read silently. It’s commonly called an “inner voice”, but the act of silent reading actually activates the muscles of the vocal cords, lips, throat, and mouth to move (if only minutely). In the scientific world, this is called subvocalization.

hand-person-girl-woman-photography-pattern-1215168-pxhere.comSubvocalization is reading’s body language response: The physical reaction our bodies make to words received via the page. The invisible part of the communication is the “inner voice” itself: that strangely audible yet inaudible voice that can’t be touched but can definitely be heard and experienced.


Subvocalization is reading’s body language response: The physical reaction our bodies make to words received via the page.

The Writer’s Communication: The 80/20 Difference

Obviously the writer’s actual words–their choice of words and the way in which they order them to create the voice of their book–make a difference to the reader’s response. The novice writer’s base assumption is that correct word choice and order is all that’s required to cause the reader to respond positively to their message.

That’s simply NOT true. Why? Because reading is so much more than words!

Just as 80% of communication is through body language, so 80% of the reading experience is the physical nature in which the words themselves are displayed.

If an author assumes that being a good writer is 100% about word choice and order, they’re 100% wrong! They’re completely missing out on the physical aspect that comes with the reader’s experience. In other words, the author is assuming that all communication is verbal, that none of it is body language. How tragic!

Let’s try it this way:

A Loving Example

Consider these three words: “I love you.” On a computer screen and in an unassuming font, perhaps they “sound” kind to you. There is no verbal inflection you can hear by reading them, no hints as to their source or implication.

But what if I typed them in bold, in bright red, and centered the words on a single line? Now read it:


Does it “sound” different now? Louder, more forceful, more certain and confident? How does it feel? Different? More intense? Maybe seeing it this way makes you happier; maybe it makes you uneasy. Whatever it does, it likely has a different effect on you from the first time I wrote it. And how about this way:

i love you.

Does that read like a gentle and warm whisper in the ear? A sweet nothing? Adding an ellipsis changes it even more:

i… love you.

Now what? Does it sound hesitant, quiet, shy, maybe even a little embarrassed? How about this:

I love you.

Maybe, written this way, you’re left confused. Hurt. Why say “I love you” only to cross it out? you may wonder.

From start to finish, the three words stayed the same. I didn’t even change the font. But the physical differences in their layout and design–color, page and line placement, emphasis (i.e. bold, italic)–help to demonstrate the power and importance of the writer’s “body language”.

If subvocalization is the reader’s (the listener’s) physical response, what is the writer’s (or speaker’s) physical communication device?

Simply put: the layout and design of the book itself.

Why Mountain Owl Now Goes Beyond “Just Writing”

MountainOwlInk_coloronyellowbackgroundWith this concept in mind, I couldn’t well leave the layout and design of books up to someone else. If I was working to help authors communicate to their readers with an experience in reading, I had to also offer to involve myself in the other 80% of the work.

That’s why we no longer describe ourselves as offering “writing services” as we did from 2013 through last year.

Mountain Owl Ink is now in the business of offering “creative services”.

Yes, of course we still (gladly!) offer writing, editing, and proofreading. But alongside those things Mountain Owl Ink, LLC also performs these important–nay, critical–tasks that allow writers and authors to communicate at their best:

  • Complete, print-ready book layout & design (on Adobe InDesign)
    • for both print and eBooks
  • Graphics assistance
    • Direct Illustration
    • Digital Graphics Creation
  • Amazon Kindle and Amazon KDP publication assistance
  • Writer’s Coaching
  • Complete Manuscript Reviews
  • Assistance with creation of Author Websites and Sales & Marketing Materials

Just as being an actor isn’t only about regurgitating lines of script but about conveying the full breadth of humanity through a performance deep in body language to an audience eager to hear (and see) a tale be told, being an author isn’t only about putting the right words on a page: It’s about lending a full human experience to your readers, your audience, through the language of visual design and aesthetic.

Being an author is about lending a full human experience to readers through the language of visual design and aesthetic.

Have a creative project on your mind? Contact Mountain Owl Ink today. We offer a FREE INITIAL CONSULTATION to let you know if and how we can help.


It’s On: MOI Gets Credit on Copyright Page

Copyright pages are something most readers pass over immediately. But, if you’re an editor, writer, or publisher, you likely find this page that’s hidden between cover and main content and full of legal information as fascinating as I do.

As part of See Farther (MOI’s business motto for 2017) and 2018’s Baby Year concept, I creatively contracted with my latest client, real estate agent Rich Cordaro of Pennsylvania, to help move MOI forward and check off one of my writing bucket list items: having my name printed on a copyright page.

Of course, the ideal and perfect situation would be for the copyright page to be all about ME: me as the author, me as the editor, me as the illustrator, et cetera. To have my name on the copyright page of a book that is truly and completely all my own!? Ahhh… The dream!

But let’s get real. We’re working in baby steps, remember? So as part of the contract with Rich I offered a reduced rate in exchange for copyright credits on his book, The Essential Guide to Selling Your Home. I’m pretty strict when it comes to setting my rates–after all, I worked long and hard to earn the experience that enable me to justify the rates I charge!–but you have to consider that charging fees is not all about what you can get in money, but also about what you can get in benefits.

The Benefit of Barter

Not to beat a dead horse, but bartering really isn’t a dead concept! Some people even took bartering virtual and it’s a big hit (in larger, urban areas, that is).

Even though the typical method of payment nowadays is cash, there are still many businesses (and even governments!) that will exchange services for product, service for service, product for product, et cetera. It’s a great way to get goods and services that you otherwise couldn’t afford, or non-monetary and immaterial benefits that can’t be directly valued (like a copyright page credit).

This latest project with Rich is a perfect example of mutual benefit from a strategic barter. Sure, I could have charged my usual rate and made more money, but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything more for me in the long run. By negotiating a lower rate for copyright page credits, both parties got the best deal: Rich saved money and I got to check a box on my bucket list!

Richard Cordaro_Essential Guide to Selling Your Home

Rich Cordaro and I worked out a contract where I would be mentioned on the copyright page of his book in exchange for a reduced editing fee.

About Rich’s Book: A Well-Thought Real Estate Guide

Rich and I found each other via Upwork and I’m so glad we did! Working on this book with him was such a joy and it’s rare to have a client as open, flexible, understanding, and focused as Rich Cordaro.

He wanted his book to be easy and fun while still making sure readers would be able to understand and apply his real estate advice. Could I do that, he asked? Of course I could!

We brainstormed ideas during the first couple months. Once those were solidified we worked together to…

  • blend graphic illustrations into the text;
  • create worksheets;
  • develop an Index and Glossary of Terms; and
  • offer the book in both print and electronic versions.

Not only was Rich a pleasure to work with, but I was also able to gain some really valuable experience during the project, like…

  • Learning more about the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon KDP) requirements and process;
  • Learned about the 99Designs process;
  • Get hours logged using Adobe InDesign as a publishing layout tool; and
  • Get [more] hours logged for Adobe Photoshop (to turn hand-sketched images into digital graphics).

Good experience is hard to put a price tag on. Even though Rich has expressed his joy with the project’s end result to me more than once, I can’t help but feel like I got the better end of the deal on this one.

And THAT’S the proof of a great barter: When both parties feel like they got the better piece of the pie!

If you’re in the market for an easy how-to real estate selling guide, please pick up a copy of Rich’s book ($9.99 paperback, $3.99 Kindle). He really lays out his strategic–and proven!–selling methodology in an easy-to-read fashion (i.e. no confusing lingo!); the worksheets contained within the text can be immensely useful; and the graphics we put inside the text make it a fun and quick read. (And, no, I don’t get any portion of royalties. I just think it’s a great book!)


Can Talk, Can’t Write: Why Voice Recognition Software Doesn’t Make for Good Authorship

I frequent a chiropractor who knows I type a lot. She has asked me numerous times if I have purchased any voice recognition software (VRS) — like Dragon — to help give my hands, arms, and everything about my desk-sitting posture a break during long(er) shifts at the keyboard.
As of yet, I have not invested in such software.

I know my chiropractor uses VRS regularly: While waiting in the exam room, I can hear her in her office talking (albeit muffled) to her PC, giving it medical notes and telling it about her last patient. I’m certain she doesn’t do much typing, which is good considering she needs her hands for healing and shouldn’t subject them to the dangers of carpal tunnel syndrome, but VRS doesn’t work for someone like me who writes as a profession.

Why not?

Speaker’s Brain vs Writer’s Brain

First, speaking and writing are completely different in that we use different words, phrases, pauses, et cetera for each, so how we talk and how we write (or, conversely, read) are not nearly the same thing. The reason is because the parts of the brain that handle speech and writing work independently from one another. Perhaps this is why some people have such difficulty reading out loud: They have yet to teach their brains how to bridge the talking-writing/reading gap.

Granted, some people speak well. I’m not one of those. I know if I really focus and pull myself together I can make a pretty good speech without inundating it with a bunch of um’s and awkward silences, but speaking is just not where my strength lies.

My strength is in my ability to write well, which comes in handy for those clients of mine who have trouble putting together a written sentence that doesn’t read like an automaton typed it out.

Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you can write.

Second, VRS marketers have convinced the general populace that if they can talk, they can write. HA! If only that were true!

Most people understand that talking and writing require different skillsets and talents. Unfortunately, there are those who really do believe they are (or can be) great writers because they can talk. They feel VRS is their savior!

‘Why hire a ghostwriter,’ they say, ‘if I can just talk into my computer and it writes everything I say for me?’ This is especially true for professional public speakers: I’ve had conversation with a number of them who feel personally attacked when I criticize their writing, as if I were saying they’re terrible speakers as well!

They may be upset with me for correcting their writing, but I know that what they’re really having trouble understanding is that people don’t talk the way they write.

Human speech is riddled with vocal inflections, fillers (e.g. um’s, uh’s), and slang that just has no place in good writing. In bad writing? Sure. In Facebook posts and texts? Why not.

But would anyone take seriously a book full of slang, misused and misspelled words, um’s, and awkward phrases? I doubt it.

Bottom line: Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you can write.

VRS: A good tool

VRS has its place in the writing world. It’s a great tool for creating rough drafts; for getting down ideas if you can’t type quickly; or for train-of-thought writing. I’ve used Windows Voice Recognition software occasionally when my carpal tunnel is acting up. It’s a good tool, but it ends there. Rarely does VRS result in a draft that doesn’t require heavy-handed editing.

Having a good tool at your disposal does not replace the need for good engineering to back up a good product, and writing is just that: the engineering of stories.

When a new client sends me a manuscript, I can usually tell by the end of the first paragraph if they used VRS to draft the entire thing because the writing is so bad. I have no problem with editing those manuscripts — it’s my job, after all! — but sometimes my clients are left in shock when I send them a document with so many markups on it that it looks like my red pen had a sneezing fit.

Fine tuning the product

If you’re the type of person who prefers to talk over type, that’s great. Nothing wrong with that. However, don’t disregard the importance of having that work edited by someone who has a knack for writing. That “someone” doesn’t necessarily need to be a professional you hire and pay (although a second set of eyes on a manuscript never hurt). You can certainly edit your work yourself.

Before you publish, consider these tips on how to edit if you rely on VRS for the initial draft:

1. Read your work out loud.

Reading what you’ve said back to yourself can reveal many a writing hiccup. Sometimes VRS uses “our” instead of “are”, “there” instead of “their”, or just mishears what we say altogether.

Common mistakes are easily discovered and rectified by reading the draft or manuscript out loud to yourself.

2. Print out your work onto paper to read it.

Our brains process things differently on a screen than on a piece of paper. Studies show that we absorb information differently (that is, better) when we read from paper than off a screen.

Print your draft as a hardcopy and read it, away from screens and distractions. I like to read drafts in bed or while laying on the couch (that is, away from my desk and PC), because then my mind is in a place where I can review it as if I were a regular reader, not an editor or writer.

3. Use a ruler or other straight edge to read each line independently.

Remember how we learned to read, line by line, in elementary school? There’s a reason children learn to read that way: Blocking out the next line removes the distraction and anticipation of what words are to come, improving our focus on the words were reading at the moment.

This is an editor’s trick that can reveal errors you might otherwise be blind to. 0ur brains tend to fi1l in gaps or “autocorrect” mistakes our eyes see because it knows what things should look like, even if in reality they are completely different.

For instance, did you notice those errors in the last paragraph? There’s a zero instead of an O in “our” and a 1 in place of an L in “fill”. If you’re an editor and your eyes are trained to find things like that, you probably saw them. Otherwise, you likely glazed right over without a second thought.

Breaking up paragraphs into independent lines can help put a stop to your brain’s autocorrect function, making errors pop out.

Again, VRS can be of great help for authors of all types, even ones with a preference for typing like me. The good thing is that the accuracy of those programs continues to improve as tech gets better. However, I doubt any computer program will ever be able to replace the need for editors because writing is an art and one that can’t be substituted with a machine.

I’m hoping to soon acquire VRS to help me draft some of my longer projects — my carpal tunnel would certainly thank me, and my chiropractor could then stop worrying about my slouchy, computer posture.

Do you use voice recognition software? If so, which one and what do you think of it?


Consequences Of: Precisely Why We (Freelancers) Write Contracts

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Contracts are important to your business.

Start With A Contract…

Every job — EVERY. JOB. — needs to start with a carefully detailed agreement between you and your potential client. That is: A contract.

Ideally, you’ll have a basic contract prepped beforehand so you don’t go through the trouble of having to write one from scratch (they take longer to draft than you’d think). From this basic form, you should leave blanks to fill in specific information regarding the particular project at hand. For example, duration/timeline, fees, name of the project, what you’ll do, and what you won’t do as the hired freelancer.

It’s critical that expectations for payment and related consequences for failure to pay are included in the verbiage.

I’ve mentioned before two ways you can protect yourself from non-payment: an arbitration clause in the contract itself and refusing to send the completed product to the client until balance due is received in full.

However, I have yet to address including accrued interest.

An Interest in Interest

Charging interest on fees unpaid is just a way of incentivizing prompt payment. Don’t get crazy here. This isn’t an opportunity for you to tack on an extra 25% to your bill and make money off of nothing but thumb twiddling.

Be reasonable and keep the interest rate to single digits, enough of a charge to be irritating but not enough to deter a client from wanting to work with you in the first place.

Also, consider the term: Are you adding the interest after a month, two months, three months? For me, I feel a month is more than enough time for a client to either pay up or get back to me either with requests for changes to the final product. So, once the bill hits its one month unpaid mark, I tack on the agreed upon interest and resend the invoice, making sure the client knows that they agreed to this increase at the start of the job (reference or quote the clause of the contract, if possible).

Issue Plenty of Reminders

Nobody likes paying interest, but nobody likes to be surprised with it, even if they agreed to it.

Send reminders for payment frequently after the initial billing to give the client plenty of opportunity to pay up. And, prior to tacking on interest, remind the client what will happen — what they agreed would happen — if they continue to ignore your request for payment.

For example, make this note on the invoice reminder just before adding the interest onto the bill: “The balance due will increase to $xyz after mm/dd/yyyy due to interest accrued per our contract (Section A, Line B).”

And if they still refuse to pay? Time to whip out the arbitration clause, and be ready to to take it seriously.

…End With A Contract.

Luckily I haven’t had to add interest onto my invoices except once. But I’ve always protected myself with the interest clause up front — just as I have with the arbitration clause and other contract terms — just in case.

Sadly, when unsavory clauses of contracts have to be utilized, that usually means the freelancer-client relationship is ending permanently. It’s like the nasty breakup of the freelance writing world.

You ain’t getting back together. Ever.

However, instead of mourning the loss of a client, remind yourself that it’s best to end it with this person anyway. Who wants to work for someone they have to beg for payment? Nah. Not me! No thanks!

There are plenty of jobs out there with clients who are more than happy to pay, and pay promptly, so don’t fret over losing a bad client. #Letthemgo.