Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Finding Freelance Work on Contract Sites

Freelancers have a range of opinions on where and how to find work. Full-time writers have their own strategies, and many suggest that you reach out and develop long-term relationships with clients. Constantly market yourself, maintain a website, write regularly, cold-call (or email) businesses and publications you’d like to work with, etc.

The reality of working at home with kids.
That is great advice and expected if you’re looking for full-time work and you have the time to put into those efforts. I hope to do that someday. Right now, with two young kids, I don’t, and I suspect other busy work-from-home/stay-at-home moms don’t either.


I have scoured craigslist for hours looking for jobs that fit my criteria (I work on my own time, 10-15 hours a week, and ideally, $20+ an hour). Needless to say, jobs that fit my criteria were few and far between (but they do exist!). I’d spend about 30 minutes applying to one job. I got 3 jobs that way over the years and kept one long-term. The highest paying was $40 for 800 words.  

Then I discovered freelance article writing sites, which seem to have exploded in the past few years. These sites are fantastic for working moms or part-time freelancers. 

Freelance Article Writing Sites

You can find an excellent, extensive list of them at Freelancewriting.com. I have accounts with at least 7 of these sites, but I only do work for two, and I’ll share my experience with those.

Skyword

I can’t say enough good things about Skyword. This is the bulk of my business. Skyword recruits clients, then matches the client's needs with writers in their database. For example, my niche is healthcare, so my clients are all related to the medical field in some way, mostly health systems.

In some cases, I get to work directly with the client; in others, I work with a Skyword account manager. Regardless, I’ve had great two-way communication, which helps me grow as a writer and maintain strong relationships.

The pay rates have been mid to high range for the current market, and the rates are reasonable for the article length, depth, and level of expertise required. Most clients approve content pretty quickly, and you get paid twice a month through PayPal.

Another great benefit from Skyword is that it saves me time on marketing. I have a portfolio through the site that automatically gets updated when clients publish my work. Skyword account managers use the portfolio to match me with potential programs. I can use the link on LinkedIn, my own blog, or on job applications.

I highly recommend looking into this site. It is best for people who already have an established niche, but it is possible to expand your specialty. Remember to be patient. I have been working with Skyword for 2 years. It took 4 months after I was accepted as a writer to be invited to the first program.  

Scripted

This is the other site I use, but much less frequently. This is good if you’re the type of writer who can write about anything. Because I’m pretty specialized in healthcare, relevant jobs don’t come up as often.

Pay is a little lower here, but still fair and well above content mills. They’ve also recently updated the site to allow writers to name their price. You can maintain a simple profile with three article samples, and clients can choose to assign jobs to you directly.

The main drawback here is that every writer is given a score in different specialties. Writers with higher scores get first access to jobs. The only way to raise your score is to complete jobs and get good reviews from clients. That puts you in a frustrating loop. Scripted will let you pitch topics, which is the best way to get work. It’s inconsistent but a nice supplement. 

Hire Me On ScriptedTo get started writing for these sites, check out these tips.

Tips for Working with Article Writing Sites

Online article writing sites are great ways for part-time freelancers and parents working from home to grab extra work and stay relevant while you raise your kids. However, not all sites are created equal.

Working for pennies isn’t worth it. Content mills and crowdsource sites where you bid on jobs such as freelancer.com, odesk, elance, Demand Media, and others don’t value the time and expertise writers bring to the table. Plus, your kids give you very little time to work; you want to make the most of every minute.

Tips to get started


Choose sites best suited to your experience and availability. Check out the list of sites on freelancewriting.com to find one that best suits you. Some are good for certain niches, while others are good for beginners who want to expand their portfolio. You can sign up for sites that look for proofreaders and copyeditors as well.

Don’t undervalue yourself. You’re at home because you want time with your kids, but you want to keep up a resume. It doesn’t feel good to give up time with your kids to make pennies. If a job seems too low, don’t take it. I think less than $0.10 a word is a waste of time; however, if the subject is something you can crank out quickly, it might be worthwhile to you to take less money to have a recent sample added to your portfolio.

Calculate your value. How much experience do you have? What are your costs (preschool, internet, a new computer, Word, etc.)? How little is too little to make it worth your time? How long does it take you to write a 500-word blog post? I aim to pay myself an average of $35 an hour. Anything less than $20 an hour doesn’t cover my costs. Lori Widmer recently posted a series on determining your worth as a writer, which may help you get started.

Consider how much communication you want. Interaction with the final client varies. Some sites list mostly one-off jobs. You write the article, submit it through the site, and you’re done. You never interact with a person. Others have a closer interaction between you and an account manager, while other sites connect you directly with the client. Some jobs ask that you interview people, and others let you write from online research only.

Keep an accessible list of your best samples or write some new ones. When you apply to these sites you have to demonstrate a basic understanding of English. Then, you have to share your work. Some give you a prompt and ask you for original writing, but most want you to share links to published work. If you don't have any or anything recent, now may be a good time to start a blog. Either way, keeping a list of your best work from different specialties will make applying much faster. 
 
Starting any freelance business takes a lot of trial and error to find the best work/life balance for you. What have you found that fits your family? How do you find new work?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have finally been released. Although these guidelines contain some advances over the previous years, they still don't do enough to adequately encourage the health of Americans.

For actionable recommendations that can actually make a difference, I encourage you to read the Dietary Guidelines Committee's submitted recommendations in their report.

Summary of the 2015 Guidelines


The current guidelines advocate for "shifts" in eating habits, along the lines of eat this, not that. They moved away from language focused on individual food components and nutrients to encourage healthier eating patterns. They also say you should eat more fruits and vegetables.

Changes this round

Cholesterol. Previous version put limits on how much cholesterol you should consume. Current research has shown that the relationship between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease is complex. The committee removed specific limitations on cholesterol, but still suggests limiting saturated fat.

Sugar. For the first time, sugar made it into the final guidelines. The new language says "Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars." Although I'm happy sugar restrictions made it into the guidelines at all, this statement is essentially meaningless.

For one, you'll have to carry around a calculator to figure up this percentage. Even if you choose to do the math, you rarely know the amount of added sugars. Added sugar means grams of sugar not naturally occurring. Let's say you've got a container of low-fat strawberry yogurt made with real strawberries. The container says 14g of sugar, but how much is added sugar? Milk and strawberries have naturally occurring sugars. Those don't count toward your 10 percent. With our current labeling structure, you don't know what's added sugar. With luck, that may be changing.

Eating patterns.
To help give examples of healthy eating patterns, the guidelines contain three examples, two of which are new. These provide recommended servings and sizes within each food group for different calorie ranges. The 2015 guidelines keep the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern (That name is not a joke), the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Eating Plan. I am excited about the inclusion of the Mediterranean plan. That style of eating has consistently shown to improve multiple health factors.

What didn't make the cut?


A few key points were included in the committee's report that were cut from the final version.

Red meat. Yet again, the committee's report said in bold and underlined that Americans should limit consumption of red and processed meats. Processed meats made the cut, most likely because of the WHO's decision to label it as a carcinogen. Although committee reports since the 1970s have explicitly said to limit red meat consumption, lobbying has effectively kept that language out of the final guidelines. Nearly 40 years later, that's still the case.

Sustainability. For the first time, the committee felt that the environmental impact of our eating habits was enough to warrant being included in the guidelines.

From the report:
"The availability and acceptability of healthy and sustainable food choices will be necessary to attain food security for the U.S. population over time. Integral to this issue is how dietary guidance and individual food choices influence the nation’s capacity to meet the nutritional needs of the U.S. population. Food sustainability and food safety are also interrelated in generating a secure food supply."
...
"The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.3 It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss.3 The capacity to produce adequate food in the future is constrained by land use, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, and over-fishing of the marine environment."
The Secretaries disagreed.

However, the Mediterranean and vegetarian diets both mostly follow sustainable practices, so you could argue that the sentiment has remained, just in a much diluted form.

 

Why do these guidelines matter?


You may not pay much attention to the guidelines or even care enough to read the committee's report and make comments to the Secretaries. I argue that you should.

  • "About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity."
  • These guidelines are used to develop federal food policies and programs, including WIC-approved foods, food stamps, and school lunch program guidelines, as well as other health policy and education programs.

You may not care about WIC or food stamps, but when people on these programs are being fed crap, then you see more prevalence of the diseases in the first bullet. That means more medical care, which we all pay for. Food policy that comes from these guidelines affects us all.

Why the guidelines consistently come up short


These guidelines have been around since the first committee headed by Sen. George McGovern in 1977. That led to the release of the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A committee meets to review the latest scientific research related to food, nutrition, and lifestyle habits. It also reviews the current habits of Americans. The committee then makes recommendations in a range of categories, which go to the Secretaries of the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services.

The committee's report is heavily debated, and lobbyists for the food industry get involved. That's why red meat and, previously, sugar have been kept out of the guidelines.

The debate over specific language in the 1970s led to Sen. McGovern losing in the next election. It also set the precedent for language like "limit saturated fat" and "reduce calories," rather than specific, actionable items.

That trend towards diluted, unspecific language has continued into the current recommendations.










Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Being an Informed Consumer - Question Everything

Today's topic is a little heavier than I usually do on the blog, but it's something I feel passionately about and don't get the chance to write about often.

Let's talk about being an informed healthcare consumer.

So often, we go to the doctor and we enter this role of patient — vulnerable, inexperienced — where we defer to the opinion of someone more knowledgeable. It can be tough to ask questions. I have had instances where I was made to feel as though I was out of line for asking "why."


My doctor visits are no longer a $20 co-pay. I have to ask questions, if only to know whether I will be able to pay the bill. I have an $11,000 family deductible. My monthly premiums are not insignificant either. Anything not considered preventive care, falls under the deductible, meaning I have to pay it out of pocket.

Given these expenses, I feel I am a consumer as well as a patient. I need to shop for services, determine what provider I like, and question the value I get for my money.

Overuse in healthcare

Too often, doctors order unnecessary tests and scans just to be safe. As patients, we feel we need to be sure that everything is clear, even though a test is likely to provide no added value.

When my dad was undergoing treatment for stroke, he received repeated tests and imaging scans, most often showing nothing. While I won't say they were useless — we learned what was not happening — they didn't always add value to his care. Even more concerning, the various specialists recommending all these tests didn't seem to be speaking to one another at all.

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote "Virtually every family in the country, the research indicates, has been subject to overtesting and overtreatment in one form or another. The costs appear to take thousands of dollars out of the paychecks of every household each year."

Question everything

This problem isn't all on the doctor's shoulders. Sometimes the patient asks for unnecessary treatment. That's where I think we need to consider ourselves consumers as well. Healthcare is essential, but it is also a business. As consumers, we deserve maximum value for our money. We need to ask questions, even for simple office visits.

I took my daughter to the doctor one year because she had symptoms of strep. The PA wasn't positive if it was strep and suggested we go to the lab for a culture. I asked whether the results would change her treatment choice. She said no, and we skipped the lab. That's a simple example, and it probably saved more time than money, but I was already spending $75 for the visit, plus the prescription cost. I didn't find value in knowing the result.

Questions to ask

Bigger problems require bigger conversations with your doctor, but for routine visits, there are a few questions you can ask that may save you time and money:
Photo by Jorgejesus4 via Wikimedia Commons

  1. What is the test for? What will the results tell me?
  2. What does the test/treatment cost? And what does my insurance cover?
  3. What is my diagnosis?
  4. Will the result of this test change your treatment recommendation?
  5. What are the risks vs. benefits, including cost, of this treatment/test?
In this new era of higher cost-sharing, we are more responsible for our care than ever. Unnecessary care can have much more harmful results than overspending, and I encourage you to read the article linked above.

It's important that we become informed consumers to save ourselves unnecessary heartache and expense.

What questions would you add to this list?


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Anniversary Tribute

Today is the one year anniversary of my dad's death. I could write a sentimental post about how I miss him every day, but that goes without saying. And I don't do well with sentimental. Instead, I'd like to dedicate this post to hospice, which was invaluable to my family during my dad's long struggle after stroke.

What is hospice?

Hospice care is too often under-appreciated and underused. It is supportive care given to people nearing the end of life. Hospice focuses on comfort and quality of life -- respecting the patient's final wishes -- not on cure.

For some people, hospice allows them to stay at home, surrounded by family, friends, and pets, rather than in a hospital bed. Hospice can also be provided at hospitals and in freestanding hospice houses.

The medical professionals, counselors, staff and volunteers who work for hospice organizations are amazing people. They make a difficult time far more bearable by their dedication and compassion.

Serving families

After the stroke, my dad was paralyzed on one side, leaving him unable to do many daily activities. He spent time in inpatient rehabilitation and then three months in a rehabilitation center, which was much like a nursing home. Then he came home, and my mom cared for him.

For the first year after stroke, he was in and out of the hospital. Frequent trips to the ER for infections or unknown pains led to scans, tests, and more medications - not to mention huge bills. Being in and out of the hospital also caused my mom to get sick more often as well.

Eventually, my dad said no more hospitals. That's when they sought out hospice and palliative care specialists. The nurses and staff worked with my parents to help minimize medications to only the essentials and gave them tools to help manage pain. They had options other than the ER, and the caregivers helped lessen the fear of my dad's situation, which held a lot of unknowns.

My dad spent up to five days at the Tucker Hospice House on two occasions as part of its respite care program. He received excellent attention and enjoyed the staff while my mom got a break.

My parents had a plan in place with the hospice house to respect my dad's final wishes. In May of last year, my dad had a febrile seizure that put him in a coma.  He was taken to the ER, but soon after moved to the hospice house where he spent the remaining week of his life. At the hospice house, he was surrounded by family and friends.

The atmosphere was much more family oriented and far less stressful than being in a hospital. The staff was wonderful. They took excellent care, not only of my dad but also my mom. They still reach out to my mom and provide bereavement services and grief counseling.

I can't say enough good about hospice and palliative care. I know others who spent their last days at home with family and friends under hospice care. It's always tough to lose someone you love, but having care providers who listen and respect your wishes is invaluable.

Some extra links

Hospice is not always well funded. The Tucker Hospice House that cared for my dad relies heavily on donations. If interested, you can make donations through the website.

This article from The New Yorker is a favorite of mine and gives an excellent view of the role of hospice care.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why You Should Add Cinnamon to Your Daily Diet

Eating healthy doesn't mean eating bland, boring foods; neither does it mean adding expensive "superfoods" that make your food taste like grass clippings.

Adding spices enhances meals, drinks, and desserts, while giving your body some great benefits. Here's more about my favorite spice.  

Cinnamon

Photo by Simon A. Eugster via Wikimedia Commons 
I love sweets, and I'm terrified of developing diabetes someday. That's why I love cinnamon.

Cinnamon has been proven to help control blood sugar, make insulin work more effectively, and help reduce inflammation caused by high blood sugar. Cinnamon is thought to lower blood sugar, or at least slow the rise in blood sugar from meals, by slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates in your digestive system.

In case giving you some protection from diabetes and helping you reduce your sugar intake isn't enough, here are a few more reasons why cinnamon is amazing:

  • Just smelling it boosts your brain power, helping you pay more attention 
  • It helps reduce cholesterol, including triglycerides
  • It's high in antioxidants
  • It contains calcium, mineral manganese, and iron (before being processed)
  • It is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, helping your body fight off infection
  • Recent research is showing that cinnamon may be a powerful tool in helping manage or fight off Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders. 

Tips and Caution

Photo by Chat W via Flickr
Because it's a sweet spice, I can often replace or reduce sugar with cinnamon. I use it in tea, lattes, sweet potatoes, cookies, oatmeal, fruit, spice rubs, smoothies, soups, and so much more.   

You don't need to go overboard adding cinnamon to everything. Just a teaspoon or two a day is enough to reap the benefits. Too much can have harmful effects, particularly for your liver (but you'd have really ingest a lot of cinnamon). Unless your doctor suggests it, there's probably no reason to take a cinnamon supplement.

Splurge and get quality cinnamon, Ceylon and Saigon are two highly recommended types. If you look at the ingredients and see "cinnamon oil," what you're getting is probably stale or highly processed, which is why it needs the oil added. 

Shop at a local spice store or look on Amazon. If you really want to splurge, you can order fresh cinnamon sticks and a grater. When you find good cinnamon, you can see, smell, and taste the difference. 

Do you have any unique uses for cinnamon?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Adventures in Cooking for Kids Part 2

I recently talked about what techniques I've been adopting to get more fruits and veggies in my kids. This time, I want to talk about the reality of how that comes together.

I see other people post on Facebook about their meal prepping and how quickly it was done. I hear these chefs talk about how easy it is. Some days it is quick and easy. But not always.

Prep work is messy!

I decided to get my 2-year-old to help me, which was probably my first mistake. In the morning, I made a purple puree, a white puree, and a flour blend from The Sneaky Chef. I spent about 2 hours.

I started with the flour blend, which was just mixing up two kinds of flour and wheat germ. However, I thought I would shake it in the storage container. I then dropped it, the lid popped off, and I had about 3 cups of flour on the floor.

This resulted in a few four-letter words flying out. Luckily, my 2-year-old only added "crap" to his vocabulary.

After sweeping up flour, running the vacuum over the area, and mopping, I moved on to the purple puree, which was spinach and blueberries. My 2-year-old was decently entertained pushing the Pulse button on the food processor.

After that, it was the white puree, which required steamed cauliflower and raw, peeled zucchini. While I prepped the zucchini and cauliflower, my child unrolled all of my labels and wrapped himself up in them.

The pureeing didn't take long, but somehow both my attempts made much more than what the recipe said. I had to do them in batches because I only have a 4-cup food processor.

But I finally got all the prep work done and stored. Really, the whole process shouldn't have taken more than an hour.

Cooking

I had picked two recipes I wanted to make from the Sneak Chef cookbook, but I was too worn out to make them in the morning. After I picked up my 6-year-old from school, we made breakfast cookies using the flour blend I made that morning.

Other than fighting the kids to let me bake the cookies before they ate all the batter, that went well. I did burn the first batch, but we ate them anyway. My kids really like these cookies, which use a lot of cinnamon and less sugar. Plus they have wheat germ and ricotta cheese in the mix, giving them more protein.

After the cookies, I made a sweet potato and carrot soup because it's my 6-year-old's favorite. It's also super easy. I usually make this with whatever amount of carrots and sweet potatoes I happen to have. Just cook sweet potatoes and carrots in broth until soft, then puree and add milk until creamy. You can skip the milk. I flavor it with ginger, salt, pepper, and sometimes a little nutmeg.

This time, I added in some of the white puree from the morning, nutritional yeast, butter instead of milk, and threw in leftover lentils because I was too lazy to cook chicken to go with the soup. We also had to eat quickly to get to Girl Scouts on time.

Although it's often hectic and messy, the prep work is worth it, especially for the time it saves me later in the week. I tend to spend about one or two days a month doing a lot of cooking. We eat great for about two weeks, then it starts to fall off and we eat out or have frozen pizza. I then get motivated to cook again.

If you're interested, Amazon has used copies of The Sneaky Chef for $0.01.

What are your favorite meal prepping tips?