2018 Goals {and a FREE printable!}

Last year, Sagan Morrow of Juxta Communications challenged her newsletter readers to choose a word to inspire our 2017. I love reading Sagan's newsletter, in no small part because her ideas and challenges help me really think about where I'm going as a writer. This challenge was no exception. I'd made new year's resolutions before, but choosing a word to focus on ended up being much more motivating! The word "confidence" was a great reminder to me last year as I was growing my freelance business and publishing the first book of my Time Wreckers trilogy.

So far, 2018 looks like it's going to be even busier, and I am thrilled! I'm continuing to take on new freelance clients while planning to publish books Two and Three of the trilogy before the end of the year! As my calendar fills up, I decided to choose a different word to inspire 2018: 

2018 Goals {and a FREE printable!} ||

This year, I want to renew my focus on why I write. In the early days of freelancing, I had tons of passion and very little experience. Now that I have five years of experience under my belt, I want to make sure I'm still tapping in to that excitement. I got into education writing because I'm so passionate about creating great materials for teachers to use in the classroom. I love learning--and I want everything I write for my clients to reflect that.

Editing the second and third books of the Time Wrecker Trilogy has given me a fresh perspective on my fiction writing, too. Drafting a book for the first time feels like one big creative rush; editing, on the other hand, is a slow process. While I'm taking my time to get these next two books polished up and ready for release, I don't want to lose my enthusiasm for the story itself. 

Just like last year, I'm going to keep my word for 2018 front and center in my writing life--literally. In 2017 I made a poster of one of my favorite quotes about confidence and hung it on the wall of my home office. Seeing this poster every day as I sat down to work definitely helped me stay on track. A new year calls for a new poster--and Eleanor Roosevelt just so happens to have a great quote about renewal:

Eleanor Roosevelt quote: "With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts." || from the blog "2018 Goals (and a FREE printable!)"

The bonus of making the poster myself is that I can offer it as a free download for you, too! The 16 x 20 and 8 x 10 versions are available below. 

16 x 20 poster

8 x 10 poster

Thanks for visiting my blog! Here's to a great year!

Do you choose a word (or make a resolution) for the new year? Post it in the comments--I'd love to hear how 2018 is starting out for you!

Looking For The Forest (Must Be Somewhere Behind These Trees)

Despite the fact that everything from my website to my social media is tagged "Ellen Smith Writes," the truth is that I'm much more of an editor than a writer. ("Ellen Smith Edits" just didn't have the same ring to it ;) ) The first draft of anything I write, whether freelance or fiction, is generally pretty terrible. The first edit is a vast improvement simply because I go back and finish all my sentences! It takes several read-throughs--and often a few rewrites--before I'm ready to share anything I've written.

Editing is where I really see the difference in my work as a left-brained writer and a right-brained author. When I'm working on a freelance project, my editing process is very left-brained. I'll separate it into two phases: big-picture revisions and detail-oriented edits. First, I go through and make sure that the topic is clear, all the main points have been supported, and the paragraphs are in order. Then, I go back and delve into the nitty-gritty: grammar, spelling, and word choice.

Sounds nice and organized, doesn't it?

All that tidy left-brained thinking flies right out of my head when I start editing my fiction work. I'm too close to the story to see the big picture. I love these characters. I've replayed their struggles a hundred times in my imagination. I know this story inside and out. That makes it far too easy for me to obsess over the tiny details and miss the necessary big-picture revisions. As the saying goes, I can't see the forest for the trees. 

In my current work-in-progress, these are some of the "trees" I've been focusing on:

  • Are these sentences streamlined to pack a punch, or are they just short and choppy?
  • What gesture would this character make? Is she nervous or is she also a little annoyed?
  • Am I overusing all my favorite words? (it, heavy, glanced, sighed, and said)?

Meanwhile, here's the "forest":

  • Who are these characters--and what made them who they are?
  • What are the themes and messages in the story? Do they carry through?
  • Is this the best way I can possibly tell this story?

I'm at a point now in my work-in-progress where I've obsessed over every branch, twig, and leaf of each little tree. Still, I just don't feel quite right about this draft. I don't know if this story is fully told.

So there's one more thing I need to do before I send this out for beta readers and professional editing. I need to back up--wayyyyy up--and look at the big picture. I have to look for the whole forest, if you will.

It must be somewhere behind these trees. 

Looking for the forest (must be somewhere behind these trees) ||

Revamped Home Office (and FREE printable!)

On the last Saturday of 2016, I opened my weekly e-newsletter from Sagan Morrow. Sagan is a great resource and inspiration for freelancers, so I always look forward to her newsletters! This newsletter was particularly inspiring for me because Sagan asked what word would inspire our careers in 2017.

That question made me pause for a bit. I really like where I'm at currently in my writing life. I've been freelance writing for three years and I've already published a novel and a short story collection. However, I have big goals for this coming year: I'm planning to grow my freelance business and release a trilogy of novels as well.

Finally, I wrote back to Sagan and said "confidence." I've already laid the groundwork for my freelance career and my fiction writing. I just need to keep moving forward with the confidence to take on bigger projects and aim for higher goals. 

The first step in my move-forward-with-confidence plan was to create a space dedicated to my writing career. I'm lucky enough to have a home office already, but, if I'm honest, over time it started to become a catch-all place for household bills, magazines, and craft projects. I decided to kick-start 2017 by reclaiming and redecorating my home office.

Revamped Home Office (and FREE printable!) | Blue, gold, and silver home office set up for a freelancer and fiction author with a standing desk, inspiration boards, plenty of bookcases, and a FREE downloadable poster

The first step was choosing a paint color, which is always difficult for me. I love looking at paint chips, almost as much as I love reading all the different color names. I wanted a bluish-green, but I couldn't decide on which shade. Did I want an office painted in Tahoe Blue or Ocean Boulevard? Clear Pond or Clear Vista? (If anyone's looking for a freelance writer to name paint colors, by the way, I'm game. What a fun job that would be!) After staring at my top four choices for a few days, I decided that none of them would work. I headed to the paint store to look for more ideas.

That's where the word "confidence" popped up again. Three separate times, I reached for the same paint chip, thinking, "Yes! This is the color I was thinking of!" only to realize that it was Ocean Boulevard. Which I had already decided wouldn't work. It was too bright. Too blue. More "tidal" than "robin's egg."

Then I thought, "Wait. Why am I trying to talk myself out of doing something I love?"

That did it. I bought one gallon of Ocean Boulevard, a new set of paint rollers, and headed home.

And you know what? I do love it.

The newly-painted left corner of my office. Isn't this a happy color? The blue-green tint changes with the light, which is neat to watch throughout the day.

The newly-painted left corner of my office. Isn't this a happy color? The blue-green tint changes with the light, which is neat to watch throughout the day.

I already owned and loved my office furniture, with one exception: my standing desk. I sit at the rolltop desk for smaller tasks, but if I'm working for long periods of time, I work best at a standing desk. For the last few years, I've made my own by balancing a large piece of wood over two filing cabinets, which was almost (but not quite) the right height. My husband surprised me with this beautiful desk for Christmas:

The standing desk on the right side of my office, pulled up to its full height. I don't get a lot of natural light in the office, so I'm afraid this is the best I could do to avoid shadows and glare in the picture.

The standing desk on the right side of my office, pulled up to its full height. I don't get a lot of natural light in the office, so I'm afraid this is the best I could do to avoid shadows and glare in the picture.

The top lifts up to the perfect standing height, and lowers back down if I need to sit. I love it!

With the new wall color and the furniture in place, I just made a few decorative touches. Some things I kept, like my clipboard for inspiration pictures.

My inspiration board currently holds photos from my research trip to Washington, D.C. They definitely help me get into the setting of my story!

My inspiration board currently holds photos from my research trip to Washington, D.C. They definitely help me get into the setting of my story!

Some things needed a little change. For example: like everyone else that had a Pinterest account in 2015, I jumped on the chalkboard bandwagon. My office used to feature a very large chalkboard where I wrote my to-do list. It worked just fine, but I didn't like the mess all that chalk dust created. I decided to change things up and use a dry erase board instead. Actually, make that three dry erase boards:

Did you know you can use a regular glass picture frame as a dry erase board? I happened to have these three frames already from another project, so I just popped some pretty paper into them and hung them up.

Did you know you can use a regular glass picture frame as a dry erase board? I happened to have these three frames already from another project, so I just popped some pretty paper into them and hung them up.

When all that was finished, I had one blank wall left. I wanted a piece of artwork that would make me smile (and inspire me to get to work!) whenever I came into the room. I scoured the Internet for a while before I remembered: hey, I make graphics for my blog and Instagram all the time. Why not make my own poster?

So I did. I chose one of my all-time favorite quotes, and it's perfect for my 2017 theme of "confidence." Bonus: since I made the poster myself, I can offer it as a free download for you, too!

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." - Henry David Thoreau | FREE printable motivational quote poster on


You can download the pdf for the 16 x 20 version or the 8 x 10 version below. You're welcome to print it out and use it however you like in your home or office. Just please don't chop off my watermark and sell it as your own. Thanks! :)

16x20 poster

8x10 poster

There you have it: a little tour of my revamped home office, ready to start off a new year and plenty of new projects--with confidence. Thanks for stopping by!

A Little Bit About SEO (And My LEAST Favorite Folk Song)

Since I work as both a left-brained writer and a right-brained author, making sure my content is easy to find on the Internet is a big part of my job. I can’t just write a book- I need to make sure that people who are interested in women’s fiction, southern lit, or characters with Alzheimer's are able to find it. I can’t just write an article for a freelance client – I need to make sure that their target readers will be able to find it quickly and easily.

Enter the most left-brained aspect of my job: search engine optimization (otherwise known as "SEO").

a little bit about SEO (and my LEAST favorite folk song!) from The main part of any writer's job write! But what happens after you've finished your piece? As more and more content is shared online, search engine optimization (SEO) is a critical component to helping potential readers find your work.

Search engine optimization essentially means increasing how likely it is that a search engine will pull up your content when someone searches online for your name, your company, or your writing.

Obviously, that means the first major tip for increasing SEO is:

Be Searchable

The first time I searched for my name online, I wasn't expecting to find anything exciting. Sure, I figured there'd be some other Ellen Smiths rattling around out there on the world wide web. According to, there are 2,846,099 people with the last name 'Smith' in the United States alone. While 'Ellen' isn't a very common first name, the same site says there are 279,488 of us. calculates that there are 2,461 other people named 'Ellen Smith' in the United States. With numbers like that, I wasn't surprised to find out that a few of us were easy to find online.

What did surprise me was the most notorious Ellen Smith. (No, it wasn't me.) As it turns out, there’s a folk song called "Poor Ellen Smith." If the title sounds ominous, just wait until you read the lyrics. This is the first verse:

Poor Ellen Smith how was she found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
Her clothes were all scattered and thrown on the ground
And blood marks the spot where poor Ellen was found

The song goes on to expand on this theme for four more verses.


Fortunately for me, "Poor Ellen Smith" turns up far more often in search engine results than it does in real life. Aside from immediately becoming my least favorite folk song, this less-than-favorable search engine result didn't have an impact on my day-to-day life.

That is, until I started freelancing three years ago.

I conduct about 99% of my freelancing business online and make over 50% of my book sales online, too. If someone is looking for me because they need a freelance education writer or because they read Reluctant Cassandra, I want to make sure they can find me. If the first page of search results for ‘Ellen Smith’ points to a folk song detailing my grisly demise, that’s not good.

The main reason that 'Poor Ellen Smith' gets pulled up so frequently by search engines is that there's a lot of content out there about the song. That includes sites that have the full lyrics, videos of folk singers performing the song, and even a few articles about the legendary Ellen Smith herself. Having a lot of content is one of the best ways to optimize search engine results. Every time I publish a piece for a client with my byline or put up a new blog post on my website, I'm increasing the amount of content I have online. That also increases the chances that someone searching for my work on the Internet will find me!

Obviously, SEO doesn't end with producing a lot of online content. It's also important to direct search engines to help people find the specific Ellen Smith they are looking for. With 2,461 + of us in the United States alone, chances are good that someone searching for plain old "Ellen Smith" could be looking for any number of people. Or tragic folk heroines. That brings us to the next step in SEO:

Use Keywords

If someone is looking for me because they read my book, they’ll probably search for “Ellen Smith Reluctant Cassandra.” If someone is looking for me because they need a freelance education writer, they’ll probably search for “Ellen Smith freelance” or “Ellen Smith education writer.” In either case, they might search for “Ellen Smith writes…” or “Ellen Smith writer.”

Now you know why my handle across social media is always EllenSmithWrites (or EllenSmithWrite if I run out of space...thanks, Twitter.) I pair my name with keywords that people would probably use if they were looking to find me through a search engine.

This is also the strategy I use when I'm working on a freelance project that will be posted online. I want readers who will be interested in the content to be able to find it easily when they do a simple online search. For example, if I'm writing a post about search engine optimization (cough, cough), the people who will most likely want to read it are other people who post content online. Throughout the post, I'd make sure to use keywords that those readers are likely to search for: search engine optimization, SEO, online content, freelance, freelancing, web search, etc. Using those keywords makes it more likely for a search engine to pull up my content for a reader searching for those terms.

There's a lot more to say about search engine optimization, but I'm going to stop with those two basic tips (I have to save something for my freelance clients!) And, while SEO is a part of my job as a writer, there's an even better way to make sure clients, fellow writers, educators, and readers can find me online:

Stay Connected

While I hope that people I haven't met yet will be able to find me through an online search, that shouldn't be the only way that people find my work. My bigger hope is that former and current clients and readers will stay connected with me.

Despite its reputation, writing isn't really a solitary profession. In order to do my job as a freelance education writer, I'm constantly reading news, opinion pieces, and research about what's new in the education world. In order to do my job as an author, I'm doing research for my next book, chatting with readers and book reviewers, and marketing to potential readers. That means I spend a lot of time on social media, sharing ideas and staying in touch with other people who are interested in the same things I am. I'd rather have people find me through their list of contacts than through a search engine any day.

Search engine optimization is always going to be important for the content I put up online. I'm always happy to talk with freelance clients about improving their SEO as well. However, search engine results alone don't determine the success of an online business.

Good news for me and the other Ellen Smiths out there. Otherwise, that folk song would give us a run for our money.  

Left-Brained Writer, Right-Brained Author

I'm a writer by profession and by passion. For the past three years, I've been working as a freelance education writer. I love freelancing. I get to work with lots of different educators, business owners, and administrators on a variety of projects. Plus, part of my job is keeping up-to-date with current trends and the latest news in the education world. What could be better than reading and writing about my favorite topics?

When I'm off the clock as a freelancer, I'm still writing. Writing novels and short stories is my passion. Even after a long day writing blog posts and curriculum plans, my favorite way to unwind is by planning and drafting my next novel.

With a writing schedule like that, you'd think I'd get burned out after a while. Actually, I think these two distinctly different forms of writing keep me balanced and excited about what I'm doing, whether it's for work or for fun! I've started thinking of myself as a left-brained writer and a right-brained author. Kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only less sinister and much wordier.

Freelance writing is almost entirely left-brained. When I'm working on a piece for a client, my writing process looks like this:

If I could take this approach to fiction writing, I would produce a LOT of novels.

If I could take this approach to fiction writing, I would produce a LOT of novels.

Fiction writing, on the other hand, is different every single time. When I get a story idea, my left brain totally disengages and it's all creativity, all the time. This is the part of my writing life that wakes me up at two in the morning with a gotta-write-it line for my work-in-progress. For some pieces, I re-read and edit as I go. My current project has me galloping through the rough draft at breakneck speed, with no time to look back at what I wrote yesterday. When I get to the end, I'll go back, re-read, and start editing. I have a feeling there are going to be a few plot holes to contend with, but that's okay. I'm writing for the sheer joy of it.

I think my freelance clients are glad I leave this approach to my fiction writing instead of my work!

I think my freelance clients are glad I leave this approach to my fiction writing instead of my work!

Recently, I tried to add some left-brained thinking to my right-brained creative writing. Using a plotting strategy or specific outline has always fallen flat for me when I'm writing fiction. Somehow, after writing the plot out, I felt like I'd lost the urge to tell the story. After all, the whole plot was already down on paper, even if it was just in shorthand.

Then I tackled my latest work-in-progress, and I realized that my right brain was going to need a little help telling this story. I'm writing a trilogy that involves time travel, so making up the story as I went got really confusing really fast. Fifty pages in to the first book, I realized that my creative process had led me down a rabbit hole so deep I wasn't sure I could dig my way out. For the first time, I wasn't enjoying fiction writing without a plan.

Enter The Plotting Workshop, created and led by author Shaunta Grimes. I first heard about the workshop in this interview with Shaunta by author T.M. Toombs. As soon as I visited her site, I knew that learning this approach to plotting was the answer to my dilemma. I signed up, got my first e-mail the next day, and spent eight weeks doing the impossible: bringing my left brain into my right-brained world.

It worked.

My plot board: Left brain, meet right brain.

My plot board: Left brain, meet right brain.

I'm now a quarter of the way through the second book in the trilogy. The plotting method Shaunta teaches did the opposite of killing my creative spark. With my plot board propped up on my desk, I'm more anxious than ever to get to work on the next scene of my story.

This little experiment with my fiction got me thinking: what if I added a little of my right brain to my freelancing work? I've started keeping a journal where I spend ten minutes a day freewriting ideas and random thoughts about education issues. It hasn't changed my core process for my freelance writing, but I've noticed a big difference in how quickly I can generate new ideas for articles. Even better: now I start my work time excited about what I'm writing and why. It's a passion for education that got me started as a teacher and then as a freelance education writer. Reigniting that passion each morning makes me a happier writer and, I hope, a better writer too.

There was a time when I thought the key to balancing my freelancing and my fiction writing was in keeping each process distinctly separate. To an extent, I still think that's true. My freelance work requires a lot of focus and my fiction needs a lot of freedom. However, it's been fun to learn how crossing over my left-brained and right-brained skills have added more excitement, more inspiration, and more productivity to both sides of my writing world, fiction and freelance.