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Writing Fiction: The Keys to Characterization

writing fiction characterizationSerious music students practice their scales, learning the notes by rote before they ever play a piece of music. They play the same piece over and over, receiving correction from a teacher until playing at a satisfactory level. Likewise, a writer who uses a spelling, grammar, and plagiarism checking tool to review a piece can learn from the corrections, improving her finished product. The writer who studies her craft can learn to play symphonies, while the writer who shuns formal learning and relies solely on instinct may find herself stuck playing “Chopsticks.”

What is Characterization?

Talent and learning must come together to produce great writing. Like spelling and grammar, characterization is a skill that can be learned. Characterization is, simply defined, the process by which the author reveals a character to the reader.

Details like mannerisms, dialogue, and physical appearance all contribute to the building of the character in the reader’s mind. The reader gets to know the characters through the process of characterization.

Characters, like people, reveal themselves through various means. Dialogue, appearance, speech, and the effect a person has on those who already know him all play a part in forming our assumptions of a character. Characterization can be either direct or indirect, and both types fall into one of several categories.

Direct & Indirect Characterization

Direct characterization should be used sparingly. Description of a character’s appearance, mannerism, personality, or habits is direct characterization. A common ploy, especially among new or inexperienced authors, is to have the character studying himself or herself in a mirror. The technique, when the writer uses the opportunity to simply describe the physical characteristics, results in the impression of a narcissistic character obsessed with his or her appearance, unless the physical description is secondary to the character’s thoughts and feelings about his or her appearance.

In Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre the main character, Tandy, examines herself in a mirror:

She was nineteen years old, but she looked like a child in her nightie and lady-slippers, her brown tresses mussed from constant squirming, her blue eyes peering out worriedly. She wished she looked more like her mother- but of course no human person could match the pretty faces and fantastic figures of nymphs.

From this short paragraph, the reader learns that Tandy is childlike, with brown hair and blue eyes, but far more of Tandy’s character and current state of mind is revealed than her physical statistics. The reader sees a troubled young woman, the child of a mythological creature who is slightly insecure in her own emerging womanhood.

Characterization with Dialogue

Actions may speak louder than words, but in writing, speech is the primary tool for revealing a character to the reader. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of conveying not only information that moves the story forward, but details about the speaker.

Grammar, word choice, dialect, accent, tone, and delivery all come together to paint an indelible picture in the reader’s mind. Dialogue may be spoken (external) or written (internal). A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Well-crafted dialogue will paint a picture in the reader’s mind, revealing clues about age, education, social status, attitude, worldview, and bent, that would take pages of pure description to create.

A Character’s Effect on Others

The effect a character has on others is another subtle yet important tool. The character who commands an air of respect is likely the hero, while the one who inspires sneers may be the villain or the underdog. Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, used the children’s first impression of Count Olaf to strongly influence the reader’s view of the villain:

They wondered … whether, for the rest of their lives, they would always feel as though Count Olaf were watching them even when he wasn’t nearby.

The Effects of a Character’s Name

What’s in a name? A character’s name can be an indicator of their basic personality. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape both have memorable and sinister-sounding names that fit their personalities. Bilbo Baggins sounds like a respectable sort of individual from a long line of stolid ancestors. Huckleberry Finn is the ideal handle for the delinquent child of a drunken vagabond. By employing a combination of direct and indirect characterization techniques, the writer can create characters that come to life on the page.

Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character

by Philip J Reed, of Noiseless Chatter:  television, film, literature, music, and everything else you shouldn’t be wasting your time with

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I’m a huge fan of Peep Show.  It’s a British comedy that’s been running for eight seasons (so far), and a huge part of its appeal is just how painfully awkward it is.  Its two main characters — Mark and Jeremy — aren’t sympathetic at all…and yet they still manage to be extraordinarily relatable.  Watching the show is often a deliberately uncomfortable experience, but it’s never cheap; it’s always married to razor-sharp writing and two brilliant performances.

The most recent batch of episodes, however, managed to make me uncomfortable in a way that the others hadn’t.  That’s because in an installment entitled “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs,” Mark, the put-upon introvert of the show, gets swindled by a self-publishing house.  And while the details are pretty different from what I went through (I’ve been interviewed about it by this very site, if you’re interested) the way the episode explores Mark’s mindset, and the way it makes clear to the viewer what Mark himself is too hopeful to acknowledge, reminded me, uncomfortably, of my own foray into the world of self-publishing.

So I reached out to Emily and asked if I could put this together, in the hopes that an episode like this (which is on Youtube in its entirety, should you decide to look for it…) might help somebody, at least one person, somewhere, keep a level head in the face of the seductive promises of self-publishing.  Hopefully Mark’s embarrassment — and mine — can spare you at least a little of your own.

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1)  Don’t Fall for a Glitzy Image

While the episode is about Mark self-publishing his book, Business Secrets of the Pharaohs, his roommate Jeremy has a thematically-similar plot:  he’s enrolling in a fly-by-night training program to become a life coach.  Interestingly enough, each of the two friends sees exactly what’s wrong with the other’s situation…but neither will admit it about their own.

When confronted, Jeremy shows Mark the same pamphlet that won him over, and explains that “It’s proper.  They’ve got a website.”

Mark’s response to him is one that he — and anyone interested in self-publishing — would be wise to keep in mind:  ”Oh, well, I’m sorry.  If they’ve got a website then the people running it definitely have fingers.  And a computer!  Or at least the address of an internet café.”

Anyone can produce a nice pamphlet, or a flashy website.  Anyone can slap up some customer testimonials.  (When’s the last time you’ve checked one to make sure it was genuine?  Where would you even begin if you wanted to?)  What you have to remember is that pamphlets, business cards and websites are just things.  Anyone can appear successful and can entice you to want to work with them, but ultimately that means nothing.  Or, rather, that means that the person took the time to mock something up.  Genuine or not, that isn’t where your research about the company should end.

Look online.  Find actual reviews from actual past clients.  Ask for copies of books that they’ve published in the past.  Any reputable publisher should be happy to show off their work; if they treat your request like it’s ridiculous, take a moment to wonder why that might be.

It’s great if the services listed on their website line up very well with what you were hoping to see, but bear in mind that their site exists only to sell to you.  It’s no gauge of quality, reliability, or ethics.  Dig deeper.  You might not like what you see, but that’s better than seeing it too late.

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2)  Be Realistic About Your Work

The screengrab above shows the faces of two people who’ve just heard what Mark’s book is about.  Do people look like that when you start describing your own work?  Then you may have to face a difficult fact:  it might not have an audience.

It’s easy for a writer to develop an inflated sense of the value of his or her own material.  I know, because I am a writer, and everything I produce is fantastic.

But you have to be realistic.  Mark, by this point, has spent eight seasons trying to interest a publisher in Business Secrets of the Pharaohs.  And while it’s always possible that a struggling author just hasn’t found the right match for his material, it’s also possible that it’s the material that’s the problem.

Would anyone want to read about your interpretation of the presumed negotiating tactics of a long-dead civilization?  Nobody wants to read Mark’s…but he doesn’t want to admit that to himself.  At one point he even describes it as “an important work of world literature.”  Spoiler:  it’s not.  And it’s important that you can view your own work through a realistic lens as well.

If you can’t find an agent or a publisher for your manuscript, it may be worth looking at the manuscript.  It may be worth looking at your query letters, your sample chapters, and anything else you’ve been sending out.  The answer isn’t to pay somebody to publish your work…it’s to refine your work so that somebody wants to publish it.

Believe me, I know this can be a difficult lesson to learn.  I spent years shopping around a manuscript that went nowhere.  I tried a few approaches, but ultimately came to accept that even if it was a great book, it wasn’t something that many agents or publishers would take a risk on.  I could pay to publish it (there’s always somebody that will be happy to take your money), but instead I decided to work on another project, one that would be more marketable, and serve as less of a risk.  If that gets published, I may be able to find some interest in my earlier manuscript.  But even if it doesn’t, I feel good about taking a constructive approach to the solution.

And you will, too.

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3)  You Need to Do the Work Yourself

At one point in the episode, Jeremy finds Mark at his computer, typing furiously away, unaware that he’s had caps lock on the entire time.  But it’s okay, the friends figure…a publisher would surely correct something like that before going to press.

Obviously this is funny for one very obvious reason, which is that your manuscript needs to be in absolutely perfect shape before you start soliciting.  There aren’t second chances, and you’d be foolish to assume that a publisher who saw a caps-locked screed land on his desk would give you a chance to fix it up later, after you’ve signed a three-book, twenty-million dollar deal.

Then again, Jeremy does have a small point:  if they wanted Mark’s book, truly wanted it, wouldn’t they be willing to make at least a few editorial corrections?

The answer is yes.  Of course they would.

Unless they’re a self-publishing company, in which case that’s an add-on service, and you’ll pay for that.

Whether it’s editing, formatting, promotion, or even a simple spell-check, self-publishers will charge you for everything they do.  And while that may sound like a nice idea for folks who can afford it, it bears repeating that paying for a service isn’t necessarily paying for quality.

My experience working with a self-publisher to fix errors in my book was a nightmare.  It actually ended up making things worse in the final product.  Money well spent, right?

If you’re going to self-publish, you need to make sure that you can handle all aspects of the process on your own.  Don’t count on them to get things right, because there’s no self-publishing agreement in the world that will force them to make good on unsatisfactory work.  The contracts are drawn up to reflect their interests, not yours, and they have nothing to lose if your book fails; they’ve already been paid.  When nobody buys your book, you’re the one who will feel foolish; not them.

You need to do everything on your own.  It’s not enough to be a great writer, or even to be an impeccably careful writer.  You’ll also need to promote the book (assuming its final form is even something you’d want to promote).  Can you do that?  Because if you can’t, self-publishing might not be for you.  You can always pay an exorbitant price for a Promotion Plan…which is usually a pack of simple fliers and a listing in a proprietary magazine no human being will ever read…but unless you’re keen on doing any and all legwork for the life of your book, you’d be better served by a traditional publishing house, which does have an interest in your success.

And that’s where you should be looking.  It won’t be an easy road…but it’s the only road.

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4)  Treat Red Flags As Red Flags

It’s very easy to get swept away by the allure of being a published author.  It’s what we all want, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Unfortunately that’s exactly what self-publishers prey upon.  Poor Mark lacks confidence, he can’t get a publisher interested, and he feels as though he’s a failure.  So when British London accepts his book, he’s ecstatic.  Why wouldn’t he be?  His dream is coming true.

Or, at least, he wants to believe that his dream is coming true.  And so did I.  And so would you.  But we can’t be blind to reality.  It’s important to stay grounded, because if we don’t, we’ll get swept away.  Remember that self-publishing houses are not staffed by agents and editors…they’re staffed by sales people.  They will find out what you want, convince you that self-publishing is the way to get those things, and do anything they can in order to obtain a sum of money.  That is their job.

Throughout the episode Mark fails to notice red flags.  Not because he’s a fool — and you wouldn’t be a fool for being taken in, either; these are very good sales people — but because he doesn’t want to admit that this might be anything less than he wants it to be.

When the representative from British London asks to meet him at a food truck on the side of a highway, it doesn’t even register with Mark.  He even looks at the table of condiments and thinks, “This must be the greatest quantity of squeezable mustard ever present at a literary lunch.”  He’s thinking it in awe…but he should be thinking it in fear!  He sees a red flag, but interprets it as a good sign.

As Mark discusses his book with his representative, it’s clear that the man hasn’t read Business Secrets of the Pharaohs.  It’s equally clear that he doesn’t care about its quality…though Mark interprets this, again, as a compliment, since he has “no notes at all” on the material.

If a publisher has “no notes” on your material…forgive me for saying this…that’s not a reflection on how miraculously brilliant and utterly perfect your first-draft was; that’s a reflection of how little they care about the quality of the pieces they publish.

Does that sound like a compliment to you?

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5)  Admit to Yourself You’ve Been Taken

It happens.  You were seduced.  Part of you knew better, but you were able to keep that part quiet long enough to complete the PayPal transaction.  And now you hold a copy of your book.  Your book!

Only your book is full of errors.  The text disappears into the binding.  Your name is spelled incorrectly on the cover.  You’re heart-broken.  It’s too late to go back.  You’ve humiliated yourself in front of everybody you’ve been bragging to about the publication…and you’re not getting your money back.

This is what happens to Mark, and it’s not any kind of exaggeration at all.  Self-published material is often shoddy.  Somebody makes you big promises, but what you hold in your hands is a physical manifestation of artistic disappointment.

Here’s what I want to tell you about that:  it’s okay.

Really, it is.

You’re not an idiot.  You were taken.  And that’s okay.

Why do I say it’s okay?  Because if you don’t believe it’s okay, you’ll try to convince yourself otherwise.  You’ll convince yourself that next time it will go better.  In short, you’ll do it all over again.  This is why you need admit you have made a mistake.

Mark gets so swept up in the excitement of his impending publication that he spends more time deciding what kind of nuts to serve at his self-financed launch party than he does thinking about whether or not he’s working with a reputable publishing house.  But when the book arrives, with that misspelt name on the cover and the text printed in an unreadable format, he owns his mistake.  He lets everybody at his own launch party know that the book is a disaster, a tragedy, and proof of a broken promise.

His money isn’t coming back, and neither is his pride, but at least he won’t lose more money and pride by trying again.

You’re a human being.  You have desires, needs, and goals.  If you’ve lived long enough to consider yourself a writer, then you’ve lived long enough to know that there are those who will exploit your ambitions for their own personal gain.  In fact, there’s an entire industry out there designed to do exactly that.

Watching “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” was something I had to do through laced fingers.  Mark’s an intelligent guy who just wants to believe that the universe has offered him a break.  I remember that feeling well.  It’s a nice thought…but it’s no substitute for reality.

Be careful.  Be honest with yourself.  And, for heaven’s sake, keep your wallet in your pocket. You’ll thank me later.

How I Found My Editor

ellis shumanby Ellis Shuman

After I finished writing, revising, and polishing my manuscript – a suspense novel set in Bulgaria – and after receiving very few responses from the many literary agents I had queried, I decided to take my next step in a completely independent direction. The world of publishing had changed, making it easier than ever to self-publish. I had read the success stories of indie authors and I was convinced that I could follow in their footsteps.

Before I clicked the submit button to make my novel available to the public, I had to be totally convinced that it was in the best possible shape, free of embarrassing punctuation and  grammar mistakes. I had reviewed the text repeatedly, but I no longer could see sections requiring further revision. I needed the assistance of a professional editor.

How would I find a suitable editor, one who would connect with my fiction and provide professional assistance and advice at a reasonable price? Just when I was ready to begin looking, Emily Suess added a Self-Publishing Services Directory to her blog. I also found listings on the Editorial Freelancers Association website. I selected fifteen candidates that I felt would be the most suitable to edit my fiction and I sent each of them a short email with a sample of my writing.

I have written a suspense novel (104,000 words / approximately 400 pages) and have been querying literary agents/publishers. I am interested in receiving a quote for editing services (proofreading + just having a set of professional eyes review the manuscript). Thank you in advance for responding with a cost and time estimate for this project.

To my surprise, and very much unlike the process of querying literary agents, most of the freelance editors replied with huge enthusiasm for my project. A suspense novel set in Bulgaria? Exciting! A missing Peace Corps volunteer? That’s just the kind of book that interested them!

With so many eager candidates, I had to select which editor would best edit my manuscript at the most reasonable price. Each of them had been sent a short sample of my writing, although in some cases I was asked to send a longer version. Three pages, one chapter, 50 pages – whatever was needed to demonstrate my writing abilities, showing the prospective editor how much work was to be done and showing me what editorial changes each would suggest.

The responses I received were quite varied. One editor said he wouldn’t change a single word in my first chapter, so I ruled him out right away. Another said he could only provide revision suggestions if he saw the entire manuscript in advance. I ruled him out as well.

The rest of the candidates sent back Word documents with suggested changes highlighted by the tracking function. Unintentionally, I had made a simple punctuation mistake in the very first sentence of my writing sample. Most of the freelance editors immediately pointed that out to me. The majority suggested simple sentence restructuring, occasional word replacements, and a tightening of the text. All of the suggestions were truly helpful, and on target, so how would I choose to work with just one of them?

“The correct way to write the name of the Bulgarian currency is lev,” one of the editors wrote in a comment listed in the Word document sent back to me. “Also, why do you repeatedly refer to your main character by his last name? Was that intentional?”

None of the other freelance editors had pointed out these two issues. In addition, this same candidate had presented the most comprehensive editing of my sample writing, incorporating most of the suggestions made by the other editors and adding many other original revisions. She was the only candidate who had gone out of her way to research the simple elements of my manuscript, to make sure that what I wrote matched the facts.

Of course, setting the price for the freelance editing was also a major factor in the process. To edit a 400-page work of fiction I received quotes ranging from $900 to $3,500. One freelance editor refused to state his price until he had read the entire manuscript. All of the editors stated that they were ready to start work on the project immediately, with quick turn-around times.

Luckily, the candidate who had displayed the best sample editing, was available at a reasonable price. Having a good working relationship with your freelance editor is crucial to the success of a project. Questions, comments, suggestions, observations, and revisions have to be part of an ongoing two-way street of communication. I am pleased with the freelance editor I selected; we worked well together. I have no doubt that my manuscript was vastly improved with her assistance.

My suspense novel, Valley of Thracians, was published for Kindle at the end of January, 2013, and is now available in paperback as well. I would like to thank Amber Jones Barry for helping transform my writing into something I’m truly proud to present to readers. I highly recommend her to writers interested in hiring a professional freelance editor.

Ellis Shuman and his wife, Jodie, lived in Sofia for two years 2009-2010. During that time they maintained a very active blog, Ellis and Jodie’s Bulgarian Adventures, detailing their travels. Ellis is the author of Valley of Thracians, a suspense novel set in Bulgaria. The book is available at Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, and other interesting things at his blog.  

13 Ways to Boost Your Freelance Career (Without the Internet)

By Terri Huggins

My name is Terri and I have a problem. I think most Americans can relate to it. (I can’t be the only crazy one.) I am addicted to the Internet. I always knew my excessive Internet use was a problem but I didn’t know how big an issue it was until October 2012. I, amongst thousands of other Central Jersey residents, found myself the main target of Superstorm Sandy. I was one of the fortunate people, though. I am alive, my home was intact, and we never lost power. Yet, I still found myself suffering when it came to work.

freelance writing careerObviously, never losing electricity wasn’t a problem. The problem was that everyone else did. That meant I wasn’t able to email editors, follow up on pitches, or schedule interviews and expect a response. When everyone lost all connectivity, I lost all connectivity. That loss made me feel like a fish out of water. (Of course, it wasn’t as extreme as those who actually lost electricity.) It turns out I didn’t know how to function without sending emails with instant gratification, calling people and sending tweets for sources. As a result, my productivity and business really began to suffer. It was then that I learned I rely on the Internet way too much.

Sure, having access to Gmail, HARO, and WordPress have boosted business and helped journalists stay organized, connected and on top of breaking news. However, when you lack the ability to operate without these tools your business may be in total jeopardy. It was a life lesson I learned the hard way. To spare others from learning that lesson the way I did, I’ve come up with a list of 13 Internet free tasks that can boost your freelance career.

1. Do some cold calling

Most people lost phone service during the storm. Truth be told, I got a lot of busy signals, error messages, and voice mail prompts during my cold call sessions. However, I did strike gold every once in a while. But when cold calling proved to be pointless, I decided to make a list of people I planned on contacting once business went back to normal. When it was time to return to my normal routine, having the list on hand made my work schedule easier and increased my productivity.

2. Assess your client list

It’s easy to take on clients blindly out of excitement. After all, it’s extra work and pays the bills. But they don’t always fulfill your mission or may not be worth the time. Revise, your list of clients and analyze which ones aren’t as profitable. Are you satisfied with your relationship with them? Do you have too many clients to handle right now? Do they assist in reaching a bigger goal? Can you afford to cut some loose? Do you need more clients? Now is the perfect time to reevaluate.

During the loss of connection, I found that many of the clients I took on don’t assist in fulfilling my reason for being a writer. By the time, everything was restored I was able to begin eliminating those who no longer fit my needs and work towards getting clients that do.

3. Revise your marketing strategy

It is always wise to have a marketing strategy. Otherwise, you will be moving blindly toward your goal. If you don’t have a strategy, take out a pad and scribble down your plan of attack. Should you already have a marketing strategy, decide whether or not it’s helping you reach your goal. Do you practice in-person networking? Are you writing guest posts? Do you send out email campaigns? Are they working? It’s normal for marketing strategies to not fit as businesses they grow. Take the time to analyze and see what needs to be amended.

4. Edit your resume and bio

The rumors are true. Even as a freelance writer, you need a resume. Occasionally, you still might run into the potential client who decides a resume, bio, and portfolio are necessary before hiring you. Make sure they paint an accurate picture of you. Update your resume to reflect your best and most recent gigs. Make sure your bio is still relevant. I had been putting of the update of my resume for a long time. Sandy provided me with the nudge I needed to get it done.

5. Write

As freelance writers, this one should be a given. But the truth is finding uninterrupted time in which you can draft that blog post, start that article, or complete that copywriting assignment is difficult. There’s always the distraction of an open email box, Twitter alerts, Facebook messages, and phone calls. Take the time to unplug and actually do what you’re paid to do for a living.

With no Internet and calls to follow up on, I was able to write more than I ever had in a long time. It was really rewarding being able to complete my blog posts for the month in one day!

6. Meet the neighbors

Unfortunately, constant access to Internet has made it unnecessary for people to actually see each other face to face. However, it’s good for business. Getting out of the home office for a while, mingling with others, and networking with neighborhood businesses is revitalizing.

7. Set and evaluate your goals

As time goes on, goals change. Unfortunately, we never take the time to stop and realize it. Think about goals you’ve already made. Are they still in progress? Have you reached them? Are the goals still relevant to your career path? Once you set and evaluate goals, you will be able to be more efficient as a freelance writer.

8. Assess your budget

I hate numbers. It was one of the reasons why I went into journalism. Journalism or not, numbers are important. It can’t be avoided for long. Tracking expenses, and income is necessary for running any business. Once you assess your budget you can determine if you need more income, slash your budget, or search for new clients.

9. Create templates

As great as personalized, unique documents are, they take a lot of time. They aren’t suggested for everything, but it can be very beneficial to have templates. If you happen to use the same format for email follow-ups, or some pitches, create a basic template for it to save some time.

10. Back up files

Technology is great, but sometimes we have to accept that it will fail. If you don’t have several copies of documents you are out of luck. Dedicate an afternoon to backing up all your documents. You’ll be happy you did should your computer crash.

11. Revisit your reading lists

Remember, all those magazine clippings, printed blogs, and downloaded e-books you saved? If you are anything like me, they are still sitting in your “rainy day” pile untouched. It’s about time you actually go through the pile. You may come across new ideas to pitch, potential sources, and inspiration for your blog post. Sandy gave me the opportunity to slash my “rainy day” reading file in half. I learned so much.

12. Organize your source list

There is nothing worse than scrambling to find sources for a story at the last minute. If you’ve been in the business for a while there is probably a collection of sources in disarray. Save yourself the time and stress by organizing your sources. When you need a source at a moments notice you’ll know exactly what to do.

13. Go to the library

The library is a foreign land to many people. After all, who needs the library when you’ve got Google, e-books, and I-tunes? The problem is many people forgot how to research without the use of Google. A visit to the library can help you relearn the basics of thorough research.

Terri HugginsTerri Huggins is a Freelance Writer/Journalist in NJ who specializes in bridal, beauty, relationships, education and business topics. She also writes marketing paraphernalia such as brochures, press releases, blogs and newsletters for local businesses. By night, Terri is a arts enthusiast, prima ballerina, education activist, and dedicated volunteer. Connect with Terri on Twitter: TERRIficWords or stop by her blog, www.terrificwords.wordpress.com. Professional Website: http://www.writingbyterri.com/

 

Image credit: svilen001