31 December 2007

2007 - my year in review

I have blogged 128 times this year, which is about right - a nice average of twice a week. I doubled my workload, compared with that of 2006, which is a Good Thing (although it meant I had to pay more tax, which is a Bad Thing).

I had vowed at the start of the year to cut back on copy-editing for SMEs - it doesn't pay well on the whole and repeat work is unusual - and only take on bigger clients, should such opportunities present themselves. Looking back, I can see that I did indeed manage to do less of that, while gaining a number of more-lucrative advertorial jobs. I also picked up some excellent editing jobs. And a real turkey.

In return for cutting down on the copywriting, I had resolved to do more freelance journalism. Over the last few years, I've done the occasional piece here and there (picking up the threads of a career that had flourished in my youth) but I decided to make a determined breakthrough in 2007, with the support and encouragement of several much-admired and esteemed freelance hack colleagues. And thus I saw my first pieces appear in the national press (with another due out next week), and in various women's and consumer magazines. I also took on a monthly contract for an overseas paper (see Client No. 2) that I cancelled after 4 months because they failed to pay me on time every month and I got fed up chasing the money. Some jobs are not worth it. I didn't sell quite as many articles as I'd have liked but I'm certainly not complaining! Onwards and upwards...

What else, what else? Oh yes, I went boozing and schmoozing with the Journobiz crowd in July (but failed to make the Xmas do), I attended the annual SfEP conference for the third year in a row and I failed to go to the gym as often as I should. Must try harder in 2008 (to go to the gym and do more schmoozing...).

This blog has also done quite well this year. I've been quoted a fair few times on other blogs (and blogrolled, boosting my Technorati rating) and even guested on other blogs. I have plans for 2008 for this blog...

Things were also happening outside the domestic domain of Wordsmith Towers. Alan Johnston was kidnapped and then released. I doubt there was a hack alive in this country who wasn't praying (literally or metaphorically) that he would survive intact. And it was a joy to watch his documentary in the autumn and see this bright, gentle man had indeed come through his ordeal more or less unscathed.

The Facebook revolution sucked up every freelance hack I know, including me, and a few freelance editors. And led to me quitting a forum later in the year.

The media developed an irritating new trend - that of the tribute to a victim. This scenario involves someone dying (naturally), often horribly, to be followed by the family being interviewed and paying "tribute" to the dead person, who is often someone so young you wonder what there is to pay tribute about. Don't get me wrong, it's always terrible when someone dies in tragic circumstances, but it's not news when a teenage mum pays public tribute to her deceased 1-year-old boy, it's just column filler. I think I preferred it when people grieved privately.

The Americans occasionally did us proud too. First, Mika Brzezinski won a round of applause for burning her news script and refusing to lead on Paris Hilton's tedious jail saga. Second, Harlan Ellison had a splendid rant about paying writers. Cue another round of applause. (Actually, looking back, getting paid on time or even at all was a regular issue I raised - it really is all about the money when you freelance.)

Back in the UK, the NUJ organised a Stand Up for Journalism Day, but I still dithered over rejoining. Maybe in 2008...

And, er, that's about it, really. Today I wrote about 700 words of a 1,000-word feature that I need to file by Wednesday and pottered around answering a few emails. That's it for 2007. I'm off to put my feet up and after a nice supper and a dose of EastEnders, I shall be heading out to greet the year to come...

See you all in 2008!

28 December 2007

Normal service...

...will shortly resume!

This wordsmith was overwhelmed with work in the run-up to Xmas.

And walloped by norovirus during it.

Soon to come: my review of 2007, personal/professional and (maybe) a look at the year's wider context. Followed by a look ahead to 2008...

14 December 2007

More gripes about forumites

Maybe it's the lack of daylight at this time of year, but I feel distinctly grouchy. And I'm feeling especially unbending right now towards other people on some of the professional forums and mailing lists I use. After having a rant about forumites who can't be bothered to search the archives for info on common problems, I thought of all the other things that really get on my proverbials when it comes to posting.

There is a certain etiquette when it comes to posting - this may vary between forums but the essentials remain the same.

1. Trim your posts. It's polite to cut everything bar just the paragraph or two that you are actually responding to, especially if the forum is a listserv rather than a web-based bulletin board. The rest of us do not want to have scroll past 10 paragraphs, your signature, the yahoo groups blah and 3 anti-virus messages, just to read one line.

2. "Me toos" are infuriating. Freelances are busy people and we get a lot of email. Clogging up inboxes with an ill-considered "me too" is the height of bad manners and is only acceptable if you actually can add to the debate by introducing a new point. If the only thing you have to say is "I agree", then say it in your head and only your head. See point 1, as me toos frequently follow an untrimmed post.

3. Use the search engines. I was until recently a member of a yahoo group where one particular poster really got peoples' backs up because they would ask the most basic copy-editing questions instead of using standard reference works or even looking on the net first. And this was someone who supposedly had "advanced" status. I do not miss these now I've quit - previously, I'd be hitting the delete button several times a day after skimming the post in question. To paraphrase that well-known saying, eds help those who help themselves, but pissed-off eds will always ignore someone who cries wolf.

4. Stop moaning. Another listserv I use has several members who never post anything except whinges about how badly they get treated by commissioning editors, how lousy the rates are, how skint they are ad infinitum. As with point 3, these are people I will always ignore and never offer advice or support to, because the constant moaning depresses me and pisses me off simultaneously. If freelancing really is that bad, find an alternative career. Or shut up and do something to improve your situation.

5. Give back. Building on points 3 and 4, if you must constantly request help or advice, it's politic to return the favour to other members. I get really hacked off with people who are on the take but never offer advice themselves or post cheery, pleasant things. I always try to offer useful advice to people who genuinely need help (bar those in 3 &4 above) or post some humorous trivia to make people smile. And I keep my own queries and moans to a minimum.

6. Don't pick fights or snipe. And don't feed the troll. I quit the group mentioned in point 3 because of ongoing low-level sniping and bitching. Not to mention being in receipt of some nasty emails posted offlist to me. Also irritating are those who encourage the resident bitch in subtle ways. All of which serve to make the forum experience unpleasant for almost everyone else.

All this probably makes me sound an uncharitable bitch, so I'd just like to say hurrah for Journobiz, which is possibly the most supportive forum or listserv I've ever used, packed full of wonderfully generous and witty people and thankfully devoid of "professionals" who suck the will to live out of you...

13 December 2007

Late payers and lazy freelances

Something that many people new to the world of freelancing run into problems with is money. Time and again, I see the subject of getting paid cropping up on forums and mailing lists, these days on an almost weekly basis.

Those taking the leap into self-employment need to learn many things – having a financial cushion when starting out, how to pitch and follow up, ways to find clients and keep them… these are just a few of the essentials. What very few realise is that freelancing is a business. Basically, that means that if you decide to work for yourself, it’s a very good idea to find out exactly what the business side entails. I did a course run by my local chamber of commerce before taking the plunge so I could learn about boring stuff like tax, terms & conditions, contracts, bookkeeping and a raft of other stuff. And I talked to people and read widely on the net.

So I get very fed up when I see freelances (some of whom apparently have years, decades even, of experience behind them) asking the most basic questions about extracting funds from late payers. My initial reaction is STFA* (my variant on RTFM**) because the answers are out there and you don’t need the IQ of Einstein to find them.

I’ve never yet been stiffed for money by a client because I treat my business as a business. I’ve had a couple of very late payers who I’ve come close to taking to court, but it so rarely needs to get that far. And here’s why.

1. If you take on an unknown client, have them sign a contract. I do this always when taking on editing work from private individuals or copywriting from small businesses, to protect myself. A contract need not be complex – mine usually consist of 2 or 3 sentences setting out what I undertake to do within an agreed timeframe at X price and that the client undertakes to pay within 30 days and abide by my terms & conditions. I make 2 copies, sign both and send them to the client, have them sign both and return 1 copy to me. So we both have a record.

2. Terms & conditions: I have these on my website, available for all to read, and they set out everything in stone (and in reasonably plain English). They cost nothing to draw up – a freelance colleague kindly let me borrow his and a lawyer friend tweaked them for English law and checked them over. Standard T&Cs can be found easily on the net. Alternatively, ask your professional body or union if they supply standard versions for members.

3. When I invoice, I make it a) very clear that my payment terms are 30 days and b) that failure to pay on time will result in the client being charged interest and compensation as is my right under the law. I don’t always get paid within 30 days because some companies have payment cycles or policies that may clash and sometimes it’s better to be patient and allow that extra 2 or 3 weeks rather than go in waving writs and losing an otherwise good client. Use your nous.

4. If you’ve not been paid within a further 30 days and emails and calls are being ignored, it’s time to take action. Don't wait till 9 months later (yes and I know of some who left it even longer!) It’s dead simple – you send a statement of account, setting out what they owe and giving them 7 days to pay. If that doesn’t work, you then send a letter before action, which is basically a statement of account plus a legal warning that failure to pay at this stage will result in legal action. And that’s step 3. Most companies cough up when they get a letter before action, but if not, you simply file your claim on the internet with the small claims court (and don’t forget to ask the court to include your own court fees in the sum you are asking your debtor to pay). I’ve never gone beyond step 2 (and that was only once) but I still know the rest because I took the time to learn how to run my business properly.

I really can’t be bothered any more to reply to lame freelances on the forums who run into these kinds of problems. I could spend an hour a week answering posts asking for help. I’m not being mean, just practical. The time I’ve spent in the past trying to help people is time I could have spent earning money. I will gladly help freelances with genuine problems the answers to which are not out there to be found easily. Need a contact at a magazine? No problem. Got a question on how to calculate an hourly rate or project fee? I’ll happily help – these things are never set in stone. But please don’t ask me to resolve your payment problems. Just STFA…

* search the fucking archive

** read the fucking manual

11 December 2007

Xmas schmoozing

A couple of weeks back, a young graphic designer I hired to do some work for me in 2006 emailed to ask if I was planning to send Xmas cards to my clients this year. I did this the first couple of years that I freelanced, figuring it was a good way to stay on-side with clients - letting my regulars know they are valued and reminding the one-offs that I appreciated their custom and that I still exist if they'd care to throw more work in my direction. Over the past 12 months, my workload has shifted - more journalism, less copywriting (plus the same amount of editing) - and I decided not to bother with cards this year. In all my years as a hack, I'd never once schmoozed commissioning eds with cards.

Thus it was that I mailed back the designer, who had made me such fabulous cards last year, to say I wouldn't be bothering this year.

Today I almost went into free-fall panic mode, reading the discussion on Journobiz about why sending cards to eds is so important! And, of course, it's too bloody late to order cards now. I suppose I could buy some from a shop but I liked having my own made up for me.

I need to think about this...

But I'm certainly not sending GIFTS, which is what the hacks on the Mousetrap forum are currently discussing. That is a step too far. What? Hand back my hard-earned pennies in the form of editorial backhanders?

Elsewhere, I see the Plain English Awards are being handed out tonight. I'm always highly amused by the embarrassing faux pas committed by the gong recipients. Perhaps I should email them all and offer my services to spare their future blushes?

A day in London beckons tomorrow... a meeting with an ed, a nice lunch, followed by cake at the British Library with some fellow hacks. I'll be the one with my head in a book...

03 December 2007

Office hours

Much as I love freelancing, it has its drawbacks. One of these is clients thinking they have an inalienable right to call or email at all hours. With the latter, I just ignore them until the next day, when I feel more inclined to type up a civilised reply to their emailed query. Phoning outside office hours gives me the right hump, though.

At 19.55 this evening, my phone rang. I picked it up, half-expecting it to be a friend or family member, and was all set to say I'd call back after EastEnders. It was a potential client. My heart sank. It was pure luck I was actually at my desk instead of on the sofa, because I really was about to tune into Albert Square. Quick as a flash, I apologised for not being able to talk right now as it was outside working hours and I was cooking. I scrawled his number on the back of an envelope and promised to call back next morning. Then I hung up and legged it into the living room with 30 seconds to spare before the EE theme tune kicked in.

This was a typical intrusion. I am fed up of people thinking that just because I work from home it's ok to call after 6pm. 'Cos it bloody well isn't. Nor is it ok to call on Saturdays or Sundays. I may well be working in the evenings or at weekends - I try to avoid it as much as possible, but at least if I do it, it's my choice. And nobody's business but mine. My website's contact page clearly states that my working hours are 9am to 6pm. In the evening, like everybody else who has a busy working life, I want to relax and unwind. I do not want to talk business.

Working from home has its plusses - I can nip to the shops when I feel like it, book haircuts or other appointments to suit myself, even take a nap on a slack day. Of course, it has taken me forever to instil in friends and family that my being at home does not mean I'm not really working. And that it's not ok to pop in for coffee when passing unless they've checked beforehand that it's convenient. All that, though, pales into insignificance alongside clients real and potential who think it's fine to butt in on my private time.

Time to install a second line, methinks...

30 November 2007

Getting paid

It's the end of a month and I've just spent a tedious half-day invoicing various clients and getting my books up to date. It's a relief to see that not too many people owe me money. Apart from one client who still owes me £145 from a much larger bill sent in February. Most of it has been settled in dribs and drabs over the intervening months but I don't want to get heavy as this client does give me regular, prestigious work, even if the rate is not fantastic. My accountant will not be pleased though if the debt drags over into yet another tax year.

Money is also an issue when you freelance. One hack I know of through an online forum writes for the national press and was asked by another client if she would write a lengthy feature. She said yes, until she found out the payment on offer was £25. Stick a nought on that and you might be getting somewhere... You have to laugh or you'd weep. Our trade is being wrecked by the zillion and one wannabes out there who are prepared to work for little or nothing. An example: someone on a business forum I use offers to write articles on any subject to be used as content on someone else's business website. His charge? £4 an article. Yes, you read that correctly -4 measly quid.

The number of outlets (particularly on the net) seeking writers who are willing to work solely for the kudos and the portfolio clippings is also rising. And now the NUJ is planning to confront the government over the blatant disregard for the minimum wage laws by newspapers and magazines who ask students to do up to 6 months' work experience for free. That's not work experience, that's exploitation.

Writing is a profession and a skill. It can be incredibly hard at times - staring at a blank page and struggling to string it all together (thankfully, for us professionals that's not an everyday occurrence but it can happen at times). As a professional skill, writing should and must command a professional remuneration. Why should we work for nothing? Newspaper bosses don't work for free. Neither does the editor, the page designer or the secretary.

I leave you with this fabulous clip, brought to me by a fellow hack today. It made me laugh but it has the bitter ring of truth to it...

23 November 2007

Feast and famine

It's all one or the other in this game. Either you are inundated with work or you have next to none. There never seems to be a happy compromise.

I've had a lean November, after months of solid work. I wasn't really panicking as I've been in this situation before and know from experience that it's not unusual. Mind you, I was getting to the stage where I was seriously considering cold-calling for work after I worked out that I'd earned barely a fifth of my income from the previous month. Then a quick read of some of the professional forums I network on showed that many other freelances seem to be in doldrums too. Phew! Not that I wish my colleagues a workless month - it's just that it's good to know I'm not alone and that clients and editors don't hate me. It's just a slack period all round.

And besides, I've just been offered lots of work. Admittedly, I turned down one job because of the anti-social hours required for 5 (count 'em!) nights a week, and another it turns out is not happening until March next year (!). Neither was the latter being offered on the plate it seemed to be at first, when I discovered others had been approached too and therefore I'd have to pitch for it. But one client I did lots of well-paid work for this year has asked me for more. And not being the type to say no, I said I'd email on Monday with my proposals for the project. Result.

Work beckons this weekend, too. I agreed to take on an urgent research job for a sick colleague who needs help while recovering for the lurgy (trust me, when you're ill and freelance, you have to crack on with commitments - it's very useful to be able to call on trusted colleagues at such times). I also, foolishly, took on a couple of other small jobs that I'm now regretting having agreed to. But hey, it was a slack month! I need the cash...

14 November 2007

Rogue databases and consent

Over on the ever-splendid JournoBiz forum, some fellow hacks were discussing something called Journa-list. I'd not heard of this before and my curiosity was piqued so off I went for a nose...

Journa-list is run by the Media Standards Trust, which in its own words describes itself as "an independent, not-for-profit organisation that aims to find ways to foster the highest standards of excellence in news journalism and ensure public trust in news is nurtured". Now, that's all well and good and I can't argue with that - standards matter in journalism and it's good there is some kind of body keeping tabs on things.

But my hackles are raised. MST's Journa-list database is being compiled without consent of those journalists it is listing. I ran a search on myself and, sure enough, I was there. Except I hadn't asked to be on it and the entry on me lists only one article anyway, which is hardly accurate. I have to question the ethics of gathering such data without consent by an organisation that claims to uphold standards of excellence in the industry. I am much more in favour of a voluntary database of the sort Journalist Michael Cross is proposing.

This is not the first time, alas, that I have been listed on a database without my permission or even knowledge. A year or so ago, I was emailed by a company that was inviting me to upgrade my listing on its media database. What database, I wondered? I took a look and was unhappy to find my details had been lifted from somewhere else without my agreement. A bit of investigation revealed that most of the other hacks on there had one (paid for) database in common, so it was obvious what had been trawled. On that occasion, I made a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office, but not before I was threatened with legal action by the perpetrators for bringing the situation to the attention of other journalists.

More recently, googling my phone number revealed I'd been listed on a commercial database of businesses owned by a very well-known publisher. Again, it took a bit of detective work to track down who I needed to speak to to get myself removed.

As a freelance, I like to retain some control over where I am listed. I pay to be on several highly reputable databases, and these are the only ones I want to be on. I do not want to be listed by anyone else and it infuriates me that I have to search for myself regularly on the net to check that I'm not showing up on something I've not consented to.

And as a journalist committed to upholding professional standards, including ethical ones, I find it particularly odious that others in the media seem to have no qualms in breaching the Data Protection Act or behaving otherwise unethically when it comes to the issue of consent.

12 November 2007

Styling English

David Marsh writes in today's Guardian about the latest edition of the newspaper's style book, which has been updated and published anew.

I remember when the Guardian's style guide was first published on its website - as a writer and editor, as well as loyal Graun reader (and these days occasional freelance for it too), I found it fascinating reading. Many of the paper's styling decisions back then made perfect sense, while some seemed rather unusual. I used to regularly consult the online version when working abroad as it kept me up to speed with current usage back home and was thus an invaluable reference work.

These days, I seem rarely to look at it as much of the stuff I copy-edit either comes with a style guide attached or I use NODWE and Hart for guidance. I've also written a fair number of style guides myself over the last decade.

The Guardian's new style book modernises common usage yet again. It's good to see they are finally ditching honorifics after first mention, for example, a practice I have pursued for several years already. Another for one my bookshelf, I think, as it's always handy to have several to consult (and funnily enough, despite the hours I spend on the net, these days I'm more likely to consult a print edition than hunt around on the web when I need styling answers fast).

11 November 2007

Books and newspapers

I came across Juliet Doyle's Musings from a Muddy Island blog the other day. It's a splendidly eclectic mix of posts on printing and typography, books, photography and art. My attention was particularly drawn to her post on why we keep books. I totally identified with Juliet on this - Wordsmith Towers contains thousands of books, about half mine, the rest my Beloved P's. Neither of us ever get rid of books. Well, I do very occasionally, but only the freebie chick-lit cover mounts from women's magazines that I tend to read just once then recycle at my nearest charity shop. Chick lit is not a genre I normally bother with, you see. I fear that we will run out of space eventually for our books. My office is full of dictionaries and other "work" books. Cookery books are in the dining room next to the kitchen. The main living room has books on entertainment (film, rock music, soaps), exploration and geography, and history. The other living room is crammed with general fiction, crime novels, travel guides and maps. The spare bedroom contains P's sci-fi and fantasy novels. Our bedroom has shelves of erotica. The landing is shelved with politics and Judaica. And, well, you get the picture...

Books are my friends. I have favourite books I return to again and again, and books I read only once but will never part with. I grew up in a house crammed with book, was reading before I went school and cannot imagine having no books around me. I guess it explains why I chose the career I did. An ex of mine never read and I remember how shocked I was when we first met to discover that he owned just 6 books, 1 of which was the telephone directory and 2 of which were car repair manuals. When we moved in together he grumbled about the size of my book collection and banished all books from the living room. You can see why we were doomed...

I love looking at other people's book collections too. It can tell you masses about the kind of person they are, just as their wardrobe and CD collection will.

If you're quick, go to Radio 4 right now. The Beeb is running a series of very interesting programmes on journalism and newspapers. I'm having a lazy Sunday here, indulging in a marathon listening session to catch up on some of the programmes I missed earlier due to work pressure.

08 November 2007

Register of interests and PR woes

Journalist Michael Cross has proposed an interesting idea over on JournoBiz - namely that journalists should voluntarily declare on any conflicts of interest on a register. Much of the reading public is unaware that, for example, hacks writing travel features usually have their trips paid for by airlines and hotels or holiday companies, rather the costs being met by the publication.

The perks of the job can be amazing - or paltry. It depends what you write about. Hacks reviewing products of any description can expect to be given them for free, for keeps. A music journalist is highly unlikely ever to buy CDs. Motoring journalists often get a flash car to play with for a month or so before it goes back to the manufacturer. Reviewing vehicles virtually ensures you don't really need to buy your own.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum. Because of the kind of journalism I engage in, I rarely get freebies. In the last year, I've had about £200 worth of free VoIP kit, but that was only foisted on me by an anxious PR after I'd slated the company in print, in the hope that if I write about them again I'll be nicer. And that's it. Nothing else apart from a couple of free sex toys and two books!

I like the idea, though, of journalists being transparent about perks and conflicts of interest. Michael's aim is for it to operate along similar lines to that of the register of MPs' interests. I am following the debate on JournoBiz as it unfolds and if it ever gets off the ground I expect I'll sign up.

Elsewhere, I had a spectacularly stressful day thanks to a hapless PR. I had an afternoon deadline to file a feature and although I'd requested some statistics several days ago and they'd been promised by end of Wednesday, I still hadn't received them by noon. I was struggling to write my article without the info and spent ages on the phone and emailing. The flack kept saying I'd have them in 10 minutes and an hour would pass and there'd still be no stats.

Finally, I got the email, only for the most important stats I'd asked for to be missing. Another phone call, another hour... I eventually filed late, which I was not pleased about, although my commissioning ed was very understanding because I'd kept her informed of the problem.

When will PRs understand that it's essential to respect our deadlines and supply us with what we ask for? It took this one 4 whole days to come up with 5 lines of info, data that she could have supplied quickly and easily if she'd applied herself. Sigh. At least the other PRs I dealt with this week were a lot more helpful.

Airing dirty laundry in public

I was going to post on why this can sometimes be a good thing, even essential on occasion. I had even crafted half my blog post. Then I decided to scrap it on the grounds that what I wanted to say could not have been said without damaging the reputation of an organisation whose reputation I don't wish to damage. Because it doesn't deserve to be damaged.

A bit ironic, really, that I'm keeping schtum instead.

Perhaps I should just say that it only takes a couple of rotten apples to spoil the whole barrel.

04 November 2007

Standing up for journalism

Tomorrow - Monday 5 November - is official Stand Up For Journalism day.

I won't be doing anything myself to mark the day. Firstly, I'm providing editing cover for a foreign colleague so I'll be chained to my PC all day waiting for Swedish equity analysts to send me their reports. Pity, as the main event - a big rally in Manchester - is not far from me and looks like it could be interesting, as activists will be targeting the conference of the Society of Editors (that's newspaper editors, btw, not lowly copy editors like moi).

Secondly, I'm not currently a member of the NUJ. My membership lapsed when I went abroad and when I first attempted to renew it I was told I couldn't, for a couple of technical reasons. Then my old union did a few things I wasn't terribly keen on so, for reasons too complex to explain here, I haven't yet renewed my membership. I keep toying with it - it is, after all, the only union I have ever belonged to - but nothing has yet managed to persuade me to bite the bullet and fill in the forms again.

I like the idea of a day of action, though. The day is a protest against the huge media conglomerates that own our newspapers and magazines yet keep cutting staff and budgets to boost their profit margins. It's a serious problem in an industry that hasn't seen day rates rise for freelance shift workers in more than 17 years, that means many regional papers can't afford specialist staff such as crime reporters and many national newspapers can't afford to send their reporters out to cover news on the ground. A lot of journalists are reduced to recycling press releases and ultimately it is the public that suffers as they don't get proper news. For a good summary of the situation, read this.

I'll be thinking of my paid-up colleagues while I sit at home correcting Swedish finance reports.

31 October 2007

Where there's Mucc...

...there's another hypocritical rant about the press. Mucca, aka Lady Heather Mills-McCartney, took the media to task this morning on GMTV, claiming she had been driven to the brink of suicide by more than 4,000 negative stories about her in the newspapers. That'll be the same Heather Mills who has apparently used the press regularly to leak info about her divorce and make as yet unsubstantiated allegations against her former husband, Paul McCartney (who has maintained a dignified radio silence while proceedings continue).

I liked the weepy touch about her claim to be "protecting" Macca. It's almost convincing, until you remember she told the same media that McCartney allegedly hit her.

Celebrities and media enjoy a double-edged relationship, the former courting the latter whenever it suits them to have free publicity, then moaning when they are shown in a bad light.

Kate and Gerry McCann found themselves in the glare of the world's press spotlight when their daughter Madeleine disappeared 6 months ago. They courted the media relentlessly in what appeared to be a fair attempt to keep Madeleine's disappearance in the public eye. Yet, when the Portuguese police named them as official suspects and the press coverage became negative, they suddenly asked for privacy!

The fact is, you can't have it both ways - if you are in the public eye for whatever reason and you use the media for your own ends, you are hardly in a position to complain when the boot is on the other foot...

30 October 2007

Clients, tax, dole

The unwanted copywriting client resurfaced at the end of last week - I knew it was too good to be true. I got a phone call in which I was told the job was urgent (again) and then I found out that what was wanted was in fact totally different to the original brief I had prepared a quotation for. I told the client to prepare me a new, detailed brief so I could requote and he promised to do it over the weekend. Well, here we are on a Tuesday night and there's still no sign of the new brief. I give up. This one I'm washing my hands of and if he comes back, I'll offer to refer him to someone else on the grounds that I'm too busy.

Elsewhere, I've been offered a paid blogging job. I'm not committed yet as I'm waiting to see what the money will be like. This is important as I'll have to read at least two foreign papers every morning as well as write 1000 words a day. I have also possibly found a new financial editing client (another one, woo-hoo!) - this one is for books and could turn out to be a source of regular work, I hope.

My accountant emailed to say my books are ready. My tax bill is not very high - I carried a large loss over from when I first started trading three years ago and I'm using that this year to offset my tax. No complaints there.

On the downside, a benefit I receive for my disability has been rescinded and I'm not happy. Now I've got just 3 weeks to appeal and hopefully get it restored.

29 October 2007

Aunty needs a minder

Yesterday's Observer carried the following story: Mind your language, critics warn BBC.

About flaming time...

As a child, I can actually remember being told that the BBC was the arbiter of the Queen's English (we lack the equivalent of an Academie Francaise, you see). My English has always been extremely good, hence why I ended up in this trade, but even up until recently if I was unsure of something I could rely on the BBC to point me in the right direction on matters of language. Sadly, this is no longer true. And we certainly can't rely on the government to set standards - standards in English are what have been falling in schools for the last 30 years.

Tot take one example, the BBC website is a disgrace, from the language point of view. Most news reports on it carry at least one spelling error, not to mention poor punctuation and distinctly dodgy grammar. For a while I took a perverse pleasure in finding the errors then emailing BBC News Online to complain and see how long it took them to correct the page. But no more, because the errors are so many and widespread I'd never get any work done. It does make for an amusing read, though.

I hope the BBC does appoint a language chief. It certainly needs one. This may also be the only time I will ever agree with Ann Widdecombe on anything.

25 October 2007

Alan Johnston speaks

Kidnapped journalist Alan Johnston, who was held in Gaza for 114 days earlier this year, is to tell his story.

To read of how he coped with his frightening ordeal is to be inspired by his extraordinary courage and strength in the face of death. I'm not ashamed to say his tale has brought tears to my eyes this morning.

Alan will be speaking on Radio 4 this morning, in From Our Own Correspondent, at 11am (BST). I shall be tuning in.

He also has a Panorama programme on his story tonight, which will be broadcast on BBC1 at 9pm (BST). Watch it and be humbled.

24 October 2007


A (I think) student hack raised a question today on a journalism forum I hang out on - namely that it must be impossible to get a decent job without the all-important "bulging contacts book". This phrase is such a hackneyed cliché it's been around since before the red tops were invented. It conjures up an image of an ageing Filofax, creaking at its seams, leaking loose business cards and assorted scraps of paper, and all held together by an elastic band because the leather strap broke decades ago.

Ha! Another romantic myth...

There's no such thing as a bulging contacts book. It's merely standard recruitment ad jargon and what it boils down to is not who you know but whether you know how to get hold of people who can supply you with the contacts you need for a story. And those people are often a few PR types and the best mate of your sister's ex-boyfriend's boss.

When I was starting out, those recruitment ads would intimidate so much I never dared to apply for many jobs that I would dearly have loved to have. I didn't know loads of celebrities. And you know what? I still don't. Unless you count a couple of reasonably well-known stand-up comics and a cult novelist, none of whom I've yet managed to persuade to be interviewed, or to write for a mag I commission for.

What I do know is people. I have, like most people, a handful of close friends, plus a wider circle of acquaintances. I network a lot in the business community and keep in touch with PR people. I keep every business card that's thrust at me, stash numbers in my mobile phone, file emails that have contact details in them and keep a Rolodex. If I need to find someone to talk to, all I need to do is flick through that lot and then, if I still draw a blank, I may ask favours from other hacks.

You don't really need to have Posh Spice on direct dial in this business - what you do need is knowing how to get hold of her spokesperson in three moves or fewer. And there's the rub - it's not who you know but whether you know how to find the info you need or not. I'm not the kind of hack that would sell their granny to the Daily Sport for a fiver, neither do I have the kind of family members who are willing to sell their stories to the media. Does it matter? No. Because I have a wide enough circle of contacts that a couple of phone calls or emails should suffice to find the right people I need to talk to.

23 October 2007

My cup overfloweth

The unwanted copywriting client has, thankfully, gone quiet on me. Not a word since Sunday, despite him saying the job was urgent. I hope he's found someone else as I sense there will be many problems if I end up doing the work after all.

The chance of that happening looks increasingly slim - I did warn him to book my time quickly because, as I expected, my schedule is filling up rapidly. An old client of mine has offered me two jobs over the next fortnight, the first starting asap, after 9 months of silence. The new investment banking client is also solid - I have my first jobs booked in for the end of this week, then it will be regular most weeks. All this is good as it means less possibility of being lumbered with the job I really don't want.

I have a few other things in the pipeline, the most urgent being to sort out options for office space if the dung hits the proverbial...

22 October 2007

Small ups, big down

Things were a little slow last week on the work front, but I suddenly seem to be in demand again. I've just been offered regular editing work from yet another investment bank, two possible books to work on and (cue groans) a tedious copywriting job that I do not want. I have tried my best to put this client off but I guess I'm just going to have write the copy and bank the cash.

The downside is I'm now facing major disruption to my ability to run my business as I'm almost certainly going to have to look for office space very soon and I have no idea how long I could be out of action.

19 October 2007

The only book a writer will ever need

Review: The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips in the World, by Linda Jones

When my review copy of this nifty tome fell into my "Grub Street" hands, I was startled at how small it is. Not having encountered a “Greatest Tips” book before, I had been expecting a full-size paperback weighing at least 500g. It’s a hardback, in fact, but compact and neat enough to fit into my handbag.

Don’t be fooled by its diminutive size, though. This book packs a wealth of information into its pages and is of far greater value than many bigger, textbook “how to” guides on freelancing.

What I really like about Jones’ book is that she speaks plainly – there’s a wonderful no-nonsense air about the advice and tips she offers. Right from the get-go, she warns there’s no place to hide if you want to write as a freelance and that a reality check is the first port of call. From such auspicious beginnings, Jones covers a huge amount of territory in a compact manner – from reminding you that you are running a business (rather than being an artist in a garret), with all the paperwork that involves, to letting editors know you exist (and how to get them to hire you) via writing for magazines, the nationals or the internet, which all need very different approaches.

Interspersed throughout are lots of handy checklists, bullet points to remind you of essentials, obscure but interesting facts and useful chapter summaries. I also love the pithy quotes about writing by famous authors from Sylvia Plath to James Michener. I can’t begin to detail just how many valuable tips are stuffed in here – many of them cover ground that I learned the hard way over the course of my career (when a book like this would have saved me much grief). Obviously, newcomers to the trade of professional writing would be wise to invest in this book if only to avoid some of the more common pitfalls than can happen to the inexperienced. But even the most seasoned hacks should find enough in here to inspire them, remind them or encourage them. Of all the books on freelancing and writing I have sitting on my groaning bookshelf next to my desk, I strongly suspect that The Greatest Freelancing Writing Tips in the World is the one that will end up the most thumbed, dog-eared and used, simply because it’s the most practical.

And don't forget Linda's blog either - it's crammed full of yet more useful advice, tips and guidance to keep you on your toes (and your bank manager happy).

18 October 2007


Where's the "embarrassed" smiley? I just realised it's been 20 days since my last post and am shocked at how the fast the days have blown by. So what has this wordsmith been up to?

Work, mainly. It all got a bit hectic in late September and it carried through into this month. Before I knew it, it was mid-month and I'd been silenter than a silent night. Tsk! Unusually for me, as well as churning out words I've been donating them. I agreed to be a case study for two features by other hacks. One of these is published today, so I will shortly absent myself to purchase said magazine. Trips to the newsagent are becoming more frequent these days - yesterday saw me buying a downmarket interiors mag which carries an article by me, for example.

I also came up with a great idea for a book - I need some time to formulate it and get some advice on how to pitch it to a publisher, but I think it's a definite goer.

Talking of books, the very splendid Linda Jones, freelance journalist extraordinaire, is launching her book today. I will shortly be hopping on a train to support her at the launch (and buy a signed copy, of course!). Expect a report later this week...

29 September 2007

27 September 2007

Treading on very sensitive toes

Oh dear! It rather looks as if I have upset someone's carefully arranged Victorian costermonger's barrow...

Back in early August, I wrote about a very rugged online debate taking place within the SfEP over whether the organisation should have a presence on Facebook, to attract new members and publicise itself to a wide audience. The debate swiftly turned into something else - namely, how sinister is Facebook because it collects data on members. Those in favour of taking SfEP onto Facebook became very frustrated by attempts to derail what should have been a sensible discussion about finding new ways to secure the future of the organisation and expand its membership and renown.

Some of my own frustration spilled over into this blog and I used the term Luddites to describe some of my more stubborn colleagues. I make no apology for that.

Nevertheless, those SfEP members on Facebook banded together and set up an "unofficial" group there. It has already drawn at least one new member into the SfEP.

Today, someone calling themselves Faceless left a comment on that entry. Hmmm, it would have been fair comment at the time but leaving it until 6 whole weeks later was a bit pointless. I have been pondering the identity of Faceless, who clearly knows who I am but prefers to leave anonymous remarks on an out-of-date blog instead of picking up the phone and communicating directly with me. That's what I call gutless. And I'm 99.9% certain of Faceless's identity.

The most irritating thing is that same tiny band who would prefer that SfEP remain stuck in a time warp continue to stir up discussions about how awful Facebook allegedly is. Yet none of them have been on there to see it for themselves and criticise from a position of knowledge. Nor do some of them have any qualms about inventing facts - the SfEP Facebookers have been accused of using the group there to engage in "seaside postcard humour" and bring the SfEP into disrepute. Neither of these is true of course, but the detractors will never join Facebook to see for themselves and get their facts straight.

I would find it all quite laughable if it wasn't so pathetic. And if I wasn't being sent offensive mails by some so-called colleagues because of it all.

The SfEP is a fantastic organisation for editors and proofreaders. Our leadership works incredibly hard to boost the profile of our profession, to raise professional standards and to provide excellent membership benefits, among many other things. It's a real pity that the small handful who appear to hark back to some mythical golden age (when all editors tugged their forelocks, used blue pencils and quill pens, and drank lashings of ginger beer) seem so hellbent on stopping progress.

But, as one of my colleagues once said, albeit in a slightly different context, the gloves are off now...

24 September 2007

Double take

I was having a quiet sort of morning. I made a list of things to do this week - not just work, but a few other tasks - and started gradually working my way through it. Then a potential client called offering me an urgent job. I agreed to take it on and got stuck in immediately.

From about lunchtime, my phone never stopped ringing. My callers were, almost without exception, applying for my vacancy.

Except I'm not offering a job to anyone.

The problem is that I have a trading name that is almost identical to a larger collective of people who operate in a similar field to me. Three years ago, when I was hunting for a trading name I searched Companies House and the trademarks register to ensure my chosen name would be unique. And so it appeared that it was. Except my rivals have been trading for around twice as long as me. I have long been aware of them and they, no doubt, of me. Neither of us has taken action against the other, probably because there's not really much need, although I have toyed recently with trademarking myself. We seem to have very different pools of clients.

Things changed today. My rivals apparently advertised a vacancy in a national newspaper today. Interestingly, they asked candidates to make contact only by email. But of course, all those candidates wanted to know more about the company offering the job, so they got googling. And of course, my site generally comes up higher - way higher - as my SEO is better. And my phone number is on my site. Hence it ringing off the hook. I was distracted all afternoon by people calling to ask questions about the job. If it was me hiring, I wouldn't have picked any of them if they can't follow the instruction to contact by email only. The first rule of editing is accuracy...

23 September 2007

The future of newspapers

I see the BBC has been discussing the future of the regional and local press.

They are a bit slow off the mark. Others have been examining this issue for a while. Steve Rubel wrote about this a whole year ago! Craig McGinty also examined this topic back in May 2006.

I totally agree with Rubel and McGinty that local media need to engage their readership to survive. In my county, the Chester Chronicle (a weekly appearing on Fridays) has finally got round to launching new sites. Firstly, the main news site has been revamped, offering updates on a regular basis instead just on publication day. The Chronicle has also launched a very useful What's On guide, which will surely earn its keep. The news site appears to be offering readers the opportunity to comment on stories as they are published.

21 September 2007

End-of-the-week catch-up

I'm glad it's Friday night. It's been an incredibly busy week, with the next fortnight being equally heavily booked.

I finally signed off the big editorial project I've been involved with since early August and am looking forward to sending in my huge invoice.

In between, I sent out a couple of pitches (one promptly rejected, the other I'm still waiting to hear about), attended a breakfast networking meeting (which proved very worthwhile as I met two potentially useful contacts there), a feature of mine was published but I still haven't seen it as a copy has yet to land on my doormat, I hammered out a fast-turnaround copywriting job for a new client (then discovered from chatting to my lovely graphic designer that there will almost certainly be more regular work coming my way from said client), and got offered a potentially very large contract.

I also managed, with my usual aplomb, not to mention penchant for procrastination, to play several games of Scrabulous on Facebook, and do a reasonable amount of surfing.

As a result, I came across a very interesting blog site called Work-related Blogging, which is run by a university lecturer who is researching work blogs. He has a very impressive blogroll listing hundreds of blogs, many by disgruntled public service workers. Definitely worth dipping into for finding good blogs, as well as the interesting news posts on the nature of blogging.

Right, it's Friday - time to cook, open a bottle and forget about work for a couple of days...

20 September 2007

The humble hyphen - an endangered species

The BBC website has an interesting article today on the vanishing hyphen. Us pedants who care about these things have long been mourning its decline in use. But only where necessary.

It makes sense, as illustrated in the article, for some hyphenated words to become one word, or two. And who could argue with taking the hyphen out of words such as email? Language is a living entity and we can expect spellings to change through common usage.

No, the problem is when things wot ought to be hyphenated ain't.

The hyphen plays a vital role in compound adjectives, such as a "poor-rate collection" as opposed to a "poor rate collection". It helps us make sense of a sentence and avoid ambiguity.

- I want to resign, said the premier-league footballer.

A simple case of quitting? Not necessarily.

- I want to re-sign, said the premier-league footballer.

Aha! He wants to renew his contract!

In speech, emphasis would have made the meaning clear for the above example. In print, one might be forgiven for assuming one meaning when something completely different was meant.

That tiny black dash may look daft or pointless, but it does have an important role to play in language. Use it, or it will die. And one day, like endangered gorillas or pandas, it will no longer be there at all and we will be mourning its loss, not just for its beauty and the pleasure it gave, but for its role in our linguistic eco-system.

19 September 2007

Today's annoyances

WARNING *grumpy old ranter alert*

Annoyance no. 1 was an unsolicited email from a PR firm called Kelso Consulting sent to the wrong email address (I have a dedicated email address for PR stuff so it doesn't clog up my inbox). Worse, it contained an attachment - a PDF of a new weekly column by an economist. Normally, I'd have been interested in reading this but I never, ever open unsolicited attachments and I don't know any other hack that does either. Sending attachments to journalists is the fastest way to piss us off (that, and offering totally unsuitable case studies). So here we have yet another totally clueless PR firm that has managed to put my back up (like the Irish one that mailed me a release then rang to ask if I'd got it, another no-no, but then - when I'd explained that I didn't cover the stuff they were sending - further failed me to remove me from their mailing list).

Annoyance no. 2 was the post. I get a fair amount of junk mail on any given day. A lot of it is an untargeted waste of trees - companies offering to provide me with HR training, for example (like, duh, do your homework please - you don't seriously think a sole trader working from home is going to be interested in HR training, do you? Today I received the umpteenth mailing from Premierline Direct (yes, it's name and shame day today) who, roughly once a month, send me piles of bumph urging me to buy their discount insurance.

I have news for Premierline Direct:
a) I'm not interested in commercial vehicle insurance. I don't have a vehicle. Of. Any. Sort.
b) As a home-based worker, I don't need business premises insurance. A simple check on my postcode and in some directory or other would confirm that for you. And anyway, my business is covered under the household insurance.
c) after 30 months of bombarding me, don't you think that if I haven't responded by now you are unlikely to convince me to call you today?

Phew! I'm glad I got all that off my chest otherwise I might have had to rant about some of the other things that are seriously pissing me off right now.

17 September 2007


Not very long ago, I had a bit of a swing on here at people using outdated software. I find it absolutely incredible that colleagues in one of my spheres of work find it perfectly acceptable to use programs such as Word 97. Another colleague recently described this as "steam-driven", which I thought rather apt. Then again, I know of people using even older programs such as Word 3.1. No doubt there are others out there still using WordPerfect and bemoaning the lack of updates.

As for me, I'm still using Word 2002, which is more than adequate. But I do have a pristine copy of Word 2007 on my shelf, awaiting installation - the only reason I haven't loaded it so far is because I don't want it to override Word 2002 and I need some expert advice. And none of my clients have yet migrated to the new version, but when they do, I'll be ready for them.

As with CPD, keeping reasonably up to date with technology is essential for those in the trade of wordsmithery if we are not to lose work to others for lack of modernity. I'm quite sentimental in some ways and still have my original portable typewriter (an Olivetti hand-me-down from my late father!) stashed away because I can't bear to get rid of it. I taught myself to type on it when I was 16 (when I say type, I mean with one finger, like wot I still do). I bashed out all my earliest copy on it. I daresay it's still in good working order and just needs a professional clean. But I wouldn't dream of working on it now. For one thing, it doesn't have a modem jack. :)

Rumour has it one editorial colleague still works entirely on hard copy and manages without email or even a fax, and has acknowledged she has lost out on work but refuses to move with the times. It's a sweet story, if true (which I'm assured it is), but I just can't understand how anyone running a small business can survive without moving forward. They abolished slavery and banned sending children up chimneys - perhaps we should force wordsmiths to upgrade their software...

Join me on Facebook!

Your humble wordsmith has now joined Facebook (again, for any sharp-eyed regular readers).

If you'd like to link with me on there, you can find my profile here.

14 September 2007

More on 101 Reasons - health

Yesterday, I mentioned the 101 Reasons Freelancers do it Better list.

This morning, while I was pounding away red-faced on the treadmill at the gym (at 6.30am!) I was thinking that something important missing off that list is health. Actually, both physical and mental health have sections on that list but because the list is so relentlessly upbeat about why freelancing is so fantastic, it fails to mention any downsides at all.

Don't get me wrong, I love freelancing and have never regretted making the switch. But there is one very big negative to sitting at home in front of a PC all day. You don't get any exercise. And that is definitely A Bad Thing. In 1 year of sitting at the computer and making only the most feeble, half-hearted attempts to pop into the gym occasionally, I put on more kilos than I'm willing to admit. No, I haven't blobbed out like Michelle McManus. But I'm still 2 sizes bigger than I ought to be. Which is why I get up at 5.30 am these days and start working out an hour later.

It's really important to take care of yourself when you're self-employed as there's no company doctor to haul you in for the occasional check-up. There's no office stairs to climb instead of taking the lift or deciding to walk down the corridor to speak to someone instead of emailing or phoning. The opportunities for built-in exercise shrink drastically when you work at home.

I reached the point where I could barely do up my jeans, which is why I now haul my carcass off the mattress so early - I know I'll be too tired in the evening but the gym at 6.30am suits me fine. The pounds are gradually starting to shift.

It doesn't have to be the gym, but if you're thinking of working for yourself and it's going to be largely sedentary, I'd strongly advise you to think of how best to ensure you exercise and stay fit.

13 September 2007

Freelancing - how and why

Journalist Linda Jones, a freelance I greatly admire, has been writing a book on being a freelance writer. More to the point, the book is full of top tips on being a freelance writer in the most productive way possible. It's not out yet, but I hope to be at the launch on 4 October. In the meantime, place your orders through Linda's site because you won't regret it if you are a freelance writer, aspiring or experienced...

It's obviously a week for dispensing info on freelancing. An editing colleague of mine has been picking my brains on how to break into earning money from writing. It's not easy and you need to be persistent as well as know what you are doing.

I also had my attention drawn to this list of 101 Reasons Freelancers Do It Better, which has just been published. It's an interesting list and hard to disagree with most of the 101 reasons, although some seem to be duplicates (eg, reasons 7 and 42 are virtually identical, as are 55 and 56). Some of the reasons are questionable - take no. 44, for example. I do take issue with this. A lot of freelance work can be very boring even when you are freelancing in the profession you love. If you agree to edit a 600-page book on a subject you have no interest in, you will get bored very quickly, no matter how much of an enthusiastic pedant you are. I had just such a book recently (the MS From Hell), when it was really hard to sustain my interest, but to be fair, it was less due to the subject matter than the incompetence of my client that caused me to lose interest.

On the whole though, this list gives a pretty fair picture of the realities of what you'll be dealing with as a freelance (whatever your trade), even though it tends to portray everything as a positive, including what I call the shit jobs, such as doing the books - no one will ever convince me this is enjoyable!

If you're thinking of turning freelance, having a look at the 101 Reasons will give you a first grasp of what working for yourself entails. And if you're planning to write for money, buy Linda's book. It could be the best fiver you've ever spent.

12 September 2007


I knew the MS From Hell would repeat on me. It was too good to be true.

In the middle of the afternoon today, I got an email from the publisher. Or at least from the editorial assistant I first dealt with. The tone immediately got my back up. I was asked if I had, perchance, two illustrations that had gone missing and could I please check the original MS?

The underlying suggestion was that of course I must have them. The fact was, not only did I not have them and had never seen them, but I didn't have the original MS either. I'd been sent a photocopy (that I hadn't asked for in the first place as I only edit on-screen). No publisher EVER sends out an original MS. That's asking for trouble - if it gets lost, you have one very pissed-off author to deal with.

Nevertheless, I dutifully riffled through the pile of unrequested MS that is still cluttering up my office (point 2: if it was original, I'd have been asked to send it back when I finished the job 15 days ago), but of course there was no sign of the missing illustrations.

I mailed back and told them so. Politely. Even though I felt like saying something very rude indeed.

Two minutes later, back came the response: "Sorry about all that, we just found them."

Idiots. And they still haven't paid me.

On blogging

Having been chest-deep in articles on the Indian stock markets all week - editing, chasing, getting frustrated and coping with a 6-hour time difference - I've not had a lot of spare time.

What I've had has been spent reading the press, squeezing in the odd episode of EastEnders when on, and spending time with my beloved P. I was aware I hadn't blogged for nearly a week, but I couldn't think of much to write about. The whole world is talking about the McCanns and their missing daughter and while I have my views on this, the hack in me is disinclined to comment while events are still sub judice.

Then out of the blue I was commissioned to write an article on blogging. Incredibly, it's to be aimed at beginners, people who genuinely do not know what blogging is, yet these are people who, like me, are wordsmiths. I'm going to have my work cut out trying to give a comprehensive picture of the blogosphere in 1,200 words to a bunch of colleagues who really ought to know better. Or at least more.

Editors really ought to be very aware of many things - having a good general knowledge being the basis for any editing work, with specialist knowledge a bonus. Mind you, my readership for this same article will be the same crowd who can't see the point of Facebook and think Word 97 is a perfectly adequate word-processing platform (but then ask colleagues to resave a Word 2007 file for them in the 97 format).

The fact is, the technology is here to stay - Web 2.0 platforms are the future whether people like them or not, and if you're working with words you really have no choice but to get to grips with them at the very least.

Right, now I've got that off my chest, I'm off to ponder the whys and wherefores of blogging before I put it all into words.

07 September 2007

Back to the grindstone

Your humble wordsmith has been on a break, but I'm back now.

Last Saturday, I hopped on a couple of trains and took myself off to the sunny delights of Brighton, my birthplace. I spent a pleasant couple of days hanging out with assorted friends and relatives then shifted my base to the University of Sussex at Falmer, just out of town, so I could participate in the annual jamboree known as the SfEP conference.

Naturally, this involved a fair amount of socialising (aka hanging out in the bar until chucking-out time), but there was also work to be done. I spent two days sitting through various lectures and seminars - some useful and interesting, some not - as well as some workshops so I could update my skills with some practical CPD.*

The only disappointment was the lack of hot water for a shower on my first morning, followed by distinctly unhelpful conference centre staff when I complained. Oh, and the enormous difficulty getting on the internet so I could check my mails while away. I don't mind forking out money to attend (it's tax-deductible anyway) but I do object to not getting the facilities I'm paying for.

Back home, I've been up to my neck the last couple of days in a major editorial project. That's drawing to a close and I'm itching to start pitching again. I have some great ideas for features for the press.

* that's continuing professional development.

29 August 2007

Feeling the burn and dreaming

The MS From Hell is but a distant memory and I'm looking forward now. I got off to a flying start this morning with a punishing workout at the gym, courtesy of the trainer tweaking my programme. Today, more editing is on the agenda, but at least the next lot is going to be reasonably problem-free.

I am itching to start researching my next pitch or two, but there's just no time right now. It will be at least mid-September before I can get stuck into writing again.

28 August 2007

Released at last

I have finally finished editing the Manuscript From Hell. Not a minute too soon. I had hoped to finish it Friday but, as could only be expected, the ongoing problems within said MS prevented me from dispensing with it asap. Not helped by the company assistant ringing me on Friday lunchtime and asking where it was, even though I had told her boss a few days earlier that there was no guarantee I would finish it by close of business Friday. The call soured my mood, unsurprisingly, and I began to view hara-kiri as a viable, even glamorous option...

In between, I have juggled a stupid number of other editing jobs, all of which have prevented me from researching an idea for a journalism feature I want to pitch to someone.

I am looking forward to next week's conference. It will be a holiday after the month I have had. I still have 3 days' work stretching ahead, mostly commissioning a handbook, but at least I will have time to sneak off to the shops at last and buy a much-needed new suitcase, some threads and something to read on the train south.

PS - I've dropped 3 pounds in 3 weeks from the new hard-line regime and am feeling the benefit already.

25 August 2007

Too busy Part II

It's been another hideously long week and I still haven't finished editing the book from hell. I have a full day ahead of me, too, but at least it doesn't involve work.

Normal blogging will resume after the bank holiday.

17 August 2007

Broadcast news and tears

My little weep yesterday evening at the end of a very long and stressful day reminded me this morning of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Hunter plays Jane Craig, a hard-bitten TV news producer who locks herself in her office several times a day, has a hearty cry, then pulls herself together 5 minutes later to go and bark orders at reporters William Hurt and Albert Brooks again.

I never understood why she was so weepy. For her, it was a routine part of her day. Undoubtedly, producing news is high-octane, stressful work. TV is also unbelievably shallow and fake. Broadcast News showed this 20 years ago: more recently, there has been a slew of stories in the press about faked TV programmes and crooked phone-ins. But why cry so much? I remember thinking at the time that the excessive crying by Hunter's character gave a rather skewed impression of females in the business.

I've never worked in TV and have no intention of ever doing so. Working in print is stressful enough. But I rarely cry over writing. What really stresses me is editing, when I'm not getting the right support at the other end. Hence yesterday's tears. I cried for a couple of minutes, long enough to destress, and then stopped. I have moments like that maybe half a dozen times a year. Sometimes, a good weep is the best way to let it out, then crack on.

Mind you, I can swear for England when I'm really stressed. I'm not going to repeat the filth that fell from my lips after I dried my tears, but suffice to say it would have made our troops in Iraq blush.

12 August 2007

" a week grasp of ritten Inglish"

Today's Observer has a story on linguistically challenged students at Imperial College.

I always have mixed feelings when these stories hit the headlines. I feel really depressed at the thought that educational standards in the UK have sunk so low. At the same time, the editor in me feels glee that a new generation of illiterates will require professional help: yes, more work for me! I know it's wrong to see a business opportunity there, but overall I'd rather see primary school teachers knowing their own language better in order to drum the rules into their pupils.

On a related note, a student posted on a forum for journalists that I use, asking about routes into writing entertainment stories for magazines, having done a degree in broadcasting production. Her opening two sentences contained no punctuation whatsoever. Her follow-up post was even worse - spelling errors, poor punctuation, sentences running into each other, no sense of grammar... I politely pointed out that if she was serious about a career in writing, she needed to work on her written English. Many journalists use the forums, quite a few of whom may be in a position to commission others, so showing you can write properly is essential in such an environment.

Did the student thank me? Of course not. I got a tart reply along the lines of "I didn't come here for advice on spelling, but to find out what course I ought to do". That is one budding journalist who is unlikely to progress far. Serious wannabes who want to become hacks eagerly lap up advice even when not asked for, so keen are they to build a career. But I do worry for the next generation of journalists when the education system fails to teach them to write properly in their native language.

10 August 2007

Faffing, features, phone calls...

Despite the enormous amount of pressure I am under to hit a lot of deadlines in a very short space of time, I am doing very well at skiving and procrastinating. Fact is, I perform best when the deadline is imminent. So even though the nightmare handbook I agreed to edit has a deadline just 10 days away, needless to say I have barely started it. This being the same handbook I moaned about on Tuesday...

I have written most of one of my features for a women's mag. I had 30 minutes of interview on my new toy, which is proving to have been a sound investment (pardon the pun), plus a bunch of notes. I wrote up 2/3rds from the notes, doing the quotes from recall, and was relieved that I had nailed them pretty accurately when I played the interview back. While my epilepsy causes me vocabulary problems occasionally, which is very distressing when you work with words for a living, fortunately it has not damaged my memory function too much. But I digress - I'll finish up the interview tomorrow and mail it to the ed, so it will be filed well before deadline. Leaving me just the other feature plus the handbook that I really do not want to edit.

Too late, I have committed to this project, more fool me. But I swear this will be last one I do for this particular publisher. The rate they offer is ridiculously low for the amount of effort they expect. Not even if it means starving in a garret would I do another book for them. Not that I'll starve when my beloved P takes such good care of me, but you get the idea.

I had a hilarious phone conference this morning with a company that I ranted about in a newspaper column last week. The PR person has been falling over himself to butter me up after I gave such bad press, so I agreed to participate in the call so they could solve my problems. It was utterly pointless. Their techy geek talked to me as if I were 3 years old and explained that I needed to reset various settings on my PC to resolve the issues I'd experienced. He wasn't telling me anything new - what he suggested was precisely what I had complained about having to do in the original article! Never mind. I guess he meant well. And I have been offered vast amounts of free kit to make up for my poor experience. One of the perks of hacking...

07 August 2007

Slack publishers, Luddites and lactic acid

Yesterday's gym workout was good. I came home feeling energised and managed to achieve more work in a day than usual. Today, of course, my shoulder muscles had seized up from lifting weights for the first time in 7 months and they ached from the release of lactic acid. I gave exercise a miss and focused on work. Or rather the lack of it.

Having agreed last week to edit a book and made it clear I would only work on-screen as opposed to on hard copy, I had still not received the electronic file at close of play yesterday. I was promised it would arrive by 8am this morning. By 10am, there was still no sign of it and I was getting twitchy. Emails were exchanged. This book is on a tight deadline, during which I also need to file copy with two magazines, so I was anxious to have as much time as possible in which to work on the manuscript. In the meantime, I couldn't start work on either of my features as I was still waiting for the striking posties to deliver a copy of one of the magazines so I could get a feel for it, and my interviews for the second mag were lined up for this afternoon.

This meant the loss of a day and a half in which I could do no work and earn no money. And it's not as if the publisher is paying me in gold bullion for this project. I was beginning to regret having said yes. The file finally turned up just after noon - they hadn't been able to send it because it was too big and it took them 36 hours to work out that it was because the illustrations were embedded in the document and needed to be stripped out. Duh. Sending files by email is not rocket science. Although perhaps it is to those who are not up to speed with using technology. But I would expect professional pre-press companies to take this sort of thing in their stride.

Bringing me neatly to my next rant. I mentioned Facebook on the email forum of my professional body, SfEP, the other day. I thought it might be useful for the SfEP to have an interest group on there so as to promote itself. I wish I'd kept my gob shut. I got rained on by the Luddites who couldn't see the point and had no interest in going on Facebook. No one was asking them to go on Facebook, only to support a possibility to promote the society to the wider world in a very busy and interactive environment. One particularly vicious poster suggested I was a pathetic creature who only has a social life on the internet. Well, no, far from it. I have a very busy social life, some of which is organised via the net. Honestly, these people probably think pigeon post is the most up-to-date form of communication...

06 August 2007

Home work is the curse of the self-employed classes

Wilde fans - feel free to put me on a hit list for so dreadfully paraphrasing Oscar's finest epithet.

However, there is a nugget of truth in today's title. Reader, I have grown fat. The drawback with working from home is that one does not get enough exercise. In my last salaried job (ended February 04), I had my daily trip to and from the railway station, with a walk at the other end, plenty of walking around the office during the course of an average day, plus two company-sanctioned workouts at the gym in the building every week.

I still get up at the same time in the morning - 5.45ish - but instead of leaping into the shower when the alarm goes off, followed by dressing, making up, breakfast and the race to the train, I have become lazy and developed bad habits. At 5.45, I stagger downstairs, brew tea and sit at my PC reading emails, surfing the net, doing sudoku puzzles and faffing on Facebook. I do this until about 8am, whence I shower, dress and tidy the house before the cleaner arrives, before starting work at 9.

Well, no more. I had a wake-up call on Saturday evening. I knew my weight had crept up because going to the gym was something I'd resume tomorrow, but I actually cancelled a night out when I discovered I couldn't fit into any of my going-out clothes. None of them. So this morning at 5.45, I skipped the tea and the PC and hit the shower before heading off to the gym at 6.45 for an hour's workout (last done sometime in January).

Reader, I won't be boring you with Bridget Jones-style reports on how I'm doing, but I have set a goal to drop 4-5 kilos and a dress size within 4 weeks. It's not that difficult. I'm fed up with having only two pairs of jeans that I can get into, so from now on I'll be heading out the door at 6.45 on a regular basis.

Working from home means you have to find ways to stay fit, as it's so easy to turn into a desk potato. My motivation is my fabulous wardrobe of vintage clothes that I long to wear again...

03 August 2007

What have I done?

In a moment of madness, I agreed to take on the handbook editing job I was offered yesterday. I had a phone chat with the editor at the publishing company and it all seemed straightforward and the money is ok. Now I am panicking that it will all go tits up* when the pressure is on in the run-up to going to press.

* This is a trade technical term.

I'm being kept buoyant by fan mail about yesterday's national newspaper article, and the fact that the company I ranted about are being exceptionally nice and not suing me. This might help me forget about the potentially foolish agreement to to do the handbook...

02 August 2007

An odd sort of day

It's been a funny sort of day. My insomnia returned with a vengeance at 2am and I crept downstairs to get a glass of water and entertain myself for a while on the PC. The first thing I did was look on the website of a well-known national newspaper to see if it had published my feature. It had and I was very excited. Then I remembered it was 2am and everyone else was asleep so I had no one to share the moment with.

I returned to bed a couple of hours later, spent another hour trying to fall asleep again and eventually got up just as my beloved P was heading to work. I spent some time copywriting blurb for my lovely graphic designer as we are doing a joint pitch for a coveted contract. The publisher rang to confirm they are offering me a book to edit. That's my next 17 days accounted for then... Then it was time to knuckle down and fill in my disability forms for the government.

Towards the end of the afternoon I got another call, this time from the company I was ghostwriting for last week. This time, they are offering me the job of editing a handbook, including commissioning many of the articles for it. I have tentatively said yes, subject to discussions.

Then the icing on the cake - the national newspaper emailed me to say the company I'd had a moan about in print wanted to talk to me. Yikes! I wondered if I might be laying myself open to a lawsuit. Or conversely a bunch of freebies... I bit the bullet and mailed back. No response yet, but I'm still alive... and I had fanmail too.

Life is good. Bring it on.

01 August 2007

The work graph

As a freelance, my workload fluctuates enormously. It's often difficult to predict how much work I will have on in any given week or month. Sometimes I don't even know exactly what I'm going to be doing tomorrow.

Last week was very busy and not helped by a bout of unwellness on the Monday, which meant I was frantically playing catch-up the rest of the week. This week, I was looking at a quiet spell and I welcomed it. My books need doing and I have a pile of invoices to send out. Having completed some ongoing work yesterday, out of the blue I was commissioned by a magazine I've never written for before. The rate is not brilliant, but it's a new market and the topic is an area I'm keen to break into so I said yes. Today, I was also offered a book to edit, to be confirmed by the end of the week. It's been several months since I last had a book to get stuck into, so I said yes to that too.

Now, all of August is looking rather full (assuming the book is coming my way). Today will be spent invoicing clients, closing last year's books for my accountant, getting this year's accounts up to date and - if there is time - chasing some pitches I sent out a while ago. These are the jobs I hate most of all but they are essential when you are self-employed. Rule No. 1 - keep track of the money!

I could plot my days on a graph, but it's more practical to keep my desk diary up to date and book work in on Sunbird. I log into this at least once a day to keep track of my commitments. I also use ReminderFox to ensure I don't forget appointments and the like, as it has a handy pop-up window. Tools like these are vital to ensure my freelancing goes as smoothly as possible.

30 July 2007

Winging it

I was having an email conversation with a hack pal earlier today and we ended up discussing the very female phenomenon of winging it. I actually gave a 10 minute talk on this topic at my business networking group a couple of months ago.

I've been a professional wordsmith for the best part of 30 years. I have loads of experience and I'm really good at what I do. So why do I sometimes feel like I'm going to be "found out"? I occasionally fear a "real" journalist is going to take one look at my CV or website and tell me I'm just playing at hacking.

When I turned freelance 2 years ago, I initially concentrated on finding work copy-editing and copywriting. I hadn't done any serious journalism for more than 10 years. Tentatively, I began to write again but because I'd been abroad for so long I didn't have a clue how to earn money in today's milieu as a freelance journalist. I did what I always tell others never to do - I wrote for free. I desperately needed cuts to show what I can do and I used those clippings to build an up-to-date portfolio.

More than 2 years on, I have a regular gig as contributing editor for a quarterly niche magazine. I have written for the national newspapers (something I probably could have done early in my career, but I lacked ambition then). And this week, two publications have approached me and offered me commissions. The logical bit of my brain tells me it is proof I am more than competent and only what I deserve. And the nagging voice on my left shoulder whispers "you fraud".

When I was younger, I wanted to be Julie Burchill. Well, not actually be her - I wanted her career. She is only a few years older than me and she was the rock hack I could have been if I hadn't been so timid and lacking in confidence. I'm much more confident now and I know I write well. I guess I won't feel like I've made it, though, until I can afford to pass on the editing and copywriting. Maybe then I'll stop feeling like I'm winging it...

27 July 2007

Late payment

I finally got paid by my late-paying client (client no. 2). The money turned up in my bank account sometime yesterday morning, a mere 21 days after the expiry of my 15-day payment terms. Four hours later, I was most amused to receive an email from my ex-client saying they no longer required my services. Hello? Did you not notice I failed to send you any copy last week? Obviously they did but it didn't occur to them that it was deliberate on my part.

Late payment is one of the hazards of being freelance. It ain't funny and it ain't clever but it goes with the territory. Some magazines or papers only pay on publication - that can be months away if your article is held over for any reason. Some publications over-commission as well, and never publish your article (this has not happened to me yet, touch wood) - I sometimes hear horror stories of hacks who filed copy 9 months earlier and are wondering, timidly, if they should ask for a kill fee. Hell, yes. If a journalist keeps their side of the deal and files the commissioned copy on time, they should absolutely invoice for it, even if it is not used.

One reason why us freelances love The Guardian so much is not because its rates are quite low, or even because of its woolly left-liberal middle-class politics. No, we love it because it pays promptly and efficiently. Get published in the Guardian and you can expect to see quids in your bank account within about 4 days of publication. If only all other publications were so considerate and took into account the fact that we have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

I dislike late payment as much as any other freelance does. I tend to be proactive, though, when it comes to getting my money. In the above case, it was a simple decision - to continue earning a regular few hundred pounds every month but deal with all the aggro of chasing invoices and - worst of all - being lied to as to why I hadn't yet been paid. Or find another client. I chose the latter.

25 July 2007

Making up lost time

On Monday morning, I did the usual - I wrote a list of every job to be done this week. Several editing jobs, a couple of pitches to chase and a lengthy article to write after interviewing the author (I was ghostwriting). I like to keep track of what's going in and out.

I kicked off the morning with some paperwork and pottering then wandered through to the front room at around 11am for a break. My beloved P is home all week, using up leave, so I popped my head around the door for a quick chat. The next thing I knew, I was picking carpet fluff out of my teeth.

I'd had a, for me, quite lengthy epileptic seizure and was aggressive as well as exhausted when I came round. I remembered the interview scheduled for that afternoon, knew I was in no fit state (pun not intended) to conduct it and staggered off to bed, leaving poor P to call my editor and rearrange it.

I've been playing catch-up the last two days and somehow, miraculously, have managed to get back to where I should be by Wednesday evening, despite losing almost all of Monday and not being in really great shape yesterday. I did the interview yesterday morning and saved myself half a day by paying an audio typist £50 to transcribe it for me so all I need to do tomorrow is knock it into shape.

At the end of the week, I shall still be busy but on Friday afternoon my time will be taken up with a trip to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the cinema. In the meantime, I'm on page 400 of the book. Which ain't bad considering I only got the book on Sunday afternoon and have had piles of work and a seizure in between...

21 July 2007

Digital dilemmas and annoyances

A few days ago, this wordsmith decided it was time to get properly into the digital age. You may find this hard to believe but I last bought a recording device in 1989 - a walkman-style gadget running on a couple of AA batteries and a standard cassette. I've not used it much over the last 15 years as the sort of journalism I've been doing on and off in that period has not involved interviewing anyone.

However, on Wednesday I was offered a job which involves not only interviewing someone but doing it over the phone. My initial reaction was a very loud "eek!". Clearly, the walkman-stylee gadget was not going to be adequate and so I sought advice from hack colleagues. I was advised to buy this, so I checked the Maplin website which told me my local branch had it in stock. I rang yesterday to check that they did indeed have one, only to be told they had never stocked it. Panic set in, until the helpful bloke on the other end of the line told me of another local shop that definitely did sell it.

I shelled out £70 yesterday for that little beauty, but today discovered that Maplin sold me the wrong telephone adaptor for it (Maplin being the only place I was going to find an adaptor, even though they didn't stock my gadget). Gah! I had told the bloke in the shop what I wanted and also told him I was a technophobe with no clue about linking a digital voice recorder to a phone but he still sold me the wrong cable. Luckily, my beloved P did some research and nipped back to Maplin to get me the right cable. Now all I have to do is test-drive it before the big interview on Monday.

Thank goodness I had the sense to shop well in advance for everything and leave some leeway in case things went wrong (as they inevitably do). And thank goodness for my beloved P knowing his ohms from his elbow.

Despite the hassles, that Olympus WS-200S really is a thing of beauty - it's as small as an iPod, works as a USB drive so I can drag files onto my PC once I have recorded them and as long as the battery works, I can record stuff wherever I am. Technology is changing journalism but these kinds of advances have made me regain my enthusiasm for interviewing again, which means I can expand my repertoire and portfolio.

19 July 2007

A very good cause

If you're a regular reader, you probably know I have epilepsy. Although I have the most severe kind of seizures, where I fall unconscious, writhe on the floor and froth at the mouth, I am fortunate that this only happens to me 2, maybe 3 times a year. I take medication that mostly keeps those annoying "brain storms" well under control, enabling me to carry on leading a full life and working my socks off as a freelance wordsmith.

Others in my position are not so lucky. Around 1000 people in the UK die every year as a result of epilepsy. That's 3 a day. It might not sound much but it's more than the total number of UK deaths from Aids and cot deaths combined. And around 400 of those deaths are preventable.

The son of one of my fellow journalists lost a friend of his not long ago. Laura Turner was just 14 when she passed away in January 2005 from SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy). Stuart Lawrence is paying tribute to Laura by organising a benefit gig in her name to raise much-needed funds for the charity Epilepsy Bereaved.

Stuart is just 16 and is to be admired for organising the concert. It will take place in Guildford at the Electric Theatre on Wednesday 29 August. Tickets cost £8 and 4 bands are playing (Used Inc., Detached, Last Remaining Monkey and Underdog Victory).

If you've read this far and you live in Guildford, please support this very worthy cause. You'll be making the 450,000 people in the UK who have epilepsy very happy and you'll be providing some comfort to Laura's parents, who will be glad their daughter did not die in vain.

If you;re still reading and can't get to the gig, please spread the word - go and blog about it, write a news story if you're in a position to, tell your friends on Facebook, or whatever.

Just last week, my fellow hacks managed to raise more than 2 grand for Macmillan Cancer in honour of one of our own who died last year from that horrible disease. I'd like to think that if you help spread the word on this gig, Stuart Lawrence can perhaps raise even more in memory of Laura Turner.

Thank you.