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.

18 July 2007

As one door closes...

Having decided yesterday to firmly slam the door in the face of my regularly late-paying client, it seemed prudent to look for another writing gig to fill the gap. I haven't actually told this client yet where to file his invoices as I'm still waiting for my final bill to be paid.

Yesterday, I was thinking that with all my vast background knowledge of the financial markets and investment banking thanks to the copy-editing I do it would be daft not to try and break into this market as a writer. Then lo and behold, my phone rang this morning and a very well-known financial publisher was offering me an unsolicited commission!

Somebody up there likes me...

16 July 2007

Why I sometimes hate my clients

1. Client no. 1 hires me to write a press release to promote their fledgling retail business. I spend 90 minutes trawling the business's website for info, calling a professional organisation that could be a useful link-cum-promoter for my client, then creating a draft. I email said draft to the client only for them to mail it back to me with "suggested changes". These changes include shifting around sentences that I had put into careful order, adding totally irrelevant information and basically mucking around with the punctuation. Now I have the unenviable job of explaining diplomatically to the client why their "suggested changes" are completely unworkable and that my original carefully honed press release was the reason why they were employing me in the first place. And they are not paying me enough to be that nice to them, to be honest.

2. Client no. 2 has been elusive for several weeks. I have a regular gig writing for client no. 2's publication every month. The money, though not oodles, is a useful monthly sum in my bank account and the job itself is fairly straightforward. However, I am always, and I mean always, paid late by client no. 2 and I'm fed up with it. I know the other freelance hack who is writing for this client and he is in the same position as me, ie very unhappy. I have already politely pointed out to client no. 2 that terms of 15 days mean that I expect the money in my account within 15 days, not that any time in the next two weeks after my terms are up is ok to start the payment process. Today I got yet another excuse as to why I have not yet been paid.

On top of all this, client no. 2 has been using a third party to send me cryptic messages by email, along the lines of "I understand X has already spoken to you regarding rates and your contributions". I mailed back to point out that client no. 2 had not been in touch at all regarding such matters and asked for clarification. It was 2 weeks before client no. 2 finally rang today, after I'd been left on tenterhooks all that time wondering what on earth was going on.

I vowed last month that if I was paid late again I would seriously reconsider this job. I'm at that stage now. I've today had my word count cut and client no. 2 also tried to persuade me to take a rate cut, which I steadfastly refused. Is it all worth it? For the amount I'm being paid, I think not. Time to make a decision very soon. But I'll wait until last month's money is in my bank account first.

12 July 2007

Normal service resumes (sort of)

Yes, I've been quiet for a week. It was hard to feel like writing much after Wimbledon ended (and you lot would probably have been bored if I'd gushed on about the matches). It was also hard to get back into working - I had an itch to watch Sue Barker come noon, before remembering that her job was done.

So - what have I been up to? Well, work of course, though not a lot. My lovely graphic designer and I are preparing a pitch for work from a luxury hotel in our locality. I've done a bit of editing here and there. And quoted for a couple of other jobs.

But my highlight since the tennis ended and Alan Johnston was freed was this - the Journobiz party. This splendid annual event gave me a good excuse to pop down to the capital for an overnighter. What could be more interesting than a roomful of 200 hacks and flacks? Well, probably quite a lot of things if you're not a hack or a flack but for those of us in the trade it was a good opportunity to meet up, talk shop and do what we do best (drinking, when we're not writing). Needless to say, I had a fabulous time and came home with an even fabulouser goody bag, thanks to all the flacks who got their clients to bribe, I mean spoil us hacks with nice treats.

I crawled home on the train feeling rough around the edges after a night on the Wyborowa. I felt even rougher when my train broke down at the station before mine and we got turfed off onto a replacement, which was also then cancelled. Just why is it so hard for Virgin to run Pendolinos that actually work? I finally got home 90 minutes later than expected in a seething rage about private rail companies. I feel a pitch to a travel ed coming on...

04 July 2007

Alan Johnston freed!

Alan Johnston banner

I switched on the news 30 minutes ago to hear the best news in months - BBC reporter Alan Johnston has been set free.

I am overjoyed for him and his family - 16 weeks in captivity is a very long time when you are on your own in a hostile situation. Watching the footage of his release I was struck by how very calm and composed he is after his ordeal.

The last couple of years have not been good for journalists in danger zones. in 2006, Reporters Without Borders reported that 81 journalists and 32 media assistants were killed, at least 871 were arrested, 1,472 were physically attacked or threatened, 56 kidnapped and 912 media outlets were censored. This year already the figures are as follows: 53 journalists and 9 media assistants have been killed, while 128 journalists and 6 media assistants have been imprisoned.

Today, we can celebrate Alan Johnston's freedom. But let's not forget the others who have not been so lucky...

03 July 2007

Ethics and being railroaded

I took a call from a pushy mum this morning that left me feeling distinctly ill at ease. The woman's daughter is applying for university (Oxford, in fact) and will have to fill in a UCAS form, including the "personal statement". Would I be available in early September?

Gut feeling told me this was a job not to accept. Thinking on my feet, I said I'd be away at a conference for the whole first week of that month (partly true - I will be at a conference but only for 3 days). Pushy mum persisted - her daughter really needs someone to help her with her statement. I politely but firmly told her I'd feel uncomfortable taking on a job I feel should be the student's sole responsibility. I also informed her that I don't take on editorial work for students unless they have the permission of their tutor.

Pushy mum remained undeterred and said she wouldn't be asking me to rewrite anything or even change anything, well except for the odd word here and there (if that was the case why was she trying to hire me?). Then she let slip that UCAS had told her they had no objection to candidates receiving parental help. I pointed out that there was a big difference between a parent going through a personal statement and hiring a professional wordsmith. And I mentioned that I am bound by the code of practice of my professional body (not to mention my own moral code). She asked if I knew any other editors who would help. I do, I said, but commented that they too would be probably be unwilling to take on a job like this.

I was adamant in my refusal and by now distinctly irritated. If the daughter is bright enough to apply for Oxford, surely she is bright enough to write a decent personal statement.

But I really resented the enormous pressure this woman was putting on me to cave in. She was relentless in her attempts to dismantle every barrier I put up to taking on such a job (even offering to pay me double my normal rate!). In the end, I suggested she buy a booklet called Perfect Statements and then call me again in late August if she really felt her daughter still needed help. Not that I have any intention of helping, but if she does call I'll be able to say I'm too busy to take on this job at short notice. I hate being railroaded - I can be very stubborn and the more someone tries to get me to agree to do something I have already said is ethically unacceptable to me, the more I am going to refuse.

01 July 2007

Paris and Glasgow

Stand up and give Mika Brzezinski a round of applause. If only more journalists would take a principled stand.

I am fed up of this constant blurring of the boundaries between news and entertainment. Paris Hilton has never done a proper day's work in her life and should never be the lead story on any news bulletin, just for being released from jail. The media coverage of the whole saga was saturated - and infuriating. She got drunk, she drove her car, she got nicked, she tried to wriggle out of it (several times) and it's been splashed everywhere.

Why? Every time I trawled the BBC News Online website, Paris was there. Unavoidable. Well get this - she is not news. She's just another "poor little rich girl" doing what other "celebrities" do. It's not interesting and it's certainly not news. If you want to read about celebrities buy a gossip rag. But stop clogging up our mainstream news outlets with their antics. And well done, Mika, for caring enough to make a public protest.

Yesterday's BBC News 24 coverage of the terrorist attack in Glasgow showed that live broadcasting has sunk unbelievably low. There was very little solid news, so instead we got endless stills of the burning car and incomprehensible interviews with eyewitnesses who hadn't actually seen very much at all. The anchors had clearly been instructed to scrap all other news and resorted to speaking to an outraged person whose parents were stranded on a Glasgow-bound plane at Stansted airport that wasn't flying anywhere.

Mr Outraged was furious that his parents hadn't been told anything. I burst out laughing as he ranted about this - in such a situation, even Glasgow Airport would have known very little while the police took control of the situation and would have been able to tell other airports almost nothing beyond they were closed and didn't know when they would reopen. If I'm tuning in for live coverage, I really do not want to be forced to listen to such inane reportage as the anchors desperately struggle to fill the airwaves.

The live coverage on Thursday of the London bombs was far superior, so just why was the Glasgow report so dreadful? Perhaps we will never know, but BBC bosses should note that if you haven't got any new news, it's best to return to scheduled bulletins and interrupt them when you actually have something to report.