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...