25 December 2008

The purpose of Xmas

...is the opportunity to work uninterrupted!

I'm not mad about Xmas at the best of times. I'm not religious and even if I was, Xmas would be from another religion. I do enjoy exchanging gifts with those I care about but I can quite happily ignore the rest. I reserve particular loathing for the rampant commercialism and the fact that shops seem to start the Xmas sales push earlier every year.

This year is the first in a very long time I have not spent the day with others. I was a bit nervous at first that I might wobble and feel a bit lonely, but in fact I have quite enjoyed the day. I slept late (till 8am!) then got up to brew tea and potter. It was warm so I left the back door open for several hours so my boy could play outside. And then, after coffee and phone calls, as the clock struck noon, I settled down to work.

Yes, work.

No, I've not gone mad.

But I do have a looming deadline. You may recall I signed a book contract some months ago. The manuscript is due on New Year's Eve so this week is my last opportunity to finish the writing, read it back, polish where necessary and correct any typos that have crept in.

Once I had the family phone calls out of the way, I was able to relish the bliss of working with no distractions. No clients ringing. No pop-up telling me I have email. No urge to waste time on Facebook or other forums. There's been a limited amount of activity on Twitter. But the net has been very quiet because everyone's doing Xmas with other people. And I've had pure, uninterrupted time to focus. I got a huge amount of work done before knocking at 5 to cook some dinner then veg out on the sofa to watch TV. I actually felt I'd really earned the right to watch telly after writing 4,000 words.

I almost wish it was Xmas every day. I love it when it's so quiet and I can be so productive. Xmas is a great cure for procrastination. And of course, if it was Xmas every day, I'd get a double helping of EastEnders as a reward for getting so much done.

I'l be working like this for the next 6 days. Then, on New Year's Eve I'll be printing my manuscript off, parcelling it up and popping it in the post to my publisher. My reward? A night out to see in 2009.

23 December 2008

A song to exit 2008

As the year draws to a close, here's my Xmas gift to fellow freelances everywhere:

I've written around 30,000 words since I last blogged, so now you know why I've been quiet. I ran out of vocabulary. Stay tuned, I'll be back to my usual blogging frequency before too long, including my review of the year.

11 December 2008

Shred my cred

I had a story published in a national paper today. As usual, I was chuffed to see my byline and popped out to the shop to buy a copy (I usually read the press online). On my return, I sifted through my emails and saw I had a Google Alert to say I'd been listed on NewsCred. I'd never heard of NewsCred before so naturally I toddled over there to have a look. It's a Web 2.0 site, still in beta, that picks up stories from all the main international newspapers and lets site members rate them. So far, so good.

Except that the ranking system is based on people voting one of two ways: Credit means you rate the story as credible and of good quality; Discredit means you consider it to be biased and factually inaccurate.

I saw that 8 people had already voted on my story, two of whom had chosen to discredit it. That would have been fair enough had I been writing a straight news story but in this case my feature was about a product, so of course there was going to be some bias in it - it's virtually impossible to appraise something and not come down on one side of it or the other. You look at the product from as many angles and viewpoints as possible, test it as much as you can and draw a conclusion. You like it, or you don't. Or you maybe say it has some good points but flag up the minuses while doing so.

Reviewing has been around since newspapers were invented. It doesn't matter what's being reviewed - opera, exhibitions, pop groups, restaurants or products of some sort. At some point the reviewer is going to bless it with a yay or a nay. It therefore seems ridiculous that NewsCred allows its users to "discredit" a story it's scooped up that is not hard news but a review of something because whichever way you slice, there will be bias in there.

In my favour, the product I wrote about was not thrust on me by some fawning PR desperate for some coverage. I stumbled across a mention of the product, was intrigued enough to look up the maker's website, liked what I saw, picked up the phone and asked nicely if I could have a sample and then started pitching once I'd tried it out and felt it deserved some coverage. I actually could find almost nothing bad to say about this particular product despite putting it through its paces.

So - track me down on on NewsCred and shoot me for writing a feature based on a product review.

What do you all think? Should NewsCred be able to discredit review features? Might it besmirch a journalist's otherwise good name and credibility for writing reviews?

09 December 2008

Why Xmas is good for freelances

I love Xmas. It's not just because I know there will be piles of pressies, a Doctor Who special and a punch-up on EastEnders on the telly, and that I will actually take a couple of days off to relax a little.

No, Xmas is good because it means parties. I don't mean the family gatherings or drunken and rowdy nights out with your mates. I mean there is a galaxy of networking opportunities in December as colleagues of all sorts plan nights out to have a drink, a laugh and a chance to swap business cards.

Last night, I nipped over to Manchester and sneaked into the back of the Social Media Café - it was the perfect event to hook up with some of the city's digital movers and shakers over a couple of pints in a cosy pub. I put faces to a few names I have known online for a while and shook hands with a couple of people I hope will become friends. And, of course, I hope to develop these contacts into mutual work opportunities.

On Friday, I'll be doing it all again (in a different pub) with a dozen or so northern freelance hacks I know - our own version of an office party. And next week, I have client meetings in London, carefully timed to coincide with another pub night with more freelance journalists. While these two events are primarily social, out of friendship comes work, a surprising amount of which gets passed around by freelances to each other.

I also have several other evenings out lined up between now and the 25th. At this time of year, I grab every invitation going and turn up with my business cards - you never know who you'll meet and what it might lead to. Freelancing can be quite isolating when you're at home all day 5 days a week, plugging away on various projects so the annual December party bonanza is a great time to slow down on the work front and boost your social life in combination with some opportune networking.

Sausage roll, anyone?

03 December 2008

Fees and friends

Two very useful items I'd like to draw attention to.

Firstly, the NUJ has revised its Freelance Fees Guide. This extensive list of typical rates for the job is incredibly handy for working out what to charge clients or what rates to expect from the press. I consult this several times a year when something outside my usual range of services drops into my lap and I need a helping hand to price a job.

Secondly, a very handy post from the Freelance Switch blog, which is always packed with good tips and advice. This post on banishing lonely freelance syndrome will strike a chord with many. Working from home can be really isolating so it's important to use all your options to maintain contact with the outside world. You have to create your own water cooler, basically. I use almost all of the 11 tips and techniques - the cat keeps me company (even if he annoys the hell out of me at times by commandeering my desk as his personal bed), I chat on Twitter, Facebook and forums with colleagues and friends, and I aim to get out of the house at least once a day, either just for a walk in the fresh air and to enjoy a change of scenery or to do something - pop to the butcher for my dinner, meet a colleague or client, or drop in on my neighbour (also self-employed) for coffee.

Most of these tips will also refresh your brain, giving you renewed zip as you plough through the editing of that tedious 600-page tome on insurance risk, or helping generate ideas for features if you write. Both of which will, of course, earn you money and send you back to the NUJ fees guide for the right rate...


02 December 2008

A very worthy cause

Just spotted on Press Gazette's website that they are teaming up with the NUJ to launch an appeal to help journalists in Zimbabwe.

This is a very worthy cause to support and you don't need to be a journalist to help. If you have any unwanted mobile phones, laptops or cameras, or even stuff like Dictaphones, they can be donated. What's become obsolete here in the UK can make a huge difference in a country where journalists have a shortage of such things - without kit, they struggle to get the news out.

Please spread the word and help if you can.
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30 November 2008

This ain't the Tansa for subbing

A colleague drew my attention to Tansa the other day. It's basically a software program that will sub text. The Economist and Telegraph are, apparently, already using it.

One freelance colleague half-jokingly said it would make all sub-editors redundant by Christmas. A frightening thought, given the massively high levels of redundancy in the industry at present.

Even more sobering is the scenario another colleague envisioned - the temptation when under pressure for the sub operating the software to let a piece of copy go through entirely unread by anyone except the original writer. Cue potential for libel. Or decency issues.

It may have been invented as a tool to ease the pressure on the subs' desk so they can get on with reading through for sense, defamation problems and so on, but no doubt the bosses will see it as an opportunity to slash staff and save money.

Software will never replace the human touch, but I believe it will lead to more personnel losses and falling standards if proprietors think it's a way to save money.

27 November 2008


No, not me. It would be quite hard to sack myself. But the last 2 weeks have been full of unrelenting gloom about redundancies in the press. You can read some of it here, here, here and here... And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I feel for my staff colleagues who are facing redundancy. I worry for those who are still there but have no idea how long for. I see newly redundant colleagues thrust into freelancing not from choice and having to figure it out on the hoof.

A friend was made redundant today then asked to reapply for her job, which now has a new title and - amazingly - a slight pay increase. So it's not all bad but these are very worrying times.

I've been quiet on here as I've had a massive workload and been keeping my head down getting on with keeping the proverbial from my doorstep. I'm grateful I have a broad spread of clients but I do wonder how long many of us freelances can keep going.

11 November 2008

PR pap of the day

I think I'm going to have make this a very regular feature, such is the poor quality of the press releases dropping into my inbox every day (and worsening, too).

So, to today's:

One in Four People will Suffer from Mental Health This Year

That was the title. My initial reaction was shock that only 25% of the nation are sane in the brain and the remaining three-quarters are all stricken with problems ranging from depression to personality disorders.

My second concern was that there are only 7 weeks left until the end of the year. Does this mean that the population's mental health is only going to be suffering between now and then? Because really, if you plan to make a 12-month forecast it's best to do it at the start of the year. Alternatively, if you actually mean next year, then say so.

Reading the release, it becomes clear that, of course, the statistic is about 25% of people having mental ill-health. But with such a shoddy, misleading intro I just want to hit delete. After all, if the bunny can't get the title right, what's the chance of any of the rest of the statistics therein being accurate?

10 November 2008

Wannabe hacks revisited

I occasionally dip into a certain forum for journalists that seems, unfortunately, to attract a particular class of post and a certain type of poster.

There is a high number of posts offering unpaid work, which might be ok if it was for a 2-week work experience somewhere decent, but usually they ask for experienced professionals, a lengthy commitment and no reward beyond a byline. One recent post was about the launch of a luxury lifestyle magazine, asking for seasoned contributors and expecting them to supply their own equipment - asking a writer to bring a laptop would just about pass muster if the publication was a community paper run on a shoestring. It's not acceptable when the magazine is aiming to attract advertising from high-end brands and expecting to sell to very high earners.

But enough about that.

What I find more worrying, of major concern even, is the high number of people posting and asking the most elementary questions. A couple of days ago someone new to freelancing was asking how to get paid. I'm well aware journalism courses often don't teach anything on freelancing but I'd expect a journo grad to have the nous to look up some info on the net somewhere on the basics of running a small business. There are quite a few government-funded sites, for example, that provide this sort of gen in simple language. More alarming was the poster's remark that this was a big company but she had no idea how to contact anyone there beyond an email address. Now if a journalist can't even google a company name to find their HQ and phone number, then I fear for the future of the nation's press.

This was a fairly typical query. Others run along the lines of "can I expect to be published without flashing a degree or two first?" and "do editors give the reporters stories to write about? Or does the reporter have to generate the stories him/herself?". The one that seriously alarmed me was "What happens once the news piece has been done, does it get proofed and then edited?" This was from someone who had just done work experience on a local paper and even written some stories for it. It does beg the question why the poster hadn't asked anyone on the paper while there to give them a quick tour cum rundown of how a paper is put together. But more shocking I think is the fact that so many universities are turning out journalism grads who basically don't seem to have learned anything practical or useful. What are they doing on their 3 years on campus? I would seriously love to know.

Back when I trained (long before someone invented journalism degree courses), I learned pretty much everything within 6 months on the job. I was subbing within 2 weeks because it had to be done and making up mock page layouts within a month. I stayed for 30 months and the only thing I didn't learn was shorthand (or proper typing) because the mag didn't have any budget to send me to day-release college. There was no internet then, but I learned fast how to find out info at the library or the town hall. Not knowing was not an option as I feared my editor's wrath.

I came away confident in my skills and knowing I could handle most things thrown at me. Today's lot give the impression they wouldn't know how to fend off a wet paper bag if it were thrown at them.

I don't want to say "Eee, it were better in my day", because it undoubtedly wasn't. The kind of tools available to today's journalists are amazing and wonderful and I would have given my eye teeth to have had mobile phones, the internet, laptops and the rest back then. So why, if they have access to such great kit are we churning out hacks who don't have a clue?

EDITED to add that Press Gazette reports that "new journalists lack key skills". Not sure whether to feel vindicated or even sadder.

Bunny annoyances

Not 1 but 2 bunny boilings landed in my inbox today.

Flacks take note:

1. Sending a press release with the title "JOURNALISTS! READ THIS FIRST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" is going to annoy me. A lot. Partly because there is no need to use shouty caps or 22 exclamation marks (yes I counted them, saddo that I am). It doesn't scream "OMG you must open me as I contain such massive important news". It screams "delete me". I did, out of curiosity, open it - purely to see if it merited even 1 thousandth of that dumbfuck tells-you-nothing title. It didn't - it was about some spa face mask. That title might just have made the grade if it had been to publicise some bigwig's response to Paul Dacre's speech on press freedom, which has been the talk of the hackosphere today. But it wasn't, so it didn't. And another thing - don't send face mask bumph to journalists that aren't beauty writers. Because we really don't care about face masks.

2. I get a lot of "Top 10 Tips" releases - most are dreadful and fit only for deleting. I had a classic today on money-saving tips when shopping for food. Tip no. 4 - experiment with cheaper substitutes such as oyster mushrooms instead of chicken, pancetta instead of bacon - caused me to spray my coffee over my monitor. Since when has pancetta been cheaper than bacon? No 9. was a goody too - rice is a much cheaper alternative to pasta - hello, are you aware that the price of rice is now so high that many Asians in the far east can no longer afford their staple diet? That there are global rice shortages? That even in the UK, rice is both expensive and hard to source? Yes, the price of pasta has gone up too but it's still cheaper than rice. If you must bombard hacks with tips, let them be factually accurate. Meanwhile I'm left wondering where that bunny did her shopping. Harrods? (Where pancetta possibly is cheaper than bacon, if the bacon is sourced from an organic supplier hand-rearing his weaners halfway up a Peruvian mountain and feeding them on Beluga.)

06 November 2008

Book news

The publishers are racing ahead with my book. The ISBN has already been registered with Nielsen, I've got to get a decent author pic for the cover by the start of next month and the publication date has been set (Spring, in case you are wondering). Oh, and there's the little matter of the deadline for my draft. End of 2008. Which means I have precisely 7 weeks to deliver a manuscript and I haven't started writing yet.

I need to get my skates on.

There's the little matter of finishing the other book project I'm working on, plus editing the MS for another author, plus all the other work I have taken on. Panicking? Me? Whatever gave you that idea?

PS: thanks for all the well wishes during my absence. It's good to be back!

23 October 2008


Sorry for no updates. Taking a temporary break for personal reasons. Back soon I hope.

19 October 2008

Media Diet Week 42

Press: once again, I've been sampling the joys of our national railway network and unsurprisingly this involved spending at station newsagents. I quite like hoofing down to London for meetings - it's a welcome break from the computer and the opportunity to indulge in print media. Wednesday's trip involved buying The Guardian and a copy of Look (because I love the high st. fashion spreads). I had little chance to read either as I got involved in a lengthy conversation with the traveller opposite, who turned out to be a repo man. He's working in interesting times (and in the field of business equipment repossession) so the insights were fascinating. For once, I didn't mind not reading on the train. On the journey home the next morning, I made an impulse purchase of Mojo, lured by the cover splash of the feuds that led to The Clash splitting and the free CD of rebel songs. Opening Mojo, I was reminded why I gave up buying rock mags a while back, despite my background as a rock hack. Today's crop are full of self-indulgent, rambling nonsense by writers of my generation who can't accept that punk is long gone and keep rehashing their own brand of nostalgia, like picking at scabs on the knee. I haven't tried the CD yet, it better be worth it. Also, Mojo has a truly nasty serif font in a ridiculously small point size that makes reading difficult and means I may never get round to investigating the finer points of the Clash break-up.

Blogs: this week's big theme has been Twitter. Dave Lee blogged first about his thoughts on extracting the best out of it. I also posted some thoughts. The Guardian's Charles Arthur reckons link-sharing is key to Twitter, while Sally Whittle shared the hilarity of TwitterKarma and etiquette. Me, I think Twitter is undoubtedly fantastic for spreading linky love but it is also a jolly useful grease gun for oiling the wheels of social networking - Twitter-natter is good for getting to know people and, this week especially, supporting friends and colleagues through tough times as they cope with dying pets and other stresses. On a technical note, I'm reluctantly contemplating abandoning Bloglines forever. Its RSS feed is still delivering the goods hideously late, unacceptable when you're in the media and need stuff quickly. My back-up is Google Reader and I'm probably going to switch permanently to that, despite my reluctance to succumb to all things G. At least Reader is reliable. And if IT apps don't want to lose market share to the Google monolith they need to ensure they are up to scratch.

TV/radio: the start of the week was full of gems on the small screen. Last Sunday, the ever-delightful and interesting Stephen Fry kicked off his US travelogue on the Beeb - yes, it was cosy and a tad predictable but it was perfect Sunday night viewing, especially as Fry has an unerringly instinctive eye for the quirky. Lulled into warm cuddliness, I flipped over immediately after to watch former Blair spin-doctor Alistair Campbell talk with extraordinary frankness about his breakdown in Cracking Up. This was top-notch telly - uncomfortable to watch at times but also important as TV desperately needs to show more good programmes about mental health, especially as 1 in 5 of us will suffer from depression at some point. I also enjoyed the opener of Wired on Monday, a thriller about bank fraud (great timing!) - it got off to a good start, let's hope it can sustain the pace and deliver a cracking denouement. Charlie Brooks (ex-Janine in EastEnders) was woefully underused, though.

Books: I'm still on The Arsenic Labyrinth! I know, I know, it's been 2 weeks already and I'm still only just over halfway through. I'm determined to finish it this week. Especially as I have some essential reads stacking up in the to-read pile.

16 October 2008


There are not many things I hate about being self-employed but doing the books probably comes top of the list. When I first started freelancing, I was really organised and sat down on the last Friday of every month to enter everything into my accounting programme and file invoices and bills. A look back through some of this blog's earliest entries shows that even a couple of years ago I was still relatively in control of the paperwork.

And then it all started to slide. Part of the problem was I never quite got to grips with the software - there didn't seem to be a massive incentive to keep struggling with it, especially as my accountant doesn't use it and is quite happy to just take a file of paperwork off me. So about a year ago I just gave up on it completely, but I kept putting off starting up a simple spreadsheet instead. It helps that I have a good memory for keeping track of which clients have paid up and I log into my bank account several times a week to look at what's going on there.

This year, I've not even filed the paperwork, just slung it all into a box folder as it was generated. But there's nothing like a deadline to galvanise you. Armed with the certain knowledge that my accountant will be on my doorstep bright and early tomorrow expecting coffee and a neatly bundled package of admin to take away, there was only one option.

And so, dear reader, I spent my entire afternoon wading through the box file and attempting to make sense of all my expenses (the invoices are pretty straightforward). I quickly discovered that a lot of bills that arrived by email I'd not printed off, then I had to peer at fading till receipts and scrawl notes on them so my long-suffering accountant knows what I spent money on.

Finally, it was all done. Everything is in date order in a lever arch file, neatly sorted into income, expenditure, bank statements and "other".Tomorrow my fairy godmother will start waving her magic wand and a few weeks later she will have filed my tax return for me and printed off a full set of accounts for me, including a profit and loss statement, balance sheet and all the rest.

She's worth her weight in gold. And she's tax-deductible.

13 October 2008

Twittering on...

Journalist Dave Lee recently wrote an interesting blog post about using Twitter. As a Twitter user myself, I've found it incredibly useful. I subscribe to a number of useful news feeds from various media organisations and most of my tweep crowd are fellow hacks or flacks - it's good to be able to swap links on interesting new stuff (you never know when that might trigger an idea for a pitch). I've been offered the opportunity to beta-test new tech products and I've chatted to editors about possible topics for features (I once saw a colleague pitch an idea to an ed and secure the deal, all by tweeting!). I also use it as my water-cooler to chat to colleagues and my handful of non-work friends using it.

I had tried Twitter last year but didn't "get" it at the time. This time round, I picked up on its uses right away.

Dave Lee is absolutely right when he points out that news organisations such as the Beeb need to sort out their Twitter feeds and also engage in conversation. I use the BBC Magazine feed - while it follows me back, my attempts to engage in conversation have been met with silence. What's that all about? I'd really like to build a relationship with BBC Magazine via Twitter, as one day I might pluck up the courage to pitch them. Not responding means you might as well just pump out a bog-standard RSS feed if you don't want to converse with your followers.

Most of the hacks I follow tweet a well-balanced mix of links to their articles or blogs, or links to other stuff of interest, chit-chat on newsworthy topics (yes, we're all chucking in our tuppenceworth on the financial crisis right now) and personal stuff. Those I followed who turned out to be only tweeting what they ate for lunch or whatever, I unfollowed fairly quickly. My day is full enough already and there's no space for that kind of pure trivia - it's best left to blogs or chatting to mates on Yahoo Messenger.

I blogged the other day that Stephen Fry has joined Twitter and how rapidly he got followed by thousands (and also very generously began following many of us in return too). I hope Fry's Twitter experience won't be as crippling as his Facebook one - he was obliged to create a fan page on Facebook to manage his massive fanbase and the demands it put on his already limited time. Twitter definitely seems to work best when you exercise some control over who you follow and (occasionally) let follow you back. That said, Fry's already been regaling us with some splendid photos hot from his trip to Kenya (including the notch of a rhino's ear!) and it's fun to have this little peep into his extraordinary life. I enjoy tennis ace Andy Murray's tweets for the same reason.

Twitter is definitely at its best when it combines focus and the personal and is reciprocal.

11 October 2008

Unsub: the aftermath of an edit-free zone

As newspapers continue their drive to slash costs and streamline processes, there has been a marked trend towards getting rid of sub-editors and making the journalists sub their own copy and upload it into the content management system.

A number of high-profile journalists and media commentators, such as Jeff Jarvis, have insisted this is the way to go and that editors will be given a new role as a "gentle coach".

So what really happens when sub-editors get made redundant and the hacks are left to their own devices? The Sunday Express found out recently to its cost that it was a false economy.

The memo leaked to Media Guardian sent by a senior staffer at the paper to the journalists there revealed what a disaster the decision to fire 80 sub-editors has been. And more are apparently to be laid off shortly!

I have to admit I practically wept with laughter when I read the memo yesterday. It more than backs up my assertion that subs do much more than cut copy to fit. The list of howlers, gaffes, basic spelling errors and potential legal problems arising from the daft decision to make the hacks edit their own work just proves that sub-editors are the oil that keeps the cogs running smoothly at a newspaper.

I don't have much time for the Express, but I find it depressing that any company would be prepared to publish anything so error-strewn, just to save a few quid, and trash its reputation into the bargain. If I were an Express reader, the poor quality of its copy would have me switching allegiance to another paper.

If anything, the experience at the Sunday Express should be sufficient to convince all newspapers that cutting back on sub-editors is a stupid idea. Sure, these are difficult times for the media, especially as we enter a recession and advertising revenue, which funds the press, is reduced.

I'll be interested to see whether the media commentators still think subs are an unnecessary luxury...

10 October 2008

Media Diet Week 41

Press: the turmoil on the financial markets around the world this week has meant the papers have been out of date even before they rolled off the presses. Fortunately, papers these days are online too and the best ones update hourly or even faster. Print editions are best left for in-depth background features as the headlines change so rapidly. I've been glued to the Guardian this week for financial updates and also Robert Peston's blog on the BBC website, which to my mind has the most incisive analysis and most interesting forecasts. The best other material I've read this week is the Guardian's G2 special today on deafness. It's great to see disability being covered intelligently and with some humour too. More please.

Blogs: there seems to have been a theme this week out there in cyberspace - word lists. First, I stumbled over Difficult Words, which was a fairly comprehensive list of words that are often confused with others (hat-tip to Juliet). I also rather enjoyed BBC Magazine's wordy musings this week - the bizarre story of the dictionary reader, Ammon Shea, who is a tad obsessed with the vast vocabulary of the English language. Following on from that, the Magazine published our 50 favourite words, some of which are splendidly silly. And there's also the Magazine's very handy list of financial jargon, which is pretty useful right now. When editing financial stuff (daily in my case), these are largely familiar to me but I've yet to see my clients using "dead cat bounce". Still, at least I'll know what it means if it does crop up.

TV/radio: a thin week as I was out a lot and, as usual, resorted to BBC iPlayer to stay up to speed with EastEnders and The Archers. I managed to catch all of Place of Execution, which finished this week, a fairly faithful adaptation of Val McDermid's brilliant crime novel. The only other telly of note was Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which I used to watch religiously when Mark Lamarr was in the driving seat. I lost interest when they tinkered with the format (now back to how it was) and I never quite took to Simon Amstell. But Buzzcocks was essential viewing on Thursday as Stephen Fry was guest captain oppposite Phill Jupitus. Needless to say, Fry was his usual brilliant self, but I don't doubt viewing figures were pushed higher after Fry made an appearance on Twitter the same day. Within hours he'd amassed a following of thousands and I was overjoyed when he started following me in return. Whodathunkit?

Books: busy week, so still only a third through The Arsenic Labyrinth. How did I run out of time to read books? Twenty years ago, on a career break to do my degree, I thought nothing of reading 7 or 8 books a week and I went out almost every night back then. These days it seems to take a month to get through just one.

08 October 2008

Stalked and garbled

So there I was this morning, fuelled on my favourite Columbian coffee and putting my article together. I'd already completed a couple of interviews and done my background research. Now I was writing it up and rearranging the paragraphs, reworking sentences and making sure what I had planned in my head was what was appearing on the screen. I had just one interview to go.

The phone rang.

- hello, says I.

- hi, it's xxx here. I hear you're writing an article about us.

- um, yes I am. I was actually about to ring you. (I really was. You can't write a story without letting the other party have their say.)

Hmmm, was my interviewee psychic? Stalking me?* We agreed to chat again in 5 minutes' time so I could get an official statement. In the interim I turned the air bluer than Jamie Oliver's latest programme, while I frantically ripped my office apart hunting for my Retell 156.** I found it and wired it in with seconds to spare. Then breathed out and flipped the "record" switch.

Sheesh, ain't that always the way when you get caught on the hop. At least my stalkerinterviewee had no idea how unorganised I was.

Copy filed, I nipped out for a bit and returned to find an offer of work on my phone. The message was so garbled that I had to listen 5 times to figure out their phone number and I had no idea of the person's name. Then it was my turn to go stalking as I googled the number to get a company name and, importantly, the name of the person who just rang. This is one reason why email follow-ups are very useful. If I leave a voicemail for someone, I often mail them afterwards just to make sure my message is clear and they have all my contact details to hand.

* Joke!

** This nifty bit of kit doesn't look like owt special, but it plugs into the phone and a digital recorder so you can record a two-way conversation.

07 October 2008

Busy bee

Somehow I managed to finish the book proposal today. I drafted the bulk of it on Sunday and then wrote a draft introduction today of around 1,000 words. I'm quite pleased with what I've submitted and I'm confident it will pass muster with the publisher. They've already acknowledged receipt and said I will hear next week if I get the contract. Fingers crossed.

In between I've crammed in no less than 3 medical appointments - 2 check-ups and my flu jab. I also wasted 30 minutes waiting around in the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions, only to be told there is a supply problem for my epilepsy medication. Great. Now I have to go to another chemist tomorrow to collect half my tablets. The rest I can't get at all. I feel a rant coming on - time to pick up the phone and berate Big Pharma for putting me at risk of seizures if I can't get my meds...

I got a commission from a national newspaper yesterday so this afternoon and this evening has been spent researching and interviewing. My deadline is lunchtime tomorrow, giving me not a huge amount of time to pull it all together and write it up. Except I have to use that time to chase my meds at the other chemist as they will only hold the tablets until lunchtime. I sense a major conflict of interests approaching and probably a headache too.

The afternoon will be filled seeing my GP, again. And queuing at the hospital for routine yearly blood tests. I lead such an exciting life...

05 October 2008

Media Diet Week 40

Press: I seem to have ever less time to read the press and I'm not sure why that is. I'm not going out more at present than I was a few months ago, nor am I spending more time on the computer. If anything, I'm spending less, the PC slack being taken up by a slight increase in my TV viewing. So I was rather surprised today to find myself clearing out a barely read copy of BBC Good Food, pausing only to rip out 3 recipes. New purchases this week included Great British Food, bought for research with a view to pitching (a previous copy acquired for the same reason got lost in the house move) but I'd like to find the time to read it for pleasure too, and Bizarre, as it has a story in it on a campaign I'm involved with. I don't usually read Bizarre as it's just not quite my thing even though it ought to be, so this is a rare purchase for me.

Blogs: Technorati seems to have finally started resolving its problems. My blogs are being pinged again and I'd like to think it's cos I had a moan last week. On the downside, my RSS reader Bloglines is now playing up and being very slow at picking up feeds. I have a back-up in Google Reader but I prefer Bloglines for a number of reasons so I hope this is a temporary blip. I have become obsessed with a new blog called The Bureau, largely because the author clearly belongs to my professional body but their identity is maddeningly elusive. I am clearly more pedantic than Bureauista, though I draw the line at grammar nazism.

TV: I've noticed that my TV consumption has increased slightly. Ok, it's doubled. Probably. But all that means is that I'm probably averaging 90 minutes a day rather than 45 (an episode of EastEnders plus the news headlines, maybe). Naturally, I'm watching Strictly Come Dancing again this year, but I'm irritated by the length of the results show. An hour is over-egging it and I find myself tuning in just for the last 20 minutes. There are also far too many couples this year and I fear the BBC is stretching its brand to the limit. There's cashing in on a hit show and there's alienating loyal viewers. We really do not need Claudia Winkleman on 5 nights a week for 16 weeks. My new secret vice, though, is Katie and Peter: The Next Chapter. I hate reality TV yet I find this weirdly addictive, not least because Jordan has had so much "work" done on her face that her upper lip is becoming a star in its own right. Lesley Ash must be weeping at the loss of her trout pout title.

Books: deeply engrossed in The Arsenic Labyrinth right now. As crime novels go, so far it's shaping up very nicely. And as crime novelists go, Martin Edwards just gets better and better. The Blair Years is still on hold...

02 October 2008

Woefully neglected

No, not me (although I could argue a case!) but this blog. I've had one of those weeks where I've been running around like a headless chicken.

I've finally signed off two writing projects, which means (I hope) that I can start preparing my book proposal for the publisher tomorrow. And also start the long task of cutting a client's book manuscript in half and knocking it into shape so they can present something usable to the agent and hopefully get a publishing deal.

I spent a large chunk of yesterday learning basic belly dancing steps. I should point out that this was in the name of journalism and bloody hell, but my back and abdominal muscles aren't half making their presence felt today.

It's also been a week of visits. A copywriter colleague dropped in for coffee earlier in the week and we had an enjoyable chinwag for an hour or so over chocolate macaroons. If things go according to plan, we may be working together before too long. Tomorrow, the last remaining parent drops by, the one I haven't seen for 13 months and with whom I have had only sporadic telephone contact in that period. Fortunately for both of us the royal visit is likely to last only an hour and may inspire me to pitch the event to a paper somewhere (although knowing my luck, said pitch would fall into the same black hole as all the recent others).

At least my mate C is arriving tomorrow to erase all memory of the parental drive-by. It's been a while since I last saw C, who is a high-flying scientist doing amazing things in a lab somewhere at the other end of the country. She'll be here for 24 hours and what we have in common (apart from being gorgeous and talented) is epilepsy. So my town can expect to see two pissed-up spazzers out on the razz tomorrow night, followed by the pair of us crawling around in dark glasses on Saturday as I attempt to show C the sights while we fight off our hangovers...

28 September 2008

Media Diet Week 39

Press: I'm quite amazed at the number of physical papers I've purchased this week. Four copies of the Guardian and an Observer, a Sun and a News of the World plus my local paper (for the first time in weeks) and 2 Daily Mirrors. This was largely down to the amount of travelling I've done since 8 days ago. Reading newspapers on trains is practically obligatory and certainly passes the time. One thing I've noticed is I have actually read more. I suppose it's partly because I've paid for the papers and want to get my money's worth but I'm also very aware that when reading the papers online I tend to just skim the headlines and only click on those that entice me. With a print copy, my eye is drawn not just to the headlines but also the opening paragraphs and that determines whether I'll keep reading or not. On the net, papers tend to offer only the headline of a story - the sole determinant of a click-through. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the designers of the online editions...

Blogs: two journalists I admire have started blogs - stand up Kate Bevan and Anne Wollenberg. My current gripe, though, is with Technorati, which seems to be permanently borked. Technorati's admin have admitted to having indexing problems and a backlog to catch up on but weeks later nothing seems to be fixed. Their last site status report, dated 12 September, claims all problems are resolved when they clearly are not - a look at the discussion board reveals endless complaints from fed-up bloggers who are not being automatically pinged. This particular blog went unpinged for a whole month. It took four requests to admin to get them to push a status update through for me (which saw lots of new incoming links and a hefty rise in my ranking) but since then it has languished unpinged again, 12 days and counting. I'm not alone in feeling frustrated by Technorati, which seems to be rapidly losing its reputation among bloggers as the essential indexing site. I'm looking into alternatives myself now that I can longer rely on Technorati for reliability.

TV/radio: apart from EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing, I'm still watching very little TV. EastEnders is attracting huge controversy just now for running a long-term storyline about paedophilia. It has been really well-scripted so far, with some terrific acting and I think if it helps even one abused child break their silence it will have done good. Looking back over the last few weeks, I seem to have started watching a number of things and abandoned them - Merlin and Mutual Friends to mention just 2. Very few of the new serials seem compelling enough to make me want to tune in again. Usually the autumn season signals a decent run of programmes but I suspect at this rate I may be signing up for adult ed classes to fill my evenings.

Books: the other good thing about spending endless hours on trains is the chance to get stuck into a juicy book. Last Sunday's trip back from the capital gave me the opportunity to blitz Piers Morgan's Don't You Know Who I Am? Disappointly, while he mentioned buying Press Gazette and then, a bit later, deciding not to attend its fabled Press Awards, he failed to write about the collapse of PG under his and Matthew Freud's ownership. It would have been interesting to hear his version of events but perhaps poor Piers felt it might be too painful to recall...

25 September 2008

How to Write?

...or how to dumb down my trade?

All this week, the Guardian has been giving away booklets on how to write. Fiction, poetry, screenplays... today's free guide was on journalism but you could have forgiven me for thinking it was April the 1st. Granted, even for a hardened old pro like myself there were some handy tips in there. But I feel really pissed off that the Guardian thinks it's fine to spill our professional secrets to wannabes.

It's hard enough for professionals making a freelance living as a journalist these days. Without a portfolio career in which I edit and copywrite, I would have trouble paying the bills. In current times, we are seeing publications close or slash their pagination to save money, leaving fewer outlets to sell articles to. A couple of national newspapers have halved their standard freelance rates within the last fortnight. Papers are making staff redundant, staff who then decide to try freelancing in an already crowded and tough market. And to top it all, more and more across all media platforms content is seen as something that should be cheap or preferably free. Not something produced by skilled and talented writers who deserve just reward.

Loads of people who bought the Guardian today are going to think "I could do that". People with no journalistic training or experience. People who think they can just waltz into a job that is already undervalued and underpaid and underestimated. People who'd be happy to get a byline for free, just to have their name in print.

It's going to be yet another squeeze on our already crushed and struggling to breathe profession.

The cynic in me wonders if this is a deliberate ploy by the Guardian to find yet another way of acquiring cheap or free content for its websites and print editions.

On the other hand, I sincerely hope that every section head, every commissioning editor at the Guardian gets swamped with poorly constructed pitches and unsolicited, badly written articles. They'll soon be as fed up as I am right now. And maybe then the idiots that dreamed this wheeze up will realise that it's much better to actually pay someone who knows what they are doing the going rate for a job well done.

24 September 2008

A book and a video

I may be about to land a book-writing contract.

{jumps up and down and makes funny whoop-whoop noises}

A lovely hack colleague of mine suggested me to her publisher last week as a potential author for a practical handbook on living with epilepsy. I quickly fired off some emails - one to the publisher to establish initial contact, one to a hack pal who is also a published author and very generous in helping other writers put together credible book proposals - I asked her for a copy of her fabled how-to-do-it guide.

On Monday, the publisher emailed back and invited me to call her for a chat. I did so this morning, having read through her company's general briefing for pitching to write a title for them. We had a very useful discussion and the upshot is I've been asked to put together a proposal within the next fortnight. She seemed very keen to have me on board, as I'd be writing very much from an inside point of view. Fingers crossed, I'll get the contract.

It's not going to make my fortune, that is clear, but it'll be good to have a book on the old CV and boost my profile. And I know I will enjoy writing it.

In other news, yet another hack pal has been busy creating. Cast your mind back a couple of months to our dear food critic Giles Coren and his little tantrum towards the subs at The Times. Naturally, an outburst like that doesn't get forgotten quickly and the hackosphere is still chattering about it. Enter my pal Shandypockets who, while ill in bed the other day, put a video together for our amusement.

The clip is from a 2004 movie called Der Untergang (The Downfall). The subtitles, however, belong solely to Shandypockets.


23 September 2008

Quiet, working and *that* competition

Sorry, I've been so quiet. I took the weekend off for a much-needed proper break and headed to the bright lights of London for a show, dinner out with friends and late-night chats over a bottle of brandy.

I've been working flat out the last few days as I race to meet a deadline. There are more in the offing, too.

I just popped over to the 3rd Annual Writing Blog Awards. The winners have been announced. As expected, I didn't make the top 10 (but congrats to those who did), but it was fun in a weirdly masochistic sort of way. And it's attracted new readers (quick wave hello to you all!).

19 September 2008

Media Diet Week 38

Press: despite my best intentions, it was late Monday by the time I was back in the habit of reading the news again. And Tuesday by the time I was reading my usual daily round of papers online. There's been only one story all week worth paying attention to - the global financial crisis. I've been affected directly by this - I edit for overseas investment banks and my daily workload unexpectedly dried up when trading was suspended on the exchanges in some countries as their listed shares went into freefall. But I digress. What was most interesting was how the financial news seemed to be being driven by one man - Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor. His updates on the HBOS takeover by Lloyds were extraordinary by any standard, with hourly updates of the hottest gen ages before anyone else knew what was going on. It was fascinating and addictive to watch and no other news outlet was so on the ball.

Blogs: undoubtedly, the event of the week for me was tagging onto the back end of the Manchester Evening News' hosting of the Manchester Bloggers meeting. An incomplete round-up of the blog reports has already been posted. I was chuffed to see my pull quote, it certainly put a smile on my face. I still want a MEN coffee mug, though. It's always interesting to meet other bloggers - mostly they are faceless entities who draw you in with their prose and meeting them in the flesh can be a bit of a shock, but you get to see other sides of them than just the one that comes across in their posts. Web 2.0 and social networking are not to be sniffed at but human contact is important too.

TV/radio: another thin week for me given my busyness. I missed most of my regular TV fare and was reduced to catching up with EastEnders on iPlayer, godsend that it is as I refuse to subscribe to SkyPlus. I love the easy availability of online content, especially when it's live - I had an enjoyable afternoon today half-listening to and half-watching the Andy Murray Davis Cup rubber on the internet as I was hacking away with work stuff.

Books: sadly for Creditor, I'm still enjoying Piers Morgan's latest, Don't You Know Who I Am?, which is keeping me entertained on trains right now. Interestingly, at 40 or so pages in, he mentions the decision to buy Press Gazette with Matthew Freud (I wonder, Creditor, are you berating Freud too, or those who blog about him? Just curious...) but haven't got as far as the bit where he fesses up about how it all went to so wrong. No doubt I'll be wiser by the time I get back from my weekend away, which will include long hours passed on trains with books. Only then shall I pass judgement, if I need to pass it at all. The Blair Years is on hold for now. Must be because it's conference season, which is as good a reason as any to ignore politics.

18 September 2008

Of blogs and MEN

It's amazing where they let you in these days upon the flashing of a press card - Manchester Evening News last night hosted a bash for local bloggers so naturally I gatecrashed. MEN has just moved into swanky new premises in the heart of the city, so new I could smell that odd aroma of brand-new electronics, like when you enter Comet.

And what else was that assailing my nostrils? Ah yes, the whiff of nostalgia. We toured the newsroom and I realised it was 17 years since I'd last worked full-time on a publication, in an office... It being after 6, the newsroom was fairly quiet with just a skeleton shift cracking on with things. The phones were eerily silent too. For a moment, I thought: - I could work here. Then I pictured the vast open-plan space crammed to full with bodies, shrieking telephones, shouted orders and bosses bearing down on me and reminded myself why I went freelance. Newsrooms have changed enormously since I trained. MEN's had a TV studio in one corner, for one thing. No running back and forth dozens of times to the typesetter on press day, like I used to, either.

After the tour, deputy editor Maria McGeoghan chaired an informal debate on blogging and the media, in which we had a lively discussion about the use of tools such as Twitter and how bloggers can drive the news agenda. Even Getting Ink, not a Manchester blog, got namechecked because of the trolling issue and how bloggers handle comments (and it wasn't me who raised it, honest!).

Then it was time for the goodie bags. Yes, goodie bags! We got Guardian Hay Festival cotton bags and a copy of the Manchester Evening News. No fancy MEN coffee mug then. I knew I should have swiped one off the subs' desk when I had the opportunity. Once we'd trousered the swag, it was off to the pub for a swift pint and a bit of networking with the other bloggers before it was time to bid farewell and get the train home. Must do it again sometime...

16 September 2008

Black holes and recession-proofing

Not a reference to the large hadron collider, but it might as well be.

My pitches are all currently vanishing into nowhere right now. Unfortunately, this is the freelance's lot and I know enough not to take it personally but it's still frustrating. One particular story I've been trying to sell for weeks. It's topical, it has the right amount of sleaze attached to it and it raises serious questions about the conduct of a certain section of the press. One editor was kind enough to respond fairly quickly with a "no, it's not quite right for us" but the other one is resolutely ignoring me. I wish this ed would just mail back and say no.

I'm trying to place another story, a health one, with a mag I've written for a few times already. Despite follow-up mails designed to elicit a firm yay or nay, this ed is ignoring me too. Grr.

It seems to be the season - other freelances I know are also being blanked. It's not personal. And times are hard right now in the industry as publications tighten their belts - the credit crunch means less advertising being sold, means fewer pages, means fewer slots to fill. And staffers being "let go". One staff colleague lost their job last week. I hope this person won't be the first of many amongst my circle. My local paper's pagination has been slashed - not that I write for it, but it's an indication of tougher times to come. It's now so thin I'll have trouble lining the cat's litter tray with it.

I'm lucky that I have enough non-journalism work (other writing jobs and copy-editing) to keep me going. A number of colleagues today were talking about the stock-market turmoil in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and asking me for advice (finance is one of my specialisms). Undoubtedly some of them are going to hit a rocky patch as the economy stutters. It's definitely the time to diversify - I already do that, but some freelances I know are looking at teaching part-time or taking on bar work temporarily, just to pay the bills.

My own plan, by Xmas, is to move into new areas in my fields. I had a tentative offer to do some pro-blogging today - I don't know if anything will come of it but it's definitely a time to expand my expertise. And as I'm planning to move again soon, I'm also considering new training in InDesign so I can take on in-house shifts as well.

15 September 2008

In the finals!

So, this blog has made it to the finals of the 3rd Annual Top Ten Blogs for Writers Contest. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who voted me (er, all five of you...). But don't all hold your breath now, there are 37 of us on the shortlist.

TBH, my chances of getting into the top 10 are very slim. It's a US contest, for one thing - I suspect I may be the only Brit in there. Plus, almost all the other blogs shortlisted that I've looked at seem to be about how to earn more money, find more clients, be more successful... ah, smell those cultural differences! This blog just doesn't cover that sort of thing. It's not that I'm not interested - of course I want to earn more money, have more clients and be more successful. We all do. It's just I see little point in covering that sort of thing when others out there are already doing that better than I could. Most of my fellow contestants are also professional bloggers, which I'm not.

As a Brit, this blog potters rather than pushes, and I like to muse, rant and ramble when the mood strikes. In short, it reflects my working life to a certain extent, which is sort of what I planned when I started DoaW.

Anyway, the gloves are off now. I just hope I don't end up humiliated at no. 37...

14 September 2008

Media Diet Week 37

Warning: this will be a very thin one.

Press: I have not read a paper for a whole week! There, I've said it. I left home last Sunday lunchtime and didn't return till very late on Tuesday night. Normally on a Sunday I'd be stuck into The Observer and the News of the World, but I had no time last week as I was packing to go away. Monday and Tuesday I had limited access to the net so my time online was limited to scanning my email for anything urgent. Wednesday I was back home, looking at a day filled with playing catch-up. I was vaguely aware that it was Big Bang Day but didn't have the energy to pay a lot of attention. Anyway, I don't seem to have been sucked into a black hole yet. Not that sort, anyway. By Thursday I was simply out of the habit of reading the news and although I planned to resume today, it hasn't happened. Living without the news is a bit weird at first, then you sort of stop caring. But no doubt I'll be back to normal tomorrow.

Blogs: likewise, I've been out of touch with the blogosphere. Not much seems to be happening, apart from Sally blocking a troll at Getting Ink, and rightly so. Oh, and the Guardian's blogs all moved house, sort of. Anyway, they're all in one spot now, which is handy.

TV/radio: being away meant missing half of EastEnders. I planned to catch up on the omnibus but life got in the way. The second half got interesting, though, with a couple of very juicy and lengthy storylines in the offing about revenge and paedophilia (not necessarily linked). I was tickled to learn from the BBC's press releases that Tom Archer is to be appointed Controller of Factual Production. Sadly, the real Tom Archer is still raising pigs in Ambridge. I've watched very little else but did tune into Radio 4 for the Torchwood drama on Big Bang Day. Excellent stuff.

Books: I'm still no further forward with Alistair Campbell's Blair Years diaries. I have a long train trip coming up next weekend so I plan to attempt another chunk. At this rate, I might finish them by Xmas. I did take yesterday off to finish Spider, which was quite good on tension but I was able to guess the plot all too easily. I'm now about 3 pages into Piers Morgan's Don't You Know Who I Am?. Review next week.

10 September 2008

A moan* of editors

Garblage warning: I'm tired. Apologies in advance for typos and general ramblingness.

It's September and that means it's time for the annual gathering of the SfEP. I almost didn't go this year but had my arm twisted by the organisers, who wanted me to present something. Copy-editors and proofreaders tend to be seen as rather staid, possibly because many of us live with a level of pedantry akin to borderline OCD. I don't mean that we are inflexible about language rules, more that it's hard for us to resist whipping out a pen in a restaurant and correcting the typos on the menu.

Put more than 100 of us together for 2 and a bit days and, well, you can probably imagine what a lot of the conversations might be like. However, we do like to have fun. And while some of the older, more staid members are indeed likely to toddle off to bed at 10pm after a small sherry, there's enough of us who are bit more rock 'n' roll about staying up drinking beyond chucking-out time. So quite a few of us are probably coping with extended hangovers just now. I certainly didn't relish falling into my own bed back at home last night at midnight, then having to get up at 6.30 this morning to edit for an overseas client on a major time difference...

But I digress. there was a lot to pack in over the 2 and a bit days, what with workshops, seminars, guest lecturers (including the very wonderful David Crystal, our VP and witty speaker) and entertainments. I prepared nothing in advance for my slot, because I'm like that - I like to just run with something. And as I was doing a live on the net demo, it didn't need a lot of prepping. Although I could have done without the hangover from the previous night's bar antics. As usual, I failed to win anything on the raffle but I did come home with a nice mug and a book.

What I most enjoy about events like this is the opportunity to take a break from work and let my hair down among friends and colleagues while learning new things. One workshop I sat in consisted of a collective brainstorm to share useful resources such as online specialist dictionaries. You don't know what you don't know until you sit down with others who know things and offer them to you freely.

Now I'm home - the cat has pissed on the mat to show his displeasure at being left to fend for himself (with only a neighbour between him and starvation), I have 7 messages on my ansaphone, a mountain of post and a very full inbox. Normal life - hello!

* As far as I know editors have no collective noun - moan was recently suggested by a colleague and rather appropriate it is too...

05 September 2008

Media Diet Week 36

Press: it's not long since I had a pop at The Sun's redesign. I still find it clunky and slow, but earlier in the week I dropped in to The Mirror's website and was reminded all over again why I hate it. It looks good - I love the mosaic of full-colour pix on the home page - but when I click on News, why does it take me to a page that offers only 3 main stories followed by 2 secondary splashes? There's another link that says "More News" so I have to click again to read all the headlines at a glance and see what stories I actually want to delve into. This is stupid, useless design - forcing readers to make extra click-throughs endears you to no one. Not even your most loyal readers. And I'm not one of those - the Mirror will remain a site I will only ever dip into when absolutely necessary because of its user-unfriendliness. Thanks are due to The Guardian today for the funniest film review I have read in years. Peter Bradshaw's linguistic tongue twistas had me in stitches. All reviews should be this entertaining. More please. And, lest I forget, R.I.P. Eve.

Blogs: I was pointed towards The Gentlemen Ranters a few days ago, which is an amusing collection of hack anecdotes and spoof features. Love it. More please! Fleet Street Blues has been strangely quiet for weeks but has broken its silence to let us know it's going to be even quieter for a couple of months - intriguing! Talking of quiet, the Churnalists also seem to have chucked the towel in (or should that be hung the towel over the beer pump?). Shame.

TV/radio: It's been a good week for telly. After watching Jerry Springer last week on Who Do You Think You Are, I felt it would be hard to top that for compelling TV but I was wrong. God On Trial was, quite simply, brilliant. It shone. Even as it shone a light into dark corners. Anthony Sher led a fantastic cast reflecting the cream of British actors. I leave it to Andrew Collins for a proper review, and I agree with his parting comment about the licence fee... God on Trial clashed, of course, with WDYTYA, which fortunately has a next-day repeat, so I was able to catch up with Esther Rantzen's trip into her past. Forget about it being a good week for telly, this was a great week for Holocaust TV. But how could the BBC film Rantzen standing in the centre of the long-razed Warsaw Ghetto and fail to place her at the stunning memorial to the ghetto uprising just around the corner?

Books: I am a failure. I've read none of Alistair Campbell's diary this week at all. Not even paragraph. I did pick up something lighter (relatively speaking - it depends if you like serial killer thrillers or not. I do). I started Michael Morley's Spider and have managed about 40 pages over the last nights. Not much has happened yet.

And finally... I can't leave this week without a reference to BBC News Online's Magazine, which published 20 examples of grammar misuse on Wednesday. They were all sent in by readers and what tickled me most was the number of complaints against the BBC itself for slack use of language on the website. Aunty, consider your wrist slapped.

02 September 2008

Beer o'clock

It's coming up to 6.30pm as I start this post and I've just cracked open a beer. Most days I'll pour something to mark the line between the end of my working day and my free time in the evening. Sometimes it's beer, sometimes it's a glass of wine. But early evening is always beer o'clock.

I need the beer today as I'm cross at how little work I've actually managed to achieve today. I was up just before 7 and by 8 had done an hour's editing for a client. I spent the next hour reading The Guardian online. Then I spent the time between 9 and 10 finishing a corporate job and chatting to that client. Then my landlord called. Then a friend rang (quick wave goodbye to the best part of an hour!). Then I read another paper online, dipped into Facebook and Journobiz and, before I knew it, it was 1pm!

I started doing my monthly invoices but the printer finally ran out of the last drop of ink so I jumped in the shower at 2 and headed out at 3 to buy ink. By the time I got back, via a window specialist to sort out my window key problem, it was 4.30 and I'd missed the post. Oh well, I discovered I didn't have enough stamps anyway - the invoices will go in the post tomorrow. I was also too late to ring the council to get pest control to come round and exterminate the rat that appeared in my back garden last night, but I did find time in the morning to ring the estate agent to blast them about not taking down the For Sale sign outside 10 weeks ago - this morning, I found some kids had pulled it out of the flowerbed during the night and slung it across my pathway. It's gone at last.

Other things I wanted to get done included chasing some pitches (they all seem to have fallen into a black hole) and pay some urgent bills. Tomorrow, tomorrow. Except I'd reserved tomorrow for a bit of shopping as I urgently need some new clothes to replace the schmattes I'm living in at the moment. Now, I'll have to do the invoices, the bills, the window keys (again) and the rest.

A colleague on Twitter today said freelancing is a rollercoaster - it is, and sometimes you can't get off. No wonder I need beer...

On the plus side, I got a nice email at the end of the afternoon from a potential new client offering editing work. I rang her back to chat more - it's local, on site and will probably pay well. I've mailed back my CV and she'll talk to her client (she's a go-between) but it looks positive as it's in my specialist field. Fingers crossed. Regular work = Good.

01 September 2008

Fry's English too light

The last two Monday mornings I've been tuning into Fry's English Delight. Like its almost-namesake, it's a slice of frothy confectionery - apparently tasty at the time but rather sickly sweet and utterly unmemorable. After this morning's episode, I can barely remember what was discussed apart from the opener about the white-van man offering quotations as he drove around London. This is not my memory failing me, but a programme of little substance. And so very disappointing - Fry is usually not only witty and sharp but also manages to take listeners on an exciting trip with him. Not this time - this was Fry's Quirkless Too Lite. Fry is an official national treasure - was I wrong to expect more of him?

Elsewhere, following up yesterday's Tesco story, I stumbled across a report in today's Daily Mail (normally a paper I avoid) which tells the world that Tesco has still managed to get its grammar wrong, even while cleaning up its act. Complete with pic:

31 August 2008

Blog Day

Well, I never! I just learned that it is, apparently, the 4th Annual Blog Day today. I mean, honestly, who dreams these things up? And how come I didn't know about it even though I've been blogging for 10 years (no, not just this one, there are others - some live, some long gone).

Anyway, the rules of Blog Day decree that I must plug and recommend 5 blogs by others that I follow (hmm, hope some others are plugging me - I don't do this purely for my own amusement, you know). So here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite blogs.

Benefit Scrounging Scum
- because she writes about disability in an angry, passionate and entertaining way, exposing the absurdities and unfairness of the welfare system, talking about living with her particular condition in a way that is never self-pitying but often self-deprecating and always enlightening and showing us that life is for living no matter what hand you've been dealt. Incapacity benefit? Bendy Girl should be given a medal. (Although I don't think you can actually live on that.)

Freelance Writing Tips - yes, I know it's already fantastically well known, but Linda Jones deserves another plug for this consistently useful site and the amazing book that came out of it (or was it vice versa?). Simply, one of the handiest sources of advice and tips that really do work.

10 Yetis PR blog - my absolute favourite PR blog because it's always daft, funny, amusing, entertaining and enlightening, even when it's being serious. Wish they'd proofread before posting, though! ; p)

Musings from a Muddy Island
- fabulous photos of a beach I am quite envious that she lives on, plus a strange obsession with ampersands and printing, and lots of thoughts on books from a fellow copy-editor.

Martin Millar - cult novelist blogging on the writing life, football and rhubarb crumble. This is a consistently entertaining read and often screamingly funny. Disclaimer: I do occasionally commission Martin to write short stories for a magazine I work for, but I'd be following this blog even if that wasn't the case.

A less-on for all shops

So, Tesco has finally bowed to pressure and decided to scrap its infuriating "10 items or less" checkout signs. Pretty much all the other supermarket chains did the decent and right thing a while back and made the necessary changes. I really don't understand why Tesco still is unsure about using "fewer", though. It's been explained to them by that splendid body, the Plain English Campaign, no doubt in words even a 7-year-old could understand. Other supermarkets don't have a problem with "fewer" - I believe Marks and Spencer use it, and (I think) Sainsbury, too.

But at least "less" is going. Using "up to 10 items" or even "under 10 items" are acceptable colloquial alternatives for the pedants among us, as well as easily grasped by everyone. Less is never an acceptable substitute for fewer. The difference between them is simple to understand. You use fewer for anything you can count and less for anything you can't. You wouldn't say "Can you make fewer noise, please?", for example.

Tesco is the biggest supermarket chain in the UK - an eighth of everything comsumers spend ends up in its tills (that's 12.5%, which might not sound much in the great scheme of overall consumerism but it's a lot for one company). Tesco, while being rather bad in some ways (like a lot of large corporations), has also used its might to push through some good things, like the drive to reduce plastic carrier bags. So it's a shame they have taken so long to realise the damage they have been doing to national literacy standards.

But, hey, Tesco has finally seen the light! I'm looking forward to seeing the new signs when I next do my weekly shop. Because the signs are too high to reach with some tippex and a marker pen...

29 August 2008

Media Diet Week 35

Press: looks like I'll be banging on about Press Gazette yet again, as the new monthly edition plopped onto my mat yesterday. Despite me cancelling my subscription recently, it turns out that PG has a 30 days' notice policy. So, here it is. What's it like? It's now an A4 64-pager with a snazzy new design which looks good at first glance. And yet, flicking through the pages it seemed lacking in substance despite the plethora of lengthy features. The freelance section, one of the main reasons for buying the old weekly, has shrunk and what's left is, frankly, not interesting - 5 short interviews with a bunch of freelances on coping with challenges and an advice column on making it in Australia. Fat lot of use that'll be to most PG readers, who work in the UK. I'm glad I've seen PG in its new format. It's convinced me I was right to cancel my sub and I'll be using the website to trawl for interesting snippets.

Blogs: we are clearly still in the thick of the holiday season. The blogs I follow are irritatingly quiet apart from one or two. I hope things are going to perk up soon. I shall reserve tonight's comment for a quick rant about my RSS reader, Bloglines, which failed me earlier today. One minute I was reading new feeds, the next my entire list of subscriptions had vanished off the menu. I deleted cookies, logged out and logged in again, to no avail. The help section didn't cover the issue at all. I did discover I could still export my feed list, though, so I did and imported it into Google Reader as a back-up. Then I emailed Bloglines to ask how to fix it. Worryingly, after hitting Send the page told me I'd get a reply after the next two business days. Suddenly, I was looking at a minimum 4 days with no RSS reader and as I dip in several times a day that's no use to me at all. I panicked even more when I discovered that Google Reader had also gone blank on me - I mean totally blank. I was looking at an empty page devoid of anything. But then one of my Firefox plugins updated itself and I rebooted my browser - result! Normality restored. Sometimes a PC just needs the equivalent of a spot of percussive maintenance (I also ran the Dyson over my keyboard this afternoon to suck up the cat hair and then vacced my USB ports while I was at it. I definitely need to get a cleaner).

TV/radio: The Archers, so good over the last few weeks, has gone off the boil again. There was Will trying to murder his brother for dating his ex-wife and it was all rather thrilling. Then the scripties packed him off to Gloucester for six months to work on someone else's shoot. Feeble. Now we''re back to Tony and Brian arguing over Tom's pigs, like anyone gives a toss, and Alan and Usha's horribly right-on wedding (Usha is the only Hindu in the village and thus the focus of all matters PC). Over on the telly, I watched a rather good profile of crime-fic writer Val McDermid, whose books I've been buying since her first was published in the mid-80s. Then I made the mistake of not watching Maestro so I could see the first episode of Mutual Friends, which turned out to be a lot of froth. Despite a good cast and a rather funny premise about the death of one of their crowd, Mutual Friends was a triumph of style over substance. It seemed quite good as I watched, then after I found I could barely remember any of it. Very unsatisfying. Programme of the week was undoubtedly Who Do You Think You Are?, with chat-show host Jerry Springer who learned how both his grandmothers were murdered in the Holocaust. It was almost unbearable to watch as Springer stood alone at the railway memorial in Lodz, Poland, where one of the two matriarchs was shipped out to be gassed in a van at Chelmno. The camera drew back from him as he stood in contemplation but his mic was still on and his sobs were clearly audible. It was brave and compelling TV, and I cried too. And there were more tears at the end when as Springer finished exploring the ghetto of Theresienstadt near Prague, where his other grandma died, he was introduced to a long-lost cousin from Israel who was also a descendant of this grandmother. It was a fabulous ending to a heart-breaking programme and I was overjoyed that Springer had some positive closure.

Books: Over the last week, I've read only slightly more of The Blair Years. It's been a week of late nights where I've flopped into bed and gone straight to sleep. So, I'm still reading the introduction. Only about 800 pages to go...

28 August 2008

Going freelance - getting started

A couple of days ago, a journo friend of mine dropped by for a coffee during the mid-afternoon lull. I could see she was really stressed and it didn't take long to find out why. She works really hard on our local paper and we all know that salaries on British regional papers are a joke. My friend has real talent for writing but is struggling to raise her family on her pitiful income. Unsurprisingly, she's looking to freelance on the side until she can make the leap and do it full-time. Time for a brain-pick.

My top tips?

1. Get a blog. Build it in Wordpress or Typepad so you can have static pages as well for showing clippings, adding a biog and a contact page. And the blog is not only ongoing proof you can write, it's a chance to specialise in niche areas you are passionate about. Result - instant website at minimal cost.

2. Join a good freelancing forum. I always recommend Journobiz as it is supportive - members are very generous with advice and contacts, and it's a good watercooler when you feel alone. I wouldn't survive the working day, stuck at home as I am, without dropping in regularly.

3. Get an accountant. When you're still on a contract and PAYE, freelance earnings are easy to declare on the tax return. But once you make the leap, the time you'd spend struggling to fill in the form is time better spent earning money. My accountant takes a day maximum to verify my accounts and file my tax return. If I did it myself, it would take a week. I save money by paying the accountant to do it for me. And she's a tax-deductible expense. The same theory applies to other situations. It would take me half a day to clean the house (which I do actually do right now) - hiring a cleaner would be cheaper. Ok, the char is not an allowable expense but the convenience frees up my time to earn.

4. Pick your listings. I pay for listings in several professional directories. None are massively expensive (each averages at £55 pa) but they have to earn their keep. I only need one really well-paid gig from each to justify renewing the listing when it's time. Anything else is a bonus. I choose my listings with care - any that don't pay their way get discarded. Well, you wouldn't run an ad in a magazine that didn't bring in business, would you?

5. Join your union. It's no secret that I have deep misgivings about the NUJ, which I recently rejoined purely for practical reasons. When you're staff, you get the press card automatically. When you're flying solo, if you want accreditation, you need to join something. It's not just about the press card. The union does offer other benefits too, like free legal advice and cheap professional indemnity insurance. And it's funny how when redundancies loom at a workplace, the NUJ sees a spike in membership applications... But seriously, it's better to be in the tent pissing out when you work for yourself, and have at least something behind you.

The bonuses? No boss, no commute, no office politics and complete freedom to work for whomever you choose...

A shameless appeal

I was going to blog about some dictionary debate (maybe I still will in a few days) but then a colleague suggested I should be put forward as a nominee for the 3rd annual writing blog awards.

So I went and had a look and thought, yeah why not? But I need nominations - and who better to ask than all you lovely people who keep reading me week in, year out.

So now's your chance to tell the blogosphere about why you think I should be considered. All you have to do is visit the nomination blog post and nominate me in the comments under the post. Don't forget to add my blog URL and why you think I deserve the nomination.

Thank you all, I'm counting on you! Mwah!

27 August 2008

A short history of Penguin

A colleague drew my attention to a book called Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Lane was the founder of the iconic publishing house, Penguin Books. His biography has been out a while - I'm not quite sure how I managed to miss it when it was first published.

It's about much more than the world-famous imprint, though. It's also about the development of quality publishing too. I'm reliably informed that it's quite a racy read. For example, Lane hired a man called A.S.B. Glover, who had bombarded him with a steady stream of complaints about typos and factual errors - Lane decided the only way to shut him up was to employ him as a proofreader. And he was considered to be so good at his job that Lane said Glover was "the only man I have ever known who could correct galley proofs whilst strap-hanging in a busy rush-hour tube".

Hmm. Compared to Glover, my daily round of on-screen copy-editing must give the impression I'm a complete lightweight. But at least I don't have to commute.

Also intriguing is the revelation that the early editorial meetings took place in a Soho Spanish restaurant where much wine was consumed and the manuscripts were dumped in heaps on the floor. As the editors got drunker, there was more chance a budding author might be looked upon favourably.

It all sounds like gripping stuff and definitely a book I shall be seeking out on my next buying spree.

24 August 2008

Media Diet Week 34

Press: not much to comment on this week. The postie delivered my mail on Thursday and the "flumph" as it landed on the mat was eerily quieter than previously. Probably because I've cancelled my subscription to Press Gazette. I'm still in two minds about having taken that drastic step as I miss it. However, the revamp of PG's website is looking promising, although it's disappointing to see the loss of the Knowledge section. I picked up a copy of Women's Fitness to read on the train the other day, drawn by the coverlines. Inside, though, it had no distinguishing features from any other fitness mags aimed at women. Just the same old, same old serving of diet, exercise and beauty. Even the exercise pages were woefully thin at just a page or two with not enough detail - the "drop a stone in 4 weeks" feature listed lots of exercises but no information on how to do them. Very helpful. And an article on swapping jogging for fell-walking will be useless for most readers, who probably don't live within an hour's drive of their nearest hills...

Blogs: well, the blog du jour of the past week was apparently this one, after my post on sub-editors. First, Greenslade picked it up, then it attracted attention here, here, here, here and here. Not to mention the comments on my original post by Jeff Jarvis, among others. Looks like I touched a nerve, then... I'm pleased - this is an important debate to have. I can see the validity of the argument that news blogging is about the here and now, the immediacy of getting the news out there, rather than worrying about the typos. But there's a deeper argument to consider, about the need to maintain literacy standards across the board, not for journalists so much as readers. Somehow, I don't think this topic is going to go away. On a different note, I'm really enjoying the emergence of the new TNTJ blog ring run by young journalists who are blogging on the future of journalism. It's got off to a great start and I'm looking forward to following these young hacks.

TV/radio: quite apart from the saturation coverage of a certain sporting event, the TV schedules have been really dull this week. Must be late summer, that limbo between some series ending and the start of the autumn season proper. I watched Boris Johnson discover his roots on Who Do You Think You Are? despite not being a Boris fan. It was unexpectedly interesting, despite Johnson's regular yelps of "Cripes!" and "Wowee!" I suspect the next episode, with Jerry Springer, will be a lot better, though, not least because Johnson has little charisma on camera.

Books: it's been a busy week, with little time for bedtime reading. I have managed to start Alistair's Campbell's The Blair Years, however, although I've only read the foreword to the paperback edition and the introduction so far. I suspect this is going to take me several weeks to get through, while I read other books alongside. But so far, so good (the book, not Blair).

22 August 2008

Work - what I'm doing...

I've been so busy lately blogging on various issues that I've not really said much about what I'm actually doing.

Back in May, I signed a massive contract to write stuff for a book (not write a book). That job started in June and I'm plodding away at it. The initial contract runs until mid-September, but I've since been offered writing work for the rest of the year on the same project.

I'm juggling two mid-sized web copywriting projects in between, as well as copy-editing for my regular editing clients.

Where I've had time (and ideas) I've been pitching features to various papers and magazines. My hit rate of late has been slim, but that's partly because I've not felt massively inspired and partly because I've not had the time to drum up ideas. In between all the work, I've ended my relationship and moved house so keeping an income flow through my regular work took priority and the journalism took a back seat somewhat.

I write this exhausted. I was up at 5.30am to catch a train to London. My day was spent firstly seeing one of my regular magazine editors to discuss the state of play for the next issue, followed by lunch with a freelance hack pal, followed by a lengthy meeting with an author whose book I have agreed to take on for editing (it needs restructuring first, then who knows).

By the time I arrived home, I'd been out for more than 12 hours, 5 of which were spent on trains (I'm excluding travel within London itself). I do these kind of trips once every two months or so. Because of the 200-mile distance, I have to maximise every trip and cram in as many meetings as possible before collapsing onto a train for the home stretch. I got home to a bleeping answering machine, more than 70 emails and a very pissed-off cat.

To those who think freelancing from home is all daytime telly and entertaining mates who drop round for coffee unannounced, I'd like to see you do all that and somehow be in a good mood when you get home...

When you work for yourself, bringing in the work is the no. 1 priority. Which means meetings and travel and putting yourself out there. I don't have time to schmooze friends during the working week, much as I love them. Schmoozing clients, real or potential has priority. Else the mog and I go hungry.

Media Diet will be posted tomorrow. I'm off to bed.