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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