30 September 2009


An interesting feature appeared today on Reuters about the disappearing hyphen.

I'd definitely agree that hyphens are going out of use thanks to the internet. I've dropped many over the years - some because of the influence of the web, but others have gone for other reasons. Language shifts style for many reasons and the growth of the internet is not the only one. For example, the scientific community was merging medical, technical and scientific terms that previously had hyphens long before texting and email started affecting language use. Nor is Oxford University Press the sole guardian of our language. I do check spellings, including hyphenation, in Oxford's spelling dictionary or its other specialist style guides for editors, but I also have half a dozen other style guides on my shelves.

The Guardian style guide (which uses Collins for its house dictionary) is one I use frequently, not just because I sometimes write for it but some of my editing clients use it as a style guide too. And the Guardian was dispensing with hyphens ahead of the great post-2000 growth of the web. I'm very much in favour of dispensing with overfussy use of hyphens and merging words where they look cleaner, or even splitting them in two if they look better that way.

Style is often a matter of choice rather than a hard and fast rule. There are several major publishers in the UK who produce dictionaries of English - none is identical to any other, including in some choices for spelling or hyphenation. And until we have a French-style English Academy set up here dictating unbreakable rules, we will continue to see our language evolve and adapt.

And rightly so.
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21 September 2009

Working tools

I've been thinking a lot lately about my changing work practices, in terms of the tools I use to improve the way I work or just offer different, more interesting ways of getting things done. Here's a quick run-through of stuff I've tried, tested, stuck with, abandoned or am just doing differently.

I've always had a desktop PC and fixed-line broadband. My router (a BT HomeHub) has wifi too - cued into this are my netbook and phone (see below for more on these). For a long time, the PC was my main work tool, except when I took the laptop away on business trips or holidays. It still is - I like to sit in my front window and watch what's going on in my street while beavering away. Admittedly, my street is fairly quiet but seeing my neighbours going about their business or watching the squirrels racing around helps me feel connected. I've just replaced the previous PC, which was bought off the shelf 6 years ago and was too old to patch up any more, with a custom-built monster capable of handling my work needs for quite a few years to come. I have the latest processor, oodles of RAM and storage space and can appreciate the benefits already of working on a more efficient machine designed for how I work.

I sold my laptop to a friend/colleague not very long ago. There was nothing wrong with it - it was only 5 years old, ran on Windows XP and had a wifi card plus Firefox and Open Office, which was enough on the hoof for checking email and surfing the web, plus working on documents. But the battery was knackered, so I had to be plugged into a socket to do anything, and I was fed up of having to cart a laptop bag everywhere as well as my handbag. And I had my eye on a shiny new netbook. I had my purchase customised with extra battery life and a few other extras. It looks funky (swanky scarlet, with matching mini-mouse) and weighs just over a kilo. It's small enough to fit in my handbag, meaning I can now escape Wordsmith Towers when I have cabin fever and go and work in a café for a change of scene while catching up with friends in town. Adding a pay-as-you-go dongle means I can get online easily, should the unthinkable occur and there's no free wifi (which is abundant in my city). The netbook also has way more capacity than the old laptop so I've been able to install more software, giving me yet more work options.

This has been the most revolutionary change for me. My 5-year-old Nokia was due for replacement and after a couple of friends let me tinker on their iPhones I was hooked. I've had my iPhone since April and can't imagine using anything else now. It's not just that I find the touchscreen easier to type on than a traditional mobile phone keyboard (or that the spell checker is preferable to predictive text). It's the apps that make the difference. I can sync lots of things now with my desktop and netbook, so wherever I am it doesn't matter what kit I'm using, I can still match things up. The only drawback is I haven't yet found a way to sync the built-in calendar (which is fantastic) with ReminderFox on my desktop PC or, indeed, Google Calendar, which I use occasionally. If anyone has an answer to this, I'd love to hear from you.

I'm discovering the joys of using some really useful web-based applications that can be synced - for a freelance on the move, this can make a big difference to accessing things you might suddenly need. I do carry a flash drive with me when I take my netbook out, but it's only as good as what I've stashed on there. Web-based apps mean I can access more documents while on the go. I follow a couple of useful blogs that recommend new apps - AppsFire and Web.AppStorm - which have given me the heads up for the newest software, and sometimes offer access to invite-only beta versions with special promo codes.

I can't shout loud enough about how brilliant this is. I have Evernote installed on the desktop, netbook and iPhone, plus Firefox. I use it for jotting down ideas for pitches, tasks lists, snippets of software code I need to work on a CMS that I'll never remember, even shopping lists. The syncing means I'll never forget anything again and the beauty is you can dump anything in it - text, photos, even voice.

Like Evernote, DropBox is web-based and can be synced across devices. I've never used Google Docs as I felt uneasy about trusting lots of data to their servers. With Dropbox, I can just dump files in it before I go on the hoof and retrieve them to work on wherever and whenever. I can share files, too, if I want, it backs up automatically on a save and I can also recover previous versions of files if I need them (very useful if you accidentally delete something). So far, I've found to be amazingly simple and utterly reliable. I'm still discovering features on it and when the iPhone version is approved I'll be even happier.

My desktop PC is set up so Firefox saves my passwords for the various websites I use. Obviously, having the same set-up on a portable is less advisable and while I keep a file of sites and their passwords, I was never particularly happy about either copying it over to the laptop or netbook, or keeping it on a flash drive, which is even more likely to become lost. My solution was to open an account with PasswordSafe. This nifty app allows me to stash all my passwords and lock it with one. I only need to remember that one password, so I'm now far safer when working away from home. Result.

I've only just installed Subernova, which is a project-management application that runs on Adobe Air. I've not used it long enough to appreciate all its features but because I have a diverse work portfolio that includes journalism, editing and corporate writing, I need a tool that enables me to keep track of what I'm doing and when I have deadlines. Putting the latter in my calendar apps is fine up to a point but it doesn't really crack the problem of juggling everything then remembering to bill someone (this is vital if you're invoicing in stages). So far, Subernova seems to be meeting a lot of these needs for me. And again, it has an iPhone version. This is the only paid-for app I'm using. I'm on the free 30-day trial as I write this - if it proves it's worth by mid-October, I may well fork out the US$5.99 a month to keep running it.

I just discovered Wakoopa today and I'm addicted already. It installs a little widget on your computer and tracks all the apps you use. Ok, that doesn't sound that enticing but it does much more than tell me what I'm using. Wakoopa's tracking tells me how much or how little I'm using a particular program or widget. I've already decided to uninstall a couple of things as I was barely using them. Where it gets really useful is that I can add tags to what Wakoopa is monitoring, favourite them and share them with other Wakoopa users. And by looking at the page for each app, I can see ideas for similar apps to try out as well as click though to others' profiles and see what they are using. Everything can be rated and reviewed - this has almost instantly become one of the most useful tools I have for discovering other useful tools.

If you have other suggestions for harnessing tools that help the hard-pressed freelance, do leave a comment!
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16 September 2009

Conference by numbers

I've just returned from my annual trip to the SfEP conference. It went something like this.

3 - people I really did not want to talk to.

2 - people who apparently did not want to talk to me.

8 - people who came to my workshop.

1 - workshop I attended, apart from my own.

9 - my room number.

100+ - people in attendance.

8 - people on my table at the banquet.

2 - bottles of wine on the banquet table for 8 people to share for the entire meal.

50-something - times I logged in to Twitter while sitting in seminars.

197 - total emails awaiting my attention on my return.

534 - items awaiting my attention in my RSS feed on my return.

1 - friend/chauffeur I fed when arrived home last night.

5 - minutes it took me to log into the campus wifi network (a record, as I had no problems).

0 - complaints I made this year (also a record, as I usually have at least one issue).
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06 September 2009

Media clones

I was reading investigative journalist Nick Davies' blog last night - he was musing about Keith Waterhouse, who died a couple of days ago. Waterhouse was a legend and a true old-style Fleet Street hack, as well as a fabulous writer.

Anyway, Davies reckons no one would offer Waterhouse a job today if he was fresh out of school.

"The sad death of the legendary Keith Waterhouse, has rightfully, attracted many plaudits in national newspapers. Reflections on his life....left school with no qualifications.....fond of the odd tipple or three.....a true original...etc. etc. Yet is it not ironical, that if a similar young Keith Waterhouse presented himself to a newspaper today, he'd very quickly be shown the door. No qualifications?...most newspapers today desire only graduate clones in grey suits, keep your heads down and don't rock the boat if you want to survive"

I'd be in the same boat. I left school at 16, the day I sat my last O. I was a scruffy, mouthy punk and I dyed my hair grass-green the next morning, which prompted my eviction from the family abode. Nevertheless, within a week I had somewhere to live (after borrowing a friend's sofa for a few days) and a job - I walked off the street and into the offices of a weekly magazine and walked out an hour later as their newest music critic.

Two local papers had already rejected me because of the green hair, the black eye make-up and my unique dress sense. I didn't mind too much as I didn't really want to be a reporter anyway, I wanted to write about music and that probably wasn't going to happen on a mainstream daily. But, infuriatingly, neither paper had looked at my writing to see if I had any talent. The mag that took me on looked beyond my appearance and asked to see my work - at that stage, a handful of ranty columns and reviews in a punk fanzine. I think they were also impressed with my enormous chutzpah (but probably not the equally big ego I was schlepping around with me back then).

A lot of really great hacks who were or are my contemporaries (and who have been infinitely more successful and famous than I) would also not have got a job in today's corporate climate. Julie Burchill and Steven Wells are two that spring immediately to mind. I somehow can't picture either of them doing a journalism degree followed by weeks of unpaid work experience in the hope it might lead to a job.

The industry is going through massive upheavals right now as it struggles to reposition itself in a digital world with new business models. It would be sad if, as part of that process, the hirers continue to look only for Davies' "graduate clones".
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02 September 2009

Flattery, ignorance

First, flattery. So there I was on Twitter a week or so ago following various conversations, one of which asked people to plug a certain teenage journo. Normally, I wouldn't, but I was the same age (16) when starting out and had the same hunger. It struck a chord, so I did the RTdecent thing and retweeted something this person had written.

I was rather flattered some days later to see that said teen hack had plugged me on Mr Tweet, and described me as "amazing, sharp, humorous, the best journalist there is". I'm paraphrasing, obviously but I did enjoy the ego-stroke. It almost convinced me I should have taken on Julie Burchill, after all.

So it was with some disappointment that I discovered, some days after the announcement of the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards, that I'm probably not among the (currently) 120+ nominations for the simple reason that I'm not yet listed on the blog roll at The Manchizzle, not this one or the other one. Or indeed any of the other ones. An oversight or several that I'm hastily trying to correct.

Never mind. I have survived long enough without gongs. I'm happy to have fans of a tender 16 years, which probably counts for a lot more.

But a nomination would be nice. HINT HINT...
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Vocabularly 101

I stumbled across an interesting blog post today, courtesy of Twitter, and it spoke to my heart.

30 Words You Need to Stop Using was a great summary of corporate jargon that should be banned (actually, it was today's update of another 30 words that I discovered - 30 more words that are equally valid for banning). In a previous lifejob on the Dark Side (aka doing PR for a charity) I was in a constant battle with my bosses and the charity's board when it came to vocabulary. One of the charity's veeps took it upon herself to "approve" any official blah I produced. As I was on a mission to cut jargon and use words that ordinary people could understand (based on the KISS principle), I often felt like resigning when my carefully crafted drafts were returned and simple words such as "use" were scored through and replaced with "utilise".

Those were the days when I really felt like banging my head on the desk or the wall because that would clearly have been a more productive use of my time. When I first arrived at the charity, all the corporate blah had clearly been produced with the board in mind, not the end-users (apologies for that one, I do hate that phrase!). And so, when the board agreed - finally - that our blah needed to be aimed at the people we were supposedly helping, I was overjoyed. Until the veep rewrote everything in my new draft and we ended up with an almost identical version to the blah we were supposed to be ditching.

But I digress.

I don't agree with all the words on the list. No. 7 - leverage - is used all the time in financial circles, where it has a very specific meaning. And as I do a lot of financial stuff, I can't avoid it. Mind, I'd strike it in any other context. No. 8 - solutions - is a particular hatred of mine and I never, ever use it in journalism. Sadly, though, I get paid to use it in corporate work. The corporate work pays the bills and no matter how much I may try to persuade the client that "solutions" is a hideously over-used cliché, if they're paying and they really want it, they get it. The customer is always right, even when they are wrong.

I'm sure I could add a few choice examples to Good Copy Bad Copy's list. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on her updates, as should any self-respecting wordsmith.
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