30 May 2007

I succumbed...

After a huge flurry of posts today on one of the hacking listservs I belong, I caved in and signed up to Facebook...

I don't know whether I ought to be pitied for bandwagoning on the latest trend or I'm just being career-savvy.

Either way, I'm bored with MySpace - it's deathly quiet there these days. No one's PMed me in weeks and nothing else is happening on there.

Facebook, by comparison, is positively teeming with life. And it's not full of annoying 18-year-old sk8erbois and illiterates posting in txtspk. That has to be a good thing.

26 May 2007

My media

Inspired by Linda Jones's media diet over on Freelance Writing Tips, here's mine.

Press: I'm too lazy to buy papers these days, except for the weekly local rag. I read the Guardian and Observer online, plus the BBC news online. I surf the online tabloids only if I have time and am bored and in search of some celebrity gossip. I also buy several magazines every month - usually BBC Good Food, Eve, InStyle and New Woman (the latter strictly for the fashion pages). I rarely read the trade press, except for my free copy of Editing Matters, published by the SfEP. I also like How Do, for its coverage of north-west media, which is after all on my patch.

Blogs: I read quite a few. I always enjoy reading what Craig McGinty has to say about the media. Likewise, I read Linda Jones on her various blogs. She is a highly experienced journalist and has great insight into the media, plus a sharp wit. Sally at Getting Ink is also very insightful and funny. I also follow Belle de Jour and The Girl, because they are the two best sex blogs around and utterly addictive. I surf around to read others occasionally.

Web: I use the web every day when working. Wikipedia is useful for fact-checking and research, as is Google. I have bookmarks for many other sites I use regularly, either for work or personal stuff. I shop online for books and other stuff and I belong to a large number of forums that reflect my personal interests.

Networking: the internet is so useful for business networking. I belong to several business forums - good for discussing business issues and occasionally finding work. I have a presence on MySpace, but can't be bothered with Facebook, Bebo and the rest. I also use LinkedIn but have yet to exploit it to the max. And, of course, there's the quintessential JournoBiz.

Phone: I hate the phone.

Skype: another essential. I rarely use the phone, but the chat facility is very useful for my overseas clients, especially for exchanging files. I also chat to friends via Yahoo.

Email: an essential tool given that 99.9% of my work arrives and leaves by email. As soon as I get up, the first thing I do after making my pot of tea is to check my inbox. Then I carry on checking it regularly throughout the day until it's time to sleep. Addict? Moi?

Gadgets: none. I can't be doing with Blackberrys and the like. My mobile phone is the one concession I make and even then it's switched off most of the time and only used when absolutely essential.

Books: life would be tedious in the extreme without books. Naturally, I have a ridiculously huge collection of dictionaries and reference books - tools of the trade. For relaxation, I love crime fiction, particularly gory serial killer thrillers. The gorier the better. I also enjoy biographies, particularly of bands I grew up with the late 70s/early 80s. I have a large collection of books on The Clash, for example. I also read a lot of history and politics. I must read in bed at night, even if it's only for 5 minutes before switching the light off.

TV/radio: I watch very little TV. I rarely watch the news as I read it online, but I occasionally tune into BBC News 24 if there's a major breaking story. Otherwise, I always watch EastEnders, Doctor Who and Torchwood when they are showing, and I enjoy a good drama series too. I used to listen to Radio 4 all the time 20 years ago, but these days only tune in for The Archers. I find daytime radio distracting when I'm working and I hate missing out on so many good programmes but it's just not practical anymore. My bedroom radio is tuned to Radio 2 - I love Wogan and Jonathan Ross.

23 May 2007


I'm having a phone-phobic day. I'm not comfortable with the phone at the best of times unless speaking to people I know very well. My mobile lies in a dark corner gathering dust, only to be used to call a cab or for some other emergency. Very few people have my mobile number - I operate on the basis that people can contact me by email, or landline if they need to speak to me.

Today I have a deadline looming and I really ought to be on the blower, chasing my contacts but I just can't bring myself to pick up the receiver and dial. I need to file tomorrow, but procrastination seems more attractive.

All the editing work has dried up for now. For once I am glad. It means I can go shopping on Friday. And I do mean shopping. Proper shopping, as opposed to the grocery run. It's been 3 months since I last trawled the clothes shops and, as Morrissey famously sang, I haven't got a stitch to wear.

The naked wordsmith - sounds like the title for a book....

19 May 2007

Commissioning editors - what do they want?

Here's a question to vex the minds of writers... what do commissioning editors look for when hiring freelances?

I got involved in a rather heated online debate with a bunch of fellow hacks earlier in the week. What started off as a simple discussion on whether a journalist needs to have good written English or not spilled over into a wider and intense argument.

I commission writers myself, as a part-time, freelance contributing editor for a quarterly niche magazine. I know what I want - a writer who knows the magazine well, who has great ideas to pitch to me, can put a story together coherently and deliver their copy on time. Controversially, I pointed out that I also expect any writer I commission to have a reasonably good grasp of written English - I want them to spell properly, know their grammar and use punctuation correctly.

For daring to say this, I was shot down in flames and told I am deluded and not living in the real world. Apparently, all journalists need to be able to do is get the story out. Actually, I broadly would not disagree with that - with a proviso. That's fine and dandy if the journalist is supplying copy to a newspaper that has desk editors and an army of subs to restructure the writing and clean up all the typos and poor grammar.

For magazines on a tight budget, it's a very different matter. The one I work for is run on a shoestring. I don't get paid vast amounts for the copy I write for it and I get paid very little for subbing and proofing the laid-out pages. For me, this means that if I have a choice between commissioning a writer who can write well and supply me with copy that doesn't need vast amounts of work at the production end and a writer who writes well but needs a lot of time spent on delivered copy, I know who I'm going to choose. Every time, it will be the writer who is the all-rounder (or as near to as possible). The magazine simply can't afford to pay me hours to rewrite thousands upon thousands of words of hot stories that are badly structured and a copy-editor's nightmare. The writers I commission not only get a brief, they also get a copy of our house style guide and are asked to adhere to it. Those that play by our rules are much more likely to get a second shot on our pages.

So, am I deluded? I'd rather think I was being practical. When money is at stake and you have to be efficient with it, the writers who get recommissioned are the ones who will save you valuable pennies at production stage. Another journalist involved the above-mentioned debate operates in the same way.

Perhaps if I was a section editor at the Guardian, my priorities would be different. I'd be looking for writers who can deliver news, now, and get the subs to work their magic on the pedantic details. Newspapers run on a vastly different timescale to small irregular magazines and have oodles more funds to play with. Here, the need is to publish a freelance's copy quickly before anyone else does. As long as they deliver to deadline, the subs have time to bring that copy up to scratch.

Journalism comes in all shapes and sizes these days. It's not all about news. There are hundreds of magazines - weeklies, monthlies, quarterly - that operate very differently to the daily press. And there are the websites too, which have their own way of publishing. What suits one commissioning editor will not necessarily suit another as it depends what publication they work for.

I believe the hacks I was arguing with were looking at the debate very one-sidedly.

To anyone breaking into freelance writing, sending in a poorly written pitch full of typos will give a commissioning editor the first pointer as to how good your language skills are. If the ed is on a tight budget, that will make a huge difference as to whether you ever get rehired.

18 May 2007


Still haven't started my news round-up, but have just sold my first piece to a national. The Wordsmith is feeling very chirpy right now...

Best crack on with the dull stuff though.

Long bad Friday

I am such an idiot. I knew 2 weeks ago that today would be the deadline for producing a whole month's round-up of UK news stories for one of the publications I write for. It's the first time I'll be doing this column and I agreed with the editor that I'd file at the last minute so it would be as up to date as possible.

Did I use the intervening 2 weeks to collect possible stories? Did I hell... Now I have to spend my day trawling a whole month's worth of old news looking for the interesting bits. I am kicking myself. And I only need to produce 1,000 words. It's going to be huge effort for little reward, given the time I'll need to devote to this.

Something tells me it's going to be a long day...

15 May 2007

Loose ends

As I predicted, I have nothing to do. My workload - non-stop for the last 6 months - has come to a halt. Yesterday, I finished a copywriting job. Today, nowt. I have been utterly lazy and spent the day surfing various forums and doing jigsaw puzzles on my PC. Such is the erratic life of a freelance - feast or famine.

I do have stuff in the pipeline. I'm waiting to hear about a pitch I sent to a magazine and I have two features to write, but I'm holding those back until the deadline looms as I will feel more motivated and I work better under pressure.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

12 May 2007

Hacks hacked

My irritation yesterday about being locked out of my favourite journalism forum turned out to be groundless. I was indeed unable to get in and post, but so was everyone else. Idiotic hackers attacked the site, leaving all us poor isolated freelances feeling even more cut off, depending as we do on such forums for professional company and support. No doubt the site owners were hacked off too.

Enough of such dreadful puns. The forum is back up and running as normal again and guess what everyone's talking about since we regained access - not the hot news stories of the day but our experience of being deprived of the forum!

Elsewhere, the postie brought me a copy of the new monthly paper I've started writing for - it's good to see my words in print abroad. I've already written my next feature for it, but still have another piece to produce before next weekend's deadline. I hope this will lead to more work for other publications as I strive to increase the amount of journalism I'm doing and cut back on the copywriting. The latter pays better but is more stressful and less enjoyable. I'm lacking a decent book to edit right now too. It could be a quiet week ahead.

11 May 2007

The slog and the telly

It's been a long week...

I've been under the weather, unmotivated and feel like I've failed to hit my targets. That said, I did manage to tick off everything on this week's "to do" list. I finished editing a private memoir, worked on some web copy for my lovely graphic designer and spent hours on the phone. I also tackled the first of two journalism commissions - 500 words on, well, it doesn't really matter... I did the first 480 in less than an hour as I was on a roll, then I spent the next two hours staring at the screen and struggling to find 20 words to complete the feature. I hate days like that. Now I just have another 1,500 to do Monday. Plus 300 for another mag.

Most annoyingly, I discovered I was locked out of one of my favourite hacks' forums. I'd popped in and out several times during the day to keep tabs on all the gossip and professional discussions. This evening the site decided I was persona non grata and has barred entry by telling me I am not authorised to enter a restricted area. I deleted cookies, rebooted the PC and tried a few other tricks, but no. I'm still locked out. Grah! I fired off an emergency email to one of the site owners to se if they can solve what is clearly a technical problem. Fingers crossed I'll be back in tomorrow.

In the meantime, I've watched EastEnders (which is pretty damn perfect right now), opened a bottle of Italian red and am about to indulge myself with the first episode of a new series of Balderdash and Piffle.

08 May 2007


I'm increasingly concerned by the competence of one of my clients. I've written about this before but I'm beginning to despair.

This morning, I received an email asking to write a news round-up for every issue, on top of the feature I will supply. So far so good - more work, more money. I fired off an email by return asking what sort of stuff I should cover and how much copy to supply - this latter is not rocket science; publications usually commission by word count. I got back a convoluted response about columns per page, modules per column and character count per module...

In the end, I picked up the phone in the hope of getting clarification. The editor said I'd get a better idea when I saw the paper (copy allegedly in the post) and then admitted it was all new to them...

I suggested supplying 1,000-1,500 words for the new column instead, thinking that would be ample for what they had in mind. My mind is boggling at just how this company is managing to produce its publication. I'm not suggesting they are incompetent but there is clearly a steep learning curve involved here.

Elsewhere, a quick chat with my lovely graphic designer suggests that the pair of us are about to be dropped by one of our joint long-standing commercial clients due to a regime change. No great surprise. We sort of suspected this might happen. It's not uncommon - person leaves, replacement brings in their own people. On the other hand, wherever the person leaving ends up may result in more work for us with their new company. And it's not as if I am short of work. I have more than enough on my plate right now.

I have a bad headache today, m behind on my workload as a result and desperately need zeds...

06 May 2007

Happiness at Wordsmith Towers

Yesterday, I acquired a shiny new all-in-one printer/scanner/copier to replace the ageing one that died last week.

It took my beloved P and me the best part of 4 hours to install it this morning, mainly because the installation would get so far then fail to find the printer. We lost count of the number of times we cancelled the installation, consulted the help files and tried yet another solution. In the end, it turned out to be as simple as trying a different port on the router. Grrr - I just hate it when technology is needlessly complicated and the instructions don't point to all possible solutions.

Anyway, it's up and running and I have managed to print off last week's invoices for my files. Now I just need to try out the scanner and copier.

I am a happy wordsmith today.

04 May 2007

Friday blues

I'm beginning to seriously regret coming home from Rome. After the week I've had, you could hardly blame me.

It's not been all bad. I had an unexpected commission, with the possibility of more to come, and I have been pitching another story (no news yet but I'm hopeful). And I caught up with my best friend mid-week on the phone - we have both been so busy we haven't seen each other since just before Xmas, so that was good.

Technology has driven me to the point of insanity though - first the keyboard died, then the printer (and I still haven't had time to source a replacement). Today, my email client refused to work just moments after I'd typed an important lengthy mail to someone but before I'd hit Send. I had no alternative but to exit the programme and lose the mail. Then the same problem recurred on reopening and starting again - this time the cursor vanished. I finally got it to work again, don't ask me how.

One of my clients hasn't paid, which means I need to chase up on Monday, my veg box failed to get delivered yesterday and another client dumped urgent work on me after 4pm and I had no alternative but to do it immediately because of a 3 hour time difference.

What really pushed me over the edge was the cleaner. I took a short break mid-afternoon and nipped up to the bedroom. To cut a very long story short, suffice to say the floor was covered in pillow feathers. I wasn't going to vacuum it up myself - that's what I pay the cleaner for - and I was buggered if the carpet was going to stay like that for a whole week. So I rang the cleaner and told him to return and finish the job. But not before I'd had a solo temper tantrum. I effed and blinded, kicked things in a rage and was shocked at how heavily I'd overreacted. My heart was pounding with the stress and it took me some time to calm down.

I'm glad it's a bank holiday weekend. I clearly need time out to relax. I feel tired out and fed up but can't put my finger on why. I'll be glad when things return to normal.

01 May 2007

Normal working life resumes

I've just had a pleasant 2-mile walk in the sunshine to the PC shop and back. I'm now in possession of a shiny new USB keyboard, meaning I can work again. The relief is immense. I'm going to have to buy a proper one though at some point. Forking out £20 is fine in an emergency, but I think I need to invest more in something that won't die on me after a year. My PC is 4 years old and this is the 4th keyboard I've had.

Still no printer - I need to do some research for that and shop around.

I unexpectedly got commissioned this morning to write a feature for a regional online media hub. No pay, unfortunately, but I've been offered the possibility to join the paid freelance roster later if this goes well. So now I'm off to write the copy of my life...