Five things I’ve learned in my first freelance year

Just the right words was one year old yesterday. It’s probably appropriate to mark this milestone with a bit of reflection. So, here are five things off the top of my head that I’ve learned in my first year as a freelance writer.

Balloons

1 – Freelance is fun

The past year has flown by and been one of the most enjoyable of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work. But it’s also been tons of fun. I am loving the variety that comes from working for a number of clients on a wide range of different projects. No two days are the same.  The range of writing tasks and audiences I’m communicating with means that I never get bored.

After ten years working as writer for a not-for-profit organisation I was desperate for a change, eager for a new challenge. Starting my own business was not even in the back of my mind. However, it turns out that being freelance suits me down to the ground. It can feel precarious at times, but it’s still fun. There’s something tremendously liberating about being my own boss and not being frustrated or distracted by office politics. The buck stops with me, and I’m happy with that.

Liquid

2 – Freelance is fluid

It didn’t take me long to discover that being a freelance writer almost guarantees you won’t have a regular workload. It’s more of a workflow, or work-ebb-and-flow, to be precise. Although I’d secured a couple of regular clients before taking the freelance plunge, after working on a few initial projects I’d accumulated, there was a distinct tumble-weed period. Inevitably the panic began to set in at that point, but after speaking with a few of my peers I began to realise that this fluidity of work is completely normal. Once I accepted that I felt a lot calmer, and sure enough, within a week or so things suddenly started picking up and I had plenty to be getting on with again.

The remainder of the year followed a similar pattern, with droughts giving way to periods when I’ve felt myself drowning and struggling to keep my head above water. The trick is to keep doing what you’re doing, and take the long-term view. Once you’ve accepted the cyclical pattern of work, and recognised that a dry stretch is only going to be temporary, you can stop worrying and actually use those quiet periods constructively. Do some marketing. Update your website. Or even give yourself a few days off. It’s hard to give yourself permission to take a break, but during a busy period that simply isn’t an option. If you see a lull, treat yourself to a little holiday. Whenever I’ve done that I have returned full of energy and enthusiasm, and usually to a full inbox and a plethora of new projects!

Pile of work

3 – Freelance is frantic

When it’s busy, it’s very busy. I think I’d learned within a month that as a freelance writer you end up doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Or the jobs that nobody else had time to do. As a result, clients tend to turn to you for help when they are perilously close to a deadline.

Several times in this past year I’ve received a brief for a job that needs turning around the same day, or within 24 hours. On those occasions, instead of muttering in my head about the lack of planning that has led to such an ‘unfair’ deadline, I’ve gladly accepted the challenge and relished the opportunity to turn things around quickly and ‘save the day’ in the process. Such tasks may involve an impromptu display of juggling other projects, priorities and clients but the adrenaline rush, job satisfaction and appreciation when you’ve come to the rescue usually compensate for this.

Fakir balancing on pole

4 – Freelance is flexible

What a shocker! I know it’s a given, and one of the main reasons for going down this route in the first place, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate just how freeing it is to work in a flexible fashion. I’m not just talking about working hours, though it is great to be able to start later in the morning and work on into the evening if you want to, and I’ve personally loved being able to break up my working day with regular exercise at lunchtime.

I’ve also been impressed by how easy it is to work exactly wherever and however I want to suit my needs and preferences. Working in a quiet environment, or one where I control what noises I listen to has made me much more productive than I was battling to concentrate in a busy open plan office. I started off working from home and then after a couple of months had the opportunity to work from a friend’s house with a bigger office and found that suited me even better and helped me to keep more regular business hours.

But perhaps the best flexible factor of all has been the sheer variety of projects I’ve worked on. As a creative type I get bored easily, and ten years of writing within the same industry had drained me considerably. In the past year I have worked for eight different clients, within six different industry sectors in three different countries. I’ve worked on a huge number of projects, ranging from video scripts about pensions to websites for small businesses in Oxfordshire to employee benefits handbooks for blue chip corporations to advertising copy for a social media start-up in the United States.

Flexibility keeps me fresh and means I haven’t even considered returning to a 9 to 5 salaried post for a single minute in the last year. Not even once.

Yellow smiley faces

5 – Freelance is fulfilling

The nay-sayers, doom merchants and scaremongers would all have you believe that becoming a freelance writer is “a big risk”, that “you’re on a hiding to nothing”, and that if you’re self-employed “there’s no safety net” and “it’s all down to you.”

I say, ignore these pessimistic spoilsports and concentrate on the flip-side. Focus on the positives of freelance. If you’re a success, it’s all down to you. When you get a new client, when you complete a project and know you’ve done a great job, when you get client feedback that confirms you have – you get all the credit. Living off your wits sharpens your skills, focuses your efforts and gives you a sense of achievement and job satisfaction that is second-to-none.

Of course, not all clients may appreciate your efforts. They may frustrate you beyond belief with their ‘constructive’ criticism and ‘helpful’ edits. They might not even say anything, and just send you the next assignment without any feedback.

But when you get those appreciative emails or grateful telephone calls from delighted customers, there’s nothing like it. You know that your expertise, skills and sheer hard work have made a difference. And it feels great.

Finally…

These are just five things I’ve learned in my first year as a freelancer, that all just happened to begin with ‘F’.

I’ll be sharing a few more things, more briefly, in due course.

If you’ve learned similar or different freelance lessons, please feel free to share!

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There, their and they’re – there’s nothing to it!

My article earlier in the week about the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ garnered a couple of comments from readers, which was very nice.

Particularly as they were both complimentary.

One of them however, contained a heartfelt plea for me to: “rid the world of the incorrect use of ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’“.

Well, I’m not sure I can promise to do exactly that, but it did get me to thinking, And as I have been pondering for a while what kind of articles I should include on the site, I decided that a series on the importance of accurate English might be useful.

But in the spirit of Just the right words, I wanted to make it a little different. Quirky, with a dash of creativity.

So here’s my response to the distinction between these three, in the form of a poem:

There, their, they’re – don’t despair!

There are quite a lot of people who really do not care
a jot about the difference between there, their and they’re.
They couldn’t give a monkey’s that their slap-dash approach
causes groans of disbelief and murmurs of reproach.

Oblivious and arrogant they drive us to despair,
when it comes to being accurate they’re simply laissez-faire.
They plough on making blunders without the least regard
for how it makes us others feel. It isn’t even hard!

‘There’ is geographical, referring to a place
Or use it with the verb to be, as in ‘there is your face’.
‘Their’ with an i is used to indicate possession
so their mistake to spell it ‘there’ is quite an indiscretion.

And they’re is ‘they are’ shortened; what is known as a contraction
To use that one instead of ‘there’ drives people to distraction.
So now there can be no excuse. Please pass this on to share
a way of being accurate with there, their and they’re.

There.

Simple as that.
There, their and they're - not the same T shirt

Been there, (not their or they're) got the T-shirt

Effect Affect Problems and Edgar Allan Poe

Effect Affect Problems

Teacher with 'affect' and 'effect' on blackboard

So, which one is it?

Effect or Affect?  Affected or Effected?

If I had charged a tenner every time I had been asked that over the past ten years in my job, I could probably have funded my first six months as a freelancer at least!

As the renowned words man, the only person in the company with the job title of ‘writer’, and the one responsible for ensuring everyone used clear, accurate and understandable language, I was used to getting asked questions about grammar, punctuation and correct usage of words. I actively encouraged it.

However, I was always surprised by the unremitting regularity of this particular conundrum – whether to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect’, ‘affected’ or ‘effected’. It used to happen once at least every couple of weeks. In a company that employed around 120 people.

But the most surprising thing was that it was always the same people who asked the question.  About 10 or 12 of them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as we all tend to have the odd ‘blind spot’ when it comes to selecting the right option when words sound the same, but are spelled differently. As well as the ‘effect/affect’ ensemble, there were also the ‘principal/principle’ posse and the ‘stationery/stationary’ squad who contacted me to resolve their particular query on a slightly less regular basis.

I did my utmost to try to help those affected by the effect/affect problem, and make the distinction between them as clear as I could. I explained as clearly as possible, with examples and occasionally diagrams, that affect was in almost all cases used as a verb, and that effect was in almost all cases used as a noun, apart from in certain sectors of the banking industry where the almost Dickensian phrase ‘to effect a transaction’ was still in use, to their eternal shame.

Affect or effect? The pies have it ....

The penny would then appear to have dropped, the baffled expression on their face replaced with a smile, and everything would be right with the world again.

Until the next time.

In most cases, people were confused about the verb form, rather than the noun. They couldn’t decide between ‘affected’ and ‘effected’, or how something would ‘affect’ a situation or ‘effect’ it. For some of them, instinct said ‘affected’, but they just didn’t have the confidence to make the choice when they put fingers to keyboard.

And that’s the key to it I think.

Confidence.

If you have a choice between two similar sounding words and you know you struggle to tell the difference between them, human nature tends to remind you of the weakness and undermine your confidence before you’ve even started the sentence.

Memory jogger

That’s where you need a little extra help.

And where a mnemonic, or memory jogger can provide you with the boost you need.

For principal v principle, thanks to the prevalence of The Simpsons, the mere mention of ‘Principal Skinner’ and the image of Bart sat outside his office, is sufficient to encourage people to make the right choice.

And for stationery v stationary there’s the old stand-by of ‘e for envelope’, which I always follow up with ‘a’ for ‘ain’t moving’ to make doubly sure of the distinction.

But affect v effect is a little tougher on that score. I tried gamely to seal the ‘effect as noun’ distinction by urging them to think of ‘special effects’, but it didn’t really seem to do the trick. And the fact that ‘affected’ is also a fairly commonly used adjective only served to cloud an already foggy issue.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across a possible solution, in the form of a huge black bird.

A raven

RAVEN (Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun) or CROW (Can't Remember Obvious Word)?

Raven Mad

A few weeks back, I spotted that someone I follow on Twitter who regularly posts business writing tips (Clare Lynch – @goodcopybadcopy) had included one that made me sit up and take notice.

It was, simply: RAVEN.

Remember: Affect Verb Effect Noun.

That’s pretty good, I thought.

And then, shortly afterwards I thought: “But what if you can’t remember ‘Raven’? How helpful would it be then? What if you were suddenly hit by big black bird block, and found yourself with a CROW instead?

Can’t Remember Obvious Word.

And even those of you blessed with a visual memory, can you honestly say that you can truly distinguish between a raven and a crow, even in your mind’s eye?

On balance, I decided that although the RAVEN was good, I needed more. There had to be more associations, an extra layer that would secure the bird in my memory and convince me that the mnemonic would work for the sometimes verbally challenged folk out there.

And then it hit me.

Edgar Allan Poe

A sudden flashback to my student days, at Warwick University, and a book I found in the library that utterly fascinated me. It was by Edgar Allan Poe, and explained in detail how he had written his famous poem, ‘The Raven’, and why he had chosen the words he had at each stage of its progress.

So for me, ‘The Raven’ is forever associated with Edgar Allan Poe.

And then I spotted it.

Edgar Allan Poe has the same initial letters as the Effect Affect Problem.

So when you think of the Effect Affect Problem, think of Edgar Allan Poe, which will lead you to The Raven, which will provide you with the memory jogging answer.

It might be a bit of a stretch, it might be a little contrived, it might complicate the issue even further.

But it might just work.

And if it does, if it helps one or two of those people out there who battle with the Effect Affect Problem on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, it will all be worth it.

Because then they will enquire of me “Nevermore!”

Just the right name

Choose carefully!

What’s in a name? When it comes to company branding, the answer is ‘pretty much everything’.

With so many businesses vying for customers, across an ever-expanding range of media, trying to grab people’s attention has never been harder, or more critical to a company’s success. Of course, a catchy name is no guarantee that an enterprise will flourish, but in terms of attracting new custom within a fiercely competitive sector, a memorable moniker can give you a vital edge.

Standing out

Look at any business directory, whether it be a Google search or a good old-fashioned Yellow Pages and a brief look for any generic service or trade will yield hundreds, if not thousands of entries. Most of which will look frustratingly similar on screen or paper. How on earth do you choose between them? This is where a carefully chosen name can make a big difference. Something that stands out from the crowd and demands attention and further investigation. A little island of irony, an abstract archipelago boldly protruding from a sea of corporate blandness. Just something that demonstrates a dash of creativity and offers a hint of quirk.

For instance, imagine you are trawling through the swathes of local furniture removal companies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States. And you happen upon a listing for Hernia Movers Inc. Now, you’re not likely to have been expecting that. You would probably take the time to click the link, or read the ad. And by the time you’d clocked the company strapline: “The Potentate of Totin’ Freight” you may well have dismissed the competition and be ready to give them a call! OK, maybe just me then. But it would certainly make you stop and look.

"Hernia Movers" furniture removals van

Not likely to forget a hernia in a hurry

Paws for thought before plunging down the pun hole

Use of humour, or the unexpected can be a path to success, providing you tread carefully. One man’s funny is another man’s tumbleweed. If your potential customers don’t get the joke, it’s your brand’s reputation that will be the laughing stock. Avoid puns at all costs. Even the good ones have a very fleeting shelf life. By the time you’ve finished smiling the impact has been lost and soon after that it becomes plain irritating. However, try telling that to the owners of Britain’s most pun-tastic business names. Thomson local directories ran a competition last year to find the ‘punniest’ company names which yielded a top ten that included the restaurants ‘Jamaican Me Hungry’ and ‘Wok This Way’ and a carpet firm called ‘Get Laid Professionally’…

Too clever by half

Another potential pitfall is the temptation to be a bit clever. There’s nothing wrong with an intelligent approach to business, or conveying that through your brand. In fact, it’s a sensible idea, providing you don’t get carried away and try to overreach. Nobody likes a smartarse, or goes out of their way to do business with them. If you need convincing of this fact, the Consignia debacle should be all the proof you need. Why on earth take two perfectly good, solid well-established brands, Royal Mail and the Post Office and try to replace them with a name that the vast majority of the Great British Public would struggle to spell or even pronounce properly, let alone understand or appreciate. I have similar misgivings about Aviva – what was wrong with plain old Norwich Union? Regardless of how much importance you place on the general populace appreciating the nuances of a brand’s identity, surely you’d have to agree that it’s in everyone’s best interests for them to at least understand what the word means, or is meant to signify.

Maybe in this digital media age, with its veritable smorgasbord of cool but odd-sounding online brands, the meaning is less important than the identity that is built around it. Judicious use of logo, corporate colours and a brilliantly designed and user-friendly website certainly play their part, and when those elements all combine with a unique offering and slick customer service, perhaps the actual word or words used for the company name are only a secondary consideration. Back in the days when Google was just a misspelling of Goggle and Twitter was strictly for the birds no-one would have sworn undying loyalty to those brands based on name alone – they had to match their identity with a game-changing product. And for every Lastminute.com and YouTube, there were plenty of Boo.coms that fell by the wayside when the reality of the consumer experience failed to live up to the hype.

Expert help?

There certainly is still plenty of evidence to suggest that people are taking company names very seriously though. Not least, the fact that there are a number of agencies that specialise in company naming. I have to admit I was quite surprised by this discovery, and even more so when a quick online search revealed that two of the most popular such companies revel in the names of A Hundred Monkeys and Igor, respectively. At the risk of appearing churlish, and not in any way wishing to denigrate these fine companies, I do wonder whether they chose their own appellations wisely. The former brings to mind the number of simian scribes to be matched to typewriters in the pursuit of Shakespearean perfection, and the latter conjures up a vision of a leering, hunchbacked simpleton serving at the behest of Dr Frankenstein. Both may have been deliberately chosen for those resonances of course – I don’t claim to have the mind of a marketeer!

Genius at work

Perhaps it’s better to enlist the services of someone who just has a knack for this kind of thing, who has an instinctive grasp of what works and what doesn’t. Someone like Tim Rich, who has written a great post on his blog ‘66,000 miles per hour’ about the art of naming. He’s the clever chap behind the name 26 for the professional writers’ organisation I recently became a member of. He also cites another moment of naming inspiration:

“A few months back I was briefed to name a lively new firm of consultants and accountants who specialise in advising arts institutions and creative agencies about money. The founding partner used to sing/shout in a punk band, and they wanted to sound more like their clients than their competitors. As I put the phone down the name Counterculture lit up in my mind.”

For me, that is an example of naming genius. In a single word, he has summed up the essence of the company, their background and their remit, and the very word chosen evokes an interesting, bold concept that suggests a business that will deliver, but in their own way, and stand out from the crowd.

Just the right fit

And that’s what I think lies at the heart of a great name. It captures your attention and holds it, and at the same time reveals something of the character of the company behind the brand. This was a major consideration when I was recently selecting a name for my fledgling freelance writing project. Certain practical factors played their part, not least the availability of a co.uk domain name to match, which cut out most of the more obvious word-related phrases. Eventually though I plumped for ‘Just the right words’ because it just felt right. It’s a name that gets right to the heart of what I do, and what I can offer, and it’s entirely in the spirit of someone who specialises in creative copy that engages readers through use of plain English. No frills, nothing fancy, just the right words. Obviously that simple message hides a huge amount of skill, energy and creative effort – hopefully the capability is implied. As is the message that I won’t provide you with any wrong ‘uns.

My mission is to free up clever business people to do all the stuff that makes their business work by writing the words that tell their existing customers and lots of potential new ones just how good they are at what they do. In just the right words.

I’m also more than happy to have a stab at choosing them just the right name!

Heading for success

Grab their attention with a clever headline

There’s a lot to be said for a great heading, a snappy title or an eye-catching headline.

It just gets things off to a really good start. It can even lure in an unsuspecting reader who may otherwise never have ventured near the text written beneath it.

A clever, punchy or witty heading can liven up even the most pedestrian paragraph – not that you should ever settle for such a state of affairs of course.

Grabbing attention

Quite often we can get so carried away with producing vast swathes of copy that we neglect the sheer impact a carefully chosen sub-heading or title can have on our readers. It’s the written equivalent of a cheery wave, or a sudden shout from an unexpected source: “Hiya – you’ll never guess what…” It grabs your attention, forces you to take notice, and intrigues you to read on.

I was faced with this kind of challenge to liven up proceedings when designing and delivering a two-day training course on effective business writing. Day one covered the basics, including a brief refresher on proper use of grammar and punctuation, and the principles of writing in plain English. The purpose of the course was to equip customer service staff within the Internet industry to write clear, concise emails that met their customers’ needs without baffling them with technical jargon. A tall order you might say, and not on the face of it the most thrilling of topics to teach, or to learn for that matter.

Colonic irritation and apostrophe catastrophes

Well, it wasn’t my only weapon of choice – I employed humour, anecdotes and real gaffes to good effect as well – but I did throw a few carefully chosen headings into the mix to liven up the timetable and get people to focus on the PowerPoint slides.  The session on commas, full stops etc was punctuated (ouch) by headings such as ‘Colonic irritation’ and The Apostrophe Catastrophe’, and the exercise that highlighted the confusion caused by words that sound the same but are spelled differently was entitled ‘The principle principal and how its effects affect us’.

I saved my personal favourite for the last session of the day, as attention was naturally flagging a little by then. It covered why writing an email has to be approached differently from writing a letter, and the pitfalls you can face if you don’t take sufficient care over language, tone and style. Only one title could cover those nuances in an interesting way: ‘The email of the species is deadlier than the mail’.

Day two was a bit more interesting, and far more interactive, as people were tasked with putting their learning into practice and writing engaging, grammatically accurate and perfectly plain English emails. There was not quite so much need for livening up, but I did allow myself the indulgence of ‘Rebel without a clause’ for the session on why it’s sometimes OK to break the ‘golden rules of Grammar’ we learned at school.

Headline news

Similarly a news story or press release can be significantly improved and enlivened by a carefully crafted headline. I’ve not been able to get away with very many in the day job, but I have certainly noticed the effects of a good headline when writing articles for my music blog – How Life Should Sound. When writing a piece about the music streaming service Spotify, I plumped for the controversial heading ‘Is Spotify really killing music … already?’ My article refuted that assertion completely, but using such a provocative statement paid off. It’s still my most read and most searched for article on that blog.

My all-time favourite newspaper headline will take some beating. After John Barnes proved his managerial ineptitude when presiding over Celtic’s Scottish Cup defeat to lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle, some genius hack or sub-editor had the presence of mind to crown the occasion with the utterly majestic:

“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”

To adapt MasterChef’s Greg Wallace: “Headlines don’t get better than this.”