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Episode 2: Setting up as a freelance writer: website, social media and brand management best practice. Part 1.

Lorrie and I are very excited to announce episode 2 of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, all about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of freelance writing.

We ran out of storage space for our earliest episodes. But fear not, we have made these many, many hours of freelance writing goodness available for just £10. If you want access to them all, please click Add to Cart and buy through our e-junkie account for instant access.

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Setting up as a freelance writer: website, social media and brand management best practice.

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We hope to have a transcript available soon, which I will post here when it’s ready, as well as on the podcast’s main page.

Enjoy episode 2, and we’d love to hear what you think!.

The transcript is ready:

A Little Bird Told Me – Episode 2

Philippa: Hello and welcome to Episode two of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast. I’m Philippa Willitts…

Lorrie: And I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

Philippa: And you can find the podcast at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. And from there you can find out how to subscribe via RSS, via iTunes and we’re also on Stitcher smart radio, and there’s a link to that. So, to make sure you don’t miss us in the future, get subscribing and also like our Facebook page – all the links are on alittlebirdtildme.podomatic.com

Lorrie: So, today we’re going to be talking about setting yourself up as a freelance writer, and specifically looking at things you need to make sure that you’re doing on the internet, which is obviously where people can see you. There aren’t many potential customers now who aren’t online, so we’re just going to talk a little bit about how to manage your website, your social media feeds and your online presence.

Philippa: OK, so the first thing you’ll really, really need is a website. I think it’s a rare freelancer these days who can make a consistent living without a website. You need somewhere you can direct potential clients to. You need something on your business card so that, if you give it to someone at an event, they can go and look you up and see what they think of you, basically. For a writer, particularly, you need links to other things you’ve written, so they can get an idea of the style of writing you do and how good you are.

Lorrie: Definitely, I completely agree. And I think it, as a writer, it’s important to prioritise words over pretty pictures. And by saying that, I don’t mean to devalue graphic design at all, but I’ve found that a lot of copywriters and editors online, they have absolutely gorgeous websites with terrible content. No links of value, no resources, no contact details – they’re just not very user-friendly websites and that doesn’t make me think very much about that person as a service provider.

Philippa: Because, if you are a graphic designer, you do need your website to look amazing. There’s no question about that. But, the fact is, as a writer, it’s great if your website looks amazing but the most important thing is the content – the words you use and how you use them. That’s what people want to see when they visit your website.

Lorrie: I think a point you were making when we were chatting about this the other day, Pip, is that you were doing some market research and found that proofreading websites in particular have a high rate of errors on them.

Philippa: Yes! I was looking around at various proof-reading websites, doing a bit of market research, seeing what services they offered, what kind of prices they charged and I looked at the top ten Google results for a particular proof-reading search and the number of typos blew my mind. I wanted to email them just because I was embarrassed for them. And say, “Look, this is just your homepage and you have three typos. Your prices page lists different prices because you’ve only updated part of it. And these are proofreading websites! And if they can’t proofread their own site, then I really worry for any services they offer. And it’s similar on writing websites – I think there’d be a similar lack of forgiveness. Of course, everyone makes mistakes and, of course, once in a while, you might do an update without double-checking but really, you’ve got to be careful.

Lorrie: Of course. We’re not talking about personal blogs. I do have people say to me –people whom I know in my free time – “I don’t want you to look at my writing because I’m scared that you’re going to criticise my grammar!” And that’s not me. I have dodgy grammar sometimes. I admit it – when you’re struggling to fit something into a tweet for example. You don’t always want to be super, super careful. That being said, your business website, as a writer, is not your blog, and it has to represent not you but the work you do. It has to be pretty much error free. We’re not talking about someone who offers a non-writing service – it’s fine for them to make typos otherwise we wouldn’t have a job!

Philippa: Yes, this is a slight deviation but not really. There’s a big story in the news about an American politician and there’s a lot of justifiable anger towards him because of things he’s said. But one tweet I saw referenced a tweet that the Republican Party had sent that had a typo in it. And the tweet I saw, said, “Well if you can’t even spell your tweets right, how on earth can you fix this big disaster of a politician. And I just thought, actually that’s ridiculous. There’s plenty to criticise this guy for already – the spelling doesn’t really matter, especially on somewhere like Twitter of Facebook.

I’ve read people who’ve said you should triple-check every tweet before you send it but I don’t do that – I see Twitter as a very fast moving medium where sometimes I might put a comma where I shouldn’t or spell something wrong, and I don’t worry too much about that. My professional website is a different matter – I do everything I can there to you know…belt and braces, really.

Lorrie: Somebody sent me a picture the other day that did make me laugh; it said, “If you make a spelling mistake in your English lesson at school, you get a red mark. If you make a spelling mistake on the Internet, God help you!”

Philippa: Hahahahaha!

Lorrie: And it’s true – sometimes on fast-moving media like Twitter, when someone doesn’t want to go for your argument because they can’t be bothered to have a big debate, they’ll go for your spelling. It’s a side-issue, though – we’re getting off on a tangent. When it comes to professional websites…

Philippa: Especially proof-reading websites.

Lorrie: For goodness sakes, yes – especially proof-reading websites! You almost want to send them a sympathy email, don’t you? Like, come on!

Philippa: I really did! I was like, “I could be your competitor and I could use this to my advantage but in fact, I feel for you so much. I’m embarrassed for you. Please fix it.”

Lorrie: Haha! And I think, another thing we wanted to talk about today, Pip, is that it’s not just your website – it has to be your social media feeds. I know we’ve had a bit of a giggle about Twitter and the mistakes you see on there, but as we’re going to talk about later, your professional tweet feed or Facebook page are very different to your personal ones. Again, if you’re a writer, you do need to start checking what you’re putting out there.

Philippa: Yes, and not just in terms of spelling and grammar. Like we’ve said, I think people generally are more forgiving – well, a bit! – on Twitter but in terms of the content and the tone as well.

Lorrie: Yes, I was having a bit of a nosy on Twitter and I spotted a few copywriters on there. One in particular stood out to me, and not for a good reason, because I went down her tweet feed and there were just unmarked URLs – so just web addresses…

Philippa: With…not even titles?

Lorrie: No! No copy whatsoever…by a copywriter! And I thought, surely she must be spending more time on her beautiful website that’s full of quality copy rather than wasting her time on Twitter, so I clicked through and the website was even worse. Just horrible.

Philippa: And this is a professional copywriting website?

Lorrie: Yup, professional copywriting website. Now, like we’ve said, I’m not looking for the prettiest, fanciest website for a professional copywriter, but this was ugly! It was user-unfriendly. The links were all in the wrong places, there was a squirly, squiggly font and I couldn’t find anything and the copy was poor. So, it was an all over lose.

One point that I would bring up, and it is something that applies to social media feeds – your Twitter profile and Facebook as well as your website – is that it’s important to at least choose an appropriate colour scheme and picture. Like we’ve said repeatedly now, we don’t have to have a wonderfully designed website but if your website has a red background or a black background and white text, it’s not user friendly. Equally, if you have a picture of yourself hugging a giant bottle of beer, or a picture of your baby – you know, babies are lovely, but they’re nothing to do with your writing work. You have to find something that’s appropriate in terms of brand image. So, I would say that people want to know who they’re dealing with so get an appropriate picture, have an appropriate background for your website and have an appropriate username for your social media feeds.

Philippa: Yes, you see some awful ones and you think “No, rename that!”

Another thing about your website is that it can look really good to add images to blog posts on your website or descriptive pages. If you choose the right image, it can really enhance the post. But there are issues around copyright. A lot of people just go to Google Image search and search for “typewriter” and choose a nice typewriter picture and put it on their website…

Lorrie: You can tell we’ve seen a lot of this, can’t you? Honestly, I was chatting to a client the other day and he’d pretty much done the same thing – although, to his credit, it wasn’t a picture of a typewriter! But, I did have to point out to him, though, that if you don’t own these pictures, you might end up in a pretty sticky situation.

Philippa: Yes, if you just take an image from Google image search, there’s a fairly good chance you’re stealing someone else’s work, and that’s not a good thing to do. There are really quite easy ways of finding images that you don’t have to steal. There’s a thing called Creative Commons, and it’s a way for people to license their work – writing, audio or images. They can set their own standards about whether you can use them or not. Quite a lot will say, “You can use this as long as you credit me with a link or my name.” Quite a lot will say, “You can use this for non-commercial purposes” and you can’t use those on your professional website, because that’s commercial.

But what you can do is go to a site called Flickr.com, and go to the advanced search – at the bottom of that page, you get to tick boxes that say, “Only search for creative commons licence” and “Only search for commercial use”. And then you put in “typewriter” – invariably! – and do a search and there will probably be quite a lot of photos you can use. You credit the person, and that’s it, you’re using the image legally.

Similarly, you can go to Wiki Media Commons, which is the media bit of Wikipedia and a lot of the images there have licences you can use. It’s important that you do this ethically because someone’s taken that photo and if it’s not yours, it’s not yours, but also because if someone spots their photo on your page without permission, they can bill you for the usage.

Lorrie: Yeah, I had a client get a bill for about £800 and that was for a thumbnail!

Philippa: Yes exactly, it’s not cheap. They can pretty much ask what they want and backdate it because if they say “It’s been on your website for three months and I charge £750 a month, it’s not inconsiderable. You are in the wrong and you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on! SO ethically and just sensibly, make sure you use Creative Commons or copy left images.

Lorrie: Definitely. One thing I would add, Pip, is that if you can’t find an image you like in Creative Commons, don’t be tempted to stick something like a holiday snap on there instead. The number of times I’ve gone on someone’s websites and there are only tenuously-related images in the middle of perfectly good text… No! Either pay someone to take pictures for you – or of you – and then you have some perfectly clear headshots or what have you, or do without.

At the end of the day, as a writer, people are there for your words not your pictures and it won’t be the end of the world if you don’t have pictures on there. But as Pip says, don’t go stealing someone’s photography. You’d be absolutely livid if they did it with your writing and you have to support other people – photographers are freelancers as well, for the most part.

Philippa: Yes, absolutely. If you wouldn’t want them to go onto your website and nick your ‘About me’ page or your latest blog post to promote their work, then don’t do the same with theirs. It’s just not cricket! Hahahaha! I don’t think I’ve ever said that before in my life!

Lorrie: But I think it works nicely – very British and very true: it’s just not cricket! And it isn’t! So, to sum up this wee introduction to building your website and social media feeds, the point I would make is that you need to make sure that your website and social media feeds are designed around your clients’ needs and not your own. You need to think carefully, in a way you wouldn’t have to if it was your personal website, blog or tweet feed. Everything you say and do, every decision you make on your website and social media feeds, you have to bear in mind that it is hugely visible, widely visible and often permanently visible – to potential clients, to potential competitors so if you think it’s a bit of a bad idea, just don’t do it!

Philippa: And this does tie in to why you shouldn’t have your holiday photos on your blog posts because that’s about you – you had a lovely day there, the picture reminds you of it and it makes you all smiley. But the fact is, when a potential client comes to your website, they don’t care where you went on holiday – they care if you can write. And that’s a really good example of designing a site around what you like rather than what your client’s looking for.

Lorrie: I have a friendly acquaintance who writes blogs posts and it’s very much about the content rather than the design, but the background is black and the text is white.

Philippa: Ooooh, yes, I know someone who has…I just call it the migraine website. It’s got white text on lime green, and it actually hurts my head!

Lorrie: I think, as well, from an accessibility point of view, it’s not very good. It can be extremely difficult for people to read, it’s not clear. I mean, yes, alright, it’s a bold style choice!

Philippa: I’m very short-sighted but when I wear glasses, I can see almost the same as most people. So if I struggle to read it, then someone with sight problems that aren’t resolvable with glasses is going to really, really struggle.

Lorrie: Yeah, I’ve seen the lime green site you’re talking about and it’s stuck in my memory. And not in a good way!

Philippa: Yes, I thought you probably would have! And also, there may be a partially sighted business owner who wants a copywriter and you’re automatically writing yourself out of the picture. If they go to your website and literally can’t read what you’re selling, why on earth would they bother trying? They’d just go to the next site on the list.

Lorrie: I’ve been chatting to a prospective client recently who has a form of dyslexia. Again, you wouldn’t believe – well, obviously you would, Pip, because you’re a disability rights campaigner – one wouldn’t believe the difference a background can make! It can make things extremely hard to read if you choose an obscure background colour.

And I know we’re really focusing on this but I can count on two hands the number of websites I’ve seen recently with very questionable colour schemes.

Philippa:  Yes, you can have the prettiest website in the world but if it’s not useable, it’s pointless.

You might be thinking, “Well, I want a website but if I do it now, it won’t be right because I don’t have a designer and I don’t know what colour scheme I want, and…” Stop panicking! I’m a bit like this in that I get a bit perfectionist and so I just stop. I freeze. And what you’ve got to do, in general about this – and in particular about your website – is just do it. Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect because they never will be. There’ll always be something else you could be doing, or could add. You’ve got to have somewhere you can send people to. You can keep adjusting and changing it – I change the text on my professional website all the time because I’m never 100% happy with it.

Lorrie: Yep, same.

Philippa: But it’s important that, when I started, I had a website up and it’s been up ever since, and it changes. But that’s a good thing – Google likes websites that are updated and just as we mature as people and writers, things will change and you want to update it and stuff. But don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Don’t wait until you’ve got £2000 to pay a designer. If you need to set up a Blogspot website or a WordPress.com, it’s not as professional as having your own domain, but it’s better than not having anything at all.

Lorrie: Exactly, you’re completely right. As long as you’ve got the bare minimum – and hopefully this podcast will help you to establish what the bare minimum is – and a neat, clear, clean website, it doesn’t matter whether it’s WordPress, Blogspot, your own domain name, you’ve got something. So, decide what the bare minimum information is – which should be a little bit about you, a little bit about your services, and ways to contact you.

Philippa: It’s amazing the number of professional websites that don’t have contact information, or it’s always really difficult to find.

Lorrie: Yeah, it’s always a bit of a cliff-hanger, isn’t it?

Philippa: The one thing someone really needs if they like the look of your work is to know how to contact you without jumping through hoops.

Lorrie: I’ve found it very, very hard to find contact details on a number of websites I’ve been to recently, and I get bored. The average amount of time that someone will spend on a website, if it’s not well designed, is under 30 seconds.

Now, the standard place for your contact link along the top header is at the far right and, if it’s down the side, it’s at the bottom. Also, better than just having a link, have an enquiry form. Capture rates for enquiry forms are considerably higher than they are for just email addresses.

Philippa: Ohh, that’s good to know!

Lorrie: Yep. Much, much higher.

Philippa: And also, what I’ve done on my contact page, is not just put my email address, but put my Twitter page, my LinkedIn profile, partly to promote those accounts but also because some people might go to my LinkedIn page and prefer to contact me there – and that’s fine.

Lorrie: Yes, you’re letting them contact you on your terms.

Philippa: Exactly. I don’t mind how they contact me – I want it to suit them, I want it to work.

Lorrie: And if some people aren’t convinced by the time they leave your website, a LinkedIn account or your Twitter might make the difference between them thinking, “Well, actually yes, this person looks like they’d suit me; their writing looks like it’s what I’m looking for.” and just skipping off your website and bouncing on to another site.

Philippa: Yes, definitely. So when you’ve got a website, you need to direct people to it and there are a variety of ways to do that. And what we’re not talking about today is SEO and that kind of thing – that’s a whole separate show that needs more specific attention. Putting SEO aside, there are still ways to promote your website. It doesn’t mean it’ll get to number one in the Google results for ‘freelance writer’ but it does mean that people will start to see it.

One way is to add your web address to your email signature – that way, every time you send an email, it has your web address at the bottom of it. So anyone who’s interested can click and have a look. The added bonus is that if someone forwards your email to someone else, it will still have your web address at the bottom, so the person who receives that email might click through and have a look. You just never know. But it means that anyone you email knows where to find you. The other obvious place to have a link to your site is your Twitter profile and your Facebook page. Twitter in particular because it’s very visible – right at the top of your profile page – so anyone who looks at your profile can immediately see your web address, click and have a look.

Lorrie: Definitely. Another point – and it taps into what we were saying last time we did a podcast about going on websites and posting on there – is that if you’re asked for your web address, don’t miss the opportunity to put it out there. We’re not saying go and post it all over the place like Banksy, but do make sure that if someone say, “What’s your web address?” – and it’s often one of the forms on blog comment posts, you’re often asked for your website address – do put it in there.

Philippa: Don’t be tempted, though, to comment on blog posts just so you can link to your website. It’s blindingly obvious any time someone does that. If you look at well-known blogs that had a lot of comments, you can look through and there are some great, genuinely helpful comments, and there’s there’s a lot going, “Great post…LINK!” or “Great post, I wrote about something a bit like that…kind of…here!”

Lorrie: “…but not really like that at all…”

Philippa: And you can spot it a mile off. Look at it this way: if you were reading a blog and you saw a comment at the bottom saying, “Great post, check out my website.” Would you go, “Oh, that’s someone I want to hire as a copywriter!”?

Lorrie: No, and the same thing goes for the way you talk to someone. If you’re chatting to someone face-to-face and you’ve given them quality information – and obviously this is the blog post we’re talking about – and they say, “That’s great, check out my website!”  It’s ludicrous, you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it someone’s blog. It’s really bad manners aside from anything else, and it shows a lack of understanding of communication, which is how you’re actually trying to make your money.

Philippa: And you might think you’ve got a really clever way of doing it that looks different. It doesn’t. It’s the same!

Lorrie: I think this feeds into something we want to talk about later – LinkedIn is very bad for that.

Philippa: Gosh, yes! But overall, if you do get given the opportunity to share your web address in a legitimate, non-spammy way, then do it. If you’ve got a Pinterest account, you can put it at the top of your profile. Twitter, Facebook, genuine blog comments, email signature…anywhere legitimate that you feel good about, that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed telling someone you’d done (that’s a good test!), then do it – you’ve got to promote yourself.

Lorrie: It reminds me of something you said last time, Pip, which is that you have to treat yourself as a business. Now, if you’d put your company address/details on a blog post or in a contact form, then do it – don’t be embarrassed. But, at the same time, don’t think that just because your URL is your name rather than a company name, it’s any more acceptable to spam, because it’s not.

Philippa: Yes. OK, going on from professional websites, we also wanted to talk about engaging with social media. It’s a very good idea to be on at least one form of social media when you’re a freelance writer. You might have been reading around a lot of freelancing blogs and been confused because one will tell you that you absolutely have to be on Twitter, and another will say you have to be on Facebook, and this can go on and on with a variety of different sites. But, if you try Twitter and hate it, don’t be on Twitter. Choose the social media network that suits you because, although it’s part of your job, it’s better that you enjoy it.

Lorrie: Definitely, and I’d go a bit further and say choose a social media network that suits the personality of your business as well. If Twitter is perfect for your business and you find there are a lot of people on there – and it often works very well for B2C businesses – then great, super, get on Twitter, get tweeting. That being said, I have some clients in the scrap metal industry and scrap men just aren’t on Twitter. It’s too industrial, too B2B.

Philippa: It’s important to ask yourself where your clients are, if it’s clients that you want to engage with.

Lorrie: Another point we wanted to make particularly about tweet feeds is the idea of “update it or delete it”. Now, that might seem a bit brutal but if you find you have a social media feed attributed to your business name and you’re not updating it, have a think about what that might be doing to your online image.

Philippa: If a client comes across your Twitter feed and you haven’t updated it in three months, she might just presume you’ve gone out of business. Why would she look any further? Rather than have a graveyard profile, just get rid of it if you’re not going to use it.

Lorrie: This is it – there’s nothing sadder than an empty tweet feed. You can sense the tumble weeds.

Philippa: Oooh! I’ll tell you what is sadder than an empty tweetfeed: a tweetfeed that would have otherwise been empty but is filled with Daily Horoscopes!

Lorrie: Ohhh God, yeah. Awful isn’t it?

Philippa: Can’t stand those! When Tweetdeck first introduced the filter, the first thing I did was put “Twitterscope” into the filter. It’s important to remember that social media is social. It’s not “send lots of tweets about your website”, it’s about engagement: talking to people, and responding. Especially if it’s Facebook or Twitter. If someone contacts you, even to say “Hi” or “Thanks for following”, it’s polite to reply.

Lorrie: I suppose on an unrelated note – although it has a bearing – I’ve been looking for a gardener recently and it taps into exactly what we’ve just said; there are loads of gardeners on Facebook and Twitter and I’ve gone round emailing them all, saying “Hi!”, giving information and taking ten minutes to write an email to all of them and I’ve had zero response. Now, as a copywriter, I would love to have the luxury of ignoring prospective clients! I really would – it’d be beautiful! I must be in the wrong job. I’m tempted, despite a fear of woodlice, to get into gardening.

Philippa: Because if they have so much work that they can ignore you in their vast numbers…!

Lorrie: And I’ve had people telling me, “Oh, well maybe they don’t check their tweet feed…” but Aha! Your twitter feed will send you an email when you get a tweet, as will your Facebook group. I know, as do most people, that if you’re not responding to my correspondence, you’re ignoring me – whether deliberately or not. You’re not engaging with the social media feed that you set up.  Now, it doesn’t look professional, it’s really frustrating and I kid you not, I’ve gone through about ten different gardeners until I found somebody – on Twitter – who actually responded.

Philippa: I think you’re on some kind of gardeners blacklist!

Lorrie: Yes, I think I must have been blackballed somewhere! Just for the record, listeners, I don’t do anything horrible to our gardeners!

Philippa: Well, she says that…! Hahaha!

Lorrie: No, but it’s true! We had one guy come round, and he was great. He asked a certain price, because we’d let our grass grow to hip height – and not “hip” in a good way, but in a “This grass is up to my thighs and may be hiding velociraptors!” way – and he came round, we paid him the fee happily and he said he’d like to take us on as regular clients. We said great, we’ll get back in touch in a few weeks. Now, I lost the paper leaflet he’d left with us and I hadn’t saved his mobile number so I searched for him online and he wasn’t on Twitter.  I had a look on Facebook, and there he was. I emailed him and got no response. I then sent the account a friend request, and got no response. After a while, he then added me as a friend and still didn’t respond to my email!

I got the distinct impression that this person didn’t care about having business from me, so I went with someone else. And it wasn’t revenge; I just wanted to be able to get in touch with the person I was getting a service from.

Philippa: Yeah, and if they won’t even reply when you’re offering them work, you don’t have any confidence that they’d be responsive when you hired them.

Lorrie: Not at all, and it’s a real shame as he did a great job the first time but given that I got no response for three weeks, it was just too much.

Philippa: Yep. One thing that it’s important to consider is keeping your personal and professional reputations separate. Now, Lorrie and I both have separate personal and professional Twitter accounts. Speaking for myself, my personal account is the one I’ve had for a long time, first of all, and I really valued it as somewhere I could offload, be quite informal and chatty with friends and not worry too much about the impression I was giving off.

And so, when I set out full-time as a freelancer, I did wonder what I should do: should I just be a lot more careful with this account? But then, the name wasn’t a professional one and I knew I wanted to keep it as somewhere where I didn’t have to be on my guard all the time. So I set up a separate Twitter account for my professional life and I use Tweet Deck to manage the two accounts, plus I manage another account for a website I write for, so I’ve got several accounts on the go. I find Tweetdeck really useful for that. I occasionally send the wrong thing from the wrong account, but it’s never been too dreadful. But yes, for me, it felt very important to have two separate ones. Other people find they can have the same account and perhaps just moderate their behaviour on it. What about you, Lorrie?

Lorrie: Yeah, I completely agree – it’s whatever suits. I am gobby when it comes to my personal tweet feed, and my logic is that I wouldn’t want to be at work in an office all day, answering phones in a professional manner and responding to queries in a professional manner that represented that company all day, so nor do I want to be representing my own business 24/7. I use different browsers, but I don’t have so many social media feeds that I need to use Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, but I keep Google Chrome open and one tab of Internet Explorer open, to make sure I only say one thing to the one account. And that works perfectly for me.

Philippa: That’s it: it’s about finding what works. For me, I’m getting on well with Tweetdeck, you’re doing it with two different browsers. I tried the two browsers but I found it too confusing. I was mixing them up too much. But, you know, it doesn’t matter what the solution is as long as you find one that works.

Lorrie: Very much.  I did have an experience recently where I was looking for a graphic designer. I went on this guy’s website and it was a brilliant site – really neat and tidy, exactly what I was looking for. And this guy had an absolutely gorgeous Twitter button very prominently featured on his website, sort of saying, “Come and have a look at me on Twitter!” and I went, and he was bemoaning how hung-over he was after an all-weekend bender!

And it was a massive turn-off, not because I don’t think he’s got the right to go on a two-day bender if he wants, but because he showed an absolute ignorance of boundaries between professional and personal.

Philippa: That’s exactly the kind of thing, isn’t it? You can have your own Facebook account with photos of you drunk and dancing on a table, but your Facebook page, which is your professional page doesn’t have that. There’s a very clear delineation between what should be where. It’s usually really obvious as well. It doesn’t take much thought, does it? You know, my personal followers don’t want to read my link about content marketing – it’s obvious that goes to my professional account. My professional followers don’t want to know if I sleep-walked the night before. It’s usually really obvious what goes where.

Lorrie: You’d think.

Philippa: Hahaha!

Lorrie: I really, really want to believe you when you say it’s obvious but it just doesn’t seem to be to some people! I suppose, though, that this brings us quite neatly to another point we wanted to make, which is that if you find yourself on several social media feeds – say, like Pip and I, you’re on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, learn your social media feeds and get to know them before you start posting prolifically, because they all have different personalities. Now, twitter…sorry, go ahead!

Philippa: Now, this is something that Lorrie and I rant at each other about quite regularly because it’s annoying. It’s not just unprofessional, it’s annoying. The different social media networks have different personalities. If you’re on Pinterest, you post pretty pictures – that’s what it’s there for. If you’re on Twitter, you can chat and all that. If you’re on LinkedIn…this is the big one, really, that people do wrong, I would say. LinkedIn is a very professional social network – that’s its whole remit, really. It’s about networking, having links to work colleagues and potential clients…it’s a very professional set up. It’s not entirely unproblematic as websites go but its purpose is very clear. And yet, a lot of people automatically feed what they put on Twitter straight onto LinkedIn and that’s not how it should work.

Lorrie: No, it’s not as user-friendly as Twitter, or as fast-moving and, as Pip says, the remit is completely different. It has its good points and bad points, because you can be a lot more self-promotional and even a little tongue-in-cheek on LinkedIn. You can write a lot more about clients being happy with you because you’re showcasing –it’s like an online, interactive CV.

Philippa: Yes, it’s what people expect to see there, so it’s not as cringe-worthy as if you did it on Twitter.

Lorrie: Exactly, it’d be completely obnoxious on Twitter. That being said, on Twitter you can be very irreverent and have a bit of a laugh. I used to manage the social media feed for a company I worked for full-time and one bit of feedback I got was, “Can you talk less about business and just have a chat with us a bit more?” and I was really surprised by that and it’s always stuck with me. So that works for Twitter but it doesn’t work for LinkedIn. Nor does the frequency with which you can post on Twitter.

Philippa: When I look down my LinkedIn timeline, it’s overtaken by far by just a few people who are clearly channelling everything they post elsewhere on to LinkedIn. So, there are nine or ten links to newspaper stories in a row, just from one or two people, then there’ll be some professional updates from various people and information on who’s connected with whom, then there’ll be another 15 news stories from one person again. And it’s misusing the network.

Lorrie: Yes, there’s really no point to it. LinkedIn…if it wasn’t so highly ranked on Google, I don’t think I’d be on LinkedIn. It’s not a very user-friendly website, it’s got its bugs and I don’t enjoy using it. I use it out of necessity because it’s very high up for my name on Google.

Philippa: It’s very useful – I’ve got work through LinkedIn, which amazed me. Thankfully, recently, Twitter cut off the possibility of automatically posting to LinkedIn, so some people, whose feeds used to really take over, that doesn’t happen anymore, because I don’t think they’ve noticed!  But there are other ways to do it, so it does still happen.

LinkedIn, as a site, could be improved so much. I know that Lorrie and I both had the same experience a few weeks ago of something that we thought would work one way but that didn’t. We were both, separately but within a few days of each other, doing a status update on LinkedIn. You can check a box for it to post to Twitter, and we both thought “Great!” So we did an update which went over 140 characters and what we both thought would happen was that the beginning of the update would be posted to Twitter to the rest of the update on LinkedIn, and that this would be a good way to get followers to have a look at our LinkedIn profiles and see the rest of the extended message.

So we both – like I say, separately and entirely randomly – tried this, and what actually happens is that what gets posted is the first 137 characters of the update, then “…”. There’s no link to your LinkedIn profile, there’s no explanation as to where the rest of the message is! And thankfully we both checked on Twitter, so we were both able to delete the ridiculous tweet. Because LinkedIn has the market share in what it does, it doesn’t have the pressure that Facebook and Twitter have to keep on top of things. That’s an example of where a small change could make it a lot more useful but the way it is makes it almost ridiculous sometimes!

Lorrie: So, just to sum up on the LinkedIn front, use it sparingly. Put quality, professional-only information on there. Be friendly, but make sure it’s work-related. And don’t treat it like a website that needs fresh content to rank highly on Google. LinkedIn is already very high up on Google – you don’t need to post 15 or 16 different news stories on there. Make sure all your content is up to date, post the occasional work-related achievement – if a client’s happy or you’ve got a new exciting piece of work, but other than that, it looks after itself, pretty much.

Philippa: Because we’ve got so much to say on this topic, Lorrie and I have run out of time! But we’re going to continue this really important discussion in the next episode, which will be available in about a week’s time. Go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com to subscribe so you can be the first to hear when new episodes are released. Thanks for listening and see you next time, when we’ll be discussing whether social media time is work or play, how to stay professional and how to cope with a PR disaster, among other things!

Episode 1: The Skills and Qualities You Need To Be a Successful Freelance Writer (A Little Bird Told Me Podcast)

We ran out of storage space for our earliest episodes. But fear not, we have made these many, many hours of freelance writing goodness available for just £10. If you want access to them all, please click Add to Cart and buy through our e-junkie account for instant access.

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Edited to add: Lorrie has transcribed the podcast! So, if you couldn’t hear any sections, or if you find audio only inaccessible, read on.

A Little Bird Told Me – Episode One: The Skills and Qualities You Need To Be a Successful Freelance Writer.


Philippa: Hello, and welcome to the first ever episode of the Little Bird Told Me Podcast! I’m Philippa Willitts…

Lorrie: And I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

Philippa: And we are both freelance writers, and we wanted to make a podcast about how to be a successful freelance writer. So, a little bit about us: I’m Philippa. I’ve been a full-time self-employed freelance writer for about nine months now and prior to that I’d done lots of writing for lots of places but not on a freelance basis. I specialise in writing about social media and SEO and health and disability and women’s issues – there’s my elevator pitch! – but really being freelance, you end up writing about anything and everything, which is one of my favourite things about it. There’s always variety and you can learn about new things all the time.

Lorrie: Very true. I’m Lorrie. I started off doing a degree in Translation and Interpreting – I thought, “I’m a fairly wordy person, so that’s what I’ll go into!” The big Europe dream didn’t happen, we haven’t got the Euro, no one wants to be part of Europe and most of the Europeans speak wonderful English, so the big full-time translation dream didn’t really work out! I found myself going from job to job, mostly within the marketing sophere and yusing my language skills to do a lot copywriting while I was working as a marketing executive. I’ve been freelancing on a part-time basis for about ten years – it’s something that’s kept me going between jobs and on weekends for a bit of spare money. Mostly, my work consists of literary editing, commercial copy-writing and academic proof-reading and copy-editing. As Philippa says, you start off with a dream about writing about feminism and things that will change the world, and you end up writing about waste electrical and electronic equipment and micropolymer processing.

Philippa: When I first started out, I wrote an awful lot about man-boobs! Several different clients all wanted content for their websites on man-boobs!

Lorrie: I really feel like I’ve missed out!

Philippa: I know! So I feel like I know all about them. You just never know – when a new email comes into your inbox, it could literally be anything!

Lorrie: True – this week, I’ve had feminism, metaphysics, recycling and WEEE compliance schemes. As Philippa’s already had it explained to her, WEEE isn’t an exclamation, or a way to show you’re excited – it stands for waste electrical and electronic equipment!

Philippa: I’ve been on whiteboards this week – not literally – and I’ve also, amazingly, had an article published in The Independent, which has just made my week. It’s had amazing feedback – I’m very happy

Lorrie: And I’m very jealous! Well done, Pip  – must do better next week, Lorrie!

Philippa: We want to talk today about which skills and qualities people need if they want to become a successful freelance writer.

Lorrie: Correct. Not to put the writing skills to one side – Pip and I can both see the positive sides of things like Fiverr, Elance and Freelancer.com. The problem is, however, that writing seems, on the face of things, to be a very accessible skill. People think, “I wrote an email the other day, I could be a writer! I need a bit more cash, so I’ll go and sell my skills for £2.50 or £5.00 – that makes me a writer!” It doesn’t. You need to have writing skills, you need to be a good reader, with thorough grammar.

Philippa: You need to be able to research. Like we said, you can be given every subject. You might start out, asLorrie said, thinking “I’m going to write about feminism for a living!” but, when you get asked to write about WEEE compliance, you have to be able to find out the facts

Lorrie: Yes, living the dream! But no, as Pip points out, there’s more to it than just being able to write. Being able to write makes you a copywriter – it doesn’t make you a freelance copywriter.

Philippa: True. Especially if you’re looking at doing it full-time, or as your main source of living, I think if you’re doing it as an added extra, you can perhaps get away with a few things. Do you agree?

Lorrie: Definitely! You can be more fussy – if something drops into your inbox, for example, and someone asks “Can you help me make LED lights exciting?” and you think, “Hmm, not today”, you’re at liberty to say no. It’s not going to affect you. That person might go away and say to people, “I contacted this person and she wasn’t very helpful” but, if it’s not your living, you’re not going to cry into your porridge about it.

Philippa: One thing you definitely need is determination. Because, you have to be quite relentless at time in pursuing work and following up with clients, and being on the top of your game really all the time. If you’re not 100% determined, it’s very easy to drop off and not do the things you need to do. It can be really hard work and it can be, not depressing but…

Lorrie: It can be really, really isolating. You’re sitting there and there’s no one to cheer you on. You do a piece of work that you hate – and there are plenty of pieces of work you will absolutely hate, take it from me! – and then you move on to something and think, “I did a really good job on that” but there’s nobody there to pat you on the back. You pat yourself on the back and you carry on – you don’t have time to sit back, watch Home and Away (not that I would), stick your feet up and think “job well done!” You can’t turn down work, you have to be constantly looking for it and constantly plugging your social media feeds, which is something we’ll come to in a minute.

Philippa: You also need quite thick skin. When you first start out, a lot of people warn you that you have to be good at taking rejection. I haven’t found that so much – what I have found is that you have to not take feedback personally. If you’ve done a piece of work in a way that you thought was write but your client isn’t quite happy with it, you can’t turn that into “I’m a rubbish writer”. You have to just say, “I got the angle slightly wrong, next time I’ll make sure I’m clearer.”

Lorrie: It may not even be the wrong angle. Your client doesn’t know about writing, you do. But, at the end of the day, they’re signing the invoice. Their company name, their brand identity is going on that writing – it’s not your writing. If they say that’s not the angle they’re after, you can advise them and explain why you took the angle you did but, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it – it’s not you, it’s them.

Philippa: Also, I know Lorrie and I were chatting the other day about something that we found interesting – not rejection, but people just not responding at all. If we send out a pitch or try and make contact with a local business, neither of us would mind if we got a “Thanks, but no thanks” – because people are looking for different things at different times – what can be hard is just not hearing back.

Lorrie: Especially if you’ve written the world’s best email! I think you might be able to tell that I’m speaking from recent and rather raw experience! 

I recently wrote a marvellous, absolutely wonderful pitch email to a local business that shall remain nameless and I got no response. I’d taken the time to research the company, the people – I’d even gone in, checked the place out, really researched what they were offering their clientele and got in touch with them offering my services, reiterating that I was affordable, that I was local and that, frankly, every gold star should come to me, and there has been radio silence. It’s not me, it’s them – for whatever reason, they don’t want me as a copywriter at the moment. And that’s fine – that’s not a rejection, that’s just “You don’t fit my business plan right now.”

Philippa: And if you can’t cope with that on an on-going basis, then you have to question whether this is the right career, really. I tried something a few months ago, and I stopped due to it being a complete failure (it was worth a try – you do have to try these things!).
What I did, was find a few local businesses, look at their websites and – because, like Lorrie, I do proof-reading as well – proof-read a couple of pages of their websites. I wrote down, “On this page you’ve got a typo there, and that could be worded better here…” I did it in a very nice way, and I introduced myself and I said “There’s no obligation to do anything but I thought you might like to know that that link there doesn’t work, and if you want the rest of your site proof-read let me know.”
Mostly, I got some very nice replies – mainly from smaller businesses, just saying, “I’d love to but there’s just me running the website. Thanks for pointing those things out but it’s not something I can do at the moment.” And that’s fair enough.  From the couple of bigger businesses I did it for, I just got nothing.

Lorrie: I’ve had really angry responses from doing something similar!

Philippa: Really?! So yes, you have to be able to cope with…people say ‘rejection’ but it’s not so much rejection, it’s more…

Lorrie: It’s more ‘it’s just not working’. Just hitting a brick wall fairly frequently

Philippa: And that’s not because we’re bad at what we do.

Lorrie: No, it’s not the same brick wall every single time – you have to remember that different businesses, different clients have different walls.
A further point that we wanted to make about the life of a freelancer was that adaptability is key. You can’t plan – your clients expect you, as a freelancer, to be sitting at home, maybe taking a hot bath, watching a bit of Neighbours, and waiting for their call. They don’t expect you to be managing other projects – they don’t like it, I’ve found, when you’re managing other projects!

Philippa: Best not to mention it, I find! Saying something like, “I’ve got a lot of work on this week,” isn’t too bad, but being more specific…

Lorrie: Yeah, they tend to be quite possessive. I find that my clients – I have a few freestanding clients who give me a little bit of work several times a week – get a little bit worried when they hear that I’m working for someone else. It’s like I’m cheating on them almost! They really do take it badly, especially if I’m not available and I say to them, “I can’t take anything else on at the moment, get back to me on Monday.” Or, “Send it over to me now and I’ll start it on Monday.” They feel, if not annoyed, then hurt, strangely!

Philippa: The reaction is very much like you’re cheating on them, like you really should just be waiting by the phone for them to call.

Lorrie: I think that’s the thing with freelancing – you aren’t a person, you’re not their employee, you’re an asset. You’re a resource to that company and they expect you to be available, hence the adaptability

Philippa: And, different clients – and indeed the same clients – can want very different types of work, so writing a press release is a very specific skill, and very, very different from writing web content, which is different from writing articles…

Lorrie: …funding proposals, business reports, news articles. Everything has a set of criteria to which you do need to adhere, but you can’t churn out the same work over and over for the same client or for different clients. It doesn’t work – your subject matter changes, your audience changes and your client changes, and so do you need to.

Philippa: And if they want a lot of words on a very small subject…

Lorrie: Oh, memories!

Philippa: Yes, you know what I’m talking about! You have to do it. And you might initially think, “Five thousand words about…”

Lorrie: …a subject that will remain nameless…

Philippa: …isn’t actually even possible!”

Lorrie: You’d be surprised!

Philippa: You start – and this keys into something we’re going to be talking about later –thinking very creatively. Going back to being adaptable, the same company might want very different pieces of work from you. You might have a massive project that lasts three months or you might have ten different articles for ten different client. Different skills, different subjects all the time – which is something I actually really like about it. There’s no getting bored…

Lorrie: Oh, I don’t know – I manage it quite frequently! But, I think another point, which harks back to a conversation Pip and I were having earlier, is that internal comms can play a bit of a role. We say, “Client A, Client B, this client, that client” – sometimes, your client consists of a number of different people.

Philippa: And that gets very tricky especially if you’re doing a piece of work that two of them are going to use, and they have different outlooks about what that will look like eventually.

Lorrie: Yes, it’s not really on our list of things you need to be able to do as a freelancer, but I’ll point it out anyway: keep a mail trail. The last thing you want is for two warring colleagues to blame an error on you. If you have a mail trail and you’ve CCed them in, there’s clarity, there’s transparency and everybody knows where everybody is. If you find that you’re emailing 10-15 different people, ask them to assign a contact for that project.

Philippa: Yes! Adaptability with regard to the kind of hours and days that you work: for a while, I kept getting jobs on a Friday from one particular client who wanted them by the Monday, and I actually considered changing my by-line to “I work weekends so you don’t have to!” because I did just feel like they’d get to the end of the week and just go, “Oh, someone else can do this!” And it was fine, and I quite like working weekends because, then, I can give myself a weekend in the middle of the week.

Lorrie: Sneaky!

Philippa: Because generally, I find Sundays especially really boring

Lorrie: Oh, I hate Sundays!

Philippa: So if Sunday’s a work day, I can have Wednesday off and that really suits me. I don’t have commitments like children, or anything I have to be very scheduled about.  But I think that some people might find that difficult, the fact that sometimes you’re working evenings because some jobs are urgent

Lorrie: I tend not to work evenings and weekends. I wouldn’t say I’m the opposite of Pip – otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here – but I tend not to work them.  Obviously, as Pip says, if stuff’s urgent or if you’re happy to do it, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. But, I don’t want to work evenings and weekends. However, I made that decision after years, and years, and years of adapting to my clients’ needs. I can afford to say to them, now, “I’m sorry, I don’t work evenings and weekends.”

Philippa: Another skill that it’s really important for freelance writers to have is to be able to communicate really well with people. You have to be able to email or talk to any number of people from big businesses to small businesses to one man or one woman operations. And not just chat with them and be friendly – which is very important – but you have to learn how to ask them questions to get the information you need to do the job.

Lorrie: Absolutely, and they may not even know that these questions are coming. You would be surprised – I’d like to think – at how little information people think you need to write a press release.

Philippa: Yes! Whereas press releases, I don’t know about you, but I find they take a huge amount of information.

Lorrie: Oh, huge amounts! Most of it I can research myself.  I’ll ask my client sthe bare minimum because, frankly, a lot of them tend to get a bit flustered: “Oh, oh, I don’t know! Oh, oh, let me just ask Bob from Accounts!” It’s easier just to go on the Internet and have a nosey if you can, for the background information that you need to bulk out a press release. And if it is a press release, it needs bulking out – you can’t just get away with it.

Philippa: You can’t skimp on press releases. I think I find press releases the most prescriptive type of writing. And so, you need to have ways of getting the information you need from clients without freaking them out.

Lorrie: They can get quite belligerent, I find. If you’re pushing them for information in a way they’re not comfortable with, they take it badly. As well, it can be very damaging to you because they wonder why you’re not just getting on with it.

Philippa: Sometimes, rather than doing it over the phone or in person, we’ll do it by email – I’ll send a list of, say, four questions that I really need the answers to.  And then that email will be sent to four different people in the company, all of whom can answer one of those questions and it can take weeks to get the answers together. You have to learn to sense other people’s style of communication and adapt to that.

Lorrie: I think you learn the patterns of your client’s behaviour, as Pippa says. You get used to how they communicate. If they say that they’re going to send it over to someone that it’ll take forever to get it back from, you need to be able to phone that person up and chase the information. It won’t come to you: they’re paying you to do a job.  And, although it might be completely galling that you have to chase this information for a news story that they want that you’re not even interested in, you do have to if you want that business.
You also have to do it in a way that will not only get the information but ensure sure they come back to you for another piece of work. If you get the information but you’ve pulled several teeth to get it, they’re just not going to come back to you and there’s no absolutely point because you’ve made, what, twenty quid on a press release.

Philippa: Also, you might get ten query emails in a day asking what you do, or for prices, or for an estimate, and you don’t know which of those is going to become a client, and which client will become a regular client. So you have to treat every phone-call, email and enquiry as though they’re the king of work

Lorrie: The king of freelancers! The client everybody wants!

Philippa: Because you just don’t know, so you always have to be able to be cheerful and helpful and friendly and informative, and sound knowledgeable and all of these things at all times.

Lorrie: Definitely. And this certainly isn’t something that Pip is suggesting (although I’ve made it sound like it is, now that I’ve said that!), but you don’t have to take bullshit from your clients. You have to learn to communicate in a way that’s friendly but assertive. I’m a qualified translator and I have several friends who’ll understand this perspective:  if a client contacts you and says, “Can you translate this for me urgently? It’s bad, hand-written stuff and I’m going to give you 0.2p per word!”, you have to be able to get back to that person and tell them in no uncertain terms that no, you can’t, but don’t alienate that person. They may find that they desperately need a translator in future and they’ll come back to you because they’ll remember your skills and they’ll remember that you dealt with them in a professional way even though you weren’t able to help them on that occasion. So don’t apologise for your standards – be assertive but don’t be rude.

Philippa: When I first started out, I took a quite big job that was far underpaid

Lorrie: Oh, I think we’ve all done that.

Philippa: Yes, because I thought that that was better than no work. What I didn’t realise was that while I was doing the quite big, underpaid job, I wasn’t able to spend that time looking for actual, decent work. And I got so annoyed with myself over the course of that piece of work, that that was all I needed to mean that, from then on, I don’t undervalue myself and I charge a decent amount. It just took that one job to make me go, “I would rather spend three hours looking for work rather than doing three hours of horribly underpaid work that undervalues my skills and my abilities.”

Lorrie: And it sets the expectations for future clients then, and it sets the expectations for yourself. You become someone who is stuck in the back bedroom at their house, doing a bit of writing on the side. And that’s usually what you are – you work from home, you’ve got a little corner of the house somewhere that’s your office, your work-space. But, to clients, you need to be a brand. You’re a product, you’re a resource.
You might feel embarrassed, say, when you go to the hairdresser and they go, “What do you do?” and you go, “I’m a writer!”
You have that moment where you go, “Hehe! Me, a writer!” But, at the same time, if you don’t laugh, other people don’t. People are writers: if you set yourself up as a freelance writer, that’s what you are and that’s what you have to portray.
If you worked for a company, you wouldn’t let clients get away with anything. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to assert your boundaries. You are the company: you have to tell people what’s what, and you have to be professional about it: there are no ifs, ands or buts.

Philippa: Sometimes I find it quite helpful to separate me from the business. So, if I’m finding it hard to stick up for myself for whatever reason, I find it easier to say, “No, that’s bad for the business” and not do it on those grounds.

Lorrie: Definitely. And I think if you do find you’re losing heart a little bit, talk to someone who’s doing the same thing as you. This is why it’s important to be on social media. Philippa and I will often phone each other up and say, “What do you think about this situation? I’m not sure how to handle it.” Going back to adaptability, there are plenty of things you’ll encounter for the first time. I’ve been doing this for ten years and still, clients, God love them, still manage to surprise me.

Philippa: Lorrie and I actually met on twitter, rather a long time ago! Now, we’re the best of friends and we completely support each other in our work. We talked about this recently: it might look on the surface like we should be up against each other, really

Lorrie: Fierce competitors!

Philippa: Because we both do freelance writing, copy-writing, proof-reading, editing, all that stuff. We live in the North of England, we know similar people: it might look like we should be fighting each other to get the same work, but we’re not. And that’s not just because we’re friends, or because we’re quite respectful people

Lorrie: Well, most of the time!

Philippa: It’s also because it actually does us both good to have that support there.

Lorrie: It backs up what Philippa was saying earlier about it being more worthwhile to spend three hours building up your business that undervaluing yourself with a piece of poorly paid work. It does more good to me and my business to have a trusted colleague than it does to fight her for work that’s difficult enough to get anyway. There’s no guarantee that this mythical client you’re fighting over is going to give either of you any work. There’s no point, you can’t do all the work in the world.

Philippa: Definitely. And, at one point, if I ask Lorrie for advice on some writing that she’s done before and I haven’t, I know she’d give me that freely. We’ve passed work on to each other when we’ve been over-booked. It does us a lot more good to support each other like this – like doing this podcast together – than the tiny benefits we might get from stealing each other’s clients.

Lorrie: You just have to conduct yourself in a way, overall, that’s professional. You don’t go poaching other people’s clients – you just don’t do it.

Philippa: And we both know who some of each other’s clients are. In fact, it would make me actively avoid them if, for some weird reason, they contacted me out of the blue.

Lorrie: Is there something you need to tell me?!

Philippa: No, I’m just making up stories! But no, I would know to avoid them because that would be a wrong thing to do.

Lorrie: And again, it goes back to the thinking in a long term way: don’t go for the quick win, because it is just that, it’s just a quick win and it tends not to replicate itself and you’ve then alienated yourself in what can be a very isolating business. And that brings us on to another point in our magical wee list in how to make a success of being a self-employed writer. You need to deal with isolation in the correct way. If you want to be in an office full of people, this is not the job for you.

Philippa: If you need people to chat to all day long, not the job.

Lorrie: That’s probably why you’re listening to a podcast! People are chatting but you’re not there! And this is as good as it gets, mostly! You listen to other people chatting – away from you!

Philippa: I sent a tweet the other day, just saying, “I need to say another human being soon!”

Lorrie: It’s never been more true!

Philippa: Like, I really do – I’m forgetting how to talk!

Lorrie: I tend to move around the house. Sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen, sometimes I’ll be in the back bedroom. I have a little office but I find that I get so isolated that I just want to move around and feel a bit freer.

Philippa: Yeah, we all have little things like that that we do. I’ll sometimes take a notepad and go out to a little coffee shop and write there, or go to a library and get some inspiration from books. But yes, if you need constant validation and chatting, and company, then… Unless, there are options like shared office spaces.

Lorrie: I’m still dubious as to how much that works because if you’re chatting, you’re not writing.

Philippa: And when you’re paying your own wages, it counts a lot more. I’m the kind of person who’s quite happy on her own, I like my own company, I like being with other people as well…this is like a job interview! “I work well on my own…

Lorrie: “…and in a team!”

Philippa: Even so, you need to plan better sometimes to make sure that you socialise a bit.

Lorrie: Working lunches! You need to be able to go out, have lunch with someone and then actually come back and work. Don’t just go out for a boozy lunch. You need to be able to come back and do some work. It’s not just that you might feel a bit lonely – writing is essentially a fairly isolated activity – but you need to be able to discipline yourself.

Philippa: This is so important; being able to motivate and discipline yourself is probably the most important factor because you’ve not got a boss looking over your shoulder, saying, “Have you done X, Y and Z?”

Lorrie: “…and if not, why not?” I do struggle to be my own boss. Naturally, I’m pretty disorganised and that isn’t something that’s OK for a freelancer.
When I decided to freelance, my husband was horrified – he didn’t think I’d be able to do it, not because he has no faith in me but because we both know how chaotic I am. The way I’ve combatted that is by putting a whiteboard up and making a “to do” list. I stick to this “to do” list because I figure, if I couldn’t explain it to a boss, nor should I be able to explain it to myself if I haven’t got a piece of work done. If you let one thing slide, other things will slide after it like an avalanche.
For myself, I find that it helps to have a set getting-up time. I do need to get dressed – I know some freelancers who can work in their pyjamas, but I can’t. I have to get up, get showered, get dressed, get ready and be in a work zone for my work to start.

Philippa: I think that, for a lot of people – and I’m trying to create these in my life – there are cues that tell you it’s time to start work. So, like having a shower, getting dressed, going to your desk. I’m trying to create cues that delineate ‘work time’ and ‘not work time’.

Lorrie: Because, as you say, they’re beneficial when you want to identify what’s not work time, when you want to switch off. Like for you, Pip, I know you work some evenings, but there are going to be some times you don’t want to work. You wake up, say, on a Wednesday as you’ve mentioned, but something drops into your inbox – what do you do?

Philippa: Like Lorrie, I’m quite chaotic and disorganised but right from the beginning, I’ve forced myself to be super organised with business things. My receipts and invoices and everything that needs to be dead organised…

Lorrie: Yeah, housekeeping and admin can’t be allowed to slide

Philippa: …and keeping track of deadlines. You might have, at any one time, a fairly big project, two small projects, a medium project and a regular project, all at the same time. You have to know when your deadlines are for each, you have to be on top of your deadlines.

Lorrie: Because they change. Clients give you a deadline and you start off with a certain amount of information then they’ll throw some more in and say, “Could you talk about this as well?” or “Could you add this and focus on that?” or “We need it for Friday, rather than Monday” – there are all these things and you need to be responsive to all that, while at the same time keeping in mind the bigger picture.

Philippa: And if you’ve got a reasonably sized project that you’ve planned out very clearly, and you’ve got it all exactly right, ready to be in for the Monday deadline, and then on the Thursday someone says, “Can you do me –quickly – this website…”
“Can you just…?” That’s my favourite! Ugh!

Philippa: However well planned out your existing work is…

Lorrie: …it has to move. But, you’ll find that your clients aren’t sympathetic, as we’ve already mentioned, to the existence of other clients. They don’t want to know that Client A has to have it in by Friday – they don’t care, and nor should they. It’s not like saying to your boss, “Ooh, you know the situation in HR?” or “You know the situation with the marketing team at the moment?” and expecting them to be sympathetic because they’re part of the same company or entity, it doesn’t work that way: clients can be very jealous of your time.

Philippa: And if you’re in normal 9-5 job and someone says, “Have you finished that job?” and you say, “No, because I haven’t had the information back from Sarah yet.” then that person will follow up with Sarah. Whereas if you’re freelancing and you say, “No, I haven’t finished the work because your other client hasn’t sent me the information.” That’s not good enough. You’re supposed to have chased up.  And so my organisation levels within the business…well, I surprise myself daily with how good I am at it, considering how bad I am at it in the rest of my life!

Lorrie: I think you have to, don’t you? I mean, my ironing pile is getting to be taller than me! I’m 5’3”, I’m not tiny, but it’s been left a while. My “to do” pile is smaller because, at the end of the day, I want to be able to relax in the evenings, I don’t want to be thinking about it on weekends because I’ll panic. If you work for yourself, there’s no one to pick up the slack. If you leave things in a mess on Friday, they’re there waiting for you on the Saturday, not the Monday. They’re there Saturday, Sunday, Monday and you’re the only person there to sort them out.

Philippa: So true!

Lorrie: One thing we were talking about is that it’s surprisingly important for freelance writers to have is empathy because you spend hours tucked up in a room or an office and you’re working not with a client but with their text.
For myself, about 50% of my work is editing, and a lot of that is literary editing, where somebody has done some creative writing and they want to get it checked before they self-publish or send it off to a journal, and creative writing is actually quite an intimate thing to do and when someone sends you their writing, there are a number of ways that they can respond to your edits on that piece of work.
Sometimes, as Pip well knows, they can be pre-emptively apologetic and say, “I’m really sorry, it’s probably really crap!” or they’ll get back in touch once they’ve seen your amends and they’ll be quite offended. Or they’ll be upset! They’ve asked you to look at their work and give them it a really thorough substantive edit but then, when the work comes back and it’s covered in teal tracked changes – I made the mistake of using red before, so I can suggest using a secondary colour, such as teal or purple that’s clear and easy to read but doesn’t look like you’ve shredded their work, which you may well have.
But yes, you need to be able to empathise with your client because while your piece of work is the text, your client is the one paying the bill and they’re still a person. They’re a human being and they need sensitivity and empathy from you.

Philippa: Unlike Lorrie, most of my editing isn’t literary, it’s a lot more non-fiction. I do the odd bit of more creative writing, but mostly non-fiction. One of the p[aces I edit for is a feminist website and something I feel is really important is to encourage people who don’t usually write or haven’t written much to come forward and have a platform on this website. A lot of what I do in that respect is holding someone’s hand and giving them confidence in what they’re doing while, at the same time, making the edits that are needed to make it a good enough piece of work to go up on the website.

Lorrie: Yeah, you can’t sacrifice edits for feelings because you’re sacrificing quality and their name’s going on it, not yours. If you let them send out, or submit, or publish a piece of work that’s frankly horrifying, you’ve not done your job. You need to find the balance between empathy and thoroughness.

Philippa: It can be a tricky line – it can be different if it’s someone you know, or if it’s someone you don’t know. Could be harder, could be easier. I’ve edited Lorrie before – and, the first time, I found that terrifying! I was scared to open the document, and I was going, “She’s my friend! What if it’s awful? What if I have to say, ‘This is awful!’”

Lorrie: Yes, what were you thinking, woman?!

Philippa: And of course it wasn’t – it was great. But I had to do quite a bit of moving things around, just because it was too long. And Lorrie was lovely about it and agreed with all my amends and made some suggestions, and we got a piece of work together that was brilliant and that went up on the site.

Lorrie: I think the key thing is, though, that we’re both writers and editors. I knew what to expect from Pip and I knew why she was doing what she was doing – it was an interactive process. You won’t get that with other clients. Often, some poor wee soul has decided they’ll finally have a pop at creative writing and they’ll send you their masterpiece and it hurts – you open it and you think, “Oh, you poor lamb!”

Philippa: It’s hard! You want it to be good, you want it to end up good but when you first open the document – I don’t know about you – but I always have a moment, thinking, “Please be good!” Just for the sake of sparing their feelings. Like Lorrie said, you can’t spare their feelings to the point that you go, “Oh, it’s brilliant!” like you might do to a friend about their painting.

Lorrie: Are you speaking from experience, Pip? Have you got any painter friends you’d like to confront at this point?!

Philippa: But you equally can’t treat them like some kind of robot, saying, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong…”

Lorrie: I’ve made the mistake before on extended editing projects. I’ll admit, in the ten years I’ve been doing this, I’ve lost my rag. I’ve had clients being a little bit sneaky for whatever reason, perhaps copying and pasting bits from Wikipedia, and very, very badly written pieces. When your client’s being a little bit uppity with you and saying, “Where’s the editing up to?”, it’s easy to get close to losing your temper and saying to them, “Well, actually, what you wrote is a bit rubbish!”
And of course it’s not rubbish – there’s a lot more to content than grammatical accuracy and perfect syntax – that’s your job. Your job is the polish, their job is the content. If they provide you with the content, alright it might need some significant editing but you have to treat them like a human being, you can’t get too frustrated with them – it’s not fair.

Philippa: The final thing that we thought was really important was creativity. Now, that’s not the obvious way that you might think creativity is important – which is being able to write creatively – it’s in the ability to think really creatively, to make a lot of the work you get work! If a company contacts you and they want a brilliant press release writing, which is going to get a lot of press attention and back-links to their website, but the topic they give you is very dry and there’s not a lot to it.
To take it from that to something that’s newsworthy enough that journalists get it and think, “Wow, I must write about that!” you sometimes have to think incredibly creatively.  Similarly if someone wants a case study writing up about how Company X uses product Y and it’s something like chair legs…

Lorrie: Ooh, or micropolymers!

Philippa: And you have to make this into something that promotes the business and make other businesses want to use this product, that’s where creative thinking has to come in.

Lorrie: Absolutely. Going back to the micropolymers, I did a piece of work for company that produces plastic powders that are used to make buoys in the North Sea. Now, that’s not my favourite topic – I’m sorry to break it to you this way –

Philippa: No, it doesn’t scream front page news, does it?!

Lorrie: No, it certainly doesn’t! I’ve had another client – also B2B – say to me, “Can you get this on Newsnight?” Which, although I have to admire him for being so open about his intentions for the work…

Philippa: …and ambitious! Did you email it to Jeremy Paxman when you’d finished?

Lorrie: I’m afraid to say that I didn’t. That being said, I did help him research some trade press, some local press, a bit of national press that might have a bit of interest. This is something that you do as well – if you’re ever bored, have a nosy on the Internet and try and build up a database or an Excel file of contacts.

Philippa: Trade magazines…there are some of the weirdest things.  One of my favourite TV programmes in the UK – in case you’re listening from elsewhere – is called Have I Got News For You, which is a comedy programme about the news. They always have a section on it where you have to complete a blank in a headline – and they very often use a ridiculous publication for the ‘Fill in the Blank’ section. But you start going, as a writer, “Ooh, I must make a note of that ridiculous publication!”

Lorrie: I’d like to emphasise that this is Philippa saying that they’re ridiculous. I myself find them extraordinarily interesting and I would welcome approaches from any of them.

Philippa: Most are extraordinarily interesting but there are a few that may be ridiculous. Allegedly! I guess by ridiculous, I mean incredibly, incredibly specific.

Lorrie: I think what I would emphasise is that creatively writing isn’t the same as creative writing.

Philippa: Definitely, definitely, definitely

Lorrie: One point I would make is that, when you start out as a freelance writer, you think that you’re going to be sitting there on your sofa in a smoking jacket, writing about topics that impassion you. You’re not, love, you’re going to be writing about goodness knows what.
A lot of the writing I do is B2B, so it’s not even about accessible topics like fashion, politics, cooking…there’s none of the pretty-pretty. I’d love to have cupcake shops as my clients. I don’t have a single cupcake shop – I do, however, have a WEEE compliance scheme company! You need to be creative about that in the sense of the writing isn’t yours. It doesn’t matter if it bores you – it’s not about you. Creative writing is totally about you and needs to come from your heart…

Philippa: …and can be all about how your head works and it comes from your head.

Lorrie: Yes! You can be as self-indulgent and poetic as you want – you have to put that on one side to be a copywriter. It’s very much like being a translator – you are someone else’s voice.

Philippa: Even to the point of the angle you take on a particular story. If a company wants you to write them an article for their website on a particular subject and you do it – if you haven’t asked enough questions in the first place, you might get it back with, “Well, yes it’s very good but, what I actually wanted was…” and so your initial idea of what the article was… that’s too much about you. Your idea about what was interesting about it, whereas the business actually wanted it to highlight A, B and C. You have to rethink where you started from and get it into a different angle.

Lorrie: This is it. If you’re being told more than once or twice, you need to question whether this is the job for you, because you need to be able to leave yourself to one side. We’re not talking about writing about things that you find ethically objectionable. Pip and I have both had circumstances where we’ve had to turn round to a client and say, “Look, I wish you all the best in your future endeavours however, that’s not a topic I feel able to write about.” That being said, you don’t just not write something because it’s not your opinion, or because you find it boring or because it’s not what you would have said. You are being paid to be your client’s voice and you need to be as authentic a voice as possible. That’s what you’re being paid for.

Philippa: And that’s where a lot of the skill comes in. It’s easy to be given a subject and write what you think about it. It’s a lot harder to be given a subject and write what someone else thinks about it. But that’s what they’re paying you to do.

Lorrie: Completely agree!

Philippa: So, my God, we’ve done it! We’ve made our first podcast. I apologise for any weird background noise – we’re in a café…

Lorrie: …in Wilkos!

Philippa: In Wilkos, because we’re classy! If you want to find us online, rather than spelling out our numerous Twitter, Facebook, website addresses, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and all of our details will be linked to from there. You can find us, chat to us, follow us on Twitter because we’re really quite nice.

Lorrie: Sometimes! All I would say is that this isn’t supposed to be some formal scripted podcast – and nor is it. We understand how isolating freelance writing can be. I’ve done it for ten years, Pip’s done it for a good number of years as well, and we’ve both made a lot of mistakes along the way – that’s what builds a freelance business. Now, as we say, it can be a very isolating job and it’s nice to have someone to talk to and share your experiences with. These podcasts can be as interactive as you like – if you have something you’d like to hear us talk about, by all means let us know because this is supposed to be useful.

Philippa: Definitely. We’ve got various ideas but we totally want your feedback. Is there anything obvious that we’ve missed out today? Is there a massively huge key skill or quality that a freelancer needs that we haven’t covered? Is there a subject that you wish someone would talk about? Let us know

Lorrie: We have almost no boundaries!

Philippa: That is true – we can talk about virtually anything. Whether it’s worth listening to is a whole other thing. In future, we’ll probably have better sound because we’ll be doing this over Skype. So, go to alittleebirdtold.podomatic.com. You’ll find how to contact us there, let us know what you want us to talk about, let us know what you think, try to be nice because we are…

Lorrie: …Human.

Philippa: Yes, human, mostly. Like us on Facebook where you’ll get lots of news and information about the next podcast, link to us from your blog, follow us on Twitter…

Lorrie: Don’t follow us anywhere else – that’s just creepy. So, thank you for listening! I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

Philippa: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next time!

END