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Podcast Episode 6: Offsite SEO for Freelance Writers – Attracting Backlinks and Collaborations by Being Brilliant

In the last episode of the freelance writing podcast, we talked about what you could do on your website to improve your SEO, and in today’s we are talking about the things freelancers can do to attract backlinks and improve off-site SEO.

Listen, enjoy, and let us know what you think!

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For accessibility reasons, and just because some people prefer to read, we have provided a transcript below

Philippa: Hello and welcome to episode six of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, where two freelance writers talk about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing. You can find us one the web at and from there you can find all the links you need to subscribe, whether by RSS, iTunes or Stitcher Smart Radio. You can also find a link to our Facebook page for the podcast and also our individual websites, social media links and that sort of thing.

My name is Philippa Willitts and I’m here with my co-host Lorrie Hartshorn. In episode five, we started to talk about SEO – or search engine optimisation. We discussed some of the ways you can improve where your website appears in the search engine results by what is called ‘on-site SEO’, which is things you can do with your website itself to help you rank well.

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about off-site SEO: all the other things you can do to help your website rise up the search engines.

Lorrie: So, we’ve talked a little bit about on-site SEO, which is what you can do on your website to help improve your search engine optimisation. However, there’s a lot you can do off your website as well – so, off-site SEO – to help improve things further.


Backlinks (Photo credit: ivanpw)

Philippa: Absolutely. Now, off-site SEO is predominantly focused on back-links that is, links from other sites to your website. When Google, or the other search engines, are making decisions about where different websites should rank in their search results, one of the things they actually look at is how many other websites link to them. Because, if many top quality websites link to your site, Google considers that your site must be a respected authority, and ranks you more highly. In theory!

Because, historically, this fact has been abused and websites gained rankings by getting really spammy links from spamming blog comments, forum profiles and low quality article directories. And so, spammy sites that were getting a lot of these spammy links were ranking better than good quality sites that just had a few incoming links.

So, as a result, and continuing with their ‘animals beginning with ‘P’’ updates, this year, Google introduced the Google Penguin update, and this actually started assessing the quality of the backlinks to a website, rather than just counting the number of backlinks. Sites with lots of spammy backlinks are now being penalised, and there are desperate SEOs going round emailing other sites and begging them to remove the links to their sites.

Lorrie: Yeah, I’m not surprised. Because it was getting to the point where the most highly ranked sites were spam directories – just lists and lists of links. You can understand Google’s perspective. It’s completely irrelevant and if people go on to Google and that’s all they can find, it’s no good for anybody.

Philippa: Yeah. Because, from Google’s point of view, if someone searches with them and gets rubbish results, they’ll go to another search engine. So, it’s in Google’s interests to make search results work for people who are doing the searching because it is annoying when you search for something and you just get spam.

Lorrie: And this is really what we’re saying – it’s in everyone’s favour for you to work with Google. There are plenty of guidelines out there on what you can do to be a decent website owner.
In terms of actually developing quality backlinks, you can actually combine this with another aspect of successful freelance working, that I believe Pip and I have referenced at least obliquely in previous episodes, which is the creation of ‘colleagues’. And I’m saying ‘colleagues’ with giant air quotes around it because, as a freelancer, you don’t have colleagues. You’re not in an office. However, the work can be very isolating, so it’s in your interest to create a network of people you can talk to and share ideas with, as Pip and I have done – we’ve become very close.

Now, as a writer, you’re often asked by clients to recommend other freelancers. When they see you doing a good job, they think “Ah, this person knows what they’re talking about, maybe they’ll know someone who can deliver another service to me.” Now, I’m often asked whether I know a graphic designer, a decent software developer, a good editor etc. and, by building up strong relationships with some of the best individuals you can find in these fields, you can improve your own service offerings and network – so you’ve got people to talk to and people to recommend when clients ask you, but you can also develop a strong backlink network for your website.

And, I think it’s good to be discreet about doing this – although not secretive because that always comes over as sneaky – and to restrict yourself to freelancers whose reputations you trust, but you can actually contact someone and say, “I like what you do, I’m a copywriter/editor, you’re a designer/software developer – my clients are often looking for that kind of thing, how about we recommend one another? Some people have link pages on their website, some people are happy to give you a page of your own on their website. It’s whatever works for the both of you, it’s a collaborative thing.

Philippa: Yeah. For instance, a couple of months ago, I did some work on a client’s website. The client was a web designer and I basically rewrote his site with SEO. And he was so pleased with the work that he said, “In my work as a web designer, I get asked all the time to recommend a copywriter – can I recommend you?” and I was like, “Of course I wouldn’t mind – that would be lovely!” Doing that job was one way of connecting with him. There are other ways, like Lorrie said, but yes – it works for him because he knows he has someone he can trust, it works for me because I get referrals. Everyone benefits, really.

Lorrie: Yes, as Pip said, this is a person she had built up a relationship with him, she’d done a good job for him: that person trusts her judgement and is happy to recommend her. What I would say is that it’s important to restrict yourself, and not to go asking people you have barely any connection with if you can do a mutual link with them. The last thing you want is to spam people and make yourself look desperate for any and all back-links or, which is possibly worse, to affiliate your site with someone whose content or service offering is really, really questionable and could get you blacklisted – either by clients, who think “What are you doing with this person?” or by Google, because there’s something dodgy on that website?

Philippa: Yes. This is slightly off-topic but it’s just reminded me of a slightly strange situation I had a few weeks ago…

Lorrie: Why does this always happen to you?

Philippa: I don’t know, but it always does! I followed a copywriter on Twitter and then, a few hours later, she followed me back. She then sent me a tweet saying something like, “Hi, good to make a connection with you. I’ve got lots of excess work on at the moment, would you be interested in taking some of it on?” So, I said, “Sure, yeah, email me.” And then, I thought, “How strange – she’s literally just followed me on Twitter ten minutes earlier, and she’s offering to pass work over to me. She doesn’t know anything about me – she doesn’t know if I’m any good by that stage – we’d literally just made contact.”

And so, then, I thought, “Is this a good idea from my point of view?” It’s certainly not a good idea from her point of view – I mean, I would have done a good job, but she didn’t know that.

Lorrie: Oh, I don’t know – you’re pretty terrible!

Philippa: Hahahaha! Oof, you’re mean!

Lorrie: It’s true. How strange, though. Do you think she was taking a cut? Do you think she was trying to pass on work and then…

Philippa: That’s the thing. And then I started thinking that, just from that one connection, my impression is that she must be quite flakey. And so then I thought, “If she’s willing to pass work over to someone she doesn’t know, then this perhaps isn’t someone I want to associate myself with professionally because…how much respect does she have for the work she’s giving in?

Lorrie: Yes, on face value it looks great: “Do you want to take some work off my hands?” – yes absolutely, it’s all work. But as you say, she doesn’t know you from Eve.

Philippa: Yes, and that kind of attitude to her work, I didn’t want reflecting on me in the end. As it was, she never got in touch after that, which I was quite relieved about. But yes, it was strange, and that was an example, I think of trying to establish a relationship in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

Lorrie: It’s like walking up to someone in the bar and just kissing them. Like, “Hello, never met you…snog, snog!”

Philippa: Haha, or just saying, “We need a secretary from Monday – do you fancy it?”

Lorrie: Hahaha! That’s probably a better analogy than my “snog snog” analogy, although I stand by it.

Philippa: Yes, absolutely!

Lorrie: Of course I do. Once I’ve committed to an analogy or a tangent, I’ll go with it to the end. But yes, how strange that she’s got such a casual attitude to freelance work when you absolutely wouldn’t do that with a salaried position.

Another way to establish decent backlinks to your website is to get links from directories, although it’s important to research those directories to make sure that they’re reputable.

Philippa: Yes, there are hundreds if not thousands of article directories on the internet but, nowadays, there’s only a handful, really, that are worth bothering with. Many people think that one called ezinearticles is the only one worth bothering with, but there’s also GoArticles and a couple of others that are reasonably highly regarded. Most aren’t.Ezinearticles have got stricter recently about the articles they accept in a bid to make it worth publishing to.

The way that they’re supposed to work is that you publish an article to their site, and it has a section called the resource box where you can add your links to your site. Now, the way it works is that anybody has the right to republish your article, as long as you’re credited and the resource box is included. In theory, this can increase your backlink total as more and more people republish it if it’s a good article, and your resource box appears at the bottom. In practice, people often do break the rules and publish it without the resource box, and there is also the risk that the sites which are republishing them are low quality and this will have a negative effect on your SEO.

Lorrie: Yeah, it’s something you’ve really got to be careful about. What I was actually thinking about when I mentioned directories was service directories, as well as article directories.

Philippa: Ah, of course.

Lorrie: Again, if you find a reputable service directory, say, for the town you live in or the services you offer, it can be worth linking to yourself from there. One website that we’ve mentioned a few times, and not always in the most flattering terms, so I suppose I’m eating my hat a little bit here, is LinkedIn. And, in a way, this acts in a similar way to a service directory in the sense that you can list your services on there in the form of an online CV. And, as long as you keyword it up and add in lots of specialisms, it can act as a really useful way of showing people what you can offer.

On LinkedIn, it’s possible to add your website to your personal profile. You get about three or four boxes you can put links in – mine have my professional website, my Twitter, my Facebook and our Podomatic page. LinkedIn registers these as links but instead of displaying anything useful, it just puts “Twitter”, “Facebook” or “Website”, which is no good, because if someone searches for the word ‘website’, you’re not going to rank.

What some people don’t realise, though, is that links from LinkedIn are quite valuable, and that they do count as backlinks to your website. And LinkedIn is a huge website, it gets a lot of traffic, which can be really useful to you. Now, one way to capitalise on this is to use one of the boxes…and there’s an option to click on the drop down box and register this link as ‘other’ rather than “website” or “Twitter” or “Facebook”. And then, instead of entering the name of your website, you can enter a key search term, such as “SEO Copywriting”. This way, you’re creating a link from a really high profile site that features an important keyword for your own website.

Philippa: That’s a really good idea! Twitter profiles, as well, can also be a useful way to get a backlink to your site, as can Facebook Pages, Google Plus profiles and Pinterest accounts – anything like that, really.

Another good way to get backlinks to your site, as well as building relationships with other website owners, is to publish a guest blog post on somebody else’s site. If you feel you’ve got something valuable to offer a website, contact site owners. Now, really only do this if you think you have something valuable to offer them! Do not do guest posts purely for the links, the site owners know and they don’t want to be used in that way. Do it because you have something of value to say, and to give, and consider the backlink to your site to be an added bonus, really.

I’ve written a few guest posts for some reasonably prominent freelance writing blogs, and it was a great experience to work with the women that run the blogs was great, I got lots of really positive feedback about my posts and, also, I do get a fair amount of traffic from the links at the bottom of those posts, so as well as providing good content for them, I do get a nice bonus of backlinks and traffic too.

Lorrie: Absolutely. I think you make a really good point about the fact that it has to be quality content. It’s amazing how many people seem to forget that when it comes to online activity. If you’re a professional writer and you’re writing rubbish, it doesn’t look good! I really can’t stress this enough.

Philippa: Hahaha! It doesn’t help your business!

Lorrie: No! If you contact a website owner and say, “I’ve got a really good article and it’s about four lines, and it’s about how night follows day” or some other unexciting topic that everyone knows about, you’re going to look stupid. Even if they do publish it, you’re going to look an absolute fool.

But, if you do it well, I really do think the benefits are two-fold: you don’t just get the direct clicks from the website, as Pip says – that’s people come and have a look at who you are and what you offer – but it does also help you to build up a store of reputable results for your name. I get a lot of people saying to me, “I Googled you.” Or, if they’ve spotted me on Twitter and they want to know a bit more about me without asking me…because people are always scared that I’m going to correct their grammar! People say, “Ooh, I didn’t want to talk to you because I was scared you’d correct my tweet” – because that’s how I get my kicks, apparently! Haha! But yes, if the Google results are linked to informative, worthwhile, engaging content, and then your website’s at the bottom, you’re upping the chances of your newest potential client being exposed to your work – and your good reputation, and then your website. If you’ve got your “contact me” page on there, it’s in the bag.

Philippa: Absolutely, and you start to get established as an authority in your area, which is so valuable for your business, especially online based businesses.

Lorrie: In terms of building up your reputation as a bit of an expert in your field, it’s good to embrace your own strengths and skills from time-to-time. As we’ve said before, we Brits are pretty bad at doing this – we sort of hide in the corner and say, “Yes, well I suppose it was alright really! I suppose that, yes, it was rather well done!”, but it’s alright to shout about your achievements now and again.

A good way of doing this is to announce them officially via a well-written press release. A lot of people don’t think about press releases. I suppose I do because a lot of my clients want them…

Philippa: Yeah, it’s interesting because press releases are things I write for other people but it never occurred to me that I could write a press release about my own business. But it’s absolutely right.

Lorrie: It’s true. Like anything else, there are a couple of guidelines. Firstly, and this taps into what we’ve said about online articles and guest posts and things, you need to make sure you actually have something to talk about. “Freelancer gets up at 8am” is not press release worthy!

Philippa: Hahaha! Although it might feel like it if you do!

Lorrie: It certainly does! I was thinking, “No, no, 8am’s not too early!” but it really is! Haha! Yes, so you need to make sure the people and organisations you send your press releases to are actually a relevant target for it. Depending on what the subject is, you might decide to tell the local press, in which case it’s time for a bit of easy research on Google. Alternatively, you might send it to a database of followers – people whose contact details you’ve got from your website, so clients, corporate partners, suppliers, colleagues. And you can send your news to them in the form of an e-bulletin – if they’ve opted in to receiving correspondence from you.

Philippa: If and only if!

Lorrie: That’s for people you know – if it’s for the press, by all means send them what you want, just don’t do it too often because they’ll just block your email address.

If you do decide to head down the route of delivering a press release to people, I really can’t…honestly, this is my phrase of the podcast, I think, I cannot stress this enough – or over-enunciate it enough either! – learn how to write a press release first! Now, I can almost see Pip wincing but press releases…it’s amazing how wrong people get them.

Philippa: It is. They are a very…what’s the word? They have such a strict format and, for whatever reason, while the format of other things might be more relaxed or changeable, a press release has a set format that you have to adhere to. It’s just how they are. You just have to.

Lorrie: I wrote a press release once for a client and, I’ll admit it, they said, “I don’t like it – I’m going to do my own!” And I thought, “OK…fine…”. And they forwarded it to me along with about 100-150 other people. They forgot to BCC everybody, so everyone got everyone else’s email address, which is a legal issue in itself. But the press release had pictures embedded in the text, bubble font at the top, no date on it – it was just immensely awful.

Philippa: I actually have a list of instructions for myself for press releases, just because there are so many little bits that have to be included. So, just to remind myself that you have either an embargo date or ‘for immediate release’ written at the top. And, all those little points that it’s easy to forget and that you must not forget – so yeah, I actually have instructions for myself to make sure I don’t miss any of the formatting out.

Lorrie: Exactly – because if you’re a member of the press, you get hundreds and hundreds of press releases

Philippa: Even if you’re a blogger – I can speak from experience – we get press releases all the time.

Lorrie: I bet you can spot immediately which are well written and which aren’t.

Philippa: At a glance.

Lorrie: So, a press release isn’t just any old bit of writing – it’s a serious piece of work, and an official announcement. So if you muck it up, you’re not really announcing your news, you’re just announcing to the world that you’re completely inept. So be warned! It can be a great thing to do to drive traffic to your website. If other publications, like local press, pick it up, it can end up on their websites. Backlinks are great, but if you get it wrong, God help you.

Philippa: Yeah. Another way – and probably the best way, actually – to get good quality backlinks is to stop thinking about “How can I get backlinks” and gaming the system, and instead, publish content that is so awesomely brilliant that other websites just can’t help themselves and link to you because it’s so good. Like with on-site SEO, if you concentrate on providing brilliant information that’s presented in an interesting way, others who love it will link back naturally.

Lorrie: Completely. As we’ve previously mentioned on this podcast, perhaps Episodes 1 and 2, it’s important to go with marketing methods that suit you. Like we’ve said before, don’t get yourself on Facebook if you’re never going to use it, and don’t start tweeting if you’re going to stop again three days later. The same thing can be applied to creating back-links to your website: external sites like YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr…they’re all a great way to create back-links to your site – I know that you, Pip, use Pinterest…

Philippa: I do!

Lorrie: I don’t – I hate Pinterest! I use Tumblr to create backlinks to my creative writing blog, for example

Philippa: Yes, I noticed that the other day – Tumblr’s a really effective way.

Lorrie: So these are all a brilliant way of creating backlinks to your website if – and this underlines a point we’ve made already – you’re actually posting some quality content. If you’re using YouTube, for example, don’t upload crap. Don’t upload junk videos to YouTube and expect relevant traffic to come flooding over to your website.

Equally, as I’m sure Pip can testify, if you get on Pinterest but post nothing of interest, you’re not putting the interest in Pinterest, or working the system properly. You’re just wasting everyone’s time, mostly your own. So, as Philippa says, forget about working the system, and do something that you enjoy and can stick to. That way, it’s sustainable, and it’s far likelier to have better results.

Social Media Mess

Social Media Mess (Photo credit: KEXINO)

Philippa: Yes, I really like Pinterest. I mainly use it in a personal way – I pin recipes I like the look of, and cartoons that I like, but I do have a writing board and a social media board, where I post relevant. I get a good number of clicks through from those but, if you’re like Lorrie and you hate it, don’t force yourself to do it just to get some clicks – value your time more than that.

Lorrie: I suppose I’m a bit harsh saying I hate Pinterest…

Philippa: Well, no, we’ve all got our preferences and that’s fine!

Lorrie: I like it for about five minutes, then I think, “What am I doing?” It’s not that I don’t know how to use it – I follow people like you and I see what you’re doing – but I think basically, I can’t maintain the interest for long enough.

Philippa: And I think that would show, if you’re really forcing yourself to do it, you probably wouldn’t get good results anyway. The same point applies to this podcast. We started this podcast for many reasons – we wanted to share our knowledge and experience and help other freelance writers, we wanted to promote our work, and so on. But an added benefit of the podcast is that we get backlinks from the podomatic website. We provide the links to our sites primarily so that, if anyone listens and wants to get hold of either of us, via our websites or – more commonly at the moment – our social media accounts, they can do so easily. However we also can’t deny that backlinks from a popular site like podomatic doesn’t do us any harm!

Lorrie: It’s true – and it’s not something to be ashamed of. The point is, we spend a good amount of time every week planning what we’re going to cover, thinking of topics, researching, asking people what they’d like us to cover. We take our time thinking about it, having a good old chat and, hopefully, covering some really good topics. We’re not publishing junk.

Philippa: There was a phase a couple of years ago where, in order to get backlinks, people would get some awful text to voice reader to read their blog posts out in some robot voice and then publish them as podcasts. As a podcast fan, it was horrible to see a new podcast post and think, “That looks really good!” and then it would be one of those. Urgh, it was horrible! Thankfully, I’ve not seen too much of that recently, but that’s the kind of thing you don’t want to do.

Lorrie: No, and as you say, we’re only on Episode 5 of this podcast now, but it’s something that’s really had a number of benefits. I know I speak for both of us when I say it’s been a really great way to develop organic discussions across all of our social media. For myself, it’s attracted a lot of people to my website. I’ve made new contacts on Twitter, it’s been really helpful for a number of my professional services – actually the copywriting, editing and proof-reading. If people talk to you, or listen to your podcast and find you helpful, they remember you for it. The same obviously goes for guest posts and blog comments.

Philippa: Yes, it’s been the same for me. I’ve made some really great new contacts and had some amazing feedback about the podcast too – yeah, it’s great!

Lorrie: Yeah, this week has been amazing for feedback, and it’s really given us a good idea of the kinds of topics people would like to see covered so it’s a sustainable thing.

Philippa: We’ve talked before about blog comments as a way to make people aware that you exist. Blog comments are also frequently abused by spammers (as anybody with a blog will know!). Commenting on blogs is not a great SEO tactic on its own. Most links in blog comments tend to be what is called “no-follow” links, which means that the site owner is essentially telling Google in its code that they do not want them to consider this link to be any kind of recommendation. But, that’s not to say they are entirely useless – if you post helpful and useful blog comments, you’re likely to get clicks from them. And then, if people like what they see, you might get a genuine backlink recommendation.

Start to think creatively about how you can attract people to your site, and how you can be so brilliant that they want to link to you from their site. Currently, infographics are currently a very popular way of sharing information

Lorrie: I love them!

Philippa: I do, too, in an unhealthy way!

Lorrie: Haha! It’s true, you do post a lot – but I always click them!

Philippa: I’m obsessed! But yes, people always do click them. And, a little tip here – if you post an infographic on Pinterest, it’s nearly always impossible to read so people always click on the pin to go to the original site. Little tip there!

Lorrie: Ahh, very sneaky!

Philippa: The creator of the infographic usually allows it to be shared on anyone’s blog as long as there is a link back to their original site.

Lorrie: Yeah, it’s not even always an active link, is it? There’s sometimes just a little graphic at the bottom but, again, it’s better than nothing.

This actually might be another place where a good relationship with a graphic designer can come in handy – it’s something I’ve been considering. Collaborating on an infographic of your own can be a great way to get your name out there. There’s a couple of things to think about. If you want to share the glory with the designer who designed it – as I suspect they’d prefer – have a look for someone on Twitter or LinkedIn, then chat to them about a mutually beneficial collaboration. You can add some mutual back-links into the deal – mention them on your website, “Just worked with this amazing designer!”, they can mention you, “Just worked with this amazing writer!” to make it a more positive experience for you both. Alternatively, if you’re a bit of a megalomaniac like Pip…

Philippa: Hahahaha!

Lorrie:…and you prefer to have just your name attributed to that piece of work, get in talks with a designer, get a contract in place – really important – deliver the content and then pay them to design you something really lovely that you can then promote across your social media. It would be worth getting Pinterest for that.

Philippa: Yes, definitely. The thing is to come to arrangement with the designer, as Lorrie says, so you either share the credit for the infographic or, if you come to an agreement with them that you will have ownership of the original design as part of the contract, then the backlinks – and all the glory – can be all yours!

Some other ideas for backlinks: Some people create a powerpoint presentation, or a pdf document with embedded links, on a subject that they specialise in. They then post it on document sharing websites – Scribd is the most common one – and if the document is really useful they can get a lot of clicks from there. Similarly, we mentioned Pinterest earlier. If you’re interested in promoting your site on Pinterest, make sure you use attractive images on your website, which you can then share on Pinterest, and, if other people like them, they’ll repin them, which constitutes another backlink. Really, there’s an endless number of creative ways to gain links to your website.

Lorrie: I think that’s it. Rather than gaming the system and weaselling your way to the top of Google like a sneaky beast, actually just come up with some decent ways of getting natural traffic – attract people, not search engines. Search engine optimisation will follow. A lot of tips on here are about that – it’s just about creating quality content and attracting people in an organic way.

Philippa: Be brilliant! Be as brilliant as you can and, some day, someone will spot your brilliance and share it on Twitter. Then someone will see it and think it’s great and link to it from their site. And then someone who likes their site will follow the link and share it on Facebook. What Google is looking for is that kind of process.

Lorrie: You can’t design a network of links that’s that complex. When something’s picked up naturally across social media, it moves so quickly – you’ll be everywhere. On my personal Twitter account, I get retweeted a lot because I’m quite the rhetorical genius when it comes to be angry – I can get angry and eloquent very quickly when it comes to topics I’m passionate about (politics, feminism, whatever) and it gets you retweeted hundreds of times.

You can apply the same kind of thing to your professional account – I posted something the other day, and it wasn’t mine so I gave credit to the person who created it, and it was a post about how to decide what kind of social media suits you…using bacon! And because it was so strange and weird…Brits love surrealist humour, don’t they? If you want to take a picture of bacon, you should be on Instagram, if you want a bacon recipe, go to Pinterest. I’m eating bacon – that’s Twitter, I like bacon – that’s Facebook. It was really just a good way to explain what the social media feeds do and people like it – it’s a professional account but it’s a bit of light relief for the middle of the day.

Philippa: And whoever created that will be really benefitting from having created something that really clicked with people, and then that you shared and that other people shared via you.

Lorrie: Yes, so be interesting, be funny, preferably be both, and it should work for you.

Philippa: It can be difficult to be so brilliant when you’re describing your services that the content will be shared, you can have a blog attached to your professional site. I have a blog attached to my Philippa Writes site, as well as my Social Media Writer site, actually. So that I can post things of interest that aren’t immediately relevant to ‘The Business’ that need to be on pages of their own. Like, posting episodes of this podcast, for instance.

Lorrie: Yes, I do the same thing – it’s a nice way of attracting traffic, making sure you have regularly updated content on your website and building up a bit of context – people like to know who they’re dealing with. You post something interesting and relevant and a bit witty, they know who they’re dealing with; they know you’re a personable sort of person, if you can say that. It just gives a bit of context – even if it’s not something you wouldn’t give a page over to, it’s still allowing you to update your content regularly, which is great for SEO, and it gives an insight into what you find funny, interesting or amusing. It helps to build you a 3D profile and people like to know who they’re dealing with.

Philippa: Yes, because at the end of the day, people are hiring a human being. There’s a reason there’s no freelance writing software, it’s because they want a person to do it. If you can show a bit of personality, that attracts some people.

Lorrie: I think, as we’ve said, it’s all about being natural.

Philippa: yeah, don’t force it. Don’t send a spun article to 800 directories – you’re fooling no one. Don’t put keyword-stuffed content all over your website. Just be brilliant – that’s my message for the podcast – be as brilliant as you can, and it will work.

Lorrie: True. You’re a freelance writer, so now’s the time to prove you can write quality content.

Philippa: Definitely. So, we’ve covered a lot there about search engine optimisation. We hope it’s been useful. Make a start! Do some of the on-site SEO ideas we’ve given you, and start thinking about some of the things you can do with the rest of your site, your work and your social media profiles to get attention for the right reasons.

Lorrie: So, really hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. As ever, thank you for listening. If you want any more information on either of us, you can go to the bottom of our Podomatic page and all the links are down there. As Pip says, we’ve included some information this week just to make sure you’re not lost with all the new words and phrases we’ve used. Because everyone’s learning, so if there’s anything you don’t understand, it’ll either be at the bottom of the podcast or you can contact one of us on social media. We don’t bite – I don’t correct people’s grammar when they tweet me, I’m pretty nice. If there’s anything you want to discuss, anything you didn’t understand, or an idea or an opinion, let us know.

Philippa: Yep, drop us a tweet, come on our Facebook page! Do it!

Lorrie: Do it. So, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

Philippa:…and I’ve been Philippa Willitts. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.

Podcast Episode 5: SEO for Freelance Writers – Attracting the Right Kind of Attention with Onsite SEO

Here is episode 5 of A Little Bird Told Me, the freelance writing podcast. In this episode we discuss on-site SEO, i.e. the things that freelance writers can do on their professional websites to attract the best kind of search engine attention.

Have a listen, and let us know what you think!

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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We always try to provide a transcript, to make the podcasts as accessible as possible, so here is the transcript of this episode.


Philippa: Hello and welcome to Episode Five of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, where two freelance writers talk about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment. You can find us on the web at and there you can find all the links you need. You can subscribe to the RSS feed, you can subscribe at iTunes and Stitcher Smart Radio. There’s also a link to our Facebook page. I’m Philippa Willitts…

Lorrie: …and I’m Lorrie Hartshorn, and today we’re going to be talking about how to improve your SEO. So this is SEO for freelance writers, and how to make sure your website’s attracting the right kind of traffic.

Philippa: So keep listening for tonnes and tonnes of information. Before we start, we wanted to mention that we’ve had amazing feedback from the last episode. Looks like talking about being asked to work for free really touched a nerve with a lot of people. And it wasn’t even just writers and editors – we even heard from a professional cake decorator on Twitter who was asked to bake and decorate a cake in return for the ingredients. Like we talked about, she felt her skills were really devalued, just being asked to do that.

Lorrie: Well, you would if someone’s suggesting that years of study and expertise is worth the same as a few eggs and some flour. You’d feel pretty ticked off by that, I’d imagine.

Philippa: Exactly – I’m good at baking cakes but I’m useless at decorating them. It’s really hard!

Lorrie: No, mine always end up an absolute disaster zone, so I generally end up going for the rustic, undecorated cake.

Philippa: Yes, deliberately.

Search Engine Optimisation. Search Engine Opti...

Search Engine Optimisation. Search Engine Optimization (Photo credit: Hobo!)

Lorrie: Of course, yes. Through choice! I’m actually in talks with a number of writers and copywriters at the moment on the subject of working for free and being asked to work for free, so I’m pretty sure that, listeners, this won’t be the last you hear on the subject from us.

Philippa: It will go on and on, because it’s an issue that goes on and on – that’s the thing.

Lorrie: It does go on and on! I was asked, just after recording this, whether I’d be happy to translate 26 pages from French to English on a military skirmish!

Philippa: I saw the tweet – it was horrifying!

Lorrie: In return for gratitude!

Philippa: And then he posted another tweet, saying something sarcastic about, “Oh, it looks like translators are trying to earn some money!” as though that’s a really unreasonable thing for them to want to do.

Lorrie: Yeah, I think his tweet was something along the lines of, “I didn’t realise there were so many cash-strapped translators out there!”

Philippa: That’s it!

Lorrie: I’m not strapped for cash – I just don’t want someone taking the mickey!

Philippa: And then he was really passive-aggressive, like “Oh, I suppose I’ll have to do it myself now…”

Lorrie: “It won’t be very good, but I guess it’s the only way.”

Philippa: You can’t be upset that other people won’t do it if you’re then going to complain that you have to do it.

Lorrie: Well this is it – it’s not even our work, is it? You don’t want to do your own work for free, but you then expect someone else to do it for free – it’s just ludicrous. I listened again to Episode 4, and the number of times I used the words ‘ludicrous’ and ‘ridiculous’ was…well, ridiculous!

Philippa: Both of us are quite bad at ‘definitely’ and ‘absolutely’ as well. We should just pick one at the beginning of each episode.

Lorrie: What, a word to include or a word to ban?

Philippa: A word to include. Every time we agree, we should say, “Indubitably” for the whole episode.

Lorrie: I think I’m going to avoid doing that.

Philippa: Really? You’re no fun.

Lorrie: I know, I’m a drag…anyway, what I was going to say before we went off on one of our now famous tangents, is that, listeners, if you do have a story or opinion you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear from you. You can find all our contact details at the bottom of the page at

Philippa: Do it – we want to hear from you. Now, today we’re going to talk about SEO. SEO stands for search engine optimisation, and whether you’re British or American depends on how you spell it; we spell it with an ‘s’. It describes the things that a website owner can do to help their site to show up in the search engine results. This is increasingly important because, the higher you up in the search engine results, the more clicks you are likely to get for people who search for relevant terms to your business.

Lorrie: That’s right – after all, nobody wants to search for a copy-writer in their area – either their geographical area or their area of expertise, or the subject they want covering – and find you, the perfect person, eight pages down in the search results! They’re not going to look that far down, so you need to make sure you’re easily spotted.

Philippa: Yes, there are statistics that I don’t have my hands on right at the moment, but basically, if you’re number one, you get 60% of the clicks, then #2 and #3 get 20% and 20%. After that, it’s mainly hopeless.

Now, there are two types of SEO – on-site SEO and off-site SEO. So, first of all, we’re going to talk about “on-Site SEO”. This means the things you on your website to help Google and other search engines to understand what your site is about. This includes the content you post and how you post it, and a few other ‘behind the scenes’ things that can be a bit annoying but are definitely worth doing.

Lorrie: That’s right – we’re going to focus on some of the easiest and most effective techniques for SEO in this podcast.

Philippa: Yup.

Lorrie: Because there are people who make a career out of telling you that they have a magic recipe to get your website to the number one spot on Google and keep it there, but at the end of the day, there are about 1,000 things you can try and you’d spend all day at it if you’re not careful. Or, you can end up paying someone a fortune to do it for you.

Philippa: Because, also, there are very reputable SEO companies but lots of really dodgy SEO practices that will not only not help, and will waste your money, but they can actually damage your site’s position in the search engine rankings. So even if you just have an understanding of what’s needed and you still decide to go with an SEO company, you can still question them in relation to what needs doing.

Lorrie: Absolutely.

Philippa: Now, to build a website, there are lots of different content management systems – or CMSs – you can use: WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, that kind of thing. We are both most familiar with WordPress, so this next bit is mainly relevant to that.

If you do use WordPress for your site, there are lots and lots of free plugins available to help you manage your on-site SEO. They will mainly help you to create the right tags and description for every page of your site, so that the search engines have a clear idea of what your intentions are.

My current favourite SEO plugin, and it’s a very well regarded one, is called WordPress SEO by Yoast, which is spelt like ‘toast’ but with a ‘y’. Now, this plug-in is really comprehensive, and it can look a bit intimidating at first but it has instructions are clear to follow. The other bonus with this particular plug-in is, because it covers several areas of SEO, it also avoids the need for having several different plugins all doing different bits of it, because plug-ins can sometimes clash and slow your site down, so the fewer you have, the better, generally. If you use other plugins other than that one, you want to make sure that they will help you to firstly, set meta tags for your posts and pages; secondly create a sitemap and thirdly control how the outbound links from your site – so the links that you place to other places – are perceived by the search engines.

Now, what those things exactly mean would be too complex to go into for this podcast, but in the show notes at the Podomatic page, I will add some links that will explain what all that means. For now, you just need to know that that’s what needs to be done, really.


google_logo (Photo credit: keso)

Lorrie: The transcript for this post will be available as well, so you’ll be able to look through it and find exactly what we’ve been talking about.
Philippa: Good point.

Lorrie: As Pip points out, content is one of the most important things to consider when you’re trying to improve the SEO on your website. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not just for SEO purposes that you have a website, it’s so that people can visit, have a look at the services you offer and get in touch with you. So in terms of content, you need to balance search engine optimisation with readability, and a good yardstick for doing this is to ask yourself why you’re writing something.

Now, new, relevant and regularly updated content will help your website’s SEO – it’s undeniable. However, if you’re writing something and you’re thinking to yourself, “There no point to this except for improving my SEO.”, you’re going to risk producing text that’s really reader unfriendly, and that’s going to be copy that’s unusually wordy, horribly long sentences and really unnatural sounding ‘keywords’ like, for example, “Manchester copywriter” stuffed in the middle of a sentence, is unlikely to attract or keep the attention of a potential customer. They’re going to get bored, or confused, or they’ll know what you’re up to and will feel patronised, so it really is important to find a balance.

Philippa: Yeah, I think people underestimate just how obvious it is when someone’s done that. If you get to a website that says, “If you’re looking for a freelance writer in Sheffield, I’m a freelance writer in Sheffield, who can do your freelance writing in Sheffield because I live in Sheffield and I’m a freelance writer!” And yes, it’s full of freelance writer and Sheffield keywords but nobody’s fooled and, for goodness’s sakes, you’re trying to sell yourself as a writer – if nothing else, you want your website to read well.

Lorrie: This is true. So, a few quick ideas on SEO content for your website: it’s a good idea to keep your keyword rich content higher up on your web-pages. So, this has got a couple of benefits – it does make it easier for the relevant parts of your web-page to be picked up by search engines, and – while this isn’t SEO, it’s still a good thing – it does help to maintain reader interest. You’ve got your most relevant content at the top, it’s easy for the reader to find, your whole web-page isn’t stuffed to the gills, you know, you can spread these keywords out a little bit.

Equally, it’s a good idea to include bullet points on your pages rather than horizontal lists. So instead of embedding a list of services in a sentence, like, as Pip said, “I’m a Sheffield copywriter, and I offer copywriter, proof-reading, editing, whatever else…” – rather than popping those in a horizontal list in a sentence, it’s worthwhile including them in bullet points to make those a little bit clearer for your reader and help them get picked up by search engines.

Philippa: Definitely. Headings throughout a piece of text are very useful too. They do help readability because they break the text up, but also, Google looks out for the h2 and h3 html tags that indicate to the browser that these are headings. And, search engines will give more importance to text which has been highlighted with these tags. So get your keywords in that kind of context and that will help.

The title, as well, that you give to blog posts and the pages of your website are very important too. Be clear, in your titles, what the post is about. Basically, help Google to help you!

Lorrie: Absolutely. Don’t sacrifice keywords for…charm, really. Just as I’ve said “Don’t sacrifice readability for keywords.”, it’s important to be practical about it as well. A lot of writers are tempted to be quite literary and witty, but if you’re being witty and wordy and wonderful at the expense of keywords in your headers and titles, you’re going to lose out.

Similarly, include some links in your content, and make sure the anchor text – which are the words your reader can click on, what you’ve highlighted and turned into a link – is actually relevant. So, if you’re wanting to link to a site about graphic design, for example, make sure your link is something specific like “Graphic designer in Manchester” rather than what everybody puts, which is “click here”!

Philippa: Yes. What’s quite funny is that, if you google ‘click here’, the top result is for Adobe Reader for PDF documents, because every time anyone offers a PDF on their site, they say if you don’t have the right software, you can get it if you ‘click here’, and use that as the anchor text.

Lorrie: Haha, that’s brilliant. So, unless you’re feeling particularly ambitious today and you’d like to compete with Adobe on clicking services, and offer your clients the best clicks, do make sure you keep your links relevant. It’s fine to include a few words in your link – it doesn’t have to just be one word; you can link a phrase or short sentence rather than a single word – but make sure it’s not too long.

Philippa: And also, mix it up a bit. Don’t always use “Manchester copywriter” or the same anchor text, because it doesn’t look natural to the search engines and that will make them suspicious. The odd ‘click here’ can actually help with this, making it look more natural. But as Lorrie says, don’t make that your primary anchor text of choice!

Lorrie: True – Pip’s completely right. If you highlight every single instance of ‘Manchester copywriter’ or ‘SEO copywriting’ on your website and turn it into a link, people start to get the impression, even sub-consciously, that you’re a bit of a spammer.

Philippa: Yup, it’s true.

Lorrie: It’s not nice – people don’t enjoy reading if they’re constantly interrupted by the same phrase being highlighted – because linking a word or phrase does highlight it – then, they’re going to lose focus on what you’re trying to sell to them, so just be a little bit careful.

Philippa: Definitely. Another good way to approach your SEO is to ask yourself what people might be searching for if they want your services. So, use that, or a of it that’s perhaps more natural in your headings, titles and meta-tags. So, if someone was trying to find you, what might they search? They might search for “Freelance editor in Scotland” or “web design specialist”. Make sure you get those words in, like Lorrie said, not in the spammy, keyword-stuffing way, but naturally. But do get them in.

Lorrie: Definitely. There are plenty of techniques out there that people will a little bit sneakily try and use to get their site ranked highly by Google. One of these is to fill the site with content that’s searched for regularly (and you can use your imagination as to what this is) and to try and disguise the fact that they’ve used this on the website.

Philippa: Yes, and there are sites you can go to to see what the most searched terms of that day are. It’s “Kim Kardashian” a depressingly high number of times – I don’t even really know who she is – or whatever the news story of the day is. Or, slightly ruder things.

Lorrie: Yes, usually slightly ruder things. I believe that Kim Kardashian has a link to slightly ruder things.

Philippa: That may be part of why, then, yes.

Lorrie: So, if people are wanting to artificially boost the content on their website by including lots of exciting, naughty things that certain people search for, this can either be done by ‘hiding’ the information in the metadata, so, back-stage on your website, or by inserting it in teeny-weeny letters at the bottom of your page. Or, by masking the content against a background by using a font of the same colour, so it’s effectively invisible – so, white text on a white background. This white text might read, “Free porn” or whatever.

I cannot suggest strongly enough that you do not do this. Google and other search engines have algorithms that will pick up on this kind of thing extremely quickly, and your site will end up black-listed. In the meantime, you’ll be attracting all kinds of irrelevant traffic, and possibly dangerous traffic.

Philippa: Yes, because even if you did somehow magically make it on to the front page of Google for people who are searching for Kim Kardashian, what use would that be anyway? People would click your link, see that it wasn’t about Kim Kardashian, and navigate away again. I mean, the chances of that Kim Kardashian fan also having an urgent need for a freelance writer right at that moment is pretty low.

Lorrie: You watch, this time next week, I’ll be blogging for the Kardashians and you will be eating your hat.

Philippa: Will I?

Lorrie: Possibly! YouTube video, actually: Copywriter eats hat.

Philippa: That would get hits, actually. Anyway! Last year, in a bid to get rid of the spammier sites, Google introduced an algorithm update called Google Panda. And what this did was start to reduce the search engine rankings of sites which had low quality content. This might mean badly written content, or content that’s copied or spun from elsewhere, or those sites that, thankfully you don’t see quite as much of nowadays thanks to this, with just one page of very sparse content. On the positive, good quality, original content is rewarded by search engines now more than ever.

Lorrie: Definitely – and as a freelance writer, you have absolutely no excuse. Not from a search engine point of view, and not from your readers’ point of view either. It really is worth just getting some decent content on your website.

Philippa: Absolutely. And another quick point about on-site SEO is internal links. Use internal links – that is, links from one page of your website to another page on your website – use them, use them carefully, don’t overuse them. But say, for instance, on your homepage, as Lorrie said, you’re using bullet points to describe that you offer proof-reading, copywriting and editing. What you’d want to do, for each of those keywords, is link to the relevant page of your site. So, your proof-reading page, for example.

Lorrie: Yes, that’s what I’ve done.

Philippa: Yes, me too. This obviously helps with usability. If someone comes to your site because they want your editing services, and they see a reference to your editing services, they don’t want to have to navigate to the top of the page again to find the link. But it also – going back to the anchor text we mentioned earlier – is useful to get a relevant anchor text with a link. Obviously, internal links don’t count as much from Google’s point of view as external links – as we’ll go on to explain – but they are useful, and use them wisely. Don’t over-use them, as with anything really.

Because SEO is such a complex topic, there’s way too much to cover in just one episode. So, in this episode, we’ve given you plenty of ideas to make a start on helping you with your on-site SEO. Tune in on Friday for Episode 6, in which we’ll discuss off-site SEO, which includes things like getting links to your website from other places, and making a good impression.

Lorrie: So, really hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. As ever, thank you for listening. If you want any more information on either of us, you can go to the bottom of our Podomatic page and all the links are down there. So, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

Philippa: …and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next time!

Podcast Episode 4: Hot Topic: Writing and Editing for free – is it ever OK?

Episode 4 of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast is now live! Listen below, or on our Podomatic page, where you can also find all the links you need to find myself and Lorrie all over the web.

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Edited to add, we now have a transcript!

Episode Four of A Little Bird Told Me: Writing and editing for free: is it ever OK?

Philippa: Welcome to episode four of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, where two freelance writers talk about the highs, low and no-nos of successful self-employment. You can find us on the web at and from there you can find all the links, subscribe to us via RSS feed, at iTunes as well as at Stitcher Smart Radio, as well as the link to our Facebook page. We really want lots of new Facebook likes so we can start having some really interesting conversations on there.
So, I’m Philippa Willitts…
Lorrie:…and I’m Lorrie Hartshorn, and today we’re going to be tackling the first of the A Little Bird Told Me “Hot Topics”. These Hot Topics are going to cover things that affect freelance writers, copywriters and editors, and the topic we wanted to tackle this week is based on something I spotted on Twitter and immediately contacted Pip about, and had a bit of a rant about..
Philippa: She did indeed – and I agreed with her rant!
Lorrie: Which is good! It’s good when people agree with me – I like this! I mean, we don’t always agree but this is why this one is such a good Hot Topic – because we really do. The topic we’re going to be covering is writing and editing for free. Now, there’s a lot to say on the subject but, as an editor myself, I particularly wanted to cover something that I spotted on Twitter, as I say. Now, I was scooting around on Twitter, having a nosey in one of my Saved Searches – as I mentioned in Episode Three, I have a few Saved Searches on there – and I spotted a person on there who was putting out an advert for professional book editors…
Philippa: …which sounds like a great thing.
Lorrie: Yeah, it’s right up my street. So I thought, “Ooh, let’s go and have a look!” So, I went on his website – really professional looking website, really, really nice – and there’s an ad on the front page, entitled, “Calling all editors”. Now, it says, “Calling all editors – I’m looking for an editor for my next book. The qualifications are simple: you need to be an experienced editor, have excellent grammar and writing skills, preferably be a science-fiction fan with a deep background in the genre…” – whatever ‘deep background’ means – and, then, here’s the crunch, “…As an indie author, this is not a paid position.” Now, putting aside the dodgy grammar on that sentence – and we’re not really putting it aside: I hate it! I hate dodgy grammar – it says, “As an indie author, this is not a paid position but I will lavish praise and chocolate on the lucky person – lucky person!! – as well as a very nice mention in the foreword, as well as a personalised first edition of the book.”
Philippa: Wow…!
Lorrie: I know, can you believe it? “Please respond via email to blah-blah – I’ll be contacting all applicants via telephone, so please include your complete contact info.” And he’s actually put this ad repeatedly on Twitter, and on his website, and he’s looking for a professional editor to edit a full-length manuscript for chocolate!
Philippa: And it starts off quite well – “Looking for an editor for a book…qualifications…experienced editor…” I think, yes, Lorrie ticks that box, “…excellent grammar and writing skills…” Yes, she ticks that box. I’m not sure how much of a science-fiction fan she is, but I have enough faith in her other qualifications that she’d be perfect for this job. And then it goes on, “…and praise and chocolate.” This is a whole book – presumably a whole novel?
Lorrie: Yes.
Philippa: …and a key point is that, once the book’s ready, this guy will be selling them for money. He’ll be getting paid for his work.
Lorrie: Not in chocolate. Not in praise. It’s just ridiculous – if the book’s going to make money, why is there nothing for the editor? Because editing a book, you sometimes change it significantly – that’s why you’re there. This guy describes himself as a ‘best-selling author’. His books are costing anywhere from 99 cents to sixteen dollars for a copy, each. And if he’s making any money at all – absolutely any – then, I mean what does he think editors pay the bills in? Chocolate? It’s ridiculous. “Oh sorry, I can’t pay my electricity bill this month, but I can praise you.”
Philippa: Hahahaha! I should totally try that for my next bill: “I’ve decided to pay you in praise – you are lovely!”
Lorrie: “Yeah, and there’s a Dairy Milk in the post.”
Philippa: Hahaha!
Lorrie: It’s ludicrous honestly – and he’s looking for an editor because he obviously realises that his book needs looking it. Everybody who writes needs an editor; I completely believe that. It’s just ludicrous.
Philippa: But not paying his editor – or not paying his editor – he’s really demeaning the work that editors are doing. I don’t know whether he perhaps doesn’t grasp what a big job it is – and what an important job it is, as Lorrie says. This isn’t just checking his punctuation – being a fiction editor can involve massive reworking. It does, it demeans the work that editors do.
Lorrie: Definitely. And I think I’ve got even less faith in him than you do. Because how can you not realise? As an author, if you’re putting out an advert for “experienced editors”, you know damn well those people do that for a living. You know that’s their day job, and I think this guy is exploiting the fact that so many people are competing for literary editing jobs – I think it’s absolutely disgraceful, and one point I would want to make is that – as Pip mentioned in Episode One of A Little Bird Told Me, this isn’t something you have to go through as a freelancer. You don’t have to work for free to prove your skills and to be taken seriously. You’re working, this is your day job, you’ve obviously spent time building up your skills and gaining qualifications – don’t work for free.
Philippa: Absolutely. And the context we talked about in Episode One was about low pay – we were talking about not working for insulting pay – so to suggest that someone should work for no pay is even worse than that. I mean, even if you’ve not got tonnes of experience, if you can do a good job, you deserve to be paid for it.
Lorrie: Absolutely. Another point is that he’s not even respecting his readership. He’s out there on Twitter saying he’s a best-selling author. A decent editor costs money. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys – or you should! It seems like if you pay peanuts, you get editors at the moment! If you want a freebie editor, where’s the incentive for them to do a good job? And then, he’s going selling a book that’s been edited by someone for free to his readers for $16!
Philippa: Yeah, and there’s a parallel issue as well – because self-publishing on Amazon is really easy now, it means that independent publishing has got a bit of a bad reputation because there are lots of books full of typos, bad punctuation and stories that don’t flow or just don’t work. And because of that reputation, a lot of indie authors are working really hard, genuinely, to overcome that bad reputation. And they’re doing that by making sure they employ editors and several proof-readers. But if you want someone to edit for free, that doesn’t help the reputation that indie authors have – it reinforces the idea that quality isn’t the top priority for independent or self-published authors.
Lorrie: Exactly – there are really, really differing views on indie authorship and self-publishing. There are plenty of traditionally published authors out there who say it’s basically a disgrace, and that people shouldn’t be publishing like this because look at the resources that publishing houses have to put into a book. Graphic designers are getting annoyed because people are designing their own covers, authors who’ve been published down the traditional route are getting annoyed because everybody’s calling themselves an author, and it’s people like this who are the issue. There are genuinely some talented people out there who self-publish and use that as a legitimate way to get their really decent work out there. For someone like me (I do creative writing and I do editing) to see someone like this cutting corners and thinking that the work that comes out at the end will be of the same quality.
Philippa: Definitely. As well as writers wanting editors to work for free, there are an awful lot of business owners and websites that want writers to work for free. The excuse is often “it’s really good for exposure; it’ll get your name out there.” And I think there’s an element of that with the editing as well. I think this guy thinks that somebody being in his foreword, thanked for editing his book, could launch their career. But in fact will his book launch your career? Will a website getting its content for free launch your career? It won’t.
Lorrie: No, it just won’t. If this book is going to be so magnificent, he should be paying you to edit it. If it’s not going to be that good, then why is your name being in the foreword going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone? It’s just not. But as Pip’s just said, a lot of companies actually want writers to produce content for free, as well as edit it. And this is actually a business plan for some start-up companies: they just don’t factor in the content costs at all, or they’ll make it into an ‘internship opportunity’ or a ‘volunteer opportunity’ that’s ‘great for your CV’ and it’s really, really not.
Philippa: Definitely – and some are even more sly than that, actually. They’ll go to lots of writers websites and say, “Can you send me a sample? I’m building a site on this subject. If you could write me an article on subject X, I’ll make a judgment on whether I want to hire you.” But they’ll go round lots of different writers websites asking for cleverly chosen samples and end up with a website full of content having paid nobody and having never intended to pay anybody.
Lorrie: I actually think I’ve been the victim – and I say ‘victim’ because I feel pretty cheesed off! – of someone like this recently. I can’t ascertain for sure whether this has happened, but I was asked to edit a number of academic articles, which I did – as you say, ‘for a sample’. Now, this is something you do have to expect – you have to give someone a sample, it’s not something you can avoid unfortunately. However, I sent these samples off – carefully edited – and I’ve not heard anything back. And I’ve contacted this person again, and again, I’ve not heard anything back. The project start date was supposed to be the start of September and it’s now the seventh, and I’m starting to get a little bit annoyed and to sniff out that there might have been some sneaky business going on. Time will tell.
Philippa: I think one good tip for writers is to have your own samples ready rather than writing their choice of sample. With editing though, it’s harder.
Lorrie: You can’t avoid it.
Philippa: You can’t send a good piece of work and say, “This was rubbish but now it’s good because of me!” That is trickier, I hadn’t thought of that. I know, for myself, if I’m asked for writing samples, I do have a few things in a zip file, and obviously lots of links on my website so people can see. I haven’t ever been asked for proof-reading and editing samples, so I’d never really considered it from that point of view.
Lorrie: Yeah, from the writing perspective, it’s great to have a portfolio ready so that no one can rip you off. But as you say, with editing, it’s pretty unavoidable because the subjects can vary so widely – as of course they can with writing – and people will generally just send you a sample of text and say, ‘Show me what you’d do with that.’
Philippa: Getting work for free isn’t even a great business plan from their point of view. The writer isn’t going to put their all into the task, your whole website will be written in different styles, you’re certainly not going to build a good relationship with anyone, writers aren’t going to talk highly of you to colleagues – it’s not a good plan even from the business point of view. You might get some free content in the short-term, but in the long-term it doesn’t work at all.
Lorrie: I think, a lot of the time, it’s the hallmark of a business that really just doesn’t care. Again, it’s the same as certain dodgy indie authors giving everyone a bad name – I’ve noticed a lot of start-up companies based online that basically work this in as part of the business plan. They don’t care about their suppliers – in this case, writers – they don’t care about their clients, they don’t care about the content on the website. All they want is a site that will shoot up the Google rankings because it’s got a lot of new content on it. As a writer, you have to wonder if a business like this is going to succeed and if it’s really something you want to be involved with. It seems more like a money-making scheme rather than a business that’s going to succeed long-term – and do you really want to put your name to something like that?
Philippa: Absolutely, absolutely. We understand that, quite a lot of the time, start-ups aren’t exactly rich. But the point is, if you have a business plan – especially if it’s around something like a niche website where the majority of the work is the content – and that includes money for a WordPress theme and money for SEO, then money has to also be allocated for that content.
Lorrie: Yeah. I mean, if you’ve got friends or family members who’ll write you some content for free, fine – absolutely great. Or, if you can offer someone you know something in return, say, if you write something for me, you can have this. And if they’re happy with that, again, fine. But really, if you’re looking for a professional writer or editor, paying them isn’t optional.
Philippa: Yes. Another thing I’ve seen quite a lot of is…I’ll get an email saying, ‘If you do this job for free, I’ll pay you loads for the next lot of work that we give you.’
Lorrie: Oh, “…and there’ll be loads more work coming down the tube as well!”
Philippa: Absolutely, and it never ever happens. Don’t believe it – this is a tactic to get work from you for free. If they get that work from you for free, they’ll find someone else to get the next work for free. You’ll never see them again, and certainly not to be paid.
Lorrie: No, you’re damaging your reputation. They’ll never come back to you, you’ll never be able to ask them for money and you’re damaging the market for other people – they’ll go and find someone else to trick, and ask them to work for free, and it just goes on.
Philippa: A big offender in this is Huffington Post, which is a very big website that I’m sure most people have heard of. They don’t pay their bloggers – I believe they pay their staff writers – but most of their content comes from bloggers. And recently, the site was sold for $315million, so some bloggers took them to court, and they estimated that $105million was the value of their unpaid work. One of them said, “Huffington Post is nothing without the bloggers who created the content” and I tend to agree with them, to be honest. If I click on a Huffington Post link on Twitter or something, it’s nearly always to a blog post. I try to avoid it actually, as they have really obnoxious pop-ups, but that’s irrelevant!
But yes, 9,000 writers took them to court – that’s how many people they had working for them for free. And they actually lost their case because they’d agreed in advance that they were going to write for free for a for-profit company. But I think it was still a good case to take because a lot of people weren’t aware at that point that a lot of the content they were reading from there was free. I know a number of people who blog for the UK Huffington Post now, and I’m deliberately not on principle. There’s no justification in my opinion for a website making that amount of money to not pay the people who are getting people to click.
Lorrie: No. Sometimes it’s very difficult to stick to your principles because, for example, Huffington Post is huge now – you’d love to be able to say, ‘Oh, I wrote for Huffington Post’. That being said – and it’s not really to put the blame on the bloggers – but if everyone had stood back and said, ‘No, you’re a for-profit company and I want to be paid for my work’, they wouldn’t have been able to do it. And we’re saying, we don’t know how they can justify it, well, of course they can justify it because everyone seems to be willing to work for free! The whole business plan behind Huffington Post is that people will give you free content and you make loads of money out of it – great business plan!
Philippa: Yeah, and as Lorrie said, we’re not blaming individual writers who do it. We understand that it might be good exposure to be on Huffington Post – a couple of bloggers have made it big as a result of being on there, although it’s a couple out of thousands, really, and a lot of people have probably been tricked by being sent one of those emails we talked about earlier. We’re not blaming individuals who do it; what we’re angry about is that people are asking it of us, really.
Lorrie: I think one thing I would say is that the acclaim that comes from saying you’ve written for Huffington Post is now going to have a shelf-life because now that Huffington Post has been exposed a for-profit company that resolutely does not pay its bloggers, really, where’s the struggle in getting your work on there? I wouldn’t think of someone who writes for Huffington Post, “Ooh, that person must be a really good writer” – I’d think, “Oh, Huffington Post got them too.” I’d think that they don’t really discriminate because, with free content, you can’t really sniff at it. I really would wonder now how much of a benefit there is for bloggers writing for Huffington Post. I guess that’s just my take on it.
Philippa: I think the very first bloggers probably did get very good exposure when the site got big but now, there are so many – and we’re not saying they’re not good quality, there are some great quality ones although I have seen some questionable quality ones and you do get associated with that.
Lorrie: I deliberately don’t read it because I question its ethics, to be honest.
Philippa: Yep. One option that’s sometimes offered to freelancers instead of – or as part of – being paid is revenue sharing or profit sharing, where the client might say ‘We’ll pay you 50% of your set fee but you can then share 50% of the profits’. Some say, ‘We can’t pay you anything but you can have 50% of the profits.’ And, this can be tricky for freelancers to negotiate. I was offered a revenue-sharing deal a few days ago and turned it down, for various reasons. But mainly because if a product or site or business doesn’t work, then you might be promised 50% of the profits, but if there are no profits, you’ll receive 50% of nothing, which is nothing. So, if you are looking at revenue-sharing, it’s really important to make sure that they’ve got a marketing plan in place and a decent platform to launch the product from.
There are some copywriters who will only work for a percentage of the revenue because they’ve got such faith in their sales copy, so certainly not everyone objects to this method – some people it works very well for.
Lorrie: Yeah, I think there are a lot of things to be considered. As Pip said, 50% of nothing is nothing. So, if this person or business isn’t going to make a penny, then neither are you. And what’s worse is, depending on the copyright deal you might have signed, they could walk away with the rights to the content you’ve produced, so if they come up with another business in future, they can take all your copy and you don’t necessarily get any money from that if it’s attached to a different venture and you’ve signed over the rights to it.
The profit-sharing niches that I find to be the most popular tend to be the really, really hard-sells, so things like Forex – foreign exchange trading – internet marketing products, health and fitness products. It tends to be online products for sale on marketplaces like Plimus and ClickBank, and it’s whatever suits really, in my opinion. It’s usually very, very hard-sell copy – I’ve written some before, it’s not my cup of tea but, you know, it works for some people…
Philippa: You do it very well, though!
Lorrie: Thank you!
Philippa: I’ve seen some of it, it’s very impressive!
Lorrie: It’s awful, isn’t it?
Philippa: Yes, horribly impressive! Hahaha!
Lorrie: I was really hoping you weren’t going to bring that up. But thank you! Hahaha!
Philippa: I think we have slightly differing views on how wise profit-sharing is, and I think that’s because we’ve had slightly different experiences with it. The times I’ve been approached, it’s not been by people I’ve had any good relationship with, and I think that’s where your experiences might be a bit different.
Lorrie: Yeah, I know we discussed the last deal you were offered – you have to assess every deal on its merits. If someone contacts you out of the blue, you’ve got no reputation to go off, you’ve got no relationship to base your judgment on, and their product and marketing plan doesn’t look very strong, then it’s obviously a no-no. I think my thoughts, in brief, are that profit-sharing deals aren’t usually ideal. It can work with certain niches – as I say, usually the hard-sells – and it’s better than nothing as long as it isn’t literally a percentage of nothing. In which case, it is just nothing!
Philippa: Yes. I think I’m slightly more cautious. You do have to be working with someone you’re 100% confident can make the product happen, and work, and sell. Otherwise, you might just end up doing tonnes of work for no return.
Lorrie: It is definitely a huge risk. I think the only time I’d really recommend is when you either have a long-term vested interest in the product or person, in which case the risk is that you’ll have a fall out and then what to do? Or, when the person has a good reputation for running successful product launches on online sales platforms like ClickBank. You know, you’ve heard of this person before, they’re number one in the market place. You know, a person like that can’t afford to rip you off and they generally don’t. They’re usually very, very generous as long as you can produce something that is absolutely top of that niche. And it has to be spot on. You have to be a very good, very experienced copywriter to get in with one of those people.
Philippa: Yes, and especially in the internet marketing niche, reputation is everything, so they’re not going to want to risk their reputation on one product launch.
Lorrie: No, and they’re not going to want to go with you unless you have a sturdy reputation as a hard-sell copywriter. You’re going to have to have a website set up specifically targeting someone like that, so usually it’s not the sort of thing I’d go for.
Philippa: In the past, I’ve actually seen marketers say to sales copywriters that not agreeing to profit-sharing means that they don’t have faith that they’ll write a persuasive sales letter, like, ‘If you’re going to do a great job, there’s no risk for you – so why wouldn’t you?’
Lorrie: of course, yeah!
Philippa: If nothing else, there are many more factors to a successful product launch than the sales letter itself.
Lorrie: You’re right – it’s a ludicrous assertion to make and shows no understanding of online marketing at all. If you’re launching a product on an online marketplace, there are so many things that can affect it – the mailing list, the list of people mailing out for you, the JV package – that’s your joint venture package, the incentives you’re offering other people to sell your product…
Philippa: In an affiliate…
Lorrie: Yeah, it’s affiliate marketing. Even the launch date – if it clashes with something important or there’s been something terrible on the news, it can all affect your launch.
Philippa: Yes. The design of the site, the SEO that they carry out, the product price – the list is endless really. Like Lorrie said, having a good relationship with the partner is vital because then you can have confidence that they’re going to do those things right. You can see the marketing plan before you agree to anything. And you can have faith that they’re not going to run away with the money as well.
Lorrie: Which is always nice!
Philippa: It is!
Lorrie: Although, in this field, it doesn’t seem that expecting to be paid for your work is very reasonable! Well, according to some people…
I think we’ve covered a lot of topics in a short space of time and, really, what Pip and I just wanted to drive home to all you writers, copywriters and editors is that you have to value yourself and put measures in place to make sure you get paid for the work you do, and that you’re not being taken advantage of.
Now, what I would say, to sum up, is that you should never edit a text for free if it’s a full-length manuscript. If you choose to edit a friend’s work as a favour – and I do that all the time, I have friends who do creative writing or they’ve got business websites – then that’s great. Or, as I said previously, if you have a mutual arrangement where you’re exchanging writing for something other than money – say, photography, graphic design, software design, whatever – that’s one thing. But to start giving your work away for free, that undermines what you’ve spent years learning to do and it creates an unstable marketplace for yourself and other editors. If indie authors are allowed to drive down costs to zero, then what are we going to do? You can’t suddenly start demanding money after that – you’re just going to end up with a really awkward situation where editors are expected 100% to work for free.
Philippa: Similarly with writing – you might decide to do some free or low-cost writing for a charity or a site that’s entirely staffed by volunteers, which I do, but if the person you’re writing for is making money, you should be paid. That’s all there is to it.
Lorrie: I completely agree. If you want to support a cause by volunteering time or skills, that’s no different if the skills you’re volunteering are copywriting or editing, especially if it’s a topic you feel passionately about. I’ve not been paid for my writing on feminism and, Pip, you’ve done a lot more than me. A lot of stuff on disabled activism, feminism, sexuality, for free – or not much money – but that’s your choice. No one’s expecting you to do it.
Philippa: Yes. The bottom line is that if you’re writing or editing for a living, you need to be paid for it. It’s what ‘for a living’ means, really!
Lorrie: Yes, we’re putting the ‘free’ in ‘freelance’ here.
Philippa: Because devaluing your skills does no one any favours, except perhaps the person getting the freebie, but as you said above, not necessarily. But working for free won’t pay your bills. Having your by-line on someone’s site or book also won’t pay your bills. As Lorrie pointed out, it devalues the work of all editors and writers, and creates an impossible market to work in.
Lorrie: You’re completely right. I think the last thing I would say is that – and this is for the people asking for freebies – if you’re asking someone to give you their time, effort and professional skills for nothing, you really need to take a look at yourself and your business plan. The guy I started this podcast talking about is all over Twitter, saying, ‘Support indie authors! Fill your Kindle with the work of those writing for you!’ What a bloody cheek! What a cheek!
Philippa: Absolutely. You get the best work from people you work with in equal and respectful partnerships.
Lorrie: It’s true. To openly admit on your website and on Twitter that you’re making money – $16 a book! – while offering absolutely bugger all to people who are editing your work, and whose work you actually need, it’s completely disgraceful. What’s worse, he’s tried to make out that it’s somehow cute – ‘Oh, I’ll give you chocolate and lots and lots of praise!’ – or that it’s somehow inevitable because he’s put, ‘As an indie author, I’m not paying.’ It just won’t wash. If you don’t want to get paid in chocolate, don’t offer it to your editors.
Philippa: The ‘as an indie author’ is such a weird thing to say. Does it exempt him from his rent? Or any other expense? No, it doesn’t – so he needs to pay for the editing that he wants, that he needs.
Lorrie: Exactly, it’s such a cop-out. I’m quite tempted to get in touch with him and then invoice him, saying ‘this is what I would have charged you.’ It’s ludicrous and I really don’t want other freelance writers and editors to fall for this sort of rubbish.
Philippa: I think we have two points, really, that come out of this, the first is that, if you’re a freelance writer or editor, value the work you do and charge accordingly. And the second point is that if you’re trying to get work done for free, like editing a whole novel or writing a whole website, just have a think about it. Would you do all that for free for someone else? It’s not acceptable, it’s not OK.
Lorrie: I think that pretty much sums it up – it’s not ok.
Philippa: Well, I think we’ve warned in the past that we have some strong opinions, and there go a few of them. Let us know what you think! Visit our Facebook page, which is linked to from Go to our Facebook page, tell us what you think: do you agree? Do you disagree? Have you been ripped off in the past? We want to hear your views.
Lorrie: You can also let us know what you think on Twitter – we’re both on there and the details of our accounts are on the bottom of our Podomatic page. Again, get in touch, have a chat, let us know if you’ve been ripped off or had a good come-back for someone who’s expected you to work for free.
Philippa: Definitely, and if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss the next one. You can do that on as well, all the links are there that you need. So thank you so much for listening!
Lorrie: I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…
Philippa: …and I’ve been Philippa Willitts…
Lorrie:…and we’ll hopefully see you next time!

Introducing the Writers Helping Writers Collective

Spreadsheet email

Spreadsheet email (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

Last night, on Twitter (follow me @PhilippaWrites), I got into an interesting conversation with @thewritesprite. She followed me, and I told her that I liked her username. She joked about how difficult it had been to choose one, and we started to talk about how, despite writing for other people for a living, writing for ourselves can sometimes be hard.

There are, of course, other times when another writer’s input can be very valuable – for instance it is nigh on impossible to proofread your own work. You are too involved with the text and it often takes a fresh pair of eyes to spot mistakes. And sometimes a writer can craft a catchier Twitter bio about somebody else than they can about themselves.

We talked about how great it would be if there was a way for writers to help each other out in these circumstances. My imagination took flight and now the Writers Helping Writers Collective exists.

The way it works is this:

  1. A writer joins the Writers Helping Writers Collective google group.
  2. They then have access to the WHWC spreadsheet.
  3. If a writer needs help with something, they fill in 4 columns of simple information in the spreadsheet.
  4. They then post about this to the google group (by email or on the site).
  5. Another writer, who wants to help out, goes to the spreadsheet and fills in 4 more columns of simple information.
  6. They then email the original poster directly, and the help happens.

It’s that simple. Members are asked to help out another member before asking for help themselves, although while the collective is establishing itself this won’t be enforced too strongly, because most members will be new. Overall, members are asked to help one or two people for every help request they submit.

Are you a writer who wants to join a new, exciting community? Are you aware that there are some tasks that you struggle to do on your own website? Do you want to offer help to fellow writers on small, manageable tasks?

Join the Writers Helping Writers Collective now and help to build a vibrant, co-operative community for writers online.

Episode 3 of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast: Setting up as a freelance writer: Website, social media and brand management best practice. Part 2.

Episode 3 of the freelance writing podcast which I co-host with Lorrie Hartshorn is now available to listen to!

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: We now have a transcript of the show! 

Philippa: Hi and welcome to the third episode of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast. In this episode, we will continue to discuss the issues we began talking about last week around your online presence, your social media management and managing your brand identity when you’re setting up as a freelance writer.
Do make sure you subscribe to the podcast so that you don’t miss each episode when it comes out. Visit to find out how to subscribe by RSS feed, on iTunes and on Stitcher smart radio, and also for links to the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page, as well as all the places you can find myself – that’s Philippa Willitts – and my co-host, Lorrie Hartshorn online. You’ll find links to our website, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and more.
You join us now just as we start to discuss how much time spent on social media is work, and at what stage it crosses over into play and time-wasting. We go on to talk about how to stay professional, how to cope with a PR disaster and whether you should ever delete tweets, amongst other things…
While social media is important – it’s important to engage with potential clients, and other writers for a sense of community – don’t go kidding yourself that spending eight hours in a row on Twitter is ‘working’. It’s not. It’s playing. It’s important to go on perhaps twice a day, maybe not even that often, and post a little update, reply to a few things. Some people do it twice a week – it’s fine, whatever works for you, but if you’re spending an hour, two hours, three hours, that’s fine but it’s not work.
Lorrie: Yeah, I wouldn’t 100% – shock horror, we’re not just one person! – I’m a bit of a chaotic internet user, I have about 20 tabs open at a time, you know, and I keep a few plates spinning at the same time, so I tend to be on there all day, every day. That being said, it’s not the only thing I do, it’s just open.
Philippa: Yes, I do the same – I have TweetDeck open a lot of the time. I think, what I was thinking of is just doing solid Twitter for six hours. Like you say, I know both of us are quite ‘pop in, pop out’ on it – it can be a nice little break. But yeah, if you’re doing six hours on it and nothing else, that’s fine…
Lorrie: …but you’re doing it wrong!
Philippa: You’re not working! Hahaha! As well as looking at how you behave on social media, in terms of whether you’re doing very personal updates or very professional updates, there’s also – like we said earlier – it’s social media, you need to be sociable, talking to people and being interactive, but you do have to be careful to stay professional even when you’re being fun and friendly.
Lorrie: Definitely, and I know that you manage a lot of social media feeds, Pip, and I’ve worked as a marketing person before, so I’ve done the same for a number of companies. People don’t want dry tweets – I think the key thing I found is that you can be fun and friendly, but keep it clean and non-controversial. Steer away from ideology, politics, anything a bit risqué because you don’t know how you’re going to offend.
Philippa: And that’s exactly why we have separate personal accounts, because both of us do have strong political views: we’re both feminists, we’re both quite opinionated and that’s at least partly for me – and probably for you – why I knew I had to have a separate account for work. Because I am opinionated.
Lorrie: Definitely. This is it. There are certain things I find completely unacceptable when I’m just thinking as ‘me’. When you’re thinking ‘as a business’, you have to let them go like water off a duck’s back. You have to ignore silly comments, and you can’t engage with people in the same way because people are watching you. Your time isn’t your own when you’re on the clock, is what I’m trying to say.
Philippa: Yes. Something that’s important to consider is what to do if you have some kind of PR disaster. These days, because nearly all companies are on social networks of one kind or another, if a PR disaster looks like it’s raising its head, the media and individuals go straight to Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what the company’s saying about it. And although it might be less likely that you, as an individual freelancer, will cause a massive uproar, you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s important to consider how you might handle it if something you do gets taken the wrong way and blows up in your face. There was a case, Lorrie, that you wanted to talk about, wasn’t there?
Lorrie: Yes, I picked up on something within the last months, and it was a company called BittyLab – which is, to my mind, a really unfortunate name…
Philippa: It is an odd one, isn’t it?
Lorrie: It’s a weird name, because it’s a company that sells formula bottles for babies and obviously I’m not a fan of…whatever that comedy show is called, but ‘bitty’ in England at least, is a bit of a tacky name for breast milk. But BittyLab, anyway, had gone all over Twitter and posted repeat tweets about how men could “reclaim” their partners’ or wives’ breasts from the needy new-borns. And to do this, they should stop their partners/wives from breast-feeding and buy them a BittyLab bottle! Which is just the worst idea I’ve ever seen!
Philippa: Hahaha! As marketing plans go…
Lorrie: Yeah, someone very silly signed that one off! It was terrible – there were things about ‘reclaiming your wife’s boobs’, ‘are you sick of the new-born?’, ‘feel like you’re not getting a look-in? Then buy your wife a bottle then she can stop breastfeeding!” So, it got the feminists angry, it got breast-feeders angry, it got the formula-feeders angry because that’s not why they formula feed…
Philippa: And, it got the dads angry!
Lorrie: It did!
Philippa: They were saying, “We’ve just had a baby, I’m in love with the baby, it’s incredibly hard work, I’m incredibly proud of my partner – why on Earth do you think that my priority at this stage would be reclaiming her breasts, as if I’d ever owned them in the first place!” So even the target audience [of the tweets] was quite offended that someone should think so badly of them!
Lorrie: Massively offended. It was an absolute nightmare. You’d think, with something like that, you’d delete the tweets, you’d then apologise, you’d say to people ‘we’re going to do better’, you’d take some time out and re-emerge having learnt from your mistakes.
Philippa: I do want to add there that deleting tweets is a difficult one because it’s a bit ‘damned if you do’ and ‘damned if you don’t’. If you don’t delete them, people will say ‘I can’t believe that’s still up on your feed’. If you do delete them, people will say you’re trying to cover up.
Lorrie: I think the thing to do is to acknowledge that you’re deleting them. Say, ‘We’ve deleted the tweets in question, we realise they were offensive, and we’re sorry – we’ll do better in future’. Don’t just quietly delete them.
Philippa: Yes! I agree absolutely. If you decide to delete them, if they’re really wrong to have up, then acknowledge what you’re doing. Don’t just make them disappear in the middle of the night! Because people really appreciate a real apology. I write for a feminist website and, a couple of months ago, a post went up on the blog that, for a few reasons, wasn’t up to the standards that we’d like and was actually quite offensive in slightly subtle ways, which is why it hadn’t been spotted, but in ways that were actually unacceptable to us. And we wrung our hands about it and had many discussions in a short space of time. In the end, we deleted the post with a very clear explanation about what we’d done and why, and we apologised unreservedly. What was really quite nice was that the response was incredibly positive – people were saying, ‘Wow, a proper apology! It’s not a ‘fauxpology’ (oh, we’re sorry if you were offended!)’. We very clearly said, ‘We made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened, we’re looking at the system to make sure it doesn’t happen again – We. Are. Sorry.’ And the response was overwhelmingly positive – people were saying, ‘that’s how you should do an apology!’. As long as you’re open and clear, people know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes and if you handle it openly and say, ‘I don’t know what happened, we messed up, we’ll sort it out.’ People appreciate that a lot more
Lorrie: Definitely – that’s an example of how to do it. When it came to BittyLab, they really should have taken a leaf out of that book because what they did instead was to accuse, firstly, the readers of being ‘dirty-minded’, as they put it, and making everything about sex. They then didn’t delete the tweets or respond to anyone. To be fair, they posted an apology on Facebook but, again, it was a “You’ve taken it the wrong way” sort of apology – you know, “We don’t know why you’re offended.”
Philippa: Yes, we’re sorry if you’re offended, but, really, you’re overreacting if you are.
Lorrie: Well, this is it. Things got a bit fraught, then, because when you get on social media, it can be a feeding frenzy. If people are offended by what you’ve got to say, they will let you know.
Philippa: It can blow up fast.
Lorrie: It can! By the time a real apology came out, people were so enraged by the fauxpology that they weren’t ready to accept it. And then, to make matters worse – it was the cherry on top of a particularly hideous cake – BittyLab had apologised but then went around ‘liking’ the comments from people ridiculing those who’d been offended! And it was just the worst PR disaster I’d seen in ages because this – I know we’re saying it doesn’t really happen if you’re a freelancer – this is a one or two person company that was doing extremely well. The product looked amazing.
Philippa: Yes, they really could have done well. It did look to be a good quality product, a good idea and something parents might need. But, I don’t know whether they’ve done well, but certainly that marketing campaign blew up in their faces. Even if someone in there went, ‘I know, let’s get attention by being controversial’, even that failed in the end, I would say.
Lorrie: It really did. I had a look at the Facebook page – I don’t have children, so it’s not a product I’d want to buy for myself – but there were a lot of people on there saying, ‘I would have bought this product’ or ‘I would have recommended this product to my formula/breast-feeding group, but now I’m not going to.’
The CEO of that company is very visible – she’s a part of the brand – and people joined her with the brand, and they weren’t ready to forgive her so it didn’t matter how good the product was – they just didn’t want it any more.
Philippa: If you do want to get attention by being controversial – and I don’t think that’s a good way to go about doing your marketing – don’t alienate your target audience. That’s just common sense 101, I think.
Lorrie: Definitely. There are laddish brands out there and I don’t appreciate their marketing – I find it sexist, or risqué or whatever, and I don’t think it’s the best thing to do – but at least it’s aimed at the target audience, so you can’t say fairer than that.
Philippa: There are some examples of companies who handle PR disasters really quite well by social media, and it can be worth looking at those who do it well as well as those who do it badly. Recently, in the UK, a massive mobile phone company called O2…well, it just broke!
Lorrie: Haha, there isn’t any other way to put it!
Philippa: And for a good few days, there was just no O2 network. And so people were really angry – we can’t do without our mobile phone networks – and so it was easy for people to get on Twitter and leave angry, and frankly abusive, messages to O2.
I’ve sent angry tweets to companies before and sometimes they handle it really well. I complained about a product I bought recently and I named the company I bought it from. I didn’t ‘@’ them but they clearly do a search for their own name and, within half an hour, they got back to me, said ‘If you send us your order number, we’ll take a look’ and they arranged a return there and then on Twitter. Now, what O2 did, is they were getting a load of abuse, most of which I won’t…
Lorrie: No, best not!
Philippa: …read out, but what’s interesting – and I’ll put a link in the show notes – is that they responded really well. One person tweeted, “Not going to lie, can’t wait to leave O2!”, to which O2 responded, “But we still love you!”
Lorrie: Aww!
Philippa: And others…they’re mostly not-read-out-able on air, but they responded with humour and personality and humanity to these understandably angry tweets. I’m not saying the abuse was understandable but the anger was, and someone in their PR department had clearly said, ‘This is how we’re going to deal with it.’ and it worked.
Lorrie: It did. It went all across the media – Guardian, Independent and all the tabloids – because it was fun but they didn’t try and absolve themselves of any responsibility. They knew people were angry – rather than just being repeatedly really apologetic, they injected a bit of humour, admitted there was nothing they could do about it at the time, they were really sorry and they took a few of the most controversial tweets and responded in a witty, self-deprecating way. It just got everyone on side, really.
Philippa: Yep. So if you do get criticism via social media, it’s quite public. If…and God, this would be awful…if a client was really unhappy with your work and went to Twitter or your Facebook page and said, “Such-and-such is a dreadful copywriter”, how, Lorrie, would you think that should be handled?
Lorrie: Oh, duck and cover! Go under the duvet for three days and don’t come out. No, you can’t do that. You need to establish who’s in the right for something like that. There isn’t always a right or wrong for things like that – it’s not always black and white. Firstly, I’d apologise that the person’s not happy with the service you’ve rendered to them. I’d try and establish exactly what the problem was. Invite them to contact you, probably for a phone call but at least get them on email. Above all, do not delete what they’ve put.
Philippa: So important!
Lorrie: Yes, it can look like you’re trying to censor things or, worse, that you’re trying to doctor people’s impressions of you.
Philippa: I hear so often that someone on Twitter has left a criticism on Company X’s Facebook page, took a screen shot and it’s now disappeared. People these days – or, at least the people I know! – take screenshots all the time. If you send a dodgy tweet, someone will screenshot it. If you delete someone’s criticism on Facebook, someone will have screenshot it. It makes you look bad, it makes you look evasive. It’s not nice to be criticised in public – it’s not nice to be criticised, really – but certainly not in public, it can feel embarrassing. And it’s not to say that you can’t defend yourself, or that you have to lie down and take it, especially if you really haven’t done anything wrong. But approach it carefully. Like Lorrie said, you can say, “I’m really sorry you’re so unhappy – can we take this to email so we can establish properly what’s happened and what I can do to fix it. Be open – it’s very unpleasant, but more unpleasant is what other people’s impressions would be if you tried to ‘shush’ it all.
Lorrie: And it never works – that person will then go away and spread the fact that you’ve shushed it. Like you say, you look evasive, you look like you have something to hide. One thing I would add is that, when you have resolved the issue, be open about having resolved it as well.
Philippa: Yes!
Lorrie: If it wasn’t your fault, don’t slate the other person because for whatever reason they’re cross with you, but it’s perfectly proper to say, ‘Really glad this was resolved, going to be careful in future to make sure there are no further problems, apologies to anyone who’s been inconvenienced’ Tailor it, be open about it.
Philippa: The final thing we wanted to cover about Twitter was how much self-promotion you should do. Now, especially if you have a Twitter account specifically for your professional life, obviously that will be – to varying degrees – to market yourself and the work you do. But there’s quite a careful balance that needs to be made in terms of how much self-promotion you do. Nobody’s saying ‘Do none’ because you’re running a business and need to market yourself. But, no one wants to follow that guy whose every tweet is “Check out my website [URL]” or replies to people, going, “That’s interesting! Check out my website [URL]!” Nobody wants to follow you because it’s dull, there’s no incentive to click because you have no relationship with that person.
Lorrie: This is it, if you treat people like a pot to shout things into, they’re not going to appreciate it. They’re not there to listen to you, you’re there to respond to them and attract them, and persuade them that you’re offering something they want.
Philippa: Yup. I’ve read different thresholds – I’ve read that no more than one in ten of your tweets should be self-promotional, and I’ve read that no more than one in twenty should be, so I imagine somewhere between the two is a good guideline to use. I am aware that I don’t do enough self-promotion on my Twitter account – I do a lot more posting interesting articles and responding to people, and I don’t do enough “By the way, you can hire me to write!”. But on balance, I’d much rather do that than be that annoying guy who does nothing but tell people to hire him.
Lorrie: Definitely. I think it’s fair to say I do more self-promotional tweets than you, and that’s an awkward thing to say – I feel really bad about it now! Haha!
Philippa: Well that’s it – we do! Especially British people as well, I think a lot of Americans don’t have the same hang-up about it. As Brits, we’re very awkward and embarrassed about self-promotion. And I don’t feel badly of you for doing more of it than me, I’ll say that now – I don’t think you’re a horrible person! – but it does feel awkward, which is partly why I do so little of it!
Lorrie: It definitely does. One way I tend to get around that – and I would say I do more than one in ten, simply because it’s difficult to get the balance promoting yourself enough, not promoting yourself too much and not spending longer on Twitter than you need to – so what I tend to do is make sure I tie in my promotion to responses to other people. So, it’s 100% ‘Come and look at me and my website’ but I’ll check if people are looking for a copywriter or editor on Twitter, and I’ll respond to them. Sometimes directly, with ‘Have a look at this service I offer’, but sometimes not – it’s nice to just be helpful because they’ll remember you for it.
Philippa: Definitely. Something I do, when I remember, is schedule promotional tweets in advance. So, if I write a promotional tweet that says, “Do you want your website copy proof-reading? Contact me here!” – but obviously better than that! – if I do write a tweet that seems to work, what I’ll do through TweetDeck or HootSuite is schedule for that tweet to appear in a month’s time, and then in another month’s time. Then, a few days later, I’ll do another one and schedule it for another six weeks, or eight weeks, so I don’t always have to remember to do it. There are things popping up saying ‘this is what I do, I can help you’.
Lorrie: Definitely – I agree with Pip on that one. It’s quite handy for a number of reasons. As a freelancer, you’re sometimes not in during the day and you catch up on your work during non-working hours but you don’t want to leave your tweet-feed looking like nothing’s happening and you want to target people while they’re having a sneaky Twitter break during the middle of the day, and that’s a good way to schedule your tweets.
Another good point is that, as a freelance writer, your work often involves not only copywriting, but also – for myself – literary editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, academic translations. It’s good to make sure you get a little bit of everything in, and I know that Pip has a very good way of dealing with this…
Philippa: Have I?
Lorrie: Hahaha! Yes! You do, you were saying that you focus on different lists.
Philippa: Ohhh, yes! What I’ve started doing is creating Twitter lists. I’ve always used them on my personal account but never in a very structured way. But, what I’ve been doing is adding people to mainly private Twitter lists, so they don’t know they’re on them. I do have some public ones, like Tweeters in Sheffield, and writers – but then I have private ones as well, like social media people because one of my specialisms is writing about social media, and another for media contacts, and another for copy-writers, editors and so on. There are quite a lot and, again, TweetDeck helps me manage these a lot.
And so, if I want to focus my marketing on a particular area, say I want to spend the next two weeks really focusing on social media writing, as well as focusing on my general feed, I can make a real effort to just follow the tweets from my social media list, which has influential people, great contacts in social media. So I can spend time specifically talking to, interacting with and learning from those people, which is very important especially with something like social media writing where the game changes every day. You need to stay on top of all the latest news, and it’s a great way to do it.
Lorrie: I definitely agree. I don’t do so much in the way of social media work, but what I do do is literary editing, as you know. And I have an extremely long couple of lists, one of which is literary journals and publications so I know when deadlines are coming up for things like that. The other is for self-proclaimed fiction writers, who could potentially need some help making sure their submissions are word-perfect coming up to those deadlines.
Philippa: Yes. That’s it, and if you are specialised in some way – and something like literary editing is quite specialised – sending out general tweets about literary editing isn’t very targeted. And so, it’s good to have a specific area where you can be aware of who tweets a lot, who has a lot of followers, who interacts a lot – that kind of thing is very important to get the hang of.
Lorrie: Definitely. And this feeds into a point that you just made: you do need to know the movers and shakers. As you pointed out, you can learn from people and, on Twitter, you can specifically learn which influential hash-tags people are using. I find that, in literary circles, there’s flash fiction, or short stories, or nano-fiction, or micro-fiction – there are all different types of niche fiction, and there are different movers and shakers for each of these hash tags. You start to get a feel for those, if you follow lists.  So, it’s something I’ve learnt from Pip, and it’s something I’d definitely recommend. If you have a look on Google, there are some really good tools – I use TwitListManager and Tweepi, and that helps me to not only manage my lists, but to follow people back who are following me, or it’ll help me flush out people who haven’t been active for a while. Very, very handy tools.
Philippa: The other good tool you can use on Twitter…Twitter searches have improved a lot over the last 12 months or so. You can do a search and save it. And for a while, I had a search running for the phrase ‘call for submissions’, and another for ‘call for contributions’, and they were brilliant. I got loads of leads about places that were looking for specific things. I ended up dropping them, just because they were vast. There were loads of tweets all the time on those, which is great, but it made it quite difficult to manage. So I occasionally re-do that search and have a look. But, if you’re looking for something like that, saving a search can be a really good way of keeping your eyes open.
Lorrie: I think if you combine a saved search with your favourites…because no one really seems to know what favourites are for on Twitter. On my personal account, they’re kind of like ‘liking’ someone’s post on Facebook – it’s like, ‘Yes, I’ve seen it, I think it’s good but I have nothing further to contribute!” Haha, it’s polite, isn’t it?
Philippa: The way I use it, and I know a few other people who use it like this: if I’m out and about, or if I’m busy, I’ll favourite a tweet to tell myself to look at it later. And that’s quite unfortunate because of the association with Facebook likes because someone might post, “Check this link out for a horrific story of a gory murder!” and you’re like, “Yes, I’ll favourite this!”
Lorrie: Oh God, yes, I hadn’t thought about it like that!
Philippa:  So quite often, I’ll favourite and then reply to the person, saying, “That’s a ‘check this later!’ favourite, not a ‘brilliant story!’ favourite.” And often, I get a reply going, “I do the same, don’t worry!”
Lorrie: I hadn’t even really thought about it like that, and I’m both really glad and really sad to know that. Obviously, on my personal account, I will have favourited pretty traumatic articles about politics, murder, rape, what have you, for the feminist stuff, and it’s good to know I’ve been favourited it all! Really nice!
To just nip back for a second to what I was saying about searches, is that you can just go down the search results, and if there’s anything you want to come back to later, pop a favourite on it and then I transfer everything that I want to refer to later into an Excel file. And yes, it’s time-consuming but you’re skimming off useful information from Twitter and it really works for me.
Philippa: Before I became a full-time freelancer, I’d never used a spreadsheet. Since I became a full-time freelancer, spreadsheets run my life!
Lorrie: It’s a whole new world of joy, isn’t it?
Philippa: I know how I coped without them – it was because I didn’t have to deal with 100 things at once – but spreadsheets still scare me; I still look at them and think, “Oooh, I don’t like that.” But I couldn’t do it without them.
Lorrie: No, I started off with one, which was for invoicing, and now it’s got tab, after tab, after tab. You need to keep data, as we said last time, you need to keep track of your admin, your invoices, your ongoing work…
Philippa:…if you’re doing marketing, you want to keep a note of who you’ve already contacted so you don’t do it again.
Lorrie:…tweets that work, tweets that don’t work, submission dates, publication details, contact details…Yeah, I think it’s something for another podcast!
Philippa: One thing I’ve done is make a spreadsheet with lists of certain things I can do if I have a certain amount of time.
Lorrie: Brilliant, love it.
Philippa: So, the first column is for if I have five to ten minutes, like schedule a few tweets, find a company that looks interesting, that I might want to contact. The next one is 15 minutes, so perhaps reply to an email. Then 30 minutes, then an hour. And, then two hours. If I get overwhelmed, I get a bit like, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!” And I can open the spreadsheet and say, ‘Right, I have 15 minutes,’ and just get some ideas. Every day, I’m adding things to the list as I think of them, and it’s really helping. I’m being much more productive in those kind of ten-minutes-before-a-phone-call moments. It’s easy time to waste, but instead I have a whole list of things I can do in ten minutes.
Lorrie: Exactly. You could even break it down further – because I’m totally going to go and do this…
Philippa: Do it, honestly, I’m finding it so helpful!
Lorrie: I think it would be helpful for me to delineate the copy-writing, copy-editing, literary editing, marketing consultancy – have the time slots for all the different services I provide. It could be really, really helpful.
Philippa: And all these things – any ideas we give you – we’re not saying, “Do this in this way!”, we’re saying , “This works for me.” Like, I said that, but Lorrie said, “Oh, that would work for me but I’d do it a bit differently.” And, you might be listening and think, “That might work for me, but not in that way – how could I do it?” We’re not saying you must use TweetDeck and make lots of lists – we’re just giving ideas and inspiration, and techniques that we find really helpful. We’re all learning all the time – however long you’ve been doing this, you’re always learning. And if you hear something that sounds like it might be useful, give it a go and let us know. You might come up with a third kind of spreadsheet, with five minute slots – we want to know, that would be really interesting.
Lorrie: It’s always nice to find out. One of my favourite things on Twitter, just to sum up, really, is when someone tweets you, and you’ve almost forgotten them because you just did a little piece of work for them a while back. I had someone tweet me today and say, “Do you know what, what you did for me was really helpful.”
Philippa: Aww, that’s lovely!
Lorrie: I know, you’re like, “Hi! Hello!” And this person’s actually searched me out on Twitter to let me know.
Philippa: Yeah, because your professional account is reasonably new, isn’t it? So they’d have had to look you up.
Lorrie: Definitely. And I don’t think it’s something that someone would email you to say, just 140 characters of “Really appreciated it, well done, good job.”. What I will say is that you should retweet something like that, too. To sum up, celebrate your achievements. You don’t have to be obnoxious, but you can be happy. Be happy, have a personality and get to know your social media networks.
Philippa: Yep. I agree.
Lorrie: Brilliant!
Philippa: Well, thank you, Lorrie!
Lorrie: Thank you, Pippa!
Philippa: And that was the A Little Bird Told Me podcast. We really hope you’ve enjoyed it – come to and make sure you subscribe in whatever way suits you. Like us on Facebook and, underneath that, I’ll put link to the O2 Twitter info, and I’ll put links to both Lorrie’s and my personal sites and Twitter accounts and all those things you might want. So, come along, find us, say hi, and thank you for listening!