Podcast Episode 40: What to do when you run out of ideas, AKA what Pippa Middleton’s bum can teach us about finding writing inspiration

Every writer, at some stage or another, gets hit by a sudden lack of ideas. It’s depressing and can even be frightening, but there are ways to jolt your mind back into thinking creatively again. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I discuss several tips and tricks you can use to reboot your creative mind and shake writers’ block off for good.

Show Notes

Quora

Google Alerts

The guy who got a job by targeting PPC ads to vanity searches

The guy who lost his entire Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter presence in 15 minutes after his password was hacked

Limit Login Attempts free WordPress Plugin

Featuring the hat stuck in the tree story: 47 Hilariously Underwhelming Local News Headlines

Safestyle Windows Secret Door

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Transcript

LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 40 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.

Freelancing is tough, and it can be a really lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself  working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years straight.

To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of linksydinks and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….

PW: And I am Philippa Willitts. Today we are going to talk about what to do when you run out of ideas to write about. You may have a complete blank and have no ideas at all, or you may have decided on, or been given, a topic, but you just have no inspiration about how to approach it. If you do primarily commercial work, you might get given subjects and write to order, so think this doesn’t apply, but at some point you might well find yourself in a position where you can suggest things to write about to your clients. In this case, you will need a steady stream of ideas. Or you might write for magazines or newspapers, in which case you will need to generate constant ideas to pitch to them. Once you get known, editors might approach you with a story, but until then – and in most cases – you need to do all the legwork of planning stories yourself.

LH: Totally. And when you write for a living, it can be surprisingly easy to hit a wall. Writer’s block, creative burnout, whatever you want to call it, it affects every writer I know – as Pip says, no matter which subject they tackle and which area they work in. It’s a part of the job, which is why it’s important to have some go-to techniques when “uninspiration” strikes!

Writer's Block... Why bother...

Writer’s Block… Why bother… (Photo credit: Arnett Gill)

PW: Exactly. You will have times when you have so many ideas that you can’t write them down quickly enough, but you will invariably also have times when it seems there is nothing interesting in the world at all. We are going to look at some different situations that you might find yourself in, and go through some suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.

LH: If you’re writing for your own website or marketing activities – say, you’re blogging or fulfilling or searching out guest blogging opportunities, you’ve got a certain level of freedom when it comes to getting inspired. You can decide what’s appropriate and what isn’t, and if it gets to a point where you really need some content on your blog, you can feel free to mine the subjects you find interesting or easy to write about. If, on the other hand, you’re writing for a client or an external platform, you’ll need to bear in mind any limitations or conventions that will apply when you consider the tips we share in this episode.

PW: Yes, because you might know your general subject area really well but find it hard sometimes to find an angle that makes it worth writing about. If you write about a particular subject, you can quickly get to the end of your ideas for that subject. If you’re writing for a third party, the amount of flexibility you have in the subject will very much depend on who you are writing for, how much they trust you to provide good subject ideas, whether or not you’ll start sneaking in photos of hunks to otherwise innocuous news stories, and that kind of thing.

LH: One thing that you can get away with on your own platforms occasionally – although not too often – is the trusty opinion or commentary piece. Spotted something on social media that made you completely furious, or made you laugh out loud, why not write a short blog post on that – something quite flippant and humorous? You won’t need to research too heavily and you can be a little freer in terms of tone.

Obviously, this is something to consider doing when you’re writing under your own name, rather than if you’re ghost-writing. Of course, you can do an opinion piece for a client, but you’ll need to make absolutely sure that you have a good handle of the client’s official line on the subject you want to write about and full clearance – preferably in writing – to go ahead with anything that might be in the slightest bit controversial.

PW: Yeah. The frequency at which you can get away with opinion writing does depend very much on the niche you work in. If opinion writing is where you earn most of your money, then fill your blog up with it! If you are strictly a copywriter in the insurance industry, then probably not so much at all.

LH: Absolutely – if you’re a commercial copywriter in the B2B sector, for example, it’s going to be OK to have a few bits and pieces about writing, copywriting, marketing etc. but you’re going to want to showcase mostly informative pieces that will appeal to commercial clients and prospects.

PW: Yup. In terms of where to get ideas, Lorrie just mentioned social media, and that can be a great way to find topics to write about. The people you follow will probably already be posting about your areas of interest, which is why you follow them, so seeing what is being talked about today can give you that spark you need.

LH: Definitely – and that’s one more reason to be discerning with your social media following rather than falling into a trap that many businesses find themselves in: following as many people as possible in a bid to attract mutual followers. If you resist this urge and follow people who have something to say about the sectors you work in or the subjects that interest you, it’ll be such a valuable mine of information – both for general knowledge and, as Pip points out, for times like this when you need some inspiration rather than just a tweet-feed full of people going “Please follow me! Please retweet me!”.

PW: Long-term listeners will know that Twitter lists are one of my favourite things. They really help me manage the people I follow and they’re also a good way of getting ideas – I have lists for top social media, SEO and media people. So if I need to write a blog post about SEO, I go to my SEO list, which cuts out even the people who are generally relevant but who aren’t relevant right now.

LH: And Twitter lists are also a really good way to see exactly what people are talking about and to make sure you’re not selling old news.

PW: Oh yes, definitely.

LH: You can actually use a tool we’ve mentioned before, called Topsy. It’s something we’ve mentioned before so we won’t go into it here, but on Topsy, you can search for blog and social media posts across various platforms that cover a certain topic. Again, it’s pretty much what Pip’s just described with her Twitter lists – it’s just a good way of searching for topics of interest to you.

PW: Brilliant! And speaking of blogs, following the blogs of the industry leaders and the people you respect can also provide ideas ripe for the picking. Is everyone talking about a news story but there’s an angle that nobody’s covered? I know sometimes I’ll read four different reports about a new social media innovation and think, “But why has no one mentioned X, Y and Z?” Make yourself the person to do that.

LH: Yes, and that leads me on to thinking that, if you’re not the person to cover that angle but you spot someone else doing it, it’s another way to get a quick refresh on your blog – if you’ve had a post sitting there just a bit too long, for example – you can share material you’ve found elsewhere and make a comment on it. Obviously don’t share it if they’re your direct competitor! But say, for example, am not particularly au fait with technical writing. Say I spot a writer who’s done a brilliant job at writing about an industry development, I can share part of that post on my blog and link to the rest of it.

PW: Yes, round-up posts are really popular in every niche, really.

LH: Yes, and you have to be careful not to reproduce too much copyrighted content. Quote people, and a good way is to take a screenshot of what that person’s written and then link and attribute clearly and add your own thoughts. Say why you liked or didn’t like about it. And another thing that’s really great for this, that’s infographics.

Infographics are really quite new, they boomed in 2013. They’re full of interesting titbits, easily digestible information, and they’re colourful and attractive things to share on blogs. Every infographic will have information on it about the author and the site on which the graphic was originally featured – those things are there specifically because these types of media are supposed to be shared.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with posting something on your blog, saying, “Found this really interesting because A, B and C…” and then popping a link back to the site you got it from. It shows you’re reading widely, it gives visitors to your platforms material of value and it can actually be a helpful way to build contacts in your sector, particularly if you let people know via social media that you’ve shared the material.

PW: Yes, I got a tweet the other day, which said, “We’ve done a round-up of our favourite posts on a certain subject” and there was a list of posts, including one of mine. So I retweeted it because it’s good for people to know I’m being quoted elsewhere, but for them too – they get clicks, retweets and everyone benefits.

Often when businesses want you to write blog posts for them, or if you write your own blog, the best topics are answers to the questions that people are commonly asking. I know on my personal blog, which these days is rarely updated, I still get hits from people searching for particular answers. Years ago, I got a particular virus on my computer and I Googled how to fix it, but there was no information because I was one of the first people to get it – how exciting! – so when I solved it, I wrote a blog post on how to do it, and five years on, I still get hits for people for that search term.

And so, if you write about social media and you can answer something that people search for a lot – for example “how to get an RSS feed for a Twitter account since the latest update”

LH: And even include a date in there, as well.

PW: Yes! Something I do quite a lot is go to the places where people ask questions. The first place I check is Quora, which is a question and answer site where people really take time to give very in-depth responses to any manner of questions. It may be that somebody has just asked a question that I think would be perfect for my blog, so I instantly have an idea. The second place I look, to find out what people want to know, is discussion forums. Either general or subject specific ones, depending, but a look through the subject headings gives you a clear idea of what people really want to know.

LH: Brilliant set of ideas – if you answer key questions that people are searching for answers to, and you’ve not only come up with an engaging idea for a post, but you’re targeting really good keywords and phrases. And as you’ve pointed out, Pip, five years on, you’re still reaping the benefits.

Another point to add to that is that it’s not just the questions people are asking that make ripe content for blog posts, but also the stories people are talking about. I have subscriptions to the newsletters from all the major trade press publications in my clients’ industries – everything from property to plastics recycling to cosmetics to compliance schemes. And although it’s a lot of reading, I know as soon as something big happens and I can advise my clients to post something about it (or let me post something about it, more to the point!) so that it’s clear they have their finger on the pulse. Again, this is not just great for readers, but for SEO purposes as well.

One of my clients got a promotional back link from The Guardian this morning as a direct result from SEO copywriting that was done for them.

PW: Yes, because these kinds of posts are great for SEO is so many ways. I’ll try and give a quick summary, just because it’s come up so many times. Firstly, Google and other search engines like regular updates on a website. If a site isn’t updated, it loses its ranking, generally speaking. Also, you’re using long-tailed key words and phrases, which is when people search for a phrase or sentence, rather than a word. And if you can get those in, they have lower competition in the search results but tend to have higher conversions. However, with that in mind, something I learned the other day is that 17% of Google searches have never been searched for before.

LH: Oh wow, that’s really interesting! Surprisingly high. Another good way to keep your finger on the news pulse is to set up a whole load of Google Alerts for subjects of interest. Now if you haven’t done this already, do it – it’s content searching 101. Slap on the wrist for you, it’s one of the most simple things out there. For anyone that doesn’t know how to set up a Google alert, come out of your cave and into the beautiful age of internet.

Go to google.com/alerts, type in a search query and decide what kind of news you’d like to read about with that search term in it – you can go for just news, or anything, or blogs. It’s really simple and you’ll get a notification to your inbox (and you don’t have to be with Google Mail, you can do it with any email) every time something with that search term is published. If you chose a search term that’s very common, and have the news delivered immediately, or you can choose to get a digest of the news periodically so you’re not spammed. It’s just another good way to keep on top of all the latest current events.

I’ve stuck a Google Mail filter on my Google Alerts – now this is specific to Gmail, so if you’re in Hotmail, thinking, “I DON’T HAVE A GMAIL FILTER!”, then this is why. So yes, my Google alerts are set to skip my inbox, be marked as read and be put into a little folder, so I can dip in and out when I want.

PW: Definitely! I had an experience with Google Alerts this week that really proved their use.  Because I write opinion pieces, you can come in for hassle and abuse, and I have a Google Alert set up for my name so I know if anyone says something nasty (or nice!). Earlier this week, I got a Google Alert telling me I’ve been named as one of the most influential disabled people in Great Britain.

LH: Hurrah!

PW: Hurrah! Without Google Alerts, I still wouldn’t know and it’s rather nice to know, however bewildering it is!

LH: I think that’s wonderful. Although this week, I’m not a big fan of Google Alerts! Because, listeners, Pip emaileme to say, “Ooh, I did this whole Google Alert thing and I’ve found out I’m one of the most influential people in Britain!” and because the words “Google Alert” were in the email, poor Pip got filtered away and I didn’t respond for about ten hours. So poor Pip was there, celebrating alone and not very influential in my inbox at all! So yes, be careful to check your Google Alerts!

PW: Yes, I’ve made sure to include the words Google Alerts only if they’re in the subject. But yes, my first few were quite dodgy as well, so don’t worry.

LH: It’s the first time it’s happened. I just kept thinking, “I’m sure I had an email from Pip, but it was nowhere to be found. And of course I wasn’t going to check Google Alerts for you, was I? But no, there you were! So sorry about that!

PW: Actually, if you are a freelancer, it’s a good idea to set up a Google Alert for your name. It may be that a client recommends you on a forum – that’s the kind of thing you might never know otherwise, but if you do find out it’s a lovely confidence boost.

LH: Or the other way round – if someone says, “Never hire this person, they did A, B, C” – it might be true, it might not, but at least you have the right to reply there.

PW: That’s it – or if someone tweets what you’ve written, you might not see that otherwise. It can be an ego thing sometimes, but often it just seems like a sensible thing to do if you’re running your own business.

LH: I don’t think many people out there who can say they don’t Google themselves – so why not set up a Google Alert and it’ll do it for you?

PW: A few years ago, there was a man desperately trying to find a job and failing. A lot of people have copied it since, but he was the first. He used the fact that everyone Googles themselves once in a while, and he created a pay-per-click ad that would only appear when the names of the top guys at Apple, Google, Facebook etc googled themselves. So it was a very low-cost ad, because not many people googled “Larry Page” for example, and certainly no one would click on it. So he created an ad saying, “Hey Larry – or whoever – hire me!”

And it led through to a job request and he was offered a job because of it. He got a bit of publicity for it, so I bet there are loads of ads doing the same. You want to be the first person doing something like that, because it worked incredibly well.

LH: Ground-breaking. And no wonder he did so well.

PW: It might be that you’ve done your Google Alerts, looked through your blog subscriptions and read every tweet for the last hour. Rather than desperately trying to find something new, there are other ways of getting a new story written.

LH: Definitely. For one of my clients, I produce a large number of stories every week on very specific industrial topics. And although I usually manage to find 30-40 news stories each week, sometimes I do need some help and I go in-house. And what I’ve done for that is created an article submission form for the client to fill out – it’s just a list of simple questions as though I were interviewing the client: what’s the story about, when did it happen, who was involved, who’s the target audience – that kind of thing.

PW: …quote from someone…

LH: Yes, and I do the same thing for press releases. And I’ll send that over to the client sometimes to try and get some internal news from them. It’s nice to have something that reflects their corporate social responsibility, their commitment to the environment, and charity – a bit of human interest, which is really important for B2B clients. OK, people want to talk about technology, industry developments etc, but they still want to know who’s behind it.

PW: Definitely, because even if it’s B2B, there’s still a person at that business who’s reading it. You might be trying to attract business from another business, so human interest is always good to incorporate! It’s easy to dismiss B2B as entirely technical or financial or whatever, but that’s a mistaken approach.

LH: One slightly sneaky way to find something to write about is to go through material that you’ve already written for the client and see if you can build on something you’ve already written or researched.

PW: Yeah, and as Lorrie says, that can be sneaky, but that’s only really if your aim is to minimise your workload, but if you do it correctly, and truly do provide a new story with that as a basis or inspiration, then it can be good practice. In a lot of commercial sectors, things are very repetitive! So a new angle can be just what is needed, even if it’s an old subject.

LH: Yes, you need to be very careful to make sure – as Pip says – that you’re not short-changing a client. If only because you won’t get away with it! As a copywriter, you can produce 40 beautiful original posts a week, and get nary a word, but when a client’s not happy, you’ll know immediately. Even if there’s just a comma out of place – which there never is in my writing, thank you very much! – they’ll let you know.

But yes, this particular tip is really for those times when, say, you need a blog post to be written and submitted by tomorrow and you’ve exhausted your other inspiration options. Have a think about how you can do it without producing something substandard.

For example, one subject that both Pip and I write about (and around) is health and safety. So say, for example, that I’ve written a blog post for a client on health and safety at work, with a focus on fork lift trucks. I might decide to do a similar piece on working on mobile elevated platforms. And there’s no need to be sneaky about it – you could make the posts into a series of informative features.

Building on that idea, this is another way to change things up a bit when you write regular content for a client: deviate slightly from the style of writing you normally produce for them. If you normally cover current industry events, write a news story about something that’s happening in-house. If you normally cover what’s happening in-house, go the other way and do a summary of a few big stories that are in the trade press currently. Do a comment piece, or a feature, or something light-hearted, or some tips from your client to customers in their sector: just think outside your normal parameters.

PW: Yes. I have a client I write a couple of posts for every week. Normally, they’re very technological – the ins and outs of pay-per-click, or a particular SEO technique, but once in a while, we’ll do something more like a news report. Mix it up a bit, have a story with a different tone. It brings a freshness to you and them, and their content.

LH: Yes, and showcase your client’s different sides. If your writing ends up being a bit paint-by-numbers, it can switch readers off. Changing things up is always a good thing, as long as your client’s OK with it!

When I’m feeling uninspired, one of the most intimidating things is a blank page. And while it’s not OK to self-plagiarise (and yes, rewording something ever-so-slightly and passing it off as original material is definitely self-plagiarising!), it’s OK to take inspiration from your previous work – or indeed, from the work of others.

Now, if you’re getting inspiration from other people, it’s important to be respectful and not get too close. Have a read through what’s there and summarise the key points or structure. Paste those notes into a new file and build from there – having a framework to support your poor tired mind as it struggles to write a blog post or news article can be just the prop you need.

 

crumpled paper - writers block

PW: Yes, I totally agree. I’m another one who finds blank pages intimidating, so if I can get down anything, it breaks the spell a bit and enables me to get going. Write notes, write ideas, write a plan, write about how awful it feels to not be able to write something, but get something down, some ink on the paper or some words on the screen, and you will start to flow.

LH: Yup. I find notes less intimidating than the first sentence of something. You’re more than likely to just delete that and end up with a blank page again. Bullet points are an absolute life-saver. As is the copy-and-paste function! And this is where you have to be careful not to be lazy, greedy or overly tired. If you copy and paste information from somewhere else, make sure it’s in a different font or colour, so you know exactly what’s yours and what isn’t.

But yes, get some information on that page – even if it’s just pasted from a website you’re looking at – and you might well feel far less intimidated.

PW: Yes, as long as you take precautions to make sure you don’t plagiarise…if you plagiarise even accidentally, it’s your client who’s liable – they’ll get in trouble, as will you, so be really careful.

LH: Absolutely. It can be so easy to delete loads of stuff and miss one paragraph and switch everything to Arial, you might not spot it.

PW: Yes, it’s easy to do, so take as many precautions as possible.

LH: Another way to take inspiration from previous work is to do what I’d call an inverse selection – bit of a Photoshop term, there! – with a piece you’ve already written. What I mean by that is using the negative space around something you’ve already written. I’ll explain that a bit more: if you’ve done loads of research for, and written a piece about  the top six rules for writing copy about stock exchange trading bots, why not write a post about the top six don’ts for stock exchange trading bots? That kind of thing – you have a lot of the work in place, but you’re producing entirely new material.

PW: Yes, this is something I’ve done too. If someone wants one in-depth article on a subject I need to do a lot of research for, you might as well get more use out of that. So if a client wants one article about getting rid of migraines, you will also know about migraine causes, myths and misconceptions, pros and cons of certain treatments, so pitch those ideas elsewhere.

LH: Good point!

PW: What I do, if no one at that point wants those stories, I write them up and submit them to Constant Content. It’s nothing like copying the original article – there’s no relation really – but I’m also not wasting all the work I’ve done.

LH: Yes, very good idea actually. And what that makes me think of really, is if you’ve done loads of research on, let’s say migraines again, but your client only wants a 500-word article on the subject, by the time you finish your post, it might be 1,100 words. That’s 600 words spare, and you can use that content elsewhere to build another article.

LH: If you do submit these kinds of similar topics to the same client, you’ll need to spread these things out, but you’re effectively producing a mirror image of the post you’ve already written without replicating the content itself.

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber (Photo credit: cukuskumir)

PW: Yes, it’s really transparent if you have four blog posts in a row that are the same! But if you split them up and intersperse them, that works. A lot of the big blogs will take a really common subject and do a (quite often annoying!) topical angle on it. But say Justin Bieber does something, you just know that, the next day, there’ll be a blog post on “What Justin Bieber can teach us about Content Marketing!”

LH: Oh, I hate that so much!

PW: Me too, but it’s good for SEO and it’s basically link bait. Someone sees it on Twitter and they’ll click. It’s the same content but tenuously linked to something topical. “What Kim Kardashian’s latest pair of shoes can teach us about migraine treatment!” I think it’s clear that neither Lorrie nor I are particularly fond of this, but it is another option depending on your platform.

LH: I’m trying to imagine my clients faced with an article about what Kim Kardashian has to say about waste management, “What Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy fashion has to say about compliance!”

PW: “What Pippa Middleton’s bum tells us about working at height on a ladder!”

LH: She’d probably bounce!

PW: You know, the day of the royal wedding, I was on Twitter and I spent the whole day watching people say, “Wow, isn’t Pippa’s bum wonderful?” and I’d respond and say, “Oh, thank you!”

Now, quite often, however, finding inspiration is nothing to do with getting Google Alerts on your core topics, or analysing discussion forums. Sometimes it’s more about injecting some creativity into your life, or taking your mind off work altogether. People don’t envisage professional writers sitting at a desk at a computer all day, filling out spreadsheets, and it’s really not a natural state to be in, especially if you’re creatively mind as most writers are. It can kind of sap your soul, and sometimes the reason you can’t think of anything is because you need an injection of something really inspirational, not more of the same.

LH: Definitely. As you say, it can be soul-sapping to sit there facing the same wall, writing the same things – often complex things – over and over. You need to concentrate and be fresh in your mind to make sure you don’t make silly mistakes.

PW: Something like reading a novel, going to an art gallery, or going for a walk in a park might seem unrelated to a lot of the reality of writing for a living, but sometimes it’s just what we need. There’s a well-known phenomenon where people have their best ideas in the shower, and that’s because their mind is away from work, they are thinking about random things, and suddenly inspiration will strike. Sitting and trying to force an idea can be a really pointless task, whereas taking yourself away from it, even for an hour, can replenish your mind and leave you full of ideas.

LH: Yes, even if it’s not for hours – if it’s just a 15-minute stomp around the block. It’s nice to get out and get some inspiration, or just some fresh air. You feel a bit more alive, really.

PW: Definitely. So, sure, the Picasso exhibition isn’t directly related to your copy for a packaging company, and your press release for a local butchers doesn’t have any direct connections to your favourite author’s latest novel, but something in them can spark the ideas you need. It can be the tiniest thing that gives you the angle or the topic you have been looking for, but if you really feel drained and tired and uninspired, then do something totally different for a few hours. You need an element of creativity even in the most mundane of writing tasks, so don’t neglect that need for the sake of corporate staying at your desk attitude.

LH: That’s a really good point to finish on, really. We’re freelancers, and our working style can be very different. For most of us, a guilt-free embrace of freelance working style is a really good thing. Breakfasts, brunches and lunches with friends. I like working in cafes, going to the library, being out and about. And it’s part of being a freelancer. I work evenings sometimes, admin on weekends, finance tasks… So if you find you’re uninspired a lot of the time, do something about it – you’re in charge. Just because you’re out and about doesn’t mean you’re not working. You’re your company and you have to keep happy and healthy!

PW: Yes! I used to go to a co-working space for half a day a week. I liked the change of scene, but sadly that closed last year. By about February, I was really feeling the lack of it. Periodically now, I book half a day or so and go and work in a café or bar. And I do exactly the same work on the same computer, but there’s something about working in a new environment that just refreshes me a bit.

So yes, much as there are many practical ways to find new inspiration, don’t limit yourself. We’re creative people. Even if much of what we write is commercial, you still need creativity to make it good. Don’t dismiss the need for creative outlets and creative inlets to give your brain a boost!

LH: So, really hope you’ve found this episode helpful and useful. If you have any thoughts, come and have a chat to us on Facebook or social media –all the links are on alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. We’re friendly and receptive – for the most part! – so come and have a chinwag.

So, now it’s time for that weekly joy-fest that is the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week! Philippa, over to you!

PW: Thank you, Lorrie in the studio! A couple of months ago, I wrote some really in-depth articles on internet security, particularly passwords. And what I learned during my research scared me to death. The speed and efficiency with which people can crack passwords is really frightening – a tech writer basically had his whole life deleted in about 15 minutes, which made me totally neurotic. And then, last week, I couldn’t get access to the back end of my own website, which scared me because I knew there were bot attacks happening on WordPress sites.

Fortunately, what had happened is that my host had seen a lot of these bot attacks happening and they’d limited everyone’s access to everything. Because what these bots were doing was trying to log in under every possible username and password combination, so my host had taken precautions. All I needed to do was let them know my IP address and they unblocked me.

There have been a lot of WordPress hacks recently – not because there’s anything wrong with the platform, just because a lot of people use it. I did some more research and what I found is my recommendation this week: a free plugin for WordPress, called Limit Log-in Attempts. What these bots are doing is just automating passwords and try, and try, and try to log in to your account. By default, they get into some.

What this plugin does is limit the number of retries. You can customise it and decide how many attempts you want to have. The default settings are that, after four failed attempts, it blocks for 20 minutes and after four blocks, it locks for 24 hours. So this is a free plugin, called Limit Log-in Attempts, and, amongst other general security measures, it looks to me like a really good way to protect yourself. I’ve seen it recommended on other blogs, too.

LH: Definitely, it sounds brilliant. And it’s something I’ll be installing.

PW: The technology and effort people put into breaking into accounts is phenomenal.

LH: And often for no good reason – sometimes just to be malicious. So even if you think, “My website’s small and uninmportant.” it doesn’t matter.

PW: Yes, they’re not choosing big sites to target – it’s a blanket attack. Even if they can get onto a tiny website and add links to their site from it, they’ll do it.

LH: Brilliant recommendation, and as I say, one I’ll take on. I feel quite frivolous now! “After that shocking report from Philippa, on to the weather!” There’s Pip keeping the world safe, and here’s my story on a cat getting stuck in a tree!

PW: You’re the “And now, finally…!”

LH: My recommendation for this week build on what we’ve been talking about this week. Here in England, it’s often quite rainy and horrible. So getting out and about can be tough – my recommendations are to help you get out and about when you can’t. These are inspiration tools for fiction writing. Now they’re not specifically designed as fiction writing tools, but I use them for that and I know a lot of people who do the same.

The first is called “the secret door” and, weirdly, it’s on a double-glazing website called SafeStyle UK. It’s a cute little white door that, when you click on it, takes you to a random view from somewhere in the world – you could be in the middle of a rainforest, you could be in the Antarctic, in a fairground, a sweetshop, and you can click until you feel inspired.

PW: To give SafeStyle Windows their due, this is content marketing – I can see this being handy if you just like having a five minute break.

LH: Yes, and another site I use is MapCrunch.com, which provides you with a random Google Maps street view. You can explore – it has the same functionality as Google Maps – and I’ve used it as inspiration for short stories. It’s brilliant when you’re stuck in the same room and you’re not inspired by the bed, or the wardrobe, or the desk, or your desk chair…and much as you can try going out and find something new, it’s not always feasible, so these are my recommendations this week.

PW: It reminds me of those live feeds in enclosures in zoos – I had a phase where any free moment was spent watching penguins – watching these little things bumble around was lovely. And it takes you somewhere else if you’re stuck at your desk. Sometimes, you don’t have time for a walk. These things can just take you somewhere else.

LH: Yes, they’re a bit of a hack when it comes to ‘getting out’, but it’s OK to be a baby sometimes. It’s OK to watch a panda falling off a log. It’s nice and it’s good de-stress time.

PW: Definitely, that’s a great idea Lorrie! So, that concludes episode 40 – wow!

LH: Phwoar!

PW: We hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you want to see any of the links we’ve talked about, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, everything’s linked there. Come and say hi, subscribe and tell all your friends. I’ve been Philippa Willitts…

LH: And I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and we’ll catch you next time!

About Philippa Willitts

British freelance writer and proofreader.

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