Tag Archives: Copywriting

Fixing the Mistakes Made by Hiring Cheap Writers

euro-870757_640I’ve lost count of the number of times somebody has approached me about my writing services. They complain that they hired somebody to do this work already but, well, it was awful and now they need someone to fix it or to start again from scratch.

Invariably, they paid that person around $5 for 500 – 1,000 words and the content they show me is an unmitigated disaster.

So, they hire me. I do the work they need, and they pay me. They’ve paid out twice for writers when, if they’d only bitten the bullet and paid fair fees in the first place, they would have saved themselves both money and time, all the while reducing their stress levels as an added bonus.

Those of us who charge higher rates do so because we are confident that the additional training and experience we have gained over years of full-time freelancing make the extra £££s worth paying. We’ve navigated our way around many different types and formats of writing, and we’ve negotiated the most weird and wonderful content requirements with a range of clients.

So if you pay cheap writers on Fiverr for an SEO-optimised article, you will get 500 words that do, indeed, contain your target keywords. But – most frequently – you won’t get much more than that. How on earth can they really take the time to research your topic if they have a matter of minutes to write your blog posts (they need to submit a large number of posts per hour / day to get a decent amount of pay to go home with)? How can they possibly proofread your work when they have 30 more articles to write today? How can any of those articles have the unique, special touch you are so keen to display in your content?

I feel confident in the fees I charge because I know I deliver great value to businesses and editors who are looking for insightful, unique, well-informed and engaging work. The effect this will have on a business’s customer engagement cannot be overestimated.

Podcast Episode 35: No portfolio? No problem. Get writing work without published clips.

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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Lots of new freelance writers fear that they will never get any work because they don’t have published articles or novels already. However, when you remember that every successful freelancer started out in the same way, it becomes clear that it is definitely possible to get hired as a writer even if you have no clips to show.

But how, exactly? In this podcast episode, I go through lots of different ways to get yourself some clips, build up your portfolio, and to persuade people to take you on regardless.

Show Notes

Episode 15: Guest Blogging for Exposure, Brand Building, Backlinks and More

10 very costly typos

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

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Transcript

Hello and welcome to A Little Bird Told Me, the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment. This is episode 35 and today I’m going to be talking about how to get freelance writing work when you don’t have clips.

I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m a full-time freelance writer.  I’m here without my usual co-host Lorrie, who’ll be back next week, so if you’re missing her, tune in again next week.

You might be listening to this podcast on your computer, your iPod, your phone, and so if you want to make sure you never miss an episode, do head over to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com where you can find links to subscribe via iTunes, Stitcher or RSS. You can also – if you have a Podomatic account – subscribe there so you’ll get an email every time there’s a new episode.

On the Podomatic page, you’ll also find links to the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page, as well as mine and Lorrie’s various websites and social media bits and bobs.

Magazines

Magazines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, as I say, today I’m talking about how to get freelance writing work when you don’t have a portfolio of published work – magazine articles, commercial samples etc. A lot of people think they can’t possibly approach an editor or business, and pitch themselves to that publication or place because they don’t have any experience – and they expect to be told to come back when they have examples of past writing. And this can happen, however – if you think about it – every successful freelance writer started at some point without any clips or any kind of portfolio. So it is entirely possible to break into freelance writing as a career even if you haven’t been published or had any high profile writing out there.

So what I’m going to do today is look at some of the different options you have if you’re desperate to start out but are scared to get an email back saying, “Send me what you’ve already done” before you can get any work. In my experience, surprisingly few clients and editors have asked me for examples of my past work. Some have and I’ve sent them that, but actually an awful lot don’t ask. If you make a good enough approach, demonstrate knowledge of your subject and produce a good enough pitch, clients and editors can deduce that you’re probably a decent writer and you know what you’re doing.

Now, on my professional sites – philippawrites.com and socialmediawriter.co.uk, I do have links to my published work. And this might be as simple as a blog post, or it might be a link to a national newspaper, but I do have a page dedicated to “Have a look at my writing” so if people want to know more, they can see what I can write – they can get an idea of the styles I can write in etc. So I wondered whether the reason that so few people ask me for clips is because they’d been on my website.

And so I had a chat with my usual co-host Lorrie, because I know on her website, it’s quite different to my own with not so much focus on what she’s written before. So I asked Lorrie whether in her experience clients ask for previously published work, and she has had a very similar experience to me – it does happen, but it’s rare. I think that’s interesting because it suggests that, regardless of having clips on your site, a lot of clients and publishers just don’t ask for them.  So if you’re wary, bear that in mind and make an approach – if you write a good pitch email or approach letter, the thing you’re fearing (where they get back to you and say, “Send us 10 examples of work published in international magazines!”) won’t happen.

I think also, if you have good clients who respect you and what you do, they often assume that, if you’re approaching them, it’s because you’re capable and experienced.

Another problem that commercial copywriters and fiction writers can face is if they do ghost writing – they might have tonnes of experience and have written five novels and 18 websites but, if they’ve signed a none-disclosure agreement or have just agreed that the writing they’ve done belongs to whoever paid them and can’t be claimed as their own, then they can still have an empty portfolio. So it’s not just an issue that new people face. But, I think the more experienced ghost writers would have a more confident approach and would be better at wording things to show that they’re capable and competent.

And it’s important to look at this issue, not just because a lot of new freelancers get caught up in it and feel like they don’t have much confidence without clips, but also because it’s used as people as an excuse for procrastination – it’s a nice way to avoid having to put yourself out there and make some pitches and see what happens. So do listen on and find out more ways to prove to people that if people hire you, you’ll do a great job. And also, to start getting those clips so, as they build up, you’ll have more to show what you can do.

So you’re in a situation where you’ve had a great idea for a story or you’ve found a company you’d love to write for but you don’t have anything to show. Or so you think. The first thing to do is really have a think. Stretch your imagination a bit. There’s a chance that you do have something to show that can prove your writing ability. For instance – have you written something to your company’s annual report? Have you contributed an article to your local neighbourhood newsletter? Have you had a letter to the editor published in a newspaper? When you’re starting out, all this stuff does count, even though it might feel irrelevant but it can work as a confidence booster. Over time, as that works, you’ll get new clips and examples of what you can do, so you can stop including the school newspaper or whatever it is – but it gives you somewhere to start from.

If you find you really don’t have anything, or you’re worried that your work is inadequate, it’s time to start creating writing samples. Make your own portfolio. Sure, it won’t have been published by anyone else, but what a lot of companies and editors are looking for is proof that you can write and examples of your writing style. They want to see those things a lot more than an arbitrary publication of something. An unpublished example may not be as influential as a published one, but it’s a place to start and it shows the most important thing: how well you can write.

There’s one easy way to start producing your own clips, and that’s to start a blog. Especially if you have a professional website – a blog is a perfect way to add to it. If you don’t have a professional website, it’s time to build one or to just start a blog anyway.

Now, what blogs do is give you an opportunity to get your writing out there. When you approach someone – especially if you have a target focus, say cosmetics – then you can show potential clients links to four brilliant blog posts on the latest trends in the cosmetics industry. You’ve got a head-start. If you particularly want to write about trade fairs or focus groups, start a blog and do it. It shows you can write, that you have the knowledge and that you’ve taken the initiative and that you enjoy writing and are good at it.

Another approach – and you can do this instead of having your own blog but I’d suggest doing both – is to approach the owners of prominent blogs, especially in your specialism, and offer to write a guest post.

Now, some blogs offer to pay for guest posts but most don’t so you’ll have to make a judgement as to whether that crosses the line into working for free and being exploited or whether it’s a case of increasing your platform, getting your name out there and helping out a blog you enjoy. I’ve done guest posts for some blogs but turned down others. If the blog is making money but not paying writers, then I’m not that keen, whereas if it’s something I feel strongly about or a platform I really like, I’m more keen to go ahead. We’ve all got a line and while I’d never support working for free to get started, where you stand on guest posts is something you have to work out for yourself. But, potentially, it’s an opportunity to get your name out there into the sector you want to work in. You get a link, a clip and some good contacts in the sector as well. We do have a whole episode on how to get started with guest-posting, which I’ll link to in the show-notes, so if you want to know more, do check that out.

Now, another approach you can take is to just write some articles that show off your best writing, your knowledge of your subject, and have them on hand so if a client wants to see more of what you can do, they can have a read. This works well if you have a specialism because you can write your best stuff about the area you know well. If you’re more of a generalist, it still shows your ability to write, be persuasive, be funny, depending on what’s needed. Now this is an option some people choose. Personally, I tend to think that if you’re going to the trouble of writing these articles, it’s worth creating a blog and putting them on there so people can find you there rather than you always having to find people. However, if you really don’t want a blog or website, then write four or five exceptionally good articles and have them ready for if someone wants to see what you can do.

Now, with these or having your own blog, it’s so important to do your best work. If these are examples to potential employers and clients, then they need to be as good as they can be. Make sure everything’s spelt correctly, check commas and capitals, make sure everything’s worded in the best way. A few hours now will pay dividends over time as you use them.

Another way to get some published writing experience is to do some writing on a voluntary basis for a charity or non-profit. Normally, both Lorrie and I do strongly advise against working for free – almost without exception. But, one of the exceptions we share is if you want to volunteer your time and skills, then doing some free writing for a non-profit can be a really good way to do that. If you’re starting out and you want published examples of work, approach a charity you like and support, and offer them some free writing – a pack of press releases, an annual report – and ask them in return whether you can use the work in your portfolio. I imagine most charities will bite your hand off – who wouldn’t want free writing from a professional writer? And you both benefit. So again, I wouldn’t approach a business and offer free writing, but if you find yourself wanting to volunteer some time, have a chat to a charity whose work you support and see if you can come to some kind of agreement.

English: email envelope

English: email envelope (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are other ways to get published and hired if you don’t have a portfolio bursting with tonnes of experience and published article. A vital one – whether you have a portfolio or not – is to make your pitch or query email outstanding. This is what grabs attention, whether the recipient is a newspaper editor who gets 60 pitches a day or a busy marketing manager who needs a copywriter. The first thing they see if the first few words of their email, then your first sentence, so to get them to the end of your pitch email, it has to be really good. And if it’s good enough, they’re already persuaded you can write – so do make sure your pitch is as good as you can make it. Don’t reuse the same one again and again, bring in something they’ve recently published, make it relevant to them. You should also bring in your strengths. OK, you don’t have a lot of professional work behind you, but what you can do is show you can write by the content of your email.

Also, emphasise the strengths you have. Have you previously had experience in the sector? Going back to the cosmetics example, were you previously a make-up artist? Were you a marketing executive in a huge make-up company? This is something people want to know and could make the difference in getting you the job.

Your strengths and experience are so important. Do you want to write about weaning a baby? Maybe you’ve just weaned your baby. This helps. This will make someone want to hire you over someone who wants to write the same article but doesn’t have kids. Make the most of the experience you have – make it apply to what you want to write for this person, and make them see that. You do have strengths and expertise that you might not immediately think of, but that do apply and can make you the perfect person for the job. So good, in fact, that they forget that they haven’t seen what else you’ve had published.

Also, the way you portray yourself is important. If you sound apologetic – “Oh, sorry I don’t have any experience” – they have no real reason to have faith in you, so go in with confidence. Make sure you know what you’re talking about. Research in advance so you’re not taken by surprise by an awkward question. It’s always a good idea to be honest.

Now, I’m not saying open your email with, “I HAVE NO EXPERIENCE!”, because it doesn’t portray you in a good light, but if they ask whether you have experience and you don’t, say no. Don’t just say no – say “No, I don’t have published articles, but I have written this and this (attached) and I worked in that industry for four years, and it’s also a hobby of mine.” So you’ve turned a negative into a positive, but never lie. If you’re attaching articles to an email, don’t lie and say they’ve been published – don’t mock up some fake Time Magazine layout! If they find out, you’ll never get hired and you’ll damage your reputation.

Similarly, if they ask whether you’ve written about orchestral instruments before, and you haven’t, say “No, but I have written about guitars.” Or “No, but I used to be a piano teacher.” Turn it round to what you can offer. Don’t mislead anyone, or tell lies, but present yourself in the best way you can.

There are also some tips that apply mainly to commercial copywriters rather than the other kinds of writing work we’ve talked about in this episode, such as newspaper and magazine feature writing. The next tips apply to commercial copywriting predominantly.

Firstly, testimonials. If a client can see – ideally on your website – that other clients speak highly of you, this will really encourage them. Make the most of the good feedback you get. Be careful naming people if you haven’t got permission but do try and make the most of it.

The second is to have a filled-in LinkedIn profile and get endorsements and recommendations on there. I think people have even more faith in those testimonials because you have to use full names. You can’t make them up unless you make some kind of fake account and that’s not a big problem on LinkedIn, so if someone sees a testimonial on your LinkedIn profile, they have more reason to believe it. Plus the new-ish endorsements, where you can click a +1 equivalent to various skills that someone’s said they have. So if you’re on the site, it’ll pop up and ask me whether Lorrie has skills in literary editing and I’ll click yes – she gets an extra +1 for that skill. It’s a good thing to do in terms of good karma as well – not least because people get a notification that you’ve endorsed them, and they might do the same for you. But don’t do it always for that because sometimes doing things without self-interest is more attractive.

But yes, if you do have lots of LinkedIn endorsements, make the most of them. There are plenty of ways to get freelance writing work when you don’t have clips or published articles. You can’t get every job without clips – you’re unlikely to get a four-page feature in Cosmopolitan if you can’t show them any examples of writing – but if you start with trade press, maybe you can. Or if you get some links from guest posts you’ve written for prominent blogs in a particular industry, that will help you approach other people in that same industry. There are ways around it. Sometimes they won’t be enough but you can make the most of your situation, so don’t use “I don’t have clips” as an excuse not to approach people. Because that’s the only guarantee you’ll never get any work. Part of being a freelance writer is approaching people and getting no response, or getting, “No thanks, not at the moment.” It’s just part of the job and you have to face it. It might not be pleasant but it’s how things are, so if you’re going to be a freelance writer, you’ll have to get your head around it.

And sure, you might lose out on a few jobs when you’re starting out because you lack published work but plenty of people get their first job without any. Both Lorrie and I rarely get asked for examples and that doesn’t seem to be because I have lots of examples on my website, because Lorrie doesn’t and she still doesn’t get asked for examples. Be persuasive in your approach and they already know you can write well.

And now it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendation of the Week! My recommendation this week is a blog post called, “10 Very Costly Typos” from the mental floss website. As writers and proof-readers, we have to spot typos all the time.

There have been situations where typos have cost companies actual millions of dollars. If you’ve ever doubted the need for a proof-reader, this post will make sure you get especially careful about anything you publish. A book that had to be recalled at a cost of $20,000 for accidentally typing a recipe where instead of “seasoning with salt and ground black pepper” it recommended seasoning with salt and ground “black people.”, so 7,000 copies had to be destroyed. Or the bible publisher that was fined £3,000 in 1631 – a lot of money! –  for saying that one of the 10 commandments was “Thou shalt commit adultery” or whether it was the poor guy who sold a 150-year-old bottle of beer on eBay but put a typo in the name. Someone else spotted it, bought it for $304 and sold it for half a million. Gutted for him! I’ll put the link in the show notes. It’s slightly light-hearted but it goes to show that not checking things really can cost a lot of money.

So I hope this episode has been helpful. The message is, don’t hold back – put yourself forward even if you think you’ve got nothing to show what you can do. Follow the tips I’ve given, let us know on Facebook how you get on.  Check us out at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, come say hello on social media and tune in next time. Thank you for listening – I’ve been Philippa Willitts.

Podcast Episode 33: How to deal with a crisis of faith

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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Freelancing can be a really tough business. While it’s a common preconception that working from home and working for yourself are an easy ride, like any other job being a freelance copywriter has its ups and downs. In this solo episode, Lorrie discusses what to do if you feel like your freelance writing career has reached crisis point. She talks about how to tell the difference between a career crisis and a temporary blip, and outlines a number of helpful solutions to common freelancing problems.

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Show Notes

How To Be A Happy Freelance Worker: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/nov/04/arts-happy-freelance-tips

27 – Dealing With Feeling Overwhelmed: http://alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com/entry/2013-02-26T03_00_00-08_00

Episode 21 – Managing Freelance Projects And Planning Your Time Effectively: http://alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com/entry/2013-01-08T03_00_00-08_00

Episode 11 – Overcoming Isolation As A Freelance Writer: http://alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com/entry/2012-10-23T03_00_00-07_00

Episode 9 – The Sad Smell Of Desperation: http://alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com/entry/2012-10-12T04_05_24-07_00

Transcript

Hello, and welcome to Episode 33 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast via RSS, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where you can chat to me and my co-host Pip, ask us any questions you might have and give feedback on the episodes you’ve listened to so far. At the Podomatic page, you’ll also find links to my websites and social media feeds, as well as those of the lovely Philippa.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is a solo one, so tune in next week to hear from me and Pip as a dynamic duo – if you click on subscribe, you’ll get a notification the next time an episode is posted.

Day 23 - STRESS

Day 23 – STRESS (Photo credit: isabisa)

This week, I’m going to be talking about what to do if you feel like your freelance career is in crisis and everything’s tumbling down around your ears. Feeling like your career is failing is a horrible, awful thing, and when you work for yourself, the isolation can increase the sense of panic and confusion a hundred fold. When you’ve got no one to bounce ideas off and share your worries with, it’s easy to imagine yourself standing at the edge of a really bad decision with no one to tell you otherwise.

First off, breathe.  Career fear is something everybody goes through at some point or another. It feels real at the time – it is real – but that doesn’t mean you won’t get through it. No matter what happens, it won’t last forever. Decisions about a job won’t mean the difference between life and death, and hopefully this podcast episode will help you to put your worries into perspective a little bit and face a tough decision with your logical head on. If the worst comes to the worst, you can always come and have a chat to me or Pip (or both of us – we work well as a pair, as you might have worked out!) and we’ll do our best to advise.

When you start to feel like your freelance career is flagging, and the red flags are going up, and  a little voice in your head is saying, “Maybe this isn’t working?”, it’s important to determine whether it’s a crisis or a just a really bad blip.

Ask yourself how long you’ve been feeling this way. Can you think of anything that triggered it? If there’s an event that seemed to start you off on this train of thought, is it work related or something else? Either way, you need to ask yourself whether stopping freelancing will be a solution to the perceived problem.

If you’re not sure what’s causing the general negativity, a good exercise is to get a pen and paper and do a spider diagram. Jot down words that represent how you’re feeling on there – it doesn’t matter what you write, just keeping scribbling for a couple of minutes and see what you come up with.

You might notice that you’re just generally fed up, in which case it might not be your career that’s the problem. Maybe you’ve had a bad time of it recently in other ways – family worries, relationship trouble, depression, anxiety, boredom – all of these things can make you feel like you want to abandon ship. Whether jumping ship will help solve your problems or add to them is another matter, so even if you feel like you want to throw in the towel now, now, now, be a professional. That’s going to be a common theme throughout this episode – it’s important that you conduct yourself as a professional, no matter what decision you come to. So make yourself go through the motions – sit down and have a good hard think.

Blips aren’t always tiny little hiccoughs – sometimes they can feel horrible, and sometimes they can go on for ages. What I mean by a blip is a period of negative feeling, a temporary problem or a resolvable one. If you’re having a down period in your freelance career, it might be time for a reality check. Reassessing your expectations of freelancing will do you good whether it’s a blip or not – a lot of people have a wobble about three to six months into a freelance career when they’ve got over the novelty period, realised there really is nothing good on TV and started to come to terms with all the not-so-great bits of being self-employed. Feelings of overwhelm can start to settle in, and you need to work out what your freelance career is likely to entail in the long term in order to determine whether you’re going to be able to hack it.

Every job has its downsides and, as Pip and I have mentioned in previous episodes, being a self-employed writer is no different. It can actually be even more of a shock when you start a career that you think is going to be just up your street and you find that you’re experiencing difficulties. Maybe you thought it was going to be easy. Maybe you thought working from home would be less stressful. Maybe you’ve been shocked to find that your writing isn’t as ‘good’ as you thought it was. Or maybe you’re finding that doing something you really enjoy all day every day is taking the enjoyment right out of it. These are all totally normal things, and there are ways to manage them – but it’s up to you to decide if you want to try those. You do, of course, have to have the desire and determination to stick with a freelance career – if you don’t want to, that’s another thing entirely!

Some of the other most common blips are as follows:

– feeling burnt out: taking on too much work, not being productive enough in the time you’ve got, not scheduling enough down time into your days, weeks, months or year and getting to the point where you feel like you need a holiday – preferably a six month one, from life. Some of our past episodes have dealt with how to plan your time effectively and make the most of what you’ve got, so really do go back and have a listen to some of the tips. They’re quite easy to implement but can makes a huge difference to the way you’re feeling. A career’s not about working forever, and one of the biggest draws of a freelance career is that you can achieve a healthier work-life balance if you just get it right. Episode 27 is about how to cope with acute feelings of overwhelm, and episode 21 is more generally about planning your time.

– isolation – isolation can be a horrible thing when you’re a freelancer. If you’re a sociable person, particularly (but even if you’re not) being on your own all day every day for the rest of forever can be  a daunting prospect.  It can feel awful not to have someone there to bounce ideas off or chat about last night’s telly with.  And isolation doesn’t just make you feel lonely – humans are essentially sociable creatures, even if we might not always feel that way, so even if you think you like being on your own a lot, it’s important to make time for contact with others.  Isolation can lead to loneliness, anxiety, depression, jittery feelings and serious cabin fever.

Pip has been known to forget what other humans look like during her busy periods, and I’ve been known to terrify the postman by being super chatty when he’s the only person I’ve seen in days. It happens to us all, so you need to take care of yourself and ensure that you work contact with others into your job, even if that’s just a trip to the supermarket at lunch-time and a phonecall to a client rather than another email. Episode 11 is specifically about how to deal with isolation, because it really is that common a problem, so have a listen and try to take on board some of the tips we share. And, if you’re really feeling desperate, you can always come and have a chat to me or Pip online – or both of us, for that matter: you may have noticed but we do work well as a pair!

– low salary: When you start out as a freelance writer, it’s likely that you won’t be making as much as you did in a salaried position – unless you had a really low paying job or you’ve landed on your freelance feet with some very well paying clients. Either way, it’s easy to have a panic when you realise you’re living on savings and finding work is getting to an urgent point. As I mention in episode 9, the key thing is to avoid coming across as desperate to your clients. There are ways to boost your income and client base, but begging for work, working for free – or next to nothing, and airing your panic on a public platform is no way to do that.

Now, I realise I’ve outlined problems there while directing you elsewhere for solutions, but my point is essentially that none of those things I’ve just mentioned means that freelancing is wrong for you. They all have solutions.

When it comes to deciding whether these problems are terminal for you, you need to ask yourself when you went freelance in the first place. Maybe you’re not achieving some of those aims yet, but have you given yourself enough time? Are those aims still in reach – or could they be with the solutions we’ve talked about? And do they still matter to you?

My Workplace 2

My Workplace 2 (Photo credit: davemelbourne)

If you find that you inherently miss working for a company, for example, and you want to be able to do eight hours writing work a day and forget about the rest of it, it might well be that freelancing isn’t for you. Perhaps an in-house copywriting or marketing position would be better.

But, if you find that you miss the contact you used to have with people but still want to run your own business, for example, maybe shared working space and regular working lunches could be a solution. So try to drill down and find out whether you’re unhappy as a freelancer or unhappy because it’s not working right yet. You probably spent a lot of time and effort getting into freelancing, so really do make sure that you’re not considering giving up for a solvable problem.

If your freelance career is going well generally but you’re falling out of love with it a bit – even if there are no specific problems and everything’s going well – there are a few things you can do to refresh your career.

Firstly, maybe it’s time for new clients. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of the old ones unless those relationships really aren’t working for either party, but targeting new clients can offer you a challenge and remind you why you enjoyed freelancing in the first place. So maybe make room for a few new one-off projects. Similarly, why not try targeting new sectors? If you work in, say, recycling and waste management, renewable energy is a short step. Or, if you work with careers services, lifestyle coaching isn’t too far from that. Alternatively, you could go for something completely new – you’ll need to do a lot of research, lots of training, familiarise yourself with the trade press publications in that sector, plus all the big names. It can be just the challenge you need.

If you’re happy with the sectors you work in, why not consider ways you could diversify your service offerings? If you offer copywriting, why not branch out into proof-reading and editing? Again, this isn’t an instant switch – there’s a lot of research and training that needs doing, but there are plenty of online resources that can help you get to grips with new skills like this. Or, get social media savvy and offer consultancy and social media management services. Find services that suit the aspects of your personality. If you’re quite spontaneous and miss chatting with people, maybe a couple of real-time social media management services could be up your street? If you want to write in a more chatty way without dealing with PR crises and customers in real time, how about offering blogging services? Maybe you want to get back to your roots and deal with local firms – why not offer full service marketing strategies for a couple of SMEs? There are always ways you can tailor your job description to better suit you – after all, you’re the boss! Don’t stick with stuff that makes you unhappy.

I’ll finish up with one important point, and that’s self-care. Working from home is tough, so you need to take advantage of the situation to look after yourself properly. It’s easy to get lazy about things like going to bed on time, getting up on time, eating breakfast, having a proper lunch, getting exercise every day, but these are hugely important things – it’s easy to underestimate sometimes how sedentary a freelance writing lifestyle can be and how easy it can be to slip into bad lifestyle habits, like late nights, late mornings, skipping meals, watching day-time TV, working in bed, essentially letting things slide. You need to remember that you’re doing a job and that you need to take care of yourself – and your career – properly.

Sometimes, the solution is time off. That might be a day off a week for the next month, or it might be a week off now before you reach snapping point. Remember, while it’s not good to disappear off the radar, health is priority one, so if you feel like you’re at breaking point, stick your out of office on, pop a professional sounding message on your answerphone and take time off like a responsible adult. There’s a really helpful article from the Guardian actually – it’s a couple of years old now, but it’s called How To Be A Happy Freelancer (I’ll link to it in the show-notes) and it has some great advice on how to keep yourself happy and healthy as a freelancer.

Of course, one other option is to reduce the number of freelance hours you do and seek out part-time work . This could be part-time writing work, say for an agency or as an in-house writer, or it could be something completely different like admin, retail, cleaning or bar-tending. Although part-time work is hard to find, particularly at the moment, you might find that you just need the stability and variety that a different job provides.

Ultimately, the decision to stick with freelancing or call it a day is yours – only you’ll know what you really feel and you’re the one who has to deal with the change of circumstances if you decide to quit.

My advice would be the same to you as it would be to someone deciding to quit a salaried position to go freelance: don’t do anything until you’re on a stable footing. If you do decide to go back to salaried employment, take note of the following points:

–  find a job to go to before you stop freelancing

– make sure you’ve got money in the bank

– make sure you’re not letting any clients down: just because you won’t be freelancing any more doesn’t mean you can flick two fingers to your clients – even the really annoying ones – and ride off into the sunset. There’s a delicate phrase – “Shit sticks” and it’s true. If you let people down, cancel on them last minute or tell them where to go, your reputation is unlikely to recover. So don’t burn your bridges. Give people notice; help them find someone else if appropriate. Finish the work you’ve got on and wrap it up like a professional. This also leaves the door open for a return to freelancing if you decide later on that it suits you or your lifestyle better.

So don’t burn your bridges.  You never know what you’ll fancy doing in future. Your lifestyle or family situation might change. The economy might change – again! You might be made redundant, you might get ill, your significant other might get abducted by aliens, leaving you to look after the kids, pay the bills and sort everything out. You just don’t know.

Do go back and have a listen to some of the episodes I’ve mentioned in this one. If you’ve got a particular problem, as I say, do come and have a chat with me and Pip. We’ll always do our best to offer practical advice – although we obviously can’t tell you what to do, it really is good to talk!

I really hope this episode has been useful in letting you know that you’re not alone when it comes to having freelance hiccoughs. Life isn’t always smooth sailing, and there are plenty of challenges to face and overcome, however you choose to do that.

Tune in next week to catch Pip and me again – we’ve got some lovely new topics to cover and, if there’s anything you’d particularly like to hear, come and let us know on our Podomatic page – alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, on our Facebook or on our social media profiles.

I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and Pip and I will catch you next time.

Podcast Episode 30: It’s not about you – the art and the science of commercial copywriting

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Commercial copywriting is not what most people picture when they think about freelance writing. It is so different to typical fiction or non-fiction writing, and in this episode, Lorrie and I talk about why this is, what PPC ads can teach us about why good copy might not be that good, and what the deal is with features versus benefits.

Show Notes

Calmingmanatee.com

Entrepreneur.com: Marketing Features Vs. Benefits

Google Adwords keyword tool

10 Amazing Free Online Writing Courses

Episode 23: How to Decide What to Charge for your Freelance Writing Services

Episode 24: The Art of Getting Paid

Episode 25: Why and How to Charge More For Your Freelance Writing

Calculate Your Hourly Rate With This Freelance Billable Rate Calculator

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Transcript

LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 30 of A Little Bird Told Me.  I can’t believe we’ve got there but it’s Episode 30, yeah!

PW: Yeah!

LH: So this is Episode 30, 3-0, of the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

PW: Episode 30 did you say?

LH: I did say Episode 30.

[Cheering]

*Copywriting

*Copywriting (Photo credit: Bazstyle | Photography)

LH: Yay!  So if you’d like to listen all the way to Episode 40, and hopefully 50 and beyond, you can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, including RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just on the Podomatic page itself.  You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there are plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy and you can also find links to our websites and social media feeds.  So you can come and have a chat with us about any of the topics we cover in this podcast, and any we haven’t covered for that matter.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn.

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts and today we are talking about copywriting.  Both Lorrie and I we do different styles of writing in different parts of our work and one of those that we both do is commercial copywriting.

In A Little Bird Told Me we do look at different aspects of copywriting regularly but what we’ve talking about today is quite specifically about the art and the science of copywriting because the thing is it’s quite a unique skill and it involves the techniques that don’t tend to be found very often in fiction or non-fiction writing.

LH: Yeah, I think it’s definitely true that copywriting’s a very distinct skill and it’s very different from what people think of when they think of writing.  You know I’ve chatted to people and they say, “So what do you do?” and you go, “Right, well I’m a writer” and they go, “Okay, what do you write?”  You know they’re automatically thinking like novels.

PW: Yeah.

LH: I say, “Well I’m a copywriter” and they’re like, “Right” and you start to see their eyes sort of glazing over a little bit.  It’s kind of like, you know, there’s not really much of an awareness of really the bare bones of copywriting as opposed to just writing.

PW: Yeah, even in business context at networking meetings if I introduce myself as a copywriter some people just even know what it means.

LH: Mmm, yeah, they mistake it for copyright as in intellectual property.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know so while copywriting is still very creative you’re actually dealing with like a whole framework, depending on the kind of document or text that you’re trying to produce, and there are rules that you have to learn and conventions that you need to respect and all kinds of things that you have to take into account, such as SEO, formatting, you know if you’re writing on a website that’ll be different for if you’re writing on social media or in a print document or on something else.  Copywriting is as much, for me at least, about skill as it is about talent and skills have to be learnt properly and thoroughly for the results to be any good.

PW: Yeah, in many forms of writing that you might do you’re trying to express yourself in a way that’s pleasing to read, you might want to show off a bit with a bit of flowery language or astound people with your incredible progressions of logic, and that is great; however, not when you’re copywriting.

Copywriting isn’t about what you can do.  It isn’t about you at all.  It’s about your client and I’d say more importantly about your client’s client or their customers or prospects.

LH: No, absolutely, I think you’re completely right.  I think copywriting is, to a certain extent, it’s much more utilitarian than just other forms of writing.  You know you’re writing for a reason, it’s not just for the pleasure of writing but the pleasure that your readers are going to get.  You know your client needs their clients to get something from what they’re reading, whether it’s a general feeling of benevolence towards the company, they need to be informed about some sort of progress that the company’s making, they need to be persuaded to buy a service or a product.  You know there has to be a purpose behind it.

While we’re actually on the topic one more thing that I do want to mention is I think it’s a not so well known fact about copywriting and that’s it’s different from content writing.

PW: Yeah, it’s kind of like there’s a Venn diagram, isn’t there, and there’s a crossover but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing.

LH: Yes.  I always struggle with Venn diagrams, especially the ones that have got three circles.  I always sort of try and work them out.  I sit there going, “Right, that and that and then that and that.  Oh, it does work.  That and that.”  Every time I found myself astounded, I’m not quite sure why.  Bar graphs and pie charts don’t quite have the same effect.  It’s quite overwhelming, but yes, copywriting, content writing; I don’t want people going away from this podcast thinking, “Oh, well I don’t do copywriting, I do content writing so, you know, these tips don’t apply to me.”  The term ‘copywriting’ is often used as a coverall term for content production and to a certain extent that’s fine and that’s really, I think, how we’re going to be using it in this.

PW: Yeah.  There are also people who believe very strongly that copywriting should only be used to describe sales copywriting but, again, that’s not what we’re talking about today; we’re not talking just about sales writing but as kind of commercial writing in a wider context.

LH: Yeah.  I think because the word ‘copywriting’ came from the advertising industry, didn’t it?

PW: Yes, yeah, ad copy.

LH: Yeah.  So I think that’s why people go along with that.  So yes, definition pure of ‘copywriting’ is producing text that is trying to persuade your readers to get on board with a certain point of view or to persuade them to buy or desire a certain product or service but for the purposes of this podcast whichever type of writing you do, either content or copywriting, and it’s likely to be both unless you’re writing purely sales and ad copy, most of the points, if not all of them, are going to apply to you because at the end of the day you’re writing on behalf of your client and that’s what we’re trying to tackle in this episode.

PW: Yeah.  So yes, so that’s the definition of copywriting we’re working with today and as we mentioned above one of the key things about copywriting is that you have to put your own preferences aside.  You may end up writing something that you don’t love from an artistic point of view but that’s not the point of copywriting.

LH: Yeah, 100%.  You know as Pip’s just mentioned writing on behalf of somebody else means that the first thing you have to do, as long as you’re happy to take on the brief, is to put your own feelings about a certain subject or product or service or company on one side and decide what you’re actually trying to achieve with the content that you’re creating.

PW: Yeah.

LH: A point that follows on from this is that you need to put your personal writing style on one side.  Now speaking from experience I write for clients in the waste management and compliance sector.

PW: She does.

LH: I do, lucky me.

[Laughter]

LH: I also write for clients in the fashion, style and beauty sector and everyone will be going, “Mmm, that sounds nice” but for me it’s just as terrifying.  You know I’m not… in fact it’s more terrifying actually because I’m at home with the conventions in sort of environmental services.

PW: Yeah, yeah.

LH: Whereas fashion, it’s slightly more subjective.

PW: But I have to say, listener, Lorrie always dresses beautifully and she is very stylish but she’s not a big like talking all the time about style and always wearing labels and all that stuff.

LH: I never wear labels.

PW: Yeah, exactly, and so it’s not that Lorrie doesn’t have a sense of style because she very much does but, again, that’s not the point of the writing she’d be doing in that sector.

LH: Aww, I love that you just leapt to my defence and told everyone how stylish I am.

PW: You are; you always look gorgeous.

LH: Aww, aww listeners! Get a load.

[Laughter]

LH: Aww.  Well I feel completely off topic now.

PW: Just bask for a moment.

LH: I’ll just bask in the glory.

[Laughter]

LH: So my point was going to be…

PW: Yes, sorry [laughs].

LH: …about my clothing and style, is that, listeners, do you think I write for these clients in the same way?  Absolutely not, 100% not, and do you think that either of the writing styles, or any of the writing styles, that I create for my clients are actually ‘me’ and, again, no chance.  I’ve no outside interest in waste management or scrap metal recycling or micro polymer processes.  I don’t sit down and read you know reports unless I need to for work, you know it’s not bedtime reading for me, and nor do I have anything more than an extremely fleeting interest in high fashion.  What I do have an interest in is writing and in creating and maintaining an authentic voice for every single one of my clients and there has to be a voice that reflects their mission, their values, their personality, in the case of individuals or prominent individuals in a company, or their brand, in the case of a company as whole, and it needs to be a voice that appeals to the target audience and gives that audience what it needs in order to have faith in the client.

PW: Yeah.

LH: So a fun and frolicky tone with lots of exclamation marks won’t work for metal recycling experts but it does the trick for beauty bloggers in the 18 to 25 age range.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know likewise fashion fans don’t tend to want heavy stats and information on sort of legislative processes.  So it’s just horses for courses really.

PW: That is a really good point.  Often in social media writing I use statistics, especially early on.  If you’re trying to be persuasive about a particular service, for instance, then it can be really useful to say however many million people use that service because that may make businesses go, “Oh, I should be on there” but, again, when I’m writing about garden furniture then the number of people who have a bench in their garden is entirely irrelevant.

LH: [Laughs] “One million British people have benches.”

PW: “Why don’t you?”

[Laughter]

LH: You’re missing out.

PW: So yeah, but as well as writing in different styles and tones for different sectors you are also writing for different readers too; so you can’t write the same way in a light hearted, informal blog post as you do in a detail rich industry specific press release, even if they are for the same client.  I mean it just highlights why the skills involved in copywriting are different to writing, I don’t know, your own blog for instance because if you’re feeling light and cheerful you can write a light and cheerful blog post, but if you’re feeling light and cheerful and your client today is a funeral director you need to put your good mood aside and get serious.

LH: [Laughs] yeah, I think that’s a good point, I definitely think that’s a good point, especially the point that you made about, you know, even if you’re writing for the same client the purpose of the text, you know if you’re talking about a blog post versus a press release; you know I have one client and their blog posts, by their choice, are kind of tabloid.

PW: Yes.

LH: They’re kind of like matey language, you know lots of exclamation marks and I know some copywriters and content writers think that’s like a hanging offence but I don’t.  You know if my client wants a cheeky chappy style voice for their blog posts and their news articles then that’s exactly what I’ll give to them because I’ve had a look at their target market, I’ve had a look at their target audience and I think it’s the sort of thing they’d be receptive to.

PW: I think this highlights actually why research is so important in copywriting.  You have to really know your clients and you have to really know their target market.  You can’t just learn about the topic you’re writing about because like Lorrie says if they’ve got an 18 to 25 market you do tackle that differently to if they’ve got a 55 to 70 market and you have to have your head round that before you can even start really.

LH: Definitely because at the end of the day you’re not you, you’re your client.  You’re not going to stick your own name at the bottom of a piece of writing; you are your client’s official voice, especially in something like a press release.

PW: Yes.

LH: To go back to what Pip was just saying, you know you need to keep it authentic but serious.  You know you can’t… I don’t keep the same cheeky chappy tone in a press release for my clients but then again if I’m writing a press release for my cheeky chappy client and I know it’s only going to be a regional subject I might keep it a little bit more informal because I know the regional newspapers.

PW: Yeah and also like if you’ve got a company who, say, sells a product and they sell it direct to clients but they also sell it wholesale to businesses then the writing you would do for them to appeal to customers who buy direct from them is very different from the writing you’d do to appeal to customers who sell their product in their stores.

LH: Yeah, B2B versus B2C.

PW: Exactly, and so in every way there can be so much variety whether you’re working for 10 different clients or one client but with different purposes.

LH: That’s a really, really good point you know, and I did like the point you made as well about sort of the mood that you’re in.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Because again, you know, I started out as a translator and there’s this concept called ‘the invisibility of the translator’ and some people are pro it and some people are anti and I’m pro.  You know I think that a translator should be invisible and that’s the mark of a good translation, but I also think it can be applied to copywriting.

PW: Yes.

LH: I think you do need to be invisible.  Your client needs to shine through rather than yourself and the same goes for the mood that you’re in on that day.  You can be having the best or the worst day of your life; you have to keep it out of your writing for clients.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You do.  Sometimes I even end up laughing to myself, because I’m like that, just when I think about how little clue my clients have got, and indeed should have, about what’s going on with me on that particular day.  You know it can be my birthday, I might have the giggles, I might have just had a laugh and a joke with Pip, or I might be full of feminist rage, you know maybe there’s a law that’s been passed I’m not happy with and I’m feeling a bit of an activist, whatever, I keep it to myself.

{{Copywriting}}

{{Copywriting}} (Photo credit: faithfulllyyy)

PW: So yeah, even in your dealings with clients you might be having the most frantic week you’ve ever had but when you get an email from a client and you reply you can’t go, “Oh my God, I don’t have time” or, “Stop sending things my way for God sake, give me a break” or you can’t even say, “I’m in a really big rush but this looks okay.”  You have to reply just as if it was any other day and you have to keep it under control, but yeah, like Lorrie was saying, in the copywriting itself you might be feeling rotten, you might be full of a cold, your girlfriend’s just dumped you, the roof’s leaking…

LH: Aww.

PW: I know, but if you’re writing a blog post for a comedy promoter you know it has to be upbeat and happy.

LH: Aww, you made me really sad now just thinking about that poor hypothetical copywriter.

PW: Aww [laughs].

LH: Listeners, if you’re having a horrible week come and talk to us.

PW: Yeah, it’ll be okay.

LH: It will, it’ll be fine.  Do you know actually I was having a really stressful week a couple of weeks back and I was on my personal Twitter account, which isn’t linked to my work at all.  So I was having a bit of a rant saying how stressed I was and somebody sent me calmingmanatee.com and it’s so lovely.  You click on it and there’s a picture of a lovely looking manatee and it says, “Don’t worry sweetie, I’ll put the kettle on” and there are loads to choose from and I actually felt really calm, it was so lovely.

PW: We will add that link to the show notes if you’re having one of those days…

LH: We will.

PW: …where only a calming manatee will do the trick.

LH: Yeah, they’re lovely.  I love them.  So even if you’re having the worst day in the world, even if your life is horrible and you can be typing through the tears sadly if it takes a calming manatee to get through it that’s what you’ve got to do.  If you’ve got to go and chat to somebody by email… you know Pip and I mouth off to one another by email all the time, like, “Why has this happened?  What’s with this timing?  You know I haven’t heard from this client for a week and now they’re emailing me at 7 am on a Saturday with a load of work and I’ve just not got time and what am I going to do?” and it all works out in the end but it’s good to be able to let off steam.

PW: Yeah.  Another thing that’s important to remember about copywriting is that sometimes what’s effective in copywriting is not the most beautiful wording or the prettiest words.

LH: Yes, oh gosh yes.  I’ve got a client, lovely client, long term client, but their name sounds like a plural.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?

PW: Yes.

LH: Aha.  Well this nameless name ends in an s and we’ve had so many battles, this client and I, about apostrophes and pronouns, you know, and I would say we’ve had these battles in the past but it’s been quite recent as well.

PW: [Laughs].  So past is yesterday.

LH: That’s true you know, and one minute the client… well I say one minute, for a while the client will be happy with one thing but then somebody in-house will spot an apostrophe that looks weird and it’s completely grammatically correct but you know they say, “Well it looks weird” and my clients are in their sector and I’m not, so at a certain point I have to kind of really take on board what they say.  So it’s got to the point now where I’ve had to accept that my client prefers, and this is significantly prefers, a grammatically incorrect approach.

PW: Ooo, that must be painful.

LH: It really hurts, it really does.  I have to chop the possessive s off funny name and I have to refer to the company as ‘they’ instead of ‘it’, even though it’s a single company.  So you know it’s one single noun and it drives me to distraction but…

PW: I can imagine.

LH: …if it works for the client, this is it, if it works for my client and there’s no negative effects on the audience, like I said earlier you have to do your research, then I have to put my feelings to one side because there’s no point being precious about it, even though I shudder at using that kind of grammar in my own writing, my writing, writing that’s attributed to me because it’s not my writing, it’s not my voice.

PW: Yeah, yeah.  I’ve even read certain copywriters who specialise in the big dramatic sales, you know the long form sales letters that go on and on, I’ve even read some of them saying that they don’t care about their grammar and spelling even because buyers feel reassured by things, spelling mistakes.  Now I would never go that far just because it would keep me awake at night…

[Laughter]

PW: …knowing that I’d left typos in and I don’t think that works for every audience but it kind of reminds me a bit about the… about kind of George Bush and his inability sometimes to form sentences was some people very much criticised him for it but others kind of found it reassuring and humanising.  I would be on the very much criticising side of things but yeah, I wouldn’t go that far but it does go to show that it’s never as simple as getting it correct necessarily and sometimes if you’re writing something salesy you might find yourself cringing at using certain clichés or dramatic wording but sometimes it’s exactly what’s called for.  It’s not something you’d submit as part of a Creative Writing MA but it’s doing the job it’s supposed to do.

LH: Yeah, I had to use the phrase, and this is a true story, I had to use the phrase, ‘cast iron, rock solid 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ the other day.

PW: Oh dear.

LH: I actually had to write that and I had to write it seriously, ‘bullet proof, rock solid’ and I’ve used ‘solid gold’ before as well.  I feel like it’s a confessional but you’ve got a new Pope, it’s time to confess.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: Yeah.  No, I had to ‘cast iron, rock solid, 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ and it works, it’s horrible.

PW: Yeah, that’s the thing.  We kind of wish that writing beautiful prose would work but it doesn’t necessarily.

LH: Well no.  You know some of the sales copy that I’ve done, in fact most of it, the target market is sort of men from 30 to 55 say, and they tend to be quite high earners, so doctors, lawyers, architects, you know all that kind of thing but research into direct sales copy shows that this kind of hyped up ridiculous copy really works and less subtle approaches, and we have tried them, they really, really, really don’t work but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the copywriter.

PW: Yeah.

LH: No, but it’s an interesting point because when I was recruiting recently, as I mentioned in a previous episode, I had people getting in touch saying, “Oh but I have a really good level of language and grammar” and you know yes, good for you, great and you know it’s the basic starting point for a career in writing, any kind of writing, but it’s not enough, you know it’s really, really not enough, and sometimes it can be a bit of a distraction because, as you’ve just said Pip, you know you can’t sleep at night if there’s a typo.  You know I do the same thing, I’ll send something off that I’ve read and read and read and proofread and proofread and proofread and the minute I click send I’m like “Oooh, but what if there was a typo?” you know.  So it can be a bit of a distraction and it can stop you looking at other things in the text.

PW: I think, especially if you’re going to do… end up with a piece of writing that’s not necessarily 100% grammatically correct, like Lorrie was saying with her client with the apostrophe and plural situation, I think it’s one of those situations where you need to know how to do it right in order to then be able to do it wrong, if you know what I mean?

LH: Yeah, you need to be able to decide how much you can deviate from grammatical norms for example.

PW: Yeah, like you have to know the rules in order to break them I would say.

LH: No, I think that’s a really good piece of advice, yeah.

PW: So it is important to know this stuff but when you’re doing commercial copywriting it’s also important that you can sometimes put it aside.

LH: Yeah and know when to put it aside based on research and reading; you know don’t just get bored of correct grammar and then chuck it out of the window.

PW: [Laughs] I’m bored of commas.

LH: I don’t understand.  Do you know honestly, I’ve had clients say to me before, “That comma looks funny.”

PW: Yeah.

LH: And it’s like, “No, it’s fine”, “Could you just check it?”  I was like, “No, I checked it when I wrote it.  It’s fine.”  I’m a bit precious about my commas, I do.  Well I studied German so you know how accurate…

PW: I do, yes.

LH: …commas, otherwise nothing makes sense, and the same in English actually; I don’t understand where this idea’s come from that commas are optional because sometimes I really, really struggle to get the meaning from a sentence and I’ll realise that actually it’s because like a subordinate clause hasn’t been comma’d off.

PW: Yes.

LH: Oh it does hurt but that…

PW: Yeah, I was editing a CV yesterday that was very, very technical and had very few commas in it and they were just using incredibly long sentences with lists of… it just appeared like long lists of buzz words on every line and because there were no commas, or very few commas, I was having… it was almost like a foreign language in that I was desperately trying to work out where the different clauses were.

LH: Yeah, you try to find parts of sentences, don’t you?

PW: That’s it because if it wasn’t buzz words it was technical language and it took some work I have to say.

LH: No, I imagine it would.  You know, but sort of to get back on track a little bit I suppose you know you need to be able to decide when and how to break the rules, as Pip’s just said.  You know you need to be aware of when you’re publishing and where you’re publishing.  You know, say, if you’re publishing content that’s going to be read online you can have sentences that are reasonably long but only very occasionally, you know you need to keep your sentences quite short.  If you’re writing for video scripts you need to keep your sentences really, really, really short, like artificially short.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know you wouldn’t… you don’t write rhetoric in the same way that you would speak, for example.  You know rhetoric is not the same as dialogue for example.  So if you’ve had experience writing fiction with characters speaking in it don’t assume that you could write video scripts because, again, there are different conventions and you need to know those.  Whereas if you’re writing a printed report or an academic report you can have a sentence that’ll run off, you know run away for a whole paragraph and it’s not a problem.

PW: Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot recently about PPC, which is pay per click advertising, which any internet user is familiar with.  It’s the kind that you see on the right hand side of your Google search results or your Facebook page.  Now to do well PPC ads need to be split tested, almost ad infinitum really, where one example is tested against another to see which is the most effective and they do that to get the exact rewrite combination of headline, image and text and so they test two options, see which gets the better results and then test that one against another, and again and again and again, and people who really know what they’re doing with regards to managing PPC ads can find that a difference of one word can change conversion rates massively.

Now PPC is kind of an extreme case but what it is is a really good example of where science actually overtakes art in copywriting because it doesn’t matter if the final PPC ad sounds clunky or if it repeats a word, or if it’s a bit of a mouthful, because if it’s proven itself to get more conversions than all the other wordings then that’s the one to go with.  It’s kind of copywriting in a quite extreme nutshell really.

LH: My husband does loads and loads and loads of PPC stuff.  He’s a marketer rather than a copywriter and it’s something we butt heads over, sort of good naturedly really, because I know, I know, of course I do, that the science has to overtake the art but when he’s showing me something that’s converting really well I’ll look it, I’ll go, “Well the grammar’s wrong” [laughs].

PW: I know, I know.  You just see ads all the time.

LH: Oh I totally do.

PW: Yeah, at the top of my Gmail and it’s just, “Oh why did you word it like that?” and it may be, we don’t know from the outside, it may be that they’re rubbish at PPC or it may be that they’ve done 24 versions of multivariate testing and that one is converting massively.

LH: Yeah.  My husband loves split testing.  I don’t understand at all.  He’s way more analytical than I am but he loves split testing, absolutely loves AB testing.

PW: I see that it is vitally important, especially for anything salesy, but I do think you need a certain type of brain that I don’t have.

LH: That’s it.

PW: So I’m glad there are other people who are very good at it and very passionate about it because I do appreciate that it’s really important but I’m also glad that it’s not me that’s looking at graph after graph after graph.

LH: No he really loves it.

PW: Yeah, to see where the ‘grab it now’ or ‘get it now’ works better.

LH: Yeah, I mean he finds it really exciting because obviously once you get a spike in a graph and you see that one particular colour, you know background colour, you know sticking a coloured filter on a photo, as you’ve just said, you know changing ‘grab to get’ and changing it back again, you know trying it out with all different colours and different pictures and you know he loves it, really finds it exciting but, you know, like you say, rather him than me.  I’ll stick with my decent writing thank you.

PW: Something else to bear in mind is that some clients, especially if they’ve got a dedicated communications or marketing department, will have style guides that they send to any copywriters they work with and these can contain guidelines that hurts your grammatically correct heart.

I had one recently that said very clearly that there should be no more than one sentence per paragraph.

LH: No.

PW: I know.

LH: No.  Hang on, hang on, no, no, no, hang on, one sentence per paragraph?

PW: Yes, one sentence per paragraph because their reasoning was that people have no attention span these days.

LH: Well in like long copy sales letters or online yes, yeah one sentence per paragraph, two absolute max.

PW: Yeah but this was blog posts, you know, but you know if that’s what they’re paying you to do it’s pretty much what you do.  If it’s something that is really blatantly wrong you might want to carefully point it out to them but often that’s not your place and you do your best with what they give you.

LH: Yeah, I suppose it’s a good point really because it might rankle but you know, and it is worth pointing out to clients if there’s a specific problem with something that they’ve included in their style guide, and whether that’s an actual style guide or just a set of guidelines or preferences that they’ve got, if you can see something that’s going to have like an actively detrimental effect on their marketing, like it’s going to make them look daft, then I suppose it’s best to gather data to back up your claim and then put it to them in a polite and confident way and just let them do what they’re going to do with it, but it’s also good, I think, to note it down somewhere and to know what you’re talking about and then to bear it in mind in future because if you’ve flagged it up once it may be that that’s because it’s going to cause issues in the future.

PW: That’s very true, that’s very true, yeah.  Now as well as putting yourself aside, which we’ve been talking about when you’re copywriting, sometimes you have to persuade your client to put themselves aside a little.  It is often difficult for clients to distance themselves from their own products or services in a way that means they’re able to promote them effectively and that’s easy to understand.  You know they’re very entrenched in their own day to day work and because of that they sometimes lose sight of what will really appeal to their prospects.

LH: Mmm, and I think there’s a certain amount of possessiveness sometimes.

PW: Yes, yes.

LH: You know and it’s understandable, even when a client has brought you on board though because they’re not getting the results they want; so, say, you know an open rate on an email marketing campaign or a conversion rate on a sales page or a really good level of content in a promotional brochure.  It seems like it can be really difficult for them to accept that their personal opinion, particularly if they’re the brains behind the operation, isn’t necessarily what’s going to work or what’s important.

PW: Exactly and we do appreciate that for a lot of people their business is their baby you know and they can find it hard to feel like they’re letting go or losing control of it, but sometimes it’s gentle reminder that that’s exactly why they’ve called in a copywriter is what you need to do and it is our job sometimes to be a bit patient and ease them into it, as long as that doesn’t get ridiculous.

LH: Yeah, it can be really counterintuitive, especially if you’re suggesting something that they wouldn’t have gone with.

PW: Yeah.

LH: But like you say, if a client sort of says, “Ooh, but I wouldn’t have written it like that” it’s like, “Well no, precisely.”

PW: Yes.

LH: You know you mince your words a little bit better than that.

PW: [Laughs] yeah.

LH: Well exactly.  You know but that is the point.  You know if they’ve tried writing for themselves or they’ve tried having somebody in-house do the writing and it’s just not working for them then yeah, it’s counterintuitive but they do need to bear in mind, and as Pip’s just said, you do need to help them bear in mind sometimes that that’s the whole point of you being there.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think it’s a little bit like author intent to a certain extent.  Once a product or a service or a company is out there, you know sort of on the public market, the originator, so the brains behind the operation, the owner, the creator, whatever, they no longer control the way that the public views, reacts to or engages with the product or the service and it doesn’t matter what the original idea was to a certain extent because the reality might have changed, depending on any number of things, you know changing target market, new products and services developed by a competitor, or customers just finding new uses for a product that the business owner might never really have thought about.

PW: Yeah.  I mean if somebody’s invented something that’s quite clever but then people buy it and find another use for it that’s even cleverer then that may well be the angle to go for but if the creator is very, “Like no, I invented it for Purpose A” it can be difficult, it can, plus sometimes they can’t see where the absolute goal is in their own product because they have…

LH: Yes.

PW: Yeah, they have no distance or objectivity from it.  I met some guys at a networking event and they had invented this… it was a very cool mobile phone app, I really liked it, and I was chatting to them and they talked me through how it worked and what was, to me, an absolutely clear sales approach was one that hadn’t even occurred to them.  They were solving a particular problem really effectively but they were so caught up in setting up a business and the technical side of the app that they hadn’t spotted this other area of absolute genius in what they were doing and I talked to them about it and they were like, “Wow, you’ve got to write our copy.”  You know that was like, “Great.  You know that’s why I’m here.”

PW: Yeah.  So we’re not all about telling people they’ve picked a crap aspect of a thing to promote.  Sometimes…

LH: No, no of course not.

PW: Yeah, sometimes we’re pointing out that they are geniuses and they haven’t realised it yet.

LH: I often think I’m an undiscovered genius.  I’m just waiting for someone to tell me.

PW: You are most definitely a genius m’dear.

LH: I know but thanks.

[Laughter]

PW: For the record, I bought Lorrie a mug that says, “I’m not perfect but I am so close it scares me.”

LH: It’s true, it’s true.  I’m not sure my husband’s that keen on the mug but I drink from it quite regularly now.  I even wash it specifically so I can drink from it again.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: One thing that Pip and I have discussed recently has been the difference between benefits and features and it’s always worth going into because no matter how many times you go over it there’ll always be a bit of confusion with people.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think it’s quite a relevant point when talking about the difference between writing and what we’re terming copywriting here for the purposes of this podcast.

PW: Yeah.

LH: In a piece of marketing or sales copy one of the golden rules is to focus on benefits and not features.  Now I found a really helpful article actually on a site called entrepreneur.com and I dare say it’s not out of the ordinary in its helpfulness because, as we say, benefits versus features is a topic that can run and run and run.

PW: It’s a bit issue and if you could just Google benefits versus features I’m sure there will be tons of resources, if, you know, you listen to what we’re about to say and then want to know more.

LH: Aha, yeah.  I mean Google auto filled it for me.

PW: Oh brilliant.

LH: I was half way through Benefits A, typed in features.  So I was like, “Yeah, even Google knows.”  So yeah, the example that I found on a site called entrepreneur, we’ll link to that in the show notes, and it gives you some concrete examples of how to turn descriptions of a product or a service, which are features, into something that entices the reader and helps them see how they would benefit, hence the benefit, from those specific features.

PW: Yeah, your client might be selling a very intricate piece of equipment or some very clever software and they might want you to describe in detail the exact measurements of the engine or the processing capabilities and this is…

LH: Because that’s what they’ve spent years building.

PW: Exactly and that’s their frame of reference, that’s how they understand the product.  However, in the majority of cases that’s not what’s going to appeal to the customer.  The customer doesn’t go, “Oh I must find a 1.3 engine”, what they want to know is how that engine’s going to benefit them or what the software will make easier in their working life.  So the copywriter’s job is to translate these features, technical detail, into information about how it’s going to benefit the customer.  So if something’s got an adjustable height you don’t necessarily need to say, “The height adjusts from 1.2 metres to 2.4 metres”, you could say, “The height adjusts which makes it suitable for people of different shapes and sizes.”  That’s more appealing.

LH: Definitely.  I think the only time… I was just thinking about what you were saying earlier, the only time that you really need to focus on, say, the size of an engine or processing capabilities would be B2B.

PW: Yes.

LH: You know if you were trying to sell computer parts to distributors or like some of my clients are LED lighting companies who then sell on to electricians and lighting specialists, you know they’re more of a supplier than a B2C.

PW: Yeah, that’s very true.

LH: Then yes okay, you know in their brochure they need the specific features but still, in all their forward facing copy, they need to talk about the benefits and still, to their B2B clients, they do need to focus, as well as the features, on the benefits.

PW: Because I’m quite techy if I was buying a new laptop, for instance, I want to read a bit of prose about the benefits to me but I also want to be able to scroll down the page and see a list of numbers.

LH: Yes.

PW: And so one doesn’t have to exclude the other and, like Lorrie said, the audience is important.  If you’re selling software to resellers who can then, you know, brand it themselves and sell it on to their clients they need to know those numbers but it doesn’t mean you can put those exclusively necessarily because yeah, even B2B clients want a bit of context I think quite often.  That gives them a sense of the company and I think it’s important, yeah.

LH: Yeah.  Going back to what we said earlier about sometimes the clients need to put themselves on one side, you know to take it full circle sometimes B2B clients are resistant to writing about benefits as opposed to features.  It can be like, “Well we don’t need that.  That’s not what I want to read” but to a lesser extent you do still need benefits for B2B writing.  You know trust us, we both do write in the B2B sector.

PW: Yes, yes.

LH: And I think it’s good to remember that as a writer, rather than a copywriter, you might be quite a descriptive person.  I am, I like to get quite flowery.

PW: Oh yes.  Whenever I’m reviewing a first draft of anything that I’ve written most of it is cutting stuff out [laughs].

LH: Same really, you know, and you might get caught up, you know when you’re writing about a specific product or service, you might get caught up in helping your reader to really visualise something, like see the product, and you actually end up forgetting that you’re supposed to be effectively selling something but the piece of writing you’re creating is supposed to have a purpose.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think benefits versus features, it’s a good reminder that it’s really important to keep your writing aims in mind, particularly as a copywriter, because someone else is relying on you for a certain result.

PW: Yeah it’s really true.  The client will know their product or service better than you.  However, you, when you have experience and maybe a bit of training, know better than them, probably, how to go about describing it and selling it and so it can be difficult to negotiate sometimes because it’s understandable that they can get precious over their stuff.

LH: Of course.

PW: But you don’t want to indulge that to a point where you know you’ve written something that’s not going to be useful to them.

LH: Yeah, definitely.  I mean it can be… what I’ve found with B2B clients, because as you know most of my clients, until recently, have been B2B…

PW: Yep, same here.

LH: …what I find is that when you choose to leave something out they think you’ve forgotten it.

PW: Yes.

LH: You know and it goes back to the benefits and features thing.  You don’t have to say everything but with B2B they can be so excited about a product and all of its functionalities and capabilities that they want you to crowbar them all in to like a press release and talk about the fact that it does this and talk about the fact that you can do that and talk about the fact that it can process x number of y’s in a certain z period and it’s like yeah, to a certain extent but don’t overwhelm people.

PW: And quite often, if you’re going to do a really good job on some sales copy, you need to do a bit of market research and that doesn’t mean sending out women to the city centre to ask people questions.

LH: [Laughs] women with clipboards.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Have you been accosted recently?  I wonder why that’s on your mind.

PW: I am accosted all the time.

LH: Are you?

PW: I think it’s because I walk quite slowly, they just like see me coming and go, “We’ll get her.”

LH: Head her off at the pass!  You see I put my headphones on, stick my head down and stride away.

PW: Headphones are very handy for that but yeah…

LH: You can stop by headphones though.  They’ll just be like, “Hiya.”  It’s like, “No, no sorry.”  I just shake my head and smile, “No.”

PW: But yeah, yeah it doesn’t have to mean that, it can just mean literally going onto web forums and seeing what the concerns are of the target market you’re working towards.

LH: Yeah, market analysis, competitor analysis or having a look at the sector, recent technological developments in there.  It’s really common sense, isn’t it?

PW: Yeah and there are all sorts of ways you can go about it.  There’s a website called Quora, which is just people asking questions and really in-depth answers.  Forums are particularly handy to see how many people are concerned about certain issues.  So say you’re selling power tools, so drills and screwdrivers and those things, and you sell a drill that has a particular purpose that you think’s really exciting, well the client does anyway, and then you go into some DIY forums online and have a look and you see that a good portion of the people who are posting are very concerned about the fact that their drill doesn’t do a particular thing, and you also see that nobody even mentions the first thing that your client thinks is important.  That’s the time to drop really, or at least downplay, the thing that nobody appears to be concerned about and…

LH: Or to apply.

PW: Yes, yeah and to actually make this new product apply to the concerns they genuinely have and appeal to that big market there.

LH: Yeah, definitely because you know if you take it down to the building blocks of, say, online writing that’s going to affect your key words, it’s going to affect what you hyperlink in a text online.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know say if you’re talking about a certain functionality that nobody’s interested in there’s no point linking from, say, an article in your client’s blog to the product from those particular key words.  You know you need to be linking from something that’s more relevant to their interests, their concerns and, as Pip’s just said, you need to be steering your writing more towards what they’re interested in in general and obviously you might have to go back to your client and have a bit of a tussle with them and sort of say, “No, people aren’t interested in that but here’s the link, here’s a screenshot of people discussing it.  I didn’t see anybody mentioning Functionality A.  They were all talking about this Functionality B that either it has and we haven’t mentioned, or it doesn’t have and we could include in a future product.”

PW: Yeah, exactly, exactly and that goes to show why key word research is also an important part of copywriting.  It’s very similar actually to market research.  There’s a tool offered by Google for free called the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool, is it called?  Something along those lines.

LH: If you search for Google Keyword Tool you’ll find it.

PW: Yeah and what that does you can search for a word or a phrase and it tells you how many people search for that per month and how much competition there is and it also suggests alternatives.  Now from the information they give you you could easily spend a week analysing it but often for smaller jobs you know you’ve no desire or need to do that but what you can see is that if 350 people a month are searching for one term but 35,000 people a month are searching for another it also gives you an idea of people’s priorities and interests and also the way they’re wording them, which is important for SEO writing.

LH: Definitely.

PW: So hopefully that’s been helpful in terms of giving you an idea of where to start really when copywriting and how to put aside your own style and preferences and also how to tackle trying to persuade your client to put aside theirs if necessary.

LH: Yeah.  I mean often the proof’s in the pudding with the clients.  You know don’t be surprised if they resent you for it at first.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: You know they can get really, really grumpy and it’s like, “Well you don’t know.  You don’t work in my sector” you know especially in very male dominated sectors.

PW: Yeah.

LH: I get it, you know, “Some young filly’s just come in and she’s telling us what we already… she’s teaching grandma to suck eggs” and I just have to keep schtum until the results come in that were far better than the results they were getting in the first place and then it’s like, “Don’t worry.  Don’t all apologise at once.  It’s fine” you know because it doesn’t matter.  You know people get precious and now, hopefully, Pip and I have given you a bit of a heads up that it’s not personal, it’s just it can be counterintuitive for them to say, “Okay, well I’m the expert in my subject but she’s the expert in writing about my subject.”

PW: Yeah, yeah exactly.

Now it is time for our Little Bird recommendations where we choose a blog post, a phone app, a Tweet, a piece of software or a bit of advice that we would like to recommend to listeners.

So, Lorrie, what is your Little Bird recommendation this week?

LH: My Little Bird recommendation this week is based on something I mentioned in the last episode and that was my solo episode about how to get started as a freelance writer and I talked a lot about how important training is, and it really, really is.  You know I do at least two or three training courses a month.

PW: Yep, the same.

LH: Yeah and if you find yourself with a spare bit of time, I know that Pip’s exactly the same, you know try and get in a little bit of training even if, and it does count, even if it’s just a bit of reading.

PW: Oh absolutely, yeah.

LH: 100% you know, it all helps.

PW: Yeah.  One of my main things that I learn from is I listen to podcasts compulsively [laughs] and I learn so much from them, especially because I do a lot of tech writing I need to be up to date and there are endless numbers of tech podcasts, so it keeps me informed.  So yeah, it doesn’t have to be formal study, although that’s good as well.

LH: Yeah but imagine if you were in a lecture hall listening to somebody rather than listening to a podcast it’s all the same thing.

PW: And these are the experts, you know, like people from Google who really know what they’re talking about.

LH: Yeah and you wouldn’t be able to secure an audience for those sorts of…

PW: Never, no.

LH: You’d never ever get near them.  So a podcast, yeah, is a brilliant way.

PW: Especially a very good freelance writing one.

LH: Yes that’s pretty stunning.  If I was going to choose any I’d probably go with the A Little Bird Told Me.

PW: I think so.

LH: Freelance Writing podcast.

PW: Yeah.

LH: No bias.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: So yeah, I was having a nosy around on the net and as I mentioned in the last episode I tend to spend a lot of time on OpenLearn, which is the Open University’s free training section, and alison.com, which is mmm, it can be hit and miss but it’s all free training courses and they’re quite interactive, they’re usually quite pointy clicky.  So you know it’s a good place to be going around and I was looking to broaden my horizons a little bit and I spotted what’s quite an old, it’s about three years old, two and half, three years old now, it’s quite an old article but it’s still quite useful and it’s on something called freelancefolder.com, and it’s, ‘10 amazing free online writing courses’ it’s called, and I expected this article to be stuff like you know how to write a limerick or how to write a sentence you know because people will spin articles about anything just to get people to click, of course they will, but when I actually clicked on it you’ve got things like ‘Learn to Write a Feasibility Study’.

PW: Wow, that’s a very specific skill.

LH: Very much so and it taps into, quite nicely actually, it taps into what we were saying about copywriting being a skill rather than a talent.  You can’t just be naturally good at writing a feasibility study.

PW: Yes, yeah you need to know what you’re doing.

LH: This is it.  You know you need that specific skill set.  You’ve got the intensive grammar workshop, which is just so brilliant, it’s fabulous and it gives anybody who’s starting out, it’s good for people who are starting out as a copywriter and want to make sure that they’ve got all their grammar down pat.  It’s good for non-native English speakers.

PW: And for proofreaders as well.

LH: Yes, yeah and it even says, “Remember that poor grammar can cost you a gig” and it’s true.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: So you know the sources are actually quite good.  Some of them are from about.com, which I think is really unrated actually.

PW: Yeah, it does often have some really good information.

LH: It really does.  I do like about.com and I do like wikihow.com.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Because often these sites are populated by very, very good writers who want to get back links from what are huge, huge high traffic sites.  I mean these sites are massive and if you did have a back link from those sites that would do you the world of good.  So the content on those sites is really very, very good, even though we’re just looking at, you know, sites with text on them.  So if you’re receptive to reading things and you’re not looking for a podcast about.com and wikihow.com are great for different types of writing and learning how to go about getting started and you can often find templates on there…

PW: Aha.

LH: …for various kinds of writing.  So as Pip mentioned in a previous episode, I think it was when we were talking about writing the perfect press release, they’re a good place to start looking, they’re really, really helpful.

You’ve got other available courses; you’ve got technical writing, marketing writing tips.  Now a couple of the links are broken but the sites are still there.  So if you just go back it looks like the page has been moved on the website.

PW: Ah right, yeah.

LH: So I think it’s No. 9 and No. 10, which are ‘Marketing Writing Tips’ and ‘Creative Writing 101’, they’ve been moved.  Now I’ve had a click through the ‘Creative Writing 101’ and it’s quite clear where the rest of the course has gone.  It’s there, it’s just it’s been revised I believe.

PW: Aha.

LH: You know and this article’s just really, really helpful.  It tells you kind of what to expect.  There’s just loads of really useful, interesting stuff on there and it underlines the importance, I think, of taking on a variety of training courses.

You know I try and… I’ve got a list of courses that I want to do in a whole year and I try and choose like a couple that I’m really, really into and a couple that I’m kind of dreading.

PW: Yes, I’m exactly the same.  I do some just for the love of it and I do others because I know I really should, that I would benefit from it but it doesn’t inflame passion in me [laughs].

LH: No, like ‘Videography’ and ‘Audio Recording’ and stuff like that, it’s just not my cup of tea at all, whereas ‘Introduction to Fiction Writing’, you know seeing what a certain training provider is suggesting the ‘Fiction Writing’ but I find that interesting.

PW: Yeah, exactly.

LH: You know, so that would be my recommendation of the week you know.

PW: It’s a very good one.

LH: And I suppose one more point I would make is that these are all courses aimed at freelancers.

PW: Yeah.

LH: They’re all at freelancefolder.com.  So they’ve been collated with freelancers and self-employed people in mind.

PW: Brilliant, brilliant.

Now my recommendation; earlier this year we both… we did some episodes, I think there was a dual episode and two solo episodes all about money and how to decide what to charge I did a solo episode about, Lorrie did one about how to increase your rates and we do know that for freelancers, especially people who are starting out, knowing what to charge is a big issue, people find it incredibly difficult.  Now in those earlier episodes, which I’ll link to in the show notes, we went through a few different ways of deciding how much to charge and how to go about it but my recommendation this week is a freelance billable rate calculator.

LH: Ooo.

PW: Ooo.  It’s on a site called Micro Business Hub, which I hadn’t come across before.

LH: No, I’ve not heard of that one either.

PW: But they actually coded and created this calculator and if you’re the kind of person who really wants to drill down to the penny and get it exactly right without taking any risks, or not even necessarily without taking risks, but who wants to…

LH: So you want to pounce at every single penny?

PW: That’s it, that’s it, you don’t want to miss anything out, you don’t want to forget about an important cost, this is the calculator for you.  It covers everything.  It has basically lots of different fields to fill in about how much you spend on marketing, how much you spend on insurance, entertainment and then how much you want to earn and then also a section about how much you work, so how many days you work a week, how many weeks you work a year, how many bank holidays there are even, and then it gives you a calculation of your hourly billable rate, what it should be or what it needs to be to meet your own goals.

Now what I like about this is there are lots of people I know who would love to do it in this much detail.  I’m not one of them.  I’m happy…

LH: [Laughs] I’m glad you said that because neither am I.

PW: I know.  I am happy working it out on a reasonably informal basis.  It’s still based on calculations and it has a basis in reality but some people feel much more comfortable knowing that everything is accounted for.

The other thing I like about this is first of all it’s based on UK earnings.  So first of all there’s just the novelty of it not coming out with a dollar sign at the end, it comes out with a pound sign instead, and that’s rare when you’re doing any kind of money calculation online, but also it has tax information at the top in terms of Income Tax and VAT, and it’s just a really comprehensive way of going about working out your fees and you can also get the report at the end emailed to you.

LH: Oh that’s helpful.

PW: It is.

LH: It’s surprising that that’s free actually.

PW: Absolutely and this site, Micro Business Hub, have coded the form themselves.  A woman called Jo Waltham has done it and the comments underneath the calculator are also really positive people.  Stunningly simple but brilliant for instance.  It’s… and I think…

LH: People say that about me all the time!

PW: They do, stunningly simple they say [laughs].  So that’s my recommendation.

If you’re unsure about your earnings, you’re not sure you’ve calculated it right or you’re not sure you’re asking for the right amount of money check out the freelance billable rate calculator along with the link to Lorrie’s recommendation is in our show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

So goodness me, Episode 30 is complete.

LH: That’s more than me.

PW: I know.  It’s not quite me but it’s more than you.  The podcast is older than you and yet you’re in the first episode, which is almost magic!

LH: Possibly.  I’m going to have to go away and think about that one.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: I haven’t had a coffee yet, so once I’ve had a coffee I’m sure it’ll make more sense.

PW: Thank you very much for listening and for supporting the podcast through 30 episodes.  We’re really proud we’ve got this far and we’re really glad that people are enjoying it.  We’re getting great feedback and we love it.  So do get in touch.

LH: And tell us we are marvellous, we love to hear it.  We don’t bite.  If you’ve got any questions about this podcast, any other podcast episodes that we’ve recorded, any questions about anything at all really, keep it decent but you know come and have a chat with us, come and ask us.

PW: Thank you so much for listening.  I have been Philippa Willits.

LH: And I, for the 30th time, have been Lorrie Hartshorn and we will catch you next time.

 

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Podcast Episode 29: How to Get Started as a Freelance Writer

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In this brilliant solo episode, Lorrie goes into detail about how to prepare for starting out as a freelance writer, and what to do and where to go to start finding work.

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Transcript

Hello, and welcome to Episode 29 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, including RSS, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there will be plenty of tips, tricks and topics – that gets easier to say every time! – to enjoy. And you can also find links to my websites and social media feeds, as well as those of my lovely co-host Philippa.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is a solo one, which means that you’ll have to tune in next week to get another fix of the lovely Pip. This week, I’m going to be taking things back to basics a little bit, and talking about what to do if you want to become a freelance writer but you don’t really know where to start. This episode is actually in response to a query from one of our listeners, Tracy, who got in touch via our Facebook page and asked for some advice on this very topic.

Writer's Stop

Writer’s Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

She wrote: “Could you do a show for those of us who want to become freelance writers but have no idea of how to do that? I don’t even know how to get started.” Which is actually a pretty brave thing to admit to. It’s actually really common that freelance writers feel stumped at first – there’s so much to consider when going freelance that I’d be worried if you weren’t a bit overwhelmed at first.

I’ve had a think, and come up with a few tips to help you get started.

Ask yourself why you want to go freelance: are you a good writer? Do you have a genuine understanding of what a freelance copywriting career is like? Do you understand the different kinds of writing there are out there? Do you have realistic expectations when it comes to working from home? Do you understand fully that turning your passion into a full-time, self-employed position can really put a dampener on it? Are you ready to be your own marketing team, admin person, finance department, training and development team? Are you self-disciplined and pro-active? Do you try and find answers for yourself before you ask others? You’ll be working on your own for the vast majority of your time as a freelance and your clients expect you to have the answers –  often to questions you’ve no idea about. But they’re paying you to know your stuff, so your knowledge, your research skills and your motivation have to stay right up there.

Ask yourself if you’re a good writer as well as a good communicator:

Are you comfortable communicating with people at all levels – including board level – as a representative of your own company? Are you able to sweet talk people face-to-face and over the phone? Are you ready to schmooze and flatter and laugh at people’s jokes and find the one thing you can relate to in a conversation with a potentially important prospect at a networking event? Or would you clam up? Can you chase leads? Can you negotiate rates, deadlines and contracts to suit you as well as your client, while coming across as assertive and fair rather than petulant? The last thing you want to do is fail to really take on board all these challenges – it’s better to face them before you get started so you can identify and hopefully tackle any gaps. Many of these skills can be learnt – so don’t be horrified if you’ve never done this stuff before. But, if you’re listening and thinking that this all sounds like your worst nightmare, there’s definitely an issue.

Ask yourself whether you’re good enough as a writer: this sounds like a pretty harsh piece of advice, but the key to being a successful freelance writer has to, of course, be having the right skill set. As Pip and I have said many times before, decent grammar does not a copywriter make. There’s a lot more to it – read blogs by any freelance copywriters and you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved – but at the end of the day, you do have to have that basic talent – as well as the ability and the stamina to carry on writing and improving your writing every working day for the rest of…well, forever! You need to be able to express yourself (and your client, and a marketing message) through writing, and you need to be able to do it well, relatively quickly, and time and time again.

Ask yourself if you’re in a secure enough position to go freelance. Even if you’re going freelance for all the right reasons and you reckon you’ll be great at it, life happens. As Pip and I have mentioned before, it might take ages for you to find clients. Clients might take ages to get back to you. You might have to wait a month (or more if you’re writing for magazines) before you get paid. In the meantime, bills need paying and life needs living, so think carefully and take a good look at your financial situation before you go freelance. Don’t take a “carpe diem” attitude to it because you’re likely to spend the next three months sleeping on someone else’s sofa and eating rice and carrots.

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Of course, working around a full- or part-time job means that you’ll have to do your freelance writing in the early morning or in the evening – or just whenever you find yourself with a free moment (kiss goodbye to lunch breaks!). But, it’s a good opportunity to work out whether freelancing is for you. It’s a good chance to see if you work well under pressure and whether your writing is still flowing after three or four weeks of boring press releases or brochures or websites. Better still, it’s a safe opportunity, and it won’t leave you penniless if it doesn’t work out.

So, if you’re sure that you’re ready to be a freelance writer and you’ve got as many of those challenges I’ve mentioned covered as possible, it’s time to take some steps towards actually getting started. Again, I’ll try and keep this brief, but once you’ve got these ideas down, you can go off and do your research at leisure.

Make sure you’ve got all your basics in place before you go freelance – will help you hit the ground running (service offerings, hourly or other rates, business plan, marketing plan, website, social media feeds, CV…) Starting a freelance career with only a vague idea of where you’re headed and what you’re doing isn’t necessarily a fatal mistake but it’s likely to be a costly one, and one that will waste a lot of time for you. You need to be sure about what you’re going to be doing so that as soon as an opportunity arises, you know where it fits.

So what are you going to do for the first month of your freelance career? The first three months? The first year? What training are you going to do? If you’re stuck on how to set goals for yourself, I’d suggest having a listen to our first podcast of 2013, which was all about how to set SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-sensitive and timely – goals.

What services will you offer? Will you have one main service and some little ones, or a range of equally balanced services? Do you know how to edit (and it’s NOT the same as copywriting, so don’t assume!) or proof-read?

Have you got your website and social media feeds up, running and populated with interesting and engaging information? Have you positioned yourself well in the market by looking at your competitors? If there’s a particularly sector you want to work in, do you know who the big players are and who their movers and shakers are? Do you know your trade press publications? Do you know the most popular websites and blogs in that area? These are all things you need to know in order to build a big picture of the world you’re going into. Knowledge is power.

What kinds of writing will you be doing? Do you have a unique selling point – or USP? Are there any sectors you’re going to target specifically? Are there any areas you don’t want to work in? I, for example, learned early on in my career (when most of my work was translation) that I’m not cut out for writing legal stuff. I don’t enjoy translating contracts and it’s not something I feel able to deliver well on. However, if you had, say, a couple of years’ experience as a paralegal – or if you’d taken a law degree – you might well find that this could be a specialist service you offer. Legal writing. So  you’d research that area, find out how other people are marketing themselves and try and go one better. Better website, better SEO, better offerings,  better testimonials, etter rates, whatever.

While I’m not going to be able to cover all of the points I’ve mentioned here, if you have a look through the back catalogue of episodes that Pip and I have recorded for you, you’ll see that a lot of it is covered in really good detail. We’ve talked about the skills you need as a freelance writer, we’ve talked about how to set your rates and then improve them when the time comes. We’ve talked about on- and off-site SEO, which gives you a really good idea on how to market yourself across digital channels. There really is a lot to learn if you have a listen, so be pro-active and have a root through the archives!

Create a reputation: it can be easy to get caught up in the whole, “I don’t have experience so I can’t get experience!” train of thought when you’re starting out. But, in my opinion, it’s just a matter of keeping on looking for the right opportunities and continuing to market yourself. I’ve seen a lot of people advising freelancers to build a portfolio of work by working for free – and while it’s a fair point, it’s not something I think is necessary. I think that, if you create a strong online brand, and you back that up with sustained marketing efforts and a professional persona, you’re on the right track. I don’t accept that working for free is a necessary starting point, and I’d question any for-profit company that wants you to give them writing in return for vague things that won’t pay the bills, like “exposure” or “experience”.

But, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t work at building your reputation. Get yourself on a forum or a blog and leave insightful comments. If you’ve had salaried positions before – or even informal freelance gigs – email or phone the person you worked for and ask them for a testimonial. Get them to endorse you on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to show you can do a good job. Make sure the copy on your website is spot on. Take the assertive approach – represent yourself as the expert you want to be (and should be training to be), market yourself consistently and I’m confident you’ll be able to build a reputation as someone people should consider hiring.

If you want more information on working for free, Pip and I did cover in detail why we both think that’s a bad idea in episode four. We did point out that volunteer writing  or guest-posting on blogs is a good way to fill the gap – if you really feel like you want to get some real life experience and some articles to show new prospects, then these are effective ways to go about it.  What we’re really warning against is 1) thinking that working for free is an inevitable rite of passage for freelance copywriters and 2) thinking that for-profit companies have a right to get work from you for nothing. Start out as you mean to go on, and value yourself. It’s a good way to get other people – clients! – to do the same thing.

Immerse yourself in freelancing – and learn about the great resources out there

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: Pascal Maramis)

One of the great things about setting out as a freelance copywriter is that it’s almost completely free. You definitely pay for it in other ways – time, stress, a super steep learning curve – but in terms of initial financial outlay, we’re lucky in that the only things we absolutely really need to pay for are a domain name and hosting for a website. In this day and age, it’s not really OK to have a site with some long-winded name, so choose a domain carefully and get your site up and running. WordPress is a really easy-to-learn tool and an easy-to-manage CMS system – both Pip and I use it for our websites and blogs – so I’d definitely recommend you get on there and start having a play around as soon as you even think you might go freelance. I upload work for several clients directly to their WordPress, so it can actually come in handy for other reasons as well.

But yes, to go back to the point, while you might be living off savings while you get started as a freelancer, the costs are minimal if you’re pro-active and finding freebies doesn’t mean skimping on quality. Social media marketing is free. Signing up for newsletters from brilliant sites like Write to Done and Copyblogger is free. Chatting on forums (or fora, if we’re being correct) is free. Asking advice from other freelancers, as our listener Tracy has done, is free. Producing content for your site, free. Finding creative commons licensed images to spruce your articles up – free. Training courses on sites like Alison.com and Open Learn by the Open University – all 100% free. So there’s no excuse not to absolutely max out all of these resources as you build a freelance career – and to keep on doing so as you progress. Training and development is hugely important, so don’t let it slide. When you’re the only person representing your business, and you’re the only thing between you and bankruptcy, you can’t kid yourself and you can’t pretend. You need to knuckle down and educate yourself.

Finally, finding work:

We’re all totally different, so the way we find work will differ. You might be looking for B2B clients, you might be looking for B2C clients. You might want to write for magazines and newspapers, you might want to write for charities, social enterprises and non-profits. And just as your target market will differ depending on your strengths, weaknesses, preferences, personal experience etc. so will your method of finding work. The best piece of advice I can give you, once you’ve got your own house in order with website, marketing etc., is know your target market and put yourself in people’s ways. That might mean collecting data from a sector specific conference and emailing people you’d be interested in working for. It might mean going to a networking event and collecting business cards. It might involve cold-calling and taking 100 rejections until you get a “maybe” from someone. It might involve adding people on Twitter at a time when you know their company is going through some big changes. Or connecting with someone on LinkedIn. Or bidding for jobs on reputable copywriting sites like peopleperhour.com or constant content.

There’s no magic formula, sadly, otherwise way more people would be freelancers. The key is to know what you’re doing, to manage yourself and your time (and your money!) wisely, and to pitch and market yourself consistently. We’re talking hours every day while you’re getting started – and remember that this will never stop. As Pip said in a recent episode, your little black book of contacts will never be full.

So, I really hope that this has been a useful introduction into how to get started as a freelance writer. As I said, this is in response to a query we’ve had from a listener – we really do take feedback on board and we’re happy to cover the topics that you want to hear! We’ll be ploughing ahead with our own podcast calendar in the coming weeks, but if you’ve had a listen to this and you think there’s a question you’d like to ask, why not pop by our social media feeds? Both Pip and I are on Facebook and Twitter, and we’ve also got a Facebook page for the podcast itself, so we’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, let us know what you think to today’s tips. Are they spot on? Have I missed something crucial out? Drop us a line and tell us what you think. Tell us how you got into freelancing. Share some of the mistakes and wins you’ve had along the way. Help out listeners like Tracy who are just taking those first few steps.

I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and as ever, thanks for listening – we’ll catch you next time.

 

Podcast Episode 28: The 11 biggest myths about professional copywriting

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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There are lots of myths and fallacies around about what being a freelancer really involves. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I talk about 11 of the most prevalent ones, and thoroughly debunk them!

Show Notes

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

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And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!

Transcript

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

LH: Hello and welcome to episode 28 of A Little Bird Told Me: the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful self-employment. You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and from there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, and you can also find the link to our Facebook page, which is full of information about past episodes and topics of interest to freelancers. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts, and today we’re going to be discussing the 11 biggest myths about freelance writing! There are an awful lot of things that people believe, some of which are true and some of which are so far off the mark that it’s slightly ridiculous. So what we’re going to go through today are our top 11 myths about professional copywriting in particular.

LH: I think it’s important to say at this point that they’re out top 11, not because of some complicated mathematical thing, but because they were the first things that made us go, “Oooooh, and that!”

PW: Yes, we don’t have algorithms! Haha!

LH: No, but I think we’ve been in the business quite a number of years between us – and quite a number of years each, actually – so I reckon that “things that make us go ‘Ooooh’” is a pretty good measure.

So, my first myth – and it’s based on my experiences as a recruiter in the copywriting industry – is that if you’ve got the internet and a basic grasp of English, you can do it!

At the risk of being melodramatic – and I did try and think of better examples for this! – this is like saying if you’ve got a pencil and decent eyesight, you can be Leonardo Da Vinci. OK, OK, I know we’re not artistic geniuses, but the number of times I’ve had people apply to me and say, “I have no copywriting experience at all but my grammar is pretty decent”. Honestly, it’s happened A LOT.

Now, a good knowledge of English and an internet connection is the bare minimum requirement to even putting fingers to keyboard. But it’s nowhere near enough: it’s YEARS OFF being enough. You need to understand what you’re doing, not just the theoretical stuff behind the words you might end up using. And I’m not being glib – I have two language degrees, so I’m not reducing them, or language degrees, or language skills to nothing, but writing isn’t the same as copywriting. Copywriting – and content writing, because they are different – is what you do when you understand a product, a service, a client, an audience, a platform, plus all the market research out there on your particular topic or theme. It takes years of effort and training to become a good content or copywriter – not just goodwill and an open Word document!

PW: There’s all that understanding that Lorrie’s mentioned that you have to have in mind for any piece of copywriting work, plus all the theoretical understanding as well. Like Lorrie said, you can’t just have the theory, or you’ll really struggle, but the theory does have to play a part – you can’t just go, “Oh well, I can write good stories!” for instance. Although we are going to go into that later, I believe…?

LH: Yes, we are. So, on to the next copywriting myth we’re going to explode…

PW: OK, the first one I chose is that freelancers just mess about all day and don’t do any real work.

LH: Haha, I wish!

PW: After the last few weeks I’ve had, I cannot dispute this strongly enough!

LH: She really, really can’t! Haha!

PW: Poor Lorrie’s my accountability partner and she knows every single piece of work I’ve done.

LH: Inside out!

PW: And there have been a lot! And, you know, sure, I can choose my own hours and I don’t have to wear a suit, but that doesn’t mean the work we do isn’t real work, and it doesn’t mean I don’t bother doing any at all. My bills need paying, just like everyone else’s do, and if I did no work I wouldn’t get paid.

LH: Yeah, it always makes me laugh when people say, “Ohh, come on – just nip out with me!” or “You’re so lucky, you can do what you want all day.”. I’m always like “Yeah, if I want to starve next month!”. You have to be so disciplined, especially – and I do! – when you’ve got people who don’t really ‘get’ working from home and so can be a bit of a bad influence when they want you to hang out during ‘work hours’. They see you sitting at home doing ‘something’ on your laptop, and from an outside perspective, it’ll just look like you’re messing about on the internet.

PW: Yeah, often the vast majority of the research you do will be online. So it might look like you’re reading Wikipedia for fun, but you’re actually getting access to scientific articles on something you don’t yet understand.

LH: I love that we have to specify that we actually read Wikipedia for fun. Someone could look at us and go, “Oh, she’s just reading Wikipedia for fun again…” and it would be true.

PW: Yeah, and it’s not that freelance writers don’t procrastinate, because we certainly do, but no more than any other professional who has internet access. So what about myth number three?

LH: Myth number three: you can quit your job and start making a living as a writer tomorrow. Wrong! Haha! Both Pip and I, and every other freelance writer I know, started out small and worked our way up. I worked full time for years while I learnt the ropes, spending time learning about marketing, administration, writing, grammar, editing, summarising, paraphrasing, SEO, sales copy, B2B copy, B2C copy…you name it. That’s just a fraction of what I’ve learnt over the last ten years. And it’s a bit of a tragedy, because I’ve known a number of people who quit a job on impulse, with the idea of making it big – they’ve ended up moving back home with their parents while they try and work out why they’re not making enough to cover their weekly snack budget, let alone their rent.

PW: And that’s the last thing as an adult that you ever want to do – I never could.

LH: Great if you’ve got the option, but I think it’s far from what most people would want.

PW: I saved for a while before I started freelancing full-time, because you can’t expect to jump into it and get a full-time salary. At least three months’ salary is what I’d recommend saving before you leave your job or whatever.

LH: Absolutely. There’s no guarantee that where you hunt for clients will be rich pickings, or you might find clients in an unusual sector, so research will be needed. Or, you need to set up meetings with people, or you chat to someone and they seem really keen but then say that they’ll get back to you in three weeks.

PW: Or, someone says, do the work now and I’ll pay you at the end of the month. Often the best way to do it is to start building up freelance work while you’re still doing other paid work. And hopefully you get to the point where you’re making enough on the side, and have enough clients, that you can make freelancing into your full-time position.

LH: You tip the balance eventually. There comes a point when you have to take the plunge eventually. There came a point when I was working full-time where I had no more free time because I had so much freelance work. I would suggest to anyone considering going into freelance work that you don’t give up your day job until you have so much freelance work that you can’t carry on with both.

PW: That’s it – when you realise you’re too busy or you’re earning more on the side than you’re earning in your day job, that’s the ideal time to take the leap.

PW: So, on to Myth Number Four: “I wouldn’t be able to get a business to hire me, I don’t have business contacts or experience!” I thought this too, but then I started marketing myself. Most copywriters don’t start out with a black book full of business contacts, but that’s what marketing is for. That’s the way you let people know you exist, and if you are persuasive you might get the gig. Yes, I was astounded the first time it happened too, but once it does, and you do it again and again, you get more and more business gigs and then the contacts start! Similarly, you might never have worked in a particular sector, but given the variety of business sectors you will end up getting work from, you’d have to have a really chequered work history to have worked in them all! That’s why the skill that’s just as important as being able to write is being able to research. You learn the niches as you go, if you need to.

LH: Definitely. I started out with the contacts I had, then friends of friends, alongside marketing myself. What it’s meant is that I have B2B experience in waste management, recycling, environmental services and renewables, and that’s blossomed organically, and then I have dots of experience in other sectors because you never know who’s going to get in touch.

PW: That’s one of the joys of freelancing – you have no idea what a new client will want from you.

LH: I do love it, but when a client gets in touch – particularly by phone – and says, “Do you have any experience in…cupcakes?!”

PW: “I like eating them!”

LH: Or, “I could have, for the right client!”

PW: Haha! “What is it exactly you’re after?”

LH: Yes, “Tell me more about you…please!” But yes, it’s organic and, as Pip says, you don’t start out with a book of clients who are sitting there waiting for you to get in touch. Often, it’s just about putting yourself in people’s way, so keeping an eye on markets, content marketing trends etc. is a really important thing to do. You start to be able to predict who might need content marketing services from you and that way, I’ve found social media really good – I can start following people in that sector, and without spamming them, or being salesy, I’ll get contact from them, saying, “How brilliant that you just added me on Twitter!”.

PW: Yes, and it looks like an accident, but if they knew what had gone into it – how many times you’d read their LinkedIn and social media profiles, but if you do it right, it looks like a lovely coincidence.

LH: So yes, it’s about filling the black book. You won’t have a full one when you start out and, if you do, you should’ve started a lot sooner!

PW: And it’s never full, either – if you think, “I know everyone in my sector”, you’re really limiting yourself. You should always keep your eye open for new people, even when you’re too busy to take more people on, you should always be nurturing those relationships because you’re going to need them eventually.

LH: Definitely – don’t discount anyone. Your book won’t stay full because, just as clients might grow and decide they need a copywriter, but then they might grow again and decide that they need an in-house copywriter – and it’s bye-bye you!

PW: Or, they might see how you do it for six weeks, then go, “OK, I’ve learnt now.” And do it themselves. And it might not be ideal for us – or them, to be honest – but it does happen!

LH: So, on to the fifth myth! If you’re talented enough, your clients will find you. It’s not true. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, your clients won’t find you unless you put yourself out there.

PW: Yes, why would they? I remember, when I started out, I decided to create a website, so I did and then I was like, “Tadaaa!” And then I kind of went, “Oh no!” and it all struck home – why on Earth would anyone find it and just give me work? What was I thinking?! My whole plan collapsed into logic! You may be the best writer on the topic of sociological research, but if nobody knows, it doesn’t matter.

LH: And if you’re not engaging with anyone, no one cares. People want to work with you, rather than working with your website. To be honest, creating a website is the bare minimum of what you need in terms of marketing, but the fact is that I’ve seen frankly mediocre copywriters do really well because they put themselves out there. Their branding and marketing and online and offline presence…it’s all fabulous.

PW: Often it is those who shout the loudest rather than those who are the best.

LH: Statistically, if you get all that work and you do an OK job, you’ll do fine. What you can’t afford to do as a copywriter is to be an ‘author’ – and I am a creative writer as well, so I’m not trying to slate anyone – and get a bit precious. “I don’t want to promote myself – I want my work to speak for itself!”

PW: And that may well be OK if you’re Ian Rankin, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but when you’re not those people it’s unlikely to happen. And in commercial copywriting, it’s just not going to happen. People won’t be reading your press release just because it’s so beautiful.

LH: So Pip, the next myth please!

PW: The next copywriting myth is that company x, y or z will already have writers on their staff, so there’s no point approaching them. You might be surprised, actually. Lots of businesses feel they can’t justify paying full-time copywriters, and are happier outsourcing their work. Or they might have marketing staff who normally write their copy, but who sometimes need people to take their overflow. Even the biggest of companies use freelancers, and the only way you’ll know if they’ll hire you is to approach them. Writers and PR staff are – unfortunately for them – the kinds of people who have been made unemployed in downsizing initiatives, so you might be more likely to get this work as a freelancer than as a staff writer. So despite the recession, you might actually be more likely to get this kind of work as a freelancer rather than a staff writer.

I’m doing some work at the moment for a big internet company that I can’t name – you’d think companies that size would have writers in house, but you’d be surprised.

LH: Just to go back to one point you’ve made about companies having marketing staff who need overflow writers. I’m more familiar with B2B than B2C, to be honest, but what you’ll often find is that your marketing managers and directors are friends of friends, or relatives. Now I don’t mean to put them down – they’ll usually have a really in-depth knowledge of the sector and that’s why they’re there – or they’ll have been pulled in from a sales-marketing role somewhere else. A lot of these trade/industrial companies don’t have too deep an awareness of the softer side of marketing. To them, marketing will be doing a poster, doing a flyer, getting in Yellow Pages…

PW: TV ads…

LH: Yes, so that kind of marketing manager – or director – aren’t the best people for writing copy. Often, the literacy levels aren’t that great, the grammar might not be fabulous, or they might just not have time to sit down and write something. And again, social media is greatly untapped in the B2B sector.

PW: Yes, definitely. Another way you might end up being hired by a big company might be even more indirect that what Lorrie just described – you might end up getting taken on by a marketing agency. And those agencies tend to take on a lot of copywriters. It’s often through agencies that we end up doing work for the biggest clients – if you contacted one of these huge companies, they might turn you down, but via an agency you’re in with a chance.

LH: We should point out at this point that you should never try and contact an agency’s clients directly if you’ve been taken on. When you work for an agency, you’ll probably sign something that will make it illegal for you to do so, but even if you haven’t, it’s just really, really bad practice. You’ll get blacklisted for it by everyone.

PW: Definitely. So, what was your next myth pick?

LH: If you enjoy writing, you’ll make a good copywriter. Now, it might sound a bit counter-intuitive but actually, in some cases, the opposite is quite likely to be true. I’ve encountered people in the past who are avid writers, full of fabulous ideas, able to build up characters and a story from nothing, and superb at shocking readers with a fabulous twist in the tale. So when you get someone like that being asked to draft a B2B case study about dairy farming technologies, suitable for industry experts and high level stakeholders, it can be a big culture shock.

Now, I’ve also seen people whose idea of ‘creativity’ and ‘artistic vision’ – something we mentioned earlier – gets in the way of both their work and their freelance career. To be blunt, not much of the work I do as a freelance copywriter gets anywhere near my ‘artistic vision’. In my spare time, I enjoy literary fiction, poetry, cinema and feminism. At work – and yes, I am at work even if I’m at home – I can bang out a press release about waste management technologies for local councils faster than you can eat a bowl of cornflakes. Because it’s what I do at work. I can also put aside the fact that I love writing, and do my tax returns. Or my marketing. Or my research. Or my training. It definitely isn’t enough that I love writing. Sometimes, it feels like that could get in the way of my copywriting.

PW: Yes. There are definitely transferable skills. The ability to write a story can be really important for commercial copywriting as well as in creative fiction writing – it’s great for sales copy, for humanising a brand. There are skills that are relevant to both, but if you only want to do fiction, and write short stories and novels, you may well be an extremely frustrated copywriter because you won’t get from this what you get from that. Now I know Lorrie and I both do commercial work, while I also do media work and Lorrie does literary work, but we both spend a lot of time on the commercial stuff.

LH: I think, if you weren’t careful, you could end up resenting the work that is actually your job.

PW: Yes definitely. I mean, we both work hard to involve other interests in our paid work, and that’s why people contact Lorrie for literary editing; it’s why I write for newspapers and magazines as well. But if you only want to write for The Guardian or you only want to do literary editing, you’ll be frustrated writing for BP and, as Lorrie suggests, you might not be any good at it. Even if you’re brilliant at the other stuff.

LH: It’s important to add that you should consider your freelance work in the same way you’d consider a salaried position. You wouldn’t go into an office and spent six of eight hours doing a half-hearted job and thinking, “Oh, I wish I was writing about something else.” You go in, you do your job, and you do whatever you want after you’ve done your job. That’s the way it goes. It’s not fair on your clients if you try and somehow shape the work they need you to do into what you wish you were doing. Most people would prefer not to do a job, I think – we’d all love to do exactly what we wanted all day, every day. Sometimes I don’t want to write about dairy farming!

PW: And similarly, in previous jobs, we might have gone in and not wanted to do that. It happens.

LH: Exactly. You do a good job. And don’t try and turn copywriting into writing – it’s not the same thing. So, on to the next myth, Pip!

PW: OK, this next myth is something that worried me for a while, and that’s if you do commercial writing you’re a big fat sell-out! Now, the reason I worried about this is that the ethics of what I do are incredibly important to me, so I had to get it right. So, I started right in my business plan, with a long spectrum, with my ideal jobs on the right hand side, and the writing I would never do and companies I would never work for, on the left.

LH: That could be really depressing if you didn’t stick to it!

PW: Yes! I put as many things as I could think of onto that spectrum, from my perfect assignment through to the stuff I wouldn’t do if I was about to starve. Now, the variety of work situations I’d be faced with was much wider than I had anticipated, but each decision has been fairly easy to make, from an ethical point of view. The fact is that there are companies you could write for, or writing you could do, that would go against your own ethics, and those are the companies, or the assignments, that you turn down. Then you’re not selling out. And that’s different for everyone. But, it might be that you decide you can only write for non-profits or companies that promote fair trade, or whatever it is, so those are the companies you market yourself to and deal with. When a multi-national that uses child slavery approaches you, you say no thanks, and you haven’t sold out.

LH: I don’t really have much to add – it’s the perfect way to approach it. OK, yes, you could write for someone who you don’t agree with but you’d feel horrible afterwards. You’d get a few quid in the bank but, and I know I keep going back to it, you wouldn’t do the best job for your client.

PW: No, you absolutely wouldn’t. That’s not to say you can’t write things you disagree with in general, or about things you’re not that interested in…

LH: No, and you don’t have to represent your own point of view – on the contrary, you’re supposed to be representing someone else!

PW: Yes, that’s the whole point of hiring you! And so, we will always have a job or two that just isn’t our thing, but that’s not the same as something you’re fundamentally opposed to. There are ways – even if you have very strong ethical beliefs – to still go about the job without feeling like you’re selling out. What’s your myth number 9, Lorrie?

LH: Myth number 9 is something we covered really early on, and that is you have to work for free at the beginning.

PW: Oh, one of our favourite topics!

LH: Cheeky, nasty copywriters will tell you this. Cheeky, nasty wannabe clients will tell you this. It is not true. Don’t work for free. I’ve never worked for free and I’m doing perfectly well, thank you very much. People will say, “Work for free and I’ll give you a LinkedIn recommendation! And you can put the testimonial on your website! And you can put the work in your portfolio!”

PW: And in reality, you’ll never hear from them again because they’ll have moved on to the next naïve freelancer with the same spiel.

LH: And you’re left with what. I’ve rarely used a portfolio – and when I have, the work I include is from my best clients in relevant industries. People don’t want to see some little out-of-context bit of writing that you did once for some randomer off the internet. That’s not what it’s about. And working for free won’t pay your bills, neither will a LinkedIn recommendation. So don’t let people encourage you to work for free. People sometimes get quite nasty about you wanting to be paid for your work, actually. As though you’re being above yourself!

PW: Yes! And in the episode we did on this topic, we did acknowledge that there are nuances – you might write free for a charity, but that’s volunteering – it’s a different thing. What you don’t do is volunteer for Mr Internet Marketer who’s going to make a profit from your work. And like Lorrie said, they’ll make you feel like you’re unreasonable for wanting to be paid. You’re not – do believe us. Being paid is reasonable, it’s to be expected and you’re not wrong.

LH: The power of shaming, for some reason, has entered the copywriting industry. When you want more than 15p per article, people go, “Oooh, you’re expensive!” and you go, “Oooh, you’re not the write client for me!”

PW: Haha, yes! “Please go away, I don’t want to have this conversation with you!”

LH: So, Pip – on to the penultimate myth!

Blue alarm clock

Blue alarm clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW: Now this is one I wish was true. I so wish it wasn’t a myth! And it’s that you never set your alarm clock again! How I wish this was true! I set my alarm clock most mornings, and I resent it just as much as anyone in a conventional job does! Much as I do enjoy working my own hours of choice, I still have to work constantly with people in all sorts of office jobs, and they expect me to be around the same hours they are. And also, the depressing truth is that when I make an early start, I’m more productive. On the positive, if I need to start work really early, say at 7.45am, I can set my alarm for 7am, whereas if I was in an office job, it’d be more likely to be a 6am start.

LH: Yes, either you get up and be available to your clients, or you don’t. It doesn’t look good to reply to a client at 11.30pm, no matter whether you’re a night owl or not.

PW: Likewise, it doesn’t look good to reply to a client at 11.30am and say, “Sorry, I just got up.”

LH: Yeah, I’m coming to terms with it, but I’m definitely an early bird. I’m just more productive in the morning, whether I like it or not. I’m useless late at night.

PW: You see, I’m OK late at night – I’m rubbish in the middle of the afternoon and then I’m back at it by the evening!

LH: And I know we’re sharing these little secrets here on the podcast, but you don’t go and tell your clients that.

PW: Yes, if you know you’re rubbish in the afternoon, set deadlines for 1pm or 5pm!

LH: Yes, I have breakfast meetings a lot. I don’t have mid-afternoon meetings because I know myself and I know that they’ll be hanging over me all day, even if I’m looking forward to them. I’ll be thinking about them all day – I was always the same with exams.

PW: You have to get to know your own patterns.

LH: Yup. So whether you set your alarm for 6am or 9am…I wouldn’t suggest going any later unless you’ve got very unusual clients or, say, you work for people in the States, set your alarm clock because you have a job to do!

PW: And so our final myth…what is it, Lorrie?

LH: I feel really bad now, because it could be seen as a bit of a downer. And I don’t mean for it to be because I love my job and I love working for myself. But, myth number 11 is that working from home – and I mean the ‘at home’ bit rather than the writing – is an easy gig.

Now, it’s one of the biggest and most enduring myths, which is why I left it for last – it’s an ‘umbrella’ myth for me: the impression that what we do on a day-to-day basis is a bit of an easy ride.

A salami sandwich

A salami sandwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, working from home is a pretty sweet deal. You get up when you want, you go to bed when you want, you work when you want. You don’t have to commute, you don’t have to choose between egg mayonnaise and grated cheese every lunch-time. But, flip it around. You get up, and you stay in the same room or house all day, every day. You have to make a special effort to leave the house, and usually you’ve got to find a reason for it as well. After all, when most people leave the house in the morning, it’s to go to work – not anywhere else. So, if you work at home, a quick resentful walk around the block might be all you can think of! I mean, where else are you going to go? You don’t want to waste too much time, but you need to get out for the sake of your sanity. When you get home, it’s silent. You’ve got no colleagues to bounce ideas off, no hustle and bustle, no jokes, no birthdays, no team-building exercises, no friendly boss for advice and to share your worries with. There’s no training department, no HR department, no accounts department. You’re it. And that’s the essence of working from home – it’s a definite trade-off, and it’s not for everyone.

PW: I do love it. Every problem that Lorrie’s highlighted is absolutely valid. I get to points where I’m climbing the walls and I’m forgetting what other humans look like. And it gets ridiculous but I wouldn’t swap it for an office with other people. However, just because it suits me and lots of people are jealous of me for doing it, doesn’t make it perfect. It can be lonely and you can miss the banter, or just having someone to bounce ideas off. If you’re writing something and you have no idea whether the subject heading is brilliant or awful, having someone at the next desk to talk to…Lorrie and I use each other for that, in many ways. We email throughout the day to be accountable, but also to check our work with each other. It’s not that we hate working from home – we both thoroughly enjoy it – but that doesn’t make it a walk in the park.

LH: Definitely, and I wouldn’t want someone really sociable and really doing OK in a salaried job to quit and think that they’re going to start working from home and it’s going to be a whole world of fun. Because you have to be realistic. You’ve got the difficulty in separating work and home life, plus – and I speak from experience! – the whole convincing-other-people-you’re-actually-working thing.

PW: Aaaaaall the time!

LH: Yes! You’re consistently reminding people that no, you can’t go shopping, no you can’t chat with them on the phone for 45 minutes and no, you definitely can’t watch their kids or take delivery of a package they’re expecting, and it’s not as simple as it looks – you end up offending people. So, there are definitely huge plus points to working from home, but please don’t kid yourself or you’ll be in for a shock! If you’re not sure about it, do something else rather than going 100% freelance.

PW: A lot of companies are more open to the idea of emplyees working from home one day a week now, and more are allowing it and finding that people react well to being trusted. And the ideal policies tend to say, “As long as you get the work done, it doesn’t matter if you get it done at a slightly weird time.” So if you are considering working from home, why not talk to your HR department and see about working from home? Still doing work for your salaried job, of course, but just to see how you get on with it. If it goes well, increase it. It’s a good way to see if it suits you.

LH: I have heard really good things about doing that, but I think I’d find it unsettling. For some reason, I can’t quite say why. I now work for myself, and that seems better for me. But yes, as Pip says, it does seem to be working well for quite a few people now.

PW: Yes, and given how much snow we’ve had recently, employers have had to face the decision of letting people work from home or not having any employees for that day. I think generally, as an employer, the more flexible you allow your staff to be, the more likely they are to be loyal to you.

LH: I agree, actually. Although have you seen on the news websites, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer has banned working from home. And, there are loads of articles about ‘telecommuting’ (which is what they call it in the States) and working from home being a bad idea. I’d question the wisdom of her decision, to be honest, I think this has probably been a resented position to take.

PW: Yes, because there was a lot of expectation about what she was going to do. When she took the Yahoo job, people were giving Yahoo a bit of credit, wondering if she could lift it back up. This is an interesting move with that in mind – it seems like a retrograde move, to me. And it does go to show – and people find this when they’re allowed to work from home in their normal jobs – it’s not all as easy as it sounds.

LH: I wonder if it’s just not been working to have people working from home on a part-time basis. I don’t want to tar people with the same brush, but when friends in salaried positions have a snow day, they do just sit and watch a bit of day-time TV – there’s a “Hehe, I’ve got a day off school!” mentality. I wonder if the novelty hasn’t yet worn off. But, we’re just speculating.

PW: Yes, we are. Now, it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week! My recommendation is a very handy tool called Zemanta. I first came across is as a WordPress plugin, but there’s a much better way to use it. Now, Zemanta is a way of adding context to your blog posts and you can install it as a WordPress plugin, but you can also install it on Firefox or Chrome – it’s much better that way. And then, whenever you write a blog post, Zemanta will suggest photos that can accompany your post, tags you can use and also links for certain keywords in your post, so maybe to a Wikipedia definition.

Now I first had this as a plugin on WordPress, but the problem with that is that plugins slow down your site load time. Site load time is now taken into account in your Google ranking, so you don’t want to mess about with that. Plus visitors get bored waiting for more than a few seconds. When I first used the web in 1995, you’d have to take a book or magazine. You’d click on a link, read three article and then the page would load. I’d set myself up with two computers at Uni, so you could have one going to one link, and one going to the other. These days, happily, people don’t do that. I was looking at some statistics the other day about travel websites and apparently, if clients have to wait three seconds, the vast majority will go to a different site. So yes, have Zemanta as a browser plug-in. It’ll also work on Blogger, Type-Pad, Tumblr – all the major blogging platforms. And all the images are all legal to use – either Creative Commons or public domain. It’s called Zemanta, it’s entirely free and I’ll link to it at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

LH: I think that has to be one of your best recommendations, to be honest. I’m quite resentful – firstly that I didn’t know about it, and secondly, that it’s not my recommendation. My recommendation this week is another blog post from WriteToDone.com and it’s all articles about writing. Aside from Copyblogger, that site is one of my favourites. This article is called Expertise vs Humility: A Writer’s Battle Royale, and it’s been really helpful for me because I’ve recently been advising clients on developing a voice and a brand. I’ve had one particular client who has needed to balance her expert voice with being warm and lovely – she works with children a lot, so her persona needs that careful balance. She wants people to know what she can do, but she doesn’t want to alienate people. It can be difficult not to ride roughshod over other people and bring too much academia into your writing. If you’ve got a lot of weight to what you’re saying, it can be difficult not to be too arrogant.

PW: Especially if you’re British. This is a real issue – Brits hate people who are overly self-promotional. If someone goes on about how brilliant they are, we don’t go, “Oh, aren’t they brilliant?”, we go, “Oh, aren’t they full of themselves?” It’s a national trait, and it’s not a very attractive one.

LH: I’ll defend it slightly. I went on a subscription spree around the blogosphere the other day, and I’ve now unsubscribed from most of them now because it ticks me off so much to hear about how great someone is and how they won the day. I hate it. What I actually thought you were going to say was about how Brits can come across as quite cold in our writing. I imagine that, if we’re experts on something, we can seem quite dry to an audience who’s used to effusiveness. Going back to the post, it says that expertise and humility can go hand in hand, and that humility is an endearing trait. It’s true – I mentioned it recently. People don’t like someone who’s full of themselves – it doesn’t convert well so unless you’re looking at really hard-sell copy, it’s important to get a good balance. Now, this post has some really handy tips. It’s quite a long blog post but the writing is really engaging and accessible, and I think it’ll really help people who are looking to develop a good voice.

PW: It is a tricky balance, and I’ll definitely look up that author when I look at that article. Getting the voice right can be tough, especially in sales writing that’s not ‘hard sell’, so that’s a really good recommendation – thank you!

LH: It’s been really helpful to me, primarily for B2B writing because sometimes it’s hard to write about, say, LED lighting and still come across as a human being.

PW: Yes! Often, when you research an article, you’ll only use say 10% of it. A mistake I see a lot is people saying, “I’ve learnt all this, so I need to get it in.” There’s lots of balances to be found, to be honest.

LH: So I think that just about wraps it up for this episode of A Little Bird Told Me – that’s episode 28, and we’ve been looking at the 11 biggest myths of freelance writing.

PW: Now, are there any other myths you think we’ve missed? Is there something you believed before you started out, or something people say to you a lot that you find ridiculous? If so, come and chat on our Facebook page, which is linked to from our Podomatic page. Or come and have a chat on our social media – all our social media profiles and websites are linked to from there. We love hearing from listeners.

LH: We do – we love having a chat, as you may have noticed. Let us know if there’s a topic you’d like us to cover in future, let us know if you’ve hated this episode! So yes, thank you very much for listening – I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

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

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Podcast Episode 27: How to Cope with Feeling Overwhelmed

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Having “too much” work is usually seen as good news for a freelancer, but it can become overwhelming and stressful at times. In this episode of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, I talk about how to cope with feeling like you just have too much on your plate, and aren’t sure how to manage.

Show Notes

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Transcript

Hello, and welcome to Episode 27 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

I’m Philippa Willitts, and today I’m going to be talking about coping with feeling overwhelmed as a freelancer. Before I start, I want to tell you that you can find us on the internet at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can find links to subscribe to this podcast in any number of ways, including RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page – we love to hear from you and Facebook is just one way to do that. On our Podomatic page, you can also find links to our social media feeds and websites. I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m here without my usual co-host Lorrie Hartshorn as this is another solo episode.

Stress

Stress (Photo credit: topgold)

So, as I said, I’ll be talking about feeling overwhelmed. It happens to us all at times – maybe you’ve had a tonne of work arrive on your desk, or you might just be panicking at the kind of enormity of what you’re doing, running your own business, managing everything yourself, being responsible for your own pay packet…that in itself can be overwhelming!

It’s not always easy to manage your workload as a freelance and it’s hard to say no, particularly if your workload is quite insecure and you don’t want to say no to anything in case you never get any paid work again! And because of that, sometimes we can end up with just too much on our plate. There are so many different skills and tasks you have to master, you can start to panic. Other people might just withdraw, say, “I can’t do this!” and switch off, or just procrastinate for a while – we’ve probably all done that!

So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, the first thing is to work out exactly what you have to do and when you have to do it and when you have to do it. You might feel like you know this because it’s all in your head in long mental lists, but actually, breaking tasks down into their components can make them immediately feel much more manageable. Divide up a piece of paper, chalkboard, whiteboard, whatever way suits you, for the next few weeks. If you know you have to write three blog posts by Tuesday, a sales letter for Thursday, four press releases for Wednesday…just write down every deadline you’ve got over the next few weeks. Then, you can start to rationalise that actually, although some of it may be a stretch, the massive mix up of work in your head isn’t quite so confused and overwhelming.

What you can also do is start to plan out when you’re going to do what. You might have a few deadlines for Monday and then loads of deadlines on Friday. Planning out which pieces of work that are due in on Friday are going to be done on which day…divide it up so you know what you’re doing on Tuesday, Wednesday. You’ll realise that having 12 deadlines for Friday isn’t quite as scary as having three deadlines a day between now and then, for example.

If you’re still overwhelmed, look at each task and break it down further. Rather than saying, “Press release”, break it down into “research press release”, “double check client’s preferred format”, “leaving for 24 hours and proof-reading properly”, “writing out a plan, filling that out and reviewing it…”, “adding notes”, “checking format”. Breaking tasks down into the smallest components possible really helps me, I can look at a task and think, “OK, I have to research this”, which is smaller and easier but helps me get to the overall aim of getting the press release done.
Different people prefer different ways of planning – it might be a to-do list on paper or a mega complicated computer programme. You might follow the GTD (Getting Things Done) system, or your own preferred way of managing and planning. Now’s the time to really make the most of your systems and do everything you can to make your next few weeks as planned and organised as possible.

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another thing to remember when you’re feeling overwhelmed is that you mustn’t used that as an excuse to not take a break – even just 10 minutes away from your desk, popping outside, making a cup of tea or listening to the radio can clear your mind and give your brain and your fingers the rest they need to carry on. And usually, even if you think you can’t spare 10 minutes, it can really clear your mind so that when you restart you will feel more in control.

Something else to consider – and it might seem a bit strange when you’re panicking about work – is to surround yourself with calmness! Make your desk neat and tidy, so you don’t get stressed just looking at it, control your to-do list – if it’s eight different pieces of paper, each with three different tasks on, it just doesn’t help. Also, if it’s full of things that might be nice to do but aren’t actually necessary, when you’re overrun with work, take those off it. Make sure your list reflects just exactly what you need to do. Other things can come back on when work slows down.

Also, in terms of feeling calm, don’t be tempted to drink eight double espressos to keep going – it’ll just give you the jittters and make you feel more stressed than you already do. If you really want to help, try something like chamomile tea, but to be honest, it’s so gross I can’t recommend it!

Another thing to consider, if you’re feeling panicked and overwhelmed, is to ask for help. This can be to ask for someone’s advice or support on how to cope with how you are feeling. I know that Lorrie – my usual co-host – and I do this quite a lot. We’ll send the other one an email, going, “Argh, I can’t manage, I have too much to do!” and the other one will reply with reassuring words or useful advice. Sometimes, just getting someone else’s perspective can really help.

The other way to ask for help is actually to ask for practical help, if there are any work-related tasks you could pass on to somebody else. This might be paying a friend to do your accounts for that week, or hiring a VA for 3 hours to find information for your research, or fact check and proofread your articles. These are quite handy, one-off ways of dealing with a massive workload, even if – in the normal running of your business – you don’t need to hire staff to help you out.

There are also tasks that are important but don’t take much mental energy. So, things like doing some filing, transferring figures into a spreadsheet, double-checking article formatting so they’re all the same…so those kinds of tasks can be good for those points of the day (tends to be mid-afternoon for me, where I just think, “I can’t think, I can’t do anything!”). You still feel good that they’re done but you haven’t had to use any precious mental energy, so you can use that for writing later when your energy picks up again.

Now, when we’re overwhelmed, there’s a massive temptation to multitask. But focusing on one thing at a time is a lot more productive and a lot less hectic for your brain. Trying to multitask when your mind is in a panic is destined for disaster. So, don’t be mentally planning one article while writing another, and keeping half an eye on your email inbox, all at the same time.

We all kind of do this, but try your best to keep your focus back and think about what you’re doing before moving onto the next thing. It’s calmer, it’s more productive and you tend to do much better work.

Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed (Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner)

Now, the next suggestion for managing overwhelm as a freelancer is certainly easier said than done, but it’s really helpful if you try to reframe how you perceive what’s happening. We all get caught up in, “Oh my god I’ve got too much to do!”, while forgetting that having a lot to do is really a sign that your freelance writing business is going well. It means you’ve either got a lot of clients or that the clients you’ve got really value you and are sending extra work your way. We get caught up in the moment and panic, but if you step back,and reframe, you can think that people like what you’re doing, that you’re marketing yourself well, and that you’re doing a good job. It’s often a good thing even if it doesn’t feel like it when you feel like you’ve done nothing but type for days.

And at some point, maybe within a week or a month, your workload will calm down and you’ll get some breathing time. But don’t just stop! It’s the ideal time to get on top of those regular, predictable tasks that you might have been skipping when things were hectic. Sending out marketing information, managing your social media feeds, replying to emails that might have been overlooked…it’ll get you back on track with what you were doing and then, the next time you feel overwhelmed, you’ve already got ahead and you can get on with the writing work.

So while feeling overwhelmed can be awful, hopefully these tips will help you manage it when it feels bad. Sometimes, feeling overwhelmed can give you a real buzz; it’s not necessarily a 100% bad experience. If you’re getting on with it and doing a good job, it can feel brilliant, boost your confidence, focus on things that are important.

But if it does start to feel stressful and unpleasant, do consider planning things, breaking things down, getting your to-do list under control, taking breaks, asking for help, using points where you feel like you can’t think to do repetitive, dull tasks, aiming for uni-tasking rather than multi-tasking, and trying to reframe what’s happening in a positive light, and hopefully that will help make the experience a bit better when stress overwhelms you.

Now it’s time for my Little Bird Recommendation of the week. This week, it’s a TED talk. Now, you’ve probably come across TED talks – they’re speeches that are usually under 20 minutes, often under five, that are inspirational, clever, funny, informative, and if you just search on Google or YouTube, there are hundreds of the things about any topic imaginable.

The one I’m recommending this week is by Renny Gleeson, and it’s called “404: The Story Of A Page Not Found” and it’s about those dreaded error 404 pages you find when your page cannot be found. We’ve all seen them and they’re kind of frustrating. This talk kind of reframes them – Renny Gleeson talks about some brands that have turned it around and made their 404 pages fit in with the whole ethos of their website, whether they’re funny or meaningful. The real message of this video is that things can go wrong, and we all make mistakes that can be dreadful, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster – as long as you handle it well, it can be a positive thing. And so that’s my recommendation this week – if you go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, there’s a link to the video there.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. I’ve been Philippa Willitts and we’ll see you next week.

Podcast Episode 22: The Hows, the Whys and the Wherefores of the Perfect Press Release

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Knowing how to write an attention-grabbing, appropriately formatted press release is an essential skill for any copywriter. Whether your clients are in industry, the public sector, sole traders or charities, you will almost certainly be asked to produce press releases on different topics and you will be expected to know exactly the style and tone that is required. In this episode of A Little Bird Told Me, Lorrie and I discuss when press releases are useful (and when they should be avoided), as well as how to go about writing them.

Show Notes

Creative Commons Search

Death to Buzz Words

Plain English Campaign

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Transcript

Newspapers yellow

Newspapers yellow (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 22 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, including RSS, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there will be plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts, and this week we are going to be talking about writing press releases. How to write them, what they’re used for – that kind of thing. The ability to write a press release is an essential skill for a freelance copywriter – every client will expect you to be able to do it, and to do it well, so mastering the techniques involved is vital. So we want to first look at what press releases are.

LH: A press release is a pretty important exercise in branding. It’s an official statement that a company or organisation issues to newspapers, websites, magazines and other publications in order to publicise and share, and inform on a certain subject or event.

Put simply, a press release is an official news story, so it’s important that you get it 100% right every time – firstly, because it’s your, or your client’s official word on a particular subject and will set the tone for your or their business, and secondly, because publications receive a lot of press releases from people wanting to shout about something, so the press release itself needs to conform to a strict set of standards to avoid ending up unread and in the sin bin. If an editor or journalist can’t get the right information from your press release straight away, they don’t have the time or the inclination to sit there trying to puzzle it out.

PW: They are written with a really distinctive style and have to follow certain rules, which we will go on to talk about later. But a key thing is that they’re not the place to indulge in extreme creativity or bending the rules! They have a particular format, and if nothing else, journalists are used to receiving them in that format, so sticking with the convention is important if you want to have a hope in somebody picking up your release and publishing a story about it. If they have to hunt around for key information they just won’t bother.

LH: I’ve seen some scarily creative press releases in my time, and I’ve never been impressed by them – it’s never worked. I know some people can get a bit creative with news stories, articles, job applications, but not press releases.

So, now we’ve talked about what press releases are, we want to discuss what they’re used for. So, unless you pride yourself on doing something eminently newsworthy every single day, the most common type of press release you’ll write is for someone else.

PW: This is true. Although sometimes a large part of the challenge of writing press releases is that something the client sends you isn’t necessarily eminently newsworthy either! They’re doing it for self-promotional purposes. Your job is to take their brief and turn it into something that sounds like news, even if what you start with is a brief about a company having hired a new member of staff, or having held a raffle or got a new car park.

LH: I’m laughing because I’m remembering the horror I’ve faced in the past. Yes, that’s sadly quite true – I remember being asked to write a press release for one of my clients on something really quite unexceptional, and being asked whether I’d be able to get it on the 6 o’clock news, please! If I can, I thought, I’m charging too little – it’d be a miracle!

To be fair, it might be that the subject matter really is lacking; other times, though, it might just be a question of finding the right niche. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s not all or nothing with a press release – while it might not be breaking national news, it could still be of interest to the client’s local regional publications, as well as trade press.

PW: Absolutely. If they sell copper pipes and they come up with an innovative new copper pipe, you might think, “Who cares?” but plenty of people do. Send it to the Daily Mail, they won’t care. Copper Pipes Monthly will love it!

English: The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensin...

LH: If you get some sort of immigration angle on it, the Daily Mail will love it – Foreign Copper Pipes Taking Over British Steel!

PW: Hahaha! Killing our swans!

LH: Haha, killing swans – I do like that! The Daily Mail is fond of talking about Her Majesty’s swans! But yes, sometimes it’ll just be a matter of luck – regional press or trade press might be having a slow news day. So if your client just cut the red ribbon on a new car park, as you mentioned earlier, maybe their local paper might want to cover that, especially if there are some nice pictures of the mayor cutting the ribbon.

PW: Yeah, if it’s three days after Christmas and literally nothing’s happening, then you might get it in. If there’s just been a local disaster, you’ve got no hope.

LH: “Local disaster, followed by really nice car park!” Oh dear! But it’s a tough balance. If your client sends out a press release to, say, their local newspaper once a week on something utterly ridiculous, they might end up getting black-listed as a bit of a spammer. But, unless you’re looking at something absolutely ridiculous or offensive, I’d leave it to the client to decide when a press release should be sent. As I said before, you might find it deathly dull, but there might well be a very interested target audience.

PW: This is very true. Interestingly, today on Twitter I’ve seen a lot of usage of the hashtag #notnews, which people are using to highlight when traditional news websites publish content about a celeb losing weight, or a footballer having dyed his hair (this was a genuine #notnews story this morning!).

LH: I saw one today on the Daily Mail – it was a photo of Jennifer Anniston smiling and it was entitled, “Chin chin – Jennifer Anniston shows of a fuller face” and she looked exactly the same as she always does.

PW: And it’s just not news, is it?

LH: Well, I think I need to write to the Daily Mail about those copper pipes if Jennifer Anniston’s chin is considered news!

PW: There may also be occasional occasions, if you will, when you want to send out a press release on behalf of yourself. Perhaps you have won a writing award, or published a book, and you are keen to raise your profile by alerting local press, or trade publications. It can sometimes be difficult to be entirely honest with yourself on these occasions, about whether your news really is… well… news, so checking out with somebody else what they think is a good start. We might feel so overjoyed just by handing in a big website rewrite that we think the world would care, but they wouldn’t.

LH: Haha, yes. Breaking News: COPYWRITER DOES WORK!

PW: Ha ha ha!

PW: However if you genuinely do have something newsworthy, you can consider sending out a press release, because it can definitely help you to make a good name for yourself, and raise your profile. Follow the same rules and guidelines as if you are writing one for somebody else, write it in the third person, and send it out to *relevant* publications, not to all and sundry. If nothing else, annoying reporters does not help you when you have future “news”.

LH: Definitely true – it taps into what we were saying earlier about clients sending something out every week; you don’t want to get yourself black-listed. That said, because we’re British, I do want to say that you should be fair to yourself as well – if you’ve genuinely got some news that you’d be happy to share on behalf of a client, don’t hold back just because it’s you and you feel a bit shy or silly. Remember, you’re not promoting yourself; you’re promoting your business in a perfectly normal, reasonable way.

PW: I know one guy who bought a subscription to one of the big online press release distribution services, and the subscription he bought entitles him to send one press release a day. In order to feel he hasn’t wasted his really big investment, he does send out a press release every single day. That can work if you’re a multinational, but he’s just a bloke running a fairly ordinary business, so you can imagine the kind of “news” he lumbers them with. And you really, really don’t want people to automatically switch off when they see your name in their email inbox!

LH: It’s so massively unfortunate – there really is such a thing as overkill and this would be a perfect example.
I think a lot of clients I’ve spoken to are a little confused by the difference between press releases and news articles – they use the terms interchangeably, and I do sometimes have to go back to them and check. The problem is that it can lead to them viewing the functionalities of the two types of writing as interchangeable as well.

PW: Whereas, as writing exercises, they are pretty much at the opposite ends of the spectrum!

LH: Absolutely. You wouldn’t send a blog post to a national publication, but if someone calls that a press release, you think, “Oh hang on, there are press release search engines, press release distribution services…maybe I should send this “press release” TO THE PRESS!” and you think, “No, don’t do it!”
I’ve got some clients who tell me that they want, say, five press releases a month writing, but they’ll actually be closer to reports. Or blog posts. They do send them to the press release search engines, such as PR Newswire and Business Wire, but it’s pretty obvious that, while this will be handy for, say, Google ranking, because it’s not excessive, it’s not likely that the work will be picked up by publications. The Times isn’t going to be on Business Wire looking for this client’s press releases.

PW: I think a lot of businesses fall into the trap of saying, “OK, we want five press releases a month” and then look for stories, whereas it’s better to do it the other way round – to do something good and then write a press release about it.

LH: Definitely – it feeds into what we were saying about mixing up press releases and news stories. I write news stories for people and occasionally, I’ll say, “I think we can get a press release out of this.” So I’ll write them a nice press release and then you can bring that down to a nice news article as well, but generally a news story is just a news story.

PW: There are some reputable – and generally expensive – PR distribution services online, and there are some free or cheap ones which send things out indiscriminately, and could result in Google penalties if links to your – or your client’s – sites end up on 8,000 article directories, so do be careful. A good way around it is to have your own personal contact list of journalists and publications who you have built relationships with over years. Your releases are much more likely to be read if they go to somebody with a specific interest in what you are writing about.

LH: God, yes – you have to be so careful not to spam people. Previously, that wouldn’t have done any damage, but with the new Google algorithms, that’s a total no-no. So readers, if you’re interested, that’s the Google Penguin and Google Panda updates. So yes, be so careful not to spam.

Going back to the idea of having personalised mailing lists, that’s actually a service I provide clients with – particularly new start-up firms – and it’s a far better approach to send reasonably frequent press releases to people you know are going to be interested rather than sending a big hit or allowing a site to do it on your behalf, both of which are in dodgy legal territory anyway. You’d not only be looking at getting yourself a whole bunch of Google penalties, as you point out, Pip, you’d be looking at making your business (or your client’s business) synonymous with spam. If your client is clueless and they take a hit from a press release that you’ve sent for them, it won’t do your reputation any good either.

So, now we’ve talked a bit about what press releases are, and how they’re used, we want to discuss how to write one. This is something that both Pip and I have noticed that a lot of writers – massive hand movements here! A LOT! – get horribly wrong and, as we’ve mentioned before, that can have disastrous consequences. Not only that, they’re supposed to be a basic thing – one of the staples of copywriting. There’s no excuse.

PW: Definitely. If a business hires you for any copywriting work and they like what they do, you have to expect that a press release will come your way at some point. As Lorrie says, they’re a staple.
Unlike virtually all other documents you might be commissioned to write, press releases are virtually identical to their typewritten counterparts years ago. They are very restricted in their style and formatting, to the point where I actually have a checklist that I use every single time I have to write a press release. This is to make sure that each odd little necessity is included, from the date and location (and that the date and location are probably in bold italics), to how the document is ended with three hashtags, and so on.

LH: Slight variations on these conventions can sometimes be acceptable. For example, some press releases are finished off with the word “END” or “ENDS”, centred and capitalised. But for the most part, and with a few style issues like this aside, a press release will (or should!) always look like a press release.

PW: Yes, if you google “press release template” or “blank press release” there are lots of examples available. Especially if you’re new to this, it’s good to have a look at a lot. They will all differ slightly, but once you’ve had a look at a dozen or so, choose one and stick to it. Alternatively, the company you are writing for might have a particular template that they want you to stick to, so always check with them before making a start. Otherwise, choose the one you prefer and use it from then on.

There are also features like notes at the bottom, including contact details of a relevant person within the organisation, and the release itself is generally written in a way that starts with the most important, newsy news, and then as it goes on, goes into more detail and explains things more.

LH: Yeah. When it comes to finishing off, you’ll have your Notes To Editors bit, and you might also have a notes bit, so “For more information, please contact…blah blah.” In the notes to editors, I mention company style, so if there’s a date or a capitalised word, I’ll put them in there rather than bulking out the press release.

PW: Yes, or a source – if you mention a survey, you’ll want to include the link.

LH: Right – because you don’t want to go above, say, one and a half pages max, really. But yes, as you said just now Pip, it’s always worth starting a press release with something resembling a two line summary of the news itself, so, for example “A pair of famous UK copywriters have started a podcast that seems destined to take over the writing world.” Just, you know, for example.

PW: Haha, of course. I can’t think where you got that from! You need the opener to really catch the eye. Clarifications and details come later. And overall the document shouldn’t be more than two pages long, and it’s ideally around one A4 page.

LH: In terms of actually formatting the release, and the aesthetics of it, it’s worth suggesting to clients, if they don’t have this already, that they have a media header and footer designed – attractive graphics with which you can top and tail the press release, and which contain the company name and logo, contact details, slogan etc. It’s just a nice bit of branding to finish the piece off. If my clients don’t have one, I tend to include their logo in the header space for them.

PW: Yes, that’s interesting – I do similarly. I will usually send them a plain text, or .doc version of the press release, and also create a .pdf version with their logo on, too. I send both and they may choose the plain text one, but otherwise, they’ve got the pdf.
When you’re doing work for a client, you have to go with their preference. There’s no negotiating if they want x or y header. Unless something to do with the writing is specifically not right, that’s it.

LH: You’re right – the customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always paying, so unless they’re asking for something totally wrong, it’s important to give them what they want. It might not be to your taste, but what are you going to do?

So, once your formatting is sorted, it’s important to get the tone right. As we said, in a number of ways, a press release isn’t a news story. It has a lot of the same content, but it’s not one, and this goes for the tone as well.

One thing to take note of is that, say we’re talking about ABC Client, you write about the business in the third person. This isn’t an internal piece of news, so while your news articles might go on the client’s websites, the press releases need to assume no prior knowledge of the client. So while your news stories might be all us and we, your press release will need to start with things like, “ABC Client, a leading such-and-such in London, has done A, B and C.”

PW: Absolutely. Another thing about the tone and style is that it’s formal writing, but needs to be catchy and friendly, but it’s not casual and chatty. You’re getting across important information in the style of a news report in many ways. It needs to be eye-catching – if you write a dull press release, no one will get past the first line – but keep it formal at the same time.

LH: Definitely. With a number of my clients, they like extremely informal press releases with loads of friendliness, exclamation marks etc. It’s very much The Sun / Daily Mail style writing, it’s horses for courses and that’s fine. That’s NOT fine, however, for a press release.

One final point I’d make is that press releases are written in the perfect tense. It gives a sense of recentness and ongoing relevance. It’s a subliminal message and the journalists who read it will think that this just happened and it’s still worth writing about. Now obviously the whole thing doesn’t need to be written in the perfect tense – if you’re giving background, for example, that’s a step further back, but for the introduction, you really should be looking at perfect tense.

PW: Another thing – we did mention this above but didn’t include much detail. We mentioned that you need to start with a couple of attention-grabbing lines. But as the release goes on, you need to start backing up the claims you made at the start. So, you might say, “Two famous copywriters start an amazing podcast…”

LH: I really want to hear how you’re going to substantiate this now!

PW: Haha! And then further down, you’d give our names, then mention our listening figures had grown by x percent. You need to be catchy but you need to back up your soundbites lower in the document.

LH: One of the most uncomfortable experiences is when a publication picks up one of your client’s data-sparse press releases and puts almost everything in inverted commas. So, “The company has seen, quote,  “a large number” of improvements in, quote, “the last few years”…” Because none of its evidenced and a publication will quote you as saying anything they can’t back up.

PW: Or “An industry source says…”

LH: Or, worst, “The company claims…” which is awful. Sometimes companies will try and go a bit light on the data to avoid letting competitors know too much, in which case, they just shouldn’t send a press release, because I’ve seen lots of “The company claims…” articles and it looks really bad.

LH: So, another important point to remember, if you’re the one sending the press release out – or if you’re asked to advise a client on how to do this, is how it should be framed in the email. You need to attach the press release, and a zip file of any relevant images – nothing huge but not thumbnails – as well as including a short message in the body of the text, plus a couple of lines and a copy of the press release text below that.

So, your letter might be something as simple as, “Please find attached and below a copy of a press release detailing, [insert specific details here], which I hope will be of interest to you. If you would like further information on this subject or a higher resolution version of any of the attached images, please do not hesitate to contact [insert person’s details here]. With kind regards etc.” Don’t make it any longer unless it’s a one-off email to someone with whom you’ve had previous discussions on the same matter. Even then, don’t make it much longer!

PW: Yes, you don’t want to distract from the purpose of your email, which is the press release.

LH: Yes, keep the press release above the fold of the email. You don’t want to write six or seven paragraphs and have someone scroll, scroll, scroll until they find the press release.

PW: Or forgetting there was a press release full stop!  And what Lorrie said about pasting the text into the body of the email is really important. A lot of people are understandably wary of opening unsolicited attachments, so always make sure you copy and paste the text of the release into the body of the email, as well as sending it as an attachment. The easier you make it for a person to access, the more likely it is to be picked up. I know from writing for blogs that receive press releases, you really do get a lot of them, and they have to 1) stand out, 2) be coherent 3) meet at least some of the usual conventions, and that’s just for them to be read properly, never mind acted upon!

LH: Totally agree – one of the most annoying things people can do is send you an attachment with absolutely no hint in the email of what it’s about – something like, “Please see the attached press release” is definitely not a winner. Another point I’d make is that you should make sure to give your documents an appropriate name. “Lame-arsed PR for loser client” is a terrible name and you should be looking at a title with a date, an underscore, a brief title and dot whatever.

PW: Oh, and company name as well! And as Lorrie said, “Crappy press release for the client I hate” isn’t great, but neither is just, “Press release.”

PW: Another point to mention is that many PRs have to be submitted via online forms, most of which don’t even accept attachments.

LH: Good point. So, to sum up, press releases are a very exact science, rather than a strictly creative type of exercise. While it’s important to write them well and include lots of information that’s going to grab the reader’s attention, the formatting does need to be quite strictly observed.

PW: Defnitely. I, and a lot of copywriters, charge quite a lot more for press releases than for news articles because I can take three or four hours to get a press release right. If you do it properly, it’s quite a big job.

LH: What I tend to do is combine press releases and news stories. I’ll perfect a press release and then bang on a news article quite quickly afterwards – knock off the header/footer, get rid of information based on the assumption that the reader hasn’t heard of the company, getting rid of a couple of middle paragraphs, bringing the tone down, changing the third person to ‘us’ and ‘we’ etc. Then, they can use it as unique content for their website, as well.

PW: Yeah. Now, it’s time to go on to this week’s Little Bird Recommendations, in which Lorrie and I choose something that’s caught our attention over the course of the week. So, Lorrie, what’s your recommendation?

LH: My recommendation isn’t something that’s really related to press releases in any way, and I think that’s OK because press releases can be really tiring work. So what I’m going to recommend is a lovely website called http://search.creativecommons.org/. And it’s a lovely little resource where you can find lots of creative commons licensed media – photos, videos, music etc. Basically, this kind of media can be used on blogs, websites, etc with no copyright issues. It’s been released by the author of the piece for general use; depending on the type of license, you can use it for commercial purposes, you can modify it.

The lovely thing about this website is that you don’t have to go to all the various websites – it pulls in media from the various websites. If you just go to creativecommons.org, you can click whichever website you want and it’ll open the site for you. It’s lovely for perking up blog posts a bit.

PW: It’s always good to add a bit of visual interest to your blog. And, if someone spots a lovely picture on your blog, someone might decide they want it on Pinterest and you could get a load of back links to your website. Just one thing: make sure you check how the artist wants you to use the image – you might have to credit the photographer.

LH: A good way to do that is to either credit them at the bottom of the post or to include their name as part of the file name when you upload it.

PW: Yep. For my recommendation, at the end of the day, you want to break through the clutter and streamline what you bring to the table. And of course I’m talking about buzzwords…

LH: Hahaha, I was wondering! Go on, do it again…

PW: You meanie! At the end of…hahah!

LH: They’re so awful, you can’t do it. You should be reassured by that!

PW: At the end of the day, you want to break through the clutter and streamline what you bring to the table.

LH: it’s just vile – and my immediate thought was that I had no idea what you were talking about!

PW: Yes, that’s part of the point and everyone kind of hates them, apart from the people who use them all the time. In business, there are so many. “Going forwards” is one of my least favourites, I have to say. The worst thing is when you find yourself using them without realising them.

I found a really interesting blog post called, “Death to buzzwords”. The writer gives an example: “Our writers are detail-oriented problem-solvers and team-players, who create a proactive synergy that can deliver a paradigm shift within your organisation.”

It’s meaningless, it’s alienating, it’s lots of awful things. So the author, Lori, from the Words on the Page blog, gives some really good advice on getting posts, emails or social media messages out that are short, succinct and don’t talk about paradigm shifts and proactive synergy.

LH: When I was at University, we actually did specific courses to make sure we came up with “crystal clear English” and what I noticed is that councils and government organisations are some of the worst for language like this. Surprisingly, really large organisations are bad as well, even though they have enough of a marketing team to know better.

PW: There’s an organisation called the Campaign for Plain English and they offer awards for clear and easy-to-read leaflets. But they also offer an award for the worst gobbledegook every year.

LH: it wouldn’t surprise me at all. It used to take us the best part of a whole lecture to work these things out! A communication is supposed to be telling people something – otherwise, what’s the point?

PW: Especially to something from a council – that’s going to people with PhDs and people who haven’t finished school; it’s supposed to be accessible. It might be about your home, your bills, your transport. It’s not fair.

LH: I’m having a look at the Plain English website now, actually, and there are some examples. Here’s one: “High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for the facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process” and that’s been translated as “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”

PW: Hahaha, and it’s so true!

LH: People seem to think that they have to write fancily in order to write ‘well’ but the fact of the matter is that you have to take your audience into account.

So, we hope you’ve found this podcast episode really helpful. As we said before, press releases are an essential part of your copywriting artillery because it’s embarrassing if you can’t, frankly – it’s one of the basics. Once you’ve got the rules down pat, it’s not something that’s hard to do. As Philippa said earlier, choose a template, make sure it’s correct and stick to it. If your client wants to deviate, that’s their business. But when it comes to you offering guidance or taking free reign, stick to your approved template and you won’t go wrong. They’re formulaic but they’re supposed to be. Make sure they’re well written and make the information as easy as possible to find.

PW: Yes, if you want someone to pick up your story, make it as easy as possible. It’s self-promotion for you or your client, so schmooze if you need to.

LH: Yup. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, we’d love you to subscribe at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. You’ll never miss another episode.

PW: It’d be tragic if you did, so subscribe and save us all from that devastation. You can come and have a look at our Facebook page – the link to that will be on the podomatic page, as will all the links we’ve mentioned in this episode.

LH: So, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW:…and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and thank you very much for listening!


Podcast Episode 21: Managing Freelance Projects and Planning your Time

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This is a solo episode from Lorrie, where she talks about time management and project planning as a freelancer.

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Transcript

Hello and welcome to episode 21 of A Little Bird Told Me: the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful self-employment.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and from there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, and you can also find the link to our Facebook page, which is full of information about past episodes and topics of interest to freelancers.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is another solo one. This week, I’ll be talking about how to get your project management skills sorted so you can lead as peaceful a freelance life as possible – which is what we all want really!

Firstly, I’d like to apologise – I’ve got another cold! If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know this is the second cold in 21 episodes, and I’m feeling really sorry for myself. Hopefully, though, the huskiness won’t be too much of a distraction but, as I say, I do apologise!

While one of the lovely things about freelancing is the fact that you can start to be more flexible with your working hours (you don’t need to commute, you can go out in the day and make up the time in the evening), there’s no denying that, for many freelancers, there’ll be periods when you’re overly busy. Like, getting up at 5am and working ‘til 8pm busy.

 

Monitoring and Control project activities

Monitoring and Control project activities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’ll probably be some people listening now, shaking their heads and tutting and thinking that I clearly don’t manage my work very well if this is a reality for me, and that’s OK. The fact is, when you’re a freelancer, reality changes very rapidly and very frequently! Some weeks, nothing but a couple of old tumbleweeds will come rolling into your inbox. Other weeks, you’ll be absolutely buried in work – if you’re offering some good services and marketing yourself right, that is. Depending on the industry you’re in, there’ll be a natural ebb and flow to your week, month, year, plus a whole host of unknown variables on top of that.

For the last two weeks, and the week before Christmas, I’ve been absolutely snowed under. Clients like to tie up loose ends before year’s end, and get stuck in straight away in the New Year. I choose to work through – and to take work on from clients – because I don’t really celebrate Christmas, and it’s a good chance for me to get ahead with work, marketing, training, personal development, tax returns and all that jazz.

It’s not just over the holidays that you’ll find yourself facing a battle to fit all your work in. Freelance writing is, by nature, quite up and down, as I say, and you’ll often find yourself wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to plan things when they just keep dropping into your inbox with a minute’s notice (or less!)

Well, the fact is, you can’t plan that kind of incoming work. But before you switch off and curse me for giving this podcast such a fraudulent title, listen up. What you can do is this:

Firstly, plan round it
Secondly, come up with some rules and stick to them.

By plan round it, I mean this.

Every freelancer has a number of regular commitments that come round every day, week or month. Think about it – just off the top of my head, my daily commitments include: clearing my inbox in the morning, redoing my to-do list, having my breakfast and lunch, going for a quick walk and scheduling social media updates.

Those are things I have to do every single day. So I plan them. I know exactly when those things are going to happen, and anything else that comes in goes around them. They’re my absolute daily essentials and, although I’ve tried snipping them out of my schedule when I’m really busy, I’ve come to realise that it’s not worth it. If I skip breakfast, I’m tired all morning. If I don’t clear my inbox and sort my to-do list, I’m in for a chaotic day. I’m grouchy if I don’t get my lunch, and I get stir-crazy and uninspired if I don’t get out of the house at least once a day.

Same goes for the couple of exercise classes I go to every week. And the same goes for the afternoon of creative writing I’ve started putting aside on a Friday. Same again for the weekly business development session, and the day of admin, finance and housekeeping once a month. You see my point.

Which brings us quite neatly on to my second point: come up with rules and stick to them. Unless I have commitments that are physically away from my work and out of the house, say a client meeting or a networking event, those daily essentials are non-negotiable. You wouldn’t expect a shop or a business to sack off their lunch-break to deal with you, would you? Well, likewise – clients can wait while you get your lunch and midday recharge. It’s not an unreasonable thing for you to have commitments: you’re a business like any other, so you need to work out what your company rules are, so to speak.

Sometimes, you’ll need to be tough with yourself. It might be that a client is pushing you to do more, or to do something more quickly, and you feel panicky saying no. Or, it might be that you’re the problem, and that you’re tempted to bend or break some of the rules because you’re feeling stressed. That’s fine as an exception – life happens and you do sometimes have to be more flexible than you’d like, but try and keep things in perspective, and stick to your ground rules wherever possible.

So, once you’ve got time for these regular internal commitments blocked out in your diary, you should be able to realistically assess how much time you’ve got for incoming work. You might be able to effectively block off more time if you’ve got regular clients who tend to give you a certain amount of work every day, week or month, too.

So, if you know you’ve got six press releases to write for a client each month, try and work out how long they’ll take you: from research, to drafting, to editing, to sending. That way, you’ll know how much time is accounted for with that client. Regular clients should be looked after – don’t short change them by missing deadlines or handing in rushed work, because you’ll end up jeopardising your working relationship with them.

When your regular internal and external commitments are blocked off, then – and only then – can you work out what to do with the rest of your incoming work.

 

Project Management Lifecycle

Project Management Lifecycle (Photo credit: IvanWalsh.com)

To be able to do that, you need to get a few key skills down pat. Firstly, you need to be able to prioritise – to look at the various pieces of work you have coming in, to decide which are the most urgent, to estimate how long they’re going to take you, and to order them accordingly.

There are other things to take into account as well – let’s not be mercenary, but if a piece of work is being offered at £300 while another is offered at just £50, it’s pretty clear which one is more desirable. But, at the same time, it might not be that simple: perhaps the lower paid piece of work is coming from a client who hires you every few months, whereas the £300 is from someone who only wants a one-off job. These are all things you have to weigh up. It’s a skill that comes over time, but by learning which order to get your incoming work done, you’ll be able to boost your productivity and make the most of your time.

Secondly, you need to be able to focus. Pip and I have chatted about this before, and it’s something that I struggled a bit with when I started out. I’d have 20 tabs open in my browser – anything from the Guardian, to an online browser game, to an online dictionary, to some research materials… you get the picture. Everything I was interested in, I would open.
The problem was, whenever I got bored or a bit stuck on a piece of work, it was so easy to hit CTRL tab and have a look at something else that it was taking a long time to finish a short piece of work. Sometimes it wasn’t boredom – it’d be my brain thinking about another piece of work: I’d be worrying about something I’d got coming up, whether I’d find time for it, and a hundred other things. But the result was the same: things were taking three or four times as long as they needed to and it was eating into my working week.

Now, I’ve realised that, although I’d often rather be reading the paper than writing about LED lighting, I value my free-time too much to be wasting time and mucking up my diary by not really focusing on the piece of work at hand.
So, when I’ve started a half-hour or hour-long session of work according to my diary, two things happen:

Number one, wasted windows get closed: Twitter goes off, Facebook follows suit, the Guardian gets closed and even my email inbox. Number two, if it’s a big piece of work that I’m really having trouble getting started on, I’ll often email Pip for an accountability session. Getting started really is the hardest part and, because I want to stick to my schedule, letting her know what I hope to achieve in the next 30 or 60 minutes makes me get stuck in.

The third skill you need as a freelancer is learning how to say no. This isn’t always a straight-out “No” – sometimes it’s a readjustment of the suggested terms.

When you start out, you’ll find that it’s easy to get into the habit of never refusing any work or imposing any conditions on a project. You’re scared that, if you do, you’ll never get any again. It’s a legitimate fear – clients are fickle, especially one-off clients, and if you turn someone down, or offer them terms they see as unfavourable, they might not come back: it’s true. But, you can’t do everything, with the best will in the world, it just doesn’t work.

There are a number of things you can try before you say “no” out right. Sometimes, a longer deadline will do. Other times, the deadline is so short, and it’s non-negotiable, so that a higher rate is appropriate – I considerably higher for work that needs to be completed over a weekend. Bear in mind, I mean work that is given to me on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, rather than something that was given to me in plenty of time but hasn’t been done because of the way I’ve organised my week – otherwise, I’d just leave everything until Saturday and retire at 30!

It does sometimes happen that a client will be overly demanding, expecting you to drop everything and deal with them first. As before, don’t take it personally: assess it objectively. You need to assess the pros and cons of this, because it’s absolutely not a good way to run your week. So ask yourself: one, is it worth it and two, does it keep happening? If it’s worth it, in terms of a long term or financial gain, and it’s an exception rather than an annoyingly repetitive state of affairs, you could try and have a rejig of your other work (it’s not always possible, but you can try). If not, as I said previously, suggest a readjustment of terms or politely refuse the work, explaining quite truthfully that you’re booked up. They might not like it, but you’re not being unreasonable.

The fourth skill I think is essential is knowing how to set realistic deadlines. As before, many new freelancers (and many experienced ones, actually) feel pushed to give clients really short deadlines. Pip and I have talked about this before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail, but make sure you take some time to discuss project details with a client before you give a deadline. Don’t let them rush you into agreeing to get a piece of work done in a week if it’s more likely to take you 10 to 14 days. Often a client will ask you for a deadline very early on in a conversation because they want to start mentally preparing their work around it, so make sure you value your time as much as they value theirs. We’ve all been there and there’s no amount of coffee that will make 6am starts and 2am finished look good.

The fifth point I want to talk about is boosting your creativity. Now, it might sound like an arty farty sort of thing, but as a freelance writer, you’re in a creative job so you need to make sure you’re not mentally burnt out. As I mentioned before, I have to get out at least once a day – simply because staring at four walls can be soul destroying. Likewise, I try and arrange a working lunch every week or so, and I go to a couple of day-time exercise classes every week, because it breaks my day up.

Similarly, I try not to finish work any later than about 6pm. Immediately after I’ve done for the day, I’ll turn my laptop off for a while, which gives me time to recharge my (and its!) batteries. Relaxation is important, as is sleep, as is good food and good company. Remember, freelancing is supposed to bring you flexibility, so make time for things that keep your head happy. Eat a proper cooked breakfast, go and work in a lovely little cafe for an hour or two, pop out for a brisk walk: while these things feel luxurious, they’ll do you the world of good. I can’t count the number of times I get a text from Pip as she’s off into town for a quick stomp in the fresh air – and what’s more, she always comes back full of energy and good ideas. You can tell from the tone that she’s happier, which means that she can get stuck into work that previously seemed daunting. And I’m exactly the same, so we must be doing something right!

If you find yourself chronically over busy, it might be time to consider increasing your rates – and that’s something that Pip and I are going to talk about in more detail in one of the up-coming episodes. If you’re finding that new clients (or indeed regular clients) are giving you more work than you can deal with, it might actually be that you’re too affordable – and this taps into what I was saying earlier about it not being mercenary to prioritise higher paid work.

You can’t do it all, so for the sake of your career, you need to make sure you’re getting the best rate possible for your time. Keep your eye on other freelancers to see if you can work out what they’re charging (some won’t mind telling you, others will keep it under their hats), have a look at rates (although don’t take too much notice of rates on freelancing websites, as many of these will be ridiculously low) and don’t be afraid to quote high if you’ve got too much on.

If it’s a case of increasing your rates for a client you’ve already got, as I say, Pip and I will be talking about the best ways to manage this process, but for now, all I’ll say i be diplomatic but not apologetic. You’re a business and you’re offering a service that people are clearly happy to pay for. Let your client know in the kindest of terms that your rates will be increasing, and expect that you might lose some clients. In any event, your work should even off and you should find yourself with less work and more money, which is always good.

So, I hope this episode has helped you to look at a few new ways of managing your time and projects as a freelancer. There’s so much to be gained from successful project management – both for yourself and for your clients. Cut out the distractions, plan your time, and you should find that you’ve got more space to breathe, and your clients are getting what they want when they want it. With no panic, which is great!

For more of our podcast episodes, which cover everything from the essential skills needed by freelancers to how to set SMART freelance goals for the New Year, please do go and subscribe to the podcast. You can get regular updates via iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio, RSS or Facebook – or you can sign up on the podomatic page itself, at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn – thanks so much for listening, as always, and Pip and I will catch you next time.

Podcast Episode 18: How to Network Like a Ninja

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Networking. It might not be your favourite thing, but it’s pretty much essential for any freelancer. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I talk about  why networking is important, and how best to go about it. Like a ninja, obviously.

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Transcript

Episode 18: Networking like a ninja!

PW: Hello, and welcome to Episode 12 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, and you can also find the link to our Facebook page. I’m Philippa Willitts…

 

English: High Speed Business Networking Event ...

English: High Speed Business Networking Event by JCI Français : Événement de rencontres d’Affaires à très haute vitesse organisé par la JCI et l’association EGEE (Entente des Générations pour l’Emploi et l’Entreprise) en partenariat dans les locaux de France Télécom (Paris, Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles en 2006). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LH: Today we’re talking about something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to a lot of writers and copywriters, and that’s face-to-face networking. Even if you’re not a natural networker, it’s a really valuable skill to have and one you can learn and improve on as your business grows. By following a few easy rules – and we’ll cover these in the course of this podcast – you can turn networking from what’s basically a necessary evil into something that really works for you and your business.

PW: Networking is not my favourite thing, I find it awkward, and getting the right line between self-promotion – which is pretty much why you’re there – and not being pushy – which puts people off – is hard. Because I’m so averse to being pushy I have a really bad tendency, at networking events, to make polite conversation, listen to what other people have to say, and do a very poor job at marketing myself. However it is something I’m constantly working on. I go to these things fairly regularly – at least partly so I can improve – and also, because it’s actually pretty vital as a freelancer, especially if you primarily do commercial copywriting.

LH: It’s interesting that you say that you go to them for practice, because it’s very much like going for an interview just for the experience. Networking events can be quite daunting, and what you mentioned about going along but just listening to other people is exactly the kind of thing this podcast episode will hopefully help our lovely listeners to avoid. There’s no point going to a networking event if you get there and find you can’t make it work for you. You really have to know how to ‘work the room’, to use a horrible bit of salesy speech there, you have to get in, get done and get out because other people are certainly going to. And yes, while networking might not be your cup of tea – it’s wasn’t mine at first, but I’ve got used to it really – but it’s hugely important for a number of reasons.

PW: One thing that’s really important is that, going into these events thinking, “I must sell myself!” is obvious and offputting. It’s important to let others talk too, and listen. If you go in and say, “Hi, I’m a copywriter and I can write your website for you!” and they’ve just had their website done, you’re of no interest to them. But if you properly listen to them talk about their business, you’re in a great position to identify what their needs are. So you can tailor your offerings to what they need. If they say, “I’ve had a new website done, but I’m wondering how to let the press know.” Then, you can talk to them about how good you are at writing press releases.
So a good way to pitch yourself right is to listen first, then talk.

LH: As long as you don’t both just listen first. Really quiet networking event! But no, you’re right, listening’s really important; people can tell straight away when you’re faking it – your eyes glaze over and if you’ve got nothing insightful to offer by the time they’ve finished speaking, they’re going to know you weren’t listening.

One thing I would add is that, as a copywriter, you ahev to be a good listener. The information you’re going to use is going to come from the client, so you need to be able to email or phone someone to elicit that information. So if you don’t listen properly at a networking event, you’re not setting yourself up for a good future working relationship with them.

PW: You’ll probably get three sentences from them, initially, and you’ll have to fill 24 pages. So what you have to do is get good at asking the right questions and reflect things back, listening properly until they’ve said everything you need to know. It’s quite a difficult skill to develop but it’s a valuable one.

LH: It makes people feel valued as well. It makes people feel like you’re investing time in them, and it’s great for building up trust at networking events. People like talking about themselves and they like someone who makes it easy for them to do that. No one wants to feel like they’re boring everyone silly.  You don’t have to pretend to be fascinated by everything they’re saying, but if you’ve chosen an appropriate event to go to, you should know who’s going to be there and have done some research to ensure that you know what people are selling or producing, and to know where you’re headed in the room so there’s plenty of interest to you.

PW: One thing that’s vital before attending a networking event is to prepare an Elevator Pitch. The idea behind this is, if you were to get into an elevator with Bill Gates, your elevator pitch is the perfect summary of what you do that would get you from the ground to the top floor in order that, by the top floor, Bill Gates would be investing in your business.

This is basically a summary of your business and what you offer, condensed to the amount of time it takes to go up a building in a lift. If you can shrink what you do and what you offer into a perfectly worded 10 seconds, once you’ve mastered it, you have a really good place to start when face to face networking. I adapt and update my elevator pitch all the time. It’s a bit like my website – I’m never 100% happy with it but the more I use it and the more I practice it, the better it gets. At networking events, you need to make a quick impression at a networking event, so if you start by stumbling over, “Yeah, I’m a writer…what do I write? All sorts of stuff really, whatever you need writing I can write, and….” then people will lose interest straight away. They don’t have time to listen to you ramble.

LH: I think there are two, maybe three types of people at networking events normally. One type is the people who don’t really know why they’re there, so they lose interest very quickly. The second is the normal people, I’d like to say, like you and me…

PW: Hahaha, that’s optimistic!

LH: Haha! Well, you’ve got to be! Live in hope, yeah? But the third type, I think, are very aggressive salesy people. If you don’t hit them straight away with a confident pitch, they’ll give you an amused smirk that says,

“Why are you here?”

So, yes, for me, a confident delivery makes all the difference. I’m small, I’m female, and many networking events are very man focused. The last one I went to, I went with a 49-year-old woman, and we were asked, “What are you girls here for?”

PW: Uuuugh!

LH: I was like, “Business – same as everyone else! So yes, for me, confident delivery is everything. As we’ve mentioned before, there’s no shame in owning your own business, and owning the fact that you own your own business. You’ll look unprofessional if you get blushy and worried about describing the services that you offer. Go in there, ignore your nerves and make sure you’re well prepared.

PW: If you want people to believe that you’re the professional you say you are, then you have to present yourself in that way.

Another vital, vital point about networking events, probably the biggest piece of advice I can give you – trust me on this – is, well, go and listen to episode 14, “Mistakes We’ve Made”, and hear my awful error. Seriously. It involves foul language and a massive internal censor failure! So yes, if you just want one absolutely, “Don’t do this at networking events.”, go and have a listen.

LH: It helped me, actually. I went to an event recently, and it was in my head the whole time. I was worried that it was going to be one of those things that was in my head so much that I’d actually end up saying it – but eventually, all was well, everything went well, and I have you to thank.

PW: So, there are quite a few benefits of Networking Events and we wanted to talk about those. Firstly, they get you out and about.  We’ve talked a lot about combatting isolation – we had an episode dedicated to that topic specifically – episode 11 -, and also it comes up regularly in other episodes – freelancers can get very isolated if they live and work at home. Even the most antisocial of freelancers needs human contact once in a while, and networking events are a good way of getting yourself out there. You meet other people who are self-employed and have the chance to promote your business and meet people who can help you too.

LH: Yeah, I think this is another reason to research the events you’re going to go to – don’t just go to any.

You’re supposed to enjoy yourself, at least a little – it’s not supposed to be Hell on Earth, you’re supposed to able to make valuable contacts and stretch the benefits out over the long-term. So if you really research, you can end making some really good contacts – people you’ll come back to again and again, people you can network with, collaborate with, share tips with – anything really. It’s brilliant for getting you out and about as long as you go to the right events.

The second benefit of networking events we wanted to mention is that face-to-face communication is really powerful. It might seem sort of counter intuitive hearing a writer saying that, but it just changes things up really.

With an email, for example, you have a whole range of tools under your belt, but with face-to-face communication, you have tone of voice, a smile, you’re in front of the person so they can’t escape or just click delete on you – there’s that boundary of politeness really, they can’t just get rid of you! You smile at someone, you disarm them – not literally, obviously…

PW: Haha, ninja networking!

LH: Haha, not my kind of event, but don’t let me judge! But yes, face-to-face communication does open channels that an email might not.

PW: Yes, if they’ve just got an email from you, they can hit delete. But, if you’re there in front of them, unless they are a ninja networker with a wide array of violent moves, they have to listen for a bit, as Lorrie says!

LH: This is true – they’re a captive audience, especially if you get them backed up behind the coffee and biscuits, or catch them while they’re behind their stand. They can’t just say, “No!” and walk away. This is why your elevator pitch is so important – it’s your ninja death star, and you can get your prospects quickly!

PW: The third benefit we identified is that networking widens your exposure and increases brand awareness. People, especially business people, hear and see and read about lots of local business, service providers, whereas if they’ve met you a few times or gone home with your business card. If you then email them, they’re more likely to remember you. It makes your brand more sticky in their mind.

LH: One thing I would add is that you should get yourself some lovely business cards. It’s really worth it, even just 100 to start off with. Get something really nice and hand it out – make sure you’re not shy about giving your card, shake hands with people, give them your card, because then people have a physical reminder of you after the day.

PW: Another benefit of face-to-face networking events is that it’s more personal than a pitch email. You’re a lot more memorable if you’re face to face than if you just send out an email which could be from anybody. If they can picture you in your mind, it humanises the person behind the pitch.

LH: Definitely, and it taps into what we said about listening to people when you meet them. If you pay attention, shake hands, make good eye contact, give open body language, or give your number, or arrange a coffee, they’ll remember you. There are lots of things you can do by email, but these aren’t those, so change things up.

PW: Definitely. When someone’s in front of you, you can respond to them a lot better: if they look bored, you can change tack. If they seemed bored but perked up when you said something in particular, you can work out that that’s what they’re interested in. They’re more likely to remember you as a human rather than an email, and to remember that you were talking to them personally.

LH: That’s it – it’s great when you’re face to face with someone to talk about how your services can help their business success.

PW: Yes, and that doesn’t mean telling them about everything you do. It means listening to them and spotting what they need.

LH: Yes, otherwise, it’s overwhelming. So, the fifth benefit of face to face networking is something we’ve touched on already, and that’s that your audience is more receptive: people are actually there for that specific person – they’re not sitting down having lunch when they receive your email; they’re not having a coffee when you give them a sales call. You’re all there for the same reason.

PW: Yes, people go there knowing that they’re going to promote their work, but also knowing that other people will be promoting their work as well.

LH: Do you know, the last networking event I went to, I went with a friend and client. When we got there, we homed in on the biscuit and coffee station because that’s where everyone wants to be. We started doing the rounds, after a while, and we came to these two tiny men, gripping a table and looking terrified. I went to them and I was chatting to them, but they were like rabbits in headlights, so I started out with a “Tell me about yourselves!” kind of opener. One of them looked at me and said, “Oh  no, you’ll have to talk to him about that!”. The other one, his eyes sort of rolled back in his head and he gave me a huge long list, and I tried to get some interaction going, but he was unstoppable. There was no reason for me to be there at all, and that’s someone who really wasn’t receptive, but only through terror.

PW: I’ve met loads of people who just list what they do, or the history of their company. The last event I was at, I got talking to this guy who was saying, “Yeah, I do this, and in 1980, we opened, and in 1984, we changed premises, and then in 1992…” and I was just standing there, not knowing what to say. And even I’d had something to say, he wasn’t up for listening. All the way through, I was wondering what I could offer him, and there was nothing!

Open Coffee Cardiff, Free Business Networking ...

Open Coffee Cardiff, Free Business Networking Event (Photo credit: YODspica)

LH: A pillow and a brandy!

PW: He didn’t have a website or any written material, so I clearly can’t help him.

LH: I suppose it’s a point though: you stood there and listened to him, which proves how receptive the audience is – especially British people.

PW: It’s true! I stood there for ten minutes and said barely 20 words. It was hard work.

LH: Yeah it sounds it – and I suppose it takes us neatly on to benefit six, which is that networking helps you hone your presentation and verbal communication skills for a change. Because obviously, what we normally work with is the written word.

PW: When you’re used to doing most of you communication in a written way, you get used to being able to edit things or coming back to things – or even nipping on to Thesaurus.com. You get used to having time to think things through. When you want to be impressive verbally, it’s quite a different set of skills.

LH: yeah, you have to brush off the dust bunnies and come out of your hole – “Hello world, I’m still here!”

PW: Yes, and just be a lot more spontaneous.

LH: I don’t think a lot of clients realise what a massive gap there is between written and verbal communication. While you might be very comfortable with one, ie. Written communication, verbal communication is very different. I can go a whole day without speaking if I’m alone in the house. So yeah, getting your presentation skills sorted and boosting your verbal communication skills, it’s a great opportunity.

PW: Yeah, and most of the people you’re with aren’t master after-dinner speakers, so they won’t worry if you stumble over a word. So it’s a good way to reminding your brain to be quick, persuasive and to do it without planning.

LH: Good point. And face-to-face, you can smile if you forget a word, or say, “You know what I mean” and rescue the situation with visual clues.

PW: Definitely, definitely. The final benefit that we thought of was, actually, as well as meeting people who might want to hire you, you can also meet people you could work with too. I know Lorrie’s having a website redesign at the moment. You might go to a networking event and meet a designer. Or you might need a lawyer and meet one there. There’s a good chance that you can meet people who offer those services at a networking event.

LH: I tend to find, actually, that graphic designers, web designers and software designers networking in a very similar way to copywriters. Although we deal with different things, I think we’re a similar breed. But it tends to be quite a friendly networking experience, dealing with designers in particular. The way of working is quite similar and it’s quite beneficial to make these contacts, actually, as writers often need to recommend designers and designers often need to recommend writers.

LH: One thing I would say, and it comes from personal experience and personal frustration is that you should only really make connection with people you’re interested in. And when you do make good contact, honour that with an email or phone-call.

PW: Yes, don’t be tempted to blast an email out to all 38 people you met saying, “Hey, great to meet you yesterday, hire me!” – it doesn’t work.

LH: Yes, personalise your email communication. Email your matches as soon as you get back, while you’re fresh in their minds, and try to organise the next step with them. Don’t take it too far – as Pip just said, don’t be all, “Hire me, hire me, hire me!”

It’s good to take it easy, though – suggest coffee or a working lunch if you need to chat more. If they’re further away, a Skype call might be the way forward. Reconnect with them!

PW: Definitely. It’s also important to remember that you might meet someone and think they’re perfect, but they might not remember you as well – so give them a little prompt about who you were and what you discussed. It’s not personal, it’s not that you did a bad job, it might just be that you weren’t immediately what they were looking for.

Something I do, immediately after the event, is to write a note on the business cards I’ve collected – usually the date and where I met them, but also any other pertinent points that you might want to remember. You might think you’ll remember, but a week later, you don’t.

LH: I always think after events, that I’m going to start an excel file and type all the info in, but do you know what, that’s what business cards are for! Get a box, put some dividers in there and, as Pip says, put some notes on the cards and keep them in one place.

PW: I know some people swear by these phone apps where you can take a picture of the cards with your phone – it can extract the info and store it all, so if you want something more hi-tech, it’s worth looking into.

LH: I suppose even without an app, you could keep jpgs on your computer. A bit of a faff for me, but it could work.

I think I’d sum up about business networking events by saying, “Don’t be fake.” Don’t fake interest in people, don’t waste people’s time. Not everyone’s going to hire you, so choose your targets.

PW: Similarly, don’t feel obliged as though you’re going to hire someone if you’re not.

LH: True – you can be friendly and receptive, but let people know that, you know, “Thanks for your time, not really something I’m looking at at the moment. Don’t say you’re interested in hearing from someone if you’re not; don’t say you’ll contact someone if you won’t.

PW: And be aware that the things you might get out of the event might not be clients – there are all the benefits we mentioned above. Even if you go and you’re rubbish, you’ll be better next time!

A few weeks ago, we started the Little Bird Recommendations, in which we both share something worthwhile with our listeners every week. So, my Little Bird recommendation this week is a blog post. Quite often, if you submit work, you can be really confident with your a magazine article or a short story, the editor will nonchalantly add, “Oh, and send a photo and a short bio too, ok?”. I don’t know what it is about the words short bio that strikes fear in the heart of many writers, but lots and lots of people do find them incredibly difficult to write. Similarly with “about me” pages on your website. So my recommendation is a blog post entitled Writing About Yourself When You Hate It and it’s from Angela Booth’s Fab Freelance Writing blog, but don’t worry about remembering that, just check the show notes and there will be a link there. She gives some great advice about how to write about yourself, specifically to do with author bios, and anyone who finds themselves cringing when asked to write one should find it really useful.

LH: I’ll certainly give it a look – I often have to send them with my creative writing.

PW: Yes, it really does strike fear into people’s hearts – considering you’ve just written 2,000 words for someone, it’s funny that another 75 is so scary!

LH: I think it’s easy to be contrived when you’re trying to write an author’s bio. I can only speak from a creative perspective, really, but it’s difficult. It’s very much like trying to be taken seriously with your business: you want to be taken seriously as a writer, but creative writing can be quite embarrassing in a way because it’s quite intimate. You want to come over as someone who’s seriously a good writer, because you’ve been published, so you must be quite a good writer, but at the same time, you don’t want to take yourself to seriously, so here’s a funny anecdote about me but, OH GOD, what if they don’t find it funny? What if they think I’m a loser?!

PW: People always want a comedy last line, don’t they? “And I spend too much time with my cat!”. It’s hard to pitch it right – sometimes you read brilliant ones, but other times you think, “I see what you were trying to do, but oh God…”

LH: I spoke to the editor of a literary journal recently, and he’d received a submission email from someone who’d taken the liberty of including their own author bio, which was fine. The problem was, they’d tried to branch out with the humour into the email, and they’d started it with, “Dear Probably Intern…”

PW: Ohhhhh, dear…!

LH: And it’d gone to the owner of the intern, who reviews all the submissions personally. You’re not really showing much faith in the journal you’re submitting to, but nice attempt at humour! The guy who runs the journal is really nice, actually – we were chatting on Twitter and he really didn’t know what to do with it!
But yes, a blog post about writing about yourself when you hate will, I’m sure, be an absolutely God-send, and I’ll certainly have a look at it.

PW: Well, the link’s in the show-notes!

LH: Haha, thank you!  My recommendation this week is kind of the opposite of Pip’s, for me – it’s something that doesn’t come that naturally to me, and that’s direct marketing copy. I love creative writing, but this stuff isn’t my cup of tea. So, my recommendation is for copywriters who write for the web – particularly those who write direct marketing copy or sales pages: it’s called Unbounce.com, and it’s the blog that’s a treasure trove for copywriters. There are loads of articles on there on how to create brilliant landing pages, very regularly updated, on how to optimise your SEO, and loads more. The emphasis on the blog tends to be on conversions – ie. sales, so it’s a great place to go to improve your skills in persuasive sales copy. It’s quite a hard topic – direct marketing copy actually looks really bad – it’s the kind of stuff that looks so bad that it’s good.

PW: I think most copywriters will be called on at some point to do direct marketing copy and it’s a really specific skill – you can just guess it, and think, “Oh, this is persuasive.” – there’s almost a science to it, and you’ll need tips. Any copywriter could really benefit from having a look at this site.

LH: Yes, more than just tips, you’ll need a recipe! Everything on a sales page – the headings, the sub-headings, the font, the font size, the images, the captions…who would think that the captions were the second most important thing on the page?

PW: Yeah, a lot of it is quite counter-intuitive. You’d think that surely the colour of the ‘buy now’ button would be the last thing to matter, but you’d be wrong. It goes to show that on a sales page, everything has to have a purpose. Through really studying how to convert from experts, you can make every word in your sales copy do a job.

LH: Definitely, so my recommendation this week – in which I’ve been doing loads of sales copy – is undoubtedly http://unbounce.com/blog/. It’s brilliant for improving your skills in persuasive sales copy, it’s great if you’ve just got five minutes, it’s brilliant.

PW: Sounds great – just as you’ll be checking out my recommendation, I’ll be checking out yours.

So, we hope that this episode will help you to approach your next networking event with a ninja mentality. I’m not sure how well that really flows through the theme, but we like and it’s alliterative, so damnit, we’re sticking with it! Hopefully this will push you to attend your first event, or to get a better result if you’ve already been to a few.

LH: This is it! Be a ninja, get the results you want. Get people with your elevator pitch and don’t let them escape. This will help you improve your skills, and it’ll get you out of the house. Get yourself on eventbrite.com, which is great for free events, so have a look. Usually, these events have social media pages, so get researching, prepare for them, go along and use the tools from this episode to make the most of them once you’re there.

PW: Go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and subscribe by RSS or on iTunes or on Stitcher Smart Radio. We know we’ve got some brilliant listeners because we get brilliant feedback on Twitter, but our Facebook page is a bit lonely!

LH: and we’re ninjas – we can find you. So subscribe, please!

PW: And then, because I’m feeling demanding, you should tell your friends. You can embed this podcast on your website – that would be ace!

LH: Give us a Christmas present, come and say hello!

PW: I’ve been Philippa Willitts…

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