Episode 1: The Skills and Qualities You Need To Be a Successful Freelance Writer (A Little Bird Told Me Podcast)
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Edited to add: Lorrie has transcribed the podcast! So, if you couldn’t hear any sections, or if you find audio only inaccessible, read on.
A Little Bird Told Me – Episode One: The Skills and Qualities You Need To Be a Successful Freelance Writer.
Philippa: Hello, and welcome to the first ever episode of the Little Bird Told Me Podcast! I’m Philippa Willitts…
Lorrie: And I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…
Philippa: And we are both freelance writers, and we wanted to make a podcast about how to be a successful freelance writer. So, a little bit about us: I’m Philippa. I’ve been a full-time self-employed freelance writer for about nine months now and prior to that I’d done lots of writing for lots of places but not on a freelance basis. I specialise in writing about social media and SEO and health and disability and women’s issues – there’s my elevator pitch! – but really being freelance, you end up writing about anything and everything, which is one of my favourite things about it. There’s always variety and you can learn about new things all the time.
Lorrie: Very true. I’m Lorrie. I started off doing a degree in Translation and Interpreting – I thought, “I’m a fairly wordy person, so that’s what I’ll go into!” The big Europe dream didn’t happen, we haven’t got the Euro, no one wants to be part of Europe and most of the Europeans speak wonderful English, so the big full-time translation dream didn’t really work out! I found myself going from job to job, mostly within the marketing sophere and yusing my language skills to do a lot copywriting while I was working as a marketing executive. I’ve been freelancing on a part-time basis for about ten years – it’s something that’s kept me going between jobs and on weekends for a bit of spare money. Mostly, my work consists of literary editing, commercial copy-writing and academic proof-reading and copy-editing. As Philippa says, you start off with a dream about writing about feminism and things that will change the world, and you end up writing about waste electrical and electronic equipment and micropolymer processing.
Philippa: When I first started out, I wrote an awful lot about man-boobs! Several different clients all wanted content for their websites on man-boobs!
Lorrie: I really feel like I’ve missed out!
Philippa: I know! So I feel like I know all about them. You just never know – when a new email comes into your inbox, it could literally be anything!
Lorrie: True – this week, I’ve had feminism, metaphysics, recycling and WEEE compliance schemes. As Philippa’s already had it explained to her, WEEE isn’t an exclamation, or a way to show you’re excited – it stands for waste electrical and electronic equipment!
Philippa: I’ve been on whiteboards this week – not literally – and I’ve also, amazingly, had an article published in The Independent, which has just made my week. It’s had amazing feedback – I’m very happy
Lorrie: And I’m very jealous! Well done, Pip – must do better next week, Lorrie!
Philippa: We want to talk today about which skills and qualities people need if they want to become a successful freelance writer.
Lorrie: Correct. Not to put the writing skills to one side – Pip and I can both see the positive sides of things like Fiverr, Elance and Freelancer.com. The problem is, however, that writing seems, on the face of things, to be a very accessible skill. People think, “I wrote an email the other day, I could be a writer! I need a bit more cash, so I’ll go and sell my skills for £2.50 or £5.00 – that makes me a writer!” It doesn’t. You need to have writing skills, you need to be a good reader, with thorough grammar.
Philippa: You need to be able to research. Like we said, you can be given every subject. You might start out, asLorrie said, thinking “I’m going to write about feminism for a living!” but, when you get asked to write about WEEE compliance, you have to be able to find out the facts
Lorrie: Yes, living the dream! But no, as Pip points out, there’s more to it than just being able to write. Being able to write makes you a copywriter – it doesn’t make you a freelance copywriter.
Philippa: True. Especially if you’re looking at doing it full-time, or as your main source of living, I think if you’re doing it as an added extra, you can perhaps get away with a few things. Do you agree?
Lorrie: Definitely! You can be more fussy – if something drops into your inbox, for example, and someone asks “Can you help me make LED lights exciting?” and you think, “Hmm, not today”, you’re at liberty to say no. It’s not going to affect you. That person might go away and say to people, “I contacted this person and she wasn’t very helpful” but, if it’s not your living, you’re not going to cry into your porridge about it.
Philippa: One thing you definitely need is determination. Because, you have to be quite relentless at time in pursuing work and following up with clients, and being on the top of your game really all the time. If you’re not 100% determined, it’s very easy to drop off and not do the things you need to do. It can be really hard work and it can be, not depressing but…
Lorrie: It can be really, really isolating. You’re sitting there and there’s no one to cheer you on. You do a piece of work that you hate – and there are plenty of pieces of work you will absolutely hate, take it from me! – and then you move on to something and think, “I did a really good job on that” but there’s nobody there to pat you on the back. You pat yourself on the back and you carry on – you don’t have time to sit back, watch Home and Away (not that I would), stick your feet up and think “job well done!” You can’t turn down work, you have to be constantly looking for it and constantly plugging your social media feeds, which is something we’ll come to in a minute.
Philippa: You also need quite thick skin. When you first start out, a lot of people warn you that you have to be good at taking rejection. I haven’t found that so much – what I have found is that you have to not take feedback personally. If you’ve done a piece of work in a way that you thought was write but your client isn’t quite happy with it, you can’t turn that into “I’m a rubbish writer”. You have to just say, “I got the angle slightly wrong, next time I’ll make sure I’m clearer.”
Lorrie: It may not even be the wrong angle. Your client doesn’t know about writing, you do. But, at the end of the day, they’re signing the invoice. Their company name, their brand identity is going on that writing – it’s not your writing. If they say that’s not the angle they’re after, you can advise them and explain why you took the angle you did but, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it – it’s not you, it’s them.
Philippa: Also, I know Lorrie and I were chatting the other day about something that we found interesting – not rejection, but people just not responding at all. If we send out a pitch or try and make contact with a local business, neither of us would mind if we got a “Thanks, but no thanks” – because people are looking for different things at different times – what can be hard is just not hearing back.
Lorrie: Especially if you’ve written the world’s best email! I think you might be able to tell that I’m speaking from recent and rather raw experience!
I recently wrote a marvellous, absolutely wonderful pitch email to a local business that shall remain nameless and I got no response. I’d taken the time to research the company, the people – I’d even gone in, checked the place out, really researched what they were offering their clientele and got in touch with them offering my services, reiterating that I was affordable, that I was local and that, frankly, every gold star should come to me, and there has been radio silence. It’s not me, it’s them – for whatever reason, they don’t want me as a copywriter at the moment. And that’s fine – that’s not a rejection, that’s just “You don’t fit my business plan right now.”
Philippa: And if you can’t cope with that on an on-going basis, then you have to question whether this is the right career, really. I tried something a few months ago, and I stopped due to it being a complete failure (it was worth a try – you do have to try these things!).
What I did, was find a few local businesses, look at their websites and – because, like Lorrie, I do proof-reading as well – proof-read a couple of pages of their websites. I wrote down, “On this page you’ve got a typo there, and that could be worded better here…” I did it in a very nice way, and I introduced myself and I said “There’s no obligation to do anything but I thought you might like to know that that link there doesn’t work, and if you want the rest of your site proof-read let me know.”
Mostly, I got some very nice replies – mainly from smaller businesses, just saying, “I’d love to but there’s just me running the website. Thanks for pointing those things out but it’s not something I can do at the moment.” And that’s fair enough. From the couple of bigger businesses I did it for, I just got nothing.
Lorrie: I’ve had really angry responses from doing something similar!
Philippa: Really?! So yes, you have to be able to cope with…people say ‘rejection’ but it’s not so much rejection, it’s more…
Lorrie: It’s more ‘it’s just not working’. Just hitting a brick wall fairly frequently
Philippa: And that’s not because we’re bad at what we do.
Lorrie: No, it’s not the same brick wall every single time – you have to remember that different businesses, different clients have different walls.
A further point that we wanted to make about the life of a freelancer was that adaptability is key. You can’t plan – your clients expect you, as a freelancer, to be sitting at home, maybe taking a hot bath, watching a bit of Neighbours, and waiting for their call. They don’t expect you to be managing other projects – they don’t like it, I’ve found, when you’re managing other projects!
Philippa: Best not to mention it, I find! Saying something like, “I’ve got a lot of work on this week,” isn’t too bad, but being more specific…
Lorrie: Yeah, they tend to be quite possessive. I find that my clients – I have a few freestanding clients who give me a little bit of work several times a week – get a little bit worried when they hear that I’m working for someone else. It’s like I’m cheating on them almost! They really do take it badly, especially if I’m not available and I say to them, “I can’t take anything else on at the moment, get back to me on Monday.” Or, “Send it over to me now and I’ll start it on Monday.” They feel, if not annoyed, then hurt, strangely!
Philippa: The reaction is very much like you’re cheating on them, like you really should just be waiting by the phone for them to call.
Lorrie: I think that’s the thing with freelancing – you aren’t a person, you’re not their employee, you’re an asset. You’re a resource to that company and they expect you to be available, hence the adaptability
Philippa: And, different clients – and indeed the same clients – can want very different types of work, so writing a press release is a very specific skill, and very, very different from writing web content, which is different from writing articles…
Lorrie: …funding proposals, business reports, news articles. Everything has a set of criteria to which you do need to adhere, but you can’t churn out the same work over and over for the same client or for different clients. It doesn’t work – your subject matter changes, your audience changes and your client changes, and so do you need to.
Philippa: And if they want a lot of words on a very small subject…
Lorrie: Oh, memories!
Philippa: Yes, you know what I’m talking about! You have to do it. And you might initially think, “Five thousand words about…”
Lorrie: …a subject that will remain nameless…
Philippa: …isn’t actually even possible!”
Lorrie: You’d be surprised!
Philippa: You start – and this keys into something we’re going to be talking about later –thinking very creatively. Going back to being adaptable, the same company might want very different pieces of work from you. You might have a massive project that lasts three months or you might have ten different articles for ten different client. Different skills, different subjects all the time – which is something I actually really like about it. There’s no getting bored…
Lorrie: Oh, I don’t know – I manage it quite frequently! But, I think another point, which harks back to a conversation Pip and I were having earlier, is that internal comms can play a bit of a role. We say, “Client A, Client B, this client, that client” – sometimes, your client consists of a number of different people.
Philippa: And that gets very tricky especially if you’re doing a piece of work that two of them are going to use, and they have different outlooks about what that will look like eventually.
Lorrie: Yes, it’s not really on our list of things you need to be able to do as a freelancer, but I’ll point it out anyway: keep a mail trail. The last thing you want is for two warring colleagues to blame an error on you. If you have a mail trail and you’ve CCed them in, there’s clarity, there’s transparency and everybody knows where everybody is. If you find that you’re emailing 10-15 different people, ask them to assign a contact for that project.
Philippa: Yes! Adaptability with regard to the kind of hours and days that you work: for a while, I kept getting jobs on a Friday from one particular client who wanted them by the Monday, and I actually considered changing my by-line to “I work weekends so you don’t have to!” because I did just feel like they’d get to the end of the week and just go, “Oh, someone else can do this!” And it was fine, and I quite like working weekends because, then, I can give myself a weekend in the middle of the week.
Philippa: Because generally, I find Sundays especially really boring
Lorrie: Oh, I hate Sundays!
Philippa: So if Sunday’s a work day, I can have Wednesday off and that really suits me. I don’t have commitments like children, or anything I have to be very scheduled about. But I think that some people might find that difficult, the fact that sometimes you’re working evenings because some jobs are urgent
Lorrie: I tend not to work evenings and weekends. I wouldn’t say I’m the opposite of Pip – otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here – but I tend not to work them. Obviously, as Pip says, if stuff’s urgent or if you’re happy to do it, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. But, I don’t want to work evenings and weekends. However, I made that decision after years, and years, and years of adapting to my clients’ needs. I can afford to say to them, now, “I’m sorry, I don’t work evenings and weekends.”
Philippa: Another skill that it’s really important for freelance writers to have is to be able to communicate really well with people. You have to be able to email or talk to any number of people from big businesses to small businesses to one man or one woman operations. And not just chat with them and be friendly – which is very important – but you have to learn how to ask them questions to get the information you need to do the job.
Lorrie: Absolutely, and they may not even know that these questions are coming. You would be surprised – I’d like to think – at how little information people think you need to write a press release.
Philippa: Yes! Whereas press releases, I don’t know about you, but I find they take a huge amount of information.
Lorrie: Oh, huge amounts! Most of it I can research myself. I’ll ask my client sthe bare minimum because, frankly, a lot of them tend to get a bit flustered: “Oh, oh, I don’t know! Oh, oh, let me just ask Bob from Accounts!” It’s easier just to go on the Internet and have a nosey if you can, for the background information that you need to bulk out a press release. And if it is a press release, it needs bulking out – you can’t just get away with it.
Philippa: You can’t skimp on press releases. I think I find press releases the most prescriptive type of writing. And so, you need to have ways of getting the information you need from clients without freaking them out.
Lorrie: They can get quite belligerent, I find. If you’re pushing them for information in a way they’re not comfortable with, they take it badly. As well, it can be very damaging to you because they wonder why you’re not just getting on with it.
Philippa: Sometimes, rather than doing it over the phone or in person, we’ll do it by email – I’ll send a list of, say, four questions that I really need the answers to. And then that email will be sent to four different people in the company, all of whom can answer one of those questions and it can take weeks to get the answers together. You have to learn to sense other people’s style of communication and adapt to that.
Lorrie: I think you learn the patterns of your client’s behaviour, as Pippa says. You get used to how they communicate. If they say that they’re going to send it over to someone that it’ll take forever to get it back from, you need to be able to phone that person up and chase the information. It won’t come to you: they’re paying you to do a job. And, although it might be completely galling that you have to chase this information for a news story that they want that you’re not even interested in, you do have to if you want that business.
You also have to do it in a way that will not only get the information but ensure sure they come back to you for another piece of work. If you get the information but you’ve pulled several teeth to get it, they’re just not going to come back to you and there’s no absolutely point because you’ve made, what, twenty quid on a press release.
Philippa: Also, you might get ten query emails in a day asking what you do, or for prices, or for an estimate, and you don’t know which of those is going to become a client, and which client will become a regular client. So you have to treat every phone-call, email and enquiry as though they’re the king of work
Lorrie: The king of freelancers! The client everybody wants!
Philippa: Because you just don’t know, so you always have to be able to be cheerful and helpful and friendly and informative, and sound knowledgeable and all of these things at all times.
Lorrie: Definitely. And this certainly isn’t something that Pip is suggesting (although I’ve made it sound like it is, now that I’ve said that!), but you don’t have to take bullshit from your clients. You have to learn to communicate in a way that’s friendly but assertive. I’m a qualified translator and I have several friends who’ll understand this perspective: if a client contacts you and says, “Can you translate this for me urgently? It’s bad, hand-written stuff and I’m going to give you 0.2p per word!”, you have to be able to get back to that person and tell them in no uncertain terms that no, you can’t, but don’t alienate that person. They may find that they desperately need a translator in future and they’ll come back to you because they’ll remember your skills and they’ll remember that you dealt with them in a professional way even though you weren’t able to help them on that occasion. So don’t apologise for your standards – be assertive but don’t be rude.
Philippa: When I first started out, I took a quite big job that was far underpaid
Lorrie: Oh, I think we’ve all done that.
Philippa: Yes, because I thought that that was better than no work. What I didn’t realise was that while I was doing the quite big, underpaid job, I wasn’t able to spend that time looking for actual, decent work. And I got so annoyed with myself over the course of that piece of work, that that was all I needed to mean that, from then on, I don’t undervalue myself and I charge a decent amount. It just took that one job to make me go, “I would rather spend three hours looking for work rather than doing three hours of horribly underpaid work that undervalues my skills and my abilities.”
Lorrie: And it sets the expectations for future clients then, and it sets the expectations for yourself. You become someone who is stuck in the back bedroom at their house, doing a bit of writing on the side. And that’s usually what you are – you work from home, you’ve got a little corner of the house somewhere that’s your office, your work-space. But, to clients, you need to be a brand. You’re a product, you’re a resource.
You might feel embarrassed, say, when you go to the hairdresser and they go, “What do you do?” and you go, “I’m a writer!”
You have that moment where you go, “Hehe! Me, a writer!” But, at the same time, if you don’t laugh, other people don’t. People are writers: if you set yourself up as a freelance writer, that’s what you are and that’s what you have to portray.
If you worked for a company, you wouldn’t let clients get away with anything. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to assert your boundaries. You are the company: you have to tell people what’s what, and you have to be professional about it: there are no ifs, ands or buts.
Philippa: Sometimes I find it quite helpful to separate me from the business. So, if I’m finding it hard to stick up for myself for whatever reason, I find it easier to say, “No, that’s bad for the business” and not do it on those grounds.
Lorrie: Definitely. And I think if you do find you’re losing heart a little bit, talk to someone who’s doing the same thing as you. This is why it’s important to be on social media. Philippa and I will often phone each other up and say, “What do you think about this situation? I’m not sure how to handle it.” Going back to adaptability, there are plenty of things you’ll encounter for the first time. I’ve been doing this for ten years and still, clients, God love them, still manage to surprise me.
Philippa: Lorrie and I actually met on twitter, rather a long time ago! Now, we’re the best of friends and we completely support each other in our work. We talked about this recently: it might look on the surface like we should be up against each other, really
Lorrie: Fierce competitors!
Philippa: Because we both do freelance writing, copy-writing, proof-reading, editing, all that stuff. We live in the North of England, we know similar people: it might look like we should be fighting each other to get the same work, but we’re not. And that’s not just because we’re friends, or because we’re quite respectful people
Lorrie: Well, most of the time!
Philippa: It’s also because it actually does us both good to have that support there.
Lorrie: It backs up what Philippa was saying earlier about it being more worthwhile to spend three hours building up your business that undervaluing yourself with a piece of poorly paid work. It does more good to me and my business to have a trusted colleague than it does to fight her for work that’s difficult enough to get anyway. There’s no guarantee that this mythical client you’re fighting over is going to give either of you any work. There’s no point, you can’t do all the work in the world.
Philippa: Definitely. And, at one point, if I ask Lorrie for advice on some writing that she’s done before and I haven’t, I know she’d give me that freely. We’ve passed work on to each other when we’ve been over-booked. It does us a lot more good to support each other like this – like doing this podcast together – than the tiny benefits we might get from stealing each other’s clients.
Lorrie: You just have to conduct yourself in a way, overall, that’s professional. You don’t go poaching other people’s clients – you just don’t do it.
Philippa: And we both know who some of each other’s clients are. In fact, it would make me actively avoid them if, for some weird reason, they contacted me out of the blue.
Lorrie: Is there something you need to tell me?!
Philippa: No, I’m just making up stories! But no, I would know to avoid them because that would be a wrong thing to do.
Lorrie: And again, it goes back to the thinking in a long term way: don’t go for the quick win, because it is just that, it’s just a quick win and it tends not to replicate itself and you’ve then alienated yourself in what can be a very isolating business. And that brings us on to another point in our magical wee list in how to make a success of being a self-employed writer. You need to deal with isolation in the correct way. If you want to be in an office full of people, this is not the job for you.
Philippa: If you need people to chat to all day long, not the job.
Lorrie: That’s probably why you’re listening to a podcast! People are chatting but you’re not there! And this is as good as it gets, mostly! You listen to other people chatting – away from you!
Philippa: I sent a tweet the other day, just saying, “I need to say another human being soon!”
Lorrie: It’s never been more true!
Philippa: Like, I really do – I’m forgetting how to talk!
Lorrie: I tend to move around the house. Sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen, sometimes I’ll be in the back bedroom. I have a little office but I find that I get so isolated that I just want to move around and feel a bit freer.
Philippa: Yeah, we all have little things like that that we do. I’ll sometimes take a notepad and go out to a little coffee shop and write there, or go to a library and get some inspiration from books. But yes, if you need constant validation and chatting, and company, then… Unless, there are options like shared office spaces.
Lorrie: I’m still dubious as to how much that works because if you’re chatting, you’re not writing.
Philippa: And when you’re paying your own wages, it counts a lot more. I’m the kind of person who’s quite happy on her own, I like my own company, I like being with other people as well…this is like a job interview! “I work well on my own…
Lorrie: “…and in a team!”
Philippa: Even so, you need to plan better sometimes to make sure that you socialise a bit.
Lorrie: Working lunches! You need to be able to go out, have lunch with someone and then actually come back and work. Don’t just go out for a boozy lunch. You need to be able to come back and do some work. It’s not just that you might feel a bit lonely – writing is essentially a fairly isolated activity – but you need to be able to discipline yourself.
Philippa: This is so important; being able to motivate and discipline yourself is probably the most important factor because you’ve not got a boss looking over your shoulder, saying, “Have you done X, Y and Z?”
Lorrie: “…and if not, why not?” I do struggle to be my own boss. Naturally, I’m pretty disorganised and that isn’t something that’s OK for a freelancer.
When I decided to freelance, my husband was horrified – he didn’t think I’d be able to do it, not because he has no faith in me but because we both know how chaotic I am. The way I’ve combatted that is by putting a whiteboard up and making a “to do” list. I stick to this “to do” list because I figure, if I couldn’t explain it to a boss, nor should I be able to explain it to myself if I haven’t got a piece of work done. If you let one thing slide, other things will slide after it like an avalanche.
For myself, I find that it helps to have a set getting-up time. I do need to get dressed – I know some freelancers who can work in their pyjamas, but I can’t. I have to get up, get showered, get dressed, get ready and be in a work zone for my work to start.
Philippa: I think that, for a lot of people – and I’m trying to create these in my life – there are cues that tell you it’s time to start work. So, like having a shower, getting dressed, going to your desk. I’m trying to create cues that delineate ‘work time’ and ‘not work time’.
Lorrie: Because, as you say, they’re beneficial when you want to identify what’s not work time, when you want to switch off. Like for you, Pip, I know you work some evenings, but there are going to be some times you don’t want to work. You wake up, say, on a Wednesday as you’ve mentioned, but something drops into your inbox – what do you do?
Philippa: Like Lorrie, I’m quite chaotic and disorganised but right from the beginning, I’ve forced myself to be super organised with business things. My receipts and invoices and everything that needs to be dead organised…
Lorrie: Yeah, housekeeping and admin can’t be allowed to slide
Philippa: …and keeping track of deadlines. You might have, at any one time, a fairly big project, two small projects, a medium project and a regular project, all at the same time. You have to know when your deadlines are for each, you have to be on top of your deadlines.
Lorrie: Because they change. Clients give you a deadline and you start off with a certain amount of information then they’ll throw some more in and say, “Could you talk about this as well?” or “Could you add this and focus on that?” or “We need it for Friday, rather than Monday” – there are all these things and you need to be responsive to all that, while at the same time keeping in mind the bigger picture.
Philippa: And if you’ve got a reasonably sized project that you’ve planned out very clearly, and you’ve got it all exactly right, ready to be in for the Monday deadline, and then on the Thursday someone says, “Can you do me –quickly – this website…”
“Can you just…?” That’s my favourite! Ugh!
Philippa: However well planned out your existing work is…
Lorrie: …it has to move. But, you’ll find that your clients aren’t sympathetic, as we’ve already mentioned, to the existence of other clients. They don’t want to know that Client A has to have it in by Friday – they don’t care, and nor should they. It’s not like saying to your boss, “Ooh, you know the situation in HR?” or “You know the situation with the marketing team at the moment?” and expecting them to be sympathetic because they’re part of the same company or entity, it doesn’t work that way: clients can be very jealous of your time.
Philippa: And if you’re in normal 9-5 job and someone says, “Have you finished that job?” and you say, “No, because I haven’t had the information back from Sarah yet.” then that person will follow up with Sarah. Whereas if you’re freelancing and you say, “No, I haven’t finished the work because your other client hasn’t sent me the information.” That’s not good enough. You’re supposed to have chased up. And so my organisation levels within the business…well, I surprise myself daily with how good I am at it, considering how bad I am at it in the rest of my life!
Lorrie: I think you have to, don’t you? I mean, my ironing pile is getting to be taller than me! I’m 5’3”, I’m not tiny, but it’s been left a while. My “to do” pile is smaller because, at the end of the day, I want to be able to relax in the evenings, I don’t want to be thinking about it on weekends because I’ll panic. If you work for yourself, there’s no one to pick up the slack. If you leave things in a mess on Friday, they’re there waiting for you on the Saturday, not the Monday. They’re there Saturday, Sunday, Monday and you’re the only person there to sort them out.
Philippa: So true!
Lorrie: One thing we were talking about is that it’s surprisingly important for freelance writers to have is empathy because you spend hours tucked up in a room or an office and you’re working not with a client but with their text.
For myself, about 50% of my work is editing, and a lot of that is literary editing, where somebody has done some creative writing and they want to get it checked before they self-publish or send it off to a journal, and creative writing is actually quite an intimate thing to do and when someone sends you their writing, there are a number of ways that they can respond to your edits on that piece of work.
Sometimes, as Pip well knows, they can be pre-emptively apologetic and say, “I’m really sorry, it’s probably really crap!” or they’ll get back in touch once they’ve seen your amends and they’ll be quite offended. Or they’ll be upset! They’ve asked you to look at their work and give them it a really thorough substantive edit but then, when the work comes back and it’s covered in teal tracked changes – I made the mistake of using red before, so I can suggest using a secondary colour, such as teal or purple that’s clear and easy to read but doesn’t look like you’ve shredded their work, which you may well have.
But yes, you need to be able to empathise with your client because while your piece of work is the text, your client is the one paying the bill and they’re still a person. They’re a human being and they need sensitivity and empathy from you.
Philippa: Unlike Lorrie, most of my editing isn’t literary, it’s a lot more non-fiction. I do the odd bit of more creative writing, but mostly non-fiction. One of the p[aces I edit for is a feminist website and something I feel is really important is to encourage people who don’t usually write or haven’t written much to come forward and have a platform on this website. A lot of what I do in that respect is holding someone’s hand and giving them confidence in what they’re doing while, at the same time, making the edits that are needed to make it a good enough piece of work to go up on the website.
Lorrie: Yeah, you can’t sacrifice edits for feelings because you’re sacrificing quality and their name’s going on it, not yours. If you let them send out, or submit, or publish a piece of work that’s frankly horrifying, you’ve not done your job. You need to find the balance between empathy and thoroughness.
Philippa: It can be a tricky line – it can be different if it’s someone you know, or if it’s someone you don’t know. Could be harder, could be easier. I’ve edited Lorrie before – and, the first time, I found that terrifying! I was scared to open the document, and I was going, “She’s my friend! What if it’s awful? What if I have to say, ‘This is awful!’”
Lorrie: Yes, what were you thinking, woman?!
Philippa: And of course it wasn’t – it was great. But I had to do quite a bit of moving things around, just because it was too long. And Lorrie was lovely about it and agreed with all my amends and made some suggestions, and we got a piece of work together that was brilliant and that went up on the site.
Lorrie: I think the key thing is, though, that we’re both writers and editors. I knew what to expect from Pip and I knew why she was doing what she was doing – it was an interactive process. You won’t get that with other clients. Often, some poor wee soul has decided they’ll finally have a pop at creative writing and they’ll send you their masterpiece and it hurts – you open it and you think, “Oh, you poor lamb!”
Philippa: It’s hard! You want it to be good, you want it to end up good but when you first open the document – I don’t know about you – but I always have a moment, thinking, “Please be good!” Just for the sake of sparing their feelings. Like Lorrie said, you can’t spare their feelings to the point that you go, “Oh, it’s brilliant!” like you might do to a friend about their painting.
Lorrie: Are you speaking from experience, Pip? Have you got any painter friends you’d like to confront at this point?!
Philippa: But you equally can’t treat them like some kind of robot, saying, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong…”
Lorrie: I’ve made the mistake before on extended editing projects. I’ll admit, in the ten years I’ve been doing this, I’ve lost my rag. I’ve had clients being a little bit sneaky for whatever reason, perhaps copying and pasting bits from Wikipedia, and very, very badly written pieces. When your client’s being a little bit uppity with you and saying, “Where’s the editing up to?”, it’s easy to get close to losing your temper and saying to them, “Well, actually, what you wrote is a bit rubbish!”
And of course it’s not rubbish – there’s a lot more to content than grammatical accuracy and perfect syntax – that’s your job. Your job is the polish, their job is the content. If they provide you with the content, alright it might need some significant editing but you have to treat them like a human being, you can’t get too frustrated with them – it’s not fair.
Philippa: The final thing that we thought was really important was creativity. Now, that’s not the obvious way that you might think creativity is important – which is being able to write creatively – it’s in the ability to think really creatively, to make a lot of the work you get work! If a company contacts you and they want a brilliant press release writing, which is going to get a lot of press attention and back-links to their website, but the topic they give you is very dry and there’s not a lot to it.
To take it from that to something that’s newsworthy enough that journalists get it and think, “Wow, I must write about that!” you sometimes have to think incredibly creatively. Similarly if someone wants a case study writing up about how Company X uses product Y and it’s something like chair legs…
Lorrie: Ooh, or micropolymers!
Philippa: And you have to make this into something that promotes the business and make other businesses want to use this product, that’s where creative thinking has to come in.
Lorrie: Absolutely. Going back to the micropolymers, I did a piece of work for company that produces plastic powders that are used to make buoys in the North Sea. Now, that’s not my favourite topic – I’m sorry to break it to you this way –
Philippa: No, it doesn’t scream front page news, does it?!
Lorrie: No, it certainly doesn’t! I’ve had another client – also B2B – say to me, “Can you get this on Newsnight?” Which, although I have to admire him for being so open about his intentions for the work…
Philippa: …and ambitious! Did you email it to Jeremy Paxman when you’d finished?
Lorrie: I’m afraid to say that I didn’t. That being said, I did help him research some trade press, some local press, a bit of national press that might have a bit of interest. This is something that you do as well – if you’re ever bored, have a nosy on the Internet and try and build up a database or an Excel file of contacts.
Philippa: Trade magazines…there are some of the weirdest things. One of my favourite TV programmes in the UK – in case you’re listening from elsewhere – is called Have I Got News For You, which is a comedy programme about the news. They always have a section on it where you have to complete a blank in a headline – and they very often use a ridiculous publication for the ‘Fill in the Blank’ section. But you start going, as a writer, “Ooh, I must make a note of that ridiculous publication!”
Lorrie: I’d like to emphasise that this is Philippa saying that they’re ridiculous. I myself find them extraordinarily interesting and I would welcome approaches from any of them.
Philippa: Most are extraordinarily interesting but there are a few that may be ridiculous. Allegedly! I guess by ridiculous, I mean incredibly, incredibly specific.
Lorrie: I think what I would emphasise is that creatively writing isn’t the same as creative writing.
Philippa: Definitely, definitely, definitely
Lorrie: One point I would make is that, when you start out as a freelance writer, you think that you’re going to be sitting there on your sofa in a smoking jacket, writing about topics that impassion you. You’re not, love, you’re going to be writing about goodness knows what.
A lot of the writing I do is B2B, so it’s not even about accessible topics like fashion, politics, cooking…there’s none of the pretty-pretty. I’d love to have cupcake shops as my clients. I don’t have a single cupcake shop – I do, however, have a WEEE compliance scheme company! You need to be creative about that in the sense of the writing isn’t yours. It doesn’t matter if it bores you – it’s not about you. Creative writing is totally about you and needs to come from your heart…
Philippa: …and can be all about how your head works and it comes from your head.
Lorrie: Yes! You can be as self-indulgent and poetic as you want – you have to put that on one side to be a copywriter. It’s very much like being a translator – you are someone else’s voice.
Philippa: Even to the point of the angle you take on a particular story. If a company wants you to write them an article for their website on a particular subject and you do it – if you haven’t asked enough questions in the first place, you might get it back with, “Well, yes it’s very good but, what I actually wanted was…” and so your initial idea of what the article was… that’s too much about you. Your idea about what was interesting about it, whereas the business actually wanted it to highlight A, B and C. You have to rethink where you started from and get it into a different angle.
Lorrie: This is it. If you’re being told more than once or twice, you need to question whether this is the job for you, because you need to be able to leave yourself to one side. We’re not talking about writing about things that you find ethically objectionable. Pip and I have both had circumstances where we’ve had to turn round to a client and say, “Look, I wish you all the best in your future endeavours however, that’s not a topic I feel able to write about.” That being said, you don’t just not write something because it’s not your opinion, or because you find it boring or because it’s not what you would have said. You are being paid to be your client’s voice and you need to be as authentic a voice as possible. That’s what you’re being paid for.
Philippa: And that’s where a lot of the skill comes in. It’s easy to be given a subject and write what you think about it. It’s a lot harder to be given a subject and write what someone else thinks about it. But that’s what they’re paying you to do.
Lorrie: Completely agree!
Philippa: So, my God, we’ve done it! We’ve made our first podcast. I apologise for any weird background noise – we’re in a café…
Lorrie: …in Wilkos!
Philippa: In Wilkos, because we’re classy! If you want to find us online, rather than spelling out our numerous Twitter, Facebook, website addresses, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and all of our details will be linked to from there. You can find us, chat to us, follow us on Twitter because we’re really quite nice.
Lorrie: Sometimes! All I would say is that this isn’t supposed to be some formal scripted podcast – and nor is it. We understand how isolating freelance writing can be. I’ve done it for ten years, Pip’s done it for a good number of years as well, and we’ve both made a lot of mistakes along the way – that’s what builds a freelance business. Now, as we say, it can be a very isolating job and it’s nice to have someone to talk to and share your experiences with. These podcasts can be as interactive as you like – if you have something you’d like to hear us talk about, by all means let us know because this is supposed to be useful.
Philippa: Definitely. We’ve got various ideas but we totally want your feedback. Is there anything obvious that we’ve missed out today? Is there a massively huge key skill or quality that a freelancer needs that we haven’t covered? Is there a subject that you wish someone would talk about? Let us know
Lorrie: We have almost no boundaries!
Philippa: That is true – we can talk about virtually anything. Whether it’s worth listening to is a whole other thing. In future, we’ll probably have better sound because we’ll be doing this over Skype. So, go to alittleebirdtold.podomatic.com. You’ll find how to contact us there, let us know what you want us to talk about, let us know what you think, try to be nice because we are…
Philippa: Yes, human, mostly. Like us on Facebook where you’ll get lots of news and information about the next podcast, link to us from your blog, follow us on Twitter…
Lorrie: Don’t follow us anywhere else – that’s just creepy. So, thank you for listening! I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…
Philippa: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next time!