Flanged bananas. Or: how to write a press release that works online too.

Do you write press releases? Do they work online? As in, can people find them? How do you know? Here are some ways to make your releases work as hard for you online as they do offline.

Takeaways:

  • Use keywords
  • Make the title and first sentence look good online
  • Write the release first, then the first sentence, then the title
  • Make it trackable
  • Make it Twitter-friendly

I’ve written more press releases than you’ve had… whatever you’ve had a lot of.

A press release is like great big vat. At the top is a load of stuff that needs squeezing down, down, down – until a little drop comes out at the bottom. So you need to make sure that concentrated, pure essence is as effective as possible.

Often, this just means writing a good release. What’s the real news here? What’s the story? Who is it for and how can you make it as likely as possible that they’ll publish?

But now, the ‘who it’s for’ part also includes an online audience. This could be because you publish your client releases on your own blog (it’s a nice trick, try it sometime). Maybe you’re writing it specifically for one of those fancypants online release companies. Or it could just be that somehow, it just winds up online and you see it floating around months later.

So today, a good release also means something that ‘works’ online. This doesn’t need especially arcane or difficult skills. Here are some tips.

  • Use keywords. SEO may have been coughing up blood last night, but it’s not quite dead. Find a website that talks about exactly the same thing you want to talk about, copy its address, hop on over to the free Google Adwords tool for keywords and paste that address in. The Adwords tool will tell you what it thinks are the most likely keywords for that page and, by inference, what words you should be using. It’s a bit like a reverse search: instead of typing keywords and getting the page, you’re specifying a page and finding what the keywords might have been. Now, use them roughly 3-5 times every 100 words, especially in the title and first sentence because that’s where Google likes them. You just made your release more attractive to search engines because you’re using the words other people use online, not the ones you think you should use.
  • Make the title and first sentence look good online. Again, this goes back to how people might read your release. If they’re using RSS, then for example in Google Reader the title is cut off at 70 characters and the first sentence at 120 (this applies to Google search results too). So if you have nice, well-formed titles and first sentences that get the message across within those limits, people might be more likely to read you. It’s not exactly SEO – that is, search engines don’t prefer titles and first sentences within those limits – but humans do. Maybe we need to call this HSEO?
  • Do it backwards. Write the release first, then the first sentence, then the title. That’s how I write blog posts and as a result, it’s how I write offline too. Usually I have it all in my head after writing it, and find it easier to compress than expand.
  • Make it trackable. Use an unusual phrase in the title that you can then track, via searches, Google Alerts, RSS monitoring, dashboards, whatever. I added ‘Flanged bananas’ to this, which is of course ridiculous (I’m a ridiculous person after all), but it’s a safe bet that when I search for that phrase from now on, I know it’s this blog post (actually, it seems I just inadvertently created my very own Google Whack). If you do it, you’ll know it’s your press release. Especially if you’re writing about flanged bananas.
  • Make it Twitter-friendly. Add a 140-character-or-less pre-made sentence at the end that people can copy and paste, complete with a bit.ly URL that you can track. Something like “Flanged bananas: How to write a press release that works online too. Brendan Cooper gives some tips. http://bit.ly/oIybwe” You just made it much easier for people to spread the word – and you controlled the message and can track it too. Nice.

Note that the second, third and fourth points above could equally apply to any title and first sentence no matter whether they’re offline or online because they just promote the essence of good copywriting. Get the message across with as much impact and brevity as possible, and make it lodge in people’s minds. Don’t give me any ‘revolutionary’ or ‘world-first’, begone with your ‘cutting edge’ and ‘delighted to announce’. It just doesn’t cut it any more. Think flanged bananas.

I usually avoid the cheesy “So what hints and tips do you have” motif at the end of blog posts but, seeing as nobody reads my blog any more, I’m willing to try anything. So, what hints and tips do you have?

Takeaways:

  • Use keywords
  • Make the title and first sentence look good online
  • Write the release first, then the first sentence, then the title
  • Make it trackable
  • Make it Twitter-friendly

If you liked that, tweet this: Flanged bananas: How to write a press release that works online too. Brendan Cooper gives some tips. http://bit.ly/oIybwe

Facebook and Google: if you can’t do the time…

So today, on Today on Radio 4, and the front page of the Guardian, and on the BBC, and probably everywhere else, is the story of Facebook, Google, and a PR company that I’m not going to continue to kick (because I don’t like kicking PR agencies). That is, Facebook’s agency allegedly trying place smear stories about Google’s Social Circle network.

I don’t often get time to blog nowadays but this one just stuck in my mind all the way into work, for several reasons.

Now, whether or not the actual core claim is valid that “the American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloguing and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission”, the prime issue here is one of trust. Trust and lies – or deliberate, covert smearing – don’t sit well. If you can’t be open and honest, do something different instead.

I remember when I first started in PR, as a copywriter, and I’ll be frank: I wasn’t entirely sure what PR was. That’s one of the reasons I started blogging, to share my ideas, get other people’s take on them, and learn. So, when I met up with some ex-colleagues and told them what I was up to, their immediate response was “What, telling lies?” I stuttered and spluttered and wasn’t sure how to respond.

Years later I’m absolutely confident that PR is not in the business of telling lies. I’ve seen people go to great pains to establish what can, and cannot be claimed. Anyone who’s ever been in a messaging session will know how much importance we place on the solid facts we have at our disposal, which verify and validate anything that a client says, or that we say on the client’s behalf. It’s part of our DNA.

For example, I interviewed a prominent UK political figure earlier this week. I’ve just spent a very, very long time making sure that everything I wrote up subsequently is absolutely accountable.

But, to take the iconoclastic approach, why? Why bother telling the truth? Sometimes lying really can get you what you want. I still remember lying to my parents about what happened to the TV set when in fact it wasn’t the cat that had knocked water down the back of it, it was me.

What about stretching the truth to its elastic limit? I heard about the Chilcott Commission yesterday and had forgotten it was even still running, but that’s come about surely because someone, somewhere, did quite a lot of manipulation to make things go their own way.

Why not lie? Why not conduct a covert smear campaign?

Well, the reason is this: you get caught. It’s all too true that you can’t fool all the people all of the time. We are fortunate in the West to live in a society where the competing agendas of politics, corporations and the media mean that if there is an untruth to be exposed, someone will expose it. Then, all hell breaks loose. Brands get damaged. We waste millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money on a phoney war and a toothless commission. You wind up on the front page of the Guardian and lose your job.

So you don’t lie because, if there’s any other way to do what you want to do, then do that instead. From the social media angle, if you find you need to get someone else to write your blog posts for you, or generally pretend to be you, then you may as well try to find a different medium because that’s not what social media is about. It’s about you. If you don’t have time, money or resource to do it, then don’t do it.

I’m not saying anyone in the Facebook/Google/PR case is lying. Facebook may be presenting a perfectly valid viewpoint. But the way they’ve done it? No. If Facebook didn’t have the time, money or resource to face the consequences of their PR agency’s methods, then they shouldn’t have done it. Unfortunately, they probably have ample amounts of all three.

2011 social media predictions

So while I have my blogging head on – hot off the news that Delicious is disappearing and Facebook has undergone yet another redesign – I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the state of the social media nation for the coming year. It’s not all good. Here we go…

Confidence will go down

Social media lives in the cloud (or ‘online’ as we used to say). This is good, in that the cloud is a wonderful thing where you can pool computing resources and readily share information. But its fluidity is a problem. I’ve already written about my dislike of the state of ‘permanent beta’ of such services, and with the recent make-over of Facebook, I remain annoyed. The bigger a site gets, the more we depend on it. The more it changes, the less we like it – not just because we have to relearn it, but strategists have to go back to the blueprints, trainers have to re-do all their materials, and so on. And that’s nothing compared to what happens when sites like Delicious just disappear. How can you invest time and effort, how can you plan, when you don’t know what’s going to happen over the next few months, let alone the next year?

Monetisation will continue to be a problem

Yahoo owns the biggest bookmarking service around, and it cannot make money off it. Twitter, as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t have a monetisation strategy. I don’t quite understand how Mark Zuckerberg can be so rich off the back of Facebook. Anyone remember the dotcom boom and bust? Social media feels horribly similar, in that I believe the people who make money off social media right now are the ones who get paid to assess its value. It’s very like the old gold rushes – the ones who got rich were the ones who sold the spades to dig for the gold, not the poor fools actually looking for it.

PR still won’t ‘get it’

I still feel my temples throb when I meet up with digital colleagues at PR agencies, who recount phrases they continue to come across such as “Let’s do some blogging stuff” or “Maybe we should send some tweets out.” Social media is still new, but it’s gone from burbling helplessly in the cot to at least toddling. Four-plus years is enough for PR people to have understood the basics, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that PR people, while they are completely brilliant at issues, are unrivalled organisers and demon communicators, are completely at sea when it comes to the high-level strategy and the low-level nuts and bolts of getting through to people online. I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Freelancers will find it an increasingly tough gig

I admit I haven’t found the past year easy by any means. People rightly want the confidence of an agency behind their programmes in case I get run over by a bus. And if/when you do finally get a client who’s prepared to work with you in the longer term, again they quite rightly want to know your ‘secret sauce’ – and then do it for themselves.

Digital agencies will rise

While I find PR people don’t ‘get’ digital, I do find digital ‘gets’ PR. My prediction here is that, far from PR subsuming digital, it will eventually be the other way around. Digital agencies have the heft of a professional outfit, with a proper team structure and a wealth of expertise that, I think, will be the umbrella model for the future.

Social media curves will continue to go up, but results will continue to disappoint

I still find it astonishing that, for example, in 2010 there was more social media traffic than all years combined (trust me, it’s a valid statistic, but I cannot find the source for that right now). At the same time, broadcast and mainstream media just has those huge exposure figures that social media simply cannot compete with. Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian recently showed us this (and this time I do have a link): of the recent Alan Partridge Fosters YouTube videos he says: “The first episode has racked up 492,000 plays on YouTube at the time of writing, and while the latest episode, 5, has dropped to 135,000, [Henry Normal, the man who “minds the shop” at Partridge actor Steve Coogan’s production company Baby Cow] claims the results are a success, even though a new comedy on Channel 4 would expect to be seen by 1.5m to 2m viewers.” OK, so 15-minute YouTube clips are cheaper to disseminate but 135,000 views is NOTHING compared to 2 million viewers – regardless of trendy notions of ‘engagement’, ‘dialogue’ or ‘the network effect’.

Facebook will continue to dominate

Facebook is a juggernaut and it’s not going to slow down any time soon. This is a pity because the web was never meant to be a single-application platform. It was supposed to be a resilient, open resource through which information could freely – which also means anonymously – pass. One day Facebook will break and then we’ll all be sorry.

Dashboarding and curating will grow

I truly believe that every company should be monitoring what people are saying about it, its issues and its competitors, on a daily basis. Even if they don’t then engage, there is simply no excuse for not listening, especially when marvellous sites such as Netvibes make dashboarding easy as cake, a piece of pie. Set up an internal dashboard monitoring your competitors and what people are saying about them. That’s research. And have an external one showcasing what you say and the areas you want to ‘own’. That’s marketing. Where’s the harm in that?

Social media will only provably work for big companies that have stuff to sell

This is possibly the most controversial point here. Social media only works when it scales up. If you don’t have enough followers/members/contacts, it won’t work. People are the fuel that drives the social media engine. So smaller companies that genuinely want to engage will not see the benefit. However, larger companies that can command a large amount of interest online will see the benefit – and that will primarily be through selling. Take Dell, for example. It has sales that have grown, year on year, from 1 million dollars, to 3, to 6, to 18 million. That’s a steep curve, and whereas it’s peanuts for a company that size, I can see that they can totally point to an ROI that means they will continue to invest in it. Meanwhile your smaller enterprises will give up. This is a real pity because, in the same way the web isn’t meant to be one big application (see my Facebook point above), social media was supposed to give the little man a voice. Again, terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’ are nice, but only if you can afford to invest in them without necessarily pointing to an ROI. ‘Selling’, on the other hand, is what the CEO is interested in, and will shell out money for, and you can only do this effectively if you’re big.

So, there you go. What will I do next year? Don’t know really. Maybe I’ll continue ploughing my furrow and see what transpires. Maybe I’ll close shop and go and work for a digital agency. Maybe I’ll set my own up. Maybe I’ll get out of social media altogether (again) and focus on something nice and comfortable, like copywriting.

And you? What will you do? Here’s my advice if you’re thinking about using social media next year:

  • Make sure you’re doing other forms of marketing too. Social media on its own will not cut it.
  • Make sure whoever you work with in social media knows what a strategy is. If they say “We’re all about tactics”, walk away.
  • Really think about monitoring. It doesn’t take long to set up and you will be amazed at what you find out.
  • Be prepared to work in the dark to an extent – you may never really know how much money you make off the back of your investment.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for changes and closures. No social media site/channel/platform is too big to go under.

That about wraps it up for 2010. I’m going to finish my cup of tea and then work on thawing my toes out, then I’m going to sit by the log fire and stare into the distance for the next two weeks. Toodle pip.

The Universal Process™. Or: the Gartner Hype Cycle of Life

Life. Work. Birth. Death. And everything in between. Read on.

I wrote some time ago about the process of writing. Unless I’m writing for myself – that is, when I had time for ‘recreational writing’, or even blogging for that matter – I tend to procrastinate. I sit in front of the monitor surrounded by swathes of research, I huff and I puff, I put my head in my hands, I wander off, stroke the cats, make a cup of tea, sit in the garden staring at a bush. I repeat this a few times, then, after the first paragraph or two, it’s there, in my head. I totally know where it’s going and what I’m doing and before I know it, the piece is written.

But then it needs redrafting, often several times, off my own bat and following feedback. In the end I’m heartily sick of it and I’m happy to dispatch it, but everyone seems happy with it. Then, some time later, I go through my own stuff and think “That’s pretty good. Did I really write that? I must have been intelligent back then. Perhaps I’m destroying my brain with too much TV/Guinness/social media.”

This hasn’t changed, and it’s telling me that it’s an essential part of the process. You need that time to fulminate. To ruminate. To think. People don’t pay you to think, but it is necessary. Then you become so familiar with something you just want rid of it. Then you look back on it a few weeks or months or years later, and you’re pretty pleased with what you did. It was all worth it in the end.

The more I work in other fields, the more I think this is a universal process. I’m going to call it the UP™.

An example: I used to be into home-based music production. It was a phase, albeit a fairly long one (about 8 years – you can hear the results here). The same would happen. I’d noodle a fair amount, then suddenly latch onto it and off I went. Then I would spend a very, very long time with the production. In the end, same thing: I had enough. But it had to be finished. So I would end up finishing it without really knowing if it was finished. And sometimes I listen to it even now and I quite like it. Does that make sense?

Another example: today, I put together a Facebook page for a client. I’ve done this before, but every client is different, and you pretty much find yourself starting from scratch every time. At first I was fairly overwhelmed. There were so many wrong ways to go about it, and I had to find the right way. So I looked through all the content I had – several times – then did some research about best practice, looked at what other people had done, etc etc. There was huffing and there was puffing, there was head in hands. There were cats stroked. Bushes were looked at. Tea was drunk.

About two hours later I was absolutely heading in the right direction. And now I’m really getting into it. And I thoroughly expect that, after we launch and promote it (and keep promoting it for the next few months) I will have had enough of it, and want to do something else instead. But I’m hoping the client will like it. And I’m hoping I’ll look back on it and like it too.

Copywriting, music, social media (and, for that matter, design and code, which is what I’m doing with the FB page). They all follow this pattern. Even research. I hate starting a social media audit. I love it when the figures come out. I hate having to keep plugging away and updating it. I love it when I look back and think I did a good job.

This process needs a model.

I like the Gartner Hype Cycle. I like its categories: the Trigger, the Peak of Inflated Expectations, the Trough of Disillusionment, the Slope of Enlightenment and finally the Plateau of Productivity. See below.

I think that applies to work, too, but with a different shape. My new categories? The Commission, the Trough of Despond, the upward Slope of Encouragement, the Peak of Productivity, the downward Slope of Dudgeon and finally, the Plateau of Reality. It’s the UP™. See below.

Let’s be philosophical. I wonder if life is like this? In which case The Commission is when mummy and daddy got friendly, the Trough of Despond is when you realise you’re probably not going to get that Ferrari (or in my case a Morgan, although my Spitfire is seeing me alright), the Upward Slope of Encouragement is when you think “Well, that’s ok, let’s focus on what’s important”, the Peak of Productivity is after you climb up (or my case, up a bit, across a bit, down a bit) the career ladder and start really enjoying life, the Downward Slope of Dudgeon is when you start confusing your grandchildren’s names with the cats and hoovering the garden, and the Plateau of Reality is… well, I don’t think I’m there yet. I’ll post you when I am.

To craunch a marmoset, frothy vomit, and other curiosities

A marmoset, being craunched, yesterday. Click image for source.

A marmoset, being craunched, yesterday. Click image for source.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

So I was going through Epoch PR‘s numbers (I’m their digital associate and am helping them with their online strategy), and this came up: http://seadna.net/301-redirect-the-seo-way-to-rename-or-move-files-or-folders/

To quote the bit that my Epoch PR search must have picked up: “it takes a straws of in good time always and hard hopped to build a skilful epoch PR.”

Do what?

The piece is so weird, it’s inspired. Here are some more examples:

  • “If someone types ‘excise usb drives’ in a search engine punch, your foot-boy shows up on the sooner search results screen”
  • “Google developed a proprietary algorithm that assigns a Page Stinking (PR) to every summon forth”
  • “why can’t you upright matching the page and disenchant type suffer its course”

I think it must be a machine translation of another article or just random text pasted together to get web traffic. The funny thing is that it sort of makes sense, but really doesn’t.

It goes to show – monitoring and measurement is never as easy as it first seems. And there’s never a foot-boy around when you need one.

Further down the search list is a post I can more readily vouch for: http://oldamqvnl.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!D7176E885C76F591!109.entry is a machine translation of my own Epoch PR post from a few months back, so given that I write in English, and that it is also in English, I can only assume it’s via a second language somewhere. Good Lord, is the web really just an eternally self-translating churn of random copy?

Again, there are wonderful mistakes in it: the company name changes from ‘Epoch’ to ‘Era'; they change from a lovely bunch of people to ‘a lovely clustering of people'; and I simply cannot tell you why “I’m no visionary but I do remember my sneaking suspicion that blogging would be important for PR about three years ago” becomes “I ‘m no windy but I make recall my mousing intuition that blogging would be important for Pr about three geezerhood ago.”

This all reminds me of a case once quoted in the ‘The Book of Heroic Failures’, in which someone had written an English/Portuguese dictionary via  English/Spanish and Spanish/Portuguese dictionaries (he knew no English), and came up with immortal phrases such as ‘to craunch a marmoset’. And yes, here it is: the glorious ‘English As She Is Spoke’.

Or, indeed, the catalogue currently describing the latest Saatchi exhibition. To wit: “A nation demarcated where vomit meets surf, geographically encircled by froth”. I would characterise the UK as many things, but vomity, surfy and frothy it ain’t.

Proof that you don’t need machine translation on the interweb to come up with gobbledegook.

Everyone needs to get out more

Estimated reading time: 2.5 minutes

So today is Wednesday which means I write about… hang on, let me look it up… tum te tum te tum… ah yes, here it is. Social media!

Right.

Over the past month, in the UK, we’ve been subjected to the constant advances of politicians throughout the election. Thankfully it’s all stopped,  but at the time I did notice a phenomenon that I keep seeing around me and that I think is significant.

Which is: when you’re inside something, when that something is your world, there’s a tendency to think it’s the same for everyone else too. And the reality is, that it isn’t.

To take the political example, I have a strong feeling that Cameron, Clegg and Brown woke up every morning thinking that the world is a world of politics. They would meet their aides, shake people’s hands, look interested when being shown lathes, and generally be in that world till they fell asleep and night and dreamed of kittens.

But for someone like me, it isn’t a world of politics. I’ve never even met a politician, that I’m aware. I’ve never been to a political event. I voted, sure, but I count myself among the people who think that politics is pretty irrelevant to their lives. It all seems so pragmatic, so ineffectual when considered against seemingly overwhelming global forces.

Enough of the politics. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a tendency to believe that what you’re doing is treated with equal significance as everyone else, even when it’s something as (supposedly) important as politics.

And I see this in social media too.

The people I follow on Twitter, tweet about it. The bloggers I read, blog about it. So there’s a real possibility that, working in social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a world of social media.

It isn’t.

I know it isn’t, not just because there are trees, birds and sky out there, but because during the election, despite sky-high ratings for Clegg, he just didn’t cut it in the real world. If it were a world of social media, he’d have won hands down.

Is this post making sense? I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m not sure it’s coming across. Basically, as communicators – whether politicians, PR people or social media types – we need, often, to break out of our little world and see it from someone else’s point of view. That way, we start to appreciate what’s really going on, rather than what we think is going on.

I’m lucky. I do something else too – that is, I write. OK, so I write about social media, but I like to think that I can do this from the outside in, as well as the inside, um, in. So should all communicators. It’s not a world of PR, or of advertising, or of social media. We need to get out more.

Copywriters can write about anything – but don’t ask them about it next week

Estimated reading time: 2.5 minutes

So, today is copywriting. If you want to know what that means, it means that I’ve decided to try a blogging experiment. I’m going to write to a daily schedule so that on any given day, if you want to tune in, you’ll know what to expect. Plus, I make sure I cover everything I do and learn from it. And the schedule is:

  • Monday – media
  • Tuesday – copywriting
  • Wednesday – social media
  • Thursday – tech/digital
  • Friday – not decided yet but it might just be ‘stuff not covered elsewhere’

Let’s see how it goes.

So, with that preamble out of the way, now the first sentence makes sense. Today is copywriting.

I started out as a technical author, and that would range from the mindlessly tedious through to the fairly interesting. Then I ‘grew up’ to be a fully paid-up copywriter. That’s where the fireworks started. This ranged from the improbable to the impossible.

By which I mean: on any given day you could be writing several different pieces. These ranged in form and content. The form could be press releases, bylines, features, competition entries, web copy, blog posts, and everything else. The content could be the best paper to use in a printer, the advantages of cloud computing, the shaving habits of the Belgians – and, again, everything else.

So is any copywriter particularly knowledgeable about printers, servers and Belgians? Of course not.

But that’s part of what a copywriter ‘does’. As in: give a copywriter a brief to explain the second law of thermodynamics to, ooh I don’t know, five year-olds. As a blog post. What a copywriter will then do is immerse himself or herself in the subject matter, fill up their heads with the stuff, then write about it (actually, the good copywriter will offer creative alternatives and the excellent copywriter will ask what you’re trying to achieve and why).

Then – the copywriter will forget it. It’s done. Sure, bits of it will stick, but a week later, ask that copywriter what is meant by that statement that “the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium”, and you’ll be met with a blank stare.

Is this a bad thing? No. What it means is that good copywriters can write about anything. If they’re doing it right, they’ll recalibrate their heads and ‘become’ that expert in that particular, specific subject matter for that particular, specific period of time. Then they’ll delete, expunge, dormant that information until or unless they need it again.

So next time you’re startled because a copywriter cannot remember something he or she wrote about last week, don’t be. It’s because this week, they’re an expert on something else. As well as copywriting, of course.

It’s been an interesting year

The year, if you're a pagan. Click image for source.

The year, if you're a pagan. Click image for source.

So it’s a year almost to the day that I went freelance. I only realised when I attended a local country fair, comprising ferret races, dogs herding geese, and cut-price sales of smocks (I only lied about one of those), which I went to the day after deciding I had to go freelance last year or go utterly insane.

It’s probably the best thing I ever did. I’ve since learned how to cut those apron strings, stop shouting “Mother” in a George Formby-type way whenever anything went wrong, stand on my own two feet, and be a Real Man.

It’s not all been plain sailing however. It’s been good, but also, at times, bad. So, for those of you who still read blogs – which, by my declining stats, is about three – here’s what I’ve found:

Money

I’m not particularly ‘fiscal’ by nature, or at least I wasn’t. The pound gave me palpitations. I dreaded dollars. The Malaysian Ringgit made me Moan Relentlessly. Now, I track everything to the penny and found I’m not bad at it. I’ve got a funky spreadsheet that tells me exactly who, when, where, why, and for how much. This is just as well because…

Money again

I didn’t earn as much as I thought I could. This was down to two factors: it took a while to get going; and Christmas was utterly dead. Dead as a dodo. It was an ex-Yuletide. Since February however, the famine has become feast, so next year, note to self: go on a nice wintersun holiday around December time. Maybe extend it to November and January.

Work

It’s lumpy. So Christmas was bad but I’ve also had a few weekend stints and at the time of writing am looking to perform another. However, the main thing is, at least I’m getting paid. I pity the poor gangrel creatures who work at agencies and are expected to work late and/or weekends for free.

Time

Has become increasingly flexible. I’ve given up trying to work before 11am because it just doesn’t suit me. I tend to do my own stuff before then – tidying up the UK Election Social Media Dashboard for example, checking my email, seeing where the world is at. Then I’ll get cracking until around 7 or 8pm, at about which time my lovely girlfriend comes home. Then I put on the Barry White, obviously.

People

There are some weirdos out there. Honestly. I’m starting to develop a knack for detecting the tyre-kickers in particular. Unfortunately, most of them come to me via this blog. Emails such as “Can you contact us re copywritting” [sic] are a dead giveaway. All I’ve decided is that you have to treat everyone equally and, when you’ve chased once, twice, thrice, you just have to leave it and accept that it’s not personal.

On the other hand there are some really nice people out there. Just when I start losing faith in humanity, I find one. Or even two. They really help. I’d say on the whole I’m finding that, when you get out of the paranoid world of the agency, people are much less hung up and desperate. I think I tend to reflect what’s going on around me so I was getting hung up and desperate working in agencies. Really, in the real world, it’s not like that, simply because it doesn’t have to be. Fact.

Serendipity

You never know what’s around the corner. That’s what makes the tyre-kickers of the world annoying. Some of them seem so promising. Then you get a random query and the next thing you know, they’re a retained client. Retainerships are wonderful. You can plan with them, as can they. And they can still make a profit off you cos you’re a poxy freelancer while they’re a big butch agency and can still hold healthy margins.

Experience

I’d say I’ve learned more in the past year than I did in the previous five. I spent too long expecting someone to give me the answers, and I kept finding that no one really knew what they were. So I decided to look for myself. Now I have the tools and techniques that mean I can address a client’s situation in a logical, replicable, objective way (creativity was never a problem). So I might come up with the same solution they’d have thought of themselves. Fine. Difference is, with real reasoning and solid strategy behind them, they know why they’re doing it. More to the point, they can tell their bosses why they’re doing it. It’s important.

Solitude

This is the one thing that surprised me. I do get lonely working on my own. I travel quite a lot to see clients in London Town, and the cats are amusing in their own way. I also grew up spending endless hours playing by myself and it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I used to think how lovely it would be to work on my own without being bothered by pesky people. Now, while I do value my own time, I find I can have too much of it. Balance in all things I guess. I need more retainers. So, on that note, if you want to retain a social media copywriter, let me know.

Tortoises

I’ve been able to spend more time with Concorde the Tortoise, showing him flashcards to stimulate him, teaching him his times tables, helping him hone his polevaulting technique etc. He’s learning French this year. I’m thinking of sending him to one of the better public schools, maybe Eton or Harrow. Definitely not Winchester.

And that’s it. I expect it’s what a lot of freelancers will tell you from any discipline. Main thing is I’m certainly much happier and more confident since doing this. Sometimes you have to listen to that little voice inside you and just go for it. I’m glad I did.

Proof reading can be fun!

Get your stamp at the ready. Click image for source.

Get your stamp at the ready. Click image for source.

Proof reading is supposed to be a doddle. It’s just making sure everything’s tickety-boo and stamping it with your big red ‘Approved’ stamp. No?

Actually, no. Not really. Not when you’re proofing a 26,000 word document, like I just did today. It’s been a while since I did hard-core proofing and it reminded me that there are most definitely right ways to do it, and wrong ‘uns.

WRONG WAY – just make sure everything’s tickety-boo and stamp it with your big red ‘Approved’ stamp, then skip away singing “Hello birds, hello trees, hello sky.”

RIGHT WAY – as follows:

  1. Agree beforehand on what needs doing. There is a gulf of difference between a copy edit – where you’re more likely than not going to have to disassemble some scrawl and turn it into beautiful filigree curlicued baroque English – and a proof edit. The gulf, in my case, is precisely 2,000 words per hour. That is, I can proof edit at 4K words an hour but copy edit at 2K. So if I get the requirement wrong to start with, I spend twice as long, or earn half as much, or annoy the client. They’re all bad outcomes.
  2. Read the whole thing in one go. That’s right, even a 26K worder. OK, maybe allow yourself a Guinness or two (I did, but it was late last night), but make sure you’ve read it once before you even start to edit it. You get a flavour of the general tone of voice, where the voice changes (which it inevitably will if it’s multi-authored, or even if one person wrote it at different times or under the influence of different prescription drugs), potential problem areas, that sort of thing. Plus you get an idea of what the document’s actually about, which helps.
  3. Leave it. Go and do something else instead. Play with your tortoise, for example.
  4. Come back all refreshed and just get stuck in. You need to make decisions along the way but they’ll basically be along the lines of:
    • Grammar: get rid of howlers, check the finer points of quotation mark usage, change the wording if you think you’re going to get into a slanging match over the apostrophe.
    • Vocab: try and make it simple – for example ‘you will be able to’ is the same as ‘you can’ – but be careful if you’re just proofing because you’re getting close to a copy edit.
    • Tone of voice: is usually copy edit territory but you might need to stitch it together. Put it this way: if you’re the first person bringing together a multi-authored report, you are most definitely not going to be just proofing it. Poo-pah.
  5. Handover from the old document to the new. After your first pass, save it under a new filename, accept all the revisions, and then read it alongside the original. In this way you get to see the revisions that didn’t quite go right – double spaces here, no spaces there etc – and can read two ‘clean’ versions next to each other. In this way you might even decide to reject some of your own changes in preference to the original.
    • Hint: you might want to leave something untouched if someone in the document is making a claim that you don’t feel qualified to alter and you don’t want to ‘sex it up’ at all. Lord knows, I’ve been watching the Iraq inquiry on TV recently and I don’t want to be hauled in front of a select committee (“Why did you change ‘could’ to ‘should’, Mr. Cooper..?” “I don’t know your honour, can I go home now please?”). If in doubt, leave it, but flag it for the client perhaps.
  6. Check the new document. Save it again under a different filename, accept all the revisions again, and read the new document on its own. Yes, that means you’ve now read it four times in total, but it’s necessary: overview, detail, handover, check. You need each one.
  7. Make a note of the funnies. As you’re going along make a note of things you’re unclear of, or that the client needs to double-check. And make sure you tell the client to check the tables of contents, and page/figure/table references because copy edits sometimes muck up the pagination. It’s not your job to do this, but the client will love you for reminding him/her.

Oh, and use revision marks (obviously). If you haven’t, you can use Word’s ‘Compare’ feature. Good luck.