Long copy brief? Short copy brief? It’s your responsibility.

Let’s be honest: as with any service, there is uncertainty involved in copywriting, especially when it’s for a new client. It’s your job, as a copywriter, to take control and remove this.

The uncertainty is inevitable, and applies to both sides. At the client end, if they’ve never worked with you, or perhaps even with any copywriter before, then there’s naturally going to be some nervousness about taking on board a new supplier. Hopefully you’ll have been through some hoops before taking on the work – at least some emails, ideally a meeting or two – but even though your portfolio is great, and you’ve both enjoyed a coffee together, the client needs reassuring that they’re in safe, professional hands.

At your end, as a supplier, you really want to make sure you get it right first time. But by definition, the client doesn’t know as much about the copywriting process as you do – that’s why they hired you. So it’s your responsibility to guide them through it.

This is why the copy brief is so important. It’s the statement of what is needed, by when, and who has responsibility for what. As you develop your own working methods together the copy brief can become less important, but for those first few jobs together, it’s essential.

I have my own standard copy brief, which I use as a vehicle to help me guide clients through what’s needed. Sometimes I even write my own copy brief just for my own use, if I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny piece. I developed it during my time at Porter Novelli where, as half of the Writing Bureau there, I produced miles and miles of copy, almost in a production line, and this necessitated the discipline of the copy brief.

As well as the basic details around who the client is, contact details and so on, it covers several essential areas:

  • How many words? This is admittedly quite basic but you sometimes need to be quite militant on this one. There’s a tendency for clients to ask for ‘two or three pages’, which begs the questions around how large are the pages and how large is the font!
  • What is the piece about? This needs to be a succinct statement, ideally one sentence. I’ve done quite a lot of branding work and this is the equivalent of the killer question, ‘What do you do?’. Ask ten people in an organisation and you’ll get ten different answers. Same with the copy brief. Make sure someone absolutely knows what this piece is going to be about.
  • What is ‘the hook’? Why would people want to read this? As with branding, this is the equivalent of ‘What do you do differently’? It’s sometimes a really tough question but you both need to dig down and find a reason for the audience to want to read it. Ideas here could be that it’s a unique offering, or the first of a kind, or perhaps there’s been something big in the news that you could use as a hook. Be creative.
  • What are the points you want to make, and what is the proof for each point? This is where the rigour starts. You need to have ‘proof points’ for the statements that you’re going to make. These can be quantitative (5,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire) or qualitative, using anecdotal evidence such as news items that support your point. Certainly working in an agency I found this section incredibly useful, as I couldn’t be expected to be a subject matter expert on everyone’s account. This section made them think about what they were asking me to do, and we all ended up with better work as a result.
  • Where will it appear (publication name or type, email, PDF, printed newsletter)? To give an extreme example, if this is going to appear in the FT, it needs to have a completely different tone than for the Daily Mail. But even trade or vertical titles will have different requirements, so it’s important to ask where this piece is going to appear.
  • What effect do you want to create? This could be to drive awareness, or get more sales, or win an award. It might be less important in a copy brief but I know marketing clients like to see this, because you’re echoing to them that you know what they want from the piece.
  • Who is going to read it and what are their wants/needs? This is a basic question about the audience. Are they senior management who want a macro-level view across their industry? Are they junior staff who just want direct advice? Don’t forget, journalists are also audiences (and are also human, mostly).
  • Why now? Any tie-ins? This is similar to ‘the hook’ question but is explicitly looking for tie-ins. The point here is that the client is often the subject matter expert and they should know what’s been going on in their marketplace. So, ask them.
  • What is the tone of voice? This is important. It’s an expression of the client, the publication, and the audience. You need to decide whether you’re going to be authoritative, or direct, or friendly. If you’re a challenger brand you might want to be a bit pushy. If you’re a retail or consumer brand then maybe err towards the side of informality.
  • Is there an in-house style? This can just be a shortcut to the tone of voice, but consider that the graphic design can also be a pointer towards tone.
  • Do you have any examples? If so, then perhaps you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I tend to find that previous successful examples are the key. I don’t think you can get away without asking all the other questions, but if the client can show you something they liked, and that worked, then this can get you a long way towards knowing what’s required.
  • Do you have any background material? Again, this is where the client needs to work hard, not just in helping with the ‘why now’ question, but with providing you with what you need. Obviously you’ll have to do your own research, but if the client can help with recent articles they’ve seen, or their own research/data/publications, this can help immensely.
  • Timings. This is where you become a project manager as well as copywriter. You don’t need to go crazy here. Just list the stages, responsibilities, and estimated time. The stages and responsibilities should be along the lines of first draft (copywriter), first review (client), second draft (copywriter), second review (client), final draft (copywriter),  and sign-off (client).

So you see, this pretty much covers everything. There can be overlaps, for example with the ‘why now’ and ‘what’s the hook’ questions, but this brief has never let me – or my clients – down. You could maybe distil it further and create a ‘brief copy brief’ but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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

If you don’t want gurus then don’t call them gurus!

A recent post by Mark Ragan reminded me of a post I’ve had swirling around in my brain recently. His post is pretty bang on the money – of course he’s right that, as a general principle, we shouldn’t use jargon. But who’s ‘we’? Who are ‘them’? What are I?

Well apparently I’m a guru. I never told people I was a guru. I don’t walk around wearing a loin cloth. I never held my arm in the air for 50 years until it atrophied. Nor have I sat on a windswept mountain and heard the sound of one hand clapping (actually I did once hear that, but it’s a long story).

So, when I was a web designer, pre-FrontPage and Dreamweaver or even basic HTML editing utilities, I was called an HTML guru. Then I became a designer, and was a design guru, apparently. Then I became a copywriter and I was an apostrophe guru (no, really). Then, when I got into social media, I became – you guessed it – a social media guru. I never called myself that. I was introduced as that. People would say, proudly, “And here is Brendan, our social media guru” as if touring the museum of curiosities. I would smile politely then return to picking nits out of my fur.

So Mark Ragan is right. We need fewer gurus. I agree. I’ve said so too in the past (good grief was that really so long ago?)

But I think there’s another trend I’m seeing this year, which is a bit more pernicious. There seems to be a general movement to ‘kick out the gurus’. This anti-guru movement seems to boil down to the following argument: social media was taken up by early adopters who don’t really know how to ‘do social media properly'; social media is essentially marketing; so now, it’s time to bring in the real marketeers, people who know how to ‘do social media properly’.

Again, I’m all for driving out the snakeoil salesmen – but hang about: who called us gurus in the first place? It wasn’t us!

Think about this. Who did you first employ as a social media specialist? Or who did you first ask to look into social media within your organisation? Were they fully qualified marketing types? Were they measurement addicts, or management specialists? Were they, in short, the kind of people we all seem to be asking to come in and sort out the social media house?

Or were they people who seemed to ‘fit’ naturally into this strange, new, online space, and bring a variety of skills to bear? So, some of you might have hired someone because they used to be a web designer and they’re comfortable with the web; or maybe they were copywriters who can identify stories and carry messages; or possibly they were web-savvy PR people who wanted to see how to port PR across to the web. Or some, or all, or none of the above but something much more exotic and interesting.

And then you called them gurus. And now you want to get rid of them because they’re gurus.

Social media is far from a settled issue. Networks are being born (Quora), growing (Foursquare), or even getting a bit creaky (dare I say Google?). It’s still messy out there. You still need a native curiosity about it, otherwise you’ll just get left behind. Most of the people who I know working in social media today are simply that: curious people, who try their best to make sense of online conversations to the benefit of their organisations or clients. Calling them gurus is doing them a gross disservice.

So before you demote them to the social media helpdesk, having brought in some big shiny new gun who’s going to wrestle it from the gurus and turn social media into dollars, don’t forget: they were the ones who you turned to first, and tried their best to make it work. It would make much more sense to help them succeed rather than kick them down. And to help them do this? Don’t call them gurus.

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.

Guest Post: Steve Meleka of Noble Meleka on SEO

That's what I think anyway. Do you agree? Click image for source.

That's what Steve thinks anyway. Do you agree? Click image for source.

Preamble: Last week I posted my thoughts on SEO, after receiving a stream of great comments on Twitter that I thought were worth sharing. In turn, I’d posted because I was working on a project with a long-term colleague and friend, Steve Meleka. I worked with him at Imagination Technologies at the time we won the Sega Dreamcast contract, where I was the technical writer and Steve was the web designer. Now that I’m freelance, and Steve has his own web development company, we continue to collaborate on cool and interesting new projects.

Following from my post last week, and the resulting tweets, it struck me that Steve has a lot to say on the subject – as someone who works on the ground, day in day out, getting results for clients. While there’s a tendency in the social media world for people to think they’re the latest and greatest, we need to be reminded that community and content are not everything. We need to remember the basics. So here’s Steve’s take on this…

Good, effective copy is what sells a product or service to a real person. But, and it’s and extremely important ‘but’, the people who you succeed in selling to will always be a subset of the people who find you in the first place.

If the content of your page generates 500 visits in its ‘un-optimised’ state, and you manage a 5% conversion rate then you’ve got yourself 25 sales. Give yourself a big hand.

But, if you increase your traffic two or three times using SEO techniques while managing to retain your conversion rate you could manage 50 or 75 sales. If you’re selling large individual units – combine harvesters or something – that’s a fat wad of cash. Any don’t kid yourself for a moment tat the combine harvester outfit down the road aren’t trying to beat you to the top of the search results, because they are.

Appearing at the top and even getting more visits is only half the story though. The saying goes we should work smarter, not harder, and SEO probably falls mostly into the ‘harder’ category. The smart money is in converting visits into sales, which means writing compelling sales copy for people, not search ranking algorithms.

Tell me though, what use is one approach without the other? Pretty much a big fat zero. Like I said at the start, those people you manage to convert will always be a subset of those you manage to attract in the first place.

I know very well that quality content is going to get linked to from many other places than just search engines, but most small business people don’t consider themselves ‘experts’ and many consider giving advice dangerous since it could give their competitors an edge. So in the end, at this end of the market it’s not the norm for clients to generate (or even commission, sadly) enough new content to generate interest.

So what do I see the web doing for small & medium businesses now? Well, people said back in the 90s that the web was going to democratise business, and create a level playing field where Mom and Pop could compete with the conglomerates. In some cases that’s true, but only if Mom and Pop deploy their more limited resources in a new or novel way (see Mashable’s Small Business Success Stories to see what I mean).

The reality is that the web has just turned into another tool in the marketing box, and often a bigger budget will win out. Want more visits? Publish more content. Looking for more conversions? Test more high quality a/b tested content. More, more, more. In the end, more costs more. (Guess this page will rank better for ‘more’ than anything else.)

So at the coal face, working with small and medium sized companies, a strategy I’ve found to work is apply SEO in a palatable fashion to generate traffic into the site. At the same time, and ideally within the same content that ranks well in the first place, make the offer or suggest the solution to the problem the customer has and aim to convert them.

It’s a tall order, I know, and it’s not one I can manage alone. That’s why I hire a kick-ass copywriter like Brendan to fuse the two together for me. It won’t always work first time, but hey, this is marketing, we should be endlessly rinsing and repeating anyway, just like we did with direct response print ads back in the day.

Post-amble (is that even a word?): What do you think? Do we need to work harder, or smarter, or both? Is SEO dead, or live and kicking? Let me know.

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.