Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”

8 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Tips for Freelancers

Back in my nursing days, my right to practice was contingent upon staying up-to-date with developments in the field and being able to show evidence of continuous learning and improvement. The possibility that the NMC could call in my learning portfolio at any point was always in the back of my mind. In reality, the organisation I worked for also required, and arranged, a certain amount of mandatory training and extra courses that covered my CPD needs.

As a freelancer, nobody sends you on courses or asks for evidence that you are keeping up with changes in your area of expertise; it’s down to you.

You are your own training department.

You expertise is your stock in trade and you are responsible for keeping it fresh and for staying informed. I aim to spend at least three hours a week on CPD and, as you will see, this doesn’t have to be much more than religiously reading a few blogs or listening to a podcast. Remember, Most freelancers sell a skill they have developed plus the stuff they have stashed in their brain cells; we need to keep the stock fresh.

My field is copy editing, document support and coaching written communication across  academic, business, technical and fiction writing. As we go, I will share a few links to free resources for my fellow word-mongers, but here are a few CPD ideas to keep any freelancer on the ball.

Dedicated time

We all know where to go to download information if we need it. I use web searches several times a day to check facts or verify current practice, in the middle of my workflow. However, the CPD dimension of my work requires time that is set aside for it (out of office hours, usually soon after waking up). Decide how many hours a week you are going to spend purely investing in yourself as a professional and block out that time in your schedule.

A professional musician racks up hours of practice on a daily basis; they don’t rely on performance time to learn and improve technique. It should be no different for other freelancers.

The reading list

A shelf of books to consult on-the-fly is essential for any freelancer. However, you need as much of that stuff on the tip of your tongue as possible because you can’t take “SEO for Dummies” to a client meeting. For this reason, my books divide into “to refer to” and “to digest” categories.

Maintain a list of books to read and books read, and set yourself a target to read two or three books in your field every month. It is tempting to read more books on becoming a better freelancer or running a better business, and these should form part of your diet, but don’t neglect learning more about your actual trade – the stuff you sell.

While we are on the subject, libraries are great, too. How about using your local library once a week for a dedicated reading session.

Grab the news

As well as subscribing to the leading RSS channels in your field, it is worth setting up a couple of Google searches for key terms and having them pushed to your inbox. This makes it easy to add keeping abreast of developing news and trends into your email-reading routine.

For example, I currently have a news search on “grammar” set to send me a daily email so I don’t miss a story.

Read a blog, or two

This is not difficult for most of us. In fact, the challenge is to restrain a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole on a fairly boring “clickathon”, only to emerge a few hours later either choking on information reflux or wondering how we ended up looking at LOLcats … again.

Choose two leading blogs in your field and read them, religiously. Separate them out from all the other channels. My online RSS reader aggregates lots of fluff for me to read in my spare time, but these come to my mailbox.

For me, these are Daily Writing Tips (absolutely leading the field from my point of view) and Copyblogger (slightly off-topic for my speciality but often useful).

Podcasts

If you have a commute, these are ideal for the train or car – you can get edumacated on your way to work.

Since my journey to work tends to be down the stairs and through the living room, I still make time to listen to podcasts every week. As with the blogs, pick one (two at the most) and block out time to listen. Think of it in the same light as learning a language: you are going to spend a certain amount of time with the headphones on … learning.

If you listen at home or in an office, you may even want to treat it like a classroom and take notes.

Quite apart from the fact that Mignon Fogarty taught me most of what I know and is still my “go-to guru”, the 15 minutes I spend listening to her Grammar Girl podcast two or three times a week often gives me the edge.

Find a coach

There is no substitute for the walking, talking expertise of someone who is further along the road than you.

I’m extremely lucky to have worked for and with Hannah Juby of Express Language in the last few years. This has included informal mentoring and feedback that has corrected a lot of my worst habits and pushed me to improve.

Finding a mentor who is prepared to share their knowledge with you for free could be tricky, especially if you are a potential competitor. However, scroll through your phonebook now and you will surely spot someone, perhaps in a parallel or overlapping sphere, with whom you are friendly enough to be allowed to draw on their brilliance.

Online (and other) courses

Finally, I have a few thoughts on courses, because I’ve thrown money at them and I know people who have thrown money at them.

Be cautious: there is an industry that plays on your ambitions by reselling stuff you could find out quite easily for yourself. Having said that, they are not all scams. Some will offer certification of some sort and, at the very least, someone has usually put a lot of time into making the information structured and digestible. You may also find that paying for something means you are more likely to follow through on it – so courses do work for some people.

In my experience, people who have completed courses don’t necessarily have more expertise than the folk who rig up their own CPD program as recommended in this post.

Use it reflectively

Reflect on learning before moving on to the next chunk of information.

In my nursing portfolio, I used to have blank copies of a form I would fill in every time I read an article. I forced me to think about how what I had read would affect my practice in the future. It asked me to respond to a few questions (if I recall correctly):

  • Do you agree with this?
  • What are the problems with this article?
  • How will you apply what you have learned?
  • Has it raised any further areas of enquiry to direct future learning?

Put what you learn into practice at the earliest opportunity.

In summary …

  • DO take your continuing professional development seriously and block out time in your schedule to train yourself.
  • DON’T flood yourself with information or lose yourself on the web, find a few good resources and digest them thoroughly on a routine basis.
  • DO draw on your personal network.
  • DON’T sign up and shell out for courses on a whim.
  • DO see it as a journey and enjoy every minute of it.

Food Hacks: easy ways to make an average food awesome

Here are four of my favourite “food hacks”, easy ways to make an average food awesome …

Pimped Beans

Baked beans … meh …

Arizona strawberries, bullets, whistleberries, the musical fruit – a simple instant food that never quite shed school dinner associations until I decided to posh them up with fried onions and stuff.

  1. Fine chop a medium onion and fry in a saucepan with half a tablespoon of oil until golden
  2. Grind some black pepper and drop a pinch of mixed herbs and a sprinkling of paprika over the top of the onions and stir them in
  3. For extra awesomeness, add a couple of teaspoons of bouillon powder if you have some
  4. Add the beans from a tin and heat through, stirring all the while
  5. If you want them HOT, this is the moment when a couple of drops of Tabasco wouldn’t go amiss
  6. Ladle onto hot toast and enjoy

Hacked Hummus

As a vegan, I eat a lot hummus. Supermarkets sell their fancy red pepper, caramelised onion, carrot and coriander and morrocan-style variations, but any one of these stirred into bog-standard hummus will blow your tastebuds:

  1. A heaped teaspoon of lime pickle – with lumps of lime in it
  2. Mango chutney
  3. Two drops of Tabasco
  4. A tablespoon of salsa dip
  5. A teaspoon of curry powder

Biscwiches

WP_001190A biscwich is that particular kind of a biscuit where you do have two biscuits and something to spread between them. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. Hobnobs and marmalade – oaty orangey
  2. Ginger nuts and peanut butter – go nuts: add a few raisins, too
  3. The Oreo club biscwich – two Oreos with peanut butter between them
  4. Ryvita and hacked hummus

Garlicky Pea Rice

Don’t just boil your fairtrade basmati: add two cloves of chopped garlic and a fist full of frozen peas while it is bubbling on the hob.

Go and hack your food and let me know if you come up with any more awesome combos …

Let “Finishing” be your Drug of Choice

As much as I despise psychological profiling, I know I don’t score highly as a completer/finisher.

Nevertheless, few things beat the thrill of finishing something; it’s a natural high.

If you have woken up to Monday morning blues, could it be the hung-over unfinished things of last week that are to blame?

If I ever start to feel bad about myself, I often find that not finishing something is at the root of the bad feelings. Conversely, actually finishing just one thing can put me back on top of the world and inspire me to go on to finish something else.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if the price to pay for finishing is too high; I often settle for the cheaper thrills such as being ‘tweeted’ by a ‘celebrity':

 

Finishing doesn’t have to be an expensive drug. There are all sorts of small things you could finish in the next five minutes – like emptying and reloading the dishwasher.

In order to get the week underway, I prescribe what I call a “finishing ladder”.

    1. Start with a small task and finish it. It feels good.
    2. Enjoy the endorphins but move up to a slightly bigger task before they subside.
    3. By the time you have two “finishes” under your belt, you’ll be looking for your next hit – go get it!
    4. Move on up the ladder towards bigger tasks.
    5. Before the day is over you just might be hooked on finishing.

Try to finish some stuff today …

Your dopamine receptors will love you for it.

Deep Grammar

Grammar was never invented to separate people “in the know” from the rest of us or to keep teachers and proofreaders in a work. In fact it, was never “invented”. It is intrinsic to language and fundamental for communication.

A new piece of research, published in the May 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that bad grammar is not only noticed by the English teacher or the pedant in the office but also at a neurological level by your bog-standard brain – yes, YOUR brain (and mine).

Laura Batterink, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, recorded event-related brain potentials (ERPs) as study participants were presented with sentences, some containing grammar errors. In the majority of cases, subjects processed the errors without awareness.

Participants in a study were presented with short sentences, one word at a time, and their brain activity was monitored using a non-invasive technique. A mixture of good and bad sentences were used and the participants were asked to mark them correct or incorrect as well as to respond to an auditory tone that was played at some point while they were reading each sentence. Thus their awareness (of errors and tones) could be checked against actual brain activity.

When it was all shuggled out, the results showed brains responding to errors even when the participants did not register their awareness of them. The brain appears to pick up and correct errors of syntax without us noticing. However, this unconscious process demands neurological resources.

English: Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky....

The Jabberwocky – Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Helen J. Neville, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Oregon, points out that children often pick up grammar rules implicitly through routine daily interactions with parents or peers, simply hearing and processing new words and their usage before any formal instruction. This has implications for second language acquisition; grammar should be taught implicitly, without semantics. In other words, she suggests that nonsense poems, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, are ideal material for this approach – syntactically sound, yet virtually meaningless.

For me, this research underlines the importance of syntax, and word order in particular. The logical flow of a sentence should be such that the reader does not have to re-read it (consciously or unconsciously). I find that about 30% of my editorial tweaking tackles this issue.

I often recommend that people who want to improve their writing read as much good copy as they can, in order to internalise the language; read their own writing out loud, to hear how it works; lead the reader by the hand, making sure that the meaning stands out from the surrounding qualifiers; and assume that if their meaning can possibly be misconstrued, then it will be.

Links:
Audio: Study summary by Laura Batterink: http://bit.ly/13FRBmC
Institute of Neuroscience: http://uoneuro.uoregon.edu/ionmain/htdocs/index.html
Follow UO Science on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/UniversityOfOregonScience
UO Science on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UO_Research
More UO Science/Research News: http://uoresearch.uoregon.edu

Grammar Patrol

I am ashamed to admit that I found a copy error on the back of the  business cards I have been using for the last three years. When I started freelancing in 2010, I didn’t know how to use a colon. At worst, dodgy copy makes things downright confusing for the reader: at best, it makes you look like a numpty – especially when you are selling your writing and editing skills.

Here is the offending item:

business card

I’m always recommending that people don’t use a colon to introduce a list in this way. It is unnecessary and it often leads to confusing sentences. I think that must be the reasoning behind the fact that it is plain wrong. Nevertheless, this use is extremely common. If you want to go for an “A” grade, make sure that what precedes the colon is a proper sentence. Yes I’ve just re-ordered my cards with a rewritten blurb; that colon cost me £20.

So, having admitted one of my many faults, am I permitted to share a giggle over some other people’s, from my collection?

This invokes visions of staff swinging into the toilet, Tarzan style, on the disabled alarm cord (and possibly landing with a splash of toilet water).

27-WP_000416

Here is some classic apostrophe abuse, compounded by inconsistency. If there are Coffee’s, why aren’t there also Tea’s, Breakfast’s, Cocktail’s, Wine’s, Spirit’s and Beer’s?

IMG_0111a

I was very disappointed that I didn’t see any old vehicles being smashed at the museum in Alston; I wouldn’t mind smashing a few exclamation marks, though!

Grammar Patrol! Grammar Patrol ‘ten’SHUN! Turning to the right in threes disMISS! Carry on!

A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang

Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,671 other followers