As a partial explanation of my failure to maintain this blog for the last few months, here’s one of the things I’ve been up to:
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.
|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”|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
Put what you learn into practice at the earliest opportunity.
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).
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.
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.
Audio: Study summary by Laura Batterink: http://bit.ly/13FRBmC
Institute of Neuroscience: http://uoneuro.uoregon.edu/ionmain/htdocs/index.html
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