13.8.10

This is not the advice you're looking for

(Apologies to anyone who was waiting for this post to appear last week. I drafted some of it then but didn't have the time to finish it till tonight. After this, regular programming will resume on this blog, i.e. the random mix and match of subjects I write about, not exclusively the topicof freelance writing.)

In preparation for the "Write What?" talk two weeks ago --- which in turn generated the preceding three blog entries on writing and editing courses, Singapore writers' groups and social networking --- I stumbled across the webpage, "Carving out a career in freelance writing" at Youth.sg. Youth.sg is a youth-oriented website produced by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. The article in question on freelance writing has been reproduced with permission from Career Central, which is described as "Singapore's leading campus career magazine published by JobsFactory Pte Ltd".

While some of the advice in the article is perfectly healthy, it was the section sub-headlined "The perfect writer" that got my goat, viz.:
What encapsulates a perfect writer? From your client’s point of view, the list of qualities will read something like this:

- Able to instantly understand a brief given by a client
- Knows the style of writing required for any topic
- Possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects
- Willing to make amendments multiple times based on clients’ requests
- Prompt in submitting articles and always meeting deadlines
- Ready to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day
- Always available to take on a project, no matter how last-minute, immense or “trivial” the project might be
- Flexible on payment options and dates
Oh. My. God.

Let's look at this a little more closely.

Able to instantly understand a brief given by a client
Let's assume that they're not talking about some kind of Vulcanesque mind meld with the client. I've never met a brief that was so all-encompassing that I didn't have to raise at least one query, no matter how minor, if only because clients usually write briefs from their point of view, i.e. the insider view of their organisation. Freelance writers typically come in from the outside and, more often than not, part of their job is to be able to take what's being said on the inside and communicate it effectively to the outside. The fact that they don't immediately understand everything is an asset, because any questions they raise can help to clarify the organisation's thinking or priorities for external communication. If I were hiring a writer who didn't have a single question, I might wonder if s/he were sufficiently engaged with the content or direction of the writing assignment.

Knows the style of writing required for any topic
Um ... again, an assumption that a god-like omniscience is a good thing. I don't think striving to become an expert at every kind of writing style is a healthy or practicable career objective. I'd rather work at the types of writing I'm good at or comfortable with, while beingversatile enough to juggle a few different styles (and hence clients), than struggle to be good at everything, by hook or by crook. Different topics also often require different knowledge or expertise, and a person'd go crazy trying to become an expert at all of them.

Possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects
Ugh. See point previous regarding omniscience and becoming an expert at everything. A client will certainly look for a writer who has expertise or background in the requisite field, but you don't have to be a polymath and know everything about everything. In this day and age when information is copiously available, more and more what a writer needs to hone are not only writing and editing, but also research and analytical skills. What sets apart a good writer from an intern, hack, computer or search engine? Not only familiarity with certain fields of knowledge, but also having the right contacts or sources, and being able to assess whatever information s/he comes across.

Willing to make amendments multiple times based on clients’ requests
Oh please. Who is the writer --- you or the client? If you allow clients to make as many rounds of amendments as they want without compensating you for the additional time, then you're sacrificing your own profits for the job (this is work, not a personal favour.) Also, if you limit the number of rounds of amendments (I usually go with two rounds), then it gives the client some incentive (and discipline!) to pay more attention and be specific about what they want, rather than waffle back and forth interminably. It's also more productive for the writer to receive specific feedback in a controlled manner and respond to it accordingly, rather than to be perpetually rewriting. You can rewrite things forever --- doesn't mean version #49 will be any better than version #3.

Prompt in submitting articles and always meeting deadlines
Yes, okay, no argument with this. The only caveat I'd add is that sometimes it's okay to negotiate a deadline extension, but sparingly and only with the client who won't think poorly of you for it. And always, always proceed at your own risk.

Ready to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day
Sure, if you want to steer yourself rapidly into a nervous breakdown, not to mention wipe out all energy and enthusiasm for the job. There's a reason ancient scriptures mandated rest days and modern labour laws regulate (or at least offer guidelines on) the number of hours one is legally permitted to work. We are not machines and we need rest. It's tempting as a freelancer to be always "on call" --- but unless you are charging very fat fees or people's lives are at stake, there's really no cause for it. I totally overworked my first two years of freelancing and things were much saner after I eased myself into more typical "office hours" (I now typically work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.). I don't respond to phone calls or emails outside of office hours (that includes weekends and public holidays), unless it's a project where I was forewarned that I'd have to work during those times (and therefore I would've billed the client for it), or if it's a regular client whom I totally trust not to abuse that privilege.

Always available to take on a project, no matter how last-minute, immense or “trivial” the project might be
See previous point. Regular clients whom I totally trust can throw a last-minute assignment at me once in a while; for everyone else, unless they're offering me a fee that provides sufficient remuneration for the last-minute nature of the job, then no, thank you. The fact that they didn't manage the project schedule properly is already a warning flag; I'm not going to risk getting involved with that. The size of the project isn't really the issue, so long as it's spec'd out sufficiently beforehand and fees were negotiated accordingly.

Flexible on payment options and dates
A definite no-no. Work is work, business is business. Admittedly in Singapore there is little inexpensive recourse for a freelancer who's chasing an overdue payment (elaborating on this would be fodder for a separate blog post), but it doesn't hurt to lay down industry-standard terms of payment. One way of thinking about it, which may not sway a recalcitrant client but at least makes the point, is to ask yourself: would your landlord/Singapore Power/phone service provider give you flexible options for paying your monthly rent/utilities bill/telephone bill in full? And if you defaulted on a payment, would that not affect your ability to continue working?

All right, enough serious stuff. For a lighter take on related issues, see Mridu Khullar Relph's "My Writerly Confessions", or leaf through the excellent and often spot-on web comic Freelance Freedom.

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2.8.10

"Write What?" addendum #3: social networking

(Read addendum #1 and addendum #2 first, if you're curious about how this series of posts got started.)

Another big question that was raised at "Write What" was: What about social networking? That's important too, right?

To which I gave a fairly brief reply because it's such a broad topic and one with which people in the audience would've had varying levels of experience, and I didn't want the discussion to get bogged down in trying to define Twitter or social media. It is a very worthwhile topic, though, so I thought I'd put together a post on my own experience. (It turned out to be a very long post; consider yourself forewarned.)

The most important thing I need to state at the outset is: I never started using "social networking" with the specific intention of professional networking or promoting myself publicly. I've been mucking about with personal websites in raw HTML since 1995, because the Internet was new and cool. I started blogging in 2001 (using HTML) because it was a way to keep in touch with friends, primarily those outside Singapore. (I've now discovered, upon rereading my very first entry, that I started "because I know loads of people who do and I feel I ought to return them the favo[u]r." How reciprocal of me.)

I joined Facebook in 2007 because a number of friends were bugging me about it. I'd joined Twitter earlier, but it was only after I got an iPhone last year, combined with some evangelisation encouragement from sangsara, that I started tweeting actively (and mostly not about anything that's explicitly work-related). The only social networking tool that I've deliberately joined for work's sake is LinkedIn, where I've had a job nibble or two, but I get the feeling that it's more useful for corporate types in North America than freelancer types in Southeast Asia.

Oh, and I'm on Flickr but that's just to show and tell my images to friends.

Right now, Twitter is my primary public conduit, while on Facebook I may have similar or very different conversations with people whom I already know. Blogging is for longer-form writing like this post. I'm still not sure what LinkedIn is really for, so my profile there is merely auto-updated with my Twitter feed.

Oh, and I do have an old-fashioned personal website, where this blog is hosted, with my real name and everything. It deliberately shares a visual identity with my business cards, has a profile page so that you can get a snapshot of me without having to plough through my old blog entries, and sets apart my paid writing work from my blog.

Before I offer some thoughts on each social networking tool, I have one final disclaimer: this mixed-bag approach works for me, but it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all recipe for surefire freelance writing success. Mix it up however you will, and see what suits you. I'm sure it'll change for me in future too, in direct response to the availability (and affordability) of new technology, how much free time I have and what job(s) I'm doing.

To wit, I'm going to reflect a little on:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Blogging
And skip LinkedIn because I think I've already said everything I want to say about it above.

Twitter

My Twitter experience has been very similar to David Pogue's. As he wrote in the New York Times in February 2009:
I’d been avoiding it, because it sounded like yet another one of those trendy Internet time drains. E-mail, blogs, chat, RSS, Facebook. ... Who has time to tune in to yet another stream of Internet chatter?
His piece was a good primer on Twitter, headlined "Twitter? It’s What You Make It", and once you've played around and done exactly that, you'll have a fairly versatile communications tool at your fingertips. For me, it's become part microblog, part instant-messaging tool with friends (er ... the kind who, like me, have Twitter @ replies and direct messages pushed immediately to their smartphones), part water cooler or tearoom (both links via Mridu Khullar Relph), part cocktail party, part live news feed, part zeitgeist meter, part wiretap on smart and way famous people whom I would otherwise never hear directly from, and, if nothing else, a time-filler. I use it primarily on my phone and even on a busy day --- or, conversely, on an idle day when I don't want to open my laptop --- it gives me a loose connection to important news and ideas from sources that I trust/love/respect.

(I like ideas. Very, very much.)

Above all, though, let's not forget that, as I tweeted last week (yes, I'm aware of the irony of that)(no, I'm not parodying Twitter or myself)(I think):
Twitter is performative (Facebook even more so, IMO): I Tweet, Therefore I Am by @peggyorenstein http://nyti.ms/ayiBkH /via @textually [permalink: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html]
Twitter is and isn't the real you, all at the same time. (When I've completed my Masters in Cultural Studies next year, I'm sure I'll be able to load that statement up with a lot more theory.) Hence its usefulness in self-promotion and marketing, up to a point. If you are bound and determined to use it for marketing, come hell or high water, um ... you'll have to go somewhere else.

On a lighter note, lest you think all this talk is far too serious, I solidly encourage you to read Dan Kennedy's "Truly Groundbreaking Marketing Research: Understanding Twitter" at McSweeney's (31 March 2009) and the Guardian's directive last April Fools', "Twitter switch for Guardian, after 188 years of ink".

After all that, it could be that YMMV and you're not sure that Twitter is for you. Which is fine. See for instance Lee Woodruff's "Let's Stop the Twitter Madness", which was published at The Daily Beast not long after the Pogue piece that I started this section with. A less #getoffmylawn reaction is Farhad Manjoo's "Do I Really Have To Join Twitter?", published at Slate last year.

Facebook

I use Facebook's status update feature like Twitter, except there are no complete strangers chiming in. It's great for keeping in touch with friends and associates who otherwise only use the Internet for email. I sometimes also get a kick out of seeing who our mutual Facebook friends are.

That said, I don't spend time trawling through Facebook friends' lists of their Facebook friends (still with me?) to mine those lists for new friends. It's understandable if you've just joined Facebook and you're playing catch-up with all your contacts who are already on it. But doing that to randomly add complete strangers or people you've barely exchanged five words with, strikes me as excessive and verging on socially inappropriate.

As Lisa Cullen points out, there are also plenty of ways that Facebook users can be annoying. Another cautionary tale: Lamebook.

Last thing: my friend otterman pointed out at his talk at the National Library Board meetup last week that while Facebook is user-friendly and successful at drawing the non-geeks, it doesn't make it easy to search archives of your own previous shared links or other content. It's even more of a nightmare if you try to search your friends' feed ("I know someone shared that nifty article about XXX but who was it ...?"). If you like saving and referring back to what you write, especially in a public or semi-public space, then having your own blog and Twitter archives (the latter can be generated using BackupMyTweets or a similar service) may be a better way to go.

Blogging

Because if you enjoy writing, 140 characters isn't enough.

Because it helped me to find my writing voice over the years, without which I'm not sure I would've been psychologically prepared to take the plunge into freelance writing some years ago.

Because it still gives me a public space where I can write for myself, not to a brief or because I'm paid to.

See also freelance writer P.S. Jones's "Why I Write This Blog".

(Ironic, isn't it, that most of this blog post is about Twitter, while most of the lines about blogging could fit in a tweet?)

Questions/comments/suggestions on social networking for freelance writers? Leave them in the comments.

I have one more post in me about freelance writing, this time not based on a question from the audience but on something I stumbled across while preparing for last Friday's talk. I'll get to that later this week, then this series will be a wrap.

Edited to add (4 August 2010):
For even more reading, see the unfortunately headlined "The tweet elite" (via @neilhimself) at BBC News, in which Neil Gaiman and Laura Kidd are interviewed on their experiences with Twitter. You don't have to be a celebrity to appreciate the hows and whys of their respective approaches.

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"Write What?" addendum #2: Singapore writers' groups and mailing lists

Another question raised at Friday night's session was: What are some of the writers' groups, mailing lists and communities in Singapore? How does one become part of this network of freelance writers?

My short answer was: There is no one definitive writers' community, which is a good thing 'cause that means that there are plenty of different groups and conversations that you can jump into. I'm not a member of any face-to-face writers' group, but I'm on the mailing lists for:
  • WriteClique, which began ostensibly as a Singapore-based writers group. The membership focus seems diluted now and mailing list activity (mostly job listings and freelancing advice) is intermittent.
  • Singapore Arts Community, which is more miss than hit if you merely want freelance writing assignments, but is good for finding out about arts-related events and news.
  • WritersNet, an international database of writers which has yielded me exactly one job in three years (though it was a nice plum job).
On Facebook, I'm aware of the following groups. I've joined only the first two, which aren't terribly active in my experience:
Someone in the audience mentioned expat writers' groups, which I'm not familiar with.

My own personal network of fellow writers was built up primarily through word of mouth. Before I became a writer, I was a teacher and I worked in corporate communications, so some of my former colleagues naturally became part of that ad hoc network. Since then I've met more writers through work, events, online interactions and good old-fashioned socialising-without-intending-to-network.

All of which goes to show that there's no secret handshake or password for this sort of thing. I think it's a combination of doing the work seriously, remembering the people you've met and, as always, a little dash of serendipity.

More on networking in the next post --- specifically, on the whole "social networking" business that's so trendy these days.

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1.8.10

"Write What?" addendum #1: writing and editing courses in Singapore

On Friday night, at the invitation of Six Degrees, I gave an informal talk "Write What --- Freelance writing opportunities in the Singapore market", during which I maundered about:
  • Different types of freelance writing work.
  • Looking beyond the obvious employers/clients.
  • How clients select freelancers.
  • Getting started as a new writer.
Some of the interesting questions that were raised during and after the session were the kind that are best answered with web links, so here's the first of perhaps several follow-up posts I'll try to put up.

Question: What kinds of writing and editing courses are out there in Singapore?

The ones I'm aware of (and I'm restricting the list to non-creative writing courses here):
Of the above, I've only ever interacted with the National Book Development Council of Singapore. They organised a very useful and well-attended talk by American literary agent Kelly Sonack last year, and way back in 2003 I attended an editing course run by their Centre for Literary Arts and Publishing. Both were excellent, truly, but as with most of these things, it really depends on who the trainer is and what their professional experience (and presentation/teaching skills) are like.

Besides getting information directly from associations and companies themselves, there are also heaps of mailing lists and writers' groups out there (though no one definitive writers' community/network). More about that in the next post.

Edited to add (11:34 p.m.):
If you've come across other writing or editing courses in Singapore, please feel free to add them in the comments. (This is the one of the few times I'll allow commercial solicitations on my blog.)

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