Bullshit-free advice on getting paid to write. Untamed Writing is for people who think life should be seized and revelled in, not crept through carefully along the path that’s been lit for us – the path with the career, the mortgage, the car payments, the ‘settling down’ (shudder), and the sodding white picket fence everyone bangs on about.
It all began one lazy February morning. There I was, sat in my pyjamas with my seventeenth cup of coffee close to hand, refreshing my email, Facebook and Twitter over and over again. Probably. I can’t remember. It was February. That was ages ago. After I’d refreshed my inbox for the one thousand and sixty-fifth time, there it was, just sitting there. An email titled: Article for the Guardian?
My eyes narrowed in suspicion. Probably. Again – February. My cursor twitched over and clicked on it without any instruction from my brain. And I started reading. It said this:
I edit commercial features for the Guardian and have just stumbled on your website while looking for a good freelancer in Edinburgh. It’s not your usual work, but would you be up for writing a vox pops piece for us?
The article is ‘Edinburgh residents pick the city’s hidden gems’ and it’s a classic people-on-the-street job. The style is very similar to the piece attached below that we did for the film ‘Downsizing’.
You’d need to stop and talk to 10 local residents about their favourite ‘hidden gem’ in the city: a secret place, great view, nearby walk or lesser known restaurant or museum, that not everyone in the city will know of. They’d write the name of the place down on a sign and be photographed with it, then give you a few more details about it and its personal significance to them.
The target audience is 55+, and the client – CrossCountry Trains – has specified that at least 8 of the interviewees would need to be over 50. Apart from that it’d be ideal to have a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, disability and gender.
We’d need 100 words from each person, so a total of 1000 words. I can offer a fee of £350. Copy in by February 16th if at all possible.
Let me know if it appeals? If so which day(s) would suit you to do it? We’d arrange for a photographer to meet you for the day to shoot it.
All the best,
I reined in my temptation to instantly hit reply with an OMGZ HELL YES PLZZZZZ. Instead, I played it cool. First, I went to check the sender. And it really was from an @theguardian.com address. What the hell. Someone from the actual frigging Guardian had actually frigging emailed me and asked me if I could actually frigging WRITE something for them.
So back to the playing it cool. Here’s what I replied:
I most certainly would be up for this, yes. It’ll be fun to bring out the old vox-popping skills.
I’m booked up for this week, but could do next Monday (12th). February 16th deadline is no problem.
The file you attached isn’t working for some reason. Could you try it again, or send me a link to it?
For some reason I didn’t send that email until an hour and a half later. I can only deduce that either I was not, in fact, idly refreshing my email for the two million and thirty-second thousandth time that day – or that I spent a solid ninety minutes writing, rewriting, editing, and perfecting my response. Maybe eighty minutes, with a ten minute interval for flat-out screaming.
I’m guessing it was the latter, minus the screaming. It’s a three-line email and it took me ninety minutes to write. Wow. I’m usually a faster writer than that, I swear. But there were STAKES here, people. I needed to look effortlessly professional, not at all like I was screaming in desperate excitement every three seconds. And I needed to convey that I COULD DO THIS, hence my off-the-cuff remark about ‘the old vox-popping skills’.
A vox pop is where you get out on the streets and in the faces of random strangers, waving a microphone at them and asking what they think of something. I hadn’t done it for over ten years – not since I was a sprightly young journalism student. (Embarrassing sidenote: I sucked at print journalism at uni. It was my worst subject and I don’t think I ever got more than a C in any of my assignments. I purposely switched to radio journalism because I got better grades in that, even though I didn’t really have any interest in working in radio and I never even LISTENED to the radio. It was all part of my master plan to get a first-class degree, which I realised proooobably wasn’t going to happen if I specialised in writing. So anyway, I enjoy the irony that I now make my entire living from writing.)
I sent my response off and got a reply literally ten minutes later. That’s how you respond to emails in a timely fashion, guys. After some back and forthing, it was arranged that I would meet with a photographer who was flying up from London the following Monday. A few details of the assignment also changed along the way: instead of getting the interviewees to hold up a sign naming their chosen location, the photographer would head to each of the spots and photograph them, and instead of eight over-55s and two under-55s, we had to find six and four.
Let’s rewind for a second. Why had this editor emailed me out of the blue? How had he even found me? THE ANSWER IS OBVIOUS, MY FRIENDS. It’s because just a couple of weeks prior I’d managed to get my new freelance copywriting website to rank number one for ‘Edinburgh copywriter‘ and other such terms. And this was an article about Edinburgh. Tain’t rocket science. I’m guessing the exact term he googled was ‘freelance writer Edinburgh‘, which I also rank number one for. (No, my incessant backlinking of any relevant term is not going to stop any time soon, so sorry for that but BACKLINKING IS IMPORTANT.) So anyway, that solves the mystery of how he found me.
But why did he decide to hire me? I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it was a combination of my masterful, outrageous writing talent coupled with the fact that I happened to live in Edinburgh, so I would a) know my way around the city and b) be a lot cheaper to hire since there wouldn’t be any travel or accommodation expenses. Not the most gratifying reason I’ve ever been hired, but hey, I’ll take it. It’s the Guardian, after all.
I phoned the photographer to make plans and pronounced her name wrong, which resulted in an awkward moment of hesitation followed by an, ‘Uh yeah, that’s me.’ GREAT START, MARSTON. I also messaged my old radio journalism tutor to ask her if she had any advice. Was there some equipment I needed that would make me look more professional? Was it okay to just use my iPhone? Would people wonder what the hell I was doing if I didn’t have an actual microphone in my hand? Edinburgh is a windy city and I’d be interviewing people on the streets, so she recommended getting a windshield for my iPhone’s built-in microphone – both to reduce the wind noise and to make my iPhone look more like a mic. I ended up getting this Gutmann windshield for my iPhone 6. I forgot to use it on the second day, but the quality was still fine.
iPhones’ microphones are pretty fucking great, turns out. I’ve since used mine to interview people in noisy coffee shops and at busy conferences, and it easily picked up the right voices and drowned out background noise even when it was just sat on a table between me and the person I was talking to.
On the day
I went to the photographer’s hotel at 9.30am and we grabbed a coffee while discussing the day ahead. I hoped to get all ten interviews done on the same day (though I didn’t divulge this because I wanted to see how a professional photographer for the Guardian did things). I only needed a couple of minutes with each person, to grab all the details I needed, after all. And I was only getting £350 for this, which is my day rate. Already I was getting paid less for this than my usual work, because there was no way I was going to spend the day traipsing around Edinburgh, then head home, transcribe my interviews and write up a thousand words. In my mind, this was a two-day job.
It ended up being a three-day job, drastically reducing my hourly rate. But that’s not what’s important here. I didn’t care at all, because I was writing for the heckin’ GUARDIAN. I mentioned that, right? She didn’t ask me to – and I wasn’t getting paid for it – but because the photographer didn’t know the city I took her to all the places mentioned by our interviewees. It was an article about hidden gems, after all, and how the hell was she supposed to find them without me? Some of them were pretty obscure. We walked twelve miles on that first day, and got seven of the interviews done.
There was one particularly awkward moment where the photographer started talking to someone at a bus stop, which I had already decided I would not do because that’s CLEARLY A BAD IDEA. ISN’T IT??? But I went with it, because fuck it, we’d already started. I hit record on my phone and hurriedly started trying to get enough information for the piece. The interview ended with me flagging down a bus with one hand and waving my phone in the woman’s face with the other while trying to get the final details I needed. I swear to Christ, I almost got on the sodding bus with her. And that’s why I had decided ahead of time not to interview people at bus stops. Maybe I should’ve shared that plan with the photographer? I don’t know. I thought it was pretty obvious.
So… that was not ideal. The rest of the day went a lot smoother, and the photographer and I talked and laughed breezily. But the next day, the air between us crackled with tension. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. I was tired. She seemed tired, too. Neither of us had had enough sleep. We both just wanted to get done this, and we only needed three more people.
When I got home that afternoon, I had an email from my editor waiting for me. Shit. He was only expecting this to take a couple of days. Should I have already sent the piece to him? I was ahead of deadline, but maybe I was supposed to at least check in? To explain my lack of contact, I told him I’d been accompanying the photographer around the city to all the locations. He replied with, ‘That’s fantastic, thanks for doing that. We’ll pay £450 instead of £350 to reflect the extra work as that wasn’t part of the original commission.’ WELL OKAY, THEN. And to think I wasn’t planning on telling him.
Writing the piece
I spent the third day transcribing my interviews and writing up the article. Ten interviewees plus an introduction meant around ninety words per person. Eaaaasy. It didn’t take long to write the piece, though editing it took some time. Mostly because I kept rearranging the order of the interviewees, trying to make it look at diverse as possible. I’d struggled to find any non-white people over 55, especially in the affluent area I’d taken us to. Edinburgh is a very white city. A couple of days later, when I was mooching around my part of town, I kicked myself every time I walked past an older black or Asian person, of which there were many. Oops. Oh well. Too late now.
I sent the piece off to my editor and he told me he’d be in touch with any questions the next day. Several days later, I still hadn’t heard from him. I was waiting on an email from another client, too, and my inbox had been suspiciously vacant for the past few days. I started panicking. Oh god, was my email broken? SHIT. What if my clients were trying to email me and thought I was ignoring them?
It turns out, everything was fine. I was just a loser and nobody was emailing me. I got in touch to ask if everything was okay with the article, and it was – no changes needed. When the article was published, there were a few changes made to it, but nothing major. Presumably it’s just quicker and easier for editors to make these changes themselves rather than trying to explain to the writer exactly what they want.
It’s all fine – sorry, I should have said.
FYI – we pay upon publication here. Our administrator will be in touch next week to get your details.
Thanks again for doing it
I never sent an invoice to the Guardian. Instead, I got an automated email asking for my details. I dutifully sent them, but a few days later got another email requesting the information. Huh. Didn’t they get them the first time? I emailed back to make sure. Turns out, there was just an issue with the automated system. I continued getting these emails for a few weeks, even after I’d been paid. I also ended up getting paid before publication, which was nice. There it was, a sweet £450 sitting in my business bank account from GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA.
As an added bonus, the article was published with my byline, which I wasn’t expecting, based on my snooping around the commercial features section of the website. Annoyingly, the piece has been taken down now, because that’s what the Guardian does with its sponsored content:
Sorry – the page you are looking for has been removed.
This is because it was advertisement feature content that was published as part of a commercial deal and funded by an advertiser.
It is Guardian News and Media policy to take down paid-for content at the end of these deals.
Stupidly I didn’t take a screenshot of it so I have no real proof that it happened. BUT I WROTE FOR THE GUARDIAN, I SWEAR. And that’s what I tell everyone – less shoutily and more convincingly – and I’m pretty sure it’s helped me snag a couple of big clients.
Like, now that I’m based permanently in one city, would it be better to get a job rather than continue to be freelance? Obviously I have no intention of going back to barwork. CHRIST NO. For one thing, if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to afford this flat I rent any more. If I got a job, it would have to be a step UP, not a step down.
But still, it would be pretty fun to go in and work at a creative agency every day, wouldn’t it? Which is what I’d try to do, or else get an in-house job as a copywriter somewhere. (‘Er, I don’t have a CV exactly, but I’m really good at this! Come look at my website! Both of them! Come look at my PLURAL websites!!!’)
I was seriously considering this. In the end I decided not to, obviously. But occasionally I still think about it. There are clearly upsides to it. So I thought I’d share everything that went through my mind. Maybe it’ll help you decide whether becoming a freelance copywriter is the right path for you, too.
1. Getting to hang out with people every day
Seeing actual human beings with your own eyeballs. Having conversations with your mouth-hole instead of your fingertips. Going for drinks after work on Fridays. All that fancy stuff people who work in offices do. (The fact that I just described ‘hanging out with people every day’ as fancy indicates how luxurious life as a work-from-home freelancer truly is.)
I love hanging out with people. It’d be nice to do that every day, wouldn’t it? Hmm… maybe. But what if there are people I don’t like there? What if I’m not in the mood? What if I’m suffering the third-worst hangover in the history of my LIFE? (Nothing can ever surpass spots one or two. But let us never speak of this.)
Besides, I also love being alone. And if I have to choose to do one or the other all day every day, I choose the latter. Because if Carl from finance tries to talk to me by the water cooler about what he did with his kids on the weekend ONE MORE TIME, my brain is going to dribble out through my eye sockets. (Kiddiiiiing. I’ve never worked anywhere with a Carl or a finance department or a water cooler. Also what the fuck is a water cooler? Do we even have those here? I’m pretty sure we just use taps. I HAVE NEVER WORKED IN AN OFFICE, OKAY? LET’S MOVE SWIFTLY ON FROM THIS REVEALING INSIGHT.)
2. A regular paycheque
My expenses are now higher than they’ve ever been before. That’s what happens when you decide to rent an entire two-bedroom apartment all to yourself in the one of the most expensive cities in the country, I guess. Oops. (Totally worth it, though.)
Running your own business means you have a somewhat, er, unstable income, shall we say? I’ve had months where I didn’t earn anything – not a single penny – and I’ve had months where I earned enough to cover my expenses for the next six months.
And sometimes that imbalance can be scary, especially if, like me, you have the habit of pissing your money away as soon as it lands in your slippery palms. I mean, I spent all my savings and then started my business back in 2012. That was not a sensible thing to do.
But who wants stability anyway, am I right? Evidently I work well when my back is up against the wall. That’s not the case for everyone. Sure, some people bare their teeth, get scrappy, and figure out how to find the money they need on their own. But some people freeze up and panic and immediately run to the job centre or, er, wherever it is you go to get proper jobs that are not barwork.
Also, you noticed what I said up there, right? I once earned enough in a single month to cover the next six months. That’s never going to happen in a regular old job. The potential money you can make running your own business is so much higher, and that’s way more appealing to me than the security of a regular paycheque.
3. A balance between work and play
Okay, now THIS was the main reason I was considering getting a ‘proper job’. Historically, I’ve been pretty bad at slicing work-time and play-time evenly down the middle. I’m either glued to my desk working on something for Untamed Writing, or I’ve plugged my PlayStation into my arm like an intravenous drip. I’m either killing it on this client project, or I’m spending sixteen hours a day with my pen, daydreaming and making notes for my novel.
But why is that imbalance such a bad thing? So long as you’re making enough money to get by, it’s all gravy, right? Well, sure. But I know I’ll always do enough to get by. For me, making enough money wasn’t the issue. The trouble was how it made me feel.
I missed that feeling of going to work, finishing at 5pm, then coming home and spending my free time gaming or watching TV or whatever else I felt like – guilt-free, after I’d done a hard (okay, lacklustre) day’s work. I missed that clean cut. I still miss it. Even though I’m somewhat better at fitting work and play into my days now, rather than always being 100% one or the other, I still miss that feeling of, well – I guess you’d call it a kind of freedom?
When you run your own business, work from home, and don’t have set hours, there’s always something you could be doing. That feeling never goes away. But that’s as much to do with the fact that you actually have work you care about now, rather than just gliding through your days aimlessly. And that hardly seems like a bad thing.
4. Time for personal projects
Now that I’ve started writing novels, balancing my time has become harder still. I mean, writing novels is a kind of work, right? It’s completely different to reading or gaming or watching TV. And, of course, my dream is to become a wildly successful author with an insane fandom who draw pictures of my characters having sex. To spend my days dreaming up new books and then writing them.
But I can’t prioritise writing my books over doing my other work. Because writing a book is the kind of work that doesn’t pay. And might NEVER pay. It’s what I’d eventually like to make a living from, but the chances of it ever happening are slim. So I can’t bank on that. And even though having a job to go into would theoretically make it easier to make the time to write books – because of that clear divide between work-time and free-time – I have to acknowledge that writing books might never lead to riches.
I still want to try, and I still want to do the work – but when I know that it might never replace my income, I have to consider this: would I rather spend the rest of my life working for someone else or working for myself? And the answer, for me, is obvious.
5. Less responsibility
Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have work I don’t care about. Just go in, do what I’m there to do, and then leave. Beautiful. So simple. I’d get to spend my free time however I wanted. But I know this would get old fast. I LIKE having responsibility. I just prefer to be the one who decides what that responsibility is. And I don’t like having ANYONE above me. I mean, what’s the point of having responsibility if you’re still accountable to someone?
Incidentally, when I did have jobs in a position of responsibility, I often ended up arguing with my boss. For a job to work for me, I need to be at the top of the food chain (in which case, well, that’s exactly my situation right now, isn’t it?) or I need to be at the very bottom. And that’s definitely going to grate on me after a while. I mean, no one actually WANTS to do work they don’t care about. Sometimes they just need a break from the responsibility. Fortunately, as a self-employed person, I can give myself that. Also, if you stay at the bottom of the food chain, you’re never going to earn more, are you?
So, is going freelance worth it?
What it essentially comes down to is this: being self-employed means you have more freedom and control over your life. But whether you’re the kind of person who’s willing to give up in-person interaction, regular pay, proper free time and responsibility to get it is quite another matter.
If this tirade hasn’t put you off your dream of working for yourself, check out my new freelance copywriting course – I’ll show you everything you need to know to get your business up and running, and how to make good money from it in the long run. Class starts this Friday.
When I discovered my friend and fellow copywriter James Walsh had been commissioned to write an episode of a kids’ TV show for the BBC, I was ecstatic.
Partly for him, but mostly for myself, because I intended to steal all his secrets and divulge them here. The operation was a success and I can now share with you the interview I lured him to Starbucks for. Before I do, a little bit of context:
If you ever met James you’d probably think, I bet this dude writes for kids’ TV. He has that youthful exuberance and frantic nature you’d expect, and it’s not at all surprising that his favourite kind of copywriting work is writing about what makes a jellyfish interesting to a seven year old.
Below, you’ll learn:
How James broke into kids’ TV writing in the first place
What it’s like writing for the BBC
The whole process from pitching ideas to being commissioned
What it takes to get commissioned
What a kids’ TV script looks like
How much you can get paid to do this
Other useful stuff to know about writing for kids’ TV
James’s best advice on breaking into kids’ TV writing yourself
Okay, let’s go!
How did you break into kids’ TV writing?
I took a screenwriting course in 2008, then I started writing film scripts. I did that for five or so years. Mostly I worked on my own ideas, but sometimes I worked to commission for producers – pay wasn’t great, though, and none of them were ever made.
I got that initial paying work through a tangled web of connections. There’s no fixed way of getting into this when you start out – you just have do the work, get to know people, and cross your fingers. The key is building up as many contacts as you can.
I stopped writing features when I got some bad feedback and wasn’t ready for it. A couple of years later, again through that tangled web of connections, a producer approached me about a new Dennis the Menace show he was working on and invited me to submit a sample script. He was like, ‘I know you haven’t worked in kids’ TV but we’ve worked together before and I think you’d be good at it. Why don’t you have a go?’
So I wrote a sample episode, which was quite a lot of work. They sent me a character list and a rough series bible, which is a big document that’s almost like the branding guidelines you’d get in-house at a copywriting agency. I used it to learn what the show was all about, who the characters were and what they were motivated by.
I spent 2–3 days on the sample, coming up with an idea and writing the script – all for free. But it was a big chance for me and I wanted to do it. I wrote a 12-page episode with as many jokes and visual gags as I could fit.
They can fix most things down the line, so it doesn’t matter if you make little mistakes in character or story development. But they want to see if you get it – if you have good ideas and the right energy and whether you’ll be able to write things in the way they expect it to be done.
Turns out, I did, and I was invited down to London to pitch ideas in a writers’ room.
What was it like working on your first show?
Dennis and Gnasher was my first taste of how writing for kids’ TV works, so I don’t know if their process is industry standard, but I’m starting to think it is.
They were making 52 episodes of 11 minutes each. They built a team of 15 writers, and most of them already had experience. A lot of kids’ TV writers will do the circuit, so they’ll write for Postman Pat and The Clangers and things. But every show likes to develop one or two new writers.
Step one: the pitches
The first step is to get everyone pitching ideas. They have zero episodes and no ideas. For Dennis, we did this in person – we all got in a room together and sat round a table. Each show will normally have a head writer or a story editor who’s responsible for overseeing all the episodes, and they’ll develop those in tandem with a producer. So the writers pitch the ideas to the head writer and the producers.
I didn’t even know I was meant to be pitching anything. So when the head writer sat down and said, ‘Right! We’re going to go round the room—’ I immediately went, ‘Ohhh, Jesus’ in my head. I ended up being third, and the first two people had really good ideas, really fleshed out, so I was absolutely shitting a brick. I had one idea so I frantically scribbled it down.
How it works is: you pitch your idea and the head writer goes, ‘I like that, I think it could be this, this and this, but I think your idea of taking it this way doesn’t quite work. Let’s make it more of an action adventure rather than a murder mystery, but take the same premise.’ Then everyone else chips in with their thoughts. We spent about 5–10 minutes on each idea and we went round the table twice. That was a full day, including the time we spent talking about the show and the characters and stuff.
My ideas from that meeting didn’t get picked up, but I had another chance a couple of months later at another meeting. One of those ideas did get picked up. There are another three stages before you actually write the script.
Step two: the one-pager
The next stage is to write what’s called a one-pager, which they’ll ask you to do if they like your idea. This happened to me in the second meeting. So you take your idea – which is called a premise and is a paragraph long – and you develop it into a page of A4, expanding it to get a few more beats of the story in there. You’ll get notes back on that from the head writer.
You still haven’t actually been commissioned to write the episode by this point, so you’re still not getting paid. But if they’re happy with the one-pager and it gets signed off, that’s when you get commissioned. That’s been my experience, anyway.
Step three: the beat sheet
After the one-pager comes the beat sheet, which is about 3 pages. In that, you outline every actual beat in the story. Every conversation and scene. You include a bit more dialogue, show some of the character dynamics. You get notes back on that, too.
Step four: the full outline
Then you go onto a full outline, which is normally about 7 pages. More notes! You should basically just expect to get a lot of notes on your work if you go into this.
Step five: the script!
So it’s pitch, paragraph, one page – get commissioned, hopefully – three pages, seven pages, and then you write the first draft of the script. You’ll probably write 2–3 drafts before you get to the final script.
Most of this is done remotely. I only had to be there in person for the initial meetings, and for some shows you can do everything over the phone and email. You can send in four or five premises over email, and they might circle one and ask you to turn it into a one-pager. And if that goes well, they might commission you.
The whole process from my first meeting to getting commissioned took a few months, though I obviously wasn’t working on it every single day. After commission, it was probably 3–4 weeks until they signed off on my script and I was done. There was stuff that appeared in my episode of Dennis and Gnasher that I didn’t even do, and I was perfectly fine with that. They were tiny little tweaks and it was easier for them to just do it.
How did you get work on your second show?
Hey Duggee is my favourite pre-school show. My son, Findlay, is two and he’s obsessed with it. He devours it, knows all the character names. First thing in the morning he’ll be like, ‘HEEEEEY DUGGGEEEEE!!!!’ and I’m just like, it’s 6.30 in the morning, how are you this excited?
Emailing the creator out of the blue
I emailed the creator and I felt confident doing so because I love that fucking show so much. I actually like it more than Findlay does. I took the classic approach of making my email personal, telling him why I love it. You can’t be a douche, like ‘Dear Sir/Madam, please may I write for you?’ I bloody love the show, so I told him that. I told him which episodes were my favourites. I also told him I’d worked on Dennis and Gnasher, and it was amazing being able to do that. If I hadn’t already worked on that, I would’ve approached Hey Duggee very differently – more grovelling, probably.
He emailed me back quite quickly, saying they were always looking for new writers, and that he was glad I liked those episodes, because they’re his favourites too and no one ever mentions them. Straight away I felt a sense of success. I asked him to pass my name on to the person on his team who deals with writers, but I never heard back, so I followed up a couple of weeks later. Turns out it had just slipped through the cracks, so he CC’d in his assistant and we went from there. That’s why you follow up. It’s so important. Because sometimes they’re not ignoring you, but you’ll never know unless you ask.
Writing for free, again
It was the roughly the same process as Dennis and Gnasher. I was given a warning up front: ‘We do take on new writers and we’re interested in nurturing new talent, but we do ask people to do a little bit for free beforehand. Would you mind sending us a few ideas?’ I was asked to send in a few premises for the Cheese Badge.
In every episode, the characters go on these weird and wonderful adventures, and at the end of it they get a new badge, like in the Scouts. I spent half a day having the time of my life, coming up with the stupidest possible ideas for madcap cheese-related adventures they could go on. And that’s my kind of work. That’s my sweet spot. It’s a funny sweet spot, but that’s my sweet spot.
I sent in four premises, three of which were rejected. Two of them were similar to something they already had in the pipeline, which is good, really. Another one had too many puns, which doesn’t translate well to other languages, so that’s a big no-no.
I wrote up a one-pager for the remaining idea – also for free. Because I’d already been through the process before with the BBC, I didn’t feel bad about doing that work for free. The more you do it, the more you figure out what’s industry practice. After that one-pager, I was commissioned to write the script, and that’s what I’m working on right now.
Hey Duggee is a short show – the episodes are only 7 minutes. That means the beats I hit will be different, and the amount I can get into the story will be different. However long the episode you’re writing, you have to lean back on the basics of storytelling and structure. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and your inciting incident needs to come about 15% of the way through. In a 7-minute episode, that’s about 70-seconds in. Pretty fast.
Now I can tell people I’ve written for Dennis and Gnasher and Hey Duggee. They’re both award-winning shows, and certain TV shows want to be friends with them. So someone you pitch might be like, ‘Oh, great! We want to get Hey Duggee writers.’ That’s what I’m hoping will happen in the future.
What does a kids’ TV script even look like?
Every screenplay is broken up into scene headings, action and dialogue. So:
Karen and James are sitting over a table from each other, having a coffee, talking into an iPhone.
(shouting over music)
I’m going to punch you in the face.
KAREN leans over the table and punches JAMES in the face.
In kids’ TV there’s a ton of dialogue. It’s roughly a page per minute, but some shows have a naturally quick tone, so the dialogue will be said very quickly and you might end up with slightly more pages.
You’ll be told how many pages you need to do, though, and then you might get asked to make it even shorter. Someone might to turn around and say, ‘We can’t do that. We can’t fit it all in. We’ve tried to storyboard it and it’s too long.’ So you’ll be told things like, you need to shave a minute and a half off this, this scene could be tighter, cut this joke out. But that’s also your job as a writer – you need to understand story structure and how to tighten things up.
What’s your work process like?
I write fast, but only if I feel the pressure. And I’m driven a lot by guilt and fear. If I feel like I’m going to let someone down or miss a deadline, that’s a huge motivator. TV writing is good for me, because it’s little tasks that I have a short time to do.
I have a ton of ideas and I use Evernote to collect them all. I used to hate myself for not being able to finish stuff, but then I realised that if I tried to finish everything I started I’d never sleep. It’s about picking and choosing, juggling a few different things and figuring out what it’s okay to drop.
To summarise, no. Zero process. I sit down at my desk and stuff comes out of my brain.
Any other useful info to share?
Learn how to judge serious prospects
A while ago, a company that made animated YouTube videos got in touch with me. I quite liked the tone of them – silent slapstick, some furry little animals running around a room, getting into japes, falling of shelves and things like that. And they dangled the potential in front of me: ‘We need writers and we love what you do.’
I got stars in my eyes and went, ‘Ohh! That’d be great! I really want to write more scripts for animated stuff, so of course I’ll do some stuff for free.’ As soon as I started writing, I got that sinking feeling – you feel it in your gut. I basically gave them loads of ideas for free and didn’t get hired and now I keep checking their YouTube page to see if they’re using them. You have to learn how to judge it. If word ever got out that, say, the BBC stole your ideas, that would reflect really badly on them. An operation like that isn’t going to risk it. You also know they have the money to pay writers.
Weird facts about animation
Weird little fact: within a certain budget water is an absolute no-go. Water and hair are really hard to animate. That’s why you see a lot of kids’ TV characters with rock-solid hair. My first pitch for Dennis and Gnasher was set on a lake, and the head writer was like, ‘That’s great, but no one can fall into the lake and no one can pick up any water out of the lake. You can show someone falling out of the boat, but the splash has to be off-camera, then we have to cut to them in the water. There’s no way we can make water look like water. It’ll look like jelly. You’ll just have these big blobs of shit flying around everywhere.’
Someone pitched a yeti in their idea, and I was like, ‘How are you gonna do that? There’s going to be loads of hair knocking about.’ She was just like, ‘No, it’s going to look like a pile of mashed potato with a face.’ Dennis the Menace has rock-hard hair. So does Gnasher. And every girl will have her hair in a bun. It’s weird, you learn these little things.
Kids’ animation is more respected than it used to be
Kids’ TV animation has had a massive boost thanks to the likes of Pixar. Animation used to be voiced by people you didn’t know, but since Aladdin used Robin Williams, everyone has followed suit. Now a lot of prominent actors voice things for kids’ TV. So the quality has gone up and the money going into it has gone up and it’s become more respected.
How much do you get paid to write for kids’ TV?
It’s pretty industry-standard. You don’t set your rates – you get told. For my Dennis and Gnasher episode, I got £2,500 for a 14-page script. For my Hey Duggee episode it’s a bit less, but there’s less work, so it works out about the same.
If one episode takes a month or two from start to finish, and you do two or three at a time, you’re still only getting to £28–30k a year. It won’t make you rich. For me, that’s not the important thing. Getting to work in kids’ television is.
What’s next for your career in kids’ TV writing?
I’m ‘on the team’ now for Hey Duggee, so they’ll have me keep pitching ideas and writing episodes for them until one of us decides to call it a day. They said I might end up working on two ideas simultaneously, but probably not more than that. I’m also hoping the next series of Dennis and Gnasher will come around and they’ll get back in touch.
On top of that, I plan to approach more shows I like. I’ve never been good at that. It’s a big achilles heel of mine, actively going out and emailing people. I think me emailing someone and them saying, ‘Yeah, great, come write for us’ is going to be a rare experience. Most people will say, ‘No, we’re fine, thanks.’ It depends on the churn, the timing, how many shows you’re trying to reach, who the right people are.
I’m going to a kids’ TV conference in the summer, too. There’s going to be producers and other writers there. Connections are really important – referrals are a big thing. So you’ve got to get to know people. You can’t do it alone.
What are your dream goals in your work?
I’d love to have my own kids’ show one day – to have that ‘created by’ would be really, really lovely. And to be a part of that community and feel like I deserve to be there.
I also want to go back to feature films. I’d love to see my name on a film, even just one. And I’d like to run a video shop like Blockbusters, put together soundtracks for films, and become an official crisp taster.
Any advice for people who want to break into kids’ TV writing?
Just email people – it’s allowed
With kids’ TV, it’s a bit of an open market. You can email people and say, ‘I really love your show. Can I write for you?’ That’s an okay thing. It feels wrong, but it’s okay. You don’t have to have worked on a show before. Ask if you can send them a sample script. Make sure you do your research, though: know who’s making what, how long the episodes are, how they’re structured, how the jokes work, what the tone of the show is.
Practice, practice, practice – pitch, pitch, pitch
If you’re fresh off the boat and haven’t written an episode of anything before, have a go at it. Watch a bit of kids’ TV, find a show you like, and write an episode of your own. If you don’t think it’s any good, write another one.
Write an episode that demonstrates you could write well for that kind of show, and then email people. Get used to sending people work and them telling you they don’t like it. That’s the hardest part of the process.
Find places suitable for new writers
There are certain places that will actively want to nurture you as a new script writer – not just in kids’ TV, either. Look for places that don’t have big budgets and can’t afford to pay senior writers. BBC Three, BBC Four, YouTube channels – radio! There’s a reason lots of people get their breaks in theatre and radio and, sometimes, kids’ TV. There are many more entry-level opportunities.
Netflix and Amazon are making tons of content now, too. If you can find the people who are working with them, you might find someone who can give you that opportunity. And if they can’t, ask them who can. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I really appreciate the response. It’s a shame we can’t work together. Do you know anyone who’s looking for writers like me?’
Someone might say check out this opening or enter this competition or go to this event. Consider this course, speak to this producer. Whatever they tell you to do – it’s good to hoover up that information. I wish I’d done more of that so I could’ve been doing this four or five years ago.
Just finish something
I think the most important thing you can possibly do is finish something. Don’t worry about how good it is. Just finish it. You don’t have to show your first draft to anyone. Your first draft could be absolute gobbledygook, but you’ve done it and you’ve got it out of your brain.
You’ll be scared you’re not going to have good ideas. The problem is you’ve got a ton of bad ideas at the front of your brain, and you have to do something, anything, to get those out of your brain, because the stuff at the back that’s going to come out afterwards will be better. It’s like running a tap. It starts off cold, but if you keep running it, eventually the hot water comes out.
Know why you want to do it
And finally, think about why you want to do it, because it’s going to be a job. You’re going to have to jump through hoops and you might have to do some work for free to get your career off the ground.
If you enjoyed this interview and want to get insights into other ways to make money writing, stick your email in the box below, because I’m going to trick more people into divulging their secrets to me in the future.
Someone once told me it was reassuring to learn that I am as messed up as everyone else. It’s not my favourite compliment to ever have received, but if you squint at it, it IS a compliment, right? Right???
In an internet crammed with ‘thought leaders’, ‘gurus’ and ‘influencers’ (it’s impossible to write those without using quotes, isn’t it? If you don’t hate yourself, I mean), I guess it would be nice to hear from someone who is still somehow successful despite not being perfect and not having her shit together at all times. And as much as I like to think I do, I definitely don’t. Not always. I’ve got my shit together enough, that’s all.
Although, for the record, none of those other guys have their shit together either. They’re just much better at hiding it. Everyone has moments of doubt. Times when they’ve failed crushingly. Periods when they question their entire existence and what the fuck they’re even doing.
And they 1000% percent had more of them at the beginning of their journeys. Same as me. Same as everyone. At the beginning, you’ll probably kind of suck – but you won’t improve unless you do stuff anyway. And as you do more, you’ll learn more, and you’ll have less fuck-ups. (Fewer fuck-ups? Are fuck-ups countable? I guess they are. But whatever. I hate that stupid grammar rule.)
So yeah: if you want to succeed at something but you feel like you’re a mess and a failure and can’t possibly do this, it’s probably nice to see the rough edges of someone who’s further ahead in their journey than you are. Someone who you aspire to be like. So let’s pretend that person is me and talk about a bunch of times I fucked up.
Oh god. I’m cringing already.
1. I chose a terrible business name
My first freelance writing website was called Deft SEO. I know, right? Look at it. It’s gross. But more importantly, it doesn’t have anything to do with WRITING. You know, that thing I do? What my business is based on?
If I saw that name now, I’d assume it was a marketing agency that specialised in, well – SEO. Weird. I chose it because I started out writing SEO articles. But also, what if I wanted to go into SEO instead of writing?! I have no idea where that thought came from, because jobs that entail being extremely analytical with facts and figures are so not my jam.
Anyway, despite the shitty name, that website worked. It did help me get my business off the ground. Less than six months later, I came up with Untamed Writing and ditched Deft SEO altogether.
2. I said I could write 10 articles in 24 hours
I REALLY WANTED TO WIN THAT CLIENT, GUYS. And I thought it was impressive that I could write ten articles inside a day. And, well, I could have. They were SEO articles, after all, and I’m a fast writer. But fast and cheap isn’t what all clients want, you know? And it’s never what the good-quality, high-paying clients who are a pleasure to work with want.
‘Ten articles in 24 hours‘ screams shit quality. And er, yeah. I mean, they would’ve been well-written technically speaking, but the content itself would’ve been trash. How much research can you do on an article you write in 20 minutes?
Well-written trash. Why even bother? But at this point in my freelance writing career, I was still just writing SEO articles for people, and I thought that was what people wanted.
3. I focused my business on SEO articles
Now, I can’t say this was a fuck-up exactly. After all, it did get me started. But it was not a sustainable way to run a writing business. Aside from the fact that businesses would inevitably stop using SEO articles as a marketing tactic eventually, it was also unsustainable on a personal level. Because writing 500-word articles about utter shit is soul-destroying, especially when you have to churn out several a day.
If I went back to 2012 and was starting my business over again, I’m not sure I would go this route. In fact, I definitely wouldn’t. Not if I had the knowledge I have now, which clearly I would, because that’s how time travel works.
And if I was starting my business TODAY? Christ, no. I don’t even think it was a viable way to rank on Google back in 2012 (though that didn’t seem to matter to my clients). Still, it’s definitely not a useful SEO strategy these days. If you wanna rank on Google? You’ve gotta create good shit.
4. I outsourced something I really shouldn’t have
When I was making the switch from SEO articles to ‘proper’ copywriting, I kept hold of all my SEO-article clients for a while. I just outsourced everything they asked me to do to other freelance writers.
However, at one point I got lazy. Someone asked me to write a long blog post for them for pretty good money and I was all, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I can get away with outsourcing this, too.’ Turns out? NOPE. When people hire you specifically because they want your voice and style – which was the way I had positioned my business by then – it turns out that if you send them something written by somebody else, it doesn’t go down well.
Needless to say, they did not hire me again.
And I never did that again.
5. I targeted the wrong kind of copywriting clients
For a while, I decided my ideal clients were one-person, service-based brands who decided to go into business because they wanted the lifestyle that came with it – not because they were particularly interested in making tons of money. I mean, that’s what I was myself, so surely I could write great copy for others like me, right?
Well, yes, I probably could have. But here’s the thing. Well, two things. Two major issues with choosing these guys as my ideal clients:
1. They don’t have very high budgets, if they have budgets at all
I’d get people emailing me like, OMG HOW CAN I HIRE YOU? I CAN’T AFFORD YOU BUT CAN WE EXCHANGE SERVICES OR SOMETHING? Yeah, all in caps. People were excited, but they couldn’t afford to hire me. Oops.
2. They often want to write their own copy
Mostly, I think this was the case. Many businesses like this revolve around their blogs. They’re usually personal brands, in which the person at the centre of it is the main attraction, and it’s their own ideas, opinions and advice that attract clients – or at least, that’s what they’re hoping for. Whether they succeed or not is another matter. But the case still remains that they wouldn’t dream of hiring someone else to write for them.
It’s fabulous being able to do a damn fine job for the clients you’ve decided to target. That’s a necessary part of the process. But if they can’t afford to hire you or would simply never hire someone to do what you do, it’s all for nothing.
6. I blogged about stuff not relevant to my clients
Eventually, I started teaching a freelance writing course. And following that, I changed what I wrote about on the blog. Suddenly, I wasn’t writing stuff that was relevant to my target clients any more.
Now what I should have done – and eventually did – was move my copywriting services to a separate website. (Another option would’ve been to move the teaching-related stuff to another website, which might’ve been a better option if I’d done it sooner.) But I was reluctant to have more than one website and didn’t think I needed to. I was arrogant and thought that because I was SUCH A GREAT WRITER, I could write whatever I wanted and people would still hire me.
Unsurprisingly, during that period my website was barely any use at all for scoring clients. I’d get the occasional enquiry from it, and sometimes that’d turn into paying work, but mostly my clients during that time came from my network.
Trying to position your website for two entirely different audiences is a headache and it’s confusing for visitors. You should only ever have one audience in mind. If you want to dabble in something else? It’s probably a good idea to create a new website for it, unless it’s something your current audience will also want. But even then it’d have to be closely related to your current skill set, otherwise you risk people thinking you’re half as good at twice as many things. And that = lower pay.
Are you cut out to be a freelance copywriter?
Being a freelance copywriter isn’t easy. But it can be done – and you can make a good living from it (even if you fuck up sometimes).
I’m launching an all-new course that incorporates everything I’ve learned since the last course I created in 2015. It focuses on how to brand yourself as a copywriter people will pay good money to hire and how to attract clients who are a pleasure to work with – and how to avoid all the mistakes I made along the way.
It includes one-on-one coaching with me and there are limited places (only 10) available. It’s suitable for complete newbies or people in the earliest stages of their freelancing careers. Find out more here: How to Become a Freelance Copywriter.
Oh god, I’m behind on my challenge to read 100 books this year already. It’s fine, though. I’ve been, uh, intentionally NOT reading. By which I mean I’ve been intentionally playing Dragon Age Origins instead. I also accidentally started writing a fantasy novel, and writing a book is more impressive than reading one, right? So let’s just say everything is fine and I’ll catch up later, okay? (I have a plan. EVERYTHING IS FINE.)
What I Read in February 2018
Food Freedom Forever, by Melissa Hartwig
This book is about how to eat healthily (by which they mean Whole30, which is similar to paleo and SCD, the diet I follow for my ulcerative colitis) MOST of the time, but allow yourself treats that are ‘worth it’ occasionally. And when you inevitably slide back into your old way of eating, you ‘reset’ with the Whole30 plan again. I really can’t decide how I feel about this book. On the one hand I’m like, okay, this is just yo-yo dieting, right? Uh, great? But I do like the premise of treating yourself to ‘worth it’ foods, and I wonder if something like this could be the path to managing my disease without medication while not having to be 1000% strict ALL THE GADDAMN TIME.
All You Need is Kill, by Takeshi Obata (manga)
If you’ve seen Edge of Tomorrow, you’ll be familiar with this. You know, the one where Tom Cruise keeps dying on the battlefield and waking up again on the previous day to have another shot at defeating the aliens. I can’t remember how the movie goes exactly, but fuck me, the manga is AWESOME. I think it has a different ending. So good. Soon I will actually read the novel both the manga and the movie are based on, haaa. Love the story, love the art, love the characters. I bought this book to stop me from spending my money on Percy Pigs. It worked. This should be what she teaches you in Food Freedom Forever: every time you’re about to buy some junk, buy a book instead. GENIUS.
Brief Lives (The Sandman, Vol. 7), by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is EXTREMELY hit or miss for me. I either love his stuff or find it a struggle to get through. LOVE Stardust, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Struggled with American Gods, Neverwhere and, now, The Sandman. I’ve been meaning to read it since I was a teenager and I finally started last year. And it is slooow going. I’m not even sure if I’ll finish the series yet. But SO many people rave about it. What am I missing? Feel free to explain to me why you love it. Seriously. I don’t enjoy the random, seemingly unconnected short stories. I don’t enjoy the non-linear pacing. Some of the characters are cool, which is pretty much the only thing keeping me going at this point.
The Last Romeo, by Justin Myers
I was looking forward to this, because I like Justin’s blog and admire his writing style. But something about this book didn’t work for me. It’s about a guy who breaks up with his boyfriend and eventually starts dating again – and starts an anonymous blog about it. It’s heavily based on the author’s own experiences (which I’ve read about on his own blog), and it felt very contrived. And the main character was a self-absorbed bellend who didn’t seem to redeem himself by the end. I guess writing fiction is a different skill to blogging/non-fiction. Well, I knew that already, but… yeah. This book proves it. It wasn’t BAD, and it was a fun and easy read, but I didn’t love it, which was the hope. (It’s always the hope.)
Dear Ijeawele, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
YOU CAN ALWAYS RELY ON CHIMAMANDA TO PICK THINGS UP. After a fairly lacklustre month of reading, this was an uplifting way to end it. This is the letter she wrote to her friend who asked how to raise her daughter as a feminist. And it is good. I love her thoughts on feminism and agree with them completely. This book is a short one, which is the reason I decided to read it now. Because I knew I was lagging behind on my challenge. But I’m so glad I did. Want to get more informed on feminism? Read this, and read her other book on the subject, We Should All Be Feminists. Standing ovation material.
Book Stats So Far
Books read this month: 5
Books read this year: 13/100
Percentage of challenge completed: 13%
Percentage of year completed: 16%
If you’re a freelance writer in Edinburgh, stop reading now. THIS INFORMATION IS NOT FOR YOU. *hisses*
Okay, now let’s talk about how I got my freelance writing website, EdinburghCopywriter.com, to rank number one on Google, almost immediately bringing me a big case-study job for a lovely new client down the road from me, a half-day’s work for an agency in the city, AND a surprise request from an editor at the fricking Guardian. The national newspaper. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
The first thing to clear up is that I am not ranking number one on Google for ‘freelance writer’. Going after that keyword would be madness. MADNESS, I tell you. Instead, I’m ranking for these (and similar) terms, which was my intention:
edinburgh copywriter freelance
freelance copywriter edinburgh
edinburgh freelance copywriter
… you get the picture, right?
If you want a freelance copywriter in Edinburgh, I’m who pops up first. I’m also the first freelance copywriter who pops up for the term ‘freelance writer edinburgh’, although there are a couple of indeed.co.uk results that spring up above me. But given those links are for copywriters looking for work, and therefore not my competition, I’ll call it a win.
My goal was to get on the radars of agencies in the city, as well as any other organisations in Edinburgh that needed to hire a writer. And it appears to have worked. I’m not awash with new enquiries – there is not an army of people seeking Edinburgh copywriters day in, day out – but I am getting enough enquiries. And so far 75% of them have turned into paying work. I also think the impact will be exponential as I become known and gather more contacts in the city
For context: I bought EdinburghCopywriter.com in October 2017, actually added content to it in late November, started ranking on page one (at position six or seven) a couple of weeks after that, and was ranking number one by mid-January.
Now I’m going to share the three things I did to accomplish this. Since Google is a secretive bastard, technically this is all speculation. But I’m pretty sure I am correct, which is my default position on everything.
1. I bought the right domain name
Since giving up the digital-nomad life last year and choosing to settle in Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to start working with more local clients. I wanted to talk to people IN PERSON, not just over email or Skype. You know, to have meetings where you shake hands and stuff.
Therefore, it made sense to target people looking for writers in Edinburgh. Not everyone wants to work with a local writer, but enough do that it’s a viable search term to try to rank for. After all, if you’re seeking a writer, what DO you base your search query on? Typing in ‘freelance writer’ is waaaay too vague. Perhaps if you specifically know what type of writing you want – sales page, website copy, etc. – you’ll type that in. (So now I’m sat here thinking, Huh, maybe I should have gone with WebsiteCopywriter.com instead. OH WELL. No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I just checked and it’s already taken.)
But otherwise, a lot of people will default to the local area. For one thing, you’re more likely to trust someone from the local area, since you immediately have a tangible connection with them. The knowledge that they could meet you in person within an hour is comforting, somehow. You’re a real person, not just some con artist on the internet.
This approach is obviously more useful if you live in a city, where there are lots of people and businesses. If you live some remote wilderness, there probably aren’t too many people around wanting to hire a writer, you know? If that’s you, consider a domain name based around the type of writing you do instead.
A side effect of the local-area approach is that you might get people asking you to write about the city. That’s what happened with me and The Guardian. They needed a journalist to get out on the streets and interview people for a piece about hidden gems of Edinburgh. Naturally, a local writer is going to be much more useful in this regard, in that they’ll know where to go to interview people, they’ll know the right questions to ask, and they’ll know how to find the places people mention. And their expenses will be lower, since they won’t need to be put up in a hotel. But I’m getting off track. I’ll write about my experiences with The Guardian another time.
Your domain name is a HUGE factor in Google recognising what you do and what your site is all about. (This is why Untamed Writing ranks well for so many writing-related terms, I reckon.) So if there’s a way for you to sneak a relevant search term into your domain name – whether it’s location- or specialism-based – I strongly recommend it. Because getting found on Google is the easiest way to score new work, especially if you’re new to this and haven’t networked enough for people to start sending referrals your way yet.
The domain-name approach means you don’t necessarily need a blog, either. A blog is another great way to rank well on Google, but it takes a lot longer – you’ve gotta build up a backlog – and requires constant upkeep. Having said that…
2. I linked back to it from Untamed Writing
As I said, Untamed Writing already ranks well on Google for various writing-related search terms. Which means Google sees it as a valuable and reliable source of information on writing, and specifically freelance writing. And, as people say, backlinks are the currency of the internet. Do people say that? I bet they do, because I feel like that’s not a phrase I would’ve invented myself.
Anyway, what this means is that if Google sees a relevant website it already considers valuable linking back to a new website, it will also begin to recognise the new website as a valuable one on the subject. Because good websites don’t link back to shitty ones. That’s what makes them good. Well, it’s not the core thing that makes them good but, you know, it helps.
This is a trickier thing to implement if you’re new to freelance writing and blogging, of course. If you don’t happen to have a relevant website with five years’ worth of blog posts to link to your new site from, what do you do? Well, you need to get those backlinks from somewhere else instead. And that’s where guest posting comes in. Find some blogs on the subject of writing or freelancing or something else relevant, see if they accept guest posts and, if they do, pitch them! I’ve written more about guest posting here.
If I linked back to my new freelance writing site with anchor text like, ‘Karen Marston is soooooo fabulous’, that’s probably not going to be particularly helpful. Unless there are a lot of people searching for that fabulous Karen Marston lass. Which I’d like to think there are, but, well. Even if there were, it still wouldn’t be helpful unless they were looking for me to write for them. Which… I mean, they probably would be since that’s what I do… but uhh… actually, they’d probably end up on Untamed Writing if they searched for that, now that I think on it, and that isn’t especially helpful. (CONFIRMED.)
So! The anchor text you use matters. When Google decides how to rank websites, it reads what’s on them. And that includes reading anchor text. ‘Oh, they’re linking to another website with the anchor text “best freelance copywriter EVAR”? That’s probably the website of a really good freelance copywriter. Better bump it up the old “best freelance copywriter” search results.’ (Yes, I am utilising this technique A LOT in this post. You don’t rank number one on Google by accident, people.)
That’s why on Untamed Writing’s about page, I open with this:
And on my home page, I include this:
And that’s it, really. That’s my entire thought process for buying EdinburghCopywriter.com and attempting to get it to rank number one.
IT’S BACK! Lost in the great blog blitz of 2017, now it hath returned: the WHAT I READ LAST MONTH column. Sorry, sorry, I’m trying to make it sound grander than it is. Is it working?
Basically, I’m going to share with you a list of the books I read each month, along with my thoughts about them, which often have nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the books, and everything to do with why I decided to read them, where I was when I did, how they made me feel, and sometimes, just sometimes, what I learned from them.
I’m aiming to read 100 books this year, which is more than I’ve ever read before. I was arguing with a guy about this down the pub recently. He claimed that if you really wanted to read, truly loved books, you didn’t need to set a goal, because you would just do it. And I’m like OH REALLY? Because you know what else I like doing? Slumping on my sofa with a pizza and endless Netflix, which is way easier than reading, which requires actual effort.
If I’m left to my own devices, without a goal, I will do whatever is easiest. I think most people are like that. This guy also claimed I would feel bad if I didn’t hit my goal, and cited this as a reason not to do it at all. How dumb is that? I mean, for one thing, I won’t feel bad, because I will definitely still end up reading more than I would otherwise, which is really the point, isn’t it?
I’m roughly aiming to read two books a week, and I’m including graphic novels and audiobooks, because I doubt I could read 100 full-on novels inside a year, but also – why SHOULDN’T they count? I like the fact that including them means I will have room for some longer books, which I inevitably wouldn’t otherwise.
Disclaimer: there are no Amazon affiliate links in this post, or even links to where you can buy the books, because really, that is such a pain in the arse to do.
What I Read in January 2018
The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking
This is one of those books you buy because it’s so cute and pretty and has nice pictures and will look nice on your bookshelf. And then you read it and go, Oh, this is one of those books you buy because it’s so cute and pretty and has nice pictures, but I don’t really want to put it on my bookshelf because I don’t want to keep it because it’s generic and obvious and no duh hygge is about candles and blankets and hanging out with friends and drinking tea. Also no one is ever going to make any of those recipes. This is most definitely a 3-star book, which is the biggest insult as far as I’m concerned. Bland.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I had never read any Fitzgerald before, although I had become acquainted with him when Hemingway wouldn’t stop bitching about him in A Moveable Feast. So, to spite Hemingway, I decided to read one of Fitzgerald’s novels before I ever bothered with one of his. That’s not the real reason, but I felt like saying it because it FEELS true, you know? Anyway. This was short and I figured reading a classic I’d always meant to read would be a good way to get my reading year going. Everyone in this book is an asshole, except for the narrator’s dad, who seems very wise but sadly only makes an appearance in the opening line. Oh, and that guy who looks after the mechanic after [spoiler redacted].
Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes
I was expecting one of those memoirs where people literally tell you everything they said yes to, or whatever. You know the ones. I like reading those. This was not that. I still loved it, though. There were a couple of stories specifically about things Shonda said yes to, but mostly it went deeper than that. She shared the big, impactful lessons she learned about how life is when you open yourself up to it. Inspiring and warm. Also this kind of made me want to watch Grey’s Anatomy, but like, maybe not because there are 14 seasons so far and it’s still going? That’s too much. Doesn’t she know I’m trying to read 100 books this year?
Saga, Vol. 8, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
If you want to get into comics but don’t know where to start, start with Saga. It’s an epic space adventure, which, as everyone knows, is the best genre. The plot, the characters, the creatures, the inventiveness, the colour, the writing, the art – it is all magnificent. This volume felt more like a build-up for the next one, but I’m okay with it because sometimes things need to be tied together, you know? Also it featured some excellent Prince Robot action, and he is my one true love (well, one of them), so it probably could’ve been void of all the other things I just listed and I still would’ve loved it. But it wasn’t void of them. It’s GREAT. Read it. But maybe read the preceding 7 volumes first.
Grey, by E.L. James
What? Don’t look at me like that. I saw it on Kindle for 99p and I just felt like it, okay? This is Fifty Shades of Grey (which I read a few years ago) from the belt-wielding dom’s perspective, in case you’re not up on your Fifty Shades knowledge. And you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected. Or as bad as I remembered, maybe. Did she have a better editor for this one? Or… maybe the original didn’t have an editor at all? Was it self-published? I didn’t hate the main characters as much as I thought. I must’ve been thinking of Bella and Edward, whose relationship was infinitely more problematic. And also I know this is the point of the book, but there was too much sex. Boring.
Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston
Once again, this was not what I expected. I was hoping for a memoir of a woman who quit drinking, which is something I occasionally think about doing because of my ulcerative colitis. Instead I got an examination of alcoholism in women and girls, and some thoughts on what we can do about it. It was interesting, but I probably wouldn’t have read it had I realised what it was going to be about. I should probably learn to read blurbs properly before I buy books.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle
My boy Sherlock! I love him. I especially love the short story collections (rather than the novels) which is what this is. I listened to it on audio, so I didn’t read the version pictured. I will let you figure out for yourself why I decided to use that particular image for this blog post. Ahem. Anyway, the audiobook I have is read by Simon Vance, who is so so so good. His Watson and Sherlock are perfect, and you can always tell one character from another. I started reading/listening to the books after watching the BBC show with Benedict Cumberbatch, so I picture him when I listen, which is nice. So I guess you don’t need to figure anything out for yourself after all.
Shockaholic, by Carrie Fisher
I looooved Wishful Drinking, and I was in the mood for some more Carrie Fisher. Plus I needed a short, quick read to keep on top of my challenge. I read this in a few hours on a lazy Sunday. I wish I had listened to the audiobook, since she narrates it herself which would clearly be AWESOME, but I’d already bought the Kindle version, so. This book is essentially a few memories from Carrie’s life captured essay-style so she didn’t lose them to the clawing hands of electroshock therapy. Her writing style reminds me of my own, so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy her books, because she’s a lot smarter and more insightful than me. And she has better stories, obviously.
Book Stats So Far
Books read this month: 8
Books read this year: 8/100
Percentage of challenge completed: 8%
Percentage of year completed: 8.5%
February! That’s when you’re supposed to write your review of the previous year and your goals for the current one, right? Yes. Let’s pretend that is why I am only just writing this. Although if you keep reading you’ll probably figure out the real reason. Here’s the short version: nothing went as planned in 2017.
I’m going to break this down by analysing my (75% failed, 25% flailed) goals for the year, then I’m gonna talk about some other notable shit that happened. And then I’ll throw my 2018 plans into the mix at the end, because it’s already February and I really can’t piss about separating all this into multiple posts. I’VE GOT SO MUCH ELSE TO WRITE ABOUT, GODDAMNIT.
Phew. Okay. Let’s do this.
How My 2017 Goals Went
I made four goals for the year, three of which were about doing something every day. I wrote a quarterly update back in March, by which point I had already failed the do-it-every-day goals. Here they are:
Write every single day
I was going so strong with this. I was writing at least 400 words a day, every single day. And then I wasn’t. One day, I just forgot to do it. And I woke up the next morning relieved, because it turned out this goal was not helping me accomplish anything worthwhile. In my quarterly review, I wrote that I was going to figure out a different way to approach this writing-every-day goal, but I… didn’t. I conveniently forgot about that, too. Whoops.
Read every single day
I gave myself a dumb caveat for this goal. I could read ‘just one page’ if I wanted to, because the point was to get into the habit of reading daily. Soooo, something major I learned about myself last year is that if I set goals like this for myself, I will literally do the bare minimum. (Actually I was supposed to already have learned this lesson, wasn’t I?) Do you know how many books you get through if you only read one page per day? NOT FUCKING MANY. When I did my quarterly review in March, I had only read six books. The previous year – a year I was aiming to read 75 books – I had read 35 books by March. Apparently I need specific targets to aim for, rather than ‘easy’ habits-based goals. Good to know, I guess.
Exercise every single day
The plan here was to improve my upper back’s health. My too-straight spine means I get upper back pain super easily if I sit at weird angles (commonly known as ‘bad posture’), and exercise obviously helps with that. Turns out, so does fixing your posture, which I was able to do with some new furniture later in the year.
I also realised that this niggling achilles-tendon injury I’d had since the previous summer was never going to heal unless I let it rest, so I ended up banning myself from running for several months. (The ban is still in place now, actually, although I’m planning to lift it in the spring. MORE ON THAT LATER.) As you may have guessed, I didn’t accomplish this goal either, although I did walk almost every day. I averaged just over three miles a day throughout the year.
Shift the focus of my work
Okay, now this is where things start to get, er, a little messy. Although I guess technically it’s safe to say I accomplished this goal, since I shifted the focus of my business approximately SEVENTEEN-THOUSAND TIMES. Someone get me a wall to bang my head against. (Do you like how I just implied that there are no walls anywhere in my vicinity? That’s right: I’m working from a higher plane of existence right now, and walls do not exist here.)
Okaaaay. DEEP BREATH. At the very start of the year I was talking about adding editing services to my business. I even bought a whole new domain, untamedediting.com, though I never did anything with it. I nixed the idea of editing fairly early on, because I remembered that I find it annoying to focus on such trifling things as whether that’s the right sort of dash. (I’m just kidding, editors! I respect and admire and am ridiculously grateful for what you do, because I would truly detest a world in which books were allowed to go unedited before publication. I’m staring pointedly at the swathes of self-published Kindle authors who do not take editing seriously right now.) Anyway, I don’t know why I thought I’d be a good editor, since following the rules has never been a forte of mine.
I also said I had ‘one very specific writing service I want to offer from now on in mind’, and I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. So maybe I accomplished that. Maybe I didn’t. It’s hard to say, since apparently past-Karen is cryptic as fuck.
Later in the year I proclaimed I was going to shift the focus of Untamed Writing back onto copywriting clients, rather than freelance writers. Specifically, I was going to target personal brands. For… reasons. The site had been a weird blend of site-for-clients-and-site-for-writers for waaaay too long and I didn’t like it. Why are there copywriting services on a website FOR other freelance writers? It didn’t make sense.
Man, if you read that post I just linked to, you’ll see that I seriously thought I had figured shit out this time. Although now that I’m reading back on it I’m seeing that I was planning to target potential copywriting clients but also still offer my freelance writing course? Like… what? WHAT? What was that supposed to solve, Marston? I also announced that I was going to return to twice-weekly blogging, which did not happen. At all. In fact, I ended up blogging WAY less than I ever had before. Which led me to the conclusion, verrrrrrrrry slowly (thanks brain) that in fact this was not the right way to shift my business. Only in the past few weeks have I fully realised this, if I’m perfectly honest. (Now the reason for this February New Year’s post is becoming clear, eh?)
Point 20: It really is a good idea to ‘niche down’
Point 27: Content marketing is good for selling products, networking is good for finding clients
I’ve always had a strong reluctance to move my copywriting services from Untamed Writing to another website – mostly because I didn’t want to start another blog, and I thought that’s probably what I’d need to do. But I was wrong. On all counts.
I’d already bought edinburghcopywriter.com when I wrote the above post. I was planning to use it for SEO purposes, and to redirect prospective clients back to Untamed Writing. But the more I thought about it (and oh my god, I thought about it a LOT, like can we please just stop this now brain and finally commit to something instead of rewriting our home page every five seconds) the more I realised that, well, the main thing that gives me a headfuck about Untamed Writing is that I’ve been trying to force it to be something it shouldn’t be – trying to appeal to too many types of people with it – all for the sake of simplicity (biggest lol I’ve ever lolled here).
And then there’s that other point – content marketing is good for selling products, networking is good for finding clients. Umm. Oh yeah. RIGHT! That’s a good point, Karen, thank you. Most of my copywriting clients come from meeting people in person and from referrals. Sometimes they come through the blog, but mostly not. So… I DON’T need a blog for my copywriting services??? Wow, that took a long time to figure out.
I feel this is a good time to point out that my blog HAS been helpful for securing copywriting clients, though. Not for the content itself, or because that’s how people necessarily find me, but for the fact that showing you know how to build a brand, write good shit for it and grow an audience is quite appealing to clients. Having a solid online presence is handy because it shows people you know what you’re doing.
So anyway. This was a revelation of the best kind. Edinburghcopywriter.com can be MY MAIN COPYWRITING SITE. MY ONLY COPYWRITING SITE. And it’s already proving its worth, since I have a meeting with a new client tomorrow, right here in the city. A 20-minute walk from my flat. Turns out you don’t need a blog if you can rank number one on Google without one, and my new website is already ranking number one for ‘freelance copywriter edinburgh’, ‘edinburgh freelance copywriter’, and all variations thereof. ZING. (I’ll write about how I managed that some time.)
Keeping Untamed Writing as a site for copywriting clients didn’t leave me much room to talk about my favourite subject, which is myself. I AM KIDDING. Sort of. Everyone loves talking about themselves, you know? The trick is to do it in a way that other people can relate to. And, if you can, to stick to some sort of theme. My theme? Well, guys, it’s in the name: writing. Life as a writer. Making money writing. Improving your craft. That kind of thing.
I’m clear and free to write about whatever I want, AND THIS IS WHAT I CHOOSE. I realise this makes it sound like I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve done for the majority of Untamed Writing’s lifetime: blogging about freelance writing. But no – freelance writing is not the only type of writing I’m interested in. And now I’m going to venture into other realms and share what I learn about that, too. (More on that soon!)
I’ve rewritten the site for (hopefully, please Christ I can’t take it any more) the last time. Check out the home and about pages if you want to get a better idea of what the site’s going to be about from now on.
And that’s where I’m at with the business right now! I’ll share more about it in the 2018 goals section below.
Other Notable Events of 2017
Oh god, writing that took longer than I thought and I’m not done yet. Do you have a cup of tea yet? Best go and make one if not. Here’s some other stuff that went down in 2017:
I quit the digital nomad life and moved back to Edinburgh
At the start of the year, I was living as a digital nomad, which is something I’d intended to do ever since I started my business. I’ve already written in detail about why the digital nomad life sucks, so I won’t go over it again now.
What I will talk about is moving back to Edinburgh. For my final digital-nomad month, spent in a shitty Airbnb apartment in Seville, I daydreamed about what I wanted my life to be like when I moved back to Edinburgh. I wanted to find an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment and use one room as an office, like a goddamn grown-up business owner-type person (that was confusing to hyphenate and I’m still not sure it’s right and I don’t really care and this is why I am not meant to be an editor). It would be a place nearish my old place so I could still walk to the beach every day. I would make it a nice place to live, with nice furniture and nice art and other nice things that adults who commit to living in one place have. I would also get more involved with the Edinburgh creative scene, coworking and going to events and things like that. I would become KNOWN as an awesome copywriter in the city, and have meetings in person and stuff.
Essentially, I was going to actually attempt to build a life here, after 4+ years of not doing that because I was planning to leave. Well, all of the above has happened or is happening. I found an apartment that fitted my EXACT requirements. I regularly hang out with my fellow copywriter friends now (and mock them about the fact that I’M THE NUMBER ONE EDINBURGH FREELANCE COPYWRITER ACCORDING TO GOOGLE HAHAHAHAHA). I spoke at Edinburgh College about copywriting, then stayed behind to help the students with their projects. I got hugged and called inspirational! I got called a rising star! I’m sat in my home-office as I write this! I will walk to the beach later! Things are happening, and it is nice. Moving back here was definitely the right decision.
I blitzed everything on the site
During my frenzied attempt to figure out what the hell to do with Untamed Writing last year, I went through the entire site and ‘organised’ everything. I deleted half of my blog posts. Then I put (almost) all of them back (my What I Read Last Month posts have remained lost because they were so fiddly and I could not be bothered) and heavily edited them in the process to make them better/still relevant/less embarrassing. I removed all comments from the site, which I can’t decide if I regret but what the hell, it’s done now.
I removed all pointless images from my posts, because I cannot be arsed to fuck around with the same generic stock photos I see on every other blog. Now there are none within my blog posts, and my featured images are one of three Untamed Writing photos. If my words alone are not enough to tempt someone, then fine, whatever, I don’t care. I also removed all my courses and ebooks. I added new services and workshops. I changed my opt-in gift, then I changed it again, then I removed it altogether. I rewrote the copy 6,653 times. It was exhausting. But I pray to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare, that it is over now. This is it. I am done.
I started writing a book!
Quite unexpectedly, I started writing a novel last summer. I had never seriously considered writing fiction before. I’d had a couple of vague ideas in the past, written a couple of opening paragraphs and abruptly forgotten about them. I didn’t think I had any good ideas and that writing fiction was Not My Thing (even though I looooove reading it).
So yeah, I’m writing a novel now! It’s a space adventure about a reckless, irresponsible girl who just wants to bum around the universe with her best friend, doing odd jobs and committing petty crimes to make ends meet, but CANNOT because of reasons and plot. And I want to write about what I’m learning, which is part of the reason I’ve finally decided to refocus the site on writing. I have no idea whether I’ll try to get it published traditionally, or whether I’ll self-publish it, or anything really. I’m not in a hurry over this. I’m just enjoying the process. It takes a lot longer than writing non-fiction, and it is oddly soothing. I love it. My daydreams on my daily walks to the beach now feature a lot of revelations about the plot and snatches of conversations between characters. It’s fun!
I organised my finances
I have historically been pretty good with money. By which I mean: I don’t spend more than I have. I don’t go into debt. HOWEVER, whatever money I do have? I spend. Savings are not much of a thing in my world. This made sense when I was a barmaid. I was only making £250 a week max, so saving wasn’t an option, not really. Now I can make more than that in a DAY. And yet somehow I’m still able to spend all my money???
Admittedly a lot of this is my lifestyle-upgrade. If I was still sharing a shitty apartment with two weird flatmates, I probably could have saved a lot of money by now. But still, since returning to Edinburgh permanently I’ve started getting serious about my finances. One day soon I might even start a frickin’ PENSION. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say my default is no longer to buy whatever the hell I want on my credit card, then withdraw however much I spent from my business every month and pay it off in full.
My Goals for 2018
Create all-new courses and products for Untamed Writing
I think of the blitzing I did last year as a sort of clean slate. I don’t plan to put back any of the things I previously had for sale. But what I will do is create new, BETTER things. First up, I’m going to create a new freelance writing course. Hahaha. OBVIOUSLY. The last one I created is over two years old now, and I know a lot more now than I did then. This new course is going to have all-new content and be specifically about copywriting. In retrospect I find it weird that I referred to my previous courses as being about ‘freelance writing’ as if that were a single, specific thing, when actually there are so many different types.
I’m also planning on creating a course or two about how to write better. Maybe one about how to strengthen your voice. I haven’t worked out the details yet, but I know (because people have told me) that my voice and style are what people admire and want to emulate in their own writing. Obviously I can’t teach people how to copy MY voice, nor would I advise doing that, but I definitely think I can help people find and strengthen their own writing voices.
Do something with the Facebook page
Not gonna lie, the only thing I use my Facebook page for is sharing my latest blog posts. Which was fine when I was publishing regularly. I’ve toyed with the idea of deleting it altogether, but I’m not sure. I think I should make a concerted effort to do something with it before I bin it. Since I’ve removed comments from the actual blog, I might try directing all conversations over there. I’ve always thought blog comments were pretty outdated anyway, so I don’t THINK I regret my decision to remove them, and social media is usually where most conversation happens around my posts anyway. We’ll see, I guess.
Finish my first novel
Yeaaahhh! I’ve found that with fiction I tend to go back and edit as I write, which is not at all my usual writing style, and it seriously slows progress. Mostly I’m just like UGH BUT IF I CAN FIGURE OUT THE PLOT PROPERLY NOW I WON’T HAVE TO UNTANGLE IT LATER, which is obviously not so much of an issue when you’re writing non-fiction. But I’ve basically figured out the plot now, so I’m just going to go for it. I’m going to continue writing until the end, and then I’m going to redraft it, and maybe redraft it again.
My version of ‘finishing’ the book is not getting it polished and pristine, but getting it to the point where I feel I can do no more alone. I want to get it as good as I can without help, and THEN I will start showing it to other people – find me some beta readers. I’m largely thinking of this as a learning experience, figuring out HOW to write fiction, since it’s all new to me. Fun times ahead!
What I am NOT going to do is rush to finish it so I can self-publish it ASAP and (maybe) make a few quid. Books are precious things and it is disrespectful to the reader to publish stuff that isn’t good enough to be published yet, as far as I’m concerned. I would rather not be published at all than publish something substandard. (And this is why I love and have so much respect for editors. Y’all are amazing.)
Read 100 books
It’s just shy of two books a week. I include audiobooks and graphic novels in my book-count, which makes this a lot easier. I CAN TOTALLY DO THIS. I got into an argument with a guy about this in the pub a couple of weeks ago. He tried to tell me graphic novels and audiobooks ‘didn’t count’ and I’m like, Oh I’m sorry did I make you feel inadequate for setting a goal you personally feel you could never achieve?
Experiment and learn more about my ulcerative colitis
I recently found out that my meds weren’t quiiiite as effective at controlling my ulcerative colitis as I thought. I got some results back from my doctor and learned that my gut was still heavily inflamed, despite not having the symptoms I commonly associate with this disease. The ‘normal’ amount of whatever it is in your gut that indicates good health and lack of inflammation is 0–50. Below 200 is considered ‘in remission’ for my disease. My results? OVER ONE-FUCKING-THOUSAND. 1563, to be precise. So, that’s not great.
I’m not brilliant at following doctors’ orders, so instead of increasing my medication as instructed, I quit it altogether and started eating strict SCD again. That’s the diet I followed a couple of years ago in an attempt to see if I could heal my guts without meds. AND I COULD. I quit the diet and started taking my meds again before I went travelling, because I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to eat this way on the road. But now I’m back in Edinburgh, so I can!
I met up with my doctor yesterday and told him my plan. He agreed, and we’re going to do more tests to see if the inflammation clears up this way. (It’s already going well, and my guts are healthier than they were when I was on my meds.) If it doesn’t work out and my guts still show as inflamed, I will go back on the meds AND eat the diet, I guess. It’s either that or stronger meds, and I really don’t want to go down that route. Whatever happens, I want to experiment a lot with my diet this year to see how it affects things.
Start running and working out again
My achilles tendon feels fine now, I think. This post is loooong so I can’t remember if I already mentioned that I injured my achilles tendon. Anyway, I did. Sprinting in barefoot trainers on a cold day without warming up first is A Bad Idea, Karen. I should have learned this lesson back when I pulled both of my quads in school RIGHT BEFORE A RACE. I was too terrified to tell my teachers my mistake, so I ran the race anyway and it was agonising. Still won though, natch. Uh, what was I talking about? Oh, right. I’m going to wait until the winter is over before I begin running again just to make extra specially certain I’m healed. And also because who da fuck starts running in winter?
Buy that beautiful chair I saw
I’m still using two polystyrene boxes stacked on top of each other as a TV stand (they’re the perfect height, okay?), but you can bet your ass I’m going to spend £800 on a chair before I replace them. Guys, it’s the most dreamiest chair that ever was, and it’s SO COMFORTABLE and SO BEAUTIFUL and it must be mine. But since I’m being more responsible with money these days, I am not going to drop the cash on it JUST LIKE THAT. But just you watch: it will be mine before the year is out.
Fuck those articles, man. They’re everywhere. You know the ones I mean, right? How to 10X Your Reading Speed and Never Have to Savour a Book Again! I suspect these are written with information gatherers in mind rather than people who read for joy. But still, what the hell?
And then there are those ‘reading’ apps that will allow you to gather all the salient points from a book without having to actually read it. (‘Blinkist lets you read the key lessons from 2200+ nonfiction books in 15 min or fewer.’ – is it just me, or is this massively disrespectful to authors? All those words are there for a reason, you know.)
And there are the people who suggest listening to audiobooks at 1.5x or even 2x normal speed so you can get through them faster, never mind the fact that it’ll sound like a chipmunk’s narrating.
Why is reading slowly treated as some defect that needs to be corrected? WHY? I realise pretty much every avid book reader wishes they could get through more books, myself included. But do you really want to do it at the expense of your reading experience?
I have another suggestion: if you want to read more books, just read more often. Like, obviously??? Also, perhaps be pickier and more thoughtful about what you read if you’re worried about never getting through your TBR pile.
I know exactly why I am such a slow reader, and I’m okay with it. Because what the fuck is the obsession with being ‘efficient’ all about anyway? Is life really something that needs to be MAXIMISED across all areas? Ugh.
You know the main reason I read slowly? Because I think. A lot. I do this with both fiction and non-fiction. I will think about a story and how it relates to my own life. I will think about what this means for me. I will think about what I like or don’t like about this. I will think about what I can learn from this. I will also think about why the author used that particular bit of punctuation there, and I will marvel over word choices and beautiful turns of phrase. (I mostly find myself in awe of clever metaphors and descriptions that evoke perfect images in my mind.) Since starting to write fiction myself and learning more about it, I will also consider structure and narrative, which are two things I never thought about before.
I don’t read slowly because my eyes can’t scan the words fast enough. I do this when I’m not thinking, but then I will catch myself at the bottom of a page, and then I’m like wait, what? I need to read that bit again. I read every single word on the page. Sometimes, if I think I’ve missed even a single word, or can’t recall what I’ve just read, I will go back and read it again. I want it all. Every word and meaning the author intended.
This makes me a better writer, and also means I get more from the books as I read them.
I decided to do things differently this year. Rather than slinging together a list of goals – random things it’d be kinda cool to achieve by the end of the year – I chose to focus instead on building up three simple daily practices. The three practices are: writing, reading and exercising.
I purposely chose to make them easily doable:
Write 400 words a day, no matter what. Paper journalling doesn’t count, but I’ve created a ‘Shit’ folder in Scrivener for any time I’m struggling. I can write whatever I want in the Shit folder.
Read some of a book every single day, no matter how little.
Walk at least three miles a day, or go for a run or do a yoga session (any distance/length).
We’re a quarter of the way through the year now, so I’ve decided to check in on my progress. I want to analyse whether these three daily practices are actually helping me achieve anything, and whether I could be doing them differently to get better, more consistent, more satisfying results. (Spoiler: yes.)
Okay! Now let’s look at how I’m going with each goal so far.
Writing 400 words every single day
Guys, I was going so strong with this until last week. But last Tuesday I completely, thoroughly, totally forgot to write. I completed 79 days in a row of writing at least 400 words and then I fucking forgot. You probably think I woke up annoyed with myself the next day. But I wasn’t annoyed at all. In fact, I was relieved.
I didn’t intentionally not write. I just straight up forgot about it – it didn’t even cross my mind as my head hit the pillow that night. Though that did happen on several previous occasions: more than once, I crawled into bed and realised I hadn’t done my writing yet. So I’d climb back out, pad through to my desk and furiously clatter out 400 words about any old bullshit just so I could say I’d done my writing. I dragged myself out of bed on those days because I knew I’d be seriously disappointed in myself if I intentionally shrugged it off.
So why was I relieved about forgetting? Because I knew something wasn’t right about the way I was doing this.
Before I’d made my slip-up, I was already questioning whether this was worth doing. Here’s an excerpt from before I fucked up the challenge:
It’s hard to figure out what I’m trying to achieve with this. Or what I AM achieving, more to the point. It’s 10pm on a Saturday night as I write this. I’m tired and I don’t want to do it.
Often I write crap. And I know people say you have to write crap to get at the good stuff, and that is definitely true to an extent. But I created a literal folder called ‘Shit’, specifically for this year’s write-every-day challenge, for the days when I wasn’t feeling INSPIRED to write anything in particular.
There have been many days like that so far. It’s only half-way through March and the entries in my Shit folder are stacking up. I probably shouldn’t have allowed myself that caveat. I didn’t when I started my write-every-day challenge back in October, and I felt like I was accomplishing a lot more. I WAS writing something potentially publishable every day.
And isn’t the point of this that it IS supposed to be a challenge and it IS supposed to make myself or my writing better somehow?
Writing 400 words of whatever bullshit comes to mind at 10pm is not good. It is not purposeful. It is not useful. It does not advance me as a writer, because I have been doing that shit since I was 15 and it’s pretty evident I’ve got as far as I can up the ‘write some random bollocks about what you’re thinking’ ladder.
So something needs to change. I either need to not allow myself these Shit posts, or change the challenge in another way. Write in the morning perhaps?
It’s easy for me to write thousands of words per day when I’ve got something specific I need to do. But otherwise, when I allow myself to write shit, I will simply write shit. Especially at 10pm on a Saturday night.
So, yeah, I’m allowing myself a brief break from the challenge, especially since I’m in a period of upheaval at the moment. I’ve just quit digital nomading and am now moving into a more permanent home in Edinburgh. That doesn’t mean I’m not writing during this period – just that I haven’t set any rules for it. I mean, look at me, I’m writing right now. Bam! Since last Tuesday, I’ve missed a few more days. But whatever.
I’d be foolish to carry on with this challenge even though I knew it wasn’t helping me achieve anything particularly worthwhile. ‘Trust the process’, I said. And I do still believe that. It’s just that I think my particular process was, er, not great. Just being able to say ‘Hey, I wrote every single day this year!’ without having anything worthwhile to show for it at the end? What’s the fucking point of that, eh? So I’m rethinking now.
Would a daily timed writing period be better? Say, 20 or 30 minutes per day? Or should the focus be on forming the habit of writing in the mornings? Would just nixing the Shit folder solve my problems? Perhaps I should let myself take weekends off so I don’t burn myself out? Or maybe just Saturdays? What about aiming for a particular word count each week, without the worry of hitting a certain number of words per day? Whatever I decide, it’s going to need to work with my rebel tendency.
Gretchen Rubin discussing "Rebels" - YouTube
I think I want the goal to still be writing every single day, but I know my current approach isn’t working. I might drop the word count and try out a timed period every day. And definitely no more Shit folder. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have figured out what works for me and incorporated a good writing habit into my life. I might check in again after the second and third quarters to evaluate my progress again.
Whatever I choose, I’m going to start doing it on Monday, and I’m going to make it more habits-based. Because what I’ve been doing so far this year is about as far from forming a habit as you can get while still managing to achieve the thing each day.
Reading every single day
The only ‘rule’ I set myself here was to read part of a book every single day. No particular page count to hit. I’ve only missed five days of reading so far this year… but that’s not as impressive as it sounds.
Turns out, focusing on building the daily practice is all well and good, and they DO say you should start small, but looking at my progress so far this year, I’m thinking I set my goal too small. Like, it’s a step backwards compared to what I was already achieving. By this time last year, I’d already read 35 books. So far this year? Six. Fucking SIX, guys. Environment is incredibly important for building habits, and last year I was living alone in a nice apartment. I had designated spots where I sat to read, and I often started my days by doing so. I was in the habit of reading a good chunk most days.
So far this year? I’ve been either crashing at my mum’s place or living in Airbnbs. Neither are particularly conducive to building any sort of habit. My reading so far this year has mostly been done in bed at night, which means I only manage a page or two (or sometimes half a page) before the Kindle slaps my face.
Once I’m settled in my new apartment, I’m going to get back to reading in the mornings. I’m still not planning to set myself a page target, because I know from my book count last year that I can get through a lot without too much trouble.
Exercising every single day
I’ve missed the most days of all from this challenge. Twelve missed days in total. But, weirdly, I don’t feel as bad about this as I do about the writing and reading goals. Why? Because what I am doing is working. My back pain has been minimal so far this year. I credit this not just to exercising regularly, but also to sitting in more comfortable positions at home, both at my desk and when I’m lounging around.
Plus, this habit is pretty much already ingrained in me. Over the past couple of years, it’s become a regular habit of mine to walk 3–5 miles a day, usually somewhere in solitude and in nature. I’m ecstatic that my new apartment is close to my old one, because that means I’ll still be able to make my daily treks to the beach.
I would like to incorporate more variety of exercise into my days, though I trust that this too will be easier with a more stable environment. I was running or doing yoga fairly regularly throughout January, but as soon as I landed in Seville, that was it. It was walking or nothing. (Well, I went for one run. Hmm.)
Going for my daily walks doesn’t just help my back, of course – it also helps my mind. I tend to walk for at least an hour, and often up to two, and during this time it’s just me and my brain, and usually some music. I never listen to podcasts or audiobooks when I walk, because it’s my thinking and figuring-out time. If anything’s on my mind, whether it’s to do with work or life, I’ve usually resolved it by the time I get home.
Sometimes there’s nothing on my mind, though. I’m not a worrier by nature. I don’t get anxiety. Sometimes I will just enjoy the walk, stopping to smell the spring blooms or smile at the squirrels scampering around the trees. In the summer, on my strolls to the beach, I take my shoes off and squidge my feet into the wet sand or dance in the waves lapping on the shore (after checking there’s no one around, natch).
So yeah, I’m pretty happy with my exercise at the moment. I don’t WANT to give up my daily walks, and usually if I do a different kind of exercise it replaces the walks, so, hmm… dilemma. But right now, I’m happy with where things are on this front.
If you’re interested, I’ve been tracking my daily habits with the Productive app, which I like for its simplicity.