Battling The Inbox

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I have an inbox full of newsletters. Sometimes I do a bit of a clear-out, but there are a few that remain relevant, a few that I can’t justify unsubscribing from. So they sit there, and they build up. And occasionally, over lunch perhaps, I go through and find out how many deadlines I’ve missed.

The newsletters I keep are ones that link me to relevant, writing-related blogs and articles; they’re ones that list competitions; they’re ones that provide writers with advice; and they’re ones that list job opportunities. I also have a Mslexia subscription that arrives every few months and sits on my desk begging me to read it. I want to read all these things. They’re useful, and when I manage to do them in time, I nearly always find useful opportunities and tips. But how do you schedule these things in? They might lead to things that will generate an income, but they might not, and investing the time to read through them all and then follow up on things that need action can take a lot of time away from the working day. And I’ll be dammed if I’m going to read newsletters in the evening when I could be curled up on the sofa watching The Good Fight.

The answer, I think, is to carve out a chunk of time each day to go through the most pressing material: the job opportunities. Competitions can be done maybe once a week, or once every couple of weeks. But reading other writers’ blogs and news is something I’ve yet to figure out. I think what I’d like to do is set aside a half day once a week for general industry research; reading those things would slot into that time. But keeping a well-managed inbox is a challenge for most people, I think, and newsletters, while useful, are amongst the trickiest to keep on top of.

The Injustice Of The Pay-Per-Word Model

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Writers’ fees vary hugely, and the debate about how much writing is worth continues to be a hot topic with no easy answer. I set my fees based on the work a job requires, and I’m always open to discussion and negotiation with my clients, but I’m at the beginning of my career, and as such sometimes have to accept work that doesn’t pay me fairly. At the top of my list of grievances as a freelance writer is the pay-per-word model.

Pay-per-word as a concept makes me angry. I’ve done it, and I’ll continue to do it while I have to, but it makes me cross how much it devalues the art of writing. You’d never pay an artist for the number of brush strokes they used in a painting: the idea would be ridiculous. The brushstrokes are the components of something much greater, the creation of which has taken time, planning and creative energy.

Writing an article – which is the sort of piece you normally find paid for by word – takes research, planning, crafting and editing. 800 words are not quickly chosen at random and flung onto the page; they are not berries weighed in a punnet after picking. If it were that easy, then anyone could pick the 800 words – you needn’t pay a writer at all if you don’t believe any craft is required. And if you do believe that craft is required, then you should be prepared to pay for it. 800 random words can be written in maybe 15 minutes. 800 carefully chosen, well-researched words, tailored for a specific audience and purpose, and then edited and reworked for impact, cohesion and clarity might take several hours. It is not the same thing, and it makes me really angry how little writers are expected to work for under the pay-per-word model.

We don’t pay for cakes by the number of ingredients in them: we accept that talent and skill has gone into creating a whole item. The idea that a piece of writing should be any different is baffling to me, and it devalues the work that has gone into it, resulting in unfair pay and writers working for far less than they are worth.

Beyond Creative: The Physicality of Writing

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Prose is architecture, not interior decoration – Ernest Hemmingway

Above all else, what I really want to write is fiction. But part of the decision – which recognised immediately that fiction wouldn’t be the bulk of my work – to make the transition to writing full time, was my realisation that what I love about writing goes beyond the creative. I love to create. I love to craft words and weave stories. But I also love the mechanics of writing: the tapping of keys; the rearranging of words; the structuring of an efficient sentence. Admittedly without the endorphins, there’s something about the physical act of writing that satisfies the same physical urge to do as walking or running does. The satisfaction of filling a page with words and having to show, at the end of it, a job well done scratches an itch I wasn’t able to attend to in all my years in education. Certainly that comes with a huge loss – human contact, for example, and the warm glow of knowing that you’ve had a positive impact on a young life – but there’s a satisfaction in completing a writing job that I appreciate beyond creative fulfilment.

The bulk of my work is done digitally. It’s practical, it’s quicker, and it’s immediate. But I do still write by hand, particularly when I’m drafting fiction, a process I find both meditative and creative. I make more mistakes this way, but never is it intended to be the final product, and I often find it sparks something that could not have been sparked at the computer. Indeed, if I’m stuck on something, I often take myself away from the laptop for a while and scrawl out some notes with a pen to get the juices flowing.

I have to take conscious steps to be physically present in the world now that I spend my working day at my computer, but there’s no doubt to me that, in a small way, writing is a physical, albeit low energy, pursuit.

The Daily Jigsaw

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One of the first challenges I faced as a freelancer was how to structure my day. I’ve spent all of my working life, in one way or another, tied to primary school life: there have been clear start and end times, and there’s never been any flexibility. If I wanted to go for a run, I’d do it before work. If I wanted to go swimming or shopping, or pop to the bank, I’d do it after work. Now I don’t have to do that: any of those things can happen in the middle of the day, if I like. And I do like. I love an empty swimming pool or a quiet towpath, and so I’ve been structuring my day, by and large, in two shifts: I work in the morning; I have a long break in the middle of the day; and then I work again until about 7pm. It’s one of my favourite things about my new life, and if I have to go back to normal work day structure, I’ll really miss it.

I actually thought that the tricky thing about structuring my own work day would be making myself do the work. The reality is, I’m too anxious not to have a strong work ethic, and so I have no trouble with this at all… my problem is not working. I’m pretty good at making sure I have one day off a week (usually!) but rarely do I feel like I can justify more than this. Balance is something I have to strive for going forwards. It’s tricky here at the beginning of the journey though: while I’m still trying to build up work and earn enough to get by in the process, I feel that I should be working all the time. Even my big break in the middle of the day feels over-indulgent sometimes, even though I know I’m clocking enough hours throughout the day.

The other element I struggle with is balancing projects. It’s quite helpful that I have a set editing commitment Monday to Thursday, and this is a job that requires a defined amount of time. But other projects, I struggle to timetable efficiently. How much time a day should I give this project? Would it be better to spend two solid days on that one? Am I spending too much time on this job? When I was at school, if a thing didn’t get done within the working day, it would simply have to be picked up again the next day. This doesn’t always work out in my new life: now, if something doesn’t get finished in the time I put aside for it, it’s on me, and it has an impact on other projects. Luckily, my work ethic means that it’s only me that suffers when I get it wrong. I will always deliver on time. I just might miss out on an evening or have to work solidly all weekend to achieve it. I hope this is something I’ll get better at going forwards.

Apart from when it doesn’t work and I have to abandon all my plans to hit a deadline, I strive for this by implementing certain rules for myself: I have to stop by 7pm; I have to go out in the world every day; I have to exercise every day: these are the ways I protect my physical and mental health and aim to draw the line between work and life. But it doesn’t work if I haven’t balanced the projects well. Hopefully, as I move forwards, I’ll begin to get a better feel for how long a job will take me and how best to fit the pieces of the day together to complete the puzzle. But for now, this is a work in progress, and one of the biggest challenges I face as I begin my freelance journey.

Beginning at the Beginning

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It has been almost five months since I officially became a freelance writer. I say ‘officially’… I actually just accepted that this is what I’m doing, and pulled myself out of the blind panic that comes with jumping off a cliff. In September last year, I sat down at my desk and thought, Right. I’m doing this.

I have been working in education for over 15 years, writing constantly on the side. I loved working in education, and I learnt so many skills that seep into my work as a writer, but it’s time for me to try something new. It’s time for me to focus on the work I love the most: writing. I reached out to other freelance writers I know, asking for advice on how to get started. I signed up to online writing communities and newsletters, and I started listening to Hot Copy Podcast at every opportunity (a great resource for working writers). In fact, it was on the advice of Kate Toon and Belinda Weaver, who I’ve come to think of as my virtual mentors (despite the fact that neither of them know they’re mentoring me) that I decided to start a blog to track my journey.

I’d kept a blog for years, which remained, until very recently, neglected on my website. It was more of a journal than anything else, and lacked the focus I want to demonstrate. I’m hesitant to start a brand new blog at the same time as looking for work and completing projects, especially when it will show clients how close I am to the start of my journey. But every great journey starts somewhere.

I know I can write.

 I need other people to know I can write.

 I want other people to know I can write for them.

My blog is a tool – I am a highly experienced writer (just not highly experienced at making a living from it) and I need to show that. I believe in honesty and openness, and so, it is with slight trepidation that I launch Track Changes, in which I aim to share my insights, experiences and resources as I begin this terrifying journey into self-employment.

Welcome to Track Changes.