Monday, 30 November 2015

Living the Freelance Life - Part 1

Bursting the Freelance Bubble
Tree growing out of a palm full of coins

The idea of freelancing, of being your own boss, sounds great doesn’t it? To have the freedom to work when and where you choose, and how much or little you wish is a powerful incentive for the freelance life.

Yet here are some very good reasons why you shouldn’t choose it:

  • You look forward to your holidays. Because you’re working hard to keep clients happy and get their work done you have less time for regular breaks. When you’re an employee colleagues step in to take over your tasks when the annual holiday comes round. As a freelancer you have no such luxury. You’re responsible for all aspects of your business and being away from the job for any time could lose you potential work and clients.
  • You need a regular income. There's no employment contract, no regular income as a freelancer. There’s no health insurance or work place pension either, and you pay your own National Insurance and tax. If you like to be looked after by an employer and get a regular salary paid into your bank account, freelancing is not for you. As a freelancer you may get a good income for some months, for others it will be slow. When you are starting out it could even be non-existent. You’ll have to manage your own budgets and cash flow and keep your bank or other creditors happy.
  • You like people. I’m not saying a freelancer is a loner, but if you can’t do without the office banter, lunch with workmates, hourly coffee breaks and chats round the water cooler, you probably won’t like freelancing. Running your own business, especially when you start, means spending a lot of time on your own, and it does help if you’re happy in your own company (pun intended).
  • You owe money. If you have debts, perhaps a large mortgage, loans, credit cards, and a big chunk of your monthly outgoings goes towards paying them off, then it may be prudent to hold back on the freelancing ambitions. Managing money is a crucial part of being a freelancer, and if you start on the back foot in that respect, the pressure on you to succeed is going to be so much greater.
  • You like to buy stuff. If you like buying trinkets, cars, games or jewellery, and regularly eat out at expensive restaurants, then freelancing may not be for you. We freelancers are tight. We view money as a resource and managing it is one of the prime skills of the freelancer. If you take up the challenge of self-employment or freelancing, money will become more important to you. You won’t be a slave to it, because that’s not good, but it won’t be numbers on a bank statement any more. Money flows differently to and from you when you’re a freelancer. A healthy respect for it is paramount (that doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself when you’ve earned enough of it).

So why the heck would you want to be a freelancer?

Here’s the good part; you’ve read the reasons why you shouldn’t do it, and probably added some reasons of your own, but you’re still interested, even keen to get started. That’s great, because what I really wanted to tell you in this article is that the freelance life is fantastic. If you do it right, choose your business well, start relatively debt free, and are happy with your own company, then the benefits to health, wealth, personal satisfaction, and even relationships, can be enormous.

If you put in the right amount of time, research and dedication to your chosen business then you will have a rewarding time ahead. You’ll have the possibility of earning more money in a shorter time than your current job will give you. You’ll be your own boss, have the freedom to make decisions, be appreciated by your clients and be in charge of your own destiny.

In Part 2 I’ll be putting the case for the freelance life. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. As illustrated above, it’s not for everyone but if it suits you and you suit it, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Getting Writing Help from Hemingway

On-line Readability Assistance 

Now this is interesting. There's an on-line app - called Hemingway - which invites you to drop or write text into it, click the edit button, and get readability statistics for your writing.

We all know what we need to be doing to make our writing more readable - cut out the adverbs, make smaller sentences, use simpler words and phrases and so on. And there are already ways to test it out, in Word and other programs. Try going into the options for spelling and grammar and ticking the box for 'Readability Statistics'. After any spell check you then get a box indicating how 'Readable' your story is.

But because this app looks quite user friendly, and they are thinking of producing a (paid for) desktop version, I thought I'd try it out, and 'test' it against Word's version.

So I dropped in the extract from my novel that I took to my writing group last night, and here are the results:

Readability Grade 5

Paragraphs: 29
Sentences: 64
Words: 627
Characters: 2778

3 of 64 sentences are hard to read.
1 of 64 sentences are very hard to read.
4 adverbs. Aim for 10 or fewer.
1 words or phrases can be simpler.
1 uses of passive voice. Aim for13 or fewer.

The 'hard to read' stat is measuring sentence length, so my hardest to read sentence was 41 words long, which I'll agree, is a bit wordy. I pressed edit and split it into three sentences. The problem stat disappeared. Then I changed it into two. One of the sentences was still 'hard to read' - turns out the app deems all sentences over 25 words hard to read. Since it is testing readability, I can't argue with that.

With an overall grade of 5 (the site approves anything under 10), I was quite happy, particularly with the low result for the passive voice. I did the same test on the same text in Word, and here are the results:

As well as the word count etc. I got stats for 

Sentences per paragraph - 2.3
Words per sentence - 9
Characters per word - 4.1

Passive sentences - 2%
Flesch Reading Ease - 89.1
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level - 3 

You can get quite far into this readability stuff, almost to the point of obsession, but I think the main indicator of readability is the Grade Level. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level used by Word is based on this formula:

0.39 \left ( \frac{\mbox{total words}}{\mbox{total sentences}} \right ) + 11.8 \left ( \frac{\mbox{total syllables}}{\mbox{total words}} \right ) - 15.59

See what I mean about obsession? I don't know what indicator the Hemingway app uses, but In the end it's just an indicator, and it's always good to regularly test out your writing to see if it's going in the right direction.

Becoming more readable.

I would be very interested to know what results you get. Try it out, and let me know...


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Value of Silence

“When the lips are closed, then the heart begins to speak.” Sufi saying

Silence. Ah, if only you could get away from everything. Take a holiday, go walking in the mountains, cycle across a continent, if only...

That's the big problem with our modern world, especially the world of business; you’ve always got to be doing something. Whether it’s checking emails, Twitter or Facebook, looking at web stats, tweaking your website – always doing something, always busy. Busyness.

Even when not at work you are bombarded with distractions, and still can’t get any peace. Locked out from your inner self you become deflated, haggard, dejected. Yet there's no value in any of that noise unless it's counterbalanced, by silence.

It's been taught in mystical philosophies for years, the art of silence, of withdrawing into oneself through yoga or meditation. Increasing stillness, and forging that bond between silence and contemplation: thinking, contemplating, and focussing.

Look at a cat, or a dog. They know when to rest, and sit in repose. You can say, oh a person is different from a dog, but for most purposes, are we? And why have them as pets if we don't want to learn from them?

There's a mystery in silence, in contemplation, of which most people are ignorant. Yet after a great deal of stress or activity we feel we need it more – so we strive to have a holiday, to “get away from it all”. But you don't always need to get away to relax. The peace on a beach or in a hotel room is the same peace that’s always waiting inside.

Try it Yourself

So when you get home from your office or place of work today turn off all distractions, like TV, mobile and computer, and find time for yourself. Or even take part in some monotonous exercise, like running, cycling or walking – come on, we all know the activities that do us good.

Why should you do it? Because your body is whirring away doing a million different things automatically, every second of the day, and needs some respite. Listen to yourself - the body intrinsically knows what's good for it. It already knows when to breathe, how to organise the biological clock, when the heart needs to beat faster, how to eliminate toxins, deal with infection, monitor trillions of chemical processes in trillions of cells all at once without your knowledge. So give it a rest, literally, and help yourself while you do it.

Turn off those distractions, and allow yourself as little as 20 minutes a day, a couple of hours a week, to relax, meditate or exercise. With a little regular self-control, self-discipline, and self-mastery, you will begin to understand what you can really get from life.

photo credit: aturkus via photopin cc

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Why You Need Great Web Content & How To Write It

Fact: you need fresh content for your website

Great Web Content & How To Write ItWhy? Because over the last few years Google and the other search engines have changed the way they rank websites in organic (as opposed to paid) search results.

Which means they now value excellent site content above most other considerations.

Yes that's right—good, fresh, content posted regularly on your site will earn you respect with Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest, and make your site more visible to those searching for your products or services.

Which also means that practices like keyword stuffing, comment spamming, cloaking and paid links have been consigned to the dustbin of SEO time. Not only that, but using these principles will actively result in your site being penalised by search engine crawlers.

Gulp. But before you get on the phone to your webmaster and demand she takes all the back links off your site, it's also true that valid SEO practices still endure. Proper configuration of H1 and image alt tags, browser page titles (with a valid keyword placed as near to the front as possible), are all good methods for getting better page ranking.

Yet regular, informative site content in blog posts or articles is now a big part of giving your potential customers what they want.

So if great content is indeed king, how do you go about writing it?

Well, the details will of course differ depending on your business. Your story and the way you want to present it is up to you. It may be information you are giving away, or a service you want to tell people about. Perhaps you have a free offer for visitors in exchange for their email address (and subsequent inclusion on a mailing list). Whatever it is, just keep in mind when writing that your website's function is both to give your visitor what they want, and what you want them to have.

However, regardless of these details, what follows is a list of proven techniques that can be applied to any written content, to make sure the connection between you and your reader and between reader and 'sale' are maximised.

Hook them with a snappy headline

Eight out of ten people will read your headline, but only two of those will go on to read the rest of the article. So you should make your headline inviting. And it should be helpful, not funny, or quirky; leave the daft-but-entertaining straplines to the tabloids. For your purposes a good old 'How to' headline is still one of the best options. It appeals to our thirst for information and advice, and should also hint at an easy way to get it.

List type headlines are also very inviting. You know the type—'10 easy ways to lose thirty pounds' or 'Three essential tips for catching monster carp'.

Constructing a headline around a main keyword phrase is another good way of optimising content. You'll already know the search terms people will be using to find your site, but it's more important to use a keyword phrase in your headline rather than a general keyword; it makes the headline more specific and human-friendly.

Another good tip is to always write the headline before the copy (once you've determined the outline of your post or article). Devote a good slice of your time to it. Then bear the headline in mind as you write the content, keeping your words relevant to the already-hooked reader.

Also remember, two of the most powerful words for attention grabbing are 'You' and 'Free'. Two others are 'Easy' and 'Now'. Try to slip these into your headline if you can.

I'll have a lot more to say about headlines in an upcoming post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on a much-neglected aspect of writing advertising content—the introductory paragraph.

Reel in your audience with a killer intro

Your headline is the initial hook, but it's the introductory paragraph that will reel the reader further into your content. It's vital you spend as much time as possible on it.

Start with the first sentence, which should be short, perhaps even one word. Its purpose? To get the next sentence read. And the aim of the second sentence in your introduction? That's right, to get the third sentence read, and so on. If you write this part well enough, after the first 50 words your reader should be on a slippery slope of desire or emotion, well on the way to consuming your words of wisdom, or tumbling headlong towards the selling conclusion (what copywriters term the CTA, or Call To Action).

Here are a few time-tested methods to use for your opening sentences to entice readers in:
  • Pose a nagging question—your reader will want to read on and find the answer, particularly if it's a question they can relate to.
  • Start with a quote or anecdote—the reader continues to see how the quote relates to the headline.
  • Shock them with a huge and/or relevant statistic.
  • Begin with an story—a personal, business or related story is a powerful way to bind your reader emotionally into an article.
  • Conjure up a powerful mental image, something like: 'Imagine yourself lazing on a Caribbean beach, the waves lapping gently while the sun beats down on white sands...'
Once you are past the introduction and into the content itself, the most important thing is you deliver what your headline and opening have promised. Its like ordering a meal—you wouldn't ask for pasta and be happy if cod and chips arrived on the table instead!

Variety is a spice

You'll have your headline and intro in mind as you write, and the outline you planned at the very beginning. And although you have the attention of your reader by now and can start to deliver the facts and information you hinted at, it's vitally important to pay attention to your formatting.

Long swathes of words and great blocks of text look intimidating and can turn the busy browser off, however excited about your words they might be! So mix longer sentences (but no more than 12-15 words) with shorter ones. Very short ones. One word ones. Even.

Use paragraph breaks and shorten your paragraphs. Keep to one point in a paragraph, then create a new one for the next point.

And don't be afraid to highlight blocks of text or important phrases with bold or italic. The aim is to draw the reader's eye to more relevant parts of the text.

Use bullet lists to summarise or highlight—they do a good job of breaking up those blocks of text too. And how about:
  • Internal links—use them in your content to link to other posts or parts of the website, search bots love that!
  • Break up long copy with frequent subheads.
  • Deep captions are captions with up to three lines. They've been proven to work, so why not try them in your content?
  • And don't forget to use images —always try to use one at the start of your post, and for longer posts more than one. It breaks those big blocks up and keeps the reader visually interested.
Don't forget your target keywords in all this, but don't mention your main keywords in copy too many times—it's better the content reads naturally than to have it stuffed with keywords. Use one pertinent keyword in each article, with maybe four or five lesser ones sprinkled about.

And lastly, keep the copy bright and interesting. Once written, leave it for a day or two before you start proofreading and editing. It also helps to read it out loud, and as you do so begin to edit for a more conversational tone. Find and visit the best blogging sites on the web to see how they do it.
To summarise then:
  1. Put 30-50% of your effort into a potent headline.
  2. Write a killer intro, perhaps posing a question or telling a story.
  3. Keep your target keywords in mind when writing.
  4. Mix up your formatting with subheads, deep captions and images.
  5. Make use of short sentences and paragraphs.
  6. Don't forget to highlight passages or words you want the reader to pay more attention to.
  7. Bite into bullet lists.
  8. Sprinkle in some internal links.

In a Nutshell

Remember, the most important thing to do if you want to increase the SEO performance of your website is to make sure it's brimming with great well-formatted content, as well as being optimised for the keywords and phrases your customers to use to find you.

Happy writing!

©George Wicker 2014
More Tips for Better Business Writing at Wicker's Work

Saturday, 18 May 2013

What Do You Mean You Didn't Check It?

Imagine the scenario as an expensive and time-conscious marketing campaign nears its completion. The folders are printed, die-cut, assembled and laminated, the mailing house is waiting for the data spreadsheets; a team of part-time workers is standing by to insert the relevant marketing materials.

The exhibition starts on Wednesday. That’s two days. It would have been nice to get everything ready a week, two weeks earlier, but that’s business. Not possible. It's all been tight, all deadlines. Not a minute to spare. It's then you get a call from the printer first thing Monday morning. There’s a spelling mistake in the centrepiece 24-page brochure that outlines the company history. Only one mistake, it can’t matter can it?

But it does, it's the M.D.'s name. Someone has missed it, hell, a lot of people have missed it, from the copy writer to the numerous proof-readers who were asked to have a look at it, to you…

Wait, you mean you didn't look at it? It took one low paid guillotine operator trimming sheets at 8.50pm on the late shift at the printers to spot it? You can almost hear the phone ringing now–M.D, on the line–'You did check it yourself, didn’t you? Didn’t you?'

Mistakes are expensive. Campaigns are expensive. Re-runs are expensive. Last minutes deliveries are expensive, and someone has to take the blame.

Don’t let it be you!

Monday, 31 December 2012

4 Things You Must Do in 2013

This awesome and powerful universe demands we give it our best attention. So for 2013 forget impossible resolutions and boring commitments - put simply:
  • Do the job you want, not the job you're stuck with
  • Take risks, and energise the people around you
  • Don't prevaricate, procrastinate or dither - just do it!
  • And if you've written a book - publish it.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

3 Killer Ways to Improve Your Writing

Improve Your Skills as a Copywriter Imagine

Use your imagination. Whether you are a creative writer or a copywriter (or both), using your imagination is the key to grabbing the attention of your reader.

You see, we all like stories. And stories are an extension of our imagination. They help us to see ourselves in new situations, and convince us to do otherwise improbable things, like running a marathon, or leaving a salaried job and going freelance.

Recent I watched a BBC documentary about the migration of one hominid tribe from Africa 70,000 years ago, a tribe that contained the female ancestor of all European, Asian and Australasian peoples living today. Now, do you think those who set off from their homelands then did so on a whim? It must have been a powerful motive that made them take the first steps to a new and perilous beginning. I like to believe they imagined themselves in a better place, with more food, more water and improved living conditions. True, they didn't yet envisage taking over the whole of Europe and Asia, but that's what eventually happened, and their journey was the start.

Someone in that tribe was also thinking outside the box. What if? Shall we? Let's go! And he or she was a powerful persuader. Conditions must have been bad, or the story so strong, that it made moving and keeping moving a better prospect than staying put.

Well, persuasive writing is like that. You have to convince an inherently conservative person or company that your product is Asia, Europe or Australia in a box. Think you can do it? Of course you can. Just imagine...


Read a lot. You may think that reading will take up a lot of your time, time that could be better spent writing. Or networking. Or designing a landing page for your website. You couldn't be more wrong.

But if you worry about time, then give up other things. The TV should be the first to go. It's a passive medium, and it can be entertaining, but it's generally crap. If you're ill, or tired, or lonely, then fine - a couple of hours gawking at MTV or the Discovery Channel won't do any harm. Won't do any good either, but hey, there's room for indulgence in every day. And at least you can study the ads and see how they get their selling messages across. That could help your copywriting too.

The important thing is to get back to reading as soon as you can. And realise you can learn as much from bad writing as from the masters.

How do others do it? That's easy to find out. Particularly for copywriters - all of the people you need to read are online and easily accessible. I would recommend Seth Godin, Chris Brogan and Brian Clark from Copyblogger for starters. As you read more about these people and the stuff they are producing, you'll notice 3 things:
  • They are passionate
  • They work hard
  • They write a lot
In the words of one of America's master story tellers, William Faulkner: "Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."


    To take Faulkner's analogy of the carpenter further, would you expect to be able to build a cabinet by looking at a pile of planks?

    Of course not; first you would train, learn the basics of carpentry, read manuals, create small bits of furniture and practise joints.Then you'd slowly be able to build bigger pieces of furniture, experiment with techniques, eventually to create furniture in your own style.

    Well it's the same with writing. You get better at it the more you do it. And it doesn't matter what type of writing you do. Writing Tweets helps you be concise. Blog posts are all about talking to one reader and focusing on single topics. While writing a novel imparts discipline and stretches your imagination to it's limits.

    As far as writing goes, it's all good. Period.

    P.S. Why not subscribe to this blog by adding your email to my list to receive immediate notification of new posts on writing copy for web and print?