Do less, better: Seclusion and society in the new normal

Are you surprised to find that coming out of lockdown presents just as much cause for uncertainty as entering into it? It’s little wonder. We have all endured our own private journeys, and we are yet to find out not only what the new world looks like but the person we will be within it.

2020 was a watershed moment. We hitherto existed in a world typified by action. Even if at times that action was passive in nature – scrolling, browsing, consuming – there is no doubt we have been expected to be on.

And the constant struggle with on-ness hasn’t dissipated, even as 35.9% have been forced out of their offices and 11.2 million people have been furloughed. The state of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott understood it (Josh Cohen, Not Working. Granta, 2018, p. 80), is ingrained into us. Very rarely do we ever just stop.

But over the last year we have been extended a rare opportunity to at least sample it. While work may still attempt to go on, and while many are in fact busier than ever, there’s never been a time in living memory where so much of the world’s machinery has ground to a halt. Of course, the great pain and salvation of the modern era is that we can move much of this action into the 24/7 online realm. Though many of us are now fully fledged ‘digital nomads’, we are still hyperconnected like never before.

Yet physically, we don’t need to be here or there. We have been permitted to sink into our (perhaps natural) slovenly states unapologetically. And to such a degree that, now as we prepare to walk out into the new horizon, many are expressing a fear about having to step up to their former energy levels which were perhaps always out of balance for them.

It’s not uncommon to hear people on radio phone-ins, read columnists or observe others expressing the revelation that quite frankly they enjoyed having an excuse not to ‘do’. Not to see people, not to have to attend events or go out for dinner or drinks every night. Even those things we might genuinely enjoy can become onerous under expectation.

For all its cruelties, the pandemic has given us a great opportunity to journey inwards, explore our relationships with ourselves and with others, and in turn we have developed more tolerance for sensitivity than ever before. We recognise the struggles in others because they are the ones we are facing; though all of our circumstances may be different, they are all fundamentally the same: that of the fragmented, messy, vulnerable human seeking something stable.

Could it be that the thing we are actually scared of losing is that mutual unspoken level of compassion that has prevailed? Are we afraid that we will have to resort to making excuses for why we choose to say ‘no’ because the truth – that we simply don’t want to – isn’t good enough?

Malaise has been the symptom of 2020-21’s enforced lockdowns, but perhaps it’s just the human condition. Perhaps more times than not we simply don’t want to do but rather be, because ‘being’ allows us a chance to listen to and sit with our warring inner selves rather than trying to mask them by constantly leaving the house and throwing ourselves into the midst of distracting activity.

The stability we have always sought has often been projected onto the exterior: the comforting familiarity of jobs, shopping, events, holidays. But lockdown has allowed us to try finding it inside ourselves – even while our internal selves are inevitably in chaos.

My own experience with the solitude induced by the pandemic was at first a joy at having more time on my hands, which I promptly squandered. Then it was fluctuating periods of restlessness and relaxation. Halfway through the third stint I was scratching at the walls. It was the crisis point of my own lockdown narrative, where even though I had always been happy to spend time alone, the truth of who I was and what I am truly afraid of was unmistakable; I had to face up to the only other person I was incarcerated with: myself.

In such a state, it’s hard to truly internalise the fact that resolution must inevitably come, even if you know it to be logically true. Nothing lasts – not pain nor happiness; only change is certain, and the coorindates of that are never fixed. Getting the heart on board that good times will again come is difficult because it means having to cycle through your internal judgements and fears all the same. There is no shortcut to resolution. No one to hold your hand through the fire you must inevitably pass through. But that is what makes solitude a transformative process.

Some of those still not finished with the solitude that the pandemic had to deal out are finding themselves reassessing their life choices. Should they change jobs to enjoy more of a work-life balance, or become a nomad and travel the world? Along the faultlines of any major upheaval, at the brink of life and death, we are forced to challenge our notions of what success – or rather meaning – is in life. Is it working 40+ hours a week? Climbing the career ladder? Raising a family or rather raising a family in your mind, nurturing your own private passions so that you cultivate within yourself a place of support? Perhaps meaning goes beyond you and yours and extends to doing what you can for others who can’t help themselves?

It’s perhaps fitting that the film Nomadland – a work of fiction yet starring real-life nomads and their stories – has already garnered a large swathe of media attention at such a time. It offers us the opportunity to slip into a role we really wish we could inhabit. We’ve already glimpsed behind the curtain this last year, now many want to see more.

Nomads and hermits – those quietly existing on the fringes of society – have always fascinated me. Though not subscribing to any religion, the pathway of a nun or monk has always appealed to me, living a life of solitude, marked by their devotion to something higher than themselves.

Of course, while this seems noble, in laypersons a desire to live a secluded life on one’s own terms is often considered selfish and viewed with suspicion. But I believe the desire to stop, to simply retreat into the self and find comfort there in bed with our own contradictions, very soon morphs into a reflection on the bigger issues that otherwise don’t seem worthy of our time and attention – until of course we find ourselves at the end of our road. It’s no wonder some of the biggest contributions to our culture come from some of the biggest idlers of all time – Charles Bukowski, Albert Einstein, John Lennon.

Time for oneself gives rise to reflection which in turn gives rise to a greater desire to live in harmony with our environment, greater personal responsibility and compassion for the human condition and all of its failures.

A recent BBC 4 documentary, Brotherhood, exploring the lives of monks at Leicestershire’s Mount St Bernard Abbey beautifully illustrated the push/pull of doing and being. Much of the monk’s day is spent in prayer and also finding ways to raise money (in this instance creating a Trappist brewery on site to replace their non-profit making dairy farm) – but it is also spent in a relative state of physical inertia. Much of the doing takes place internally.

I was minded by the words of one of the elder monks who said, ‘living in the presence of God, I don’t say prayers anymore. My life is a prayer.’ It’s an ethos that for me summarises the sweet spot between doing and being. If you can dedicate your life and behaviour to compassion, not fighting – to simply being who you are – then you reach a point where you no longer need to strive, you embody it, you are in perpetual internal communion with yourself and therefore the world around you. This spiritual recompense feels more profitable and fundamental than, say, defining your life as striving to pay off a mortgage.

It’s not that those who want to hang on to solitude that bit longer wish to remove themselves from society. Far from it, I believe more often than not they want to feel more at ease within it rather than simply ground down by it. Monks spend a lot of time alone, but in a cloister with their brethren, underpinned by the presence of God. Community is just as vital as solitude. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Monty Python sketch of the community of hermits living only paces away from each other and willingly engaging in ‘idle chitchat’. We don’t wish to renounce others, simply to have more time for ourselves to do the things that build us up rather than deplete us.

So, as we begin to rebuild a society for the future, in whose image will we make it – and ourselves? Will we decide to stay loyal to our always-on culture, or will we give ourselves more time to hold hands with the people we know we are within?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Between authorship and readership: the British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition

It’s fair to say the Harry Potter books were something of a success. And what greater honour to be attributed them than to be the subject of an exhibition at the British Library – next door to the inspiration for Platform 9 ¾, and within one mile of the publishing house that finally gave one JK Rowling a shot. When you think about it, it all seems the natural conclusion to a most spectacular story.

Despite it being two decades since Potter first made waves, wandering (or rather crawling, as is the pace set by the hordes of visitors) round the exhibition brings the magic to life once again, more than ten years after the publication of the final instalment.

What made it all the more real for me was that the exhibition seemed not just an indulgence of the series’ many fans but a more holistic exploration of the book’s origins and evolution. Some of the most illuminating aspects were how this exhibition exposed not just the writer’s process but the book’s assumption to a station wholly distinct from reader and author’s influence.

Greeting the visitors on arrival is the typed synopsis – a piece in which the vacancy of expectation is palpable. It is pared back and somewhat mundane, and brings home that feeling of a writer’s worst nightmare – having to translate into cold, hard seriffed characters the work of five years’ worth of dreaming, slog and ‘snatched’ hours, as Rowling later tells it.

Any writer who has ever pursued a book deal knows the agony of writing a synopsis – the condensed, marketable form of the very thing you’ve spent years crafting just as it is. For a writer, the aim is to make a novel good enough to sell itself. Still, for the time-poor publisher that handy introduction is a necessary evil. And you can feel a kind of absence – or naivety – in Rowling’s.

The synopsis is one of the most telling pieces from the collection for me and it beautifully bookends the exhibit along with one of the very last pieces on display – the annotated first edition of the Philosopher’s Stone which was auctioned off for charity.

On the very first page of this edition, Rowling makes it clear that, try as she might, she will never be able to explain the real magic that came about in the penning of this novel. It’s a neat way of closing the exhibition and speaks volumes about the writing process. That no matter how momentous a book, no matter how many readers’ lives it touches, a part of it remains always with the author.

In her biro’d notes she writes that for all the memories she can insert in between the lines, the act is in the end futile because the story of the book’s creation is actually written into every page, yet legible only to her. This solitary piece of possession, or retention, is perhaps important for her to assert when it comes to a book that has been subject to so many adaptations, imaginings, illustrations and interpretations. The truly bewitching thing about memory and writing, after all, is that it reveals itself in different guises over and over. With every turn of the page no doubt a new recollection is uncovered.

Curiously, on the morning of my visit to the exhibition, an interesting discussion was taking place on Radio 4’s Start the Week as I gathered my belongings in the basement of the King’s Cross Travelodge. As the show’s guests delved into the nuances of the brain and personality, they spoke about how the process of recollection is really only a recall of the last time we remembered that specific event. And that with each visit to the memory vaults we shape our recollections once more before filing them away again. Memories are also considered to have a stronger, longer lasting impact when they’re first lived as emotional experiences.

No doubt the upheaval of plotting and writing a series as big as Harry Potter culminated in many emotional memories for Rowling, not least as she battled through 12 rejection slips, living in penury, raising a young family and the death of her mother. But by this token, even the history of its writing, those indelible memories etched into the page and visible only to her, are changeable shapeshifters. At the end of the day, the only thing which endures is that set out in black ink on recycled wood pulp.

After I first read a Harry Potter book I was enchanted, like most. But I was never one of the most ardent fans. I found it enjoyable, more so as the series gathered in intensity, and it proved to be a communal point of interest amongst friends.

Journeying through the exhibition, however, I appreciated the books so much more. The richness of Rowling’s reservoir of inspiration was awe-inspiring, and it taught me far more about magic in the wider context of literature and culture, not to mention the depth of research she put into the books, than I could have known before.

The inclusion of a few original MS attempts that dead-ended (such as the alternative beginning and many cut scenes) only served to magnify how distanced the reader will always be from the author’s process. In terms of understanding the process of story concept to magnum opus, it’s the equivalent of shining a laser beam on the Sistine Chapel.

And, then again, vice versa.

As the annotations on the first page of that private lender’s copy show, the author doesn’t hold all the cards and, for most writers, it is mere fluke knowing what will or won’t strike a chord with the readership. As Rowling points out, most people tell her they didn’t like the first chapter, and that they had to persevere with it to get to the real meat of the story. It turns out, even the things we most want to share can be the hardest hurdles to clear. But it isn’t impossible. It’s difficult to remember whether I was in that boat when I first cracked the spine on the Philosopher’s Stone way back in the late 90s. But then again, I was reluctant to enjoy the books at all and eventually read them just to quiet a friend. But, somehow, something magical happened…

Could a proofreader stand between you and success?

When the words have to be perfect, it’s always worthwhile getting another pair of eyes to look over your work.

Hiring a proofreader could be just what you need to ensure that important document or piece of copy is error-free and ready to go.

Many people hire the services of a freelance proofreader or copyeditor. They include:

Writers, editors and publishing houses who want to ensure their articles and books carry authority

Authors and self-publishers who don’t want readers distracted by mistakes in their novels or eBooks

Students who want their academic essays, dissertations, research proposals and funding applications to be successful

Businesses looking for someone to double-check for potentially costly errors in their adverts, policy handbooks, website content and brochure copy

Job-seekers eager to make a professional impression with their CV, resume and/or cover letter

What does a proofreader do?

A proofreader will go through your work and check for mistakes that would compromise the quality of your work. Typically these include spelling and grammar errors. They can also check for things like consistency and formatting, for example, UK vs US spelling, capitalisation and favoured uses of punctuation.

The difference between a copyeditor and a proofreader

You might be struggling to put together a document, content for a website or even advertising copy. Perhaps you’re not sure which are the right words to use or you have the loose structure but it just isn’t quite how you want it to be. You might want someone to check it through and refine the wording to make it read more fluidly and better clarify your meaning.

If any of these apply, then you need a copyeditor.

You could also employ a copyeditor to perform a rewrite, which is a more comprehensive form of copyediting. A rewrite is recommended if you have a piece of copy that you want making unique (i.e. for SEO purposes) or if English isn’t your first language and you want someone with a good grasp of the language to improve the flow and accuracy.

As a rule of thumb, proofreading is cheaper than copyediting, and copyediting is cheaper than rewriting. However, it all depends on the word length of the document, the amount of time involved and the number of changes.

Hire me to proofread your words to perfection

Whether you have a web page, feature, academic essay or eBook you want to be proofed, you can hire me as your freelance proofreader. I work for an academic publishing house as well as a commercial copywriter, so you can rest assured you’re getting a quality service.

Contact me now for a free consultation.

How to get your first copywriting clients

When you start copywriting, getting your first clients can seem like a daunting task.

After all, you’re putting yourself out there where plenty have been before. So what makes you different? That’s an important question to answer as soon as you can because it is what will help define and sell your services.

However, answering that at the start of your career – when you just need a little experience – is probably impossible. You won’t know what you enjoy writing about, and what you’re good at writing about, until you start.

So here are some tips to help you.

  1. Join a content mill

Yes, they’re woefully underpaid. But if you have zero experience and can afford to spend a few months working for next to nothing, then it’s a good idea. I wrote about content mills in a previous post, so I recommend reading that first.

  1. Tap up your contacts

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+… all these avenues are reeling with potential clients. Get your CV up to scratch and delete those personal photos. Now start linking to your blog posts/articles regularly and make it known you’re looking for new clients.

Former companies you’ve worked for might also be willing to offer you a job writing the odd piece of copy for them. If you worked there for a while, showed real initiative and left on good terms, why not drop an email to your ex-boss asking if they need someone who knows the business to write a press release?

  1. Scour the internet

You need to spend a lot of hours scouring the internet, so get good at thinking up search terms that can pinpoint you to a repository of freelance jobs. Some job board sites include Work in Startups, Network Freelance, Blogging Pro and Glassdoor. Small-scale publishers, Gum Tree or Student Gems (which you can use if you’ve graduated within the last 3 years) are also great unknown places. You’d be surprised how many businesses list their odd copywriting jobs on there.

  1. Networking events

Search your local area for groups of likeminded people and their latest talks or events. Or groups of professionals in an industry that you want to start writing for. MeetUp is a great site to show you what relevant groups are getting together and holding events around you. Go armed with business cards and the intention to meet as many people as possible to spread your word.

  1. Send out a press release

The media is a great way to get your message across, but the press will only publish your release if it is relevant and interesting. The fact that you’ve gone into self-employment isn’t exactly newsworthy. But perhaps your new job is a million miles from what you used to do. Or maybe you worked in a particular industry for ten years, making you something of a specialist? A magazine in that industry might be interested in publishing your release.

Other angles include offering an incentive, such as money off for new customers or a free trial for the first 5 local businesses who get in touch. Make sure it’s well-written and concise before sending it to local press, trade press and relevant bloggers.

  1. Send out a sales letter

Do you live and work in an area with plenty of independent businesses? They too have a product to sell, and they need help doing that. Craft the perfect sales letter and send it to a list of say 50 businesses. Remember to follow up a week or two later, and try to do it in a memorable way so that it doesn’t get lobbed out with the junk mail, as per this example!

  1. Leave a trail

You’d be surprised by the effect of simply dropping information about yourself. Eventually, someone will call. Physically, a trail might be business cards you leave in venues, pin to noticeboards and hand out at networking events.

Online, this trail could be profiles you set up with different websites. Consider posting a profile on freelance bidding sites such as Elance and Freelancer with links back to you (although I wouldn’t use these sites to get your actual first job). Social media, online copywriting networks and portfolio websites – the more, the better. Try to keep them up to date with your experience and contact details. That is if you can remember where you’ve dropped all your crumbs!

  1. Go free

I know, I know, you need to eat! But if you’ve tried all 7 steps (and I mean really, really tried) and still have no joy? Then find a few worthy causes in your area. Charities, community groups, people who need your services but can’t necessarily afford them. Be honest and say you’re looking for exposure and experience. Offer to write them the occasional blog post, an advert or press release (for free) and you’re on your way to building your portfolio.

You can bet they will tell everyone they know because good deeds do not go unremarked in this day and age! They might even find their own way to reward you. Cake, anyone?

Finding your first copywriting client isn’t the easiest thing, but it’s so rewarding when it works.

How did I do it? A combination of content mills while studying, writing for my old employer, landing a job through Student Gems and writing for free for many publications. But it takes time, especially if you’re not going full-time freelance straight away.

But remember. What many copywriters don’t tell you is that there is also no definite end point. We are all – me included – still on the journey to gaining new and more diverse clients. So it’s important to regularly target new clients through these methods, otherwise your business will stall.

Have you found a better way to land your first copywriting client? Send me a message or leave a comment and let us know how.


9 tips to organise your time

If you’ve just turned freelance, managing your own workload after being office-bound can be scary. Here’s 9 tips to organise your time:

  1. Make lists

Start by jotting down everything you need to do and put it in priority order. That includes both business and personal engagements. The bonus of working from home is being able to shuffle your day. Making lists helps you identify the pockets of time when you will be able to work at your best.

  1. Have a system

Whether that’s Outlook, your phone’s calendar, a scribbled timetable in a notebook or a project management web platform like Trello – break down the day into sections so you literally have an hourly itinerary.

  1. Eat a frog

Mark Twain once wrote, “If you eat a frog first thing in the morning that will probably be the worst thing you do all day.”

Brian Tracy took this idea and wrote a book on how to stop procrastinating – by eating a frog (that thing you’ve been putting off) first thing. That email you’ve been putting off or all those invoices you’ve been meaning to input… Simply set aside an hour and get them all done together. Then you can clear those reminders off your phone and get on with the day!

  1. Variety is the spice of life

Mix up your schedule. Plan time for your own blog activities, any distance-learning courses, exercise, and hobbies etc. I break the day into 2 or 3-hour slots and ensure there is variety throughout the day so that my work doesn’t suffer. Try to schedule time for that big project that’s been on the back burner. If you don’t make a start now, when will you? Spending just one hour a week on it will help you feel more in control.

  1. Take a day off!

Always try to keep 2 days a week free. Freelancers are notorious for working non-stop. When I first started freelancing, I worked almost non-stop for 3 months. Now when work comes in I negotiate deadlines with the client accounting for the fact that I always take Saturday and Sunday for myself.

  1. Take stock

Use the end of the working week to take stock of your progress and what you’re going to achieve next week. I do this on Friday evening. It helps wind things up nicely and means I don’t stress over the weekend because I already have a well thought out POA for Monday. Goals to think about might include scheduling time for that ongoing project or approaching a new publication/client.

  1. Change the scenery

For all its perks, working from home can turn you into a hermit. Why not pinpoint one or two days a week to work outside of the house? I work in cafes and occasionally pubs (only toward the end of the day!) This helps remind you that you’re still a functioning member of society and can provide a valuable source of inspiration.

  1. Use affirmations

Get distracted easily? Devise an affirmation that you can tell yourself every time you sit down to work. It might sound lame but this actually works.

If you tell yourself you’re going to work through without being distracted in order to maximise your time, it acts as an instruction to your brain. When you find yourself absent-mindedly reaching for the internet browser, repeat the affirmation and get back to the job in hand. There’ll be plenty of time for browsing after you’re done.

  1. Get out

If the ideas still aren’t flowing or you find yourself distracted regularly, it’s probably a sign to take a break. Get outside and take a walk round the park, or if it’s raining bake a cake. Do something to take your mind off it. When you come back you’ll be refreshed – it works!

Got your own tips for organising your time effectively while freelancing? Post a comment and share with the world!