30 things I learned at #SfEP2019

  1. I need to concede my “SfEP’s Sweariest Speaker” crown to Chris Brookmyre.
  2. Most editors are not brilliant at knowing the first lines of pop songs. Which meant our team won chocolate.
  3. If you’d like to get a cheap laugh, name your quiz team “Kevin”.
  4. It in fact was possible to love Emma Darwin more than I already did.
  5. My children might respond to my attempts to correct their English with “Mate, it’s just non-standard”. Well, if I’ve brought them up right.
  6. Speed networking is some hardcore shit. All I did was yell at people to change seats and I was exhausted.
  7. Also, one-minute warnings are useless if everyone’s speed-networking too hard to pay any attention to you.
  8. Failure is good, and everybody does it. Listening to other people’s tales of failure and coming back from it is reassuring and inspiring.
  9. Emoji use is already past its peak, and David Crystal wonders if in a few years we’ll be on to the next thing.
  10. The biggest Primark in the world is insanely huge, and does not sell flip flops out of season.
  11. You should try on your dress before you pack it. Ten minutes before a three-course meal is not a good time to discover you can no longer breathe in it.
  12. A spurtle is a stick you stir porridge with.
  13. Rights and Permissions Manager at a large publishing company is absolutely a job I never want to do.
  14. Because you need to do things like get permission from buildings to publish photographs of them. (Or someone who works on behalf of the building, I imagine. Not the actual building.)
  15. I did a lightning talk (I did not. This is a very specific in-joke that precisely three people will get).
  16. Speakers should probably Google any celebrity they aren’t familiar with but are mentioning in their talks, just to make sure they’re not currently facing charges for sex crimes.
  17. People are absolutely awful at remembering to use microphones to ask questions in sessions. (In amongst all my usual flippancy, this is a really serious point. People have hearing problems, and accessibility is not an optional extra.)
  18. The SfEP is about to become the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading! But something has to happen to some vellum or something first.
  19. You can put chilli in everything if you really want it bad enough.
  20. Writing a book is a painful process. Editing can be even more so, and there is a lot editors can do to make that worse or better for their authors.
  21. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg talks in semicolons.
  22. You’re only allowed 15 “fucks” in a BBC 3 radio play.
  23. When you chat to someone online nearly every day, it’s really weird when you sit down together and work out you’ve actually only met once, two years ago.
  24. A good editor is a detective, a spy, a linguist, and a sound mixer.
  25. Welsh is really old.
  26. Tiny changes to the way you think about and respond to things can make a big difference to your working practice, and therefore your life.
  27. Also, Liz Jones makes one hell of a beautiful PowerPoint slideshow
  28. Riffat Yusuf is absolutely the person to call should you need hilarious editing-related lyrics set to the tune of “He who would valiant be”.
  29. I spend waaaaay too much time online, judging by the number of times the response to my introducing myself was “Oh, I know you from Twitter!”
  30. Editors are still absolutely the best people. Thanks for a wonderful few days. I’ll see you all in Milton Keynes for hashtag SfEP2020 actual lol!

A Very Serious Guide to Punctuation

Ah, punctuation. Where would we be without it? In run-on sentence hell, that’s where. The power of these tiny little marks in helping us to communicate effectively with our fellow human beings never fails to astound me. But also, punctuation is hard, yo.

So here is my guide to each punctuation mark:

. The full stop. Or a period, if you’re American. Or a full point, if you’re New Hart’s Rules. The full stop isn’t one of those marks that can be one thing or another, full of elegance and whimsy. The full stop knows where it’s going, and that’s at the end of a sentence. It gets its shit done.

! The exclamation mark. It also goes on the end of the sentence, but it’s a flashy little bugger. Always showing off, waving its pointy little head about, making everything seem so exciting! It’s like one of those annoying perky people who always seem to be in a good mood! If it were a person, the exclamation mark would get punched in the face a LOT.

? The question mark. This does exactly what it says on the tin. It marks a question. How dull. I guess you can also use it for sentences that aren’t technically questions? It adds uncertainty to what would otherwise be a plain statement? But maybe that’s nearly as annoying as Mr Flashy-Pants Exclamation Mark up there? And so maybe that would also earn it a punch in the face now and then?

, The comma. Commas are little bastards. Commas are the punctuation mark that teaches you that life is full of lies, that everything everyone has ever told you should be questioned and questioned again. Your teachers told you that you should put a comma where you breathe. They were lying to you, because they were trying to spare you from the ugly truth: that there are vocative commas, listing commas, parenthetical commas, Oxford commas, commas that set off introductory phrases, commas that go with independent clauses and coordinating conjunctions, commas that will make you want to die because you’re not sure whether or not it should be there. Commas do nearly as many jobs as Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig, so it’s no wonder people can’t keep track of them all.

; The semicolon. The grown-up, sophisticated punctuation mark. The Ferrero Rocher of punctuation, if you like. According to most sources, a semicolon has two uses: separating two independent but related clauses, and separating items in a list where the items already contain internal punctuation. But there’s a secret third use – making you look like a Proper Writer; one who Knows Some Shit.

: The colon. Let’s be honest: most of us could go our whole lives without really needing a colon (the punctuation mark, that is. Pretty sure you need the one in your body). Except me, apparently. I seem to quite like them. Colons introduce further information, so they’re pretty handy. But alas for the poor colon, as it is so often usurped by…

The dash. When in doubt, hoy a dash in there. This amazingly versatile punctuation mark will save your ass when you’re really not sure which one you should be using – it’s surprisingly hard to get dashes completely wrong. You should use em dashes with US English and en dashes with UK English, and you should always, always call them em/en dashes and not rules, just to really piss off the typographers.

The ellipsis. What can we say about the ellipsis…? So dramatic… So emotional… There are two things you should bear in mind about ellipses. One is that there is no one set way of styling and spacing them, no matter how hard anyone tries to argue otherwise. And the second is that if you are getting your work professionally edited, your editor will almost certainly remove at least half of them. Sorry…

“”/‘’ Quotation marks. If you’re British, quotation marks are proper confusing. We all get taught “speech marks” at school, which were double quotation marks. But at some point, at least if you’re going to work in publishing, you have to come to terms with the fact that UK books largely use single quotation marks, and they are used for many things that are not speech. This is like the commas. If you’re confused, blame your “teachers”.

the apostrophe. Apostrophes indicate contractions and show possession. The third use of the apostrophe is to sow discord in editors’ groups. Or is that editors groups? At least we can all agree it’s not editor’s groups. Unless you’re talking about one editor’s groups. Maybe you’re talking about an editors’ group’s discord. Have I made your head’s hurt?

Holiday guilt

What’s the worst part of parenting? Is it the sleepless nights? Slime stains on the carpets? Having DanTDM constantly on the TV? Or is it the guilt?

Parenting guilt is horrible. I had so much of it during my daughters’ early years – every time I had a problem with their health, or their behaviour, or their sleep, I would worry that I was doing something terribly wrong that would ruin their lives and/or turn them into awful people. It eased up a lot as they got older and I realised that most things didn’t really matter all that much and as long as you could get them to the end of the day having fed them and kept their limbs attached you could call it a win. But this week I’ve had a bit of a specific subset of parenting guilt, and that’s working-parent guilt. And an even more specific sub-subset of parenting guilt, working-from-home-parent guilt.

One of the things I love about freelance life is the flexibility to be there for my kids when they need me. I get to go to school plays, look after them when they’re ill, and take them to visit their little cousin in London every half-term. But the summer holidays present a challenge. Six weeks is a long time to have them at home, and, more importantly, it’s a long time to be earning no money. So work I must. I was fortunate enough to have a busy spring, which meant I could afford to take on only a few projects in July and August, but it still means there are days, like today, when I have to get someone else to look after my children, and I feel guilty about it.

It’s very odd. I used to work outside the home, and while I sometimes felt sad that they were off having fun without me in the holidays, I never felt particularly guilty that I couldn’t be with them. I took as much time off as I could, but at the end of the day I still had a job and was still expected to show up for it. When you work at home, it feels more like a choice. You are the one who makes the decisions about whether and when you work, so even though the work is there and it needs doing or you won’t get paid, and so it’s not much of a choice at all, it can feel as though you are choosing work over your family, and that kind of sucks. But sometimes it has to be done. I can have the best intentions of working around my kids, but if that means starting work at 9 p.m., the quality of my work is likely to suffer, and there’s every chance I might not actually find enough of those evening hours to get the work done.

So today, I’ve packed my children off to my parents, who are going to take them to the cinema. I’m sure they’re having a wonderful time – the girls adore their grandma and granddad, especially because Grandma makes cakes with them and does craft projects and lets them do all those other activities that Mammy rarely has patience for. My own memories of being looked after by my grandparents in the school holidays are so precious to me, so I know that spending a day with my parents is probably of more value to them than spending yet another one with me. But still, I have this weird guilt that I’m letting them down in some way and, of course, the guilt of asking my wonderful parents for yet another favour.

I wonder if women find this harder than men. That’s a genuine wondering – I’ve never really talked to any freelance dads about it, whereas it’s a conversation I’ve had many times with fellow mums. I think most mothers feel the pressure of work-life balance very keenly because childcare responsibilities are usually ours, so when the demarcation between home and work gets fuzzy, perhaps we are more affected by it. Or perhaps not – perhaps it always hits the work-at-home parent more.

As work-at-home parents, maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves, and stricter about the way we think about our work. Our responsibilities to our clients are important, and just because our boss is us and our office is the spare room, that doesn’t mean it’s any less crucial to show up and put the hours in. And to all the other work-at-home parents out there wondering how they’re going to get through this constant juggle of childcare and work and bored kids and purse-draining days out – hey, we’re almost a third of the way through already. We’ve got this.

The writer’s nemesis: back-cover blurbs

Writing is hard, yo. That’s why I’m forever in awe of anyone who actually manages to finish a novel. And when you’ve finished your novel, you’re still not done with the writing. Because then you’ve got to write your back-cover copy, sometimes called a blurb or a synopsis (although those two terms sometimes mean other things too, because publishing is nothing if not fricking confusing at times. I’m going to mostly stick with blurb here, because it’s shorter and I’m lazy saving my wrists from RSI.). Whatever you want to call those snappy, interesting, mind-blowing few paragraphs that are going to make readers desperate to buy your book, they’re paragraphs that have been known to make grown men and women weep with despair. Authors who can turn out epic battle scenes, sex scenes that are so hot you can’t read them in public, or magical systems that would baffle even Hermione Granger sometimes find themselves utterly at a loss when it comes to their blurbs.

It’s easy to see why. You need to inform the reader what your book is about without giving away too much. You need to evoke the world in which your story takes place without overwhelming the reader with irrelevant detail. You need to introduce your characters without taking up the whole cover with their backstories. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? And when you’ve already put so much work into the actual bloody book, this final hurdle can feel like a tough one.

So here are three tips for writing a great blurb:

  1. Write one, then delete half of it. Blurbs should be short and sweet, and authors often make the mistake of trying to tell the reader too much of what happens in the book. If they want to know what happens in the book, they need to buy it!
  2. Take inspiration from books that sell well in your genre. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel. Look at what works, then try to emulate that.
  3. Remember what a blurb is: a sales tool. You can’t write an effective blurb if you don’t bear this in mind. Blurbs are not for showing off your skills as a writer. They’re not for summarizing your story. They’re for persuading people that they want to read your book. Approach your blurb with that mindset.

Does that still sound too hard? Help is at hand! Because I’m a bit of a weirdo who actually enjoys working on blurbs, I’m now offering a back-cover blurb editing/rewriting service. Read all about it here, and get in touch if it sounds like just what you need.

 

Personal branding: you do you

People who know me or have followed me for a while probably already know that while I love editing, and I love working at home, I hate hate hate the marketing that is a vital part of running a business. Loathe and detest it with the fire of a thousand suns.

Or at least, for a long time, I thought I did. When I stopped to think about the ways in which work finds its way to me, I realised that perhaps I had actually been doing more marketing than I thought, but it was just so enjoyable I hadn’t really noticed.

Because here’s the thing – work does often find its way to me. I mean, I’ve done a few rounds of cold emailing publishers and packagers, and I answer Facebook posts looking for editors every now and again, but most of my work has come through referrals, or people stumbling across me on Facebook or Twitter. This hasn’t always happened as often as I’d like, and I know that I need to do an awful lot more work on actively marketing my business. But I’m clearly not totally invisible, so I must be doing something.

I’ve written about this before, but my approach to marketing has basically been to be me. When I first started my business, I knew I couldn’t compete on experience with the people who’ve been working in publishing since I was a baby, or have worked in top New York publishing houses on global bestsellers. So I decided not to try. So much of a successful editing relationship is about the fit between two personalities, so I decided the best thing I could do was try to show as many people as possible what my personality is.

I make a lot of jokes about Facebook and Twitter being part of my strategy, but it is actually true. I’ve spent many, many hours hanging out in groups of writers and editors, learning, taking in the knowledge, and trying to be helpful when I can. It’s been so much fun, and has had the added bonus of making me part of the community. People remember me, and people can’t point work your way if they don’t remember you.

It also helps to find a niche. Mine happens to be swearing, so much so that people tag or mention me in almost every conversation about it in the Facebook groups I’m in. Sometimes I do wonder if that’s all people think I’m capable of, but if they do, they can fuck off. And at least they’re thinking something about me, right?

This blog supports my “personal branding” approach too – content marketing wisdom says that blogging should be about increasing your visibility to potential clients, so you can answer their questions and they can find you. Some of my posts, such as my recent self-editing series, are aimed at that, but not all, and that’s not my blog’s primary function. It’s about showing people who I am, reminding people I’m here, and entertaining and reassuring my colleagues, particularly those who are on a similar journey to me (that’s the idea, anyway. Not sure it is always quite as hilarious and wise as I naturally am AT ALL TIMES). Maybe this approach isn’t all that great for SEO, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in it.

I don’t want anyone to think the reason I connect with people is pure cynical strategy. It’s not (and I think anyone who saw the Great Twitter Cake War understands this. Cake is far more serious a matter than mere business strategy). I love getting to know people. It is its own reward. I like to be part of a community, so I don’t feel isolated, so I have people to turn to for advice, and so I can provide that for other people. But, if you do all that with sincerity, it will, most probably, lead to opportunities. And being sincere is the key. If you approach social networking with a pure strategy brain, it will backfire. People will see through you. But if you are honest, and helpful, and supportive, and kind (except to people who believe in the superiority of fruit cake), and YOURSELF, you begin, quite organically, to build a brand that people remember. Even if it’s “that one who swears a lot”.

Outsourcing

I took a pretty huge step this week and started working with a business coach. The main reason this is a huge step for me is that I really dislike parting with money. So what’s one of the first things my coach talks to me about? Outsourcing.

Yes, apparently one of the secrets of success is to identify all the things you don’t like or don’t need to do yourself and pay someone else to do them, freeing you up to do more paid work. The thought of paying out yet more money to more people does give me the heebie-jeebies, I’ll admit. But then it occurred to me that by working with her, I am outsourcing something I really need to outsource.

When my coach was talking about outsourcing, she mentioned things like marketing and admin. Now, we all know I am not exactly in love with this marketing thing, but the marketing I have managed to get to grips with is social media networking (which is the fancy name for pissing about on Twitter and Facebook). But the thing about that is that it’s obviously a very personal thing. That’s un-outsourceable. Same goes for this blog. There are plenty of very talented copywriters out there who can write blog posts, but my blog has always been about sharing my own thoughts in my own way. I can’t hand that over to anyone else and remain authentic.

As for admin, I worked in admin for over a decade. I actually love the bits of my job that let me faff around with spreadsheets and filing systems. Developing admin processes that are efficient and easy was pretty much what I spent my whole arts career doing, so that side of self-employment has never felt too onerous to handle myself.

So what do I need to outsource? Well, the great thing about running a business is that you get to be your own boss. And the difficult thing about running a business is that you have to be your own boss. Many people are quick to associate bosses with oppressiveness, with a controlling, authoritarian presence that stops you doing what you want to do. But that’s not the only things bosses are. A good boss is more than the person who tells you what to do and when. They’re the person who looks out for you, who helps you figure out what you want from your job and how you can get it. They help you find opportunities for you to develop your career, and push you to improve and grow. They support and encourage you when things aren’t going so well.

I was blessed with some brilliant bosses in my former career. My new one, well, she’s a bit shit at times. She doesn’t always believe in me, and she tends to be a bit too gentle on me when I don’t feel like stepping out of my comfort zone.

I can be my own accountant. I can be my own marketing department. But actually, what I really need help with, what I really need to outsource at this point in my career, is being my own boss. I need someone to help me identify my goals and the steps I need to take to get there. And, crucially, I need someone to notice and care when I’m not taking those steps, and tell me off for it.

So I’ve hired someone to do those bits of bossing for me. I’m not abdicating responsibility for myself and my business (and I highly doubt my coach would let me!), but I am recognising that I need a bit of a push. I’m hoping it will be the start of good things. And maybe one day I’ll be so busy and financially successful that I will hire someone to write these blog posts for me instead of just doing my usual brain-blurts. I bet you’re all looking forward to that.

You don’t have to blog

My last post was about not blogging, and hey, guess what? So’s this one. This is probably not a very good blog post for me to write, but I’m going to do it anyway.

I have some news for you.

You don’t have to blog.

This is probably not really news to anyone. But perhaps it is news to you. I know I’ve read countless things that say that if you’re going to have a blog, it needs to be updated regularly, and you need to focus relentlessly on what your potential customers want to read, and yadda yadda yadda. I’m not saying that’s not good advice, because really, you should do this, if your blog is supposed to be part of an effective content marketing strategy.

It’s also true that if you run a business, marketing is part of your job and you have to put time and effort into it if you want your business to succeed. I am very good at making excuses not to do this, because I love editing but hate marketing, which is why this probably isn’t a very responsible blog post for me to write.

But still. You don’t have to blog.

Is it better to blog regularly than not, from a marketing perspective? Sure it is. The more quality content you put out there, the more likely people are to find you and hire you. If you have a blog, you should carve out time in your week to work on it. But here’s the thing. Sometimes there just isn’t time.

As well as running a freelance editing business, I’m trying to run a home with two children under ten in it. I’ve just organised a conference. I’m a member of the school’s PTA. I have a husband I like to talk to now and then. I have, in short, a life. And I have editing work, and sometimes my deadlines are hellish. And sometimes, when all those things are piling on me, as they have been recently, the guilt of not blogging sits on top of them, making me feel terrible.

So I tell myself this: you don’t have to blog.

Not blogging, if having a blog is part of your marketing plan, is bad. But there are things that are worse.

Getting RSI or a migraine because you haven’t taken long enough away from your computer is worse.

Not eating lunch for three days straight because you don’t have any goddamn time is worse.

Doing a sloppy job for a client and then losing that client because you rushed through the work is worse.

Barely seeing your children’s faces except when it’s to yell at them for disturbing you is worse.

I’m not saying that when you’re busy you shouldn’t worry about doing marketing. But I’m also not entirely not saying that either. There are only so many hours in the day, and there is only so much any of us can give to our work before it becomes detrimental to our lives. Nobody can be a perfect business owner all the time, especially if you have other responsibilities. Priorities have to shift, and something has to give. Let that be the least critical thing. At times, that’s going to be your blog. Accept that, don’t let the guilt be one more thing taking your energy, and make a firm plan to address the problem when the storm of busy passes.

And there are things you can do to address it. Jot down ideas for blog posts whenever they come to you. When you have time, flesh out those ideas into drafts, so that next time you hit a pressure point you have something more than a blank page to start from. Ask colleagues if they’d like to guest blog for you sometime. And while you are busy, you can still squeeze in smaller marketing tasks – posting quickly on social media or forums, sending out a quick email to past or prospective clients. I must stress again – I’m not saying it’s OK to opt out of marketing your business.

But your blog, and your business, will survive being temporarily neglected. Your clients, and your mental, physical and emotional well-being may not fare so well. Your blog may be an asset, but your business’s biggest asset is you. Look after it.