The Blog

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Six Recommended Reads

I’ve read some great books so far this year. Here are my six favourites: all highly recommended.

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

This is a great book and I got to meet the author at a York Literature Festival event last month. She was lovely, which is obviously a bonus.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

There’s a reason this book has been everywhere over the last six months. It’s beautifully written and brilliantly weird!

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

So far I’ve recommended this book to clients, friends and family members. Now I’m recommending it to you! It’s part mystery, part thriller and part a valuable insight into Dementia.

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson

A non-fiction book made my list! I read this primarily for research purposes, but found it absolutely fascinating.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

I interviewed Carys Bray for a feature I wrote for Mslexia last year, so I was thrilled when my book club chose to read this. I’m not sure how a book that’s so sad can be so heartwarming, but Bray has somehow pulled it off.

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

It took me a really long time to get into this. That’s not an exaggeration; it sat a quarter read on my bedside table for a year before I picked it up again a few weeks ago. This time something clicked and I rushed through the rest of it. Michaels is a poet and the language of this novel is amazingly rich and detailed. It was worth the wait!

What have you been reading recently? I’d love to hear your recommendations! (Although, they may have to wait a while considering the current state of my to read pile…)

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A Little Tip on Passive Voice

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued a fiction manuscript. Last week I edited a short biography for a catalogue entry. The two pieces of writing were different in pretty much every way except one: they both used passive voice.

Passive voice is something I come across regularly. It’s a style of writing that focuses on the action instead of the subject. Here’s an example:

Active voice: I closed the door.

Passive voice: The door was closed.

This is a very basic example, but I bet it give you a sense of why passive voice is often best avoided (especially in sales copy). Put simply: passive voice makes it harder for the reader to connect to the key person/object that’s being written about.

This is important because:

1. The reader is less likely to get excited.

2. The reader is less likely to emphasise.

3. The reader is less likely to feel part of the action.

4. The reader is more likely to get bored.

5. The reader is more likely to get confused and give up.

Of course there are exceptions (there are always exceptions!) and sometimes there’s a very good reason to use passive voice. However, I’ve found that many people resort to using passive voice only because they’re trying to avoid using ‘I’ or ‘We’ at the start of every sentence. This is particularly common in biographies (like the one I was editing for the catalogue) and about pages.

If your website copy feels a bit flat, this might be why. I’d suggest you take a close look at it and see if switching your sentences around to the active voice could give your website more energy.

After all, sometimes a really small change can make a big difference.

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Round Up: March 2015

A few highlights from my month;

  • Turning 27 (today!)
  • Spotting daffodils popping up all over the city.
  • Starting to blog about what freelancing looks like for me post-baby.
  • Having fun writing fiction for little people.
  • Sharing four tips for beating the blank page and getting started with a writing project.
  • Celebrating my first ever Mother’s Day.
  • Making plans for training events later on in the year.
  • Starting work with a handful of new clients.

A few highlights from around the web;

How’s your March been?

*header photo by fourthandfifteen on Flickr.

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Freelancing Post-Baby; Part One

I’ve been promising a blog post about my working life post-baby for a while now. This is a big topic and not one that I’ll be able to cover in one post. It’s also an ever-changing process; what’s working this week may not be working next week…

I ‘returned to work’ when my daughter was a couple of weeks old. I say ‘returned to work’ in inverted commas because my working life post-baby has little resemblance to my working life before she arrived.

For me, this feels like a very good thing. I love that I have the freedom to spend all day with my daughter and keep working in a job I enjoy. I don’t have to make any tricky decisions about returning to a job outside of my home, and I don’t have to enrol her in nursery unless I want to. Of course, being a work-from-home-mum is not an easy option and it requires a whole lot of organisation to fit everything in. For me, it’s worth it.

Let me state this part clearly: I work far fewer hours now than I used to. I don’t get up at a silly time in the morning (well, I often do, but that’s just because I have a baby) and I don’t spend my whole evening working. I’ve found a routine that fits at the moment, and I’m letting that routine guide how much work I take on, not the other way round.

One of the things I thought a lot about before the little one arrived was how I would distinguish between working time and non-working time. Pre-baby this was easy, I was generally working between the hours of around 10-4 and not working outside of those hours. Now things are a little blurrier and my working hours shift from day to day (generally depending on nap time). I didn’t want to be in a situation that when I was sat at my desk I felt like I should be playing with the little one and when I was playing with her I felt like I should be at my desk.

So, in came the block system. In a normal working day I do two working blocks. These can be anything from an hour to two and a half hours long. I start these blocks during nap time and on a good day I finish them when nap time ends. Often this doesn’t work out quite so conveniently(!) and when the little one wakes up early she plays in the office with me until I reach a stopping point.

The block system is good because it means I’m not constantly nipping back to my desk to finish things off through the day. It also gives me more separation between work and play; once I’ve finished a working block I feel no guilt about the work I’m not doing until I get back to my desk and start the next one. It’s manageable (I’m not trying to fit a ridiculous amount of work into the day) and flexible (I can do the two blocks at any time; if I don’t get both done during the day I can fit one in after Mr M gets home). Most importantly, this system leaves us plenty of time to fit in other activities and get out of the house together.

Freelancing with a baby is definitely do-able, but you need to have a flexible routine!

 

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Four Writing Tricks to Help You Beat the Blank Page

Many people I speak to about writing (whether we’re talking about blog posts, PDF guides or novels) find that starting is the hardest part. I can see where they’re coming from. It can be extremely daunting to begin, especially when you strongly suspect that those words won’t be good enough. But here’s the thing: you just need to start.

There’s a line about writing that I find myself quoting often: ‘the enemy is not the badly written page; it is the empty page.’ After all, a badly written page can be edited into something better. An empty page will always be empty.

When I have these conversations, I get the feeling people are hoping I’ll pass on some kind of industry secret. Trouble is, there is no secret. The only way to produce written content is to sit down and get on with it. There are, however, a few ways that I like to trick my mind into getting those all-important first few words down.

Here are some of the techniques I find helpful.

Start on paper

Perhaps this will work for you, perhaps it won’t, but I often find it easier to get started on paper than I do on a screen. Any writing you do on paper can be rough, scribbled over and crossed out. Though you can, of course, get rid of any writing you do on a screen too, there’s something about working on paper that feels less formal.

Note down your headings first

A blank page can be frightening. If you know the basic outline of what you’re working on, writing down the headings first can be a great way to cover up the blank page and convince yourself that all you’re doing is ‘filling in the blanks.’ I do this a lot when I’m working on blog posts. In fact, I did it for this one!

Get it out in bullet point form

Sometimes it’s hard to get started because you have so much to say that you don’t know what to share first. In these cases it can be helpful to jot down all your ideas as bullet points. That way you don’t need to worry about forgetting to include any of your thoughts as they’re all there already. You’ll also be able to play around with the structure on the page rather than trying to do it in your head. (Which, trust me, is much harder!)

Write ‘badly’ on purpose

First drafts are often unrecognisable from the finished product. That’s okay. If you’re worried about writing something bad, why not give yourself permission to do exactly that? Doing this can take away a lot of the pressure you’re feeling and give you the freedom to create a rough draft. Once you have that draft, give yourself a bit of time away from it then come back and start editing. Bonus: often when you come back you’ll find the ‘bad’ draft is considerably better than you expected.

Do you have any other tricks like these? I’d love to hear them if you do!

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My Favourite Piece of Creativity Advice

There’s a lot of creativity advice out in the world. Most of it is either too general or too weirdly specific to be of much use. There is one piece of advice, however, that works. I imagine you’ve heard this piece of advice over and over again, so much so that you probably don’t really register it anymore.

That advice? Your most creative thinking will happen away from your workspace.

You see: there’s an awful lot of truth in this. Hardly anyone has big ideas sat at their desk. I know I don’t. Whether I’m looking for brand new inspiration or a creative solution to a piece-in-progress, I don’t expect it to come to me when I’m sat tapping away at my laptop.

The of-course-that’s-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that-before ideas and the wow-perhaps-I’m-a-genius ideas come when you’re doing something else. Where they’ll come is unique to you. Some people find they come when they’re doing manual tasks that keep their hands busy but leave their brains idle. Some people find their creative minds work best when they’re exercising. Personally, I like to get out into the fresh air and look at things. I get a lot of ideas in the park, or by the river, or (frequently!) at historical houses.

This past year I’ve spent a lot less time at my desk and a lot more time getting out and about with my daughter. I did worry for a while that it would be difficult to be creative during my first few years as a mum. Luckily, that hasn’t been my experience at all. The time I spend out and about, experiencing new things and enjoying life has fed my creative mind and helped me come up with countless new ideas. Now, if only I could find the time to execute them all…

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Round Up; February 2015

A few highlights from my month;

A few highlights from around the web;

How has your February been?

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The Productivity Tricks that Have Stayed, and The Ones That Haven’t

I’ve blogged a great deal here about productivity tips and tricks. I regularly experiment with new methods, and I often find that they work really brilliantly for a couple of months and then peter out. Others, however, become part of my working routine and stay that way for years at a time. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a few methods that have worked for me long term, and a few that haven’t.

Short-Lived Productivity Tricks

Daily scheduling using Google Calendar

I got really excited about this at the time. You can read the full explanation of how it worked by clicking the link above, but basically I used Google Calendar to split my working day into blocks and to schedule in what I would do for each one of those blocks. It worked well for a while, and it’s certainly a technique that would be great if you like to work to a strict routine. I, however, am a bit of a maverick and once the novelty wore off I found it tricky to stick to my own self-imposed rules.

The ‘to-done’ list

This was a list I used to write when I finished work on a Friday to highlight all my successes (big and small!) from the week. I still love this idea, but sadly it just isn’t a habit that has stuck. Perhaps this one will come round again…

Daily routines

Last year I had a bit of a switch-around of my work day and started sitting down for an hour in the morning to work on my more long term writing projects. I loved doing this, but sadly I no longer have total freedom over my working day (hello six month old baby!) and I now have to take time as I can get it. I still very much have a daily routine, but out of necessity it has become a lot more flexible.

Habit List

Habit List was an app I used for a long time to keep track of things I wanted to work on daily (I mainly used it to track Yoga practice and work on my novel). Again, I really liked this app… but it became a victim of it’s own success. The idea of visually tracking small daily habits really worked for me, and I’ve now transitioned to a more analogue way of tracking!

Long Term Productivity Tricks

Nozbe

Nozbe is still absolutely my to do list app of choice. I’ve tried a lot of them, but Nozbe is the only one that has worked consistently for me and the way I work. I won’t type out again why I love it so much (you can find that out by clicking the link above) but trust me when I say that I do.

Toggl

It’s been almost two years since I discovered that timing myself while I work makes me considerably more productive. Since then, I’ve been using Toggl to do the timing. This is especially key now that my uninterrupted working time is more limited (and thus more precious). I also use Toggl to keep an eye on how much I’m spending on billable work VS non-billable work.

Inbox Zero

Pre-2012 I kept every single email I ever received in my inbox. Crazy, no?! After I switched domains and email accounts towards the end of that year, I started fresh with the aim of maintaining inbox zero. Let me tell you: I’ve never looked back. My inbox is pleasingly empty and my emails are organised into easy-to-navigate folders. It makes my life a lot easier.

Flexible working

Fairly late into my time as a freelancer I sussed out that having a non-traditional working pattern was actually A Good Thing. Once I’d made that realisation, I started working more flexibly and actually  leaving the house between the hours of 9am and 5pm. It turned out that I was much more productive when I worked to my own rhythms. This is something I still do, but more often than not the rhythms I’m actually working to are that of my aforementioned baby daughter.

Things have had to get a lot more efficient round here since the little one arrived, and I have lots of new thoughts to share on productivity. I’ll be sharing them over the coming month or so, so keep an eye out. If you don’t already, you might like to connect on Twitter or Facebook so you don’t miss anything.

*Productivity image via Forbes
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10 Things I Love About Blogging

1.  There are no gatekeepers; anyone can publish their work.

2. It’s speedy; I can have a thought in the morning and be sharing it in the afternoon.

3. It can reflect the style of the author; a blog can be anything from essays to photo collections.

4. It showcases expertise like nothing else; If you’re brilliant at something, blogging about it will show the world just how brilliant.

5. There are no geographical boundaries; I can read blogs written anywhere in the world, just like that.

6. It’s great for relationship building; when you read someone’s blog, you feel like you’re getting to know them.

7. It lends itself well to recommendations; online reviews are helpful, but they’re much more valuable when they come from a source I ‘know’.

8. It’s an excellent way to reach out to people; blogging has put me into contact with hundreds of people I’d never have met otherwise.

9. It’s a snapshot into recent history; other people’s blog archives are fascinating. So are your own.

10. It’s fun; it must be, or would I still be doing it thirteen years on?!

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Why it’s Difficult to Do What You Do for Yourself

You know that old line about the cobbler’s children’s shoes? Yes? Well, I think all of us feel a bit like that cobbler sometimes. Whether we’re writers or designers or accountants, it’s hugely easy to neglect our own needs in favour of those of our clients.

I am definitely guilty of this. My blog is almost always the first thing to fall off the bottom of my to do list when things get overwhelmingly busy, though I’d never dream of doing the same with a client’s blog. Our time is finite and there are only a certain number of tasks that we can physically make space for in our working day. It makes sense that we prioritise the tasks that clients are expecting (and paying for!) before our own.

Time isn’t the only reason that we do this. There’s also the fact that it can seem much harder to do what we do professionally for ourselves rather than for someone else. We spend every day inside our business so it can be tricky to get the perspective on it that comes so easily when we look at our clients’ businesses. It’s always tempting to put tasks aside for a later date and do something else instead.

There is a way to overcome these challenges, and that’s to get into the habit of thinking of ourselves as a client.

Schedule blocks of time to work on your own projects

If you’re anything like me, your own website/blog/accounts/design gets worked on in short bursts in between other ‘more important’ work. Though this can be convenient, it’s unlikely to produce the same quality result as if we’d worked on it in longer blocks.

Don’t skip steps

Most of us have a process that we work through when we’re producing work for clients. Most of us are probably guilty of skipping parts of that process when we’re producing the same kind of work for ourselves. You’ve put those steps in place for a reason: stick to them!

Get some headspace

Getting the same kind of perspective of our own business as we have for other people’s is a problem that isn’t always easy to solve. Sometimes I find it can be helpful to get out of your normal workspace to consider these issues. Talking to friends, family members and colleagues can be valuable too.

Follow your own advice

You know that key piece of advice you’re always offering to clients? Well… are you following it yourself? This sounds so simple, but often we aren’t.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to follow my own advice too.

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