So, you’re a writer?

A simple job description but one that is loaded with so much meaning…and misinterpretation.

Years after embarking on this line of work, I still find that people connect this word, this career, to a world of misconception.

When I tell people I’m a freelance writer, they assume it means ‘author’. It conjures up images of JK Rowling, of days spent in the most artsy café or long nights tapping away on a typewriter or keyboard, of a willing, no eager, readership just waiting to lap it all up, and basking in the glow of personal fulfilment.

The reality?

Most people who read what I write don’t know my name. Unless the work I do is for a magazine, newspaper or website, I don’t get a byline. It’s hard to get a loyal following that way.

Some days, I admit, are spent in a café but most often it’s just the neighbourhood coffee shop where the crowd is anything but chic or happening. As for long nights, I need my sleep, thank you very much.

Personal fulfilment – now that’s the rub. From the time I wrote my own childish versions of Enid Blyton fairy tales, to my present-day jumble of writing for agencies, clients and magazines, I can truly say that it’s simply a part of me. It’s how I identify myself. It’s something I can’t do without. It’s a compulsion, a constant companion.

It’s also something that’s very hard to explain, and I believe it’s different for everyone. While many writers I’ve come across have similar struggles and challenges, the day-to-day reality is different for every one of us so rather than explain what it is, I’d like to shed some light on what it’s not.

  1. Not all writers are novelists. There are also reporters and journalists, scriptwriters and copywriters, public relations practitioners, marketing and branding experts, photojournalists, academic and textbook writers, and writers who specialise in some very un-glamourous areas, like writing instruction manuals.
  2. It’s seldom glamorous. Movies would have us believe that, if you just slog hard enough, someone will recognise your raw talent and you’ll somehow magically transform into the most talked-about author overnight. This doesn’t mean of course that all writers stay in bed all day and ignore the world so they can focus on writing; some, like me, find it easier to have a routine and a healthy assortment of personal tools and tricks to make sure we get our work done.
  3. It’s not easy to make a living. It may look there are a million jobs for writers but they’re not just for the taking. Some publications pay a pittance or try to lure young writers to write for free, based on the idea that they should be thankful for the exposure. Novels take months to complete. Most companies want experienced writers while industry-specific opportunities are mostly insider knowledge so doors don’t open without a lot of hard work. On top of all this, there are lots of blogs and fledgling writers out there who are putting up content for free so it’s common for clients to feel it’s not worthwhile to pay you as a professional.
  4. There’s more to being a writer than just writing. You can’t write without information, or material. Essentially, you need to know how to get the material you need. You need to know how to talk to people so they give you the information you need, you need to understand the people who are going to read your work, you need to know how to organise the information you have and present it in a way that makes sense to the reader, and you need to make it interesting enough that people will actually read what you write despite all the clutter in the bookstores and online.
  5. Freelancers need to wear many hats. People seem to think that freelancers have lots of time on their hands because they don’t have regular office hours. In fact, freelancers actually work a lot harder and across a wider area than most. For many, productivity, networking and professional development are built into most regular jobs with timesheets, work events, seminars, etc. Working on our own, we need to create our own tactics and opportunities, which can be difficult when we’re struggling to meet deadlines. Whether you specialise in a particular field or work within a whole lot of different industries, freelancers also have to fulfil many roles, often without any formal support. Freelancers have to be their own Managing Director, Account Manager, Finance Manager, Accountant, Business Development Manager, Research Assistant, Office/Administrative Manager and intern. If you work out of your own home, add to that list Housekeeper, Cook and possibly Child Minder as well.

These five points are the most common ones I’ve personally encountered. If you’re a writer, freelance or otherwise, I’d love to get your input on other misconceptions you’ve experienced.

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A New Look at Resolutions

 

My experience with New Year Resolutions has been…inconsistent.

When I was younger, it was just something to do but it held little meaning for me.

Strike 1.

As an adult, I gave it another go but the things that ended up on my list looked like a trite regurgitation of stuff I’d read in magazines instead of what really mattered to me.

That was Strike 2.

In recent years, my work and personal life has become ever more intertwined and this has led to more soul-searching and attempts to find a place where things in my life can exist in harmony. It’s less about work-life balance, which is an on-going chore, but about having the right things in the right places – my thoughts, philosophies, attitudes, coping strategies…everything.

Around this time last year, I wrote out a mission statement for Audrey 3.0, to capture what I wanted to be in order for my hybrid existence to be in harmony. There were six points, essentially areas where I felt I needed significant improvement: Discipline, Commitment, Closure, Goals, Balance and Prayer.

A year has passed; a new list of goals are scrawled in my journal… and they are closely aligned to what I’d written last year. Usually, I would take this as yet another example of resolutions being rubbish but instead, something clicked.

My goals and aspirations change only slightly from year to year, if at all, but that’s not necessarily indicative of failure. I can see this now because I realise that those goals are not destinations, they are journeys of self-improvement.

In this light, resolutions mean a whole lot more to me now because it means that every year I am recommitting myself to making improvements – in my attitude, work, behaviour. All those times I thought I’d failed were just steps along the way to making more positive changes. Those changes get carried forward in the form of small gestures, kinder thoughts and words, greater patience and a million other small, day-to-day actions and decisions. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

So go ahead, make those resolutions. They may not stick this year, or the next, but keep trying. Keep making ripples in your life because you never know who those ripples might touch – yourself or the people around you. And in this messed-up world, we need to take every chance we get to do something good; even if you don’t notice the change in yourself for years (or maybe never), you could be a positive change for someone else.

A Blessed Christmas and Joyful New Year to all.

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Perspective.

That’s what the cadaverous food critic orders in Ratatouille and what strikes me now, at this odd moment after breakfast in my neighbourhood kopitiam (coffee shop) while reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

When self-help books first flooded bookstores, I hated them with a passion. I hated the way they promised miraculous results; the cheesy titles; the overly optimistic people featured on the covers; the ‘fail-proof’ formulas they advocated.

Pathetic. That’s most often the word that came to mind.

Recently, I’ve come to realise that there’s more to my dislike than just some vague prejudice. I just don’t like following instructions. I can’t even cook using a recipe; my mind freezes up like a computer hanging. If I have a dish in mind, I look up several recipes and generally mash them up together.  Sometimes it comes out alright, other times not; either way, I can’t produce the same dish again.

I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve experienced many occasions where I strongly disagreed with the opinion of an expert, and nothing gets my hackles raised more than some know-it-all getting in my face about what I should be doing and how I should do it their way.

Sometimes, I wonder if this is some residual resistance from my childhood and teenage years – I’ve always walked a fine line between wanting to be accepted (walking the ‘conventional’ road) and the perceived coolness of being just outside the norm. Looking at myself now, I think I still do even though my teen years are far behind me. If anyone were to imagine a typical working-mom-of-two, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t picture me. And that makes me glad – I hate the idea of being a typical anything.

However, I suppose I’ve reached a phase of my life where I’m seeking some sort of inner enlightenment and yearning for something more than my regular life. Suddenly I started looking at self-help books in a new, less-disdainful light. Had the books changed somehow, evolved into self-realisation books instead of self-help?

From that point of view, I could just about stomach the thought of reading one, even though my first few attempts made me cringe – for months, I was the person standing in the general vicinity of the ‘self-development’ section, trying to pretend that I wasn’t looking at the titles. Actually getting close enough to pick one up was a major milestone for me, and I couldn’t bring myself to read one in public for fear of judgement. After all, wasn’t I the one sneering at them just a few years ago?

That brings me to the book I’m reading now. The Happiness Project is not a new book, it was published in 2010. I first came across the author in Real Simple magazine and liked her approach.  Now that I’m finally reading her book, I’m experiencing numerous flashes of recognition and appreciation – moments of ‘that’s what I do, too’, ‘oh wow, I thought I was the only one who felt that way’ and ‘I’ve never thought of it that way before’.

Her quest for ‘happiness’ echoes my own – I’m not looking for perpetual sunshine and rainbows, but I want to feel less overwhelmed, more in tune with who I am, less hampered by pointless guilt, less resentful, more at peace with myself and the people around me.

I’m not looking for advice either (maybe that’s why self-help books irk me – my pride tells me I don’t want to be helped). I’ve heard the same kind of advice over and over again, but my behaviour and emotional patterns persist, probably because a lifetime of habits, conditioning and personality traits are hard to shake off no matter how good the advice.

But what I can appreciate is the shared experiences, the sensation that other people are struggling with the same stuff I am, and that it doesn’t need to be a big deal. Her examples based on her own, day-to-day experiences and her thoughts on making a positive change make a great deal of sense to me because I believe that everything involves a decision – to snap back or hold my tongue, to get the task done now or later, to sulk or to let it go.

Again, this seems obvious (like most kinds of advice I’ve heard) but for me, they are reminders of being human, of daily life, that some small things can seem like really big things, and really big things are often overlooked and taken for granted.

So while I’ll never be the poster girl for self-help books, I’m glad for gems like these that give me perspective and the hope that I can do better, be better, be happier.

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Mental Reboot

For almost four years, ever since I stepped away from full-time PR work, I’ve been telling others (and myself) that I no longer have to deal with clients or account management because I concentrate solely on writing work.

Recently I’ve realised that’s not true. Every person who assigns me a project or assignment is, in fact, my client. Duh.

I’m sure I would have read many articles and blog posts on this matter when I was just starting out, when I was reading just about everything about how to be a successful freelancer. Somewhere along the way, I forgot all about the advice that counselled freelancers to cultivate strong relationships and brand values, because that’s what it takes for people to continue working with you.

I thought I understood that, at the time, but after a year of challenging work situations – a few of which ended on a less-than-positive note – I’m reminded that I need to remember what I learned as a PR consultant, and to put those philosophies to work once more, namely:

Get to know the client
As a freelancer, this can be tough as many jobs come on an ad-hchoc basis, with tight timelines and sometimes no face-to-face interaction at all. As a consultant, I took the time to look up the company website at least, and I still do, but today I rarely go the extra mile to establish what my client wants and what my client needs. The first – what the client wants – is the brief, but what’s more important is to know what they need, which may remain unspoken but is essential nonetheless, so that I can deliver work that goes beyond fulfilling merely the letter of the brief.

Invest in the professional relationship
One of the things I was most glad to leave behind years ago was the dreaded WIP document. For some, this is a lifeline but for me it was a pointless effort as it often changed little from one meeting to the next. Today, I’ve replaced it with recap emails after phone calls and the occasional meeting, but I’ve been remiss in providing regular updates on large projects which span weeks or months. As a result, each email from a client asking for updates creates a momentary flash of panic (thinking I’ve missed a deadline or made some kind of mistake). When this happens, it feels like a rude surprise, a slap on the wrist that causes the professional in me to cringe.

Offer something more
The phrase that comes to mind is ‘value add’ – the kind of thing that doesn’t require significant investment of resources, yet make a difference. For example, some of the people I have worked with have little or no experience in how to prepare or deliver a communications brief, or how to create a tracking document. So sometimes I write my own brief and – while I abhor WIP documents – a schedule is extremely valuable. More importantly, this benefits me too, in addition to making it easier for both parties to keep track of things and avoid (or at least reduce) miscommunication or misunderstandings.

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Yearning to Learn Again

Every now and then, I’m struck by the thought that my past work surpasses what I’m doing now. It comes every time I catch a glimpse of articles or even essays I’d written years ago, and I feel amazed, thinking “Wow, I actually wrote that!”

Of late, much of my day-to-day work seems lacklustre, uninspiring. I’d like to think that it’s a matter of perspective; a few years from now I may look back and feel the same amazement.

However I can’t help but wonder if what I’m truly lacking is depth. I was once told by my university professor that a lack of information is the main culprit behind not knowing what to write. I took his advice to heart, making it a point to read up as much as I could before delving into a writing project or proposal.

Over time, I seem to do that less and less. Part of it, I suppose, can be put down to experience and learning how to skim through loads of information to pick out only the parts I need.

But somewhere along the way, apathy or perhaps arrogance crept in and I spend less and less time reading and absorbing information, to the point where I sometimes feel like an empty vessel – with nothing inside, how can words pour out?

Even worse is when I try and fail – there are times when I stare at words without absorbing anything, or read the same document repeatedly without any comprehension.

Working mostly on my own these past few years, without the benefits of talks and workshops organised by HR departments (which I honestly despised during my 9-to-5 life), it’s dawning on me that I need something to fill the void, leading me to trawl for on-line courses and other avenues for something that will awaken that drive to learn, for learning’s sake.

 

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Get the Brief

In three years of freelancing, I’ve prided myself on being able to utilise some of the things I learned from over eight years of agency life – managing clients and editors and the various people who commission me; evaluating my fees based on a combination of hours, market rate and profitability; worrying over productivity and putting my hours to effective use as years of timesheets have drilled into me.

Over and above all this, I’ve also been fairly diligent about getting a complete brief before I agree to a job but I was completely blind-sided by a recent project where I got so fixated with the urgency of the deadline that I neglected to ask for more details – all I had were a series of topics with deadlines and a couple of online articles and news clippings as reference.

In retrospect it’s sadly clear to me that I fell prey to a common freelancer mistake – I was overly eager to take a job just because things had been slow for a while. 

Diving right into the job, I realised belatedly that a topic alone wasn’t very helpful. How was I supposed to approach it? What was the desired objective? A host of questions scrolled through my mind as I struggled through the first two articles but I felt quite pleased with myself after meeting the first in a series of deadlines so I launched into the next articles with some measure of confidence, meeting the next two deadlines with gusto.

That blissful feeling lasted as long as it took for the client’s colleague from the regulatory department to review the articles, which were sent back to me marked up with comments as lengthy as the article itself.

Honestly, that’s the worst thing for me to deal with as a writer.

I expect people to come back to me with feedback and requests for revisions but in my experience it’s usually nothing extensive, something along the lines of 10-15%. In fact, for editorial pieces my work is usually accepted with only minor editing for space and clarity. To have every paragraph marked – in some instances, more than once! – nearly sent me through the roof.

Barring the fact that the client clearly hadn’t thought things through nor provided sufficient evidence, I (very) grudgingly admit that I bear a significant part of the blame. Once that fact sank in, this phrase magically appeared in my mind: there’s more to a job than the topic, word count and deadline!

Not very eloquent I suppose but something I need to keep in front of me at all times, together with questions about target audiences, take-home messages, must-have information etc. All these and more need be at the tip of my tongue (or my fingertips) the next time a job comes my way.

Lesson learned.

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Critical Mass

I’ve never really understood what the term ‘critical mass’ means, at least not in a technical sense. It’s something I’ve heard in movies, normally uttered by some scientist or other when something is about to blow up.

But just this morning, it occurred to me that I experience my own version of reaching ‘critical mass’, times when something builds up inside that needs an urgent release.

Sometimes it’s the stress of multiple, back-to-back or even overlapping deadlines which triggers a period of hyper-productivity (to be honest, sometimes it produces the opposite effect). Other times it’s the mess of things at home – when I get mad about the mess, it spurs me to clean with a vengeance. Or days like today, when the combined weight of a million little things left undone or half-finished feels extremely burdensome.

So I guess that’s my ‘critical mass’, the tipping point when I have to do something about whatever’s bothering me.

While it sounds like it could be a good thing, the process of reaching critical mass often isn’t pretty: 

Procrastination.

That just about sums it all up, my build-up to ‘critical mass’. And the entire time I’m becoming more and more anxious about all the things I’m not doing, which I should be doing.

After going through this experience so many times, you’d think I’d have a solution, one that cuts right through all the BS and gets straight to the end result. Unfortunately, I have yet to find that particular ‘fast forward’ button.

 

 

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Lessons Learned

It’s been three years since I became a hybrid – with one foot planted in the PR world and the other firmly in the editorial; and learning to work partially in an office and the rest of the time at home. Since I can never stick with a routine for long, it’s been an ongoing journey of evolution – of my working style, productivity, personal insights and strategies I need to make things work for me.

Productivity

It’s not about how long it actually takes to actually write. I can knock out a press release in an hour, a feature in two, but that only takes into account the writing time; what takes longer is understanding the topic and the brief, conducting research and deciding how to approach the job. For me, there’s an incubation period that’s part of the process; trying to skip this step only results in frustration when the words and inspiration don’t flow.

On good days, it’s like clockwork – I know what I have to do and how to do it, and I dive right in. On days like these, the job is completed quickly with a minimum of fuss and anxiety and ready to go, short of minor adjustments. Otherwise, it means hours of staring at a blank page, typing in a few words and deleting them, over and over again.

I find that certain things help the process along, the way oiling a squeaky hinge makes it work better. It could be a hot drink and a favourite book; a change of location, be it moving to a different part of the house or to a coffee shop; or a change of pace – writing by hand instead of typing. It could mean taking a break to do something else entirely – washing the dishes or doing the laundry, switching on the TV or putting on a movie.

Granted, on some days nothing seems to work and it’s only experience and self-realisation that can lead you to the obvious conclusion – on some days, getting any writing work done is simply impossible so it’s best to just find something else to do, whether it’s updating your accounts, following up on payments, or other necessary tasks which freelancers typically need to manage themselves.

In short – it helps to create a simple routine that works, with a few personal ‘cheat codes’ to help get you past the inevitable bumps and blocks; at the same time, learn to acknowledge the signs  that tell you the day’s writing is a lost cause.

Professionalism

Apart from guaranteeing the quality of work – which should be non-negotiable – I believe there are certain rules of conduct to follow, a professional code of honour which governs your behaviour when dealing with clients, editors, agents and anyone else in a professional capacity.

Whether you work from home, work remotely or work everywhere, you need to figure out how best to work with different people. Some people don’t read or reply emails and the only way to get anything out of them is via telephone or a face-to-face meeting. Some people are just difficult to deal with, not matter what you try.

However, apart from learning their different working styles and preferences, choosing your words carefully, learning a little tact and calling up however much patience as you can bear to part with, can go a long way in preventing and/or defusing any potential disagreements, disappointments and frustrations.

For me, the guiding force is mutual respect. I expect clients and editors to respect that I give my best work possible, and I treat my clients and editors with respect for their deadlines and expectations. For editors whose publications I’m unfamiliar with, I request copies or samples for reference; if a deadline needs to be moved, I negotiate upfront, usually before even accepting the job. Whenever I can, I submit my work before the deadline because I know what it means to have clients, bosses, graphic designers and sub-editors who are relying on my work so they can do theirs.

Pitfalls

There are times when being professional, prompt and reliable doesn’t work to your advantage. Being able to work on a last-minute job (read: 24 hours) and still provide a decent piece of work tends to give the impression that you (a) don’t have anything else to do; or (b) are some kind of super-being who doesn’t need food, rest or a reasonable timeframe to get things done. Either way, it can lead to clients and/or editors thinking that it’s ok to give you short notice. If this happens, it’s time to tactfully explain that, while you appreciate their trust and confidence in your abilities, it’s important to provide you with a certain timeframe with which to work your magic.

From a purely personal standpoint, I feel that short deadlines – due to the client/editor’s lack of planning or a series of closely-spaced projects – puts practical efficiency first, creativity and artistry second. When that happens, I rarely feel accomplished or fulfilled.

When all is said and done however, I’m thankful for what I do…even on days when all I want to do is punch or smash something out of sheer frustration. I can’t really imagine doing anything else that doesn’t involve a significant amount of writing. I know this because even a long weekend leaves my fingers itching for a keyboard; even if weeks go by without an entry in my journal, I never go anywhere without it because it’s reassuring to know that I can choose to write at any time, wherever I may be.  

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“Kids these days”

I get really annoyed when I hear this phrase, especially when uttered by people much younger than I (at least older folk are even further removed from teenagers and young adults right?).

Why you might ask? Because it’s an over-generalization, the same way one might say all women are bad at directions, or that all men are emotional juveniles. It’s a form of discrimination because it discounts a person’s qualities simply because they fall into a certain age group. 

I’m sure you can argue that sweeping remarks have a grain of truth. Of course they do – I’m with you on that. The problem is, sweeping remarks like these are often said with disdain, to discredit an entire group of individuals.

I have a particular grouse about the whole Gen Y thing – that they’re unwilling to work, irresponsible, too focussed on work-life balance that looks more like life-and-other-things-I-want-to-do balance, whatever. Understood, these traits may be commonly noticed – goodness knows, I’ve heard and seen enough examples to despair.

But I also know so-called Gen Y people who are hard-working, inspiring, compassionate, creative, idealistic and willing to take risks for a good cause. 

And on the flip side I can think of many people who are lazy, selfish, entitled, self-obsessed, unreliable and downright delusional about the type of people they are – they just don’t fit into any convenient age-group so there’s no label for them. Doesn’t make them any better than so-called Gen Ys, no more than having a label for a certain age group makes them all the same.

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Merdeka Reflections

On Saturday morning, I went to church – there was a special mass to commemorate our national day of independence and for once I was moved to attend. 

It saddened me that the mass was being held in the small chapel rather than the main church because not many people were expected to attend. When I arrived, the church was closed up and I thought I’d somehow been mistaken, until I drove around to the other entrance and saw a few people outside the chapel. Later I heard from others that many people had arrived, seen the main church closed and left, disappointed. 

I was disappointed too.

I was disappointed that a mass organised with the intent to pray for our nation did not invite a significant population of the church congregation to attend. The chapel was full but it only had 1/8 the capacity of the church.

I was disappointed that there was no notice provided to inform members of the congregation that the mass was to be held in the chapel, and those who wanted to be there were robbed of that chance.

I was disappointed that there hadn’t been a more strident call for as many people to attend as possible, as there had been for previous occasions such as feast days and seminars, fund-raisers and talks.

But I’m glad I was there. I told my two girls to pray for all those things in the country that seemed wrong in their eyes. And I prayed too. I can’t even recall what exactly I prayed for but at that moment, kneeling in the chapel, I know I prayed with all my heart for things to change for the better.

Someone once shared with me that the harder we try to strive for good, the more temptations we are faced with, and the harder the other side tries to bring us down. It reminds me of this line from one of my favourite novels:

“We struggle because we must. Evil has the advantage for it is served by chaos and confusion. It can destroy and ravage while we must preserve and build. Ours is the more difficult task.” [Raymond E Feist]

This rings even more true as I read the news this morning of a 101-year old Hindu temple being destroyed the day after Merdeka. Why? Because the site on which it was erected – 100 years ago! – was on reserved land. 

From what can gather, the temple’s location had been a matter of conflict with the city council for some time, and it’s claimed that the entire temple is not being demolished, only part of it to make way for a new pavement/pavement repairs. It’s hard to tell what’s the truth as mainstream news reported that statues of deities were not smashed while independent news reports said they were. Some reports also state that a court order was not presented, making any works – demolition or otherwise – illegal.   

Official statements by the police claim it was all a misunderstanding – that the people at the temple who tried to prevent the officials from carrying out their work misunderstood their intent. But what were they supposed to think when no notice was given by the city council to the temple leaders? When officials rudely intruded on a place of workshop? What more on a Sunday after celebrating our national independence day?  

Admittedly, anything to do with race and religion in this country is highly inflammatory. The insensitivities of one group only feeds the fear and reactivity of other groups resulting in a perfect storm of negativity.

It’s so hard not to get caught up in it. It’s so hard not to react with condemnation and a desire to lash back at those who trample on the rights and sensitivities of others, at those who feel superior and above the law. 

At the same time, while I was at mass, something prompted me to think about the ones who have fought for our country – men like Tunku Abdul Rahman who fought for our independence; soldiers like my father who spent the best of their years in defence of our nation, and those who lost their lives for love of their country; and everyday heroes who fought and continue to fight to make Malaysia a better place to live.

When we only focus on hate and anger, we disregard the sacrifices and the ongoing efforts that help to undo all the negativity. 

As an individual, I’m fearful of putting myself at the forefront – fearful of being targeted or blacklisted in some way; fearful of attracting the attention of those who could make my life miserable, arrest me or put me away for being a nuisance.

But ‘there are other ways to serve’ as a priest once told me. So, borrowing from yet another novel, I like to remind myself that while we can’t stop others from being hateful, bigoted, racist, inflammatory or corrupt, “we can do our best in the opposite direction” [Susan Cooper]

This country is my home. I may dream endlessly of travel or sigh in envy at how wonderful things seem to be in another country, but I could never call any other place home. 

When I left work on Friday and wished my colleague ‘Happy Merdeka’, the response was decidedly lukewarm. I understood perfectly. But the fact is, we can still celebrate this country which is our home and remember that there are still Malaysians who have respect for others, who are charitable and caring, who are bold and outspoken in defence of what’s right. 

So no matter what we see in the papers which saddens or angers us, let’s “do our best in the opposite direction” and celebrate everything that makes us proud Malaysians everyday. 

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