Just letting you know I’ve got a full time editing job so won’t be taking on any projects for the foreseeable future.
Content mills get a bad press; it’s understandable. They drive down the price of copy and you can end up doing way too much work for way too little pay. For those of us who are short on time and cash, however, they can be a vital tool. They’re also handy for copywriters just starting out. For those who aren’t aware, a ‘content mill’ is a website that connects clients requiring copy to copywriters. Sounds good so far, right? The catch is they tend to pay bottom dollar, and clients still expect decent results. I can’t imagine how anyone could make minimum wage here. But when there’s bills to pay and screaming toddlers to placate, sometimes it’s the best choice.
My tips for copywriters starting at content mills:
- Hunt out the best satanic ‘content mill’. There are more and more of these mass-style freelancing websites out there, so do your homework so that you don’t waste time on one that’s wrong for you, or just plain bad.
- Don’t forget to build your portfolio outside of your chosen hellhole. Copywriters just starting out need samples, and a lot of content mills require you to sign away your copyright to what you create for their clients. Bear this in mind. I found Upwork a good way to get more interesting work, albeit not as steady for me. At sites like this you can still stake your claim over your writing, unless you’re doing ghost-writing.
- Prioritise. Trust me, you’re going to be working hard, so make sure you’re working smart too. When you select your contracts, which will usually appear in a list with briefs for you to take a gander at, think before you click. Which jobs are going to give you the most pay per hour? That 500-word legal blog for £7 might seem like a decent prospect, but unless you’re a law student, you could spend hours researching. By the same token, targeting subjects you have skills in could help you maximise your profit.
- Keep focused. I love writing on a dozen different subjects a day, but god help me, I do get distracted. Don’t be like Ruth and fall down a Wikipedia hole when you should be working. Keep your mind and mouse on the subject at hand.
- Read the brief. Seems obvious? Sure, but when you’re on your fifth post about warehouse work flow you start to lose concentration. Don’t assume you know what the client wants. Read their criteria out loud and note down the core instructions. A few minutes care here can save you time and money later on.I hope my cheeky list helps you on your copywriting journey. I’m always on the hunt for tips and tricks, so hit me up in the comments if you find anything decent.
Facing up to your failings and limitations can feel like rock bottom. In reality if you manage to handle it correctly, it can be a fount of new strength.
I haven’t written for a while, and not just here. Before my previous Open University module ended in June, I had worked as a freelance copywriter, looked after my baby (who is now two) and begun my degree. Unsurprisingly, it all got a bit much! For the sake of my husband, my son and my sanity, I decided to take a break.
Even writing this feels like an admission of defeat. I had been on a mission for years to prove myself tough, hardworking and practical. A workaholic in the worst way, to step away from the grindstone was abhorrent.
The results for me were mixed. The time I spent with my family was wonderful, but I was dogged by withdrawal symptoms. I both longed for and feared doing anything creative; I felt guilty about doing anything that was not family or home orientated and guilty about not doing justice to my urge to write.
This summer has not been the relaxing few months I had envisaged, but I did learn to accept my limitations a little more, and I think doing so is an important lesson for anyone creative, self-employed or both.
The first step in doing so was identifying what these limitations and natural failings were. Not all realisations were profound. I have begun to make peace with the fact that I like a really clean house; any kind of chaos stresses me out. I have to snack or I become an insane hunger monster. I like to look good- and actually there’s nothing wrong with that. I have come to understand that I am incapable of having exciting dreams: they’re all about finding lost keys and going to Lidls.
More importantly, I know now that I find it difficult to look at work in a healthy way, though rationally I know that working every second of the day is not sustainable. I am committed to putting my family first, which means there are times when my career will come second. However, I am as a member of our family I have a duty to fulfil my potential.
Another limitation that I knew I had already was that I’m bad at accepting defeat. It’s meant that I’ve pushed myself through almost impossible situations- ninety hour weeks working at a commercial restaurant, two-o’clock finishes when copywriting deadlines approached and many others- but no-one can do everything. Time’s elasticity is not infinite. The fact is, that I can’t work, and look after the house, and our boy, and study, and, and….
It was only after conceding these that I could make progress. By the end of the previous module of my course I was thoroughly burnt out, and was close to destroying everything that I had accomplished. With considerable effort, I have begun to accepting these limitations. By doing so I make the most of our little boy’s infancy and work towards a degree that will open doors in the future.
Facing up to your failings and limitations can feel like rock bottom. In reality if you manage to handle it correctly, it can be a fount of new strength.
Developing and issuing a cover three times in roughly a year is dumb to say the least…
I’ve made a front cover for Io and the Extraordinary… again. If you weren’t aware, that’s me saying I’ve done it for the third time. Developing and issuing a cover three times in roughly a year is dumb to say the least. Here’s why I cocked it up so badly, and more importantly, how to avoid the same situation.
Designing an Ebook Front Cover Fo’ Free
Not having the money to hire a pro, I knew I needed to find a way to make the cover myself. I started by doing a bit of research; looking up tips and examining covers that I thought worked well. All good. Top tip on all the articles I read: don’t draw your own cover. Of course, I tend to believe that following advice is for pussies, so I went ahead with….
Drawing a Cover By Hand
Yeah… so don’t do this unless you’re Michaelangelo. Even if your design looks sort of alright in the flesh, by the time it’s been subjected to the scanner’s uncompromising glare you’re going to have doubts. I ignored this advice not only because I’m a badass, but also because I’m OK at drawing sometimes. There is good author-made cover art out there, but in the same way that the camera adds ten-pounds, it also downgrades the quality of illustrations. Above average art skills aren’t good enough. They need to be freaking great, backed up with a good knowledge of image editing software (which- you’ve guessed it- I didn’t have).
I don’t have Photoshop (short on cash, remember?) so I decided to make my cover in Paint.net. While an awesome piece of free kit, Paint.net was never intended to resemble Adobe’s wallet-crunching powerhouse. It’s for editing photos on the cheap. It’s not for creating new images, or tarting up bad drawings. What I should have done is downloaded myself a gimp… wait… downloaded Gimp. I haven’t used this badboy personally, but every cheapskate self-publishing author out there swears by it.
If you end up using Paint.net, then take my advice: use a new layer for every edit, no matter how small, and get familiar with the deselect function (ctrl-d). You’ll see what I mean.
Taking Advantage of Free Online Services
When I finally got sick of looking at poor old Io’s aliased and distorted face, I decided to redesign my Kindle cover. This time I strayed across Canva, which is fab for making free, professional-looking images for a variety of things. It doesn’t stay free, but still. I binned off my hand-drawn nonsense and banged out something that looked a bit sleeker. Canva’s not the only free/freemium cover design site out there, so if you’re aiming to whip up a quick cover, it’s well worth investigating the scene.
It was then that DPI started to rear its ugly head, by which I mean services like Kindle suggest using an image of 300 DPI or higher for covers. I didn’t worry about it at this stage as I can’t see anyone getting much benefit from an ultra high-def thumbnail, but I wish I had.
Wrestling with the Kindle/Createspace Paperback Cover Creating Set Up.
Turns out that self publishing doesn’t just mean spamming your friends and family with demands that they download your ebook anymore. Now you can extort actual paperback purchases out of them.
This means that you need to sort out your real-world cover. Or just chuck yourself out a window. Slathering yourself in cyanide would also be a good way to go.
Both sites have a handy function which formats the right sized pages according to trim size (book shape) so you can just copy and paste the text in. Now my book’s on the hefty side, and in the more popular trim sizes had a page count of over 800. Amazon (sizeists) wouldn’t print this, and rather passive-aggressively wouldn’t tell me why. When I uploaded my manuscript to Createspace, it told me that my page count was too hench for the selected trim size. I duly selected the 7″X10″ option, and moved right along.
An Image is Worth a Free Month at Megapixl
Next came the return of that maggoty old canker sore, DPI. With a book this size, I knew that pixel density was going to show and my lovely blue mountains weren’t going to make the grade. With a Liz Lemon worthy eye roll…
I decided to make yet another another freaking cover.
Now I’m not going to bore you with every single painful detail of how I made the damn thing, but I found out pretty quick that it isn’t so easy to find a free image of that kind of resolution for a cover that big. A bit of research led me to Megapixl and their free trial. At long last, I selected the image you see below. I had already calculated the proper width (width of cover X2 + spine) in my many preceding failures, and worked out how I wanted the text laid out.
Making Every Word Count
Whatever cover you make, probably the most important thing on the page is going to be the title of your book. Fonts and formatting may seem like a secondary concern, but they makes a big difference. I learnt this through playing around on Canva. The designs there are largely simple, but the text looks really professional because it’s carefully considered. Try using different fonts for different pieces of information. Vary the size of the text. Experiment with colour. Manipulating transparencies is a good way to make different parts of the text jump off the page or melt into it.
PDF is Not Your Friend
So PDF is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t play well with others. If you don’t want to use any of the ready-made dogs’ anuses on offer at Kindle, you’ll want to upload your own cover image.
This means converting it into print-ready PDF. If you’re using Windows 7, that means sacrificing your firstborn to Adobe. Yes, there are free image to PDF converters out there, but I (ahem, my husband) wasn’t able to find one that would do it without changing the size of the image, which is kind of a big deal. It’s a bit easier if you can buy yourself an entire Adobe of one form or another, you use Windows 10 and aren’t a total cavewoman, but there we go. I’m still flummoxed by Excel.
Luckily, Amazon’s newest sulky step-child- Createspace- is a bit more flexible. It will let you upload an image and give you a mild spanking should it not step up to the mark. It also gives you clear instructions on how to do better next time.
And voila! One slightly less garbage front cover. Only LITERALLY three days later.
- I ballsed it up, I know. But you don’t have to be like me: you could be smart.
- Don’t draw your own image unless you’re a professional.
- Use the appropriate software.
- Use a very high DPI image (minimum 300 DPI at the largest size you are likely to need it).
- Pay attention to tips you read.
Got a cover story of your own to share? If it’s more embarrassing than mine, hit me up so I can dry my shame tears on it. Or leave it in the comment section below. Your choice.
I sincerely wish I could write another novel in the near future. Unfortunately, right now I need to focus on other things. Still, I feel like I have no end of advice for the author in me starting anew, or any other writers out there embarking on their first book. I’m very proud of Io, but I would definitely do things differently the second time around.
Anyway, here are some tips that I really wish I’d known/bothered to pay attention to when I first started!
- Plan! FFS, plan! Yes, I know there are some famous examples of people who don’t use one and achieve great results, but do yourself a favour and at least try to lay it out properly to see if it works for you before going off-piste. I planned very vaguely, then set off hoping everything was going to sort itself out. It took me years to get my plot in line and even now it’s not perfect. A heavy-duty plan will shed light on basic impracticality and logical inconsistencies that may not show until such points are integral and difficult to lever out of the narrative. My book took me a very long time to write and a serious plan would have saved me literal months.
- Some conventions are there for a reason. Now I’m a firm believer that rules are meant to be broken, especially when it comes to being creative. However, a strong understanding of the effect this is likely to have on your reader is vital. For example, there is a reason the long held trope of ‘shallow nobody undergoes hardship to become caring hero’. This is what people expect, and setting yourself against this is not to be undertaken lightly. I cavalierly aimed to fart around with the standard fantasy narrative, but I almost regret it. I certainly wish that I had had a better idea of the forces I was playing with before I began.
- Written dialogue is not the same as real dialogue, nor should it be. I have always striven for natural speech in my writing. Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that human beings spend most of their time talking about bus timetables and supermarkets (or the fantasy setting equivalent). I learned the hard way that too much ‘umming’, ‘erring’, ‘hmm-ing’ and ‘ha-ing’ is a sure-fire way to scupper decent dialogue, no matter how realistic that might be.
- Remember you don’t have to get every thought you’ve ever had into one book. Just because it’s a stroke of genius doesn’t mean it’s going to work in your current project. How many films have you watched and come out saying ‘It could have been great, but they tried to do too much’? Listen to your inner smartarse. Which leads into my most important point…
- Sweet Zombie Jesus learn get familiar with the delete key! I cleared out the study shelves a couple of months ago; I had to heft stacks and stacks of notebooks jammed with characters and ideas that I toyed with adding, or even put in only to cut out later on. A certain amount of chaff is inevitable, but seriously, there’s a limit. If you have a promising idea but no idea how to use it, by all means note it down, but don’t shoe-horn it in where it’s not welcome.
- And finally, don’t pay too much attention to know-it-alls on the internet. No-one else’s rules need apply to you. One person’s mistake may well be your triumph.
…Social Media Art could be the way forward…
I wanted to write an article on how social media impacts art, starting with Fine Art, but Tom Jeffries of Apollo Magazine got there first and wrote this fantastic piece, which says pretty much all I wanted to on the subject! However, what I’d be circling around to eventually is exploring how writers can use social media, beyond its obvious promotional value.
The artists cited in Jeffries’s article use social media in various ways; informing their audience (events, shows etc.) or assuming roles (see Amalia Ulmann’s fascinating Instagram project), and so on. Easy public access to an artist’s constant dialogue can also serve to contextualise their work. Potentially- instead of deciphering influences, moods and manner purely from the pieces themselves- the audience has the luxury of a continually updating commentary. Some artists have used social media for gathering material or data (Jennifer Dalton’s What are We Not Shutting Up About (2010)).
Where ingredients for a project are gathered online, in some cases credit may be owed to the originator. Richard Prince, professional numbnuts, recently caught the public’s scathing eye by blatantly ripping off the creators of thousands of images gathered from Instagram. While in my opinion this is glaringly obnoxious, I suppose there’s a certain logic behind this thievery. Prince considers (or claims to consider) the act of collection as his work, rather than the images themselves. The fact that it’s other people’s photographs that he’s curating and selling for thousands is another matter.
These collecting strategies not only apply to visual artists. Writers can and do also employ and manipulate social media and the internet in similar ways. ‘Found’ poetry is something that existed way before social media, and seems as though it’s made for the medium.
Crowdsourcing is one of the more unusual ways in which a writer can use the internet to create something in a social way. David Lehman and Dan Simpson have both worked with crowdsourcing to create poetry. You can still contribute to Eric Mack’s crowdsourced science fiction novel. The effect is unusual. Crowdsourcing would appear to appeal to the maxim ‘two heads are better than one’ on a grand scale, but I’m not sure that really works with something as individual as writing. Surely a thousand or more strangers can’t guess the creator’s vision? How do a million different voices reach any kind of cohesive harmony? In all the examples I’ve found, the writer leading the project has the final executive decision on what makes the grade, and I suppose that final personal touch provides the necessary direction to stop the whole thing falling apart.
The idea of ‘Social Media As Art’ has been around since the blossoming of net culture, and some have made the argument that unless someone is actually making new net-based social application, it doesn’t exactly count. I’m not sure whether I’d agree with that; after all, a film maker doesn’t have to hand paint his celluloid to make valid movies. Nevertheless, programs exist which allow people to connect with each other for specific, artistic reasons.
As early as 1987, Olivier Auber opened up access to a project called ‘Poietic Generator’. A basic public space upon which strangers can collaborate to produce images, participants can choose to assist or hinder the ideas of their fellow users. Individual sessions have been recorded to be viewed on the website, and you can see from the ones the creators have selected that the results of these events are diverse. Some digital canvasses have been the work of nearly forty users. Others have been made by only two or three. Images can appear as chaotic wars of colour or harmonious attempts at teamwork. The final products in either case are less interesting than the concept itself, which was designed as a kind of microcosm of the way human beings interact and think about their world.
Social media certainly raises some interesting creative questions. ‘Social’ implies some sort of interaction with the audience for which the piece is intended. By this token, some of the creative control is immediately surrendered. Even if you are simply tweeting haikus, the method you’ve chosen to release your work in adds context and meaning that are different from poems in a physical book. Alternatively you can foist the entire process upon the people, almost completely relinquishing command of the final result.
While the idea of using social media as an art or literary form does court a lot of criticism- of being too clever for its own good, not being ‘proper art’, and generally being a kind of cheap trick played on the easily impressed- it really ought to be taken seriously. Art, in the end, is a form of communication. As time passes, it seems it becomes less and less one sided. The internet in its most accessible form seems the natural habitat for this expansion.
Some Tuesday evening poetry, why not?
Pennant penitent and haggard,
Burnished by salted inland air,
He rides the shouting bore of whispered slings,
Pliant voiceless muse: the Cossack king.
Seemingly flits from light to death:
From rimy shadow to hot hearth.
Iron hard in exile and denied,
To bright exalted martyr for a bride.
Sparkling, his breast reflects the
Darkling forests, sweet faces and
Cunning history which snakes and retracts.
He slumps and stands both serf and cataphract.
Scintillating and unsure through
Flashing snow or dew he runs or writhes.
His name sullied and bloodied,
Into the grooved earth buried.
A brutal exchange of hours and miles
Awkwardly spectated and gamed,
He awkwardly looks along his line in hope,
To only glory; no pardon or escape.
Racked back and forth and back he turns,
Buffeted by romance and sullen wrinkling cataract,
He winds up his reins, head rolling, hands quaking:
The old land shudders at his passing; shaking.