Rollercoaster ride

You’re lucky. I nearly left it too late to submit this month’s column. I’ve never left it this late to write, but I didn’t know what to write, or honestly, I didn’t want to. I’ve had some highs, lows, self-doubt and frustrations. I’ve felt apathetic, conflicted, and distracted; and after starting the year in a positive frame of mind, I’ve not found it easy to rationalise the following. I’ve realised that:

  • I don’t want to work independently as a freelancer; I need to be surrounded by creative people, a team.
  • I’m not interested in writing Facebook ads, About Us pages or LinkedIn profiles.
  • Maybe I need to work for a company that is more me.

I know lockdown 3.0 influences how I feel and what I’m thinking, casting a cloud over my head and thoughts. I, like others, am also struggling with cabin fever.

Everything is dragging with no end date in sight, and I find myself getting frustrated with silly things, like our rented house. The freezing weather hasn’t helped: it’s exacerbated issues with the house due to its lack of decent insulation, and I want to move, NOW. We’d planned to move towards Bristol this year, renting via the Army but it’s unlikely to happen. We may buy this year instead, but we need to look for houses, although we can’t justify travelling a good two hours away with the current climate. It’s not essential travel. Is Pete going to be able to race abroad this year, can we get a dog yet?! Everything is in limbo, out of my control, and I like to be in control!

Work has started to get me down: budget restrictions, a new role with more reactive stuff thrown in, and solutions to client challenges are beginning to look the same due to a lack of digital tools. I’m stagnating professionally. My copywriting coursework has stopped, my own doing. The chatter in the Facebook community is of winning pitches to write Facebook ads, About Us pages or LinkedIn profiles – which I’m not interested in writing. Having banked on doing freelance copywriting as my new career, it didn’t sit well with me. It was a ‘throw my hands up in the air and swear’ moment.

I even avoided speaking to my best friend; I didn’t want to talk about how I felt. I just wanted to curl up in the corner, stew things over, adjust to my new thoughts and the potential impact on what they meant longer term. When I did speak to my friend, I knew I should’ve spoken to him earlier. He’s always the right person to talk to about things, and as a solo entrepreneur, he knows about the struggles of starting something up on your own.

I then remembered my career change advice; it’s all about trying things, and if it doesn’t work out, pivot, and try something else. It’s not a failure, see it as knowing what you don’t want to do and finder out sooner. I haven’t put all my eggs into one basket and jacked my full-time role in to be a fulltime copywriter: it’s ok.

On my first non-working day, now that I have my longed-for flexible working pattern approved, I spoke to a couple of headhunters to get a feel for the market and talk through my thoughts. It’s tough out there, and companies are doing more direct recruitment. Which you’d think would be a bonus, but you don’t know who or what is looking at your CV scanning for keywords or whether HR know a good communication professional when they see one. The likelihood of a CV getting through is lower than ever.

I do know the grass isn’t always greener on the other side however I’m keen to look at going back agency side, either as a Comms consultant or copywriter. It could even be a sideways step, starting as a Comms consultant and then moving into copywriting. I thrived in an agency I worked in a few years ago, and I know it’s the environment for me. There’s a real buzz to agency life. Whenever a brief came in, everyone from the design and operations team to the comms & engagement leads downed tools and met as a group to hear it. We’d throw ideas around for a couple of hours and then break off into our respective teams to further develop our pitch ideas. We’d come back together three to four hours later to share our thinking and start working on a pitch document.  The atmosphere is so different: there’s fun, creativity, a pace to things and a real sense of teamwork. It’s you and creatives brainstorming ideas and proposals, bouncing ideas off each other, and learning new techniques. Each client proposal demands a different response, so the mental and professional challenge is always there. There’s also a need to bring in business: an agency will only exist if there is client work and there’s an element of sales in agency life. It’s about making connections with companies and building relationships over time in the hope it pays off. It’s the long game; you can’t slack.

Spurred on by information shared on a call with a headhunter, I searched for a local creative agency recruiting for a comms associate. Although advertised in December, I took the plunge and emailed them with a copy of my CV. Learning to copywrite well has definitely made me better at writing emails, and I went with an imaginative, direct, and fun approach. And it worked!

I received a response a couple of hours later, saying they’d love an informal chat with me. It made my day, it really did. I had a spring in my step, and I felt more optimistic. It might never come to anything, but it’s always worth building connections. And I suppose I was essentially pitching in my email to the agency; I might be good at pitching for work after all!

How do you get a handle on things? Or do you, as in the film Frozen, ‘let it go’? Do you feel you’re on a more even mental keel if you manage to get a fraction of control back?

Claire 1 – Lack of control 0!

Hibernate and reset

As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve eve. I’ve finally sat down after making an Earl Grey tea chocolate mousse for tomorrow and unblocking a drain. What a way to spend my first day off.

By the time you’ll read this column, it will be 2021 and another typical year. No? Anyone wake up on 1 Jan wishing everything back to normal, as though 2020 was just a bad dream? And to top it all off, I thoroughly struggled to write this column.

If I’d had a typewriter, I could imagine myself ripping the paper from the typewriter, scrunching it up and throwing it at and missing the bin, and laying discarded with other failed edits. I think it’s reflective of how I’m feeling; it’s the end of the year, I’ve had enough of looking at the four walls of my house, and I want to down tools. I can’t travel to see my parents for Christmas as Italy is locking down even more, and at the time of writing, my area moves into tier 4 day after Boxing Day. Oh, joy. I feel that I’m running out of new content to share with you too, as things aren’t moving quickly in my career change.

I’ve paid for the course I mentioned last month, but I haven’t got very far with it. I feel disheartened by the many messages in the course’s FB group talking about successful pitches, new clients etc., whereas I am hamstrung by a full-time job. I’d planned to study over the Christmas period and get myself into a position to start recouping the course’s cost, but I have a dilemma. If I manage to complete enough modules and start pitching for new business and am successful, how will I manage it with full-time work? I’d need to work every Friday afternoon and weekend, and frankly, I need a crying emoji right now because I’m baulking at that prospect.

I hear it all the time; you work all hours to build a business on the side – it’s the only way to build a business. I don’t think I can realistically deliver client work in my evenings, on just one weekend or even with an extra day if I get Friday’s off, without it having a detrimental effect on my life. More importantly, I’ve had enough of looking at my computer screen during the day for work, so I’m railing against looking at it in the evening. The course tutor says to try and make time for it, even if it’s for 15mins a day. I know people who combine their professional and personal work during the day; when they have free time, they crack on with their own work, laptop set up next to their work one.

Working from home has its perks, the commute is non-existent but with fewer distractions, the time I’m racking up in front of the screen is increasing, even to the point where I now need reading glasses for the first time. I’m fuming! It’s why I want relief from it, so the thought of two screens on my desk feels me with dread.  If I have a break at work in between meetings, I grab my coat and wellies and tramp around the village and fields, in desperate need of fresh air and vitamin D. In the evenings I’ll train or eat and curl up on the sofa with Pete and switch off. I need a break more than ever it seems, and the dark mornings and nights aren’t helping. I just want to hibernate, squirrel away. They say you need less sleep as you get older, I’m very much the opposite.

When I was doing my career change course earlier this year, I made time for the missions and exercises I had to do each week. Every Saturday I had a 10 am call which I never missed, this time though I seem to have lost the impetus to instigate the same rigour and routine to my new course. I think it’s because it’s self-paced. There’s no one pressurising you to have completed homework during the week.

By mid-January, I’ll know if my 4-day compressed week is approved, which will give me time to do my course. I have a new boss who wasn’t that keen about it when I mentioned it to her. She seems open to doing at least a six-month trial, so we’ll see. If it isn’t a reality, I’ll shut up as I’m bored of talking about it, and you’re probably bored of hearing about it.

It hasn’t been all doom and grumpy childlike sulks though. Instead of a website, I’ve created a portfolio which I’m going to add to my LinkedIn profile. I’ve added more projects to The Dots. I’ve been re-editing a client’s emails after doing his web copy earlier this year so continuing to learn. If my portfolio’s posting or sharing brings in work, then I’ll be happy, so long as I can manage it.

In the spirit of only focusing on what can help further my career, I’ve decided to delete job alerts for copywriter roles. Until I start getting more experience under my belt, I won’t have a chance of getting a position, and the more I look at job adverts for companies I like, the more disheartened I become. Best to switch off the distractions for now. I don’t know about you, but far too many emails come into my inbox for things I either forgot I’d signed up for or I’m just not interested in anymore, so it’s digital detox time.

And as the New Year rolls in, how many of you will set new year resolutions? Do you stick to them? I’m not one for resolutions. I tend to focus on the positive and ask myself what I’d like to do more of. You all know what I’d like to do, so my added resolution is just to see how things pan out and take it from there. There’s not much else I can do. Just as we’ve had to adjust and flex this year due to COVID-19, my career change will need to do the same. Patience is a virtue; I happen to have none.

I hope you had a good Christmas even if it’s been quite different and you’re ready to cope with whatever 2021 throws at you. Fingers crossed it’s a better one; it can’t get any worse!

Time doesn’t stand still for anyone

First things first, and credit where credit’s due, I’d like a shout out to my fiancée, Pete, for getting me to sign up for a copywriting course. After two glasses of red wine, he decided bed was the better option at 20:30 on the first Friday in lockdown, because what else is there to do? I was left alone for two hours which, as we both work from home is a novelty so unimpressed with what the TV offered, and bored of scrolling through social media I spent the time researching courses, and signed up.

Because dear readers, would you trust a doctor with no medical degree or a tree surgeon without any qualifications? I only know how to write copy for websites, and even then, it was learning on the fly, and there’s a whole lot more to copywriting than that. I bet you’re all throwing your heads back in disbelief right now, saying “what did she think it was!” I hear you. I do. I knew it was more, but I think I’ve been in denial, rather like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Pete regularly talks about 2022 as our pivotal year; “I’m coming out of the Army after 24 years and moving into a new career, and you’ll be doing your copywriting.” Like it’s a done deal, simple. I always mumble something along the lines of “Yes, maybe. We’ll have to see what happens.”

So just as I’ve been badgering Pete to make sure he’s doing everything he can to prepare for his future, I need to heed my own advice. My career change won’t happen without me actively learning. I’m not sure why I thought it would. I don’t know how to write ads, brochures, nor understand the difference between print and online or the creative process involved. And if my part-time wish comes true, I’ll need to know as much as I can about copywriting.

Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, hitting the ‘sign up’ button for a course and seeing a chunk of money disappear from my bank account was a bit of a gulp moment. Have you ever felt the same? Heard your inner voice telling you loudly “it’s the right thing to do, why are you hesitating?” “What are you scared of?”

I’m scared of making the step-change in my career, of failing, of coming up with excuses (time, work) not to do a course that cost me quite a bit of money. I’m worried I won’t be able to build a portfolio that shows prospective clients I do know what I’m doing and anxious that I may not even want to be a copywriter after the course. I don’t have a plan B.

In the early days of my career change course when the topic of conversation turned to re-education, I always remember being a bit reluctant. One of the reasons is because of my financial situation; I’m not able to take a year out of work to study, and the other is due to the amount of time that has passed since I left university. I wasn’t the most diligent student, regularly swapping French lessons for a trip to Top Shop to pick a new clubbing outfit for the weekend’s rave (oh those were the days!). I’ve done a couple of day and week courses over the years, and of course, the career change course which I stuck to, but the copywriting course feels a significant commitment. It’s got a much higher price on its head if you know what I mean; the outcome could make a huge difference. If I don’t make time for it, my dream of becoming a copywriter might never materialise, and with that the kind of lifestyle I want. I could actively sabotage my future.

And what if Plan A doesn’t pan out and copywriting isn’t for me? I’m sure I’ll panic, cry and most likely exaggerate the situation thinking the worst. However, finding it out on a course must be better than with a client. Could you imagine turning out a shoddy piece of work and potentially ruining a reputation you’re just building?

I have realised that even though I thoroughly enjoy content writing, which is what this column is, I’m not that keen on pitching stories to magazines or publications. Although I did pitch this column, and the blog writing service I mentioned in my last column (client is interested by the way, but can’t quite afford it now) I don’t feel smart enough to come up with a unique pitch. I do know I’m creative enough to come up with intriguing headlines or catchy copy because it’s got me noticed in my current job.

I also don’t have to specialise only on copywriting; I’ll genuinely welcome a blend of copywriting and content writing as they require different approaches and achieve different outcomes. Good copywriting aims to elicit an immediate response from its audience, generate sales and establish the image or raise awareness of a product or company. Content writing informs a reader and builds a relationship with them, which I hope I’ve done with you through this column. And we’re on column six! Time seems as though it’s passing more quickly in this weird COVID life, like being in Tardis.

And I don’t want to end on a sad note, but the saying ‘life is short’ was brought home to me when a friend of mine died recently after her fight with cancer. Rebecca was only 42, but boy did she have a great life. She jumped at opportunities, made things happen, took everything that life threw at her and said F**K You. Whilst we knew her diagnosis was terminal, it doesn’t make it any less painful, and when I found out, I went for a walk to clear my head. I walk in the countryside regularly, it’s a tonic for me, but this time I actively took life in. Bright green reeds moved gently in the flow of the stream; crows cawed in the trees and red kites swirled above. I felt and smelt what Rebecca can’t, the wind against my face and the smell of rain. I stared back at deer and wondered at a tiny bat who flew in front of me — it was a walk full of life which can end all too suddenly.

Rebecca wrote a blog* throughout her two bouts of cancer, and she wrote her last update in the event of her death. It’s titled “Over the finishing line”, and the accompanying image is of her waving a chequered flag in front of a poster depicting a Formula 1 racetrack (she was a huge F1 fan). Rebecca knew she would cross her finish line earlier than the rest of us, but generally, we don’t get a heads up of when we’re going to die. What would you do with your life if you knew you only had a couple of years to live? Would you travel the world and take on big adventures or spend time with close friends and family? I don’t’ know what I would do, but in all my hesitations, I can hear Rebecca telling me to ‘Just do it’. That well-known slogan of Nike, a company she’d dreamed of working with and luckily did. I can safely say she lived their brand slogan day in and day out.

While her last update is upsetting to read, there’s a line in it that resonates with me, “please don’t be sad for me, just re-channel that emotion into doing something amazing”. I can’t promise I won’t be sad, lovely lady, but I’ll try my hardest to do something amazing.

*If you want to read Rebecca’s candid and brilliantly written blog (she was a fantastic comms professional) visit buyabiggerbucket.com #boxyout

Learn from others and celebrate the small things

Before I start this month’s column, I have a confession to make. I haven’t updated my CV as I said I would. The post-it note is still on my wall. Quite a few things have happened since my last column, and the CV didn’t get done.

Firstly, I applied for a compressed working week, one of the options I was deliberating last month. Sadly, I was unsuccessful. I desperately need at least one day to myself to try and progress my creative career and had been led to believe this would be a simple request, alas no. I’d a heads up that I might not be successful, so I felt oddly calm and at peace with the outcome. When a decision is taken out of your hands, there’s little you can do. Becoming angry isn’t going to achieve anything, so while I’m frustrated, I also feel relief. I need to focus on my paid job, because I’m lucky to have one, and now I won’t feel guilty for not trying to do more on the creative side. If I can do bits here and there, great but if I don’t, no one is going to bang on my door. As I keep reminding myself, career change takes time, and sometimes life gets in the way.

Secondly, I found out a colleague in my team has also been running a side hustle throughout the pandemic, building a portfolio as a photographer. I was excited to be able to talk to someone who has the same ambition as me, to do more than work a 9-5 (I wish!) and can relate to the constant push and pull of the job that pays the bills and the creative outlet that is their passion. Changing career is hard and finding people to talk about it isn’t easy. Families may have reservations, friends might be in a completely different place to you, and you don’t necessarily want to tell work colleagues, who although you spend more time with, might let it slip. The last thing you want is questions about your commitment to the job or the assumption you’re looking for a new job.

My colleague Chloe and I had spent more time talking recently, mainly due to the pandemic. (Why does it take a pandemic to talk more?!) As we weren’t in the office, we were more proactive in checking up on each other, but apart from a joint interest in fitness, we didn’t have much in common. A 13-year age different might also play a part. So I was genuinely intrigued by the possibility of having a connection with her over and above work.

It turned out she too had her request for a compressed working week turned down. We commiserated with each other as she’d wanted to spend more time on her photography. Chloe’s done a lot over the last few months; taken courses, steadily built her photography client base and admitted she struggles to juggle both jobs. Her main gripe was finding time to plan content on her socials. At this point, the alarm bells started to ring; I don’t have a content plan.

Whilst I came away from our call relieved to be able to talk to someone I know about my career change, and excited to have something new in common, I started to feel jealous and frustrated. When I saw Chloe’s content marketing plan in action on her daily Instagram feed, I began to panic. Why don’t I do this? Why haven’t I created content and posted more things on my feed @r_a_word? It appeared she was achieving more than me, and I’d done nothing of significance. Rather than applaud and support my fellow sister, I focused inwardly on the lack of effort I had made.  I mulled these feelings over for about a week, flipping between being supportive of her work then wondering how I was going to find the time to pull together a content marketing plan let alone decide what content to push out that was of interest.  Digital content marketing is vital to be able to build awareness and interest in a business, but I struggle to think about what to share. Photography is a reasonably clear-cut profession; mine is a little more varied. I develop website copy (check out Helena Carrizosa’s creative coaching website if you’re stuck in a creative rut), write features and take part in flash fiction challenges, most recently for The Story Seed. I still haven’t figured out what my niche is, which is probably stopping me from promoting my work in the right way in the first place – that and not being 100% proficient on Instagram probably.

I forced myself to step back, gain some perspective and get a grip. Why was I fixating on a ‘content plan’? I know I have achieved things, and as luck would have it, there on my wall for precisely this moment was a message to remind me of my progress. Last month I’d added a post-it note to my pinboard with the headline; ‘Achievements’ and a small list of what I had achieved since June. I can measure my progress by putting pen to paper and laptop, doing what I am good at, writing. Not via an Instagram story or quiz.

I had and continue to write. I actively learn, whether by talking to other writers, listening to talks or doing courses. I put myself out there on The Dots in May and stuck my hand up to offer my services without really knowing what I was doing. I’ve emailed people and started to build relationships that I hope will bring in more work. I speak to other writers, recently with the previous sub-editor for the Monocle who turned out to be the husband of a colleague! And I write this column for you. I’m not paid for my writing currently, but I am writing and receiving positive feedback, and that’s a start, something to be proud of, especially with a full-time job.

But if I’m not actively promoting my work, I’ve no hope of being seen. I recognise I can and should do more, though I don’t want to push stuff out for the sake of it. Perhaps that is why I struggle to update LinkedIn or my CV; it’s not the right channel for me anymore. Until I build an online portfolio, my Instagram feed needs to be my writing CV; so long as it’s authentic to who I am. And this is where I think imposter syndrome and the very British way of behaving is hindering me.  How many of you promote yourselves, perhaps act more American, or dare I say it, more male? I think it’s difficult for us to toss aside the humble attitude and share our expertise in a way that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s a delicate balance, and I think Chloe has the answer. She has a ‘client review’ section on Instagram, where her clients share their feedback. It’s not Chloe boasting. So I will do the same. Ages ago, I asked clients for testimonials, and I have a bank of them ready to share. Yes admittedly it still feels a bit ‘look at me!’ but I need to share my talent if I am going to try and claw back a day to myself in the new year, be ready to accept work, and get paid for it. It’s promotion time folks!

And as I finish this column, an email from the brilliant copywriter, Kate Toon, has just popped up offering entry to her digital marketing coaching community. Serendipitous, I think!

By the way, if you’re looking for a photographer to capture a special occasion, wedding or family event, then do check out my colleague @chloecaldwellphotography. She also does some good quizzes 😊  

It’s all gobbledegook to me

Since I’ve started looking at roles in the creative industry, I’ve used it as an opportunity to educate myself on what these roles are, understand the skills required, and whether it highlights a skills gap I need to address. In the Internal Communication industry in which I work, I can interpret an Internal Communication job description easily. Still, some of the creative roles I’ve seen have me interested and confused in equal measure.  Just this morning I saw a Head of Email role. Interesting.

On LinkedIn, I came across a person’s job title, which stopped me in my tracks; Chief Changemaker. What a claim, it sure carries weight and impact. But what does this person do? Make sure change happens and sticks perhaps? How about a mid-weight designer? Maybe not as ‘wow’ as Chief Changemaker, more reminds me of boxing titles like a featherweight boxer. Can you imagine a designer walking into an interview accompanied by loud music, wearing a glitzy dressing gown and followed behind by an entourage? What an encounter that would be!

The Chief Changemaker was hiring, and one of the skills required in the new role was SEO, Search Engine Optimisation, which we all know about. I did expect SEO to come with a bit more of explanation though, something along the lines of “Understanding of SEO and ability to apply it to X, Y, Z”. But no, it was merely SEO. Is this all it needs to be understood? Because I didn’t get it the first time and had to ask a fellow freelance writer what she thought the role required. Not only did the writer tell me what she thought, but she also shared the SEO service she offers clients.  I now know why it’s essential to be more well versed in it and what it means to a copywriter, so I shall be looking at Google’s free SEO courses …!

If I think about it more, perhaps job descriptions are being written in the same way we take in information. We have shorter attention spans and don’t always want or have time to read a full-length feature. Headlines should grab your attention, and good ones can pretty much tell you everything you need to know, a bit like a film trailer. It’s why The Sun headline writers earn the most. Articles and videos online now indicate how long it will take you to read or watch them. And if I think about the internal communication job descriptions I have seen in the past they waffle on an awful lot. If you don’t know the industry, they won’t make sense which is what I’m experiencing as I read creative job descriptions. Ironically, we tend to write communication job descriptions in such a way that lack any ability to raise or pique someone’s interest. If you can’t engage and inspire the very people that will be communicating messages, what hope do you have?

I wrote a reverse job ad as part of my career change course this year, so instead of a company posting a job ad, I wrote a job ad based on the company I wanted to attract. The idea was to help me understand the role or the career I wanted in terms of what was important to me. For example, I was looking for a relatively small company, where I could start work between 09:00 and 10:00. I wanted to be inspired by my boss and work with a team genuinely focused on collaborative working. To be able to finish work early to go for a run/swim/ride was encouraged because the company knew it would increase employee engagement, and I was trusted to catch up on work in my own time. If you know of a company like this, and is hiring, let me know!

My job ad used simple language that made it clear what I wanted, much like the above. I think people forget how effective, simple messaging can be. Recently my manager asked me to sense check an email from our CEO. You’ll notice that throughout my writing, I’ve used contractions; Ive rather than I have.  I prefer this style, it’s more casual, informal and I think it suits this audience, you. The CEO’s email was a mixture of both, and because I’ve heard him talk and know personal messages land better, I changed the tone.  My manager appreciated the changes I’d made but said that as a CEO, it’s better to use a formal tone. Is this a relic from our past that still pervades, the notion that a CEO can’t let their guard down and must remain somewhat above their employees? Does a formal tone hold more sway?

When people walk into work, they don’t suddenly change the way they think, read, write or hear things, and I believe people forget this. To engage people, you need to understand the audience, what makes them tick, turns them off and switches them on. Why not choose simplicity and clarity over formality and complication? Ultimately let’s not be afraid of being more human. That Head of Email? It does what it says on the tin. Maybe the creative industry has a good thing going after all.