My 2013 In Review: Where I Screwed Up

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Whoops.

2013 in review, yay! Happiness, joy, triumph of the soul, financial freedom, a life of blissful….oh.

Let’s cut the crap.

Here are the things I got wrong last year.

Moneyplant

(1) Earning Enough Money

I recently mentioned to a writer friend that I was going to list all the things I hated about 2013. She knew of my financial struggles, and she said, “Why don’t you publish your earnings?” That idea kinda appealed to me . . . for about a third of a second. Then I started sweating ice.

Disclosure of income is a touchy subject (which is why this is so refreshing). It’s a potential well-spring of shame, and it’s always tough to talk about (unless you’re a jackass, of course). I’m not comfortable writing any of this. But what the hell, let’s do it anyway.

I don’t know if making money from writing is generally hard, but in my experience, there are many ways to end up not making any money from it. Writer beware. There are many dead ends and if you don’t value your work, literally, it’s pretty easy to hit the wall…

Except, hold on a second. I don’t want to lurch into spouting self-important generalisms. The way I’ve tackled going full-time freelance has been problematic, but it’s not because Self-Employed Writing Is A Mug’s Game or because Writers Are A Dying Breed or any of that sweeping-statement nonsense. I know many, many people who are doing well, who have put the pieces together and have found ways to do excellent, credible writing-based work, their way, building an income that allows them to be comfortable. I applaud them. I’m not one of them (yet). I lost a few steady freelance gigs this year, and it made things tricky.

However, I have spent the last 18 months earning enough from my writing to keep ticking along, despite two-fifths of my income going towards debt payments. I’ll take it, thanks.

I’ve been told, to my face, that I’m an idiot for not doing what many other bloggers do to make money that plays chicken with Google’s guidelines. “Sponsored posts”, for example: posts written by shady marketers, embedded with links that are primarily designed to pass pagerank in order to game Google’s search results. Or contextual paid links: the same thing, except embedded in my writing. Many bloggers are still making good money from running this stuff, even though Google has cracked down enormously, both algorithmically and in a human moderated sense. These practices probably won’t be around for much longer, but people are still making good money from it. I can’t quite blame them, because it’s good money which allows them to do the things they love. Plus, obviously, it’s none of my damn business what anyone else does.

Anyway, I did a little of it myself at one point. Go back a few years, and you’ll find me running a few paid links in the sidebar of this blog. I got paid a few hundred quid. It felt totally wrong, in ways I couldn’t articulate without sounding like an idiot.

Consequently, I absolutely will not do these things again, because I’m supposed to be earning a living from my writing, and doing these things to pay my bills and then claiming I was “living off my writing” would feel like cheating. That’s basically why. There are other reasons (eg. I don’t want to watch the Internet get junked up even further, I’d hate to see the work of writers I really admire get devalued, etc.) but it’s mostly self-interest. I just want to be happy with the way I make money.

I don’t run advertising, although I’d love to if it’s for services I really admire, and if it’s actual advertising. I don’t do affiliate sales, although that’d be a smart thing to do in some areas, and I’m considering it if I’m promoting work I believe in. I don’t (yet) have “products” that I sell through my blog, although I have stuff lined up – see (5) below. I very occasionally do things designed to promote & review destinations (like this trip, or my night at this hostel), but you’ll always know about it (read: full disclosure), I’ll always speak my mind, and I’m always hunting for the stories that serve everyone best.

More commonly though, I do copywriting for other people, I write articles for magazines and blogs, and now I’m helping individuals and small businesses with their writing & storytelling. As of this month, it’s yet again paying enough to keep ticking along. It’s still not enough to hack into my debts – and that’s why this year, I’ll be looking for part-time work, ideally online, that maybe isn’t any of the above.

The bottom line is: I’m still trying to make it work, and for it to truly work out, for me to truly feel like I’m succeeding, I have to get paid enough from the writing to live on.

That’s when I consider it successful.

I’m not far off. Not far at all. Thrillingly close, some months. But every step of 2013, my debts were in the way. Many times this year, I just wanted to be back in a normal job, just for a while, and stop the near-constant anxiety and the continual shelving of fun plans because I just couldn’t afford to do them. Back in April I knew I didn’t want to do the “professional travel blogger” thing (if that’s really a thing – everyone seems to be tackling it differently). What has changed since then is that I’m also not prepared to struggle when doing so is stopping me from doing work that shows every sign of paying off if I get it truly underway. If I keep chasing short-term stuff for practical reasons, the long-term stuff continually has to get sidelined, barring odd hours squeezed into my ‘Having A Life’ time. If that keeps happening…well, I’ll end up with no long-term work.

I love this job, even when it has been at its most blood-curdlingly scary. And I love it enough to want to financially protect myself a lot better than I did in 2013, to fund it partly by other means, and to have other sources of income I can use to invest in all this.

So, that’s the plan this year. I’m on the look-out.

Baseball

(2) I Didn’t Pitch For Enough Work

If you’re a freelance writer and you’re not getting your articles commissioned and published, you’re probably pitching too low or you’re not pitching enough (or both). I can’t work out which I was most guilty with, so I’m tackling both of these in the coming year, with the help of Leigh Shulman‘s “Rule of 13”:

[quote]Keep at least 13 pitches out at all times. When you receive a yes, remove that pitch from your list and send another. If you receive a no, take the article, refine and send to another publication. [/quote]

 – from Quick & Dirty Guide to Pitching, available for free if you sign up to Leigh’s mailing list here.

If you want to see what a healthy pitching rate looks like, check out Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s yearly pitching roundup.

But there’s something else about pitching, something tricky, that I think I finally wised up to in 2013, and it’s this: pitching is faking. No, really. In my experience and from talking to other people, if someone pitches for something that is going to pay them what they’re worth, they just won’t feel they’re ready. It will be far too intimidating. It will chill the marrow of their bones. Failure will feel guaranteed – so if they want to get that pitch out the door, they will have to fake it. They have to pretend they’re someone who is up to the job. That’s the only way, and it’s entirely normal. Your emotions and your self-confidence aren’t ready – so ignore what they’re telling you and just send the bloody thing out to see what happens next.

I think this is called “being a grown-up”.

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(3) I Forgot I Work Better With People Around Me

A few months back, I discovered Coffitivity, a site that streams the murmuring hubbub of a coffee shop at various times of the day. I can’t work with music playing, too distracting, so I tend to write in silence – but when I booted up the sound of people nattering over drinks, I immediately felt more focused . . .

…and happier.

There are reasons digital entrepreneurs sit working together in coffee shops. There’s a buzz. At first, I thought it was just about ambient noise, but it’s more than that. It’s people – friends and strangers alike. Last year, I worked alone and in silence far too often, forgetting how much I love working on trains and at airports. I’ve now decided I need people around me to do my best work, and at least 4 days a week, I’m working out of coffee shops. Let’s do this.

(4) I Didn’t Travel Enough (Again)

It’s easy to blame (1) for this, and yes, it’s obviously a major factor. I visited 3 new countries in 2013, but spent the bulk of my time in the north of England. I’d love to hit the road for a while. The reason I haven’t has mainly been to do with capital for buying tickets and making down-payments up front. This has been the case for years now. That’s why I’m changing the way I make money this year.

(A more recent reason, hopefully only for the next month, is that very soon I’ll be looking after my Ma after she goes into hospital to have surgery. I’ll be sticking around until she’s back on her feet.)

So, not a lot of travel going on.

But…let’s define “travel” for a second.

Last August, I did this. It didn’t cost me anything beyond a day’s rations and a day’s lost earnings, which I compensated for. It was exhausting and eye-opening and fun and occasionally it was utter agony – all the things I look for in a meaningful travel experience.

It was over in 24 hours, and all I did was walk 30 miles. It felt like actual, genuine “travel”.

Then I came back and I wrote up everything I saw while I was walking, like pillboxes crumbling into the sea (above). I’m still writing it up. And at no point was (1) a factor in this.

In 2014, I’ll be heading out of England as often as I can possibly manage (first up might be Orkney) – but while I’m still based up here, I’m going to throw myself into a ton of backyard blogging, to see what’s on my doorstep, hone my observational skills, and try to look past my over-familiarity with this corner of the North to find out what’s really here.  This is going to be a good year for Yorkshire, and it’s the perfect time to get to know it a little better.

Eee, that’d be grand.

Bookrow

(5) I Didn’t Build Writing Assets

A while back, I read this. It made enormous sense. I read it again. It made enormous sense again. I made notes, I reread it (again, total sense) – and then I went back to freelancing as normal.

Now that didn’t make any sense.

I don’t want to be someone who continually has to create new work to pay the bills. That’s not what I want out of life. I want to build a body of work that doesn’t need me around to keep generating income. That’s why content marketers build products and that’s why people become authors. Over time, you develop a larger body of work and, therefore, a greater number of ways to get paid. If you’re worried about writing being a fickle and insecure way to make a living, this is a great way to future-proof yourself.

It’s terrific to make something and be paid for it – but if you can find a way to keep getting paid for it, you’re laughing.

I’m now planning to make 2014 the year of Great Laughter.

AyiaNapa

6) I Didn’t Eat Enough Olives

I’m putting this in because a lot of friends hate olives and because I love them – always have, always will – so it serves the dual purpose of being both honest and trouble-making.

But what I really mean is “I Didn’t Eat Enough Olives Where I Used To Eat Olives.”

I miss Cyprus, land of my childhood.

So that’s a challenge for this year.

50 Things WORKING-001

(7) I Didn’t Write Enough Things For Free

Maybe you’re comparing this to (1) and concluding I’m an idiot. That’s a fair reaction – but let me explain.

There is no rational answer to the question “Should writers write for free?” The closest I can manage is “YES/NO!”, which is of course utterly useless. This is much better (thanks, Pam Mandel), although it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Free-writing is always something to judge case by case, and it’s always about balancing risk with income. I won’t write for free without a clear idea of why I’m doing it – to nail down in advance a specific return for doing it, even if it’s something as simple as “I’m a big fan of your stuff, can I write something for you?”

Writing for free without knowing why? That’s insane. Just don’t. Do something else. Really.

So I’m talking about targeted free-writing, designed to do stuff. Blog guest posts, for example – actual guest posts, where you have to work extra-hard to be interesting because nobody knows who you are or initially gives a damn. Here’s another way of working for free that makes sense to me: I wrote this short e-mail course a month ago. It took me a week, and I released it for free. It hoped it would help people think about the things I’ve been yakking about online over the last year, and beyond that, maybe, just maybe, lead to a little more client work. That’s exactly what has happened – plus, it was really fun.

You write for free? You must be crazy / yes, totally makes sense.

Hope that clears things up.

(8) We Probably Didn’t Hang Out

Chances are, we didn’t hang out in 2013.

Or if we did it was ridiculously briefly, and I probably didn’t even buy you a drink.

Let’s change that. New year, new rules.

Sound a better plan?

Images: Mike Sowden, theilr, Tax Credits, Jason M. Parrish, TeryKats and GoodPutty.
  • #8. Nail on the head. We didn’t hang out at all at TBEX and you totally did NOT buy me a drink. Way to ruin my 2013, buddy.

    • It’s true. We finally met at last, and then I caught sight of those pieces of cheese wrapped in frozen maple syrup, and…and…

      Yeah. Sorry.

  • Since the ferry for Orkney departs from Aberdeen, I’m pretty sure you should add crashing on the couch of a couple with four children to your list of things that are fun + utter agony. :)

  • the “professional travel blogger” thing (if that’s really a thing – everyone seems to be tackling it differently)

    RIGHT. Every time I try to think about it properly my brain starts seeping softly out my ears.

    I really enjoyed your microadventure and am pleased to see Yorkshire getting the Accolades It Deserves At Last.

  • Hi Mikeachim, Nice to read about your 2013. It was refreshing. I got a kick about writing more and definitely pitching more this year!

  • And here I thought that the great failed cheese handoff(s) would be at the top in flashing lights as the #1 screw up of the year. Where are your priorities, Mike? I do hope that sharp cheddar cheese in Berlin are both part of of your 2014 goals.

    I so understand the idea of being happy and whole with the how you make money, not just that you make money. Here’s to 2014 as the year of Great Laughter!

  • And by “digital asset” I hope you mean something I can pay good money for, download on to a portable device and ROFL at for a while in 2014. You gotta join me, Sowden… I’m lonely in the world’s largest rainforest on my own!

  • Linda

    Oh, Mike, life just gets more complicated and confusing and amazing as you age, so hang on… count me a new fan.

  • I am completely impressed with your sense of humour there in this post. You are saying bitter things but these are truth and nothing else. I am pretty much like you, be straight be upfront rather than lies and try to portray sweet fake stories. what you have written in this article piece is a practical world around us and how things are happening as well as how different people, writters, bloggers and readers are taking / doing things their way on what they feel is right. Great post and I really enjoyed reading through it. Cheers! Wish you a great 2014.

  • Loved this post Mike! I kept nodding (with a huge grin) when I read “pitching is faking”.

    And this is what I always tell people. There’s never a clean line between amateur and professional. We set those boundaries ourselves. Earlier on, I pitched way before I was ready on paper because, what was the worse that could happen? No word?

    What if on occasion we do hear back from that editor of that pub that people thought we weren’t ready for?

    That’s how I approach it and it’s been fruitful in many ways. I usually jump in first and then remember, oh crap! I can’t swim that well but I can float :)

    Also, this -> (5) I Didn’t Build Writing Assets <- 2014 is going to be all about this.

    Build once, earn forever. That's been my challenge and that's what I'm going to be working on as well.

    Wishing you a superb 2014!

    L

  • paul martin

    404 error: Under (5) A while back, I read this ….

    So it shows I read most of this nicely written piece

  • I love the idea of the year of great laughter. I think its always important to be honest to ourselves at least on our big screw ups. Its always a bit more real when we are honest to the world on our screw-ups. That’s huge and I wish you a great 2014. Hope its been going well so far!