Freelancer – Five Months In

Avoid Freelancer. It’s a race to the bottom.

That’s the first bit of advice I received when I assumed the role of ‘definitely a copywriter’.

Actually, that was the second piece of advice. You know, after, “What the fuck are you doing? You don’t even know how to use commas?!

It was a valuable lesson from a real life writer. That’s why I ignored it.

Now five months in, and still experiencing professional freefall, I’ll happily admit he was right.

Yes. Freelancer is a race to the bottom.

Not because the money’s dreadful. That’s a given.

No, it’s a race to the bottom because most employers don’t want words, they want tripe. Or they want writers who are happy to transform their tripe into andouillette.

I guess that’s great if you’re developing a haggis-shaped, entry-level portfolio. But maybe it’s not so great if you aren’t.

As I’m going for more of a century egg vibe, I’ve been forced to trash a lot of blue collar, gourmet work.

So I thought I’d post what I’ve learned about Freelancer here. It’s expert advice. Yes, all $291.48 and €17 of it.

How’s Freelancer Different From Other Platforms?

It’s not.

Freelancer isn’t really that different from other online freelance marketplaces. Whether you’re comparing to Upwork, Fiverr, or Worksome. Sure one’s got a blue logo, one has a light green logo, another’s more bile-tinged, but the principles are the same.

The setup’s simple. Employers post projects, then freelancers submit proposals to secure them. In the case of copy writing, employers review the proposals then select a worthy butcher.

When bidding for a project, success depends on a range of factors. How willing the writer is to work for below minimum wage, how many times they’ve already whored themselves out (ironically, the more the better), and whether the person still has enough savings to pay for their proposal to appear first. 

However, while the other sites are largely the same, my experiences on Freelancer have been strange.

Freelancer Employers Love Sex and Erotica

First, I noticed that a lot of employers on Freelancer are perverts.

The first project I won was to rewrite the SEO title, meta description and footer for a premier adult tube, let’s call it Sleaze Miners.

This job was legit and quite fun.

I thought my work was particularly creative too. Here’s a sample:

Sleaze Miners dig deep down the shaft of depravity to bring you the hottest, wettest, nastiest free porn videos online. Cum penetrate our latest hardcore quarry.

Henry’s First Freelance Writing Project

It’s good, isn’t it?! I bet you would have taken the easy option and misinterpreted the ‘Miners’ bit.

Anyway, great. That’s a realistic, manageable project. But it’s definitely about sex.

A lot of the listings just are.

Last week I stumbled on a job listing to write an op-ed for Ian Cox.

Haven’t heard of him?

He’s a sexual-explorer-cum-inventor who discovered how to extend the duration of the male orgasm 14-fold. How? By tying cords around his testacles.

He wanted someone to pitch an article about his life’s work to Men’s Health. I would have helped, but his blog made me realise my complete sexually inadequacy. Seven minutes? Surely not.

Seperately, back in August I wrote a wonderful listicle for rather ameuturish erotic sex shop, Heated Erotica

Unfortunately, my work wasn’t accepted. Apparently ‘Premature Ejaculation Needn’t Be The End’ didn’t satisfy.

Lesson 1: Freelancers full of deviants who need help peddling their perversions. More evidence that sex sells.

You Can Specialise In Writing Fake Reviews

You know Alibaba?

It’s the online marketplace where you can order industrial quantities of crap from China. Westerners buy goods by the container, then sell them to their gluttonous neighbours through Amazon’s Fulfillment service.

So yeah, Alibaba is the Amazon FBA Seller’s Mecca.

A lot of would be Amazon FBA Sellers commission work on the platform. So, it seems funny that a lot of Chinese manufacturers regularly post listings offering $40 for a fake review on the platform

I guess it’s hard to police.

Lesson 2: Freelancer is the reason your Amazon FBA Business failed.

Coders Prefer Upwork To Freelancer

Why is this relevant? Well, Freelancer taught me that coders prefer Upwork.

How?

Chinese coders regularly offer me $200 a month to use my Upwork Account and IP Address

Don’t worry, you won’t be caught in the middle of price fixing scandal if you just say no. 

Lesson 3: Freelancer and Upwork appear to be in cahoots.

Native English Speakers Can Charge A Premium

A lot of freelancers claim to be expert English writers, but don’t speak the language. 

That’s why it’s so easy to make a killing on Freelancer in the copywriting competitions.

However, it’s a double edged sword. A lot of employers can’t speak English either. 

This can make it quite the challenge when you’ve been commissioned to write a tagline or come up with a new brand name. 

As a tip, I’ve found that they often like fancy Latin words and portmanteau name suggestions.

For instance, if they have a fitness brand and their core values are love, you’d be onto a winner if you suggested a name like LoNess, or Squit (love squeeze fitremember, the ‘love’ is silent).

Practically, it means that a lot of the briefs are pretty shit. 

But that’s a new skill for your CV, right?

Lesson 4: If the future is Freelancer, the future is broken English.

Freelancer Forever

Perhaps I should stop staring into my screen, but scarily, I think Freelancer represents the future. 

How can you justify hiring, let’s say an illustrator full-time at £25k pa, when you can commission a logo that’s 80% there for £5?

Maybe the road towards meritocracy is acceptance that right now, employers might be overvaluing output and skills.

Lesson 5: Perhaps the future is writing about sex and letting other people use your IP address.

Inspired By Freelancer

On a less dour note, Freelancer has been a great inspiration for Secret Santa presents. 

If I get a job by December, I’m getting my secret santa these testicle tighteners.

Two Month’s Hospitality: What Henry Learned Waiting Tables

Last week, I finished waiting tables at a burger joint. Yes, I officially threw in the towel. Two jobs down in three months, it’s confirmed, I’m a quitter.

I’d taken the job because I realised without one, I couldn’t keep telling everyone I was a down-and-out writer. Like, there was no way anyone was going to believe me when I tried to rewrite Down and Out in Paris and London, after lucking out and convincing one of my rich friends to fund the novel.

No, I needed real world experiences. Experiences away from bright offices, dual monitor setups, misguided aspirations and meetings about the merits of shared calendars. (I’m lying, I actually needed the money)

And, after two months I can attest, the experience was revelatory. Definitely worth it.

First and foremost, it taught me that the people who work in restaurants are rad and lovely people. They’re not even mean when they realise you’re the worst goddamn waiter they’ve ever met.

So, to save you from going through the same harrowing struggles that will lay the foundations for my bestselling book, Waiter to Hater, I’ve spent this Friday afternoon writing down everything I’ve learned from working in the hospitality industry:

1. It helps if you know what you’re serving people

I’m proud to say that while I was a waiter, I got a lot of people’s orders wrong. Probably more orders than anyone has ever got wrong (no, I’m not that cool)!

Even when I wasn’t getting people’s orders wrong, I was at least pretending I had, by incorrectly announcing what I’d brought to the table.

Here’s a gem of story, to help you understand. By way of background, some guy at table 67 had ordered a milkshake. I picked up said milkshake from the bar, and proceeded to take it to his table.

Henry: “Sir, here’s your lager.”

Discerning patron: “But I ordered a milkshake.”

*Look down at the glass. Yes, it’s clearly a milkshake*

Henry: “Oh, yeah, it’s a milkshake. Look, it’s milkshake coloured, in a milkshake glass and has a straw. I said it was a lager because, um, I have a drinking problem.”

Discerning customer: “Hmm, I’m not sure that looks like a milkshake.”

Henry: “Why not taste it and see?”

Discerning patron: “Ok.”

Discerning patron tastes the milkshake.

Discerning patron: “Hmmm.” Takes another sip. “Hmm, yes, that’s definitely a lager.”

At which point, I proceeded to take the milkshake back to the bar, told the bartender I needed a milkshake, not a lager, to which the bartender replied, but that’s definitely a milkshake.

So I had to go back to the discerning customers table, and tell him it was definitely a milkshake.

It’s as if I was doing it on purpose, you know, to make him look stupid.

I think some people thought scenarios like this were a routine I’d invented. It wasn’t, I just couldn’t see very well without my glasses on.

Lesson 1: If you’re a waiter and you don’t know what something is, just leave it at the bar and get someone else to take it for you. It’s best that you never talk to customers, because they’ll always think you’re trying to patronise them.

2. If someone’s sick, you’ve made an honest tip

There was an eating challenge at the burger joint. 

Customers had 15 minutes to eat an ice-cream float covered in chilli, some peppers stuffed with couscous and chilli, and um, a five litre box of sweet potato fries covered in chilli. I mean, it’s at least 26 minutes worth of food.

If someone managed to eat this monstrous concoction in fifteen minutes or less (and I mean all of it), they wouldn’t have to pay for their meal. 

You guessed it, the prize was free stomach ache!

Anyway, occasionally, people would request to do the challenge, and just to make sure no one was cheating, waiting staff had to stand there and watch them gorge themselves.

On one occasion, I was trusted to time someone competing in the challenge. By the end of it, had a £10 tip.

How do you ask?

Was it because I was so great at timing? Cheering the boy on? Telling his friend not to call him a fat little piggy? 

Not at all! It was because after attempting the eating challenge, the poor lad went into the men’s room and was sick everywhere.

He was so sick that there was vomit on the bathroom walls.

Now, I’m not complaining about sick. I mean, I regularly drink too much, and have to clean up mysterious vomit, that I assume is deposited by housemates next to my bed, almost every morning.

But, when the customer ordered another double JD and coke, he must have seen me walk out of the bathroom wearing rubber gloves and a look of disdain. 

He promptly dropped £10 on the table and left.

Lesson 2: People being sick = tips! To subsidise your wage, you need to make people sick. Then make sure they know you’re the one who cleaned all the vomit up! It’s genius.

3. Stag dos promote nondiscrimination

A lot of people on stag dos booked tables at the restaurant, and then arrived drunk and on the lookout for hot dogs. 

Sometimes, I was allowed to take their orders. 

When doing so, I often discovered a lot of inebriated men, who liked to ask me to perform fellatio on them. I guess it’s great, they must think I look pretty, and they’re much more into experimentation than they probably are when they’re sober.

Lesson 3: Drunk men in groups really care about the service, and don’t make judgements based on gender.

4. It’s all about the booths man

Did you know restaurants that only have booths (you know, those American-type diner seats), get way more customers. 

The most common thing you’ll hear when interviewing people about what makes a restaurant is, “God! I’d never go to a restaurant if I couldn’t sit in a booth. I mean, come on. That’s the only reason I go out.

Seating at the restaurant I was working at was made up of a mixture of booths and not so booth-ey seats.

Sometimes I had to take people to their seats. 

Customers routinely became irate when they were led to the not-so-booth-ey seats.

Lesson 4: People really care about where they sit. Why? Because they’re stupid.

5. “When you gaze long into [a restaurant], the [restaurant] also gazes into you…

Before Nietzsche started working at DC Comics, he worked in a restaurant. How else can you explain that overused quote?

Having read a lot of comics, I can tell you what it means.

If you work somewhere too long, it has a habit of becoming part of you, and when you have a bun toaster embedded in your abdomen, it’s hard to remember how magical a trip out to dinner once was.

Instead, spectres will swirl around whispering, “Clean the menus. Stop those tables from wobbling. Did you take an Amex payment from the couple sitting at the bar. Why didn’t they pay service? How did you get so much sauce everywhere when all you had to do was squeeze the bag and try to get the sauce in the little pots for the customers.”

Working in a restaurant, even for a very short amount of time, made me feel like they’re kind of like DIsneyland. You know, like it’s all fake, and however much I want to take the adolescent man in a disney princess suit back to my shared accommodation, there’s a certain type of sweat that you can just never get out of your sheets.

Every time I now go into a restaurant, I just see cardboard boxes. And how part of my bill’s paying for the privilege of sitting on them.

Lesson 5: If you still get butterflies when you think about going to a restaurant, don’t start working in one.

6. Government intervention doesn’t always help individuals

London’s expensive and working in a burger restaurant doesn’t pay that well. I mean, it pays better than some other jobs, but it’s still not great. 

One of the biggest challenges my colleagues spoke about was zero hour contracts, and how your hours (despite the best efforts of management) were speculative. In practice, this meant you could be booked to work eight hours, but as the restaurant wasn’t very busy, you’re sent home early, and paid less. 

Zero hour contracts aren’t the problem I’m writing about though. I’m writing about zero hours contracts and mandated 20 minute breaks, for every six hours worked.

In practice, breaks could be given based on speculative hours, which didn’t materialise. So, while you would have previously expected to have earned 4 hours pay for four hours work, this quickly becomes three hours, 40 minutes pay, because it seemed like you were going to be staying later, and were asked to take a break. 

While there’s no doubt that everyone should receive breaks (I mean, we live in the west), when you’re already having trouble paying rent, forcing people to have their pay cut by 20 minutes, could easily be interpreted as a kick in the teeth.

Lesson 6: People working in restaurants really need to pull their fingers out. They should all be working much harder to reply to all public Government consultations on labour market reform.

7. The Sandman’s a vengeful bastard

Over the last two months, I frequently found myself volunteering or writing something for someone during the day, then going to work in the evening. 

If I’m honest, the flexibility was great, allowing me to focus on what I really wanted to do during the day. However, I found that working shifts really messes with your sleep pattern.

Although the latest I ever finished was 12:45, I routinely found myself getting home at 2:00am, proceeding to eat, then going to bed at 3:30am, to repeat the same cycle, often for eight or nine days running.

It’s something that’s easy to forget when working a nine to five. Even if you’re working less hours than someone on a forty hour week, if they’re sporadic, it can make you even less productive in your free time.

Lesson 7: If you’re working shifts, stop watching TV in bed. You’re never going to get that time back

8. A lot of people seem really bored with their lives

I served a lot of couples. 

They sat in booths, drank too much and stared at their phones. 

I’m not suggesting that I don’t do the same thing, but watching it made me feel pretty sad.

It was as if it was a weekend cycle: 

Get out of bed, take the train to London, go the restaurant, buy too much food, drink too many cocktails, get a little passive aggressive with each other, feel like you’ve done something for the day, get the train back to Kent, die.

Lesson 8: Weekends as a couple living outside of London can be bleak. Point me in the direction of the nearest bus stop, because my bones need a’ breakin’.

9. Whatever you do, it’s hard not to let it dominate your life

Whatever you do, when you spend all day with the same people, doing the same things, it’s hard not to repeat the same conversations, and it’s difficult not to get hung up on little changes to things.

Whether it’s a dish that’s been removed from a menu, a lime in coke, or the appointment of a new Director of HR, the conversations follow the same structure and the revelations are the same. 

Lesson 9: A lot of things about work stay the same, whatever your occupation.

Maybe working’s just not for me.

Yeah, paid work’s definitely for losers

or how Henry got a job in a burger joint

Hey, I wanna ask you a question.

Imagine I’m pointing my finger at you (the right one).

Yeah, you.

Now you’re looking back at me.

Savings are great, aren’t they?

Now, imagine you’re looking perplexed.

Seriously, are they?

Wait, don’t say anything, I’ve already had this conversation with you in my head. It went like this:

You: “Why are you asking?

Me: “Oh, I don’t know. Do they make you feel warm at night? Could you paint me a picture with a background of green and blue, just like that of the glorious five pound note? Something to help me relax before exiting the cornershop with cans of special hidden under my hoodie?

Me: “Why are you looking at me so strangely?

Me: “Ok, fine. I admit it. I just wanted to talk about money. Or lack of it.

I don’t know why it took so long to get here, but it’s finally happened. The ATM will no longer give me money.

On a positive note, my bank balance now has two letters after it, DR. I’m not entirely sure what it means though. Maybe damn radical? Sure.

At least there’s some solace in Lloyds, Barclays, or whoever, finally realising it’s cool that I can’t pay my overdraft fees. After all that pain in 2008, the banking sector must no longer be full of losers (I’m joking, of course it still is).

I don’t really want to link the two (and I’m not sure if I should), but I keep feeling like I should.

I have no money and I quit my job a month ago. Surely there’s no correlation?

I mean, work just brings pain right?

Let’s move to a commune and reek of patchouli

Initially, no money wasn’t an issue.

It was like I was living in a commune with my flatmates. I, the entertainer, was rewarded with stolen tobacco, half finished beers, and tea spoons of hummus clinging to the pot’s lid.

But then they noticed I was licking the lids of their pots of hummus and stopped letting me use their washing liquid.

Not washing was fine though.

I mean, bin liners are perfect for hiding guts developed in servitude.

What fits better than a bin liner when pretending you can play electric piano?

However, some people didn’t get it, and despite being breezy, it wasn’t helping me find a way to get money.

Finally though, they got sick of the bin liner and the landlord started asking for the rent.

No longer young enough to attract richer older women, I had to find myself a job.

Who’d have thought it? I mean, it was going to totally ruin my quest to become the greatest copywriter ever.

It also seemed ridiculous.

What was the point of quitting my previous job if I had to getting another fucking one?!

Turns out I’ll never know.

A month of failure

I wasn’t worried. Henry’s are grafting men; take Henry the Hoover, and um, King Henry VIII. The latter was so busy he only managed to have one son!

No one else seemed to realise this though.

Despite spending the end of May applying for the lowest paid, hardest, least office type jobs I could find (within walking distance), I didn’t get a single call back.

No, not from Oslo, a bar in Hackney, where I applied to assist k-holing patrons from south London home, or even at Hackney Council as a groundsman, despite how I had two arms and wore a bin bag (so like, my clothes wouldn’t get dirty when I was digging stuff).

It was a real shame. A real shame indeed.

The biggest shame of all though was that as an aspiring and talented writer (yeah, I’ve been unemployed for a month so I can now legitimately call myself a writer), people were definitely not set alight by my CV.

And I didn’t immediately understand why.

It was full of great short and long keywords, like:

‘the hunkiest bar man you’ll ever need’

‘bricks and mortar baby – aka, I’ll stand the test of time’, and

‘I definitely didn’t just walk out of my previous job without giving any notice and they definitely didn’t fire me. It was a mutual thing. They knew that I was definitely not the right fit. The right fit? Oh, you know, I just liked working too hard and taking orders so much and excelling at my work so much. Oh yeah, I mean we agreed I’d leave because I was making everyone else look so bad.’

Henry’s CV, May 2019

And I’d even lied about last job, stating that I was definitely less important than I actually was so people wouldn’t be as intimidated by me.

Clerk of the Stationary Cupboard formerly known as King. The Department for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport (haha, get it?!)
June 2017 – May 2019

Henry

So what the hell was going wrong?

How to get a job that pays £8.21 an hour

Then I realised, I was being way too smart for my own good. The people reading my CV didn’t know anything about long keywords. They probably weren’t very good at reading either! (actually. they were, they just didn’t spend all day sitting around reading things and talking to other people about them at the tea point, so had less opportunity to scrutinise)

The best action I could possibly take was to copy and paste all of the key phrases from the job description onto my CV and title them as previous roles responsibilities.

It was so simple!

Clerk of the Stationary Cupboard formerly known as King
June 2017 to May 2019
Responsibilities: To be proud of Bromley Court Hotel’s rich 200 year history and years of experience offering comfortable surroundings, superb food and personal service to all of their guests.

Henry’s CV, June 2019

So I did. I also moved down all of my recent experience and listed some bars that I definitely used to work at.

It was funny because it actually worked.

And now I have a job, waiting tables for 40 hours a week at a burger joint.

And it’s great.

Where else is a successful Hollywood director going to meet a dashing and incredibly handsome waiter that looks like he should definitely be the next Spider Man (four’s the charm, isn’t it?)

And when he does, I’ll make sure I get his order wrong so he has a reason to give me his business card.

Paid work’s for losers

Or how Henry started volunteering, again.

Three weeks ago, I decided to become the greatest copywriter EVER.

To realise my dreams of getting paid £700 a day to write nonsense, I needed to complete my seven point plan.

I’d already ticked off #7: become the coolest kid in Hackney.

How? By going to eight free gigs and writing awful reviews about them. It was irrefutably confirmed when L.A. Peach responded to me positively on Twitter, just after I’d demolished his band.

Clearly I was very, very cool. But that was only one-seventh of the plan.

Two kisses. Seems like L.A. Peach might want to cut me a slice!

Then I remembered that I’d done some research (went to the library and borrowed some books that I definitely didn’t read – reading isn’t cool).

So there were only five points left to complete!

Where next? #2 and #3 of course: develop a kickass portfolio and get some experience.

Surely that’d be achievable in a week.

But who could I trick into letting me work for them when I had absolutely no experience?

I settled on asking my sister’s fiancé if he’d pretend that he was the author of a pre-written reference in exchange for a hand in not failing his medical degree. It was genius, I’d get a reference to put in my portfolio that he could also send to prospective employers! (Like they were going to read a portfolio and a reference)

To minimise the prospect of him saying no, I cooked up an offer that no medical student could refuse.

It was easy. Everyone knows it but, the hardest thing about med school is remembering all the body parts. So to help him not fail his degree, I was prepared to revolutionise his studies with a new take on Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

And it wasn’t even very much work! I was just going to replace some of the classic body parts with more complicated ones, like femur and collar bone!

Femur, collar bone, knees and toes, knees and toes.

Those body parts were SO complicated, the idiot would probably never realise that the song wasn’t that different.

Then I went over and saw that he was already watching this video of the exact same song. Damn, I couldn’t compete with something that good. (The link’s a really shoddy YouTube video. It’s got over 400 million views, but it looks like it was made by a predator. Maybe success in the future is going to be all about making creepy videos for neglectful parents).

Unable to think of anything else that I could help him with, I returned to the drawing board.

The Hackney Gazette Fiasco

Like all those who run out of ideas, I started thinking about how I could reuse my existing content.

It wasn’t long before a great rehashing project came to mind.

Last week I’d written a review about a local eatery, Homerton’s Kingfisher. Maybe to build up a portfolio I could get my review into one of the local papers. It’d be just like getting published (kind of)!

So I rewrote my review for the local press.

If you want to give it a go, the process is simple:

  • Add a dash of amateurism (make it less professional)
  • A touch of character (make it more effusive)
  • A sprinkle of authenticity (added some typos), and
  • Make sure it’s totally PG (remove the expletives)

However, despite sending my revised copy to Time Out, the Londonist, Hackney Citizen, Hackney Today and Hackney Gazette with one extremely persuasive email about how they would be totally unauthentic if they didn’t carry it, only Hackney Gazette got back to me:

Hackney Gazette clearly not stating that they were about to misrepresent me in print (the bastards)

Still, one out of five wasn’t bad.

I was pleased. In the email Hackney Gazette all but confirmed that they were going to publish my review. I couldn’t wait to find out how much money they were going to pay me.

But then they just went silent.

A couple of days later, the paper published an interview with the owner of the Kingfisher.

Upon reading it, I was shocked.

The Hackney Gazette were running a quote from me?! They hadn’t even got in touch to ask me for one. Instead, they had the nerve to make one up out of my revised article, as if I was some sort of dick.

The worst thing was that the quote was completely unrepresentative (I’d rewritten these lines for Hackney Gazette because it was in line with their style guide):

Delighted customer Henry told the Gazette: “While there are already a great range of vegan eateries in Hackney, from the Black Cat Cafe to the Temple of Seitan, what’s different about the Kingfisher is that it’s somewhere you wouldn’t expect to find a vegan menu.

“As an independent, family-owned business, it’s exciting to see them trying out new things.”

Hackney Gazette, I didn’t realise there were so many vegans, says Homerton chip shop owner

Damn. When everyone saw the article they were going to think I was a lot less cool.

By trying to complete #2 and #3 of my plan, I’d jeopardised becoming the coolest kid in Hackney.

I’m never delighted. Fuck being delighted.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The article didn’t carry my name as author, I received no cheque, and pretty much all of the story (except the interview with the owner) was word-for-word what I’d written in my write-up.

I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trust a journo, even if they only work for Archant.

I also learned that if someone sends you an email, you’re definitely okay to use bits of it as a quote that you can publish online.

But I wasn’t that bitter. At least I’d got the Fish & Chip shop in the paper – they’d probably now give me free fries.

I also had a second reason to live. In addition to becoming the greatest copywriter EVER, I was also now going to have to destroy the Hackney Gazette.

Realistically, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to burn the Hackney Gazette down until I had the resources of a world-class copywriter available to me.

Volunteering means working for free

Great.

Having exhausted all other options, I had to do something that I really didn’t want to.

I needed to start volunteering again.

So I made an account on do-it.org, the peer-to-peer volunteering website and started searching for the perfect opportunity.

While looking it appeared that a lot of old people are lonely. It made me wonder why they don’t make them make friends with each other, or are old people too good for that?

Finally, I found an opportunity for a lead copywriter at a local, Hackney based plc. The organisation will remain anonymous (in case they read my blog), but it was perfect, as it said no experience necessary.

Surprisingly, the offer of a native-English speaking copywriter really interested them. And I was definitely English.

I just hoped that this wasn’t going to turn out like the last time I volunteered:

  • Branded as unemployed in the local press (despite the fact that I had an enviable post in Jobcentre Plus)
  • Aligned with the Conservative Party (shock horror)
  • Having to hang out with other unemployed people (gross), and
  • Eventually securing a job that I, oh so adored in central Government.

I mean, that definitely couldn’t happen again, right?

Heat up the branding iron

or how Henry misinterpreted lukewarm as cool

A crucial step in my seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER involved making sure that everyone in London knew I was the coolest kid in Hackney.

Out of 32 London boroughs, Hackney was definitely the coolest (how isn’t being 98% over the European legal limit for nitrogen dioxide emissions a middle finger straight up at the man?) and if I managed to become the coolest kid in Hackney, I’d probably be the coolest kid in London.

Easy.

Actually, it wasn’t.

I didn’t appreciate the challenge I’d set myself until I took a long look in the mirror.

Standing in my mirror staring spot I said, “mirror mirror, oh what do I see?

Knowing the answer, I gave it, “a 28 year old with great hair.

Suddenly an evil voice emanated from the frame, “look closer. What do you see?

A little confused, I replied, “unwavering determination?

The same voice hissed, “look closer and up a bit.

Then I saw it. I must have missed it because it wasn’t there – a hairline about to sink from mild recession into a deep and tragic depression. And this time the economy definitely wasn’t going to pick up – I didn’t have a job.

The priorities had changed. I needed a Turkish hair transplant stat. But before I could do that, I needed money.

Ah, money. For money I needed a job.

Damn.

Ok, the plan was back on. The parameters had just changed a bit.

I was going to have to become cool but without any hair.

Was that even possible?

Who’s the coolest bald guy?

I racked my brains.

Stumped, I put my favourite thinking record on, Sonic Youth’s Kill Yr Idols.

The title track roared:

I don’t know why,

You want to impress Christgau,

Ah let that shit die,

And find out a new goal.

Then it hit me.

The coolest guy in the world without any hair was Robert Christgau. You know, that guy who wrote all of those mean album reviews for Village Voice and publicly admitted that he knew nothing about music.

I didn’t know anything about music either! I was already qualified. PERFECT!

Robert Christgau almost bald
The self-ordained ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’ – ok, he’s got more hair than I let on. Maybe I wasn’t balding that much. (Photo by Joe Mabel – I found it on wikipedia)

And if I’d interpreted Sonic Youth’s lyrics correctly, he was so cool that even they hadn’t been able to impress him. I mean, he gave Confusion is Sex a C+ and that album’s radical.

I was going to emulate Robert Christgau. But how?

Becoming the dunce of British rock critics

To become the British Robert Christgau, I’d have to write music reviews.

But I didn’t know who any of the cool new bands were and had no desire to spend weekends scrolling through SoundCloud

Then it hit me.

I lived in London and there were loads of free gigs that only friends of the bands and weird groupies went to.

I could write reviews for those gigs!

It was a brilliant plan:

  1. Assuming I didn’t drink anything, it wouldn’t cost any money.
  2. It’d provide a ton of content for my great blog that’d make me look very, very cool.
  3. I’d be able to take pictures of grimy venues and put them on my Instagram account.
  4. Rolling Stone would probably give me a job and I’d be like that kid in the movie about the band who were in that aeroplane that falls out of the sky then the drummer tells everyone he’s gay (you guessed it, Almost Famous).

So I found three free gigs on Dice and went to them.

I then wrote about it here: Gig on Tuesday, Gig on Wednesday and Gig on Thursday.

I was becoming so cool already.

Then my father called.

Parents are made to inspire doubt

RING RING.

After picking up, my father just shouted at me.

Father Henry, “You need to stop doing those bloody music reviews Henry. They’re shit. It’s like you’re writing for Melody Maker.

I didn’t know what the Melody Maker was, but when he said that it was worse than NME I felt awful.

Why? Because NME’s a pile of shit and definitely not cool. I was worse than NME?! Surely not.

I took a look at NME’s best article ever, you know the one, their list of best 90’s EMO songs.

Jimmy Eat World before Jawbreaker?

I was reassured. Whoever wrote for NME was clearly an imbecile and I definitely wasn’t.

I still didn’t know what Melody Maker was though so I googled it.

Yes, Melody Maker was the Daily Telegraph of the music rags. I’m not even making this up, the editor actually wanted it to emulate the Daily Telegraph.

But, I mean, my music reviews weren’t overly long or complicated. I had an inkling that my father was acting out.

I was about to challenge him on it when my sister and mother said exactly the same thing: “Henry, you need to stop writing those music reviews. They’re just not very good.

Damn, all three of my readers had told me that half the content on my site wasn’t any good.

I took a moment to reflect. Looking over the reviews I just didn’t get what was wrong with them.

The exercise had even shown me how to publish threads on my new Twitter account.

What was going on?

Then I thought back to my copywriter training.

What did my readers have in common?

Understanding (and disregarding) your audience

Ohhh, yes! My father, my mother and my sister had never, ever been to a gig EVER and their favourite musicians were QT and Billy Bragg.

It was confirmed: their opinions didn’t matter!

I’d be damned if I was going to stop going to free gigs, drinking too much beer on a daily basis and writing bad music reviews about the bands I saw. 

Redemption sometimes comes in SMS (the joke doesn’t work if you don’t pronounce SMS as smeees. Get it? It sounds like threes)

And just as I realised that I was well on my way to becoming even cooler, I received a text from Dice.

I’d won tickets to All Points East.

Dice Tickets
I was sad. I really wanted to see the Courtneys.

The gods had spoken and they clearly wanted to read my review of everything that happened at All Points East.

I mean, it was clearly a sign and I couldn’t disappoint the gods now, could I?

Copywriting research starts at Homerton Library

or how Henry uncovered the Homerton Library conspiracy

I’d developed a foolproof seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER. Now I just had to execute it.

Where to start?

I rolled a one. Yes, I was going to Do Way More Research.

Where does research start? AT THE LIBRARY!

1. Getting to Homerton Library

I showered, squeezed into a button shirt and made my way to the library.

While walking I hummed everyone’s favourite song about libraries. Yeah, that one from Arthur.

Having fun isn’t hard,

When you’ve got a library card.

(That’s right!)

Having fun isn’t hard,

When you’ve got a library card.

Remembering the nation’s best-loved aardvark was a reassurance and useful for my future career (aardvark is a good copywriting word because it starts with two a’s). Surely the library wouldn’t be a bore at all!

Then I remembered that I didn’t have a library card.

Did that mean I couldn’t have any fun and more importantly couldn’t do any work?

Probably.

But I was almost halfway there. I couldn’t turn back. Valiantly, I strode on.

2. Enter the library

The foyer smelled like bleach and primary school lunches. It was only 10:00am but already uniformed children were stalking the corridors (probably hiding from bullies).

This all brought back painful childhood memories so I hastily passed through the metal detectors and entered the book room.

I was almost knocked out by the heat. It was tropical.

Now between the bookcases I pulled out my imaginary binoculars and took a moment to admire the wildlife:

  • A suit perched on a low padded chair. No book just a phone. He was definitely pretending to be there for a business meeting.
  • A hippy reading a vegan cookbook. He must be trying to figure out how to make his tinned spaghetti & sausages more palatable.
  • Three evenly spaced shadows hunched over keyboards all scrolling through Facebook. It must be that time of the week when people need to update their universal credit claimant commitments with job search activity.

I carefully placed my imaginary binoculars back. As the world spins it’s heartening to know that some things will never change.

I made my way to Librarian Island. 

I’ve lost my library card. I need a new one.

The only librarian sitting in front of a computer gave me a disgusted look, “I don’t know how to use the new system.” She turned to her coworker, “Darnell, can you help him?

And for once Darnell’s shaking head was a resounding yes! Of course he could!

Darnell sat me down and went through the secure library card recovery procedure, “What’s your first and last name?” – Yeah, that was it. He didn’t even ask for my address.

Library card fraud is an opportunity

Hell, if the whole copywriting thing didn’t work library card fraud might.

THE PLAN: Get someone’s first and last name, take out smutty books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight), scrawl dreams of kidnapping onto the blank pages at the back, date them and proceed to blackmail whichever irresponsible person didn’t shred their junk mail.

Darnell found my account and promptly demanded £12. Apparently I’d never returned a book on the Rolling Stones. That didn’t sound like me. I way prefer the Stooges.

It was a difficult decision. I didn’t want to give Homerton Library £12. I was unemployed. But eventually I complied. I needed access to free books.

He then handed me my magnificent new key to knowledge. It had pictures of cyclists in London Fields. GREAT!

But where to start? I knew the Dewey Decimal System by heart, but where do copywriting and technology fit into its ten categories? Was it general works, philosophy and psychology, religion, social sciences, language or history, biography, and geography?

Where would writing to trick people and make money fit into that list? Probably religion.

Luckily I didn’t have to ponder for too long, there were signs for those less gifted than I.

3. Who buys books for libraries?

I was directed to the technology section.

Pursuing the books was a disaster. They were dreadful.

Quick Steps Microsoft Word 2003, Step by Step Microsoft Word 2016, My Facebook for Seniors, DK’s Effective Marketing and Successful Marketing Plans in a Week. HG Wells’ War of the Worlds was there too.

Damn.

Once again Arthur had wasted my time. There definitely weren’t any decent books at the library and I wasn’t having any fun at all.

Maybe I was looking in the wrong section.

I accessed the online catalogue. I knew the title of one book that I wanted to borrow, Ogilvy on Advertising.

Apparently there were only two copies in London and they’d been missing in action since 2011 and March 2019 respectively.

PhotoEditor_20190522_140650658

4. Settle with what’s there

I knew then that going to the library was just like dating.

I was going to have to follow my parents example and settle with ripping trodden chewing gum from the pavement and making the best of it.

So here’s to making the best of it!

I borrowed:

  1. Persuasive Copywriting, Andy Maslen
  2. Writing Great Copy, Sallyann Sheridan
  3. The Golden Rules of Blogging, Robin Houghton
  4. Creative Advertising: An Introduction, Miriam Sorrentino (this one looked good, it had pictures)
  5. How to Write a Marketing Plan, John Westwood
  6. SEO for Dummies, Peter Kent

All six looked shit but they were going to have to do.

Who knew? They’d probably be the backbone of a later extremely well received post on my blog entitled Top Six Books Copywriters should Totally NOT Bother Reading. I was at an advantage. Unlike the other lists of top books copywriters should read (here, here and here) at least I’d actually read the books in mine.

Homerton Library had given me until 11th June to make this list. I was going to need to move faster than that though. I set a timer and said to myself softly, “Henry, you’ve got until Sunday. Go.

5. What I learned about the library

I had the books, but while at the library I think I may have uncovered something much more sinister.

Face it. Here’s what sinister looks like spelled out in black and white:

  • £12 library fines.
  • Unemployed patrons.
  • A selection of books that actually reduce your chances of finding work.
  • An extortionate staffing and heating budget.

You’ve already figured it out, haven’t you?

Yes, Homerton Library was in cahoots with all the self help publishers. It was delivering an effective plan to make sure people stayed unemployed and kept getting fined (I wasn’t sure how, but they must have been). It was like the Department for Work and Pensions but more creative.

It was my civic duty to expose them and uncover this conspiracy.

But first, I had to read all these books.

Seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER

It was settled. I was going to become the greatest copywriter EVER.

How it started

Easy. I needed to lay some sturdy foundations and figure out exactly what copywriting was.

To the foundations!

And where do you learn about laying foundations? Wikipedia!

I looked up the definition of copywriting:

Copywriting is the act of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing. The product, called copy, is written content that aims to increase brand awareness and ultimately persuade a person or group to take a particular action.

Copywriters help create billboards, brochures, catalogs, jingle lyrics, magazine and newspaper advertisements, sales letters and other direct mail, scripts for television or radio commercials, taglines, white papers, social media posts, and other marketing communications.

That was definitely manageable.

With an in depth understanding of copywriting I started looking for a new job.

Looking for that first copywriting job

I went straight onto LinkedIn (actually my girlfriend sent me some links. Impressed aren’t you? I’m getting pretty good at twisting the truth, aka advertising).

One position came out with a swift kick to the teeth: Junior Copywriter at Dr Martens.

Before I’d even read the ad I knew getting the job must be a piece of cake. Why?

  • People call those boots Doc Martens not Doctor Martens, hence it’s safe to assume that their head of advertising department can’t read and is highly incompetent.
  • They are probably desperate for a cool new, left-leaning junior with a lot of hair (yours truly) to help them shake off the image of skinheads and neo-nazis.

As my first potential position I knew I’d be more than happy to put in some extra work and help Dr Martens completely reinvent their brand for 2019.

Feeling confident, I looked at the job spec.

It was the first time I realised that copywriters are a pretentious as hell.

Getting my first ‘gig’ might prove difficult than I’d initially thought.

Take a look for yourself:

Doc Martens, Junior Copywriter

To be our Junior Copywriter, you will also possess the following:

  • Experience in a full-time copywriting role. Preferably in the retail, fashion or music industry
  • A love of music, DM’s, fashion and footwear
  • A track record of managing tight deadlines and multiple projects simultaneously
  • A passion for language and a flair for writing original, unexpected copy
  • Strong commercial awareness and knowledge of key copy KPIs
  • Enthusiasm and an inexhaustible supply of ideas
  • The confidence to tackle all forms of copywriting: from click-worthy captions to scroll-enticing articles
  • A degree-level qualification in a relevant subject such as English or Creative Writing

Damn the requirements were high and this was only for a junior role!

It presented a real problem.

I had no experience in a full-time copywriting role, I thought DMs (dungeon masters) were totally uncool, I was bemused by how words could have key performance indicators (‘boot’ needs to get at least 4,000 views today) and definitely did not have a degree in creative writing. Who does have a degree in creative writing anyway?

How the hell was I going to get a job like that?

I needed to tear down my soft, non-copywriting self and to begin rebuilding immediately. It was daunting but exciting – I was about to become the slickest creative machine in Hackney and I knew it would probably involve stickers.

So I decided to systematically strip myself down. The best way to do this: a foolproof seven point plan (to do list):

Henry’s seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER

1. Do way more research

I needed to become fluent in the language of copy. Yes, I had to develop an understanding of advertising, marketing and all of the associated acronyms (CPM, CTA, IAB, SOV, SEO and more). I also needed to know something about psychology. Why? How else was I going to trick someone into giving me a job?

2. Get good at writing

I wasn’t immediately convinced that this was necessary but I knew that I needed to sell myself as more qualified to write than anyone else. To do that, I had to at least trick myself into believing that I’d got super good at writing. The first step was probably to write and read more. Decent outcome.

3. Develop a kickass portfolio

For a profession that spends all day playing with words it’s surprising that it can’t just take me on mine, but life’s confusing. I needed to develop a killer portfolio with a shed load of original and creative copy. It had to have the best adverts selling bubble mixture, jingles explaining the dangers of not eating enough carrots, all potentially topped off with a radio advert for the mayor on today’s most biting issue: public urination.

4. Get some experience (and references)

Just a portfolio wouldn’t cut it. I had to get some real experience so I had references. References would mean that other people would suddenly become accountable for my eventual employment. The easiest way to do that would probably be to do some writing for free. I needed to do some copywriting volunteering.

5. Find a special subject and stick to it

All the advice that I’ve read online says that generalist copywriters fail and copywriters with a special subject succeed. The problem was I didn’t know or really care about anything. The options were limited too. What subject can you specialise in as a copywriter? Trains, video games, legal regulations and hatred of men? I didn’t want to write about any of that. Then it struck me. I could write about technology or digital or ‘the internet‘. It seemed like a safe bet, as it could cover anything from sex dolls to how to talk to your toaster! Perfect.

6. Build a professional network

To secure work employers need to think you’re the real deal. Humans are social creatures so association with other humans is important. I was going to have to meet other copywriters and make friends with them. Maybe I could meet them at Westfield Shopping Centre? There are lots of things that need copy there.

7. Rebrand myself as the coolest kid in Hackney

The Doc Marten advert said it all: creatives need to be cool. I was already super cool, but deep down I knew that not everyone knew this. I was going to sacrifice some of my current cool to make sure that everyone found out (unfortunately self-promotion is not cool). I’d begin by developing a social media presence (here’s my instagram), take pictures of myself doing cool things and buy more thrash metal t-shirts.

It was settled. I should probably start.

What better place than Homerton Library?

I had a shower and set off.