Not so long ago part time writer Ramon Youseph made the decision to leave his day job and work full time as a writer. For many of us this is a dream come true, for others a decision which is terrifying. Any freelance work is risky for someone with bills to pay. One cannot guarantee an income but Ramon is a man of some determination. Here’s his interview.
What made you decide to leave your previous job pursue writing as a full time career? It’s a big step!
Simple really, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a teenager, and at my age now (44) I decided that I didn’t want to sit about wondering what it was like to live my dream but to get on and do it. For the last six years I tried getting noticed with blog posts, articles and networking but my day job meant I was limited in terms of time, concentration I mean let’s face it after an eight hour day the last thing you want to do is stare at a computer for another five or six hours. Still in that time I managed to publish over 350 articles and posts of my own choosing as well for a client or as a guest contributor. I was even approached for comment by BBC online and quoted in their finished article – it was about the crowdsourced fan film “Star Wars Uncut”. However I Just got tired of seeing opportunities pass me by and not being in a position to seize them. Confidence also plays a big part.
When I started working for Kung-Fu Kingdom it provided me with a sort of litmus test of whether or not I could be a successful writer outside of my own blog. After a very promising two or three months with one very happy client, along with some long talks with my family and friends I decided to take the plunge. Since I have already had to make a couple of big life changing decision in my personal life, the prospect of a third one seemed less daunting, but only a little less.
How much support have you had from your friends and family?
The outpouring of support has been overwhelming if I am honest. Friends who have known me a long time and know this is my life’s ambition have rallied round me expressing their pride, admiration, some even a little envious that I could potentially live my dream. I have been called brave and an inspiration, even one or two of my most risk averse friends have simply said “go for it.” Yet the biggest support has come from my family. My parents are behind me 100% and offering their insight and experience of being self-employed. They appreciate there are risks involved but continue to encourage me, and have every faith that I will make a success of this.
How did you go about making preparations for this?
Well I already had an idea of what was involved from talking to one or two friends who are freelancers. I also picked up this book with the very simple title of “Freelance Writing” by Linda Jones. I noticed it had some good reviews so I thought I would give it a go. It covers all the fundamentals of the business aspect, how to source work, what to do about fees, and so on. It helped me map out a sort of template of the infrastructure I needed to put into place. This is not as a fancy as it sounds – it simply involved many hours in a coffee shop scribbling pages of notes riddled with ideas in a caffeine fuelled frenzy, such as building a professional looking website, marketing, the admin side including what to charge, but mostly what specific services to offer. Writing is such a big umbrella term so I had to think about the specifics that would combine the kind of services I can offer with the sort of writing I like to do. This is still something I am working on but I think I am nearly there.
There was also the question of how to structure my day, working hours, allotted time for breaks and tasks to undergo. I am still ironing out the creases on this. Then there was the question of letting potential clients know that this was the direction I was taking; I set up a mailshot from my contacts list – people and organisations I worked with over the years and sent them a RamonWrites release to let them know I am available for hire. I also used my existing social media accounts to get the word out. The tough part I anticipated would be approaching potential clients for work and so far that is meeting my expectations, for example I registered with various portals that offer freelancing opportunities and there is a lot to choose from. The thing is that because there is SO much listed work they vary on subject matter which is great but also pay levels ranging from insultingly low (£1 per hundred words) to surprisingly generous (£350 per thousand words). Really it is just a case of being meticulous in the search to find work that is right for me. Above all else I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and my aspirations in terms of earning capacity are cautiously optimistic. So far all my expectations have been met.
You are a determined person, I know you’ve started running fairly recently – tell us a little about that? What else drives you?
I used to run as a teenager but like many things you dabble in at that time in your life there is the tendency to move onto other things – some people obviously stick with them. I got back into running over four years ago, worried that my weight was going to get the better of me. I needed something to drive me so a friend pushed me to run the Bristol 10k. It was grueling work for someone of my size but I did it and since improved on my time in various other races. Yes I am getting fitter although I could always lose a bit more weight and I am working on that but here are some benefits of running that I think those who insist it’s unhealthy or even a waste of time routinely ignore or don’t consider; running is one of the keys to both mental wellbeing and success.
As human beings our minds are riddled with thoughts, and rarely focused on the present moment. Sometimes we even overthink and get ourselves worked up over stuff we can do nothing about. A good run whether it’s a mile or ten will drag you into the present moment (sometimes kicking and screaming). It doesn’t take away your fears and worries which continue to float there like vapours but they can’t touch you especially when you’ve ran that first mile, or if you’re in a race, crossed that finished line knowing you beat your personal best. Nothing comes close to that feeling of accomplishment, it’s a rush and that’s when you truly appreciate what it means to be in the moment.
Running for me also shapes my attitude to my work and life in general. It teaches me what needs to be done to be successful. Through running I appreciate that successful accomplishments only come through adversity, hard work and putting in the time for the best possible results. When I run I push myself to do better, and that’s what truly drives me now that I am a full time freelance writer, the determination, not shying away from hard work and long hours, setting achievable goals, ready to climb hills and work through even the toughest days whether it’s dry spots (writing is very much a feast or famine business) or other things life sends to try us. After that intense tirade it might surprise you to learn that what also drives me is to get as much as joy as I can out of my life in all aspects whether it’s work, running, socializing, everything. You only have one life and I have a tremendous opportunity to live life on my own terms and enjoy the ride, why squander it?
If I recall you are a fan of fantasy/sci-fi, why this genre? What intrigues you so much about it?
Well on the lighter note it’s a lot of fun to be transported to magical realms in some far away land or worlds & galaxies light years away populated by an assortment of alien creatures, magnificent battles and so forth. It really excites the imagination and done well makes for truly engaging story telling. It’s a genre you can have a lot of fun with too and the creators are not necessarily bound by the restrictions of “realism” although science-fiction requires a certain element of that, or at the very least some plausibility. It can be exciting and a lot of fun to just get lost in another world.
Yet what I really love about sci-fi/fantasy is how it can act as a window through which we can examine the human condition, whether it’s speculative as with sci-fi pondering on what the future will be like, or reflective, sometimes even making a point about human activity. Some have said that there was an element of environmentalism in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and I think that’s true when you read (or see in the films) the destruction of the forests by Sauruman to build weapons and monsters of war. I don’t think you can get a more impactful representation of the harmful effects of industrialization than that. Both examine the notions of class, society, bigotry with such gravitas but what really draws me in is examining what it means to be human through a non-human conduit such as aliens and my favourite, machines. Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick created some of the most amazing stories exploring humanity through androids or robots. Films such as Ex-Machina, AI: Artificial Intelligence really get into the nitty gritty of this aspect of sci-fi but none more so than Bladerunner. It still makes for a compelling idea that both the human and android characters are embroiled in their inner struggle for their humanity, and as for the ending – well I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it but the idea of epiphany finally learning what it’s all about is just mind blowing.
How important is research to your work? What are your best resources?
Research is very important regardless of whether you are producing work through your own ideas or working from a brief/instruction from a client. When I wrote for the Daily Crowdsource I was given a brief outline and relevant web links on the topic I was asked to cover. The brief has plenty of information to craft an article but it is vital that further research is carried on receipt of the brief. I would always spend half an hour to an hour scouring the internet either for additional relevant information but more importantly for anything that might question, refute or even make irrelevant the information given to me. It protects the client and you the writer after all it’s not good business to put your client in a position where they have published false or outdated information. This is not a reflection on the quality of the client’s brief but simply having another pair of eyes covering your back but also suggesting angles and information that would stand out from the competition.
The internet is a great source of information if you know how to use it properly. I try to adapt what I call a newsroom approach to web research which is, say I want to write about working conditions on coffee farms and the first bit of information I come across gives a glowing report. Whilst that is the sort of thing people like to read so that they can enjoy their lattes guilt free I am not going to take one source’s word for it. So I look for a minimum of two corroborating sources and then just to be on the safe side I would research the sources to see where their bias lies. There will always be more than one side to a story and there will always be someone with a challenging view and evidence to support, but what you are doing is checking the validity of your information and sources. Of course not all briefs will require this much extensive research but it doesn’t hurt to check.
I read a variety of blogs, some of which can just be personal musing but also feature insights from news savvy academics, speakers and activists writing or expanding on various topics that might be missed in a Google search. These can saved to your browser or reader. I place great value on internet research which you can do from the comfort of your own bed still in your PJs. However I do find Twitter is a great source of information for any article. Like any social media site it is a mixed bag of news and gossip, activism and of course ephemeral socializing but there are plenty of accounts that provide specialized knowledge that could prove tiresome searching the web. If you were to write an article about Barbecue food you could contact any chef or connect with @devonwoodsmoke, the twitter account for a Devon based chef specializing in smoked and barbecue food. So that’s how Twitter can put you in touch with people and resources with vast knowledge that will help you add real meat to the bones of any article.
Your website offers articles on ‘any subject’ – that’s a tall order. How do you aim to pursue this?
Yes that is quite a boast isn’t it? I am not saying that I have a wealth of knowledge on anything from how to apply lipstick to the implication of Schrodinger’s Cat in solving the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics in everyday objects, far from it. However if a client puts out a call to write about either topic, or both, my experience has been that they usually have an idea of what specific information to be included, style suitable to a target readership and purpose. This gives me an idea of what to write and how to structure it and anything that goes over my head I can learn more from internet research, ploughing through relevant blogs or even putting a shout out on Twitter for “expert” opinion.
There are of course limitations to what I can do and I am unlikely to be approached to produce academic essays that can only be read by other academics or professionals although I am always open to a challenge.
I do feel realistically that I can write about any topic that is put before me and fill any gaps in my knowledge with a little research and this comes from my work in crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Through my blog Crowdsourcing Gazette and my client The Daily Crowdsource I have looked at how those have been used in technology and innovation, film making, journalism, marketing and advertising, crisis management, restoration, scientific advancement, banking, trade, and promoting the arts. It was important for me to understand what I was writing about so that it made sense and that I could decide if certain things needed expanding – for example I wrote an article about a percussion instrument that uses kinetic energy to produce enough electricity to power a USB light or charge a phone – by the way it refers to build up of energy through acceleration. In understanding that I was able to understand how the instrument worked and explain that in the finished article.
Of course I do love writing about subjects of which I have knowledge such as films, martial arts, fitness, and so forth but I am conscious of limiting my market potential should any of these areas “dry up” – I don’t want to be known as a film writer as there is a risk of deterring potential clients. Plus I like a challenge and always relish the opportunity to learn something new. In order to make this happen what I try to do is through freelancing portals apply for work on a variety of subjects but also use my Ramon Writes blog to showcase my varied range. Right now my crowdsourcing work provides ample evidence of my topic range but of course this needs updating. What I am also doing is keeping an eye on the market for what topics are in demand. So far example if it’s Internet Dating, whilst I have some experience as a user I might start reading up on the industry, study blogs and then apply for the job if it is still open.
Do you feel your previous jobs/interests will provide useful experiences for your writing career? If so why?
My interests will provide me with insight where the work will reflect my passions; my work with Kung-fu Kingdom has involved reviewing martial arts films, events, as well as an interview with a graphic novel that combines Zombie story with martial arts. Since these are also my interests I can write passionately and informatively on all of these.
My previous jobs have certainly provided me with some basic skills – organizational, time keeping, day structuring that sort of thing although I am learning that those can go right out the window if you are hit with the dreaded writer’s block and you have a deadline. I already have experience of writing to deadline or quota (20 articles per month for example) so I can bring that to my new role. What I really bring to the venture is a strong work ethic – I don’t like to boast, although some former colleagues might disagree but for much of my working life clients, customers, and employers have expressed satisfaction with my work, and a happy client/boss makes me a happy worker and content in the knowledge that I am doing something right. I aim to please and (sorry for the shameless self-promotion) if you look at the Testimonials page on my website you’ll see current and former clients telling the world how happy they are with my work.
And of course working as a credit controller for 12 years I am not shy about chasing unpaid bills.
The internet offers a wealth of opportunities for writers – do you think the older, printed materials are becoming obsolete?
I think it’s a possibility. Reading online whether it’s on your phone, tablet, laptop or PC offers so many advantages over printed materials – I mean if you feel inclined you can take 1000 books on holiday with your e-reader, imagine trying to fit those into your suitcase. Newspapers can only give you so much information as space is a premium whereas a news website can deluge you with a barrage of stories from all over the world, and through other sites. How can printed materials compete with that?
However I think there is a still a generation or two that prefers print over electronic reading the obvious one being newspapers, magazines and books don’t need charging up but also some (like myself) just love the smell of printed material. There is also still a concern that technology is encroaching on our daily lives, evolving too fast and so want to dial it back a bit – reading printed materials gives you a necessary break from your phone, TV and laptop. It can also be quality over quantity – why take 10 electronic books when you can just take one and take time reading it?
The debate is still raging of print over web – someday we could end up with a paperless society but unlikely in our lifetime.
What are your tips on marketing/promoting yourself and your products?
Oh that’s a tough one and I am still very much working through this but I would have to say is this;
- Put a professional face on your venture, in my case it’s the website. It’s clean, user friendly and visually pleasing on the eye but provides plenty of information without overloading potential clients with too much information. As a writer this is possibly the first glimpse anyone has of my writing and presentation ability so it is vital that the website reflects the best of all of that.
- An obvious one, use social media. Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook I try to post regularly my latest work, updates on how the business is going, articles of interest relevant to writing, sometimes I will promote other freelancers work, and even share my latest efforts out running. Seriously I try to keep it relevant to writing, and business but you can add some personal stuff to remind people you are human. Avoid controversy, bad language and text speak. Like my website my social media presence is the professional face of my business. Just like any business a little office banter or water cooler moment is ok but keep it clean and respectable and at some point you have to get back to work.
- If am writing about an event, any event I take plenty of business cards. Certain events are geared towards networking so there will be lots of business card swapping. I am conscious at such gatherings I will be caught shorthanded when a potential client wants my contact details and I have none to give him save a scrap of paper that is likely to be lost or binned.
- I am currently working on sending speculative letters and pitching ideas for potential articles to various publications.
- If you get an opportunity to talk about your specialism, business etc, or to be interviewed then quoted in a publication then take it. Doing presentations at talks and sitting on Q&A panels will work wonders for your professional face unless of course you get a case of flop sweat and start tripping over your words. Seriously, these events showcase what you’re all about and break the ice come the networking stage. If you were engaging enough, people will come to you with questions and want to know more about what you do. I am still waiting for my invitation however I have featured on the BBC website – have I mentioned that already?