Turning point


This week marks a turning point for me. After 13 years of freelancing, I've returned to Proper Work. I'm now officially a full time creative writer at GDS, a civil servant with paid annual leave and sick pay and a pension and all that stuff.

Looking back on my freelancing years, I find it hard to believe that I got through them without disaster. I've never been terribly organised about things, and when I started I had so little clue about running a business that I didn't even remember to invoice my first client. Oh yes, it was that bad.

I made mistakes. So many awful mistakes.

But I made connections, too. Slowly, I built up a handful of good relationships with good people, and work from them became more regular. One day, quite early on, a friend introduced me to one of the editorial staff at O'Reilly. They offered me a retainer to write blog posts about Mac stuff - this was when Mac OS X was still new and exciting. So began my slow transition from general tech writer, towards Mac, OS X and iOS specialist.

In those early days, blogging about Macs was a joy. There was so much to discover, so much to share with all the people who were making the switch from Windows. Macs were still very much a niche product, for a niche market. How things have changed.

As Apple's success grew, so did demand for people who would write about Apple products. More Mac publications and blogs sprang up in every direction. I worked for a bunch of them.

The joy of the early days gradually faded. Apple became mainstream, its products became widespread. And the work slowly became more about page views than about interesting tips or fun discoveries. Without page views, the words were worth nothing.

I was still making mistakes, incidentally. My freelance career could be summarised as a timeline of horrific mistakes, punctuated by occasional reputation-saving successes. I built website after blog after website, and deleted every single one of them after a few months. Every time I rebuilt, I promised myself: "This will be it, this will be the one I stick with." I never did. I still regret deleting so much stuff.

This might sound overly miserable, and it shouldn't be. I enjoyed almost every moment of it. I loved the freedom, I loved writing every day. I loved that I was being creative and being paid for it. That's one of the few things I'm proud of achieving.

Another source of pride: I wrote a column about the internet for the Press Association, every week. It began, like the Mac coverage, when the net was new and weird and I still had to explain what "the internet" was every time I used it. The column documented the growth of the internet from nerd habit to daily necessity for millions. It covered the beginnings of blogging, of Google, of Facebook, of Twitter, and of dozens of sites that briefly burned bright, then disappeared.

Circumstances change. Families change. Sometimes, your phone rings and it's something unexpected. That happened a few times. Once when the BBC called, asking me to write an early version of their "how-to" guide to the internet (long since replaced by something newer and whizzier). Again when someone from Time got in touch, offering me the chance to write for their tech blog. That was short-lived, but lots of fun.

The last of those nice phone calls, and the most recent, was in October 2012. I was in Oxford with my wife. We were having lunch with an old friend. The caller was Tom Loosemore. "We need someone at GDS who can write," he said. "Are you free?"

"Yep," I said, immediately. "Yes I'm free."

My internet is smaller than it used to be. In those early days, I signed up for every new thing, eager to see what it did, keen to grab my username of choice just in case it turned out to be the next Cool Thing. Now, I can't be bothered. I've pretty much got the internet I need - Twitter for friends, Flickr for photos, this website for me - and I'm happy leaving Cool Things to the Cool Kids. I'm not one of the Cool Kids, and I never have been.

That's it. BBEDit: click File, then Save. Transmit: click sync. Done.

Filed under: life
(4th April 2014)