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Monday, 23 December 2013

Ten GREAT songs I heard this year

These days I don't have the time to compile and categorize and consider as much as I'd like to. But I still get to hear a lot of good music, even if I have less time to seek it out.

These ten are plucked from the Spotify playlist I've been chucking new (and old) songs I was playing repeatedly into. I've been doing this for about five years now and as we maintain a paid subscription this is where I hear most new (and old) music; I very rarely own albums anymore, unless I like them so much I want to hear them in my car.

They're not necessarily in any order, and there are some almost equally amazing songs (some by the same artists) that I've enjoyed as much, but I wanted to make a list of ten, because that's how many fingers I currently have. So here they are:

  • Hitna - Dino Merlin
  • Enduring freedom - Gaptooth & Oli Trademark
  • Biloxi parish - The Gaslight Anthem
  • Henrietta Maria - Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament
  • Rewind the film - Manic Street Preachers & Richard Hawley
  • Kedvesem (Zoohacker remix) - Bye Alex
  • My number - Foals
  • Dovahkiin - The Indelicates
  • Nearly midnight, Honolulu - Neko Case
  • Stations - Naevus
Here they are all in a YouTube playlist in the above order (a few have actual videos, most don't; some may have adverts, most don't):


And here they are individually:



  • Hitna - Dino Merlin

  • After what I can only describe as my favourite ever Eurovision ever this year, I decided to check out a couple of artists from previous years whose entries I'd enjoyed. Dino Merlin's "Love in rewind" was probably my favourite ever Eurovision entry for Bosnia & Herzegovina, so I was pleased to find out his awesomeness is not confined to 3-minute love-songs sung in English.


  • Enduring freedom - Gaptooth & Oli Trademark
  • "Gaptooth" and I were pen-friends for a bit when we were teens, having met among mutual friends in a Manic Street Preachers chat room(!) But don't hold that against her; I got to hear an album from her this year after well over a decade of wondering what that might sound like, and I was blown away - especially by this; combining as it does, sexual politics, poetry, puns and BIG trancey sounding synth stuff. I love it. As soon as I've worn out the CDR copy in my car I might actually buy the actual album. (Something I do only about twice a year nowadays.)


  • Biloxi parish - The Gaslight Anthem
  • This and many of their other songs got me through two long hard months away from my family working in London this year, and this song in particular will forever remind me of walking along Regent's Canal in North Central London. One of the many pleasant experiences and habits that emerged from the unpleasant situation of working away. At least I wasn't on an oil rig.


  • Henrietta Maria - Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament
  • A grandiose concept album about 17th century English history from a relatively famous indie dude (remember Hefner?) whose work I'd never much cared for somehow contained this absolute gem, which grabbed me immediately and I've not yet got sick of, despite about 100,000 plays.


  • Rewind the film - Manic Street Preachers & Richard Hawley
  • I was very cynical about hearing a 758th Manic Street Preachers album this year, but thought I'd give it a go. The whole thing is magnificent, and this deserves special attention. Watch the video too. This really forced me to challenge the prejudice with which I view my own youth, and bingo halls. (I'm still very cynical though.)


  • Kedvesem (Zoohacker remix) - Bye Alex
  • My personal douze points cette année.


  • My number - Foals
  • This is the song that reminds me of my first working-away-from-home stint; a month in April. I loved the album too; Foals get better and better, for me. I never thought they were aimed at me really. Still don't, but don't care much either.


  • Dovahkiin - The Indelicates
  • It's always a good year when The Indelicates release something substantial. This year's album is a really weird one - not least in the way it was released. (I think I've still to buy a quarter of it.) But the disjointed emergence hasn't harmed the quality of the whole. Like a lot of folks, I was especially impressed by this track. Reminiscent of the tenderer (yet angrier) moments of Carter USM, perhaps. And Meat Loaf. Definitely Meat Loaf.


  • Nearly midnight, Honolulu - Neko Case
  • Ouch.


  • Stations - Naevus
  • One never knows what to expect from Naevus. Listening to their odds-and-ends compilation album Stations (released this year) goes some way (though probably not the whole way) to showing what a downright weird band they've been at times. Their work veers from thrumming, confrontational modernist punk to expertly-crafted acoustic-driven rock ballads. After last year's dark, experimental, yet undeniably fun album The Division of Labour, Stations might make a lot of sense as an album release, but the song itself was the last thing I was expecting. And it's fantastic.

    Wednesday, 20 November 2013

    Proposed new United Kingdom flag designs for use in the event of Scottish independence in 2014

    This is the inevitable sequel to my Union-Flag-hating blog of last year.

    What follows is the work of a few minutes' messing about on PhotoShop. I'm not a graphic designer and I don't have time to consider such luxuries as proportion control or making sure the Northern Irish bit is the same colour as the English bit.

    Nevertheless, the below designs all "do the job" (or would in the event of Scotland leaving the union) in a way our current flag does not, for the many reasons mentioned in the blog I linked to up there.

    These flags all incorporate St George's cross (representing England), St Patrick's saltire (representing Northern Ireland in the absence of an agreed actual flag that actually represents Northern Ireland), St Piran's cross (representing Cornwall, one of the original Celtic nations and culturally distinct from England by language, history, culture, and pasties), and St David's cross (representing Wales in a way that the current Welsh flag, which prominently features a large elaborate red dragon, could not comfortably do so in the context of a conglomerate "union" design*).

    None of these are very good in themselves, and I hope someone with a hand (and an eye, and probably a computer) for design will take the idea and run with it. No doubt many already have, but I've seen a shocking lack of consideration of this issue in the design/political bickering communities I follow - especially given how fond everyone seems to be of waving tacky plastic Union Flags around at every given opportunity, and the closely related fact of the impending Scottish-independence referendum, which has as much chance as not of resulting in a "Yes" vote and immediately invalidating the current UK flag.

    Without further ado:

    Option one: Chris.


     Option two: Craig.


    Option three: Mumford.


    That's it. Feel free to vote on your favourite post-Scots-independence UK flag in the comments section below. However, you should be advised that your views are unlikely to be heeded by anyone of any importance or influence on such matters.

    Adieu, with a single blue tear,

    Alexander Velky.
    (A pro-European devolutionist Welsh Englishman.)

    * alternatively a red dragon could be portrayed with its foot on the neck of a slain white dragon (representing England); the other nations would then have to choose their own beasts to enter into the fray.

    Tuesday, 26 February 2013

    An interview with Martin Harrison, co-founder of Copify


    A while ago I wrote about the copywriting-services company Copify on this blog, and then I wrote this follow-up article for the Guardian.

    For the latter I conducted an email interview with Copify co-founder Martin Harrison (as well as three other writers). Due to the constraints of the word-limit, much of this interview was not published as part of the latter article; so Martin has given me permission to publish the Q&A in full on my blog.

    Here it is:


    Alexander Velky: You originally positioned Copify as "A platform for publishers to source written content quickly, easily and cost-effectively." That seems a pretty neat summary for clients; how would you sum it up to a prospective contributing writer?

    Martin Harrison: A platform for you to earn money as and when it suits you, without the hassle of having to prospect for work and sending out invoices that may, or may not be paid.


    AV: How do you vet would-be writers' credentials? And how do you decide whether they are "professional" or not?

    MH: Writers are assessed based on their CV and a written sample. Around 90% of writers approved start out as standard, and based on feedback are considered for promotion. Only writers who are exceptional, based on their experience and their written sample are approved immediately as a professional.

    We reject 60-70% of all applications.

    You can read more about what we look for in applications here.


    AV: You charge different rates to clients for using professional or non-professional writers. What's the thinking behind this? And what's the take-up like for each option?

    MH: I wouldn't describe any of our writers as 'non-professional', the term we use is 'standard'. The reason we have a separate 'professional' tier of pricing is twofold. Some clients want the assurance that their copy will be written by a more experienced writer and some writers deserve to be rewarded for their experience by being paid more. 

    In terms of take-up, the split between standard and professional is approximately 70/30 in favour of standard, which should tell you a thing or two about attitudes towards pricing.


    AV: From a writer's perspective, are they only shown job adverts corresponding to their level of professionalism?

    Professional level writers can access all orders, standard level writers only those at that level. 


    AV: When talking to clients in public you've frequently advertised fees as low as 3p per word. The lowest price I saw on Copify offered to a writer was 1p per word. Does this mean you take, on average, a 66.67% cut of the total fee charged to clients?

    MH: I'm not going to comment on what exactly our average cut is, but I can tell you that it is far lower than this when you factor in the costs associated with running the business. And just to be clear, we don't offer 1p per word on every order, far from it.


    As a professional writer (as your site described me) I was offered 1p per word jobs. Do you think this is an attractive proposition for a professional writer?

    MH: Clearly not for you Alex! But we wouldn't be in business if there weren't some writers who were happy to work for this amount, and paying customers who were happy with the end product. It all depends on your circumstances.


    AV: What's the lowest rate offered to non-professional writers?

    MH: 1p a word is the lowest we have ever offered. I can't see us ever offering any less than this.


    AV: The Professional Copywriters' Network (with whom Copify has exchanged argument on several occasions, I think) says "By the word pricing positions copywriting as a commodity rather than a professional service", and discourages the practice. Do you agree with their statement?

    MH: No. Our clients like to pay by the word so they know exactly what they are getting. They are not comfortable with paying for an indeterminate amount of copy. It has nothing to do with being a 'professional service'. There is no viable alternative to this model for a business like ours.


    AV: Do you feel by-the-word pricing can be reconciled with professional practice? (If so, even at 1p per word?)

    MH: If someone can come up with a practical alternative to by the word pricing then I'm all ears! But but so far, in all of the debate we've had, no-one has actually suggested anything that is viable. Alastaire Allday wrote a piece about this last year and his conclusion was ultimately that the solution to content mills was to create another, more expensive one!


    AV: Would you agree that Copify is a more attractive proposition for aspiring writers rather than professionals?

    MH: No. As I've said before, it depends entirely on your circumstances. Yes, we like to give aspiring writers a shot but we also have plenty of experienced, agency staff and freelance copywriters on our books. They use the site when in need of a bit of extra income, or maybe when they are a little slow with other business. 


    AV: One ambivalent blogger (Andy Maslen) suggested copywriting could never be a "profession", but that it was a "trade"; do you think this is an important distinction? (And why?)

    MH: I think he is right to an extent. Until there is a recognised union or trade body to govern things then it is something of a 'wild west' industry and it will be difficult to call it a profession. The PCN have tried to be this body, but as I've said previously, until they get real about pricing they're going to do more harm than good.


    AV: I wrote a blog about my experience with your site and you pointed out in a threatening but not unreasonable manner that I'd breached site T&Cs by mentioning a client's name; would it be a breach of those same T&Cs if I'd tried to use work submitted via Copify in a portfolio either published online or sent privately accompanying my CV?

    MH: If you hadn't been granted permission then technically yes it would. That said, unless there was a serious conflict of interest, we would probably turn a blind eye to our writers using a piece in a printed portfolio or emailing it to a prospective employer.

    Publishing on the web, however, is a big no-no. This might be seen by some as pretty extreme, but there's a very important reason that we do it. In many cases, our customers are punting on our copy as the work of their internal 'team of writers' and usually at a vastly inflated rate. Were your blog post to have been indexed by Google, we would have been in hot soup with the client, and they with theirs. 

    Ironically, the furniture company you were attempting to name and shame probably had no visibility of the process at all.


    AV: What makes Copify preferable (or a viable alternative) to the well-trod path of an unpaid copywriting-internship at an agency?

    MH: Again, this all depends on circumstances and the type of copywriter you want to be. An internship is as much about getting an insight into the world of work (which for me as a lazy graduate was a pretty rude awakening!) so I'd always recommend that people go down this route if they want to work in an office.


    AV: Presumably you're a professional writer yourself. (I haven't seen that many typos in your blog posts.) How might you have used Copify to further your career when you were younger?

    MH: I am yes. I've been a staff copywriter agency-side, a freelance copywriter, a contract copywriter client-side and in my last role before joining Copify full-time I was in charge of copy in the SEO team of one of the UK's largest retailers. All of this has given me a pretty well-rounded knowledge of the industry and crucially, the commercial side of things. This is something that a lot of our detractors don't really have a handle on.

    I've gone on record as saying I would have given my left arm for an opportunity like Copify when I was starting out and I meant it. Bar one or two outrageous day rates, the sort of rates that we pay are what I was accustomed to when I was freelancing. 


    AV: How quickly could you satisfactorily complete a typical 1p-per-word brief?

    MH: Me personally? Well that depends on a number of factors, the word count and the subject matter primarily. Let's say for argument's sake that it's an article of 400 words on a subject I have covered before, therefore not requiring hours of research. I could probably write a  decent piece in half an hour.


    AV: Do you agree that "[Your clients] don't require writers; just people who can type"?

    MH: No, not at all. If this was the case, why wouldn't our clients just do it themselves?


    AV: Tom Albrighton (of the PCN) has said "Your best chances of republication (propagating backlinks across multiple domains) come with a compelling, high-quality article." Are the sorts of articles produced for your clients (particularly at the 1p-per-word) ever likely to be read from start to finish by a human being (as opposed to a crawler)?

    MH: Yes, the days of copy being written and published purely and simply to be crawled by Google are over. 


    AV: Your background is in SEO; do you think it's fair to say that SEO practitioners tend to be reactive rather than proactive?

    MH: It's a generalisation to say that all SEOs are reactive, it really depends on how good they are. With regards to content, however, my experience is that the SEO industry has very much been forced to react by Google's recent algorithm updates.

    'Content is king' is a phrase that is often bandied about, but very few SEOs were really practicing what they preached until recently, when they have been forced into it by penalties for low quality and duplicate content. Some SEOs are now even rebranding themselves as 'content marketing specialists'!

    Up until now, there has very much been a 'cheap as possible' approach, which is why sites like Textbroker have flourished. Now there is a great deal more editorial integrity, which is why SEOs are investing sensible money in content, rather than seeking to have it written overseas for $0.000003 per word. 

    That said, I'm still frequently challenged by SEOs for being 'too expensive' which always makes me laugh when I consider the rates that are supposedly fair according to the PCN.


    AV: A friend of mine once described SEO practitioners as "snake-oil salesmen". As someone who described all SEOs but Amazon’s as “a little bit grey,” do you think there's any truth in that?

    MH: It's important that I clarify exactly what I meant by this. I was referring to the fact that almost every SEO has to bend the rules a little bit in order to get things done. For example, Google openly condemns any form of paid linkbuilding, but I don't know any SEO who isn't buying links in one way or another. 

    There are some 'snake oil' SEOs out there for sure, but also some very good, innovative SEOs who appreciate the value of great content.


    AV: You've been going for a few years now: You must be doing something right. Do you ever worry that clients won't see the return on investment they expect from the sort of articles you're able to provide at the prices they're willing to pay?

    MH: Copy alone is something that is very difficult to put an ROI on. You can write articles until the cows come home, if you're not promoting them in the right way you won't see much of a return.

    We frequently supply articles that are published on websites like The Independent and Marie Clare. There is a relationship between our client and these publications, but the copy would not be published if it wasn't up to scratch. 

    Thursday, 21 February 2013

    Bad Language: Deconstructing BAE Systems' FAQs copy for WHICH COUNTRIES DO YOU SELL TO?

    BAE's upside-down flag.
    Which countries does BAE Systems sell bits of murder-weapons to?

    It's a simple enough question, and one which is asked sufficiently frequently to have its own page on BAE Systems' frequently asked questions (FAQs) website section.

    But, judging from the shocking ineptitude of their answer, I imagine people will be continuing to ask with frequency for years to come.

    Observe:


    I remember, back when I used to leave the house sometimes, I'd see bad adverts  usually on billboards  and then write about them. One such advert I never got around to discussing was a BAE billboard that towered over the teeming masses at Waterloo Station in London town. It was a giant union flag (upside-down, mind you) with a short strapline about how great, and (I guess) British, BAE Systems is.

    It was a bad advert  vague, pompous, loaded with all kinds of unnecessary baggage. Flags will do that to your adverts. Especially huge brazen ones the like of which are only normally seen accompanying royal celebrations or far-right rallies. (Or both.)

    But what alternative is available to BAE? They can hardly depict children in far-off countries being blown to bits by the cluster bombs they once had no qualms manufacturing. It would be the equivalent of Ronald McDonald showing you a clogged artery or, I don't know, tobacco companies showing you a cancerous lung. (Oh, wait...)

    But the economy is more important than anything else, and we know this because BAE isn't legally obliged to show shrapnel-ravaged corpses in its advertising properties. It is allowed to claim ownership of the national flag, however, because of its importance in its contribution to UK employment, trade and international diplomacy.

    But, leaving all that aside, let's copy-edit that terrible FAQ answer into something actually resembling an answer to that damned pesky frequently asked question. And let's do so making the ridiculous assumption that the brief is to tell something close to the truth.


    BAE says: 
    "Like all companies we have to prioritise where we do business."

    I say: 
    [Nothing. That sentence is utterly meaningless and could happily be discarded.]
    BAE says:"In setting these priorities we take into account a wide range of commercial, legal and reputational factors."
    I say: We'd rather not tell you which countries we sell to. 
    BAE says:
    "BAE Systems will only pursue business opportunities when we are satisfied that our strict policies and governance systems can be complied with."

    I say: 
    But we'll sell to pretty much anyone we're allowed to.
    BAE says:"The sale of export equipment, whether it is the sale of weapon systems, platforms, equipment, and/or services is highly regulated."
    I say: It's tough being an international arms-dealer these days.
    BAE says:
    "BAE Systems works closely with and maintains a regular dialogue with governments in our home markets in relation to all our export sales."

    I say: 
    Especially when Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US spend such little time invading people.
    BAE says:"All export licence applications are considered by governments on a case-by-case basis and take into account the proposed customer country, the type of product or service to be exported, and its future use."
    I say: The government frequently tries to piss on our chips.
    BAE says:
    "Our applications comply with trade regulations and the requirements for end-user undertakings."

    I say: 
    But even they cannot deny that murder is good for business.
    BAE says:"Our Responsible Trading Principles help us make informed decisions about the business opportunities we pursue and help employees apply our values in their decision-making."
    I say: We do what we want, as far as they'll let us.
    BAE says:
    "See more on export controls." [Linked.]

    I say: 
    Now piss off.


    That's it.

    So, my rewritten FAQ answer in its entirety goes... (all together now)

    WHICH COUNTRIES DO YOU SELL TO?
    We'd rather not tell you which countries we sell to, but we'll sell to pretty much anyone we're allowed to. 
    It's tough being an international arms-dealer these days. Especially when Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US spend such little time invading people. 
    The government frequently tries to piss on our chips - but even they cannot deny that murder is good for business. We do what we want, as far as they'll let us.
    Now piss off.

    For anyone actually wanting to know which countries BAE sells to, reportedly: Bahrain, Saudi ArabiaZimbabwe, Indonesia, Tanzania. Anyone who'll buy, pretty much; countries with dubious regimes, often using BAE's products to persecute minority populations and... well, what do you expect people to use murder weapons for? Defence???

    In future I suggest such answers are filed under an FEQs section  for frequently evaded questions. And one can file this blog under an FRLs section in tribute to everyone's favourite far-right Hungarian political party's "frequently refuted lies".

    Now that's copywriting.

    Tuesday, 29 January 2013

    How I joined, and quickly left, the "Online Copywriting Service" Copify – and how they threatened to sue me

    ***Update: after reading the original post, Martin Harrison co-founder of Copify sent me a threatening email alleging I'd breached some T&Cs I agreed to upon signing up for his website. The following post has been amended to conceal the name of the specific client the job advert herein refers to – even though it was but one example of many – and I've added a postscript to clarify this.***

    I'm a copywriter and I'm looking for extra copywriting work; so I decided to join Copify.

    I decided to join Copify even though I'd heard numerous tales of their low, low rates and controversial payment-per-word policy (handily rounded-up here by Andrew Nattan) – and even though I'd accepted by implication of my membership of the Professional Copywriters' Network their own (quite specific) rates as a "starting point for negotiations".

    I decided to join Copify because some extra work I was expecting to kick off recently has fallen through, and I could do with a few extra gigs to keep me in Pinot Noir and HobNobs. And I've not lately got any work through the Professional Copywriters' Network, or People Per Hour, or oDesk, or any of the other jobsites I'm signed up to.

    So I thought I'd sign up to Copify and find out for myself – because one ought to find things out for one's self – just how viable their offering is for a jobbing freelance writer.

    To prove my credentials I had to provide references from satisfied customers, people I'd worked for or former course tutors write 200 words about how the "London Olympics" – not the official title of the event, but that's what they called it – had impacted the local environment.

    This task was eerily reminiscent of a question in my A-level General Studies exam, which I aced with a smooth D-grade by answering via the medium of a crude pencil-sketched diagram.

    My pencil kept breaking on the screen though, so I wrote this:


    The 2012 Summer Olympics, imaginatively branded as London 2012, was an international multi-sport event that took place last year, mainly in the capital city of the UK.  
    The successful bid to host the games was welcomed as a victory for the UK’s international profile; but the controversial nature of such large-scale events soon brought out Britons’ inherent factionalism and reduced politicians and people alike to argumentative wrecks. It was said that the games would either be completely brilliant and unmissable – worthy of booking extended holidays on the off-chance that the soon-to-be notorious ticket lottery would deliver – or an utter disaster, reducing the capital to a state of smouldering rubble habitable only to mutant viruses and refugees from war-torn third-world nations who had made their way to London 2012 under the guise of expert pole-vaulters, etc. 
    In reality, it was fine: buses ran on time; nobody famous was killed; and even the most cynical among us ended up watching some on TV and enjoying it.  
    There is, however, a tall building in Ilford comprising serviced apartments which is officially branded as “Stratford East”, despite being a good four miles east of where the games took place.  
    This is known as “legacy”.


    To my surprise, given that I hadn't actually addressed the subject matter satisfactorily, this was accepted within 24 hours and proved sufficient to earn me a little "professional" badge on my profile:


    At least that's what I saw when I logged in to my dashboard. I presume nobody can view my public profile as I haven't yet been rated, or indeed completed any jobs for Copify's clients. Nor do I intend to. And here's why:


    The above is a typical job ad on Copify.

    First, I draw your attention to the payment: £2.00. (Two pounds.)

    The company (CENSORED: no referred traffic for you, small furniture company) would like a 200-word blog on the subject of "British Bespoke Furniture". They say the purpose of the blog is to "inform the audience", but they are lying through their bespoke maple-veneer MDF holes; no 200-word blog required to include the "keywords" "British Bespoke Furniture, Bespoke Furniture Manufacture" naturally - not stuffed, mind you - within its famine-starved 200-word body is intended to inform any furniture-buying audience about anything, regardless of the catchiness of its title.

    Unless said audience crosses over on the Venn diagram of bespoke-furniture-website-visiting-morons into the "people with a passing knowledge of SEO trends over the years" circle; because this kind of bloodless digital swill that blogs up the arteries of the world-wide web exists solely as the result of clueless retail hacks acting on the ill advice of near-sighted SEO agencies who were no doubt paid far more for their shit ideas stolen off equally shit online forums than a "professional" "copywriter" ever will be to churn out this vapid bullshit into an unsuspecting digital wasteland.

    But imagine how many you'd need to complete to 

    feed your hamster, let alone your family of five?
    Nobody will ever read this proposed blog post.

    And, whatever your rubbish SEO agency has told you, Google will not reward you for flinging this kind of sand-blasted gristle into its face. Search engines are already becoming fairly able to tell the difference between "informing" articles and pointless content pages that nobody ever spends more than three seconds on after following a link.

    By peddling these blogettes on the subject of nothing, each revolving around the antiquated concept of a couple of keywords, all you're doing, [Furniture company name CENSORED], is chucking two-pound-coins at a brick wall. Or, perhaps more accurately given the horrible reality that must lie behind the existence of this job-ad, at a tramp in an internet cafe.

    Hopefully nobody will ever write this proposed blog post either. If only my blog had more existing furniture credentials I could pretty much guarantee it by changing the name of this post to "Informative Bespoke Furniture Blog" or something similar and stealing your coveted #1 slot on the SERPs.

    I have hidden my account and will delete it as soon as I can work out how. Not surprisingly, this option is not immediately apparent on Copify's dashboard. Obviously the whole thing is a ridiculous sham and no more attractive an option for any self-respecting writer (professional or aspiring) than an unpaid internship; indeed, less so, as this will only give you a portfolio of bilge.

    Who's to blame for all this then?

    I don't blame Copify; Copify are providing a service that (really badly run) businesses are happy to exploit. They are a blameless boil on capitalism's bum. Admittedly tweets like the below show a contempt for my profession that could perhaps annoy me, if it was in any way an unusual spectacle:

    The targeted client turned them down on this occasion, preferring the option of someone who would "become part of the team". An admirable sentiment; almost as admirable as paying them in the first place would be. But when some writers can afford to work for free for a while, that leaves those who can't (as I could not, when I arrived in London with my writing MA, my debt, and my call-centre destiny writ across my forehead for all but me to see) in a bad place. The sort of place where they insert overwrought parenthetical clauses into sentences willy-nilly.

    So, are the writers to blame? These writers, if writers they are, are the sort of writers who sit there frantically banging out 200-word blog posts in the internet cafés and public libraries across the land, their super-noodles going cold in the polythene cup at their side, and half-crushed cartons of Um-Bongo clenched between their brown and crooked teeth. One cannot blame such.

    I don't blame the Furniture Imbeciles of the world either. One can't expect them to know anything about the internet, or to care about paying writers a decent wage to do a decent job. They don't want a decent job done. They don't require writers; just people who can type.

    Ultimately we must blame the terrible Luddite SEO-agency scum who know all the facts of how the web used to work, but understand nothing of the universal and timeless fact that quality (as a noun, not a fucking adjective) will always win.

    And if you can't afford it, you won't get it.


    ***POSTSCRIPT***

    As mentioned at the start of the article, the inclusion of the client-company's name in this blog post was deemed by Copify's co-founder to be in breach of point-four of the terms-and-conditions I obviously didn't bother reading on signing up to the site, and therefore excuse enough to threaten me with legal action.

    His email included these lines:

    "I'm all for freedom of speech and although I'm obviously unhappy that you have decided to go down this route, I'm happy to let this stand. One thing we can't allow, however, is the publication of the name of the client for whom the copy you have mentioned was ordered. We have a confidentiality agreement in place, (section 4 of our terms of conditions -  http://uk.copify.com/pages/terms) which your use of the site is legally bound by. This blog post contravenes this clause, which means that we have grounds to take legal action. 
    Please remove all references and links to the client's site within 48 hours and refrain from using screenshots or other images elsewhere. Otherwise, we will be forced to instruct our solicitors. 
    Martin Harrison
    Copify Ltd."

    Of course I am no longer using the site, but no doubt remain bound by the agreements I made on signing in.

    I'd hate to force anyone to do anything so foul as consort with lawyers, and it's no skin off my nose to deprive a cheap furniture company of the visits it would have got from the links in this blog post; even though said visits (while unlikely to "convert") would undoubtedly outnumber those garnered from the above article for which they paid a writer the princely sum of £2.

    I do find it amusing though that somebody who is "all for" freedom of speech would go on so swiftly after reminding me and himself of this fact to articulate a threat that seems to directly conflict with that sentiment.

    But this is the same man who uses weasel words to pretend his website pays something resembling a reasonable fee for writing work, which – as someone who has logged in and witnessed that desolate world – I must say it's my opinion that it does not:


    He's also unduly fond of using the hashtag #FACTS, implying either that he's sure many people will be interested in his accompanying tweets with reference to their interest in the general trending topic of things factual, or that he doesn't understand the world of Twitter very well just yet. As to whether he understands the world of copy and content at all, or whether his low, low prices for clients ever equal a minimum wage for the website's writers, it's surely not best for me to offer an opinion.

    You must decide for yourself.

    Monday, 7 January 2013

    Bad Language: Picking Punctuation Nits in the M&S Café


    This is odd, isn't it?

    It's unusual to see dashes used on signs in general; but here we have one hanging off the end of a compound noun to introduce a list.

    This sign is almost entirely wrong in terms of punctuation and grammar, but let's start with what's right – which is very rarely right in such instances, or ever, nowadays – at least the dash isn't a hyphen.

    Now before you get on your high horse and say I've done the same thing just there; I haven't. Those are en-dashes. I copied them from Wikipedia. That's how I roll. (Slowly.)

    Yes, I spent most of my time in my only ever full-time corporate copywriting gig trying to prevent people from using free-standing hyphens, and encouraging them to copy-and-paste laboriously from Wikipedia or learn alt-codes. And I spent the rest of the time making tea. Because these are fights worth fighting and nobody else will fight them. Everyone else can have poverty, world hunger and child-abusing African warlords; I'll have free-standing hyphens. Now I'm unemployed freelance I do the same in my spare time.

    Okay, now to what's wrong with it. First up: that's a freakin' em-dash. I know an em-dash when I see one. They're all the more conspicuous for almost never being seen outside eighteenth century novels; so, yep: that's definitely one.

    But why?

    An en-dash would suffice here. Much as the en-dash's bigger (or at least fatter) brother is a pleasing sight in print, the en-dash is really the only dash you can get away with in web use, ad copy or sign-writing. That dash, partly on account of its width, is as likely to introduce itself to the brain as a (pretty negative) mathematical symbol as a bit of punctuation introducing a list.

    Also, em-dashes traditionally have no gaps on either side. This is one of the other reasons they rarely introduce clauses in the way en-dashes have done increasingly since the days of modernism, Joyce, Woolf, stream-of-consciousness, evenings spread out against skies like etherized patients, etc. I just checked that poem actually, and Eliot used em-dashes. Bit of trivia for you there. And a bit of a slap in the face for the point I was just making.

    Either way, M&S ain't no T. S. Eliot and that em-dash needs to go on a diet or sidle up to the word "coffee" pronto.

    Actually, no: it needs to bugger off entirely. Because you can't use a dash to introduce a list. Even if you can, you certainly shouldn't; that's what colons are for.

    And while we're on the subject of lists, that list of items ain't too clever either. Aside from the indiscriminate capitalization (another 18th century quirk that's also occasionally used by US hip hop artists on Twitter for some reason, I've noticed), that list is punctuationally defunct. You need either bullet points, semicolons, or to put an "and" between the last two items out of the three. You can have the comma or not. You decide. Depends how much you like Oxford, I guess.

    The final thing that annoys me about this inane piece of coffee-themed puffery on the M&S café wall in Haverfordwest that I have to stare at every time I drink my Chai latte while the baby stuffs ham sandwiches into its mouth or actually don't really have to stare at but seem to find that I usually end up staring at anyway is that "peace of mind" is a noun, while both the other listed virtues are adjectives.

    If you ever write a list of three things (or any other number) and you're puzzling over it for hours and it still seems shit even though you've listed all the qualities (or defects) you meant to and you've no idea why and you're making a "duuuuuuh" sound and drooling a bit, I can guarantee you 100% of the time it's because the different listed items are different speech parts and do not therefore sit comfortably side-by-side in this manner.

    You might say that by going adjective, adjective, compound noun there's a certain kind of adspeak copywritten poetry at work here. You might say that, but you'd be bang wrong.

    And who even puts a full stop on a wall? After a 10-word non-sentence? And then not on other bits of wall where they've written stuff?

    Whoever wrote this. (Or should that be "whomever"?)

    As a closing note, the lack of punctuation in the below farewell incorrectly identifies the visited article as an uncapitalized noun (whether a place or person nobody knows) whose name is "see you again soon".

    I'm pretty sure this is not what was meant; and you may think I'm being picky, but I think that if you're a corporate entity – as opposed to say just some dude writing an email, or a memo, or a pornographic missive on a public-toilet wall – then you ought to write your messages properly or else you may as well just poo in your hand and smear "BUY STUFF" on the glass panes of the sliding doors at the entrance to your shop.

    Why even shell out on paint if your budget won't stretch to an education?

    Or a copywriter?



    Yours, invigorated,

    A (but not The) Velky.

    Tuesday, 9 October 2012

    Bad Language: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and the English gendered-pronouns problem


    As far as grammatical problems go — and indeed problems of sexual inequality — this one's pretty rare in that almost everyone who uses English as their first spoken language is aware of it.

    Perhaps an even higher proportion of second-language speakers are aware of it; it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

    For those who don't make grammar a hobby, this is the problem:

    You know when you talk hypothetically about "a person", and that person usually ends up being male? Yeah. That's the problem. It's sexism by convenience, and the best solution anyone's come up with thus far is the one most of us — consciously or otherwise — fall back on: pluralising said hypothetical individual.

    This means he or she (more on that later) becomes "they". And everyone knows "they" is (ahem, are) plural. There are more than one of them.

    So when you're in an important business meeting (as I frequently am) and somebody starts a sentence with "When a customer signs up to our website to make a purchase ..." chances are they'll finish it with something like, "They'll leave and never come back." Depending on how good their website is.

    If they finish with "He'll ..." chances are someone will pick them up on their use of needlessly gendered (AKA sexist) language. Even if they're not doing so in earnest. This linguistic point is so well-known as to be more-or-less impossible for even the least-interested individual to let slip. Even if you just want to get one over on a colleague/friend/enemy. Even if you are just a mainstream pedant.

    So what do you say instead? Well some people deliberately use "she" by way of trying to address millennia of sexual inequality. This is fine in the instances where the hypothetical person is demonstrably likelier to be female; as it would be completely justifiable to use "he" if the reverse were true. But you can't fight millennia of fire with fire. And "fine" and "justifiable" still aren't synonymous with "ideal". I don't want any hypothetical individual, who represents a wider group to which there's any chance I might belong, represented using a pronoun gendered to a sex to which I definitely don't belong. Thank you very much. And not because I'm hyper-sensitive or difficult; it's just because there's no real need for it. It's stupid.

    You could say "he or she" instead, but it sounds arch and clumsy, and it still puts men first. You could say "she or he", or you could switch between the two. But someone might hear you use just one and misunderstand your motives, or — worse yet — someone might have to listen to you he-sheing and/or she-heing your way through a PowerPoint presentation (or a relationship problem) to the point that you actually annoy that person to death. Somebody might be friends with you and witness it regularly and decide not to be friends with you.

    You can avoid the linguistic construct entirely if you like. There is no utterly necessary occasion where it simply has to be used; where a decision between he, she and they simply has to be taken. (I guarantee you I could rewrite any such imagined instance you're burdened with. For ten pounds.) But — this hot, gendered potato aside — it's a completely fine and often quite useful sentence structure. There's no sense in culling it like a septic badger.

    Chris Grayling: or was it? (Or were they?)
    It rears its head almost daily, but I heard a very pointed example this morning on the radio. A Tory MP who may or may not have been the justice secretary Chris Grayling was being interviewed on the news section of BBC 6Music. (Or his interview was being broadcast there at any rate.)

    He was talking about new laws that would allow home-owners to stab, skin, slice and dice burglars — and cook them in a stew, or what have you. There was some typically vague legal term like "proportionate force" or "reasonable force", just to give judges a creative way to ensure lots of poor people, and no rich people, end up in prison as a result of this. (Right, comrades?)

    The Tory began the recorded section of his interview by referring to the imagined hypothetical home-owner with a male pronoun: "he". A voice in his ear, either real or imagined, started furiously remonstrating with him about how old, white, rich and sexist he would no doubt appear if he finished the sentence in the same way; and by the next time grammar dictated he had to reach for a pronoun he picked "they".

    Before spin or good sense could save him, the Tory accidentally, and in a half-arsed way, implied all home-owners likely to be provoked to using reasonable force to defend their domiciles from ruffians were men. He probably meant all home-owners. Indeed, he probably meant everyone. That's how grammar used to work, you see.

    Yes, in the Tory's defence  "he" was officially endorsed — not just tolerated — as the hypothetical pronoun of choice for just over a hundred years. And before that if language wasn't being sexist it was only because people hadn't had the time to think of ways in which it could be, what with all the plague and cholera and witch-burning and everything. This "solution" to the problem was called The Universal He, putting one in mind of such archetypes of masculinity as He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski.

    But linguistic philosophy and second-wave feminism put paid to this in the twentieth century — some while after the average Tory MP studied grammar at Eton. I guess the crux of the combined arguments is that our language is largely geared toward representing men, and concealing women. And that even though it's only language, this has an effect on how we view the world, especially as we acquire the language as small innocent gendered or genderless children. If every hypothetical person is male, every significant person must surely be male too. This is the point in the argument at which certain types of person (many male, but not all) raise objections. But they didn't read this far anyway, so never mind them*.

    The plural pronouns employed to indicate the hypothetical dissenters in the last sentence of the previous paragraph are valid, as the sentences are constructed (not contrived) to discuss people in the plural, not one hypothetical individual from a greater mass. This is one tactic for dealing with the issue.

    The MP could have said something along the lines of: home-owners have the right to defend their estates from marauding chavs with as many balls as they can let fly from their multitudinous cannon. but for some reason people like the hypothetical one to be singular. It seems to have more clout; perhaps because the listener can imagine itself being that "he or she"? MPs love pretending to talk to individuals as much as they hate actually having to do it. I guess this is why my own proposal — no doubt offered many times in the past, even perhaps by greater grammarians than I** — hasn't yet caught on.

    My proposal was soft-launched in the middle of the previous paragraph, indicated italicisedunderlined, and in bold, and it amounts to no less than using "it" and "its" instead of he, her, his, her, they, theirs.

    Why don't we do this already? Well, because "it" is a pronoun reserved for non-human objects (boxes, breadbaskets and strap-ons), intangible concepts (love, rheumatism and ornateness), and — apparently — "lower animals", like (presumably) moss piglets, spider mites and chow chows.

    People would be affronted if you referred to them as "it", possibly even more so than if you referred to them using the opposite gender to which you declare affiliation. Indeed "it" is also reserved pejoratively for people of indeterminate gender who do not deserve — in the creatively nasty grammar-abuser's imagined world — a definite gendered pronoun.

    I know this from experience; not because I have personally made the effort or put in the thought to be confident in describing myself as "transgender", but because sometimes — usually when you're a teenager, and at your most vulnerable — people feel the need to make such decisions for you.

    Yes, having frequently being referred to in my beardless formative years with such linguistic stews as "that man-woman thing that sits on the window ledge," I've thought about the reality of being described as "it" for a long time. And I quite like it.

    "It" is genderless, unsaddled, and therefore wild. If a horse is a higher animal, and spends its days for the most part toff-ridden — being ridden by toffs — that's a privilege I can forgo. Indeed, I haven't looked this up, but I'm pretty sure most of these alleged "higher animals" are afforded their status not by any kind of special power they possess (see moss piglets), but by centuries of selfless service to humans: either by carrying us into battle, fetching our pipes and slippers, or displaying traits we seek to emulate. Probably masculine traits. (I'm taking a pitch at lions being included here.)

    If you're happier for your gender (or someone else's which is not your own) to be included as information in a sentence where it doesn't need to be, than you are for your solidarity with lower animals, non-human objects and intangible concepts to be made apparent in that same sentence, then I have no place for you on my Christmas card list.

    I ask you: are you truly more inclined to align yourself with He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski — or indeed their exact female counterparts: She-Ra, Minnie Driver and, I don't bloody know, Maria Sharapova — than you are to buddy up with moss piglets, rheumatism and breadbaskets? Why, you idiot?

    I guess this is where we spare a few words for the currently-thought-correct plural pronoun "they/their". This option, deemed the hazily inoffensive neutral-ground by the faceless masses of the political-correctness-resigned bastard public, is the worst of the bunch.

    Why? Because it's grammatically a non-starter. It's stupid. I don't care if Shakespeare used it. As if that's a bloody argument anyway; he couldn't even spell his own name the same twice. He was an unrestrained loon, and no gatekeeper of Good English.

    So use "it"; "it" is the only right and proper pronoun for this use.

    Alternatively, use "the fool".

    As in, if a baker charges sixteen pence for a baker's dozen of jam doughnuts, how much does the fool charge for a regular non-baker's dozen?

    Now before you get all creatively critical about how many bakers own the concept of not being able to count properly, we're not talking about apostrophes today. And you can pretty much guarantee that about 90% of men and women (and bakers) are fools, but you can never — without revealing yourself to be a massive sexist — guess how many people are male, or female, or can transform themselves in the duration of a sentence from being one or the other (or both) into being an indeterminate number of "people" in the plural.

    Only X-Factor's Multiple Man can do that. And he's pretty freaking gendered.

    The end.

    Love,

    Alexander V


    Images free or copyright-free.

    * It's a similar point to that which politely suggests a newspaper regularly showing famous sportspeople, businessmen and politicians — mostly male, especially the "businessmen" — alongside almost-completely-naked teenage girls is not a newspaper that is symptomatic of, or even helps works toward, a sexually equal society.

    ** I'm pretty sure this is a joke, because probably that ought to say "me". If indeed I was accidentally right to use "I" then please ignore my mistake and take the joke in the spirit it was meant: smugness.



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