Stoic Athenaeum is a philosophy-led content marketing journal that helps people, brands and freelance writers find their own philosophy of life. So, hearing from other writers about their experiences in copywriting, publishing and other arenas is of great value.
It was wonderful to chat to Jules Horne, an author based in Scotland who has worked across multiple writing formats. From spending time as a BBC journalist to writing books on how to set up a freelance copywriting business, Jules has a lot of knowledge to share.
Great to have you on Stoic Athenaeum Jules. Before we get into your wider writing experience I’d love to know what inspired you to start writing in the first place.
I devoured books as a child and had a fantastic primary school teacher, John Stables, who fed that hunger with interesting choices. He introduced us to writing our own stories from different inspirations. I remember writing a Canterbury Tale and one (published at primary school) called ‘Somebody said ‘god is dead’. So looking back, it was pretty advanced stuff, though we didn’t realise!
Mr Stables also taught drama and got us into making little cardboard theatres and writing scripts for our characters. We also learned traditional Scots poems for recitation and later learned chunks of Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen by heart. I learned a sense of rhythm and wrote my own doggerel, often viewpoint poems by pencils and other inanimate objects.
At secondary school in Scotland, creative writing was also on the curriculum, so I wrote lots of florid description. This was all about getting through school intact, but I never made the connection to actually writing or becoming a writer, because books were wonderful mysterious objects in libraries, usually by famous dead people, and I didn’t know any writers or people who made real books.
Then there was a big gap when I studied literature at university and got intimidated into not writing (apart from arcane essays). Finally, after uni, I joined an amdram group and wrote my first play. Things really took off when the Traverse Theatre ran some workshops in a nearby town and I devoured that learning and craft.
You’ve spent time as a BBC radio journalist and how did that career help to shape your writing style?
It’s an interesting question because I read in the Archer/Jockers book The Bestseller Code that print journalism-trained writers have a different style to creative writing-trained, and women writers trained in journalism have a style closer to typically ‘male’ style. Obviously it’s not that simple but there are certain tendencies and markers in the different genres.
Then there’s the additional radio factor. Its hallmarks include even greater concision, and performative aspects, because radio writing is a script to be read aloud. And you have to consider audience, projection and engagement, which isn’t necessarily the case with other kinds of writing.
When I trained in radio, this was never actually discussed or taught using that terminology or those concepts. You just got thrown in and I worked this out for myself, because I see alignment with dramatic and oral storytelling.
But we were rigorously edited. There was a short feedback loop – draft a 30” news story, then sit with your editor to clarify and tighten. It was similar when I was a government translator and worked closely with an editor. We had incredibly detailed line-by-line discussion – quite painful, sometimes! You had to leave your ego at the door, which was very good training. It helped with flexible expression and incisive self-editing – cuts and changes are the norm. Also, radio helps to hone your instincts for rhythm and clear visual painting, which is useful in storytelling.
Across the multiple genres you write in you’ve created several successful plays such as Macmillan’s Marvellous Motion Machine (BBC Radio 4) and Allotment (stage). What makes scriptwriting unique from other writing disciplines?
Script has its own entirely different processes and methods. Script production is a collaboration with other creative disciplines. So (at least in the creative industries) you’re never entirely in that interiority bubble of ‘just me and my writing’. It ends up with a physical, exterior reality. As a writer, you have to think how it ‘plays’ – in a physical space, externalised by people who perform and play it. Even if it’s on radio or in a game, it still has a spatial, physical, interpersonal essence. And you need to consider the interpersonal in both the nature of the work, and in the working process.
Because of that, script has evolved different ways of working. Script writers use different concepts, more aligned to drama – beats, scenes, units, sequences, actioning, reversals, subtext etc, more structural thinking, as well as the more obvious dialogue writing.
Scriptwriters usually work in an industry or collaborative context, so a shared conceptual shorthand is important for efficient working. These concepts were new to me when I first wrote professional scripts. Some are increasingly finding their way into the fiction world.
The key difference is that script writers need to think about ‘the business of show’ rather than tell, and need to master ways to dramatise: externalise, physicalise, make present, use techniques to avoid too many flashbacks, long reflection and expositional elements that are easier to tuck away in prose and poetry. They need to understand time, and how to chunk it up. Write tight, clear and with a sense of rhythm.
You’ve also created a collection of helpful books on writing like How To Launch A Freelance Copywriting Business. What do you think defines a great copywriter and how do you interpret the word ‘content’ in today’s saturated digital market?
To me, ‘great copywriter’ is a mythical beast from Mad Men and is more about high concept agency copywriting aligned to branding, which I’ve never done. What to call yourself is always tricky, as different business sectors and scales use different names for the job of ‘writer’.
‘Content writer’ is relatively recent terminology, and l’ve heard lots of writers balk at the word ‘content’ as a kind of mindless fodder to put in a receptacle. But it’s widely accepted in the digital and creative industries, so it depends who you’re talking to.
With my radio hat on, I tend to think in terms of ‘news’, ‘features’ and ‘storytelling’. But they’re all forms of story in the end. I guess the mindset distinction is: are you talking to humans or writing for algorithms? Sometimes that distinction can get lost in the digital market. As writers, it’s good to follow what fascinates you, and form a strong picture of the person you’re writing for. Your passion will come across and you’ll hopefully make a connection. There’s a great radio technique of imagining a friend while you’re on air. Sometimes this helps me get started with writing, too.
How would you suggest freelance copywriters go about setting their prices?
This is also tricky, as rates vary wildly and a lot depends on where you are, and the sector you’re working for. I got pushback on the rates I started out with, but they were extremely reasonable, so I got a skewed idea of the rates in my rural area.
Try searching for ‘copywriting ratecard’ in your country or look at writing rates on the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) website in the UK. This will give you a range of ballparks and some ideas about best practice. I find it useful to ask for an idea of the budget. Then you know if they’re coming from a realistic perspective and are more likely to be a good client.
If their budget and job spec doesn’t fit the time you’d need, suggest what you could do within their budget. Eg, you could do xx and yy but not zz. Then they might rethink their expectations and you might get a more realistic job spec. Don’t take on underpaid work (unless for portfolio or pro bono reasons), because you’re then locked into that rate and mindset.
Clients obviously prefer a fixed job rate to an hourly rate which is open-ended. It’s your responsibility to quote realistically and manage your time, which takes a bit of trial and error.
With bigger jobs, especially websites, which can grow arms and legs, charge a proportion upfront. Establish how many hours they’ve paid for. Let them know when you’re approaching the limit and ask what they want you to prioritise. It’s not an exact science and you can also adapt depending on your capacity e.g charge more for a rush job if you have to pull an all-nighter!
What tips would you provide to a freelance writer on finding clients?
I cover how I did this in my free book Copywriting for Creative Writers, so you could look at that or check out my copywriting book and workbook, which break down the process into steps.
Some people look for clients online, but I’ve never done online marketing and haven’t needed to, so I can’t advise there. I mainly work with people in my local area, where I can get to know their business. They sometimes refer word-of-mouth clients.
I started out knowing absolutely no one in business, and it can be hard to get traction at first, but it’s the same with any new venture. You do a good first job, get testimonials and ask for referrals. Another good route is to work with designers in your local area. Their clients sometimes need copywriters or editors. If there’s a creative industries hub in your area, join that, as you’ll meet complementary colleagues in design, web development and photography.
In your role at the Open University, you teach fiction and script MA creative writing classes. How do you structure your classes and do you believe in the idea that anyone can write so long as they have the right knowledge?
OU courses have a structured curriculum and there are forums for exchange and discussion, as well as some online tutorials run by tutors. I co-wrote year two of the script MA and usually teach dramatic techniques, as most students haven’t encountered these, and they’re essential! Apart from this, most teaching is 121 feedback on students’ work in progress.
‘Can anyone write?’ is such a huge topic. ‘Write’ covers a huge continuum from ‘basic written communication’ to ‘earning money from it’ or ‘winning literary prizes’ or ‘creative outpouring’, and every shade and skill level in between.
In my limited experience, no, not everyone can write, though everyone can improve and many can transform! Narrowing it down, I think your question is about teaching writing, and where knowledge and natural ability interact.
It’s interesting because I’ve heard other writers who teach talk about ‘naturals.’ Sometimes you come across writers with such a distinctive, vivid, voice, sense of rhythm and flow, lively ideas, facility with words and their effects – they’re a ‘natural.’
Others may not be wonderful with language but have equally important attributes – a flair for story, tension, world-building or a fascinating background to draw on. Or extraordinary determination and perseverance, and the ability to learn. There’s no single path into writing.
And there’s no substitute for learning the craft. Natural ability will only get you so far. Someone who studies thriller writers and knuckles down to write their own will be more successful than someone with flair who wings it. Though ideally, you need both!
Who are some authors that you admire and what is it about their style of writing that resonates with you?
Too many to name! I’m most drawn to storytelling voices with a lively rhythm and heightened worlds. Although they may seem an incongruous group, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka and Ivor Cutler are favourites.
There’s a sense of performance in their writing. Gustave Flaubert is another. He used to read aloud and got a sore throat from writing. I guess the spoken word rhythms and rise and fall of sentences are part of the appeal. Maybe the theatricality, too.
What are some projects you’re excited to be working on in the future?
I’m writing a play about women’s rugby which is a commission for an Edinburgh theatre. This is hugely exciting because I’m working with a lovely director and have been following a women’s rugby club to learn about their sport and its rhythms and language.
It’s been a fascinating and inspiring experience so far. And also a shedload of work. Research, drafting, studying sports plays and films, plays with ensemble casts, getting a sense of different theatre vocabularies and forms that could be good for this play.
It might be useful to know that with script, you might start with parameters such as length, audience, cast size or the space you’re writing for, because a one-person rural village hall touring show is a different animal to an ensemble cast in a proscenium arch theatre.
I’m also working on another longer piece where I haven’t found the form yet. I have some sketches and spoken word pieces in Scots, and am making accompanying films so that I can tour and try things locally in tiny venues.
It’s a mix of performance, live music and film – sort of expanded cinema – and is really fun in between longer pieces of writing. It keeps me going creatively.
Thanks for inviting me to write this. It’s got me thinking about the connection between Stoicism and sleeves-rolled-up writing craft. A writing friend says ‘the craft releases the art’ – that ties with my experience too.