If you unscrew your belly button, your bottom will fall off; and other things my Dad taught me.

My Dad died a year ago today, 5 December.

My earliest memory is sitting on his shoulders watching a Guy Fawkes bonfire on one of several visits to the UK as a child.

An electrical engineer by trade, he worked on some of the early mainframes before moving to New Zealand to marry my mum. He loved teaching my brother, cousins, grandchildren and I about anything scientific, the ancient Lancastrian martial art of Ecky Thump and stories of building a canon and blowing a hole in the neighbours garage – but refusing to let my brother and I make anything similar!

I hope he has found my mum, who he missed dearly, and the rest of his welcoming party, at the great ISO9000 audit conference in the sky.

Below are some important life lessons he taught me over the years:

If you unscrew your belly button, your bottom will fall off.

This, along with the “lying still game” and many other “games” ensured hours of peace and quiet for adults trying to talk after dinner or at any family occasion.

Don’t play “knuckles” with my Dad. You have been warned.

Your friends and acquaintances follow you everywhere you go

It didn’t matter where we were – traveling around the country, at a hospital appointment with Mum, or a hotel in Hong Kong, Dad would suddenly strike up a conversation with a seemingly random person and it would turn out they knew each other in some obscure way.

Even the Chaplin who blessed Dad’s body at the hospital after he passed knew him from his time on the local school Board of Trustees – even in death, still finding people he knows.

Your neighbours will indulge the craziest of schemes

We were gifted a very old and very heavy piano. To get it inside required moving it from a neighbouring house to our house, and going up a considerable flight of stairs.

Rather than spend money on professional piano movers, somehow Dad convinced every abled-bodied person in our street to pitch in and help carry the piano up the stairs, which they did willingly.

At some point my friends and I collected aluminium cans to raise funds to build a clubhouse.

We didn’t collect enough to buy plywood for the walls, so we came up with the plan to cover the neighbour’s old hen-house with black polythene.

I don’t know what Mr McGregor thought when Dad turned up one afternoon with a large sheet of polythene and a staple gun but he let him cover the old hen-house with it without question.

Black polythene isn’t a great material for building clubhouses, by the way.


Dad and I went for one practice driving lesson.

Rumour is that I rolled into the car in front of us at an intersection.

From that point on, Mum was in charge of driving lessons.

How to troll your cousin

People often talk about carrying secrets to the grave. I am about to reveal one of Dad’s recent secrets.

One of the side effects of being an engineer is the irresistible urge to take things apart.

Mum like collecting cheap outdoor solar lights that often broke (or got crushed by cars). Dad salvaged a particular light with a green LED, took it apart, and hung the still-working electrics in the dining room window.

Every night at dusk the little green light would come on.

Our cousin Maureen has been visiting for many years now, and would stay with my parents over Christmas. This particular year, she noticed the little green light hanging in the window.

“What’s that light?” she asked.

Quick as a flash, Dad explained that it was a new Auckland Council initiative to remind elderly people to close their curtains when it got dark. They had people driving round to check and if they saw the light, you got a fine.

Maureen must have been skeptical, but Mum immediately backed up Dad’s story.

For the three years that followed, Maureen would jump up as soon as the light came on to close the curtains, determined to avoid a fine.

Sadly the little LED light stopped working and was thrown away.

Maureen queried where it was the following year, and Dad explained the scheme had ended after complaints and the elderly were left to control their own curtain closing once more.

In Summary

  • Figure out a way to make children keep quiet and call it a game
  • Make enough friends so they’ll always be someone around who you know, and they’ll help with your crazy projects
  • You can convince anyone to believe a good story
  • Delegate the really dangerous jobs to your wife.

How to actually negotiate your freelance rate

I’ve seen a lot of freelancers working for pretty bad rates lately, so I thought I’d offer some suggestions on negotiating your rate.

This all assumes you have discussed the project and you have the time, capability and willingness to do the work.

Rule 1 – You are the expert.

You don’t take your car to the garage for repairs and then tell the mechanic how much you’ll pay. They figure out what needs doing and quote you a price. They are the expert and you trust their judgement.

It should be the same with your writing. You are the expert at providing writing services. You offer your skills at a rate, and the customer can choose if they employ you or not.

Very often your customer will have no idea on the “going rate” and part of being a professional is guiding them to the right figure.

The magic question

“What is your budget for this?”.

Almost always their budget is more than I was planning to charge, so I say “Yeah, we can work with that” and they are happy!

Or its less, and I can say “Well full price would be $XX, but if we dropped a couple of options we could work with your budget”

Or, “I’m sorry, we can’t really work with that budget – try XX down the road who are a little more budget friendly”

What if they avoid the question?

More experienced clients might be wise to the budget question (although it helps everyone if they are just honest), and will say “well what are your rates?”

Try something like “For a project like this, I’d normally charge a flat fee of $X, is that something we could work with?”, where X is twice what your got paid the last time for a similar piece of work.

If they say yes well done – a 100% profit.

More likely they’ll offer a lower rate, or at least give you some idea of what they want to pay and now we have a budget to negotiate against.

(You should be charging by project not hourly or per word as as rule, but whatever works for you)

I can’t just keep doubling my rate though

Actually you can. Because you’ll start to graduate to a better quality client as your move from one price bracket to the next.

If you are missing out on work due to price (which if you negotiating you shouldn’t be) you’ll figure out what the sweet spot is.

Or, just give them a rate

If it really comes down to it, have a rate ready. A 1000 word article at 1c per word earn you $10. If it takes you two hours to complete you are working for $5/hour.

That’s bad for everyone. For you, because its a terrible hourly rate, and for the industry, because it drives down the value of the work writers do.

So, figure out how much you’d like to earn per hour and work out how much you need to charge per word and now we have a rate to work from.

Be your own boss

Many questions I’ve seen make is seem like the poster is working for a boss. As a freelancer you are literally your own boss. Use your knowledge and expertise to lead your clients towards great quality work for a fair price and if you don’t like what they are offering – turn them down.

Along these lines – set the payment terms that you work on. “I work on a 50% deposit and 50% on completion basis”.

This is a great tool for leveraging a rate too. e.g “For projects under $50 I need payment up front before I start work”

Discounts, testimonials and loss-leaders

In general I think its a bad idea to do discounts, or free work, or cheap work in the hopes of getting more/higher paid work later. If you do a good job, a positive review shouldn’t be a problem, and I’ve found that once you have a discount in place is very difficult to go back to full price with that client again.

In Summary

  • Know what you are worth, and therefore willing to work for
  • Have a rate in mind
  • Ask for a budget
  • Lead your clients, don’t let them become your boss

Quick Tip : How to remember how to do links in Markdown

Found this on Twitter today. Where has this been all my life:

Web links look like rectangles, so the text is in brackets. The URL, as an additional detail to what you’re reading, is in parentheses.

How to find content for your personal blog

A collection of papers to illustrate ideas

While I’ve been on the Internet for many years, one of the stumbling blocks I’ve found in making blogging a habit has always been finding ideas for content. I think I’m getting better at it, so here is what I’ve been doing.

Ali Abdaal asked on Twitter what people’s common questions about starting a personal website were, and it turns out that finding content ideas is a pretty common problem.

Start with content

If at all possible try and find a few posts to import while you are setting it up and tweaking the design.

When we hired a professional web designer to redo our work website they insisted on having the content before they’d show us any design ideas. It was frustrating at the time, but once we went through the process it was clear what a difference it made.

We could see how things would come together and be presented, and it made the initial version of the website feel useful and “lived in” when it went live.

So, if you are starting from scratch, where you do find the content?

Write once, use often

The first thing I did when I started this website was to gather the various versions of blogs and articles I’ve written over the years.

While the angsty poetry of my early 20’s can probably stay hidden, and I can’t find the first website I ever made about the Hale Bopp Comet in 1994, I was happy to be able to find some content that gave my blog some structure.

Quite a few of my early blog posts have been based on Reddit posts or expanding on things I’ve written on Facebook.

This philosophy of “Write once, use often” was something I learned working in a corporate communications role. My journalist colleague called it “re-nosing”. You can republish the same content on multiple platforms with only minor changes to the introduction or to the style.

The truth is most people won’t see the content you post in every single location so not only is it a second chance to grab someone’s attention, but it also allows you to reach different audiences but framing the content in different ways.

You’ll see a lot of people doing this online by posting transcripts of podcasts or YouTube videos as blog posts, or shortened versions of blog posts as email newsletter content.

Document, don’t create

In Ali’s video he quotes Gary Vee’s advice to “Document, not create”. The idea being (at least when you are getting started) that you share what’s happening in your life or things you’ve found rather than setting out to create totally brand new content.

I’m going to try this a bit more – perhaps posting one interesting thing I’ve seen each day online. Essentially this post was an excuse to save Ali’s video for future reference but I’ve magically found myself expanding on the theme and creating a proper blog post.

In the future this will be a good way to remember the things I’ve seen online and found useful that’s a bit more interactive than just collecting bookmarks (does anyone still bookmark things?)

Ali’s video about making a personal website is on YouTube:

My top 10 personal blog post ideas

Over the last few months I’ve collected a few drafts in WordPress, and a folder of ideas in Ulysses that I’ll use as the basis for blog posts. Even writing this post has given me ideas for future posts. Here are 10 personal blog content ideas that I’ve been thinking about that might inspire you:

  1. Scan and post old school projects or writing. Don’t forget to transcribe them for both SEO and accessibility.
  2. Find emails where you’ve explained how to do something or documented your travel adventures and turn them into a travel diary
  3. Post your go-to recipes. I 100% only did this so I can look up the cooking times when I need them
  4. Play the “two truths and one lie” game as a blog post. Share it on social media so people can guess the lie.
  5. Write a post about your first job, what you studied after school, a memorable birthday, your first concert or rank your favourite author’s books
  6. Brainstorm some random facts about yourself – each one of them can be expanded into a post in the future
  7. Document your room, desk or the things you use each day. Ali does a great job of this on his blog, and its a great place to add affiliate links in the future if you go down that path
  8. Make a list of your interests and then write an article about each one. What is it? Why do you like it? How do you get started, or are there some links you can share that beginners may find useful. This doesn’t have to be hobbies – if you are into crime fiction suggest some good authors for beginners to check out.
  9. Write about how you did a thing – started a blog? learned to ski? started a journal? met your partner? For anything you’ve done there will be someone who will find your story helpful
  10. Write about your favourite local cafe, restaurant or bar. It forces you to reflect and explain why you like them which will improve your writing.

For each idea start a new document (it doesn’t really matter where you write them so long as you can copy and paste into your blog platform later) and then flesh out the details when you are in the mood. As you get more ideas (and you will) start more documents.

Bonus Tip: Something I always enjoyed about jwz’s website was the way he linked between posts – even with seemingly random words. It helped me discover more of his content and it’s good for SEO too, if you care about that sort of thing.

My (unabridged) life in travel

In early 2021, I was invited to write about my life in travel as a way of promoting Shakespeare in the Park 2021. You can read the actual article on the NZ Herald website, but here are my answers in full.

What do you miss most about travel right now?

I love the thrill of arriving in a new city and having to figure things out. There’s a certain adrenaline rush to figuring out Shanghai’s subway to get to your hotel.

Where was the first overseas trip you ever took, and what are your strongest memories from it?

I’d been to the UK twice before I was five, but I only remember sitting on my father’s shoulders watching a Guy Fawkes bonfire.

I remember going on a family holiday to Sydney when I was very young. I wrote a story about it for school and won an award from the Principal.

What was a standard family holiday like when growing up?

My dad would travel quite a lot for work and the family (my brother and my mum) would sometimes tag along. Mostly around the North Island saying a motels. We’d explore the local town while my Dad went to work.

Who has most inspired your travels?

TV shows like MacGyver really inspired me to learn about different cultures. The TV series Intrepid Journeys absolutely convinced me that travel was something I could do too.

What is the greatest trip you’ve ever been on?

For Christmas 2018 I toured the Christmas market of Europe then headed to the northern tip of Norway to look for the Northern Lights. On new year’s eve I was sitting around a campfire on the Norway/Finland border as the clouds cleared and the lights began to move through the sky.

And the worst?

I spent three days in New York with a terrible head cold. I went to three Broadway shows and fell asleep at all of them. I would absolutely recommend visiting the United Nations if you are in New York. The tour is well worth it.

What’s your approach to packing for an overseas trip?

One carry-on bag only. I tend to pack and repack until my bag is as light as possible. I us a Go Ruck GR1 in Black and a NutSac Satchel as my day bag.

What is the destination that most surprised you – good or bad – and why?

Shanghai was young and vibrant and could easily have been New York or London. The brand new but empty apartment buildings and shopping malls fascinated me – it’s a city waiting for the people to arrive.

Where was your most memorable sunrise/sunset?

Riding a bike on top of the ancient city walls of Xi’an with a new friend. The atmosphere, the view and the company were perfect.

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from a long trip?

Hug my cat and make a proper cup of tea. The world’s inability to get an English Breakfast Tea right never ceases to amaze me.

What do you miss most about home when you travel?

My family and friends. And my cat (of course) but honestly things like Skype and Messenger have made the world a lot smaller and it doesn’t take much effort to catch up for a video call either before or after a day of exploring.

Where is the one destination you must see before you die, and why?

Iceland is high on my bucket list, along with some notable sci-fi landmarks in the USA like Roswell and Area 51.

What’s your favourite thing about travel?

Figuring out how the streets in New York work, random strangers on a bus helping you find your destination in Beijing, nearly being arrested in Hong Kong. When you usually work at a desk you start to feel very much like Indiana Jones.