I’ve decided to create a digital home for all my thoughts on books, movies, theatre, places and experiences, so I’ve created a review blog: Exercising My Opinions. Feel free to visit. I’ve just published my first review, which is about the Cirque du Soleil Dralion show.
I’d love you to leave a comment if you’ve seen the show and let me know what you thought.
TAMARA OBERHOLSTER and her husband chose Thailand as a holiday destination for a good first taste of Asia. And because it’s cheap.
We’d plotted our journey to include Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, but Chiang Mai, which offers Thai culture, Myanmar-influenced food and a range of activities, was my favourite, by far.
With three and a half days in the city, we packed in as much as we could. We started exploring some of the Old City’s temples, lingering outside Wat Pra Singh to enjoy street food and fresh coconut water from the shell. A short walk away is the Wat Chedi Luang, the giant 1400AD Lanna-style chedi, partially ruined during a 16th century earthquake. Originally the home of the Emerald Buddha, which now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, a pulley system allows devout visitors to send up water to bathe the Buddha relics.
In one of the adjacent buildings, an embalmed monk in a glass box terrified me. I thought he was performing some sort of holy act until I realised he hadn’t blinked in the five minutes I’d been staring at him. After Googling “monk in a glass box Wat Chedi Luang” I was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only one. For a livelier monk experience, there’s the “Monk Chat” programme next to Wat Chedi Luang where you can chat to the monks and give them a chance to practice their English. As in the temples, visitors are expected to dress modestly. A woman must never touch a monk.
Slightly cooler evenings in Chiang Mai are the perfect time to shop.
The Night Bazaar on Thanon Chang Khlan offers everything from fake brands to exquisite Thai handicrafts, an abundance of food options, and a myriad massage spots, some outside among the stalls, others inside (with aircon).
I gawked at the hand-carved soap flowers and bartered for clothing while my husband tried the local beer. At the Anusarn food market, an offshoot of the main market, we ate our fill of khao soi (a Burmese-influenced Thai curry noodle dish) and tried out the flavours of Fanta not available in South Africa (blueberry, strawberry and “green”). Then it was back to the market for more haggling.
A foot massage at Le Best Massage after hours of pavement pounding was sweet relief. At 180THB (about R54) for an hour-long foot, head and shoulder massage, it was the best buy of the day.
We spent the next day at Elephant Nature Park. Founded by Khun Lek, the place has been featured on Animal Planet and won awards for rehabilitating abused elephants and providing a happy place for pachyderms to live out their retirement.
Our chirpy guide, Zaa, introduced us to some of the 34 residents and we fed and washed the elephants, watched them swim and learnt about their plight in Thailand. Elephants employed in the logging industry were abandoned when logging became illegal in the 1980s, and, with their mahouts they had to beg on city streets. Aside from some trying questions from people in our tour group – “Do elephants accept dogs into their herds?” Seriously? – it was a lovely outing.
The next day we attended a cooking course with the Thai Farm Cooking School, stopping first at a local Thai market to be educated on rice, spices and other ingredients. Then it was on to the organic farm, 17km outside Chiang Mai, where we picked fresh makheau phuang, a pea-sized bitter eggplant, and ka prao, holy basil. We spent the day cooking and eating. Between us, my husband and I made eight dishes and took half the food home with us for dinner. The instructor, Tsurian, kept us chuckling with her jokes about how many chillies to use for the “sexy lips” effect. I learnt how to cook sticky rice with mango – the quintessential Thai dessert – and plan to impress guests with it at home.
Our last night in Chiang Mai was a Sunday, which meant we could enjoy the popular Sunday Walking Street market that starts at the Tha Phae Gate in the Old City and extends for a kilometre down Ratchadamnoen Road. We did our gift shopping here but it gets crowded so it’s best to arrive early. Open from 4pm until midnight, the Sunday Walking Street is a great place to try out Thai street food, like som tam (green papaya salad), omelettes cooked in banana leaves, sai ua – a Chiang Mai speciality (spicy pork sausage), or kanom krok (a sweet fried coconut custard snack). Other foods on offer include cheap sushi starting at 5THB a piece (about R1.50), to Indian and Chinese offerings.
The drinks are worth trying too. Aside from the delicious fresh fruit shakes (and beer, of course), you can top your beverage with chao kuai a translucent black jelly thought to have cooling properties) although I must admit it didn’t go with my cold Milo.
Destiny Connect published a handy article on working with freelancers last month, which gives sensible advice like agreeing to deadlines before work commences, getting everything in writing and giving proper briefs. Can I hear an ‘Amen!’ from all the freelancers out there?
From my own experience as a freelancer, here are some further thoughts on how to work with freelancers so that the experience is pleasant and pain-free for both client and freelancer:
Are there any lessons you’ve learned as a freelancer or someone who has hired a freelancer that could make the process easier? Feel free to share in the comments section!
On Tuesday my hard drive crashed. It gave very little warning. One minute it was working, the next it was throwing up obscure error messages and refusing to communicate with me. After a morning of trying to sort things out myself, trying safe modes, last known good configurations and myriad other solutions suggested by the many web forums I browsed (using my old desktop), I came to the conclusion that I was in deep trouble.
My IT guy confirmed that my hard drive was very sick and needed to be admitted to computer ICU. As he whisked the machine away to try to save its life, I took stock. It struck me once again how dependant on technology we have become, particularly in the media industry. Without a computer, internet and my trusty digital voice recorder, there is pretty much nothing I can do in terms of work.
Thankfully, having had two laptops stolen and experiencing the pain of data loss before, I have become much better at backing up my data. Between my external hard drives and the various online tools I use, I have about 90% of the data that was on my laptop’s hard drive. The 10% I haven’t backed up includes my recent Namibia photos and my Photoshop edits of some of my older images, which took me hours to create. The IT guy is trying to recover these.
As I was sighing over the possibility of losing my precious images and cursing technology for letting me down, I realised that technology is also what has saved my skin in this situation. The main problem is not the technology – it’s the humans behind it. We know that there’s a possibility that our computers, flash drives and gadgets will fail at some point, but we each tend to think we’re somehow immune. We listen to people’s stories of data loss, whether through catastrophic hard drive failure, stolen equipment or sheer stupidity (like dropping your laptop in the bath, which has happened to someone I know), and we nod sympathetically, pity them and vaguely resolve to be better at backing up, but most of us are not at good at backing up our data as we should be. And while it will cost a few hundred Rands to replace a hard drive, you may never be able to recover your data. I experienced this when my first laptop was stolen with all my honeymoon photos on it, which I had not backed up.
I thought I’d learnt my lesson. After replacing the laptop, I started saving my important work to flash drives. When the second laptop was stolen, I found out that this method was not fool proof – the thieves stole the flash drives too, which were in the same room as the computer.
In the years since, the tools available have improved greatly. I use Dropbox, a free file hosting service that allows me to store data “in the cloud”. Dropbox allows me to access my data from any computer, anywhere, and also provides a handy means of sharing data with others. Google Docs is another useful tool that allows me to work online, save my documents and access them from wherever I want to. It’s linked to my Gmail account, which acts as another back-up mechanism. I run all my email through Gmail, even my email account registered under my company domain, which has an auto-forward function set on it. This means that I can keep every important email I send or receive, along with the attachments, and access them from any computer, or my cell phone. It has a search function similar to the Google search engine so that I can easily locate what I’m looking for among the thousands of emails.
External hard drives have also come a long way. My first one was 125GB and required an external power source. It was four times the size of the newer 2TB hard drives, which are USB-powered, quieter, faster and pocket-sized. I have two external hard drives to back up my data and I keep them separately from my laptop and each other.
Maybe I sound paranoid, but as a writer, many of my clients entrust their data to me. I have the various versions of their press releases, brochures, web text and even book chapters. I need to keep that data safe. Of course, I want to keep my personal photos and creative writing safe too. And as always, losing my data this time, even if it was only 10%, has reminded me of the importance of backing up. And it’s proved to me again that all the gadgets in the world are useless if the human operating them is not doing his or her bit.
So when my new hard drive is installed, I will become even more paranoid. And hopefully next time something happens to my technology – and there will be a next time – I will have 100% of my data backed up.
Often I’m sent a brief to write a brochure or website copy for clients that want to talk to themselves. The marketing director or CEO has dreams of telling the company story, designing fancy charts or organograms, profiling every employee or plastering every piece of information he / she can find into the smallest space possible to save on costs. While some of these things may be relevant and good ideas (the exception being the last), clients need to ask themselves two big questions before starting a marketing project: who is my target audience? and what is the function of this communication?
It’s useless putting together a beautiful, glossy and expensive corporate brochure if your target audience will be bored to tears by it. Yet so often, companies get caught up in what they want to say and forget that it’s all about what their target audience wants to know. For example, if the aim of your website is to attract new customers but the content is predominantly tailored for your own employees and shareholders, you have a problem.
When you forget who your audience is, you may neglect to include vital information that your readers need, or include irrelevant information that they don’t need or want to read. Identifying your audience means you’re able to figure out the sort of questions they want answered. Generally, these are the same questions that drive journalism – the five W’s and H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
Think about why your audience would read your marketing material. Put yourself in your user’s shoes. For instance, if I were the customer of a shoe retailer, I might visit the website looking for an online catalogue, pricing and stockists in my area. If I were an executive of a company looking to rent office space, I might browse through office development brochures seeking information on location, size, services available, pricing and parking facilities. One of the best ways to find out what users want is to ask them. Find out what they’re looking for, what they like and don’t like and what they would change. Make sure you get regular feedback.
Remember also that user-centricity is not just about copy. Every aspect of your communications needs to be user-centric, from your design to the navigation, features and content. If you have multiple types of users, make sure you cater to all of them and not just one category. For example, a multinational telecommunications company might produce brochures for each of its specialist services, or have different landing pages on its website to cater to customers from different regions. Check out Gloria Wadzinski’s great post on How to Create User Centric Web Design for Better SEO for more on this concept.
Remember also that communication is a two-way street. Making it easy for your customers to talk to you is just as important as getting your message across to them, and listening to what they have to say is even more important.
One of the best stops on our Namibian adventure was lunch at Canon Roadhouse near the Fish River Canyon. This delightful motorcar-themed establishment is an unexpected gem in the middle of the harsh Namibian landscape. As a bit of a petrol-head, the old automobiles and road signs appealed to me, but I must admit that the ice cold Coke in a 300ml bottle (the only way to drink the stuff) appealed even more, as did the delicious chicken mayo sandwiches made with thick-cut homemade bread.
We enjoyed browsing through the signs and the cars, and a visit to the loo revealed even more entertainment. Movie posters covered the wall in the women’s restroom, except for one giant space, taken up by this:
I thought it was hilarious and snapped a photo, hoping that nobody would notice my camera flash going off.
I’m not sure if I’m a bit slow or whether I just have a pure heart (I choose to believe the latter), but it didn’t even occur to me to open Tjongololo’s box.
My husband, it seems, is not quite as innocent. He discovered a similarly sexy picture in the men’s restroom, but of a woman rather than a man. Her hands covered her breasts and a box covered her other bits and was labelled “Pandora’s box”. Hubby had no qualms peeking into the box, but discovered with a shock that when he opened the box, an alarm went off in the restaurant!
Yes, when you tamper with that box, everyone knows where you’ve just been looking. And what was inside? You’ll have to visit yourself to find out.
Here are a few more photos from Namibia:
I’m back from a mini-break to Namibia and then Easter with my in-laws, and while I was away I did not a jot of writing. But I did do lots of thinking about writing. In fact, I’m pretty desperate to chronicle my trip in typed words.
I think that writing helps me to crystallise the random thoughts flitting through my head into some sort of order. It also gives me something concrete to look back to, when I want to remember the holiday and how I felt at the time, what we saw, experiences we had. It also inspires my other writing. Yes, I find that often my unpaid, heartfelt scribblings that seem to gush forth onto my screen with so much more ease that my commissioned work are the inspiration I need to do the tougher jobs.
I’ve tried to explain this to myself before and I honestly believe that amid the deadline-driven client-orientated work that makes up the majority of my days, I sometimes lose the magic of writing. I forget why I love it. I lose the urge to write and forget the way that words can come together so beautifully to express a thought, a feeling or an experience.
When I take the time to just sit down and write for myself, I feel refreshed. Once I’m done letting the words tumble out, without questioning whether the grammar is perfect or if a client will agree with a particular term, I am reminded why I love what I do. And I’m ready to tackle my writing jobs with relish again.
This also provides me with a very good reason to take a holiday once in awhile!
I find that many of my clients get worked up about the difference between writing for the web and writing for print. Although there are differences, there are actually far more similarities. The main point you need to understand is that people don’t read bad copy. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you include all the right SEO keywords and manage to achieve a good Google page rank, if you have bad copy on your site, nobody will read it.
Writers find that we deal with a range of conceptions on our job. There are people who think that everyone can write and there’s no point in hiring a professional writer, and there’s people that think that writing is a mythical art form gifted to a chosen few. I sit somewhere between those extremes. I believe that bad writing can damage your brand and that hiring a professional writer is a good idea, but I also believe that writing is like any other job – you learn the rules and you do it. Not every article will be your greatest masterpiece. Sometimes, it’s more important that a piece of writing is functional than poetic (for example, your company brochure).
Here are a few very pragmatic pointers for writing good copy:
What are your top writing tips? Let me know in the comments section.