Celebrating 20 years of writing for money—and imposter syndrome

You can blame Stuart Dredge. We’d been in frequent contact for months, with me working for a marketing department and feeding him pithy comments for Cre@te Online, a Future Publishing magazine aimed at web designers. Then the dot-com crash happened and I abruptly found myself out of a job.

I told Stuart, asking him to in future contact me on a different email address. He immediately responded to the news by asking if I’d like to pen the back page of the magazine’s next issue—a ‘Sacred Cow’ column on Flash. I jumped at the chance.

Stuart must have been happy with what I wrote, because my details were quickly passed on to other editors at Future. I started writing software reviews and took over Internet Advisor’s nascent Makeover column, where a reader would write in and I’d overhaul their website, like a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Bill Gates—only with significantly less riches than either of them.

About six months later, I plucked up the courage at an Apple Event to pitch to then-MacUser deputy editor Ian Betteridge (who I recall was happy to briefly escape several hours of dealing with reader tech support issues). I was new and had to write under a pen name. That didn’t last long.

Things continued to snowball. I started writing books on iMovie and web design. (I don’t even recall how that came about.) The number of publications I wrote for grew. Many are now gone… Computer Arts; Practical Web Design; .net. Others from those early days—most notably MacFormat and Retro Gamer—are still kicking.

That first column for Cre@te Online was 20 years ago this week. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: my brain helpfully still thinks I’m winging it. Any day now, it suggests, I’ll be ‘found out’. 20 years of experience, writing for the biggest tech publications and companies around and I have imposter syndrome. I doubt that will ever go away.

Why it’s there, I’m not sure. Prior to that first paid gig, I’d written for years—just not for money. But I suspect my lack of formal training in writing/journalism makes me think I don’t have the ’right’ to be here, doing what I do. This is logically ridiculous when I’ve been smashing words into shape for two decades and am fortunate enough to have a solid number of editors keen to call on me for more work.

Whether I’ll be lucky enough to still be doing this 20 years from now is hard to say. Since I started regularly writing for magazines, the industry has changed beyond all recognition. I half imagine by 2041 (or, more than likely, a lot sooner) an AI will be able to do what I do at the press of a button (pressed by an AI robot editor, natch). Until then, I’ll continue writing and I hope you’ll continue reading—be they my words or those of others, not least any long-time writers who also regularly mull over how lucky they are to be doing what they do.

June 7, 2021. Read more in: Opinions, Stuff by me, Writing

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Is the PS5 actually a sausage?

The PS5 is pretty great, as are sausages. But it turns out it’s good SEO when sites attempt to wring out absurdly long articles from questions that can be answered using a single word, and so it’s time for Revert to Saved to get in on this gig. For those of you wondering whether the PS5 actually is a sausage, we will answer your question right here. Eventually.

The PS5 is, of course, a games console. You can play games on it. You might like games, or you might not. We’re going to spend a little time here now linking to some games, because the editor said “write 500 words on this”, and he’s threatened everyone with only covering Mario Kart Tour forever if we don’t comply. So, anyway, God of War, Driveclub, and Red Dead Redemption 2 are all PS4 games that will probably get sequels on the PS5.

The new question – which we made up while drunk – is our attempt to get loads of people to click here for no good reason, despite the fact we could (as we’ve already outlined) have answered said query in just three characters or less. We could even have done that in really big letters. But we’re not allowed, because reasons.

And sausages are sticks of meat, in case you were wondering. Some people eat them. Some people don’t like them. If you were reviewing sausages as a game, you might give them 7/10 and say “you’ll like them if you like this sort of thing”, to try and keep the publisher of sausages happy. (Do sausages have publishers? Hey, there’s an idea for another article. This is fucking gold.)

OK, now we need a big heading, to get back the attention of readers who may have drifted off at this point.

Is the PS5 actually a sausage?

The PS5 is not actually a sausage.

Now the question has been answered, but WordPress reckons we’re still 200 words short. Shit. So we still need to bang on for another 200 words or so. At this point, embedding a video would be a good idea, to keep people’s interest.

OK, so that’s not a PS5 as a sausage, but it’s pretty close, combining the innards of a toy parrot and a large sausage. (Thanks to Paul Granjon for the above classic.)

Unfortunately, meat-based consoles are mostly a thing of the past, or perhaps we just dreamt them up after watching Videodrome one too many times. But since there’s no PS5 sausage, you’ll just have to wait until Sony makes one, or make one yourself, shortly before getting carted away to a room with padded walls.

Oh, man: 439 words. This is tiring stuff. Aha! Let’s just end on a generic bit about how we here at Revert to Saved thoroughly review every meat-based console we recommend, using industry standard prods and fork stabs to evaluate said gadgets. We’ll always tell you what we discover, even if you don’t want us to. So tell us what you think by emailing the editor. And leave us out of it, because our work here is done, and we now need to shower off the dirt.

A previous version of this article was based on the PS4. It’s now based on the PS5, because someone noted this would be better for traffic.

November 5, 2019. Read more in: Humour, Writing

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Testing times: too much online ‘critique’ now skips past a writer having first-hand experience

I write a lot of app and game reviews and round-ups. My work covers iOS, tvOS, watchOS, Android and the Mac, and my various app store accounts have many hundreds of apps lurking within. When I write about a product for a ‘best of’ list, it’s because I’ve tried something that I want to recommend to people — a fairly simple concept that was for a long while the cornerstone of reviews-based journalism.

Today, something really hit home that’s been nagging at me for a long time. I was browsing my RSS feeds and chanced across a recommendation for a watchOS app that sounded really amazing. It was extremely simple, but had a use-case that would benefit a large range of people. The website reviewing it in a round-up was glowing.

I installed the app. On the iPhone, it worked well, but on Apple Watch, it was essentially broken. It didn’t do what it was supposed to do, was fundamentally flawed in terms of concept and execution, and even continued wittering away in the background to the point I had to force-close the app.

My question was how much — if at all — the app was tested before someone penned the write-up I read. And this is far from an isolated case. I now so often see apps and especially games recommended despite being objectively mediocre. But in also receiving the press releases for said products, I unlike the vast majority of readers see a flow from marketing agency to readers’ eyes.

When I mentioned this on Twitter earlier, I had a couple of quick replies. One person noted that the difference between someone rewriting a press release and providing an opinion based on testing is the difference between a bad and good writer. But the current market for journalism makes things complicated. As someone else remarked, there’s diminishing incentive to put the work in any more, and so people don’t.

That in itself is of course a big generalisation, but I’ve spent the past few years watching publications close, including two of my absolute favourites I ever got to work on: Tap! and Adam Banks’s superbly revamped MacUser. Elsewhere, belts are tightened every year, resulting in print magazine page counts falling, and rates everywhere being squeezed, leading to lower pay per item or fewer commissions for writers. But simultaneously, readers are usually unwilling to pay. Magazine circulation figures almost never rise, and ad-blockers have cut one of the remaining sources of funding for many publications.

Some magazines and sites are, naturally, still fighting the good fight, and affordable subscriptions and patron-based models offer some hope for the future; but even when asked for direct support from a publication they love, it seems a great many readers will hope someone else will plug the financial hole, and anyway there’s plenty of other stuff to read online, for free.

A couple of years back, I wrote for Stuff that we should pay for the things we love, or we’ll be left with garbage. I still believe that. But, worse, it now increasingly appears what will be left is a slew of content driven primarily by marketing rather than a writer’s experiences with it, and how will readers know any different if this is all that remains?

April 21, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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The transient nature of modern tech writing

My first professional writing commission was for Cre@te Online, a magazine for web designers. I’d for months been feeding pithy quotes to an editor, but got made redundant from the web bit of a marketing department during a boom-and-bust cycle.

The editor sweetly immediately offered me the back page (which was typically a fun op-ed), before presumably coming to his senses and hastily asking: “You can write, can’t you?” Fortunately, I’d been penning a monthly column for a now-defunct Mac website, and so had at least a little proof I wasn’t going to file something incomprehensible, in all-caps. And in crayon.

When the issue with my column arrived, I was thrilled to see my words in print, and this kickstarted a big change in my life that has lasted to the present day. Now, the vast majority of my income comes from smashing words into shape. But the difference today is the shape is rather more malleable.

Once, I made a point of owning a copy of everything I wrote. It felt important to me to have in my hands the words I’d created. But eventually stacks of magazines built to the point there was a good chance someone would one day remark: “Yes, it’s all very sad. They found him under a pile of Internet Advisors and MacUsers.”

I switched to only keeping covers and the pages I’d written, but sooner or later even gave that up. The reasons were twofold. First, magazines were getting too expensive and I was writing for a wider range. I had no hope of getting hold of everything, and publishers became increasingly reluctant to send contributors free copies of magazines. Secondly, I more often ended up writing for the internet.

I estimate that over half of my current writing is online-first. Many pieces are written, edited, and rewritten. They become ‘word Lego’ building blocks editors use for other features. Website copy is recycled for magazines, and magazine work finds itself online. It’s sometimes hard to know what you wrote; there’s little record of changes and no sense of permanence.

In a sense, I quite like this modern fluid nature of words. That something written for a time (such as a review, or round-up of products) can be updated is like an injection of new life — a temporary reprieve before the inevitable obsolescence that eventually comes to the vast majority of writing, tech-oriented or otherwise. But a part of me does miss that set-in-stone quality of finely crafted words, and the knowledge that they would remain in that configuration forever.

March 9, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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Maclash: the unfortunate modern tendency of tech reporting to spew bile rather than inform readers

Regular readers of Revert to Saved — and indeed my other writing — will be well aware I can be opinionated. But something I aim to do — even here — is ensure snark and rants are underpinned by facts and reason. Of late, it appears tech reporting has vanished down a rabbit-hole of link-bait madness.

On watching Apple’s latest event, where it unveiled the new MacBook, more details about Apple Watch, and my personal favourite new Apple thing, ResearchKit, I knew people would fire up their gripe cannons. I just wasn’t entirely prepared for how far they’d go.

First came a piece in the Guardian, where Hannah Jane Parkinson helpfully suggested that “only a tool would buy the Apple Watch”. The feature’s clearly open-minded approach defined, she went on to offer a load of ridiculous interpretation, spin and FUD about Apple’s new product that reminded me of the kind of garbage you’d read on a mindless Apple blog, rather than a supposedly respectable publication like The Guardian.

Next, TechCrunch’s Matt Burns referred to Apple’s new MacBook as the company’s “latest betrayal”, because Apple has had the audacity to do what it’s done only loads of times before and omit what it considers soon-to-be-obsolete technology. If anything, the piece injects even more stupid sauce into the mix than The Guardian’s. Gems included arguing the new MacBook has “more in common with a tablet than most laptops”, and the ridiculous suggestion the Intel chipset inside the machine “likely doesn’t provide enough oomph to play computer games, but it should render GIFs just fine”. Ooh, you BURN, Burns! Plus that will come as a shock to all the professionals I know doing highly complex work on older and far less powerful Mac notebooks.

As the internet and tech coverage evolves, it feels like we’re witnessing a shift from survival of the fittest to survival of the inane. Pieces more often resemble personal soapboxes, omitting facts to fit agendas, and punching intelligence until it’s bloodied and broken. This does readers a disservice, and should be left for personal blogs.

March 11, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Technology, Writing

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