I’ve been working as a journalist for five years. In that time, I have learned just enough to fill a 90 minute talk, which is lucky, because I’d agreed to give a 90 minute talk to journalism students at the University of Cardiff last week. I spoke without notes, and a lot of the most interesting stuff came out of questions at the end rather than my main talk, so this write-up is a patched together version of the advice I’d like to give to young writers. Following this won’t necessarily make you successful (you can ask to see my bank statement if you’d like to gauge exactly how successful it’s made me) but it will help you avoid some of the stupider mistakes I’ve made.
Rejection is part of the process, so pitch a lot
When I started freelancing, I would send in timorous pitches with extensive hedging and a lot of information about my CV. Hey, I didn’t want to look cocky by making my idea too obvious. Then I would wait, and fret, and chew my hands, and go from having great hopes for this idea to utter despair, all without ever knowing if my email had been opened by an editor.
Here is what you need to know about editors: most of them are busy. They get a lot of emails, and don’t always have the time to respond with detailed feedback on how you can improve your pitching technique, so present your idea clearly and directly. They don’t want your CV, they want your idea. Make sure you’re sending your pitches to the right person: the editor who can commission you might not be the most famous name in that office, but they’re the most important person to you. If you’re not sure who deals with commissioning for the section you’re interested in, ring the office and ask.
There are plenty of reasons why your idea might not get picked up, and most of them have nothing to do with the quality of your pitch. Your brilliant idea might be so good that the editor has already commissioned it from someone else. You might be pitching the day after that magazine’s biannual features meeting, and they’ve got everything they need for the next six months. Maybe you’ve got a wicked idea about romcoms, and the magazine you’re pitching to is organising a themed sci-fi issue.
Luck plays a big part in the success of your pitches when you’re starting out, so play the numbers: once you’ve got an idea, think about how it could be packaged for many different titles, and pitch it to all of them accordingly. No title owns your pitch until they’ve commissioned it, so if two titles are interested in similar takes, you get to choose which one you write for – pitching isn’t about passively skirting the ballroom floor, waiting for your dance card to be marked.
Decide who you are and what you can do
I have asked for, and received, loads of advice as I’ve pursued a career as a writer. It’s worth mentioning that my ambitions are towards a specific kind of writing: when I was a kid, I used to splay my parents’ Observer across the living room floor each weekend, crawl over the comment pages and think, “I want to be one of you guys.” I want to write columns with my face at the top, and I want to write novels with my face on the dustjacket. Modesty is a rare virtue in writers. You’ll need a sturdy chunk of ego to shoulder the rejection discussed above, and if you don’t get that rejection, your high opinion of yourself will have been confirmed anyway. Sorry. There isn’t really a way round it.
Anyway, the best piece of advice I ever received came from Times columnist David Aaronovitch, who very kindly had a coffee with me and answered all sorts of idiot questions. This was his advice: “Decide who you are, and what you can do that no one else can.” Who you are means fixing on a character for your writing. In all likelihood, that character is going to be a lot like your actual character, because going Stanislavsky every time you sit down to write a column is a bit of a pain in the arse. My character, suggested Aaronovitch, was “warm. An old young-person.” I stopped trying to carry myself like a hardy old cynic, and worked my way into a voice that flowed more naturally from the observations I make.
As for what I can do, I found that a bit trickier. At the time I started working in journalism, I’d bailed out of a stillborn academic career in English literature, and the only thing I thought I knew about was George Eliot. This did not seem like a very promising lens through which to view the world. But it turned out that what I am good at is close reading: looking at words and weaselling out their buried meaning, trying to understand better.
Lots of my most successful columns start from a small noticing that opens up a way of looking at something. It’s not quite as impressive as being an economist or gay dad of a blended surrogate family or something, but it’s my thing and goddammit I can do it. (By the way, when I thanked Aaronovitch for his time, he said, “Well, if you’re a success, I might get some sort of public credit for helping you.” See? Writers: ego-y, in the nicest possible way.)
Hurrah! Your brilliant pitch has been picked up by an editor. They’d love you to write it for them, but – oh dear, this is embarrassing – they don’t have the budget to pay you. Would you like to do it for free? After all, you’ll get a byline and a link to your blog, so there’s exposure to be had and you’re building a relationship with an esteemed title.
Let me answer this for you: no, you would not like to work for free. If this title doesn’t have the budget to pay you now, they won’t find the budget to pay you in the future. Remember, if there are ads on a website, someone is making some money from it: if none of that is trickling down to you, you are being had.
There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps you’re not a writer by trade, but a campaigner or a PR hawking something or a person with a TV show to promote: for you, exposure may be recompense enough. Or perhaps you’re a writer at the start of your career, and this unpaid copy is part of a work experience stint in which you’re receiving detailed advice and feedback. That’s OK too. Or you’re writing for a blog rather than a revenue-turning title (but in this case, consider trying your idea on someone who can pay you first).
Don’t let any editor guilt you by saying, “No one really knows how to make money on the internet,” or something similar. It’s not your job to work out how to make money on the internet, it’s their job (or more accurately, their publisher or business manager’s job) – your job is to write, and you should get paid for that. If none of us are getting paid, then we’ll all just have to go and get different jobs, won’t we?
I should add that I have supplied copy without the expectation of payment, once: after publication, when the piece had obviously been quite successful, I went back to the editor and negotiated a fee for the work. I got my money, but it was a dicey strategy and not one I would recommend. If you want to write for a living, you must focus on the making a living part as much as on the writing. If there’s one thing I’d like to impress on young writers more than anything, it’s that.
One more thing
You’re about to embark on one of the most radically sedentary careers known to humanity. Your working day will involve mostly sitting down, with the odd exertion when you need something from the kitchen. For the love of God, before you wake up one day in your mid-20s and realise you’ve become a grey-faced, wheezing beanbag, take up some kind of exercise.
Photos by Glyn Ryland