25 September 2008

How to Write?

...or how to dumb down my trade?

All this week, the Guardian has been giving away booklets on how to write. Fiction, poetry, screenplays... today's free guide was on journalism but you could have forgiven me for thinking it was April the 1st. Granted, even for a hardened old pro like myself there were some handy tips in there. But I feel really pissed off that the Guardian thinks it's fine to spill our professional secrets to wannabes.

It's hard enough for professionals making a freelance living as a journalist these days. Without a portfolio career in which I edit and copywrite, I would have trouble paying the bills. In current times, we are seeing publications close or slash their pagination to save money, leaving fewer outlets to sell articles to. A couple of national newspapers have halved their standard freelance rates within the last fortnight. Papers are making staff redundant, staff who then decide to try freelancing in an already crowded and tough market. And to top it all, more and more across all media platforms content is seen as something that should be cheap or preferably free. Not something produced by skilled and talented writers who deserve just reward.

Loads of people who bought the Guardian today are going to think "I could do that". People with no journalistic training or experience. People who think they can just waltz into a job that is already undervalued and underpaid and underestimated. People who'd be happy to get a byline for free, just to have their name in print.

It's going to be yet another squeeze on our already crushed and struggling to breathe profession.

The cynic in me wonders if this is a deliberate ploy by the Guardian to find yet another way of acquiring cheap or free content for its websites and print editions.

On the other hand, I sincerely hope that every section head, every commissioning editor at the Guardian gets swamped with poorly constructed pitches and unsolicited, badly written articles. They'll soon be as fed up as I am right now. And maybe then the idiots that dreamed this wheeze up will realise that it's much better to actually pay someone who knows what they are doing the going rate for a job well done.


Anonymous said...

The cynic in me wonders if this is a deliberate ploy by the Guardian to find yet another way of acquiring cheap or free content for its websites and print editions.

Wouldn't surprise me, either, especially if they're fishing for online stuff. Comment is not only Free in a philosophical sense, but a financial one too - I didn't realise until the other day that CiF contributors don't get a penny unless one of their pieces is bumped into a 'most read' slot. And then it's only £75. Essentially, it's spec work.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure that's true now. It may have been in the past. CiF is certainly not well paid (the Guardian generally pays lower than most nationals anyway but freelances like it as it pays very promptly) but until the whole Coment/Blogs section was recently revamped anyone could write for CiF. That is no longer the case - they only accept pitches from "proper" journalists now (ie, those with a proven track record of being published). The money is still awful though.

However, the Guardian, like a lot of papers, does seem to be moving towards a situation where the website is becoming more important than the print edition. Which means there is a lot of space to fill. For freelances that can be good - there are paid online slots that don't appear in the print edition, for example. But a lot of the online-only sections don't have budget to use freelances, which means the space will be filled either by staffers or people happy not to be paid, which is really depressing.

Even more depressingly, yesterday's booklet is being debated on t'interwebs by lots of colleagues but thy mostly seem to be saying "oh look, it's quite a handy guide" rather than thinking through the wider implications of handing out that info freely.

Anne said...

I disagree.

Anyone good enough has every right to have a go at being a journalist. Just because some of us got there first doesn't mean we can say nobody else is allowed to join in.

If they're not good enough - you have nothing to worry about.

I think this may be my first blog entry on my new blog!

Unknown said...

I absolutely would not disagree with you on this point. Talent will out and let's not forget that many journalists came into the job via unconventional routes. I just think putting out this sort of stuff will just encourage hordes of people who really should NOT be having a go. The same people who think I'm not really employed because I work from home or that it's a "lark" and must be easy when it's not.

I just can't help wondering what the motivation was to give away these booklets? Those who really want to write (whether fiction, poetry or whatever) will do it anyway and some will undoubtedly succeed. It's the rest that worry me...

Unknown said...

The 'how to write comedy' booklet gets slagged off here.

ms_well.words said...

I was about to say "Hear, hear", but my inner cynic has a tendency to wimp out and give people the benefit of the doubt.

If the features eds do end up swamped by unsolicited material, they won't be the only ones - poetry, novels and scripts are soon to be joining the mountainous slush pile.

The journalism booklet was nothing more than a handy aide memoire for trained hacks. As for the other booklets, I shall keep them on a shelf to help my son do his homework once he gets to that stage.

But what did you think about the cut-down style book they handed out on Saturday? Good for a laugh (if you're into that sort of thing, which I am), but a waste of paper given that you can view it on-line anytime. I wonder whether this will really boost sales of the full version (£12.99)?

Someone somewhere at "journalism school" could do an amusing essay comparing the Guardian and Daily Telegraph style guides (the latter had some press coverage a few weeks ago re."Banned words").

The Slow Smoulder said...

I have only seen the English Language Guardian Style booklet out on Saturday. I am an editor myself but I do seem to have a different take on what is going wrong in the publishing industry than most others -- nobody seems to be saying what I am saying... In fact, I see positive wider implications of the Guardian giving a precis.

I think that releasing material like this has to be good. It can't be bad to explain what a job is about or how it is done. It's good because it boosts awareness of and respect for a trade. There are even experts giving talks nowadays to business networks on their own tricks of the trade. Success is not what you know but how you apply it, as has already been said here.

It is up to the papers to publish quality content -- this is their product and their business -- and they will filter out (they have to or they will die) material from the wannabes that doesn't hit the mark. So here's hoping the publishers want to produce quality.

And if Joe Bloggs can have an idea of what We do so that he has something interesting, and well written and relevant to him, that's got to be good. Cos if it is ever going to be recognised that We actually create, style, polish a product ready for sale, We need to be in the public's as well as the publisher's consciousness. Here's hoping that readers want quality.

I'm not picking the bone of "writing standards need to be maintained". That is a given, even allowing for current debates about this.

My bone is that there is a lack of lateral thinking that connects what we do with the product, which means that writers/editors/etc, to put it bluntly, are not paid well. Only when people (i.e. the publics AND the publishers) appreciate what we do will budgets be set to reflect Our usefulness.

Nationals are halving standard freelance rates, you say, Wordsmith? So what proportion of a budget is assigned to creating content? Is it realistic?

ms_well.words said...

@Smouldering slowly…
You're partly right, I feel. I'm all in favour of making the public and publishers truly value professional writers and editors. But the trouble is, the Guardian publishing those 'how to' booklets may well have the opposite effect, viz. "if all you need to know about journalism can be squeezed into a 24-page booklet, surely anyone can do it?".

Ditto for all those who are doing a half-day stand-up at a business event, telling people 'tricks of the trade'.

I was on the receiving end of one such, a few weeks ago - a 90-minute session by a copywriter who tried to tell book editors how to be come successful Ad Persons (or at least, write better blurbs).

It was pretty gruesome stuff. These skills can't be reduced to a bullet-point list of dos and don'ts (and mis-quoting Orwell; ouch).

As for the money issue, half the trouble (in book publishing, at least) is that the freelances doing the work undervalue themselves, aren't experienced at negotiating fees, or both.

If you're a trained professional, you deserve to be paid a decent rate for your work. Sharing info on the good and bad payers is helpful - as per the NUJ's Fees Guide at http://media.gn.apc.org/feesguide/index.html (and the comparable system for SfEP www.sfep.org.uk).

Knowledge is power, my friend - though that copywriter guy would strike me off for repeating such a cliché!

Unknown said...

@ms_well.words (1) yes, I can well imagine that publishers will be swamped with poor MSS, even the majority who no longer accept them and only work with agents. Agents who, in turn, will also see a vast increase in slush to be sifted through. The style book was pointless. The whole Guardian style guide is on their website and can be downloaded for free as a PDF too. I do have a hardback copy as I wanted one on my reference shelf. I can imagine most of last Saturday's readers will skim read it and chuck it away. Not a good use of trees...

@slow_smoulder I take your point about releasing knowledge for the greater good (I too sometimes get hired by businesses to teach staff writing skills) but in this case they made a huge mistake, IMO. It is indeed up to the press to publish quality content. However, I think the quality has been dropping for the best part of two decades and this exercise is not even going to stem the tide let alone reverse any trend. Filtering is just not happening. For example, the Saturday Guardian supplements in the early 90s were full of lengthy analytical features on important issues of the day. Now they are full of gardening tips and fashion shoots. I don't want to single the Graun out though, most of the other papers are even worse in how they have dumbed down. As for budgets, as a freelance I can't answer that as I have no idea what any publication's budget is or what proportion is assigned for content, but I can hazard an expert guess that it's very small - we live in a time when staff are being shed and those left are having to pick up the slack of their departed colleagues so they are ever-more overworked on poor salaries. Meanwhile freelance budgets are also being cut so the papers can save more money by giving their staffers features to write that would previously have been done by us. And they do this often by recycling press releases, what we call churnalism. Read Nick Davies' excellent book Flat Earth News for more about this. And as times get tougher, I expect budgets to be slashed even further. Content is the one budget area that is not a fixed cost of production and thus is always the first to be under pressure.

@ms_well.words (2)It totally agree!

ms_well.words said...

Aha, I've just discovered why the Guardian published the journalism book.

Nothing at all to do with increasing circulation, encouraging budding writers, or boosting sales of their Style Guide…

It was just to help out Tim Dowling with his Saturday column (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/oct/04/family.tim.dowling)

The Slow Smoulder said...

ms_well-words said:
those 'how to' booklets may well have the opposite effect ... Ditto for all those who are doing a half-day stand-up at a business event, telling people 'tricks of the trade'.

wordsmith_for_hire said:
publishers will be swamped with poor MSS ... Agents ... will also see a vast increase in slush ... The style book was pointless.

Ditto for all of the stand-up talkers? Some are jolly good, IMO.

The style book was just that, a house style, and to call it a book of English Language is galling. But I guess that I am saying that doing something 'badly' is indeed better than nothing if it stimulates thought, action and improvement: it is something to push against. What is now needed is experience, either because we are within the trade or because we have seen good presenations, that can allow the bad to be thrown into sharp contrast.

@wordsmith: Quality and budgets have fallen over the last 20 years! QED!

As for costs of production and wastes of trees, electronic delivery has to be the way forward as much as possible, probably for all written media, to reduce the fixed costs. At this point, budgets will be reset, and this is when content must be seen as the saleable product. This is also when the wannabes will realise the high standards required, and the current doabees can stop undervaluing themselves.

A long way off in both respects, maybe, but I think it is on the horizon.

ms_well.words said...

Smouldering slowly said:

Ditto for all of the stand-up talkers? Some are jolly good, IMO.

Yes, I agree that some (many, even) are jolly good at it. That doesn't take away from the fact that, by giving a 2-hour presentation on writing skills to businesspersons, some are making it sound like anyone can do it, and therefore devaluing the skill overall.

This might not seem like an important issue for journalists who write for the nationals or high-profile mags (businesses want them because it makes them look good), but for those of us who earn our keep writing (with no byline) for SMEs, making it sound "easy" either takes away the work, or leads to reduced rates because the MDs think they're just getting in a temporary staff member, rather than purchasing a service from a skilled professional (e.g. happy to pay £600 per day for a design/advertising consultant; reluctant to pay £200 per day for a writer!).

So yes, some stand-ups are good, but I reckon the best are those who help businesses to improve their commissioning skills, and to recognise what's dross and what's not.

Unknown said...

@ms_well.words the Tim Dowling column was quite amusing! I would have missed that if you hadn't posted the link so thank you.

@slow_smoulder digital is definitely the medium of the future. Ten years ago, corporate work would have entailed writing vast glossy brochures crammed with detail and run off the presses in huge batches, then updated yearly. Now, any brochures I get to work on are slim, very general in tone and with minimal text - calling cards to push traffic to the website where the real meat is. It's no coincidence that most of my corporate work is copywriting company websites.

@ms_well.words I keep upping my rates and the more I do it the more work I get. It's true that if you value yourself others will too. At first I thought I'd never get away with asking for £300 a day - now I frequently insist on double that and I get it. I think it makes a huge difference to charge the same as designers or marketing consultants because businesses take you far more seriously, as seriously as the designers. I would only ask for £200 a day now if it was a small, local charity on a tight budget and I supported the cause. I like doing those gigs actually as the people are usually really good to work with and I feel I'm using my skills in a way that can really help but I'm still earning so I don't mind earning a bit less, IYSWIM.