Monday, 15 August 2016

Mistake No. 112: Desperation (Part II)

In Desperation (Part I), I wrote the following, which I make no apologies for repeating, this time with emphasis:

“Freelance writer” tells the editor you’re available for work.   

“Available for work” tells the editor you’re desperate for work.   

It's no good being desperate, because editors can sniff out desperation a mile off, and they are wary of it, for all the reasons I gave in the previous post.

I've noticed lately a number of writers using the #journorequest hashtag on Twitter to advertise their availability for work.

#journorequest was 'invented' by a journalist colleague called Sarah Ewing many years ago, for journalists to use to alert PRs, experts and others about anything they were looking for in order to complete their briefs - spokespeople for comment, products for review, and so on. 

It took off. In fact, it worked brilliantly. Years down the line, it still works to some extent, but it's now a partial victim of its own success, and is regularly appropriated by those with apparently little greater purpose in life than to troll those in the business and post bogus 'comedy' requests - and by those looking for work, rather than those who already have it.

Posting "Writer available for work #journorequest" will - I'm almost certain - never work. It just, won't, work. 

It's not just the desperation, or the naivety. It's the impossible successful scenario you have to imagine unfolding: one of an editor with a budget, and a responsibility for a successful media outlet, scouring through the results of a hashtag not aimed at them, chancing upon a self-promotional tweet among thousands, and offering to give the writer of that tweet money in exchange for words. Which words? Who knows. I certainly don't know. Because it just, won't, happen. 

Writers are everywhere. We are hay in a haystack. Nobody goes 'Ooh, a writer!' any longer. Advertising yourself as such is special to nobody, except perhaps yourself. 

Editors have writers overflowing in their in-boxes and contact books - writers with ideas, writers who they've worked with before, writers who other writers have recommended. These are where editors find their writers. You have to put yourself there to be in with a realistic shout.

And to get there you need ideas - I've blogged about this dozens of times before. (Try this one for starters.) It is great ideas that make you special; not calling yourself a writer. You need to put these sizzling, compelling ideas in front of editors, and you need to convince editors you're the perfect person to follow through on the promise of your red-hot ideas. 

There is no other way. 

Found this Mistake useful? You might like my ebook 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make (£1.99 / $2.99).

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Bloglovin' and unpaid contributors

Bloglovin' are looking for contributors.

Here, they say they're after a 'wave of talented food writers/curators' willing to contribute '1-2 articles per week [unpaid]'

Here, more recently, they're looking for a 'wave of talented home decor writers/curators' willing to contribute '1-2 articles per week [unpaid]'.

Having secured $7m investment a couple of years ago, I thought it fair that I should ask them - on Twitter - whether there was any of that money left to pay their contributors.

After a week, no response.

I retried, cc'ing the account of their co-founder, Mattias Swenson.

After a week, no response.

Lately, perhaps it's just a consequence of getting older, I've been losing my patience with non-payers. (See my frustration at an Archant publication here on my food allergy and intolerance blog.)

There are times when writing for free is OK. I've contributed guest posts or free copy to small websites in the past, for example; I've written an article to help promote one of my books. I've even asked - and still ask - potential contributors to write posts for this blog (thank you, Lucy - your post is still proving popular!). I have written previously about writing for free - on Mistake No. 75, and Mistake No. 99 - and I think my thoughts then remain mostly the same now.

There is, I think, now a line to be drawn under those who ask for regular contributions almost as a matter of routine, or as policy, or who ask journalists to provide quality articles without pay - and who are a money-making venture - or clearly have sufficient funding to pay should they wish to pay. For me, the line should be about finance - can they afford it? Are they looking to profit from the endeavour to which they are asking you to contribute?

Every case must be judged on its own merits, and I'm quite prepared to give individuals and organisations the benefit of the doubt, but my alarm bells will be ringing loudly and my dissenting response will likely be triggered at any future request for work accompanied by ostentatious promises of - urgh - exposure, or, as Bloglovin' offer, the promise of "feedback on how you can improve & grow your blogs [sic] audience".

It will not get better if we continue to put up with this crap, or indulge it to the degree with which we have until now, which appears to have normalised this sort of treatment of writers and aspiring writers.

I have deleted my Bloglovin' account.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Mistake No. 111: Rejection isn't personal

"Don't take it to heart."

"It's them - not you."

"It's nothing personal."

Share news of a rejection of your work to a friend or loved one and I'll bet they'll respond with one of the above - or a variation of. 

They're just saying what is expected of them, and being nice. 

You know what? Yes it is personal. 

Oh all right. It can be personal. It can be a bit personal.

It doesn't mean they hate your walk, your manner, your taste in music, your personality.

It doesn't even necessarily mean they hate your pitch, or idea, or article, or book proposal. 

It possibly does mean they don't think there's any business sense in accepting it. It either won't sell, they think, or won't fit well into the market, or isn't right for their reader. It'll cost them - financially. It may cost them readers. They won't recoup the money they pay you. 

Why is there no sense in accepting what you're offering? It might be no good. They may have accepted something similar recently. It might be boring. They may think you're not a good writer, or won't be good - or professional - to work with. They may not be commissioning currently because they've enough articles or books. It may not go down well with the advertisers. 

There are lots of possible reasons. And some of them are personal

Your idea, your expression, your work - each of these is an extension of you. Your writing originated in your brain. Something of you - your art, your words, your judgment, your creativity, all of which were formed in the mind by which you are defined - is quite probably being rejected. And that's personal. I fail to see how it can not be. 

How can you know whether it's personal or not personal - or somewhere in between, as I would imagine it often is? You might not know. The editor may give no clue. Even if he does give some clue, the writer's mind may be prone to agonise over it for hours or days.

Spare yourself that. Why not just resolve to take it personally before you even open the email or letter? Try it. Suck up that feeling of unwantedness. It's character building. Wise writers past may have done well out of writing self-help books about dealing with rejection (just look how many there on Amazon), but you don't need them, because you've sucked it up, shrugged your shoulders, and moved on to the next potential client. If you have faith in your idea or work, then keep going with it. If you keep getting rejected, review it. Can it be improved? Can you get an honest opinion from someone who you trust? Make it a bit better; send it off again. 

Most of all, tell yourself that if it wasn't for rejection, acceptance wouldn't be such a thrill. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Mistake No. 110: On writing restaurant reviews

Last time, in Mistake No. 109, I wrote about travel writing, and how it shouldn't be treated as holiday writing.

This time, I want to write about restaurant reviewing, and how it shouldn't be treated as eating-out writing. 

Some fun; some hard work - but never again!
For that's the first key mistake I see when I read restaurant reviews by my students: a faithful account of the entire outing. Not merely of the lunch or dinner consumed, course by course, but also of the experience of getting there and arriving there. No more descriptions of pub car parks, please and thank you! Unless particularly remarkable, readers don't want to know how you were greeted, how you were escorted to your table, and that you were given a menu by the charming waiter.

There are some parallels here with the advice I dish out (groan ...) for travel writing. Don't start at the airport - and don't start in your bedroom, getting changed for dinner. Don't describe the flight - and don't describe the drive to the diner. Consider beginning - as I often say - in the thick of the action. By describing a particularly joyous morsel of food from your main course, for example.

You don't have to mention everything. Avoid the temptation to cram it all in. You don't have to be chronological, either. Once you've waxed lyrical on that morsel, you can rewind briefly to your starter if you really must.

The focus has to be on the food and drink. It must not be on you and your dining companion. The aim is to describe the food and drink that the reader - should he visit the establishment - might enjoy. You are aiming to give an idea of the kind of evening there is to be had.

Like in so much non-fiction writing, the reader doesn't care about you, the writer. He doesn't care that it was your anniversary, that your beloved was treating you to a special meal, that you had a voucher for a free bottle of wine that was due to expire, that you had nothing in the fridge that night and so went out to eat on a whim. The reader is selfish. He wants his appetite stimulated; he wants to know what he should do on Friday night.

You are doing a job. You owe nothing to the outlet, whether or not they gave you a free meal. Your duty is to the reader. Don't feel obliged to be complimentary. Be critical, if needs be; but be fair. Constructive criticism shows you care - both about your work, and about good food. It is not permissible to write "I skipped dessert as I'm on a diet". You must sample dessert, because your reader expects you to sample dessert, and you must describe it, and the other options. That is what reviewing is about. It's about good, careful descriptions of the food - how it is prepared, how innovative it is, how it is flavoured, and so on. You can talk about it all, incidentally, without stating into whose mouth it went.

Of course the ambience, the clientele, the history of the establishment ... these are worth a mention too. You can talk about the chef too, in the context of the food and cooking. If you know your wine, discussing the wine list is a good thing. 

Don't even think of reviewing McDonald's or a chain. Don't review an everyday cafe. It has to be an independent, an imaginative choice, perhaps little known, or off the beaten track.

A sidebar at the foot - analogous to the sidebar you might compile for a travel article - is ideal. There you can put car parking information - plus the restaurant's website, phone number, opening hours, price ranges, and directions to the venue, for example.

Submitting speculative restaurant reviews is not a method I've ever known to work. Given how many people want to do this job, it's obviously competitive. If you're interested, my advice would be to submit some sample reviews or published clippings as a calling card to the editor of a publication - preferably a local one - which does not have a restaurant column or columnist. You may get lucky. Another good tactic: start a blog or review restaurants online (see Further Reading below). These can serve as clippings ... or some editor, somewhere, may stumble across you. A local restaurant blog is a great idea. Start one!

A final word. Don't covet restaurant reviewing. It's not necessarily the dream job you imagine. I did it a bit when I started out. I didn't always have fun. Publicists would offer free meals in exchange for a review, which was nice, of course (the magazine I worked for had no budget for anonymous dining and reviewing), but you never feel totally at ease, leaving a restaurant without paying would often make me feel uncomfortable, and having to take notes during the meal always infringed on the pure enjoyment of simply eating and savouring the food. It's hard work, and not always easy to spin a readable and original piece of writing out of something as relatively mundane as eating a meal - especially when the food is average (as it often is). Check out the work of some of the masters - Giles Coren, Fay Maschler, Jay Rayner - and you'll learn a lot from them.

Further reading:
Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews by Hanna Raskin.
Will Write for Food by Dianne Jacob.
How to Write About Food by S J Sebellin-Ross.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Mistake No. 109: Travel writing and holiday writing

On holiday on the Adriatic once. I didn't write about it. 
I call travel writing holiday writing when it is an account of the writer's holiday, written as if to a friend or member of the family, in the style you might adopt for the back of a postcard. 'Having a lovely time' writing.

Editors rarely want holiday writing.

Editors want travel writing. They want adventure, stories, unusual destinations. Stories of adventure in unusual destinations.

No unusual destination? Then you need an unusual angle. An article merely about your trip to Paris - covering the standard sights, tourist spots, a bit of food, a bit of culture - will never sell. It Will Never Sell. A talented former student wrote an article on 'The Heights of Paris' - a weekend trip based on visits to all the lofty places in the capital - and not just the obvious one. Paris viewed from above. It was a hugely original angle on a hugely unoriginal destination. It sold. Of course it sold.

You could adopt a similar approach to other destinations. Or try turning the idea on its head. Underground Madrid? Are there subterranean warrens and dungeons - or merely quirky restaurants and museums - hiding under the streets of the capital of Spain? I have no idea. Go forth and find out. And maybe write about it.

Never start your article at the airport. Never start your article - please do not ever do this - at your computer, booking your tickets and hotel room. Nobody cares.

Start there, in the thick of the action. Start in a cool underground room, where ancient Moorish art, so fragile to the effects of warmth and light, must be kept. Begin in the cellar of a Spanish housewife's home, where you're about to bite into a lentil and chorizo casserole, at a supper club which the local mayor has decreed illegal.

View of Bologna, Italy, from Asinelli (little donkeys) Tower.
I climbed it. Took me 40 minutes in August heat.
I wrote about it. 
If you have to backtrack, you can do it later, but you probably won't need to.

Hook the reader from the off, then. An arresting visual description, perhaps. Or start with an anecdote - a funny one, or a shocking one, that makes a valid point about your trip or destination, and is relevant to your theme.

The purpose of a travel article is, ultimately, to help the reader make up his or her mind about whether he or she might like to visit that same destination and follow in your footsteps.

Give them information they need to come to that decision - which you should do in the article, and have completed by the end of the article.

The reader doesn't give a hoot that you got sunburn, that you were exhausted after Day 2 and had an early night, that your flight home caught some turbulence. The reader does not need this information in order to decide on their next trip.

The reader needs to know what he or she can do, can experience, can visit; what he or she needs to bring; when he or she should go; what he or she may feel, taste, see, touch, hear (which is not necessarily what you felt, tasted, saw, touched, heard).

Never assume a reader will have decided to go before they have finished reading your article. Do not give them information in the article before you are certain they need it. The hotel's phone number? The tourist office's address? The currency exchange rate? The price of a cab from the airport to the station? They need none of this before the end. Put this information after the end. After the end comes a fact file or sidebar of information.

You have now written a good travel article.

Unless, somewhere, you have called a view "breathtaking".

Please - never call a view "breathtaking".