Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Meaning of Life

I spend a lot of my time wondering if I'm really making the most of my existence. None of us know how long we've got after all. It used to really annoy me that I would spend 40 hours a week moving things around on a screen - is that really living? Surely I should be trying to take in as much of the seemingly unlimited different experiences this mind blowingly varied planet has to offer. Why am I sitting in an ugly building above Victoria station trying to find pictures that will serve to pull people into a feature about pensions? (And that brings up yet another question: should we worry about how we're going to live when we're older or focus on what we are doing in the here and now?).

All the navel gazing on this blog...what is the point of it all? Bear with me, I'm getting there. To reiterate some fundamentals: 1) I'm not rich, so I have to work. 2) I like writing. Writing involves a lot of sitting in front of a screen. So how could I ensure that all that time in front of the screen is at least serving some useful purpose? I'm incredibly happy and relieved to document that I got there in the end. After six years of writing and two trying to figure out career change (90% of my income comes from being a Photo Editor), I've finally got myself a job that should mean that I get to do a lot more writing. The icing on the cake is that writing (and thinking and creating) will have a useful purpose.

On 7th April I start a new job as a Content Editor at Matter&Co. They are a communications company that work with value driven organisations - social enterprises and others that put a positive social impact before profit. Matter&Co also run the social enterprise magazine Pioneers Post and I will be contributing to that too.

Although I'm naturally an optimist, there have been many low points along the way. At one point I thought, 'Fuck writing, it's got me nowhere'. When I met the man that would give me the job, he told me he'd read something I'd forgotten that I'd written on Sabotage Times. More incredible than an article about nearly having sex with three women in 24 hours helping to get me a job were the words 'I really like the way you write' in the job offer he emailed a few days later.

It might seem like it but this post is not just so I can blow my own trumpet. It took me years to figure out how I could write for a living and I tried out many different paths trying to work it out. At times I felt like giving up and putting up with the mediocre job I had. I told myself to stop whining. So if you're at that point and you're reading this, don't give up. All those words that you put out there might come back and help you one day. I'm not sure how this next part of my life will pan out but it was writing that got me there.
PS. Respect where it's due. The valuable lessons I learnt at Careershifters got me there too. I need to write about that another time.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Can I Write Content For a Living?

I know - kind of a clunky headline. The alternative was 'Here's What I've Learned About Content in the Last Couple of Months at the Telegraph' which is even worse. I'm hungover so best I can do today.
The Telegraph news room.
In November I answered a request for male writers on a Facebook group and the commissioning editor gave me the gig. The first job was writing how beards are over. For the foreign readers, about 18 months ago Brits started thinking it was cool to wear a beard. Shoreditch in London was reckoned to be the birthplace, an old term 'hipster', (last heard in the sixties) was brought out of retirement to describe these new trendies and soon hairy faces were springing up everywhere, including mine. It was good through last winter, but felt a bit out of step come the spring. The Guardian published a feature claiming we had reached 'peak beard' and the fad faded fast. You can read what I wrote here and it lead to two further commissions.
I'd obviously heard of 'content' and I knew advertisers were desperate to keep people on websites that had their logo on it but in truth, I still don't really get it. Even if someone finds a feature about beards entertaining for two minutes, are they really likely to click through and buy a £100 shaver? The conversion rate must be tiny. Anyway, judging by the size of the creative teams involved, Braun must have handed over enough wedge for it to be a successful concern for all involved. The Telegraph has been really busy in ramping up it's online content. No brainer really; if people aren't buying newspapers because they can get their news free online, that's where the advertisers are going to concentrate their efforts. All the features options on the Telegraph Braun hub are certainly like to keep readers there for a while.
I always thought that writing for a brand was selling out. Maybe it is. The truth of it is that I always like a challenge. Give me a subject and I like figuring out how I can write it, keep it entertaining and most importantly, have the commissioning editor come back to me with more paid work. And if you want to make a living out of words, you have to go where the money is. It certainly helped pay for Christmas. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

You should be reading the Telegraph Magazine

I've long been an admirer of the magazine that comes with the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph. If you're interested in writing features, you should really be reading it. They generally have five or six long form essays covering wildly varying subjects and the design is really smart - uncomplicated, easy to navigate and allowing a respectful amount of space to photography that deserves it. It's £2 for the paper on a Saturday and that is a small amount of money to pay for a very good magazine. My Dad switched me onto it. He keeps it in a very undignified place: the smallest room in the house.
Pretty well thumbed I know.

It has a good hit rate of keeping me glued as the mix of features is usually interesting. This week there was an interesting encounter with the actor Benedict Cumberbatch with simple but striking pictures by Platon. The written portrait served up by Mick Brown was just as insightful. A feature on the human rights abuses being committed by Bahrain was also thought provoking. The Bahrain government has strong ties with the US and Britain and it seems no one wants to talk about the terrible injustices that are going on there. The story of @maryamalkhawaja, a 27 year old who continues to protest against the abuses being committed there and someone who had to see her father emaciated by beatings and hunger strikes, is nothing short of amazing. Lastly there is a story about HenPower, an organisation that gets older people to look after chickens to combat loneliness and depression. That's the kind of sentence to a commissioning editor that couldn't fail to result in a commission.

You can find all these things online but they are not grouped together as they are in the magazine. Plus, buying the print edition will keep journalists in jobs. You know what to do.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Buzz of a Byline

I still get it. I've had quite a few now but every time I see my name in print, I still get a little tingle of excitement. Nothing kills the buzz quite so effectively as the title in question spelling my name wrong though. Why is that? Obviously, a little bit about ego. I want people to chance upon that article and see that I wrote it. I want them to be impressed that I got a pitch accepted, that the Sunday Times Travel Magazine thought I was good enough to write for them. I want to feel validated as a writer! So many pitches have been turned down; at least let me savour the sporadic victories.
Bloody inaccurate sub editors

More than that though, it's all the bloody work I put in. Ok, a travel writing gig seems like a pretty good one to have. And they can be - I've written before about the wonderful experiences you can have that are beyond your salary scale when you're writing.

This particular feature was a long and drawn out process. I initially pitched in September 2012. Once accepted, I enlisted help from PRs and local tourism organisations. That went pretty well - a couple of hotels were promised and they also provided a car. I took the trip early in June 2013 and spent a hectic week trying to experience as many hotels, restaurants and things to do as Rhodes had to offer. The feature was submitted soon after and for quite a long time, I thought it had been spiked as the features editor could not confirm when it would appear. Then, at the beginning of July, I got an email to say it was going to make the October issue but that the format had changed a little and could I do some rewrites?

Even with the misspelling, it's all still worth it. When I was in Rhodes and met people, they would ask me what I did. I would say 'I'm a writer. I'm over here writing a piece on Rhodes for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine.' And that felt pretty good.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Do like Leonard Does

I've just been reading the ever excellent Brain Pickings, in particular how Leonard Cohen is firmly on the side of the perspiration fence when it comes to that famous quote by Edison. Cohen basically plays the numbers game. He writes 'all the time' and eventually he'll find a song he can work with. He also has an interesting take on employment, something that has taken up a significant portion of my daily thinking time since the beginning of last year, and given the title of this blog, one of the prime concerns of all these words. Here's Len on employment;
"Leonard Cohen 2187-edited" by Rama. From Wikipedia.

'But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.'

What it actually means Leonard is one of a few things (I looked it up in the dictionary). It can be the state of having paid work, but what he means in this instance is a person's trade or profession. What is Leonard Cohen? He's a songwriter. That's the thing he does with his time, the thing he's chosen to do. Maria Popova, who writes Brain Pickings, calls it an existential imperative. I feel a bit like that about writing. I feel like I have to do it, but sometimes I just turn away from it because I can't be bothered. Then I feel guilty about not doing it. Partly because I think Cohen is right - do it every day and something good might come out of one of those days.

The story behind my latest bit of writing will need another blog post, but for now here it is. It's completely unrelated to Leonard Cohen and writing, it's about the NHS and social enterprises.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Help Me!

With all the many and various distractions that the internet throws up, you can sure find yourself reading a lot of shit you didn't even know that you were interested in. That's basically the whole ethos behind Sabotage Times. As they say themselves 'We can't concentrate, so why should you?' If there is a silver lining to the problem of internet distraction, it's that the really good ideas stand out. Credit where it's due then, to Marianne Power. 

Marianne writes a blog called Help Me! in which she explores the world of self help books. Like all the best ideas, this one seems so obvious it's amazing that no one had thought to do it previously. Self help books are right for close scrutiny if only because, if you were being a bit mean (I am: I've got a hangover) they profit from the anxious and desperate. 

Anyway, if nothing else, she's certainly having a lot of adventures. And if you're interested in writing (which is, I presume, why you're here), there's a really interesting post about turning down a book deal here.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I'm Writing for a Living*

...sort of.  An opportunity came up to write about music via the day job.  That I can do.  I can remember lines from songs that I've never bought such as 'You can suntan', one of the finest rhyming couplets ever.  (It's from Club Tropicana by Wham!)  I can remember stupid trivia about songs like the fact that it's Chaka Khan wailing away in the back of Steve Winwood's 'Higher Love'.  (Why would you put Chaka in the background?  That's gotta be one of the greatest hires ever.)  Ask me what I was doing this time last week, or the date of my sister in law's birthday or anything remotely important and I can't remember it.  I don't understand the way my brain works.
Click on this picture to enlarge it.

My only conclusion is that music is important to me.  We have 6Music on all day at work and I'm lucky enough to work with two blokes who are roughly my age with all the same cultural reference points.  We know that Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' is one of the greatest records ever made and that it probably invented house music but we equally love 'The Forest' by The Cure and newish things like Jagwar Ma.  We try and guess the year that certain things came out and we speculate endlessly what song titles might be when we can't exactly place them.

People always ask me why I don't write anything for the Mail (where I work).  Until now my answer was that I could never think of anything they'd like.  I couldn't think of any food stories such as 'Yellow Fruit Gives You Cancer/Is a Superfood'.  I couldn't think of any MPs or celebrities that I wanted to have a go at because they held opposing views to my own.  I also quite like the BBC.  Writing the Top of the Pops pages for Mail Plus sort of fell in my lap.  The former scribe wanted more money (and now I'm doing it, I can see why) and the powers that be weren't up for that.   I thought I could do it and I sit next to the person who commissions it.  I did a writing test, they liked it, bingo.
* The money I get for this is about 10% of my salary so writing's not paying for everything just yet.