What with all the current economic doom and gloom, plus a media that continues to buckle under the challenges presented by the internet, the world can seem a daunting place for aspiring writers who want to make a living from their words. But there are still plenty of opportunities for young wordsmiths, and many of them in places you might not have thought to look.
Over the coming months, we’ll be running a series of interviews with professional writers, each one having forged themselves an editorial career in a specific area. We’ll be asking them about how they got started and where they get inspiration from, and we’ll tap their brains for any advice they can offer to those just beginning their editorial adventures.
To kick things off, we speak to veteran business-to-business journalist, Chris Druce.
Hello Chris. Who are you and who do you write for?
I’m deputy group news editor at an independent company called Road Transport Media. We’re categorised as a business-to-business publisher and we produce two weekly magazines: Commercial Motor and Motor Transport. The titles cover different ends of the truly unglamorous road freight/logistics market (think Eddie Stobart, DHL, Wincanton, and occasionally belligerent truck drivers etc).
The print titles have their own websites and associated events. Commercial Motor is paid for and you’ll find it on the shelves in newsagents or you can buy it via subscription. Motor Transport has a controlled circulation, which means you get it for free if you’re someone who works for a relevant company.
My day-to-day job involves writing and commissioning news-led content for the readerships of both titles, as well as deputising for the news editor when required. We are a relatively small outfit, so you do tend to get involved in a lot of other stuff beyond your core role. It keeps me busy.
What made you want to become a professional writer? And when did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?
The truth is that I fell into journalism. I found myself at university having taken a gap year, during which I failed to find anything to inspire me. I studied English, as that’s a subject I’ve always been good at.
My university degree was half English literature and half creative writing, which appealed. About two years in I decided I really did need to form a plan, and started to learn more about journalism and undertook some work placements. I’m a sociable person with an inquisitive mind, and I was of the view that writing for a living sounded a whole lot more attractive than any of the jobs I’d experienced up to that point.
How did you start out as writer? Did you run a blog, or write for a school paper/student mag? Did you do any writing-based work experience?
Once I had decided journalism was something I’d like to try, I wrote a few articles for our newly launched but short lived university magazine. I also found myself a few work experience placements, although they were really only useful for the CV as I didn’t actually get much opportunity to do any writing.
Writing regularly for someone, be it a magazine, paper, blog or other outlet is probably the most useful thing you can do. Work experience can be a waste of time at larger organisations as they won’t let you do anything!
If you do secure a placement, my advice would be to learn all about wherever you’re heading to and turn up with some article ideas/subjects – the carrot of free copy will greatly improve your chances of getting something published, and in turn the quality of what you get from the placement itself will improve. A busy editorial team does not want to play babysitter.
When did you get your big break?
I had returned home after university and worked in a pub for six months. This was back in 2000 – the publishing industry has since changed almost beyond recognition. Back then you still had the big business-to-business publishing houses.
The dot com bubble hadn’t quite burst and Reed Business Information decided they faced a brain drain. In a move they never repeated, they recruited ten graduates (of all ages and backgrounds) and put us through a three-month intensive course that they paid for! I was looking at paying to do the same thing at a college so this was fantastic.
It did involve me moving to a new area and lodgings, but that seemed a worthwhile sacrifice. Although there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the course, we were encouraged to apply internally at the publisher and I was successful, stating as a web reporter on Electronics Weekly (covering a subject matter I didn’t understand).
Presumably you suffered a few rejections along the way, either for in-house jobs or stuff you had pitched to editors. What do you think is the best way for aspiring writers to deal with rejections? How can you turn them to your advantage?
I was turned down for a few jobs before the graduate scheme, and I don’t blame any of them – I was so green. I have had a period of freelancing but the relationship was slightly different as I was known to my employers.
However, even in the day job you are effectively pitching all the time, whether it’s an idea for a new device/column in the titles or on the websites, or simply selling your news stories at the news meeting to get them the most space possible in the print edition.
You can’t afford to dwell on rejection in whatever form it takes. Don’t take it personally either – you can be pitching a perfectly good article but simply at the wrong time for the title’s politics, which is beyond your control (we regularly get budgets revised and freelance cash is often the first thing to suffer).
So as long as you’ve pitched the right article to the right publication (the readership is everything), don’t be down on yourself. Incorporate any feedback and get back out there. It does get easier: once you build up a relationship with a contact at a title and they know you deliver, they won’t be keen to lose you and may even commission you! Good freelancers that hit their deadlines and offer up quality work are hard to find.
What do you look for in a pitch from a freelancer? What makes for a good pitch, and what makes for a bad one?
If you are going to pitch anything to me – be it an article, news story, photo or even press release – you must be offering me something relevant. Sound blindingly obvious? Well, you’d be amazed how often people try and sell me car stuff despite the fact we don’t cover anything to do with car fleets – just trucks and freight!
Another thing would be timing. There’s no point pitching me a story on the Christmas peak (as in retail volumes) in January. Also, be clear about what you are selling to me – if I can’t get my head around what your article is about it’s not going to inspire me to commission you. Coherent, structured and interesting pieces require a clear vision as a starting point.
Which writers have inspired you the most and why?
Writer’s names that mostly I forget, although Bethany McClean’s work on the Enron scandal is truly impressive. I do believe though that despite its recent kicking, there has been – and will continue to be – some great investigative journalism undertaken by the UK press. The MP expenses scandal was a superb bit of work, and the Guardian recently managed to bring down News of the World and give Murdoch a bloody nose, while the FT has caused Starbucks no end of trouble thanks to hard work and tenacious reporting.
What do you think makes a good blog?
Something that is personal and highly focused, with personality. I previously worked at a big publisher that set up blogs simply because they were fashionable. Unsurprisingly, they were not a huge success, bound up as they were within a corporate straight-jacket. It also goes without saying that if you want to have a successful blog, make sure you post very regularly. There is no point posting every few weeks.
Do you have any favourite blogs? What is it about them that you like?
I don’t know if this makes me old fashioned or not but I don’t tend to read many blogs. Some of that sort of content I pick up via Twitter, otherwise they are things such as sports blogs and some of the BBC News ones. They all provide insight, with a stronger sense of personality than you get in straight news coverage. The sports blogs tend to be very funny too.
Which of your pieces of writing are you most proud of, and why?
I have personal favourites within the context of my job and career that wouldn’t mean too much to anyone else but are important to me. Getting a cover feature or unearthing an exclusive always provides a buzz. Because things are so hectic these days, the rare occasions I find time to devote a few weeks to a follow-up news piece or similar, I can really get stuck in, especially if it’s working through accounts or financial dealings. It’s satisfying as it stretches me, but it’s all too rare.
Looking back on your career so far, what advice could you offer aspiring writers?
Writing is still a great way to earn a living, but the ‘earning a living part’ is becoming ever more challenging. I have always been highly adaptive in close to 12 years working in this industry, and have still been made redundant three times and quit a fourth job.
So keep learning new things and be professional, avoiding the temptation to cut corners. Take pride in your work but keep your ego well out of the picture. Build and maintain as many contacts and relationships as you can – I’ve been amazed at how beneficial this has been to me over the years.
Also, if you are freelancing make things as easy as you can for your employer. They want someone that will get the job done – without arguing – and produce cracking copy that they don’t have to spend half a day editing. Finally, enjoy yourself.
Thanks for your time, Chris
You can follow Chris on twitter here
Article by Nick Ellis