Thursday, 27 October 2011

Seven Ways To Set Your Interviewee At Ease

The following is a brief excerpt from my ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else.  It comes fairly early on in the book, which aims to give advice on the whole process of interviewing from start to finish.  Here goes...

1. Your greeting is important.  I like to greet interviewees as if I already know them – obviously without being overly familiar.  It’s about creating the pleasant atmosphere of greeting friends and being pleased to see them.  Making an effort.  Generally, appearing pleased to see them will help ensure that they’re at least halfway pleased to see you too.

2. Don’t rush to start your recording device.  Take your time.  Relax.  You don’t need to record that pre–amble banter.  Master the art of casually chatting and smiling a lot, exuding excitement to be here, while getting the device out of your bag and setting it up on the table.

3. Without wanting to get into the esoteric realm of positive and negative energy, it’s fairly obvious that the energy you inject into that room is likely to be reciprocated by your subject.  If they’ve been sitting in a room all day talking about themselves and their work, causing their eyelids to feel heavy, then an enthusiastic, friendly journalist entering the room might help snap them back into something like full consciousness.  If you’re excited – without resembling a tiresomely yapping Yorkshire terrier – then they’re more likely to feel the same.  Excited interviewees talk more.

4. Quickly work out whether they’re the kind of person who will respond well to direct, sustained eye contact throughout, or will be uneasy if you continuously hold their gaze. Do whatever makes them feel the most comfortable, and their tongue will loosen as a result. As a rule of thumb, if they instantly make eye contact, then follow suit.  Otherwise, apply eye contact in small–to–medium doses.  Eye contact is powerful.  It can establish trust, but at the other end of the scale it can intimidate or feel oppressive.  Remember: no matter how confident and self–possessed the subject may appear in front of an audience, or on film, in person they could be the shyest person you ever met.

5. Very much bear in mind that your interviewee is a human being, with moods and a personal life, just like you.  If they’re difficult or grouchy, then bear in mind that you might have just caught them on an off–day.  Try not to take it personally, and instead focus your efforts on brightening them.  Or, at the very least, just getting the job done.  More on this later when we discuss The Angry Clam.

6. Towards the end of that opening pre–amble, mention how long a time–slot you have with them.  They may not know.  By telling them, you give them a sense of perspective on how long you’ll be spending together – and roughly speaking, how fast the conversation should go.  If you’ve an hour together, they can relax a little more and perhaps speak at length.  If it’s just a ten–minute quickie, they’ll get the message that they’ll need to be more concise and probably talk a bit faster.

7. It can often be a good idea to broadly and swiftly outline your aims for this piece.  This will help relax them if, for instance, they fear you have some kind of negative agenda.  Tell them that you really want to present the most informative and entertaining profile of them as a person yet.  Or that you really want to document how they’ve bounced back, after that regrettable incident with the prostitutes and the crack cocaine.

Note: there is an alleged eighth way, but I wouldn’t personally recommend it.  That’s why I’ve reserved it for this note at the end.  I’ve heard about journalists who go out of their way to fake some kind of personality defect – a stutter, for instance – perhaps in order to make them seem like less of a threat and/or to make themselves more likeable.

I wouldn’t recommend this for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it’s a bit crazy.  Secondly, if you can’t do it well it will inevitably come across like the world’s biggest and most ludicrous contrivance.  Still, if you fancy giving it a shot… whatever works.

How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now for Kindle on Amazon UK, Amazon US and, where you can download the first few pages to your wireless device for free. It packs in 28,000 words of advice, drawn from my 23 years' experience of interviewing people.  You can also get a Triple Pack of file formats (PDF, ePub, Kindle/mobi) direct from me.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

"I'm very glad I bought it; having just re-entered the world of writing (I lost my way in my teenage years!). It has given me confidence and techniques to go about better journalistic interviewing and writing, and I hope to employ what I've learnt when writing for my university newspaper and website!  Thank you - very great value for money!" - Imogen Watson

"I've just done my first music interview, and I don't think it would have gone even marginally as well if I hadn't read this ebook first.  I'm starting out in the big bad world of journalism with zero formal journalistic qualifications under my belt, so help like this is utterly invaluable.  Every budding journo should buy this book" - John Nugent

Friday, 16 September 2011

Doctor Who Magazine's Editor Interviewed!

Tom Spilsbury at Doctor Who Magazine
Doctor Who Magazine has been one of my very favourite magazines, since its birth in 1979 as Doctor Who Weekly.  I've been honoured to contribute to it over the last few years.
    A fair few writers have asked me how you go about getting freelance work on the magazine.  (In my case I'd been gently badgering them at a time when they happened to have a sudden need for new journos, because the series had returned to TV in 2005.)  This made me think it could be very useful to interview editor Tom Spilsbury and ask him a few things that people often want to know, from the mag's internal workings to - of course - how people get to write for it.  So I just did that, thanks to Tom being a very kind man indeed.  Here goes...

How many people work on the staff of the magazine, and how many freelancers do you employ?
There are two full-time employees - myself and Peter Ware - one part-time designer Richard Atkinson who works freelance, and two occasional editorial assistants, John Ainsworth and Mark Wright.  Plus 20 or so other freelancers, who write articles, draw the comic strip etc etc.

How do you and Deputy Editor Peter Ware divide the work up on each issue?
Pete tends to look after a lot of the regular features - News, Letters, Reviews, Previews - whereas I tend to come up with the ideas for the main articles/interviews. Of course, it’s a fairly collaborative process, and we discuss things all the time.

Describe a typical day in your working life.  Is there such a thing?
It’s different depending on what part of the production cycle we’re in. When we’re starting off on an issue, there is a lot more email-writing, and phoning the freelancers to discuss what I’d like from them for the next issue, and how we’re going to approach each piece, when I’ll need it by, and so on, and so on.  Later, when articles have arrived, there are a lot more discussions with the designer about how we’re going to make the articles look.  I also do a fair bit of the design work myself. Towards the end of the process, it’s much more about subbing all of the finished designs, captioning the photos, deciding on pull-quotes. We also liaise with Steven Moffat  - generally about our interviews, but never for reviews or opinion pieces - especially if it’s about an episode that hasn’t been seen yet.
    Plus, at some point during this whole process, I’ll be thinking further ahead.  Arranging set visits for episodes currently shooting.  Discussing and commissioning features for several months down the line, so it’s not all left to the last minute.  Also, we’ll be speaking to BBC Worldwide about photography, and cataloguing the pictures when they arrive into sub-folders, producing thumbnail images; as well as speaking to designer Stuart Manning about the cover, and how we want to compose that in Photoshop.  Plus updating our Facebook and Twitter, writing the press releases for new issues... and lots more stuff.  It’s never ending! And I haven’t even mentioned yet that we’re also working on the Specials and Graphic Novels at the same time as our regular issues!  So there’s not really a typical day, because there are so many different things we do.

Even though DWM is monthly, how difficult is it to meet your print deadlines each issue?
Very difficult, because however much time you have, you always want some more! We always want to make the best magazine we possibly can, with hardly any staff.  That’s difficult.  But enjoyable! We know that people expect a high standard, so that always drives us to try to be as inventive as possible and to try to put in as many jokes, little details, and other bits and pieces which hopefully people will enjoy. That means we always work late nights, especially near the end of the process, as that terrifying deadline approaches! Also, we’re four-weekly, not monthly – which means that we never get a five-week gap between some issues, as monthly magazines have every few issues.

What measures do you take to combat the readily accessible Who info which hurtles around the internet?  How do you keep DWM essential - is it about placing less importance on covering everything, news-wise?
We can’t battle the internet – even when we have exclusive news, it only stays exclusive up until the point when the first person decides to take that news and post it online.  But, that said, if we didn’t print that news in the first place, then it wouldn’t end up online, so we’re still important!  We can also be a voice of authority, when sometimes online ‘news’ can be a confusing blur of rumours, outright lies and half-truths.
    But to be honest, DWM is less about ‘news’ and more about detail.  We can go into far more depth than anyone else can, whether that’s a big interview, or whether it’s one of Andrew Pixley’s huge features on the making of each episode.  Our reviews can also be more in-depth, and frankly, better written than anything you’ll find online.  On the internet, ANYONE can be a writer – but that means there’s a disproportionate amount of rubbish out there. There are good writers and reviewers out there, of course, but also a lot of terrible writing.  That’s because no-one EDITS the internet. A magazine should be a much more polished piece of work.

Does your job become easier or harder when Doctor Who is actually showing on TV?
Not sure it’s easier or harder, it’s just a bit different. We’re always planning way ahead anyway, so sometimes it’s just more busy when they’re MAKING the show, rather than showing it. When they’re making the show AND showing it, which is rare, then it can get REALLY busy.

Does your status as the official Doctor Who magazine always make things smoother?  What kind of problems, if any, can it give you?
It’s rarely a problem, generally it’s just a big help when it comes to arranging interviews and so on. Also, as we’re BBC-licenced, we’re given access to a lot more photography/set access etc than other magazines, such as SFX.  Some licenced magazines might find it a problem to truly be independent: Paramount are fiercely protective of Star Trek, for example – which I think impacts negatively on things like Star Trek Magazine.  This is never a problem with DWM.  People like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat are huge fans of the mag, and are wise enough to know that they shouldn’t try to control it.  They know that it needs to be independent, or else it becomes vapid and pointless – like, arguably, most other TV tie-in magazines.  There’s no point in having a magazine with no heart.  So while it COULD be a problem to be licenced, it never is in reality, because no-one at the BBC interferes, or tells us what we should be doing.

Because so many journalists will want to know: what is your submissions policy on DWM?
Submissions are welcome, but it’s a good idea for people to read our Writers’ Guidelines first, which you can request by emailing us [at this e-mail address]. It’s also a good idea to send in a full breakdown of your idea, rather than simply submitting a finished article.

How, and how often, do you take new freelancers on?
Very rarely to be honest – but don’t give up!  We do have a brilliant team of people already, so inevitably we tend to use the writers and artists we’re already familiar with, and with whom we already have a good working relationship. But everyone started off by sending in an idea, or proving that they were up to the task, so if you’re good enough, it’s worth persevering!

What kind of thing do you prefer to read in a submission?  Reviews of Doctor Who stuff?
Perhaps.  Although, as I said, we do have a fairly established team for the reviews pages.  What we’d really like are good ORIGINAL ideas for new features.  A good hook for an article.  Something that says something new about Doctor Who, that we haven’t read a thousand times before.  Something that has a good idea for the visuals too.  DWM isn’t a book, it’s not the place for long-plodding essays with no illustrations!  It needs to be something that can be visualised on the page – which is why we’ll come up with gimmicks from time to time, such as mock soap magazine layouts, LEGO characters, spoofs of horror posters, or whatever it might be. These sorts of ideas are always welcome, because it shows that you’ve thought about how the finished article will look on the page.

When you do read submissions from writers, what are some of the things which instantly turn you off?  What are the common mistakes people make?
Articles riddled with typos are an instant turn-off.  You need to have a good familiarity with the tone of DWM, so don’t write something which would be more suited to a general sci-fi mag or TV magazine.  By the same token, don’t assume your readers know EVERY last detail about Doctor Who, and start chucking in obscure references to ancient in-jokes with no explanation whatsoever!  Make sure your writing is well-researched – to blow our own trumpets for a moment, we’re EXPERTS on Doctor Who, so references to ‘Christopher Ecclestone’, ‘The Sunmakers’, ‘Vampires in Venice’ etc etc will be noticed and tutted at!  In fact, we’re more anal than anyone, so we know when it should be ‘Episode 1’, when it should be ‘Episode One’ and when it should be ‘Part One’.  If you want to impress us, then make sure you get these things right too!

What are the worst and best aspects of being the editor of Doctor Who Magazine?
It’s nearly all good, to be honest.  Producing something which people genuinely love, is a huge privilege.  We only spend so many long hours working on it because we love it more than anyone!  So of course there are frustrations from time to time, but they’re pretty trivial when it comes down to it.  The email isn’t working.  A writer is being unresponsive and late!  My assistant won’t get me a coffee.  That sort of thing.  But on the whole it’s the best job I could possibly have, because a) I (modestly) think I’m quite good at it, and b) I genuinely love it, and love seeing people’s reaction to the finished result.

                                                                     * * *

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My Amazon-acclaimed non-fiction ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy it direct from me, in a Triple Pack of all three major file-types (PDF, ePub, Kindle), via PayPal.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How To Interview... Book Hits The Spectator, Plus Special Offer!

My ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else has been covered by The Spectator's online blog!  You can read the full article here, written by editor Catherine Bray, who has been a real champion of the book.

The book was published at the beginning of August and set out to tell readers everything I know about the subject after 23 years of experience and over 1000 interviews.  And hooray, it's sold very well.

One thing I'm pleased about, is that not one single reader has had to use my Formspring Guarantee.  In case you're unaware, I included a Formspring URL at the end of the book, in case anyone had questions unanswered by the book itself.  A couple of people have mentioned additional topics they'd quite like to see in a future edition, but as of yet, no-one has used that Formspring account.  Excellent.

As I say in that Spectator piece, I will very probably increase the price of the book come Autumn, reflecting the niche nature of the topic which the book covers.  So if you're interested in the topic of interviewing people, now's the time to grab it while it's still the price of a London pint!  You can see all the details on this page:

If you've purchased the book and would like to write a review on Amazon UK or Amazon US, then I would dearly love you to do so.  Also feel free to get in touch by e-mail at 'journozone at gmail dot com' if you run a serious review blog and would like to review the book.  Thanks!

UPDATE on September 6 2011, 19.41 GMT: The next 10 - well, actually, nine now - people to buy the book will receive a free PDF of my 1994 Kerrang! magazine interview piece on the Manic Street Preachers' Japan tour.  See for the details!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Interview With An Anonymous PR

Journalists and PRs prowl very much the same wilderness, but all too often lock horns in an unfortunate fashion.
   While writing the book How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else, I occasionally found myself railing against a few of PRs' more seemingly obstructive habits.  So much so, that I felt the need to include a note that I honestly don’t dislike PRs at all.  Far from it – they’re mostly helpful individuals who can help you achieve greatness.  It’s just that sometimes we can have very different goals - and I think that a little more understanding between journos and PRs wouldn’t go amiss.
   With that in mind, I contacted a PR person who works in TV, and asked whether they’d be prepared to answer some questions about their job and the dynamics between them and the journos with whom they work.  Here, then, are Anonymous TV PR’s splendidly candid replies…

When and how did you break into PR?
“In 2003, and to say I 'broke into PR' might be giving it a bit too much credit. It was more along the lines of getting a job out of university which then gave me a foot into the door with a very entry level job in PR. Then I managed to work my way up from there. So let’s just say I stumbled into PR, and continued stumbling ever since.”

What is it about PR that you enjoy?
“I love the variety that the job entails. Some days I will be on set for a programme I’m working on, another day running a press launch or event and some days I’ll be in the office having a lot of meetings. Add in lots of writing (LOTS) as well as coming up with creative concepts for photography and press strategies and it’s quite a varied job. More than anything it’s that which I find appealing. I don’t think I could do a job which involved the same task every single day.”

What are the best and worst things about your job?
“The best things are the creative aspects – coming up with an amazing idea for a feature, or photography concept, or brilliant launch idea is really something that I get enthusiastic about. Worst parts of my job? Dealing with difficult talent, difficult journalists and pitching out utterly hopeless features ideas in order to keep a commissioner/Exec happy are the things which are most regular annoyances…”

Most journalists seem to have a love/hate relationship with PRs. Do you feel a similar way about them?
“Hmmmm, this one is tricky. Most journalists I get on with well. I appreciate that they have a job to do, which is sometimes at odds with mine, but that’s not to say we can’t have a good working relationship. However there are a few journalists (just as there are a few PRs) who just aren’t very good at their job. I’m sure they are lovely people (or not, in some cases), but the fact is that if you aren’t very good at your job then you really shouldn’t be doing it. My favourite journalists are the ones that I have built up a relationship of trust with. The ones that I can tell anything to off the record, and know that the information remains between us. Sometimes that’s a really valuable thing to know.”

A lot of journos hate it when a PR insists on sitting in on interviews. Why do PRs sometimes have to do this? Who requests it, generally?
“Journalists might hate it, but I guarantee that the PR hates it more. We know that it can cause the conversation to be less natural than it should be, but sometimes it’s necessary. Often it will be either a company policy (in the case of one large UK broadcaster), requested by the actor’s agent or publicist (who doesn’t realise that thorough briefing and media training beforehand is much more useful) or by the actor themselves (who is nervous and wants a crutch).
   “The only time I’ve ever chosen to sit in on an interview myself is when either the actor is particularly young or inexperienced, or when the interview is with a journalist who has been a 'c.u.*.t' before and stitched me up with an interview.
   “Oh, and you know what PR’s hate more than sitting in on interviews? Journalists commenting on the fact that a PR was sitting in on an interview in the copy. Let’s be clear, the public do not care about this, and it doesn’t make interesting copy. It’s petty point scoring that just sours your relationship for no real reason.”

What would be your own equivalent pet hate - something that journalists occasionally insist on doing?
“Mentioning PRs in the copy of a feature is always slightly annoying. Beyond that – constant chasing about a request is my biggie. I know some PRs might not get back to you, either at all, or when they say they will. I do though.
   “So when I get a request from you, I’ll ask for all the information I need and give you a rough steer on when I’m likely to hear back. Don’t chase me before this time. It just frustrates me to reply to that email/phone call when I could actually be doing my job.”

What can be some of the hardest things for a PR, in dealing with the press?
“Sometimes publications don’t necessarily understand that if I decline something it’s not through my own choice. It could be that I would absolutely love a feature in your publiciation. But the talent might have turned it down. Or it could be that I have to prioritise my top requests – in making sure that a campaign is relevant and targeted I might not be able to help you with a particular request, but that’s just the nature of the game. We all win some and lose some.”

Is the increasing connectivity of the internet a boon or a hindrance to PR companies?
“Both. We can target consumers directly with greater accuracy ever before – and in a very personal way. However these sorts of social media/blogger outreach have difficulty cutting through in the same way that, for instance, a magazine cover would because of the volume of content on the internet. Generally our greatest struggle is persuading the clients/execs we report into that it is a valuable use of our time. It’s annoying, but those sort of people still value a framed cover on their wall above driving and creating massive online buzz about a show.
   “The internet also raises some issues with talent. They are notoriously loose lipped about things which we might not necessarily want in the public domain. Naughty talent.”

How can journalist/PR relations be improved?
“Talking, listening, not losing our tempers and having a little bit of trust with each other. You have space to fill, and we want to fill it. It shouldn’t really be that difficult.”

My ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else, is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy a triple pack of PDF, ePub and Kindle files direct from me, via PayPal (most credit/debit cards).  Full details here, you splendid individual.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Interviewing Book Available Now

Hello folks,

Just a quick post to let you know that the book mentioned earlier on this very blog is now available.

Cramming 23 years of journalistic experience into 28,000 words, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is initially available at a limited-time low price of £3.90!

Full details here.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Forthcoming E-Book Revealed

In coming weeks, I'll release my first ever e-book.  It will cover a subject which seems to have been weirdly overlooked in the e-book world: interviewing people journalistically.

The title, as you can see from its cover on the the left, will be How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else.

This book is based on 23 years of journalistic experience.  Within its electronic pages, I'll be giving nuts-and-bolts, detailed advice on the craft of interviewing - from preparation, to conducting the chat, to writing the finished article - while delivering it all in a hopefully entertaining and conversational fashion.  I'll also lift the lid on the reality of interviewing people and the nasty surprises and awkward situations you're likely to face along the way, right down to what to do when your recording device has failed to tape the conversation.

Sections of the book will include:

  • Five Qualities That Make For A Good Interviewer
  • Seven Ways To Set Your Interviewee At Ease
  • The Eight Types Of Interviewee
  • Fandom Vs Professionalism
  • Can An Interviewee Ever Become Your Friend?
  • Underhand Tactics & Grey Areas
  • Becoming A Fly On The Wall
  • The Dreaded Roundtable Interview
  • Alcohol
  • Transcription: A Necessary Evil
  • How Verbatim Do You Need To Be With Those Quotes?
  • The Structure Of An Interview Article
As we speak, I'm putting the finishing touches to the book.  If you're an aspiring journalist, or are just interested in the topic of how a journo goes about interviewing people, then I want it to answer every question you could possibly have.

To that end, I'd like you to suggest things you'd like the book to cover.  The above list only represents a segment of the 26,000-word book, but if you have anything in mind which you'd really like answered, then please let me know in the Comments below or by e-mailing me at journozone AT gmail DOT com.  Hopefully, such comments will help me deliver a book about interviewing people which leaves no stone unturned.

This very afternoon, I'm launching a Facebook page for the book.  Please feel free to register your interest and support by hitting Like!

UPDATE August 13: the book will be available to buy on various Amazon sites from Monday, August 15.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Interview: SFX's Reviews Editor Quizzed

One of my goals for the How To Be A Journalist site is to demystify stuff.  The kind of things which you might not get told elsewhere - or which even get mentioned elsewhere.  So much of the business of being a journalist - the real nitty-gritty - is all about things which you can only figure out for yourself.  Or you can read about it here, from time to time, if you add this blogroll to your RSS feed or follow us on Twitter.

You may have wondered how to go about approaching magazines - or even what some of these 'section editors' actually do.  I touched on the former subject in my earlier post How To Write For Magazines, but it'd also be nice to hear it from a horse's mouth, no?  For instance, an actual section editor on an actual magazine?  

Top UK mag SFX's Reviews Editor, Ian Berriman, kindly agreed to an interview about what his role entails, how he prefers people to approach him, what he expects from his writers and things which turn him off.  Make no mistake: Ian really is a very nice man, but in this interview he gives it to you straight.  I'm sure you wouldn't want it any other way.  After all, you need to know this stuff.  Even if you don't fancy writing for SFX, or even that kind of magazine, the majority of principles and pet hates discussed here will be relevant right across the publishing spectrum.

Ian started his career as a daytime TV researcher before freelancing for SFX for a few years.  He then joined the staff in March 2002.  Here goes...

Hello Sir!  Tell us about your role on SFX magazine - what exactly does it involve?
Ian Berriman: "Hello Sir! I’m responsible for all the reviews - films, DVDs, books, comics, audio CDs, toys and so on - that appear in the magazine. This involves researching what products are being released, chasing up review materials - check discs, advances, publicity images - from PR people, assigning reviews to freelancers and fellow SFX team members, and flatplanning the section.  In case you didn't know, the 'reviews flatplan' breaks down the contents of each page for the designers. Once the reviews come in I check them and ask for clarifications and/or make minor rewrites where necessary. Finally, once they’ve been subedited to fit the available space, I proofread each page."

How often do you take on new writers and do you ever actively search for them?
"In the last year I’ve probably added a couple of new names to my freelance pool. The very notion of 'actively searching' seems downright bizarre when we receive so many requests for work: the nearest I’ve come to that is discovering that a writer whose work I’ve always admired was following SFX on Twitter and asking him if he’d like to work for us. What’s more likely to happen is that someone I trust – another journalist, usually – will recommend someone to me.
    "Actively searching out new writers would take time, and time is a very rare commodity in our business. Even finding the time to deal with the on-spec submissions that come in can be tricky. I make it a matter of policy to reply to everyone (even if only with a standard form of words), and I try my level best to read all the samples that are submitted, but sometimes those emails get 'put aside to look at when it’s less frantic' and end up sitting there for a month or more. To be blunt: when it’s a choice between going home to snatch some time with my fiancé, or sitting in the office for another half hour to read through a pile of spec submissions, fiancé usually wins."

How many submissions do you receive from potential new writers, each month?
"It ebbs and flows, but I’d guess that it averages out at four or five a week. My calculator tells me that’s between 16 and 20 a month."

What are the most common mistakes that potential new writers make when contacting you? 
"I’m afraid the main one is terribly obvious, but it bears repeating: if you can’t master the basics of English grammar, or spell, I will not employ you. Chances are no-one else will either, because professional journalists are invariably grammar Nazis. That may seem harsh, but it’s a fact. If you clearly haven’t even taken the time to run a basic spell-check on your email - which takes a few seconds - I won’t even send you a standard form reply back. Frankly, I consider it discourteous.  
    "Accidentally starting your email with the words 'Dear Total Film…' isn’t necessarily a capital offence - although I will take perverse pleasure in pointing it out to you - so long as what follows convinces me that you have read our magazine and understand its ethos.  It’s always blindingly obvious when you’ve sent the same generic wording to 20 different magazines. Keep it brief - I probably won’t read beyond the second paragraph - and don’t send me your CV unless there’s something mindblowingly impressive on there. Send samples - maybe three of your best pieces - as Word documents or PDFs that are simple to print out. Don't send a link to a website and make me plough through it looking for relevant examples of your work. 
    "Finally, make sure these samples are relevant. A bunch of gig reviews doesn't tell me anything about your knowledge of/ability to write about SF & fantasy films/books/comics - and, worse, implies that you're not really that interested in them."

What's the one thing that potential new writers do, perhaps unintentionally, that really put you off them?
"I’m amenable to an informal, chatty tone, but don’t go overboard and try and be too pally. When someone’s initial email is along the lines of, 'Hi Ian! I see that you like crisps and support Hull City! Well I love crisps too, and I spent an afternoon in Hull once in November 2006!', it ever-so-slightly creeps me out. I’m looking for writers, not private investigators, so approach an initial email as you would a first face-to-face conversation. And whatever you do, don’t try any kind of 'poor-me' routine: 'I’ve always dreamed of doing this, no-one will give me a chance, boo hoo hoo…'. Future Publishing replaced my heart with a lump of gleaming black obsidian many years ago, so emotional blackmail doesn’t cut any ice with me."  

When you do hire writers, is it then a case of entrusting them with progressively bigger tasks, depending on how well they do?
"Very much so. Initially, I am liable to toss some direct-to-video crud your way and see how you get on. If you continue to impress me over the course of several months - and without complaining - I will start to give you more work, longer reviews, and more stimulating assignments. Nobody starts off reviewing Hollywood blockbusters: it may take years to work up to that level, if you ever reach it. There are two key things to remember if you are a budding freelancer. Firstly, freelancers tend to be there for the dirty jobs: staff always get first dibs and SFX has a very large team. Secondly, even if you are a very talented writer, I have 15 or 20 other talented writers on my books who’ve been working for me for years, and have families to feed. Taking on a new writer means taking one of them out into the backyard and nail-gunning them in the head, so it’s not something I do lightly."

Once writers are reviewing for you, what are the biggest pitfalls in writing reviews for SFX?
"Not hitting the deadline: I have to hand over completed pages to our designers every day to avoid a backlog building up, so people who consistently deliver copy late will not be doing so for very long. Also, not getting the format right and including all the information specified in the commission.  It might seem like a piddling triviality, but if your review is missing the BBFC certificate or page count, that creates more work for me, and after you’ve looked up the twentieth missing detail of the month it really starts to grate. Finally, any section editor will have their own personal bugbears - phrases or formulations that are the linguistic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Work out what they are, either by asking me direct, or working out why I keep rewriting your reviews, and then never use them again. For example, I can’t abide passive sentence constructions, and generally loathe reviews written in the first person."

How do you go about stamping those pitfalls out, if you'll forgive the nonsensical metaphor?
"Every time I commission a review, the freelancer receives a formal commission document, in the form of a PDF. This explains precisely how the submitted review should be formatted and also includes some do’s and don’ts: for example, reviewers of fantasy novels are banned from cracking gags about the size and weight of the book – experience tells me that without that rule they’d crop up in about 30 reviews every year. This document also includes a list of forbidden clichés. People who ignore this and submit copy that includes phrases like “it does what it says on the tin” are liable to feel my wrath."

What do you do if a reviewer's opinion of something really flies in the face of the general 'party line' at the mag?
"I was about to say “absolutely nothing”, but then I remembered that once, years ago, I changed a DVD review from one star to two stars, because I personally considered the film worthy of four stars. The writer concerned was some chap called Jason Arnopp – I wonder whatever happened to him? I believe that was the first and last occasion I ever did that. Occasionally I will sense a mismatch between the overall tone of the review and the star rating and email the writer to query it, but SFX has never had an official party line, so if you write a two-star review of a film that I thought was great, I’ll respect your judgement and print it unchanged. Very often those reviews are the ones that stimulate the most interest and debate amongst our readers."

Hope this was useful, folks.  Incidentally, the film which Ian is talking about in that last paragraph is George Romero's Martin (1977).  I love most of Romero's work, but that film bores me senseless.  Many people like it a lot, though, so it was perfectly reasonable of Lord Berriman to change the rating.

                                                                  * * *

My horror novella Beast In The Basement is a dark, twisted tale of obsession, revenge, censorship, blame culture and parental responsibility.  In a big house in the countryside, an increasingly unstable author toils over a new hotly-anticipated novel which will close the best-selling trilogy of Jade Nexus books.  A violent incident tips him into a downward spiral with horrific consequences.  Read it before someone spoilers you!  Beast is available for Kindle (which can be read on most devices) at Amazon UK, Amazon US and more.  More details here.

My Amazon-acclaimed non-fiction ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy it direct from me, in a Triple Pack of all three major file-types (PDF, ePub, Kindle), via PayPal.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else

Friday, 29 July 2011

Eight Ways To Survive As A Freelance Journo

I've been self-employed for the best part of 23 years, having spent only three as a staffer on Kerrang! magazine.  This week, I was a guest along with journo-novelist Danny Leigh at the July In Development drinks in London, chatting informally about juggling the transition from journalism to fiction work.  Besides discussing that topic, though, I reminded myself of a few principles which seem to hold true, when it comes to keeping work consistently coming through the door as a long-term freelancer.  So here they are:

1) Work For More Than One Title
Fairly obvious, this one.  Don't put all your eggs in one basket.  Today's magazine and newspaper world is so volatile, that it would be unwise to merely write for one.  Slowly build up a network of publications to which you contribute. That way, if one sadly collapses or decides your contributions are no longer needed, you won't feel the impact quite so keenly.  When I was working full-time as a journalist, I would be writing for five or six titles at any one time.

2) Be Utterly Dependable
This touches on what I was saying in my earlier post How To Write For Magazines.  It's all very well to build up that network of publications, but you need to maintain it.  Do this by building trust and by never failing to deliver.  Some journalists can get away with continually missing deadlines, but they're in a real minority and almost certainly possess images of their editors shrieking while molesting swans.  The importance of delivering on time, time after time, cannot be overstressed.  Editors understandably want the least bother possible, and chasing you up for copy ranks high on their list of pet peeves.  You should also observe word counts religiously, as it's not the editor's job to perform cuts.  Needless to say, you also need to write well.  That helps.

3) Have A Regular Thing
Financially-speaking, the best thing about freelance writing is that there is, theoretically, no upper ceiling on what you can earn in any given month.  The worst thing?  The lower limit is zero.  Sometimes work just doesn't come in and yet your landlord strangely still insists on receiving rent.  Once upon a time, publications could afford to splash out on retainers for their favourite writers, guaranteeing them a certain amount of work each month.  I gather this is now less common.  So more than ever, you need a Regular Thing - and preferably more than one.  This can be a column, a regular feature or some section of the publication which you specialise in and/or handle.  Study each publication and pitch a Regular Thing to them.  Then stand exultant on your plinth of guaranteed work.

4) Be Pro-Active
As much as we all love the romance of waiting for the phone to ring - or these days, for the inbox to ping - with an offer of work, the reality is that you can't afford to sit around waiting for that to happen.  Try to maintain a balance between work which people come to you for and work which you pitch to publications.  Suggest articles, interviews and/or enthuse about things you'd love to review.  Don't be too ludicrously persistent with this: no-one wants to receive more than a few pitches a week.

5) Be Nice
It really helps if you're a personable character who gets along well with the people who can give you work.  Try and meet commissioning editors wherever possible - even socialise with them if possible.  While I think the expression "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is over-cynical and all too often cited by folks who can't seem to 'break in', there's no denying that editors are more inclined to commission people they like.  It's not about schmoozing and craftiness: it's just about being nice and easy to work with.  How hard can that be, eh?  You'd be surprised.

6) Don't Mess Up
Quite a broad topic, this, as the most casual of glances at the unfurling media scandals will attest.  Obviously, don't hack phones.  That's a given, right?  But on a less sensationalist level, try to avoid things which will get your publications into trouble.  Do your best not to damage ongoing relationships with interviewees, for instance.  Make sure you're well-versed in your country's libel laws - and if in doubt, leave it out.  No single quote on Earth is worth a libel case against your publication.

7) Manage Tax
Hire an accountant and make sure you're not over-paying.  Familiarise yourself with the things you can claim against tax, including 'capital gain' items such as that digital recorder, for which you can continue to claim over a period of time, albeit at a reduced rate.  Ensure that you're registered with the correct tax code for each company.

8) Establish A Niche
Obviously, being a freelancer means embracing as much variety and flexibility as possible.  You want to get as much work as possible, which can sometimes mean taking on work which doesn't exactly blow your skirts up.  That's all fine.  But for each publication, it will help if you're the 'go-to person' for something or other.  Maybe you love a certain type of film, or music, or book - and more importantly are something of an authority on it.  When editors have their meetings to decide what gets covered, you want them to immediately think of your name when it comes to certain things.  So establish that authority and you're more likely to receive regular work.

All good common-sense stuff, then.  If you're a freelance journalist, feel free to post your own thoughts on maintaining longevity and work-flow in the Comments section below!

Read about Jason Arnopp's new e-book, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy  Osbourne And Everyone Else, here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Twitter Feed Established!

Yes, this site now has a dedicated Twitter feed at @JournoZone, right here.

It will handily update you about new blogs/pages on this site (apart from this one, otherwise a never-ending loop would be formed which could destroy all of time itself) and also present/RT job opportunities in the heady world of journalism.

Follow!  Follow!  And thank you for doing so.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How To Write For Magazines

Lately, a few people have dropped me a line, asking how they go about approaching magazines for journalistic work. This year, I will celebrate (or, alternatively, be depressed by realising I've done) 23 years of freelance journalism, so may be able to shed a bit of light over what can seem like an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, but is actually fairly simple. So here's a potted guide which, clearly, shouldn't be taken as gospel. Like anything else, your success at securing journo commissions will be partly influenced by luck, the changing moods of office-bound, bleary-eyed staffers and possibly the moon. So here goes...

The first thing to do, when preparing to approach a mag, is know its style from top to bottom. Both in terms of tonal style/attitude and its literal formatting, right down to whether it prints album titles in inverted commas. Detail counts.

Next, single out the appropriate Section Editor from looking at the mag's masthead (you know, that column with all the staff names on). I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to approach the Section Editor rather than The Editor, for a very good reason. If you approach the Editor and they like your work, and pass you on to the Section Editor, then there’s a chance that the Section Editor will feel bypassed and resent being handed a new writer (I once had the editor of a UK film mag happily telling me to contact the Reviews Ed, which I did, only to never hear back). But if you go to the SE first, they’ll be happy to scamper over to the Editor with their new discovery. Politics and ego are rife in this area, just like anywhere else. People always want to put their own stamp on things, or indeed freelancers. Incidentally, yes, it does help if you know the Section Ed on some level before approaching them. So check and see if they're on Facebook. If they're not stalker-phobic and accept you as a friend, then buy some fish for their fishtank. Hey, can't hurt. Just don't ask them for work via Facebook. Business, pleasure and all that.

So. Write the Section Editor a brief and to-the-point e-mail, or a letter (don't phone them, or you'll invariably be greeted like an annoying ear-wasp - in this cyber-age most people hate phone calls from strangers) casually asking if they are looking for new writers - perhaps in a certain field which you specialise in. If an Editor has a gap of knowledge on their team, you can bet they’ll want to plug it. If they're open to new contributors, they may ask for exactly what kinda sample material they want to see. If they're more vague, just send them some sample work - not too much - in the exact same style as the mag, in every way. 

Here’s the absolutely vital, yet fiendishly simple, bit. Editors, whether Reviews, Features or anything else, want two things more than anything else:

(1) Work they'll have to do the minimum of editing on. If your stuff arrives good-to-go, they'll love that. You may even get a Christmas card.
(2) Work that's delivered when it's supposed to be. Miss deadlines, and you can guarantee the Section Ed won't miss you.

These things add up to an easy life for the harassed Section Editor. So consistently deliver them, and you’ll see the re-commissions roll in…

Read about Jason Arnopp's new e-book, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy  Osbourne And Everyone Else, here.