Saturday, 15 November 2008

#63 – Getting the commission that seals a press trip

Or looking for angles in the itineraries.

How to get on a press trip
In Tip #60 I explained that the way to get on a press trip (or junket, if we’re being honest) is to secure a commission in advance from a publication that the PR company or tourist board wants coverage in.

Getting the commission
This is a lot easier said than done, especially if you’re seeking the commission from a publication you haven’t worked for before. Most editors don’t like handing out commissions to people they don’t know, especially if they haven’t even been to the destination yet.

Vague press trip invitations
The other problem is that press trip invitations can be incredibly vague. They will often invite you to “explore the history of Snotsville” or “get active in Snotsland’s wonderful Snotty mountains”. If this is the case, the first step should be to e-mail the PR person back and ask what exactly this entails. Respectfully state that you would be interested in the trip, and could potentially secure a commission, but you need more information to pitch to the editor with.

Itinerary or waffle?
One of two things happens here – the good PR people send back an approximated itinerary, with details on each aspect of it. The bad PR people direct you to a website or send you back a whole lot more waffle on the wonders of the area. In other words, they don’t even know themselves what will happen on the trip.

Ones to avoid
Avoid the latter – chances are it’ll end up being a trudge around new hotel developments, and a series of half-arsed tasters of what the region has to offer. If the former, take that information, and hunt for an angle.

If, for example, a whale watching tour is part of the trip, take a look at the company website and try and dig out something unique about the company or the whales in the area. Is the ship’s captain a former whaler who switched to tourism? Are whale numbers in the region rapidly increasing due to protection measures? That is the sort of thing that could be pitched out.

Selection of angles
It may take a little more research than just looking at the itinerary presented, but a good trip should present a selection of possible angles to pitch to editors. Find the angles, pitch them out, hope the editor bites, and then go back to the PR people saying that Publication X has commissioned you to write a story as a result of the trip. As long as the publication in question is one they want coverage in, your place should be secured.

Computer death

Unfortunately, my laptop has died on me whilst on the road - losing three weeks' worth of work and pictures. This means that the 1001 Travel Writer Tips will have to go on hold until I get back home in early December.

Apologies for this, but I've got a rather unpleasant rewriting and salvage mission to perform.

Friday, 14 November 2008

#62 – Pitch topical stories to editors who respond quickly

Or how to stop your story dating.

Topical hook
So you’ve got a good story, but one that will date quickly... It’s juicy, topical, has a good hook and should be an easy sell. But the editor you have pitched it to isn’t responding. Grrrr.

Slow response
This is an all too familiar tale. I’ve lost out on numerous good story ideas in the past, simply because by the time the editor has got round to responding, the story is out of date. It’s intensely annoying.

Avoiding the gamble
And this is why it is only on very rare occasions that I’ll pitch such stories out to publications that I don’t already have a relationship with. Sure, these publications may pay well, and the story may provide a springboard to getting more regular work with the publication in question – but I’d sooner place the story and get paid slightly less than gamble.

Quick response
It gets to a certain stage where you get to know the foibles of your regular clients. I know which editors will usually respond quickly – often on the same day, and certainly within a couple of days. I also know the ones that will sit on a pitch for ages. And thus when I have a topical story that is great if run soon and useless otherwise, it will be the editors in the former category that get the pitch first.

Convenience versus money
These editors may not be the ones at the best-paying publications, but they are the ones that allow me to mobilise quickly, get the job done and secure the commission with a minimum of hassles. And sometimes that convenience is worth more than the money – it leaves more time to concentrate my resources and time on another story for someone else.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

#61 – Avoid overuse of ‘I’ and ‘we’.

Or why there should be no ‘I’ in “travel story”

Amateurish writing
One thing that always grates with me when I read a travel piece is when the writer is constantly referring to themselves all the way through. This is an entirely personal peccadillo, but I always think that copy littered with “I” and “we” seems a little amateurish. It reads a little like one of those pieces you write at primary school after you get back from the summer holidays, recounting what you did over the last couple of months.

Putting the reader in your shoes
The main reason that I don’t like it is that it distances the reader from the experience. When you’re writing about your own experience, it is by default not theirs. One thing I always like to do in a travel piece is to take the reader there, and put him or her in my shoes. The moment I start talking about myself, this isn’t possible.

I’ll give a couple of sentences as an example. Here’s the what-I-did-on-my-holidays version:

“Antonio tells me that there are jaguars behind the trees. We all tread a little gingerly after that, and I tremble as I hear a roar. ‘Don’t worry,’ Antonio tells us. ‘It’s only a howler monkey’.”

Now I think that passage would be better written as follows:

“There are jaguars behind the trees, says Antonio. Cue ginger steps – and impulsive trembling the moment a roar rings out. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Antonio. ‘It’s only a howler monkey’.”

Transported into the situation
You may agree or disagree, but I feel that the reader is transported into the situation more in the second passage. And it’s largely because those two words have been chopped out.

Integral part of the story?
Sometimes, of course, using “I” or “we” is unavoidable. Sometimes, you ARE an integral part of the story – such as if you’re on a personal mission, or are doing a piece about how you are revisiting somewhere that a relationship broke down in many years ago.
On other occasions, you simply have to leap through so many hoops to avoid the use of ‘I’, that it’s simply not worth the horrendously clunky that emerges as a result.
But most of the time, there’s no “I” in “travel story”.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

#60 – How to get on a press trip

Or all aboard the travel writer junket express.

Guilty secret
The press trip is the guilty secret of the travel writing world, shamefully acknowledged by a small plug at the bottom of many articles. Many travel stories are a result of the most unauthentic experiences imaginable – a group of journalists being shepherded around on a tight schedule, wined and dined and generally hermetically sealed away from anything the tourist board or resort PR people might not want them to see.

No freebie policy
It is for this reason that quite a few publications will not take any stories based on sponsored or subsidised travel. This is often a manifestly unfair policy, for reasons I will go into another time, but a large proportion of writers rely on press trips to reduce their costs and allow them to see places that they ordinarily wouldn’t get to.

Be all and end all
For a small proportion of travel writers (and again, these are the ones that make me wary of calling myself a travel writer), getting on the press trip is the be all and end all. To them, the nice jollies are the entire point of the profession.

Downsides of the group press trip
Personally, I tend to go on group press trips very rarely. I find that they invariably involve countless visits to mundane hotels, no real opportunity to experience any one product or attraction properly, and they don’t tend to be very productive in terms of producing a series of articles. I enjoy meeting up with other writers, I enjoy the nice meals and wine and I enjoy having to shell out very little money for the whole thing. But professionally, they don’t usually give me what I want.

How to get on a press trip?
But for the travel writer just starting out, one of the great mysteries can be how to get on a press trip in the first place. Quite simple really – get a commission from a publication that the PR people want to get coverage in.

Infuriating PR people
One of the most infuriating things that PR people can do is to send out an e-mail to a wide range of writers, inviting them on a press trip. When you e-mail back to express an interest, it turns out that they were just fishing. It wasn’t an invitation after all – they’re just sending a vague conditional bait out to anyone who might be able to get them coverage in one of three or four publications they are targeting.

Guaranteed publication and the blacklist
And frankly, if you can’t guarantee coverage in one of the publications they’re after, you’re not going on the trip. Personally, I blacklist any PR person that does this – if they want a particular publication, they can send out an e-mail to the staff of that publication.

Obtaining commissions
Others are more up front and don’t disguise the press release as an invitation. This is fine by me; they’re merely saying that there is a press trip on the horizon, and that those who can obtain commissions will be considered for it. And if you can get that commission, then that could be you. It really is that simple – although getting that commission often isn’t.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

#59 – Following up on an initial pitch

Or what is pestering?

Time to move on?
So you’ve sent your pitch and you’ve heard nothing back. Is it time to move on? Well, I’m sure if you ask most editors, they will say: “If you haven’t heard anything, we’re not interested.” Usually, of course, this is true.

Standard fob-off
But sometimes it isn’t. It can be used as a standard fob off. Sometimes, if the editor is being honest, they will have to admit that they haven’t read your e-mail. And this is why it is always worth following up.

Second e-mail
Sending a second e-mail that politely enquires whether the initial pitch was received and whether it would be of interest can sometimes pay dividends. The editor may not have seen the original e-mail, or forgotten to reply to it, or glossed over it without reading it. A second e-mail is more likely to illicit a response, irrespective of what happened to the first one. In fact, I have one editor who almost inevitably only responds to the follow-up e-mail.

Fine line
But there is a fine line between following up and pestering, and it is difficult to know where that line lies. There’s no real correct answer when it comes to the best time to follow up – different writers will give you different responses.

Relationship and frequency of publication
I’d argue that the length of time before a follow-up e-mail depends on your relationship with the editor and the frequency of a publication. Monthly magazines obviously have longer decision making processes, so I would probably leave it at least a month before following up with an editor at such a magazine. And that’s if I have worked with them in the past. It’s probably six to eight weeks for a blind pitch sent to someone I’ve had no previous dealings with.

Weekly travel section

For a weekly travel section or website, I’d argue that it can be followed up more quickly. Probably two to three weeks for an editor I do know and maybe four for one I don’t.

Arbitrary timeframes
These timeframes are fairly arbitrary, of course, and are largely based on what I feel constitutes pestering. Other writers will have different opinions, and if they’d like to share them by adding a comment, that would be wonderful.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

#58 – Don’t be afraid to submit mediocre copy

Or knowing how good your average is.

High standards
One common mistake that writers make is thinking that every piece of work they turn out has to be of an exceptionally high standard. In an ideal world, of course, this would be the case. But in an ideal world, we’d all be superhuman writing cyborgs with unparalleled knowledge and a witty quip for every occasion.

Quantity as well as quality
The truth of the matter is that if you’re going to become a successful freelancer, you are going to have to deal in quantity as well as quality. There’s no point spending two weeks at a time crafting a masterpiece if you only get paid enough to live on for one week as a result.

Mediocre work
Unfortunately, there will be some occasions where you know that what you’ve written isn’t particularly good. By your own standards, it’s pretty mediocre stuff. And sometimes you’ll know what you’ve tapped out into your laptop is just plain crap. Admittedly, though, this is often when the editor has asked for something that can only be crap, and no amount of turd-polishing on your part can redeem it.

Pragmatic approach
Some writing gurus will advise that if you’re not happy with your work, you should revise it until you know that it is up to your usual standard. I’m more of a pragmatist (which is probably why I can’t affix the ‘guru’ qualification to my business card). I figure that sometimes average or mediocre will do the job.

Send the piece away
Sometimes it is better to send away the slightly uninspired piece and get on with the next one, rather than wasting time and money trying to improve it. But a lot depends on how good your own particular ‘average’ is.

One of the best
This will sound horribly arrogant, but I know damn well that I’m one of the best writers at many of the publications I work for. If I wasn’t, the editors wouldn’t keep giving me work. I also know that some of the other writers that somehow get published in these publications are bloody awful; they consistently churn out hackneyed, turgid dross.

Getting run
Therefore, I know that if I end up sending off a piece that I don’t think is anywhere near my best, it’ll still get run. I might not be overly proud of it, but it’ll still be a damn sight better than some of the content in that issue. In other words, I know my average is still better than a good proportion of the competition’s best work. And as long as I don’t fall back to mediocre too often, it’ll do. Proof-read it, change anything that’s really bad, send it, move on.

How good is your average?
The key thing is to have a critical awareness of where you are in that pecking order. How good is your average? Is it good enough to allow you do dip from peak form every now and again?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

#57 – Resources: Wikipedia

Or the web’s greatest first stop research tool.

As proper, serious journalists, we’re not supposed to use Wikipedia. Because it can be edited by anybody, the content can be inaccurate. Sometimes this is a mistake, sometimes this is due to a wag thinking it would be funny to say that Vin Diesel is slated to play Falklands burns victim Simon Weston in a new big budget Hollywood biopic.

Other encyclopedias
Well guess what? Other encyclopedias can be inaccurate too – particularly ones that have been left gathering dust on the shelf for years. And as a resource for writers, Wikipedia is a brilliant starting point.

Brief overview
It may not cover the subject in enough detail, and you do have to be wary of the accuracy, but to get a brief overview of a particular topic, person, place or event, Wikipedia is fantastic. I’ll get frowned upon for saying this, but as long as you double-check any information you glean from it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as an information source.

In fact, it can be both enlightening and a time-saver, while the references used to support the information are usually useful further steps along the research path.

A cautionary note
One quick story for anyone thinking of taking Wikipedia entries as gospel, however. A while back, I cheated and took a (very minor) factoid straight from Wikipedia, figuring that it was a corner that would be OK to cut.
A few months later, I came back to the same Wikipedia entry and found the very article I wrote quoted as a reference...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

#56 – When is it best to e-mail a pitch to an editor?

Or the secret of timing.

Best time to approach?
On a forum I frequent from time to time, an interesting topic recently came up: When is the best time to approach an editor?

Monday morning pile-up
The range of responses to this question was fascinating. Most writers seemed to agree that the worst place for your pitch to be is in the huge Monday morning e-mail pile up. But some said that editors often read e-mails on the weekend when they have a bit of peace and quiet. I can vouch for that – I’ve occasionally received an unexpected e-mail from an editor on a Sunday.

Friday afternoon and weekend mode
Others suggested avoiding Friday afternoon, as that is when weekend mode has kicked in and the mind is not on work. There’s a counter argument to that as well – perhaps a response is more likely when an editor is relaxed?

Print deadline
There were strong arguments for Tuesdays, others for Thursdays, and frankly it’s possible to argue any position with a reasonable degree of validity. But I think everyone would agree that the worst time to pitch is just before the print deadline.

All hands on deck
When the paper or magazine is about to go to press, it’s usually all hands on deck, fairly intense and there can often be a state of blind panic. So if you know which day of the week or date in the month press day is, don’t pitch then. Pitch a day or two afterwards when the ship has sailed.

Instant response
The other thing I try and do is to try and pitch when the editor is likely to be at their desk. This is purely because I know what I’m like – I’ll often respond to an e-mail straight away if it provides an opportunity to distract myself from what I am supposed to be doing.

E-mail backlog
An especially good time is when the editor is clearing the backlog of e-mails that have arrived since the end of the previous working day. Send then, and yours goes to the top. If not during, then just after is a good time – it’s still fresh, and the mind is still in response mode before starting to tackle meatier matters.

Monday, 3 November 2008

#55 – Why specially formatted sections are the easy way in

Or supply and demand for regular slots.

Too many stories
The editor of one of my outlets usually has more than enough stories to fill her travel section with. She could probably fill it four or five times over every week, even though there’s a high pagination. Understandably, therefore, it is not really in her interests to put out appeals for yet more stories.

Pleading e-mail
Relatively frequently, however, I will get a pleading e-mail from her. She’ll want to know whether I have any stories that fit a particular slot in the paper. This slot is around 700 words long, and is in an identifiably structured format.

Written specifically for the slot
This format means that there isn’t much flexibility with any articles going in that slot. Realistically, they have to be written specifically for that slot. And that’s probably why she’s always short of pieces to fill it with.

Supply and demand
Most of the articles she’ll be sent are the ones we all enjoy writing – travel narratives in an essay-style format. And I’m sure this applies equally to other magazines and newspaper travel sections. Logic dictates, therefore, that these specially formatted slots are the easy way in. There is less competition; supply and demand.

Same structure
Most magazines and newspapers have such slots (often called departments in the United States). To anyone who has read more than one copy of the publication, these sections are easily identifiable - they follow the same structure every issue.

Lack of competition

And due to the lack of competition, a pitch aimed at that slot or department is more likely to get the editor’s attention. Craft a pitch specially designed for that slot, put the name of the slot in the e-mail subject heading and make sure you highlight why your idea is good for that slot – not just the publication as a whole.

Breaking into new publications
In the past, I have found this an excellent way of breaking into new publications. Editors who have ignored rafts of e-mails suddenly become responsive, and in one instance I’ve ended up taking over that slot as my own regular gig.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

#54 – Finding free wireless internet in airports

Or sneakily hunting for unsecured networks.

Attitudes to internet access
Airports all over the world have remarkably different attitudes towards internet access. Some are great, and provide free wireless access for all. At the other end of the scale, there are Scrooge-like luddites with a couple of violently expensive computer terminals that have to be operated by coin and are disgracefully slow.
Let’s put it this way, if your only option is to pour money into a box operated by Spectrum Interactive, don’t bother.

Expensive wi-fi connection
The mildly unhappy medium at most airports seems to be a couple of paid-for terminals, plus an expensive wi-fi connection that anyone can access, providing that they’re prepared to dig out their credit card. Prices vary wildly, but sometimes this can be outrageously costly.

Security settings
When this is the case, it’s sometimes an idea to get a bit sneaky. Many shops, bars and restaurants within the airport have their own wireless networks. And sometimes they’re stupid enough to not put any security settings on them.
It’s always worth having a look at the list of available networks and checking out if any are unsecured. If one is, trying clicking on it – you may well get free wireless access.

Greetings from Panama
This post, by the way, was written and uploaded courtesy of the lovely chaps at the Lacoste shop in Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. Very good of them to leave their private network unsecured.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

#53 – Why editors don’t respond to your e-mails

Or the quest for acknowledgement.

Lack of acknowledgement from editors
One of the most painful aspects of being a freelancer is that often editors will not even acknowledge your pitch. It may the greatest idea in the world, and you may be just the person to write it, but that response just won’t come back. The bastards.

From the writer’s perspective, this can be immensely frustrating. Perversely, a rejection often feels better than no response at all – at least the editor has acknowledged you exist.

Editor’s perspective
But from an editor’s perspective, it is virtually impossible to respond to every pitch. Put simply, editors are usually bombarded by pitches from well-meaning freelancers. They may start out with the intention of responding to every enquiry, but such a policy is incredibly difficult to maintain.

Sheer weight of bad pitches
As I’ve said before, often your competition in this game is not the really good freelance writers, but the sheer weight of bad ones. When an editor is besieged with enquiries, he or she will justifiably assume that most of them are rubbish. The query stockpile will be glossed over at best, and ignored at worst.

Supply and demand
Unless your name is already known to the editor (through previous work for them or from elsewhere), or you get lucky, your pitch is unlikely to get the attention it possibly deserves. The editor is not the one to blame for this – it’s pure supply and demand. And this is why it is best to follow up a pitch a few weeks later.