State of the Artless: Politics and Self Promotion among Literati Australia

As a general rule, I avoid writing about politics. After attending the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) 2015 National Writers’ Congress in Sydney over the weekend, I felt compelled to dip my ink into the ongoing political debate about the value of writers and their ongoing contribution to the Australian cultural and economic currency and climate.

At the Congress, ASA’s Chairman David Day expressed his “serious reservations” about $6million federal funding being reallocated from the Australia Council for the Arts to the recently formed Book Council of Australia headed by Chief Executive of Melbourne University Publishing Louise Adler.  Attorney-General and Arts Minister Senator Brandis acknowledged ASA’s discontent by attending the Writers’ Congress to reassure writers in a 15 minutes speech that he loves books, the Abbott Government loves books, and past Liberal Leaders’ love books.  Senator Brandis offered no detailed information about the Book Council, or how the Abbott Government will demonstrate their ‘love of books’ in terms of monetary incentive or support, but his speech reaffirmed that he is, simply, a very good politician.

Not to be outdone, Labor’s Shadow Attorney General and Minister for the Arts Mark Dreyfus predictably asserted Labor’s opposition to the Government’s decision to cut a total of $100 million from the Australia Council for the Arts and also expressed his love of books, his Leader’s love of books, and past Labor Leaders’ love of books… but again, offered no real policy position except a reversal of someone else’s policy position.

The Greens Federal Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt, offered a somewhat tepid push for changes to the criteria of claiming unemployment benefits for writers who are engaged in writing projects, but are not receiving current remuneration for their efforts (i.e. reducing compulsory job interviews for writers who claim unemployment benefits).  On the surface, this seems like a practical solution for many Australian writers whom ASA allegedly claims to make less than $11,000 a year from their writing endeavours, however, the message that this sends to the broader community about the value of writers’ contributions is grim – even if you’re a full-time freelance writer, you are still perceived to be unemployed – i.e. you don’t have a ‘real job’.

What is interesting about Political Leaders’ active engagement with writers at a less than 200 delegate Congress is that by their very presence, they acknowledge the importance of writers’ contributions to Australian politics, industry and intellectual capital in our country.  Indeed, the Book industry alone generates nearly two billion dollars per annum and we are told that due to new market opportunities in online environments, the future for writers’ earning opportunities is looking bright in Australia.

Understandably, income generation through writing dominated discussion, and, ASA’s choice of panelists at the Congress, reflected this very real and perpetual preoccupation of writers.  However, there was a very heavy bias of market opportunities only being available through print and online journalism, which is just untrue.  When I raised the point that ASA had excluded significant market opportunities for writers in the corporate sector, I was told that I belong to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, not ASA. I found this response by the Executive Director of ASA Angelo Loukakis as extraordinary, given the majority of panelists identified as online and print journalists, next to authors and illustrators.  Indeed, the MC for the Congress was respected and veteran journalist Anne Maria Nicholson.

I want to make it clear that this article is not intended to detract from the wonderful contributions and support ASA provides to the writing community, but rather, it is a caution for organisations to not forget what is at the heart of their cause – and in this case, it’s about writers – many of whom work across multiple sectors – not just print and online journalism.

To this end, this article is written by a writer for all writers, because sometimes the people we look to to champion our causes can sometimes get lost in their own rhetoric or vested interests to survive as an entity in itself.

Organisations like ASA rely on Government funding and they are needed and valuable – genuine, lasting cultural capital and change is often created and effected by the very people who don’t have access to funding, outside of Government grants.  What I am saying is that it’s really important for writers to be aware that there other avenues for writers to carve out a livelihood as a writer, instead of scrapping by on $11,000 in online and print journalism environments and agencies like ASA need to let writers know that there other, very lucrative options in the corporate sector.  There is plenty of work for writers in business development roles (writing bids and tenders), marketing communications (corporate magazines, press releases, white papers, speeches, feature articles) and corporate communications (content development for internal campaigns, collateral, magazines etc). Sometimes the role is not advertised as a writer, usually it falls under titles such as Communications Specialist, Tender Writer, and Internal Communications etc. Primarily, all of these roles are content development roles where you are being paid to write and edit – everyday.

To give you a general comparison, a tertiary qualified Feature Editor with ten years’ experience at a major print title will be paid approximately $80-$90,000 per year. These roles are highly competitive and few and far between in Australia.  A tertiary qualified Bid Writer, with ten years’ experience can earn up to $150,000 per year, and there is so much more stable employment opportunities in the corporate sector for writers than in print and online journalism.

Author and Journalist David Marr suggested at the Congress that if you can’t get funding to write your great novel then consider stacking shelves to support your creative writing projects. This is extreme advice and highly unhelpful for emerging writers.  Writers write for the love of writing. Every writer will tell you that it is a compulsion to write. It doesn’t matter what we write, we want opportunities that enable us to write. Like any craft, writing is no exception and the more you do it, the better you become in your craft.  You will never become a great writer by stacking shelves. Greatness comes from practise – and lots of it – in every discipline.

It seems that if ASA has deliberately excluded market opportunities for writers in the corporate sector because of its own politics around securing grants and government funding (i.e. statistics on writers’ incomes) then it is a sad day indeed for writers in Australia.

There are two other important considerations for writers to help elevate our standing and cause to be valued as professionals offering professional services. One, the standard practise of journalists charging out writing services at ten cents a word is antiquated and impacts future potential for greater earning. If we are valuing each word by decimal, instead of hourly, half-day or full day blocks, we will never be valued as professionals.  Fellow writers, if you are tertiary qualified and have five or more years proven experience, you can charge between $80 – $120 per hour for copywriting services, and corporates who require bid writers for major strategic tenders will not blink to pay between $600 – $1,000 per day for writers who sit at the sharp end of our profession.

Secondly, on the subject of professional standards, I was personally dismayed by ASA’s decision to host a particular panelist as an ‘aspirational’ example for writers wanting to crack the online environment at the Writers’ Congress. Without naming names, it doesn’t help the cause of writers to be valued as professionals, and therefore being remunerated as professionals when organisations like ASA elevate people in our industry who make a career out of slandering public figures and then complain about being slandered themselves. That is not an aspirational career pathway for writers.  When major publications employ ‘columnists’ whom have no formal qualifications as a writer and do not practice basic professional standards, but offer ‘shock value’ instead, it sends the wrong message to the marketplace and, ultimately undermines the cause of all writers – which is to be valued and respected as true professionals, with something meaningful to say.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Plug Proper Press Releases to Publishers

Like all genres and styles of writing, each mode has its own convention, or what is generally considered as best practice. Here’s a few winning tips to help your Media Release be picked up for the Afternoon Edition or that trade publication your client has been dying to get free press in…

By submitting a polished, press-quality Media Release (MR), your chances of being picked up greatly increases. This can be boiled down to a few reasons:

Most writers have experienced just how stingy print publishers can be and frankly, it’s not their fault. Print Publishers (unless you’re the Editor of US Vogue) run on a fairly low margin and with the Accountant breathing down their necks, they are always looking for ways to save a dollar. As Publishers will have few paid Journalists and Subeditors on staff, most of what you and I read are submitted by freelance writers. Publishers love to receive press-quality MRs because they don’t have to allocate manpower to tidy up the story.

Secondly, and most importantly for your client, your primary intention should be to submit an MR with very targeted key messages, so if a subbie has to hack through your MR to make it press ready, you run the risk of your client’s key messages not being received as intended.

Also, as Journalists are underpaid and overworked (freebie from companies plugging their goods just doesn’t pay the rent) they embrace press quality MRs because it means they can submit your work, with their byline, without having to do any work – so it’s a win-win deal all round.

My top tips for writing a winning MR:

  1. Ask yourself – who is my audience? Make sure your writing style reflects the style of publication
  2. Ask yourself – what is the purpose of this MR? What do you want the audience to do or think after they have read your MR? In other words, how do you want to ‘position’ the reader? By asking yourself these questions, it will help you filter out any content that is not on message.
  3. Headings should never be more than six words. Use narrative devices such as alliteration, consonance and assonance to help your MR stand out.
  4. Slugs will sell your article. You have one or two sentences to hook your audience in – and to encapsulate what your story is about.
  5. Do not ask a rhetorical question in the Heading or Slug
  6. Do not start with a quote in the Heading or Slug
  7. Do not start with numbers or dates in the Heading or Slug
  8. The body of your MR should be in order of priority of information. Think of a reverse pyramid and write the most important information in the first three paragraphs. This is because the subbie may need to cut out words to make space on a page layout, and they will cut your MR from the bottom up.
  9. The first paragraph needs to include details on who, what, where, how, when and why.
  10. Use present tense instead of past tense. This helps your Media Release to feel relevant and gives it a sense of immediacy – which is what you want in a news story.
  11. Introduce subjects as Position Title / Name first and any subsequent mentions with last name only.
  12. Use short paragraphs and simple sentences.
  13. Highlight what you think is the best grab in the article and italicize/bold it. This is a subtle way to suggest to the publisher what should be a pullout grab, without telling them how to suck eggs.
  14. Most importantly, always submit two high resolution images with your MR and a photo caption.
  15. At the end of your MR, make sure the publisher has your details to contact for further information if they want to flesh out your MR into an extended feature article.

Lastly, when you submit your MR, don’t just email it and hope for the best. Follow up with a phone call to the features editor and introduce yourself and let them know what you’re sending through for their consideration.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

Wordsmith Jo