The first workshop: A success!

DajiaChastityArch1I was a little nervous ahead of Sunday’s workshop. Even though I’ve lots of teaching experience, and since the spring I’ve been making cross-cultural presentations to senior executives at least once a month, I wasn’t quite sure how the material I’d prepared would go down with the seven men and two women who’d given up half their weekend (not to mention a chunk of cash) to listen and learn. Would the 16 pages of advice about how to devise ideas for articles and approach editors be far too little to fill the time? Or would it be so much I’d find myself rushing through it, leaving everyone overwhelmed while wearing myself out?

As it turned out, it was just about right. In large part, this was because those attending posed several interesting questions, made a lot of useful suggestions, and shared some amusing anecdotes. (I was hoping for all of these things).

It was a good mix of people. The youngest person was less than half the age of the oldest; we had a technical writer, a writer of marketing materials, two translators (one of whom has done quite a bit of freelancing in the past, but admits to being “very rusty”), and people who do other interesting jobs. At least two attendees were obviously far more Web-savvy than me, and made sound points when we talked about writing for online-only publications. Nobody rolled their eyes when I said “persistence” for the tenth or eleventh time; a slow-burning determination to succeed is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed as a writer. So is reliability. Hopefully, those who attended the workshop now have a better idea how to proceed; I’ll be following their progress with great interest.

Questions people are asking me…

Are you really going to reveal the secrets of your trade? If so, don’t you worry those who attend will take your work? If you’re not worried about this, surely it means you’re not providing anything of value?

My answers are yes, no and no. I reckon some of the people who attend the workshop will leave Taiwan in the next few years. If they go into freelance writing, it’ll be in their home countries. Of course, if they all stay in Taiwan and specialize in the niches I write about, then I’ll face some competition. However, it does takes a while to be fully trusted by editors, and I’ll always have several years’ more experience than they do.

10 x NT$2,400 = NT$24,000. That’s a lot of money for a day’s work.

NT$24,000 would be good money for a day’s work, but out of that I need to pay travel and venue expenses. Also, preparing for this workshop took perhaps 15 hours spread over a few weeks. When you get your hands on the outline – which is almost 4,000 words long – you’ll see the amount of detail I’m providing. Also, this workshop is very inexpensive compared to many you’ll find advertised on the Internet.

I can’t attend the workshop but I’m interested. Can you email me the outline?

I can sell it to you. But I do urge anyone interested to attend the workshop. The outline is merely an outline; we’ll do a lot of discussing and brainstorming, and I expect everyone will go home with a pile of notes and a brainful of ideas. If there’s enough interest, I’ll organize a second workshop at a later date.

Can you tell us how much you really make from travel writing?

That’s between me and the tax man. Also, I don’t distinguish between travel writing and other forms of writing; it’s all paid work. Very few people around the world make a living entirely from travel writing or blogging; if you write about Taiwan travel only, it’s probably impossible. Every travel writer will tell you there’s no way you’ll get rich doing this, but you can have a lot of fun, and if you grab the opportunities that are likely to come along, it can lead to decent overall income.

If you go to my blog, you’ll see links to most of what’s been published with my byline since 2008. So far in 2015, the most I earned for a single article is US$700. The lowest is US$175. I got a Taiwan-Poland-UK air ticket (and some money) for one job. Other freebies included hotel stays, meals, train tickets etc.

If I’m offered work that pays less than around US$150, I tend to turn it down unless (a) it’s a subject I’m truly passionate about, or (b) it’s something I can write in less than half a day, by recycling/updating a previous article.

My non-byline writing isn’t on the blog. Some of it is for tour companies that want Tpuppetaiwan content for their websites. I also write advertorials, press releases and other marketing materials. If your byline starts to appear regularly, you’ll likely be offered non-byline writing, and also non-writing work such as editing and consulting. I’ll talk a bit about these opportunities at the workshop.

What do you enjoy most about writing travel and feature articles?

In the movie Almost Famous a musician is asked “What do you love about music?” and answers, “To begin with… everything.” I’m the same. I love coming up with ideas for articles, whether they come out of nowhere and hit me while I’m riding my bike, or emerge while brainstorming with Rich J. Matheson (a photographer I often work with). Getting an email from an editor asking if I’d like to write about a particular subject is always flattering. I love how much I learn while researching an article. And I love, to quote Hemingway, “Getting the words right.”

What are the downsides?

Occasionally people promise to provide information or to answer questions by email, but then they fall off the face of the Earth. When you write for a publication for the first time, you often need to wait three months or longer for your money. But once your details are in their payment system, it’s much quicker.

I’m not interested in writing short articles, but I’d love to write a book-length travel narrative or a guidebook. What’s your advice?

Good luck with that. If you can convince a publisher of your expertise regarding a country or region, you may just be able to get a guidebook contract, but it’ll be much easier if you have a string of articles to your name. Evidence you can write and deliver counts for a great deal.

Taichung: Sunday, December 6

The first travel writing/freelance writing workshop will be held on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at Happen, a co-working space in central Taichung. I’ll (Who am I?) use the day-long session to explain in detail – and provide examples – how to come up with good ideas for articles, pitch those ideas to magazines and other outlets, and then write the actual articles. I’ll also discuss various sidelines (some quite lucrative) which freelance writing has helped me develop.


On the subject of way to supplement your main income, this article by Roman Krznaric argues hyperspecialization isn’t necessarily the best way to find satisfaction in your work. Many people, he says feel, “it makes more sense to embrace the idea of being a ‘wide achiever’ rather than a high achiever. Take inspiration from Renaissance generalists like Leonardo da Vinci who would paint one day, then do some mechanical engineering, followed by a few anatomy experiments on the weekend. Today this is called being a ‘portfolio worker’, doing several jobs simultaneously and often freelance. Management thinker Charles Handy says this is not just a good way of spreading risk in an insecure job market, but is an extraordinary opportunity made possible by the rise of flexible working: ‘For the first time in the human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance.’”

Very few of us have talents comparable to da Vinci, for sure, but freelance writing is an excellent way to both indulge and leverage your passion for subjects which may or may not be connected to your day job.

Why now?

Over the past decade or so, several individuals have asked me how I’m able to consistently sell articles to newspapers, magazines, websites and other clients. Some are simply curious, but others have expressed good-natured envy, saying what I do for a living seems much more interesting than what they do. (They might be right: freelance writing is often fascinating.)

Wutai Art Street

Sometimes I’ve refused to answer their questions. I’ve been too busy, and I’ve thought to myself: “Why should I share professional knowledge which has taken me years to accumulate, to a person who may use it to compete against me?”

When people have said they’re willing to pay me to mentor them while they launch their freelance-writing career, I’ve been tempted, but in the end have held back. I didn’t want to invest time in writing detailed advice about how to come up with fresh ideas for new articles, pitch those ideas to editors, and so on. Writing about sustainable architecture, or the efforts of aboriginal campaigners who are trying to revive a language no one has spoken for well over a century, just seemed much more my cup of tea.

Also, I’ve been reluctant to ask for the kind of money I believe my help is worth. These days, I seldom earn less than US$400 for an article. I reckon that if I spent two full days teaching someone how to do the same, I’d deserve a sum far closer to four figures than three.

What’s changed? An opportunity has come up to teach travel writing and freelance writing at a three-day workshop in Cambodia next year. I’ve begun preparing for that event, and I’m pretty confident about the outline I’ve written. I think I’ve covered all the important topics, and have chosen some good examples to instruct and inspire. But before Cambodia, I’d like to road-test and refine the material. That’s why I’m offering this workshop.

Who am I?


My name is Steven Crook. I was born in 1969 and grew up in the UK. I studied Law at university. Starting in a few weeks, I’ll be teaching people how to get started in freelance features writing and related fields.

Before reaching my teens I nurtured hopes of becoming a writer, but I didn’t do anything to turn this ambition into reality until I was well into my twenties and teaching English in Taiwan. Since 1996 I’ve written well over 700 articles for paying publications; the number of articles I’ve done for free can be counted on one hand. My byline has appeared in CNN Traveller Asia-Pacific, Christian Science Monitor, International Herald-Tribune, Journeys, the inflight magazines of several airlines and other outlets.

I’m an occasional contributor to the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper) as well as Taiwan government publications. I’ve worked as a newspaper copyeditor and a magazine managing editor (this involved everything from commissioning and editing articles to selling advertising to solving distribution issues). I’ve helped fiction and nonfiction authors complete book projects. And in the past two years I’ve taken on commissions to write about Taipei’s whiskey bars, the ancient Polish city of Krakow, the world’s leading vegetable research center, Chinese traditional foot massage, and other topics. My books include Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide. After the publication of the second edition of the guide, New York Times asked me to comment on the growth of environmentalism in Taiwan.