I write features, not news

At 3.57 on the morning of Saturday, February 6, a magnitude-6.4 earthquake struck southern Taiwan. My wife, son and I were shaken awake. It was a scary tremor, for sure, but almost immediately I sensed our lives weren’t in danger; the ceiling wasn’t about to crash down on our heads. The power was out (and would stay out for ten hours), so I grabbed a flashlight and started inspecting the house for cracks. I found none, but downstairs a drinking glass had rolled off the table and smashed on the floor. That was our only material loss. A few minutes later, we heard a neighbor saying their water tank had toppled over (many homes in Taiwan, including ours, have a stainless steel water tank on the roof). But within a few hours, it was clear many people had lost their homes, cars – or lives.Jpeg

I couldn’t get back to sleep. Within an hour, photos of earthquake destruction began appearing on social media. We own three properties in the Tainan area, and because it was necessary to inspect them for earthquake damage, I left our house soon after dawn, walking into Xinhua so I could catch a bus. (Normally, I’d ride a motorcycle or bicycle, but the power outage meant we couldn’t open our garage.) I detoured to see the local King’s Town Bank branch; the first two floors had collapsed and what remained was listing. Fortunately, the upper floors were unoccupied at the time of the quake, so no one was trapped inside. In addition to police making sure no one got too close, there was a military police unit with rifles, just in case someone decided to excavate the bank’s vaults.

I posted a few photos on Facebook, and within 10 minutes received this message from a photographer I know. He used to work in Taipei, but is now based in Hong Kong:

I just saw your quake photos. Do you have high quality jpgs you could send us? We pay.

This turned out to be the first of three requests to provide images or video footage of the disaster. Over the next 24 hours, I also got three requests to do Skype or telephone interviews about the quake (from New York, Moscow and an online outfit that didn’t clearly identify itself).

Depending on who asked and how they phrased it, I either graciously turned down or totally ignored each and every invitation. I had enough on my plate: There were toppled bookcases to be righted, cupboard contents to be picked up, and chips of paint to be swept up. But the key reason was a simple lack of desire.

It was flattering to be asked, but only slightly. Of English-language reporters/writers based in Taiwan, no one was better located than me to cover the consequences of the earthquake. Our home is just 2.4 km from the King’s Town Bank building. My office is 3.4 km south of where Weiguan Apartment Building crashed over (pictured here; 115 people inside were killed), and just 800 m from a three-story residential building where the first floor gave way, spectacularly crushing three parked cars but hurting no one.

This wasn’t so much a refusal to “feed the beast” (I’m part of the beast, after all), but the certainty I had little to offer. I could give an interviewer a mundane account of the event, but no real insights. A broken glass and no electricity is hardly newsworthy. Days later, I came up with a semi-satisfactory simile: Experiencing a strong earthquake is like being on a rattling, shuddering train as it rushes down a hill; you realize the brakes don’t work, and you’ve no idea if you’ll survive the curve you’re hurtling towards.

The idea of standing amid traumatized relatives and neighbors, perhaps getting in the way of rescue workers, holds no appeal. The fifteen minutes I spent at the remnants of Weiguan Apartment Building were enough. The day reinforced what I’ve long known: I’m a features writer, not a news guy. I like to explore shifts and trends. I’m intrigued by what is happening, not what’s just happened. I like to think the articles I write have a longish lifespan – a few months at least, perhaps even a year or two.

I wasn’t the only person approached by overseas media, of course. Klaus Bardenhagen, a German reporter who’s been based in Taipei for six years, gave some telephone interviews, while making it clear to everyone he was no nearer than Taichung (about 150 km away) during the quake and its aftermath, and that all his knowledge came local media channels.

I agreed wholeheartedly when he later told me: “Post-disaster reporting is often some of the most unnecessary journalism imaginable. Basically, everyone knows the situation. Constant updates don’t provide greater understanding. You take up time and space which could be used to report more pertinent news. Also, victims are bothered in the process. It’s all about emotional human stories. Media organizations think their audiences want more and more of it. It’s the journalistic equivalent of fast food. Easy to munch down, unhealthy – and you feel bad afterwards.”

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.

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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?

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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.