Words by Bec Fleming, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
The workshop begins with a simple question, Benjamin Law asks us to name three publications we regularly read. It sounds easy, but I panic, like I’m on some kind of quiz show and about to be declared the weakest link. I don’t read anything my brain convinces me. Ben gives us a moment to think, my brain unfreezes and I remember I do read things. I write down Her Canberra, The Big Issue and Wartime. As each person names their favourite publications we begin to build a list. Soon enough our list builds to more than twenty publications and Ben sets a new challenge, list ten things you are an expert in. Cue panic. I’m not an expert in anything. I think about for a moment and write down Korean War nurses. I did a PhD on this topic, surely I can claim expertise in this. Then, the ink in the pen seems to dry. I know nothing else. I tentatively write down Buffy and 80s cartoon theme songs. This, I think, is a disappointing sum of knowledge. But Ben gives us time, slowly I manage to fill my page with ideas.
The next stage is to write down things we know little about that interest us. The word ‘shipwrecks’ appears on my page. Living in rural Australia. The others in the group share their ideas, again the whiteboard is filled with more than twenty topics. The next step is to match the ideas to the publications, the most obvious publication for an idea and the least obvious. This is when something really interesting happens. The most incongruous matches seem to make for the most interesting articles. An article about engineering in Dolly, for instance. How might this work? Successful female engineers and why they chose the industry, could be a good fit in the careers section.
This is how Ben taught ideas generation. He scaffolded the brainstorming process. I look at my page and some of the topics aren’t great, but there are one or two I really like. This, I finally realise, is the point of brainstorming. Moving past the evil voice that tells me I don’t read and I know nothing and letting the creativity flow. I’m not looking for ten good ideas, just one or two among the ten.
If that was all I took from Ben’s workshop it would have been enough, but it was only the beginning. Throughout the course of the day we covered the process of pitching, planning and research, structure and craft, invoicing and management and time management. It was beautifully structured in a step by step process. Ben teaches as he writes, in an accessible, practical and engaging way. The notes in this post do little to cover the extent of the topic covered, but provide a highlight of some of the tips I found particularly useful.
On the topic of pitching Ben advises that an introduction email to an editor should include:
- Links to your previous publications, or if you haven’t been published before, an article ‘on spec’ to demonstrate you can write to the appropriate standard and tone.
- A brief note on what you enjoy about the publication, which demonstrates you know their product.
- A signature block which includes your name, website (if you have one), mobile number and email address.
- You can also ask for the publication and pitch schedule, to help ensure your submission doesn’t get lost on a really busy day.
- It should address the editor by name – if you can’t do enough research to find out the editor’s name, they will probably be unimpressed with your research skills.
The discussion on structure was equally enlightening. Working through the first paragraph of a number of different articles Ben identified a number of different types of beginnings including:
- a dramatic anecdote;
- reflective summary;
- a descriptive scene;
- a fish out of water scenario;
- an experiment;
- ‘in your shoes’ scenario.
This is something we as readers recognise intuitively but it is a good thing to be consciously aware of as a writer. Further discussion followed on writing the middle and conclusions. Ben summed it all up by quoting Ira Glass, an article should include “action, action, action, reflective thought.”
The invoicing and management component could be a workshop in itself. Some top pieces of advice in this section included:
- Get a specialist arts accountant.
- Get an Australian Business Number, or half your income will be withheld.
- Know your pay rates before you start writing, if the editor doesn’t mention it, ask.
- Expensify is a useful app for keeping track of receipts and expenses.
This brief summary can not to justice to the lessons Ben had to share. He is a generous and engaging speaker who in one day managed to demystify the freelance writing business and make it seem far less intimidating.
Bec Fleming is a Canberra based writer, historian and poet. She graduated with a PhD in history from the University of New England in 2010. She has spoken at the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian War Memorial and for the ABC program Now Hear This. Her poem ‘An untimely death’ was shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Thwaites poetry award. She has loved words for as long as she can remember and thinks it is a little bit magic when they line themselves up in just the right order.
This workshop was held at ACTWC Saturday 1 November. It was made possible by the support of the Australia Council for the Arts in collaboration with the national network of State and Territory Writers Centres.