Process: Writing

I am not a newspaper journalist. I have no affiliation with a newspaper group nor am I aiming for one. I’ve no interest in work that requires me to skim-read about a topic, interview someone for ten minutes and write the story the same day. One reason why sex work is so poorly served by the media is that journalists today are under immense pressure to tell a story and do so quickly. That’s why they resort to stereotypes; stereotypes communicate information – usually the wrong information – quickly. 

The way I work is different from a journalist and I think of it more in terms of documentary photography as it’s generally more collaborative and long-term. For instance, a journalist won't share first drafts with their subjects because they don’t have time. I share first drafts if I think the people I’m working with have something to lose: if you are making yourself vulnerable by sharing your story, you deserve the opportunity to see the context in which it will be told. I try to make decisions around this based on power. If you have no access to the media and no way of telling your story I think you are due more involvement in the process than an organisation with a PR department and long-standing relationships with journalists and editors. 

a duty of care to them but also to their autonomy

I also spend more time trying to understand the perspectives of the people I talk to, and do my best to develop relationships with them that lead to longer-term projects. Because people sacrifice time and also because they take a risk in me telling their story I feel a responsibility towards them that is more than just sharing their story accurately. It's hard to put into words exactly but the closest I can get is that it's a duty of care to them but also to their autonomy.  I involve them in the process as much as I can.

Pitches

The hardest part of freelance writing is not the writing, but the pitching. To get an article published you don’t submit the article complete; instead, you submit a query – or pitch – to see if an editor might be interested in publishing your article before you write it. A pitch summarises the story, says why it might be of interest to the readers of that publication, and verifies that you have access to sources and that your sources agree to you using any interviews. When contacting editors I haven’t worked with before, I also include things like my previous writing credits and why I’m interested in the topic I am writing about. 

Part of pitching is showing the editor that you have read their publication. Magazines have different sections for features, opinion pieces and general news. You have to be familiar with the different sections of the publication by name, so that you can say where you think your piece should be included. 

Timing is also significant; if something is topical it’s more likely to get published. Most media organisations have editorial calendars that they use to plan the year ahead; they schedule articles months or even years in advance. As an example, the Prostitution Reform Act in New Zealand was introduced in 2003, so we can expect to see features coming up in 2023 as its 20th-anniversary approaches. Seasons are also a factor: Christmas is a notoriously slow period as Parliament is not sitting and the content of magazines and newspapers changes as a result.

Pitches are particularly frustrating to write because each one is tailored to a particular newspaper or magazine, and the same article should not be pitched to multiple outlets – editors want unique stories, not cut-and-paste repetitions of the same content. The time between an interview and a pitch for me currently is usually a minimum of a few weeks because I have to balance work with my day job. Editorial calendars and the depth required by some projects can extend that to months or years. That’s frustrating not only for me, but for the people I work with, and one mistake I have made in the past is not clearly stating this upfront.

Follow-Up

Once a pitch has been made to an editor, there is always a delay in hearing back. If I don’t hear back from an editor and I think that the pitch should have been accepted because it fits with the magazine I’ll always – always – follow up and either email or phone the editor. The first time I got something published in a magazine was because I did just that. The editor had seen my pitch, but was busy and forgot to mail me. When I phoned him he remembered and said ‘Yeah, sure.’ 

Rejection

Rejections happen for many reasons. A similar story may have run in the magazine recently or run in a rival publication (but you should know this from reading the publication and not pitch it in the first place). It may not fit with the publication, the editor may not think that the piece would be of interest to readers or they may disagree with the intent of the piece. They may just not like your writing.

Until you’ve worked with an editor regularly there’s a much greater chance of rejection. If they don’t know who you are, they are taking a risk on something unknown. Once you have worked with someone, they develop trust in you and are much more likely to work with you. That’s why pitching – and particularly pitching to a new editor – is really hard.   

Rejection, however, is one of the things that builds up resilience and that’s a big part of working in a creative field.

Writing

Writing, ironically, is only a small part of all of this. Someone told me recently that writing is like editing a video – it’s uncannily true. A one-hour interview can be around 2-3,000 transcribed words. Most of the pieces I work on are between 750–1,500 words. So cutting words up, reordering them and trying to find a way to make them flow in a coherent way is exactly like editing a video. You are continuously moving things around and trying to listen to them afresh.

Most magazines or newspapers have contributor guidelines - the Guardian, for instance, has a dedicated Style Guide and Freelancer’s Charter – explaining grammar, style, expected image format and so on. With writing, you are aiming for a first draft that you can submit. I work on the laptop for most of that, but I always print, read and edit on paper.

Accuracy

Accuracy and attribution are probably the most time-consuming aspects of writing, and particularly when writing about sex work. It’s a controversial topic, and many people will use statistics to argue against the decriminalisation of sex work. A prominent example is the frequently quoted statistic that says the average age of entry into sex work is 13. It sounds dramatic, but it’s wrong. It’s based on actual academic research that was conducted on a survey of children. Children, not adults; so how could the average age not be skewed? The importance of accuracy when writing about sex work is one thing I have learned from activists; that’s why when a sex work activist says ‘evidence-based’ you can be pretty sure they’ve done their research. Yes, I did stuff up the age of consent in NZ in my first article, but there’s a story behind that . . .

Editors

Editors work with you to refine a first draft: restructuring it, verifying accuracy and checking spelling and grammar. Not all editors understand the nuances of working on topics like sex work. I am very careful that any revisions use the correct language and that they do not do harm to the community I am working with. At no point do I share with editors the original transcriptions, details of sources, or anything that would breach confidentiality.

Drafts and Revisions

After an article has been submitted as a first draft, an editor will usually come back with an edited second or final draft prior to publishing.

Editors and sub-editors always change your content. The #1 thing they will change is the title, but they will also format text and check for grammar, and good editors are interested in attribution. They want to know that what you say is backed up by research or that it can be verified;  good writing contains references to original sources. A good editor should already have enough familiarity with some of the topics you are writing about to know when to ask you to back up what you are saying; this is done through the revision process.

Publication

If I get something published I’ll always tell the people I’ve worked with that it’s been published and send them a link so they can read and share it. 

But you interviewed me! Where’s my story?

I’ve interviewed a number of people in New Zealand and because I have so much content I’m in the process of drip-feeding articles with a New Zealand perspective over the next year or so. Some interviews may not appear for many months and some may not appear at all. There are multiple reasons for that, as pitching means being strategic. Sometimes external events will make a story more relevant than it would previously have been.

Every single conversation I have is valuable. It may be that we talk about something that will inform other work that I do, even if it does not lead to a magazine article.