I found Laura Barnett by her review of Fifty Shades of Grey for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. I was looking for a literary critic to help me improve my reading diet (which has lately contained unhealthy levels of detective wizards).Turned out, Laura only reviews fanfiction-turned-mommy-porn when she isn’t attending London theatre, hanging out backstage at rock concerts, or drafting her novel.
As a freelance writer, she’s on London editors’ short lists when it’s time to give out the review tickets and backstage passes, from videogame-inspired interpretive dance to poet-comedians with Viking beards. I asked her how a rookie might make a career shift from, I don’t know, promo copy for Minnesota quilt shops into hanging around with Lorde.*
*Who, apparently, is from New Zealand, and also not the same person as Adele. (I’m not a music guy.)
Step 1: Don’t be an expert
Or at least, don’t make being an expert the hill to die on. In fact, Laura got into journalism after uni (college for Brits) because she didn’t feel like she knew much about anything in particular. “I thought, ‘I know I want to write full time, but I don’t necessarily have enough life experience to go and sit and write in a room…I’m only 21. I haven’t lived.’”
Laura has worked on both sides of the editor’s desk since then. She said the Roger Eberts and [note: Google a famous music critic]s earn their positions with loyalty and years of service as much than their ability to name the year of each [note: ask dad for an old indy rocker] album. “To be a critic is almost an honorary,” she explained. “But to write a good arts feature, you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be someone who’s curious and likes doing the research.”
In the arts niche, indy grunge music sits next to classical ballet. People don’t hire you because you knows things, but because you’re good at asking questions and finding things out. After all, if you’re confused, odds are your audience will be too: “You’re basically asking questions on behalf of the reader, because your role is to stand between the reader and the artists.”
[note: Wikipedia more music references so people think I listen to cool bands instead of audiobooks about PI wizards]
Be nice to industry folk
“It’s a shame really. I think back in the 60’s and 70’s…the great writers like Joan Dideon, Tom Wolf, all those Gonzo journalists, they would have just called up whoever and rolled with them for a week and written a couple articles for Rolling Stone.”
Alas, these days the key to the artist’s trailer is usually in the hands of an ensemble of PR professionals and marketing campaigns. If you’re new to the game: “I would say just call people up; suggest a coffee with the PR. Say you would like to interview this director or playwright, that you would like to pitch it to this publication. Just kind of cultivate it. A lot are really young and fun themselves.”
Rapport is important. PR’s want writers they can trust not make their clients look awful – or, worse, boring – in the press, and if you do things right, eventually they’ll be the ones sending the emails.
Not that writers ought to become PR’s themselves. “They understand that you’re always going to be true to what you feel about the artist/work, not just blindly peddle a line about them,” Laura explained. Publicists don’t want to deal with a media bootlicker for the same reason they don’t want a tabloid hack: If they’re working with professionalism, they’ll expect you to do the same.
“All the pubs are going to want to go fist; they’re going to want to have the biggest and best piece. You want to be at the stage where the PR is thinking of you just as much as the editor is thinking of you, so all roads lead to you.”
Earning your knocks in the newsroom is a common theme with the writers I’ve been speaking with. (Something I sometimes wish I had discovered before I quit my own newsroom gig.) Laura is no exception: She got her start writing free theatre reviews for a communist publication called The Morning Star, then went to work for the Daily Telegraph before landing somewhere in the middle as an arts editor with The Guardian.
I asked her if there’s any hope for rookies trying to build a network of arts editors and PR staff from scratch. Her answer was yes, but (shocking surprise) it’s slow starting.
The rookie’s main concerns:
- Keeping an eye on the artists, companies, producers and other happenings in your market.
- In that mess, spotting possible stories.
- Selling them.
The first, again, is a matter of paying attention.
As for finding stories, while editors keep established writers like Laura in the wings for straight arts coverage, rookies pitches need to bring something extra to the potluck: “Obviously a newspaper involves new things,” she said. “You need it to be quirky or interesting, grabby, possibly topical. And then you want to explain as best you can why you are the person to write this piece.”
So, don’t pitch an new hip-hop group, pitch how they’ll change the scene when they get discovered. Don’t pitch a playwright, pitch how his style as changed since he moved from Philadelphia.
As for pitching, writing, submitting: Our sage has seen it from both sides, but I’m going to save her wisdom on pitching-writing-networking for another post. For now: “If you show [editors] that you’re a good writer who can do your research and spend time mugging up on this subject, then you’ll be fine. But, yeah, obviously you don’t want to make any massive clangers. You don’t want to do is just pitch an interview with someone and not explain why they’re worth interviewing.”
(The true value of this advice: Reminding us of the phrases “mugging up” and “dropping a clanger.”)