Friday, 28 August 2009

Will Gray Interview

As I'm trying to write for a living I thought it made sense to talk to someone who does so here's an interview with Will Gray. He writes across several genres (Sports, Travel, Technical, Lifestyle) for publications such as The Independent, FHM and Eurosport. To see Will's work and read some of his features go to

Did you do a journalism degree or related qualification?

No I didn’t. I did write for the University newspaper but I was doing a degree in aeronautical engineering for 4 years. At school I never knew which way to go, it was either going to be engineering or journalism, eventually deciding on the former. From ‘A’ levels and from University you can get a good knowledge of engineering and technical stuff and then write about it. That’s far easier than getting a good qualification in journalism and then trying to understand the technical side to write about it.

When you qualified which field did you initially go into?

Whilst I was at University I was working for Jordan GP in their aerodynamics dept and then realised that engineering wasn’t for me. Working for Jordan was a work placement as part of thhe degree, 10 weeks a year over 3 years. I enjoyed writing too much and enjoyed the interaction with people as a journalist more than we were getting as engineers. As an engineer I was going into the office in the morning, sitting in front of a computer, then going home at night having hardly spoken to anyone. I preferred getting out and meeting people. The good thing about journalism is it gives you a whole different variety of aspects to look at whereas with Jordan for example, we were focusing wholly on making that car that we had a little bit faster. As a journalist writing technically about F1 there’s a much bigger spectrum of things to write about, investigate and learn about which I find more interesting.

How did you make the jump into journalism full time?

For a nominal sum I started writing for a website. The sum was good for a University student at the time. I was at a good point with my degree because I would have had to do pretty terribly to get anywhere near to failing. So I could cruise the year to some extent and had more time to do writing. I did a 32 part series, (each part being 1000 words) on every technical aspect of an F1 car you could get. It was for which ultimately merged with, now one of the biggest motor-sport sites.

Did you write it or pitch it first?

Pitched the idea. I couldn’t have written that just for fun! It took a whole University holiday period researching and understanding bits that weren’t my specialist area. I pitched it, they liked it, we agreed on a fee and then we went forward. I was very fortunate. It’s not easy to get that opportunity. I was also writing to a bunch of different magazines and websites to see if they wanted specific technical writing. And I got another one which was for a magazine called F1 Sport International which lasted for a few years and I ended up being Deputy Editor there whilst I was still at University. Really it was because I offered something different (the technical angle) that made me stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of others that wanted to write about F1 and enabled me to get in there. That’s the thing that’s key, to have a unique selling point.

You mentioned that you were fortunate; do you think luck played a part?

I always think luck plays a part in everything but you make your own luck. If you don’t get out there you don’t get the chance to get that luck that might turn it for you. I got my placement at Jordan by getting out there and handing my CV to everyone in F1 paddocks and eventually got interviews with 2 of the team technical directors and got in that way. I was lucky to be there but once I was there I made the most of the opportunity.

You write for many different publications now. How did you expand your contacts list and start freelancing?

I started off with a journalist agency called Collings Sport which already had a bunch of contacts. The agency worked for every UK national. Once you have been published by some well known publications, commissioning Editors can see your experience and give you a chance. I got into travel firstly with Real Travel. They’d just launched and were looking for writers. I wrote to the right people and rang them up and got my first piece in there. I then went to Travel Weekly and said I write for Real Travel. They understood that I wrote for a magazine that was relatively selective and gave me a chance. When I pitch now I'm able to say that I have written for some well known publications. I’ve written for most of the nationals but haven’t written for them all for travel. But by being published you have proved that you can write to their style and the Editors liked you and then you have a stepping stone into the other sections.

Have you been affected by the credit crunch?

I had been working in a PR company for two years for Ford on UEFA Champions League Football Sponsorhip Activation and Land Rover on the G4 challenge adventure race. Both of those budgets got cut so I left in January. I rang up a few publications at that time and several told me that they had stopped taking any commissions from outside. A staffer I knew at the Times had been taken down from 4 days a week to 2 days a week. Straight away if a company does that they will feel obligated to put some work the way of that person if a story needs to be written. So yes there’s no question that reduced staffing levels and budget cuts have had an effect for freelancers. Magazines are trying to reduce their freelance rates but if freelance journalists stand up and say no then it will help.

What advice would you give someone who was trying to get into journalism or trying to become a writer now?

If we take travel journalism as an example its hard to stand out. Look at the way TV has gone. Five years ago Discovery would put on an extreme volcano programme, for example. Now everyone has seen something like that so they’re constantly trying to invent, get wilder and wilder. I went storm chasing in May and they’re constantly thinking of more and more dramatic storylines that can keep the viewers enticed. It’s the same thing with writing. When a big pool of writers exists you have to think differently and come up with unique angles to familiar subjects. There will always be a story on say, France or Chile in a travel section but its only if you can come up with something original that you’re onto a winner. Once you have that one commission with a decent title it will help to get published by the next one.

Last question: do you still enjoy it?

I love it. I did two years in PR and its not dissimilar to journalism, you’re just sitting on the other side. To my mind, PR needs a journalist’s knowledge to work, you need to know what journalists want. Coming back to journalism I’ve now got more variety in my work than I had when I was last a journalist because of the different things I’m specialising in. Its reminded me how much I love sitting down and writing a piece. There’s nothing more enjoyable than sitting down at the start of a day with a blank page and finish the day with something you’ve spent a while composing but you’re happy with and its going to give people enjoyment when they read it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hungover on a sunny day

The BBC says it might hit 30 degrees today.  Just time to keep my hand in with this blog before going out into the sunshine.  I'm meeting a mate in Kensington Gardens for lunch before heading over to the Daily Express building for a quick meeting with the Deputy Travel Editor Duncan Craig.  I met Duncan last year in an airship of all things.  At the time Stella Artois were taking journalists for flights over London in the hope that readers would want to travel out to Essex and take the flight themselves.

I've been pitching a trip to Bruges around with no luck.  Peter Carty let us know on our travel workshop that we would have to start at the bottom but the PR that invited me requires a solid promise of editorial content.  I'm lucky that Emma at Grifco PR seems to want to help me out and seems to be very much on my side.  There's a press day tomorrow so I'll be going along to that and trying to make as many contacts as I can.  It can get disheartening when people are not responding to your pitch but I cant really fall at the first hurdle now can I?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Travel Writing Workshop

Saturday at the Indian YMCA in Fitzroy Square at a travel writing workshop with Peter Carty, a freelance travel writer. I went more out of curiosity than an obsessive desire to be a travel writer and Peter revealed the path in a very orderly and knowledgeable fashion. For me the fun part was the challenges he set us. After his words on 'avoiding cliches' he asked us to write a description of a sunset/sunrise or view, scenes which often lead writers to trot out the same tired old phrases. Later, he challenged us to go and find a travel story at lunchtime that would fit on two sides of a blank postcard. Lastly, after we'd dissected a few pitches, we each had to write a pitch and have an 'editorial meeting' in small groups to select the one we wanted to commission. I hadn't been asked to produce writing at short notice and I enjoyed it because I felt that I could do it. It felt good to be equal to a challenge.

One of the things he spoke about was Commissioning Editors only replying to pitches they are interested in. Up until now (and documented on here) I have been taking offence at any non-reply, feeling that even a very busy person had time to write 'Not for me but thanks for your submission.' Peter pointed out that, as a Travel Editor, he would often receive up to 200 emails a day on top of the work he had to do and simply did not have the time to reply to everyone. It was the same when I was a Picture Editor when portfolios became electronic. Most portrait photographers can light and shoot a picture; the ones that stood out had a certain style or good ideas for the shot. I would receive plenty of punts, complete with the photographers website address, but would only get back to the very few whose talent stood out.

I took offence this week at the Travel Editor for Wallpaper, Sara Henrichs. My pitch was about a resort in St Lucia that was architecturally very interesting that had been passed onto her by Jonathan Bell, who is the very polite and friendly Architecture Editor. Her reply to the pitch was 'We won’t have space until Dec issue and I fear it will be too late by then sorry'. I checked with the PR if the Caribbean had a 'season' as such, who confirmed that its pretty much year round sunshine and particularly popular around Christmas. I replied to Sara pointing this out, got no reply so assumed it wasn't for her and asked for feedback if she had 5 or 10 minutes. In reply I got 'Sorry Lee I already told you that we won’t be able to run'. This felt a bit condescending. However, having experienced Peter's workshop yesterday, and given the brevity of the reply, I finally get it. It still feels like a bit of a smack in the face but I've got to learn not to take these rejections personally. As Peter said, with a bit of a wry smile on his face, 'Every rejection is one step more towards success.'