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How to Succeed at Anything Other than Being a Writer

Almost every day, I get sent details of editorial vacancies on the Indeed jobs bulletin board.

They often look interesting, although always too far from home. I’m not usually academically qualified to apply for them, but I have experience to offer, and I like to work. The problem being, I’m not quite sure what the phrase ‘Content Editor’ actually means. I should be content to be an editor? Not at those rates…

So I thought I might share with you, a brief and really quite tedious reflection on my career in the words game: How  Succeed at Anything Other Than Being a Writer. Okay, not such an original title, but the words are my own, I types them myself. Some names have been redacted in case they come looking for me. In a very un-British way, I have mentioned details of earnings so you can see what a worthless human being a writer really is.

1              Start in the media, why not?

For much of my life I’ve been a working writer, editor and proofreader. I’ve never had the slightest qualification for such a career. Graduating from film school in 1970, I was debarred by the union’s closed-shop conspiracy from joining the industry and so took an emergency job writing news scripts for 000000, Britain’s first industrial ‘narrowcasting’ network, with an audience of 20,000 deafened factory workers. My shift started at 5 a.m. and went through to 6 p.m. (1 p.m. on Saturdays). I wrote a three-minute bulletin for broadcast on the hour, one minute on the half-hour. With one week’s holiday a year, in three years I calculate that I churned-out four million words, all of which ended up in the waste-bin. The pay was £21 a week, 12 pence a word.

Then I joined ooooooo, the 24-hour rolling news service in London, Britain’s first legal commercial radio station. (See another Post somewhere.) I started a couple of months before it went to air, as a news writer and reader, on £2,400 a year. After a few months I was poached by the BBC and joined Radio ooooooo as an announcer, on £42 a shift. They used to send a chauffeur-driven car to get me to work at 5 a.m. One morning, the news writer didn’t turn up, so I daringly wrote my own script. It was unheard-of, readers and writers were previously thought to be separate species, but writey-readey soon became the norm in local radio. It was cheaper.

My next job was as Head of News at Radio ooooooo, in ooooooo. Again, I joined the company before the station went to air, on £4,500 a year. A senior member of the start-up management team, working 14-hour days, I was encouraged to experiment with new ways of scheduling and broadcasting news and talks programmes. I continued to write news scripts, and formats and schedules, and became interested in other genres: advertisements and fun programme trailers, a weekly topical comedy show scripted in partnership with a local comedian. After 18 months I was fired, for persisting with an investigation that was embarrassing some friends of the directors.

Back in London, I freelanced as a writer, writing articles for magazines. I had a short Sci Fi story published in Computer Age the only fiction of mine that has ever been accepted, apart from a mortgage application, and was paid £100! I went back to oooooo as a desk writer and presenter, also working for ooooooo Radio, and oooooooo TV news. Later, I contributed two educational scripts to a TV Craft, Design and Technology series, at Key-stage 1. I wrote the tender document for a company bidding for a new radio franchise. Over five years I wrote about seventy scripts for commercial clients of offline film, video and a/v production companies in London, while reading for a media degree. A day’s scriptwriting paid typically £200. (Voiceover work paid £150 an HOUR). Ten years later I was laughed out of town when I asked for £150 for a complete finished script; v/o was now paying £10 per script. That’s how competitive the market has got in the past thirty years.

Still interested?

2       Surely there’s a vast amount of money and Porsches to be made in advertising?

In 1985 I joined an advertising agency in ooooooo, ooooooo, as Head of Creative Writing. The pay was £14,000 a year, plus bonuses the MD had a distressing habit of diverting into his personal maritime interests. We never saw any. As well as copy for press and TV/radio ads, I wrote scripts for corporate videos, conference materials – delegate speeches, newsletters, even down to the menus and luggage labels. I wrote on-pack instructional copy, point-of-sale information materials and brochures, competitions, catalogues and flyers. I created a national sales promotion campaign for Adidas, and wrote the inaugural sales brochure and take-on pack for British Airways’ Executive Club. I wrote more consultancy reports, including an entire marketing and PR strategy for the Cable TV Corporation, and scripted pitches for new account business.

After two years I joined a completely different kind of agency, ooooooooo, in oooooooo. Part of the multinational ooooo Group, this agency specialised almost entirely in direct-response media for large banks and building societies: ‘off-the-page’ coupon advertising and ‘junk-mail’ packs.

These latter could be quite complicated and involve a two-stage selling process requiring the writing of long-copy letters and premium publications on financial matters, such as management buyouts. Still without the slightest qualification, I wrote sales copy (among others) for five divisions of Lloyds Bank, two years on the Alex Lawrie invoice-discounting account, meeting a target of thirty new business leads each month. I wrote for the Financial Times, Pearson Group, and helped to prevent the Investor’s Chronicle magazine being closed down by attracting 9,000 new subscribers with a single mailshot. I wrote for Allied-Dunbar, Friends Provident, Equity & Law, RAC-Lombard. I wrote creative pitches and helped bring in £1.5 million new business in a year. So, in 1990 they made me redundant! 1989-90 was my single most lucrative year ever. I made £36,000. From then-on it was all downhill.

I left and set up my own agency, oooooooo, in oooooooooo. Another change of focus, we aimed to provide a service of professional communications for ‘ethical’ clients who would not otherwise go near conventional commercial advertising agencies: environmental groups, small ‘green’ start-ups and and NGOs. I wrote promotional materials, legacy and subscription mailshots for the Bristol-based cycling charity, ooooooooo, hoiking their membership up by a factor of ten (not difficult), and for MIND; rebranded the Derbyshire Peak National Park’s Losehill management centre, and the Child-Beale Trust at Reading as Beale Park, a visitor attraction. For three years I created all the branding, advertising and promotional materials for a mobile phone company, oooooooo. And wrote a promo script for a talking teddy bear with a cellphone hidden in its tummy, for an exhibition – probably the highlight of my career. The most I was able to pay myself for all that effort, employing ten people, was about £24,000 a year – briefly, before having to slash my own salary when the clients started messing us about. Eventually I persuaded the other board members to let me fire myself, and signed up for Jobseeker’s Allowance at £60 a week.

3       Nothing to be made in publishing either, then?

In ten years, I’d written advertising, marketing and PR materials for over 200 commercial, industrial and charity clients, and earned exactly doodly-squat. We ended up having to sell our home as, despite my Captain Oates moment, my pioneering ethical agency went bust. I freelanced as a copywriter and creative consultant, for clients like the Bristol and West Building Society and Barclaycard; the rate was £200 a day, but there was very little work to be had. So I took part-time work on offer as a Copy Editor for a micro-publishing business, ooooo Ltd.

We published, using the latest on-line digital printing technology (it was cheaper), about 25 titles a year, in standard A5 paperback format, on business management, marketing and finance; annual editions of the Company Secretary’s Handbook, an ongoing history of the London Stock Exchange; and endless reprints. Many typescripts were so badly crafted by business baboons that I would have to carry out substantive edits; in a few cases, complete rewrites. We had primitive Optical Character Recognition software for scanning typescripts into the system, so one of my favourite jobs was to go through an 80,000-word text replacing all of the mis-scanned ‘a’s with ‘e’s, and vice versa (which would have come out as vica varse). As I was also responsible for PR, I invented a new tool for marketing the books, the 500-word minibook; and produced a monthly newsletter for distribution to trade-press editors and reviewers.

The part-time work soon became full-time, but it was poorly paid (£8 an hour, less than my mother’s cleaner – quite right too) and in January 1999 I left to work for a PR agency. Under the title of Editorial Manager, on £20,000 a year, I wrote all the copy for the agency, whose clients came mostly from the Garden Products sector – including the writer, entrepreneur and gardening expert, Alan oooooo, on whom I wrote a 2,000-words, interview-based profile for the BBC gardening magazine, and promoted his personally branded product ranges. The work included writing press releases, promotional supplements, tool catalogues and press advertising. I wrote and directed a 20-minute corporate video for ooooooo, a leading plastics thermoforming company making weirdly coloured flowerpots, and promoted their Environmental recycling division. Bullied and lied-to by the clinical psychopath who owned the agency, I went back to the publishing company and £8 an hour.

July 2000, I left to work for ooooooo, a specialist History imprint, as a Project Editor. Here, I was one of a team of six editors (the only male!). We would receive the texts, usually on disc (amazing numbers of authors still using Amstrad), from the Commissioning Editors and have complete autonomy in progressing the books through all stages of production, until the composite files were sent to the printer. Most of the books I edited were in hardback, and I seemed to get most of the military and transport titles, including books on classic Porsche cars – the nearest I ever got to owning one. But we also had to take turns at editing the texts and specifying layouts for a long-running series of paperbacks that consisted almost entirely of fuzzy archive photographs of parts of Britain I had never heard of, amassed by local historians, some of whom could be prima donnas. I was given the task of writing one book, a memoir of an East-End childhood in the 1920s, from scratch. The author was 94 and had gone blind. The Commissioning Editor handed me a shoebox and two carrier bags of notes, press cuttings and uncaptioned photographs… I produced a well-received book, but not in my name.

Our individual target was typically a total of 45 books a year – each taking up to six months to produce. So you could be running ten projects at a time. Liaising with authors, we would proofread the texts on-screen, hand-correct the printed galleys, plan the page layouts, specify the typography and page furniture (a team of four typesetters was employed), check facts, research and acquire rights to library images, instruct designers and scanning operatives, sometimes putting the final proofreading and indexing out to freelances; otherwise, reproof the texts to check the pagination, write the prefatory matter, captions, sub-headings, indexes and bibliographies; also, the jacket ‘blurbs’ – all to budgets and firmly fixed page extents predetermined by the Marketing monkeys. The salary – we had an estimable equal underpayment policy for both men and women – was £16 thousand a year.

As a freelance, I’ve also worked as a casual or contract subeditor on local newspapers, like the ooooo Group here in Boglington, where I live, with several regional editions (one in Welsh, a language I haven’t yet fully grasped); and as a proofreader. A subeditor collates the raw copy sent in by reporters and stringers, proof-corrects it, devises headlines and standfirsts and subheads, thinks up witty captions to the photos and then tries to squeeze it all into the allocated spaces on the page (the advertising department will have filled-in large areas beforehand). The average pay of a subeditor in UK press in 2004 was about £26,000 a year. I was getting £12,000. My kids qualified for free school meals. When I raised this issue in the Press Gazette, I was fired. There’s not much  English-language publishing in Wales requiring the services of a proofreader. I did some work for the Welsh Books Council, that turned into a lengthy re-edit of an outdated review of Celtic languages worldwide; and worked on a new series edition of previously published fiction in English, by Welsh writers. Then even that work dried-up.

Overall, freelance editing and proofreading has become a Roman slave market. One now has to ‘bid’ even for the smallest job against a dangerous horde of semi-literate globalized baboons with US-bought mail-order degrees, quoting absurd rates of a dollar an hour. So I no longer do it.

4       So, have you tried domestic service as a last resort?

For nearly seven years then I had a very different kind of job, but one still involving writing and editorial supervision. In 2005, I became the manager and virtually the sole employee of a listed Georgian mansion, a partly derelict licensed guest house and venue for weddings and events. (I was also the groundsman, the maintenance man, the cleaner and the housekeeper/cook!) The starting salary (I was by now 55 years old, with two teenage kids and an ex-wife) was £13,000  – £850 a month after tax. Needless to say, I became deeply involved with the writing of the marketing and PR materials, including reception packs for guests, buying advertising spaces, editing a history of the house, producing detailed management reports and scoping studies for the various business diversification strategies I proposed, the stupidest of which the owners eventually adopted – turning the house into a ‘five-star hotel’…. Having given Sir Simon oooooo a guided tour of the house, a famous author and dilettante, I then had the agreeable task of correcting (for nothing) his three-page entry on the house in his book, Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles. It was highly approximate!

And now I’m evidently at the peak of my powers, I’m unable to find fulltime work of any kind, literary or otherwise. I have to content myself with obsessively writing an unpaid online ‘bogl’, that has amassed some 387 Posts including this one, since February 2012; as well as storing some archived scribblings from the previous ten years. I think it has got about 29 Followers so far. I’m looking forward to achieving posthumous recognition, in the meantime luxuriating in my Old Age Pension.

As a career path to wealth and fame, I can’t really recommend the writing game to eager and ambitious young literary baboons such as yourselves. But don’t let me stop you. I’m sure I shan’t.

Toodle-pip!

–  Uncle Bogler

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