I didn’t enjoy this week’s Dancing About Architecture as much as last week’s. It’s not that there was anything wrong with it, of course, simply that it focused largely on an area that just doesn’t really apply to me. Perhaps I should have, but I’d never come across the website one of the speakers runs. The other, The Journal, has also never really appealed to me as a site, perhaps because I tend to lean towards the name writers in the national print media for news stories, simply based on reputation.
Still, despite having known Niall Byrne (“Nialler9”) since I arrived in Dublin – while I had plenty of work elsewhere, he was the first to give me a regular position in Ireland, writing for State – I always find him to be worth listening to on music. The man knows his stuff to a quite ludicrous and sometimes embarrassing (from my point of view, comparatively, rather than his) level. What he’s achieved as a one mad band is, frankly, not that short of ridiculous.
Anyhow, despite not really relating to the news side of things, the talk still opened a few interesting issues for me, and as I promised myself, I’m going to do my best to pick them apart in blog form. The ‘writing for free’ thing came up again. I dealt with that a lot last week, but it was interesting to see that this week’s panel was in generally far more in favour of it. I see their point from an interning at a major paper point of view, but having come as far as I have, I’m still not convinced it’s the way to go for me, especially since I’m not particularly after a staff job.
As for the new media vs. old media debate, I’d always rather see something I’ve written in print than online. Well, perhaps it depends on the publisher a little, but certainly if they’re at around the same level. It’s just a tangibility thing, but I think media types almost all accept that print is going to becoming a more and more limited outlet as times goes by, so this online stuff has to be taken on board. There were other issues, too, though, enough to base another ‘me, me, me’ self-analysis blog on, anyhow, so here we go for round two…
I’m not a heavily niche writer. I mean I have niches: I focused a lot on writing about South Korea for some time, and I’ve produced a host of articles on the North, too, from interviews with defectors to travel pieces. I don’t consider music to be anything like niche enough, and aside from cheesy pop and chart hip-hop I’m into most things to some extent. If you pushed me, I’d consider my most knowledgeable area to be alt. indie, which is a fiercely loose description, but nicely encompasses what normally occupies my stereo, providing you ignore some fairly hefty corners. I’m definitely not the predominantly rock/ punk man I was when I grew up. I’ve also dealt a huge amount in Irish music over the last few years, and interviewed most of the major acts, for example (cheesy chart stuff aside).
The thing is, if you’re not so much a ‘brand’ as a feature and review writer, do you really need that strong a niche? I’d fall more into Jim O’Carroll’s argument from last week – you absolutely need to know what you’re talking about (it sometimes amazes me how many reviewers don’t seem to know the very basics of a band’s history, for example), but that doesn’t necessarily require a focus on just one area. I know a lot about The Beatles, a lot about The Sex Pistols and a lot about The Rubberbandits. They certainly don’t fall into the same niche. Then again, developing articles around the same theme, one you’ve a proven expertise in, is a great way of getting published, providing you can find a range of outlets. I think I like the specialist/ generalist mix I have going on at the moment – the panels argument didn’t persuade me that I need to change tack. Then again, if I wanted to write on news, I would need to know everything, rather than just a bit. Perhaps that’s where the division is.
Coding knowledge/ web design
My web design skills are extremely limited, and it seems they’re heavily sought after in print magazines as well as through websites. The more complex parts of this website (design etc – yes, I know it’s not great, largely because of my slightly clunky additions down the side, but it’ll be redone in the next few weeks) are taken care of my brother in law; I simply point in the right direction. I do go into the back end and mess around with smaller things fairly regularly (and obviously everything I put up here is done myself, I’m not that incompetent), but it’s clearly an area that needs development.
They’ll come a time, though, when it’s basically an expected skill, no different to the ability to construct a decent sentence. Something to focus on when I have a bit of time to play with, but I prefer the ‘learn by doing’ approach, and to some extent I’m a little too scared of breaking everything to dive in fully and mess around with the coded parts. The HTML for individual posts is no bother, it’s more the actual design stuff.
Scares/ Learning Curve
I haven’t lost many major projects along the way. One or two (the only really big on I lost I hated, but it paid well, so perhaps my feelings on it showed in the work), but I often have to step up, and force myself to write in a different style. The scares usually come in just not getting the work I really want; in not being able to persuade people that I’m good enough or worthy enough of their time to move forward and produce something they’ll want to run. That, coupled with the usual self-doubt stuff.
On the learning side, though, sometimes criticism seems to be the best thing that can happen. I’m not going to lie, there are certainly some writers I look at now and go ‘he/she can’t really write’. I’m sure they looked at me the same way in the past, and sure, some probably still do. Getting a balance between knowing what you’re talking about (and keeping the intent in there), and writing in an interesting style can be difficult.
My most recent challenge has been extremely short reviews: I’ve had lots of assignment from The Fly Magazine in the UK and the Sunday Business Post in Ireland, and a fair number of them come in at the 80-100 word count. That might sound like a ludicrously small amount, but you can get a lot of information into 100 words. It’s a totally different style, but I feel like it’s really refined my writing. I’ve been forced to cut out the tat, the off-the-wall intros and the lead ins and basically tell is how it is. It’s not always exactly poetry, but the reviews can take me longer than 300-400 word ones to write, simply because I need to be insanely picky about what I actually put in. Sometimes they come out really well, other times I find myself re-writing ten times before I’m even vaguely satisfied. If you’d asked me a few months ago, though, I’d have been talking about cramming entire festival reviews into 1,000 words being a challenge. Then I got given a festival review of under 400 words (for three days). How the challenges change. But hey, that’s the fun of it, right?
Next week will be features, which is probably the Dancing About Architecture event that appeals to me the most. I’m not such a fan of the 5,000 word long-form feature stuff, but 1,000 to 2,000 word articles are becoming ever more of a staple. With a bit of luck, they’ll be some wonderful takes on that.
Thanks to Una and the panel again this week (I know I opened by expressing my relative lack of interest with two members of the panel, but I respect what you all do, it’s just not what I do).
More rambling to follow!