What Writers Really Need to Know Today (audio)

Back on July 26, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Boulder Writers Alliance on the topic of “Trends in Today’s Media.” I’ve had a couple of very hectic links, and I just realized this morning that I’d neglected to post the audio from that session. Sorry about the delay.

LISTEN NOW! Right-click (Mac: click-and-hold) to download the MP3 audio file. It’s 16.8 MB and runs about 1 hour and 15 minutes long.)

What struck me about this session is how much professional writers and editors (especially independent ones) need to think creatively about their field and work opportunities…

It used to be that, for instance, freelance writing was mainly about sending query letters to magazines; and freelance editing was mainly about applying for advertised contracts or projects. No longer. In this field more than any other, we need to make our own opportunities.

The key to this, I think, is staying aware of new tools – both for doing our work and observing the evolution of media. And it’s also being willing to engage in new activities, rather than simply decide how to write an article about them. Good writing, editing, and journalism skills can be a bonus in many fields. We shouldn’t define ourselves too narrowly.

My fellow panelists were:

  • Caron Schwartz Ellis, a communications professional whose background spans the arts and sciences from journalism to Big 4 consulting. She has been a staff writer/copy editor for the Boulder County Business Report since 2002. In 2005 she won a business reporting award from the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Caron’s many professional endeavors have included: adjunct philosophy professor at the Community College of Denver; freelance writer of news, trade pieces, academic articles and book chapters for local and national publications; editing, proofreading and typesetting for book and magazine publishers; and hairdresser to Julia Child in a fancy Harvard Square salon.
  • Joysa Winter, managing editor of Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals, a monthly scientific trade magazine owned by New Hope Natural Media in Boulder. She has also been a part-time copy editor at the Rocky Mountain News for the past seven years. Her freelance articles have appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers, usually on Jewish and American Indian issues. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.

Tips I heard at this session that might help if you want to work for mainstream print media (newspapers and magazines):

  • Know AP: It really helps to know Associated Press style well. Really well. Don’t try to flub your way through it. If you have to look everything up, that takes time – which is a problem on deadline.
  • Business writing skills: Trade and business press are especially good places to learn how to focus on asking difficult questions and getting specific answers. I’ve found this in my own experience – my first journalism job was in a trade magazine. I’ve never regretted that, even though some mainstream media pros look down on the trade or business press.
  • A mind for graphics: Whether or not you have graphics or design skills, it helps to be able to envision graphic, design, or photo opportunities – and gather the information to support them and explain them.
  • Find your niche. Developing special areas of topical expertise translates directly into marketability. Niche media is no longer small – it represents a huge part of the paying media market. There are many publications for just about any niche you can imagine. find them and work with them, and don’t worry about whether your friends have ever heard about them.

Other tips:

  • It’s who you know. Keep an extensive database of contacts, and include information about what they’ve done, how you know them, and why you might want to contact them (areas of expertise), etc.
  • Look to new fields. E-learning course development, tech writing, science and medical writing, PR, customer information materials all offer a diverse market for people with good writing and editing skills.
  • Develop skills in other media. If all you know how to work with is text, your marketability is going to be pretty limited. Expertise with video, audio, photography, databases, e-learning, web design, content management systems, wikis, etc. can open a lot of doors for you. Stay constantly in learning mode.

There was plenty more, of course. Give it a listen.


For my readers in the Boulder-Denver area (including BWA members), I’d like to remind you that on Aug. 24, 2005 (9am-noon) I’m offering a workshop on Very Basic Blogging that will give you hands-on experience with some of the issues addressed in this panel discussion. (Register online today, seating is limited.)

Many thanks to Koan Bremner for recording this panel session.