Translations

JpegSeeing one’s work in a different language provides a special kind of satisfaction. Several of the articles I’ve written for Taiwan government publications – this one, on the emergence of co-working spaces around the island, is the most recent – have been translated from English into French, German or Russian. What makes the experience even more pleasurable is that the government asks my permission in advance, and then pays me an additional fee, approximately 30% of what I got paid for writing the article in the first place. I very much doubt any of the writers they’ve approached on these terms has said: “No, you can’t translate it. I’m not interested in your money!”

The article shown here appeared in the March 2008 issue of Taiwan aujourd’hui. The French-language title means “The Green Libraries of Taipei” but the three-page article is actually a condensed version of a 2007 piece of mine called “Green Buildings Paint Bright Futures.”

Sustainable architecture is a subject that fascinates me and to which I often return, for example here and also, from a somewhat different angle, here.

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Should you set financial goals?

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Last month on her Facebook feed, Clarissa Wei – who writes about food and related subjects for Vice and other outlets – shared some good news: “Whoo! I surpassed my [modest] income goals for 2016.  This is my second year of full-time freelance writing. I started this lifestyle as an experiment in fall of 2014 and I’m shocked that I’ve lasted this long because…this is not a lucrative lifestyle…AT ALL.”

She goes on to say that each year she has an income goal, “and I tell myself that as long as i can reach it, I will continue doing what I’m doing. If I’m short, then maybe it’s time to reconsider… For those in doubt of going rogue, I say go for it. You may be pleasantly surprised. Just remember to set concrete goals and be realistic. Don’t expect to rake in a competitive salary in the first years… but also keep in mind that unlimited vacation time and freedom to go wherever and whenever is worth money in and of itself.”

Wei has a tip for freelancers: set a base monthly goal and “keep track of your income streams via Excel… It will fluctuate, undoubtedly, and you won’t always reach it… but it’ll give you a good idea of where you are at and how much harder you need to work.”

I don’t use Excel, rather an old-fashioned notebook. And I’ve never set an actual income target. I simply try to write as many articles as I can fit in to the time available, so long as I’m getting paid a reasonable amount and the subject is somewhat interesting for me. (I do write about things that don’t especially interest me from time to time, invariably because an editor I respect and want to keep sweet has asked me to, and the pay is reasonable.)

Very sensibly, Wei doesn’t regard money as earned when an article is commissioned or even when it’s published. The dollars aren’t counted until they’ve arrived in her bank account. She hardly travels in luxury, she points out, but she did get to 11 provinces in China this year, and fit in some intensely interesting experiences (I still haven’t got to Smangus here in Taiwan). “One thing is for sure though: this is a hell of a lot more fun than sitting in an office. If you’re a writer, prepare to constantly be working. I don’t do weekends or days off, but because my life is my job, it doesn’t matter too much for me,” she goes on to say.

I spend a lot of time in my home office, lately doing much more editing than writing. And while my mind is always alert for feature ideas, I seldom work between Saturday lunchtime and Monday morning. I feel very lucky: I get a good bit of excitement and satisfaction by being a freelance travel/feature writer, and also a fair amount of the stability enjoyed by conventional, middle-aged workers.

Why it never hurts to ask… and payment issues

cicada100yrtreetrailAt the beginning of the summer, I wrote an article for a certain inflight magazine. I’ve written for that magazine several times, and know without needing to ask that the standard word count for features is 1,200. Experience has taught me that a decent editor can find at least 5% flab in anything I write, so I delivered a bit over 1,300.

When the article appeared, I was a bit surprised to notice just how much had been cut out. When the payment paperwork arrived, I saw I was to be paid for 986 words, so I immediately emailed the editor: “Is the target word count still 1,200? I ask because my last article was cut down to under 1,000…”

To his great credit, he quickly replied: “I think I cut the article because there wasn’t enough space to fit all the text in the layout I was given. But you are right, you should be paid according to the 1,200 target. A new payment form is attached. Please disregard the old form.”

I like writing for that particular magazine and hope to write for them many more times, so this wasn’t an issue I would’ve burned bridges over. But if I hadn’t asked, I would now be US$68 poorer. Not a fortune, but where I live that buys a very decent dinner for two people. And hopefully this has set or reinforced the notion in that particular office that writers should get paid for the work that was commissioned, even if not all of it was used.

In the two decades I’ve been freelancing, only once has a publication failed to pay me for something they used. A handful haven’t used work they asked me to do; perhaps half of those have paid me “kill fees.” The outlet which didn’t pay up was a US-based website, and there’s a story behind the failure to pay. The owner/editor got arrested for cocaine dealing; he eventually cleared his name but it left him near-bankrupt. Within a few years he was homeless, and he died soon thereafter due to alcoholism and malnutrition. (I was able to corroborate each of these facts.) Reading reports like this one, it seems I’ve been very lucky when it comes to getting what I’m owed, likely because a lot of the work I do is directly or indirectly for government agencies. Slow payment is often a problem the first time I write for an organization. It isn’t unusual to wait three months before the money arrives. But once they’ve got your details in their system, things are far quicker. Usually, that is…

78 potential buyers of your travel writing

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James Durston, a Hong Kong-based editor and writer I’ve worked with a few times, has compiled and published an extremely useful list of print magazines, newspapers and websites which accept submissions from freelancers. Not all, I suspect, pay for contributions. Whether you’re willing to write for free is up to you; this article argues against it, and suggests ways to use productively any time you have between paying projects. Several of the publications cover a certain part of the world (Africa, for instance), but among them you should find media outlets worth approaching.

James is likely to expand the list in coming months, so it might be worth going back in a while to see if they’re any intriguing additions.

Advertorials

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Like many freelancers, I write marketing materials such as press releases, as well as feature articles. Here’s an advertorial I wrote several years ago for the Asian edition of TIME magazine; it was part of Kaohsiung’s campaign to raise its international profile ahead of the 2009 World Games. This was a pleasantly straightforward and very well-paid piece of work. Writing an advertorial isn’t very different to writing a standard feature, except one accentuates the positive, and edits out anything remotely negatively. Being very familiar with and liking Kaohsiung made this particular job even easier.

The 20th anniversary of my writing debut

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Twenty years ago this month, my first by-lined article was published in China Post, one of Taiwan’s English-language newspapers. It was a straightforward account of a hike up to the peak of Guanshan, Taiwan’s ninth highest mountain. The article isn’t online and I can’t find any print or digital copy of it, but I remember it was around 600 words in length, and began – like a great many travel narratives – with a quote intended to hook in readers. In this case, it was a warning from a friend about the steepness of the trail, and the fact hikers have to carry enough water to see them through a day and a half. The newspaper also bought three or four of my photos to go with the words. I think I earned around US$110 for the whole package.

I’ve no idea if readers found the article compelling or not, but I was hooked on writing. Selling articles didn’t seem at all difficult. I had composed a short, polite letter to the newspaper asking if they accepted freelance contributions and, if so, whether they’d be interested in an article about Guanshan. Within a week, an editor called to give affirmative answers to both questions. Within a month, I was in print. It wasn’t just the first article I sold, but also the first I’d tried to sell.

Between 1996 and 2009, China Post bought well over 100 travel articles from me (here’s one from 2006, and another from 2008), plus a few dozen longer features. Unfortunately, the rise of the Internet and the launch of a better-funded rival (Taipei Times, for which I’ve also written) seems to have left the newspaper in dire financial straits. I stopped writing for China Post when the freelance budget was slashed, but the paper is still being published, I’m glad to say.

My thoughts exactly

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I read this on the discussion site Forumosa.com recently:

Trying to have a “normal” career in Taiwan (working hard, getting raises and promotions, finding better jobs, and so on) is generally a waste of time here. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful career, but you will need to create it for yourself out of whole cloth. I can only offer general advice:

  • Improve your Chinese. Get fluent in general conversation and topics related to your work.
  • Make friends and connections in your profession and your customer base. Actively network at shows, expos, Facebook groups, or whatever is available.
  • Make a name for yourself. Your job won’t give you many opportunities to do this but there are sure to be things you can do on your own time — do concept work and share it online, write a blog, give talks, contribute to magazines, do freelance work for your friends and connections.

Do this for long enough (ten years, say) and you will eventually reach some mysterious critical mass where work is always available and you can make good money. Until then, don’t quit your job unless you have something better lined up.

In a nutshell, this is what’s happened to me. I didn’t consciously set out to get to where I’m now. But by accepting the work that was offered – even when it didn’t quite match my interests, or didn’t pay very well – I’ve got to a position where I seldom seek work, and I’m very seldom bored with what I’m doing. From time to time, I do turn work down.

There are three or four editors I make a point of staying in touch with; I send them article ideas every few months, and because I have a good idea of what they’re looking for, more often than not they give me the green light. I spend less than 30 minutes each week investigating publications I’ve never written for. Perhaps that isn’t enough, but in professional terms I’m stable and comfortable. I’m lucky. And complacent…

I write features, not news

At 3.57 on the morning of Saturday, February 6, a magnitude-6.4 earthquake struck southern Taiwan. My wife, son and I were shaken awake. It was a scary tremor, for sure, but almost immediately I sensed our lives weren’t in danger; the ceiling wasn’t about to crash down on our heads. The power was out (and would stay out for ten hours), so I grabbed a flashlight and started inspecting the house for cracks. I found none, but downstairs a drinking glass had rolled off the table and smashed on the floor. That was our only material loss. A few minutes later, we heard a neighbor saying their water tank had toppled over (many homes in Taiwan, including ours, have a stainless steel water tank on the roof). But within a few hours, it was clear many people had lost their homes, cars – or lives.Jpeg

I couldn’t get back to sleep. Within an hour, photos of earthquake destruction began appearing on social media. We own three properties in the Tainan area, and because it was necessary to inspect them for earthquake damage, I left our house soon after dawn, walking into Xinhua so I could catch a bus. (Normally, I’d ride a motorcycle or bicycle, but the power outage meant we couldn’t open our garage.) I detoured to see the local King’s Town Bank branch; the first two floors had collapsed and what remained was listing. Fortunately, the upper floors were unoccupied at the time of the quake, so no one was trapped inside. In addition to police making sure no one got too close, there was a military police unit with rifles, just in case someone decided to excavate the bank’s vaults.

I posted a few photos on Facebook, and within 10 minutes received this message from a photographer I know. He used to work in Taipei, but is now based in Hong Kong:

I just saw your quake photos. Do you have high quality jpgs you could send us? We pay.

This turned out to be the first of three requests to provide images or video footage of the disaster. Over the next 24 hours, I also got three requests to do Skype or telephone interviews about the quake (from New York, Moscow and an online outfit that didn’t clearly identify itself).

Depending on who asked and how they phrased it, I either graciously turned down or totally ignored each and every invitation. I had enough on my plate: There were toppled bookcases to be righted, cupboard contents to be picked up, and chips of paint to be swept up. But the key reason was a simple lack of desire.

It was flattering to be asked, but only slightly. Of English-language reporters/writers based in Taiwan, no one was better located than me to cover the consequences of the earthquake. Our home is just 2.4 km from the King’s Town Bank building. My office is 3.4 km south of where Weiguan Apartment Building crashed over (pictured here; 115 people inside were killed), and just 800 m from a three-story residential building where the first floor gave way, spectacularly crushing three parked cars but hurting no one.

This wasn’t so much a refusal to “feed the beast” (I’m part of the beast, after all), but the certainty I had little to offer. I could give an interviewer a mundane account of the event, but no real insights. A broken glass and no electricity is hardly newsworthy. Days later, I came up with a semi-satisfactory simile: Experiencing a strong earthquake is like being on a rattling, shuddering train as it rushes down a hill; you realize the brakes don’t work, and you’ve no idea if you’ll survive the curve you’re hurtling towards.

The idea of standing amid traumatized relatives and neighbors, perhaps getting in the way of rescue workers, holds no appeal. The fifteen minutes I spent at the remnants of Weiguan Apartment Building were enough. The day reinforced what I’ve long known: I’m a features writer, not a news guy. I like to explore shifts and trends. I’m intrigued by what is happening, not what’s just happened. I like to think the articles I write have a longish lifespan – a few months at least, perhaps even a year or two.

I wasn’t the only person approached by overseas media, of course. Klaus Bardenhagen, a German reporter who’s been based in Taipei for six years, gave some telephone interviews, while making it clear to everyone he was no nearer than Taichung (about 150 km away) during the quake and its aftermath, and that all his knowledge came local media channels.

I agreed wholeheartedly when he later told me: “Post-disaster reporting is often some of the most unnecessary journalism imaginable. Basically, everyone knows the situation. Constant updates don’t provide greater understanding. You take up time and space which could be used to report more pertinent news. Also, victims are bothered in the process. It’s all about emotional human stories. Media organizations think their audiences want more and more of it. It’s the journalistic equivalent of fast food. Easy to munch down, unhealthy – and you feel bad afterwards.”

The first workshop: A success!

DajiaChastityArch1I was a little nervous ahead of Sunday’s workshop. Even though I’ve lots of teaching experience, and since the spring I’ve been making cross-cultural presentations to senior executives at least once a month, I wasn’t quite sure how the material I’d prepared would go down with the seven men and two women who’d given up half their weekend (not to mention a chunk of cash) to listen and learn. Would the 16 pages of advice about how to devise ideas for articles and approach editors be far too little to fill the time? Or would it be so much I’d find myself rushing through it, leaving everyone overwhelmed while wearing myself out?

As it turned out, it was just about right. In large part, this was because those attending posed several interesting questions, made a lot of useful suggestions, and shared some amusing anecdotes. (I was hoping for all of these things).

It was a good mix of people. The youngest person was less than half the age of the oldest; we had a technical writer, a writer of marketing materials, two translators (one of whom has done quite a bit of freelancing in the past, but admits to being “very rusty”), and people who do other interesting jobs. At least two attendees were obviously far more Web-savvy than me, and made sound points when we talked about writing for online-only publications. Nobody rolled their eyes when I said “persistence” for the tenth or eleventh time; a slow-burning determination to succeed is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed as a writer. So is reliability. Hopefully, those who attended the workshop now have a better idea how to proceed; I’ll be following their progress with great interest.

Questions people are asking me…

Are you really going to reveal the secrets of your trade? If so, don’t you worry those who attend will take your work? If you’re not worried about this, surely it means you’re not providing anything of value?

My answers are yes, no and no. I reckon some of the people who attend the workshop will leave Taiwan in the next few years. If they go into freelance writing, it’ll be in their home countries. Of course, if they all stay in Taiwan and specialize in the niches I write about, then I’ll face some competition. However, it does takes a while to be fully trusted by editors, and I’ll always have several years’ more experience than they do.

10 x NT$2,400 = NT$24,000. That’s a lot of money for a day’s work.

NT$24,000 would be good money for a day’s work, but out of that I need to pay travel and venue expenses. Also, preparing for this workshop took perhaps 15 hours spread over a few weeks. When you get your hands on the outline – which is almost 4,000 words long – you’ll see the amount of detail I’m providing. Also, this workshop is very inexpensive compared to many you’ll find advertised on the Internet.

I can’t attend the workshop but I’m interested. Can you email me the outline?

I can sell it to you. But I do urge anyone interested to attend the workshop. The outline is merely an outline; we’ll do a lot of discussing and brainstorming, and I expect everyone will go home with a pile of notes and a brainful of ideas. If there’s enough interest, I’ll organize a second workshop at a later date.

Can you tell us how much you really make from travel writing?

That’s between me and the tax man. Also, I don’t distinguish between travel writing and other forms of writing; it’s all paid work. Very few people around the world make a living entirely from travel writing or blogging; if you write about Taiwan travel only, it’s probably impossible. Every travel writer will tell you there’s no way you’ll get rich doing this, but you can have a lot of fun, and if you grab the opportunities that are likely to come along, it can lead to decent overall income.

If you go to my blog, you’ll see links to most of what’s been published with my byline since 2008. So far in 2015, the most I earned for a single article is US$700. The lowest is US$175. I got a Taiwan-Poland-UK air ticket (and some money) for one job. Other freebies included hotel stays, meals, train tickets etc.

If I’m offered work that pays less than around US$150, I tend to turn it down unless (a) it’s a subject I’m truly passionate about, or (b) it’s something I can write in less than half a day, by recycling/updating a previous article.

My non-byline writing isn’t on the blog. Some of it is for tour companies that want Tpuppetaiwan content for their websites. I also write advertorials, press releases and other marketing materials. If your byline starts to appear regularly, you’ll likely be offered non-byline writing, and also non-writing work such as editing and consulting. I’ll talk a bit about these opportunities at the workshop.

What do you enjoy most about writing travel and feature articles?

In the movie Almost Famous a musician is asked “What do you love about music?” and answers, “To begin with… everything.” I’m the same. I love coming up with ideas for articles, whether they come out of nowhere and hit me while I’m riding my bike, or emerge while brainstorming with Rich J. Matheson (a photographer I often work with). Getting an email from an editor asking if I’d like to write about a particular subject is always flattering. I love how much I learn while researching an article. And I love, to quote Hemingway, “Getting the words right.”

What are the downsides?

Occasionally people promise to provide information or to answer questions by email, but then they fall off the face of the Earth. When you write for a publication for the first time, you often need to wait three months or longer for your money. But once your details are in their payment system, it’s much quicker.

I’m not interested in writing short articles, but I’d love to write a book-length travel narrative or a guidebook. What’s your advice?

Good luck with that. If you can convince a publisher of your expertise regarding a country or region, you may just be able to get a guidebook contract, but it’ll be much easier if you have a string of articles to your name. Evidence you can write and deliver counts for a great deal.