Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Chutzpah, cheekiness, and Chance

The secret to making it as an online writer.

I wasn't expecting to write something about, essentially, online journalism, and how to break into the field. It's something I know very little about. I've always thought of myself as a bit of a hack who just happens to have an axe to grind about the importance of culture. But a few things coincided and here I am. First, I've found myself writing some Indie music articles for The Indie Handbook. Second, I spent some time talking about how to get into journalism to a real bright star in the journalistic firmament, Stephie Tan, who writes some amazing pieces about the Singapore style scene. And third, I found myself taking part in a webchat about careers in online journalism run by The Guardian.

All of which made me realise I've actually come a lot further than I thought down the road, and am probably in a position to offer some observations. More anecdotes. Hopefully with a bit of instruction.


I've written a couple of posts about luck recently, here, and here. Chance, luck, happenstance - whatever you want to call it - is a strange thing. On the one hand by definition, there's nothing you can do to create it. On the other hand, you can do things to put yourself in the right place when chance strikes. You can put tags on your blog, for example. Several years ago, I did just that, writing a few columns about mental health and debt - it just so happened that someone from the Royal College of Psychiatrists was googling debt and mental health, and stumbled on my blog. We've been working together ever since. That he happened to be googling around at the time was chance. That I decided to write down some of my experiences and tag them wasn't.


Everyone loves a bit of P T Barnum. We writers are terrible at it, and most of us would rather eat curdled guano than play the exhibitionist. And yes, there IS something terrible about blind self-promotion. REALLY terrible. It's like those schoolboys who are so desperate for a girlfriend their tongues hang out when their sisters friends come round.

On the other hand, everyone loves pizzazz. And not just in the arts. My wife pointed out this morning that Richard Wiseman's research has shown that the most important factor in getting a job at interview is your likability. Which doesn't mean being an exhibitionist (just because I'm a media tart who'll cross the road if there's a sniff of a camera - yes it WAS me on Athens local TV talking about the price of restaurant food when I'd been in the city half an hour - doesn't mean you have to be). It means comporting yourself a certain way. Having the online equivalent of your own unique style (like a handkerchief in the top pocket).

Most of all, it means being memorable (in a good way). It's something I find easier in real life (beard and bright braces plus hat tend to get me photographed regularly even at fairly outrageous festivals ("sure you can take my picture - oh, and do go read my book" *hands out a flyer*). Online it's partly about branding and avatars and special colour combos on your blog. But most of all it's about voice. It's about saying it the way only you can. Be you. Really you. Then turn up the amp!


Thsi is what I really want to talk about, because more than anything it's what's got me the little success I've had. And I think it's the number one piece of advice I'd give anyone. Always be polite, always be helpful, and never be afraid to ask with a touch of self-deprecation and a cheeky grin on your face.

My motto is that it costs nothing to ask except a bit of embarrassment. And the more you do it, the less of THAT you feel. If you want to interview someone - ask. But do it right (in a way, this is part of the chutzpah above). "I don't suppose" is a great way to start a sentence - the reader can almost see you biting your lip coyly.

There's a very fine line between cheeky and arrogant. Both start from the same premise - behave as though you belong. But whereas arrogance has the attitude "of course you'll do it, because it's my God-given right. Don't you know who I am!" cheekiness has the attitude "wouldn't it be rather fun to do it? Eh? Don't you think?"

Cheekiness is the schoolkid who stands with you at the orchard fence and says "what say we go scrumping". Arrogance is the schoolkid who stand there and says "Come on, my parents own the place".

Just ask and if that doesn't work, just do

To conclude, the best way to get a break is to ask. When I was writing my first piece for The Indie Handbook, I wanted some basic info about my favourite band, The Boxer Rebellion. I e-mailed them for a press pack, and ended up with a half-hour interview. At work, people often ask me how come I seem to get on so many committees. Simple. I ask. If you do it right, it's amazing how rarely people will say no.

Oh, and the very best thing to ask? "Can I help?" You'd be amazed how many doors that one opens. Plus it's the most rewarding thing of all actually to do.

So if you want action points, I guess they'd be these:

1. keep your ear to the ground

2. make sure you put yourself in the places where things happen (leading blogs and forums in your field, for example)

3. look inside, find "your" voice (using twitter a lot, and letting yourself emerge, is a great way to do this), and turn up the volume

4. when an opportunity comes along, ask!

5. be courteous to everyone; be helpful to everyone; act like you belong; never be arrogant; don't take yourself too seriously.

Go on, see what you can do today if you ask nicely!


  1. That's all excellent advice. I would add having a unique voice, sometimes called writing with personality and being willing to take a position. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of trying to please everybody and end up saying very little with no style. I must try to repeat number 5. like a mantra, it's my downfall.

  2. Yes, I think I was trying to get that across. I think it works better when that unique voice really IS yours rather than manufactured. Not a problem in your case, Paul.

  3. Purr, inwardly as well as outwardly.

  4. I have an old friend who is a very successful printmaker and watercolourist. She is a nice person, she goes beyond nice sometimes and makes this lesser mortal feel inadequate , however she is rather special I have to say. People queue to buy her work because they are buying a part of her, in a sense. She cultivates and sustains this persona, which is really her, and because it IS really her it works - she is unfailingly polite, well mannered, generous and good humoured (in public, I have seen her grumpy - but pushed by a 3 yr old to the limits of sanity). It doesn't hurt to be friendly, polite and considerate - even when gently pushing into a place you want to be. People remember rudeness, and they rememeber for a long, long time. My publisher told me that this business runs on personal relationships - so get out there and make them. This is where the schmooze issue comes in. I make sure I stay in touch with those in the industry who I like as a person first, industry second. And those I'm shy around or uncomfortable with I just smile and stay well mannered and get them to talk and do my best to listen.

  5. ps. then I go home and say what I really wanted to say in the shower

  6. It's not really schmooze, though, is it, Phillipa - certainly not when you do it. It's more like sitting down at a table with the friend you always wanted to have and talking about the things that matter to you most in the world. And when someone can generate that sort of feeling in the people they come across, you know they've got something special (in addition to the talent, of course - in all of what's said in this post, I'm not suggesting a replacement for talent - merely how to try and stand out amidst all the other talented people).

    A lot of people who deal in food are very good at this - pie-makers and bakers and the like who have their own special way of doing things, whom people will come from miles around to watch at work.

    My own experiences of it range from a paper marbler I met in Florence, to Charlie, the frontman of InLight, whom I had the great pleasure of interviewing a couple of weeks ago.

  7. That's true. If you are engaged and truly immersed in what you do and find a like minded soul, no matter what their position, you tend to forget the position and just have good old chin wag. I recently met an American documentary maker for public television who did a doco on Tupperware. She was fascinating...I wanted to leave the gathering and go and have tea somewhere and just talk...but alas we couldn't. And she left for Bolivia the next day. As you do.

  8. Hi Angie, great to see you here, and a fantastic interview you did with Rebecca

  9. It's one of those quaint Britishisms :-) It's the schoolkid favourite of sneaking into someone's orchard and nicking their apples - I'm sure there's an etymological link to "scrumpy"