There’s certainly no shortage of bright things wanting to get into the world of journalism- ESPECIALLY of the film and TV variety – so how on earth do you distinguish yourself from the heaving, greasy rabble? We sat down with a hardened expert; the glorious SFX Magazine’s Reviews Editor Ian Berriman, to talk internships, Dr Who knowledge and why not to ride around naked on a unicycle.
So, Ian Berriman, you seem to be Reviews Editor of global sensation SFX Magazine, how on earth did that happen?
A combination of bad luck, poor planning and nerd nepotism!
It never occurred to me that journalism might be a viable career path until I was in the second half of my twenties. I didn’t have a career plan at all. I did some temping, worked in a video rental shop, and aimlessly mooched about on the dole a lot. I spent a bit of a time working as a TV researcher, but that didn’t really work out (I was rubbish at it, for one thing).
Then I picked up a copy of SFX at a friend’s house and realised that one of the staff was someone I knew but had been out of touch with for years (we both – oh the shame – used to write Doctor Who fanzines in our teens, instead of doing something more sensible like hanging around on street corners drinking white cider). So I dropped him a line to see if there were any freelance opportunities. After that I started to do regular video and book reviews, plus the occasional feature. Eventually a job became available. I didn’t get it. But the second time a vacancy opened up, I did.
Plenty of trembling young things want to get into journalism. In your experience, what traits do you need in order to thrive in it?
Obviously, your standard of written English needs to be really good; it doesn’t matter if you don’t know your preposition from your gerund as long as you have an innate sense of the basics. It probably helps if you’re good at talking to people and quickly building a rapport, but from my experience even if you are maladjusted social misfit you can get by as long as you can fake that shit convincingly for an hour or two. Finally, you must also be someone who doesn’t require a luxurious standard of living, can get by on very little sleep sometimes, and can cope with spending a fair amount of evenings and weekends working.
Literally millions, possibly even billions, of people write to you every day begging for moments of your attention. What would make you sit up and take notice of a job/freelance application?
It’s usually a good sign if someone is already writing for a blog, a website or a regional publication. Quickly outlining any areas of special expertise is probably a good idea – anyone can write about Hollywood blockbusters or Doctor Who, but people who know about comics, epic fantasy or role-playing games are rarer. I’m not really bothered if you’ve done a journalism course or not, and because I only commission out bits of freelance work I’m not really interested in CVs either.
So for me it’s mostly about the writing samples, and there it basically boils down to four things.
- Do you seem to know what you’re talking about?
- How much time am I going to have to spend rewriting your copy?
- Do you have a distinctive voice/a good turn of phrase?
- Can you do funny?
If you can make me chuckle and think, “I wish I’d written that” in the course of one review then you’ve pretty much cracked it.
What are the absolutely DO NOT DO’s when applying to write for you?
Firstly, target the right person – in most cases, going direct to the editor is not the best course of action. You should be contacting a section editor, and not doing so can create the impression that you haven’t been paying attention to the magazine. Make sure your email is not littered with typos and grammatical errors. Don’t be too stuffy and formal, but don’t be overly chummy either. Don’t blather on and on – no section editor has time to read an 800-word potted biography, plus I commission a lot of 130-word reviews, so I need to know you can be concise. Make sure your samples are appropriate to our publication (gig reviews are useless for me). Finally, two pet hates: don’t write in the first person, or start your review with a great swathe of synopsis.
BLIMEY, they’ve actually secured some work experience! What should they expect to learn in the office, and how should they conduct themselves?
You’ll learn that it’s mostly a lot of people staring at PCs all day, working long hours; on the plus side, we’re all doing something we love, surrounded by like-minded people. As in any job, there is quite a lot of pretty humdrum admin to be done in-between the fun bits like doing face-to-face interviews or set visits. Also, expect swearing. Well, if you sit near me anyway.
You may be a fantastic writer, but we don’t know that and we’re not going to take it on trust, so before we let you loose on anything creative you can expect to carry out a series of mundane tasks to prove you’re not illiterate. We don’t create busywork – you’ll be doing something that we’d be doing if you weren’t around, so beware giving the impression that you’re Above Such Things. That will not go down well.
Don’t just sit there quietly, efficiently doing what you’re told either though, or you will become The Work Experience Person Noone Remembers. Try and make an impression. By that I don’t mean ride a unicycle through the office, while playing the trumpet, naked. Just… show an interest. The simplest thing you can do is to ask people to spend ten minutes talking you through what their job involves. It probably won’t be exciting – unless learning about attaching rights contributions to a flatplan gives you an adrenaline rush – but it will give you a better idea of what you’re letting yourself in for, and it will increase the chances that people remember your name and face.
If you were starting out in this game now, what advice would you give yourself?
I’d grab myself by the throat, slam myself up against a wall and tell myself that I’m okay at journalistic writing and should think about doing it for a living. It makes me feel slightly jealous when I see people who’ve worked that out at the age of 18 (although at the same time, I do find it a bit freaky). I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do at 18. Or 25, come to think of it. So if you’re in the same boat, don’t despair – it isn’t necessarily too late.
Anything else to say to students and grads starting out in your field?
Firstly: just write, write, write and then write some more. Assuming that you have some basic ability then the more you write, the better you will get at it. My English is half-decent because I spent my teens bashing out 15,000-word letters to penpals, and I got my foot in the door because of photocopied A5 fanzines; the modern equivalent of all that is a blog.
Secondly, be prepared for uncertainty. Print circulations are shrinking and digital/online are becoming much more of a focus. The landscape of journalism is transforming and none of us really know what it’ll look like in 15 or 20 years’ time. Depending on your point of view, that’s either exciting or frightening…
And with that, he’s gone; back into the hazy, glittering world of time travelling, sword wielding, and monsters, maniacs and magicians. Jealous? We are a bit. Might be time to get writing. Farewell, nude trumpeting, we barely knew thee…