Meet the Experts: Piers

Meet the Experts: Piers

At Media Training, we are proud to be working with trainers that are experts in their field and ready to go the extra mile so that the delegates leave their course with new and improved skills. We thought our readers would be interested in knowing better our heroes that make the learning process easier. We had the opportunity to interview Piers Ford - a journalist, copywriter, and trainer for our writing courses.

Tell us who you are and what you do professionally? Describe yourself in three words.

I'm a journalist, copywriter, and trainer.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in journalism?

I took a Drama and English degree and didn't know what I wanted to do when I finished. So I started writing and it took me a while until I had my first work published. That's when I realised this is what I wanted to do. I was in my twenties when I decided to pursue a career in journalism. I applied for positions in an old-fashioned way from The Guardian advertisements and that's how I got my first job.

If you could go back, what career would you pursue today?

I would definitely pursue a writing career. But I would think more about my subject and make more informed choices. I went straight into journalism and took the first job, which was writing about tech. It was great but I didn't feel that passionate about it! I really learned my trade but it didn't make my heartbeat.

Tell me how you got into freelancing and how this changed your career.

After 10 years of editing magazines and having a good career in the first part, I always had freelancing in the back of my mind.

What advice would you give to freelancers today?

Make careful decisions. Keep an open mind and be fully aware of the amount of work you'll have. Try to have a portfolio of subjects because if one dies out, you've got another option. As mentioned earlier, I've got three strands in my portfolio: journalism, copywriting, and now training. When a crisis comes up, you shouldn't have just one option to rely on.

You're known to be a professional journalist. What's your favourite magazine or newspaper to read and why?

It's a very difficult question because I read a lot and I almost don't know which newspaper is my favourite. We all have our tribes and loyalties but I'm still a Guardian reader. It's the only paper that I physically buy at the weekend. I've started making time to sit and read articles that interest me ‐ also about things I don't understand very well or know much about.  But it takes time to do that because we've become such skim readers - which also has a huge effect on the way we write. I talk a lot about it in my courses. It's important just to give yourself some reading time.

I love magazines and I have shelves full of them. As an editor, I used to love the whole process of seeing different types of copy and articles turn into beautiful magazines. I still love that, even if there are fewer paper magazines. I also enjoy reading The New Yorker and New York Times.

Do you have any reading recommendations for someone who wants to pursue a career in journalism, what would they be?

I would say read well and widely. Specifically, on journalism, I would recommend reading books by the late Harold Evans, a former editor of The Sunday Times, who wrote about the craft of journalism. So much of it is relevant to digital journalism. Another old-school journalist is Lynn Barber, one of the great Fleet Street profile writers. She wrote about the craft of interviewing and she makes interesting points in her books. There's a lot you can take from them. 

If I take the other side of my career there are impressive books on copywriting as well, such as Andy Maslen whose books are also available on Amazon. He writes about the craft of copywriting and audience engagement. I'm just reading a new book by Andrew Boulton ‐ Copywriting Is… - which is really about how to ‘think' like a copywriter rather than just focusing on the technique.

Tell me about the publishers you've worked with and your process for securing those collaborations. 

As a freelance journalist, I had a good long-term collaboration over the years with a magazine called The Singer,  which doesn't exist anymore. My relationship with the editor grew over the years and she commissioned me on a regular basis ‐ some of the most interesting pieces I've ever worked on.

I've written for the nationals such as the Independent and the Guardian. But you're only as good as the story idea that you offer. If they accept it, it's a business transaction. As a freelancer, you don't necessarily have the same type of loyalty as a full-time employee because there are always other possibilities coming along. There were many other productive relationships but unfortunately, many of those magazines don't exist anymore. So, you always have to move ahead. 

In terms of copywriting, working with agencies has been good because they have many clients. To secure those collaborations you have to market yourself and push yourself forward for opportunities. It's a mixture of building a network of contacts, nurturing them, pitching ideas, and marketing yourself as someone who can provide a good copywriting service. You have to have tough skin because believe it or not, not everyone says yes! You've got to be resilient and not take rejections personally. Even after 35 years of my career, it's hard to get rejected, but it's actually worse not to hear anything from the editor when you pitch an idea. 

What advice would you give to freelance journalists/writers today on how to get their work published? 

I would say, keep an open mind. Don't limit yourself - and always be reliable. Don't promise something you won't be able to fulfill, because your reputation will suffer. Don't let anybody down and deliver what you're supposed to deliver. Meet your deadlines. Treat anybody as a potential source or story idea, every editor or marketing director as someone you'd write for. Potentially, everything is material. Keep on top and keep coming up with fresh ideas.

Tell me about some of the most exciting articles you've ever worked on.

This is really difficult.  Looking back at old successes isn't exactly moving forward ‐ and in any case, I always think I could have written it better. One of the pieces that made me the most excited and most nervous was interviewing Stephen Sondheim, the great Broadway composer, and writer of musicals. I admire him a lot. People say don't meet your heroes, but that certainly wasn't the case with him.

Another exciting thing was to get a first ‘yes' from The Financial Times. I was very happy but once I'd written that feature, it was difficult to follow it up. I did go on to write more for them, though.

When do you feel the most creative?

I feel the most creative when I have an experience that stimulates ideas for me. It could be a performance or event that I've attended, a conversation that I've had with somebody, something I've read, or a television documentary. Creativity also comes in response to that experience. There's always an idea for an article, or how to use that idea in a training course.

What does your writing process look like?

My writing process is more disciplined than it used to be. But it begins with a lot of thought.  Whether I've got a deadline in two hours or two weeks, it starts with thinking it through and making sure I'm clear about the brief. Then, I will go away and do my research. I set a time limit for setting up any interviews and basic online research. 

In short, here is my process: thinking, research, planning, and writing at the end ‐ ideally with time for editing as well. Before I start writing a feature, I sometimes find it coming together in my head. I can't tell you how many times I've suddenly landed on my introduction in random places like the shower or pushing the supermarket trolley. It's a pain to have to write the thing when I get home! My process tends to be messy sometimes along the way but that's how it works for me.

How do you react if the editor doesn't like your work? What is your process for making changes to a piece of work after receiving feedback from a company?

There are two aspects to this. On the journalism side ‐ if the editor doesn't like your work, that's quite brutal. The editor will have their own perspective on what they've asked you to write. A good editor will work through that with you. Once you've drafted your copy, my reaction to comments would be tempered by the fact that they are the editor, they are in charge and they say what goes on in their publication. Your professional job is to meet those requirements. You have to accept criticism. I'm not a big-name columnist who can fly off the handle because of the way their copy has been edited and they don't like it. I can't afford to behave like that because I won't be asked back.

From the copywriting perspective, where you've got clients, it's a bit different. If I'm writing a copy for a particular company, organisation, or agency, then I would expect to be very well briefed - meaning both sides are aware of what we're trying to achieve with a piece of work. If I have to make changes, ultimately they are the ones who sign the cheque and accept something that meets their requirements. But if I felt that they were wrong I would defend my reason and try to persuade them that it's a better way of writing it. It depends on the relationship because if the client is looking for a more consultative approach then they're more likely to listen. Otherwise, if their ideas are very fixed you'd rather do what they say because you'll never win that argument. That's part of being a professional copywriter. You'll never write to please yourself.

Why did you become a trainer at Media Training?

I was approached when they were looking for writing trainers at the time, over 12 years ago.

What is it like to be a trainer at Media Training?

It's exciting because in every single course you meet so many different people from different organisations and countries. To be honest, I'm never bored with a Media Training course because although I might have taught 500 before, every single time is different. It depends on the mixture in the center or in the virtual classroom. The loveliest thing is that you learn from your delegates and it's an experience for you as a trainer. You're there to give very specific courses and deliver the outcomes that they want to achieve, but at the same time you also learn creatively and find out about their world. I've enjoyed the huge mixture of people I've met over the years. 

What courses do you teach?

All writing courses, journalism, and copywriting courses. There are various layers within that, but basically, anything that involves words. I do interviewing courses, editorial skills, sub-editing, and proofreading. A little bit of a curiosity for me is teaching the Introduction to Infographics which has proved to be successful, even though I'm not a designer! It fills the important gap between being great with the design software and bringing the craft of story-telling and creating a strong editorial case for an infographic. 

If a delegate attends one of your courses, how will this benefit their career?

They have the benefit of having six hours to spend with somebody who's got 35 years experience as a professional writer. They have the chance to pick my brains and ask any questions they want to. They'll always get the most honest answer I can give, based on my expertise. I always encourage them to do that and relate it back to their situations. They can get solutions to problems encountered during their writing process. After the course, I really hope that they benefit from increased confidence in their own writing abilities and take that into the development of their career.

Do you think the journalism and writing industries are going in the right direction?

Journalism is in a very challenging place right now. We question the role of the media: whether it's there to reflect government messages or to encourage critical and objective thought. Media consumption ‐ and I include social media - feels more tribal than I can ever remember, although I guess it has always been the case. I will always come down on the side of critical thought and what I really like is that there are new kinds of publications coming through which are not just mainstream media but also more challenging publications. In that perspective, the proliferation of the new diverse media is really encouraging. 

More generally, with the constant evolution of digital platforms, there are trends that will continue for copywriting such as a diverse mixture of content - and it's not only about the words. Images and videos get the most interest and traffic. Regardless of that, words will never die and there will always be a need for them. They just have to work in conjunction with other media and different types of content. Hopefully, that will continue happening in the future. I'm hopeful everything will find its place and there will also be enough room for the long read in journalism, business writing, and marketing communications. People will read long content as long as it's well written and made easy for them to navigate. I hope all those trends continue and provide us with work.

If you're interested in booking one of our writing, journalism, or infographics courses and learn how to keep your audience engaged, our team will be more than happy to assist you.

by Piers Ford | 27 Sep 23

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