Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Catch 22

Of all the jobs I’ve had…

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Perhaps the nicest was the summer job I had picking apples. I was 19 at the time. The farm manager would pick us up in the morning in a tractor, and drop us off to where we’d be working that day, on a row of apple trees ripe for picking. We’d work until dusk, taking breaks whenever we wanted.

It was 2008. I’d returned from ten months teaching English in China and I was looking to earn some money, ready for another stint abroad. I’d start university the following year, where I’d read multimedia journalism.

We were paid 80 pence a box. We each had a black marker we used to initial every box we filled, leaving them out in a row for the farmhand to pick up later in his tractor. The boxes were not large, but the apples were not big either. The old ladies who owned the farm always gave us tips and covered our transportation costs; train fare in my case. But we did not make much.

Alongside me were a bunch of geezers who for whatever reason chose to work this late summer job. For lunch we’d eat our sandwiches and crisps and whatever else we’d packed. And of course we ate apples. Lots of apples. When it was time to take a break, I’d pick an apple from a tree, sit myself down, and eat an apple. Among our heads, there were apples ripening in the sun. We’d hear apples falling on the ground. Sometimes they’d fall on your head, and it hurt a little bit.

As the summer wore on, I’d have dreams of apples. They’d be yellow and red and warm. And I would dream the sound of apples falling to the ground, a sound I can hear still. A low thud, a compact thud, that often came one thud after the other, like a weighty round earth striking a far larger earth, and gravity would ring out the little’s earth slight hollowness.

*

It was 2011, and I’d sit alone in my room in a house full of people. Six people and three floors. I was in my second year of university. I’d travel to London every week, spending two nights, attending a free journalism course where I’d hone my pitching skills. This was on top of my journalism degree. I did not work especially hard in my second year. Not on my journalism degree work anyway.

In my second year, I wrote music reviews for a website who would send me CDs in the post. I kept a film blog and I’d go watch movies at the movie theatre alone, keeping notes in the dark, and then write about the film for my blog. I’d submit these reviews to another website which paid me on the basis of view counts.

In that year, I accumulated Microsoft Word files. I accrued more and more sentences and paragraphs. I did not do much reporting in my second year of uni. You might think that strange, but a journalism degree doesn’t actually provide much reporting practice or training. But what I did do was write a lot. It was what you would call a formative year.

*

I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee in Beijing, and it’s 2015. I’ve accumulated lots of bylines. But in the past few months I’ve felt little progress. I’ve achieved a few things, in my freelance journalism career. But I am looking forward to going home. For Christmas. I look forward to maybe going to Scotland, to hike in mountains of snow. I look forward to this as much as I worry that I’ll squander away the time leading up to December.

Amid all this, for whatever reason, the memory of that summer, where I picked apples for a living, arrives abruptly in my head, a thud on my consciousness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 30, 2015 at 10:00 am

Smog’s lesson in reselling freelance stories

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That time I spent every week going to London to practice pitching

One reason you shouldn’t study a journalism degree is to learn how to freelance. J-school is woeful at teaching the mechanics, processes and techniques of successful freelance journalism. A much better way of learning is to buy a couple of books on it, practice what they teach and start doing it. Freelancing workshops can be pricey but worthwhile.

In the second year of my journalism degree I spent a couple days every week, for 12 weeks, attending another journalism course in London (which is three hours away from my university).

On this course, at the start of every class, we were asked to pitch ideas for magazine stories. To begin with our ideas were plagiaristic, rudimentary and not much different than the headlines we’d noted on the various news websites we checked.

Over the duration of the program however, as the weeks wore on, and we became used to the habit of pitching and coming up with ideas for stories our skills noticeably improved. The slant of our headlines steadily grew more sophisticated, our angles more acute, our ideas more original.

Who knows what quantifiable difference it made to our progression but I do believe that that weekly exercise irrevocably strengthened mine and my cohort’s ability to think up story ideas and to think in such a way that allowed us to be creative in a strict form – that of the story pitch.

In the classroom in London. For more on my time on this course, you can read this: http://wannabehacks.co.uk/2011/07/13/lu-hai-liang-catch-22-review-the-social-enterprise-journalism-placement/

That time my journalism tutor said something profound about freelancing

Back at university, we were given a couple of lessons in freelancing, which were superficial and lackluster, but one thing a tutor said stuck with me.

“The trick”, he would say, on more than one occasion, “is not to sell 17 ideas to one publication. The trick is to sell one idea 17 times”.

It has taken me some time to fully understand what that meant, and just how you do that.

Along the way I listened to an editor talk about a friend who was brilliant at selling off different parts of an interview to different publications: “He’d interview Nick Cohen and he’d ask him some questions about being Jewish and sell that to The Jewish Chronicle; he’d ask him about the war [Iraq] and sell that to a political magazine”, and so on…

The point

What is missing in these lessons is how to repackage and resell an existing idea. It is what one freelance I heard refer to as ‘re-nosing’.

The fact is you cannot re-pitch the exact same idea again – you have to adapt it, change it up, modify, refocus the angle, sell in in a different format…there are lots of ways you can mine existing ideas or articles you’ve written to make more business.

In my experience, what I’ve done on Beijing’s air pollution problem – described sometimes as ‘smog’ – is a clear example. It all started as an article about how Asia can be a job opportunity for graduates. One of the sources for that story became a profile feature for a business magazine. I adapted the angle so that it became a news feature when the smog got bad again…and so on. Below are the headlines and stand-firsts of the different stories which hopefully demonstrates what I mean more clearly:

Does Asia hold the answer to your graduate career hunt? [link]

Doing business in China: Lu-Hai Liang speaks to the founder of a successful Beijing-based startup about what it’s like running a company there [link]

The expats offering a breath of fresh air in polluted Beijing [link]

Related –

Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits? Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why? [link]

The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food [link]

Flying the flag for the best of British in China: A young English woman who forged a successful career in China after moving there as a teenage is now promoting British brands to wealthy shoppers in Beijing [link]