PassTheAux with Amelia Tait: where to find ideas and how to up your word rate
In this new series for Pass The Aux, I chat to successful journalists about their highs and lows – from the piece that got them a pay rise to the one they wished they'd never written
Some days, journalism can feel like one of the best jobs in the world. Others, it can feel thankless. You might be the most interesting person at a dinner party, but you’ll probably be the first to leave – a weekend deadline calling. Yes, freebies are often landing on your desk but they don’t make up for the looming shadow of redundancy, pay rises that don’t match inflation and freelance fees that take four months to come through. Sure, you may have interviewed your favourite celeb, but trolls stand ready to send your timeline up in smoke and the threat of a lawsuit seems never too far away. Meanwhile even the unluckiest person on Tinder hasn’t been ghosted quite like your average freelance writer trying to land a pitch.
Oh get a grip, I can almost hear a haggard war reporter muttering as I type this. OK, Gwyneth Paltrow’s angry publicist is hardly going to put a bullet through me (that said...), but one thing all journalists have in common is that our stomachs are perpetually in knots, and often all we need to untie them is a little bit of perspective.
Which is why I am excited to share a new content series for Pass The Aux, in which I speak to some of journalism’s leading names about all the things that keep us anxious journos up at night: from soul crushing edits and feeble word rates to interview disasters and death threats. Because let’s be honest, is there anything more comforting than knowing somebody else has had it much, much worse?
Launching the series is the brilliant, award-winning pop culture journalist Amelia Tait, whose ability to forage a story from the unlikeliest corners and her curiosity for what others so often overlook has always amazed me. For Vice she has written about why our mothers always use the same cookie tin to store their sewing equipment, while for the New Statesman she investigated a film that various people swear they have seen but doesn’t seem to exist. For her newsletter The Waiting Room she interviewed the family who make giant plastic ice cream cones and a man who has never eaten a sandwich.
I asked Amelia where she gets her ideas, the most difficult piece she has ever had to write and her diciest confrontation with the internet. She was, as expected, full of sparkling wisdom, and, as ever, very funny. Read our chat below and please shower her with praise on Twitter:
How did you survive your first big edit?
The first time I did a 4,000-word long read for a magazine, I filed it without any section breaks – wrongly assuming that the editor or layout people got to choose where to break an article up! On top of this, the piece didn't really have an argument or theme, it was just a big old jumble of facts and quotes. My editor at the time, the inimitable Oli Franklin-Wallis, was extremely patient with me during the process; instead of simply yelling 'What is this garbage???' he taught as he edited – helping me figure out what I wanted to say and how to say it.
That's not to say I handled it with dignity. I pride myself on being responsive to edits and doing them in a timely, professional manner – and I very rarely push back – BUT that doesn't mean I'm not a baby in the background. Nowadays when I get extensive edits, I regularly skim them with growing anger and rage and then rant to my partner/friends about how WRONG this MORONIC editor is and how DARE they QUESTION my work.
This has two benefits: firstly, it allows me to remain professional on social media and in my inbox, because I get my emotions out with pals. Secondly, it means that by the time I actually look at the edits again properly, they're nowhere near as bad as I thought. It really is about sticking your head down and getting on with the job – we can't help it if edits make us emotional, but it's really unprofessional to let these emotions carry us away. I've seen people tweet about editors as though they're not also on Twitter: bad! Bad! Bad! Twitter is your shop front.
How did you get your first pay rise?
There's no way for this answer to not be obnoxious but I want to be honest: I got my first pay rise after writing the highest viewed article in the history of the website I worked for, and I got my second pay rise (at a different publication) the same way. Both were less than a year into the job. Now obviously this isn't a feasible target to set for yourself, because as anyone who's worked in digital knows, page views are a cruel and unpredictable mistress. However, if you do work in digital, keep a record of all of your stats so you can slap down a print-out on the table and say things like, "I got the highest viewed article in X, Y, Z month" or "My dwell time is highest out of everyone in the team". Having something concrete to show your worth to the company is always valuable, I feel. With freelancing, I simply ask for more money when a rate doesn't meet my expectations – the worst they can do is say "no", after all!
How was taking the freelance plunge?
I was freelance first – I couldn't find a staff job in journalism so simply started freelancing instead which was good as the bylines helped me secure my first job (for a listicle website!). I kept freelancing on the side and that led to me being employed by one of the publications I wrote for when a job came up (pure luck, basically!). I always knew I wanted to go freelance again so I saved up some wages (I recommend having a month's worth saved) and took the plunge. It was terrifying and exciting but because I'd freelanced on the side of my full time job (something else I recommend before going full time freelance!) I already had some existing relationships with editors. My mental health has since improved so much that I'm constantly trying to convince the whole world to go freelance.
How to cope when it's you vs The Internet?
I've been swarmed by neo-Nazis and doxxed by football lads, but the most shocking backlash I got was when I wrote a piece about my hometown for Vice. I think it's partially because I wasn't prepared for it – I naively assumed no one from the town would actually read my article, and even when slating the town in the piece, I tried to stress that I was biased and an unreliable narrator. The messages I got were hilariously archaic ("Shut up you little lezzer!") but they shook me because they were so vitriolic and so unexpected (and because my mum had to read them on the town's Facebook page!).
Other than that, the worst trolling I received was when I got a racist parody Twitter account taken down. I was getting a tweet a second from football lads, one of whom tried to find my address. It was the usual misogynistic stuff (slut/bitch/slag/whore etc.) but the sheer volume was overwhelming. I cried and ordered a load of KFC even though I was supposedly a vegetarian.
Since then, I've checked and double checked all my personal info on the internet, which I recommend every journalist does (tip: don't just check social media sites, remember sites like eBay may have more public info on you than you think!). I don't actively avoid pieces that will cause carnage (last year I had to turn my Twitter private for a week after writing about a controversial subreddit) but during coronavirus, my career has naturally progressed away from serious stuff about internet radicalisation to lighter, fun stuff, because that's where I'm drawn. Some journalists are tough enough to handle constant abuse but I don't think I'm one of them. I'm fundamentally a coward who likes to write about nostalgia and junk food.
Have you had an interview bust-up?
For reasons I still can't discern, an editor forwarded me an email from a PR who was presenting her client as someone who could talk about tech and Trump (I almost never write stories based on press releases – I think I've done it once? – because I am unhealthily obsessed with being original).
Anyway, fine, I emailed the PR; we set up an interview with her client. "So, how do you think Trump relates to this issue?" I asked the client, basing my story on the press release. "I don't want to talk about Trump," said the interviewee. I think I held on valiantly for about three more minutes, garbling some other questions, and then said bye. The PR was EXTREMELY apologetic about the whole thing and I know it wasn't my fault, but it still makes me cringe.
Very, very early in my career (I think it was actually my first ever freelance piece), I interviewed a teen and in the intro of my piece referenced an outing she'd been on as "the best day of her life". She was extremely upset as she'd never said those words to me – even though I hadn't claimed that it was a direct quote or anything, I felt very, very guilty.
It was a huge lesson for me and something I'm glad I learned early on. It's so important to get the essence of what someone is saying correct and avoid hyperbole – I now check and check and recheck that my interpretation matches the overall vibe of a conversation. Sometimes this means a line might be less impactful, but accuracy and respecting your interviewees is far more important than a sexy line.
What is the most difficult piece you have ever written and why?
In 2017, I wrote a piece about male YouTubers (allegedly!) manipulating young fans. Legally, it was very tricky to write (allegedly! Allegedly! Allegedly!) and it was also emotionally difficult: these people trusted me with their stories and I wanted to do them justice. At the time, this topic was criminally under-covered which added extra pressure (today YouTube abuse is an entire beat in its own right and I deeply admire the reporters who work tirelessly to uncover these stories).
What is your biggest journalistic pet peeve?
I hate journo requests. I appreciate that I'm an old man and they're a cloud; I completely understand that they're only going to become more and more common and leave me in their dust. I can't stand them, though. I don't understand why you'd ever need to tweet, "Looking to chat to someone with a dog named Bertie" when you can find a Facebook group with 3,000 people called "I love my dog named Bertie" or whatever. I don't understand why you'd want to find "an academic who can chat about teeth" when you could go on Google Scholar and find THE academic who has done THE definitive study on teeth. I always want the strongest, most relevant case study for any piece.
When you tweet a journo request, you're not going to find someone who was already organically thinking about the issue – you're going to find somebody who thinks, "That sounds a little like me and also I would like to be in the paper." Besides, the vast majority of people aren't on Twitter, so the people who respond will likely be aligned with the media or politics or tech in some way.
I've used journo requests for things that are super general – like when Microsoft Paint sort-of died in 2017, I asked people to tell me their memories of it – but I don't like to use them for very specific things. Don't get me wrong, using them would make my job 20,000 times easier (I think around 80% of my time is spent finding the perfect person, then finding their contact details, then reaching out, then being totally ignored) and once I used one as a last resort and found the perfect case study, but... yeah. They're just not for me. When I was (briefly) an editor, I was really disheartened if I commissioned someone and then went on Twitter to see them #JournoRequesting for the story I'd just commissioned. I mean, anyone could do that. Where's your expertise? Where's your graft?
But also, again: old man, cloud. I appreciate that if you have a very tight deadline, #JournoRequests are super useful and would hate anyone to read this and feel bad about themselves. It's just MY pet peeve, and my Spotify Wrapped has featured songs from the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack for two years in a row, so can you really trust my judgement???
Where's the most useful place you get your story ideas from? And what about the most unexpected?
I get a ton of my ideas while being a passive consumer: watching TV, sat in the cinema, scrolling through something online. For example, a trailer came on in the cinema for a movie about a bodybuilder babysitting a kid, and it inspired me to write a short history of that trope for The Guardian. Similarly, I was watching the finale of The Circle and noticed the VERY LONG pause after the presenters said, "And the winner is...", so I counted up all the reality TV finale pauses over the years and wrote a piece for i News.
With digital culture stories, it's often a case of stumbling across a subreddit or a YouTube video that piques my interest. A lot of my ideas just come from questioning stuff we take for granted. Like, I look at giant plastic ice cream cone outside a shop and want to know: where did that come from? Who makes those? I love to examine mundane things in depth and take silly subjects really, really seriously, as though I'm doing a proper investigative piece.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
The best piece of interviewing advice I was given was to ask an interviewee at the end of a call, 'Is there anything else you'd like to add that we haven't covered?'. Nine times out of ten they don't have anything to add, but that one time they do is gold. And even with the nine times, many interviewees use this question to sum up what they've been saying and therefore say it in a shorter, snappier, sexier way, so you get loads of great quotes that way!
In terms of writing, I'm not sure. I think there's so much advice out there that's a bit one-size-fits-all and I think it's more important to find out what works for you. I mean, I write all my pieces chronologically (it means I spend forever on intros!) and I write them in bed, two things I'm pretty sure people would advise against. So yeah, you do you!
Can you recommend a piece you’ve loved by someone brilliant?
Joe Zadeh's piece on the tyranny of time is just... how I wish every piece could be. I don't even know how you pitch something like that. It's brilliant.
I hope you enjoy the series, please get in touch to let me know how you’re finding Pass The Aux, and if there’s someone in particular you’d like me to talk to, I’d love to know.
I’d also love for you to read my most recent interview with the wonderful pop star Maisie Peters, and listen to my latest episode of Straight Up with KSI, who talks about cancel culture, dating in the public eye and coming offline.