How I learned to write

Someone once asked me, “how did you learn to write?”

I thought it was a silly question. I learned to write at school, like most other people . . . right?

And then I realised that what she was really asking was how I learned to write for a living. How to be a copywriter.

Which is actually an interesting question. I knew I had always wanted to write for a living (I remember telling childhood friends that my ideal job was to be a magazine editor – websites didn’t exist then) but it hadn’t occurred to me that I must have learned how to do it at some point.

And this led me to think about my first writing job. It was one of the most awful jobs I’ve ever had, but it taught me everything I needed to know about writing for a living – and unwittingly gave me the confidence boost I had been needing since school.

So I think the real answer is… by accident.

Bad job come good

In 1997, after leaving school with two poor A level grades and spending 4 years bumbling around, opening and then closing a small shop selling second-hand clothes(!) and finally doing a bit of freelance proofreading to earn some intermittent cash (I was great at the proofreading bit, but not so great at the freelance bit), it was time to bite the bullet and look for some real work.

My then-boyfriend dragged me to the jobcentre where, miracle of miracles, we found a small piece of card on the “no specialist skills required” part of the Jobs Wall headlined, simply, “Writer”. The jobcentre person phoned them. I went for an interview, spent half an hour there writing a feature about double glazing – and got the job.

So, from 1997 to 1999 I worked for a publishing company, writing copy for five newspapers. This sounds quite good for a “first proper job”, doesn’t it? In fact, what these free “news”papers were full of was not news, but pure, steaming bull shit.

It’s known as “support advertising”. A feature about a company – the feature itself being of no interest whatsoever to the publisher – is surrounded by paid adverts from the featured company’s suppliers. The purpose being to make guilt money.

If no suppliers lists are forthcoming, the money has to be extorted out of the featured company itself, even when they’ve been told they won’t have to pay.

You can imagine the kind of aggressive sales techniques that the sales teams used. Any number of awards, certificates, even new newspaper titles were invented, used and dropped in the name of money-making, loophole-exploiting, probably-given-their-own-archive-room-in-the-trading-standards-office, bad business.

But at the end of every day, the sales teams hit their targets, the writers got another few published articles for our portfolios… and the papers? The papers got stored and then pulped, as far as we ever knew. Job done.

The turnover of staff was immense. Sales staff came and went daily. Some with slanging matches, some without.

The number of times our “writers office” door was slung open by angry young boys in oversized polyester suits saying “I need to write a resignation letter NOW! Er, can you show me how to use the computer?” was, in hindsight, hilarious. My co-writers didn’t think so and by late 1998 I was the only writer left.

In 1999 the “Directors” of the Birmingham office – a husband and wife team – decided that even they couldn’t bear it anymore and left.

A new Director came in – a short man from the Head Office in Derby, no less – and told me that he would no longer be able to pay me the salary I had been on.

I could accept a pay cut of more than 40% (this would have taken my already laughable salary to £7,000 per annum). Or I could leave so that they could get someone else in on the lower wage.

Now, of course, I realise that this isn’t even legal – but at the time I didn’t know any better, so I simply refused the pay cut and made plans to leave.

But what happened next was strange – and rather cool. Having become used to this fast-paced job – watching the very worst of human life argue amongst themselves every day and finding myself treated as a slave one minute, IT guru the next – the anger I should have felt simply manifested itself as… energy.

I was wired. I gathered my things, stored up some goodies on the PC (a rather impolite “scrolling marquee” screensaver, as well as a few read-me files telling whichever poor writer came to use it next what was in store for them) and left.

The buzz that had been building up inside me since the morning’s conversation was amazing and I suddenly had the feeling I could do anything at all. I was so much better than any of these people I had met in the big wide world of work so far – and now, absolutely nothing could stand in my way.

The feeling didn’t go away, either. Over the next few months, I stayed wired. I made new friends like they were going out of fashion.

I applied for – and succeeded in getting – a job I’d never have dreamt of having the confidence to apply for before, in an area I was interested in but had no experience or even real knowledge of (books about web programming).

Yes, this “publishing” company had actually done me a favour and prepared me in a way no degree or training course could have done. As well as boost my confidence through the roof and even show me – the girl who goes red at the slightest fib – how to blag a little, it had taught me how to write.

How to write about anything at all, from any amount of information, to a strict word count and an even stricter deadline. The best grounding for my line of work – editing, subbing, writing for the web – that I could ever have hoped for.

First published on

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