Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why join a writers' association?

I recently read a blog post written by another travel writer focused on the benefits of membership in a professional travel writing association, the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance.

The writer stressed that through this association,  she obtained much easier access to fam tours, a.k.a. press trips.

Press trips are an important aspect of travel-writing, particularly if you happen to be a freelance writer, and no one is paying you a salary with benefits.

But there are many other benefits of belonging to writing associations - and not just for travel writers.

I guess I should stop here and clarify when I say, "writers associations" I'm talking about professional writers - journalists, copywriters, speech creators, movie script writers - anyone who actually makes a living as a writer. While some novelists are fortunate enough to be able to live off their writing income, most are not.

So I am not including in this group writers' groups that get together over coffee and cake to critique each other's prose and poetry. Anyone can sit in on those; for professional associations, you need to meet some kind of minimal qualification standards to join, just like any profession such as law, medicine, accounting, etc.

If you're a professional writer, it may benefit you to belong to more than one writers association - particularly if it has a different emphasis. They all have different benefits.

I began my professional freelance career by joining the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 2000. That followed by membership in the North American Travel Journalists Association, the B.C. Association of Travel Writers and the Travel Media Association of Canada. They have all turned out to be beneficial for me in many different ways.

1. Industry contacts. As previously mentioned, contacts with travel industry people is, of course, a huge benefit of being a travel writer in an association, since without those contacts, it is difficult to obtain hosted trips. But networking can provide much more than knowing who to contact for subsidized travel. These professionals can also help you with story research; with sourcing images for a website or magazine/newspaper; they can put you in touch with others who may be able to help you complete your story. If you develop a good relationship with them, some of them may even be able to help you connect with editors for a story you're working on or interested in telling.

2. Professional development. Every profession requires this, but while many employers provide this for their staff, freelancers, by nature, do not have this option. Pro D sessions at conferences and monthly meetings can really help you stay on top of your game, both from a standpoint of being educated and up-to-date with respect to trends and practices in the writing profession - as well as from a motivational standpoint, encouraging you to continue writing. It can also help you develop different but related means to add income to your career.

Yours Truly (middle), John Masters (left) and John Lee
socialize at a 2013 TMAC event.
3. Writer advocacy. Not every association does this. Most travel writing associations do not; however, many other writing associations do.

Example: Several years ago, I submitted a story with about 60 colour slides (it was pre-digital) to a magazine and was paid on acceptance for the material. More than a year later, the story was still not published and I wanted the slides back to use for other stories/resales. The editor would not return them. 

After much back-and-forth with no success, I finally asked PWAC to contact him and he finally relented and returned my slides. The story never was published, but at least I was paid.

Conversely, PWAC will also advocate on your behalf for work that has been published but not paid for.

4. Increased exposure. PWAC members are included in an online writers database, accessible to anyone in the world. So if an editor in Hong Kong needs a travel story about Vancouver, the editor can search the database by keywords to find a writer to fill the need. This has happened to me on several occasions, netting me good assignments each time.

5. Collateral benefits. These are almost always unforeseen, unexpected bonuses. During a Pro D session at a travel writers conference, a presenter mentioned about a non-travel martial arts publication looking for writers. That same presentation, she also mentioned about some of the trade mags (again, non-travel) she had worked for. That spurred me to contact the martial arts publication, and for the next five years, I wrote for them regularly. Ditto, trade mags: I contacted a company that publishes several trade magazines and again, wrote for them regularly for about three years. (Both gigs ended when the editors left those mags). But I got a lot of work for several years by going to that travel writers conference.
Christine Potter leads discussion during a 2010
BCATW professional development event.

6. Benefits packages. While freelancing for various publications means you will not get the same benefits from a publication that a staff writer does, many professional writing associations offer benefits packages in the form of health insurance, and in some cases, travel insurance plans. It varies from group to group, but it is certainly worth looking into.

7. Professional feedback. Since we work alone so much, it's nice to compare notes. Maybe we don't realize one particular editor is really hard to work with; another likes to see "this" in a story; another is a very good editor to work for. Tips about the best way to pitch certain editors. These are the kinds of things you only find out by word of mouth.

8. Social benefits. Kind of an extension of #5. We work alone; we often never get out of the house. It's nice to get out once a month or so, have a few drinks with your peers, let your hair down and enjoy the camaraderie among people who completely get where you're coming from. You may even develop life-long friendships with some of them.

In summation, I have to point out that an association is only as good as the effort you put into being an active part of it. I do not mean you have to volunteer in some capacity - they are almost all non-profit organizations - although that helps. As with anything else, you need to take an active hand and participate in events, discussions and conferences. Just joining and sitting back will net you next to nothing, other than a line in your email signature. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.

Keep on writing!

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