Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Get out from behind your keyboard // Advice from an F1 Racing writer on breaking into the business

Published by Stuart Codling

Scott has been scouting around the comments for advice on getting into journalism, particularly sporting and motorsports. Who better to ask than Stuart Codling? Here he dispenses some invaluable advice.

So you want to be an F1 journalist

“What advice can you give me if I want to start a career in motorsport journalism…?”

Well, Scott, you asked – and there’s no definitive answer, because times they are a-changin’, although there are a few principles that should hold true even in the internet age.

1) Language!

This is a communications industry, so a decent command of the lingo will be your biggest asset. Yes, I know I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious here, but you would be astounded at how many people covet a job in journalism without actually being able to operate its principal medium: English. Trust me – the evidence used to accumulate in big piles on my desk.

I’ve seen some real horrors; writing punctuated so randomly that I could only imagine the author had filled some giant pepper grinder with apostrophes and commas, then sprinkled the contents over the page as if they were putting the finishing touches to a pizza. And although there is some dark amusement to be had in reading that someone claims “attention to detail” as one of their strengths, having pitched you a feature on “Bridgestone vs Mitchell tyres”, depression soon sets in.

For all that they want to write for a living, a lot of prospective scribes don’t read enough. Perhaps it’s because they see writing as a means to an end (the end in this case being involvement in motorsport) and aren’t interested enough to find out how to do it properly. So here’s a tip: read for pleasure, and do it often. It doesn’t have to be Voltaire; Terry Pratchett will do, at a pinch. You’ll learn a lot about grammar, spelling, punctuation, pace and storytelling.

2) Know your audience

As Alex said, nobody is going to give you an F1 hardcard, a wad of plane tickets and some accommodation vouchers, and say, “Here you go; toddle off and watch some races and maybe jot something down afterwards.” As a journalist you are entering into a commercial relationship with your audience. They are your customers. You are writing for them, not for yourself. You can wind them up a bit, but don’t bore them.

So: re-read your work. Is it spelled right? Does it make sense? Is it interesting enough? What can you profitably remove, for the sake of pacing, without detracting from the flow of information? A common error – particularly among writers of motorsport history – is to utterly up-end the fact bucket over the poor reader, leaving them bewildered at the flow of information. Keeping it simple is becoming increasingly important in this era of declining attention spans.

3) Practice

Having a blog is an excellent way of improving your writing because you learn by doing – and, with any luck, you’ll get instant feedback from readers. After all, you don’t run a marathon without doing the hard miles in training first.

4) Get noticed

As Boris Johnson said, “The first duty of a columnist is to be read.” Whether you’re fulfilling a commission for a magazine or newspaper, or writing a blog entry, avoid letting it slide into blah-de-blah. In the consumer age, all people want to do is get to the end of a story and move on to the next – don’t give them an excuse to flick to the end of your piece without reading it.

Say something interesting. Make every sentence count. Play to the gallery occasionally (all successful bloggers do it).

Many people criticise my erstwhile colleague Mr Bishop, but you all know who he is and you care enough about what he says to have read his work. Even if writing a whole story about how he told Ralf Schumacher to Foxtrot Oscar was perhaps, in hindsight, not the most sensible course of action.

5) Get out from behind your keyboard

Social skills are still important. You can’t interview people on Facebook (yet). A worrying number of applicants for journalism jobs are either cripplingly shy or have poorly developed social skills. They are often very good at assembling a story based on internet research, but they founder when they have to do anything face-to-face.

If you want to differentiate your work from everyone else’s – talk to people! You may – perish the thought – learn something that doesn’t come up on the first page of Google.

6) And finally

…as someone who will remain nameless once said to me, before I arrived for a job interview, “All you have to do is turn up and not be a c—t.”