The insider’s guide to freelance writing

IMAG0380_1I wasn’t expecting to learn about meth labs when I signed up for the Australian Writers’ Centre course ‘Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1′ but it was just one of the interesting war stories shared by experienced freelance writers Claire Halliday and Valerie Khoo over the weekend. The dynamic duo told tales of broken micro cassettes, rude celebrities, and dodgy editors. They gave some great insights into the writing process as well as practical tips for making freelance writing a viable career.

The course was held at the Abbotsford Convent in the midst of cafe-goers, a wedding, a photography course, families celebrating mother’s day, and a large group of vespa riders (cue the photo). Half of Melbourne seemed to be gathered there enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

Our group of around a dozen students got an insider’s guide on how to; come up with ideas for features, structure a feature article, analyse a publication, interview a subject, approach people for information, pitch to editors, and negotiate fair rates for your work.

We each interviewed a class mate, wrote a profile on them and got feedback on our writing. This was one of the highlights of the course. The exercise was a great opportunity to apply what we had learnt as well as getting to know each other better.  

The course gave me increased confidence in my freelance writing. I feel motivated and now have practical strategies to ramp up my writing. I left the course with several ideas I could pitch to editors for feature articles. It gave me a much better sense of what makes a high quality and engaging feature article.

The take away message from the course for me was that success in feature writing depends on building good relationships with editors (and being a decent writer).

If you want to explore feature writing as a hobby or career, it is definitely worth checking out this course.

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ANZ 23 mobile things

ANZ 23 mobile things logo

ANZ 23 mobile things logo

Social media is a powerful platform for connecting. It creates opportunities to reach outside of organisational hierarchies. It busts open geographic boundaries. Social media allows us to eavesdrop on conferences and conversations. We can share experiences with people outside our immediate network. We can listen, participate and learn. A great example of connecting and learning through social media is 23 Mobile Things, a self-directed online course focussed on learning about ‘mobile technologies that are changing the way people, society and libraries access information and communicate with each other’.

ALIA NGAC (Australian Library and Information Association New Generation Advisory Committee) and New Professionals Network NZ have teamed up to create ANZ 23 mobile things a cohort of around 500 librarians in Australia and New Zealand doing the course together. As well as participants, people have signed up as mentors and volunteers to help create and deliver the course. The course is supported by a Twitter account @anz23mthings and Facebook page ANZ 23 Mobile Things as well as a blog. The course has just started and runs from May-November 2013.

The real beauty of the concept is that it is teaching about social media by using social media. It is an immersive learning experience. The course is creating connections between participants and generating a real buzz on Twitter with the hashtag #anz23mthings. I’ve reflected before on the power of connecting via social media. This is another wonderful illustration.

You have to hand it to librarians. They know how to network.

MOOCs. What are they? Should I do one? How will they shake up education?

I’m half-way through my first MOOC course and figured it was a good time to reflect on the experience. My reflection also sparked my thinking on how the format and principles of MOOCs might be applied to other educational providers such as not-for-profits.

My main motivation for trying out a MOOC was to learn more about how MOOCs work and what the experience is like as a student. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are free courses offered over the internet from universities such as Princeton, Stanford, MIT and others. The courses offered tend to focus on science, maths and technology, but there are some humanities and business courses available too. There are several providers of MOOCs, including Coursera, Udacity and edX.

I was looking for a course that was a short-term commitment and didn’t have a heavy workload, but something more in-depth for my learning than a 2 day training workshop. I was also looking for a subject area that was emerging, relevant to my work, and one that wasn’t offered locally via university or TAFE short courses. I also liked the idea of doing something online so I could participate at any time of day that suited me and not be tied to a strict class schedule.

I decided on Gamification through the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania via Coursera. The lecturer is Kevin Werbach (@kwerb). The course hashtag is #gamification12.

The course format consists of weekly lectures. To enhance the learning experience, students can join online discussion forums, contribute to a course wiki, and follow-up suggested further readings and resources (if they have time…). You can stay informed about course developments via the course homepage, Twitter and email. There’s also a Facebook page. By supporting multiple communications platforms and integrating social media into the course, you feel connected to the course and there’s an opportunity to join up with classmates locally if you want to. Traditional university course designers could learn a lot from this socially-integrated approach to education.

I’ve been surprised to find the lectures really engaging. @kwerb makes me feel like he’s right here in my study giving me all his insights into gamification. I can watch the lectures whenever I like. If I miss something he says or get interrupted, I can pause and rewind, or watch the lecture again later. @kwerb uses a combination of slides, handwriting, video of himself lecturing, and screen shots to explain materials. This mixes up the format and keeps it interesting and engaging.

In terms of meeting my criteria it comes pretty close to perfect.

It’s a 6-week course, which is a manageable duration for me.

Gamification, as a business school topic, is an exciting and emerging area and it’s relevant to my work. As far as I’m aware it’s not offered through any business schools locally.

The downside has been that he workload is heavier than I’d expected. There are weekly lectures. Each week there are two topics to cover with approximately 5 lectures for each topic – so that’s 10 lectures a week, albeit short ones, averaging around 10 minutes each. There are weekly multiple-choice homework quizzes, a total of three written assignments and an end of term exam. Assignments are peer-assessed. If you complete all the assigned work to minimum overall score of 70% you get a certificate of completion. Otherwise, you can just follow the topic along and take from it whatever suits your purposes. Being a girly swat, I want the certificate.

The positive side of the volume of work means I am learning more than I thought I would. So, on balance, I’m happy to put in the extra effort to get more out of the course. I’d say I’m learning more than a 2-day training workshop, but less than a traditional 13-week university short course because the assessments are less rigorous.

Will I try another MOOC? Yes, definitely. And I’d recommend it to others who are looking to learn more about a topic and for whatever reason don’t want to commit to the cost and attendance of a traditional university course, or aren’t able to find their preferred subject offered locally.

Doing the course has also sparked my thinking about what education providers might learn from the MOOC format. I’m thinking specifically outside the university sector about not-for-profits, government agencies, and professional associations. These organisations are in the business of delivering education to their members, communities and/or stakeholders. What could they learn from MOOCs? While MOOCs are not a panacea, and online education isn’t right for every context, I think there is great potential.

For example, NFPs and others could take a cross-sector approach and collaborate on delivering education in order to reduce costs, reach a broader audience, and draw on experts from beyond their geographic boundaries. They could also look at the MOOCs example for opportunities to integrate social media into course delivery and build communities to enhance the student experience.

What do you think?