Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Authors giving work experience - does it work? by Nicola Morgan

(Adapted from my own blog, as it's relevant here and I'm not a little fraught.)

Writers are increasingly asked to offer work experience to school pupils and young people increasingly have to ask for it. Some of you might have wondered what you'd do. One writer-friend of mine was contacted by a young person who said, "Nicola Morgan says..." as though I know something about the whole thing. Well, as you can imagine, I have some thoughts...

For example, recently, a 13 year-old girl, Iona, came to me for a week. I nearly said no but I'm so glad I didn't. Although I'd had an excellent experience once before, I had vowed never to do it again because after that excellent one I had two instances of agreeing to offer work experience, spending a great deal of time working out what we would do during the week or fortnight and then being let down at the last minute. I also had several people contact me in extremely lacklustre ways, along the lines of "I have to get some work experience - can you give me some?" Which is not likely to work.

It's not easy for a writer to offer work experience. Most of our work is in our heads and no one else can do it. It's hard to find things that someone else can help with. And there's not much room for two in my office! But I like helping young people and I like learning from them, which was why I offered that original work experience a few years ago.

Still, for the reasons above, I'd decided not to say yes again. Until Iona came along.

It was her email that did it. She was excited, bright, had done her research, gave enthusiastic reasons for being keen to work with me. She ticked all the boxes and pressed all the buttons. So I said yes.

Then came the forms from her school. Health and safety; employer's insurance; impossible things for me to fill in. So I phoned the school and said I couldn't do it because I couldn't fill in the forms. I wasn't an employer, for a start. And I didn't have time or inclination to jump through hoops.

However, where there's a will there's a way and we agreed that it would be a private arrangement between me and Iona's mother. Luckily, Iona's mother was a model of common sense, and so was I, so we got this sorted in a sensible way.

Iona was a complete and utter delight. So easy to have around; independent; very keen to learn; said yes to everything; brilliant with You-Tube and a camera... 

What did we do?
  • Iona helped with ideas for a novel I was stuck on. 
  • We had a meeting with my publicist and discussed various upcoming projects, including marketing for Brain Sticks.
  • We both had some writing tuition from Lucy Coats - that was fun!
  • Iona contributed to an article on author events which Duncan Wright, school librarian, and I were writing for the School Librarian Journal. She had to give her viewpoint as an audience member and she made some excellent points, one of which I've already used in my own events.
  • She interviewed me and filmed me, putting together a video; she also took some other footage which we're going to use in the future. I regret to say that she laughed at my appalling acting skills, but I'll forgive her for that because it was hard not to laugh.
  • She helped me get to grips with iMovie...
  • We assessed a picture book manuscript that a Pen2Publication client had sent me (with the client's permission)
  • We talked about and worked on all the editing processes of a book's journey
  • She had to assess a revision website I'd been asked to give an opinion on - our opinion was not very positive!
  • She wrote a stunning email to a company for me.
  • I gave her some advice on a piece she was writing for school; and her revised version was SO good. But, more importantly, when she wrote that email for me, it was a brilliant email because she'd taken on board everything I'd taught her. As Lucy said, "she soaks up information like a sponge."
  • She spent a day with literary agent Lindsey Fraser.
Iona was so excellent and so nice (nice is very important when you're working one-to-one) that I've offered her paid work in the holidays. She's coming with me to the Aberdour festival, where she will help me with my events and do more filming. She's also coming to the Edinburgh Book Festival with me, to two of these events. And then she's going to put together a new film for me: A Day in the Life Of an Author. I can't wait! Because, although she taught me how to use iMovie, she's still a million times better and faster than me.

Iona should be very proud indeed. She will go far!

Tips for young people who are thinking of asking for work experience with an author:
  • Research the author and show that you know what they do and why you want to work for them.
  • Be very enthusiastic and polite. Even use a dollop of flattery... *cough*
  • Show that you understand that work experience with an author is unusual and difficult; show that you want to help as well as learn.
  • If the author says a polite no, write a polite reply. They might have something for you in the future.
But the big question is WHY? Young people, ask yourself why you want to do this? What do you hope to learn and what do you think would be interesting. And for authors, why would you want to do this? For me, it's simple: I like giving opportunities for talented and eager teenagers to push themselves. I get a buzz from that.

Good luck to both parties! It can work really well.

Do take a look at Iona's short video interview here and you'll see why I say she's good:

I will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival often between Aug 15th and 31st - do let me know if you'd like to meet up. How about coming to the event I'm doing with Cathy Rentzenbrink (author of the heart-wrenching The Final Act of Love and also director of the Quick Reads charity) and Charles Fernyhough, psychologist and expert in the neuroscience of reading. Our event is about the science of reading and I'll be talking about the science behind Readaxation and the power of reading for pleasure and wellbeing. Email me:


catdownunder said...

There's a lot of work involved in taking on a work-experience student! Iona is very fortunate in having someone like you.

Emma Barnes said...

I was asked recently if I'd meet with daughter of a friend who needed some work experience - we arranged for her to come along with me to a school event, and she got to meet and find out about the Leeds School Library Service also. She was clearly extremely interested in books and writing and I hope got a lot out of the day - I certainly enjoyed having her along. If I'm asked again, I'll be looking back at your post to get more ideas.

Liz Kessler said...

Characteristically brilliant, Nicola. Sounds like an amazing experience for you both.

Katherine Lynas said...

It sounds like you both got a lot out of it, I'd love to have someone with me doing illustration when I go full time. It gets lonely in the studio. Iona sounds fantastic, I hope I bump into you both at the Edinburgh Festival.

Nick Green said...

Woe that I was born too late. I want to do work experience with you. Instead mine was at a GP's surgery. Yeah, that was useful.

(Isn't meeting a really bright child truly terrifying? They are a living reminder of how much one has slowed down.)

Becca McCallum said...

I had my work experience at a local library. Great! you think, but no, not really... They didn't seem to know what to do with me, so I spent my time re-shelving the Mills and Boon section, standing miserably outside in the rain while they smoked cigarettes and chatted, and then supervised the 'IT suite' (3 computers and a loud photocopier/printer) in the afternoons. Eventually I mentioned that I liked history, and they shoved me upstairs to the local history department to look at microfiche and make sure that no one was using pens near the documents.

Nicola Morgan said...

Becca, that's awful! If people offer work experience, they must work to make it work well.

Nick, it IS!

Katherine, that would be FAB!

Liz, thank you :)

Emma and Cat, thanks :)

Heather Dyer said...

What a truly heartwarming and inspiriting post and experience. Am in total admiration of you both, how lovely! I'd even consider giving someone work experience myself after having read this.