I am Moira Jeffrey, a journalist, art critic, editor, teacher and broadcaster. The single thing that brings my wide and sometimes rather chaotic freelance career together is visual art. For the last 15 years I have written reviews, interviewed artists, talked about exhibitions on radio and TV and written essays for artists publications.
When I started writing, technology was slow. The publishing world was full of gatekeepers. I needed to ask for work and persuade editors that I could do it. The digital world has changed all that. Now if you want to be a writer, it’s simple: you can just do it. Set up a blog, post your writing on someone else’s site, charm people with your knowledge and insight on Twitter. Getting paid to write is not so easy however!
I studied Art History and Politics at Glasgow University and cut my teeth on the student newspaper and as editor of the university magazine. Later when I decided to pursue a full time freelance career as a writer I went to college part time to get a journalism qualification approved by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. However, the key thing was not my academic qualifications but my experience.
Scotland has a small community of arts magazines. I first got paid for writing, contributing to The List magazine when I was a student. But alongside publications like The List and The Skinny are dozens of specialist zines and great places like Aye Aye Books at CCA who sell and support them. Websites like Axisweb and a-n are key in supporting new writing, they don’t just offer opportunities to publish but mentoring schemes and sometimes go-see funds to allow writers to develop their skills and experience.
In my work in mainstream media, there is no typical day for me. I might get up and file a quick overnight review to my newspaper, then go and see an exhibition and pop into the BBC studios in the afternoon to tell Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland what I thought of it. I might be teaching a journalism class or catching up on some shows I have missed. I often give talks or chair meetings and conferences.
This year I worked as an editor for the GENERATION publications, commissioning and editing short essays on all the artists in the GENERATION project and working with a team of experts to collect writings from the archive.
As a self-employed writer I do all my own administration for taxes, travel and expenses. There is lots of help in learning to be your own boss from organisations like the Cultural Enterprise Office. I work from home, which is easy and cheap, but it can be lonely. It may help to have company in a shared office, or if you also make work as an artist, in your studio.
When I teach arts writing here are two things that I emphasise:
Art writing is still writing: it needs to be good and well constructed, insight and opinions will travel much further if they are communicated well
Choose your targets carefully: remember the difference between a rich and successful artist and someone who is starting their career, and a powerful gallery or institution and a small artist led space. Play the ball and not the man: that is, concentrate on the work and not the individual.
Above all as a writer you do need to learn to reflect on your own work. I work in a fairly small community. I am not always popular. Sometimes, when I look back at my opinions months or even years later, I realise my judgement may have gone seriously wrong. As a critic you should always remember where you sit in the scheme of things and always remember that the people you write about are real people who have worked hard. But you should never be afraid to express a strong opinion.