Learned at granny’s knee: interviews and articles with Sergio Burns – 2 February 2022

A total of eighteen members populated our Zoom screen last Wednesday, eager to welcome Sergio Burns to speak to Ayr Writers’ Club, but before that, another welcome.

Joining us for the first time was new member Michael McKean who, prompted by Jeanette, shared a little of his writing experience, preferences and ambitions. Always lovely to have a new face in our midst.

Jeanette’s formal introduction to Sergio, senior writer, and editor at am magazine (previously Ayrshire Magazine) highlighted the connections already established with the Club, and thanked him for the support they have offered Club members, and their coverage of our events.

Writers are good company, Sergio declared, instantly getting us on side! He emphasised the importance of being a people-person and enjoying being inquisitive. And so began a whirlwind, time-travelling tour as Sergio shared important things he had learned from different jobs, in different places and from different people, over the years.

But where did it all begin?

Where better than at his granny’s knee.

On Saturdays, when she was caring for his eight-year-old self – and spoiling him with sweets and watching Doctor Who – she would tell him stories. So transfixed would he be, by gossip, local news, and supernatural legends, that he got himself a notebook in which to preserve the stories he had been told.

Over the years, his love of reading grew too: William McIlvanney, Mary Shelley and George Mackay Brown are just some of the names referenced as influential. As he embarked on his career, he put together a checklist of techniques he soon learned were crucial for this genre of writing and these he shared with us.

There is much to be gained from talking to yourself: whatever the subject of your article or whoever you are interviewing, ask yourself ‘What do readers want to know?’ Other questions to ask are the ‘Five Ws’ – Who, What, Why, When, Where? Also consider structure: does my piece work? Would it be easily understood by a stranger? Do not assume your readers’ knowledge.

Be careful not to provide opinion. Substantiated facts with proof and quotation are essential. Pose a question you imagine a reader would want answered, then do so using information gathered from experts, and those who have first-hand experience. This will be the approach taken in the feature ‘COP26: A Disappointment’ to be found in the next issue of am magazine, available from 16th February.

Working as a researcher on a Channel 4 series, Sergio quickly realised the importance of verified information, when he was faced with a lawyer checking his claims, so learn to be thorough. Learn to listen too, an underrated skill and invaluable tool to generate additional questions. And do not skimp on the details.

Sergio guided us through the pitfalls of freelance journalism. A good example was the heady excitement of an unexpected, 11pm call with an assignment request from the Mail on Sunday.

 The piece required an expose of US company Adly Inc responsible for passing off celebrity Tweets, by the likes of Paris Hilton, as genuine, disguising the highly lucrative, blatant advertising, by copywriters, that it really was.

Pulling an all-nighter, Sergio dispatched his piece for the 9am Sunday deadline but the story was dropped – discouraging for the writer despite being well paid. Ten days later the piece finally appeared.

Such examples demonstrate how tough freelance writing can be. It is essential to learn to ‘pitch’ to editors. Be prepared for editors to alter your work to improve ‘flow’, grammar, and spelling. And always provide a contact phone number; you might just get a call!

When it comes to interviewing, often these need to be conducted by phone or Zoom but nothing beats meeting the interviewee in person. Context can provide valuable material. A good recent example of this was a site visit to Kincaidston, in Ayr, in the aftermath of the recent explosion.

The intention was to provide a piece with a positive spin on the event by focusing on the community spirit which had materialised, and to convey something of the location. Understandably, there were few who were willing to go on record with their accounts, but it was still possible to use information gathered, anonymously.

Ice breakers too are important when interviewing a stranger but sometimes a flippant joke to start things off can prove surprisingly effective. In an interview with a cast member of the Scottish TV drama ‘Guilt’, as the result of a jokey icebreaker, Sergio found himself in possession of a scoop regarding the decision that a third series is indeed planned.

However, if you can find work as part of an editorial team at a magazine, there are many benefits, apart from being less lonely. Colleagues’ input is invaluable for clarity checking, and the sharing and generating of ideas.

From a technical point of view, here are Sergio’s top tips for this genre of writing.

It’s all about angles. When selecting a topic, ponder: is there an unusual angle from which you might approach the piece? If you are able to unearth something previously not widely known, you will grab a reader’s attention, by providing the ‘story behind the story’.

Learn to experiment, take risks and practise to find your voice and develop your style which is bound to reflect your experience and cultural awareness. Make use of literary techniques such as alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, pathetic fallacy and even some misdirection. Deliberate use of repetition can at times be effective. Same can be said of well deployed imagery.

As tea-break time approached, Jeanette requested that Sergio offer a subject on which members could complete a short writing exercise.

Sergio chose ‘Holiday Snapshot’ which required us to capture, in just five minutes, the best part of our last holiday.

Five members – Nigel, Linda H, Michael and two Maggies – offered to share their memories which took listeners to places as diverse as a motorway service station, Portugal, Loch Fascally, a yacht at sunset and a chilly winter shore.

Time for some questions. Topics discussed included the use of the personal voice in non-fiction, the trend for ‘new journalism’, and how to find freelance opportunities.

Advice included: perfect your ‘elevator pitch’, and visit platforms such as https://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/, https://www.journalism.co.uk/ and https://www.clearvoice.com/freelance-jobs/

The final question for Sergio was a good one: best/dream commission and worst commission?

Nothing would beat the opportunity for Sergio to interview Robbie Neilson, Heart of Midlothian Manager!

Worst? The moment Sergio realised his tape recorder was not working having interviewed actor/comedian, Ed Byrne.

And with that, our entertaining and enlightening evening was over. Who would have guessed that Sergio once managed to complete a sponsored silence, as a child!

Thank you, Sergio, for being an excellent guest.

Carolyn O’Hara

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