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Writer and Editor Talk with Scott Messenger
Scott Messenger – BSc, is a magazine writer and editor based in the Edmonton area. Scott graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science degree, specializing in Cell Biotechnology. He is the author of Tapping the West, the story of Alberta’s craft beer boom, published in May 2020 by Touchwood Editions. Scott offers some great advice to people considering a career as a writer.
Authors and writers plan, research and write books, scripts, storyboards, plays, essays, speeches, manuals, specifications and other non-journalistic articles for publication or presentation. They are employed by advertising agencies, governments, large corporations, private consulting firms, publishing firms, multimedia/new-media companies and other establishments, or they may be self-employed.
Labour demand and labour supply are expected to be broadly in line for this occupation group over the 2019-2028 period at the national level.
Technical writers usually require a university degree in the area of specialization, such as computer science or engineering. Copywriters usually require a university degree or college diploma in French, English, marketing, advertising or another discipline. Creative writing programs are offered by universities and colleges. Talent and ability, as demonstrated by a portfolio of work, are important hiring criteria. Membership in a guild or union related to the occupation may be required.
Range: $16.48/hr – $45/hr
$30.10/hr – Median wage in Canada
(Visit the jobbank.gc.ca Canadian Website For Most Recent Numbers)
Full Length Episode:
Complete Episode Transcript
Complete Episode Transcript:
Today’s guest is Scott Messenger.
Here’s our Job Talk with a Writer and Editor.
Welcome to the Job Talk Podcast.
Where we talk to people who love their jobs.
Our guests open up about their challenges surprises and secrets to success in their industries.
Through conversation we explore their careers past work experiences and the education that got them to where they are now.
What kind of high school student were you and when you were graduating from Grade twelve, did you know exactly the career path that you wanted to take?
I think I knew the career path I wanted to take at the time.
I was a diligent student and I did very well on exams and projects and stuff like that, mostly because I followed the rules, you know, and that it and I studied hard.
I basically just memorized everything.
But what I ended up doing is basing my choice of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life .
Or at least the start of my career, I suppose, was whatever I had scored the highest grades in, which turned out to be science.
So that was the route that I started off on.
I’m surprised that you said science because I was expecting you to be most proficient at English and history.
I didn’t actually like English in high school.
In retrospect, I didn’t like how it was taught.
I remember still even in well, at least in junior high and probably going for it, real emphasis on things like vocabulary and definitions and things.
And they just they just took the life out of literature, as far as I could tell.
We read, you know, books from the Canadian Canon as far as literature goes, and some of those books were pretty hard to read.
If I have to admit it, put me off of language arts and English for a little while, and I’m sad about that because I could have been up for a lot of what perhaps is lost time.
But anyway, like I say, on the flip side of it, I was doing my own science, so I was like, OK , that’s where I’m going to go first.
OK, so you graduate from Grade twelve?
What is your first experience with post-secondary?
I graduated actually when I was 17 and I went straight into post-secondary at the University of Alberta and enrolled in science.
I enrolled in what was it?
I think it was with a specialization in cell biotechnology.
So it was a relatively new program at the time, but it appealed to me.
It was a lot of genetics and like I say, microbiology looking at cells, understanding how you could manipulate them into making useful products and stuff like that.
I don’t know.
It was really geeky.
I thought it would be alright.
So, yeah, 17 years old and I started just taking classes and that went along, as it did for probably about two years before I started thinking a little bit more deeply about what I was doing.
Did a university education, did it come relatively easy to you, or did you have to work at it?
Was it different from your experience being a high school student?
Some aspects of it were OK, like, you know, I there was a lot of memorization in high school.
You know, once I got good at that there, I could do that well at university.
I’m not saying that.
That’s how anybody should think that they should get through their education by memorizing things and spitting out facts, I think is a bad way to get your education.
You know, the thing that started to open my eyes to whether or not I was involved in the right field was getting into the labs, seeing what the work was actually like, which was great because what it showed me, just like, maybe this isn’t the thing for you.
So I think, you know, if I had if I had it to do over again, I would get in there as quick as I could to get my hands dirty and get a feeling for what it would actually mean to do this thing that you’re studying as a career and see one.
And am I good at it?
And two, do I actually enjoy doing the hands on work.
Now you graduate with a Bachelor of Science.
Does your career start off in science or was it something else?
It did start in science.
I went through and I did complete that degree.
I’ll preface this by saying I supplemented that degree the last couple of years with a lot of English courses.
I did start taking some of that, those book reading classes and really enjoyed them, but I stuck with the science anyway to see it through.
And then because I thought, Well, that’s probably going to lead me to a career more likely than, you know, something to do with with literature.
Whether I knew that or not at the time, you know, you don’t know.
But anyway, the point is, I did get into a laboratory almost immediately after finishing my degree here with a plant sciences laboratory on campus, and we were just looking at, you know, genetics basically of plants and stuff like that.
And I did that work for, I don’t know, might have been might have been about 18 months, that kind of thing.
So 18 months working within science.
So when you left the lab, did you go into the job that you’re doing right now, you’re you’re working at a post-secondary and I believe you’re in marketing and communications.
You could correct me if you’re wrong, if I’m wrong, but you are a writer and is at the position that you left the lab for.
What happened was I left the lab because I was really bad at the work and I also didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t enjoy the lab atmosphere that just wasn’t quite quite for me.
What I did is I took some time away from working in science to do some thinking about what I would want to actually devote my life to.
And I had I did have instructors from the university that I kept in touch with him, just structures in writing, actually some writing courses that I did alongside of the English classes and such and such.
And they were really helpful, not necessarily with telling me what I should do or how to do it, but with connecting me to other students that they had had who had gone on to do what it was that I wanted to do.
So maintaining those connections to those people in university was that was really helpful.
I also enjoyed them.
I wanted to to maintain that contact personally.
But they were extremely helpful.
And so the, you know, after connecting me with a particular person, his name is Curtis Gillespie, and he’s one of Canada’s best magazine writers hands down.
He really sort of took me under his wing and started to help me through the process of basically just beginning there as a freelance writer and finding places to publish work and building up a portfolio and developing my skills and so on.
And that was a long haul.
It took a very long time to figure out that industry, to figure out writing, to get to the point where I felt I was competent as a writer and had some skills.
I had confidence.
And I’m still at that point.
I have still at that point where I’m just like, you know, I don’t necessarily doubt myself, but I am someone who is still learning and you know, all that work and that mentorship that I had positioned me for, for that attitude to understand this is the kind of vocation to which you will always be dedicated to improving yourself.
So like I say it like it was, there’s a lot of part time work.
I had to supplement my my income with, you know, doing other jobs that weren’t in the science field, but I did want to dedicate myself to figuring out writing.
So I did that.
The position that you’re in at the post-secondary that you’re at.
How did you see that position?
Was it advertised somewhere and you applied?
Or did you know somebody that was telling you you’d be a good fit for it?
So I was looking to transition from that job at Alberta Venture, and I had learned about actually this particular post-secondary institute through some dealings at the magazine.
And then the job came up and I just kind of put two and two together and thought, Oh, I should give a shot and see if I could, if I could land a position there.
And luckily I did.
And that was twelve, 13 years ago now.
Can you take me through the day to day work that you do?
I don’t know if that’s an easy question to answer, because it probably changes every day, but could you take us through a typical day for you in the communications position ?
The simplest I should say, that’s the straight for most straightforward part of it is content creation or we just identify stories and then produce them, write them.
They may not necessarily even be written stories.
We might be looking at things like making videos.
We might be looking even at podcasts.
We might be looking at infographics.
But in any case, you know, my job is to ensure that we have new content going on to that site regularly.
I’m not the only content producer by any means, so there are other people who contribute.
And then so my role changes with respect to that to to editing.
And so I will help people.
I do think of it as a collaborative process, writing or content production in general.
So I’m basically helping people get their stories to the point where they are ready for publication.
Is there anything that as you got into that role, is there anything that surprised you about having that role?
I think the thing that surprised me was that you had to be very versatile.
I would be lying if I said all I did all day is just write stories and edit stories.
Lots of different needs come up at an organization as big as the one where I work, where you have to support members of the executive, for instance, with their communications, or there are messages that need to go out to students or there’s just, you know, basic editing jobs for whoever needs it and that kind of thing.
So you have to be able to shift perspective, shift your attentions and adapt to the needs of the client that you’re working with.
And then also recognize the needs of the audience that they’re trying to reach and then sort of find some common ground between those two things.
So, you know, it’s the cliché to say, well, it something different every day, but you know, it really is.
And you know, you have these fundamental skills of writing and editing, but how you apply those on any given day changes.
And so you have to be open to making those changes quickly and understanding how to redeploy your skills accordingly.
There’s there’s a saying that write what you know and in your job right now, I’m wondering what kind of challenges you’re up against when you’re writing something that maybe you don’t know that well.
Is that one of the challenge challenges you might see in your position right now?
To appliance like I’m the kind of writer I think who has taught himself that you can’t live that way as a writer.
You can’t, you know, it’s it’s a luxury.
Write what you know.
You know, and I think that there are certainly writers out there who are far superior to to me that are able to do that.
But no, like even as a freelance writer writing for different magazines and on various topics, you’re never really writing what you know.
You know, you’re writing, you’re writing in a way to learn and to help your audience learn.
In some ways, I do think people go to publications to learn something.
I think they go to them first and foremost to be entertained.
But nevertheless, they want to come away with something right?
And so I think that, you know, you don’t have to write what you know, you just have to be open to learning as you go.
And you know, you come away with, you know, you come away with with knowing something new through that process, which is really one of the best aspects of the whole job, to be honest.
But yeah, it’s it’s really not possible, I don’t think to have that attitude and to be successful on a new level until you’re famous, like writer Jonathan Franzen rather doesn’t write you know anything else other than what he knows, right?
So what are some of the things that cause you stress in your job?
I’m guessing a deadline is a big one.
Yeah, it’s there’s a lot of variables that go into producing any, let’s just call it a piece of content or a story or an article or whatnot, and there’s only so many things that you can control.
You can control the writing, you control the structure of a story and you know, the shape of what it is that you ultimately come up with in collaboration and editor, of course.
But all those stories depend upon other people, you know, as sources.
You know, you have to get a hold of people and hope that they’ll speak with you about a certain topic.
Hope that they’ll do that on time.
If they don’t, then you have to adapt.
You have to find somebody else, perhaps so that sort of thing.
In the case, when you’re working with a large organization, these things do go through approvals as well sometimes.
And so then you have to put yourself at the at.
The mercy is sort of the wrong way to say it, but it is really true.
Like, you know, when executive has time to look at a certain article or story, you know, that’s when they do it.
You know, not just when you you can tell them when to do it, basically is what I’m saying.
So you had to be highly adaptable and you have to be patient and you have to understand that you can only control so much, but you still have to produce that content on time and to the expectations of the client.
You mentioned you were you’ve been in your position for about twelve years now.
Is there anything that you’ve learned or, you know, now that you wish you knew day one walking into your into your job?
I guess it’s just the capacity to learn and grow in the job, you know?
And, you know, like when I.
Like, even just before I sort of sign on to a full time job in writing and editing, my output was much lower.
I was a much slower writer.
You know, that sort of thing like you’d kind of grind out a couple of stories a month or something, or at least that’s what I did.
And that felt like that was my capacity.
And then as you sort of you get into these patient positions where you’re forced to exert yourself and push yourself, it’s you grow fast, you know, and you grow in ways that you just didn’t expect.
You know, I.
In terms of, say, the adaptability of your voice, you know, how you would approach different stories, you know, and learning to deal as well with, you know, those kinds of obstacles we were just discussing there with respect to all of the unknowns that you have to deal with and the variables it’s it’s it would have given me some comfort, I think at that point in time to know that you’re going to get through this, you’re going to learn how to do this faster and you’re actually still going to be good at it.
You’re going to be better and you won’t have to sacrifice a great deal of the sort of the values that you might associate with the craft of writing, for instance, right?
But you’ll still find a way to preserve those within the confines of of this job and its demands.
So I think that would have helped, but you have to just kind of mature, you know, and at that point in time, you know, you’re young and you don’t know and that sort of thing, but at least for somebody to say, you know, it sounds cliche, but you know, it’s going to be OK, it’s going to work out.
The problem with that cliché is nobody ever says how or why, or, you know, that sort of thing, right?
But that’s kind of the how and why.
Like, you’re going to grow fast and you’re going to figure it out because you kind of have no choice.
It’s amazing how you adapt.
Yeah, you have a nine to five job, which we were just discussing.
You have also written a book which I’m not going to get into the great details of the book, but I’m I’m interested in learning about the process of getting a book published.
Could you talk a little bit about how you came up with the topic of the book?
Why you decided to write, write the book and what it was like to get it to actual print?
The idea for the book came to me because I was actually writing a blog many years ago about my discovery of craft beer.
You know, one more craft beer blog, hooray!
But you know, it was fun.
It was fun writing and it was.
It showed me that there was a lot going on in this industry here in Alberta.
And I began to wonder during that process of writing a blog just like, Well, how is this happening?
How is this industry coming together so quickly?
Because it did, it absolutely boomed over a very short period of time in relation to other industries that I think we’ve seen in Alberta in the past.
So I thought, Well, that’s kind of neat.
You know, and I think I was also leaning on sort of my old maybe state of mind that I had during my time as a business at Alberta Venture.
So I began to think about what kind of story could be told about the development of the industry.
So once I’d done this thinking about the possibility of putting together a book, I, I, I started researching publishers and seeing who was out there.
You know, within, say, Western Canada, who might be available to publish such a book.
So that was just a matter of making sure that the idea aligned with sort of their repertoire of the publishing house.
And then once I had identified a handful of those who sort of looking at their requirements, really, it was just a lot of rule following and which maybe it’s kind of a theme in my life and something that I’m kind of good at.
But all this information is usually on their websites as far as submission guidelines, and that sort of thing goes.
So I didn’t have an agents, nothing like that.
It was just they had requests for certain things within a proposal for a book.
And I just kind of did my best to follow those to a tee and then sent it off.
In this case with this book and this publisher, they were pretty enthusiastic about the idea.
They got back to me very quickly.
Soon enough, we had a contract for the book, and then the work began.
The title of the book is Tapping the West.
You could be purchased at Amazon.
Is it in bookstores as well?
Yeah, it’s you get a chapter, stuff like that.
So some independent bookstores, which is nicer.
I’m curious to know this might seem like a strange question.
Why are there deadlines when you’re writing a book?
Is it just the fact that you need to get it done, so they need to put a deadline on it?
But I’ve always heard of writers being stressed out about getting the deadline hitting the deadline.
Yeah, publishing houses.
And I don’t completely know how it works, but I know that they they plan out their seasonal releases, right?
The spring spring catalog and a fall catalog, right?
So at the point where they’re putting together a contract, they’re going to think about your book.
At least this is all with respect to my own experience.
Think about your book with respect to certain collection that’s going to go out in spring or fall of a certain year.
So my book was scheduled for spring of 2022.
And I think our contract came together sometime in like 2018, right?
So they need me to peruse that book because they’re counting on it to be part of their spring lineup.
And that’s why there’s actually a deadline on it, not just to keep the the writer in line, but because they go through and they make decisions about a relatively small collection of books that they’re going to produce.
And then they say no to a whole bunch of others, right?
So if you don’t fulfill your commitment and you’re basically taking somebody else’s spot and then you’ve also put the publisher in a difficult position of trying to find a book or releasing a smaller catalog which reduces their revenue, right?
So there’s a lot riding on making that deadline.
I don’t think I’d be cut out to be somebody who writes a book because that deadline would nearly kill me.
Well, planning, though, it’s yeah, like if you plan it out carefully enough in me it was.
It was whiteboards and it was spreadsheets, and it was a lot of sort of little tools that I set up to keep myself in line and and just on track.
There wasn’t much opportunity to just be like, Oh, I have writer’s block utterances like, Too bad, buddy, just keep writing starting the project to actually being able to purchase it online.
How long was that?
What was the timeframe like?
I don’t think it was much more than two years.
You know, it was, you know, it’s a nonfiction book and it’s like, you know, it’s a relatively straightforward topic.
I knew how the book was going to work.
You know, that kind of thing.
The thing that you don’t know is is the editing that’s going to go into the book.
Once you submit the manuscript and then you you hear back from the the the editor and then you start making revisions.
That’s the point where things get a little bit stressful because you just like your time period to make those revisions is much more compressed than the actual time to to write the book.
And my book is not terribly long.
Like, you know, two years for a book of that size, I think it’s pretty reasonable.
Is this your first book?
Do you know the editor?
Do you have any kind of personal relationship with the editor, or is this a stranger reading your book in this case?
No, it was.
It was actually.
The only thing that I had asked for in the contract was that I could choose an editor, and I chose Curtis, who I mentioned earlier, Curtis Gillespie, because he was my mentor for and continues to be.
He’s he’s now much more of a friend, but he still offers guidance and such.
But I really like the idea of him guiding me through the process of the first book because for one thing, he’s brilliant.
I trusted his opinion entirely.
But I also have like, you know, I have a good working relationship with him.
We’ve worked together on things over the years.
But, you know, a strong personal relationship as well.
And so, you know, he can give me feedback, and I’m pretty good at taking feedback from anybody.
People that I trust anyway.
But he can give me feedback and then I can work on it, even if the feedback is sort of like, OK, you’ve got some work to do.
You know, it’s it’s easier to hear that from somebody that you know and some of you work before and someone that you trust than than from someone else, you know?
That said, there was another editor at Touch Wood, and she was also great.
She did sort of a secondary look through it, and she was fantastic and I would feel comfortable working with with her as well.
But you do have to have some, some connection, I think, to to the editor and some faith that the editor understands what it is.
You’re you’re trying to achieve and has the best interests of of you, your subject and your audience all at heart, you know, and if you can sort of like buy into all those three things with respect to what you’re getting from the editor, then I think you can have you have the basis for a good working relationship.
Did anything surprise you going through writing a book and having it published?
Well, it’s as much work as I thought it was going to be.
You know, I don’t think it was more work than I expected.
It was more enjoyable work than I think maybe I expected, and I really fell in love with the process.
You know, sort of it was it was immersive.
You know, it was like, I love writing in general and I love writing for magazines and and getting into a story or whatnot and producing, you know, say, a 2000 or a 2500 word story or whatnot.
Those are great.
It’s great fun.
But the idea of being able to get into a book length project and completely immerse yourself in a subject and just talk to all these people about it and try to learn as much as you can about this one thing and then try to form it into a story.
I don’t know.
Like, it’s sort of perverse in some ways because of the amount of work that’s involved in all of that.
But at the same time, it was just so enjoyable to be committed to this one thing for me anyway.
You know, and I was surprised by that, and that’s the thing that would motivate me to do it again because it’s certainly isn’t financial, you know, that kind of thing, like we did release the book during the pandemic and you weren’t really able to do any kind of events or stuff like that.
But the thing that would make me do it again is just that experience of just being connected to this subject and connected to the work and and having those those being able to spend those hours dedicated to a craft that you really love.
It was awesome.
Are you going to write another book, do you think?
Yeah, I probably will.
If someone will let me.
I am putting together a proposal right now.
And do you think is there more to tell with the story about the beer industry in Alberta or did you tell it in this book?
Or do you think there is enough material to follow it up?
I think that there’s for me, there’s not enough material for a book again, entirely dedicated to to Alberta.
I think there’s there’s still material, there’s still aspects of the Alberta story to tell with respect to craft beer.
And I think that I’m interested in doing that and finding ways to to explore that a little more, but in a broader context, not just Alberta.
So, you know, in that sense, I’m certainly interested in revisiting the community, let’s say, you know, because it is a great community, too.
It’s really fascinating.
Do you think your next project would be nonfiction or fiction?
I still still nonfiction.
Yeah, I just I’d like to think that one day I’d be able to write a novel.
I don’t know if I have the skills to do it.
You know, that was the dream back when I was starting with writing, just like, Oh yeah, I’m going to be a novelist.
It’s going to be amazing.
And no, no, here we are with this, you know, this beer book and that kind of thing.
Well, yeah, but it’s good.
I’m happy about it.
You know it is.
Is there an author or a book that you give to friends and family as a gift?
Or is that too broad of a question?
Well, that’s a tough one.
You know, that’s a I get asked about other authors frequently.
I don’t give books as a gift because I think books are just so personally like it’s it’s hard to I feel like if I do that, I’m sort of imposing something of myself upon somebody else, and they didn’t ask me to do that.
So I don’t generally do it.
But I, you know, if somebody were to say, you know, I’d really like to learn more about just the craft of writing.
I would just say, Well, if I may, I will reference Curtis once more, because that’s what I do.
You know, we just look up Curtis Gillespie’s work, whether it’s magazines or he’s written a number of nonfiction books, and it just gives you a sense of what you can do with nonfiction writing, what you can do with the craft and how you can tell a story.
You know, because I think when people think nonfiction, it’s like, Oh, it’s me a boring textbook kind of thing.
It’s not that it’s storytelling still, but it’s storytelling about things that have happened or things that are happening now.
You know, it’s it’s still meant to be engaging and entertaining, but it’s also meant to be informative and it’s really nice to build married.
And so Curtis’s work is always a wonderful example of that.
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you feel would be important to somebody looking into a career as being a writer ?
The biggest thing is setting your ego aside.
I think, you know, like you have to you got to know the skills.
Well, I shouldn’t say that because I’m a bit hypocritical and say that I don’t know the rules of grammar and I don’t know the difference between prepositions and dynamic part.
first of all, I can’t say it can say it, but I don’t know that stuff, you know, but I know what’s right when it’s on the page and whatnot.
So you can kind of get away with certain things.
But what you cannot get away with is having an ego and letting that get in the way of your relationship with an editor.
Because as I mentioned earlier, you know, I really feel that writing as a collaborator, collaborative process between a writer and an editor.
And with that.
Team, you’re going to produce better material than you’ll be able to on your own.
And I think that being able to listen to feedback is just such an important skill in really anything in life.
But then you have to act on it, right?
You have to, you know, take those things as professional criticisms, not necessarily see them as personal criticisms and then translate them into something positive, right?
And so there’s a skill set in that on its own.
And once you master that though, I think I think you’re well on your way to, you know what I what I said earlier before, which is just sort of that lifetime of of pursuing improvements in your craft, like, I’m still not the writer that I want to be.
And, you know, I almost hope that I die before I become the writer that I want to be because I always want to be in pursuit of that.
Because that’s the thing that’s going to keep motivating me and getting feedback from people is the thing that’s going to keep pushing forward.
OK, that is great advice.
Scott, thank you so much for joining us today.
I really appreciate it.
It’s been really nice to have this conversation.
Thank you so much.