Collaborating and Mentoring for Writers, Editors, and Translators

Notes on November 20, 2015 SWET Talk Shop

SWET members gathered on November 20th at the Books on Japan library in Jinbocho, Tokyo, to hear tips on collaboration from freelance writer Winifred Bird, and to discuss the possibility of establishing a mentoring program within SWET. The conversation meandered into the growing importance of social media, at which point several participants suggested setting up a new Facebook group to serve as a forum for discussing career-related issues. Ms. Bird sums up the evening below.

“Hell is other people,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in the play No Exit, but as a freelance writer, I’ve occasionally felt the opposite to be true—that hell is my own stalled mind, and creative cross-fertilization from other human beings is the only way out. That kind of interaction is not always easy to come by: I live in the country and have never worked on-staff or in-house. Over the past five years, however, I’ve experimented with a series of very rewarding collaborative projects. Working with partners across oceans or just across town, I’ve written thousands of words of investigative, academic, and explanatory prose that I never could have produced alone. Here are a couple of tips gleaned from that experience that I shared at the Talk Shop event.

  1. Choose your partner well. You’ll be sharing a byline or a client’s assessment, so don’t team up unless you respect the quality of one another’s work and professional standards. Equally important, make sure you each have something meaningful to add to the partnership. It could be language skills, specialized knowledge, connections at a top publication, or a knack for lyrical writing. Just make sure teaming up adds real value to the project for both partners.
  2. Communicate! Failure to keep in touch from start to finish can breed resentment as well as confusion and errors. Luckily, online tools for collaboration abound these days, such as the cloud-based file-sharing services Google Docs and Dropbox, and the co-working software Slack, which allows collaborators to share drafts, leave messages for one another and chat online within a single program. Staying organized and keeping good notes are especially critical when you’re working on a team.
  3. Divide up responsibilities in a clear and logical manner. Perhaps one of you will do the research while the other writes the first draft. Alternately, you might take responsibility for different sections of the text (you be the zebra expert, I cover the lions). The key is to avoid replicating each other’s work or wrestling for control over the finished product.

Mentorship models
Mentoring programs are another excellent way to build your skills and connections as a writer or translator. Early in my career, when I was living in Mie prefecture and just starting to cover the environment for the Japan Times, I signed up for a mentor through the U.S.-based Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). The experience was career changing. It wasn’t so much that my mentor answered my practical questions as that she showed me a model of how to create a life as an independent writer. Since then I’ve often thought that the expat writing and translating community in Japan could benefit from a similar program. At the November Talk Shop event, I described the SEJ program and we perused a summary about  a similar initiative at the Japan Association of Translators (JAT), called eJuku, provided courtesy of eJuku coordinator Shuichi Yamakawa and JAT president Marian Kinoshita, and participants discussed the pros and cons of SWET hosting such a program.

  1. The SEJ model. Any member can sign up to be a mentor or a mentee in the program, which is run by two volunteer coordinators. When the coordinators make a match, the mentor and mentee agree to communicate at least four times over the course of a year, either by phone, email, or in person. There are few rules regarding the content of that interaction, but usually the mentor critiques stories and answers career-related questions. The program has been a big recruiting tool at SEJ. It has a good reputation, and gives young people entering the field an incentive to join the organization (more experienced journalists switching from one format to another, such as print to radio, have also requested mentors). Mentors say they benefit as well, for example by learning about technology from younger mentees, making friends, or experiencing the personal satisfaction of contributing to their profession. SEJ has not had trouble recruiting mentors despite the extreme busyness of most journalists.

Concerns: Does SWET have enough members to sustain such a program? Would enough people volunteer to be mentors? Who would serve as coordinator? One participant suggested simply creating a list of members willing to be mentors whom other members could then contact independently. Although this would certainly cut down on the work involved, it might not attract the interest of a more formal program. Another member pointed out that mentoring relationships often develop organically, and might be best left to chance. However, aspiring writers and translators who live in isolated areas or lack connections in the field would be less likely to benefit in this case.

  1. The JAT model (adapted from a description provided by JAT). eJuku is a small-group workshop series launched in 2009 “to give novice translators hands-on introductory training in the art of translation.” Under the guidance of several veteran translators (called “mentors”), participants translate a short text and workshop it over the course of a month through an online discussion forum and bookending video conferences. They also have the chance to ask career-related questions during the duration of the workshop. According to JAT, the program has received excellent reviews from participants.

Concerns: eJuku is more of a skill-building workshop than a career-mentoring program. It is short-term, and does not necessarily create the long-lasting, one-on-one relationships young professionals are looking for. Rather than replicate JAT’s existing program, it might make more sense to continue offering similar skill-building opportunities through the Talk Shop series.

Beyond discussing the ideas and concerns listed above, we did not come to any conclusions about a SWET mentoring program. However, several participants suggested creating a new SWET discussion group on Facebook, which many people now prefer as a platform for interaction. They emphasized that this should not be another forum for craft-related questions such as how to translate specific words, since plenty of online discussion groups already meet that need. Rather, this would be a place to discuss professional/career-related issues such as pay rates, how to deal with tricky clients, or how to market one’s services. Setting up the group should be fairly simple, and we agreed that it’s a good step to take while SWET members give more thought to the possibility of a formal mentoring program.

Thanks to Winifred A. Bird for compiling this report.