Working with Words: Anna Horan
Anna Horan is the former editor-in-chief of TheVine, Everguide, and Lifelounge.com, starting out as an intern with Everguide before moving up the ranks. She is now a freelance writer who likes stripping off the layers of popular culture — whether that’s in genre TV or commenting on the fashion industry. She spoke to us about being a late bloomer, studying writing as artists study art, and her transition to ‘audiobook hound’.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I was a late bloomer. My first published piece of writing (that I remember) was for Everguide when I first started interning there in 2011. I covered the opening of the gallery Dark Horse Experiment, and I remember I agonised over getting it right, sending it to my sister and friends to read over before I dared submit it to my editors.
What’s the best part of your job?
Working alongside other writers and the relationships I’ve formed with people. The conversations I’ve gotten to have with friends and colleagues have not only been a lot of fun, but have also challenged me to think about things differently which has been really rewarding. I love reading writers’ pitches and talking about ideas with other writers.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I hate being the bearer of bad news, like when I have had to cut someone’s column. The worst part is it’s never because the writer is doing a bad job. Someone might be writing brilliant stuff, and I know I enjoy reading it, but if it doesn’t get enough traction traffic-wise there’s the pressure to cut it for something that’ll get more clicks.
If you aren’t being paid, only stick around for as long as you are getting something out of it.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Taking on TheVine was a huge challenge for me. I had to steer it through a tricky transition, and it was hella hard. But I’ve come out the other end a much stronger writer, editor, and manager, so even though I’m leaving now, it’s been an invaluable experience.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice would include all the stuff that eventually becomes second nature to you: cut as many words as you can, show don’t tell, avoid clichés — or if you’re going to use them, put a spin on them, back up every claim you make, fact check, never assume.
Also, just the reminder that writing is hard. For the majority of people, it doesn’t just flow out of their fingertips and on to the page. You’ve got to find the physical place you’re most productive, reduce distractions, and just make yourself do it.
Those who study art are taught foundational skills like proportion, measurement, and tone, as well exercises, which train them to improve their observation skills or loosen up. Writing can be the same.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Being an editor, which often means pointing out people’s mistakes or telling them how to do something better, it’s hard not to believe they don’t think you’re a horrible person. So it’s always a nice surprise when someone thanks you or says you’ve helped them develop their skills.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I remember saying to my mum after I graduated from uni, ‘Can you really picture me in an office job?’ And from the look on her face, I could tell she knew I was right. I couldn’t see myself doing something I didn’t find creatively stimulating, so I guess I would find an outlet for that. I did think about doing a Master in Art Curatorship, before starting in my first deputy editor job, so maybe that’s the path I would have taken.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught — what’s your view?
I think processes can be taught. I don’t think you should be taught to write in a voice different to your own, it’s so hard to find again later. To find that voice, you might try all different styles — which classes would expose you to — but it really pulls the brakes on young writers when they’re taught there’s only one correct way to write, like hard news, for example.
Being taught how to find inspiration, how to coax it out of yourself with writing or creative exercises, can be invaluable. Those who study art are taught foundational skills like proportion, measurement, and tone, as well exercises, which train them to improve their observation skills or loosen up. Writing can be the same.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Write regularly. Contribute to uni or school papers and intern with publications (if you aren’t being paid, only stick around for as long as you are getting something out of it). Connect yourself to an editor or more experienced writer who can give you feedback and advice. Challenge yourself to write about all different topics — if you don’t know much about it, don’t turn it down, that’s the perfect opportunity to fine-tune those researching skills. If you’re interviewing someone, write down all the obvious questions they’ve been asked before, and either see if their answers to those questions can provide you with a jumping off point for something they haven’t spoken about, or cross them out.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I like owning physical copies of books, but I find a Kindle easier for reading in bed and carrying in my bag. I also like to listen to audiobooks or podcasts on my drive home, or while exercising, or doing mundane tasks. I’m waiting for the day when I can buy a hardcopy book, which has a download code for Kindle and audio, and which simultaneously sync together wherever you’re up to. (Patent pending.)
I ‘read’ now while running, driving, gardening … if I could read a book while listening to another, I would.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I’ve been re-watching Mad Men, and a lot of the cast would be great. You’d want Roger Sterling to take you out for a lunch of martinis and witticisms. I imagine getting into a drunken existential argument with Don Draper, which would highlight themes of our relationship. Joan and Peggy would no doubt have a lot of advice for working as women in a male-dominated industry.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work — and why?
Thinking about it, there are certainly books I revisit or that I read at the right time in my life for them to really hit home, but I can’t boil down to singular book that’s impacted on my life or work.
When I was a teenager, my mum worked as a teacher librarian for a high school. She was in charge of categorising all the books and magazines that came into the library, and would come home with boxes full of their newest additions, and send me to pick up the library’s magazine subscriptions from the newsagent. I was exposed to a lot of different stories and authors because of it. I read widely and a lot. Without that, I think I would have read within very particular styles and genres.
I suppose recently, though, I’ve found myself calling on different parts of Amy Poehler’s autobiography Yes Please, in approaching work — treat your job like a bad boyfriend — and general life advice. I listened to it via audiobook with Amy Poehler reading it herself.
It makes such a difference when an author reads their own autobiography, not only because it feels much more intimate, like they’re a friend, but because they know the right words to emphasise and can be a bit more theatrical — it’s truer to how they want readers to interpret their story.
Reading Yes, Please and Tiny Fey’s Bossypants via audiobook has turned me into an audiobook hound. I ‘read’ now while running, driving, gardening … if I could read a book while listening to another, I would.
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