10 things you need to know about…

…being a motoring writer

You may want to get your motor running and head out on the highway, but that’s just a small part of the job, as Tony Davis explains.

Cartoon by Matt Golding

1 Specialising is useful…

Having a journalistic specialty is a good thing in tough times, and motoring can be a particularly handy one. While everyone who can type seems to think that travel, television reviewing and the like require no specialist knowledge (hell, they’ll even do it for free!), things such as cars, computers and most sports are considered too much of a black art for anyone other than The Specialist Writer.

2 …but you will be pigeonholed

If you write about cars, it will be assumed you’re incapable of writing about anything else – if what you do can even be called writing. (It can make you overly defensive, he said, overly defensively pointing out all the other subjects he has written about.) The reality is that fine writing can be found in even the most specialised subjects and good writers can tackle most things. (At my last paper there was a guy who could make fishing sound interesting.)

3 The news list is not a meritocracy

Any fashion story makes it into early general news, even one that isn’t a story. Generally, only a negative car story makes the early general news. It’s just the way it is.

4 You are a genius

As in any billion-dollar business, there’s plenty of money spent flattering and duchessing journalists. A small number of motor noters think that this level of attention – and all those compliments – means their skills and intellect are valued and respected by the people in the car industry. Fortunately most writers remember their obligations are to readers/consumers not car-makers. They go in hard.

5 You are an idiot

Balancing the above, that great interactive innovation – the comments section at the bottom of online stories – provides incontrovertible proof that you are not valued or respected. Indeed, every bored office worker, including those who have never driven anything other than their mother’s Camry, apparently knows more about every aspect of your speciality than you do, and is quite happy to call you 14 types of pillock.

6 Giving advice can be tricky

Being the travel writer makes you the office travel agent. If you are the motoring writer, everyone will ask you what car to buy. Often they will argue fiercely when you tell them. What they usually want is not informed advice, but back-up. Which is to say, some rational reasons to justify an emotional decision that they have already taken (just like most other buyers). Best not to laugh and say “you seriously want to buy that?” to your editor.

7 Women aren’t stupid (nor much interested in cars)

Fashion pages are read primarily by women, and motoring pages primarily by men. It’s been that way for years. One scourge is the new section editor/news editor/chief of staff who has decided that, if motoring is only spruced up with these brilliant new female-friendly ideas, it will double the audience. Evidence suggests not; it will annoy existing readers, irrespective of gender. Those women who are interested in cars want strong news and features, not patronising drivel.

8 It isn’t all about driving Ferraris

It’s good to know something about car handling, suspension and engines, sure, but also marketing, manufacturing, business, emerging technology and, most importantly of all, the art of telling an engaging story. Much of your time is going to be in the office and on the phone.

When you do eventually drive the Ferrari, don’t do it at 231 km/h on a public road. It cost one highly respected writer his job.

Quite a few others said, “There but for the grace…”

9 The news cycle can be broken

There are now so many car launches, motor sport events and cleverly managed announcements that it’s hard to cover all the bases without writing what everyone else is writing. Going out on a limb is particularly difficult when there are fewer resources to chase down the real stories – that is, the time-consuming ones that someone doesn’t want you to have. The best practitioners find a way. There have been some bloody good “gets” in recent months.

10 Stop at the 10th point

Brevity is beauty, even when you have a specialist audience. If asked for 10 points, don’t supply 11, and certainly not 23. One of the curses of the web is that what is worth 350 words now so often balloons out to 1000. And those tales best served by three to six carefully chosen photos are accompanied by a dump of the entire memory card. The moral? The same journalistic rules apply: if writing, keep it tight, if commissioning, demand same.


Tony Davis, a Fairfax motoring columnist (and former editor of the Drive section), is also the author of Total Wheelspin (ABC Books) and the dystopian novel The Big Dry (HarperCollins)

Matt Golding is a freelance cartoonist working for The Sunday Age