Penny Modra And The Birth And Death Of Writing

Penny Mondra BW

Penny Modra is something of a fairy godmother to young writers. Throughout her time at The Thousands she acted as editor for what feels like every writer under 30 at one time or another. With that kind of experience it’s no surprise she was the person with the brains and the guts to give us The Good Copy, Melbourne’s freshest writing agency. It’s difficult to explain the impact this could have on the local industry, but all you really need to know is if you’re a broke writer, thank god for Penny Modra.

Good Good Girl: How do you describe The Good Copy?
Penny Modra: Well it’s a three pronged attack, three prongs that I think have to be done at the same time. So it’s a writers agency, a publisher, and a shop—that’s the simple way of describing it.

Readers would be familiar with a shop and a publisher, but not a really an agency, why did Melbourne need this, and why were you the person to start it?
I’d been thinking a lot about the writers I work with, many of them are so talented, it started me thinking what sort of opportunities are there for people coming up now? Writing now is such a different landscape.

Over my years at Right Angle I’d been in charge of a few publications where it was my job to commission work from people. My problem was as an editor on one hand you go to writers festivals and the talk is always: there’s no work for writers, what are we going to do? We never get paid, so how can we forge a career? But then on the other hand you’re sitting there trying to commission stuff and it can be quite hard to find people who can do the work to a standard.

The conclusions I drew were maybe we lack in Australia, in comparison to the design industry, an actually industry for writing. An industry where people understand how much to pay a writer, understand how much to pay an editor, know how much they should get paid—or even know where to find other writers and editors.

But we also lack a culture that respects writing as a trade. I really understand there is a lot of support, and a community built around literary writing, but I get frustrated when these types of writing are kind of divided from one another. To me writing is a skill you should have respect for no matter what realm you’re doing it in: good writing is good writing. I know that’s a contentious thing, people view things on a hierarchy and think a novel is greater somehow than copy for an newsletter—but they are the same skills that underpin it.

In worshipping this hierarchy we writers tend to lose sight of the everyday skill. What I wish for is a culture that sort of nurtures that skill.

Looking at Australia and New Zealand, do you think we have more or less respect for the role of the writer?
I feel like the problem in Australia and New Zealand is that the market is so small, you have fewer people paying for writing—which is obviously a problem. But in terms of respect? I feel in a way Australia and New Zealand really benefit from the Internet because it has globalised writing. Even as a young writer in Australia you can think, well perhaps I’ll write for The Guardian, or at least that can be a goal. Whereas that would have been inconceivable in the 90s.

Our horizons have been opened, and I think it makes us consider ourselves as potential peers of our idols in a way we couldn’t have thought about ourselves before.

But I can also see the challenges: if you are a freelancer and you take on a job for a client that’s big, in some cases you’ll be working on it for six weeks—you’ll be exhausted and totally drained. And aside from writing it, you’ll be managing the client as well. The reason I came up with the agency is that a freelancer can take on that without taking on the entire job. They could literally do it two days a week. Get the pay rate they deserve, and work with editors and project managers that are sharing that load.

Will an agency create the ability to be a truly independent writer in Australia?
I hope it would at least establish an idea of what a writer does and the value they offer, along with how much they’re worth. I hope it could create some stability for really good writers in Melbourne who need to draw an income, and not in a way that saps their mojo completely.

Because no writer want to give that skill over to a commercial project for an entire week for six week stretches. Every person who wants to be a writer is the same as any person who wants to be an artist or a designer—they want to write because they love it. I just hope that this model can enable that.

What is a good writer?
I think a good writer is generous to the reader, in the sense you’re conveying ideas of the world that go beyond yourself. That’s rare, particularly in the age of blogging. A lot of people think of writing as being synonymous with diarising and it’s not. The reader is fundamental; to me I think that’s the role of the editor, as an advocate for the reader.

If you can understand this idea of the reader as an important person then you can apply that in different contexts, if you can literally say: who is the reader in this context and how do I speak to them? That’s how you can be a good writer.

I notice that when people speak cliches they apologise for them, but they never apologise in text.
That’s right, and that’s a real litmus test; it’s probably the cure all for writing. I don’t really care as much about punctuation and grammar—that can be corrected, but falseness can’t be. Look I don’t think any writer gets up in the morning and thinks: I want to do copywriting. But they do get up in the morning and think: I want to make a living from writing.

We can do that with this agency, if we can offer people a comfortable enough income from two or three days work that they’re able to pursue their own projects in the other four days. Then we’ve achieved a balance that’s actually perfect. As long as they’re doing an amazing job on those client projects in those two days, then that’s great.

Do you feel there’s a point we can make copywriting something better? If we raise the standard of what people think is good, can you expect people to want more from something they mindlessly consume?
That’s such a good question. I think a lot of the reason people think copywriting is a terrible thing to undertake is because the the copywriting that you see and interact with every day is kind of bad. I feel like in my time working at Right Angle, I worked with some really good clients doing copywriting. I loved working with Arts Victoria, because they are genuinely caring about the people who are going to read their publications. And they care about the subject matter—that people are going to find out what’s happening regionally with visual arts. They’re not pretending to care about it, they care about it and genuinely want to tell people about it who may be interested in it. The challenge is engaging with that, and I do think that broadly, copywriting doesn’t engage with that challenge. It doesn’t really take that challenge on, and it could be done better a lot of the time.

Writing is communicating a message to as many people as you can. If you write an award-winning short story, is that better or worse than the person who came up with Just Do It?
(laughs) That’s super post modern.

You’re getting across a message of self-improvement, goals, and progression in three words. Is copywriting being undersold as what it could be?
I think it’s under respected, I do. I think you’ve nailed it on the head. It’s a funny argument to get into because you’ll never win people over. I remember when I was on the board of the Emerging Writers Festival, I said maybe we could introduce a panel that was more career focused. I was frustrated with all these people coming to the festival and saying that they’re not able to make money as writers. I said: could we just introduce a copywriting panel? How do you invoice? What do you charge? How do you approach a copywriting job? And someone else on the board said, “I wouldn’t be on a board of a writers festival that had such a panel”.

You’re on the side of advertising or you’re not. But you will never get to a point where everyone is going to be reading Nietzsche and not looking at McDonalds ads.
I know, right. But we live in an age now when people need much more copy than they ever needed.

Agencies can return the romance to being a writer: it’s allowing you to be a professional two days a week and an artist three.
I feel like it’s the best and only way. When I was working at Three Thousand for a lot of the time I was working at a cafe, so I was working seven days a week which is not great because you’re exhausted.

And when you break down the time you spent on a piece, you’re working for seven dollars an hour or something.
If you can set a standard, you can actually say well corporations are spending this much money, so as a starting point you could pay writers between 250 and 300 dollars a day. If you think of that weekly, it becomes a thing you can pay your rent with.

It’s funny because as someone who has worked as a writer since uni, 300 hundred dollars a day seems exorbitant. But that is an absolutely normal industry professional rate.
It’s low, it’s an entry point rate. It’s a starting rate, let’s just establish that and we can build from there hopefully.

Writing often gets lumped in with art and music as this intangible thing that you do for love and fun, and it can be that, but it’s a trade. Professional writing isn’t recreational and you should be getting paid for your time the same way as someone in marketing would.
And that’s what people need to respect: writing isn’t fun, it’s super hard. It’s not self indulgent; it’s a slog—and hardly anyone can do it.

And a lot of people who think they’re writers aren’t. And it’s tough to say, but it’s the blogger generation who are told that you have a voice so use it and your opinion always is the most important thing—but that means shit if you don’t have the skills to back it up.

Yeah and I’ve always said, even when I haven’t been able to pay much, I never allowed someone to write for free. There are two reasons for that: ultimately it enabled me to retain power as an editor. If someone wasn’t willing to make edits or talk about their piece I could say, okay we’re going to pay you for the effort you’ve made, but we’re not going to publish it. It gives you an ability to set a standard.

Money denotes quality.
Totally, and I don’t want to sound negative, like some Gen-X scab, but I do feel that young writers today have this mentality when they’re starting out where they just want to skip straight to some Carrie Bradshaw-esc column. It just skips this whole process of considering the reader—which is actually the whole discipline.

It’s the cult of the column. A column says you have earnt a level of respect where you’ve been commissioned to give it. It’s a reward for a lifetime, Boris Johnson has a Sunday morning column—become the mayor of London and you can have a column.
It’s not the expected trajectory, I worry people skip this idea of having to speak to a reader or having to consider their interests. It’s not about your opinion, where does research come into it? Learning to research is fundamental, gathering a bunch of information and finding out what’s the most important thing for your reader. That consideration is gone and it worries me a lot. But I do think there is something about working for money, for a client, that reinforced that as a skill.

Nothing makes you tighter than a professional writing job.
Yes learning word counts alone. I sound like a slave driver, but I just mean we can make good money. And I might come across as being harsh but I’m not, I feel like I’m the ultimate advocate for writers. Musicians and artists exist in this world where they have launches, people speaking out for them and their rights, there are voices for musicians and people who will speak up. We respect the musician as an artist. But I feel as though no one is there to stand up for writers. Let’s stand up for writers.

And writers deserve that support, that sense of community and protection; but maybe we need to shift our perception of what is a writer.
And you have to be humble, I dunno, I just like people who have self doubt. I don’t know why.

I also believe that there are so few good writers in the world, the really good ones stand out, and they stand out so much that they can’t fail. It’s so rare to come across someone who has that talent, can write something completely original with no cliches, isn’t self-serving, is generous to the reader and who actually introduces new ideas. It’s just impossible. The one’s who are that good will succeed, there’s no stopping them.

Putting your name on an opinion is harder than it looks.
I know, and I’m really driven by that. There’s so much talent, even locally, and now we have this opportunity which is the Internet. We don’t have to worry and think we have to move to New York now to try and get a job. We literally don’t need to leave Wodonga to be seen anymore, the Internet rewards skill now and that is so exciting. That’s why I think this is the best place in the world to do it.

As in Melbourne, Australia?
Melbourne. I reckon Melbourne is amazing for this type of thing. I know people say stuff about Melbourne—small pond, big ideas—but I think at least it gives people one chance. Whereas in other cities, no one will give a shit about your art launch or whatever else. In Melbourne, everyone will give everyone one chance.

It does have a level of criticism though—which isn’t to fault it. It’s this funny mix of critical and supportive. They will come to your art launch, and if it’s shit they might not come to the second one.
They’ll give you chance. I think it’s great the way Melbourne people set a high standard, we’re critical of ourselves. But that’s combined with an unusual level of supportiveness.

I think in Melbourne you’re bred to respect someone who has tried something.
I think we have a respect for nerdiness too. There isn’t some strange, arbitrary divide between people who are cool and people who aren’t cool, which I think is bullshit. What’s important, and what people in Melbourne recognise, is that people who are doing something are valuable. Whether it’s traditionally cool or unheard of, or it’s traditionally geeky, it doesn’t matter. We all somehow have developed connections and that’s unique compared to other cities. Melbourne, this is going to sound like the wankiest thing ever, but Melbourne is post-cool in that way. We aren’t hung up if someone’s been deemed cool/uncool, we don’t care about that. We just care if something is new, and we’re going to try it. That makes us so strong, I don’t think there’s any better city to do something new in now.

Words by Wendy Syfret

Illustration by Klara Kelvy 



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