Award-Winning Beer Writer and ‘All About Beer’ Editor Ken Weaver Spills about the Writing Game

All About Beer Magazine, Freelance Writer, Editor
Award-Winning Beer Writer, Author and Editor at All About Beer Magazine, Keen Weaver,

Ken Weaver was working toward a Ph.D. in Particle Physics at ivy-league Cornell when he transitioned over to an MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Maryland in 2005. After a handful of years freelancing (and perhaps a stern talking-to from the fam), Weaver is now an award-winning beer writer, the author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, and Beer Editor at All About Beer Magazine (AAB), where he has worked writing features for a number of years. Weaver sat down to chat with me about his experience in the writing life, his transition from physics to writing about booze, and to offer a few tips to the other writers out there fighting the ever constant battle to get—and stay—published.

Here are some of Mr. Weaver’s thoughts…

…on his recent appointment at AAB and freelancing draughts:

It’s weird, because four months ago I was in one of those freelance lulls and now it’s sort of the exact opposite of that and I didn’t appreciate it sufficiently at the time. I will from now on…you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. You have free time and you’re always thinking about work, or you have work and you’re always thinking about free time.

…on his workload as a staff editor at a magazine:

Half my job is on the magazine editorial side and the other half is on the festival side of things—we do World Beer Festivals with AABM so I end up curating the beer lists for them, figuring out what breweries are going to be on what kind of panels, All About Beer Magazine Logo, Freelance Writing Advice, Editor and Writer Ken Weaverand just do some of the coordination; budgeting, that sort of stuff…no writing or anything like that but just making sure stuff works and editing the process.

Editing itself I find boring…Technical editing pays well, which I used to do, and that’s a good gig whenever you find clients that can do that sort of thing. But I like the magazine stuff better; that side of the editing process where you’re on staff at a magazine and you’re helping design content—instead of working to a mold you’re actually figuring out what that mold looks like—that’s fun; that I like; that stuff I could do for the rest of my life and enjoy doing it, but the actual (copy) editing itself, it is what it is…

…on going from scientist to beer aficionado:

For me, I started transitioning to writing when I was in Grad school. I was in a Ph.D. program in physics and I… well, I found it very boring. I was at Cornell and basically that means, when you’re a graduate student there, you can pretty much do whatever you want. So, I took some wine tasting classes…and I took English classes, because if I submitted a portfolio I could get into undergraduate creative writing classes, so I did that and I ended up applying to do my MFA in creative writing and that was my sort of escape hatch out of the physics stuff. I just basically switched over to another graduate program at a different university. That was when I started writing, but that was all creative writing—fiction, short stories, stuff of that sort. And the good part of that is that it teaches you how to tell a story; and what the important parts of conveying a message and putting things together in a coherent fashion are. The bad thing is it’s completely a terrible degree if you ever want to make any money or have any sense of the real world—it’s just as way out there as physics, to a degree. So, I did some other stuff in between but eventually the beer thing came about when I was out here on the west coast for the most part—I got involved with a beer website which I’d been involved with for a few years (called the Hop Press) and they wanted to start doing some blogging stuff and I just kind of went from there with it—got some clips and just sort of built that up, So that’s the long-winded answer, but there was no direct transition between doing physics and doing beer writing.

…on how he found his focus on beer:

It was mostly tasting beers on my own; I had a lot more experience there—the wine (tasting classes were) useful but it’s a totally different set of flavor profiles and for me it didn’t directly translate. It was mostly just tasting beers with my friends; being involved on RateBeer.com and just tasting with friends and getting a sense of how peoples palates are different and how they talk about beer and that was the biggest influence for that kind of thing. . .I mean I was tasting beers for years before I’d ever tried to make any money off of it—I just did it because it was fun. My friends are into it, my wife’s into it. And so by the time it became a source of income, I had a lot more years of tasting under my belt than I think a lot of folks that do this…it was organic. I was interested in the industry before I’d ever tried to get a job in the industry rather than just coming in fresh, I mean there are writers that will just write about any alcoholic beverage but I focus on beer and I know that and I care about that.

Northern California Beer Guide by Writer, editor, and author Ken Weaver. Freelance writing advice…on landing his book deal:

For me, I had a book deal before I was even doing this full-time. I actually met a publisher at a book festival; I met him because I was doing fiction and he published a literary journal. And, I gave him my card, told him I wrote about beer, and that’s how we connected. So that was all—I didn’t even pitch the damned thing—it sort of fell into my lap in a magical way and was hugely important to me. We live in the same town now as our publisher, my wife did the photos for the book, but that was how that came about—he saw an opportunity, it was a great idea for a book, and we’ve been selling copies of it ever since. Not a lot of money in regional beer guides, though, no matter where you do it—any regional scope book, there’s not a lot of money in it unless you really, really have a huge platform for selling it… But basically, if you specialize (as a writer), and you do freelance stuff, if you have a book (and it can be a shitty book) it goes a long way in terms of establishing your expertise in the field. Ideally it’s a good book, but for me, after I had a book out, that was it… I could kind of pitch where I wanted. And I think it did make a big difference—it didn’t really change me; I learned things, but it isn’t like I was a totally different process before and after that process.

…on crafting the perfect pitch:

When I was pitching, I used to spend a lot of time on my pitches. If you don’t have a super-dense portfolio, you can convince people of a lot of things in a pitch. You want to do it in like two or three paragraphs, and for some things you need much longer pitches, but I spent a lot of time crafting pitches so that it would sound good, it would sound very knowledgeable, it would be thoroughly researched, it would show ahead of time that I wasn’t coming in blind—that I already knew what I was going to be writing about—and it wasn’t a jump on the part of my editors (to assume) that I was actually going to be able to do it. And I think that’s super important for people, especially early on—you can’t just be like, ‘here’s some random idea that I came up with drunk last night. Sound good?’ It’s gotta be better than that and it’s gotta sound the way it’s going to sound when you actually write the thing. And you can convince people (to let you write for them) that way… I got to write for Saveur Magazine, for instance, and they’re one of the best food and beverage magazines out there, and it was because of my pitch. It was because my pitch sounded good; it’s because I read them; because I had a subscription there and I knew their magazine, I knew what they hadn’t published and I hit them with a pitch that they knew I could write…Editors just want something that’s going to work for them, that’s going to sound good, that’s going to sound right for their publication, that they’re not going to have to go and have rewritten. And I think that when you do stuff like that it makes it a lot easier to get work because editors just don’t want to babysit…

…on what will get a pitch instantly tossed:

This isn’t speaking for AAB, this is just in general, but if you are trying to write about something that someone just published, that’s definitely a good one; a lack of familiarity with the magazine or the publication in any way, shape or form; if you’re trying to write in a voice that is completely incompatible with what they do; if you’re trying to pitch a form (that is outside the normal scope of a publication)—like if you’re trying to pitch a 3000 word story to someone who only publishes one or two page articles, it’s not going to work. And I think because editors see that as sloppy, anything along those lines, anything that sends up those red flags that demonstrate that either you’re not careful, you aren’t paying attention. For me, my biggest concern a lot of times if I’m looking at pitches from other people is, can you write at a high enough level as a freelancer coming in and—especially with something longer—are you knowledgeable enough about both the topic and the larger industry to be able to do so in a way that will actually work for the publication.

Like what you saw here? Find it helpful? Check out some of my other interviews with semi-famous people who write much better than I do in the archives. And subscribe today to get the next one sent straight to your inbox—not sure who the subject is going to be yet but promise to make it worth your while!

Bestselling Non-Fiction Author Daniel James Brown Has Done It All Without Rushing

Boys in the Boat writer Daniel James Brown at his Washington Home.
Bestselling non-fiction author Daniel James Brown.

Daniel James Brown is the award winning author of three books of non-fiction including, most recently, The Boys in the Boat, which tells the underdog story of the 1936 American Olympic gold medal rowing crew that claimed victory over a rising Facist party in Berlin. Brown came to my hometown of Tucson for an event a couple of months ago and I was fortunate enough to get to interview him for a short local newspaper article. He talked to me about his path to becoming a full-time writer, his process, and some behind-the-scenes bits about putting The Boys in the Boat together. Here is the transcript of that exchange:

How did you come to be a professional tech writer and then author? What is your educational and professional background before you were writing professionally?

After I earned my master’s degree I taught college English for a number of years in California, as did my wife.  When she and I decided we wanted to buy a house and start a family we realized that we really wouldn’t be able to do that on teachers’ salaries. I noticed a help wanted ad for a technical editor at some little company up in Seattle called Microsoft. I didn’t know what Microsoft was, and hardly knew what a computer was but I applied for the job. They flew me up to Seattle, had a realtor show me and my wife some houses, and signed me up. I worked there for the next twelve years, doing technical editing, technical writing, and managing small groups of writers and editors. This was during a period when the company was growing explosively and by the end of those twelve years I realized that I had enough financial padding that I could take some time to try my hand at doing what I’d really always wanted to do—write books. So I left the company and spent the next couple of years writing my first book—Under a Flaming Sky. That eventually led to a second book and then six years ago to The Boys in the Boat.

How did you come to meet your primary source for The Boys in the Boat, Joe Rantz?

Actually, my neighbor is Judy Willman, Joe Rantz’s daughter, and Joe was living under hospice care at Judy’s house for the last couple of months of his life. She had been looking for someone to write about her dad and the 1936 gold medal crew

Author Daniel James Brown's book, The Boys in the Boat
A Bestseller on both coasts.

for some time, so she asked me to come down to her house to meet him. I didn’t know that she was looking for a writer and I didn’t go to visit Joe with that in mind, but once I sat down with Joe and he began to talk about his experiences I was just mesmerized immediately. I mean, it has all the technical elements of a great story, but as Joe was telling me the story I could also see from his emotions that there was a huge amount of heart in it.

Why was it important to you to tell the story of “the boat”?

That same day that I met Joe, at the end of the conversation, I found myself asking Joe, “Can I write a book about your life.”  And I remember that he immediately shook his head, “No,” he said, “I don’t want you to write a book about me.”  But then he looked up—and I’ll never forget this because he had tears in his eyes—and said, “But you could write a book about “the boat.”  At first I didn’t know what he meant—I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the beautiful cedar shell that he and his crew mates had rowed in the Olympics in Berlin. But then I came to understand that of course by “the boat” he meant all of the boys together, what they had done together. And something even more than that—what they had all become together that summer in Berlin 75 years before, the almost perfect thing that a crew becomes when it finds its swing. So I set out the next day on what turned out to be a four year odyssey of researching and writing the story.

How had the world expected the American’s to perform at Berlin?

I think the American boat was always seen as a contender. But the boat to beat was really the British boat, full of boys from the prestigious Leander Club in England. And in fact, the Americans had to set a world and Olympic record to beat them in a preliminary race. That forced the Brits to have to row another race to qualify for the medal round and it left them too burned out to really be a factor in the final race. The other boats that were seen as major threats were the German and Italian boats, representing the Fascist powers just before the war. And in fact, Germany wound up winning gold medals in the first five rowing events the day of the finals. By the time the Americans in the eight-oared boat got ready to row their race, against the Germans and Italians, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. With Hitler looking on they were chanting “Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!” as the boats lined up for the start. And…halfway through the race the Germans and Italians were far out in front, with the Brits and the Americans tied for dead last.

What was/were the most poignant lesson(s) to you personally from writing this book?

You know, the big lesson I take away from this story is that each of these guys had a measure of humility to him. They were all genuinely nice guys, and over the three years they came together as a crew they learned to trust one another and believe in one another on a level that’s almost impossible to convey in words. I think they were able to build that trust because each of them was able to suppress his own ego a bit and open his heart to the others and learn from them and value them and, ultimately row the race not just for themselves but for each of the other guys in the boat. That has a lot of resonance for me. I think this story of these nine young men who climbed in a boat and learned to pull together so beautifully and so powerfully is an almost perfect metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did. They were the generation that was humbled by the Great Depression and they learned to pull together and build great teams and get great things done. They built great public monuments like the Grand Coulee Dam, they won World War II on, not one, but two fronts, they built the greatest era of prosperity we have ever known after the war. For me this story is really about all of them.

How long does it take you to write and research each book? What about with The Boys in the Boat in particular? What is that process like for you?

This book took about four years of research and writing. The first two took perhaps two or three years each. My books are very research intensive so it is always a big commitment do dive into one. In the case of The Boys in the Boat I needed to understand the lives of all nine young men in the boat, so it took a lot of time and work to track down their families and interview them. I was fortunate in that each of the families was very willing to help and gave me access to boxes of letters and diaries and photographs and so forth. At the same time that I was talking to all of them I was reading widely about Germany in the 1930s, about the Great Depression, about the Dust Bowl, and so on. I also spent countless hours in the library hunched over microfiche machines reading newspapers from the 1930s, looking for news about the crew but also just absorbing as much as I could about life in Seattle in 1933-36. As I researched each phase of the story I also began to write chunks of the manuscript. I write in units that I think of as “scenes” rather than in chapters. A scene might be as short as three paragraphs or as long as ten pages or so, but it’s always one coherent unit.  So I proceed in that way, stringing out one scene after another until I finally wind up at the last one. Then, of course, there is a long process of editing and revising and polishing before it’s ready to go to the publisher.
Subscribe now to catch my next interview post with Ken Weaver, editor of All About Beer Magazine.

Award-Winning Writer and American Introspectionist Taffy Brodesser-Akner Is Always Keeping It Real. Really Real.

Indeed, haters are gonna hate.The phrase has admittedly been tossed around by more than one super-huge pop star as sort of a catchall for any and all criticism, regardless of its legitimacy. But still, the simple truth is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how successful you might become, there will always be someone lurking—in the PTA, on the internet, in your office, on the internet—doing their best to sprinkle a little bit of metaphorical fecal matter onto your optimism salad on the off chance that it might sour your spirit to a level they deem appropriate. And even though she recently signed contributing writer contracts with two of the biggest names in long-form reporting on the planet (GQ and The New York Times Magazine), and though she is now writing cultural biopics (like her recent feature on Nicki Minaj for GQ, or her feature on the female fighters of the UFC for Matter) that will likely be read by university students, journos, and news junkies for many years to come, not even Taffy Brodesser-Akner is immune to the effects of naysayers.

Brodesser-Akner was still in high school when she started ghost writing professionally. Well, she was writing college entrance exam essays for her peers and, somehow, her eleventh-grade English teacher caught wind of the operation. She told a young Taffy Akner to shut the side business down “Principally,” the teacher told the future New York Press Club Award winner, “because you’re not that good of a writer.” Brodesser-Akner told me over the phone that she remembers the whole ordeal vividly, and that, even years later, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth in her teacher’s words. “I kept thinking, what if she’s right?” she says. Still, Brodesser-Akner insists that self-doubt plagues many of the writers she knows and, no, I didn’t press her to name names, but she did tell me (half-) jokingly that she doesn’t “know very many writers who don’t believe in their hearts that they are just hacks and that eventually they will be found out.” I was just glad to hear that it wasn’t just me.

But it did make me wonder. Did that mean that the feeling of dread that comes while waiting for a piece to be accepted, followed by that surge of anxiety preempting the public response never completely goes away? Brodesser-Akner says that landing a decent contract (or two) helps confirm that your efforts as a writer are paying off; she also said that, to this day, she hopes just a little bit that her eleventh grade English teacher sees everything published under her byline. Made sense enough to me. Let ’em hate.

And though she’s now working much more closely with at least two major magazines than ever before, Brodesser-Akner says that her working life hasn’t changed all that much from when she was strictly a freelance writer. She says that about eighty-percent of her stories still come from pitches, and that her contracts do not necessarily mean that she can’t write for other markets. “Whereas, when you are completely freelance you are kind of dating a lot of different people, I now have two husbands and all of my stories have to go through them first.”

But, she adds, working with such talented editors is her “favorite part” of her job. Basically, to this guy, it kind of sounds like a non-fiction writer’s dream; the type of dream I might believe is real right up until the phone rings or the dog starts barking. At any rate, needless to say that when Mrs. Brodesser-Akner said she was willing to chat with me about how to get from ‘Point A’ (naysayers) to ‘Point Z’ (what I’ll refer to as the ‘haha-told-you-so’ phase), I was eager to give a listen.

Here’s what she had to say about…

…the most important aspect of her pre-interview research:

“When you look at someone’s art, when you are looking at the thing they are lauded for, you can see who they are trying to be.”

…how to know when an article is ready:

“You have to cultivate the confidence to wonder, ‘Am I still curious about this subject?’ That way all of the questions I ask myself on behalf of the reader are not false questions. ‘Is my curiosity satisfied about all of this?’ You have to remember that you are acting like an ambassador (on your subject) to the reader.”

…specializing:

“I always resisted a beat and, therefore, I don’t know if anyone actually thinks of me for any one type of story.”

…working from home as a parent:

“My kids can’t tell the difference between when I’m using my computer for work or when I’m just using it to check Facebook. Your children don’t just sit in the corner quietly while you write—they want you to actually be in there watching the movie or doing whatever else with them. They want the shared experience.”

…long-form non-fiction v. other forms:

“I actually went to school for screenwriting but I think I lack the sort of imagination required to make things up. What I’ve found that I am pretty good at, though, is seeing something and finding some sort of art in what I’ve seen—in the true story.”

…her dream interview:

“I’ve always thought that I could retire a very happy person if I could get any kind of quality time with Bruce Springsteen.

Saturday Evening Post Editor Steve Slon Tells You How to Get Published

STS_portrait

Ever wonder what kind of person has the audacity to take a well-known publication and completely flip the script on it in order to roll out something brand-spanking new to their national reader base? Steven Slon is just such a guy. He has a less pallid, Anderson-Cooper-thing about him, though he wears rectangular glasses and occasionally curses in casual conversation. He seems to ponder everything said to him as if there could be hidden importance behind each word and he always thinks very carefully, sometimes at length, before speaking—a quality that often takes a back seat nowadays to any potential for a teensy bit of micro-celebrity. And if you had told Steven Slon while he was a film student at NYU that he would one day be the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the longest-running magazine in the United States, he probably would have laughed in your face.

Slon was not only responsible for the 2013 redesign of the Saturday Evening Post; he also brought the magazine into the digital age with its first mobile app, helped launch Men’s Health Magazine, served as Editor-in-Chief under banners like AARP The Magazine and Success, and he won Media Industry News‘ Editor of the Year Award in 2010. At first, Slon says, he wanted to be a filmmaker—a director. But after serving on what he called “the lowest rung” of the movie business as a production assistant, he was  told that writing might be a way to break into the creative side of things. He started scribing for his local “Penny Saver”, making about ten bucks an article, and quickly placed stories with publications like his current employer, the Post, and TV Guide, which was still relevant at the time. From there, having learned how to tell a story literally by cutting and stitching reels of film for most of his young adult life, Slon carried those skills with him into his career as an editor. And yes, he actually used to cut and tape articles just like he did film to determine the shape of his stories.

Mr. Slon was kind enough to let me pick his brain earlier this week via phone about things like what makes an ideal article pitch, his editing pet peeves, and the future of journalism. Here are some highlights:

 

CB: As an editor, what does your dream query letter look like?

SS: That’s tough—it’s funny, because I’ve been on a number of panels for various editing and writers’ organizations on this very subject—everyone wants to know… It’s not a simple answer—I’m looking for really good writing… For a writer that doesn’t have very much experience, I’m more interested in the writing than just the ability to do journalism. It’s a dangerous approach, because some writers that are very fluent with language can’t do reporting for shit, but I’m looking for a flair because I like the publications I work on to be engaging. If you just want reporting you’ve got daily newspapers… I actually used to avoid J-school types in hiring for editorial jobs… Somebody who’s a real long-time daily newspaper reporter is not generally good at magazine-type pieces because a feature is not just a re-telling of something; it’s not just descriptive… It has to bring something to the table—some thinking—and not just be reporting on what’s going on. And I do feel that journalism school can breed that out of people.

 

CB: So, what should that letter look like?

SS: I’d like to see a clip—first of all, I want to be intrigued by the idea, then see what kind of writing you’ve done, but even that can be misleading. I mean, I’ve known writers who have a couple of great clips that have been completely re-written—and they don’t need to tell you that because it’s got their byline on it—and then you realize they can’t actually deliver that kind of quality. But it’s evident pretty quickly what a person can do.

 

CB: What are your editorial pet peeves—the things that will get a query letter sent straight to the trash possibly before you even finish reading it?

SS: Writing that reads like a press release, that’s overly flowery, you know—trying too hard. I mean, that’s the other thing—I want engaging writing but… you know. Let’s say it’s a story about a beach; we don’t need to hear about the ‘luxurious, verdant waves that lapped at your toes,’ you know what I mean? Overdone, purple prose.

Also, I can’t really describe it exactly, but there is some bad phrasing, poor syntax in writing that makes me feel that this person doesn’t have control of the language. Like if somebody says ‘I should’ve went’ or ‘I lay down on the bed’—it’s those kind of common language mistakes that people make all the time in conversation, but if you do it in writing it sort of says to me that you don’t know what you’re doing… If someone is awesome in other ways, I might let it slide, but it depends. But you should know the basic kind of Strunk & White stuff.

 

CB: What can you say about the future of journalism and publishing?

SS: I think the democratization of writing is good for the exchange of ideas, but it’s bad for being a professional. And what I mean by democratization is, anyone can publish a book on Kindle just by pushing a button; anyone can publish a blog—and everyone does—so everyone is writing madly just because they love to for an audience of usually their best friends… Then there’s one in a thousand—or fewer—that picks up a substantial following and maybe gets some advertising support, and so on. But I would tell young people in J-school to find someplace to make a living—I wouldn’t even say to go. It’s good to study it, but where are you gonna go?

Newspapers are dying and that was the biggest employer of journalists and magazines are thinning down. And I think for many years there will still be print magazines. I’m not sure about forever, but I think they’ll be here to stay for a long time, but there will be a very small, select group that enjoys the fruits of that… And I think there will be increased specialization. You know, people don’t just want a magazine about skiing, for example, but if you’re into powder skiing you want a magazine about powder skiing. And it used to be very general… But I think that where magazines are more successful, mainly for ad reasons, is where advertisers know they’re buying ad space for people who by skis to ski on powdered snow and not just skis in general, so they know their money is being well spent and they’re willing to pay for that.

 

CB: Is it important for a writer to specialize?

SS: I think you need a little bit of specialization… To be very specific, if you’re a women’s magazine and you have a hair column, you’re not going to just hire anyone to write that hair column. You’re going to hire someone who’s been working in beauty and hair and knows the subject. Otherwise, the mistakes people make when they just plunge into a new field are that they tackle the subject that all their readers know has been discussed ad nauseam and that really don’t need to have covered again. They need to be able to zero-in on a new twist on that subject and you can’t do that unless you’ve been following it for months or years. If you’re at Cosmo and you’re going to write a sex story, you better know what they’ve already written about for the last five to ten years… you’ve got to know how far they’ve dialed it in.

 

CB: How important do you think it is for writers to maintain a social media presence today?

SS: Well, I think it’s very important… you have to be up on it. A lot of people get their news from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, etcetera. That’s, in effect, framing the world for them. Even John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, he and his brother are YouTube stars and he’s all tapped-in to youth culture… He’s got this huge audience so, when he wrote a book, he suddenly had millions of people to whom he could market… It’s hard for a generalist… but I think the people who succeed at it are a little bit eccentric and wacky, and really narrow focused—you know every week or every day what they’re going to put out there and they’re just building a following as they go. But truly, for every one that succeeds there are probably a hundred that get no following. But if there is something you are passionate about and you are willing to post about it over and over, one day you just might get enough followers to where suddenly you can make a living.

 

Steve Slon recommended reading: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. Esquire, April 1966.

Suggested follow: Humans of New York

 

Why I Don’t Transcribe Interviews and You Don’t Have to Either

Writing monster at work.

I’ve never claimed to have access to any mind-blowing secrets that are going to make you rich as a freelance writer. In fact, I have a tendency to put my guard up when I hear anyone make such a claim; even if they’ve turned their job writing from home into a multimillion dollar gig. The truth is that even (INSERT NAME OF FAVORITE WRITER/AUTHOR HERE) might be able to offer you some tips, or maybe they can give you some direction with respect to your craft or ideas. Heck, some higher-up might one day even drop your name to a publishing bigwig and help get you your first deal if the stars are all aligned just so. No amount of suggestion, though—no matter how poignant—is going to deliver clients to your doorstep or take your novel from 40,000 words of freewriting vomit straight to the best-seller lists.

Getting better at writing, like anything else unfortunately, comes with repetition—you know, it’s that dirty ‘P’-word—Practice. That being said, whatever handy little tips and tricks you can collect along the way to save yourself time will make you a more efficient writer. And the more time you can free up in your day to put toward the production of new material, the better off you will be.

To that end, let me start by saying that writing a 1000-word article used to take me right around twelve hours to complete, and it was Te-di-ous: four hours for general research, one and a half to conduct interviews, three more to listen to and transcribe those interviews, one more to compile my research (mainly, highlighting the best quotes in my interview transcripts), one hour to write out a rough draft, and another two-to-three to polish it. Today, the same article takes me right around half that time, maybe a touch more, depending on the article. And the products of that effort are (as they should be) better quality today than they were when I started, or at least I think they are. Not to say that there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement—I’ve never read anything I’ve written in a published forum and thought, ‘Yes, that is exactly the perfect way to have used those 800+ words on this subject’, nor do I think that I will ever necessarily get to that point. Still, the writing portion goes much more quickly now simply as a result of that previously mentioned ‘P’-word. From being unpublished just over two years ago (aside from a pair of op-eds in college which ran in a now-extinct afternoon newspaper) I now have dozens of published pieces to my name, each of which has afforded me the opportunity to learn something new about my process along the way. Sheer repetition alone has probably shaved about two-hours off of my production time just by granting me a familiarity with commonly-used formats. Most of the rest came from constantly looking for ways to further refine my rough-edged routines—from digging around the web for those precious tips and, perhaps even more so, from directly reaching out to people who genuinely knew what they were talking about.

Some things, however, you just pick up along the way—I realized this one day when one of my editors (who has been at this writing thing quite a few years longer than myself) asked me for tips on saving time while transcribing interviews. It was just too time-consuming, monotonous, and more so, TIME-CONSUMING to have to do two or more times per article, she told me. “I don’t transcribe anymore,” I responded, and her eyes went as wide as coffee cups.

During—and especially right before—my first interview (I can’t even remember who it was with at this point, though it was most likely a college professor or someone of similar status) I was terrified. I don’t recall the conversation but I do remember that my voice and hands were shaking the entire time. Once all of my interviews were complete (thank God!) and I was ready to sit down and write the article, I sketched out a rough outline before listening to each interview (did I mention I recorded every single interview I conducted—that’s kind of important) and meticulously transcribing every single word spoken in the audio file including the “uh’s” and “um’s”, pausing every couple of seconds to type out each sentence, fragment by fragment, before pressing on.

Where this made for some very accurate reporting (save the various non-interview-related errors that crept into a handful of my earliest pieces) it sucked up a great deal of my time. Soon I realized that what I was saying (the questions) had no import with respect to writing the actual article, and so I began transcribing only the answers given by my interviewees. This cut about fifteen-percent from the process. Not long after, I was using shorthand while transcribing so I didn’t have to pause the file as often to catch up–another twenty-percent. I also started including regular timestamps throughout my transcriptions for ease of reference should I need to refer back later on. Over time I gained a bit of an ear for what made a decent quote and, since I had an idea of the shape of each article before I started compiling the piece, I knew what to listen for when replaying my interviews. Now I was only pausing three or four times per replay, and only when I knew there was an exceptionally long and significant piece of information to write down. It was only a few more interviews after that before I was able to incorporate a form of shorthand into that process, as well. Now, replaying an interview to extract quotes for a piece of writing is essentially a one-shot deal, and rarely do I need to pause any more at all to catch up—at least, that is, on my good days.

None of this interview time-saver stuff happened all at once. And none of it came to me straight from the source, so to speak. But simply by knowing ahead of time what I was looking for and by learning how to listen for those sound bites I was able to cut my research and review time roughly in half—the actual length of my interviews also seems to get shorter the more of them I do. Unless, of course, it’s just for the sake of good conversation. Once I got a little better at mentally organizing shorter pieces, I was eventually able to completely cut out the outlining process for those articles, as well. And what has this meant for my writing career, you ask? Maybe not dollars in the bank, directly, but it has added up with respect to my time and level of productivity, and that translates to more flexibility for doing just about everything else; like dishes, and marketing, and writing blogs like this one for you.

I hope it helps.

Got any time-saving interview, research, or writing tips you want to share? Or maybe you’ve spotted all the flaws in my personal process and need to tell me about it. Either way, (and for any other reason, really) I’d love to hear from you.

Columnist Cable Neuhaus (Saturday Evening Post; Folio) Talks Shop and Reaching the Top

photo 3 copyCable Neuhaus is living one version of the professional writer’s dream—it’s little wonder he’s still “proud to call (himself) a journalist” despite a climate which seems to undervalue news and writing in general. Fresh this year to the Saturday Evening Post’s arsenal of talent, Neuhaus’ rise to the top of the professional writing world was startlingly organic—his current column in the Post (“American Pop”), for instance, was born of a chance lunch meeting with an editor after Nauhaus criticized the magazine in another column (“The Magazine Medic” in trade staple, Folio). Before his present life as a columnist, Neuhaus also served as Editor and Chief of Folio, Creative Director of Newsmax Media, General Editor of Entertainment Weekly, and Bureau Chief for People Magazine. Mr. Neuhaus was kind enough to give me about an hour of his time early one Friday morning as he worked from his home office in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Here’s what he had to say on journalism as a craft, the importance of persistence, and work appearing unexpectedly.

 

On Journalism Education:

“I did a bachelor’s degree in journalism and actually it always felt like it was largely useless…partway through my junior year I sent a letter to (the editor of trade newspaper) Editors and Publishers…just across the transom—they didn’t know who I was, again I was probably 19 years old at the time—and (in it) I said that I didn’t see much virtue in journalism programs…that people who wanted to get into journalism would learn the craft on their own and get into (the industry)…Then, number one, they published my letter as I recall, but more importantly they invited me to come work for them, the newspaper, which I did that summer…Journalism schools have some value…learning the theory and the law around it…gives you context…but (learning) the craft itself, 18 months is enough—bend it to two years if you want to, but that makes it a junior college program (laughs). If it were up to me I would probably reform the way journalism is taught…My feeling was, those people who had a passion to write professionally, they would find their way into the profession by virtue of their drive and skills.”

 

On the Public Perception of Journalism as a Profession:

“…Journalism has been pegged as such a lousy-paying career that if you are a high school kid contemplating college, who wants to go into journalism? It just doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a great career for you after (graduation), so the word ‘journalism’ has been tarnished, there’s no question about it. I’m proud to call myself a journalist but there is no question that, in terms of the public perception, we’re down there with car salesmen.”

 

On Why That Is:

Number one, there are a lot of lousy journalists (laughs). There’s been a lot of bad journalism done both locally and nationally. And also because, I think these days—not so much 20 years ago, but these days—in the political realm we are so polarized that people are looking at political (emphasis added) journalism as journalism more so than, say, reporting on a plane accident…And so If they don’t agree (with an article) they think that the journalist has an agenda, you see that all the time…and by the way, sometimes the journalist does have an agenda. But I think if (readers) don’t agree with the journalist they call it bad journalism, and that gets attached to the entire profession…There are many great journalists out there… (but) we live in an extremely polarized world these days and so much of journalism has really become almost like opinion journalism…so people don’t trust journalists (anymore).”

 

On Teaching Yourself to Write:

“The best way to learn about how to write to your audience is through the concept of letter writing because when you’re writing a letter, whether it’s a letter with a pen and pencil—which no one does these days—or an email, generally you’re writing to one person, maybe two, maybe three, but you have a clear idea of what that audience is. And I think learning how to write good letters is learning how to write well, regardless of the length. But when you’re writing a letter you have to think about the audience—the person you’re writing to—and if you’re writing to your friend Suzie versus writing to your buddy Harold you’re probably going to write in a somewhat different voice. And if one is a girl you’re pursuing and the other is just a college buddy, again (it’s a) different point of view. When you’ve got in mind a person, you write with their likes and their brain in mind, and when I write for a magazine I try to think who my reader is—now you don’t always know real well, but you kind of look at the magazine and see what they publish and you can get an idea.

 

On Finding the Right Job:

“Early in my career I would write for anyone who would publish me—money wasn’t the issue…But…over a period of years…I wrote letters to writers and editors, not asking for work, but commenting on their (emphasis added) work and trying to create a relationship…I once stopped and tried to calculate it and it was over ten-thousand notes and letters over about ten yearsI finally found someone who took a real interest in my writing and, son-of-a-gun, was actually in a position to hire…It turned out he took some of my notes and clips and handed them to one of his associates, and that associate approached me about assigning me some stories and then quickly hired me and that was at Time Inc., at People Magazine, and that was as People Magazine was being launched—and that was a defining moment, but you never know which letter’s going to do it.”

 

Everything I Should Have Learned in College About Professional Writing

A writer's work is never done.I was going to cite a whole bunch of employment statistics—ones that show how having the right college degree helps you get a job—but instead, I am going to lay the truth down as per my personal experience: in terms of finding full-time, gainful employment, having a humanities degree today is roughly akin to having no degree at all.

Since graduating in 2007 with my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing I have spent the majority of my working life in customer service, save the last few years in which I’ve been fortunate enough to get paid to write things. I worked as the marketing guy for a local club for a while, but even that averaged out to around $9 per hour when all was said and done—a little less than I would later make at a jewelry repair store in the mall. I was overqualified (I was told) for most office jobs and underqualified (I was usually ignored) for anything entry-level. Go figure.

On top of that—though I have to admit that my tenure in a top writing program most certainly made me a better writer—once I left school for the rat race, diploma in-hand, I was no more prepared to become a professional writer than I had been after graduating high school. I had a degree in the subject, sure, but I still I had no idea what a query letter was, let alone how to write one, and that, it turned out, was Pro-Writing 101. I didn’t hear anything about agents, or publishing books, or writing magazine articles, or how to talk to editors or submit to journals until after I graduated, and most of this I did online with the help of blogs like this one. But I did read a lot in school. And I wrote a lot. And I learned how to take criticism. Most of that stuff you can do in any ol’ workshop for much less than the cost of college tuition, and any one of those workshops is sure to tear your work apart all the same. Yes, having award-winning writers as your discussion leaders does have its perks, but for the vast majority of us humanities grads (myself included) it never translated to a single byline.

What nobody likes to talk about when they are trying to sell you a site membership, a book, or enrollment in a class promising instant six-figure success in your freelance writing career is how much work it’s going to take you to get there. They’ll tell you over and over how few of your classmates will become actual professional writers as well as how difficult it is to break into the industry and how the odds are stacked so very high against you, but none of my professors ever told me anything about how much labor was involved in writing professionally. We’re talking nerve-frying, eye-drying, staring-at-a-screen-so-long-you-want-to-puke work. You’ll send in more queries than you thought you could ever write only to have 99 percent of them rejected at first. Then what do you do? You come up with more ideas, send in more queries, reach out to more publications, and keep on slinging it ‘til it sticks. Eventually the rejections are fewer, the work is more, and maybe—if you’re lucky—clients will even start seeking you out for projects. Finish a book-length manuscript or a piece of short fiction in your “spare” time and it’s back to the world’s slowest races with the world’s most obtuse learning curve (Still working on breaking into that side of publishing myself).

Everyone’s backup dream plan seems to be to write something—someday, down the road, once life settles down a bit. But the ones that actually sit down and do it—and then do it again, and again, and again—are the ones collecting the paychecks. And some, as you know, are pretty well-paid.

There is no easy path to writing success that I have found. The road to regular publication—and therefore, regular paychecks—is a strenuous one, though it is littered with intangible treasures if you know where to look. How else are you going to find an excuse to talk one-on-one with your childhood heroes? or that politician for whom you actually had a few questions? or the rockstar who wrote that song you love—the one with the lyrics you never could quite understand. You know the one. How else are you ever going to make a living doing what you love except by throwing yourself headlong into doing it?

I pulled this from a list of Joss Whedon quotes compiled by my editor at MentalFloss.com. She apparently got it from a Hulu Q&A. Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a Buffy fan to get the meaning behind it, and whether you like it or not, Whedon is one of those guys collecting the checks:

“If you have a good idea, get it out there. For every idea I’ve realized, I have ten I sat on for a decade till someone else did it first. Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”

Summation: give your passion whatever you’ve got, then give it a little bit more. Make it a point to surprise yourself and inevitably you will. If I owe nothing else to my college education, it’s the fact that during those four years of workshops I was forced to “MAKE” over and over again, often reluctantly (some things never change). Everything after that was details, each one meticulously honed through a seemingly endless phase of trials-and-errors. I’m still erring from time to time, yeah, but now I’m publishing, too.

If I had to do it over, I would study journalism or marketing or engineering—one of those subjects that actually prepares you for a real-life job. The writing—the “MAKING”— would have come all the same; it was, after all, something I considered a pleasurable hobby long before it paid any of my bills.

Though it may sound like commonsense, all of this took me seven years on top of college to figure out. You just got it tuition-free in about five minutes.

Happy making.

How did you break into the world of professional writing? Do you have a story about something you tried that DIDN’T work for you the first time? I’d love to hear about it—comment below or email me at info@craigsbaker.com.