How to Land Superstar Sources for Your Writing Projects

Writer Monster Conducts an InterviewOften the hardest part about writing an article is just finding a decent source willing to sit with you for an interview. Even on the local level, business owners, public officials, and media personalities are usually too busy to just jump in and offer a great quote for you on a cold call. And if you’ve ever reached out to an A-lister of any ilk than you know that correspondence sent to in-demand individuals will more-often-than-not find its way to the garbage without the courtesy of a response. Though no method is fool proof in this arena, it’s good to stack the odds in your favor when writing an interview request. Many of these tricks I learned the hard way—by doing things wrong on the first go round—and all of them have helped me to land some big interviews even when writing for small publications.

1)      Over-Canvas and Overshoot

It is not possible to have too many sources, nor is it possible to reach too high when it comes to the quality of those sources. Treat every local newspaper piece like a dollar-a-word assignment and reach out to the very best source you can find for your topic. Worst case scenario: they don’t have time to talk or don’t respond—no harm done. You can stifle your fear of rejection by blasting out correspondence to multiple sources at once—get five requests out each afternoon and that 20 percent success rate will start to feel pretty good.

2)      Be Likeable

In everything I write—from emails to articles—I read out-loud or at least in a whisper to check for flow and tone. The tone you are shooting for in your interview request is business casual, like the language you would use while out on a lunch with a co-worker. Be respectful and appreciative for the time you are requesting from your potential source—that means say thank you—and if you can get in an appropriate joke, I say go for it (depending, of course, on the publication): making someone laugh or smile ups the chance that they will want to sit and talk with you for any extended length of time.

3)      Don’t Ask for Too Much

Get in touch with your chosen subject as early as possible—your deadlines are not their deadlines and the best sources are also the busiest people on the planet. Let them know you will not need much of their time: 15 minutes is probably good for about every 800-1000 words of print, especially if you are using multiple sources in the same piece like a good little journalist. Not every article requires multiple sources, though, and for those you may want to try and get a little bit more time. This goes back to that being likeable thing—if a source is enjoying your conversation you might even get some bonus time out of your call or meeting without asking for it.

4)      Do Your Homework

If you know what your source is doing professionally or personally you are going to be much more able to empathize with them (again, see #2). Don’t take this to the point of creepy (e.g. “I saw you walking your dog near your house in Malibu and…”), but if the subject is involved with a promotion of any kind (say, for a new book, research paper, concert, film, class, television show, business, or anything else) feel free to mention that your piece could be a great opportunity to spread the word. This also shows that you value their time and will minimize the amount of BS they will have to deal with when they do agree to talk to you. Doing a little research is also going to be the only way to find contact information for big-name sources, so take the extra time to read the content on their sites and get a feel for the language they use in their tweets or status updates. If they swear a lot, feel free to loosen your language a bit; if they don’t, act like you’re writing a boss you’ve never met as you draft your interview request. Oh, and a casual compliment usually won’t hurt your case, either way.

5)      Let Them Know What You’re Looking For

Even if you are without assignment when you make first contact, mention publications you intend to pitch and the angle you intend to take for your article in your request. This shows professionalism and minimizes the amount of back-and-forth necessary before your source can make a decision on whether or not to talk with you. And don’t take it personal if you don’t hear back—as we all know, time is everyone’s most valuable asset.

6)      Provide a Link to Clips, if Possible

Having a website helps. Short of that, sending a link to your blog or attaching a few writing samples to your request for your source to consider will usually be to your advantage—again, it cuts one more inevitable email out the exchange and, yeah, it looks pretty good for your credibility, too. No matter how you want to take it, efficiency is always your friend in these efforts, second in importance only to humility.

7)      Keep It Short and Sweet

Your request to interview should look something like this:

Hello [Mr./Ms./Mrs. Famous Last Name],

I was just looking over your [book/website/film/skin cream label] and was really intrigued by your point about [homelessness/happiness/hairlessness/halitosis]. I am actually a freelance writer working on an [article/blog post/possible novel or biography] for [intended medium] and I was wondering if you might have some time in the next [intended time frame adjusted for impossibility of scheduling] to chat with me on the subject?

I know you must be incredibly busy with [optional current project] and so I promise not to take up too much of your time. I am available on [list availability and be as flexible as possible] by [phone/Skype/to meet/tin cans connected by string] but am more than willing to work with your schedule should you be able to find a bit of time for me. You can find samples of my work [at the link below/attached to this message]. Thanks for your time to this point. I will look forward to hearing from you.

 

[Salutation]

Writer Name

www.WriterName.com

800.555.3645

 

Do your best not to overdo it and be considerate—that is the type of journalist a superstar source wants to talk to. Now that you’re feeling confident, get out there and start contacting some sources. It’s never to soon to get started on your next piece.

Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have any tips of your own for landing big interviews? What was the best interview you’ve ever landed and how did you get it? I’d love to hear from you.

How to Be Your Own Story Idea Engine

Get out there and write!
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

You may have heard that the freelance writing business is a game of feast-or-famine. Some insist that it’s the easiest way to make a six-figure income in under a year (I’m still not quite buying that one). Where a very few talented and lucky writers might bang out their first best seller during their only attempt at NaNoWriMo and others seem to land every query they pitch, for the vast majority of us the business of freelance writing is actually more of a numbers game. That is to say, the more quality pitches you can get in front of the correct editors, the more likely it will be that one of those story ideas might catch an editor’s eye and, thus, land you a job.

When I accidentally re-posted what I wrote for Carol Tice’s advice blog, Make a Living Writing, on my own blog earlier than I was contractually allowed to, it had the happy effect of starting a brief email exchange with the Freelance Writer’s Den Mother, herself. Though our correspondence was brief, by the end of it I had garnered this little gem (it is the full, complete, unedited text of her last email to me):

Writing more = secret of success. 😉

No arguing with that one. So, what do you do when facing an idea famine? Push forth, of course! There’s always something out there to write about, and story ideas are all around you, whether you are aware of them or not. Here are a few quick tips you can use to help jump-start the idea-generator in your brain.

 

Websurf

This is probably the only good reason to burn a little bit of time chasing random links—just make sure you stick to the ‘news’ and ‘video’ tabs as best as you can. Look for local activity you could follow up with, and when mining the web for gleams of inspiration it may be in your best interest to turn the “safe search” featuron just as a quality filter. Unless you write erotica; then, by all means, keep it off.

 

Eavesdrop

That’s right—go out in public, bring a notebook, post up somewhere (a coffee shop? A bar?), and just listen. Go super-incognito with headphones that are plugged into nothing. Listen for personal stories—reactions to situations that would likely not mirror your own—and take plenty of notes.

 

Make a New Friend

While listening-in secretly on private conversations has its benefits, the results of this process are not always going to be story-worthy. If this is the case, try actually talking to someone new—introduce yourself to someone or a small group of people sitting alone and ask a few questions. People love to talk about themselves—ask the right questions and those little glimmering details that turn real people into interesting characters will eventually start to materialize in front of you. Simple as that.

 

See What Others Are Writing

Take a look at your target markets again and see what pieces are making the cut. Try to think of ways to parallel the angles and approaches used in those stories on other subjects—perhaps topics with resources you can access easily within your own community or neighborhood. Bonus points if this leads you to step out of your home office on a fact-finding mission.

 

Re-Read a Classic

Maybe all you need in order to find something worth writing about is to be reminded of what you like reading about. And don’t be afraid to try out a twist on a classic fairy tale or fable, or an update on an old piece of long-form journalism. Call it “art for art’s sake” and build on whatever arises. This one is a game with no losers or wrong answers.

 

Email Blast Persons of Interest

Don’t be afraid to aim high—just like looking for paying markets, getting quality interviews from high-profile sources can be very difficult. Still, the more interview requests you make, the more you are going to land. Even if you don’t have a story angle yet, talking to people you admire is often enough of a reward on its own. Also, chances are good that an angle for your next story might become clear to you during an inspired round of conversation.

 

What about you—do you have any tips or tricks you use to generate brilliant story ideas? If so, I’d love to hear them!

 

 

Two Legendary Authors Reveal Humble Beginnings and Professional Insights at the Tucson Festival of Books

“It’s been a long time, shouldn’ta left you (left you) without a dope beat to step to…”               

-Timbaland

Humility—aside from the obvious items in your writing tool kit (a knowledge of language, a pen and paper or a word processor, the blinding drive to produce come-what-may) humility is perhaps the one thing that will take you the furthest in your freelance/writing career, and maybe any other career you pursue, for that matter.  And when I say “humility” I’m not talking about the fake smile and flattery you put on to get through a dinner party—no, no, no. I mean the real stuff—genuine interest; gratitude without pretext. You know—actually treating people the way you want to be treated; honestly, and with dignity. Like you were important; like your thoughts and opinions had value.

Nothing will put you in your proper place quite like spending a weekend surrounded by people that are smarter and more successful than yourself. Last Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of authors and writers—legitimate ones—descended on my hometown for the sixth annual Tucson Festival of Books—the fourth-largest event in the nation of its kind. And for the bulk of this shindig, your narrator played the part of fly on the literary wall.

Authors and writers flock to Tucson Festival of Books
Thousands attend the annual Tucson Festival of Books. Photo by James S. Wood (jswoodphoto.com).

The more I talk to (and listen to) published writers, musicians, and other artists of varying levels of fame, dedication, and talent, the more I learn (and have to [reluctantly] accept) that there is no one path to success—no one magic secret to launching myself into those dollar-a-word assignments, fiction contest victories, or whatever else the other freelance “gurus” happen to be hawking at the moment.

Every single professional I have ever spoken with has their own success story, that is to say, their own very unique path by which they were able to make writing their living, and some 95 percent of them (if not more) had to struggle like hell to get there. Aside from that, the only common threads between these stories, at least from what I can see thus far, are 1) persistence; nobody ever got a job they weren’t looking for (except Luis Alberto Urrea, which I will cover in a minute), and 2) likeability; nobody ever got a job from somebody that didn’t like them.

Take these stories of humble beginnings gathered from talks given at the Tucson Festival by two award-winning, best-selling American authors: renowned children’s author Lois Lowry and Latino Literature Hall-of-Famer, Luis Alberto Urrea.

Author and writer gives great advice.
Two-time Newberry Award-winning Author Lois Lowry never set out to write children’s books.

Lois Lowry has written a number of children’s novels that deal with some very adult subject matter, including two Newberry Award winners in The Giver and Number the Stars, though she never set out to be a children’s author. In fact, Lois’ journey toward her status as a legend of young adult literature began with an essay she had written for an adult audience titled “Crow Call”, which had been published in a magazine somewhere in the 70s, the name of which I forgot to write down. At any rate, the Lois Lowry that I grew up reading and revering came into existence when an editor at Scholastic Press read “Crow Call”, called up Lowry personally, and asked her if she might ever be interested in writing a children’s book. You can fill the rest in yourself with a quick Google search.

One specific writing tip worth mentioning from Lois’ talk: she read all of the opening lines from her Giver  quadrilogy—all of which were mesmerizing, not to mention similar in many respects—and said this, “That’s what makes a reader turn the pages; an introduction to a character (age, gender, name, etc.) and an introduction to a part of a problem—something you need to worry about.”  That about summed it up, I thought; made my skin tingle a bit just to hear it spoken so succinctly. Oh, and watch for “The Giver” the movie starring Jeff Bridges this August—it’s been 18 years in the making, said Lowry, and promises a few surprises to fans of the book.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s path to literary greatness is equally unlikely and, in my opinion, even more exciting than Lowry’s. Urrea was actually “working the graveyard shift scrubbing public toilets” after finishing graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he one day had the realization that scrubbing toilets at a

University might get him a step closer to becoming a famous writer than scrubbing toilets in public parks, Luis sent a letter to an acquaintance of his that taught writing at Harvard in hopes of getting a good recommendation for a janitor position. Sure, said the friend, he could have his recommendation, so long as he sent three pieces of published writing along with his application. “Harvard is so elite,” Luis had told some of his musician buddies that night, “even the janitors are published poets.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Urrea’s connection at Harvard was actually the second in command of the school’s writing program, and so instead of a job as a janitor, Luis was hired to fill an open position teaching expository writing at the most elite University in the nation soon thereafter. When he got to Boston, he was in a completely different world than his native Tijuana—it was his mother’s world, an America he had never known existed, but one that nonetheless belonged to him in some way. “It was a revelation,” said Luis, “that I was not a border rat—I was an American.” Again, I will leave it to you to fill in the rest of Luis’ story on your own (watch for his 10-year-anniversary rerelease of  t

Great writers, humble beginnings.
Best-selling author Luis Alberto Urrea came from very humble beginnings.

he non-fiction classic Devil’s Highway later this year from Little/Brown).

If you are just starting out as a writer—or even if you’ve been at it for a while and have found yourself in one of those inevitable slumps—remember that there is value in what you do that can never be measured in dollars and cents. You write because you love it; because there is nothing else that you would rather be doing, and because, even if there was something you’d rather be doing, you’d only be doing it so that you could write about it later. A writer is one that writes because they have to; not just because they want to. Because those story ideas pile up on themselves and eventually disappear. Because they can cause headaches when neglected. Because you started carrying a pen and paper everywhere you go “just in case”.

Money, success, any notion of book sales or fame—all of these things can come of being a writer, sure, but they must be entertained as afterthought, if at all. The fact of the matter is that the guy (or gal) that is writing from the heart (that is to say, doing it solely for the love of the art form) quite honestly is going to produce better, more honest—and certainly more heartfelt—work than someone rushing toward their next paycheck. And any editor you query is going knows this all-to-well.

So, make sure and remind yourself from time to time that nearly every writer in history has been there—stuck in a rut, no money, no pending assignments, no support or opportunity to speak of, with nothing but their own words to sooth their aching spirit. But, to paraphrase something Urrea was told by a Native American medicine man when he was at perhaps his lowest point:

When you ask the world to free you of your obligations so that you can focus your energy on your craft, make sure you mean it. If you are sincere in your request, then when the angels come to rid you of your burdens, you will be grateful. If you are insincere, however, the angels that take your possessions, break the bonds of your relationships, cull your distractions even at your request, you will be tempted to call devils.   

No matter what you may find yourself doing, do it because you love it. And if you can’t do what you love for a living, do it anyway, whenever and wherever you can. When you stop loving it, stop doing it—regardless, you will one day learn (either the hard way or otherwise) that passion and hard work are the only prerequisites to success. Just make sure and count your blessings along the way. In truth, there is plenty of advice out there to help get you from introduction to conclusion time and time again, but nobody is going to hold your chin up for you.

Living to Write/Writing to Live: How One Author Cracked the Code to Success.

            AndrewBlackman-300x233 A-Virtual-Love-Cover-195x300

Andrew Blackman is living “a writer’s life”, and you can learn all about it on his blog of the same title. The long and short of it is this: he was a Wall Street Journal staff writer for a while, then participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. During that month of intensive wordsmithing he finished a draft for his first novel, The Holloway Road, which went on to win the first ever Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2008. It was then published by Legend Press the following year to some acclaim, even earning a spot on the short list for the Dundee International Book Prize. He published his second novel, A Virtual Love, earlier this year and moved to the island of Crete soon thereafter for cheap rent and a view of the Mediterranean Sea, where he can “live simply and concentrate on writing,” according to his website. Jealous yet? Well, you’re not alone.

Blackman’s blog includes occasional insights to his life and career as a professional writer, as well as tips and tricks for up-and-comers in the industry. Subscribers get a free copy of the eBook “$250,000 Writing Contests”, which could potentially save any writer of short fiction many countless hours of outlet-searching for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a tedious research effort had the potential to morph into an all-consuming waste of time.

Fresh from a meditation retreat somewhere even quieter than his rural home site, Blackman was kind enough to speak with me via email about the writing process for both of his books and—spoiler alert—even clues me in about his progress on novel number three. It seems that a good relationship with a publisher—even a relatively small one—really can affect a writer’s approach. And even the pros are constantly learning, incorporating new information and experiences, and evolving with regard to their perspective and their process.

Here’s the unedited text of my questions to him and his email response, also unedited:

CB:  Maybe you can start by telling me a little about that first novel- how long did your first draft ultimately take? And what about the revision process? How many read-throughs were there before you set it free? Finally, did you find the process of writing your second novel to be similar to the first, or was it perhaps an altogether different experience?

AB:  Good questions. The process was completely different for each novel.

I wrote the complete first draft of my first novel On the Holloway Road in a month, and that first draft was remarkably close to what eventually got published. I went over it, added a few scenes, straightened out a few logical inconsistencies, fixed a few ugly sentences, and then let it go.

Shortly after finishing, I found out about a newly-established prize for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I sent off my manuscript, not expecting much, and was amazed when a few months later I was invited to an award ceremony in London and announced as the winner. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, a fairly small independent publisher in the UK.

After revelling in the win for a while, I panicked. They’d only judged the prize based on the first three chapters. What if they hated the rest? I spent a few frantic days making last-minute revisions, but I don’t think I changed anything much – it was more just agonising over words here and there.

To my surprise, my editor at Legend Press didn’t make or recommend any major changes either. It was more line-editing stuff, like breaking down some of my long and winding sentences into smaller pieces. So the process from start to finish was very easy, and the published novel was mostly completed in that one-month manic writing binge.

For my second novel, it was totally different. I wrote much more slowly, and edited much more thoroughly. With the first novel, I’d had the freedom of not expecting it to be published. Second time around, I had an agent and a wiling publisher, and knew the chances of publication were high. The second novel was also more complicated in theme and structure, so there was more work to do.

So I spent about a year and a half writing the first draft, and then wrote a second draft with major changes – whole chapters deleted, characters dropped and introduced, personalities and plot radically reshaped. And then a third draft, and I showed that to my agent, and he recommended some pretty major changes. For example, the novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, and he felt the voices were not distinct enough. Going back through the whole novel and changing the voices took months by itself, and then there were elements of the plot that had to be rethought, characters who had to be made more believable or sympathetic. I think this stage took another year. I showed it to him again, and he was happier, but recommended another draft.

Finally it was done, and it was just the publisher’s edit, which was pretty light again. All in all it was about four years from start to finish.

I’m now pretty close to the end of my third novel, and it’s a similar process to the second. I think that’s my way of working in general – slower and more considered. On the Holloway Road was more of a one-off. I’d been working on a novel before that for years (a novel which remains, and will always remain, unpublished!), and had got so sick of it that it felt incredibly liberating to free-write for a month without the burden of expectation. I was viewing it as an exercise, to rediscover the joy of writing, and never dreamed that I’d end up with anything publishable. Maybe I’ll try some speed-writing again one day if I get stuck, but for now the slower pace is working well for me, so I’ll stick with that.

All the best

Andrew

Do you have any experience with novel writing, NaNoWriMo, or a publishing success story you’d like to share? Leave a comment below or email me—I’d love to hear your take on things!

NaNoWriMo: Facing All of Your Worst Writing Fears in a Single Month

Copyright NaNoWriMo
Copyright NaNoWriMo

Anyone that has ever tried to publish a piece of writing knows that there are a number of steps along the way that can be downright terrifying. There is the intimidation wrought by that lone blinking vertical line on an empty Word Document to tend with, then the countless hours of tedious rereads and edits (also known as facing your own shortcomings), followed by forcing your writing on unwilling readers (friends and family), accepting criticism, and then perhaps worst of all, sharing your work with willing readers (strangers), at which point all control of the piece is out of your hands. At that point, your opinion of yourself is effectively handed over to the public, en masse.

If you’re like me, there is an additional fear associated with the anticipated length of a piece of writing. If it’s going to be very long, I have a tendency to shy away from working on a piece in favor of something much shorter and simpler. Writing short stories has always been an enjoyable pastime for me as I have grown comfortable in that 20-pages-or-less neighborhood. I can edit those 20 or 30 times before sending them in to a journal for a proper rejection, or even abandon one for a period of months and come back to it for a reread without having to dedicate a full week or more to the process. Great! But a novel has always been too big for me. The prospect of spending 200 full pages on a single story makes me shiver. Even worse is the thought of sharing any bit of the product with the world before it’s finished. What if it’s bad? What if I can’t publish after my work has been shared online? What if a big-time player in the publishing industry reads my work and is offended to the point of vomiting? Will I be blacklisted from ever publishing again?

If this level of anxiety seems at all too intense to maintain while still holding on to your sanity, that’s because it is. That being said, with respect to my own writing career, the process of getting from the level of amateur with no experience to that of a barely-paid professional has been all about conquering fears. We writers must learn to constantly face our fears head-on to survive. We tackle the fear of rejection with each query letter sent; we stumble awkwardly through the fear of humiliation with our first handful of interviews; we live with the threat of criticism from the moment we release a work and allow it to be published in any format.

National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org) is the chance to stand up to long-form fiction once and for all. The challenge is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. In short, the goal is to have a rough draft for that novel you have been dying to write banged out without any excuses by midnight on December 1. The organization responsible for NaNoWriMo even provides you with a word count feature, forums, motivational messages, and plenty of tips and tricks to keep you blasting through writer’s blocks along the way. And though we are almost one week in to the challenge, it’s not too late to start. Build your profile today and start by cranking out your first 2000 words. Stay on it each day and by Saturday’s Writing Marathon you’ll have a running start toward tacking ‘novelist’ on to your resume.

Happy National Novel Writing Month to all of you! I’d be happy to hear from you about your experience with NaNoWriMo or any other tips and tricks you might have with respect to writing long-form fiction.

Freelance Travel Writer Eric Hiss Explains How to Get an Editor’s Attention

Image

Eric Hiss has more than 18 years of professional freelance writing experience under his belt. Throughout nearly two decades he has managed to place his work in more than 40 publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Delta Sky, and the Robb Report, his curio cabinet features a prestigious journalism award from the government of India. After college, Eric started working in PR writing advertising copy and producing agency work for various travel accounts, which led naturally to his career in travel writing a short time later. What follows is the gist of a short phone conversation I had with Eric last week.

 

Since you got your start that way, do you recommend novice writers go into PR as a means of enhancing their freelancing careers?

I think if writing is your application or your passion, if you can just find anything that’s good, whether that’s a PR agency or an ad agency, a lot of journalists like myself need to do other stuff now—it’s really important to diversify because  I’m finding very few colleagues that are just cranking out journalism. Some are, and I find most of those people… (have to) rely a lot on their connections… So for a lot of us that means branded blogs or copywriting, or ghost writing, that kind of stuff—the idea is to make a living doing it. For me, too, I do some branded copywriting stuff; most of it is in the travel sphere so that’s good for me, but I also do some automotive and things like that. I just want to keep busy and I want to keep doing the stuff I love because, you know, a lot of magazines aren’t paying like they used to, so if I can still get a lesser fee but get a great trip to Africa, maybe that means I need to do some corporate work, some press releases back home—I’m fine with it. Some writers aren’t, I have no problem with it.

 

Clearly having been in the industry for a little while now you’ve been able to build up something of a network, but before you were “established” how did you go about finding new publications and introducing yourself? What is or was your methodology?

Trust me, I think you always have to network. I’ve never felt like I’m at some plateau where the work just showers down— I think you saw my name on Gorkana—so that just shows you that I’m always trying to push my name out there on whatever vehicle I see. You know: LinkedIn, I have my own website that’s more like a portfolio, I have a blog, so I’m doing all the stuff I think writers need to do because we are like a brand and you always need to be out there branding yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re beginning or mid-career—you’ve still got to evolve, because editors move on.  I could have worked for someone for 5 or 7 years and then, boom, they’re gone and I’ve got to start again to make that up. But I think there are lots of good options out there to resource… between things like Media Bistro (and Gorkana), looking through magazines, and looking thru websites at your sort of dream outlets or the outlets you want to hit, I scan that to see where editors are popping up… I try to keep an eye on things like that.

 

When you say you track editors, does that mean you read what editors are writing before you pitch to them?

Yes, I do because I think it’s really important. I know they get annoyed (by the amount of mail they get) so, if it’s the right magazine, it’s better to hyper-focus your pitch. If you’re pitching Nat Geo Traveler you want to get the editor that’s managing the section you want to pitch, because if you pitch the wrong section, they may be kind enough to pass that along to the right editor, but they also might not. If you get to the right editor you’re doing everything you can to increase your chances that they’ll read your pitch and give you an assignment.

 

Talk to me about the pitch itself. Does your letter of introduction include mini-pitches? What’s your formula?

Just talking to a lot of my colleagues, everybody seems to have a different style. I think it changes too. I think 10-15 years ago the norm was…a one-page, four-paragraph pitch you would mail to “XYZ” editor. Then it was email and it would be kind of the same thing—a four-to-five paragraph, one-page pitch to an editor. Now I think a lot of people are doing really short (pitches)–I think it’s just because of the news cycle and people just trying to move faster and quicker– shorter; one-paragraph, or even just a couple sentences just to try and get a response, and then, with that response, following thru with a full three-to-four paragraph pitch. That way, instead of pounding out the full query, you’re just sort of getting a nugget out and you can get more queries out (that way). So I hear a lot of my colleagues doing that a lot more often, so it’s like short, very sweet… and saying, “if this is something that interests you, I’d be happy to send you more information.” So it’s sort of opening a dialogue and following it up.

 

What do you put in the subject line of those pitches?

Again, people come at it different ways. I think it’s good if you just put “Query, a colon, ‘Mexico’s Best Ceviche’,” or whatever your subject line is. A lot of people put “query”, and I think there’s a value to that because, as an editor they’re getting a lot of PR pitches and they may confuse your pitch with a PR person’s pitch, and I think they would be more likely to delete a PR person’s pitch than a writer’s. So if you put “query” in there, at least they know it’s from a writer and not coming from a PR agency. It gives you a little notch up, anyway.

…one more swath of deletions overstepped.

Yeah, maybe it’ll give you two seconds where they won’t delete, whereas there may be 30 similar PR pitches that they are just going through (and deleting). If they think yours is another one they’re going to hit delete, whereas if they see that word ‘query’ they know it’s coming from a writer and maybe they give you five seconds they wouldn’t have given somebody else.

 

On that note, how do you feel about following up? I know a lot of writers now say they don’t.

Again, it’s kind of all over the map, but I can tell you what I do. I always follow up. If it’s something I really feel strongly about I follow up at least twice, and usually I give it about a week. So I’ll pitch, wait about a week, and then hit them up again with another email. And again, if it’s something that I really want to sell and I think it’s really right for this publication, I’ll even send a second one. Sometimes I even call, but not very often. I rarely call;  I think email is the norm. I think at least two follow-ups. I know people that have been successful following up three and four times because something ended up in a spam filter… you never know. You have to walk that fine line between being a pest and just being persistent, but I think two is totally legitimate.

 

How many queries do you generally have out and do you track them?

I do, and honestly sometimes I think I should do a better job. Sometimes it’s less of a priority, but I have an Excel spreadsheet and I just have all my pitches in the left column, some notes, what publications (I pitched) and when was I in last contact… for a long time I just kept a Word Document, but I think something like an Excel spreadsheet, where you can glance and see different elements, is really helpful. Google docs is another  good way to go because  it will always be accessible, so I know some people that handle that with a Google doc. It’s super helpful and, you know, it’s different for everybody, so for me it’s one (query) a week, minimum. You need to do that, at least. If you can get more out a week, great.

 

Do you shop your stories to multiple publications at once or just one at a time?

Well, the best way to handle it, because you can get burned, is just send it to one outlet. I mean, it’s okay to send it to two non-competing outlets. Let’s say, in my case I could send something to a glossy, like Condé Nast Traveler and also send it to maybe a trade publication, like Travel Age West because they’re not really competing at all. And even if it’s the same topic, like Spain, they’re going to be looking for totally different elements. If I sent that to Condé Nast Traveler and to Travel and Leisure, that’s just asking for trouble, because if I was lucky enough that they both wanted it, I’d be getting somebody upset. So I would recommend just doing one pitch unless it’s to noncompeting publications and (using) different articles—then you’re okay to push it simultaneously. But just give whatever your time point is—a couple weeks, three weeks. If it’s a fast-breaking story give them less time, if it’s something that has to be written in a week mention that in your query. …and then give them that amount of time and just move on.

 

And just one more question: how do you deal with lead times? How far in advance does someone need to pitch a timely story?

…some (stories) are kind of evergreen. I’m having an article run in one magazine that I wrote; I traveled in February, submitted in April, it was supposed to have run in July, and now (in October) it’s just running because they pushed it back. So that happens, but if you had a really timely story, I’d say five months is safe because most long lead (publications) have a three-month lead time. You couldn’t pitch something in January that would need to run in April—that would be impossible. You would need to be pitching that at the end of the previous year? So you want to be at least four-to-five months out. Usually 90 days is just kind of (the standard), so if it’s January they’re working on (the) April (issue).

Eric Hiss is an award-winning freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. His contact information and samples of his work can be found at www.erichhiss.com.

Writing Honest Headlines, Using Keywords, and Living With Yourself

Many writers today seem more than willing to sacrifice clarity in headlines for web traffic, but more important still is consideration for the reader’s experience.

Like every other citizen of the modern world, I get most of my news online. It should come as no surprise then, that like everyone, I am guilty of headline browsing and article scanning. That’s right—even though I write for a living, I would say that I only actually finish reading about 20 percent of the articles that I start. And that estimate is probably on the high end.

That being said, I understand the value, nay the power, of a good headline. Carol Tice once said on her blog that “headlines are everything,” and it’s true that a killer headline can make or break a story. Not only that, but anyone can see how the placement of strong keywords in your headlines is the only way to gain search engine visibility.

You need keywords in your headlines. And your headlines need to give the gist of your story without giving too much away. After all, as a writer you want to give the reader a reason to click and actually read your piece, don’t you? But beyond that, things get a little fuzzy.

For many writers and paying clients, this is all they need to hear. Unfortunately, some people just don’t care so much about the quality of someone’s writing as they do the visibility of their articles. Let’s face it—the purpose of a company blog is never simply to provide information to interested parties, but more so to drive traffic to the company’s website and convert that traffic into sales. Many business owners will tell you point-blank that they prioritize clicks over clarity. Thus, when someone begins the process of looking for freelance work they inevitably find a vast array of paying gigs with high minimum keyword saturation requirements—jobs that can be pumped out relatively quickly at a few dollars a pop. But hey, with a little bit of luck a whole heap of these gigs will keep the lights on, right?

This thread of logic, though, gives rise to a question about the real importance of visibility. Obviously, without visibility you have no traffic. Without traffic, you have no readers. And without readers, you will have very little success attracting clients. Fair enough.

Being fairly new to the professional writing game, I have to admit that I have been tempted by the myriad of low-paying, low-quality marketing work that seems to dominate the scroll-space of freelance job boards. It is an alluring option to take any paycheck for your work, no matter how low-paying or lowbrow, if it means you might get one of those coveted bylines you’ve heard so much about. “It’ll help me get the jobs I want down the road,” you tell yourself.

But it’s a lie. You may not know it yet, but it is. No online marketing campaign, no matter how brilliant, nor email blast, no matter how succinct, will qualify you to write an article for a national magazine. Even though you might feel that much closer to your goal having a paid sample on your website, the reality is that while you are spending your time cranking out low-quality assignments one after the other, those high-end opportunities are just getting further and further out of reach.

Unfortunately, fellow freelancers, the truth is that run-of-the-mill product descriptions and press releases will only help you to win more run-of-the-mill projects down the line. To make the next big leap requires incremental progress, and is in fact rarely a leap at all. Rather the journey to freelancing success seems to be more like a carefully plotted series of steps through a minefield of rejection, coupled with the constant refinement of your professional process. To compromise on the quality of your work in favor of volume will help you build a large portfolio quickly, but at some point you will be forced to look at that portfolio and decide if the writer it defines is the one you intended to be.

So yes, visibility is good. But only if it is good visibility. And so, we come full circle to headlines.

Last week I came across this story about a poison pill defense strategy employed by Safeway. With images of espionage dancing in my head, naturally I clicked the link. What appeared you can see below.

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The top result (probably not coincidentally from MSN) seemed to confirm my suspicions—Safeway executives had developed a way to use a real-life poison pill to prevent a takeover. Sweet. Even the sub-header failed to say much more. It was not until I clicked again that I learned, in the body of the article, that a “poison pill” is actually a financial strategy. A company that uses a “poison pill” plan opts to sell stock at a discount to current stockholders in order to prevent a third party company from gobbling up too much interest and, in effect, taking over.

Boy, did I feel stupid.

I suppose it was a little stupid, or at least naïve of me, to assume that Safeway had decided to use an actual poison pill to be taken by, say, a manager in the event of a hostile takeover by, say, Al Qaeda. And in truth it had not crossed my mind that terrorists might not target a grocery store for a takeover of any kind—but man, that would’ve been a story, wouldn’t it?

The person that wrote that headline got me to click their link. Objective complete. But when I found out that I had been misdirected into landing on a page, my feathers were admittedly a bit ruffled. I complained out loud to no one in particular and moved on.

But then I got to thinking. Maybe it was a slipup, the lack of quotation marks around the short phrase “poison pill” a simple grammatical snafu. But no: within the article itself, in the third sentence, is an indirect admonition of the tactic (pictured below).

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When I looked again at the “Safeway Poison Pill” search results, I saw that the folks at Microsoft weren’t the only ones to sacrifice grammatical accuracy in favor of potential web traffic. In fact, not until I got to the bottom of the screen to the article posted by the Christian Science Monitor—the sixth most popular result for this particular search—did I find a headline employing the proper use of quotes to indicate the type of “poison pill” in use.

Perhaps I should have known that a poison pill was not really a poison pill, but rather a “poison pill.” I will accept that criticism. Silly me. But I am not a financial expert and, as such, have never heard that term used before. I assume the majority of international internet users would find themselves in the same crowded boat.

And yes, MSN got some traffic—at least my click—by employing clever, perhaps even sneaky, headline-writing strategies. I am willing to bet that loads of other people had the same experience I did with that particular headline, though this is not something I can confirm. But I left that page with the slightly nauseated feeling of having “been had”. And though I may have never remembered that it was an MSN article that made me feel so intellectually violated had I not taken a second look this time, but a few more of those moments and that site may have soon found themselves with one less reader.

The less cynical side of that same coin (let’s call it “heads”) is this: with articles that readers feel are engaging, interesting, and straight-forward, they take note, often both of the writer and of the site that published the content in question. Those writers and publications get higher preference within our own personal article selection criteria—more of a selective style of search-engine use than any practical application of SEO, really, but far more relevant to each of us than any amount of obvious keyword-cramming.

I think it is important to keep this in the back of my mind while I’m writing whatever it is that I may be writing at any given point, especially as it applies to headlines, because that is the type of work I want in my portfolio. Because I want my readers to know what they are in for when they click on one of my stories, and I want them to enjoy reading it when they get there. But mostly I think of this because, when it comes down to it, even if I never get a single writing job based on my portfolio alone, I’m still always going to have to live with it.