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, and 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.
…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!