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

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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.

Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

How long should it take to write an article or blog post from scratch?

I read a lot of posts on how long it should take to write an article or blog post, and as I sit here considering a particular 1000-word piece for a local magazine that is taking me way too long on the research end, I realized something– though maybe my hourly rate for this piece is going to drop a little bit, the time spent in research is in no way time wasted.

I have found that the more research I do on a subject, the more sources tend to reveal themselves. As a result, I have taken to a “research-until-I-feel-overwhelmed” approach, at which point I break, organize, and compile the mess I have created during the research frenzy. With respect to the actual writing, if you can get a (very) rough draft pounded out in an hour for a piece that size, amazing. But you can expect to have to edit several times when done. I have learned a neat trick from another post that I appreciate– type TK for “to come” where you do not remember a resource, quote, or reference rather than stress yourself out looking for the note or whatever (chances are, if you can’t remember it, you may well end up cutting it by your final edit and the glaring misspelling makes the note easy to find in your document). But this still only takes me so far. I can generally agree that, because of the freedom inherent in the format, that a blog post should never take more than 30 minutes to an hour. If you find yourself pushing that 45 minute mark with no end in sight, shorten it, put it aside, or scrap it altogether– blogs are generally enjoyed for quick reading, not in-depth reporting.

But still, I realize that I have not answered my own question yet: How long should it take to write an article from scratch? The only answer I can come up with is:

“…as long as it takes.”

I know. It’s lame. But it’s true. If you are trying to save yourself time on a piece or stressed out that it is taking too long, maybe you are not yet ready to write that piece. As you get better at writing and learn more about your areas of specialization, your writing time for those great pieces will decrease, but until then great work is going to have to be a labor of love, and one which you should pursue to completion or deadline– which ever comes first.

9 Ways to Break a Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block: we all get it. The question is how do you deal with it? Here are a few exercises to get your mind jogged in those times when you find yourself struggling to get the words on paper.

 

1)      FREE WRITE

I know it may sound silly, but just getting your mind in a place where it is ready to start channeling ideas through your pen can be really helpful, even if what you produce is not. Grab a piece of scrap paper and just write something. Anything. Whatever comes to mind. My free writes usually start with something like “OK, so I am stuck again and so here I find myself free writing.” It’s like talking your ideas out with yourself without the threat of looking like an absolute loony, or worse, a jerk using a Blue Tooth in public.

 

2)      WRITE A SCENE USING ONLY DIALOG

This is a challenging exercise that can sharpen your skills as a writer while you are trying to stir up some new ideas. Focus on a real conversation you heard in public or one you had with a friend. The cadence of writing real dialogue may well help you to find a rhythm that helps you in your more serious writing endeavors.

 

3)      RE-WRITE AN OLD SCENE FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Drag one of your old works out of the closet and look at it with fresh eyes. Toy with new perspectives, voices, or points-of-view in the piece. You may find yourself breathing new life into something you once thought tired, or at the very least, you will be providing your brain with very valuable, novel information on work you have already produced. Don’t have anything written to look at? Re-work your favorite classic essay or short story in a similar fashion.

 

4)      WRITE A TWEET-LENGTH NON-FICTION PIECE

Sometimes all you need to get moving is a little bit of confidence, and completing a piece in less than 5 minutes may just be the boost you have been waiting for. The journal Creative Non-Fiction actually publishes a handful of these little gems in their quarterly issues. Worth looking at if nothing else.

 

5)      START A DISCUSSION

Take advantage of those social media platforms and get some people talking. Linked In groups, Facebook, and Twitter all provide forums for writers to talk with other writers about whatever they choose. Use it—you just may be pleasantly surprised.

 

6)      GO OUTSIDE

Take a walk and look around you. Listen to the sounds and voices, look closely at the objects, plants, buildings, and people around you. Think about how you might describe those things in prose. Bring a notebook if you like or just absorb it all until you get home and make notes then. The world outside, believe it or not, is often a better place to look for inspiration than even the internet.

 

7)      READ SOMETHING NEW

Introduce yourself to a new writer or author and study their style. Try writing a paragraph emulating that style and compare your work to the original.

 

8)      READ SOMETHING OLD

Re-read something you love and pay attention to what it is you love about it. Is it the language? The imagery? Are you fascinated or in love with a particular character? What about them draws you in? Examining the work you admire in a critical way is a great way to sharpen your own skill sets.

 

9)      WATCH A BAD MOVIE OR TV SHOW

Again, this one is about confidence. Some of the stuff out there for which people are actually being paid is downright bad. Take it in and take some of that pressure to perform off of yourself.

 

We writers often feel some intense duty to create and a lull in that process can be maddening. But relax. Even the greatest of the great writers were human—they too had off days, though we do not read about those as often as the good ones. If all else fails, do something else. Just like trying to remember where you put your car keys, those great ideas will probably refuse to reveal themselves to you until you are elbow-deep in dishwater.

Happy Writing.