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.

Image

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).

Image

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.