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

STS_portrait

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

CB: So, what should that letter look like?

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

CB: Is it important for a writer to specialize?

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

 

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

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

 

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

Suggested follow: Humans of New York

 

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

Writing monster at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope it helps.

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

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.