Telling Tales and Spilling Secrets

Tips and Tools of the Trade: Notes from a Writer’s Workshop (Part 1)

Sadly, the economic downturn killed one of the most valuable programs offered by my hometown’s continuing education program – a mini writer’s workshop.  The workshop – designed as a one day distillation of the larger, week-long writer’s conference hosted by the city in the summer – was free to attendees and usually boasted a nice variety of speakers, including keynote addresses by local writers of renown.

Even before I was an editor, I made a point of attending the workshop because it helped me keep one toe in the writer’s well even while my various day jobs seemed to take me farther and farther away from my goal of making a living as a writer.  Our city’s continuing education program – supplemented by a fee tacked on to city college tuition as a way to finance community interaction with the local college – has always enjoyed prestige and support amongst students and nonstudents alike.  In the past I’ve learned to make jewelry, taken a Thai cooking class, sat at the spinning wheel for a shot at pottery, and attended countless writing classes – all for free or mere pennies on the dollar.

But the highlight every year was the Writer’s Workshop.  Unfortunately, slashed budgets, and a diminishing tax base have taken their toll on the program, and one of the first casualties was the Workshop.  But I still have my notes, and for those of you without the means or ability to attend a workshop – or those of you frequent such gathering but aren’t great note takers – below are some of the insights, tips and anecdotes I’ve picked at these writerly soirees.

From the presentation, “What Editors Want”

First off, be aware that most of your queries will probably go unanswered.  Most editors have a stable of writers they were with, and in the competitive field of freelance writing, openings are rare and hard won.  That being said, an editor can be convinced to give someone a chance, but those with the best shot are able to demonstrate knowledge of the topics and themes covered in the editor’s publication.

So… write on your specialty.  If you don’t have a specialty, get one! Even if you’ve never been published before, your wisdom and experience on a particular topic can help you squeeze a toe through the door.  As an editor, I can speak on experience about this: I get one or two queries a month from freelancers trying to edge in to my writer’s corral.  The only ones who are even filed for future reference find a way to show me that they’re familiar with the magazines I edit and understand the topics we cover.

About the query…the presenter of this particular workshop suggested “name dropping” to establish authority.  That’s not a bad idea.  If you can demonstrate that you have a rapport with experts in the field or contributors to the publication you’re pitching to, it can help establish professional credibility.  I will certainly give greater consideration to a freelancer who’s rubbed elbows with the contacts I’m anxious to include in the pages of the magazine.   Recommendations can help too – even if you don’t get the assignment,  vouchers and “good words” can put you on an editor’s radar.

Ancillary to that is the caution to “never pitch a top editor when you’re new.”  In my organization, there is no middleman, but when you’re pitching to the big leagues – a Conde Nast publication for example – it’s best to start closer to the ground floor by contacting an associate editor.  And once you make contact, make sure your initial pitch matches the magazine’s point-of-view.  I can’t tell you how many times I get  suggestions for articles that may be about water or energy (the main focus of my publications) but fail to realize we are a narrowly focused trade publication with a specific audience and a narrow subject matter.

Some final points from the lecture:

  • Only include recent clips and examples
  • Attach a resume (but only if your experience is relevant to the magazine’s focus)
  • Remember the lead time (usually six months in advance) when pitching seasonal stories
  • Pay attention to the magazine’s audience, and tailor your topics accordingly

Tomorrow, part 2 of Tips and Tools of the Trade: Notes from a Writer’s Workshop

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