Thursday, July 07, 2005


In Which My Writing Week Continues...

My goodness, it's shaping up to be a writing kind of week.

Not so long ago I was interviewed for a publication devoted to providing advice to aspiring magazine writers. Today I got a galley of the piece and it looks like I was quoted fairly extensively. Which means they were either hard up for material or they actually liked what I had to say. I always feel weird dispensing writing advice, partly because I hardly feel like an expert on the topic and partly because the advice I end up offering sounds exceedingly obvious to me. On the other hand, I see so many stories and story pitches that fail to follow this very obvious advice, so apparently it bears repeating.

The three tips of mine that they apparently liked a lot were:

Don't write for magazines you don't read. See what I mean about obvious advice? And yet, I get tons and tons of pitches from writers who clearly have not read my magazine. They're either doing a scatter-gun approach and sending form-letter pitches to any magazine they can think of (a strategy only marginally more successful than hiring a monkey to write your pitch letters for you), or they just want to have clip in their file that's from a Really Big Magazine. I get the rationale: being able to tell other editors that you've been published in, say, Sports Illustrated or Time or Playboy can be a useful credential. But it misses an important point. Yes, writing is work, but it ought to be personally rewarding, even fun. How much fun is it to write for a magazine you don't even like well enough to read? On the other hand, it's pretty damn cool to be able to see your name in print in a magazine you read regularly and to know you've contributed in some small way to overall excellence of a publication you admire. Plus, once you freelance for a magazine you buy and read for pleasure, you can thereafter write off the money you spend on the magazine as a business expense, so that's icing.

Write an original cover letter. Yep, yet another tip from the Gallery of the Obvious, and a strategy that applies to both query letters that accompany story pitches and cover letters you send when applying for jobs. Alas, it's a strategy that is rarely employed because the letters I've seen--in numbers beyond counting--begin with "I am writing to apply for your editorial position..." or "Please accept the enclosed story idea on..." and after the first 20 or so of these, my eyes stop glazing over, and start gouting blood. Your cover letter is your foot in the door, your few seconds of attention. Is this how you want to grab my attention, with a lame, generic opening? And these kinds of cover letters come from neophytes as well as experienced writers.

These standard openers are so stultifying and dull that whenever someone sends me a cover letter with a remotely original opening line, it always gets my undivided attention. It only takes a moment's extra thought to come up with something else--anything else. If you can't even manage that, then how do you expect me to take you seriously as a writer?

On the other side of the desk, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of an original cover letter. When I was a freelancer, it was not at all uncommon to get calls from editors saying, "You know, that story idea you just sent us wasn't for us, but that was a really good query." And then they'd either ask me to submit something else or even better, give me an assignment they had kicking around. The last two jobs I got in magazines were cattle calls--hundreds of people had applied for the positions. But in my case, what got me the interview (and ultimately led to the job) was my cover letter. And I wasn't channeling Hemingway or anything. The opening of my last cover letter read thus:

Dear ___:

It's funny. Here I thought I was simply building a successful career as a staff editor at two of the most popular new magazines of the past 10 years. But it turns out I've actually been preparing myself to work for you all this time.

And then I simply highlighted those job duties and recent freelance stories that matched the qualifications they were looking for. If you look again, you'll see it's not a very remarkable opener. It's actually a bit wordy (what a surprise, coming from me). But it was only one of a handful that didn't begin with some variation of "This is in response to your ad in Editor and Publisher for a deputy editor..." so it got me in.

Think in cover lines. Okay, this might be as close to a cheat code as I can offer. Successful story pitching is not just about presenting an idea appropriate for the magazine you're pitching, it's also about selling the idea to an editor in concise, compelling way. When I first started freelancing and would come up with story ideas for different markets, I used to make myself condense the essence of the idea into 10 words or less. It helped me focus my pitch and also enabled me to get the point to an editor in as little time as possible. It was a good place to start, but eventually, I found my pitches were a lot more successful if I mimicked the language of the magazine's cover lines. If you do it right--and studying several issues of a magazine's covers is the only way to go--you'll find yourself speaking in a short-hand that will engage the editor immediately (because editors are always thinking in terms of headlines and cover lines. It's practically the most important text they generate), and render your idea in a way that suggests you just might know the magazine cold.

So if your target magazine likes to make lots of numerical promises on the cover, you pitch them "17 Can't-Fail Methods to Find Mr. Right." Or if they like provocative, tell-all profiles, you give them "Katie Holmes' Catholic School Boyfriend Goes ALL THE WAY!" Or whatever.

Of course, you can also have lots of fun with this approach. Sometimes, as a game, I'd come up with the most outlandish cover lines I could imagine, which was almost too easy when I was writing for men's magazines. One of my favorites was a pitch for Maxim: "Win Pam Anderson's breasts for a week!" Another one was "Are you secretly a super-hero? Here's how to tell!" Sometimes they wouldn't make any sense at all, but gee, they sure were entertaining to write, and sometimes they helped me brainstorm my way to a doable story idea (for the health section of one men's magazine I started with an outlandish promise--"Never die, EVER!"--and somehow worked my way to "Never get lost again!" which was my hook for a story on how to find your way around in strange cities, dark woods and other places without ever having to stop and ask for directions.) Often, writing good cover lines boils down to making effective promises to a reader (or in this case, to an editor) and the better you are at articulating that promise, the more likely you'll be to get an assignment out of it.

Outside of magazine writing, condensing ideas into pithy little nuggets is also a great mnemonic device. The other day, Carol was asking folks how they remember great ideas for blogging topics. I shared with her my decidedly low-tech approach (I write on my hand), but it may be more effective to think of your blog as a magazine and craft a cover line out of your idea. You're much more likely to remember it and you may find when you sit down to write the thing that framing it as a cover line helps give you focus.

For example, I was thinking the other day about how to relate an upcoming anecdote about one of my more boring jobs, and all of a sudden a very cover-line-like phrase popped into my head--"Bears Humped My Hatchback!"--and I realized that this anecdote (when I get to it) really won't be about my job (which was skin-flakingly dull) but instead the job will be the unassuming build-up to a surprising encounter in the parking lot one evening.

Hmm, hope I haven't spoiled the surprise for anyone. I was going for enticement and anticipation. Which is of course what a good cover line does. Even for a writing venue not encased in covers.

Right, well, so much for nuggets of wisdom. I'll be curious to see how much of the final piece actually sees print. Or whether anyone actually takes my advice. I hope one or two folks do. It sure would make my days of going through the slush pile a lot easier.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Have you ever considered teaching a writing class?
I'm just browsing for the bikini pictures. :)
Wow, another link from the fabulous MM - you totally inspire me. These are such awesome tips, I can't even begin to tell you. Now, do you have any tips on adding hours to the day? :-P
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