Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Controversial Writer's Meme - at Long Last

About two months ago, Dane Morgan tagged me for a very interesting meme. No, really. It's a unique meme that promises to offer a lot of useful information, particularly if the right people are tagged. The meme originated with Sam Freedom, a blogger I didn't know before Dane tagged me for the meme, but whose blog I've since visited several times.

This is what Dane said when he tagged me: Tiffany Sanders at RockStories is a professional writer, meaning she earns her living from writing. She tells us that anyone can become a writer, and that many of the things we uninitiated see as insurmountable barriers are myths, or at least not as fierce as commonly believed. I’d love to read some secrets from her on writing and getting more from your writing online.

I have to admit that I found the assignment a little intimidating. Dane is definitely correct in suggesting that I think the idea that it's "impossible to break in" as a writer is a bunch of nonsense, but most of the secrets to success aren't secrets at all--or at least, that's how it looks to me. A lot of people seem to hit that wall, though, so I decided that whether or not my tips are "controversial" enough, they'll undoubtedly do someone out there some good. The lines between online and offline writing may be a bit blurry; they're not necessarily two separate animals.

1. Guidelines are critical; job requirements are not. You've undoubtedly heard horror stories about busy editors and agents tossing manuscripts in the trash unread because they're folded incorrectly or sport a colored paperclip. Many of these stories are true. Not every agent or editor screens that way, but enough do that you should take the warnings to heart and follow their guidelines to the letter. But don't confuse submission guidelines with job requirements.

As a writer, you're not selling your background or experience--you're selling your ability to write. Companies, be they magazines or newspapers or corporations building content departments and web development teams, care more about your writing than anything else. They advertise criteria because it helps them screen, and some enforce those requirements. But many people hiring writers skip straight to the writing samples. Excellent writing can overcome a lack of professional experience, so if you're confident of the quality of your writing, take a chance and try to get it in front of the decision-maker.

This is more likely to succeed when the applications are routed straight to an editor or creative director than when they pass through an HR department or agency, so look for that information in job postings and target the people who have the priorities and experience most likely to let them appreciate your abilities before they even see the gaps in your experience.

2. Apply for jobs that don't exist. Many years ago, a mid-size circulation newspaper in my area advertised for a full-time reporter. I didn't have the credentials and I didn't want a full-time job, but I did want to do some newspaper writing. Fortunately, a friend of mine made a very astute observation: if they needed a full-time reporter, they were short-handed at the moment. I called the editor and asked if they needed stringers (newspaper lingo for freelancers) and within a week had kicked off an association that lasted for three years and led to work with three other newspapers.

Around the same time, a writer friend came across submission guidelines for a new magazine that hadn't launched yet. Instead of submitting to one of the listed departments, she took a chance and pitched a monthly column--and became one of the publication's first regular columnists. With Internet publications, the flexibility is even greater because it's much easier and less expensive to add columns and special features without incurring additional production costs or sacrificing ad space.

Make sure, though, that you're taking the time to understand the publication and its needs and not simply trying to sell an existing market on something you'd like to write that doesn't really fit there. Both of the situations described above (and many others like them) worked out because they were targeted to observed gaps.

3. Good content is not enough. Back when the writing profession revolved exclusively around print materials and traditionally-published books, people used to say, "No one is going to knock on your door and ask to see what's in your filing cabinet." There's a popular misconception that this is no longer true now that it's possible to upload your filing cabinet to the web and make it available to anyone who wants to read it. That's entirely backward. What the mass upload of filing cabinets to the web means is that there's a lot of garbage readily available, and you can't possibly expect anyone to plow through it page by page looking for the gold. The Internet has become a slush pile millions of manuscripts deep, and if you want to get yours read, your goal is the same as it's always been--figure out a creative way to get it in front of the right person. And the way to do that is the same as it's always been--work your ass off.

4. Don't let just anyone publish your work. I'll admit that I'm cheating a little with this one, becuase it's not really controversial. Any successful writer will tell you the same. But I felt the need to slip it in anyway because it seems to be something that ONLY successful writers know, whereas aspiring writers have a lot of crazy ideas like "any clips will help".

Some clips will not help. In fact, some clips will hurt. Before you consider submitting to a publication, whether it's online or in print, read it and make an honest assessment of the quality of the work. I don't care how much the publication pays (or even, in some cases, whether it pays at all). But some publications are known for accepting anyone, and that's often simultaneous with being known for bad work. That means mentioning them in a cover letter or submitting clips can be worse than having no publishing history at all; it can create a negative association before an editor ever looks at your work. And I use the word "before" loosely here, because many editors are so busy and so inundated with submissions that they're simply not going to look any further once something has created a negative impression.

The goal is not, and cannot be, simply to "get published". And it's critical that a writer sending out cover letters and clips understands what it means--and what it does not mean--to be published. A cover letter inviting me to look at someone's "published" work on Associated Content, for instance, tells me that person is an amateur. First, I know that there's a lot of garbage on Associated Content. It's not all garbage, but there's enough that having been "published" there doesn't tell me anything about your writing skill. Second, I know that you don't have any more significant publications to mention. And finally, I know that you don't really have a solid understanding of the industry (if you did, you'd know better than to offer Associated Content up as a writing credential).

The bottom line: Don't sell yourself short. For the purposes of breaking into better and better paying markets, one solid clip is better than twenty lousy ones (and when I say "lousy", I'm talking about the source, not your writing). The same concept that keeps you from wanting to link your blog or website to a "bad neighborhood" should keep you from wanting to tie your writing to a bad publication or website.

Now, to pass the torch. I'm going to start with Barb Cooper at So the Thing Is...
Barb wrote an email six years ago or so that turned into a column with hundreds of subscribers, and that led to being invited to write a humor column for a parenting magazine, and before long she was editor of that magazine, so I'm sure that she'll be able to supplement my writing and publishing tips.

Next up, Margo at Margo's Meanderings. Margo will probably kill me for this, because she blogs VERY sporadically, but she has years of marketing and public relations experience in a wide range of contexts and a charming way of waving her hand and saying, "Oh, just..." when the average person thinks it will be difficult to reach the right person or get onto an airplane or whatever the moment requires.

Finally, Don at Don's a developer who does things that not only make my head spin, but have the same effect on people who actually understand technology and coding. He's also an independent filmmaker, and has an uncanny ability to talk his way into almost anything. I'm frankly not sure whether he'll be willing to share his secret(s), but it's worth a try.


Sam Freedom said...

Wow... Bravo! Bravo!

This is EXACTLY what I had in mind when I created the meme. You've done this so well and your points are fleshed out very well.

If you are so inclined, I would like to consider "doing something" with you in the future. When I run into someone of your quality and understanding, I like to keep in touch...

So... keep in touch!


LorMarie said...

Something I need to take to heart...don't let just anyone publish my work. I think that I could learn much from this blog.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

A writer can learn oodles here! SQUEE!


Jack Payne said...

What so many writers don't get are the nuts and bolts "steps" needed to achieve publication. Example: A novel submitted to one of the big N.Y. book publishers must first pass a) a 22-year old jr. editor, usually a Wellesley, or Ivy League school English or Creative Writing grad. 2) Next comes a sr. editor. 3) Then the managing editor. 4) Last call, if one survives to this point, is the executive committee, or publications committee,where the manuscript is reproduced via photo-copy, jointly read, then debated in a meeting to determine whether or not to publish. It's actually voted upon. The journey is slow, arduous. It's done little by little, much like a methodical geographic climb--working the manuscript's way up terraced slopes with diffeent street names on them. Waiting 6 months from slush pile escape to committee action is not uncommon.

Graduating from this system, more and more, are several of the big N.Y. publishing houses who now flatly refuse to expend any reading time whatsoever, but, instead, rely entirely on literary agents.

With offline markets, like magazines and newspapers, the situation is somewhat different. Politics and nepotism (both direct and indirect) hold sway, more than anything else. But, there is a crack of light for the talented writer who has luck / an explosive theme / an eyeball-stoppiong writing style / a brazen enough personality powerful enough to overcome all objections.