Nothing Personal

The pitching process never surprises me anymore.

My ideas have been ignored, rejected, accepted within minutes, ignored then accepted five months later, and approved by one editor then turned down by her replacement a few weeks later. I’ve been asked for more information then hired, asked for more information then ignored, accepted with modifications, and even offered something in lieu of my own idea.

When pitching an editor I have never worked with, I choose to believe very little of these interactions are personal and, in fact, most are completely impersonal. I’ve never analyzed my pitch:acceptance ratio, and doubt it would be good for my self esteem. A successful pitch is exceedingly good for my self esteem, however, and I guess I’ve had enough of them to keep me at it. 

I recently submitted an idea to a top tier women’s magazine that was accepted. Since I’d never written for them before, my initial pitch was to write a short piece, and I was thrilled when the editor assigned my idea as a 150-word sidebar to accompany a longer feature (proving that timing is almost everything). It was an interesting subject, paid well, and might be a gateway into a hard-to-tap market.

And so, I researched, wrote and submitted the article, received feedback, turned in a revision, got the okay and was paid. A few months later, I bought the issue expecting to find my published path to glory, but it was nowhere to be found. I contacted the editor, who explained that my article was snipped in design due to space issues.

Obviously, this was a disappointment, and I spent at least 24 hours whining about my bad luck. Then, I reminded myself that even this was not personal, and to try and view the entire process as a positive one. Some days, when I’m pitching, I cop an attitude based on the simple fact that I pitched, wrote and got paid for that little 150-word piece. Whatever it takes to get your mojo running, I say.

It was also a conundrum, however, because the magazine owned the content. After contacting the editor and re-reading my contract, it is still not clear to me whether I have the right to sell the story elsewhere. Therefore, I’m publishing it here, so maybe I won’t be the only one who knows how fabulously I can write a 150-word sidebar/menu about food and brain health. Isn’t it cute!

Brain Health à la Carte
A daily menu designed to keep you sharp.
By Jill Coody Smits

Breakfast
Cinnamon toast: Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant, and early research suggests it may inhibit plaque formation that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. If you don’t like how the pungent spice tastes, try taking a whiff of your officemate’s cinnamon-spiked oatmeal. At least one study found the scent alone can boost your attention span.

Coffee break
Trail mix: Raisins, dates and granola are chock full of potassium, a vital electrolyte that sparks communication between the brain and the rest of your body. Pub quizzers take note: a deficiency can adversely affect memory.

Lunch
Hummus wrap: The sesame seed tahini lovingly stuffed into your pita pocket contains zinc, a mineral recent research suggests is the big boss when it comes to regulating brain cell communication and memory formation.

Afternoon snack
Apple slices: Forego the microwave popcorn. Apple juice concentrate has been found to boost the brain’s production of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which may, in turn, boost your memory.

Dinner
Rosemary pork tenderloin: Research shows that carnosic acid found in rosemary guards against free radical cells that contribute to normal age-related brain deterioration, as well as more malevolent conditions like Alzheimer’s.

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Generally Speaking, You’re Special

There is more than one school of thought about whether journalists should be specialists or generalists. Some argue that specializing is really important–for marketability of the journalist as well as their ability to cover a particular subject. For example, a lawyer would have special insight into the Supreme Court; someone with a science background would have more aptitude for reporting on global warming.

Obviously, if you’re someone like Ezra Klein, you need to be an expert in politics. Or, if you’re Dylan Byers, you need to know the media. Those guys are beat reporters (in addition to being semi-celebrities), though, and if their brains weren’t about to explode from all the knowledge they have in one area, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs. If their heads weren’t about to explode, someone else would have their jobs.

There are also well-known freelance writers who are pretty specialized. Karen Asp’s health-centered articles can be found monthly in one or more women’s magazine, for example.

Others argue, though, that generalizing is the way to go. At least, you need to know a lot about a lot in order to be a good journalist. Think about the small-town  reporter who must cover City Hall, public schools, crime and education. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll develop a pretty solid understanding of everything their readers need to know. Think about Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He can talk engagingly about pretty much anything.

As a person who does not have semi-celebrity status in any particular field, I have always thought of myself as a generalist (by necessity as much as anything else). Until recently, if I had to explain what kind writing I do, I might say I write about health-mental health-psychology-human rights…at least most of the time. 

About a year ago, I learned a good lesson in the importance of thinking of myself very, very generally when an editor asked me to write a business article about company culture. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think of myself as a business writer. He pointed out that an article I’d written for Psychology Today about overachievers was very much a business story, though I hadn’t thought of it in that context.

Since then, I’ve written six “Biz Idea” articles for Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, most recently about managing time wisely and mentorship. I also contribute to a blog about collaboration in the workplace.

I guess the point is that I wasn’t thinking of myself in general enough terms. As a freelancer, it was an eye-opening reminder that you can tap into new markets if you just think about how to apply your ideas to different outlets and audiences. Now, if someone asks what I write about, I say health-mental health-psychology-human rights-business…at least most of the time. 

Parkinson’s Law

In this hilarious article published in the Economist in 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson discusses the “commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson is commenting specifically about working within a government bureaucracy, but it’s painfully true even within the freelance nation, and even when your bureaucracy is comprised of exactly one.

Give me a week to research, conduct interviews for and write a 1500-word article, and I’ll meet that deadline. Give me three weeks, and I’ll still meet the deadline, but every minute will be consumed. The kicker, though, is that the piece won’t necessarily be any better than the one that took a week. It will, however, be more stressful and less lucrative.

How does this happen? Basically, I get lazy. Rather than diving into research, I do a little here and a little there. Then I extend interview invitations with a wider window of opportunity. Once I’m ready to write, I give up easily when the words don’t flow like the Amazon River rather than paddling along until something useful emerges.

This is the stressful part: the unfounded fear that the words will never come; that I won’t meet the deadline. I think I’ve said before that I’m a believer in the “just write” approach to getting ‘er done. If you have a tight deadline, you are forced to “just write,” and, inevitably, a worthy sentence reveals itself to you. Turning off the computer, inevitably, yields nothing.

So, it’s all well and good that I know Parkinson’s Law is at work in my professional life.  The next step is figuring out how to defy it. I’ll get back to you on that one after I set a deadline.

Want to Be a Writer? Limber Up.

It’s a fact that writers and editors sometimes disagree, and not just about Oxford commas (for the record, I’m with this guy). It’s also a fact, however, that if you want to write for money that someone else pays you, you’d better be prepared to act on their feedback.

It can, admittedly, be hard to acquiesce when you perceive the feedback to be a preference rather than something that will make the piece better. Or the kind of “editing just to edit” that can be frustrating, confounding or downright asinine. In such cases, you have to determine whether you should defend your original words, if the work and working relationship is worth the effort involved with revising, and, in some cases, if you can live with selling a tiny slice of your soul for $1/word.

On the other hand, some editors will recommend changes that ultimately will make your story more clear, logical and relevant. And since that translates into you looking like a much better writer, it is important that you recognize constructive feedback, as well as act accordingly. Truly, there is no sense in letting misplaced pride or unreasonable attachment to a particular sentence get in the way of a better article.

I recently received some good feedback from John McAlley, a terrific writer and the executive editor at Spirit Magazine. He had read my first draft of an article that’s in Southwest Airlines seatbacks this November and was concerned that the cultural reference I’d chosen for my lede might “strain the memories of even the ’80s hair-metal enthusiasts among our travelers.” 

While I was completely in love with myself for finding a way to legitimately reference Billy Squier in a business article about managing your personal brand, John was right. And so, Miley Cyrus became the symbol of someone who learned the heard way that image really can be everything. At the same time, I was saved from losing readers in the first sentence.

That said, I am still in love with myself for finding a way to legitimately reference Billy Squier in a business article about managing your personal brand. Therefore, I am plunking it down below on the off chance some 80s hair-metal enthusiast will read and enjoy it.

If you don’t think image is everything, just ask 80s rocker Billy Squier. With a string of sexy, masculine, guitar hero hits like “The Stroke” and “Everybody Wants You,” Squier was on a Def Leppard-esque rise to arena rock god-dom. And then “Rock Me Tonite” hit MTV. In just under five ill-conceived minutes, Squier went from a rock demigod to Flashprancing laughing stock.

Squier himself has credited the video for ruining his career. But why? Everyone from U2 to Lady Gaga has released a cringe-worthy video into the wild. Why did Squier’s have such a devastating effect? Basically, his projected image (something akin to Jane Fonda aerobicizing) didn’t mesh with what fans expected of a rock star (something akin to Robert Plant strutting seductively). In modern lingo, you might say his personal brand took a very public hit.

And while the sheer reach of Squier’s unfortunate performance is probably what interfered with his future Hall of Fame status, we’re all just a few missteps away from being knocked off our own professional pedestal. For better or worse, we all have a rep to protect.

I’m also including a link to the Squier video referenced. It’s truly mesmerizing in its awfulness. Enjoy!

Shilling for Putin: On Op-eds and Ethics

A few weeks ago, an op-ed about Syria by Vladmir Putin ran in the New York Times. Actually, a number of pro-Russia op-eds have run in publications like the Huffington Post and CNBC.com over the past several years. All of this publicity is no coincidence, of course, and Pro Publica ran an article the same day as Putin’s op-ed about the PR machine behind Russia.

While reporter Justin Elliot said the NY Times piece was pretty transparent, he said some of the other op-eds were more problematic in that they were signed by third parties (academics, businesspeople, etc.), and it was less clear to readers that the pieces were placed by PR firm Ketchum on behalf of the Russian government.

I find the whole subject fascinating for a number of reasons. First is the obvious…Can you imagine being on the PR team behind the Russian government? I’ve written about the battle between the need to pay the bills and the need to be principled before, and I’m pretty sure I’d say “thanks, but no thanks” to a government that can boast a Tier 3 rating on the Trafficking in Persons report as just one sign of its disdain for human rights.

The hubbub is also interesting to me because I do a lot of op-ed writing on behalf of nonprofits, and my name is never attached to them. Sometimes, the signatory is a nonprofit leader; other times it is an individual with a direct personal connection to a cause. 

The odds that Putin wrote that NY Times piece himself are slim to none. My guess is most op-eds–at least the ones with a strong agenda–are not written by the person whose name is at the bottom. Why? Most people aren’t writers. While they may have amazing experiences and thought-provoking insights, they do not have the skills or time to share them persuasively in 700 words or less. 

And then there’s the effort involved with getting an op-ed placement. It is not easy to get an op-ed or even a letter to the editor picked up by a small local newspaper, much less the New York Times.

It does help to write something beautiful and have a name like Giffords or Sacks. But if your name is unfamiliar or your cause more chronic than explosive, you’d better have a pretty moving story, and you’d better tell it well. I’ve spoken with so many knowledgable people–Sudanese refugees, victims of human trafficking, gay rights advocates, breast cancer survivors and others–who, because of language barriers, time constraints, or challenging situations can’t write their own story. Is it unethical for me to help them tell it when they are heavily involved in the process from the interview through to approval? I do my utmost to capture their voices and perspectives, and in all cases I’ve been involved with, the agenda of the organization and of the signatory are one and the same–that’s why they agree to participate. When we do get a placement, more people learn about important issues, and I can only believe that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a lot of coverage about Clarence B. Jones, MLK’s speech writer. Apparently, the speech and many others were a collaborative effort–does that make the words any less MLK’s, or any less worth saying?

Now, I’m certainly not comparing what I do with MLK and Clarence B. Jones, but it is worth noting that even MLK needed the help of a speechwriter.

Anyway, this is an ongoing conversation in my head. While I can get on my high horse about shilling for Putin, the line I’m willing to cross may be well beyond someone else’s “gone too far,” and it’s always worthwhile to consider professional ethics.

Nice Work, If You Can Get It

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I think I’ve mentioned before that “freelance writer” is really a fancy term for “cold caller.” At times, it can be a rough gig for a person who feels like an intruder ordering take-out.

(“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’d like to order some royal thai hot garden if possible. No problem; I’ll be glad to hold indefinitely, and don’t worry if the order arrives without the curry sauce–I’m just grateful you picked up the phone!”)

Still, I’ve gotten better at pitching my ideas, developed a thicker skin, and learned to buck up. After all, if you don’t ask, the answer will always be “no,” right? If you do ask, every now and then an editor will make your day with a “yes.”

Even better than a yes, in my sometimes pathologically introverted book, is an assignment. Getting an assignment not only means an editor has faith in your ability to write an engaging and accurate article, it means you didn’t have to ask anyone for it, and you are almost certain to get paid!

Recently, an editor I’d worked with previously asked me to come up with an idea about a seed accelerator called Tech Wildcatters. The result, a fun look at the personality of entrepreneurs, ran in the August issue of Spirit Magazine.

This type of assignment may not come along very often, but when it does, the work is so very nice that you’ll feel like Peggy Lee singing a Gershwin tune with Frank Sinatra.

How Did I Get Here?

This summer, the New York Times is running a series of essays from their critics about “cultural first crushes,” that highlight the experiences and pivotal moments that inspired them to do what they do.

Alongside those pieces, the Times is also including some short essays from individuals who work in the creative world, whether it’s as an artist, screenwriter, arts critic, morning show host or TV marketing manager. It’s a fun series, and contributors have cited everything from elementary school art classes to Tiger Lily and a rabbit joke on The Simpsons as the inspiration for a career in the arts.

It’s an interesting exercise to ponder how and why you decided to become the professional you are–or if it’s just something you fell into out of necessity and circumstance.

I always loved words and reading, was utterly moved by grammar class and Hemingway’s perfectly concise sentences, and earnestly believed the facts should always be as straight as possible. So, this is a logical and lovely place for me, though I wouldn’t describe the road that got me here as the most direct route. There were plenty of pitstops along the way that were relevant, but not exactly right. In the end, it was desire, luck and courage that inspired me to give writing a shot. I’m really glad to be here.

How did you get there?

On Writer’s Block: A Blank Page is Not the Same Thing as a Clean Slate

Don’t judge me because it’s been three months since my last post–I’ve been busy.  The good kind of busy that’s had me writing almost every day about a lot of different things for a wide variety of outlets. For example, I’ve written a business feature for the August issue of Spirit magazine about entrepreneurs, a very short sidebar for Women’s Health about diet and brain health, several blog posts for Central Desktop about collaboration, and numerous op-eds about issues ranging from global LGBTI rights and human trafficking to cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

I’ve been so busy, in fact, that I’ve had a few run-ins with writer’s block. There are days when I sit down at my computer to write about whatever is on the day’s agenda, and that cursor blinking on a blank page is a taunt rather than an invitation. “You think you have something worthwhile to say? HA!”

But freelance writing is a funny profession. You can’t really fake being productive when someone is expecting an article in their in-box the next day. You either have a product to turn in or you don’t. Having an assignment with a clear goal and set deadline helps immensely. I’m also a believer in the “just write” method of getting through a dry spell. If you start typing something that is somehow related to the task at hand, at least you’ll have words to work with and edit. If you avoid, procrastinate, or simply stare at that blinking cursor, well, you’ll have nothing, and so will your editor or client (or blog).

Perhaps all that is to say that while I mustered the creativity to get through my paid assignments, I failed miserably in nurturing Blue Seed. Even though this post may be best filed as an attempt to “just write,” it’s a relief to be back at it.

 

 

Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Or Get Too Big For Your Britches)

Wilde

Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony (1882)

I’m a few weeks behind in literary news, but I just read this article in The Telegraph about a recently-discovered Oscar Wilde letter that admonishes an aspiring writer, basically, not to quit his day job. 

“The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

I haven’t read the full 13-page letter, so I’m not entirely clear whether he’s saying you’ll be a better writer if you wait tables to fund your epic novel, or that your epic novel has a snowball’s chance in hell of enabling you to buy your daily bread. Both interpretations make sense to me, because real experiences can only enhance your writing, and being realistic can only enhance your food budget.

I would argue, though, that in today’s content obsessed world, you can make a living as a writer if you are willing to engage in unliterary pursuits to support the epic novel, or screenplay or short story collection or feature article or erotic chick lit graphic novel of your dreams. As long as you adhere to the same principles, and strive for the same level of quality and professionalism you would if given your dream assignment, there is no shame in taking on work that the writerly snob in you would like to deem unworthy.

There’s no shame in putting food on the table, either. So write the web copy, the press releases, the speeches, the grant proposals. Write them and learn! Write them and be proud! Write them and eat! Who knows, all this profitable laboring may contribute to you being the next Oscar Wilde. (Maybe, but not likely. Which is one more reason to work.)

Will Work For…Money

When it comes to paying jobs, where do you draw the line?

Most of my business comes through existing relationships: my former colleague’s new company, a neighbor’s friend’s business, an editor that moved to a different publication, subcontracting work for professional peers, etc. 

Still, like most freelancers I know, I spend a lot of time hustling. I am always trying out new ways to market myself, and have mini storefronts on more sites than I can even remember. Some of them yield work from time to time, and others have resulted in the chirp-chirp of crickets. While I do have a few specialties, I am a generalist by necessity, and hate to turn down a paying gig. Some work is definitely more challenging and more gratifying than other work, but I am always grateful for what I get, and the fact that I am a working writer most of the time. 

But.

But, when you put yourself out there, you are bound to get some really random inquiries, and come across some interesting characters and unusual opportunities. I once had a completely demoralizing interview in which the CEO asked, “How much money do you make?” followed by, “How many children do you have?” I still get cold sweats when I think back in horror that I actually responded to these and other equally inappropriate questions. I got back at the old goat, though, by not writing a thank you note afterwards. I am woman writer, hear me roar.

There was also a non-local PR agency that started out wanting local communications, but ultimately wondered if I was available to deliver food. And the thrifty businessman who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t work for free.

The clincher, though, was when I was offered a retainer working (in part) on behalf of a less-than-admirable government. Have you ever read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad? It’s awesome all around, but there is a disturbing but hilarious thread about Dolly, a disgraced PR queen who, out of desperation, takes a job working to improve the image of a genocidal dictator. 

For me, as it turns out, writing for violators of human rights is where I draw the line. A girl’s gotta have standards.