Tag Archives: freelance writing

The gifts of writing

1979: Marbo Caves, Guam.

It has been a lot of years — more than 30 — since I have submitted a freelance article to an editor. The last time I did, as a senior year college student at the University of Guam, my approach was very different.

I typed my story, which was about an education program on the Northern Marianas island of Rota, on a manual typewriter. (I typed it several times, in fact, because I was unwilling to submit it with even a single typo or blot of Wite-Out.) I dropped my finished article in the mail at the campus post office. Several weeks later, when it was published in the Islander magazine section of the Pacific Daily News, I was overcome to see my words, and my name, in print.

For the past 21 years, as the editor of Raising Arizona Kids magazine, I have been on the other side of that experience. I’m the one who creates opportunities for writers, the one who makes decisions about whether something is worthy of pubication, the one who nurtures and encourages writers but also reluctantly wields the power to crush their confidence. So I approached my recent independent freelance assignment — a story about EthiopiaStudio, a design studio for sixth-year architecture students at ASU — with a great deal of reverence and care.

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Questions about copyediting

Maggie Pingolt, a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications, called our office to ask if she could interview one of our copyeditors. Ours work on contract, so they aren’t typically in the office.

“I supervise the copyeditors,” I said. “Do you want to talk to me?” I was on my way out the door but we agreed to a time later that day to talk on the phone.

Being interviewed by someone isn’t a routine event for me. I’m used to being on the “asking questions” side of interviews and I was surprised to realize how hard it is to talk about the things you do and think about every day.

Maggie: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Me: Okay, this is kind of a joke, but not really. Keeping up with my email! I get so many hundreds of emails each day it’s beyond manageable. The rest of my job as editor is joyful. I like what I do. But the effort to keep up with my email is a constant source of stress and really eats up my time.

Maggie: Describe your office environment in one word.

Me: The first word that comes to mind is “crazy.” We always have a lot going on at once because we’re a really small staff trying to do the work of a bigger magazine. Call it “crazy,” “chaotic”…any way you can think of to say it that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic. By the way, this isn’t going to published anywhere, is it?

Just then, our staff writer/photographer, Daniel Friedman, walked by my office door and I heard Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist call out, “Hi, fried man!”

Maggie: If you could change one aspect of copyediting, what would it be?

Me: These are hard questions! I guess the only thing I really wish I could change is that I wouldn’t miss things. We have several layers of copyeditors who read the magazine before it goes to press and yet there is no way to ever get it perfect. You’re never going to be able to change one thing that solves all the problems. You’re dealing with human beings and a complex language with all sorts of exceptions to rules. I like rules, stylebooks…they give me a sense of certainty as opposed to having to make judgment calls.

I wish copyediting didn’t take so long, but it does — to get it right. I wish it weren’t so important but it is. In this day and age, where everyone is throwing stuff up on the web without a second thought, I worry that the value of copyediting, and factchecking in particular, has been lost.

Maggie: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into the field of copyediting?

Me: Really know the basics — grammar, spelling…and understand how important factchecking is. Study the AP Stylebook, get the app on your iPhone and use it…basics! I can’t tell you how many freelance submissions I get on a daily basis with typos, grammatical errors, informal language…it’s disrespectful to an editor to be so sloppy. People don’t take the time they should. All writers should think of themselves as students who are trying to impress the teacher.

Maggie: What’s your biggest pet peeve as an editor?

Me: That’s an easy one: People who are sloppy. Sloppiness indicates disrespect…they couldn’t take the time. I’m a firm believer that you do something until it’s as good as it can be, and only then do you let it go.

Maggie: Are there specific examples of grammar or word-use errors that bother you?

Me: Things that bother me? “It’s” and “its”…a lot of people don’t get that you only use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” Not the possessive.

I cringe when I see “all right” spelled as one word: “alright.” And then “there,” “their,” “they’re”…people misuse those all the time.  I can’t stand run-on sentences…all of that drives me crazy.

We all make mistakes; don’t get me wrong. But when I see a freelance submission that has more than one or two it makes me want to claw my eyes out.

The agony of uncertainty

I get it now. I understand what I’m doing to people when I dawdle and drag my feet and wring my hands and don’t get to it. When the pile is too high or the queue is too long or I’m just not sure what I want to do.

When I procrastinate, avoid making decisions, delay responding and keep other people in limbo because I’m overwhelmed, distracted, tired or uncertain. When the effort to make a decision — and communicate that decision to someone who’s waiting with bated breath — just seems like more than I can manage.

Now I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the writer/editor equation. To be the person who’s not in charge of the decision but the one who offers herself up to be judged. To be the person who carefully does the research, learns everything she can about a magazine, reads the writer’s guidelines, spends a full day writing a query letter and offers up her story idea for publication.

And then waits. And waits. And waits some more. With nary a “we are in receipt of …” message in return. To wonder if it’s okay to write again (perhaps the email didn’t make it through?) or if that will be perceived as pushy. To take a deep breath, wait a month, write again and still hear nothing back. To repeat that process two more times.

To give up. To wonder why she tried in the first place. To question her goals, her ability, her basic worth as a human being.

Sometimes editors ignore writers because the writers aren’t very good — or have so blatantly failed to respect published guidelines for submission that the editor feels no sense of obligation to respond.

But sometimes, sometimes…editors are just busy.

And finally, five months later, the writer gets a message saying, “We want to publish your story.” And the floodgates of doubt fling open, completely overrun by the sheer joy of affirmation.

Want to impress an editor? What NOT do to…

After nearly 30 years of work in the publishing field, I’ve decided it’s time to polish my own writing skills. So I’ve been buying books about writing, signing up for webinars and taking some classes through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

I entered this process as a wide-eyed student, eager to learn from others and apply their insights to my own work. Sometimes I forget how much I already know.

In November, I took a Piper Center class taught by Jana Bommersbach, one of Arizona’s most acclaimed journalists and authors.  The class was called “Making Your Story Sing: How to Write a Great Magazine Piece.” When I introduced myself to the small group gathered in a cozy front room of the historic Piper Writers House on the Arizona State University main campus, I expected — and saw — a few raised eyebrows. I could almost hear the thoughts: What is a magazine editor, someone who buys magazine articles, doing here?

So I explained. I told the group that after 21 years of publishing Raising Arizona Kids, of telling other writers how to improve their writing, I needed some juice. I wanted ideas to help me critique and coach other writers. And I craved inspiration for my own writing projects, including a book I am working on about my experience with a Paradise Valley couple who adopted four children from Ethiopia.

Jana is a gifted writer; she’s also a natural and effective teacher. I found myself hanging on her every word, scribbling notes to help me remember her very practical tips of the trade. Toward the end of the class, as we were about to run out of time, someone asked her to speak about the toughest part of writing: selling your work.

And I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I found myself jumping in, adding examples of what not to do when sending a query to an editor. I don’t think I realized, until I got started, just how passionately I feel about this topic. I got so involved “contributing” my perspective that I stopped taking notes. So I can’t really remember which of the following suggestions were mine and which were Jana’s.

Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story

1.) Tell me why I should publish your article. Any variation on the theme of “you should” is a turn-off. You don’t get to tell me what to do. Your job is to grab my attention and curiosity — quickly — by sharing something fascinating about your story idea in the very first paragraph.

2.) Write to impress. I don’t care how big your words are or how proficient you’ve become with the thesaurus app on your iPhone. Do you have an interesting topic or a compelling human-interest angle? That’s all I care about.

3.) Make a pitch that’s blatantly self-promotional. Don’t offer to write a story about your own business/product/self-published book.

4.) Include a five-page resume. I’m not going to read it and I don’t care. If you can’t tell me who you are and why you’re qualified to write this story in a sentence or two, then you probably aren’t even sure yourself.

5.)  Send an email query with all the forethought you would put into texting your spouse about whose turn it is to pick up dinner. While email is many editors’ preferred method of contact, it is disheartening for us to see anything less than a well-thought-out, professionally crafted and somewhat formal message. Don’t use abbreviations, don’t try to sound like my best friend and please don’t let me see emoticons or “LOL” in your query.

6.) Hit “send” before you self-edit. Please don’t risk my snap judgment that you are sloppy, lazy or uneducated. Make sure your spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. Make sure you’re using the right words. One writer wanted me to publish her story of someone who’d gotten ” a bad wrap.” Rough day at the gift-wrapping counter? When you’re trying to impress someone with your writing ability, this kind of sloppiness is a big no-no.

7.) Call to check on the status of your query. No one likes being put on the spot — especially editors, who base much of their decision-making on experience and instinct and can’t always quickly summon the words to communicate reasons why an article doesn’t appeal. If I inadvertantly answer the phone at work and realize it’s a writer, my back goes up immediately. Always respect the editor’s stated preference for communication. I don’t know any editor who encourages phone conversations — except with established contributors.

8.) Don’t read my published guidelines for writers. Do I really need to explain this one?

9.) Pitch a story idea for a topic we have covered in the last year. The beauty of online archiving is that a quick keyword search will show you if your topic already has been covered. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that tool?

10.) Make it painfully clear that you don’t really “get” my magazine. I can’t tell you the number of article queries I’ve gotten that have absolutely no relevance to my publication’s target audience. We are not a magazine for children. And we don’t publish fiction, poetry or crossword puzzles. The absolute worst thing a writer can do is try to market a story idea to a magazine he/she has never seen or read.

Wielding the unwelcome power to wound

Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling — to take a few steps in their shoes. I have a lot of empathy for writers lately.

As I enter Day 6 in the WordPress Post-a-Day Challenge, I am plagued by a gnawing anxiety. It goes way beyond “What should I write about today?” It speaks more to “Who the heck do you think you are? What makes your words so important? Why should anyone care?”

In the verdant field of joyful creativity, such doubts are land mines.

If doubt is a writer’s worst enemy, editors certainly come next. I should know; I play both roles. I despise the power I have as “the decider” when it comes to the dozens of queries and freelance submissions I receive each week. I abhore the license it gives me to bruise egos, albeit unintentionally.

I tend to respond quickly to queries that are fresh and exciting, relevant to our mission and described in full sentences with proper spelling and grammar. Dispatching the others is excruciating. I waffle and delay and wring my hands about how to respond. Sometimes, when I can’t think of anything encouraging to say, or when I am simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of queries, I don’t respond at all.

There is no easy way to let someone down. And no easy way to be the person who does it.

Tomorrow: The definition of a terrible story pitch.

Working with interns: A chance to get back into my 22-year-old head

When we first started accepting interns more than 15 years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. I’m someone who is better at doing what I do than explaining how to do it. And I’m not very good at asking for help.

So I found myself apologizing for assignments I considered “grunt” work — even though I knew the tasks were vital. Or worse, I’d smile and say “thanks” for work that I knew I would (resentfully) spend hours redoing myself.

I had the wrong attitude. I was looking at interns as extensions of myself and expecting them to know what I wanted. I didn’t understand when they “didn’t get” something that I thought was perfectly obvious.

Older now, and wiser, I wish I could go back and redo the mistakes I made supervising some of our earliest interns. But I can’t. What I can do is learn, try again and move forward. And with each intern we bring in, I get a little better at it.

Part of the challenge for me has been learning to accept that I do have something to teach these young people. They are all extremely bright, capable, high-achievers. They are comfortable in this fast-paced, high-tech world and they seem more confident and self-assured than I was at their age. Sometimes I feel I have more to learn from them than they have to learn from me!

A December 1978 graduate of the University of Guam.

When I was a college student eager to launch a freelance career, I didn’t have a laptop, a flip cam, a digital camera or an iPhone. I couldn’t do my research on the Internet. I had a pen, a notepad and a tiny, portable typewriter I carried around in a small wicker suitcase.

Today’s tools make it easier to present a story but the basics of telling a story will never change. Some lessons resonate within any technological context.

I thought about that recently, while reviewing the first draft of a story editorial intern Brooke Mortensen submitted for our August magazine.

I’d sent her to a school in the Paradise Valley Unified School District to research a story about a unique partnership the school had formed with Arizona State University.

When she returned, she submitted a perfectly fine accounting of what she’d learned, in basic “he said, she said” journalism-school, news-reporting style.

As I read her piece I was transported back into my own 22-year-old head, remembering a similar experience submitting a story to an editor for the Pacific Daily News, a Gannett newspaper on Guam. I remembered his wise advice. And suddenly I knew what I had to do for Brooke.

Though it was a Saturday, and she was visiting family in central Washington state, I sat down to write her an email.

I told her about a time when I was her age, trying desperately to make some money as a freelance writer as I finished my college degree at the University of Guam.

I submitted a story to the newspaper’s Islander magazine — one of three interviews I’d conducted with former Guamanian governors. My editor, Floyd Takeuchi, read the piece and told me it was solid. But then he threw it back to me and said, “Where were you? I can’t even tell you were in the room!”

My “he said/she said” style was “by the book,” according to my journalism news reporting training. But I was writing for a magazine, he said, which is very different.

“What did you see?” Floyd demanded. “How did it feel to be in the room? How did he look while you were talking with him? What were his mannerisms? What was on his desk? Give me some ‘color’ — some details that will help me get a better feel for who this man is and what he’s all about.”

I searched my mind for details and added descriptions about the man’s brusque confidence, the guarded way he answered some of my questions, the “hop to it” deference I saw in members of his staff. Floyd published the story.

The experience taught me something I really needed to learn: There are reporters and there are writers. I wanted to be a writer.

I shared my story with Brooke because I think that’s what she wants, too.

A yellowing copy of the July 1978 article I wrote for Islander magazine about three of Guam's former governors.