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.