Tag Archives: Writers Resources

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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Editing your kids’ work

A friend once sent me an email asking how much I helped my sons with their writing assignments.

“They surely sought out and valued your editing skills as they moved through school,” she wrote.

I wish! I think because I am an editor my kids were very self-conscious about sharing their work with me. Once they got past elementary school, I rarely saw a writing assignment. It was only begrudgingly that my sons allowed me to look at their college application essays.

My oldest son Andy got all the way to his senior thesis in college before he finally asked for help — and that was only because he wanted his paper squeaky clean and recognized the fatigue factor in catching your own typos and grammatical errors. David managed to get all the way through college — including a thesis of his own — without a single parental eyeball on his written work.

It is so hard to read your own child’s writing. They are writing at their developmental level. You are reading at yours. You may know ways to make something “sound better” and you may have great ideas for a smooth transition but really, is that the kind of help you should be offering?

I opted for a hands-off approach. I followed my sons’ lead and didn’t get involved unless help was requested. I do, however, have some specific suggestions for those of you whose children may be more willing than mine were to ask for your input.

• Bracket areas you think are confusing and add notes like “maybe there’s a better way to say this?” or “I’m not sure I understand what you meant here.”

• To make suggestions about flow, bracket entire sections and note that “this might go better closer to the top” or “It seems like this section belongs with the point you made about [whatever].”

• Circle typos, grammatical errors and punctuation errors but make your children correct them so they [hopefully!] remember the next time. (My sons consistently made errors with there/their/they’re…it drove me crazy!)

Both of my sons managed to become excellent writers without me, so we either lucked into great teachers or they simply got better as they got older. My advice is that you ask your children how much they want you to nitpick. Do they want feedback on whether they have made their point? Whether the flow is logical/easy to follow? Whether particular phrasing is effective? Or do they just want you to look for obvious errors in typing, spelling, grammar and punctuation? Let them set the ground rules.

Beyond that, I think it’s much more effective to help your child find a neutral adult with whom they can seek feedback, whether it’s a teacher, tutor, family member or friend. I used to read a lot of my friends’ kids’ college application essays. Criticism is always easier to take from someone who’s not your mom.

Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

Want to impress an editor? A follow-up…

When I wrote last week about the “Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story,” I got a comment from a local author who asked that I expound on two of my points.

“The writer’s perspective of interesting topic/compelling story may not be the same as that of the editor — hence the query,” she wrote. “We can only do so much research into the magazine (and, yes, read the guidelines). But it inevitably becomes a judgement call for the editor. And…when do we find out? What is the typical time period for acceptance/rejection?”

I listened to a webinar recently in which book agent Irene Goodman (founder of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency) spoke about the challenges writers face getting attention for their ideas within a vast sea of queries. What struck me most about her response was her emphasis on the role of serendipity.

Editors (and apparently literary agents) are human; we have good days and bad days, high-energy days and low-energy days, days when we feel receptive to taking a chance on a previously unknown writer and days when we prefer the security of proven relationships. There are days when we feel inundated and resistant and days when we feel somewhat on top on things and open to something new. On a good day, we may make an effort to respond thoughtfully, in the interest of helping a writer grow. On days when we are exhausted, drowning in emails and feeling like everyone is clawing for a part of us we may respond with a curt “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” — or simply ignore the message.

So unfortunately, a lot of it is timing and happenstance, neither of which offer much help to a writer who just wants an answer. But an editor’s job involves triage; whatever is most pressing for the next deadline is what gets the time and attention. That said, when I see something truly fresh and exciting it rarely gets lost in the queue.

Which brings me to something else Goodman said: “Maybe equals no.” Or perhaps it should.

Like many people who want to be thought of as considerate human beings, I struggle with the challenge of saying “no.” So sometimes I’ll sit on something mediocre for too long, with the good intention of getting back to the writer with some guidance and direction, when I should have trusted that squirmy sense in my stomach that was telling me “just say no.” And then, because each day brings its own ensuing avalanche of messages to consider, I may never get to it. Not because I intend to be mean or thoughtless or arrogant, but because I’m only one person and I only have so many waking hours in the day.

Jana Bommersbach addressed this question in the Piper Writing Center class I took in November. If you haven’t heard from an editor after a month, she suggested, send a follow-up email to ask politely if your query was received and to check on its status. (It’s always possible that the editor never got your email, after all, or that it got lost in the shuffle.)

If another month goes by and you still haven’t heard, I would suggest one more respectful contact. After that, wait another couple of weeks. If you haven’t gotten anything in response by that point, you should probably move on.

What Goodman says about book pitches certainly applies for magazines: “If two months has gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it’s probably a ‘no.'”

In the lightning-fast world of communication, the gears of editorial judgment and feedback still grind painfully slowly. I’m getting a taste of my own medicine lately as I pitch stories of my own to other publications, so I know how discouraging it can be.

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.