By Michael P. Geffner
These principles represent the best advice I can give anyone interested in making writing a career. Study them, learn them, and, most of all, do them. You’ll be amazed by the results.
1) Be a letter writer, not a resume sender. Resumes get shoved into the bottomless pit of file cabinets or dumped into the black holes of wastebaskets. Learn instead to be an aggressive composer of letters, though not sending these so often to the same editor that you become increasingly annoying. There’s a fine line between persistence and being a nuisance. Don’t cross that line, lest you risk turning people off who control your fate in the industry. In your letters, sell yourself like a salesperson, with you, of course, being the valuable commodity: who you are, what makes you different and better, what passions you have, how eager you are to work hard, and why you-and not someone else–should be working for the publication. The stationery and envelope should be of the highest quality (first impressions count!) and smaller than standard letter size (the small size virtually guarantees you’ll be put on the top of the pile by the secretary). The letter itself should be flawless and tightly constructed, and the envelope should always be marked “personal and confidential” (to pass the gatekeeper). Your singular theme should be this: I know I can make a difference at your publication. You need people like me. You must use me.
2) Come up with five solid ideas, things hopefully you’re passionate about and expert in, and write a couple of paragraphs on each (exactly what the story is and how you’d be attacking it). Make sure these “pitch letters” are well written (the editor will be judging your writing talent every step of the way) and targeted at the appropriate publications, ones publishing similar type stories. Fitting your story to the right publication is key. It should be as natural as a hand slipping smoothly in a glove.
3) Timing is everything. Spot trends and hit publications quickly with story ideas based on these, before someone else beats you to the punch. The hot item of the day approached uniquely is always a great way to get into print. Believe me, a well-timed pitch is gold!
4) Establish as personal a contact as possible with editors. Try to establish a phone connection at the very least, but face time is infinitely better and should without question be your goal. It’s harder to reject a real live breathing person than a faceless name at the top of another letter. In fact, in your letters to editors, write a sentence about how you’ll be calling on a specific day to discuss your “wonderful” ideas. This opens the door for your phone call. It won’t be easy. It’s like telemarketing at this point. But remember: Every rejection puts you closer to a sale. Though you’ll have to pass some gate keepers to get to the top editors, always be professional, polite but pleasantly forceful. And if anyone asks what your business is with this editor, say it’s personal. I mean, let’s face it, your career is personal. Also, as a way around secretaries and assistants, you can call before 9 AM and after 5 PM-when they aren’t there. And be prepared what you’ll say if the editor actually gets on the line. Don’t ramble. Get to the point and get off. Less is better. Make contact and leave on a high note. You want editors liking you enough to take your phone calls, not dreading the next one.
5) Study and immerse yourself in the marketplace. You need to get in the game to win it. Read media columns and industry magazines, join writing clubs, scan the net for resource sites, buy market books, get insider newsletters. Know the business inside out. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Editor and peers will know a professional when they see one.
6) Read what the best writers in your particular genre are doing. If you’re a magazine writer, get yourself a copy of the annual anthology Best American Magazine Writing. If you’re a short story writer, pick up The Best American Short Stories. See how it’s done at its best. It’ll be a great guide for what YOU should be doing. And read not for enjoyment but to learn. Study the writer’s art and craft, and even try to imitate it. In pop speak, this is called Modeling.
7) Networking is nearly as important as talent. This took me a long time to understand–and believe. I always felt that the talent alone would get me to where I wanted to go. Not true. I found that out the hard way. You need to know people. A lot of them. My advice: Write “networking letters” to major editors (at the top of the masthead), not asking for work (never do that in a networking letter!) but simply for advice on how to succeed as a writer. I mean, these are the industry leaders you’ll be contacting. They know a ton of inside info you don’t, as well as a ton of other influential people in the business. Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting, between 15 minutes to a half-hour long at THEIR convenience in their office. You’ll not only likely get some wonderful advice but will also establish yourself with a power broker. If he or she likes you enough and believes in you, he or she will likely consider you for future or current work (without you ever asking), or might refer you to another power broker. In other words, it multiplies naturally. One contact could lead to six. And after every visit, write a thank you note for them both graciously giving you their precious time and imparting some great information. Networking can also include your friends and family, who may have contacts in the field. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. You’ll be amazed how many people will reach right back.
Do something toward furthering your writing career every single day. Read a book on writing. Write a pitch letter. Apply for a writing job. Set up an interview for a writing job. Write a networking letter to an editor. Arrange a meeting with an editor. Read a book by a great writer (not so much for entertainment but analyzing what the author does to achieve a certain effect). Read magazines and newspaper articles about the industry in media/publishing sections (This is a wonderful way to find the names of top agents). The thing is, you need to be proactive and be it daily. Action breeds action! It also adds up: A single “positive” every day builds into 365 in a year!
9) Write every single day, no matter what. Your mind is like a muscle. It needs a regular workout to stay strong and sharp. It’s like the man who asks someone on the street, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” And the other man says, “Simple. Practice, practice, practice.”
10) Don’t give up. The secret to ultimate success of any kind, I’m convinced, is persevering in the face of repeated rejection. If a newspaper/magazine/publishing house/literary agency doesn’t accept you at first glance, try them again six months later. Editors, people, and philosophies change frequently. If you’re not the cup of tea for one, you might be for another. The trick to succeeding as a writer, I feel, is having the strength and conviction to jump hurdles. Never take “no” for a final answer. Simply consider it the start for coming up with a more effective approach. Bottom-line is, if you write well, have great ideas and are well connected, success is definitely yours!
You can find Michael at http://mikeswritingworkshop.blogspot.com/
You may also follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/MikeGeffner
- New York, United States Writer/Journalist/Columnist. Awarded for outstanding column and feature writing by APSE (Associated Press Sports Editors) 2005, 2006; won New York Publishers Association’s contest for Distinguished Sports Writing, 2007; included seven times in annual Best American Sports Writing anthology; voted Best Sportswriter in New York City by New York Press, 1990; won first place for profile writing by the Society of Professional Journalists (NJ), 2000; interviewed former President Nixon (twice, about baseball), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (at his home atop a hill in Beverly Hills), Dennis Hopper (during a round of golf in Simi Valley), Forest Whitaker (via cell phones while he was driving around Los Angeles), Derek Jeter (by his Yankee locker); written for USA Today, The Associated Press, Details, The Sporting News, Cigar Aficionado, Texas Monthly, Page Six Magazine, FHM, The Writer, and The Village Voice.