Yesterday I got an email from my friend and fellow writer, Jenny Armstrong, with the subject line, “WHOO-HOO!” I knew that a subject line like that could only mean one thing: publication.
Much to my delight, I was right. (My writers’ group believes publishing success is contagious, so it’s especially exciting any time one of us makes a sell.) Jenny’s article, a fictional email from the Pharisees to God regarding this Jesus fellow, will be printed in the July 2009 issue of Plain Truth magazine. The article manages to be both hilarious and thought-provoking, and it’s a good read regardless of where you personally stand on the Jesus issue.
So, I told Jenny I’d like to plug her success in my blog, and I asked her if she had any advice she’d like to include about the sell. What I got was this wonderful guest post. She says:
1. Write what you know.Okay, that is probably the most stale piece of writing advice on the planet, but when you’re submitting to magazines, (or anyone else), it helps to know your subject inside out. We’ve all read half-baked articles by people who didn’t have a good grasp on their subject. It shows. Submit an article about something you have a deep knowledge of, and that will show, too.A variation on this tip is to write to who you know. Have you read the magazine yourself? Are you familiar with their audience’s tastes and needs? Magazines are kind of like social cliques–there are certain norms, certain jokes, certain subjects and tones of voice that you need to pay attention to if you want to break in.2. Don’t be afraid to use your voice!Shortly after starting the article I just sold, I changed directions completely. I was afraid the tone was too irreverent, too antagonistic to get my point across. I toiled for hours on my “cleaned up” version, making sure my arguments were watertight, my perspective inoffensive while still being truthful. Then I showed them both to my husband.“I think you should submit the first one,” he said. “No question about it.”When I pressed him on it, he said the first one “sounded like me” and got the point across better, and that he had read lots of articles like the second one. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear after all the hours spent on my amended article, but after looking them over, it became apparent that he was right (and that the second one was a total snoozer–he had been nice enough not to come right out and say it!). I submitted the first one, and it was my unique voice and perspective that caught the editor’s eye and won me a spot in their magazine.3. Only God is perfect.So, in Genesis, God made the world and saw that it was good. Not perfect. Not faultless. Just good. And He clicked the “send” button anyways.You will never write a perfect article, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up trying to. Instead, use that energy to write a lot of good articles. Then swallow your perfectionism, hold your nose, and click “send.”That is BY FAR the hardest step for me, but my recent sucess has encouraged me to submit more, to use my voice and unique perspective on the world to speak to issues that matter to me. Write passionately, write truthfully, write the articles only you can write, and then put them out there. Because people need to hear you.
This is good stuff, people. I especially love #2, and as a veteran magazine editor myself, I can back Jenny’s advice 100%. It is true that you should know a magazine’s “norms” before you submit, no doubt about it. The magazine editor on the other end will be judging you on whether what you’ve written will “fit” with her audience or not. But if your understanding of the market and subject matter are good, but your “voice” is a little out of line with that particular magazine’s voice, all is not lost. As an editor, I always looked at content first, voice second.
That doesn’t mean you can be sloppy as long as you know your subject; it’s absolutely true that editors judge folks harshly if they cut corners with their submission (really, why should we give your piece adequate time and consideration if you didn’t?). But one of the reasons editors exist is to blend the many different voices from many different authors into one coherent magazine “voice.” So, I’ve never rejected a piece based on voice alone. On the other hand, I’ve moved pieces to the top of the pile that have an incredibly unique voice.
So, the bottom line? You’ve got nothing to lose by being bold and honest with your voice, and everything to gain. (OK, maybe not everything, but at least a better chance at publication. And to a writer, that can certainly feel like ‘everything’!)