Archive for writing

Insert clever display copy here: 8 nifty tricks for heds and deks

Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish. 

kisha_fergusonIt’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.

There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)

Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.

I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.

1. The best things in life are 3’s.

When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.

2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.

Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”

3. You’re a poet and you know it.

Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).

4. Perturbed lines.

Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.

5. Love it and list it.

Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.

6. One word to rule them all.

A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”

7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”

8. Gate-crashing.

Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.

 

Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.

Q&A: Heidi Waechtler

Photo of editor Heidi Waechtler

Editor Heidi Waechtler

McClelland & Stewart recently released a new edition of The Canadian Writer’s Market: The Essential Guide for Freelance Writers. To find out how the book is staying relevant to today’s freelancers, I checked in with Heidi Waechtler, the editor who updated it.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Vancouver and studied English at UBC. While working in communications, I completed an editing certificate through Simon Fraser University and began doing freelance editing work on the side. I was always interested in how editorial fit into the larger publishing process, and so after working for the Magazine Association of British Columbia for three years, I returned to SFU to do the Master of Publishing program. I moved to Toronto recently to intern in the editorial department at McClelland & Stewart as a part of my graduate studies, which led me to my current position as the publishing assistant at Coach House Books.

It’s been almost three years since the 18th edition of The Canadian Writer’s Market, updated by Joanna Karaplis, came out. How does the 19th edition reflect changes in the market since 2010?

One of my priorities for updating the guide was to give due attention to some of the business models and publishing platforms that have taken off in recent years, including publishers that specialize in e-books (such as Iguana Books), print-on-demand (e.g., Frog Eat Frog), and self-publishing (e.g., FriesenPress). The guide recognizes that in addition to applying for grants and awards, authors may seek to finance their writing through crowdfunding websites such as Indiegogo, or participate in collaborative publishing efforts such as those at Deux Voiliers, a small press where authors, editors, and artists pool their skills and resources to bring books to market. Certainly, there have been consolidations and closures in the market since the last edition of the guide was published, but many launches, as well; as noted in the introduction, there are currently almost 2,000 Canadian magazines listed in CARD Online, as compared to 2010 when there were roughly 1,800. (Users of previous editions might also notice the 19th edition also has a spiffy new cover design, by Andrew Roberts, that reflects changing technology!)

Cover of The Canadian Writer's Market

Can you tell me about the process of updating the guide?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the framework established by editors of previous editions, including Sandra B. Tooze and Jem Bates. At the outset of the project, I reviewed some of the statistics, reports, and information available through resources including The Writers’ Union of Canada, CARD Online, StatsCan, Masthead Online, Quill & Quire, and the Book and Periodical Council of Canada, to get a current snapshot of the industry. I also spoke informally with a handful of writers, as well as editors and educators, about how the book might be made more useful and relevant from their respective points of view. I then reached out to publishers and editors across the country to find out what kind of writing they’re looking for, how they prefer to receive it, and their rates and payment terms. Often, this information is not readily available on a company’s website, or it’s difficult to find, or outdated, and this is where a central reference helps make the researching and pitching process less opaque. I would suggest that to complement the information found in The Canadian Writer’s Market, writers would do well to attend networking events and participate in the discussions happening on writer-oriented blogs, listservs, and community forums to share information. I should note that I also had assistance from a former colleague, Rachel Geertsema, with updating the awards section of the guide.

The book has a rich directory of Canadian consumer, trade, business, farm and professional publications and newspapers, plus educational resources, writers’ retreats, literary agents, writing contests and grants, organizations and more. As you were researching, what did you find especially useful, compelling or surprising?

What I found most heartening, while doing the research, was the numerous venues for underpublished and emerging writers to get their work out there, including cultural and literary magazines that have launched in the past few years, such as Sad MagLester’s Army and Poetry Is Dead, and small independent presses such as The Workhorsery and Invisible Publishing. Corresponding with the staff at these organizations, and reading through their respective submission guidelines, I found their enthusiasm to be both palpable and infectious! Also, the sheer number of B2B magazines is impressive. We list nearly 300 in the 19th edition—everything from Canadian Pizza Magazine to Manure Manager to Canadian Funeral Director Magazine. B2B is a fast-growing sector, and although it can be a harder market to break into, your persistence, when combined with your passions, could pay off here.

There is no info about working for corporate clients, marketing companies or other agencies. Why doesn’t the guide cover this type of writing?

Indeed, opportunities abound to write for clients outside of traditional publishing channels, and these can be quite lucrative. However, the size and shape of this market is not readily defined—at least not within the scope of this particular guide. I would suggest writers interested in entering these markets connect with groups such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the International Association of Business Communicators in Canada, and the Canadian Public Relations Society. I would add, also, that writing for the professional and trade publications listed in the guide could potentially lead to other projects down the line.

As a freelancer myself, I feel like writers today need to arm themselves with a huge amount of information in order to make a decent go of it and protect our assets. The book’s introduction features sections about querying, copyright, taxes, libel and other topics. Based on your research, what are your top three tips for new freelancers?

1. Know your audience. I heard consistently from magazine editors that writers should avoid telling their readers what they already know, such as rehashing already-overworked topics or interviewing the usual suspects. Read several recent back issues to understand the magazine’s tone and focus, and consult their media kit and audience profiles.

2. Follow submission guidelines to the letter. I know this is obvious, but it bears repeating. Forgetting to enclose a SASE or submitting a whole manuscript instead of a query letter indicates to an editor that you might have trouble sticking to a word count or meeting deadlines.

3. Brush up on your photography skills. Even if their magazines employ professional photographers, many editors mentioned they were looking for high-quality photo support from freelancers. If you’re multimedia-savvy, you might also pitch video, slideshows, or podcasts as part of the package.


For more info about Heidi Waechtler, visit heidiwaechtler.com and follow @heidiwaechtler on Twitter.

Renegade books for Kindle

Just a quick note to let you know that two of my favourite freelancing books, The Renegade Writer and Query Letters That Rock, both co-authored by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, are available for Kindle at $3 each. The authors are running a sweet contest (Tuesday, Feb. 26 only).

Insider tips: Editors’ advice on pitching articles

Hands making thumbs-up sign for successful magazine pitchesIn an earlier post, I gave you a five-minute crash course on how to pitch magazine articles. Don’t just take my word for it, though! People have different tips and preferences, so I checked in with several editors to find out how writers can raise their pitching success rate. Ready to rock?

Research the magazine and its readership before you pitch. Be prepared to answer the question, “Why is this important for our particular readers?” And the other question, “What’s your angle on this subject that makes your story important?” Personalize the pitch and follow up two days later. Don’t sit there waiting to hear back.

—James Chatto, Editor, Harry Magazine

Whether you’re writing a pitch, a cover letter or an article, I think the first sentence should make the reader want to keep reading to the last word. It should be infused with passion, emotion, humour, intrigue—something that is gripping and creative. I often receive cover letters and pitches that start off with biographical information—and let’s face it, that’s usually boring. Don’t bury the lede. Start your pitch off with a scene or an anecdote, and once he/she is hooked, outline the details—why it’s a good fit for the magazine, who you’ll interview, and information about your skills and experience. Of course, once you’ve established a relationship with an editor, pitching may be as simple as “I have this idea…”

—Cara Smusiak, Managing Editor, Canadian Family

Google, then pitch. The internet has become saturated with the same service journalism topics over and over. Even if you think your idea is timely and original, chances are it’s been covered. Before sending your pitch, do a quick search and make sure you’re pitching something unique and new for the brand. Or, find a way to twist “5 Ways to Lose Weight” with something unexpected. This goes for both print and online pitches, since print stories are always repackaged for online, too.

Think graphic! I could kiss writers who pitch story ideas alongside ideas for charts, infographics, puzzles, cartoons…anything of visual interest that helps translate the concept to readers. Also, the magazine industry is on the cusp of interactive tablet editions becoming the norm, so if you can think of graphic concepts for your pitches, I would hazard you’ll be more successful in years to come.

—Colleen Fisher Tully, Senior Editor, Fresh Juice & FreshJuice.ca

1. a) Be persistent but polite (and never one to the exclusion of the other). Chase your stories and own them, package your pitches and push them, sell yourself—you are your own best advocate and quite possibly (observed with apologies) your only friend. Re-approach after suitable periods of no response; on average, one week. Never send an email without first proofing. Do not rely exclusively on email—use the phone, too (and, particularly if leaving a voicemail, speak succinctly). COMMUNICATION is possibly your greatest asset.

1. b) Be willing to take “No” for an answer. If an outreach fails to yield the response you expected/hoped for, use intuition coupled with the ability to read between the lines to discern when to accept rejection. This can be accomplished with aplomb and can (sometimes) put you in better standing; in any case, it needn’t be equated with the permanent shutting of a door. Worst case, request (politely!) permission to re-approach another time. With more on-the-job experience, it will become easier and easier to discern where is the proverbial line, not to mention stay on the right side of it.

2. Make sure your story sizzles; still, keep it short and sweet. Be your own editor and reader: Don’t pitch a story that doesn’t impress you. Suss out (or inquire directly about) your editor’s preferred pitch model, and deliver exactly on those terms. My own pitch preference is, typically, one targeted overview paragraph with maximum three supporting bullet points. There are, of course, exceptions—you are, after all, a writer, and if you’ve truly “got it,” you’ll probably be able to make yourself exceptional at all levels.

—Gary Butler, Principal at EditButler, and freelance print and web editor


Next time: More tips from editors on how to survive and thrive in the business. 

A crash course on pitching magazines

Stack of magazinesWhen I meet new writers, they often ask for advice on pitching magazine stories. Here’s the five-minute version:

  • Read back issues (go back six months to a year) to get a feel for the magazine’s content, tone, article lengths and article packaging.
  • If you’re new to the magazine (or the industry), pitch short pieces. Compare names on the masthead (in the front of the book) to article bylines to figure out which types of stories are open to freelancers.
  • Magazines that publish monthly have four- to six-month lead times; research and pitch ideas well in advance.
  • Pretty much all editors accept pitches by email. Check the masthead or website for editors’ names and contact info. (No email address for a specific editor? Guess based on the pattern of other staffers’ addresses—or pick up the phone and call the front desk.) Avoid sending pitches to a general mailbox.
  • Put your idea in the subject line (e.g., “STORY PITCH: 12 ways to boost your home’s “eco” curb appeal”).
  • Tell the editor how you’ll approach the story (first person, interviews with experts, etc.); how many words (one magazine page = about 700 words); why the article is timely (news hook, season, awareness week, anniversary); and why you’re the right writer (include background details or credentials that support your case; mention if you’ve been published elsewhere). Very important: what fresh angle can you bring to the topic?
  • Don’t hold back story details in an attempt to a) entice editors to contact you to find out how it ends (they won’t), or b) prevent editors from ripping off your idea. This is so rare it’s not worth worrying about.
  • Editors like to see packaging ideas, e.g., boxes or sidebars. If appropriate to your story, suggest a few themes (e.g., “5 upgrades under $50”).
  • Polish your query (spelling, grammar, punctuation). Treat it like an audition. Don’t rush it.
  • If you haven’t heard back after two to three weeks, follow up with a polite email.
  • If your idea is rejected, don’t wallow. Revise the query and send it elsewhere. Research new ideas.
  • If your idea is accepted, do a great job: work with (not against) your editor; follow your assignment letter; write no more than 5% above or below the desired word count; alert the editor to any problems that arise; proofread your writing; meet your deadline; provide factchecking info; be open to feedback; make revisions promptly; and don’t invoice until the editor says the story is good to go. In other words, be professional—and you’ll earn yourself a bigger story next time.

Editors and freelancers, what pitching advice can you share with new writers?

Links on language

Image of piled-up wordsDid you know that the U.S. government requires its agencies to use plain language when communicating with consumers, businesses and other groups? The Plain Writing Act came into effect in July 2011, and the first-year report card is out. The Dept. of Agriculture scored highest, and the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs flunked big-time.

There is no single prescription for plain language; in general, it’s language that’s easy to read, understand and use. Learn more from the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit organization whose motto is “Plain language is a civil right.” You can also visit Plain Language Association InterNational—founded in 1993 by a couple of Canadians. And if you’ve got an hour of down time, do an online plain-language course from the Federal Aviation Administration (random, right?).

Here at home, we have the Language Portal of Canada, which offers a wealth of tools, guides, dictionaries, databases and quizzes. The Translation Bureau website has recommendations for translators working with English and French, including how to handle web and Twitter terms. TERMIUM Plus, the government’s terminology and linguistic data bank, provides 17 tools for writers. These include The Canadian Style, a guide to written English in the Canadian context, and HyperGrammar2, a self-teaching tool for better grammar and punctuation. And, last but definitely not least, bookmark A Way with Words and Images, a concise guide to fair and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities.

Can you recommend any language-related websites? Share the links below!

 

Take-away tips for freelancers

Conference name badges
My brain’s still buzzing with the good advice I picked up last month at MagNet 2012 and the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) conference in Ottawa. Here are five tips that stood out.

Pitch stories to custom publications. I already work with custom pubs, but “The Lucrative World of Custom-Fit Publications” at MagNet showed me that there’s a lot more opportunity here than most freelancers realize. Panellists Arjun Basu, Joseph Barbieri and Brian Borzykowski say that few writers approach custom publishers, although pitching and writing for custom is very similar to working with consumer mags—and it pays as well or better. To find markets, start by checking out the Custom Content Council.

Get creative with display copy. Jim Sutherland’s MagNet session “Display School: Bringing Readers to the Text” inspired me to be more adventurous with heds and deks. Instead of a hed with a straight-up approach, would a question, quote or declaration work? How about a sentence or even a list? And don’t neglect your deks; Jim pointed out that they’re an “astonishingly versatile and effective means of communication,” not just filler between heds and body copy. Another great tip: “Wit is welcome even when humour is out of place.”

Target hungrier markets. Ed Gandia’s “How to Land More and Better Clients in a Crowded Global Market” was one of the most popular MagNet sessions for writers. Sage advice: Consider where budgets are shifting—every project in an organization is either “urgent,” “important” or “nice to have,” and when finances are tight, it’s the first two categories (usually projects that generate revenue or profits) that get the green light. Focus your marketing efforts on prospects that are well positioned with “urgent” and “important” products, services or information. Gandia is also offering a free online course for freelancers.

Collaborate on a corporate writing guide. Here’s a project that corporate writers and editors can pitch to steady clients: developing a guide to help employees keep communications consistent, clear and concise. Rhonda Helman, editor at Farm Credit Canada, made an excellent presentation about corporate writing guides at the EAC conference. My four favourite tips: get the support of managers by understanding what they prefer and why; ensure that the guide is a collaborative effort and that everyone involved stands to benefit; keep in mind that the guide is a work in progress; and never underestimate the power of your expertise.

Spruce up your speeches. I enjoyed “Go From Ho-Hum to Humdinger,” a presentation by speechwriter and trainer Wendy Cherwinski of Echelon Communications, at the EAC conference. She offered several practical tips, such as: write the way people talk (including contractions, idioms and sentence fragments); use highlighters to check your use of pronouns, verbs, transitions, etc.; 100 words is about one minute of speaking time; and take advantage of tools such as the Flesch Reading Ease Scale to measure readability. For more tips on speechwriting, sign up for Cherwinski’s free e-newsletter, Pen & Podium, by emailing words@echeloncomm.ca.