Tag Archives: advice

Some advice for a would-be author

Occasionally a friend or family member will be talking with someone who wants to publish their writing and the friend or family member suggests they ask me for advice. I’ve just sent off an email to one such person, and I think other people might also benefit from the advice (modified a bit to be more general). Now, bear in mind, this is about magazine publishing, and while I’ve had quite a few articles published, I’m not a magazine assigning editor and haven’t ever been one, so some of this advice is second-hand and will benefit from further insight from people who have to field queries, pitches, and submissions regularly. But it’s a start.

The thing I would suggest doing first, when it’s possible, is seeing what magazines your favourite bookstores and newsstands carry in the subject area you have in mind. Then have a look at those magazines and see which ones are publishing pieces of about the length and kind of topic you’re interested in writing. (No matter how interesting a piece is, if a magazine doesn’t have a way to fit it into their lineup of content, they won’t be able to use it.) 

If a magazine looks like it publishes articles of the sort you’re writing, look at its website; there will usually be information on how to submit, or they may want to you to email first just describing yourself and the article and asking if they’d be interested in seeing it. (If they say they don’t accept unsolicited submissions, don’t bother them. They won’t make a special exception for you.) They always want to know what you’ve already published and where. If you have a blog, you can direct them to that and they’ll be able to see what kinds of things you’ve written; also, if you have some idea of how many people read your blog, and the number is large enough, you can mention it to them. Magazines tend to favour authors who bring readers with them! 

Above all, when emailing editors, be friendly and polite, but also concise and to the point—the easier it is to answer an email, the sooner they will probably answer it. So just lead off with a short statement about the article (“Would [magazine] be interested in an article about [X]?”), then describe yourself and your blog and anything relevant you’ve had published elsewhere, and give a bit more detail on the article and why it would be well suited to their magazine (it never hurts to say nice things about the magazine too!), and thank them for their time and say you look forward to hearing from them.

If you feel that your article needs editing before submitting, one thing to bear in mind is that you may have friends who will happily give you advice and tell you things you need to do to it and so on, but unless they have reasonable experience in publishing, their advice may not actually be good advice. Above all, don’t worry too much about tiny points of grammar—although those are the things friends often like to pick on first, the truth is that they’re the easiest things for the magazine to fix, and if you focus too much on them it can often be to the detriment of the larger items such as good structure and storytelling. (Also, many of the “grammatical errors” that many people pick on aren’t errors, and many of their “corrections” make everything worse!) On the other hand, if you pay a professional editor to edit if for you before submitting, you may get good results, but it may cost you more than the magazine will pay you. Some magazines, though, if they see you have a good story that just needs a little structural work, may work with you on it. It really depends on the publication and editor.

Good luck!

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

16 insights for photographers

I don’t earn much of my income through photography. People don’t pay me for advice on how to take pictures. However, I’ve been taking pictures – with proper full-control cameras in several film sizes – since I was about six years old.

I learned photography, including darkroom developing and printing, from my dad, who was a professional photographer at the time. I love photography, I look at a lot of photographs, I take a lot of photographs. I also love photographic equipment and I know a lot about it.

So, as a little cherry to put on top of my 12 days of gifts for writers, here – in one day – are 16 insights for photographers. If you’re a lifelong serious photographer, each of these is probably something you already either know or disagree with (or both). If you don’t care about photography, skip this. If, however, you like taking pictures but would like more thoughts and insights, here are some things I’ve observed that might be useful to you. (If you don’t like frank language, well, be forewarned.) Continue reading

The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading