How to Critique Someone’s Writing

As a person who makes my living with words, I’m regularly asked to read people’s writing and give feedback. A business plan. A resume. Website copy. A grad school application essay. A profile for an online dating site.

I usually say some variation of yes to the request. But giving feedback is complex. Sometimes the person really wants me re-write the piece, not just give feedback, which makes me feel uncomfortable. People are also vulnerable when they ask for feedback. So I have learned to tread the line between honesty and brutality.

Writers aren’t the only ones who are asked to give this kind of feedback. Everyone gets to play editor from time to time. As friends look for jobs, they need help with resumes and cover letters; children ask for help with essays and papers; bosses and colleagues need to know if a speech or report is up to snuff.

When I’m asked to give feedback, I try to follow the following few ground rules. These guidelines have helped me to be honest yet mindful of people’s feelings. They have also set up some useful boundaries and to create the best environment for helping people.

1. All feedback should include something constructive. When I started teaching seminars for The OpEd Project, the advice I got for reviewing student work was to start with two positive pieces of feedback because people hear constructive/critical feedback better after positive engagement is established. This is probably because of the negativity bias, a psychological phenomenon which causes people to place more emphasis on negative experiences rather than positive ones. {Read the rest at Yahoo!}

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How to write a killer bio

For a growing swath of the workforce the resume has been replaced, or at least supplemented, by the bio. If you’ve ever had to be introduced by someone at a conference, you know it’s wise to give the person introducing you a written bio rather than sit back and hear how she decides to describe you. Written bios are posted on websites; abbreviated bios show up on sites like LinkedIn; even shorter ones appear next to our profiles on Twitter; and snappy taglines trail the bottoms of our emails.

With the bio in full bloom right now, it pays to take some time to write yours in a way that that reflects how you want to be perceived. Perhaps you want to show a sense of humor or wit. Maybe you want to show your technical prowess by delivering your bio in a video format. And while you’re at it, why not let your bio accomplish some personal branding for you. As you write yours, consider a few things.

If you’re a writer, show off your writing

While writers should have an advantage in crafting well-written bios, it’s remarkable how few unleash their facility with language when profiling themselves. Which is why I love the bio and “about Laura” sections of novelist Laura Zigman’s website. They are composed entirely in the third person and the opening few lines of the bio give you an idea of her tone: “Laura Zigman grew up in Newton, Massachusetts (where she felt she never quite fit in), and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where she didn’t fit in either) and the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course (where she finally started to feel like she fit in).” {Read the rest at Yahoo!}

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Where Are They Now: Jonathan Fields

Jonathan Fields, lawyer/serial entrepreneur/author/marketer

Jonathan Fields

I’m starting a new interview series where I’ll be catching up with people at various stages of a career transition or reinvention. In some cases, the subjects will be folks I’ve profiled before, as is the case with my first guest, Jonathan Fields. I met Jonathan in the Fall of 2001 when I interviewed him for this New York Times article on businesses that were thriving in post-9/11 New York City. At that time, Jonathan had recently left a position as an associate with Debevoise and Plimpton to open Sonic Yoga, a yoga studio in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.

In 2003, I wrote a follow-up story on him for the Times, this time focusing on Jonathan’s path from corporate lawyer to entrepreneurial yogi.

Jonathan is in the midst of yet another identity shift as he has just published his first book, Career Renegade, which is steadily climbing the Amazon rankings.
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From Journalist to Novelist

Linda Villarosa writes a guest post on the challenge of moving from journalist to novelist.

What’s a meme?

The first time I saw the word, “meme,” was on Dan Pink’s blog, causing me to realize that it is probably a word I should know.

I like learning words by seeing them in context. Here’s the blog entry where Pink used it:

6 words, 6 sentences, no waiting

The ultra-short story meme continues to thrive. Virginia Backaitis has launched a blog devoted to mini-tales that asks, “What can you say in six sentences?” Also, if you haven’t seen it already, Wired‘s November issue asked a bunch of novelists to try their hands at 6-word science fiction. Margaret Atwood’s is my favorite: Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

Posted on 01/03.

{CORRECTION 08/20 – The “Six Sentences Blog” was actually created by Robert McElivy. Virginia Backaitis is a contributor.}

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Getting on a non-profit board

Can I kvell for a few moments? One of my star students, Pamela Ryckman, just got a story published in the Financial Times about how to get onto a nonprofit board. She came up with the story idea in class and the minute she showed me the pitch, it was clear the piece would find a home.

I met Pamela when she wrote this profile about me for a local downtown paper, The Villager. After writing the article, Pamela decided to take my class. Then my poker buddy Paul introduced her to an editor at the FT. How’s that for good karma?

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Why I like sports writing, even though I don’t like sports.


My single girlfriends in NYC have long been wondering where all the eligible men are lurking. I found it. Happy Ending Lounge on the Lower East Side is home to Varsity Letters, a monthly reading series celebrating sports writing. (If you’re wondering about the name of the venue, the bar’s former life as a certain kind of massage parlor confirms that it was always a popular haunt for men.)

I went to the July 5th event because the beau and I were invited by our friend, Rich Ackerman, a sportscaster and contributor to Being There: 100 Sports Pros Talk About the Best Events They Ever Witnessed Firsthand, by Eric Mirlis. Ackerman’s radio voice turned a “reading” into a live broadcast. The beau, who has spent almost his entire career around sports, also knew one of the other readers, Lee Lowenfish, author of a new biography of Branch Rickey, who is renown as both a jazz writer and a baseball writer (Lowenfish trivia: he sports a perfect slash business card, featuring a baseball in one corner and a musical note in the other.)
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New use for a blog

On Sunday, I spoke on a panel about freelance writing at a journalism conference with my friends and fellow freelancers, Chris Kenneally and Hannah Wallace. Chris’s new book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, is coming out later this week and during the panel, she mentioned that she is using a private blog (a blog she doesn’t publish) as an organizational tool for her next book. Now that I’ve discovered how easy and useful blogs can be for keeping track of writing thoughts, online links and other stuff you don’t want to lose, I loved this idea.
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Getting your first byline


A friend just asked me how she can start publishing her articles in newspapers and magazines. Since many people have come to me for advice about this, I’ve decided to answer her via a blog post so that it can help others as well. Below are the questions I’m most commonly asked.

How does the process work? In most cases, proposing an article for publication goes something like this. You have an idea for an article. You identify the publication you want to write for. You write a pitch letter (also called a query letter), trying to get the editor interested in your idea. You find the email address for an appropriate editor. (For magazines, Mastheads.org, is a terrific site for locating editorial email addresses. For newspapers, you can usually find email addresses on the company website or by calling the switchboard.) And then you email your pitch letter and pray for a response. Note what is missing from this description; you do not send the whole article. How you write the article will vary based on what the editor asks for after reading your pitch.

Does it always work like that? Pretty much, except when you’ve written a personal essay or an Op-Ed. In those instances, you should write the whole piece and send it in, following the publication’s writers’ guidelines. Writers’ guidelines are exactly what they sound like, guidelines for how the publication wants freelancers to behave. Often, the guidelines are available on a publication’s home page, or by contacting the publication and asking for a copy. These days, the best information on what publications are looking for is on Mediabistro.com’s “How to Pitch” series. You can also read writers’ guidelines for a lot of publications at Writersmarket.com. Both Writersmarket.com and Mediabistro charge an annual subscription fee. I use Mediabistro ($49 per year.)

How much work should I do when writing my pitch letter?
In the beginning, writing that pitch letter will feel as challenging as writing the article itself. This is normal. A good pitch letter should grab the reader from the start and it should answer these three questions — why this idea? why this writer? why now? Click here to read the pitch letter I used for the first story I wrote for The New York Times. And click here to read the finished article (note that they begin exactly the same way; that is not an accident.) I got the assignment even though I had no prior clips, probably because I answered those three questions.

What do I do after emailing the pitch? How should I follow up and how many times?
One of the hardest things about freelance writing is that many of your pitches won’t be answered. That doesn’t mean the pitches are bad. It mostly means that the editor hasn’t even read your email. Editors are drowning in email, much of it from colleagues and writers they already know. So it is hard to get their attention. Which is why your pitch should have an intriguing subject header (and mention that it’s a pitch.) Often, it takes a little nudging — an email or a phone call — to get an answer. And often, even with a little nudging you might not get an answer. I usually give it three tries in some combination of email and phone calls before I give up and send the pitch somewhere else.

Some of the books I have tell me to use regular mail. Should I ever pitch by regular mail?
If you have any books that say that, they are out of date. Never pitch by regular mail. (One exception might be for obscure literary journals, but the overwhelming majority newspapers and magazines conduct all business by email today.)

What should I expect when/if the editor replies?
You’ll probably have a conversation or email exchange about how long the piece should be, when it will be due, and how much you’ll be paid. The editor will then likely send you a contract. If she remembers. (I’ve written many articles where the contract only shows up after the article has been published.)

What are some ways to break into a publication if you’re unknown?
At the beginning, you’ll do better pitching ideas in your areas of expertise. If you don’t have any published articles (a.k.a. “clips”), but you are the go-to person for pet-training tips, vegan restaurants, or nudist colonies, then start pitching articles about pet-training, vegan restaurants, and nudist colonies. Your expertise will help. Trade publications (publications that serve a professional community) are easier to break into than consumer publications (the glossies you see on the newsstand). Online versions of consumer publications are often easier to break into than the print version of glossies. Community newspapers and publications distributed for free are always looking for content. As are many web sites. Alumni magazines are also a great place to get started. Of course, with any of these outlets, if you know someone and can get an introduction, use the connection!

How much do publications pay for articles?
Pay rates for freelance submissions haven’t gone up in decades. The “standard” for years has been a dollar a word, but many publications (especially newspapers) don’t pay more than .50 a word. Glossy mags can pay more than $2.00 a word, but I know very few veteran freelancers who are earning more than $1 a word on a regular basis. Many publications don’t pay at all. At the beginning, don’t write for the money. Write for the experience. Eventually, if you’re good, you’ll start to get paid. Meantime, you’ll hone your skills.

Note to any publicists reading this:

Now that I’m on the receiving end of lots of pitches for my “Shifting Careers” column, I’m noticing that the same principles of successful pitching apply for publicists as for freelance journalists. I’m not sure if all media folks would agree, but I am partial to pitches that show someone has read my prior columns and has customized the pitch letter to appeal to my interests. It helps if it is an idea I haven’t heard before or a new take on an old idea. Following up once or twice is nice. Any more than that starts to feel stalky. I seldom write an article based on a press release, though I do read them.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty basic overview. Once you start writing and publishing articles, you’ll hit a whole new set of issues. I’ll tackle some more advanced questions in another blog post.

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Farmer/Writers – A new breed of slash


Yesterday’s New York Times had a great story (by Dana Bowen) on a new breed of slash: farmer/writers. And it had a killer headline “Old Macdonald Now Has A Book Contract.” The story begins with John Peterson, a farmer in Illinois, who spends the winter in Mexico writing:

Over the years he has written plays, short stories, a cookbook and a newsletter he sends to his customers. While his sideline may seem unusual, it places Mr. Peterson smack in the middle of an emerging literary movement: farmers who write. Read more.

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