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Writing for mags like The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, etc.

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by WaylonJennings, Oct 22, 2008.

  1. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    I didn't pitch a specific story. When I went into Esquire, I had a few of my best long clips and a book I'd written about boxing. I sat down with an editor, the awesome Andy Ward, who was kind enough to see me, and I said, I'm not asking for anything now, I'm not there yet, but one day I would like to work for you, and I'd like it if you kept an eye on me. That meeting was really an introduction, that's all.

    Then, I had him read one of my stories while I sat there. It was a weird moment, but basically I said, I just want to know if there's any chance. I gave him what I thought at the time was one of my better newspaper stories, and I thought, if he reads this and says, Not so much, then I know I should shelve the dream and work harder at what I'm doing. So I watched Andy read my story, and after Andy said, We wouldn't have so many one-sentence paragraphs, but yeah, there's something there.

    That was all I needed. I left him a copy of my book, and off I went. (And Waylon, write the book -- mine wasn't very good, and it sold fewer than 1,000 copies, but I'm certain that it kept me closer to the top of the pile than I might have been otherwise. It meant I could write long, if nothing else.) Six months later, I got an email about an opening. They asked for ten ideas. They picked one, I wrote it, wrote another one, and a couple more, and then I finally landed a contract, probably six stories in.

    So, that's how I did it. But like jgmacg says -- and jgmacg is the pinnacle of menschdom, really one of the best people I know -- it's a different story for all of us. At Esquire, for instance, Tom Junod started out writing for Atlanta magazine; Charlie Pierce was at the Boston Phoenix, I believe; Scott Raab was many things, none of them close to a writer; Tom Chiarella was a short-story writer and college professor. Some people, their first story would be a spec. Other people would pitch an idea. Other people would meet someone through someone and see an opening. Who knows?

    But there are universal truths:

    1) No one is going to do the work for you. You have to make yourself visible, either by being outgoing and unafraid, or by doing work that's so good, someone else takes notice. Preferably both.

    2) Again, like jgmacg says, it is hard work. I work hard. He works hard. Charlie Pierce works hard. The lazy ones either don't get in or they don't last. There are a lot of talented people out there. Working hard is the best way to separate yourself from them.

    3) You really do have to love writing. Newspapers, you can get by on loving being a reporter. Magazines, you have to love to write. (Especially when you're on edit no. 9.) You have to study other writers. You have to work to get better. You have to take time. You have to read. You have to care about craft. When jgmacg talks about that group of us sitting around the table, which really was one of the great summits of my life, what linked all of us, as different as we are on the surface, was our love of words.

    And last, and feel free to mock me for this, but I believe in my heart that it's true:

    4) Be a good person. It's a small world. It's also a world of intense relationships -- especially the relationship between writer and editor. If people hear that you're an asshole, they're not going to want to hang out with you at the bar. The same goes for work. There's this weird thing among writers, the legends always seem to be bad seeds somehow, brawlers and drunks and wife-stabbers, and young writers sometimes feel the need to prove that they can belong in that class of reprobate. (Easy for the drunk to say.) But it's the good-hearted guys who get along in the business, especially in an environment like today's. Treat people well, with respect, with kindness and generosity and optimism -- be the jgmacg of your little universe -- and that will come back to you.

    Write good sentences, and don't stab your wife.
  2. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    Anyone who mocks you for No. 4 is an idiot. It's also the most effortless thing to do on your list.
  3. Goldeaston

    Goldeaston Guest

    jgmacg, while it's hard for us outsiders to dispute anything you said, the "Jones works harder" stuff comes off like every arrogant Catholic High School football coach, who all claim their teams are better because "we work harder than everyone else." Never mind that they recruit kids from four states or whatever and those kids are just more talented. People like Jones have God-given talent.

    Hard work, meanwhile, is always a key to success, but how much of a factor is just getting a break, or being in the right place at the right time? I know many writers in prime beats at newspapers who are where they are despite not working very hard at all. Or being very talented. They got breaks. They were, in essence, lucky. How much does luck factor in?
  4. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    Unless your name is Jack Torrance.

    Wonderful posts from macg and Jones, who have too much humility to add this one truth:

    There are just some writers who have, for lack of a better word, It. An exquisite ear for the language, a psychic feel for lyric and rhythm and tone. 'It' isn't a teachable talent. You can be a good writer, even a great writer, but It is the gift that makes you brilliant.
  5. The Big Ragu

    The Big Ragu Moderator Staff Member

    Waylon, What Mizzou said is right on. I don't write for consumer magazines anymore, but for a decade or so, I wrote for several dozen. I'm not even sure how many different magazines I have written for. It was what I did in addition to anchoring myself with syndicated newspaper work.

    A lot of it was just knowing people and very importantly, keeping up with people. Editors jump around a lot and if you worked for someone at one place, it helps to follow him or her to their new place. Another thing people haven't mentioned is the value of being reliable. I'm not a great magazine writer. My talent, if I even have one, is being able to learn about something quickly and ask people good questions. I'm never going to bowl anyone over with my copy. But I never missed a deadline and I always knew the magazine and the section I was writing for very well. Editors appreciate that, because they get so much crap from writers who don't understand the audience or the magazine. Getting a voice right is as important as getting the info right.

    Did I mention being really reliable? In my experience, many editors who are dealing with getting a section together every month would rather deal with the guy who is good enough and always delivers than the uber-talented flake who may potentially leave them hanging. I think that benefited me at times.

    It also helped that I wrote about a wide-range of topics: Personal finance was something I did particularly well, but I also wrote a lot about technology for consumer-computer magazines and about pop culture, in addition to sports.

    Most of what I did was front-of-the-book or back-of-the-book stuff. Not features. If you hook up with a few publications that each throw one or two pieces that are a couple of hundred words at you for each issue, you can create some stability. Those kinds of things can pay anywhere from $1 to $3 a word (think middle of that range for a decent consumer magazine) and if you can ride a few magazines like that at any given time for steady income, while always being ready to find the next magazine you can hook up with, it doesn't require the kind of genius (and effort) Jones is talking about as a feature writer. Those guys actually need some talent!

    All of the feature writing I did do, came after establishing myself as a guy who could handle smaller stuff. I was a contributing editor for one magazine, for example, and ended up writing several thousand word stories for them. But I started off withwriting little 50 and 100 word front-of-the-book pieces and got a chance at the bigger stuff after they got to know me better.

    I can't really say how to get your foot in the door. I used to be pretty bold about just e-mailing or calling people. It takes some people skills, I guess. I was never afraid to ask someone I already knew for an introduction to someone I wanted to know. Just do it in a way that doesn't make you into a user or a pain-in-the-ass -- and always be ready to reciprocate when someone needs your help. I never went too crazy on pitches or queries. I found that I could get more work from a phone conversation or a short e-mail in which I expressed an idea than I could from something I spent an hour crafting (for no pay).

    Take my advice for what it's worth, of course... I still know a lot of people in magazines, and I think I have an understanding of consumer magazines, but what I do now is custom-publishing related, so my life has changed a wee bit and I may be a bit out of touch.
  6. SixToe

    SixToe Well-Known Member

    If you're in newspapers and are able to do so, take a stab at writing for another section.

    Find something interesting for Features, Food, Business, Travel, Books or Entertainment and give it a stab. It may open some new doors; personally, it could give you a spark to try something different and professionally it may let others notice you're capable of more than deadline gamers.

    Networking and The Jones Rule No. 4 also are mightily important. Meet people, retain contact information and be nice.
  7. See, I'm one who has always believed that it's more of a craft than a "God-given talent." I think there's a certain amount of talent involved, but that's probably more just innate intelligence. I think the storytelling part of it is definitely something that can be learned. From what I've found, the people who really care about feature writing have read a lot of the same texts about it - Jon Franklin's, James B. Stewart's, the "New, New Journalism" book of interviews, probably a few fiction writing books, as well.

    When I read a David Maraniss book, I don't feel like I'm reading something by someone like David Foster Wallace or John Updike or Jonathan Lethem, men who clearly, clearly have a gift for language that I don't quite possess, much as it breaks my heart to admit. I feel like I'm reading something I could probably do given the right mentors, etc., etc.

    I would say it's more intellectual curiosity funneled toward writing than anything.
  8. joe

    joe Active Member

    Bring doughnuts.
  9. Goldeaston

    Goldeaston Guest

    Waylon, it is a craft. But much like athletics, you need a starting point. No matter how hard I work, I was never going to be the opening-day starter for the Yankees. Likewise, no matter how hard some writers work, they are never going to have the chops to write for Esquire.

    Like 21 said, it's a gift. Hard work can take you so far, but only so far. After that, you better have the fastball.
  10. OK, what if I said that more people have "the gift" than think they do?

    I think the idea that writing is some mysterious, have-it-or-you-don't talent kills more careers than anything else.

    I've had people laugh at me, and that includes on this board, where people have vehemently and passionately ripped into me, for studying the craft of storytelling, story structure, etc., etc.


    "Because either you have it or you don't!"

    I mean, people get downright offended that someone would actually try to make a study of crafting their stories.
  11. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    So, basically, you'll never know you won't be the Opening Day starter for the Yankees unless you bust your ass over the years trying to get there.
  12. Goldeaston

    Goldeaston Guest

    I would hope, if we can carry out the silly metaphor (or is it simile?) a bit futher, that one would find out somewhere in the low minors whether they may have it. Chances are, if you're in the Carolina League for 10 years ...
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