Anna Wintour at New York's Fall Fashion Week, 2005. Photo by Karin Bar.
A writer who’d recently had a piece of writing rejected by a magazine once told me that the experience was like walking into an interview and being asked:
“I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 100; what is it?”
And it stuck with me because unfortunately a lot of times it is like that. Even with our magazine and our (I like to think) friendly editors who don’t have Anna Wintouresque airs.
I’m reminded of this because we’re holding a writers and readers conference next weekend, and part of my job is to be on an editors’ panel, where we’ll try to give writers a better sense of what we’re looking for and inevitably dispense stock writing advice like “know your audience,” at which point participants can squeeze us for more details. (Like why, for instance, if “know your audience” is a cardinal rule, would you publish the phrase “Anna Wintouresque airs” in your enewsletter? Do you figure a lot of Northern Woodlands readers also read Vogue? Are there a lot of loggers out there with copies of “The Devil Wears Prada”? Well no, but I think there’s some value in it just because it’s different. I liked the juxtaposition – I liked it because it makes no sense. No, don’t write that down . . .)
God, I hope the editors’ panel goes better than that.
For fun, let’s look at those stock nuggets of writing advice. They’re cliché because they contain an element of truth, or at least what passes as cultural truth. Yes, knowing your audience, knowing the magazine you’re writing for, is important. We reject pitches all the time from people on agricultural topics, many of which are interesting, but we’re Northern Woodlands, not Northern Farmer, and there’s a crucial difference there to recognize. But all that said, “know your audience” can be patronizing if you’re not careful. We’re not children, those of us who aren’t literally children. Most of us don’t fit into tidy boxes and chafe at the idea of being just another cow in the herd. A demographic. When we go into a restaurant we want to see a menu; we’re not looking for the wait staff to just suppose they know what we want. So respecting us, the audience, is probably a better goal than knowing us. Don’t try to psychoanalyze us, or talk up to us or down to us, just talk to us like we’re intelligent adults. Tell us what it is that you have to say, and if it’s entertaining or educational, we’ll likely keep reading.
“Write what you know” is another classic, and sure, there’s truth here. We wouldn’t hire a person to write a column called Tracking Tips if they couldn’t tell a fox track from a bobcat track. But there are many types of stories where we won’t, where we can’t, work with subject matter experts because they speak a different language than the rest of us. If we want to get a story produced on a complicated subject – carbon accounting and trading, say – the last person we want writing it is a carbon accounter or trader, because it’ll be all jargon. We want someone who doesn’t speak in acronyms – someone who can see things with fresh eyes and explain what they see to the rest of us on the outside. And I’m not knocking the wonks – we’re all like this to some degree on topics we know something about. When I watch football with my partner and she asks a basic question, I’m incapable of answering it without huge digressions and peripheral backstories – “which one’s the fullback?” turns into an impromptu retrospective on the single wing formation. She would be so much better off talking to someone who had just learned what she was asking about. Writers, especially journalists, can use their ignorance to their advantage.
“Show don’t tell.” True, and wonderful advice in some applications. Describe things carefully. Use juicy verbs. A neighbor’s Holsteins grazed under the umbrella-shaped black walnut tree is a much better sentence than There were cows under a tree. But some of the first-person essay submissions we receive are all show – the writers forget the tell part. Whatever it is you’re writing, you still need a point. If it weren’t already taken, the phrase Show and Tell might be better.
“Be original.” If this means don’t plagiarize, then yes, be original. But make peace with the fact that, creatively speaking, we’re all magpies bringing snippets of this or that back to our work nests. The originality usually comes not from the idea but from the filter. Sing “Twist and Shout” in your head. (Come on, come on shake it up baby now). Now sing “La Bamba” (La la la la la la Bamba). Now sing that ’90s pop song “Laid” (This bed is on fire with passionate love). They’re all essentially the same, but who cares? Most musicians wear their influences proudly on their sleeve – think of George Thorogood growling about his Bo Diddly beats. But many writer-types I know, especially fiction writers, hold themselves to these odd standards of originality, where it’s up to them to create something that’s never been done before. I admire this sentiment, but not when it inevitably becomes a block.
“Revise, revise, revise.” Writing is craft. Finishing a sentence is like finishing wood – every one needs to be sanded and rubbed. But how many hours have you wasted revising a piece that was fundamentally flawed enough that it never turned out? Hours and hours and hours I’ll bet; no, I know. We’ve all been there. I think a much healthier philosophy is kill, kill, kill. Be ruthless with your ideas. Don’t fall in love with them, even the good ones. Know when to fold ’em, as Kenny Rodgers famously advised.
I’m out of time, but hopefully something here was moderately helpful to a new writer who’s trying to get published. Poking the rules can be creatively liberating; seeing the angles is also good training for storytelling in general. As David George Haskell points out – the David George Haskell who’s presenting at our writer’s conference – “multiple realities exist in every place and idea. Honor this.”