Dye your hair black, never look back
David Grosssman sent me an e-mail with some questions about me, so I figured I would just answer them here, in case they’re of interest to others. Well, I guess by “answer” I mean more “free-associate based on his general areas of interest.”
I started blogging in 2003, on Blogspot, while bored at a day job. I’d written a lot before that - one of my undergrad majors was creative writing, I did arts stuff for my college paper, I made a zine, I was a regular on mailing lists and discussion boards - but that was my first experience of that sort of writing. I started to read other people who were blogging. I linked to them. Sometimes they linked back to me. (My first blog started as a politics blog, but the politics bloggers didn’t care; the music bloggers were way nicer, so I wrote more about music.) Sometimes we talked by e-mail. I developed a group of people I liked to read a lot and talk to online. Some of us started getting noticed by bigger media outlets. Some of us started getting small paid gigs. We would recommend each other. Some of us started becoming editors and would hire each other, because we liked each other’s writing. I started writing for Idolator and that got me a decent bit of attention. I wrote for the Awl and that got me a decent bit of attention. Idolator happened in 2007, four years after I started blogging and only once I’d quit the day job and gone to grad school, so I had time during work hours to blog. The Awl happened in 2010, seven years after I started blogging. It took me a long time. I’m incredibly impressed with younger writers who are doing this shit in college (and very well, too, I should say) but for me it took quite a while to figure out what the fuck I was doing. (Haha, “figure out.”) The best piece of advice I can give is to develop sincere and strong relationships with other writers in your peer group, i.e. who are in the same stage of their career as you. If you’ve got good taste in writers (a really important thing), you’ll challenge each other to do better and think harder and investigate more widely, and everyone’s writing will improve and become more targeted toward what people want. It certainly happened with me.
I almost always get contacted by editors who express interest in me, rather than pitching places blindly. This is a horrible way to conduct a career, but when I’ve tried to do it other ways it’s been disastrous. Editors contact me because they see my writing and like it. Editors see my writing and like it because I write and write and write and write, and so there is a lot of my writing out there to see. Early interest came through some blog posts I made about the Fiery Furnaces and Leonard Cohen, and then later MIA and Jon Stewart. Try to get paid for your writing but also figure out how you can do your best writing and then do that, even if it’s not for pay. If something doesn’t work, try something else. I’ve never lost work because of something I’ve written being bad, as far as I know, so just keep churning it out and move on if it sucks; the higher the volume of your output, the less any individual piece will matter, and that’s a really good place to be in. Let your triumphs shine through and your failures vanish into the noise.
The web has been a great boon for me because I am awful at knowing what is normal so the instant feedback I get from comments, clicks, likes, etc. helps me figure out what people like. If you get a lot of this feedback and also read and read and read what other people you like are writing, you will get a sense of a) what bits of your writing people want to read and b) what bits of other people’s writing you want to read, and then you combine these two to form your sense of what you want to pitch. Both of these will frequently be wrong, but that’s OK. I had a whole conversation with two other bloggers last night about how we have no idea what the fuck people want to read on the internet. But if there’s anyone who knows this, it’s editors. So send your idea to editors and see if they like it. If they don’t, then maybe it’s not a great idea, or at least maybe no one will really care about it besides you. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it, necessarily, just that you shouldn’t expect anyone else to care.) If you find yourself unusually talented at knowing what people want to read then maybe you should be an editor. The world always needs more good editors. Never fall in love with an idea. There’s always another one around the corner, and if it doesn’t work now, maybe it will later. And no one needs to know every single one of your opinions.
There was a thing on Twitter earlier this year (?) that was like “editors’ requests for writers” or something like that, and at the time I found it a little horrifying but I think it has made my pitching better. Here are some things I try to do, now, which I am sure anyone who pitches things will be like “well yeah, duh” to:
- Try to reduce your pitch to a single, key question. If you can’t, then change the question, and then change your pitch to match the question.
- Let your pitch evolve. Revise it. Clarify it. Coming up with a good pitch is the best way to come up with a good piece. Don’t be tied to your original idea.
- Tell them what the story will be. If it’s a reported or narrative piece, then make sure there’s some movement over the course of the piece; if it’s a critical piece, then make sure there’s some movement to your argument (“some people think this/but what they’re forgetting is that/so therefore maybe we should think this other thing” is a good one). There has to be a narrative right there in the pitch.
- Google articles about your subject to see if it’s a thing people have been interested in previously. If not, then maybe try pitching it in terms of “whoa, here’s this crazy obscure thing!” Match it to the interests of your target, because their readership will have those interests, too.
- Find a news peg. There has to be a news peg. If there’s not a news peg, then file it away in your ideas folder and wait for there to be a news peg. Editors will like it better, and readers will be more interested, if it’s related to a breaking event. I don’t know why, but it’s always been true for me, except for the occasional nostalgia piece.
For me, I can’t do the grind of going through all the stuff that’s happening, so I have Tumblr and Twitter feeds tailored to my interests, and I try to let what catches my attention be my guide. It’s worked out pretty well, I think, or at least things I was randomly interested in 10 years ago are now coming back to play a role in my current writing. I go through a lot of ideas. I let things simmer. I usually don’t have to produce anything regularly, so if I don’t have an idea for what to write about, I go do something else. (When I’ve done the daily 8-post blog grind it has left me a hollow shell and I have no idea how you all do it on the regular.) Follow your interests and you’ll get something out of it, eventually, or at least that’s how it’s worked for me. I’m still genuinely surprised by what people do and don’t respond to. You just gain a sort of instinctual sense for it, I think. A lot of writing is about developing your taste, for good writing and good ideas and good subjects. You get this by reading other people and thinking about your own writing and then applying those judgments as you’re working through an idea or a piece.
I’m in grad school now and it’s been great for my freelancing. I have lots of friends who are full-time journalists and it works for them, but I don’t think I could do it. (@freedarko had some thoughts on this back on 21 July.) It’s been enormously helpful to my career not to have to worry about how much I’m making from my pieces. You can “be a writer” and do other things. Most writers do. Good writing takes time and thought and age. Being a writer and being a journalist are two different things, and it’s important to figure out which one you’re shooting for; you can be a journalist and be a great writer, but if all you really care about is the writing then you can save yourself a whole lot of medical bills by doing it as a side gig. The balance between grad school and freelancing is a struggle, but I think it’s been good for me to have one venue to think deeply and at length and another to get my ideas out quickly. Maybe not, though. We’ll see.
I guess here is my advice about writing: write and write and write and write and write and write and write, and then don’t be an asshole.