My livelihood, like that of many full-time freelancers, is intellectual piecework. Instead of sewing pockets on jeans in a factory, I chase assignments, negotiate fees and conditions (some now paying 60 days after invoice), read, sign and amend contracts, fill out the paperwork to get paid.
I also…oh that…write.
The past week has been a really exhausting roller-coaster.
After agreeing to a shitty fee of $750 for 1,400 words, (ironically for an outlet focused on journalism), I turned in my story, which required six interviews and reading a new book on the subject of the piece. Endless email mis-communication ensued until the very young female editor called me — at 4:55 on Friday afternoon — to find out what was going on.
Thanks to texting and emojis and a life lived only screen-mediated, many young editors and writers now exhibit a bizarre and pronounced fear of speaking by phone. Some simply don’t know how to react, civilly, in real time.
This did not go well.
She was rude, condescending, dismissive, constantly interrupting me. Two hours later she killed the story, costing me the entire fee.
Since that shitshow, I successfully pitched another idea, an essay, to a website, got a quick rejection for a New York Times op-ed, accepted three more assignments from a specialty magazine and — to my amazement — got a green light on a story that had been widely rejected for months.
I also pitched the Financial Times, allure.com, another NYT editor and Real Simple (no go) — and wrote that time-sensitive essay in 2 days.
Losing $750 I expected means postponing a dental visit, getting a new pair of glasses, paying down credit card debt. It’s not a joke. This is not a hobby.
One of the greatest challenges, for me, is just moving on after a really bad experience. That baby editor’s behavior was appalling — but it’s not my issue.
I know the excellent skills I offer. I know the people who value them.
Whatever happens, the bills keep showing up, every month, thousands of dollars needed to pay them all, in full, on time.
To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.
They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.
While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.
One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.
Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.
To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.
One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.
I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.
This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.
We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.
Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.
My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.
And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.
The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!
Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.
Our skills and dedication — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.
The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed.
Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!
That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.
At worst, all of these.
We all need editors!
When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise, and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.
Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.
I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…
I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.
There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.
“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.
Revision city, kids.
Every book goes through an editor — usually several!
Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.
A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.
Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.
The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.
And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.
Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?
I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.
Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.
But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.
Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.
Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.
Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.
A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)
Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)
The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)
There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)
What do editors do?
— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book
— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it
— Offer some helpful sources
— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject
— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers
— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic
— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions
— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership
— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print
— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct
— Question your logic and story structure
— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish
It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.
But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”
At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.
A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.
Not to mention editors from publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and the New Yorker, four of the — arguably — most desirable markets for magazine writers in the U.S. (Only one of whom, from VF, was female.)
Instead, it was a terrific day of fierce hugs and nostalgia and excited shrieks over new books, and books currently being looked at by Major Publishers, and awards and pregnancies and a friend’s daughter accepted to a good (if costly!) college.
I served on the ASJA board for six years and still volunteer as a trustee of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can write a check of up to $4,000 — a grant — to a needy non-fiction writer within a week. (If you can ever spare even $20 for the cause of decent journalism and the freelancers who produce so much of it, I’d be thrilled if you’d donate to WEAF.)
So I know lots of people through that, and have given back some of my time and talents to the industry I’ve been working in since 1978.
I went out for dinner that night with Maryn and three new-to-me women writers, all crazy accomplished and of course the conversation quickly turned to — female serial killers. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of newshounds at the same table; four of us had worked for major dailies and all miss the adrenaline rush of working a Big Story. So we do it now for magazines and books and newspapers and websites.
It was, in the most satisfying and nurturing way, a gathering of the tribe — people who had come from Geneva and Paris and San Diego and Toronto and Atlanta and Minneapolis and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, all hungry to be in some small, crowded stuffy meeting rooms to talk about what it is we do and how to do it better.
We write. We tell stories. We wake up bursting to share the cool, moving, sad, powerful, holy-shit-can-you-believe-it? richness of the world, all the untold tales that surround us every day, just there, waiting for us to capture, pitch, sell and tell them.
If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”
No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.
It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.
For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.
Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.
Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.
Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.
Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.
If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.
Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.
Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.
But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.
But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.
The latest American National Magazine finalists are in, and the list is — as usual — heavy with the names of male writers, whose work appears predominantly in the Big Name Magazines, the ones that every seriously ambitious writer here eventually, (or even initially) aspires to: The New Yorker, The New York Times,Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Esquire and The Atlantic, to name a few.
Here’s a piece in the American monthly magazine Mother Jones on this issue:
And now the problem has once again reared its head: On Tuesday, when the 2012 National Magazine Award finalists were announced, exactly zero women were nominated in the big brass-ring categories—reporting, features, profiles, essays, and columns. (Some women did get nominations in other categories, most encouragingly two nods in public interest journalism, although more typically for pieces about breast-cancer economics and “mommy tucks.”)
Erin Belieu, founder of a group whose goal is to encourage women writers, VIDA, tells MJ:
A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the “tits and nether bits” ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want. These issues and questions are ones we at VIDA hope editors may think through in the future when assigning articles to reporters. And we also want to give women writers the confidence to say, “Hey, I can write about whatever I want. I have authority. I have expertise. I have a unique perspective as a person, first and foremost.”
I’ve seen this firsthand, having worked in New York as a journalist since 1989. Read the cool magazines and year after year the majority of bylines — and their editors — are men tackling the serious, smart, lengthy stories — of 3,500 or 5,000 or even 25,000 words.
Women’s magazines very rarely offer that sort of real estate to any writer, simplifying most stories into 1,000 to 2,000 words, barely enough to scratch the surface of a complex story.
And, frankly, many of us do not wish to write primarily or exclusively about health, nutrition, kids, celebrities, sex or marriage — the go-to evergreens of women’s magazines. It’s somehow (insultingly) assumed that women only want to write about womens-y stuff.
Which means that tough, complicated stories, the kind that only get coverage (and budgets to do it right) in the Big Name Books are hard to get your hands on. Unless you get the assignment — and enough pay to do the work well and enough room to tell the story intelligently — you’ve got nothing to show in order to win the next challenging assignment.
As much as this may horrify some of you, I did some of my best magazine work for Penthouse magazine, including the story that led to my first book.
Men and women writers all know why this issue is so important — being published at this elite level of exposure matters, a lot. Once your work has appeared a few times, sometimes even once, in the Big Name Books, book, film and TV agents come a-calling and other editors add you to their Rolodex. You need those names on your book jacket to prove you’ve got some heft, that your ideas are worth $26 and a few hours of a reader’s time and attention.
You need that level of challenge, to prove to yourself and to editors, agents and publishers, you’ve got the goods.
Being ghetto-ized into writing about mascara or breast-feeding won’t cut it.
Ambitious writers — of any gender — all want, and need, that street cred.
This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
It takes some serious cojones to keep on pushing when you get the distinct impression your voice, ideas and perspective — whether “female” or not — isn’t wanted.
And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.
Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.
This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.
And not only does it show no signs of getting better — it’s actually getting worse.
In a September 2006 “Talk To The Newsroom” interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald (pictured above) was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as “gender parity” in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.
“Ask me in another generation,” McDonald replied. “Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men.”
If you’re a Lithuanian lute-maker (no offense meant, specifically, to either category) — and male — hang in there. Your time for posthumous glory will come. Men doing the most unlikely and obscure things end up in the Times obit pages every day.
I know for a fact that women do die, women who have achieved extraordinary success and influence in business, the arts, science, medicine, public service, education. But you’ll never hear about them in the Times. (Or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You know the “papers of record.”)
I think it’s a toxic combination of two issues: male editors who don’t see women’s achievements as worth this level of honor — and women, and their families, colleagues and employers who don’t make a (big enough) fuss about them and their value to the larger world, either when they’re alive or after they have died.
Women who vaunt themselves and seek public attention are often derided for their egos and glory-seeking, while men who do so are considered…normal.
Every single obits column that ignores women ignores half the nation’s population.
I wonder how many people will take up the challenge. Writing is, typically, a private, unseen and invisible process, the machinery whirring away — we hope! — inside our heads.
I had dinner this week with a fellow writer who asked how my book was coming and what my process is. I usually bang out as much as I can, perhaps 1,500 words, maybe 2,000 at most in one go, then stop and take a break. My eyes and my head get tired.
I do some housework or stare at the sky or read a magazine or take a swim class. Then it’s back at it.
I let new material sit for a few hours, preferably a few days, a cooling-off period that allows me to read it more objectively. I print it out on paper and edit in hard copy only. Then I revise on the computer. One joy of being a writer is that no one tells you how to do it. There is no “right” way. You can scribble on a napkin or use a quill pen on parchment or a Mac at the beach.
The final product is yours, all yours. If it’s lousy, well…
I still have 44,000 words to produce to meet my contractual agreement within the new few months. It’s enough to make me huddle in the fetal position beneath the duvet. But, no.
Finding the right ones, making sure they read smoothly, that the entire story is compelling and engaging, are all part of my job. I did use two terrific researchers to help me gather material for this book (the last one used four). Kelly and Peter are both so skilled that, of course, they each just got hired into full-time journalism jobs and are no longer available.
I’d love to add a bunch of elves to my workshop to lighten this load, but, in the real world, it’s not an option.
So I become, once more, the kind of person I can’t bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are “off-message” because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types. This critic lives inside us all, but she is also embodied, occasionally, by real people. One of them, an online “feminist” columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She’d said that the question wasn’t why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren’t, “in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.”…[There is a ] kernel of truth at the heart of that columnist’s infuriating declaration that only a handful of women’s writing voices are heard, and that those prominent voices are too often salacious, self-revealing, “unfeminist”, or otherwise unworthy. Wrong as she is, she is right about one thing: women have not yet come so far that we can shrug off worries about being misrepresented.
It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.
I love this and wish we were having that conversation more often.
But we’re not.
The blogosphere, by its nature, is disembodied and asynchronous. There are women out there, of all ages, writing stuff that makes me dance with joy and others whose neck I’d truly like to wring, utterly mesmerized by issues I find trivial and/or inane and/or so deliciously titillating — lurid sex!! celebrities!! celebrities having lurid, preferably adulterous sex!!! — they’re absolutely guaranteed gazillions of pageviews, book deals, fame, fortune! (No doubt there are women whose hands might reach happily for my neck, too.)
It’s one reason I’ve given up reading most “women’s magazines”, and am so damn grateful for the alternate universe — literally — of the blogosphere. Magazines’ vision of what it means to be female is so narrow, white, thin (or dieting really hard to get there), middle-class, aspirational and, natch, dying to get married and have babies, stat! I know it pleases the advertisers, without whom there would be no magazines, nor the pay rates that make it worth my while to sell a story to a magazine editor. I get that.
Here’s something funny — not! We have a little system here at T/S called Zemanta that suggests photos to accompany our posts. Or you can type in what you seek. Here’s one it can’t handle — “angry woman.”
Seriously! It offered me photos of women mourning (noooo, grief is a little different) and this very, very, very old statue. This is what I’m talking about, the narrow gauge railway along which women are publicly expected to travel: be nice! make people happy!
Tonight I’m off to hear an author (male) talk about his new, raved-about history of Paris, with a new friend, a fellow Francophile and an author of two books about cops. We met recently at a writers’ dinner and — how cool is this? — turned out we know the same lovely, gentle retired NYPD detective, the one who saved me from the con man, whom she interviewed for her book.
The way she thinks, and writes, does matter to me: fearless, tackling tough stories, telling powerful tales that are hard to winkle out. I celebrate women who write cool stuff.
I tend to ignore, (not trash), other women who write stuff I find stupid. It’s only my opinion and millions clearly adore what I find risible or tedious.
An early women’s magazine had the delicious name of The Delineator, and it published from 1873 to 1937, a good, long run. I like the truth of its title. That’s what women’s magazines do — prescribe and proscribe what’s normal and OK and acceptable. Which is why most of them are booooooooring, because the monocultural values they enshrine encourage women to — buy stuff! get married! have kids! work really hard at a white-collar job!
Pretty radical. It’s probably why I sat at the guys’ table in our high school cafeteria and did some of my best writing — sports, guns — for Penthouse. (And, yep, I also wrote for Ms. Go figure.)