The editorial relationship

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

The good and bad of blogging  — for writers and readers alike — no editors!

No one to say: “Hmmm, really?”

No one to ask: “What did you mean to say here?”

No one to suggest: “Maybe you wanted a shorter paragraph?”

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19, so I’ve worked with many editors, men and women of all ages and temperaments, some as my bosses or coworkers, many as those who chose to assign me freelance work, and my two non-fiction books.

The very best are like the best plastic surgeons — when they trim, you barely notice it, but suddenly your material looks so much better.

The very best remain calm and cool, able to re-direct us and soothe us when we’re lost or panicked in the weeds of reporting and interviewing. Book editors are gods to me — helping us make sense of 100,000 words.

I’m always amazed at the trust that each editor places in us and our skills and our character and our ethics and our work ethic when they commit to us. This was a bigger deal when top writers were paid $3/word by the big glossy magazines and a $6,000 or $9,000 or $12,000 check was still possible and not some gauzy memory.

Then as now, editors hedge their bets with contracts that may not contain a kill fee, or a very small one (25 percent), so that $4,000 you expected to earn — hah, now you’re only getting $1,000 and your bills be damned!

It’s one reason smart full-time freelancers are very, very frugal; it’s easy to blow some cash on a vacation or some new clothes or some dental work or car repair — put  it on a credit card — and, guess what?

You aren’t getting that money now.

It’s very stressful and stories get killed for a lot of very bad reasons. One I see a lot (not in my work) is editors who commission a story, disappear for weeks or even months (!?) and then the story is no longer timely or someone else already published it. This punishes the writer, who’s done all the work in good faith.

 

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Some of my most memorable editors:

— The one who sent me off to profile David Quinn, then the brand-new coach of the New York Rangers, saying “You’re Canadian. You know hockey!” I did not. Here’s the story.

— The one who just assigned me a scary story about a technical topic for a specialist audience of readers with Phds. “You realize I never studied chemistry or physics?” I emailed him. Onward, anyway.

— The  one who told me to get what he was sure was a totally ungettable interview and I came back within a few hours with a former European leader.

— The one who sent me off on a two-week tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Lord, what an adventure: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick. We flew in Lear jets, allowing Her Majesty the “purple corridor” of advance time for her jet to take off before ours.

— The one who sent me, in December, to the tiny Arctic village of Salluit, ostensibly to deliver an entire small plane-full of donated clothing, with only 24 hours there. We landed on ice and snow at maybe 1pm, and no one wanted the stuff, and it was dark by 2pm and  I had to go on the radio, a particle board shack, being translated into Inuktitut, to calm the village down and get anyone to even speak to me.

 

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— The one, at the New York Daily News, my direct manager, who said: “When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know” and never spoke to me again. That was December and I was let go in  June. Fun!

— The one who edited Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout’s official magazine, and had me interviewing Scouts (by phone) all across America. They were always terrific!

 

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— The one who read my initial manuscript for Malled and said: “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” The rest? Needed revision. We made it.

— The one who sent me from Toronto, freelance, for The Globe & Mail, to write about performing eight shows of Sleeping Beauty as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada, at Lincoln Center. I typed it up in my room at the Empire Hotel and dictated it over the phone. “This is great!” he said.

 

At best, it’s a collegial collaboration of mutual respect.

At worst, you feel butchered and never want to trust another editor again.

And you never know for sure what you’ll get!

The freelance writing life

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By Caitlin Kelly

Well, mine anyway!

If you fantasize about the glam life of a full-time freelance writer — no commute! work in sweatpants! no meetings! no office politics! — the quotidian reality can be…bracing.

I’ve been full-time freelance many times in my career, this most recent stint starting (again) in the summer of 2006 when I was summarily canned (no emails, no meetings, no warnings) by the New York Daily News.

Bye-bye paycheck!

Bye-bye enormous laminated press pass!

It’s much more difficult now to earn a good living (like $60,000 year-plus) in journalism because so many magazines have shut down or gone to a digital-only version — which pay much less than print (I call it #MissingAZero, as they now offer $150 for 1,000 words [at worst] instead of the $1,500 to $3,000 that was once standard payment for that length. Yes, we are still, typical in journalism, paid by the word.)

 

 

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Here’s some of my recent writing life:

 

— A pal on Twitter, who lives in Alaska but who edits for a magazine based in New York City, tweets out she seeks pitches on retail, the topic of my last book. Sweet! I like her a lot and trust her to be a good person to work with, so I pitch her.

— I pitch a religion-focused idea to a Canadian magazine and follow up three times to discover she never saw the initial pitch. Re-send it. I get an offer but it’s short and low, and the Canadian dollar is 25% lower than U.S. — and I pay my bills in New York. Unless they’ll go higher, I’ll pass. (They didn’t, but the email conversation remained cordial.)

Phone interview for an amazing opportunity with a super-prestigious and interesting project, told I’m one of their top three candidates. This is rare! This is potentially very cool. Must wait now for further details.

 

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— The print version of my American Prospect story arrives. I love seeing my work in print! I also get paid for it (after starting work on it in August 2019 and finishing work on it in November 2019.) This is the first time in our 20 years together that Jose and I worked together on a story.

Phone conversation with an editor far far away seeking a daily editor for a major news-site. I am surprised to be in the mix (as I am so often not, now!) and ask why; as I suspected, my decades of news experience do have value. I find out I’m also the only candidate (of many) who followed up with a phone call.

— I apply for a reporting fellowship. Waiting to see if I make the finalists’ cut.

— I apply for a few staff jobs but get nothing.

— I report and write a 2,200 word story on STEM education, my first (and an assignment, not my pitch), for Mechanical Engineering magazine. Editor loves it and wants to work on more stories. Yay!

 

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— I pitch several ideas to editors at The New York Times, to Air B & B magazine, and to a new website focused on interior design. The Air B & B essay idea is rejected but it’s a good one and I start thinking who else might want it.

Need to come up with some ideas for The Wall Street Journal, as an editor there contacted me after my American Prospect healthcare story came out.

— Have found an intern, a college student, and assign her research work for two book projects. She found me on Twitter and we will meet this weekend in New York for lunch, face to face for the first time.

— A former Times colleague of Jose’s, who knows me and my work, suggests me to an editor there for a project. We’ll see!

— I lose a lot of energy and patience trying to get the two key sources for a magazine profile to give me the initial information I need. I finally get it, but after too much needless anxiety. This is the kind of story others would kill to have written about them.

 

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— I practice and time my remarks for a workshop on pitching I’m giving on March 6 at the annual Northern Short Course, a 3-day conference for photojournalists, this year in Fairfax, VA. I book two nights’ hotel in a quaint town nearby beforehand and two nights’ hotel in D.C. to catch up there with friends as well.

 

Ready for a break!

Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Sure, some people can write well in a noisy and crowded coffee shop.

Not me.

For truly focused, uninterrupted work, I need quiet, either at home alone or at a library.

Writing really means often wondering — does this sentence/paragraph/chapter even make sense?!

So I’m fascinated by two recent reports of writers meeting face to face to help one another thrive, one in Hollywood and many others more private.

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Lin is betting that Rideback will strengthen and accelerate the creative process. It is a Hollywood twist on WeWork, the shared office space company. Mr. Lin said he was also inspired by Pixar’s “brain trust” sessions, in which directors and writers candidly critique one another’s work, and by “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson’s 2004 book about the ignition of the Renaissance.

“If you put a bunch of creative people from different backgrounds into one space, something magical will happen,” Mr. Lin said. “Studio lots used to be just that. You would walk around and everyone would be there. But studio lots aren’t as much fun anymore. They can feel corporate.”

Mr. Lin has 15 employees of his own. They work on the Rideback campus, where they are focused on finding a way forward for the “Lego” series, most likely with a new studio partner. (Universal is one option.) Other front-burner projects include an “Aladdin” sequel and a television spinoff; “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover signed up to return; movies based on Cirque du Soleil shows; and a remake of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.

“You will feel like writing is very lonely and very difficult and very frustrating and that you don’t really know what you’re doing,” said the Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall. But in a writing group, “you can talk to other people in that place and that are feeling their way out.”

 

I don’t belong to any such group, but I do belong to at least six on-line writers’ groups — and have done so online for many years, still close friends with a few people I only initially knew that way. One, a writer now living in California, and I shared a room at a Boston writing conference never having even met in person, launching a long and treasured friendship.

It really cuts the loneliness to be able to talk your ideas and challenges through with people at the same level of skill and experience and, if you’re lucky, those a few steps beyond you, willing to be generous.

One such group (many are private Facebook groups), is small — only 200 — and only those with a decade’s experience can join. I know, even if I don’t like the answers, I’ll get a quick and candid reply from someone else who’s been around the same block a few times.

 

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Writing books makes me really happy — but also very nervous!

 

The challenge of all writers’ groups, in any form, is the classic writers’ combo of insecurity and ego. I’ve seen several such online groups explode in outrage and vicious bullying. It can get weird and ugly quickly.

And to share, let alone publish your work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, journalism — demands the courage to have a voice, to put it out there for comment, criticism and potential disagreement. That opens you up, de facto, to potential hurt.

So I have what I consider a bit of a brain trust; to gather feedback on a recent story of 5,000 words — my longest and most complex in a decade — I enlisted the fresh eyes and expertise of three people whose judgment I trust. One is a man half my age who’s very good; one is a woman my age whose writing I deeply admire and the third is a professional book editor. These “first readers” are so helpful and so important.

After revising your work over and over and over and over — you’re tired! You have blind spots. The material has become so familiar you’re likely to miss places that it’s still confusing to someone who has never read it at all. So these trusted peers are so valuable.

I’ve done this for others, of course, helping to review their stories and book manuscripts. I’m honored to do it.

If you’re lucky and talented and persistent, you will find a peer group and they will help steer you through.

Everyone needs an editor

By Caitlin Kelly

Like those narrow bits of whalebone that once shaped women’s corsets — invisible aids to visible beauty — editors save writers daily.

They catch our grammatical errors, query an assertion, challenge an opinion. The very best are gentle-but-firm and help us create terrific material. The worst are butchers.

Yet writers very rarely publicly acknowledge how essential their skills are to our more obvious success.

 

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Each story we read has been edited,  some more rigorously than others…

 

One editor recently made a whole pile of new enemies on Twitter when he declared that  most of the writing he reads is only made useful thanks to editors. That self-satisfied burn was not appreciated.

But a recent New York Times Book Review piece recounted how zealously and carefully one writer had been managed by her book editor. And nowhere does she explain (!) that this is now as rare and luxurious an experience as having a car and driver, butler or valet, let alone all three. I know no writers getting this kind of literal hands-on attention to their work.

By Ruth Reichl:

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The late editor, Susan Kamil, sat beside her in her office, going over Reichl’s work line by line. This, in an era when even agents have little time or energy to spare the plebes, let alone the P & L-obsessed editors they hope to sell us to.

 

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I won’t soon forget getting the notes on my last book, sitting in a motel room in Victoria, B.C. while visiting my mother. My editor, who had previously worked for NASA (it is rocket science!) liked chapters 11 and 12.

What about Chapters 1 through 10?

I panicked. That is a lot of revision!

A dear friend, also a writer, gave me very good advice: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

Thanks to Courtney’s calm and thorough suggestions — certainly not in her office, nor line by line or page by page — we got it done. Then, just as the book was going into final production, we went at it again, tweaking a few pages.

Digital story-telling makes it too easy to later fix a published mistake. Book editing is a high-wire act in comparison.

This past summer offered me the highs and lows of what it means to work with an editor. One, a rude young woman with very little understanding of the collaborative nature of this endeavor, left me shaking with frustration. Another, a man my age, has offered some direction, but has given me tremendous autonomy on a major story, the most complex in many years.

Like all writers, I will be nervous until it goes live, hopefully in the next few months.

That final moment of submission — yes, double meaning — is always scary!

 

Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

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Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

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Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

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As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

Can women handle 10,000 words?

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Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:

 

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)

 

If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.

 

 

A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

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It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Paid for coverage? No! How journalism happens

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s becoming sillier and sadder by the day.

Having a U.S. President who shrieks “Fake news!” isn’t helping, that’s for sure.

This recent poll makes clear what a mess we’re in when it comes to mistrust, misunderstanding and hostility toward journalists.

 

Sixty percent think that we are paid by our sources all the time or often.

 

EXCUSE ME?

 

I would laugh at this stupidity, but find this level of ignorance stunning and deeply depressing.

A friend who works in digital media — which I admit I read very little of — says it’s because there’s such an overlap of commercial messaging and editorial and the lines aren’t clear to readers and publishers don’t make it clear enough.

Let’s get this straight — and, I beg each one of you, tweet this blog post. Email it. Share it with everyone you know, at any age.

We are not paid by our sources!

If a journalist is discovered to be doing this, they’re a cheat and a fraud and will get fired and shamed and shunned by anyone who still understands what we are supposed to be doing.

When I write about X company or Y product or Z person, I do so because they’re deemed sufficiently interesting by the editor who agreed to pay me to write about them, not because the damn company or person paid me to perform a public relations function.

Web writing pay rates are a sick joke, so an “argument” gets made that writers don’t make enough money which leaves them open to suborning.

Not the ethical ones!

There has been some serious malfeasance, and here’s a powerful piece by Jon Christian from 2018 exposing it:

 

Welcome to the dubious new world of payola journalism, where publicists like Prokopi have carved out a niche arranging undisclosed payments to financially strapped reporters and bloggers in exchange for friendly media coverage of clients. If you want to understand the vulnerable state of the news industry, don’t just consider the thinning newsrooms of national publications — look at the writers who are being paid to plug brands on sites like Forbes and the Huffington Post.

 

Yet this week I got a phone call, at home in New York, from some stranger who said — no joke — I want you to place a story for me in The New York Times; I’ve been freelancing for the Times for decades.

I lost my shit.

“Do you have any idea how journalism works?!” I asked him. “What makes you think this is even possible? I don’t work there. I’m not the publisher nor an editor.”

Cowed, he said: “I do now.”

A Twitter pal sent me this terrific blog post she wrote; if you want to seriously understand what we do and why, it’s a great read.

Here’s a bit of it:

The last story I wrote for S&P Global Market Intelligence was about the suicide crisis in the northern Ontario town of Attawapiskat, and whether an unfair deal with a diamond miner may have contributed to this outbreak.

I chose to do the story because the Attawapiskat suicide crisis was major news, with every news outlet covering it. Missing from almost all that coverage? The role of a diamond mining company operating near the town, and whether that company had reneged on its agreements to provide jobs, opportunities and development for indigenous residents of the isolated town.

Before I spoke to anyone, I first had to dig in and do reams of research. I investigated what the indigenous population had said in the past about their dealings with the mining firm, as well as any documents the firm made available on the nature of its agreement with the local community. I looked into what mining associations and Aboriginal groups said about the town and the mining industry,  and read many reports from Canadian think tanks about Aboriginal-resource company relations and how it had changed over the last 20 years.
Armed with that information, I then hit the phones.

I called everyone – the mining company, the local governance association, a Canada-wide group representing Aboriginals in their dealings with the natural resource industry, firms which advised Aboriginal groups on how to negotiate effectively with resource firms, and law firms specialising in representing Aboriginal claims to resource companies (and the diamond mining company, which wasn’t talking). Each interview took a few hours to set up, involved at least 1 hour on the phone. Following this, after each interview, I double-checked my notes, doing what I could to ensure I transcribed the quote correctly, and followed up with the source if my notes were unclear at any point.

So now that I’d done research and interviews, you’d think I would be done. But I wasn’t.

 

Want to better understand anything about journalism?

 

Please ask! I’ve been doing it for decades.

 

The writing life

 

 

malled cover LOW

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Just saw a great new film starring the fab Melissa McCarthy, in a serious role, as the late New York City writer Lee Israel, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

More than any film I’ve ever seen, it shows the reality of life for an ambitious-but-stymied writer in a city full of the inevitable confrontations with those who are glitteringly and gloatingly more successful. In one scene, she attends a party filled with them and her simmering rage is palpable.

I still remember the woman, (living as an adult in her parents’ townhouse), who ran into me at some NYC writing event and cooed: “Are you still with the Daily News? Haven’t seen your byline much recently.”

Like that.

Israel, who found forging literary letters her financial salvation when her career stalled, also had a prickly personality that guaranteed her few allies and alienated the few who tried to get close to her.

The scenes where she both confronts and begs her agent to get her a deal are painful to watch — and so honest. The inequities here are legion, like the Classic Six, (a huge, much coveted style of Manhattan apartment) her agent inherited; Israel lives in a dingy walk-up with her cat.

 

Writing for a living is often a deeply frustrating path to frustration, envy and low wages. Those who tell you otherwise are hoping to make some money from your idealism and naievete.

But…

 

Since I generally update you on my writing life, here’s the — cheerful! — latest:

 

— Nice reception for this essay published on The Pool, a UK website, about the odd reality of getting a cancer diagnosis and having to keep explaining it to people who know nothing and can’t be bothered to Google your condition.

 

With so many medical appointments and seven physicians, and tests and treatments that would consume more than five months, I kept trying to flee cancerland whenever possible. Where I live, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid being confronted by ads on radio, TV, buses or even a debit-card machine for a cancer hospital or drug. When healthcare is a competitive, for-profit enterprise, the word “cancer” is annoyingly inescapable, leading some who’ve yet to face it to think they understand what those facing the disease are going through.

They don’t.

One of the many lessons I learned quickly is how deeply individual breast cancer and its treatments are. At the radiation clinic, where I lay face down for 48 seconds a day for 20 days, I made two new friends – none of us with the same condition or treatment regime.

 

— Loved the chance to report and write this piece, a profile of the new coach for the New York Rangers, a hockey team that practices in my suburban town. The coach, David Quinn, was warm, down-to-earth and had his dreams of the NHL or the Olympics dashed at 20 when he discovered he is hemophiliac.

 

Ice as unyielding as concrete. Razor-sharp blades whizzing past with abandon. Slap-shot pucks flying through the air. Boards dented and dinged from bodies slammed hard into them during every game. Ice hockey and hemophilia are not a good match. But for David Quinn, an ice hockey rink is where he feels most at ease. On one hand, this is no surprise. Quinn, 52, is the new head coach of the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most storied franchises. On the other hand, it’s a bit startling, because the rookie NHL head coach and former hockey player has hemophilia B.

 

— Wrote my first piece for a new website aimed at people in their 50s and 60s, considerable.com, after meeting its editor for a long lemonade this summer. It’s so rare these days anyone makes time to meet writers face to face; I’m now working on my second piece.

 

Coached a writer who hopes to sell to The New York Times, discussing and refining her pitch.

 

— Coached a D.C. college journalism student in her final year, who found me on the Internet and hired me to work on her skills. It’s an interesting relationship and a challenge to try and transfer decades of knowledge, but fun and gratifying. We’re meeting face to face in New York for lunch this week.

 

— Started work on my first piece for an engineering magazine, which will be the fourth time (!) I’ve written about engineering education. As someone who didn’t enjoy most of my formal education, am fascinated by the skills and aptitudes required to succeed in that field.

 

– Negotiating with several new clients and editors for work in early 2019. When you’re wholly freelance, paying (soon) $1700 a month for health insurance, it’s a constant hustle to find (and ideally keep) new relationships with people who pay well, pay quickly and don’t drive you insane with demands.