Have You Published Yet?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Last month this column attempted to inspire, goad, instruct, and shove readers to go on stage — well, at least on a dais or platform — and speak out to colleagues and clients. Besides all the good works public speaking can help us perform, it can also help build our careers to where we can reap greater rewards, including — of course — the opportunity to do more good works, both for others and for ourselves. Never forget: The grand goal in life remains always “to do good and to do well.”
This month, let’s take a look at communicating with the world via the printed word, whether printed on a page of paper, on a computer screen in digital ink, or both. The Internet and its Web have created a platform whereby anyone and everyone can communicate to the world with a minimum of expense but a maximum of personal effort. Blogs, blogs, blogs! Social networking from MySpace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter and on and on!! If you think of writing as primarily a form of self-expression, step right up, sit down at that machine, and turn loose the floodgates.
On the other hand, if you think of writing as primarily a form of communication, you’ve got to consider how many readers you will reach using different venues and what it will take to keep them reading. Maintaining a successful blog with high reader counts and a Velcro load of sticky eyeballs usually involves daily — or even more frequent — content flow. Some of it may come from reader comments, but most of it will depend on you. Sad to say, sometimes the pursuit of success in building blog traffic may lead bloggers astray and into developing bad journalistic habits. After all, if the pressure of deadlines can lead national newspapers into publishing stories too soon and the drive for ratings or circulation can corrupt news organizations into leading with “talking dogs” instead of solid newsworthy content, how much more vulnerable the lone blogger without the professional journalist experience? On the other hand, these days it’s most likely bloggers who will identify the failure of the professionals and break that internally censored story.
Whatever form of publication you examine, let me suggest that one thing you should look for in the course of your evaluation is — well — money. Now Samuel Johnson may simply have been having a bad year when he uttered the words, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” but there is something to be said for getting paid for one’s efforts. For one thing, it offers prima facie evidence that someone — and not just your mother — thought you had something to say and said it well. Whether the money comes in the form of a royalty payment or an authors’ fee, or, for the academics among us, from promotion or tenure in a “publish or perish” world, or even if it comes from online ad revenues driven by a successful blog, money is an attractive form of validation. By the way, as an editor of a print publication augmented by digital sales outlets, I recommend formal publications to authors. We have a good deal of clout; we agree to pay in advance (not depending on online ads); we work with you to develop good copy, then edit it and lay it out until it looks and reads superbly. I only wish I could pay more.
So now that you know you want to get published in an established source, how do you go about doing that? I asked a longtime colleague what she thought the first step should be and she replied, “Have something to say.” Actually, as an editor, I’m a little more generous than that. If you have a topic ready to go, great! Call me! If you don’t, call me anyway. Maybe I can discover what you know that my readers would like to hear: Consider it sort of like a reverse reference interview — finding what answers you have instead of what questions. As an editor, I always like to find a potential contributor that knows about 75 percent of the truth of an issue and needs only the push of a writing deadline to make the effort to gather the other 25 percent. As one author caught — yet again — in my editorial clutches resignedly described working with me, “Well, I might as well write it. It’s something I’d have to read anyway.” Having an author who knows everything about an issue and spends their energies on choosing what not to tell my readers, i.e., distinguishing the forest from the trees, also works.
The novice or occasional writer can find the empty page or blank screen daunting and intimidating. Advice from mother: There are always two ways to approach the development of any article — three if you count combining the two ways. First, you can draw on personal experience, whether derived over a long period of observation and/or involvement or from hands-on, experimental investigation done as part of the writing chore. The second is to handle the story journalistically. That means finding people who have the experience you lack and interviewing them. Using the latter approach involves its own methodology and ethics, e.g., accuracy in handling verbatim quotes, revealing underlying biases if any exist, balancing alternative viewpoints in controversial situations, obeying restrictions such as not-for-publication, not-for-attribution, deep-background-only, etc., and — of course — asking the right questions. Actually, the journalistic approach has its advantages. You can find yourself networking with people whose experience can enrich your own.
If the publication has editorial guidelines, find them and follow them. If you’re not sure of the minutiae, my advice is to keep your word processing simple. Don’t get fancy with templates. Don’t embed images, screenshots, tables, or anything fancy. Instead, send them in separate files correlated to instructions in the text as to where you think they should go. In most cases, the publisher’s graphics staff will make their own layout decisions anyway. I don’t know how many times I’ve been sent some state-of-the-art, word processed jewel that I ended up having to convert to plain text before I could work with it.
As for writing style, the best advice I ever got — indeed, the only writing advice I got after high school — was to eschew the verb “to be.” “The verb ‘to be’ is our enemy,” as my instructor used to say. Don’t write in the passive voice. Reach for verbs. Passive voice just has you sneaking up on something. My favorite horror is “it would be possible for one to” = “I could.” Trust me when I tell you to search for the right verb. If you’re describing a human action or viewpoint that Neolithic cavemen have experienced, there’s probably a word for it. You don’t need a neologism, e.g., “prioritize” (yech) = “rank” or “schedule.” In particular, don’t use some ghastly word ending in “-ate” or “-ize.” Most of the time, you’ll find nouns-made-from-adjectives or verbs-made-from-adjectives-made-from-nouns have grown out of some original verb. So use the original verb!
Neologisms can be dangerous. I once stopped a major information industry firm 2 days away from launching a marketing campaign built around the catchphrase “actionable data.” Though Google hit counts approved the neologistic use of “actionable” as corresponding to ready-to-rock-and-roll (and I saw it used in that context the other day in a New York Times crossword puzzle — sigh), the dictionary still defines the term as meaning “subject to litigation.” I’m pretty sure the company didn’t want to leave the impression that future customers could expect to end up in court if they used the company’s services.
If you forget or ignore everything I have mentioned here, remember this above all: Whatever you write, to whomever you send it, with whatever pre-sending, as-sending, post-sending correspondence, always, Always, ALWAYS include full contact information — name (puh-leez!!), institution, street address, phone number(s), fax number, email address. There’s not an editor who’s been in the business long enough to download an FAQ on carpal tunnel syndrome that doesn’t have some horror story to tell of getting a prime piece of publishable content with no link to any living being. All that work — and no name!! If you want to tease, harass, persecute, or even torture your editor (and I know some of you have been trying to get that game included in the Summer Olympics), pick another way to do it, a way that doesn’t leave your hard work on the cutting-room floor.
So, when can I expect to see your next article? You do remember the deadline we set, DON’T YOU?!