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Category Archives: Writing Advice

How to Get over Impostor Syndrome

I wasn’t familiar with the term “impostor syndrome” until I joined a group of women writers.

Comprised of several thousand accomplished journalists and authors in a variety of genres, many of them quite successful by any objective measure, there was also a contingent that frequently expressed doubts about their knowledge/skills/abilities/quantity and quality of work, and on and on. Among them were writers who spoke of challenges they faced in dealing with “impostor syndrome,” the sense that they were really just posing as writers, that somehow they simply weren’t good enough.

Here’s the best definition of impostor syndrome I’ve found:

… a term coined in the 1970’s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. (Wikipedia… of all places)

Although I felt glad they had a safe space to express their feelings and receive support from the rest of us, I also felt astonished and troubled by the number of women who felt this way, how acutely, and how much it was affecting their work– not only what they were doing, but all that they weren’t doing because they were occasionally paralyzed by self-doubt.

There’s a lot of advice offered to women who experience impostor syndrome, but I think most of it isn’t very useful. It tends to fall into one of two categories: (1) Think or act “like a man,” which, frankly, is insulting to men and women, and/or (2) “Fake it ’til you make it,” which suggests that if one merely pretends to be confident, assertive, and self-assured, those qualities will magically develop over time.

Neither category of advice offers concrete actions or a permanent fix that will help a woman writer kick impostor syndrome to the curb. With that precise goal in mind, I offer the following:

1. Do a professional self-inventory.
If you don’t know, objectively, what your skills and worth are, it’s time to sit down and do a self-assessment. What do you know really well– inside-out? What can you reasonably claim as your area of expertise? When you’re doing this, think only of yourself: the goal isn’t to compare yourself against anyone else. It’s to become as self-aware as you can.

2. Fill in the gaps.
Maybe your self-inventory revealed that, hey, you ARE an impostor and you’ve got no business being a writer. But I doubt it. In any case, though, it likely helped you identify areas where you need to shore up some skills or knowledge. There’s no shame in that and it doesn’t mean you’re an impostor. It means you’re a person and professional who understands that we are all always growing, learning, and changing, and that we can all always learn more.

Not sure where to go to fill in your gaps? Poynter, Dart Center, and EdX are just a few organizations that offer a number of free courses online. Prefer one-on-one coaching? There are lots of talented journalists and writers who offer personalized sessions and/or ongoing small-group workshops. I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld for fiction writers; Faith Adiele for memoir; Christine Gilbert for blogging; and myself for journalism and general non-fiction (you can contact me at writingjulie[at]gmail).

3. Identify and cultivate your sources.
In some respects, a writer is only as good as her sources. Do you already have a go-to list of experts and stakeholders in your particular niche or beat? If not, identify a few and start cultivating contacts. Listen to them carefully. Learn from them. Live in a state of constant curiosity.

4. Keep up with developments– not the Joneses.
It always boggles the mind when I talk to writers who don’t read every single day. You must read. Your goal should never be to compare yourself against another writer, but to know who’s covering what, how they’re covering it, where it’s being covered, and how you might be able to cover it in your own way. I keep a hand-lettered sign above my computer: “What’s the story not being told?” Whether I’m thinking about writing a feature or a quick Q&A or profile piece, and whether I’m covering someone who’s famous or someone who’s unknown, that’s usually the question that drives my approach.

5. Gather your tribe.
There’s a lot about the writing life that is solitary. The extrinsic validation so many writers crave isn’t always accessible, particularly when there are people who live to troll in the comments section of online publications. If you really struggle mightily with nurturing your own intrinsic motivation (and even if you don’t), identify a small core group of colleagues who will help buoy you during your bouts with self-doubt. Choose people who know your work and respect it, who will give you concrete reminders–not just vacuous pep talks–about why your work is good and important. Lean on them when you need it and reciprocate in kind.

6. Work on your monkey mind.
All that mental chatter rattling on about how you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy? You know it’s not going to go away magically on its own, right?

You have to work on your monkey mind, all the self-talk that undermines your self-esteem and your good, productive work. And I’m sorry to say that that work isn’t easy. As a former psychotherapist, I’ve worked with several hundred people actively working to change a habit or behavior that was what therapists call “maladaptive” (ie: not good for them); only a tiny fraction of them successfully broke the old habit and replaced it with one that was more adaptive.

Change is hard. Really really hard. But it’s not impossible and it’s worth working–constantly–on contesting the negative self-talk that makes you feel like an impostor. Though my own clinical orientation was oriented more toward psychodynamic psychotherapy and the creative arts therapies, there is a great deal of value in the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which anyone can use at any time. Basically, CBT involves practicing changing your “negative scripts” (ie: crap self-talk). There are loads of resources online where you can read more about CBT. I recommend The Beck Institute as a good point of departure if you’re interested in learning more.

Struggling with impostor syndrome or have a kick-ass way to deal with it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

How to Take a Work Trip across Three Countries with Your Three Kids–and No Partner–without Losing Your Mind

I’d been planning a Cuba trip for a while–I had work to do there and in-laws to visit, and I hadn’t been since early 2013–but for one reason or another, dates just weren’t lining up. Finally, the calendar cleared and I secured multiple assignments that would help pay for the trip, so it was game on– time to book flights.

Except I wasn’t traveling alone.

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My oldest daughter, who would turn six during our trip, had been to Cuba twice, but the youngest, ages 2 and 1, hadn’t yet met their abuela and tias and tio. With a mother-in-law who’s in her 90s, it’s not as if I have the luxury of putting off a visit with the grands. Yes, I needed to work–covering everything from the papal visit to restoration projects and new entrepreneurial ventures–but I also needed to make sure my kids and their father’s side of the family were getting some quality time together.

Only my husband wasn’t going to be a part of the equation.

A complicated immigration status would keep him at home in New York while I sat on airplanes and hauled two suitcases and as many strollers through three airports in three different countries with three children, starting out at 4 AM in New York City and ending up 15 hours later in Havana.

“Are all these kids yours? Are you a sadist or something?” That’s what the US Immigration officer asked when I came back to the US 10 days after I’d left. I just gave him the evil eye. My kids are great travelers.

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

That being said, enough people asked how I managed to make the trip alone that I thought it might be worth sharing my clutch tips about how to travel alone with three kids on a work trip without losing your marbles.

1. Pack light.
Yes, you’re traveling with kids, but trust me: kids don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think they do. I managed a single carry-on for all the in-transit essentials: diapers and wipes for the youngest, a change of clothes for each, passports and all other IDs, plane tickets and documentation, my laptop and wallet, a camera, a book, my phone, and a coloring book and pack of markers. Kids–even kids who travel a lot, like mine–can be entertained for a good long while with seat back safety cards, barf bags (make puppets!), headphones, and tray tables (sorry, passenger in front of us; I’ll try to keep it gentle).

Don’t pack the entire toy box. And as for all those things you think are essential: My rule of thumb when traveling is to not pack items you can buy at your destination. A caveat for Cuba is that you probably should pack all the diapers you’ll need; diapers can be tough to find and are expensive and of poor quality. Ditto wet wipes.

2. Stay organized.
Keep all the paperwork you’ll need in airports close at hand, organized and accessible. Bring along a notarized letter from your children’s other parent–even though many airlines don’t require them–in which that parent gives her or his consent to take your children abroad. You probably won’t need the letter, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you need it and don’t have it. Because my children carry both my husband’s last name and my last name (and because this confounds so many officials), I also carry birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, and vaccination records as evidence of our respective identities and relationships.

3. Accept help if offered and ask for it if it’s not.
The toughest thing about a 14-hour day of travel was–I kid you not–finding a way to go pee without worrying that my one year old would tumble head-first out of her plane seat and onto the floor. Pressing my five year old into service worked for much of the trip and those tasks where I needed an extra set of hands, but never when I needed to go to the bathroom. I searched for a trustworthy-looking adult and asked them if they could watch my kids for a few minutes.

4. Trust your oldest with age-appropriate responsibilities…
… and reward them with praise (and, if you can, a special treat) for shouldering an extra load. My five year old pushed one of her siblings in a stroller through all three airports and even operated a special elevator by herself when we couldn’t all fit into the elevator for a single trip. I knew that she was a little scared, but I also told her I was totally confident in her abilities and that I was watching her the whole time (which was true). When we had a free moment, I bought her a small bag of chocolate-covered coconut as a thank you.

5. Know your danger zones.
I wish I’d thought to ask whether my airline, Interjet, had milk on its afternoon and evening flights, as both of my youngest children drink milk from bottles. It does not– it only has milk available on morning flights. On the last leg of our return flight home, I had no milk and kid #2 spent the last 20 minutes curled up in the fetal position on top of his tray table.

6. Ease your reentry.
I scheduled in a two-night layover in Mexico City on our return trip, mainly because I love Mexico City, my former home, and because I had some reporting work I needed to do there. But it also ended up being a welcome way to transition between Cuba and home, what with a comfy hotel bed, running water (which we did not have in Cuba), and a room service splurge. If you can break up your travels into more manageable bits, it will be easier on kids… and on you.

7. Take advantage of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, and similar services.
When booking your tickets, make sure you elect for TSA pre-check if you’re eligible, and take advantage of your trusted traveler/Global Entry memberships if you have them so you don’t have to wait in line for ages when you return home.

8. Bring snacks. Lots of snacks.
Cheerios, fruit chews, apple bars… these are my go-to snacks for kids when we’re on the road or in the air. A snack produced with a parental flourish at the precise moment preceding a meltdown can prevent crisis.

Also, if traveling in areas where you’re not the one in control of when, what, or how you’re eating (as was the case at my in-laws’), bring some breakfast basics for your kids. Instant oatmeal is the best choice; it packs flat, weighs practically nothing, is easy to make, and is filling.

9. Have a clear work plan.
I had A LOT to do in Havana, and while I had my sister-in-law and niece to help care for the kids, I was still the one who had to fit all the usual parenting tasks in at the beginning and end of the day. Being organized before I landed and staying organized each day by following a work plan I’d set for myself was essential to not losing my mind.

“[Y]ou can still perform.”

Some wisdom from world champion triathlete Gwen Jorgensen that’s useful not only for athletes:

“What are the chances that you go to the Olympics, it’s race morning, and you wake up feeling awesome? The likelihood of that is so low.
You have to realize that no matter how you feel, you can still perform.”

Resources: Digital Archives

American Prison Witness Archive: Spearheaded by Dr. Doran Larson of Hamilton College in New York, the APW is the first known online archive to feature the writing of incarcerated people and “contributions by correctional officers, prison staff, and prison administrators, thus creating a true meeting place and venue for comparative expression by and study of all of those who live and work inside American prisons.”

Darwin Manuscripts Project of the American Museum of Natural History:
“On this site, you will find the world’s first & only large collection of full colour, high-resolution images of faithfully transcribed Darwin manuscripts,” writes David Kohn of The American Museum of Natural History. The “DARBASE,” as it’s called, “catalogues some 96,000 pages of Darwin scientific manuscripts… currently represented by 16,094 high resolution digital images. Thus far 9,871 manuscript pages have been transcribed to exacting standards and all are presented in easy to read format.” The database is a work in progress.

Freedmen’s Bureau Project: This just-launched archive promises to be an incredible, crowdsourced/crowd-built archive of African-American history. From the website: “To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum. Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.”

Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera Archive of Princeton University: Latin Americanists will particularly enjoy this trove, which is described by the university as follows: “The bulk of the ephemera currently found in the Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera was originally created around the turn of the 20th century and after, with some originating as recently as within the last year. The formats or genre most commonly included are pamphlets, flyers, leaflets, brochures, posters, stickers, and postcards. These items were originally created by a wide array of social activists, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, political parties, public policy think tanks, and other types of organizations in order to publicize their views, positions, agendas, policies, events, and activities. The vast majority are rare, hard-to-find primary sources unavailable elsewhere.”

Library of Congress: Looking for archival material on practically any topic? This should be one of your initial points of departure. There are photos, letters and other documents, sound files, and much much more in this extensive online archive.

Mexican Digital Library: Like most, if not all, of the online archives listed here, the Mexican Digital Library is an ever-evolving online repository of materials that, in some cases, are centuries old.

New York Public Library’s Digital Projects: From the literary to the ultra-niche (theatrical lighting; historical menu collection), the NYPL’s digital project archives are a treasure that can generate dozens of story ideas and serve as a research resource for many others.

Flickr’s The Commons: The online photo sharing/storage service, Flickr, has an ever-growing Commons that is not only useful for journalists and editors sourcing images, but also for research purposes. The Commons includes some impressive national and international partners, including Smithsonian and Cornell University Library, as well as some more obscure and unexpected members, including state and federal governments of Latin American and European countries.

This list is by no means comprehensive. If you have a suggestion to add, please leave a comment below so I can update this post. Thanks!

Online Professional Development Resources for Writers & Journalists

I love school.

I have always been a sit-at-the-front-of-the-room kind of student, thanks, no doubt, to my parents, who were the first in their respective families to go to college. They always impressed the importance of education upon my brother and me, and did everything within their power to provide us with the best educational opportunities possible.

As an adult, I’ve missed classroom learning. I earned my MSW at NYU more than a decade ago and started a PhD in Spanish when we lived in Puerto Rico. I did not finish it because we moved and because, on a deeper level, I was frustrated with the disconnects between academe and “the real world” and wasn’t sure how to resolve those tensions.

I’ve never stopped learning, of course, but when I say I’ve missed learning, I mean I’ve missed the structured guidance of a professor and the collegiality of a classroom of learners with a purpose. It was for this reason that I enrolled in two short courses through edX, both of which I’ve just finished, and one of them for credit.

edX, as you probably already know, is a platform for “MOOCs,” massive open online courses, in which student enrollment is unlimited, all teaching is conducted online, and students do coursework on their own time, rather than a prescribed meeting hour, with a new unit of information delivered each week. Some courses are for credit, others for audit. edX MOOCs cover a vast range of topics–from marketing to DNA methylation data analysis (no, I don’t really know what that means)–and are offered by instructors from a number of different institutions, from the small New York private college, Hamilton, to large universities like UC-Berkeley. There are also courses offered in other languages, with instructors representing a variety of colleges and universities around the world.

The pros and cons of MOOCs are parsed endlessly in think-piece articles, but as Doran Larson, the instructor of “Incarceration’s Witness,” one of the courses I just completed, wrote, “One great advantage of a MOOC is that it can operate like a small, living gallery with an open running time: people can enter and visit, take the time to explore and read and view, and wander back to things they want to study more closely….” I found his course, as well as “Journalism for Social Change,” offered for credit through UC-Berkeley, worth the time I invested in them, and saw right away how they could be valuable continued learning resources for writers and journalists who can’t/don’t want to/aren’t able to take a course in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.

In addition to edX and similar MOOC platforms, there are numerous resources you can access–many of them for free–for the benefit of professional development. The list below is short, but each offers a breadth and depth of online learning opportunities (as well as some offline opportunities, too) that I think you’ll find useful:

Poynter: An institute that describes itself as the “world’s leading instructor, innovator, convener and resource for anyone who aspires to engage and inform citizens in 21st Century democracies,” Poynter has more than 250 free or low-cost courses to sharpen students’ journalism skills. Formats include self-directed study, group seminars, and webinars, and topics include everything from how to conduct interviews to how to use Snapchat. You can review the full list of courses here.

Reynolds Journalism Institute: Hosted by the Missouri School of Journalism, the Reynolds Journalism Institute hosts webinars and other events that are open to registrants not affiliated with the school. Past events have included how to report on science beats more responsibly and effectively and free speech. A list of upcoming events can be found here.

PBS MediaShift: Dubbing itself as “media training for the digital age,” MediaShift, a project of PBS, hosts “series of live online media trainings… in partnership with top journalism and communication schools.” Most of the trainings emphasize digital reporting skills, and cover such topics as iPhone audio reporting. Unlike many of the other resources listed here, these courses, most of which are just one hour in duration, are not free.

Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma: A project of Columbia University’s Journalism School, Dart is an invaluable resource, especially for journalists working in/covering conflict zone issues and other trauma-oriented beats. Though Columbia and Dart are based in New York City, Dart often holds events in other locations, as well as online webinars. A list of upcoming trainings and events is here. Under its “Resources” section, journalists can also find a wealth of self-directed courses on the subjects related to trauma reporting. These can be found here.

IJNet.org: International Journalists’ Network is another useful resource (in full disclosure, I write for the site), particularly for those writers and journalists interested in and/or covering international beats. While the site itself does not host courses or trainings, many of its articles fall under the heading “journalism education” and include announcements about and links to other training opportunities.

LEARNO: The European Journalism Center is responsible for this series of courses, which include fact-checking and data-based reporting, among other topics. Courses are free.

[UPDATES]
Science journalist Kat Friedrich shared the following resources:

Women’s Coding Collective
Codecademy
Lynda.com
Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at The University of Texas, Austin

Have any other resources I’ve missed that you’d like to recommend? Please mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to this list.

How to Ditch Your 9-to-5 Job

[Note: This piece was originally published on Matador, where I was managing editor and lead faculty member of the travel writing course. Over the next few months, I’ll dust off some other articles from my Matador days that I’ll be updating and republishing here.]
**

Since quitting my 9-to-5 job as the assistant director of a mental health agency in 2004 and becoming a full-time traveler and writer, many people have remarked that they envy my lifestyle. What they don’t recognize is that they can create the same kind of life for themselves by following a relatively simple set of steps, which I’ll share with you here. I didn’t plan the kind of life that I have now—in fact, I didn’t plan at all; I just quit my job without a Plan B, which is not the best idea for most people. My experiences of living on the edge, though, have helped me identify the top 10 tips for you to ditch your own 9-to-5 job and have a bit more security than I did.

1. Let go of your long-cherished vision of your professional self.
When I found myself unexpectedly answering my boss’s question, “How are we going to work together?” by answering, “We’re not, because I quit,” I didn’t realize that one of the biggest challenges ahead of me was letting go of the career trajectory I’d mapped for myself. By the age of 25, I’d been the first poetry therapist to work in two New York City social service agencies, I’d already reached the middle management rung on my profession’s ladder, and I’d simultaneously begun building my own counseling and consulting business with two colleagues. I was published in an academic journal and I was the director of a board. I was well on my way to fulfilling my high school yearbook’s prediction of “Most Likely to Succeed.” Dropping out of the profession meant I’d be disappointing a lot of people—my parents, who had paid for my Masters degree, my mentor, who had nurtured my learning and my career, and myself, as I’d planned big professional accomplishments by the age of 30. In order to ditch your 9-to-5, you’ll need to begin to let go of whatever conventional career plan you had for yourself and whatever expectations everyone has ever had for you.

Practice becoming comfortable with ambiguity and what others might consider to be aimlessness. Don’t underestimate the work this step takes. Our society is largely structured around the maintenance of the 9-to-5 life.

2. Perfect your pitch.
When you’ve made it through step 1 and you’re starting to become comfortable with the idea of the new professional you, one of the next challenges you’ll confront is explaining yourself and justifying your career and lifestyle change to almost everyone you know. Don’t be apologetic for your decision to forgo the traditional trajectory, but do take the time to develop a pitch or a story to tell when someone asks you why and how you’re forging a new path for yourself. A true and well-crafted narrative is compelling to most people—even those who’d like to see you conforming to social expectations—and it can often serve you well. When I explain how I was once a social worker who had her own business and worked as the assistant director of a New York City agency, then owned an art gallery, and then became a full-time writer, editor, and translator, it becomes a hook for continued conversation and often leads to offers of work and further exposure.

3. Make an inventory of your skills.
Whether you take the time to plan your transition or whether you jump into it headlong, as I did, it’s incredibly helpful to make a written inventory of the skills you possess that can bring you work and other opportunities. As I listed my competencies, I realized I had skills and knowledge that were so second nature to me that I hadn’t realized their potential value as sources of work. In this initial list, include everything that comes to mind—don’t censor yourself at all. If you can cook, clean, write, translate, organize, sing, type, take photos, transcribe, surf, do calligraphy, or make movies, write it down. If you’re short on ideas, ask a trusted friend to make a list with you.

4. Narrow the list.
Once you’ve made an inventory of your skills, review it and begin to narrow down your possibilities for independent work. Subject the items on our list to three criteria: (1) Which of the skills are portable? (meaning you can use them anywhere in the world); (2) Which of the skills are profitable? (meaning that they’ll generate income—not enough just to scrape by, but something to actually live on); and (3) Which of the skills have the lowest demand load? (meaning which will not require you to purchase special equipment, obtain employment authorization in another country, secure a work visa, or otherwise require negotiating red tape and the constant monitoring of bureaucratic requirements and deadlines).

5. Rework the list.
Now that you’ve determined which items on your list are most portable, most profitable, and lowest demand, begin to refine the list a bit more. What are the top five skills you could use to seek work that takes you outside of the 9-to-5 grind? Which skills might lead you to actual job leads? How can you generate work using these skills no matter where you go? Which skills will lead to work when you need it?

6. Plan with a partner.
If you’re in a serious long-term relationship, you need to discuss your ideas and plans with your partner. Ditching the security of the 9-to-5 life and trading it in for a life that is more independent and flexible is not for everyone and it requires risks that may not be acceptable for all people. When you are in a relationship, the needs and abilities of your partner with respect to adapting to your plans need to be discussed and agreed upon. What kinds of shifts may need to occur in your day-to-day life in order to make the transition realistic and to what degree is your partner willing and able to accommodate and support you?

7. Assess your security needs.
If you’re the type of person who needs medical and dental insurance, a 401(k), and a steady, predictable paycheck, then you will need to do some serious planning to fulfill these needs before ditching your full-time job. There are resources for meeting these needs off the regular workday clock (see Freelancers Union for some great ideas), but you’ll need to do most—if not all—of the legwork on your own. You’re now the chief, cook, bottle washer, and human resources director.

8. Be for real.
Before you ditch your 9-to-5, do a searching inventory of yourself. The main criterion? Be for real. Are you a person who needs structure? Do you work best with others? Do you have a hard time scheduling, organizing, or delegating your time well? Do you need the praise of a superior or the affirmation of colleagues? Are you envisioning life off the 9-to-5 grid as one long adventurous, romantic narrative? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” it’s likely that you’ll find life off the time clock to be a serious challenge. Among the many people who have commented that they’re envious of what they view as my freestyle life, there are a couple who have acknowledged that they’d never be able to follow in my footsteps because they need a boss, they need the predictability of a regular paycheck, or they need someone to assign tasks to them. I admire these people because they know themselves and make their career and lifestyle decisions realistically according to their own personal and professional needs.

9. Create community.
Working off the clock has many advantages, but it can get lonely at times, especially after the initial thrill of working on your own wears off. Be sure that you’ve made plans for connecting with other people no matter what you’re doing or where you are.

10. Assess your progress.
Every once in awhile, take some time to assess your progress. When I stop to think about how my life has unfolded since turning in my resignation and never turning back, I recognize that I work more now than I ever did, but that I’m also happier than I ever was. I also realize, though, that I need to continue refining my short-and long-term plans in order to maintain my current lifestyle. Since I don’t have a boss to sit down and do an annual performance evaluation with me, I need to do constant evaluation myself and so will you.

5 Common Mistakes Editors Make

[Note: This piece was originally published on Matador, where I was managing editor and lead faculty member of the travel writing course. Over the next few months, I’ll dust off some other articles from my Matador days that I’ll be updating and republishing here.]
**

A FEW WEEKS back, I was reading the latest issue of Oxford American, which excerpted this badass letter writer Eudora Welty sent to the editors of The New Yorker.

Welty wanted a job at The New Yorker and she didn’t seem the least bit reluctant to pull out all the stops to get the editors’ attention.

There aren’t a whole lot of writers–then or now–who could pull off that type of letter, much less use it to develop a long and satisfying personal and professional relationship with an editor.

If you’re as much of a self-possessed badass as Welty, then you won’t need these tips. But if you’re confused by some of the dynamics of the writer-editor relationship (especially those dynamics characterized by the editor dropping the ball), then this one’s for you.

1. They don’t respond to your pitch or query.

How to respond

Don’t take an editor’s lack of response personally, and don’t take it as an indication that your idea has been rejected. Email gets stuck in spam folders. Messages read quickly don’t get revisited and fall to the bottom of the inbox. A busy editor is vaguely–or even very– interested in your query, but gets distracted by events and pitches that are more timely.

Follow up with a polite email asking the editor if he/she had a chance to read your query. Include the date you sent the original message and paste in the query again so the editor doesn’t have to look for it. Don’t do any of this, though, until you’ve given the editor sufficient time to reply to your original message. Most publications specify typical response times in their contributor guidelines; when they don’t, anywhere from four to eight weeks is a standard time frame for print publications. Online publications vary considerably.

2. They make decisions based on emotions or without sufficient facts.

How to respond

Accept that editors make decisions based on a variety of subjective factors, many of which have nothing at all to do with you. Rather than fight this fact, the best way to handle this situation is usually to just move on. If an editorial relationship is contentious from the beginning, it’s not likely to improve.

3. They change words in your story- or even reshape it entirely.

How to respond

Try to react to this situation with as little ego investment as possible. These types of decisions aren’t intended to cramp your style-– otherwise the editor wouldn’t have worked with you in the first place. Understand that editorial decisions reflect a complex algebra of factors, including the editor’s understanding of the publication’s goals, audience, and even finances; many of these variables won’t be clear to you at all. If something really rubs you the wrong way, ask the editor to explain the choice that was made. And if a detail that has been changed results in a factual distortion, then bring that to the editor’s attention before publication if possible.

4. They assign a story and set a deadline, then leave your draft in limbo.

How to respond

One of the things you can do to prevent this from happening is to establish in your contract or in your early email exchanges what, exactly, you can expect once you file your article. Is there an anticipated date of publication? What will the editorial review and revision process likely consist of?

Still, it’s not uncommon for drafts to occupy placeholder space on an editor’s to-do list for weeks.

As I write this, I have articles in editorial limbo at The Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, and Money. I’ve already invested double digit hours of research and writing on each of these articles and have sources who are anxious to see their names in print. I generally take my cues from the editor. When I send in my drafts, I mention that I’m looking forward to feedback and hope to hear from the editor soon. A reply will often include a time frame when the editor expects to be in touch with feedback. That time frame is rarely honored– not for lack of good intentions, but because of time constraints or other editorial priorities that have emerged (the earthquake in Japan earthquake, for instance). In any event, when I don’t hear from an editor within two weeks, I send a follow up email to ask if they’ve had a chance to review the draft and whether they have feedback and/or revision requests. [2014 update: It’s worth mentioning that two of the three articles mentioned above never made it into print.]

5. They don’t close the circle.

How to respond

By “closing the circle,” I mean this: They don’t let you know when the article is published. They don’t give you invoice paperwork or directions for submitting your bill. Or they do both of these things and then let the invoice sit on their desks for weeks. Or they change offices and your invoice gets lost in a moving box. (Hey, these aren’t fictional examples I pulled out of the air). Again, the more legwork you do upfront, the less you’ll have to do afterwards. But don’t be embarrassed by or reluctant to ask an editor to check on the status of a payment or any other post-publication logistics. If they don’t close the circle, don’t be afraid to help them do it.

What challenges have you experienced with editors and how have you negotiated them successfully? Share your experiences in the comments.