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What Are Your Writing Goals for 2014?

I used to think the last two weeks of the year were a frightening time for a freelancer: editors gleefully set their “On vacation! See you in the new year!” e-mail auto-responses; accountants throw their hands up and say “Screw it!” to whatever writer invoices remain unpaid once the clock chimes 5:00 pm on December 23; and the writer’s to-do list, meanwhile, becomes a tedious menu of tidy-up tasks. Which articles were accepted but haven’t yet been published (and why?). Who still owes me money? Close out receipts for the tax year. And so on.

I’ve always thought I’d like to take those last two weeks of the year–or a good two days, at least–and head off on a retreat, just me, myself, and I. (My husband laughs. He thinks I’m joking). The goal wouldn’t be to get spiritually centered, though that’s not a bad idea, but to get professionally focused by taking stock of the nearly 12 months behind me. What did I do right? What did I accomplish and of what did I feel most proud? How did I do financially? What could I have done better? Did I work smarter or harder (maybe both)? What did the answers to these questions tell me about how I could strategize for the coming year?^ In the absence of retreating, I do what most working parents do: keep changing the diaper, stirring the soup, and wiping a runny nose while thinking about these things in between preschooler questions like “Mom, what is a bullfrog?” and “Why is an egg called an egg?”.

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All things considered, 2013 was a pretty successful year. My friend Lisa Rogak reached out to me to work with her on the Pope book, and as of this writing, it has been (or is slated to be) published in 14 countries. I broke into some new outlets (Bespoke, Delta SKY, Emory Magazine, GOOD, Outside.com, Porthole, and Relish) and strengthened editorial relationships and my portfolio by expanding work with other outlets (The Latin Kitchen, National Geographic Traveler). I landed a contract to solo author a guidebook and I did just the right amount of traveling. I’d sold more of mine and Francisco’s work as a package. Editors reached out to me several times rather than the reverse, and I had a steady amount of editing work straight through December 31. I’d referred several friends to editors for work and some got into new outlets or landed choice assignments as a result, which always makes me happy. In the midst of it all, I managed to send one child off to pre-school (in NYC, this is far more complicated–and expensive–than you might think) and to give birth to another one (in other words: Mama’s got to keep the cash flow, flowing). And I won a Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award for an article I’d written. So yes, I was happy with the year, particularly since the last two weeks of 2013 signaled plenty of promise for the beginning of 2014, too. By the end of December, January’s work slate was full and several solid publications (another piece for Porthole, a feature and profile for The Magazine, a feature for Roads + Kingdoms, and articles for National Geographic Traveler and Saveur) were pending. And I was grateful.

That didn’t mean, however, that I didn’t see room for improvement. I was still spending too much of my life at the keyboard, when I wanted to be playing with my kids or having a meaningful conversation with my husband beyond, “Hey, could you pick up a package of diapers on your way home?” We were doing better financially, but not well enough to feel like we could move to a bigger apartment. I was still (at least in my mind) doing too many service pieces and not enough of the meaty, nuanced, and better-paying features I wanted to be doing. And I was still spending too much of my own money (though I had gotten much better about this) on research expenses. How could I better manage these aspects of the freelance life in 2014?

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I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that question definitively, but I started by making a list of the features I wanted to investigate and write in collaboration with Francisco, as well as the potential outlets where they could be a good fit. We’d had a few projects in mind for a long time, but hadn’t pursued them because the cost of doing so seemed a barrier or because I thought we didn’t yet have the portfolio to be able to pitch to the kind of outlets where these pieces could be published. The money was a reality; the portfolio excuse was just what recovering addicts would call “stinky thinking.” We clearly had a solid track record (and that’s why it’s so important to maintain a running list of your published work).

I got rid of the ineffective excuse, then, and started focusing on the money. I didn’t want to keep putting these projects off until some outlet came along, offering to pay expenses, and I didn’t want to bet possible future returns against research expenses accrued now… I’m not a good gambler. Then, a friend’s post about fellowships and grants for reporting popped into my inbox and the answer–so obvious it was embarrassing– was there. A lot of institutions have a lot of money for underreported stories. There’s a lot of competition, too, of course, but if Francisco and I could pull together proposal templates for a few of our top-pick projects, wasn’t it worth the possibility of having funding to spend some time filing applications? The process of doing so has been valuable in its own right, bringing the strengths and gaps of our ideas into sharper focus and helping us get structured and organized for future research and reporting. Soon enough, we’ll see whether the stories we think are important seem of significance to other people, too.

The lesson for you here is simple: Take a minute to take stock. What do you want out of 2014? What do you have to give? What have you been putting off pursuing in your writing or photography career… not because you’re not ready for it, but because you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that some barrier prevents you from realizing a particular goal? How can you kick that barrier out of the way? Who and what do you need to support you?

Don’t just answer these questions in your head, though that’s a fine place to start. Put them on paper. As with your publication goals and financial goals, which I also recommend writing down so you can see them visibly, physically map out some of those larger project goals and put them in a place where you can see them. Keep yourself focused and reach out for help when you need it. A year passes so quickly. What do you want to be able to say about your work at the end of 2014?

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For one excellent take on a freelance writer/photographer’s taking stock strategy, please see my friend Lola’s pie chart assessment of her pitching and querying from 2013. She has been tabulating the outcomes of her pitching processes since 2008 and her reflections are insightful.

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Backstory of my interview with Rafa Ortiz, published by Outside

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
So here’s how a lot of my work gets its start:

I read an article or a book or I see a photo, and I think: What’s the backstory? and What’s the story that hasn’t been told yet? and What’s missing here? What else do I want to know?

Then, I go off in search of the answer.

The photo that sent me on the search for Rafa Ortiz.

The photo that sent me on the search for Rafa Ortiz.

Last year, I saw a full-page photo of a kayaker launching himself over a crazy-looking waterfall. The photo, taken by Lucas Gilman, was captioned:

“To capture kayaker Rafa Ortiz, of Mexico City, paddling off Washington’s 189-foot Palouse Falls, Gilman set three cameras on tripods and triggered them remotely. ‘I didn’t want to shoot handheld because I was shaking too much,’ says the Denver-based photographer. ‘On 100-plus-foot waterfalls, it’s not like things go kind of bad.’ Ortiz fell nearly four fell seconds and was ejected from his kayak on impact. He walked away unhurt and hopes to paddle off Brazil’s Iguazu Falls in November.”

The caption would have been intriguing enough, but what really caught my interest, compelling me to rip the page out of the magazine and put it into my notebook, was the fact that Rafa Ortiz was a Mexican kayaker… from Mexico City. Mexico isn’t exactly known for having an active kayaking culture, and Mexico City definitely isn’t a place that’s amenable to getting your start as a kayaker.

I wanted to know more.

I suspected there was a whole lot more to tell an audience of American and Canadian readers about Ortiz, who’s gotten a good bit of ink in Mexico, but almost none outside his home country.

I started searching for Ortiz’s contact information and ended up connecting with him via Facebook. As I hit “Send Message,” I wasn’t particularly hopeful I’d ever hear from him. But within days, he’d written back and pretty soon, we’d set up a time to meet. It just so happened we’d both be in Mexico City in September (he travels quite a bit and isn’t home much), so we got together at a diner for an interview.

From the minute I sat down, Ortiz was the ideal interview subject: warm, totally candid, and without any sort of pretension or defensiveness. We spent a couple hours together, ate hamburgers, and then ended up taking a taxi together to Polanco when we were done.

Prior to the trip, I’d reached out to an editor at Outside’s online division to gauge his interest in running the interview. The editor and I had worked together elsewhere, and while that was certainly an “in,” it was by no means a full pass. He said he’d “potentially” be interested and to let him know how the interview turned out once I’d done it.

I knew that it had turned out well. In addition to having dozens of interesting anecdotes, there was an inherent narrative arc to what Rafa and I talked about. There was emotion. And there was the hook for editorial: Rafa was pissed at Outside, which had published the photo and that caption saying he was going to run Iguazu. The editor told me to send him up to 4,000 words.

I spent hours transcribing the interview, which clocked in at 13,000 words. It was agonizing to trim down to 4,000, though it was also a fascinating process. As I listened to the interview and read the transcript, I realized again how much Rafa had shared with me, and I had to be thoughtful and respectful about what not to share, especially since we hadn’t had any overt discussion about what was on and off the record. I also had to be sure that I was editing pieces I felt were important without losing the overall spirit and coherence of the interview.

I’m really pleased with and proud of the finished product, which was published today by Outside Online.

Backstory of my National Geographic Traveler “Best Places of 2013” Article

Text & Instagram Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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One of the things I love to do on this blog–and readers tend to love it, too–is tell you about the backstories of queries I’ve sent, research I’ve conducted for articles, work I’ve had published, and pieces that ended up never seeing the light of day.

I think you’ll find this one interesting since it’s an article for a publication so many people love:

National Geographic Traveler's Best of the World 2013 Issue

National Geographic Traveler’s Best of the World 2013 Issue

So how did I land an assignment for one of the 20 “best” places in the world issue, what was the editing process like, and what was the timeline of this piece from pitch to publication? Let’s take a look.

How did I land an assignment for one of the 20 “best” places in the world issue?
There are at least four factors that likely influenced the editors’ acceptance of my pitch. First, I had a previous byline with the magazine. My front-of-book article about boutique hotels in Mexico City had been published in the September 2011 issue, so the editors were more familiar with my work than a writer who was cold pitching them.

Second, I happened to be “on the list.” Though I’d worked with an editor on the previous assignment, another editor I’d met while traveling included me in an email that invited writers to submit ideas for the “Best Places of 2013” issue. I don’t know how many people were on the receiving end of that email, nor do I know if/how many other editors reached out to writers they’d worked with previously to issue similar invitations, but this direct invitation to submit an idea for the “best” issue definitely gave me a leg up. The take-away: it’s important to get away from your desk, meet colleagues regularly, and establish relationships with them. Schedule those meet-ups if you have to.

Third, I offered two options in my pitch. This isn’t something I normally do; I rarely send editors more than one idea/pitch in an email (in fact, I can’t remember any other instance where I’ve done that this year). But after having taken a look at the 2012 “best” picks, I saw a good mix of domestic US and international destinations, and I wanted to offer a possibility for each category.

Fourth, I nailed the “Why now?” question. Editors almost always ask “Why now?” when they review queries and pitches: Why is your story relevant right now? This question is even more pressing for National Geographic Traveler’s “Best Places” list; why is 2013 the year to visit these 20 destinations? I made sure I anticipated that question and addressed it in my pitch.

What was the editing process like?
I am rarely anxious, but I was riddled with worry once I attached the first draft of my article to an email and hit “Send.” Even when you’ve gotten the green light to write a story, there are plenty of reasons why it might never make it to the printed page. I really, really wanted this story to make it.

The first draft was bounced back to me with this feedback: “In general, this totally works as a front of book service piece–it’s got the detail, reporting, and timeliness–but I’m looking for a little more celebratory tone for these Best of the World pieces. Also I’d love it if a little more of your ‘voice’ and personality came through.”

Cue the second wave of anxiety. Could I pull off what the editor was asking… and in just 400 words? Thankfully, I did, and then the piece went into the hands of Nat Geo Traveler’s fact-checking researchers.

What was the timeline of this piece from pitch to publication?
I received the email inviting me to submit a pitch in mid-March.

I submitted my pitch at the end of March.

I received a response from the editor, with her acceptance and the assignment specs, in early May.

The deadline was just four weeks later.

I received the editor’s request for revisions in late June and had the revised piece in by mid-July.

The article appears in the December-January issue.

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Do you find the “backstory” posts helpful? What else would you like to know about the pitch to publication process? Feel free to ask your questions in the comments section below.

The long-tail of the writer’s pitch

and

Double click on the graphics to see actual size versions of my submissions log.

I mentioned before that I don’t think writers keeping secrets is particularly useful (in fact, I think it’s bad for your karma account, but more on that in a future musing).

I’m committed to a radical transparency not only with respect to what I write, but also how I go about it… or, as we like to say in our high-falutin’ moments of erudition:  our “process.”

So that’s why I’ve decided to share a completely unedited version of my current submission log, a document most writers protect with the quiet but unmistakable and unmatchable fierceness of a guard dog.
The purpose of doing this is straightforward: to show just how much work goes into selling a single story about a single experience.

Last summer, while working on the Fodor’s guide to Puerto Rico, I traveled the full length of the Ruta Panoramica (Panoramic Route), a rather undertouristed part of an island that’s become, regrettably, transfixed with chains and resorts.  There’s a lot to write about the Ruta, and I could easily write five different articles about it.

Until I finished my work with Fodor’s I was under contract not to write about it elsewhere, and so I’ve been saving up the story, as it were, until this month.

So here I am, almost eight months after my on the ground research, pitching articles about the Ruta to publications I believe would be a good fit.  As you can see from my log, I’ve pitched several different publications. (The angle would be different depending on the publication).

It’s not uncommon for a year or longer to pass between a writer’s travels and a published piece based on pitches sent to editors about a particular trip or place.  Who knows how long it will take to sell a piece?

Stay tuned for the answer to that question.
What else can you learn from my submission log? What questions do you have about it? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments.

*I hope it goes without saying that you should not simply email these editors without performing your own due diligence about the publication and current contact information for the editor. I know for a fact that at least two of these editorial contacts are no longer valid.

Do you really want to write for the Times?

One of the questions we ask students early in the U’s curriculum is: Where would you like to see yourself published?

I’m going to put two blanks here and see if you can fill them in:

___________ ____________ *

and

_______  _________ ________ ____________. **

Did you get them right?

*

There are few, if any, writers who don’t want to see their name in print, preferably on the pages of a publication with a multiple digit circulation rate, death-throes-of-the-publishing-industry cries be damned.

But I’m curious whether some people like the idea of being in these two publications for the name recognition or whether, having carefully studied the style and voice of these two (very different) platforms, they honestly think their writing and these publications are a good fit.

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I read the Times travel section every Sunday and wonder if its pieces have always been so trite, dependent on cliches. Clearly, there’s still an audience for the kind of travel writing that’s characterized by words and phrases like “paradise,” “oasis,” and “hidden gem,”  but the question is: Are you the kind of writer who wants to use those tired, too easy descriptions?

If the answer is no, it’s time to get true to your own voice and style and to start reading publications that feature the kind of writing you’d be proud to be publish your words alongside.

Matador’s senior editor, David Miller, offers some recommendations about some of those kinds of publications in this article: “11 Magazines, Journals, and Blogs Every Travel Writer Should Know About.”

*=National Geographic

**= The New York Times