Thursday, February 28, 2008

Finding the Right Fit

And I'm not talking about jeans (although I'd love to find a pair that doesn't leave a gap of space at my waist or hug my thighs like a chinese finger trap). I mean the right writing fit. The "write" fit.

What I'm discovering - and I don't know why it took me this long for it to sink in - is that people aren't just looking for a good writer. They're looking for a good writer who's also an expert in the field. This seems to be the trend. When I look at Hartford Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, Oprah, even freelance articles in the newspaper...the author bios will note a book the writer's written on the topic, or other related professional credentials. In fact, this month's editor's note in Ct Mag included:

"Everyone who lives in Connecticut is an expert. Not in all things, of course, but perhaps in several or even just one. You may not be well versed in French cuisine, but no one knows Chinese better than you do. You may not know a thing about the eastern half of the state, but you know the towns of Litchfield County like the back of your of the pleasures of working at a magazine like this one is coming into contact with various sorts of experts, and getting some of them to become part of our writing family."

Right out of the editor's mouth. It seems that nowadays (and maybe before), editors are interested in expertise first, writing skills second. The way I used to write was this: 1. find a topic the publication wanted that was of general interest to me. 2. pitch an article. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but now I see that I'm more likely to catch an editor's eye if I pitch topics related to my expertise and experience. It seems that "write what you know" is as much about credentials & credibility as it is about comfort level. This became even more clear to me after my meeting with Literacy Volunteers about their newsletter.

On Tuesday I went to discuss the newsletter for the first time. I met up with Jan, the epitome of a non-profit employee from the tips of her short blond hair down to her practical flat shoes: she was kind, unassuming, and maybe even more passionate than I am about helping immigrants learn to speak English and integrate.

When she told me a story about Luis, a man from Mexico who found a wallet on the street but didn't know enough English to find its owner, I felt for him. I empathized in a way I wouldn't have if I hadn't experienced it myself while living abroad in Austria. I shared Jan's desire to reward him for finding a way to return the wallet, when it would have been much easier for him just to leave the wallet alone.

The idea for the article I'm going to write about Luis for their newsletter came from my personal interest. In other words, if I had said, 'Oh! Literacy Volunteers. They have a newsletter. Maybe they'd like an article about immigrants because it's a hot topic and related to their business,' and then pitched a story without the personal experiences I'd had, I probably wouldn't have heard back.

The same goes for this blog. I can think of about two other topics I'm involved in and have enough passion for that I'd want to write about them every day - that I'd get so excited about I would write posts in my head during my free moments on the way to Town Cleaners and Shaw's and the train station, and then miss the driveway into the parking lot three times because I was so distracted. It makes sense to start with those topics.

Of course, I realize that professional writers can't always write about what they'd like. But I do believe it's easier to break into publications by writing about topics that you know and love, and that you've got experience and credentials in. That just makes sense.

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