The professional endures adversity. He lets the bullshit splash down his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot be buried, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.
– The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
If you ever write for someone else, go into every gig assuming your editor is going to be demanding, relentless, and uncompromising. He or she might be an outright jerk.
But you can take it, right?
As an editor, most of the feedback I get from people who write for me is positive. More than once I’ve been called “The nicest travel writer I know.” At least by people who haven’t met Don George yet, that is.
Two or three times a year though, I’ll get an e-mail from some writer starting with, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” The writer then calls me a meanie and says I should be more kind in my e-mails. I’ve hurt their feelings, made them feel unappreciated, and they’re miffed enough to tell me it’s been bothering them.
I play along and say I’ll keep that in mind, but really if I went back in time my e-mail would be exactly the same.
Positive Feedback is Not Their Job
You should probably get used to that. If you get a “nice job” message, frame it. Some publications I’ve contributed to for years and there hasn’t been a single piece of positive feedback. But why should there be? They paid to purchase a service and I delivered that service. The positive feedback is that they keep hiring me. Should you tell the lawn care guy every week what an awesome frickin’ job he did edging the grass along your sidewalk? Let him go win “Lawn Care Professional of the Year” if he needs that kind of ego-boosting.
Editors are busy and the last thing they’re thinking about is whether they’re making you feel good about yourself. Granted, there are exceptions. If there’s a writer I feel like I can take from good to mind-blowingly great with just a little targeted encouragement, I’ll take the time to put my criticism between two tasty buns in order to make a nice sandwich. If I’m leading a workshop I’ve been paid to lead or someone has covered my expenses for a conference, it’s my job to be Mr. Positive for three days instead of Mr. Tough Love. If you’re a real staff member instead of a freelancer, “staff development and coaching” is indeed in that manager’s job description.
But if you’re a freelancer or independent blogger selling me your content? Sorry, no. That’s a transaction. Service rendered, fee paid. Next!
I’m telling you all this not to rationalize my gruff e-mail exterior, but to point out an important reality: I’m the norm, not the exception.
I’m a freelancer too and for 20+ years, I’ve been on the receiving end of that correspondence. First in letter form then in faster but even less civil electronic form. Even when editors didn’t have social media, the internet, e-mail, or constantly buzzing smart phones, they were crazy busy. I once visited one in an office in New York and watched in awe as she talked on the phone, wrote notes on documents in her in-box, interviewed me, and chewed out her assistant for double-booking her at 5:00. All while stuffing things in her briefcase to take home that night. I can only imagine how frazzled she would be now, aided by technology.
I can easily point to my favorite editor of all time, one of the first one who hired me for multiple assignments. He was warm, charming, witty, and encouraging, no matter what. The thing is, eventually he got laid off after a buyout and it took him more than five years to find another full-time job. Meanwhile, every jerk editor I’ve ever worked with has gone on a path of getting bigger and better jobs each transition. Sorry to say, the correlation between writer coddling and career trajectory is probably an inverse one.
How an Editor Processes 250 E-mails a Day
You see, almost anyone you can point to as successful in any field has become that way by prioritizing their time and getting the maximum amount of work done with the minimum amount of time required. Nearly all top-level entrepreneurs and executives view their e-mail box as something to process, deal with, and whittle down. Short and effective moves the business forward. Chit-chatty and meandering is for amateurs and starving artists.
So call me a jerk, call me insensitive, and deride me for not being more of a people person online. Hopefully someday we’ll hang out together in person and I’ll change your mind. But if you miss your deadline, the e-mail from me will be very short and to the point. If you do that twice it might even sound downright mean.
If you do everything you’re supposed to do, on time, that’s called “fulfilling your commitment” and usually doesn’t deserve an emotional pat on the back. Call me up and ask how you’re doing if you want honest feedback. Or go enter your stories in writing contests and win some awards. Don’t just wait for praise from the people paying you and get miffed if it doesn’t appear. If you believe in your art and you know you’re good at it, you don’t need their opinion anyway.
When you think of your editor, picture Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, or the old model in my music biz days: Clive Davis. If you go in with the assumption you’ll get grudging respect for a job well done and unfiltered (but valid) criticism when you screw up, it’ll be all upside and no downside. You’ll forge onward and grow your back account. Meanwhile the fragile amateurs will spend more and more time on Facebook and Instagram, getting their required injection of daily affirmations and encouragement.
If you receive an e-mail that’s all criticism and no praise, take what’s valid and ignore what’s not. Reply with one word back—maybe “Thanks” or “OK”—and get back to creating great work.
It’s not easy making a comfortable living as a full-time travel writer or blogger, so the Travel Writing 2.0 book and blog are all about helping you increase your income. If you subscribe to the Travel Writing Success newslettter, you’re getting more good nuggets direct from me each month.
Income is only half the equation when it comes to your finances though. The other side of the accounting ledger is what goes out each month—your expenses. Naturally if you can keep your income roughly the same but cut your expenses in half, you’ve substantially increased your monthly disposable income. Instead of it all going into rent, utilities, car expenses, and health care, you can actually save some money and get ahead.
My newest book, A Better Life for Half the Price, is for anyone who wants to cut loose instead of cutting back, who wants to live life to the fullest each week instead of stressing about money. It’s the creative types who work online that can really benefit the most though from a change of address. Our life of working for ourselves and having personal freedom can mean great benefits but also great uncertainty in terms of the monthly income flow. By cutting your expenses in half or more (without having to cut back on the things you enjoy), you can eliminate much of the danger, the risk, the fragility of being self-employed.
I only moved across one national border, to Mexico, and immediately my family’s expenses dropped by more than half. Businesses talk a lot about “run rate” and though my business expenses didn’t change much, my personal ones—which are larger anyway—plummeted. On top of that, we can enjoy life more here. We go out to eat more, we don’t have to think twice about going to the symphony ($6), grabbing lunch at a typical restaurant ($3-$4), going to a concert ($4), or buying a fresh-squeezed juice ($1).
If you make $52,000 in the USA, you’re at the median income level. If you make that amount and you’re living in Mexico, you’re upper middle class. If you earn that and you’re living in India, Nepal, Cambodia, or Nicaragua, you are stinking filthy rich. You’d be a 2-percenter, one of the elites.
I did a blog post on what it costs me living in Guanajuato where you can see more, like utility bills. The thing is, there are plenty of other cheap countries around the world where you can do the same job you’re doing now. By living abroad though, you can keep a lot more of what you’re earning instead of watching it go right back out of your checking account. Some of them are a good bit cheaper than Mexico. You could probably live for 1/4 of what you do now in some spots I highlight in the book. If you’re currently in New York City, London, or Sydney, make it 1/5.
How would your life change if your monthly bills dropped in half? Would you feel less stress? Enjoy the job more? Be able to be more picky about which projects you take on? Finally finish that unfinished book or big project? Could you afford a virtual assistant and free up some of your time?
Invest an hour’s wages in the e-book or paperback and start exploring here: A Better Life for Half the Price.
Or, if you’re just a little intrigued and want to learn more, get on the Cheap Living Abroad monthly e-mail list and download the free report “14 countries where you can stay 4 months or more on a tourist visa.”
Following the old fiction writing adage of “show, don’t tell,” here’s an actual query I received recently as editor of Perceptive Travel.
” Dear editor, attached is a story of my visit to New Orleans Mardi Gras with my wife Barbara that you might be interested in using in your magazine.”
Firstname Lastname (withheld)
I’m starting with this one because there are an amazing number of problems in this one-sentence e-mail that’s short enough to put on Twitter. First, it breaks several general rules:
1) Didn’t bother to look up the editor’s name, which is all over the site.
2) Didn’t bother to read the guidelines, which are linked from the contact page.
3) Attached an unsolicited finished story, which is generally only common practice for newspapers.
For specifics, I don’t know any editor that appreciates queries sent in bulk at the same time, which this certainly was. I also don’t know any editor who thinks a generic travel story with no new angle to it is a good match for them. There’s no reference to past stories in our online publication, why this would work for us, or any sense that the person has actually ever read Perceptive Travel at all. He didn’t include any information about his track record in publishing articles and there’s no link to a portfolio site.
And why in the world would I care what his wife’s name is unless she’s a celebrity?
So I did what I’m sure 100% of the other people who received this did: hit delete.
If you’re a blogger or freelance writer, you’re likely deluged with press releases and poorly targeted news pitches on a daily basis. How does that make you feel? Do you have less respect for that PR person or company next time you see an e-mail from them? Do you maybe even cringe a little?
Well if you send out a query or finished story in bulk to editors—who already get 4X more e-mails than you do—you can expect them to feel the same way about you. Angry, annoyed, grumpy, incredulous even. If you want them to get back to you, or at least think you’re a professional, you’ve just killed your chances. Maybe permanently: a lot of editors have a “block” or “filter” command on their e-mail program that they use with abandon. Your three follow-ups may not even get to their inbox and you’ll have to guess why.
I have met a few writers over the years who swear by the multiple submissions strategy, of sending out the same idea to a bunch of editors and see who bites. In general I think this is a terrible idea. It’s the same principle behind pop-up subscription boxes, junk mail, and telemarketing: bug a lot of people in order to find a small percentage who will say yes. But if you’re going to do it, at least take the extra five minutes per e-mail to put in their name and say a little something about why this story would be right for them.
Much better is to take 10-15 minutes and write a really good query, which is really a custom sales pitch. You need to pitch the idea in a way that answers an editor’s essential questions. These are:
The unspoken question for magazines also is, “Where would this go?” In other words, tell her which section and why. (If you’ve never written for them, you are not going to be assigned a big major feature, so don’t even go there.)
In order to send a customized query, you need to know who you’re pitching to. You don’t want to pitch a British publication on a listicle for “best vacations 2015″ and put in resort areas on the west coast of Mexico and Costa Rica. It should be about “best holidays 2015″ and focus on places you can reach easily from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Manchester. With your spell check configured to accept centre, colour, and traveller.
I just got guidelines for a website I’m going to start writing for that is aimed at men 20-40 and wants articles to be full of pop culture references, jokes, and slang. I write for others that adhere strictly to AP style and want a serious, authoritative tone. The pitches I would send to these two publications should be different in almost every way.
You are only going to know how to pitch an editor by knowing what that publication is all about. If it’s a magazine, study at least two recent issues. If it’s online, poke through every section in their navigation bar. Pay close attention to the language in the “About Us” section. If they have writers’ guidelines, study them closely and follow them to the letter. If they don’t show them online, e-mail or call someone and request them. Usually the “Advertise with us” part is useful too as that shows who their ideal readers are and what they think sets them apart.
If you’re willing to part with a little money to save time, there are services out there that can tell you who gets queries and what they want to see. See our travel writing resources section for some of them.
If I’ve met you at a conference or on a press trip, great. You’ve already got an in. Amazingly though, most writers are too lazy to follow up on this. I’ve handed an opportunity to some on a silver platter and haven’t heard from them since. The ones that did follow up, if I liked their work, have frequently become part of my team at one of the Al Centro Media sites. If you’re fortunate enough to meet an editor who is a good match for what you can write, put that follow-up at the top of your priority list.
But if I don’t know you, we’re back to that sales job again. You need to convince me you’re a great writer with a real track record. That means having a good portfolio site at the very least. (If you keep putting that off, go right now and set up one at Contently.) The “Why you?” question is a huge one with most editors. Some get hundreds of queries a day and it’s easy to ignore the ones from people they’ve never met because they’ve met a lot of writers, especially if they’re in NYC or London. I think this is so important that it’s what I lead with in a query: I put my credentials in the first sentence so they’ll know I’m an experienced professional.
If you’re not very experienced, then stop trying to pitch stories about places you’ve never visited just because you want to go there. Pitch stories where you’re the obvious expert. That means places and subjects you know inside-out, like where you live or what you’ve already researched and written about extensively. Own and embrace your niche instead of trying to be a grand generalist.
Last, most editors don’t want retreads. They want what’s new, fresh, unique, unusual. Ask 10 editors what kind of query is their ideal one and one of those words will almost certainly be in their answer. Besides those hundreds of queries they receive regularly, at big publications they’re also having regular editorial staff meetings where they’re tossing around ideas. So if you’re pitching something obvious, they’ve seen it and heard it over and over already. Unless you’re trying to fill a spot for a regularly scheduled column (“A Weekend in ____”, “The 5 Best Restaurants in ____”), give them something they haven’t heard already and you will get a much warmer reception.