Sending an editor an article you shouldn’t send an editor (Mistake #31)

Namely, one of these:

* The Origins of Halloween / Valentine’s Day / Guy Fawkes’ etc;
* The History of Tea / Coffee;
* My Intelligent Dog (and why he is the best);
* My Dead Cat (and why he was hilarious);
* Why I’ve Decided to Become a Writer;
* My Interesting Family Tree;
* My First Caravan;
* My Trip to Sainsbury’s;
* The Funny Things My Uncle Bill Does;
* My Birth Story.

Before I’d properly thought it through, this mistake was going to be entitled ‘Writing an article you should never write’ – until it was rightly pointed out to me by fellow tutor Simon Whaley that, actually, it can be useful to write some stuff. Rolling with that wise notion – you could argue that it’s useful to write any stuff. I remember interviewing a journalist once who told me nothing she ever writes goes to waste – it all inspires other ideas, or comes in handy years down the line. And, besides, banning writing or censoring yourself is not what this blog is about.

So. Here is Simon on articles on the death of a pet:

“They are too personal. I know how close you get to pets – when one dies it can be difficult to come to terms with. Sometimes it is best to write the article purely to help with the grieving process, but a writer should understand that this is what they are doing – grieving. Write it, then put it aside and write something else. There is a (very) small market for these personal pieces, but the editors are deluged, so the chances of publication are small.”

Writing about why you have decided to write can be useful too. It can help crystallise what your motivation and goals are; what precisely you are trying to achieve, and how you might achieve it. But then sending it to the editor – say, of a writing magazine? He’ll have seen it all before. I’ve been a regular reader of Writing Magazine, Writer’s Forum and FMN for some years and I can’t remember ever seeing such an article. You may see well-known authors explaining why they started, but these are made-it writers, not trying-to-make-it writers. There are thousands in the latter position. This isn’t meant to sound harsh, but what makes your reasons so special? If you’ve taken up writing in order to make money to pay for your loved one’s life-saving operation – then, yes, you may well have a story (for a woman’s real-life weekly). If you’ve merely “wanted to do it since I was a child” (fair enough), then I’m afraid you don’t.

I would say something needs to be special for a ‘My Birth Story’ too. Some parenting magazines do feature these, so the market is there. But with 800,000 births in the UK every year, you might need something distinctive in order to stand out from the crowd.

Everything can inspire saleable ideas, though. Here’s Simon again on personal articles about your pets: “I tell students to rewrite the article giving advice to other owners, using their pet anecdote as a means of illustrating the advice they are giving. But, the anecdote should make up 20% of the point – it is not the point in itself!”

That’s the thing: you do need to give your reader something. Readers of cat or dog magazines are more interested in reading about their pets than your pets. Address the reader, engage them, forge a connection with them – talk to them about them. A party-goer meeting someone who only talks about himself has to nod a lot and try not to let his eyes glaze over. A reader reading someone who only writes about himself can just turn the page.

Should you always write with a reader in mind? If you’re writing to a brief or to submit speculatively – then of course. But if not, then no. Provided you can see it for what it is, perhaps through more critical eyes in a few days’ time, and can then analyse your work and maybe try to tease out of it an idea for publication, then great.

Perhaps my advice, then, should be to get writing all the unpublishable stuff out of your system? If ‘My Clever Cat’ does relieve that urge, does scratch an itch, does give you something to show your wife, or even to your cat (if he’s so clever he can probably read it and critique it better than me) – then fine. And is there an idea there waiting to be teased out? Sure. “How to Determine Your Cat’s Intelligence” or “How to Boost Your Moggy’s Brainpower”.

One reservation. If you’re writing this material because of general impatience to think of and develop original ideas (“Bah, don’t know what to write about… Oh I know! My trip to the supermarket…That’ll do…”), or a reluctance to put work into researching facts and figures, or a fear of interviewing strangers – then it’s a problem you need to conquer at some stage, and it may as well be now.

You can’t write from your head for very long in non-fiction…

(Thanks to Simon Whaley, Lorraine Mace, Sue Wilkes, Penny Legg, Nicola Lisle and Susan Stephenson for their input.)

Comments 5

  • Made me laugh Alex, 'cos I've pitched – and sold – features on all 3 in your first "don't do it", more than once 🙂

    I agree with the others though, but there could be an interesting angle if a writer gets deeper in to the subject don't you think?

  • Of course, if you can write an article about how your intelligent dog's dead cat went on its first shopping trip in your first caravan whilst simultaneously researching your family tree in order to ascertain the true origins of Halloween, then Take a Break may be interested 🙂

  • Sarah – thrilled! Both that you got some good sales, and that someone's proving me wrong. I need to have my own battery of mistakes pointed out to me… More please!

    Simon – I think you should write that and submit speculatively. At once.

  • Oh ignore me, Puteh. As Sarah says above, dig a bit deeper and there's often a saleable idea potentially lurking.

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