September 27th, 2005

me 2011

Freelancing advice from Barry Brown

Went to a Learning Annex seminar on Magazine Writing last night with Chris. The seminar was given by Barry Brown, whom probably none of you have heard of (I hadn't)--but he's been writing news and feature stories for 20 years, had them published all over the place, from The New York Times to Newsweek, and was nominated for a Pulitzer a while back. So he's got a lot of experience under his belt, and he tells it well. Very articulate and charismatic guy, which I suppose is the secret to his success. Naturally, I took notes, and I figured those of you considering/already writing articles for newspapers and/or magazines might find them useful.

-A good article entertains and informs the reader, without telling them how they should think about the subject. Therefore:
     -Develop a unique voice for your writing, with attitude and wit.
     -Add colour and flavour to your articles by giving details of atmosphere and setting; pick out quirky or meaningful details and amplify them.
     -Tell a good story. Write articles as if they were short stories containing lots of facts.
     -Get the readers's attention right away and lead them through the article, paragraph by paragraph, to the end.
     -Remember your WHs: What, Where, When, Who, and Why.
     -Be fair. Approach your subject and gather information with an open mind. Be thorough, finding out everything you can. Get confirmation on any facts you're unsure of. Write with no agenda other than to be honest. Let the readers make up their own minds.

-Don't write until you've found a good story and you know what your hook is. Therefore:
     -Seek out "Hey Martha" stories, that is, the kind of story that you'd have to tell your friends about after you heard it ("Hey Martha, did you hear...").
     -Make sure there is at least one fact or idea in your story that the average reader wouldn't already know, but would find interesting.
     -That fact or idea is your hook. Use it in the first sentence of your story. Then start answering the WHs.
     -People love to hear about other people. Always include a human element.

-Listen more than you talk. Therefore:
     -Talk to people with the intent to find out all they have to say, not just to get the answers to a few specific questions. Make most of your questions open-ended. Listen to them, and think about what they say. You may discover angles on the story or information that had never occurred to you.
     -Enter situations with your eyes open. Take in your surroundings, notice the details.
     -Encourage people to talk to you even when you're not looking for a specific story. You may find a new story, or make a contact, or gain perspective.

-Pitch concisely and confidently. Therefore:
     -Be sure you know exactly what your hook is.
     -Keep it short and clear. Pitch the hook, without rambling about any other part of the story.
     -Use a polite, calm, and professional voice, and always treat the editor with respect.

-He recommended calling editors up to pitch a story, rather than writing a query letter, but acknowledged that his approach worked better for newspapers than magazines.

Certainly got me thinking!