You Want to be Published? Be Careful What You Wish For.
I regret to inform you that I cannot get you a job writing for Entrepreneur. More than a few of you have written to me praised my work and proceeded to tell me what a great writer you would be and how much you would love to write for Entrepreneur (the implication being that they think as much as they enjoy my work, they can do better). It’s not that it’s not flattering; it’s not—you’re like the pretty girl for whom I do your home work while you string me along and then tell me that you just want to be friends because you’re really interested in dating my best friend. For the record, I have ENOUGH friends, and the best I can do is put you on a waitlist until one of my existing friends dies, steals from me, or in some other way bails out of the relationship.
I won’t be pitching your work to my editors, in part because it’s absurd for you to think that just because you like my work that I would vouch for you. I don’t know you. You probably aren’t a talentless hack or a serial killer (if you are I’m not judging) but, seriously, are you soft in the head? I am an unpaid contributor with so little clout that when I asked for more compensation my editor offered to triple my wage and I cheerfully accepted.
I work for free. Ironically for a magazine called Entrepreneur. I mean seriously the first rule of being a successful Entrepreneur should be to not do things for free. So why do I do it? Well for starters I enjoy it, and the real first rule of being a SUCCESSFUL entrepreneur is to do something you enjoy. I have always enjoyed writing, particularly essays, usually based on my life experience. Between my unreliable memory, penchant for improbably streaks of both good and bad luck, and tendency to embellish, I live in a perpetual state of surreality.
So how do I find myself writing for Entrepreneur (and by extension, how can you ascend to the pantheon to which I belong)? I started writing for a small-town weekly newspaper in 1984 where I learned deadlines, editorial style and, more important than anything else, I developed a thick skin about my writing. At six bucks a story I soon realized two things: first, the whole Clark Kent financing Superman story was stone bull crap (personally I think Superman was probably stealing because Clark Kent lived way above his means) and, second, I was never going to make even a subsistence living writing as a reporter.
One day I submitted a story to my editor that would forever change the trajectory of my writing “career”. The story was an obituary for Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame. It was a straight up account of how Alvin, long estranged from the rest of the band, was found dead of a heroin overdose (it doesn’t take a lot to kill a chipmunk). I quoted Rocky Squirrel and Simon and Theodore who detailed Alvin’s sad and steady descent from stardom.
That, coupled with the many sexually explicit fan letters from dead celebrities that I wrote and literally mailed to myself, got me called into the office of my editor, Ferlin Cosgriff, (an exemplary editor and true friend) who offered me a weekly humor column. We both understood that, in deference to the delicate sensibilities of a dozen or so farm communities only 150 years or so out of caves, I would have to reel in the Salvador Dali meets Dashell Hammet meets Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters stream of consciousness style with which I turn a phrase. Even so, I was forever getting vitriol from people I offended. People, it turns out get agitated and nervous over the dumbest stuff, and they aren’t afraid to complain about it.
As years went on I prostituted my writing doing business communication (advertising, brochures, press releases, etc.) until I eventually settled into a career as an organization development consultant, trainer and, ultimately, worker safety impresario. I felt my ability to write well slipping away. I found my writing skills getting staid and stale, so I started writing for safety trade magazines. About that time I was forced by an employer to start a blog which I had long resisted because I saw them as self-indulgent crap for those not talented enough to get published (“I am so a good writer”) and I’m not sure I softened too much on that stance. After I’d been blogging for close to 10 years and was sick of writing about safety so I pitched some story ideas to an editor (you’ll notice I didn’t say “contributor”) and she invited me to contribute stories to Entrepreneur.
So if you want to get into print:
Contact an associate editor and ask what the submission requirements are.
The publisher and most editors are generally too busy to read (let alone respond to) emails from earnest writers looking to submit work. Associate editors have been there and are often the ones who are responsible for finding new content.
Expect rejection, unless you're entirel ignored.
Perhaps you read my work and think, “if this idiot can do it, how hard can it be?” I have written to hundreds of editors, associate editors and Penthouse Forum (or as I like to call it “stuff that will never happen to me”) and generally speaking I have been ignored the vast majority of the time. This isn’t an insult, there are dozens of reasons why your piece may not be acceptable ranging from similar articles recently printed by the magazine to (despite your mothers assurances that you are a special ray of sunshine) your writing reads like it was written by a C+ seventh grade creative writing student.\
By the way, that is not yet another cheap shot at millenials. I have read my fair share of writing penned by bored middle aged stay-at-home moms or dads. Curse you, JK Rawlings, for giving talentless boobs hope that they too can be stay at home writers. I encourage aging baby boomers itching to finally get into writing even though the dross they produce is clichéd dribble to go for it.
Ask for feedback.
Circulate your writing to people you respect, but be prepared for them to tell you when your work is dopey, sloppy, or just plain bad. As I have said before for every misunderstood genius there are 100 perfectly understood imbeciles. Consider that your work may not be “ahead of it’s time” or “too hip for the room” and that the reason for rejection is that you don’t write well. I get asked for feedback a lot, and I will tell you right now that if you send people more than a couple of paragraphs it won’t get read. I also hate to tell people when their writing is bad so if I’m slow getting back to you it’s probably bad news.
Read talented writers. If you enjoy a particular author’s style read as much of his or her work you can get your hands on. Read authors that you think are hacks and dissect their work to determine why you dislike the work so you can avoid these elements.
Nothing strengthens your writing skills like writing. Hunter S. Thompson claimed that he would type pages of Hemingway or Steinbeck before writing his articles, this simple exercise really works to teach you syntax and flow. Surprisingly, it doesn’t cause you to mimic other authors’ styles but it sharpens your craft and helps you to develop your own voice. Even if you don’t ever submit your work for publication the act of writing itself will make you a better writer just as practicing the piano will make you a better pianist.
Write about what you know.
Apart from being an opinionated narcissist, I know about the subjects that I address in my articles. I have 25 years training supervisors and managers, I have coached the C-suite, and I have developed worker safety systems for a host of companies. It isn't be sexy, but it’s what I know. I know a woman who wrote a murder mystery set in New Orleans, despite never had been to the Big Easy, never worked as a detective and, as near as I can figure, has never murdered anything more than a hackneyed work of fiction. She’s considering self-publishing; God help us all.