I attend the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference nearly every May. This year, the keynote speaker was Dan Jones. (Who?) Well, have you ever read the Modern Love column of The New York Times? (Of course you have!) Jones is the editor of that column.
Hearing from the editor who (almost) always says “No”
Modern Love receives about 100 essay submissions every week. Jones can only choose one each week, so the numbers aren’t on your side. For many writers, having an essay published there is a crowning achievement.
The ASJA audience was very interested in what Jones had to say, especially since he had rejected the majority of us (including me). He offered not only submission tips but also writing tips.
If you are looking to improve your writing – whether you write essays, web content or e-books – Dan Jones has some great advice for you.
Create the headline first, not last
Coming up with creative headlines can be a challenge. But headlines matter. It’s no longer good enough to say, “Eh, not in my skill set.”
Headlines make people click – and they also might help you sell your piece to an editor. Jones said a good headline can sway him. Previously, the copy desk would choose the headline. But now, he writes them, which is a LOT of pressure. If a writer has crafted a great headline, he notices.
With the last essay I submitted to Modern Love (fingers crossed!), I wrote the headline first. While it felt a bit forced at first, it actually helped me stay focused.
Try starting your blog posts with the headline. (Like I did with this blog post!) I’m holding myself accountable to work on my headline skills, and I challenge other writers to do the same.
Avoid stock phrases
These gems include, “I’ll always remember,” “My heart melted,” “I’ll never be the same again,” “Fast-forward 10 years,” and “There I was, curled up in the fetal position.”
“Avoid them,” Jones said, “like the plague.” The audience laughed at his cliché, but it was mostly nervous laughter. We were all doing mental scans through our body of work, trying to remember if we had used these phrases. (We had.)
Even good writers use clichés. But we don’t have to. We use them as shortcuts. Let’s face it: Writing is exhausting! Sometimes I think I can sneak in a cliché and no one will notice. Bottom line: Editors notice. So will your audience. (For more on this, read my Aha Media colleague Laura Bloom’s piece about avoiding crutch words.)
Be more patient with writing
“You have to write badly to write well,” Jones said. He wasn’t talking about writing badly as a stage in one’s career. He meant every time you sit down to write.
You have to be patient with the bad writing and keep pushing forward. “Writer’s block isn’t about not having anything to say. It’s about being impatient in figuring out what you want to say,” he said. That’s a good reminder. So much of what writers do involves sticking around long enough to make it better, instead of giving up when it stinks.
That’s also true for organizations trying to create engaging blogs. If the blog doesn’t immediately take off, don’t get frustrated and turn to some other channel. Stick with it, invest in good writing – and be patient.
Rejection is part of the deal
This last tip is my own: Rejection is part of the contract you sign with creativity when you decide to put writing into the world. Dan Jones is doing an amazing job of making sure I uphold my contract!
For all my fellow writers stinging from rejections, I say this: Keep re-signing that contract. Curl into the fetal position if you must! (But maybe don’t include that bit in your essay.)
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