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How Do You Advance as a Writer?

by David Miller Oct 8, 2009
Matador’s editors respond to a student’s question.

One of the students enrolled in Matador U posted this question in the student forum:

What does it take to elevate yourself in the world of writing? What does it take to become an editor or to get noticed to write a guide/book?

Several Matador editors share advice based on their own experiences:

Julie Schwietert Collazo, Managing Editor; Matador Change & Matador Pulse Editor:

First, ask yourself if you *really* want to be an editor or if you *really* want to write a guidebook.

Lots of newer writers look to editorial positions and guidebook contracts as the pinnacle of professional travel writing. Both do have their perks, but you need to ask yourself some important questions. With respect to editorial positions: do you really want to be an editor? An editorial position typically involves very little writing (Matador’s somewhat of an exception, as are some other online travel publications) and lots of time spent in the slush pile, eyes rolling after you’ve read the word “paradise” for the umpteenth time. There are other tasks, too, but the bottom line is this: the job of an editor is very different from that of a writer.

With respect to guidebook writing, you have to consider whether you really know a place deeply and whether you have the skills not just to write concisely about that place given a very rigid template, but whether you have time and money management skills, too. As you progress through the Matador U course, you’ll come across a chapter that’s specifically about guidebook gigs.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to take the time to become a good writer. Don’t rush to rise to the top because if you’re not ready to be there, you’ll have a much more difficult time getting back there later in your career.

Lola Akinmade, Matador Goods, Editor:

By leveraging other skill sets such as social networking and marketing skills, and being proactive about your work, you might catch a few eyes.

Carlo Alcos, Matador Trips Co-Editor:

Don’t underestimate the “right place, right time” scenario. While you might not have much control over that, you do have control over being ready, willing, and able to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way.

I’d submitted a few articles to Matador and was very active around the site and community — commenting on articles, responding to forum posts, commenting on other members’ blog posts. This activity was obviously noticed. It’s worth a mention that I didn’t have any ulterior motives to my involvement with the site; I just plain loved to do it and I am guessing that made itself visible.

Back to “right place, right time”. Matador just happened to be expanding operations and changing directions so they were hiring a team of editors. Bingo bango, here I am.

Hal Amen, Matador Trips Co-Editor:

[Getting noticed] is much easier in the online world that in print. Websites, blogs, and social media are accessible to everyone, and interacting through them gives you a chance to communicate one-on-one with editors.

For a year, I was as active as I could be, first within the Matador community and then on their network of themed blogs that launched in early 2008. I friended people. I read blog posts and commented. I wrote my own blog posts. I commented on articles. I submitted my own articles. I Stumbled and Dugg and tweeted Matador content. It didn’t take long before I was on the radar of multiple Matador editors, first as a community and social media contact, then a contributor, and then a member of their pool of “dream team” contributors.

Last March I got an email with the subject line of “New Role at Matador?” inviting me to come on board as co-editor of Trips. I said hell yes.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it didn’t take that long either. Choose your venue(s), put in some effort, participate, behave professionally and positively, and see what happens.

Christine Garvin, Brave New Traveler Co-Editor:

Sometimes, I like to look at this process from the “energetic” perspective, as in how much energy am I putting in to make things happen? I know it can feel pointless sometimes to send out proposal after proposal and get rejected, or worse yet, never hear anything, but I do believe there are forces at work that note that energy. And that’s when something ends up coming out of left field that you had never anticipated, like a random editor seeing your blog and asking you to write a piece.

Tom Gates, Matador Nights Co-Editor:

My advice is to make sure you have climbed each rung on the ladder before trying to advance. I stupidly emailed a few guidebooks early on, thinking hey, I’m a hotshit writer and I like to travel, hire me. I had nothing to my credit but blogs and they (rightly) wanted nothing to do with me.

Now I have a portfolio of articles to show anyone who asks and that seems to go quite a bit further. Also, remember, when somebody asks you for some of your links, MAKE SURE to think about which ones you’re sending based on who your target is. Don’t send snarky or jargon-y things to a prim, don’t send by-the-numbers pieces to somebody who has a bit of ‘tude.

Sarah Menkedick, Matador Abroad Co-Editor:

Write, write, and write. Stop spending so much time fretting about exactly where to write and when to write and how to write, and just sit down and do it. And then go back and read, knowing that you’re going to have to cut out a lot of stuff that felt just brilliant when you first wrote it.

Leave your work for a while and when you come back to read it again, eliminate anything – anything – that does not feel truthful. Read the styles you want to write. And then again, write, write and write.

David Miller, Founding Editor of Traveler’s Notebook; Senior Editor:

Getting noticed starts with having an original writing voice and putting it out there for people to read, either by getting published or just by posting on your blog.

David Page, Contributing Editor:

Edit yourself ruthlessly. Write it out, let loose, go crazy, but then go back with the shears and get serious. Every single word should carry its own weight (and more). Even if it’s the best sentence you’ve ever written, the clearest image, the cleverest little twist, if it doesn’t contribute to the piece, lose it.

“Just keep writing the absolute best shit you can muster and hope that posterity will do you justice.”
Study the publication you want to write for. Know the boundaries of what they publish. Give em fresh, but don’t ask em to reinvent themselves on your behalf.

Just keep writing the absolute best shit you can muster and hope that posterity will do you justice

Want to write a guidebook? Study the series you want to write for, study the market, know what’s out there and what isn’t, what sells and what doesn’t, find a hole in the catalog, fill it. Fill it perfectly. Write a proposal they can’t refuse. Be prepared to do your own promotion (gulp). If the series doesn’t exist, study the market, know what’s out there and what isn’t, what sells and what doesn’t, learn the realities of printing and distribution, advertising and (again) promotion, risk a lifetime of poverty and ignominy for what you know to be the truth—or as close as you can crawl to it anyway.

Otherwise, just keep writing the absolute best shit you can muster and hope that posterity will do you justice. By then you’ll be over it.

Paul Sullivan, Contributing Editor:

Persistence. This writing game is full of ignored / unread emails and unanswered phone calls – for established professionals as well as for budding writers, believe it or not. It’s easy to get sensitive and think the world of editors owe you a response but the truth is: they don’t. And they’re often simply too busy to get back to people they’ve never heard of. Develop a thick skin, keep believing in your talent and learn how to be persistent without being annoying.

It took me three years and a couple of face to face meetings to get a reply from one particular guide book publisher that I really wanted to work for – but now I work for them fairly regularly as a photographer and writer. If I had given up after the first 10 or whatever emails (at least!), I would never have realised that particular dream. Accept that bagging quality clients is a long-term task. Make a list of your faves. Find the right contacts (also incredibly important – unless you want all your emails being immediately deleted by an irrelevant and unsympathetic member of staff). Hit them regularly with professional calls/mails and fresh ideas. Be persistent. You’ll get there.

Leigh Shulman, Matador Life Editor:

Produce solid content. Know what you’re talking about and write well. Keep a blog as you’re building your portfolio. If nothing else, it gives you practice in finding your voice, style and interest. Once you’ve done that, you’re half way there. Then, it’s a matter of being connected with the right people.

I connected to people through Twitter, Couchsurfing, high school friends, college friends. I don’t seek people out simply because of what they can do for me, though. I make honest connections by finding and following people I genuinely enjoy. I like their writing, their work, their attitudes. Over time, as you read their work and get to know them, many of the people you contact — many, although not all — will support your work as well.

How’s this for a personal anecdote: I joined Twitter about a year ago. Soon after, I ran across @collazoprojects. I loved her website, enjoyed the point of view and thought the author to be extremely intelligent and well spoken. We got to know each other through our blogs, tweets, and almost met face-to-face once, but it didn’t work out. Turns out, she’s also a Matador editor.

Then one day, I heard from another friend of mine — Vicky, a travel writer I originally met through Couchsurfing, but we connected on Twitter as well. She sent me a link to Matador’s job posting for a contribuing editor. I immediately conacted @collazoprojects to let her know about it, hoping she might have some advice or input. Next thing I know, David, the senior editor e-mails me, asking me to apply. He’d seen my blog on Julie’s recommendation.

Less than a week later, here I am, new editor of Matador Life.

Beyond that. Be patient. And be yourself. Few things happen overnight, but if you’re diligent, keep writing, keep meeting people, you’ll find yourself where you want to be faster than you believed.

Community Connection:

What questions do you have for the Matador editors? Submit a question below and it might just be answered in a future article.

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