Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Serenity Tip: Michael Jackson, dancing and righting work stress

Last week, I was stressed and anxious. Work wasn't coming the way I wanted it to and I was cranky and discontented. Then it all changed.

So this is my tip for you for the week: Find some way to blow off steam and have fun.

The following is a video of the Michael Jackson Flashmob that descended on San Francisco the day the singer died. I'm in there a couple times. I'm the one with the light red, short curly hair waving my hands in the air like I just don't care. Because for a few hours, I didn't.

This moment reminds me of an idiom: Happiness isn't the absence of misery but the presence of joy. Getting out and doing something that's just fun injected my week with that joy. For those of us who are task masters with ourselves, getting out and having fun can be just as much of a challenge as marketing is for those who aren't in the habit of it.

The next morning I woke up feeling giddy and happy. And it's all thanks to some friends, a little exercise, some fun and ceasing to think about work for a few hours. It makes me happy just to watch this. Maybe that's part of why I'm posting it.

So I'll ask you: What can you do to inject fun in your day today? What's your hobby? And if your hobby is work, what did you used to do for fun? Can you do it today?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Serenity Tip: Partner Up

Last week, I wrote about working with groups of other freelancers to increase the numbers of queries you send. But what if you don't have a crowd of fellow freelancers to lean on, or even three more? Could you find one?

Here's why you should.

The advice to partner up isn't just good when you're a little kid faced with crossing a busy street. If you're a freelancer looking to navigate the sometimes-treacherous world of freelance business ownership, you need a buddy, too.

In a formal capacity, this is what I do with my coaching clients: I help them navigate the freelance business world. We come up with markets, we set deadlines, and when we talk, they report back on their progress. I hold them accountable.

My support as a coach carries more weight because my clients are paying for me to be their accountability buddy. You can create that system with another freelancer, however. You just have to find the right freelancer.

She has to work at a similar pace as you

If you want to send a query a day and your goal buddy wants to send one a month, you may not help one another. Instead, the one looking to send a query a day may feel slowed down by the once-a-monther; and the once-a-monther may find herself comparing herself to the uber-prolific one and beating herself up. That doesn't help anyone and doesn't get either of you closer to a sale or a more serene business life.

She has to show up

Sure it's obvious, but it's also one of the most important requirements. If you agree to call each other once a day, she has to show up. And so do you for that matter. A flaky goal buddy will leave you working by yourself, and that will defeat the whole point of seeking support.

She has to be your cheerleader, not your critic

If you find yourself dreading talking to your goal buddy or you find it excruciating to stay on the phone with her because all she does is complain about what's not working, it won't help. It could even feed your own self-doubt and run down your stamina. Keep looking.

The only way to know if your goal buddy is right for you is to try it out. Sure, do a gut check when you first talk to each other, but then take the plunge, with the caveat that you'll reassess the relationship at a predetermined interval. I recommend a month, but you might know after two weeks. Or a day. Who knows?

Now that you've got a buddy, set goals for working together. Ask each other:
  • What freelancing task do you struggle most with?
  • What kind of support has worked for you in the past?
  • What kind has derailed you?
  • What step do you want to be held accountable to?
  • What do you promise to do if you don't meet your goal?
With a freelance friend, we made a bet: We'd each send a query a day, and if either of us didn't make it for a month, we'd buy the other dinner. If we both did it, we'd split the meal, ideally with all the money we were making from our sales. It was a fun way to have it mean something and to build our freelance friendship.

Who can you recruit as your goal buddy for the month?

Photo by Rob Hoey.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Serenity Tip: Being SMART About Your To-Do List

I know you probably have one--a to-do list with more things than you can accomplish in a day. Or, you're so scared of how long your to-do list might be that you keep it in your head. The advantage is that you don't have to see how long your list might be and how overwhelming your schedule is. The disadvantage is that you forget things.

The following is a video of an interview with work/life balance coach Kirsten Mahoney, owner of Insight Out Life Coaching. I met her recently and she's as down-to-earth and sweet as she appears on the segment. I love how she emphasizes saying no--both to others and to yourself. As a self-employed person it's so common to feel like you have to do it all and you have to do it all today. But do you really?

Serenity means doing what you have to today, and letting go of that which you don't. How you define "have to" is a question for another post--one that Kirsten herself may very well contribute.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Serenity Tool: Challenge Yourself, Part 2

One of my favorite and primary roles when I work with coaching clients is to help them refine, target and send queries. I love playing the role of cheerleader and editor. And when I need someone to play that role for me, I turn to my fellow freelancers. This week, I'll talk a little about working with others to make your querying goals come to life.

Monday, I shared a query challenge approach that requires lots of other freelancers to make it work. But what if you've only got yourself and a few others? Let me tell you about another challenge.

The Query-a-Day Approach

In the freelance writers group I belong to, I might be the most maniacal querier of the bunch, but I'm not immune to the need for support. When I found my querying slipping a few months ago, I emailed my freelancers group and asked if I could join them. They'd been doing a query-a-day challenge for a month already.

Here's how it's set up:
  • Gather at least four freelancers, available via email.
  • Pair yourselves off.
  • Promise to report in daily on your progress.
  • At the end of the week, one of you tallies the score and sends it off to a group email, in this case a Yahoo! Group.
It's pretty simple. Every day, my query buddy and I emailed one another our progress. It was just a moment to check in. Sure, you could say it kept us accountable. But I prefer to think that it gave us an opportunity to check in with ourselves on our intentions, our resistance, and our successes. We cheered each other on, we kept each other honest, and we got to know each other better.

The Rub

Now, there were no points required in this challenge--no tallying three points for this, one for that, etc. Our goal was simply to send one query every work day--defined as Monday through Friday for the workaholics among us. But what was motivating us? Wouldn't it be easy to fall off. There were no stakes, after all.Well, after I joined, I discovered that there were stakes: One of the writers had promised, if she failed to send the number of queries she intended, to donate money to the political campaign of someone she hates. Now that's motivation.

A Little Story

It was during this challenge that I resurrected a query I've been sending for two and a half years. It's a great story. I love it. But it's very specific, very niche and I'm determined that it deserves a wide audience. So I got an email from a fellow freelancer alerting me to change in leadership at a publication, and I sent the query off again.

I'm now in talks with the editor about possibly writing the piece for him.

It's not to say I wouldn't have sent the query to the editor anyway. But the support always helps. It's always welcome and it's always encouraging when you have an agreement with someone that they will cheer you on if you email them. That can never be a bad thing.

Friday, one more post on query support.

Photo by
Heart of Oak.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success."
--Napoleon Hill

Monday, June 22, 2009

Serenity Tool: Challenge Yourself, part 1

One of the primary roles I play with my coaching clients is to help them refine, target and send queries. I love playing the role of cheerleader and editor. And when I need someone to play that role for me, I turn to my fellow freelancers. This week, I'll talk a little about working with others to make your querying goals come to life.

If you've never buddied up and challenged yourself to send lots of queries, get started today. I'm participating right now in a query challenge organized by a professional writers' community to which I belong, and it motivated me to send 10 queries last week. Yeah!

I've participated in two different kinds of query groups. Today I'll talk about one of them.

The Mighty Mass Challenge

In the challenge I'm participating in now, there are dozens of freelancers chatting via Yahoo! Groups every day. We've been divvied up onto teams, and the goal is to make as many points as we can. The points are divided this way:
  • 1 point for every query;
  • 1 point for every letter of introduction; and
  • 3 points for every assignment.
At the end of every week, we report how many points we've generated. My group is going like gang-busters: I think last week the gang generated 171 points between something like nine team members.

In addition to counting points, everyone gives a tip at the end of the week to stay motivated. But frankly, doing the challenge is motivation enough.

A Little Story

When I started freelancing a few years ago, I was in that gray area of working a lot for low-paying clients and not having enough money to live on. I loved the work. And my editors were great--don't get me wrong. But I wasn't working toward either my financial or my professional goals. So I heard about the query challenge and I took part.

I sent a query to a national health magazine on a lark--just to get the point, I told myself. It was the only way I could screw up the courage. After all, if I wrote for them, it would represent a huge leap in my writing business. I was writing for small local pubs that paid fast but paid poorly. They'd pay me $1/word and people across the country would read my work. If I thought too much about it--and I did--it could paralyze me.

So I sent it. And it bounced back. But I'd already reported the point. I felt obligated to send the query again. I found an anonymous editors@ email address. A month or so later, I got the assignment!

If it weren't for the challenge, I wouldn't have bothered. I would have just let it go. But the challenge, because I wanted to be honest, kept me going. It pushed me to be accountable and it supported me in being brave.

That's why I sent 10 queries this week. I saw what others were doing--sending tons of queries and getting tons of assignments by selling reprints or by meeting with editors--and it inspired me to do the same. This is where my competitiveness and my need for community come together to support my business. I got to know freelancers whose names I'd only previously seen on faceless posts on a bulletin board. Heck, I even sent first drafts of articles to freelancers I met on query challenges, and shared story ideas with others.

We work together to place story ideas, and we cheer each other up when we despair of paying the mortgage or getting enough work. While I still sit in my office alone, I don't feel it.

Keeping focused

But I want to add that I still maintain my querying standards: I send a minimum of 3 or 4 queries to markets that pay $1/word or more a week. It's easy to get points if you send queries to markets that don't pay enough to live on--they're desperate for writers.

But that wouldn't serve me. It wouldn't keep my accounts solvent and it wouldn't get me any closer to the kind of journalism I want to do. So I make the challenge work for me, not the other way around.

Tomorrow, I'll share another way to work with others to get your queries out the door.

How do you get support to query?

Photo by Heart of Oak.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Inspiration Sunday: Writers We Admire: Jane Mayer

In a continuing effort to imbue you with the joy of our job, check out this Authors @Google interview and talk by writer Jane Mayer:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Ways to Change Focus from the Economy to Your Economy

I'm hearing from more and more people the state of the freelance landscape today:

"Since January, I've had three assignments (not high paying) and have sold two essays. My financial situation is far from good, and I'm the only breadwinner in the house."

"I have a large project pending but the client's counsel doesn't seem to be in any hurry to review my contract revisions. I am counting on this project to break my slump. "

"I'm only now seeing positive results, with two assignments I'm working on this week and potentially two more coming in this week. I've been at this almost full time each week since December 15. Getting out queries, LOIs, followups, etc. I can't give you an exact count right now, but I've gotten out at least 100 queries (new, revised or tweaked), more than 100 followups, and dozens of very targeted (with ideas) LOIs."

Still, sometimes, isn't it tempting to think it's YOU? In a way, it's almost comforting: If there really is a cabal of editors out there talking smack about that one article that took tons of revisions, then there's something you can do. You can try to change minds.

Whereas, if it's just the economy and the only answer is to stay vigilant and stay persistent and deepen your patience, then you've got nothing. There's nothing you can do but wait. And entrepreneurs? We're not known for our patience. Especially when the mortgage is due.

I talk a lot about the serenity hypothesis: That serenity isn't being happy all the time or getting everything you want (ask most lottery winners and they'll tell you the same). Serenity is focusing on what you can control and moving away from that which you can't.

And this economy? It's the epitome of what you can't control.

So how do you keep focused and sane and serene right now? Here are two techniques:

Look for role models
If you're a lone freelancer, staring at your barren inbox in frustration and worried about bare cupboards, it's easy to think that something has gone terribly wrong in your business. But if you hear, as I have recently, about tons of other freelancers going through the same thing--and getting through it, surviving and actually thriving--you have a road map.

Ask them:
How did you get through the slow times?
What did you do to keep yourself motivated?

How long did it take for the slump to pass?

How did you occupy your time?

How did you develop patience?

Especially those who say they've been through the slump a million times before--grab them. They're the ones whose resilience you want to learn from.

Pull a switcheroo
Serenity is all about switching focus from the uncontrollable to the controllable. So:
  • Instead of focusing on editors not responding, work on a new query.
  • Instead of focusing on two months from now when you're sure you'll be destitute and on the street, start teaching yourself a new skill.
  • Instead of obsessively crunching numbers, revisit your business plan.
  • Instead of replaying every stressful interaction you've had with a suddenly MIA client, send a thank-you card to an editor with whom you've always enjoyed working.

Can you think of more?

Photo by tomsaint11.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Getting Over Outsiderism

One of the things I loved about Jacqui Banaszynski's recent guest posts on this blog is how frank she was about the challenges of looking like you know what you're doing and feeling the opposite. In the post on fear of seeming rude when you do the kind of persistence that leads to great stories, she said:
[T]he discomfort with self-promotion is very familiar. The same mother who taught me to hold my own in a sibling tussle also taught me that it’s bad manners to go bragging on yourself. And yes, she taught me to mind my own business, not be nosy, not pry into others’ affairs, etc.

Quite the dilemma for journalists, yes?

I’ve known a lot of journalists in my time who are flat-out hustlers, and I say that with admiration — perhaps even envy. They can charm, schmooze or bully their way into almost any situation and come out with the goods.

Not me. I’ve always believed — sometimes naively — that good work will get you noticed; and if not, good work should be its own reward. I also tend to lean more towards doing what works for the bigger group than for my own “score.” (Studies indicate that may be, in part, a gender-based tendency.)
I bring this up in particular because a coaching client of mine recently admitted that part of her hesitance to query had to do with feeling like she should be at a different point in her career by now. She described her main newspaper job as being with a crappy paper. She's been a full-time mom for several years now. How can she compete, she seemed to be asking, with people like me, who went to journalism school, worked at lots of papers, and is established?

What I told her is similar to what Banaszynski intimates above: Guess what? We all feel like we don't belong.

To illustrate, I told a story:

I went to Columbia Journalism School. Fancy, right? The best journalism school in the country. You'd think we'd all be walking around possessed of a level of confidence not experienced by mere hacks. We were the chosen ones, those who, the school's administrators constantly reminded us, would Save Journalism For The Next Generation.

You'd think that, and you'd be wrong.

Instead, there was a joke in the school: In our yearbook (because, in addition to being journalism nerds we were regular nerds as well), writer and former stand-up comic Barry Lank wrote a humor piece about how he didn't deserve to be at the school: Some guy named Bernie Link, or something, was out there somewhere, wrongly denied his spot at the illustrious school.

It was like the whole school had a case of impostor syndrome.

And it's not isolated just to students. Recently, on a professional freelancers board I frequent, someone posted a question with the title: "Do You Ever Feel Like You Just Don't Know What You're Doing?" The question got 13 responses, often with the reply, "All the time."

So if you're struggling with your right to be part of the group that calls itself full-time freelance writers, I'll tell you a secret. Feeling insecure is almost one of the requirements for admission. Just know that everyone is trying to find the next assignment, the next gig, the next piece of work that's going to make her career path make sense.

We do this job despite the fear, not because we're free of it. Maybe there's some level at which that fear is removed, but I haven't found it yet. I'd be willing to wager that the writer you most envy has his or her bouts with the same insecurities. There's always someone more honored out there to which we can compare ourselves.

So let's apply the serenity principle to this: If serenity comes from letting go of what you can't control and focusing on what you can, then feeling like you don't measure up definitely falls into the former category. It's antidote?
Get into the groove.

Finding and working on a query and a story you love--getting out of your brain and into your subjects' lives will--remind you that, though you may feel like you don't belong, you are exactly where you're supposed to be. The job will start making sense. You'll see that maybe you have something to contribute after all.

It's the thinking about it that bogs us down. So don't think. Do. Whatever's next on your to-do list, just do it. Get excited about your job. As Richard St. John said in one of the TED Talks I posted yesterday, passion and getting into the flow is key to success. Enjoy it.

Photo by TimWilson.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Serenity Tip: Keep doing what works

Richard St. John gave two great talks at TED about success. The first is about the keys to success. You may recognize one I've talked about often:

Then, this year, St. John talks about how success can lead to failure and how to avoid it (with his personal story). It's a great message for mid-career journalists who feel stuck in a rut, who've been doing the same thing for a long time and have lost passion. Consider these keys to success and see which need a boost:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive -- the risk to be alive and express what we really are."
--Don Miguel Ruiz

Photo by roland.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Serenity Tip: Doing What You Have To, Giving Yourself What You Need

You may have noticed radio silence from me over the past week or so. An odd thing happened at the end of the blogathon. I was plum out of energy. After filing a big story last week, then my birthday, and then a little break between assignments, I found myself with free time.

My usual approach is to keep working full days. After all, there's always something to do:
And of course, and perhaps most important, querying for more work.

One of my coaching clients has said that she has found, in the time between assignments, that life encroaches. It sure does.

But what I decided to do was something that seemed sane but never occurred to me before: I worked half days. I let myself sleep in every day (that extra hour of sleep is life-giving), and when I got up I sent a query. Then I did whatever else I wanted. I went to the gym. I went shopping (birthday gift certificates in hand). I read a guilty-pleasure book. I called friend.

And I capped it off with a weekend out of town that consisted mostly of soaking in a hot tub while reading.

And I'm here to tell you that the world did not fall apart. In fact, I came back and the first thing I did after saying hello to the kittens was finally throw out a bunch of old magazines that I'd been vacillating on keeping for months.

Amazing how inspiration strikes at the right time.

You may be in a slow period, and if you, like me, are a workaholic, consider a contrary action: Do what absolutely has to get done. Then get out of the office and enjoy your life.

If, on the other hand, you have a hard time getting started, please don't take this post as permission to put off your work to another day. The key is contrary action: Doing something against instinct. It can be healing. It was for me this week.

Photo by m o d e.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." ~ Albert Einstein

Photo by Bernt Rostad.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Five Ways to Overcome Persistence Resistance

This week, we're getting a wealth of guidance from Jacqui Banaszynski about the art, craft and grit of reporting and writing. After yesterday's q&a, I had another question for her, based on some past posts to this blog:

What do you say, what advice do you offer, to writers who find the marketing and interviewing persistence you describe to go against everything they've been taught about politeness, respect and, for some, proper, ladylike behavior?

Here's her response. As a reminder, Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.

First, if I may indulge in a LOL moment. I grew up with four (large) brothers, raised by a mother who insisted I learn how to hold my own. The notion of “proper, ladylike behavior” didn’t exactly translate to the basketball court or baseball field in the way I think it’s suggested here. At the same time, I never saw a conflict between being competitive, intelligent and ambitious and being proper and feminine and attractive.

So the question itself, embedded in the notion of gender or femininity, is a bit of a puzzler to me. But the discomfort with self-promotion is very familiar. The same mother who taught me to hold my own in a sibling tussle also taught me that it’s bad manners to go bragging on yourself. And yes, she taught me to mind my own business, not be nosy, not pry into others’ affairs, etc.

Quite the dilemma for journalists, yes?

I’ve known a lot of journalists in my time who are flat-out hustlers, and I say that with admiration — perhaps even envy. They can charm, schmooze or bully their way into almost any situation and come out with the goods.

Not me. I’ve always believed — sometimes naively — that good work will get you noticed; and if not, good work should be its own reward. I also tend to lean more towards doing what works for the bigger group than for my own “score.” (Studies indicate that may be, in part, a gender-based tendency.)

So how do you “sell” yourself or your story, to either a story subject or an editor?

A few things to think about:

Step 1. Believe in what you’re doing.

If you’re trying to get an intimate interview, on deadline, with someone caught in a horrible tragedy, you have to believe that interview has value to the person and to the world, and that you will conduct the interview with as much respect as possible.

If you’re trying to convince an editor that you should travel to France to be fitted for a $600 couture bra and then write about it (I have a friend who did this), you have to believe that there are women— a lot of them — who are deeply curious about what it takes to find a perfect bra for their imperfect bodies.

At some level, you have to really find value in what you’re pitching, whether that value is in the idea or the experience you’ll get writing about it or the contacts you’ll make. Then you’re really not selling or self-promoting; rather, you’re relaying your passion, curiosity, sense of wonder, sense of fun, sense of outrage, desire to educate, belief in fairness, desire to try, etc.

Step 2. Do your homework.

There’s a story you’re dying to do? Make sure the publication you’re pitching it to does that kind of story, or you know enough about the publication to shape your pitch accordingly.

You want to interview someone hard to reach? Find people who can work as intermediaries to make a case for you.

Figure out how to make your idea of interest, use, value, fun not just for readers, but for the story subject.

You want more money for a story? Learn what the market rate is, by region, publication and author.

Step 3. Let go of a bit of self-protective ego.

This is going to sound counter-intuitive, because most people who don’t like to self-promote believe that only egotists do. But sometimes the failure to make your case — to get a difficult interview or defend your story to an editor — is really because you feel awkward or uncomfortable or defensive or shy. In other words, you make it about you, rather than about the story or the other person. If you shift the focus away from yourself, you’ll have a better chance of communicating your interest. And if you accept that momentary discomfort comes with the job, you’ll find that nothing bad really happens.

I can’t stress this enough. Time and again, I see reporters who won’t ask a difficult question or call a reluctant subject back because they think they are being polite — they’re protecting the feelings of the other person. But it’s the usually the reporter who is protecting himself when he doesn’t take that uncomfortable step.

Let’s say you’re interviewing parents who lost a son in Iraq. Do you really think asking them about their son is going to make their pain worse? Or do you think it could give them a chance to honor their son by letting the world know why he was special? (This is why writing obituaries is such a good experience; you discover that almost everyone wants to talk. And you learn how to ask for that conversation at a very sensitive time.) I’m a huge believer in letting other people (adults) make their own choices. Anything else is disrespectful.

So don’t pre-determine whether they want to talk by not asking them, or by editing your questions down to the most pallid. Don’t pre-determine an editor’s response to a story pitch by refusing to articulate — cogently and passionately — why you believe in the story.

Step 4. Learn not to take the first no as final.

People can change their minds with time. One skill to learn is to ask questions that give people a reason to say yes.
  • If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, maybe they don’t want to talk to you right now; ask if you could call back in a few days.
  • If someone is resistant to cooperating on a story, ask if you could come by and introduce yourself in person to explain your interest, or talk to them first on background to identify their concerns.
  • If an editor isn’t interested in your story pitch, ask if there are elements of the idea that work for her, or if she has other stories needing to be done or if you could submit the story on spec.
I can’t count the number of stories that bore fruit because I returned to a subject after the first no. And interviews are always more productive in the second round; you now have an individual-to-individual relationship with a subject (rather than a subject-reporter relationship), and the subject has had time to think about the topic a bit more deeply.

Step 5. Finally, rehearse.

I’m serious.Whether it’s preparing for an interview you are nervous about or a pitch to an editor, it helps enormously to rehearse the conversation with a trusted colleague or friend. It’s similar to an athlete who envisions a game or race in advance: She can envision challenges, work out solutions and then see the route to success.

The same holds true of the kind of conversations that may feel awkward because they may feel pushy. If you rehearse the conversation, with someone playing the other role or at least listening very hard to your side of the conversation and giving you feedback, you will have to figure out how you’re going to make your case. You’ll have a chance to work on phrasing and tone of voice — things that might trip you up, especially if you’re nervous. And you’ll have to think about how the other person might react — what does the story subject or editor need to know that makes them interested in your proposal?

Is this pushy self-promotion? I think that’s more a matter of style than anything else. And a pushy style — not the sell itself — is what might seem unladylike. If you believe in what you are proposing, then your job is to communicate that to others. You are really just telling another story, to an audience, and you have to do the same things you do when you write: You have to think about that audience, think about what your story is really about and why someone should read it, and then make that very clear in an engaging and honest way.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Motivation, Storytelling and Mid-Career: A Q&A with Jacqui Banaszynski

Yesterday Jacqui Banaszynski shared how persistence landed her three big stories. Today, she talks about the persistence of storytelling, finding the right motivation to stay persistent and how persistence might look different in mid-career than when you're just starting out. Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.

Tomorrow, one more post from Jacqui about persistence vs. politeness.

What role does persistence play in storytelling? Do the two go together at all?

I’m tempted to say there is no storytelling without persistence. Sure, there are the rare right-place, right-time cases of a great story landing in a writer’s notebook. But even then, the writer has to be alert to the value of the story and has to pursue it to the end.

Pursuit takes persistence. Lots of it. Persistence and follow-through often mark the difference between the successful, published writer and the frustrated wanna-be, perhaps even more than talent.

A writer has to be persistent in developing and pitching an idea; she has to be open to shaping and reshaping it to sell, while retaining her belief in it even when others don’t see the potential.

A writer has to be persistent in gaining access to the right subjects and sources, and in getting those people to grant both time and honesty.

A writer has to be persistent in staying focused on the point and purpose of a story, resisting the inevitable distractions and detours that come with reporting. At some level, that means even working to stay interested in the topic, or to get interested in the topic in the first place, or to work through enough interview questions to find the subject’s passion for the topic.

Most writers have to exercise discipline that goes beyond mere persistence when they finally sit down to write. And rewrite. And rewrite again. Too many great stories fail because writers lost patience or energy at the keyboard.

And finally, a writer has to be persistent in getting a story published. That means everything from (politely) hounding editors to working with photographers and designers to reading final proofs (if allowed) to make sure all the pieces of a story package are in place and accurate. Hitting the send button is not the end of journalistic writing.

You told a story at the conference of a student who wanted to do a story on a girl with an eating disorder. You set the bar high, assuming she'd give up. But she didn't and it sounds like she came up with a great story. How do high standards and persistence play off each other to create a better writer? Or do they?

Different people respond to different challenges. Some are “I’ll show you” types who thrive in the face of an impossible challenge. Others fold under pressure, so need constant validation and encouragement.

As an editor and teacher, part of my job is to figure out what best motivates a writer. But if you’re a freelancer working on your own or with multiple editors, you need to take control of your own motivation, and take responsibility for the quality of your work and for your own growth and development. If you can’t rely on someone else to push, prod or pull you, what can you do to push, prod and pull yourself? That takes both persistence and self-awareness. It means keeping yourself engaged, managing your time and refusing to get discouraged when you get little or negative feedback.

I believe in the theory that most people will rise (or fall) to the expectations set for them by people they value. So can you set expectations for yourself — tangible goals you want to reach or bars you want to clear — and then work day-by-day to get there?

Even if your work is “good enough” for publication or other editors, is it good enough for you?

Years ago, I made a sort of bet with myself to see if I could be directly involved with at least one award-winning piece of journalism a year. It wasn’t the awards themselves that mattered as much as using them as a benchmark. It reminds me to pay attention to the work I’m involved in, and make sure I’m giving extra effort to projects that have the most potential.

For mid-career journalists, is the issue of persistence in their craft different than those just out of college, in your experience?

See the answer just above. The key is to take responsibility for your own development, to know yourself and to find ways to motivate yourself.

Early in life, in school and at home, most institutions and relationships exist to help a young person grow and learn and achieve. It’s almost taken for granted that a young person will get constantly better, and that there will be people all around them to help them. That can be true very early in careers, too, when young hires have mentors or bosses invested in their success.

But after a few years on the job, that responsibility shifts and individuals have to take ownership of their own growth. One of the hard adjustments to adulthood is to realize that learning doesn’t come in a steady rise, but often in short steps up after frustrating long plateaus. And taking those short steps up sometimes doesn’t happen unless you make it happen yourself. So you have to start setting goals and routes to achieve them. You have to reach out and ask for help or for opportunities rather than have then given to you. You have to want to keep learning, and find ways to do so.

Are you constantly reading about the craft, or finding courses to take — perhaps joining a writer’s group or taking some online courses through NewsU or at a local community college? Are you inviting a publication's editor for coffee and asking her to evaluate your work? Are you finding writers who you admire, studying their work and perhaps interviewing them about their struggles and techniques?

And, most important, are you paying attention to how much your work grows and improves over time by reading past work?

Writing is a lot like running a marathon, or going on a long, arduous backpacking trip. You will cruise sometimes and stumble at others. You can’t get anywhere except one step at a time. So you need to set your sights on small markers along the way to the finish line, and celebrate when you cross one of those markers.

Then you need to start moving towards the next, one step at a time.

What do you tell mid-career journalists about their craft--improving it, etc?

Again, see the answer above. Improving the craft (and art) of reporting and writing and editing means constantly reporting and writing and editing — and reading. It means being in the world, talking to people, asking questions, paying attention, constantly keeping your curiosity on high and looking for stories.

It means reading with a writer’s mind, and at some level studying how good writers write. It also means getting back in touch with grade school grammar and gaining a better understanding of the habits you have in use of language, and of the effects specific language use (and grammar, punctuation, etc.) have on an overall piece.

It means writing, a lot, and then re-reading your work (out loud) with a reader’s mind:
  • What’s clear?
  • What’s fuzzy?
  • What images stand out?
  • What background can be condensed?
  • What words or passages are self-indulgent and decorative rather than telling and descriptive?
It means trying something new and taking a few risks, as a reporter, a writer and a reader.

Anything else I didn't ask that you want to add or think is important to say on persistence for journalists?

Journalism is work worth doing. No matter what is happening in the news industry economically, the work of storytellers is work essential to society. It feeds community in both knowledge and spirit.

My parents taught me than any work worth doing is worth doing as well as you can do it. That’s how I feel about journalism.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Three Stories that Persistence Made Possible for Jacqui Banaszynski (Now with more Pulitzers)

We should all be so lucky as to spend some time talking to and working with an editor as ingenious, dogged and passionate as Jacqui Banaszynski. Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.

I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop she conducted at Health Journalism 2009, and I knew I had to ask her to comment for this blog.
Happily, she agreed and the next two days, you'll get two great posts from her. Today, she shares three stories that persistence made possible for her. Tomorrow, she'll answer a bunch of other questions. Stay tuned.

There are so many examples of how persistence paid off in (saved) my stories that it’s hard to know where to begin. It is no exaggeration to say that persistence — hard work, follow through, patience, a bit (OK, more than a bit) of stubbornness —had much more to do with any success I’ve had than native intelligence, writing talent or even training. There’s an old saw that reporters make their own luck, and a lot of that luck is sheer stick-to-itiveness.

The best examples from in my reporting:

Not Letting the Story Die
When a natural gas pipeline in suburban St. Paul ruptured and exploded, killing a young mother and her daughter, it was big news. Every news outlet in the region wanted an interview with the husband/father, who had survived the blast with his other daughter. But he made it clear he wasn’t talking, and after a few days, most other journalists gave up.

I continued to work the story each day, gently but constantly reaching out to other sources to try to get to the husband while respecting his privacy boundaries. Finally, about 10 days after the explosion, the husband called me. It took a little more intense work to get him to understand why I wanted to talk to him, and to agree. The interview produced one of the most compelling emotional narratives I’ve ever been privileged to do.

Reporting as a Form of Persistence
A popular young priest in Minnesota was fired by his bishop in the midst of the AIDS/gay rights battles of the late 1980s. Religion and moral/social issues were hot-button topics in Minnesota at the time, and the priest had written an article criticizing the Catholic church’s attitudes toward disenfranchised groups, especially gays.

Everyone wanted an interview with the priest to determine his motivation: Was he making a principled sacrifice on behalf of others? Or was he gay himself, and living a double life? The priest adamantly refused to talk after making an initial, brief public statement. I kept after the story, peeling off five or six related pieces over the next three or four weeks, and using each of them as an excuse to call the priest for comment. Over time, he realized I was both professional and determined; I wouldn’t give up but I wouldn’t burn him.

At the same time, I learned more about church issues, and about the priest himself. He ultimately agreed to an interview, in which he revealed that he was faithful to his vows — and that he was gay and could no longer live with the internal conflict. The resulting profile was one of the first pieces hinting at what became a major and complex national issue about homosexuality and mainstream churches.

The Importance of Support
As the AIDS crisis worsened in the mid-1980s, my editor suggested I do a death-to-diagnosis narrative of someone dying of the disease. It took a full year, talking to dozens of sources and following dozens of leads, to find the right subject for that story and to negotiate access. The result was “AIDS in the Heartland,” a four-part series that won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. And in that case, my “persistence” was helped immeasurably by photographer Jean Pieri, my partner on the project. When one of us flagged, the other pushed. Jean met our story subjects first, and paved the way for everything to come. In the same way I often needed a running partner when I was marathoning, it can help for a writer to have a partner or buddy to keep them going.

What It Means

But persistence was key in all aspects of my work — from developing trust with sources, to staying with a story over a long course of time, to calling back sources multiple times to ensure accuracy, to simply showing up for work day after day, year after year, to write paragraph after paragraph until I gained some sense of journalistic mastery and creative voice.

Too many journalists think good writing is either the result of raw talent or magic. Or they were good at it in high school so think it should be a snap to succeed professionally. They then grow frustrated when they don’t win big freelance contracts or big awards overnight. The hard truth is that writing is like music or sports: It takes years of practice, coaching (feedback) and attention — writing and then writing and then writing some more —to get good and stay good.