Time to share some of the very helpful stuff I’ve been reading lately.
First up : advice on how to write a cover letter, from Slate Editor Katherine Goldstein.
Why should you care about that? Because it’s basically good advice about how to write anything, including pitches and queries.
Take her first point:
Focus on the cover letter. It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I’m constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round. Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé.
Replace cover letter with query. Replace résumé with clips. Do you get a sense of an editor wading through 100 other pitches who want the one spot in the magazine?
Keep it short. I started putting word limits on cover letters because I couldn’t stand, nor did I have the time to read, the epically long letters I’d receive. I’m going to give your letter maybe 30 seconds of my time. If you are interested in a job in journalism, you should be able to tell me about yourself and why I should hire you in less than 200 words.
Again, replace cover letter with query, and read that last sentence as: If you are interested in placing an article, you should be able to tell me about it and why I should hire you in less than 200 words.
You can skip over the advice geared to college students (unless, of course, you are a college student) but the rest is golden–especially the “following instructions” part.
He may be hyperactively productive in a way that leaves most of breathless, but his advice hits home for me. Next actions.
Say you have three projects going–for Whedon they could be working out the action storyboard for a new movie in production, fine-tuning a script, and casting yet another blockbuster. For me, the to-do’s will be more pedestrian: writing a blog post, sending out a query letter to a state history magazine, and checking the job boards.
So let’s just say that there are three things you could be doing. That’s what I have in common with Joss Whedon. So how does he handle it?
Per this interview with Ari Karpel for Fast Company, he says, “break your list down into next actions. . . . Don’t just say, ‘Oh, I need to work on that.’ Say, ‘I need to work on this element of that.’ Absolutely eat dessert first. The thing that you want to do the most, do that.”
He does the fun stuff first, because that’s where his heart is. But the main theme: “‘Next actions’ is one of the most important things that you can say in any endeavor.”
More advice? “Fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. . . . Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone.” Meaning, watch or read things you would not normally see. Some would call in grist for the mill, or filling the well. As Whedon points out, if you take your inspiration from only one source, that will show in your work.
This has been echoed in other essays. Read poetry if you don’t usually. Get a feel for a strange cadence. See plays, experimental music, or classical orchestras. Or if plays are already your life, go hang out at the beach or take nature walks. Immerse yourself in something different.
Also: Don’t make excuses. “If you’re talking about it, you should be doing it.” (Actually, I think that one came form Whedon’s wife.)
According to Salon’s piece, titled “Did a Writer Get Bullied on Goodreads?” an author withdrew from self-publishing her book when reviewers–not professional reviewers, but Goodreads readers, who are encouraged to review books–posted a lot of 2-star reviews in advance of even seeing the book. When the author questioned this practice, she was punished with one-star reviews and pretty vile threats.
It’s all been removed now, so there is no way to verify what the author says and what Salon reported.
Here’s what upsets me about this, if indeed it happened: The reviewing readers cited felt authors should stop whining about bad reviews–even when those reviews come out before the book, from folks who have never read the book. To them, honesty is not an issue–but the sacred right of the reviewer to post whatever s/he wants is. Huh?
I feel like I slipped into a parallel universe called Inside Out Land.
Writers in writing groups sometimes review their friends’ books, whether or not they have time to read them, because that is the only way to get attention for a book these days–get it lots of reviews. And if they do read the book, are they going to rate it poorly? And hurt their friends? Even Lincoln, I believe, had a problem with that–wasn’t he the person whose review of a friend’s book read, “For those who like to read this kind of book, this is the kind of book they will like?”
The issue becomes honesty v. kindness, and it casts aspersions on the usefulness of reviews, period. The incident that Salon describes, though, could better be classified as honesty v. meanness. And I don’t see the point.
But maybe it never happened.