One Book, A Hundred Ways to Review It

In the last week or so I’ve met (barely) deadlines for book reviews for the Library Journal, Winnipeg Free Press, and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, each of which has fairly specific editorial needs.

Left to my own devices, I’ll tend to write something in the neighbourhood of 800 words for a book review. I will frequently personalize it, writing in a conversational, informal style. The Free Press’ book reviews style guide is fairly standard for a newspaper, with a firm word limit of 600 and an avoidance of the personal pronoun. This is not a tremendous adjustment, but it does mean I will write a different review than I would for the same book at a different outlet.

By contrast, AE is stylistically more open, and flexible on length. My editor over there will frequently latch onto something in my review and ask me to expand it, turning fairly straightforward book coverage into a more far-reaching critical essay. When you consider the subject matter and audience, this makes sense. A sci-fi magazine talks specifically about sci-fi, and will want to bring to the table more than surface-level insight about its area of expertise.

As a result I’m often very proud of my finished product over at AE, but put more time in on these essays than the general audience reviews I publish elsewhere. Exceeding 1000 words in this pieces is not unusual. I also draw more deeply on my literary knowledge to make connections as a matter of course, and frequently find myself looking up minute details of related works in the process of writing.

Then there’s the Library Journal, which poses an entirely different challenge. Writing a review that gets at the essential point in a mere 175 words is the ultimate exercise in brevity. I’ve learned to quickly identify the audience and the essential details of the book as concern that audience (including the basic review question: whether the book achieves its intent), which is about all you can do in that space.

It’s certainly possible to spend more time at one of these micro-reviews than one in which one is able to meander, perhaps because an extra step is involved: cutting and rephrasing all the extraneous information until the necessary level of conciseness is reached.

These aren’t my only review venues, of course, but they do represent a nice variety in terms of editorial and stylistic expectations. Perhaps you didn’t realize there was so much to writing a book review. I didn’t quite know myself.

Freelancing Reviews

A while ago, what I started doing is requesting review copies of books from publishers directly, then pitching publications to run my reviews. The goal was to get whatever books I wanted, even if they hadn’t been submitted to the usual places I write for.

But while I’ve generally received the books I’ve requested, I’ve also found it’s annoying trying to place a review after the fact, not knowing whether a place will accept freelance submissions, if I’ve conformed to their style guidelines, if perhaps they’ve already reviewed or assigned a work for review, etc.

In other words, I’ve learned how much work I can create for myself by bypassing my editors instead of working with them on prospective submissions from the start. Not only might they sometimes be more successful at soliciting review material, they can let me know in advance what they want covered.

This is true of all kinds of writing besides reviews. It’s usually better to pitch an idea and get a provisional acceptance for it from a specific publication (and additional notes, i.e., “I’d like to see you focus more on this angle”) rather than trying to sell a finished article when it hasn’t been tailored to their needs. At best, you’ll be doing a lot of rewriting by not having a discussion with your editor before you’ve written the first draft. At worst, you may not even be able to place it.

Writers write in order to be read. I hate having unpublished work on my harddrive.

I have a bunch of finished reviews that will be running in the next couple weeks, and I have three books on hand I still need to write up as well as place somewhere. An additional five that should be arriving in the mail any day now are, fortunately, already specifically promised to certain review pubs. So I know exactly what style and focus to take as I write each of them up.

(On the plus side, my previous efforts to place articles have led to a couple new regular paying outlets for me. So that’s nice.)

Becoming a Real Writer: Pitching

No matter what kind of stuff you like to write, odds are there is someone out there who will pay you for it (if it’s good enough). Straight news? There’s absolutely a market for that. Political commentary? Yep. Science writing? It’s been one of the shrinking markets the last few years, but as a freelancer, sure, you can still find outlets. Comedy writing, yeah. Features? Definitely.

Of course, you have to find your market. You can do some research and write an article on gardening and sell it, even if you’ve never even kept a houseplant alive, but the closer you stick with what you know, the more likely you are to earn a paycheque that justifies the time you put into it. Not to mention, you know, caring about what you’re writing.

I have a little notebook file with article pitches. I’m looking at science and science fiction magazines that buy non-fiction articles, so I can write about, well, both science and science fiction. I’m looking at education journals, because I have a few articles in mind for that as well. And I’m also looking at a couple of writers’ magazines.

Sometimes you have to write the whole article and then see who wants to buy it. Sometimes they just want your basic idea for the article, and they’ll let you know if you should write it. Of course, it’s often much better to know who you want to write for beforehand, so you can keep publication style guidelines — and more importantly, your audience — in mind during the writing.

Even a news article will have a different focus if it’s addressed to a specific audience, say in a trade journal, compared to a general audience. An article on the employment crisis in education will be very different if it’s written for a magazine that circulates to teachers compared to one read by the general public.

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You may have been doing a particular kind of writing “for the love” for years, without even realizing someone might be willing to pay you for it. Some time after I realized I didn’t need to depend on my editors to get me books anymore, I realized I also am capable of getting paid for my book reviews. Maybe not much. Maybe only between twenty and fifty dollars per review, but if I’m reading the books anyway (and already reviewing them so that publishers will provide me free copies), why not get a little pocket change out of the deal?

Back in the summer I was named the writer of the week on the Blogcritics site. Here’s the quote:

With Comic-Con over, it’s time to appreciate the excellent writerly skills of J.J.S. Boyce, who’s written a couple of dozen crystal-clear pieces for Blogcritics on books, movies, and games, many (but not all) centered on science fiction. All you sci-fi fans out there, and anyone who appreciates good critical writing, zip on over to J.J.S. Boyce’s writer page for a sampling of some of the best he, and Blogcritics, has to offer our readers.

So, okay, great. It’s nice to be appreciated. There are almost 1, 000 active writers on the site, which has been in operation for a few years. It’s called “writer of the week” so only about 50 win each year (actually a bit less since some “weeks” stretch to 14 days). I started writing a little before last Christmas, and, as mentioned, I’ve done 20-odd reviews on the site.

There are writers with hundreds upon hundreds of reviews who I’ve seen named “writer of the week” in the months since I was so named, and no doubt there are many more still waiting for their moment in the sun. Most will never get it. I don’t have as much seniority nor am I nearly as prolific as most other recognized writers. So why me?

Because the writing on the site can be spotty. Some writers are great but there are plenty of amateurs. Almost every article I write becomes an editor’s pick, and close to half end up being picked up by other publications that purchase content from Technorati Media (the umbrella under which Blogcritics falls). So a lot of my stuff is being sold, but I’m not getting paid for it.

That’s no one’s fault but my own. I didn’t bother to search out markets because it hadn’t occurred to me. But if anything I write is making money, probably some of that money should go to me. Similarly, if you’ve been writing a regular unpaid comedy column that’s getting major hits for a web site, or you’ve developed a decent following covering medical news for a community newspaper, maybe you ought to consider who else might be interested in publishing your stuff.

But, of course, you have to get ready to pitch it. No one’s going to do it for you. It’s tempting to be a big fish in a small pond, but if you want the satisfaction of breaking into tougher markets, you have to be pro-active about it. As my high school English teacher always said, “Get out there and sell yourself!”

Becoming a Real Writer: Getting Paid for Copywriting

It’s not as easy nowadays as walking into a newspaper office and impressing the editor-in-chief with your spunk. The newspaper and magazine industries have both been in decline for years, a decline that was certainly exacerbated by the financial crisis in 2008, but can trace its roots to the increasing number of people getting their news online, and a certain amount of uncertainty about how to make money this way, and pay their writers at the same time.

If, like me, you don’t have a degree in journalism, or some kind of related education, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get one of these traditional writing jobs, at least right off. Actually, the odds are against recent graduates of those programs, as well. There just aren’t enough staff jobs to go around. But that still leaves freelancing.

Freelancing involves getting paid by the assignment. In fact, many of this work won’t be assigned at all, but written in advance and then pitched to potential buyers. There’s plenty of unpaid work for a skilled writer, but if you’ve been doing this for a few years, and think the copy you produce is of a consistently-high quality, maybe it’s time you got paid for it.

Having said that, if you’re just starting out, you need to take anything that will pay the bills. Don’t sit there starving because you refuse to let your work be published anywhere other than National Geographic (which would probably be about the pinnacle with respect to my writing interests).

There’s a lot of work out there producing ad copy or basic content for informational or business sites. For example, a banking web site may want to hire a publicity team, which will in turn require copywriters, to create a series of articles on the different types of accounts they offer. Informational/instructional sites may want a tremendous volume and variety of material, on everything from cooking tips to financial advice to homework help.

You need two things: pre-existing areas of expertise (or at least solid research skills), and technical writing ability. If they want their copy to be AP style, you need to be able to produce copy in accordance with that style guide. If they want Chicago, that’s what you have to come up with. But when applying to these kinds of jobs, this is where you really take stock of everything else you know, and start using that non-writing experience to get your foot in the door.

Have you ever worked in finance, education, accounting, engineering, with animals, in construction? It’s possible that someone out there wants someone who can write copy on any of these subjects, or many, many more. My science and education backgrounds have both gotten me gigs in the past; more recently, my experience as an investor has gotten me a gig writing about  finance.

It’s all very romantic to say you’re throwing it all away to be a writer, but in reality, nothing should be thrown away. Everything you’ve ever done, including non-writing jobs and training, may be something you can leverage for a particular job. The next time, I can just say I have experience writing about finance, and provide some samples. But this time, I had to draw on knowledge from the non-writing areas of my life.

This is good general career advice. You never know what past job or volunteer experience you can use to help sell yourself for a particular position. A varied CV is a job-seekers best weapon.

Becoming a Real Writer: Getting Published

Step one is getting published. Technically, I guess you might argue step one is, say, learning the alphabet, but I’m assuming basic literacy and, ideally, solid spelling/grammar. Spellcheck aside, it’s worth learning the basics well enough to write a clean first draft manually. Therefore, step one is getting published, because it’s hard to judge your own work if you’re the only one reading it.

Note that by published, I mean, published by someone else. I don’t mean paid work, but I also don’t mean self-publishing on a blog. In other words, your work should be going through at least one editor who will hold you to a certain standard. Whatever your level of expertise, find a publication that you think you might be able to contribute to, and either query or just start sending in submissions, depending on their own publishing guidelines.

I started out with my university newspaper. Because writers graduate every year, typically you’ll see a general meeting which is open to everyone. Try to figure out which department or departments might be a good fit for the stuff you like to write, and start contributing. Even better, maybe your high school has a paper, but it’s likely to be published less frequently. Other options are school literary magazines, yearbook (more about photography and graphic design than writing, but still a possible in for something later), and newsletters.

If you’re not in school, start searching online. There are an amazing number of places looking for volunteer writers. Only a couple years into my school newspaper career I stumbled across an online review magazine, and sent in an audition review of a movie I had recently enjoyed. Two years of feature writing had honed my skills enough to get me on board, and they started sending me review material. Although this wasn’t a paying job, I was getting free product, which seemed pretty cool to me (school newspapers may receive freebies, too, actually).

Diversify if you can. Having a wide array of experiences makes it easier to customize your résumé to that job you really want. Any time a place you write for gives you a chance to do something you haven’t done before, breaking news coverage, writing for a different section, interviewing or profiling someone, that very piece may be the writing sample you pull up later to prove you can get a job requiring that skill.

But you can’t start building a portfolio of samples until you have someone to a) give you the assignment, and b) publish it. So get in somewhere, and write just for the fun of it.

Oh, and while you’re at your first writing job, there’s something else you should be doing: get better. Look at the writers, magazines, newpspapers, or whatever that you like, and strive to write something just as compelling. When inspiration comes, and you find you’re writing something a little over the top, just go with it, and edit afterwards.

Experiment with style, humour, and subject matter. Eventually you may write a piece and say to yourself, “Wow, that could have been published in [prestigious publicatilon]“, and it will be one of your go-to writing samples for later job applications.

Plodding Publicist

For the second time in a few months, I’ve had the same one-sided conversation with the same publicist from the same publishing house. One of the review publications to which I contribute received a press release asking for reviews, I volunteered to take a look, he proceeded to ignore the e-mail from my editor, the e-mail from me with my mailing address, the follow-up e-mail asking if he was still planning on sending it.

In both cases, the books are niche titles, an odd little non-fiction, and a translation from a foreign author that is not known here. These are the kinds of books that struggle to get enough exposure, and being one of eclectic interests, I try to do my part. Both times, the same series of e-mails from me to him. And never a response. Not one.

Now you know why you’ve never heard of these books. What a slacker.

Time For a Fresh Look at Assessment?

The latest issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine is hitting teachers’ lounges everywhere, and it may be early enough in the school year that some of those educators still have the time and energy in their day to read my article.

I haven’t even gone through it myself to see if there have been unexpected changes. This is my first time appearing in a national circulation magazine, specialized though it is, and right now I’m just basking.

This article was the culmination of some very basic questions that had been bouncing around in my head for awhile. It was also really nice to get back into feature writing — that special combination of essay- and editorial-writing I used to do all the time but have let lapse for the arts and culture scene.

Cory Doctorow on Non-Traditional Publishing

Cory Doctorow is someone who’s thought a lot about whether the traditional ways we do things in publishing are the only way. But he doesn’t just pontificate about it, he puts his money where his mouth is, experimenting with his own paycheque. If he succeeds, he has proof of concept of a new sort of marketplace. If he fails, it’s back to the drawing board.

For his Little Brother follow-up, For the Win, Doctorow decided to use a Creative Commons License. Digital copies are available as a free download at his Web Site, under multiple formats. Under the terms of the license, anyone can do pretty much whatever they want to with the text, and then re-release it, as long as they aren’t charging money for it. In this way, fan-made releases under every kind of format, for every kind of device, including, most recently, this audio version podcast, are available to everyone. And, if you enjoy it, just send a little donation Mr. Doctorow’s way. No obligation, though.

Doctorow’s even more recent release, the collection, With a Little Help, also comes with free digital downloads (again with a “pay what you want” policy), but he’s also trying to cut out the middleman for his physical editions, utilizing print on demand, and acting as his own publicist and agent and publisher. He describes this whole ongoing experiment at his Publisher’s Weekly blog, here.

I loved Little Brother, so I think I’ll be checking out that podcast. I’ll try to think of a fair payment to give him in return.