Notes on Being a Pack RatPosted: December 9, 2007
A pack rat? Guilty. I admit it. I’ve been a pack rat for years. But I don’t hoard everything. No old newspapers, balls of string, or useless items for me. I hoard articles about writing. My treasures are magazine clippings, some yellowed with age, stored in manila folders, labeled and ready for me to read at will. The clippings that I’ve saved for years have been an education in writing. They’ve taught me nearly as much as my four years in Journalism school.
Before I was a consistently selling freelancer, the words on those clipped pages taught me how to be a writer. They were a constant source of support from successful writers who, amazingly, shared their wisdom with me each month in the pages of The Writer, Writer’s Digest and similar publications. I treasured every clipping. Then, as now, they were the boost I needed to keep going despite rejections, to keep writing, to keep sending out queries.
One example: Back in 1990, I clipped “Dear Friend,” an article by Art Spikol, who was then nonfiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. The focus of his article was on writing personable and entertaining query letters, the kind of letter you’d send to family members or a friend (people wrote letters to family and friends back in the 90s, before email became ubiquitous).
His suggestions were, and are, timeless, whether you were writing a conventional query letter back then, or you’re sending an email query to an editor today. For a query, Spikol advised imagining that you weren’t writing to an editor at all, but to a friend with whom you felt relaxed and confident. Somebody you could communicate with.
“You’re going to tell that person what kind of an article you’d like to write, why it’s interesting, why you’re qualified to do it, and so on. . . . You’re writing to a friend. You don’t have to use language like, ‘I proposed an article of 1,600 words,’ because that’s not how you talk to your friends. So the same sentence may actually come out, ‘I figure the piece will run 1,500 words or so.'”
Spikol said forget the rules. “Communicate . . . If you can say can’t, don’t say cannot. If you can use I’ll, don’t say I will. My theory is that if it sounds intelligent, professional, on target . . . and natural, it’s fine. Concentrate on selling the idea, not individual words.”
Let your enthusiasm and confidence show, he said. “There’s nothing wrong with ending a letter with, ‘I’d love to write this for you,’ or, depending on the publication, even, ‘How about it?'”