Marketing: 9 approaches and 2 warnings

First of all, no one has to submit their writing in order to call themselves a writer. A writer is someone who writes, although in our culture if you tell someone you’re a writer, their first response may be “Have you been published?”

But the fact is submitting your writing is an option. An add-on. A choice.

9 Approaches

If you do decide to submit your writing, there are several approaches you can take, including these:

  1. Top-down: Start with the most prestigious, well-known and highest-paying markets, such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Rationale: If you’re going to spend all that time and energy making a submission, you might as well aim for the top.
  2. Bottom-up: Start with small-readership, relatively unknown, low- and non-paying publications, such as your local newspaper, chamber-of-commerce magazine or community college journal. Rationale: Earn your chops, garner some clips and work your way up.
  3. Mix it up. Simultaneously work the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. Every other submission goes to the top; the rest go to the bottom. Rationale: If one approach doesn’t work, maybe the other will.
  4. Overproduce and undersell. I first heard about this approach from a celebrity chef being interviewed on TV. Until then, I didn’t know it existed but when I heard the chef explain how he focused on making the best possible food and spent minimal time on marketing, I realized that’s what I do. When it comes to my writing, I focus on producing the highest-quality product I can and then send it out. I also call this the Gentle Approach. Rationale: If it’s good, it will sell. Sometimes the soft sell works.
  5. The numbers game. Make as many submissions as possible. Focus on quantity. Send anything anywhere. Rationale: The more submissions you make, the greater the likelihood of having something accepted.
  6. Thin thread. Sometimes, when researching markets you’ll come across a publication or contest that exhibits only a thin connection with your writing, whether it has to do with tone, topic or genre. Make the submission anyway. Rationale: Even with exhaustive market research, there’s always a certain amount of randomness and unpredictability to the submission process. In fact, when it comes to getting published, “there is no system,” a published author once told me. Maybe randomness will work in your favor.
  7. Entertainment purposes only. Do it for fun. Make submissions to see how many rejections you can collect. Boast about every rejection to your family. Paper your office with rejection slips. Compete with your writer friends to see who can earn ten rejections first. Rationale: In the grand scheme of things, whether or not your writing gets published doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re having fun.
  8. The grand experiment. Think of the submission process as a scientific experiment for which you don’t know the outcome. Tell yourself the only reason you’re making submissions is to find out what happens. Be curious and open-minded. Have no ulterior motives. Keep accurate records. Rationale: Learn something.
  9. The soft-boiled egg. Save your vulnerable side (the soft-boiled egg) for when you’re writing. Don your suit of armor (the egg shell) before making submissions. Rationale: To write you have to be open; to market you have to be tough.

2 Warnings

 In the interest of full disclosure: Bad things can happen to those who submit. For instance:

1. The dreaded mailing list

When you make a submission to a publication, whether or not your submission is accepted, you may be put on that publication’s mailing list.

That means that not only was your essay or short story rejected but you may receive weekly, even daily, reminders of it in the form of emailed requests to purchase the rejecting publication’s online class, take part in its pay-to-enter contest or buy its anthology. Talk about salt in the literary wound. And to make things even less pleasant, those ads often are sent in the middle of the night, the better to greet you from your crammed inbox when you start work for the day.

That rejecting market may event enlist “partners” who also send you ads. When will the horror stop? When you opt out of the mailings, of course, but sometimes that’s complicated and, well, you get my point.

2. Never hearing back

And then there’s the rejection itself.

Just what is a rejection? You could say it’s a non-acceptance, an absence of a good thing. When your poem is rejected with a “sorry but not a good fit” email, no one comes to your door and beats you up about it. No one yells at you over the phone or mocks you online, although years ago I was severely chastised via email by a contest judge who made an inaccurate assumption about me and my writing. But for the most part, a rejection comes in the form of a belated email, if you receive one at all.

In the olden days, like five years ago, publications actually notified everyone who made submissions, but nowadays it’s more common for the journal or contest organizer to say something like “if you haven’t heard from us in three months, it means we won’t be able to use your submission.”

Wow. Kind of like asking someone to marry you only to have them respond with “If you haven’t heard from me in a week, it’s a no.” Talk about tone deaf. Talk about rude.

In my opinion, a publication, contest organizer or literary agent—anyone inviting submissions from writers—shouldn’t do so unless they can guarantee a prompt response. But, hey, I’ve been criticized for caring too much about writers.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath, remember the chance of getting published may be low and find other ways to maintain your confidence.

Marketing your writing: It’s all about the stars

It's All About the Stars 1-8-16

“It’s all about the stars,” I told one of my students, in an attempt to simplify the marketing process. By “stars” I meant the stars each student in her class earned by making a submission.

The class had decided to hold a friendly marketing competition. The students had three goals: To motivate themselves to send their writing out, to learn about the submission process and to have some fun.

The rules of the game were simple: For each submission they made, they would earn one star, which was then drawn on a dry-erase board. At the end of the 10-week class, the student who earned the most stars would be declared the winner and taken out to dinner.

Notice that each star was won not by having a poem or article accepted for publication, although that would be great, but by making a submission.


Because making a submission is something a writer has control over.

As writers, we may not have control over how talented we are, although we can always work on our craft. We may not get to decide what kinds of books are selling or which magazines have gone under. But we do have control over whether we submit our short stories, poems and essays.

Making submissions is like selling shoes. Say you own a brick-and-mortar shoe store. You’re not going to sell any high heels, slippers or athletic shoes if you keep your inventory hidden in the back storeroom. You need to display the kid’s shoes and hiking boots on the store shelves and in the front window, so your customers can see them, touch them and possibly try them on.

Even if you do display your shoes, you’re not going to sell every pair. Some of your customers are going to walk out without buying anything. But you still need to set your merchandise out.

For writers, displaying their work means sending it out. Not that submitting writing is easy. In fact, over the years, several of my students have told me they find the whole submission process overwhelming. And in some ways they’re right.

To submit just one story, a writer has to:

  • Come up with a story idea
  • Draft, revise and finalize that story
  • Research markets
  • Decide what market to submit to
  • Submit the story

Just the number of markets can be overwhelming. Factor in the fact that each publication has its own set of writer’s guidelines and you see how complex the system can be.

Which is why it’s important to focus on the stars. Earn one star and then another star and then another star. Until you have a constellation.

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

How the Stepping Stone System Can Get You Where You Want to Go

Someday, you tell yourself, I’m going to write that novel, finish that screenplay and complete that essay. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Oh, that’s right. There are non-writers in the world.

But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about us. We’re writers who want to die happy. We want to complete our writing goals before we kick the literary bucket. We want our tombstone to read “Novelist—Screenplay Writer—Essayist Who Died in Peace at Her Desk.”

Whatever your writing goals are — maybe poems or short stories are your shtick — achieving them requires one thing: completing a string of small, specific tasks.

Yes, it’s time to think small and specific, not big and vague. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with having big writing goals. In fact, knowing what you want to write is important (and not necessarily easy to determine), but it isn’t enough. After deciding what you want to accomplish, you have to make it happen.

Hoping it will happen or talking about it happening or complaining about it not happening aren’t going to cut it. You have to have a plan—a plan that includes a series of small, specific tasks.

Experienced writers know how to convert a big goal — such as writing a memoir — into a series of tasks that can be completed in one sitting. One day the memoirist might research the history of her hometown. Another day she might draft that anecdote about the day her brother brought home a mouse.

Each day writers need look no further than that. It’s like walking across a stream one stepping stone at a time. To arrive safely on the other bank, the walker need only keep his eyes focused on the rock ahead. True, some rocks may be slippery (how am I going to show the character’s meanness?), or even dangerous (how much should I reveal about myself?). But who said writing is easy or safe?

Say you want to write a novel. What might a small, specific task look like?

What it wouldn’t look like is this: Write Chapter One. That task is too big and vague.

Instead, a more helpful task would be: Draft the opening scene of Chapter One.

If you’re working on an essay, a small, specific task might be: Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Or Find and remove passive voice.

Confession time. I need to be honest. After completing one self-assigned task, you may end up completing additional tasks that same day. But giving yourself one small, specific task serves two purposes: (1) It keeps you focused so you’re not overwhelmed by your project, and (2) because the task is doable, you’ll approach your writing feeling relaxed, which will improve the quality of your output. Tense writers produce tense copy. Now forget what you just read and continue to assign yourself individual, small tasks.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of binge writing (think National Novel Writing Month), although that approach might work for some writers. A putzer and chipper by nature, I find that binge writing smacks of trendy diets and New Year’s goals that never pan out. In my experience, it’s more helpful to find a way to write a little bit all the time. Be a tortoise. Be a putzer. Chip away at your writing projects. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have arrived.

More examples of specific writing tasks:

  • Find a strong opening scene.
  • Draft the main character’s backstory.
  • Finalize the ending.
  • Re-read what you wrote yesterday.
  • Use a pen to mark up a print-out of your story.
  • Enter handwritten edits into computer.
  • Research markets.

To increase the chances that the stepping stone system will work for you, consider these additional tips:

Don’t talk. If you’ve just started a new writing project, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it except in a class in which the instructor facilitates any feedback. Why keep a new project to yourself? Because in its early stages it’s like an egg, an embryo. It’s vulnerable, susceptible and easily affected. The tiniest little comment can stop it cold or throw it off course. Until it’s more mature and can defend itself, it needs the protection of privacy. Only later, when the writer is sure she knows what the project is about will it be ready to face the world.

Check in with yourself. Each day, take a few minutes to ask yourself “Am I on track with my writing? What specific task do I need to complete today to move toward my goal?”

Focus on what you can control. You may not have control over whether your poem gets published but you do have control over whether you complete that day’s task.

Use passwords as reminders/mantras. We all have to come up with multiple computer passwords. So annoying. Unless you use them to remind yourself of your literary goals. Some examples: TitleofYourNovel342277, Essayist!*457.

Expect the worst. I don’t expect the world to move out of the way so I can write uninterrupted. I realize stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. We’re not isolated machines. We’re real people living real lives. One day the cat throws up on the rug, requiring a trip to the vet. Another day a spouse wants to have “a talk.” Or an out-of-town relative shows up unannounced at the front door. Some days it may seem as if life is a sinister novel plotted to prevent you from writing.

The solution isn’t to move to a desert island. The solution is to bounce back. Be resilient. Laugh. Cry. Fail up. (To “fail up” means to try and fail, over and over again, until you get what you want.)

Lighten up: Figure out what you enjoy about writing and use it to your advantage. If you like to write in noisy coffee shops, go for it. If you like to write alone in your car or late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, do that.

Remember that writing matters. Don’t forget that writers have value. They add to society and culture. Don’t hide your gift. Bring it out. You’ll benefit from doing so and so will the rest of the world.

Own it. Whatever you write, stand firm. Readers don’t want hesitant. They don’t buy confused. They’re attracted to writers who convey a sense of calm confidence without being obnoxious. In short, be yourself.

Write first thing in the morning. If time goes by and you’re not completing your writing tasks, try doing them first thing in the morning before the rest of the world presses in.

Reward yourself. Creating a new habit is hardest at the beginning, so reward yourself for each completed task. Choose healthy, affordable rewards: a special cup of coffee, an issue of a favorite magazine, or a walk through a park with a friend.

Poem and photos to appear in Cirque

Good news! My poem, “The Open Road,” and three photos of birch trees (how I love Alaskan birch trees) have been accepted for publication by Cirque.

Photo: Here is the preview of our next issue.  Thank you, Mark Muro, for the cover shot.  Advance purchases can be made only via PayPal to $25 will cover the issue plus postage.  Contributors can order 5 copies for $60 including postage.  You can also order via US mail.  Inquire via the same email for details.  Advance orders may be delivered before Christmas; this editor will try.  Don't order yet from the Cirque web page as it's set up for prior issues, still.

Cirque editors Mike Burwell and Sandra Kleven have been great supporters of my writing. I feel honored to have my writing and photos appear in this stunning publication, which features work by writers living in the North Pacific Rim — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, British Columbia, and Chukotka.

Writing strong leads: How to hook the reader

Writing strong leads: How to hook the reader(What follows is an excerpt from material presented in the Journalism for Freelance Writers class.)

Do you read every article in a newspaper or magazine you happen to pick up? Probably not. If you’re like most readers, you focus on the articles that hook you and pull you in.

In journalism, the term “lead” refers to the opening of an article. Also called the “hook,” or “grabber,” the lead is in many ways the most important part of an article. It also can be the most difficult to write because it requires the reporter to summarize the content of the article in a way that conveys its tone while enticing the reader.

Leads come in various types, including anecdotal leads, which include a story to illustrate a point, and delayed-suspense leads, which withhold information until later. Whatever the type, effective leads have three traits in common: brevity, clarity and relevancy.

Finding the lead can be the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of writing an article but once nailed down it makes writing the article simpler. In that sense, the lead functions like an outline. Once you determine the opening, the article falls into place.

Journalism for Freelance Writers

Dates: Saturdays, Sept. 27-Dec. 6, 2014. No class Nov. 29.

Time: 2-4 p.m.

Cost: $200/10 weeks

Limited to 5 students

Location: Hollywood district of Northeast Portland, Oregon. Exact location provided upon registration.

Learn the skills professional reporters use to write features, human-interest articles and small-business profiles. Become the freelance writer every editor wants to work with. Learn the dos and don’ts of the publishing world. By the end of the class you’ll have completed one feature article that is 650-800 words in length. Along the way, you’ll learn how to:

  • Find article ideas
  • Carry out research
  • Prepare for and conduct interviews
  • Write leads
  • Organize, draft, revise and polish articles
  • Handle quotes and attributions
  • Meet deadlines and word counts
  • Copyedit and fact check
  • Write headlines, captions and photo credits
  • Apply AP and Chicago style
  • Take photos
  • Work with editors
  • Follow journalist ethics and values
  • Fulfill journalistic responsibilities

To register: Mail payment to Nancy Woods, P.O. Box 18032, Portland, OR 97218. To pay by credit card call (503) 288-2469.For more information: or (503) 288-2469.