Recommended reading: The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell (ESPECIALLY the ‘Shaping a Story’ section).
University is a fantastic time to get into writing. Here at LitSoc, we offer all our members the chance to publish reviews, essays and short fiction on our blog, In the Margin. But beyond the campus, other publications such as magazines, blogs and even major newspapers want to hear from the university youth as well!
Writing a piece for publication can be intimidating, so we have prepared this guide to help you get started, articulate your ideas and avoid rookie mistakes. I’ve been editing for In the Margin for a while now, and every week we have fantastic new contributions coming in from our members. In compiling this, I tried to draw on my experience writing in university and the most common things I find myself editing for in our submissions. I hope you find it helpful!
Reviews and Literary Essays
- The Six Rules of excellent writing: READ READ READ WRITE WRITE WRITE! Extensively reading a text type you are trying to produce will do wonders for your ability to structure correctly and help you understand the tone and conventions of the style. If you want to write literary essays, go looking for them. Maybe sign up for some mailing lists to stay immersed. If you want to write reviews and criticism, read reviews from major newspapers, independent blogs and the general public (e.g. Goodreads). That said, try to avoid using social media like BookTok and Twitter as a place to learn how to structure criticism and writing. If you are aiming to publish, the style is different and the bar is higher. Then go out and practise! You don't need to share everything you write, you don't even have to like it. But make sure you finish some of them. Nothing is more demoralising than a folder full of half-finished thoughts. You can publish with us, start your own blog or website or pitch to other publications, but only if you have a finished piece. Discussing with others will also help you sharpen your thinking, and a good editor will go a long way.
- Don't be afraid to go long – it's easier to tighten up a rambling idea than pad out an undercooked one. This is what your drafting process is for.
- Revise and redraft before submitting – reading your writing as a complete piece is necessary for you to evaluate whether you feel it is well structured and conveys your thoughts in a sustained manner. Many people find it helpful to read it aloud to themselves or another person.
- Have a clear scope, theme and thesis – you've already heard this one from your professors, but it warrants repetition. Take time to consider what message you want your piece to send and what you want the reader to walk away thinking.
– When your scope is too large, you won't have space to sufficiently explain your points, and the result is a piece of writing frantically skipping from thought to thought without meaningfully delving into any of them.
– You should be able to boil your main thesis into one sentence.
– Literary essays typically have more room to meander than academic essays, but practising tight, succinct writing is still essential.
A limited tale well told is more meaningful than a sweeping story that can’t be adequately illustrated. – Blundell, page 24
- Avoid passive voice – this is a common mistake for inexperienced writers. The passive voice should be used sparingly. It gets boring and awkward if it is overused. Try to make your sentences active and engaging.
- TIP: if you're unsure whether you are writing in passive or active voice, add ‘by zombies’ onto the end of your sentence. If it makes grammatical sense, you're using passive.
– E.g. ‘themes of loneliness were explored’ vs ‘the author explores themes of loneliness’
- Consider rhythm – The rhythm and flow of your writing is crucial to making it readable and engaging. Varying your sentence length and structure is very important to prevent your piece from getting monotonous. Reading what you’ve written aloud is a really good way to assess the flow of your writing.
– Avoid needlessly complicated phrasing. You will lose the readers in the weeds of filler words and distract them from the broader ideas you are trying to convey. (This does not apply to complex or technical words used to illuminate a point. I am talking about writers who waffle through the scaffolding of a sentence.)
– E.g. ‘functions as’ when ‘is’ would be just as accurate. ‘Though it is true that’ when simply ‘though’ is more succinct. Don't lose your reader before you even reach the point of the sentence.
– A lot of people find that reading and writing poetry helps them develop this skill.
- Don’t overuse cliches – when all your paragraphs start with some variation on the same sentence, or if you find yourself using the same opener for every review, you might want to shake things up and break your mould. Formulaic language makes your writing less engaging and stops you from developing your own voice and style. If you are a heavy social media user, be extra sure to read closely for cliches and formulaic language, as it is prolific online.
– Additionally, a cracking opening line will really set you apart from other writers.
- TIP: if you're having trouble figuring out what you want to say, try and write it down on an A5 piece of paper (or a sticky note if you're brave!). This will help clarify your core ideas and understand what the most important pieces of your argument are. This tip got me through many a law class (thanks, mom, for this advice ♡).
- Be specific – when you introduce an idea, follow it through to completion. Avoid using vague language and broad judgements. If something bothers you, explain why. Conversely, if you enjoyed something, elaborate on it. You always need to be clear in your meaning and scope.
– E.g. ‘problematic’ is a popular term online, but it can become inappropriate for published work when used without support. You need to specify the reasons you feel something is problematic and possibly go into the impacts (e.g. is it stereotypical? Cliche? Does the writer have implicit bias? What is the impact? Why does it matter?).
- Use evidence – never make an unsubstantiated claim. This extends to reviews! When you make a judgement or argument, back it up with examples from the text (for reviews and analysis) or other reliable sources.
- Stop cringing in anticipation of bad-faith criticism – this is something I've noticed a lot in young writers who grew up on social media, especially women. They will write with an angry commenter in mind, already expecting an unkind response. They will try to anticipate the criticism by apologising and undercutting themselves throughout the text. This detracts from the clarity of your writing and undermines the structure of your piece. If you find yourself doing this, understand that a lot of people are just career complainers looking for a reason to feel superior to you, and they are not your concern. Do not try to placate an angry mob that only exists in your mind, and always own your thoughts.
- Use your own words and develop your own written style. When a thought or turn of phrase feels weird and fresh, embrace it!
- Read past interviews to make sure you aren’t asking questions they’ve been asked 100 times before.
– If you see something interesting an author said in a previous interview, you can absolutely ask them to elaborate on the topic!
- Think about whether the questions will be engaging for the author to answer and for fans and potential new readers to read about.
- Temper your expectations of who they are as a person, and stay open-minded. Don’t put them on a pedestal.
- Weak questions are a common pitfall for inexperienced interviewers. Try to avoid formulaic questions with easy answers and loaded questions that would make authors uncomfortable. Never insult their intelligence.
– No yes or no questions! Always ask open-ended questions!
- Generic questions can quickly become unique and interesting with a little bit of thought and tweaking. Remember, you want to make the author stand out!
– E.g. ‘Tell me about being a marginalised writer’ could become ‘how do you stay true to yourself as an individual while writing minority experiences, which are often pushed to be easily consumable?’
- When I write questions, I try to consider four angles: personal, process, structure, content. These will often overlap when writing or conducting an interview, but I always aim to give writers a chance to talk about all of these aspects.
– Personal questions make great openers and closers. Ask the author something about themselves separate from the book you are discussing. Ask them what they think defines them as a writer, why they write, who they are, or about their feelings on success (or lack thereof). If you feel like it, you can get a bit silly (à la icebreaker questions) to make the interview more personable and unique.
– Process questions focus on their writing process. Ask about authors’ inspiration, routine, education, the extent to which the books draw from their own experiences, worldbuilding process, what they wanted readers to take away, what they learned while writing, etc.
– Structure questions are more unconventional, and many authors find them engaging and fresh. Ask about the technical aspects of a book, the person-tense and why they chose it, the techniques they employ to create atmosphere, division of perspective, their own unique prose style, etc.
– Content questions are super fun, but can sometimes alienate people who have not yet read an author’s work. Ask about themes, delve deeper into characters and relationships or chase answers about the minutiae of the world. These questions are super engaging for fans, and it's important to have some in your interview. They will help you make a better connection with the author and show your engagement with their work (topical questions about a related book are free publicity and play very well for this reason). Just make sure you balance them out with things that would be interesting to a new reader!
– You can ask for authors' insights on the literary world and culture, but really try to keep these questions limited. A lot of people find them tiresome, played out and irrelevant when they were really hoping to talk about their recent work and process. Remember that they are an artist here to talk about their art.
- If you’re conducting an interview over the phone or in person, you can and should ask interviewees to elaborate as interesting points come up in conversation. Don’t be afraid to go down unscripted tangents if the two of you are on a roll. You’re the one guiding the conversation, so stay alert for interesting things to expand on, and keep an eye on tone and body language to see when they're engaged and when you should shift to the next scripted point.
- Consider the flow of the interview as a cohesive piece.
- Use your judgement and trust yourself! A good interviewer builds a relationship in a few questions, so don't undersell yourself as being ‘just some uni student’. Approach with confidence and openness, and then go forth and prove yourself.
Pitching to Newspapers
Pitching to a major newspaper is a different game to pitching for a university publication. University publications turn out great, thoughtful pieces with fresh new ideas, and all the basic principles still apply. However, you will need to be more conscientious and attuned to detail if you want to pitch to a newspaper. Here are some tips to get you started.
Edit your own work
- Anything that goes through to publication will have at least one editor go over it. However, you will be expected to have edited for grammar and syntax yourself. Practise this skill in your own time, and have another person review it in case a fresh pair of eyes pick up anything you've missed.
- Make sure any facts you cite are correct and backed up by a reliable source. You can hyperlink sources in the text of your draft (editors and production staff actually prefer this because it is how articles appear on their websites, and it means they save time chasing down your sources).
- Check if the paper you’re pitching to has a style guide for freelancers (and whether they expect you to write your own headline).
- You should also be submitting your best work, never an early draft. These publications will reject more pieces than they accept, so make sure your thoughts are as polished as possible so you can impress the editor.
Stay up to date
- If you are commenting on recent or ongoing events, make sure your information is as current as possible. Be aware that events may change during the editing process, and you may need to retune your article to align with them.
- Every time I have written about current events for publication, the time between starting my first draft and final edits being approved was under 48 hours. The actual writing, self-editing and redrafting took a fraction of that time, probably totalling about 5 hours per piece.
- If you're writing a piece about a broader issue, or a personal piece, you can take your time, but the news cycle on current events moves FAST. The faster you can submit your commentary, the higher your chance of publication.
- This is where knowing your structure, having great research skills and lots of practice really pay off. When all you have to worry about is what you need to say and you can trust your own writing skills, you will have a much better time.
Know the format
- Opinion editorials (op-eds) and profiles are a great way to dip your toes into journalism while in university. Make sure to read a bunch beforehand so you know the structure and tone you are shooting for.
- Major publications are also more likely to be strict about length, especially if your piece is going to print. Try to avoid going over 700 words (and the SMH, for instance, has a daily print slot at 450 words max.), and communicate clearly with the editor about their expectations. Being concise is essential.
- Additionally, make sure you are pitching to the right paper. You don’t want to waste your time pitching to a publication with no interest in your topic! Reading news widely will help give you a sense of which outlet is right for your story.
– You will get a sense of which publications are most receptive to taking on unpublished or student freelancers.
- You will be required to write a short bio. Try to keep it to one or two sentences. I used to just use ‘[NAME] is a [DEGREE] student at the University of Technology Sydney.’
Write a good email
- You need to be professional and concise. Editors are very busy people, and if your email is confusing or boring, you are less likely to get a reply. Be polite, and keep the most important information at the beginning. Use line breaks to bust up any big blocks of text, and make sure to include your phone number.
- Keep your phone on and your email inbox open so you can reply as quickly as possible when they contact you. These things move very fast, especially if you're publishing online or pitching close to printing day.
Trust yourself, and stay confident!
- Newspapers love featuring young people’s voices, as it keeps the conversation fresh and brings in a new perspective on contemporary issues. They want to hear from you! Bring a confident attitude with you, and remember that you are a collaborator with the team. Your ideas are important and valued.
- Understand that as a student freelancer, the balance of power is not in your favour when it comes to editing. It is difficult to figure out when you need to accept criticism and restructuring from an experienced editor and when you need to push back and stand up for your creative vision. There is no easy answer, and you are going to need to learn to trust yourself. Always keep communication open and expectations clear.