A PhD in biology isn’t the direct route to becoming a travel writer, but my wish to be paid for a travel story recently came true. Not only was it my first paid travel article, but it was also my first byline in a major media outlet. “How did you get your article into the LA Times?” I have been asked. Here is how it happened.
Write. “Writers write” I read over and over. My business niche is science writing and editing, but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about my travel stories in print. Most of my travel stories end up in my blog where I liberally apply the definition of solo travel. The blog is not successful by any metrics (< 200 followers), but I get enough feedback on my stories to know what does work and to boost my confidence a little bit.
Lesson: Showcase your work in a blog to gain confidence and find your writing strengths. Focus on generating quality content.
Read/study the venues you want to publish in. It sounds old-fashioned, but I still read the Sunday LA Times in print every week. I noticed when a new column to “explore the ways in which travel changes us” appeared in the travel section. I wouldn’t be surprised if the novelty of the column worked to my advantage. It was relatively new, and it required a thoughtful spin on the travel story so it might have been easier to stand out on the basis of fewer submissions overall.
Lesson: Be on the lookout especially for any new columns in the venues you read regularly and want to publish in.
Look for the story. I have my share of big adventures to write about, but the incident that got me my first byline in the LA Times didn’t even register a blip on the thrillmeter.
Lesson: You can write a compelling story about anything if you see it that way.
Follow the guidelines. Submissions were to be completed essays of 700 words or less. I wrote my first draft without considering the word count. I wanted to cheat, but I cut until the article was down to 695 words. You can leave it up to the editor to decide whether to add any other information, which is easier than making her decide what to cut.
Lesson: Stick to the word count and follow any other submission rules.
Pitch appropriately. There is definitely an art to pitching, but my naïve, “less is more” approach worked. The story was already written; I just had to convince the editor to read it. I came up with a short introductory line and a couple of sentences describing where the incident took place and how it was relevant to the call. I did not mention my extremely limited bio, but ended instead with a word count and a “thank you for considering my article for publication”statement. The one standard tip I used was to search for the editor’s name.
Lesson: “Less is more” can work for some pitch letters, but it’s always good to address the editor by her name.
Be professional. I check and recheck grammar and spelling. I know from science that editors and reviewers get distracted by the most minor mistakes. It gives the impression you don’t pay attention to details which subliminally makes your story suspect.
Timely and polite correspondence scores points for you as well. When the editor first wrote, I immediately responded and confirmed I could make the deadline for revisions, which required working over a weekend. She appreciated my effort.
Lesson: Check for minor mistakes; show respect to the editor and her process.
Just try! Getting my first byline in the LA Times was not so unlike the travel incident I wrote about; I decided to get up out of bed one morning and just do something different.
Lesson: Get in the game!
And well, writing that story gave me one more story to write about.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com