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The fearless writer

Editor's note: Freelance writer, author, preeminent Louisiana crawfish historian, and the brains behind Louisiana agricultural blog LAnote Sam Irwin writes about a writers workshop at the 7th annual Louisiana Book Fair in Baton Rogue.

Freelancer Dan Baum

Freelancer Dan Baum

Editors terrify me. I shudder when I imagine a crusty old grump sitting at a desk piled high with submissions, grasping her “World’s Meanest Mom” coffee mug with one bony claw and crumpling my masterpiece with the other.

Are editors afraid of anything?

Professional freelancer Dan Baum says that at the center of each calloused editor is a patch of soul labeled “Fear.” Baum has learned that the one thing that causes dread to an editor is the prospect of passing on the next new voice.

It makes sense. Who wants to be a shriveled husk, drinking in a darkened tavern and crying out, “I passed on Rick Bragg?” More than 100 editors decided that James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces just weren’t right for them. Both novels were nominated for Pultizers and Dunces won the prize.

And an editor watches the bottom line, whether she likes to or not.

“Magazines are always looking for good stories and new writers,” Baum told the group of writers who signed up for his “Freelance: Journalism for Fun and Profit” workshop during the 7th Annual Louisiana Book Fair in Baton Rouge. “They don’t care if you are no one. They like new freelancers because they know you’ll work cheaper than the established writer.”

Baum, a freelancer’s freelancer, is an expert at manufacturing proposals. He’s gone from being a beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to writing $3-per-word assignments for the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy and other respected publications. He has earned a comfortable living writing magazine articles for more than 22 years and his new book, Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans, is a bestseller.

The proposal is the key, Baum said.

“Your proposal has to connect to the editor that the article is worthy of the magazine,” Baum said. “The pitch has to appeal viscerally and it all has to be terrific.”
Terrific includes good interviewing technique and research. Many writers fail because they don’t do enough. Good work habits are critical and the successful writer must “avoid avoidance.”

The hard work includes selling your subject on the proposed story and giving him or her a sense that you’re both invested in the final product.

“I tell them I want to present their side of the story,” Baum said. “Often the first interview is completely off the record. By doing it that way you learn the issues from the subject’s point of view.”

Baum has a set of interviewing techniques that create fascinating results. He types his notes as he interviews a subject, but if he must resort to handwritten notes, he’ll re-write them immediately. The process can reap a literary (and monetary) reward. “I often write my best words and paragraphs when I’m typing up my notes and I’ll make a big effort to include those paragraphs in my final piece,” he said.

Part of Baum’s sales job includes an offer to let the subjects read his notes. “I tell them I’m committed to getting their story right,” Baum said. “Most of the time they’re comfortable without reading my notes, but sometimes they do and may say ‘I didn’t say that well’ or ‘I misspoke.’ I always offer them a chance to say it better and it allows me the opportunity for a follow-up interview.”

Journalism involves the writer in exciting activities that readers will pay to read about, but Baum suggests resisting the urge to share your newly gained esoterica with acquaintances during casual conversation.

“The writer gets to go out and talk to the people who are changing our lives,” Baum said. “The more you learn, the more you run the risk of being insufferable, so you should avoid expressing your knowledge verbally. Let your words and insights come out through your fingertips at the keyboard. It’s worth it.”

Being nosy leads to more engaging and edgy articles. When you interview, be intrepid, even intrusive. Baum isn’t afraid to broach subjects that “aren’t really any of my business.”

“Go deeper,” Baum suggested. Asking questions like “How much do you earn?” and “Do you consider yourself a success or failure?” may not be relevant to the topic of the interview, but are the types of impertinent queries that may get the writer on a “barstool to barstool” level with his subject.

“I try to treat my interviewee as a character in a novel,” Baum said. “You can never get all the information you need or want to know about the subject, but good writing lives on this level.”

Baum’s interviewing kit also includes a cheap digital camera because a visual record can provide the writer with the minute detail, like the insignia on uniforms, that can be referenced later.

If given the opportunity, Baum will photograph the inside of his subject’s refrigerator or medicine cabinet. “If the refrigerator is filled with wine, champagne and cheese, it tells you one thing about your subject. If it’s empty, it tells you something else, but if you learn something interesting by peeking into the medicine cabinet, it’s up to you to get the subject to bring up the topic.”

Eviscerating research on your chosen topic is not for the faint of heart. “That’s what separates those who get in the good magazines and those who don’t,” Baum said.

“Sometimes it feels just like shoveling sand, but it’s sand that need to be shoveled. I recommend lots of coffee.”

Writers must constantly check detail and never hesitate to ask for the source of a fact. Sometimes the process may take seven or eight phone calls. That’s what Baum calls a “red dog day.” Don’t let a phone interview end until you can find the Web site that will verify the information. If your subject doesn’t know, ask who does.

It’s not enough to have an exhaustive knowledge of your subject and a series of penetrating interviews. Your relentless research must include your targeted publication. “Good magazine writing always has a strong point of view, but you have to match the sensibilities of the magazine. You want to convey to the editor ‘I have a truth about the topic I want to convey.’ Don’t shy away from using your politics, religion and spirituality to know how you feel about your writing on the subject.”

He also recommends understanding the inner workings of the magazine that will pay to publish your prose.

“You should know if the magazine builds its stories around people,” Baum said. “Most do, so your protagonist should speak to the issue the magazine expresses.”

The magazine’s imposing submission requirements shouldn’t stop you from calling the editorial staff and gathering data about the journal.

“Don’t be afraid to call the magazine and speak with an editorial assistant to learn who will be the editor for your type of story,” Baum said. “Ask if they’ve run a story on your subject and their deadline schedule. You don’t want to bother an editor with your pitch when they are up against a closing deadline. Learn when the editors meet to discuss the stories that will appear in the magazine. You’ll want to time your pitch a few days before that decision making process so an editor has time to work the story with the staff before a decision is made.”

Baum also suggests keeping a log of updated contacts. Today’s intern may be tomorrow’s editor.

Editors need to know that you have enough material and skill to keep a reader engaged. “Today’s audience doesn’t like to read, but they do like to travel in their mind,” Baum said. “The way you move people is by disappearing and not bringing attention to yourself.”

Your article will be an effortless and enjoyable read only if it is written flawlessly.

“You can’t make mistakes,” Baum said. “The little mistakes add up and eventually exhaust the reader. Get other people to read your work, a trusted person who will search for the clichés.”

The most essential advice Baum offers is to read -and re-read- Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”

“I read it every year,” he said. “You must concentrate on the rules. Don’t split infinitives. Choose your words well. Embed in your head to follow the rules of good writing. Your writing will become lean and muscular only when you get rid of the fat. Get rid of the fat and what emerges is your voice.”
Will your unique voice be the one that an editor hears and wants to share with the world? Don’t be afraid to find out. If you follow the right rules and break the wrong ones, you could be the next Dan Baum. Even better, you could be the next you.

This article was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.