Caitlin Kelly

Writer and Editor

 
 
         
   

tips

   
         
    Intellectual Archeology    
 
Take Good Care of Yourself
It Takes a Village
Someone's Life
Trust Your Gut!
Jargon
Getting Fired
Pain
Fear
Pleasures
Pitfalls
What It Takes
When the Going
Gets Tough
Intellectual Archeology
NoNoNoNoNoNo
NoNoNoNoNoYes
Interviewing
The Best Writing
is Rewriting
Use a Dictionary
Carefully Chosen Language
Inspiration...
Running a Home-Based Business
Quality Control
Coming Up with Ideas
Selling the Story
Reading
Paying Attention
Play Dates
Getting It
  "Meaning shows itself at once direct, literal; explicit, enclosed in itself, ..while sense cannot stay still, it seethes with second, third and fourth senses, radiating out in different directions that divide and subdivide into branches and branchlets, until they disappear from view, the sense of every word is like a star hurling spring tides out into space, cosmic winds, magnetic perturbations."
-- Jose Saramago, "All the Names"

When you decide to write a story about a person, an issue, an organization, a trend, you generally know what you might want to say. Without that sense of clarity and direction, you can't effectively pitch your idea to an editor. You need to know who will be your sources and what they can offer.

But, while you can easily enough know, and convey, the obvious meaning of a story - as Portuguese Nobel-Prize-winning author Saramago writes - the sense of a story is more elusive. I love to write stories that allow me the time to research them deeply, think about them broadly and talk about them to a few people I trust.

Unfortunately, there are few publications left that will give you that much real estate to work with - 3,000-5,000 words, say. Those that exist: The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The Atlantic, are inundated with those kinds of pitches, substantially reducing the odds of actually winning an assignment.

Most consumer magazines have very carefully-delineated styles, audiences and word-lengths. If you're assigned a 700-word front-of-the-book profile, you're not going to get into the depth and subtlety you can achieve with even three times the space, although 2,000 words is often itself a bare beginning. So, even if you find out all sorts of fascinating things about your subject, too bad. They stay in your notebook and stick in your mind until you can re-frame the material and write it longer for another market.

The best way I've found to explore ideas further is by re-working ideas for different markets. I think of the first iteration as an artist's proof, the same way that a print-maker or lithographer makes a first impression to determine the success of their image and technique. So I try to find a daily newspaper editor willing to let me explore an idea. Why a newspaper? They need copy every day and often, in my experience, have proved more open to fresh ideas than mainstream magazines. They can't pay much, so many established writers steer clear of them - but if you want a quick payment, even for $200-500, and a chance to float a trial balloon for your ideas and viewpoints, this is a good place to do it.

From there, I often spin that first idea, usually an essay or an opinion piece, into something more substantial and heavily-reported. As you return to a subject again and again, you naturally start to appreciate the nuances and subtleties that escaped your gaze the first, second, even third time. You find more sources and, because you've already covered the subject with (one hopes!) authority and style, others will take your calls more readily. In your own way, you are becoming something of an expert. I enjoy digging past the meaning to find the sense. It's a bit like sifting your notebooks for pottery shards and mica arrowheads, a kind of intellectual archeology.