Footnote. Most of us work in Microsoft Word, and Word has an excellent footnote function. Use it. Footnote everything in your article — every fact, every quote, every number. Most sentences will contain several footnotes. Never use ibid, but rather write out complete footnotes every time — even if one is identical to the one above — because when lines get moved, footnotes move with them. Put sources’ phone numbers and email addresses in the footnotes, and don’t just put it in the footnote for the first reference to the person, but in the footnote in every reference. (See the manuscripts of our killed stories, here, to see how thoroughly we footnote. The sources’ contact information has been removed, but you’ll get the idea.) Don’t use endnotes, which put all your references at the end of the article, but rather footnotes, which put them right there on the same page. That way your editor can glance down as she reads to verify that your facts are backed up.

 Footnoting is there mostly to help the fact-checkers. It’s a courtesy, but it helps you as well. You want the head of fact-checking, when he runs into the editor at the coffee pot, to mention how great it is to work with your copy.

 Footnotes are also there for the editors, who might wonder as they’re reading how you know some particularly stunning fact. If they see the cite right there on the bottom of the page, it will inspire in them a great deal of confidence.

 Footnoting is also there for you. During the editing, you may need to remember where you got a particular fact. And months later, when you go back to your story in order to build an entirely new one around a related topic, you’ll have a guide to your sources. I’m now working on a book proposal based on an article I wrote six years ago. My old footnotes are a life-saver.

 To continue with a theme I began a few days ago — how to make yourself so pleasant to work with that magazine editors gravitate toward you — here are two ways to “put yourself on staff.”

 By that, I mean radiating such an acute sensitivity to the way a particular magazine operates that you give the impression of being a member of the staff. The importance of doing so cannot be overstated. Remember, you’re dealing with some of the most stressed-out people on the planet — magazine editors — and anything you can do to make yourself an island of relief will be so wildly appreciated that it will increase your chances of getting assignments.

There Is Weakness; There Are Boring Passages

My pet, Peeve, growls whenever someone uses the construction “there is,” or “there are,” as in “there are international laws against denying asylum seekers a chance to make their cases,” or “there is nothing standing in the way of ICE agents plucking suspected undocumented immigrants off of public buses.” Even the past or future tense, it’s a stinker of a construction: “There were women lining the ballroom;” “there will be colonies on the moon.”

Rewrite to make active the first two examples above and you come up with the much more vivid and appealing, “international law forbids denying asylum seeks a chance to make their cases,” or “international law requires countries to let asylum seekers make a case for refuge.” And: “No law denies ICE agents the authority to pluck suspected undocumented immigrants off of public busses.” Feel the difference? In the past and future are not “Women lined the ballroom,” and “colonies will be a reality on the moon,” more vivid and brisk? I can answer that: Yes, they are. Use “there is” and its derivatives in your first draft if you must, but  in the revision stage tune into “there is” and “there are” and rewrite to use more active wording.



The Only Practical Path Is To Dream Big

A recurring theme emerged among my clients at The Proposal Factory, and continues to crop up when talking to writers at the beginning of their careers: Too many freelancers aim too low.

“What magazine were you thinking of pitching?” I’ll ask, and often get a response along the lines of, Footwear News, Quilt Collector, or somesuch.

“Why not The New Yorker?” I’ll ask, if it seems the proposal could be configured that way. “Why not The Atlantic?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” beginners (and even some veterans) will often say. “I’m nobody.”

Here’s a little secret of the magazine world: Everybody’s nobody.

Yes,  a little cohort of big names cluster around Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and breathe different air from the rest of us. But that’s a very small club, and completely irrelevant.

In the quotidian world of magazine writing, what you’ve got is vastly more important than who you are. I’ve been making a living as a freelance writer since 1987, and I am firmly convinced that what you’ve done and where you’ve published means little to the magazine editor reading your proposal. All that matters are two things: Is the story right for the magazine, and are you the person who can deliver it.

It is true that magazine editors like working with writers they know. But it’s equally true that they’re always looking out for new ones. Magazines are constantly looking to expand their stable. They’re bored with some of the writers who they’ve been publishing for years. They can pay newcomers less. And an editor who discovers the next great voice earns career points. When you send a good proposal to the editors of a top-flight magazine, you’re doing them a favor.

Of course, the proposal has to be superb on many levels — not only a great story, with a detailed plan for delivering it, but tailored perfectly to the magazine in question. That takes work.

But there’s no point in shooting low. The big-name magazines pay better. They reach more people. You can do more good with your journalism writing for an influential million-circulation magazine than for a small one.

This life is full of rejection. The world is lining up disappointments for you; you don’t need to give it any help by limiting your ambitions up front.  It costs no more to send a proposal to The New Yorker than to Energy User News. The practical thing is not to restrict yourself. The practical thing to do is to dream big, and then work hard to achieve those dreams.

The Equation

Most, if not all, of the persnickety usage rules I discuss in this blog are explained at length in this book:


If you aspire to write and don’t have this book, you need to fix that pronto. Strunk was a professor at Cornell. White is E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and many articles for The New Yorker. It’s all of 85 pages long. I sit and re-read it about once a year; it takes about 90 minutes.

Their thesis is that striving to create a “style” is the wrong way to go about finding your unique voice. They’re right; I’ve tried it, and what comes out is a bad imitation of someone else’s style. (In my case, Hunter Thompson’s.)

Strunk and White argue convincingly that if you merely adhere strictly to the rules of grammar and usage, your own style will emerge. I have found them to be entirely correct. It’s why I’m such a stickler for using the language with precision.

So complete is their vision of what makes writing good is that I am convinced that good non-fiction book or magazine writing can be broken down into this simple equation:

Good information + Strunk + White = excellence.

We’ll get to the “good information” part another time. In the meantime, if this book isn’t on your shelf, please change that.


Post-Graduation Opportunity

We just heard about what appears to be a truly terrific idea: Report For America, which seems to be a journalistic analog for Teach for America. Read about it here. Just as Teach for America places young Americans in classrooms and gives them an early exposure to teaching, Report for America places young Americans in newsrooms and gives them early experience in reporting. Reporters, especially beginners, don’t earn much, but RFA helps. The newspaper pays half the newbie’s salary, RFA a quarter, and  “local donor” a quarter. That last bit worries me a little. Any local wealthy enough to bankroll a quarter of a reporter’s salary is likely to be newsworthy herself, which sets up a conflict of interest if the reporter is dependent on the subject of his story for a quarter of his salary.

But that’s a quibble. If you’re young and daunted by how to break into journalism, you might give Report for America a look.

Howdy, Pard

Last night at dinner, a 25-year-old friend of ours, freshly graduated from college and about to start work at an NGO, referred to her organization “partnering” with another.

“Really?” I said. “At my table, with a plate of my cooking set before you, you’re going to use “partner” as a verb?”

That set off a long debate about whether “partner” is, in fact, a verb as well as a noun. If it is, nobody has told Merriam-Webster. M-W, like me, seems to think using “partner” as a verb is the worst kind of corporate-speak. (Actually, it doesn’t seem to be as judgmental as I, though it does not list “partner” as a verb; only as a noun.)

The younger people around the table insisted that “partner” can be a verb. But they also insisted that “impact” can be used a verb. On this, they had Merriam-Webster on their side but not me. Today’s advice: avoid using nouns as verbs. It’s modern, it’s corporate, and it makes you sound like that dweeb from Human Resources who so irritates you. You can surely find more elegant ways to say what you want to say. Rise to the challenge.

Singularly plural

The hair between the shoulder blades of my pet, Peeve, stiffened and he emitted a low growl. No less than The New York Times published this line: “None of the protesters were armed.”

See why Peeve deserves a treat? “None” is a contraction of “no one.” It therefore always takes the singular form of any verb, especially “to be.” Ditto “neither” and “either.” “Neither of the doctors was familiar with such symptoms.” “Either donut is fine” Say or write “neither of the doctors were familiar…” and you’ll reveal yourself to be a thoughtless lummox stampeded by the herd into using our beautiful language incorrectly. Likewise, if you answer the question, “How are you?” with “Good.” The correct answer is “well” or “fine,” unless you feel like I do, in which case, the correct response is, “How do you think I am? I’m a terminally ill 62 year-old insomniac who was in lousy shape to begin with.” Although that does end the sentence with a preposition.