Talking to an editor at a writers’ conference

Tara Lazar asked how a writer summons the nerve to pitch a story idea to an editor in an informal or social setting during or after a writers’ conference. She hoped the readers of this blog and I could suggest approaches that didn’t seem too pushy. She was clearly referring only to situations in which an editor could reasonably expect to be approached.

Lazar said she gets noticed at networking events by sitting in the front row and being among the first to introduce herself and offer comments following an editor’s presentation.

When Lazar meets an editor for the first time, she looks directly into the person’s eyes. She listens to the editor’s name and then repeats the name when she offers her own and they shake hands. The techniques help her to remember names. “For some people,” she said, “giving that initial handshake is so automatic that they forget to pay attention.”

What are some other strategies for making a good impression?

Editors are people. Whether you hit it off and the editor reacts favorably are matters of chance. It’s self-defeating to try to become the writer that will please everyone. It’s better to be yourself and be liked by the person who appreciates what you can do. I happen to believe talent outshines personality. Sometimes, excellent writing conveys personality to me more effectively than the person does. Lazar’s concern might be wasted on someone like me.

I believe networking is beneficial. Make no mistake about it. The right connections might even get a mediocre writer published, but eventually the gravy train will get a new engineer. (Or would conductor be the better metaphor?)

Certain skills are useful in a variety of social situations such as writers’ conferences, online networking, and interaction with readers. Foremost is clear and succinct communication. If people tune you out, it could be because you take too long to make your point, speak too softly, seem oblivious to listeners’ reactions, fail to make eye contact, or don’t correctly employ the jargon that can facilitate communication with the professionals you want to influence.

Do your homework. Talk to friends and acquaintances about your ideas before you pitch any of your concepts to an editor. The day you speak to an editor shouldn’t be the first time you’ve ever voiced your proposal.

The most effective technique is often innate and is also the most difficult characteristic to describe: empathy. In advance of meeting an editor, if you can learn enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, then you’ll make a better impression. The conversation will seem effortless. If you think only of what the outcome of the interaction will mean to your success, then you’ve overlooked half of the equation. You need to be able to persuade the editor that your goals are complementary and mutually achievable. Beyond mere respect or deference, empathy enables collaboration.

Honesty and candor are prized, and preparation is critical. A great pitch followed by a manuscript that isn’t as promised can inadvertently make a writer seem like a fraud.

Lazar knows the first impression is important. If a writer isn’t confident of getting it right, maybe it would be better to make the first impression in writing.

What do you think?

12 Replies to “Talking to an editor at a writers’ conference”

  1. Whether I like it or not, part of my job with the Red Cross and my employer is to network within the Red Cross and with other businesses. They choose me to act as a liason around the room because they like my enthusiasm.

    I find that being aware of one’s passion for the subject and then toning it down half a notch makes for successful interaction–you don’t scare the audience and your passion still comes through.

    Having said that, I have never been that much of a “player.” Mastering communication skills seems sufficient for me, because I want to enjoy the conversation more than I want to impress…if the editor sees this and likes it, I want to write for that editor. If the editor doesn’t like this, I don’t want to write for that editor.

    Too simple?

  2. Jo:

    Thanks for giving us your perspective on pitches. I like your attitude that there’s always another prospect. It’s true, and realizing it certainly takes the pressure off. It’s possible to put too much time and energy into the preparation for a meeting, which can make the outcome seem like a giant threat to the ego.

    I’m the placid type who normally would be advised to turn up the passion. (laughing) It’s interesting to learn other points of view on this subject.

  3. Hi Robin,

    In the past, I occasionally helped people prepare for job interviews. When I took applicants through a mock interview, it was amazing how often they 1) did not talk about their skills and abilities in terms of the organisation’s needs, and 2) did not stay succinct and focused.

    Talking to an editor is, in a way, a job interview so it’s worthwhile practising talking in a relevant, focused way BEFORE the big day. How?

    * Ask a good friend to roleplay being an editor who asks you questions. Make sure your friend tells you when you are not making sense, getting into too much detail, or starting to sound overly timid, pushy, or scholarly.

    * Alternatively, make up a list of questions an editor could ask you, and practise answering these at home. If you tend to get nervous, practise saying your answers out loud to yourself before you front up to an editor. This DOES work!


  4. Marsha:

    Thanks so much for your input. The common theme seems to be writers’ fear of becoming tongue-tied or just the opposite. As you point out, the anxiety diminishes with practice.

    Mediabistro has a selection of “Video Pitch Slam 1-on-1” episodes showing writers pitching magazine editors, which can be downloaded for a fee. I watched one, and it made me even more nervous. For some of us, ignorance is bliss.

  5. Robin,
    Perhaps this is more applicable to book editors than to magazine editors, but one aspect of “doing your homework” to bear in mind is knowing something about the editorial tastes and judgments of the person you are approaching. Perhaps it goes without saying, but a writer is more likely to be able to have a substantive dialogue with an editor if he or she knows what sorts of projects the editor has worked on previously. Likewise, if you feel there is a real compatibility with the nature of your work and the editor’s previous record of publications (and you have actually read and admired them), then the likelihood of the editor’s interest in your work would be enhanced. Just a thought.
    David Sanders

  6. David:

    We know we ought to do exactly as you suggest, but then we get lazy or busy and try to take shortcuts. I also think it can be difficult for many of us to categorize our own work or compare it to something produced by another writer.

    Thank you for reminding us that the time invested in research is well spent. Fools rush in, as they say.

  7. In start-up businesses we have something we call the 30 second “elevator pitch”: you happen to get on an elevator with a potential investor for your company and you have 30 seconds to say the most important things in a meaningful, memorable way. In other words “wowing” them. I’d think the same thing would be important in discussing your new book idea…

  8. Hi, Russ. I’ve heard of the elevator pitch, and it certainly is appropriate for a writer to have one. Good point. A writer is, in effect, asking a book publisher to spend a considerable amount of money to produce, distribute, and market a book, with no guarantee of a return on the investment. It’s easy to overlook the business behind the art.

    I’ve been assuming you and Dr. Heilman are already under contract. If so, can you reveal the name of the publisher?

  9. No Robin, we are not yet under contract. Working with a co-author seems to double the time it takes to get things done in preparation for submission…

  10. A few days spent observing T.T. Thomas in action would give any writer insight. To learn how to strike while the iron’s hot, read her recent blogpost. You’ll also see how writer-editor relationships can affect the finished work. Leave it to T.T. to show rather than tell us, which is what makes her so good.

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