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Make Readers Care about Magnesia or Whatever
by Beth Fowler
Id resigned from my management-level job in
corporate America and moved to Malaysia because my husband was transferred to
Kuala Lumpur, the Islamic countrys capital. Without a regular job to report to
everyday, I was suddenly at loose ends no meetings to attend, no briefcase to
lug around, no job title. Yikes!
"Ah, Ill be a freelance writer," I told myself,
and I was published the very next week in a prestigious international magazine.
Actually, thats not quite true. Operating under
the delusion that my articles about life in Malaysia were just so darn
interesting that I could ignore various magazines house style and mission and
readers demographics, I mailed out lovely essays that were, with good reason,
Soon I began dreading afternoon teas and other
social gatherings, because typically the chitchat went like this:
"What do you do, Beth?"
"Uh, ahem, Im, er, a writer."
"Ahem, er . . .."
No one, including me, swallowed the bromide that
as long as you write you are a writer regardless of whether your stuff has been
published or not. Consequently, I changed my strategy and met with success. My
first sale was the stepping stone to more than 270 articles, poems, short
stories and two books being published in my hometown newspaper and in markets
reaching the far-flung corners of the world.
Although Id changed my strategy, I didnt
change what I wrote about. I wrote about my impressions as an American living in
Malaysia, and I believe this first step is crucial write about what you are
truly interested in or the fun of expressing yourself can turn into a slog.
Next I aimed at a realistic target. Forget
National Geographic and Lonely Planet (for the time being,
that is). What specific publication was I familiar with? What reader-audience
did I know well? Furthermore, who gave a hoot about my impressions of Malaysia,
besides my mom, and thats up for debate? I decided that my hometown newspaper
was my best option for legitimacy if I didnt want to squirm in my seat when
people asked me, "What do you do?"
To up the odds that the newspaper editor would
publish the piece, I called my folks and asked them, "Hey, whats the name of
the Hanover Evening Sun editor, anyhow?" In the cover letter and
article addressed to Wayne Hough, I included a riff about my husband, a native
of the town of about 40,000 citizens, being a graduate of the local (and only)
high school in Hanover and that he was employed by a local company. I mentioned
that he is the son of George and Betty Fowler, both well known personalities at
K-Mart and any place that sold breakfasts for under a buck. Normally my
husbands and my in-laws names are irrelevant to what I write, but in this
case, thinking local, thinking homey, was germane. In fact, the editor included
all the bio bits that Id provided.
Another reason the article found its way into
print in the small-town newspaper, I think, was because I knew that many of the
readers, like me only a few months prior to moving overseas, probably didnt
know where Malaysia was. How could I make people who thought a shopping trip
south of the Mason-Dixon Line was a big deal care about... whats that place
I scared them, thats how. I employed one of the
oldest and most effective tricks in the book for hooking readers' attention.
Its called building suspense. By temporarily withholding what really happened
and covering, early in the article, what could happen to Westerners in Malaysia,
I gave readers a reason to keep reading. For example, I recounted the incident
about an American woman being tackled and spray painted allegedly by fanatical
Finally, I included decent photographs with
informative captions, which the editor saw fit to publish along with the
If Id known then what I know today about
freelancing, I would do a few things differently. Namely, I wouldnt kid myself
that editors will make an exception in style and standards for little ol me.
These days I try to do what they suggest in the guidelines of most publications:
"Get familiar with the kind of material we publish before sending a query or
manuscript. And we really mean it!"
Also, ever since the publication of that first
article, Ive learned to write snappier titles and that newspaper article titles
are a breed apart from magazine and book titles. The editor took my wishy-washy
title, "Impressions from Malaysia," and added the words "Tolerance promised,
neighborliness prominent." Scan the headlines of your favorite newspaper and
youll see a unique kind of zippy, economic language that grabs your
Another lesson I learned was to exploit
receptive markets when possible. For some reason Id waited a year and a half
before submitting another article to "Hanover Evening Sun." When the editor
accepted the second article, I hatched the idea to submit articles to him on a
regular basis. Ultimately, more than thirty articles with my byline were printed
in that paper. I was paid for every one. Many of those articles appeared in
slightly different form in magazines published in America, Malaysia, England and
Canada, to name a few countries.
These days I purposely steer the conversation
around so someone will ask, "What do you do, Beth?"
"Im a writer."
And it says so right there next to my byline at
the top of the published article: "Fowler is a freelance author from Hanover,
© Copyright 1999, Beth Fowler
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