Tips & Resources

10 apps + programs to enhance productivity of bloggers and creatives

Apps that enhance blogger productivityBeing a freelance journalist, author, blogger and part-time employee means that I am always on the look out for any short cuts to make my everyday jobs a little easier (if only there was an App to clear my husband’s pockets before I do the laundry). These little apps and programs are great at helping me navigate my way around to-do lists, ideas, promotions and the little bits of ‘stuff’ that get in the way of my working priority: writing. The best part is that I don’t need a comprehensive lesson in using them (can anyone tell I am taking a dig at my inability to use vscocam?). Would love to see you add your own to the list – I bet there are zillions out there that I could learn from.

  1. Takeoff:

    If you’re anything like me, you take all your photos in one block at the start of the week (for the sake of time and focus, and because your hair/face/legs look better on some days than others) and then hoard them in your phone to post to Instagram, often forgetting them in the process. This app lets you schedule your instagram photos and gives you a little reminder to post them. I like the fact that it doesn’t automatically post on your behalf (I evaded a faux pax when I had a Parisian image scheduled which I then removed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo Terror Attack), and you get the chance to review each picture when you log in following your reminder. The best part of it is that you set how many times per day you want to post, and it schedules the images according to when your followers will be most active (although it also gives you the option to set a time and date that works best for you). It even suggests hashtags that are trending, or likely to increase your following, although sometimes these are a little off the money. I don’t know if it’s my Ayoub name, but the hijabmodesty hashtag always comes up for me. Despite these little nigglies, it’s a good one for the social media arsenal.

  2. Feedly:

    One thing I resolved to do in 2014 was increase the number of blogs I was reading. I had recently reduced my magazine subscriptions (at one point I had about 7 magazines going) and was looking for creative people to follow, not to mention articles that I could easily clip to Evernote if I wanted to follow up on a travel tip, tutorial or nugget of advice. But I hated logging into my favourite sites at random times and discovering they were yet to post. I am not so keen on the Feedly mobile app, but I downloaded the desktop app and I love that there’s a little icon at the bottom of my computer screen that lets me subscribe to any site I visit. Plus within the app, I can group content according to interest and mark it as read, unread or saved for later.

  3. JustUnfollow:

    My pet hate is when I return someone’s follow, only to realise they unfollowed me after I did it, in order to increase their own following. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who don’t follow me back on Instagram (Hilary Duff, why don’t you like me?!), but sometimes I will return a follow out of a mutual respect that I later realise is not-so-mutual. This app notifies me of follows and unfollows, so I can get out of my obligations, and I can check my relationship with any instagram account. You can also use it for Twitter and for more than one account, and there’s a paid/premium app that’s ad-free.

  4. PicMonkey:

    My husband recently bought me Lightroom and a Tripod and they are both sitting in a box in a cupboard. I’ve never been highly skilled in the art of photography and picture-editing, and although I am trying to improve, jumping straight into fancy programs is not exactly where I am at right now. Picmonkey is great for editing, adding text to, and creating a whole lot of imagery to use online and everywhere else. I pay a little bit per month for the premium version, which allows me to upload my own fonts that I can use to complement my blog style.

  5. Wordswag:

    I have an old iphone 4 that I have held on to for this app alone (I can’t fathom how excited I’ll be when they finally launch an Android version). It allows me to use a range of fonts and styles to add text to any images which I can then share online. Compared to apps where you have to manipulate text to certain fonts, sizes and alignments in a complicated manner, this is effortless.

  6. Google Drive:

    My writing saviour! I am trying to make a habit of saving everything to my Drive in case I ever lose my USB. This app acts like a USB in that you can open, edit and re-edit documents, group them in folders and share them if you need to. It’s perfect for working on books and big documents that you don’t want to lose, and want to be able to take with you every where you go, without worrying about a USB stick. It’s great for me personally because I use a surface pro as my computer (it’s easily transportable) and because it only has one USB port, I have to rely on my Drive. I have a drive folder on my desktop so I can just slide documents into it to use offline.

  7. Evernote:

    Evernote’s not new, but I couldn’t not include it. For writers and bloggers, I find it amazing because (and I have done this) you can pull over to the side of the road and voice record a book scene or blog post, and it types it out into the app. Then, when you’re in front of your computer, you can just copy and paste it into your WordPress editor or book document.

  8. Wunderlist:

    I’m still fairly new to this one, but I love it because I recently switched back to Android and there’s no inbuilt notes app in my phone. Wunderlist allows you to create multiple lists, organise sub-tasks within each list, and share these lists (eg, a groceries, chores or tasks list) with loved ones/colleagues, who can then comment without affecting the list itself. There are also public lists which give you insight into things like movies and must-see places at travel destinations and the app offers reminders, email options and real-time sync with other devices.

  9. Headspace:

    One of the fastest growing apps, I originally read about Headspace in either Marie-Claire or Collective mag (the fact that I can’t remember highlights exactly why I need it). Everyone knows mindfulness is key to productivity, focus and output, and meditation is the key to mindfulness. This app comes with guided meditations and once you’ve gone through them, there’s an option to upgrade. Practising mindfulness has been a priority of mine this year, so this app is essential for me at present.

  10. IFTTT:

    I discovered this app via The Daily Mark and I love it. You create automated recipes for things that you need in your everyday life. For example, you can set it to text your spouse/flatmate when you’re at your local supermarket, and ask them if they need anything (you pre-program it so the location of your phone is aware of your local shop). I use it to automatically file receipts that I can use for tax purposes in a particular folder, to automatically save screenshots I take on my phone to a folder labelled ‘Social Media’ on my Google Drive, and to silence my mobile phone between 9pm and 6am each day. There are loads of recipes in the app to try (some based on jobs and interests), and you can create your own.

I’d love to know, what are your must-have apps? What would you add to this list? And will you improve your own output with any of the above?


Planning the launch of your first book is probably one of the most exciting things on the first book journey. Not only does it seal the deal in what is often a long and tiresome process, but it also heralds the time when your big work goes out into the real world: into libraries and bookshops, schools and handbags, bedside tables and home bookshelves. Here, I share some pointers about launching a novel based on my own experience.*


1. Decide on a date: You’d think this part would be the easy one, but the people you want to be there are either going on holidays, or are away for work trips, or have functions on that night. Work out with your agent and publisher to be just before, or right around (the week of, or week after) on-sale date. [symple_highlight color=”blue”]Especially good to drum up hype on social media to coincide with press and promos[/symple_highlight], and of course, displays under the ‘New Releases’ in a store.

2. Secure a venue: You can have your book launch where ever you like, but for a debut author, a book shop is ideal. Why? It gives people the perfect opportunity to purchase the book and have it signed on the night, especially if they are customers who just happen to be in the store at the time (which is once again why Thursday nights are ideal). I had a fair amount of street traffic at my launch, which actually did translate to sales. One couple were from Canada and though they had never heard of me (or the Cronulla Riots that inspired my storyline) they figured they’d buy a book because it’s not every day they can get a first edition signed copy. [symple_highlight color=”blue”]Win for you, win for reader, win for store. [/symple_highlight]You can choose any bookshop you like – sentimental reasons, proximity to the CBD, a store that’s in a suburb where your book is set or whatever. I choose Kinokuniya in Sydney’s Galeries Victoria for sentimental reasons: as soon as I was old enough to go to the city by myself, I would go there all the time and whittle away time browsing the shelves. It was a wordsmith wonderland. Anyway, the staff there were very helpful and provided tables, chairs, a decent amount of space and really promoted the launch for me: placing stacks of the book at the front of the store and sharing news of the launch on their newsletter and social networks.

3. Find someone to launch it: Yes, you need someone to officially launch the book. I chose Sarah Tarca, editor of Girlfriend magazine, because she was also the person whose quote I put on the cover. Her word was gospel to my teen demographic, I shared her passion for inspiring and empowering teenage girls, and I really loved what she did on the magazine, which is why my character Sophie read it. That said, you also need someone to introduce the launcher – that’s usually your publisher, someone close to you who can share some insights about the book, or even a hired MC. The protocol on the night: [symple_highlight color=”blue”]Someone to introduce the launcher, the launcher saying a few words and launching the title, and you saying your own words before you plonk yourself down in a chair and sign copies for all your adoring fans.[/symple_highlight] My agent has been in the industry for decades and to her, this last thing was absolutely paramount.Launch Collage 1

4. Send invitations: With all those minor details locked in, you can send out invites. Sometimes your publisher will do it (as they did it in my case) designing some great invites that matched the cover and handling all the RSVPs. I invited friends and family, and I let them handle all the ‘necessary’ invites – which mostly went to [symple_highlight color=”blue”]YA bloggers who are usually quite supportive of Australian authors[/symple_highlight]. I met some lovely ones on the night who really made my first publishing experience better than I could have hoped. They know who they are, but I would especially like to thank the girls at Ladies of YA for being AWESOME.

5. Catering + Champagne: [symple_highlight color=”blue”]You can’t be the toast of the night (and neither can your book) if there’s nothing to toast with.[/symple_highlight] The catering aspect should be the most fuss-free portion of the evening, but usually it’s not. Remember a launch is not dinner – just some light canapes or cupcakes or macarons. Or great cookies with the cover on them (if you have a decent stream of money). Something tiny to nibble on during the mingling or the talks. I went with traditional Lebanese fare which corresponded the wording on the cover and some mentions in the book – and it went off. A lot of people loved it, probably because my mum made it. There were vegetarian options, and I also made sure there were some Lebanese sweet treats and some lollies. Having non-alcoholic beverages on hand is also essential, but I didn’t want my guests fussing with bottles of different brand drinks and waters the whole night. The best (and most elegant solution) was to provide them with Santa Vittoria waters and sodas in glass bottles. The sodas came in four different flavours so there was a lot of variety, and it meant my guests could just grab them off a tray instead of pouring things for themselves. (I had also hired two waitresses to work the crowd – this minimised fuss during the speech and gave the event a more professional feel – however that is entirely optional and totally dependent on budget).

6. Hire a photographer: Your first book launch! Exciting, right? So you’ll want to commemorate the occasion. [symple_highlight color=”blue”]I hired photographer Shayben Moussa[/symple_highlight], who works at Hair/Fashion/Culture mag The Journal, and the great thing about having a professional there was him snapping away in the background without me needing to worry about anything. And I got my images in my dropbox the very next day.

7. Celebrate: I bet you don’t need pointers from me on this part right? [symple_highlight color=”blue”]After years of writing, editing, publisher-scouting, thumb-twiddling and whatever else happened while you waited for your manuscript to manifest in a real life book, you can finally breathe.[/symple_highlight]  Having everyone who was there on the journey to celebrate with on the night is a massive highlight, and overall, launch night was not one I think I will ever forget.

 Launch Collage 2*Buying a dress that matches your cover is entirely optional.

Lessons in structural editing

Last week, I finished the Structural Edit for my book. It started off as an exciting time: I knew that this part of the process would lead to the final product (the version of my book that everyone would read), as well as the fun stuff in the book publishing journey (covers and promo plans and the like).

About 15 minutes into the process, I got very tense. And I stayed tense. I think I came off as a miserable git to my publishers. There were a few back and forth emails. On one level, I was constantly worried that all the things I was doing to facilitate the edits might make for a worse book than the version before, or not capture the character as well as I had imagined her to be now that I have other opinions moulding her. I was realising that my book was passing through ‘gates’, and with each gatekeeper came a new opinion, a new way of looking, a new sense of the characters and their story. {If you want to know what an editor does, Allison Tait has put together a rather great interview with an editor over at her blog.}

I am not proud of my role the process. At home, in my own space, I lost my cool plenty of times. There was crying, swearing, staring at walls for long moments. At one point, I wanted to give back my advance and quit. At another, I simply flung my manuscript at the wall and walked out of the room. I guess the enormity of what I was doing hit me like a tonne of bricks and I was not prepared for it. Here are a few reasons why I found it so tough, and what I learned from it:

  • Structural Editing forces you to work from scratch: To some extent, my book is vastly different than it was pre-edit. Not in terms of content, but in terms of how I have approached writing the content. If I wanted to convey that something has happened, I was encouraged to do it via a conversation (for example) as opposed to just having my character express it (a little bit of showing as opposed to telling, I think). In some sections, it didn’t feel like I was editing the book I’d already spent so much time on, it felt like I was writing a new one, and I was not prepared for that workload when I was constantly thinking of Book 2.
  • Structural Editing… takes time: I thought that I was going to be able to edit it in a couple of weeks max, but it took double the time. A structural editor is like an engineer, s/he makes sure you have a sound project, one that doesn’t leave things unanswered and says the things it says in the best possible way. I found that re-writing one scene would have repercussions for many others. I couldn’t just change that paragraph and move on – I would have to go through the rest to make sure there were no remnants of the original paragraph (eg: a shop they were visiting) in subsequent parts of the project. There was a lot to think about too. Why did I approach it this way, and not the other? So it was not just time ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘thinking about doing’ (or what to do).
  • Structural Editing…requires inspiration: I don’t know if it was because I was ‘sick’ of my manuscript (more on that later), but I just couldn’t get into the zone of working on the structural edit. I was able to do edits easily after the first draft was finished, but this final edit was difficult. I think it’s because I cut a few different scenes (particularly in the beginning of the book) and had to write new ones, so I struggled with the uninspired writer’s block I already had before. Again, I just wanted to be on my second book already, the one with the deadline coming at me at high speed.
  • Structural Editing…needs a whole new document for it to work: Well, for me anyway. Why? Well, my structural editor suggested a few things be arranging. Grab some text from this page and slot it here, switch the order of chapters X,Y and Z, and so on. In the end, I got so confused, I realised I couldn’t work out of my existing document and just press ‘Save As’. I had to start a new one. I ended up itemising all the big changes on a sheet of paper, so I could track where things were moving to and if anything would need to be done once they moved (ie, a new intro to a chapter because of its location change). With the manuscript itself, I worked out of three documents. I would copy the chapter from the version that my structural editor read, paste it in a new word document, work on it, and then paste it into a Final Version document.  The middle ground allowed me to focus on that chapter alone, and cute/paste whatever was needed so I can imagine it as the structural editor wanted it, without impacting on the other content. It took me a while to figure it out as the best way for me, so the time took even longer.
  • Structural Editing can undermine your vision: I’ll have to explain this by example: Let’s say your structural editor reckons the reader needs to know more about your character, so s/he wants you to share more on him/her/them. Pointers on characterisation are good, but divulging too much of your character can have consequences for impact/bombshell scenes. Not always good. I was really torn about one particular thing in my manuscript that my editor suggested I introduce earlier, so that the reader knows my character’s stance early on. Originally said thing would come out in a crux sort of scene, so I am really afraid that even the scene is written well, it’s still not going to make as much of an impact. I ended up going with the editor’s comments, but I did ask my Agent and Publisher for their opinion, because said conversation was important to me. I guess that is one more thing to change if the need arises.
  • Structural Editing…made me sick of my novel: I think the trauma of dissecting such a big document for what seemed like the billionth time got to me. My eyes started glazing over. I was not reading anymore. Something that was once a passionate, creative task with a lot of meaning to me has transitioned into a job and I hated that my big project had become work. But I had to keep going with the knowledge that I was new to this business, and the Structural Editor was a pro, who was refining my book to be the best that it could be.[I ended up opening my manuscript again in the middle of fine-tuning this post, and my eyes didn’t glaze over. Turns out after two days of rest I no longer dislike it and I don’t feel the need to hurl it at all the wall.]
  • Structural Editing…is worth all of the above: Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘Why the hell would she torment us with this stuff?’ and I don’t blame you. The process is not easy. It’s exciting to publish your book but it’s also a lot of hard work. I am lucky, but I am also working hard for it. And every edit I have ever made to my novel HAS made it better. I recommend fine-tuning.  So even if you’re self-publishing, editors who may cost you some dough are good. I know this because I have read books where I have been able to pick things out that should not be there. Editors are valuable. This post has taken me a week to write, but in that time, I am glad I have reached the point where I can safely add this last pointer in: Ultimately, the book is yours and yours alone, and you should dress it as you will. Even if you don’t want to take all of an editor’s points on board, at least s/he gives you a platform to think about what it is they’re trying to say, and then you can work your way around it to your style, so long as it achieves its purpose. Structural Editing makes your story grow, your characters grow, and brings them to life on the page. Adding in dialogue with someone, or dimension with more concrete ways of exploring their interests makes a big difference to making the character real. And real characters resonate with readers, even if they’re vampires.

You ask, I answer: What should I study at a NSW Uni if I want to be a print journalist?

You asked:

Hi Sarah!
I’m an aspiring print media journalist, currently studying the HSC this year.
Later in the year I have to start applying for undergraduate university degrees, and was wondering if a Bachelor of Communication was a good way to go, or a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media?
I just have so many interests!
Thank you,
Sarah, NSW

I answered:

Hi Sarah,
Thanks for your message. Firstly, best of luck with your HSC this year.
I guess it all depends first on what type of journalist you want to be. It’s a good idea to do a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies if you have a “lot” of interests, because that enables you to choose many different subjects and learning areas. It will also widen your world in the sense that you’ll gain knowledge in a variety of areas, which will enhance your writing. But you can do the same with a solid media degree, which in the changing media climate, might be a better option in the sense that you can major in different media forms (I myself regret focussing solely on print, and not also on radio and TV which would have broadened my career options, even though I am currently happy doing what I do).
My suggestion is to to look at the universities you want to go to, then check out their arts/media programs and the subjects/rules of the degrees. Once you know what’s on offer, the decision is easier to make. I’d steer towards universities that offer a practical side  – I learnt a lot about writing ‘theories’ but that did not help me be a journalist. When I went out in the field, some of my colleagues (or even other workies) had done assessments using various technologies, and learnt skills like shorthand and video editing.
Good Luck with the decision.

Jennifer Donnelly on advice for young writers

I’m quite a fan of Jennifer Donnelly (author of The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, A Gathering Light, Revolution and more) because her books always transport me to faraway places – which is one of the reasons I read in the first place, I love the escapism. I hopped onto her website for the first time today and read through some of her responses on the FAQ page. I thought some of them might be of interest to you, so I have copy and pasted them below. I found them very enlightening, and not just because I love to peek inside every writer’s head.

What struck me the most was the research aspect. Donnelly writes historical fiction, but I have noticed among some authors, the lack of research into books written for the present day. I once read a novel (it was YA so I doubt that very much of the intended audience was thinking as critically as I was) that had aspects to it that were so unbelievable that I spent days wondering how the hell this person could have gotten published. As some of you know, I am working on my own YA work, and although it is set in 2006, I am paying a lot of attention to the little details that might make it a better story (songs, places, events) but that didn’t exist in the time. I don’t know if it’s my journalism background doing all the fact-checking or just the importance I place on credibility, but I seriously value this kind of effort in creative work.

Anyway, if you’d like to read all of Donnelly’s answers, visit her website. There you’ll also find out about her lovely stories, thoughts and latest projects. She’s a brilliant author, and worked on her novel for ten years before it was published. If that doesn’t give us all hope, I don’t know what will.

What advice do you have for young writers?

There’s only one thing that makes you a writer – and that’s writing.

Writing – any kind of writing: journals, term papers, letters to your grandmother – will hone your ability with words. As you keep writing, you’ll learn how to do more with less. You’ll get a feel for simplicity and elegance, when to let rip and when to hold back, and how the subtle art of suggestion can lend incredible power to a paragraph or scene. These are all things I still struggle with. I have a tendency to overwrite, but when I do nail a scene, I can sense it, and it’s a tremendous feeling.

Reading is also incredibly important. It shows you how other writers do it, how they succeed and where they fail. Whether it’s a novel, a newspaper article or the copy on the back of a cereal box – it’s all writing. Someone had to think about it and make choices. It’s your job as a reader to decide how well the author did. You may not be aware of it, but every time you get lost in a story, or intrigued by a magazine article, you’re also picking up pointers on structure, plot, and style. I couldn’t afford to go to grad school, or take a workshop when I started trying to write, so I used what was available to me – good books.

Another crucial key to writing is finishing what you start. Lots of kids, and older people, too, tell me that they have so many stories started. Started is good. Beginnings are good. But you have to finish. Finishing is what makes the difference between ideas and books. Force yourself to sit down at your desk – glue your butt to your chair – and work through the problems. It’s very important. It’s very good discipline. It forces you to see an idea through from beginning to end and to do the hard work of bringing the various threads of the story together in a satisfying way. Do this and you’ll become more confident in your ability to tell a story. The problems of structure and plot and narrative drive may not get easier for you – they certainly haven’t gotten any easier for me and I’m on my fourth novel – but with experience and a bit of confidence, you’ll become braver about facing them…and besting them.

Lastly, listen to your own thoughts and feelings very carefully, be aware of your observations, and learn to value them. When you’re a teenager – and even when you’re older – lots of people will try to tell you what to think and feel. Try to stand still inside all of that and hear your own voice. It’s yours and only yours, it’s unique and worthy of your attention, and if you cultivate it properly, it might just make you a writer.

How do you do your research?

For me, research is more an art than a science.

I usually start out with a good, general history of the time period I’m researching to give me a solid grounding in the era. Then I roll up my sleeves and get dirty. I visit archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies to try to dig up as many primary sources as I can.

Diaries. Memoirs. Oral histories. Census records. Tax records. Photographs – tons of old photographs. Newspaper articles. Paintings. Old clothes. Old books. Menus. Bills. Magazines. Letters and postcards. I need to see all of these things, as they all help me clasp hands with people from the past, and understand them, and fully inhabit their world.

It’s also important for me to physically spend time in the place where a story is set. Sometimes I’m talking to people, asking them about their experiences and feelings. Other times I’m looking at old buildings, walking old streets, figuring out where characters worked and lived. Sometimes I’m sitting in a pub, listening to the rhythms of local speech, studying faces and body language, or watching the Thames flow by. Always I’m trying to see and hear and smell what my characters would have seen and heard and smelled.

It’s important to me that the history is there, in my novels, and that it’s correct, but I want it to feel seamless and smooth, natural not intrusive.

I love to research and if there were no such thing as a deadline, I’d probably never stop. I don’t know how to explain how I know I’ve done enough, but I do know I can’t start writing before I feel sure and easy in whatever time period I’m writing about.

How do I get published?

First and foremost, write a good book.

Once you’ve done that, find an agent. Yes, you do need one. Most publishing houses are swamped with unsolicited manuscripts and most editors have no time to read them. Some houses won’t even accept them anymore. Instead, they depend upon literary agents, with whom they have relationships, to know what they’re looking for and to send them good, polished manuscripts.

To find an agent, I consulted the Writer’s Market guide, which lists agencies and their agents, and gives a bit of info on who and what they represent. I also read Publisher’s Weekly, a weekly trade journal with columnists who report on literary deals and the agents making them. The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators can also be helpful, if you’re writing for kids. Read, research, do your homework. Educate yourself as much as you possibly can. When you’ve decided upon an agency you’d like to approach, write a stellar pitch letter. And I do mean stellar. A pitch letter tells the agent about your work and invites him or her to read a sample. It should be brief, mistake-free, and utterly compelling.

There are many guides, like the Writer’s Market guide, that can give you tips on how to write a pitch letter. You can find them in the publishing reference section of your local bookstore, through your library, or through online bookstores. Spend time on this. Write and rewrite your pitch letter until it’s perfect. Agents, like the rest of us, are busy people with demanding jobs and lives. You only have seconds to capture an agent’s attention with your words, so make those words shine.

When you’ve found an agent, get a thick skin. You’ll need it, for he will have criticisms. Nobody’s work is perfect; everyone can use constructive comments. Your agent is presumably smart and talented – after all, that’s why you chose him, right? – so listen to him. You both want the same thing – the best possible book. And when the book is sold and you have an editor as well as an agent, listen to him, too. Be open. You don’t have to make every change that is asked for, but you must understand why the change is being asked for before you can decide whether or not to make it.

A word on money – reputable agents do not take money from you until they’ve sold your work. After a sale, they charge a percentage of the gross, usually 15%. For foreign sales, the domestic agent will typically charge 10% and the foreign agent 10%. Agencies usually charge for expenses as well – things like postage, printing, etc.

Within an agency, you may work with several agents. I have one agent for my adult books, another for my children’s books, and I work with a foreign rights agent as well.

Choose your agent wisely and well. This is an extremely important partnership – one that will affect you artistically and financially. This person will become at the very least a business partner – and possibly an editor, advisor, sounding-board, confidante, and if you’re as lucky as I’ve been with my agents, a friend.

Lastly, keep faith with yourself. We all read about the writers who wrote their first novel in two weeks, sold it in ten minutes, and hit the bestseller list in five seconds. They are the exceptions, not the rule. Writing is hard. Publishing is hard. The book world is, in my opinion, the very best one to be in, but it’s also a business and as such is challenging and competitive. You need to be tough to weather the inevitable rejections and setbacks. When trying to get published, stubbornness is a virtue. Cultivate it.

And as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”

What a magazine editor looks for in a pitch

Despite all the lessons we have on pitching, sometimes, we just want to get inside an editor’s head to find out exactly what they’re looking for. A features list in a magazine obviously varies from month to month, but the quality of the pitches a glossy editor looks for, is usually the same. I chatted to Cosmopolitan‘s Acting Editor (and regular Deputy Editor) Jessica Parry to find out what makes a perfect glossy pitch…

– How long have you been comissioning for (not just at Cosmo)? About 10 years. 
– What are the biggest pitching mistakes that freelancers make? Not knowing the product. If I was to give one piece of advice it would be to thoroughly read the magazine. You may have read it a year or so ago but a lot can change in that time – such as section headers and even sometimes the tone. Cosmo is never going to run a story on the experience of parents dealing with teenagers, for example, but yes I have been pitched that as a story idea. I’ve also had freelancers pitch ideas that are in the current issue of the magazine – which shows they are not reading it. Another important point is that the freelancer must have experience. While we are all for giving someone a go, it just makes more work for us if the writer does not have the skills to structure a story or “get” the Cosmo tone.
– What do you look for in a pitch? / What makes a great pitch? It relates to my point above but it’s when someone really gets the magazine. A good freelancer will start their pitch with a suggested headline, sell and then a synopsis of the article. They should have a new angle – for example, a statistic or a strong anecdote – that will give the story freshness; something the Cosmo reader hasn’t read before.   
– How many freelance submissions do you take on average (per issue?) We like to use different voices in the magazine so we have a stable of trusted freelancers who write for us each month. We would probably use five freelancers per issue who would write anything from one to three stories each. Often times though these are story ideas that we have brainstormed at the office … but we do take a few freelancer submitted story ideas each month.  
– Are there certain parts of the magazine that are no-go zones for freelancers, and parts that are? Not really. We encourage freelancers to pitch across all sections of the magazine, however our in-house writers tend to manage the Life Stylist section, which isn’t very copy heavy. We use freelancers in all of our main sections though – features, You You You and Body Love especially.
– Are freelancers better off pitching to a Deputy or Features ed? Pitching to either the deputy or the features editor is fine on Cosmo – other magazines have different structures though so it’s best to check with each title (just call up the editorial co-ordinator and ask).
– Any stand-out pitches come to mind? A recent one was from our NYC stringer who pitched a story about attending a nude yoga class. Something different and a bit quirky.

– How long before a freelancer should follow-up on a pitch? Do you tend to respond straight away if you are interested? This depends on where we are in the production cycle. If we’re on deadline it could take me a week, if not it could be that same day. I would recommend they follow up no earlier than a week after submission.

– Do you think that gushing about the magazine in a pitch is tacky and unprofessional? I think it’s unnecessary.

Q &A: Getting work experience without connections

Over the last couple of years, I have been asked more often than not for advice on breaking into the freelance writing/feature writing/media industry. There’ve been a few interviews on zines and blogs, workshops I have conducted with organisations like Vibewire, and appearances at industry panels such as the Media Pass Student Industry Day and the Emerging Writer’s Festival.

There has also been an abundance of emails from aspiring and emerging writers, and blog readers such as yourselves, asking for advice on the industry – on everything from pitching to interviewing to work experience.

I consider myself blessed to have the experience that allows me to mentor and advise emerging writers, who always remind me of myself, even now, when I am trying to take my love of writing, and my dreams to be a successful writer, to new heights. Moreover, I am always most humbly excited when I receive the recognition of my work that is an invitation to appear on a panel or conduct a workshop or advice session. It is this feeling that prompted me to start this blog to begin with, borne out of my desire to help you break into the industry that I still fight tooth and nail to be involved in (commissions/pitches have been down of late, but I am persevering).

But, as most of you know, time management has always been my struggle where writing is concerned, and after a long day’s work at my full-time gig, it’s easy to waste my writing time away responding to emails and the like. Which is why I have decided to use this blog to respond to the emails asking for advice in a public forum. If you send an email, I’ll respond asking if I can publish the query along with your first name, age and any other relevant details.

This method has a double-barelled benefit. One, I get more blog posts (without raking my brain for topics to write about), and two, everyone benefits from your question. It’s a win-win, no?

Which brings us to our first question, courtesy of Sophia of NSW, who, was debating which uni to go to last year and will this year be studying with the journalism school of UTS. Good luck Sophia! Now to her question on work experience:

 I’ve almost finished high school and I’ve been applying crazily to a bunch of magazines and newspapers, hoping to get a foot in the door. What would you say is the best method to apply? I know the competition out there is crazy. A girl I go to school is got an internship with a popular magazine due to her family connections. Things like that are really disheartening when I know that I want this so much.

My response:

Unfortunately, connections are a part of the job, and often what make the industry go round. Sometimes, it is impossible to get noticed and to know exactly what an editor/employer is after. How are you supposed to know if you should send in a serious resume when you know that author, columnist and beauty editor Zoe Foster was employed by then-Editor of Cosmopolitan Mia Freedman for doing something entirely creative and out of the ordinary?

Once upon a time, I was a gal in your position, and I was told of an editor who specifically tried to hire blondes because she just liked them better for the office dynamic, which was not motivating to a Lebanese girl like me struggling to make it. BUT you just have to persevere and hang in there because it is a part of the industry – you might be the best at something but you still won’t get it because you dont know anyone there/don’t own designer shoes/are not pretty enough etc.

But don’t let this dishearten you! I’d say at this stage of the game your best bet is to start by emailing editorial coordinators or visiting the websites of your fave outlets and asking about work experience (one week placements). They’re very competitive placements, especially at women’s magazines in Sydney, but once you’re there you can do your best (don’t look down at any of the jobs, no matter what they are) and express your interest in an internship. If they like you, they’ll keep you!

That said, it doesn’t hurt to milk any connections you have for what they are worth. A lot of people in the industry will try help you out if they can, so long as you’re asking the right person and are doing it politely. But until you have some connections, just go the way we’ve all gone and kindly ask the editorial coordinator for a workie placement and be patient and greatful for the week you’ve been booked in. Once there arrive on time, volunteer for jobs, don’t disturb the staff with your gushing praise while they’re filing a story, and ask the coordinator if she’s able to schedule a five minute session with a staffer (don’t push it, they don’t always do that) who can offer you more insights into the role.

For more on what to do while you’re there, read Beth Keamy’s Commandments and check out this post at Girl with a Satchel.

Now, you’ve seen the movies: the rest is up to you, so wing it if you have to and remember that there’s always an opportunity so long as you chase it.

Got something you want to me to write about or a writing-related question you need to ask. Email me at sarah[at] and I’ll endevaour to get it to it ASAP.