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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Think Like an Editor or Executive

I got my start writing for pay over a decade ago by writing first person essays for small publications and online ezines (which at that time was still slightly novel). First person essays are a rough game to play. The pay isn’t that great – it ranges from unpaid work to maybe a few hundred bucks. And the prestige factor is nil unless you’re published in a pretty big, 4-color national periodical. You’d be surprised what prestige means in magazines. It’s not all Vanity Fair and The Nation and The New Yorker, my friends. The bread and butter periodicals are the ones you probably turn your nose up at. Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal, Parenting…the list is long. Writing for periodicals isn't easy; competition is intense, articles have to be ultra topical and the sheer volume of writing you have to continually be hawking is staggering. It takes a lot of elbow grease.

What I learned from the time I spent writing for periodicals is that editors read submissions constantly and because of that, do not get excited about great writing – rather they get excited about novelty. In other words, if you write an essay about say, how hard divorce is, or the cost of living in Southern California and how you think about moving to Nebraska or how after you had your first child you lost your sense of self – those types of essays go into the “bad egg” file. You know, the circular. The trash. The “we’ve given your submission serious consideration, however it is not for us at this time” file.

Now, an article about how disorienting divorce is written by a Wolverine catch-and-release game warden – that would be published in a New York minute. Why? Because that article has an angle. Or, as we would say in the movie business – a hook. Right? Aren’t you curious about Wolverine catch-and-release programs? Who does that??

I read an article in the New Yorker last week about mushroom pickers in the Cascade Mountains. Who does that?? It caught my eye because it’s so far out of my realm that it interested me. My time is at a premium. And I read a lot. So I want to read something new and different. Something that will enrich and interest me.

Thinking like an editor is something that you do every day. Because your time is at a premium. And you consume a lot of media in one form or another. So you want to read something new and different. And you make choices constantly: Which TV show to watch. Which catalogue to thumb through – and which one to toss. Which newspaper article to read. Which billboard to notice. Which magazine article to read. You choose every day based on your interests and based on the novelty and uniqueness of the choice.

So what’s the screenwriting tie-in?

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Learn to think like an editor – or a movie exec. Because their time is at a premium. And they read a lot. So they want something new and different.

Screenwriters can be a isolated at their desks with one script for months at a time. But executives have scripts all over their desks every day. And more arrive every day. Dozens, hundreds - stacks of scripts. So you need to stand out from those stacks. It might initially be the title of your script that is eye-catching and attention-getting. After that, it better be a unique premise, well executed. Learn to think the way executives or editors do. It could be exactly the advantage you need to get noticed.

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gautam chintamani said...

Nice post.

I go a step further and say one must think like one's enemy in order to see where one stands!

Juan Sebastian said...

great post... thanks