Interview with Writer's Digest Editor, Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser, Editor, Writers Digest. Photo by Al Parrish, used with permission.

We caught up with Jessica Strawser at her one-year anniversary as editor-in-chief of Writer’s Digest. This publication has the largest circulation (110,000) of our series on writers’ magazines, and is published 8 times per year. Writer’s Digest also produces special editions throughout the year which focus on a specific aspect of the craft.

(One) Editorial Career Path

Question: Let’s begin with your path to editor-in-chief.

How long have you been with Writer’s Digest?

Jessica Strawser: I’ve been the editor-in-chief of Writer’s Digest for almost exactly a year. I also worked for the publication several years ago as an assistant and an associate editor, so this is my second time with WD.

Q: And what did you do before that?

J: I was a managing editor for North Light craft books and for Memory Makers books, both here with F & W media. Before that, I worked for several years for a startup book publisher that published commercial nonfiction on various topics, both regional books and national books.

I think it’s helpful in my current position that I have a background editing books as well as magazines. I’ve also done a little bit of work in marketing and public relations as an editor with a university here in Cincinnati.

Q: Are you a writer yourself?

J: I’ve done some freelance writing over the years. I’ve also done a lot of writing in the course of my job.

A lot of times, if there’s a staff-written feature or a feature with no byline, that’s actually me. I do a lot of WD interviews.

Q: And what kind of educational background do you have?

J: I have a degree in magazine journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Writer’s Digest- All About the Magazine

Q: What do you feel sets Writer’s Digest apart from other major writing magazines?

J: We've been around for a long time. Our January issue is our 90th anniversary issue. We're a very established publication. There’s a history here.

Our target audience is aspiring writers, as well as working writers who have started building their writing careers, or [those who] are fully experienced in their writing careers, but are still trying to learn new avenues.

These days the industry is changing so fast that it’s hard for anyone to stay on top of exactly what’s going on. The changing needs and demands of the industry is something that we try to cover in the magazine. [We] incorporate it with the information [readers] need to be able to meet those challenges as they change.

For example, we've done some recent feature packages on innovations in self publishing, on platform building, and on what publishers are really expecting authors to have in place. In our November/ December issue, we did an article on content-aggregated websites which are very new, and are a hot topic of discussion in the writing community right now. We are trying to stay on top of issues that are prevalent to writers today and things that they are achieving right now.

At the same time, we have a heavy craft section, and sometimes our feature package will focus on craft as well.

Our feature package [has] a theme, and the feature pieces will take one angle and try to look at different aspects of it, and really cover something in depth in every issue.

We always have a WD interview with a bestselling or otherwise noteworthy or successful author in every issue as well.

Q: I know you have your annual writing competition and then you have several small writing competitions throughout the year. Can WD take credit for a big discovery in any of those contests?

J: We have had contest winners go on to have success in traditional publications. We've actually had quite a few over the years. I know we do have two that are pretty well-established in their writing careers now who got their leg up from winning the annual competition.

Q: Tell me this about the magazine: is there a formula that helps you keep your balance between articles on fiction versus articles on freelancing versus articles on business aspects?

How do you balance all the different genres?

J: We don’t really have a formula. We try to meet the audience’s needs--what they want and what they’re looking for. Periodically we’ll survey our readers, and we also get a lot of feedback in the form of reader mail and the online community. We've always had a forum on our website, but now we have a bigger online writing community where we're able to interact with our readers and with other writers.

It’s really making an effort to respond to what they want. In that respect, there’s not a formula and it’s something that I think could change at any time. Right now the most common goal among [our readership] is to write a novel, to publish fiction. But we always try to have something for everybody, something that can apply to all writers in every issue.

[For example], our October issue focused on the writing community and all the different online communities that can support you and the work you’re doing. We also had several New York Times-bestselling authors write in and say how their involvement with writing groups like Mystery Writers of America or Romance Writers of America really helped jump-start their career. Something like that is applicable to all writers, no matter what they’re doing: Articles on how you can get the most out of the writing in community--what sort of websites can really help support your career, which ones may be wasting time that you should be writing, and how to make that distinction of what’s going to be worth your time.

Features like that are applicable to any kind of writer.

Q: I’ve always felt very well-served as far as freelance writing goes. But I’ve found that most of my writers like to dabble in everything.

J: Exactly. We're actually bringing back a markets column that was really popular for awhile, [and] rather than just having a market listing, it will be in the format of Q and A’s with the editors.

Whether it’s the editor at a book publisher, or at a literary journal or some other sort of other publication, I think that will appeal to all types of writers. With [the need to] build platforms now, writers should be looking for any opportunity they can to write in any format, to get their name out there.

Q: Of course my readers want to be in magazines, they want to be in print, but I also have a lot of copywriters and marketing writers. Does Writers Digest serve that group?

J: We do talk about things like how to diversify the type of writing that you’re doing and what markets you might not be thinking about. I’ve got an article assigned right now on how to break into corporate writing, and we did talk about how to diversify the type of writing that you’re doing in our November/December [2009] issue. It is something that we touch on.

Q: I think my readers would be interested in that corporate article. I also feel like you support freelancers when you do software reviews, book reviews, business topics, how to manage your money, things like that.

J: We've got a great issue coming up. Our March/April issue is focusing on how to succeed as a writer in today’s economy. There will be an article on tax breaks for writers, things that you should be claiming and taking advantage of.

So, I think that our readers want new ways to be creative, but we also have to pay the bills.

Pitching WD: How to Avoid the Automatic Delete

Q: About what percentage of the each edition is written by freelancers?

J: Most of it really, 75% at least.

Q: Let’s say you have a beginning freelancer and you haven’t seen a lot of work from this person. What section would you most likely accept them in?

J: I think the easiest place to break into the magazine is in the Inkwell section, which is in the front of the book.

It’s more of a department. It’s usually between six and eight pages and it’s the one place where you can contribute a shorter piece. Personal essays are accepted there; anything from 600 to 1,000 words. It can be a short, funny piece about an experience you had submitting some work, or it could be a short, informative piece. But I would say that’s the best place to break in.

Q: And I see on your website that is one place where you prefer that the piece be submitted on spec. Is that still accurate?

J: Usually. Those pieces are either personal essays or they’re pieces where the writers are relying heavily on their first-hand experience, and on the voice that you’re able to bring to the piece. It’s just not possible to evaluate that from a query letter.

Also, I would say that when submitting feature article ideas, it’s important that writers be knowledgeable in the topic that they’re pitching.

I sometimes get queries from people who want to write about how to write a novel, but they’ve never written a novel. It’s important to have some background in the topic that you’re pitching.

Q: What kind of queries do you absolutely despise, or what kind of queries are automatic delete?

J: We get a lot of queries for short stories and poetry which is bizarre; we don’t publish short stories or poetry.

So those are automatic deletes. But I feel the most common problem is that [queries] are just far too general. We get some queries that want to cover some aspect of writing, or the writing life, or the writing business, or something like that, but the article needs to be much more specific than that.

Q: How should writers balance between giving you enough detail, but not losing you because they know you’re busy, and they don’t want to lose you with five or six paragraphs?

J: The shorter queries are probably better. It’s more about having a different hook. A lot of the topics that we cover are pretty evergreen, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t cover them again, because people always need more information. You need a hook [that] you can bring to that piece.

I would also say to review a recent issue of the magazine before submitting, because I have people refer to columns that are not in print anymore. Since the time I came on board, we’ve been gradually making some changes. There’s been some revamping and reinventing things over the past year. It’s important to look at a recent issue before you submit.

Q: What makes you come to a freelancer? How should freelancers build a relationship with you to get repeat work?/p]

J: Honestly, it’s not always someone that I’ve worked with before. I approach a writer for an article in every issue, but usually it’s [due to] their platform or something specific that they’re an expert on.

Q: Ok, and then what is the best way for a freelancer to wow you? If you’ve given them that first chance, that first opportunity, what is it that does that?

J: Just basic stuff. Really good writing, a sound, well-written, well-researched piece, turned in on time. That’s really it.

Q: Have you had any writers and that are very guarded about their pieces, such as, no I don’t want you to correct that?

J: Once in a while. We're all about respecting writers in our publication. We are writers ourselves, so while we need to provide editorial direction, we're always willing to talk with people about the changes.

The Future Looks…

Q: In your years with the magazine, have you seen any new trends in the writing world?

J: What’s been really interesting to see is what’s going on with self-publishing. Some people view that topic with such a stigma, but some people completely swear by it. I think one of the things that recent innovations have really allowed for is for that option.

When self-publishing first came out, it was enormously expensive to have to order a print run of your book. People would be selling it out of the trunk of their car. But now, with the selection of print on demand publishers, [and] having websites and being able to build audiences for themselves on Twitter and Facebook, people are able to have a venue for distributing their books that is something other than the trunk of their car.

So, the innovations in self-publishing have been interesting and it’s really something to keep an eye on in the future.

A: With everything having a digital component, have you seen a trend in writers asking for more of their digital rights? Or, have you found that writers are more savvy as far as rights and especially digital rights?

Q: I haven’t really noticed a difference in it in terms of what writers have been asking for. The magazine industry is in flux right now, so I think one of the things that we need to stay on top of is the changes in the industry, and in order to remain viable, we need to acquire digital rights. It seems to me that’s its becoming more and more standard, and I haven’t encountered very much resistance to it.

We’ve been looking at what it would take to become available on the Kindle. We do offer digital issues of WD for download, [but] it’s a download to your desk top. So [digital rights] are part of the package. It’s what we need to acquire in order to offer the content in the way we're delivering it right now.