The Writer Magazine, Interview with Editor Ron Kovach

Ron Kovach, Editor. Used with permission from the Writer magazine

The Writer magazine is a Milwaukee-based publication with a national circulation of about 30,000. It focuses on the nuts-and-bolts craft of writing, and editor Ron Kovach has been with the magazine for approximately 8 years.

The Editor Arc--How To Get There From Here

Q: Let’s start with you as an editor. How did you get in to this line of work? What is your background?

Ron Kovach: I was in newspaper reporting and editing for 24 years before I made the jump to magazines.

I was at four or five newspapers, including the Cleveland Press and the Milwaukee Journal. I did everything from reporting to assistant metro editor to copy editor to features editor. Then, I came to the Writer about eight and a half years ago, shortly after the parent company [Kalmbach Publishing] purchased the Writer in Boston and moved it to the Milwaukee area. It’s something that I really leaped at because I had a lot of literary interests and I was pretty familiar with the magazine. It was just a great opportunity.

Q: You said you had written newspaper features and things like that. Have you also done any of the more creative writing? Are you a creative writer yourself?

R: I’ve pitched [freelance articles] at various points and I’ve done quite a bit of freelance writing. I had articles in the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer and a variety of other places--Sunday magazine-type writing.

Besides doing a lot of reporting, I did a lot freelance writing.

Q: And, do you write some of the content for the Writer magazine yourself?

R: At one time I did a lot. For the first five or six years here I did quite a few in-depth author interviews and I just really poured myself into those. I’m pretty proud of them.

There was a realignment of duties and I become the major planner of the feature well, and it’s time consuming. I’ve had to relinquish the writing and interviewing because I'm so involved in the planning now.

Q: A question that often comes up with my readers is educational background. What kind of educational background do you have?

R: I have a bachelor’s in journalism from Kent State and I have a master’s degree in history from Cleveland State. And, just a lifetime of voracious reading in addition to that!

All About the Writer

Q: How would you sell your magazine if it were set up against some of the other major writing magazines? What would you say makes it unique?

R: We have a very serious focus on craft articles, how-to and step-by-step craft articles. We’re very concerned with that. [The magazines] are different animals. We try to provide a lot of market information and cover all the leading genres. But, I think the thing that sets us apart is that we really try to dig into the craft of writing and try to give readers a good practical advice on how to get better at specific aspects of writing.

Q: I noticed that you can flip through the Writer and find fiction craft on one page and a how-to, business management article next.

How do you balance the magazine over so many genres?

R: That is a big part of the monthly challenge. It’s a monthly challenge that just about every magazine faces. You try to keep everybody happy. For example, you mentioned business or copywriting. We deal with those effectively because we have a very good bimonthly columnist, one of the best copywriters in America, Robert Bly. And, we have a very good poetry columnist every other month, Marilyn Taylor. So, some of these genres are dealt with in columns, and then other than that, it’s a balancing act looking for quality in all the different genres.

Q: The Writer runs many contests, correct?

R: Yes, we run a yearly Sylvia Burack scholarship, that’s named after our long time editor in Boston. We also run an annual short story contest. In fact, [at the time of this interview] we're just putting to bed the February [2010] issue that will contain the big print of the winning short story.

Those are our two regular, ongoing contests.

Q: Do you feel like you can credit the Writer magazine for the discovery of a big writer? Are you particularly proud of anyone who’s gone on to make it big or anything like that?

R: We've been pleased with some of these stories. We’re very pleased with the latest winning Burack essay. Also, we [recently] had a mystery short story that is probably going to open up doors for [the author].

”Do They Love of Sidebars?”or, Pitching and Querying the Writer

Q: About what percentage of your articles are freelance written?

R: It’s at least 80%. We look carefully at everything that comes in the query pile and that’s where we get a lot of our good stuff. Sometimes we proactively come up with something that we need to assign, and we go to somebody in our stable of people that we've already worked with.

Now, one thing we see that’s a little puzzling is people who have not written for us will send a query saying I'm open for assignments, I'm available if you need anything done. That’s a waste of time. It’s just common sense that we’re going to turn to someone who’s already a known quantity, someone we’ve worked with already for an article. That person should instead work on really understanding the magazine, knowing our articles and our mission and our audience, and then coming up with a fresh topic and writing a good query. That’s where they should put their energies.

Q: Tell my readers about that person that you do go to. What it is about them that makes you go to them again and again?

R: They’re reliable in terms of effort, writing ability and reporting ability. They’re easy to work with, they’re enthusiastic, they get the magazine and they get what we’re after.

Your worst fear as an editor is to run into a train wreck of a story that’s just poorly done and is going to take hours and hours to fix it up. That’s the editor’s worse fear. It just slows you down. So you’re going to go to someone who you know is going to be a low-maintenance or no-maintenance writer, and will turn in a good piece of work.

Q: What are some of the best departments to pitch the Writer, as a newbie?

R: With our magazine, you should be aware of the columnists and pretty much stay away from those areas. For example, copywriting, writing for business. But, aside from that, we have a column we call “Off the Cuff” which is casual essays about writing. We try to look at that. We also look at queries for our “Breakthrough” column and our “Get Started” column which is specifically directed at beginning writers.

We're always very interested in good step-by-step craft articles but those typically come from fiction writers with a decent number of publications.

The common denominator is that we're really about instruction, advice, and take away benefits. We don’t go for a lot of naval gazing or a meandering style. We don’t have that kind of space. We like straightforward, conversational writing that provides advice and benefits for developing writers.

Q: Many of my readers are just beginning to pitch magazines, and one of the big questions is the balance between the query itself and the idea that the query is presenting. We tend to get caught up in “the perfect query.”

R: They should be thinking I’ve got to sell my idea and myself in the space of three paragraphs, [which] is the general rule. And, at the end, they should be thinking, Well, I'm going to circle around at the end to some specifics about my credentials and my publications. That’s always an essential part of the query. But other than that, you’re selling the idea.

I do have one bit ​of advice I feel pretty strongly about, and we ran a very good article on this by a freelancer named Sharon McDonald. You can use feature-writing techniques to make your query more interesting. You can start that query with an anecdote just as you would a feature. You can use some of that kind of technique to make an interesting query.

I think I probably see 1,000 [queries] a year, and there are many editors out there who see a lot more than that. You want to try to grab them. Grab them with something interesting at the start and then develop it. Use well-chosen facts and maybe a quote or two, and then circle around to your credentials, such as why you’re good to write this article. Maybe do some pre-interviewing to get more research, so you can really shape that thing into an interesting proposal.

Q: Is there anything that you wanted to mention about your magazine or mention specifically to this target audience/freelancers?

R: I do see some queries where it’s clear they haven’t spent any time getting to know you with the publication, and that’s the number-one turnoff for an editor. I think anyone who’s done freelancing, including me, you feel this temptation to just fire off something and not do the prep work of studying the publication a bit. Just take a breath, spend some time with the publication, and get a sense of the tone, the types of articles that they and do not do, the audience. Do they love sidebars? Do they not love sidebars? If they love sidebars, you might score some bonus points if you just mention that briefly in your query. The broader point is just know the publication.

Moving Forward

Q: You’re in a unique position as an editor. Have you seen any big changes in the writing world from your vantage point?

R: The first thing that comes to mind is certainly something any former newspaper person would mention--utter dismay at what appears to be a dismantling of print media in terms of newspapers. You also start to wonder about magazines and print media in general. I think there’s fundamental questions about what is going on with print media in the digital era. Nobody knows where this is all going to come out. It feels like we're living in historic times. It’s really interesting and scary at the same time.

There’s a lot of guessing going on and there’s certainly a lot of new emphases at magazines on website development. We really emphasize our website now and I think most magazines would say the same thing.

R: The other thing maybe a little closer to home for our readers [is] what it means for book publishing. It appears that self-marketing is getting put on the writer, which I’ve always found rather amazing. It seems to be even stronger now.

The effects of the economy have to be mentioned, too. It’s not like we just lived through some minor recession, this is maybe the worst economic climate since the Depression. So how is that all going to shake out with opportunities for books and effects on magazines and literary journals? There’s a lot going on right now. It’s pretty striking.

Q: Is that making it an exciting time for you?

R: It’s exciting and sometimes a little scary. You do have to learn new tricks. We have to adapt to the changes and learn some new tricks.