Archive for November 4th, 2007

Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Petting a Panda: A Lesson in The Personal Essay

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Congratulations! An editor at one of the magazines you’ve been pitching for months has asked for a 500-800-word personal essay about your recent trip to Chengdu, China, where you visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Pandas are, as you now know, one of China’s most valued national treasures, but like many animals around the world, they are in danger of extinction.

Once you stop dancing to celebrate the assignment, you’ve got a couple of decisions to make. First, what aspect of your trip are you going to write about? Don’t even try to cover it all. The magazine editor said 500-800 words and she means it. So while yes, the taxi ride from your hotel to the panda center was harrowing and memorable (especially when the driver veered so close to that mammoth blue truck toting at least 5,000,000 tons of old wood that you were sure it was going to topple over and crush you), save it for your article about taxi rides in China.

Instead go to what took your attention most, like how you got to stand behind (right behind) one of the adult giant pandas, put your hands on his back and get your photo taken (for a large fee that benefits the center).

Oh, yeah, you remember now, don’t you? That was pretty cool. And a little scary, especially when the gamekeeper mentioned (at the moment you set your hands on the panda) that pandas do sometimes get over-stimulated by large, loud crowds and become aggressive to those standing closest to them. From your new vantage point directly behind the giant panda, you watched dozens of tourists from all over the world push, shove, holler and snap photos not more than ten feet away, and keeping the gamekeeper’s words in mind, you tried to stay as calm as possible. You did not shriek. You did not raise your arms over your head and run. You did not grab the tuft of bamboo leaves from the panda’s paws because you wanted the photo to include a good shot of his face and all those damn bamboo leaves kept getting in the way. And you most definitely did not grip onto the panda’s very fuzzy, very adorable black ears and yell “cheese” as a second gamekeeper took a photo.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to write about, you have to decide in which point of view you’re going to write. Because this is a personal essay (get it? personal…about you), it is unlikely you’ll choose to write in 3rd person. (It would be a little confusing…and kind of weird…to write about yourself as “she” or “he,” but that’s something you can discuss with your therapist.) Depending on the material, your best bet is to write a personal essay in either 1st or 2nd person.

Next figure out the tense in which you want to write: past or present. Both can work well in a personal essay, and a good way to figure out which works best for this particular piece is to write the first few paragraphs both ways. Once you read them aloud, you’ll have a good sense of which works better.

With all the big decisions behind you, the rest is easy. Tell your story. Make your readers feel like they are right there with you…standing behind the giant panda in complete amazement at how bristly his black and white fur is and how you’ve dreamed about seeing a panda up close ever since your babysitter gave you a stuffed one when you were two.

And, oh yeah, don’t be afraid to toss in a fact or two. Readers love nothing more than finishing up a good essay, sitting down to dinner with friends and casually saying, “Did you know there are fewer than 1,000 giant pandas left in Sichuan Province in China?”

Now go to it!

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit

The Copywriter’s Paycheck: Share Your Expertise

Elizabeth ShortBy Elizabeth Short

Now that you’ve assembled a solid portfolio of your copywriting work, guess what? You’re just steps away from establishing yourself as an expert! Read on to learn how.

Getting Started Tip #9: Share Your Expertise—write a column, make a presentation
What is the definition of an expert? A person who has a special skill or knowledge in some particular field. That’s you, the world just doesn’t know it yet. Luckily, getting the word out is easier than you might think, while the payoff—free publicity for your business and a boost in your credibility—are huge. To establish yourself as an expert you need a venue for getting your know-how in the public eye. Here are some ideas: Approach your local paper about a copywriting column geared for business owners. Host a copywriting workshop through your chamber of commerce. Give a presentation on crafting effective marketing copy at your local Rotary Club. Offering content that empowers business owners to tackle their own copy will inspire gratitude for valuable information; just as likely, it will inspire your audience to skip the hassle of copywriting altogether and hire you instead. As with any newsworthy development in your business, don’t forget to send a press release announcing your event.

Copywriting Tip #9: Craft descriptive headings
Unless your intended market is extremely bored or obsessively meticulous, no one in today’s busy world has the time or inclination to read every word you write. Instead, readers will scan your copy for the specific information they need, zero in on pertinent details and disregard the rest. While your job is to accurately capture the details your market seeks, it’s also your responsibility to display the road signs that will steer your audience in that direction. Descriptive headings that precede distinct blocks of copy provide these signals. For example: Flowering perennials for fall color. Fragrant ground cover. Natural and composite pavers for paths and patios. Make sure the graphic or web designer you’re collaborating with doesn’t let your headings go to waste. Use a different font, larger point size, contrasting color or bold formatting to make your headings stand out for easy scanning.

Elizabeth Short is a freelance copywriter and graphic designer with a passion for helping small businesses clarify and broadcast unique marketing messages. With a focus on websites and print materials, she brings together content + design in one easy, affordable package ( Check out her e-book, 7 Steps to Effective Web Content ( to learn the secrets of writing copy for the web.

Good Reads for Writers: Mountain Man Dance Moves, The McSweeney’s Book of Lists

Cathy BelbenReviewed By Cathy Belben
When, if ever, is a list literature? Although the editors of Found ( might argue with me, I believe it’s a rare list that qualifies as entertaining, intelligent, engaging, thought-provoking and original. Unless finding Grandma’s grocery list for corn niblets, a new plastic hair bonnet and kitty litter meets these criteria for you, it’s unlikely that you’ll find many memorable lists.

Enter McSweeney’s ( The site maintains a regular feature (open to submissions; see Web site for details) consisting of lists that do meet high standards—they’re funny, unique, smart and sassy reflections on history and pop culture. After all, isn’t it about time someone confronted Charlie Daniels, as John Moe does, in “Thirty-Nine Questions for Charlie Daniels Upon Hearing ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ for the First Time in Twenty-Five Years”?

Checking in with the online compilation of lists is sufficient to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist as captured in lists, but to truly appreciate the form and its humor and insight, it is imperative to read the collected works as they appear in Mountain Man Dance Moves. You might be confused (“The Week Ahead: Five-Word Verification Strings to Watch For”) or skeptical (“Notable Bands of 2005”) about some of the entries, but you’ll assuredly be entertained by at least one.

McSweeney’s Mountain Man selections offer creative and (and occasionally bewildering) ideas about practicing expression through precision and meticulous word choice. As a left-brained, list-making alphabetizer, I’m delighted to see the form exalted by McSweeney’s, and I think other writers will be too.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.

Green Writer Marketplace: Plenty

Susan W. ClarkBy Susan W. Clark

Get ready for an abundant take on green living with Plenty. Launched in 2005, this magazine is self-described as “an environmental media company dedicated to exploring and giving voice to the green revolution that will define the 21st Century. Plenty’s motto is “It’s easy being green.”

Oxford MBA graduate Mark Spellun is the creator and Editor-in-chief of this bi-monthly; the publisher is Environmental Press, Inc. (Don’t confuse this publication with the New Zealand-based Plenty that isn’t focused on the environment.)

While other print publications are taking a variety of steps to refine their electronic presence, Plenty has done it. Notice the term “media company” above, which fits with their print and online versions. Their writer’s guidelines (which are available on their Web site) give details about writing for both versions, and the pay is an attractive $1/word depending on experience. Online only stories (up to 500 words) are paid $150.

In short, if your story idea has an eco-slant, you should check out Plenty. To review past issues for style and subjects covered, you’ll probably need to visit a library; I couldn’t find online archives.

Plenty offers payment on publication and a 25% kill fee. Submit a detailed query and clips via e-mail only to Plan on a lead-time of four to six months. The guidelines promise a charmingly short initial response time of two weeks.

Grab your green idea list and locate some back issues. I’m betting you’ll find Plenty of great ideas to pitch.

Photographer, editor, and award-winning writer, Susan W. Clark is an ardent advocate for sustainability. The Utne Reader applauded her article “Sustainable Revolution” from In Good Tilth magazine as “world-changing.” She is a regular contributor to In Good Tilth and Touch the Soil. Her work has appeared in the Capitol Press, Portland Tribune, Small Farmer’s Journal, and Permaculture Activist. She edits Salt of the Earth, the quarterly journal of Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust. Her observations about living within our ecological means are posted at

Conference Confab (October)

Pamela KimLearn, Connect and Pitch with Industry Experts
By Pamela Kim

The conference circuit slows down towards the end of the year but there are still a couple of great opportunities for you in 2007.

Backspace Agent-Author Seminars
November 6-7, 2007 • Radisson Martinique Hotel • New York City
We first introduced you to the Backspace Organization last May with the annual writers conference. In November, the organization puts on a two-day agent-author event. The goal of this event is to help authors connect with agents––lots of agents––so you have the opportunity to ask questions specific to your interests and concerns.

The Two Minutes, Two Pages workshop, for example, is your forum for honest, objective feedback about your work. Two agents and approximately a dozen authors will be seated at a table; a reader will read the first two pages of their manuscript aloud. If the pages stop working, one or both of the agents will interrupt the reading to explain why they would have quit reading at that point if they had received the pages as a submission.

All in all, with only agents on the program, the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar is a terrific opportunity to network, ask questions, talk about your work, and listen and learn from the people who make their living selling books. Learn more at

Travel Classics West 2007
November 1-4, 2007 • Westin Kierland Resort • Scottsdale, Arizona
It’s said that travel writing is among the most lucrative of magazine writing, not to mention the most adventuresome. If you want to get in on the action, Travel Classics may be the conference for you. There are presentations and workshops with assigning editors from magazines including AARP the Magazine, body + soul (the Martha Stewart publication), National Geographic Traveler, Art & Antiques, Golf for Women, Arizona Highways, Executive Traveler, Organic Spa and Sierra.

Plus, you can consult one-on-one with guest editors. You can register and get more details online.

Writer mama Pamela Kim writes non-fiction articles about kids, single mommyhood and the joy of organizing the stuff of life. She leverages eighteen years of experience as a corporate communications consultant to connect readers with the information they need and want. When not traveling the conference circuit – each year finds Pam at writing, blogging and health conferences – she lives in Northern California with the fabulous Katie Kim who is six. Her home online is

Writing Conference Success: Preparing Your Dossier – More on Bios and Cover Letters

Mary AndonianBy Mary Andonian

Many people will go into a conference empty-handed, but not you. I have two good reasons why you should walk into the conference armed with business cards and proposal packages (thinly disguised as inexpensive paper folders). First, these items will build your credibility and boost your professional demeanor. Second, at best you’ll get your proposal in the hands of editors and agents for their long flight home, and at worst you’ll be in the enviable position to immediately mail follow-up materials.

Two important elements that will go into your proposal package are your bio and cover letter.

Your bio page can be made up in any number of ways. You can use a more traditional resume approach, listing all of your writing credits in chronological order, along with relevant educational background, and so on.

Or you may opt for the author’s book flap approach, where you write your bio the way you would like it to be seen on the back cover of your book.

One author I know lists her writing credits, but includes next to each credit a full color photo representing each credit. I used her approach for my last proposal package and ended up using visual icons representing the Contra Costa Times Newspapers (two of my essays were printed in this newspaper) and both an Institute of Children’s Literature logo and a Willamette Writers logo (for my education and involvement in these institutions, respectively).

When it was all said and done, my bio page looked pretty impressive.

Cover Letter
Your cover letter is really a one-page query letter you would send in lieu of meeting your agent or editor. It should be addressed to the agent or editor to whom you’ll pitch, along with her complete (and accurate) company title/imprint, address and phone number.

Your salutation should be addressed to Ms. [Last Name], unless you have met the person before.

The first paragraph should be a one-sentence summary of the book you’re trying to pitch.

The second and possibly third paragraphs should describe your book by first stating the need for such a book and then by telling why your book is the perfect solution to that need.

The last few paragraphs talk about you.

Why are you the perfect person to write this book?

What have you done that’s note-worthy, and why would people buy from you?

This is where you will talk about your platform, if you have one. If you don’t have paid writing credits, then highlight other achievements, such as (relevant) degrees completed or awards won.

Even non-relevant degrees might work if you spin them right: “I have an M.B.A. with an emphasis in Marketing, a skill set that will come in handy after my book has sold.”

Remember: Every interaction should close the sale or advance the sale, so close your letter with an offer to send more: “May I send you the entire manuscript? Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Mary Andonian is the agents and editors coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference—one of the largest writers’ conferences in the United States. In past years, she was Co-chair and Program Coordinator. She just completed her second book, Bitsy’s Labyrinth. You can reach her at (

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November 2007

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