Friday, June 19, 2009

Spotlight Interview from the Archive: Elfrieda Abbe/Part 2

Elfrieda Abbe, Publisher/Editor/Writer

Elfrieda M. Abbe served as Editor-in-Chief of The Writer magazine for six years before being promoted to Publisher of both The Writer and Bead & Button, the world's leading magazine for the beading hobby.

Abbe began her career as a freelance writer, working for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Magazine and an assortment of business and trade journals. She later wrote features for Milwaukee Magazine and became the Editor of the award-winning Arts & Entertainment section for the Milwaukee Sentinel (now known as the Journal-Sentinel)

After working as a publications editor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she assumed the top editorial position at The Writer in 2000 and won four Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Awards during her tenure.

Here is the second part of my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Abbe:

Mike: What are some of the “don’ts” with queries?

Abbe: Don’t send clips with them. If you send me a good idea and we think we want to do the story, we’ll get back to you asking for samples of your work.

Don’t send me to Web sites to read samples of your work. I won’t do it.

Don’t call me on the phone. This is my No. 1 pet peeve as an editor. If it’s a writer I’ve already worked with, that’s fine. But I don’t want to be pitched over the phone by a stranger. I can’t tell you how many times people have queried me over the phone while I was on deadline and couldn’t talk. It’s not fair to the writer or the editor. I like email queries, though there’s a tendency to be way too casual or breezy, often without a salutation. The email query should be as professional as a letter you would send through the mail. It has to have all the same points. I’ll often get a first paragraph like, “Hi, how are you? Would you like a story about…?”

Poor presentation, overall, doesn’t inspire much confidence. This includes bad grammar, messy handwritten letters, spelling errors and so forth.

Your query should be short and clear and thorough. Because of the hundreds of queries most editors get and never enough time for us to read them all, you need to produce one that is easy to read in a minute or two.

Mike: Other than calling you on the phone, what else really irks you about some queries?

Abbe: The worst is when the writer hasn’t seemed to do any homework at all, or even read the magazine for that matter. I can’t tell you how many submissions we get of poetry and fiction, even though we don't publish poetry or fiction.

In your query, you MUST convey the feeling that you read the magazine, know the magazine, know the magazine’s tone and what we’re all about. I at least need to know that you’ve studied it long enough to know who our readers are and what kind of article will work here.

Mike: Since you’ve done both writing and editing, what are the differences?

Abbe: Well, I’ve always done both at the same time, so I never went through any major transition. They’re very different, I can safely say that, but I’m pretty good at changing hats. You’re more task-oriented as an editor. I mean, you’d be amazed how little time I spend actually editing stories. I’m mostly working with the art department or interviewing authors on the telephone or putting together a budget and getting interrupted a lot. (She laughs.)

When I’m writing, the first I have to do is close my door; I need to focus more when I write. And once I get past the procrastinating, I don’t want to stop, even to eat dinner. When you’re on that roll, it’s such a sweet feeling that you want to keep going and going.

I love the feeling of writing once you’re in the process of doing it, once you’re really into it, but I also love, as an editor, seeing the magazine, all those loose ends, coming together.

Mike: Which is harder?

Abbe: (A long pause.) They both have challenges.

Mike: Has being a freelance writer helped you understand freelancers better as an editor?

Abbe: No question. I know what it’s like trying to generate more and more income, working with various editors, getting great assignments and not so great ones, having to choose between doing a story you love for little money or doing one you don’t love because it pays well. Being a freelance writer was especially great training for coming up with story ideas, which is something I need to do all the time as an editor.

Mike: What writing books would you recommend?

Abbe: My favorite is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. I just love that book. It comes at the subject in such a gloriously different way—in a more intuitive, unstructured way than most writing books. She teaches you how to get into a creative mood in more than one way, about the benefits of such things as taking a walk and clearing your head, or looking out the window and thinking about something else.

I mean, every writer has times where he/she is just sitting there and it’s just not coming, and you think you’re not doing anything and you start feeling guilty and pained. She believes in simply letting go and letting your mind just wander, that you’ll be able to mull your ideas subconsciously. It’s a great change from the way we usually think when we’re writing—or not.

A great book.

Mike: Any other great books?

Abbe: Yes, Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write. As a rule, I don’t like to dwell on the psychoanalytical and the whole issue of writer’s block and what writers fear. But he addresses some specific writing issues and helps writers overcome them.

He also quotes a lot of well-known writers who have gone through these issues, and any time you can read how another writer, especially an accomplished one, solved a problem, that’s very helpful.

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