Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spotlight Interview from the Archive: Elfrieda Abbe/Part 3

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 third part of my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Abbe:

Mike: What do you think about the whole New Age-y Natalie Goldberg-Julia Cameron series?

Abbe: They’ve really helped writers come in touch with a certain part of themselves, and there are a lot of useful tools, ideas, and inspirations to be found in their books. Some people swear by those “morning pages.”

People must find their own path. There’s no one way.

Mike: How would you describe great writing?

Abbe: I think a lot of writers interject themselves into a story too much, and you’re very aware of their writing, as opposed to the subject. I want to know what they’re writing about, not them. Great writing is almost invisible, so as to take me into the writer’s world, Writers just need to show what’s going on. Don’t interject how you feel about it. Just describe what’s going on. With great writing, it’s often deceptively simple, where you lose track of the writing. The writer pulls you in. As stylized as Tom Wolfe has been, he still pulls you right into his world.

Mike: Who are some of your favorite authors simply to read?

Abbe: Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, and Margaret Atwood are writers I’ve returned to again and again.

Mike: How did you get your start in journalism?

Abbe: I started out by freelancing. After I sold my first piece (for $75 to the Chicago Daily News, about a coffeehouse run by a commune of students called Amazing Grace on the Northwestern University campus), I sold others to the Chicago newspapers, the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine and Chicago magazine. Then, I got some assignments from the editor of around four trade and professional journals. By doing this work, I learned how to be resourceful, check facts, meet deadlines, find the story, etc. This was basically my journalism training. I majored in English literature in college and swear by a liberal arts education, but by the time I wanted a full-time job, I had quite a lot of experience. My first newspaper job was for a chain of weekly papers—Pioneer Press—in the Chicago area. I was editor of the Home section and about 15 special sections. From there I moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, where I was the assistant editor of the Home pages. All the while I had my eye on moving into arts and entertainment because that was my interest. I became editor of the Home section, but also wrote when I could for the A&E pages. So, when the opening for an assistant editor on the weekly came up, I applied and was thrilled to get it. After three years, the editor moved on and I moved into the editor's spot. What this taught me was that it helps to be ready and have the right skills when opportunities come up.

Mike: One frequent complaint you hear from writers is that editors take their sweet time about responding to queries. What can you say to soothe these writers?

Abbe: Well, understand that there is a probably a pretty good reason why they haven’t heard back quickly. I’d wait at least a month or six weeks, then make contact, albeit gently, not screaming, with the editor you sent the query to. We get a lot of queries, and it takes us time to go through all of those. Writers shouldn’t assume we hated it. They shouldn’t assume a lot of things. Even if we reject it, it doesn’t mean it was the quality of the query that doomed it.

Even if you hand in an assigned article, don’t assume anything by the length of time we take to get back to you. You never know what’s going on internally at the magazine that’s causing delays. We’re on deadline. We’re out of town. As for me, I try to let the writer know immediately that I got the story and that I’ll get back to him/her in a couple of weeks.

To be a freelance writer, you must have patience, persistence, and resiliency.

Mike: What’s your opinion about writing for free?

Abbe: In general, I think people should get paid for their writing. But there are no absolutes in this business. I wouldn’t write for free very long, but it’s certainly a great way to build up clips at the beginning, which is very important.

You have to look at your goals and needs. People write for different reasons. For some people, who don’t really care about the money, they simply want to write something they have a passion for and to get that work before a specific audience. I understand that, and that’s fine.

Mike: Any ideas about how to boost your freelance writing income?

Abbe: Since time is money in freelancing, one great way is to take research from one article and make it work for another article or even several articles.

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