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Senior Columns Editor Shares Tips

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So you want to pitch a column for Literary Mama? This is fantastic, and we can’t wait to read your submission! A column is like a brand-new relationship, bubbling over with promise; it’s the extension of a hand in friendship. From where I sit, it’s such a thrill to publish that brand-new first installment in a year’s worth of words to come, and we are actively seeking new writers and new columns for the upcoming year. Let the floodgates open! But . . . before you dash off to your computer, you should spend some time considering these three essential ingredients of a successful column pitch:

 

  • Hook
  • Roadmap
  • Samples

 

Let’s begin with the hook. When I embarked five years ago on that thrilling, soul-deflating journey that was querying my first novel, my first attempts at querying were a disaster, primarily because I hadn’t spent enough time working on the hook. My writing was good! My story was unique! Once a prospective literary agent or editor started reading, surely she/he would be hooked. What I had failed to consider was that the hook part of the process needed to begin earlier, with the query letter.

In this same way, your query letter to your column proposal should hook us in with a unique and intriguing concept. Look over the columns archives and make sure your idea is one that covers new ground in new ways. We do see a supply of not-so-fresh column ideas (of the working-mom-quits-job-turns-stay-at-home-mom-discovers-joys/challenges/heartbreaks-of-parenting variety) over here in the Columns Department at Literary Mama, so nothing gets our hearts racing a little faster than a distinctive and intriguing hook. We are especially looking for columns that reflect a diverse view–racially, ethnically, sexually, emotionally, physically–you name it. We want and need diverse voices! But most of all, we want a story that is uniquely yours–one that you can’t wait to tell, and that we can’t wait to read.

The roadmap: Indulge me in a running analogy for a moment. I still remember when I set out on my first long-distance run. I had underestimated the miles it would take to cover the distance, and left both my water bottle and cell phone at home. These were rookie mistakes I never made again!

Writing a column is like embarking on a long-distance run: it requires planning, and pacing, and perseverance. You can start out with the best intentions in the world, but if you haven’t planned for the distance physically and mentally, you’ll find yourself hitting that proverbial wall in mile six. When you submit your proposal to Literary Mama, you want to make sure you include a roadmap of your proposed column. Sending a brief outline of the trajectory of the first six months is critical. A great query letter with an enticing hook is all well and good, but if there’s no roadmap to support the promise hinted at in the letter, we can’t adequately assess the merits of the proposal as a whole. After all, a columnist must be able to sustain the magic for 11 installments, published monthly or bimonthly. (A bimonthly contract is a two-year commitment.) Can you show us how you’ll do that?

Which brings me, finally, to samples. When a column query lands in my in-box, and I’ve been hooked, and my heart is doing that pitter-patter thing that signals I think we’ve got something good going on here! I often dive right in and begin reading through the samples. And . . . there better be samples! Nothing frustrates and deflates more then receiving a solid query and hook, scrolling to the bottom of the email, and finding nothing attached–nothing but empty promises, that is. Very rarely can the level of necessary planning, pacing, and perseverance that is required of a successful columnist, be gleaned from a cover letter, or even from one sample column. Please, send at least three sample columns–the best, most glittery, most magical, most lyrical, most compelling columns you can write. We can’t wait to read them.

This past weekend I spent clicking through the archives of some of Literary Mama’s columnists. I spent a memorable two hours dipping into the stories and lives of writers I have come to admire over the years. Writers who have openly and honestly shared their lives with their readers; who have penned celebrations, and losses, and all that life has brought to them along the way. I reread Avery Fischer Udagawa’s first post in her Four Worlds column and marveled again at the rich tapestry of experiences which formed the backdrop for her columns about parenting and writing and living as an ex-pat in Thailand. I reread Baggage, a wrenchingly poignant installment from Bonnie Pike’s Senior Mama column and I was amazed again by the quality of the prose, but also by the courage it must have taken Bonnie to write that piece.

When it comes down to it, what separates a column from a standalone essay has to do with the length and depth of the connection, and how willing a writer is to take that leap, to forge those bonds. It’s about commitment.

Do you have a story to tell? Are you willing to extend your hand, and your life and experiences, to others? Are you willing to open yourself up to editorial feedback, to making yourself vulnerable each month, to sharing your heart with readers all over the world?

I hope you are. We would love to work with you.


Alissa McElreath teaches English Literature and Composition at a small private school in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is currently working on her second novel. Alissa is a former senior editor and former columns editor for Literary Mama.


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