For the next few Wednesdays, I'll be featuring writers I like and how they hone their craft, use the internet, get writing ideas from life, and rake in the dough.
Currently an editor at Bangor Metro magazine, Melanie Brooks has worked at newspapers, magazines, and as a freelancer in New York, Boston, and Baltimore…and those are the ones I know about. In addition to her job at Metro, she's also a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Maine. Her blog What Mimi Read, is a fun commentary on media and pop culture. As a fellow blogger and writer (and friend), I asked her a few questions about her craft and, of course, money.
You've worked for newspapers and magazines and websites (and probably in other venues I don't even know about). How is the culture similar and different in these different types of publications? Which is your favorite environment to work in?
I attended NYU for the graduate program in magazine writing. I have never had any interest in writing for a daily newspaper. I did work for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. while finishing my degree, and that only solidified my dislike for daily newspaper reporting. I'm a feature writing kind of gal.
I did enjoy working for Inc. magazine's website, where I wrote daily news on small business and entrepreneurship.
At Inc. I worked on a very small team (there was only one other full time writer and we shared an editor) and we got to do more than just write. I created slideshows to go along with my stories and was on the pioneering team for the 30-Under-30 and Best Lemonade Stand competitions, which are now annual events.
At the Star-Ledger I had to share a computer and desk with a surly night copy writer and never had any professional interaction with my co-workers. It was very solitary.
Now I am the assistant editor for Bangor Metro magazine and I couldn't be happier. I work in a small creative team and get to put all of my skills to use. Not only to I manage and edit the work of freelancers, I also get to write feature stories, take photographs, work on the layout, and help decide our editorial calendar. I'm hoping to get a blogging feature up on our website this year so that we can write about current local events in a timely manner.
In addition to working for Bangor Metro you are also a professor of journalism. How does that break down, both in terms of time they take and percentage of income they generate for you?
I love teaching on the college level and I am so glad that I get the opportunity to do so. I'm lucky to work for a small company where the owner also teaches at UMaine. As long as I am making my deadline I'm ok to take a couple of hours off to teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While technically I have a 9-5 job, it's not uncommon for me to work late or to even come in on the weekend to work on the magazine. This is usually the case during the last week of production before we go to print.
While I love working with college students, the extra money teaching affords me is another big factor in why I do it. I use the extra money I make wisely — paying off my car loan and putting some away in my savings.
Because I have taught this class before, both at UMaine and at the New England School of Communications, the time it takes me to prepare for class isn't overwhelming. I basically use the same syllabus and tweak out my class plans before each class. The first year was hard because I had to make a syllabus from scratch — now I just try to perfect it.
Do you think your teaching helps your writing?
Not necessarily my writing but teaching definitely helps my editing. Each week I have at least 20 student articles to read! It also helps me with my public speaking and presentation skills.
What is the craziest experience you've had to get the story right? To give you an idea, Mark Laflamme from last week spent a lot of time in funeral parlors for his last book.
I was writing a very long (5,000 word) piece for my Journalism and Religion class at NYU. We had all semester to work on it. I actually joined a church in Newark, NJ and wrote about the parishioners. It was a historic church, and the parishioners were all in their 80s and there were only about 10 of them, so I stuck out like a sore thumb. But I went every week and became part of the community. They even asked me to read scripture a few times and invited me to their monthly ladies luncheons. At the end of the semester, when I had decided to move back to Maine, it was hard saying goodbye. They were lovely people and I think about them every so often.
Does your work as an editor blend in with your writing, or do you work to keep the two jobs seperate?
Since I edit for the magazine, I know what we look for in a story. It helps me with my writing. That's not to say that I don't have someone else edit my stories — because I do. Everyone needs an editor in my opinion. Many times when I have been working on a story for a while I become so close to it — it becomes hard for me to step back and critique my own writing. I always have someone else read it over to make sure it makes sense.
If someone reading this is thinking of doing freelance writing, what's something you learned that may help them make a go of it?
Do your research and start small. If you don't already have published clips consider writing for free at first. That's how I started in Boston. I found my first freelance writing gigs on Craigslist and the only compensation I got was seeing my name in print. It wasn't my full time job and I did it for fun — and it WAS fun! That's how I decided to go to grad school.
Know your subject and be familiar with the publication you would like to write for. Write a good query letter to the editor telling him or her why your story idea would be a good fit for their publication. I can't tell you how many times we get freelancers pitching us ideas that we would never publish in a million years. That not only wastes my time but it wastes the writers time as well.