Writing Small, Thinking Big

Tiny pencil

Tiny but mighty: stand back—this is a sharpened word sword!

I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine the other day. Draft is highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front (and sometimes back) pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky. For writers, and especially ones trying to break in to a magazine, these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick keyboarding to good money and wider opportunities.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try out an unknown writer on a feature piece, but query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often acquiesce. And those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. Happy because those articles often pay .50 to $1 a word (the case here), and more so because it kept me fresh in the mind of the editor. I’m about to query her with another feature pitch this week because I’m fresh in the magazine and fresh in her mind.

Short Articles Can Pay the Long Green

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I just wrote my fourth FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well. Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come—possibly longer stories to come—and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture and more.

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I just wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor who is famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream in a most improbable way. After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

So, don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

Round Out Your Thoughts—Write in an Airstream

Can your writing environment be a factor in your writing? The answer’s obvious, if say, you were trying to write romantic sonnets, while two feet from your hair-raised head a teeth-bared pit bull strained against a cracking leash. That’s a bit extreme of course. But might you write halfway better if half of the pit bull’s teeth were removed? How would a purring kitten in the room affect your writing?

I broach the topic because I write in somewhat of an unusual environment: attacked by plaid. That’s the interior of my 1966 Airstream Globetrotter in the photo above. It’s got a good broadband connection (though it’s only sends Internet packets from the 60s, so there’s a lot of The Man from Uncle coming through) and it’s downright cozy. I live in a semi-rural environment, so out of its many windows I see mostly fields, right now filled with high grasses—and the skunk I missed stepping on by two feet the other day.

Since I write pretty regularly for Airstream Life magazine (and for the Airstreamer newsletter) I’ve written a lot about the feeling of being in an old Airstream. So, to quote myself:

The Airstream’s classic silvery-egg shapeliness has been refined, modified and expanded over time, but that bullet-bodied essence has retained its original appeal. There are certain shapes that beguile the eye, winning our affections in a swift, unconscious bond that escapes any internal editor. Perhaps more intimately, there’s something a little womb-like about the trailers; they curl around you when you’re relaxing inside. That singular shape still rewards the eye with a tingle of approval; every glance reinforces the sense of timeless design.

I do feel that congenial coccooning in the old trailer, and I think it’s a fine environment for writing: there’s the sound of the mockingbirds (and sometimes those damn roosters), the wind swaying the shifting grasses, and that settled sense of an old vehicle that’s still solid and sound. I think well in the old Stream, and it feels like an atmosphere conducive to good keyboarding.

But some writers do well with an entirely different ambience. I know writers who love to go to active coffee shops for their scribblings, needing the murmurs of people and the spoosh of the espresso machine to percolate their thoughts. Other people make sure there ARE no windows in their writing room, so distraction can’t seep in. I’m one of those people who never writes with music playing, or at least music with lyrics, because I’m lured by the words, and my writing thought train derails.

I love to write travel pieces, but don’t like to write the actual sentence-by-sentence of an article on the road. So I’ll write notes and a few sentences in the hotel room, but I always wait to get back home to put together the full composition. Of course, I do some of my writing in the house too, because that’s where the bourbon is. I return to my Airstream when I want a room of my own.

Where do you hang your writing hat?