Courtesy of

Courtesy of

In April, I went to the annual ASJA conference in New York. It was a weekend of panel discussions and networking events designed to help professional writers develop the skills, information and connections we need to succeed in our businesses. I took copious notes over the three-day event and wanted to share what I learned.

Editors need us: In one panel after another, editors from consumer and trade publications repeated the same refrain: “We depend on writers to come to us with ideas.”

Most of the editors at the conference fill their pages with articles written by freelance, not staff, writers. Without our queries, their publications couldn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean editors are desperate! Instead of sending an email offering to write for them, send ideas! The editors at the ASJA conference want queries, not letters of introduction, that show writers understand their publications and are capable of coming up with fresh content.

Stories, not topics, sell queries: In a panel on environmental writing, editors expressed a strong need for ideas for compelling stories. In their view, writers too often send pitches with notes like, “I want to write about fracking,” or, “I want to cover global warming.”

The editor from Scientific American said, “I don’t even care about clips, I just want to see excellent ideas.”

To increase the odds of landing an assignment, take the time to develop detailed ideas instead of sending suggestions to write about general topics.

Content is king: There were two panels on content marketing, or the creation of content for marketing purposes, which some writers and publishers believe is the wave of the future. One of the content marketing experts said, “It’s not about journalism or publishing, it’s about business.”

The message: Writers need to be thinking about how we can partner with companies and custom publishers to create content. The Custom Content Council is a great place to start.

Persistence pays: During the keynote speech delivered by bestselling author AJ Jacobs, he reminded writers that editors are busy people with overflowing inboxes, deadlines and other writers tugging on their virtual pant legs. His suggestion: Practice “strategic chutzpah.”  In other words, follow up; advocate for your ideas.

He was careful to remind the audience that, “there is a fine line between chutzpah and stalking!”

Networking matters: There was a lot of buzz about meting with editors and attending panels to get firsthand information about what editors are looking for. I’ve been attending the conference since 2002 and I’ve realized that one of the biggest benefits of putting on heels and traveling to New York is connecting with other writers. It’s good to share tips and trade information about editors and magazines. It’s like catching up on a year’s worth of water cooler talk in a single weekend.

What lessons have you learned at writers conferences?