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Friday, March 15, 2013

Writing Pad Student to Master: An Interview with Lisa Donato

Since Taffy Brodesser-Akner's essay writing class this fall, Writing Pad student Lisa Donato has successfully landed her writing in SELF Magazine, the L.A. Times, Whole Life Times, and 5280, a Colorado Magazine. She took some time out of her burgeoning freelance career to tell us how it all started.

When was your first class with essay instructor extraordinaire Taffy Brodesser-Akner?

My first class was a women’s magazine class that started at the end of September. I’ve taken five total essay classes – and I’ve doubled the money I’ve invested into classes!

Had you been published prior to this foray into essay writing?


Wow, you've had a slew of recent writing success. Tell us about the pieces and where you managed to land them.

My first "yes" was from Self Magazine on November 6th. I wrote an essay in one sitting in Taffy’s personal essay two-day boot camp. I was so strung out over finishing this essay for the workshop session the following day. Writing for me is like extracting blood from a stone sometimes, but I forced myself to finish it. I wrote my last sentence at 4am. The essay is about how I recently lost 30 pounds through the hCG hormone program in 40 days and lied about how I lost the weight to my friends and colleagues.

My next yes was from the L.A. Times L.A. Affairs column. I was going to skip class one night and Taffy convinced me to go. She helped me flesh out an idea I had about my relationship – a story about how my girlfriend and I took ballroom dance lessons in West Hollywood to determine who was the "lead" in the relationship, but it's really a story about the fear of losing ourselves when we feel like we are losing control. It ran on March 2nd. 

Recently I pitched an idea to 5280, a prominent magazine in Colorado. It’s a profile story on a group of female street artists. This story is going to run in their August issue. 

Finally, I pitched an essay idea to Whole Life Times. They loved the essay and they are going to do a feature story on me for their October/November issue. This story is about how I ended years of yo-yo dieting patterns and chronic depression by simply changing my diet. It explores the direct correlation between foods and moods. 

Congratulations! That's terrific. What have you learned about the publishing process?

Patience! I have learned to not become attached to my essays and/or pitches. I pitch 2-3 times per week and I get rejected A LOT. I really believe in my ideas, but I move on quickly. I keep a lot of pitches and essays in the pipeline and I hope that something will eventually bite. The best advice from Taffy: send out multiple essays/pitches every week; the one that sells down the road is an unexpected treat. 

Now that you’re a pro, what are your pitching techniques that help you stand out from the slush pile?

Haha. I don't consider myself a pro, but here are my best practices: I always put a question in the subject line. For example: Pitch: How Can a Pimple Beckon Suicide? I get a response from editors at least 90% of the time (even if most of them are rejections). 

I research the publication I am pitching. Has this story been covered yet? Where in the magazine is the best fit? I tell them in the first line of the pitch: This 1,200-word triumph essay is perfect for the mc@work section in Marie Claire’s magazine. One sentence reveals three things: the essay is already written, the type of essay (triumph), and that I have done research. 

I keep the pitch simple and I always say that I will follow up in one week if I don’t hear back. Follow up is key. Every essay I’ve sold had at least one follow-up email. Oh, and Tuesdays are lucky for me. I always pitch on Tuesdays. 

Excellent tips, Lisa. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!

If you want to set your freelance career into motion, Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the best person to help get you off the ground. She's helped 25 students get published, including our Writing Pad superstar Lisa Donato!

There are two upcoming Writing Pad classes with Taffy aimed at getting your essay published: the Personal Essay Clinic on March 18th and What Do You Think? Writing the Op-Ed or Cultural Essay on March 21st and 28th. There's only 1 spot left in each class. Sign up today and you'll have a byline in no time!

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