Career & Business
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Education of an Education Writer...
by Christine Venzon
How does a person who has changed exactly
one diaper in her life write high school textbooks on
parenting and child development?
How does a person who celebrates the fact
that she balances her checkbook every month write about
student activities on personal finance and consumer
It's one of those overlooked opportunities
in freelance writing: not every educational writer is an educator.
Sometimes we're as much student as teacher.
I started writing some 15 years ago, right
out of college. I'd planned to freelance, fly solo all the way. But
after six months with just two bylines, I was happy enough for the
quasi-security of a project worker with one of McGraw-Hill's textbook
My first assignment was as a humble
researcher for a child care book. I read magazine and newspaper articles
and chapters from competitors' books and sorted them according to topic:
preschool, parenting, toileting.
I chafed at the routine and the confinement of office walls. Still, the
experience drove home my first lesson in writing for the education
market: learn what the experts are talking about. What are the
well-established principles? The issues and controversies? The new
philosophies on the horizon? Today I use the Internet more than the
library stacks, but the same strategy applies.
My first writing assignment was doing
features, one-page articles and activities on timely topics-careers or
technology, for example-that run through the book. It got me out of the
office, happily telecommuting by email.
Equally important, it imparted lesson
two: don't be afraid to ask a living, breathing expert. Sure, you
could-and I did-learn about space food from the NASA website. But it was
more interesting and informative to pick up the phone to the
. Plus, the idea of talking to a food packaging scientist working on the
cutting edge of food technology in space exploration does wonders for
your professional self-esteem. Way cool, too.
Not everyone gets back to you, of course,
so line up three or four sources. If you've done your research (see lesson
one), the most respected names will sound familiar. Vet them closely: visit
their websites, check out their books at the library, Google their articles
or public speaking engagements or appearances on Oprah. Find the specialists
in the field.
To improve your chances, show that you've
done your homework. Explain who you are, what you need to know, and why you
believe they can help. No flattery is needed; recognizing their authority is
One caveat about consulting experts: be
prepared to be humbled. My question to a food historian about pasta
making in ancient
showed a laughable lack of understanding on my part. (Graciously, he didn't
After a decade of keeping me fed and
housed, the textbook publisher unceremoniously and inconveniently closed its
doors. By then I was too spoiled for a grown-up job.
Instead, I applied
lesson three : think outside the classroom. Trading on
my own "expert" status as an educational writer, I sold an article on
simple ways to encourage kids to read to a parenting website. Two writers'
newsletters bought my piece on writing recipes for children.
It was the chance to submit articles for a
food encyclopedia for a small but scholarly press that reaped the greatest
rewards. That credit was barely under my belt when I used it to promote myself
as a published foods researcher and writer.
I earned a check for an article on
teaching children social studies with easy ethnic recipes, and another from a
kids' website for a story on potato processing, including a recipe for potato
also helped me crack the toughest market
in town: children's magazines.
The ones you used to read in the doctor's office,
like Highlights and Ranger Rick, are still around, but without the boilerplate,
George-Washington-father-of-our-country stories and baking-soda volcano crafts.
Kids today are reading about Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker. They're
making Renaissance-style frescoes. Whole publications are dedicated to history,
archaeology, and world cultures. Most ask for a bibliography of sources just to
look at an article on spec.
As luck would have it, I had a little
experience doing research.
This is where expert sources come in handy
again. Editors love quotes from experts. They liven up what could be a stale
recital of facts and dates. Even if it's not required, getting a recognized
authority on board is like being insured by the FDIC. And when you're competing
with a hundred other writers, half the battle is convincing editors that this is
the story they want, and you're the one to write it.
My expert for a story on bread baking in
was the editor of the encyclopedia I had written articles for (duly noted in
the query letter). I'm not saying she swung the deal, but her line on how they
kneaded the dough with their feet was my story-closing zinger.
Bio: Christine Venzon is a
freelance writer specializing in academic subjects, including child development,
foods and nutrition, consumer economics, and careers. Her publishing credits
include the children's and young adults' magazines Appleseeds, BRIO, Pockets,
and Young Rider. She can be reached at Vnznchristine@aol.com.
You might say the whole of my career rests on the adage "It's not what you
know, it's who you know." And people say that like it's a bad thing.
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