Putting together the title for today’s live chat was challenging because whether you’re interested in improving your writing (for a travel blog or otherwise), want to know what it’s like to interview people from Donald Rumsfeld to M. Night Shyamalan, or the geopolitics of the world you’re traveling in, my guest can answer your questions. I should probably start by asking how to avoid run-on sentences.
Kira Zalan is an associate editor at U.S. News and World Report, where she writes on politics and policy and interviews authors and newsmakers. She has freelanced for Washingtonian, Marie Claire, Redbook, Foreign Policy, The Root magazines, and tweets @kzalan.
The chat is now closed, thank you everyone for joining!
Kira will be online later this evening to take your questions related to all of the above as well as journalism and Russian/post-Soviet studies; subjects which she has two Master Degrees in from Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, respectively. I’m not sure if she also speaks Bajoran but don’t neglect to ask in the comments below, you won’t be marked down for poor grammar.
Hi everyone, Kira will be with us at 7pm US EST but feel free to leave your early questions and comments – they’ll appear later today when she signs on. Thanks!
I believe I’m signed on now, Anil. Please let me know if I’m doing something wrong 🙂
Hi Kira, welcome! So far, so good 🙂
Ah, the dream of being a travel writer with all expenses paid to the best 5 star resorts in the world!
This is possible. My friend is currently on a sponsored media trip to Budapest and Berlin. She flew first class and is staying in 5 star hotels. All meals and activities are paid for by the governments of Hungary and Germany. This sponsored travel is somewhat frowned upon in the hardcore journalism world, but very common in travel writing. It’s possible!
It is, actually there was a recent big controversy about it in the travel blogging community. I’ll ask you about that separately below but curious why in travel, it’s accepted to be paid for trips and subsequently content?
When you’re reporting a story, you want to maintain your independence from any influence or appearance of influence. I never let a source buy my coffee, for example. But there is a difference between reporting something of consequence (corruption, influence, abuse) and writing about Waikiki beach, right?
Some newspapers and magazines (even travel ones) won’t take anything from you if you’ve accepted free or discounted perks because they want to maintain a standard of impartiality. But MANY publications are okay with it.
My friend, who is currently on a sponsored trip to Budapest, says the magazine she will write the story for can’t afford to send people overseas. And Hungary wants to target US Latinos (which is the magazine’s audience) for tourism. So it appears to be a win-win for them. And she says she feels free to write what she wants. I’ve heard this from several others as well.
It’s a legitimate way to be a travel writer… but for the record, I haven’t done it.
Your point is a very interesting one and had not looked at it that way myself. I’ve taken ~two press trips (I generally decline them for various reasons) since I started blogging and it’s hard to write bad things afterward – mostly because they’re a luxurious good time.
Also, I’m fascinated that Hungary is targeting US Latinos. Seems like such a specific and non-obvious target market!
It’s a growing consumer base. Several European countries are wooing US Latinos for tourism. Fact 🙂
The greatest difficulty I find in writing is the topic. How do you choose the topic? What inspires you to write about it? Like where do you get the ideas ?
Because I find people so fascinating, I see everything as a potential story. If you’re traveling, talk to the person next to you and see if anything piques your interest, chances are that’s what your readers will find intersting as well. The best stories I’ve read featured someone I either could relate to or was intrigued by in some way. If you’re writing about a place, talk to the locals to figure out what’s the special flavor that travel books or magazines may have missed. Hope that helps!
I typically have a deadline and I am an awful procrastinator, so I usually wait till that deadline. But any professional writer will correctly tell you that just like with any other skill, you need to practice regularly. Stephen King writes daily (through birthdays, Christmas, etc)!
I find having a routine (and deadline!) absolutely helps you go through the stages of planning. Brainstorming, outline, brain magic where ideas smash into each other, more outline, draft, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, hate what I write, reword a bit. Like it a little bit. Hit publish.
Kira, I’ve heard many professionals say there’s no such thing as writer’s block when it’s your job, what do you think?
True – writer’s block is temporary. Just start writing, even if it seems uninspired… your brain will start firing eventually. And Anil is right about the long, difficult, painful, frustrating process. It’s usually so.
Thankfully, there’s this:
Who are some of the most famous people you’ve interviewed?
It’s been a pretty surreal experience for me, interviewing world famous people. What I’ve learned is they’re not always as interesting as some of the unfamous people I’ve interviewed 🙂 But since you asked for people: Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Marco Rubio, Stanley McChrystal, M. Night Shyamalan. I might think of more later.
What was M Night like? I feel like he would be cool or very arrogant I can’t decide
He was very cool 🙂 I interviewed him about his book “I Got Schooled” – and he talks like he writes, in entertaining anecdotes. The book is super interesting, too.
can you become a good writer or is it just a skill you’re born with?
Writing is a skill. Some people are naturally more gifted than others, but everyone needs to work to get better. Some people will get better and become alright. Some people will get better and become good. Some people will get better and become great. But no one is born a great writer. I’m pretty sure I stole that from Stephen King, too. 🙂 (He wrote a great memoir On Writing.)
We look forward to seeing what she has to share.
I want to know what made you decide to study Russian? I’m assuming there is connection based on your name (like mine).
I was born and raised in Minsk, Belarus. My family immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989. I majored in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies (which included history, politics and econ) because it seemed like a good idea at the time 🙂 Where are you from?
My family is from Russia but I grew up in Sydney so have unfortunately lost much of my connection.
You should write about going back to the motherland as a Russian-Australian. I bet that would be an interesting experience and essay!
When beginning an article or paper, where do you begin? Some people jump around to different paragraphs when writing so I’m curious what your process is. Thanks!
I’ve developed a skill of identifying what I will lead the story with. If it’s a feature story, it’ll likely be an anecdote of a person that demonstrates why the story is relevant and interesting on a human level (This is how I started my story on human trafficking: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/04/02/modern-slavery-emerging-from-the-shadows) If it’s a straight news story, it will usually open with the most pertinent information summarized at the top and then get deeper (see my story on the small arms treaty: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/07/09/nra-takes-aim-at-weapons-treaty) From there, tell the story like you would tell it to a friend. It should flow.
I’m currently looking for new jobs but have no idea how to make my cover letters interesting. What should I write about? How can I stand out without looking unprofessional yet still not look like I’m trying too hard?
I would write about an experience that’s relevant to the job or place you’re applying. Then read it aloud to yourself. If anything makes you sound phony (you would never use those words or phrases in conversation) or gives you the cringe factor (cheesy, etc), get rid of it or change it. Imagine being on the receiving end of the letter and see if it comes off genuine.
I have no writing experience, professionally — where do I start? Resumes, full stories, story ideas though the contact pages newspaper websites.. not sure
It’s really hard to break into publishing without published clips, but it’s not impossible! Especially now with the internet. Get some stories on a blog (many will be happy for the free labor and upaid content). Once you have that, you can pitch story ideas to magazines, newspapers or websites that pay, using the blog posts as samples of your writing. I can go into pitching, if people want to hear that…
My experience with cold pitching (not a proposal) is pretty formulaic, so here goes. Hopefully you’re pitching a person directly, not just Dear Editor (do your research – see the pub’s masthead, or find a personal connection – even better). Make sure your pitch is tailored to the publication and it is obvious you have read it and know their style and audience. Then keep it brief (people are busy and you’re likely to lose someone with a long email). One graph: the main and most interesting part of the story you’re proposing. Second graph: Why their readers would be intersted. Third graph: Why you’re the person to do it (you’re on the ground, you have special access to the president, etc.)
This will vary depending on the publication. For example, a friend who is freelancing in Argentina edited a friend’s pitch to the NY Times who was freelancing in Brazil down to about 3 sentences long because it was for a timely news story and she needed a quick yes or no. A place like the New Yorker, on the other hand, would want to see serious proposal with most of your reporting already completed. So use your judgment.
Yikes – that was a poorly phrased sentence in the second graph. I need an editor!
haha, the critical eye of the writer!
Hello, everyone! I’m really excited to be here, but have to warn you that despite working for a digital publication, I am extremely technologically challenged. I tried to get a gravatar and failed miserably. So I apologize in advance for any glitches or if I accidentally log myself off (very likely). Please be patient, and let’s roll!
No problem at all and let me know if you have any problems. I’ll try to keep the site running, I’ve had a good streak of having it crash during the chats 🙂
I can’t participate today but would love to see a list of answered questions! I am always trying to hone my writing sckills and like hearing tips from others.
Weirdest story you’ve written. Go.
I can’t think of a weird story, but I did have a weird (and somewhat scary) response to one…
If it’s something you can/want to share I’m curious to hear…
How did you get into the writing world?
I dance salsa and a friend was starting a local salsa magazine, so I jumped on board. I got a few freelance pieces placed into women’s magazines (through journalism school connections). Then I left my defense contractor job to work for U.S. News & World Report. I absolutely love being able to enter people’s lives and then share their stories. I’ve met the most incredible characters that have impacted my own life. And I really enjoy writing about something I know nothing about – you have to learn the important issues quickly and then talk to the experts. You learn a lot about a lot 🙂
It’s seems to be a common thread where people end up jumping into writing from other professions, were you leaving a writing-related position at your contracting job?
Also, this, is one of the best endorsements for a job I’ve heard:
“You learn a lot about a lot :)”
It’s a pretty sweet job.
Do you write your titles first or last or somewhere in between?
In magazine and newspaper writing, you don’t write your own headline… that’s the editor’s job. I’m typically grateful for that, but have had a few awful expriences where they completely misunderstood the point of the story.
Once you submit a story, is it out of your hands or do you have some feedback, with title, etc.?
Depends. At my full-time job, there is back and forth with editing. Usually the editor will want clarification on something, or more info on something else. (Funnily enough, what sounds clear in your own head isn’t always so clear to another person. That’s the value of editors.) Then a copy editor would correct your grammar, then you reread the story to make sure that it didn’t become inaccurate (the right words are incredibly important). If you have a fact checker, you answer their questions and provide sources for every single fact. There is a LOT of back and forth. There’s also a lot of communication, so I could object to a headline and they will hear my care.
With freelancing, there are usually a few round of editing and then it’s out of your hands for production, design, headlines, etc.
So, it all depends on your proximity to the production line 🙂
hear my case* (not care)
When interviewing people like Rumsfeld how do you prepare-anything different than someone less well known and powerful?
It is different mostly because it’s difficult to come up with something that hasn’t already been asked and answered. Public figures tend to be very media-savvy, so it’s hard to catch them off guard. My favorite question for Rumsfeld (which seemed to catch him off guard, and got a laugh) was: Which criticism of you is most ridiculous and which is most valid?
Hat tip to our opinion editor Robert Schlesinger for coming up with that one.
What is journalism like for women who want to get into the field right now?
There’s a really great organization called Journalism and Women Symposium. I’ve learned from the members there about just how far women have come. One of my mentors was the first woman to cover the Vietnam War (for Associated Press). Another member was a journalist when women couldn’t enter some of the spaces at the National Press Club (not that long ago!). We’ve had some important conversation on how discrimination in the newsroom looks and feels today. There’s a huge support network and I am a newly elected member of the board. We have chapters around the U.S. and maybe even some elsewhere. Check it out: http://www.jaws.org/
That is wonderful! My mother is also a journalist so organizations like Journalism and Women Symposium are close to my heart.
I wanted to ask you about a recent controversy that was floating around the travel blogging world when a large travel company said that sponsored trips were guaranteed good press. Even if bloggers write “opinions are my own even though this was complimentary, etc.”
What is your take on that in travel writing, is it impossible to be impartial if you’re being paid to write or getting free trips? What could the alternatives be?
I addressed this a bit above. Writers who were paid by an interested party say they didn’t feel any pressure. It might just come down to appearances in the end.
An alternative would be to pay for your own expenses and then try to recoup the costs after, by selling your story (or several stories from different angles).
What are you currently reading or do read for inspiration?
I just finished reading Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat (based on a facebook recommendation from one of my favorite writers, Junot Diaz). I have an awesome book club, where we alternate in picking books and that exposes me to writers, genres, and titles I would never have read on my own. And (it must be said!) the more you read, the better you’ll write. You can’t be a writer and not a reader. So I absolutely love your question.
In the non-fiction department, I’m reading “Queenbees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman. This is the book that inspired Mean Girls, and it delves into the complex world of adolescent girls. I recently interviewed Wiseman about her latest book on boys (http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2013/11/06/what-bullying-and-stereotypes-look-like-to-teen-boys), and realized how little I understand about raising children. It’s fascinating stuff!
how many times can you pitch to a publication? like if they don’t respond or like something, what’s the protocol to try again?
If I don’t hear back after two weeks, I send a follow up email. If I don’t hear back for another few days, I send a courtesy email to let them know I’m going to offer my story elsewhere. It’s protocol to not pitch the same story to more than one publication at a time. Different angles might be fine, though. For example, you’re in Jamaica and have several ideas – one for cuisine, one for emerging music. Those are fine to pitch simultaneously.
Once you’ve worked with an editor at a publication (and if you left a good impression), maintain the contact because they will be the person you pitch and they already know you. Establish enough working relationships with editors and you’ll never have to cold pitch and wait two weeks for an answer 🙂
Someone had emailed me their question, I thought I posted it but let me look again…
There we go, sorry Sophie who asks: What are the biggest writing mistakes to avoid?
Getting things wrong. As a human, you’ll make mistakes, of course. But in journalism, credibility is extremely important, so place extra focus and importance on getting things right (names, facts, quotes). Then double-check all your facts a few more times 🙂
Any upcoming travels?
About an hour ago I learned of an amazing business woman who on her free time teaches women in Uganda how to trek the mountains. When I finish this chat, I will try to convince her to take me along, so I can write the story 😉
haha, I hope you do!
Of course my Internet cuts out.. the thrill of travel!
Kira, as we wrap things up I wanted to thank you for your time and everyone for participating. You can read Kira’s articles for U.S. News and World Report here:
and should follow her on Twitter: @kzalan
Thank you again for sharing your expertise with us! Hope it wasn’t too painful and next time we’ll sort out the gravatar issue, I promise 🙂 I’ll leave the comments open for a little while longer in case there are follow up questions you’d like to catch.
Talk soon and happy travels all!
Thanks so much, Anil! This was awesome. You have a really good group of folks here.
Oh and I forgot to ask you about Deep Space Nine (my obscure reference) but had to mention I couldn’t help thinking about it when I first heard your name 🙂 Didn’t know it exists outside of science fiction!
I admit I had to google your reference. Perhaps one day I’ll cover a sci-fi convention and get hip to the game. 🙂