Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Target Your Style To Match Your Market

Do you know you have more than one literary style? Do you care? Your next editor might!

If you're not getting your share of assignments or freelance sales of late, maybe it's not what you're writing so much as how you're writing it.


It's true. If you read those market listings carefully (we're talking mostly about magazine listings, now--book publishers grant a lot more leeway here), you'll pick up on phrases such as "no travelogues" or "impersonal style a must" or "upbeat yet folksy."

These are small, not-quite hidden clues as to the style of writing the magazine is looking for.

Does that mean that, if they're searching for a style that's simply not "you," you have to pass on a potentially lucrative sale, even if the subject matter seems to be right up your alley? Hardly. All you have to do is gear your literary style to the requirements of the publication.

Sound impossible? After all, you were created with a single literary style, a single voice, with which to write. Weren't you? How on earth can you be expected to write any other way?

In psychoanalytical lingo, it's called roll-playing. In writing, it's no different.

Think of yourself as a screenwriter. You produce a genuinely inspired draft of the story of a modern-day man who is shipwrecked on a South Seas island. You've put your heart and soul into the project, put your heart and soul into the main character. You feel as he feels, you speak as he speaks.

The only problem is that the director who loved your down-home, personal, stream-of-consciousness stuff has been fired from the film, and a new director has been hired to take his place. He wants the script to be more narrative and less personal. He wants it to play more like Dragnet than Cheers--far more straight-forward with far fewer introspective musings. Forget Dostoevsky and Nabokov; he wants what he thinks his audience wants.

The same thing happens in writing. You come across an editor who loves your idea but ... All those cutesy asides and introspective meanderings you've spent a lifetime learning how to write? Relegate them to the trash bin. And your assignment--should you decided to accept it (and, unless you're an idiot or independently wealthy, you will!) is to write the piece in a totally different--and much more detached--style. Can you do it? Of course you can.

How can we be so sure? Because you've done it before. Think back to the time your wrote your parents about the wind damage to your home's roof.

"You should've seen it. I've never been so scared in my life. The wind was howling from just after dinner until the middle of the night. When we turned in, we closed most of the windows in case it started to rain. Suddenly, we were awakened by this tremendous crash that sent Darryl leaping out of bed. I grabbed my pillow, afraid to expose myself to what sounded like the roof crashing in on top of us. I thought we'd been hit by a tornado. I shouted to Darryl to come back to bed until the storm passed, but he grabbed the flashlight we keep in the dresser drawer and threw open the window to look out. That's when he saw half of our roof tiles lying on the front lawn. When he finally closed the window and came back to bed, his eyes were wide as saucers. I asked him what happened, and he said we didn't have to worry about replacing those damaged roof tiles anymore. Half the roof was scattered across the neighborhood."

Now think about writing your insurance agent about the very same incident and how differently you'd word the piece.

"On October 17, a wind storm struck our town. Weather station measurements the next day showed some gusts to be in excess of 75 miles an hour, with sustained winds between 40 and 50 miles an hour. Around midnight on the 17th, a really strong gust struck. It uprooted our neighbors' mature elm tree and hurled it against our house. The crown of the tree cracked off and landed just below the peak of our roof, shattering several slate tiles. The wind ripped the damaged tiles loose and sent them crashing along the remaining tiles, cracking or chipping most of the remaining tiles along the way. In order to prevent further damage to the house, we are filing this claim for immediate repairs. We have received three repair estimates from local roofing contractors. They are $875, $1,200, and $1,363. respectively."

Same incident? Yes. Different way of telling it? You bet.

Can you do the same thing when gearing a story toward a particular publication? We're betting you can. In fact, we know it.

So, the next time you go to sell an article or a short story to a market that specifies a preferred style, give it to them. You'll find the number of by-lines you receive--and the number of checks that go along with them--increasing dramatically.

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