I help you tell your school’s best stories.

How to get great pitches from your writers

Posted: April 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: higher education | Comments Off on How to get great pitches from your writers

Before I dig into this month’s newsletter, let’s talk CASE.

As most of you know, the CASE Editors Forum was held last month in San Antonio. You can see recaps of it here and here.

saSan Antonio: Objectively 100 times better than my snow-covered home, Minneapolis.

Also, I gave a talk there! And HBS Alumni Bulletin editor and Dog Ear Consultants cofounder Dan Morrell took my took my picture while I was looking Very Serious.

Dozens of you guys signed up for the newsletter, and I’m so grateful for that. If you’re new around here, you can see some of the other stuff I’ve written for the newsletter, including:

Anyway, back to the Editors Forum.

I worked really hard on the talk that I gave there, “What Freelancers Wish Their Editors Would Do.” (You can check out the slides here.) But after I gave the talk, the questions I got made me realize that there’s a ton more to discuss. And so I thought I’d tackle some of the things that I covered in the talk in a more in-depth way in the newsletter.

In this first part, I’ll talk about getting great pitches from your writers. I’ve even got a little script you can steal. So read on. (Don’t get pitches? Read to the very end.)

A brilliant editor tactic to get better pitches

So let’s start at the beginning. One of the first places you interact with your freelancers is with their pitches.

I’m sure you’d love to be an editor at the New Yorker who regularly gets pitches like this. Or maybe at the New York Times Magazine, where editor pitches look like this. Or Outside—those editors get pretty good pitches, too.

But I imagine that the more typical case is that you get pitches—if you get pitches at all—that look like this:

To Whom It May Concern: I would like to do a story on [your school’s most famous alum, which the magazine has covered infinity times]. Maybe 5,000 words?”

That sound you hear is every alumni magazine editor in the world bashing their collective heads on their keyboards.

Here’s the thing: you probably get dumb pitches EVEN FROM YOUR REGULAR, GOOD FREELANCERS.

I fail at pitches all the time! I’ve worked with most of my clients for years, and my success rate for pitches in 2016 (which I of course track with an Excel spreadsheet), is 53 percent. This does not include the pitches that I have tagged as “pending,” a scenario in which an editor has pretended like he or she will consider my idea for a future issue, but has actually printed out my pitch and set it on fire.

So, okay. Freelancers are terrible at coming up with pitches.

Why is this?

How is it possible that a freelancer who spends HER WHOLE DAY figuring out how to write for editors like you cannot come up with an idea that works for your magazine?

Part of the answer has to do with the sheer math of full-time freelancing. For example: last year, I worked with 27 different editors. (This is not an insane number, as most full-time freelance writers will tell you.) They all had different publications and needs and styles.

Freelancers are just never going to know your school and your publications as well as you do, even if we genuinely enjoy working with you and writing about your institution.

But here’s the thing: you can give us a little booster rocket—it will only take you five minutes, I swear—that will dramatically increase the quality of the pitches you get. I learned it from one of my favorite editors, Lynette Lamb atMacalester Today.

What she does to get a flood of perfectly targeted pitches right when she needs them:

A week or so before her story meeting with her colleagues, she emails freelancers she works with and says something like this:

I have a story meeting coming up next week, and I’d love your pitches. I’m especially looking for:

  • Higher education stories
  • Short, quirky profile ideas
  • A fun summer feature


Now, if you are a freelancer reading this, you are jumping up and down in a delirious dance of joy. An editor has *specifically requested* your story ideas, given you a timeline, and has even given you some great paths toconsider.

For a freelancer, a note like that may not be an ironclad guarantee that you’re going to land an assignment, but it is a good indication that the pitch isn’t going into some doomed black hole, never to be read.

I have another amazing editor, Cynthia Scott, who often does themed issues for her magazine, Minnesota Alumni. She’ll send me a note that she’s looking for profiles and research pieces and roundups of quotes, for example. Recently, she requested ideas for a humor issue she’d planned. I pitched about 10 ideas, and you can see the three profiles I ended up writing here, here, and here.

This technique isn’t just something that works for these editors: a successful freelancer who writes regularly for New York and Fast Company says he’s thrilled when his New York editor tells him that their team is working on a specific package and asks him for his ideas.

Here’s why this approach works—and matters

It’s easy for freelancers to go down the research rabbit hole for hours. Sometimes we come up to the surface with a great idea that *is already in process* in your magazine. Sometimes we come up with a great idea that, for whatever reason, has been torpedoed by your bosses in the past.

It’s super dispiriting: we’ve done everything right, but we didn’t—and we couldn’t—know about these other factors. It’s why we might pitch you once, fail, and never pitch again.

But when you tell us a little more specifically what you want, we’re less likely to go down that rabbit hole of tragedy. We’re more likely to deliver something you can actually use.

You deserve better pitches

Try this technique and the little script from above for your next two issues. Reach out to past and current freelancers, tell them you’re looking a few specific kinds of ideas, and see what you get. At best, you’ll get some great ideas for your magazine. Even if it’s an utter failure, you’ll only have wasted 10 minutes of your time.

Wait, you don’t get pitches?

You should! And I’m *happy* to pitch stories to your magazine. If you want to see what one of my recent pitches looked like—and the story that resulted—you can check out both here.


How much are your freelancers worth?

Posted: March 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on How much are your freelancers worth?

I’ve been thinking about this topic—how much writers should get paid—for years.

I thought about it a lot when I was an editor hiring writers, and even more when I left editing to become a writer myself.

As an editor, could I get better work from my writers if I paid more? As a writer, could I do better work if I got paid more?


Fill in the blank.

The answer to both, I believe, is a nuanced “yes.”

To be fair, strong pay is just one of many ways to get better work from your writers. I will be discussing other ways in my upcoming CASE Editors Forum talk, and I’ll address them later in this newsletter and on my blog. (Also, please check the P.S. on this newsletter.)

Better rates can’t guarantee that you’ll work exclusively with amazing writers, but combined with other factors, it can make a real difference.

Here are the four ways I think about freelancer pay for magazines.

1. If you’ve got great writers at whatever rate you’re currently paying, you do not need to read the rest of this newsletter.

I mean it!

Maybe you’ve figured out how to get an amazing group of writers for ten cents a word. Is everyone happy?

AWESOME. DO NOT MESS WITH YOUR FORMULA. You’ve already won. Keep doing what you’re doing.

But if you’re not happy, keep reading.

2. If you want to work with a professional who will take your magazine and your institution seriously, your floor—not your ceiling—should be $1/word.

First, let’s be completely honest here.

It’s extremely easy to hire a writer for less than $1/word. There are literally thousands of writers who will be *happy* to take on a project for you at less than $1/word.

Here’s the problem: freelancers who get paid less than $1/word—particularly for reported stories—start doing math that you’re not going to like.

Let me give you an example of the kind of “great advice” that writers are doling out on the internet about how to tackle low-paying projects:


I’m going to pause here for a minute and let that “number one secret” sink in.


Look, in theory, it shouldn’t matter one iota how much time your writer spends on a story, as long as it meets your publication’s standards. If your freelancers write great pieces for you, you should care exactly zero percent if it took them 30 minutes or 30 million minutes.

But let’s talk about what is likely to be the case when your writers are laser focused on “writing at a breakneck pace.”

Maybe you can imagine this writer—or any of the thousands of writers who have read this person’s advice—talking to an important donor, your president, or a well respected alum. They’re looking at their watch, and they’re impatiently trying to wrap up an interview so they can bump up their hourly rate to brag to their writer friends.

Maybe you can imagine that “breakneck pace” leading to weak ledes, poor structure, or worse, huge errors.

Maybe you can imagine giving some reasonable revision requests to this writer, and getting a hasty or petulant response as the writer watches that amazing $266/hour rate inch down to $250/hour, or (gasp) $200/hour.

Look, I want to be VERY CLEAR about this: this is not one random writer advocating this approach.

In an upcoming national writing and journalism conference—one created for serious, full-time professionals—there is a panel in which “experts will address…limiting time devoted to reporting and writing” to avoid low hourly rates.


I probably don’t have to say this, but I will anyway: you guys spend many tens of thousands of dollars—probably more—to write, photograph, design, print, and mail your publications to your alumni every quarter. Your magazine is the flagship publication of your school, and the main (if not the only) way that most of your alumni stay connected to your institution after they graduate.

You deserve more. Your institution deserves more.

Maybe you can see why hiring writers at less than $1/word is generally a terrible idea.

3. Pay for value. Demand excellence for your publication.

I got my first buck-a-word assignment from a university in the late 1990s, when I was still in my early 20s and doing work on one of those gumdrop-shaped iMacs.

Yet almost 20 years later, the “standard rate” for most editors, even at really good alumni magazines, is almost identical. Buck a word.

I charge more than that now, but the point is that this buck-a-word standard has been the “standard” for decades. Certainly, it’s easier to do reporting now, thanks to the internet, almost non-existent long-distance phone fees, and email. But good writing takes time. Simply accounting for inflation, $1 in 1999 is is $1.42 today.

If you haven’t raised your freelance rates in years (hopefully you have gotten the occasional raise during that time!), it might be time to ask why.

But let’s dig a little deeper: How does that realistically change the equation? Aren’t freelance writers still going to be doing that horrible aforementioned math problem, trying to reach $500 hourly rates?

Actually, for most writers (well, maybe not the $10-a-word-earning Michael Lewis), that higher rate will make them think of you and your publication differently. Writers are much more likely to take the work you assign seriously.

More important, if they see the possibility of having a long-term relationship with your institution, where they can reliably expect projects at good rates, they will want to do good work for you. Higher rates can’t guarantee that your writer will think this way, but it is one of the first ways that you signal that you believe in the value of investing in your publication—and so should they.

At $1.50 or $2 a word, you become a client worth impressing—and retaining. And for a writer, that means putting your publication ahead of low paying clients.

At these rates, you should *expect* a higher level of service. You should expect:

  • Stronger reporting, including more effort in ledes, transitions, and conclusions
  • A professional approach to revisions, and more than one revision if needed
  • Source vetting, if you request it
  • Headlines and subheads
  • Footnotes and fact-checking information for your staff
  • Access to transcripts, if you negotiate for them in advance
  • Regular communication throughout the reporting and writing process

You should be very clear about having high expectations at higher rates, and if you are not getting what you need, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for more from your writers.

Pay more. Expect more.

4. Understand that some stories are inherently more or less valuable than others to your institution. Be willing to pay what they’re worth.

There are few things that I love more than quirky student stories—the group of friends who started a Quidditch team, or the guy who pulled an April Fool’s prank so clever that it went viral.

But when I suggest that these stories are “less valuable” to your institution, here’s what I mean: if a freelancer you hire to tell these stories gets a couple facts wrong, or misses an appointment with the leader of the group, or says some lunkheaded thing in the interview, the fallout is likely to be relatively minor.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you want that to happen.

But think about how those same things—errors, missed appointments, offensive comments—might apply differently to a story of a donor who gave $20 million, or a story about your upcoming billion-dollar campaign, or the marketing projects you hope will increase the numbers of applicants to your school.

These are stories you don’t want your freelancers messing up.

These are the stories where you don’t want to worry that your writer is paying attention to a stopwatch with every phone call. Where you don’t want to worry that a writer is so focused on their bottom line that they’re going to turn in sloppy work that misrepresents people or ideas in ways that can have a profound impact on your school now and in the future.

These are the stories where you want someone who cares about your goals and your publication. Someone who is just as invested in getting the story right as you are.

That might mean you take these kinds of stories in-house, because you don’t have the budget to pay for them. Or it might mean that you become more willing to pay for the real value that these stories represent—and insist that writers deliver that value.

“Will I have a chance to review this before it’s published?”

Posted: March 15th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on “Will I have a chance to review this before it’s published?”

decMy interview seemed to be going perfectly.

I’d prepared a great list of questions, the conversation was going smoothly, and I could already envision how well the story was going to turn out. I was 22, I had just been assigned my first story for an alumni magazine, and I was going to crush it.

And then, as I was wrapping up the interview, the woman I was talking to—a donor who’d just given a substantial gift to the college—asked me a question that made me grit my teeth with frustration: “Will I have a chance to review this story before it’s published?”

You’ve probably gotten this question before, too.

And maybe, like me, you had all sorts of defensive questions in your head:

  • Is there something that I said during our interview that made her think she couldn’t trust me?
  • I’m a REAL JOURNALIST! Why should she get to see what I’ve written?
  • Oh, crap. What if she hates what I write and I have to start from scratch?

I spent years resisting source reviews for my college and university clients, doing them grudgingly and only when asked.

Then, a few years ago, I realized that the very best thing I could do was to embrace source reviews.

And maybe you should, too.

Yes, giving sources the chance to review a draft or their section within a feature is different from “real journalism.” And maybe it makes us write a little differently than we might if the source wasn’t going to see anything but the published story.

But in many ways, that point of differentiation from “real journalism” makes it better:

Benefit #1: Accuracy. For the most part, people we interview know their fields way better than we do, and they’re going to catch the subtle errors that both writers and editors miss, even after many reviews. (I mean, unless you’re working in a robustly funded publications office that has dedicated New Yorker-style fact-checkers.) At least 95 percent of the time, I actually think having sources give the story a look makes it better.

Benefit #2: Peace of mind and happy sources. When a source comes back to you with only the words “Looks good to me,” you can sleep easier, knowing that you’re not going to have an angry alum or faculty member calling you the day they receive the publication. Instead, those sources are going to be calling you up asking for a dozen copies for their family and friends, and they’ll be happy to talk to you again in the future.

Benefit #3: More empathetic stories. For me, when I know I’m sending a story to a source, I’m extra thoughtful about how I use their quotes, how I talk about their work, and how I frame their stories in relation to others. It’s the same kind of care I would hope another writer would have if they wrote about me.

Today, source approvals are something I include in my process for almost all of my clients—and I couldn’t be happier to do it. Probably 98 percent of the time, I’m entirely satisfied with the process. And I’ve learned how to manage the other 2 percent of the time when things don’t go exactly as planned. Here’s how you can, too.

Mastering the art of the source approval

Since that first source approval request (which went fine, by the way), I’ve done thousands of them. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it right.

1. Note your policy when you interview your source. When you first get on a call with a source, mention at the very beginning that they’ll have a chance to review the copy for accuracy once it’s gone through a first round of edits.

This often sets sources at ease. In fact, many will tell you that they’re grateful, because they’ve had a previous experience in which a journalist mangled their words or ideas.

2Keep a list of email addresses of your sources at the end your story draft. This is purely for time-saving purposes. It’s much easier to work off of a collected list than to have to mine your email account for addresses weeks or even months after you’ve done the interviews. You can click on those links, use a source review request template, and send it out in minutes. Easy.

3. Send the full draft with their quotes/sections highlighted. It’s not usually necessary to slice out the rest of the story. Simply say something along the lines of “I’ve included the full story here (which you’re welcome to read), but all I need you to do is review the sections where you and your ideas are featured, which are highlighted.”

I know this seems super dangerous, but I haven’t had any major problems to date, and I’m close to 20 years in.

4. Create extremely strict guidelines for any changes. Obviously, if facts are wrong, you want to get them right. But it’s helpful to add something along the lines of “Because of space restrictions in the publication, please make sure any changes you suggest don’t add more than 10 words to the final word count.”

In other words: modifying a sentence? Great. Adding three paragraphs of “context?” Hahahahahah. No.

5. Respond kindly, non-defensively, and if needed, by phone. Every so often, someone is going to feel you really got it wrong. Sometimes, they really do have a reasonable gripe, and sometimes they’re just crazy.

When you hear back from someone who wants to see big changes, or who’s mad about the story, try diffuse the tension as quickly as possible. Write back and tell them that obviously, it’s very important to you and to the college that you get their story right (it is!), and that you’ll make sure you get to a point where they’re happy.

When I’m in this situation, I’ll sometimes get on the phone and discover it’s literally two sentences that they’re furious about. The more quickly I can get them to understand that they’re dealing with me, an actual human being, and that we actually both share the same goals, the more quickly we can resolve the problem.

* * *

So that’s how I do it! I’d love to know what you think. Do you believe that source approvals are an integral part of your work, a necessary evil, or something to be avoided at all costs? Email me and let me know. I read every response.

Can storytellers be fundraisers?

Posted: March 8th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Can storytellers be fundraisers?

novDuring the past year, I’ve been asked to do a *lot* of campaign writing for alumni magazines and development offices. I suspect that will only increase as colleges and universities gear up for some of their most ambitious campaigns in history.

It’s made me think a lot about how we tell stories differently based on our audience and our goals—to entertain, to persuade, to inform. And it’s why I’ve made a concerted effort to study great writing in many forms.

Here are a few things I’ve been reading and thinking about when it comes to telling great stories to different audiences and in different media.

1. How can we use storytelling to tell the best stories about our schools’ campaigns? I’m looking for your BEST EXAMPLES and BIGGEST QUESTIONS about writing campaign stories and cases. Email me with links to campaign-related projects you’ve done. If you’re gearing up for a campaign and need some inspiration, tell me what questions you have about writing for them.

2. Learn from the best. If you want a masterclass in visual, vigorous writing, check out the amazing screenplay for the Breaking Bad pilot. Vince Gilligan’s writing is breathtaking.

3. Create a journal you actually use. I used to write in a journal pretty regularly in my teens and twenties, but once I had kids? Hahahahahahahaha. A few months ago, I heard about the idea of the one-sentence journal. Combined with an awesome new notebook I picked up, I’ve been adding to it daily since September.

4. Understand the subtleties of the medium. How do stories we tell orally differ from those we put on paper or pixels? In this podcast from The Gist, memorably titled “An Unforgettable Technique for Telling Riveting Stories,” Matthew Dicks shares some of his best techniques. He routinely crushes his competition in Moth events, and he gives fantastic advice.

I’m eager to talk more about how we can all tell great stories about campaigns, whether that’s through case statements, magazine stories, or development publications. If you’ve got examples of campaign stories or cases you’re proud of—or have questions about campaign writing you really want answered—reply to this email or drop me a line at erin@erinpeterson.com. I read everything, and I’ll be digging more deeply into this topic soon.

3 Simple Principles For Better Donor Profiles: A Case Study

Posted: February 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on 3 Simple Principles For Better Donor Profiles: A Case Study

Can a donor profile be one of the best stories in your magazine this year?

If you passed out laughing before you were able to say the word “no,” let me try to persuade you otherwise.

About a year ago, I got an email from a client to do a story about a donor. He’d given a multi-million dollar gift years earlier, and word had come from above that it was time to recognize the impact it’d had.

Although I didn’t know this editor well, I know how editors feel about donor profiles generally, and it looks something like this:

And I get it. It’s not just that it’s hard to tell a donor story well — in a CASE readership survey, readers’ interest in stories about donors ranked DEAD LAST, behind (among other things) fundraising, staff promotions, and strategic planning.

Still, for most schools, donor stories will always be a part of the magazine. Though they may not be the first thing that readers turn to in a publication, they can do several important things, including:

  • Recognize an important person to the institution in a public way;
  • Share the concrete impact of a gift;
  • Highlight the institution’s responsible stewardship of a donation.

And of course, sometimes, the donor actually has an amazing story to tell.

Anyway, back to the client. She was ready to allot a full 2,500 words to the story of Stan Hubbard, a local media mogul who’d graduated from the University of Minnesota.

And let me be honest: as someone who’s spent years getting paid by the word, I’m used to drawing out a story. But 2,500 words on a DONOR? The number terrified me. That wasn’t a two-page story. That was at least a six-pager.

So we talked it through, and we decided we weren’t just going to half-ass the story. We were going to *crush* it.

To do that, I kept three principles in mind as I spent literally months working on the project:

1. Tell a bigger story. A story about a gift is always much bigger than the gift. I knew that going in, but I didn’t realize that the story would ultimately span three generations and nearly a century.

Every time I asked Hubbard a question, he’d say something along the lines of “Well, I should probably start with my father…”. It took me a long time before I could really hear what he was saying. The story wasn’t just bigger than the gift itself, it was also bigger than him.

I needed to tell his father’s story to tell his story, and I needed to tell his story to tell the story of the gift.

There is almost always a bigger story than you realize. Just ask John McPhee, who started writing a short magazine article about oranges, and then kept pulling the lens back until he had written an entire book.

2. Share failures. I’ve talked about the importance of sharing failure in the past, and I believe this is no less important when telling the stories of your most successful alumni and donors.

Your source may want you to tell a story that looks more like a highlights reel, but press them to share more.

Getting Hubbard to talk about his own failures wasn’t easy (and as a member of the Forbes 400, he’s had plenty of success). Nonetheless, he did acknowledge that when he was a college student, the dean found his academic performance so abysmal that he encouraged the young Hubbard to drop out.

Certainly, a donor profile is not the place for a full accounting of a donor’s dirty laundry. However, the more you’re able to acknowledge that a donor is an actual human being, not a superhero, the more likely you’ll be able persuade your alumni that this is a story worth reading.

That’s not just my opinion. Research shared in Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, indicates that when someone shares information that appears to go against their own self-interest, we’re more likely to trust the larger story they’re trying to tell us.

3. Understand that the story requires a true partnership. There is no question that a story like this is going to get a *lot* of internal attention. It should! Throughout the course of my reporting, I worked with three editors, the dean, and several other stakeholders (not to mention Hubbard himself and all of the other sources in the story).

What I learned was that there was literally no way for me to overcommunicate to make sure we were all on the same page. We changed course several times throughout the story. We added and dropped and modified sidebars. Some of the ideas came from me, some came from my editors, others came from the dean.

I sent an Avogadro’s number of emails and made a similar number of calls to my editors to make sure when we made a shift, we were all moving in the same direction. It was not the most efficient process, for sure, but it also meant that the first complete draft was not a million miles away from a finished piece.

The point — and I don’t need to belabor it, because you guys obviously know this — is that these stories are really hard to tell, let alone tell well. Going into them understanding that they’re going to be challenging, and leaning into that challenge, can make all the difference.

And in the end, here’s the important thing: the story came out last year, and all the work paid off.

This is what my editor said about the story:


Here’s how the subject of the profile felt about it:


And the most amazing thing of all? Here’s how the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association felt about it:


Oh, okay, there were some pretty great gold and silver award winners, but note that bronze award: that’s the one my client and I did. A *donor profile* was considered one of the best education stories in Minnesota last year.

In the end, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about this exact story. But what was unique was the effort we all put in to make what could have been a deadly dull story into something that was more than that. It’s probably time for *all of us* to start thinking bigger about donor profiles and figure out how we can make them better.

Email me and tell me how you’re trying to make your donor profiles as good as they possibly can be.

Money Well Spent

Posted: January 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Money Well Spent

This is one of my favorite times of the year: ASME Ellies nominations! The American Society of Magazine Editors announces finalists for some of the very best work in magazines, from design and photography to public interest and service journalism.

My favorite category, though, hands down, is the one for general excellence. The publications competing in this category are at the top of their game every issue, and I use these lists to help me decide what to subscribe to in the coming year.

I love studying the best of the best, because no matter what the topic of the magazine, I always come away with new ways to think about how to tell stories in unique and compelling ways.

If you want to subscribe, I’ve included links that go directly to the subscription section of the publication’s website.

Keep in mind that some subscription agreements are pretty sneaky: they’ll autorenew you until eternity if you’re not careful, so you’ll want to put a note in your calendar at the end of the subscription term so you can cancel before they charge your credit card.

Finally: the winners will be announced on February 1, and I’ll update this list to highlight which magazines won in their categories.

Update: The winners in each category are marked by a *.



News, Sports and Entertainment

Esquire (1 year print: $15)

Fast Company (1 year print: $10)

GQ (1 year print: $15)

New York (1 year print: $29.97)

The New York Times Magazine

The New Yorker (12 weeks print: $12)

Newsweek (12 week print and digital: $14.99)


Service and Lifestyle

Bon Appétit (1 year print: $12)

Golf Digest (1 year print $12)

Harper’s Bazaar (1 year print: $10)

Lucky Peach (4 issues: $28)

Parents (2 years print: $7.99)

Seventeen (1 year print: $10)

T: The New York Times Style Magazine (varies)


Special Interest

Backpacker (1 year print: $12)

Car and Driver  (1 year print: $15)

The Hollywood Reporter (1 year print + iPad: $99)

Modern Farmer (1 year print: $19.95)

San Francisco (1 year print outside California: $29.97)

Smithsonian (1 year print: $12)

Tablet Magazine (1 year print: $39.99)


Literature, Science and Politics

Aperture (1 year print + digital: $75)

Foreign Affairs (1 year print and digital: $27)

Nautilus (print + digital: $42)

The Oxford American (1 year print: $24.98)

Poetry (1 year print: $35)

Virginia Quarterly Review (1 year print: $32)


The Insider’s Guide to the 17-Year-Old Mind

Posted: December 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Insider’s Guide to the 17-Year-Old Mind

17From the Fall 2015 issue of St. Edward’s University Magazine:

There are few people on the planet who are as well-versed in adolescent psychology as Sara Villanueva. A psychologist and author of the book The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It, she’s also got plenty of on-the-ground training as a mother of four children. Despite her vast expertise, she says she is still sometimes upended by the interactions she has with the teens in her own life.

Take this past spring, for example, when she casually texted her college-bound daughter. Villanueva suggested that they take a family vacation to spend some concentrated time together before her daughter started the next phase of her life this fall. “Mom, no,” came the immediate reply. “I don’t want to spend time with you. I want to spend time with my friends because I’m about to be gone.”

It knocked the wind out of Villanueva. “Wow,” she responded by text. “Thar’s harsh.”

Read the rest of the story here (p. 20).

The Great Big Giving Guide

Posted: December 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The Great Big Giving Guide

purdueFrom the November/December 2015 edition of the Purdue Alumnus:

Purdue has long inspired big thinking—from Amelia Earhart’s teachings to Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. And as it launches the $2.019 billion “Ever True” campaign—its most ambitious ever—its visionary approach will carry the school from its first 150 years into a brand-new era.

The enthusiasm starts at the very top: President Mitch Daniels believes the campaign will open up massive opportunities for the university. “We’re excited about what the generosity of the Boilermaker family will allow us to achieve, especially in terms of investments in student success and affordability, and in critical teaching and research areas,” he says.

And for Chris Burke (BSCE ’77, MSCE ’79, PhD ’83), a member of the campaign’s Champions Committee, the campaign will help make Purdue better than ever: “This campaign will ensure that tomorrow’s students get an education that is just as valuable—and maybe even more valuable than—the one we got.”

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 38).

Triple threat

Posted: December 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off on Triple threat


Earlier this month, stories I wrote for three different clients won awards at the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association’s Excellence Awards event.

And while my main goal is always to connect with the readers of my clients’ publications, it’s awesome to get outside recognition, too.

Details, plus links to the stories, are below:


Feature Article, Education

St. Olaf College, St. Olaf Magazine
Small But Mighty (p. 13)


Feature Article, Education

Saint John’s University, Saint John’s Magazine
The Right Medicine for Global Health (p. 22)


Profile Article, Education

University of Minnesota, Murphy Reporter
The Pioneers (p. 9)

The impossible alumni magazine story. Should you run it?

Posted: December 9th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off on The impossible alumni magazine story. Should you run it?

As a culture, we hate failure.

We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We search for the window that opens when a door closes. Recently, I even heard someone describe “fail” as an acronym: First Attempt In Learning.


And in a lot of ways, it’s great! Who wants to wake up every morning believing that setbacks from yesterday will influence them today?

But I wonder if alumni magazines have taken that impulse—to focus on success to the exclusion of failure—too far.

A couple years ago, for example, I came across an essay in which the author described the deflating moment that happened every few months when she received her alumni magazine and realized her life might never merit a profile—let alone a more modest class note. Alumni magazine syndrome, she called it.

This year, a different writer posted another brutal takedown of alumni magazines and their focus on super-successful grads. The author reserved a special level loathing for writers like me who wrote for her school’s publications without actually attending the institution. (I was kind of excited to be noticed, TBH, but that’s for another day.)

Anyway, I digress.

It’s no secret that few alumni magazines want to talk about failure. Dale Keiger acknowledged as much in his recent UMagazineology post that highlights HBS Alumni Bulletin’s cleverly named story about failure, ‘The F Word.’ (“Not your usual umag fare,” he notes.)

But should we be talking more about failure? Columbia College recently tackled the issue—sort of—in a brilliant, funny essay.

Recently, I talked with Julia Hanna, a senior content producer at Harvard and editor of the previously mentioned story on failure in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. She shared what fueled the story, how they did it, and how people have responded.

How did you come up with the failure idea? Did you get any pushback from anyone on this idea, or did you have to persuade anyone that it was important to cover?

To be honest, I don’t remember when the idea first came up…it’s a story that I’ve been interested in doing for a long time (years!).

I remember bringing a cover story from Wellesley (“When Life Doesn’t Measure Up,” Winter 2011) to an editorial meeting as an example of how failure had been treated in an alumnae magazine. [Erin’s note: it’s an amazing cover story. Take the time to read it.] I don’t remember getting direct pushback on the idea, but somehow the stars didn’t align for the feature until this year. It could be that the growing climate of acceptance around failure, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship, made it a more natural sell.

When we talked about doing the feature, we already knew about get-togethers like FailCon, where founders of startups gather to learn from one another’s mistakes. You know it’s okay to talk about failure when there are entire conferences devoted to the topic! There were also a couple of professors who were teaching cases that focus on failure, which also gave it an academic seal of approval.

How did you decide on the format you did (people telling stories in their own voices and drawing their own lessons)? Did you consider something else before you settled on that?

I don’t remember considering another format, although I knew that I would write an introduction to the article that referenced the faculty-written cases. The fact that one of the case protagonists (an alumna) would be visiting campus when the case was taught also provided another way into the article, particularly because she had always been the prototypical HBS alum in everything she did—super smart, driven, accomplished, and successful. She was personal and candid with her interview responses, which gave me some great quotes.

How did you get people to participate? If there was something that didn’t make the final story, what was it about the story that didn’t quite work?

We put out a call through our formidable army of class notes secretaries. At HBS, every class is divided into 10 or so sections of about 90 people each. It’s not unusual to have a class notes secretary for every section, with separate class notes for each. We didn’t send the call out to all alumni, just graduates of our Executive Education and MBA degree holders in a certain timespan.

Twenty-five or 30 responses came in—12 made it into the magazine, and 7 more were included in the online magazine, with three additional stories included as short audio files. I did go back to a handful of people via email to get them to fill in some details or provide a stronger sense of what it was they learned from the experience. And of course there was a fair amount of editing of too-long or repetitive submissions. The two or three that we passed on were off-kilter responses that didn’t really address the question we posed: What mistakes have shaped your career? How have your failures led to your success—professional, personal, or otherwise?

Did the story turn out as you hoped? Is there anything, in retrospect, that you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, it did—I was happy with the variety of responses. Some of the contributors are well-known (like Alan Horn, chairman of Disney) but the majority are not. There are plenty of nitty-gritty business failures, of course, but also personal failures, regrets over a road not taken, academic failure, and youthful errors of judgment. In that sense, I think the piece offers something for everyone. And a few of the stories are really funny—we have some good storytellers out there!

Failure is a tough topic to cover in an alumni magazine. So why do it? What was the thing that made you realize this was as important as any other topic you might cover in an issue?

I think many of us read as a way to figure out life. When someone else opens a small window into a time when things didn’t go well, we don’t feel so alone for having been there ourselves. We want to know what did they do wrong, what do I recognize in their experience that relates to my life, and how can I learn from what they went through?

It seems like an important topic to cover for those reasons, but particularly in an alumni magazine where our default mode is often to celebrate an individual at the height of his/her professional achievement. Not everyone can be a smashing success. And often failure is more interesting!

How have people responded so far?

The article has had 3,000 hits online to date, which is great.