What Every Writer Needs to Know: Take-Away Lessons From ASJA 2012

Confession #1: I did not want to go to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference this year.

When the plane was two and a half hours delayed from Oregon and it looked like I would miss my connecting red-eye (I did), I called my aunt and cried.

But I was speaking on a panel, “Photography Basics to Boost Your Bottom Line,” and moderating a panel, “Nurture Your Writing Career With Parenting Markets,” and there was no not going.

Confession #2: I am a travel writer who does not like to fly.

I have an article in this month’s FamilyFun magazine about family travel to Eugene.

You can read my New York Times article about eco-luxury hotels in the Pacific Northwest.

To research the book I’ve been writing for almost two years, I traveled to Iceland, Norway, Chicago, Boston, Bend, and Portland.

But the older I get the more I hate to fly.

[Insert image of disheveled lady paying full attention to the safety briefing, which she is actually reciting by heart in real time with the stewardess.]

Was it really worth trekking 3,000 miles across the country, being away for four days, and leaving my anxious husband home alone with a nursing toddler and three other kids and no help?

The answer is yes!

(N.B.: I’m writing this on the plane flying West so maybe I’ll qualify that answer once I assess the state of affairs at home.)


Here’s what I learned:

1. AS MUCH LEARNING, NETWORKING, AND IMPORTANT STUFF HAPPENS OUTSIDE A WRITING CONFERENCE AS AT THE CONFERENCE. I had coffee with a travel editor at the New York Times. I’ve always enjoyed working with him: he’s responsive, smart, and spot-on in his corrections. I knew what he looked like from Twitter and the Internet. But I found out from spending an hour with him that he is also someone with tremendous integrity whom I can only describe as a lovely man.

2. IT IS ALWAYS BETTER TO COLLABORATE THAN TO COMPETE: Writer-to-writer collaboration was a theme reiterated in several panels. Help a writer get started, share an editor’s name, put two people in touch. It makes you feel good and it sends good karma into the world. You get that good karma back tenfold.

Will some of the people you introduce to each other like each other better than they like you? Yes! Will a writer you pass along to your agent get DOUBLE the advance you did? Yes! Will someone steal your ideas and your photos? (Writers tend to be tremendously neurotic about this). Maybe! But does it matter?

Imitation is the finest form of flattery.

When your friends are successful it makes you look good.

What really matters is that you are being a good team player, growing your business, honing your skills, learning from others, and helping other writers dodge the holes you fell into at the beginning of your career.

3. ASK YOUR EDITORS ABOUT COMMON MISTAKES WRITERS MAKE: When this question was asked of my panelists, it yielded interesting answers. Diane Debrovner, a senior editor at Parents, shared that writers need to spend more time making sure what they submit is well organized, getting quotes from experts that are understandable to the lay reader, and matching the style of the query letter or the story to the magazine’s tone (Parents shoots to be that friend down the street whose kids are a bit older than yours. She’s compassionate, funny, lighthearted, and kind. She’s been there and done that and has wisdom to offer, but she doesn’t judge or criticize).

On the panel, “Secrets of Successful Freelancing,” Sam Greengard, a past president of ASJA, said one of the 7 deadly sins committed by writers is to only do the minimum. Greengard advises that you be the writer who cheerfully does more than you are asked.

4. WRITING IS A PROFESSION AND YOU NEED TO ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL. ALWAYS: In one of my favorite panels, “Inside Investigative Journalism,” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman, told this joke:

A politician tells his aide to go see who is waiting outside his office. The aide goes to look and then returns to the office, shutting the door behind her. “Three journalists,” the aide tells her boss, “and a gentleman from the New York Times.”

Dedman says he always tries to be that gentleman from the New York Times. He dresses nicely for interviews. He never carries a stereotypical journalist’s notebook. Why note? Because he does not want sources to think of him as a harried reporter but rather an intelligent, educated professional interested in listening to the stories/scoop/insider information they have to share.

5. WRITING IS A PROFESSION AND YOU NEED TO ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL. ALWAYS: Didn’t I just say that? It bears repeating. When I asked my editor at Scribner about common mistakes authors make (see #3), she said we need to realize that our publicists are sometimes working on up to ten books at the same time.

Less person power + more titles = busy staff.

Instead of freaking out at your publicist for a perceived slight that has nothing to do with you or your book (honest), you need to have reasonable expectations, show them you appreciate their time and go the extra mile (see #3). Don’t send increasingly frantic emails every 15 minutes all morning cc’ing more and more people when you need a book overnighted. Send one. If you don’t hear back by 3:30 p.m., send a follow-up or call and politely ask if the first message was received. No one was ignoring you. They were in a meeting. The book will arrive at the same time either way. But the frantic emails make you look bad.

“It’s really just about acting like a professional,” my editor said.

Amen sister.

6. In the panel, “Become Every Editor’s Go-To Freelancer,” Kate Appleton of TRAVEL & LEISURE mentioned that even travel EDITORS LIKE “FRESH” ANGLES. A fresh take, a new look at an old problem, a surprise.

(Full disclosure: I’ve heard this insight so many times it’s become a bit … stale.)

Some in-production examples from the editors on that panel:
1. Spas around the world where people recover from surgery
2. Controversial statues—why visit them, why they provoke debate
3. Revolving restaurants. The food sucks and you just go for the view. Right? Wrong. A round-up of ten where the food’s actually good.

7. LONG FORM NARRATIVE IS NOT DEAD. Readers are hungry for it and it is still being printed in places like the New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Vanity Fair. On-line websites where space is not an issue are an exciting new venue to write long-form narrative. Atavist.com, which pays writers a flat fee and then profit shares based on how many people download the article (one writer made $80,000 on a story this way, according to Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at The New Yorker) accepts narrative non-fiction of up to 10,000 words! Hooray!

8. NO BOOK EVER DIES: I only caught a bit of M.J. Rose and Jacqueline Duval’s excellent panel on book publicity but one point M.J. made was that with the advent of book sales on the Internet, you can continue marketing your book and people will have a place to buy it.

When books were only sold in stores, once the book was remaindered it was dead.

Not anymore.

Some other pearls of wisdom about book publicity from the intrepid M.J.:

1. No one buys a book they’ve never heard of.

2. Some work-for-hire publicists will take your money and give you nada. Ask around A LOT before you sign with someone, no matter how pretty her pitch to you is.

3. If you’re planning to pay out-of-pocket for publicity, spend as much on MARKETING (Internet ads, for example) as on PR (where a firm tries to get you editorial mention with no guarantees).

4. Get involved with promoting your book early on, enthusiastically, and creatively. Gone are the days when the publicist does it all.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of making connections and word of mouth (see #1). “Viral can’t be bought.”

Enough drooling over the conference.

Nothing’s ever flawless.

I would like to point out a less-than-perfect aspects of ASJA this year:

Writer (and editor) friends, hello! We need to get with the 21st century!

Let’s start incorporating slides, video, drop in text, audio, and creativity into our talks.

Let’s add a little pizzazz!

There are a lot of technology tools out there to make a presentation visually interesting. There’s old-fashioned show-and-tell. There’s break-into-small-groups for two-minutes to brainstorm. There’s lots of ways to make your presentation fresh! Let’s put some new twists on an old subject (tee hee.)

I estimate fewer than 5 percent of the panels had audio-visual enhancement. Fewer than 1 percent of the panels I attended used PowerPoint.

Almost no one was brave enough to step outside the box and do something unexpected.

If we are going to be on the cutting edge of the news, sharp writing, sexy features, excellent photography, let’s start showcasing our skills at our conference.

If ASJA doesn’t jump with both feet into the 21st century, we’re all going to be pulling shots at the local café.

Go to a BlogHer or IRE conference and weep at how behind the techno-curve we are.

What did you think of ASJA 2012? What worked for you and what didn’t? What did you learn? If you blogged about ASJA 2012, please provide a link to your post in the comment section below. I promise to visit your blog, leave a comment in return, and read every word.

Jennifer Margulis author photoJennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is the editor of Toddler and co-author of The Baby Bonding Book for Dads. Her new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Baby Before Their Bottom Line, was published by Scribner in April 2013. Read a Q & A with Jennifer at the Oregonian’s Oregon News Network.

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Categories: on writing.


  1. Oh my gosh Jennifer, I don’t know where to start!

    This was my first ASJA conference and I learned so very much not just from the panels, but from the conversations in the hallways, meals, and anywhere you found someone else to chat with for a few minutes.

    I agree with what you have written and I can’t agree more with the writers helping each other. Very rarely does it ever not work out. For every bit of help I’ve offered someone else, I’ve received it back many times over in other ways. That isn’t why I help, but it shows that if you are helpful, people want to help you in return.

    I think that you need to attend a conference like this with a goal in mind, simply because there is SO much information, that you can become overwhelmed trying to decide which panels to attend and which people you really want to meet. My goal was to learn more about how to get my Games project to the next level so I attended all the panels that I felt would help me meet this goal. And I did . However, I did suffer a bit from the “but I wanted to go to that other session and did I miss something really cool by attending this one instead?” So….that brings me to my very strong suggestion that attendees buy the recordings. By doing this, you don’t feel stressed about the possibility of choosing the “wrong” session and you can even listen to the ones you attended to refresh certain points. I do believe that this is definitely an added benefit and worth the cost.

    I told you there was a lot. 😉 So much to think about. Great post.

  2. I could not go and really dislike attending these big conferences anyway, but am glad to hear you found it worthwhile. A friend kept tweeting her insights after/during each session that she was able to attend, which I appreciated a lot. Almost like being there.

  3. Hope

    I also missed the conference this year but your post makes me wish I’d been there to hear these nuggets of wisdom. Thanks for posting such a comprehensive roundup. And the suggestion to jazz up our presentations — point well taken. I’ll definitely set my sights on next year’s conference.

  4. It was my first time at the conference and I got a lot out of it. I could only attend on Saturday, therefore, I’m grateful to read this post to find out more tips and hints that I missed. I’ve gone to other similar conferences but this one stands out for it’s non-competitive, cooperative vibe. People were open and encouraging and I’m definitely going back next year. One critique: for panelists who know they are going to refer to a lot of social media sites or other websites–a hand-out would be great. For instance, I’m going to print this out, highlight it, and follow the extremely thoughtful and helpful advice–thanks, Jennifer!

    • Actually, there *are* handouts for many of the sessions at the 2012 ASJA conference. In deference to trees and the weight of everyone’s luggage, we decided to make them available online this year instead of actually printing them out. They are on our website, but since they’re for people who attended the conference, they are protected by a password. If you attended, I believe you should have gotten an email with the password, but if not, you can check with the ASJA office.

      • Rosemary

        The link to the handouts was a great idea, but I was never emailed a password. I heard about it accidentally about a week before. I only got it after emailing the organizers. I think it should become the standard, though. When it does, each participant can get their password as soon as their registration is complete.

        Excellent conference this year. It may have been the best ASJA I’ve attended so far and I’ve been to many.

        • I just found out the passwords today. In fairness to ASJA, I cannot post them here but if anyone who attended the conference would like them, please contact me. There is a different password for the members only day, and only members can access that day’s handouts. I’m looking forward to accessing all of them! Despite my desire to see more technology, I find the ASJA website a bit challenging to navigate!

          • Hi Jennifer,

            First of all, you’re right about the passwords. This year was our first year of virtual handouts and we hit a few snags. Next year, we’ll handle it better!

            Meantime–funny you should mention that about the navigation on our website–we’ve just launched a redesign on the public side of our website, http://www.asja.org. As a member, I don’t know if you ever go there, but if not can you take a look? It’s very, very different from what it used to be. The members-only section of the website is still its old self temporarily–we have an unimaginably huge website and making changes takes time–but that will be changing to the new format too.


            Minda Zetlin
            ASJA vice president

  5. I agree with Jennifer this was the best ASJA conference I have been to so far, after maybe going to about 6 or 7 of them. ASJA’s strength is its New York location. The narrative panel had editors from the New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. That is not likely to happen in any other city. Even on my panel, the Men’s Online, one editor, Gene Newman of Maxim, told me beforehand when I was going over material as a moderator, that with the convention only two blocks away from his office, it was easy to participate. Also, Jennifer, this writeup is so good, I almost don’t even have to look through my own notes from the convention! Great seeing you again and learning more with you too at ASJA!

  6. It’s so great to read this, Jennifer. Love the feedback! Your thoughts about technology are well-made, and I hope we do see more of that in future years (logistics aside).

  7. I loved your article, Jennifer and thoroughly agree it was the best ever — great panelists, knowledgeable moderators (ASJAers, of course!) and topics that were on target. As soon as we have dates for next year, it will go on my calender.

  8. Jennifer,
    This was a terrific post. Made me want to check out ASJA in the future.
    I used to go to at least one journalism conference a year or so when I was in the profession full-time. This one sounds perfect for someone making that transition into more freelancing.

    I got a kick out of what you said about how writing presenters need to catch up with the 21st century. I taught a class about networking at a writing conference and pushed myself to create a Powerpoint of Dos, Don’ts. I think it caught everyone’s attention.

    I had to teach myself how to do it and it wasn’t that hard. And I followed the suggestion that I taught a beginning public speaking class: Less is more. Don’t go for tons of bells & whistles, but photos, visuals used wisely help.

    Linda K. Wertheimer recently posted…Best Feeling in the World: Readers Write, The SunMy Profile

  9. It was great to see you there, Jennifer! I go back and forth on the tech thing. Sometimes bells and whistles are fun, but I’ve been at other conferences that are total Death by PowerPoint.

    • That’s funny, Laura. Death by PowerPoint. I don’t mean that every panelist should do a PowerPoint — and having a slide show in and of itself is not necessarily going to enhance a presentation. But there are many creative ways to get information across at a conference.

      In the same way that some editors say they want graphs or tables or drawings or charts, I’d like us to collectively add some other forms of communication, including slides.

      So for a panel on what writers can improve on, the panelist could arrange for 3 1-minute skits of writers doing it wrong and then ask the audience for a critique.

      For a panel on how to write the unexpected, a panelist could tape questions or a relevant paper under some of the chairs beforehand and wow the audience by revealing that mid-talk.

      See what I mean?

      When I was working full-time as a professor, I often found that when you shake things up just a bit students remembered what you had to say and also learned the lessons better.

      And they enjoyed themselves!

      I’ve heard many writers say that part of our job is to entertain readers. I’d like to see us all (myself included) apply that insight to the way we present publicly about writing.

      • I agree–it’s all in the mix. I’m new to ASJA and couldn’t make this year’s conference but as teacher for 30 years of America’s arguably-toughest audience–adolescents who don’t care what your academic pedigree is–it’s imperative to shake up the medium…do the unexpected…blast them out of their reverie. Otherwise, you see the dread ‘washing machines in the eyes’…you know, like those Whirlpool front-loading washers. I vowed never to see those so I do make it a mission to mix up the beat. But I didn’t know Powerpoint was still about. Good to know–I still haven’t mastered it. But I’m going to begin with You Tube and soon…Thanks for the info. It’s a well-crafted overview of what transpired and I value your time and effort to get it–especially for those of us who couldn’t be there.

  10. Wonderful, Jennifer! Of course I loved your reference to my Investigative Journalism session as one of your very favorites — and I’ll plan to pass on to Bill Dedman the fact that you repeated his story. As for me, I’m a veteran of these conferences, but I thought this was one of the very best. Here’s why: the panels were really varied, and I found plenty that suited my needs. (In the recent past, social media and tech were discussed ad nauseum and the needs of book authors were frequently overlooked.) Bravo to everyone involved.

  11. Jennifer,

    Great seeing you, however briefly! Speaking on two panels made the conference extra busy for me this year, and I wished I’d had more time to catch up with colleagues and soak up the material instead of running from panel to panel. I second Marijke’s point about ordering all the recordings. I did that last year and listened to the other panels while folding laundry, cooking dinner, etc. The only downside is that the recordings take awhile to process so some of the conference momentum has died down by the time they’re available. And let’s be honest, nothing beats actually being in the room with panelists and other attendees. But I agree that it was another great conference!

    Susan recently posted…Guest Post: Think Proofreading Isn’t Important? Think Again…My Profile

  12. So glad I got to meet you at the conference, if only briefly! If time ever allows, I’d love to sit down and chat with you sometime; I think we’d have lots to talk about.

    Your point at the lack of audio-visual tech — and other creative presentation techniques — is a good one, and one that I really need to work on. I’m very much a words person, so it’s easy for me to talk and write. But as someone who writes about education, I’m aware that other people have other learning styles, and I need to keep that in mind when planning presentations. Thanks for challenging me to step it up in coming years!

  13. Excellent, post, Jennifer, and great to see you at the conference. I enjoyed your photography panel. I also thought this year’s ASJA conference was the best I’ve attended (out of seven). All the panels I attended were good–not a dud among them. The panel on science writing that I moderated went well, too. I am in favor of creative presentations but am of two minds about more tech, as I too have experienced Death by Powerpoint. I like looser, more interactive panels.

  14. Great summary, Jennifer! And good to hear some tips from panels I didn’t attend. I also buy the recordings so I won’t miss a thing, but tips on what others pick up is terrific. I’m still processing all my lessons, and will be doing so for awhile (maybe I’ll post on it as well), but I’ve got a lot of momentum and ideas to more forward right now. Thanks for moderating the parenting panel! I wish we had more time to chat at the conference.
    Debbie Kaplan recently posted…Guest Post: What’s Hot In the World of Summer CampsMy Profile

  15. This too was the Best ASJA Conference that I’ve ever attended, but then it was also the only ASJA Conference that I’ve ever attended. Which is why I’m still sorting out my action points and mental checklists.

    But it was a pleasure to meet you, even if it was in the stressful First Pages panel.

  16. Wonderful write-up about this year’s ASJA conference. I’ve been attending them for over 10 years; first as a fledgling, now with a self-published book and Nat. Geo Traveler under my belt. I’ve noticed distinctive themes over the years – the gloomiest era was about seven to five years ago when print media was drying up and there was a melancholy pall you could cut with a knife. I agree with you and Michael and others – this year was the BEST conference in terms of practical tools, an emphasis on sharing and collaboration and a more upbeat vibe (possibly because for the first time I took advantage of a couple of cocktail hours!). I attended the Photo panel and really got a lot out if it and the rest of the panels over three days. I’m glad you made it, Jennifer. I can relate to your fears – I, too, am a travel writer who hates to fly!
    Malerie Yolen-Cohen recently posted…Indiana Route 6; Butler to Ligonier in Pictures including Photos of 1880’s Jewish Headstones in Ligonier CemeteryMy Profile

  17. Julia M. Klein

    Jennifer —

    Great post. And I was glad to meet you at the conference. It was a wonderful conference, and, yes, some creativity on the panels would be good. I did have an editor (Robin Cembalest of ARTnews) use great AV on a panel a couple of years ago. But since writers and editors are donating their time, it’s hard to push them to do really time-intensive preparation. Relying on AV often means problems, too, when tech stuff fails.

    To me, as a two-time moderator, the keys to a successful panel are 1) choosing the right panelists in the first place, and 2) making sure the right questions get asked & answered.


  18. Echoing the others to say great recap. I attended your parenting panel and am sorry I didn’t have a chance to chat with you afterwards–the investigative book you’re working on about corporations and parenting sounds fascinating. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  19. Great post! I agree that some of the best stuff happens outside of the panels – at the cocktail parties and get-togethers where writers and editors mingle. I don’t think we need to get fancy with techie presentations – I hate PowerPoints. However, we do need to have free WiFi in the hotel rooms and a reliable network connection throughout the hotel. Sree’s presentation was handicapped a bit because of the slow and unreliable Internet connection.

  20. John Ettorre

    Great summary, Jennifer. So glad you decided to come. I’ll be sure to introduce myself next year.

  21. tinafreysd

    Becoming a professional comic-book writer is an incredibly challenging goal. Artists have far more ways of getting recognized and can have very long careers, but writers tend to be phased out after a few years, and generally get paid far less than artists, which contributes to the difficulty of making a career out of their work.
    tinafreysd recently posted…Tips on Finding the Best Cream to Remove Scars from AcneMy Profile

  22. I’ve only attended ASJA two times over the last 7 years, but I am STILL being helped by friendly writers I met in the airport or at breakfast or as mentors. These writers have written blurbs for me, made introductions, coached me on book promotion and so much more.

    Great insights, Jennifer. You certainly live the by the “collaboration” idea – all the mentoring you’ve done and still do over the years. Writers all get ahead when we help each other.
    Heather Shumaker recently posted…Happy Mother’s Day to Starlighting WritersMy Profile

  23. A colleague of mine recommended this blob post. I’m a PPT and Keynote graphic designer wondering how I can extend my services to speakers at ASJA events or the annual conference?
    I don’t create “Death by PowerPoint” but have heard the horror stories. Please view my portfolio here: http://www.behance.net/ginamorri
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Gina Morri
    Gina Morri Graphic Design

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