This has been an interesting, cringe-inducing couple of days as I've scoured my hard drive for some of the queries, articles, and essays I wrote early in my freelance career. I'm amazed that I got anywhere in my freelance career. Even some of the queries that sold aren't all that great...but looking back, I can see why they did sell.
Here's the thing--I'm a much stronger writer now, fourteen years later. I've also learned what to do (and not do) when writing for editors. So let's take a look at a piece I wrote for Bride's at the beginning of my career--my comments are in green.
FROM TWO HOMES TO ONE [Hmm, I'm still capping titles. Remember, that reads like I'm YELLING. Not good. And title could be a little catchier.]
When Deanne and Steve got married, they found they had very different ideas about how they’d decorate their new home. Deanne wanted to hang the Hummel plates she’d been collecting for years; Steve planned to display his cherished autographed baseballs on the mantel. Neither was thrilled about the other’s plans. [This anecdote actually isn't bad. But I should have included their last name, ages, and city and state--typical stuff for a national magazine. A direct quote from one of them would have made it much stronger as well. In fact, my editor came back and asked me for one.]
“Creating your new home is symbolic because it represents the balance between your needs and your husband’s needs,” says Susan Page, author of How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together (Broadway Books, 1997). But what happens when you and your husband already have your own furniture and your own ideas about how your new home should look? Whose stuff do you pitch and whose do you keep? To blend your households with a minimum of conflict, follow these tips… [Not a bad quote but I'd like to see more from Page here. Plus I should have italicized her book title. This what editors call a "nut graf," or nut paragraph, which sums up the article's purpose. And no, I had no idea what a nut graf was the first time an editor used the term with me.]
Communicate with your husband. What kind of look do you have in mind for your home? What does your husband want? Sit down with your husband and draw up “must-keep”, “maybe”, and “donate” lists for your belongings. Consider ways to combine your favorite pieces in your new home. If your place is small, it may be worth the cost to rent storage space for items that you simply can’t part with. [Not bad, actually, but writing for a bridal magazine I should have said "fiance or husband" instead of husband.]
Plan to compromise. Dr. Willard Harley, psychologist and author of Give and Take: The Secret to Marital Compatibility suggests that couples bargain over the way they’ll furnish and decorate their home. “Don’t select anything unless you both enthusiastically agree about your choice,” he says. “That way you won’t make sacrifices that you’ll regret later.” Page suggests that couples look at compromising over these decisions as “making a trade-off, not a sacrifice. With a trade-off, you give up something you value for something else—your spouse’s happiness—that you value more.” [Nice quotes here--and notice I've brought in another expert for his opinion.]
Make joint decisions. Don’t make purchases or other decorating decisions (like getting rid of that horrible plaid recliner) without talking it over with him first. When Michelle found the perfect four-poster bed while shopping one afternoon, she called her husband, who told her to go ahead and buy it. After Brad saw the new bed and the pink and cream comforter set Michelle had bought, he complained that their bedroom was “too feminine-looking”! To avoid these conflicts, make your decisions and purchases as a team. If your husband claims not to care, remind him that you’ll both live with these decisions for years. [Again, I should have included last names, ages, and city and state. And I could have had a longer quote from Michelle. However, I'd interviewed her and her quotes we're that compelling, which is why I wrote it like this.]
Choose wisely. Some decisions may be easy—keeping the bigger microwave, for instance, or donating the saggy futon you’ve had for years to Goodwill. But what if you have still need furniture? If money’s tight, spend your dollars carefully. Cindy and Matt agreed not to spend more than $200 on their apartment without consulting each other, and she says that made their decisions easier. It’s also better to spend more on quality furniture that will last for years than to buy cheaply made pieces just because they’re inexpensive. [Same comment re: last names, ages, and city/states. And notice that even in a short article, I've got three different couples' experience and two experts. Editors love quotes and "real people" sources.]
Make it “our place”. When one of you moves into the other’s house, the newcomer may not feel “at home” right away. It’s up to the original owner to make room for the new spouse. Newlyweds Kathleen and Erik live in the townhouse Erik bought several years ago, but Kathleen says this isn’t the ideal situation. “Erik already had this place the way he liked it,” she explains. “I had to tell him it was important for it to look like my home, too.” Even though she likes their house, she admits to looking forward “to buying a home together when we can both pick it out.” [Guess what? This is actually me and my husband, which I explained to my editor. However, I should have asked her if I could have included a first-person anecdote disguised as a third-person one before I wrote the piece. And my quotes could have been much stronger...I could have gone in much more detail about the sculpted wolf head on the mantle and the wild animal paintings that hung throughout my husband's home!]
Making decisions together is the key to blending two homes into one. Work as a team, and you’ll find that your new home reflects both of your interests and tastes. Now, about that recliner… [Not bad, actually, but I could have written a stronger close.]
Readers, I hope you're finding this series instructive. Let me know! And if you're a new freelancer who's looking for more practical advice, I recommend Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money. It includes a chapter that walks you through the process of coming up with an idea, pitching it, and writing it for an editor as well as 20 real queries that worked.