INTERVIEW: Estelle Erasmus, Author of Writing That Gets Noticed

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

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Book Cover: Writing That Gets NoticedEvery time I do a reading, there’s always at least one person who comes up to me that says, “I have this story I’m going to write, and tell me how to get published or give me the name of your publisher or agent.” And it’s not that easy, right? But I like to give them some recommendations to get started. And there’s one book that’s become a go-to for situations like these: Writing That Gets Noticed by Estelle Erasmus.

In this book, released in June 2023, Estelle takes readers through the process, from writing to querying to contracts — and this level of detail is something I’ve never seen in a craft book.

Estelle Erasmus — an award-winning journalist, writing coach, podcast host, adjunct instructor, and frequent speaker — has been editor in chief of five national magazines and written for more than 150 publications, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, HuffPost Personal, Good Housekeeping, and Writer’s Digest. I had the chance to speak with Estelle about this book, her writing career, and much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lara Lillibridge: I’m really excited about this book. What made you decide to write Writing That Gets Noticed?

Estelle Erasmus: So this book distills my three decades of experience in publishing from both sides of the publishing wall—as a magazine editor-in-chief who was assigning content and getting the writers into my publications to somebody who wrote for many other print publications back when print was king.

I’ve seen such a sea change in the industry in my three decades. When I started in publishing, I was at Women’s World Magazine, which is still in production and doing very well today, it was newsstand sales only, which makes cover lines  king. I was a beauty editor there, and it really helped honed my craft — having seven deadlines a week and having to interview experts in the beauty and the fashion and the styling industry. And to be able to craft service-oriented pieces, and serve tips and tricks and strategies that will improve your life. So every time you see [something like]  “10 Tips to Build Your Financial Future,” and then they give real actionable tips and actionable advice, that is service journalism in action, which is how I got my start.

That guides everything I do, and the way that I work with my students at NYU, and for Writer’s Digest, and one-on-one coaching to help them bring their voice onto the page and have confidence in that voice and how to do it.

I have the podcast, Freelance Writing Direct, and a big part of what I do on the podcast is to have my guests and myself, because I’m an expert too, share actionable advice and actionable tips that is not just pie in the sky theorizing. I’m a results oriented person. I was a magazine editor in chief, I had staff working for me, I made decisions at the drop of the hat—you had to move fast in those days. I had to make decisions every single day: are we going to put this author in, are we going to have this copy? What excerpt are we going to use? I’m used to making quick decisions based on the information that I glean.

And publishing today is a quick game, right? You have to get in there. If you have something timely, there is a lot of competition. So you have to know how to package your material for an editor to get their attention. The editor is your first reader—they’re the gatekeeper, but they’re also your first reader.

One of the things I talk about is word real estate. That translates today to the subject line of an email to the editor, right? Because editors are getting 300 emails a day, depending how big their publication is. I mean, I’ve talked to editors from the New York Times, The Washington Post, I created a free Editor On Call series for NYU, where editors come and speak to everyone. The editors tell me that they get inundated with email. So think about the first thing they’re looking at is the subject line, right? And if you don’t have a compelling title in the subject line, the editor is going to go ‘next.’

So I told my students and I work really hard on titles. I’m somebody who considers myself a cover line queen, because all my magazines that were on the new stand in print, right. I had to work on cover lines to get the reader’s eye.

LL: When you say cover line, you mean like the those little titles that are on the front cover, right?

EE: Yes, right on the front cover. So, you know, something like really compelling, like “20 Ways to Lose Weight Easily.”

LL: And that’s what made readers buy it right? You would see those headlines—not even a full sentence. And that was what made you buy the magazine. And you’re right, I didn’t think about it, but that is the subject line of an email. With my first book, I pitched it as Girl—it was called Girl originally, instead of Girlish, but I wrote Girl,a Memoir, and I got no response. But when I changed it to Girl, Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, suddenly, people were interested because they knew what it was about.

EE: It had an emotional implication there. It’s not only providing context, it’s creating an emotional response in the editor.

In the book, I talked about using active verbs. For example, one of my articles that went viral for The New York Times in 2019 was “How to Bully Proof Your Child.” Bully proof is an active verb. And the editor got back to me within two hours wanting to know a little bit more. I had a fully fleshed out pitch, but she had a few more questions that I answered, and then I got the assignment.

Other students have done the same thing and had real success, like with The Independent, which is what I call a rapid response publication, meaning that a lot of the stories are op-ed related or timely, or a commentary on something happening right now, right here in the culture, or in the zeitgeist or in the news.

If you’re the person who’s in the middle of something happening, like some big conflagration and you can reach out to the editor and say, hey, I’m in the middle of this, that can be very effective. And again, use your word real estate.

I talk in the book about pitching. I think one of your advance questions was, ‘how am I an expert?’ Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours rule.

I spent hours sitting in a windowless, airless office high up in Manhattan, just surrounded by books, looking for the next excerpt that I was going to share in my magazine. I had all those hours not only doing that, but hiring writers. Back in the day, after Woman’s World, I went to smaller publications, and I thought, ‘oh, my gosh, am I shooting myself in the foot?’

With big publications, you are very limited in their responsibilities. Whereas in these very small staffed publications, I was curating content as a senior editor, I was writing cover lines, I was writing my own columns, I was hiring writers, I was doing photoshoots. I was doing everything. I was learning my craft, and I was learning what to do. And so I moved up very quickly, because I could assume the role of editor-in-chief for a launch publication or a small publication because I knew what to do.

LL: Well, to go back to your book, Writing That Gets Noticed, when I’m on social media in writer circles or in-person with writers, everyone complains about publicity. And sometimes there’s even like sort of an air about people like, ‘my art is pure, I can’t get involved in business things.’ But personally, I write to get read. And if your writing doesn’t get noticed, it’s not going to be read. And who wants to write brilliantly, and then keep it in your desk drawer for the rest of your life?

EE: Exactly.

I love Hippocampus. It’s a literary publication. But literary doesn’t mean highfalutin’ academic language—you still have to get to someone’s emotions. Number one, it starts with the work. And it starts with building your craft with the work, because you can have everything in a draft, but if you don’t know how to hone that draft to hook the reader, and then to build that narrative arc. I was a guest editor for Narratively a couple of years ago, and the whole point is, it’s not just musings on the page. For Narratively at least, things need to happen.

And then you need to be able to find a way to build an audience, right? And how do you do that? You curate good content, you show your mastery of something that you’ve created or that you’ve worked with, you align with community members who will support and respect your work, and you’ll support and respect their work. I do believe in being a good literary citizen. People don’t have to pay for Freelance Writing Direct and I’ve had Cheryl Strayed on, and Vanessa Hua, and William Dameron. And assigning editors who tell exactly what they’re looking for. I have agents coming on. I’ve had publishers speak from small publications, like Motina Books, to my publisher, which is 40 years old, New World Library.

People have to feel that what you have has value, and you do that by writing. I feel like I’m a storyteller, and I have more stories to tell. And yes, publicity is important to me, because I believe in what I’ve done, and I want to help people. I feel that my work is helping people and guiding them in a way. I have a perspective that you don’t find in the industry—the people who were there 30 years ago, they’re usually not there in the capacity that I am today. Maybe they retired or maybe they went into content writing, or maybe they’re heading up a PR agency. But in the writing world, they’re not really sitting where I’m sitting today.

One of the things that I said in my book is you never know when your bad luck is actually your good luck. And I thought my bad luck at the time was being in small publications and not being like creme de la creme. And really a lot of those big publications, most of them have fell by the wayside. Including ones I wrote for like, New Woman, or Longevity.

LL: Let me slow you down for a minute. There is so much valuable information in your book. You touched on this a minute ago—that an essay isn’t just ruminations on the page. I often start writing an essay because I don’t know how I feel about something, so I’m writing to figure it out. But you have this wonderful line here, “an essay is like a shark, it must keep moving forward or dies.” And, you know, even with the most beautiful poetic language an essay that doesn’t go anywhere, isn’t successful. I had a writing teacher read something I wrote and said, ‘why do we care?’

EE: I have a writing group, now that I’m coaching, and we do generative writing. And I said to them, ‘I want you to put down things that you want to write about, something compelling, something that happened to you.’ And then I said, ‘the next thing I want you to do is say, so what? Why should the reader care? What is the emotional implication?’

And one of the things I say in my book is to leave the reader with a gift. There needs to be some sort of change or transformation in attitude in circumstance and way of looking at the world that shows there’s been movement. If each sentence is not moving your story forward in some way, and that includes with dialogue, get rid of it.

LL: It’s next to impossible for me to know that about my own writing, because I think everything is essential, right? But you work a lot with individual writers, can you talk a bit about that?

EE: First, we start with brainstorming—what do you want to write about? I’m a big believer that if it doesn’t resonate for you, you’re not going to have the passion to write about it. Some people have been working on things for a while and it’s not gelling.

And I say, we’re going to start right in the moment. And then from there, I’m a big believer in something called a through line. What it does is it creates a feeling of continuity throughout an essay—you’ll see it in comedy shows where they bring back a joke in the middle and then at the end—the same joke in a different iteration. So a through line in an essay, I think is so beautiful, because you can then it almost does what the objective correlative does. That is something that William Dameron, who’s in my book, uses it to great effect—having an object have the emotional significance of whatever the relationship or what the persona is. I have my students do that a lot with dialogue.

I think it’s really based on my 10,000 hours of reading so much and editing so much writing over my own professional life, that I can help a writer with that and see the big picture. I help them show their voice, and I know when something needs more emotion, like a writer sometimes will dash through something that seems like an important moment.

LL: You talk about “go micro not macro” and I think this is exactly that—slow down the moment and describe smaller moments.

Headshot of Estelle Erasmus

EE: And you’re so right. For example, if someone said to me, ‘I want to explore depression.’ I’ll be like, first of all, the word explore makes me think of somebody sitting on the floor surrounded by a thesaurus and maps. I’d like to find a moment that we can pin this on, Because otherwise it’s too broad. No one can connect to it. And we don’t really know if there’s a story there yet.

A lot of times writers won’t trust that the reader wants to get into the specificity. And as you know, specificity is key. The specifics makes such a difference. If you say he picked me up in his Pontiac and off we went that’s a big difference in saying he picked me up in his Pontiac with the black leather seats slick with popcorn from his obsession with the drive-in. I’m making this up but there you’re getting some clue to the character of the person, right?

I always say God is in the details. And so the same thing with dialogue. I’m a big believer in using effective dialogue and not dialogue tags, like: good morning, how are you? That doesn’t move the story forward. But if you say, ‘good morning,’ ‘Oh, is it? My turtle died, and now I I don’t know who my emotional support animal is.’

That time it’s moving the story forward, because whoever’s reading it is going, ‘oh, she has a turtle as an emotional support animal. What is she gonna get next, an ostrich next?’

LL: It’s much more engaging, right?

 What I like also is that your book has these bite sized pieces. You have these quick tips “Estelle’s Edge.” You make it seem not insurmountable, which is a double negative, but I’m using it anyway.

 For example, you’re talking about contracts. This is in the chapter called, “Your Pitch Landed, What Happens Now?”

 When I was given my first contract, I was going to take anything they offered, because I was just so happy, to have an offer. And I thought, well, I should do some research on this. And so I called the MFA program that I just graduated from. And they said, ‘We can’t advise you, you need to consult a lawyer.’ I knew that this wasn’t enough money to pay a lawyer, to be honest with you. This was my first thing. But you wrote, “negotiating for what you want is a skill that anyone can learn.” 

I felt like you were holding my hand like, it’s okay, this is how you do it. You don’t have to have this cutthroat attitude—you can just ask a simple question and know in your head, if you’ll accept it or not, before you ask. You make it seem possible, and not so daunting. So many of us are so excited to be published, that we don’t pay attention to these details. I think your book could be called Details, Details, Details for it, because it’s kind of paying attention to the details through the entire process.

EE: Thank you so much, Lara, I’m so happy that you’re saying that because again, it’s the service journalism that I was raised on. I want to be that literary fairy godmother.

LL: I wanted to talk about at the very end of your book, you go into a more spiritual aspect of writing. You’re so technical all through the book and then you bring it back to the heart of writing. Can you talk about that?

EE: I’m a big believer that your thoughts do create your reality. I’m very spiritual. I read tarot cards, I understand about astrology, I read my friends’ charts. I do believe as they say in Judaism, that nothing is ever wasted. I think that it’s very important if you’re writing to be able to navigate through those moments of rejection, when you find that you don’t have inspiration, and to recapture that. I talk about that in the book, I even share a meditation—I share something that helps me—a ritual. I’m a big believer in ritual. I do believe in imbuing your spirituality into the way you look at the world, the way you look at your writing. I do not want people to be negative, but I don’t want them to be unrealistic, right?

You are not going to get the attention of an editor if you don’t know how to build your craft, if you don’t know how to show your writing off, if you don’t know how to get their attention in the first place. And that’s a big part of what I do. But I do believe it starts with craft. And it starts with believing in yourself and that your words have value and your words have meaning.

You can be the best writer in the world, but if nobody knows who you are, and if nobody sees you, it’s not going to make a bit of difference in your career and in your life. And I want to people to get to the place where they’re elevated.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.

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