Photo credit: Rodrigo Diban
An Excerpt from Writing That Gets Noticed by Estelle Erasmus
I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.Joan Didion
Writing That Gets Noticed is the guidebook I wish I’d had when I was getting back into the spotlight as a freelance writer after a career as a magazine editor. I wanted to get my writing recognized and published, but it took trial and error for me to get where I wanted to be.
I want you to learn from my mistakes.
I want to save you those steps so you can be successful.
Throughout these pages you will find examples, strategies, creative exercises, resources, and my best pro tips, which I call “Estelle’s Edge.” I include advice from editors, the science behind why a piece of advice works, and stories from my life of editing magazines and developing writers’ voices. I also share examples of my own essays and pitches and some from my students.
From the late 1990s until 2005, I was the editor in chief for a succession of national glossy consumer magazines and a beauty editor at Woman’s World. I also wrote freelance articles about health, beauty, fitness, and relationships for hundreds of print publications and websites. I was briefly a stringer for People magazine and taught writing for magazines at New York University. Then I stepped out of the spotlight with life changes: marriage, infertility, and the birth of my daughter in midlife. I had a long stint of working in medical education. When I reemerged in 2009, after my daughter, Crystal, was born, I was a newbie in a publishing field I no longer recognized — and which no longer recognized me.
To get back into the spotlight, I had to develop a strategy for getting published, getting noticed, showcasing my voice, and creating a social media profile. So I focused my creative energy on carving out my new identity. I started blogging and joined the mom influencer community. Although I never expected I would want to write for free, the thought of writing only what I wanted to write was empowering. My blog was called Musings on Motherhood and Midlife, and the subhead was “A Journalist’s Transformative Journey.” The blog covered parenting, humor, lifestyle, travel, fashion, beauty, and social good. I had a unique perspective: the wisdom of midlife coupled with the challenges of early motherhood. Mom bloggers formed a close-knit community, and I was proud to be part of it.
I was thrilled when I was offered a Mom’s Talk column in my town Patch, a local news and information online platform, after reaching out to an editor when it was acquired by its former owner, AOL, in 2009. Despite my background as a magazine editor, I don’t believe I would have been considered if I hadn’t already been blogging about motherhood. For the column, I wrote about binkies, breastfeeding, and my quest for baby-free time, and I loved interviewing experts on parenting. I also became a contributing writer to Easy Solutions, a former A&P store publication, while editing for a publishing company.
In 2012 I ended up back in the spotlight, reading an essay I’d written about Crystal, as a cast member in the show Listen to Your Mother. I also won the first of my three BlogHer Voice of the Year Awards that year for an op-ed advocating for women’s and mothers’ rights, and my piece was selected to be in The BlogHer ‘12 Voices of the Year anthology, the first of many anthologies I would contribute to. I call my daughter my muse, because she inspired me to get back to what I truly love, writing.
In 2014 I moved back into mainstream markets with a personal essay in Marie Claire about a crazy former roommate. Since then, I have placed my essays and articles in hundreds of publications. In 2015, because I was so prolific, people wanted to know how I did it, so I became a writing coach, using my no-nonsense style and savvy strategies to help writers of all levels of experience find their voice, get noticed, and get published.
As my daughter grew, she continued to be my inspiration. After a trip to Vermont when she was hard to handle, I wrote a piece titled “My Child Is Out of Control” for the Washington Post. The piece was syndicated all over the world and discussed on ABC’s The View. The editor, Amy Joyce, asked me to write a follow-up a year later, which was titled “My Child Is Still Out of Control.” After a new babysitter contacted her male friend and introduced him to my pajama-clad daughter via FaceTime, I wrote about the new rules for babysitting and social media for the Washington Post. (My rule was “Nobody comes into the home, and that includes on social media.”) In another piece of many I wrote for the Washington Post, I shared why it was positive for our marriage that we did not let our daughter sleep in our bed.
As Crystal became more social and neared her tweens, I focused on providing her with a resilience-building emotional toolkit. I wrote for the Week about powerful phrases every parent needs, like “No one is the judge and jury of your self-worth” and “I’m proud of you, but you should be proud of yourself.” After researching the scientific benefits of getting a pet for Your Teen, and appearing on Fox 5 News with Ernie Anastos to discuss the findings in my article, we added a spirited Havanese puppy, Rose, to our family, joining our senior orange cat, Percy. In 2019, I once again became an adjunct instructor at New York University.
In 2019 I wrote “How to Bullyproof Your Child” for the New York Times. Attracting more than five hundred comments and trending as a top story for several weeks, it led to an appearance on Good Morning America, hundreds of letters, and an award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). I was even the focus of the newspaper’s Well newsletter. I’ve since contributed several articles and essays to the New York Times.
I’ve stopped writing about my daughter as she is now a teenager, and I’m more focused on storytelling — and helping my students get published.
In 2020 I pitched an idea for a column to Writer’s Digest’s editor in chief, Amy Jones, that I’d wanted to write for years. She loved it, so in 2021 I started writing All About the Pitch, a column in which I interviewed editors and analyzed pitches from freelance writers to show what works (and what doesn’t), and why. I wrote the column for two years and loved the emails from readers saying how much they learned.
In response to the demand for more publishing wisdom, I launched the Freelance Writing Direct podcast, with a cohost, covering the craft and business of writing, strategies to give writers a leg up in the marketplace, and informative interviews with authors and writers.
From my years working in medical education, I learned to love scientific studies, and I draw on plenty of them in this book. Cognitive studies show that the brain understands and remembers best when facts and skills are embedded in memory through experiential learning. That’s one reason why my continuing education courses at NYU for adults, and my journalism courses there for high school students, incorporate a lot of real-life activities, such as demonstrations, editor interviews, exercises, pairing up for interviews, journaling, virtual and in-person field trips, and class readings of student work. I also wrote an article for Wired about how to keep kids engaged in school — with games.
Words are like music
I studied opera as a child, and I am a trained mezzo-soprano. I love opera and its clearly defined beginning, middle, and end — its narrative arc.
Words, with their rhythm and cadence, are just as powerful as music, and they have the power to create stories that mesmerize and enchant us. I want you to come away from this book with the belief that words can change lives and the understanding of how that alchemy works, so you can do it yourself.
That proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” is one I live and teach by.
Just as my clients and students keep me in their back pocket, ready to help them find their voice and get published, like a literary fairy godmother, my wish is for this book to be viewed and used as a source of inspiration and encouragement to readers and writers.
Mining your life for ideas
As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
I have had many fallow periods in my life where the creativity just wouldn’t come. After the birth of my daughter, I struggled to write anything. And how could I? I’d put all my energy and motivation into dealing with painful, invasive infertility treatments and becoming a mother in my forties. So I forgave myself. I decided to treat myself well and hope my creative voice would come back.
I wrote in a blog post:
Kids are work. Important work; but I want my words back.
During the first year of motherhood, my creative output was extremely low. The words that had always flowed just wouldn’t. And I didn’t know how to bring them forth.
That is why it was such a surprise when I woke up the day after taking my daughter to the library for a reading group and wrote about the experience. Suddenly, the words flowed again.
Estelle's Edge: Every writer has fallow periods, but your words will come back, just as mine did and always do.
Trust in the process.
Many writers want to write and have lots of ideas, but they just can’t get them out. The adage about sticking your butt in the chair and writing sounds inspirational, but it’s not that simple. When that feeling of futility strikes (and it does for everyone), I reassure them it’s part of the process and suggest remedies for getting unstuck. If the muse just won’t manifest, here are a few ways supported by scientific evidence to knock down those roadblocks so you can build something lasting with your words and achieve your goals.
Thirteen Ways to Find Your Best Ideas
- Repetitive action relaxes. So let your creative energy flow while doing something over and over again, such as folding laundry, mailing out batches of holiday cards, vacuuming, coloring a complex geometric design (your own or from a coloring book), or doing dishes. According to a study done at the University of Oregon, rote activity allows the mind to wander, making it easier to tap into our creativity.
- Still at a loss for words? Get those endorphins pumping. To generate creativity, try working out on a treadmill, going for a bike ride, or running outside. Research demonstrates that aerobic exercise allows the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory, idea generation, and imagination.
- Music helps you access the creative, expressive part of the brain and get yourself into a relaxed state. Some writers use classical music to kickstart their writing because it has no distracting lyrics.
- For a change of pace, head to a local coffee shop or library to write. Research shows that being around people working on their own creative projects encourages you to copy them — infusing you with a shared work ethic, concentration, and productivity.
- Can’t seem to get started? Change the format. Turn your essay into a poem or letter. Or try a different font. I change my font from Times New Roman to Garamond or Comic Sans when I’m stuck. I also try writing essays in the form of a poem or letter to inspire my creativity. Changing the mode or format of your writing breaks up established patterns of thinking and encourages your brain to make new connections.
- Water can wash your blocks away. Many writers find their best creative ideas or solutions while taking a shower. The more relaxed and disengaged you are — like when you’re showering or bathing — the more dopamine your brain releases, spurring creativity, insights, and ideas. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates messages between nerve cells in your brain and body and works as a feel-good reward center.)
- Try taking a stroll. A slow twenty-minute walk can help you break through a creative slump. Researchers at Stanford University found that walking increases a person’s creative output by 60 percent, compared with sitting. That’s because walking offers the same boost to your endorphins and serotonin — hormones that help improve mood, cognition, and concentration — as an aerobic workout.
- Engage in new experiences. Try a new restaurant, take a vacation (or a staycation), or see a new movie to disrupt thought patterns that keep you stuck. If I feel stymied, sometimes I stretch my brain by researching odd topics (best chocolate cake recipes, or why camels spit), or the topic I’m writing about. Our brains process familiar information quickly, but they are slower to organize and synthesize new information, which makes the experience more memorable and pleasurable. This state encourages creativity.
- When you are blocked, try blocking your social media, too. Multitasking — in this case, switching between your writing and checking social media sites — overstimulates your brain, causing inefficient and scrambled thinking. Try making a deal with yourself to write for an hour or two without checking or posting. Apps and extensions like StayFocused and Block Site allow you to block distracting websites or set daily time limits for each site.
- Go ahead and have a mental margarita. Take a break from writing for an hour, a day, or a weekend. The mind needs downtime to think, ponder, incubate, and create. A study from the Netherlands found that even when we take a break from a project, our unconscious mind continues to process it. When I veg out, I spend time with family, watch TV (I love to binge on Real Housewives), or read a novel. I always come back refueled because my brain has been working in the background to crystallize my ideas.
- Try writing in free flow. In Bird by Bird, her influential guide to writing, Anne Lamott says, “Write shitty first drafts.” This advice is empowering. Many of my students edit as they write, which is a mistake. Your first draft is not the time to parse or refine your words; that will come later. Sit down and write as much as you can, without worrying about grammar, spelling, word count, structure, or phrasing.
- Give yourself a deadline — a short one, about fifteen minutes. Some people set a timer. See how much you can write without thinking about what you are writing, or second-guessing yourself during that time span. When the timer sounds, give yourself a five-minute reward, like a cup of tea or a small piece of dark chocolate, and then do it again. A short deadline reduces the pressure on you because you know it will be over soon, so all you need to do is get to work. You might feel compelled to keep writing, even after the buzzer sounds, and that’s okay. You can continue, or you can stop, give yourself a break and a reward, and then do it again for an even longer time, perhaps twenty minutes or more.
- As I write my first draft, when I am at a loss for a word, a phrase, or a quote, I don’t stop writing. I simply write the word SOMETHING in caps (you can choose your own term, like BLANK, FILL IN, or WORD). The point of doing this is to keep the words coming without censoring yourself. You will find it easy to fill them in once you get to the editing step.
My goal is always the same: to get to a flow state, a positive mental state in which you are so completely absorbed in a task that you lose your sense of time and place. It’s a destination that isn’t easy to reach, but getting there is worth the wait. So trust in the process, and you will find your words once again.