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Notes from a conversation with writer and journalist Jaclyn Stevenson

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with local writer Jaclyn Stevenson (blog), a full-time journalist at Business West, and a freelance writer and photographer. I met her via multiple referrals from my local network, who all suggested I start getting my name in articles to establish brand and make a connection with an influential writer [1].

In her email response, Jaclyn didn't have plans for current career development stories, but offered to keep the idea on file, and kindly asked me to join her "trends" circle of contributors (yea!) I could have let it go at that, but I figured it'd be fun (and smart) to get to know Jaclyn better, and I was curious as a blogger about how a professional writer works. So I offered to interview her, a turning of the tables she appreciated and agreed to.

Following are some of her insights on the topics of writing, interviewing, managing many projects, and doing the work you love.

Her work

One reason it was such a pleasure talking with Jaclyn is that she loves her job (her emphasis). She wanted to be a writer as a kid, got an English degree, and did it. She likes being able to mix freelance work and a stable job [2] (something that's rare among writers - it's usually one or the other).

She spends 40 hours/week at BusinessWest, and writes about five stories every two weeks. They are a mixture of assigned stories and ones she pitches to her editor. For her free-lance work, she does travel writing ("not so much 'working' as fun"), and takes vacation time to do. She also covers other topics, including travel, sports, health, culture, and technology.

She likes BusinessWest because the people reading appreciate her stories, and especially not being bored to tears. Also, she gets reader feedback, which is rare in other venues, but gets about one note/week at this job.

Managing multiple projects

A writing project often has many contributors, quotes, photos, etc, which makes tracking the various moving parts important. She likes taking notes by hand in her reporter's notebook, but has to watch the risk of multiple pads (Getting Things Done practitioners will recognize the collection habit at work here). Here's a typical workflow for her:
  • Pitches idea to many outlets,
  • Waits,
  • Gets into phone call mode (details, expectations, price),
  • Travels (makes own arrangements),
  • While there: gets her press pass and starts walking, and having conversations,
  • Comes home with all kinds of stuff (notes, tiny pieces of paper) - "artifacts with character",
  • Then: Must turn into a work!
Every story gets its own folder, and she's spread out while she's working - has a "sea of paper" - but gathers it up when done (a nice practice - but hey, I'm biased). During the process she gets about 30-40 emails/day and processes them daily at same time [4]. When she's done she quits the program (another great practice).

While writing the story there are 2-10 rounds of editing (every editor and publisher are different in their style, needs, ad how they work). She transcribes recordings [3] made in the field into her computer, adding value by not typing them verbatim. Then she sends it out with photos and waits for it to come out. A "solid end to many moving pieces."

Finally, she writes many thank-you notes to readers and contributors, something I've been working on doing more of [5].


On what to charge for her work [6], Jaclyn finds selling herself is hard, and brings to the forefront many issues, including self-esteem. She says that, for writing, fees vary widely according to many factors, depending on whom she's working with. Because prose structure varies, the fee might be per word, per inch, or flat, something that would make practicing vale-based fees a challenge.

Finally, for writers working free-lance (like any self-employed person) the work can be very up and down.


Having good questions is very important preparation for an interview, as is analytical listening. Doing the latter helps track where a person's passion is, which is very important for Jaclyn. If the interview isn't going anywhere and you get lost, you can ask a question like "Can you give me some history of the business?" which leads to passion. Another favorite is "What's next on the drawing board?"

She says letting go preconceived notions about the person and her job are scary (for example, you can look unintelligent), but a "teach me" attitude is powerful. However, you have to let go of the ego.

I asked for her top interviewing mistakes. Here they are:
  • Not listening,
  • Not managing nervousness (you can end up asking questions you didn't want to ask),
  • Not asking a question if you don't understand (ask anyway - don't assume you can ask later),
  • Not doing your research,
  • Not following up with a fact-checker email, and
  • Not using multiple pairs of eyes (use your editor - a good one will think of things you forgot or didn't think of).
Generally, Jaclyn says to "ask like you're two years old." This will allow you to understand well enough to explain the ideas/story to others.


She looks at writing as equal parts craft and art. The craft involves forming clear sentences, varying paragraph length, and the basic story structure. The art is around the story, and the poetry of language.

Writing in a daily newspaper format (which she doesn't do) is harder - it's structure-heavy, and tends to be more informative than entertaining.

Finally, she says "listen to your mentors." As with any practice that involves mastery [7], it's a key to learning and getting better.

Self-promotion/PR from readers

I asked Jaclyn about being contacted by people with story suggestions. She said that for the most part it's fine, and usually a win/win (she needs stories, people like press). It's best to come with a solid idea, and one that's in a niche is even better. Also, novelty is important - she needs a hook/motivator that answers "How is this different?"

Final points

Jaclyn suggests writing a variety of forms - i.e., to "no put all your eggs in one writing basket." She suggests trying poetry, fiction, and magazines for starters.

Because writing is such a broad skill, she thinks it will always be important, and she believes in her career. That said, she claims it's "her only weapon." I agree - being a programmer, I realize the power of language, and that natural language is the ultimate tool for building mental structures in others.

Finally, she says to internalize people you admire (in her case, she's "chilled" because of that), and to maintain perspective. "We're not building rocket ships."

Thanks Jaclyn!

Suggested writing references

Jaclyn says "The number one reference material I can suggest is the AP Stylebook (Wikipedia entry), updated every year." It's "a great desk staple that has answers to questions a lot of bloggers who hope to streamline their writing probably have."

She also suggests reading as much of the types of things we'd like to write as possible, and generally being "voracious" readers. She has a large personal library, and subscribes to many magazines (as she's a magazine writer). With echos of Steve Leveen's The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, she likes owning the books, what she calls "a tangible mini-Google," and likes the synchronicity of finding unrelated nuggets along the way.

Here are some of her other picks on writing:


Reader Comments (5)

Thanks for the great interview, Matt! We can add 'give the tables a spin once and again' to our list of positive work habits... interview the interviewers. -jac

February 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterWriterjax

My pleasure, Jaclyn.

February 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Good on you Matt. Nice work ... thanks for the detailed notes.

February 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Thanks, Michael.

February 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I wanted to add this follow-up re: her note-taking "value add" by Jaclyn on her blog:

In terms of transcribing audio files, I usually pop my headphones on and start typing - it's great for getting quotes just right, especially when writing about a complicated subject.

But I stop and start the recording frequently, in order write more 'organically' around those quotes. That helps the overall flow of the story - if I transcribe everything and then go back, sometimes the story looks stilted and there's a lot of wasted time, too.

Trying to write with the aid of the audio rather than write verbatim what is contained thereon also helps me transcribe what's important and skip what isn't, in reponse to your first question. If I have developed a theme, which really should be one of the first tasks covered, then usually the quotes I have in the recorder fall into place in the right place, and I can always go back and fish out some more if I need to.

That said, I use an audio recorder less frequently than I do a plain old reporter's notebook, and when I do use it I always write notes too. That also helps the flow of the story, because I write not only quotes but ideas and insights of my own (and I delineate between the two by using parentheses around my own thoughts).

But recorders can be used to glean a little color too, especially for a story that warrants it, like a travel or culture piece. Just turning it on at an event and letting it run can sometimes return the greatest little nugget of information or a funny anecdote... and you have it all documented to boot. They're also great when you're pulling double duty - shooting photos and taking notes, which I do often.

February 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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