In our latest freelancer profile, writer Lyz Lenz shares how she went from dreaming about a writing career – while holding down a mom blog and marketing job in Middle America – to becoming one of the most respected voices in freelance journalism in the US.
Last fall, my Twitter feed exploded with tweets, retweets and commentary of a Tucker Carlson profile published on the Columbia Journalism Review’s site by writer Lyz Lenz.
It was the talk of the Twittersphere, for its smart, complex rendering of the conservative Fox news political commentator juxtaposed against the life of its author, a single mom of two, living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, navigating a divorce and working several jobs to pay the bills and stay afloat.
Later chosen as one of the best profiles of 2018 by Longreads, it also got the attention of CNN’s Brian Stelter, who interviewed Lenz for his podcast “Reliable Sources.”
What most readers don’t know, however, is that the piece that made Lenz, perhaps, the most talked about US writer on Twitter on Sept. 5, 2018, nearly wasn’t published.
At issue? The ending, says Lenz; the editors at CJR wanted to kill it.
Here’s how she wrapped up the 6,500-word story:
“I am trying to listen. I am trying to understand. I want to understand. If I can figure out what happened to Tucker Carlson, how he went from successful magazine writer to contrarian journalist to raving Fox News host, I believe I will understand what happened to my country, my life even.”
“What happened to make a rich white man the vox populi? How did I, a mom in the Midwest who can’t afford health care, become the humorless, censoring, liberal elite? How are the winners still insisting they are losers? What happened to this whole mess of a world? So I listen and listen. But I get no answers. Most of the quotes I get don’t make any sense. And I’m no closer to an answer now than when I started.
All I know is, he was definitely shouting.”
A year ago, she would have caved to the editors’ cuts. But since finding her voice and confidence in her writing, Lenz put her foot down and fought to keep the ending – at the risk of pulling the story altogether.
“I have the confidence now to say this needs to be in, and this is why,” Lenz said in a phone interview from Cedar Rapids.
I had to fight tooth and nail to keep that in. And not because they’re bad editors, but because they had a different vision for the piece than what I had. It got to the point where I said if that ending isn’t in there, I don’t want this to be published.
At this point in our conversation a gasp escapes me, in part because entertaining the idea that the piece wouldn’t have made it to light is a travesty, and also, because as a fledgling freelance writer myself, the idea of pulling a story after all that work makes me shudder.
“But I never say things like that,” Lenz says quickly. “I felt like such a diva but I had bled for this story.”
Close followers of the writer – she has more than 32,600 followers on Twitter – know that Lenz isn’t exaggerating. When CJR editors asked her to write the Carlson profile, she initially refused as the subject matter hit too close to home. Her marriage had disintegrated precisely because her then husband’s conservative values ballooned into irreconcilable odds against her own more liberal viewpoints. Like many households across America, the election of Donald Trump had drawn battle lines between family members and loved ones. Along with a divorce, she was also hustling at five different side jobs at the time.
It’s this skill at weaving her own personal tales with solid, journalistic reporting, that has earned Lenz an active fan base; clippings in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Jezebel and the Pacific Standard; and the attention of literary agents.
Her searing piece “Swinging with Absalom” published on The Toast wasn’t well read by her usual standards, but it did attract the attention of the right people, namely a literary agent who helped her land a book deal for God Land out this summer.
It’s a shame the story didn’t get more traction. I was so unprepared to be taken to this place of disarming, heart-wrenching tragedy, written in a way that so beautifully aligned with the biblical tale of Absalom, reinterpreted by Lenz.
“That’s another thing I learned. You don’t have to be the most popular person in in the world, you just need the right people to read your writing.”
During our hour and a half phone conversation, Lenz was forthright about her experience breaking into the world of freelancing. She talked about her triumphs and setbacks and shared tips on how she keeps her writing and reporting skills sharp. Here are a few highlights:
The early years
Lenz studied English and Russian history with the original intention of going into law. After following her husband to Cedar Rapids she got a marketing job, always with the dream of becoming a writer. But her early pitches were “terrible” and went largely unanswered. It wasn’t until she scored a side hustle at relationship and dating website Your Tango as a copy editor that she began to understand the ins and outs of the industry.
“It was a crash course in digital media…and I’m very grateful for it. It gave the insight into what a good pitch looks like and what an editor is looking for that I just hadn’t been privy to before.”
Your Tango would become the stepping stone she needed, teaching her the art of crafting better pitches and rewarding her with acceptances in kind.
“Once I got into Your Tango things started to snowball. That’s how acceptances work, you convince one place to publish you and then it’s easier to convince the next place and the next place. And you develop a pattern and rhythm, you understand what your voice is, and what places are looking for.”
Incidentally, one of the earlier editors at the site was Jia Tolentino, who is now at The New Yorker. After The Hairpin, Tolentino went to Jezebel, where she invited Lenz to write for her there. The lesson? The importance of building and maintaining relationships with editors, who are often on the move.
How she got her big break
Alongside her freelance gigs, Lenz also kept up a mom blog following the birth of her daughter which gained a large following and landed on the radar of The Huffington Post, which republished some of her blog posts. That exposure helped her land her first essay on parenting in The New York Times in 2014 (more on that later).
“The New York Times was the first moment where I thought I can do this, people like what I have to say and I have something to contribute to the conversation.”
The next break would come a few months later with a viral Jezebel story about a rare medical phenomenon called lithopedion in which a fetus can calcify outside the woman’s womb. And another career coup was when writer and editor Roxane Gay included her essay “All the Angry Women” in the anthology “Not that Bad.”
“I think there has to be a big break every couple of years to remind you that you can do this, because writing is so hard and trends change and voices change. You can write something one day and be the talk of the internet and then you can write something the next day and have nobody click on it.”
The making of her first NYTimes story
If your dream is to break into The New York Times, you’ll want to read this.
Long story short, it took about five pitches and one killed piece before Lenz was able to see her first byline in the Grey Lady. After a few rejections, Lenz got the green light for a story on how to raise a child when there’s an abusive family member. But there was so much back and forth with legal issues and sensitive information, that in the end, Lenz decided to pull the piece which had become too watered down and sanitized (though for good reason, she adds).
Despite that, Lenz continued to pitch the editor. In that time, she had also met the editor face to face at a mom blogging conference, which helped her move out from the shadow of anonymity. Incidentally, it’s also one of her tips for developing a relationship with your editor: If possible, find a way to meet them IRL – but without agenda. Buy them a drink, and refrain from talking shop. Just befriend a fellow colleague.
Tips for breaking in
Find your voice. That’s what will elevate your writing from mediocre to memorable, she says.
Lenz cites popular and distinguished writers like Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Caity Weaver, Jia Tolentino, Pamela Colloff, Nicole Chung and Kerry Howley as some of her favourite writers—standard bearers in the world of writing.
“So many great writers have careers that came out of small websites like The Hairpin, including Nicole Cliffe and Jia,” she says. “The world at large doesn’t remember it, but it gave birth to so many great writers. It’s not about being popular it’s about getting your footing and finding your voice. They started at these small places writing about what they loved and felt passionate about, and had fun with it. And enough of the right people noticed.”
For writers in the early stages of their freelance career, she suggests doing what she did and follow the career trajectories of their favourite writers. See where they were first published, research the magazine or website, pay close attention to what they’re looking for and pitch.
“People are always looking for new voices, someone with something new and interesting to say. I think as writers, especially, for those just breaking in, you need to be looking at places where the writers you love broke into first.”
Some of her favourite smaller media and literary outfits that have a long history of churning out top writers include Catapult, Electric Literature, Pacific Standard and The Rumpus.
Break point and the importance of sharpening skills
Lenz confesses she has spent time in a therapist’s office, sobbing about her fears of never being able to write anything better than her Carlson profile. Writers who’ve hit a career high can likely relate to this paralyzing anxiety. Her therapist listened and asked simply, “What are you going to do about it?”
It was the tough love approach Lenz needed. In order to evolve and improve her craft, she realized she needed to develop a continuing education-type strategy. For her, that includes reading writers who are producing exciting work – and not necessarily in her own field.
“If you stick to your own space you don’t learn new things. Because I felt especially anxious about my writing, I took some time to read incredible books like Heavy and Women Talking setting aside time to read books I knew would blow me away and break apart what I think of when I think of writing.”
Another key to her writing success is research, she says.
“Research is a writer’s best friend, the best tool. You never know what you’re going to find and it gives texture and depth to your writing that truly nothing can.”
Other quick and dirty tips:
- On her social media strategy: “Be a fan and be a friend: I live in the middle of Iowa, I am not in the center of journalism or media hotbed. Social media has been crucial for me finding new writers and new outlets and finding new ways to find new topics. The internet has been invaluable. The moment I find a writer whose writing I love I follow them, I see who they’re reading and I talk to them. I joke I stalk and befriend them. It’s so valuable to let people know you like their writing”
- Always follow up on a pitch. Give it about two weeks.
- Don’t take rejections personally.
- Develop a good relationship with your readers. They can give you feedback.
- The most valuable tool for freelancers is Twitter, where editors often put out active calls for pitches.
- Turn in clean work.
- Be nice. You never know: the writer you trash today, could be the editor you pitch in two weeks.
Lenz’s book God Land about faith in middle America is out Aug. 1, 2019, and her second book “Belabored” about motherhood in America, is due out in spring of 2020.
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