The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks, by Susan Shapiro, gets straight to the point. If you want to be published fast, you need a timely, short essay about (ideally) your most humiliating moment. Shapiro shares her extensive expertise working with newspaper and magazine editors and provides insight into what they are looking for, particularly when working with unpublished writers. She offers hope and inspiration in a strict, opinionated guide, sharing numerous pieces she and her students have published in impressive publications such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, and many regional newspapers. Some essays have led to book deals.
The Byline Bible does not hold back from specific details. Word counts, how to write an introduction, pitches, cover letters, and suggested publications to submit to are all covered. The guidebook is packed with step-by-step instructions and warnings about what not to do. After reading this book, I had a better understanding of the view of a newspaper editor and how I could insert myself into the industry as a freelance writer.
One distinction I learned was being timely refers to events that have not yet happened but will happen soon. Starting an essay reminiscing about your childhood is not timely. Neither is referring to an athlete who has just won a title. Timely is writing a piece on an athlete who is going to compete in the championship next month. Timely is bringing up Thanksgiving drama, two weeks or more before Thanksgiving.
My most well-developed stories tend to be from childhood or college since I’ve had more time to solidify them into narratives. But, like hearing about other people’s dreams, hearing about other people’s childhood is not the fascinating deep dive that you think it is. Childhood stories are less interesting unless you already care about the author (either by reading an adult-focused introduction or by personally knowing the person). I’ve been brainstorming stories from my adult years that I can share. I can tell they will be more relevant to magazine editors.
After reading The Byline Bible, my essays are shorter and more focused. Shapiro’s book shares invaluable insights tested during many years of instruction and mentoring successful students. I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in publishing essays in mainstream publications.