A Conversation With Elfrieda Abbe

by Claire E. White

Elfrieda Abbe is the editor of The Writer magazine,
Photo of Elfrieda Abbe
which received the 2002 Gold Folio Editorial Excellence Award in the publishing/journalism category. During her career she has been a freelance writer, staff writer and editor at newspapers and magazines. She was editor of the award-winning arts and entertainment section of the Milwaukee Sentinel and editor of publications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Arts and Science. Her features on the arts and in-depth interviews with authors, have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times, Chicago magazine, the New Art Examiner, Wisconsin Trails and many other publications.

Taking over the reins of The Writer magazine from the legendary Sylvia Burack was no easy task. But under her leadership, the magazine has increased circulation and advertising, and has undergone a tasteful updating of the 117 year-old magazine. She is also the editor of the highly regarded Writer's Handbook, the yearly guide for freelancers, which features thousands of markets and resources for writers, including writing articles by authors such as Sue Grafton and Stephen King.

A skilled book and film reviewer, she also founded a magazine about women working in film and video. Elfrieda spoke with us about how she got her start as a journalist and the greatest challenge she faces in running The Writer. She also gives some great tips for freelancers.

What did you like to read when you were a little girl?

I loved Marguerite Henry books about horses: Born to Trot, Black Gold, Misty of Chincoteague. I also read Nancy Drew mysteries. Loved Charlotte's Web, Wind in the Willows, Robert Lewis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Mostly classic children's stories.

What was the first freelance piece you sold? How did that sale come about?

I wrote a piece about a coffeehouse called Amazing Grace on the Northwestern University campus that was run by a commune of students. One of the students took care of my kids. They brought in folk singers, such as Odetta and John Prine, from all over the country. I wrote it without an assignment and sold it to the entertainment section of the Chicago Daily News. I think I still have the note from the editor. I got paid $75.

How did you get your start in journalism? What led to your selection as the editor of the award-winning arts and entertainment section of the Milwaukee Sentinel?

Cover of The Writer's Handbook 2005 (Writer's Handbook)
by Elfrieda Abbe
I started by freelancing. After I sold my first piece I sold others to the Chicago newspapers, the Tribune Sunday magazine and Chicago magazine. Then, I got some assignments from the editor of three or four trade and professional journals. Doing this work, I learned how to be resourceful, check facts, meet deadlines, find the story, etc. This was basically my journalism training. I majored in English literature in college and swear by a liberal arts education. By the time I wanted a full-time job, I had quite a lot of experience. My first newspaper job was for a chain of weekly papers -- Pioneer Press -- in the Chicago area. I was editor of the Home section and about 15 special sections. From there I moved to the Sentinel, where I was the assistant editor of the Home pages. All the while I had my eye on moving into arts and entertainment because that was my interest. I became editor of the Home section, but also wrote when I could for the A&E pages. So, when the opening for an assistant editor on the weekly came up, I applied and was thrilled to get it. After three years, the editor moved on and I moved into the editor's spot. What this taught me was that it helps to be ready and have the right skills when opportunities come up.

What prompted you to take the reins of The Writer?

I already lived in Milwaukee. The magazine moved here but none of the staff members from Boston came along. I was working for the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee on publications for the School of Letters and Science. My job included editing the alumni magazine. When I heard about The Writer, I applied for the job. I had read the magazine when I was freelancing and loved it. It seemed a perfect fit.

After Kalmbach purchased The Writer from Sylvia Burack a few years ago, there were some major changes made to the style of the magazine. What was your approach to this revision? Were you concerned about keeping the core readership? What were you trying to avoid with the changes?

Sylvia Burack was a wonderful editor known for helping writers. We try to continue that legacy. But The Writer hadn't been updated for many years. The articles were wonderful but we needed to give it a fresh look in order to make it competitive. The mission of the magazine pretty much is the same. Our goal is to help writers improve their craft and succeed in their endeavors. We help them with both the craft and business side of writing. We were, of course, concerned about the core readership. Many of the readers had been with the magazine 50 years and liked it just the way it was, but we had very few complaints. And since the changes, many of the longtime readers who resisted the change at first have written to say they like the magazine even more.

I'd like to talk about The Writer's Handbook. What is the greatest challenge in editing this book?

We have so much wonderful material. The biggest challenge is to select the articles and get a balanced mix covering fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, screenplays, and the business of writing.

What is the greatest challenge about running The Writer magazine?

Time -- There's never enough.

As an editor, what are the top mistakes that you see freelancers make when they submit to your publication?

Not reading the magazine and being familiar with what kind of articles we publish. We get a lot of poetry and fiction submissions, even though we don't publish poetry or fiction.

Poor presentation that doesn't inspire confidence. This includes bad grammar, messy handwritten letters, spelling errors and so forth.

Making the editor work by not providing enough information so he or she has a good idea of what you want to do and what you can do. Your query should be short and clear. Because of the hundreds of queries most editors get, yours needs to be easy to read in a minute or two. Often writers will send us to websites to look at writing samples. This is an extra step in the process. I've heard many editors complain about this practice.

Email queries are fine, but many writers submit queries that are way too casual or breezy, often without a salutation. The email query should be as professional as a letter you would send through the mail.

How has your background as a freelance writer affected your job as an editor? How has it helped you?

"Sylvia Burack was a wonderful editor known for helping writers. We try to continue that legacy."
It has been a tremendous help. First, I know what it's like to be a freelancer and understand what its like trying to generate more income, working with editors, getting great assignments and bad ones, having to choose between doing a story you love for little money or doing one you are less interested in because it pays well. It also gave me confidence in my abilities, taught me how to be resourceful. It was great training for coming up with story ideas, which is something I do all the time as an editor.

How did it feel winning the Folio Award of Excellence in 2002? Were you surprised?

It was an honor and was great to get that recognition from our peers. We have a great staff, and the award really recognizes their good work.

You have been a featured speaker at the Surrey Writers' Conference. What is the question most asked of you by beginning freelance writers? If you could impart only one piece of advice to a freelance writer, what would it be?

Most frequently asked questions: How to break into a market, how to get an agent. My advice is to be persistent and believe in yourself.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to be at the Surrey Conference this year. It's a wonderful conference. Our senior editor Ron Kovach is doing a workshop on freelance writing that is dynamite.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Cover of The Writer Magazine
That's a tough question. Some books I've read recently that I loved are Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee, Child of My Heart and Bigamist's Daughter by Alice McDermott, Deep South by Nevada Barr (which I read while on a trip to a literary conference in Natchez, Mississippi). I've just discovered the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith and love it. Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood are writers I've returned to again and again.

What is your opinion of the current state of television today? Will reality television eventually replace scripted dramas and comedies? Or will it run its course?

I think there will always be a place for dramas and comedies. Look at the writing on HBO shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood or Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. These shows are very well-written.

Since you got your start in journalism, how has technology and the rise of the Internet changed the profession?

The basics are the same. Good research, good writing, good reporting, good editing. Only the tools have changes. In some cases making information easier to get to faster.

Are you a technofile? Have you adapted to e-books, PDAs, laptops, the works?

"I'm a techno-minimalist. I use what I need to get the job done most efficiently. I think there is a point of diminishing returns."
No, I'm a techno-minimalist. I use what I need to get the job done most efficiently. I think there is a point of diminishing returns. I use the Internet, a computer, a cell phone. That's about it. I'll probably use a simple calendar for appointments and a Mead Composition book to make lists and keep track of things forever.

What are your pet peeves as an editor? What are your pet peeves in life?

As an editor, my pet peeve is when writers call instead of writing queries. In life, one of my pet peeves is rudeness.

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