The Byline Bible
(Writer’s Digest Books, 2018)
When I was starting out as a freelancer, I sent my first personal essay to an editor at a reputable online publication. When he accepted, I was thrilled. We worked together to polish my piece, and he told me it would run soon. Thinking all that was left was mere formality, I gushed about my upcoming byline on Twitter. Several friends shared their congratulations.
I soon found out what a rookie mistake that was. A day later, the editor emailed me to say he had to “un-accept” my essay. For reasons that still remain baffling, other editors at the site decided my piece was not a good fit and killed it. I was devastated, but not as embarrassed as when I had to shamefully delete my triumphant announcement without comment.
If only I’d had Susan Shapiro’s pithy and unapologetic The Byline Bible back then. “After an editor says yes, now is the time to discuss edits and for you to briefly and politely ask, ‘How much do you pay?’ and “Do you need me to revise it, send you an invoice, or sign a contract?’” Shapiro writes in her chapter “Winning and Losing Cover Letters.” “No long gushy lines of gratitude, as if you’ve won an Academy Award, or hysterical announcements on social media. Your byline hasn’t appeared yet and you haven’t been paid. Until it’s out and the check clears, contain yourself.”
Oof. Lesson learned.
Thankfully, The Byline Bible is not another manual on how to write. Instead, it’s something much more sorely needed: a manual on how to get paid as a writer. In her introduction, Shapiro bemoans programs that focus solely on craft while never bothering to teach writers how to get published. As an award-winning freelancer herself—her work has appeared in prestigious publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Oprah.com—and the author or co-author of over twelve books, getting paid to write is a subject Shapiro has deep knowledge in and is very passionate about.
She also teaches writing courses at NYU, The New School, and in private sessions. Many of her students have had bylines in similarly prestigious publications and have gone on to sign lucrative book deals. This book is what I imagine sitting in on one of her classes is like.
Shapiro distills all of her insight and years of experience into ten easy-to-read chapters. Five of them cover the types of writing pieces most likely to get a “yes” from editors: the “humiliation essay,” the regional piece, the op-ed, the short humor piece, and the service essay. These chapters conclude with “assignments” and tasks meant to kickstart your own ideas in these subject areas.
The other five chapters cover the business end of writing. Shapiro teaches how to pitch your piece to the right editor, what to do after a work is accepted, how to negotiate for more money, and how to handle the praise (or backlash) that might follow publication. Like any good teacher, she formats her information into numbered lists with bolded headings, which makes notation and review incredibly easy. Each chapter also contains a review section at the end.
There’s plenty of practical writing advice here too. You’ve likely heard most of it before, especially if you’ve been writing for any length of time. Yet these parts aren’t what make the book valuable. For example, you’ve likely heard the age-old adage “show, don’t tell” a million times. But did you know that New York Times’ “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones is going to want to contact any major people mentioned in your confessional essay in order to check its veracity before he publishes it? It’s nuggets like this that prove that while anyone can teach writing, not everyone can teach making money from it. Fewer still have years of experience to back it up. It’s Shapiro’s insider knowledge that makes this little volume a necessary addition to any freelancer’s bookshelf.
Clearly, it pays to be Shapiro’s pupil—literally. In the most surprising development of the book, all of the examples are pulled either from Shapiro’s own work or those of her former students. Many chapters end with the full text of her student’s essays. Links and titles are provided to many more. In any other instance, this might come off as immodest. Here, it serves to only to underscore a point. Shapiro’s methods not only work, they can lead to large dividends.
Unfortunately, The Byline Bible is not going to give you all of the tools you need to be successful as a writer. It won’t read your work for you and provide feedback. It can’t replace the value of an in-person class (especially one taught by Susan Shapiro) surrounded by other writers who all share the same dream of making money doing what they love. But for those on a budget or with time constraints, it’s pretty much the next best thing.
Just promise me that if it does lead to you to getting published, until you see your name in print, you’ll hold off on the tweeting.
MATT GRANT is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers books, film, TV, and pop culture. He is a staff writer at LitHub and a contributor to Book Riot. His work has appeared in Longreads, Tor.com, the Huffington Post, and more. You can find him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter.