Zoë Slocum on Tech Journalism, Editing, Pitching, and Motherhood

In her nine-plus years at tech news powerhouse CNET, an online publication of CBS, Zoë Slocum served as copy chief and blog network manager. She has worked closely with fellow editorial staffers, freelancers, engineers, human resources professionals, and attorneys alike to improve content and operations. She now has two young children and lends an editing hand to the magazine of Golden Gate Mothers Group.

Her tips and advice in the interview below may give you added perspective as a journalist pitching to publications, a freelancer seeking to improve his writing skills, or even a new parent working hard to reconcile her professional ambitions with the demands of a family.

Is the technology niche of the news world notably different from other niches (such as politics, food, health, etc.)?

Zoë SlocumTechnology these days touches or is at the center of nearly all news: business, politics, science, pop culture, and health, among other things. There is a decent tech angle to nearly every interesting story out there, from NSA e-mail snooping to 3D-printed arm casts to speculation on the next iPhone, and that's why tech news publications, regardless of how established they are, now find themselves competing directly with so-called mainstream publications, which, in turn, have been reallocating many of their resources toward tech coverage.

What characteristics would give an aspiring tech journalist an edge in the already-packed and noisy world of tech news?

Aspiring journalists, whether interested in covering tech or anything else, should embrace their nerdiness. They need to be big consumers of whatever they desire to produce, such that they are essentially experts in their field and can sound off on virtually any related topic with speed, ease and, most importantly, accuracy.

Conversely, they aren't know-it-alls; they ask lots of questions and are humble in their pursuit of facts. They need to be very quick on their feet (or Web-searching fingers) and very resourceful, knowing or sensing whom to contact for comment on any given topic and how best to reach them. They also have good intuition regarding what questions to ask and how. They manage their time well, knowing when they have the money quote and when to move on. They are organized. And while they understand that balanced reporting, addressing and raising questions from different angles of a heated debate, is vital, they aren't afraid to state their opinion.

Having created a style guide for a media organization and edited countless articles, what would you encourage journalists and writers to do to improve their writing skills? Should they take courses? Read the AP Stylebook every night before bed? Ask for regular critiques from friends?

If a news organization for which you are reporting has a style manual, read it (or at least give it a strong skim) from start to finish. You'll recognize patterns in how certain things are handled, from abbreviations to punctuation placement to list structure to formality of grammar. If you're a more experienced writer or editor, you'll recognize whether the guide has a stronger allegiance to the AP Stylebook (generally used by newspapers) or the Chicago Manual of Style (generally used by magazines). If you are just starting out as a freelancer and aren't familiar with either of those guides, I'd recommend getting an online subscription to one or both of them and perhaps taking a copyediting course somewhere. In any case, don't let the rules get you caught up; let the words flow, then give your piece a good read for grammar, spelling, punctuation, flow, accuracy, context, and consistency before submitting it. Let the guide help you decide whether to use a serial comma, and let your editor, if you're lucky enough to have a good one, take it from there.

As an editor, I'm sure you've been presented with many pitches. What red flags lead to immediate rejection? What sparks your interest?

If a pitch doesn't seem up-to-date (i.e., it doesn't address a highly relevant recent event), it won't make a first pass. If the pitch is all hot-blooded opinion, ignoring relevant facts and counterpoints, it'll likewise get red-flagged. And if a submission is thoroughly messy, in terms of style or flow (the deck and lead typically should be short, punchy, and to-the-point, dovetailing with the headline and teasing the rest of the story), it may get sent back for more work. Some of the busiest (and thus least patient) editors out there, of course, will just do what it takes to make a story publishable, not giving the writer the opportunity to improve it himself.

If you don't like to be surprised by such edits, it's best to submit squeaky-clean copy that draws readers in with a timely and catchy head-deck-lead combination. Keep things concise and punchy, using the reverse-pyramid structure. For breaking news, being timely is essential; having a unique angle will make your story more attractive to feature. Add links to previous coverage, suggest accompanying art, and make yourself accessible to your editors. Reporters who do all this responsibly are editors' favorite to work with; their stories will get picked up, published, and featured much more quickly than others'.

There are journalists who make money, and those who struggle to pay the bills. What tactics have your more financially stable colleagues adopted that have enabled them to make a stable career in the journalism field?

A financially stable journalist either has a stable job, is married to someone who does, or is independently wealthy. Stable jobs in journalism are hard to come by, particularly if you are a freelancer, but it's far from impossible to make good money, at least in the short term, via an ongoing freelancing contract.

As a blog network manager, I oversaw about 30 contractors, a few of whom were making more money per month in "traffic bonus," even considering their lack of benefits, than many of my salaried colleagues. The most successful writers were the most in tune with current events and the fastest to produce publishable content. They engaged with their readers in the comment forums and in their story selection, pitching stories they knew would get a lot of page views, however bizarre an angle on a current event they were taking. And for the most part, they were the quickest to respond to editors' suggestions. They gained a loyal following with their distinctive voices and styles, and they kept up their production volume; a few high-traffic stories more than made up for all the lower-traffic stories, which continued to attract page views via link-backs, anyway.

As a busy mother of two, what advice can you give to mothers who want to keep a toe in the professional world? What are the biggest struggles that you face with regard to balancing motherhood with a career, and how do you intend to overcome them?

This is the toughest question, as I have a 2-year-old and a newborn, and I am just starting to think about my next career step, having left a part-time position that came with a mommy-friendly schedule but didn't allow me to make adequate use of my skills or experience. Perhaps it was because I was in the office only one day a week post-maternity leave, but I was underwhelmed by my highly diminished role and frustrated that I could no longer get heavily involved in making meaningful improvements.

I haven't given up the idea of having a challenging and rewarding part-time job, but I'm well aware that most employers seeking someone with my experience and skill set need a full-time editorial manager; the type of work I do well is generally very intense, very hands-on, and very demanding. I'm hoping that in my field, the term "part-time manager" isn't an oxymoron much longer.

To strike a happy balance down the road, though, I might just need to start -- and run -- my own thing. I have one friend (also a mother of two) who founded and runs a wonderful tutoring business for autistic children. She is incredibly busy but because she controls her schedule, she manages to spend plenty of time with her boys while expanding her company's reach. Two of my friends who founded and run their own very successful organizations are currently pregnant with their first child, and I am encouraging them both to maintain control of their business' direction while delegating many of the day-to-day tasks (and trips) to the employees they trust most. For mothers who want to maintain a career, "balance" is a subjective and relative term achieved only through extra-hard work, compromise, and luck.