Research, Query Letters, and Using Online Platforms to Your Advantage: David Ma On Making It As a Writer
The world of writing in 2016 is chaotic and confusing. While online platforms like Medium and Quora can help aspiring writers gain readers and visibility, using the leverage of an online readership to make money is often an opaque process without a clean path. Thankfully David Ma, a veteran writer who has seen the transition from the heyday of print magazines to the current state of publishing, is willing to share some sage advice about the craft. David’s resume boasts 15+ years experience and published articles in Egotripland.com, The Guardian, Scratch Magazine, The Source, Pitchfork, Rollingstone.com, Wax Poetics, URB Magazine, and XLR8R. Here he shares his thoughts on the importance of thorough research, making connections online, and the loss of two musical idols who were on his interview bucket list.
“ I like artists that defy easy categorization, especially ones with a long history of influence you can tap into.”
Gino: Since you were first published, what change in the online/print magazine world has been most beneficial for writers?
David: I think in terms of my own output, which have primarily been in-depth interviews or legacy pieces, the ability to contact artists informally has been tremendously helpful. Though I work closely with some of the larger press agencies out there, it’s sometimes easier to directly hit someone up thru Facebook or Twitter. In those cases, if the artist is willing to do a quick interview, the writer can conduct the piece before pitching to a publication. You’d be surprised at the amount of artists with a substantial fan base that are willing to give you their time.
Another benefit is the rise of online media platforms like Medium, Wordpress, or the like. And while I was, and still am, very sad to see the demise of print, digital platforms have given such a vast array of writers an arena for work. Now, this also makes music journalism a bit redundant when 100 different outlets are reporting about the same new Kanye remix. But you get the idea.
The last benefit, and this is from my own personal experience, is that writers are able to connect, support, bounce ideas, and network with each other in ways unimaginable 15 years ago. To be able to interact with journalists you’ve admired and exchange contacts, ask for feedback, and trade music all have shaped the stuff I’ve written and been profoundly impactful.
“You’d be surprised at the amount of artists with a substantial fan base that are willing to give you their time.”
Gino: I agree, the amount of direct access social media gives you is incredible. In addition networking online, do you recommend building a readership through platforms like Medium, Tumblr, Quora, or a Wordpress blog before sending in potential paid submissions to magazines?
David: I think so, especially if you want your stuff up somewhere as a point of reverence. Unless you have a real shitty blog, having a link to attach to your name doesn’t hurt.
Gino: Are query letters still relevant for aspiring writers or are there better ways to get your work published?
David: I think so. Editors need to fill pages and make deadlines at the end of the day and a reliable writer is a huge asset. It’s probably much harder to come by than one would imagine. So a blind email or cold call can certainly get your foot in the door. I’ve had a good amount of work through random emails. But then again, I haven’t had to make a cold call in years, so maybe the landscape’s changed since I first started. I think if you’ve built a portfolio that is presentable and fitting to the publication you want to pitch to, my take would be why not? It certainly doesn’t hurt.
“Editors need to fill pages and make deadlines at the end of the day and a reliable writer is a huge asset. It’s probably much harder to come by than one would imagine.”
Gino: You’ve written extensively for Wax Poetics, one of my favorite magazines. When did you publish your first story there and how were you able to grow your relationship with them?
David: I think my first piece for Wax Po was something I submitted for their website in 2004. Yikes! If I’m not mistaken, it was an interview with Dan The Automator, right after the release of the first Deltron album. With the dudes at Wax Po, I was really fortunate because here was this publication that wasn’t ephemera. It goes on your bookshelf when you’re done. It explored crate culture and amazing records through the gaze of hip-hop. And everyone involved, from the writers, to editors, to designers genuinely seemed to like the same shit. There’s nothing worse than writing for an editor who doesn’t know what they’re talking about and these guys are not only experts, but through the years, they have tremendously helped refine my work.
“For me, research is the foundational step…You want to cast a wide net because it can all derail quickly.”
Gino: You’ve interviewed legends like Slick Rick, Pete Rock, and Kool G Rap. When I read your interviews, I get a sense that you put a great deal of time and effort into understanding the person you are interviewing. How much time do you spend researching and preparing for interviews?
David Ma: It varies according to the artist but I’d say many, many hours, perhaps more time researching than actually writing. For me, research is the foundational step. You always want to have as many questions on hand as possible. You want to cast a wide net because it can all derail quickly. And in general, you just want to have some facts ready to fire off if you feel the interview is running into impediments. I mean, you can spend a lot of time crafting the most perfect questions and still get one-word answers. Also, when Googling artists you get to see how they’ve previously been written about, which helps because you can avoid the pitfalls of retreading the same ground. Researching also helps me frame the article and sometimes a new narrative emerges that wasn’t there before.
“You always want to have as many questions on hand as possible….You want to cast a wide net because it can all derail quickly.”
Gino: In addition to doing thorough research on your interviewee, what qualities are essential for a good interview with a musician, producer, or rapper?
David: For me, I write the type of piece I’d like to read myself. I try to include both content for new listeners as well as the heads. At the end of the day, the aim is to organize and present information as cleanly as possible. I rarely, if ever, include myself or personalize my articles. Some gifted writers are able to straddle that line but even then I don’t always think it’s necessary. I come from a history background so I always try to have a framework that befits the artist’s own history while placing things in perspective. It also depends on the publication, so you need to be able to gauge how it’ll be received. Usually I’m just as geeked as the reader so I’ve been very fortunate to cover artists I already admire.
“I write the type of piece I’d like to read myself. I try to include both content for new listeners as well as the heads.”
Gino: What writer influenced your interviewing process the most?
David: There isn’t a single writer who I’d say has made the most impact. But I do think my journalism work has been a pastiche of a handful of who came before me. I’ve always been a pretty avid reader, especially about music, so Brian Coleman’s Rakim Told Me as well as both volumes Check The Technique have also been immensely educational. Oliver Wang’s site Soul-Sides.com should be a required template for anyone interested in committing themselves to running an audio-blog — his books are wonderful too. Of course Nelson George’s early focus on hip-hop has impacted anyone who’s ever thought about doing rap journalism. I’ve also spent hours laughing and nerding out to Jeff “Chairman” Mao’s work for Ego Trip. Insofar as music reviews go — and just an overall approach to writing about musicians — the importance of Robert Christgau’s work cannot be overstated. I keep his books handy and I always find myself returning to them. It’s really been the highest honor that I’ve been able to closely work with some of the writers I mentioned.
“It’s really been the highest honor that I’ve been able to closely work with some of the writers I mentioned.”
Gino: Have you ever considered curating your articles into a book? If so, would you self-publish it or try a traditional publisher?
David: I think most of my work has been very suited for the publication it ended up in at the time and I think I prefer it that way. Like a lot of writers my age or slightly older, there’s plenty of stuff in print and everything else is online. I have a publisher in Japan who wants to consolidate and put some of my more evergreen work online and maybe eventually publish it physically. That idea interests me. When you find out you’re cited in another article or book, it’s flattering, you know? Best shout out ever. So as long as it’s out there and accessible, I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s a bad thing. I certainly don’t mind.
“When you find out you’re cited in another article or book, it’s flattering, you know? Best shout out ever.”
Gino: Writing with substance and keeping people’s attention seems to be a difficult balance to achieve. Should writers strive to write quality long-form content or is it best to be pithy and succinct?
David: It all depends on the outlet you’re writing for. Long-form is nice because you get to flex your writing chops a bit more depending on the word count you’re allotted. But a real clean Q&A that’s succinct and sharp also requires a lot of work. With Q&As, most of the work is in the-post editing; making sure the reader can’t tell you hacked away for hours to arrive at a informative, coherent response. By the time it goes to print, it should seem like the artist gave the best response possible on the first try. So I guess the answer depends on the writer’s execution rather than just “keeping readers’ attention.” It also goes back to my original point, which is that it’s all about the venue. If you’re doing a quick post for, say, Pitchfork or something, then you’d assume it should be brief and striking, rather than something informatively long for the Atlantic, for example.
Gino: Who is your number one bucket list interview and why?
David: It’s a bummer because Bowie and Prince have been two I’ve always wished I had chased down. Even up to week or so before both passed I was speaking with a friend about how to hunt those guys down. I think Kanye would be an interesting one as well. I like artists that defy easy categorization, especially ones with a long history of influence you can tap into. I’ve been really lucky because I don’t always aim for the biggest name, just artists that have moved me and for the most part it has always come together. Does anyone have Stevie’s number?
I am a director of academic support/special education teacher who loves to write about books, movies, music, records, and samplers. I also love interviewing people about these things. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, and recommending it on Medium.
You can also check out my Bookshelf Beats publication.