When Alexa D’Agostino first pitched what would become her opinion piece, “Millennials Have Every Right to Complain, and Should Do It More,” to the Boston Globe Magazine, she was “cautiously optimistic” that it would get a lot of traffic.
She knew from taking Susanne Althoff’s Writing for The Boston Globe Magazine class that the magazine editors look for Perspective pieces that “zig when everyone else is zagging,” and as a Millennial herself, she had the personal experience they like to see.
“I hope that the twist I took was unique enough that people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s another piece about Millennials, I’m so sick of reading this stuff,’” said D’Agostino, a graduate student in Writing and Publishing.
D’Agostino’s article, an antidote to what she saw as a glut of pieces written by Baby Boomers and Gen Xers telling her generation to quit whining, was published online on March 28. As of this writing, it’s gotten 207 comments and has boomeranged around social media platforms.
“I was hoping to reel people in, and it seems to have done that,” she said.
D’Agostino and her classmates have spent some of the semester looking at the state of the magazine publishing industry, but the focus of the course is learning to tailor story pitches to a specific publication.
As former editor of the Globe Magazine, Althoff, an assistant professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, is uniquely qualified to guide students through the process of giving the magazine what they want.
“Being at the Globe for  years, I’m able to tell students lots of details about who its readers are, what readers have responded to in the past, which stories get a lot of web traffic and which don’t,” Althoff said.
This is the second year she has offered this kind of laser-focused, experiential publishing course; last spring and fall, her class partnered with The Culture-ist, an online magazine devoted to socially conscious travel and wellness.
But it also fits in with the broader mission of WLP, which is to form partnerships between Emerson and the wider community and let students do real-world work, Althoff said.
Other WLP classes have worked with Artists for Humanity to produce a commemorative book and with Bookbuilders of Boston to create a catalogue for its May 9 New England Book Show.
In addition to the pitches the students and Althoff come up with, each student in the class is required to complete a 650-word essay on spec for the magazine’s Connection column.
“[We try to] bring students a taste of the kinds of projects they’ll be working on once they’re working professionals, and also bringing the Emerson name into the publishing community,” Althoff said.
Matt King, an MFA student in the program, got a real-world deadline when he pitched a story about the neuroscience of friendship.
The class learned that the magazine editor had a “friendship” issue in the works early on in the semester, when they visited the Globe offices for the first time. During a brainstorming session, Althoff came up with the brain chemistry angle, and time passed.
Then one Friday afternoon, King got a message asking if he’d write the neuroscience story. And produce a draft the following Friday.
“So it was a scramble,” he said. “It’s also a complicated topic.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t a ton of research on the science of friendship, so King had to do some fairly deep diving to find sources for his article. Luckily, the magazine’s new articles editor, Michael Fitzgerald, had a background in science writing and was a good person to work with on on an article like this, King said.
“It was interesting to see him kind of poke at some of my sentences that I thought were clear,” he said.
King said he submitted maybe four or five drafts total of “The Brain Benefits of Having Buddies,” with only one major rewrite. One thing he wrestled with a bit was the tone of the piece.
Fitzgerald wanted the story to have a strong personal voice and asked King to open with a little personal anecdote rather than just jump into the meat of the piece. Some of the back and forth was about how far to take the joke throughout the piece.
“The style is kind of more informal and conversational, and I think they like to play up the ‘I’ as much as possible,” King said.
“Learning how to adapt it was a challenging assignment for me, because I haven’t written in that way before.”
Fitzgerald could not be reached before Emerson Today’s deadline.
Just this past week, the magazine published online a column by Paul Haney, another MFA student in Althoff’s class, about how Boston’s pricey rental market is forcing some young couples to move in together within weeks or months of knowing each other.
But in addition to all the “yesses,” Althoff said, her students have been hearing plenty of “nos,” just like they would as freelancers in the publishing world.
With this semester’s course, she said, the hope is that students will have built a portfolio so they can continue to pitch, and write for, the Globe.
“I’m really pleased with the student work this semester,” Althoff said. “They’ve really embraced the challenge and they’ve been so determined.”