I first met Shani Silver two years ago when my favorite home decor magazine Domino announced they were looking for freelance writers on Instagram. I sent in 3 story ideas right away and crossed my fingers hoping that I’d hear back.
I felt like I’d won the lottery when Shani, Editor of Digital Content at the time, responded to my e-mail (and everyone else’s) after just a few hours. Even though I didn’t get published (yet), we stayed in touch.
Shani’s generosity changed my perspective because it made me realize that some dreams are just a click away, if you can get people’s attention.
That is where Shani comes in.
Her resume is so good, it sounds fake. She has either written or edited digital content for Domino, Refinery29, Free People, xoJane and Keep. Shani is currently Director of Copy and Brand Voice at Spring, the startup that will change how you shop. This Brooklynite has been headhunted by the companies that everyone wants to work for because she knows how to write the headlines that will entice you to click and read.
Here is my chat with the fast talking (and funny) lawyer from Texas, turned writer, who is one of the most sought after editors in New York.
Domino: Your Guide to a Stylish Home. Edited by Jessica Romm Perez & Shani Silver.
DOMINO: THE BOOK AND THE SPACE
How does it feel to see your name on the cover? A lot of things. I am so happy this project came into fruition. It was a challenge to make it happen in 3 months but everyone at Simon & Schuster and Melcher Media were amazing.
What do you want readers to take away? We chose our favorite photos that we hope will inspire people to take that small action they’ve been thinking about. You don’t have to do a huge remodel to love your space. Get a new chair, or slipcover it, or a piece of art, or refinish something existing in your house for a dime. We spend a lot of time in our spaces and we should be really happy in them! (Snag the book here.)
Describe the Domino offices. It wasn’t what you’d think it would be. It’s not a gorgeous lofty space with gorgeous furniture; it was people on the grind. It was boxes of stuff on the ground everywhere because our conference room was also our photo studio. I remember walking in the first time and being surprised. What you had was individual desks decorated in people’s individual style. One girl had half of a palm tree painted on her wall because they were thinking they wanted to do that all over the office so they were testing it. It was always a work in progress and full of creativity. I like when it’s more about that work than the outward appearance.
FROM LAWYER TO WRITER?
Why did you switch from law to writing? I started writing as a kid but I was told “You can’t be a writer because you won’t make any money, so you have to be a doctor or a lawyer. You can pick one of those two things and that’s it.” I took that really bad advice. The day after I passed the bar, the recession started. Things got really difficult for lawyers. I was living in Chicago working in this horrible job where I did everything from representing my boss in court, to answering their phone, and taking customer service calls. I was having a tough time. Everyone was getting laid off. Then I got laid off from a job I hated, and I thought “If I am going to have a tough time keeping a job I hate, it is going to be just as tough to find a job that I love”, so I decided to do just that.
Did you have inklings that you were going in the wrong direction in law school? I really loved law school. That was the hard part. But practicing law is absolutely nothing like law school. I think that one thing law schools can do for their students is infuse a lot more honesty in recruiting and in the way that they teach. During my very first internship, I was working for a lawyer, and on my first day she said to me “Have an out!” and I thought to myself “I don’t even have an in yet!”
How did you know you were good at writing? I’ve just always known. I can’t sing. I’m terrible at sports. I’m awful at math. You just know where your skills lie based on your aptitude for that, whether you feel good when you’re doing them, and when you get good results. I always got great personal feedback. It’s always been my thing. I think finding that thing is hard. I think using that thing to earn your living is really hard. I didn’t want to be a lawyer forever. It was a miserable time. I was unemployed for about four months. At that time I was selling vintage clothes on eBay to pay my rent and bills (and that is a nice living let me tell you). It was a hustle but it could be done. The Refinery29 job was posted online and I saw it and I said “That’s my job and I’m getting it”. I think I e-mailed the Editor-in-Chief Christene every Monday morning at 9 am until she hired me. At one point she was like “Shani. It’s ok. Calm down”. She didn’t write that I got the job, but I was relentless until I did. I was similarly relentless with law school. I emailed the Dean of Admissions every Monday until I got in there too.
Would you recommend that approach? I mean, don’t be a crazy pain if you can avoid it, but I was more afraid of not getting the job than being a pain. It was a hard job to get. There were a lot of girls, and guys, in fashion that wanted the job. Everybody wanted it. That was my first my first job in editorial, as a writer, and as an editor. We did our own social media back then, we did our own Photoshop too. It was very hands on.
THE SECRET OF SUCCESS
Describe a typical day at Refinery29. O God. Well, they were about 14 hours long. I was working from my little home office in Chicago. I was publishing between 6 and 10 times a day by myself. It was a lot of work but because it was so hands on, and touched so many different parts of the business. I got a wealth of experience. I burnt the hell out. You can’t work 14 hour days for 2 years, and work on weekends too, and have no life. But I do recommend taking on a really big role like that if you’re going to be in editorial because you need to know what it’s like to produce a really large amount of content, and how to support that content socially and through email. I consider that an education.
What has been the secret to Refinery29’s success? They have a lot of really talented people. Really talented leadership. A really talented sales team. You have to keep the lights on. You have to make sure you do innovative sales programs. The growth that they have seen is exponential. I remember the small office they had when I visited them the first time, and I’ve seen their current space and it’s huge. I love that they are my Alma mater for sure. Christene taught me how to write for digital content. Connie Wang taught me how to write headlines. They were the first people that took what I was doing, and taught me how to package it for digital. It just grew from there. You take every bit of advice, and every bit of traffic data you can get to assess what’s working. It’s worth learning, if this is how you want to make your living.
WHY SHOULD I RUN YOUR STORY?
What makes a good headline? No clichés whatsoever. Clichés are phrases you have heard before. Don’t use anything familiar. Always use something different, something fresh. It has to be relatable, something you would say in a text to a friend to get them to read something. If you wouldn’t say your headline out loud to a friend, do not publish it. If anything about it makes you feel off, or unsure or unconfident, it shouldn’t be your headline. The coolest thing about headlines in digital is that they evolve with the time, with slang, sentence structure, abbreviation and familiarity. I don’t think anyone is writing better headlines than Refinery29, even now. I like that certain sites do a great job of keeping it personal and I think that Refinery29 does that really well. Mashable does a great job. The bigger you are then the more you can test. If your site or your blog doesn’t have AB capability testing, then you’re not going to be able to tell which headline is doing better. Are you even pulling in enough traffic to get enough data to test? If you are, then you should. If you’re not, learn in other ways. If you are leading your headline with “How to”, maybe that isn’t what your audience wants to read. Always be experimenting. Don’t ever get complacent. If you hate what you’re writing or you’re creating, you are probably creating crap. So take a step back. It’s ok to stop, and take a step back and think about what you’re doing. I don’t think we’re raised that way in digital; to stop and reassess. It’s always “more, more, more” because the sun is going to come up and new digital content has to be there! I think taking a breath and taking a chill approach towards digital content is something I haven’t seen a lot of people do. It’s something I try to do as much as I can.
What makes a great pitch? If you are pitching to an editor, you should be making her job easier. She has to write digital content whether you write to her or not. Why should your email take precedence over someone else’s? Don’t send me a generic press release. Don’t send me the standard “just launched…blah blah blah”. Tell me why I need to write about it. If you can write the headline for me, or at least start the idea for me, it’s far more likely that I’m going to write that story. What’s more enticing to you? “Early 20th Century Brownstone remodeled in Brooklyn” or “This Brownstone was remodeled in 2 months.” If speed is the thing, then focus on the speed, if budget is the thing, then focus on the budget. If your house used to be a bread factory, tell me that. Tell me why I should run your story. Tell me why it will be interesting to my reader, and that will move you to the front of the pack.
Do you worry that there will be reader burn out? No. I don’t think we are ever going to stop reading digital content. Those of us who work in digital content, and have been working in it since the beginning, know that the one thing that is consistent is change. Always evolve. Your subject lines for emails used to be super creative to stand out in an inbox, dazzling the reader. If you go on MailChimp and read their current trends, in order to get your e-mails opened, just tell people what’s inside. Point blank. If you try to do something fancy, they’ll ignore you. That is so counter intuitive to what I’ve always done.
PUT A SPRING IN YOUR SWIPE
How will Spring change the way we shop? It is simply the better product that exists. Anytime you are changing a game, it takes time for people to warm up to it. There is no reason not to shop on it. You can go on Urban Outfitters and buy a bra for 15$ and pay 7$ in shipping, or you can buy the exact same thing on Spring for free shipping and free returns (US Only). I don’t know why anyone would use anything else.
What does it mean to be the Director of Copy and Brand Voice at Spring? It pertains to all aspects of the business, so we are writing everything from emails, to push notifications, to copy, to marketing materials, to the app store, basically anything with words comes from one essential place. We want to stay consistent across all 1,500 brands. What I like is that this is one of the few places that have separated the day to day grind of the social posting from the creation of the content. Usually it’s the same person doing both at the same time. I think a lot of burnout happens. They never take a step back. At Spring the Social Media Manager gets a brief, like “We are posting on this topic, on this day” and I write in the creative and the graphic designer puts in the image. You’ve got people who are specialists in their field who are all contributing to the management of social media. The same thing happens with email and push. We write everything. The reason I like being a Brand Voice Director, is that you get to define the voice. We have to take an approach of “What does the customer want to hear? How do we want to say it to them such that we don’t sound like a generic?”
How? You try really really hard all the time and you test and test and test. Lots of data. That’s our field. I write so that other people can enjoy.
You are very creative and also very analytical. Yes. I consider my brain business on the left, party on the right.
BRAVERY AND EMBRACING CHANGE
You seem to change positions every year or two. Is that on purpose? Are you always looking, or do they come to you? Every way. Twice they came to me. Free People came to me. They recruited me out from Refinery29 and then Keep came after me when I was at Free People. I had only been there 9 months and I would not recommend leaving a company after only 9 months, but they made me an offer I could not refuse. I was offered significant professional and personal benefits that I could not give up. It seemed low risk and I worked at Keep for longer than I worked anywhere else. It was great, it was fun, and I learned a lot. I was a very significant part of a small very hard working Marketing team and I loved being there with them. When I was ready to move on, I got the sense that it was time to challenge myself in a new way. When I saw the Domino job, I knew again, “That’s my job, I’m going to Domino”. Getting that job was absolutely insane. I was so happy and thrilled to join that team, as everybody that joins that team is. It was completely different company than Domino One, it was startup. It wasn’t owned by Condé Nast. That was a wild ride. It was so fun; it was so creative every day. There are so many talented people working at that company. I left Domino when there were some changes in leadership, and some directional things that weren’t quite what I had in mind. The time to leave sort of reveals itself sometimes. I would love to find a place where I could say “I am here for the foreseeable future, for ten years”, but I don’t think that’s realistic in my line of work. I think that companies change too often, their needs change too often, roles evolve too often. I like adding new skills to my skill set, there is no job that I’ve had that I didn’t wish I had. It’s all given me a wealth of learning and experience. I’m very lucky.
How do you approach your day and your job? Work really hard. Be organized. Be aware that that if you are in editorial or work for a startup or in my case both, you have to be really flexible. You’ll work really hard on something and it will get entirely scrapped. Be flexible. Be understanding. Work really hard at not losing your creativity and your passion while you are working this hard. That is very hard to do. There is a lot of burnout in digital content because there is so much that you are asked to create, all of the time. It can get very hard on your creativity and on your passion. I’m not the kind of girl that’s going to be in the office until 11 PM, but I am the type of girl that checks her email at 6 AM. Figure out what works for you, and not just what works for everyone else. Identifying how you work best, and how you stay inspired, is going to be the key to being day to day happy.
Are you ever afraid of change? You can’t be scared. You have to be a little bit brave. You also have to remember that absolutely no one is going to take care of your career except for you. No one is going to give you more money, or the title that you think you deserve, or the responsibilities that you think you deserve. No one is going to put you in a company that you are really inspired by. If I have to leave a place, I leave. I don’t stay miserable for no reason. If I see the resume of someone who has been at the same company since they graduated, I would ask myself “What was the reason that you didn’t seek out a different experience, or a different perspective?” If you want to make a change, then just start looking to make it. There is nothing wrong with looking for a new job, at looking at the landscape of who is hiring, for who, for what, and why? How much are they paying? What is the salary range that you are looking for? Talk to people you trust. Talk to people who will have coffee with you. Ask mentors. Meet mentors. The fear is a waste of time because no one is going to make your career better but you.
How do you stay generous and not feel taken advantage of? I think it’s a personality thing. I don’t want to put badness out in the editorial world. I have to take a lot of it and I think we can do better than that. You don’t have to totally ignore this massive pitch I sent you. The worst it ever got was that people would ignore complete stories that I had written, that had been approved, and then just never ran them, and they never paid me for them. There is a lot of stuff that happens in the world, and if you can be someone that does not contribute to the negative, be that. Never ignore people. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for them. In digital content, no matter how busy we are, no matter what is in your inbox, there is always room for a human connection.
WHERE IDEAS COME FROM
How do you decide what you are going to write for yourself? I write about stuff that I know, so a lot of my writing is about dating, or being a single person over 30, life as a feminist, or life as a Jewish Texan democrat who doesn’t really fit in where she came from. The stories tell you that they need to be written. They usually show up. I usually start with a headline, and then I sit with that until I have time to write it. Right now I have “10 reasons I’d rather be 34 than 24”. A lot of that comes from the fact that I work with a really young team, for a really young company, and this is the first time I have a significant age difference with the people I work with. At the same time the people that I work for are a bit older than me so I’m sort of in the middle. Seeing the juxtaposition of what their lives are like at 24, versus what my life was like at 24, you could not pay me any amount of money to go back! I also have “How to go to restaurant by yourself in Paris”. I wrote “How to go to a restaurant by yourself” and this is the second iteration of this one. I just got back from a trip to Paris a few weeks ago and I went alone.
Have you ever regretted anything that you’ve written? Yes, but not such that I would feel really bad or want it to come down. There is stuff that I wrote for xoJane, or stuff that I wrote a long time ago that just isn’t me anymore. Or it was just poor writing. I read a lot of the stuff from xoJane that I thought was really good at the time that did really well socially, and I think my style is better now. Thank goodness I am continuing to evolve as a writer. It’s also your own personal history. I thought I would have more regret when I started to write about Trump and feminism because I don’t feel educated enough to write as an expert feminist to other feminists. I feel like I don’t watch enough news. I don’t feel that I have a completely formed opinion of my own feminism, such that I can write about it, but then I just say to myself “Relax and say what you can say”. When I don’t feel that I’m enough, I think that a whole part of being a woman is feeling that you’re not enough, I say “comment on that”! So I just say what I have to say, and if you don’t like it, then don’t read it.
They say empowered women empower women. Thank you Shani for generously sharing your tips & tricks. I look forward to reading your book one day soon, and perhaps sharing oysters at Liverpool House. I love that you love my city, as much as I love yours. #foodandwineloversforever
Check out Shani’s hilarious essays on Medium.