Zachary Petit, best known out of print as Zac Petit, is a freelance journalist, copywriter, editor, photo dabbler, and a lifelong literary and design nerd. He served as the content director of the HOW+PRINT brands, editor-in-chief of the National Magazine Award-winning publication PRINT, managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, and executive editor of several related newsstand titles. Petit is the author of The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work and Thrive On Your Own Terms (Fall 2015), Treat Ideas Like Cats (Fall 2016), and co-author of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Northern Kentucky—right across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents both worked a lot as a kid, so I had plenty of time to get into trouble when not writing (bad) little short stories or creating makeshift graphic novels, like The Adventures of Worm and Maggot. As a family, we took road trips to National Parks around the country, which bred in me a love of the country’s park system, as well as the open road and travel in general (and the Indiana Jones movies—we had one of those old vans with a tiny TV in it, and the amount of times that I’ve seen the Indiana Jones trilogy is incalculable. No matter what type of media you’re consuming, you’re consuming a story—and that works itself deep into your veins in the best of ways, especially if you go into the creative/writing field later in life).
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Everyone (well, anyone who does not suffer from a profound and unbecoming sense of overconfidence) feels imposter syndrome, and it can be debilitating. Believe in your ideas, and stand behind them like a shield. If they’re good, you’re invincible. Also: If you don’t speak up for yourself, very few others will. Guide the conversation.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Say ‘yes’ to every opportunity.” This is a piece of advice I was given early on, but as I discovered, it can lead to severe burnout. I think of this as a shotgun approach to professional life, versus a much more tactical style. Carefully planning and strategizing your career around goals you want to work toward is a far better approach than saying “yes” to everything that comes your way. When you spread yourself too thin, there is often little left. Remember: As has been said by sharper minds than mine: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
Also: Creativity exists in symbiosis with life; if you don’t remember to live apart from the page, canvas, or screen, there’s a good chance your creativity might wind up on life support.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Now that 2020 has concluded, I’m still feeling out of 2021. Check back with me in 2022!
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I’ve always obsessively persevered. The writing field is one that won’t necessarily swallow you whole so much as it may give you a lethargic glance as you knock on the door before lazily going back to watching TV. It’s hard to get noticed and break-in, but it’s entirely possible for anyone to do it. You just need to know the right way in—the right way to pitch ideas, the correct people to pitch them to, and so on. All of that can be found in books and online. It’s the drive to go through with it—and keep hammering away at it—that turns you pro. (Quasi shameless plug! If you’re interested in magazine/freelance writing, I hear there’s a good guide out there for that …)
What is your morning routine? Please include the time you wake up.
I think it’s a crime that we live in a 9-5 society because that is simply not structured around when so many people are at their best. I definitely am not. I begin smashing the snooze button at 7:45 a.m. and eventually get out of bed around 8:30, with a goal of being showered and at my desk by 9 or 9:15 am (I work from home). I’m never hungry in the morning, but force myself to ingest some sort of breakfast bar as sustenance to get my brain wheels slowly turning. Mornings are devoted to administrative tasks, with the more creative stuff happening in the early afternoons. I long to be a morning person, but think one of the best things you can do is to figure out your peak creative hours—and then strategize your schedule around them, should your job allow you to do so.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Hiking! As I noted above, I’ve always loved National Parks, but only in the past couple of years have I truly embraced hiking and camping as a poultice to a life that is largely spent hunched over my computer in the digital world. I devote one day a week to a substantial hike and find it cathartic in terms of clearing my head and helping both my mental and physical health. This is also a practice that has dovetailed nicely with quarantine—where I’ve been scheming to revisit the National Parks of my youth and hike them properly with my best friend. (Versus my dad pulling up for a quick photo, and hopping back in the car.)
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I thrive on to-do lists (well, perhaps a better way to put it would be that I am absolutely dependent on them). I have work lists, personal lists, lists of movies to watch, lists of books that I’ve read. I love the order of a good list. It helps keep an unkempt mind on task and operating as close to maximum capacity as possible.
I’d also add that I believe strongly in the art of procrastination. It’s a quirk that after every small task, etc., I complete, I flick over to a blog or Reddit for a few seconds as a pressure release valve/micro reward. Of course, if I’m really in the zone and cranking on a project, I’ll get lost in it for hours and hours on end—and that’s when I feel most alive. But everything else is absolutely necessary to get to that point. No exceptions.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I look at my life in terms of certain eras of books—as a kid, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series began to subtly teach me the (highly addictive!) art of storytelling (and my life would go full circle when I got to interview him for Writer’s Digest magazine many years later). As a teenager, Kurt Vonnegut’s books showed me that fiction can have a dark, witty—and ultimately poignant—side, and how deeply one can connect with a piece of writing in the right moment. In college, the works of New Journalism authors helped open my mind to the incredible ways that nonfiction can be framed. And these days, I’m after whatever nonfiction I can find that seems more unbelievable than even the best fiction. As a writer, those are the stories and people I gravitate toward.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I do! As a quote nerd, I once compiled them into a book from HOW Books/Simon & Schuster called Treat Ideas Like Cats. But if I had to isolate a few, for writing, a favorite would be: “Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” —George Singleton
For life: “The truth is, it’s not the idea, it’s never the idea, it’s always what you do with it.” —Neil Gaiman
For death: “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” —Chuck Palahniuk