Writing For Fun And Profit
August 25, 2008 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Writing Filter: How do I get published, or to be exact, how do I network with editors, so I can do some freelance writing on the side?

I was a campus paper staff member, and I got two articles published in a local alternative weekly. Now that I'm relocating to Montreal, I'd like to continue to write little '$25 an article' style jobs with an eye to making a side business to the part time writing thing and building a broader range.

I have a flair for witty how tos, writing about art (ie, gallery show = awesome), and doing bland filler articles on the topic of the editor’s choice. I write for fun, and I adore taking a potentially boring subject and jazzing it up. What would this sort of talent work well with?

People tell me that things like travel magazines and websites will pay for articles, but I haven’t the foggiest idea about going and pitching myself to these people. How do I assemble a portfolio of clippings? How do I track down English language publications who want articles? People looking for web content that actually pay?

What, as a novice freelance journalist, should I keep in mind? I’m sort of attracted to the idea of doing what I love for money. Now how to make editors think I'm awesome?
posted by Phalene to Work & Money (20 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I've never sold a single word but I had a hair up my butt to do so at one point. As I recall there is a big book published annually that is basically a listing of every magazine, what sort of articles they want (if any), how to submit to them, what they pay, addresses, etc.
posted by ian1977 at 1:33 PM on August 25, 2008

Back when I was an editor buying articles, nothing screamed amateur louder than a pitch that was utterly wrong for the publication I worked for. You can write the world's most interesting and entertaining article about, say, guinea pigs, but if you pitch it to Cat Fancy they'll never read your emails again. Meeting deadlines also makes editors very happy. Spot-free grammar and spelling are great, but not nearly as important as a compelling story.

Other than that, I'd say it's just a matter of persistence. If your stuff is good you should be able to sell it.
posted by Camofrog at 1:41 PM on August 25, 2008

One of the best pieces of advice I've heard about freelance journalism (which is what it sounds like you're talking about) is don't write the article first. Especially since you've got a couple of articles already, what you want to do is pitch an idea to an editor, using your published articles as proof that you can write the article you're proposing to them. If you have an idea, about which you have done in-depth research, you can write a number of articles about it, each one focused in a manner specific to the publication you're trying to sell it to.

Particularly helpful would be to find out, as far ahead of time as possible, if there are any issues coming up about a certain theme. You can then pitch an idea to the editor that fits in with that theme, and if you're early enough, he'll probably give you a shot, because editors often have to go out and ask writers they are familiar with if they can do an article that fits with whatever the upcoming theme is. If you pitch your idea before an editor has done that, that results in that much less work for the editor to do.
posted by Caduceus at 1:44 PM on August 25, 2008

mediabistro has a bunch of articles on pitching for magazines. (may not have much information on the local market, however).
posted by ejaned8 at 1:53 PM on August 25, 2008

ian1977: "I've never sold a single word but I had a hair up my butt to do so at one point. As I recall there is a big book published annually that is basically a listing of every magazine, what sort of articles they want (if any), how to submit to them, what they pay, addresses, etc."

Writer's Market.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:59 PM on August 25, 2008

Caduceus hits the main points. Call an editor with a story pitch, then ask if you can send some clips. You'll need a few. Note: In your pitch, avoid phrases like "gallery show = awesome", "bland filler", and "jazzing it up".

When you first start freelancing for a publication, it's extremely unlikely that they'll say, "Hey, how's about you write about _____!" You'll have to have an idea and sell it. Comb your local alt-weekly, or other local publications, for two things: 1) Events/topics you'd like to write about, and 2) check to see if anyone in that publication is already on that beat. Quickest way to be shot down is if they've already got a veteran writing the things you want to write about.

In other words, look for a need and try to fill it.

Craigslist is also a good source for short-term, low- (or no-) paying gigs for websites/online magazines no one's ever heard of. You won't win any awards, and you won't make any money, but you'll be able to build up your clips by publishing with them.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:59 PM on August 25, 2008

Also, in my opinion, The Writer's Market is about of much use as books they sell on how to win the lottery.

You need clips, and you need to pitch to an editor by phone. The Writer's Market book might give you an idea of publications in your area, but it's not going to help you in any concrete way, and you'll probably find more information online.

Just an opinion. But spend the money on something more worthwhile, I say.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:02 PM on August 25, 2008

I'd offer one more piece of advice: Networking with editors is great, but networking with other working writers may be even better. I'm an on-the-side freelancer, and I got my first few gigs by first taking on jobs to help out writers I knew (sometimes credited, sometimes not), and then by getting recommended by them for jobs they couldn't take on for whatever reason. I continued building connections from there, and now have a nice sideline going (and a book coming out in the fall).
posted by j-dawg at 2:05 PM on August 25, 2008

yeah, writer's market sucks. it was probably useful in the days before the internet, but now not so much. the key to finding gigs is networking.

i took a writing class with a semi-famous in the genre editor. she liked what i was doing, passed my name to her editor friend, who published me. then teacher/editor published me. i could have pursued it more, but writing is hard and i am lazy.

when i was in grad school, one of my profs was also the EiC for the weekly entertainment magazine/insert of the county's newspapers. he was always in desparate need of writers (for no pay). so i did that for a while, partly for bylines, partly as a favor to him. had i wanted to, i could have extended my network through him, but i gave up on writing.

so, yes, networking.

ask your paper's advisor if he or she knows anyone in your market who might need writers. see if there are any writer's conferences or classes in your area.

posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:18 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

FreelanceSuccess.com is a much better use of $75 US than Mediabistro.com, if you have to choose one. (I'm a member of both, but I find the FreelanceSuccess "how to pitch" reports and updates much more useful.)

That said, both sites are US-centric. I don't know if there's a Canadian equivalent.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:38 PM on August 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Find a publication to whom you can pitch one of your article ideas. If you have a flair for writing "how to" articles about complex or dull topics in an entertaining and easy-to-understand fashion, browse through the latest copy of Writer's Market at the various trade publications, industry-specific newsletters, and other niche market papers and magazines.Then write a great query letter and address it to the proper editor (do not address it "Dear Sir" or "To Whom It May Concern.")

In case it's any help to you, here is the query letter that sold my very first freelance article. Looking through Writer's Market, I found a magazine called Nuts and Volts that was something of an electronics hobbyist publication.

"For some of us, a $10 Timex is enough to tell us we’re late for work, or that the supermarket is about to close. But for others, accuracy in time is paramount: scientists, meteorologists, oceanographers, computer specialists. And then there’s the average horologist, for whom accurate time is just a hobby, yet they treat it with the fervor of a nuclear physicist, fretting over lost fractions of milliseconds. Such time-fanatics are constantly scouring every possible avenue, trying to find ways to construct better and more accurate timepieces.

Shortwave radio enthusiasts have long been aware of WWV, the US time signal station operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado, and CHU, the Canadian equivalent in Ottawa. What makes CHU different, other than the bi-lingual time announcements, is that seconds 31 through 39 of each minute are broadcast in Bell 103 compatible 300-baud modem tones. So, while NIST timecode requires very specialized hardware to interpret, CHU's timecode can be received directly via a serial port after demodulation. Simply put, with a basic set of instructions, a shortwave receiver, and a modem, one can build his own radio clock.

My proposed article (approx. 2500 words) would include step-by-step directions on assembling a "Gadget Box" so that the reader can build his own "World's Most Accurate Clock." In addition to the "how-to" building instructions, I will also include Internet resources where free drivers for the clock can be downloaded. I could also provide a brief history of CHU as a sidebar.

Scanning the Classified Ads in the past several issues of Telling Time, I note that many readers are anxious to locate an old Heathkit "World's Most Accurate Clock", which has been out of production since 1994. I believe that many of your readers would welcome the opportunity to build their own radio clock, and at a fraction of the $300+ Heathkit used to charge."
posted by Oriole Adams at 3:05 PM on August 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Please don't pitch by phone. Find the right pub, get their submission guidelines, and follow those.
posted by futility closet at 3:11 PM on August 25, 2008

Seconding don't pitch by phone or in person.

A portfolio of your clips is a great way to get yourself noticed. Photo copy your clips, scale, cut and crop them onto one page each. Type of up a one-page letter telling the editor about yourself and pitching a few stories, then stuff it in an envelope and mail it to your local outlets.

Editors care about punctuality and tight prose. You should stress your understanding of both.

You should also be willing to work for free, or at least for movie tickets, etc. Most alt-weeklies are sinking ships nowadays with budgets only for their star writers. You should still do the work though to flesh out your clips portfolio and to establish yourself as someone reliable an editor can turn to.
posted by wfrgms at 4:18 PM on August 25, 2008

journalismjobs.com sometimes has postings for freelances and, of course, craigslist
posted by meta_eli at 4:21 PM on August 25, 2008

Also, there's plenty of money to be made in trade journalism. It's just that the subject is often is a) boring and b) requires some prior technical knowledge.
posted by meta_eli at 4:24 PM on August 25, 2008

Another vote for not pitching by phone. Identify a market you want to work with, research it by looking at past issues of relevant publications, write a concise pitch, and send it to the appropriate editors following the guidelines posted on each publication's web site or in the Writer's Market (probably available free at your library).

I published a lot in trade magazines, and that's what worked for me. A similar approach got me a book deal. Once editors were familiar with me they would call me with ideas, or I could call them, but it started with written communications, which makes sense, since you're trying to convince them you can write.

As for what market to aim at, look at your own reading habits. It's far easier to drum up enthusiasm for a topic you're already interested in than it is to write fascinating copy about, say, demand-side management policies in the electrical industry.
posted by PatoPata at 4:24 PM on August 25, 2008

I think connecting with the local alt-weekly is a great place to start. There's a timing element to getting published, also; you need to have your article in front of their editors when they happen to have space for it. Remember that alt-weeklies tend to publish on Wednesday-Thursdays so Tuesdays are not the best time to submit something since they'll be under pressure to put that week's paper to bed. Usually Thursdays and Fridays are the best days to get a submission in front of an editor. I would recommend rather than submitting clips to go ahead and write an article that you would like to publish and submit something completed. If the article's good and your timing's right it might wind up in the next week's paper. Also, I've only ever submitted articles and pitches via email and that has worked just fine.
posted by The Straightener at 4:31 PM on August 25, 2008

So this is basically what I've been doing all summer--graduating from the student press and trying to launch a part-time freelancing career.

I'll nth the not phoning part--well, at least not initially. I did this once and the guy was all "uhm, send me an email." At first I thought he was brushing me off but then I thought about it and remembered that when I was a student editor, in-person pitches really pissed me off (so did publicists who phoned me without first sending me a press release via e-mail). Volunteers would approach me all the time but I never felt comfortable giving them any assignments until they wrote me a basic outline of their pitch and I got a sense of how well they could write a simple e-mail.

People offer varying advice on this, but what's worked for me in the past is to first send an e-mail complete with my resume, cover letter, clippings, and a link to my portfolio. I then say if they're interested in hearing my pitch ideas to contact me. They almost never do. That's not the point, though--inevitably, they will skim my initial e-mail and be able to reference it later when I follow up.

And follow up I do, about 1-2 weeks later. I outline 2-3 pitch ideas that are never longer than a paragraph per pitch. I mention in this second e-mail that I will follow up with them via phone in a day or two. This gives them time to look at my writing, figure out if they want to hire me, consider my pitches, and then be prepared to either reject me (and possibly screen my calls) or welcome me to their cool club.

That's pretty much it. I have been really slow this summer at approaching publications, but I've been doing a lot of work for the only arts weekly in town, and that's enough to keep me going right now (I'm still trying to get another publication to talk to me -- persistence is key).

One ridiculously important aspect to story-pitching that's already been mentioned, but worth mentioning again: You GOTTA research the publication prior to contacting the editor. You should also be comfortable enough to think of at least one story idea. I'd recommend purchasing a few back issues so that you can do your research right (if you still have access to the school library, you should check the archives there first before shelling out any money).

If you're thinking of approaching art weeklies, Facebook is your best friend. Seriously, anything cool that is happening in your city is BOUND to have a Facebook event. Check out the events that your scene-iest friends will be attending. Join any and all local arts-related Facebook groups so that you'll be notified of upcoming events. Pitch these events to the arts weekly editors. This is pretty much the only reason why I use Facebook anymore.

I'm still new to the game--been only doing it for 4 months, now--but in that short span of time I've learned a lot. Mefimail me if you got any questions.
posted by Menomena at 8:22 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay -- you know the people who have been tut-tutting Writer's Market? Don't listen to them. You know why?

You know the other people above who have been saying, "no, don't use the phone, find out who to pitch to and write them"? Writer's Market is how you do precisely that.

This is not to say that the Internet isn't valuable either. I've gotten a couple ideas for articles I'm working on myself, all simply because I fell over a travel site that accepts submissions -- and the same site didn't have any pieces on a travel destination that I know very, very well.

Yes, you can also use the Internet to find individual magazines' web sites, dig through their sites to find the submission guideslines, dig through their mastheads to find the proper contact, try to find the contact page to get the right address, etc. Or, you can have all that information already at your fingertips in a print copy of Writer's Market, and also discover other magazines you didn't know existed and find all their information as well. The information in Writer's Market is information you can find online as well, yes. But the information in Writer's Market is all in one place, so you can find your way to it much faster.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:34 AM on August 26, 2008

If you can get an agent, get one:
Even if you are versed in contracts and are competent to manage your own paperwork, agents have the networking and the infrastructure to do this stuff for you.

I'm going to respectfully contradict this bit of advice. At the level of a trying to sell your first major piece to a periodical, the "contract" is pretty straight-forward: the publication pays X amount per word, and either pays on acceptance or on publication. They either buy all rights, or allow the writer to retain the rights. That's about it. Nothing that you need to give 10 percent of your 12 cents a word to an agent for. When you're negotiating your first book deal, that's when you might want to think about getting an agent.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:49 AM on August 26, 2008

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