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originally found this site after searching for
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issues and now look forward to Fridays (Juliet Wallace,
Guide to Freelance Writing
by Jenna Glatzer
Table of contents
“The Big Idea”
Okay. So you’ve figured out that you would like to write. Unfortunately, so
have about eight gazillion other people on this planet. Therefore, you have to
stand out from the crowd. You have to sparkle. How do you do this? Simple. It
all starts with “The Big Idea.” The first secret you must learn in
this funny business is that you don’t actually have to write the whole
article/story/editorial/etc. to get a job. In fact, only bright green novices
attempt to write the whole thing before selling it. What you do need, however,
is the IDEA for the great story. You will use this great idea to convince
editors to pay you exorbitant amounts of money via a proposal letter (called a
“query letter.” But you’ll learn about that in a minute.)
So, where will you find this Big Idea? Well, you’ve heard that wise old adage,
“write what you know.” That’s a wonderful mantra for finding your
jumping-off point. You don’t need to stick to “what you know” for the
specific focus of your story, but tap into your already huge vat of knowledge to
find the story’s basis. This is how you will become an expert. Experts are in
demand. People with “stories” aren’t. What you have to do is sneak your
stories into your areas of expertise. Example: let’s say your hobbies and
interests include fishing, watching talk shows, and traveling. Good! You are a
potential expert in those areas. Jot these things down. Now comes the fun part:
The biggest mistake you can make in pitching your story is being too general.
Never, ever send a letter to the editor suggesting “an article about
fishing.” Not even “an article about fishing in Florida.” This vagueness
is not appropriate for short writing. In general, you will be expected to write
somewhere between 800 and 2000 words on your topic. You couldn’t possibly tell
us “all about fishing” in 2000 words. What you could do, however, is give us
“a comparison of twelve different lures used to catch sailfish.” Or “the
pros and cons of joining a fishing club.” Or even “how the moon can tell you
if it’ll be a good fishing day.”
So… here’s your first assignment. Get out your trusty notebook. (If you
don’t have one, stop reading and get one. Right now.) On the first page, write
down a list of any and all topics that interest you. It’s okay to be general
here. Need some ideas to get you started?
Think through your whole day. Don’t neglect anything. What do you do from the
moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep? You turn off your alarm
clock. (An article about alarm clocks disrupting valuable sleep stages! Or
waking up to music versus waking up to that annoying beeping sound. Or the
optimal number of times to press the “snooze” button.) You brush your teeth.
(Article: “What all those touted ingredients—fluoride, peroxide, baking
soda—really do for your teeth.”) You take a shower. Maybe with your
significant other. Lucky you. (“Romantic showers for two.”)
Moving on. You go to work. This is the most obvious area of expertise. Let’s
say you’re a secretary. “How ergonomic office equipment can save you from
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an achy back, and a stiff neck.” “How to avoid
screaming at your boss when he’s a total idiot.” “Five couples (or
ex-couples) share their wisdom about dating in the office.” Think about what
cover story would entice you to pay three dollars for a magazine. You don’t
have to have the knowledge to actually write the article yet. You just have to
know you can get this information later.
Next, you come home. What happens? Do you have kids? Great! A wealth of article
ideas. You could write about childcare agencies, potty training, decoding
teenage slang, teaching table manners… you’re getting the idea now, right?
Run with it!
Write at least one page of general topics that interest you, then weed out the
most interesting ones. Narrow it down to three or four. Then write those three
or four topics on top of brand new pages. Now fill up those pages with specific
article angles. Just write. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t judge. Just write
whatever pops into your head. If you need motivation, play it like a game of “Scattergories.”
Set a timer for ten minutes. See how many ideas you can jot down before the
Keep in mind that there are markets for almost any conceivable topic. Don’t
limit yourself to the headlines you’d read in “Vogue” and “Good
Housekeeping.” Between newspapers, consumer magazines, trade magazines, e-zines,
tabloids, literary journals, and more, you’re bound to find an appropriate
publication for your Big Idea.
You want to know more about these markets? Read on!
“Researching the Markets”
First, you’ll need a few definitions:
Consumer Magazines: These typically pay the
best. These are the types of magazines you might find in a grocery store
check-out line, convenience store, in your airplane seat pocket, or your
doctor’s office. Types of consumer mags: men’s, women’s, special interest,
inflight, teen’s, school/career, travel, health, ethnic/minority, political,
entertainment, romance, religious, etc. This is the area most writers try to
Literary Magazines: These don’t pay much,
if at all. However, what they lack in moolah, they make up for in prestige. If
you’re looking to jump-start your career as a fiction writer or poet, your
best chance at recognition may come in the form of one of these small
publications. Often published by colleges and universities, their circulation is
usually regional and low. They generally seek scholarly essays, intellectually
challenging prose, poetry, and book reviews. Publishers will be impressed if you
succeed in placing your work in one of the more prominent journals (Cimarron
Review, Ploughshares, and Story, for example.)
Trade Journals: Pay varies greatly. Any
publication that focuses on a particular occupation/industry falls into this
category. This is where your expertise can shine. There are trade journals for
almost every line of work, from art dealers to truck drivers. In general, your
written eloquence is not as important as your research and timely knowledge for
E-Zines: Pay varies greatly. Simply put, e-zines
are simply magazines on the Internet. The only major difference is that articles
for e-zines can usually run longer than print magazines. (No printing costs, so
“space” isn’t as important an issue for e-zine editors.) Most e-zines
don’t pay (except by means of a byline,) but this trend is changing. The most
popular sites (Word and Wired, for example) pay quite well. Topics stretch as
wide as your imagination.
Now that you know, learn how to contact them!
There are tons of ways to find markets that are open to freelancers. If you were
paying attention, you might notice that this very website is looking for
writers! Finding places to submit your work is easy if you know where to look.
First, the most important tool in a freelancer’s toolbox is The Writer’s
Market. Available at any major bookstore, this is an annual compilation of over
2,000 magazines, 1,000 book publishers, and even specialized markets like
greeting cards, script writing, and syndicates.
The next best tools are online. Lucky you! They’re free. Absolute
Markets is a weekly e-zine filled with market guidelines, contest listings,
and marketing tips. Freelancing4Money
puts out a jam-packed e-zine filled with freelance opportunities. Writer's
Digest has a great, searchable database of markets. Inscriptions
has a super newsletter that lists ads placed by editors on the Internet. Writing
For Dollars has a biweekly newsletter with market guidelines, and a
searchable database on the website. And Writers
Weekly lists calls for writers and market guidelines each week.
You can even run a search for “freelance writers” on any major search
engine, and you’re likely to come up with tons of listings. Try specifying if
possible; add words that fit your needs. (Example: paying markets, romance, teen
So, your next assignment is this: go back to your trusty notebook and pick out
your very favorite idea. That will now be known as your Big Idea. Pick the
markets that best fit your idea. Choose several. Find out if you can get a free
or discounted sample copy. (Writers often can, if you specify that you would
like to query them in the future.) Request writers’ guidelines if available.
It’s considered poor form to query publications that you’ve never read, or
know nothing about. Do your best to read at least one copy of whatever magazine
or journal you plan to query. Check your library for copies if you prefer not to
go broke researching.
Got it now? You have your idea, and you’ve found places to submit it? Great!
Then you'll need to learn proper protocol for writing and submitting the Killer
“The Killer Query”
The job of the query letter is to entice an editor to say, “Hey! I’d be
interested in learning more about that.” Therefore, you don’t want to spill
all your secrets and research yet. You want to tease and tantalize. Now that
you’ve got your fabulous Big Idea, your job is to condense (or expand) that
idea into two to three paragraphs.
To illustrate the components of a killer query, here is an example of one of
mine (using fictitious contact info—sorry!) that landed me the assignment:
(Always use proper formal letter format)
123 My Address
My City, State, Zip Code
Mr. Joe Shmoe
(Make SURE to get a name of the appropriate department College Life 101 editor.
Never address a letter to “editor” or “submissions.”)
123 Their Address
Their City, State, Zip Code
Today’s Date, 1999
Dear Mr. Shmoe:
(Colons are used in formal letters. Commas are used in friendly letters.)
Think company cars, expense accounts, and a spacious office with bay windows.
Who do you picture running a business this successful?
(Start the letter with a zinger that captures the essence of your proposed
article/story. Raise a question that will cause the reader to think, or give a
visual image… anything that will make him/her want to read on and find out
what you’re talking about.)
Think again. This company was the brainchild of three Boston University
sophomores whose ambitions led them to thriving careers before they had diplomas
to hang on the wall.
(The rest of the first paragraph should give a concise description of the focus
of your proposed article. Remember to tell why it’s appropriate to the
publication you’re querying. In this case, I was targeting a college magazine,
so I made sure to emphasize the relevance to their subject matter early in the
Charles Strader, Richard Skelton, and Pablo Mondal run Net One, an Internet
Service Provider. The three met in the freshmen dorms, then moved into an
apartment together. Opportunity knocked when Strader, who worked for the
university’s computer center, took a phone call from the owner of a hair
salon. She sought help designing a website; Strader volunteered, and Net One was
(Again, concisely, get a little deeper into the content of the article. What is
special about your story? In this case, I wanted to emphasize that these guys
were college buddies who started a booming business by branching out from their
“Working closely with friends to build something we believe in” is
Mondal’s favorite perk. Skelton agrees. “We have great trust in each other,
and feel that we’re all in this together.”
(Quotes aren’t necessary in a query, but it’s nice to give something
specific to show that you have done some research into your topic, and that you
have access to resources that will enable you to write the article well. I
wanted to show that I had already spoken to these guys—they happen to be
friends of mine—and that they would be upbeat and inspirational people to
interview. You can accomplish the same effect by including a few quirky facts or
survey results you’ve found out about your topic.)
Considering that their only capital was a computer and a small loan from
Strader’s father, the guys feel very successful. “We’re not millionaires,
but we have goals, and we’re following them,” says Skelton. “I think
that’s true success.” By any definition, Net One’s roster of over 50
clients ranging from colleges to Fortune 500 companies attests to their hard
work and talent.
(Look, editor. These guys are big up-and-comers! Notice I mentioned “Fortune
500 companies.” This lets the editor know quickly that these college guys
aren’t small potatoes. It neatly ties up the opening sentence, which promised
an article about guys who have a spacious office, expense accounts, and company
car. Now the editor has a reason to believe that these guys actually are that
I propose a 1,000 word profile for your “Students At Work” section.
(Shows I’ve researched their magazine. I know which section this should fit,
and I’ve read their guidelines to determine an appropriate word count.)
I am a full-time freelance writer, and my works have been recently featured
in such publications as 201 Magazine, College Bound…
(Notice I mention the most relevant magazines first. Anything you’ve had
published that might relate to the content, tone, or audience of the proposed
publication belongs here.)
…Bliss!, Working Women, and Video Librarian. Clips are enclosed.
(If you’ve never had anything published, don’t distress. Just shut up about
it. Do NOT tell anyone, “Though I’ve never been published yet, I’m a real
go-getter.” Less is more. If you keep quiet, they may not even think about the
fact that you didn’t mention your credits. Also, do not get into a diatribe
describing how you edited your high school newspaper. Just a quick list of
relevant writing background. See below for info about clips.)
I can provide documentation and interview notes for easy fact-checking, and
could submit the completed article within two weeks.
(Optional. Some people like to suggest a time frame, others let the editor do
it. In general, the editor will tell you when the article is due, regardless of
your preferences. It’s a nice touch to mention how you will research your
article. Mine was primarily dependent on interviews, but you may wish to include
the names of journals/experts you plan to quote or use for information.)
I look forward to your response.
(Obligatory polite ending. Use any variation you wish. No pleading. If you dare
type, “I promise to write a reallllly, realllly good article! Please hire
me!,” you will incur my wrath. I will hunt you down and yell at you. A lot.
Just a simple, dignified ending requesting a response.)
(Oh. Substitute your name and preferred signature ending. Unless you feel like
sending your paycheck to me, in which case, you can feel free to use my name.
Finally, clips! If you’ve had anything published—or even if you haven’t,
but you have a few good writing samples appropriate for this type of
market—include them. These samples are called “clips,” and they are used
to show the editor that you are an intelligent, insightful, funny, clever,
and/or excellent writer. Photocopy your articles straight from the publication.
Just 2-3 clips.
When you're sending queries by e-mail, you can
paste the text of your clips into the body of the e-mail (never as an
attachment!), or you can direct the editor to one or two website URLs where she
can view your articles.
“Interviews and Profiles”
I know, you feel weird about this one, right? You’re uncomfortable calling
someone or visiting a business to ask a professional to take precious time out
of their day to help you research your article.
Well, buck up, little camper, because most professionals absolutely love to be
interviewed. They jump at the chance, for a few reasons. These are the reasons
to keep in mind when you feel small and silly for asking:
-It shows you respect their opinion and/or job.
-It gives them opportunities for publicity of their business.
-It gives them the chance to brag to friends that they are quoted in a magazine.
-It gives them something to frame and show clients.
-Finally, someone is recognizing their genius and taking an interest in their
-They’re usually wannabe writers, anyway, and they will be just as happy to
pick your brain to find out how you got the job.
Before you approach experts:
Make sure you already have your questions mapped out, at least briefly. What
exactly do you need to know from this person? What could this person tell you
that no one else can? Avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Ask open-ended
questions that could lead to lengthy responses chock full of great quotes. Also,
have a synopsis of your planned article ready, so you can tell your expert what
you’re writing and how they can supplement your knowledge.
How to approach experts:
Get on the phone. Have your idea condensed into 2-3 sentences, so you can
quickly explain yourself to whomever answers the phone.
“Hello. My name is Jenna, and I’m writing an article about the rise in
vegetarianism among young women in Nevada for Youth In Nevada Magazine. I know
Dr. Spuds is a well-respected nutritionist, and I’m hoping she would be
willing to answer a few questions on this subject.”
At this point, the secretary will say, “Hold,” and make you listen to
elevator musak while she summons the boss. Or she’ll take down your number and
have Dr. Spuds call you back. Or it will be Dr. Spuds herself, and she’ll say,
“What do you want to know?”
Your options at this point are (1) Ask questions over the phone, right then and
there. Make sure you check to make sure your expert is not pressed for time
before you begin. (2) Set up a “phone date” to conduct the interview. (3)
Ask if you can meet in person. This is good—almost necessary—if the person
will be the focus of your article. If the person is being used just to add a few
quotes, you don’t have to meet in person, because it’s unlikely you’ll
ever need to write, “Dr. Spuds wrinkled her brow and stared into her pea soup
as she explained that young women are becoming more health-conscious.” (4)
Trade e-mail addresses and send over a list of questions. This approach isn’t
usually the best, because it doesn’t allow you to react to, and build from,
information you gain in answers to previous questions. However, if the
publication will not reimburse you for long distance phone calls, and you have
to conduct a lengthy interview, e-mail exchanges are acceptable. Just make sure
you specify a “due date” for the responses. Be reasonable—try to give the
expert a week to answer all your questions.
Okay, you sent out your killer query, and you got a phone call from an editor
with the big news: you got the assignment! Congratulations, you! Go on and do a
little dance of joy, then crash back to reality with your new mantra: “GET IT
IN WRITING.” Make sure the editor tells you that a written contract is
forthcoming in the near future.
If you’ve researched your market, you probably already have an idea of the pay
rate, but be sure to cover this ground in that initial phone call if the editor
fails to mention it. Important things to remember:
On Publication vs. On Acceptance
You not only need to know how much you’ll be paid, but also, when you’ll be
paid. Many markets want to pay you “on publication.” This can be a problem,
because many magazines and journals have long lead times. (Translation: a long
time between when they assign you the article and when it actually ends up in
print.) If you write an article in January, and it doesn’t get published until
November, you probably won’t see a check until December. Do you want to wait a
year to get paid? Can you wait that long? This is a point you absolutely
can negotiate. Ask for payment on acceptance. If this is refused, it gives you a
little leverage to work with on the other “issues,” which are…
If you get the assignment, and, for whatever reason, an editor decides not to
print your article, you can negotiate for a kill fee. This is a percentage of
the sale price. If you are offered $200 to write an article, you may get a $50
kill fee. It’s a well known fact that big publications “kill” articles all
the time. Some editors admit to assigning 10-20% more than they could ever fit
in the magazine. They do this so they can pick and choose from the final
products, or so they can see how things fit once the layout is complete. Some
articles will be pushed back to other issues, and some will just be trashed.
We like them. Those are the little blurbs that often follow an article, giving
short biographical information about the writer, and sometimes an e-mail address
or phone number. Ask for one if you can.
Sidebars and Photos
Those are the little “factoids” or columns that rest next to the main
article. For example, in an article about exercise, you’ll often see a little
chart on the side that tells how many calories are burned by doing specific
exercises (riding a bike, climbing a hill, etc.) If you can suggest sidebars,
you can often get extra pay. Same goes for photos. If you’ve got a decent
camera and a good eye, offer photos for a few extra bucks.
“To Spec or Not To Spec”
Especially as a novice writer, you’ll sometimes get asked to write an article
on speculation. This means that you’ll have to write the whole article and
submit it without a contract, or any promise of payment. It’s a bone of
contention among professional writers, because almost no other field works this
way. It’s never “do the job, and then I’ll decide if I feel like paying
you.” Only in this crazy business. Harumph.
That said, I advise you to take spec assignments in the beginning. Once you’re
established, you shouldn’t need to do this, but in order to build up your
resume and your clips, you need to get published. So go ahead and submit on
spec, and go ahead and do a few free/nearly free pieces for the experience.
Before submitting anything, though, make sure you know in advance what the terms
will be if the editor does use your piece. How much will you be paid? What
rights will they buy?
Even many of the big markets have adopted the practice of requesting pieces on
spec. They do this because they can get away with it. Because there are
thousands of wannabe writers out there who will beg, borrow, and steal for the
chance to be published. So, if you want to compete, sometimes you’ll have to
suck it up and accept this. Once the publication accepts one of your spec
pieces, you’ll be a much more likely candidate for an outright assignment next
“Rights to Write”
There are several kinds of rights a publication may buy:
First North American Serial Rights—The newspaper
or magazine has the right to publish this piece for the first time in any
periodical. All other rights belong to the writer.
One-Time Rights—The publication buys the
nonexclusive right to publish the piece once. The writer can sell the same
article to other publications simultaneously.
Second Serial Rights (or Reprint Rights)—Also
nonexclusive. Gives the publication the right to reprint an article that has
Electronic Rights—Covers CD-ROMs, e-zines,
website content, games, etc. Get in writing which electronic rights are
specified-- First Electronic Rights, archiving rights, etc. Most
publications ask for the right to archive "indefinitely." You
can try to negotiate for a fixed term (i.e., archiving rights for six months).
All Rights—Pretty self-explanatory. You can never
sell this piece to anyone else again. Try to avoid this one. Most publications
ask for First Serial Rights.
The publication has come up with the idea and assigned it to you, and they will
own it, lock, stock, and barrel. They own the copyright and don't even
have to give you credit. It may be sliced, diced, repackaged, re-sold,
etc., and you won't have any claim to it beyond what you were originally paid.
TV/Motion Picture Rights—Also self-explanatory.
Almost always exclusive.
“Recycling Your Big Ideas”
This is the bread and butter of freelance writing. It’s also called
re-slanting. Once you’ve got the Big Idea, don’t waste it by only using it
once. Use the information you’ve gathered and come up with off-shoot ideas.
Slant it to appeal to different markets.
You’re afraid because of the issue of “rights” that we just discussed,
right? (No pun intended.) Well, you have nothing to fear, provided the new
article is sufficiently different in content and intended audience. If you’ve
managed to sell your article to a major national magazine, it is considered poor
form to try to sell a re-slanted version to another national magazine.
However, if you’re dealing with regional,
specialized, or small publications, there should be very little overlap of
intended audience. Therefore, an editor from Alabama Aristocrats would probably
never know if you sold a re-slanted version of your piece to Guitarists Today.
Even if they did know, they almost certainly would not care.
It is standard and accepted practice, for the simple reason that it is darn
difficult to make a living as a writer. If you have the choice between making
$100 for selling your piece to one small publication, or making $1000 by selling
altered versions to eight different small publications, which would you choose?
Re-slanting an article is easy, since you’ve already done the bulk of the
research. Scrounge up a few new quotes, and use the information you left out of
the first article. Focus it on the new desired market.
For example, I could sell an article about the health benefits of meditation to
a fitness magazine. A few alterations, and that same article becomes
“Religions Encouraging Meditation” for my local newspaper’s “Society”
pages. Then it becomes “Meditation Makes You Smarter” for the college
market. Then, “Meditate Your Stress Away” for a working woman’s magazine.
And I didn’t even mention all those new age/holistic publications. What a
With just a few more questions posed to your trusted “experts,” you’ve got
a whole new article. And, look! You’re becoming an expert yourself. This is
how you begin to find your niche—a few specific subjects that you feel
comfortable writing about. Ah, soon those journalists will be coming to YOU with
Once you’ve gotten a few assignments, and feel that you’ve really embarked
on this as a potential career (or just a part-time income-booster,) you’ll
want to think about the little extras.
A nice touch: get yourself some nice letterhead. Splurge a little with your
second or third paycheck and invest in professionally printed letterhead.
Presentation does count when submitting your correspondence to an editor.
Also, an invoice. You should always include an invoice with your completed
article. Often, the person you submit the story to is not the same person in
charge of sending you a paycheck. By including an invoice, you can be reasonably
assured that the billing department will have a record of what terms were agreed
upon, and when they are supposed to pay you.
Receipts: Hold onto your postage receipts and your writing-related supplies. If
writing is your profession, then these can be tax write-offs. Also, if you are
able to negotiate it, editors will often reimburse you for any expenses you
incur while on assignment once you are an established writer. Submit your phone
bill (with the reimbursable call/s circled,) your book receipts, your travel
expense receipts, etc. along with your invoice. Make sure these terms are
specified in your contract.
You’re ready? Good! Get out there and get 'em, slugger. Good luck!
Copyright © 1999-2002 by Jenna Glatzer
Jenna Glatzer is the Editor-in-Chief of www.absolutewrite.com.
She is a full-time writer with hundreds of national and online credits, recently
including Woman's World, Woman's Own, Writer's Digest, and Salon.com. She
is the author of "The
More Than Any Human Being Needs To Know About Freelance Writing Workbook"
The Fun Stuff: Writers' and Artists' Market Guidelines For Greeting Cards,
Posters, Rubber Stamps, T-Shirts, Aprons, Buttons, and More!"
This article got such a great response that I
decided to write a whole darn book on the subject. :)
You can click
here to order "The More Than Any Human Being Needs To Know About
Freelance Writing Workbook" from Booklocker.com.