50 freelance tips from The Writer
Helpful writing hints from getting an idea to working with your editor
Published: May 3, 2011
1. To get story ideas, look first in your own backyard—your neighborhood, your town, your state, your region.
2. Then take a look at your life and your personal interests. If you are passionate about a subject, it helps sell the article.
3. List five areas in which you have a special interest and expertise, and come up with one story idea for each area.
4. Keep up with the news and trends. Look for visiting actors, entertainers, authors whom you might interview while they are in town.
5. Stories you see done locally can sometimes be recast and redone as stories for a national publication.
6. The experiences you’ve had, the things that have moved you or frustrated you or made you laugh, the things you have really wondered about, can be the stuff of stories.
7. Develop an everyday alertness about potential story material. Chance conversations, the little item in the newspaper, the random encounter, can sometimes pay off.
Know your markets
8. This alertness can also give you ideas for good sources (e.g., a particular specialty magazine or university expert for information and background) as well as good story ideas.
9. Frequent the newsstand in your local bookstore and study the magazines. Pick a couple in which you would like to publish your work and analyze them. Look first at the contributors page to see how many of the articles are written by freelancers. Look over the table of contents to see what types of articles are in each department and which are staff-written. Find a feature written by a freelancer. What type of story is it: service, roundup, interview, personal essay?
10. Check the magazine’s website. Many magazines post their submission guidelines on the website.
11. Look for the magazine’s mission statement on the website. This will tell you what the magazine is about and who its audience is.
12. Look for information directed to advertisers on the website. Generally, you’ll find the magazine’s demographics on this page. This information is invaluable. It will describe the magazine’s reader in detail (male, female, college-educated, married/single, homeowner, etc.). Pitch your story accordingly.
13. Be familiar with the different types of articles. A service article, for example, provides the readers with information they can use. Example: “Skin signals: 8 symptoms you shouldn’t ignore,” an article in Family Circle about skin conditions. The roundup includes interviews with several individuals on the same subject. Example: “10 women executives talk about women and power.” Other types of articles: interview, how-to, profile, entertainment, personal essay.
14. A query letter is an amazing little document: In only one page, you are trying to successfully sell yourself and your idea.
15. Picture the editors you query as very busy people with a lot of other things to do and 25 or more queries on their desk. Don’t test their patience with a poorly written or poorly constructed query letter.
16. Perhaps the No. 1 turnoff in a query letter is to signal to the editor that you don’t know the magazine.
17. Your queries should have a professional tone. Don’t be flip or informal.
18. Proofread your query carefully for grammar and spelling mistakes. If possible have a second person read it. There are plenty of cranky editors around who will toss it in the wastebasket if they spot an error.
19. In preparing your queries, remember that sidebars are very popular with many magazines. Sidebars improve the design of your story, provide an additional “point of entry” for the reader, and help the writer repackage useful but peripheral information that might otherwise clutter the main article.
20. Don’t telephone an editor about your query unless the wait has gotten extreme and you’ve tried emailing first. As a general rule, give a magazine at least one month to respond.
21. If you strike out with a story idea at a particular publication, don’t assume it’s your fault or a problem with your query; there are a dozen other variables that could explain it.
22. Form rejection letters are part of the business; there simply isn’t enough time for personal replies. Don’t take them personally.
23. If you haven’t been published, how do you show the editor you can write? Here are some ways to get clips: submit an article to your favorite website, enter contests, write for a nonprofit organization’s newsletter, write for a community newsletter. Many writers first get published in the letters-to-the-editor column of their local newspaper.
24. Looking for experts? Try the university or college in your town. The PR department can connect you with an expert on a wide range of topics.
25. Whether you’re doing a story on neuroscience or romance writing, there’s probably an association for it. Call the association and ask for someone who is an expert on the topic. The Directory of Business Information Resources, available at libraries, has a complete list of associations.
26. Libraries have searchable databases in which you can find articles on every subject imaginable.
27. With most interviews, your aim at the outset is to establish some measure of trust and comfort in your subjects. They are exposing themselves, their work or their knowledge to someone they hope is careful and responsible.
28. Preparation is essential for interviews.
29. Do enough background research to come up with questions the subject hasn’t been asked a thousand times before.
30. Ask open-ended questions that force the subject to expound a bit.
31. Writing down questions is a good idea, but don’t be so tied to your list that you don’t focus on the conversation and pick up on verbal cues and entirely new questions.
32. Keep in mind that at some places (e.g., universities, bigger companies), a public-relations or community-relations person can help set up an interview for you.
33. Always get contact information during your interview—i.e., how can you get back in touch with the subject to double-check information, tie up loose ends or squeeze in some additional questions?
34. If taping, always get the subject’s permission.
35. When taping, take extra batteries and tapes.
36. Take notes as a backup when you are taping. Your notes will help if there is something on the tape you can’t decipher or if you have a technical breakdown.
Writing the story
37. Once you have a story idea, write two or three sentences summarizing what the article is about. This will help you write a lead and a “nut” paragraph.
38. “The lead or hook, may be the most important piece of the story,” writes magazine consultant Ann Wylie. You only have a few paragraphs to draw the reader into the story and entice him or her to read on. The lead also sets up the theme of your article.
39. In writing your lead take a tip from fiction writers. Wylie recommends using dramatic techniques such as “anecdotes, descriptions, suspense, metaphor or wordplay.”
40. The “nut” paragraph explains to the reader what your story is about. Ann Wylie writes, “To test your nut paragraph, ask yourself: ‘Have I promised readers a specific benefit from reading this story?’ If no, keep working.”
41. If you’re dealing with a complex subject with several sources, organize it by subtopics. Make an outline and fill in the blanks.
42. Study a well-written article by another author. How does she use quotes? How does she organize the material? How much background does she include?
43. Your ending should summarize what the article delivered and come full circle from the lead.
44. End with a “kicker” that gives the readers a thought to take with them.
45. After you finish a rough draft of your story, read it out loud. This will help you hear where you need transitions and where the language is awkward.
46. Before sending your manuscript, look for repetition, passive voice, lackluster nouns and verbs.
Working with editors
47. Make the editor’s job easier by sending concise, clear queries; meeting deadlines; turning in a clean manuscript; providing the editor with your contact information; giving the editor what he or she asked for. (If your story is leading you in a different direction than you initially discussed, call the editor to discuss it.)
48. Fact-check your article before sending it off. Check all factual material. If you interviewed experts on topics you were not familiar with or that are highly technical, double-check your quotes or paraphrasing to be sure you are accurate.
49. If you are asked to make revisions, do so promptly.
50. If you haven’t already, read William Zinsser’s classic book on nonfiction articles, On Writing Well.
Elfrieda Abbe is publisher of The Writer, and Ronald Kovach is The Writer's senior editor. They have extensive experience writing and editing for newspapers and magazines on both a freelance basis and as staffers.||