I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.
I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.
I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.
First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.
However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.
I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.
Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.
Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.
Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.
If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:
1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach
2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work
3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.
You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.
I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.
If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.
Don’t stop writing.
Best of luck,
>Our local newspaper recently welcomed its third new editor and is on its third publisher since we moved to the Oregon Coast in 1996. You’d think the paper would show massive differences from one regime to the next. I worked there for a while, and I can testify that the people are very different, but the paper isn’t. If you looked through back issues from the ’90s, you would find the same sections organized the same way they are now, the layout pretty much the same, and the content frustratingly similar, with only the names changing. New features are rarely introduced.
Is our paper unique? Not at all. I bring this up because most newspapers use the same template for every issue. As readers, we like that. We like to know where to find the sports schedule, the cartoons, the book reviews or whatever we want to read. Sticking with the same pattern also makes it easier for the editors, graphic artists and advertising staff to put each issue together in the limited time they have.
As freelance writers, we need to offer ideas that fit into the newspaper’s framework. Otherwise they are not likely to be accepted. They might be good, but the editor won’t know where to put them. Perhaps after you have proven yourself with several articles, you might suggest something new, but don’t exchange to break the pattern overnight. Look for what the editor needs and provide it. That’s the path to breaking in.