Writer Aid celebrates ten years of advice for writers

Dear writers and readers, this blog has been dormant since late last year, but I had to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first post by telling you that I have updated the past posts, revising where the information was no longer accurate and making sure all the links worked. Those updated posts are my gift to you. Because I think it would be good to have all the advice put together in one place in a logical order, I am also planning to compile my blog posts into an e-book. I will let you know about that as soon as it’s available.

In the beginning, the blog was called Freelancing for Newspapers. I started it to publicize my then-upcoming Freelancing for Newspapers book. I’ll be honest. Some of those first posts were so lame it hurts to read them now. I was just learning how to blog. Now I offer a class on it. (click on Classes above). Over those first few years, I offered a mix of my own experiences writing freelance articles, plus information about the newspaper business and advice for writers on everything from how to get an assignment to how to get paid.

But the publishing world changed, I changed, and so did this blog. It morphed from Freelancing for Newspapers to Freelancing for Newspapers +, the plus sign indicating I might talk about more than newspapers. Eventually it became Writer Aid so I could address all sorts of writing, including fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction (and also maybe lure readers into my servers for writers).

At the same time, the newspaper business was changing. With the double whammy of the recession and the Internet, newspapers were going under or shrinking. Longtime staff writers were losing their jobs by the hundreds. And freelance opportunities became harder to find. Our local daily, The Oregonian, went from a stuffed package loaded with special sections to a thin tabloid. How could one write for the garden or arts sections when even the decades-long editors of those sections were now unemployed?

My own life was changing, too. I was caring for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2009, he moved into a nursing home, and in 2011, he died. Through it all, I kept writing, but I was easing out of article writing and focusing more on poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing. I started teaching. I published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.

All of these changes were reflected in the blog as I talked about self-publishing, poetry, plots, settings, characters, and selling books. For a while, the blog shrank down to three quick tips because that’s all I could manage, but I kept it going. Last December, I decided there were too many writers blogging about writing, and the world didn’t need me doing it. I would focus on my other blogs, Unleashed in Oregon and Childless by Marriage.

I’m still not sure the world needs me writing about writing. Writers are so inbred, and I think it’s important to talk to the rest of the world. But as I put together the e-book, I suspect I will find topics that I have not yet addressed, and I will write new posts to fill in the blanks. If you sign up to follow the blog, WordPress will let you know when that happens.

You can still buy the Freelancing for Newspapers book. Some of the information is outdated now, but the basics of writing and selling articles is the same. The steps in the book will lead you from idea to published story, not just in newspapers but in magazines and online publications. Order a copy.

Now go write something.

Are newspapers still a viable freelance market?

 As the author of Freelancing for Newspapers (Quill Driver, 2007), I am frequently asked if newspapers are still a viable market. About the time my book came out, the economy began to crash and the newspaper business crashed even harder. Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. Those who are left are saddled with doing more work for the same pay.

 Newspapers were double-slammed by the economy—loss of advertising—and the hyper-growth of the Internet. Why subscribe to the newspaper when you can get your news immediately online, as well as on TV, radio or smartphone?

 In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I spent 25 years working for community newspapers, employment has decreased by 43 percent, more than the national average of 36 percent. This SF Weekly article lays out the sad truth. The figures are similar at papers across the country. More than one major newspaper has ceased publication or stopped publishing a print newspaper, going completely online. Most papers now sport fewer pages and an increased online presence with blogs, articles, videos, and reader input. There’s no question the industry is changing, but what does this mean for freelancers?

 It seems to be a mixed bag. Some papers have stopped using freelance while others are hiring freelancers to do what staff writers and editors used to do. In fact, our local weekly, which never used freelancers in the past, now publishes freelance articles on a regular basis. It’s certainly a more economical option for them, with no guaranteed hours, equipment or benefits to pay for.

 Many of the freelance opportunities in newspapers that I wrote about in my book still exist to a certain extent. You can still sell travel articles, opinion pieces, reviews, features and columns, but papers are buying fewer of them and we are now competing with staff writers who have lost their jobs.

 The types of freelance opportunities available have changed from what they were in the last century. Tonight, I’ve been looking at Online-writing -jobs.com. I was surprised to find some newspapers seeking freelance reporters to cover regular beats such as health, auto accidents, and government meetings. If any of them were local, I would try it because it sounds like easy work for a regular market.

But some of the other opportunities make me nervous. Mancave Daily? There are listings for ghost writers and writers of press releases, blogs and other online content. It looks like we writers of nonfiction need to be willing to use our talents to write anything and everything to make a living. (Writers of fiction and poetry should already know they need a “day job” to pay the bills.)

 Many of the employers listed are corporations, not newspapers. Some may be  ripoffs. Tread carefully, especially if you have never heard of the company before. But you might strike gold here, too.

 In future postings, we will look at other sources of freelance writing opportunities.

>Suddenly freelancing

>The first victims of our sagging economy came even before the Wall Street crashes of ’08. I’m talking newspapers. Over the past few years, thousands, yes thousands, of reporters and editors have been laid off, furloughed, or given early retirement due to lagging ad sales. Have you noticed your local daily getting thinner? Me too. Losing one’s newspaper job is not a new thing. I graduated with my journalism degree during a recession and spent almost a year looking for my first full-time job job. Meanwhile, I stacked boxes at JC Penney and graded high school English papers.

As the years went on, I found myself suddenly unemployed several times. Here’s how it goes: Some manager you barely know calls you into an office or conference room. They tell you what a good little worker you’ve been; then they drop the bomb. Sometimes you get a little money; sometimes you’re just out.

What’s different now is the massive numbers of people being let go from their newspaper jobs. What are they going to do? They’re probably going to freelance. That means we’re competing with them. Unless we too came from the world of newspapers, they have some huge advantages: They have contacts among editors and sources; they have experience and polished skills; they probably have degrees in journalism or related subjects, and they have piles of recent clips. If you’re an editor looking for a writer, who are you going to choose, the newbie with potential or the proven veteran?

So what do we do? We work harder and smarter. We study our markets and polish our queries until editors can’t tell the difference between our work and that of a staff writer. We look for less obvious opportunities in trade and specialty publications. We mine all the possibilities on the Internet. And we don’t give up.

Even Rick from the Doonesbury cartoons lost his reporter job at the Washington Post. He’s blogging now.

Thank you to the correspondents who sent good wishes and prayers about my husband’s illness. To be honest, he has a long-term illness from which he will not recover, but he has weathered the latest crisis and is feeling much better. So am I.

>Great Blog about grants and fellowships

>Michelle V. Rafter published an article last week in her WordCount blog that is a real heads-up for freelancers. She makes the point that we can get so busy with queries and deadlines that we don’t pay attention to the possibilities of grants and fellowships to fill out our resumes and our wallets.

I’ll let you read the details on her blog, which includes some very helpful links, but let’s ponder the subject for a minute. Sure, we want to write and get published and paid for it as quickly as possible. Perhaps we’re done with our formal education. But you can always learn more, plus having a grant or a fellowship can give you the mental and financial space to pursue a subject in depth or to keep trying when the assignments aren’t exactly pouring in.

Most grants are awards of cash given to writers who show talent and financial need. Usually there’s an extensive application process requiring you to send samples of your work and explain what you’ll use the money for. That part is a pain, but it’s definitely worth it.

Fellowships often send you away from home to work and study. They may be awarded for specific projects, such as a series of articles on a particular topic. If you read down through the comments in Rafter’s blog, you’ll find that some of us who protest that we can’t leave home for various reasons can still go after fellowships that don’t require long absences.

Rafter also notes that lots of newspapers are laying off newsroom staff. Amen to that. In fact, yesterday I read about a New Mexico paper cutting 16 jobs, and that’s a small cut compared to what many other newspapers have done lately. In this troubled economy, large numbers of hugely qualified journalists are being released. What are these newly unemployed journalists going to do until they find other jobs? Freelance, of course, and they have the advantage of contacts, clips and experience that freelancers who have not held staff positions don’t have.

That means we freelancers have to work even harder to compete, with great queries and the best writing we can do. Being able to say we were awarded a grant or fellowship from a prestigious organization definitely gives us more clout in a tough market.

In addition to the sites listed by Rafter, also check out Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers site , which lists lots of grants, fellowships and other opportunities.

So, go for it.