Is your idea “actionable?”

When I heard the word, everything just clicked into place in my mind. Nikki Price, editor of Oregon Coast Today, a local weekly newspaper and webzine, was speaking to our chaper of Willamette Writers. It was a Tuesday night, so she was in the middle of her deadline, and she roped us into working on headlines and cutlines for this week’s issue. But she also talked about her history of newspapering and what’s she’s looking for in stories for her paper.

They don’t take much freelance, Price says. One reason is money. They can’t afford to pay much. But the other–and this is the one that hit home–is that too many writers don’t understand their mission. Every story must be “actionable,” meaning it gives the reader information which enables them to take action, whether it’s to attend a show, visit an interesting site, check out a new business, take a class or whatever. News you can use, I often call it.

That doesn’t allow much room for creative writing, but that’s the reality of her newspaper and of many others. So, next time you get an article idea, think about whether it’s actionable. What can the reader do with it?

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Continuing our series of sites where you can find writing work, have you been to fundsforwriters.com? Publisher C. Hope Clark offers two versions, plain old Funds, which is free, and Total Funds for Writers, which has more information and costs $15 a year. In addition to jobs, she lists freelance markets, publishers and agents, contests and grant opportunities. Give it a look at http://fundsforwriters.com

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My new book, Shoes Full of Sand, is available on Kindle right now and can be ordered at Amazon.com or directly from me at sufalick@gmail.com.

While you’re buying books, have you gotten your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers? It’s  loaded with useful information for all kinds of writing.

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>What makes bad clips?

>We were talking last week about clips—samples of your published work–and how to send them. Clips are essential to getting assignments. No wise editor will take on a new writer without seeing a sample of her work. If you have never published anything, they may ask you to send a manuscript or to write a piece for them without guaranteeing that they’ll publish it.

But let’s say you have published something and you’re choosing clips to send out. You want to pick the best clips, the ones that you’re especially proud of. Ideally they will also have some connection to the story you’re pitching.

Unfortunately, some clips are not so good, and it’s not all your fault. For example:
• No byline or a misspelled byline. It happens. I have had editors leave out my name or mangle it so badly even my mother wouldn’t recognize it. That lessens the value of your clip. To help prevent this, always type your name in your manuscript as you want it to appear. These digitized days, stories get sent through the process only slightly altered. No one retypes them, and the editor may not notice the byline isn’t there. Protect yourself and make sure your byline is right under the title/headline of your story.
• Bad editing. Most editors are good, but sometimes they ruin your clip with editing that turns good writing into bad or fact into fiction. Ask to see a copy of the edited version before it goes to print. Your wish may not be granted, but always ask. It only takes a minute for them to e-mail you a copy, and you can save a lot of grief.
• Stupid headlines, stupid art, stupid pull quotes or sidebars. We have only minimal control over these editorial decisions, but you can help by making suggestions. Give your story a strong headline, supply or suggest good art, possible quotes and effective sidebars.
• Big dumb ads next to your story. You can’t do anything about the ads that show up with your words, but when you assemble your clips, you can cut out the ads and scan the story without them.

A couple more points:

Old clips are not as good as new clips. Send the best and most recent work you have. But if everything you have is old, send it and don’t say anything about the date it was published.

Everyone tells you to study the publication before you submit anything. The main reason is so that what you send will be appropriate. But another good reason is to make sure you want your work to appear there. Don’t wait until you’re published to discover you’re embarrassed to have your work in that publication. Would you be proud to show off that clip?

As always, your questions and comments are welcome.

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Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?


>Got clips?

>Queries and clips go together like bagels and cream cheese. When you approach a new editor with an idea, he or she is going to ask to see samples of your published work. If you have never published anything, then the best you can do is offer to send a finished manuscript. But once you have published, you’ll want to send clips.

Ideally those clips will be your best work and be related to what you are proposing to write. If you’re querying for an article about dogs and all you have is that piece you wrote on baby quilts, go ahead and send it, but if you have something about dogs, that’s the best.

Now how do you do it? Back in the olden days, people sent “tear sheets,” pages torn out of the actual magazine or newspaper, along with their letter and SASE. Then we got good photocopiers, and we could send copies. I have done that for many years. In fact, I have a file drawer stuffed with alphabetized copies of past published work.

However, the world has changed. We’ve gone digital. Most newspapers and magazines and certainly all web zines want queries and clips sent by e-mail. It’s hard to send a piece of paper through cyberspace.

So what do we do? We computerize our clips. If your article was published online, you can make note of the URL and include it in your query. But you can’t count on that article always being there, so copy it into your own file. I use the Adobe PDF program, but there are others. Search online.

If your article is only on paper, have it scanned onto a CD or flash drive, or onto your hard drive. For a long time, I rarely needed to do this, but the world has gone digital. I recently bought my own scanner (Canon CanoScan 8800F). It’s a complicated beast, and I’m still figuring it out, but I have already put some of my best clips on my hard drive, so next time I send out an e-query, I can send my e-clips. I can also clean out that file drawer.

Some editors still work by snail mail, so do keep paper copies, if you have them, or be ready to print out your computerized file, but first priority is to get them into your computer.

A writer’s clips are essential tools. Keep them handy and ready to send out with your great ideas.

Questions and comments encouraged.

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Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?


>Ever Try a Q and A?

>Interviews published as question-and-answer pieces are popular these days. You see a lot of them in newspapers and magazines. As a writer, I feel they’re a copout because they don’t require you to put the whole picture together as a real story with setting, dialogue and beginning, middle and end, but as a reader, I enjoy them. Why? They’re easy to read.

How do you do them? Record the interview, type it out and turn it in? Nope. I tried that the first time I got a Q and A assignment. The editor bounced it right back. She said: This is an educated man, but he doesn’t sound like it here. I want you to smooth out the language, remove the excess verbiage, and generally edit it to read better. Gasp. Change what the man said? That’s not kosher in other types of articles. But yes, that’s what the editor wanted, and I suspect that’s what most editors ask for in a Q and A. After all, few of us speak in perfect sentences unless we’re reciting a memorized speech.

So, transcribe the recording, but then use it as the raw material for your piece, revising and rearranging to make it work. Usually you’ll have pages more than you need, so you’ll have to pick the quotes that offer the most value to the readers.

How do you get Q and A assignments? First, look for newspapers or sections of newspapers that use them. If they never publish a question-and-answer piece, they’re not going to start a new trend for you. But if they do use them, come up with an appropriate subject and e-mail them a query. If time is short, say George Clooney is going to be in town for one day–and they cover things like visiting movie stars–telephone the editor. He’ll probably still want to see a written query, but you can save yourself some time by asking if he’d be interested.

If you’ve never done a Q and A before, start looking for them and studying how they’re put together. What kinds of questions are asked and how many questions are there? How much introduction precedes the questions? Try doing an interview and putting it into Q and A form just for practice. Who knows? You may be a natural at it.


>Mine stories? Query now

>The news is full of the Utah mining disaster. If you happen to have any connection, special knowledge or story ideas about mining and mining disasters, e-mail your query to your newspaper of choice immediately. You don’t have to be in Utah. If you’re in another area that has underground mines, I’m sure people will be thinking about their safety, just as when the bridge collapsed in Minnesota, officials in every state started looking at their own bridges.

If you’re not up for an article, how about an opinion piece? One question that nags me is how much people should risk their own lives in emergency situations, especially when the people they’re seeking are probably dead. Should they go into the mine? Should they dive into the polluted water to look for bodies in the cars that came off the bridge? Should they go into a building that’s about to collapse? Who makes the decision to stop or to keep going and how do they live with that decision? Look at all the people who died trying to save victims of the 9/11 attacks. Now some of the rescuers who survived are sick from all the junk they breathed in. I don’t have the answers, but these questions could become excellent op-ed pieces. Again, don’t wait. News gets stale fast.

Here’s are a couple other questions: Hundreds of people died in the earthquake in Peru. More than 200 people were killed in Iraq the same day. How come CNN went on and on for hours about the 9 people hurt in the mine? And why were they so obsessed with knowing which miners went to which hospitals? Meanwhile, the streamers under the main screen told of terrible death and destruction elsewhere–which good old Anderson Cooper didn’t even mention. What does that say about the priorities of our news providers?

Thoughts to ponder.
Sue