By Joni Hubred-Golden
Almost 20 years ago, I broke into journalism by walking, wide-eyed with fear, into a tiny newspaper office and asking whether the editor would accept a freelance submission. Since I hadn’t thought ahead far enough to consider a topic, he gave me the name of an artist who made rugs. That’s just how he put it, too: “She makes rugs. Go talk to her.” As I left, he added, “And take a camera.”
A few weeks later, the article —in better shape than the lengthy piece I turned in—was published on the front page of my hometown newspaper. And I was (pardon the pun) hooked. It was only a matter of time before a trembling, shy woman walked into my office and said, “I’m a freelance writer.” What a difference a desk makes. Suddenly, it was my job to critically evaluate someone else’s writing to determine whether it deserved a spot in my newspaper.
Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of freelance writers, and some have gone on to successful careers in community journalism. But for every success story, I’ve met someone who took a writing course and heard someone say, “Your hometown newspaper is a great place to build your clip file!”
Guess again, dear writer. Guess again.
Today’s newspapers aren’t the same wide-open playground of years gone by. Over the past 20 years, the Internet has pulled readers by the droves onto the information superhighway. Some newspapers have gone with the flow. Others struggle with significant losses in circulation and advertising revenues, and nationally, newspaper readership dropped 20 percent just in the past two years.
These days, the words, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have a freelance budget” aren’t necessarily a brush-off. Most editors—at least the ones I know—will make room for a well-written, targeted freelance article. And whether you get paid in dollars or copies, it’s well worth your time to make contact with the editor of any publication distributed in your area.
Now, when I say, “make contact,” I don’t mean “show up in her office on a deadline day.” A woman I’ll call Arlene (to protect us both) never quite understood how long five minutes can be when you’ve got a graphic artist waiting on a banner headline for your lead story.
Arlene is a classic Freelance Flop. She convinced people to publish her writing, but never more than once or twice. She made every mistake in the book. These mistakes will keep you from getting published— that’s a guarantee. Placing my tongue firmly in cheek, I offer them to you in no particular order:
- Call an editor any time of day, any day of the week. Be surprised and offended when she refuses to take your call.
- Drop by the office “for just a few minutes” and don’t leave until you’ve pitched at least three or four story ideas. Insist on seeing the editor in person, because you want to get started right away.
- Don’t let anyone—not an assistant, not a reporter —stand in your way, even if they claim the editor is on deadline. Editors are always on deadline. Be firm about your request.
- Don’t worry about subject matter, because newspapers will publish anything. Your recap of last Sunday’s guest sermon by a visiting pastor deserves a good placement, too.
- Likewise, length is a matter of personal preference. The newspaper pays by the column inch, after all.
- Using correction fluid to clean up your mistakes can be messy and completely re-typing takes too much time. Jot down needed corrections in the margins.
- Because the editor knows you so well, there’s really no need to clutter up your manuscript with contact information. Or page numbers. Just staple it together and add a little handwritten note about when you expect the piece to be published.
- Insist on payment for all submissions, with the exception of a short letter to the editor. You are a professional freelance writer, you have paid your dues, and you deserve compensation for your work.
- Follow up with the editor no later than 12 hours after submitting your work. Reiterate your understanding of payment terms and the publication date.
- In the event the article does not appear when the editor promised, call to remind her about the promise and let her know you will give your work to her competitor if it’s not promptly published.
Now, I realize most writers are smart enough to steer clear of these mistakes. Some might find the list insulting. Before you start writing hate mail, consider this:
Arlene never realized any of the mistakes she made were mistakes. She thought she was protecting herself and her work, and she lacked one of the most important qualities I’ve seen in every successful freelance writer I’ve ever known: humility.
If you don’t mind annoying an editor, go ahead and ignore her deadlines, invade her workspace and test her patience. If you want to see your writing published, or better yet develop a working relationship, ask when she might have time to chat with you. Come prepared with a few local story ideas. And it wouldn’t hurt to be a little wide-eyed, too.
Joni Hubred-Golden, a writer with 20 years of experience in community journalism, recently launched Michigan Women’s Forum, a news-based web-zine designed to inform and inspire Michigan women. In addition to writing most of the site’s content, she also dabbles in marketing and writes a regular column for the Farmington Observer, based in her hometown of Farmington, Michigan.