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So you’re an experienced, ambitious ciao writer and reader with the confidence and skills to communicate well via the written (or keyboarded) word, and want to pitch yourself into the heady, sometimes shark-infested waters of writing for magazines? Well, there’s no standard way to break into the field. For the purposes of this opinion, I’ll combine advice as far as I can with my own experiences, which may not be that typical. But what constitutes a typical experience? I doubt if any two people would give the same answer.
Much of this is also relevant to freelance writing for newspapers, which in a sense is another branch of the same thing. It's difficult to draw the line between them.
Where do you begin? While there’s no hard-and-fast rule, the majority of us start where there’s most room - at the bottom.
• POTTED LIFE STORY STARTS HERE
I always wanted to be a writer. At school I contributed poems, short stories and (as I took History of Art at A-level) occasional exhibition reviews to the school mag. Once I’d left I kept writing in my spare time, just for fun. When I went to college, I volunteered my services for the students’ mag (reviews, articles, typical irreverent student humour), all written with friends, typed on a dodgy manual typewriter in the SU office on ink stencils and run off on an equally temperamental duplicator.
One college vacation I wrote a 1500-word historical article for my local county magazine, heard nothing for 14 months, almost gave up hope, then received a complimentary copy with the article inside, plus cheque. By then I had left college and was unemployed, and it was one of the best days of my life (at the time). I suggested another article, the editor said yes, I wrote it and it was published five months later.
Meanwhile I also answered an ad in the local weekly gazette for a trainee reporter, was interviewed but didn’t get the job. A few months later, I sent them a record review on spec. The paper had carried a few at irregular intervals earlier that year, and frankly I thought I could do better. It was accepted, and after I’d proved I could write more, the editor agreed to take them weekly. Years later, I met him and he asked if I’d like to review books for him as well. Was I busy – but I enjoyed every moment (almost).
Having thus boosted my ego, I continued to write and send out historical and musical articles to other local magazines, with a fair level of acceptances. Later I wrote a book, which was also accepted after several rejections, and I wrote more. Meanwhile I’ve continued writing articles for local and national magazines; sometimes I’ve been lucky, sometimes not.
• NEVER MIND THE MEMOIRS, HERE’S THE ADVICE
Firstly, look at prospective magazines with a critical eye. Remember that the standard of national publications is generally higher – these people got there by being the best. Sometimes the local ones aren’t so well-written. If you genuinely think you can do better, perhaps you can. My record reviews came about partly because I felt I could (this might sound big-headed, but you’ve got to believe in yourself!), and partly as I was in the right place at the right time.
Visit www.freelancewriting.com/ for a list of links including ‘Paying – freelance writing opportunities’ (and non-paying), ‘Paying – editorial writers’ markets’, ‘Writer/publisher opps’, and many more. Though the majority of these are US-based, the www has made this whole field much more accessible to everyone.
Buy a current copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook’, or check it at the local library. (If they haven’t got it, ask the staff why not.). You may find a recent edition in the lending section, plus various titles on 'How to become a freelance writer'. I’m not going to recommend one in particular – there are several, and most of them say the same thing just as well. Look for ‘Writers News’ (monthly), which is packed with dos and don’ts, freelance opportunities, news and views on the current marketplace.
What do you write? It pays to start off with subjects you are interested in and enthusiastic about, because they’re bound to be good. If current news stories, pieces of historical research, or consumer opinions (which you may already do on ciao) look like being your stock-in-trade, do your research thoroughly. If necessary, e-mail, phone or fax other people (or write, though this is slower), and double-check your facts online via search engines. Google is wonderful, so don't skimp it.
How do you approach your intended market? You can write columns or articles on spec, and I’ve had work accepted this way. Know your publication thoroughly. Establishing personal contact before you submit can pay off, too. Preliminary letters, a telephone call, e-mailing the editor or senior staff might help, though none of these are fail-safe. E-mails may get ignored or lost (yours may be one of several dozen or several hundred received the same day). Letters get put on one side and buried or even binned (even if you enclose that all-important s.a.e. – not everyone has good manners). Phone messages may be taken down by the person answering and not passed on, or forgotten. Be persistent. Making an appointment to go and speak to someone in person might work better, especially if it’s a local publication. In which case, it might help to take a small file with examples of your work, if you have some, to show him or her.
Some national titles will send you a sheet of guidelines on house style, or have one on their website. Always follow the rules, at least until you become too famous to argue with. If they suggest 1000-1500 words and your article is 2000, cut it down. If you’ve struggled to make it 800, work on it.
Keep a record of who you contact, send out submissions, and when. Accept rejection, put it down to experience, and get on with the next. Keep all rejected articles, preferably a print-out which you can keep in a folder ad infinitum. Your work may have been turned down because it wasn’t right for that particular outlet, or at the right time. Unless it’s very topical, it may lend itself to being tweaked (if topical, merely updated) and resubmitted, or used to feed into or kick-start another project, years later.
Make the most of opportunities as they occur. You may find a friendly magazine which accepts and pays for anything you write, then the Editor retires or leaves and his/her successor doesn’t want to know you. It happens. I mentioned my reviews for the local paper above. When the Editor who took me on retired, his successor assured me she would continue the arrangement as before. She proceeded NOT to publish my weekly columns three weeks in a row, and I had to phone up and find out what was going on. “Er, nobody’s complained that they haven’t appeared, John – can we leave it for the moment? Oh, and thanks for all your help.” Sometimes you know when you’re not wanted.
Also with regard to opportunities. Later you may get people approaching you out of the blue to work for them, either because you’re been recommended as the bee’s knees, or because they’ve seen other examples of your work. Assuming they are bonafide potential employers, regard it as a compliment. Think very carefully before turning commissions down. Sometimes people have asked me to write for them, and my instant reaction has sometimes been “Great, but have I got time?” A few hours later I’ve thought about it, told myself I will make time, knowing full well that if I say no, I may not get a second chance.
Just write, write, and go on writing. The more you do it, the better you become. Once you’ve completed a piece of work, save it, and come back to it later with a fresh eye. Does it still make sense? You can always improve on your original draft. Try it out on family or friends, assuming you can rely on them to criticise constructively, before you send it out. Don’t overlook that spell-checker, or neglect grammar. What you say is important, but presenting it properly matters just as much. Think about style, but think about clarity too. Are all those flowery adjectives really necessary? Have you repeated yourself in slightly different words a few paragraphs apart? Be your own fiercest critic.
Keep a notebook or a piece of scrap paper and pencil with you at all times, within reason. Write down those ideas as soon as they come into your head, and before you forget them. On a similar basis, have you come across something relevant or interesting as material or even inspiration for an article in a book, another magazine, or newspaper? Make a note of it, your source and date, for future reference.
Networking – seek advice from other people, be they friends, friends of friends, professional contacts. If there’s a local writers’ group in your area, telephone or go and talk to the secretary or one of the members. Even if they are aspiring fiction writers and all you want to do is ask them about journalism and non-fiction, the fields aren’t mutually exclusive. If they can’t answer your questions, they probably know someone who can.
You have a non-fiction book in you (and many of us have)? Great, but work up to it gradually. That’s a complete opinion in itself, but a full-length book will seem far less daunting once you’re a seasoned article writer.
• THE BIT YOU WERE WAITING FOR
Yes, money! Asking how much you get paid is like ‘how long is a piece of string?’ Don’t get taken in by case histories like that of Julie Burchill, a bored teenager who got lucky by approaching ‘New Musical Express’ on spec, and ended up commanding astonishing fees for her tabloid rants.
National magazines will nearly always pay, except for readers’ letters. There’s no standard scale, though sometimes their websites and/or their ‘Writers’ & Artists Yearbook’ entry will tell you. When they say ‘payment by arrangement’, draw your own conclusions and be prepared to haggle.
Regional and local titles tend to be more community-based; in other words, they pay their staff, but when freelancers write for them, it’s a case of ‘we are under tremendous financial pressure’. (That’s their story). If you’re prepared to review their books, films, local amateur dramatic society productions, or local restaurants, you may get paid in kind. You can keep the book, get into the cinema or play free, even get a free meal. Should you expect to be paid for your writing skills as well, ask and check first – don’t complain ‘I wuz robbed’ when it’s too late.
Keep a record of all expenditure, with carefully filed copy invoices and receipts where relevant if possible. Even if freelance journalism never becomes more than a second career for you (don’t give up that day job), it’s not pocket money. Once you start earning, it counts as self-employment, but legitimate expenses are allowable against tax.
Very, very helpful advice. I managed to get some freelance work in newspapers by being in the right place at the right time. I don't think it's at all big-headed to believe in yourself. Your chances of becoming a successful writer are probably a bit grim otherwise. There is so much competition. x