Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Elizabeth Laden
Return to Successful Freelancing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
I write a weekly editorial for the paper I publish, this weekly column, and another weekly piece called Wild Journal, in addition to editing several weekly essays by other writers. Meeting the deadlines to bring all of this work to print is an excellent way to stay off the roller coaster many writers waste their time riding. It is impossible to have ups and down in writing when you have to buck up each week and get your column or columns out, and prepare others for print as well.
To get started, do not worry about where your column will be published. Write it for yourself and look for publishers in parallel to your first several weeks of writing. If you have never written a column before, I recommend you do not try to sell one until you have produced a weekly piece on time for at least three months. If you cannot come up with a fresh idea every week, write about it in less than 700 words, and meet the deadline for turning in the final copy, you are not column material. And, I suspect you won't be able to tackle any significant writing project that takes daily work, thought, and study.
Write about what interests you deeply, and choose topics that you feel confident you can always present in a fresh, original manner. Chocolate may be a great love in your life, but can you write a column about it every week? Some people would be able to, because they have a solid foundation of knowledge about chocolate and know where to go to learn more about this awesome substance. But another writer may peter out after three essays and crash on her couch to eat bonbons rather than write about them.
Knowledge of history coupled to personal humility is essential for most columnists. Never think you know everything and never believe that you are Ms. Originality. Chances are, what you intend to write about has already been presented by another writer at some time in history. You are going to embellish the topic with your wonderful twist and style, and bring it before the public in a new and different light. Don't let self-pride lead you into thinking your column is going to save the world.
This leads to the tone of your column. Speak to your audience as you would to a friend you respect, A lot of writers love to throw around big words, toss in phrases in other languages like French or Latin, and make references to archaic literature to show how smart they are. If they have an audience, it is only others as pompous as themselves. So be kind, humble, and loving to your readers. Be prepared to spend a little extra time researching your topic or thinking about ways to make your presentation sharper and more powerful. After all, you are an information and communication specialist.
Commit to writing a weekly column. Select your topic and set a weekly deadline. Four weeks from today, you will have a folder with four essays that could become the foundation of a new book, a syndicated column, or a decision to try another topic.
Picking a Topic
I'm assuming that you have confidence in yourself as a writer, some actual writing experience, and a home office with a good computer, Internet access, a filing system, and a reference library.
You must be ready to organize your week so you have plenty of time to write your column and manage your syndication in a relaxed, enjoyable fashion.
You will need time each week for the following tasks:
Editors in our target market will pay $2.50 to $10 a week for a column of 400 to 700 words and most want to pay for a month of columns at a time. If you are a good self-promoter and have a meaty, original topic, set your budget to sell your column for $5 per week to 50 papers. That's just one weekly per state and a very reachable goal.
Pick a topic you are passionate about but are also certain is of great interest to a variety of people. In other words, if you collect antique buttons, you know this is not a topic that an editor would commit to week after week. But she or he may consider a column on antiquing, one of the fastest growing pass-times in America.
For ideas, visit bookstores and look at the best-selling nonfiction, cooking, how-to, history, parenting, retirement, and travel topics, to name several areas. If you are knowledgeable about something that is not quite mainstream, you may still have a chance at fame and glory as a columnist if you pick the right publications. For example, organic gardening, vegetarian cooking and herbal healing have niches in suburban and rural communities in California, New Mexico, and upstate New York, but may not sell in the Midwest or in large urban areas.
Another way to get ideas is to read every weekly newspaper you can get your hands on locate on line. Most put their columnists on their Internet site. This will help you see what editors are buying and what they may need.
Now ask yourself if you can realistically come up with a fresh, interesting, and tightly written column on this topic every week for at least the next five years. If you are yawning or panicking, stop now.
Be very careful about writing a column from the viewpoint of a political party, religion, or philosophy. There is a glut of these columns on the market -- conservative, liberal, libertarian, feminist, Christian, and so on. Most papers that have been established for several years already have these columns on their opinion pages and are paying the lowest rate for them. You will have to be very good at commenting on the most important topics of the day and have a solid resume of published work to break into this market.
Once you have a topic you are certain you will enjoy writing about week in and week out, year after year, perform a deep and honest examination of yourself as a writer. Will you be able to keep your deadlines for getting your work to the editors and for managing all areas of your column-writing commitment? Committing to a weekly column is like committing to a close friend. Be really honest. If you have PMS, for example, will you be able to write two columns the week before just in case you are too bogged down to work due to cramps and bloating?
A good columnist can write a piece in 45 minutes to an hour, after research. Research can take 15 minutes to several days, and you have to know how long it will take you. Will you write a month of columns in one day or more, or will you write one piece a week? The answers depend on your topic, of course. A sports commentator, for example, has to write about what is going on week by week. If you're writing about bridge you can write several columns in one session.
Account management should take one 8-hour day a month and an hour a week if you set up your schedule to bill everyone on the same day and to record your income and expenses on the same day each week.
Take time picking your topic and examining your life to be sure you can do the job. I recommend going on a mini retreat to a favorite spot in nature or to a spa so you can focus on all the pros and cons of this new adventure.
I must warn you that you will be seen as your column, and the first things people will say to you when you run into them at places like the market or post office will pertain to whether they loved or hated your writing that week! Even if you rarely see your readers, your column will become part of your persona, and rightly so.
Naming Your Baby
Your next step is to find a catchy name for the weekly column -- your "baby" -- you hope to sell to newspapers all over the nation and the globe.
Make sure your column title does not limit you to just a few topics. Your goal is to write this column for years to come, after all.
I'll use columns I'm working with now to give you ideas if you have not come to a final decision about your title. Alaine Benard, a member of the National Association of Women Writers and the Louisiana Press Women, launched a column in the Island Park News titled, "ADHD: Soaring Above the Storms." This is a great title that reflects her theme of taking the high ground when living with people who have this perplexing disorder (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
"Soaring" is also a very personal word for bird-loving Alaine. She is a nature lover and adores birds and feathers. She will surely write about her experiences in nature with her ADHD child. As the editor, I like the title, too, because the column's banner will look wonderful with an eagle graphic.
We run a column on our editorial page titled "Marler's Musings." It's by a man named Dick Marler and he talks about all kinds of topics, so the name fits him perfectly.
For four years, we have run a column on and off titled "Fractured Mommy Tales." It's a humor column written by a stay-at-home mom with a home-based business. Readers love the column and it has gone through two writers, neither which would keep a deadline! Hopefully it will be revived soon by a new writer.
I write two columns: "Mountain Views," a weekly editorial, and "Wild Journal," a spring and summer column on the natural history of Yellowstone Country, where I live. Both these titles are attractive to people in our outdoor-oriented readership.
If your column is going to be political commentary, you may still want to give it a name just so it has an identity -- even something as simple as "From the left by.........," or "Conservative views by......"
Even if your topic requires timely comments on fast-breaking issues, you need to plan your columns 52 weeks ahead. Use a calendar that marks all holidays -- the more, the better. Some regions of the country have calendars that note local festivals and events, and if you can get one of these, that's great. Always have your column follow the seasons and important holidays.
Create a Come Up File for your column if you do not already have one for all your writing topics and projects. This is a 3 by 5 file box with dividers that show every month of the year, and then two sets of dividers marked with the days of the month (1 to 31). You only need two sets because you will keep moving the days ahead to future months as you move through the year.
Using your monthly calendar, select topics that you may want to cover in your column and write down the name of the topics and key words for the column on separate cards you file under the appropriate month. The days of the week tabs will be behind the current month, and you will file your idea cards under the day your plan to write the columns.
For example, my Come Up File has "Fourth of July - community newspapering, 2001" under June 20, the day I will write a column on that topic for the June 29 issue of the paper.
The first time you go through the calendar and write topics on your cards, you may feel that you wasted your time because you only filled out 5 or 6 cards. But do this consistently on the day you plan your writing schedule, and your file box will become loaded with ideas. Although not every week will ever be filled, it is comforting to have some topics laid out and will help you write better because you can do better research on your subject matter if you know far in advance what it is going to be.
This helps in the second year of writing a column because you will have all those old cards to look at for ideas -- this includes ideas of what not to write because you have already written about them.
You and Your Readers
Your weekly column will become a part of your identity, like your flower garden, vegetable patch, and your children. When you go out into your community, you will be stopped on the street or in the post office or grocery store while people let you know what they think about "your column" that week. Unless you are a hermit, write under a pen name, and do not go anywhere near your readers, you must be ready for the change in your life your column will bring.
People will tell you they love what you wrote, hate what you wrote, did not understand a word you said, or want you to cover all kinds of topics in which they are interested -- many which have nothing to do with your area of interest.
You can run from the contact with your readership; you can take it in stride; or you can make efforts to encourage more contact.
I'm going to address the later because I would not write a column that I did view as a part of myself, and I don't like to publish writers who are aloof or who want to hide from others. I encourage people to e-mail me by including my e-mail address at the end of every column, and the Island Park News has a Web site and a Yahoo-based e-group that readers use to share ideas, questions, and small talk.
Include a standard invitation to your readers to e-mail or write you with feedback, ideas, or questions at the end of all your columns. Be kind to your editor -- add this to your column yourself. It can be a real pain for an editor to have to cut and paste your bio info in each week. And, if you are given the same space each week in the newspaper, this information should be part of your word count.
Next, I advise creating a Web site that features your column and includes your picture and biography. It should give an overview of your topic and your goals and provide links to places where readers can learn more about your topic. The Web site is a great place to include a sign-up link to your e-group. Eventually, it will offer the books you sell that are compilations of your best writing.
Take time to learn about tagging your site so it appears in search engines and more people visit you. If you do this well, and if you keep current, you will be contacted by all kinds of people looking for information you may have -- and many of these are editors looking for stories. For example, I receive many requests every year from editors looking for stories on the natural history of the Yellowstone area.
Many columnists develop a sideline that can be lucrative and exciting -- they give seminars and talks on their topic to public organizations, private clubs, and agencies. People and groups pay well to listen to a good columnist, or at the very least will pay your travel expenses and food and lodging. Some columnists go on radio and television and even make videotapes and CD's to share their expertise.
If we were all together right now, I'd brew up a pot of tea and we'd brainstorm some more about how to make our lives as weekly columnists exciting, financially lucrative, and service-oriented. We'd watch the trout and eagles feed on the river just a few years from my office, and come up with all kinds of ideas. Although we are not together in real time, we can be together in spirit. Go make yourself a pot of tea and relax for an hour or so, letting yourself dream of the people your writing will touch and how you will make this happen.
SIDEBAR: The Column Query
The best way to promote your column is to make an upbeat, attractive flyer that describes it in glowing terms. I recommend a single sheet of letter-sized high quality paper (8.5 in. by 11 in.) Here is sample wording:
Pen and Mouse, by Elizabeth Laden A weekly guide to more successful home-based news, feature, and fiction writing by a working writer and editor. 900-1200 words Topics include
Pen and Mouse By Elizabeth Laden A weekly guide . . . YES! We would love to publish Pen and Mouse in our weekly newspaper. Here is all the information you need to get started. Name of publication: Contact person: Mailing Address: Mailing address for invoice if different: Phone and fax: Start month: Deadline: E-mail address for column: Slug: Attachment okay? Yes or No Please fax or mail the above information to: Pen and Mouse, etc.Print the bio on white paper, the flyer on off white or earth-toned paper, and the order form on light to medium yellow, blue, or green paper. Or use other combinations, but be conservative unless you are a wacky writer with a wacky theme for wacky publications, Then of course, get wacky!
The query letter will tie it all together:
Dear Editor: (Get the exact name of the person.) Please consider adding my weekly column on home-based writing to your publication. I am confident it will serve your readers a medley of fresh ideas and inspiration. Details are enclosed, along with biographical and ordering information. Thank you for your time, and please call me if you have any questions. Sincerely, Elizabeth LadenPrint your pic and logo on letter-sized photo paper so they do not get lost. Send it all in a 10 by 13 envelope, preferably a colored one with an attractive mailing label that displays the name and logo of your column. If you can afford it, send it by Express mail or Fed X. Never make any part of your mailing returnable. Editors hate SASE's!
Before you mail this, find out when the editor's production day is and do not mail it so it arrives on this day or the day before. Editors often toss mail in a pile and lose it on production days!
Send sample columns that include at lest one column about a seasonal event, such as Christmas or Mother's Day, so the editor knows you will follow the calendar in your writing. Many publications want editorial and feature content to connect to holidays and seasons whenever possible.
Three days after you know your package arrived, send a brief e-mail noting that you sent the information and saying you are ready to answer any questions she or he may have. If you do not hear anything in two weeks, e-mail again, or call.
This series originally appeared in The National Association of Women Writers Newsletter
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Elizabeth Laden is the founder of the Sowers Syndicate and an award winning novelist, as well as the co-publisher of the Island Park News, a weekly newspaper in Island Park, Idaho. She was also the project editor of the Fertile Ground Seasons Project, which published four inspirational books written by women.