Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Dan Rafter
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When I decided to become a journalist, I dreamed of uncovering government scandals, interviewing fascinating people and composing in-depth investigative reports for the front pages of the New York Times or Washington Post. Never, not even once, did my daydreams stray toward writing about low interest rates, fixed-rate mortgages or the intricacies of title law. Heck, when I was offered that writing job I didn't even know what the intricacies of title law were.
Fortunately, I ignored my initial misgivings and took a closer look at the position. When I did, I discovered something amazing: Writing about real estate offered great potential. With a little imagination -- and a lot of hard work -- I could significantly boost my freelance-writing income and break into markets that I'd long been struggling to crack.
Most freelancers never give a thought to writing for real estate trade magazines. To an inspired freelancer this is great news. It means less competition. While other writers are sending their story ideas to magazines that receive thousands of pitches a month, freelancers specializing in real estate can send theirs to editors who receive a tiny fraction of that amount. If you have good ideas, and, of course, talent, it's much easier to receive assignments from real estate editors than it is from their general-interest magazine peers.
And the best part is most real estate trade magazines pay reasonably well. Expect to earn anywhere from $600 to $800 for a typical 1,000- to 1,500-word story. That won't make you rich, but by stringing together enough $700 stories you can make good money in this market.
I know the question most freelancers have right about now: Isn't writing about real estate, and doing it for trade magazines, incredibly dull? Here's my short answer: "It doesn't have to be."
Here's an example: I once spent a day while working for a real estate magazine in Chicago tagging along with that city's top-selling real estate agent. This agent came to the United States directly from Ireland just four years before beginning his real estate career. Before gaining his license, he worked as a janitor at an apartment building owned by a relative.
But once he went to work selling real estate the agent never slowed down. By the age of 30, he had already suffered from ulcers, gotten married and divorced and became a multi-millionaire. By the age of 35, he had opened his own independent real estate company. Today, he travels around the world like a king. And he still talks with a thick Irish brogue, a brogue some say he deliberately emphasizes when trying to charm new clients.
This agent would make a fascinating profile for any writer. But I covered him while working for what most would consider a dry, boring trade magazine.
And this isn't the only fascinating story I've covered. I've also detailed the growing controversy over predatory lending, a story major daily newspapers, too, are covering. I've covered the tapings of home-improvement shows that later appear on national cable television stations. I've written about a mega-successful Chicago mortgage lender who, with millions in the bank and ownership of his own mortgage firm, one day jumped from his office window to his death. I've met the powerful owners of the country's biggest real estate firms, and I've gotten to witness the joy of first-time homeowners as charitable groups build them new houses.
Along the way, I've received another benefit, a huge one. Armed with a growing expertise in an area of writing few other journalists tackle, I've approached the editors of the real estate sections of some of the biggest newspapers in the country. I started with my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, where I quickly became a regular contributor to its real estate sections. Next, I moved on to the Indianapolis Star, sending stories regularly to that paper's real estate section. Last year, I began landing regular real estate assignments for the Washington Post, long a target of previously unsuccessful story pitches. Armed with clips from the Post, I finally landed an assignment with the Christian Science Monitor.
I've also used my clips at magazines such as Bay State Realtor and Texas Realtor to land assignments at other trade magazines, publications as diverse as Erosion Control Magazine and MyBusiness Magazine. Once these trade magazine editors saw that I could learn the fundamentals of one industry, they knew I could do the same for theirs.
In fact, I can attribute most of my monthly freelance assignments to the work I've done covering real estate for trade magazine editors.
Becoming an instant real estate expert
Many freelancers may shy away from this market because they fear they don't know enough about real estate to write about it. These writers should realize one thing: I didn't know a thing about the business before I began writing about it. How did I transform myself from someone who thought ARMs went into the sleeves of my coat to one who now knows they are really Adjustable Rate Mortgages? There's no secret here, I just talked to the right people, the folks who already knew everything there is to know about real estate.
The process is no different from what any freelancer goes through when he's working on a story. Say an editor asks you to write about the plans a local environmental group has to preserve a 100-acre wetlands on the edge of town. If you were the average general-assignment writer you might know a few things about wetlands. But the odds are good that you would certainly not be well versed in all the intricacies that go into preserving them.
What would you do? You'd probably first call an official with the preservation group, maybe its president. Then you'd ask him the most basic of questions: What are you doing with this wetland and how will you do it? You'd then listen attentively as he explains his group's plan. If he mentions anything you don't understand you'd politely stop him and ask for clarification.
Guess what? This is exactly the way it happens when writing for a real estate trade magazine. Say I'm writing a story about a new mortgage-loan program being introduced by a nationwide lender. First thing I do is call a high-ranking official at the company, one who will either work with the program or helped develop it. I then ask him about everything regarding the program that I either don't know or don't understand.
And the more you write about real estate, mortgage lending and title insurance, the more you'll find you know about these previously murky topics. Before long, you'll hardly be interrupting your sources at all with "Can you explain that to me again?"
There's more good news. Your local public library, bookstore and the Internet are filled with fantastic real estate resources. Just check out any book at your library or area bookstore -- as long as it's not more than 10 years old -- and thumb through it. Most of the books you'll find on the shelves are written for consumers who know nothing about the intricacies of buying a home and taking out a mortgage loan. That's good news for you: It means that the authors of these tomes have spelled out as clearly as possible what exactly a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is, or what it means to place a contingency offer on a residence.
Then, of course, there is the Internet. Here is a truly wonderful resource for the novice real estate writer. Just check out the Web sites run by the National Association of Realtors. This group has two good ones: A page targeted to consumers and househunters, http://www.realtor.com, and a second created for Realtors themselves, http://www.realtor.org. Realtor.com, besides serving as the home for the Multiple Listing Service -- the nationwide database of homes being sold by realtors -- also houses several fact-filled stories, glossaries and charts for consumers. These provide great definitions of some of the most common real estate terms.
Finding good story ideas
Writers might also worry that they'll struggle to come up with good ideas to pitch to the editors of real estate publications. They shouldn't. Good story ideas can be found just about anywhere.
Start with Web sites such as http://www.realtor.org, not to mention the home pages of newspapers with good real estate sections, such as the Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com) and Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com). These are great places to find good story ideas for trade magazine editors. These sites provide loads of information on hot-button issues that are perfect for trade magazines, everything from the long-running debate over whether banks should be allowed to enter the real estate business to the seemingly unending efforts of state legislatures to curb the abuses of predatory lenders.
You might also check out the Web home of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, http://www.mba.org. The site provides pages designed both for consumers and those for members of the mortgage-lending business. Visitors here can find news stories concerning the biggest mortgage-lending issues out there. There's also a comprehensive glossary. And don't forget to check out the association's links page. The page contains contact information for local and national lending organizations, a great place to look for possible sources
Another worthwhile site is the online home of Realty Times at http://realtytimes.com. This online real estate newspaper provides stories geared toward consumers, agents and mortgage lenders. It is probably the newsiest of all the real estate Web sites out there, and a great place to troll for story ideas, possible sources and general real estate information.
Finally, there's the online home of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/). This site contains an incredible amount of statistical information, information that can serve as the basis of an unlimited number of real estate stories.
Remember that these trade magazines are published for realtors and mortgage lenders, not for homebuyers and borrowers. They're interested in how a Realtor can boost her income. They don't care about helping homebuyers find the best housing bargain. Because of this, general business stories tend to play well with real estate editors.
For example, I recently wrote a story for a real estate trade magazine about the benefits and possible pitfalls of working with a spouse. This story could have run in any business section of any newspaper or consumer magazine in the country. The only reason it became a real estate story is because I wrote about husband-and-wife teams who happened to be real estate agents.
Finding markets and approaching editors
Once you've become a real estate expert and dug up some great story ideas, it's time to approach the editors. And what are they looking for? Here's some advice from two trade-magazine editors with whom I've worked.
Tracey Lawton, editor of Florida Realtor Magazine, published by the Florida Association of Realtors, said she rarely works with freelancers who don't come to her with specific story ideas.
"I have to admit, I don't spend a lot of time on resumes and clips unless a person sends me a story idea along with them," Lawton says. "If the query/story idea is on target, and it's obvious the writer has done some research about who the audience is, then I'll check out the clips. I'll usually e-mail the free-lancer and ask for more information about the story idea to see how responsive he or she is."
Lawton is like any other editor when it's time to decide whether her freelancers get repeat assignments.
"To guarantee future assignments you have to be reliable, ask me questions if you're not sure about the focus of an assignment and learn from your mistakes," she said. "If I return an article with questions that need detailed answers, get the info back to me promptly and make a mental note for next time to be sure you cover all your bases. Unless a piece is just beyond fixing, I usually give writers a second chance. If they're new to my magazine, I give them time to really understand the tone of the magazine and the audience before I write them off. If you haven't caught on by your second article, then I probably won't use you again."
Nancy Petersen, who is the editor of Real Estate Business Magazine, the official magazine of the Council of Residential Specialists, says she'll only give freelancers a second chance if they show some promise in an initial assignment. Too often, she says, she reads a story submitted by a freelancer only to find that he or she has provided little solid information. Remember, the readers of trade magazines are already experts in their fields. They're more interested in useful information than they are in catchy turns of phrase.
"One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is stringing a bunch of lame quotes together with no meat, no focus, no substance and trying to pass it off as an article," Petersen said. "If an interviewer gets nothing out of the subject there are just two possibilities: One, the interviewer is a dolt or, two, the subject is a dolt. If it's two, I'd rather the writer call and tell me rather than try to fake it."
There you have it: The editors of real estate trade magazines aren't much different than their peers at more mainstream publications. You, though, can set yourself apart from your freelancing peers. Turn yourself into a real estate expert and you'll never be hurting for assignments again.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about real estate for both consumer and trade publications. He lives in Chesterton, Indiana, with his wife and son.