In 1985, when this examiner started writing and reporting, journalism was an exciting field full of opportunity. To have an article published was A Big Deal. The letter (yes, snail mail) from an editor informing us that we would be published was frame-worthy.
Flash forward 30 years (gulp) and it’s still exciting, but so much has changed. Editors are usually reviewing our pitches online (often, but not always) and getting “published” can mean different things. Bloggers can publish within minutes. It’s no longer a long germinating process to get published if one looks at the array of options these days. However, to be published in top tier magazines, newspapers and online is just as competitive as ever. In some ways, it may be even tougher because one has to muscle her way through and prove herself a bit more.
If you are new to this game, here are some tips. While some is old school, and you may develop your own ideas, by and large this advice is sound:
- Know your subject matter. If you are going to write freelance articles or do hard news reporting, you’ll need to ensure you’re up to speed on your topic. (You should also develop an area or two of expertise.) Editors hate it when freelancers lie their way into a job, and yet of course, it does happen. There is a difference between trumpeting your strengths and claiming to be a war correspondent when you’re a pacifist who doesn’t even know where Afghanistan is.
- Find out the editor’s name and title prior to pitching. While it may be necessary to simply write “Dear Editor(s),” I would hardly recommend it. If you get a letter addressed to “Dear Resident” at your home address, don’t you toss it? Of course. Think like an editor. What does he want? Know his name! It makes people feel good. And please don’t misspell it. You can get all this information by finding a current copy of the publication at Barnes & Noble or online. If you are checking Writer’s Market be careful and ensure it’s current information.
- Keep your moodiness to yourself. Even if you read about Hunter S. Thompson’s antics and found them “romantic,” don’t kid yourself: You are not Hunter S. Thompson. And besides, he earned the right to be unpredictable. You haven’t. Be polite. When you are rejected (and this will be most of the time), be polite. Don’t try to tell the editor why he or she is wrong! This is a cardinal sin. It’s true that some editors may be a) too busy to have really read your pitch; b) have their own agenda; c) be misogynists; or d) just be nasty people, but assume that if they are in a position of authority they know what they’re talking about. Besides, the alternative is you’ll never write for them again. They may even talk to their friends at tell them not to hire you either!
- Spellcheck and grammar check your work. And I am not just talking about Spellcheck. I mean read the letter back. The word “thing” can go through as “think” and you won’t catch it unless you are checking yourself and not relying on the computer. There is not a writer alive who won’t catch a few errors when she re-reads her work.
- Link to your past work on related topics. If you are pitching on, say, earthquakes in Japan then link to the story you reported on earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line, even if it was your college reporting.
- And a word on college reporting: Be proud of it. While you will develop as a journalist as time goes by, your enthusiasm will never be more effusive. It’s infectious. Older people will gravitate toward you and want to hire you because of your passion. So let that show in your work and how you present it and yourself.
- Don’t work when you’re sick. I know, I know, martyrs are constantly bragging about how they worked through colds, flu, chicken pox, what have you, but do not do it. This examiner once made the mistake of working on a book project during a bout of flu and luckily, her editor flat out told her, “This isn’t up to your usual standards.” Lesson learned. If you are sick, log off the computer (after you’ve told your editors you’ll be off for a day as you recuperate) and get better. If you need three or four days, you need three or four days.
- Constantly look for and note inspiration. Keep your ideas on a small notepad or on your tablet. Inspiration comes when we least expect it – while walking the dog, while flying home for a wedding, while packing groceries at our day jobs. I remember the story of a writer whose very catchy book title came to him as he was driving. This examiner wrote her one and only song while working as a camp counselor, sitting on a rock in Yosemite. Didn’t have a notepad so had to run back to camp and scribble it out!
- Be polite about simultaneous submissions. If you are pitching editors simultaneously, let them know after you’ve made sure it’s ok. You can find this out by checking Writer’s Market. You might also consider giving editors a certain amount of time to get back to you before you broach the subject of pitching someone else.
- Write a winning query letter. This means catching the editor’s attention in your first line, and then keeping it into the whole first paragraph. Obviously, you don’t want to lose their attention anywhere in the letter (or e-mail). Favor shorter pitches that include links to your published work if you have any (you should, as mentioned above, at least link to your college articles.) Use words carefully; don’t waste space. Editors are ridiculously busy, sometimes logging on to find 200 e-mails in their in-boxes. Make life easy for them. Entertain and inform them with your query, and you’ll be hired.