Friday, August 18, 2006

The (News)Paper Chase

I would like to do some freelance writing for the local paper back home here. I was wondering two things.
1) Should I have my article written before I query the editor? Or should I wait to see if they're interested?
2) How much do I charge for that?

1) I touched on this earlier in the week in one of the "comments" sections, but I thought I'd reiterate this here. Never, ever, EVER send in a completed story before you've received an assignment. Never. (Was that clear enough?) The only exceptions to this rule are essays and some travel pieces.

Why not? Wouldn't this save everyone some time? No. Here's why.

An editor is there for a reason. Part of his job is to choose which stories will work in his magazine (or paper) and why. Thus, when you send him a germ of an idea, it's only a germ. He's the one who gets to choose the angle, advise you how to write it, and assess how it can best blend into the rest of the magazine. If you've already written the whole piece, how on earth can he do this? Believe it or not, every magazine strives to differentiate itself from its competitors. You might think that SELF, SHAPE, FITNESS, WOMEN'S HEALTH, and HEALTH are interchangeable, but trust me, the editors at each magazine do not. (And as a writer for these mags, neither do I.) In fact, a story works for SELF might not work for FITNESS...I'm not talking about the story idea, I'm talking about the completed story. Yes, they're both going to cover weight loss, but SELF might do it by running a piece that features tips from real women, while WOMEN'S HEALTH might do it by featuring top experts in the field and breaking it up into body type. See where I'm going with this? Unless you've permeated your editor's brain, there's no way that you can know how they want a piece covered. Maybe they like your story idea but have recently covered a similar angle - they'll want to take that story idea and come up with something fresh. Or maybe the angle is working, but they'll want you to list which experts you'll interview before they give you the green light. Who knows? There are a million variations on these hypotheticals...the bottom line is that if you've already sent in the completed story, you're not giving the editor a chance to make the piece fit his particular niche. And he'll shoot you down faster than you can say, "Jack Bauer."

Finally, I should note that sending in a completed piece is a blatent sign of a newbie. Because it's so verboten, seasoned writers would simply never do it...and those who do wave their beginner flag all too clearly. So take my advice: draft a kick-ass query - detailed enough to grab the editor's attention, complete with why this story is right for him, why it needs to be told now, how you would tell it, and why you're the one to tell it, then send it off. That should impress him just fine.

2) Payment. You don't tell him how much you charge, he tells you how much he pays. Which doesn't mean that there isn't room for negotiation, only that the editor/paper/magazine sets the standard and you use this as a launching point. (There are some exceptions for this - start-ups might ask me how much I usually get paid, but again, they're the exception, and I'd never pitch a story and add in, "I expect $XX for this piece.") Newspapers don't pay that well - I'll be blunt. I don't write for them, but I'd guess that you'll get a couple hundred bucks for a story - max, somewhere in the ballpark of, say, 10-35 cents a word. But that's not the point for you right now. You want to build clips, as well as your portfolio, and local papers are a great way to start.

Anyone out there write for papers and want to share his or her general rates?


Anonymous said...

Not entirely related to this post, but I'm wondering if it's too late to get into freelance writing if you've already spent significant time in a different career. I've been a lawyer for 8 years. I had previously worked at magazines and newspapers (during college). I don't have any recent clips, plus I'm working full time (not to mention the two young kids). Any advice on how to break into this business? I would imagine legal publications would be the best bet for me, and I think my legal credentials would help me. Thanks for any insight.

Dawn said...

I write for a few newspapers, and yes, $200 is realistic. Actually, anywhere between $150 and $350, depending on the story (and they rarely pay per word -- they just give a word count range for a flat fee). However, it totally depends on what you mean by the "local paper back home." If you're talking about a little weekly or community paper, rates are probably far lower (even as low as $50).

llqool said...

I am writing for 2 regional magazines (they're the kind of magazine that's actually newsprint). They actually pay a lot less than the amount you named, but as you said, I'm doing it for the clips. (for comparison purposes, about $50 for short pieces, $100-150 for features). I was lucky enough to be able to work my way in by way of writing an essay for one of the magazines. The editor liked my piece and she assigned me some more stories. It's a foot in the door, not a way to make a living!

In answer to the first comment, I would mention that I have NO professional journalism experience (I was the editor of my high school newspaper!). I have 3 degrees in completely unrelated fields. So when I sent my resume to the editor, I emphasized how my work experiences actually did involve a lot of writing (most do, especially law, I would think!). Oh, and I also pitched a ton of story ideas to the editor. I emphasized how my diverse experiences (as a military wife, as a mother of 2 wild chillun, as a computer programmer, as a linguist, software trainer, etc. etc) could bring something new and unique to the table. She ended up giving me a monthly column on technology and the family to write.

So now I think I have finally gotten to the point where I have built up enough clips to be able to send out queries to a "real" magazine. And that's what I'm just starting to do!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Dawn and LL-
Thanks for sharing your experiences! I'm sure that they'll help the person who wrote in.

Anon - I've dealt a little bit with breaking in - check the archives - but will address this in more detail next week. Thanks for stopping by!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

PS - LL - it sounds like you're well on your way! Congrats!!

Toni-Ann said...

Allison, thanks for this great blog! As someone who is trying to break into freelance, the advice here was extremely helpful! I'm looking for more advice about the query. I'm hoping to start small (because I'm a high school English teacher and a waitress) but soon. I was hoping to get a health and fitness column into the local newspaper to start my portfolio. I want to write a good query, but would love more advice from you on the subject!
Thanks, Toni-Ann