Mark Terry

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 4

January 31, 2008

Today's topic is what to write and who to write it for.

And pay attention! This is probably the single most important thing I have to say about making a living as a freelance writer.

A couple years ago an acquaintance of mine who is retired wanted to pick my brain about freelancing. First, I asked him how much money he wanted to make, and it was a very moderate amount. He had income coming in, but he wanted to bring in another $500 a month. No problem, I thought.

But when I told him what I'm going to tell you today, I could tell he either wasn't getting it or was disregarding it. He started obsessing about a particular story idea he had and where he might be able to sell it. Wrong!


Say you've got an idea for a magazine article. You think it's cool. So then you go out and try to find somebody who will publish that story idea.

Well, yes, you can do that. Most people who try to break into freelance writing try this. They say, for instance, "I've recently put my mother into a nursing home, so I want to write an article about that. Who will publish that?"

Okay, yes, that's possible, and I think if an idea really strikes you, fine, pursue it.


[Please pay attention to this, it's important]

A freelance writer is providing a commodity (need) for someone who has a (need) that they have to fill. In fact, magazines and other publications really do not want a hole. They need material. They NEED to have something to go in that publication spot on a very regular basis. It's difficult for them to fill it, whether they're working with staffers or freelancers. Week after week, month after month, they need to make sure they have something well-done, topical, and most importantly THERE. If they got NOTHING, they are SCREWED. (I'm the editor of a technical journal. It only comes out 4 times a year. And let me tell you, I would rather have total crap that I have to rewrite from scratch than have nothing to publish at all).     

But a magazine like, say, Cosmo, isn't likely to run an article about the blood-sucking habits of vampire bats (unless it's some new beauty treatment, and frankly, could it be worse than injecting one of the most deadly toxins on the planet into your face to remove wrinkles?)

Thinking up the idea then finding a market for it is BACKWARD.

Let's say that you're into guitar. You play it, you're in a band, maybe you even collect them. So you don't say, "Hey, I want to write an article about playing in a band, who will publish that?" What you do is go to Writers Market and do a search for magazines about guitars or music. You'll find several, including Guitar World. If they take material from freelancers, you're all set.

Now, go through their online archives. If you're serious about it, go to the store and buy a couple copies. Online archives have been a total blessing for freelancers, but if you want back issues, you can usually order them through the publisher. There's even this place I've heard about called a library and the rumor is they have back issues of magazines, too. Go figure.

Look at the magazine and see what they've published in the past. Check out their tone. Check out length. Most of all, see what they're doing. I got a few issues of MacWorld when I bought my computer and it was interesting because I was surprised to read criticism of Mac products and software. And there was a lot of freelance work being done there. (Another thing to check out, the nature of the freelancers). An example: Smithsonian works with a stable of repeating freelancers, people pretty much at the top of the field. But note something else very important about Smithsonian--the writer is almost always injected into the story. The writers essentially become characters in the magazine articles.

Okay. I find idea generation kind of hard, but here's the next step. Let's say, because I'm interested in guitars, that I want to write for some magazine called (I'm making this up), Guitar Today. By going through the magazine, I note that the majority of the articles in Guitar Today are about the industry--reviews of guitars, interviews with guitar store owners and guitar manufacturers. They also typically will profile one musician who's big who uses a specific type of guitar or has a guitar line with Fender or somebody. They almost always profile a luthier, some person living in Idaho or Vermont who makes 6 guitars a year and sells them for $25,000 a piece and is getting rave reviews.

Now, just this last weekend (I'm not making this up) my family and I visited a guitar store in Lansing, Michigan called Elderly Instruments. We bought my oldest son a Paul Reed Smith Custom SE. (The youngest son's similar guitar is awaiting a tax return). It's a seriously cool store. Now, here are potential story ideas for Guitar Today.

-A profile of Elderly Instruments.
-An evaluation of Elderly Instruments website sales (
-How to motivate your sales staff (commissions, spiffs, etc).
-Hands off the merchandise. In a store that operates by getting people to try out the guitar, how do you keep would-be customers and lookee-lous from damaging the instruments?
-Interview the bouncer, the little old lady at the front of the store who checks all the packages going out to make sure you didn't come in with a 60-year-old Yamaha acoustic and walk out with a Martin. I just know she has stories to tell.
-You can buy a Yamaha acoustic at Target for about $280 and a Martin acoustic at Elderly Instruments for $10,000. Is there a difference? (There is, but I'm not convinced, at least for me, that it's worth $9,000. I hope to God there's a middle ground.).

You see where I'm going here?

Let's break it down.

1. Find general topics that interest you (or that leverage your interests).

2. Research markets to find publications that handle the types of things that interest you.

3. Analyze the market to figure out what kind of topics they publish and how they approach those topics (also, ask yourself the question: Who are the readers?)

4. Brainstorm story ideas for that particular market.

5. Focus on the perfect story for that market that hasn't been done before, or comes at a common story topic with a fresh slant. (This ain't easy).

6. Ask yourself: What is this publication looking for?

Trust me, this works a lot better, particularly on an ongoing basis, then coming up with an idea and hunting for a story idea.

Mark Terry


Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

This is great series, thanks!

May I ask? How much research does it take in terms of time? To have a career at it, how many nonfiction words, roundabout, are you writing every day?

6:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

For the type of magazine articles I'm talking here, not a hell of a lot. I'm a big user of magazine's websites and I don't typically need to read a dozen articles top to bottom, but look at titles to see what topics are being covered.

Also a little cheat I didn't mention before. If you want to write for one magazine, go check out their competitors to see what they're writing about. Then pitch similar articles to the mag you want to write for if they haven't done it already.

I often get ideas for the mags I DO write for by checking out their competitors magazines.

The funny thing about being a freelance writer is that at times, if I weren't always working on some fiction, I might have days when I don't write at all. I'm spending it interviewing people and transcribing interviews. Also, because I'm currently doing a lot of market and industry-based reports, I spend a lot more time on that kind of research. For instance, I just today finished off a white paper that basically summarized stock analyses of the two major lab companies. The white paper is about 17 manuscript pages long, but in order to write it I had to read four companies' analyses and spent a lot of time online reading what people had to say (and bringing my stock market vocabulary up-to-date).

I'd also point out that the vast majority of my type of articles are phone interview pieces or website searches. When I wrote for The Oakland Press I sometimes had to go and observe something or interview people in their homes or whatever. I interviewed a famous Detroit baseball player and his wife and son because they had formed a foundation for autistic children, I went and visited a yoga class for teenagers, I went to the local dog shelter for a story on a dog trainer, I visited Camp Bow-Wow for a piece on doggie daycare.

Generally speaking, although those can be a of fun, they're not wildly cost-effective unless you're working for a publication that pays really well. I have a freelance writer friend who for a long time was doing celebrity profiles for Esquire and one of the men's magazines, I think Men's Journal. I understand he was making about $15,000 per article, but he was also traveling all over the country and shadowing these people for a couple days and talking to friends and business associates. His wife once somewhat drily (or sarcastically, it's a little hard to tell) said, "Yeah, he spends $18,000 to make $15,000."

So it kind of depends.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

So Mark . . .
Maybe you answered this.

Are those your legs?


1:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Nope Erica. Not my legs, although the windchill the last couple days here in Michigan has been about -10 degrees and we're expecting about 10 inches of snow between midnight tonight and tomorrow evening, so I really wish they were mine.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Aimlesswriter said...

I was actually thinking of a combination of finding a jobs online (from the sites you listed) and working on articles I'd like to write. I thought I had some ideas to target to woman's mags. I've read them all and the one thing I notice is that most of the articles are repeats with twists. I can start an article and know exactly where its going.
2 Questions: If you write an artical can you submit to a few mags at a time? Multiple submissions? And how many magazine do you subscribe to???

7:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

First, it sounds like you're planning on writing the article from scratch without an assignment. If you're unpublished, that's probably the way to go, although keep in mind that the article may just work as a sample to prove you can write.

I'm sort of neutral on multiple submissions because, well, who's going to know? And even if I were writing on the same topic for different publications, I would try to spin each one and use fresh quotes and even fresh interviews in the unlikely event that everybody wanted to buy it. But that's more of a problem if you're writing the article on spec and sending it out. It's up to you, I guess, but one at a time in that case is probably the best way to go, although if I were you I would put a time limit (in your head, if nowhere else) on how long you'll wait for word back. Give yourself a week or two and then if there's no word, send it out to somebody else.

Hmmm, magazines.

Time (always running late on it)
Smithsonian (I think I'm still reading 2006 issues although maybe I'm into 2007 somewhere)
USA Today

Not so much there, but, as part of my writing gig, I get newsletters that I read cover to cover:

Laboratory Industry Report
Diagnostic Testing & Technology Report
National Intelligence Report
G2 Compliance Report

That's a lot of reading. I wrote regularly for LIR, but don't at the moment, although I never know when some of my other work for the publisher will show up in one of them.

Then, I get Clues and the Third Degree, which are newsletters for Mystery Writers of America and the Midwest Chapter of MWA (they're reversed, actually).

I get an online newsletter from ITW, which I regularly contribute to.

I get an irregular newsletter from the tie-in writers organization (IAMATIW, I think it is). I'm not a member, but I like their newsletter.

I used to get ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals, but I've let that lapse.

And we get two local newspapers, The Oakland Press (on the weekends) and The Oxford Leader (once a week).

I got about 6 months free of MacWorld and it's a good magazine, but I'm not sure I'll sign up for it.

My son brought home a magazine sale thing for school and he's probably going to get a subscription to Guitar World and he pointed out there's Acoustic Guitar, which sounds pretty cool for me.

And of course, a bunch of listservs and e-newsletters like Publishers Lunch and ShelfAwareness, and Crypto Security, MurderMustAdvertise, MWA Breakout, and I get regular alerts from Google and a PR Newswire for Journalists that alerts me to articles and press releases that are out there on topics of interest (biotech and clinical diagnostics--I recommend this to freelancers, actually), Association of Health Care Journalists, and Dark Reports, as well as just about every financial advisor, biotech company and hospital I've ever interviewed has me on their mailing list and sends me things--I'm kept busy deleting, but you never know, there's valuable stuff in a lot of them for story ideas.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Julie Weathers said...

Thanks for posting this series. I've been thinking about freelancing some horse stories.

The racing magazine I've been with for seventeen years wants me to come back as contract labor this spring and work the 2008 racing season. Just not sure I want to work seven days a week and nearly 24 hours on Mondays to hit the Tuesday deadlines.

Freelancing seems like a more sane alternative, so I really appreciate this information.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Good luck, Julie.

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