I promised over a month ago to write a guide to getting your work into print. Before we start, though, a disclaimer:
If you are serious about starting a writing career, there are books and web sites galore that will give you more than enough information about the process of writing query letters, the right way to pitch ideas, and so on.
But say you just want to get press coverage for an issue you care about or an event you’re running. You don’t really have the time or interest to become a professional freelancer, but you have to learn the basics or no newspaper is going to give you a second glance. That’s where this might help you.
Why do I think I’m at all qualified to write this little guide? I’ve seen both sides. I’ve freelanced for local publications, and before I graduated I spent three semesters as managing editor of my school’s student newspaper. I may not be the most experienced, most rugged freelancer, but I think these tips could help anyone just starting out in the biz.
Read more after the jump.
1. Editors are busy.
This is the most important fact you can learn. Editors have their hands full just dealing with the day to day tasks of putting a paper together. They don’t have time to give you the time of day. BUT–if you do their work for them you have a much better chance of being noticed. Here’s what you can do:
- E-mail your press release or well-written article. Use a subject line that explains what you’re talking about and why it matters: don’t ever use a subject line like “A story idea for you” or “Here’s a great new product you might want to write about.” That screams advertisement, spam, or virus. When I was answering the student newspaper e-mail box, anything without a good subject didn’t even get opened. Your subject line could even be the same as the headline you’ve slaved over; once you’ve figured out the best way to sum up your story in one sentence, why only use it once?
- If you don’t get a response via e-mail, remember the cardinal rule: Editors are busy. E-mail or call again, but don’t be pushy. What finally worked for me when I was just starting out was a visit to the newspaper’s office. I had a long talk with the secretary and left an envelope with her containing a draft, my contact information, and a cover letter explaining who I was. Soon after, I got an e-mail from the editor (who had never returned my e-mails or voice mails before) asking for a digital copy of the story; it was published the next week.
- This is a no-brainer, but do your homework. Spell things correctly, write well, follow AP rules, and so on. (Again, Vox has tips on how to do this. Besides her post, though, do your own research. Pick up a copy of The Elements of Style if you aren’t sure how to write.)
2. Editors are on a budget.
Yes, there are freelancers who make quite a decent living writing for glossy supermarket magazines. This is not you, and the newspapers you’ll be writing to–little local rags–won’t have the money to make you rich. That’s okay. Make it clear that you’re not after the big bucks or self-promotion, but that you’re submitting because you think what you’re writing about is important. I don’t know if I’d bring this up on first contact, but do keep in mind that an editor may assume you want a huge sum of money, and you should be prepared to dispel that.
At the same newspaper I mentioned above, after I had the money conversation with the editor, he surprised me by sending me a $50 check. Certainly not what you’d call competetive, but it was completely unexpected because I had told him I wasn’t writing for money. May you also be so lucky.
3. Editors are human.
Everyone has his or her own preferences; everyone has an idea of The Right Way to run a newspaper. If your idea is solid, well-written, you followed my suggestions, and you still got a rejection, don’t give up. Maybe the person you submitted to just didn’t like the idea. Maybe they covered something similar recently. Try a different newspaper in your area. Try a local blog. Just try things; eventually something will work.