How to stop bitching and sell your writing


This is my response to a young writer who emailed me yesterday, frustrated because he/she can’t make money by selling his/her writing. Here’s how to stop bitching and sell your writing.

First – when I Googled this writer, I found no evidence of a professional writer marketing a business. The writer has no website. No blog. No authority. Few writing credits. His first job, if he wishes to get the attention of editors is to become present on the Web. He has to build a website.

(If any writers need help with that part, consider this option. Don’t skim over it – if you don’t know how to build a portfolio website, read the page and thoroughly consider your priorities. Editors and publishers are busy – trying to keep head above water. They browse the web to see if writers who submit material are serious writers, wannabes or hobbiests.)

Next – the writer must polish her writing. There are free online courses at a most prestigious journalism organization for pro journalists and writers. Take some of the classes and do every bit of the work. I do at least one of their courses each week and I have been in the business for 30 years. I recommend this particular writer look into classes on writing leads. The lead must capture the editor in the first sentence. It MUST say what the article is about, in editorial writing – which is what she is trying to break into.

Our particular writer’s leads are poetic and well-composed. That might work in an academic paper but it is not an article lead for publication. I also suggested he decide which person or point-of-view to use in any article. No switching from third to second to third.

Otherwise, this writer’s grammar, thank God, is fine when he submits finished work, at least what I saw.

Next, this freelancer has to decide what her specialty is and become an absolute expert. Being perceived as a specialist with some sort of platform is essential. Competition is fierce. In this economy, every out-of-work anybody has become a writer or a website designer. Most can’t do either job.

Every young writer should buy this year’s edition of Writer Markets – and read it. Cover to cover. Read it again.

If the writer seeks to do newspaper work, features and columns (syndicated) pay better than news, no matter how cool the scoop. He must write high-volume, accurately and never, ever miss a deadline even by one minute.

One of the long-term gigs I have is a set of band profiles for a newspaper pull-out section in the Gulf Coast area. I get $55 per article, but I do four a week. They take less than an hour, including phone interviews. I have done that for three years. The math is regular and appealing. Most of my work for print pubs pays substantially more, but I grew into those rates. I did not start out making what I make now.

I advise this writer to develop a business plan. If she wishes to make a living as a writer, she must be willing to work long hours, and 40% of her time must be given to marketing, at least in the beginning.  Online marketing – to websites and ezines – keep it to 10% or less. Competition is fierce. Eighteen year-old kids are submitting articles about celebrities to websites. Thousands of them. Pulitzer prize winners, who have been canned this year, are submitting stuff to websites, too

The writer should plan on 50% of his regular work being for local and regional print publications or their web-side companion pubs. It’s a good idea to call and ask the feature editor’s name and email,  if it isn’t on the website. Then email him/her clips and a polished resume. Send a cover letter detailing  expertise, background, specialty and goals.

Tell the editor, concisely, what you can to do for them.

Not, “I want to write and I’ll do anything.”

Not “My mom tells me I’m a skilled writer – I can make your life wonderful.”

But “I am known as an expert in technology for baby boomers. My work in that topic has been published in Acme Tech Newsletter, The Podunk Herald and Wherever. I note that you don’t yet have a section (column, writer, blog…) devoted to that topic. It’s a hot topic trend and growing. Here are the demographics…”

Wait 21 days, then follow up via email – include the original cover letter. Two weeks later, call.

Once you get acknowledged, make an appointment to meet the person and close the sale. If you get nothing after a month, move on.

If a beginner wants to work in any field, he must have authority, skill, and credentials. He must sell himself, not wait for employers to come find him. There is a great deal to learn before one experiences editors reaching out. Establish an aura first – a reputation that can be documented. The beginner’s job, is to build himself, create a brand, establish a platform.

While doing that, he sends out queries (learn how, first – there IS a right way, and that first sentence better be a killer.) He may contact local and regional publications, radio stations, TV stations – once he KNOWS what he wants to write.

And finally, this writer has to get rid of her anger and frustration. It shows, and it sounds sulky. This is a difficult business. Everyone thinks she is a writer. Eighty-one percent of North Americans feel they have a book “inside them.” Few are willing to work at developing a writing business.

No one owes the writer in question, or me or anyone else a living, or a chance or a response. Some editors reply, some don’t. Email often gets caught in spam filters and never reaches the recipient. Following up is good. Demanding attention or begging a response is amateurish and silly.

I wish him/her the best – and hope to see his/her byline soon.

Here’s the original article from the writer.

More resources:

Linda Formichelli’s e-course “Getting Published in Magazines.

Look into Women on Writing

Women Day by Day

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