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 (www.elderly.com)
-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.