If you want to build a non-fiction career, one good way to start is right in your own backyard.
While local newspapers are facing tremendous economic pressures, they still need content, and many of them have laid off positions in the editorial department. That means fewer writers and fewer stories, as they often have to concentrate limited resources on crime, schools, government, and the usual core community interests.
This leaves room for freelance feature writers. While some newspapers still pay a small flat fee for articles, the operative word may turn out to be “free.” Still, writing a few features can give you some credits, build your skills, and possibly lead to more work (or a job offer) down the road.
In my 12 years in the business, I have seen a stream of freelancers come and go, yet a few stuck and turned in regular content. A couple got hired with us, were hired by other papers, or moved on to other writing occupations. Here are tips that set apart the successful freelancers, and the steps to take.
1) Contact the editor of your local paper. It’s obvious, but unless you make yourself known and available, you won’t be found. If you have writing credits, mention them. You’ll probably be asked to submit samples of your writing.
2) Have some story ideas to pitch. “People features” are especially welcome, because the only competitive edge local papers now have is they are able to touch diverse sections of the community. Not everyone has wireless and not everyone wants to read news online yet. Tradition still counts for something.
3) Deliver the stories in a timely manner. You may be asked to sit in on a story meeting with the staff. Pay attention to the way the writers present their ideas and the angles they explore. Be willing to step in and pinch-hit in an emergency.
4) Write a straightforward story with enough color to be interesting but no editorializing or grandstanding. Start with a great lead line that serves as a hook. Then include the “Who, what, when, where, why.” Be solid and make the story about your subject, not your brilliant writing.
5) Be prepared to do another one. Don’t feel like you are “done” because one of your articles published.
Where I’ve seen freelancers fail:
1) They don’t turn in a story or they spend weeks writing it. Newspapers come out daily, or several times in a week, in most communities, even the small ones. Editors need a constant supply of fresh content, and they are always under deadline pressure. They don’t have time to coax someone along.
2) Having only one story in them. Many writers have one passion, and when they write that story, they are not inspired by anything else. Cultivate many interests, or else this probably won’t work for you.
3) They turned in sloppy copy. If the editor spends more time fixing it than it would take to write the story from scratch, then you’re a drain instead of a resource. Next.
To summarize, freelancing for your local paper is one of the easiest ways to develop some skills and get published. It may not lead to a long-term journalism career, but practice is practice. Even if you’re a fiction writer, the effort will be rewarding because it teaches you persistence. Many fiction writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Sharyn McCrumb among them—started as journalists. So sharpen your story ideas and give your local editor a call or e-mail.
Scott Nicholson is the author of nine novels, four comic book series, three story collections, and six screenplays. He’s a freelance editor and journalist living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. More writing tips are available at http://www.hauntedcomputer.com.