Saturday, May 22, 2010

Getting Non-fiction Clips

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

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  1. "Get it in on time" is such good advice. When I was fresh and eager I proposed an article to Redbook and they said "send it." I was so excited I couldn't write it and couldn't get the copy in on time.

    A staff writer ended up filing the page. I imagine I was on a don't call list.

    I learned a lot from that. One thing was to write the article first, then revise it as necessary. With age, I would have done it better.

  2. Don't be afraid to approach your local paper. I have a friend in the Dallas area who did and he ended up writing articles for them on a regular basis.


  3. Hey, another NC writer!
    I've written non-fiction and hope to expand into the market of newspaper and magazines for additional work.

  4. Great tips, Scott. I started my career at a newspaper in a suburb of Dallas. Started with a weekly column, then went to reviews, and finally feature stories. I was lucky that I didn't have to do the work for free, but it was some years before I started earning enough that it made a significant dent in our household budget. LOL

  5. Is the right side of the post cutting off for anyone else? I jumped over from Networked Blogs on FB.

  6. Yep, Muttie is a freelance journo and she started off by doing five months work with a community newspaper for FREE. Ok, it was unpaid but she was doing bar work at night and it gave her great cuttings, as well as showing prospective and future employers she was serious about her work. She went on to have a good career on daily newspapers but now loves freelancing where she can make her own hours. Altho it is hard in this day and age with newspapers cutting back. Most of her work these days is for online mags. Writing non-fiction is great fun though and not as difficult as fiction!

    Milt x

  7. Newspaper clips can help you move into magazine work and magazine work can lead to non-fiction books. I've done a little but prefer to put my time into fiction. Obviously, online content is becoming the name of the game, but sites still need a fresh supply of good copy.

    Scott Nicholson

  8. This is very true. Just a quick look on Craigslist for writers and you can see that papers are looking for local people for content. Yet, I've always been frightened to take the plunge and ask or respond to one of the ads. After reading your post however, I may just do so. I'm feeling it....


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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