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How to Break into the World of Freelance Journalism

How to Break into the World of Freelance Journalism

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

As a writer, I always found that columns were one area that seemed beyond my reach. I couldn’t believe my opinions and ideas would ever gain a following.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

Recently, however, some colleagues have asked me how to break into the media market. Their comments were laced with the names of memorable figures whom we read daily or maybe in the Sunday commentary sections. So is it possible for non-professional writers to break into freelance journalism? Yes, indeed – if you play by the rules.

First, Do Your Research into Your Target Publication

Before you start to write, read columns in several newspapers to learn their individual styles so you can emulate them when you send off your contribution. Also read the short bios at the end of each column.

Look for bios that indicate the writer is a professor at a college, an employee at some business, a church leader or someone who is a member of an organization who has some special experience. They are guest columnists, which is what you will be. When you read those short author bios you will find that the subject of their article most often relates to that short bio.

For that short bio of yours, the key word is short. It’s just something that will tell your readers that you just might know what you are writing about. You will find that all those fancy degrees and certifications you have behind your name as a college professor or a lawyer do not matter.

Learn about Word Limits and Publication Styles

When you study those guest columns, count the number of words. You will see that they are all about the same size, between 800 and 1,100 words. In the print business word count is critical. The editor can play with that number of words to make them fit nicely on the page.

Editors generally want short columns that capture readers’ attention. They don’t expect you to be a new George Will or Dave Barry. If you try to write the history of the current occupant of the White House or how racism got its start in the U.S., forget it. If you want to write 2,000 to 20,000 words, write a book or give a lecture somewhere.

What Should I Write about to Get Started in Freelance Journalism?

I look to the unusual and fun stuff for starters. A topic of discussion with students in one of my university courses in logistics was ugly food – that is, misshapen, off-colored and wrong-size fruits and vegetables that often go unsold even though they are perfectly good.

I got the idea for a column because my hometown newspaper in Wilson, North Carolina, had written about local vendors selling fruits and vegetables at outdoor stands and what was available at the local grocery stores. So, I wrote an ugly-food column which the editor published.

Just before Thanksgiving I did a little research from my kitchen book shelves and paid a few visits to a local bakery. That led to writing a pecan pie story, which seemed to go over well. And I do like pecan pies. A tip: Write about something you enjoy.

If you have read this far, you have some ideas of topics. But your ideas are subject to change by what that newspaper is covering. One hint is to find out what is happening on special days. Be sure not to write about Christmas during December. All other columnists will have done that.

Study Upcoming Holidays and Other Festivities for Topic Ideas

While everyone knows about Christmas and Veterans Day, who knows about Pretzel Day? (It’s April 26, if you want to get an early start.) Study those U.S. holidays coming up in 2020 for column ideas that other guest or regular columnists will not bother to cover.

Where Should You Submit Your Writing?

The newspaper or magazine you choose is important. To break into the freelance writing business, start with your local newspaper. If you live in a big city where the newspaper is The New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have to wait a long time to break into print.

Is there a local newspaper in your past? Were you born in a small town and then moved away? Target that newspaper. Did you work for a few years in some other town or on a military base? Then go back to the newspaper in those areas. The goal is to build credibility with published articles.

Format Your Article in a Word Document

Your column should be formatted as a Word document that has a title at the top, your byline under it, along with the word count and the date submitted; also with that short bio at the end. For your name, keep it simple. No fancy titles. Don’t even use that Ph.D. designation after your name. It does not add credibility to how good pecan pie tastes.

Double-space your submission in a standard font, Times New Roman is almost a universally accepted typeface. Never single-space in italics!

Above all, make sure your spelling and grammar are absolutely correct. Don’t rely on a computer spell-checker because they often make more errors than they correct. A single misspelled word is enough for an editor to consign your hard work to the trash basket.

Before you attach your Word doc submission to the email, check with the publication. Many publications will not accept email attachments for fear of introducing a virus or some other malware into their system.

You can send your column within the email itself as long as it’s not too long. Or try submitting only the first couple of paragraphs to give the editor a clear idea of what your column looks like. Just be sure the paragraphs are standouts.

Find the newspaper editor’s name, usually in the masthead among the first few pages of the publication. You’ll also find the email address where to send your submission. That email should have an eye-catching subject line, something like, “Corey, for nostalgia, you can’t beat old Christmas carols I think your readers may enjoy.” Include your name, mailing address, phone number and email address at the bottom of the email.

Finally, you might want to attach a photo of yourself, just a nice head shot and a smile.

Do It Again and Again, Next Week

Warning: Depending on the circulation size of your targeted publication and other factors, your guest column may be rejected. How will you find out? Some kindly editors will send you a rejection email or your column simply will not appear in the newspaper.

If your freelance column does not show up in the targeted newspaper within about seven days (or after the holiday you’ve written about), mostly likely it has been trashed. Start another column. Change the subject. Try again.

Freelance Journalism Requires Persistence, Work and Patience

Breaking into the newspaper business as a guest columnist is possible. But you do have to do your leg work.

Even if you are published, you probably will not be paid for your work. Magazines will often send you a couple of free copies in lieu of payment. Not so with newspapers. You’ll have to pay for them at your local supermarket. You might go to the newspaper offices and ask for a free copy of the paper in which your column ran. You just might get lucky. Sometimes I do.

Finally, can your guest column writing turn into a paying job? The odds are long but who knows?

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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