Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Writer's Guidelines: Compensation or Karma?

When I first began submitting travel stories, I had little idea how to go about the task. Writing, on its own, is challenging enough. (I've been afflicted with a serious case of writer's block for about a month.) Writing for publication is another story...

Initially, I was so thrilled to see my first two stories published online (with a beautiful layout) at Vagabondish.com that I didn't seriously consider whether or not I should pitch them to a paying market. Later, when I received my first check (a $100 honorarium) for one of those stories, "Rite of Passage", published in the anthology The Best Women's Travel Writing 2009, I understood the importance of monetary compensation.

When I consulted with successful freelance travel writer, Michael Shapiro, on my Rio Carnival piece (see previous post), he encouraged me to hit the top market and submit first to national newspapers -- an act which landed it in the LA Times over a year later (with plenty of rejections in between). I've heard getting published has more to do with persistence than anything.

I believe that marketing one's writing, combined with timing and networking, is as important as talent and skill to publishing success. But it isn't as simple as writing whatever moves you and then sending it out. Being a nonfiction freelance writer more often means figuring out how to shape a piece for consideration before it's written. I haven't really learned how other writers do it, but after a lot of reading and some good 'ole fashioned trial and error, here's the system I'm creating. (It's a bit meticulous and methodical, but that's me!)

I've compiled a long list of possible publications for my work -- culled from Writer's Market, online searches and browsing magazine racks at libraries and bookstores. After bookmarking and copying/printing/alphabetizing over 100 guidelines from magazine websites, my next step is to generate and match story ideas with each listing. Then I query and/or shape pieces to match a particular market, and track submissions/rejections/acceptances/publishing/payment by database.

Sounds 'easy' enough, but here's the fine print:
  • Consider whether you want to publish in a newspaper, literary journal, magazine or anthology - print and/or online. Newspapers, journals and anthologies usually accept completed manuscripts, while most magazines require a query letter proposing the article.
  • Make sure the publication hasn't run a similar story or topic within the past three years. Check the archives online.
  • Always read story samples from the publication (available online) for a sense of audience, tone, style and length. It's also helpful to study the print copy to understand how various departments and sections appear.
  • To convince editors to accept your story idea you must pitch it: why this piece, why this publication, why you, why now, which department, etc.
  • Often you'll need published clips, which is where writing for free or even a blog can help initially. 
  • Always read and follow the contributor's/writer's/submission/editor's guidelines, which  are usually found at the bottom of a website or under "about us" or "contact us". (Newspapers often don't include guidelines.) Sometimes there are no guidelines provided, such as in O, the Oprah Magazine or Coastal Living, which probably means they use staff or their own pool of freelancers. Or you must request guidelines, sometimes by mail with a SASE, such as with VIA Magazine.
  • Guidelines can range from one to seven pages! They address all kinds of issues such as: focus/theme/readership; word count; sections/departments/features; how to break in -- 'front of the book'; how to submit (email vs. snail mail); whether to query or send full manuscript; response time; copyrights;% freelance; etc.  
  • Some guidelines even offer suggestions for writing great prose or structuring a story. Abroad View Magazine, for example, has two pages of writing advice like "Don't send personal travel diaries or generic tours that aim to say everything and ultimately reveal nothing." Seems obvious to me now, but it may speak to the type of submissions some receive.
  • Keep in mind that due to overloaded editors, most publications only respond if they are interested. And many can take weeks or months to reply. Most don't accept simultaneous submissions, so that means there's a long delay between sending out the same story. You do the math.
Now that I know I can sell a story, I no longer consider writing without payment as a viable option for my work. (Blogs excluded.) For an emerging writer who wants to gain visibility and develop a portfolio of clips, however, it can be a great place to start. I've got a couple of pieces on school garden education published in a local community newspaper, which could come in handy if I pitch to a paying market for similar topics. Like maintaining a blog, writing for free can develop voice, a readership and legitimacy. Most often you'll at least get a bio that links back to your own site.

My personal pet peeve is websites that don't pay, want your piece to be previously unpublished, and demand the most original writing possible. On the other extreme are those with no guidelines that will post anything at all and say "write whatever you want, any length." Some, like Get Lost Magazine, humble themselves with humor regarding their lack of payment: "Get Lost runs on contributions, extorted services, and really cheap staff benefits like donuts and mawkish praise, so we do not yet pay for pictures and stories."

And my favorite, from New Age Traveler: "We regret that at this time we cannot compensate authors other than with the positive karma your contribution will generate." For now, I'll continue pitching for payment in a tight and competitive market.

Dear reader,
Aside from the public exposure and positive karma this posting could generate, how has it benefited your writing? Please leave a comment. Look forward to more posts on the topics of writer's guidelines, query letters, clips, contracts and writing contests...


Joanna Jenkins said...

Wow, Nicole, this is VERY useful information! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I've had the "how to" conversation with numerous bloggers and never got a fraction of the info you provided. If it's okay, I'd like to post a link to your info on my blog???

I've been collecting extra copies of your LA Times article (which was fabulous!) and dropped off two more copies to RZ this past weekend.

You have inspired me to start looking at publication guidelines.


Nicole Zimmerman said...

Thanks JJ. I'm so glad the posting was helpful. Despite attending numerous classes and conferences, the whole publishing thing remained a mystery to me until I just started doing it. Even sending the manuscript directly to newspapers was no picnic - I still researched archives, destinations, word counts and the often elusive masthead!

Of course you may post a link on your blog; I'd be delighted if other writers found me and increased my readership.

Thanks so very much for collecting the LA Times copies for me! It was a thrill to behold (though the online version is a bit longer).

[p.s. Also glad you both found the Yoga Journal piece helpful... :) ]


Laura said...

Hi Nicole,
I found you through Joanna's site and and so glad I did. I'm just starting out as a freelance writer and have done a little of what you suggest, but now I have some great guidelines.
I'm writing for textbroker-for a pittance- and starting w/ suite101 ..both will allow me to gain some basic knowledge and a line in my brand new resume. I've developed a new blog just to promote my work and the real me.. http://apageofmyown.com
I look forward to reading more.

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