Sunday, January 30, 2011

25 Commandments for Journalists

Tim Radford of The Guardian has published a very helpful list of tips for journalists, although they're useful fodder for writers of all kinds: A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists

Thursday, January 27, 2011

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'

This line begins the 1938 novel Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." It's one of the best-known opening lines from all literature, even if it owes its fame at least in part to the 1940 Hitchcock movie.

It's an example of a truly writerly opening line. It's simple, beautiful, haunting. An amateur would have written a sentence double or triple the length and cluttered it with adverbs, adjectives and flowery details. Maybe Du Maurier did write something more complex, but what she ended up were nine words that worked: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writerliness and Being Writerly

The term "writerly" fans a flame inside me. It's a virtuous word that speaks of crafting words into sentences and paragraphs with passion, imagination and love.

I just searched for a definition of "writerly" and found this:
1. of or characteristic of a writer
2. characterized by the qualities of a writer's craft, esp. by those that reflect a self-conscious display of literary techniques
But "self-conscious display" suggests pretension, and being pretentious is not what I think of when I hear "writerly." Pretension is when someone tries far too hard to be writerly and ends up with a convoluted mess. When I write something I consider writerly, in a sense it's because -- albeit with mental effort -- I stumbled on the turn of phrase that flowed most simply and effortlessly.

For example, when I typed that opening paragraph, my first attempt mixed two or three other metaphors along with that of fanning a flame. Just because I'd strained to sound literary, it didn't sound good. It lacked simplicity and sounded forced. In the end, I whittled it down from three or four sentences into two, and what remained sounded both creative and effortless to me. Pretension would have been to throw as many adjectives, verbs, adverbs and metaphors in there as came to mind, without discrimination.

Not everything I write is writerly. This blog's tagline reads, "Advice from a good writer who aspires to greatness." I'm confident enough to say I'm good, but I don't pretend to be great, and in the same way, I aspire to writerliness. I don't always get there, but I try.

Here's something I really enjoyed writing recently: the first in a regular online column, The Charm of Evil, in which I share my thoughts about the horror genre, mainly in film. I enjoyed the experience because I felt I was producing something writerly. When I read the final version, I felt proud. The end product went beyond perfunctory. This is good writing, I thought.

Do you want to make your writing more writerly? Here's some advice: Cut out the crap. Simplicity is beautiful. Play around with words, experiment and shift things around with abandon in search of what works, but do settle with what works. Don't throw impressive-sounding words out there like dung and hope some of it sticks, because even the bits that stick will still be dung. Instead, present the one idea in which you have total confidence. Edit your own work ruthlessly, because just getting words on the page is only part of the job. Shaping those words with care into their final form will make you a great and writerly writer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How to Pitch an Article to an Editor

Pitching an article to a magazine, newspaper or website can be daunting, especially if you're still early on in your freelance writing career. But here's the thing to remember: The editor doesn't know you're scared. She only sees what you allow her to see. Be bold and confident, and you're in the running for a successful pitch.

Most pitching these days is done through email. Your first task is to make sure you're contacting the right person. Search the website for information, and if it's not there, make an enquiry. I often send a preliminary email that looks something like this:

I'd like to pitch an article idea to your magazine. Could you advise me who's the best person to contact for that? Also, do you have any guidelines or preferences that apply to proposals?

Many thanks,

David L Rattigan
St Catharines, Ontario
Once you've established who to contact, start writing -- but take time to think it through. Nothing's worse than an unnecessarily vague, rambling pitch that reads like it was fired off on a whim. (I've done it, and I didn't even get a "No, thanks.") Like it or not, as a freelance writer, you're a marketer, and your job with an article proposal is to clinch a sale. To do that, you need to convince the client of three things:
1. The article fits the publication;
2. The publication needs the article;
3. You are the best person to write it.
Begin with a greeting and a personal introduction, being neither too formal nor too casual. Stick to what's relevant to the pitch, whether it's your career background, education, personal expertise on a subject or a life experience.

Then make the pitch. Hook the editor just as you would hook the reader of the final article. Wow him with your main idea, summarize what you want to write, and tell him why he needs it. Perhaps it addresses a contemporary issue relevant to the publication's audience, and you've noticed that they've yet to cover it. Maybe it's on a topic that will soon be big news, and this is the opportunity to get a big story out there before every other website jumps on the bandwagon.

Finally, convince the potential client you're the one to write it. Perhaps you have the technical background the subject requires, connections to someone at the heart of the story or a personal link to the issue. My first pitch to a particular major publication succeeded at least in part because I gave the editor a threefold reason why my perspective mattered to the subject: I was native to the city in the story, I was a member of the (international) institution it involved, and I was also part of the narrow demographic the story affected.

End by thanking the editor for her time, inviting her to respond and leaving things open for future pitches. I typically end a pitch with something like this:
I think this would be a really good fit for [name of publication], and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. I'd also love to talk more about writing in related areas.

Many thanks for your time,

David L Rattigan
St Catharines, Ontario

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Writing for Constant Content: Advantages and Disadvantages

Constant Content is a website that connects freelance writers to potential clients. It's a place to do business: You submit an article you've written, setting a price you think is fair, and if someone thinks the article is worth buying, they pay you. Constant Content takes a 35-percent slice off the top for being the go-between.

What Can I Write for Constant Content?
CC accepts articles on just about any nonfiction subject as long as you've written within the bounds of good taste and with good grammar, spelling and style. CC doesn't allow fiction or first-person narratives, so memoirs and personal essays are out. Informative articles about about just any topic are permitted, but to ensure a sale, choose something popular and generic. Ask yourself what prospective clients searching for articles for a website or print publication are likely to want. Travel, technology, home and garden, finance, education and personal fitness are good bets, for example.

What Should I Charge at Constant Content?
When you set a price for your article, bear in mind that you only get 65 percent of the total amount. Eight to 12 cents a word for exclusive rights is a reasonable standard, but you can go over if you think the writing quality and research warrants it. When you post a new article to Constant Content, you fill in a short summary and an excerpt of at least a third of the article. Whatever you charge, use the short summary wisely -- it's your chance to sell the article and convince the customer it's worth the price.

How Hard Is It to Get Accepted at Constant Content?
Getting accepted as a author requires a good resume and writing samples. If you get these right, it's easy to sign up for Constant Content. The harder part is getting an article accepted. Your spelling, grammar and style pretty much need to be impeccable, as Constant Content editors will reject an article for as little as a single typo. You can resubmit an article once you've made corrections, but you'll still have to wait for it to be reviewed, as you're effectively submitting from scratch again. Review times can be anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks.

Summary of Constant Content Tips
  • Choose topics with broad appeal
  • Write a kick-ass short summary to ensure a sale
  • Price $0.08-$0.12pw
  • Proofread to perfection
Constant Content: Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Advantage: Pick any topic
  • Advantage: Set your own price
  • Advantage: Have clients come looking for you
  • Disadvantage: Constant Content takes a 35% commission
  • Disadvantage: No guarantee you'll sell