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By Kristen Paulson and 1099 Staff


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You hear it from those bumblebee-colored Dummies guides, from popular online columnists, even from Lexus-driving, Rolex-wearing consultants. They all say that getting published is an IP's best friend. For example, Consulting for Dummies cheerfully suggests: "Writing articles… on your field of expertise is a great way to build your credibility and get your name in front of a wide range of potential clients." Makes it sound as though writing and publishing is as easy for non-professionals as a Sunday drive in the country: you motor from query letter to composition to publication, and end your little tour in the land of high-paying clients and speaking gigs.

They're half-right. Writing articles can be a great way to market yourself. But what they don't tell you is that writing for publication can give you epic migraines, lead you to ignore your real work, and leave you with no more clients, or cash, than you had before you began. Now, 1099 loves you, and we want to see you succeed, but we think that you should know what's really involved in writing and publishing an article before your start clicking away at your computer keyboard.

Writing Is Hell

Novelist William Styron speaks for many writers when he says: "I get a fine warm feeling when I'm doing pretty well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell." Writing, in case you haven't heard, is difficult, time-intensive work. If you aspire to get yourself onto the pages of a professional magazine, be prepared to revise your words over and over until you arrive at the clearest, most appropriate sentences possible.

Want to be published? Be prepared to revise your words over and over and over again.

Magazine publishing generally works like this: a writer works and reworks his words until he tells his editor, "This piece is unimproveable." Then the editor responds with a list of changes -- like pointing out that "unimprovable" isn't a real word. The writer curses, sighs, and then sits down to rewrite. (Of course, some low-end publications -- obscure trade journals and newsletters -- will accept first-draft work merely to fill up pages. But chances are, you won't find many high-quality clients by writing for lousy publications.) Monique Cuvelier, Managing Editor of Literal Mind, a fine online literary mag, says that the articles she publishes typically go through three rounds of editing. And sometimes she goes even further: "I work with one person who doesn't have any formal training as a writer, so I spend a lot of time sculpting stories with her. It's worth it to me, though, because she's got fresh ideas and I like her approach."

All of which brings up a big, bad question: Can you afford to shove aside your tax consulting/computer programming/photography to spend a bunch of non-billable hours tidying up your writing? If so, great; if not, then it might be smart to forget about publishing. Actually, you have a third option. You can pay a hired pen to whip your less-than-ideal words into shape. There are many writers and editors floating around in the free-agent universe who'd be glad to give your prose a hand. And while we approve of handing off work to another IP, we also offer this caveat: having someone else do the writing for you takes much of the fun out of getting into print.

Kenny Rogers Ain't the Only Gambler in Town

Let's say you want to write your own stuff. What are the odds of your taking it public? Well, they're not as great as the publish-and-flourish folks suggest. The publishing game, particularly for a non-professional like you, is a gamble. You're betting that your idea will attract the right editor, and the right readers -- and that your untutored writing skills and professional experience will be enough to get you noticed. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your chances of getting published. Here are five of them:

  • Pick up a book. As an expert in your field, you probably have loads of hands-on experience -- but experience alone won't get you published. You have to explain what you know in a clear and appealing manner. One of the best ways to learn how to do this is to study the classic texts in your field. Our advice is to go to the library, find the people who have written best about your profession, and read their work. Carefully. It isn't just a matter of paying attention to an accomplished writer's structure and style: it's also about credibility. Since you've never published before, your name and opinions are unknown quantities -- but if you can show a familiarity with the most capable writers in your field, you can gain an editor's, and then an audience's, trust. Note: this doesn't mean that you should quote with uncritical approval all the stuff that the recognized experts have published. In fact, making an intelligent argument against a well-respected writer is an excellent way for an IP author to slip into print.

Before you write your query, be sure that the magazine you're aiming at hasn't already run a similar story.
  • Check the calendar. 1099's Linda Formichelli suggests that all you need to do is pull down a stack of magazine from Borders' magazine rack or flip through the Writer's Market, and then you're ready to publish your brains out. This isn't the whole story. A day at the superstore and/or a quick read through the latest Writer's Market is a solid beginning, but it must be followed up with further research. Look into what your favorite magazines have printed in the last year or so, and see what they plan on publishing in the future. A magazine will often publish its back issues online and will insert an editorial calendar in their media kit. Be sure, before you start pitching your idea, that the magazine you're talking to hasn't run, or isn't planning to run, anything that's too close to what you've cooked up.

  • Know your readers. Who would you like to read your article? If you pick a magazine whose readership would make poor clients, or one that has too small an audience, then you might not get all you want out of your adventure in publishing. You learn a lot about a magazine's typical readers -- their professions, their concerns -- by turning to the letters-to-the-editor section. Go there and you'll see what topics the readers complain about, and then write a proposal for an article that addresses their complaints. Or spend some time studying the magazine's advertisements; try to discover what goods and services readers are interested in buying (you want them to buy your services, no?). Or you can turn, once again, to the magazine's media kit. Media kits usually include a healthy amount of data about a magazine's readers -- age, occupation, income, etc. -- as well as important circulation and editorial information.

  • Be a waiter. Publishing may not pay off immediately. A lot of trade magazines (which are the places that will most likely publish your stuff) don't pay much -- if at all. Even if your work gets accepted, it will be some time before it gets released to the public -- some magazines have notoriously slow turn-around times -- and you may have to keep twiddling your independent thumbs even after it has been published. Don't expect to see any direct return on the time and effort you've put into writing your article. Your payoff should come later, after readers peruse your work, and they hire you for a writing or consulting or speaking gig. The painful truth is that this may never happen at all. Be patient with the process. Editor Cuvelier says: "Nothing irritates me more than someone who writes every week asking, 'Did you get the pitch letter?' Or 'When is my story is going to appear?' Or 'Do you have any questions?' This says to me that the writer isn't so easy to work with."

  • Be query persistent. The rah-rah school of publishing-as-marketing suggests that all you need to do is throw together one query letter, send it out, and you'll be in like Updike. This is misleading. Truth is, your query letter may only elicit a form-letter response, or worse, no response at all. You have to be prepared for this if you want to be published. The trick is not to take it personally. Eric Martin, a contributor to 1099 and other magazines, says that he gets a 30-percent response rate with his queries, which is very high indeed. What's he doing right? Eric says he puts a lot of time, effort, and energy into writing his query letters.

If You Can Take the Heat

So now you've got the skinny on getting yourself published. You've been forewarned about what to expect from the wonderful world of writing and publishing. Think you can handle the work, the rejection, the rewrites, and the waiting? Then what are you waiting for? Get writing!

October 16, 2000
Primary Editor: Ken Gordon
Illustrator: Fletcher Moore
Production: Fletcher Moore

We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

Kristen Paulson is a freelance writer who ate dog biscuits as a child. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.


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