Back in the days when we fledgling journalists were struggling to write leads and master the inverted pyramid, one professor took on the role of spotting useless words in our copy. “Utilize” was one of his favorite words to underline heavily with a red pencil. If that word appeared in someone’s assigned story, we could all be sure of a lecture on precision in writing during the next class.
He contended that utilize had much less impact in a sentence than the word “use,” which essentially means the same thing. A simple word is always a better choice, he said. He implied that people who favor utilize were putting on airs. Partly because of his influence, I resolved never to use that offending word in a sentence (unless, of course, it’s in a direct quote that I can’t paraphrase or in an article like this).
Another influence helps me avoid the word — one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes:
Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.
The word “use” comes from Middle English so it’s definitely old. And short. Our use of the word “use” is a lot like our use of the word “said” when we attribute statements to a speaker. It doesn’t stand out in any way, it does its job and it doesn’t get in the way of our ability to communicate the point we are trying to get across. We take it for granted. And no one thinks we’re putting on airs when we use use.
Another word topping my list of useless words is “interesting,” which is rapidly becoming outdated due to overuse. Overuse has reduced interesting to a state of valueless jargon. I cringe when I read something being described as interesting. What exactly has the word come to mean? At one time it may have had some impact, but in today’s world, it can mean different things for every person who uses it, or it can have no meaning at all. As writers, we’re in the business of using our words to touch people, to convey emotion, to impart information, but we can’t do that with weak words like “interesting.” We must choose strong, concrete words to convey meaning and emotion.
Offhand, I can think of several more words that don’t fit the concrete word category but do fit the useless category. Empower is one. It may be the most overused word in the English language. My eyes glaze over when yet another speaker tells us that we must empower women to do this or that. A television commercial assures that their cleaning tool will empower you to enjoy more free time with your family. An academic essay explains that reading can empower you to overcome cultural conditions. We’re told that hypnosis empowers us so we can lead our lives in harmony with ourselves and others. A Feng Shu web site encourages you to empower your life with your house number. Another web site implores “give us a flat tax and empower our economy.” And the list goes on. Ad infinitum. Give me a concrete word any day.
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When visiting WritersDigest.com recently, I happened across an article with some good advice on studying magazines. “Studying the Magazine Market,” was drawn from a Writer’s Digest workshop that focused on nonfiction magazine writing. This article, and others like it, should be a must-read before sending a query to a magazine, especially one you haven’t sold to before.
Studying a magazine can keep you from approaching a magazine that wouldn’t be right for your article idea. Most guidelines for writers suggest that you read the magazine before submitting. That alone would make a lot of editors happy — editors say they get far too many articles completely unsuited to their publications. Heed the editors’ mantra: “Read the magazine before submitting to us.”
Reading the magazine before submitting is a basic requirement, but that’s just the beginning. If you want to increase your chances of acceptance, go beyond the basics. Study the magazine in detail.
You can find out a lot about a magazine just by spending time at a newsstand. By looking at the cover, you can usually learn a publication’s topic, but you can find out much more by scanning the coverlines. According to the un-bylined Writer’s Digest article:
Look at the coverlines, those ‘teaser’ phrases that tell newsstand browsers what articles are inside. The publishers believe these articles would be the most appealing to their readers.”
Try to assess how your article’s teaser would appear on the cover and how it would appeal to readers of the publication.
The WD article also suggested that you read through each article, examine the advertising, and study the contents page. The contents page will not only clue you in to all the articles in the publication, it will also show you the various departments. I think you should explore the departments thoroughly because it’s usually easier to break into a new magazine by submitting to one of its departments. Check the masthead (no, it’s not the magazine’s cover page — it’s the page inside with staff names and editorial, advertising and publication information). The masthead will show who edits those departments so you can zero in on the one most appropriate for your article.
Read all the articles in at least three issues. That’s easy to do now that most magazines have an Internet presence. Does the publication use first person articles or are most written in third person? Does it use statistics to back up statements? Does it have a lot of how-to articles? Does it appeal to younger readers or the over-50 crowd? Ordinary people or highly affluent individuals?
The ads can also tell you a lot about who reads the magazine (the writer’s guidelines often do, too) but articles will help you determine what grade level articles are written to and how the articles are constructed.
Check out the quotes. See how many are used in each article and see who is being quoted. Are they university professors, business experts, working people? Check out the sidebars, too. Editors are very big on sidebars, and you want to be able to suggest the right kind of sidebars to accompany your article.
With all that information assembled, and if you have an idea that you think is right for the publication, you are in a good position to craft a query that will grab the editor’s interest.
But wait. One more thing to do before you sit down to write that query. Carefully read over the writer’s guidelines and follow them exactly. You can often find guidelines at the publication’s web site, or sometimes receive them by email from the publication. If the magazine wants queries sent by regular mail, send them that way. If e-mail queries are preferred, go that route. If the guidelines want queries directed to a specific editor, send them there. And make sure you get the editor’s name and title right.
If you follow this plan, you have a good shot at having your article accepted. You may still be rejected — it happens to all of us, for any number of reasons. Don’t give up. Hit the newsstand again and get ready to study and query another magazine.
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Earlier, we presented a basic overview of some risks that writers should be aware of before signing contracts for periodical articles. This time, we tackle a few specifics.
Ideas for this post came from the website of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and especially from their free writer’s resources section. The site reminded me that some phrases in publishers’ contracts may contain traps for writers. To find out more, I clicked on a link called What to Watch Out For. What appeared was a distinct learning lesson. Look at one example that deals with publishers’ contracts containing the phrase ” the nonexclusive right….”
…the nonexclusive right…. This may sound OK, but it often isn’t. Any right — Exclusive or Non-exclusive — must be paid for and must be paid for appropriately. You should receive at least 50% of the gross revenue or a fair percentage of the original fee for each usage that occurs as a result of the publisher’s sublicensing or reuse of your work. (The editor of an Australian magazine who loves your piece is going to call the U.S. publisher, who will make the deal; you’ll never know. And if you approach the Australian editor yourself, he may well ask for a month’s exclusivity in Australia; you won’t be able to provide it. Because your publisher in the US may be selling it to the Australian’s competitor, you lose the sale. In market terms, ‘nonexclusive’ wipes you out. Exclusive or non-exclusive, if the publisher wants the right, you ought to have separate compensation for that license.”)
Here’s another short segment from the Dangerous Clauses section:
…the right to publish, distribute and license others to publish and distribute the article in all its forms (or in any media)….” These words do not spell it out, but they mean you transfer electronic rights along with print rights.”
The “What to Watch Out For” section helps to shine a warning light on a dozen or more examples of wording that can trip you up if you aren’t alert. If you sign contracts containing those clauses, you may lose some rights or income you are entitled to receive.
Along with warnings, the ASJA authors offered two additions to the rights clause that writers can add to documents to make contracts more equitable. They suggest that, instead of First North American Serial Rights, you make contracts read, “First North American English Language Print Serial Rights.”
And also add this sentence: “All rights not expressly transferred herein are reserved by the author.”
In addition to reading the ASJA Contracts Watch newsletter that is sent to my inbox, I make regular stops at ASJA website to keep up with the latest developments in publishing, copyrights, and contracts and to learn how the developments could affect me as a freelance writer. It may pay you to do that, too.
What Every Writer Needs to Know About Contracts
If you’ve been freelancing for any time at all, you’ve probably learned that contracts — or lack of contracts — vary from magazine to magazine.
Some publishers send writers extremely detailed contracts when assigning articles. Others give assignments to writers during a phone call or they send an email stating scope of the assigned article, word length and other requirements, plus payment and deadline information.
If a publisher makes no mention of a contract when assigning you an article, it’s appropriate for you to send the publisher a letter of agreement specifying the assignment details as you understand them — what the article will cover, number of words, deadline, payment amount, payment date and the specific rights you are selling (First North American Serial Rights, Reprint Rights, One Time Rights, etc.). Sign two copies of the agreement and send them to the publisher to sign, and ask that one signed copy be returned to you.
If you do receive a formal written contract from a publisher, it can be daunting. Examine the document carefully. Does it ask for all rights? Is it a works-for-hire agreement? Does it demand electronic rights along with print rights? Find out exactly what rights you are expected to give up. Understand and agree to everything on the page before signing any contract, or cross out what you do not agree to and return the contract to the publisher noting changes you would like to make. Remember that all contracts are open to negotiations.
Freelancers need to know ahead of time what rights they are willing to sell. If you hope to sell your article to other magazines down the road, you should insist on selling only First North American Series Rights to the original publisher. If you expect to receive payment for electronic rights, be prepared to explain why you should receive compensation for those rights.
Publishers want to be able to use the work in any way and every way possible, now and later on. Most writers are interested in limiting the publisher’s ability to have extensive use of their work. These are the basic beginning points for negotiations, along with the amount of compensation writers will receive.
Negotiations need not be confrontational, and politeness is always appropriate. You might say, “The rate you offer is very low. Can you do any better than that?” Or maybe, “I’m so sorry, I always receive extra payment for electronic rights. I’ll be glad to assign them to you for 90 days following print publication for XXX dollars.”
Writers should also be aware that they could lose rights even after publication, especially when endorsing checks. I wrote quite a few articles for one magazine that several times tried to pay me with checks rubber-stamped on the back with a statement that my endorsement transferred all rights to the publisher. I always returned those checks to the editor I worked with and reminded her that I sold first rights only. Then I waited for a replacement check to arrive. The magazine (now defunct) was always slow to pay and I believe they played this little rubber-stamp game to hang onto money for a while longer. And I still think they wanted to grab all rights.
For much detailed information about contracts, I suggest that you visit the Resources for Writers section of the American Society of Journalists and Authors website. The free Information Sheets are great, especially “Why Writing for Magazines Isn’t What It Used to Be, And What Writers Have to Do About It,” and “Contract Tips for Freelancers.”
I’m not a member of ASJA but I’m a fan of their website because of all the help it provides freelance writers. It was there that I learned about, and signed up for, their free Contracts Watch newsletter several years ago. You can sign up at the ASJA site to receive the newsletter by email or RSS feed.
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©2007 by Laverne Daley
“Write something about rights,” a young friend suggested recently. “I’m confused. What rights do I have and what should I sell?”
It’s good that she wants to have those questions answered. Rights are important because they can mean money in your pocket. You need to know what rights you can sell to publishers and others, and you need to know the legal aspects of selling your rights.
To start with the basics, you own the copyright to everything you write — that is, you own all rights to the work you create. You may license publishers and others to use your copyright. That’s what we mean by “selling our rights.”
This is my understanding of the rights that we writers can sell:
FIRST PUBLICATION RIGHTS
The first time you allow use of your copyright for a particular work, you are granting first publication rights. After the work is published for the first time, the copyright reverts to you and you are then free to grant others the right to republish the work.
In the U.S., Canada and Mexico, when your work is published in a magazine for the first time, you sell First North American Serial Rights (FNASR). (Serial means publications that appear periodically, as opposed to books).
FIRST ELECTRONIC PUBLICATION RIGHTS
Publishers often expect you to give them electronic rights along with FNASR and they seldom offer addition payment for those rights. Remember, however, that those rights are valuable and they are negotiable. You can negotiate for higher pay for FNASR and you can ask for additional payment for electronic rights. You can also negotiate a time limit for the use of electronic rights. Some writers allow the use for three months; others six months or more. The copyright returns to you afterwards.
ONE TIME RIGHTS
After initial magazine publication, you can sell One-Time Rights (Reprint Rights) to other periodicals. This is not the same as First Publication Rights. One-Time Rights give publishers the right to one-time use of already published works. If you specify that you are offering Non-Exclusive Reprint Rights, you can sell the work to more than more one publisher or to multiple publishers at the same time.
Magazine writers have a range of other rights to offer for sale, including Excerpt Rights, Anthology Rights, Braille Rights, Foreign Rights, First European Rights (or maybe First German Rights, First French Rights, First British Rights—you get the idea). Book authors have even more rights to offer, including Translation, Movie, Television, Audiotape, and other electronic rights. You may need a lawyer or a knowledgeable agent to guide you through the maze of rights you can sell.
Be aware that by giving up certain rights, you no longer have any ownership in the work you created. WORKS FOR HIRE and ALL RIGHTS strip you of all rights. Writers should avoid these agreements if possible.
Many publishers expect writers to sign WORKS FOR HIRE agreements, giving the publisher complete ownership of the work and the copyright. Publishers can then sell your work or use it any way they choose without additional compensation to you. You have to be careful even about using the research done in preparing the work. If you use that research again or if you write a similar piece for another publisher, you may be infringing on the publisher’s copyright. Good reasons to avoid Works for Hire agreements.
When you sell ALL RIGHTS, it means just that. You give up all rights to your work and you can never use the article again in its present form. You hold the copyright in name only and you have no rights to sell, but the publisher can reprint your work, put it online or sell it to others, without additional payment to you.
If the pay is good, some writers don’t mind selling all rights in certain circumstances, such as when an article would be soon outdated by rapidly changing technology. But others want to hang onto as many rights as possible. Remember this: Rights are valuable, otherwise publishers would not be so eager to grab them from writers.
For a lively look at the pros and cons of selling rights, check out Moira Allen’s excellent article, “Selling All Rights: Right or Wrong.” In her article, Moira references another excellent article, “Rights: What They Mean and Why They’re Important,” by Marg Gilks.
And for an up-close look at what happened when one writer sold all rights to an article, be sure to read, “The Article You Can’t Read on This Site,” by Barbara Florio Graham, a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada.
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Like many others, I’ve picked up some bad writing habits over the years. Overwriting is my worst habit, putting more words on the page than readers need in order to understand what I’m writing about.
The sentences above are a bad example of circumlocution (I had to look this one up — it means using many words to express an idea that could be expressed using few). I could have written, “My worst habit is overwriting,” and ended there. And using the word circumlocution shows that I fail to use simple words, another bad habit.
I don’t fight my bad writing habits during the first draft of any article — I just try to get the basic idea down no matter how many words it takes or how involved the words are. I don’t limit the writing in any way. But for second and succeeding drafts, I work hard to make the writing lean and clean. That means cutting the clutter.
Some years ago when I was a staff writer and general flunky with a business newspaper, I was asked to make deep cuts in a long article submitted by a freelancer. Just by taking out every unneeded word and phrase, I was able to whittle the piece down by over 500 words. The gist of the article remained the same and the writer’s style came across very well despite the cuts. With fewer words, it was a much better article.
That chore taught me the value of removing unneeded words, phrases and sentences (and sometimes whole paragraphs) from my own writing. I’m sure I don’t always succeed as much as I should, but the goal of cutting the clutter always remains the same.
Cutting the clutter means heeding the words of William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Now that’s clutter-free writing.
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