So you’re 50 (or beyond) and you’re wondering how that will affect your ability to get your book or magazine article published. The answer? Depending on how you handle the situation, it should make no difference, according to lots of people.
Some time ago I read an article that covered the subject very well. The author was Scott Hoffman, one of the founding partners of Folio Literary Management. He said that writers should avoid all references to retirement, they should be an energetic presence willing to help promote their books, they should not date themselves, and they must convince editors that they have lot of other books inside them. Above all, he said, don’t reveal your age in a query letter to an agent or an editor.
Hoffman was talking about the problems some people have in getting their books published, but most of the situations also cover writers of magazine articles and pieces for the web.
For one thing, even though you are 50 or beyond, you are not retired. If you’re writing a book or magazine articles, you are doing it on a regular basis, not because you have extra time on hand. You might have a new career, but it is a full-time career. And, Hoffman said, “you want to convince your agent and editor that you’re not just a one-trick pony.”
Although you’re at work on more books or articles now, you’re eager to promote your work at the publishers and you have lots of ideas about how and where to do that. You don’t need to tell editors or agents about long-ago work history or about past military service (unless your work centers on those subjects), but do tell them about relevant credentials that don’t date you.
He says there are two times when you actually have to let your agent or editor know your age. When someone asks how old you really are, you must give him or her that information. Never lie. The other time to do that is when you think it might help. Be sure also to fill in the details when information about your experience or credentials will show why you’re the right person to write this specific book or magazine article.
Hoffman ended his article by detailing several specific over-50 writers who published books: Anna Sewell sold her classic novel, Black Beauty, at 57; Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa at 52; Laura Ingalls Wilder published the Little House on the Prairie series while in her 60s. And Bangladeshi writer Nirad Chaudhuri published his first book at 54, its sequel at age 90, and his final book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, when he was 100. Their experiences should be enough for anyone to follow.
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Looking for a market that’ s eager to buy what you write? Try writing for the trades.
Hardware Age, Grain Magazine and Sporting Goods Business might not have the glamour of prestigious publications like Harper’s or Travel and Leisure and they don’t pay the same kind of big bucks. But trade journal checks do arrive on time, usually, and most of the publications are open to writers — two compelling reasons for freelancers to take a look.
Trade and professional journals are publications that focus on a particular occupation of industry and help readers do their jobs better. Their editors are always eager to find new writers who can give their readers industry information on a continuing basis.
You can find a wide variety of trade publications at your local library or bookstore, or you can do computer searches for trade journals. Either way, you’ll find lots of potential markets for freelance work.
Pick out a few publications in which you have some knowledge or choose some that catch your interest. Don’t contact any of them, however, until you study the magazines thoroughly either at the library, book stores or the internet to determine their market listings. Read all their advertisements and columns, opinions, letters to the editors — read every bit of copy in each publication. Determine how they use photos. Check out their guidelines to see what kind of articles the editors want. Some editors recommend that you analyze at least six months of back issues before querying about a proposed article.
Payment varies greatly among trade and professional journals. You won’t get rich writing for them, but mixing in trade journal writing with a steady flow of news releases, brochures and other nuts-and-bolts copy can give you a little change in your writing routine, while adding a considerable amount to your annual income. Trade journal bylines can also help you break into other magazines.
Just be sure you give trade journal editors the same professional courtesies expected in any market: a query letter that’s right on target for that publication. a SASE included if you send the query to the publication by U.S. mail (although many editors today look for email queries), no missed deadlines, and copy that’s clean and error free.
Editors will love you for making their jobs easier. And you’ll love the bylines and the checks you get.
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While going through some old files today, I came across a magazine with a November 1997 publication date. Now I’m sure readers of this blog are not surprised that I keep magazines for 13 years. Being the pack rat that I am, I sometimes keep them for many more than 13 years. I do this because I find great value in magazines, even very old ones. Sometimes in these oldsters I find ideas I can use for brand-new articles; sometimes they may lead to blog posts that could help others find new markets. I think this one could help someone who is new to freelance writing and eager for that first byline in a magazine.
The publication I found today is Good Old Days Magazine. I immediately checked to see if it is still being published. It is — and amazingly still lists the same editor, Ken Tate, as in 1997. And it has a wonderful array of articles focusing on the past. As it did in 1997, it still takes a nostalgic look at the Good Old Days, telling the real stories of people who lived or grew up around 1935-1960.
The featured article in the current June issue is a delightful one about dowsing — the practice of using a Y- or L-shaped twig called a dowsing rod to search for underground water. Among other articles in the issue was one about a Stag Dance, the place where people went to enjoy an evening of socializing; one on childhood pets in the early 1940s; another about Feed Sack Dresses and the Big City (during the depression, women made garments from the sacks in which chicken feeds and other feeds were sold); and Faith of Our Fathers, about the Great Depression at its peak.
I downloaded the Contributor’s Guidelines and there I learned that most of those who contribute articles for the magazine are not professional writers. In fact, the guidelines state: “We prefer the author’s individual voice, warmth, humor and honesty over technical ability. Successful stories tend to stick with one subject (i.e.: how my brother and I got caught skipping school one day and faced the consequences…my most embarrassing moment, etc.)”. That sounds to me like a great opportunity for a talented beginner to earn a byline and a check.
The guidelines provide examples of the kind of stories the magazine publishes, plus specific details about their requirements. I’ve seen the publication on the newsstand at Barnes & Noble and it may be available at other newsstands. You may find copies at your local library. The publishers will send you a sample copy for $2.00 and a self-addressed stamped manila envelope mailed to: Good Old Days Sample Copy, 306 E. Parr Rd., Berne, IN 46711. You can read some of the articles and get more details just by visiting their website.
So how about it? Is there a Good Old Days byline in your future?
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Although I’ve been published many times since my first byline in 1974, I have a confession to make: I hate writing queries. I know they’re a necessary step in getting your work published, but I always found writing them most difficult. I still do.
To make it as easy as possible, I read everything I could find about how successful writers produce queries. I collected every scrap of that information and tried to use that advice when writing my queries. That strategy has served me well over the years. Now I’m passing it on to others who want help with query-writing. It’s basic information, but I found it to be just what I needed.
Because a query is your first, and maybe only, contact with an editor, work to make a good first impression. And whether you’re sending the query by U.S. Mail or email, put it in the form of a business letter. It IS a business letter — you’re trying to sell the editor on your article idea and to convince him or her that you’re the perfect person to write it.
Address your query as you would to anyone you don’t know in any business letter, placing their names in the “Dear Mr. Editor” or “Dear Ms. Editor” format. Find out if the editor is a man or woman and spell his or her name correctly. Check the publication’s masthead or website for the name, or pick up the phone and ask someone at the magazine. And while you’re at it, make sure that every word in your query is spelled correctly. Editors reason that if you don’t pay attention to small details like spelling names correctly, how can they trust you to produce an article that is entirely error-free.
Start your query with a hook, much like the one you would use to hook readers of the completed article. Before you hook the reader, you must hook the editor. Concentrate on convincing the editor that your article is much too interesting to end up in the rejection pile. Just because it’s a business letter, however, your query doesn’t have to have a drab or somber tone. Make the tone fit the material you intend to present in your article. You can even use humor if it’s appropriate. Adapt the tone of your letter to fit the subject you’re covering. You won’t need dull statistics, for example, when you intend to write about a clown school or profile a local comedian. That’s the time to take a lighthearted look at your subject. Make your query sound like the article as it would appear in the publication.
Now describe the article you intend to write. Show the editor how readers will be captivated by your prose. Give the piece a working title and state the number of words you envision for the article (You did check the publication’s guidelines, didn’t you, so your word estimate fits the publication’s requirements?) Strive to assure the editor that he or she is dealing with a professional writer.
In the last paragraph, you get a chance to tell the editor why you’re the person who should write this article. Here’s where you include your writing credits, your background, and any other relevant information pertaining to your article. (Are you a culinary school grad, have your backpacked around Europe, are you a top athlete, have you built your own log cabin or traveled the Mississippi by canoe? Whatever relates to your article may gain selling point with the editor). Mention where the editor can find clippings of your previously published work, or offer to send clippings, but don’t send them with an email query unless the editorial guidelines request them.
Thank the editor for considering your query and end with something like, “I look forward to your response.” Sign it “Sincerely” or with some other business-like close. Add your name, address and email address. If you have a website, include that information, too.
If you’re sending the query by postal mail, be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. You should know that many writers send queries by email these days, with “Article Proposal” in subject line. Check the editorial guidelines to learn which the magazine prefers. If that information is not in the guidelines, I sometimes make a quick phone call to the editor to ask if they accept email queries. There’s a big advantage to sending a query by email: You usually get a response from the editor in a relatively short time.
No matter which mailing method you use, before you hit send or put the envelope in the mail drop, go over each word, each sentence, each punctuation mark in your query. Take out any excess spacing. Make your query as perfect as possible. You might even get someone you trust to read your query to see if you have overlooked anything important.
Then send it off and get right to work on another query or a writing project while you wait for the editor’s response.
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Selling writers know that you can become a selling writer only by keeping at it. Keep writing. Keep sending queries. Keep submitting your work.
Call it what you will — persistence, stick-to-it-tiveness, doggedness, determination, just plain old stubbornness — it’s the usual way to make that first sale and to follow up with more and more sales. It”s how most of us get started in the writing business.
If you have that stubborn streak and if you keep writing, you eventually reach the place where you can claim to be a selling writer.
That point was brought home by Robert Dugoni, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Jury Master,” “Damage Control,” and “Wrongful Death,” in an Off The Cuff piece he wrote in the February 2010 issue of The Writer. Dugoni says he bridged the thin line between trying and succeeding by learning the three P’s — Patience, Perseverance and Persistence.
And he compares his writing efforts to that of his nine-year-old son learning to hit a baseball. In “Don’t be afraid of striking out,” he says that in writing as in baseball, you have to stick with it to hit one out of the park.
“As writers, we can’t become paralyzed at the thought of rejection. We can’t fear it, or seek to avoid it. Rather, we must confront it head on, charge into it with reckless abandon. We must look at rejection like a ball player looks at striking out, that thin line between trying and succeeding, a line we must cross as many times as necessary, knowing that on the other side exist our dreams and goals.”
Dugoni is a fiction writer, to be sure, but his advice can help nonfiction writers as well to become published writers. The entire article could be the motivation you need to succeed. I picked up my copy of The Writer at my local Barnes & Noble, but you probably can find the magazine at another bookstore or read it at your local library if you prefer. I think it’s one article you won’t want to miss.
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Years ago, I read an article about writing ‘how-tos’ for magazines and the author stressed this point: the main requirement for selling a ‘how-to’ is first-hand experience. Equipped as I am with two left feet and no green thumb, and being somewhat math- and technology-challenged, that approach was a difficult one for me to follow.
But I am interested in people and what they do. That interest led me to an African violet expert, so I wrote a ‘how-to’ about how that woman grows prize-winning African Violets in her basement. A local home and garden publication snapped up my article.
I took on a business assignment to write a ‘how-to’ about how an employee implemented Statistical Process Control techniques in the manufacturing branch of his company. I had never heard of SPC before and considering my limitations, my article would have been impossible if the employee had not explained the process in a way that was easy for me to understand and I, in turn, could relate that to others. The company’s employee publication ran that ‘how-to’ in its next issue.
And then there was the couple I heard about who used fifteenth technology to start up and run a modern-day printing operation. Using their expertise, I was able to write a ‘how-to’ showing how to put the centuries-old process to work in a modern setting. The article appeared in a national trade magazine.
The point is this: You don’t have to be an expert to write a ‘how-to’ in areas far removed from anything in your experience. I’ve found that editors eagerly grab well-written ‘how-tos’ aimed at their readership.
So, If you’re not an experienced outdoors person but want to write in that field, find an expert who fits the category. I understand that, despite the present economic downturn, ‘how-tos’ are the best selling category for any outdoors article.
And editors of publications in other fields also eat up ‘how-tos.’ Go to any newsstand and look at the covers and contents pages of diverse publications. You’ll find many promoting articles like these:
“How and Where to Paint” (Traditional Home)
“How to Drop 12 Pounds in 14 Days” (Prevention)
“How to Fake Flawless Skin” (Home Journal)
“How to Save on the Cost of Printer’s Ink” (Consumer Reports)
“How to Find Time to Write” (The Writer)
“How to Add Realism to Your Training” (Guns & Ammo – Handguns)
Whatever your the market you want to write a ‘how-to’ for, research well. Spend time examining newsstand publications, looking especially at lesser known magazines — they may receive fewer queries than others. Be sure to read guidelines and back issues of the magazines you plan to target.
Ideas for ‘how-tos’ may come from your own and your friends’ experiences, from your children, newspaper articles, local radio and tv features. If you find things in your everyday life that don’t work and you try to fix them, that may be the basis for a how-to from your own experience. But you still may want to include advice from experts in your piece, and be sure to mention the experts you want to quote in your query. That can help to sell your idea to the editor.
Where can you find experts? The same place you find ‘how-to’ subjects — check newspapers, radio and tv shows, ask friends, relatives and neighbors, look on the internet. Try Expert.com and Profnet.com. Google your subject and see what turns up. WritersWeekly.com has a special section where you can ask for expert help for articles. If you have a college or university nearby, you may find a wealth of experts on campus.
Be sure to come back here for How to Write and Sell ‘How-to’ Articles, Part 2, where we’ll get into the specifics of actually writing a ‘how-to.’
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Here’s a question that sometimes plagues new freelance writers. “What should I write about?”
When article ideas don’t come easily to you, when you’re not tripping over ideas with every step you take, when your creative well seems to have run dry, where do you go for help? Sometimes the answer is as easy as deciding what to fix for dinner tonight.
Scores of magazines offer recipes and menus to help you get a meal to the table on time. The same thing is true for writing subjects. The answer to “What can I write about?” can be as simple as picking up a publication or spending time at a local newsstand checking a magazine’s table of contents.
Here’s one example:
An article by writer Marge Jesberger in the March/April issue of Writer’s Journal offers this gem:
Demand is Great–You Can Supply
Every time you pick up a magazine, you see something on diet or exercise. You also see articles on flea markets in the spring and snow sports in the winter. You feel the market is glutted, so why compete? That is the best reason to submit a well-researched and up-to-date article on these subjects. If something is popular, editors and publishers are on the lookout for more of the same.
That advice holds for most any type of magazine — general interest, specialty, trade journal, health care, business, you name it. Back in journalism school, our instructors used to call the perennial sellers “evergreens.” These are types of articles — much like asters, daylillies and other perennial flowers that emerge for us to enjoy year after year— that come back regularly and never seem to go out of favor with readers.
So if you want to know what to write about next, pick up any target magazine of your choice and look for “evergreens” within its pages. Check several issues, maybe even go to the library and read back issues to find out which evergreens the editors seem to favor.
Then get busy and query with an updated version of one subject that you like. Granted this approach won’t result in blockbuster articles that fetch big bucks, but it will keep you writing, get your name and writing skills in front of editors, and probably add a modest sum to your yearly income.
I think you’ll find that editors welcome queries about the tried-and-true subjects that please their readers. And that can be a quick way to get a byline and a check — and sometimes a regular writing gig with a publication.
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© 2009 by Laverne Daley