Editors categorize articles by type, so it helps to know these types by name so you speak the same language as the editor. The types are: Hard News, First Person Article, Opinion Piece, Informational or Service Piece, How-To Article, Personality Profile, and Think Piece. Since most Hard News articles are assigned to full-time staff, we will skip this type of article. Let’s examine the characteristics and differences of the remaining types of articles for freelancers to use to break into the market.
FIRST PERSON ARTICLE
First person articles come from personal experience and are traditionally written in first person. They can be sold as feature articles or as essays, depending on their length and newsworthiness. Characteristics of a first person article with high market value:
- 750-1500 words
- setting-specific sensory details (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound), history
- characters are vivid, newsworthy, memorable, interesting, odd
- dialogue clearly reveals the unique character of the author
- details a turning point-realization, discovery, or change in one’s life
- voice is fresh, audacious, trustworthy, accurate, funny, or full of attitude
- states its purpose in first line or paragraph to hook the reader. Example: I had to teach my child to rebel and to question authority for his own safety.
Sources of first person articles and essays:
What unusual, unique experience or perspective can you offer? How did this event affect you? What recently triggered this memory? How can you relate your experience to others?
Do I have a skill or talent that isn’t common or do I lack a skill everyone else seems to have? Examples: a male nanny, a woman pilot. The art of doing something well sets the skilled above the rest and this essay will explore the tell-tale signs that separate the novice from the expert. Or it could go the Dave Barry route, as a humorist who commentated on the Olympics, and show a klutz attempting something far out of his league.
Why does everyone (speak Spanish, wear a size 5, whatever) but me? If only I had known then what I know now…. Compare the before and after of an experience, training, or change.
Take a topic or event in the news and present the unpopular or neglected point of view. Example: Why does the media accept male bashing as funny but would scream like monkeys if the same joke were aimed at women? What makes you mad? What makes you laugh? What do you value? Dig deep to explore your answer. The reasons for your particular opinion need to be anchored and detailed from your personal experience. Are you an expert on this topic? Get to the WHY factor of your opinion on the topic.
Trends, behaviors, fashions. Go non-politically correct in the politically correct world. Go against type. See from a new perspective. Example: What happened when I took my daughter to a hockey game when neither of us understood the sport. What details capture the subject? What is the first impression? The second?
My all-time favorite first-person article is Rick Reilly’s “On a Wing and a Prayer” that appeared in Sports Illustrated. In it he describes his thrill ride in an F-14 Tomcat. I double dare you not to laugh as this civilian, non-pilot describes his ride. Take a few minutes to read this masterpiece by clicking on his name above.
To get ideas for essay and first person articles, try this exercise: write as quickly as possible at least 5 things you do well, 5 things you have strong opinions on and 5 memories from childhood. Pick something from this list and write. Now.
The following example sources buy First Person Articles from new writers:
The Christian Science Monitor seeks “upbeat, personal essays from 300 to 900 words” and pays $75-$160 on publication. Aim for humor and heartfelt personal stories. See their guidelines: http://www.csmonitor.com/aboutus/guidelines and read online archives for their tone and subject matter.
Underwired is a website that seeks women’s personal essays of 800-1200 words. See their monthly themes so your submission suits the theme. They pay $100 per essay. See their guidelines: http://uwmag.com.
An Opinion Piece or opinion essay is less personal than the First Person Article, but the piece still needs a tight focus. Writing about an entire industry will not set your writing apart from the bulk of writing on the topic. Find your niche, your sub-category. Narrow your focus by asking the journalistic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How? To that, I add one more question that my editor in college always asked—“Who cares?” If the topic is interesting only to you, don’t expect editors to mail you a contract. Look at your essay or article from the reader’s point of view.
The main question in the reader’s mind is—why are you qualified to render an opinion? We all have opinions, but why should anyone read yours? If you’re an expert on this topic, be sure to state it up front for the reader. Let’s say you want to write an opinion piece on weight problems in America. Are you a dietitian? A physician? An athletic coach? A chronic dieter who has tried all the fad diets? Give your opinion the weight it deserves by showing your credentials.
If you plan to write often on a particular topic, and build a readership, consider syndication.
Essayists can become syndicated and sell their work in multiple newspapers. Whether you write etiquette advice like Miss Manners, humor like Dave Barry, or political analysis like Charles Krauthammer, syndication means you write one essay per week and collect checks from multiple sources. The key is to find your true topic and voice and spread the word. Though Pulitzer-Prize winning humorist Dave Barry was employed by the Miami Herald, his essays were published simultaneously in newspapers around the country because the papers did not have competing readership. Perhaps in time, blogs will replace syndication, but many writers continue to profit from syndication in print media. It takes time to build a readership or following, but syndication multiplies the income you receive from every piece you write.
Among the highest paying markets for individual essays and opinion pieces are:
- Contests. There are a few online directories of contests. Here is one: Poets & Writers
- The Smithsonian’s last page. (Quirky contemporary culture.) You have to read back issues to understand what they buy.
INFORMATION OR SERVICE PIECE
An informational or service piece builds the reader’s knowledge on a specific subject. Always interview an expert or two to get a broader view of the subject. Consumer Reports magazine, for example, is all about comparing different brands of a product so the buyer can understand which features are available and how to price each feature. Which features are gimmicks? Which ones make the product valuable in the short run, in the long run?
Consider writing for industry specific publications or publications devoted to a specific organization, club or group. Many of these smaller publications yearn for writers. They might not pay as well as the national magazines, but they can help you build readership and clips. Clips are basically examples of your published work. Start a file of them.
Characteristics of an Information or Service Piece:
- Tend to be fact-driven and educational.
- Present quotes from experts. If controversial, present experts from opposing views.
- Inform readers about things that will affect their lives. This series is Informational—“10 Things You Need to Know About Writing for Magazines”.
- Show a fact or trend.
- Dispel rumors and misunderstandings.
- Revisit history with a then/now comparison.
- Have catchy titles like: Myths about ___. Secrets of ___. An Insider’s View of ___. Six Ways to___.
Always relate statistics or any enormous number with an image or put the number in human terms. For example, how can a writer make a number like a billion memorable or describe it in simple, human terms? A billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive.
Pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and just read the titles of the articles. Just so you know, Reader’s Digest pays well, but they buy all rights. This makes reprints impossible and can strangle your ability to write similar articles on the same topic.
Lest the gentle reader believe that these types of articles are cut and dried and must forever remain separate entities, please note that the types can be, well, combined, mixed, or crossbred. I published a humor essay “Rocket Mom: Dreaming of the Right Stuff” that presented a comparison between the Space Shuttle and the average SUV in terms of mileage, features, speed and such. The structure of the essay mimicked a service piece, but the tone was purely first person. Here’s the link: https://jonimfisher.com/Rocket-mom/.
HOW TO ARTICLE
How To Articles present a step-by-step explanation of a process, like wiring a home theatre. An entire series of books is built around the concept of explaining processes and topics to industry outsiders–Electronics For Dummies, SEO For Dummies, etc. Again, if you are an expert or quote an expert, show the reader your credentials.
- Assume the reader does not speak the special language of the trade or industry.
- Assume the reader is inexperienced and reads at the high-school level. Even if you write for an adult, educated readership, your readers will come from a variety of backgrounds, and some may read English as a second language. Also, keep in mind that people read comfortably four grades below their last year of formal education.
- Break your subject into its main points, explaining what each is and how it is accomplished.
- Note any points of common misunderstanding and mistakes to avoid.
- Use a breezy, straightforward, conversational tone.
- Make special terminology clear and memorable. My husband is a surgeon and a pilot, but if he decided to take up sailing, he wouldn’t know his aft from his halyard.
- Use anecdotes to illustrate points. Some How-To articles organize the steps with acronyms.
- Include charts, graphs, or artwork to illustrate your points.
- Narrow the focus of your article and give it an inviting title. Example titles: 7 Ways to improve your skin, 30 Minutes a Day to Ward Off A Heart Attack, or You Can Learn Magic Tricks at Home.
The How To approach can be hysterical when applied to a complex subject. Have you read the book 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter? You could also write a How-Not-To article.
A personality profile should balance facts with an interview of subject to show this person’s character and personality and explore public image versus up-close impressions. To be accurate, it also requires interviewing friends, colleagues, family—those who know the person best. What has this person done to merit attention? Is this a future Nobel Laureate? Unsung hero? Political candidate? Sports figure? Nail down why readers would find this person interesting or notable.
Be careful about choosing an anti-hero, a criminal will be likely to use publicity for revenge or to attempt to sway public opinion against the facts.
Celebrities get jaded and tend to avoid journalists who want to interview them unless they have a new project on the horizon. They will want to deflect attention from themselves and promote their project. They will also tend to avoid unknown interviewers/writers. Say, for example, you want to do a profile on an actor. Rather than focusing on his life in film and television, how about focusing on why he became the spokesman for a charity or why he took up flying as a hobby? People are more open to discussing what they love than who they are.
Investigative in tone, the think piece often shows the downside of a popular trend or hobby or sport. It might also explore the ‘why’ factor of a topic in the news. Political analysis, scientific inquiry, a think piece digs deeper than most feature articles. Interviews with experts or being an expert are a must to establish credibility to write a think piece. For example: a physician’s view of medical malpractice insurance and how it affects patient care.
After you publish in smaller magazines and newspapers, you can list these ‘clips’ in queries to bigger, better paying magazines. Keep copies of the magazines in which your work appears. You may need to photocopy the pages and the cover to submit along with queries. You might later want to use the covers or the pages as graphics on your website as samples of your work. If you rework an article for another magazine, the editor might ask for a copy of the original to see what percentage of the article is new material. More on reprints later.
So how do you discover who buys writing? Become familiar with the marketplace for selling your stories. Start with the magazines you read. Why do you like these? For a complete list of magazines and the types of articles they buy, consult The Writer’s Market. It comes out each year in print and online for less than $40. Your local library might have a copy. This book also has a vast list of annual contests.
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