Tracking Your Work

tracking your workLet’s say you develop and market one story a week. Before long, you are juggling dozens of articles at various stages of development and sale. If you are not selling reprints of your published articles, then read my blog on Reprints & Rewrites.


You will need a system for tracking the status of your articles. Whether you develop your own method or use a ready-made tracker, these are the items to include:

  • Publisher name and address
  • Publisher/Editor phone number and email
  • Publisher website
  • Date when query was sent and the expected date for reply
  • Reader demographic info
  • Rate & Rights
  • Date of payment


While I prepare a simple chart (for each article) that includes all this information, if you prefer to track all your articles in one place, here are a few ready-made trackers.

Writer’s Database (free)

SAMM (free)

Writer’s Market Tracker ($6 per month, $40 per year)  The Writer’s Market Tracker has 9,000 listings and their listings are detailed, just as in their printed annual book The Writer’s Market. While it is difficult to add publications not in their database, the rest of the tracker is easy to use. They have few newspaper listings.

It is vital to track your submissions, rejections, payments and publications so that you can make the most money from them. The timing of queries for reprints makes the difference between a sale and a miss.


Once your work has been published, you should consider using GOOGLE ALERTS to notify you if a title of your work, or your name pops up on other websites. Search for Google Alerts online. You could have emails sent to you whenever your article’s title appears online. This can help you find websites that “borrow” content without paying you for it. I urge you to set up at least a Google Alert for your name. In case you have a name that matches someone famous or infamous, you can eliminate notifications of the similar name by using a minus sign. For example, a writer named Alan Jackson would not want to get notices about the musician, so in a Google Alert the writer would enter his name as Alan Jackson –music. The minus sign means ‘except for’ music-related.

I found two unauthorized uses of my writing on websites. I sent an invoice to the webmaster of each website. One paid, one took down the article. How easy is that for making money? Another reason to monitor use of your work is to prevent free distribution of something the publisher has paid exclusive right to publish. Fortunately for me, the article that was used online without my permission was used months after the print publication used it and the rights had reverted back to me. Otherwise I would have notified the publisher to take action.

Financially, I track my work by keeping a separate category for my writing income on a software program called Quicken. More than a glorified checking account register, it can be set up so that all income and expenses are categorized the same way your accountant needs stuff categorized for preparing your income taxes. Every deposit is listed by the employer/client and in the notation field I enter the title of the project. You can also track expenses this way, if your publisher reimburses you for expenses like travel, long-distance phone calls, shipping and such.

This blog series is an overview of important things to know when writing for magazines or for a monetized blog. I used my journalism degree to make a living, to support my husband through medical school, and to have fun until I could write novels. Now that my hubby is in practice and we don’t have to live solely on my income, I am focusing on novels and doing less and less magazine work.

If you are considering a career as a freelancer, I urge you to invest in the following books for more in-depth advice from the queen of freelancing—Kelly James-Enger. Her detailed, disciplined approach to writing is a model to follow. Here are a few of her books on freelancing. She also has a book on how to make money as a ghostwriter.

Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money

Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money!

All her books are listed on her Author’s Amazon page:

Working as a writer doesn’t require starving. It takes discipline, flexibility, and creativity. Okay, and a thick skin to handle the rejections. Look at rejections as “no thank you” notices, because that is all they are. If you send queries without doing proper research on the publication, expect rejections. If you miss deadlines or employ sloppy business practices, then yes, you are likely to be a starving artist. But if you treat your writing as a business and take it seriously, you can build a successful career as a freelance writer.

Cheers to you!

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Writing Fillers & Sidebars

Businessman Holding GraphWriting fillers and sidebars can offer quick and plentiful spin-off sales from your research. At 500 words or less, they are concise. When submitting these to magazines or other publications offer bunches of them at a time for the editor to choose from because only the editor knows the upcoming themes and topics for future issues.

Familiarize yourself with the type and number of fillers used by the publication and tailor yours to fit the readership. Many publications list their Editorial Calendar on their websites. Aside from the usual holiday theme issues, magazines often combine articles on a specific topic for an issue. So timing your submission to suit their topic schedule improves your chance of having your fillers and sidebars accepted.

Always include fillers and sidebars with feature articles or news pieces and editors will adore you.

The types of filler categories are: informative, links, and humor. Watch for them in magazines to see how they are used.

Quick news bites and tiny features are a great entry into national magazines. These quick bits in “front-of-book” appear before the longer feature articles in a magazine. They also keep your name in front of the editors. If you continue to offer quality quick bits in your area of expertise, then you could be approached to write a feature article on this topic or area of interest.

As you research a topic you will come across interesting bits of info that don’t merit a full article. Keep a file of these. You never know when your collection will become relevant or trending.


People are attracted to stories by visuals. In photos, always identify individuals in the photo by full name, as they appear from left to right, row by row. Use your original photos only. Do not swap out heads, or blot out things in the photo. The publisher, particularly a news publisher, requires the clean original.

Prepare a permission form and get it signed by people in your photographs so you can use the photo with the article. It will be up to the editor whether or not to use the photo, but if the editor wants to use it, he will probably ask for you to get a permission slip signed. Why chase after someone weeks after you took the photo? The permission slip is also a backup for getting the person’s name spelled correctly. Let the person know that it isn’t up to you whether or not the photograph will be used, it is up to the editor.

If photographs are being used to show steps of a process, be sure to caption them with numbers for each step. They could pass through many hands before they are published.


Informative Fillers and Sidebars:

  • How-to steps, statistics, news bits
  • Evaluations, quizzes, warning signs
  • Tips, advice
  • Historical dates
  • Humor, top-ten lists
  • Odd facts or historical data
  • Charts, graphs, maps
  • Prayers for specific needs
  • Anecdotal examples
  • Book reviews
  • Photographs with captions


  • Resource list
  • Emails
  • Websites, social media sites and connections
  • Mailing addresses
  • Phone numbers for help, toll-free or list by state or major city
  • Helpful books on this topic by experts
  • Agencies, organizations, clubs
  • Scriptures that help
  • Where to get help, support groups, experts, blogs
  • How to help


  • Jokes
  • Anecdotes
  • Lists of funny but true things
  • Original cartoon (do not use any cartoon without the express written consent of the artist and expect to pay for the use of the cartoon)
  • Famous quotations


Filler formats range from creative shapes, colors, cutouts and such. Many offer information that is perennial or evergreen, while others are tied to trends or current events. Taking the same information and targeting it toward different readership groups can make the sidebar or filler even more marketable. Formats:

  1. Bullets, shapes and icons can liven up the bullets
  2. Numbered lists (list items by order of importance or as steps in a process)
  3. Acrostics—ABCs of the subject or topic in which each line item begins with a letter of the alphabet. A is for Accuracy, B is for Brevity, C is for Clarity….
  4. Quiz and the answer key
  5. List of scriptures or famous quotations connected to the topic
  6. List of materials needed or steps to perform
  7. Charts. Compare/contrast, document trend or change. Design a chart or graph if it will dramatize a point accurately.
  8. Prayers. Chapter summaries. Mini devotionals.
  9. Games. Crossword puzzles. Fill in the blank.
  10. Recipes.

Study each publication to see how it uses fillers and sidebars and submit yours to match theirs in style and format.

To read or to receive similar articles go to:

Writing an Article or Blog

Writing an article or blog for publication involves selecting a topic, narrowing the topic, gathering research, perhaps interviewing content experts, and then finally writing a draft. Think of each article, essay, or blog as exploring an idea. An idea is a topic or subject combined with an approach or slant. Find the idea that matters to you to pursue and develop. For example, if the theme or topic or subject of your writing is music, then the slant or approach to the topic could be “How to Compose Music with an iPad.”

ideaDevelop a statement that captures your story idea in 25 words. Post this where you can see it to keep your focus. Find the fresh perspective or slant or attitude toward this subject. Target your ideal readership by demographics (age, education, location, income, experiences). Why should this target reader want to read your article?

Develop a headline and subhead.

Write your grabber lead sentence and keep it short, 8 to 15 words. Put the grabber fact or quote first. In journalism, this grabber is called a hook. Yes, as in fishing. You have to hook the reader to get him to read your article. Of all the reading material out there, why should the reader choose yours? Make it compelling, weird, funny, or deeply true to draw in the reader to whom your story should matter.

Develop your main points and state them at the top of clean pages. Jot facts, ideas, and examples to support the statement and so on for each page’s main point. List experts, sources for more research, myths and misconceptions about this issue, scripture or other references related to each main point.

Organize the structure or layout of the whole piece. What is the logical order of the main points? Which order will deliver the smoothest flow? Chronological? Outside to inside? Bigger to smaller? General to specific?

Write. Flesh out each main point. Keep sidebars in mind. What is the take-away value from each of these points? Think relevance and practicality for the particular readership of your targeted publication. Keep notes on how the article can be refocused for other readerships.

Step away from the desk. Go work on a different project. Come back later and read the article like a reader, fresh and objective. Trim excess. Readers are busy people, so show you value their time.

Edit, rearrange, delete, refine and hone everything to the focus of the piece. Read it aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to it. Polish it.


Is there any way to tie their products or business into the story? Quote one of their experts? Don’t use them just to drop their name, but why pass up a willing source, a source that already ties itself to this publication? Do not use the advertiser or sponsor in a bad light or the article will get tossed or heavily edited. Publishing is a business, so respect the publisher’s business interests. The publisher is not going to bite the hand that feeds it. Nor should you.

Go deep into your topic to build a compelling read. Craft it like a story so it flows smoothly and is easy to follow.

Tom French, a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the changes between his generation and another generation of students in high school. The series of articles he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times became the basis of his book South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century. He took the facts, the people and the situation and told it like a story, using skills of fiction writing to present non-fiction.

When submitting your article or story, break the article into subheadings to make the editor’s work easier. Be sure to include sidebar information, such as statistics, facts, addresses for more information, national hotlines, or associations related to the topic of the article. Include a bibliography of sources to help the fact-checker verify every fact in the article.

Include a bionote (a one or two sentence description of you tied to the article) that includes your website or credentials. Most authors also include the title of their most recent book, especially if it relates to the topic of the article. The bionote generally appears at the beginning or end of an article to tell the reader something about the author of the piece. Here is an example bionote I used for a flying magazine at the end of a feature article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base: Joni M. Fisher is a journalist and instrument-rated private pilot who learned to fly land planes at Brown’s Seaplane Base in 1996. Contact her through



What is the history of this topic, this person, this place? What is the historical perspective? What legends and myths are connected to this place? Where is the future headed? Extrapolate the trends and their potential impact. Who is predicting the future of this place, this topic, this technology? What does the man on the street believe? History has flavor.


Quantity, locale, diversity and intensity. How big is this anyway? Does the story reach beyond the local to the regional to the national to the global? Does it affect only one industry? How many different ways does this event, this news affect others? (Shutting down one major shipping port in the U.S. causes what?) How deeply does this news affect people’s lives? Does it affect the CEO and the hourly worker the same? Does it affect the elderly the same as toddlers?


Seek sources at different sides of an issue, but also at different levels of involvement. The academic may be an expert, but how much hands-on experience does he have? In proving a point, use different kinds of proofs. Facts, testimonials, quotes from experts blended together make a stronger point than three quotes from three experts or just listing fact after fact. Even if they all say the same thing, they say it in different ways so the repetition drives the point deeper home.


Can this story unfold from development to impact to reaction? Movement can grow from alternating opposites (like changing the focal length of a camera). Abstract/concrete, general/particular, broad view to personal example—shift the reader’s focus. What is the big picture and the telling detail? Take the reader into the story.


Keep it as conversational as possible. Showing off your vocabulary will distance you from your readers. Write in the clearest way possible, as if you are writing to your best friend. Even if you are the world’s leading expert on the topic, you won’t reach people if you preach or dictate to them. Show, don’t tell. If your article seeks to convince people to take action, then do so with facts, testimonials, objective information. Write with honesty and heart and your readers will appreciate it even if they disagree with you.

Always, always satisfy the reader’s question—Why should I care about this? Make the article worth the reader’s time and energy. Pack it with solid value.

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What You Need to Know to Write for Publications

trackingsuccessWhether you are young or newly retired and seek to support yourself as a writer, you need to establish a plan based on understanding the marketplace for selling your work. Expect a slow start and slow returns. If you want to pursue a career in writing, consider keeping a day job with a regular paycheck while you build your credentials as a writer. It may seem noble to suffer as a starving artist, but living the cliché does not guarantee success any more than drinking in excess grants you the writing skills of Hemingway. Keep in mind that Tom Clancy worked in insurance until his earnings from his books exceeded his insurance salary. He did not quit his day job after publication of his first or second book.

One pathway to publication is writing articles on specific topics for magazines, newspapers, and online publications. As newspapers transfer from paper to online formats, keep in mind the vast range of online publishers–professional organizations, corporations, and other outlets–willing to buy your writing. While it would help to have a degree in journalism, you can manage well without it if you take your writing seriously enough to study the market. You produce a product with the written word. You can maximize your time and income by learning about the marketplace and the process.

For example: Let’s say you have a blog about your hobby–bicycling. As your readership or following grows, you become an expert or a source of valuable information. You interview bike racers, bike repair experts, and so on through your blog. Why not share your passion with other like-minded bicycling enthusiasts by offering your blog to the largest biking association or manufacturer? Don’t they need content for their magazine and website? Why not earn income from something you are already happy to do for free?

In this series I will present Things You Need to Know to Write for publications:

  • Types of Articles,
  • Finding Your Topics,
  • Generating Story Ideas,
  • Research,
  • Interviewing Sources,
  • Query Letters & Guidelines,
  • Writing the Article,
  • Fillers & Sidebars,
  • Contracts,
  • Reprints & Rewrites, and
  • Tracking your Work.

I will share my knowledge of three decades as a working journalist and other resources available to help you. I have taught writing to police officers, students who speak English as a second language, middle school students, and fiction writers. While building my career as a fiction writer, I worked as a technical writer and journalist by day and helped support my husband through medical school. For more information about me and for samples of my writing, see my website: Developing a writing career is not for sprinters. If you decide to take up the marathon of a long-distance career in writing, enter the race with knowledge.

Editors seek articles that entertain, enlighten and inform. No matter how brilliant your article may be, if it isn’t NEWSWORTHY (meaning valuable and interesting for their publication’s readership) then the editors will not buy it. Each publication has its own readership measured in numbers and demographics. Demographics show the readership by age range, race, gender, cultural background, politics, religion and other factors. For example: Working Mother readers are predominantly women, but probably not the same women who read Cosmopolitan.

I will show you how to analyze a publication to determine its demographics, style, and fit for your work. One popular source of listings for magazines is the Writer’s Market, which gives a paragraph description of a publication. Here is an example:

Christian Science Monitor This world-famous American newspaper seeks “upbeat, personal essays from 300 to 900 words.” Their current requirements include travel, parenting and seasonal essays. Read the guidelines for updated information. Payment: $75-$160 on publication. Guidelines: [It also lists contact information, such as the name, title, and mailing address of the person to query, their response time, whether they pay on publication or before, and how many readers subscribe to the publication.]

Let’s begin with an overview of the work strategy or process needed to get your article from concept to publication.


Every week bring 25 article ideas to the desk. An idea is a topic or subject combined with an approach or slant. To test an idea, ask it as a question and then answer the question. For example: What is the quality of local news broadcasts? They have become entertainment (or agenda?) focused instead of informative and objective.

  • Choose the idea to develop into a query or article by how exciting it sounds to you. If you don’t get revved up about research, interviews and so on, then your reader will sense the lack of enthusiasm. Find the idea that matters to you to pursue and develop.
  • Develop a statement that captures your story idea in 25 words. Post this where you can see it as you research and develop the story to keep your focus. Find the fresh perspective or slant or attitude toward this subject. Target your ideal readership by demographics (age, education, location, income, experiences). Why should this target reader want to read your article? Example: A couple raised in the sixties teaches their daughter the fine art of rebellion to empower her to live boldly as a Christian.
  • Develop a headline and subhead. Example: Teaching Your Child To Rebel; Raising Lions From Lambs. This idea developed from frustrated parents raised in the sixties who want their children to avoid following dangerous teen trends and peer pressure by asserting themselves as individuals and thinking independently.
  • Write your grabber lead sentence and keep it short, 8 to 15 words. Put the grabber fact or quote first. For example: A teenage Christian is more likely to be ashamed to admit being a virgin than to try marijuana.
  • Develop your main points and state them at the top of clean pages. Jot facts, ideas, and examples to support the statement and so on for each page’s main point. List experts to interview, sources for more research, myths and misconceptions about this issue, scripture or other references related to each main point.
  • Organize the structure or layout of the whole piece. What is the logical order of the main points? Which order will deliver the smoothest flow?
  • Conduct research and interview experts.
  • Write. Flesh out each main point. Keep sidebars in mind. What is the take-away value from each of these points? Think relevance and practicality.
  • Step away from the desk. Go work on a different project. Come back later and read the article like a reader, fresh and objective.
  • Edit, rearrange, delete, refine and hone everything to the focus of the piece. Read it aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to it. Polish it.
  • Send the query letter to the magazine, or online publishing organization this piece belongs in. Make a list of other candidate buyers and file the list with the piece.
  • If you get a ‘no thank you’ letter from one publication, immediately send out a query to the next one on the list.
  • Track your queries, acceptances, publication dates, payments and rights. An example tracking chart will be provided as a pdf in a later blog.
  • Two months before the rights revert back to you on a published piece, send out a query to another magazine for this article [to publish as a reprint or a new piece to suit the buyer’s readership].

Selling reprints or rewriting an article to sell to other publications will multiply your income. Your research, interview and writing time can pay off repeatedly when you refocus your article to suit different groups of readers.

Editors will notify you of their policy regarding reprints. Generally, the larger the buyer’s organization, the less likely they are to buy reprints. However, once you have done the research on an article and topic, you can rewrite the article with a new angle or slant or perspective to suit the next publication.

For example: I published an article in an aviation magazine about earning my pilot’s license. In that publication I freely used aviation vocabulary without having to explain it. When Christianity Today bought the article, I rewrote it to suit the focus the editor requested—how a hobby brought a married couple closer. Hubby and I both fly, so writing from the perspective of a married Christian was easy. I had to define the aviation terminology, but the focus of the article was on how aviation affected a marriage, so the substantial rewrite earned me a higher fee. They paid the fee for an original article, and they also gave attribution to the previous publication with an endnote. The fact that the article/topic appeared in an aviation magazine gave it more credibility.

The King and Queen of freelance writing are Robert Bly and Kelly James-Enger. Bly is the master of copywriting and he shares his expertise though his books, most notable of his collection is:

Secrets of a Freelance Writer, Third Edition: How to Make $100,000 a Year or More

Kelly James-Enger has made a very comfortable living as a freelance magazine writer on topics of health, fitness and nutrition. She shares her freelance experience and knowledge in these books:

Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success

Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money

Goodbye Byline: Hello Big Bucks

A few terms you need to know:

Front of Book—the part of the magazine before the feature articles appear.

Kill fee—a magazine buys your article for a percentage of the full payment to keep it off the market for a period of time.

Rights—First North American Serial rights (an original work), Second North American Serial Reprints (a reprinted work or a work with large sections reprinted from a previously published article)—see contract for “buys all rights” or the length of time the rights belong to the publication. Typically, rights last 30 to 90 days after the date of publication. Reprints are often half of the pay of the original or less than the second magazine pays for an original.

Writing on SPEC—this means that you are writing on speculation that the magazine will buy the finished article. The editor may ask a writer to submit on SPEC if this is the first work submitted to this magazine. This gives the editor the right to refuse to buy it if it is not up to the magazine’s standards or style or may cause controversy. If the editor sends a contract, then the work is considered writing “on assignment” and the editor will demand changes if the work does not meet his standard.

I will define publishing terms throughout the series. I welcome comments, questions and sharing of this series.

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Generating Article Ideas

Do you carry a small notebook to jot down ideas? If not, start. Great ideas can get lost in our multi-tasking, fast-paced lives. Once you have identified your topics of expertise and interest, keep that list in your notebook. Add the following to your notebook as well.

The top 10 most profitable topics to write about are:

  • Business and finance
  • Diet & nutrition
  • Essays
  • Fitness and sports
  • Health
  • Home and garden
  • Parenting
  • Profiles & true-life features
  • Technology & science
  • Travel

Pair up your expertise to the profitable topics. Brainstorm. Everything is connected. Find the connections. Explore them.

What captures your imagination and attention is likely to interest other people too. What are people in your industry talking about, afraid of, planning for?

Let’s say your topic of expertise is farming. How does farming connect to the world around you? Are you concerned about the safety of eating genetically altered vegetables? How are people of different ages/cultures/regions affected by farming changes, trends, costs? What are farmers talking about? Are small farms being lost to co-ops and giant conglomerates? Are people growing their own herbs and veggies at home in suburbia?

Once you’ve gathered your research on a topic, try developing your article in different formats for different publications. Can you write on the same topic in a personal essay and a How-To? Look for sales opportunities. Consider breaking up an article into bite-size bits to sell as fillers.

How about writing an article for a magazine you regularly read or for your local newspaper? You are already familiar with the content, style and topics and you represent the magazine’s demographic (readership). Can you take a national news item and give it a local focus?

What combinations of popular topics can be done? What is the popular trend or belief and can you argue the opposite in an interesting thought-provoking way? Is the majority belief based on erroneous information or misinterpretation of facts? Is there a low-tech approach to a problem that high-tech society is overlooking? NASA spent serious coin on developing a writing instrument to use in weightlessness, testing and creating a special pen. The Russians used pencils.

What hot topics are in the news? How can I relate these hot topics to the specific readership of this publication?

Generate ideas from sources like:

  • Snapshots, fillers, sidebars and tiny front-of-book items in magazines. These (500-word or less) fillers can state a fact, a survey result, a bit of trivia that could be developed into a story. For example: Children under age 10 spend an average of 3 hours a day watching television. What could you do to develop that into an article?
  • Personal experience. Mine your life for stories. How does your family handle reunions? What special traditions have you developed in your life? What events in your life have changed you?
  • Old magazines and newspapers. What was news ten years ago? Still a problem? Problem solved? How? Compare then and now. Diet, fashion, health, medicine, telephones, computers, look around at what has changed in your life and what those changes mean.
  • College web sites. Research findings, projects. Wild class titles. What issues are on the minds of this generation? Why does it take more than four years to get a college degree these days?
  • Eavesdropping. What are people talking about? What bothers or excites them? Social Media?
  • Calendar. Magazines buy stories months in advance, so think Christmas in August. What holidays are big in your town? What happens in different seasons where you live?
  • Trend reports. Business magazines, civic groups, industries all track changes. What’s coming up next that consumers would like to know? Identity theft was a critical issue at banking conferences five years ago. It hits the news now as more consumers become victims. What trends do you see?
  • Word play with potential titles. Keep a rhyming dictionary on hand or go to the website and find all the words that rhyme with your word and then look at famous quotes using the word.
  • Clip and save weird news articles that capture your attention. The Tabloid headline kind.
  • Pay attention. Listen. Ideas will come to you with practice. One idea will grab you and demand to be written.

Keep a notebook handy for capturing those ideas to develop into articles.

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Types of Articles

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 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: 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:


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.


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:


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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