Writing What We Know... For Love and For Money
Erika Dreifus | January 2004
Early in the book I assign my composition students (and recommend to my fiction writers, too), Richard Marius's A Writer's Companion, the author explains the challenges of the beginning stages of the writing process:
First, we have to have something to write about; we have to know something. You can't write anything unless you have something to say. Some beginning writers think that the world is waiting for their sweeping generalizations and their firm opinions about controversial subjects. It is not. Opinions are cheap. Everybody has them. They are worth something only when they come supported by knowledge. Write about what you know. That is a familiar piece of advice to writers.
Familiar, indeed. And while it may seem that the adage is discussed-if also debated-more frequently in fiction workshops than in other classroom settings, it's worth noting that the "write about what you know" axiom applies at least equally (if not more-but that's the topic of another article) to the work of nonfiction. And to freelancing.
In fact, while completing my MFA degree (in fiction), I'd already found myself writing many articles and essays about the issues I was dealing with most frequently, the subjects I was coming to "know" most intensively in both my work as a teacher and as a student: books and literature and creative writing pedagogy. Usually these pieces found homes in English journals, which was truly, wonderfully engaging and fulfilling. But unfortunately it didn't pay very many bills.
The salience about "writing about what we know" returned during my MFA graduating residency in Charlotte, North Carolina, last May, when our group of fictionists and poets was lucky enough to have writer Kim Wiley conduct a seminar on freelancing. Again, I realized the common sense of Richard Marius's instructions: freelance articles and essays, too, rely on knowledge, whether that comes from memory, experience, past reading, or research undertaken for the specific project. So not very long after graduation, while I continued to apply for jobs and fellowships, and continued to teach as an adjunct and to consult with students on individual projects-and continued to receive exponentially more short story rejections for every acceptance-I realized that there was something else I could do. Something that I loved and that might earn some income at the same time.
I could write about what I knew: writing. The craft of writing. The business of writing. How-to articles. Resource summaries. And so on.
Surely there are others out there (and somehow I believe that some of you, dear readers, are among them) who have bookmarked countless websites on various contests and competitions, on markets and MFA programs. Surely there are others who have acquired some insights into the submissions process by now. Surely there are others who possess passionate yet considered ideas about craft and technique.
There are places for us, both in print and online. Editors and readers who value our expertise and our abilities to communicate it. And yes-there are even checks that will follow acceptance/publication of our writings on these issues. Checks of varying amounts, to be sure. But checks all the same.
And it's pretty nice to have the sense that you may be helping other writers in the process.
Of course, markets exist for writing-related articles beyond the magazines targeted especially for writers. Regional publications may particularly welcome features about local writers, projects, and literary festivals. Education magazines and newspapers often include contributions from teachers in all fields and subjects ( Community College Week's "Point of View" section is one example). Think literary travel, too-perhaps a nice feature on Chicago 's best bookstores might be in someone's future here?
In all cases, the usual caveats apply, and though I feel somewhat silly repeating them to this audience I will:
- Become familiar with the publications before you submit.
- Check the guidelines for updates.
- Follow the guidelines-especially directions about editorial lead time and deadlines. An article meant to dovetail with National Poetry Month, but submitted in March, is in all likelihood an article submitted far too late.
But I don't have to tell you all this. Because here you are writing what you very much know-and love.
Where to Submit?
This magazine, which strives for "about 90% Canadian content," emphasizes "short 'how-to' articles which convey easily understood information useful to both apprentice and professional writers." The guidelines note that work "based on the author's personal experience and achievements will usually be given preference" and advises that writers "avoid overworked subjects such as overcoming writer's block, handling rejection, or finding time to write". Payment is $7.50CAN/printed page (approx. 450 words per page). Prefers e-queries/submissions; article length 400-2,000 words. Also publishes fiction, poetry, book reviews, and fillers.
The magazine's editorial content falls within four main sections: "News and Trends" (brief pieces on developments in writing and publishing); "The Literary Life" ("essays on the more contemplative aspects of writing"); "The Practical Writer" (the "how-to" section) and "Features" (author profiles/interviews). "We pay when the piece is scheduled for production." Check the website for more detailed guidelines.
The Willamette Writer
Leona Grieve, Managing Editor
9045 SW Barbur Blvd.
Portland , OR 97219
Newsletter of the Willamette Writers organization seeks articles and essays on writing and occasional reviews of writing books. "'How-to' articles on craft and genre are especially welcome." Preferred article length is 500-1200 words, 600 words maximum for essays. No poetry or fiction. Pays $.05/word for first rights, $.01 for reprints. Single-space e-mail submissions in Times New Roman, 12-point font, with double spacing between paragraphs. (Hard copy submissions should be double-spaced). Include word count, short bio, and note on which rights are for sale. Payment on publication.
Many (about 90%) of this magazine's articles are written by freelancers. The Writer's goal is "to foster the idea of a writers' community in which writers share their experiences, expertise, struggles, successes, and suggestions on our pages." Pay rates can range from $50 for a book review to $200 to $400 for columns and $300 to $500 for features. Details about submissions for features, columns, and other departments are available on the website.
You're all familiar with this one. Or you should be! Guidelines on the website.
This monthly magazine welcomes freelance submissions for "how-to" and writing technique articles as well as for genre and market reports. Payment for articles is $.30-$.50/word upon acceptance. Comprehensive guidelines on website. Note: the magazine has recently expanded its "InkWell" section, "the best place for new writers to try and break in," which features short (maximum 500-word) "trend stories, ideas, reviews, essays, news, inspiration, fun facts for writers, and more."InkWell" is "one section of the magazine where you can benefit from sending the complete written piece as opposed to a query."
This website/e-newsletter focuses "on 'selling' the written word. We do not seek articles on how to write. Rather, we seek articles on how to make more money doing what you love..writing! We are also interested in other forms of home-based businesses and self-employment that may result from writing, such as self-publishing, corporate writing, ghostwriting, etc. All ideas that help writers support themselves performing the work they love are warmly welcomed." A 600-word article earns $50 for first, non-exclusive rights; $30 for reprints.
Erika Dreifus (EdM, MFA, PhD) teaches in the Harvard Extension School Writing Program. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe , Lilith , Teachers & Writers , and elsewhere. She contributes frequently to print and online publications on the craft and business of writing and her new book, Free Expression: 101 Fee-Free Contests, Competitions, and Other Opportunities for Resourceful Writers , is available from http://www.booklocker.com.