Last night my organization See Jane Write Birmingham hosted its third educational event, Freelancing 101. This panel discussion featured writers and editors of top local publications and drew about 50 attendees. Complete with free refreshments and time to network with other local writers, it was a great way to spend a Tuesday night. (But I might be a bit biased.)
Here is a taste of the writing wisdom the panelists shared with us.
Carla Jean Whitley is managing editor of Birmingham Magazine and she loves coffee. I mean, she really loves coffee, and that’s actually good news for you. One of the pearls of wisdom Carla Jean shared at Tuesday’s panel discussion is the value of building relationships with editors, and you can start simply by inviting them out for coffee. Over a cup of jo you can pick their brains about their publications and their freelancing needs.
This is not to take the place of doing your homework, first. Before attempting to freelance for a publication it’s important that you be familiar it. “Read more than one issue,” Carla Jean suggests. All panelists agreed that you must get to know a publication’s style and have a sense of its audience to successfully pitch story ideas.
And speaking of story ideas, Carla Jean says that one of the best ways to come up with stories to pitch is to simply follow your curiosity. “If you’re interested someone else may be too,” she said. “Keep your eyes open.”
Glenny Brock is editor-in-chief of Weld, a newsweekly that she and three partners founded last year. Even though Glenny couldn’t “give a hoot about hunting and fishing,” some of the best writing advice she ever received was from a man who specialized in this very topic. (Fun fact: Glenny’s first freelance piece was published in a magazine called Varmint Masters.) From this writer/editor, Glenny learned how important it is for a writer to see stories everywhere. “He never did an interview for just one story,” she said. Glenny believes that by asking the right questions, a good reporter can retrieve information and details for five stories in one interview. “Use every part of the animal,” she said, no pun intended. So if you’re doing a profile on a fisherman also find out some of his favorite fishing spots, the best places to buy fishing gear, etc. These can be the starts of more stories.
As for pitching your ideas Glenny said it’s important to be as specific as possible. So don’t email her saying you want to write a story about running. Instead consider pitching a story about a running group or new marathon in town. Your pitch will also be more appealing, she said, if you already have a few sources in mind for the story.
When Chianti Cleggett talks about writing her face lights up and she sounds as joyful as a girl with a new crush. But this isn’t puppy love. Chianti has had a long-time love affair with the written word. Chianti has been featured in various publications including The Birmingham Times, Birmingham Magazine, and Essence.com. Many of her writing opportunities have come from others being award of her love of writing. All her friends and family know it’s her passion so they’re constantly sending her leads.
Panelist Kate Agliata said Tuesday night that, “Good writers are constantly reading,” and Chianti is a prime example of that. You’ll often find her in a book store delving into magazines. This is a great way to generate story ideas. Chianit and Glenny recommend looking for ways to localize national stories or taking a local story and finding a national angle.
Afraid of pitching to national publications? Don’t be. Chianti says it never hurts to just go for it. “Take a stab in the dark,” she said. “What do you have to lose?”
One of the best pieces of advice Kate Agliata ever received was: “Write what you know.” Kate has been doing just that working as a writer and editor for MyGreenBirmingham.com, Birmingham’s online green living resource. Her work has also been published by several nationally recognized websites including HGTVPro, HGTVRemodels, and Got2begreen, one of Time magazine’s 2009 best rated websites.
If you’re thinking, “Well, I don’t feel like a know much,” you need to change that ASAP, sister. Kate recommends really focusing on a few of your interests and developing an expertise in those areas. That doesn’t mean you know everything. In fact, you need to stay thirsty for more knowledge. If you read something and you have questions, seek out the answers, Kate said. Chances are you’ll stumble upon a story idea in the process.
All of this may be a lot to take in, but if you remember nothing else, take this to heart: keep writing. All four panelists agreed that the best way to see your byline in your favorite publications and the only way to realize that dream of being a successful full-time freelancer (successful meaning you can pay your bills without eating Ramen noodles for dinner every night) is to write as much as you can. Get your name out there even if it means writing for a tiny community paper or even a newsletter for a local organization. And, yes, even if it means occasionally writing for free.
But in the midst of the hustle don’t lose your love for language. Chianti, for example, sets aside time once a week to simply write for pleasure.
And Kate’s advice is this: “Write every day, even if only for 5 minutes.”
Are you kicking yourself for missing this awesome event? I have great news! Local photographer and educator Lynsey Weatherspoon recorded audio of the event. You can check it out here.