Selling Short Non-Fiction Articles By Claudia Carver

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I like to find good homes for things. Every couple of years, I organize a garage sale. I sell things I no longer need or want for a dollar or two, or even for loose change. Of course, I also go to garage sales from time to time, often bringing home a treasure that someone else didn¹t want or need.

I also like to find good homes for my writing. I jumped for joy when I won second place in a local short story contest. I even did a little hop, skip and jump when a submission was given honorable mention and when another made the top ten list.

In recent years, I¹ve published an increasing number of short fiction and non-fiction pieces, and this past winter I presented a workshop on the topic of publishing short articles and stories to my local writers¹ association.

As I worked on my notes for the presentation I became aware that many of the points I was going to make began with the letter ‘R’. So, in typical writerly mode, I capitalized on this pattern. Maybe even overworked it a little. Because I am pleased to find another home for these jottings, here they are:

Rule of Twelve: Some people call this the Rule of Thirteen – I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating. Basically, it just means that you have to have many, many queries or short articles circulating at any one time. Getting something published is a combination of having a good idea, writing skill, timeliness and last but definitely not least, how a particular idea or piece grabs a particular editor at a particular point in time. That’s why you have to have scads of them making the rounds.

From my point of view, one of the advantages of writing short non-fiction articles is that you can either query ideas to specific publications or, if there’s something you really want to write about, something you feel passionate about, or something that tickles your funny-bone, you can write the whole piece and shop it around, without feeling like you’ve wasted a lot of time on research and composition for a long, involved article you can’t sell.

Re-Size: Several years ago, I signed up for a six week (one evening a week) course, titled, <b>Writing Non-Fiction for Fun and Profit</b>. At the time, I was primarily writing fiction, but a colleague whose opinion I respected, advised that if I wanted to have more writing published, I should write more non-fiction. When I took the above mentioned course, I found that the two don’t necessarily conflict. The instructor, in fact, helped us to see that the best non-fiction employs the same principles as fiction writing. But that’s another article. This ‘R’ is about re-sizing.

During the six weeks of this course, we all chose a topic to work on and set about outlining, researching, writing, re-writing, writing, re-writing… You get the picture. We also learned how to write the quintessential query letter on our chosen topic. I sent this near perfect query to a national Canadian magazine, envisioning an interest in the full article I had written up for my course assignment and then…I heard nothing. Many months later, however, I received a phone call from one of the editors at the magazine. She asked me if I would be interested in writing a short, 150-word piece on the story for an upcoming issue. Still being very much a newbie, I was pretty excited, but I had no idea how I was going to reduce the 2,000 word article/assignment I had written for the non-fiction course to 150 words. Under pressure, I learned the value of our instructor’s mantra. “What is your story really about and why should a reader care?” Yes – if you can find the answer to that question, it is always possible to put the main thrust, or a particular part of a story, into a much shorter form.

Re-sizing fiction is another challenge. Short-shorts or flash fiction seems to be especially popular these days. Storyhouse – a company in Oregon that sells freshly roasted coffee beans online, prints stories, poems, essays, and all manner of interesting tidbits on the labels of their coffee cans. The last thing I sold to them was a re-sizing of a 2,000 word story called <b>Slices</b>, previously published in a local writers’ anthology. I managed to slice <b>Slices</b> down to 200 words. Try it with some of your stories – you might be surprised to discover what your story is really about and why a reader should care.

Re-lax: Don’t give up hope. One of my subsequent queries to the magazine that gave me my first short non-fiction assignment was responded to more than a year later. I received an email from the editor, telling me they wanted to assign a story about a group of puppeteers (volunteers) whose performances help school children learn how to be sensitive to fellow classmates returning to school after cancer treatment. My first thought was, “Oh boy, that query was a long time ago.” I thought it had been six months – when I checked the date on my initial email, I found it was a year and six months. Yup – you never know when a particular story will be just the thing a magazine editor is looking for at a particular point in time.

Re-send: I couldn’t tell you the number of ideas or short articles I’ve re-sent. It certainly helps you keep you numbers up – twelve or more doesn’t mean you have to have that many NEW ideas making the rounds. I’ve certainly had a number of ideas or short articles rejected by one publication, purchased by another. I have also re-sent the same piece to the same person several months later. I emailed a short humorous piece on the difficulties involved in getting organized to the Lifestyles editor of my city’s newspaper. I heard nothing back and several months later, decided to send it again. For some unknown reason she thought it was funny this time – or perhaps she had the space – or who knows why she wanted it this time, but not the time before. I think, perhaps she may have been doing a feature on simplifying your life and this piece of mine dovetailed with the main story. Now, I’m not recommending you make a nuisance of yourself. But if you’¹ve written something you’re particularly fond of, and that you may have sent out at the wrong time – just send it off again.

Re-cycle: This is a good word for writers as well as for garage sale aficionados or environmentalists. Inspired (or rather totally fed up) by a long wait on the telephone, anticipating that a real live person would deal with my dilemma, I wrote a short light-hearted piece on how my mind wandered as I listened to an organization’s unpalatable selection of musical interludes. Titled, <b>Raindrops Are Falling On My Head</b>, I sold it first as a radio essay, and subsequently to my local newspaper. Two checks made the long wait on the telephone worthwhile.

Remember the coffee cans? They change the labels every month and, since they buy previously published work, it’s a good market for recycling things previously published elsewhere. I’ve had a long poem that my sister and I wrote together (previously published in a literary journal) published on their coffee cans.

Re-slant: You read about this one all the time in articles on how to make the most of your writing. But it needs to be said again and again. A portion of one article can be the focus of another. Why not put your creative genius to good use in the marketing arena. Make a habit of frequently reading through your queries and completed pieces to see if a re-slant might appeal to a new publication or one you’ve recently become aware of.

Re-search: Most writers know how to research for background information, but researching new markets sometimes leaves us cold. It’s certainly a good idea to try and develop relationships with specific editors, to find out what kind of ideas appeal, what their lead time is for seasonal pieces, etc. But it’s just as important to keep looking for new editors, new publications.

You hear this until you’re sick of it – “Become familiar with our publication.” But if you’re looking for markets for short pieces, you may need to pay very close attention to specific sections or columns in a magazine or newspaper. Do they have a short section on profiles of community volunteers or on interesting tidbits of trivial information? Do they frequently publish short stories about neighborliness or about family ties? Do many of their short pieces have a seasonal slant?

Do their stories seem to have a visual impact? If so, be sure to mention that you have, or can get, an accompanying photo. Unless you’re a professional photographer you probably won’t get paid for your photos, but photos can help to sell an article – especially a travel one.

Many magazines or newspapers have an inspirational/personal experience type of column. These are often placed towards the back of the magazine. So, if you’ve already been inspired (or compelled) to write a short essay, your market might be here. Often these are fairly serious essays regarding life changing events or experiences, but sometimes they will accept something humorous for this slot.

Pay particular attention to the publication’s format. If it’s a paper like Dollar Stretcher, for example, you’ll notice that they frequently publish informational, how-to articles, with headings and specific bullet-type points. You’ll have a better chance of your idea and article being accepted if you follow this pattern.

Re-vision: Let’s look at both meanings of the word. This isn’t just about rewriting and reworking your material for different markets, it’s also about keeping your eyes peeled for unusual possibilities. Revision and re-vision.

A former colleague of mine developed what she called “belly dancer eyes”. She worked as a counselor and educator, but her hobby was belly dancing. Many years ago, I attended a mini-workshop she presented. As well as teaching us some basic moves, she also talked about the art of belly dancing and invited questions. When someone asked her where she bought her costumes, she spoke about developing belly-dancer eyes, telling us how she would often find fabric or old costume jewelry at garage sales which she would incorporate into her costumes.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Potential markets are not always obvious – you really need to develop writer’s eyes – or sometimes, writer’s ears. Maybe an ad in your local newspaper will make you think of the unusual photo you took on your last holiday in Ireland – photo with an unusual caption that the advertising company might be willing to pay for. Maybe one of your areas of interest and expertise, one of your obsessions, relates to the call for stories from your local radio station. Maybe you’ve visited a website or received a brochure that could use a fresh eye, a new vision, or some editorial assistance.

Keep your eyes peeled for new markets, for markets you might have skipped over in the past. Yes, put on your belly-dancer eyes and keep looking.

Claudia Carver is a freelance writer who lives and works in Kitchener, Ontairo, Canada. As well as looking for markets for her short non-fiction articles, she is currently anxious to find a home for a recently completed novel. Although the novel is titled, Work In Progress, she trusts it is finished.