WRITING LESSONS LEARNED: WE LEARNED THE HARD WAY SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO by Shelley Divnich Haggert and Linda Sherwood

Print Friendly

Today we’re featuring a free excerpt from Writing Lessons Learned: We Learned The Hard Way So You Don’t Have To by Shelley Divnich Haggert and Linda Sherwood. The easy-to-read Q&A format of this book makes finding the answers to freelancing questions a breeze.
In Writing Lessons Learned, the beginning writer receives sage advice from not one, but two experienced freelancers and editors. The beginning freelancer becomes part of the conversation between Shelley and Linda as they answer the questions new writers ask most. For every question, both Shelley and Linda provide answers they’ve learned along their own path to publication. More at: http://www.writersweekly.com/books.php


The editor accepted my query, but then wanted changes. This isn’t the article I proposed. What should I do?

Linda says:

Look at your query again and the agreement you made with the editor. I once co-wrote an article that had been accepted by a publication. We wrote a great article that was exactly what we’d proposed in the query. The editor, after we’d written the article, came back saying she wanted something totally different and not what we’d queried at all. My co-writer and I talked about it and decided we didn’t want to write the article the editor proposed. We told the editor no, but we both did this knowing we’d probably never write for this editor again.

On the other hand, this same co-author and I had written another article whose query had been accepted by an editor. When we turned in the article, the editor passed, saying it wasn’t what we’d promised in the query. We looked over our article and found that we agreed with the editor. We didn’t have enough facts backing us up. We asked the editor for another try, we rewrote it, and it was published. This second publication, however, was one that both of us wanted to write for again and again. And looking at our query, we realized we hadn’t delivered what we’d promised.

So my advice would be to look at your query with an open mind and a realization that it is possible that you strayed off course. Determine if you delivered what you promised, and if this is a market you want to develop a long-standing relationship with or if you can walk away realizing they probably won’t assign you anything else.

Shelley says:

If you’re still willing to write the article anyway, go ahead and do it her way. You may find that she was right, and it works better her way. You may also find that you learn something new by being open-minded about your options.

If not, be honest, and pass up the assignment. Say something like, “That’s not really what I had in mind – I may not be the best writer to take that direction for you.”

* * *

Where do I find people to interview? Not just the experts, but also the “real” people?

Shelley says:

Many writers are shy, introverted people; after all, that’s part of the appeal in being a writer, right? The thought that we can hide behind our computer screens, and not have to venture out into the world.

But to find people to interview, you’re going to have to get out there and talk to people. Interview subjects can be found in your circle of friends, your workplace if you have one, your church community, your neighbourhood. They don’t have to be people you know, but often they are people your friends know. Talk to people. Ask.

I was working on an article for a local, and I needed to find out why different people chose to live in one particular neighbourhood. After exhausting my small supply of acquaintances in the area, I still needed one more family. Armed with only my business cards, my camera, and my notebook, I strolled down one street and watched for people outside in their yards. I saw one woman watering her flowers, and marched right up, told her who I was writing for, and asked if I could interview her. She could just as easily have said no, but she didn’t.

Of course, it helped that the publication I was with was well known and well respected in the neighbourhood.

If you’re looking for experts, you can also look at the experts you know personally and professionally. Your own doctor may be willing to recommend a colleague on a certain issue, or your bank manager may let you ask her some questions. You can also contact your local university – professors love to talk about their field of specialty.

Linda says:

If you are writing for a local market, ask experts to help you find people to interview. When I wrote an article about a parenting class, I asked the local expert to find out if any of the families who took the class would be willing to be interviewed. She then provided me with several names to contact.

You can contact organizations and ask for similar referrals. ListServs are another great source for “real” people. I belong to several writing lists and often ask for input for articles I’m working on. However, know your publication. When I write for the local newspaper, they don’t want to have me interviewing someone from 1,000 miles away.

* * *

I found someone to interview for an article I’m writing, but they want to see the article before I submit it. Is this okay?

Shelley says:

I would never let an interview subject see an article after the interview. It’s your article, not theirs. I would suggest verifying quotes, but that’s about as much control as I’d give an interviewee.

Linda Says:

No! I suggest strongly that you DO NOT show sources an article before publication.

If you are unfamiliar with interviewing and taking quotes, you may feel doubtful about your abilities. This often leads you to showing sources articles. If it is a complicated subject, check your facts and talk some more to your source.

You should be very careful with other’s people words. You need to ensure they are accurate and complete. At the same time, you need to make sure your readers receive a fair and accurate story. Nonfiction articles generally present two or more sides of an issue and let the reader make an informed choice. If you let the person you are interviewing read the article, it gives them a preview to the other side’s comments and you’ll find them changing their comments in response.

What’s more, they often think by granting them a preview of the article, you are giving them permission to edit the article and make suggestions to the way it is presented and the structure of the article itself. You’re the writer; don’t let someone else dictate to you how to do your job.

Often you’ll have a perfectly good quote, but they’ll read it and get worried and want to change it to some politically correct version that sounds stilted and fake.

You can offer to read back their quotes to them. Or better yet, repeat what they said in different terms to show you understand their comments.

* * *

How do I know if I’m being paid too little for an article? Do editors take advantage of rookies like me?

Linda Says:

Do editors take advantage of rookies? Only if you let them. I wrote a 1500-word article that I worked on for a long time, including several long-distance phone calls, for $25 and a lot of confidence. I don’t think the editor took advantage of me at all. I needed that confidence. Once I got it, I moved on to other higher paying markets.

The first thing you need to consider is the rights you are selling. If you are selling all rights or first rights, you need to realize that this is very valuable. That means you should be paid more. Researched articles take more time and effort on your part and usually bring more money than essays. Humor writing doesn’t pay a lot in most markets, but you can make a nice chunk of change from humor, too.

Next figure out what will make you happy. When that stops making you happy, move up the pay scale.

Realize that pay rates also depend on the circulation of the publication. Newspapers don’t pay well, but a weekly with a circulation of 2,000 will most likely have lower rates than a daily with a circulation of 100,000. Writer’s Market has a great reference guide on average pay rates for a wide variety of writing.

Really think hard before selling all rights to an article. I’ve made a lot of money by selling reprints to a variety of articles.

Shelley says:

I don’t think we take advantage of rookies, but we do take a little longer to offer you the full Monty. Most publication guidelines will list a range of rates – and editors wiggle around inside that range for various reasons. As long as you’re being paid within the range, I wouldn’t worry that you’re being short-changed.

After a relationship begins to develop between you and the editor, you may ask her about raising your rate. Or you may simply decide on a minimum that you will accept. I have encountered writers who won’t even open Word for less than $300. I respect their decision, but it’s outside my range, and so we cannot work together.

It’s best to set a minimum for yourself ahead of time, and then only target markets that meet your minimum.

Excerpted from Writing Lessons Learned: We Learned The Hard Way So You Don’t Have To by Shelley Divnich Haggert and Linda Sherwood. http://www.writersweekly.com/shop/forwriters.html#19