Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

A friend of mine wrote me recently, and asked me a bunch of questions about how to become a freelancer and what it’s like.  I thought the answers might be interesting, so I’ve re-published the conversation here…

At the bottom, I’ve added comments from friends who read this and are more smarter than me. 😊

how are you, travis?  long time, no communication.  i have a bunch of questions for you and was hoping you could answer them to the best of your ability and/or direct me to some helpful resources, since i’m really not in touch with any other journalists at this time.  remember - i wasn’t a journalism major in college, so pardon my ignorance on these subject matters….

i had a baby boy - adorable - on feb 12 of this year and i just quit my job due to the 9-5 schedule and the limitations that such schedule places on my time spent with baby.  i have accepted a part-time job for the summer - same stuff i was doing before).  but now i’m thinking that this is a good time for a possible temporary transition in career focus to better cater towards my wanting to be at home w/ my baby.

here are my questions:

1) do you know anyone who writes non-fiction, feature freelance articles for periodicals?

Yes, I know several people.

2) how does one determine about what topics they’re expert/qualified enough to write?  for instance, i have an msw degree (no journalism degree, no professional writing experience) - thus, in what areas would i be considered a credible writer?  i’m interested in sociological/human interest types of articles.  am i experienced enough to write on such matters?

Unless you’re talking a very specialized publication—i.e. B2B, medical journals, etc.—you don’t need to be an expert in a field area to write about it.  You just need to be a diligent, accurate writer who, above all else, files stories on time in decent condition. That said, it’s easier to get work at a publication / Web site if you have clips along the same lines as what they’re looking for, and it’s easier to report if you have knowledge of the field you’re reporting on—but it’s not impossible.  I’ve written stories about sports, business, cooking, anything, you just have to interview in detail and call back if you have confusion.

3)  how does one avoid litigation/law suits regarding plagiarism in this area of work?  seriously, there are so many similar articles in magazines/newspapers.  how do you know when someone else is going to jump on you for steeling their ideas?  or do they have the authority to do so?  what type of protection do writers have?

Freelance writers can get independent libel insurance, but that usually doesn’t cover willful acts.  And writers aren’t ultimately legally responsible for innocent mistakes.  So basically, if it’s a deliberate mistake on your part, you’re stuck even if you have insurance, and if you didn’t mean to screw up, you won’t need coverage.  However, it’s having insurance that helps ward off and cover legal expenses—though you might also be more likely to be sued if there are deep pockets standing behind you.  Also, if you write for a publication, that publication’s insurance will cover you.

As for plagiarism, there’s two things you need to do: 1) Do your own reporting.  If you take an idea from an earlier article, you need to re-report every fact, every quote, every detail.  Public record facts can’t be copyrighted, but copying them verbatim from someone else’s article is still plagiarism, and there’s also the chance that the first article got it wrong. 2) If you do use anything from another article, give it attribution. “blah blah, the L.A. Times reported.” or ” ’ I’ll get those meddling kids,’ John told the L.A. Times.”  Think of how good you’d feel if another publication quoted your work; do the same for that writer, and you’ll be fine.

4) about how much does one get paid for magazine writing?  newspaper writing?  i’m sure the particular journal will weigh heavily on this answer.

$0.50 to $1.00 per word.  But I don’t freelance myself, so it might be more or less.  Go to and plan to attend to one of their local mixer events.  That’s the best way to find out.

5) how do you sell/publish your work/article when you’re freelancing?  do you try to contact the editor w/ an idea to see if they’re interested and then write the article?  or do you write the article and then try to sell it?  do you submit it to multiple sources hoping that someone will want to use it?  or do you try selling it periodical by periodical until someone buys it/wants to publish it?  and who is the best person for that particular journal to contact?  go directly to the editor-in-chief or editor for that section?  or is there another type of contact person?

Boy, that’s more than one question.  It’s better to ask first if they want the article, and then write it.  That way, you’ll be able to write exactly the angle and timing and length that they want.

Go ahead and submit an article to multiple sources, but this won’t be an issue if you contact them first to ask if they want it.  There’s no best person at a particular place.  Places usually have several people who could commission an article, and you should contact them all, but not all at the same time. Keep careful records of who you’ve contacted, and if they turn you down, follow up and ask if there’s anyone else there that you could approach.  Also, ask if you should follow up in a few months, or if there’s something you could do to change their mind about allowing you to freelance.  Usually, I would go to the managing editor, but it really does vary.

6) how does one go about interviewing people for articles when they’re a freelance writer?  can they just call up a credible person and ask if they’re willing to be interviewed for an article which may or may not be published?

Just introduce yourself as a freelancer, say why you’re writing the piece, talk about where you hope to get it published, and tell the person you’ll let them know if the piece does get picked up.  People like to talk about themselves.

7) is there a press society/association that i should or can consider joining?

Many, but I don’t know which ones give the best leads.  Media Bistro, the Society of Professional Journalists, local Press Clubs, and there are usually local networks of freelancers, who are by nature networkers.

8) do you have or recommend any books for me to read about this topic?  i know there’s a feature writing class at ucla extension and perhaps i will consider taking that in the fall.

Actually, I don’t know of any good books.  That’s a good question.  The others were good questions, too.

One last thing: you said you “knew you couldn’t rely on this for steady long term income.”  Freelancing these days is very competitive, and very slim pickings.  However, I know many people who do it full and part time, and it is very possible to get steady income.  I know people who have freelanced for 20-30 years.  The most important thing is to be reliable, reachable, and accurate.  If you can do those three things, editors will give you juicy assignments, sometimes even over a staff person who is not accurate, reliable or reachable.

comments from others…

From: “C.C. Holland”

Hey Trav,

Good advice here! I do have a few things to add, if you’d like to pass them on to your friend—I’ve been freelancing since 1988, and have been doing it more or less continuously (both full-time and when I’ve held down a day job) since then.

1. Pay: your $.50 to $1 a word range is right—in theory. In practice, expect to earn anything from a pathetically low flat fee (for example, one low-circ mag I did work for paid $25 for a 1,000 word article, plus courtesy copies) to $2 a word (for the big boys, like Playboy, Vogue, etc. Nope, I’ve never written for them, but maybe someday).

Especially for someone who’s just starting out, my advice would be to forget about the paycheck and go for the clips. Getting a bunch of well-written and published articles under your belt is invaluable, both for the legitimacy aspect and for the training, especially if she’s not a journalist by trade. If you can make good money with your first gigs, great. But don’t say no because they only pay a dime a word.

Many publications, especially local newspapers and small-circ mags, may not pay at all and will just offer courtesy copies. Still, they’re valuable clips. Take the opportunities. (It’s also a great way to start developing expertise in a particular field, which helps down the road if/when you need to sell yourself as, for instance, being very knowledgeable about local street fairs.

Community newspapers are a great place to start. Most are desperately shorthanded and will welcome contributions from local writers.

2. When trying to sell a story, you will almost never get anywhere by sending out a completed article (unless, say, you’re Dominick Dunne). I can vouch for this as a former magazine editor who tended to toss many completed and unsolicited articles into the trash.

It’ll either be the wrong length, wrong subject, wrong tone, wrong style…the wrong something. Besides, it’s really unprofessional and tends to mark you as a rookie. The best (some would say, only) way to approach a magazine or publication for the first time is with a formal query letter and a pitch. I’m listing some great how-to resources on this below.

3.  The following books have been extremely helpful to me:

  • The Writer’s Market. Invaluable. The Bible. A staggeringly exhaustive compendium of places to publish freelance work, along with contact info, types of stories accepted, pay rates, and lots of tips and hints about being a successful freelancer. Buy this book first!
  • The Craft of Interviewing, by John Brady, 1976. Really relevant, and especially for someone without traditional journalistic training.
  • How to Sell Every Magazine Article You Write, Lisa Collier Cool, 1989. Good primer on the basics.
  • How to Write Irresistible Query Letters, Lisa Collier Cool, 1987. Really excellent advice about these letters and beyond—how to sell yourself, how to slant idea pitches to particular publications, which letters work and which don’t.
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. Talks about how to research, come up with ideas, how to land interviews, writing for different markets, etc.

4. One last bit of advice: do your research before you pitch. Read back issues of your target publications online or at the library. Find out who the correct editor to contact is with a phone call (even the most recent Writer’s Digest info can get outdated). Nothing is more annoying that receiving a pitch addressed to “editor” that breathlessly suggests doing a story we did three months ago. That writer immediately goes into the “clueless” file and probably won’t get a shot anytime soon.

Oh, and figure out the publication’s style: breezy? formal? You don’t want to pitch a think piece about global warming to a rad-surfer-lifestyle mag, or a goofy first-person dating story to The New Yorker.

Trav, if your friend has any other questions or concerns, I’d be more than happy to speak with her anytime. (We writers are all in this together!) Feel free to pass on this e-mail and/or my phone number.


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