Starting the Nonfiction Career
Mary Rosenblum: Richard A. Lovett is a full-time free-lancer with nearly 3000 articles to his credit. He's written in a wide diversity of fields, ranging from adventure travel to science (and also including food regulation, law, political analysis, humor, and sports). Publication credits include National Geographic News, New Scientist, The Economist, Travel & Leisure, Backpacker, Science, Nature, and dozens of large newspapers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. He also writes science fiction (selected stories are available at http://www.fictionwise.com/home.html), and has won five AnLab awards from Analog magazine. He has written six nonfiction books, all about sports or travel. A former law professor, he also has a Ph.D. in economics and a degree in astrophysics. (If you visit fictionwise.com, you can search for ‘Lovett’ on the top left of the page to find Rick’s SF stories.)
Rick is doing what many Long Ridge people aspire to: writing freelance as a career. He has generously agreed to share some of his experience and 'tips' with you. Rick, welcome! I'm so pleased that you're here. I sure appreciate your being willing to share some of your expertise with us.
Rick Lovett: Hi and thank you.
Pearl: Hi Rick, I'm a new student with Long Ridge. I have an idea for a nonfiction article I would like to write, but I haven't written anything but fiction since writing papers for classes in school. What do you feel is the most noticeable difference between approaching a nonfiction as opposed to a fiction piece? Is there a difference in how you market a nonfiction piece?
Rick Lovett: Hi Pearl. It depends somewhat on the type of article, but the primary difference between marketing fiction and nonfiction is that in fiction (particularly short fiction) you first write the story, then try to sell it. In nonfiction, you first make the sale, then write the article.
That's not quite universal: essays (especially humor) you might write ahead of time, and sometimes if the writing is easy and requires no research, you might write it down now, while the idea is fresh. But generally speaking, that's a waste of time because of another difference: in nonfiction, you write the story, then look for an appropriate audience. In nonfiction, you get the idea, then start thinking about possible appropriate audiences. You then write it to that audience. So if magazine A rejects the idea, but magazine B accepts it, the story might be quite different in focus and the way you tell it. Again, this is more significant for feature articles, or news stories, than for essays, but even there there's some differences. A specific example: I write about running. I can think of three magazines for which I could write a story about training for your optimal half-marathon. (I did this for one of them last summer.) Two are national. One focuses mostly on the average fitness runner. The other has a smaller, more hard-core audience. The third is local to my area. (Actually, I could list a dozen other magazines that would take this topic, now that I think about it.) All have different needs. I'd use different interview sources to cater to each audience. (A tip: regional magazines love sources and references within their region.) So until I know who I'm writing to, I can't write the article. And by "who" here, I don't mean "what editor." I mean what readers.
One final difference. In nonfiction, length is critical. Editors will assign a length. Pros write the assigned length. You won't know what that is until you've gotten the assignment. Also editors love to change your pitch. If I pitched a story on how to run your fastest half-marathon, the editor could come back and say, "nah, but how about an article on America's top 10 half-marathons?" That happens about half the time. The classic advice is that editors like to edit, and by writing the story in advance, you cut them out of the loop and lose their interest. But you also cut them out of the ability to shape the story to their needs.
Pearl: Thank you, Rick. That all brings up another question. Can a beginning writer get accepted to write a nonfiction article? Or is it a venue only for the established author?
Rick Lovett: Short answer, sure! Everyone's a beginner sometime.
Slightly longer answer, also sure! Somehwere on another thread, I mentioned my brother. He was a total newbie. I also have a friend who pretty much came out of left field and sold three articles (her first three pitches) in about as many weeks. Admittedly, I facillitated both of those. But both would have worked had they contacted the right editors themselves because both had jaw-droppingly perfect stories for the right market - and both were willing to flex to fit the market's readership. I have another friend who, if she'd ever *finish* anything is in the same category. Being good won't necessarily sell. Being good and finding the right (small) market works, far more easily than in fiction. There's a huge, hungry maw out there, just waiting for stories, if you can figure out where to pitch them.
Pearl: Thank you again, Rick. You are being wonderfully helpful and I really do appreciate it! Well, it sounds as though I should do something with this (unless LR would frown on a student who hasn't even turned in assignment #1 yet submitting something to an editor). What do I do now? I have an idea that I have not written up yet as it would involve doing some research and interviews, and I've not set those up as I had just thought of this a day or two before reading that you would be here to "talk" to. Is this something that I should discuss here, or should this be taken to IM or email?
I can say that my only idea of who to send it/pitch it to had been a national level magazine. I've no idea about state or regional publications, in part because I don't live in the same state where my subject is located, so I don't know what is available there.
Mary Rosenblum: Goodness, Pearl, just to stick my nose in here, Long Ridge and your instructor would be thrilled if you sold something before you even got to Assignment One! That's hardly a drawback! I have a number of students who published before they came to me...means we can get on with things at a more advanced level. That's fun!
Rick Lovett: I'd say pitch it. Start with the national magazine. It sounds like a profile? Regardless, the act of making the pitch is practice. Then be thinking of where else to pitch it. Finding regional magazines away from home is always a problem. In airports, I always used to hit the news stands looking for local pubs. A really good newsstand in your own area, though, can surprise you. You'll find assorted regional magazines you never heard of -- the gems are the ones that also aren't in Writer's Market. Those unlisted magazines are wonderful places for beginners because there aren't 200,000 other free-lancers pitching to them: only those who are energetic enough (and fortunate enough) to know they exist. There are actually high-paying magazines very few people ever heard of -- maybe even up to $1/word. Half that for sure. These magazines, if you can find them, have the huge advantage of not being buried in queries from unknown (to them) writers -- maybe one a week, rather than one per hour -- so you have a much higher chance of being noticed in the clamor.
Pearl: How does one pitch? ("Here's the windup, and
the pitch! Strike one!" With me as the pitcher, a strike is what
I'm looking for. I guess this is a profile about an organization, which would
obviously include people. I don't fly anywhere very often, but I am
planning a visit to this place soon. News stands in convenience stores in
the town it's in as an option? Check out publications relating to that
state online? Can, or should, one pitch to more than one publication at a
time? Does that cause issues if more than one accepts?
How much information do I need to have gathered to support my pitch? How much gets said in the letter I send? What doesn't get said in the letter? Are real letters, i.e. snail mail, preferred to emails?
Since I'm not that far along in the course, I've not received the information yet about writing to editors. Mary, is there somewhere on the LR website where I can learn about this now? I've not even personally contacted my instructor yet - I just mailed Assignment #1 in today - should I wait and ask her to help me with this? (Interestingly, she has had an article/story in the national magazine I'm thinking of approaching with this idea.)
Rick Lovett: A lot of that's for Mary, and a lot of
the rest is a book. In fact, there are whole books with titles like "How
to Write Irresistable Query Letters," which is a bit of a misnomer, since
some editors can resist anything.
A few points, though:
1. You'll do better in person looking for regional magazines, than on the web. On the web you often need the name of the magazine to find the magazine. On your visit, look for the best newsstands you can find. You don't mention the size of the town/city, but if there’s a B&N or Borders that's a good place to start. Big cities also have specialty stores that don't do anything but sell magazines -- hundreds of titles -- and, for some reason, cigars. I don't know why the two go together so often, but, based on a small sample, they seem to. Lacking these, try a big supermarket. Convenience stores often have very limited selections.
2. A pitch is a proposal. There are several ways of writing them, and a lot of people will tell you theirs is perfect. Some begin with a lead for the article -- as if you're writing the article, then segue into more of a letter format. I've always found that artificial, but plenty of folks apparently sell with it. Yours probably begins more directly. "The Society for the Pitching of Irresistible Queries operates from a basement cubicle beneath Stumptown's treeless park. But its reach is global as it leads the fight to help new voices break into print." Something vaguely like that might be what you're after in terms of approach (though obviously not the joking tone, or the cliché in the second sentence). Note that you're probably pitching a story "about" an organization, rather than a "profile" of an organization. The latter sounds a bit odd. Run it through google btw and see who else has written about it. Not because you want to copy them, but because this info is important. If nobody seems to have written about this organization, you've got a scoop. If the whole world has, you need to differentiate from them.
3. Length. Try for one page, single spaced, biz format. Include any info about your background that helps make you the person to write this. A query sells two things: the story and yourself.
4. Flyspeck for typos, grammar, clichés, etc. Since you're an unknown, this is the only writing sample they have on which to assess your abilities.
5. Snail mail is probably best for first-time queries to large mags. Include an SASE. But check out their writer's guidelines before querying. These will be on their websites somewhere, though not always easy to find. They'll tell you what they're looking for, and how to contact them. I recently had someone who wanted proposals in 60 words or less in a computer form that limited your character count to make sure you complied. They never deigned to reply, either. (I admit that I viewed that as a lost cause when I saw it. There was no place for clips, credits, etc. I have no idea how they screen such things in a meaningful way, and suspect they don't.)
6. Don't do email unless invited, either by a guideline, Writer's Market listing, or referral. Even if they're open to it, it's too easily lost. Oddly, it's only the biggest markets that are open to these (it's usually the only way they work) but the email addresses aren't publicized, so you have to be in the right professional circles to get them.
Don't do it by phone.
BTW, "pitch" and "query" are often used synonymously by editors and established writers. But they're slightly different. A "query" is more formal. A "pitch" is writer/editor slang for the type of thing you do in an established relationship. The other evening, an editor asked me for story ideas for his next issue. I've been in pretty much every issue of that magazine for a couple of years, so my reply was mostly a bullet-pointed list. Some of them were simply ideas of things I was willing to do. Some were ones I really wanted to do. The "pitch" element was in the level of effort I put into them. None of it was a formal query. So this terminology is sloppy. Beginners need to think formal query, even if they hear the word "pitch." When I use it, my newspaper roots are showing. In newspapers (with editors you know) you do it by phone, and you've got about one minute to get the assignment.
Mary Rosenblum: I love your enthusiasm, Pearl! Nice submission for the current Prompt, too. Yes, you can get help now, and yes, you'll learn about writing query letters during your course. For now, check out Nonfiction in Writing Craft on the LR Website. You'll find a number of helpful articles there. For that matter, check out the other topics in Writing Craft.
Pearl: I will make a printed copy of the list you sent, Rick so I can study it more thoroughly. You've mentioned "Writer's Market a couple of times now. It that a worthwhile group to join? A friend of mine sent me an invitation to check it out, but I screwed things up by not realizing it is a paid membership group and now I can't sign back in to the profile I set up. I hadn't yet decided if I wanted to spend the money to join, but if you (a "real" writer ) think it worth the cost, then I will go ahead. What I saw of the site the first time I went there, before I messed things up, looked very good and very helpful. I spoke to my husband about the idea that I've been inquiring about to you, and he was also excited and says I should go for it.
Thank you Mary! I'm glad you enjoyed my prompt piece and I will go check out the things on the site that you mentioned. I have been pleasantly surprised at how helpful people here have been! It has been a great help to me. Thank you both for everything.
Rick Lovett: Writer's market is a book. It's got 1000 pages of publisher addresses, etc. They've also got a subscription website. I don't know much about that. One year they bundled it with the book and forced you to buy both at an inflated price. I barely used it. Basically, the primary value of Writer's Market (a big one for newcomers) is browsing through, looking for magazines you've never heard of that might be in the right topic. It's the type of place you'd go to if you were wondering, say, what are the leading chess magazines. Or if you're looking for a (not very complete, but better than nothing) state-by-state listing of regional magazines. The downside is that they sell a lot of copies of that book, so 100,000 or more other freelancers know about the same markets (or could). They also state approximate pay rates, which is useful. I found it a useful tool, starting up. After a while (you'll find this startling) editors start coming to you. I've had four magazines and a newspaper ask me if I had any ideas for them this month. All were folks I'd worked with before, but I've also had ones I didn't know existed do that, too. But starting up, Writer's Market is probably the leading way to get lists of magazines. Someone else will have to tell you if their website is worth the money.
Mary Rosenblum: Rick, I have a lot of students who want a serious career in freelance. Many of them flounder around, trying this piece for that magazine, that essay for this magazine, chasing clips. Do you have any suggestions for the person who really does want to get a foot in the door of a serious career in freelance? How DO you get started?
Rick Lovett: I answered part of that in the other post, but chasing clips is critical. The best way for beginners to do this is to find things that no serious pro would touch because they're too much work for the pay. My first sale (to the Sacramento Bee -- back in that era newspapers bought more freelance than now) ad my first magazine sale were both of this type. They were about bicycle touring, a topic I knew well, and a lot of work. The one for the Bee was a route description for the recreation page. I figured out a way to circumnavigate a local landmark. Most of the article was boilerplate -- turn right at the red barn, go 3.2 miles, turn left. Anyone can do that, if you can convince them that you're the detail type who'll not accidentally send them left at the green barn.
The other was another list, that time of bicycle rides of a particular type. It required a week of phone calls. And again, most of the article was boilerplate.
What you then do on something like that is to use the introduction as your opportunity to also prove you can write. Not too fancy -- merely to the level of the target audience. And, of course, you're in with the publication and can probably get a more meaningful assignment next time around. Within months I was doing political articles for the Bee for its Sunday Forum section.
Essays and humor pieces can also break in, but they're hard even for pros to sell. What you need to do with those is to sharply target the magazine's audience. My brother broke in as a total unknown with a screamingly funny essay about some idiotically worded warning on his computer. I happened to know a magazine devoted to (believe it or not) precisely that warning. They lapped it up.
Muleskinner: Thanks for taking the time for us. I am working on a humorous essay of course to try to break into print with. I seem to naturally follow the path of most resistance. But if I understand you correctly, there is a hole in the market for boilerplate how to articles. Can you expand on that some for me?
Rick Lovett: Hi muleskinner. What I mean is that some types of prose are very easy to write -- they're simply a matter of conveying information, and as long as the information is correct, the prose isn't going to be heavily scrutinized. Some of these are also very time consuming to research. This is therefore a good niche for beginners seeking clips because (a) you're going to make about $2 an hour doing it, so you don't have to compete with established pros; and (b) the editor's not worried about having to spend scarce time rewriting you. A key to this, of course, is to pick something you know a lot about, so the editor doesn't have to worry about you getting all the facts wrong. Any article that's mostly a big, long list is a good candidate for this...so long as you know the subject matter. You do, of course, need a market that publishes articles that are big long lists. But I recently got asked to write a list of local natural foods stores for a sidebar to a nutrition article. I said "no," and offered the name of a beginner who'd do it for $50 and clip.
Muleskinner: Two bucks an hour doesn't sound like much, but then again, it's more than I've made so far. What other kinds of articles are less popular among the established writers?
Rick Lovett: Basically, I'd suggest looking at anything that pays poorly. I know of magazines and websites for example that would pay $50, $100, $150, $300, and $750 for essentially the same 500-word stories. You won't get anywhere with the $750 ones without clips. Probably not the $300 ones, either. So, you hunt up the low-budget ones and work your way up. Long-time pros have a sense of the hourly rate that they can get from their established markets. They might write for less if the topic is really fun or the magazine one they like in some kind of aesthetic sense, but they don’t do a lot of that, and if a $150 market tries to make them work like a $750 market they'll remember that and not go back. So, find the low-budget markets and start there. Then you work your way up.
Established pros also avoid markets with editors or accounting departments that are hard to work with. I could name a few of these – any established pro could name a couple of dozen – but I won't. These are crap markets, but they can generate clips.
What makes a market hard to work with? In the editorial arena, it would be an editor who asks for 1500 words, then tells you to cut it to 500 because he changed his mind then pays for 500, not 1500. That's just one example. Another would be an editor who keeps saying, on a 500-word assignment, "Oh, that's nice, but can you also look into…" until you've done enough research for 5,000 words and written 2,000. Which he then publishes but pays for at the agreed-on 500-word rate. I'm sure you've heard how writers can get bad reputations with editors. Well, it works both ways. These editors have nowhere to go but to beginners. And if you get a decent clip, it might be worth the aggravation. (There's an even worse breed that use your story, then dare you to sue for payment. They're scum.)
Accounting aggravations come only after you've sold the story, and involve mags with accounting departments that have way too many rules and regulations . . . all of which waste time or delay payment. You pretty much have to be an established pro to know who these folks are, though.
Let's see. Another type of open market would include those with editors who reject too high a fraction of established-pro pitches. Pitching stories takes time. There are magazines that reject, reject, reject pitches from everyone. If they don’t pay a lot (and I'm talking medium rate here, not top rate) pros start realizing they're taking an hour's time to pitch a story that's got a 10 percent shot at, say, $300. They start mentally charging 9 extra hours against that $300 (not to mention the time needed to write the story) and go elsewhere.
another type is what I think of as "black holes" for queries. You
query. Nothing happens. For months. Pros want fast rejections if they're going
to get rejected. There are big-name pubs I simply won't pitch to because
they're going to sit on the darn query for months – years in some cases –
before making up their minds. Weirdly, some of these mags then assign. My own
record for this is perhaps 3 years after the pitch. When I got the acceptance,
I had no idea what I'd pitched them. Luckily, I have well-maintained filing
systems. In that case, the pay was in the four-digit range (very low end), but
there are equally well paying magazines that would probably have taken the
article and answered in 24 hours. Guess who got the next pitch?
Again, there's no easy way for a beginner to identify these markets. For some reason, though, they tend to be most common in the mid-payment range. That means there are two good reasons to seek out mid-priced markets. Some are joys to work with and wide open to beginners. Some are horrors to work with and shunned by pros. Of course, some also have established stables of writers and aren't particularly open to anyone. So I guess the bottom line in this post that's turned into a rather long essay is to pitch to diverse markets and see what happens. Write a query a day. That's a procedure that worked well for me on several occasions.
Mary Rosenblum: So, Rick, the ultimate question....if you have no clips and the editor wants clips, what DO you send? Or do you throw yourself on the mercy of the court and just send the entire article, even though the guidelines say 'query first'?
Rick Lovett: That's always the beginners dilemma. You've got to have clips to get published so how do you get clips. The simple answer to this question, though is to query and be honest. If you have a really good idea, you may get an invitation to submit on spec. That's not an assignment, proper, but it's an assertion that the editor's interested enough in the topic to read it. You could, I suppose offer this in the query.
Getting clips however, is fairly easy because there are lots of places that will give you a chance to write without prior experience. They're not professional markets, but they generate writing samples, which is what the editors want to see from a clip. Newsletters are the best example. My running club publishes a multi-page newsletter every two months. Other hobby groups do the same. So do churches, etc. Some of these are online only, but capture it in a pdf and that's a clip. It won't impress the New Yorker, but it will work for smaller pubs. When I was starting out, I was surprised to find that even academic articles counted. "It proves that you can finish things, know a bit about editing, and can work to deadline," a major newspaper editor told me when I expressed that surprise.
Shewhowrites: Hi Rick, I'm not exactly a beginner, but my past clips are all fiction. I'm breaking into the non-fiction market. So far all my non-fiction work has been online. You mentioned that you could capture it in a pdf and then it's a clip? How does that work? And do you think print editors would be willing to accept it? Thank you for taking the time to answer all these questions!
Bsravanin: Rick, do blogs count as clips? Not personal blogs but pro blogs which pay. Or are they frowned upon because there usually isn't an editor for them?
Rick Lovett: Hi bsr. Having never done that, I'm not sure how they'd count. But clips are clips. The purpose is to prove you can write. Early in my career, editors didn't mind looking at pre-published mss as clips. One told me they were, in a way, better, since they got to see my raw copy, before some editor massaged it. So I'd think blogs would be similar. And paying ones would be better than unpaid, since that (presumably) means a higher level of expectations. One of the rules of clips, is to use what you have.
FYI, it's not truly an issue of "counting." Clips are simply writing samples. In theory, term papers would achieve the same function (though I wouldn't recommend trying it).
Mary Rosenblum: Okay, Rick, what are those magazine editors looking for when they get a query letter from a newbie? Do they immediately toss it if it has no clips? What 'leaps to the eye' for an editor?
Rick Lovett: I am not an editor, but I occasionally get queries from beginners who see me listed on magazine mastheads as "contributing editor" and don't know what that means. This has taught me a lot. First, have a specific idea, targeted to the magazine. "Gee, I like your magazine and would like to write something for you, got any ideas," does not cut it.
Secondly, be professional. None of the ones I've seen have ever managed that, and it instantly jumps out. What does being professional mean? To me, the biggest error that beginners make is being too Dale Carnegie. Don't presume you're going to get the assignment. Don't presume you won't, but that "I know you'll like this" attitude some are taught to use is off-putting. What you're doing is offering up an idea. Lines like "this fits well with what you've written in the past about..." or "this should appeal to those of your readers who like..." are good. They're telling the editor why it's a good idea. But I've seen ones with a tone of "you'd be an idiot not to take this." I'd guess they get trashed. I like to be low key. That may just be me, but I've been quite successful at it. I once got a note back from an editor saying that I was the only pitch she'd gotten that day that didn't simply presume she'd love the idea. It got rejected, but it would have gotten rejected anyway, and the editor remembered me for being the most professional query of the day -- enough to have written the note. (I of course instantly pitched something new.)
Third. Write it well. Not flamboyantly, but grammatically. With small pubs a single error won't kill you, but what editors want are people who are easy to edit. People who edit themselves.
And, fourth, the killer idea. That's harder to control. I've had editors swoon over things I thought were toss-offs, and I've had editors reject what seemed to be perfect ideas. It's part of why presuming, as mentioned above, is such a bad thing.
Mary Rosenblum: Oh, it's SO refreshing to know that nonfiction editors can be as hard to figure as fiction editors! I'm rolling my eyes.
Rick Lovett: Another difference between fiction and nonfiction is deadlines. In nonfiction, perfect prose often takes a back seat to fast prose. Today is an example of that in action, for me. I've been writing a series of profiles of runners for a running magazine. I'd been playing days of telephone tag with one, with the story due today (Tuesday). We made contact Monday, several times, but never when both of us were free for the interview, until finally we snagged it . . . at 10 pm. So, I had until 5 pm to write the article (600 words). For reasons I'll get to in a minute, I decided I'd better have a draft before I went to bed. By 11:20, I had one I liked. That was important because I had a story to pursue in the morning that begins with a call to a scientist in the Czech Republic, re a story pending in this week's issue of Science. (That was assigned Monday morning, but I couldn't get to it before tonight.) I'll email him tonight, in the hope he'll give me his cell phone number (it's probably 10 time zones; I'll check that before I go to bed, and be prepared to do the interview pre-caffeine). That story is due early on Weds and will require 2-3 other sources, hopefully in the U.S. If I can't get to them on Tuesday, I'll be running the time zones through Australia and the U.K. I might have as little as 2 hours to write 500-700 words.
That's the way making a living as a free-lancer can work. One of my niches is pulling rabbits to of hats on very short notice.
I should add that this story is a news piece for a website. News reporting is what produces those super-short deadlines. This is where the difference between "writing" and "reporting" is most distinct. Clarity is what you're after. (And accuracy.) It's wildly different from fiction writing, but if you're good at it, pay rates are $1/word and up.
Muleskinner: Rick, I hope you got the article out on time! But I have to make a living as an engineer. In fact I am a director and my schedule does not always let me write when I want to, or be able to hit a short deadline, ( just ask my instructor ). What would be an area to write in where the time crunch is not a factor? And while we are on the subject, with all this talk of deadlines etc. why does it take so long for editors to get back to you?
Rick Lovett: The short answer to your question is features. Also, monthly magazines have longer news deadlines than daily websites. Basically, the short-deadline stuff mostly involves breaking news. That said, I've had some short-deadline features. Mostly they were in response to editor's requests, when somebody else missed a deadline and they needed a 2000-word story now. I'd not realized until I read your post that part of the reason I get approached by editors for such things, quite often, is that freelancing is my day job. And sometimes my night one, as well!
Why editors take so long is something that that always puzzles writers. The answers vary. One editor once told me she got 500 emails a day. And that was 10 years ago. It's probably 1000 now. So sometimes, things just get buried.
Also, publications run on cycles, tied to each new issue. Queries that come in at the wrong time of the cycle (layout, final editing, etc.) get stacked. If you hit the editor of a monthly at the right time, you get an instant reply. Pick the wrong time and it might be 29 days. Bimonthlies and quarterlies are worse. Dailies are actually the best at fast replies, but if you can't handle the fast-turnaround they'll expect in response (often less than a day from assignment to story due) you're stuck dealing with slower-moving mags.
It varies a lot though. In my observation, the most efficient are weeklies.
Editors can also be slow if the idea is almost good enough. A major mag once apologized to me on that one. "We're really good at replying to the bad ideas," he said (or words to that effect). "It's the good ones we have trouble with." Sometimes this is also internal to the publication. If the editor who receives the query likes it, he or she may have to take it to a monthly staff meeting. Where, in some pubs, the vote, with everyone getting a say and maybe even a chance to suggest revisions to the story idea for the editor to (maybe) discuss with the writer. Very egalitarian, but freelancer hell.
Mary Rosenblum: Lots of my students turn pale and break out into a sweat at the thought of interviewing a stranger. What have you found works best? Email? The phone? What if you suffer from terminal shyness? Any hope for you?
Rick Lovett: This is something you just have to screw up your courage and do. If you can't journalism won't be a career for you. For what it's worth, everyone gets a little nervous. The ones that most scared me in my life were two cabinet members and a moon astronaut. You're terrified you're wasting their time and that they'll let you know this in no uncertain terms.
The reality is that if you can get to them, they won't tell you that. Though there are other types of scary interviews. I once had to ask a big-wig ocean scientist if ice floats. My editor was concerned about under-ice divers being bombarded by falling chunks of ice from the hole they'd cut in the ice for the dive, and he wanted an expert to say this. So they've been asked stupider questions than any you're going to ask, and that's reassuring. (The ice floating one probably ranked high on the list.)
Gearing up for it, email is a good way to set it up, but try to get phone. The hierarchy of interviews is face-to-face in an interesting setting (the geologist in the field), phone, email. What you're after is the setting in which your subject will be most natural, and people tend to get pedantic by email, which makes for bad quotes.
If you're shy, email and ask about availability. You'll probably get a friendly email back, and that will help quell the nerves. But if it's brusque, don't read anything into it. Some of my best sources write short, terse emails . . . then happily chat for 30 minutes.
When you call, remember that you're seeking information for your readers and you're the conduit. That's how I dealt with the ice-floating question. I kind of poisoned it. "My editor wants me to ask..." But there's pretty much no dumb question. If you don't have a lot of background in a field, admit it to the source. "I've been asked to do a story about plasma physics as a form of space shielding, and my electricity and magnetism physics is a bit rusty." That was me a couple of weeks ago. Or "I'm writing for a very broad general audience, so I need you to explain this to me at about a CNN level." That's a way to get experts to talk English. Most of them want to help you understand, so it's easy.
If it's not technical, then it's just a matter of doing it. Often it's a chance for them to self-promote, and they'll seize it. Or it's a topic, if you get the right expert, that they just love and 5 seconds after saying "Oh, it's a busy day," they'll talk your ear off.
Practice helps. I got a chance this year to cover the Olympic Trials. By the end, I was dashing up to Tyson Day and shoving my tape recorder under his mouth (he speaks softly) and asking him sports psych questions. If you got the assignment, there's something you and the source have in common.
And some of them are just prickly jerks. That's them, not you.
Mary Rosenblum: Great 'how to' there, Rick. You've really covered it and anybody going for their first phone or in person interview should read this post right beforehand. (Copy it everybody!). I am still chuckling over the 'ice floats' thing, but I've done that with interviews, too. Asked questions where I knew the answer but the audience didn't and needed to hear it from the interviewee, not from me.
So how much do you know what you're going to write and have your questions planned out in advance? How much do you just let 'er rip and try to get the person talking in general, with the idea of doing more than one piece after? Or do you do that at all? And what about follow-up? What happens when halfway through the article you realize ohmygosh I should have asked...? Or does that ever happen?
Rick Lovett: The answer to all of those is "yes". Let's see if I can remember them. (There's probably a way to see your comment without quoting it, but I've not found it.)
1. I'm a let 'er rip, mostly. I usually know what I'm going to ask about in broad terms. If it's a science story, for example, I'll be asking something like, "Could you walk me through your recent article in Science, like you were at a poster session in a conference and I was a bright grad student in a different specialty." That usually primes the pump and gets 'em going. Usually, follow up questions are off the cuff. They range from "could you spell that?" (Critical) to "So how come Saturn's infrared aurora can only be seen from Cassini, but its ultraviolet one can be seen by the Hubble?" (I have no idea; that just came up in conversation today and is a good example.) I'd never be able to script either of those in advance. Also I do a lot of active listening questions, often designed to confirm my understanding. "So those lines in the radar images of the martian polar ice caps represent climate variations due to orbital cycles?" I'll choose the wording a bit to either turn up or down the technical level of the info I'm getting, too.
In a profile, I'll have the bottom line thing I'm doing firmly in mind and often hit it several times. One of my gigs is to profile award winning analytical chemists for the member's mag of the professional association giving the award. I know that the organization is particularly interested in safety testing for foods and the like, so I'll always be asking food questions. But mostly I'll be asking generalities. "What got you into chemistry?" "Oh, so you're doing forensics? What's the most interesting mystery you've encountered." The best stuff is unscripted. In a piece that has now sold in various forms three very different places, I asked a seismologist how he got into "forensic" seismology, and he told me this story about being curious about strange seismic readings in the Bolivian desert. He thought they were smugglers trucks, so he went out at night and hid and watched the convoys go by with blacked out lights. "Uh," I said "wasn't that a bit risky?" "Not the smartest thing I ever did," was the reply.
So my short answer winds up, again, is that you want to know in general what you're looking for, but if you go in with a list of questions you'll run down the list and miss the best stuff. In sports reporting at the Olympic Trials it was the same thing. You go with the flow, and ask what comes to mind. However (big however) at the end don't be too rushed to quit. It's ok to say, "let's see, is there anything I've forgotten to ask." Ask that of both yourself and your source. Asked of the source, it can get great info sometimes that you would never have found otherwise.
I'll answer the other bits more quickly. Follow-up is easy. Most people are quite happy to be available. And email makes it really convenient. "Did you say four or forty?" That type of thing.
And I'm always alert to the possibility of doing more than one piece. I take notes by typing (I can do 60-70 wpm, inaccurately but legibly) and if I wind up with 2000 words of notes for a 500 word news story, I'll be thinking if there's a 1400-word feature behind it for later. If that then generates 5,000 words of additional notes, I'll be thinking major essay for something, somewhere.
Mary Rosenblum: So once you've made a sale or two, how do you 'get in gear'? Is it a good idea to start with the small magazines and then keep trying to 'move up' to the larger magazines?
Rick Lovett: The quick answer is yes and no. You can work incrementally upward, but you can also work sideways. When I took up science writing, "I've written for Science and Popular Science," was an open door to any other comparable or slightly lower level science magazine, and part of becoming a working pro is diversifying so that if you lose one client (e.g., they drop their freelance budget) you can still eat. But you also go incrementally upward. You'll impress the slightly better mags that you're an up-and-comer and they're always looking for those.
It's always nice to take the occasional long-shot, though. If it works (and occasionally they do) you leapfrog several steps.
Muleskinner: What about trade magazines? The ones you get in the mail for free. I get a lot of those and they are mostly ads for the industry, but there are some articles. Are they friendly to new writers?
Rick Lovett: Those can be great markets. If you're in the trade, they may not pay (they figure the payment is the promotion of your company by having the article in the magazine). If you're free-lancing from outside the field a bit they can be startlingly well funded. Trade pubs are what made me able to drop the day job, 18 years ago. Even better, many of them don't get a lot of queries.
I should add that I'm a little out of date on this. I got out of trade pubs as my primary client about the time the Internet was becoming widespread, maybe a decade ago. The problem was that trade associations were starting to give away similar material on their websites, for free, and trade publication subscriptions were falling off. But I still do the occasional piece for a couple of trade pubs.
I may have said this earlier, but the best markets are the ones that aren't in Writer's Market. You can literally be the only free-lancer they deal with, either because the field's too specialized for 99.99 percent of everyone else or because nobody else has ever found them.
Sailor: Every week I read about another print market folding. Is it wise for a NF freelancer to increase his/her percentage of submissions to online markets? But doesn't online publication pretty much kill your chances of getting in print later?
Rick Lovett: I don't see any reason you can't hop back and forth between online and print. Salon.com, for example was long considered a top market (do they still exist?). I hop back and forth all the time, sometimes for the same magazine.
The basic rule of thumb is that print pays more, usually twice to four times as much, even for the same magazine. What does happen is that if you sell an article online you can't turn around and sell a reprint to a print magazine; why would they want it if anyone can get it? But straight reprints in nonfiction seem to be increasingly rare. Adaptations, however, are quite common. I posted on this on another thread somewhere, but you can write a short story for one outlet and a long one elsewhere. Just put a different lead on it, and alter the length. You also wind up focusing it to your target audience. Example: in sports, I often do profiles, i the 1800-word range for a regional print magazine. Those are straight profiles. But some of the athletes' training tips are interesting to a more specialized magazine, so the same story then turns into "How does X train and why does it work?" One interview, two stories.
Full disclosure to the second publication is important though. "I did a profile on so-and-so for such-and-such and discovered that she's got a brutal training regiment that involves out-swimming sharks in a big aquarium" or something like that. One story's about the swimmer who swims with the sharks. The other's about how to use sharks to become a better swimmer. It's a goofy example, but as long as I'm beating this theme, you could even turn it into an anecdote on Darwinian selection in real life, for an essay on the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species, coming up next year.
Again, it's a goofy example, but it's how free-lance minds work, at least if you want to pay the rent. And starting-up, it's a way to multiply clips. The moment you've done an article on a topic, your a bit of a specialist in that topic, and most likely your break-in publication isn't widely distributed. So you can beat variations on the same drum at a whole bunch of (noncompeting!) other publications. The prior publications become not blockades to further publications, but expertise that you can market.
I see no reason why this can't work back and forth between web and print, other than the fact that the web is, by necessity, global. And you have to be careful what rights you sell. A work for hire contract or assignment of copyright contract can kill this in the bud, which is why established pros dodge them.
No stigma to the web though.
As for magazines folding, which is where you started ... happens all the time, and always has. Twenty years ago, the average magazine lasted 18 months from its initial undercapitalized startup to its final issue. Beginners tend to reap a few bankruptcy claims instead of checks. But I've seen well regarded websites collapse, too. Consider SciFiction, or however they spelled it. Gorp.com went down, too, and they were well enough funded to pay like a big glossy.
If you do get a web clip, the big thing to do is to capture it in a PDF. Nothing like having the website vanish...
Mary Rosenblum: Rick, thank you so much! I hope you all appreciate the enormous amount of first-hand and highly useful information that Rick has shared with us. This is first hand from someone who does do this as his day job. Rick, I owe you lunch! A good lunch! Thank you so much for spending a lot of time with us!
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