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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Sell-your-First-Article Series, part 1: The 14-Step Process to Pitching, Researching, and Selling an Article

Want to get paid to write articles for print and online markets--but not sure how to get started? This post is for you. 

In short, to pitch, sell, research, and write an article, you’ll do the following:

1. Come up with an idea. (This is unnecessary if an editor approaches you with an assignment.)
2. Choose the market for your idea. (You may already be pitching and/or writing for a market that you plan to pitch. Otherwise, you’ll need to find the market you plan to approach with your idea. And it never hurts to have more than one potential market in mind—that way, if an editor says “no,” you move on and resub the idea to another market, remember?)
3. Research and write a query letter, and send it to your target market.
4. Send a follow-up, if you haven’t heard from the target market yet.
5. If you get a rejection (what I call a “bong”), return to step 2 and resub to another market. If the article is assigned by an editor, ask about the publication’s contract terms (see step 6), and prepare to research and write the piece.
6. Read your contract, and negotiate any writer-unfriendly terms as best you can.
7. Research the piece. This may include doing background research, identifying and contacting potential sources, and conducting interviews with sources. 
8. Write the piece, doing your best to meet your editor’s specifications—in other words, give her what she wants.
9. Turn the piece in and wait for feedback from your editor.
10. Rewrite or rework the piece if necessary, and submit backup, or fact-checking material, if she requests it. (Some markets require it; others do not.)
11. Submit an invoice, if your editor needs one. Otherwise, she’ll request payment on your behalf.
12. Wait for the piece to appear in print or online, and notify your sources that the story is out.
13. Collect your check!
14. Celebrate seeing your byline—and move on to the next story idea, with a little more confidence and experience under your belt. 

You won’t necessarily perform every step for every story, but this process gives you an idea of what to expect when you write for publication. But maybe you’re thinking, it can’t be that easy! How do I find experts? What do I say when I contact one? How do I pull a story together? How do I know I’m doing a good job?

When I teach magazine writing, I’ve found that the best way to teach these skills is by showing students how I’ve approached stories in the past. So let's take a look at how I approached one simple, short piece just about any new writer could tackle. 

Step 1: Come up with an idea.

As a long-term runner, I’ve been interested in fitness topics for years. The idea for this particular story came about after I came across a press release about a new study about something called “non-exercise activity,” or NEAT. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that NEAT (things like fidgeting, shifting position, jiggling your leg during a boring meeting) may burn more calories than originally thought, and may help people maintain a healthy weight. It was surprising to me, and made a good “hook” for a pitch.

However, simply reading the press release didn’t give me enough detail to write a strong query. So I went online to search, the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s  database of more than 22 million journal articles. There I pulled up the abstract to the article itself. (An abstract is a brief summary of a journal article; it includes the citation, title study, authors’ names, and background and a short overview of the study results. If you’ve never used PubMed before, gives a great overview with tips about how to search it.)

In this case, the article had been published in the December, 2000 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Though it was a small study (involving only 24 participants), the conclusion stated, “There is marked variance between subjects in the energy expenditure associated with self-selected fidgeting-like activities. The thermogenic [calorie-burning] potential of fidgeting-like and low-grade activities is sufficiently great to substantively contribute to energy balance.” (Yeah, that’s awkward phrasing. But the researcher wrote it, not me!)

With the abstract in hand, I could write a query letter. In the meantime, I requested a copy of the article through my local library. (Your library is often able to obtain copies of journal articles for little or no charge; this is less expensive than using a source like LexisNexis,, or Electric Library,, both of which you must pay to use.) Many libraries and universities allow you to access the full-text articles in their research databases for no charge; check out Stanford University’s High Wire Press, which includes more than two million full-text science and health articles ( or New York Public Library’s collections at

Back to my article. At this point, I didn’t bother to contact one of the study authors. I typically wait until the story is assigned to do that. (The only exception I make to this rule is if I know I’ll need to interview a particular person for the story, such as with a profile. Then I contact that person first to make sure he is available and willing to speak with me if and when I get the assignment. That way I feel confident that I can deliver the story if it’s assigned.) 

**Next post, we'll move on to the next steps in the process, so stay tuned! In the meantime, Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets, from which this post is drawn, in now in print. (Prefer the Kindle edition?)
**And if you want to know more about writing articles, sign up for Rochelle Melander's Write Now! Mastermind class. She'll be interviewing me for How To Pitch And Sell Articles To A Variety Of Freelance Markets. The call is free, but you need to sign up at The Write Now! Mastermind Class
 provides free monthly one-hour educational calls with accomplished authors, agents, editors, and other publishing professionals. The calls are hosted by Write Now! Coach Rochelle Melander, who is an author and professional certified coach specializing in helping people write books fast, publish their work, and market it online.

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