Getting started as a columnist (or why I avoid Rhode Island)

Note: As I promised last week in my 100th post celebration (I understand some of still haven’t received your free Mexican mocha — sorry about that), here is the first installment from the writing and literary website Gliteray Girl, where I’m a regular contributor on the subject of writing. They wouldn’t let me contribute on the subject of sex therapy, so I went with the writing thing…

Coffee knocked over copy When I first started querying newspapers about carrying my column, I was getting one or two rejections in my email box every week. In frustration, I turned to the Internet and discovered, with a little planning and organization, I could be rejected by every newspaper in the state of Louisiana all in one afternoon.

In 2002, I began my unofficial “Internet promotional tour” across the United States by emailing a basic cover letter and a few sample columns to newspapers here in my home state of Oregon. Today, the column is running in 60 papers in 11 states and Canada. What follows are a few simple truths, mixed with some suggestions, that will help distinguish your email query from the hundreds of male enhancement offers editors receive each day.

Before we get to that, I want you to keep a couple of things in mind. First, in the same way emailing your query makes things faster and easier for you, it’s also faster and easier for editors to delete your submission without ever reading it. That’s just part of the trade off.
What you gain, of course, is more queries in less time, without the expensive postage.

Why wait weeks for rejection when you can have it within minutes at no extra cost?!?

Which brings me to my second point: Developing a tough skin isn’t nearly as important as keeping a clear perspective on things. The fact is, even the best query can go unopened by a prospective editor, particularly if the timing is bad, and your query arrives the same morning the feature writer quits after being attacked during an interview with “The Neighborhood Cat Lady.”

It’s for reasons like this that going through long periods without a response shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of your writing ability. Neither is getting multiple rejections.

However, multiple rejections written in all-caps could be cause for concern.

By now you’re saying to yourself (a) This guy might actually have some useful information, or (b) I think I remember deleting his query letter. Either way, we’re ready to begin talking about the specifics of formatting your email query.

Create a cover letter: Your letter should be limited to a single page, shorter if possible. If it can be summarized using only bar code, all the better. Just make sure it includes three things: 1) A simple introduction, 2) Why you are querying and, 3) any information that gives your column merit, such as any writing awards, the number of papers currently carrying your work, or, if you’re just starting out, a complimentary lottery scratch-it potentially worth millions.

Next, in the upper left corner, include the editor’s full name, the publication name, and general mailing address.
For example:

Ima Cranky, Features Editor
The Daily Correction
Spuds, ID

This will make your query seem less like spam or a mass mailing and improve the chances of it being read. Next, in the actual greeting, use the editor’s first name. In this case,

Dear Ima,

You’ve already addressed them by full name and title in the upper left corner. There’s no harm in breaking the ice a bit in your greeting. If that annoys them, chances are they aren’t going to be interested anyway.

Finally, close your letter the way you opened it — on a first-name basis:

I look forward to receiving your rejection letter.

Below that, put your full name, newspaper (if applicable), and general address:

Ned Hickson
Siuslaw News
Florence, OR

Once you’ve created your cover letter, save it in your e-mail “drafts” folder. That way, when you’re sending out queries, you can just copy and paste your letter to each editor.

Remember: Whatever you do, don’t forget to change the name and greeting. I once spent an entire afternoon emailing queries to newspaper editors all over Rhode Island only to discover I had forgotten to change the name. For a short period, there was a rumor going around that every editor on Rhode Island was named Biff Rogaine.

Include samples of your work: In the good old days, before you could get viruses from having unprotected… I mean by opening email attachments, you could just include a few samples of you work via document attachments.

Nowadays, editors will automatically delete any email that comes with an unrequested attachment. Because of this, the best way to get your work in front of editors is to include a “hot” link. And by “hot” link, I don’t mean Louisuana sausages or anything that could take you to an inappropriate Internet site.

In this case, a “hot” link is a link editors can click on that directs them to your blog, website or specific work you’d like them to read, such as Ned’s Blog. A link can also include a bio page, awards page, etc. My suggestion, however, is to stick with your best work. If they want to know more about you, they’ll ask.

The dreaded “subject” box: I’ve experimented with several options, including “Desperately Seeking a Benefactor,” “Congrats on the Promotion,” and “This Isn’t a Viagra Ad.” I eventually settled on “Humor Column Query.”

Editors will appreciate you being up front with your subject title and, as a result, will be more likely to take a look.

Bookmark a newspaper website listing: There are lots of sites that list state-by-state newspaper websites. The one I use is U.S. Newspaper Listings.
This site lists each state, which you can then click on for a complete roster of current newspapers available on the Internet within that state.

When you get to a newspaper website, find the Contact or About button. From there, you can generally find your way to the staff directory and the appropriate editor which, in most cases, is the Features editor for larger papers, or just the Editor or Managing Editor for smaller papers. Click their name, paste your cover letter in the text box, change the appropriate information — double check your info — and push “send.”

That’s it.

Querying your column over the Internet is a lot like playing the slot machines; most of the time you’re going to come up empty, but as long as you don’t run out of quarters — or in this case, persistence — odds are you’ll hit the jackpot from time to time.

Unless it’s Rhode Island.

(You can write to Ned at, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

28 thoughts on “Getting started as a columnist (or why I avoid Rhode Island)”

      1. I don’t have PMS. Which may or may not be why I’ve never been divorced…

        But when I first wake up in the morning, watch out! Ima Cranky BEAR. Rawr! 😛

  1. I’m going to get started doing this today! By that, I mean sending out hundreds of e-mails with the wrong name. Only, I’ll be doing it under another name, so that my own won’t be tainted. That way, when they get my query, it’ll be like “Damn, Susan. This kid is gold! Pure Gold!”

    1. Definitely keep me in the loop with that one! And I’d suggest sending your first query to Biff Rogaine of the Rhode Island Reporter. And use Biff Rogaine as YOUR name!

  2. I read this post last week and found it insightful. The process of becoming a columnist sounds labor intensive. From what I gather, it requires a great deal of time to send applications. Sadly, I don’t think it’s the right season for me. My kids are still young. I might have to wait till they’re both in school full time. For now, I’ll keep honing my writing skills by blogging. The end goal in all of this is to become a contributor for a marriage and family publication. The two things I’m most passionate about! 🙂

    1. It sounds like a good plan, Anka — sort of like my approach to firefighting. I knew I had to wait until they were old enough for me to be able yo leave on a moment’s notice. However, as far as the syndication process, I just gave myself an hour a day and tried to send out as many as I could in that hour. It took me almost a year to go through all the newspapers on the list, one state at a time. You could take the same approach. Bottom line: Whether now or later, I think you’d be a terrific columnist. Your style is approachable and down to earth, with great insight told in a way that doesn’t sound so “opinionated” that it isolates readers.

  3. Hi. found this very interesting. good basic start. Only a beginner but maybe some day. This is the magic of blogs, one minute a good laugh, next blog you read totally different.

    1. Haha! Only once, when I was feeling pretty beaten down. That editor has now been my friend for many years and still carries my column in Welches, Ore. His advice: That was funny, but don’t do it any more 🙂

      1. But see? It worked! It got him thinking!!! It got him wondering… It got his attention!!!! 🙂
        I might just have to give it a try… J/k
        But seriously… Hey nice to meet you! Go ahead a reject me now though! It will save me the years of pain and rejection later like my ex did…. Hurry up run for the hills… Move right along… Maybe someone will actually stick around long enough to see I don’t bite!

  4. This didn’t work for me. I even stepped it up by sending nude photos of myself to the editors. (I really thought the one of me looking lasciviously over my shoulder, my so-called tigre pose.) And so the restraining orders keep coming in…plus, no weekly syndicated writing column.

    1. LOL! Maybe try a pose where you’re looking back at them from between your legs…I don’t know. Or maybe with a strategically placed bottle of White-Out? Or something larger, I can’t really say. And would like t keep it that way — so don’t query me…

  5. I took your advice and used a hot link in my query e-mails. I linked to Ned’s Blog, just like you recommended. Now I just wait for the syndication requests to flood my inbox.

No one is watching, I swear...

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