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

I don’t know if it’s the change of the seasons, the approaching zombie apocalypse or a tainted batch of Lay’s Chicken and Waffles potato chips. Whatever the reason, a lot of folks have been asking the question, “How did you get started?” Not to sound presumptuous, but I assume they mean “as a columnist,” and not “as a father” or “turning grey” — which, I’d like to point out, are directly related. Because of this, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my very first Nickel’s Worth on Writing, which covers the basics on how to get a jumpstart your rejection letters writing career. I should point out that some of today’s best-selling authors got their start after reading this post, prompting writers like J.K. Rowling to call Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, “Just the advice I needed to realize my potential within the food service industry. You know, until the book thing came along.”

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...

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

  1. Great post (as usual). I, for one, am so glad you weathered the rejections and that they eventually recognized your genius.
    Thanks for the insight and keep writing. I’m looking forward to featuring your book on the blog for one of my Writer Wednesdays! 🙂

    1. You’re too kind, Marla 😉 I actually saved all of my rejections in a folder. I think of them in the same way as bad decisions in life — without them, we wouldn’t be who we are today. Plus, I now have a hit list 🙂

      Thanks again for the kind words, and I’d be honored to be featured on your blog.

      Watch out for the lions,

      — Ned

  2. I hope you really did end each letter with “I look forward to receiving your rejection letter.” Thank you for helping me laugh at this constant rejection thing us artists have to deal with. I may adopt this joke into my cover letters. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Susan 😉 As I told someone else, I keep my rejection letters in a folder. I think of them in the same way as I do bad decisions; they are part of what makes us who we are.

      By the way, my “rejection” joke is all yours — and good luck!

  3. Hehehehe…You crack me up Ned…This is ALL too true and I totally understand and can relate to this post….”I look forward to receiving your rejection letter.” CLASSIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Loved this…

    1. Haha! Hey, thanks so much, Sooz 😉 So glad you liked it. I figured you could relate. We should compare rejection letters some time!

      You’re one of my very first blog followers and will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you for stopping in, and for the kind words 😉

    1. Stick with it; the fact that they are emailing you is definitely a sign of interest and respect — which comes as no surprise 😉

      And as for my “brilliance,” it is debatable, depending on who you ask!

  4. After receiving a giant sting of rejection today – for a submission strictly for fun, as in no pay, this was just the Calamine needed for some giant no fun inflammation. Thanks Ned..

  5. Ah hecka, I was so new to your blog, I didn’t realize you were ‘theee Ned’! Very cool that you manage to be both thoughtful and wicked funny!

    This is the best get started advice I’ve ever read. (lol, no it’s not the only one I’ve read)

    1. At the risk of disappointing you, I’m not Ned Flanders. But I do appreciate the kind words, and the fact that you’ve continued reading my advice after the first Nickel’s Worth 😉

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