How I got started as a columnist (or, Why the suicide rate among editors has risen)

imageOver the last several weeks I’ve had a lot of bloggers asking how I got started as a columnist. Perhaps it’s because of the new year and resolutions made by writers to persue their goals of publication. Or perhaps they have been drinking and, in a moment of weakness, stumbled onto my blog. Which might explain why most of the messages I received asking for advice went something like this:

“Are you drunk or sober when you write? And how do I get started?”

Because I’m assuming they already know how to get started drinking, I thought I’d share the process I went through in becoming a syndicated columnist. Because this is a PG-rated site, I will leave out the extreme nudity, profanity and gratutitous violence that accompanied my rise to the somewhat moderately wellknown columnist (within a seven-mile radius) that you see today.

Let me begin by saying that 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. 

 

My rejection letter file. I keep a seperate file for rejection letters from my early dating years...

My rejection letter file. I keep a seperate file for rejection letters from my early dating years…

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 somewhere in Canada. No one is exactly sure where. 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.

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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.
Sincerely,
Ned

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.

Biff Rogaine

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 to clarify, by “hot” link I don’t mean Louisuana sausages or anything that could take you to an inappropriate Internet site.

A link can also include a bio page, awards page, etc. My suggestion, however, is to stick with your best work on a blog or website. 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 used was 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…

______________________________________________________________

 

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(Have more questions about writing? Or just life in general? Email me at nedhickson@icloud.com.)

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73 thoughts on “How I got started as a columnist (or, Why the suicide rate among editors has risen)

  1. THIS is what I have been waiting for! The Ned plan that I will follow in order to create the Christian plan that will get me columns in papers too. Thanks for posting this. It was inspiring to read, and had many good tips I hadn’t thought of.

    • Thanks, Christian! I’m glad it was helpful. Once you get settled into Seattle, get your query together and start sending it out to every newspaper (online and printed) that you can. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.

      I won’t actually help, but I’d just like to know…

  2. I made only one serious attempt at syndicating, and that was to the handful of English weeklies in Quebec. I figured, since I used to own one, I had an in. I got picked up very briefly by one in Montreal. That paper closed last month. Nothing to do with me. I wonder sometimes if I should have tried to market myself further afield. Then I found blogging.

    • You’ve got the whole radio thing going for you, and you’re good at at. But you might think about giving the newspaper thing another go. Especially with all the online outlets now. I think of my blog as a place to write what wouldn’t work in the newspaper format, and also as a marketing platform. A great query with your credentials and links to yor Freshly Pressed posts could do well for you. Just don’t send one here, because I need this job…

      • That ship may have sailed. I sometimes feel I may be coming to the end of my run. The sometimes bizarre nature of my topics seem to hint at outgrowing the column format. Certainly, not all editors would be as patient as the ones I have now.

        • I don’t know about that, Ross. The blog is the perfect place for your more “nonconformist” posts (your rebel), but your writing is clever, and I think has a broad appeal. And not just to women…

          • I think reposting my columns on the blog has influenced the tone and style of my writing. Even though this audience is smaller than my print audience (I think…), I can visualize this audience. I find myself writing for, say, Ned or Mark or Denise. “Oh, I bet Bill will get a kick out of this…” Know what I mean?
            Perhaps a discussion for off-line. Don’t want to hijack the comments section, in ever-diminishing boxes.

  3. As a Rhode Island native, let me assure you, they don’t have much of a sense of humor anyway. You might not have fit in. I left one tiny little sack of chopped onions in my history teacher’s desk over a long weekend, you know, for effect, and you would have thought I called him Biff or something. It wasn’t pretty. But oh, my, do they know how to crack a quahog!

  4. Can’t I just send you a copy of my resume and writing samples, and maybe you could pass them along to the 60 papers running your column? Along with your personal recommendation, of course? ‘Cause you know how much you love my stories! If I get hired, I promise to pay you a finder’s fee (what kind of home-baked cookies would you like?). Feel free to email me at cordeliasmom2012@yahoo.com and use the subject line, “OMG, You Are So Special!” so I know it’s not spam. Waiting eagerly by my computer for your response.

  5. My journalism degree has been as useful as an ice-maker in Antarctica, but still, I suppose it was worth the crushing debt and the best, most vital years of my life.
    Right?
    Right?

  6. I’m saving this post so I can read it for inspiration every time I get rejected. I’m sure persistence is key but it also helps if you’re actually a good funny writer such as yourself. I’ve already been rejected numerous times by Huff Post why not get rejected by various newspapers while I’m at it? But I always remind myself even Stephen King got rejected lots of times.

  7. Thanks for clearing that up Ned. Guess that explains why my subject “8 Column Inches for Your Pleasure” never seems to get a response… :/
    Just one point of clarification: are you sure that picture is Biff? Looks awfully like Ima to me…

  8. This was really entertaining! The thing about changing the contact name really made me laugh as I’ve actually done something similar sending queries out. Thankfully I caught it relatively quickly. Thank for the tips!

  9. When I started writing columns back in 2000, I used the same philosophy I had created when I started pitching queries to magazines (in 1997): Just do it; all they can say is no.

    The old saying, “If you don’t ask, then the answer is definitely no,” works too. I’ve lost count of the writers who told me they didn’t pitch their ideas to a magazine or newspaper because they thought they’d get rejected. Basically they rejected themselves, not giving the editor the chance to do it.

    When I did a lot of freelance work, I believe I had a good acceptance rate. I researched each publication to see what they were publishing and how they were publishing it (word count, angles, etc.). Then I tailored my queries accordingly. I didn’t bother querying some magazines because I didn’t write on those topics.

    I’ve never received a rejection that told me my writing made them sad. That’s a tough one. But I have mistakenly sent emails addressed wrongly because I forgot to change the name. Is there anything that makes us feel more stupid?

    The problem with eastern Canada is most of the newspapers were bought up by Transcontinental. So if you write for one newspaper, your column can appear in another with no additional money going to the writer. Particularly if you signed on in the last five years. I’ve been with them for more than ten years with the old terms, so it doesn’t hurt me so much. But don’t bother asking for a raise. If you signed on for $30 a column in 2005, you’ll get that for the next 40 years.

    From personal experience, I find magazines easier to break into. Once you get a few articles published in them, you have something to brag about to newspapers. Still, I’ve tried getting pieces (single articles, separate from my column) into our newspapers, and it’s near impossible.

    Your topic works great for many newspapers across North America. Mine is a genealogy column specific to Atlantic Canada.

    Thanks for the smile. Biff looks like he could use one.

  10. i smirked. i chuckled. i giggled. i guffawed. i snorted. the moment i read ‘lips outside of cage’ i belly laughed so hard i cried and couldn’t find where i left off and had a son come in from the other room and ask if i was’okay’. i tried to read parts of this to him and couldn’t – not coherently anyway. it kept making me laugh so i couldn’t speak. loved it.

  11. “Your writing makes my heart sad” is frickin’ hilarious. How ’bout: “Your column made my children ugly” or “I read your submission out loud to my dog; he whined and bit me. Repeatedly.”

  12. I know the pain, Ned. One editor from a big newspaper emailed me back and told me he loved my op-ed column and was going to fit me “in” that week. Two days later he died. I thought about sending that email back to the newspaper as proof (after the funeral of course) but decided against it. The thought of using it to bully my way “in” didn’t sit well with my conscience. Funny post!

    • Haha! I’m pretty sure there are some publishers who pre-emptively send rejection letters to everyone with a blog, just to save time. I’m sure that’s what happened.

      • I loved it Ned…especially the laughs. I’m determined to get published again. .I’m currently the Parenting and Guardianship Writer in my local Free Magazine. Next is time to get paid!

        • It sounds like a great way to keep the writing going while helping folks at the same time, which is pretty great. I’m sure the money will come along as long as you keep yourself out there, writing from the heart and for the right reasons. I always figured some day, even if I couldn’t make a living at it, as long as I could look over my body of work and feel good about it, I’d be OK with that. Now I just need to work on my actual body… 😉

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