Real Estate has “Location, location, location,” and writing has “Clips, clips, clips.”
When people ask me how I became a syndicated columnist, I usually say, “it just
snowballed.” And basically that’s what happened: one publication led to another, which
led to another, and so forth.
I began my career writing for a small community paper in my neighborhood. To
look back on those first published clips is quite entertaining! But how can I be ashamed?
The work I did at The Julington Creek Plantation Press (the JCPP) became a springboard
for my now nationally syndicated column “Shore Duty.”
(If you read between the lines here, what I’m saying is, Don’t be impatient, and don’t
expect quick success! Be willing to work your way up and focus on getting the coveted
But a giant “snowball” was not all it took for me to become a writing success.
Admittedly, it took hard-work, research and persistence too. Below are some things I
learned along the way:
Never Submit Shoddy Work, No Matter How Small the Publication
When I was working for the JCPP I knew the interviews and spotlights I was
writing were not Pulitzer material. In fact, I’d be surprised if even a hundred people ever
even read those first pieces. Nevertheless, I made sure every submission was flawless and
an excellent reflection of what I can do as a writer. (You never know who might read
your work…even the small work!)
Providing error-free copy and meeting deadlines sets up a precedence of
professionalism that will follow you throughout your career. Never forget the editors you
are writing for now may be the ones writing your next referral or recommendation.
A great book for grammar and proofreading help is The Associated Press Guide to
Punctuation by Rene J. Cappon.
Never Let Your Readers Down
Developing a relationship with your readers is the ultimate goal (editors only buy
what their readers demand!), so it is important to make sure all your writing (however
small or insignificant) is entertaining and consistent with your abilities.
Building a firm base of loyal fans and readers should be your utmost concern.
Never let your readers down! When I write my column each week, I have in my mind the
mother who will be sitting down to breakfast Tuesday morning and opening the Life
section to see my submission. I don’t write for editors (well, ok, so I do a little bit); I write
Building my readership base has paid off. Now I have loyal fans throughout the
country emailing their local papers to request Shore Duty! And I’ll say it again: Editors
only buy what their readers demand!
Always Approach the Managing Editor
There are many benefits to querying the Managing Editor of a publication, as
opposed to a section- or other editor. Ultimately, the Managing Editor makes the
monetary decisions for the paper, which gives them the “last word.” If you want a quick
“yes” or “no” with few middle-men in between, direct your query to the Managing Editor.
Once you get the job, however, strive to build a good working relationship with the
editor of your section. This will be the person you deal with on a regular basis. Always
meet deadlines (in fact, be early and they’ll love you!), and as much as possible, reduce
the amount of work for your very busy editor: always proofread and “tighten” your
writing before submitting it for publication.
Save Your Clips
As soon as you are published anywhere, start saving your clips. I always
photo-copy mine because newsprint begins to yellow over time. Make sure the
publication date is noted on the clip, then place it in a protective binder. Hopefully you’ll
be making more copies of these clips soon when you write your syndication proposal…or
your book proposal!
Watch Your Contracts
Writers are artists at heart, but unfortunately, in the world of publishing, there’s a
lot of business-minded tasks to take care of. In particular, it’s important to learn about
contracts…or find someone to learn about it for you.
My husband is my personal “business advisor” who helps me to think with my
“career” mind rather than my “artsy” mind when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.
Here’s one very important thing I’ve learned (by error) about contracts: be cautious
of a “Work for Hire” deal. If you sign a “Work for Hire” contract, you are basically
signing away all the rights to your writing. In effect, the publication, not you, owns the
article/column you produce. If you should ever want to reprint that piece (in a book, etc.)
you then have to ask permission from the original publication.
A much better way is to sign a “Freelancer Contract”. This type of arrangement
assures you the rights to your work. You are actually only lending your work to the
publication, and you still retain all rights to reprint or publish however else you choose
(except that most papers will ask that you not publish in another competing local paper).
A good book to educate yourself about contracts is Understanding Publishers’
Contracts by Michael Legat.
If You Have the Choice, Go With Self-Syndication
There are two ways to syndicate: through an agency, or on your own. Below are the pros and cons of both (as I see it).
Going through an Agency
The experts do all the business work for you (marketing, writing proposals, etc.)
Your mind is freed up to be artistic and write, write, write.
Agencies have contacts and networks you do not.
Selling a syndicated column can be a full-time job; if you want to write full-time,
leave the business of promotion and sales to an agency.
However, an agency will take a hefty chunk of your profits.
An agency creates a middle-man through which you have to work.
An agency takes “control” of your career.
Self-Syndicating Your Column
You retain control and direction of your own career.
You don’t have to share profits with an agency.
You don’t have to work through a middle-man.
BUT, you do have to work really hard to market yourself and your column.
Self-syndicating is like taking on another job. (You will be solely responsible for
sales, promotion, understanding contracts, creating invoices, etc.)
For me, however, the biggest benefit of going the self-syndication route has been
the satisfaction I get from knowing I am in control of my own career and that I’ve gotten
here through my own talents and hard work.
A good book for understanding the differences between self-syndication and
syndication through an agency is Successful Syndication: A Guide for Writers and
Cartoonists by Michael H. Sedge.
If you work hard enough, have patience and collect lots and lots of clips, you are
well on your way to being a columnist.
I wish you luck, no writer’s block, and many days of writing success!
About the Author:
Sarah Smiley’s syndicated column Shore Duty appears weekly in newspapers across the country. Visit Sarah Smiley at http://www.SarahSmiley.com