My workshop at the Maryland Writers Association: the value of clips

Poetry, cozy murder mysteries, plotting your novel, historic fiction, freelance magazine writing. I attended workshops during the past weekend’s Maryland Writers Association conference for the first four–all of them excellent.

A collection of clips from my past 40 years as a writer.

But before I went to a single session, I led a program on the lowly topics of clips. I never got a job without sending clips of my past writing so I thought I’d talk about the proof of my 40 years of expertise–though I left the portfolios, folders, binders and boxes of clips at home.

Many years ago, I got asked if I’d like to write travel guides for Frommer’s. 

I didn’t travel much then—I had three little kids at home—but when I did, I used Frommer’s Guides. So I was thrilled when an old college friend called to ask me about it. 

It was a plum assignment. Who doesn’t want to write for a prestigious publication? Writing a book, no less! Traveling, eating in restaurants, visiting fun places on somebody else’s dime. 

I turned it down. Remember those three little kids at home?

But once I came to my senses, I called my friend back and asked if I could still apply.

The book was for Maryland and Delaware—not Tahiti, darn it—and yes, it was still available.

My connections, my friend, helped me get my foot in the door.

But I needed more.

I needed something else to prove I could handle the job. Desire wasn’t enough. Friendship wasn’t enough. The editor wanted someone who could write a decent sentence, report accurately, and make deadlines.

I needed to send them clips. I don’t remember what I sent anymore—but I had piles of articles I’d written over the years. I kept them all. So I sent whatever I thought was my best work. I hoped they would say I was a writer.

It must have worked. I spent 12 years writing that guidebook. And that led to other freelance jobs, a different guidebook, and finally and to my own surprise, to novels.

Clips tell the world what you’ve written about, how well you write, all the ways you’ve been scribbling.

Some of my fellow writers as we waited for the time for my presentation at the Maryland Writers Association conference to begin.

I’ve been writing for more than 40 years. I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, websites, non-profits and small businesses. I’ve written news, features, long non-fiction, short stories, catalogues and annual reports, travel guides and novels, both historical and romance. I haven’t written any poetry. I salute those who do. 

Your clips show you can do the work. If I am an editor, looking for a writer, either for my regular staff or freelance assignment, how do I know you can do what I need you to do? I need proof that even if you have a wonderful idea worthy of space in my publication, you are the one who can pull it off—research it, write it, and turn it in on time.

I’ve been collecting copies of my stories since seventh grade when I wrote about a Girl Scout trip to Williamsburg for the Severna Park Village Voice. I wrote it in Bic pen on lined looseleaf in big looping pre-teen cursive. It was, to my delight, published with my byline. 

Do you have your clip portfolio ready?

Your clips, the collection of pieces you’ve written, are the way to prove you can do the job. It shows your willingness to get out there and ask questions, do research, craft a smart lede. When I was a youngster, that was the 1970s, there was only one way to collect clips. You had to write for printed publications. I wrote for my community newspaper first. Then I graduated to my college newspaper where I lived and breathed newsprint for more hours in the day than I studied.

I collected my clips—everything from feature and news stories to the dreaded reports of Student Government meetings. 

Then when I went looking for my first post-college job—these were pre-internet days—I mailed my cover letter and resume printed on matching distinctive gray stationery with my clips, also photocopied on the same paper.

Clips work. They got me my first job at a daily newspaper.

But take it from me. You don’t need every one. At first, I kept mine in scrapbooks—the old fashioned kind with heavy paper and tied together with a silky ribbon, and I had several—with clips in chronological order. So the first thing my future employers saw was the first article I ever wrote, an interview with the SGA president on due process. I didn’t even quite know what he was talking about. But getting published at the advanced age of 19 was a big deal and if I didn’t recognize the quality of my article or lack thereof, I knew its importance. It made me a reporter.  

Still it wasn’t something to show later on.

So collect all your clips if you want to—but more importantly—Save your best. Show your best.

But what if you haven’t published yet? Or if you don’t think you’ve written the pieces that will get you the writing gig you want.

In 2021, there are so many places to get experience. The hometown newspaper may be a thing of the past, I regret to say out loud to a room filled with scribblers. And to my dismay, I am so sad to report so is the travel guide I wrote for 12 years.

But with the rise of the internet there are plenty of opportunities. 

One way is to be a self-starter. 

While I was writing my Frommer’s Guides, it occurred to me I should at least use my research twice. At the time I was taking care of three busy children, working at a part-time job, and didn’t have much time to hustle freelance articles.

That’s when I began using Twitter and set up my blog, A Day Away, to give me other opportunities to write about the places I was visiting.

My first blog obviously focused on travel. The blog on my writer’s website focuses on writing, reading and publishing. Yours could be about stamps, women’s health, race car driving, the state of world affairs. 

My area of expertise was quite exotic. I wrote about Dover, Delaware, the Eastern Shore, Baltimore and Western Maryland. I could tell you all about the hotels, restaurants, historic sites and museums, cute shops on Main Street from here to Boonsboro. I got to know the area really well.

And, I have to admit it was really fun. I gained entrance to lots of places I might not have otherwise. On an icy February day, I was able to tour the Inn Boonsboro—without a reservation. Romance readers know this B&B is owned by bestselling author Nora Roberts—and only paying guests are allowed inside. My blogpost racked up 10,000 visits in a single day. I also, of course, included the inn in my Frommer’s guide.

I didn’t make any money with my travel blog. But it, and Frommer’s, did give me entree to the Mid-Atlantic Tourism Public Relations Alliance annual marketplace. There I met other writers and found out where they were publishing. I got lots of good ideas for stories and places to submit my stuff. (My blog posts became my clips in this case.)

So if you don’t want to step out —and in this age of COVID, some are still hesitant—maybe you’d like to start with a blog—or perhaps a podcast.

I loved writing a travel blog. I wrote it on the Word Press platform for nearly ten years. It made me get out of my usual routine to go someplace, take photos, find a story, and write. I made friends through social media. I emailed a fellow blogger in Fredericksburg, Texas, when I was heading her way to ask for recommendations on wineries to visit.

A friend I follow on Twitter met my husband and me for coffee and a quick tour of his favorite places during a visit to Vienna—the one in Austria.

It may not get you a paycheck, but it’ll get you some great experience as a writer and you soon will find other outlets for your writing. 

I found a quotation on the submissions webpage for Moon travel guides. Part of it is true for all beginning writers—

“Prior experience writing a travel guidebook is not a requirement for becoming a Moon author, but writing for magazines, newspapers, or blogs about the destination you’re applying for is important.”

See? Even Moon likes blogs! The truth is, the same advice works for other freelance writing. The key word in that quote is writing…You have to write. Anywhere. About Anything. And save the clips.

If you’re ready to write for someone besides yourself and your blog followers, start small. My friend Renee Sklarew, a travel writer for national magazines as well as author of The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC, says, “Look for sections that are not all features so you can break in with a short story or post. They usually award bigger stories to experienced writers.” 

Write about things you know. Say you’re a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Magazines in other parts of the country would probably love a story about the famous author’s Baltimore home, especially around his birthday or death day. Here’s an idea. Netflix is planning a series based on “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Maybe there’s a tie-in here. Find an angle nobody else has written for that publication and you’re golden. 

Selfies are always fun, don’t you think?

Find a niche—museums, snowboarding, outdoor adventure, wedding venues—and research magazines for places where you can write. 

Your own interests, creative pursuits, age, orientation, identity, ability or religion may give you insights others won’t have. If so, you may be the best to write from a particular angle.

One of my writing friends Barbara Beem focuses on antiques and has made a 29-year career of visiting museums and historic houses—she’s been to Williamsburg countless times and written about the PBS show Antiques Roadshow. She focuses on the craftsmanship for her antiques-loving readers. Her pieces run in—surprise!—antiques magazines, including Antique Week. Barbara remembers a friend who visited the garage of a DuPont family member—you know they’re the ones that owned Longwood Gardens, Nemours Mansion, and Winterthur—and sold the story to an automaker magazine. 

Another writer friend, Renée S. Gordon always gives her stories for the Philadelphia Sun, AAA MidAtlantic and her own blog Philly Smooth Traveler a cultural slant. A travel writer for 15 years, she focuses on cultural, historic and heritage tourism and her areas of specialization are sites and attractions related to African American and African Diaspora history. 

If you just want to get your feet wet, try a website that accepts reader reviews. Everybody eats. Everybody goes out—well they did before Covid. You could write reviews for Yelp and Trip Advisor.

Although I think these are doing their best to kill guide books like mine, Yelp and Trip Advisor have their place since they give customers the power to tell the world what they love and when they’ve been disappointed.

Trip Advisor actually awards points and badges to reviewers based on the number of reviews they post. It won’t make you any money but it’s a good way to practice. Collect clips for your paying gigs.

Get started with Yelp and you could become a member of their Yelp Elite Squad. I have a friend is often invited to Baltimore-area events so she can taste the newest craft beer, check out hotel rooms and eat appetizers at a new restaurant. She’s on Facebook and Instagram all the time, an influencer for having a good time in Baltimore.

You can find sites for your opinion on other things too. There’s a new app called Litsy where you can post book reviews. Of course there’s Amazon, Goodreads, Bookstagram on Instagram and lots of blogs if you want to be a book reviewer. I appreciate those writers, too.

I bet you’ve come across all kinds of similar review sites. A casual Google search led me to websites looking for people to write about movies, fishing, consumer products, video games, music albums, even marijuana. Oh, darn, that last one wasn’t accepting any more applications.

OK so far I haven’t told you how to turn those first clips into a paycheck. Really, do you write to get paid? Yes, of course you do — but not everyone gets paid at first. 

Ask any beginning novelist about that.  

My husband used to quip that my writing for Frommer’s was an expensive pursuit. The same can me said of my novel writing. Anybody with me here?

Focus first on experience—and those all important clips—more than anything else. 

As your collection of clips grows, so does your experience. Your expertise. And, I hope, your confidence as a writer. You’re not just “aspiring” anymore. And that’s wonderful.

Where are you going next?

You could go straight to the top and send an article idea—don’t write the article until you get the go-ahead—to Travel and Leisure, the New Yorker or Vanity Fair.

If your clips show you’ve got the chops for the gig, go ahead. 

But if you’re a little more timid than that, aim lower. I like to recommend those little magazines you find in the vestibule of restaurants, the library and the YMCA. There’s money in them there freebies. How about Prop Talk or Spin Sheet, if you are a boater, Enterprising Women or I-95 Business if you’re into business, Recreation News if you like parks or travel. I’ve written for three of the these little magazines—in all of them I sent a pitch and a couple of clips and got a job. Two of them—I-95 Business and Recreation News—paid me. And once I got my foot in the door, I could put my clip portfolio away. They started calling me with assignments.

I’ve also written for the Patuxent newspapers, now part of Sun Media Group, the Catholic Review and a couple of other church-related publications, and my college alumni magazine. All of them were paying gigs, most of them were local and all of them started with showing my clips of past work.

You can use Google for other options. But I like a couple of other places better.

Go to the library to visit the Periodical Room or talk to the librarian. While you are there, see if you can find any of those free magazines I mentioned earlier. That’s where I found Recreation News.

If you have a library card—you do, right?—you don’t even have to go to an actual library. Get online and head to your county’s digital periodical collection and peruse what’s available.

In Anne Arundel County, there’s a Magazines and Newspapers page. In Baltimore County, look for a page called Press Reader. I’d bet most county library systems use a similar service.

Go to Facebook and find a freelance writing group to follow. Posts will send you to one like this: Freelance Writing Jobs. I joined several freelance groups looking for writers. 

Once you’ve chosen where you want to submit, you need to check out publications’ guidelines for articles. You can find them in the actual magazines but often there’s an online submissions page that will tell you how and to whom to send your idea.

You may have to hunt down to the bottom of a website’s landing page and click on the contact us link. Some have a For Writer’s link right on the top menu bar. A few have nothing — but you can at least find the editor’s name and an email address and a phone number. Make a call only if absolutely necessary. No one likes to talk on the phone anymore. Never try to call to make a pitch for a story you should have emailed.

Now, you’ve found the right publication or website, you’ve got a story idea, and you’ve got your clips.

Are you ready to pitch your idea?

When do you pitch your story?

That can be tricky. Usually you want to pitch your story idea before you even begin interviews and site visits—if you know enough about the topic to speak with authority in your pitch letter. 

Sometimes you may feel you need to do some initial research so you have a really good feel for the story.

I’ve done both.

Either way, you want to study the magazines, newspapers or websites before you pitch. Know whether they’ve covered your subject before. If they haven’t great! If they have, go find another place to pitch.

And don’t stop at one publication. For one thing, your story may not be accepted on the first try. Or you may have something several publications would like. So look for two or three possible places to sell your story—with different angles. Keep looking as you write and do your research. 

For instance, maybe you’re writing a story on the C&O Canal. There are lots of angles you could try. How can you take advantage of that to sell a story to various outlets? Maybe you’ll discover your story will appeal to a children’s magazine if you focus on attractions for youngsters or the inns you visit will fit in a country living magazine, your historic sites will be perfect into an antiques magazine. Maybe you’ll find out your source went to UMBC and the alumni magazine would love a story like this about an alum.

You’re almost ready to pitch. There are some key elements every editor is looking for in a pitch letter. It’s called the HOOK-BOOK-COOK.

This formula works for novelists—I suppose at least some of you meeting with agents and editors with that very goal in mind—and it works for freelance articles.

Write the lede. Tell the editor what is going to make your story so good he or she has got to buy it. Say that article on the C&O Canal features handicapped-accessible sites or shows how to cycle the whole 184 miles of the canal with a couple of kids over a series of weekends. Or maybe you’ve found historic evidence some of the inns were part of the Underground Railroad. 

Then describe what you intend to write. How many words are you writing? What kind of a story is it? Personal, factual, historical, funny? Who are you using as sources? Make sure you fit the guidelines of their particular publication. If you noticed a magazine has featured the kind of article you want to write, but not the same topic, remind them of that. It shows you’ve been paying attention.

Why should you write it? Sell yourself. How long have you been writing? Do you have any special expertise? For instance, if you plan to write a piece about cycling on the C&O Canal, it might help if you belong to a cycling club—or know people who do.  Here’s the crucial question: What other pieces have you written and for whom? 

Your answer is the PDFs or web addresses of your work—even those Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews, your blog or other published work.

Early on, whatever you write will do just fine. But as you gather some experience—perhaps writing different kinds of articles—you may want to send clips that reflect the kind of writing you’re pitching. Whether it’s a feature, an essay, a personal profile, a travel piece—send articles that reflect your interest and expertise in that particular genre.

One more thing—timing. Plan to pitch a story to magazines at least six months before publication. Pitch holiday stories in the summer, summer vacation stories at Thanksgiving. If you can, send it directly to an editor by name, especially if it is a local publication.

Keep in mind: with every new assignment you’re going to

  • Learn something new. While I was researching Antietam for Frommer’s, I tucked away little facts about the location, the battlefield, the town of Sharpsburg—which I used when I wrote my Civil War novel, DIVIDED LOYALTIES. File away any useful or interesting tidbit, even a feeling you got while you were doing the research. Some people keep journals. I used my travel blog for lots of these details, not realizing early on that I intended to write fiction. 
  • Make new contacts you’ll call on again. Treat the people you use as sources with respect—quoting them accurately, spelling their name correctly and making sure they understand their names and words will be printed or used online. I never fail to be amazed at the number of people who don’t understand that. People get shy, sometimes, too and I have to wheedle, cajole and smile sweetly as I tell them how much I need their information. This isn’t true of public relations and marketing people but sometimes a shop owner or museum staffer will balk. 

When I was working for Frommer’s, I got to know a couple of museum staff and tourism representatives that I called regularly and then again later as I was writing other articles—and now my novels.

  • Develop a thicker skin. Not everyone will like your particular writing style. They may be happy with your reporting but rewrite the lede, rearrange paragraphs or tighten your perfectly-wrought sentence. Go ahead and let them. You’ll get another chance to dazzle readers with your prose at a different time. In the meantime, maybe you’ll learn something about writing. Plus, you’re getting published. You’re getting paid.
  • Prove you can meet a deadline. This is essential. If your story is due Tuesday, turn it in no later than Tuesday. If a contact can’t be found, find another one. 
  • Learn to write better.

Even if you make nothing or nearly-nothing, your writing will improve. When I wrote my first travel article, I kept using the word “beautiful,” tired and overused as it was. A kind editor told me please to use something else. And it wasn’t lovely or pretty, let me tell you.

I figured out how to show why something was beautiful—the carved wood paneling or vistas of gently-rolling mountains—or ugly. I’ll never forget the hotel room with the cinderblock walls. Yeah, I described them in my review. 

Sometimes one assignment  leads to a different kind of writing. My travel writing inspired my novels. I already mentioned my Civil War novel. A visit to the Maryland State House gave me the idea for a still-unpublished historical novel. I’ll find it a publisher one of these days. More recently, a visit to the Garrett County Historical Society Museum sparked a historical angle to my first romance novel. And a comment on a cruise ship was the jumping off point for another novel that has just been released.

Remember every time you clip an article to Save your best. Show your best.

I save way more than I should. I get invested in a story, spend hours doing research, interviewing, writing and then gazing at the finished product. 

Doesn’t everyone?

But I hope my clips tell a story of me as a writer.

I try to save articles I’m proud of—because of the topic, where it was published, how it was presented. I make sure they show the breadth of my work. Lately I’ve been spending lots of time working for The Catholic Review—but one of my most recent MDDC Press Association awards was for an arts article. 

You can keep your clips in a box, in a file folder, on a CD or thumb drive, on your hard drive or just keep a long list of web addresses.

I like paper copies. I like sifting through my work. I don’t have that article on due process anymore. Yeah, I finally tossed those scrapbooks. But all the clips I kept remind me of how much fun it is to write, to tell stories, to meet interesting people.

So I still keep clipping even though I really only send PDFs or web addresses nowadays. Everything’s online.

Besides there’s Google. Who does Google say you are?

Have you Googled yourself to see what the public sees? Have you reviewed your LinkedIn profile? These are places people go now to get the skinny on a writer. When I call a contact for an interview, I never fail to be amazed to find out they know what I’ve written and where. They’ve done their research — and editors do, too.

So be aware that you may already have an online presence that presents you as a writer. 

Make sure you have at least a little control over what’s there. Post frequently to your website. Or your blog Keep your LinkedIn pages updated so visitors can see what you’re writing. Post to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

And whatever you do and wherever your clips take you, good luck. 

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