Home > Blog > Blog > 37 Essential Freelance Writing Terms You Need to Know

37 Essential Freelance Writing Terms You Need to Know

Carol Tice

Definition of successBy Jennifer Roland

When you’re first starting out as a freelance writer, it can feel like you’ve landed in a foreign country. Editors tend to speak in their own special jargon.

You want to pick up the lingo fast, so that you can present yourself professionally. New terms are added all the time, too.

To help you out, here’s a handy glossary of the freelance writing terms you need to know to communicate with editors and business clients without sounding like a complete noob.

  1. Advertorial: An article that’s written on behalf of a company, and runs in paid advertising space in a newspaper or magazine. It feels like a regular ol’ story or op-ed piece to the reader, but is bought and paid for by the business rather than the publication. Advertorials usually appear within a border that says “advertising.”
  2. Bio: A brief description about you. What will your readers want to know about you? What will convince an editor or client that you are the right fit for their writing needs? You’ll probably want to keep a few versions of your bio handy for work in different subject areas, to use in different types of pitches, and to fit different audiences.
  3. Body: This is the guts of the article you are working on. After the hed, dek, lede, and nut graf come…the body. (Read on for translations of those.) You may also hear it used as the style or format of the main text of an article, brochure, or web page.
  4. Byline: Your name, out there for all the world to see on the piece you just authored. You’re not likely to see a byline when you write business copy, but many periodicals will include it, usually right before the body of the article. If it’s at the bottom of the article, it’s a tagline (see below). Feel free to frame your first one and hang it above your desk – many of us do.
  5. Caption: A brief description of what is shown in a photo.
  6. Charticle: A short article which is dominated by a graphic image — for instance, an image of a body with captions pointing to many different body parts. Women’s magazines are making increasing use of these.
  7. Clip: A piece of your work to include in your portfolio. This can be an article, a brochure, a web page – if you’ve written it, it’s a clip. It doesn’t have to have your byline on it. Editors and clients will understand if you have written business materials, web copy, or ghostwritten articles that don’t bear your name.
  8. Conflict of interest: If you have a personal or professional connection to a source for a story or the topic, this could be a real or perceived conflict of interest – and both could be just as important in the eyes of your editor or client. The fear is that your connection will affect your ability to be objective about the source or topic in your writing. Be up-front about anything that might come across as a conflict of interest as soon as it becomes apparent to you. You and your editor/client may be able to find a way to work around it pretty easily.
  9. Consumer publication: These are the magazines and newspapers you see on the newsstands – and their online equivalents. If your family and friends aren’t quite on board with your choice to be a freelance writer, getting a byline in one of these publications can prove to them that you’re serious. Believe me, every mom wants to tell her friends that her kid just got published in a magazine they’ve actually heard of. Side note: My husband started to take my freelancing seriously when I had a tiny FOB piece published in Draft magazine.
  10. Copy: The words you write. This term is more common in business writing than in journalistic writing, but you’ll hear it in both fields.
  11. Copywriting: This terms usually refers to writing business and promotional copy for clients. It can be very lucrative. In fact, many freelance writers use copywriting to pay the bills and magazine writing to feed their passion.
  12. Creative brief: This is a concise description of a project and the rationale behind it. It is something you will likely come across working with business clients or agencies. If you are working with a client who isn’t familiar with creative briefs, you can find an example on the web and use it to get the information you need to complete the work they want.
  13. Custom publication: This is a publication put out by a magazine publisher, but created specifically for a company. They are typically print magazines, but may also be online. My Ford, Costco Connection, Delta Sky, and Ed Tech: Focus on K-12 (where I have written a few times) are some examples of custom publications. The level of journalistic quality is the same as any other publication.
  14. Dek: The second half of a headline, which often runs in italics just below the headline in newspapers. Ex: Headline: Food for Seniors — Dek: Haute Cuisine Hits the Nursing Home.
  15. Deliverable: These are the final projects you will be providing. It can range from a completed article to a full website package. Make sure you and your client or editor are clear on exactly what you will be delivering before you get to work.
  16. Dummy copy: This is fake verbiage inserted into a layout as a placeholder. Often, it’s in Latin — beginning with “lorem ipsum…” the better to alert editors it is not the actual article or ad text.
  17. FOB: Front of the book pieces. These short articles and blurbs usually appear in the front of a magazine. Magazine editors refer to their magazine as a “book.” FOBs are often a great way to break into new publications.
  18. FPO: For position only. This abbreviation is used when artwork or other materials are inserted as placeholders in an article or brochure to give all stakeholders a general idea of how the final piece will lay out.
  19. Hed: An abbreviation for headline. This term is commonly used in newspaper and magazine settings.
  20. Hook: Why will people want to read your piece? The hook is what draws them in and makes them read to the end. Often, it’s a “news hook,” or piece of breaking news that gives the story special urgency. You’ll want it to appear early in the piece.
  21. Infographic: Information graphics, or infographics, are a bit like a charticle gone wild. Infographics are often elaborate, long graphics that incorporate the captions for various elements within the graphic itself.
    What Makes a Good Infographic?

  22. Kicker: The conclusion of an article. Quotations and facts that sum up the piece work well here, as do surprising facts. The goal is to leave the reader with something interesting to mull over, even though they’re done reading the piece.
  23. “Kill” fee: If your assigned article doesn’t run, some publications will pay you a small fee just for trying, often 10%-20% of the planned publication fee.
  24. Lede: The lede, or lead, is the opening sentences of your article. Journalists spell things funny. I think it is to prevent their jargon from accidentally making it into print – even the laziest proofreader will catch lede or some of the other journalism abbreviations I’ve mentioned here. An quick opening story quoting a person is known as an anecdotal lede.
  25. Letter of introduction (LOI): This is a pitch letter or email to a potential client. You’ll want to show them that you’ve researched their company, you understand their field, and that you are the absolute right writer to do the work you’re proposing. LOIs are used for businesses, and for publications such as trades (see below), where it’s hard to suss out what sorts of story ideas to submit.
  26. Native ads: Also known as sponsored posts, native ads are blog posts that contain useful information in the vein of a blog, but have been paid for by a sponsoring business. These are the online version of advertorials.
  27. Nut graf: The paragraph that goes from the lede into the body of the article. Think of it as a mini-map of where the article is headed. What ground will you cover? What types of issues will you explore or solve? The nut graf sums that up quickly and entices readers to keep reading. You may also see “graf” used as an abbreviation for paragraph.
  28. Op-Ed: An opinion or editorial piece, in which the writer states their point of view on an issue. Letters to the editor are a prime example.
  29. Query: An article idea. You send a query, or an article pitch, to an editor of a magazine, newspaper, or web site to get them to assign you the article. You’ll want to prove to the editor that her readers need to read the article and that you have the chops to complete the article as assigned – this is your audition piece, so write the hell out of it, especially if you’re just starting out.
  30. Red ink: An editor’s changes used to be done in red pencil or pen. These days, they might arrive in “track changes” notes in a Word doc, or any other number of ways. But writers still say their work came back “covered in red ink.”
  31. Sidebar: A related short addition to an article. Sometimes an editor will ask for a sidebar as part of the assignment. Or you might pitch it in your query. Other times, as you are reporting, you’ll find a fact that readers will find interesting, but that doesn’t quite fit in the main body of the article. If that happens, ask the editor if you can provide a sidebar that contains that info.
  32. Subhed: A journalistic abbreviation for subhead. Think of your subheds as mileposts that lead readers through your article.
  33. Tagline: When your byline appears at the end of an article instead of the beginning, it’s known as a tagline, rather than a byline. Unlike the byline, a tagline may include a sentence or two about the author.
  34. TK: An abbreviation for “to come.” You’ll see this used for photos, captions, sidebars – anything that is expected but hasn’t arrived yet. I like to use it while I’m writing for facts I need to look up later. This is a great way to get through that first draft fast without getting bogged down researching one little piece of information.
  35. Trade publication: These regional or national publications are targeted at people who work in a specific field. Many of them are sent at no cost to people who are verifiably employed in the field, but others are sold by subscription and on the newsstand. To write for a trade pub, you’ll probably want to know quite a bit about the target audience and the work they do, because you’ll need to speak their language. One trade publication you’re probably familiar with is Writer’s Digest. Yes, it’s available on newsstands, but it is specifically targeted at aspiring and working writers.
  36. White space: Blank space left between elements in a publication — around photos, between lines of text, and on the border of ads. Design professionals tend to argue for more white space in a publication’s layout, journalists for less white space and more words.
  37. Work for hire: You’ll see this terminology in contracts, mainly for business copy and trade and custom publications. It means that you are giving the client or publication all of the rights to the piece you are writing – in exchange for premium pay, I hope.

Ever been baffled by writing jargon? Tell us about it in the comments below, or add to our list of terms.

Jennifer Roland is a freelance writer and the guest-post editor here at Make a Living Writing. She focuses on edtech, lifestyle topics, marketing and public relations, and content creation. Her latest book, 10 Takes on Writing, will be out in late 2014.