37 Essential Freelance Writing Terms You Need to Know

37 Essential Freelance Writing Terms You Need to Know

Carol Tice | 43 Comments

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.


43 comments on “37 Essential Freelance Writing Terms You Need to Know

  1. Veronica Schwarz on

    Thanks. A very helpful list. Not knowing something as simple as the meaning of an expression can really put you on the back foot and impact upon your confidence way beyond its real importance.

  2. Annette Clark on

    Great list, but I’m a little mystified by you stating “copy” is not used in journalistic writing. As a former print journalist, I can assure you we used it all the time. And remember back to copy boys in the very old days?

    • Carol Tice on

      You’re right of course, in an ‘old school’ sense — copy was our articles, going to the editor or the press room. Back when they pasted it up with glue and an Exacto knife. Having worked 12 years in newsrooms more recently, I never heard the word used in that context, though. But certainly a different meaning than the copy in copywriting!

  3. Renée Camus on

    Thanks for this great list. There are a couple other terms I’ve seen on writers’ websites that I sometimes get stuck on, like white papers (and how they might differ from a report or research paper), squeeze pages (is that like a landing page?), PPC campaign, sometimes even ghost writing (I think i know what that refers to, but I’m not entirely sure). Maybe these are too complex to attack in a list like this, but I thought I’d mention them anyway.

  4. Mridu Khullar Relph on

    Hey Linda!

    The Marie Claire contract had the usual kill fee terms, but I think my editor sort of understood that to mean if my work was not up to par. They did offer me 25%, I said wait, let’s talk about this, we did, and it was a very nice conversation that turned out fine. NYT didn’t have a kill fee clause in their contract, as far as I can remember. I never had a contract with TIME, even though I wrote for them for many years.

    I think international stories get killed more frequently because they’re fast-moving, often based around what’s happening in the news, and sometimes when editors have too much assigned out, the foreign stories are the first to go. So I’ve had quite a few killed, but it’s never really been an issue money-wise. (And often the editors were so apologetic about it, they’d give me more assignments.)

  5. Linda Formichelli on

    Sweet! So did your contracts stipulate a 100% kill fee — or did you negotiate that in the contract if it was lower — or was there no fill fee clause and when the articles were killed you argued for 100%? We need to know! Because I write for mostly the women’s and health mags (and a boatload of trade and custom pubs) and they always have around 25%, and I sign because SO few of my articles are killed — I think it’s happened three times in 17 years.

  6. Mridu Khullar Relph on

    I’ll name names. Marie Claire (the US edition) paid me 100% when an article I wrote for them could no longer be slated in any issue because of the timeliness factor. Same deal with The New York Times and TIME. I’ve had stories killed by both because of reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of my work. I’ve almost always been paid 100% when the article has been killed for reasons beyond my control. In fact, I received several more assignments from those same editors.

  7. Nate on

    Awesome list! It’s funny, I just got hired to write my first advertorial for a local magazine. When the editor asked if I could write an advertorial, I said, “Sure, no problem!” I had no clue what it was. Ha! Definitely going to keep this list handy. Thanks Jennifer!

    • Carol Tice on

      Ha! I’ve done that so many times. Actually, the first time a client asked me to ghost their blog, I didn’t yet know what a blog was. It’s amazing how far you can get by confidently nodding your head and then going off to research something. 😉

  8. Linda Formichelli on

    Wow, I’d love to know who is paying a 50% kill fee! I just had an article killed by a very big magazine you would know the name of because they realized they didn’t have enough pages in the issue it was slated for — and my kill fee is 25%. I’ve written for 150 magazines, including many newsstand ones, and 25% has been pretty much the standard. I sure wouldn’t complain to get 50%, though!

  9. Trudy Kelly Forsythe on

    Oh and I do want to add, great post. It’s good to have these kinds of conversations. I belong to the Professional Writers Association of Canada and we were having this exact same discussion not too long ago! And your post has me planning to investigate markets for charticles…hadn’t heard that one before!

  10. Trudy Kelly Forsythe on

    Yes. We are talking about two different things. A kill fee is not for when a story is killed because the writer didn’t fulfill the editor’s expectations. In that case, the writer shouldn’t get paid at all. Back to my plow guy example – if he doesn’t do a good job, I get him to keep doing it or he doesn’t get paid. Why would any writer expect any reimbursement if they didn’t deliver what they were assigned? So reasons for kill fees would be due to space constraints or the editor decides the story is too controversial to publish – I had the latter happen to me; that’s why I use it as an example. I’m not sure what you’d actually call a fee if you don’t deliver what the editor wanted. Lucky?

    • Trudy Kelly Forsythe on

      I’m with Darrell on this one that 50% has been the industry standard although I do recognize editors and publishers are trying to get away with paying less. It’s disappointing that your experience has been to find those that only pay 10 – 20 %. Freelance writers need a contract with any publication they write for and that should include what will be paid if the article doesn’t run and a time limit on hoe long they have to hold a story before they have to pay up. I try to get 100% – after all you assigned me the story and I delivered. If it doesn’t get published that’s not my problem. If I pay someone to plow my driveway but then decided I didn’t need it plowed after all I still have to pay the plow guy for doing the work. Writers need to take a stand if they do the work.

      • Carol Tice on

        I think we may be talking about 2 different things — in my experience stories are most often killed because they didn’t fulfill the editor’s expectations. Certainly if it’s just a question of their plans changed editorially, I agree with you.

  11. Darrell Noakes on

    If the writer failed an assignment, that’s a different matter. A kill fee is for when the publisher decides not to go with the story. You did the work. You should be paid. 50/50 is a reasonable compromise. Historically, 50% has been the norm. Where did this 10% – 20% crap come from all of a sudden? And why would any sane person think that is reasonable?

    • Carol Tice on

      If there’s one thing I’ve learned about freelance writing, Darrell, it’s that there is no global ‘norm.’ But happy to hear 50% has been the norm where you’ve worked!

  12. Darrell Noakes on

    Who would accept a kill fee of 10% – 20%? No self-respecting writer would accept less than 50%, and no self-respecting publisher would offer less. Plus expenses, if applicable, incurred up until notice was given.

    • Carol Tice on

      Well, if I knew any publications that would pay a 50% kill fee, then I’d love to have that in place…unfortunately, I don’t know of any who pay so much for an article they’re not going to run. I guess a lot of publishers don’t have the self-respect you’d wish for, Darrell.

      Guess I’ve always had the point of view that you’re lucky to get anything when you failed to fulfill the assignment your editor gave you.

      Remember, you’re always free to decline the kill and resell the story.

      My approach has been to ask loads of questions ahead of going off to do my piece, and not get stories killed. I think besides one of the very first articles I wrote — which I tell all about here — it’s maybe happened once to me in 20 years.

  13. Betty Washington on

    Ahhh! I’ve had to look up writers’ terms that were dropped in different informational sources. Now I have a reference point for communicating with other writers. I am now able to read information and not waste valuable time trying to find a definition that could possibly mean the same as the word in an article I’ve read. Thank you!

    • Editor on

      Over the summer, NPR started a series on trade lingo. They have people from a profession — both famous and non-famous — talk about a word specific to the industry, what it means, and where it came from. It’s been really interesting.

  14. Sam Edge on

    A very helpful list.

    I know it’s not exactly on point, but I’m just reading “If You Want To Write” by Brenda Ueland – probably the best book I’ve ever read – and she uses the word ‘Peevish’ (easily irritated with unimportant things) to describe fussy-mussy critical people who kill creativity.

    It’s my new favourite word 🙂

    Best, Sam

  15. Rob on

    I didn’t know a few of these, so thanks! I’ve learned not to ask questions when hit with jargon I don’t understand. I research it first and then act like it’s part of my everyday vocabulary. Not exactly the same, but I once may have lost a client because I hadn’t yet learned how to track changes in Word. There’s stuff some editors just expect you to know.

    • Editor on

      On an episode of Friends, Joey said that his agent had told him always to say yes when a casting director asked if he had a particular skill. I’ve done that — said yes to something I’d never done before. It is a great way to push yourself to try something new and open up a new source of income.

  16. Mridu Khullar Relph on

    Nice list! In work-for-hire contracts, you’ll often see “indemnification” clauses, which means that you’ll be responsible for dealing with a lawsuit should that situation arise, that is, you’ll cover the losses of the publisher. Definitely something to be avoided.

    • Editor on

      All the risk, and very little potential for reward. There are situations where it is worth it to take a work for hire contract, but it is critical that the pay is very good.

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