I meet many writers who are sick of earning $5 or $10 an article on content mills and want to move up to earning real money — $.50-$1 a word or more.
But the problem is, when you’ve been writing cheap SEO articles for search-engine robots to read, you don’t learn how to write the sort of compelling articles people want to read. And that’s the kind that pays well.
In fact, you can develop a bunch of bad habits that will get you into trouble when you’re writing a great-paying article gig.
Writing for magazines involves doing some real research and reporting. If you don’t watch out, your magazine editor will think you’re a lazy writer and won’t want to work with you again.
What are the bonehead mistakes you don’t want to make that will have editors thinking you’re a slacker? Here are the top five I hear from students in my 4-Week Journalism School course:
1. Can I interview sources on email?
Not really, no. Emails are not interviews. When you use the word “said,” it implies you spoke to someone.
If you want to quote from an email, you should disclose it:
“That’s crazy,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response.
And you can see how awkward that is.
You don’t want to do email ‘interviews’ anyway, because they will never be as interesting as what you’ll get talking to someone live. As you chat, you’ll always think of more questions to ask, you’ll see which way to lead the conversation, you can ask follow-up questions…and none of that’s going to happen via email.
Email Q&As may be a staple on blogs, but good-paying markets aren’t going to want to pay big money for them. What makes you worth more is your ability to draw out a subject and get them to say something sparkling, funny, insightful, provocative, unique, or outrageous. You won’t get that in an email.
2. Can I use my friends as sources?
Not usually, and especially not as a new writer.
Your job as a reporter is to go out and find people who are either experts or experiencing the thing you’re writing about. These are supposed to be people you do not personally know (though they could be people your friends know).
Using your personal friends as sources creates a conflict of interest, in that you wouldn’t want to write anything that might embarrass your friend, even if it were true and shed light on the story. So steer clear of your friends and do more research to find good sources.
3. I know this topic. Can I be the expert?
Unless you’re writing an essay or opinion piece, no, you can’t.
As the reporter, your job is to gather information from experts and keep your own opinion out of it. Use your expertise to help you know what questions to ask and which people to interview.
4. Can I quote passages from an author’s book?
No. That’s something you do for school papers, but it doesn’t work for magazine articles.
The editor will be expecting you to get on the phone or meet with the author and get some fresh quotes from them. You might quote the opening line or conclusion of the book for a sentence or two at most, if they’re particularly remarkable. But the bulk of the insight should come direct from the author’s mouth.
5. Can I quote Wikipedia?
No, and here’s why — Wikipedia is created collaboratively by all comers and is not necessarily accurate or up-to-date.
As a reporter, you need to find the first place that published that survey, and then call them up and make sure they haven’t updated that survey since it first came out. You need the most recent data or news, from the original source.
What Wikipedia can be useful for is links. Check the bottom of a page, and you may find some legitimate sources cited, such as a New York Times article or a research firm’s press release.
Follow those breadcrumbs to the source of the news. Then contact and quote the person or research firm yourself.
Are you sensing a theme here? Many writers apparently want to avoid talking to live humans when they’re writing stories. They’d rather skip the sleuthing to get to the source of an item and make sure the facts they’ve found are all still true.
I know — interviewing can feel scary. But getting out and talking to real people is the only way to deliver the sort of article that’s worth $1 a word.
If you need to, practice by interviewing a friend. Then, do an interview piece, even if it’s for your own blog. Start getting some practice in pro article skills, so that you can move up to better-paying article assignments.
Have you done interviews for articles? Leave a comment and tell us how it went — or what’s holding you back from doing it.