How I Become a Syndicated Columnist: 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 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 published clips.)
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. 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 set up a precedence of professionalism that will follow you throughout your career. Never forget the editors you are writing, for now, maybe 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 for readers.
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 another 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 middlemen 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 regularly. 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 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 of the rights to your work. You are 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 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 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 career and that I’ve gotten here through my 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!
How I Become a Syndicated Columnist
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