When It’s OK to Write for Free and When to Just Say No

By Andrea Calabretta

As I writer at the beginning of my career, I once got a job offer by email from the managing editor of an online literary magazine. It read: “We really like the work you’ve published with us and were wondering if you’d be interested in coming onboard as our nonfiction editor.”

My heart gave a little leap. Of course I was interested, and I was so very flattered. I wrote back in the affirmative.

After a couple more enthusiastic email exchanges, the managing editor dropped a bomb. “Unfortunately we can’t pay you at this time,” the editor wrote.

I felt as though the rug had been pulled out beneath me. At the time, I was working a part-time job and freelancing as much as possible to support myself. Now, I was looking at spending additional hours each week volunteering.

My writer friends discouraged me, saying I shouldn’t give away my talents, and the advice I found online said that working for free undervalues the whole profession. I was torn. I certainly didn’t want to contribute to undervaluing my fellow writer, yet I really wanted to do this job. As I’d been drawn into more high-paying assignments in marketing and development, I had left behind a certain amount of creativity. I missed the days of grad school, when I was regularly in dialogue with other writers in my program about their work. I liked the idea of taking a break from some of my more mundane endeavors each week to read stories and help make them better. So I decided to try it out: I would give it six months.

Since then, there have been other instances when I’ve been asked to work for free, and I have mostly declined them. At a certain point, I became too busy with paid work to even consider doing something for nothing, but I still wouldn’t say that all unpaid work is worthless. For a writer starting out, achieving the milestone of a first published clip can be just as valuable as a token payment for said clip. Building a portfolio of work, paid or unpaid, can be the first step toward winning new assignments and making a living wage as a writer.

When considering whether to work for free, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this gig be of value to me beyond the (lack of) pay?
  • Will it allow me to take a creative risk or do something I wouldn’t otherwise get to do in my professional life?
  • Does it have networking or other opportunities that might lead to something more lucrative or compelling in the future?
  • Would another company/organization/outlet pay me for this same work?
  • Can I afford to spend X hours doing something that does not contribute to my income?
  • How does this gig support my professional goals?

As it turned out, I didn’t volunteer at the literary magazine for long. I was soon offered a job teaching writing that satisfied the same creative urge and paid me for my efforts. But I never regretted my time at the literary magazine, nor the opportunities it offered to hone my editing skills and meet interesting people.

Crafting a Pitch, Selling a Story

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose.

A pitch is a brief message to an editor written with the purpose of selling your story. Sometimes called a query letter or proposal, the pitch is an art form in itself, a gateway to getting an editor to read your work and ultimately to having it published.

A pitch is necessary whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, creative or business prose—anytime you need to approach a publication from the outside. It bears some resemblance to a cover letter for a job but is much more specific to the piece of work at hand. No longer than 3-4 concise paragraphs, the pitch must make a strong positive impression in a limited number of words.

Steps to crafting a winning pitch:

  1. Understand the outlet. Before you set pen to paper or finger to keyboard to write your pitch, your first task is getting to know the publication. Understand its mission and tone, what genres of stories or articles it publishes, any authorship or word count requirements, etc. Luckily, these are often spelled out quite clearly on publication websites, usually in an area called “submission requirements.”Know that you must tailor your writing to an outlet’s editorial specifications. These might include whether the editor prefers to receive pitches with or without finished articles attached. Ideally, you would become familiar with these requirements not only before you write your pitch but also before you write the story itself.
  2. Entice and educate. As you begin your pitch letter, your first challenge is to entice the reader. This is the “hook” you’ve heard about before—the sentence or two that reels the reader in. It should contain the central idea of your story and be presented as a snappy lead. You should then inform the editor how you plan to flesh out the story from this extremely compelling beginning, with specifics on what you’ll include.This part of the pitch also works to convince the editor that your story is a good fit for his or her publication and audience. It’s important to demonstrate that you “get” the editorial vision and want to write for this publication specifically. For this reason, you should never use a template or an one-size-fits-all pitch.
  3. Establish your credentials. Next you need to prove you’re the one to write this story. Start with a brief 1-2 sentence bio. Then let the editor know how much research or writing you’ve done so far (including a word count of anything you’ve written) and what you plan to do to deliver a successful finished piece.You might also include how long you’ve been writing, any particular expertise you have in this subject area, a couple examples of your most recent pitch-worthy publications, and a link to your writing portfolio.
  4. Make it easy. Finally, the cardinal rule of pitching is to make a busy editor’s job easier, not harder. Mention anything additional you can provide, such as photographs or sidebars, and be sure to include everything he or she needs to be able to say yes to your story.

The challenge is to achieve all this in 3-4 short paragraphs that exude confidence, not desperation. You’re much more likely to receive a response if the editor can read the professionalism in your pitch and gain an impression of you as a talented and reliable writer with whom he or she wants to work.


Networking for Writers: It’s Not What You Think

For many a writer, the idea of “networking” causes cold sweats. Those who gravitate to the profession of the pen often lean towards the solitary, introverted end of the spectrum, more comfortable behind a computer screen than a podium. So approaching a stranger with the goal of “selling yourself” can feel about as natural as writing in a foreign tongue.

Networking doesn’t have to feel so forced. If it helps, choose a different term. Language can be a powerful motivator for writers, so ditch the word “networking” and call it something else. Try seeing it as “introducing myself to one new person” or “learning one new thing about someone else.” Being sincere and taking an interest in others eliminates the pressure to conduct an interaction that feels like a thinly veiled quest to get something you want professionally.

Networking can—but does not have to—mean putting on a suit and tie and attending a happy hour event among a crowd of strangers. Nor does it have to mean marching up to a stranger and sticking out your business card. In fact, it can be as non-threatening as joining a Facebook group, getting back in touch with an old friend, or saying hello to the person sitting next to you at a class or meeting.

As you pursue a career as a professional writer, there are many places you might look for new contacts. But before you do, consider the contacts you already have. Chances are, you had classmates, roommates, and other friends in college that would be beneficial to network with. You likely had a bunch of different professors there, too. What about the people from your bowling league, volunteer gig, language lessons, office, church, or knitting circle? What about your Facebook friends, Instagram or Tumblr followers, and LinkedIn contacts? The best contacts are often those who already know and like you (or your work). You can “network” with them simply by getting in touch and letting them know you are pursuing a career as a writer.

When you’re ready to branch out to new people (and perhaps it’s friendlier to think of them as “people I haven’t met yet” rather than “strangers”), start first with friends of friends. Thanks to social media outlets like LinkedIn, these extended networks are readily searchable, and you can easily view your friends’ connections and ask for an introduction.

When you do resort to the cold call, try to find something in common with your prospective contact, such as a shared interest, background, alma mater, or hometown. If you are asking for a favor—Would you mind passing my resume along to your boss?—be prepared to offer one in return. Always follow up with a thank you, especially if your new contact leads to a job or assignment.

Here are some of the best places, both online and off, to network as a professional writer:

  • Writing groups, classes, and workshops
  • Facebook groups for writers in your industry
  • Author readings
  • Writing-focused conferences
  • Trade shows in your industry
  • Book fairs
  • Twitter
  • Co-working spaces
  • Shadowing opportunities or informational interviews in your industry
  • Alumni networks
  • LinkedIn
  • Professional organizations
  • Lectures and events
  • Meetup groups
  • Bookstores and libraries
  • Volunteer projects in your area of interest

Creating a Writing Portfolio 101

Picture this scenario: Editor X receives two nearly identical pitches—one from Writer A and one from Writer B. Writer A uses snappier language and a more appealing tone but doesn’t reference any previous publications. Writer B, meanwhile, concludes her pitch with a link to an online portfolio of her work. With one click of the mouse, Editor X can read through her best stories and find out where they were published. She likes what she sees. To whom does she respond? Writer B, of course.

Your ability to represent yourself online—and be readily found—is a crucial part of establishing yourself as a writer and building your credibility. As you seek work, you need a portfolio that is digital in format, easy to navigate, and professional. In most cases, it is your published clips or commissioned projects that should come to the fore, rather than you as the writer—though a headshot of yourself (not a selfie), an About section, and a link to your resume or LinkedIn profile can all be appropriate.

Steps to building a successful portfolio:

  1. Know your niche. The first thing you want to consider when building a portfolio is how to tailor it to your particular industry. If you want to pursue a career in copywriting for an ad agency, your portfolio will look different from one intended for the nonprofit sector.Check out the websites and online portfolios of a few writers you admire in your industry to see how they represent themselves before building your own. If you have multiple specialties as a writer, you may want to build separate pages or even separate sites for each topic area or genre.
  2. Choose your work wisely. Don’t pile everything you’ve ever written into your portfolio. Instead, be selective. Put forward only work you want an editor’s attention drawn to. This may mean you begin with only 3-5 pieces in your portfolio, which is fine.If there is a new category of work you want to pursue, consider creating sample content to represent how you would handle an assignment. Want to break into PR? Draft a press release for a new business in your neighborhood. As long as the sample is highly professionaland you make clear that it is not a commissioned or published workthen it’s fair game to include.
  3. Select a professional platform. There are endless options available for creating a portfolio that is highly professional in appearance and affordableor even free! Some of the most respected sites include Contently, Squarespace, Clippings.me, Pressfolios, and Issuu. Take a look at their sample sites and portfolios to get an idea of the aesthetic and organizational possibilities before you begin. Remember to keep your design simple and uncluttered. If you can, customize the domain name to your own name or your business name.
  4. Get feedback. Once you’ve built your portfolio, consider sending it to a couple trusted colleagues, classmates, or mentors for their review. Ask them what sort of impression your portfolio conveys. Once you’ve made any needed adjustments, you can begin linking to your portfolio each time you correspond with an editor or client. You can even consider including it in your email signature or adding it to your LinkedIn profile.
  5. Keep it fresh. Finally, as you acquire more writing samples and published clips, update your portfolio. Don’t neglect to keep your portfolio updated with new content and weed out the old. Your online portfolio should evolve as the trajectory of your professional writing evolves, and it should keep helping you win new business.

Challenges to Environmental Communication and How to Overcome Them

Climate change has been a topic of inquiry for many years, but recently it has dominated news headlines. With the involvement of politics and policy changes that affect the Earth, there is a great debate involving what people should do to fight these issues. With overwhelming scientific evidence that humans have significantly accelerated climate change, environmental communicators can feel frustrated when faced with people who refuse to believe that the changing climate is a problem. Walls are put up between those who passionately work to prevent further climate change and those who do not accept it as a legitimate problem, and it sometimes feels like there is no common ground between the two populations. Here are some of the biggest barriers to understanding climate change and the environment, and how communication professionals can attempt to break through and make this issue relevant.

“Not My Problem”

Psychological studies have shown that all around the world, those who directly experience the effects of climate changes are the ones who feel most compelled to act and who are concerned about the future (need to find this citation again). People living in coastal cities, cities with normal high temperatures that continue to rise, or historically cold towns that are experiencing mild seasons see in their every day lives that the world is changing, and they dramatically hope that the rest of the world takes action. However, a large part of the world doesn’t have this same perspective. They have not noticed the changes in their lives that much. Therefore, it is up to communicators to show these people that there ARE affects that will eventually be seen in their families lives. Through creating interactive experiences and making messages targeted towards the audience’s own life and experience, they will pay more attention to what is said and potentially be more compelled to take action.

“Not My Political Party”

Issues concerning the environment have become partisan. Many people use a political party as a part of their identity, and therefore form opinions around that party as to affirm this identity. It is important for communicators to remove political bias when speaking about the environment. That said, politicians do not always make the best spokespeople for these issues. Instead, a more unbiased voice should be used to address an audience and present facts.

“Not My Field of Study”

When you get down to it, greenhouse gasses, carbon emissions, and the specific scientific effects of climate change can be complicated matters, especially to people who do not like science! Many people truly do not understand, or choose to tune out language that they are not familiar with. While specific scientific facts are vital to those that study this phenomenon for a living in research labs and in the field, others who do not have the same background knowledge need a more baseline understanding. Messages need to be simplified and not focus on details that require a bachelor of science degree to understand. Making information available to everyone, regardless of education level, is key to getting the entire world on board with sustainable practices.

Better Business Writing: The Anatomy of a Business Report

The world of business is fast paced and sometimes relies on quick decisions. For creative writers, crafting a business report can be tricky because messages must be very concise. Details are great and still necessary, but the audience of a technical document needs the most important information without “fluff” around it. To stay on track, here is a break down of the necessary pieces of a basic business report.

Executive Summary
This is essentially a mini version of the report. The reader should be able to see all major findings and make a decision based on the concise information given in the executive summary. Often, this could be the only part your audience has time to read so it must get straight to the point.

To begin the report, state the problem and any questions that need to be asked in order to solve the problem. Avoid giving too much history on the topic; that comes next.

Here you have an opportunity to provide the purpose and scope of the report.  Give any necessary details needed for the reader to understand why the report was compiled. This puts the problem into context.

Interpret and analyze research and data that are used to support the recommendations of the report. Subheadings are helpful here to guide the reader through all of the information. If you decide to insert a figure such as a chart or graph to visually represent information, make sure you name your figure and explain what it is showing.

Without giving any new information, simply summarize the findings from the discussion section. You have already explained the implications in the discussion section, so this is a summary. Clarity is key!

Now that you have presented data to support any recommendations you may have, present them in a clear way, such as a bulleted list. They should be command statements so the organization can potentially use your recommendations.

You may have additional items that were referenced in the text that you need extra space to expand on. This can include surveys, interview transcripts, and even photos useful for the report. Use the appendix for this information.

All sources throughout the document should be in APA format, and given a proper citation on the reference page so the reader can do addition information if necessary

Depending on your specific task or topic, you may add or take away some sections. Formats for business reports are flexible, but having a basic outline helps you to hit all important areas. And remember, above all else, be clear and be concise.

Surviving as a Communicator in the Era of “Fake News”

With many people getting information about the world from their social media pages, it is essential that communicators are conscious of current skepticism surrounding facts. On national platforms, lies have been called “alternative facts” and the truth has been shut down as “fake”. Even the National Communication Association spoke out on the importance of preserving free and responsible communication. Here are some tips to stay grounded in the era of “fake news”:

  1. Always Cite, and Actively Look For Reliable Sources
    In your own writing, make sure you always correctly cite sources from which you receive information. Your readers will appreciate seeing exactly where facts and figures come from. Similarly, as you research, look for articles that cite credible, reputable sources. Just because you have not heard of a source does not mean it isn’t reliable, either.
  2. Use a Fact Checking Service 
    If you are skeptical of something that you read, put the information up against a fact checking website. Find a service that is nonpartisan that will independently evaluate a news story against documented facts. Two popular services include Politifact and Fact Check.
  3. Avoid Inflammatory Words in Your Writing
    When you feel passionate about a topic, it is easy to let your emotions out in your writing. Be careful with this; dramatic adjectives or flamboyant language can make proven facts seem fake and biased.Earlier this year, representatives disagreed on whether or not to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics. PBS reported on this with the headline “House Republicans reverse their plans to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics”. Using a word like “eviscerate” instead of “end”, “eliminate”, or “discontinue” puts much more emotion into the topic, sensationalizing the entire issue.
  4. Research Content From the Article, Not Just the Headline
    In order to generate traffic and viewership, many websites create links to their pages with enticing language. An article with a suspenseful title that teases readers into clicking can often be misleading. This “Click Bait” is typically not from credible news sources, but since it contains sensationalized stories, they become more popular than stories containing facts. The number of views and shares on a story and the order in which it appears on a Google search does not necessarily mean it is trustworthy. In 2011, The Department of Justice was attacked by many news sources for apparently providing muffins at conferences that cost $16 each. The Atlantic reported this skewed story with the headline “$16 for a Muffin?! which got plenty of shares and attention. People were outraged after reading this headline and immediately agreed that this was an example of wasteful government spending. It turns out, the muffins weren’t really $16 each. They were part of a continental breakfast, and the $16 price tag covered a spread of breakfast items, tax, and gratuity.
  5. Subscribe to a Variety of Sources
    If you only receive news from one media outlet that has a bias, you likely will only see content the aligns with that narrative or ideology. It is important to cross reference sources rather than follow one specific source. AllSides is a media source that detects polarization in news articles, and applies a ranking from its spectrum of biases so readers are aware of subtle biased angles.

Whether you are reading the morning newspaper or doing research for a class assignment, it is important to be cautious of the information that you come across. Be aware that bias exists and some sources are not as responsible as others. By taking a few extra steps to verify data, you can become part of the solution to our nation’s problem of “fake news”.


Public Apologies: Redemption or More Bad PR?

Admitting that you did something wrong is not always easy, especially when the reputation of a company or public figure is on the line. Communicators need to be constantly ready to handle bad PR in a careful, efficient way. The past week (April 9-16, 2017) was full of public blunders, so I decided to grade a few of the responses that followed them.

  1. United Airlines
    After a video went viral of a passenger being dragged off of a United Airlines flight, the internet was in disbelief. Photos then surfaced of the victim with a bloody face, and different versions of the story emerged. Some said this happened just because the flight was overbooked, others said the passenger was unruly, and some even claimed this was because he was a minority. But consumers didn’t care to know the exact policy or factual scenario. All they saw was a forceful removal of a passenger from a plane. United was barely done explaining a miscommunication in the media where two female passengers were not allowed to board a plane wearing leggings when it had to respond to this incident.

    Response Grade: C
    United apologized for needing to “re-accommodate” customers, but the public thought that word didn’t begin to cover what the video showed. Their CEO Oscar Munoz managed to make a more authentic response on television, recalling the shame he felt when learning of the incident. Emotion was apparent in his voice as he promised this would never happen again on his airline. Sadly, this response wasn’t very immediate, and many people got caught up on the callous original statement. For someone recently named Communicator of the Year by PR Week, Munoz should’ve known better.
  2. Pepsi
    The latest Pepsi ad campaign features Kendall Jenner moving through a crowd of protesters to offer a police officer a can of the beverage. He accepts, takes a drink, and the diverse crowd cheers. 2017 has already been a year full of protests on emotionally, racially, and politically charged messages, but the scenes on the news looked nothing like this commercial. Critics said Pepsi was taking a serious subject and making a mockery of it.

    Response Grade: B+
    Pepsi released this statement following the incident: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.” Although not the most genuine sounding, Pepsi pulled the advertisement swiftly and was soon out of the news cycle. Certain polls actually showed that people had a favorable view of Pepsi following the ad. The damage to their reputation shouldn’t be permanent.
  3. Sean Spicer
    The current White House press secretary has a tough job explaining and defending statements from Donald Trump that often cross the line. Last week, he crossed the line himself with his statements on the Holocaust. After reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used a chemical gas on his own people, Spicer said, “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” The World War II blunders continued, as Spicer attempted to distinguish Hitler’s gas chambers with Assad’s chemical weapons, referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers”. Needless to say, many were not happy about this disregard for history.

    Response Grade: C-
    This is not the first time the Donald Trump administration and Sean Spicer have come under fire for inappropriate and insensitive comments. The White House’s first response was to try to explain the comments further, trying to make clarification where an apology was desperately needed. Spicer himself said, “I made a mistake; there’s no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have, and I screwed up. It really is painful to myself to know that I did something like that.” Careless comments about the Holocaust is not something taken lightly. Although Spicer seemed genuine, his office has a track record of mixing up important historical figures and events. An apology is not worth much if the behavior keeps happening.

Small missteps can come with a large price for public figures. Communicators need to be especially careful when crafting their apologies, or they risk ruining their reputation forever.

How to Tell Your Tale: Writing your Story for a Grant Proposal

Before You Start

In order to capture the attention of grant makers you need to tell a story that tugs at their emotional side. There are three tips to tell a successful story: 1) tell a story within a story, 2) every story needs a protagonist, 3) show you audience what the future could look like.

Your Story Template

A quick and easy tip to make sure you haven’t left out any important part is to follow this template: Tell how you connect personally with the cause (your story)-> tell about the current conditions of the issue your trying to get funding for->tell what has to happen to fix the current conditions->state how you can fix the problem->end with telling people how they can help… “the ask.” Now, I’ll show you how to use this in a real example. Say you are asking for funding to get after-school programs in your area for troubled youth. Here’s how to fit that in the template above: Tell how you personally connect with this issue->tell about the problems children are going through->state what kinds of things help people in this situation->explain the solution of after-school programs->tell your audience that funding is needed in order to help children lead safer, fuller, happier lives.

What is and What Could be

It is necessary that while writing your grant proposal story you create an outline of “what is” and “what could be.” This helps your audience realize what the status quo is, and why it needs to change. It evokes an emotional response, which is what you want because response means action.

How to do it

Take the example from above; a grant proposal to get funding for after-school programs for troubled youth. Here’s how you could outline your ideas with the ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ theory: What is…Children with behavioral problems inside and outside of school, such as; poor schoolwork, school absences, irritability, and aggressiveness. What could be…Emotionally supportive environment for these children to help lessen these problems. What is…families that do not know how to deal with the child and their behavioral issues. What could be…Meetings at the end of every month with the parents to educate them on what they could do at home for their child’s emotional needs when not at the program. The blissful ending…Give children fuller, happier lives. These are only a few of the examples of ‘what is’ and what could be.’ You can make your list longer and then incorporate them into your story.

The Protagonist vs. Antagonist   

Any good story has a good guy and a bad guy. People crave to see good overcome evil, because the antagonist gives the audience one shared goal to work to overcome together. So, let’s take the example above and find the protagonist and the antagonist to incorporate into the story. The protagonist, or good, is the after-school program and happy children from it. The antagonist, or bad, is the issues these children are facing. So, by showing this the audience can decide to take action against the bad in the story.

The Ask

Be straightforward with your audience. You need to give them concrete numbers for how much money you are looking for and what it will break down to cover. Do not go around the issue if you feel uncomfortable asking for money. By putting a dollar amount to ask it allows your audience and grant makers to outline what it will be used for and is evidence for how you will address the issue at hand. Here’s an example for the ask for a grant maker:

“I estimate my need to get this project up and running for one year to be about 51,000 dollars. This would cover the cost of four one-hour after school programs at two elementary schools and two middle schools. Included in this is the cost to provide one mental health counselor at each program. Also, included in this is one-week’s worth of summer training for the other volunteers of this program. Additionally, it would cover books, crafts, toys, and snacks for each program. Lastly, it would provide one start of the year education program for teachers, staff, and faculty to get acquainted with the new program and know how to manage these children in their own classrooms. It is my hope to raise 20,000 dollars through other funders, so I am asking you to consider covering the remaining 31,000 dollars. I greatly look forward to hearing from you and in the meantime would love if you could send application guidelines or any other information that could be of use.”

After the Story

If you feel comfortable enough you can take your story and turn it into a video to use on other funding websites. You can take all of this information and pair it with visuals and statistics so that you are able to target both an audience’s emotional appeal and logical appeal. Since a video can be easily shared among social networking sites, although it may not reach the right audience first, it can make it to them at some point.