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Trade Away Your Starvation
By Torrey Meeks
January, 2007, 07:50

Why be a starving writer when there are trade magazines wanting your words?
Making it as a writer isn't easy. Starting out is even harder. For any frustrated beginning freelancer who's spent hours sifting through online job boards with a fine tooth comb only to come up with a handful of moth-eaten prospects such as, "100 articles needed in five days; $2/piece," or "20 well-researched original 500-word articles for new website. Can't pay now but great exposure!" there's got to be a better way.

There's good news. You can do better. Much better. It's all a matter of where you look. That means don't go chasing after that ghostwriting job that requires an established writer on MediaBistro.com. Don't spend two days crafting the perfect query letter for your favourite high-profile glossy consumer magazine, salivating over the dollar-per-word price tag. Yes, hope springs eternal, but it dries up mighty fast after the initial gush. These all-or-nothing strategies are a sure way to sabotage your early enthusiasm by stacking up some hard and fast rejection letters.

Here's a better approach: Write for trade magazines. Any trade, every trade. Pick up a Writer's Market and flip through it. There's an entire section devoted to these magazines.

What is a trade magazine? It's a publication hand tailored to address concerns of the men and women who work at a given profession. And since there are hundreds of professions in the world there are hundreds of trade magazines. Piloting, car racing, car making, baking, manufacturing, architecture, interior design, education, politics, filmmaking these are just the tip of the iceberg. I haven't found it yet, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled for the Underwater Basket Weaving Review.

But seriously. If you're a frustrated beginner, stymied by where to start, staring down the barrel of starvation after taking that leap of faith in search of your dream, now's the time to buckle down and get some ink on your fingers.

I can hear you asking why you'll have better luck with a trade magazine than a mainstream consumer magazine, and the answer is pretty simple. Sheer volume.

Competition isn't nearly as fierce in the trade market. For the same reason you haven't written for Hard Timber Hauling Magazine yet, the majority of other writers in your shoes aren't volunteering either. No, it's not as sexy as saying you write for GQ or Vanity Fair, but it does pay the bills. That makes you a writer.

Let's say you take my advice and get into trade magazines. You could be commanding up to $0.25 a word after three months. In order to make $1,700 a month, more than enough to meet basic needs depending where you live, you'd have to write 6,800 words every thirty days. Taking in to account that a full-length feature for an established trade magazine can easily range between 1,500-2,000 words, you're looking at four or five articles a month. That is incredibly doable.

There's no such thing as a sure thing in writing. Even if you do decide to go the trade magazine route, there's no guarantee you won't earn your share of rejection letters.

However, if you do your homework those rejections are likely to be rare. In the meantime, you'll get paid while learning invaluable skills such as how to avoid journalistic faux pas, how to form good rapport with editors, how to get over your artistic pretensions and let a more knowledgeable hand slice and dice your work, how to write follow-up queries at a hard won publication, and more.

Still think I'm trying to pull a fast one on you? When I started freelancing a year ago, I had no college education, no previous journalism experience, and no contacts. Three weeks after I quit my job, I landed an assignment at a prestigious business publication thanks to a well-crafted query letter. Then I turned that one assignment into a string of new stories over the next eight months.

It wasn't all downhill after that though. After turning in my second assignment for the business publication, I was told the draft was, "unpublishable."

That's why you have to go into it expecting to be at the bottom of a great big ladder you want to climb. There's a hell of a learning curve, and you need to keep in mind that it gets better, easier, and more enjoyable the longer you do it.

With my unpublishable story, instead of admitting defeat or responding like a prima donna, I did my damndest to give that editor a solid re-write and higher quality work in the future. I asked questions and earnestly requested detailed feedback about where I'd gone wrong. And I got it. Not only that, I was given another shot with a third article. Today I greatly value that editor's frank assessment. It made me a better writer in the long run, and today I'm still banking checks.

So when you set out to write for the trades, keep a decent dose of humility on hand and realize that though it won't be easy, it's good publishing experience that pays. So what are you waiting for? Start writing those queries!

Still at a loss? Come back next month and I'll show you how to craft the perfect query letter to land that first trade magazine gig.
 
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Torrey Meeks is a full-time freelance writer for a variety of trade and consumer publications. After a stint in the US Army as a combat medic, he traveled around the country holding a motley handful of jobs. He has been a long-haul trucker, stone mason, waiter, and pizza slinger. Contact Torrey at torrey-dot-meeks-at-gmail-dot-com.


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