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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Local Pages Good News For Writers, And for Web Writing, Too
by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

Years ago, my hand trembled with anxiety when it delivered a press release to the editor of my local newspaper. (Today, Iíd e-mail or fax it.)

If Iíd known the role this publication would eventually play in the progress of my writing career, I might have had more confidence. Had I glimpsed then the possibilities of the Internet, Iíd have seen what great preparation newspaper writing can also be for publishing online.

Iím eternally indebted to the friend who freelanced for that paper, who called one day too sick to get out of bed. She had a looming deadline, and had convinced the editor to let me cover it for her. Back then, Iíd published work occasionally in places no one had ever heard of. A three-day deadline seemed terrifying, but what did I have to lose?

Lesson number one in what became a newspaper-writing career: Be well-prepared to work as efficiently as possible on tight deadlines. It can ultimately make you a better writer, because nothing forces you to organize -- and prioritize -- like a do-or-die deadline.

I called to arrange the interview and poured over every scrap of background my friend had about her source. I knew nothing about the soft-drink bottling business, but the owner happily educated me about the company his family nurtured for three generations.

Thatís when I discovered that writing about what you know is good, but having writing skills means you can also be the eyes and ears that help readers learn. After all, many of them donít know about the subject, either.

My interview source blessed me with great storytelling and stellar quotes. When it came time to write the story, the rapid turnaround of newspaper work forced me to do what has never failed me since: Keep the writing succinct and within requested word count; make it clear and accurate; and keep the tone conversational, even friendly.

With a short deadline, I used another approach thatís become standard practice. Upon arriving home, I immediately drafted whatever I could remember from the interview in rough form, looking for places where things linked naturally, or transitions were obvious. Hundreds of articles later, I seldom include much more than what I capture in these "first thoughts," even when faced with tapes of complex interviews. This is where I usually "discover" the lead, if I havenít already heard it during the interview, and often intuition on how the story will wrap.

After I submitted that first story, the editor called two days later to alert me to the lucrative prospects of freelancing for newspapers: Show you can do the job, make yourself available, and there may be a nearly inexhaustible supply of story ideas for you to take on assignment. The editor offered three in this first call.

Eventually, the stories I wrote grew out of my own ideas, which are a writerís currency, and a lifeline to future work. Although I was a features writer, I watched the success reporters had making friends on their beats and cultivated similar friendships in the community. As my writing ranges wider today, I build this kind of network worldwide via the Internet.

One newspaper assignment always led to another, and kept me well-stocked with ideas that often found their way into successful magazine queries and article resales in both print and online markets. In fact, the demand for tighter writing and subheads makes manuscripts I create for newspapers more marketable to electronic publications. Many of the stories I publish online, with some input from local sources, are also easily retooled to meet the newspaperís endless need for features.

Newspaper writing doesnít pay as well as other markets, but the paychecks arrive within a week or so of publication, and Iíve never had to chase them down. Also, because Iíve worked for a newspaper group that produces several publications, different editors contact me with assignments after they see a piece I wrote for one of their co-workers.

I now know a good bit more about life on their side of the desk, because freelancing eventually led me to an eight-year newspaper editing and writing stint. I moved (quickly) from in-house staff writer to copy editor to features editor -- the same desk to which I had delivered my soft-drink story.

That distress call from my friend got me moving on what I could have done myself without waiting for an invitation. Equipped with clips I already had, I could have approached that editor (in appropriate fashion Ė by query or phone call to set up an appointment) to let him know I was available to take freelance assignments. Even without clips, a carefully crafted manuscript sample or two, along with at least one compelling story idea that showed I read the paper and knew my community, would have gotten me in the door.

It also helped to learn that editorís schedule, to insure I never call at a bad time -- or if I do, Iíve done my homework and found a time-driven idea too good to miss, and learned to keep it brief, focused, and interesting as I pitch it  -- just like the best newspaper and Internet writing.

Mother of two Phyllis Edgerly Ring is a parenting columnist for several magazines and an instructor with the Long Ridge Writers Group. Her articles have appeared this year in American Profile, Christian Science Monitor, Liguorian, Mamm, and Pregnancy magazines. She invites parents to contribute thoughts for a book she is writing about gender equality in the family. For more information visit www.phyllisring.com.









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