Thursday, May 26, 2005

Writing for Money temporarily out of order

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Keeping this particular blog going has proven to be more of a chore than I anticipated and I apologize to my small band of loyal readers who are using me as a resource. My two other blogs, plus a consulting job writing for money, are keeping me from developing this as it deserves.

For the next few weeks, this site will remain unchanged, but will return with a series of new features (and hopefully new links) around mid-June.

At least that's the plan right now, and I'm stickin' to it.

Writers! Start your computers.

And like the guvenator of California says in his bad movies, I'll be back.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Scan those newspapers for writing ideas

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Just as I was donning my IPod, running shoes and ball cap for my three-mile, sweat-inducing, heart-pounding run along the river, I saw this story in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Yoga story

  • Lift and stretch. Lift and stretch.

    If you read my other blog, From Where I Sit, these first few graphs sound familiar. They should.
  • From Where I sit

  • But what struck me about the story, besides the photo that caught my eye, (you have to go to From Where I Sit to see it, or click on Yoga Story above) was the possibility for an Op-Ed or column about yoga, prudishness in people, or the simple fact that naked yoga classes are popular, but perhaps not in the Iowa.

    Every day I scan the newspapers, newswires, and yes, even blogs for ideas for stories for one of my paying jobs, and also for possible Op-Ed pieces.

    And even if you don't have a market for a good 500-650 word piece about, say, Naked Yoga, write it anyway. It's good mental exercise, limbers your fingers and creates writing samples. And if you don't have a market, create an email list of friends who are kind enough to read your work and kind enough to not tell you if they don't.

    More on self-syndication in another blog.

    Sunday, May 22, 2005

    Writing the travel piece, just for the writing

    MICHOACAN, Mexico - Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle (and its online version) had a wonderful piece about a stretch of Mexican coastline between Manzanillo on the north and Zihuatenejo on the south.
  • A Mexican paradise

  • I know the stretch, having sailed along the 200 or so miles in my 48-foot boat. The coastline isn't good for boating, not much in the way of anchorages. But if the travel piece is any indication, I need to go back, by car or bus, and check it out. It sounds like paradise.

    Travel writing is a tough thing to break into - at least to get paid for. But if you want to get any kind of shot at it, start writing short pieces about places you travel to, even if you just post them blog-style. It will get you where you need to be to take on a travel assignment. And you will have clips, maybe lots of clips, by the time you get started. And it will teach you that every place is interesting enough to write about - even those towns in Iowa I make fun of all the time.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR TODAY - This past weekend there were lots of graduation speeches at colleges and in a few weeks, there will be tons more at every high school in America. Check your local high school and find out if anyone famous is going to speak. And if not, consider a funny column about if, say, Warren Beatty spoke at your local high school's graduation. Or Ward Churchill. Or Snoop Dogg? Or anybody your can image. (Reese Witherspoon would be my choice.) What would they tell the graduates? What would you want them to tell the graduates?

    Saturday, May 21, 2005

    Write a self-help book, don't buy one

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - I wandered the aisles of Tower Books in Sacramento Friday, looking at incredible variety of books for sale. And in my hand, I found several 'how-to-write' books which, at least in the bookstore, seemed soooo bloody important I almost bought them (about $25 each).

    But after a minute or two of more wandering by the magazines, I quickly put the books back, realizing that what I was about to do was spend the weekend reading books telling me about writing, instead of, well, writing!

    Now before I get thumped on quite thoroughly by my colleague Marcia in England, I'll be quick to add that some books, like Stephen King's 'On Writing,' have been a big help to me. But the '20-ways-to-sell-magazine-article' tomes are probably not that useful, unless you are brand new.

    Think about writing a self-help writing article based on your experiences. I'll read it.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR TODAY - The American Atheists Association is having its convention in San Francisco this weekend, and their beliefs are...well, what are their beliefs? The fact that they even exist in this Christian culture is a tribute to freedom of religion. The Op-Ed? Find your local group or even an avowed atheist who can talk about what it's like to be a non-believer in a nation of believers. Lots of possibilities for angles: should an atheist hold public office? Be a school teacher, etc...

    Friday, May 20, 2005

    Speedy typing = speedy writing = speedy $$$

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - My students all groan when I tell them a maxim of writing for money - you have to be able to type like a demon. Now there are people who disagree with this, but those are generally novelists, perhaps, or poets, or people writing blogs (not!) who want to ponder more, who want to get just the right word.

    And I certainly write like that, but rarely.

    When people ask me 'How fast can you write?' I usually reply, 'Oh, about 60-70 words per minute - as fast as I can type.'

    If you are writing for money, your time is valuable, it's one of your few resources and it's obviously limited. If you have a 500-word article, for which you are going to get paid $300 (a fairly common number, depending on complexity of the piece) then you don't want to spend more than 10 hours on it - maximum. (For the mathematically challenged, that's $30 per hour, a reasonable fee, though not high.)

    So if you can bang out an article in a couple of hours, and spend a couple before that collecting your information, doing interviews, etc., you should be in good shape.

    But one danger to watch out for. If you have just one assignment, with a due date of a week away, DO NOT let time expand on you in researching and writing, unless of course it is leading you to other possible stories for future assignments.

    Write like a demon and take the leftover time (when you would have dawdled) to pursue other paying pieces, get some exercise, or some other activity.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR TODAY - TV's prime time season is over and unless your cable channels are better than mine, the pickings are pretty sparse for stuff to watch right now. So an op-ed about what to do when you turn off the TV is ripe, and especially tied to the upcoming summer months and those vegetable kids who want to sit and watch South Park reruns. Use lots of examples: parks, libraries, organized activities. But give things for adults to do in the evening, too. Maybe get some testimony from a doctor about the benefits of taking a walk after dinner (and three martinis)

    Thursday, May 19, 2005

    Email interviews - no longer taboo? Well...

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. Ambrosia Cafe - Today was a backgrounding and researching day, a time most freelance writers abhor because they don't get paid for it. But in my case, because of the deal I cut, I get a certain amount of latitude in this regard - and I am taking it.

    And in a backgrounding and researching conversation over tea, I learned from a veteran PR person that she frequently gets requests for email interviews now, but only grants them to people who she knows well. Put me in that category after our tea. But as a timesaver, email questions (and responses) are fantastic. And even better, you can pull the quotes directly and there's little chance your source will ever come back and bite your ankles and say - 'Hey! I didn't say that.'

    But this is precisely why some sources might prefer the telephone to answer questions. Tape record the conversation, you say? Not in California, unless you tell the person you are taping them. I don't know if it's a misdemeanor or a felony, but you can get in hot water.

    Other states have the same law. Ask Linda Tripp about it if you see her at some day spa.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR TODAY - In San Francisco, today is 'Biking to Work Day,' a celebration of the two-wheel contrivance that many urban dwellers prefer to the automobile. The Op-Ed would be to use the SF event as a springboard for looking at biking to work in your community, and what the benefits (no gasoline costs) and drawbacks (getting hit by a school bus) would be. Lots of easy sources and lots of statistics and any bike shop owner in town would love to talk about it. Plus, you could email the national bike associations and do an interview.

    The link for the San Francisco Chronicle story about 'Biking to Work Day':
  • Bike To Work
  • Wednesday, May 18, 2005

    Surviving tough stories, and just dumb luck

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - After the stories I wrote in the last two days, a piece about a lawsuit to block an initiative would seem to be a piece of cake. But there's word you should never use when referencing any writing. I do so here, very advisedly, to make the point.

    The word? Easy.

    Every time I say that word, the whole thing goes to hell so fast I can't focus. So in an hour or so, when the attorneys make their way into their offices with their lattes, I will call to check, doublecheck and then call back again to write a 300-word lawsuit story that has to be bulletproof and be full of case citings.

    The budget story I labored over for hours yesterday passed muster and my learning curve was straight up before it was over, a wild ride that gave me that tinge of a headache you get from reading the agate type in the sports section. But the best part was stumbling onto a news nugget in casual conversation with one of the sources - something I had missed entirely about costs going up for poor people. And it was a scoop - something no other news organization seems to have spotted. I can be smug in the next few weeks when they do and write stories.

    The dumb luck is because I had finished the piece and was just doublechecking a couple of minor facts when I found out the major policy shift had been approved (but not announced) and so my lukewarm story turned hot, and my new editors were likely impressed with my journalistic tenacity.

    In other words, I fell into it. Pretty easy.


    OP-ED OF THE DAY - Congress is looking into nuclear power again. I know, I know... But considering what happened in the past (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl) a recap with the costs we're are still paying for the nuclear power experiments of the 60s and 70s would be interesting. These will meet with some resistance for placement from newspaper editors. The old editors still aren't convinced nuclear power was a problem and the young ones don't have a clue what you might be talking about. But just focus on the cost factors: how much are paying now to clean up the plants - and to store all that nuclear waste. It's a lot, amigos.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2005

    Write what you know, or find good experts

    The old adage 'write what you know' is very true. There's nothing like trying to write something fact-based without the facts. Worse, writing a fact-based piece without understanding the facts enough to explain them to someone.

    Take the California state budget - please! (That's a variation of an old vaudeville line, uttered by countless numbers of stage comedians 'Take my wife - please.')

    I have written hundreds of budget stories in my journalistic life, so it seemed like doing a piece on one small corner of the California budget would be more of the same.


    The state budget is as complex as that of a small country. No, make that a large country. I think I would have been as comfortable writing about the budget of Bolivia or Venezuela. So after drafting the piece, I did what all writers should do when the article is technical like this - I asked a knowledgeable colleague to take look at it before I sent it to the editors. It's a strategy I pound into the heads of my students at the university: Have someone read your work before you turn it in. The whole idea is producing good work, publishable work.

    And the experts? I find that there are plenty of people to talk with you about things like budgets and policies and schools and, and, and... The people (or programs) about whom you are writing want you to be accurate.

    But it is painful to get there sometimes.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR THE DAY - The California Nurses Association has been traveling around the nation talking about how it was able to get the staffing level changed at California hospitals - something nurses around the country are very interested in. Many states have unionized nurses but it seems like the CNA is trying to make a national union - which would have a LOT more clout. The reaction has been negative from hospitals (no duh!) but an op-ed could look at other national models, AFL-CIO, etc. from the past and how they were formed to solve specific problems (regardless of what you think about unions today).

    Monday, May 16, 2005

    Paying the price for a really rookie error

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Maybe I been running too much and think I'm suddenly 30 again, but I made a rookie error Friday that made Sunday (and today) into a writing nightmare.

    I attended a hearing (about which editors are waiting right now for a story) but left before it was over, naively (hence the rookie error) thinking I could talk with the big kahunas running it later in the day to get the policy implications and outcome. Then I went to the event in which the governor unveiled his budget revisions and I thought I understood what I needed to write and had the information (rookie error two, it seems). But the big kahunas disappeared Friday afternoon leaving a whole in my story the size of Crater Lake. And the budget, Jaysus, I can't even talk about it...

    So this morning I'm waiting for the various folks to show up at their offices so I can quiz them, pound out the 500 or so words for each story and get my butt downtown to the courthouse for a trial, the basis for a third story (due Wednesday). It's all pretty standard reporting stress, but I got just a little too comfortable with that press pass hanging around my neck, forgetting that whenever you write, you stick your neck waaaay out there.

    What hurts most is I know better - and even teach my students not to do what I did Friday. Another story for the classroom this fall, I suppose.

    (Originally posted on From Where I Sit)

    OP-ED IDEA OF THE DAY - In Rohnert Park, Calif. a girls rugby match got out of control in melee of parents, referees and eventually police. As we enter Little League summer, an op-ed about local problems in the past, coupled with what sports entities are doing might be very interesting column material.

    Here's the link to the story about Rohnert Park:
  • Rohnert Park brawl
  • Friday, May 13, 2005

    Use a tape recorder, don't take a chance

    SACRAMENTO - I have preached to a generation of students - never use a tape recorder because when you need it most it will fail. I have tons of anecdotal evidence to back up my point.

    But now, I'm about to use a recorder, digital to be sure, but a recorder.

    What changed my mind? Sitting in a room full of journalists who all have recorders of one kind or another whose quotes will be exactly what was said, not a sort-of, 'the gist of it all,' that was the standard for years. No, you go to hear the governor speak and you better have exactly what he said, and not be off by a pronoun. Or think about a hearing where you are there with a gaggle of reporters - all of whom have fancy recorders and are getting every word. Of course part of my lecture about not using recorders is so obvious when I attend big events - these folks take only the most sketchy notes and have to listen to the entire meeting, speech or press conference again to write their stories.

    But that is another story.

    OP-ED for the day - How about that Mayor of Spokane, Washington? A straight, anti-gay Republican turns out to be, well, gay. So, where does this work into an op-ed? Lots of possibilities, many of which deal with public officials and their secrets. How about an op-ed about the lack of privacy our public officials have now? How about adding in the new chips that people are implanting in animals? Or the chips that are going into cell phones so people can see where you are all the time? Check the Federal Trade Commission and see what it thinks about privacy regulations on new technologies. HINT: Not much.

    Thursday, May 12, 2005

    Check your sources, editors are watching

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Make sure your sources are correct - and will back up what you print. The Ethics Police are waiting in media grass to pull you over for any infractions.

    In my personal blog, I wrote this morning about a columnist at the Sacramento Bee newspaper who was sacked for allegedly making up some people she featured in her column. Did she do it? Doesn't matter.

    But what does matter, writers, is that you make sure your sources are locked down tight because if you write for the print media, people (editors) care about this kind of thing. If you are involved in broadcast, the rules are a little looser.

    I keep several notebooks with sources lists and dates of contact and all the stuff most of you do, too. But I also keep my notes from interviews for a long time - sometimes years - because I don't want any crap to rain down on me for some petty detail someone takes issue with.

    And, as much as I hate the damn things, I think I'm going to start taperecording my interviews.

    OP-ED IDEA FOR TODAY - The United Airlines pension scandal is hitting all the front pages, but there a literally thousands of small pension funds that might be in trouble, more due to fiscal mismanagement than anything else. Find a person whose retirement income might be threatened (make sure they exist, please!) and use them as the lead-in to talking about the larger problem of their pension fund. This will require some backgrounding on defined benefit plans and how they work. But after all, you're going to retire someday aren't you?

    For the blog about the Sacramento Bee columnist, see:

  • Michael's Blog
  • Wednesday, May 11, 2005

    The ads are up and the money is, well?

    The program is called ADSENSE, a part of Google and after six months of blogging, I've decided to dip my toe in that water. It's simple to do, just go to
  • Google Ad Sense
  • where you get walked through the process.

    How much money do you make? Probably pretty pathetic, but you can start talking to your writing buddies about 'revenue streams, page impressions versus click-thrus' and all kinds of nonsensical crap that has very little to do with writing.

    Here's a site I discovered that has almost up-to-date information about other web money-making outfits (through having ads where you have your writing).

  • Make Some Money

  • I haven't explored it fully, but if anyone suddenly starts getting checks from these other sources, PLEASE email me and I'll post it.

    TODAY'S OP-ED IDEA - In San Francisco, a law prohibiting 'prejudicial language' has been passed. Jaysus. They say it will not interfere with anyone's first amendment rights. Well, we know that's not true. But as an OP-ED, it has great possibilities. It can be tied in to the speech codes universities have instituted (and generally regretted after the lawsuits were filed.

    Here's the story:
  • SF Gate story
  • Tuesday, May 10, 2005

    The brave new world of 500-word stories

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - When I was in college (the first time) we had to write in those horrid Blue Books, which a few of my more Neandertal teaching colleagues still use to torture students.

    But the trick we learned at Villanova was to write as fast as we could - volume mattered, not a well-crafted essay.

    For writers today, forget that crap. Magazines and newspapers (and especially web publications) DEMAND precision and short pieces. And as any good writer will tell you, it's a lot harder to write a short piece than a long one.

    For one of my jobs, I have to condense a very complicated legal situation into a 400-word story right now. Most of the newspapers who wrote about it, did so in a minimum of 1,000 words, and they didn't touch some of the points I'm going to have to.

    Lean and mean? Lean anyway.

    - The Associated Press carried a story yesterday about a couple who were cited by the police for letting their chicken cross the road. If that doesn't strike a chord, thing of any law you have that seems overly restrictive (no honking when you see the signs 'Honk for Jesus,' for example) and take a riff on it. Newspaper op-ed editors find such columns (500-600 words, MAX) irresistible.

    Monday, May 09, 2005

    Stem cells, lawsuits, bond issues, oh my!

    STATE CAPITOL - Writing for Money took me to downtown Sacramento today to cover a commission hearing about whether to have the state start selling bonds to fund stem cell research.

    From a writer's standpoint, there was everything there: big money, big science, people who have victimized by diseases, politics, and gaggle of media from all over, all focused on one or two things. I pulled out a dozen good freelance ideas beyond the legal issues I will write about for the Bureau of National Affairs, one is that stem cell researchers have already been able to fix spinal cord injuries in small animals.

    Yup. Based on their research with the stem cells, they were able to get lab rats up and running around. Find the researcher and add in the $3 billion that Californians want to spend on it and you have quite a story.

    TODAY'S WRITING TIP - Get credentials to hang around your neck. Forget that 'I'm an anonymous writer schtick.' Let people know that you work for someone - even if that someone is just a buddy at a publication and says 'sure, use our name...' It will help give you credibility. Plus, other media types will help you out at any event you attend.

    Plus, there's always the free food that the press can get.

    TODAY'S OP-ED IDEA - Cell phones on airplanes, not just on the runway and when you land, but during the flight. Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a great piece on it, but with a little localization, or a first person piece, this would sell in most newspapers. Business magazines might be a good place for a piece, too. There, though, the column would be about how many business secrets you might give away yakking on a plane where your competition is sitting two rows away.

    Saturday, May 07, 2005

    New links today, one a Class of '66 alum

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Two new links are up today, one for a website that has tons of freelance resources, the other a friend, colleague, teacher and writer living in Britain who has her own blog and needs encouragement to write it more often.

    The resource site is:
  • Jobs, resources

  • Marcia Carlson Hein's site is:
  • Hocusopus - Marcia

  • TODAY'S MARKET TIP: My surveying of the markets in the past six months (as I've been cranking up my own freelance business) has convinced me that specialty newsletters and publications are probably where there is more action and more chances for $$$ than any traditional magazines. Every association, organization, non-profit seems to have newsletters - with paying subscribers. Look to them for stringing jobs.

    TODAY'S OP-ED IDEA: The debate over teaching creationism in Kansas (See the Washington Post story by Peter Slevin) seems like a winner for placing an op-ed in almost any newspaper market, which position you want to take. And it gives you a chance to talk about the Scopes Monkey Trial, William Jennings Bryant and maybe even throw in a Star Trek reference or two.

    Ladies and gentlemen, start your computers.

    Friday, May 06, 2005

    Writing for money blog is about, well...

    Blogging can get completely out of control - as in this is third of soon-to-be four blogs I am putting together.

    But as I've written about elsewhere, this blogsphere is the future (and maybe the present).

    What I will be posting here are writing tips, notices of jobs, anything that writers might find of interest, particularly those writers who are interested in note just sounding off, by actually get some money for their efforts.

    There will be links, too, like:

  • Writer's Weekly
  • Writers Bloc newsletter

  • And yes, you will eventually see some ads on this page.

    It is, after all, called 'Writing for money.'