How to Evaluate Story Ideas in Journalism

By Kristy Horine

I sat at the back table of the women’s ministry organizational meeting. The Christian in me focused on loving my sisters. The writer in me did a constant sweep for story.

And there it was, at the very end of the meeting. A prayer request for a young woman named Morgan who was going on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. She had worked so hard to raise funds. Had even learned how to sew to do it.

My story radar pinged and pinged hard.

After the meeting, I approached Morgan and gathered a little more information. “Would you mind if I pitched the idea of writing an article about your mission trip to the local paper?”

After she assented, I made notes of all her contact information, promised to pitch it to the local editor in the morning, and made sure I could schedule a future interview to get more in-depth information if the editor accepted the pitch.

The next morning, I shot off an email in which I pitched a human interest story, with pictures, in 800 words or less. Within two hours I had a reply: Yes.

How did this work so easily? Because the story was appealing and fit in with the local paper’s flavor and audience.

But how do you make this work in your own writing life?

Pay attention.

  1. Pay attention to your local newspaper. Read the headlines. Look at the photos.

There are typically two kinds of newspapers left in the world: the large syndicated rags, and the small, hometown papers. I’ll be really honest here, larger papers are not so inclined to take freelance writers, and they tend to hoard the good stories for their regular reporters. Most other stories they typically pull ‘off the wire’ in a news service that they pay for. That being said, there is no harm in asking. If you don’t ask, you won’t know, so pitch that story!

For smaller papers, if you don’t subscribe, then subscribe. Walk in to the office and let them see your face. Meet one of the editors or the publisher and ask if they are interested in articles from freelance writers. Again, no harm done in asking. Then, read the paper. All of the paper. Read the articles, the opinion pieces, the obituaries, the homemakers having a good time, the local churches having fish fry dinners, the advertisements, the sports stories even if your favorite sport is reading, and the classifieds. Know what they publish, and think about the audience who is reading what they publish.

  1. Pay attention to the story itself. Evaluate each story on the following attributes: Newsworthiness, Prominence, Timeliness, Proximity, Method, and Human Interest.

A Nose for News in Action

Let’s evaluate the above story about Morgan in terms of what newspapers generally look for in publishable articles.

Newsworthiness

To determine Newsworthiness, ask yourself a few questions: Does this matter? Will it inform how people make decisions?

The answers are yes, and yes. It matters to Morgan. It matters on an international scale. Morgan is a difference maker. That’s important. People make decisions about where and how they will spend their money and their time every single day. If no one knows about Morgan’s fund raising sewing endeavors, they might make an alternate decision about their money. In addition, people like to pray for other people. Give them something worthy to pray about.

Prominence

To determine Prominence, ask yourself a few questions: Who is this article about? Who will be impacted by reading this article?

Morgan is not a community celebrity like a politician might be, but her name and her family members are well known and well loved. That makes a difference. When thinking in terms of impact, the story itself is just inspiring, right? It can impact anyone who is within hearing/reading range of the story.

Timeliness

To determine Timeliness, ask yourself a few questions: Is this something that happened yesterday? Is it happening today? Will it happen tomorrow?

In Morgan’s case, I determined to pitch the idea, write the story and have it published well before her mission trip so that people who read her story would have time to decide if they wanted to help her by ordering a hand-sewn item. I could have waited until after her trip and included pictures of the trip itself. However, by publishing pre-event, this enabled the community to be more actively involved. Since news travels fast and dies fairly young, offering a fresh, timely piece is wise.

Proximity

To determine Proximity, ask yourself a few questions: Is this a local event/person/place? If this is foreign, is there a local connection?

Morgan lives in my home town. She just completed her freshman year at college in the next county over. Her mother is a school teacher at one of the local middle schools. Her grandmother lives here. Her sister lives here. Even though the mission trip was outside the US borders, the local connection is strong and interesting.

Method

To determine Method, ask yourself a few questions: Is this article about the same old same old? Is there a new flavor/spin/approach in this story?

When most people fund raise, they think bake sale, car wash, GoFundMe. It takes more time and gumption to learn a new skill that adds value to people’s lives, like sewing. That’s what worked with Morgan’s story. In addition to interviewing Morgan, I also interviewed her sewing mentor, Sue Ellen. Sue Ellen also works at the local middle school. By adding a broader sweep to the story, I increase the Proximity, the Prominence and the Newsworthiness. Bam! We have a Titus 2 operation going here. (Hmmm … sounds like an article I could pitch in a local Women’s Missionary Union magazine or website. Double duty for paying attention here.)

Human Interest

To determine Human Interest, ask yourself a few questions: Does this help me connect/reconnect with people? Will it help my readers stop and remember that people are more important than things?

In Morgan’s story, again the answer is yes to both questions. It is a touching story that can encourage and inspire.

And one more thing –

The local newspaper is a secular paper. Yes, the owners call themselves Christians, but a secular newspaper is a secular newspaper is a secular newspaper. As a journalist, no matter the print outlet, I must maintain unbiased journalistic integrity in my writing. I do not interject opinion. I do not use gushing adjectives. But what I can do is sincerely and honestly quote subjects who speak freely about Jesus, which both Morgan and Sue Ellen did.

Before I go into any story – whether it is a story I have found and am pitching, or if it is a story that the newspaper or magazine has assigned to me – I know my boundaries.

I determined long ago:

  • that I would tell the truth,
  • that I would not write a story celebrating sin,
  • that I would not put myself in a situation where I am alone with a male,
  • that I would not change a direct quote unless I had a paper trail of permissions,
  • that I would be teachable in terms of writing and editing, and
  • that I would obey God before ANY publisher or editor, no matter how much they offered to pay me.

The world needs journalists who understand there are things we just don’t compromise. That’s the best evaluation after all.

A week after Morgan’s story ran in the local newspaper, I received an email from the newspaper asking me to call a woman at a phone number. I called. She was from a different church close to our area. She wanted to have Morgan come and speak to her women’s group about the mission trip. Through the article, God opened a door for a kind and generous young woman to tell more of her story.

Click-to-Tweet: Pay attention. Evaluate. Pitch. See what God can do with the words He has created for you to use.

Writing Prompt: Your small town is holding a craft fair next summer. Several area crafters have gained national attention with their art. Brainstorm a human-interest story idea for the local newspaper.

Traditional vs. Indie Publishing

I am a multi-published author. I am under contract with a small, traditional press, Pix-N-Pens, the nonfiction arm of Write Integrity Press. I currently have one book I have authored, three I have co-authored, and am contracted to co-write four more under this line. I also have one indie published book and another that barely missed getting a contract with a large traditional publisher, but in the end, it too is in the process of being published independently. So, I have some first-hand knowledge and experience with both types of publishing which I will share.

Differences Between the Two: 

Traditional publishing means that the author does not pay for any of the costs of publishing his or her book. She has a contract with a publishing company allowing them to publish the book as she agrees to split royalties with that company. It is more difficult to get a book traditionally published because the publishing company is pretty selective in the books /authors they choose. They must believe that the book they agree to publish will sell enough for them to at least recoup the money they spent on the publishing process.

There are several types of traditional publishing companies: large press, small press, and boutique presses. Large press are companies like Thomas Nelson, Harper Collins, and such. Boutique presses are usually medium-sized presses that cater to a specific niche audience. Small presses are just that—small, but traditional in that they do not require any payment of any kind from the authors they publish. These also vary in types of publishing with small press most often using print-on-demand (POD) technology.

The most important thing about traditional presses is the wording of the contract an author is asked to sign. Read your contract carefully! They all differ in many ways, including how, when, and what percentage of the royalties they will pay their authors. But even more important than the royalties in my opinion, are the rights you as the author will keep or give up to the publisher.

The book I co-wrote that was a near miss for a large traditional publisher, got picked up by a Boutique publisher but their contract stated that they would own all rights to the book. This differed from what they had told us on the phone and had we not read the contract carefully, we might have signed our rights of ownership over to this company believing the contract was what they said it would be when we spoke with them. As it turned out, it was not a contract we could sign, and we walked away from that offer. By that time, we were tired of dealing with publishers and decided to move ahead with indie publishing of that book.

With Indie publishing, the author assumes all of the responsibility and costs of publishing her book. Because of this, any person can indie publish a book, but the quality of that book will vary greatly depending on how carefully the book has been written, edited, and packaged. If you choose the indie route, I have a few suggestions.

1) Write the best book you can and make it consistent in its word count with traditional books in the same genre. (For instance, my small press requires that nonfiction books be at least 40,000 words. When I see a nonfiction half that size, I almost instantly assume it was indie published by someone who did not know the market standards.)

2) Pay for a professional editor.

3) Pay for a professional cover.

Pros and Cons of Each: The pros of indie publishing are that the author has complete control of the writing and publishing project and he or she will also receive all royalties. The cons are that usually having more than one set of eyes on a book during the publishing process makes the finished product a better book, especially when some of the people working on it are professionals.

The pros of traditional publishing are that the book is usually a high-quality product because of the many people who worked on it and usually the market reach is larger. This is true even for small presses since most small presses do make marketing efforts and the book will reach a larger number of readers than if it’s all up to just the author. The cons are that the author makes less per book and has less control over the publishing process.

So, which do I recommend? It really differs from book to book. I am extremely happy with the small press for whom I write. But I am signed under its nonfiction arm so when I wrote my first novel, I decided to go the indie route and have been happy with that too.

In the case of my other indie book, I think it would have been nice if that large traditional publisher had not decided against publishing it after six months of considering it extensively, but I really don’t know since we didn’t go that route. It may not have been a good experience after all. What I do know, is that walking away from the faulty contract offered to us by the boutique publisher was absolutely the right thing for that book.

Why didn’t I just pitch it to my small press? Again, the reason for that lay in the book itself. It is different from the other nonfiction I write for that small press and I did not think it was a good fit for them. So, yeah, there really isn’t one “right” way to publish. Much depends on the circumstances you as an author are facing and even the content of the book itself.

Click to Tweet: Interested in becoming a published writer? Know your choices up front. Here’s a look at the different types of publishing by author, Harriet Michael via @InspiredPrompt.

Writing Prompt: Story Starter! Using the above picture for inspiration, start a story. Maybe it’s going to be a short story, flash fiction, or an epic novel. We want the first sentence. 🙂

Take Time to Look at the Past

Writing in the Historical Genre.

When I started writing it wasn’t hard for me to choose a genre.  As a young girl I loved reading Nancy Drew. Nancy was everything I wanted to be, smart, popular, and fearless. When I turned thirteen all that changed with a book I checked out from the bookmobile. It was called “The Distant Summer” by Sarah Patterson. Romance had taken hold of my page turning habits.  Boy meets girl just made my heart zing. In high school I found a new love, history. Putting my love of history together with romance just made my world complete.

My first novel is set during the American Revolution. With some help from a writing group; a brainstorming session created my hero and heroine. The historical facts took a bit longer. A lot of research goes into historical fiction writing.

There are many sources available to research a historic period. Books, the internet, libraries, and historical societies are all a wealth of information. This summer my husband and I went to Washington, D.C. for a short trip. About two hours south of that city in Virginia is  Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum. I fell in love with the place! Doing a research trip is totally worth it. I found so many interesting stories while doing my research. There are truly so many real characters who played instrumental roles in forging our country that adding  your interpretation of those historical characters to your novel can add a bit of authenticity.

Throw a dart at a map of our original thirteen colonies and land on a spot rich in history to use in your historical novel. You could choose any time period and do the same. Some of my favorite historical novels are not necessarily considered romantic. You can weave a historical tale without the romance. A character study of a type of historical figure like a spy during the American Revolution, or the Civil War, who happens to be a romantic is a great historical story.  The possibilities are endless.

I have learned through this writing journey to listen to the advice from those who have traveled this worn path. Save everything. Not that you need to become a hoarder mind you, but there may come a time when your historical facts need to be proved. Keeping track of your sources will make this less stressful. A notebook, or three ring binder for keeping documents and the ideas you’ve chicken-scratched on little bit of paper. I also keep a notebook on my nightstand, I can’t tell you how many times an idea will present itself while I lay in bed at night.

There is also a computer application called Scrivener which will allow you to keep all your sources, documents, notes, pictures, and your manuscript all in one place. It will even help you format your book. So, think about those days gone by, there just might a story there.

 

Take a page from the #past

 

Writing Prompt: You just found a diary in a dusty old trunk in your Grandmother’s attic. It tells a story of one of your long lost ancestors. Tell me about him/her and the time period they lived in.

Freelance Writing for Newspapers

by Shirley Crowder

newspaperRecently I was asked, “How did you get your articles published in a newspaper?” I laughed and said, “I read my Facebook (FB) comments.” I knew from the confused look on this man’s face that I should fill in more details. I continued, “I called an FB friend whose comment on one of my Christmas posts was, ‘Call me’ followed by his telephone number … I called!”

This friend, Harry Butler, coordinates writers for “Paper Pulpit” in the Faith section of  The Gadsden (Alabama) Times. He told me to expand one of my posts and email it to him. Why limit carols to Christmas? was published in the online and print editions in February 2014. My articles continue being published—when I have sense enough to write and send them!

Let’s look at some things I have learned about writing for newspapers. I hope some of these will spur you on to identify, investigate, and submit articles for publication in newspapers.

Aren’t Newspapers Obsolete?

Not at all! Newspapers today are not the same as they were when I grew up. In those days you had four main sources of news: television, radio, print newspapers, and news magazines. You couldn’t find the news any time of the night or day, you had to wait until the newscast came on, the newspaper was delivered, and for the magazine to hit the stands or your mailbox. Not so, now. You can go online and find news about events, places, and people all over the world, at any time of the night and day.

Don’t limit your scope.

When you think of newspapers, be sure to include the online news sources, not just the daily newspapers. Think print AND online.

  • Many denominations have weekly or monthly conference or associational newspapers.
  • Communities often have their own small newspapers and are looking for articles on a wide range of topics.
  • News websites often need writers.
  • Clubs, Organizations, and Associations are looking for articles about the passion or focus of their club, organization, or association.

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

As with any writing project you need to do research. Here are some suggestions on how to get started:

INvestigateInvestigate

The most important step in writing for newspapers, as it is with any writing, is to investigate newspapers/news sources.

  • What newspaper is for and about your city, county, state, etc.?
  • Buy or download a copy each day for a week or so and read them cover-to-cover, making note of the type articles in each section on each day of the week that are things you could write about.
  • As you’re investigating and getting to know the newspaper, look on their website and get the submission guidelines and procedures. Familiarize yourself with these guidelines and procedures. (NOTE: Many newspapers now have online portals through which articles can be submitted.)
  • Does the paper accept articles from freelance writers? If not, don’t discount this newspaper. See the section below, “Other ways to be published in a newspaper.”
  • What types of articles will they accept: fiction, non-fiction, real-life accounts, humorous stories, historical accounts, etc.?
  • What is the newspaper’s preferred style of writing? Do they prefer articles that are more folksy than formal?
  • How many words do they want for articles?
  • What topics have they covered recently? What ideas did those give you for articles at different times of the year: summer, start of school, Christmas, etc.?
  • What types of people, places, events, and things do they tell about in their newspaper?
  • Does the newspaper have a foundational political point of view? If so, does it match yours?

Think about …

You may get an inroad at a newspaper by writing an op-ed piece, a letter to the editor, or a book review.

writeWrite

Now you can begin writing your article, keeping in mind all the things you learned about what types of articles the paper publishes.  

  • Make certain to follow their submission guidelines. How many words? Is there a specified font size and line spacing?
  • I always find it helpful to put whatever I am writing aside for a day or so and go back for a careful edit and proof. Then, proof it again! It is also a good idea to have at least one other person proof your writing before you submit it.

sendPitch / Submit

From the submission guidelines, you will know whether you need to send a pitch/inquiry or just submit your article.

If you are to submit a pitch/inquiry, be as concise as possible. Many editors say you should be able to state in one sentence what the article will be about. Remember Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet saying, “Just the facts.” The pitch or inquiry should include:

  • The headline or article title.
  • Some articles have a line that appears just below the heading that describes what the article will be about. You will know from your investigative work if articles similar to yours need to have one.
  • Write a paragraph that briefly describes the article.
  • Give them a bullet-point listing of your published articles, including the date of publication and the publication name. Do not embellish here.
  • Do not send attachments unless specified in the submission guidelines. Only send pictures if they request them.
  • Be patient as you wait for a response. Usually, the submission guidelines tell you in what time-frame they will respond to you and how they will respond, via email, snail mail, etc.
  • Keep writing and submitting articles while you wait!
  • Some newspapers pay for articles and some do not. The submission guidelines will specify this. If you are trying to break into freelance newspaper writing, you may want to write some free articles or articles that don’t pay much to get some articles in your writing portfolio.
  • If they accept your pitch/submission, be certain to meet their deadline, and if possible, get it in a little early. Editors will love you!
  • If your pitch/submission is rejected, carefully evaluate your article and submit it to another newspaper. Write another article and submit it to the same newspaper.

What idea do you have that would make a good newspaper article?

Click to Tweet: Do you have a great idea for a newspaper article? #amwriting #newspapers #inspiredprompt

How to Break Into Freelance Writing

by Jean Matthew Hall

A freelance writer is one who works on a self-employment basis. They can work for just one magazine or, more often, for several different publications at a time. The more versatile a writer can be, the more likely they are to be published and paid for their work.

Freelance writing can include magazine articles and stories, curriculum materials, coloring books, online magazines and websites for adults or for children, business websites, ad copy, testing materials and on and on.

Whatever type of writing you choose to do a few basics apply. They include (1) targeting the periodicals to which you submit and (2) creating your articles to fit those target periodicals.

Targeting Periodicals

  • Get organized and prepared—as a freelance writer you’ll be dealing with a number of publishers, website owners, etc. Create a large file for each one.
  • Decide what topics interest you—Most periodicals buy far more nonfiction pieces than fiction. Make a list of things you are curious or knowledgeable about: animals, space exploration, American history, Madagascar, inventions, etc.
  • Research periodicals that relate to those topics—this will be really time consuming. But you want to avoid sending your articles to the wrong types of periodicals, if you want to be published.
  • Start with Market Guides—Google “magazine (or periodical) market guides” and you’ll find a list for your type of writing. They cost about $30 each. Then USE them. Check the material in the front of the guides. Most have lots of information for creating and submitting the articles you are writing.
  • Make a chart—make a spreadsheet type chart for organizing the information on publishers. Include the following for each:

Periodical’s name, acquisition editor’s name, editor’s email or submissions email address, periodical’s website URL, do they accept unsolicited queries, the number of subscribers, target readers (age or business or hobby), list their regular features, what rights they purchase, what they pay, type of fiction they use. Make a column for notes.

  • Choose 5 or 6 publishers to target with your submission.
  • Read and study several issues of each of those periodicals. You can do this by requesting or purchasing copies, reading samples on their websites, reading them in your public library, using your public library’s website “Research Tools.”
  • Study the periodical’s website. Writer’s or Submissions Guidelines are often hidden. Search under “Contact Us” or “About Us.” Also look for author’s terms. Read and follow their guidelines exactly.

Now you’re ready to research and/or write your article or story.

  • Brainstorm ideas. Nancy I. Sanders suggests a “Wagon Wheel” graphic organizer that includes a hub with the types of articles you wish to write and spokes for potential ideas for nonfiction articles. On the side of the page list the topics that have already been covered in the magazine samples you’ve read. Those should help you with ideas to write on the spokes.
  • Contact the publisher with your ideas. Write a short paragraph of description for each idea. Be sure to include how you think it will fit in with that periodical’s focus or theme. Mention any other publications you have written for. Ask the editor if they would be interested in any of your ideas. Be sure to include your contact information and thanks for considering your ideas.

Sound simple? NO!

But it’s worth the effort if you:

  • Want to see your name in print
  • Want to touch the lives of thousands of people with your idea
  • dream of writing an article about the subject of your passion
  • are serious about generating income from your writing.

You can also search for freelance writing jobs in places like:

Job Boards. Try some of the free ones:

  • Problogger
  • BloggingPro
  • All Freelance Writing Job Board

Twitter is a great place to find freelance writing opportunities. Follow several freelance writing job boards like:

  • @Write_Jobs,
  • @WhoPaysWriters
  • @JJobs_tweets

Ask around among friends, family, neighbors, former coworkers.

Make it clear on your website that you are looking for freelance writing opportunities.

Guest blog for free. Such articles not only give you exposure, but also count as writing samples!

Network with other freelance writers on Facebook.

Visit local printers and web designers. Let them know you are looking for freelance jobs, give them a sample or two of your work and a business card. Ask if they will keep you in mind or mention you to their customers.

Join Face Book Groups for freelance writers. A few of these groups are:

  • The Smart Passive Income Community
  • Blogger2Business
  • The Entrepreneur Incubator

Oh! And don’t forget to pray. Ask the Lord to provide opportunities and to put you right where HE wants you with your writing.

Jean Matthew Hall spent twenty-six years teaching children and teens–and loving it! Then twenty more years teaching women’s Bible studies.  She recently signed a contract with Little Lamb Books for a series of picture books. Yipee! The first book should be available in the spring of 2019. Sometimes our dreams come true in ways we couldn’t imagine. Jean’s have.

Click to Tweet: How to Break Into Freelance Writing via @InspiredPrompt with @Jean_Hall – make it clear on your website that you are looking for #freelance #writing opportunities.