The Business of Writing with James Scott Bell

Marcy and I had the privilege of meeting James Scott Bell at the Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference in California last year. He gave us a free critique (part of the conference) and helped set us on a new path to publication that landed us in New York at the Writer’s Digest Conference. And who did we find there? James Scott Bell. He was a guest speaker, so we had a chance to reconnect. Much to our great delight he remembered us. He graciously agreed to give this interview on the business of writing.

Thank you so much, Jim! And to our readers, enjoy. 🙂


LHW: You’re a successful author who’s sold a lot of books, but in support of the writing career you speak and teach at conferences, tweet, blog, give interviews <grin>. What myth would you most like to dispel for new writers about the successful writer’s life?

JSB: That it ever gets easier. In fact, in some ways, it gets harder. Or should. Your standards go up with each book. You know more, you set the bar higher. And you want it to, if you’re a real writer. I have a number of bestselling author friends, and they all feel this way. It’s nice to have a career doing this, certainly. But it’s work, too. Don’t think it’s ever a fluffy ride on a cloud.

LHW: You’ve stated elsewhere that new writers need to focus on craft first – without a good book the rest doesn’t matter. But, at what point in an author’s early career should they begin thinking about the business behind the writing? How does one plan for that? What are the key items to think through, and consider?

JSB: A writer should think about this being a business from the very start. Know how the business runs, what publishers and agents and readers look for, what sells and does not sell. Learn how to plan at least two years ahead. Set goals for finishing projects and getting them out there. Learn about production–editing, cover design, copywriting and copyrighting. This approach establishes its own momentum. You can be doing things every day toward your goals, and there’s a power in that.

At the same time, never think that business knowledge and marketing can cover a multitude of writing sins. One still has to be able to consistently deliver the goods, and that means learning the craft by writing, revising, studying, getting feedback, and more writing.

LHW: You have a wide range of new ‘products’ being offered through ebooks, traditionally published fiction and non-fiction books (at my count you released 9 books in different formats on Amazon in 2011). You’re speaking and teaching at writers conferences, and Donald Maas just announced that the two of you will be doing a new workshop together in the fall. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom talk about publishing lately. In your opinion, is this a good time to be a new writer/author?

JSB: Never a better time to be an author! Ever. Period. Because of choices. It’s always been hard to get published traditionally. And yes, it’s harder at this moment because of the shakeups in the industry. Not impossible. New authors are getting deals. But we have the independent route now that means there’s a real alternative. There wasn’t before. Yes, you could pay a lot of money to self-publish in print, but 99% of the time you couldn’t sell enough to make any real dough. Not only has indie publishing been a boon for books, but also for short stories and novellas. The latter market was virtually non-existant. Now it’s back, better than ever.

Yes, it’s a great time to be a writer.

LHW: A lot of indie authors are telling new writers they must be prolific and produce new content often, 3-5books a year, to be successful. Not many traditionally published authors can manage that kind of output. Looking ahead, what do you predict will be the key factors for a successful writing career? Being prolific? A wide range of ‘products’? Social media clout?

JSB: I love being prolific, but I don’t think you need to put a number on the speed of production. Consistency is a better word. A writer who wants to succeed at this needs to establish a consistent rate of production (I always use a weekly quota of words), and plan projects out in advance (I have enough for at least five years hence). The “keys” to success are quality and consistency, which is why I advocate a systematic studying of the craft of writing for the rest of your life. Some writers sniff at craft study, but they are fooling themselves and others. Would you want your brain operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t keep up with the medical journals? Make craft study a part of the “quality control” of your business–and all writers are in business for themselves.

Social media certainly has a role to play, but if one gets obsessive about it, the ROE (Return on Energy) just doesn’t add up. Recent studies have shown that books are not sold in great numbers via social media. Create relationships with readers in social media, but always remember the best thing to do is write excellent books and let word of mouth take over. Concentrate your energy there.

LHW: Any advice for emerging authors about the business of writing?

JSB: Learn business principles: goal setting, time management, marketing fundamentals, quality control, pricing, copywriting, sales. You can get good books on all of these and study them when you can. I wrote a book, The Art of War for Writers, which covers a lot of this territory, but you can go deeper into each area.

The most important things a writer can do are, in order of importance:

1. Write

2. Keep improving what you write (study craft, get critiques)

3. Sell what you write (via marketing and business principles)

And try to enjoy the ride. I blogged about a new definition of success for writers, where freedom is the operative word. Freedom and responsibility. It’s exhilarating to hold them in your own hands.

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying, Try Darkness, Try Fear, One More Lie and Watch Your Back. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writers Digest Books, including: Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Under the pen name K. Bennett he has written the zombie legal thrillers Pay Me in Flesh and The Year of Eating Dangerously. He lives and writes in L.A. His website is

What do you think? Is this a doom and gloom time for writers, or a world of new opportunities?

Going from Teacher to Student – Guest Post by Christa Allan

Marcy and Lisa are pleased to welcome a special guest poster to Girls With Pens today–Christa Allan.

A true Southern woman who knows that any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, Christa is a writer of not your usual Christian Fiction. She weaves stories of unscripted grace and redemption with threads of hope, humor, and heart.

Walking on Broken Glass Christa AllenWalking on Broken Glass is her debut novel. Her next novel, Edge of Grace, was released by Abingdon Press in August of 2011.

Take it away, Christa . . .

It’s much easier to assign writing than to teach writing.

That epiphany in my profession as a high school English teacher was a blessing and a curse. . .for me and for my students. It meant I stopped bombarding them with the alphabet soup of essays (analysis, biography, comparison, definition, exemplification, etc.), and started devoting more time to the writing process. Brainstorming, rough drafts, more rough drafts, editing, revision, more revision (FYI: they hate revision).

It’s exhausting. They don’t know what to write, where to start, when to finish, how to finish, if their sentences or paragraphs are too short or too long, or if it “sounds stupid.”

Their first question is usually, “How long does this have to be?”

Generally, my response is “the miniskirt rule”–long enough to cover the subject, short enough to be interesting. (FYI: they hate this rule).

I pace the classroom chanting my mantras:

“Keep pushing your pen across the paper.”

“Don’t paralyze yourself waiting for the perfect opening or word. Some lousy writing is better than no writing.”

“Writing is messy business. Create chaos–we’ll find a way to make order of it later.”

“Don’t fret over the introduction–you’ll probably ditch it later anyway.”

I tell them to read the paper out loud to hear the ebb and flow of their words, to remember their audience, and to forget the “cotton candy” words (the words that look pretty, but lack substance).

They whine. “Why can’t I write like Asmeralda? She writes better.”

I answer, “Because you’re Fred. Because she’s writing from a different place.” I don’t tell him it’s because she and a younger sibling and their mother lived in their car for two years.

“Don’t over think it. Just keep putting one word in front of the other.” When I say this, they look at me as if I’ve just announced the cafeteria would be serving lima beans for lunch.

I’d wonder why they wouldn’t trust me.

Until I started writing my first novel. Which proved to me, once again, that God does have a sense of humor.

Almost every writing chant I used in class perched on my shoulders and giggled as I stared at the cursor on my monitor. Every blink, a taunt.

I returned to the classroom a humbled writer-in-the trenches with my students. They know I suffer with them. I think they derive a certain malicious pleasure from that, if not a grudging respect because they’re aware I’m not asking them to do that which I’m unwilling to do myself.

When my second book was due, they badgered me about my word count on a daily basis. I showed them my messy beginnings. When my edits arrived, I scrolled through my manuscript so they could see that someone bleeds on my papers too.

I don’t teach writing any more.

I learn writing. Everyday.

How do you make sure you never stop learning?

ROW80 Week 4 – Writer or Editor?

My original ROW80 goal was to edit 7 chapters a week (or 1 chapter a day) on the novel Lisa and I are co-writing. This week I finished 10 chapters, and anticipate being able to finish an even greater number this coming week.

Based on a conversation I joined in on via Twitter a couple times this week, I think that my goals might be some people’s worst nightmare. Turns out, not everyone prefers editing their work to the original writing.

Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy writing. I just prefer editing what I’ve already written to the actual process of writing it in the first place. To me, it seems like then the heavy lifting is already done. What’s left is polishing and refining, and I love that detailed, careful work.

What about you? Do you prefer to write? Or do you prefer to edit what you’ve written?


Why You Should Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests offer a variety of benefits ranging from credibility to experience and feedback. There are many different kinds of contests, and there are a number of scams out there so it’s important to recognize a good contest from a bad one.

blue prize ribbonFees
There’s this misnomer that any contest that charges a fee is a scam. Many very credible contests charge entry fees to generate prize money. Most contests I’ve entered charge between $12 and $25 per entry per category, and the grand prize is always mentioned up front. A quick Google search of the contest should give you a good snapshot of its credibility. If someone’s been burned or been happy with a contest, they’ve probably blogged, facebooked or tweeted about it.

Some contests generate more credibility for your writing than others. National contests that use credible judges with blind judging are best. What makes a judge qualified? Some examples would be editors, literary agents, authors or writers published by royalty publishers, magazines or newspapers, writing teachers, etc.

Another word about credibility…
When Marcy and I were at Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference this past April, we had the opportunity to present our work to editors and agents. One agent commented that based on the first paragraph in our query, she knew she couldn’t sell our novel because of the time period alone. Normally she wouldn’t have even bothered to read the sample work we’d sent in, but based on the contests we’d won, she decided to read our sample chapters. Our contest wins were a tipping point that gave our writing credibility and got our writing in front of an agent.

The very best contests are the ones that will send you the judge’s comments. Regardless of whether you win or not, to receive comments from an editor, agent or published author on how to help you polish your work is invaluable. True critiques can cost hundreds of dollars depending on who you have look at your work. I’ve received great feedback from judges (often more than one judge) for the cost of $25. There are contests I enter and don’t care if I win because I’m only interested in the feedback (I’m ecstatic when I do win). We’re all about free and saving money here at Girls With Pens.

Another great aspect of contests is having an in with other entrants or even judges after the contest. Some judges are willing to let you use their comments in queries and other promotional work (ask permission first – this is simple professional courtesy). The golden opportunity comes when they offer to read your work again, or help you sell it once the changes have been made. How much is that worth? It never hurts to ask. I first met Marcy as a result of entering the same contest – and look where we are now!

Contests are great for teaching you to write for a deadline and for rules. If the contest states that the work must be under 1500 words, anyone over 1500 words won’t even get read. If you’re late entering the contest, too bad so sad. You’re outta luck! Writers seem to be a great bunch of procrastinators aren’t we? Writing for contests taught me a lot about time management, self-discipline, writing under pressure, and writing to a theme.

A word of caution
The one thing that’s important to remember about contests is that the judging can be subjective. The judges may have been given a list of criteria to evaluate a work on, but at the end of the day the difference between first and second place is personal opinion. I entered a piece in one contest and won first prize. I entered the same piece in another contest and didn’t even get shortlisted. Don’t take it personally. If you struggle with handling rejection, check out my post on surviving a critique.

Here are three credible contests that will offer many great benefits. A quick glance through the Christian Writer’s Market Guide will offer many choices, or even Google.  Caveat Emptor.

Writer’s Digest

Canadian Christian Writing Awards

God Uses Ink Novice Writers Contest

What are some of your contest experiences?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Write What You Know

When a new writer hears these words, they cringe. I did. The predominant thought running through my mind at the time: but I don’t know anything. Not anything exciting at any rate. But I was wrong and so are you! Everyone has a story to tell – the question is are you the one to tell it?

I’m a wife, a mother, and a teacher, but I’ve also challenged ‘the boys club’ playing and refereeing soccer, taught rock climbing, led youth canoe out-trips through Algonquin park, had dating relationships fail and succeed, been betrayed by a friend, overcome mild post traumatic stress disorder, moved to a town where I didn’t know one other person… The list goes on. I’ve experienced many things common to many people and so have you – and it’s all great material for the beginning writer. Personal experience articles are one of the easiest articles to write and place in the Christian market.

kids in backseat of car

Our family road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario. 18 hours each way with three kids in a rental car. Ever wished you’d been better prepared with snacks, games and activities? I have. Sounds like an article to me!

Be Passionate

Choose a cause that you’re already passionate about whether it’s animal rights, starving children, battered women or the environment–and write about it. If it’s a cause you’re already interested in, research becomes easier and your passion for the topic or cause will shine through in your writing. I’ve had marketers tell me that if a writer isn’t passionate about the cause they’re promoting, they can’t sell it in articles or press releases. It’s true. I’m very passionate about social justice issues, so I’ve written about drug addiction, pornography addiction, human trafficking, child prostitution, reaching out to those serving jail sentences. What are you passionate about?

Have An Opinion

Is there a topic or cause that you make a point to stay abreast of? Whether it’s a specific non-profit’s work, or the latest developments in Canada’s prostitution laws, there are usually publications looking for people who can define the debate, accurately present both sides and give their opinions on the topic tailored to their audience.

Write From The Other Side

soldier in a trench writing letterWhen writing about a personal experience be sure to write from the other side of the experience. Work through the pain or the situation first, and write about how you overcame or survived the trial. Or, if it’s a situation that isn’t going away, like caring for a mentally handicapped child for instance, write about how you’re managing to stay positive or what helps you’ve found. If you can do this, you avoid the pitfalls of having your writing dismissed as being angry or bitter.

Is This A Blog Or An Article?

Some topics are better suited to a blog than a newspaper or magazine article. Be honest with yourself. If you want to rant, unless you can do it with a lot of wit and intelligence, or are willing to submit as a letter to the editor, you’re unlikely to find an editor to publish it unless you have a public platform. If you want to share personal stories or thoughts, that’s a blog. If you can pull out a few life lessons from those highs and lows and relate them to a large number of people you’ve got an article.

Make It Bite Size

Take your experience and narrow it down into a bite-size piece, while keeping your audience in mind. Otherwise the article will be too general, too broad, to actually benefit the reader. The power of personal experience is often in the specificity of the experience, but the lesson has wider appeal.

What personal experiences have you/would you like to write about?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Why Writers Should People-Watch

I love to people-watch. I watch how they carry themselves, the expressions on their faces, their dress, and emotional expression. We had plenty of time to watch people on our California trip.

“Careful, I’ll put you in my book!”

Writers are always asking questions and watching the people around them, picking out this mannerism or that expression for the characters we create. The best way to make sure our characters are authentic is to see how people react in a variety of situations. Marcy made us a ridiculous 4 hours early for our red-eye flight from San Jose at 10:30pm local time scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 6am local time (we had to cross a couple of time zones). We were very tired, but there were lots of people to watch in the airport .

people waiting in airport Two men sat across from us at the gate still dressed for the office. I turned to Marcy and nodded at the younger of the two men. “Tell me his story.” (It’s hard to discreetly stare at someone btw, especially when you’re too tired to care what they think of you.) The target looked to be in his late thirties, early forties. He wore a thick gold wedding band, and even though he wore a suit jacket and pants, his shirt collar was open to reveal a white undershirt – no tie.

Marcy came up with this crazy story of how he was the inventor/owner of an odour-eliminating shoe company. Boo. She cheated. She was supposed to create a story based on what we could glean from his clothes, attitude and manner. We had a good laugh (at which point I believe he realized we were studying him).

He slouched in the moulded plastic chair watching the hockey game on his phone. He didn’t cross his legs, or stretch them out in front of him. His clothes were unremarkable, neither expensive nor shabby. I pictured him with a wife and young kids, a business man by default not choice. Maybe he had an aptitude for his business, but didn’t care for it much. He was taking this late-night flight so he could put his kids in bed and have supper with his family before being away for a few days. He’d much rather be at home in his sweats watching the game on his big screen, his wife reading a novel next to him on the sofa.

As we lined up to wait for the boarding call, Marcy and I descended into obnoxious banter and juvenile giggling. You know – that stage where everything is funny and you’re incapable of lowering your voice? I was fascinated by the change in the man we’d been watching. He stood behind us listening in to our conversation at first, but slowly turned away. His toe tapped to a rhythm only he could hear. He edged his carry-on between us.

“I hope I don’t sit near them,” he said to his friend.

He found us irritating. (Shocking, I know.) His complete disdain showed in every facet of his stance. He’d gone from realizing we were staring and being slightly amused (and maybe a little flattered by the way he kept glancing at us), to completely turned-off in a manner of minutes. I instantly realized the difference between a mature man and a young man. His opinion had of us had gone from ‘interested’ or  ‘maybe’ to ‘I’m too old for that nonsense’. A whole range of emotions peeked through from curiosity, surprise, irritation, to frustration. We boarded the plane and never saw him again, and I’m sure he was thankful to be rid of us 😛

I can only imagine what people watching us were thinking, I’m sure we gave them a few story ideas too. But as writers, it’s important to watch people go through a range of emotions and see how they express those emotions. Do they talk with their hands? Watch their body language. I could tell the man behind us was irritated long before his comment to his friend. How did I know that? Use these small details to bring your story to life for readers.


Can You Write?

I’ve told myself a few times now over the course of the morning that even though it’s March Break and it’s utter chaos in my house, I still have deadlines. This blog being one of them. I’ve isolated myself while still being accessible because my children are home from school. The bank called to tell me I was late on a loan payment that I’ve already made. My dog Marshall ate–actually ate–an entire pair of my underwear this morning. Ewww.  My kids keep nagging me for things I’ve already said no to because they know if I’m distracted I’m more likely to give them what they want. What are we going to have for lunch?

And I’m supposed to be writing. I’m a professional, I tell myself. Professionals aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. I don’t exactly have writer’s block – I’d love to be able to write. But I can’t focus because of all the chaos in my house right now. But the problem is the chaos isn’t going away.

Then the doubts begin.

Maybe I shouldn’t have included that quote in the article I submitted last week. I’m sure it’s going to get people riled up. Won’t matter that I didn’t actually say it, or whether or not I agree with it. I shouldn’t care, but I sort of do.

I received contributors copy for a magazine that both Marcy and I write for. She wrote a stellar article on a hot button topic and the editor printed two entire pages of negative feedback from readers. Ouch. I feel bad for Marcy because that happened to me last November. Seeing the feedback from her article is giving me flashbacks. What makes people feel like they have the freedom to question my ability to write, my intelligence even, from one article? What if they’re right?

Maybe I should get a job that pays regularly? My girls need braces, my sister-in-law is getting married and we all need new clothes not to mention gas money for the 18hr drive each way…

It goes on. Do you have days like this?

Here are some thoughts on how to combat the writer’s doubts that assail every writer from time to time.


What I mean is jettison all the ‘stuff’ that’s crowding in and taking up mental space. I have had to learn to compartmentalize certain things or else get nothing done. If I allowed it to, the noise in my house, the work that needed doing, all the outside clutter would never let me write anything. Obviously, I’m better at it some days more than others.


What projects, achievements, are the most important to you? Focus on those. Fulfill your commitments, I’m not saying bail on anything already agreed on, but take time to decide what you want out of this writing adventure and do something every week that gets you closer to that goal.

Remind yourself you can write

I keep a folder in my inbox with all of the emails I’ve received that affirmed me as a writer. When I’m down, I go back and read through those. Maybe it’s a note from your mom, your boss, an editor, anyone whose opinion you respect. If you don’t already keep one of these files, I suggest you start one. I also keep a separate binder of the published work I’m most proud of and I look through that also.

Get out

Get out of the house for a while. Go for a walk, play with the dog, read a chapter in a book, play a game with your kids. Sometimes you just need a mental break to silence the doom and gloom in your mind. When you return you’ve got fresh wind in your sails. Just be careful not to fall into this too often because the temptation to stay away from your writing becomes compelling.

Just do it

Sometimes, the only thing to do is to work through it. There have been times it’s taken me two days to write an article that should have taken a couple of hours. It happens. It’s not time efficient, but there is something to be said for the discipline of staying with it and working it through.

Chat with a friend

Marcy and I often have email pity parties. Thankfully we’ve never had one at the same time. Do you have a friend who encourages you when you’re down, smacks you (proverbially) when you need it, and hugs you (virtually) as often as possible? They are worth their weight in gold.

Remind yourself of the why

Remind yourself of why you choose to write. This is a tough tough job market to break into and burnout seems common. There are many stories of writers who need alcohol or drugs just to function and perform. Remind yourself why. I look at my kids and remind myself that I’m happiest when I’m writing, and a happy mommy makes a happy home. I also see how proud they are of the work I do and get excited over every contributor copy that comes in the mail. It doesn’t matter to them if the magazine is well-read or prestigious – maybe I shouldn’t worry about it either. I also turn to my faith. Writing is what I feel God has put me on this earth to do, and as long as I do that then I’m successful in the mission I’ve been given. I need to constantly re-evaluate how I measure success.

What doubts keep you from writing, and how do you combat them? We’d love to hear from you.


Journalistic Writing: Inverted Pyramid

John Smith, principal of Brock High School, announced that the entire school’s teaching faculty will travel to Toronto for a one day seminar with Minister of Education Jane Smith next Thursday.
As a journalist for the local paper, what is the lead for the story?

No school on Thursday.

I don’t have a degree in journalism, but as a freelancer I’ve learned how to write for a variety of publications including newspapers. To write for newspapers, editors want articles written in the inverted pyramid style. What’s that? Picture an upside-down pyramid, the widest part at the top. Every newspaper article has a headline and a lead. Reporters relate the most important details at the very top, with more details following in order of descending importance. This is done so that if an editor needs to find space, and when you’re publishing a daily newspaper you don’t have the luxury of time, they can lop off the bottom paragraph or two and know that readers are still going to get the most important facts. It’s also written this way to accommodate those readers who skim the headlines for the day’s events and news and don’t want to read the entire newspaper.

The Lead – Keep it simple
Every non-fiction article writer knows that you need to tell readers the who, what, when, where, how of the story. You learned that in elementary school. A good journalist goes further than that and relates the So What? They will examine all the facts and discern the point. What does it mean? Why does it matter? This is what the above example does. That all the high school teachers are going for a one day seminar is local news, but it’s the reporter’s job to give us the So What? The so what in this case is, there’s no school on Thursday. Keep it simple. Find out the one main point of the article, and that’s your lead.

Burying the lead
Reporters can ‘bury the lead’ when they don’t prioritize correctly and leave the most important details stuck in the middle or body of the article where fewer people find it. This is bad.

Here’s a couple of examples of leads and headlines published today:

Police seek public’s help in solving homicide
WINNIPEG — As a window of suspicion widens, Winnipeg police are turning to the public for help solving the killing of Elizabeth Lafantaisie.
Police now believe that someone took the victim’s blue-grey 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix to a car wash between Friday, Feb. 18 and Tuesday, Feb. 22, and washed the sedan. They want to know who that person was.
(Winnipeg Free Press – February 28, 2011)

If I stopped reading, I’d know the most important details, right? Here’s another example:

Power failure closes schools
Two London elementary schools are closed Monday after a power outage in the Westmount area.
Westmount school and Jean Vanier Catholic school are closed and officials are trying to reach parents of children still at the schools located at Wonderland and Viscount roads.
(London Free Press – February 28, 2011)

These examples are from larger daily newspapers, but both are very current and the leads are succinct and immediately relateable.

When you only have 300 words or 500 words to write about an upcoming event or local news item, you find out fast that’s not a lot of words to work with. This isn’t a novel where you have 80,000 words to develop character arc and rising conflict. This isn’t a 1200 word magazine article that has room for you to add your own opinions, euphemisms or verbal flourishes. You have enough space to get to the point and that’s it. Take a look at all your information and prioritize what is absolutely essential to the story. Order them if you have to, so you have a visual indication of which facts are most important. Start with the most important facts and then write in descending order. Keep it simple and straight to the point. Be economical with your words and eliminate the ‘fat’ from the story.

Newspapers are an easier market to break into writing for, especially the smaller local papers, because they publish more frequently than many magazines and require fresh stories constantly. A daily or weekly newspaper editor needs stories that are very current, and usually are more interested in promoting an upcoming event than telling about something that’s already happened. You report on the results of the local high school’s win against another school after the event. If the school makes it to the finals, you also report on their upcoming game. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. The bigger news is what’s about to happen, what’s coming to town, what’s new and exciting usually. Small town editors want local details and like to mention local people in the articles. Remember who your audience is when you’re pitching a story.

If you’ve never written for a  newspaper before, I encourage you to try it. Learning the disciplines of this kind of writing is valuable and applies to many other kinds of writing also. Writing for newspapers has helped me write better press releases, better magazine stories and taught me to look behind the facts for the real point of the story.  This is why journalists have so much power. Wield it wisely.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Writing a Great Press Release

Freelance writers, by necessity, learn many types of writing. Writing an effective press release is something non-profits never seem to have the staff to do, and authors and other entrepreneurs need to learn. Writing effective press releases gets my foot in the door with marketing managers, and often leads to more work.

So, what makes an effective press release?

An effective press release is one that’s picked up by the media outlets you send it to. Simple. Right?
Here are some thoughts based on my experience writing press releases as a contractor with non-profits such as Teen Challenge and World Vision.

Keep It Simple
Reporters and editors are busy people. While they’re always interested in what’s going on in their community, you have a better chance of coverage if you make their job easier. When I’m writing a press release, I include all the details I would need if I was to write about the event myself: the who, what, when and where, and Why readers should care. Have an angle, remember you’re ‘selling’ the event essentially. I never make my press releases more than one page and I use short paragraphs. More often than not, I will find my press release in the paper shortened, or expanded upon in places, tailored to the editor’s preferences. They often don’t bother to write something new, they just cut and paste what I’ve sent. Write as though you expect them to copy your words.

Here is a basic formula I employ when writing press releases:

Always write an engaging title that could double as a headline for an article.  It must grab interest and tell the reader right away what the article is about. Editors and reporters could change that title, but I’ve found often they just use the one I provide.

Always place the date at the beginning of the first paragraph.

In one or two sentences I try to capture the important physical details of the event (venue, city, time, etc.). Newspapers write in the inverted pyramid style (that’s another blog post). You need to include the most pertinent details right up front. What is the event about (this will tie into the title), where will the event be held and the date at the very least. The following one or two sentences are the ‘hook’ for the article. The person I am trying to hook is not the person who will read the article, but the editor or reporter whose desk this press release lands on.

I break the body up into three sections generally. If there are persons of interest who are going to be the draw for the event, I will include a short bio (by short I mean one sentence, maybe two if I can list published books or other noteworthy achievements that lend credibility). If there is more than one ‘headliner’ so to speak, I’ll include a bio for each of them. I might slip in a one or two sentence paragraph about what an audience will gain by attending the event. (Be sure to mention your target audience if there is one: children, women, men, couples, etc.)

The next paragraph expands on the event details: time, location, ticket information, etc. I do a separate press release for every stop in a tour or event lineup, instead of a general press release for the whole tour and listing each event at the bottom. As a contractor paid to deliver results, I find this method more effective than writing one general press release. If the tour will be making ten or fifteen stops, or has a name for the tour, I will include that information, but I won’t list the other stops. If the writer or editor wants to know where else the tour is going, they can check out the website for more details (they’re going to do that anyway to make sure everything is legit). Usually, they’re only interested in knowing the details for their own city or town. General press releases are more effective with national publications and media rooms on websites.

The final paragraph in the body will be a few comments or joe-public endorsements. “This was the most fantastic speaker/message I’ve ever heard in my life…” Don’t lie. You need honest comments from people so that it doesn’t sound canned (written by a writer). I’ve had editors use those comments, but I include them to give credibility to the event more than for any other reason.

The final paragraph in the press release will include any further pertinent information such as websites, blogs, facebook pages, etc.

Under this title, I will list the media contact person for the event. This has never been me as the contract writer. I include a name, title, phone number and extension if there is one, and an email address for the media contact. This way the reporter or editor knows who to contact if they want an interview, photos, or more information.

Finally, at the end of the press release, place -END- centred at the bottom. This lets the person reading the press release know they’ve gotten the whole press release. There are other ways that have historically been used to end a press release harking back to early writer’s union disputes and such–but I won’t go into that here.

Was this post helpful? How do you write press releases?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Part 2

Last week, Lisa let you into the twisted caverns of her mind to give you some idea-generating help. Today it’s my turn. Since we use some of the same methods, I won’t rehash what’s already been said. Instead, I’ll give you some new ideas and maybe a few of them will be the ones that turn out to be perfect for you.

What’s Your Problem?

Last year I sold an article to In Touch (the magazine for Charles Stanley’s ministry) based on my struggle to forgive the drunk driver who killed my best friend. We all like to think that our problems are unique or that we have it rougher than anyone else, but the truth is that at any moment, someone else is going through what you’re going through. Bring a little good out of those struggles by using them to both further your career and help others.

A few guidelines before you start:

  • Make sure you point out how your experience can help a wide audience of people. My article wasn’t meant to help only people who’d lost a loved one to a drunk driver; it was aimed at anyone who’d been deeply hurt and didn’t know how to forgive.
  • Come out the other side before you try to write about it. This not only gives you more objectivity, but it also allows you to offer potential solutions to the problem.
  • If it’s not a problem that you’re ever really “over,” find experts who can speak to how to deal with it long-term.
  • List the people you’ll mention (both directly and indirectly), and ensure that you can write without hurting their feelings or their reputation. If you’re not certain, ask someone you trust, and get an unbiased pair of eyes to read the article once you finish. Even when you’ve done your best, people might get offended. You can’t always prevent that, but exercise due diligence in the process.

Take Scissors to Your Local Newspaper

Lisa mentioned that the biggest problems with getting ideas from the news are that they’ve already been written about and the market can quickly become saturated. You’re probably wondering how you can possibly get ahead of the wave or find news-worthy ideas that no one else has caught on to yet. It sounds like a lot of work.

I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder. (I think of the old cartoon DuckTales every time I say that.) One thing I like to do is go through my local paper with a pair of scissors. I divide up what I gather into two piles. The first pile is for “experts” that I might be able to use in a future story. This week I found a Christian counselor who has a list of qualifications and specializes in suicide. I felt like someone gave me a giant, calorie-free chocolate bar.

The second pile is for ideas that currently have a local slant, but which I might be able to make national. For example, if a local church is hosting an event and you can find other churches or organizations across the country mobilizing for the same cause, you might just have a story.

And don’t forget to skim the letters to the editor. Some of it will be very specific to your town, but the rest of it will give you insights into what people are worried and wondering about.

A local story won’t be read by the same number of people as a national story, especially if you live in a small town of 10,000 as I do. Yet someone else has done the work of discovery. All that’s left for you to do is to make it your own and tune it to the Christian market (unless you want to write for secular magazines and then it’s even easier for you).

Anniversaries and Annual Events

Having recently finished an article on the three lessons we can learn from giving something up for Lent, one source of ideas that I couldn’t pass up suggesting to you is anniversaries and annual events. The Haiti articles that Lisa and I are working on are another example of where we’ve benefitted from keeping in mind milestones.

Timing is everything when you pitch an anniversary or annual event. If possible, you need to know how far in advance a publication assigns articles. Because ChristianWeek is a newspaper, for example, you can pitch a story with a month lead time, but a magazine like The Lookout wants queries no less than six months in advance. Unlike with other stories, these articles need to be published as close to the date as possible. If you query too late and they have that issue planned already, they can’t just slot your story into the next issue the way they might with a less time-sensitive idea.

That said, if you’re pitching an annual event, editors are always in need of a fresh take on something they’ve had to deal with every year. For anniversaries, focus on the big numbers (like one year, ten years, or fifty years), and be ready to show why that anniversary will interest the readers of that particular publication.

Have any other great ideas you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.