Mistake No. 78: Letters as clippings

A lot of new writers break into print via the letters page in a magazine or newspaper. At least, that’s the case with my students, as the course for which I’m a correspondence tutor encourages writers to submit letters and other fillers to magazines quite early on, and it surprises some students how quickly this can pay dividends. A lot of courses, geared specifically towards journalism training, for instance, advocate a more ‘in at the deep end’ approach to the whole business, and suggest pitching the big boys – ie newspapers and glossies – straight away. While that’s absolutely right advice for those taking these courses, and no doubt for some others, for many a more gradual approach suits, and letters are a good means to dip your toe in, and perhaps pick up a bit of confidence.

The problem comes when, after a bit of letter writing success, you want to move on to articles, and an editor – perhaps interested in one of your ideas – asks about previous writing experience. “Have you been published before?”

Well … yes you have. But is it, I’m often asked, worth mentioning a top tip in Take a Break or a ranty 150 words in the Daily Bugle to a potential new client? Shall I tell the editor about my blog, a student might also ask, and involvement in my school newsletter?

No, generally speaking, I’d say not. I feel mentioning a series of minor writing achievements just makes the absence of major ones more glaring.

There is disagreement about how to best address this situation, but I lean towards not volunteering any information about lack of published clips, and concentrating instead on selling your idea through a good outline, and backing the idea up with strong support of your credentials to be writing the piece you’re proposing – past experience in the field, say, or unique access to a particular individual you plan on interviewing – together with a good argument of why it’s right for your target publication. If you do this well, and convincingly, the editor may be so impressed, she may not even think about asking for past experience or published clippings.

If she does ask, be honest and say you’re a new writer. Don’t do it apologetically: there’s no shame in being inexperienced. A good editor will not necessarily withdraw her interest, but may ask you to complete an article ‘on spec’ – that is, with no guarantee to pay and publish. Accept the challenge – and prove how good you can be by turning in a professional article.

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