Letters as clippings (Mistake #78)

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.

Comments 9

  • Great post, Alex. Yes, the rewards for subbing letters and tips can be amazing! £25 – £100 for a few minutes work – that's a good rate! Plus it doesn't take a few minutes to send it in by e-mail. It's not just for new writers trying to break into writing either – I still do it as do a lot of experienced writers I know.

    I totally agree with your comment re a lack of published pieces too. If you write a great pitch, that should speak volumes about your ability to write without need for examples of your past pieces.

  • Thanks, Julie. I haven't done it in ages, but maybe I should start again, instead of only encouraging my students to do it! Practise what you preach, and all that 🙂

  • I still write letters to letter pages – and I'm a tutor! They don't take long and can reap some rich rewards. I know of writers who'e sent a letter in to a mag's letters page, only to have the editor get in touch and say, "this would make a great article – could you do it for me?"

    I once won a £900 computer software programme as a star letter prize. It was of no use to me, but the £300 I flogged it for on eBay was!

  • Nice one! I shall get cracking …

  • Your're quite right – if you have no clips just don't say anything, certainly don't apologize – just make it a great query ……
    and if we're talking about making money on letter pages – don't forget to keep your camera / cell phone handy as pics can add a lot of money – I've got several £100 star letter prizes because of accompanying photos

  • Yes, excellent tip! Often, the picture sells it.

  • Good advice. I came runner up in Guardian Travel Writing competition and also wrote for Simon Seeks – would people advise I linked to these when subbing? Thanks if anyone can help.

  • Yep, I don't see why not – especially with regard to a travel submission, in the case of your travel writing placing.

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