A short time before I graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, I wrote an essay about my experiences as a square-dance fiddler. It won second place in an Atlantic Monthly essay contest. I decided that I was a writer and that I could mail articles and editors would send checks.
I wrote about our trip to California and how Chub rigged up our Chevrolet business coupe so we could sleep there comfortably; it was an ingenious way to save money. The editor answered by return mail: "Mrs. Gerard, you do not understand that our advertisers sell overnight space, meals, guided tours. ... Obviously, we wouldn’t buy an article about camping to save money!" Lesson No. 1: Study the publication before you begin.
The next spring, I submitted an article about how parents can teach their children to swim. Back came a letter from Better Homes and Gardens: "Too late, the summer issue is in the mail. With your permission, we will hold your very informative article for 13 months, will send a photographer to Columbia to illustrate your ideas... If you and the children assist in this, we will pay you $250." Enough said!
I was learning, gradually, that freelance writing is a lot like catching creek perch.
There were hundreds of perch in our creek, and I often fished just to count and release them. One morning, I caught and released more than 70 of those little fish, using hooks, worms and a tight line on my fly rod. What fun!
Fifty years ago, I cast "bait" to the editor of Ebony Magazine, and he swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. He bought "I’m Glad My Daughter’s Teacher Is a Negro." In 1966, Reader’s Digest bought the second article I ever offered them. It was "Your Spare Tire May Prevent a Drowning." It saved a life in Minnesota a week later. There were great rewards in both of those articles and money, too, with many rejections along the way.
My son, a young businessman, said, "Mom, just write it like you’d say it." That was great advice.
If you write to sell, visit your bookstore, talk with the manager, and buy magazines and books about writing and marketing your work. Write to friends; write letters to editors; write your life story. Let your compositions "mellow" overnight, then read them and strike out the "fluff." Tighten your sentences; readers and editors are busy people, so help them by discarding "wordiness." I just deleted 31 miscellaneous words from this original paragraph without weakening it!
Freelancing and fishing for creek perch - both are great for senior citizens; there’s time to write and to fish.
And who knows when you might catch a big one?
The younger generation will treasure your every word 20 years from now.