Tired of article writing jobs that pay a big $50? There’s a ton of ‘online content’ work out there that doesn’t pay much. Maybe it’s time to move up and learn how to write an article.
And when I say that, I don’t mean a $75 article — I mean the type of article that pays real money. $1-a-word and up land.
If that interests you, you’re in the right place.
After offering article-writing tips for over a decade, I decided it would be useful to organize all the information into one, big ultimate guide.
Many freelance writers do article-prep steps out of order or skip some steps entirely, with poor results. Following this step-by-step guide will make it easier for you to move up, write in-depth, reported articles faster, and sell to better-paying article markets.
Ready to learn how to write an article that pays? Then let’s go!
In this guide, you’ll learn how to find well-paid article markets, get assignments, write more complex, reported articles, and join the world where articles pay $1,000 and up.
Here’s my ultimate guide to writing well-paid articles below — or you can get the free E-Book PDF version.
Table of contents: How to Write an Article That Pays
- Find good markets
- Study your targets
- Generate ideas
- Research the facts
- Do quick pre-interviews
- Create a headline
- Write a query
- Write more queries
- Get an assignment and contract
- Finish your interviews
- Organize your notes
- Write your article
- Boil it down (editing)
- One last fact check…
- File your article
- Respond to editor feedback
- Finalize and invoice
- Generate ideas
1. Find good markets
Do you do this? You get an idea for an article, and you just write it up. Then, you start looking around for a magazine or website that might publish it and pay you a chunk.
But you discover no such market can be found. Even if it could, many publications pay less for pre-written material. Their editors want to weigh in before you write!
Instead, start your article-writing journey by building a list of well-paid publications or websites where you’d like to see your byline. Stop bothering with local pubs that pay $75 for a feature story! Here are some places to find better-paying markets:
- Use Writer’s Market. One of my favorite shortcuts is to buy the most recent-year copy of Writer’s Market — with online support. Online, you can set their online search tool to quickly show you only the highest-paying markets.
- Check WhoPaysWriters for intel on which magazines are paying well, or search up the many available lists of good-paying markets compiled online.
- Find trade and company magazines. If you’re unaware of the world beyond consumer newsstand magazines, broaden your horizons to include trade publications and company magazines (this latter category includes the airlines’ in-flight magazines). These latter two categories tend to pay well and offer reliable work, once you get in their writer stable.
- Write for businesses. Finally, consider writing articles directly for companies. Many businesses create article content for their own websites, or are looking to get an article ghostwritten for their CEO and published in a consumer or trade magazine (known as a ‘placed’ or advertorial article). Rates for placed articles are often $1,000 or more.
A note about essays
If you are thinking about writing personal-essay articles, bad news: Good pay is very rare (this list of paying essay markets gives you a taste of the low rates).
For purposes of this ultimate guide, when I say ‘write an article,’ what I mean is a nonfiction, reported article. Not a personal essay or opinion piece.
Good-paying essay markets are few and highly competitive. The odds you could earn regularly this way are low.
The good money is in reported nonfiction articles, and that’s what this guide is about.
What can I write about?
One more quick note about ‘qualifications’ or certifications you might think you need, to write on a topic. None are required.
If you have an interest and willingness to learn about a topic, you can interview experts and learn the industry. I’m a college dropout and have written for top-drawer magazines and websites in real estate, legal, insurance, finance, and other niches. Learned it all on the job, and you can, too.
Once you’ve located some publications or sites that offer serious money for topics you can write about, you’re ready for the next step.
2. Study your targets
Maybe you’ve read your target magazines before, maybe not. Now, read them as a writer trying to crack that market, and ask yourself:
- What topics do they cover?
- What seems popular?
- What have they already written about?
Verify freelance opportunities
Most importantly, match bylines to the masthead to discover which parts of the publication appear to use freelance writers. No point pitching to a column that’s authored by the same staffer every edition.
Identify best-fit departments
Most publications have departments — short, up-front columns, often with topics they do each issue, followed by space for longer feature pieces. These short ‘front of book’ pieces are often a great place for freelance writers to break in at better magazines.
Check out the pub’s media guide
Also, look online for their advertiser’s guide or media guide. It will have info on the reader demographics and give you insight into who the readers are and what topics are of top interest.
Once you have a strong sense of who reads that outlet and what they publish articles on, you’re ready to develop your idea.
Note: That idea should not be to write another article on a topic the publication covered recently. Likely, they’re done with that now. You’ll need something new.
3. Generate ideas
If you want to be a well-paid article writer, you’re going to need a lot of sharp article ideas. I know many freelance writers who’re in denial about this, and hope some wonderful editor will assign them topics monthly.
Changes in publishing mean fewer editors on staff, less of an editorial brain-trust in-house, and more assignments going to freelance writers to bring their own ideas.
A really strong article idea is your golden ticket in the door of better-paid article markets.
Commit to becoming an idea machine. Consider it a hobby. See how many pieces of information you can collect that could be spun into story ideas.
Here are some ways to troll for ideas:
- Set up Google alerts on your chosen topics
- Read press releases on PR Web
- Read competing publications to your target
- Subscribe to blogs and ‘push’ news services on the topic
- Read local publications for ideas you could pitch nationally
- Read industry trade magazines for ideas you could pitch to mainstream consumer mags, and vice versa
- Check relevant social-media hashtags or aggregator sites such as Reddit for trends
- Listen to relevant podcasts for ideas and sources
- Attend conferences
- Interview experts
- Eavesdrop on conversations
Once you’ve gathered some seeds of ideas, you need to figure out how to take these news nuggets and spin them into article ideas you can pitch. Here’s how:
Ask questions to develop story ideas
- What is likely to happen next in this issue or trend?
- Have more developments occurred since publication?
- Why is this happening? What underlying trends are newsworthy?
- How will this affect various industries, or types of people — retirees, college students, etc.?
- What relevant question did this story fail to answer?
- Where else is this happening?
- Is there a new book coming out about this?
- Were all points of view included in this piece, or are there voices missing?
- What other types of publications might want this story?
- What else do I know about this topic that might shed new light on this issue?
Think a much-covered story can’t be pitched again? You’re so wrong. You can always find another angle, as I demonstrate here.
As you use your news-gathering research to start developing fresh angles to pitch, you’ll need to take one final step to make sure your idea is salable.
4. Find your hook
Story ideas that are likely to get an assignment all have one thing in common: A news hook.
What’s that? A news hook is something that gives your idea urgency, and makes it need to be published soon. It signals you have fresh information that we haven’t already seen 100 times online.
- The news hook gets your editor thinking, ‘This must run in the next issue!’ instead of ‘Well, maybe this could work sometime.’ You’ve got to get out of that ‘maybe’ pile to start getting regular assignments.
- That means you’ll to move beyond generic headlines like: ‘5 Tasty Ways to Cook Bacon.’ We’ve read that story already. A lot. So how do you do that?
- Find a fresh spin. Is there a new seasoning to use with bacon? A new celebrity chef saying they’re creating a bunch of innovative bacon recipes? Give that editor a new angle.
Tips for identifying a news hook
- A news hook might be one new fact that’s emerged in an ongoing story – a lawsuit was filed, or a candidate has withdrawn from the race.
- It could be an anniversary story because it’s a year after the big fire, earthquake, flood.
- Or something like all the recent ‘Amazon Turns 25’ stories. Google that, and look at all the different ways various news outlets covered that milestone. Some looked back and did historical pieces, others talked about how it changed the culture, still others look at what the next 25 years might bring at the online giant.
Always more fresh angles that could get an editor excited to assign you an article.
A note about magazine timelines
Remember that many national magazines work 4-6 months ahead of time, when you’re looking for those news hooks. Yes, that makes it hard to be newsy! Pitching a story with a news hook that will be long over before the issue comes out is a common reason pitches fail.
- Think months into the future before pitching. Think about how you can examine future possible next steps or outcomes, spot up-and-coming trends, or provide more in-depth analysis to get in with the big magazines. You can also look at anniversaries for something that would be timely around the time that issue hits the newsstand.
5. Research the facts
Now that you’ve got an idea, it’s time to road-test it and see if it’s real. One way freelance writers can make sure an idea is going to hold water is to conduct research to confirm accuracy with reliable sources.
In a word: Don’t trust Wikipedia. Remember, anyone can write anything on there.
Use primary sources
Wikipedia is a secondary source or worse. And you want to avoid those as much as possible. Use primary sources instead. Primary sources provide credibility and authority that help demonstrate your ability to report and write a story.
So how do you find primary sources? Here are some examples:
- Look to university professors, government agencies, professional associations, leading authorities, and noted authors on your topic.
- Try to get more than one source to confirm, rather than relying on a single source.
- Stumped? Look up articles on similar subjects at major newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times or Forbes, and see who they quote. That should give you some leads.
Note: Remember not to over-research — think about how many factoids and bits of background info will fit in your story, and stop when you get enough.
Once you have your facts straight, it’s time to talk to some experts and/or ordinary people who’re experiencing the issue, trend, or problem you’ll write about.
6. Do quick pre-interviews
This is the part where for many newbie freelance writers, the whole thing screeches to a halt.
Yes. Most well-paid article assignments involve speaking to live humans (on the phone, or maybe on Skype, or in person). That’s one of the reasons they pay well — they require some legwork.
Breathe. You can do this. You talk to people every day, right?
Now that you have a premise for a story, this is the point where you can get interview practice by conducting quick pre-interviews of an expert or two on your topic.
- What’s a pre-interview? It’s a quick chat you do so that you have a few good quotes and ideas to put in your query letter. Think 10-15 minutes, tops.
- Prepare and listen. Come with a few of your top questions, and listen carefully to the responses. They’ll help you craft your follow-up questions.
Note: You might think that no one will talk to you for an article you don’t have assigned yet, but you’d be surprised. Not everyone will agree, but many will be game.
The bigger the market you’re pitching, the easier it’ll be. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time for an expert to risk for possibly ending up with a national-magazine mention.
A note about email ‘interviews’
In the world of blogging, collecting info via a quick email has become routine. But when it comes to well-paid article writing, not so much. Most legit magazines will expect you to actually speak to people, and may even require that you note it in the article if you only emailed, as in:
“This sucks,” said Joe Shmoe, in an email response.
Yes, that is awkward. So avoid it by screwing up your courage and doing actual interviews. It’s just asking people questions. No lives at risk. Practice with a friend, if you need to!
7. Create a headline
To test out whether your idea has now gelled and is ready to be pitched to picky well-paying magazine editors, try to create a headline for it. Use the headline style of your target publication.
If you struggle with this, your idea may not be fully baked yet.
Don’t be discouraged if it takes a bit of time to craft a strong headline, though — here’s a look at my headline-writing process.
You’ll need your headline to succeed with the next step in your article-writing journey.
8. Write a query
You might think that about now, I’d be telling you, “It’s time to write your article.”
Article writing in a vacuum, without an editor’s input, is a recipe for rejection (or at best, a low fee). A lot of newbie freelance writers make this mistake. But most well-paid publications aren’t excited about pre-written content.
Their editor wants to help shape the story, and be confident it’s what they want. (Also, they want to make sure it’s not duplicate content you’ve sent 10 other places.)
And that, writer friends, is why we write query letters.
Your query needs to do two things:
- Make a compelling case that your story belongs in their publication now — and..
- Convince the editor that you are the writer who should get the assignment.
There are many ways to go about this, but here’s a basic template that works reliably:
PUBLICATION QUERY TEMPLATE
Hi [editor’s name] –
- Fascinating opening question or lead sentence. [i.e. “Life coaches and career experts everywhere urge you to do what you love. But what about those things you hate — paying the bills, writing thank-you notes, cleaning the oven, walking the dog on a cold night, going to the dentist, washing the car?”]
- 1-2 Paragraphs (if needed) that provide supporting facts and flesh out the idea.
- “Nut graf” that provides proposed headline and sums up what the article would tell readers. [i.e., “In my proposed article, ‘Stopping Seattle’s Rat Invasion,’ readers would learn what officials are doing about this problem, as well as what they can do to discourage rats on their property.”
- Additional details on what the article would provide readers, who would be interviewed, etc. [i.e., “For my piece on Seattle’s rat problem, I would interview local homeowners who’ve had rat problems, including Joe Smith, who trapped 40 rats on his property this winter using caviar-baited traps; pest-control experts from the city’s Department of Construction and Inspection; and Cindy Lou Who, author of Getting Rid of Rats [Wiley 2017].”
- Information that reveals knowledge of the publication. [As in: “I’ve noticed there haven’t been many articles on car insurance in AAA Journeys recently, so I thought a piece on how to lower your rates would bring that aspect of AAA’s operations into the spotlight.”]
- Describe why readers would be particularly interested in this topic at this time (the ‘news hook’). [‘Since spring is when the rat population booms, these tips should be particularly timely for your March issue.”]
- Short bio. [“I am a Seattle-based freelance business and community issues writer.” A 1-sentence short list of your top credits can follow – “My work has appeared in Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business, and other publications” – if you have some worth mentioning.]
- Request for consideration. [“May I write this article for you?”]
Big tip: Write your whole query in the style of your target publication! Here’s how:
- Analyze what sorts of words, sentence lengths, vocabulary they use.
- Sculpt your query so that the editor can easily imagine you writing for their pages.
- Be sure to drop in a quote or two, so the editor sees you know how to get interesting ones that move the story forward.
A bigger tip: Don’t talk a lot about yourself. Let your idea make the sale. Pro freelance writers take 1-2 lines at the end of their query to talk about what they know that makes them the writer for the story.
As far as what to put in your email subject line (and yes, mostly these days you’ll be emailing editors), I went over that in detail recently here.
9. Write more queries
This is an important step. After you send off that query, don’t sit by the computer refreshing your email every 5 minutes. Write more queries! That’s what successful freelance writers do.
This is simply a numbers game. The more ideas you come up with, research, craft into queries and send, the more likely you will get assignments.
Assume nothing’s going to happen with Query One, and move straight to developing more ideas and writing more queries.
10. Get an assignment and contract
OK, this one is out of your control. But if you follow all the steps before this one, at some point, you’ll likely connect with an editor who wants you to write an article.
Once you have an assignment — and sign a contract that clarifies your topic, payment, payment terms, rights, deadline, and wordcount — you’re ready to write and get paid for your article.
Quick contract tips for publications:
- Try to get paid on acceptance, rather than publication
- See if they’ll include a ‘kill fee’ you get if they don’t use your article
- Try to retain some resale rights
- Most of that boilerplate isn’t going to matter
A word about fees: Increasingly, editors seem to ask freelance writers what they charge for an article, instead of stating their fee. Resist this trend, and ask what they typically pay. Most pubs have a usual rate…but many are exploring whether they can get it cheaper. If they won’t say, try asking around your writer network to see what you can find out.
11. Finish your interviews
Scored an assignment? It’s time to go back to your sources and get the rest of your interviews done. There may be new people you haven’t spoken to yet, and others who you pre-interviewed and may just have a few additional questions left.
Think like an editor
The key thing here is to make sure you get all points of view on your topic. Not just the one you agree with. Your editor expects freelance writers to provide balanced reporting and will want to know what all the different stakeholders think.
- You might need to hear from politicians, CEOs, customers, community activists, regular people in the community.
- Try to get a sense of what they all think. Don’t make the mistake of interviewing three book authors with similar points of view, and no other types of sources.
A note about recording
Lots of freelance writers ask me about recording interviews. I learned to type and take notes fast, and don’t record anymore. It just creates more work for you!
- If you do record, there are plenty of free and cheap tools to enable that. But…always also take notes. Because technology will fail you.
- Remember that your live interview is just a starting point. It’s OK to shoot them an email to clarify a fact or add one quick insight later!
- My stock final question is, “Where is the best place to contact you when I remember the important question I’ve forgotten to ask you just now?”
12. Organize your notes
By this point you’ve probably got a stack of interviews, research links, notes, and ideas. You’re starting to worry you have more than you can possibly fit in the article.
And…that means you’re done. When you hear that third expert saying much the same thing as the first one, you’ve probably got what you need.
Now, it’s time to organize this mess so that it’s easy to write your story.
Here’s my normal process:
- Highlight notes for the good parts.
- Boil that down into a quick outline of the top ideas, quotes, and facts that must be included.
- Pick what will make a good opener for the story and write it.
From there, it usually starts to organize itself and flow along.
Note: If you don’t organize your notes, writing your article takes practically forever, what with all the leafing through the pile to find that one quote you wanted. You might think skipping organization is a time-saver, but trust me, it’s not.
13. Write your article
Are you excited? It’s finally time to write your article!
A typical magazine article has four basic parts to it, which I’ll go over below.
The secret to writing a first draft…fast. I want to give you a big article-writing tip for creating a strong first draft: Try putting aside all your notes and quotes, and just writing the story.
- You know what the important parts are by now. Often, they will naturally rise to the top of your brain as you write.
- Try staying in the moment and dashing off a quick draft. Leave blanks for names or notes to check spelling and exact quote. Write the gist of the story, from your head, fast as you can.
- Or as I learned years ago, at a training put on by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism: write without notes, write without quotes, and write without attribution.
Just tell the best story you can. Staying in the storytelling flow is the most efficient way to create a strong reported article.
This ‘spit draft’ will often be a lot better than what you’ll come up with if you cobble the draft together slowly, shuffling through your notes, stopping and looking up names, and rechecking exact quotes as you go.
I’ve often spent a grinding, 8-hour day making all that happen. Instead, see if you could create a first draft in short order. Then, refer to your notes and outline to fill in details and make sure there isn’t an important point you forgot to include.
Now that you have that big-picture, ‘how to write an article’ process tip, it’s important to understand article structure, so your draft has all the key pieces needed to impress your editor.
Let’s break down the four main parts of a typical magazine article, and how to write them.
This is journo-speak for the lead sentence or three, or the beginning of your article. Simply put, the lede needs to be fascinating. Its job is to compel readers to continue reading the rest of the story.
Don’t write a ‘wind-up’ or ‘throat-clearing lede,’ where you take five paragraphs to get to the point (unless this is a very long article, and the publication’s style allows for this). Readers generally don’t have the patience for that anymore.
Instead, cut to the chase with something that makes us just have to keep reading. For instance, I once began a reported story with, “Briefly, it was Bambi in bondage.” You want to know what that’s about, no?
Here’s one I read this month, from a long feature about through-hiking in Florida, in Outside magazine:
Everyone told Tom Kennedy to expect flooded trails when he hiked through Big Cypress National Preserve in the spring of 2015. But as he sloshed through miles of waist-deep swamp water that hid alligators and aggressive snakes, the trail quickly got the better of him.
After that opener, most folks are reading on to paragraph two, I’d wager.
It’s a hallmark of amateur freelance writers that their ledes are boring. You want people to read your whole article, after all the hard work you put in, right? Make that lede shine, and they will.
Remember, this lede serves double-duty, as you may also use it in your proposed query letter to try to get hired. Spend some time on it — I’d say I rewrite mine dozens of times, typically, before I’m satisfied.
The ‘nut graf’
A paragraph or three on from the lede, after you’ve finished that opening anecdote, interesting fact, or brief expert quote, it’s time to orient readers. They won’t read through a long piece without having a sense of what they’re going to find out if they do.
The nut graf (or nut paragraph) is the orientation guide.
Here’s one my 4 Week Journalism School(LINK) co-teacher Linda Formichelli wrote for trade magazine Club Industry:
If you believe the news, we’re a country full of half-awake zombies who need to chug caffeine just to make it through the day. While the reality isn’t quite that bad, many Americans are sleep deprived, and it’s harming their health. We spoke with health clubs and sleep medicine experts about why health clubs should help their members get the Z’s they need—and how to do it.
Note: A strong nut graf sends your reader on to complete the story with the confidence that they understand the direction this article will take — but not with enough info that they feel fully informed and stop reading.
After the nut graf, it’s time to lay out the rest of your article. The body of your story should be well-organized, with each paragraph and topic logically flowing on to the next.
Profile that rock star. Spotlight the experts who want us to drink kombucha. Tell your story.
These days, this will often involve subheads, bullets, or a list of points to help readers navigate through the rest of your information.
A few tips for the body:
- Simplify. If you research and interview like I do, you likely won’t be able to fit everything you’ve learned into this article. Look for side issues you could prune out and possibly spin into another article.
- Watch your transitions. Your article body shouldn’t jump abruptly from topic to topic. Read the last sentence of one paragraph and the first sentence of the next. Do they make sense together? If not, adjust.
- Organize sources. Try not to ping-pong back and forth between your sources and quotes…it’ll get confusing for the reader. Introduce an expert, use them, and then use the next one. Maybe come back to the first expert toward the end.
- Quote short and zingy. Usually, 1-2 sentences is good. Don’t use a quote where you could sum up a point narratively. Quotes should add insight, show the personality of the subject, or convey something that would be lost if you rephrased it in narration. Don’t overuse quotes.
Tip for longer articles: Outline the sections you’ll need, and give each a proposed wordcount. This will help you write to length and avoid having to do a ton of cutting later.
Every article must end — and it should end in a snappy way. This is the final thought you are giving the reader, so make it count.
Writing a strong conclusion also helps prevent editor chopping from the bottom (a habit many editors have). If you have a strong final point, the editor’s more likely to come to you and ask you where to shrink the piece down, giving you more control over your article’s final form.
I love ending articles with one last, insightful quote. Other ways to wrap a story include talking about what may happen next with this news or trend, or simply doing a quick recap of what we’ve learned.
14. Boil it down (editing)
Congratulations — you have a first draft! Now, it’s time for burnishing it to greatness in the editing process.
Remember, your editor didn’t want the first 750 words that come into your head. They want the 750 most concise, sharp, accurate, style-appropriate words they can get on their assigned topic.
And no, they don’t secretly want 1,500 words from you. Turn in a piece way over assigned length, and you risk having a cranky editor.
The road to article greatness
It begins by going through your draft for anything that should be cut or boiled down. Start big and go small.
- Any paragraphs that are redundant? Cut.
- How about sentences? Cut.
- Extra words? (Looking at you, ‘very,’ ‘just,’ and ‘really’…). Cut.
Once you’ve shrunk out the fat, you can go back to your notes for points you hated to leave out, and add more meat.
Final read-thru tips
Finally, give it another read-through to make sure it still all flowing smoothly and making sense. During that re-read, also think about the publication’s tone and whether your word choices and sentence lengths are all conforming well. Adjust as needed.
15. One last fact-check…
Here’s an often-overlooked step that will save you a lot of heartache. Once you’ve edited your draft and it’s ready to turn in, go back through one last time and re-check all your statistics, quotes, and facts.
You’ll often discover you’ve got a figure or name-spelling wrong. Or you linked to the wrong site, or have attributed a quote to the wrong person.
The fewer errors in your story, the less likely it is your editor gets suspicious that you’re sloppy. And then decides to go over your draft with a magnifying glass to look for issues…and you get back a sea of red ink.
16. File your article
This might seem like an obvious step, but at this point in the process, many freelance writers balk. You want to edit it some more! You want to wait a few more days!
Don’t. You can’t earn a living at this by overthinking. You’ve written your draft, edited, fact-checked. Maybe let it sit overnight for one final read, but that’s it.
Time to press ‘send’ and fire off that draft to your editor.
17. Respond to editor feedback
Next comes a critical phase that may decide whether you can cut it in the world of well-paid articles: Your editor will want changes.
Unless the requested changes insert errors, misconstrue what one of your sources said, or fundamentally change the drift of your story… your job is to cheerfully make those changes.
Remember, they know their style and their readers better than you do. Usually, editor suggestions will make your piece better, so try to stay open-minded.
18. Finalize and invoice
Hopefully, you’re able to conclude edits fairly painlessly, and your editor lets you know your article is now finalized. If you haven’t invoiced when you sent your first draft in (my personal habit), send your invoice now.
For extra credit… send in another article query along with that bill. Keep the momentum going and land another assignment, while the editor is feeling happy about the piece you just did.
How to write an article — your way
There you have it — your complete guide for how to write an article for great-paying publications. I hope this helps you move up to better article-writing jobs.
Don’t like some of my tips on how to write an article that pays? That’s cool. Experiment and create your own process!
I boiled this down from 12 years writing 3-4 articles a week plus 15+ years of freelance work…but if something else works better for you and gets you the lucrative article assignments, then it’s all good.
Want feedback on your article from pro magazine editors? Check out 4-Week Journalism School.