7 Types of Articles That Editors Hate and Don’t Want to Pay You For

Angry editor doesn't like your storyEver wonder why your query letter to a magazine didn’t get a response?

It could be because the type of story you pitched is one the magazine doesn’t accept — or does, but expects to get for free.

If you’re in this to get great-paying article assignments, you need to understand the types of articles that make editors cough up the big bucks.

This is particularly hard, I think, for writers who’ve been mostly posting on their own blogs, or writing for content mills. The parameters of what’s desirable there are radically different from what magazines want.

Here’s a look at seven types of articles that make editors want to turn down your idea:

1. I’m the expert

Often, budding writers who are former lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, or some other type of professional have a history of contributing articles to their organization newsletter as a volunteer. When you show those clips and pitch more articles based on your expertise and pitch similar advice pieces, you may be disappointed to find publications expect them to be free.

To get paid to write articles, you have to position yourself as the writer, not the expert. You’ll be expected to go out and interview experts and report their points of view. This is a big shift, but one that will take you away from freebie articles to promote your profession and into the world of good-paying articles.

2. I have an agenda

Many of the story ideas I see when we review ideas in 4-Week Journalism School stem from something the writer wants to advocate for — say, that parents should encourage their children to journal.

If you have a topic about which you have formed a strong opinion, it will be hard to report an unbiased story in which you quote experts on both sides of an issue. You won’t talk to that expert who thinks lack of exercise is the biggest problem with our youth today and they should stow the notebook and go shoot some hoops.

Your story will end up lopsided and biased. If an editor even suspects you can’t be evenhanded with a story, they’re not going to give it a green light.

3. I have a HIDDEN agenda

Sometimes a writer has something they’re hot to promote — but they don’t disclose how they might personally benefit from promoting it.

For instance, I recently saw a travel-magazine pitch from a writer whose day job is with his country’s travel bureau, all about the advantages of coming to visit…his country! Pitching a story like this without disclosing who he works for is a conflict of interest. Obviously, this writer would have earned kudos from his boss and possibly even gotten a raise if he could stimulate more tourism business through this article, so the pitch was completely self-interested.

Trying to slip a piece like this by your editor is a great way to find yourself banned from writing for that publication ever again, once your deception comes to light. And trust me, it will.

4. I want to do an investigative expose´

You’ve discovered a thorny issue or wrongdoing that the public needs to know about and you’re all fired up to get that story told. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get a piece like this assigned as a freelancer, especially if it’s your first pitch to a publication. You’ll have more luck with publications where you already have an established track record.

The reason is that investigative work tends to be very time-consuming and require a deep understanding of journalism ethics. When you make accusations, you have to be very sure of your facts, or your publication risks getting sued out of existence. An editor is unlikely to trust an untried writer to dive into something that is potentially legally actionable and could take months to report.

This is why most investigative work is done by staff writers, where the publication has enough staff to spare someone for a big block of time. I once did an investigative piece as a staffer that I researched on and off for nearly a year. At the end, we concluded that while I had found an intriguing case of small-time charity fraud and facts were well-reported, the story didn’t reveal enough useful information to our publication’s readers to be worth the large amount of editorial space required to tell the story. The piece never ran.

Trust me, as a freelance writer, you don’t want to go down this kind of sinkhole and end up not earning after a ton of work. Also, quite often the expose a writer wants to do has to do with an issue they’ve got a personal point of view and agenda on…so see #2 again on that problem.

5. My story makes your advertisers look bad

You’re in double-trouble if the perceived wrong you are on a mission to right is something that is committed by the advertisers of your target publication.

For instance, I recently heard from a writer who wanted to do an investigative piece and prove that the major drug companies are conspiring to keep the public from knowing about and using natural remedies. Her idea was to pitch this to a lifestyle magazine full of ads for aspirin, Viagra and other big-pharma products. In going over that scenario with me, she suddenly realized why this story idea was a non-starter.

Yes, there is a division between editorial and advertising at most reputable publications, and the ad department can’t tell the editors what to write…but the publication also does have to stay in business. You probably need to find another venue if you’d like to take potshots at the people who pay their bills.

6. I want to vent

Something happened in your life that made you frustrated or angry, and you’d like to tell the world about it. These make great first-person essays…and the problem is those rarely pay well. Most see the light of day as free letters to the editor.

The reason these don’t pay well is vent articles rarely provide practical, useful information to readers. Helpful info is at the heart of the vast majority of well-paid articles, so your vent tends to get a “pass” from the editor. The way to sell these is to angle it away from being a vent and turn it into a useful case study others can benefit from, as I did when my blog was declared a malicious website by Facebook. By pitching the useful-lessons angle, I was able to get an editor’s OK to make it part of my paid blog for Forbes.

7. I’ve noticed a news peg, but don’t have an angle

Often, magazines will tie a story in with an upcoming event — the running of the bulls in Pamplona, or the 20th anniversary of a prominent local business. These create a “news peg,” or timeliness element that’s good to have in an article pitch…the problem is, you won’t be the only writer who’s thought of it. So if you pitch, “I’d like to write about the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech,” you’re only halfway there.

What will you say that hasn’t been said before about this event or institution? Without something fresh, this is more like a pitch to write a school paper (“What MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech means to me”) than a magazine article.

Will you do a roundup on how many streets in your town are named after MLK? Interview a surviving colleague? Cover an event being held in honor of the day? Catch us up on where MLK’s children are now, because you have exclusive access to them for interviews?

A strong story angle combined with a news peg can work great to get you the sale, but the fact that an anniversary is happening won’t do it alone. Without a defined approach, these articles could also ramble all over and lack focus, so the editor tends to shy away.

What article ideas have you had trouble selling? Leave a comment and I’ll try to help you refine your idea.

P.S. Congrats to Amanda @SkilfulScribe, who won the free ticket to 4-Week J-School!

 

Tagged with: , , ,
28 comments on “7 Types of Articles That Editors Hate and Don’t Want to Pay You For
  1. Don Wallace says:

    Good points and a very handy list.

    I’m scratching my head just a tiny bit over the prohibition of point #2, though: “I have an agenda”. I have seen MANY (presumably) objective pieces out in the wild that have a very obvious and clear agenda (or, I would call it, point of view), but they are accepted as journalism anyway.

    Can you give examples of open (not hidden) agendas that will cause a piece to be rejected? The only clear “no go” I can think of is to submit a piece that clearly doesn’t reflect the policies of the publication. (Such as, say, an article advocating green energy subsidies, submitted to the National Review.)
    Don Wallace recently posted…Software Case Studies: How They Work for You and How to Write OneMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      When you close your pitch with “I personally journal with my kids and believe every family should do so…” the editor is going to run.

      When you read a piece and there’s only one side of the story, a journalistic failure has occurred. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but editors WILL try to avoid them, so if you signal in your pitch that your mind is made up about this topic, you’re going to turn them off.

      • Don Wallace says:

        Thanks for that example – that clarifies it.

        But an approach like the one you cite is extremely common in the blogging world.

        It seems that the common style of selecting blog article subjects – the first person op-ed piece – is not what gets published by paying publications.
        Don Wallace recently posted…LinkedIn Endorsements: Social Media Sprinkles on the LinkedIn SundaeMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Exactly — there’s a mental shift that has to happen, to a different sort of writing where it’s not all about your personal thoughts. A lot of writers who come out of blogging have trouble with it, but if you can do it, there’s a lot of opportunity to earn more.

  2. I’ve put together a query on “Badges Women Wear” that I’ve pitched to magazines like Prevention and Better Homes and Garden on four self-defeating badges women wear–I’m Worried, I’m Stressed, I’m Busy, I’m a Martyr–with suggestions as to what the payoff is, what the price is and how to strip the badge. I’ve enlisted experts on all these topics. Better Homes and Gardens said it was too negative a slant, that they look for more pro-active stances. Haven’t heard from others. Wondering if you see another way to slant this so that it would be more saleable to the consumer market–or perhaps I’m targeting the wrong market?

    • Carol Tice says:

      You know, I think you’ve hit on another basic type of article that editors DO tend to pass on. They really like to limit the gloom and doom in consumer mags.

      Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post from Linda Formichelli right here, on how to turn those negative ideas into salable ones, Genita!

      • I got a somewhat similar piece of feedback on a self-branding slogan I tried (which I just realized is still on my Den Forum signature–now I’m trying to remember where to go to change it). It was “comfort to the stressed, depressed, and hard-pressed,” and my critic said it “reeked pure negativity” or something like that. I switched to “RICH writing–Radiant Inspiration for the Challenge to Happiness.”

        Are book publishers different from article publishers? I remember how such titles as Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess up Their Lives, A Child Called It, and who knows how many “the trouble with this whole world” books and angst-loaded novels have shot to the top of bestseller lists.
        Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

    • The topic per se doesn’t sound all that “un-consumery”–maybe the problem is in a query that is overly serious where it could be humorous, or spends 90% of the word count on the problem and mentions the solution almost as an afterthought. Or you might try a more behavioral-health-oriented market, such as Psychology Today. Just thoughts.
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

  3. undoubtedly, here seriously consist of island of resources that most newbie freelancer writer could absolutely benefit from like I’m doing now. 7 Types of Articles That Editors Hate and Don’t Want to Pay You For is really an eye opener as to how to operate better in the freelancing world.

  4. Okto says:

    Great post.
    Based on my experience, there are two main things you can do to minimize not getting paid. First of all, make sure you know when you can expect to get paid. Secondly, know where the text that you are writing will be published. If you know where the text will be, you will have a trail that can lead you back to the company who owes you money. It can be very hard to remind people they owe you money, particularly because you may worry that they won’t send you any further work. However, they owe you money so do make sure that you speak to them if their terms are not being met.
    Okto recently posted…Grow Referrals Without AskingMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      This post isn’t really focused on dealing with nonpaying clients, Okto — maybe you want to give it another read!

      This post, on the other hand, shares my tips on getting paid:

      http://www.makealivingwriting.com/2013/04/19/cash-flow-101-freelance-writers-or-feel-broke/

      Simply knowing “where the text” will be means nothing if you don’t have a contract for payment. Without one, the company has no obligation to pay you.

      Anyway…stay tuned later this week for advice on how to take these article types editors don’t tend to love and turn them into salable articles…great guest post coming up.

  5. Seems to me all your examples have a heavy dose of pomposity in common (well, maybe #7 is just laziness). Would-be writers who think they already know everything, can do anything, are smarter than the “establishment,” and generally were sent to earth to save it from human ignorance.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

  6. DavidS says:

    Are there even magazines that are still taking freelance pitches? Are there still any magazines?

    • Carol Tice says:

      More than 300 million print copies of magazines were sold last year, David. Writers like to sit around spewing negativity about the magazine sector, but the fact is it’s not going away, and new magazines continue to be launched.

      Many that do fold are going online, where some still pay nice rates. Don’t get hung up on the medium, either — I did $2,000 articles online for a client recently.

      And increasingly, publications do use freelancers rather than taking on the burdensome overhead cost of staff writers. I only see growing opportunity on the freelance side, not shrinking.

  7. Freelance success is based on knowing exactly what will help promote a publication.
    Thanks for this post!
    Best,
    Heather Villa

  8. Jigar Doshi says:

    reading 4th point immediately reminded me of Mikael Blomkvist from the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson and how he’d disappear for months together in the name of ‘investigating a lead’

    very informative post indeed. should be very helpful to freelancers 🙂
    Jigar Doshi recently posted…Iron Man 3 : Movie ReviewMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, hopefully we won’t be kidnapped by sadistic madmen in the course of our investigative work…but yeah!

      I’ve DONE investigative, and it can be a huge time-eater.

  9. Colin Guest says:

    I found these comments to be very positive. I recently read an online article promoting the idea of living in Northern Cyprus. As I had once worked there and have a friend living there, I sent him the article. He like me thought it was rather one sided in regards to the various issues raise, especially as the writer worked (part time) I beleive for a real estate company based in Northern Cyprus. If one writes an article about somewhere, one should give both the positive and negative sides of living there.

    • Carol Tice says:

      …and not have a personal agenda of “I’d like to make more real estate commissions in Cyprus, so you should visit here and help me do that!” That’s just not cool, unless the connection is fully disclosed.

      It may well have been something that writer contributed free to promote their business, which is to my point here…if you want to write pieces like this, where you’re the expert or have an agenda, publications won’t expect to have to pay for them.

  10. “Brilliant!” And so “Right on!” I learned the hard way to check first a company’s sponsors before I bad-pressed any villains. I especially love your “I want to do an investigative expose” which is always so fraught with danger of lawsuits, etc, for both writer (who often doesn’t know anywhere near all the facts, nor how they interrelate) and the mag/source he hopes buys the article. At present, I am writing a Vent Book, yet I’m coupling it with a focus on what needs change via actual recommendations….Lifts it out of the “Just Raging” category that basically serves no purpose…Thx for this article.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Some “vent books” become big bestsellers — your own book or ebook is a better venue for a vent topic than an article. Great point, Colleen!

      And yeah, it always will help if there’s some practical takeaway for the reader, not just “I hate X.”

    • Carol Tice says:

      In the classes I do, including J-School, we get a lot of pitches for these sort of investigative pieces…and they’re just not going to go anywhere as a first pitch. And you don’t even want them to — they take too much time to ever pencil out to a good hourly rate!

  11. Terr says:

    This is an excellent post, regarding ethics and journalism “industry rules”. I’ve already found one mistake that I was about to make (Mistake number two). I’ve learned how to easily correct the mistake (By finding sources on both sides of the issue).

    Thanks Carol !

    • Carol Tice says:

      Exactly! You may HAVE an agenda…but keep it to yourself, and realize your opinion isn’t the story in a reported article. If you can detach and let the experts make your points — as well as some opposing ones — then you’re good.

  12. Jacob Arvin says:

    Or, sometimes you may have an article that is a perfect idea, but you simply pitch it to the wrong editor and/or publication. As a freelance writer, be sure to do careful research not only when putting your proposal together, but especially when choosing to whom you pitch your proposal! If you only put in sufficient effort for the former without paying adequate attention to the latter, you simply will not get anywhere!
    Jacob Arvin recently posted…Seven Tips for Becoming a Fulltime Freelance WriterMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      And…keep pitching it around. Too many writers pitch it one place, wait 8 weeks, and then give up. Instead of sending it to 5 places at once, which is what you need to do if you’re gonna eat.

  13. Willi Morris says:

    I’d absolutely LOVE to do a travel piece on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement here. Problem is *everyone* has already covered it. I queried Fodor’s but haven’t heard anything back.
    Willi Morris recently posted…Living With Anxiety: When It’s Okay to Put Up the “Closed” Sign For A WhileMy Profile

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "7 Types of Articles That Editors Hate and Don’t Want to Pay You For"
  1. […] read Carol Tice’s take on articles you WON’T be paid for. How many of these traps have you fallen […]