Writing For The Web Can Be Lucrative

In the past two years, freelance assignments have taken me to some interesting places: I’ve hiked the steaming caldera of a Hawaiian volcano, snorkeled the world’s deepest spring, rappelled into an Alabama cave, and held a piece of ALH 84001, the famous rock from Mars. I’ve written about these adventures at the average rate of a dollar per word.

So what, you ask? Isn’t this the sort of fun freelance writers have always bragged about?

Well, yes and no.

What’s unusual in my case (but quickly getting to be the norm) is that none of the stories I wrote about these adventures ever appeared on a printed page. They were published on the World Wide Web, Le Matin, in The Discovery Channel Online (DCOL) and ABCNews.com. And as such professionally produced, well-funded electronic magazines like these proliferate, print writers can expect to find a lucrative and growing market on the electronic frontier.

It’s a mistake to assume, however, that editors of Web-based media want the same material you’d produce for that quaint wood-pulp-based medium you’re reading at the moment. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” The Web is still in its infancy; so far no one has figured out exactly what message its audience wants. But what has become increasingly clear is that the online audience doesn’t want to read traditional magazine articles thrown across a computer screen.

What follows, then, are a few evolving guidelines for the online freelancer. Keep in mind that the key word is evolving; Since my first online article was posted in July 1995, hundreds of magazines have appeared online. Hundreds have vanished. The few long-term survivors have changed their basic look and content, on average, every three to four months. This means that any print-based information for specific markets (including information in this article) may be out of date by the time you read it. So the trick is learning how to analyze the ever-morphing markets on your own, and how to sell to a particular site once you’ve pinned it down for the moment.

Study the Markets

wfwclEven though the medium is new, my first point of advice isn’t. As with freelancing in print, you can’t expect to sell professional writing to a magazine you’ve never read. In order to break into a given Web site, study every available screen of content. (This means that to sell to the online magazines, you must have regular access to a personal computer loaded with Netscape, Microsoft Explorer or some other Internet browser, as well as Internet access. If you can’t afford this, many universities and libraries provide public access.) Use the “Magazine” listings on such search engines as Yahoo, Excite or AOL Find to browse the marketplace.

Look at current issues, and call up past screens from archives (which virtually all sites maintain). Notice such things as number and type of advertisers. With most online magazines, the ads are narrow bars (called banners) at the top of the page. Clicking on these will usually lead you through several pages of information. Studying the organization of these advertising pages will tell you a great deal about the demographics of the magazine’s audience.

If there are no advertisers, chances are there is no available money to pay freelancers, unless the Web site is sponsored by a large private organization, such as a national environmental organization.

Pay attention to regular departments, or slots, especially those featuring the bylines of a number of different authors a sure sign that the slot is open to freelancers. Observe the use of photos, audio and video, as well as the number of screens of print devoted to particular articles.

You may be able to find market information for sites that interest you in the “Online Markets” section of the 1998 Writer’s Market, or in the Markets section of Writer’s Digest (see page 38 and the October 1997 issue). With print magazines, prospective writers often send SASE for writer’s guidelines, which they usually receive a few weeks later. But many online magazines post writer’s guidelines that you can access instantaneously, although you may have to navigate around the site for a while to find them.

Usually, if you click on a magazine’s logo or the phrase “About Us,” you’ll get a mission statement describing the editorial slant and the intended audience, a masthead listing staff members, and guidelines for freelance submissions. Some sites will include brief bios of specific editors in the masthead, letting them describe in their own words the sections they edit and their particular tastes–invaluable information for the free lancer.

Even more useful are the editors’ e-mail addresses. Virtually all correspondence with online magazines, from your initial query letter through final revisions and corrections of your published article, will be handled via e-mail. If you don’t have the editor’s e-mail address (and, obviously, if you don’t have an e-mail address yourself, you have no hope for making a sale.

If the site you want to sell to doesn’t list e-mail addresses for editors, usually a “Feedback” button will allow you to e-mail the editorial offices. If editors names are listed, but no e-mail address is given, you may be able to track down the proper address through Bigfoot, WhoWhere or one of the other Internet e-mail directories. (At some Web sites, especially those tied to television networks, the editors may be called “producers,” but they assign articles and edit text in exactly the same way as other Web sites’ editors.)

When you’ve picked out a likely magazine, one that interests you, uses (and clearly pays for!) freelance material, and you’ve found an e-mail address for an appropriate editor at that magazine, you’re ready for the next step: selling the piece. I use a process that I’ve shorten to the acronym SELL: Slots; Elitist hipster attitude; Long equals bad; and Links, links, links.

Slots

As with print magazines, most online markets separate main features and cover stories from shorter, regular departmental pieces. And as with print, the best way to break in is to pitch an appropriate, well-honed slot idea to the appropriate editor. The best-known, highest-paying sites–places like DCOL, Salon, HotWired, Slate and Women’s Wire–use well-known authors and journalists for big features, but are all surprisingly receptive to freelance contributors in their smaller slots. (The obvious exceptions are columns contracted to individual writers, such as the science columns written by Les Dye at ABCnews.com or Hannah Holmes at DCOL.)

Slots are often difficult for editors to fill because each week or month they have to find an idea that fits the format without duplicating a piece already posted. For example, I’ve sold several times to an essay slot at DCOL called Gone, which is published weekly in the Exploration department, edited by Greg Henderson. Every essay that runs in the slot is entitled “Gone . . .” followed by a type of adventurous destination: “Gone . . . to the Volcano,” “Gone . . . to the Cave Carnival,” “Gone . . . Searching. for Aliens” and so on. The essays are all first-person, about 750 words long, and describe what Henderson calls “a single scene from the midst of an adventure.” Any writer who reads several of these in a row is likely to come up with a personal experience–or perhaps even a piece already written for print–that could be shaped to the demands of the Gone slot. And virtually every department of every online magazine has several such slots.

Elitist Hipster Attitude

From its beginning in the fall of 1996, my Writing for New Media course (which focuses mainly on the Internet) has required students to give periodic oral reports on particular sites. One student discovered, in the writer’s guidelines for Charged, a youth-targeted spin-off of Outside Online, a phrase that the class embraced as mantra, with great success: “The pieces we’re looking for,” a Charged editor wrote, “show elitist hipster attitude.”

None of us quite knew what the phrase meant. But we grokked that it described the esthetic of many of the sites we’d studied. We even shortened the phrase to EHA, and in many of our workshops one writer would say to another, “This piece could work if just had more EHA.”

Like the Web surfers who spend time reading online, online writing is informal, smart, often irreverent, occasionally profane, unafraid to use the word grok (which means “to understand”) or to drop references to, say, the TV show Friends, Robert Heinlein and Immanuel Kant within the space of a paragraph. In short, online writing is playfully cool. Whenever I sit down to write a Web piece, I imagine I’m sending a casual e-mail to a well-read friend, rather than addressing a Mass Audience as an Electronic Journalist. I do the same careful reporting I’d do for print, of course; I gather accurate facts and arresting quotes and vivid scenic detail. I just keep in mind that the level of diction evolving for this medium is far more relaxed, if also a bit more self-conscious, than the diction of Consumer Reports or The Atlantic Monthly.

Such writing doesn’t always come naturally. But if you can master it, beginning with the e-mail correspondence by which you introduce yourself to editors, you’ll have come a long way toward adopting the prevalent culture of the Web. Even the fairly straightforward news items at ABCnews.com indulge in puns and pop culture analogies in ways that would make Peter Jennings bristle.

Perhaps the best mainstream example of EHA can be found in the articles and essays of Salon and HotWired. These Web magazines assume their readers are informed on current technology, current events and the media, and that they really enjoy their fun. And have retained at least a few bytes of whatever classical education they were once exposed to. And aren’t particularly offended by sentence frays, unexplained computer terms, or lines ending in prepositions.

If you catch my drift.

Long Equals Bad

The little glowing window of even a high-resolution monitor requires type to be much larger than what readers tolerate on a magazine page, and the window is made even smaller than the screen by the order imposed by a Web browser. So from type size alone, even a fairly short and snappy magazine piece can appear dreary and endless on a computer screen. The typical 3,000-word feature from Glamour or Sports Illustrated becomes Joyce’s Ulysses online, unless broken into discrete nuggets on separate screens.

Writing and pictures (and sometimes audio and video) must work together with entirely different constraints than those imposed on a magazine page, and some Web sites also toss audio and even video into the mix. Whenever you put a story online, your readers (viewers? users? conducts?) are never more than a mouse-click away from arcade shoot-outs and nude celebrities. Every line must grab attention.

The first article I sold to an online market was a 2,500-word feature with all sorts of internal hypertext links and sidebars and video clips, which ran in July 1995, during the inaugural week of DCOL. Many thousands of readers clicked onto the story’s spectacular opening photo–which took a frustrating amount of time for older PCs to download and many read the opening screen of text. But fewer than 10% bothered to navigate through the many screens of the entire piece. Now, at DCOL as at most other sites, the longest a single piece ever gets is about a thousand words. Big features, such as a dinosaur dig in Mongolia or daring helicopter rescues with the New York City area Coast Guard, appear in the form of several separate articles, each posted on a different day.

Online readers may read several related pieces of 700 to 1,000 words, but they just don’t have the patience for very long features; very few online magazines will now consider anything longer. And there are many shorter pieces, in the range of 300-500 words. It’s not so much that Internet readers have short attention spans (although that may be true of many), but the physical act of reading on a screen and scrolling with a mouse is simply more effort to most people than the comparable act of thumbing through a magazine on the couch or in bed. Therefore, the material must move faster, and deliver knowledge and entertainment more quickly.

Length is a consideration at all levels of your writing. Within a piece, paragraphs are typically much shorter than those in print magazines. If a paragraph can’t fit into a single browser window, it probably needs to be broken into two or three. Sentences, like paragraphs, need to be short online. And words–short ones are better than long ones.

Links, Links, Links

The final key to successful online writing is to take full advantage of the medium by providing readers (and your editor) with both internal and external hot links. A link is an underlined word or phrase that appears on the computer screen in a different color than the surrounding text. Clicking on an internal link takes you to a sidebar or elsewhere within an article. Clicking on an external link takes you out of the article and into some other domain–usually another Web site with useful information on the underlined topic.

For example, if a travel piece contained the line, “We drove north from Rome past the ancient town of Viterbo,” clicking on the word “Viterbo” might bring a reader to an internal link comparing three reasonably priced hotels in Viterbo. Or it might just as well take the reader to an external Web site maintained by an Italian company that runs tours Viterbo’s famous hot springs. Because an external site might lure a reader away from an article (and magazine’s advertisers), most sites use them sparingly, often saving them for the end of the article or a separate “Links” button. But nearly all sites use internal links. They provide a way of making the main article–which is always too long–a little shorter.

In your initial article query, it is thus wise to suggest one to three internal links for the average factual article (links are not as common in personal essays, which are usually fairly linear). You should also suggest four or five external links, not only as possible uses for the proposed piece, but as a means for the editor to seek more information on your proposed topic, if the editor wants it. And if the site employs still images, video or audio, you might also suggest links to external sites that might serve as willing sources for such material (although, obviously, editors will have to get permission before running copyrighted images or sound with your article).

Sell It

If you can become familiar with the aspects of netjournalism, you’ll quickly find that the markets are more responsive than most print magazines. The medium is new enough that editors haven’t yet been overwhelmed with thousands of bad queries and jam-smeared religious short stories. You’ll often receive a quick response to your query (anywhere from minutes to a few days, as opposed to the weeks you’ll wait for answers from the slicks). And when you do make a sale, you’ll almost certainly be asked to contribute additional stories to the site.

I don’t think the Web will replace bleached wood pulp within my lifetime. I still have ideas for long, in-depth pieces that I dream of selling to Harper’s or The New Yorker. But writers write, and professional writers write for money.

I’ve learned that online articles are more than a great way to earn a few dollars: They’ve helped me grow as a writer, by forcing me to adopt an economy of style that the printed page didn’t always demand. They’ve helped me grow as reader, by immersing me in a creative medium I might otherwise have ignored. I’ve received instantaneous feedback from readers’ e-mail, and my articles stay “in print” for as long as the Web site maintains it archives–usually a year or two.

In other words, I feel like a real writer, as opposed to a virtual one. Not to mention the trip to Hawaii.

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