Thursday, February 03, 2011
An Interview with Jodi Webb: Freelance Writer and WOW! Team Member
Jodi Webb is a Pennsylvania writer with the motto "Never say no." As a result she's written advice columns on organization, text for Nintendo DS games, trivia questions for charity fundraisers, and toy and book reviews in addition to the more familiar annual reports, press releases, and company brochures. She's written hundreds of articles for magazines such as Birds and Blooms, PTO Today and The History Magazine. When an editor turned down an idea for an article about the free canteens of World War II, she wrote it as a historical novel, The Cookie Ladies, and is now looking for an agent. She deals with writer's block by baking cookies and discussing ideas with the family dogs, Maggie and Daisy.
WOW: Jodi, welcome to the Muffin! We're thrilled you've decided to share your experience on freelance writing. So, let's start at the beginning. How should a writer prepare herself to enter the freelance marketplace?
Jodi: Get yourself some thick skin; we’re talking armadillo worthy. I’ve met too many people who won’t take that first step and send something out because they’re worried about rejection. Stop worrying—you’ll get rejected. We all do. What’s important is what you do with that rejection. Do you let it bog you down, or do you learn from it?
Seriously, I would say do your research, so you know the basics: how to query, who to query, what you can do to make your query stand out—in a good way. Then jump in. I think freelancing is like swimming. You just won’t learn how to do it while you’re still standing on the beach. Since freelancing is constantly changing, you’re constantly learning, adjusting, and improving to meet new expectations. I know, I started out with a typewriter and SASEs.
WOW: I love this quote—“Get yourself some thick skin; we’re talking armadillo worthy.” And it’s great advice! We know that a writer's bio and resume is an important asset to a publication, but what if she doesn't have any published clips yet? What should she do to build her platform?
Jodi: Shhh, don’t tell anyone you don’t have clips. I’m a big believer in tooting your horn if you have clips and just glossing over it if you don’t. Don’t ever, ever say, “I’ve never been published.”
If you’re trying to get that first clip and you don’t have any clips to convince the editor that you are the perfect person to do the job, you have to look to other experiences. If you’re pitching an article about parenting, talk about being a parent or about the ideal expert you’ll be interviewing (your brother-in-law, but hey, don’t tell them that!).
I’ve always said you can get that first job without clips; but if you feel you need them, submit a few free pieces: letters to the editor, newsletters for your favorite charity, guest posts on blogs. My only caution is: when you’re throwing around your work with a big FREE sign on it, target places that can help you. If you want to start writing for children’s magazines, writing a grant for your local fire department won’t help you. Writing a story for a church bulletin will. Get clips that count.
I have trouble with the platform thing…I have a sporadic blog and Twitter account. I’ve started teaching classes for WOW!. I also do speaking engagements at writers’ conferences, writers’ groups, and other opportunities. I wish someone would tell me how to build a platform.
WOW: It sounds to me like you are creating multiple streams of income, which I believe is the key to success as a freelancer. So, as we learn from example, what was the very first freelance publication you were accepted to? And what did your query letter entail?
Jodi: My very first article was for Pennsylvania Magazine. Thanks, Matt! I wrote about the history of the Pagoda, a local landmark in the city of Reading. And miraculously one of my photos ended up as the cover shot. This was back in my typewriter days, so I don’t have a copy of the query letter. As well as I can remember, it had a lot of questions and a lot of lies. “Have you ever wondered why a neon pink Pagoda stands like a guard over the city of Reading? How did it get there in the first place? Whose idea was it?” The lies concerned the photos. After reading their guidelines in Writer’s Market mentioning their need for photos, I swore up and down that I had great photos of the Pagoda. Not exactly. I had a camera. I knew where the Pagoda was.
Pennsylvania Magazine was the second magazine I had ever queried. I sent the same pitch to Pennsylvania Heritage and got rejected. I sent to them first because they paid more! On the good side, I did enough research to know that PA Mag worked with newbies, needed stories unique to Pennsylvania, and wanted accompanying photos. On the bad side, I didn’t even bother to look at their magazine, didn’t mention word count, and didn’t mention past experience. (I worked on my college publications).
Because of my experience with Pennsylvania Magazine, I’m always telling people who attend talks I give, “You don’t have to write for free. You can get paying assignments without clips.” Two decades later, I still do work for Pennsylvania Magazine.
WOW: In your opinion, when you write query letters, what do you find is the key ingredient that entices an editor?
Jodi: I always try to get a great first sentence because I know if that doesn’t grab them, they won’t continue reading. I try to match my first sentence to the magazine’s writing style. If they’re funny, I want a funny first sentence. If they like quotes from experts, I want to quote and expert in the first sentence. When they’re reading, I want them to think, “This sounds like us.”
WOW: So basically, it’s important to be familiar with the magazine even when you write your query. Do you have a query letter you could post here for us to learn from and see a good example?
Jodi: This query was for a magazine called Church Libraries. I couldn’t determine if Lin was male or female, so I went with the entire name. I just got the assignment.
Dear Lin Johnson,
Many church libraries are off the "beaten path" as far as book tours are concerned. If you aren't in a large city or the author's hometown, the chances of you receiving a visit are slim…unless you set up a virtual visit. Many authors are willing to participate in a virtual visit with interested readers (often book clubs) that only requires a phone with speaker capabilities. I would like to tell your readers about how to schedule and conduct a virtual visit and how to increase interest in the weeks before the visit in your church community, as well as a sidebar listing some appropriate authors. "Author Visits: Can You Hear Me Now?", including the sidebar, would be approximately 800 words long.
I am an avid reader who, with my three children, is a frequent visitor to my local library. As a blog tour organizer for WOW! Women on Writing, I get an insider's view of book promotion and how church libraries can enjoy an author's promotional opportunities. I have written for a variety of magazines including GRIT, Birds and Blooms, and PTO Today as well as reviewed books for Sacramento Book Review. You can view my resume and clips at www.jodiwebb.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Jodi M. Webb
WOW: Congratulations on landing the assignment, and thanks for sharing your query with us! You have had some success with writing fillers for magazines. Tell us how these help your freelance career.
Jodi: There are several advantages to fillers. First, you don’t have to consciously sit down, do research, and write them. They come to you while you’re doing the dishes, watching the news report about insomnia, or listening to the woman next to you on the bus tell a funny story about her baby. Suddenly, you realize you have a great way to get off dried fried egg, sleeping tips, or a funny story about your child. You just have to be aware and “catch them” as you think of them to submit later. Next, they pay well. OK, they pay between $5 and $50 on average. But if you work out the per word pay or even the per hour pay, they pay really well! Plus you can resell them. Last, they give you something to list in your clips file. When I send queries, I tell editors I wrote for Reader’s Digest. I don’t tell them it was for the humor column! I have a list of filler markets and think everyone should have a similar list to help them find homes for their fillers quickly.
WOW: Great ideas, Jodi! For WOW!, you recently taught a class on writing for regional magazines. Please tell us what students learn in this class. Will you be offering it again?
Jodi: During my class on regional magazines, I tell students about everything from where to find regional magazines to what types of articles regionals like to how to find query ideas. I also work with each individual student to find regionals in their area, select an article idea, and craft a ready to send query. I would love to teach this class again because regionals really gave a boost to my career, and I’d like to see others benefit from working with regionals.
WOW: It sounds like a great class. Have you had a lot of success with regional magazines? Why do you think this is so?
Jodi: Off the top of my head, I’ve counted nine regionals that I wrote multiple articles for; and I suppose I’ve been so prolific with them because I’ve always liked the quirky. I queried the stories that might have been small but were also something they hadn’t been offered before. Instead of querying with a story about my town’s Yuengling’s Brewery (oldest brewery in America), I wanted to write about the guy who raised ostriches and used their eggshells to create art. Instead of interviewing our newly elected representative, I wanted to interview the woman who sent a vintage photo to the local newspaper and wanted to know if anyone in town knew whom that man was. They were all memorable instead of just another story about Yuengling’s or just another story about a politician.
Regionals are a wonderful place to begin your career because they are more likely to hold your hand, guiding you through the process, and to contact you saying, “Hey, there’s something going on in your area. Can you do a story on it?” They also give you a chance to stretch your skills and try new things…interviewing experts, photography, columns. It all seems less intimidating when you’re doing it for a magazine that’s located in Camp Hill or Akron instead of New York City. Plus you never seem to run out of article ideas!
WOW: I bet a lot of people are making notes about checking into regionals in their area! On your blog, you have a separate page titled, “Hire Jodi.” What can people hire you to do? Why is it important to offer multiple services?
Jodi: I have a writing buddy and our motto is “Never say no.” So basically I’ll do just about anything in the writing field. Along with magazine writing, I do a broad range of writing that I call business writing. For various businesses, I’ve written press releases, website text, product copy, blogs, promotional material, copy for video games, annual reports, advertorials— just about anything really. I also teach writing workshops, which is really fun—I have the teaching gene and used to teach.
I think it’s important to offer multiple services because if one branch of your business is slow, you can rely on another part of your business. Also, if a business has hired you to write a press release and is comfortable with you and your work, then you can expand by saying, “I also do annual reports, website text…” or whatever it is you know they now need. Businesses like the idea of having one go-to girl instead of having to juggle a half-dozen people.
WOW: What is a recent freelance success that you’ve had?
Jodi: I just finished editing a children’s book, which is something I’ve never done before. I can’t wait to hold the book in my hands. Hopefully, this one job will give me enough confidence to apply for other editing jobs. I’ll have to add another paragraph to my “Hire Jodi” page.
Also, I got hired to lead workshops at my first large writers’ conference and to speak at Susquehanna University’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, which hosts a speaker each month for members of the community. I’m pretty excited about both, and they’re both happening the same week. When it rains, it pours!
WOW: Congrats on all that success! In recent years, big print magazines have moved to online publishing only. What do you think about this move? And, in your opinion, how does this affect the freelance marketplace?
Jodi: I’m a print gal, so I miss some magazines that have done away with their print version altogether. But as a writer, I’m realistic. If they didn’t switch to online, many of these magazines would be gone, along with their possible assignments. So, I’m going to be the half-full girl and say online is a good thing, considering the alternative.
Writing for an online market is different from writing for a print market. You have to adjust your style: shorter, divided, easy to scan, links. But different doesn’t mean bad. Although some online editors think they don’t have to pay for online writing, the established magazines who are switching to online issues are still offering payment. They recognize that only quality writing will make readers stick with their magazine; and for quality writing, you need to hire people who expect payment.
WOW: Do you have any motivational/inspirational tips you can share with our freelancers?
Jodi: Set a schedule. Every morning by 7:30 a.m., I’m at the computer (my son’s bus leaves at 7:17). It would be so easy to get back in bed or sit around reading the newspaper for an hour; but for me, this is the start of the day, every day. During the summer, I may start as late as 8:30; but if I know we’ll be doing something later, I’ll probably be up at the same time to get my writing done.
Set goals. I’m better with short term goals. I have eight wooden blocks on my desk—the kind with letters and numbers on them. Each time I send out a query, I remove one block; and my goal is to remove them all. I find the visual reminder really kicks my guilt into overdrive. It’s Thursday, and I only have one left.
Don’t be afraid to try new things—new topics, new markets, new kinds of writing. What’s the worst that could happen? They say no. It’s not like they’re going to point at you and laugh.
Don’t dwell on rejection, or it will paralyze you. Consider rejections just long enough to determine if there was anything you could have done better and then move on. To paraphrase George Costanza (am I dating myself here?), “Sometimes it’s not you; sometimes it’s them.”
WOW: I love the wooden block idea! Do you have a mentor? And, what does being a mentor mean to you?
Jodi: Wow, I could use a mentor. I come from a small town and didn’t know any writers when I started magazine writing; and now that I’m starting again with novel writing, I feel like I know no one again. That’s not true. From my work with WOW! Women on Writing, I actually know a lot of people, but not close enough to say, “Here read my novel. Help me. Give me a clue.”
I may not have a mentor, which I think of as someone who is a success in your field and willing to pass on what they’ve learned, but I do have a lot of writing friends—both online and through my writing group. People who pass along markets, encourage me, tell me the truth, and occasionally give me a kick when I need it.
WOW: As freelancers, we know it's all about promotion. So, feel free to tout your flair! What are you up to?
Jodi: Shall I get out my to-do list? I have a few friends reading my manuscript, The Cookie Ladies, that takes place in small town America during World War II, and then I’ll begin sending it out to agents. I’m also sending out a children’s book, Harry and the Team. Meanwhile, it’s a toss up on what I’ll start next—a cozy mystery I already have outlined or a middle reader idea I’ve been tossing around.
On the non-fiction side, I’m busy booking WOW! Blog Tours, writing a few magazine articles, doing a few writing workshops. Maybe I should just post that to-do list!
WOW: It all sounds great, and we wish you much success! Any closing words of wisdom for our readers?
Jodi: Just remember, editors aren’t going to sneak into your office and go through your stuff in the middle of the night. You have to send it out. Be brave!
WOW: Thank you, Jodi, for taking time out to chat with the Muffin readers! We appreciate the wisdom you've imparted with us today. I'm sure our readers will want to check out all you have in store!
Ladies, if you'd like to know more about Jodi Webb, please visit:
Words by Webb at http://www.jodiwebb.com
And continue to "Think Green!"
Interview conducted by Margo Dill. To read more by Margo, check out: http://margodill.com/blog/