If you’ve been writing professionally for a while, you’ve probably noticed that pay rates at most magazines have remained the same. A dollar a word is still the magic number — as it was in the eighties and even earlier. Add in inflation and the fact that assignments are getting shorter but still requiring the same number of sources as longer pieces, and you can argue that magazine payrates have actually declined.
One way to help offset dropping payrates is to write faster so your per-hour rate is higher. Fortunately, I’m a very fast writer. Just this week, I completed an 800 word assignment that paid $400 in about two hours, interviews and all. $200 per hour is nothing to sneeze at. (And if you do sneeze at it, stay away from me! I’m too busy to get sick right now.)
People always ask me how I write so fast. I addressed this partly in my post Channeling Your Inner Squirrel. In a nutshell (get it? squirrel? nut?), it took years of practice and learning to trust myself. But for those of you who want to up your pay now, not ten years from now, try these tips:
1. Specialize. When I write on nutrition topics I often already know the facts, and just need nutritionist sources to back me up with some snappy quotes. Because I write so many nutrition articles, I know what trans fats are, which foods contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which antioxidant is known to protect your eye health, and how many calories are in a teaspoon of sugar. Armed with this knowledge, I can often whip out a nutrition piece in quick order. And don’t think you have to specialize in just one area — my other niches include business and pets.
2. Type faster. I type like a dork, using only four fingers and my thumbs, but I type fast. I’d probably be even faster if I learned to type for real. Learn 2 Type offers a free typing test and exercises to help you learn to type faster. If you learn to type super-fast, you can transcribe your interviews as you conduct them, saving you lots of time and the pain of having to listen to your own voice on tape.
3. Delegate it. If there’s anything you feel you’re unbearably slow at, hire someone else to do it for you. It may seem counterintuitive to shell out bucks when you’re trying to earn more of them, but think of it this way: While someone else is transcribing your interviews, doing research for your articles, or helping you promote your book, you have time to do what you’re best at. For example, I paid my virtual assistant to turn about 175 of my paper clips into PDF clips that I can e-mail to my editors. While my VA spent those 15 hours scanning my clips, I was querying and working on articles that paid up to $250 per hour.
4. Break it up. Whenever I write a service piece, I use bullets or subheads to divide up the text. This has two benefits: It makes the article easier to read, and it makes the article easier to write. How many times have you spent 20 minutes laboring over a transition? If you use bullets or subheads, you don’t need transitions at all — you can jump right into the next point. True, you have to then come up with snazzy-sounding subheads, but that’s still way easier than trying to formulate a transition between two barely-related facts.
5. Don’t over-research. I often read about writers who are over-researchers: They interview 12 people for a thousand-word piece, download study after study, and generally stuff files full of papers they think might come in handy for their article. While I certainly don’t advocate half-assing your research, you can often get by with a fraction of that amount of work. I generally interview one person per 500 words plus one extra. So for a 500-word piece, I interview two people; for a 1,500-word piece, four.
6. Cut them off. A year or so ago I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest magazine on how to handle difficult interviewees. One of the types — the one I have the most trouble with — is the “Run-On Rhonda.” This is the source who talks and talks and talks and…you get the idea. She won’t let you get a word in edgewise, sidewise, or any other wise. And after an hour on the phone with this source, you end up with one usable quote — if you’re lucky. If you’re a wussy like me and afraid to get all assertive with your sources (“Shut up! Oh, for the love of all that is holy, will you please shut up!”), let them know up front how much time you’ve scheduled for the interview. I allow a half-hour for most interviews plus a half hour in between interviews just to be on the safe side, and after 25 minutes, if I feel I have enough info, I fib and say, “I hate to cut this short, but I have another interview scheduled at 12:30. May I follow up with you if any other questions come up while I’m working on the piece””
7. Info TK. In magazine parlance, TK stands for “to come,” and it means that you’ll be adding in the information later. (Why a K instead of a C? Beats me.) Can’t remember the name of an author you want to cite? Drop a TK in there and keep going rather than interrupting your writing flow to search for the name. Stuck on a word? TK it. Later on, as you revise or edit the piece before handing it in, chances are the right word will pop into your head.
Got more tips? Add ‘em to the comments! [lf]