Posts Tagged ‘editor’

Pop Tarts® and Peanut Butter: Fueling the Freelance Muse

Whenever I tell people that I work from home, they often react with envy. Sometimes they tell me, “oh, you’re so lucky!” and other times they say, “I wish I could work in my pajamas!” Yes, these are a few of the perks of the freelance life, and I am grateful for them, but working at home isn’t as easy as it sounds.

There are dozens of distractions to keep me from a hard day’s work. The lawn needs mowed, clothes have to be folded, or the dog wants to go for a walk. Things that I ordinarily hate doing somehow seem more pressing than the article that needs researched, the book that requires editing, or the blog that needs to be written. I could procrastinate and distract myself all day long, but it is hard to earn a paycheck that way, and I don’t want to live in, or eat out of, a cardboard box unless absolutely necessary.

So I must motivate and discipline myself on a daily basis. How? By fueling my muse with proper nutrition and exercise. I realize that doesn’t sound very sexy, but for me it absolutely works. Sure, I’d rather eat a box full of sickeningly sweet, strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts® washed down with a six-pack of Diet Coke as I work, but I’ve found that doing so drives my creativity away. When I eat like that, my brain gets stubborn and sluggish. My keyboard does too as the Pop Tart® crumbs wedge in between the keys and the spacebar, but I digress.

When loaded with sugar and unhealthy carbs, I simply can’t function for any length of time, particularly after the crash. You know the one I’m talking about – you’re full of energy, typing and thinking 100 miles an hour, the ideas are firing one right after the other, and then all of a sudden, without warning, your face falls flat on your desk. Your hands won’t move, and you are essentially comatose. Your cat hops up on the desk to see if you’re still breathing while the dog is inspecting your drool for leftovers. Nothing good is coming out of that brain today. Game over.

On the other hand, if I start the day with a meal of 200-300 calories that is high in protein and low in fat, I can work for hours. For example, I might have a veggie-filled egg white omelet, low calorie toast and fat free yogurt for breakfast or, if I’m in a hurry, a good, quality peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread with carrots and celery on the side. [Note:  caffeine is optional.] It is surprising how much I can actually eat for just a few hundred calories, and I rarely get hungry on this plan. Add 30 minutes of cardio daily and similar meals every two or three hours, and my muse and I are unstoppable. I don’t need caffeine, I can skip the nap and I don’t feel the desire to run to the fridge every five minutes. I’m satisfied, and I’m on fire.

I know, I know. Pop Tarts® and a triple mocha sound much more inviting first thing in the morning, but believe me, healthier meals and exercise will change your work life forever. Instead of sitting at your desk wishing you’d won the lottery, you will feel alert, productive and creative. And, as a special bonus, you’ll sleep better too.

But don’t take my word for it. If I haven’t convinced you that fueling your muse properly is the way to go, challenge yourself. Try this for three days. Give up those chocolate mini-donuts and your morning latte this week, and try healthier options. Just about anything high in protein will do:  a creamy vanilla protein shake, yogurt with low fat granola and fresh fruit, or cottage cheese, an apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter. The choice is yours. With nutrition labels readily available and calorie and nutrition apps easily accessible, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Just plan ahead so you’ve got healthy snacks handy, and see how your new routine impacts your work.

At the end of three days, I think you’ll find that your creativity and productivity are easier to access. You will also feel better, and you might even shed a few pounds. The only problem now is what to do with that industrial-sized, variety pack of Pop Tarts® you bought at Costco last weekend. No need to panic; they make good door stops!

[I’ve got to give credit where credit is due:  Thanks to my chiropractor Dr. Brian Bussard for this healthy-eating plan and Walter T. Middlebrook, Assistant Managing Editor/Metro for Detroit News, for the “Pop tarts® and peanut butter” inspiration.]

Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of and An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Follower her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).




How to get a newspaper editor’s attention

The calls, emails and tweets started flowing in around during the holidays, coming across my desk at a rate of about half a dozen daily. Many more landed among my colleagues. They usually say something like this:

“I wrote this piece and thought you might like it,” says the introduction to one email.

“Sure, it’s a blog post, but it’s a subject that interests everyone,” says another.

“I’d love to write about sports. I’m a big fan,” says one caller.

This time of year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and whole unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. I think of it as a different kind of holiday tradition: as Christmas-related bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider “news” and expecting a newspaper editor to read it as such, thus publishing it in the next day’s paper and paying generously for the writers’ work by week’s end, or at least before the next credit card statement arrives.

But most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased, ignored, because their writers failed at good reporting.

Sure, newspapers long have relied on contributing writers or freelancers to report news particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work. The need for freelancers is acute now since newspapers nationwide have cut about one-third of their staffs over the past decade.

But today as decades before, newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as “news.” The stories appearing in today’s print pages or online are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it’s what journalists like to call “newsworthy.”

So, before you ship that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, stop for moment to understand first what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention:

First, you have to read the newspaper — This sounds pitifully obvious. In reality, it’s pitiful how many solicitations that come to newspapers are ignorant on their face, as the writers are blind to the newspaper’s greater purpose. Each paper serves as a kind of window onto the community, and the communities themselves are distinct. Thus, what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the newspaper carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear. In other words, study the newspaper before trying to write for it.

Sell the story, not yourself — Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Concentrate on explaining the story’s importance in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who what, when, where, why and how.

Remember, there is no “I” in news — What you think, feel or believe about the news is not important; don’t try passing off a recent blog post or journal entry as a news story. Cite only the facts in a story pitch; leave out your opinion. Because everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the facts.

Provide verifiable sources — Newspapers aim to steer clear of bias in its news, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, thus some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea before committing to it. Providing at least three independent sources that editors can contact if they wish will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.

Send your pitch to the proper place — Story ideas relating to sports should not go to the news or features editors. Find out who the editors are that work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically.

Pay attention to quality, quantity — Besides determining the proper editor for submissions, make sure to spell the editor’s name correctly. For that matter, pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to “style” guidelines outlined by The Associated Press. Furthermore, if a story calls for a specific length, say 500 words, avoid writing even one word more than that. Not following such a simple direction may prompt time-challenged editors to hit the “delete” key.

Keep an open mind about being edited — Even the world’s best journalists need editors, so don’t think your work is much better. But don’t take editing personally. Accept that stories may be trimmed or adjusted for length before publication. Tight, precise writing and rigid adherence to a prearranged story length go a long way toward preventing this.

Small potatoes are better than no potatoes — It used to be that newspapers paid well for freelance work. These days, big paychecks are rare, $25 to $50 per published story being typical and non-negotiable.

Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be a pest, either — Upon making a pitch, if a newspaper editor has not yet responded, wait three or four days before following up politely, professionally. It may be that the editor has been busy, or is keeping an eye open for other ideas.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.



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