Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing articles - an Interview with J.L. Orchard

Don't forget your prompts are due tonight by 11:59pm. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, click here for details.

This year, we're detailing the novel writing process, and afterward we'll start talking about getting published. One of the things I heard all the time as an unpubbed writer was that I should be writing articles, getting my name in print, getting experience, building a resume, etc. The whole world of article writing, of non-fiction, really freaked me out, but now it's something I wish I would have done more of.

Today I have J.L. Orchard on the blog to talk to y'all about article writing. J.L. Orchard is a young adult whose ambition to write fiction began at age thirteen. After placing second in a novice short-fiction contest, Jennifer stumbled upon nonfiction and saw her first paid piece, “Becoming the Judge, the Life and Lore of Peter Cameron,” published in the March 2010 issue of The Canadian Horse Journal. She’s juggled between her love affair with fiction and her passion for nonfiction, and offers insight to young writers that aspire to learn the art of article writing, even if they are fiction artists at heart. J.L. Orchard co-started Cinch Magazine.

10 years ago, I definitely could have used Jennifer and her advice, so today I'm sharing her with you.

Why did you begin writing articles and where has writing taken you?

I began writing because I had something to say. Before thirteen I didn’t think of myself as a writer or ever imagined that writing would interest me and then “poof” – I woke up one day with a story in my head. I haven’t looked back since. There are great opportunities for new and young writers to gain experience and make money via contests. I’ve made more money as a novice contestant than I have as a freelance journalist – having said that, this industry does offer a lot of glicken, which if my memory serves me correct is a mafia term, oddly enough, and means something along the lines of “bonuses” often in the form of opportunities. I always saw myself as a fiction writer and enjoyed success with that in contests. I once convinced myself I would never enjoy writing nonfiction. I stumbled upon article writing when my cousin and I dreamt up this idea that we were going to start a magazine. The idea went nowhere (at first) but I started dabbling at articles out of curiosity and before I knew it I was trying to sell my pieces but to no avail. Fast forward a few years, my cousin and I discovered the possibilities of running an e-magazine and the cost effectiveness of that over print. By this time my article writing had improved and I’d learned what it meant to be professional. We ran with the idea and it flew.

How did you learn to write articles? What approach or process do you take toward article writing?

I don’t know that there’s any tried or true formula: there’s the facts, there’s your imagination, and there’s the publication guidelines and combined they form an article. I did take a two-year writing course that touched briefly on article writing but if my “learning” came from anywhere, it came from reading articles. I found batches of magazine titles I loved and read them cover to cover. In my early teens I received a subscription to “The Canadian Horse Journal” as a gift. They later published my first paid piece titled “Becoming the Judge,” about good friend and Hall-of-Fame horse judge, Peter Cameron.

A lot of my discovery came from experience. When my cousin and I did start our e-magazine, the positive feedback on my first piece was amazing but it made me lazy thinking I could pull off a winner without working. I lost the feedback and that’s when I realized that writing isn’t a hobby, it’s a trade, it’s something you have to pour your heart and sole into. If the piece doesn’t move you, your reader won’t even make it past the first paragraph. Writing article after article really gave me a sense of what works and what doesn’t and, since I wasn’t making a penny off of it, my writing had to be propelled by what the readers thought or gained from it and how much I enjoyed doing it.

So I find the best approach to writing nonfiction, is a) read a lot of it, b) know what you’re writing about backward and forward, c) know the rules of nonfiction, and d) write.

What are the rules of nonfiction?

Essentially whatever the publication specifies in their manuscript guidelines. Most articles run under 2000 words. Some publications won’t run anything over 1500, so if you have a publication in mind when you start a piece make sure you know what they’re willing to buy. With the e-magazine I have more freedom when it comes to word length. Some publications want upbeat articles; others want technical pieces. Always know who your audience is and that will help you write.

A few suggestions I follow in nonfiction as well as fiction is avoid ALL CAPS, don’t underline words, and avoid (brackets). These clog the page and rarely do anything for the emphasis of a word. If you want to emphasize something italicize it. It’s subtle yet powerful. Editors usually remove any underlining, brackets or caps you use anyway.

When it comes to writing articles in general, there’s a few “moral guidelines” I follow, especially in interview pieces. If you’re going to quote someone, don’t quote them as saying something they didn’t actually say. You can clarify what the interviewee said. For example if they’re talking about dogs and in the interview they say, “I love them,” but the reader doesn’t understand what “them” means, you can clarify and have “I love [dogs].” But remember those brackets because “dogs” is your word added in to clarify the piece, not the speakers. This also helps keep the hot water off you. You don’t want the interviewee to hate the piece because you misquoted them. Also, unless you’re writing for a tabloid, don’t misrepresent an interviewee’s words. If the interviewee said, “They’re bad for the dog population,” in reference to puppy mills, don’t quote them as having said it in reference to Dalmatians. It’s not your job to be smart, but to inform and entertain the audience through an honest translation of the interviewee’s words. It also keeps everyone happy – except perhaps the puppy mills.

Any other rules, such as page formatting, should be included in a publication’s manuscript guidelines. If you hope to write “on spec” for a publication, that is selling the idea and then writing the piece, be sure your idea can be written to the publication’s guidelines before you pitch it.

How do you market an article?

Professionalism is ultra-important in this industry. Being unimaginably interesting and loveable won’t sell you, since most of the networking you will do will be online. I have communicated with many people in the writing industry and in the horse industry for which I write. Of those people, I have met very few in person. So rule number one: be polite, and be professional.

When it comes to getting your work on an editor’s desk, most publications require that you query first. A query is essentially three short paragraphs that tell the editor who you are, what you’ve written, and why they want to buy your work. The first paragraph is the “hook.” You have to grab the editor’s attention and show them what the article is about. The second paragraph is the details: what is the article called, how many words is it, and why does it suit their publication. The third paragraph is all about you. What experience/training do you have, tell about contests you’ve placed in or pieces you’ve had published, and most importantly why you’re capable of writing on your chosen topic. For myself, my strongest suit is horses, so it would do me no good to write an article about gardening. Even if I did work for three years at a greenhouse, I’m no expert in that field. I could however write about the adventures of a greenhouse employee.

When formatting your query you should have a space between each paragraph and the query should not exceed one-page in length. Editors don’t have time for more, and if you’re clear and concise with your words, one-page can say a lot. The query should be followed with “Sincerely, your name” with your phone #, mailing address and email all on the same page. The most important part of a query however is the “address.” Do your research and find out exactly who to address the query to. Never say Dear publication name, or Dear Sir, or Dear Editor. The moment an editor sees a header like that they know you haven’t done your research and will assume you don’t know what their publication is looking for or that you even know your topic. Typically queries are addressed to the assistant editor or managing editor, however this can vary. Always include first and last name. Dear Roger Bates, is a professional way to address a query.

Spelling and grammar are #1 in a query. One of the biggest turn-offs for editors is a query littered with spelling and grammar errors. It proves that you a) don’t know how to write, or b) don’t take the time to write well. Editors aren’t interested in dealing with casual writers. They want writers that care enough to write well and do it right. Respect editors, they’re busy, hard-working individuals that receive a lot of emails in a day. Write a good query and you’ll have a better chance of standing out.

Another word of advice, if the publication calls for a query to be sent first – send only the query, don’t attach the manuscript or photos with it. All they want is to know who you are, your experience, and what you’ve written. Don’t assume they’ll automatically want to read your work.

Simultaneous submission means submitting to more than one publication at a time – many publishers do not accept this, so be careful where you send your work. Photos are a major bonus. Many articles never see the light of day because the publication can’t find photos to accompany it. If you have photos you can provide, be sure to state that in your query in the second paragraph.

How do I know all of this? Because I made most of these mistakes in my early teens and it got me nowhere. This is a rewarding business but one that must be played by the rules.

Writing is as much about the adventure getting there as it is about being there. And being there, being able to hold a copy of your first published piece and say “I wrote that” is priceless. It is a rewarding journey and I pray your travels as a writer takes you to exciting places until you can hold that article or novel in your hand and say, “I did it.”

What is the best advice you’ve received that you believe is helpful to young writers?

I’ve received too much good advice to say for sure. My mom (Sandra Orchard, author of Deep Cover; to be released in 2011) returned to her childhood dream of writing around the same time that I took up the pen. I gleaned much of my knowledge off of her research. She got me on the right foot. Also, writing is never a one-person job. Every article I write is edited or critiqued by a friend before I even dream about sending it to a publisher.

One great piece of specific advice I received was actually from Canadian Actress, Christine Horne, when she visited my school to speak. She said something to the effect of, Make opportunities for yourself. When I first started to dabble with nonfiction, I wasn’t able to sell articles so I started an e-magazine to get my name out there. The magazine became a big hit and I learned a lot. A few years later I tried to sell pieces again. First article I queried sold.

Don’t wait for opportunity to knock, go out and make your own opportunities – or in the very least, go out and look for open doors. Open them if you have to.

If you have questions for Jennifer, please leave them below!


  1. A fabulous look into the mysterious world of non-fiction. =) Thanks, Jennifer! And Stephanie, for hosting. The only non-fiction I've written are reviews, but they too require a lot of work to stand out.

  2. What great advice. And you know, when I read interviews, I have always, always wondered what the dog in "“I love [dogs].” meant. So thankyou.

  3. Fantastic advice! When I first started writing I thought about articles but somehow got lost along the way. I think one of my problems was coming up with good ideas & knowing what is & isn't article worthy?!

  4. Emii, I'd always wondered that too!

  5. So glad you all enjoyed it and found it useful! Thank you for all the wonderful comments.

    Keep writing!