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How to Land a Great Columnist Gig

Have a lot of war stories from your start-up days? Here's how to get a byline in a high-profile publication -- no experience required.

Dear Jeff,

What is the process for getting a regular column on a business website or major blog? Is that even a possibility for someone like me, who isn’t high profile and hasn’t written for other sites? — Name withheld at request

It's absolutely possible. (I'm a prime example.) Obviously while being a “name” helps, lots of people only became names, at least in part, after they gained exposure by writing for influential, high-profile sites in their industries.

But it’s not easy, since the better the gigs the more competition there is for those gigs.

As for the process, I’m sure there are a number of ways to go about it. The only one I really know—and know that works—is the one I used:

Get a contact. You'll need to reach an editor (or the person who manages the blog.) First do a little searching on and off the site. Contact info for blogs, even major blogs, is usually easy to find.

Direct editorial contacts for larger business sites is often not so easy to find. If that’s the case, contact a person who already writes for the site.

Try to pick a person who recently started writing for the site you want to approach. They tend to be less full of themselves and more likely to remember how it felt to be that person who hopes to write for the site. And remember, you’re the one who needs a favor, so act like it.

Prepare your pitch. In your case you'll have to prove yourself within the pitch since you can't just say, "Check out some of the articles I wrote for The Wall Street Journal."

Start by doing some research to determine what the site may need. Never offer more of the same when they already have plenty of the same.

Look at tons of recent articles to get a feel for what content tends to run and, more importantly, what content tends to be popular with readers. Then decide how what you write will be different while still fitting into the overall theme of the section and the site.

Remember, it’s not about you. What you want to write about is irrelevant. You will need to write about what the site will benefit from; if you can't make that work for you as well, move on to another site.

Pitch away. Since you can’t share links to your work you’ll need to create samples.

Write two or three articles. Spend as much time as it takes to make them great. Hire a ghostwriter if you need to. Do everything possible to make your samples sing; your first impression is the only impression you will get to make.

Then craft your pitch, recognizing that you’ll have to pitch a little differently than you would if you were already writing for other outlets.

That’s what I had to do. I’m a ghostwriter and sign NDAs so tight my children are pledged as surety so I was unable to provide much in the way of samples. But I was writing a leadership column for my (very small) local newspaper; at least I had that.

So I sent this to an editor:

I've enjoyed your site for some time and am interested in contributing small business/leadership articles.

Me: I've ghostwritten over thirty non-fiction books. My wheelhouse is business, management, entrepreneurship, investing, and real estate, but I've also written books on subjects like pregnancy, breastfeeding, heart disease, and hydroponics (an experience I’ve tried to repress even though it did sell 80k copies.)  Before that I was a manufacturing supervisor for R. R. Donnelley and later ran production operations for a 250-plus employee book plant. I have a broad base of practical leadership, hiring/firing/discipline/motivation, process improvement, sales, and customer service experience.

I also have a solid range of business contacts, most of them very successful since unsuccessful contacts tend not to hire ghostwriters.  I can write about leadership from personal experience and can draw from the experiences of successful leaders.

As a favor to a friend I write a monthly leadership column for the business section of our local newspaper; I've attached a few columns so you can get a feel for how I write…

She was interested, so on to the next step...

Offer up a list of potential articles. It’s also important to show you have plenty of ideas so you won’t be a one-hit wonder. Most sites want long-term relationships; not only is it easier from an administrative point of view, it also fosters site continuity and helps grow their reader base.

Here are some of the articles I proposed:

  • How to Fit a Star Peg Into a Team Whole.  How do you maintain team balance and cohesion if one employee is a star? (Could be an outstanding salesman, superstar programmer, etc.)  I’ll talk to Johan Bruyneel, the director of Lance Armstrong's cycling teams, and get input on how he successfully built teams around an alpha-dog star.
  • Why Identical Treatment is Unfair. Treating employees identically does you and your employees a disservice. I'll toss in a little personality styles research regarding how people work, process information, etc. Bottom line, if you want to be fair you can't treat employees the same.
  • Why Howard Stern is a Better Leader Than You. This one is an argument starter since Howard Stern is a polarizing figure. Lessons learned:  Stick to your vision, lead by example, work harder than your team, don't try to be everything to everyone, be willing to publicly praise your company, find the strengths in every employee and play to those strengths, don't let "no" hold you back since success is largely based on effort and persistence and not on an initial idea. Bonus if it gets mentioned on his show. (Which it eventually did; I was on the Howard 100 News.)
  • What Happens at the Crossroads of Creativity and Business? "Normal" leadership and business challenges are almost identical to those faced in the arts.  And every business has a creative component, even if it produces a commodity. I'll get insight from Michael Hirst, executive producer of HBO series The Tudors and screenwriter of the two Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies. He’s been on both sides of the creativity/business spectrum, sometimes at the same time.
  • Five Things to Say Every Morning. I'm not that smart, I'm not that funny, I'm not that important, my work friends aren't my real friends, my employees and customers can't be my friends, and my employees will never and should never care as much as I do. The goal is to start every day focused on being the boss you would want to work for.

Before you develop your list, think about the titles and topics above. Each has a how-to component. Some are at the least mildly controversial. Some have a little “juice.”

Some titles got a lot more juice: My editor changed “How to Fit a Star Peg in a Team Whole” (mildly clever but not attention-getting) to “Managing Lance Armstrong: An Exclusive Interview With His Team's Director.” The new title gave readers a much better reason to click.

Good articles provide valuable information, spark a little thought and sometimes a little debate, and draw an audience. If you always preach to the choir your only readers are choir members. If you aren’t willing to take a strong position you’re boring.

Editors want to know you get that. Work hard on your samples. It's assumed that the samples you send represent your very best work, so make them outstanding.

Work just as hard on your proposed list of articles. Editors want to know you have a lot more in you and that you already have ideas for how to build an audience.

Have a question? Email questions@blackbirdinc.com and it may appear in a future column. Please indicate if you would like your name and company name to appear.

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Last updated: Jan 30, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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