Journalism Advice

10 Terms Every Freelance Writer Should Know

A refresher course on the jargon of journalism

When in doubt, ask. Unfortunately, many rookie freelance writers don’t follow that advice for fear of appearing uneducated or inexperienced.

Instead, they just assume that when an editor said a spring cleaning idea was too “evergreen” that she meant it was too environmentally focused; in fact, the term refers to stories that are general and not timely.

And that’s just one of the many words or phrases you might hear in a newsroom or see in an email from an editor. This is why we’ve put together a list of terms that you should know—but may not.

Granted, these are just a handful of the most common and are, in some cases, unique to print publications. So, feel free to add others to the comments section.

1. FOB / BOB

Front-of-book (FOB) and back-of-book (BOB) pieces are news items and shorter articles that are located in the beginning and end of the print magazine.

“For me, the front of book and the back of book seem kind of interchangeable as far as what runs in them,” says Renee Roberson, blog tour manager at WOW! Women on Writing magazine. In general, these articles can help a new writer establish himself.

Classically, magazines do not assign feature pieces to new writers, so FOB and BOB snippets are a great way to break in.

“[Front of book] is one of the few places I might assign a story if I haven’t worked with you before,” explains Abigail Lewis, editor of Whole Life Times. “However, occasionally, if a writer has strong clips and a well-crafted query, we will assign a department or feature.”

Every publication’s front and back of book sections is different, so it’s important to study several issues of them before pitching.

In New York magazine, the FOB is called “Strategist” and features everything from party roundups to brief Q&As, while the BOB is full of lighter content like reviews and its award-winning “Approval Matrix.”

2. Well

Writers who generally have more experience can secure feature articles in the “well” of the publication, which is the middle of the magazine where you’ll find longer, more in-depth pieces.

“That’s where all the feature stories are…typically the stories that are put on the cover, the profiles,” notes Roberson.

Want to get in the well, like, now? Get started by writing smaller pieces in the FOB or BOB sections before pitching feature-length articles.

If you’re really itching to go in-depth, pitch features to trade or regional publications before you shoot for national magazines. Smaller pubs are much more likely to take a chance on new writers.

3. Slush pile

“Slush pile” refers to a mound of articles or query letters that have been rejected, whether physically ripped up, put to the side or just deleted from an inbox.

Roberson says the key to keeping your pitches out of this abyss is to deliver submissions to the right editor. For example, Mediabistro’s How To Pitch section details which editors at leading publications are open to pitches.

“I have actually Googled some of the editors’ names and have actually found articles…where they talked about how to stay out of the slush pile,” Roberson says.

Another tip to avoid rejection: Flesh out your query to make it distinctive. Start with a crisp lead sentence and a hook; then outline sections of the article including data or quotes, Roberson suggests. “You have to sort of take some time and put a different spin on it,” she says.

4. On spec

When you write on spec, or “on speculation,” you do so without the guarantee of publication. Editors typically ask for “on spec” pieces if they want to see what the finished story will look like before they agree to pay for it.

A reason to write on spec would be if you know an editor and think you stand a good chance that your work will be approved.

If you write well and cultivate relationships with editors, they’ll want to work with you on an ongoing basis, which may make working on spec worth it, says Long Island journalist Ellen Pober Rittberg.

However, the practice is risky and time consuming, so you may want to consider another outlet for your idea before working on something that may never be published.

5. Over the transom

Unlike sending something “on spec,” an “over the transom” piece is one that the editor did not ask you to write—you just send it hoping it will be published. Again, this is a risky strategy for writers.

Publications have strict guidelines about what they will and will not accept, so submitting your work regardless of their rules may give off the impression that you can’t or won’t follow directions. You’re also spending time on a story that you may not be paid for.

So, before you proceed, read the publication’s guidelines to see if they accept unsolicited submissions.

6. Kill fee

Despite your best efforts to write a perfectly targeted pitch or even the full article on spec, publications still reserve the right not to publish your piece.

Why? Maybe news broke, another article went longer than planned, or the editors realized at the last minute that your story felt dated.

In any case, when you’ve been assigned a piece but it gets “killed,” you can be paid a nominal fee for your efforts. Typically, it’s calculated as a percentage of the original article fee as stated in your contract.

(Keep in mind, however, that some publications may shelve your article without paying you anything.) If you do not see the kill fee mentioned in your contract, request one before you begin writing to save yourself frustration down the line.

7. Slug

A slug is a word or combination of words and numbers appearing in a publication’s content management system in order to identify a story.

In a newsroom, every component of a story, whether a two-inch blurb or a 30-inch story, is assigned a slug so editors can take a quick view of what the story is as they manage a large influx of spaces to fill.

Chances are that you won’t need to create slugs if you are a freelancer. Should you have to, check out the internal story roster or talk with an editor to verify the format.

8. Clips

These are articles that you have “clipped” from your portfolio of work. The idea is to build up enough clips that showcase your talent as a writer, the diversity (or beat, if you choose to specialize) of your work, and evidence that publications have trusted you with assignments.

Chicago-based writer Alicia Eler recommends sending three clips from different publications when requested. “Show that you can vary your voice and perspective depending on the potential audience,” she explains.

As you acquire more clips, update your portfolio; it should constantly be evolving as you expand your reach to more popular publications.

9. Close or closing date

These are the dates when a publication is being readied for print. It is usually a hectic time in the newsroom where last-minute edits are being made; therefore, it is the worst time to pitch or expect a response to anything that isn’t urgent.

We repeat: do yourself a favor and do not bother your editor during closing time. You can find out a publication’s closing dates by looking in its media kit.

10. Hed, dek and lede

In journalism, you may hear these terms used together quite often. “Hed” refers to a headline, a “dek” is a sub-headline and a “lede” is the introductory paragraph or paragraphs of an article. All are purposely misspelled as not to confuse them with the story text.

Michael Sullivan, a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, says he has to devise individual headlines for print articles, Web stories and email alerts that announce stories online. “I feel like I have to title every story I write, like, three different times,” Sullivan says.

When pitching, make your lede as compelling as possible and try to include a nice hed and dek, as well. You may even want to use the headline and dek as the email subject to catch the editor’s attention. For example, introduce a feature about hair loss as “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: 7 Steps to Fight Alopecia Before It Starts.”

Even if your titles aren’t used in the final product, writing them in advance demonstrates to an editor that you’re willing to do more than requested, which can increase your chances of getting future assignments.

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