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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Selling Your Work and About Poetry Contests

Q: How do we go from free to fee writing?

A: As you suspect, many accomplished writers began by writing free articles for nonprofit publications. I began by writing and editing newsletters for charitable and educational organizations to which I belonged. After I gathered enough writing credits and had a portfolio of clips, I approached sources that paid and asked for assignments or queried with appropriate article ideas. I’ve had more success with asking for assignments than querying, but other writers prefer to pitch their own ideas. We’re all different.

When I went out on my own full-time, I approached professional newsletter companies and trade magazine publishers and got work immediately from both. The trade magazines paid more per article, but the newsletter companies assigned more articles. The combination kept me fed and sheltered while I worked with the materials I loved the most: words.

As a freelance writer, you must constantly market yourself, though, because not even a steady client lasts forever. Editors change, publications close down, work dries up, and if you are not always looking for more clients, you will find yourself out of work. To get leads, sign up for newsletters that list markets for writers. The Internet also offers several paid services that give leads. Subscribe to and query all the magazines that appeal to you. Never stop looking. If you’ve honed your writing skills and approach editors in a professional manner, you, too, will get paid to write.

Q: How do you know when your material is good enough to submit to a contest? I am a business writer who dabbles in poetry. I've done it for a while, but I've submitted my work to only one contest. I am interested in entering more contests, but I'm not sure if my work is good enough. Do you have any suggestions?

A: First I want to warn you against submitting anything to and a variety of other contests run by the same company. I’ve heard these "competitions" flatter all entrants by sending them an acceptance letter and telling them to buy the book in which the poem appears. The books sell at an outrageously inflated price. Another scam tells entrants that they are finalists, but to win, they must pay to attend an overpriced event that offers little real education.

Legitimate contests allow you to win something, even if it’s only a free copy of the publication in which it appears, and they never charge you more than perhaps a small entry fee. I consider $5 or less a reasonable entry fee for poetry, if the prizes are worth the fee.

Your getting a prize should never be predicated upon your personal appearance at an event or your purchasing a book. At least twice I have won prizes without attending the conferences where the prizes were awarded. The conferences mailed me my trophies and certificates. Those were legitimate competitions.

How can you know when your material is good enough to submit? The answer is not simple. People who have not gotten their poetry published are those who think the first thing they write is perfect and needs no polishing. Rarely is that the case, especially with poetry. When you have studied writing and applied all that you know, and after you have put your poetry through at least two or three strong revisions, ask another poet to read your work and give you feedback. Decide which suggestions you want to incorporate. Revise the piece a final time, and then send it out. If it gets rejected, study it and revise it again, if necessary. Keep learning and improving. Everyone who meets with success spent time gathering information, revising, and improving their work. We all meet with rejections, too, so join the club, keep your chin up, and keep submitting.

–Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to



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