How I Became a Syndicated Columnist -- And You Can Too!

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How I Became a Syndicated Columnist -- And You Can Too!

By: Sarah Smiley

Real Estate has "Location, location, location," and writing has "Clips, clips, clips."

When people ask me how I became a syndicated columnist, I usually say, "it just snowballed." And basically that's what happened: one publication led to another, which led to another, and so forth.

I began my career writing for a small community paper in my neighborhood. To look back on those first published clips is quite entertaining! But how can I be ashamed? The work I did at The Julington Creek Plantation Press (the JCPP) became a springboard for my now nationally syndicated column "Shore Duty."

(If you read between the lines here, what I'm saying is, Don't be impatient, and don't expect quick success! Be willing to work your way up and focus on getting the coveted published clips.)

But a giant "snowball" was not all it took for me to become a writing success. Admittedly, it took hard-work, research and persistence too. Below are some things I learned along the way:

Never Submit Shoddy Work, No Matter How Small the Publication

When I was working for the JCPP I knew the interviews and spotlights I was writing were not Pulitzer material. In fact, I'd be surprised if even a hundred people ever even read those first pieces. Nevertheless, I made sure every submission was flawless and an excellent reflection of what I can do as a writer. (You never know who might read your work...even the small work!)

Providing error-free copy and meeting deadlines sets up a precedence of professionalism that will follow you throughout your career. Never forget the editors you are writing for now may be the ones writing your next referral or recommendation.

A great book for grammar and proofreading help is The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation by Rene J. Cappon.

Never Let Your Readers Down

Developing a relationship with your readers is the ultimate goal (editors only buy what their readers demand!), so it is important to make sure all your writing (however small or insignificant) is entertaining and consistent with your abilities.

Building a firm base of loyal fans and readers should be your utmost concern. Never let your readers down! When I write my column each week, I have in my mind the mother who will be sitting down to breakfast Tuesday morning and opening the Life section to see my submission. I don't write for editors (well, ok, so I do a little bit); I write for readers.

Building my readership base has paid off. Now I have loyal fans throughout the country emailing their local papers to request Shore Duty! And I'll say it again: Editors only buy what their readers demand!

Always Approach the Managing Editor

There are many benefits to querying the Managing Editor of a publication, as opposed to a section- or other editor. Ultimately, the Managing Editor makes the monetary decisions for the paper, which gives them the "last word." If you want a quick "yes" or "no" with few middle-men in between, direct your query to the Managing Editor.

Once you get the job, however, strive to build a good working relationship with the editor of your section. This will be the person you deal with on a regular basis. Always meet deadlines (in fact, be early and they'll love you!), and as much as possible, reduce the amount of work for your very busy editor: always proofread and "tighten" your writing before submitting it for publication.

Save Your Clips

As soon as you are published anywhere, start saving your clips. I always photo-copy mine because newsprint begins to yellow over time. Make sure the publication date is noted on the clip, then place it in a protective binder. Hopefully you'll be making more copies of these clips soon when you write your syndication proposal...or your book proposal!

Watch Your Contracts

Writers are artists at heart, but unfortunately, in the world of publishing, there's a lot of business-minded tasks to take care of. In particular, it's important to learn about contracts...or find someone to learn about it for you.

My husband is my personal "business advisor" who helps me to think with my "career" mind rather than my "artsy" mind when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Here's one very important thing I've learned (by error) about contracts: be cautious of a "Work for Hire" deal. If you sign a "Work for Hire" contract, you are basically signing away all the rights to your writing. In effect, the publication, not you, owns the article/column you produce. If you should ever want to reprint that piece (in a book, etc.) you then have to ask permission from the original publication.

A much better way is to sign a "Freelancer Contract". This type of arrangement assures you the rights to your work. You are actually only lending your work to the publication, and you still retain all rights to reprint or publish however else you choose (except that most papers will ask that you not publish in another competing local paper).

A good book to educate yourself about contracts is Understanding Publishers' Contracts by Michael Legat.

If You Have the Choice, Go With Self-Syndication

There are two ways to syndicate: through an agency, or on your own. Below are the pros and cons of both (as I see it).

Going through an Agency

The experts do all the business work for you (marketing, writing proposals, etc.)

Your mind is freed up to be artistic and write, write, write.

Agencies have contacts and networks you do not.

Selling a syndicated column can be a full-time job; if you want to write full-time, leave the business of promotion and sales to an agency.

However, an agency will take a hefty chunk of your profits.

An agency creates a middle-man through which you have to work.

An agency takes "control" of your career.

Self-Syndicating Your Column

You retain control and direction of your own career.

You don't have to share profits with an agency.

You don't have to work through a middle-man.

BUT, you do have to work really hard to market yourself and your column.

Self-syndicating is like taking on another job. (You will be solely responsible for sales, promotion, understanding contracts, creating invoices, etc.)

For me, however, the biggest benefit of going the self-syndication route has been the satisfaction I get from knowing I am in control of my own career and that I've gotten here through my own talents and hard work.

A good book for understanding the differences between self-syndication and syndication through an agency is Successful Syndication: A Guide for Writers and Cartoonists by Michael H. Sedge.

If you work hard enough, have patience and collect lots and lots of clips, you are well on your way to being a columnist.

I wish you luck, no writer's block, and many days of writing success!

Copyright 2004 Sarah Smiley

About The Author

++You may reprint the above column on your website so long as the following is included the URL address is actively hyperlinked back++

THIS MUST BE INCLUDED: Copyright 2004 Sarah Smiley - Sarah Smiley's syndicated column Shore Duty appears weekly in newspapers across the country.


Robster01 29.06.2007. 01:48

How do I become a syndicated column writer? How do I become a syndicated column writer? Is there some secret to it, or do I just submit articles to every news paper, magazine, etc?


Admin 29.06.2007. 01:48

You have to be a very popular, credible and authoritative columnist first before you get syndicated.


Tikki :) 01.08.2011. 23:42

What does a columnist write about in newspapers? i was thinking of becoming a columnist when i'm older and i was just wondering what does a columnist write about in newspapers? Or anywhere really
and also, what qualifications do you need, and where is the best place in the world to go to gain these qualifications?

Tikki :)

Admin 01.08.2011. 23:42

You should start where ever you are, be it junior high, high school, college, or community member at large.

Qualifications are the basics of journalism, how to research and then write a compelling statement in a short amount of space.

Columnists can write about lots of things: sports, politics, science, health, food, social commentary, the great outdoors, and many other things. So you have to decide what you most want to write about and then start practicing. If you are in school, join the school paper and take the journalism classes to begin learning the skills of journalism that you will need as a columnist. When you go to college, work for the school paper and after you have proven yourself as a reporter, begin submitting editorial and opinion pieces and start talking to the editor about doing a column. You may have to repeat the process after college, but remember that working on a smaller paper may give you more chance to produce a column you can then syndicate to other papers.

I wish you luck.


keepthe 13.09.2009. 19:08

How can I become a syndicated columnist? Topics will be health and family.


Admin 13.09.2009. 19:08

I would start with your hometown newspaper and go from there. Just becareful about any contracts that might limit who you can work for.


wendy k 04.05.2007. 14:17

How much do newspaper columnists and magazine columnists get paid? Do you need to have a degree in that field? I have a strong desire to become a newspaper/magazine columinist. I also need to know the education requirements for these positions. Only people that have experienced in this field need to answer this question. Thanks.

wendy k

Admin 04.05.2007. 14:17

Greetings from the field, since I've done a lot of this.

The easy answer about this: there is no easy answer. Replies are all over the map.

A degree in journalism of some sort is a valuable step toward that goal. However, some have done quite well without one -- overcoming the odds in the process.

The pay scale really varies. The top syndicated writers -- George Will, etc. -- certainly earn big, big money on their columns. They also pick up extra money for speaking engagements.

It's like a pyramid, though. Most of the people scrape by. You have to write a lot of stories on the lower levels to get the top magazines or newspapers to even look at your work. I used to be a weekly contributor to a magazine, and made about $200 a week at it. Other writers might pick up $75 for an article.

And commentators are much more rare than writers. You need to learn to write well about everything, before you can even think about expressing opinions in print. (Blogs, by the way, can be good practice.)

So study the good writers, the ones who make you think, and do plenty of writing. Good luck.


Wild Colonial Girl 12.02.2009. 20:07

Where are all of the newspaper columnists going to go? There are syndicated and beloved columnists who we all read in the newspapers. Now that those great newspapers are dying off,where will they go? Who will pay them for their work?

Curious as heck about this dying medium and what will rise up in it's place.

Wild Colonial Girl

Admin 12.02.2009. 20:07

you hit the problem right on the nose.

web advertisers do not want to pay anywhere near what print advertisers have been forced to and so there is going to be a serious shortfall in revenues, meaning that online editions are going to be lean and mean.

the columnists are supposed to become bloggers.

personally, i won't work for no pay. i did that when i began in journalism. my time now - and my accumulated experience and knowledge - are too valuable.

besides, blogs can be very stupid, with anyone able to put up their unedited and factually unsupported ideas and claims. then you get a lot of nonsense that is cited as fact by others - often on wikipedia, that delusion that is one of the biggest jokes online. columnists are fearful of being lost in the babble.

(speaking of which, the "tower of babel" is in our midst right now: it is called "the online community")


Shelbie/Buffy 18.01.2011. 07:46

Who are some good advice columnist's to learn from if I want to become one? I'm looking into becoming an advice columnist, but I need to start reading some others work on the subject. If anyone has any info on a good A.C., please let me know! thanx!


Admin 18.01.2011. 07:46

The two best advice columnists in the past 50-60 years have been Eppie Lederer (aka "Ann Landers") and Pauline Phillips (aka Abigail Van Buren/ "Dear Abby"). Both were syndicated, with Ann Landers appearing in well over 1200 daily newspapers all over the world, making her the world's most widely syndicated columnist. Ann Landers' column has also been translated into more than twenty languages. If you learn from their work, you will learn from the best.

Look in your library or online for:

The Ann Landers Encyclopedia A to Z by Ann Landers

Other Books by Ann Landers

The Best Of Dear Abby by Abigail Van Buren


Aaron 27.11.2010. 04:29

How do I become an advice columnist? Well Phoebe from the show Charmed is an advice columnist.
I know it's just a show so I don't want to sound silly but I think I would enjoy that.
I would also be good at it because I am a spot-on advice giver and an eloquent writer; at least that's what I have been told.

So is that an actual job? How can I become an advice columnist?


Admin 27.11.2010. 04:29

Its show business and very difficult break into. Most advice columnist are syndicated meaning that there are very few of them and their columns are sold to newspapers and radio shows all over the country. If you live in a small town that has its own newspaper you could always volunteer to write a local advice column to get some experience.


Tyrannus 22.02.2011. 16:26

How do you go about becoming a columnist for a newspaper? Can you contact the paper directly even if they haven't advertised a position?


Admin 22.02.2011. 16:26

You'll need to show them that you >can< write a column. Do you have anything you can show them?

Newspapers rarely hire columnists, anyway, and when they add one, it's most likely to be one of their own reporters (or someone who's syndicated).


Lauren B 22.07.2007. 00:07

I want to become a advice collumist online. How do I go about doing that? Is there any cool sites that offer.? I really want to become a advice collumist online so people can ask me some questions about life and there promblems. Can anyone help me find a site that will let me become one.

Thanks so much!

Lauren B

Admin 22.07.2007. 00:07

Want to Write a Newspaper Column that Sells?
Looking to Syndicate Your Column?
Considering Self Syndication?

The other thing I would advise is to study writing in school as well as spelling or use spell check. If I were going to hire someone to write any news article, I would want them to be able to spell correctly.
This is not meant to be rude, but, rather informative. ( collumist ) Columnist

Practice here on Yahoo! Answers. Good source to test your skills. Winning Best Answer is your guide to how well you would do.
Good Luck!


All Hail Hypnotoad! 23.05.2008. 15:26

How does one become a syndicated columnist? Array

All Hail Hypnotoad!

Admin 23.05.2008. 15:26

Pick a small paper you can send editorials and letters to the editor to. Keep on a subject or several and acquire a audience. Once the paper picks you up send stuff in their name to the UPI.


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