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S(tr)inging For My Supper
by Patricia Misiuk

About ten years ago, I jumped at the chance to earn about two dollars an hour (before taxes!), subject my minivan to rush-hour gridlock (with no mileage reimbursement), and spike my long-distance carrier's profits (again, no extra minutes or money for me).

And to think I could have earned more bagging groceries or- perish the thought- flipping burgers.

With three hours of journalism credit on my resume, I felt qualified (ooh was I ever mistaken) to sign on as a stringer for the local newspaper. Classroom drills involving inverted pyramid news story structure, the four Ws and delayed leads proved light years removed from the real world (and for me, uncharted territory) of print media.

I bulldozed my way, albeit in fits and starts, through my first assignment and built a foundation for future work.

During this opportunity to improve my writing skills, I eventually earned a decent (though a far cry from six-figured) salary. More importantly, I learned lessons no classroom could offer. Let me share my observations.


Don't sweat the details. Editors correct grammar and misspelled words. They'll fix sentence structure and rearrange text, if necessary.

Editors function in a pressure-cooker environment. Don't add to their burden by submitting less than perfect copy. If editors are bogged down red-penciling your piece, don't bank on another assignment anytime soon.


When assigning articles, editors outline details such as topic, deadline, slant, length and other incidentals (suggesting sources, scheduling photo shoots). Still not clear? Ask. A writer's active involvement in the communication process saves wasted time.


No gray areas here. Simply put: Don't miss a deadline. In newspaper land, the domino effect sends shock waves through editors, layout desk and pressroom if you're late filing a story. If a cosmic event, such as an alien abduction, prevents you from meeting a deadline, advise your editor as soon as possible. Ease the sting by keeping a prepared article in reserve.


If you've spent more than two minutes in a newsroom, you'll hear a staccato-like lingo: grafs, newsholes, mug, slug (and not the slimy snail you think it is), folo. Learn their definitions.


Keen observation will guarantee a full idea file. While interviewing an author, I asked about her spoon collection. During a visit with a couple who remodeled their turn-of-the-century house, I noticed their fridge was covered with magnets. My light bulb moment--and it was an easy sell--a piece showcasing collectors.


When assigned a piece about incorporating green accessories in home decor, I consulted interior designers and homeowners. Got the usual "it's peaceful, eco-friendly, brings the outdoors inside" comments. Ho hum. Not exactly earth-shattering. The article needed zing so I called a psychologist for his take on color choice. The result, psychobabble I rendered into the eighth-grade reading level article, added depth to the piece. Think of unusual sources to integrate into your research.

Similarly, oddball asides often result when posing off-the-wall questions. In a piece about fences, I heard the practical functions--privacy, decoration, enclosure. Only when I dug deeper, I discovered one contractor erected a temporary fence at a rock concert to keep gatecrashers out. Yet another remembered a custom job: to enclose pyrotechnists on the Fourth of July. Unusual twists make articles memorable.


You've heard it, read it and hopefully lived it: Writing is rewriting. Until it's cranked out on newsprint, your article is a work in progress. Trim the fat. Double-check spelling, grammar and syntax. Check facts. Most of all, welcome your editor's input. When mine suggested I vary sentence length and incorporate a conversational style, I noticed how these hints improved the piece's flow.


I lucked out. After my first assignment, my editor doubled my pay. And best of all, additional assignments and royalty checks filled my in-box. 'Twas time to dicker. Leaving some wiggle room, I aimed high and settled for mileage, long-distance phone expenses and the promise of another evaluation three months later.


Keep accurate records. When T. S. Eliot dubbed April as "the cruelest month," he must have been grappling with a deadline: filing income tax. Do the math. Be prepared to pay both the employer's and employee's share (ouch!) of Social Security tax. Fortunately business-related expenses and equipment are tax deductible.

The plusses of s(tr)inging for my supper extend far beyond that paper that says "Pay to the Order of..." I meet interesting people, learn from research, write regularly and hopefully, improve my communication skills.

I could elaborate on additional lessons I've learned as a stringer but, I have an article that needs tweaking and fine-tuning. And, no surprise here, I'm on deadline.

© Copyright 2002, Patricia Misiuk

Patricia Misiuk could have been the sole interviewee for Studs Terkel's "Working." Her jobs have ranged from migrant work in New Zealand to the replenishment of sanitary products in the "Big Apple's" restrooms. When she grows up (she is 61) she wants to be a columnist. She still works at "McJobs" but "writing is what she does."

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