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The Writers Hedge
by Charles W. Sasser

Successful writers, like successful financial investors, diversify and expand their portfolios. Place all your efforts--or all your funds--in a single outlet or project and if it goes belly-up, chances are you go belly-up with it. What you need is a hedge to protect yourself.

Writers who consider going full-time as freelancers often specialize and thus cram all their investments in one portfolio. Few ever make it, unless their names happen to be Stephen King or Dean Koontz. If I’ve learned nothing else in this business, (more than 50 published books, over 3,000 magazine articles and short stories), it is that a freelance writer must be versatile in order to succeed. He must be able to expand his talents into multiple areas and exploit all these areas. A protective hedge, if you will. Here’s how I’ve done it and, more importantly, how you can do it.

My published books, both fiction and nonfiction, run the gamut in subject matter, from SciFi and thrillers to true adventure, history, and biography. Likewise, it’s not unusual for my byline to appear in publications as diverse as Parents and Soldier Of Fortune in the same month.

First of all, a writer cannot seclude himself and expect to be successful. Emily Dickinson may have closeted herself and penned stirring poetry, but she didn’t have to depend on her scribbles to buy bloomers and beans. Therefore, I recommend that you become involved, broaden your interests, get out there in the world and participate, see, experience, have new adventures. Join a racket club, take a college course, volunteer for a charity event, meet new friends, learn fresh skills, develop additional hobbies and interests. Only by expanding his horizon will a writer become more aware of the many wonderful opportunities available to him in this business.

Along the same line, be willing to pursue any potential project--which often means, as they say in the movies, going “on-scene.” I rarely interview a subject strictly on the telephone. Even more rarely do I depend only upon research for my knowledge of subject matter. I go directly to the source, often participating to get a personal feel and understanding.

I parachuted with airborne forest firefighters for Smoke Jumper (Pocket, 1996). Last summer, my interest in the Bigfoot phenomena inspired me to link up with old friend Dan Case and backpack all over the western U.S. interviewing witnesses and investigating sightings. This year, I will fly to Tanzania to interview the chief prosecutor for the Rwanda massacre trials, about whom I am writing a book.

Going “on-scene” doesn’t mean you can neglect background research. For every book I write, I read ten to twenty books on related topics and do exhaustive research through the internet and periodicals. I maintain file cabinets full of subject matter references on more than a hundred different topics. No research goes to waste. Think of it as source material not only for your current project but also for satellite ventures.

Initial research for my classic One Shot-One Kill (Pocket, 1990, with Craig Roberts) led to the novel, The 100th Kill (Pocket, 1992), a sequel, Crosshairs On The Kill Zone (Pocket, 2004), segments in a Time/Life series, and a number of magazine articles.

Research for First SEAL (Pocket, 1997) likewise expanded into the coffee table book Encyclopedia Of Navy SEALs (Facts On File, 2002), the action adventure novel Operation No Man’s Land (Avon, 2002, writing as Mike Martel), and any number of magazine articles.

As you continue to expand your portfolio, begin to think photography. The ability to provide photo art for your magazine articles increases you marketability by at least tenfold. The skill to competently handle a camera is another hedge against dry spells.

The same goes for marketing. Back in the golden publishing era of Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald, a few major publishing houses ruled the New York roost. There were perhaps several dozen magazines at most in circulation. That has all changed in recent years. Today, there are hundreds of publishing houses and thousands of periodicals.

Leaf through a recent edition of Writer’s Market, an essential resource for the freelancer, and you will discover that modern publishing has bloomed into a spread of thousands of specialized publishers. On the stands appear periodicals such as Needlepoint, Quilting, SWAT, Lost Treasure, and any number of others catering to single interests. Gone are the days of Look, Life, Argosy, and other broad-coverage publications.

All this is good news for you, the freelancer. While the really fat checks Hemingway or Fitzgerald once commanded are largely gone, you have a much larger market with a range that reaches to the horizons. In order to tap into this market, you must study it objectively and with an eye for feeding it. Thinks of it as expanding your portfolio to meet reader needs.

I never pass a magazine rack without stopping to peruse the offerings, leafing through them to study what is selling, what kind of market is being met, and how I might fit into it. I also subscribe to at least a score of periodicals on diverse topics while I try to keep up with publishing trends. Last year, Vietnam books and articles were in; this year they’re out and World War II is hot. See what I mean?

Finally, the biggest hedge in your portfolio is the fundamental one called discipline. If you don’t have the discipline to sit your behind down and write, your portfolio is going to collapse no matter how you diversify it. Writing is hard work and it must be approached as any other job. Otherwise, I suggest you go out and get a “real job.”

To make it in this business, you must be professional, dependable, disciplined, and you must develop the necessary skills to diversify your portfolio at every opportunity in order to build a hedge against failure.

© Copyright 2008, Charles W. Sasser

Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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