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Make Money and Fill That Idea Jar
by Annie Gentile

When you think about writing for profit, what types of writing outlets come to mind for making that quick sale? Newspapers? They might be a first choice, particularly if you already have an established relationship as a freelance contributor. National, regional, or trade magazines are also good outlets, but pitching ideas to these venues and waiting for editors to make a decision in your favor can take a little time. And writing and selling books is always a long-term investment even for the established writer. So what does the practical writer do if she wants to be certain to have some guaranteed income coming in every week or month? Now might be the time to consider selling your services as a clerk for local boards and commissions.

If you don’t consider clerk work “real” writing, you may wish to rethink how you define that term. Whether it is for the Town Council, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Water Pollution Control Authority, serving as a paid clerk is one way to not only make guaranteed extra dollars for your writing a set number of evenings per month, but it can also be an excellent way to learn about what is happening in your community and a great repository for writing ideas.

I came into clerking for exactly these reasons. As a freelance writer who covers a local tri-town area, I was looking for a way to find out more about the happenings in one of the three communities that wasn’t getting as much ink. I theorized that if I served as a clerk on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, I would not only receive guaranteed payments, but I would also be a step ahead of others on developments that were coming down the pike. Four years later, my theory continues to pay off on a regular basis. For example, as the Planning and Zoning Commission clerk, I recently sat in on a public hearing that debated whether or not to ban the use of outdoor wood-burning furnaces (OWFs). The units, which resemble a small shed with a smoke stack up top, can be loaded fully with up to six foot logs for burning. The heat generated from the OWF’s is then piped underground to the resident’s home or business, thereby keeping the smoke, soot, and associated mess that often comes with having an indoor wood-burning stove outdoors where it belongs. Sound boring? Hardly. The hearing entertained some lively, informative, and heated discussion that pitted residents concerned about air quality issues against those who were looking for an efficient and economical alternative to the high cost of home heating oil.

Now, step back and think of the writing possibilities I had before me. For sitting in on the discussion, taking notes and putting together minutes for that evening’s meeting, I collected my contracted fee per meeting from the town. However, I also was able to use my time spent and notes I took at the meeting to sell the story to my tri-town newspaper. I’ve also since pitched a story on the debate of banning such units to a national magazine that deals with air quality, a land-use planning magazine, and a regional quality of life issues magazine.

Board and commission meetings also create excellent opportunities for writers to hone their listening and note-taking skills. A lot of commentary gets tossed out at town meetings and, depending on the issue, not every one patiently waits for their turn to speak. A good writer needs to be able to zero in on the important details and put them together to form a cohesive, readable document that will become a part of the public record. What better way is there to get paid to practice note-taking?

A word or two of caution: Be aware that some news outlets, particularly newspapers that serve the same locality, may consider it a conflict of interest to accept stories for publication from a Commission clerk, even if as clerk, you have no voting rights on any decisions being made. They may prefer that any story ideas generated be passed along to another staff writer. This is understandable. However, if the publication has a regional or national focus, this limitation is less likely to be a problem. Just be sure to inquire about these matters ahead of time. If you do encounter this concern with your local newspaper, you may simply need to dig your hand a little deeper into the idea jar. For example, a routine renewal of a quarrying permit could become a stepping stone to a story on local mining history. Or a Water Pollution Control Authority discussion about odor control at the local wastewater pumping stations may generate a story on pilot programs to handle similar situations in other area towns.

Whether you use your time spent clerking at board and commission meetings to generate additional writing opportunities or whether you wish to limit yourself to submitting comprehensive minutes, the practical writer can rely on a steady stream of paychecks coming in each month. And with few creative writers competing for this type of opportunity, there’s always the chance that your good work will open the door to covering meetings for other boards and commissions. It certainly has for me!

© Copyright 2008, Annie Gentile

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