If you’re a therapist you’ve already got most of the skills necessary to be a writer, too. You’re likely:
- Curious about people;
- Interested in sharing information and inspiration; and
- Able to construct a coherent narrative.
That means if you want to write, you should. And if you decide to write and want to get it out there for the rest of the world to read and get paid for it, you should do that, too.
Before becoming a therapist I made my living as a freelance writer, which included a 4-year stint as an editor for a national print magazine for parents. It’s that time as a freelancer that makes me leery of “exposure” opportunities (the big markets that will publish you like they’re doing you a favor — links to your site or a chance to make pennies based on pageviews). There are times when writing for free makes sense but most of the time it doesn’t. We abundance-minded people know that we deserve to get paid for our work. Here’s a down and dirty look at how to break into publications that will publish AND pay you.
Choose a Market
First you need to decide where you want to see your byline. What publications do you like to read?. Choose one or two and don’t be afraid to start big. Sure, The New Yorker is unlikely to publish an unknown writer with zero clips but it’s possible. Or you might look at the bios of your favorite New Yorker authors and see where else their work has appeared. It’s a good way to discover some easier stepping stones.
Now that you’ve got a market or two in mind, study those like you studied the DSM for your licensing exam. Learn their tone, their themes and their structure. One parenting magazine or outdoor sports web site is not like the other and you’ll want a unique pitch that reflects their style.
Try to figure out who edits the part of the publication that you’re pitching. For a feature, you’d want the Features Editor. For an article on mindfulness, you’d want the person who edits the Wellness section.
On web sites, look at the About page and see if you can find a staff listing. For print publications, check out the masthead at the front of the magazine and then do a little Googling to see if you can find their email addresses. You’re much more likely to get a response if you pitch a specific person instead of a random “submissions” email (likely to be staffed by a gatekeeping intern).
Queries come first
Unless you’re writing an essay (and essays are a whole different kind of market) you never pitch a finished product. Instead you’re sending them an outline of what you’re pitching in a formal query.
A query is a lot like a treatment plan: It tells you exactly what’s going to happen and where you intend to go. And like a treatment plan it’s flexible so that if things need to change, you can change it.
The query has three elements:
- What you want to write;
- Why it will work for the publication;
- Why you’re the person to write it.
When you write a query, you should picture yourself taking the editor by the hand and explaining exactly what you’re going to do. If their articles use quotes from an expert, you’re going to promise a quote from an expert. (Even better if you can share a quote in the query itself.) If it has an anecdote, you’re going to supply an anecdote. If their tone is jaunty, be jaunty. If it’s serious, be serious.
Don’t promise you’re going to interview Oprah to get your expert quotes on confidence unless you actually have an in with Oprah. Instead promise someone you’re likely to be able to interview but who has some prestige. I’ve found that book authors — especially of recently published books — are awfully happy to be interviewed. Or reach out to colleagues whose work you admire. (If you’ve always wanted to talk to that impressive person who spoke at the workshop you attended last year, asking to interview them for a query or an article is a great way to network!)
Now explain to the editor exactly where you see this working in their publication. If the section has a name, name it (“This piece is perfect for your Relationship Corner round-up”). Make saying “yes” to your pitch a no-brainer.
Finish your query letter off by telling them why you’re the exact right fit to write it. This is where you showcase your relevant credentials (“I am a therapist in private practice with advanced training in working with struggling couples”) including any previous publications paid or unpaid (“My popular blog posts on relationships are regularly shared on Facebook”).
Make things easy for the editor
Editors are busy people. You think we’re overwhelmed by paperwork? Editors get a zillion emails a day from hopeful writers like you. You’re helping them out by sending them a clear, concise pitch that’s going to show them how hiring you will make their job so much easier.
You want the editor to read your query and immediately see your article all laid out with your byline shining beneath the headline. You want them to see your obvious skill as a writer but also recognize you as someone who understands their audience’s needs and how the magazine works to fulfill them.
When I was an editor I can’t tell you the number of inappropriate pitches I got. We were a pregnancy magazine with a light-hearted, irreverent tone and we were decidedly mainstream. So when I got a query for a hard-hitting investigative article on formula marketing in hospitals, I knew the writer had no idea who we were or what we published. On the other hand, when someone pitched a short but sweet Front of Book (those little blurbs that appear three to five on a page in the front of many print publications) that exactly mimicked what was currently on the newsstand, I knew that was a writer worth taking a risk on.
When people tell me that they want to get their writing published but feel afraid of trying, I tell them that I understand. It’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s hard to invest the time to do the research and write a great query and then send it off into the unknown. Many of us feel the way we did at the start of our psychotherapy career; ready to practically give away our hard-earned clinical skills just for the chance to live our dream of private practice. But you deserve to get paid as a therapist and you deserve to get paid as a writer so why not try?
Dawn Friedman LPCC has a private practice specializing in parenting in Columbus Ohio, at Building Family Counseling. Her writing work has appeared in numerous books and publications including Yoga Journal, Salon.com, Utne, Parenting, Brain Child and Counseling Today. She was also an editor for ePregnancy Magazine and Literary Mama.