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    Babies to Olympic Sprinters, Clip by Clip

    Frustrated aspiring writers often ask me how they can get published if they have no clips. To get bylines, you must already have bylines, they contend. To an extent, they are correct. But, one proven system of obtaining clips worked well for me and it can work for anyone. What a wise journalist shared with me more than a decade ago, I will share with you because it works. It is not complicated to grasp, but difficult to fully implement. The advice: Start small?even if you have to work for free?and systematically progress into more prestigious, paying assignments.

    To land paying jobs you must first pay your dues. That doesn't mean you should send a check to every writer's association in the U.S. It means you should parlay all published clips into more prestigious ones. Magazine editors do not consider a story in Uncle Charlie's Hardware Store Newsletter a solid clip. But, a neighborhood newsletter editor might. That hardware piece may lead to a writing gig with a local association newsletter, which may pave the way for a story in a town newspaper. That clip can be the springboard to a long writing career.

    Beginning writers must methodically take small baby steps toward becoming Olympic sprinters. No one, to my knowledge, walked off the stage at graduation without clips and sold a 2,000-word feature to The New Yorker. It doesn't work that way. (If anyone knows about such a gifted writer, please let me know so I can pick his or her brain for pointers). The stepping stones to New York-based magazines are small newsletters, community newspapers and even a letter to the editor of your favorite publications. A clip is a career building block. They don't all weigh the same, but they all lead to the next incremental plateau.

    I learned this valuable lesson from Dan Rodricks, a long-time columnist at The Baltimore Sun. I first met him during a journalism class field trip to The Sun building in downtown Baltimore when I was a high-school senior. Mr. Rodricks stressed the importance of saving every clip, regardless of topic or length. He also stressed writing as much as humanly possible.

    The second time we met, he agreed to sit down with me for a one-on-one discussion about how to become a journalist and professional writer. I was preparing for college where I planned to major in journalism. I felt privileged to have a 30-minute conversation with an award-winning columnist and book author?one of the writing profession's elite. At that meeting I also learned how difficult becoming a journalist and writer would be. He told me to get on the school newspaper and write as much as I could. He rattled off the names of several local weeklies and told me to start there after graduation. The college clips, he said, would help land an entry-level newspaper job in four years. He recommended that I save every word ever published under a Joe Kelly byline.

    I listened and did exactly what he said. The high-school clips helped secure a college assignment. The scores of college clips landed my first professional job. The clips from that weekly newspaper led to a position at a monthly trade magazine. And that job propelled me to the editor's desk. Mr. Rodricks' advice was exactly what I needed. My career has been a lesson in baby stepping and building on each experience, just as he suggested.

    Mr. Rodricks' wisdom holds the same weight in freelance work. I have parlayed earlier work into better projects with more prestigious publications. It has also led to a regular, monthly gig. Now, like Dan Rodricks, I am also a columnist.

    In theory, baby stepping is simple. Implementation, conversely, requires hard work and persistence. I have been fortunate in my evolution from high-school wannabe to magazine editor, freelancer and columnist. In my way of thinking, I'm sprinting now, mostly because of sound advice from a seasoned pro. I listened (and still listen) to the masters, absorbing every word of their counsel. If you listen and remain persistent, you too can be a sprinter. It all starts with a baby step.

    Copyright © 2002 Joseph M. Kelly

    Joseph M. Kelly, who is editor of Electrical Contractor magazine in Bethesda, Md., and a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, has been published in daily and weekly newspapers, national trade magazines, newsletters and online. His work has appeared in The Maryland Coast Dispatch, Hardware Age, Home Improvement Market, LBM Retailer, Garden Supply Retailer, Decorative Products Retailer, Outdoor Power Equipment, Association Publishing, Writing For Money, The Baltimore Press, The Enterprise, Electrical Contractor,, Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel, and several other publications.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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