Failed Queries: Don’t Give Up on a Good Story

Here is another failed query that worked — after two years of trying. My profile based on this pitch, originally drafted in 2012, is scheduled for publication later this month. Its subject is working on a second cookbook, which made for an ideal opportunity to revisit the query and send an updated version to markets I hadn’t tried in the past. For more strategies on following up, you can also check out my recent guest post on Carol Tice’s blog, Make a Living Writing.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Profile Subject began her career as a restaurant entrepreneur at the tender age of 22 when she opened a business in her hometown of Starkville, Miss. The restaurant and catering company specialized in Southern food with global influences. Owning a thriving business was an impressive accomplishment for a woman in her twenties, but it was a request from a catering client who wanted to host a Japanese-inspired party in sushi-starved Starkville that ignited Subject’s true passion and encouraged her to explore far beyond her culinary comfort zone.

That exploration began in earnest when Subject closed her businesses and moved to Memphis to work as a pastry chef before enrolling in the professional sushi chef program at the California Sushi Academy. While there, she studied under respected sushi chefs and sake sommeliers, taught classes, catered events and observed and worked in restaurant kitchens on her way to becoming the first female African American graduate of the school.

Subject then returned to Memphis where she worked at a now-defunct sushi restaurant and refined her specialty of creating sushi with a Southern twist using local and sustainable ingredients. After three years, she decided to leave her position and focus on teaching sushi classes, catering and occasionally creating “tsushi” for the restaurant where she had once worked as a pastry chef. She also shared her passion for Southern-inspired sushi through her book.

Would you be interested in a story about this entrepreneur and author who has created innovative rolls that include Southern staples like pickled okra but also shares basic recipes easy enough for anyone to follow? The story could be expanded to include other restaurateurs creating innovative ethnic cuisine or focus on Subject’s and other authors’ adventures with cookbook publishing and promotion. I would be happy to provide a source list that fits the angle of most interest to you.

As for my professional credentials, I have 15 of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News. Most recently, I have been working on stories for publication by national magazines and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, DRAFT Magazine, The FruitGuys Almanac and Organic Gardening.

Once I know which angles are of most interest to you, I would be happy to provide sidebar ideas, an estimated word count and a working title. Meanwhile, I have included a link to my resume and some writing samples should you be interested.


Charlene Oldham

Free photo from morgueFile

Free photo from morgueFile

To Record or not to Record: Transcripts are for court stenographers

Transcribing recorded interviews is far and away my least favorite part of being a freelance reporter. In fact, I rarely record interviews unless my editor requests it, and it’s not just because I’m only a fair typist on my fastest day. Here are five reasons I rely on old-fashioned pen and paper for most interviews, whether I do them in person, over the phone or via Skype:

  • I can start the editing process immediately. I only record meaty quotes word for word, spending the rest of the time summarizing and noting other details that might be helpful when I’m writing.
  • It’s less intimidating to the source. When you let someone know you are recording them, they sometimes obsess over every single word and phrase. That rarely results in a string of colorful quotes or engaging anecdotes.
  • Recording makes me a lazy writer. I’ve found if I’ve taken the time to transcribe a ton of quotes, I’ll use them, even when putting some things in my own words will make for a better story or a more compelling read.
  • Reporters are overly paranoid about  misrepresenting people. A study by a University of Arizona linguistics professor showed only 13 of 98 quotations taken from Arizona newspapers proved verbatim when compared with recordings, but only two proved to be incompatible with the meaning of the original statement. When in doubt, I read quotes back to sources or simply ask themselves. Trust me, they don’t mind.
  • Technology stinks. Free programs to record Skype calls don’t activate automatically. New apps that are supposed to capture both sides of a cell phone conversation result in recordings that sound as though they were made in a concrete mixer. Batteries fail. You name it, I’ve experienced it.

Don’t get me wrong, taping has its time and place. I know plenty of reporters who record every interview. And I tape most personality profile interviews so I can spend more time jotting down details about a subject’s environment and mannerisms and hear their tone and speech patterns again and again during the writing process. I also tape interviews I think I might use some time in the far-flung future. But, for the most part, I save the transcription work for court reporters and spend my time perfecting my personalized brand of shorthand.

What about you? Do you rely on recordings or stick to pen and paper?


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Failed Query: Timely Research Can Kill a Query

This failed query illustrates the dangers of using research (in this case, a survey from November 2012) that may be considered time sensitive as the crux of a pitch to a monthly magazine that could have a six-month lead time.

Dear Ms. Editor:

A survey released in November shows an increasing number of shoppers are willing to pay a premium for American-made goods, even if those consumers call China home. Indeed, more than 60 percent of Chinese consumers said they are willing to pay more for products made in the U.S.A., and 80 percent of American consumers agreed according to recent research from The Boston Consulting Group. These taste trends and other factors lead BCG to estimate the U.S. could add 5 million new jobs in manufacturing and related services by the end of the decade.

Patriotism and cache aren’t the only factors behind those findings. Consumers who buy brands made in the U.S. know more about the wages and working conditions of the people who sew their clothes. And locally sourced clothing carries added benefits for the environment since it doesn’t have to be shipped as far from its factory to store shelves.

I would like to propose a story for XX that examines the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing. I could also provide readers with five to 10 brands that make fashion-forward clothes and accessories domestically. Some suggestions include Prairie Well, Barbara Lesser, School House and Red Ants Pants. I would be happy to provide a longer list of brands depending on what types of clothes you’d like to feature. I can also give you an idea of length, art and sidebars once you decide on a specific angle that best fits your needs.

As for my professional credentials, I have a decade of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News. Most recently, I have been working on stories scheduled for publication by national magazines and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, DRAFT Magazine, Poets & Writers and WOW! Women On Writing.

To avoid clogging your inbox with attachments, I have included a link to my resume. You can also find some writing samples at: should you be interested.


Charlene Oldham

Free Photo from MorgueFile

Free Photo from MorgueFile

Come to The Dark Side: Tips on Writing Press Releases

Even Luke Skywalker was tempted by The Dark Side and, at some point in their careers, most reporters and writers will be, too.

“Star Wars” analogies aside, there are many reasons to learn how to write press releases, even if you never do paid public relations work.  Knowing how to write an effective press release can come in handy for the small business owner who wants to get the word out about her company, for organizers of charity events and other fundraising efforts, or for authors and artists who want to publicize their newest self-published book or other work. And, while it can feel odd at first to toot your own horn and bang your own drum, there’s really nothing wrong with being your own one-man band when you’ve got something newsworthy or unique to share.

With that in mind, here are a few tips on how to write an effective press release.

Good Press Releases:

  • are newsworthy.
  • have an attention-getting headline and lead.
  • are accurate, objective, and contain sources for follow-up calls and contacts.
  • take into account impact on the public and classic news values including proximity and timeliness.

So, what can you do to generate a newsworthy press release?

  • emphasize ties with current events
  • conduct a survey
  • issue a report
  • interview a celebrity
  • tie in with a holiday
  • stage a special event
  • organize a tour
  • adapt national reports for the local market
  • hold a contest
  • address a controversy

Once you’ve got something newsworthy to write about:

  • identify your audience and tailor your writing. Would an editor at the local newspaper be interested, or is your news better suited for a trade magazine that specializes on covering your industry?
  • decide whether the release will be news oriented or feature oriented. Are you holding a meatball eating contest or did you just release a blockbuster new product that will double the size of your workforce? Your writing style should reflect the content of the release.
  • write an attention-getting headline, then identify the theme and put it in the lead. Your reader should know immediately what your release is about.
  • include information in the body of the release to support the theme and weave in lots of strong quotes from sources. Even if a reporter develops his or her own story from a press release, these quotes will sometimes be used word for word, making them a great way to get your message out.
  • take the time to send your release to the right person. Don’t just send your press release to the generic email address listed on a newspaper, television station, or magazine’s contact page. Find the address of a specific editor or reporter and send your release directly. That being said, make sure your release is actually worth reading. If it is, you are likely to at least garner some respect for your company or cause, even if you don’t generate positive publicity.

I can say from personal experience that these tips really work. I’ve written or edited a number of press releases on a volunteer basis for everything from my fiance’s country band to a friend’s non-profit wine bar, and each release has generated multiple stories. This semester, some of my students found similar success when their releases resulted in stories or even ran verbatim in the local daily newspaper.

So, feel free to explore The Dark Side, because it might not be so bad after all.


This Teacher Learns a Few Lessons

A while back, one of my Basic Reporting students turned in an assignment that certainly wasn’t perfect, but had undeniable news value. Locura Sana Fitness, a Facebook page launched by the student and two friends, had built a following of more than 10,000. After helping him polish it into a press release, we sent it off to the university’s student newspaper and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A story sparked by that press release about the Spanish-language fitness program, offered free through Facebook and other social media sites, ran in last week’s newspaper.

Between the three of them, the college students put in at least 40 hours a week maintaining the Facebook page, YouTube channel and Instagram account which, together, boast more than 20,000 followers. But they are pursuing a passion, not a paycheck, so do it all for free.

While following their dream may eventually lead to financial gain for these young people, their efforts to educate others without expecting anything in return is an important lesson for everyone, especially this teacher. Sometimes, I lament the number of hours I put in planning and grading, occasionally thinking about giving up teaching altogether for more lucrative pursuits. But I always come back to the fact I would miss interacting with students — not only sharing my own passions, but celebrating successes when they discover theirs. When I asked the student how it felt to be featured in the newspaper, he modestly replied,”Yesterday was a good day.”


morgueFile free photo

It was a good day for both of us.





In Praise of Adjunct Teaching

Sharing what I know and learning new things from new people are two of my favorite activities. This would explain why I became a reporter and writer. It would also explain why, after the events of September 11, I was inspired leave my job as a business reporter to join Teach For America in an effort to make a difference in the lives of those not already earning a six-figure salary.

Thanks to that amazing organization, I had the opportunity to teach special education and English in Saint Louis City’s Vashon High School. I later moved on to a nearby middle school and, after meeting and working with some incredible adults and young people, finally remembered why few would ever elect to return to middle school in any capacity. Given that I had also expended considerable time, effort and money earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, I also thought it was well past time for me to return to writing something other than office referrals.

Still, I knew I would miss sharing my passion for reading and writing with young people, so I settled on what has thus far proven to be an ideal compromise. In addition to adding a certain level of class to my attic storage space, that aforementioned master’s degree makes me qualified to teach college courses as an adjunct.

Adjunct teaching certainly doesn’t give me a six-figure salary comparable to those earned by the executives I used to write about. In fact, it doesn’t even offer anything close to what I brought home as a full-time public school teacher in a struggling city system. But it has been an enlightening experience that makes me honestly echo the cliché that I hope I am teaching my students as much as I am learning from them.

Indeed, it was the textbook for my business communications class, coupled with a few innovative presentations from my students, that inspired the idea behind my first published piece in a decade. And the classes I teach — in which students are encouraged to submit almost all their work through a blog — are the only reason this site exists today.

It’s true that adjunct teaching is often, if not always, a poor way to earn a living for extremely educated, underemployed degree holders hoping for substantive salaries, health insurance and a tenure track professorship. But I would argue it’s an excellent way to sharpen your skills and supplement your income while working on a book project, raising a family or pursuing your Ph.D.

And I can say from experience that it definitely beats middle school bus duty.

And Now for Something Completely Different*

I have been working on a few deadlines and touring a little of Europe. Those activities have left little time for blogging lately, but I wanted to share my latest story, titled “Punch Up Your Presentations,” in SUCCESS Magazine. I will return to regular programming shortly.


*I have always loved this Monty Python catchphrase. It seems to fit so well into my life so often.