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Freelance Success Story
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The Education of an Education Writer...
by Christine Venzon

How does a person who has changed exactly one diaper in her life write high school textbooks on parenting and child development? 

How does a person who celebrates the fact that she balances her checkbook every month write about student activities on personal finance and consumer education?

It's one of those overlooked opportunities in freelance writing: not every educational writer is an educator. Sometimes we're as much student as teacher.

I started writing some 15 years ago, right out of college. I'd planned to freelance, fly solo all the way. But after six months with just two bylines, I was happy enough for the quasi-security of a project worker with one of McGraw-Hill's textbook publishing divisions.

My first assignment was as a humble researcher for a child care book. I read magazine and newspaper articles and chapters from competitors' books and sorted them according to topic: preschool, parenting, toileting.

I chafed at the routine and the confinement of office walls. Still, the experience drove home my first lesson in writing for the education market: learn what the experts are talking about. What are the well-established principles? The issues and controversies? The new philosophies on the horizon? Today I use the Internet more than the library stacks, but the same strategy applies.

My first writing assignment was doing features, one-page articles and activities on timely topics-careers or technology, for example-that run through the book. It got me out of the office, happily telecommuting by email.

Equally important, it imparted lesson two: don't be afraid to ask a living, breathing expert. Sure, you could-and I did-learn about space food from the NASA website. But it was more interesting and informative to pick up the phone to the Goddard Space Center . Plus, the idea of talking to a food packaging scientist working on the cutting edge of food technology in space exploration does wonders for your professional self-esteem. Way cool, too.

Not everyone gets back to you, of course, so line up three or four sources. If you've done your research (see lesson one), the most respected names will sound familiar. Vet them closely: visit their websites, check out their books at the library, Google their articles or public speaking engagements or appearances on Oprah. Find the specialists in the field.

To improve your chances, show that you've done your homework. Explain who you are, what you need to know, and why you believe they can help. No flattery is needed; recognizing their authority is enough.

One caveat about consulting experts: be prepared to be humbled. My question to a food historian about pasta making in ancient Rome showed a laughable lack of understanding on my part. (Graciously, he didn't laugh.)

After a decade of keeping me fed and housed, the textbook publisher unceremoniously and inconveniently closed its doors. By then I was too spoiled for a grown-up job. 

Instead, I applied lesson three : think outside the classroom. Trading on my own "expert" status as an educational writer, I sold an article on simple ways to encourage kids to read to a parenting website. Two writers' newsletters bought my piece on writing recipes for children.

It was the chance to submit articles for a food encyclopedia for a small but scholarly press that reaped the greatest rewards. That credit was barely under my belt when I used it to promote myself as a published foods researcher and writer. 

I earned a check for an article on teaching children social studies with easy ethnic recipes, and another from a kids' website for a story on potato processing, including a recipe for potato fudge.

It also helped me crack the toughest market in town: children's magazines. The ones you used to read in the doctor's office, like Highlights and Ranger Rick, are still around, but without the boilerplate, George-Washington-father-of-our-country stories and baking-soda volcano crafts.  

Kids today are reading about Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker. They're making Renaissance-style frescoes. Whole publications are dedicated to history, archaeology, and world cultures. Most ask for a bibliography of sources just to look at an article on spec.

As luck would have it, I had a little experience doing research.

This is where expert sources come in handy again. Editors love quotes from experts. They liven up what could be a stale recital of facts and dates. Even if it's not required, getting a recognized authority on board is like being insured by the FDIC. And when you're competing with a hundred other writers, half the battle is convincing editors that this is the story they want, and you're the one to write it.

My expert for a story on bread baking in ancient Greece was the editor of the encyclopedia I had written articles for (duly noted in the query letter). I'm not saying she swung the deal, but her line on how they kneaded the dough with their feet was my story-closing zinger. 
 
You might say the whole of my career rests on the adage "It's not what you know, it's who you know." And people say that like it's a bad thing.  

Author's Bio: Christine Venzon is a freelance writer specializing in academic subjects, including child development, foods and nutrition, consumer economics, and careers. Her publishing credits include the children's and young adults' magazines Appleseeds, BRIO, Pockets, and Young Rider. She can be reached at Vnznchristine@aol.com.

Copyright Notice: All copyrights belong to the author. As such, accounts may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, in any form, for any reason, without the express, written consent of the author. Violators will be prosecuted.

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