- by Dara Girard
“Can we talk in class about briefs?”
I blinked at my Advanced Feature Writing student. “Excuse me?”
I try not to discuss tighty-whities in class, although by Week 8 in the term, the conversation has usually devolved to this level as exhausted students finish researching, interviewing, and writing their final feature article. “Briefs?” I repeated.
My student smiled patiently, in an echo of the smiles all 15 offered me when my new cell phone (I’d dropped the old one in a cup of water) shattered the peace of our early-morning class and I couldn’t figure out how to turn the damn thing off. “I mean news briefs.”
“Ah!” I cried. “You mean fillers!”
News briefs are to newspapers as fillers are to magazines. You can find fillers in almost every magazine, near the front, sometimes four to a page. They’re usually paired with thumbnail images or art. Mag. fillers can run between 100-400 words–500, if you’re writing for Bitch Magazine‘s “Love It/Shove It” department.
Why would you want to write something this short? Two reasons: First, many editors gladly assign fillers to writers unknown to them and later assign longer pieces. Second, many magazines pay 50 cents to a dollar a word. If a filler takes an hour to research and write, that’s pretty good money.
What makes for a good filler? I ask my students to evaluate potential topics by asking themselves three questions:
1. What’s new?
2. What’s relevant?
3. What’s quirky?
For instance, Voodoo Donuts just opened a store in Eugene. Editors of travel magazines, regional magazines, and food-related magazines will all be interested in this little shop which inspires long lines of devoted donut connoisseurs waiting to get their hands on a bacon-maple bar.
Think about the arts venues in your town, and what they have to offer in terms of new exhibits. For instance, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the UO campus just launched their show, “One Step Big Shot: Portraits by Andy Warhol and Gus Van Sant” along with a thought-provoking exhibition of works by the photographer Weegee, and by my personal favorite: Jim Riswold who shows “Marie Antoinette’s Head and Others.”
Editors of travel mags, regional mags, and art mags would be interested in seeing a short piece telling readers the who, what, where, when, why, and how of one or more of these events/exhibitions, written in a stylish manner.
You can find information on how to write fillers all over the Internet. To get you started, here’s a good short article by Teraisa J. Goldman which includes several markets for fillers, and another article from eHow.com. In general, you can submit a filler in the body of an e-mail, prefaced by a brief cover letter, but remember, always study a publication’s contributors’ guidelines for the editor’s specific requirements and his/her first and last name.
Where do I find ideas for fillers? Bulletin boards! Venues like Eugene’s public library and Sundance Natural Foods offer a rich selection of notices about new workshops, classes, presentations, store openings, products, and general events. I walked into Mini-Pet Mart last week to pick up six tons of pet food and discovered a real gem of a flyer on their bulletin board. It read: “Custom-Spun Dog Hair.” Could I craft this into a filler for Dog Fancy? Absolutely. But why not also write a profile, a feature article, and a humorous piece of social commentary on the same topic, making one idea do quadruple duty?
Briefly, when life gives you dog hair . . . spin it!
Reprinted with permission from Melissa Hart
Melissa Hart is a contributing editor to The Writer magazine as well as a teacher and author of 2 memoirs–The Assault of Laughter (Seal Press, 2005) and her latest Gringa: a Contradictory Childhood (Seal Press, 2009).