Q&A with Donald Vaughan of the Triangle Association of Freelancers

David Morrell, author of “First Blood” and other novels, signs a book for a fan at the Write Now! conference. The event, sponsored by the Triangle Association of Freelancers, takes place each year in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Donald Vaughan is founder and financial director of the Triangle Association of Freelancers. As a freelancer, he has written dozens of books and more than 2,000 magazine articles. In this interview, conducted by email, Vaughan discusses TAF’s objectives and membership, and he offers advice to writers and editors who are considering freelancing.

Q. What is the Triangle Association of Freelancers? What are the organization’s objectives?

A. The Triangle Association of Freelancers is a nonprofit organization created to provide networking, education, mentoring and more to fiction and nonfiction writers in North Carolina and surrounding states. The organization was established in 2003, and today has around 150 registered members who publish in all styles and genres of writing.

Every spring, we host a one-day, multi-track writing conference called Write Now!, which brings in around 120 attendees. Write Now! 2020 will be held on Saturday, May 2, at The McKimmon Center in Raleigh.

The primary objectives of TAF are to help area writers improve their craft and get published. Toward that goal we meet on the last Wednesday of every month, except December, at Milton’s Pizza & Pasta in Raleigh to discuss various aspects of writing, freelancing and publishing, as well as any issues members may have regarding ongoing projects. We host a guest speaker at most meetings and celebrate members’ successes.

TAF has an enormous brain trust within its membership, and more experienced members are always happy and eager to help those who are new to the profession. We promote fair pay for writers, and we encourage all writers not to write for free.

Q. TAF is made up of freelancers from all walks of live with a range of interests. What do these writers learn from each other?

A. We are constantly sharing news and information through our members-only listserv, monthly meetings and the organization’s social media. Members often share job opportunities as well as tips for improving craft and getting published.

New members are encouraged to reach out with questions, and more experienced members are happy to answer them. Ongoing discussions cover everything from self-publishing to crafting an effective query letter to how to break into specific markets.

The creative diversity of TAF is one of its strongest features — we have members who have successfully published novels, poetry, creative nonfiction, memoirs, short stories and everything in between. We also have lawyers, graphic designers, editors and others who share their unique expertise.

Q. What’s the biggest piece of advice that you have for someone considering freelance writing or editing, either in North Carolina or beyond?

A. First, success comes with perseverance. It may take a while to make that first freelance sale, but you will succeed if you persevere. For example, it took me two years of pitching and rejection to break into Boys’ Life, the monthly magazine of the Boys Scouts of America, and equally long to break into MAD magazine.

Second, new freelance writers must understand that publishing tends to work at a glacial pace. Many new writers pitch to a magazine, expect a response right away and become frustrated when they don’t hear back immediately. They fail to understand that editors are busy and that freelance proposals are not their priority; they get to them when they have a spare moment. So be patient.

Third, there is tremendous opportunity out there for talented freelancers, but there are also a lot of scams and bad players waiting to take advantage of new writers. Jobs that ask for a lot of work for very little pay are extremely common and should be avoided. So should opportunities that require writers to bid on projects. Such endeavors are destroying the profession.

Writers should also avoid writing for free. If your work is good enough to be published, it’s good enough to be compensated for. When an editor tells you that you will receive a lot of exposure by writing for him for free, remind him that people die from exposure. If an editor is being paid, his writers should also be paid.

Q. What’s ahead for TAF in 2020?

A. Write Now! 2020 will be our 13th consecutive conference, and this year, all of our presenters will be from North Carolina, which we’re very excited about.

We also will continue our mission of outreach to other state writing organizations, and we will do all we can to help our members become better writers, and get published. People who would like to learn more are encouraged to visit our website: https://tafnc.com.

A new name and a new style


A UNC-Chapel Hill employee updates the signage on Carroll Hall, home to what is now called the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In early September, I woke to big news about where I teach.

The School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill had a new name: the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The change came with a $25 million donation from alumnus Walter Hussman Jr. and his family.

My first thought: “Wow, what a great gift for the future of journalism!” My second thought: “Well, we’re going to have to update our stylebook.”

The journalism school has a stylebook that’s a supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook. It covers material about the university, the Triangle region and North Carolina.

Here is the guidance on the journalism school’s name change:

UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media: Formerly the School of Media and Journalism. On second reference: UNC Hussman School or the school. In features stories and other informal instances, it may be referred to as the j-school.

I offer a big “thank you” to the Hussman family for supporting our school and investing in journalism. I also offer a smaller “thank you” to them for the reminder that style isn’t stagnant. As times and names change, so must our stylebooks.

Things are looking up on Dictionary Day


Today is Dictionary Day. It takes place each year on the birthdate of lexicographer Noah Webster.

When my grandmother died in 2012, I inherited her dictionary and its stand. The dictionary is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. It’s in my office at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Although I usually go to Merriam-Webster’s website to look up a word, I occasionally scan the pages of the print dictionary, thinking of my grandmother and her love of words and language.

You can read more about the history of Merriam-Webster dictionaries on the company’s site. If you want a deeper look at lexicography, I recommend “Word By Word” by Kory Stamper and “Founding Grammars” by Rosemarie Ostler.

Happy Dictionary Day!

Guest post: How to prepare for NaNoWriMo success


Erin Servais is a book editor, author coach, and founder of Dot and Dash, an author-services company. In her decade-plus in publishing, she has helped to bring hundreds of titles to publication, including books that went on to be USA Today and Amazon best sellers. Servais has developed specialties in romance and women’s fiction, and she focuses her business on women author-entrepreneurs who self-publish their books. 

Hundreds of thousands of people are signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, just like they do every year. And like every year, most people won’t hit the 50,000-word finish line they’re supposed to reach from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30. Almost 90% won’t, if you tally up the scattershot figures.

The biggest reason why is because people don’t plan ahead. That’s the main thing that separates the “winners” from the “losers” (it’s called “winning” if you reach the word count). One group spends hours deliberately planning their novel, and the other plops down on Nov. 1 with a pot of coffee and a couple of vague ideas, thinking 50,000 words will magically pour out.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic, folks. But you can finish in time, with a solid first draft, if you spend the time now preparing.

There are three main areas to plan: plot, characters and setting. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to think about for each section.


You can get as detailed as you want with your plot planning, but there are some areas you will want to figure out for certain:

  • Genre
  • Premise
  • Beginning
  • Ending
  • Key events in between

Some people will make a scene-by-scene outline that includes all kinds of details and even the position of the moon. They’re called “plotters.” The writers who recoil at the previous thought are called “pantsers,” as in “fly by the seat of their pants.” They sit down and write what comes to them as it comes to them.

Under normal circumstances, I tell writers to do what feels best. Either way can be successful. But when you’ve been writing for 20 days in a row and your last three lines have come from you falling asleep on the letter Z, you’re going to be thankful you at least outlined your key events.


For your story to feel believable and not one dimensional, you’ll want to have thoughtful, fully realized characters. This is why you’ll want to create a character profile for most of them. (The waitress with only three lines gets a pass.) Your profile should include:

  • Physical characteristics: (eye color, hair color, build, etc.)
  • Life basics: (job, hobbies, etc.)
  • Strengths & weaknesses (physical, mental or emotional)
  • Fun facts (favorite movie, favorite food, etc.)

You won’t need to include every detail about every character in your book, but knowing so much about your characters will help you better assess how they will react in any given situation.

As you create your characters, be sure to invent an antagonist (bad guy) for your protagonist (main character) and at least a few side characters. You’ll also want to think about their relationships with each other. Who is your character’s best friend? Who’s their love interest? Who do they have a positive relationship with? Who do they have a negative relationship with? Who do they tell their secrets to?


Setting is important to establishing the feeling and mood of a scene. A scene taking place in a shopping mall cafeteria would have a starkly different feeling than one happening in a darkened cave, for example. Some questions you’ll want to ask yourself about your settings include:

  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • Does it take place in many settings or in one setting?
  • How do characters travel from one setting to the next?

You’ll also want to consider your characters’ relationship to settings. A king would have different feelings about his castle’s throne room than the person who is plotting the king’s death, for example. Characters’ relationship to the setting may influence their behavior in the scene.


One way to organize all of these details is to use a workbook. I have created one called “The One-Month Novel Workbook.” It includes 64 pages of worksheets covering all of these topics and more, along with writing-success guides and self-care ideas.

The workbook comes as a digital download and in print. You can learn more about it — and the book-coaching program I have created for this contest — here: https://www.dotanddashllc.com/shop

Learn more about Erin Servais on her website and follow her on Twitter.

How to prepare for the Dow Jones News Fund editing test

College students attend an editing session at Temple University. The week of training is part of the Dow Jones News Fund internship. (Photo by Margo Reed)

It’s Dow Jones season. That’s when journalism students apply for editing internships with the Dow Jones News Fund. Interns will work at news organizations across the country in summer 2020.

The application includes a one-hour test that assesses skills in story editing, headline writing, word choice and current events. Here are some tips on how to get ready for this closed-book test:

  • Review news for the past year, including deaths of noteworthy people. Sports, business and entertainment may be included along with national and international news.
  • Know the terminology of journalism such as search engine optimization.
  • Study word pairs listed in the AP Stylebook: who/whom, affect/effect, flounder/founder, etc.
  • Memorize the state locations on a U.S. map. You’ll need to connect  news events to the states they took place in.
  • Be able to brainstorm ideas for digital storytelling, including links and story formats.
  • Watch math carefully. You can expect math errors in the stories you edit.
  • Practice headline writing for print and digital media. Know how to tweet.
  • Take tests from past years.

The deadline to apply is Nov. 8. Good luck to all of the students taking the test this year.

Celebrating our freedoms under the First Amendment


The 11th annual First Amendment Day at UNC-Chapel Hill is Tuesday, Sept. 24. It’s sponsored by the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy. Here is what the day is all about:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression deserves a day of recognition and celebration. The events this year include:

  • A reading of banned books and exhibit of work by an imprisoned artist
  • A discussion about hate speech that will be recorded for “The State of Things” radio program
  • A trivia competition and selfie contest

All sessions are free and open to all. I’d love to see you there. You can also follow the fun on social media with the hashtag #uncfree.

Express yourself!

Q&A with Sam Oches of Food News Media


Sam Oches is editorial director at Food News Media, a B2B communications company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Oches discusses how the company covers the restaurant industry and what he looks for in candidates for jobs and internships.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. My job is very much spinning a lot of plates.

I oversee editorial direction and strategy for both QSR and FSR magazines, which are trade publications for the national restaurant industry. That includes overseeing the production of monthly print issues for both magazines along with our ever-expanding digital presence, managing our five-person editorial team and maintaining a pool of a couple of dozen freelance writers.

But increasingly the job is oriented toward innovation and new products, as well as being an ambassador for the publications. So I’ve rolled out a new podcast for QSR called “Fast Forward” (which I also edit, produce, etc.) and launched a networking-event series for restaurant owners called Fast Casual Meet Ups, of which we’re doing 10 this year and 12 next year. Then I’ll also moderate panels, give speeches and talk with consumer media whenever appropriate.

My typical day depends on the timing of the month and deadlines we have on the horizon. Usually I’ll have a week where I’m mostly assigning stories and working with writers, then a week where I’m copy editing first drafts, then a week where I’m proofing the books and maybe a week where I’m doing more content creation, including writing and podcast editing.

In and among all of that I’m conversing with restaurant owners, executives and experts; researching trends and new restaurant concepts; and developing a plan and RSVP list for our next event. Then, of course, every day includes lots and lots of emailing.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Food News Media’s magazines?

A. Every piece of print content usually has three or four sets of eyeballs on it before it gets published. Each editor here has sections they manage, and they give each story a first pass in editing. Then another editor will give it a second pass before it gets laid out by design.

After the design team has laid out the entire issue, two editors proof each book, and we also have a freelance proofer who gives it a careful read. Then we have a 24-hour window right before publishing when each editor gives the book one final pass. Suffice to say, we rarely have typos or mistakes.

As for headlines, print headlines are usually established in the first or second pass at editing. We ask that the writer suggest a couple of possible heds.

Our digital process, of course, is a little different. Due to time demands, stories get much less editing attention, and so we have to trust our digital writers to create content that is as clean and quality as possible. I’ll often give our premier digital content a read just after it’s been published, to try to catch any mistakes that might have made it through.

Digital headlines are always crafted with audience engagement in mind — and yes, that means we’ve had to explore the more acceptable components of clickbait when possible. Our digital team is very good at walking right up to the line of clickbait without crossing it. Also, all of our print content gets new headlines when published online, because again, we have to consider audience engagement.

Q. You are a graduate of the journalism program at Ohio University. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you picked up?

A. I graduated from OU a decade ago, but it might as well have been a generation ago based on how much journalism and storytelling have evolved since then. We were just kicking the tires of social media when I graduated!

I learned all of the basics in school, of course, and copy editing and storytelling techniques were particularly important. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be good at copy editing. The world is filled with sloppy writers!

But the biggest thing I took away from my time at OU was learning about business-to-business journalism. During my junior year, my adviser pointed me toward a class she taught on B2B; I assumed it would be all about economics reporting and numbers, but it was far from it. We learned how you could take a niche subject and break it down into the nuts and bolts, then explore those nuts and bolts using reporting and writing.

To that point, I was hellbent on being the next Lester Bangs, but the B2B class helped me understand that the path to journalistic success was much more varied and had much more opportunity than I’d thought. That class led to an internship at an architecture trade pub, and that internship helped me land the associate editor gig at QSR when I graduated in 2009 — a big deal since we were in the thick of a recession.

Q. What do you look for in applicants for jobs and internships? Any advice for students interested in B2B writing and editing?

A. Believe it or not, the most important differentiating factors among applicants are usually passion, drive and curiosity. Your resume may be short and your clips may not be super sexy. But if you come into an interview demonstrating that you’ve researched our publications and that you’re committed to continuous learning — and *cough* you ask some good questions *cough* — then I’ll probably want to find room for you on my team. We can probably teach you the rest of it.

My advice to anyone interested in the B2B field would be to go out and find some publications covering subjects you’re interested in or know a lot about — there is a trade for just about every single subject, even in the arts (Billboard and Variety, anybody?). Read those publications and get a feel for how they approach content. Develop some pitches and send them to the editors.

Even if they don’t assign you the story, it’s great to have a foot in the door. Most editors will even jump on the phone with you to describe their process and how to get included in their freelance pool.

Follow Sam Oches on Twitter and learn more about Food News Media at its website.