Writer's Guidelines 

The North Coast Journal is looking for freelancers. If you're a good writer and you're interested in writing about Humboldt County, chances are we'd like to hear from you. We pay pretty damn well, all things considered.

The North Coast Journal is not a regular newspaper. We don't want straight hard news articles, inverted pyramids, etc. We don't consider the delivery of information our primary function. Rather, we want to give a sense of what it looks, sounds and feels like here. We want to record this moment in time, what it means for us to live in this place. We want pieces of writing that people want to read simply for the pleasure of reading. We want stories, in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Non-fiction ones. Our goal is to tell the story of Humboldt County, one chapter at a time. It's a very unusual and interesting place, as you probably already know.

Here at the paper, we put stories into a few different categories. Each category has its own place in the paper, and each is meant to fulfill a slightly different function. The various categories are explained below.

Here's a quick note about a couple of the things we don't want. We don't want political harangues written by someone involved in one side or another of any given political issue. With extremely rare exception — meaning, you'd better be really, really good — we don't want stories in which you yourself are the main character (your struggles with depression, your new miracle chiropractic technique, etc.).

Apart from those things, and maybe a few others we haven't thought of, anything goes. Basically, what we want you to do is go out and confront some aspect of life in Humboldt County, and to come back and write an insightful, compelling story about it. If the story touches on something that people are talking about — something in the news lately — so much the better. It's not required, though. We want to hear from all walks of life, anything interesting going on between Orick and Benbow and Willow Creek. The stranger and more unknown the scene, the better. If it interests you, chances are you can make it interest us, too. Look at what we are doing right now, then do it better.

The best possible thing to do if you'd like to write for us is to e-mail the editor three story pitches. A "pitch" is a short summary of the story you'd like to write — the characters involved, the things they do and the topic — the unusual thing that's going to make your story interesting. Ideally, you should give some sort of sense of the arc of your story, the way you're going to tell it. If you don't have three story ideas, that's okay. But it's better if you send three. If we don't know you, send along samples of previous things you've done, too.

One final note. Thus far, we've emphasized the fact that we are not a regular newspaper, because we don't want you to write a safe, bland story. We want you to take risks. But it must be emphasized that all the basic rules of journalism do apply. In a nutshell: be fair-minded, spell peoples' names correctly, don't make things up and don't plagiarize. Expect to work closely with an editor whose primary goal (honestly!) is to help you tell the story you want to tell, and to make it the best possible read.

3,000-4,000 words

There are a few different kinds of cover stories.

The ones we like best, the ones that are the most fun to read, are narratives. They're also the hardest to write, because they naturally want to be longer than our word limit will allow. They feature strong characters — people in motion, doing the things they do, not sitting across a desk talking. There is probably some sort of conflict involved. Narratives take place over time. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, a climax and a denouement. By the time the story ends, something is different than it was at the beginning.

As mentioned before, narratives are the hardest type of cover story to write (but the most fun). We'd like to have more of them. We've only had a few in the past, but some of them have been pretty decent. One example is "Incident at C. Crane," from our issue of Aug. 4, 2005. In truth, though, you'd be better off getting inspiration from other sources. Check out the East Bay Express's cover stories (www.eastbayexpress.com).

Most of the Journal's past cover stories can be described as reported essays. This type of cover story fits the format well, in terms of word length.

The word "essay" may be confusing. We probably don't want you to set out to prove something. We don't want bullet points. We're using the word "essay" in a classical sense. In other words, we want stories that explore a person, a group of people, an event, an idea, etc., from a particular point of view.

Let's say you have an original and startling insight about a person, place or thing in Humboldt County. That insight, and your exploration of it, will form the framework of your reported essay. But you still need to tell the story through your reporting. We still want to see, hear and smell the thing you're writing about, and we'd like to meet real-life people — characters in your essay — who will contribute to our understanding of the topic.

Some recent examples of this type of cover story include: "Somerville's Times" (Oct. 5), "Rotten Borough" (Aug. 31) and "The Scion" (July 20).

A third possible type of cover story can be described with another catch-all description: experimental writing. This is moody, dream-like writing, in which the topic of a story is approached from various, fragmented angles. The prior two types of stories have a built-in framework — a plot or a thesis, respectively. These types of stories aren't like that. They skip from scene to scene, and hang on the atmosphere built in each succeeding paragraph or section.

It's very easy to do this kind of story badly, and unless we're already familiar with your work we probably wouldn't want you to pitch one to us. For an example of an experimental story that worked really well, see "Tree After Tree," from our issue of July 13, 2006.

One important thing to emphasize, with both the cover story and the upfront story (below), is that we do not want to be duplicative of the daily news media. If the topic of your story is a "hard news" topic — politics, government, business, etc. — that's great; we could always use more of those types of stories. But we'd either want it to be something that the rest of the media hasn't covered yet, or something that they haven't covered adequately or comprehensively. With the cover story especially, we either want to be way out in front, knocking people's socks off, or a few weeks behind, with the full scoop.

1,000-1,500 words

The "upfront" story is a shorter article at the beginning of the paper. This is a good kind of story to pitch to us if we're not already familiar with your work.

The upfront story is the most topical part of the paper — the most news-like. It doesn't allow much room for digression. Usually, it draws attention to some sort of conflict in the community, one that would be relevant to our readers, or at least interesting to them. Since such stories are usually about conflict, we want to hear from both sides, or all sides, of the story.

As with the cover stories, we want our upfront stories to contain some three-dimensional characters. We want to see them through your eyes, and we want to see and feel the places they inhabit, too. We'd like some brief live-action scenes, where these characters are in their element doing the things they do. But such passages have to be brief and evocative, because you'll probably spend most of the time telling the story of the conflict, in your own voice.

Some examples of good upfront stories we've run lately include: "'Country Club School' Seeks Cash" (Oct. 26), "Iaqua Forever" (Oct. 12) and "Word to the Wise" (Sept. 28).

500-600 words

Think of the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" features. These are small, strongly written scenes placed out in the world (not done over the telephone) and they should have a strong, deftly sketched character or two.

These could be stories that you go out and report, or they could be things that just happened while you were out on the town somewhere. Whatever the case, they should be brief, epigrammatic and one or more of the following: amusing, telling, bleak, heartbreaking, mysterious, inspiring. Try to get a photograph.

If you've got a timely Short Story, try to get it to us by Friday or (at the latest) first thing Monday morning.

Short Stories require a minimum of reporting, so they pay less per word than the other types of stories we run. They'll still buy you a dinner for two at a reasonably swank restaurant, though. And if you're a decently fluent writer, they shouldn't take you more than an hour or so to type up.

Some of our recent favorites include: "Shrewdness of Apes" (Oct. 12), "The Brown Balloon" (Sept. 28) and "Culture Citation" (Sept. 14).


Preference is given to poems by and about Humboldt County, and to poems that might be topical in one way or another. Space is limited, so shorter poems are favored. Regrettably, the massive volume of poetry we receive precludes the possibility of individual feedback or even, alas, acknowledgment of receipt. Send poems to poetry@northcoastjournal.com.

updated May 2009


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