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7 tips for aspiring police writers

A few words about the cop journalism racket

This week, I and a number of my fellow “expert columnists” (I always snort a little when I say that) are at the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) in Wheeling, Illinois. Several of us are presenting sessions at the conference, and our esteemed and benevolent editor asked that we write a column on our presentation topic.

My session is called “Writing for Fame and Profit.” I’ve done tech-centered sessions in the past, but I get just about as many inquiries about writing for the law enforcement market as I do about gadgets. It’s a sideline that many cops aspire to, with varying levels of success, and one that has been very good to me.

When I was a cop, I read every police magazine I could get hold of, and often thought, “I could write this stuff.” At the time, POLICE Magazine had a feature on the last page of each issue called “The Beat.” It was usually a personal, anecdotal “war story” and was my favorite part of the magazine. I wrote a short essay called “The Yard,” about getting dressed for a midnight shift in the winter, and sent it in, expecting no response. A couple of weeks later, I received a publication contract, and on mailing that back, a check for $75. I wrote five more “The Beat” columns over the next few years, plus more feature pieces for that magazine and others. That eventually led to two full-time editor jobs on law enforcement websites, and to the columnist gig I have here.

As an editor, I looked for two qualities in aspiring writers:

1.) You have to know what you’re talking about.
2.) You have to know how to write.

There are lots of people who have one, but not the other. I’ve found that nearly everyone is an expert in something, usually several things. The expertise might be in removing stubborn caps from ketchup bottles or servicing nuclear reactors — both valuable skills in the right context, but not mutually saleable. Most cops build up some expertise that can be valuable to others. It was the writing quality that was more elusive. From my days as a college instructor, I know that even many college graduates do not have the writing skills one would commonly see in a high school graduate of 50 years ago. Some seem to believe that the editor’s primary job is to correct spelling and grammar. Granted, sometimes that’s part of it, but sending in a draft that is rife with spelling errors and the wrong forms of there, their and they’re tells me they haven’t bothered to learn the most basic skills of this craft. Without that, it’s difficult to take what they say all that seriously.

The space limitations of this column don’t allow for everything else I plan to discuss at ILEETA, but here are some of the more salient points:

1.) You can get away with what I call “writing out of your head,” discussing issues of which you have personal knowledge, for only a short time. Eventually, you’re going to have to do some research.
2.) Never plagiarize, misrepresent yourself or make a statement unless you know it to be 100 percent true. Any one of these will poison you with publishers forever. They do talk to each other.
3.) Be prepared to write for free for a bit. One very profitable gig came when the editor read a column I wrote gratis for an association newsletter.
4.) Meet your deadlines. Don’t be the guy the editor has to chase down to fill that hole he allocated for your work.
5.) You have to furnish pictures, captions for those pictures, and the names of the people in them. Learn some basic photography. Just because you saw a picture on the Internet does not mean it’s in the public domain. Just ask this guy.
6.) Online media is not necessarily inferior to print. Most of the work I do these days exists only as electrons, and the money is as good or better.
7.) Equipment manufacturers will not send you free stuff just because you tell them you will write an article about it. However, if you write enough articles, they’ll send you free stuff and even fly you to places where you can play with their gear. This is at least as much fun as it sounds.

If you haven’t attended an ILEETA conference, you owe it to yourself to go. You will not find a greater congregation of high-quality, dedicated people anywhere in law enforcement. I hope to see you there, if not this year, maybe next.  

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