So you want to be a (chess) writer?

by Alexey Root
3/12/2020 – With the Coronavirus in the news, chess players may avoid in-person tournaments and seek stay-at-home chess outlets. While some may livestream or coach, chess writing appeals to others. Writing may be more egalitarian than streaming or coaching, as both titled and non-titled players are published and paid at similar rates. WIM ALEXEY ROOT share four tips for chess writing.

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Work from home

Just as GM Teimour Radjabov withdrew from the Candidates Tournament, due to the uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus, you may be considering skipping your next in-person chess tournament. In addition to getting your chess-fix with sessions on Play Chess, you could become a chess streamer, coach, or writer.

Teaching online chess lessons is easier than ever, with these tips from Albert Silver. Having a chess title helps a streamer or a coach build clientele.

Whether or not you are a titled player, you can write about chess. Chess outlets are looking for writers; some of them pay for articles. For example, Chess Life Kids pays $75 per page. Non-titled children writing for that magazine get paid at the same rate as adults and titled players.

Moreover, many children and adults dream of becoming writers. For books, non-fiction outsells fiction. Chess writing can be non-fiction or fiction, but non-fiction is much more common. This article provides four tips—Find Topics, Query, Persistence, and Reader Feedback—for writing.


Chess streaming is a way to make money, if you develop a large following such as that enjoyed by Woman FIDE Master Alexandra Botez


Find Topics

Covering chess tournaments — their winners, best games, anecdotes — is the “bread-and-butter” of chess websites and magazines. But if fear of the Coronavirus keeps you at home, interviewing chess players can be done via email, text, chat, or phone. Let’s suppose you are aware of a junior player who has just reached a rating milestone. If you have the permission of that prodigy’s parents, you could interview that prodigy.

One recent example from ChessBase is an article about D. Gukesh by Sagar Shah. Shah is an International Master. Therefore, Shah could have analyzed all the chess games himself, but he had Gukesh annotate some. If you are not a strong chess player, you can ask your interviewee to annotate all the chess games in your article. In any case, some articles, like this one, don’t include chess games or positions.

Query

The cover story for the March 2020 issue of Chess Life was written by Menachem Weber, who has journalistic credentials but no US Chess rating. 47 minutes into this podcast about Weber’s story, US Chess Senior Director of Strategic Communication Dan Lucas stated (47 minutes and 5 seconds) in:

To any aspiring journalists who want to specialize in chess writing…we’ve hired many a high school student who are writing for publication for the very first time…If you’ve got talent, and ability, and an interesting story to tell, please pitch it to us and you can find the contact information at our website on uschess.org.

book coverMy first emailed query to ChessBase was 784 words long. I introduced myself and asked to review Danny Gormally’s book. I outlined what I thought would be interesting in that book, from an excerpt available at its publisher’s website. I also referred to Gormally’s history by linking to ChessBase articles about him. Once I got the assignment, which the ChessBase editor modified to my interviewing Gormally rather than reviewing his book, I read Gormally’s book and interviewed him by email. Five takeaways:

  1. Read what the website or magazine you are querying has already written about your proposed subject.
  2. Show how your article will build on that already-published material.
  3. Be flexible, as the editor may change the focus of your proposed article. In the above example, I interviewed Gormally instead of writing a book review.
  4. Your first query will likely be long. Introduce yourself and provide writing samples (such as links to your previous articles, known as “clips”), in addition to querying about the specific article you want to write. Later queries can be shorter, once an editor is already familiar with your work. My query for this article was 81 words.
  5. Take your time. For the Gormally article, I spent hours reading his book, interviewing him, and then polishing that interview.

Persistence

Queries are often rejected. In 2010, when Dan Lucas was editor of Chess Life, I wrote the following email to him after he had accepted my query to review the latest book by Grandmaster Andrew Soltis.

As I wrote you the Soltis query (my third one to you in the last couple days), I had two thoughts in mind:

1) If Dan says “yes” to this query, then it’s “third time’s a charm.”

2) If Dan says “no,” then “three strikes you’re out.” (Though I would have kept trying with more queries!)

The two rejections referred to above had come after I’d already written several articles for Chess Life. Even after working with an editor, there are no guarantees that your next query to that editor will be successful. Be persistent, don’t give up, and hope that the editor doesn’t think you are a pest.

One way to build your clips, and to get appreciation rather than rejection, is to write for free. In the US, many states and regions need written content for magazines and websites. Texas Knights (where I have a book review column) doesn’t pay columnists. However, Texas Knights editor Louis A. Reed Jr. promotes each writer’s work and liberally hands out compliments. On the other hand, sometimes writing at the state level pays. Texas Chess Association pays the Texas Knights editor and also pays for social media posts.

When I watch television, listen to chess podcasts, view YouTube or Twitch chess broadcasts, or peruse Facebook — all good hobbies for avoiding the Coronavirus — I stay alert for possible chess stories. I watched The Oprah Winfrey Show for years and finally, near the end of its run, got a chess story out of it.

Writing questions and emailing them to podcast@uschess.org is a great way to win $50 in USCF Sales merchandise. I have won “best question” three times, and each of my three winning questions have been less than 25 words long. If more people had emailed questions to that podcast, I think I would have only won once. So, write a question!

YouTube and Twitch broadcasts of chess tournaments can be sources for chess writing ideas. The Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club’s broadcasts have inspired three of my articles including this one for ChessBase.

On Facebook, the Eade Foundation posted about its new $1000 award for Chess Excellence, which could be turned into a query that answers “What monetary awards are available for young chess players?” and then lists the Arthur Award (named after Jim Eade’s father, Arthur Eade) along with more famous awards, such as the Frank P. Samford, Jr.  Fellowship.

Reader Feedback

Comments on past articles may inspire new writing. As I wrote at the end of this article about Jennifer Yu’s result in the U.S. Junior Championship, “Thanks to chess fan ‘Leavenfish’ for his comment, which motivated me to write this article.” I enjoy and learn from the comments on my articles; part of the fun of being published is readers’ feedback (hint, hint).

The Charles Bukowski poem “so you want to be a writer?” sets a high bar for the passion needed to become a great writer, as Bukowski was. My level of passion is lower, and I am not a great writer. For me, writing, editing, and proofreading is fun; thanks to ChessBase and its readers for this outlet. ChessBase encourages freelance writers to submit queries. Email editor[at]chessbase.com.



Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.