You need more than killer queries to succeed as a freelancer. Read on for advice from editors (many of whom are freelancers too) on how to make connections, keep clients happy and enjoy repeat work.
Network and get to know the editors.
Always submit well-written copy on time and to length. Do it again and again and the work will come your way.
Mara Gulens, Director, Publications, and Editor-in-Chief, CMA Magazine
Networking is vital. Attend industry events, join professional organizations and sign yourself up for listservs. Make the most of your time at events by having meaningful conversations with a few people rather than trying to meet as many people as possible (think quality over quantity). We work in a very small industry, and meeting editors and other writers gets your name out there and establishes relationships that can lead to work.
Cara Smusiak, Managing Editor, Canadian Family
CSME’s great because A: it’s cheap and you learn stuff; B: it’s a night out once in a while and freelancing can be very lonely; and C: you’ll meet working editors who aren’t necessarily the Top of the Masthead types but rather the hard-working assigning and knowledgeable pros. Networking with these people will always be your BFF. Not only will you find out about stories, you’ll get early warnings about mat leaves, contract jobs, and other “non-story” editing assignments, with which you can feed your family while you’re working on your prize-winning Toronto Life story. Whenever I was freelancing, my kids ate better and my wife slept well partially because I was active in CSME.
Peter Carter, Editor, Today’s Trucking
I wish that writers knew that, in this fast-paced age of online publishing, the speed at which they respond to editors’ emails could significantly impact their chances of getting assignments. I sometimes have stories to assign that I need turned around in a day or two. When considering which writer to reach out to, I hesitate to choose the guy who I know usually takes a full business day just to write me back. Because, what if he says no? Then I’ve lost an entire day.
Kim Shiffman, Managing Editor, Connected
1. Know what the work is worth—and what you’re worth. Connect with other freelancers (TFEW is a great resource) and ask what they would charge and/or have been paid for similar work in similar markets. What is the size (and presumed wealth/budget) of the client? Take into account your level of experience (if you’re a newb, no, you don’t deserve the same rate as someone who brings 15 years of experience to the table). And then figure out what the work is worth to you. Is it an opportunity to do a story you’re passionate about? To work with an editor who is particularly open to helping new writers get great clips? To help an indie publication that you believe in? All of those factors might mean that you’ll work for less than if you were writing marketing copy for Dow Chemical. Run the numbers before you get on the phone to discuss rate with the assigning editor. And if you think the work is worth more, make your case. You may succeed. You may not. But you definitely won’t get if you don’t ask.
2. Don’t personalize professional interactions. This one is tough, because lots of people on the other end of the equation (editors and publishers) do personalize it, taking it as a personal insult if you ask for a higher rate or stand up for yourself in an editorial discussion. But behaving professionally—and by that, I mean not emotionalizing or personalizing conversations about money, editing changes and other issues—will get you further in the long run even if the person you’re talking to isn’t behaving as professionally as you are. If you need to blow off steam, do it after the call or email with a trusted friend or colleague (not in a heat-of-the-moment Facebook post, tweet or message board rant). Does that mean you shouldn’t tell colleagues about poor behaviour by particular editors or clients? No. But do it rationally, calmly and after a cooling-off period. And remember, whatever you share is likely to find its way back to that editor or client, so be prepared to stand by what you say.
3. It’s better to work for free on something you love than to work for free on something you don’t care about. If you’re going to give away your time, do something you care deeply about, not crap work. Think of it this way: you’re about to give away hundreds of dollars’ worth of editorial value. Is this editor or brand really the one you want to give this gift to?
Kim Pittaway, freelance journalist, editor and consultant
1) Never miss deadlines. Unexpected delays and interview blow-offs happen, but you almost always know before the due date if you’re not going to be able to make it. Most editors will happily grant you a little extra time, as long as they know long enough in advance to prepare for it.
2) To make it as a professional writer, you have to act like a pro. The people you need to interview are generally going to keep office hours, so you should too. (That’s not to say you won’t end up working evenings and/or weekends as well. When it rains, it pours.) Always prepare in advance for interviews (i.e., don’t plan on making up all your questions on the fly). For in-person interviews, show up early (or at least on time) and dress appropriately. A CEO won’t likely take you seriously if you’re in a T-shirt and shorts, but a musician’s likely to be put off by a three-piece suit.
1. Check your facts and send your sources. More and more, editors are also fact-checkers, and if you submit a piece that has the facts pre-checked, and if you provide URLs to your sources along with that piece, your editor will love you (assuming those sources aren’t Wikipedia, of course). Please, please, please attribute any statistics, research findings or other questionable “facts” to a source. Not only will your editor want to know where you found that information, but your readers will want to know, too.
2. Don’t steal other people’s work. This may seem like a given, but I’ve seen far too many writers—amateur and professional—submit work that they claim is original but actually contains passages copied verbatim from websites or other published sources. After all, plagiarism doesn’t just mean the entire piece has been copied—it could be as small as a paragraph or sentence. Accidents can happen when you’re gathering research from various sources, so be sure to note where you found your info, and whether what you’ve written is a quote or your own writing. And if you need to quote another publication, attribute it (see #1, above).
Tammy Burns, Online Content Manager, Travel+Escape
Swallow your pride. Become known as someone who does really good, quick rewrites. When the editor tells you that you have to cut 200 words so that the designer can have some precious empty white space on the page, just smile and say, “Of course.” That’s how a one-off job can be parlayed into a career.
James Chatto, Editor, Harry Magazine
Editors, do you have more tips to share? Writers, what has helped you survive and thrive?