Writing is a religion unto itself, guided by passionate beliefs (have you ever witnessed a pantsers vs. plotters argument?) and sacred texts (The Elements of Style, On Writing). And like any organized religion, it can be broken down into subgroups.
This is the first in a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines. Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.
Among these denominations can be found freelance writers, who celebrate such saints as Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. It can be a tenuous and competitive field, but those who’ve found success know the divine satisfaction of seeing your piece in print or tweeting out your byline. And as with any system of beliefs, it’s guided by a few key principles. So, without further ado, I propose the following facets of highly effective freelancers.
First and foremost, a freelancer should always make explicit why you and only you are the ideal candidate to write a story. A pitch letter is not the appropriate medium to be humble. Own your expertise and share your personal experience. Include links to relevant articles (these are called “clips” in journo-jargon) to demonstrate your aptitude. No clips yet? Consider including a link to your blog or some other writing sample. The key is to present yourself with poise and professionalism. As an editor, I want to see you sell me not just on the story itself, but on why I should trust your authorial capability.
Careful and continuous work is crucial to the success of writers of all breeds. Just as a novelist must form a consistent writing habit, freelancers must be equally industrious to keep flowing from assignment to assignment. That means you should always be on the lookout for new ideas, pitching consistently and writing as much as you can manage. Think of clips as stepping stones—each building upon the next into a cohesive portfolio, the momentum from which you can ride from one article to the next.
Know going in that there will be rejections, and there will be a lot of them. When I first started freelancing, only one in maybe 15 of my pitches received a response—even fewer resulted in an actual assignment. But don’t be discouraged. Success is not a status reserved for the exceptionally talented, or for those who hit a stroke of good fortune. Prosperity comes to those who can bounce back, stick in the game and not take a rejection personally. One major mistake is to automatically assume that an editor’s rejection represents a deficiency in the quality of your pitch or idea. Take it from me, editors have varied reasons for turning away stories. Perhaps something conceptually similar has been published recently, or a piece on a comparable subject has already been commissioned and is currently in the pipeline. Editors also know their audiences intimately, and it’s possible they’re aware of something you’re not: Past experience has shown that the subject you’re pursuing just doesn’t resonate with their readers. Which is why the capacity to recover quickly and get back to pitching is so vital for freelance writers. A story idea that flounders for one publication may be an ideal fit for another.
A natural companion to resilience, of course, is persistence—the stubborn insistence to continue pitching despite the polite dismissals accumulating in your inbox. At the end of the day, freelancing is a numbers game, and I’ve got good news for you: There’s no penalty incurred for the the number of publications that turn down your ideas, so keep at it! As Sylvia Plath said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” A word of caution: That doesn’t mean sending out the exact same pitch to a dozen editors at a time via email blast. Customize queries, dressing them down appropriately for each specific publication. My point is: Don’t let an editor’s pass flag your overall efforts.
The ability to be open and responsive to critiques and criticism is the calling card of a consummate freelance professional. In rejection letters, there will be times an editor will offer advice, or provide insight on their reasoning. Learn from such feedback and demonstrate you can grow from it by pitching them a story that’s more on point. The same principle can be applied to the editing process itself. There are times your words will be revised—it’s simply a fact of freelance life—and editors are more likely to pursue further assignments with those who are easy to work with. If you have legitimate reasons why a line shouldn’t be changed then you can tactfully express those concerns, but don’t be overly precious—it’s OK to kill those darlings. Even Hemingway had an editor.
So with that, my child, go forth and produce your words, and may riches (and quality article assignments) rain down upon you. After all, as in life as in freelance—you reap what you sow. For real.
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