Whether you’re a newbie writer or you’re already flailing in the uncertain waters of freelancing, it can be helpful to learn from others’ mistakes. Rookie mistakes are invaluable if a writer learns from them, says editor and writer Suzann Ledbetter Ellingsworth. “Then again, a writer should be, and should welcome being, an eternal rookie. Thankfully, the writing business presents unlimited opportunities to practice humility,” she said.
I’ve been doing this freelance thing for three years, and my climb from anonymity to relative success has been a grueling one. Come along, eternal rookies everywhere, and learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made.
1. Working for peanuts
It’s tempting to think you’re not worth much when you first start freelancing. And while you probably aren’t going to land that lucrative New York Times feature when you’re virtually unknown, that doesn’t mean you should write for free, either. I wasted precious time writing for a massive website that promised serious income if I generated enough “clicks” from readers, but never made more than $30 for writing over 30 well-constructed articles. There are paying markets for new writers: content farms, up-and-coming publications, trade magazines and multi-author blogs are a few examples. Tap into them first instead of selling yourself short.
2. Firing off pitches like a trigger-happy hunter
You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and say, “Hey! I need a new best friend, let’s go spend all day together,” would you? Though that’s one way to make a first impression, it’s certainly not the best way. Your pitch letter is your first impression on an editor—so it had better have a professional tone, be well-researched and be grammatically correct.
Know the market to which you’re submitting. C. Hope Clark, founder of FundsForWriters.com, says she would have taken more time studying markets she submitted to and avoiding pitching the same piece simultaneously to competing markets. “That lesson came with experience and it took a negative situation where competing markets accepted my work for me to learn that was a big no-no.”
However, this isn’t to say you should only send your work out to one market at a time. My strategy is to send the same pitch to two or three non-competing markets (an essay about postpartum depression, for instance, could be sent to both a women’s health magazine and a mommy blog). If a market rejects my pitch, I’ll immediately send it out to another similar publication. To increase my odds of publication, I also try to have a variety of pitches out at any given time, rather than focusing on selling one piece at a time.
David Henry Sterry made the same mistake with a book he’d been working on for five years. “I sent it to all these great agents and they all said, ah, your cake is half-baked!” He says he was lucky that they gave him the reasons it wouldn’t work, but more often than not it’s better to get that feedback from a friend, colleague or book doctor before you start chasing down agents and editors.
3. Assuming you’re so brilliant that readers will just fall into your lap
Unless you’re Barack Obama or Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer, people aren’t just going to mindlessly consume anything you write.
Sterry warns against tossing your life’s responsibilities to the wind because you believe your story is going to be a megahit. “I’ve got people who’ve written these books who are like, I’m going to take a second mortgage out on my house—I’m like, no, don’t take a second mortgage out! Please, I beg you! You’re not going to get a $100,000 advance for this book, ever!”
Ellingsworth is of the same mindset. “Magnum opus to ‘filler article about diaper rash’ writing is 100 percent reader driven.” She reminds new writers that even when professionals speak about how they really only “write for themselves,” they’re usually saying it at a promotional event, with the intention of selling their writing. Truly successful writers write with their audience in mind: Their readers’ needs and wants always come first.
You walk a fine line as a writer between having a strong online presence and oversharing. It’s valuable to connect with editors and colleagues on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, but spamming them with photos of your lunch and your baby’s various bowel movements won’t do much to further your career.
I have worried about sensitive information going public in my writing. I’ve written a few anonymous pieces for Mommyish.com and they’ve been wonderful about honoring my privacy, but I wouldn’t have submitted these delicate stories if I didn’t already have a trusting relationship with the editorial staff.
5. Freaking out about comments
You don’t have to be a blogger to get instant feedback on your writing anymore. Any piece you sell to an online publication has the potential to reach a massive, and often vocal, audience. Even magazine articles often get reprinted online.
Maria Guido, blogger and author, gives this advice: “Just chill out. Don’t worry about what everyone says because it really doesn’t matter. Try not to take every comment to heart because I totally believe that’s something people just do—all day! They just get online and attack people.” She also reminds writers that the people who comment are a very, very tiny portion of your actual collective readership.
I once wrote a hasty, overly sarcastic blog post for Mommyish, and it was met with a slew of comments attacking my character. I felt paralyzed for days—mostly because I knew I’d written poorly and in a way that was untrue to my voice, but also because readers who had loved my work were now claiming to hate me. I learned to take my time and to ask my editors for help when I was uncertain about something. I haven’t written anything I’ve been disappointed in since.
Remember: You’re the one getting paid to write. At the end of the day, if your editor is happy with your work and you’re happy with it, it doesn’t matter what the comment trolls have to say.
6. Failure to research
When I started freelancing, I thought it was a waste of time to study the masthead of a particular publication or learn about different editors’ preferences. I also didn’t read the publications to which I was submitting. I figured if I just sent a piece out to plenty of different markets, someone would eventually accept it. Plus, there was just so much else to do—file cabinets to organize, social media to update, ideas to jot down.
Ellingsworth says you can really only learn by reading, by doing—and by osmosis. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s no surprise that I sold my first “real” piece to Mommyish.com, a website I’d been pleasure-reading for months. Through osmosis, I’d figured out what kind of tone Mommyish preferred and what kinds of angles they needed for their pieces.
Another practical research tip for Internet writing: Just because a website doesn’t have a “submissions” page doesn’t mean they don’t accept work from freelancers. Dig a little deeper. Find an editor’s email address and send a brief email asking if they accept pitches from freelancers, and to whom you should send that pitch.
7. Giving up too soon
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ll say I knew I wanted to be a professional writer when I was 8. But I didn’t publish my first story until I was 17, I didn’t start making serious money writing until I was 25, and I didn’t have a readership until I was 27.
This isn’t to say it will take you 20 years to make it as a writer. But you have to put the work in and hope for the best. The whole process of freelancing is about building your portfolio, and using each job as a stepping-stone to the next bigger, better one.
Guido used her blog as her foundation for her writing career. “I really pursued the blog very aggressively and got it out there___ then I was able to use it as a resume to get writing jobs.” She adds, “Put in your time and have something that people can look at and see your body of work.”
If you keep at it, you’ll find your place in the freelance world. Exhaust your arsenal of knowledge. Everything you do, every hobby, skill or passion you have has the potential to become a salable story. Pay attention when you’re talking to friends or coworkers. Which of your stories intrigue them? What do people frequently come to you for advice on? If you’re always getting complimented on your garden or your extreme couponing habits or your ghost-hunting hobby, chances are there’s a readership that would benefit from your experiences. You’ll make mistakes, as all writers do, but as long as you have the gumption to bounce back from rejection and keep pitching your magnificent ideas, you’ll be unstoppable.
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