Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A lesson in freelance writing

There's a reason I totally bombed at my first attempt at freelance writing back when the ink was still drying on my college diploma.

See, at the time, I didn't know the ins and outs of newsroom politics. As far as I knew, all I needed to do was pick a publication I wanted to write for, get my resume and clips together, and send out my little packet with a well-written cover letter and then wait for the editor to be wowed by my greatness before they contacted me and begged me to write for them. Long story short is that I failed miserably and ended up waiting tables until I landed another full-time newspaper gig.

Because my fairy-tale version of networking is far from how it works.

See, I eventually got a job as a city editor at a small community paper and for once was in the position of answering (and ignoring) requests from potential freelancers to get a chance at seeing their bylines in my publication. And again, when I worked at The Detroit News, I witnessed the big-time editors frantically managing their daily obligations with only minimal time left to pay attention to one-time requests from freelancers hoping to get in on the action.

And now here I am with bylines in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Metro Parent Magazine, Baby Gooroo, and a new assignment for Crain's Detroit Business Magazine!

If you are a freelance writer hoping to break into newspapers and magazines, here are a few things I have learned that may make things a bit easier for you:

* It ain't called "communications" for nothing. I have tried many times to break into various publications only to get nowhere fast. But with the help of a writer or former editor or a good lead on whose name to drop in my cover letter, I have gotten in to those who previously ignored me.

* Don't stop after you send in your resume and clips. The editor you contacted is too busy with deadlines and editing stories and assigning stories and managing their employees and meetings and a never ending list of responsibilities to care or remember about a single manilla envelope with your name on it.
Instead, wait a week and follow up with a friendly email or phone call to "verify" they received your information. And don't fret when that is ignored, too, because it most likely will be. Every two to three weeks, send another short and sweet "how are you and just checking in" email to keep your name on the radar. Be persistent, but don't be a pain in the ass. It's a fine line.
If they have no intention of assigning you any work, you'll know it when they tell you to stop emailing them. But be patient. It has taken me up to six months from sending in my clips to getting an assignment from a new client. The latest opportunity happened because the regular reporter is on her honeymoon. The last because the regular reporter was on maternity leave.

*No matter how badly you want to write for someone, do NOT accept a potential assignment unless you know you can write it well and deliver the goods on time. If you do otherwise, it will be the first and last assignment with that particular publication.

*Did I mention that knowing someone is a major plus in breaking through the door? Oh, and it helps if that someone didn't just piss off the editor you are trying to pitch. That's going to get you nowhere fast.

*Also have ideas ready to pitch. You may not be asked for them, but I'm going to bet you'll be much happier that you did your homework if they ask you what you have in mind and you can actually hand over a well though-out list of potential articles as opposed to tripping over yourself as you try to come up with something on the spot.

*And this one is so obvious that I saved it for last: Experience. If you are trying to break in to a legitimate, well-paying, freelacing career without the proper background, it's time to sit down and rethink things, my friend.
I have known many successful journalists to take the leap into the unsteady world of calling their own shots only to return to the newsroom for the steady paycheck. It's not as much fun and it sucks to have to answer to someone else all day, but having a roof over one's head trumps literary independence any day.
Now, experience doesn't have to be proven with a diploma from the right college with the right major (though it does help). Nor does it have to come from having worked in the right industry or knowing the right person (because that person can get you in the door, but it's your jo to prove you belong). What I do mean is making sure your experience and interests jive with the publication you are pitching. I myself know diddly about which fork to use when or how to decide on a menu for that impromptu dinner party, so I won't be making any efforts to get a byline in Marth Stewart's magazine. But I do know parenting and babies and dogs and have also covered my fair share of city government related issues, as well as criminal trials. The bottom line is to write what you know. And that will get you further than any other advice I can offer.

So that's that. Thanks to a former editor and persistent emails, I just turned in my first assignment at Crain's Detroit Business, and I'll know if the editor likes my stuff if I get another assignment. So cross your fingers for me!



Anonymous said...

Such great advice! I'm glad to hear you got a new assignment. Hope it turns into regular work for you.

Nitima Sood said...

I am also a freelancer & really liked your post - interesting stuff - All the best for your new assignment.

Check my blog at

Jackie Hodgson said...


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If you are a mother with a daughter who is 15 years of age or younger, it would be extremely helpful to us if you could take our survey. It takes less than five minutes.

The link to our survey is:

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Mary said...

Thanks for the wonderful advice, Pauline. Persistence has not always been my strong point, but I'm finding it easier, knowing it can lead to being assigned a piece!

Pauline said...

thanks for commenting, Mary. I may need to go back and reread my own advice since I haven't had the chance to work very much lately. Life gets in the way, and I am not very good at telling "life" to shove it so I can concentrate on work. but that deserves its own post.