This month marks the 10th anniversary of when I went full-time freelance. Since then I’ve written for more than 120 magazines (I lost count after that!) ranging from The Federal Credit Union and Multi-Channel Merchant to USA Weekend and Redbook. I’ve co-authored eight books, including The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock. I’ve been through slumps — and times that were so busy that I had to hire a virtual assistant. I’ve probably made every mistake in the book, and I’ve also discovered which rules to follow and which to break.
For my 10th anniversary, here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about freelance writing:
1. Queries: There is no “right” way to write a query. When I started teaching my eight-week e-course on breaking into magazines, I would occasionally tell a student not to do X, or that Y would never fly. And sometimes, those students went ahead and did X or Y anyway — and landed an assignment. In fact, I had one student who did everything the opposite from how I would have done it, and she got plenty of work. So now I recognize that every editor is different, so you can’t generalize on the perfect query letter. One editor will prefer a traditional query with quotes and bullet points, and another will prefer a one-sentence description. It’s really freeing to know that there is no such thing as a perfect query, so all you can do is go with your gut and do your best work.
2. Organization: Create your own systems. I’m not dissing prepackaged organizing systems, but they don’t often work for me. That’s why I use a homegrown hybrid of homemade forms, binders, a physical inbox, my iCal, e-mail folders, and whiteboards. It’s part Getting Things Done and part Linda Formichelli. For you, the best way to organize your queries, income, and work might be 100 percent computerized, it might be 100 percent paper, or it might be a mix. It doesn’t matter, as long as you use it.
3. Negotiating: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. For me, the non-confrontational wuss, negotiating is super-scary — but I also recognize that I’m the only one who’s looking out for me. After all, my editors certainly don’t care if I write for the same payrate for ten years! So I’ve made it a habit to occasionally ask for a bump in pay from editors who like my work. The editors often manage to wrangle some more money for me, from an extra $50 per article to a 50 percent increase. Two newsstand magazines even gave me raises that put me (so they say) above their typical highest rate that they pay other writers. Well, maybe that’s because those other writers didn’t ask!
4. Work-Life Balance: Occasionally I have low-energy days, and this is really hard for me because I like to be very productive. I’ve learned that if I can, I need to just go with the low energy: turn off the computer, get out of the house/office, and forget about work for a day or two, even if it’s mid-week. For example, I had an article due on Monday that I wasn’t able to finish last week, because I was so burned out that the idea of finishing the article literally had me in tears. So I turned off my computer, made an appointment for a massage and a pedicure, went to FunSpot, played Guitar Hero at a friend’s place, and saw the new Harry Potter movie. On Monday, I was able to whip out the rest of that article in under an hour. (Oh, and I should mention that the pedicure was indeed productive: When the woman in the next pedicurist’s chair over heard me tell the pedicurist that I’m a writer, she said that she’s an exec at AARP and has been looking for someone to write their newsletter. I should hear from her in mid-August.)
5. Marketing: I like to call it “planting seeds” — doing a few little things every day that will bring me closer to my goals. These aren’t big projects, like writing a huge query or writing a marketing plan. They’re small bits that I fit in between other tasks or when I feel like procrastinating, such as sending an editor a letter of introduction, tweaking an old query to send out somewhere new, or following up on a query. I do these things and then forget about them, and often I’m pleasantly surprised when, months after I planted a seed, it blooms and I end up with an assignment.
6. Attitude: I’ve found that the less I need work, the more I get it. This doesn’t mean that I’m lolling around on a pile of money, shooing away assignments, but it does mean that I get more work when I’m already comfortably busy than when I can hear the last dollars being drained from my checking account. It’s like dating: You always seem to attract more interest from potential mates when you’re already attached than when you’re actively looking for a partner. You don’t have to actually be busy for this effect to work for you in freelancing — you can pretend; for example, when you write to an editor looking for work, don’t tell her that the repo man is atÂ your door and you’ve been eating Kraft mac-and-cheese for a month — instead, tell her you just finished up a bunch of deadlines and have some time opening up if she needs anything.
7. Interviewing: I’ve probably done thousands of interviews, and I still find them slightly scary. I’m better at writing than at talking on the phone, and I’m so non-confrontational that I sometimes have trouble directing an interview when I’m talking to an overbearing source. My life coach suggested that I do two things before an interview:
- Take a few minutes to close my eyes, meditate, and center myself.
- Give thanks that I have an interview, because it’s part of what allows me to work at home and generally live a life I love.
8. Rejection: If you’re a freelance writer, you will be rejected. the biggest reason for freelance failure is not an inability to write, report, or market — it’s an inability to get past failure. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you suck — it means your idea was off-base, or the timing wasn’t right, or the editor didn’t get his morning Starbucks, or the magazine is undergoing a redesign, or Mercury is in retrograde. I never let fear of failure hold me back from reaching for what I want, because doing nothing guarantees I will fail.
9. Writer relationships: Sharing is important. I’ve always been the sharing type: For example, when I was playing the slot machines in Atlantic City and hit a jackpot, a woman nearby came over and claimed that she was playing that entire bank of machines. So I gave her half of my winnings (maybe 10 bucks).
Okay, that proves that I’m a sucker, not that I’m a giver.
Anyway, the more you put out there (good stuff that is!), the more will come back to you. I can’t even count how many people I’ve helped who later recommended me to their editors for assignments (and vice versa). In fact, it just happened yesterday. I’m happy to share market info, advice, and editors’ contact details (all within reason, of course). There’s more than enough work to go around — and it’s more fun to have friends than competitors.
10. Writing: Actual writing is really a small part of my job as a freelancer, which is why I’m devoting just one item to it. My pet peeve as a writer has always been flabby writing: weak verbs, passive constructions, too many adjectives, vague wording. My favorite tip, which has served me well for these ten years, has been to be specific whenever I can, even using popular brand names if they fit. For example, instead of saying, “If your shoes are too tight, you can get blisters,” I might write something like, “If you’re teetering around in too-tiny Manolos, blisters may pop up on your feet.” Even though it has the exact same meaning as the first sentence, it’s more interesting, snappy, and fun to read.
So those are the ten most important things I learned about freelancing in the last ten years. What have you learned from experience? Post your advice in the comments! [lf]