“What if I screw up?” You ask yourself. “What if I make a mistake that ends my freelance career before it even starts?”
I have news for you: You will screw up. Royally.
But I promise you, it won’t be the end of your career.
Any (truthful) freelance writer will tell you that she’s made mistakes and lived to tell the tale. Some writing gurus like to put forth an image of utter perfection, but even the most published writer — if you gave him enough wine — has stories to spill about the times he’s messed up.
To show you how even massive goofs quickly become yesterday’s news, here are the top four mistakes I’ve made in my freelance writing career.
1. The Egregious Spelling Error
When I was starting out as a copywriter in the late 1990s, I wrote a sales letter to that proudly stated:
“I can spell zyzzygy, onomatopoeia, and Weltanschauung, and am one of the few people who knows the difference between it’s and its, you’re and your.”
I sent this out to oh, maybe 100 or 200 prospects via snail mail. And one day, I got an email from one of these prospects to let me know that the word is actually spelled syzygy.
* facepalm *
Man, did I turn red. I may have even tried to cover for myself in my return email. But the fact is, I bragged that I could spell a word that I couldn’t spell. I wasn’t even close.
And guess what? No one else seemed to notice. I went on to do copywriting for companies like Pizzeria Uno, Sprint, OnStar, Bay State Gas, Sarnafil Roofing, and Wainwright Bank.
2. The Worst Article Idea Ever
Way back when I first started pitching the national women’s magazines, I sent an idea to Family Circle and a few other publications called “Quik Dri Cheez: Why Advertisers Can’t Spell.” I promised to answer the pressing question of why advertisers and product creators routinely spelled product names in odd ways.
If you can’t see why this is a terrible idea for a women’s magazine, you need to stop reading now and sign up for my email list to get a free packet of 10 really good query letters — to see how much more spot on every one of those ideas is.
You’d think a doozy like that would inspire an editor to say “Please lose my email address.” But the more I pitched the better my ideas and queries got, and I ended up writing for Family Circle a dozen times.
3. The Embarrassing Query Subject Line
Once I read a great tip on how to format email subject lines for a query letter: Include the title of your query, the fact that you’re a freelance writer, and your name. That way, editors would be grabbed by your headline, understand you’re not a PR person, and be able to quickly find the query if it got lost by searching on your name.
What a great idea! I wanted to pitch an article on how to combat unpleasant body odors like bad breath and stinky feet, so I sent out a query with this headline:
Query from Freelance Writer: What’s That Smell? Linda Formichelli
As the email zapped off the screen I realized — too late — that it sounded like I, personally, was the thing making people wrinkle their noses in disgust.
Guess what? The article sold to Women’s Health.
4. The Time I Was Banned By a Magazine
Years ago, I read that if you wanted to write two articles about the same topic, in order for the pieces to legally be considered new, they had to be 10% different. That means when you rewrite an article, you have to make sure at least 10% f the copy was changed.
So when I wrote an article for a money magazine about the financial benefits of being healthy, and then reslanted it for a health magazine, I changed up the copy as much as I could and thought I was in the clear.
The first editor thought otherwise. Somehow he discovered that I had written a similar article for the health magazine, and accused me of sending him a “warmed over” version of a story I had already sold to someone else. He also made it clear I was no longer welcome to write for that magazine.
I was humiliated. How had that handy rule served me wrong? I lost a great client that day.
Now I know that when you write on a similar topic for two different magazines, every word of it needs to be different; you can’t reuse even a single phrase or quote.
I never did pitch that financial magazine again, but my career hasn’t suffered in the slightest. I felt embarrassed, apologized, and moved on. And here I am, still standing.
If you’re worried that you’ll make a mistake that will end your career, I hope these stories put your fears to rest. As long as you do your best, learn as you go along, and act like a professional, you can enjoy a long and lucrative freelance writing career. I made some scary-bad screw-ups and lived to tell the tale — you will too.
How about you: What major mess-ups have you made in your freelance writing life, and how did they affect your career? Let us know in the comments below!
P.S. The Freelance Writers Den — the learning and support community that helps freelance writers move up and earn more — is celebrating its 3rd anniversary this week! We’ll be opening to new members, and Carol Tice and I are offering a free Ask the Den Mothers Anything live call on Thursday at 3 pm EDT. We’ll be on the line as long as it takes to answer everyone’s questions. To be the first to know when the Den opens, and to get dial-in info for this call, join the Den waitlist now!