I Reveal My 4 Greatest Screw-Ups as a Freelance Writer (AWK-ward!)

It can be scary to put yourself out there as a freelance writer.

“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!

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60 comments… add one
  • Oh, the “What’s That Smell” Linda Formichelli” one is cracking me up, in a pained sort of way. 😉

    It’s definitely hard to shrug off those embarrassing mistakes, especially in the beginning of your career when you’re convinced every screwup is going to get you blacklisted for life. But I keep telling myself that editors/clients are people, too, and understand the occasional mistake. So long as you don’t make a habit of it, you should be fine!

  • I had too much fun reading this today. Thank you! I have a mistake to share. I work as a staff writer and columnist at a small weekly newspaper. One day after turning in my column for the week my editor came out of her office with tears streaming down her face. She was laughing that hard. Apparently in my otherwise humorous column about my daughter’s perpetual embarrassment of me, I used “carnal sin” where I meant “cardinal sin.” I’m glad my editor took it so well. I was just glad she caught it before it made its way through the small town where I live.

    • That’s a good one! And you got through it OK, right? Thanks so much for sharing the snafu.

      • I did get through it, and learned a valuable lesson about laughing at my mistakes in the process. The editor remains my editor and is not about laughing about it again, too.

  • This post was a great read. I haven’t had any major flubs, yet, but I’m sure I’ll make one. When I do, yours will make me feel better. I love the “What’s that smell?” one. I laughed hard. Thanks for a great post!

  • After reading that subject line about you smelling, I had to keep myself from laughing. It’s amazing that you got that assignment. Good for you!
    I don’t get why the misspelled words is such a bad idea.

    • Ah, that one…it’s just not something the mom readers of that magazine would ever be interested in — at least not from Family Circle!

  • I actually made a meme out of my biggest mistake – very first story I turned in for a magazine, I called my editor by the wrong name. She was VERY unhappy about it, but we have a great relationship now.

    • Wow…how did you make a meme of it? Was it a meme among your writer friends or something between you and the editor?

      • Willi M

        I did it for giggles for a Facebook group and sent it to my editor using memegenerator.net.

  • This is a great article. I have not had any major blunders except with emails sending to quickly or calling someone the wrong name in email. Now to avoid the embarrassment I type out all of my emails in a document and then copy and paste them into the body of the mail to insure that they are perfect when they send.

  • I covered a fundraising event as a stringer for the local newspaper. I wrote that 16,000 people participated when I should have said that 1,600 people participated — and the story was published with the 16,000 figure! Later the non-profit that organized the event told me they appreciated the story, but could only hope to someday attract 16,000 participants! (NOTE: Embarrassing as it was, it did not end my career, and I still do occasional freelance work for the same newspaper).

    • At least you OVERstated the number and didn’t UNDERstate it! Then they would have been mad. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  • Does it make me a bad person if I say this post makes me feels TONS better? Like, I’m so glad Linda has flubbed stuff up too? 🙂

    To date, and to my knowledge, I’ve not committed any major blunders yet. But I’m certain they’re on the horizon.

    It’s almost guaranteed if you’re consistently putting yourself out there, right? 🙂

    • No…that’s the whole purpose of the post! To give everyone a little bit of Schadenfreude. 🙂

  • Victoria Irwin

    Loved this post. It’s good to be reminded that everyone makes mistakes. That goes for editors too. I once worked for a well-known regional home and garden magazine that actually ran this headline: These Trees Break Wind. (I wasn’t responsible for that one. Phew!)

    My worst recent mistake was to misspell a client’s first name on an invoice. He actually asked me to correct it before he sent it through because, he said, the folks in the accounting department were sticklers for such things.

    And one time, as I was rushing to get a packet in the mail to a computer magazine, I noticed an errant comma in my r—sum?. I quickly deleted the comma, reprinted the r—sum? and raced to the post office. Was I embarrassed a couple of weeks later when I had an in-person meeting with the editor and saw my r—sum?, now with crazy formatting, on his desk. I didn’t get the gig, but I have gone on to many others.

    • Thanks for sharing your gaffes — and the fact that you’re still writing even though you’ve made mistakes in the past! These Trees Break Wind — that HD to be on purpose, right?

      • Victoria Irwin

        Surprisingly, it wasn’t. Worse, I think someone had to explain it to the editor in chief.

  • Great post, Linda! Loved it, and it made me laugh, too, and also made me feel a wee bit better over my many mistakes throughout the years. My worst mistake, however, is a dozy: I was on deadline with two long-form feature stories and accidentally mixed up details. Imagine my surprise when the phone calls began early in the morning on publication date. People were not happy, especially since the stories involved a man and woman with similar last names (saying the woman wore size 12 shoes was not my best moment). I survived by apologizing in person to both interview subjects.
    My editor was not pleased but we all got through it, and I continued to write for that same publication for years.
    I think that how you handle mistakes is the key: If you do it with grace, if you sincerely apologize, and if you learn from said mistakes, you can get through just about anything.

    • Wow, that IS a doozy! But knowing you kept writing for that very same magazine is so inspiring!

  • Although my worst mistake (to date!) has been calling a potential client by the wrong name in my introductory email and getting called out on it – my Dad told me an amusing story about one of his mistakes as a reporter. Back in his younger days, he wrote for an Army publication and would do interviews of anyone notable that came on the base. One day a big-deal General was arrived and my Dad interviewed him. He wrote the story long-hand and when he got to the word Guantonomo – he wrote it out phonetically since he wasn’t sure of the spelling. He then turned the copy over to a print person who picked up AND printed Gawn-tawn-ammo as the name with (of course) my Dad’s byline. He told me that he always knew how to spell Guantanomo after that! 🙂

    • I feel like every writer has a story about calling a client by the wrong name! Wow, your dad’s story is a great one. I wonder if there was any fallout! Obviously not a career-killer, though.

  • I really enjoyed this post (which is a little horrible isn’t it – enjoying reading someone else’s mistakes? Ha!) You’ve certainly made me feel a lot better though… Years ago I was applying for lots of jobs at the same time, and sent emails to recruiters and editors boasting my “attention to detail” only to realise later that I’d forgotten to change names of both the recipients AND the company I was applying to. Awesome.

  • It’s great to know that even the pros sometimes make errors, and even better to know that you can be successful even though you’ve made a (minor) mistake or two.

    Thanks Linda!

  • Laura

    Wow, some great, cheek-reddening stories here! I have some of my own, including spelling mistakes, missing words etc, but you know, the editor has a duty to check over things too, and quite often if the mistakes make it to print, I’m sure the editor has a ‘red-face’ moment at the point of printing too – hence the correction section.

    I had written a brief for a health article, with my editor. I wrote up the article, had three great interviews with fitness experts – turned it in, and my editor said, ‘that’s totally not what I wanted’. We both got the wrong end of the stick. What did I do? I rewrote it of course, turned it in and it was printed. But I had wasted hours of research, interview time, and writing time. But Hey Ho!

    • Yeah, welcome to my world. 🙂 In the world of health magazines I’d say that’s not a screw-up but a normal occurrence. Good for you for sucking it up and rewriting the piece!

  • The query subject line one made me laugh out loud. My worse screw up – well, the one that made me wake up in the middle of the night and squirm – was when I wrote that Belize was in South America instead of Central America. The woman I wrote about (she was a missionary in Belize) sent me a scathing email telling me what a horrible writer I was, nitpicking every thing I wrote that she didn’t like and finished by telling me not to bother sending her a copy of the article because it was too riddled with mistakes. The only real mistake I made was the Belize thing, but she certainly was NOT pleased with the article. I was completely humiliated. It took me a while to get over that one!

    • Oh man, I feel ya — my sense of geography is pretty bad so I can totally see myself doing that too. But this source definitely overreacted!

      • My favorite part was that she told me she had prayed about sending me the email first – because you know, telling someone they are a complete hack is fine just as long as you pray about it first! lol

  • Hi; Linda; what a comforting article. thanks for sharing your own mistakes and proving to people that they don’t need to fear making mistakes in their free lance writing. and your approach of accepting your mistake apologizing for it and moving forward in a professional manner works for any occupation or business type. thanks again, Max

  • Great post! By the way, I noticed that when I was tweeting your post your whole link was in there; have you tried using Bitly for links? It allows people sharing to personalize the tweet a little more.

  • Thanks for sharing…I’m guilty of submitting “pubic” for “public” relations and advising article readers about how to help their child grow “psychotically” instead of “psychologically”. Ugh.

    Now I use the “find” feature in Word to help sniff out the sloppy word swaps.

  • Cherese Cobb

    A few days ago, I sent a query to the Penny Pincher. Afterwards, I read an article about how you should make your headline stand out. Instead of writing Cherese Cobb_Queries, the title I wrote was Yes, You Can Make Treasure from Trash. I resent my query, but I forgot the “d” in “dear”, so it red ear Mrs. Heather van der Hoop. *Blush* I heard that you should wait three weeks before sending any new queries. I just hope that Mrs. Hoop forgets–I know I won’t. LOL

    • Been there, done that — and sold the article! When you follow up and paste your pitch below, just quietly make the correction. I hope it sells for you!

      • Cherese Cobb

        She liked my ideas but felt that they didn’t quite fit the blog, but I sold one of my ideas to the Krazy Coupon Lady! I have been using your letter of introduction/query hybrids, which takes some of the stress out of pitching. Hope I can deliver quality on this article.

  • Haha, great stories! The smelly Formichelli one (hey it rhymes! haha, sorry) really got me, too.

    I am sure I have already made some stupid mistakes, and I’m just starting out freelancing. I am glad that I am able to laugh at myself! Otherwise, I’m not sure what I would do.

    Thanks for the encouragement! I am a fan of the Freelance Writer’s Den.

  • Glad to see you’ve survived your embarrassing moments. Great post

  • So even the “Linda Formichelli” had screw-ups. This is a very inspiring story especially for new writers like me. I thought that I was the only writer who is a friend of bad luck.

  • That was fun article to read 😀 It just shows that we aren’t perfect. But still you managed to achieve a lot of success and that’s what matters.

  • Thank you for being honest about your unintentional mistakes, Linda! It’s good to know that a few mistakes do not have the power to kill your freelancing career.


  • Linda, on #4 about writing for different magazines, this does not apply to publications that accept simultaneous submissions, does it?

    Thanks for all the great information.

    • Hi, Ellen! Are you talking about submitting the entire manuscript to magazines? I recommend querying where possible (unless the guidelines/editors say they want to see the whole piece). But if you are sending out simsubs, say of essays (since you typically don’t pitch essays), it’s fine that they’re the same. However, you don’t want to SELL the same piece to two different pubs unless you work some magic with the rights (for example, by selling one pub First Print Rights and another First Online Rights). I know…confusing, right?

      *Pitches* can be the same, but you generally don’t want to write on the same topic for competing magazines. And even if they
      re not competing and you do write the same idea twice, the articles need to be 100% different. (By the way, big post on sim-querying here: http://www.therenegadewriter.com/2012/03/12/the-art-of-the-simultaneous-query/ )

      Hope that helps!

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