Many years ago, I was having a drink at a party with a good friend of mine, a writer with a decade-long track record at places like GQ, Rolling Stone and other major magazines. Someone sidled up, introduced herself and — as people always do in New York — asked us what we did. We told her we were magazine writers. Well, she wondered, what was the most important talent for someone in the business?
Neither of us hesitated.
Almost in unison, we answered: “Accepting rejection and moving on.” The line must have seemed scripted. It wasn’t.
To me, the most important skill a freelancer can hone is the ability to take being rejected — or being ignored — by an editor and move on, whether it’s to offer that editor a new idea or that idea to another editor. There are those wonderful exceptions. My first New York Times assignment came during an initial phone call intended merely to check an editor’s name. But I think freelancers underestimate the work necessary break into a good market and give up too easily. Remember, John McPhee suffered fifteen years of rejections before his byline appeared in The New Yorker.
I’ve long been a contributor to American Way, American Airlines inflight magazine. The good folks there have flown me all over the world — Toronto, St. Lucia, Paris, London, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix — on well more than 100 stories over the years. An American Way editor assigned my first magazine story when I moved from newspapering to freelancing. He then rejected my next 11 ideas.
I’ve often wondered what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t sent that twelfth idea.
The same story is true for Smithsonian magazine. My third query netted an assignment. The next 11 were rejected before I got a cover piece. Since then, I’ve written nearly 40 pieces for the print and online versions.
So how’s that for a cheery introduction to a handout about freelancing?
Now, for a few basics. First, a disclaimer: this is one writer’s view of shaping a career. There are an infinite number of other ways to do it, depending upon what you want to write and where you want your byline to appear.
There are three pillars for building a career working for magazines and online publications: writing ability, marketing ability, and identifying and framing stories that sell. You need to be good at all of them.
I’ve seen a remarkable number of writers who think getting assignments is all about marketing. Just find the right markets, get a few good contacts and you’ll have work. Well, at a certain level that may be true. There’s an endless demand for competent work. But never forget that the better a writer you become, the more editors will be calling.
Other writers are creative thinkers and beautiful stylists, but they don’t understand it’s necessary to work just as hard on the marketing end. You’ve got to keep banging on doors until they open or your head wears out from the pounding.
Finally, I’ve come to realize that identifying and framing a story in a way that’s appealing to an editor is a skill we often ignore. Too often, writers mistake subjects for stories. Too often, they don’t do the work on a query to find the details and the angle that entices an editor.
Before I talk about writing, I want to mention reading. Read good work. Pretty basic, right? But sometimes I think writers get so engrossed in selling that they forget the best way to become a better writer is to read stylish prose. So check out Charles Pierce in Esquire or Tom Junod in ESPN (and, before that, Esquire). Sample Kathryn Schulz, James Stewart, Elizabeth Kolbert or David Remnick in The New Yorker. Or Robert Draper, John Branch, and Dan Barry in The New York Times. Sample longform.org or Aeon or The Atlantic online or Longreads. Check out Jim Robbins on Yale 360. Dive into books by Michael Lewis, Robert Moor, Katherine Boo, and Lauren Hillenbrand. Whatever your tastes.
Beth Kephart, who wrote “A Slant of Sun,” an achingly beautiful book about rearing a challenging child as well as numerous others, likes to say that a good writing day usually follows a good reading day.
Ideas are currency. Some magazines will assign you stories generated in-house, but if you’re a freelancer part of the fun is controlling what you write. So organize a system for collecting ideas. I use a database program called Evernote, both to organize notes for stories and ideas for queries.
Research your markets with the same zeal you would an in-depth story. There are more markets out there than you can imagine and a lot of them pay more than you can imagine.
Understand, too, that much of your research will end up being discarded because the magazine isn’t right for your writing or the idea. I can’t emphasize this enough: reading a magazine as a writer intending to market ideas or clips is different from reading it for pleasure. Look hard at the kinds of stories a magazine runs. Be honest about whether your style fits. For instance, not all women’s magazines are created equal. Each one appeals to a slightly different demographic. If you’re targeting a major magazine like Discover or Smithsonian or Esquire, subscribe and consider reading back issues online.
When I moved from being a newspaper staff writer to a magazine freelancer, this was the biggest and hardest lesson I had to learn. It’s not enough that something is newsworthy for a magazine. It has to right for the readership at the time.
So you’ve got an idea. Now what?
Establish a realistic pecking order to queries. Aim high, but also shoot a few at more likely markets so you have work. A few years ago, a writer friend and I decided to separate our markets into what I’ll call 76 Truck Stop markets and Holy Grail markets. The truck stop markets are easy to pull into, let us do stories we like for little hassle, pay well and don’t grab all rights so we can resell. The Holy Grail markets (Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine) are long shots that require a lot of effort to reach. Rather than pitch many of them, we decided it was wiser to concentrate on one (or maybe two) at a time in an attempt to establish a relationship with editors.
Spend time crafting a good first query to a new market. There is a remarkable amount of information at your fingertips. Use it. Don’t stop at the first Google page. Go deep. Think creatively about how to approach a story.
Remember, this is your introduction. The truth is first ideas rarely hit the mark, but consider them an audition. Make the writing sing.
Send a reminder email a couple of weeks after you’ve sent a query to make sure the editor received it. Remind the editor of the query and tease with a one or two sentence description. This may seem depressing, but with new markets I’ve often found the editor never saw the query so always check in with the editor.
If you get an assignment from a magazine you like, work to become a regular. Securing even one regular gig will keep you sane, provide clips to help sell yourself to other magazines and, oh yes, pay a few bills. Work towards having three of four regular markets. Clips are credibility. Along with a well-written query letter, they are your best marketing tools.
So that’s the first part of being a freelancer: persistence. Pedigree is the second part.
It matters who you know and who you’ve written for. Build a pedigree. Having a clip from markets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Smithsonian or a hot new online publication makes editors take your query seriously.
Getting an introduction from another writer also helps. So add people to persistence and pedigree. Network with writers. There are dozens of places online to do this as well as any number of organizations. I belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org) and have found the contacts as well as the professional advice from other members to be invaluable. I also subscribe to Freelance Success, a newsletter for freelancers with a wealth of market information (www.freelancesuccess.com).
Don’t undervalue yourself. Ask an editor if he can do better than the offered pay. Often, he can.
Do tell editors you’re looking for a steady gig once you’ve completed an assignment or two. Even before that, ask editors what they’re looking for now. Simple advice, but it often leads to assignments — or an informal brainstorming session that helps focus future queries.
If you’re interested in doing serious “issues” stories as well as features, consider pitching to some of the low-end markets so you have clips. I wish I’d done this because it seems to me the markets for these kinds of stories are either very low-end or very high-end (and hard to crack). By doing some low-end work you may build a reputation that will interest the big boys.
Market yourself. Create a Contently page with your clips. Explore online markets for writers, if necessary, like Skyword. Creating “content” – essentially doing sponsored journalism – for corporations and organizations has become huge business in recent years.
Understand the business. If you don’t know what work made for hire means, learn. The same goes for terms like “all rights,” “electronic rights,” “indemnification,” “exclusive,” “First North American Serial Rights,” and others. Most publications offer contracts. Only begin work when you have one in hand. Beware of shaky startups with vague funding.
If you’re a beginner and don’t understand the basic rules of journalism including ethics then please take a course somewhere or go to the Society of Professional Journalists web site and download their ethical guidelines. I run into too many freelancers, usually people who have never been on staff, who are clueless about the basic rules of the game.
Finally, have fun. Freelancing means you get paid to learn. What could be better?