Monthly Archives: September 2012

So You Want to be a Freelance Writer?

Let me use words to paint you a picture of a day in the life of a freelancer. Here’s what being a writer looks like for me. I run around my house in my yoga pants, with a notebook in one hand and a ballpoint in the other, a telephone headset glued to my head, while I pry the tiniest relevant details from apathetic sources. Then I take those nuggets of popcorn-dry information and turn them into the most engaging pieces of jaw dropping, awe inspiring literature ever to be found in the magazine rack beside your grandmother’s toilet. Well, now you’re paying attention, aren’t you? So you still want to be a freelance writer? Read on. (You thought, “Let me use words to paint you a picture” was legit? Seriously?)

Everything starts when I generate an idea for a story. These ideas strike at any given moment so I surround myself with coil notebooks. They are all over my house, in my purse, in the car, and under the bed, labeled with a black Sharpie, ‘summer’, ‘fall’, ‘winter’, and ‘spring’. When I have a viable story idea I write it down. Sometimes I use a memo app on my smart phone, but I usually brainstorm my ideas as I make note of them, so I don’t find my phone the best tool. Others would argue, I know.

From the idea stage I determine which publication might make the best use of the article I’d like to write. I write a query letter, called a pitch. I ‘pitch’ my idea to the editor, or publisher of that publication. I leverage my queries by name dropping. I mention the national magazines, and major newspapers I’ve written for. I give the editor access to samples of my writing through my Facebook fan page, my Twitter feed, my blogs, and my Linkedin account. If I’m linked to someone they’re linked to I mention it. Forgive the cliché, I get one chance to make a first impression. Then I wait for responses. Sometimes months. Some editors are kind and ignore me completely, or they send a form letter politely asking me to leave them alone. Really. Isn’t that kind? Then there are the editors who slip in and out of dark corners, who want to put writers in their place. They critique my query, my pitch, my grammar, and the clothes I wore while I wrote the letter. Well, maybe not, but I swear a couple of them knew I was in my pajamas.

We haven’t even hit the fun part yet. I write and send off an average of ten queries in a working week. And, guess what? Some of them do come back with a, “Great pitch. You have 1500 words, ten days, provide your own sources, and six hi-res photos please.” Um. Okay. Then, an hour later, another email finds its way to my in-box. “Thanks for the query. We love it. You have two months. Use these sources – they’re leaving the country for six weeks today, so call them ASAP, 1000 words, we’ll use stock images.” Um. Okay. Then, “We need a book review…Yesterday.” Then, “They paid for a huge ad so we’re giving company XYZ an advertorial. Sorry for the late notice. Can we have 1200 words in two days? Here’s a phone number. You may be able to reach the owner. He’s on Mountain Time, and likes to be called between 6 and 8pm, but only if it’s a full moon. Otherwise wait until there are five Mondays in October and call him on the third Monday.” Freelance success at last. Bangs head on desk repeatedly.

At about this point I set fire to my editorial calendar – the so called super-tool of all freelancers. You see, there’s a rumour out there that eventually every freelancer learns their own writing pace, like a runner innately knows how far, and how fast they can run. In fact, I do know how long it takes me to write a 200 word piece from a press release, a 600 word biography based on a web-site, a 1200 word article with two professional sources, backstory research, and a pull-out FAQ box. I know all that. I have to, in order to make money, and that’s how I would love to set up my editorial calendar – based on the pace of my research and writing. In a perfect world. But, there are a few things the so-called experts, who regale freelancers with tales of the benefits of editorial calendars, fail to acknowledge. Most freelancers work from home. Life gets in the way of what we do. I have been in the middle of an interview, on behalf of a national newspaper, when my dog has tried to swallow the UPS man. I settled an epic fight between my two sons using the power of my mommy-glare and hand gestures alone, while interviewing a self-proclaimed horticulturalist who was explaining, in excruciating detail, the ramifications of traumatic windburn on red cedars. Through all the distractions my brain tells me to stick to my schedule. The editorial calendar MUST BE FOLLOWED, or I’ll be sucked into the works-from-home freelancer vortex, a black hole where no story meets it’s deadline and I get paid less per hour than someone who asks,” Would you like fries with that?” all day. So, I try my best.

It’s true. I do get caught up in the maelstrom of being a freelance writer. But you, you’re different. You want to be a freelance writer, but you’ll never bail on your editorial calendar, or submit anything less than literary perfection to your editor. Delivery men be damned. You will not be distracted. Random words and ill-formed questions will never circle around you. Deadlines and conversations, phone numbers and phrases, quotations and lists will never fly by you, gaining strength, every word more powerful than the last. You’re conscientious, you have a degree in English Lit. You’ll never find yourself dangling helplessly from the end of a participle, forever searching for your antecedent in some black, inky vortex where editors slip in and out of dark corners whispering, “Precioussss likes her commassss doesn’t she?” No, not you. Never.

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