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Freelancing and queries (for Wendy)

In a comment to my last post, Wendy asked me for freelance advice, specifically, how to proceed with a pitch.

The goal of a freelancer is to get a steady gig. That doesn’t necessarily mean a staff position, but I suspect most freelancers would jump at one. Freelancing has its benefits but so does a steady salary.

Even freelancers who aren’t seeking permanent employment want to be able to place work again and again at the same outlet. It’s much easier to cultivate an established relationship than it is to cold call. Still, there’s always that first pitch you have to make, and that’s what Wendy asked about.

Here’s how to do it.

The first step is to identify your audience. Is your work for a newspaper? That’s usually not a fruitful path. Newspapers rely more on staffers. As a freelancer, you want to write for magazines. Look at the magazines. Who is their audience? The editors want stories their audience will read, and you want to deliver those. It’s better to send one query tailored to a specific magazine’s content than it is to shotgun 20 queries to magazines in the hope one might like it.

Next, aim your query at the right contact. You need to find the correct individual at the publication to send your query to. Make a phone call or two to find out who that person is, and find that person’s e-mail address. You don’t want to query by snail mail these days (I don’t think).

Now that you’ve identified editor X at magazine Y, it’s time to construct the query letter. Don’t make the mistake of crafting a letter that sounds like you’re applying for a job in middle management. Keep it short and specific. Don’t ramble. Don’t get atmospheric. Sell your idea, sell how you’re going to get there, and, once you can, sell yourself. You want to put down why your article is important, who you will interview (you might want to set up some interviews beforehand), and how many words you plan to write (and of course you know how long the magazine’s articles are).

I’ve included some links at the end of this post, most of which have query-letter advice or examples.

One science freelancer told me to start with a query for a 300-word article with some clever news angle. This was for magazines like Discover, Canadian Geographic, etc. I still haven’t tried that so I can’t vouch for it but it makes sense. A magazine will usually want to test you on a low-risk gamble first. Once you’ve proven you can do that, you can move up to features.

Reread your letter from the editor’s perspective. I’ve done more as an editor than as a freelancer and I want a writer who turns in work on time and who doesn’t whine. “I’ll rewrite this as much as you need” = whining. “I’ll work so very hard on this” = whining. “I’d be thrilled to be in your publication” = whining. I don’t care about your motivation. I care about work on time and at the allotted word count. Avoid the sniveling in your query.

Ideally, you should know what the magazine pays before you query, but that’s not always possible since they can offer different rates to different contributors. Don’t mention pay in your initial query – wait until they want to hire you. Fifty cents a word is a decent rate, but you may have to start with less than that.

The key to successful freelancing is placing one story in many markets. You can’t sell the same story to multiple magazines, but you can use the information you’ve gathered to write about the same idea in multiple places. For example, if you’re working an an article on melamine in pet food for Cat Fancy magazine, you can use the same info with a different slant for Reader’s Digest. Query both before you start.

Don’t underestimate queries. As a beginning freelancer, you should spent most of your work time on queries. You need to generate income, so your efforts should go toward that – which means working on queries. Aim for one query a day by your second week. Once jobs start to come in, you can cut back, but try to maintain 20% of your time for query work. You are a conveyor belt, and you need to manage work at all stages at all times to avoid dry spells.

Here are some sites of varying quality I found.

Business Guide for Writers – An excellent site with forthright information.

The Beginner’s Guide To Freelance Writing – I’m not crazy about the writing style, but some good advice.

The Freelance Writing FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Writing for Newspapers & Magazines – More good advice.

Freelance Writers: Don’t Waste Your Time with Query Letters – An alternate view.

I’ll end this lengthy post with advice from Robin “Roblimo” Miller, editor in chief for OSTG (best known for maintaining Slashdot).

On Becoming the Perfect Freelancer

As I write this, I am waiting for a story to come in that should have been in my hand three days ago. The freelancer to whom I gave the assignment swore up and down that I’d have it by Monday, but here it is Thursday afternoon and I am late putting together my Friday e-mail newsletter that goes out to 70,000 subscribers because I am missing that one story.

I’ve heard, “I’ll have it to you tomorrow,” for three days running, but still no story. I am not going to use this freelancer again.

To an editor, deadlines are not “objectives” or “goals”. They are the times after which a story is no longer useful. A writer who cannot meet deadlines is a writer who does me no good. Conversely, one who consistently gets work to me by or before deadline is pure gold, and I will turn to that writer again and again.

I want copy that meets basic AP style guideline most of the time. I want all proper names spelled right, and (since I edit online publications) all HTML tags and hyperlinks to work correctly. I need an extra-strong, extra-terse lead paragraph on every story because my Web sites, like most news Web sites, use a blog format with a main page that shows readers a list of story titles and lead paragraphs or summaries and invites them to “click for more” on each story. If a story’s headline and lead paragraph don’t entice readers into making that click, I might as well not have run the story in the first place, because hardly anyone is going to read it. And, like it or not, online publishing is a business, and pageviews are our life and breath.

The business end works like this: our company sells between one and five ads on each page, and advertisers pay us a negotiated rate per thousand pageviews. I am not always sure which stories are going to capture our readers’ imaginations, and there are many times I will buy a story because I think it is important rather than because I think it will be overwhelmingly popular, but in the long run, from my employers’ perspective, my job is to make our pageview count increase every week and every month, year after year, while keeping costs (including freelance fees) per pageview low enough that our Web sites produce higher operating profits every quarter.

Another pressure I deal with is time. I don’t have enough of it. I work six or seven days a week, often more than 12 hours a day, and so do my site editors. A writer whose work need a lot of revision takes up a lot of our time, so we are always going to favor writers who turn in “clean copy” that needs little or no proofreading or rewriting.

A professional freelance writer recognizes the business and time pressures faced by editors and realizes that, no matter what other relationship we might have, he or she is a vendor and I am a client. I am not the right person to call at midni
ght, dead drunk, to complain about your latest fiction rejection or a problem with your love life, no matter how friendly I am toward you during our professional contacts. If you persist in using me as a free psychologist, sooner or later I am going to turn to other writers who are more businesslike in their approach. It is not that I lack compassion; I simply don’t have time to listen to very many hour-long tales of writers’ woe every week.

By contrast, I have one freelancer to whom I have happily paid an average of $3000 per month for over two years in return for ten 250-word pieces per week that take him less than an hour each to write. This person always turns in copy well ahead of time, rarely makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, and makes sure all of his hyperlinks work before he sends a story to me.

When other tech-oriented editors ask me if I can recommend a writer, this person’s name is often the first one I mention. He is not aggressive about selling his work so he is usually grateful for these leads, and every one I give him increases his loyalty toward me. Conversely, the day this man slipped on ice outside of his home (in a small town in the northern Midwest), I filled in for him personally and paid him his running rate for the days he was unable to work even though I was under no legal obligation to do so.

Please note that I have not yet mentioned creativity or writing quality, but have emphasized the business side of the relationship between a freelancer and an editor. This is because I edit news Web sites, not a poetry quarterly. I need accurate reporting and reliability more than I need copy that will make readers mutter, “This is truly elegant writing. Wow!”

I have nothing against creativity, mind you. I’ll take it when I can get it, and I will pay extra to any writer who consistently produces work that turns my head (and readers’ heads) with its beauty.

But in the cold business of online news, a merely competent writer who turns in accurate copy on time and behaves in a professional manner almost always wins out over an artful writer who needs lots of handholding, turns in stories late, or doesn’t bother to proofread his or her work before sending it to me.

(Posted with permission)

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