I started freelance writing in 2006, thinking it would be the perfect lifestyle and career choice for an aspiring novelist. It turns out freelancing not only gave me the time I needed to write fiction, it also taught me several important things about the business of publishing.
1. Yes, you’ll need to write a query letter. For newbie freelancers wanting to break into a magazine, their best shot is usually studying the publication, coming up with article ideas, and then pitching the appropriate editor by sending them a query letter. It’s basically a cold-call email in which you briefly describe your story idea and why it’s a good fit for the publication in the hopes of landing an assignment. Sometimes you email an editor and you hear back in a week or two. Sometimes you think your idea is perfect and you never hear back from them. Sometimes you get nibbles of interests but ultimately, a rejection. Sound at all familiar? Querying articles as a freelance writer helped me prepare for when I started querying agents because the rules of the game are the same: write the best query you possibly can, be patient, and keep going, keep going, keep going.
2. Mind the details, but know a tiny mistake won’t destroy you. The first time I submitted a story to a magazine editor, I noted that her name was spelled differently than I was used to seeing—with an “ou” instead of just “o.” I’d heard that rule number one is to always get the editor’s name right. So I reminded myself over and over not to get these two confused, then I typed up my email, spelled her name wrong, and took a nap. When I woke up, I had an email from said editor: “Dear Natalie, I enjoyed your story and would like to purchase it.” Touché, editor, touché. I learned to be more careful next time, but more importantly, I learned that one small mistake won’t kill all your chances at publication…at least, not if the story is good enough.
3. Deadlines are queen. I’ve been a journalist since high school, and missing a deadline has simply never been an option. I actually find it hard to function without deadlines, so as an independent freelancer, I set them and stick to them. Novelists face countless deadlines from their publishers and editors and even agents, but it’s important to learn to be accountable even when no one else is pushing you. Because how else will that next book that’s not yet under contract get written?
4. It’s always about the writing (except for when it’s about the marketing). You can have the most amazing voice, the most amazing story, the next Harry Potter in your drawer, but if you’re not willing to market yourself, it’s unlikely to take off on fairy dust and awesomesauce alone. Just know that the opposite isn’t true: even the best marketing efforts can’t turn a mediocre story into a huge success, so focus on the writing, focus on the writing…and don’t forget to market yourself.
5. Credentials are not as important as a great story. Early in my freelance writing career, I became obsessed with getting clips before I got up the nerve to pitch the “big” magazines. But in magazines as in book publishing, plenty of first-time writers rise up from the slush pile with no prior experience. Sure, many writers publish short stories in literary journals before getting a book deal, but that’s not the only path to publication. Now that I’ve been freelancing for about 8 years, I’ve published countless articles, but never a piece of fiction. Chasing the Sun will be my first.
6. But sometimes discipline and attitude matters more than talent. Talent is a rare gem. Talent, plus a great attitude and the discipline to do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’ll do it? Rarer still. There will always be writers out there who are better than you. They’re not your problem. Worry about your own work and never let the ups and downs of this business turn you sour. I believe our fates are more of a reflection of ourselves and our outlook than we’d like to believe. Writing may be a solitary endeavor, but publishing is pure teamwork, so be a team player.
That’s as far as I go with sports metaphors. But tell me, how does your day job help your other pursuits?