6 Surprising Things Freelance Writing Taught Me About Book Publishing

Open For BusinessI 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?


Author: Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

15 Replies to “6 Surprising Things Freelance Writing Taught Me About Book Publishing”

    1. Yes, exactly! My husband, who’s a visual effects artist, loves this one as well, because when he was in art school he realized very quickly that talent isn’t all that matters.

  1. As a fellow freelancer, I give you a hearty round of applause. I feel the same way about ALL your points. Your # 5 is interesting for me, as well. I never wanted to BE a short story writer, so I never pursued publication in that area. Like you, I’ve focused on magazine articles, many of which could be considered creative nonfiction. Of course, I’m not yet a published author, so maybe my method is faulty! 😉

    1. Thanks, Melissa! I wrote many short stories in college, but that’s because that’s largely how many creative writing programs are structured. I always knew I wanted to write novels, though, so when I graduated, I put all my focus into that. I’m grateful for what short stories taught me about writing, but I wasn’t as interested in trying to get them published.

      and ps…you’re on the right path! Can’t wait to cheer you along every step of the way 😉

  2. Yes yes yes to #5 and #6!

    LOL to #2. Well-played, editor.

    #3, I’m not so sure about, as a rule. At least not for me. Deadlines — specifically, missing them, which I tend to do unless there is something external to hold me truly accountable — makes me feel like crapola, which isn’t the right mindset (for me) to be productive, so it becomes a self-fulfilling negative cycle. I’m better off just focusing on the work in front of me and having faith in myself, regardless of how many calendar pages go by.

    (But deadlines that other people set? People that are “in charge” in some way? I always find a way to meet those. ;P)

    1. She’s still one of my favorite editors I’ve ever had the chance to work with. And it makes a great story (especially since my pet peeve is being called Natalie).

      I know what you mean about self-imposed deadlines. They work for me, but they’re not for everyone. The having faith in yourself is what’s most important.

  3. This is a great post with so many valuable tips. I’ve been out of the freelance market for a pretty long time (pursuing primarily fiction and nonprofit work) and now trying to jump back in, I feel myself really nervous about how old my clips are. This made me feel better, realizing that I really need to emphasize my strengths and stop worrying about my perceived shortcomings. Thank you!

    1. Julia, just yesterday I sent a clip from 2008 to an editor who asked if I had experience writing about xyz topic. No clip is ever too old; in my opinion, it actually shows that you’ve been doing this a while and have valuable experience—that’s timeless 😉 Good luck with freelancing! You’ll be great.

  4. Great post, Natalia!

    I was a contractor for the longest time, working p/t so I could work on fiction. Granted, this was technical writing, but I learned that I could write under any circumstance. With fiction, I tend to surround myself with rituals. I can only write if… this… or that. But nah. I really can write in any circumstance if I just sit my butt down and do it. 🙂

    1. So true. If I waited for inspiration to strike as a freelance writer, I’d be broke. It’s an important discipline to learn to just sit and do it (and edit later).

  5. Great post, Natalia! The hardest part for me is meeting self imposed deadlines. I’m working on it with NaNoWriMo this year and determined to meet my goal.

    I laughed when I read number three. I’m an attorney at a law firm and I once accidentally misspelled our client’s general counsel’s name. She was not as nice as the lady in your story. She pointed out my mistake and started calling me Adriana for the remainder of the case. Too bad for her, I didn’t take it personal. My kindergarten teacher used to call me Adriana and I never minded. I just shrugged and kept on going.

  6. “Mind the details, but know a tiny mistake won’t destroy you.” Secretly, the most exciting news I get from beta readers is that the piece is pretty clean. You’re not engaged by my plot, you’re squeamed out by a character, you don’t like my pacing — I can live with that. But if you find too many typos, punctuation problems, or dodgy grammar, I cringe.

    “Credentials are not as important as a great story.” — when I was a supervisor, I was fairly notorious for not even reading the resumes for new hires. I don’t care where you claim you’ve worked in the past; I care if you can do the job.

  7. Hi Natalia! I haven’t written a novel and admire and look up to you for writing one. But I still found this post so interesting! Many famous authors had a day job that fueled and inspired their writing. And in my experience, the less time you have, the more motivated you feel to make use of the time you do have to write.

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