A couple of 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 magazine 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 to 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.
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 two pillars for building a career working for magazines: writing ability and marketing ability. You need to be good at both. 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.
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 Mike Sager in GQ or Malcolm Gladwell, James Stewart or David Remnick in The New Yorker. Or Mary Roach in Discover. Or Darcy Frey in The New York Times Magazine. Whatever your tastes. Beth Kephart, who wrote “A Slant of Sun,” an achingly beautiful book about rearing a challenging child, 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 Info Select (www.miclog.com) both to organize notes for stories and ideas for queries.
Research your markets with the same zeal you would an in-depth story. Check out publications online. Go to a good newsstand and spend a few hours and some money. A friend of mine takes $20 every few months and buys magazines she thinks may be potential markets.
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 going to the library to read back issues.
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. Remember, this is your introduction. The truth is first ideas rarely hit the mark, but consider them an audition. Make the writing sing. It’s easy to work up a detailed query these days thanks to online databases like electric library (www.elibrary.com), newslibrary (www.newslibrary.com) and the archives of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com and go to “Publications Library”).
Call a couple of weeks after you’ve sent a query to make sure the editor received it. Be prepared to make a pitch for your story over the phone. First, ask the editor if she has a minute and isn’t on deadline. Remind her 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 and if you can get her interested in the phone and immediately follow up with a fax, you may land an assignment.
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 or Smithsonian 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.
Understand the business. If you don’t know what work made for hire means and why it’s a bad thing, learn. The same goes for terms like “all rights,” “electronic rights,” “indemnification,” “exclusive,” “First North American Serial Rights,” and others. Most magazines offer contracts. Only begin work when you have one in hand. Beware of shaky startups with vague funding. For more, go to the Writers’ Resources page at www.asja.org.
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?
Jim Morrison contributed a chapter to “The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels.”
His stories have appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, George, The Wall Street Journal, This Old House, National Wildlife, offspring, Good Housekeeping, Playboy, Biography, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Utne Reader, Family PC, Continental, Southwest Spirit, the magazine of Southwest Airlines, and American Way, the magazine of American Airlines, among others. He writes about a variety of subjects including the environment, science, sports, popular culture and travel. He is the former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), a trade association of more than 1,100 freelance writers.
Tagged under: Freelancing