FREELANCING FOR THE NOVICE
(or how to suck it up and submit)
Hello. I am a freelancer with a drawer full of rejections who just won’t quit. Don’t cry for me. This is a good thing, I promise. You want to be a writer? You better either be really stupid, a glutton for punishment or have a skin thicker than a pile of winter coats because you are going to be getting a lot of little notecards in your mailbox that serve to reinforce your belief that your father may have been right when he said you should have been an accountant.
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Freelance Writing
You are not a respected staff writer, no one knows your name and, in fact, most freelancers just starting out are going to get the short end of the stick in pay. You are up against some of the best and brightest writers out there, but, more importantly, you are up against writers who have already established themselves as staple sources of content for all the publications in which you hope publish your writing.
Still with me? Good. You’re one step closer to succeeding than most of the wide world of whiney writers. Let’s begin. It starts with an idea...a good idea...your good idea! Right before you fell asleep last night you had an idea that simply screams "publish me!" and for once you wrote it down. It may be Pulitzer material, but unless it gets printed, no one is ever going to know. Making that happen is harder than writing it down, putting it an envelope and tossing it into the wind. There is a process, which means a right way and a wrong way to go about getting your material published. First, let me dispel one notion that may be swimming around your optimistic head.
Administrative Lackeys, Secretaries, and Editorial Assistants, oh My!
You may have grand visions of some kindly bespectacled old editor perusing your article or query, but that just isn't how it works. Even before it gets into the line of sight of an assistant editor, your brainchild will most likely pass before an editorial or even an administrative assistant, who very likely couldn't write their way out of a wet paper bag with an electric writing machine. Maybe he can, and he is pissed off that people like you are out there in the world and he is still waiting for his big chance. Or maybe as she opened your envelope, hot latte splashed onto her crotch and she’s so damn angry that every piece of mail that comes in for the next hour is going straight into the trash.
You get the idea. Before you impress the big fish, you may have to impress an assistant, an assistant’s assistant and so on. While someone with years of experience can recognize a diamond in the rough, the first person who sees your article or query can probably only spot shiny little diamonds (or, perhaps, cubic zirconium), so you better polish your edges.
The Quixotic Query
Writing a good query letter is kind of like charging at windmills. Windmills don’t care how fast you run, how determined you are or how sharp your lance is until you bowl them the hell over. A query letter is not your entire article in correspondence form. It is analogous to a summer movie preview for a teen comedy in which all the best laughs are condensed into five minutes. Even if your idea for an article is pure gold, you still want to create a query letter made up of the shiniest pieces.
Best advice I ever received: Sending out completed articles (i.e. sending them "on spec") is a huge waste of time. Unless some resource like the Writer’s Market or other trade list tells you a publication specifically wants entire articles, send query letters...but make sure those queries are just as wonderful and full of flavor as the article you are proposing will eventually be.
Second best piece of advice: Unless you are 100% certain that your idea is going to be accepted by the first venue you submit it to, send your query to multiple publications. Most publications do not like this, but the likelihood of two places accepting a piece, even a brilliant one, is slim. Take the chance and, in the unlikely event that two publications want your work, pick one and give the other a polite no thank you.
Give Them Quite the Query, or Quit
A query letter should be formatted like a business letter, but stay away from "to whom it may concern," because it’s an automatic sign that the recipient most concerned is probably the trash bin. In this, the age of ricin, Anthrax and mail bombs, people like getting mail with their name on it. Also, people in business like when mail is addressed to a specific person because it makes it easy to hand out. If you want your query read by the health editor of SELF magazine, call up SELF and ask who he or she is. They will not hold back. If you feel so inclined, ask for their fax number, their voice mail, their mailing address and for some other contact names. I used to feel silly doing that. Then I realized the person on the other end just wanted to get me off the phone as fast as possible, so they were happy to tell me anything I wanted to know.
A lot of novice writers make the mistakes of sending out articles that are too broad, too limited in range, too sexy for Parent and too tame for Cosmopolitan. Your chances of being published depend on your pitching the right idea to the right editor in the right place at the right time. Don’t send a story about how sweet rottweilers are to Cat Fancy after the story of a rottweiler mauling made national news.
What is included in the body of your query depends on your article. It's a good idea for the first paragraph to be that preview, or teaser, I was talking about. If they aren't intrigued by the period at the end of the first sentence, they'd better be by the first two words of the second. The people who read query letters see a lot of them every day and they don't have any reason to pay particular attention to yours if it doesn’t grab them right away.
The next paragraphs should iron out details like why you are the right person to be writing this article, what sources you have available, how many words it will be and if it’s available right away. If there is anything else you feel is relevant, now is the time to speak up.
Once those two paragraphs (or more) are over, the person reading your query, presuming they have made it that far, will want to know something about you. If you have had something published before this, say so. If you work in the publishing industry, say so. If you were the editor-in-chief of your college newspaper and that’s all you’ve got, let them know, but be brief and, above all, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES BE SELF-DEPRECATING. After all, you are trying to sell yourself. Make everything, no matter how small, label you a professional.
Thank you...Fuck you...Thank you...
So you got your first rejection. Don’t get irate, celebrate! You are one step closer to realizing your dream of becoming a well-paid, well-known and full-time freelancing machine. If your first impulse is to eat a whole tube of cookie dough or bomb The New Yorker’s info e-mail address, you are not alone, and I am certainly not going to discourage you from doing either of those things. But, before you call up and ask the beauty editor of Vogue if she has Prince Albert in a can, sit down at your computer, breathe in and out slowly and pen off a polite thank you note. I am quite aware that doing so may make you feel like you are eating shit, because you are. You will never get a response. The one who rejected your idea might never even see it, but if they do, name recognition can be a valuable tool.
And, before you get too angry, remember that in any publishing situation, what is wrong for one publication, may be exactly what another is looking for. Freelancing is all about matching up your ideas with someone else’s needs.
Fun Things to Do With Rejection Letters
Eventually, after months of waiting, if you are not lucky enough to have any of your ideas picked up, you will begin to accumulate a growing pile of rejection letters. Most often, these will be form letters. If one is not, cherish it and send the article elsewhere because, if an editor took the time to send you something personalized, your query was probably pretty damn good. What to do with the rest?
My former roommate and I, an artist and writer respectively, managed to collect a goodly number of rejections. We used them to paper over our ugly kitchen cabinets. They make very motivational wallpaper. If you are not ready to proclaim your failure to the world (or yourself), you can always burn them, put them at the bottom of a birdcage, shred them for packing material or make paper airplanes and chuck them into the ocean. I guess those aren’t really very fun but it beats letting them soak up your tears.
How to Use Everything2 to Help. Or not.
I landed my first job in journalism (an unpaid editorial assistant gig in which, yes, I did get to write and do interviews, but was still responsible for opening and sorting the mail) using clips from everything2. I will never do that again and I'll tell you why in a minute. At the time, it helped me to demonstrate to my future bosses that I had work that I was not afraid to show to other people. Having no experience can be a one-way trip to the circular file, so when you're in a bind, do what you have to do to put a pretty face on what you've got. Remember, everything2 is a writer’s website or a user-collaborated encyclopedia or anything else you want it to be if you can sell it. See Putting Everything on your Resume.
I don’t use e2 anymore when I write my query letters because great things like Imprecation’s Hell or Chris-O’s Staten Island Bridges stand alongside stuff like Butterfinger McFlurry. But when I was a beggar, I couldn’t be a chooser.
Last Words of Encouragement
When the rejections start pouring in (months after you’ve forgotten all about your queries), don’t get discouraged. The process can take a long time, especially when paired with the horror of learning to put together a good query letter, and, at first, the returns can seem pretty worthless. You might not be paid at all, but a clip is a clip and once you’ve published an article, no one ever has to know that you gave it up for free.
When you feel like you can’t go on, remember that you are your own worst critic and the rejections you receive aren’t personal. A rejection is not an insult, nor is it a comment about your talent as a writer. The poet Hal Sirowitz once told me never to care what other people think and that a writer should always live the ghost of his life, looking back and knowing that what happened before no longer matters.
For Save us from the horror of dull dead trees: a marathon E2 Quest