Today’s guest post is adapted from a portion of The Renegade Writer, just released in a new third edition, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell.
Misconceptions about getting started often hold new writers back. You may think that to be successful as a freelance writer, you need a J-school degree, an impressive database of editorial contacts, and a truckload of supplies. Not so—read on to learn the most common myths that can sabotage you before you start.
1. You need “connections” to land assignments.
We think you’re confusing breaking into writing with breaking into Hollywood, or maybe with making it big in multi-level marketing.
When Linda started freelancing in 1997, she didn’t even know the janitors at any of the publications she was pitching, much less the editors. All the wonderful “connections” she has today came from good, hard work. Diana happened to know the editor who assigned her first article with Connecticut Magazine, but after that, she targeted and broke into magazines where she knew no one on staff.
We’re not going to lie and tell you connections won’t help you; they will. If you have an “in” with an editor, your proposal may get priority, or you may even have an assignment thrown your way. But what’s more valuable to you, and to any editor—whether she’s someone you played bridge with in college or a complete stranger—are your timely ideas and professional attitude. These two attributes will take you further than the connections lesser writers gnash their teeth over.
If you’re still not convinced, don’t worry: The connections you desire are simple to make. So simple, in fact, that we scratch our heads whenever we hear some poor new writer railing about another writer’s success due to his friends in high places.
Here’s the deal. Say you email several pitches over a period of several months to a publication. One day, instead of sending you yet another form rejection, the editor finally writes back and says, “Sorry, we already have that article in progress with another writer, but feel free to send me more ideas.” Bingo—you’ve got yourself a connection. The next time you pitch her, you can write, “Thanks for inviting me to send you more ideas.”
But many writers don’t consider that sort of interaction a connection, and they completely blow it off. They feel a connection is someone who calls them and says something like, “Hey, remember me from that bar crawl in 2010? I’m a magazine editor now and I hear you’re a writer. Feel like covering the cocktail scene in Paris for us?” (That’s a total fantasy, by the way.) If you’re a good writer with lots of salable ideas, we assure you—you will soon have more editorial connections than you’ll know how to handle.
Here are other ways smart writers develop connections.
They keep in contact with editors who change jobs. Diana, for example, worked with a terrific editor at Psychology Today. When the editor changed jobs and went to Parenting, Diana suddenly had an “in” at a magazine she’d been trying to crack for a long time. She became a frequent contributor to the magazine for many years and followed the editor to Kiwi when she became editor-in-chief.
They send introductory emails. Editors are conditioned to ignore the pile of submissions on their desks, but they will often respond to a friendly email. This won’t always work, but why not give it a try? Linda once sent an intro letter to fifteen editors at top magazines asking for details on what they were looking for—not selling herself or pitching an idea—and received personal, encouraging replies from Shape, Health, and Better Homes & Gardens.
They meet with editors. If you really want to make a personal connection, next time you’re in New York (or near a publication’s office elsewhere), ask an editor out for coffee. Even if they know you only from rejecting your pitches, many editors will respond favorably to such a request. Often, once they see you’re a witty, charming, intelligent coffee companion, they’ll be even more receptive to your proposals.
When Linda lived in New England, she’d make an annual trek to New York City to meet with editors at Family Circle, Redbook, Fitness, and other publications. And whenever she had a road trip planned she’d research what publishers were located along the way, which led her to meet editors at Rodale in Pennsylvania and Imagination Publishing in Chicago.
They ask editors for introductions. There’s nothing wrong with approaching an editor at Magazine A with whom you have good rapport and asking if she knows an editor at Magazine B who would be receptive to a proposal. If she does give you a name, consider this an awesome connection—you can start your pitch with, “My editor at Magazine A gave me your name…”
In addition, if the magazine you’re writing for has sister publications, ask your editor to introduce you to the editors at these other titles. When Linda mentioned to her editor at Men’s Fitness that she had an idea for the magazine’s sister publication, Muscle & Fitness Hers, her editor actually walked over to this magazine’s editorial offices and passed her name on to the editors there. Soon, Linda had an assignment to write about alternative therapies for Muscle & Fitness Hers.
They socialize with other writers. It’s classic “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Linda and Diana, along with several other writers in their circle, regularly trade leads, contact names, and other valuable information. After Linda shared the name of one of her editors with another writer, for example, the writer responded with the contact info of an editor for a new teen magazine.
2. You have to live in New York City to succeed.
Of all the successful freelance writers we know, only a handful live close to the editor nexus known as Manhattan. Diana lives in Boston, Linda lived in New England and then North Carolina, and we know writers who live in Kentucky, Kansas, California, and even Greece, Australia, India, and England. We’ve even met a few writers who live year-round in RVs! In fact, the farther away you live from your editors, the more valuable you can be to them, because you can deliver stories and a perspective they won’t find on Madison Avenue.
What’s more, not every publication has a New York-based editorial staff. Shape, for example, is based in Los Angeles, Southern Living and Coastal Living are in Alabama, and The Atlantic’s editorial offices were in Boston for years, but are now located in DC. Location may be all-important in real estate, but you’re selling ideas, not land—and ideas can be written about from anywhere.
Stop worrying that you can’t make it big as a writer if you’re not in New York. You can succeed in writing from anywhere, except if you’re totally off the grid.
3. You have to follow writers’ guidelines.
A few years after Linda started writing for magazines, she realized she had amassed an entire box full of guidelines she had never looked at. Reading the magazine, looking up the publication online or in Writer’s Market, and calling to verify the editor’s name gave her all the information she needed—and that situation hasn’t changed. In fact, an editor at a major women’s magazine once told Linda that the editors rarely even know what’s in their guidelines; they’re there to scare off the less-than-serious, and thereby help relieve the pressure on the editors’ inboxes.
Diana also rarely looks at guidelines anymore. When she started freelancing in 1999, she compiled a stack of them in a three-ring binder that she has since misplaced—and not once has she gone looking for it. The game of musical chairs at most magazines makes guidelines pretty useless in her opinion: New editors like to shake things up and change direction faster than they can update the guidelines.
What she finds more useful is sitting at a bookstore café with the latest issue of a magazine she wants to write for and pretending she’s an editor in an assigning mood. What kind of stories does the magazine seem to favor—first-person viewpoint, lots of reporting, or a wealth of expert quotes? She can also tell a lot by looking at the masthead. Are freelancers writing the majority of articles or are staffers?
Often Diana will get a dozen good ideas to pitch from that half-hour of brainstorming. If she’s interested in writing for one of the magazine’s departments, she simply calls the editorial office when she gets home and asks who assigns for that section.
Don’t let this fake rule keep you from pitching the publications you really want to write for. Polish your idea, come up with a compelling pitch, and send it in the way that works best for you.
4. You shouldn’t quit your day job.
This is a “rule” we hear from all those wannabe freelancers who were afraid to take the leap, well-meaning relatives who worry about us, and writers who weren’t able to make it work and ended up back in cubicles. However well-intentioned it may be, it’s simply false.
If you really want to freelance full time and you’re aware of the pros and the cons, you have to make the leap. In fact, in a business climate where company job security has largely vanished, you may be better off drumming up your own business than depending on a faceless corporation for your living—a faceless corporation that can turn off 100 percent of your income with little or no warning.
Before making the move to full-time freelancing, make sure you have enough money in the bank to survive for at least six months. When Linda decided to leave her part-time office job to freelance full time, she and her husband salted away enough money to cover only three months worth of expenses, which was plenty since they had no kids, no mortgage, and not even a car payment to worry about. Now that we’re ten years older since we last revised this book, we say to aim for nine to 12 months!
Author and writer Brett Forrest says that when he left his fact-checking job, his colleagues at Men’s Journal asked him, “Are you insane?” By the time he’d given his notice, he had written a few features for the magazine, and he’d made inroads with publications like Rolling Stone.
Forrest says the first few months were a challenge. He was living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a rent-by-month/week/day studio that he shared with a bunch of other writer and editor friends. “The floors slanted and there were cigarette burns all over the carpets from past tenants,” he says. “We called it ‘the Flophouse.’”
He adds, “It is funny and charming to talk about now, but it was a low point for me. The lowest point came when I walked across the street to this Dominican deli to buy a quarter pound of salami—the cheapest meat they had. I counted out my coins and realized I was a nickel short. I didn’t have another nickel on me. The woman who worked there said, ‘Oh, I see you here all the time. You can pay me back tomorrow. I know you’re good for it.’ I hoarded that salami for three days. At that time, I was bare- ly even surviving.”
But times got better for Forrest. He started lining up two or three assignments every month, generating enough income to move to a new apartment. In the years since, he’s written not only for Rolling Stone, but also for Details, Spin, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine.
Roxanne Nelson worked as a nurse when she started out freelancing. But then a car accident in 1996 prevented her from working for six months. “I was forced to really forge ahead with my writing career if I wanted to eat and pay rent,” she says. “By the time I was well enough to work, I decided that I couldn’t bear the thought of it. It was a little bit of a struggle, but I was determined to be a writer and never work as a nurse again. And I’ve never returned to nursing.”
If you enjoyed this post and want to become a skilled and serious freelance writer, be sure to check out The Renegade Writer.