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The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success first hit the shelves in fall 2003. We knew we�d hit a home run with the book because we dared tell writers that a lot of rules about freelancing are complete bull doo-doo. That said, we were quite unprepared for the fanfare, the kudos, and dare we say, the adulation, our blood, sweat, and late night coffee-swilling had wrought.
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By Tiffany Jansen
Have you seen the Seinfeld episode where George accompanies his girlfriend to a funeral?
It’s post-wake and everyone’s at her parent’s place noshing on hors d’oeuvres and sipping punch. George finds himself in front of the potato chips, so he takes one, sinks it in the dip, takes a bite, and dips the chip again; much to the annoyance of his distraught girlfriend’s brother.
A knock-down, drag-out fight ensues before the very upset girlfriend kicks George out.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a double-dipper.
And why not? It’s the only way to really enjoy that French onion dip and get the most mileage out of your chip.
Freelancers should be double-dipping too. Not their chips (unless they’re into that sort of thing), but their writing.
Double-dipping is a golden opportunity not enough freelance writers take advantage of.
So how does double-dipping work in the freelance writing world? Here are five easy ways.
1. Sell reprints.
It’s been published once, why can’t it be published again?
How to do it: The first thing you want to do is make a list of publications that cover the topic of your article. Then, check out their website and writer guidelines to see if they accept reprints. If you’re not sure, ask. Send the editor a friendly email telling them about your article and why you think their readers would be interested. Ask if they’d like to purchase it as a reprint.
Keep in mind: It’ll pay a fraction of what they pay for original works and they may want you to tweak it a bit to fit their market. But it sure beats having to come up with a new idea, pitch it, research and talk to sources, and write a new piece.
2. Repurpose old content to fit new markets.
Not all publications accept reprints…but that doesn’t mean you can’t reuse old content.
How to do it: First, find a market that covers your topic. Go back to your research notes and interview transcripts, and write a pitch that covers a different angle of the story with publication #2’s audience in mind. If you quoted someone in the first article, paraphrase in the new one. Where you paraphrased, use quotes. Include information that didn’t make it into the original article.
Keep in mind: You may want to consider doing some additional research in case things have changed, or find one or two additional sources. But the work load is going to be a lot less than what it was the first go-around. Only this time you stand to earn the same amount of money… maybe even more!
3. Send pitches in batches.
When you come up with a brilliant idea, don’t save it for just one publication – share the love! There are tons of publications with audiences that would love to know more about the topic you’re pitching. It’s just a matter of re-framing each pitch to fit a variety of publications.
How to do it: Let’s say you’ve got a great story idea about traveling with babies. Of course parenting magazines would be interested, but so would travel publications, women’s glossies, maybe even custom publications for baby product companies. As you’re doing your initial research and collecting sources, think about what these various audiences would want to know and how/why they could use this information. Tweak each pitch to suit each market.
Keep in mind: Unlike the tactics above, here you’ll be writing completely different queries and completely different articles for each publication. While parents would want this information to help them in their travels, a pediatrician might want this information to help her advise parents who wish to travel with their little ‘uns. A women’s magazine might want to provide tips on how to have a smooth flight for travelers finding themselves on a plane with a baby. The difference is, you do the research once and get multiple articles out of it.
4. Send simultaneous queries.
The idea here is to send the same query for the same idea to editors at multiple publications. When you send out a query, you could wait months — or even a year — only to have the editor respond with a resounding “no.” Sometimes editors take a really long time to respond to queries…if they reply at all. Rather than wait around for them to get back to you and risk having your idea become stale or already-been-done, cast your net wide and find that article a home ASAP.
How to do it: This one’s easy — find a bunch of publications that fit your topic, write one query, and send it out to editors at all of those publications.
Keep in mind: You may have more than one publication show interest in the article. However, you cannot sell the same article to more than one publication. In this case, it’s a first come, first served thing. But don’t let those other publications go home empty-handed. Offer them the same story, but from a different angle. Or pitch them a few similar ideas instead.
5. Once you’ve got ‘em, keep ‘em.
The thing about queries is they can get a “yes” or a “no” or be met with silence. There’s not much you can do about the third instance, but you can turn a “no” into a “yes.”
How to do it: An editor might turn you down for a number of reasons: the timing’s off, someone else has already covered it, they’re not interested in the topic, they’re having a bad day… But just because they say “no” to one idea doesn’t mean they’ll say “no” to another. If they’ve emailed you back, you’ve got their ear. So take advantage by replying with a “Thank you for getting back to me. I completely understand. Perhaps [insert new idea here] would be a better fit?”
Keep in mind: That you suck as a writer or the editor hates your guts is rarely if ever a reason for a rejection. Odds are the rejection is based on factors you have absolutely no control over. If you get a response, thank them, tell them you get it, and offer up a new idea. This shows that you’re persistent and not just a one-idea dude. Then send the rejected query somewhere else.
When you have a chip — er, idea — get the most mileage you can out of it by double dipping, and you’ll get more assignments (and more money) with less work.
Tiffany Jansen is an American freelance writer and translator in the Netherlands. She is also the author of an award-winning children’s historical fiction series. You can find out more about her at www.tiffanyrjansen.com.
P.S. Carol Tice’s and my next Article Writing Masterclass starts in January, and we have THREE editors on board to critique your homework assignments and answer your questions: Current editors from Redbook and FSR (Full Service Restaurant) Magazine, and a former Entrepreneur editor. In this 10-week class, you’ll gain the skills and confidence to land lucrative article-writing gigs. Learn more and read raves from students on the Article Writing Masterclass website.
You’re wondering how you’re doing as a writer. I know, it’s hard to not have a handle on whether you’re doing well or poorly!
So you ask another writer, maybe one who’s more experienced than you:
- How many queries do you write per week?
- How much are you earning?
- How many assignments do you get every month?
- How long does it take you to write an article or a blog post?
- How many ideas can you generate in a brainstorming session?
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t make sense to compare your progress with other writers’ numbers because, well, there’s nothing you can do with that information.
For example, say you know another writer sends out three queries a week. What does that mean? Is that writer the last word in marketing? And are you even comparing apples with apples? If you are a stay-at-home parent of three young kids and have only five hours per week to work, and the other writer has no children and can work 50 hours per week, it doesn’t do anything for you to know how many queries she manages to send out — except to give you a guilt complex.
Plus, every writer has different superpowers. I can write a 1,000-word article in an hour once my interviews are done. When you ask me how long it takes me to write an article and I tell you that, should you feel bad if it takes you four hours? No. Writing fast happens to be a strength of mine, but maybe your superpower is writing kick-ass headlines, or generating ideas, or negotiating.
Another example: Maybe you talk with five writers about how many ideas they generate in an hour-long brainstorming session and they say five to ten. You know you can develop only two ideas in an hour, but that usually they will both result in assignments. So who’s doing better?
Finally, things change as you progress in your career, so talking to someone with more experience isn’t as helpful as you would think. For example, a pro writer doesn’t send out many queries. You know why? Because he doesn’t have to. He has a roster of clients who come to him with work. So if you heed the oft-told advice to look to more experienced writers for benchmarks, you could be led astray.
There’s a saying I found in a book, and I wish I can remember what that book was so I could properly credit it, but here goes:
What other people do is a data point, not a decision.
It’s always nice to know how and what other writers are doing, but you shouldn’t base your decisions or self-esteem on their numbers.
What matters for YOU is that you’re always improving your own numbers: Your income should be going up, the time it takes to do various tasks going down, you should be getting better assignments, and the percentage of pitches that end in assignments should be increasing.
If you’re doing that, other writers’ numbers should not matter one whit. As long as your stats are improving, you can be confident you’re on the right track. [lf]
I’ve been noticing something weird from aspiring writers lately.
And it’s not the fact that we’re always starting forum threads about their favorite type of pen, though that does weird me out a bit. I mean, who’s doing writing assignments and blog posts with a pen? It also seems like a stalling tactic…hey, let’s have a rousing conversation about writing tools instead of actually writing!
No, it’s that they’re always asking me (and Carol, the Den Mother at the Freelance Writers Den) how they can break into the Huffington Post.
Why, for the love of all that is good and holy…WHY?
So we ask these writers why they want to write for a market that doesn’t pay its writers, and they reply that it will be good exposure. They think if their writing appears on this particular site, editors of paying pubs will see it and burn up the keyboard to offer lucrative writing assignments.
When I hear this, I want to turn into your grandma. Women writers, has your grandmother ever told you, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man”? Well, the same philosophy applies to writing: It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich mag as a poor mag.
If you can break into the Huffington Post or some other market that pays in exposure only, then you have what it takes to land assignments from markets that pay actual money. The same amount of effort can bring you a poor mag…or a rich one. You still need to craft a killer query. You still need to write a kick-ass article. Why not do it for pay?
The whole idea of writing for free for a poor mag to eventually attract a rich mag doesn’t fly, anyway. Because, you know what? You can find a metric buttload of paying pubs that have as large a readership as the Huffington Post. So if your goal is to write for, say, health magazines, you could go after the poor mag with a big audience, like HuffPo — or you can pitch a rich mag with a big audience, like Health. (And which one do you think the editors of Fitness, and Women’s Health, and WebMD are more likely to be scoping out?)
The poor mag tries to entice you with exposure, hoping you don’t realize you can do the same writing for pay AND exposure. Don’t fall for it. [lf]
Also, a BIG announcement: Carol Tice and I will be running our Article Writing Masterclass again in January. This 10-week class includes five info-packed lessons on everything from nailing a mag’s style to dealing with revisions; plenty of free resources and extras; and assignment critiques by actual editors. (Last session, we had a Redbook editor and a former Entrepreneur editor.) Carol and I will be offering a special deal just to people on the class’s waiting list, so sign up for the waitlist now!
I’ve come to the conclusion that most writers don’t read as well as they write.
Every time I send an email, I get back several responses asking questions that were answered in the message. For example, I’ll say, “The call is at 5 pm Eastern time,” and a few people will respond, “What time zone is the call in?” Or I’ll invite readers to join a waitlist to receive an announcement when a class registration is open, and that the class will cost $X, and inevitably some people will write back with, “I signed up for your class using that link you sent and didn’t get the materials.”
I feel okay saying this because it’s something I struggle with myself. I’m impatient and tend to skim emails, instructions, and so on — and wind up asking “duh” questions that later make me want to kick myself.
Just today, I received a long email about my son’s soccer team and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out when his practices are. Only after I sent a desperate email to the coach did I reread the message and realize they had attached a schedule.
We writers tend to be scattered and easily overwhelmed. I’m not sure if these characteristics are typical of creative people (probably), or if there’s something about the writing life that makes us this way.
But knowing this, lately I’ve been making an intensive effort to thoroughly study and understand everything I read.
This is especially, super, vitally important because most of our communication with clients, editors, and sources is via email. And too often, I get frantic messages from writers saying things like, “I just read my assignment letter and realized I was supposed to write a sidebar — and the article is due today!”
Here’s how to bump up your reading comprehension: (And yes, I’m working on doing these things, too!)
- When an editor sends you instructions or a request, read them carefully — then read them again. If, after careful reading, there’s something you don’t understand — ask.
- When you’re scheduling an interview or anything else, double-check to make sure you know what time zone it’s in, and whether it’s AM or PM. It’s amazing how many people automatically assume everything happens in their own time zone!
- If you received an email from an editor that seems to be missing a vital piece of information, like the word count of an assignment, go back through your communications by reading through all the emails in the thread. Chances are, he mentioned it in a previous email.
- Re-read your assignment specs right before you begin writing. Chances are, you’ve forgotten some details from when you first read them.
Writers, let’s get reading — and we’ll cut out a lot of angst, do better work — and get more assignments!
How about you: Have you ever misread a piece of information from a client or colleague — and if so, what happened? Bonus points if your story is funny!
So recently I got a complaint from someone that said — and I’m paraphrasing:
I love your Monday Motivations for Writers and free goodies, but every time you start marketing something, I need to unsubscribe from your list and re-subscribe again when the campaign is over.
Every so often I hear from someone who is shocked and appalled that I market products and services to the people on my mailing list. Their entitled attitude is that I should maintain a list of 5,000+ subscribers, pay $70 per month in email hosting fees, and spend hours of my valuable time churning out informative content — for nothing.
The feeling is apparently that I (and other writers) should be providing information and products purely out of the goodness of our hearts. To actually expect to earn money from our skills, knowledge, and effort sullies this sacred profession.
Well, let me deliver a shocker right now: I’m in business to earn money, and you should be, too. Luckily for me, this goal coincides with something I’m passionate about and good at: Helping freelance writers make a living doing what they love.
If I can provide valuable information and products that help other people live the life of their dreams, I feel pretty good about asking for money for it.
You know why? Because if I didn’t accept payment for this service, I simply wouldn’t have the time, money, or bandwidth to help others. I’d be working 40+ hours per week for someone else, with no energy left over to create helpful content, build classes, write blog posts, or maintain a mailing list.
The attitude that we should provide labor for free out of a sense of love for what we do is bad, bad, bad for freelancers. Isn’t this the stance we get from content mills and various magazines and runners of Craigslist ads that say, in essence, “We don’t pay, but isn’t writing fun?”
If you provide a valuable service to society, you should have no problems asking to be paid for it. And yes, your ideas, your writing, and your knowledge are valuable to society. Also: Just because you love something, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for money for it.
My view is, we’re all salespeople. When you pitch magazines, you’re selling an article idea. When you apply for a full-time job, you’re selling your skills and your time. When you start a blog, you’re selling your ideas to an audience that you hope will do something for you — whether it’s buy an info product, click “follow this blog,” or hire you as a writer.
So seeing as how we’re all salespeople when it comes to our professions: How would it feel if an editor asked you to keep pitching and pitching so she could use your ideas, but told you she had no intention of ever hiring you to write an article? (But please don’t stop the ideas!) That’s how I felt when this writer said she consumes my newsletter and freebies, but unsubscribes every time I have something to sell.
(I certainly don’t mind people hanging out and enjoying my newsletter, blog posts, and occasional freebies without buying from me. Many people do that, for their own reasons. It’s when they complain about the fact that I market to my subscribers that it crosses the line.)
If the idea that someone would market to you sends you screaming in the other direction — or if you feel someone is pulling one over on you by providing freebies and then daring to try to sell something — this could be pulling you down, professionally. Marketing is not something to be afraid of. It’s not a dirty trick. In most cases, it’s someone asking to receive value in return for providing it — so they can provide even more.
How about you: Have you ever gotten complains when you tried to market yourself or your writing? What happened? Bonus points if it’s funny! [lf]
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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This post is by Deb Mitchell.
I’m definitely more of a “rules are there for a reason” than a “rules were meant to be broken” kind of girl. It just never occurs to me to buck the system, and frankly, that’s served me well all my life.
But when my freelance writing career stalled (despite the fact that I had 5+ years of experience with clips numbering in the triple digits), even playing by the rules top freelance writing experts teach wasn’t getting me anywhere.
“Send pitches to newsstand pubs and LOIs to trade pubs.” Check.
“Email editors – NEVER call them!” Check.
“DO NOT clog an editor’s inbox by attaching your clips.” Check.
“Whatever you do, take time to research each market and NEVER, EVER use a template email.” Check, check.
I was spending loads of time researching markets, ferreting out the appropriate editors’ contact info and meticulously wordsmith-ing every email from scratch. Despite my best rule-following efforts, none of the editors contacted me back. Not. One.
There simply aren’t words to describe how frustrated and discouraged I felt. Giving so much time and effort with nothing to show for it eventually took its toll. On a daily basis I was at best, fighting despair and at worst, sinking in its depths.
In the midst of all this, I started working with a writing mentor (the one-and-only Linda). She calmed me down and gave me a few pieces of advice which I, of course, followed to the letter. I got a few lukewarm responses from editors as a result, and I even sold an article to a new-to-me (but not great paying) market.
Sure, it was progress, which lifted my spirits to a degree. But let’s face it — I was still working long, hard hours for minimal payoff. NOT a sustainable pattern for any small business.
Then Linda gave me a tip that helped me think outside the box – and believe me, it was one I NEVER expected to hear from her or any freelance writing expert.
“Why not try calling some editors?” she said, “And write a great LOI email you can quickly tweak for each market. Ask if they assign to freelancers or if they prefer pitches.”
Um, excuse me, what did you say?? Call editors?? Write one LOI to reuse over and over?? Pitch to trade pubs?? Break rules?!?!
As if that weren’t enough, Linda challenged me to call 25 editors in one day.
The thought of doing things that are widely considered no-no’s freaked me out enough, but seriously, 25?! Believe it or not, the part that scared me the least was the actual cold calling. I have a background in sales and I’m good at talking to people and I like marketing myself. Maybe, just maybe, the reason my by-the-book efforts were flopping was because my approach felt inauthentic. Calling editors seemed much more “me” — I’d just always thought if I did it, they’d view me as unprofessional (and kind of hate my guts for bugging them).
But with Linda, a seasoned pro writer, saying it was OK, I didn’t hesitate.
Armed with a three sentence script Linda wrote for me and a short and sweet LOI template email, I started the challenge.
I didn’t even get to leave voicemails with five editors before my phone rang.
“Deb, I was just delighted to get your message!” Really and truly, an editor was calling me to tell me she was happy I’d called her — not “hacked off” or “appalled” or even just “annoyed.” It seems she’d heard my voicemail right after leaving an editorial meeting where she’d learned an article slated for the next issue had fallen through. I’d also thrown caution to the wind and sent her my LOI email with my resume and a clip attached. She’d seen something in my article that would make a perfect story to fill that empty spot. Could I get something into her within a couple of weeks?
I know, right?!?!
After all my nose-to-the-grindstone work and months of angst over doing things the “right” way, all it took was literally a couple of phone calls and I had a gig that paid more than triple what I’d been getting! Even better, the editor ended our conversation by saying this was “the start of a very beautiful working relationship.” Hello, future high-paying gigs!
I’m no expert when it comes to freelancing, but I do think there’s something to this whole “find what feels right for you” idea. Just because the freelance writing books and classes say “Do this” or “Don’t do that” doesn’t necessarily mean those rules are hard and fast. It took me having someone of Linda’s caliber giving me permission to break the rules for me to do something that in the end felt natural and comfortable for me. And it worked.
As long as your approach allows you to both be yourself and to “sell” yourself as a competent professional, it’s worth trying something out of the ordinary — especially if you’re feeling stuck. You can’t predict how editors will react, but if you’re being genuine and gracious to them, no reasonable editor would hate you just for doing something differently. If they do, consider yourself lucky to have been warned about their inner crazy before you got stuck working with them.
So what will you try that’s not in the books? Be brave and take a risk. Go ahead — run with a stick in your mouth! Jump on the good furniture! Call an editor! Take it from me — it’s good to be bad.
How about you? Have you ever broken a rule of freelance writing and benefited as a result? Or have you found a marketing tactic other freelancers would scoff at, but that works for you? Let us know in the Comments below!
Deb Mitchell is a freelance writer in Charlotte, NC specializing in writing about interior design and women’s interest topics. She also works with business clients to make their websites and client communications the best they can be and with students as a general writing and college application essay coach.
Say you’re a new freelance writer. (Sound familiar?) You ask someone with more experience whether you should start a blog to help attract clients and let you use blog posts as clips.
Chances are, the other writer will tell you it’s absolutely, totally imperative that you have a blog. I even heard one freelance writer tell a poor newbie, “You only have a website? But that’s so STATIC!”
I’m here to tell you that if you’re asking whether you should start a blog, the answer is No.
And if you’re wondering what topic to start you blog on, the answer is that you shouldn’t.
If you start a blog, it need to be because you already have something you really, really want to say. Something you’re so passionate about that you can’t hold it back. Something that you can envision yourself writing about regularly for the indefinite future.
For example, Diana and I have written over 1,000 posts since 2006! That’s the kind of commitment you need. If you don’t feel inclined to write 1,000 posts on a particular topic, a blog may not be right for you.
Blogs are not an easy clip. If you start a blog, you will need to keep it updated, because nothing looks sadder to prospective clients than a blog that hasn’t been updated in six months.
Also, you’ll need to promote your blog if you want to get comments — so you don’t feel like you’re just writing to yourself all the time. Blogs are meant to be read.
And…what happens when you start getting some real published clips and no longer need the blog? Will you just let it die? Will all that work be for nothing?
It’s way easier to just start pitching clients based on your experience — for example, if you have a foodservice background you would pitch businesses in that industry — or to do a free assignment or two just to get the samples.
And don’t forget that your (static!) website works as a clip. If you have some kick-ass copy on there, prospects will be able to see you can write.
There is the issue that fresh content will push your website up in the search engine results, and blogs are of course perfect for that. But you can get a similar effect by updating your portfolio as you garner new clips.
If you have plans to monetize your blog and a topic you’re passionate about, go for it. And if you want to offer blogging as one of your services, you’ll want to show prospects that you can do that. But if you feel you need to blog just for the clip — there are better, easier ways to do that. Ways that won’t have you on the hook for the rest of your working career.
How about you: Have you wrestled with whether to start a blog? How did it end up? Or did you start a blog for the clips and later felt burdened with it? Let us know in the Comments below!
Many of my email mentoring clients have so many ideas and projects that when they try to decide what steps to take next, they feel stuck. There are so many actions they could be taking at any one time that they freak out — and do nothing.
I have the same problem, and one day Renegade Writer co-author Diana Burrell said to me, “Pick one thing and do it. It doesn’t matter what you pick — just pick something.”
I’ve been following her advice ever since, and that was the inspiration for the new checklist 50 Ways to Build Your Freelance Writing Business Today – No Matter How Much Time You Have.
I created a list of 50 action items that will move your freelance career forward, whether you have 5 minutes…30 minutes…an hour…or a whole day free. I then hired the graphic designer Azita Houshiar to create custom illustrations and design the checklist, so it is a pleasure to look at and use.
To use the checklist: Print it out, or keep it on your computer’s desktop. When you have some time, just go to the section that corresponds with how much time you have, randomly pick an item, and do it.
You’ll be one more step towards your freelance writing goals, and you’ll build forward momentum to help you get the next step done, and the next.
To get your free checklist, fill out the form on this page…it will take about six seconds:
Note: If you are already a member of my mailing list — the one where you get Monday Motivations for Writers emails — I’ll be sending you a copy of the checklist, so you won’t need to fill out the form.
Enjoy the checklist, and happy writing!
You come up with a mind-blowingly awesome article idea: You’ve discovered some really cool thing, and you want to write about it.
For example, you’ve found out something fascinating about how train schedules are developed, or how makeup is made, or a unique museum, or a new business that’s just opened its doors.
So you have this amazing idea — why is everyone rejecting it?
This kind of idea is what I like to call an “Isn’t This Cool?” idea. You’ve found something neat, and you want to share it with the world.
But sadly, most publications don’t want to just share random interesting things with their readers. Each magazine has its own slant, and the product, fact, business or person you found needs to fit in with their mission.
For example, let’s take the idea of some weird aspect of how makeup is made. You want to send it to a women’s magazine, of course. What woman wouldn’t be interested in finding out this cool fact about how her mascara is made?
But women’s magazines are service publications, meaning most of their articles offer some kind of advice. So the editors wouldn’t be interested in this fact about makeup unless their readers can actually do something with it.
So if you have an idea where you think, “Isn’t this cool?” — ask yourself, “So what?” Why would readers care? How can you make them care? What can they do with it, or how can they apply the knowledge right now? For most publications, your ideas need to be useful and actionable.
For example, maybe women need to avoid makeup products that are made with this method, and you can round up the types of products this applies to so readers know which ones to look out for. That’s an idea you could pitch to a health magazine.
Or, let’s take the article you want to pitch on the Burnt Food Museum, and yes, this is real. (“Hey, this museum exists. Isn’t it cool?”) Rare is the magazine that would want you to just write about what a weird museum you found. It would do better as, say, a round-up of weird museums in New England readers can visit, complete with info on location, price, and hours. Now, readers can do something with that information.
Some magazines do run “Isn’t This Cool?” articles. For example, magazines for hobbyists love to run interesting facts about their hobby — how it developed, who’s doing interesting things with it, and why some aspects of the hobby are the way they are. Maybe a magazine for train enthusiasts would want to run an interesting fact on how train schedules are developed. And I once wrote an article about the world’s largest marble collection for a collectors’ magazine.
But for most markets, you’ll want to go beyond a cool fact. Dig until you figure out what makes this fact relevant to the readers of the pubs you want to pitch.
Sometimes, this means the idea you pitch will barely resemble the one you first thought of. And that’s okay! That’s how the idea process works. You get what I call the “seed” of an idea, and when you nurture it, it grows into something useful and beautiful that doesn’t look anything like the original seed.
How about you…do you have an “Isn’t That Cool?” idea you’ve tried to pitch? How do you think you can reslant it to be more salable? Let us know in the Comments below!
I know what you want: To get more freelance writing jobs. And to earn good money doing what you love. And to enjoy the freedom that comes with controlling your own career.
That’s nice — but guess what? Editors don’t care what you want.
All editors care about is that you make their jobs — and their lives — as easy as possible. And for you, that means going beyond turning in great work on time. (Turning in great work on time is the bare minimum requirement.)
If you want to keep raking in the freelance writing gigs, you need to be freaking epic. You need to go waaaaaay beyond what the hordes of other freelance writers are doing.
Here’s how to level it up – and get more work:
Give Without Getting
Everyone loves a surprise freebie. What little extra can you offer your editor clients, without going broke yourself?
How about this: When you come across some news tidbit or research study you think would be perfect for a particular publication, but don’t want to pitch it yourself, send it to the editor anyway. Tell him, “I found this study I thought you’d be interested in. Hope you find it useful for X magazine!”
Or maybe you’re working on an article and come across some information that is important, but doesn’t quite fit in the piece. Write it up as a quick sidebar, and tell the editor, “I had some extra information, so I wrote up a sidebar you can use if you have room. Hope you like it!”
With some creativity, you’ll find many easy, painless ways to offer little extras to your clients. That puts you ahead of all those writers who turn in an article and call it a day.
Get the Best (Not the Easiest!) Interview Sources
Too many writers pick the first expert sources that come to mind: They go for people they already happen to know, like local professionals. “I need to interview a podiatrist? Hey, there’s one on my street!” Or they send out a HARO request and choose from among the people who respond.
When I recently wrote an article for a national health magazine on pet health, I needed to find two expert sources. Of course, I have a local vet who is great. But instead of going the easy route, I called a national veterinary organization and gave the PR rep my exact specifications: I wanted one male and one female vet from different areas of the country — and they needed to have a published book through a traditional publisher or work at a well-known veterinary hospital.
I got exactly what I wanted.
My editor did not ask for these requirements; I just knew these would be the very best sources and would impress the heck out of her.
When you’re on the search for sources for your articles, think of who would be the absolute best person to interview. You may think they’re out of your league, but you won’t know until you ask — and often, you’ll be surprised.
Push Your Style
If you can write in a clear, readable style, that probably puts you in the top 25% of freelance writers out there. But where you really create value and become epic is in bringing an amazing style to everything you write.
When I write an article, in my final edit, I go over every sentence and ask myself, “Is this the best possible way to express this idea? Is there any way I can make it more concise/interesting/entertaining?”
Writing for magazines (and copywriting, by the way) is about more than conveying ideas to readers in grammatically correct sentences. You need to do it in a way that entertains and keeps them interested as well. The perfect turn of phrase, the (truly) humorous aside, the killer lede — these are the things that keep readers — and editors — coming back.
So the next time you write an article, or a query, go over it one last time and make sure every sentence is as tight and compelling as it can be.
Don’t be one of the many writers who say, “I turned in an article on time. My sentences are grammatically correct. The end. Next!” Push yourself to be freaking epic and you’ll be rewarded with epic assignments in turn.
How about you: What do YOU do to level it up in your writing and business? What have editors’ responses been? Let us know in the Comments below!
The other day I was chatting with my Renegade Writer co-author, Diana Burrell, and she mentioned something that horrified me.
Diana teaches the fabulous Become an Idea Machine workshop that’s helped students land in the New York Times, Parenting, Success and other publications. She told me that more frequently than you would expect, she’ll suggest a student read through some magazines to help spur ideas, and they’ll reply:
“Oh, I don’t read magazines.”
Or, even worse:
“I hate magazines!”
I know this is not an uncommon scenario because when I do query critiques, sometimes it’s clear to me that the writer has not cracked open a magazine. Believe me, you can tell! For example, they’ll be pitching an edgy men’s publication and their query sounds like a government report, complete with 5-dollar words, passive case overdrive, and footnotes.
I’m not even sure how to respond to what I’m seeing out there. Why would anyone think that magazine writing is the only job in the known universe where you don’t need to know anything about the medium you hope to make money from, your clients’ products, or the marketplace?
It’s like if you were applying for a job as an accountant and you told your interviewer, “Well, I don’t know what accountants do and I don’t much like numbers, but will you give me a job?”
Of if you wanted to work at McDonald’s and you told your interviewer, “Oh, I’m a vegan and I’m morally against eating meat. I refuse to learn about your menu or serve burgers, but I want you to give me a job.”
This sounds ridiculous in all contexts — except, for some people, when talking about a freelance writing career.
I think there are a lot of Internet-famous business “gurus” out there who like to plug writing as an easy work-at-home gig where all you need is a laptop and the ability to string sentences together. After all, it’s FREElance, as in FREE to do whatever you want.
And that’s true IF you want to write $10 articles for the content mills.
But if you want to earn some decent money writing for top-notch trade, custom, and consumer magazines, for the love of all that is good and holy, you need to actually familiarize yourself with the magazine market.
When you want to become a magazine writer, reading magazines becomes a full-time job for you.
- You read magazines you want to write for from cover to cover and study the writing, the departments, how articles are structured, and even the ads.
- You read magazines you don’t want to write for, just for the hell of it.
- You read Writer’s Market in its entirety every year.
- You browse magazine directories online.
- You become known as the crazy person who carts away stacks of outdated magazines from your hairdresser’s and doctor’s waiting rooms. (Yes, I have done this!)
- You ask your neighbors to put their old to-be-recycled magazines on your porch. (Yep…done that too.)
When you go to the effort required to get to know the market, eventually it becomes ingrained in your brain. It becomes part of you.
So, for example…
- When your kid’s school bus driver mentions she’d like to get into writing, you say, “Oh, you should try School Bus Fleet magazine.”
- When you have an article idea about how to handle your tween’s hormonal temper tantrums, you know Family Circle may be a good market, but Parents is not.
- Your article ideas become sharper and more focused because you’ve read hundreds of magazine articles and know what’s been done and how you can do it differently.
- You’ll know that Inc. magazine ran an article two issues ago on a topic you want to pitch, so you’ll need to come up with a fresher slant if you want to query them.
This is not optional, folks. If you want to write for magazines, you need to read them. No, you need to study them. Lots of them.
Here’s your challenge: Today, right now if you can, read a magazine from cover to cover, studying every part. Or, if you have a copy or are near a bookstore or library, start browsing through Writer’s Market and read all the magazine guidelines.
How about you: Do you love magazines? Do you read them? Why or why not? (Hey, does this sound like a high school essay question?)
Last spring a writer (let’s call her Jill) emailed me that she was pitching a profile of me to a UK writing magazine — and would I be available for an interview?
Here’s how the conversation went:
I’m interested in interviewing you for [magazine]. If you are agreeable, I’d need to ask you a few questions in order to prepare my pitch.
Hi, Jill! Did you want to ask your questions via email or phone?
I live in Australia, Linda, and find email is simplest because of the different time zones.
Will just ask a few questions to start with. If my editor at [magazine] likes the proposal, I’ll be in touch again. If he’s already accepted something similar, I’d like to pitch the interview to [two other magazines] if you’re happy with that.
Here goes -
* You list Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle and Writers’ Digest as magazines you’ve sold to. I’m wondering how many you’ve sold to each. What’s the most number of commissions you’ve had from any one magazine that you’ve broken into by initially breaking rules?
* Are there any rules you definitely wouldn’t break?
* What’s the most daring way you’ve broken a rule and gained a commission?
How many magazines have you broken into by breaking rules?
[I answer all the questions, which takes about 300 words.]
My editor at [Magazine] is interested in the interview. I’ll need to slant it to UK writers subbing internationally, and also point out if any of the advice is wrong for the UK market. [Following are 11 questions, many of which are actually composed of two or three separate questions.]
Hi, Jill! That’s good news!
This is a LOT of writing. Can we do a phone interview? I’m available outside of business hours since we’re in opposite time zones.
I’ve been thinking what the best way to proceed might be, Linda. I didn’t mean to swamp you with questions.
One thing I’m wondering is whether you’ve already written pieces that I could read and draw on, that might cover some of this.
Then perhaps we could Skype?
What are your thoughts?
I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to write or research for you on this project. I think you will be better off finding someone else to profile.
Okay, so what went wrong in this process?
Let me start off by saying that unless you are just looking for bare facts — data mining, basically — email interviews are less than ideal. I do them for a column where I’m asking for dates, prices, and workshop names for events, but in all other cases I rely on the phone.
But to be fair, I did give Jill the option, thinking there would be just a few questions. Instead she slammed me with 15+ questions (which actually ended up being more like 20 questions). I spent 300 words on the first set, and estimate it would have taken me another 1,200 words at the very least to answer the second set.
Hmm, does that sound to you like I’m writing an entire article?
Then, when I offered to make myself available at some weird time of the day to make it easy for this writer to do a phone interview, she responded by asking if I had ever written anything she could basically lift for her article. Because God forbid a writer should have to do an interview outside the 9-5, right? Much better to ask your source to spend a couple hours writing and researching your article for you.
It reminds me of the writer who interviewed me, and when I asked her to send me a link to the article when it went online, replied, “Oh, just Google your name and the name of the magazine and it should come up.” Um, no. I just took half an hour out of my workday talking to you for no benefit to myself so YOU can earn a few hundred bucks — you can spend 10 seconds emailing me a freaking link.
As a freelance writer, I have done interviews after my normal bedtime and before my usual wake time with people in opposite time zones. I have paid for a Skype phone number and added funds to be able to call overseas to people who don’t have Skype. And I ALWAYS let my sources know when an article I interviewed them for has been published, and try to get them a copy if it’s not available on the newsstands.
In short, I never put the onus on my sources to make it easier for me to do my job.
Too many would-be writers have the impression that freelance writing is a cakewalk — and when they find out to their horror that they have to do actual work, and that it (gasp!) may not be 100% convenient for them, they look for shortcuts.
I’ve earned up to $85,000 per year writing (and yes, this was before I started earning income from my classes) because, well, I worked my ass off. Freelance writing is a job. It’s not all sitting at cafes with a laptop and a cup of joe, typing away as the muse strikes. I really can’t fathom why any person would think that this is the world’s only job where you can put in little effort and reap great returns.
As a freelance writer, you need to put in the hours and shoe leather to get gigs, do great work, keep your clients happy, and deal with sources in a way that they’ll want to help you again in the future. In other words, it’s work.
Enough of the vent. How about you: Can you tell us about a time you went above and beyond in your freelance writing career? Or how about describing a time you dealt with a lazy writer? Let us know in the Comments below! [lf]
It can be scary to put yourself out there as a freelance writer.
“What if I screw up?” You ask yourself. “What if I make a mistake that ends my freelance career before it even starts?”
I have news for you: You will screw up. Royally.
But I promise you, it won’t be the end of your career.
Any (truthful) freelance writer will tell you that she’s made mistakes and lived to tell the tale. Some writing gurus like to put forth an image of utter perfection, but even the most published writer — if you gave him enough wine — has stories to spill about the times he’s messed up.
To show you how even massive goofs quickly become yesterday’s news, here are the top four mistakes I’ve made in my freelance writing career.
1. The Egregious Spelling Error
When I was starting out as a copywriter in the late 1990s, I wrote a sales letter to that proudly stated:
“I can spell zyzzygy, onomatopoeia, and Weltanschauung, and am one of the few people who knows the difference between it’s and its, you’re and your.”
I sent this out to oh, maybe 100 or 200 prospects via snail mail. And one day, I got an email from one of these prospects to let me know that the word is actually spelled syzygy.
* facepalm *
Man, did I turn red. I may have even tried to cover for myself in my return email. But the fact is, I bragged that I could spell a word that I couldn’t spell. I wasn’t even close.
And guess what? No one else seemed to notice. I went on to do copywriting for companies like Pizzeria Uno, Sprint, OnStar, Bay State Gas, Sarnafil Roofing, and Wainwright Bank.
2. The Worst Article Idea Ever
Way back when I first started pitching the national women’s magazines, I sent an idea to Family Circle and a few other publications called “Quik Dri Cheez: Why Advertisers Can’t Spell.” I promised to answer the pressing question of why advertisers and product creators routinely spelled product names in odd ways.
If you can’t see why this is a terrible idea for a women’s magazine, you need to stop reading now and sign up for my email list to get a free packet of 10 really good query letters — to see how much more spot on every one of those ideas is.
You’d think a doozy like that would inspire an editor to say “Please lose my email address.” But the more I pitched the better my ideas and queries got, and I ended up writing for Family Circle a dozen times.
3. The Embarrassing Query Subject Line
Once I read a great tip on how to format email subject lines for a query letter: Include the title of your query, the fact that you’re a freelance writer, and your name. That way, editors would be grabbed by your headline, understand you’re not a PR person, and be able to quickly find the query if it got lost by searching on your name.
What a great idea! I wanted to pitch an article on how to combat unpleasant body odors like bad breath and stinky feet, so I sent out a query with this headline:
Query from Freelance Writer: What’s That Smell? Linda Formichelli
As the email zapped off the screen I realized — too late — that it sounded like I, personally, was the thing making people wrinkle their noses in disgust.
Guess what? The article sold to Women’s Health.
4. The Time I Was Banned By a Magazine
Years ago, I read that if you wanted to write two articles about the same topic, in order for the pieces to legally be considered new, they had to be 10% different. That means when you rewrite an article, you have to make sure at least 10% f the copy was changed.
So when I wrote an article for a money magazine about the financial benefits of being healthy, and then reslanted it for a health magazine, I changed up the copy as much as I could and thought I was in the clear.
The first editor thought otherwise. Somehow he discovered that I had written a similar article for the health magazine, and accused me of sending him a “warmed over” version of a story I had already sold to someone else. He also made it clear I was no longer welcome to write for that magazine.
I was humiliated. How had that handy rule served me wrong? I lost a great client that day.
Now I know that when you write on a similar topic for two different magazines, every word of it needs to be different; you can’t reuse even a single phrase or quote.
I never did pitch that financial magazine again, but my career hasn’t suffered in the slightest. I felt embarrassed, apologized, and moved on. And here I am, still standing.
If you’re worried that you’ll make a mistake that will end your career, I hope these stories put your fears to rest. As long as you do your best, learn as you go along, and act like a professional, you can enjoy a long and lucrative freelance writing career. I made some scary-bad screw-ups and
How about you: What major mess-ups have you made in your freelance writing life, and how did they affect your career? Let us know in the comments below!
P.S. The Freelance Den — the learning and support community that helps freelance writers move up and earn more — is celebrating its 3rd anniversary this week! We’ll be opening to new members, and Carol Tice and I are offering a free Ask the Den Mothers Anything live call on Thursday at 3 pm EDT. We’ll be on the line as long as it takes to answer everyone’s questions. To be the first to know when the Den opens, and to get dial-in info for this call, join the Den waitlist now!
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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By Carol Tice
You’ve got a great story idea, and think you’ve found the perfect magazine to send it to. There’s only one problem: you have no idea if that magazine ever uses freelance writers — or if they do, if there’s any pay involved.
You could spend days developing this query — pre-interviewing sources and crafting your pitch — only to find out it’s not a paying market. That’s a big time-waster, so you want to find out if you’ve got a real opportunity here or not before you dive into your article research.
Fortunately, it’s not too hard to determine if a magazine is a paying freelance market, and if so, how much they typically pay. That is, if you know where to look.
Here are six tips for quickly finding out if a magazine pays:
1. Use directories
The Writer’s Market and Mediabistro’s How to Pitch guides both offer information on their listed magazines for what percentage of the publication is freelanced out, and of pay rates. If the magazine you want is in there, you’re set with the info you need.
Of course, you might take a quick browse through those and find your target magazine is not listed. If so, that’s a strong clue that this might not be a great market for you, especially if you’re a new freelance writer.
The Writer’s Market is a fairly exhaustive compendium of magazines that are open to using new freelance writers, assign a lot of freelance articles, and offer at least some pay. Thats right — not all the magazines in the universe, but magazines that fit those parameters.
My sense is the magazines where editors take the time to fill out the survey form and send it in to Writer’s Market tend to fall into that sweet spot. When your target pub isn’t listed, that’s a clue that one of those factors may be missing at that magazine — they’re not open to new writers, they assign only a very small proportion of their bylines to freelancers, or they don’t pay.
Personally, I always want to concentrate on magazines that assign out 50 percent of more of the publication to freelancers. The lower that percentage is, the less likely you’re going to get an assignment.
2. Find guidelines
Many magazines have their writer’s guidelines right on their website these days. Poke around there and see if you can turn up any “write for us” information.
If they’ve got guidelines, it will often give you at least a range of pay. It also may be a treasure-trove of tips on which sections they take freelance articles on, article lengths, the appropriate editor’s email address for various departments, and more.
3. Tap Google
Don’t overlook the insights the mighty search engine might bring you if you do a search on “pay at X magazine.” While you’re at it, you can do a quick reputation check by Googling “X magazine sucks” or “problems at X magazine.” That might give you a bit more background on whether you want to pitch this market.
4. Investigate ads
One thing I learned in my 12 years as a staff writer is that magazines are rarely fully staffed. If they have staff writers, they always seem to be short one and in the hiring process.
Do some searches on job-ad compilation sites such as Indeed.com, or on LinkedIn and see if they’re hiring staffers. If they hire paid writers full-time and do use freelancers, it’s a fair bet that they pay freelancers, too.
5. Ask your network
If you don’t know other freelance writers, you need to. Don’t think of other freelance as the competition — they are your sounding board and may know about magazines you want to try. They can refer you gigs, too.
For instance, for many years I wrote for a city magazine that was a notorious slow-payer. Literally, they paid often more than six months after I wrote the article! If I’d asked around among other local writers, I could have found that out right quick and spared myself some lean months.
To get started getting connected with other writers, you can Google “[your city] freelance writer” and see who comes up in the first few pages. Those are writers you want to get to know.
6. Get it from the horse’s mouth
When all else fails, see if you can scare up a phone number for the magazine and call. Barring that, find an editorial email and try that. View lack of response as a strong indicator that they don’t pay.
Bottom line: It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of quick research to get a strong sense of whether a magazine is a paying market. Then you know whether to invest more time in creating that query letter you had in mind.
Carol Tice writes the Make a Living Writing blog and founded Freelance Writers Den. To earn more as an article writer, grab her free handout — 7 Ways to Get Editors’ Emails.
In the Premium version of my Write for Magazines e-course, I critique three article ideas from each student.
I’ll take an idea that’s almost-but-not-quite there (which is almost every idea) and show the student how to play with it, how to experiment with different angles until it’s just right to pitch.
And you know the response I often get?
“Since you didn’t like that idea, here’s another one.”
No, no, no!
Article ideas rarely pop out of a writer’s head fully-formed and ready to pitch. Even someone with 17 years’ experience (ahem) comes out with what I call SEEDS of ideas. A seed is the most basic form of an idea before you nurture it into a fully grown, salable article idea.
When you brainstorm, generate as many ideas as you can without judging them. Then, go through them one by one and start playing with the topics, angles, and markets to turn seeds into fully realized ideas. Like so:
If your idea isn’t newsy enough:
Here are three tactics you can try:
- See if you can find a recently-released book on the topic, or one that will be coming out around the same time you’re aiming your article for. (Search on Amazon.com and sort results by Date Published instead of Relevance.)
- Search for stats showing that what you’re pitching is a trend, or is becoming a trend.
- Figure out if there’s some way you can attach your idea to something that IS going on in the news. Maybe a celebrity just announced that she has some rare disease you wanted to write about, or you want to write on a marketing topic and a big business made the news with a major marketing fail.
If your idea is too narrow:
Consider finding three or more similar things and pitching them as a roundup. For example, instead of pitching an article on an historic attraction in your area, find four cool historic attractions and offer a roundup to a regional magazine.
Or, bring in other, similar but distinct topics. Instead of writing a pet health article only for ferret owners, expand it to include cats and dogs and pitch it to a general pets magazine or one of the women’s or health magazines that have pet departments.
If your idea is too broad:
Take one thin slice of the idea and blow it up to feature-size. For example, every health writer is pitching about the GMO issue, and frankly, this idea is big enough to fill a book. Is there some small aspect of the topic that hasn’t gotten much press, that readers may not already know about?
If your idea isn’t relevant to enough of your target market’s audience:
Is there a magazine or online publication that caters to an audience to whom your idea WOULD be relevant? For example, if a certain autoimmune disease affects only 2% of women, it won’t be of interest to a women’s magazine. But it WOULD be of interest to a magazine that targets people with autoimmune disorders. (And you’d be surprised at the publications you can find out there.)
If your idea is too vague:
Ask yourself, “What ABOUT topic X?” For instance, you want to write about job hunting for seniors. That’s pretty nebulous. What ABOUT job hunting for seniors? How to make your resume relevant for modern jobs, the top 10 best work-at-home jobs for seniors, how to volunteer your way into a paid job?
If your idea is just plain boring:
Consider: What’s the opposite of your idea? Editors love surprising, counterintuitive ideas that surprise readers and make them think.
Years ago I noticed that peanuts were getting a bad rap due to allergies (they had been recently kicked off of airplanes), so I pitched and sold an article called “In Defense of the Peanut” to Oxygen, about the health benefits of the beleaguered nut.
If your idea is about how to save money on groceries (been there, done that), you turn that into an idea on when it makes sense to spend more on food. (I did this for Fitness magazine, in an article called “Splurge or Save.”)
If your idea is on how to market your small business (snooooze), turn that into an article on how to attract customers without marketing.
So from now on, when your brainstorming session produces ideas you fear are stale, overdone, too narrow, or too big, don’t give up in despair. Remember, these are seeds of ideas, and you can nurture them until they grow into perfect pitches.
How about you: Did you recently come up with an idea you thought stunk? Can you apply some of the tips above to make it, well, not stink? Let’s play with your article ideas right here in the comments!
By Linda Formichelli
This is a reprint of this week’s Monday Motivation for Writers email. If you’d like goodies like this to land in your in-box weekly, sign up for my mailing list!
I’ve had many mentoring and Write for Magazines clients who say, “I didn’t send my idea to X magazine because I don’t think I have enough relevant experience” or “I was sure if my idea was exactly right for this website so I didn’t send it.”
Now, of course you want to send relevant ideas to magazines that need them. But you are not the expert in what the magazine needs — the editor is.
What you’re doing when you don’t send a pitch you wrote is you’re pre-rejecting yourself. You’re saying No to yourself!
Give the editor a chance to say yes or no. You risk more rejection when you put your ideas out there, true — but you also increase your chances at acceptance by an infinite amount. Why limit yourself?
When you send a query, the editor may say No, in which case you’re no worse off than you started. But there are other things she may do as well:
- Give you an outright Yes. Woo hoo!
- Say, “I like this idea but would like you to change it in this way…” Score!
- Reject your idea but be so impressed with your pitch that she offers you a different assignment. May I say “Score” again?
- Reject your idea but be so impressed that she keeps your name on file for future assignments. Nice!
Remember, garnering an assignment isn’t your only goal when sending a pitch. Another very important goal is building a relationship with an editor, even if he has to say No to your query. As long as your pitches aren’t totally off-base, you have a chance at connecting with an editor who may hire you down the road.
If you pre-reject yourself, you’ll never start building those relationships.
So the next time you’re on the fence about whether to send an idea to a market, go ahead and just send it. Do your best, write a kick-ass query, and get it out the door — then work on the next one.
P.S. The last Write for Magazines session of the year starts on June 1…this is the class that’s helped students break into publications from Woman’s Day to Spirituality & Health to E: The Environmental Magazine. I made the crazy decision to accept 30 Premium students instead of the usual 10, and as of this writing on Thursday there are only eight spaces left. Also, if you jump into either version (Basic or Premium) of the class by tomorrow afternoon, you get an early registration bonus: a free copy of Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, which I sell for $4.99.
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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If you’re a member of my email list, you may know I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether and when to run a final Write for Magazines session for 2014. (And if you’re NOT a member, you should jump on there and grab a couple delightful free e-books for writers!)
(For those of you who don’t know, Write for Magazines is an e-course on how to develop a salable article idea and write and send a killer query letter. This course has helped writers land in a multitude of top-notch publications, including Woman’s Day, Black Health, Rhode Island Home & Design, Cottage Living, Pizza Today, Spirituality & Health, Flight Journal, and more.)
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Write for Magazines lately…I’m sure you could smell the wood burning from wherever you are. Eight weeks was too long, so a while back I changed it to four weeks. But really, some lessons are just harder than others and students need more time to do them.
So here’s what I did: The class will now run from June 1 – July 6, following the schedule below. As you can see, the lessons on setting pre-interviews, doing those interviews, and writing the body and conclusion of the query now get one full week each. The easier lessons get half a week as usual.
- Lesson 1: Generating Ideas: Sunday, June 1
- Lesson 2: Finding 5 Markets for Your Idea: Wednesday, June 4
- Lesson 3: Finding the Correct Editors at Your 5 Markets: Sunday, June 8
- Lesson 4: Setting Up Interviews: Wednesday, June 11
- Lesson 5: Doing Interviews: Wednesday, June 18
- Lesson 6: Writing the Title and Lede: Wednesday, June 25
- Lesson 7: Writing the Body and Conclusion: Sunday, June 29
- Lesson 8: Getting Your Query Out the Door: Sunday, July 6
- CLASS ENDS: Wednesday, July 9 at 5 pm EDT
And here’s where it gets interesting: I always run the Basic version of the course (with the lessons and motivational emails but no email support), and sometimes I also run the Premium version with full email support — where I critique your assignments and answer your questions about the lessons.
When I run the Premium version of Write for Magazines, I normally limit it to 10 students because, well, it’s very labor intensive for me. I want to make sure I have enough time and energy to give my students the attention they deserve.
But here’s the thing: I won’t be running Write for Magazines again until 2015. Also, I’ve pretty much cleared my plate of work for June, so I have more time than usual. So I’ve decided to buckle down, get ready for a crazy month — and accept 30 Premium students this time around.
I expect this will fill up fast, so if you’re interested in taking advantage of email support from a veteran freelance writer with 17 years’ experience — be ready to jump into the class when registration opens. (Do it before I change my mind! I must be crazy.
Registration for Write for Magazines will run from 10 am EDT on Monday, May 12 to 5 pm EDT Friday, May 30. I’ll shoot out an email to my mailing list members when it’s open, or you can just check in on the Write for Magazines e-course page at that time and the sign-up buttons should be all ready for you. (You can also download the class FAQ from that page, which I encourage you to do…just keep in mind that the schedule is different from what is listed there.)
If you sign up for either version of the class before 11:59 pm EDT on Sunday, May 18, you’ll get a free copy of my e-book Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, which sells for $4.99. I like to get people on board early just so I know how many to expect. I’m impatient that way! (If you already have the book, I’ll send you a different one of my choice.)
In the meantime, I wrote up a prospectus of Write for Magazines — a document that tells you about the class’s rocky start (including naysayers, freebie-grabbers, and complainers), the philosophy that drove me to create the class even though apparently no one would pay for it, the snafus that cropped up over the years as I taught the class, why the class doesn’t have a forum or email group, and why I don’t want my students to get an article assignment.
This is just the fun story of Write for Magazines and how it’s developed over the years as my situation and the writing world has changed.
If you’d like a copy to read in the spare moments of your day (you must be procrastinating on something, right? :), send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know…I’ll shoot it off to you as an attachment.
By Linda Formichelli
I get a lot of emails from writers. And lately, I’ve been alternately dumbfounded, confused, and frightened by some of the email addresses I see writers using. Addresses like:
(Don’t worry, I changed these addresses…they’re not the actual ones.)
And I wonder: Are writers using email addresses like these to correspond with editors? And how is this affecting their acceptance rate — and their careers? It is physically hurting me to think that otherwise great writers are killing their chances at an assignment for such a ridiculous reason.
(Yes, I know some people have separate, throwaway addresses they use just for subbing to lists, but I assume some of these writers are using these addresses for their writing businesses too.)
I wrote a blog post in 2007 about the poor writer who was reamed out by a source for her email address. But clearly this public service announcement bears repeating.
Your email address is often the first thing an editor or an interview source sees from you, and that first impression of you is seared into their brains. They might read a brilliant pitch from you, but they can’t forget that the email address you sent it from was email@example.com.
I asked four editors — three from national mags and one at a trade pub — what they think of cutesy or just plain confusing email addresses. Here’s what they had to say:
“I find email addresses like that unprofessional. We like the language in the magazine to be fun and conversational, but I expect writers to take their jobs as seriously as I take my own, and that means having a business email address. If someone has a silly one, it makes me thinks she’s still in college and doesn’t have the experience to write for me. Ones that tout being an amazing writer are possibly worse: I don’t think Ann Patchett, for instance, would advertise herself as “geniuswriter123.” A good email address includes something recognizable about your real name!”
–Sarah Smith, senior editor at Redbook
“Well, it straddles the line between being clever and just being silly and unprofessional. The line is a bit blurry, but I’d say this: If the address looks as if it’s referencing a legit business which the writer has started as part of his or her writing/content enterprises, then fine. Meaning ‘TheContentChick’ could be fine. But ‘LittleFlashyThing’? C’mon. Save that for your friends. Only your closest friends.”
–Former editor at a national general-interest magazine.
“Would I turn down a great query due to a wacky email address? No. But these types of addresses lack professionalism, and that’s important if I don’t know you and you’re pitching me for the first time. I’d recommend using a professional-sounding email address for corresponding with editors and colleagues, even if you decide to keep your fun one for friends and family.”
–Peggy Bennett, former editor at Entrepreneur
“I do think the email address a writer uses is important. Part of the writer’s job is to secure interviews with people to whom the writer ostensibly has no connection. In that context I believe, it’s far less likely for a person to respond to an unprofessional email address than one which is straight-forward. Email address which are cute or contain a double entendre can easily be misinterpreted and may not afford the writer the level of respect he/she deserves from the interviewee.”
–Editor at a food industry trade magazine
Okay, so it’s clear: Choose a professional handle for your email address. You know, like your name or the name of your business.
But after talking with these editors, I wondered if the domain name had any effect on how editors perceived the writers. I’ve heard that having your own domain name is the best — for example, firstname.lastname@example.org — but what about other domains like Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, and Hotmail?
The editors I asked agreed that for some reason they couldn’t pinpoint, Gmail addresses are acceptable, but ones like Yahoo, AOL, and Hotmail are looked upon less kindly. Here’s what one editor had to say:
“I agree about Hotmail, even though I have it. I’m so embarrassed that I still use it. A lot of people feel that way about Yahoo too. Absolutely not AOL. But Gmail seems fine to me; I wouldn’t think twice.”
I’m not sure why this would be the case, but it is what it is. So at the very least, if you don’t have your own domain name, sign up for a free Gmail account, with a professional handle like your name, that you use just for pitching editors and contacting sources.
Your email address is part of your branding, and you should put as much thought into it as you do your query letters and letters of introduction.
How about you — have you ever seen a crazy writer email address? How did you choose your own writer email address? How have editors responded? Share your stories in the Comments below! (Please don’t share other writers’ actual email addresses, for privacy reasons.)
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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It can seem strange to talk about building relationships with an editor…I mean, they hire you, you do good work, and they hire you again, right? But editors are more likely to hire writers they personally like, and those who act professionally. They’ll look at your queries more quickly, and may add you to their stables of writers they go to with assignments they generate in-house.
You can start building a relationship with an editor before you even start working with her, and the relationship building spans through your working relationship and even after you’ve completed an assignment.
Here’s how to become one of those writers that editors really want to work with.
Before the Assignment
You’re pitching an editor and she sends you a nice rejection. Guess what? That’s the start of a relationship. If you nurture that relationship, you’re more likely to get an assignment in the future.
Don’t Be a Freak
One important tip for how to relate to an editor before you get an assignment is not to be a freak. By that, I mean, don’t stalk an editor, and don’t whine. Everyone says they would never do that and that they act with the utmost professionalism, but then why do editors tell me stories of writers who e-mail or call them every day to follow up on a query, and who freak out when they get a rejection?
It even happened to me: Recently a writer asked me a favor, and she e-mailed twice and left four hang-up messages in two days.
Be cool. Give it a couple of weeks before following up. If an editor rejects your story, don’t try to talk her out of it — unless you think she misunderstood some major part of your pitch — just say thank you and move on.
Writers have a reputation for being over-the-top and emotional, so let’s change that! You can’t let your eagerness to write for a magazine come across as desperation…no one wants to build a relationship with a writer who seems desperate.
Do Your Homework
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Put forth your best work. Get the editor’s name right. If you can’t tell if an editor is a male or female, call the magazine after hours and use the dial by name directory to hear the editor’s voicemail message. Don’t just use spell check, which can miss typos…proofread your letter or query before sending.
Make a Connection
If you have anything in common with the editor, bring it up. For example, if you used to write for a magazine she used to work for, mention this. If you found out that she went to your college, that’s something to talk about. If she wrote an article on a topic that you happen to have expertise in, mention that.
If you send a letter of intro or a query and the editor says he’ll keep your info on file, touch base every few months just to update him on your professional activities and offer to send more recent clips.
If you run into some information that you think would be of interest to an editor, even if you don’t want to pitch it as an article, send it along. You can do this both with editors you haven’t worked with yet, and those you do write for.
During the Assignment
When you’re working on an assignment for an editor, you can build your relationship — or ruin it. I hear plenty of scary stories from editors, so I’ve put together a list of things you can do to build a positive relationship with your assigning editors.
Head off Deadline Crunches
Let your editor know if you run into difficulties with your article, and do it early. For example, I had three weeks to do an assignment for a custom publication, but one week in I wasn’t hearing back from any of the sources they wanted. I let my editor know then, instead of waiting until the last minute when it’s too late to do anything about it. She gave me some alternate sources to try, and all went well.
You should tell your editor if you know you’re going to miss your deadline, even by a day. For example, occasionally I get sick in the middle of an assignment and it throws off my whole schedule. Rather than waiting until crunch time, I write to my editor early on and ask if I cab have an extra few days for the assignment. I’ve never had a problem.
Stay in Touch
But also keep in touch with GOOD things. For example, let your editor know all is going well with an assignment. I used to write for a martial arts custom pub, and they gave me an assignment that required me to talk to certain hard-to-reach people in their organization. When I had my interviews set with all these sources, I e-mailed my editor to let her know that I was all set, so she could stop holding her breath!
After the Assignment
Just because your assignment is over doesn’t mean you stop building a relationship with your editor. There are ways to keep in touch.
I always thank my editors for assignments, and when I get a copy of the magazine I write again to thank her for doing such a great job on my article. There’s always something good to say — for example, they may have used some really great artwork, or your editor may have tweaked your lede and made it much better. Editors like to be appreciated as much as writers do!
Keep Them Updated
Whenever you have a new phone number or e-mail address or any other change, that’s a chance to get in touch with your editors. When I started renting an outside office, I wrote to all my editors — even those I hadn’t worked with in a while — to give them my new address. And when I sublet the office because I ended up never using it, I wrote to them again! Another reason to contact your editors is to let them know you’re going on vacation and won’t be available for assignments until date X.
Finally, I just send touching-base e-mails every few months even if I didn’t have a reason. I let my editors know what I’d been doing and ask them if there’s anything I can do for them.
Connect on Social Media
Editors I interviewed for a blog post a while back agreed that following them on Twitter was fine, but friending them on Facebook was not so good — though if the magazine itself is on Facebook, you can follow that.
Make sure you’re on friendly, not distant terms with your editor before following. And remember if they follow you back, so you won’t accidentally post something too personal or something negative about an editor or an assignment. Keep your posts positive and be sure to include updates on what you’re working on.
I always send holiday cards to my editors. To make them stand out, I order nice cards with cut-outs or other fancy features from the Museum of Modern Art. I get them out early in December to beat the rush. And I’ve heard of other writers avoiding the rush altogether by skipping the Christmas cards and sending cards for other holidays instead, such as Thanksgiving.
Some writers send holiday gifts to their editors. Food is always appreciated, and other ideas include funky office supplies and gift cards for local coffee shops. Just don’t go over $25, because sometimes magazines have rules about how much employees can accept as gifts. And you don’t have to send gifts to all your editors — just the ones who gave you the most work.
I don’t send holiday gifts, but I have sent gifts for other reasons. For example, on the tenth anniversary of my first published article, I sent my editor and his staff a big box of brownies from Fairytale Brownies. When I did my taxes one year and noticed that Family Circle accounted for the majority of my income, I sent my editor a Starbucks gift card. And when an editor of mine was promoted to editor-in-chief, I sent her a magnetic poetry kit with a stand so she could use it on her desk.
Remember, Editors Are People Too
Writers often e-mail me and say, “The editor said X, what should I say back?” or “How do I explain that my clips are old because I took time off to raise my kid?” Here’s the thing: Editors are people, too. They’re not looking to catch you in a gotcha moment. They understand that people make mistakes, and that people take time off, and so on. You can often just come clean with them.
Here’s an example: Writers often ask what to say when they try to sell a killed article to another magazine. Should they let the editor know the article’s history? Here’s how I handled it: When my first narrative-style profile was killed when the assigning magazine went under, I sent the completed profile out to other business magazines. When I did that, I came clean: I told the editors that my article had been killed and that I really wanted to find a home for it, and that I could rework it as needed for the magazine I was pitching. I ended up selling the piece as a short to Inc. No editor was angry or insulted. One of them even added my e-mail address to her list of writers that she sent e-mails to when she was looking for pitches.
When you’re not sure how to respond to an editor, apply the Golden Rule: If you were an editor, how would you react to possibilities X, Y, and Z?
Your challenge: Think about how you can start building solid relationships with your editors at all stages of the assignment process!
Like this post? This was one of my recent Monday Motivations for Writers emails. To get advice like this in your inbox every Monday, and snag two free e-books as well, join my mailing list!
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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Writers often ask me what to do when their clips are 10 years old, or are on topics that don’t relate to what they’re pitching, or are from non-paying publications. And I tell them, “You gotta use what you got.”
But what if you have no clips? As in zero? Zilch? You’re a total writing newbie and have never written for publication, either paid or unpaid?
How can you beat that Catch-22 and land some assignments?
Here are six ways to get around a lack of clips so you can start writing for pay:
1. Write a kick-ass query.
Sometimes, if you send totally amazing query on a great topic, the editor will want to hire you regardless of clips. Yes, this does happen! For example, one of my Write for Magazines e-course students broke into SELF with zero clips. If I remember correctly, she got $1.50/word for that assignment.
Not sure how to write a query that will knock an editor’s socks off? Here’s what you can do:
Writing an amazing query takes practice, so write, write, write — and send, send send.
2. Write an on-spec query.
Thank you to my editor at Writer’s Digest for telling me about the on-spec query. In short, you write an article and then send a quick query letting the editor know you have the article ready to send — and would she like to see it?
The normal practice is to send a query and then write the article once you get an assignment. The upside to this is that the editor can tell you exactly what she wants. The downside to this, for new writers, is that if you have no clips to show the editor, she has no way of telling if you can pull off an assignment. So she’d be taking a HUGE risk in hiring you.
But if you’ve already written the article, this takes a lot of risk off of the editor.
If you don’t know how to write an article, you’ll love this post, aptly titled How to Write an Article.
And, if you join my mailing list, you’ll soon be learning about a class Carol Tice of the Freelance Writers Den and I are developing on this very topic.
3. Use who you know.
So many writers actually know an editor at a magazine, website, or blog, or a marketing director at a business — whether in real life, through a former job, or through a social media site like Twitter or LinkedIn — and are afraid to approach that person about writing for them. Or, they know someone who can introduce them to such a person, but don’t take advantage of it.
One of the best subject lines you can use in a pitch email is “Jane Smith sent me” or “It’s Linda Formichelli from Twitter with an Article Idea.” Having a connection with someone can trump your not having clips.
4. Write for free.
I’m all about getting paid for your writing, but as I wrote in this post, which you should totally read, “I believe it’s better to write for free temporarily, on your own terms, than to write for pennies for a content mill or bidding site client that doesn’t value your skills — and won’t make a good sample anyway.”
Offer your skills pro bono to a nonprofit, local business, or small magazine you love, and voila — you have a clip. And you only need to do this once.
5. Mine your life.
Choose a topic to pitch where you have some credentials — mine your education, career, or hobbies to find article ideas you’re uniquely suited to write, and then tout that in your credentials paragraph.
For example, you may not have any clips, but maybe you are a certified personal trainer pitching a fitness article, or a bakeoff champion who wants to write about gluten free baking, or an MBA who wants to write on business management topics for trade magazines. That experience can help an editor overlook your lack of clips.
6. Pitch guest posts to well-regarded blogs.
Many blogs don’t pay, but are easier to break into than big magazines — and you can definitely use them as clips.
Pitch blogs the same way you’d query magazines except that you don’t need to interview/include experts — YOU are the expert.
Find blogs in the niche you want to write in, read their previous posts, and look around for their guest posting guidelines — then come up with an idea they haven’t done that’s relevant to their readership and pitch away.
So — don’t give up because you have no clips. Be creative and find ways to get that first clip and soon you’ll be pitching like a pro. Happy writing!
By: Diana Burrell,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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By Diana Burrell
You’ve spent hours–nay days–crafting a pitch letter for a dream market. You’ve researched what feels like every back issue of the magazine, and you know in your gut your idea is a winner. Your idea shines, you’ve got learned expert sources lined up, and you’re even feeling jazzed about your writing style.
So you’re bummed when your killer pitch lands back in your inbox with a tepid rejection note.
Okay, so you’ve been writing professionally for under a year. You only have clips from a couple regional magazines you assured the editor she hasn’t heard of. Or maybe you have zero clips, but you promised the editor you’d do a great job anyway.
If you mentioned these things, any of them, in your e-mail, it may be why your pitch dangles off the loser board.
Because here’s one of life’s truths: People are attracted to confidence. When you sound unconfident in a pitch, it’s like branding your writing with a giant L.
Here’s another life truth: People who seem confident usually feel no more confident inside than you or I. They’re just better at appearing confident.
We’ve all met people who are rather ordinary looking, but who possess seemingly magical powers at attracting a constant stream of admirers. Or friends who are of average intelligence who land jobs and opportunities far beyond what you’d expect and bosses who could turn a roomful of reluctant prospects into eager customers.
How do these folks appear more attractive, more intelligent, more influential than the rest of us?
By acting with confidence.
The great thing about confidence is it can be faked. Even better news for you, the freelance writer: you don’t have to fake it IRL, just in your writing.
1. Eliminate wishy-washy wording from your pitch.
What sounds more confident?
“I hope to interview Dr. Christiane Northrop for this proposed article.”
“I plan to interview Dr. Christiane Northrop for my article.”
“I could interview mothers of twins who developed this common condition.”
“I will interview mothers of twins who developed this common condition; I’ve already lined up some moms who are willing to talk.”
Don’t hem and haw about how you can maybe, kinda, hopefully do something. Say it with confidence!
2. Focus on the positive.
Think about what makes YOU the perfect writer for this story and figure out a way to slip that into your pitch. It can be as simple as mentioning to an editor at a women’s magazine that the ten tips you’ll offer readers to save on their utility bills are ones you used yourself to reduce your bills by 20 percent last winter. For a story on how to move overseas, this is where you mention that you picked up and moved to Europe and Asia ten years ago.
3. Ditch the negative.
Read your pitch carefully. Is there anything in there that could be construed by an editor as a negative? Here are some negatives I’ve seen in pitch letters:
- “I’m a part-time freelancer.” (Your working hours are your business only.)
- “I’ve only written for…” (Only? Just list names of the publications and move on.)
- “I wrote this for Magazine X, but it was killed when a new EIC came on board.” (Again, no one’s business but your own.)
- “English is my second language.” (Here an editor will assume you won’t be able to write well enough for a magazine, even if you can write beautiful prose en anglais. Surprise the editor with your multilingual skills once you’ve successfully completed a few assignments for him.)
- “I’m willing to write for free to prove myself.” (It’s called a blog. Start one.)
- “I’ve never written about X before, but I have a mountain of clips in other subjects.” (You’re a writer. Writers write about subjects they don’t know a lot about because they have mad reporting skillz and possess curious minds.)
Do a search and destroy on negative language in your query. Remember, you want to tell an editor what you can do, not what you can’t.
4. Zip it.
So many beginning writers worry about not having clips or enough experience and shoot themselves in the feet by admitting this in a pitch letter. My advice is to say nothing and just end your letter with, “I look forward to hearing from you soon.” Some editors will assume you are far more experienced than you really are if your pitch letter is well-written and spot-on for their publication. They’ll just figure you’re so good at what you do, you don’t need to upsell yourself.
5. Remember, blogging does get respect.
Blogs were once pooh-poohed by editors as playgrounds for navel-gazing diarists. But if you run a successful blog–meaning you update it frequently, craft well-written posts that attract commenters, and generate lots of page views each month–be sure to mention it in your closing paragraph especially if the article you’re pitching relates to your blog. You can also provide links to blog posts you’ve written for sites owned by others; again, only if your writing sings.
Have you ever faked confidence in a pitch? Let us know your tips in the Comments below. –Diana Burrell.
Diana’s next 3-week Become an Idea Machine workshop starts Monday, March 10. Sign up here or visit her website to learn more.
Wondering what an editor means when she says X, whether you should break a freelance rule, or whether you should drop that PITA client? Here’s how to figure out what to do. At 3:04, I share my special method for deciding between two different options.
This is an excerpt from my e-book Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, which is available on Kindle and in PDF for under five bucks.
Freelancing while you’re also working a regular gig can be difficult, confusing — and risky. The last thing you want is to find yourself sans job and floundering in the freelancing waters without a life jacket. (In that mangled metaphor, the life jacket is regular freelance gigs.)
But don’t worry — you can work with your particular job situation to make freelancing on the side work for you, and even work for your employer!
How to Tell the Boss
“Tell my boss?” you ask yourself. “How about if I don’t and just say I did.”
Your first instinct may be to go undercover. And that might work for you. But consider this:
- You will need a writer website. Can you keep it hidden from your boss should she Google you, without resorting to cloaking tactics
that will keep you hidden from potential clients as well?
- Ditto with LinkedIn. Many editors and prospects use LinkedIn as a kind of Yellow Pages for finding writers. Will your boss notice that your LinkedIn profile title suddenly went from “Insurance Salesperson” to “Freelance Writer”?
- If you hide your freelancing status from your employer and he finds out, how do you predict he’ll react? Will he feel you’ve been deceitful?
That’s why you want to control the situation instead of leaving it to chance that you’ll be discovered. Kind of like a politician who comes clean on some skeleton in the closet before the media can out him. Makes him look a lot better that way, doesn’t it?
Now, I can’t guarantee that your employer will be happy with the situation, and only you can decide whether it’s worth it for you to come out to your boss. Maybe you work in an environment where it’s expected that you live for your job, and telling your employer you’re writing on the side could leave you holding a pink slip. So use your best discretion.
Whether you might want to come clean also depends on the type of job you have. You’re probably safer telling your employer you’re freelancing on the side if you’re in a management position than if you’re lower down the ladder.
Here are some ways to make the revelation as smooth as possible:
1. Don’t give away the farm.
You can tell your boss you’re freelancing on the side without also revealing that you plan to eventually quit your day gig.
You may face some uncomfortable questions, such as why you feel you need to write on the side. Are you desperate for money? Are you dissatisfied with your job? Be sure to come up with responses for any questions you feel you may be asked.
2. Do your work at work.
When you have this discussion with your boss, assure her that during the 9-5 your focus will be on the work you were hired to do. Then make sure to do that.
I know, I know. Your job can be boring, and sometimes you find yourself playing endless games of Minesweeper during slow times.
But whatever you do, do not go back on your promise and succumb to the temptation to build your freelance business on company time. This can lead to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, like you having to explain to your boss why you’re trolling for writing gigs from your work email account.
However, some bosses are super-understanding and will let you write on your breaks or during slow periods. If that’s the case for you, you can ignore this tip.
3. Add value.
Put your all into your day job. No slacking off because you know that in a few months (or a year, or whatever) you’ll be quitting anyway.
In fact, instead of just doing your job, you should work to kick ass at your job. You want to allay any fears your employer may have that you’re not putting as much effort into your job as you used to because of the side gig.
4. Make it a win-win.
Make your writing benefit both your employer and yourself. For example, offer to write your company’s website copy, brochures, or case studies as part of your regular duties. Point out that they can save money by not hiring someone else to do it. (You don’t have to point out that you’ll be getting practice that will help you eventually say sayonara to your employer.)
5. Check your contract.
Before you make a move, check your employment contract. Some contracts stipulate that you won’t pitch your services to the employer’s vendors and service providers, and other contracts state that anything you create while at work belongs to the employer.
How about you: Do you have a day gig and freelance on the side? How do you make it work? Let us know in the comments below!
by Diana Burrell
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
I make no secret of the fact that I do not like to write, which seems crazy because I’ve been a freelance writer and author for almost 20 years and writers, well, write. But if you’re a professional writer, you know that a lot of the job isn’t writing. You’ve got to do stuff like generate story ideas, market your work, chase down research, interview experts, edit, and manage the business–the fun stuff! It’s the writing part I could do away with, specifically first drafts. Once a first draft is written, I can edit. Bad mood be gone.
Over the years I’ve become good at tricking myself into finishing first drafts. I tell myself, “You only have to write 50 words, then you can take a break and watch YouTube.” Even I can write fifty words, and once I get going, it’s hard to stop, which is how I get so much writing done despite my dislike of wordsmithing.
Needless to say I’m always looking for the path of least resistance to getting more done, so when I read about Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, I downloaded the ebook to my Kindle.
Not only did his book confirm for me that the best way to create a positive change is through small acts repeated daily, but the book was exceptionally well written and researched — impressive in that the author is not a professional writer — and so applicable to the many writers I meet who struggle with getting query letters out the door or writing big projects like books and novels.
Because I suspected Stephen was a bit of renegade — changing your life in big ways through tiny habits? Sounds renegade to me! — I contacted Stephen and he agreed to a 20-minute interview, which turned into a 90-minute Skype call. This is not a verbatim transcript of our conversation, but a carefully edited-down version containing the most valuable points for our readers.
DB: How are mini habits different from most life change philosophies?
SG: Most life change philosophies implore you to get highly motivated to make a big change in your life. Mini Habits are exactly the opposite of that, suggesting you force yourself to do something embarrassingly small, but positive every day.
There are two kinds of motivation. The first type is having a reason for doing something. My motivation for exercise is to look and feel healthy. My motivation for doing this interview is that you asked me to do it and I want to spread the word about mini habits. Unlike the next definition of motivation, your reason for doing things is generally very stable and changes very little over time.
There’s also emotional motivation, which is rooted in enthusiasm and determines your willingness to take action in the moment (“This year I’m going to get in shape so I’m off to the gym!”). Most goal systems rely on this type of motivation; they’ll tell you that you need to find this motivation to succeed. The problem is that emotional motivation isn’t reliable or habit friendly.
When we try to do something like write more every day or lose 50 pounds or get in top physical condition, we’re usually very excited for a couple weeks. We’re highly motivated to write more, eat less, and go to the gym. Yet almost anyone who has attempted to change knows that sometime in those first weeks, motivation starts to wane. For me, it was like clockwork—I’d get motivated to exercise and quit when motivation left me at the two- or three-week mark.
The reason we lose motivation isn’t a mystery. It’s biological. And it’s actually a positive sign! It means the behavior of writing more, eating less, or working out regularly is transitioning to being controlled by the subconscious brain. In other words, a weak habit is forming. But right around this time is when most of us give up. We’re not feeling that burst of enthusiasm anymore, so when it’s gone, we’ll stop doing the behavior that’s just about to become a habit. It’s too bad because the best way to find motivation is to take action! I’m not anti-motivational; it’s just that I don’t believe it works as a starting strategy.
There’s a quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War which sums up the Mini Habit system: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” By taking one small action a day—just one small behavior change—we start with a win. After that point, you’re free to do more.
In my book, I talk about doing just one push-up every day. A single push-up! It’s almost too easy, right? But you do it, and because you’re already face-down on the ground, you will probably do more. And that’s how such a small, seemingly insignificant action can grow to make big changes in your life.
Two other factors aren’t accounted for in most other goal achievement systems. First is autonomy. Most systems remove your sense of autonomy; you’re following a plan so that on Monday you do this, on Tuesday you do that, and so on. But with Mini Habits, you do your one small thing like a push-up and after that you can ask yourself, “Am I ready to stop or can I do more?” This autonomy leverages our desire and gives us a feeling that we’re in control, which studies show is a critical factor in goal achievement.
The second is willpower, the ability to force yourself to do something whether you feel like it or not. Most goal achievement systems don’t account for the fact that willpower is a limited resource as studies show. Mini Habits is based on the fact that we don’t have unlimited willpower. Because a mini habit is so small, you can easily complete it even when your willpower is low.
DB: We all know that developing good habits is important, whether personal (flossing every day) or work (writing a certain number of words per day). What’s might our readers find surprising about developing good habits?
SG: When you’re trying to establish a good habit, size doesn’t matter as much as consistency. For example, say you want to get in shape and decide you’re going to do 100 push-ups a day. That’s a lot of push-ups each day, so the chances you’ll stick with that plan are slim. Just one push-up a day, though, you’ll stick with it and end up doing more push-ups consistently. It’s better to do one push-up a day for six months than 100 push-ups for 15 days spread out over six months because that single daily push-up can become a foundational habit, the kind of habit that can change your life.
DB: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book about mini habits and their power to make positive changes?
SG: I started writing on Facebook using the notes feature, writing about my life and stuff like that. My friends liked it and a few told me I should write a book. When I stopped laughing, I started a blog; some of my blog posts were really long, like 4,000 words. Eventually, I decided that yes, I did want to write a book, but I wasn’t sold on any one topic. That changed when I started having a lot of success with Mini Habits.
In the past, I’d have this goal of developing a full-sized gym habit, but I’d exercise for two weeks then stop. Then I aimed for one push-up and got into the best shape of my life. Based on my experience with Mini Habits, I knew I had to share this with the world. That, and I was frustrated by the other systems that give you the same old advice of “get motivated to live your dreams.” That hasn’t been my experience, and the experience of many others as well.
DB: How did you use mini habits to write your book?
SG: I wouldn’t have written the book if not for my writing mini habit. I actually had two writing mini habits: One was to write 50 words a day for my blog, and the other was to write 50 words a day of my book. Most days I would exceed those numbers. Even though goal achievement is a topic I’m passionate about, for some reason I still wanted to avoid writing about it. [DB: Now you can see why I like this guy!] I’d have all these excuses like, “I need to write perfectly” or “I’m not thinking clearly today.” Having to write 50 words a day kept me on track.
It took me three to six months to write Mini Habits, including all the research. At times I made up some conditional mini habits, like “Read one study today.” You don’t realize how small actions can add up until you do them everyday. It’s really powerful stuff.
DB: What has been the response to Mini Habits?
SG: Before I released the book, I told myself I’d be disappointed if I sold less than 200 copies in two months. Mini Habits ended up selling 10,000 copies in three months. Most sales have come through word of mouth, some guest posting on blogs, and being seen in Amazon.com’s sales system, which is huge. Once you get good reviews (Mini Habits has a 4.8 average rating on Amazon), readers take interest and it can sustain sales momentum.
I’ve also gotten quite a few letters from readers with their own success stories by using mini habits. It’s great to see how it has changed the lives of others.
DB: You had a mini habit of writing 50 words of your manuscript every day. What other types of mini habits could our readers adopt to develop or improve their careers?
SG: Obviously making a mini habit of writing 50 words a day is a good place to start, but you can also develop a networking mini-habit, like contacting one person—an editor, potential source, or peer—every day. At the end of the year, you’ll have 365 new contacts. You could have a marketing goal of looking for one new magazine, publication, or client. If you need more ideas for magazine articles or books, you could write down one new idea every day. You could also make one follow-up call or e-mail on a project or question where if you had an answer, you could move forward.
DB: Any last words about the power of mini habits?
SG: Mini habits are awesome. The bar to entry is set low, and there’s no ceiling.
For example, if your goal is to write 2,000 words a day, it’s not only a high bar, but it’s also a ceiling because chances are you’ll rarely write more than 2,000 words a day (due to being satisfied with your work). But if you set your bar at 50 words, you’re not only going to make your goal, you’ll most likely exceed it. Fifty words isn’t much and once you get going, you’ll have more thoughts and words to get down.
It’s Newton’s Laws of Motion at work: “A body in motion stays in motion.” The other part of the law is, “A body at rest stays at rest.” When you’ve got a mini habit (50 words) versus a big habit (2,000 words), it’s a lot easier to get in motion and let momentum carry you further.
(My next Become an Idea Machine workshop starts tomorrow, and it’s the last workshop I’ll lead for several months. Sign up here or send me an email to be notified of the next workshop.)
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By Linda Formichelli
You’d think sending an editor a published clip or two would convince them that you can pull off the article you’re pitching.
But guess what? An editor may actually be leery of the clips you send.
Why? Because too many clips are actually crappily written articles that were edited to perfection by the writer’s editor. So the person you’re pitching doesn’t know if the clip represents your work — or the work of a great editor. Anyone can get lucky by landing a single assignment, so your clips prove nothing.
Then, you make things worse by sending a bunch of clips from different publications. You’re hoping to show off the fact that you’ve been hired by lots of pubs. But what the editor sees is that no one invites you back to write a second time.
So what to do? Can’t you ever make these freakin’ editors happy?
Here are my two tricks:
1. If you have them, send multiple clips from the same publication.
This shows that your writing is good enough that editors hire you to write for them again and again.
If you want to showcase your versatility, send a couple clips from one publication and then another one or two from other markets.
2. Send your final drafts.
This is a big one: Instead of sending in links to your published articles or PDFs with the beautiful layout and graphics in place, send the editor the ugly Word files of your articles as you handed them in.
That way, the editor can see that you turn in nice, clean drafts.
I came across this secret by being lazy. I wanted to send an editor a particular clip but didn’t have a PDF — and sure as heck didn’t feel like scanning it in.
So I sent my Word file and told the editor, “Here’s a clip from X Magazine. This is the article as I turned it in — so you can see what my writing looks like before the editor does his magic on it!” (Notice how I turned a negative into a positive?)
Believe it or not, the editor I was pitching loved this, and I started using this tactic regularly.
Clips aren’t about the layout and graphics. Sure, they look nice, but they’re just window dressing on what an editor actually wants — a snapshot of your writing.
But if you’re going to be sending ugly Word files, why not just send in unpublished work that you write up as clips? It’s because the fact that you were actually published shows that you know how to work with an editor, understand deadlines, and have been through — and survived — the editing process. So published clips are key, even if you’re sending in a plain vanilla Word doc.
How about you…have you ever sent an editor an unconventional clip? What happened? Let us know in the Comments below.
P.S. I’m thinking of running one session of Write for Magazines this year; if I do, it will probably be in May or June. This is the 4-week query writing class that has landed students in Woman’s Day, Spirituality & Health, GRIT, Washington Parent, E: The Environmental Magazine, Pizza Today, and more. If you want to get the details when I have them settled, become a member of my email newsletter list!