Preface: My “adventures in freelance writing” posts are intended to be “self help” for those aspiring writers who may be less experienced that I am, but will likely fit more into the “humour” genre for those pros who have been around the (writer’s) block a lot more often. Feel free to chuckle at my many faux pas!
From a very early age, I knew that teaching was going to be in my future, but I have always loved writing too. Stories, letters, diary entries…when I wasn’t reading, I was writing. At the age of nine, I was already considering being a professional author, but it was a long time before I actually did anything to make that dream come true.
It was October of 2008, and I was on mat leave with my second daughter. She was a few months old, napping on schedule and sleeping through the night, leaving me with a bit of extra time and the desire to pursue some mental stimulation (and supplementary income) while at home. I decided the time was right to put out some feelers about freelance work. As an avid magazine reader, I was very excited about the idea of contributing to the publications that I loved so much, so I got to work. I can vividly remember being away for a weekend in Kingston with hubby, and poring over the magazine racks at Indigo on Princess Street, arming myself with resources. I also checking out library books on freelance writing for magazines and read articles online, wanting to be as prepared as possible.
I figured I had some pretty good ideas, so I started pitching the general email address, e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org
at different magazines (mostly parenting), waiting for the replies to come rolling in. And waiting. And waiting. I received very few replies, and the ones that did come through were clearly form letters. So discouraging!
The funny thing is that very soon, within weeks of starting to pitch, I actually got a bite – within less than an hour – from a national editor who was wanting to assign an article on the topic I pitched, but with a different angle, and would I be interested? Would I! Over the next couple of weeks I spent as much time as possible drafting, researching, interviewing and revising, and proudly submitted my article. The thing is (rookie mistake alert!), apparently I was supposed to wait for a contract and assignment details before beginning. Of course I was humiliated enough to stew over it for a few weeks, my cheeks hot every time I thought about it, but the paperwork was forthcoming and I completely rewrote the piece to actually meet the criteria assigned. This was October, and I wasn’t told which issue my work would be in, so I frantically checked each one…until my article finally appeared in May. My first national byline!
In the meantime, I had contacted the editor of a local parenting magazine who was very interested in my work, and I began writing for them on a steady basis. They were open to having me pitch my own ideas, though for some issues they gave suggestions or options which was fantastic.The pay was considerably less than national magazines (as in, about 10-20% of what the biggies pay), but with lots of editorial freedom, which is so important. I did this for a long time, writing over a dozen articles.
In the midst of all this local writing, I pitched an idea to a smaller national magazine, and the editor phoned me (one of only two times in 3 years that I have ever spoken with an editor over the phone) and offered me a one-page, point-form piece on different ways to get rid of “stuff” (yard sale, Kijiji, etc.). It paid $200, which was a nice chunk for a small article, plus it gave me another tear-sheet for my growing portfolio (a pretty binder filled with sheet protectors – quite simple).
I also heard from the editor of a large American magazine, who had kept a snail-mail pitch on file and was now interested. I replied eagerly…and heard nothing. So I followed up again…nothing. Weeks later she told me that they didn’t currently have room, but still liked the idea, so I should follow up again in a couple of months, which of course I did, and…nothing. I gave up hope eventually, but I think it’s important to share stories like this here, so that hopeful writers realize how common these sorts of false starts are.
In January of 2010 I launched my blog, which gave me a creative outlet and a place to link up to all of my published work, but it would be a while before any paid writing opportunities were available in my role as a blogger.
With all of the busy-ness of being a Mom, working as a full-time teacher and maintaining a blog, my pitching efforts subsided, and I can see in my e-mail files that that my last pitch for that time period was sent on August 3, 2010. It was time for a break!
The top five things I learned from my first year and a half in the freelance writing trenches:
1. Big magazines may pay bigger, but if you don’t write anywhere you don’t earn anything. You have to start somewhere (even though I had a one-shot big start, and then backtracked for a while). Build up a portfolio, and try a few different publications (so you can drop more than one magazine name into your query letters).
2. For me, pitching to American magazines was a waste of time. (Especially since at that time, some of them still wanted snail mail pitches with SASE for replies! I just came across a few of my SASE’s from back then in the filing cabinet!) Maybe you’ve got the perfect idea for an international magazine and they’ll snatch it up…but it’s a much bigger pond.
3. While some experts advise against “multiple submissions” (sending the same pitch to more than one publication at a time) I think newbies should go for it since, let’s be honest, the odds of anyone grabbing it are slim. Send it to a dozen (or more) places, and have your next idea ready to go. Make sure to track this information in some sort of chart or spreadsheet with the name of the publication, date sent, and response.
4. I did have the disappointing experience of being asked for a certain number of words by a magazine, and then having my piece cut to half that length and only being paid for the words printed (which may have been in the fine print of my contract). It was disappointing, because I didn’t even know until the article came out that it was being cut, and was expecting a paycheque based on the words submitted. Every other time I have submitted an article to a magazine I have been paid based on the number of words assigned and submitted (or the flat fee agreed-upon in advance), so my point is: read contracts carefully (and if there isn’t a formal contract, get all the details in writing – email is fine as long as you keep it!)
5. Before I began writing, I don’t recall ever going for a job interview where I did not get the position. Getting used to rejection is a BIG part of freelance work.
Next up, in Adventures In Freelance Writing: Volume II – my revitalized writing career, how I broke into the national market, and my almost-interview with a superstar!