How to Break in and Stay in with Editors as a Freelancer

writing for magazines

Last night I participated in a webinar that’s part of Travel Blog Success,which I’ll get to at the end. There were quite a few questions about breaking into freelancing, from bloggers who have only ever written for their own site. If you’ve never written a paid article for someone else, it’s an intimidating mountain to face and it’s easy to get frustrated. Since I’ve been freelancing for 20 years now and am also an editor who hires writers and pays them, here are my tips on breaking in and getting repeat business.

1) Build real relationships

A remembered writer will always get work before a stranger. So take advantage of any chance to meet and talk with editors face to face, even if the person is editor of a publication or section that has nothing to do with what you write about. She might change jobs next month or might be asked for a recommendation from a colleague. Or you might come up with an idea that fits later. So if you’re at a conference and there are 40 tables of people with a handful of pens to give away and press trips to talk about, you may be tempted to spend all your time at those tables. But are there more important people you could be talking to who can give you paid work instead of free travel? At some point you need to make the transition from free stuff to bankable dollars. You probably won’t get there by having speed-dating sessions with tourism reps.

You can also build good relationships by getting referrals from colleagues or other editors. Or by doing a good job and getting hired again. But nothing beats face to face meetings, formal or informal. If you’re in New York or London, you’ll get loads of opportunities to do this regularly. It almost makes up for your inflated living expenses. But if you live somewhere far cheaper, take a bit of the savings and invest it in going to conferences. They can pay huge dividends.

2) Use a rifle in pitches, not a shotgun

The mistake that most rookie writers make is to come up with an article idea and blast it out to 20 or 30 editors, hoping one will say yes. This rarely works and it’s the main reason editors ignore so many queries without replying. It’s very clear that the person sending the e-mail hasn’t tailored the query to that publication and probably totally missed the mark. That will immediately be deleted and your second query may not even be opened.

Ideas are your currency as a freelancer and you need to come up with ones that fit the publication. It’s not about what you want to write: it’s about what they already publish. Send them an idea that’s perfect for a specific section and it might actually get read by a decision maker. Which leads us to…

3) Don’t send a query without studying the publication thoroughly.

You should study and dissect any publication you are going to query before you sit down and write an e-mail. Ideally they have their writers guidelines posted and they make it easy for you. If not you may have to get them from a paid source like MediaBistro’s Avant Guild or the Wooden Horse database. Or keep an eye out through postings on Writer’s Weekly or FreelanceWriting.com.

For every great query I get at Perceptive Travel there are 20 that are a total waste of time. And that site already filters out a lot of people by saying “book authors only.” I can only imagine what the deluge is like at big magazines that pay $1 a word or more.

writer's guidelines

4) Do a fantastic, amazing job and be easy to work with.

If an editor does say yes to your idea and you’ve got a deadline¬† and pay rate in writing, drop everything and make that article the best it can possibly be. Treat this job like what it really is: an audition. If you follow all instructions to the letter, return all the forms you’re asked for quickly, and hand in that perfectly matched article on time (or better yet, early), you’ve now got a very good chance of getting more work. Don’t get huffy about edits. Don’t moan that your gorgeous prose “doesn’t sound like you” after it’s been chopped up. Don’t complain when you’re asked to provide fact-checking sources or go look up a bunch of phone numbers. Smile, say okay, and get it done pronto.

One 100K+ print publication I write for assigns a whole year’s worth of articles in advance. They send out an editorial schedule to all their regular writers. We each tell them which articles we’d like to do in the coming year from that list. The editor decides and has them all assigned before Christmas. An outsider has no chance. The same thing happens with many of the “hot list” and “it list” sections of major magazines. The people who get paid to go stay in those fancy hotels night after night have delivered in the past, so they’re hired to deliver again. Good writing matters, but show you’re dependable and have a good work ethic: editors care far more about that than anything.

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The last thing is, seek out good writing advice on a regular basis.¬† If you don’t have Travel Writing 2.0, start there, then sign up for the free newsletter by hitting that button above and putting in your vitals. I said I’d link to the Travel Blog Success site, so go check that out if your stymied as to how to make real money from your efforts and need a crash course.¬† It’s run by David Lee of GoBackpacking (who will be interviewed here next week) and Michael Tieso of Art of Adventuring (who we’ll get to later).

Any hard-won advice you have to share on freelance writing success? Put it in the comments below.

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