The Golden Rule of Freelancing

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A meeting with an editor the other day gave me a huge, much-needed ego-boost. She mentioned several of the writers with whom she’s worked in the past who have made her professional days a nightmare filled with arrogant demands, prima donna attitude or just plain cluelessness. She pointed to my reliability and professionalism and unfailing good nature, and me being someone who was finally learned to just accept a compliment with a simple Thank You rather than arguing profusely with her, I said, well, Thank you.

These are my competition. If you’re a writer, these are your competition, too. I love reading those Writer’s Digest articles featuring true-to-life, rejected query letters and proposals, the ones threatening suicide if the publisher doesn’t accept the manuscript, or the ones listing all the editors who had rejected the submission before landing on the current editor’s desk. They remind me that, even with all the statistics out there about slush piles and the number of stories an editor may reject, the vast majority of those are actually from writers who have no idea how to actually write, much less how to submit a clean, professional-looking manuscript. The fact that I take the five seconds to call or go online to find out an editor’s name so that my query doesn’t start out with “Dear Sir/Madam” puts me way ahead of the pack already.

One thing that I’ve found over the years that I’ve been freelancing is that editors love writers who can do one thing really well, and that is, We make their jobs easier. Now, it wasn’t always like that for me. I’ve missed a deadline or two in my early years. Procrastination has always been my enemy, one I still wrestle with today, but I have not missed a deadline in years. I also do not call an editor several times over the course of a day or week and bombard her with questions about an assignment, or worse: call her up and pester her up a query I sent two minutes ago.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons as a working freelance writer since that first day I was published by a national magazine, and the funny thing is, the most important lesson is one I should have already known, given all the years I’ve spent as someone’s personal/administrative/executive assistant: My job is to make my boss’ job easier. Easy-peasy, Japan-easy. And when you’re a freelance writer, the trap we can fall into is to believe that we work for ourselves. Nuh-uh. The thing is, you work for whoever you’re writing for, and usually, that’s an editor. So to extend that lesson’s point: Your job as a freelance writer is to make your editor’s job easier.

That means:

  • Submitting professional queries and proposals that are free of grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors; are short but with just enough information about your story idea to intrigue the editor and make her want to read more; and includes a brief mention of your writing experience and publications with whom you’ve worked.
  • No calling up an editor two days or even two weeks after you’ve submitted a query and asking about your story idea. Believe me: she got it. She may not have had a chance to read it, though, and the last thing she wants is to get a phone call from an unknown writer asking her to dig through her Inbox to find your email. Editors are swamped with submissions. She’ll get to yours eventually, and if she likes it, she’ll let you know.
  • No sending queries via post without an SASE, or you risk having your query thrown out without so much as a glance. Also, no sending queries via post if the editor clearly indicates in their Writer’s Market entry that they only accept email, and vice-versa.
  • No calling up the editor a to whom you’re assigned after your idea has been accepted and asking a million questions every day or so. Find out the parameters of your assignment and start working. Ask questions only if truly necessary, and never, ever call “just to chat” unless you’re close friends with said editor. Even then, it’s just not professional to do so during working hours.
  • No demanding that the editor accept your piece as it is, regardless of the changes the latter requests from you. Remember that, chances are, the editor knows her publication’s audience better than you do and will understandably make sure that all the copy printed in each issue is written in that specific publication’s “voice.” Your essay may be the greatest story ever written, one that even Somerset Maugham himself couldn’t touch, but the editor has a job to do, and that is to address her specific audience’s needs, not yours.
  • Submitting everything on deadline, unless you’ve made prior arrangements with the editor to postpone because of an unforeseen circumstance.

Return phone calls. Track down interviewee subjects yourself. Fact-check your work, and if required, list all your sources neatly and completely for the publication’s own fact check department. Turn everything in on time, including manuscript, photos, list of interviewees and their contact information, and your invoice.

It all comes down to this: Make it your job to make your editor’s job easier. Remember that, and you’ll be way ahead of your competition.