Monthly Archives: May 2009

Writers: Should You Nag That Editor About Your Query?

New writers often ask me this question. They’ve submitted an article pitch, or an unsolicited manuscript and nothing. How long should they wait before they email or call to ask whether the editor is interested? How long until they can send that pitch or article to the next editor?

I’ve got an easy answer for this.

My personal strong feeling is that if an editor is interested, you’ll likely hear from them right quick. They all say allow 4-6 weeks… but I can’t recall sending a pitch to an editor who called me more than a month later to say they liked it.

It never hurts to send a reminder once, say a month after you submitted. Every once in a while you will find your editor meant to contact you, but your query had gotten lost on their desk. And it’s never rude to follow up once.

But once is the limit, people. More than that and you will set off the editor’s warning system that you are an amateur.

Of course, the reason new writers ask this question is that they feel hampered from sending their pitch or piece to another editor until they get an answer from the first editor. This is a trap you don’t want to fall into.

Always submit your queries with the note that it is a nonexclusive submission. That alerts the editor you are continuing to pitch it around elsewhere. At the speed news moves these days, I think nobody’s too insulted or put off by that. If you’ve crafted a strong pitch or article, it may well have a news angle that won’t keep forever, so they’ll respect that you are continuing to try to get your article in print before your news goes stale.

The other way around it, of course, is to tailor your pitches to each individual publication you are trying. If you’re designing your pitches right, each one is aimed to fill a publication’s particular needs, so while you may have a similar idea you’ve queried other publications with, the slant shouldn’t be identical. This frees you to pitch on and on without waiting around, particularly to non-competing publications.

When you’re new to writing, I think it’s key not to fall into the trap of waiting around for things to happen. You send one query letter and then fall into a funk for a month wondering if the editor wants it. You second-guess yourself – should I have given them a different angle? Mentioned my expert? Written in a breezier style? And so on.

Don’t let this happen! Professionals send queries and then move on, that very hour, to the next pitch. Don’t look back. You can’t make a living unless you are sending many queries each week. Trust that if your idea fills a need for the editor, they will call.

If you’re the type that worries about whether an editor really got your query (99% likelihood they did), and you emailed, just end your query with “please respond to acknowledge receipt.” That may get you a quick note so you know it got there and didn’t hit the spam bin by accident.

More tips and advice for new writers looking to break in will be available in my forthcoming e-book, “Start Freelance Writing.”

What’s your experience? Anyone had an editor accept their article or query a month or more after you sent it? Have another opinion about simultaneous pitches? I’d like to hear it.

Must a Writer be an Expert to Write an Article?

Today’s question comes from Tonja Alvis, an aspiring freelancer from my own neighborhood near Seattle. Tonja was thinking about submitting articles to family and religious Web sites, but felt underqualified.

“I can’t get over the fact that I should be more of an expert in this field — a family counselor or with a degree in theology — instead of simply being a writer who is great at writing about these topics.”

Great question Tonja. And I can answer it in three words: Get over it.

It’s a popular myth that professional writers need to possess some kind of official credentials in the subject matter about which they write — that business reporters have an MBA, for instance, or that real-estate writers are all former realtors or mortgage brokers.

One of my first regular freelance gigs was writing cover features for the Los Angeles Times real estate section. I made the contact by winning an essay contest the paper held, soliciting first-person stories about remodeling your house.

When the editor asked me to do regular reporting for him after publishing my first-person essay, I was freaked. “Don’t I need to be a realtor or something for that?” I asked him.

“Oh please no!” he said. “We’ve tried to have professionals like that write for us, and it was always a disaster. Their writing is awful! Your writing is funny and sharp. Please don’t change! Write just the way you do, and learn a little bit about the industry.”

Why did my editor respond this way? Because industry professionals tend to write in dry, almost incomprehensible industry jargon-babble…while most publications are trying to reach a general audience. As a writer with only a layperson’s understanding of your topic, you’re perfect for the job!

When it comes to writing first-person essays on topics you’ve experienced in your own life, you’re all the expert you need to be. Just work on making your writing exceptional, and you’re there.

I’ve written articles about operating a hardware store in Fairbanks, Alaska…using software tools to calculate the money insurers need to keep in reserve against losses…how financial-service startups can land venture capital money…and striking dockworkers in San Pedro, just to name a few. Do you think I am an expert in any of these things? Have I actually been a dockworker or owned a hardware store? Nope.

I always say I may not be an expert in your topic…but give me 24 hours, and I will be. With the Internet, information isn’t hard to find — you can always learn about any subject, and locate experts in that subject you can interview and quote. If you can bring great writing skills, you can find the experts you need for almost any assignment.

Good luck to all the first-time writers out there! If you’re interested in more tips, email me your questions at the address above, and I’ll put you on the list to receive word when I publish my upcoming e-book, Start Freelance Writing.

A Writer Asks, ‘Are My Clips Too Old?’

I’m mentoring a great newbie writer and editor here in the Seattle area. She has a couple of clips from some magazine work she lucked into, plus a lot of blog writing under her belt.

“My clips are from 2007 and 2008,” she wrote me in May ’09. “Do they still count as clips?”

You bet they do, Nicole.

I routinely submit articles that are 5-7 years old, if they hit a specific topic an editor wants me to have expertise in. Just because you didn’t write something yesterday doesn’t mean your clip can’t show you know about a subject, or know how to write a complex feature.

So dust off those clips and send ’em out!

Writer Question: Can I Send a Simultaneous Query?

Rachel Rose, a TV news reporter who’s transitioning into freelance writing, asked about simultaneous subs a while back on my LinkedIn group, LinkedIn Editors & Writers. (See more about her at

“Are they worth it, or do they come back to haunt you?” she wrote.

There’s a solution to this problem — tailor your queries, and then you’re never really sending two identical pitches. And you’re free to pitch your brains out without sitting around worrying that you might be offending some editor who’s probably not going to bite anyway.

Don’t send the exact same query to multiple magazines or newspapers — instead, send different slants on the topic customized for each publication. Then you’ve differentiated your pitches, and you’re in the clear on sending simultaneous queries…and more likely to get acceptances, because each pitch is more targeted to that publication.

If by a miracle you got two hits from two different editors, you could just let hit #2 know you are writing something SIMILAR — but not identical already for bla publication, do they care? If you’ve done it right, they won’t.

The other approach is to simultaneously pitch the exact same idea, but to very different, noncompeting markets — say, a regional trade publication in the west, and a city magazine in the east. If their audiences don’t overlap, they’re never going to care.

Editors understand the speed at which news is moving these days, and I think most don’t expect you to sit on an idea for a month or two until they finally get a chance to read it.

This gets back to my basic premise about pros vs amateur writers. Professionals are never sitting around, wishing and wondering if they’re getting an assignment, while newbies can spend weeks and even months fantasizing, agonizing, wishing and hoping that some editor would get back to them. Waiting, and not sending more queries! To make a full-time living at this, you’ve got to be moving forward constantly like a shark, to be frank.

Literally the minute I send a query, I have moved on to other activities. I might well send 10 queries on the same topic in a day, to various markets.

So get out there and pitch, people! More pitching means more shots at landing an assignment.

#1 Way to Make Sure You Don’t Make a Living Writing

Did that headline surprise you? You might think I’d write a post on “#1 way to make sure you make a good living.”

But I’m seeing so many freelancers out there making grave mistakes that are costing them a chance to make good money that I am unable to contain myself. I need to say something. And that something is: stop selling yourself short.

There’s been a lot of chat on my LinkedIn Editors and Writers Group about writing for the content mills — Demand Studios, Helium, Associated Content, etc. Some very experienced writers were saying that things are slow now so they’ve taken to writing for these sites, which generally pay $15 an article.

And this, people, is the top way to make sure you don’t make a good living — spend hours and hours of your time writing extremely low-paying content. It doesn’t have to be for a content mill site — could be for a chop house that sets you up with some law firm’s Web site or whatever. But the pay is under $20 an article.

Let me count the ways this destroys your money earning chances:

1) It lets prospective clients know that you’re willing to work for $15 an article.

2) It sucks up precious time you should be spending prospecting for good-paying work.

3) It demoralizes you and makes you feel bad about yourself and your writing abilities.

4) It teaches you to write junk you toss together in a half-hour, instead of helping hone your writing chops.

A lot of new writers are lured to these sites because pretty much everyone is accepted — there’s no rejection. These sites are great for professionals in other fields who want to promote their services or their ebook or whatever. But they’re a terrible sinkhole for writers.

An hour spent prospecting could get you a client that pays $500 an article, or a copywriting client that pays $85 an hour. Just one assignment from them would make up for hours and hours of writing for the content mills.

The question to ask yourself is, do you enjoy working 120-hour weeks? Or would you prefer a 30 hour week. I personally work a 30-hour week, maybe 35 tops, and make a full-time living. I do that buy taking work that pays well. Because you only have so many hours, that’s the only way to make freelance writing have a good quality of life.

So remember, you’re worth it! And keep looking for clients who value your expertise.

Copywriting + Social Media Skills = Big Money

I hear a lot of despair from new writers over the $15-an-article content mills they see online. I’m always encouraging writers to ignore the Internet sweatshops and look for good-paying work. And yesterday, I learned about a great example of a niche where the pay is great and the outlook is for growth.

I took a free Webinar from copywriter Chris Marlow on how to combine your copywriting and Web content skills with social media knowledge to earn really good money.

She had study data that the most commonly quoted rate for this combined service package was $300 an hour. $150 an hour was the lowest price quoted!

Among the service niches she described in this arena:

* Helping companies set up profiles on social media such as FaceBook and LinkedIn

* Helping companies defend their reputation on social media sites from rude comments about their products or services

* Ghost blogging for the company or executives

* Helping companies promote their offerings and helping them devise an event schedule for making sure they are regularly appearing in social media.

For those of us who already have — or are interested in obtaining — copywriting skills, and are dabbling in social media, it doesn’t sound like too much of a leap to acquire this expertise. Personally, I’m dabbling on Twitter, in part to learn more about how social media is evolving.

Marlow teaches a class in this topic that provides lots more details, I gather…maybe something to consider for the blog-savvy who would like to start really making good money off their online skills!

Food for thought for new writers who maybe have been blogging and are interested in copywriting…or maybe have a couple copywriting samples put together and are interested in social media.

Making a Full-Time Living From Freelance Writing

I discovered today that I’ve inspired a discussion on the FreelanceWritingGigs site about what it means to make a full time living from writing. My answer seemed to be different than everyone else’s.

Lorna Doone Brewer, writing in their “Fun Stuff” blog, picked up on my comment to site owner Deb Ng that she should raise her rates, as she’s always complaining about working very long hours. This led to a discussion about what the minimum wage is in your state! As if making the minimum wage would be desirable.

Here’s my response:

I think freelance writers tend to think in terms of eking out a living. Ooh, if I can just manage to make $20,000 a year, wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Meanwhile, there’s an alternative universe where really motivated, efficient, excellent writers are making four or five times that. We’re making really good livings. Like, I took my family of five on an Alaska cruise a couple summers ago with what I made from just one copywriting client. I make more now than I did as a fulltime reporter.

There seems to be an assumption that freelancing means making less–that you must trade lots of income for the freedom you get. But in my experience, that’s only true if you think it is.

I encourage the writers I mentor to envision how to make a really comfortable living with their work, how to mix in some really high-paying work to enable them to also write lower-paying work they may really love, while not living on bean burritos. I’m definitely a fan of Peter Bowerman and The Well-Fed Writer and share his philosophy that being a freelancer does NOT have to mean starving.

I think the content mills have really encouraged the poverty mindset. But if you change your mindset to an abundance mindset, there is sooo much good-paying writing work out there. I made more than $6,000 in a week earlier this year on just one rush project.

Another example: I had a large client I was billing at $85 an hour. At the end of 2007, I was encouraged by other freelance-writer friends to ask for a raise to $95. I got some resistance, but they went for it–and wow was I glad! I later learned most of their other writers got $125 so I was still a deal…and of course shortly afterward the economy went down and it would have been impossible to ask for a raise at that point. But believing in myself there probably meant an extra $10,000 or so I earned over the course of the next couple years, for doing the very same thing I was before–it turned out to be a busy time with lots of work. If I had a poverty mindset, I’d still be earning my old wage, working more hours to get to the same place.

What Writers Can Do When They Don’t Have ‘Connections’

I recently got a blog post from new writer Carolyn Davidson asking for advice. She wanted to get a screenplay produced, but lamented that she had no Hollywood “connections.” So therefore, she could never accomplish this goal.

To which I say: Ha!

I say that because I never had any inside connections to get started in writing. I am a college dropout with no writing-industry connections.

How did I break into writing? One word: contests. Two contests I entered early on in my writing career really set me on my way.

The first was for the Los Angeles Weekly. It was their 10th anniversary and they held an essay contest looking for stories about the past decade in L.A. Well, I had moved back to L.A. after dropping out of college exactly a decade before, and it was like they designed the contest just for me. As I recall, they paid me $200 as one of several winning entrants.

To say that this changed my life would not be an exaggeration. I was at that time a starving songwriter, paying to four-wall dives on Hollywood Blvd. A kind of writing they pay YOU for? I was hooked.

My second contest was held by the Los Angeles Times real estate section. They were soliciting tales of do-it-yourself home improvement. Since my husband and I had been fixing up our hovel-house for years, making tons of lame mistakes along the way, once again it was a contest tailor-made for me.

Even better than winning contests and earning a few hundred dollars, each of these wins led me to long-term relationships with editors I wrote for for years afterwards. The L.A. Weekly and I didn’t hit it off so well, but the few pieces I wrote there allowed me to transition over to their rival at the time, the L.A. Reader. I wrote for them for years, including cover features (paid $300! a fortune to me at the time).

The editor of the real estate section also wanted me to write for him. I wrote section covers for him for years, until I moved away from L.A. That’s right, about 8 months into starting to dabble in freelance writing, I was writing for one of the largest newspapers in the country! Contests can really save you a lot of slogging up the food chain in writing and get your work in front of influential editors.

Three pieces of advice specific to Carolyn’s situation and how to break in with a screenplay.

One: Surprise! It’s contests. A search of my online-supported Writer’s Market reveals roughly 100 screenplay contests. There’s about another 100 for playwrights. Look through those, Carolyn, and find contests you’re right for, and enter! It can open a lot of doors — sure did for me.

Two: As a former entertainment-industry legal secretary, I can tell you that many studios and agents look at unsolicited scripts. They’re always hoping to find that out-of-left-field hit from somebody new. Or they have professional readers look at them and give them a quick sense of whether they’re any good. Study the industry and find people who might give your script a look. They’re out there.

Three: Social media. There’s really never been an easier time to connect with people than right now. Search Twitter or LinkedIn for “script producer” or other key words for your industry, and try to connect with some of those people online. Some will refuse, but some won’t. Join online forums for newbie screenwriters and learn from your peers. Doing a quick search, I see LinkedIn has one called Screenwriters Network Worldwide.

To sum up: get out there, write, find contests, submit, network, and don’t let anybody stop you!

5 Reasons Why Most Freelance Writers Don’t Make Good Money

The talk of my LinkedIn Editors & Writers forum this past week has been a rant by a new writer posted on the blog OnText. You can read the whole screed here, “A Writer Bitches About the Publishing Industry,” but the gist of it is the writer is new to the industry, writing for free for Web sites for exposure, and having difficulty getting anyone to publish his articles on figures in the music industry.

Why, he asks, don’t editors respond to his queries? Why did the local paper offer him just $35 for an article?

In general, he wonders how the whole freelance-writing thing works, and where the money is.

So grab a latte and sit down, because I’m going to tell you how it works.

Why can’t this writer — and most wannabe freelance writers — get published? I’ll give you five reasons.

1. Anyone can write about music. And many, many people do. That tends to make articles about music pay less, and makes the competition very stiff. Think about a niche that’s harder to write about that interests you — actuarial consulting, say, which I personally have made a substantial sum writing about — and try your luck there.

2. Why do newspapers pay so little? Because they’re an industry in crisis. Their ad sales are way down. Many papers are going out of business. Even major papers have cut their rates. To get more pay, research better paying markets — The Writer’s Market is a good place to do that — and pitch them instead.

3. Why don’t editors respond to your queries? Likely because they are overwhelmed with work. Most editors I know work very long hours. If they want to buy an article or give you an assignment, I can promise you they’ll be in touch.

Another reason may be that you don’t write strong queries and don’t come across as a professional, so they’re blowing you off.

Another possible reason: You’re sending in completed articles that aren’t compatible with the style, tone and length requirements of the publication. New writers do that a lot. When you’re a new writer, you should try to get assignments so that you know you’re writing something the publication actually wants. Saves a lot of effort writing articles no one wants.

4. No one owes you a living as a freelance writer. This blogger has a real hostile attitude about their lack of progress in getting paying writing assignments. Makes me wonder if that tone comes through in their communications with editors. Because bud, nobody owes you a living in this trade, and that attitude may be turning editors off big-time.

5. Maybe you just don’t write well. There. I’ve said it. A lot of writers who write for the free sites are on there, and not in Rolling Stone or Fast Company or wherever, because they’re not super-talented. If they are truly talented and believe in themselves, then they will be able to work their way up the freelance food chain to better and better paying writing jobs.

Doing that takes an inner drive, writing talent, self-discipline, and a willingness to listen to editors and write what they want. With this newbie, I’m sensing maybe one or more of these elements are missing.

Writers — Don’t Help Your Editor Rip You Off!

Recently read this tale of freelancer woe on the Web site of freelance writer Robert Felton under the title “Editorial Ethics and Respecting Respect,” about how he got ripped off by an editor. His story:

“After returning from a trip, I was talking on the phone with the editor of a magazine for which I occasionally write. We chatted about a number of ideas for his magazine, including one we both thought was interesting. I followed up with an email, to which he replied that the magazine was seriously considering the story idea we had discussed. He then asked me for more information.

I did my research and put out a HARO on the idea. I forwarded the relevant emails to him and reiterated my interest in doing the story. I heard nothing for a while. Then, yesterday, I opened the most recent issue of the magazine to find the exact same story idea written by the editor and based on the sources I had provided.

I emailed him and heard back this morning. His explanation was that another story fell through and he wrote the story quickly. He apologized and told me that since his magazine is a small niche market, I shouldn’t have any trouble reselling the idea.

What do you suggest I do?”

Here’s my response:

You made a mistake here, Robert…why on earth would you forward all your source contacts to your editor? I’ve never done that in my life, ahead of turning in a story. Are you a very new writer, and felt maybe you had to prove you knew how to find sources or something? A little mystified there.

That sort of handed them the ability to do the story easily themselves. Keep your source contact info to yourself! And it won’t happen again. When I query, I might mention that I know a top expert in this field who’s a university researcher, or whatever…but I tend to not say their names. Or if I do, I certainly don’t provide their emails and phone numbers!

Here’s more bad news: This client is unethical. They should have at least TOLD you this was happening, even though you were kinda dumb to hand them your sources. You shouldn’t ever open a magazine to discover they’ve ripped off your idea. If I were you, I’d move on and never work with them again. If as he said it’s a resellable idea I’d get busy reselling — and use those resales to establish new editor relationships elsewhere.

Yet more bad news: Story ideas are not copyrightable or protected in any way. Same with story headlines. So there’s no recourse when this kind of thing happens. You can only learn not to deal with that person again and move on.