Not to sound like your grade school English teacher or anything, but you know, I hear from freelancers on an almost-daily basis, and sometimes this communication is simply not pretty. It can be pretty terrible to get everything right but then lose an assignment from an editor because you’ve come across as a rookie by using email@example.com as an e-mail address or get a lower pay rate than every other freelancer working for a publication because you’ve failed to ask for more.
Today I’m going to outline for you some of the most common mistakes that are the equivalent of pasting a sign saying “NEWBIE!” on your back for all your editors to see. You want to come across to editors as smart, professional, and experienced (even if you are still new at this) so that they give you the most money possible and respect you for a job well done, not treat you like an intern in training. Here are some of the mistakes I see fairly frequently and why they matter.
Are you making any of them?
1. Having an unprofessional e-mail address
This happens so frequently and it’s always amazing to me. I know far too many writers who use a firstname.lastname@example.org kind of configuration for their e-mail addresses (and they’re not parenting writers!) and it’s always jarring. Worse still is when the “From:” line in their e-mails reads “Mom of 4.” When an editor receives an e-mail from you, it should have your full name on it. Period. Don’t share your e-mail address with your husband or kids and don’t use one e-mail address for both professional and personal communications. No family names, no cute or clever “Writer4You” type phrases, no business names. Your full name. And please, please, please, unless you fancy yourself the next e.e. cummings, capitalize the first letters of your name and surname.
2. Sending complete articles instead of queries
This is typically a lack of confidence issue and unfortunately, the editor sitting on the other side of the desk isn’t going to be impressed. First of all, many editors don’t even accept fully-written pieces, and two, it’s a given that writers who actually make a living at this or are serious about their writing tend to send queries. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a part-time writer or a hobbyist, but if you want to command good rates and be treated like a professional, you have to play the game). If you don’t, that puts you straight into the amateur league. Now, when I say this to writers, they’ll say, “I just want to make sure it’s exactly right for this publication” or “I don’t like writing queries” or “I don’t mind, really, it’ll only take an hour to do” and these are all excuses. The truth is you’re afraid of writing that query and you’re afraid that you won’t meet that standard of the publication. But you won’t know unless you try. And unless you practice your query letters or writing on deadline, you’re never going to get good at it.
3. Not negotiating
A few years ago, a young writer e-mailed me to let me know that she’d gotten her first assignment with a magazine I’d written for a few times. She was super excited but wanted to know about rights– they’d asked her to sign a work-for-hire contract. “Don’t worry about that,” I wrote back to her. “That’s the contract they first send to freelancers. Just write to them and say you’d be more comfortable selling first rights and the editor will immediately send you another contract, no question.” I knew this, of course, given my extensive experience with this publication and because at least a dozen writers I know had been through this before. I told the writer this. So you can imagine my complete and utter shock when I got an e-mail back from her saying, “I decided not to negotiate. I don’t want to risk losing the assignment.” Look, editors EXPECT writers to question clauses in the contract, ask for more money, etc. Seriously, do you know how much haggling takes place between writers and editors? It would put the salesmen at Dilli Haat to shame. Remember, you’re selling a service and they’re buying it. Coming to a price that you both agree on is simply part of the process. Do you really think an editor is going to say, “I’m taking this assignment away because you dared question my authority?” and if so, do you really want to work with this person who clearly is on a power trip?
4. Exaggerating your credentials
This really annoys the crap out of me and I increasingly see Indian freelancers doing it, including experienced ones. If you’ve written for a New York Times blog, there is absolutely NO SHAME in saying you’ve written for NYTimes.com. When you say you’ve been published by The New York Times and an editor assumes you’ve been published by the newspaper (which is more prestigious and much much harder to break into) and later finds out that you’ve only been published on one of their blogs, that editor is not going to be happy. It makes you look amateur and desperate and frankly, dishonest. I’ve had to stop recommending one very experienced freelancer because an editor took me to task for recommending someone who was clearly lying on her website. Don’t do this! When an editor asks you to send your clips from TIME and Forbes and you turn around and send something you’ve written for their blogs, it will reflect badly on you. Similarly, if you’ve been published by the Indian edition of Marie Claire and you’re querying a women’s magazine editor in the US, do mention that. It’s a small industry and Marie Claire, USA is about forty times harder to break into than Marie Claire, India. Don’t think editors don’t know this (or know each other).
5. Being afraid to talk/ask questions of your editor
I’ll routinely get e-mails in my Inbox asking me questions like, “My editor agreed to pay for my travel! In what format should I send my invoice?!” and I’ll be staring at my screen thinking, “Well, hmm, I don’t know. Have you considered asking your editor?” I get this, I totally get this. You’re afraid of asking your editor a question that you think is routine and you don’t want to look stupid or inexperienced and I think that’s great! So much easier to ask a fellow freelancer than an editor (and I don’t mind it one bit, I promise!). But you know, I think part of the whole relationship-building is being able to talk to your editor, pick up the phone and ask a few questions or just jot down a quick e-mail. They’re quite used to getting a variety of questions from freelancers. When I have a few questions for my editors that feel rookie-like or silly to me, I shove them between some of the bigger ones. When I’m asking about deadlines, etc, I might also say, oh, and it would be great help if you could tell me what format you’d like the invoice in so that I can make sure I don’t make your life more difficult, etc. Sometimes, I’ll just ask it straight: “You are paying my travel expenses, right? My tiny freelancer budget might not be able to accommodate flights and hotels. Let me know!” Communication is the only thing that keeps your relationship with your editor (or agent!) smooth, so make sure you have enough of it.
6. Sending more than one idea at a time to editors you don’t know
It’s not a common mistake, but sometimes in our eagerness to please, writers tend to overdo it. We’re thinking, oh, the editor will think me so creative and bubbling with ideas, or that we’re giving an editor so much to choose from, while an editor is thinking, scatterbrain. Or overeager. Or worse, why is this freelancer wasting my time? Sending one brilliant idea instead of five average ones is always a good choice. (Yes, sending five brilliant ones is the best of both worlds, but do it when you know the editor, not your first time around.)
7. Missing a deadline
This isn’t really a rookie mistake as such– I’ve seen far too many experienced writers do it as well– but it’s the way in which a missed deadline is handled that makes you a rookie or a pro. In my experience, and this is a generalization of course, the pros will e-mail or call their editors with a thousand apologies, ask for a new deadline and give the editor enough time to come up with a back-up plan. The rookie freelancer– and I’m not joking about this– will freak out and disappear! Don’t freak out and disappear! If you think you’re going to miss your deadline, step up, take responsibility and talk to your editor so she can schedule something to run instead of your piece.
8. Not standing up for yourself
Editor asked for revision. You did it. Editor asked for a second revision. You lost a bit of that confidence you developed while you were negotiating the contract, but heck, this is business, so you did it. Then the editor came back and said her boss said the focus of the article should be Y, not X like you’d originally suggested, so would you mind changing that, please? You thought about it for, oh two seconds, before e-mailing back and saying of course you don’t mind. You submit the revisions the next day. Then, three months later, you get the e-mail. THE E-MAIL. The one that says that they’re killing your story because you delivered Y when it clearly said in your assignment letter that you would deliver X and they didn’t like the way Y had turned out and would have liked more of X. Anyway, they can’t use it. Here’s your 20% kill fee. Many new writers at this point will, after much complaining to partners, drinking, feeling sorry for themselves, accept the kill fee, and vow to move on with their lives (though how, they don’t know yet). Most professionals I know will get on their writing networks, rant and rave (and swear) and finally write a restrained professional e-mail to their editor referencing all earlier conversations and asking for the full fee. It takes time, sometimes years, for writers (including me) to build up the confidence to go to an editor and say, “Hey, I was in the right here, you need to pay up” but you need to develop this confidence and this attitude. This is a business and you can’t take losses because of someone else’s mistakes. You’ll have to, sometimes, but stand up for yourself anyway. If you don’t, who will?
9. Not reading your contracts
Would it surprise you to know that a lot of writers don’t even read their contracts and that even if they do, a lot of the times they don’t understand what it says? Don’t be that writer. Know what you’re signing because it can come back to bite you in the ass. A contract is a legally-binding document. Know what it means before you put your name on the dotted line. If you don’t understand it, ask a writer friend. Most of us could be legal experts in media law the way we’ve had to spend hours figuring out what all the technical terms mean. (Here’s a post I wrote on what clauses in contracts are deal breakers for me.)
10. Being too brazen
This happens to me all the time and I can’t say it’s ever pleasant. I break into a national magazine or a newspaper or whatever, maybe a market a writer friend of mine had their eye on for a while. I post on FB or Twitter a link to my published piece, and within minutes, I receive an e-mail of the “Congratulations! Mind sharing the name of your editor?” variety. You know what? It pisses me off. It pisses a lot of people off. The only way to react, unless this person is your BFF, is to say congratulations and leave it at that. (It’s not that writers mind sharing contacts with their networks, though some do, but getting e-mails asking for contact info two minutes after you’ve posted a link to your published piece just rubs most people the wrong way.)
Finally, the very last thing far too many writers get wrong?
11. Not aiming high enough
They’ll write for that local rag for years not knowing that the same story ideas could have sold to national magazines for ten times the rate and many times more the prestige. It’s scary and intimidating and certainly a lot less comfortable to pitch a new editor instead of one that already loves you and pays you, but if you want to be a career writer, you must keep growing and aiming higher, whether that’s in terms of money, prestige, complexity of assignments or something else. You can do it. People far less smart and far less accomplished than you are making full-time incomes with their words. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t, too.
I’d love to hear from you! What are the mistakes you made during your first few years of freelancing and what did you learn from the experience?