Being a freelance writer in New Hampshire is a lot different than New York. The pool of editors and publications is small and breaking in anywhere with a national circulation is almost impossible. That doesn’t mean you can’t do at least a little freelance writing on the side, especially if you have good ideas and you know how to package them.
Last weekend, I taught a one-day freelance writing workshop at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, and this message was one to which I kept returning. The Loeb School is a small non-profit focused on fostering an interested and spreading knowledge about all things media, so the students ranged from high schoolers to retirees. All were very interested in writing and incredibly engaged, bringing great ideas with no clue how to get them in front of an editor. Here’s what I told them:
- Be able to write
This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many people underestimate the importance of high-quality writing, even those who aspire to be one. All you need to know about writing for a publication comes in two books. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and the Associated Press Stylebook. When editors say use AP style when formatting your story, this is the book that will tell you how to do it.
- Know how to identify a story
“Why should I care?” If you even get to talk to an editor, you’re likely to hear one say this when you first start out. A story worthy of publication should be something that affects a significant number of people, not just you and your friends. It should reveal new and interesting details about something people are doing, not something we’ve read 100 times. It is something out of the ordinary, even stunning, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be something we look at every day. A story should have a new way of looking at that thing. I also believe a good story provides a glimpse of humanity, whether it is joy, struggle or loss. Some people are gifted storytellers, while others have to practice. I had to practice.
- Network like crazy
This is the most important step. No freelance writer making a living today doesn’t network his butt off. NH Writers’ Project, NH Creative Club, and NH Media Makers are good places to start. The people you meet in those groups can help you find other ways to meet editors and writers, plus give you their own tips. Get cards and contact information. Follow up. Invite people for coffee and drinks. Hate doing it? You certainly aren’t the only aspiring writer with an aversion to the social sphere. If you really want it, you’ll do it.
- Practice pitching
My workshop focuses a lot on writing pitch letters, a subjective craft to be sure. There are online templates for query letters out there, but so much of the pitch format has to do with what the specific editor wants that all you can really do is keep throwing darts at the board and hope one lands on bulls eye. What you should be thinking more about is how to make the story sound interesting, keeping it short, and showing the editor there’s a great way to package it in her publication. If you send enough pitches, an editor might even take pity on you and spend a few moments telling you what you’re doing wrong and how they can be better.
- If you do get an assignment, be perfect
I got fired from one of my first freelance writing jobs because I couldn’t deliver a quality product on time. That’s the last time I did that. Make your deadlines. Deliver exactly what the editor wants, no more, no less. Punctuation, spelling, correct names, titles and quotes – these should be perfect, or as close to perfect as you can be. Having clean copy is my own personal white whale, so I get how hard it can be, but if you want to get hired again, putting in the effort is worth it.