This post originally appeared on my blog Caroline in the City in 2017 and has been updated.
Last year was my first as a full-time freelancer. I’ve learned a lot since I started back in 2010 to say the least. I’ve made mistakes when it comes to invoicing and the amount of pay I am willing to accept. I’ve thought a lot about what I wish I’d known back then and also reached out to some of my colleagues. This post is a summation of ways to avoid these mishaps when you’re a new writer.
- Pitch vague. Don’t send an editor an email that says “I’d love to write for Big Name Publication” if you don’t have any prior relationship or pitch ideas. It will be going straight into the trash. And if you do pitch, follow up no more than twice. If you don’t hear back after any of those, assume they’re not interested.
- Pitch a story you’re not qualified to write. Don’t pitch a story you have no knowledge or research on. Also, don’t pitch a story that makes no sense for that publication. Do your research.
- Solicit strangers for editorial contacts. This one happens to be every now and then and can be frustrating. People say, “I see you’ve been published by National Geographic Traveler, can I have the editor’s email?” Don’t reach out to your fellow writers out of the blue to ask for their hard-earned editorial contacts. It’s okay to ask people you know and have a prior relationship with, but don’t expect everyone to hand them out.
- Limit yourself to a small niche. If you only want to write about one topic for a few publications, you’ll have trouble finding work. Diversity is key.
- Pitch completed stories. Most publications want you to send a preview, not the whole movie, because that way they can adapt for their outlet. The only time you pitch completed stories if they take it “on spec.”
- Burn bridges through unprofessional emails. Learn how to be forceful without being rude. Proofread your emails before you send them. Be polite by using the correct name (a Mr. or Mrs. is even better) and spelling. Thank them for their time.
- Not be open to criticism. Learn to take edits while not take them personally. That doesn’t mean all edits are good, and you should be willing to negotiate for your work. When you get a rejection, it’s okay to ask what types of pitches would better suit them. Not everything is a personal attack.
- Accept pay less than your worth. This one can go either way. I’ve written stories for free or “exposure” that later led to paid work. But I wouldn’t count on these. Nearly everything is open to negotiation as well. I’ve asked for more money for projects where I had to source photos or turn it around quickly.
- Turn in work late or ask for extensions when it’s your first job for them. Show them why they should work with you again. No one owes you anything. Make sure it follows the guidelines you were given, namely word count. Do some edits on your own before you send it in.
- Plagiarize or use photos you don’t have permission to use. If in doubt, don’t use it. Ask your editor if they have a subscription with a stock photo service and if not, use Flickr Creative Commons. And no no no plagiarism! This includes copy and pasting from press releases and Wikipedia.
- Don’t let your ambition get the best of you. If you’ve never written professionally, it’s probably not a good time to pitch the New York Times. Allow your career to take the winding path that it’s going to, letting each job lead to the next.
- Give up. How do you think writers get to where they are? It’s hard work and commitment.