Archive for February 16th, 2008

Because I make a living by selling articles, I am constantly fielding questions about how to become a freelance writer. I always oblige, since I’m an ex-instructor, and the teaching instinct is still strong in me. However, I usually sense that they’re disappointed by my answers. For one thing, I came to my profession by desperation more than by the hard-headed planning that career experts and how-to-write magazines are always urging people to adapt. It wasn’t exactly luck (a suggestion that, somewhat inconsistently, I resent), but it wasn’t calculation, either. But, even more importantly, I suspect that the questioners are disappointed by how mundane my answer is. Rather than offering the sort of secret that you normally only get when you go through an initiation and learn the special handshake as well, what I usually tell people is that they need to have consistently good ideas, deliver stories on time, and create a minimum amount of work for editors.

Right away, listeners balk at this answer, because it doesn’t include anything about writing well. That’s partly because, while writing well is a welcome bonus, it’s not a requirement for success so much as a requirement for admission. Unless you are moderately literate to begin with, you probably won’t get a chance to submit your work in the first place because of my third rule; editors are simply not going to allot much time to a writer whose work always needs major corrections. If your ideas are excellent, you may make two or three sales, but eventually the average editor is going to get tired of teaching you basic grammar and structure.

Besides, while editors appreciate quality prose, their immediate concern is filling the vacant slots on their publishing schedule. Once you understand this basic point, the three requirements I listed become self-evident.

Given the pressure that editors are under, a writer who can regularly produce quality ideas is a valuable asset. Few editors have enough of such writers, which means that they are constantly taking a chance on new writers – and new writers, even the best of them, require more maintenance than ones they’re already worked with, who know their quirks and style guides.

Nor is this requirement easy to meet. While teaching first year composition at university, I found that, given reasonable intelligence, almost anyone could be taught to write acceptable prose. But coming up with the ideas that makes that prose worth reading – that’s the hard part, especially when you need several ideas a week. Usually, it means gaining some subject matter expertise so you have something to write about. Also, just as a photographer comes to see the world in terms of possible pictures, you have to develop a part of your mind that is always running in the background, looking for potential stories. And, compared to finding the stories in the first place (and researching them), the actual writing is easy.

The fact that editors are on a schedule also explains the second requirement. If you don’t deliver a story when you said you would, then editors suddenly have to scramble for a replacement – and show me the person who enjoys being inconvenienced in their job. In any business relationship, being able to depend on each other is essential if trust is going to develop, and writing is no different.

That doesn’t mean that most editors are going to develop a permanent grievance if you fail to deliver occasionally, especially for reasons beyond your control. But they would like to know as much in advance as possible so they can fill your slot with something else. Nor are they going to have much sympathy with writer’s block or a desire to talk through every piece of writing you do at great length, although almost all editors are willing to help develop an idea that needs just a bit of fine-tuning. Amateurs and undergraduates can indulge in such pastimes, but what writers need to do is prove themselves professionals.

Editors also need to consider their time. After they’re been in their position a while, they know how long they can afford to work on a particular story and still meet their quota. For instance, if they need to edit four stories a day, that means they can only spend about two hours on each one – less actually, since they have duties such as answering queries and staff meetings. If your submissions constantly take two and a half hours to prepare for publication, their schedule is thrown out. Perhaps they have to work longer hours in order to accommodate you.

Your ability to generate ideas and your dependability may buy you some time to learn, but, eventually, even the most generous-minded editor will have to run the cold equations in their head and conclude that you are more of an asset than a liability.

Even if you’re an expert on a subject, your knowledge only buys you so much grace time. I’ve seen prominent writers dropped because editors tired of proofreading their sub-standard prose or grew tired of their demands for endless amounts of time. And if experts can’t get away with being difficult to work with, what do you think your chances are if you consistently cause problems?

That’s not to say that editors will object if you protest the occasional edit. Most editors are as interested in writing well as you are, even if they don’t always have the time to indulge in it. But it does mean that you should make your protest without personal attacks, and limit it to two or three exchanges.

If the editor does not agree with you, then you either have the choice of withdrawing the work in question from consideration as politely as possible, or accepting their decision with all the grace you can muster. Just make sure that you don’t make the exchange overly personal. Even if you withdraw the story, you may want to sell to that editor again. And, for their part, they may want to buy from you. It’s just that, in one particular case, they rejected rather than accepting you.

These sentiments may sound hard-nosed to you. If so, then the best thing you can do is confine writing to a hobby. Earning a living as a writer requires as much realism as talent. If you can’t cultivate that realism, then chances are that writing isn’t the profession for you, no matter how much talent your friends say you have.

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