A Freelancer’s Guide to the Galaxy

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I get these weird emails once a week, sometimes twice. Normally, a recent college graduate or student wants to write for my site. Why? You ask. Well, aside from the sexy XHTML/CSS re-design from, say, five years ago, Futfanatico is a prestigious cauldron of creativity. Sadly, though, I must turn these budding scribes away. The ad revenue and Kindle subscriptions pay the server fees, but little else.

I still get the odd royalty check from my two eBooks, but freelancing, not blogging, is the path to a stream of revenue from your writing. Yet I see lots of young scribes making rookie mistakes. This post will hopefully help.

I’m going to just assume you are a competent writer. With that as a given, first off, when thinking of freelancing, you need to find a site that you really love. The site’s topic and voice really need to resonate with you. For example, I could never write food bylines at the Drudge Report. Something about the food bylines there just rubs me the wrong way. I can’t explain it, but it’d be a bad fit. Once you’ve found the site(s) you love, you then need to track down the “editor(s)” for that site.

This is where things get really confusing. Why? Because editors have weird titles. “Managing.” “Contributing.” “In Chief.” “Executive.” Based on my limited experience, here is what these titles mean: “Editor-in-chief” is the guy (or gal) who is too cool to follow you on Twitter. “Contributing” is sorta like a freelance editor and doesn’t really contribute all that often. Neither of them are likely to actually green light your pitches. They have an inbox full of much more important emails and unread OK Cupid messages. Also, “Executive”, “General,” and “Managing” editors are the bosses who tell the other editors what to do. Your emails won’t even get past their super-charged spam filters. Ever.

“Social media editors” are normally adorable and fun to play with, but usually only curate a site’s Twitter, Instagram, and other social accounts. They do get paid and do not make jokes about them being interns. Ever. Sadly, they do not green light pitches. You need a no frills, no additional title necessary “editor”. You know, an editor’s editor from back in the day when men were men, heterosexist norms of masculinity led athletes to inject testosterone with abandon, and editors read copy (aka “your writing”). Also, stay way from “Senior Editors.” They tend to be older and cranky. Unless you are pitching about an exciting new series of specials at Luby’s.

Okay, so, step two, use Google and Twitter to stalk down regular editors. You probably should follow them on Twitter as a courtesy, but don’t get desperate. They probably won’t follow you back at first; most of them are big Spice Girls fans and afraid of being labeled a “follow back girl.” Remember this: not getting blocked is really important. This hand needs to be slow played with tact. You don’t need to retweet or favorite everything they do. Instead, get a feel for their interests and/or sense of humor. Did they like The Wire? OMG So did you! Soulmates!

The next step, part three, can be really hard or really easy. It all depends. If you two hit it off on Twitter and they follow you back, then you can DM to ask for an email to send in a “pitch.” Alternatively, some sites have guidelines for submission and editor emails. Once you’ve gotten that email, here comes the hard part, step four, the “pitch email.”

Generally, as a rule of thumb, a pitch email is a single paragraph where you tell the editor what you want to write about for their site. You include the subject, the unique angle, and also sometimes a word count. Oftentimes, veteran freelancers will tell you to put in the subject line: “PITCH:……” followed by your story idea. The hardest part, of course, is coming up with the innovative and creative story idea. Here’s an example from real life (and if you copy this idea my legal department will sue you to Kingdom Come):

Sometimes your idea will totally blow away the editor and you’ll get greenlit (approved) within minutes. Other times, like above, your idea may be too revolutionary for the present era, even if you and I both know said story would have led future generations to eternally sing your praises. An editor will sometimes respond with a suggestion or a slight change of subject. BE FIRM. This is your idea. They can take it or leave it. Nobody should be the boss of you. Never doubt your principles. If you compromise today, how far will you be pushed tomorrow?

While most freelancers put the “PITCH plus story idea” in the subject line of that first email, as a new writer, you sometimes need to bend the rules a bit to get noticed. Everybody has an email and knows what a slog it can be to sort through emails. To make your initial email stick out, you can try something in the subject line that catches the eye like, say, an all caps factually inaccurate observation: “YOUR CAR HAS BEEN BROKEN INTO PLEASE CALL SECURITY ASAP.” Think of it from the editor’s perspective. If you have two email subject lines in front of you and one is the above and the other is: “Pitch: Why Casemiro is Real Madrid’s Soft-spoken Savior”, which would you click on to read?

So you’ve sent your pitch email. Here comes step five, which raises some thorny legal issues. I can’t address them and offer legal advice, but I do urge you to seek counsel. Basically, you’ve sent a brilliant pitch and rather than get a yes, no, or maybe, you get silence. Nada. Zero response. No, resist your urge to SWAT anybody. Rather, remember: persistence pays off. After all, Jamie Vardy did not become a role model citizen and star player within a year. If more than thirty minutes pass sans response, don’t sweat it. The editor may be riding the subway with crappy cell reception on his or her way to an important editor conference where the Oxford Comma will be discussed.

Longer than thirty minutes, though, and it’s time to compose a collected and very tactful follow-up email(s). Take this example, also from real life:

My legal department has advised me to not tell you to literally stalk people on Lexis-Nexis, contact their loved ones, and loiter on their front porches for hours on end. Thus, I cannot tell you to do that per se. But I’m not going to tell you not to do so. Who am I to clip your wings before you even learn to fly? I will tell you that a long and rambling follow-up email probably will not be effective. Instead, attack in numbers and pepper the editor’s email inbox daily with two-paragraph salvos. This also works when laying siege to a city with mortar fire.

Okay, so, you got a pitch green-lighted, you are a brilliant writer and submitted some fine copy, and it got published. Ideally, after step four, but before turning in your feature, you agreed to rates with the editor. I am a pushover on rates because I was a blogger so long, but there are spreadsheets to give you a general idea for each online site and magazine. Do not expect to get paid immediately. 30-90 days is the norm. The editor normally has little-to-do with this part of the equation. Instead, direct your ire at the never-ending revolving carousel cast of Accounts Receivables trolls. They hate you as much as you hate them.

Lastly, and perhaps the hardest part, is step six, the continued relationship. You can get excited about being published and having a new acquaintance via email, but don’t overpitch. Also, most importantly, never EVER forget that editors are not your “friend.” They look at you as a teenage boy gawks at a super model poster on his bedroom ceiling. You are nothing to editors but a steaming hot pile of bounty-licious copy to be extracted and then the shell discarded when it’s all said and done. Editors often congregate at pool halls late at night and over a rambunctious game of billiards brag about freelancers they’ve “tagged” aka “edited.” “Yeah, well, I once edited a feature by Hunter Wright Thompson.” “So what. I edited a Brian Phillips column for six months.” “Wooooooooaaaahhh.”

Remember to play the game, don’t get played by the game. That is all.

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