Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Freelancing: a survival guide (of sorts)
I have spent the last 9 years of my life fairly immersed in the world of periodicals and it occurs to me that, as both an editor and a writer in that business, I might have some words of wisdom to impart to others about how one might go about getting published as a freelance writer for quilting magazines and some advice for those newbies whose work is accepted. Or I could be just talking smack, who knows? Point is, that is what I feel like writing about today. Another day, it could have been chicken recipes. It's all a crapshoot with me.
People often wonder how they can "break in" when they've never been published before, and yes, the truth is this can be somewhat difficult. An editor will very often want to see your past work to get an idea of what you can do, but, in my opinion, a good editor will realize that a selection of published pieces—particularly if they are from small, local publications—is not necessarily the best indicator. In local markets, good writers are hard to come by because the pay is shit, and so small publications will sometimes hire bad writers and clean up the shitty writing they turn in. It's like hiring somebody to to the leg work of the interviews and research and then writing a piece based on their "notes." I know this from having re-written a LOT of articles myself, and from seeing writers' portfolios when I was hiring them and then comparing it to the work they eventually turned in.
If I were in a position to hire writers now, I would actually ask to see unpublished work as well as published, and I would put far more weight on the quality of the unpublished work that I knew had not been magically fixed by editor elves. But that's just me. Other editors who have corporate overlords to appease may not be able to make the same kinds of decisions, but I guarantee you there are some editors out there who, if they don't already see it my way, can be persuaded. An editor may be more likely to consider a fully written article that meets their needs from an unpublished author than taking a chance on assigning a piece to an untested writer who may or may not deliver, so keep that in mind.
So my first piece of advice for unpublished freelancers is: Get yourself a writing portfolio, even if all of that writing is unpublished. But there are caveats!
The writing you place in your portfolio should be writing of the type you wish to do for publication. Do not include your blog posts, and for the love of all that is good and holy in this world, do not include poetry. Do not include your kinky alien abduction/vampire/octopus erotica. (Unless you're submitting something to me, then totally include that.) You need to write some articles. Are you hoping to work with a magazine that publishes lots of how-to's? (How To Get Great Summer Legs; Where To Find The Best Babysitter). Then write some. You'll be called on to pitch story ideas eventually, so start working on that now, and get yourself a list of ideas that suit the publications you are interested in and write some of them. If you're lucky, one of them might eventually get published, but even if it doesn't it won't be time wasted. You'll gain experience and have something that is not in free verse or possibly grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
If you want to target a particular publication, read it. Don't just flip through the pages; really read it and read more than one issue. Most publications use AP style or Chicago for certain details, but that isn't your main concern. You want to get a feel for the flavor of the writing they publish. GenQ is laid-back, a little sassy, definitely fun and friendly. Other publications have a more serious tone or maybe something in between. If you submit an article to Generation Q, it probably shouldn't have the same style as one you submit to Butt-Clenched Quilters Monthly.
Same goes for the ideas you pitch or the topics of the articles you submit. Be sure you think the topic is one that the editors at Butt-Clenched Quilters might just leap on (assuming they can unclench long enough to leap). This may seem self-evident, but I have myself pitched ideas about things like skill tutorials only to be told "We don't do how-tos." No discussion. So if you note that a publication ONLY has fabric designer profiles, don't pitch "101 Ways To Make A Quilt That Is Basically A Reproduction of a Traditional Design And Call It Your Own," even if you think they should publish such things. After you are a beloved and trusted member of their freelancing staff, then you can try pitching the crazy stuff and try to convince them why it would work (but realize that that big publications answer to corporate overlords who may not let them stray far from an already established editorial structure).
For most publications, you will be called upon to provide photos for your article if the article necessitates it and most do. Depending on the topic, you may need to take those photographs yourself, so educate yourself as much as humanly possible about photography. If you only have access to your cell phone camera, you're going to have to invest in a better one or borrow one. If you typically use an email client to send photos, be sure you know how to access the full-size file of your digital images, because those are what you need to send. Email programs, and things like iPhoto and Picasa, often have defaults for reducing the file size of a photo to make it easier and faster to email, but those smaller images can't be printed onto paper at the dimensions necessary for magazines. Most of today's digital cameras take pictures that are of a sufficient size for print, as long as you have the camera set to full resolution and you send the full-size, original file. A full-size image should, these days, be well over a megabyte, and more like 5 MB or bigger.
(A word about DPI: most publishers will tell you that an image will need to be "300 dpi" for print, but if you have the means to look at your own photos, they will most likely be 72, which is the typical resolution of a computer screen. Don't panic and don't necessarily try to Photoshop it up to 300. In print, we worry about "effective dpi" more than actual dpi. A digital image that is only 72 dpi but is huge in its dimensions (like 20 inches by 20 inches or more) will have a higher "effective" dpi when it is reduced to the dimensions needed for print. Having said that, however, many editors do not get this and it's impossible to know ahead of time whether they will pass a photo onto the graphics people for approval, or whether they've been trained to say nay to anything with a dpi under 300, no matter how big it actually is. If they are the latter type, be prepared to convert it in Photoshop, but remember to set up the conversion so that the size is proportional to the dpi, so that when you raise the resolution, it reduces the dimensions accordingly.)
If you don't and can't take your own shots (say for an interview conducted over the phone with Quilty McFamouspants, who lives in Borneo with her six cats and a lover named Studly McBeefypants), you will have to arrange for the article subject (or subjects, depending) to provide photos. This can be easy, especially when Ms. McFamouspants has been through this drill before and has plenty ready to go and already knows what's required. Wonky McNewbiepants, however, hasn't been featured or interviewed before, so all that stuff I told you above about the cell phone and the full-size and the dpi and whatnot, you're going to have to communicate to her. It's not always easy, so don't wait until the last minute. Tell her you need them two weeks or more before you actually need them.
Also, when you are interviewing people for articles, neverneverneverneverNEVER promise them when an article will be published. NEVER DO THIS. I don't care if the editor told you that your piece was, her hand to God, definitely and without question, going to be published in the November issue, may lightning strike her own beloved mother dead if it doesn't. I guarantee you it won't make it into the November issue and her sainted mother will be alive and un-zapped. I once had a freelancer who had the balls to call me and chew me out because he promised the restaurant owners he wrote about that their piece would be in the next issue, and it turned out we had to bump it for space. He even had the gall to tell me how this hurt his reputation and demanded I call the restaurant and apologize. I called the restaurant and apologized that the writer was a total dick and then I fired him. There are very good reasons why articles have to be bumped and generally it is not just because the editors are doo-doo heads. Other articles which do have to be in a particular issue because they are seasonal may come in longer than expected or advertising may be sold at the last minute. Space is constantly being massaged in the publication process, and when a piece is bumped it is usually for space reasons and can't be helped. Don't take it personally—the piece will go in eventually (probably). (The other crap thing about this is that you won't get paid until the article is actually published. You'll note that the contract you receive when they hire you says that you will receive payment after publication. More on that later.)
If you are lucky enough to get a pitch or a story accepted, be sure your copy is super clean. Check for typos and errors and then check it again. Editors LOVE writers who can not only construct a good, tight story, but also those who know what the hell a spell-check is for and know how to use it. And if you have a deadline, meet it. Period. Yes, those same editors may play fast and loose with their own deadlines, but you should not. Just consider this a point of pride.
Once the article is out of your hands, it is, truly, out of your hands and, in many ways, it no longer belongs to you. The publication has paid you for it (or they will, eventually. More on that later.), so now it's pretty much theirs to do with as they please. Once they have it, you might discover that a precisely turned phrase, one you labored over for days, one you were sure would, on its own, earn you a Pulitzer, has been changed or even cut. Tough. Them's the breaks. The editors have final say about what goes in a magazine and have the right and responsibility to change things as they see fit. (Jake and Melissa will start howling because I do fight them over things in my humor articles, but that is because those are creative writings and I often phrase things very carefully, sometimes using incorrect grammar or syntax in order to make a point or reveal a character. What they feel is a "correction" might interrupt the flow of a sentence if it is meant to sound a certain way. I generally don't engage in these fights for my regular articles, but if I do, I say I have enough experience as a writer and editor to do so.) It's like having a kid and letting her go on to drop out of college become a stripper at the Boom Boom Room and not interfering because it's her life and if she wants to have dollars stuffed in her thong every night instead of becoming a dental hygienist, then that's just what you have to let her do. Yep. It's just like that.
It can be hard to get paid, so be prepared to ask and ask again where your check is. It's probably best not to depend on the income you get from freelancing for anything vital like insulin or food. I can't speak for ALL publishers, but many take their sweet time about paying. Back at Quilter's Home, I always had to get my editor, Jake, to make calls and send emails for me, and my W-2s were forever being misplaced and my contracts for each article never sent to me. "Well, we can't pay you without a W-2 and a contract!" It can be hard, too, to realize that, not only will you not get paid until after publication, publishers often have a schedule for when they cut checks and it might be several weeks after the actual publication or release date. Seriously, freelancer checks are like happy little surprises in the mail.
And I should not have to say this, but I've seen it often enough that I'm going to: don't copy and paste stuff from the internet and call it your own writing. Don't do it. As an editor, I could tell when a writer had done this and all I had to do was Google the text in question to confirm it. One writer did an entire article this way. I caught it immediately.
Freelancing will probably not make you rich. No, make that definitely. But there's a lot of satisfaction that comes from getting published and seeing your name in print, and a great way to be a part of the quilt world if designing patterns and fabric isn't your thing. It can also be a fun sideline in your off-hours at the Boom Boom Room.
In a future post, I'll talk about article writing itself and give you some tips for how to construct a well-written piece as well as what kinds of add-on information editors like to see. Or it might be pictures of socks. It's all a crapshoot with me.