If I could give just one piece of advice to freelance writers, what would it be? That was a question I was asked earlier this week. It didn’t take long to think of the answer, which is as follows:
Do everything in your power to get a reputation for being reliable.
That’s the dirty secret of freelancing. Most of the time, editors don’t want the most gifted writer or the most magnificent storyteller. They don’t want the person who has the most in-depth knowledge or the person who has spent years researching the subject. Sure, such attributes are very welcome, but when push comes to shove, an editor will ditch all of the above in favour of someone they know to be reliable.
Magazines and newspapers aren’t built on the amazing articles that you’ll remember for months. They’re built on the ballast – the articles that are quite useful, or briefly entertain. Those regular sections and features at the front and back of the mag are arguably a bigger part of the publication’s identity than the big feature articles in the middle.
Crucially, there are more of these good, solid articles than there are big, headlining flashy ones. If you want to make money from freelance writing, then those solid pieces are likely to make up the majority of your income. And while coming up with ideas for them is a good way of getting such jobs, its far easier if editors keep asking you to do them.
The way to get editors repeatedly coming back to you is to carve out a reputation for being totally reliable. Editors don’t want extra work created for themselves. In an ideal world, they’ll get stories that don’t require a single piece of editing, handed in on time. If the magazine uses a semi colon to divide addresses and phone numbers in factboxes, then the editor doesn’t want to waste time changing them from commas in the submitted copy.
As a freelancer, the less work you make for your editor, the better. Follow the brief, meet the deadline, get as close as humanly possible to the word count, and do it with the minimum of fuss. If asked to do a tricky task that requires a lot of hard work, don’t bitch and moan about how much hard work it is – just get on with it and do it right.
It’s a case of looking for ways you can do it rather than looking for excuses why you can’t. Take the problem off the editor’s hands, and deal with it in a way that gives the editor as little tidying up to do as possible. It’s the best way to be handed more ‘problems’ in the future.
There are too many writers out there who want to be the superstar. But many of them can be incredibly frustrating and diva-like to deal with. The smart freelancer aims for a different role – they want to be the player who never has a bad game rather than the one that shows occasional flashes of brilliance but doesn’t fit into the formation.
It’s not the number of times you did something superb that are remembered – it’s the number of times you mess up. And that number should be zero.
The second most important piece of advice? That would be to buy my book. Note, this probably won’t help you with your career.
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