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So you want to be a freelancer? Tips for surviving the first years

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BY WILLIAM FUNK
A year ago last January I was determined to become a full-time freelancer, swearing off the legal work that had kept the lights on for years.
I had little experience and knowledge of the trade. I’d published occasional magazine pieces in the last few years, but I hadn’t taken a writing class, studied journalism or learned the art and science of crafting pitches editors would actually read and perhaps assign. Still, the allure of an independent and creative career were too much to ignore so with little planning I leapt into the endeavor and the financial anxiety that comes with it.
The vision of hammering industriously away on a laptop from your couch — bare feet propped comfortably on the coffee table and cup of tea at hand, queries and submissions winging their merry way into the ether, your name in lights (or at least in print) and occasional checks appearing in the mailbox while your buddies stew away in their high-rise hutches — is a persuasive enough picture to jump into the freelance world. But for those considering the plunge, I wish to share my story — not to dissuade you, but to help you prepare better than I did.
My previous publishing history had been generally limited to hook-and-bullet magazines issued by a couple of state wildlife agencies in my native South, but like all of us I aspired, perhaps a bit too hastily, to place stories in the rarified pantheon of the principal national publications. So having done minimal research on the freelancing market I pitched my very first proposal as a wholly independent writer in January 2013 to National Geographic, an act of supreme insolence born of simple ignorance. Addressed simply to “Features Editor” and lacking a letterhead or return envelope, my idea would necessitate a trip to Africa and the services of a seasoned wildlife photographer and professional guides to undertake safaris in five different countries. A modest proposal, but somehow I failed to hear back.
Much sweat and toil has been expended on my personal education since then and I like to think I have somewhat sharpened my approach to editors. I no longer regard editors as aloof demigods dispensing cold silence or soulless rejections from their elegant penthouse suites. Instead I see them as working stiffs like myself dealing with hectic and demanding schedules.
Once you piece together the multifaceted puzzle of querying, of making a frantically busy editor hesitate over the delete button just long enough to read your subject line, and then the email body, and then the attachment, half your job is done.
The associate editors who do most of the grunt work at the big magazines are not ultimately the target for your pitch. It’s the readership itself, as embodied in senior editorial staff and ultimately in the publisher, that you must sculpt your proposal to suit because like Caesar enthroned at the gladiatorial arena, they are the ones with the final say as to whether your story lives or dies.
My work day starts with reading the news, checking email and then going through my queries folder to ascertain the status of various pitches. For non-time sensitive stories I try to give the editor two weeks before politely asking whether the idea is still under consideration. I repeat this weekly a few times and if there is still no reply (which happens), I send one last email notifying the editor of my intentions to pitch elsewhere if I don’t hear back shortly. Numerous times this email has gotten a response with an apology and a reference of a swamped inbox.
If no reply is forthcoming, or if the editor passes on the story, I repackage it for another pitch crafting it carefully to fit the editorial style and needs of a different publication. It really is a matter of finding the sweet spot of the right story reaching the right editor at the right time. Half a dozen editors rejected one idea before another bought it. It was assigned three months after the initial pitch by a British history magazine for whose audience the subject matter (an outbreak of violence in early twentieth-century Kentucky) was enticingly exotic.
One acceptance can instantly erase months of bitter slogging, but the thing to remember is not to take even the silent treatment personally. As a mentor advised, if you hear back it means something and if you don’t hear back it doesn’t mean anything.
I’m still a neophyte in the freelance world, but I can offer one piece of advice. Utilize groups like OWAA that offer educational opportunities and a network of people that can share the ups and
downs of a creative life and even offer some advice on how to survive.
With talent and stubbornness, freelancing can be a workable and even gratifying vocation. ♦
— William H. Funk is a freelance writer and documentarian and an environmental attorney based in Staunton, Virginia. He is determinedly grinding away at the big markets while trying to keep the lights on.
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