BY KATY SPENCE
As a newcomer to OWAA’s annual conference and to the freelancing world, I found the Meet the Editors panel, at the July conference was a treasure trove of advice on how to get published, and most importantly paid, for novices like me. It also offered insight for experienced freelancers into specific publication needs and how to adapt as media continues to change.
Here are some of the things I learned.
- Nurture relationships with editors. Nearly every editor on the panel emphasized that writers who build a reputation of solid stories get more assignments and more creative freedom in the future. Good relationships are built on respect and ethics.
- Market yourself. More magazines are assigning stories than accepting pitches, but you can groom yourself for a particular publication. Study its content and its readership, and immerse yourself in relevant communities. Jenny Rogers, with Nature Conservancy magazine, has writers who attend relevant public meetings months in advance of a potential feature story, which can result in short, but frequent, department update pieces.
- Timing is everything. Familiarize yourself with the magazine’s (and the editor’s) schedule and time your queries and pitches accordingly. Ric Burnley, editor of Kayak Angler, sometimes gets great ideas at the wrong times. If you know the production schedule, you can hit the ideal time for ideas. Follow up on pitches to show editors you’re invested, but don’t expect them to have your pitch filed away for easy access. Be courteous and keep that production schedule in mind when you follow up.
- Build a better pitch. The most important thing in a pitch is to show you are a good writer, said Will Harmon, an editor at Farcountry Press. Sam Lungren, editor of Backcountry Journal, has used writers who sent compelling pitches on other assignments, even if he didn’t accept their story idea.
- Don’t be afraid to call. Many editors are bogged down with email. Matt Soberg, editor of Ruffed Grouse Society magazine, likes to have phone conversations about story ideas with new writers. He said email becomes more appropriate after the initial phone call.
- Establish a niche. Editors need writers with a particular skill or photographers in certain areas. Once you build that relationship, chances are that you can get yourself on a list the editor will use whenever they have a specific need.
- More content, more often. You know the old adage —“Sell, sell, sell.” It’s hard to make a living freelancing, but the more you write, the better chance you have. Several editors mentioned small sectional or department pieces that pay well and aren’t time consuming. It may take half a dozen department stories to equal the pay of a feature, but it’s still money in the bank. Once you get the hang of them, you can knock out a 200-word piece in an hour or two. At $1.50 a word in some cases, that’s not a bad hourly wage.
- Keep up with fads. Editors are hungry for digital content, especially trendy works like social video, which you can see as you browse your Facebook and Twitter pages. Knowing current trends and anticipating future ones will help you stay relevant in the changing world.
- Consider alternate media. Outdoor Life’s Facebook audience is bigger than its print audience, said its editor Andrew McKean. The magazine recognizes that and tries to capitalize on it, using “potato chip content,” or broad pieces without a lot of depth on social media. Much like the short department pieces, this is a solid way to guarantee income, build a relationship and reach a large audience with your work.
- Books are a different ballgame. Harmon prefers emails to phone calls. Book pitches don’t have to be as timely, and they can be broader and more basic. The book agent is quickly becoming a thing of the past and writers usually pitch him directly. Some things don’t change across media, though — Harmon still gets poorly written pitches that go straight in the garbage. ♦
Freelancer faux pas
The editors shared a few of their biggest don’ts when it comes to getting work. So don’t …
- Misspell words in the subject line of a pitch email, or really misspell words anywhere in a pitch.
- Fax. Apparently there are still people who use fax machines for communications. The editors are not among them.
- Pitch stories that ran elsewhere without being upfront about their publication history.
- Share content on social media before the publication prints it.
— Katy Spence interned with OWAA in summer 2016. She is a journalism graduate student at the University of Montana. She enjoys new recipes, new places and old souls.