Lean times are never good news for freelance writers. When companies and clients have less money to spend, freelancers have to work harder than ever to attract -- and keep -- those clients. When budget cuts lead to downsizing, that can also mean more writers competing for fewer assignments. What can a writer do to stay in the game?
Based on a sampling of submissions that have crossed my inbox in recent months, I have a few suggestions. There are, in fact, quite a few simple steps that a writer can take to make his or her work stand out above the rest. And when I say "simple," I do mean simple. I'm not talking about going to night school, getting a degree in rocket science (or at least an MFA), or memorizing fifty new words before breakfast. I'm talking about tiny, basic touches that make the difference between sending the message, "I'm a pro," and sending the message, "I don't know what I'm doing."
1) Put your name on your manuscript! I am amazed by how many submissions I receive that include no byline. Yes, I know that your manuscript came attached to your e-mail -- but it isn't going to stay attached to that e-mail. It's going to go into a folder somewhere on an editor's hard drive, while the e-mail is going to go into some other folder. Months later, when the editor opens that manuscript, he or she may not have a clue who actually wrote it. (Not too long ago I published a manuscript under the wrong author's name, to the profound irritation of both the author who wrote it and the author who didn't.) So take two extra seconds and type your name under the title of your piece.
2) Include a basic cover note or query with your submission. Recently I received a submission attached to an e-mail that contained nothing more than a link to the author's blog. (You know who you are.) It was actually a pretty good article, and we're still thinking about it -- but that blank e-mail left me wondering whether the author supposes these things are read by machines. (Yes, I know, many of you probably do think that editors are machines, but that's only true of some of us. Now where'd I put that oil can...) Showing a little basic courtesy -- "Hello, how are you, I've submitted an article for your consideration, have a nice day!" takes only two or three seconds, and can make the difference between coming across as a writer we'd like to see more of, and one we never want to see again.
3) Get the editor's name right. Starting your query with "Hi there!" does not give an editor the warm fuzzies. Rather, it suggests that maybe you've shotgunned the same pitch to half a dozen editors, and couldn't be troubled to personalize each one. Worse: send me a pitch that is addressed to "Dear Angela" (who happens to be the editor of a competing newsletter!). That's pretty much a dead giveaway.
4) Read the guidelines. I am also amazed by how many queries I receive asking whether I accept articles, what kind of articles I accept, how much I pay, and so forth. Now, I grant that many publications seem to take perverse pleasure in hiding their guidelines from would-be authors, but we're not one of them. This is one of those "separating sheep from goats" things -- by telling me that you didn't click the link, you're telling me you're not a pro. (This also applies to the many e-mails I'm getting lately offering me a free "guest post" for my "blog," having apparently failed to notice that (a) we're not a blog and (b) we don't actually publish articles on travel, nutrition or child care. Seriously -- one writer, having had this pointed out to him, asked, "Well, why is "travel writing" in your navigation menu if you don't publish travel articles?"
5) Put your bio on your manuscript. Most publications will want one if the piece is accepted, so why not save the editor that extra step of having to ask for it?
6) Know the difference between "query" and "submission." It's a small thing, perhaps, but when I get an e-mail labeled "query," and it is in fact a "submission," I wonder a bit. Is it possible that the author does not know the difference? If that's the case, is this an author who ought to be contributing to a publication for writers?
7) Write well. This last should be a no-brainer, but... well, think of it this way. Editors want to get the most value for their money, and part of that means choosing the freelancers who cause us the least amount of work. The more an editor actually has to edit, the less valuable that writer is to us. When someone sends me a piece that is riddled with incorrect punctuation, poor grammar, run-on sentences, lack of subject-verb agreement, etc., I don't actually care if it's otherwise a good article. I make allowances for writers for whom English is a second language -- I couldn't begin to write an article in another language, so I have immense respect for those many authors who can. But if English is your mother tongue, master it!
Now, lest this convey the impression that I'm a bitter, hard-hearted robotic editor, let me now hasten to point out that I have, in fact, bought articles from writers who have made every one of these mistakes. But these errors also leave me shaking my head, because the bottom line is that they make a bad impression. And if you're making a bad impression, it means that you're probably losing sales. Lots of editors have bigger slush piles and harder hearts than I do. It's an old axiom, but true, that you only have one chance to make a good first impression -- so don't waste it!
I opened this editorial with the question, "Who's in Your Corner?" The answer, if you've gotten this far, should be: you. In these economic times, you need to be your own best friend. If you're not in your own corner -- if you're not taking basic steps to impress editors with your professionalism and capabilities -- you could, instead, be your own worst enemy!