Ten Things I Learned in Twenty Plus Years as a Freelance Writer



1. If you want to become rich, go back to school and become a lawyer or doctor. Yes, there are rich writers but the odds are against you. That’s not to say you won’t become one of them, it’s just to say if you’re in it for the money, it’s no place for you. Most freelance writers have full-time, or at least, part-time jobs. If seeing your name and something you’ve written in print sends you into orbit, then you’ll make a good writer.

2. If you’re a hardheaded person, writing is not for you. Very few editors will work with someone who is stubborn. One editor wrote he received an article he liked but it needed work in order to fit into his magazine. He called the writer, explained the changes needed and asked the writer to rewrite the article. When the editor received the rewrite, all the writer did was change a few words. So he called the writer again and tried to get the writer to agree to the changes needed. The writer fought many of the changes but the editor was able to get enough changed to publish the article. However, after that, whenever the editor received anything from that writer, he simply put it into the SASE and returned it unread.

3. Too many people think they can write for publication without learning how to write for publication. This is mind boggling. You wouldn’t expect to perform brain surgery without going to medical school, why would you think you can write for publication without learning how? Okay, that may not be the best example, but learning how to write for publication will save you years of struggling to get published. (Hint: If you don’t know the difference between a book and a novel or an article and a story or don’t know want an SASE is, you better take a writing course.)

4. Very few writers escape the thrill of receiving rejection slips. Louis L’Amour, who at one time was among the top five best selling authors in the world, was reported to have received 200 rejections before selling anything. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected several times before it was accepted. I received over 100 rejections before I sold my first article and I still get rejection slips.

5. The first page of a manuscript is the most important page of the manuscript. Believe it or not, many editors decide if they are going to reject manuscripts based on the first page, and in some cases, the first two paragraphs. I used to think this was a rip off. What about the middle and the ending? Then I was asked to judge a writing competition. I learned everything an editor needs to know is within the first two paragraphs. If there are grammar errors, there will be grammar errors throughout the manuscript. The same holds true for poor writing, misspellings, bad sentence and paragraph construction and even facts. (If there’s one mistake in facts, most editors think all the facts are wrong.) They just don’t get better towards the end. Put yourself in the editors place. Your manuscript isn’t the only one to cross his desk. Editors receive 100’s if not 1000’s of manuscripts every day. Why should they bother with those that need a lot of work?

6. Editors don’t like their names misspelled. This can get a manuscript rejected without it ever being read. Many editors believe if a writer misspells their name, the facts in the article are wrong. (If the writer didn’t check to make sure he spelled the editor’s name right, then he probably didn’t check to make sure the facts are right.) I do not use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. unless I know the editor or the editor states which one he/she wants used. There are too many name that can be either male or female.

7. Never submit to a magazine without studying it first. Okay, I’ll admit it. I have submitted to a few magazines without studying them. And, yes, I will also admit I have sold to magazines without studying them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you study the magazine–including the ads–you will be better prepared to write an article the magazine will accept. The same holds true with book publishers. Study what they have published in the past and you will have a leg up on someone who hasn’t done their homework.

8. Never submit to a publisher without studying their guidelines. The guidelines tell how to submit (e-mail, disk or hard copy), when to submit (if they don’t accept submissions at certain times of the year), if they are accepting submissions (some publishers have too many submission and won’t accept more for a year or longer and others don’t accept material from freelancers), who to address the submission to, how long to wait before inquiring about a submission (if it doesn’t state this, the rule of thumb is three months for magazines and six month for books and do it by mail, not phone), and how long before a holiday to submit a manuscript about the holiday. For magazines, I try to get a media kit (or package). This breaks down the information about the readers–the percentage of college educated, age groups, male and female, home owners and renters, circulation and a host of information.

9. Don’t be a wise guy. When writing to an editor, don’t make wise cracks like, “I’d like to propose to you….” The editor has seen it all before. Write a good solid letter. After you get to know the editor, then you may joke around a bit if the editor is open to it. But if the editor responds to your letters with a “nose to the grindstone” tone, it is best to follow suit.

10. Never give up. This is probably the most important thing I have learned. Keep trying. Don’t give up after one rejection. I have had manuscripts rejected several times before I found a home for them. Just because one editor doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean all editors aren’t going to like.

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