Freelance writing includes searching for opportunities, and a main opportunity is writing for magazines and websites. Thankfully we have a guest post today, in interview format, to address some of our most common questions. Thanks go to Rebekah Curtis and Nicole M. King!
An Interview with Nicole M. King by Rebekah Curtis
I have been freelance writing for magazines and websites for almost 15 years, and I don’t feel much less confused now than I did when I started. I have had work rejected when I thought it was a perfect match, and had work solicited by publishers I thought were way out of my league. I have been regretfully under-edited and exasperatingly micro-edited. I have been disappointed with publishers I thought I would enjoy working with, and surprised by good experiences with places that initially didn’t get me excited. I have been stumped at being paid nothing, and stumped at being paid more than I knew plain old words were worth. I have suspected I’ve been too forward with editors, and realized that I should have been more assertive with others. All these years later, I still feel pretty lost.
The question I’ve been asking the whole time is, What are editors thinking? So I finally got brave enough to ask one, and Mary has graciously agreed to publish our correspondence. Yay!
Nicole M. King is the managing editor forThe Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy, the quarterly publication of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. She has also worked at Chronicles magazine; contributes regularly at MercatorNet; and is a homeschool graduate, wife, and mom of two very little ones. Her perspective from the editorial side of things is invaluable. Thank you so much, Nicole, for your time and insights; and Mary, for making them available to everybody!
If a publisher doesn’t specify a preference, what is a good length for a pitch?
It probably depends on the type of publication you’re submitting to. (What an evasive answer!!) If you’re considering a longer essay for a quarterly journal, for example, it’s helpful to see at least a paragraph to fully flesh out an idea. If this is a 200-word op-ed, on the other hand, a sentence or two might suffice. Much of my own writing has been a response to another story out there, so I will often include a link to the original story and a few sentences on how I aim to respond.
When is it a good idea to send a pitch, and when is it a good idea to send a complete manuscript?
First of all, read the publication’s submission guidelines, if they are available. Many editors will tell you in their policy statements whether or not they welcome pitches. Personally, I like to receive them, and I usually send them when I do my own writing. The Natural Family publishes mostly longer (4,000-5,000 word) academic essays, with footnoted sources. For something of that length and complexity, it’s helpful for me to be able to talk to a writer while he/she is in the midst of the writing process, or even before. So a writer contacts me and says, “Hey, I’ve noticed this new research on marriage statistics, and I’d like to say this profound thing about it.” And I’ll likely respond, “That’s a really profound thing to say, but it’s not quite what we have room for in an upcoming issue,” or “That’s a really profound thing to say, but if you tweak it in such and such a way, I think it will be more useful to us.” (And when I answer that we don’t have room, by the way, this is true and not me being evasive. Some publications, like ours, do themed issues, and your idea may be awesome, but we may really not have a place for it.)
Is there a number of rejections from a particular publisher after which a writer would be wise to move on?
I don’t know of any rule of thumb on this, but I’d say three is a good number. Once or even twice might simply be that your particular work isn’t quite what the publisher is looking for at that time, but if you miss three times, you two probably don’t see eye-to-eye on things, or the publisher is looking for something very different than what you typically write. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Just means you’ve got to get back to the grindstone and submit elsewhere!
If the publisher does not offer a contract for an accepted pitch, should the writer always ask for one? If an unsolicited manuscript is accepted as submitted, should the writer ask for a contract?
The formality of agreements varies a lot depending on the culture or size of the publisher, so there’s no universal rule on this one. I never offer formal contracts, for example, but I do always specify terms in writing in an email—so the author always has that. I’d say if you’re uncomfortable without a contract, by all means, ask, but do so gently. Something like, “Do you typically offer contracts for accepted work, or are the terms outlined in our correspondence usually what you work with?”
What should a writer do if he has had uncontracted work published but has not been paid?
Be polite, but do send regular emails, and if needed, start making calls. If someone is replying, keep at it. If you’ve gone this route for a few months and heard nothing back, I hate to say it, but you should probably just give up, and make a “never again” note in your brain next to that publisher’s name. Sometimes people are dishonest, sometimes budgets don’t get met, and it’s no use to you to expend more energy than it’s worth.
What advice do you have for a brand new writer who does not yet have any or much work published?
Write often, and about things you care about.
It is easy to get caught up in the game of being published, and to lose sight of what it is you’re trying to accomplish in the first place. You can study publishers and media outlets and “how-to” guides for so long that you lose focus on the actual craft of writing, and thus lose focus on what it is you love and are trying to say. If writing is your vocation, then keep at it. Write about topics that you care about, share them with loved ones and friends for feedback. Better yet, have a mentor in the industry who can give you some professional input on a piece, and even suggest an outlet for publication.
On the more technical side, start small. You may very well be a genius who gets accepted to the New Yorker or Harper’s or someplace on the first try. And if so, please do tell me your trick. But it is far more likely that you will write for small blogs first, and that you won’t get paid for it. Then perhaps you will land a few small online magazines, and then perhaps something larger, etc. Scan Indeed and Monster and such places for paying writing gigs—they do exist. Contact local creative agencies—sometimes these places need content writing for a specific publication, and can hire you for a story here and there. Once you get in the door someplace, it is far easier to submit again. And once you’ve got a nice little collection with two or three outlets, it’s easier to start pitching to others.
But first and foremost, keep writing. Keep honing your skill, and make sure you’re in this business for the right reasons. You’re probably not ever going to be rich and famous as a writer, because very, very few make it to that level. It’s not because you’re not good. This is just a really tough field. But you may be impactful within your own circle, and perhaps even a little outside it. For me, that’s enough.
My experience has been that the trickiest part of freelancing is simply not knowing what’s normal from a publisher’s perspective. Are there any definite DO’s or DON’Ts (as to etiquette or anything else) for writers who would like to get this thing right?
Very few, especially in the age of online publishing. Every publisher does things a little differently. The only thing I can think of that will be sure to get you banned from a publication is putting up a vicious fight about the editing of your essay. If you submit to a place that then edits your work, be gracious and accept it. (The editor in me is rather biased on this one.) By all means, if the editor alters something incorrectly, or if he or she changes the actual meaning of what you are trying to say, then do say something—politely. If the editor refuses to restore your original word, or meaning, and if you find the new meaning something that you cannot accept, then respectfully ask that your work be pulled. But if you make yourself a nuisance by protesting every small change to your original golden phrases, you will find that publisher unwilling to accept work from you in future.
Oh—another thought on getting published in the first place. BE PROMPT. If you have a deadline, getting your work in on time, or even ahead of schedule, will go very far in getting you future work.
Mary: Writing for magazines and websites can be great writing exercise, as well as a good way to influence society and culture toward “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8). We can think and write about these things. 🙂 And a bit of money here and there can be pretty nice, too.