riters soon forget when they didn’t know a query from a synopsis, a semicolon from a colon, or vanity publishing from POD. Once upon a time, we thought we had to copyright everything for fear a submission would be stolen, duplicated, and sold for a six-figure contract. Then months and years later, we sail along, gathering bylines, publishing books, and writing columns, not realizing that someone could benefit from our stumbles and goofs as well as our achievements and exciting successes. In other words, it isn’t an easy trek and it ain’t always about spinning phrases of gold.
People say I have a way with advice and a knack for rants. In keeping with this month’s theme of Freelance Union, I’m drawing upon my eight-year history of FundsforWriters to give you my viewpoint on the writing business. Life is too short not to learn from others’ mistakes, and we owe it to our sisters (and brothers, if you so choose) to reach back and mentor those coming up the ladder behind us.
In no particular order, I offer you guidance on how to kick butt as a green, anxious, hungry freelance writer, and reduce the falls and scabs on your knees as you skip along that path to publication. I’m assuming you know how to write. These sage words go further than putting pencil to paper.
“The 20/80 rule applies to list groups as with many other participation venues.”
New writers appear more animated in list groups, forums and chats than the more seasoned writers. They tend to rattle off more often and in greater length. Why? They haven’t realized that every single opinion, political comment, complaint, criticism or theoretical stance reflects upon their professional status as a writer. The 20/80 rule applies to list groups as with many other participation venues. Twenty percent of the membership does eighty percent of the talking.
Using that formula, for every person responding to your post, there are at least four saying nothing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t watching, reading, or forming an opinion about you. Those people might be fellow beginning writers, but they also could be editors, agents, bookstore owners, editorial assistants, or experienced writers with the ability to spread the word about you…good or bad.
I belong to many list groups, some with memberships in the thousands. I read fast, lurk a lot, and contribute when the subject matter is productive. Some writers’ names have stuck in my head in a negative way as a result of flaming, anger, and sarcastic criticism. I won’t buy their books and won’t publish them in my publications because I’m not sure the damaging extent of their psychedelic oral broadcasts. Because you have an opinion, doesn’t mean you need to share it. Post online as if a publishing house editor or New York agent will read it…always.
While you’re on that thought, consider whether your emails are typed in lower case, upper case, text messaging lingo or incomplete sentences. Pure amateurish. Avoid replying with any email that does not exceed one line, such as “Thanks,” “LOL,” “I can relate,” or “Oh, well.” Avoid replying with the entire list group bracketed in your response. Only answer when you have something important to say.
Your first impression on someone influential might be in that ridiculous reply you wrote in a heated, silly or pre-caffeine stupor. Hit send when you’re sure it’s what you want the world to remember in perpetuity.
“In a field of equal writers, the ones with pristine adherence to guidelines will win the prize every time.”
(Photo: Hope & Dixie)
Email queries are fast becoming the norm for both online and glossy publications. Query etiquette, however, has not changed with the advances of technology. As editor of FundsforWriters, an online publication, I receive queries and submissions daily, many of which contain mistakes such as:
- No salutation
- No author biography
- No introduction, just the article
- Incomplete sentences
- Grammar faux pas
- Attachments when guidelines clearly say NO
- Obscure subject line not identified with a submission/query
- No preference for payment method
- No word count
- Too long or too short in word length
- Irrelevant topic
Any time you find guidelines for a publication, online or otherwise, understand someone penned those instructions to make submissions easier to read for the editor, and acceptances easier to achieve by the writer. In a field of equal writers, the ones with pristine adherence to guidelines will win the prize every time. In some cases, an editor will work with a writer to improve a piece simply because the submission showed an ability to follow directions.
More writers don’t follow guidelines than do. Nothing will aggravate an editor more than ignorance of simple one-two-three instructions on how to pitch a story. Saying “Dear Editor” instead of typing an easily located name, submitting 2,000 words instead of 1,500, or testing a topic that doesn’t appear to fit the theme not only warrants instant rejection, but also tells the editor you don’t respect him well enough to read his needs and desires. How can your article be accurate if your query is incomplete? How can you be trusted to keep a deadline?
In snail mail submissions, you have the above concerns plus a few more. Editors read a lot. Your submission should make her job easier—easier on the eyes, on the hands, on the mind, and on her staff. Your job is to make your query so neat, so precise, so remarkably correct that the editor shoots back an instant acceptance. Many freelance acceptances happen just that way. In the slush pile from hell, an editor sees one that adheres to rules, tells a great story, and provides all information to make the acceptance effortless.
To do so means using white paper, very dark ink (no economizing on the print quality), twelve-point font, single-spaced queries, double-spaced submissions, no staples, no clips, and a self-addressed stamped envelope of the right size with the proper postage. That’s not hard, folks. Those simple things can propel you into the writing equivalent of the top twenty-four American Idol contestants—before the editor even ponders your topic.
A landscape trade magazine once returned an acceptance to me via email within twelve hours. Several online pubs answered me within forty-eight hours. When the submission makes it easy for the editor to breeze straight to the subject of your piece, you’ve done your job. Your name is remembered in a good way, believe me.
“Online bashing will only hurt you.”
That’s easy…NEVER. When someone posts in a forum on a subject that strikes a resonance with you, stop before commenting. Will this response aid your writing career? But, you say, that person said horrendous things! Again, will your response aid your writing career? If answering an email, chat or forum post does nothing for your writing image, let your thoughts dissipate—let them go unsaid.
Oh, those dangling carrots. It’s an old-fashioned method of getting a horse to go where he doesn’t want to go. Don’t be tempted. You may vent your frustrations, but you possibly eroded one or more freelance opportunities as you sear your opinionated name on the brain of goodness-knows-who that reads quietly on the sideline.
Forums abound with horror stories about publications reneging on payment, editors changing contract terms, and killed acceptances. Glean information that helps your career then move on without comment. Online bashing will only hurt you.
Pick your battles. What if your assignment was killed, your contract changed, or your payment not delivered as promised? Do not argue. Professionally correspond with the editor or publisher, stating your understanding of the situation and your proposed solution. Be wise in knowing when to cut your losses and move on.
Several web sites publish copies of angry correspondence, especially in this day of email ping-pong. Nosy readers watch the posts as the parties fuss back and forth. Well, guess what? A web search using a writer’s name will reveal not only her published clips, but also her curt and fiery retorts posted in a forum three years ago. Potential employers, freelance or otherwise, have discovered online dirt is easily Googled, and they might not want to do business with trouble-makers.
In my conference speeches and in my book, The Shy Writer: An Introvert’s Guide to Writing Success, I discuss presenting a positive appearance. It’s an absolute magnet to the public and to those you do business with.
On occasion, I receive a negative email from a FundsforWriters reader, usually taking issue with my editorial stance, often about an angle I never considered. Nothing diffuses an incensed person quicker than a wall of nice. My goal is to win over that person in spite of any differences or misunderstandings. Ninety percent of the time, that person remains a FundsforWriters reader, a defining satisfaction and measure of success for me as an editor. Silver linings beat rain clouds every day of the week.
Smiles solve more disagreements than arguments. Seasoned writers understand that those same smiles attract more editors, agents and readers, too.
“I focus more attention on getting submissions out there than waiting for answers.”
You’ve prepared this marvelous query for a midlist publication. The guidelines promised a response in four weeks. It’s been four weeks. You want that article published or cut loose so you can submit it elsewhere. You wonder if you’re too pushy to inquire about the decision.
Or…you opened your mail, finding a photocopied, unsigned rejection letter for a submission you thought was right-on target. Your heart falls into your stomach, and you wonder why you do this to yourself—submitting only to be rejected.
New writers struggle with self-esteem and self-doubt. Heck, when does rejection merit a high-five anyway? Being ignored hurts almost as much. The key is to move forward, not dwell on the road behind you.
Some people save their rejections. I toss them, unless they have personal correspondence that enables my writing career. Why save material that erodes me as a writer…as a person? Heck with wallpapering my office with rejections or collecting them for…for what?
And instead of counting days until you hear about a submission, count the number of submissions you make. I keep “Thirteen in Play.” It’s a mantra with me. At all times, I have thirteen queries outstanding. If I receive an acceptance or a rejection, I check it off my spreadsheet. That means my submissions drop to twelve. I drop everything and find a market to place another submission, maintaining that magic thirteen.
I focus more attention on getting submissions out there than waiting for answers. Two great side effects result in using this “Thirteen in Play” method. One: acceptances occur unexpectedly. You’re so focused on managing the outgoing that you forget about the incoming. Two: the concentration on the creative aspects of your career keeps you more positive. You already understand what an asset that proves to be.
In summation, it’s all about that infamous, underestimated, oft forgotten first impression. You’re making a lot of those at this point in your fledgling career, most of the time oblivious to the fact that you’re sprinkling them all over the place. Be chronically aware of every step you take. As in any new endeavor, those first steps are unnatural, not embedded in your subconscious as a habit.
The savvy, mature writer, even as a novice, appreciates that her actions, even from behind the cloak of a computer, mold her future. Professionalism erases that new-writer-in-the-headlights look, even while you’re feeling your way around your new career.
C. Hope Clark is editor and founder of FundsforWriters.com and author of The Shy Writer: The Introvert's Guide to Writing Success. She’s published in national publications like Writer’s Digest and The Writer Magazine and trade magazines like TURF, Next Step, College Bound Teen, American Careers and Landscape Management. Writer’s Digest selected her web site in its 101 Best Web Sites for Writers, for the last seven years in a row.