The most common rookie mistakes that are the equivalent of pasting a sign saying “NEWBIE!” on your back for all your editors to see.
Not to sound like your grade school English teacher or anything, but for crying out loud stop with the rookie mistakes. Now! You know, I hear from freelancer writers on an almost-daily basis and sometimes this communication is simply not pretty.
It’s demoralizing to get everything right but then lose an assignment from an editor because you’ve shown your inexperience by using firstname.lastname@example.org as an email address. And please, do not be paid less than every other freelancer working for a publication simply because you’ve failed to ask for more.
Today I’m going to outline for you some of the most common rookie mistakes. They’re the ones that are the equivalent of pasting a sign saying “NEWBIE!” on your back for all your editors to see.
You want to come across as smart, professional and experienced (even if you are still new at this). This is the route to the most money possible and respect for a job well done. New freelancers too often allow themselves to be treated like interns in training. This hurts their chances of growth.
Here are some of the rookie mistakes I see fairly frequently and why they matter.
Are you making any of them?
1. Having an unprofessional email
This happens so frequently and it’s always amazing to me. I know far too many writers who use a email@example.com kind of configuration for their email addresses (and they’re not parenting writers!) and it’s always jarring. Worse still is when the “From:” line in their e-mails reads “Mom of 4.”
When an editor receives an email from you, it should have your full name on it. Period. Don’t share your email address with your spouse or kids and don’t use one email address for both professional and personal communications. No family names, no cute or clever “Writer4You” type phrases, no business names. Your full name. And please, please, please, unless you fancy yourself the next e.e. cummings, capitalize the first letters of your name and surname.
2. Sending complete articles
This is a rookie mistake typically borne of a lack of confidence. Unfortunately the editor sitting on the other side of the desk isn’t going to be impressed.
First of all, many editors don’t even accept fully-written pieces, and second, it’s a given that writers who actually make a living at this or are serious about their writing tend to send pitches. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a part-time writer or a hobbyist, but if you want to command good rates and be treated like a professional, you have to play the game. If you don’t, that puts you straight into the amateur league.
Now, when I say this to writers, they’ll say, “I just want to make sure it’s exactly right for this publication” or “I don’t like writing queries” or “I don’t mind, really, it’ll only take an hour to do.”
The truth is you’re afraid of writing that pitch and you’re afraid you’re not good enough. But you won’t know unless you try. And unless you practice your query letters or writing on deadline, you’re never going to get good at it.
3. Not negotiating
A few years ago, a young writer emailed me to let me know that she’d gotten her first assignment with a magazine I’d written for a few times. She was super excited but wanted to know about rights– they’d asked her to sign a work-for-hire contract.
“Don’t worry about that,” I wrote back to her. “That’s the contract they first send to freelancers. Just write to them and say you’d be more comfortable selling first rights and the editor will immediately send you another contract, no question.” I knew this, of course, given my extensive experience with this publication and because at least a dozen writers I know had been through this before. I told the writer this. So you can imagine my complete and utter shock when I got an email back from her saying, “I decided not to negotiate. I don’t want to risk losing the assignment.”
Look, editors expect writers to question clauses in the contract, ask for more money, etc. Seriously, do you know how much haggling takes place between writers and editors? It would put the salesmen at Dilli Haat to shame.
Remember, you’re selling a service and they’re buying it. Coming to a price that you both agree on is simply part of the process. Do you really think an editor is going to say, “I’m taking this assignment away because you dared question my authority?” and if so, do you really want to work with them?
4. Exaggerating your credentials
This really annoys the crap out of me and I increasingly see freelancers doing it, including experienced ones.
When an editor asks you to send your clips from TIME and Forbes and you turn around and send something you’ve written for their blogs, it will reflect badly on you. Similarly, if you’ve been published by the Indian edition of Marie Claire and you’re querying a women’s magazine editor in the US, do mention that.
It’s a small industry and Marie Claire, USA is about forty times harder to break into than Marie Claire, India. Don’t think editors don’t know this (or know each other).
5. Being afraid to ask questions
I’ll routinely get emails in my Inbox asking me questions like, “My editor agreed to pay for my travel! In what format should I send my invoice?!” and I’ll be staring at my screen thinking, “Well, hmm, I don’t know. Have you considered asking your editor?”
I get this, I totally get this. You’re new to freelancing and you’re afraid to ask your editor a silly question. You don’t want to make a rookie mistake, which is precisely why you’re making one! It’s so much easier to ask a fellow freelancer than an editor (and I don’t mind it one bit, I promise!)
But you know, part of relationship-building is being able to talk to your editor, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Even if the editor has won a Pullitzer, you need to be negotiating on equal terms. By all means be respectful of your editor’s journalism pedigree if her background warrants it, but you are not her employee. You run a freelance writing business and there are practical questions that will crop up. Ask them! Editors are quite used to a variety of questions from freelancers – and it’s often the most experienced who ask the most questions, because they know that’s how to avoid misunderstandings.
When I have a few questions for my editors that feel rookie-like or silly to me, I shove them between some of the bigger ones. When I’m asking about deadlines, etc, I might also say, oh, and it would be great help if you could tell me what format you’d like the invoice in so that I can make sure I don’t make your life more difficult. Sometimes, I’ll just ask it straight: “You are paying my travel expenses, right? My tiny freelancer budget might not be able to accommodate flights and hotels. Let me know!”
Communication is the only thing that keeps your relationship with your editor smooth, so make sure you have enough of it.
6. Sending more than one idea
It’s not a common mistake, but sometimes in our eagerness to please, writers tend to overdo it. We’re thinking, oh, the editor will think me so creative and bubbling with ideas, or that we’re giving an editor so much to choose from, while an editor is thinking, scatterbrain. Or overeager. Or worse, why is this freelancer wasting my time?
Sending one brilliant idea instead of five average ones is always a good choice. (Yes, sending five brilliant ones is the best of both worlds, but do it when you know the editor, not your first time around.)
7. Missing deadlines
This isn’t really a rookie mistake as such– I’ve seen far too many experienced writers do it as well– but it’s the way in which a missed deadline is handled that makes you a rookie or a pro.
In my experience, and this is a generalization of course, the pros will email or call their editors with a thousand apologies, ask for a new deadline and give the editor enough time to come up with a back-up plan.
The rookie freelancer– and I’m not joking about this– will freak out and disappear. Don’t freak out and disappear! If you think you’re going to miss your deadline, step up, take responsibility and talk to your editor so she can schedule something to run instead of your piece.
8. Not standing up for yourself
Editor asked for revision. You did it. Editor asked for a second revision. You lost a bit of that confidence you developed while you were negotiating the contract, but heck, this is business, so you did it. Then the editor came back and said her boss said the focus of the article should be Y, not X like you’d originally suggested, so would you mind changing that, please? You thought about it for, oh two seconds, before emailing back and saying of course you don’t mind. You submit the revisions the next day. Then, three months later, you get the email. THE EMAIL. The one that says that they’re killing your story because you delivered Y when it clearly said in your assignment letter that you would deliver X and they didn’t like the way Y had turned out and would have liked more of X. Anyway, they can’t use it. Here’s your 20% kill fee.
Many new writers at this point will, after much complaining to partners, drinking and feeling sorry for themselves, accept the kill fee. They will vow to move on with their lives (though how, they don’t know yet). Most professionals I know will get on their writing networks, rant and rave (and swear) and finally write a restrained professional email to their editor referencing all earlier conversations and asking for the full fee.
It takes time, sometimes years, for writers to build up the confidence to go to an editor and say, “Hey, I was in the right here, you need to pay up”. You need to develop this confidence and this attitude. This is a business and you can’t take losses because of someone else’s mistakes. You’ll have to, sometimes, but stand up for yourself anyway. If you don’t, who will?
9. Not reading your contracts
Would it surprise you to know that a lot of writers don’t even read their contracts and that even if they do, a lot of the time they don’t understand what it says?
Don’t be that writer.
Know what you’re signing because it can come back to bite you in the ass. A contract is a legally-binding document. It is the rookiest of rookie mistakes to not know what the contract says (and means) before you put your name on the dotted line. If you don’t understand it, ask a writer friend. Most of us could be legal experts in media law the way we’ve had to spend hours figuring out what all the technical terms mean.
10. Being too brazen
This happens to me all the time and I can’t say it’s ever pleasant. I break into a national magazine or a newspaper or whatever, maybe a market a writer friend of mine had their eye on for a while. I post on FB or Twitter a link to my published piece, and within minutes, I receive an email of the “Congratulations! Mind sharing the name of your editor?” variety. You know what? It pisses me off. It pisses a lot of people off. The only way to react, unless this person is your BFF, is to say congratulations and leave it at that. It’s not that writers mind sharing contacts with their networks, though some do, but getting emails asking for contact info two minutes after you’ve posted a link to your published piece just rubs most people the wrong way. Especially if they don’t know you.
And finally, the very last thing far too many writers get wrong?
11. Not aiming high enough
They’ll write for that local rag for years not knowing that the same story ideas could have sold to national magazines for ten times the rate and many times more the prestige.
It’s scary and intimidating and certainly a lot less comfortable to pitch a new editor instead of one who already loves you and pays you, but if you want to be a career writer, you must keep growing and aiming higher, whether that’s in terms of money, prestige, complexity of assignments or something else.
You can do it. People far less smart and far less accomplished than you are making full-time incomes with their words. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t, too.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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