Rules of the writing game

Recently I’ve come into contact with people who are embarking on a freelance writing career and are curious about how one fashions such a thing. Having been a freelance musician and then writer since my mid-20s on up to the point where someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, friends and former colleagues seem to think I have some insight. What little I have can be distilled into a single point (with a handful of subpoints):

Make it easy on the person who hired you. 

It’s hard to fail when you understand that no one wants to do more work than necessary. Anything you can do to unburden the person who employs you, the brighter your prospects are. In regard to the writing game, keep the following in mind.

Know what you’re writing about. Obviously, you don’t want your stuff littered with factual errors or pumped up with baseless insights. A good editor will fact check your stuff and if something pops out as under-researched, everything you’ve done is called into question, which means more fact checking time from your editor. You’re now deemed unreliable and someone who can’t get the basics right.

Have ideas. More often than not, pitching works in one direction—from the person who wants to work to the individual who can supply it. In the case where a writer is well known and desirable, a simple “I’d like to work with you, anything brewing that you think I might be good for?” can work, but a better approach is “I have the following ideas that I think would be great for you.” Again, a good idea saves an editor having to come up with one of their own.

That said, those ideas should be realistic. Understand what a publication/site writes about and which subjects are most appealing to its readers. Passionate though you may be about programming languages of the 1980s, it’s a subject that will get very little traction from a modern-day general-interest technology site.

The word you’re looking for is “Yes.” This is a lesson I learned from my days starting out as a freelance musician. When the phone rings and you’re offered a gig, you take it. It’s your birthday? Happy birthday, you’re working that day. Christmas Eve? Your rates are higher, congratulations. The gig ends at 1 AM and you won't be home until dawn? Fire up the coffee machine.

In the beginning you want to establish a reputation as someone who is cooperative and available. As much as possible you should convey the idea that you love working with Editor X and Publication Y and are eager for any assignment they throw your way.

As your reputation grows you have more leeway—after all, you’re a desirable commodity and people understand that you’re busy. At that point you can start asking for an extended deadline, more money, and a richer variety of assignments. But first pay your dues. 

Be responsible. It’s a simple thing, but so many people get it wrong. If your deadline is Tuesday, turn it in on Tuesday (or better yet, Monday). Submit your invoice when asked for it. If an editor asks for a thousand words, turn in a thousand words, not 1,500 with the idea that someone else will take care of your inability to write to a word count.

Become familiar with the house style. Read examples of other work produced by the hiring body. Do they use smart quotes and serial commas. So should you. Do you have an affection for semicolons and yet see nary a one in other published work? Simplify your sentences and save the complex clauses for your next steam-punk novella. Take the time to compare the manuscript you submitted to the edited version. What was changed? This gives a strong hint at the editor’s proclivities. Much as you may prefer your punctuation and grammar, creating less work for your editor is going to make that next assignment more likely.

Develop a thick skin. Unless you were hired to write The Great American Novel, understand that your words are far from precious. Yes, you may have devoted a lot of time and care to that second paragraph, but if an editor has, in your view, stripped every ounce of character from it, suck it up. Of course you should correct any introduced errors, but if an editor pulls an unnecessary pun from a subhead take it as a lesson rather than rebuke.

You’re going to run into poor editors from time to time and having your elegant prose replaced with something plodding can be hard to swallow. But again, this is a commercial enterprise. Your goal is to do the best work you can, get paid for it, and build your career. As that career grows you will have a broader range of opportunities, thus allowing you to more easily avoid the worst of these word butchers.

In summary, fashion yourself after the person you’d want to hire—skilled, cooperative, available, and observant. It seems such a simple thing, but so few get it right.