So you want to join the ‘lancers…

The freelancers, of course; freelance writers. We are the mercenaries of the literary world. When editors simply want the job done, without long-term commitment, they assign us writing work. If Paul Theroux and J.K. Rowling represent the nobility, we are the yeomanry.

Where do you start? Ideally, with a liberal arts degree that involved writing copious papers. If you don’t have that, your best course is one of the online review writing sites, such as Epinions or Amazon. Your ‘lancing employers won’t teach you to write, so you must first learn it on your own, in forums that provide for critique and commentary. Book and product reviews are excellent practice. Since you read heavily, you have piles of books that you could review. Your reviews might well get you noticed, and if nothing else, you’ll grow in skill.

If you also grow in ego, you did it wrong, and it’s time to rewrite your basic writing philosophy. Freelancers must be prepared to hear all manner of critique from editors. There is no crying in writing. You will find most editors as humane and pleasant as reality permits them to be, but they’ll surely tell you where your material falls short. Therefore, as you build your writing ability, don’t get too cocky even if everyone swoons over your prose. Think of frank critique as a generous gift. Consider the source, then adapt its message to evolve your talent. “You can’t write” isn’t very useful, but “that’s the clunkiest paragraph I’ve read this week” is useful indeed. Check your ego and go see what the clunk factor is, then fix it and learn.

When you think you’re ready to rent your pen, Craigslist is a fine source of leads. Many will be scams and spam opportunities, but in time you’ll learn to winnow those out. Read the application instructions with great care, and follow them precisely. Editors are watching to see how well you take direction. You’re on the ramp, so show your stuff. Write the sort of material they said they buy. During the process, don’t neglect to evaluate them in turn. Questions to ask yourself, in order of priority: do they sound like they can pay you? Do they answer your inquiries candidly, or do they simply repeat how great it’s going to be? Can you do what they’re asking, on time to spec with a good attitude?

Keep applying until someone picks you up. That part is easy. The trick is staying hired.

Your goal is to earn a repeat customer—and you must never forget that your editor is your customer, her business earned. See the world through her eyes: she has projects, deadlines, spaces to fill. She may seek topic ideas. She wants to publish quality material that will reflect well upon her and her organization. She needs reliable, drama-free, honest writers who want to write. Since this is pivotal, let’s quantify:

A reliable writer turns in consistent high-quality work on time. His work is predictably thoughtful, heedful of guidelines, sourced to the editor’s satisfaction. He can cut the mustard, which means that when she assigns him work, it’s off her list so she can get on with other duties. She wants less stress, more results. You wanted to be a writer? It’s showtime. Deliver.

It follows, then, that she doesn’t want drama. If she sends your work back for a rewrite, don’t be snippy, whiny or argumentative. Read what she says and perform the rewrite with a good attitude. If your work satisfied her that you just didn’t have the chops, she’d have simply paid you, written off the loss and never gotten back in touch. She thinks you can still provide what she wants. Prove her right.

Your editor expects you to be honest. One cardinal rule is not to slip in some cute entendre that she might miss, publish and find embarrassing. If a reference has implications she might not grasp, say so in appended notes for her consideration. If you’re unsure of something, say so. Tell her what she should know, and let her decide if it’s okay. That’s what editors do.

Everyone, it seems, says they want to write. Most writers are more interested in talking about being writers, or attending writers’ groups to talk about being writers. It’s baloney, as is writer’s block. As a ‘lancer, you renounce the right to writer’s block. People complaining of writer’s block don’t have a contract that says “You will write…” and “You will be compensated…” Depressed? Headache? Can’t find your muse? Do it anyway.

Freelancing won’t make you rich, but it’ll improve your writing as you rewrite your unfinished zombie thriller.  It’s fun, varied and lets you work with some great people.  Many careers cannot boast that.

(c) 2012 J.K. Kelley


The above was an audition piece, a sample intended for submission along with résumé and all the other usual stuff, to a credible freelancing opportunity.  I worked hard on it, trimmed, tightened, honed, shaved, planed, sanded.  I’d seen the ad a couple of days before and figured I had time.  Was feeling pretty clever:  send a sample essay that would also market me and my approach to the job.  Clever can get you some points.

Unfortunately, when I went to submit it, they had all the ‘lancers their squadron needed.  Probably wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t been lax about getting it done and in.  And that’s the other lesson:  jump on it.


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