Five Ways "Professional" Behavior Can Earn You More Bylines… and Perks
Over the years I have worked with hundreds of writers. An absolutely shocking number, it turns out, seem to know little about what they can do to make an editor’s life easier.
It’s too bad. Often it’s the little things that make working with one writer a pleasure and another writer an inconvenience.
I’ve received articles late… and then gotten impatient notes from those writers when their pieces didn’t appear in print when first scheduled.
I’ve received articles in two parts — first, the main piece. And then, without comment a week later, I’ll find sidebars in my in-box. No idea they were on their way. And they aren’t attached to the article, so now I have to find it and go paste them in.
I’ve gotten emails from writers I haven’t heard from in six months or a year — signed, simply, “Jim.” “Jim Who?” I ask you, when the email address is email@example.com.
And I’m not alone in my frustration at behavior like this. When Randy Curwin, Travel Editor at the Chicago Tribune, spoke at our travel writer workshop a year ago, he toted along a whole list of pet peeves compiled by travel editors at papers across North America.
It includes such gems as…
Freelancers who have never read the section, freelancers who have never read the section but who are ready with suggested improvements, and freelancers who read the section and make snarky comments about the stories that aren’t theirs. — from Paul Waters, Montreal Gazette
Freelancers who don’t take rejection letters well — who send me huffy, indignant emails berating me, my taste in stories and the overall quality of my travel section — and then — I can’t believe this — send me more manuscripts. — From John Flinn, San Francisco Examiner
Freelancers who mail submissions to your predecessor of five years ago (that is, who are too lazy to check to see who the current travel editor is). — from Howard Pousner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The list goes on for five pages in nine-point type.
Why “Good” Behavior Pays Off
You know, it really is in your best interest to behave “professionally” as a professional freelance writer. I don’t say that just because it’s the right thing to do. I say it because it will increase (exponentially, perhaps) your chances of getting published.
What’s more, editors are often the keepers of some very nice perks. And they hand them out to the writers they like. I know back when I was editing International Living, I’d regularly get calls from P.R. agencies asking if I’d like to send a staffer on an all-expenses-paid trip someplace.
But we had a small staff, and often I couldn’t spare a body for a week. And so rather than let a good trip go to waste, I’d call a freelancer.
And did I call that writer who never got me her stuff on time… or the one who badgered me by phone every 29 hours … or the pushy one who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer? No, I did not.
I called somebody I knew to be reliable, professional, and a joy to work with… somebody I could be sure would not embarrass me while on the road on our behalf. She’d get a free trip out of the deal. And then I’d pay her for a story. Not a bad if you’re the well-behaved freelancer, eh?
In fact, one of our own students, Hayley Clarke, wrote in to say that’s exactly what just happened to her. “I have just returned from an 8-day, all-expenses-paid, 5-star trip to Malaysia taking in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, courtesy of Tourism Malaysia,” she told us. “I went on behalf of that same magazine that published my first article. Seemingly they were so impressed with my style and professionalism that when this trip came up, my name simply popped into the Senior Editor’s head! I am now in the middle of writing my 4th article for them.”
Five Things You Can Do to Stay in an Editor’s Good Graces
Certainly, your success as a freelancer will hinge in large part on the quality of your writing… and on the precision with which you target your story for a particular audience.
But just as important, when it comes right down to it, is how easy you are to work with. The truth is: Even if you’re a wonderful writer… if you’re a real pain in the neck, an editor just isn’t going to waste his time with you.
So, here are five things you can do to ensure you land firmly on an editor’s good side… and stay there.
- Be humble. You are far from the only fish in the freelance sea. Approach an editor with modesty. Don’t overstate your qualifications. And don’t insult his travel section.
- Be brief. Editors are overworked. All of them. They don’t have administrative assistants. Instead, they have piles of manuscripts sliding off their desks. In all your correspondence, be concise. Editors have neither the time nor the inclination to read a tome from you that’s masquerading as a query letter. In all your correspondence, get to your point quickly and then stop.
- Follow instructions. Do your homework before you contact an editor. Read the publication’s guidelines. Read the publication. If the guidelines say you can expect at least six weeks between the time you send in your article and the time you hear back from the editor, then wait at least that long before you get in touch. If you note, as you read back issues, that the articles are never written in first person, then don’t submit a first-person account.
- Attend to detail. Sloppiness will kill your career. Double-check the spelling of the editor’s name before you send him anything. In fact, check the spelling of every word in everything you send. Study the format your editor prefers. If all the articles in a paper’s travel section end with a box titled “Travel Tips,” then you should provide a box like that, too. If every article appears with a one-sentence bio about the author, then provide a bio. This attention to detail will not go unnoticed.
- Be appreciative. Editors — like all of us — warm to an occasional thank you. So when your article is published and you receive a copy, consider sending a (quick and concise) email that says something like, “I just received my author copy of this month’s issue. It looks wonderful. Thanks so much for your efforts in getting my piece into print. It was a genuine pleasure working with you.”
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]