Being stood up by Britney Spears in Las Vegas, going on free vacations, and filing stories from sweatshops in Mexico all come with the territory, a panel of freelance journalists told students at NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute (SPI).
As Donna Sapolin, Magazine Director of SPI, deftly moderated, four top freelance writers and editors generously shared secrets and advice about how to get published happily and steadily in some of America’s leading publications. How to get started? Virginia Sole-Smith, who has filed stories from sweatshops in Mexico and whose bylines appear in the Progressive, the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and Elle, among other publications, suggested setting up a schedule to help keep on track. When she was starting out, she made a list of potential stories and publications which might run them, and then resolved to pitch three stories a week. Within three months, Sole-Smith was a published journalist. “Set your own goals and deadlines and be strict with yourself,” she emphasized.Perfecting the pitch letter is equally important. If you suggest a story that doesn’t fit with a magazine’s content, said Jeannie Kim, a freelance writer and editor, don’t expect a reply because that shows laziness and a waste of an editor’s time. Kim (who lists the occasional free vacation among her job perks) has been published in magazines like Good Housekeeping, Shape, and Marie Claire. She pointed out that anything you can do to make an editor’s life easier will exponentially increase your chances of getting published.
“Think of ways to package your pitch. Think about how it’s going to be laid out, so the editor can visualize it,” she urged. “Come up with a cover line. If you have a really great idea, those things will help sell it.”
However, selling is a long shot. So after receiving 73 rejections, how do you stay motivated to write pitches?
“Look at your bank balance,” Kim suggested. “Freelancing is not about talent, it’s about temperament. I don’t think there’s any secret other than: I’m broke, I better do this.”
Having clips helps the process, but if you don’t, volunteering your talents online is one option. “I’m not a big fan of free writing online, but blogs can be a good way of getting your name known if your posts are well reported and well written,” Kim said. Passion about your subject and cross linking to credible sources can help you land freelance work in print publications even if you haven’t been published before.
Once the assignments start rolling in, the panelists noted, it’s important to be versatile. While writing for the big-name magazines can be heady, they are often the most demanding of your time, expecting countless rewrites. Consider writing for lesser known niche magazines and be sure to always be professional: don’t drive your editors insane. Judith Newman, who was stood up by Britney Spears while writing for Allure, emphasized the importance of building relationships with your editors. Judith, whose celebrity profiles have appeared in Vanity Fair and many other publications, noted that freelancing is a lot like dating: “It’s one thing to be a diva, to be whimsical and fun when you first meet somebody, but if you’re constantly testing your editors in one way or another, they’re going to get sick of you.”
The trick to staying on your editor’s good side is turning in stories on time, according to Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua, a former Special Issues Editor at US Weekly and current freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, and New York. “Be consistent. Deliver what you say you’re going to deliver. And don’t make things up,” she said. “It’s really simple, basic stuff and it boils down to being easy to work with.”
Okay, so maybe there weren’t that many secrets after all. According to this panel, a little bit of talent, common sense and a strong work ethic can go a long way.