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Friday, February 10, 2012

Dear Writer: Proving Yourself as a New Freelancer

From day one of my freelance career, my focus was on making money--not because I'm greedy, but because I wanted to sustain a successful career and I knew I had to take a businesslike approach to my new career. (If you're a regular reader of my blog or books, you probably know I was an unhappy lawyer for years, and once I ditched that career, I didn't want to have to go back to it.) 

Well, since then I've written dozens of articles for publications like The Writer and Writer's Digest. I realize that many of the articles I wrote even a decade before are still timely today. So here's a "blast from the past" from a column called "Dear Writer," where I used to answer reader questions for The Writer. (This was back in the days before blogs!) Note that the advice I offered more than a decade before is still good advice today! 

Question: How do you convey to a magazine editor that you’re qualified to write a particular article? If you have personal experience with the subject, it seems easy. But what if you’ve conducted research, interviewed people or done other legwork as you put together your query or proposal? Is this enough to qualify yourself as an “expert” in the eyes of an editor? 

Answer: Good question. When starting out, many writers focus on subjects that they have firsthand knowledge of or have personally experienced. In fact, this is a good way to get your foot in the door as a new or relatively inexperienced writer. For example, if you’ve successfully changed careers, you might pitch an article about the steps to take when considering switching jobs. If you’ve managed to save 30 percent of your income—while raising a family—you might use that experience to query an article on simple but effective ways to reduce your expenses. 

That being said, though, it’s probably impossible to have personal knowledge of all of the subjects you may want to write about, but you can still demonstrate that you know more about the topic than the average person. The way you do that is with your query letter, which should let the editor know that you’ve done your homework ahead of time. 

Consider a query for a diet story that starts out with “Americans are overweight. They eat too much and exercise too little” compared with a query that starts off with: “According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 55 percent of the U.S. adult population is overweight.” Which query is more compelling? Which proves to the editor that you’ve done some background research?

As you develop the story idea, include relevant facts, statistics or other pieces of information that reveal your knowledge of the subject. Then, in the final paragraph (what I call the “I-am-so-great” paragraph), highlight your qualifications and demonstrate to the editor why you are the best writer for this particular story. 

If you have personal experience with the subject matter, mention that, but if you don’t, emphasize what you’re bringing to the piece—that you’ve already done a lot of background research or have received permission from the person you want to profile to write about him or her. By reminding the editor of these facts, you can convince her that you are an “expert” of sorts—which will help you nail the assignment.    

***Are you a new freelancer? Then check out my new ebook, Dollars and Deadlines' Guide to Selling your First Article, which provides a simple, proven process for getting into print, or Dollars and Deadlines' 10 Essential Freelance Templates.