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Sunday, March 27, 2011

10 Smart Rules of Thumb for Freelancers

In last week's post on how to write better service articles, I mentioned one of my rules of thumb--on how many sources I typically interview for a nonfiction article. (Mine is one or two sources for stories of up to about 500 words; two to three for stories of 500 to 1,000 words; and three to five for 1,500-word stories. While some stories require more sources, I don't want to waste time over-researching a story by interviewing sources who won't make it into the piece.

But I've developed plenty of other rules of thumb over 14+ years of freelancing as well, including:

Reaching word count. My rule of thumb for word count is 10%. That means I'll turn a story in at up to 10% over word count without worrying about it. (Sure, I shoot for as close to word count as possible, and I never turn in story under word count, but that 10% bumper means I don’t fret if a story is running a little long. (And yes, every word counts toward the total, but I don't count headers for sidebars and boxes.)

Writing queries. My query rule of thumb? Every query letter has four parts:

*The lead, which catches the editor's attention;

*The "why-write-it" paragraph which makes the case for the story;

*The "nuts and bolts" paragraph, where I explain how I plan to approach the story, describe what type of sources I'll interview, how long the story will be, and where I think the story belongs in the magazine; and

*The ISG, or I'm-so-great paragraph where I highlight any relevant background/experience or expertise I have in the subject area.

Contacting sources before a pitch. My rule of thumb, also known as the McCaughey Septuplets Rule, is that I contact sources before I pitch a piece if the story turns on their involvement. In other words, if I can't write the piece without their input, I make sure ahead of time that they're willing to be interviewed.

Following up. My rule of thumb is to follow up on queries and LOIs to new-to-me markets in about four weeks; I follow up on queries to my regular markets in two to three weeks.

Pitching new queries. I've already told you the best time to pitch a client. That's why another of my rules of thumb is to always have an "idea in my pocket" ready for when an editor accepts a piece.

Touching base. I focus on building long-term relationships with clients, and one of the ways I do so is by staying on the radar. My rule of thumb is to touch base every two or three months to "check in" or pitch new work.

Putting things in writing. I recently had an email from a fellow freelancer asking me about a publisher I'd worked with. I'd had a less-than-happy relationship with this particular publisher, and wrote her back and told her I'd be happy to talk with her by phone about my experience. My rule of thumb here is to never put something negative in writing--you never know who may end up reading it.

Leaving the house. I try not to, unless I have to. My rule of thumb here? I won't meet with a potential ghostwriting client in person until I know what his or her budget is; otherwise, there's a good chance I'll waste my time.

Calculating my daily nut. Regardless of my annual income goal and how many hours I work, I always have a daily nut, or an amount I have to average to make what I want that each. My rule of thumb is to take my overall income, and divide it by 240 (48 weeks of work, with four weeks off for vacation and "holidays.").

***Readers, what about you? Do you have your own rules of thumb that you find helpful? Feel free to share them here!

And finally, I'm talking to a potential client tomorrow but in the meantime, am still looking for new ghosting clients. Please keep me in mind if you know of someone looking for a talented, experienced ghostwriter/collaborator (especially in the health, fitness, wellness and nutrition fields)--and thank you to Susan for passing my name along to a potential client! If you want to get started in this lucrative field, you'll want to buy Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer's Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (Kindle edition).


  1. Could you explain the last bit about figuring out your budget? I didn't quiet understand the reason that you divide it by 250. Is that how much you need to be making per those week for those 48 weeks?

  2. Hi, Emily--

    Check out 11/13/10 post on "your daily nut" for a longer explanation. I realized I had a typo in this post; the number should have been 240, which is my number of work days. I divide what I want to make (this year, $60,000) by my number of work days (240) for a daily nut of $250. Hope this helps! :)

  3. Kelly, that makes a lot more sense. Thank you!