I can still remember way back, when I wore a younger man’s uniform, a class I had in the police academy on report writing. The lesson for the day was paying attention to detail when recording and reporting information during investigations.
The instructor placed a piece of paper face down on each one of our desks, along with a separate blank sheet of paper, and announced, “This is a test. When I say ‘GO,’ you will turn your paper over, and follow the directions. You will have five minutes to complete the exercise.”
At the “GO” command, we all quickly flopped our papers over with a simultaneous SLAM against our desktops, and began the exercise.
Direction #1: Read all of the instructions before beginning the exercise.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t they all say that? I only had 5 minutes to get through something like 15 steps. Besides, this stuff was mindless… SIMPLE!
So, I moved on.
#2: Fold your blank sheet of paper into quadrants.
#3: Draw a triangle in the top left quadrant of the paper.
#4: Draw a circle in the lower right quadrant of the paper.
On and on it went. Drawing shapes. Drawing a line through this shape, or writing a number in that shape. Absolute child’s play. I mean, seriously – a monkey could have done this. I didn’t need five minutes. It took me only about three to get down to the last instruction. Boy, wasn’t I smart? This was a piece of cake! And finally – the last instruction:
#15: Disregard all of the above instructions, and turn in a blank sheet of paper.
Boy, did I feel dumb.
And so did everyone else in the class except for about three students…the ones who actually followed Direction #1, and read all of the other directions before starting the “test.” It only took them about ONE MINUTE to realize that the test required them to do nothing at all.
Fast forward about 26 years, and my current career finds me in charge of reviewing pitches, and purchasing articles for WritersWeekly.com. I literally delete about 30 or 40 emails for every one good pitch that I respond to, and offer a writing assignment. I guess humans are really the same everywhere.
Yes, this article is going to partially be a rant. But, at the same time, I really hope some aspiring freelance writer who has been having rough time getting their career off the ground will read this, and learn something that will start them in the right direction.
The answer to this is easier than you may think. Just replace the word “Guidelines” with “RULES.” Every business that hires employees, contractors, or freelancers (or even volunteers, for that matter) has rules that it expects those who are doing work for the business to follow. And, every business is different. The rules for a construction company will be different from those at a fast-food joint. The rules for a nail salon employee will be different from the rules for a computer coder at a software development firm.
The rules are different even within companies that engage in the same line of business. Enter publishing businesses. Every one is different. Some are similar to each other. Others are as different as night and day. And, so are their rules (WRITER’S GUIDELINES!). So, what are some of these guidelines?
How to Submit.
Here at WritersWeekly, we have a specific Contact Form within our website so people can contact us us for any number of reasons. One of those reasons would be to pitch an article idea. And. we link to that contact form multiple times within our GUIDELINES.
Other publications ask that you send in a physical letter, by mail, to pitch your article. Others give a specific email address that they want writers to use to inquire about writing opportunities. I’ve even seen a few publications that specifically do NOT post their guidelines anywhere, but insist that you, the writer, email them to request a copy of their guidelines. That is to help them weed out the folks who actually read directions (“As per your instructions, I am requesting a copy of your guidelines.”) from the people who don’t (“I want to write articles for you.”).
Figuring out how to submit your work or query to a publisher makes a BIG first impression that WILL (I promise, as an editor) affect your batting average when it comes to landing writing gigs.
It really helps to study up on a publication you want to write for, and know what genre and niche they fall into. What do I mean by this?
When I first started dreaming about living on a sailboat, and cruising the Caribbean, I bought a subscription to Cruising World magazine, expecting to learn some things about how to get a sailboat, fix it up, and transition my life into one of living aboard. I had already read several books written by people who had made that big life change and I was trying to absorb all the knowledge I could.
However, every article in Cruising World magazine was about boats that cost anywhere from a quarter-million dollars and up, equipment and systems that were in the high thousands, the latest and greatest gear that would set me back a half-year’s paycheck, and destinations that seemed to require around a thousand dollars every day that you want to stay there. Every story about a family living aboard and cruising included a paragraph that started like this: “Frank, who retired from his Wall Street investment firm to go see the world…” or “Jim, who became fed up after ten years with his Silicone Valley software development job…”
I almost gave up on my dream, convinced I could never afford it.
Then I discovered Latitudes and Attitudes magazine. The publisher was a rugged old biker dude. Suddenly, I was reading story after story about dirt-poor people who found boats abandoned in boatyards, fixed them up on shoestring budgets (often while living ON the boats in the boatyards), and sailing off to not-so-well-known destinations. There, they barter for things they need, help local populations with community projects, meet and help other dirt-poor cruisers – and LOVE their live-aboard lives. That’s when I KNEW that I could successfully do it!
Imagine that. Two publications addressing the exact same topic, from two completely separate angles, appealing to two completely different audiences. Many publishers are quite specific about what angle they want your article to come from. Don’t just rely on the name of the publication to determine what they are about. Learn who their audience is, and what angles the stories come from.
What to Submit.
If you want to guarantee failure in your freelance writing career, just keep ignoring this part of publishers’ guidelines.
Some publishers want you to submit the full manuscript of your article for them to review. This is called submitting “on spec” and it’s great…if an editor is a speed reader, or has lots and lots of spare time to read hundreds of full-length articles to find the right ones.
Other publishers, like WritersWeekly, demand article pitches or “queries.” A query is a brief, concise explanation of your article idea. Usually, the ideal length for these is just two or three short paragraphs.
Paragraph 1 should be a quick intro, and an explanation of why you are proposing this article. Paragraph 2 should tell what your article will be about. Paragraph 3 should be some general points you are going to present to make your case.
A good query is NOT: “I would like to write an article on the importance of following publishers’ guidelines.”
The above example tells an editor nothing, and will result in THIS editor promptly clicking the DELETE button, and moving on to the next email. The same thing occurs when someone sends me a full article out of the blue without so much as a “Hello.” I know I’m not unique among editors when it comes to this.
Still other publications want neither your spec article OR your query. They want your name and email, and usually some samples of your work. Then, they will either assign you a project, or will give you the thumbs up to pitch them an idea.
Again, it is important to know exactly what the publisher you are reaching out to wants. I get plenty of “How do I get to write for your company?” emails. And, they all go right into my cyber trash. I don’t waste time sending replies for one simple reason: If they aren’t ambitious enough to pull up WritersWeekly.com and familiarize themselves with it, or intelligent enough to click and read our “WRITE FOR US” link, I simply don’t have the time to educate them. It also gives me an idea of how much effort they will put into researching their chosen topic.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
I shouldn’t have to say this. But, then again, we shouldn’t have to tell people not to eat Tide Pods on YouTube either…
When you send anything to an editor – an idea pitch, a query, a spec article – it needs to be your best work. This is no exaggeration. NO spelling errors. NO grammatical errors. NO texting shorthand. And, NO punctuation errors.
A writer can send me a pitch for the greatest article idea I’ve ever heard. But, if they write it poorly, I’m not going to take the chance. My title is “editor.” But, that doesn’t mean that my job is to edit a writer’s work to make it fundamentally readable on a third-grade level. However, I’ve received pitches AND full-length articles that made it crystal clear that the writers thought my job was to take a piece of garbage, and turn it into a gold coin. I never respond to those writers again.
In conclusion, if you have been plodding through your writing career thinking that writer’s guidelines are just silly formalities that don’t really apply to you, I guarantee that you aren’t making as much money as you could be. You probably aren’t making anything at all. And, if you are studying the publications that you pitch to, if you read and follow their guidelines, and take time to submit quality work, I know from personal observation that you are already way ahead of the pack. Keep up the good work and you’ll do well in this business.
- If You Are “Sympathy Pitching” Editors and Publishers, PLEASE STOP! by Brian P. Whiddon, Managing Editor
- How to Pitch Your Writing to the BIG Companies
- QUERY LETTERS THAT WORKED! Real Queries That Landed $2K+ Writing Assignments
- World’s Worst Query Letters and Book Proposals For May, 2021!
Brian Whiddon is our Managing Editor. His background includes five years in the Army with a combat tour in Somalia. He spent 15 years as a police officer. His book – Blue Lives Matter: The Heart Behind the Badge – is an entertaining, action-packed, humorous, and, at times, heartbreaking compilation of his personal stories and experiences while serving in law enforcement. Brian also lived for nine years on his 36 foot sailboat, the Floggin’ Molly. He and Angela now reside in the mountains of North Georgia where they spend their spare time gardening, and watching the diverse mountain wildlife.
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Thanks for this. I just printed it and plan to use it. Thank you.
Great information to pass on new freelancers and authors. A good lesson to learn with mine from the past to the future. Now I understand. We all recover from one and a half years to our new normal and stress out in our world. As the old saying, think twice before you write an article or say negative words.