The Freelance Writing FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Freelance Writing
This FAQ is a primer on freelance writing. All comments welcome. Copyright 1995, 1999 Marcia Yudkin. Electronic redistribution allowed so long as you make no changes in the file. Please address questions and comments to Marcia Yudkin at email@example.com.
This FAQ addresses the following questions:
I MAKING CONTACT WITH EDITORS
1 I've written an article -- how do I find someplace to publish it?
Writing an article and then casting about for someone to publish it is not the efficient way to get published. There may in fact be no publication anywhere that can use an article with exactly that focus, length, voice, kinds of sources of information, etc. You have a much better chance of success if you send off queries before you write your article and then tailor it to the preferences of an editor who has expressed interest in seeing it or buying it.
However, if you have already written the article, out of inspiration or naivete, research appropriate markets via the library's periodical bookshelves, newsstands and the old standby, Writer's Market, available in most bookstores and libraries. Send it in to a specific editor along with a short cover letter stating what you're enclosing and who you are.
2 What's a query?
A query (also called a query letter) is a one-page proposal in business-letter format offering to write a specific piece for a specific magazine, addressed to a specific editor there by name. This is the basic sales tool of professional and aspiring freelance writers.
Ninety-five percent of my queries that have resulted in assignments to write the article have used the following format: first, a lead paragraph that could double as the first paragraph of the published article; second, a description of the focus or angle, content, format and, sometimes, sources for the proposed article; third, information about myself and why I'm the person to write this article; and finally, anything else that the editor needed to know about timing, photos, etc. I print this out on a very plain letterhead that includes my name, address and phone and fax numbers.
You can also use a conventional business-letter approach, starting off, for example, "I am writing to propose an article about..." Whichever approach you use, though, the query must be articulate and interesting, and perfect in spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage. You want the reader (the editor) to finish the letter and think, "Yes -- here's an article that would work for us and a writer we can trust to write it appropriately and professionally."
Like anything you send to people in publishing, the printing of a query must be "letter-quality."
3 Can I fax or E-mail a query?
Unless you already know an editor, or unless an editor has indicated somewhere an openness to receiving queries by fax or E-mail, it is safest to send a query letter by mail. That also gives you an opportunity to enclose "clips" -- a sample or two of your previously published articles.
4 Do I need to enclose an SASE?
If sending a query by mail, it is customary to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope for the editor's reply. Omit this only if you already know the editor well or if the editor has specifically requested material from you. Some editors will toss out your queries if you do not enclose an SASE. Across national borders enclose International Reply Coupons -- available at most post offices.
5 Should I try to find an agent?
Because reputable agents work only on commission, very few will handle submissions to magazines or newspapers -- it's just not worth their while. Thus until you have written a book proposal, there is no point in looking for a literary agent.
1 Do we need to bother with a contract?
A contract doesn't have to be a formal document filled with legal mumbo-jumbo. Any time an editor phones you to assign an article, ask, "Will you be sending me a contract?" If the answer is no, prepare a business letter that describes the agreed-upon terms of the assignment, such as content, length, due date, fee, rights to be purchased (see next question), etc., ending with, "If this properly represents what we agreed upon during our telephone conversation of [date], please sign one copy and send it back to me and retain the other copy for your files."
Either a formal contract or a signed agreement letter protects both of you from misunderstandings and gives you more options if the assigning editor leaves the magazine, the magazine goes bankrupt or is sold, or the magazine just doesn't honor its side of the deal. Unfortunately, practically every experienced freelancer has encountered one of these sorts of problems at one time or another.
If you don't like the terms contained in a formal contract sent to you by the magazine, negotiate. Usually there is leeway for bargaining and negotiation, particularly when you carry on in a businesslike manner.
2 What do "first serial rights," "all rights," "one-time rights," "electronic rights" and "work for hire" mean and why should I care?
When you sell your work to a publication, you are not selling the manuscript itself but the right to publish it -- and then the question arises, the right to publish it how many times and under what circumstances?
The fairest deal in most situations for writer and publication is "first serial rights," which means that the magazine buys the right to publish the piece first in any periodical anywhere. This is often modified by a geographical adjective, such as "First North American serial rights," or by a linguistic descriptor, such as "First English-language serial rights."
Once the magazine to whom you have sold first serial rights publishes the piece, you own it completely again. You can sell the exact same piece to another magazine, which would then be buying "second serial rights" or "reprint rights."
"All rights" is usually a bad deal for writers. It means you sell the magazine the right to publish the article as many times as they like, to resell or to license the rights to a movie or computer database or audio publisher without paying you another dime, ever.
"One-time rights" comes up mainly with newspapers, which generally don't care whether another newspaper across the country also published the same piece. They thus buy the right to publish the piece once, irrespective of priority.
But they may request that the purchase be exclusive to their circulation area, which means that you couldn't also sell it to a newspaper whose circulation overlaps with theirs.
"Work for hire" is even worse than "all rights" -- you are also selling your copyright and any claim on your piece of work forever. Unless you are an employee of that publication, a work for hire agreement must be signed by both parties to be valid. This usually amounts to out-and-out exploitation of writers; avoid it wherever you can.
"Electronic rights" is the big battleground in the magazine and newspaper world today. As publications begin to make past and current issues available online, some are illicitly republishing in electronic form contributions for which they only acquired one-time or first serial rights. Other publications are demanding writers sign "contracts from hell" in which they give up electronic rights for no additional compensation. All the major writers organizations are active on this front. For more information, contact the Authors Guild, the American Society of Journalists and Authors or the National Writers Union.
3 What's a "kill fee"?
When an editor assigns you a piece to write, the terms of the agreement will often also include you getting a certain percentage of the purchase price for the article if you write it unsatisfactorily. This percentage is the "kill fee," and may be 10 percent, 25 percent, 33 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent if you're really lucky. After a publication pays you a kill fee, you own the rights to the piece and are free to sell it elsewhere.
4 Can I deduct writing expenses for tax purposes, and if so, how?
Consult a qualified tax advisor about your specific case, but in the United States you would use a Schedule C and can deduct such expenses as paper, postage, computer equipment, fax machine and extra phone lines, dues in writing organizations, books and magazines necessary for research, seminar fees, and travel and long-distance phone calls that are strictly necessary for your freelance work.
1 How do I prevent people from stealing my ideas?
In fact, ideas are very rarely "stolen" in the freelance world. Beginners often jump to the conclusion that this has happened because they don't understand how common it is for writers to separately and independently come up with the same idea and submit it to the same publication.
The best way to prevent an editor from taking your idea and assigning it to another writer is to write your query so that it's obvious that you already know a great deal about your subject and-or have special sources of information that you'll use in preparing the article.
Note that one cannot legally copyright an idea, only the specific expression of an idea. Anything you write is automatically covered by copyright law the moment you fix it in tangible form. You do not need to place a copyright notice on it, and many editors therefore take such a copyright notice on unpublished work as a mark of an amateur.
2 How long do I normally have to wait for a reply?
Four to six weeks is typical. Be sure to wait at least the amount of time reported in Writer's Market before writing or calling to inquire about the status of your query or manuscript.
3 What if I've never published anything yet?
Never state in a query or cover letter, "I've never published anything before." It inevitably sounds apologetic and unconfident. Just write as well as you can, and be ready to do your best if an editor asks you to write a piece "on spec" -- that is, on speculation, letting them see it without any promise or obligation to buy it.
4 How do I get interviewees to talk to me?
I've never tried to get an exclusive with Madonna, but in 18 years of freelancing, I've found people surprisingly willing to be interviewed for articles or books. To maximize the chances for cooperation, I always call and introduce myself as a writer working on a such-and-such for so-and-so, and say that I would like to interview them. I always add an estimate of how long I think the interview would take, so they know that I respect their time. Only a handful of people have ever refused.
5 Can I ask an editor for more money?
Most editors have some discretion in how much they can pay for each piece, and you'll never know if they'd use that discretion in your favor unless you ask. Be business-like in asking for money, as in, "Can you do better than $200? It will take me a week to research and write the piece."
6 Are multiple submissions OK?
Multiple queries are usually fine, so long as you know what you'll do if more than one publication wants your article. Multiple submissions of completed articles, however, can lead to trouble. I know two people who each had a completed article simultaneously accepted for publication and typeset at two competing magazines. The respective editors got very angry at the freelancers, even though the editors should have notified the writers for permission before getting ready to publish the articles.
7 Why do I keep getting rejection letters?
If you're not yet receiving what I call "nice rejection letters" -- those with some or complete personalization for you -- you're probably doing something fundamentally wrong.
Hire a professional to look over your queries. The problem might be vague or too-generic ideas, inappropriate markets, poor writing or sloppy execution. Or perhaps you're aiming only at the most competitive markets without something special to offer.
If you are receiving personalized rejection letters, write back to those editors quickly and you will soon begin to develop a relationship with them that will eventually culminate in work if you are persistent and professional enough.
1 Can one make a living as a freelance writer?
According to a 1995 survey of American writers by the National Writers Union, of journalists with an average of 14 years in the field, only 17 percent were making more than $30,000 a year. Of the writers I know (including myself) who make more than that, most have followed one or more of these strategies:
2 What about publishing fiction?
One can't query for fiction, but all the rest of the above applies. Short story writers can still negotiate rights with editors, build relationships with editors, etc.
3 How do I sell a regular or syndicated column?
If you dream of becoming the next Dave Barry or Abigail Van Buren, start local. Make your column an unquestionable success in one paper and then either approach established syndicates, which are listed in Writer's Market, or sell the column to other papers on your own, which is called self-syndication.
4 How can I get those first clips?
When editors look at samples of your work, they are primarily interested in your writing style and mastery of the craft, rather than where the sample was published or how much you were paid. Therefore valuable first clips can result from offering to write for an organizational newsletter, your community newspaper or any other small-circulation publication that is desperate for decent work.
5 How do I break in to big-time magazines?
Even if you've never been published before, you have a chance to catch the attention of a major magazine if you can provide something more experienced writers can't: your personal experience; access to inside information about a subject of interest to the magazine's readers; professional expertise that you can communicate at the readers' level; a local story that the national press hasn't covered; or a unique voice or quirky perspective on ordinary events.
1 How can I find out more about freelance writing?
- Lisa Collier Cool, How to Write Irresistible Query Letters, Writers Digest Books (1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45207; 800-289-0963).
- Gregg Levoy, This Business of Writing, Writers Digest Books (1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45207; 800-289-0963).
- Marcia Yudkin, Writing Articles About the World Around You, Writers Digest Books (autographed copies from firstname.lastname@example.org; 617-266-1613)
2 Are there organizations for freelance writers?
- American Society of Journalists and Authors: 1501 Broadway, Suite 302, New York, NY 10036; 212-997-0947; email@example.com
- Authors Guild: 330 West 42nd St., New York, NY 10036; 212-563-5904; firstname.lastname@example.org
- International Women's Writing Guild: Box 810, Gracie Station New York, NY 10028; 212-737-7536; email@example.com
- National Writers Union: 873 Broadway, Suite 203, New York, NY 10003; 212-254-0279; firstname.lastname@example.org
3 How about freelancing resources on the Internet?
The following are a few Usenet newsgroups aspiring freelancers may find useful:
4 And who are you, anyway?
I'm the author of hundreds of articles in magazines ranging from the New York Times Magazine to New Age Journal and of nine books, including Writing Articles About the World Around You, Freelance writing for Magazines & Newspapers and Six Steps to Free Publicity. I've spoken at more than 50 writers' conferences nationwide and coach writers one-on-one. For more information about my public writing seminars, coaching services, books and audiotapes, visit http://www.yudkin.com, call 1-617-266-1613 or e-mail email@example.com.
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