From the Editor's Desk

7 Lessons from Freelance Writing

I’ve freelanced for a long time now, taken breaks from it for my sanity’s sake, come back to it because the accomplishment is addictive. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Freelancing taught me how to identify publishers with whom I have sympatico, so that I can pitch successfully to them.

It taught me to pitch successfully.

It taught me how to write to a word count and subject matter, in the preferred vein of a target publisher.

It also taught me, whether through direct experience or that of my writing community, that no matter how many smileys the staff uses, there are some harsh realities. And that’s okay. That means it’s taught me boundaries. Here are some things that I or friends of mine have had to decide along the way.

1) The accounting department. When you fail to pay me multiple times in a row, and prefer to treat me like a suspect for invoicing you even though your accounting department doesn’t dispute your error, expect not to see a submission from me again.

Lesson learned: You have to be your own collections agency, and watch contract terms really carefully. If there’s waffle room on when checks go out, it’ll probably come into play, either through benign negligence within the company or due to shakeups and internal changes.

2) On spec. You may be so cool that I’ll write on spec for you under poor terms–once. If the piece gets killed, and there’s no kill fee, then you’re not cool enough for me to use my (or my interviewees’) time that way again.

Lesson learned: Publishing is a roulette wheel, but you can choose when and how to gamble.

3) Token pay. Yes, I would, at least, back when I was newer, just for the love of you and our shared topic of interest. But unless we could save the world by doing this, things are different now. I’m sorry.

Lesson learned: Token still counts. It’s a matter of calculating what your time is worth.

4) Excessive rights grab. Print plus digital rights in perpetuity, including on 3rd-party sites and pretty much anywhere on the web? With no royalty? Way to essentially take over my copyright and render reprint a worthless endeavour.

Lesson learned: Why, yes, there are magazines out there which cater to a relatively naive audience and also tap it for exploitable intellectual property.

5) Submission constitutes permission to hold work on file for future use. No. If you reject it now, you’re SOL, sweetheart. Either take it or leave it. I’m not having a possible conflict over an exclusive first-rights period if it’s picked up elsewhere just when you finally decide to run it.

Lesson learned: Never hamstring yourself for someone else’s convenience. Think about the implications of what they’re asking for.

6) Independent book publishers who shouldn’t be. (There are a lot of small independent startups in the current publishing climate. Note that independent companies are by and large great; but of course there are a few special snowflakes.)

When you:

  • pay me a royalty on par with the traditional industry’s lowest going rates,
  • can boost my sales through your network instead of asking me to do it all while you take half my net,
  • learn how not to be a recurring PR nightmare,
  • and can bring me art design that’s competitive packaging instead of hamstringing the product’s sales appeal right out of the gate,


  • it may become worth my time to put up with your crappy personality and negotiate my way through your inability to edit.

Lesson learned: The publishing pond holds lots of other small but highly agile, streamlined fish, who swim like fish, not like a dork.

7) Write for free for a good cause. I have been asked more times than I can count to write for free for someone’s pet project. I am very good at identifying what will or will not save the world. Most things won’t. I wrote previously about being asked to sign on to a rabbit trail of someone else’s ambitions, under the banner of “getting a foot in the door,” or “a great opportunity for starting out.”

The answer is no, unless it makes me really, really happy, or unless it actually qualifies as something that builds my own career as well as someone else’s dreams. If I want to serve a good cause, I can generally find one with almost no effort at all, because I’m a person with passions and convictions just like anyone else. (In truth, I’ve done a good bit of nonprofit writing because I valued a cause or project. But in every case, I volunteered for it myself, under the power of my own conscience and judgment, not the influence of someone who wanted my time for free. That’s an important distinction.)

The thing is, writing involves putting some percentage of life on hold, whether for a few hours or a few months, depending on the size of the project. There are only 24 hours in a day. I could go out to the soup kitchen instead, and talk to real people instead of myself. That would be a good cause.

Lesson learned: You really could spend ALL your time writing. All of it. Except that’s not healthy, which means being selective.


And of course, there’s much, much more info on defensive driving for writers at Writer Beware. For self-publishing writers, and anyone interested in the business and contracts side of publishing, another good one is The Passive Voice, which will also lead you to many other sources.

If you are a writer, and you want to stick with it and really do this thing, it’s legitimate and important to value your own time and sanity. Take care of yourself out there.


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