Editors Don’t Need Perfect Writers, Just Reliable Ones
Advice from a managing editor on getting a high-paying freelance gig
Before I was a freelancer, I was a managing editor, and one of my biggest problems was finding reliable, quality freelance writers. That sounds unbelievable: Just look at how many writers are contributing content here, and how many freelancers are working across the online world.
Yet I couldn’t find many writers to create the content that my technology publication needed. In some cases, their news writing skills weren’t very good. But some freelancers passed us by completely because they knew little or nothing about the market we covered and thought we wouldn’t choose them based on their lack of knowledge.
The truth was that I needed freelancers with a good grounding in news and feature-writing. I didn’t need another technology expert or market analyst — I just needed a dependable, professional writer.
The experience is something that I’ve taken with me into my freelancing career — inside knowledge of what editors are looking for in a freelance writer. This may surprise you: Top writing skills are not at the top of the list.
An editor for a niche publication who’s looking for a freelance writer needs three things:
- A good attitude.
- A willingness to follow editorial direction.
- Good, not perfect, content writing skills.
If a writer meets these requirements, many editors will help them learn to write for that market niche.
In six years of recruiting new freelancers, surprisingly few writers met all three of the items above. Those who did became writers that we relied upon regularly — and paid above market — to craft news articles, features, and marketing copy like whitepapers and ebooks.
The best of these writers have continued writing within this industry area. I see them regularly at trade shows, covering product announcements for various publications. They command top dollar for their work. And they are usually booked up for the year.
I’m giving you this insider information to awaken you to a huge opportunity. Niche publications need freelancers. They need reliable people who will produce a well-written copy on time. They need people who can put their ego to the side when they get editors’ feedback. They need people who keep their eyes open and never stop learning.
Tackle A New Challenge Like the Pro You Are
Trying to find your first freelance job is frightening. Moving into a subject niche that you don’t know much about can induce even more anxiety. Do not let this anxiety stop you from moving into a new subject, and don’t let it affect the way you respond to feedback from an editor.
If you’re asked for more information, for a more detailed query, for different writing samples, or for extensive edits — respond professionally.
If despite your best efforts, an assignment doesn’t work out, you will move on with much more knowledge about that area than you had when you started. It will be worth the work, no matter what happens.
Fight Off Imposter Syndrome
A couple of years into my managing editor job, I met a writer who’d been recommended to me, through a friend. She had never replied to my emails. After a few minutes of chitchat about writing in general, I asked the question that had really been bugging me: Why had she never gotten in touch with me about freelancing?
“I was afraid to send you my stuff,” she said. “I haven’t been writing very long, and I don’t think it’s that good.”
I get that. I totally do. It was the same fear I had when I sent out my first freelance queries. What if my writing was not good enough?
You’ll never know whether it’s good enough if you don’t let people look at it. I’ve never, ever, ever been told by an editor that they hated my work. I’ve been given plenty of constructive feedback.
No one is going to go full J. Jonah Jameson on you and slam down a printout of your work, yelling, “It’s crap! Go get me a story that will sell!” No one is going to sit at a conference table with a bunch of other editors and titter about your bad writing over coffee and croissants (my personal worry-dream). Honestly, no one has time for that — editors are constantly on deadline.
Accept the fact that, if you are writing in a new field that you’re unfamiliar with, your initial work will be a challenge to write and may be sent back with edits multiple times. Take it for what it is: your initial training period, a ramp-up into writing within a specialized niche.
If an editor contacts you with feedback, consider it a compliment: That person took time out of their busy day to put together notes for you and present their critique in an encouraging way as much as possible. And the reason they’re doing it is because they think you can do really well writing in that niche.
If you feel like you can make more money at writing, and you’re not sure where to look to find those gigs, step out of your comfort zone and respond to the job postings that you aren’t quite sure you’re qualified for. Go ahead and send out your samples. Go after the freelance projects that scare you a bit because of their scope or other requirements. Maybe it won’t work out. But imagine what can happen if it does.