Writing is not a career for the faint-hearted or the impatient. To start a career as a freelance writer, you have to be both resilient and prepared to play the long game.
I left my run late, having spent the first twenty-five years of my working life as a caterer. In my mid-forties, I simultaneously lost the passion for cooking and gained a love of writing. I decided to use the skills accumulated throughout the previous quarter century to work for me in my new career: the ability to match menu to client, the organisational skills to run a small business and a willingness to learn.
Back in my catering days, my specialty was the croquenbouche, a towering confection of choux pastry puffs, crème anglaise and spun toffee. A show stopper, but not appropriate for a business lunch or a funeral wake. Similarly, your pet writing subjects – like your signature dishes – may not appeal to a prospective client or publication. Research will help you work out what sells in a very competitive market. With luck, this may coincide with your field of interest, but mostly it will not, at least at the start. Being able to write 500 to 800 words on any topic is a skill that will come with practice. Once you’ve selected a target publication, study the house-style including content, voice, word count and structure, and adhere to it. Then add a pinch of something fresh, original and distinctly yours to the mix. Give your writing plenty of time to edit before sending it out into the world. If on the tenth reading you’re feeling positive about it, press ‘send’, then try to think about something else. Editors, like catering clients, will make decisions in their own sweet time.
After you have sent out your story for consideration, the urge to check your emails for a response will be overwhelming. Try to resist, for that way lies madness. A freelancing friend sends and receives her emails manually at set times during the day. Not everyone is capable of such self-discipline. It may help to remember that most editors are extremely busy people with their own methods of dealing with an ever-expanding inbox. Some respond immediately, others put unsolicited submissions aside until they have a quiet moment. Some don’t respond to those they choose not to accept. Some submission guidelines stipulate the response time is two to three months, and even then there are no guarantees you’ll ever hear back.
The 'New York Times' is one such publication. Its ‘Modern Love’ series is one of the most prestigious and accessible forums for freelance writers with a dream in their hearts. I’ve been waiting for a response for two months and eleven days (yes, I’m counting) during which I’ve considered trying to find my piece another home. But I’ve decided to sit out the next twenty days because the worst thing that could happen is to offer it elsewhere, only to have the 'New York Times' later request permission to publish. Holding on to a thread of hope is worse than a definite rejection.
There. I said it. Rejection. Because that’s exactly what it feels like. You’ve shown someone your baby quiches and they’ve said they taste horrible. So in amongst the patience and doggedness, you need to cultivate a few extra layers of skin and constantly remind yourself that none of this is personal: that you have to keep honing your skills: that every rejection is one rejection closer to an acceptance. If you are very lucky you may find a friendly editor who is prepared to give you a hint about the reason for their decision. Such editors are rare but a precious source of inside knowledge that will help you improve your craft.
To while away those interminable hours of waiting to hear the fate of your darlings, consider drawing up a spreadsheet to keep track of them. Include details of the name of the submission and the date it was submitted, the organisation and its contact details, whether it was accepted and if so, the dates of acceptance, publication, invoicing and payment. This will help with your tax return and reduce the likelihood of submitting twice to the same publication, a guaranteed way to put an editor offside.
Maintaining an optimistic outlook can be difficult in the face of deafening silence from your target publication. The average jobbing freelancer has little control over the destiny of any submission they make. Recently I received profuse apologies from the editors of two separate print publications within the space of a week. I had sent my submissions months earlier and had heard nothing despite in one case sending three polite follow-up emails. It turns out my submissions and subsequent follow ups had all gone through to their junk mails. It takes years of perseverance before we have a hotline to editors that guarantee safe passage of our darlings to their inbox. What happens after that is still anyone’s guess.
Fortunately, both editors wanted to publish my stories, although the deadlines for the appropriate issues had passed. Of course, I accepted their offers, despite the delayed publishing dates and the ruthless whittling down of each piece to fit the available space. I need to get my name out there and I need the income.
Creating a website can help to achieve both these goals. A website can be a place to publish the things you want to say and to establish a brand that is all your own. It may even generate an income for you by building a following that may, in time, become a market. The most important factor for any writer is to have their work read by the widest possible audience and, eventually, make it pay.
The sad fact is that writing is one of the few professions that pays less than it did ten years ago. Most freelance writers accept what they are offered, grateful for the exposure and for placing their work. They kid themselves if they think their writing is earth-shattering. Mostly, it’s not the thought-provoking catalyst for change they want it to be. I like to think of my writing as a source of enjoyment, reflection, maybe even inspiration for the discerning few. A jaded journalist friend once called magazine copy ‘sympathetic infill for advertising’, but I refuse to subscribe to his glass-half-empty approach. As long as my writing finds a home, I’m happy. My chances of being regularly published improve with every deadline and word count I meet, and with every rejection I accept with goodwill.
Despite all, we writers continue to ply our trade cheerfully for the most part, and with a drive akin to the urge to push when about to give birth. The time we spend away from our writing desks is the necessary by-product of having responsibilities to family and friends, and of having to find material about which to write. If the writing life chooses you, you are powerless to resist. The joy my late-blooming writing career has given me is equal to anything I’ve achieved in my life. This soufflé is on its way to its second rising. The decision to trade knives for pens was the easiest I have ever made. The challenge is not whether to continue plying my pen, but how quickly I can fulfil my domestic and work duties to make way for precious time at my desk. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
About Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn works as a professional writer by day and a freelance writer by night. She is a regular contributor to 'The Age' and the founder of diywoman.net.