Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How Many is Too Many?

a) When you were beginning your freelance career, how many queries would you send out on a daily basis? b) And did you shop the same query around to several different editors?

a) Ooh, I have no idea what the exact number would be (and that was two computers ago, so I really can't check my archived emails), but I can tell you that it was A LOT. I was incessant about pitching. That one didn't work? How about this? No? I got more. My husband would joke that I was a master hustler because I was always, always, always vying for more work.

While I can't give you an exact number, I can say that the best way to get out as many queries as possible - and potentially land assignments - is to keep your eyes out for great stories. Brilliant advice, right? Well, guess what? It is! :) What I mean by this is that great story ideas aren't going to just fall in your lap. Part of my job is to read every last thing that I can: health research, new trends, medical reports, local papers, national news, pop culture blogs, etc, etc. These are the things that are going to generate ideas and nab you assignments. If you keep your fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the world, you're probably not going to lack for ideas. And once you have ideas, the number of queries that you send is limitless.

Why not try setting a goal for yourself? My writers group has a query challenge every couple of months, in which people see how many possible queries they can get out each week. I've seen people shoot off 20+. Remember that, especially as a new writer, very few of these are going to pan out. (Cold, harsh truth. Sorry.) So you're not going to be too swamped to handle the work. But you'll be getting your name in front of an editor, and ideally, making a great impression, and that will lead to future work. Freelancing is a constant work-in-process. Getting on the query wagon is a smart first step.

b) As far as simultaneous submissions, gulp, well, freelancers and editors have very different takes on this. These days, I'd never, ever do it because a) I know my editors personally, and I feel like I owe them something and b) because I do know them, I also know what they're looking for, so have a greater chance of landing a pitch. BUT, as I mentioned above, the reality of the situation is that as a newbie, it is very, very unlikely that you'll land a ton of initial assignments. So, the logic follows that you should cast your net as wide as possible. And many freelancers I know - including myself at one point - do. Not often. Not with every pitch. But yeah, occasionally. I'm not advocating this as a practice, but is it done? Yes. Freelancing is a business: why would you commit yourself to one editor (whom you don't know and who doesn't know you), when there are so many other possibilities out there? So yes, early in my career, I definitely submitted to multiple places. And let me tell you: never once did more than one editor beat down my door for a story. In fact, I hear of this situation very, very rarely.

Of course, there are ways to make everyone happy. The most obvious is to tweak the query so that it's slightly different for each magazine. For example, if I had a great metabolism-related idea, maybe I'd pitch a straight exercise angle to FITNESS, a diet/food angle to COOKING LIGHT, and something on kids and obesity to PARENTS. Do note that none of these magazines are competitors. These days, I'd never pitch the same idea to FITNESS, SELF and SHAPE, but again, that's because I have pre-established relationships with these editors. Plenty of other freelancers do indeed fire off the same query and see who bites (if at all) first. Note that should more than one editor want the idea, you most likely will find yourself in hot water (with the steaming mad snubbed editor) and might burn a bridge. I guess you have to decide upon the likelihood of more than one person vying for it, and if they do, if you'd care.

Another solution is to send in a query, wait a reasonable amount of time - a week or two - then send it elsewhere, all the while following up with the original magazine. This way, you know that you've given them first crack, but you're also covering all bases by pursing other options. This is usually how I handled things when I did occasionally simultaneously submit - I'd assume that if an editor were really salivating for an idea, she'd let me know pretty quickly, and if she were ho-hum, then she wouldn't balk if I sold it elsewhere.

A third solution is to send the query with a comment stating, "if I don't hear from you by October 1st, I'll assume you're not interested." I know several writers who do this, though I might wait until the follow-up email to set a deadline. Then, at the set date, you know that it's safe to move on, and should the editor eventually get back to you with a yes, it's not as if you haven't said, "hey, I'm not waiting around forever."

Look, the bottom line is that you have to do what's right for you. When I was just starting out, what was right for me was building my database of clips and landing assignments. And sometimes, that meant sending out simultaneous submissions. Not often, but when it was a really timely or hot idea. These days, what's important to me is honoring and preserving the relationships that I have. I adore my editors and wouldn't in any way want to tarnish those ties. Period.

On another note, I'll be dealing with queries again later this week. Only this time, I've surveyed a slew of my editors to garner their dos and don'ts. And guess what? They had a lot to say! So tune back in!


Larramie said...

Freelance writing tends to sound like an easy job, i.e. working whenever inspiration strikes. Thanks for reminding us that -- like everything else -- "making it look easy" requires discpline, good writing and hustle!

Jocelyn said...


You had mentioned not wanting to burn bridges with editors when freelancing. Have you ever found yourself just not clicking with an editor? Do you try to win them over or just move on? Have you ever ended up in "hot water" or pissing off an editor? I know that there are many different personalities in magazines and sometimes egos can get a little bit big. Do you have any stories from the trenches?