Editor’s note: I’m a member of the Writer’s Bridge. Its founder, Darrell Laurant, recently sent us an inspirational piece about how the culture of freelance writing could change. I thought it deserved a wider audience, so here it is.
by Darrell Laurant
Architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller was once quoted as saying: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Amen. The existing reality, when it comes to freelance writing, is that the system is broken — that is, if there ever was a system.
Right now, it seems to me, everyone is losing. The writers are losing because a new flood of content farms has driven down the bottom line and cheapened our product. The serious markets are losing because their mistrust of writers new to them has locked them into a Groundhog Day scenario, hiring the same freelancers to crank out predictable articles on the same tired subjects. And, perhaps most importantly, the readers are losing.
So let’s look at some elements of the freelance culture as it stands, and consider a few alternatives.
Freelance writers are loners (the same term often used to describe serial killers and shopping mall shooters) who are in fierce competition with every other writer.
The new culture:
For any number of reasons, we actually have a deep need to work together. The Internet is pushing us in that direction, but too many of us aren’t yet responding. There are plenty of writing jobs to go around, for those of us who are serious. Those who aren’t will soon fall away and take up some other occupation that’s less challenging. We writers — the real writers — write because we have to, and we are a relatively small group. We will persevere, because we have no choice.
So why not get to know each other better? What if writers shared markets and sources with each other? What if a specialist in gardening came across a great idea for a sports feature and sent it to a writer she knew? What if freelancers paired off for editing purposes? What if we were able to congratulate each other on successes and commiserate on rejections? What if word got around when a market stiffed a writer? Actually, this is already happening — the Internet is full of writers’ groups. We have a Facebook page at The Writers’ Bridge, and there are plenty of Yahoo and LinkedIn sites for communal conversation.
The truth is, there are enough good ideas and good markets to go around — don’t let the culture pit us against each other.
Editors are the enemy.
The new culture:
We need to remind ourselves that writers and editors are actually partners in serving a third group — the readers. Inside that dynamic, however, we should also remember that editors have a right to dictate the conditions of their arrangement with you. They have a right to expect clean copy, on time, that fits the original agreement. They have a right to choose which pieces of writing they will select and which they will pass on (again, it’s not a “rejection,” but a choice).
As writers, I believe we have the right to receive quick responses to our queries. We deserve to get paid on time (imagine telling your plumber “Well, I’ll probably send you a check in a few months”). We reserve the right to disdain that “No simultaneous submissions” admonition because that, coupled with the length of time it often takes to get a response from our first-choice market, would render our idea too stale to sell anywhere else.
Since most editors don’t trust freelancers they don’t know, perhaps forming groups of competent writers will lift all boats on a tide of collective credibility. In the meantime, think of the editors only as gatekeepers. Give them what they want, and they’ll open the gate to your new readers.
We should only write about what we know.
The new culture:
That old adage predates the Internet. If a topic interests you, even if you don’t know the first thing about it, grab it. The Worldwide Web is crawling with experts on every conceivable subject who would love to help you get up to speed.
Any article not sold is a waste of time.
The new culture:
First of all, to repeat something I often preach: Query the idea before you write the article. I can’t mention that enough. Editors like to have some say about the length, tone and focus of a piece, and what you send them out of the blue probably won’t fit their specs, brilliantly written though it may be.
Once you produce something, though, it has an intrinsic value. The first goal, naturally, is to sell it to a high-paying market. OK, a medium-paying market. OK, that didn’t work — let’s go a little lower. At the bottom end, it may not be a bad idea to hook up with one of those content sites we all hate so much, so that if all else fails, you can dump the article on them. Or, if you have a blog, post it. At the very least, you have practiced your craft and learned something about a subject.
A final word about “rejections” (there, I’ve said it). Keep trying with a market that attracts you. After a few connections, even if they repeatedly turn you down, you’ve planted a seed: “This person is serious about their writing, and able to come up with lots of ideas. This might be a good person to work with.” If you burn that bridge after the first negative response, you’ve missed that possibility.
Darrell Laurant recently retired from his longtime job as a daily newspaper columnist to to devote full-time to his “outside” writing and directing The Writers’ Bridge, an international marketing service for freelance article writers. He is based in Lynchburg, VA.