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5 Things You’re Doing Wrong Freelance Writing

I didn’t want to write this post because, well, my own writing is far from perfect. But I’ve learned a lot by being an editor this year, a lot of things that have helped me see where my writing sucks and what my strengths are.

Mostly though, I’ve seen things that make me scratch my head and say, really? You want to be a writer?

See, I told you I was hesitant to write this. I realize my writing that sentence makes me sound like a pompous ass. Behold, Jeff, the high-and-mighty, all-knowing wordsmith — and the feeble miscreants who exist around him.

See, I used to read those writing magazines and blogs, and they’d all say the same thing. Editors are dying for good content and reliable people. Who believes that line of garbage? I didn’t.

That is, until I became an editor.

5 Annoying Habits of New Freelancers

1) You’re boring

Alternatively, you don’t know what the story is or, more likely, you don’t know how to structure a good story. We cover cybercrime where I work. When working with a new author there’s a good chance the exciting part of the story doesn’t start until the third paragraph.

You can tell they’re used to writing for college.

This thing I’m going to tell you about is a big problem. It’s a problem because of X, Y, Z, and studies show it’s only getting worse.

Are you asleep yet, because I’m going to bury the lead and ramble on for at least another 4-5 sentences before I get to the good stuff.

John Smith had $20,000 stolen from his bank account.

How is that third paragraph NOT the opening? That’s what people care about.

Structure gives a story shape. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Steal from the greats. I love the examples from this textbook on news writing basics. It’s truly a fantastic place to start. To quote a small part:

I. Look: This Person Has a Problem 
II. Uh-oh. The Problem Is Everywhere
III. What the Experts Say
IV. What the Future Holds
V. What It All Means for That Person We Met at the Start of the Story
 
That structure, it turns out, is quite popular with journalists —especially feature writers at the Wall Street Journal. To save time and effort, many crafty reporters automatically pour their stories into that tried-and-true shape (just like they pour breaking news into inverted pyramids).

Put some in thought into how you’re going to tell your story and the best way to do so.

Remember the 80/20 rule: 8 out of ten people will read the headline, but only 2 out of ten will click through. Don’t lose that 20 percent by not grabbing them in the first paragraph.

2) You don’t get follow-up work

This is another pet peeve I see on so many blogs: write what you know. Okay, let’s follow that through and realistically see what happens.

You want to write a story for Dog Grooming Quarterly. You love dogs. You have good tips. You have pictures. It’s funny and interesting. Great! The editor loves it, and you’re in with your personal slice-of-life story. Awesome! Pop the champagne!

Except, now you want to do another story for them, but — wait — their readers have already heard all about you. There’s not much more to tell.

It seems that so many writers approach writing this way: me, me, me. It’s a great blogging, get-yourself-writing mentality, but, unless you’re quite lucky, people aren’t going to pay you for it.

Now let’s look at another writer submitting to the same publication, Dog Grooming Quarterly. They submit a query about a story based on an interesting person they met at a dog show who’s created a unique business that’s taking off. They also mention at the end of the query 2-3 other interesting ideas that sprung up from other conversations from people they’ve met and chatted with.

If the first story goes well, they have another already lined up, and the editor knows they can talk to people. Maybe they even ask you to cover something at some point (this is exactly how I got started writing for the local paper in college).

The difference: one person is writing about themselves while the other is writing about other people and therefore has many, many more stories to tell.

3) You’re afraid to talk to people

The first thing I ever wrote about freelance writing was How to develop sources. After six months as a full-time editor, I stand by that belief that more than ever. It’s the easiest and best way to set yourself apart.

Writers seem shocked when I say this. If you want to write fiction, fine, be a hermit. But how can you seriously write about things in the world without talking to people out in that world?

Oh, you’re going to read and learn? That’s great. What are you going to read? Something that some other writer got paid to write? A writer who interviewed people so that you could get the knowledge you’re looking for? Does that make sense?

I may sound like an asshole on this point, but it amazes me how getting some people to conduct an interview is like pulling teeth. That’s your job (for many kinds of paid writing). That’s how you learn. That’s where your ideas come from. That’s the reason editors will want to keep you around.

Suzy has some great contacts in this field. Jim, what does he bring to the table again?

Who do you think they’ll turn to for the next piece they want done?

4. Your commas are out of place

Yes, it seems petty. If you can knock people’s socks off with your words, no one will care if there’s a bit to tidy up on the grammar side.

For most of us though, it’s the difference between looking like a professional or an amateur. Really, if it looks sloppy, it looks like you don’t give a shit.

If you don’t care, I don’t care. I’m not talking perfection. Hell, I’m sure the grammar police could find a few errors in this blog, but be consistent. Don’t write “healthcare” three times and “health care” twice in the same article. Don’t drop commas seemingly at random with no rhyme or reason. Don’t have run-on sentences in one paragraph and fragments in another.

If you can’t invest $15 for a style guide (I like the AP one) and 15 minutes to figure out the best way to do things like government titles and punctuation (or at least choose a consistent method), then it looks like you’re not very serious. And why would I want to work with someone who isn’t serious about their craft?

5) You have no ideas

All those writing tips are right. If you have an interesting idea that hasn’t been covered recently with good research and it fits the style of the publication, chances are they’d love to have it.

Sure, an editor probably has dozens of potential story ideas they could pass along, but if the writer can’t come up with a handful of interesting ideas on his own, it raises flags. Do they really know this market? Will they be able to flesh out an idea? What are they bringing to the table?

Again, that’s why I’m so big on sources. Those are all questions you can ask people you interview. What do you think is under-reported? What’s difficult? What would you like to see covered?

Then when you come back to your editor full of new ideas and new angles, you look like a true professional who is going to be a valuable addition. And, yes, that does stand out.

Want more tips on freelance writing? I’ll collect them all on my Freelance Writing Guide Page for future reference.

10 Comments

  1. Thx! Great tips.

  2. As we say in the trade, or rather as someone said to me some 25 years ago, ‘there’s nothing new in journalism’.

    • Very true. I’m still pretty new to this all, but it seems since everything’s online that people have forgotten they still have to talk to people, even in this more blog-style media world.

  3. Truth hurts but your first point is dead right – too many new freelance writers assume that you can’t use bold headlines and inject some personality into your work.

    Ok sure there’ll be clients who don’t want this but the majority will be fine with it.

    • Yeah, I always think of my favorite writers from magazines, and nearly everyone of them had some sort of unique style or personality.

      But some people just haven’t really thought about (or been taught) the different ways you can write a story, so they fall back on academic writing, which tends to be pretty bland.

  4. I like your template for writing a news piece. It should hold for writing a blog post too. BTW – I’ve been guilty of all 5 things at one time or other, or even at the same time.

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