Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Confessions of an accidental freelancer

with 2 comments

One of the small surprises of the past few months has been the fact that, after a long absence from writing any kind of nonfiction, I’ve started to place occasional pieces online. This started out as a fairly calculated attempt to get the word out about my novel, but for the most part, I’ve found that the marketing benefit is minimal at best: there’s usually a slight sales bump after an article comes out, but it’s always temporary, and I don’t think I’ve sold more than a few dozen copies of my book based exclusively on my freelance writing. Still, I keep doing it, both because I appreciate the small amount of money it brings in each month and because I like doing this kind of work. There was a time when I really wanted to be a critic of some kind, and although my writing has since gone in a different direction, it’s still something I really enjoy—and it’s infinitely less taxing than working on a new novel, which has continued to take up most of my time. In short, it looks like freelance writing will continue to be a part of my life, at least for now, and with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I wish I’d had when I started:

1. Pitch to people you know. Back in March, when The Icon Thief first came out, I got in touch with a wide range of publications, both print and online, introducing myself and the book and fishing for possible coverage. In a handful of cases, it worked as intended, but for the most part, the response was a deafening silence—which is a reasonable expectation for this kind of promotional activity. All the same, I did get a couple of polite responses from editors at The Daily Beast and The Rumpus, and although they didn’t lead to anything at the time, they at least gave me a tenuous contact at each site, as well as an email exchange or two. At first, I only made a mental note to send them a copy of City of Exiles when it came out. But when I decided to try placing an opinion piece on David Simon and Mike Daisey, I ended up sending it to my contact at the Beast, if only because I knew his email address—and he passed it along to the right editor, who liked it. Similarly, months later, when my piece on Jonah Lehrer was killed by another publication, I tried my contact at The Rumpus, who eventually took it as well. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either instance if I hadn’t already been out there in a totally different context, making a handful of connections that didn’t pay off in one case, but finally did in another.

2. Don’t worry; they saw your email. One thing I’ve discovered about writing these kinds of pieces is that different editors have radically different attitudes about getting back to you. One editor will respond right away, or within a day or two, with a list of requested edits and revisions; another will remain completely silent for a week, not even acknowledging receipt of the attached file, at which point it appears with minimal changes; and others are even less communicative. And while a long silence may lead to paranoid thoughts that the editor forgot about your email, or even deleted it by accident, in my experience, this rarely happens. Have I ever followed up to make sure a piece didn’t get lost in the shuffle? Sure. But only after waiting a week or more—and in the end, it was never necessary. They have your article, but they also have a lot of other stuff on their minds. Let them do their jobs in peace. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if an editor likes your initial pitch, he or she will usually respond right away, and that an extended silence is usually a negative sign. Conversely, a long silence after you’ve submitted a finished article tends to be a good thing—if they have problems with the draft, they’ll tell you.)

3. Don’t get hung up over timing. The piece I wrote on Jonah Lehrer was originally written the day after the first reports appeared of his so-called “self-plagiarism” scandal, but it didn’t appear until more than two weeks had gone by. Would it have been nice if the piece had been published while the story was still in the news? Sure—but it was still a decent piece after some time had passed, and its circuitous route to publication meant that it would have been hard to post it before then. Similarly, my piece in Salon about the uses of historical irony in The Newsroom was held back for a week because the site had already run a lot of pieces about the show, so it had to be revised at the last minute to take the latest episode into account. As a writer, these delays can be frustrating, but if you’re a freelancer, as opposed to a staff writer, it’s hard to control timing on these things. The moral, I guess, is that as a freelancer, it’s difficult to cover breaking news or write pieces on stories whose interest will diminish quickly after an initial burst of attention. Days or weeks will likely go by before a piece sees the light of day, so you should write stories that will remain compelling long after you wanted to see them in print.

4. Don’t ever read the comments on your stories. Just trust me on this one.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2012 at 10:04 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great post. Very candid.

    inkpistol

    July 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!

    nevalalee

    July 24, 2012 at 8:16 pm


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