I really enjoy taking care of business in the latter days of December. My inbox and apartment are never cleaner; my goals for the coming months and year never so precisely defined. In the spirit of reflection and goal-setting, I decided to round up some best-of lists for myself:
My favorite books of the year:
I read nearly 50 books this year, but these three, listed in the order I read them, were the ones I couldn’t stop raving to friends about. Reading Sarai Walker’s “Dietland” was like finding a revolutionary manifesto inside an issue of Cosmopolitan. Egged on by an episode of This American Life, I found and devoured Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test,” which led me to even more books, including Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”, which I’ll probably be talking about for years to come; his dedication and research are an inspiration to me as a writer.
My favorite stories I wrote:
- CSM Passcode: How Social Security numbers became skeleton keys for fraudsters (November 2016)
- CSM Passcode: Dutch art project exposes extent of surveillance, tests limits of law (April 2016)
- Quartz: South by Southwest is officially, aggressively normcore (March 2016)
- Wired: High Rent Epicenters infographic (January 2016)
- Quartz: The Secret World of Membership Libraries (January 2016)
I wrote fewer stories overall in 2016 as compared to 2015, but that can largely be attributed to my contributions to a forthcoming book by Autodesk on the future of design, as well as a renewed focus on long-term projects. It’s really tough as a freelancer to pursue those front-loaded, research-heavy moonshot projects and still pay the bills. I’m still figuring it out.
My favorite stories I read elsewhere:
These were the stories written by other people that made the biggest impact on me this year, for various reasons:
- New York Times: Hesitant to Make That Big Life Change? Permission Granted
- Buzzfeed: How “Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead” Went From D.O.A. To Beloved Cult Classic
- New York Magazine: What Happened When the Young House Love Couple Tried to Escape the Internet
- New York Times: United States of Paranoia
- Politico: How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood
- New Yorker: Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All
- The Long & Short: The War on Cash
- Bon Appetit: How to Pair Cheese with Potato Chips
- Racked: The Last Lifestyle Magazine
- New York Times Magazine: Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City
- Mother Jones: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard
Q. Do you have any tips for networking? I’ve debated asking a fellow freelancer about getting work, but I’m afraid of stepping on her toes.
A. When I started freelancing, I thought that meeting other freelancers was the best way to get gigs. They get gigs, and I want gigs, so they can give me some of their gigs, right? But I quickly realized that other freelancers aren’t the people I should be hitting up for work. (Those are the people who control the budgets — editors, project managers, publishers.)
Networking with other freelancers is a great idea, but you should just approach them human to human. We all have people who we would like to be when we grow up — and the dream networking situation with them would involve porting all their knowledge and connections straight into our brainmeats. But play it cool. If you’re desperate for work and approach everybody as a conduit to finding work, yes, it can be awkward. (Grilling strangers for work leads is never a good look.) Networking, when you’re doing it right, feels like making a new friend — or at least pleasantly interacting with a coworker you like. And when you’ve shown them that you’re cool (even if you’re freaking on the inside), they’ll be much more likely down the road to potentially share leads or introduce you to other people.
The best way to avoid feeling like you’re encroaching on someone’s territory is to realize that we’re all in this together. You’re a freelancer, I’m a freelancer: Let’s get together and dish. An email to a fellow freelancer might look something like this:
Hey, [awesomely successful person]!
I’m a freelancer also living in [your city], working on [whatever you do]. I really loved that project you did about [an awesome thing]. Could I buy you a coffee some time? It’d be great to meet up and share war stories!
Recently I set myself a goal of meeting one new person a week, whether it’s by going to a networking event or reaching out to a specific person. My trick is that I don’t only aim to meet people who I might get work from. Sure, I love to meet editors and publishers, but I’ve also met other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks. I love going to networking events where editorial freelancers are in the minority, because meeting people from other fields is really interesting. And as a bonus, I’m likely also a curious specimen to them.
[Tangent: Don’t be that guy who gives his business card to literally every single person at a networking event, even people he didn’t talk to. One deep connection is worth more than 100 shallow ones.]
An acquaintance here in Cincinnati seems to know everybody and frequently offers to help me like it’s no big deal. At first I was like, what’s your game, friend? Who offers to help without expecting something in return? But then I read “Never Eat Alone” and totally got it. Networking is about focusing on what you can give other people. She’s a connector of the highest order. She helps people by meeting everybody and learning what they’re working on, and then she connects the dots by introducing the right people to each other at the right times. As one of the recipients of her professional matchmaking, I can tell you that I have frequently introduced other people to her. The song never ends. (Related: Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory)
By saying that networking is all about giving, I don’t mean to imply that good networking involves divulging all your proprietary info and personal contacts to anyone who asks for them. (I protect my best editorial contacts with all the power of Xenu.) When you connect successfully with a fellow freelancer, what you walk away with might not be a job but a rec of a must-read blog or a referral to another person you should meet or just a new lunch buddy. And when you meet a freelancer in need, you share alike. You’ve been there.
This Neil Gaiman commencement speech was mentioned recently on NPR and is now available as a book, “Make Good Art,” designed by Chip Kidd. The thing that really stood out to me in the interview was his two-of-three rule (this “secret knowledge” for freelancers starts around minute 14):
You get work however you get work. People keep working in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
This is so true. I’ve made decisions based on these three attributes, subconsciously, as a magazine editor assigning articles. And I often doubt my abilities as a writer (Gaiman also talks about impostor syndrome in his speech), so I make it my business to always be on time and as pleasant as possible to work with so I at least get that two out of three.
And if nothing else, I can make rad GIFs (jifs):
After hearing Neil Gaiman on the radio, I came up with this hypothetical rule of threes specifically for pitching magazine articles. Everybody knows that to sell a story to a magazine, you need a solid topic with a fresh angle. But you also need at least two of the following attributes:
- Access: Do you have physical proximity to the subject matter, or a personal connection that gets you access where other reporters cannot?
- Expertise: Have you written about the subject before or have an advanced understanding of it?
- Reputation: Are you known by the publication’s audience as a trusted voice or by its editors as a reliable writer?
If you have all three, your pitch is way strong, and you might be a wizard. But if you have two out of the three, you still have a really good chance that your pitch is going to get picked up.
If you’re held in good esteem by magazine editors and have access to people or places, you might get by with being a novice in the subject matter. (Example: Susan Orlean goes to a local cream cheese factory to write about collusion with the bagel industry.) If the magazine’s never heard of you before, you need to have written about the topic before and have access to the right interview subjects. (Example: You’ve been reporting on a local university for years and have all the background info on a recent scandal to pitch an in-depth piece to a national outlet.) Or if you’re a known entity to editors and are an expert in the subject matter, the magazine might help you get access to the people or places of note — or be more likely to straight-up assign stuff to you. (Example: You’ve written about health policy for a magazine many times before, so you’re their first pick to profile the new surgeon general.)
That’s my theory of how to get a pitch picked up. Fellow freelancers, what do you think?
Here’s the approximately monthly list of interesting things I’ve read lately. (See the previous things I’ve read here.)
- The Truth About Pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Thought Catalog) — Really helpful links to dissuade me from going for a nonfiction MFA (for now)
- Mandiant, the Go-To Security Firm for Cyber-Espionage Attacks (Bloomberg Businessweek) — Remember how the New York Times was getting hacked? This firm helped them figure things out
- What To Do After You’ve Been Hacked (Wired) — Great advice from Mat Honan
- Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives (Slate) — Amazing five-part story about the Bad Arolsen archives in Germany
- Amazon Unpacked (Financial Times) — Inside Amazon’s warehouse in England
- The Crime of a Childhood (New York Times) — Really interesting follow-up story about the victim of a senseless crime
- Meet the men who spy on women through their webcams (Ars Technica) — Terrifying story about “ratters.”
- Google Reader’s Demise is Awful for Iranians (Quartz) — People who live under repressive regimes use the tool to avoid censorship. Sad trombone.
- Portland’s Karaoke Scene (New York Times Magazine) — Amazing story about how seriously Portland, Oregon, takes its karaoke
I’ve been thinking a lot about getting paid lately. Not only because I’ve been a self-employed editor and writer for the last six months, but because the internet blew up this week over an incident in which The Atlantic asked a writer to adapt a hella long story for zero dollars. Freelance writers went into conniption fits; magazine editors went into damage-control mode. (As far as I can tell, the people who actually control the budgets stayed out of the fracas.) Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic shrugged with his response piece saying “the biz ain’t what it used to be.” But I disagree with one of his main points: The digital journalism world isn’t what sucks — the entire journalism business model sucks.
The outrage moved from Twitter onto this epically long Branch started by Choire Sicha called “How Much Should A Writer Be Paid, If Anything?” But that’s not the right question. A better question is: How do people who create things for a living convince the public to pay for content that is valuable to them? How do providers of editorial services convince publishers that our work is worth paying for?
Editorial content is the whole point of a publisher’s business, and, yet, the outfits that can afford to pay at least $1 per word (which seems like the tipping point of profitability for freelance writers) are by far in the minority. The biggest magazines and blogs have staff writers or reporters, but such a luxury is a dream for most publishers. Full-time staffers are awfully expensive, and many publishers have already doubled or tripled the workloads of their editors. So we get more churnalism, more aggregation, more noise and less meaning. The quest for ever-growing traffic drives publishers to (generally) go for quantity over quality in online articles. But when advertising sales or monthly unique impressions decline, the whole business model collapses. Editorial budgets shrink, web presences decline, print publications shutter. Ad infinitum.
The Atlantic’s sorry-not-sorry response keeps coming back to the idea that people should be able to work for free if they want to. That’s so not the point. Coming up with acceptable excuses for not paying people does nothing to fix the faulty journalism business model that relies on a bottomless pool of people who aspire to be writers and are willing to work for peanuts.
On the Branch thread, some people make a distinction between the work that goes into “reported” writing. Being a freelancer is sexy. Being a reporter is just hard work. My main freelance gig right now is as a copy editor for a Capitol Hill newspaper that publishes a print paper as well as constantly pushes news items out on the web. What its reporters excel at is finding information no one else has; we’re talking about wearing out shoe leather like an old-school reporter in the movies. Though you can’t own facts, that kind of reportage seems inherently more valuable than a post explaining when the Oscars are being televised. But how do you calculate the ROI on editorial quality? Publishers like hard numbers, and that’s most likely going to be circulation or unique visitor stats.
Opening up the can of worms about who pays what feels like a good first step to fixing the business of journalism. (Who Pays What is a Tumblr you need to follow.) Transparency helps freelancers know the marketplace bettere, and sharing strategies will help all editors and publishers see what business models work (I hope). It’s interesting that some of the publishers on the Branch thread are saying they allocate a certain standard percentage of their overall budget for freelance editorial expenses. (I really wish we could look at the business models for all of these startups trying to make the focus of their publishing business the actual editorial content:
So what’s the solution? I think it’s the idea of patronage. I subscribe to the New York Times Sunday edition so I get the big issue on the weekend and unrestricted access to the website, but also because I believe in the newspaper’s work and I don’t ever want to see it go away. I donate to my local NPR station for the same reason. Being a subscriber to a magazine, newspaper or website is a transaction. Being a patron is a partnership. When we convince the public that editorial content is valuable, publishers will follow suit.
tl;dr: Subscribe to a damn magazine or newspaper or website. Someone’s got to pay.
I started making this list of the bess kiss-off responses to people asking you to work for free a long time ago, and it seems like a great time to put it up:
I’ve got a real backlog of magazines on my end table, and yet I just can’t stop reading. Here are 12 things I read and loved (or at least couldn’t stop thinking about) this past month. (See the previous things I’ve read here.)
- Germany’s Racist Present (Quartz) — despite a dedication to preventing another Holocaust, Germany has a blind spot when it comes to racism
- Social Media Complaints of 1673 (Tom Standage) — Twitter is to 2013 as coffee houses are to 1673
- The Busy Trap (NYTimes Opinionator) — life is too short to always be busy
- Concierge Medicine (Bloomberg Businessweek) — with America already having a shortage of primary care physicians, the trend of concierge doctors is really troubling
- Askers vs. Guessers (The Atlantic Wire) — this theory on interpersonal relations explains so much about my life!
- A Guide to Internet Hoaxes (Longform) — Manti Te’o wasn’t the first guy to fall for something on the internet
- 5 Etsy Sellers who are Clearly Serial Killers (Cracked) — so hilarious and terrifying
- RIP, Regretsy (Regretsy) — pour one out
- Left by Nikky Finney — a poem we read with the kids I tutor that’s stuck with me for days
- A Biden Moment (NYTimes) — related: Biden scores like 800 feet of copper wire
- Elizabeth Wurtzel on self-help (New York) — this very personal essay is polarizing but a fascinating read
- Lena Dunham’s admirable commitment to making us look at her naked (XOJane) — a Girls marathon is imminent
While I was on my crafty book tour, I took a brief detour between Pittsburgh and Cleveland to talk to Jacquie Marino‘s magazine publishing class at Kent State’s journalism school. I love any excuse to visit my alma mater, but I was especially stoked to talk about the current state of magazine publishing and how I went from being an undergrad to having a magazine career. Our discussion focused a lot on pitching, because proposing stories to editors can be really intimidating when you’re just starting out. Here’s a recap of my advice for new magazine freelancers:
What kinds of stories should you pitch?
One of the things Jacquie wanted me to address was the importance of magazine freelance writers having a specialty. Think about prolific magazine writers today—lots of them have a specialty or interest area that they keep revisiting: Rob Walker focuses a lot on marketing and consumer culture, Farhad Manjoo writes about technology, Hanna Rosin focuses on feminism and American culture. I remember being in college and doing lots of profiles and lots of event coverage. That kind of stuff is rarely going to fly when you’re a freelance writer.
Personally, I write a lot about craft, art, design and web culture. I’ve been a participant in those subcultures for years, and when I was in college it first clicked that I could draw story ideas from my experiences. Also, some of the people I met back then are now doing awesome things! (Kate Bingaman Burt and Mikey Burton, I’m looking at you.) Magazines want stories that no one else can tell. When you’re interested in unusual things, you’re much more likely to find them.
And finally, when you’re developing a story for a magazine (no matter whether you picture it as a full-length feature or a tiny front-of-book piece), you need to supply a solid angle. Unless you’ve got a standing relationship with a magazine or editor, you can’t just throw them a general idea (a story about a restaurant, or a profile of a school teacher) and expect them to pick an angle for you. (It’s especially important when pitching major, national magazines that have seen everything—and might be entertaining multiple pitches on the same timely subject.) When you have a great angle with a great idea (Why are there so many new pie restaurants in the area? Or how a school teacher broke bad to get her students the supplies they needed), that’s when an editor will look twice at your pitch.
What magazine should you pitch your idea to?
There are lots of resources for finding magazines and figuring out what kinds of stories they accept and how they want to be pitched:
But before you start sending out the same story pitch to every magazine, you should know this: The more a pitch is tailored to a magazine’s specific audience, voice and needs, the more likely it is to get accepted. So before you even start writing a query letter, you should be able to articulate why that magazine needs your story. And that means not only looking at their writers’ guidelines and Writer’s Market entry, but reading a couple back issues and understanding how they might treat your story.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is!
How do you make contacts at major magazines?
Having a personal relationship with an editor makes all the difference when it comes to getting out of the slush pile. Some writers’ guidelines direct you to email your pitch to a generic editorial email address, where it’s likely screened by an editorial assistant and may never get seen by an assigning editor. One way to get around that issue is to target a specific department in the magazine and figure out who edits it, and find that editor’s email. The other way to get around it is to make some new friends.
Twitter is an amazing resource for freelance writers. Follow editors and writers from the magazines you love, and you can get in on their conversations and see what they’re talking about and interested in. Occasionally editors even post about job openings they have at their publications. I’ve also had great success targeting editors by using LinkedIn. I’m not suggesting that you send connection requests to every editor of every magazine you love. But LinkedIn is a great research tool for finding connections you might have with editors. For example, I discovered that the managing editor of a publication I love actually lives in my city. So I emailed her to introduce myself and invite her to lunch. She works from her home office, so she was stoked at the idea of getting out for once! After a great conversation, she invited me to send her any ideas I had.
That kind of “informational interview” is exactly what you should go for when trying to meet editors in person. They don’t want a hard sell on some pitch, and you don’t want to come off as needy or only interested in them for their job. Editors are people too! :)
How should you pitch your story idea?
In short: However the publication requests freelancers do it. Most magazines have instructions or advice for pitching on their websites under “submission guidelines” or “writers’ guidelines,” most often in the Contact or About section. (Search Google for “submission guidelines” site:URL to find them faster.) The magazine resource links above sometimes include this, but you’ll get the most up-to-date and detailed info by going straight to the source.
When I was in school, paper queries were still de rigueur. (And we even included SASEs for snail mail followups. Ew.) But with rare exceptions, no magazine editor today wants paper pitches. Email is the standard — never call to pitch. The only exception here is if you have an established relationship with an editor, and you know that he or she is cool with phone calls, and you’ve set up a time to chat. Calling to cold-pitch? I’ve been on the other side of the desk here. Magazine editors are usually doing a zillion things at once, and it’s kind of inconsiderate to push your pitch on someone who is not prepared for it. If you need an answer as to whether I want to buy your story right now, or whether you can have the assignment right now, the answer is going to be no.
But you’d never do that, right? Right. So back on the lines of how to pitch your story idea: When you’ve come up with a good match with your story idea and the angle and the magazine, and you’re writing your query letter, it’s best to pitch with a specific department of the magazine in mind. (Need query letter examples? I love the ones Allison Winn Scotch posted here.) It shows the editor you know the magazine and understand how they might treat your story idea. And when you’re a new freelancer (or even if you’re just new to the magazine), pitching smaller pieces is the best way to increase your chances of selling them.
When should you pitch your story idea?
If your story has a time hook (like something Christmas-related, for example), you’ve got to pitch it at least three months in advance for a monthly magazine and six months in advance for a bimonthly magazine. Totally serious — and that might even be cutting it a little short.
Some smaller magazines plan out their editorial calendars entirely each year for the year ahead, so if you have a good relationship with an editor, it’s worth asking when their planning meetings happen so you can get your ideas in before the deadline.
More generally, I wouldn’t send a pitch via email on a Monday or the day after a holiday. Editors are usually crazy busy on Mondays. I also wouldn’t send pitches late on Fridays, because then you’ll be wondering whether they got the email, but the editor likely won’t get back to you until the next week, and who wants to put themselves through that kind of torture?
I hope this FAQ of pitching stories to magazines was helpful. Anything I missed? Post it in the comments!