What I wish I had known about freelancing (and how it helped me get into this Sunday’s New York Times)

What I wish I had known about freelancing (and how it helped me get into this Sunday’s New York Times)

When Tiffany Markman asked what I wish I had known about freelance writing when I started out, I had to think about it.

I had the tremendous advantage of first working as part of an editorial team at a publication that paid and treated its freelance writers well. One brand-name type journalist handed in sloppy work that read like something midway between notes and a first draft. An uber talented young writer filed fantastic stories, but never asked for a raise–even though her per-word rate was the lowest amount any of our writers received. One freelancer was an okay writer, but he was always ahead of the curve in terms of identifying trends and securing access to insider sources, meaning that his story proposals were always accepted. Some writers were totally condescending when they called; others treated me like a trusted ally.

Each one of them taught me something important about what to do or avoid to become a successful freelance writer before I started.

So what did I tell Tiffany for her article? It turned out to be a useful journalism trick rather than about running a freelance business per se. For many years, the last question I would ask an interviewee was if there was anything I should’ve asked but hadn’t. It’s a really good question–it routinely elicits an answer that is either worthless, or else one of the gem quotes of the talk–but now it’s my penultimate. The last question now is about other story possibilities. Industry experts, for example, often know about new trends before they’re reported in the press.

How good a trick is this? Earlier this year, it seemed like everybody whom I spoke with about travel and business in Africa mentioned visa reform in East Africa–yet I wasn’t reading anything about it. I pitched the idea to the New York Times, and voila, here it is, “Easing the way for East African Visitors,” in the Sunday print edition.

Who are you going to pitch your great new idea to? For practical strategies on finding publications, download a free copy of “Create Your Ultimate Editorial Contact List.”

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