In my career I've worn quite a few hats, including both editor and staff writer. As an English major in my undergrad career, I learned quickly how to write an essay that would earn high marks. I also learned the hard way that every day late you turn in a paper can cost significant points on a grade.
Like it or not, freelance writers, those same principles apply in the real world. It's not easy to make it as a freelance writer unless you find a niche or build a reputation in your town. Those that make a good living stringing words together likely have a convoluted story that got them there; most include a healthy spoonful of good luck.
Still, there are a handful of tried-and-true principles that should always be followed. As an editor, it surprised me how few writers sending their work to me stuck by these. The ones that did got the most work. I parlayed that experience into my own writing ventures, and although I never got my cover story in National Geographic, I'm proud of the road I've walked.
Although many more exist, remember these guiding rules and you'll be well on your way to success as a freelance writer.
1. Always Meet Your Deadlines
Author Douglas Adams once said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
That's nice and poetic, but if you're not already well-respected in the literary world (and only an elite few are), few editors will tolerate your blatantly missing their due date.
If you're a slow writer, recognize that and don't over-extend yourself. Sometimes you can't say 'yes' to every assignment that comes across your desk. Likewise, finding success may require making sacrifices. If you're at risk of missing a deadline, it might require changing your dinner plans or skipping that concert you'd been looking forward to. Use discretion and enjoy your life, but always make deadlines your first priority.
2. Stay in Touch
You've done everything you can but you're still not going to meet your deadline. Don't just let it fly by hoping your editor doesn't notice. Give them a heads up on your progress, preferably a few days out. Let them know that you need some extra time to get them your best possible writing, and most editors will gladly grant you leeway.
Similarly, if you discover a new direction for your piece, give your editor a call! Most editors love to be engaged in their writers' work, and the more you go to them for guidance during the process, the easier their job will be when it comes time to dig into what you turn in.
3. Offer Multiple Headlines and Deks
This varies among publications, but almost any editor will appreciate a writer's suggestions for headlines and deks (subheads). Don't take offense when you see your work in print with a completely different title. It's the editor's job to choose the perfect framing words to match their publication, but give them some help on the way.
I generally include at least two, and sometimes three possible headlines.
4. Be Quick with Follow-Up
After rushing to meet a deadline, you might not hear anything from your editor for two weeks. One day you get an email asking for clarification of a statement or a change to a part of the story that's become outdated. Don't get frustrated that they sat on your story for so long -- editors are generally extremely busy, just like writers.
Respond as quickly as possible. They've finally gotten to work on your piece, and you want them to finish their end of the process quickly and send it to print. Make that happen lickety-split, and they'll remember you as being responsive and easy to work with.
5. Don't Be a Hassle About Money
It's not uncommon for publications these days to have a 90-day period between printing and paying. That can tally up to closer to half-a-year after a writer actually begins work on a piece.
Part of being a writer is money management. If you're living paycheck-to-paycheck and can't pay rent until you get payment for a story, you probably need to get a second, hourly job waiting tables or landscaping until you get on top.
Once you've got a few thousand dollars saved up, you'll be able to wait for payment without worry, and the checks will roll in nicely, even when you're in a slow period. Keep a detailed spreadsheet of which editors owe you what, and if one seriously falls behind, send a very polite email asking if you can expect a check soon.
In general, however, trust them to pay you in their own time. Remember, they're already busy working on the next issue, but they haven't forgotten.
Want to be a successful freelance writer? Make life easy for the editors who call on you to write for them. What other tips do you use for making sure you're the first call an editor makes when they have an assignment?