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Attention all you Journos (freelance writers thread )

44 replies

unicorn · 11/08/2004 23:03

Given that there are so many real, and aspiring writers out here,I just thought maybe we could have a thread whereby the successful ones, can help us aspiring ones?
ie. my current question is regards etiquette; when you submit a 'proposal' to a (magazine) editor- how long should you wait (before submitting elsewhere) for a yes/no re commission?

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expatkat · 11/08/2004 23:22

Did you send the proposal by post or e-mail? Was it to a specific editor, or more of "to whom it may concern?" How long has it been?

I hope Aloha sees this; she's excellent about answering the journo questions; I have a lot less experience than she has. But usually when I've submitted proposals I've gotten the email address of the proper editor through a friend, and can use the friend's name, and usually I hear pretty quickly, so it's not an issue. I've never been brave enough or industrious enough to submit "cold" (good on you for that, if that's what you've done!) so I can't say how long it takes.

In the US you can really wait ages to hear back. Don't know what it's like here. It completely varies from publication to publication: it can be 6 days or 6 weeks, I've heard (there). And for poetry (which I know is not your field) you can easily wait 6 months! It's dreadful.

TECHNICALLY you should wait til you've heard to submit elsewhere. But as you're starting out, I'd submit the proposal to more than one place at a time. If they accept the idea at more than one publication (which is unlikely, not because of you but b/c that's the nature of starting out), you can bow out of one gracefully and HOPEFULLY not make an enemy for life. That's what I'd do. But that's because I don't believe in getting yanked around by slow editors--life's too short.

diffname · 11/08/2004 23:24

OK, this isn't my usual name because I don't want to give my RL id away... but I am a magazine editor.
Depends where we are in our schedule when I get an idea in. I may not need to commission anything for a while. I may have commissioned everything for the next few issues and not want to take a punt on someone unknown to me. Alternatively I may be about to commission and take a risk if I like the idea and you've submitted a detailed plan and other examples of your work.
To be honest, I can't imagine taking a risk on someone who isn't already a published journalist, preferably in magazines/newspapers in similar subject areas. Journalism is a craft and you have to know the rules. It takes time to learn and most people get in by taking lowly staff jobs (editorial assistant) and working their way up before going freelance. There are a lot of talented, capable freelance journalists out there who I can rely on to turn in sharp, accurate, interesting copy, to the brief I give them, in the right style and to deadline. Sorry if this sounds off-putting but I'm pretty busy and I don't have time to spend training up people other than those I employ directly, and my subs don't have time to completely rewrite copy. Journalism is hard to get into ? you have to persist, you have to come up with great ideas clearly aimed at that publication, you have to learn how to write journalism rather than creative writing and you have to have examples of published work. Most people get in by either doing a recognised qualification and then lots of unpaid work experience (so get examples of published work, if they are lucky) and then by being in the right place at the right time. Tough but there are lots of wannabes out there and many of them have no idea what is required. But then I can't imagine anyone thinking they can be a freelance accountant without training, or a freelance tree surgeon, or a freelance anything. And very unfair to freelance journalists who know their trade and have bills to play if they are undercut or priced out by people who are just playing at it. (Although reliable, talented freelancers are short in numbers and must be treasured. Never give anyone my list of favourite freelancers!).
But then some people are very lucky; knew one woman who just happened to be in East Timor or somewhere similar when civil war broke out, had the nous to phone the London papers, no other journos out there, she was made. Not so lucky for the poor people of East Timor though...
Unless you can persuade an editor that your professional background would make an interesting piece ? you get docs who write.
This may not be what you want to hear, but it is honest.

unicorn · 11/08/2004 23:31

Thanks exp - it was specific editor who I called first and she sounded keen- but emailed and heard nothing...
I am actually a journo by trade (but broadcast) and have recently had 3 pieces accepted/published now by a mag, but just want to widen my horizons (it feels like cold calling every time!)
I feel i have good ideas- but I guess a lot is luck re submissions etc?
Diffname... what annoys you about e-mail submissions/ and the follow up from freelancers- what is acceptable?

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diffname · 11/08/2004 23:33

OK, contradicted myself there about freelancers (it's late, I should be in bed) but there are lots of proper freelance journalists out there who know what they are doing and I will always choose them over someone who is just trying to get into the industry. There are a smaller group of freelancers who are excellent, who you really want to be available for your commission, who can turn in cracking pieces to deadline and who I can trust to develop my brief and go beyond it. They will always be my first choice and I guard their names carefully (in case other editors get to them first!). Some of them might even recognise themselves here...

unicorn · 11/08/2004 23:35

excuse me, just's SITC Time - I shall vanish for a short while@@!!

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diffname · 11/08/2004 23:41

Sorry, sounded as if you were trying to get into journalism, it's late and I should be in bed (and I get a bit protective of good freelancers).

I prefer email personally (but others may differ) but actually feel a bit guilty about not responding to people quickly. But then I rely on people I know can do the job, because I don't have a lot of time. I have just (unusually for me) commissioned a journalist unknown to me or my staff who emailed on spec so we'll see if it goes OK; if so, I'll definitely use her again. And I do need to use new people, you need a good freelance contact base, but it is quite time-consuming using new people.

It is just like cold calling, and it's horrid (I really sympathise, some of my best mates are freelancers) but it just has to be done. One of the reasons I've never gone freelance!

unicorn · 12/08/2004 00:05

oh sex and city is a double bill (catching up on all the old ones I missed!)
so, diffname.. all I want to know is... (given that I had conversation on phone and ed sounded keen) I sent in proposal (do you call them query? seems they do in States?), after no acknowledgement I sent her a follow up (3 days on) and now 1 week on I am not sure what to do. Can't just sit on it until someone can be bothered acknowledging... but what is the etiquette?

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unicorn · 12/08/2004 08:24

any advice.. anyone?

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bundle · 12/08/2004 09:53

I'm broadcast too, unicorn, and I try to treat unknown freelancers fairly - i deal with them in a straight manner and say yes or no quite quickly. if it's no, then i try to suggest somewhere else they might try maybe in a different bit of the media. do you have any contacts from your broadcast days with print journalists? sometimes an informal introduction (even if email) brings down the barriers. when did you send in this idea? try to give deadlines when you submit stuff and follow up, which is sounds like you have. the summer is obviously when lots of people are off & they may just have a v full in tray. drop a line and say you understand that they aren't interested and will be offering it to someone else (is it v specific piece or general enough to be touted around?) but would be glad of any steers on pieces they'd like - quote a bit from their publication of a piece you enjoyed etc. good luck

motherinferior · 12/08/2004 10:04

After a while, I nag and then often take a punt on submitting elsewhere. In between, I rip my hair out, moan to other freelancers, and ask Aloha for more advice

I do get printed quite a bit, though.

unicorn · 12/08/2004 12:43

Aloha- any words of wisdom?

M.I.F..Do you wait for a definate no before submitting elsewhere?

Bundle.. i gave up the broadcast stuff post kids, now just trying to reactivate brain in the magazine world! (where everyone seems very young- or rather it's me who's old!)

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motherinferior · 12/08/2004 12:47, quite often I don't to be honest, and indeed I've been told sometimes that it'll take a while till a features meeting so if I can sell it elsewhere, no problem.

unicorn · 12/08/2004 17:28

well I took the bull by the horn as it were, and called her...(well you have no pride left anyway after having had kids!!)
Seems she is still interested, but does not have the final say so re commissioning (despite being called commissioning editor!!)
so it's NOT a No yet (which is hopeful??)

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unicorn · 12/08/2004 22:54

diffname.. any more thoughts/tips for me?
ps.. what is the hierarchy in a magazine?...
I (naturally) presumed the commissioning editor did that...who should you target with 'feature' ideas?

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diffname · 12/08/2004 23:12

I'm as puzzled as you are by the commissioning editor who doesn't commission... maybe she's stalling, maybe she wants to discuss it with her boss, maybe they are having a major re-think about their strategy, maybe they are dealing with budget cuts...
I'd look at magazine masthead ? often a features editor is the person you need to target, but if they have a commissioning editor I'd have gone for her too. Or go for anyone you can get an 'intro' too, of course. People often send proposals to me but now I've got a full team (hurrah) I'll forward them to my features editor and have a chat with her if I think we should definitely use someone. Or, if it's someone who has ideas along the right lines but not something we want right now, pass them on to her to consider using next time. We discuss all this sort of thing at features meetings, so I'll say if I think there's an idea we should use and we'll commission the person who sent that idea in.
Although I will look after my favourite freelancers myself, of course. Might even have time to brief them properly now I'm not commissioning the whole damn magazine all by myself...

diffname · 12/08/2004 23:19

PS If someone has sent me an idea but I haven't had a chance to get back to them/it wasn't the right time in our schedule, I have no problem at all with them selling it on to another publication ? they have a living to make and I certainly don't expect them to sit on their ideas when I haven't taken them up. Say if you haven't heard back for fortnight? Aloha might be better on the ettiquette than me, until very recently I was on a very specific magazine with its own way of working that meant I very rarely used the ideas of new freelancers; we usually had the ideas and commissioned them out (but when we did, went for people who had submitted ideas along the right lines). Am realising I need to develop a new approach so this thread has actually been helpful in forcing me to consider this. Not quite what you intended, I'm sure, but thanks!

unicorn · 12/08/2004 23:20

the mag is very "photo" led, so she wants me to send in a photo, then she says it will go to deputy editor for further discussion...
all very well but I need to get on with it and get the money coming in..
should I hang on.. or should I tout it elsewhere?

(I would rather be loyal to 1, but am not toatally naive!)

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motherinferior · 17/08/2004 09:53

Re the commissioning ed who doesn't commission - IME ideas usually go to a features meeting. Which, by sod's law, is always quite a way away.

Unicorn, personally I'd tout. But I'm a tart.

aloha · 17/08/2004 10:37

I am, it seems, a very lucky freelancer in that I very, very rarely suggest ideas, except when I think a story is wonderful and fascinating and ought to be told, or if it's topical and I think it will be fun to write. I am also fortunate in that I have been in the magazine business for so long that I know lots of the people who commission me so can call or email them informally. However, I also have lots of experience of commissioning freelancers when I sat on the other side of the desk as a staffer and do understand what is going on in their heads most of the time. When I offer a story to someone it is usually very specific to the magazine and so not directly tranferable. However, if I really wasn't getting a response, I think it would be perfectly fair to tweak the idea and submit it to another magazine. However, I would be careful about submitting to a direct competitor. IME magazines do not like 'their' writers appearing in the competition - ie you do not usually get the same writers on Eve and Red, say. It is better for your career, IMO, to become a pet freelancer for a select group of clients/magazines which don't clash with each other, as this will mean regular work for you. As for comm eds who don't commission, well, they do the donkey work of commissioning, but on glossies they normally wait until they can get the approval of the editor, either immediately or at the monthly features meeting when the lineup for the next issue is finalised. It costs a lot of money for a magazine to have a lot of 'stock' - features commissioned just because they were interesting but which haven't found a home in a particular issues. The cost of 'stock' is one of the reasons, I understand, why Real magazine recently folded. So mags tend to avoid this situation. So if they love your idea, but can't find an issue where it works - perhaps because the 'slot' - ie real life/emotional/sex feature - is already filled, the commissioning editor might but it to one side and resubmit at the next meeting. However, it is my experience that editors (who are fickle beings!) can get the idea that a feature is 'tired' just because they have heard about it before and unless the features ed gives it a real hard sell it is unlikely to be commissioned.
So, to answer your question, how long should you depends! If the editor is really keen but is waiting for a features meeting, wait until then and then try your luck elsewhere. Personally, I would probably say to the comm ed that if they are planning to go with the idea then you won't approach anyone else with it, but if not, then would it be OK to try it elsewhere. If they just sit on it, can't give you a yes or no and you feel time is running out for this story or you just want to get on, then try submitting it to another magazine (but tweaked to suit that particular publication) and if they say yes, then that's fine IMO. It is tricky, I won't deny it.

motherinferior · 17/08/2004 10:44

Aloha, you aren't lucky, you are deeply fabulous and wonderful. THAT'S why you're in work

aloha · 17/08/2004 10:49

Oh stop it MI! I'm also deeply, profoundly lazy and work as little as I can so I have more time for MN and to dream of winning the lottery....

unicorn · 17/08/2004 23:59

thanks everyone, as it has turned out my 'contact' didn't like the policy of the first magazine, and was not prepared to go with them.
So I have touted it (and it is a fine story) and it's been just worried now that contact is going to go all wobbly and have cold feet .. any top tips anyone?
(but I guess it's basically up to her at the end of day- it's her story)

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aloha · 18/08/2004 09:54

Congratulations on getting the commission. What is she likely to be wobbly about? If I am doing a story that is basically a first person or involves interviewing people about their experiences I ALWAYS offer them the chance to read and approve the copy first. This is what I would like for myself so I do it. After all, I don't want to stitch anyone up so am happy to do it and it saves hassle, makes everyone happier (including me) and makes things more accurate too.

aloha · 18/08/2004 09:55

BTW, I don't usually tell the mag I am giving copy approval, it's between me and my interviewee.

unicorn · 19/08/2004 00:02

Aloha, my 'contact' was initially very keen, told me all her story on phone (realising I am a journo), but am now trying to arrange a face to face interview with her (as I told her I would upon commission)- and she has either 1)gone away, or 2) decided she doesn't want to do it but doesn't want to tell me.
Another question....
With these 'real life' type features do you (as a freelancer) pay your contact anything?
There are so many magazines now asking for Real stories.. it may just be she thinks she can do it herself, and therefore get the money.

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