How an imbalanced relationship can harm a writer’s self worth.
I love editors. I have to say that or they’ll throw me in their digital dungeon and I’ll never see the light of a byline again. Also, to be entirely real, they’re good at what they do and we need them. Editors are why much of my work is buffed and polished to a mirror shine. But the rest of what follows here is in service of freelance writer self worth. Because I believe in freelance writing as a profession, and I know what it can feel like to pursue it. I also believe in starting sentences with the word “because,” on occasion.
The impetus for this essay is imbalance. It is a direct counter to the better-than/less-than dynamic that exists between editors at publications, and the freelancers who write content for them. I have deep love and respect for both of these professions. I also do not believe that one is better than the other. I’ll repeat that: I do not believe one of these professions is better than the other. I believe we are equal. However, if you are a freelance writer trying to write, the fact that I have to include the word “trying” there should suggest that the weight on one side of the scale is off.
The implied nature of freelance writing is that someone has to let you. This creates a culture of imbalance. In my experience, what we seem to forget is that editors need content written for their publications just as badly as freelance writers want to write it. If publications don’t need content written for them, they wouldn’t ask for it, list pitching guidelines, or even…I dunno, be a publication. But somehow we live in a world where, when pitches are approved, that approval comes with an aftertaste of an editor doing a writer a favor. Fine, I guess you can write this for me. You want money, too? Ugh.
Freelance writing (speaking here as an essayist, not a journalist) involves generating ideas, honing those ideas into pitches, sending those pitches to editors, waiting, following up, waiting more, and either a) that’s the end or b) getting a pitch approved, writing your essay, delivering it, waiting for it to be published, invoicing for it, waiting three months, following up regarding payment, waiting another month, then getting paid. Then putting 1/3 of that payment into savings.
If you are an editor, which I have also been, the process on the other side involves needing content, either calling for pitches on Twitter or via some other method, receiving roughly 500 pitches you don’t want, maybe four that you do, assigning content, editing content, arguing with a writer about those edits, publishing content, sending invoices to accounting, and following up with/begging accounting to pay your writers so that they stop emailing you asking for their money.
And yet…we all still do this. We’re still here, still working, and we enjoy it. But having held both roles, and seen perhaps one too many Twitter threads from editors just exasperated with writers for committing such invasive faux pas as…emailing them, I have to tell you, broadly speaking, editors behave as though they’re in a position superior to freelance writers, and I don’t like it.
In my opinion, and in my work practice, writers and editors are even. One person is not more valuable, one person’s time is not more valuable, than anyone else’s. And any time I’m made to feel less important, less valuable, or less worthy of respect than an editor I’m in contact with, they’re simply not an editor I write for, and that’s it.
I know that feels weird to read. We’re all out here pitching editors, crossing our fingers, and as soon as we get a “yes” we’re so excited that we’ll do anything to make sure what we’ve written actually sees the light of day so that we can tweet the link. But it’s that desperation energy to be published, to sell a pitch, to be chosen, that puts us in a smaller position than the editors we’re pitching to. It results in us having low self worth as writers, settling for any payment offered, never asking for social media or email support for our work from the publication—any number of behaviors result from us feeling like we were “lucky” to get a pitch a approved. Worse still, it can make us feel “lucky” to be paid for it, even if the money is well below our rates. Feeling lucky to get work makes us say yes to anything, as if every opportunity that comes along will be our last, and we have to take everything, anything we can get.
I want to promote balance. We create something they need (content), and they give us something we need (money). It is an even exchange of goods for compensation. If, after a transaction, one person feels like the other person got the better end of the deal, that was a bad deal. There should be balance and equal value exchanged, or else what’s really happening is a diminishment of a freelance writer’s self worth.
Several ways that editors have made me feel like less are as follows. If you’re a freelance writer, they might sound familiar. I will also pair them with my advice on how to take your self worth back in each situation. If you want to be a freelance writer, you should be one, and I don’t believe you have to pay for the opportunity to do what you love in self worth.
1 — They ignore. More often than not, when I pitch an editor, I never hear back. Nonresponse is the biggest section of my pitch spreadsheet and yes, you should start keeping one. The messaging there is that editors are just so busy, so consumed, with inboxes so overflowing that there’s no possible way they could ever respond to everyone. Honestly, bullshit. I’ve been an editor. I’ve written back to hundreds of people within a workday. I am not bragging, it sucked and I hated it, I’m just telling you I know it’s possible. You don’t think everyone’s worthy of a response, even a form one. And I see you.
Nonresponse leaves people hanging. It places a writer, and their often timely idea, in a state of wondering, waiting, and limbo that I’m pretty sure no one likes to be kept in. But editors rely on assumption. They assume that writers assume that if they don’t write back, it’s a no. But within what time frame? Some editors will set an autoresponse that tells freelance writers to assume their pitch hasn’t been selected following a certain period of time. That is a kindness.
When that set window of waiting isn’t there, writers can just kind of wonder forever. Which is why I send the same pitch to as many editors as I want simultaneously. The first editor to say yes, wins. If any editor reading this has a problem with that, know that I have a problem with the dynamic of writers waiting into infinity for information coming from you. I am not a servant sitting outside your bedchamber, waiting for you to ring a bell. If editors cannot do me the courtesy of a timely response, I do not have to wait on them to ignore me for long enough that I “assume it’s a no.” I don’t believe in waiting two weeks at a time to send one person a good idea. We are even, and I am busy, too. Writers, if you’ve pitched an editor three or more different pitches over time, never receiving a response, you should either re-evaluate your pitches to them in light of what their publication typically runs, or stop pitching them altogether because it’s possible you’re simply not a fit for them. And that’s okay. Again, create a spreadsheet to keep track of all this.
2 — They reject. It’s okay when editors reject your pitches. Rejection is actually my second-favorite thing that editors do after accepting my pitches, of course. A rejection is a response! It’s information! It’s also a call to us as writers to tighten up those pitches. When a rejection comes through, a good thing to ask yourself is, “Would I still write this for myself on my blog or Medium anyway?” If the answer is no, you’re probably not that excited about the pitch either, and you need to strengthen it. Half of the essays on my Medium profile are rejected pitches, because editors can say no, but I don’t have to. All of the rejected pitches you love should become Medium work or blog posts on your own site. You don’t need anyone’s permission to write, ever.
3 — They keep secrets. Editors keep compensation amounts locked in a vault that’s guarded by a three-headed dog. You’ll find information on Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site before you’ll get an editor to tell you what they pay for pitches before you’ve actually sent them a pitch they want. Financial compensation in the freelance writing space is the wild west, and nobody wants to talk about money until you’ve already done work for free. Freelance writers are not paid to seek out pitching opportunities. We are not paid to write pitches. We are not paid to follow up on pitches. But if we don’t do all of these things, there’s no chance we will ever make money as freelance writers. This is another good reason to keep a spreadsheet of the publications you’re interested in writing for, and the rates they quote you. If an editor’s rate is too low right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t increase six months down the road. Always say no warmly and keep track of rates, contacts, and information. Ours is an ever-changing industry.
We’ll probably never know the amount of money we can make from a pitch until it has been approved. That waiting period can be anything from a week to a month after we’ve sent the pitch. And when editors do reveal what they pay, and often with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, there’s a chance we can be disappointed. So disappointed in fact that we don’t even want to write for that publication.
This part is on us as freelance writers. If you (finally) hear what an editor can offer you for an accepted pitch and you’re disappointed, know that the disappointment will last through the life cycle of your work. You will still be disappointed even after it’s published. Because you’re going to feel like you weren’t paid enough for your time. If the rate is too low, say no to it. Saying yes to low rates only hurts you. If you’re scared to say no to a low rate for fear that you’re “passing up money,” know that I’ve been in that position too, and it feels far better to say no when you’re scared than cash a check later that makes you feel bad about yourself.
If we keep accepting low rates, editors will keep offering them. I know it can feel nauseating to say no to money. But ask yourself if $100 for 1,000 words is worth your self esteem. Saying no is terrifying, but only the first time. You’ll get better at it, and more work opportunities will come. One editor’s low offer is not the last offer you will ever receive.
One note, if a publication “doesn’t have the money” to pay its writers, do not write for that publication. Write for yourself, and let the SEO and traffic on your great idea belong to you, not them. The publication obviously has money to pay the people who are emailing you to say that they can’t pay you, so let them do the writing. If this is how you’ve chosen to earn your living, get paid for your work, period.
4 — They treat writers like children. Did you read the eight-page pitch guideline? Did you? Did you read it? Did you take a ton of time to familiarize yourself with exactly what I want and how I want it and where I want it despite not being compensated for the time it took you to acclimate yourself to me? Did you do it? I hope you did it. Because I’ll be able to tell if you didn’t. I’ll know. And you’ll be in trouble. I’m the editorial equivalent of your mom checking to see if you’ve actually used your toothbrush. You’d better do what I say, exactly as I say, or else I won’t let you earn a living. Obey me. If you don’t, I’ll write a 63-tweet thread about all the plebeian behavior of freelance writers who thought they were good enough to email me. Though I will say, this pitching guide from Business Insider is very good. (I have no idea what they pay, I’ve never pitched them.)
The action item here is simple. If you’re ever condescended or spoken down to by an editor, just don’t pitch them. Don’t write for them. There are more editors out there, I promise. Twitter is lousy with them. Do some research, find contacts, send strong pitches and yes—make sure you’ve read their pitching guidelines. If after that your outreach to them still does not satisfy whatever standard they demand, move on. Remember, we are even, we are all busy, and we all deserve equal respect.
5 — They become gate keepers. I don’t like to beg to work. That doesn’t make me feel very good. The nature of pitching editors as a freelance writer is that you can’t write for them until they say yes. That’s what creates a lot of this imbalace, not editors being mean or having superior attitudes. (Though, that happens.) Before I send a pitch (I make sure it’s a strong pitch, and then), I ask myself if I’m comfortable hearing “no” or simply nothing from the editor I’ve sent it to. I don’t let myself get too attached to a “yes,” ever. The way I manage that is by writing on my own website and on Medium, where it’s possible for me to earn money.
No matter what, a freelance writer earning a living will always depend on the quality of their work. Take comfort in that. That means that the effort and talent you put into your writing will come back to you. It isn’t easy, but it is true. Be amazing at this, it helps.
No one can stop you from writing except you. In this line of work, you will hear a lot of no, and lot of nothing from editors. That will always happen. But what can change is how you feel about the no’s and non-responses, and what kind of action you decide to take moving forward. Don’t let a no derail an idea you’re passionate about. Just write it in a place where you don’t need anyone’s permission. The SEO search term my website ranks highest for other than my name is the headline of a pitch that was rejected by every editor I sent it to. New people discover my work all the time because a bunch of editors told me no. No is not the end of your best ideas.
Here’s the thing about editors: They’re right. Freelance writing is a skillset like any other. You develop it over time, and when you’re new to this, you’re not very good at it yet. And that’s okay! Anyone who wants to write is allowed to freelance write at any time, even starting right now. I’d like to help those who are new or lack confidence in their pitching abilities, because I love this profession and I think if you want to write, you should be writing.
As far as pitching to editors goes, a few quick tips:
- If an editor’s email is really, really hard to find, they’re probably not accepting pitches. If you can’t get in touch, they don’t want you to. Search Twitter for editors at publications you’re interested in writing for. The ones accepting pitches will list their emails, tell you their DMs are open, or even explicitly say that they’re open to pitches.
- Sign up for Sonia Weiser’s newsletter. It’s a $3/month suggested donation and she rounds up as many calls for pitches on Twitter as she can find into her twice-weekly newsletter. I’ve been subscribing for two years, and I’ve sold two pitches. It has more than paid for itself. I tell every freelance writer I know or work with to get this newsletter. It’s very good because it contains action items, not just advice. (Though she’s great at advice, too.)
- Pitch a complete, concise, purposeful story or essay idea. Never email an editor and expect them to assign something to you. It’s actually not their job to come up with great ideas, it’s yours. That’s why we’re so valuable!
- Don’t tell editors your life story when you pitch them. Your email intro should be very brief and quickly link to your website or portfolio in case an editor wants to know more about you. You’re (hopefully) selling them on the pitch, not on you.
- Follow up once, briefly, then move on. I follow a seven day rule. I send a quick follow-up email seven days after sending a pitch. If I haven’t heard back seven days after that, I assume an editor isn’t interested, and I either write the piece on Medium, or ask myself what about this pitch could have been stronger, so that I get better at pitching for next time.
For anyone concerned that a freelance writer shouldn’t be saying any of this, your concern perfectly illustrates my point regarding imbalance. Why should editors feel confident ranting if not publicly shaming writers, without ever hearing thoughts from the other side? I don’t fear editorial repercussions, because first of all, they’re editors…not a band of angry vikings, and second, any editor that wouldn’t want me to write for them because I told the truth isn’t an editor I want to write for, either. Third, there but for the grace of adequate funding, they could be in the same freelance boat as me at any time. Remember, we are even, and should be treating each other with respect and equal worth, always.