A. Cook's Illustrated very rarely works with freelance writers. Like almost never, I hear. I got assignments from them because I was actually looking for a f/t job and after years of sending resumes to them, I finally got a call to come in and meet with them. And that's the other key: I live here in Boston, where their offices are, so when they asked if I could write a couple features, I was able to work out of their test kitchen in Brookline. It ended up working out that I couldn't take a full-time editorial job when it was offered, so I haven't done any more freelancing for them since then. They really do like to do everything in-house with their own people; my experience was an anomaly. I do want to say, though, it was one of the most fun writing jobs I've ever had -- I loved every moment there! -- except for the begging I had to do to get employees to do shots of red wine vinegar for my tasting feature. For a Cook's Illustrated fan girl like myself, the whole experience was a head-rush.
But unless you're ready to move to Boston and apply for a staff job, I don't think you'll have a lot of luck landing a freelance assignment with them. Sorry I can't be more helpful!
Q. Okay, then, can you tell me who your editor is at [magazine] and/or give me his e-mail address? I'm interested in writing for them.
A. Unless I know you personally and can attest to your writing skills, you'll have to get that information another way. I'm not in the business of handing out my contacts to strangers or people I barely know, especially in a business made upon relationships. Here's some advice though: pick up the phone and call the magazine. Ask them who should get your pitch and what his e-mail address is. Then send him your pitch. It's really that easy and it's what I do.
Q. Can you really make a living writing only for magazines?
A. I've met a few writers who write only for magazines, and they were doing quite well financially. Skeptics like to claim that you can't earn enough writing only for magazines -- I say it's possible and certainly not easy, but what job is easy?
In my mind, the real issue is not if it can be done: it's would you want to. Writing for magazines 24/7 can turn into a drudge job just like any other job. Many of the successful writers I know like to keep things fresh (forgive me for using that word!) by diversifying. Some of my journalist friends write novels, blog for themselves and/or big media companies, and speak at conferences, as well as write for magazines and newspapers. Right now, for example, I'm working on a couple book proposals, mentoring writers, writing an iPhone application, working on projects for custom publications, and blogging for myself and a major media company -- as well as writing articles for magazines and newspapers. The key for me, anyway, is having projects that I enjoy working on, whatever they may be -- and that pay my bills.
Q: I’m looking for a co-author for my book; would you be interested in working with me?
Q: I'd like to meet a few of my editors next time I'm in town, but I'm scared to call and ask for an appointment. Help!
A: One of the best moves I made early in my freelancing career was to meet my editors in person once I'd completed a couple of assignments for them. They were able to get to know me better, and I learned much more about their magazines and their needs than I would have on my own. These trips also paid off financially. For example, in 2005 I scheduled a two-day trip to New York City. Transportation, hotel, food, and other costs came to just under $500. Yet I came home with over $10,000 in assignments -- sweet! Not every trip results in assignments, but they do tend to build on and improve relationships -- in the words of a certain multinational financial institution, that's priceless.
Most editors will be pleasantly surprised that you're coming from out of town to meet with them. Even if you've received nothing but polite, encouraging rejections from an editor, it can worth it to suggest a brief meeting just to say hi. Chances are, at the very least they'll invite you to their offices for a quick hello, and occasionally they'll suggest coffee. If you know the editor well, you may even get a nice lunch! (And yes, the editor -- specifically the magazine -- always pays, even if you ask them to dine.)
I always come to these meetings with a few story ideas to pitch, but I let the editor guide conversation. Sometimes they just want to get to know me. Other times, they're all business and want to hear my ideas. I'm very shy, so I understand why writers balk at such meetings, but I've never had an editor laugh at me when I've asked to meet, and none of my meetings have gone horribly wrong. So pick up that phone and go for it!
Q: I'm planning to quit my job after I have my baby, and I'm thinking about freelancing after s/he's born. Is it possible to stay at home with the kids and have a successful writing career?
A: Absolutely! Many of the successful writers I know are mothers (and fathers) with young children. However, if you have visions of pounding out the prose at your keyboard while your baby or toddler plays quietly at your feet, you might want to readjust your expectations -- and fast.
People always ask me, "How do you write so much when you have a young child?" The answer is good childcare. There is absolutely no way I could work as much as I do and be with my son 24/7. During the first year of parenthood, I didn't work very much. The second year I eased back into freelancing (that's when I wrote The Renegade Writer with my co-author. I remember very little of the experience!). When my son turned two, we had an au pair who lived with us for a year. Then our son entered full-day preschool at age 3 when our au pair went back to Germany. I now work from 9 till 5 Monday through Thursday, and Fridays I take off a bit early to do something special with my child -- a visit to a local orchard or a stop at an ice cream parlor.
Now that my son is school-aged, he can entertain himself better, so at nights and on the weekends, I can slip into my office and work for a bit. I'm also really good at using snippets of time. When I'm in the car running errands, I work on generating some story ideas or figuring out a lede of an assigned story. If I have a spare 5 minutes to hop on the computer, I'll shoot off a couple quick e-mails to editors or sources.
In fact, parenthood has benefited my career is several ways. With limited amounts of time to get my work done, I find it's harder to procrastinate. I'm much more productive than I was pre-children. My child also gives me fabulous story ideas and he helps me see the world with fresh eyes.
Q. I'd really like to study some query letters that sold. Do you have any suggestions where to find some?
A. You're in luck! In fall 2006, my co-author Linda Formichelli and I are coming out with a new book called The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock. We asked a dozen or so editors at national newsstand magazines to send us a query theyâ€™d received from a writer that knocked their socks off. In our book, the editors go through the letters line-by-line, detailing what worked (and what didn't) to pique their attention and eventually lead to a sale. We also interview the writers of the queries to get their view of the writing process. If you can't wait till then, send a blank e-mail to email@example.com and you'll receive 12 queries via autoresponder that you can study. These queries netted the authors up to $3,750 per article. If you feel like dropping $89, head on over to Freelance Success -- a year's membership to this awesome resource will give you access to their Query Letter forum, where you can read queries that sold to Parenting, Body + Soul, Health, Parents, Yankee, Popular Mechanics, and more!
Q. What's your best advice for me, a beginning freelance writer?
A. It's pretty simple: understand your strengths and admit your weaknesses to yourself -- then work those strengths and either improve or outsource your weaknesses.