Note from Ada: Today's installment of The Freelance Writing Trenches comes from Robert Lillegard, a college classmate of mine, and one of the most successful 20-something freelance writers I know. Over the years, Robert and I have kept in touch about our freelance success and headaches and I've always admired Robert's tenacity. There's a lot we call all learn from Robert when it comes to having a successful freelance career.
The Importance of Follow-Up
By Robert Lillegard
I’ve been freelancing for about six years, but I’ve really started taking it more seriously in the last two. I’ve sold stories to the New York Times, Midwest Living, Relish, Latina, and a couple of major trade journals. One of the biggest things that has helped me along the way is something my editor at my day job told me: the persistent get published.
The simplest way I can say it is this:
Pester editors until they get back to you.
I’m the online editor for Duluth~Superior Magazine, and I periodically get pitches for stories, emails from potential interns, etc. There are a few things I look for in those emails. I appreciate it when people get my name right. I appreciate it when people give off the impression that they have read our magazine—they don’t have to actually have read it, but they have to sound like they have (hint: this doesn’t mean saying “as I was reading your magazine, I noticed that you could use more articles”. It’s more like “Your Sojourn section has done stories on Bayfield and Ashland, but you haven’t yet covered Ely.”) And, I appreciate it when they send me polite follow-up emails checking if I’ve had a chance to look over their query yet.
Ok, appreciate is the wrong word. Frankly, those follow-up emails are pretty annoying, because they mean more work for me. But you know what? Half the time they’re the only emails I respond to. I’ll ignore the original email but after a follow up or two I basically always respond. There are a few reasons for this (for example, following up shows me a writer can be diligent, which makes a good impression) but the main one is this: it keeps the writer at the top of my mind. I’ll eventually write back, if only to say “no”, because that person took the effort to keep working on me.
The Lesson: Follow-up is key.
So, I apply this to my own writing as well. I track every query I send out with an Excel spreadsheet that has the date, subject of the query, the publication, and the editor’s name. If that sounds like a lot of work, come on—doesn’t it take you at least an hour to write a query? Even pitching a nearly identical query to a competing publication takes at least 10 minutes just to track down the editor’s name and email. So an additional 45 seconds to update your query log is really no big deal.
But, here’s where the query log is key. Make 5 extra columns and label them First Follow-Up, Second Follow-Up, Third Follow-Up, Fourth Follow-Up, and Phone Call. Then, send out your queries and wait. When no one gets back to you after two weeks, forward the editor your original query and at the top add something along these lines:
Dear Mr. Morton,
Just wanted to follow up with you about my story pitch on kayaking in the buff. I think it would be a perfect fit for the Give it a Try section of Naked Sports Magazine. Is this something you’d be interested in?
(You wouldn’t actually say Frankie Freelancer though, you’d say your name).
Then, under the First Follow-Up column, write the date you followed up. Continue the process, varying your follow-up emails just slightly, every couple of weeks until you hear back. If you keep not hearing back, give a polite phone call a try.
Some places won’t ever get back to you. But if your queries are good and you’re targeting the right markets, this should really improve your response rate. I had to follow up with one magazine something like eight or nine times, but now I have a monthly column with them and I get a feature basically every month, too. Plus, of course, there’s the New York Times, which I try to mention at least twice every time I write something about writing. Whether you’re pulling $50 an article or $1 a word (or both if you write really short articles), following up persistently will help you get to the next level in your writing career.