business of freelance writing

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The Pesky Business Side to Writing


The trickiest thing about writing for money is the most obvious one: there’s an artistic side and a business side.

What’s tricky about that? Few writers are accomplished at both. Some generate all manner of writing, often very good, but fail because they market themselves poorly or send to the wrong markets.

Then we have writers who are sharp on the marketing strategy, but the goods aren’t high enough in quality for editors to commit.

It used to be that writers had to keep track of expenses like paper, envelopes, and stamps. Remember the SASE? How your own handwriting came back to greet you in the mailbox? Seems forever ago, doesn’t it?

Nowadays, those lacking on the business side have two main issues. First, they do not have the patience to research. On submissions pages of most magazines, editors practically beg writers to first read work they have already accepted, but the anxious writers either give the content a cursory glance or none at all.

The point of this research? For a writer, there are two. First, do you as a writer like the editor’s tastes? Second, do you as a writer feel your work is a good fit with this magazine? Would you be proud to see your words under its banner?

The second fault has a lot to do with Submittable. While the go-between site has become a Godsend of sorts for both journals and writers, it is not without its problems. It is, for instance, so convenient and easy that writers tend to rely on it too much. They over-submit. They submit before their work is fully cooked and ready for serving.

Then there’s the money thing. More and more we see fee-based reading. There are any number of reasons (or excuses, if you are opposed) for these fees, usually averaging $3 per submission.

Still, few writers bother to track these expenses. If they did, it might give them pause. The old-fashioned term “nickel and dime-ing someone” means that what appears small actually becomes large over time.

Would writers, looking at their yearly total in reading fees compared to acceptances, be so bowled over by the lopsided ratio that they might switch their allegiance to no-fee markets only? It depends on the writer and said writer’s wallet, I guess. When Submittable has your credit card or Paypal on file, it’s all-too-easy to click submit and not think twice. It’s the old delusion: If you can’t see it, it’s not happening.

Then we have the siren call of contests. Now we’re talking $20, $30, and $40 a hit. Writers need to ask themselves: “Am I willing to pay this kind of money? Is my work really that polished? Is it truly ready to go up against the incredible competition it is surely about to meet? And do I have honest friends and fellow writers who have read my work and agreed that it is, indeed, equipped to compete against other, very talented writers who have done their homework and put in the time to get their work as ready as it can be?”

Sometimes the money just evaporates because writers are kidding themselves. Granted, a little of that is necessary to win contests—dreaming big, I mean—but how many works go out before they’re ready for prime time? And what would the authors say if they saw the total damages of both reading fees, which bring magazines a profit even after paying Submittable, and contest fees across the span of a year?

That’s all business, which many writers find unpleasant and so adopt the ostrich strategy of heads-in-sand-and-carry-on.

Reconsider that! Work on both your artistic side and your business side this year. They are of equal importance because, frankly, if you want to be paid for your work (and you should be because it is work), then you have to be both diligent and savvy about it. And if you are falling behind in other financial areas of your life while rolling up the submission fees in the artistic aspect of your life, you might need to reconsider your strategy.

There are other options. It does not have to be so expensive over time.