For many aspiring writers, the bridge between personal blogging and professional writing is difficult to cross. “Getting lucky” doesn’t happen without a little work, and this often involves reaching out to the editor of a publication — solicited or not.
This is terrifying. I remember the first time I emailed an editor about a writing opportunity (my hands shook the whole time). But somehow, I eventually ended up on the other side of the process — the person who had to read through dozens of emails from people asking if they could write for me.
I love this part of the process. But I’d love it a lot more if people actually knew what they were doing. Writers are very smart — I love them. It’s mostly a matter of not knowing what to do, rather than a gap in intelligence (or common sense). I’ve given you suggestions for what to do to impress us. Now here’s what I (and editors everywhere) really wish you’d never do again.
1. Not following directions
Basic writing application guidelines might say something like, “Send an email with the subject line ‘Writing Job at ZYX’ with three writing samples, your resume, and a link to your social media accounts.” There are people out there who will send an email with the subject “I Want to Write For You!!!!” and a link to their personal blog. We do not like these people — nor do we usually end up working with them. They might have great experience. But they didn’t follow the directions. At all.
Read. The. Directions. If you can’t do it right before I’eve even gotten a chance to read your work, how are you going to be able to follow instructions when you’re actually getting paid to write? Our only guess is that you won’t — and that’s the last thing we’ll think about you, honestly.
2. Submitting an “original sample” that’s already published
This isn’t the same as a writing sample. Writing samples are examples of prior experience and skill. Here’s what we mean when we ask you to write something original for us: we want you to write something new. The whole purpose of asking you to write something and submit it to us is to gauge whether or not you can write well for our specific publication. I’ve thrown out at least a handful of good writing applicants who submitted something that had nothing to do with our audience or magazine. A quick Google search told me they’d already written and published it. That shows me you can write. It doesn’t show me you can write according to our style and specifications. Plus, you didn’t follow directions, which is annoying.
Write something as if you’re writing for the publication you’re applying to write for. That shows an editor exactly what they can expect each day or week if they were to hire you.
3. Sending your writing samples as Word attachments
If I get another email with six different attachments I have to sort through, I’m going to have a stroke. That’s not efficient — for you or for any editor on the other side of the screen. Yes, we want to read your work, evaluate your skill level, get a sense of how you write. But we also want to see work that’s alive and well on the internet — attributed to you. A Word document shows that someone has written a thing. There’s no way to tell if it was actually you who wrote that thing.
If you don’t at least have a free WordPress page that hosts links to your published content, send a link to a Google Drive folder (and for the love of God, grant anyone with the link access to it). By the way, I say GD and not Dropbox because I am tired of not being able to open shared folders in Dropbox because I don’t have enough free space. Sorry, Dropbox.
4. Talking about yourself too much too early on
I’ve gotten emails where the sender spends three paragraphs talking about how great they are, and adds one line at the end about how they’re looking forward to hearing from me. What I actually want to know, when a prospective writer sends me an email about a writing opportunity, is why I should care about their writing, not why I should care about them. I’m very interested in getting to know you, but not in more than a few sentences during your first contact with me.
Here’s what I want to know: your name, your current position (writer? Student?), and that you’re interested in writing for Publication Z. I want to hear your thoughts on our subject matter, what you might be interested in writing about, why you love PZ’s work and want to be a part of it. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of time to talk about yourself — just not yet.
Initial contact with an editor is not fun. It’s a lot of work, gathering all the necessary materials and crafting an email that’s just the right balance of “I’m awesome” and “you’re taking a lot of time out of your day to read this so I’ll keep it short and to the point.” You have to dig through and isolate your absolute best work. There’s absolutely no room for mistakes — it’s the only time I will ever tell a writer that perfectionism is barely good enough. If you can impress an editor in the first go, then the rest of the process will run smoothly. If you can’t, there won’t be a “rest” to anticipate.
Does that make you nervous? Good. I’m a firm believer that sometimes, pressure brings out the best in us. You can’t be at your best all the time. But this person you’re reaching out to knows nothing about your capabilities other than what you first put in front of them. Make. It. Count.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.