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January, 2008

Torrey Meeks

The Follow-Up
Single or grand slam?
By  Torrey Meeks

News and new product researching pays off, so take time to think ahead.
You've embarked on your freelance career and, after a rock solid query, landed your first assignment. While writing your first piece you agonize over every sentence, wracked with fear, afraid that the whole world will discover you as a fraud when the piece runs.

But you do everything right. After a tense couple of hours, maybe a day, the editor writes back. They tell you, "Hey, very impressive work, it just needs a few small rewrites." Don't sweat it. This is a standard part of the game. You make the requested revisions, turn the story back in, and presto. Welcome to your first paying assignment.

However, now you're staring at the ever menacing bank statement, feeling that first article tension slowly unwind. One thought is pounding through your head like a timpani in the William Tell Overture. What now?

With a little bit of foresight, you can avoid this gut clenching downtime. I call it the freelancer's preventative maintenance program. Take a small chunk of your brain, partition it off from the inevitable worry and doubt, and stick it about two weeks in the future. Let this part of your brain focus on one question, "What can I write for this magazine next?"

Starting from day one, each time you get stymied, toss out Google searches related to the industry your publication covers. Forego the guilty pleasure of celebrity gossip blogs for awhile. Between the hours of 9 to 5, really get to know the industry. Yes, it's a good idea to write what you know, but sometimes that's not always how the cards fall in this game.

For example, when I started writing business articles, I couldn't tell you the difference between an S-corporation and a C-corporation for all the whiskey in Ireland. But I learned pretty darned quickly.

At this point, while you're still working on your article, don't worry about formulating a query right off the bat. Just scan the breaking news. Look for new companies and products. Keep your eyes open, and let your subconscious grind it up.

Now, fast forward. Two weeks have elapsed and suddenly, all that first article pressure is relieved. The editor liked your first assignment! Not only that, you turned the assignment in on time. This is a huge deal. A stunning number of writers, people who call themselves professional freelancers, miss deadlines all the time. Tardiness drives editors nuts.

Here's where all that Google scanning pays off in a very big way. As soon as the stress lets up, give that partitioned part of your brain free reign. Let it think up all sorts of ideas, pursue hidden rabbit trails, and generally nose around in a completely scurrilous fashion. More likely than not something you read during that scan-time will trigger. Presto! You have your next story idea.

As soon as the editor lets you know the story is in shape for publication, hit them with your next query. This is the secret to building a good, solid portfolio from one article.

Your second query can be slightly more informal, but stick to the format. Be professional and give the editor something they can sink their teeth into. They might like it, they might not. But this is important, because even if they don't like the idea, they appreciate the effort and self-starting attitude that you showed by following up so quickly.

The logic here is pretty cut and dried. While this publication is just one more pay cheque to you, to the editor, this magazine comprises a good portion of their life. It's likely what they're passionate about, and they love to see freelancers with a fresh pair of eyes showing effort.

Now that you have a direct pipeline of open, willing communication and they know you'll deliver, guess what? The odds are extremely good they'll get back to you within a day with another green light. They might say, "Hmm, well, I like the core of the idea, but how about we approach it from a different angle?"

You've just turned yourself into a regular contributor!

Alright, so we've covered the best way to follow up and get steady work. Now, whatever you do, don't wait for the editor to hand you an assignment. Yes, this does happen sometimes, but only after you've established you can consistently get the job done. That takes some time.

This technique of the follow-up query is an invaluable tool to have in your beginner's freelancing box. Before you let that hard-won publication fall by the wayside, waiting for an editor to send you an assignment sheet, give a good bit of thought towards what it took to break into the publication in the first place.

Consider, for a moment, the icing on the cake. If you work with an editor long enough and deliver good stories on a regular basis, usually they're more than happy to act as a professional reference on your resume. And I don't know about you, but I'm always looking for those.

So here's to your first article, second article . . . your long string of articles. Happy hunting!

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Torrey Meeks is a full-time freelance writer for a variety of trade and consumer publications. After a stint in the US Army as a combat medic, he traveled around the country holding a motley handful of jobs. He has been a long-haul trucker, stone mason, waiter, and pizza slinger. Contact Torrey at torrey-dot-meeks-at-gmail-dot-com.

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