Career Advice

Will Editors Steal My Ideas? And Other Freelancer Fears

By Grace Bello May 29th, 2013

Embarking on a freelance writing career means trusting your editors and trusting the editorial process. But what if you’re a new freelancer or you are pitching a publication you haven’t worked with before? How do you know editors won’t steal your ideas, that they’ll compensate you enough, or that they’ll take you seriously?

The Freelancer speaks with experienced freelance writers to debunk these myths.

Find out why you should view your editor as a collaborator — not an enemy.

Will editors steal my ideas?

“If you are a new freelance writer, chances are that most of your ideas are crap anyway,” said Virginia Sole-Smith, freelance writer for Harper’s, Glamour, and more, says, You are still learning what makes a story and you have to have a lot of crappy ideas before you get to the good stuff.”

Instead, she said, think of pitching as a way to practice honing your ideas — and a way to get on an editor’s radar: “When I was starting out, I’d send an editor two to three ideas, land none of them, but then a month later she’d circle back with ‘Hey, we’re looking for a writer for this story…’ That’s the point of pitching.”

Forget about editors stealing ideas. Focus instead on finding stories that will make an editor pay attention to you.

Will I even get paid?

While it’s true that some opportunities pay in “exposure” rather than cash, think of these smaller gigs as an investment in your career.

Andrea Williams, who writes for CNN Money, points out that you don’t have to work for free if you don’t want to. “When you’re just starting out, you have to crawl before you walk, certainly,” she said. “But you don’t have to write articles for $10 a pop.”

Sole-Smith looks at the big picture. “As a general rule, glossy magazines will start new writers at around $1.50 to $2 per word — but you’ll be writing the shorter stories, so the checks are smaller,” she said. “As you work your way up, the word rates may climb a bit but the word counts jump a lot, and that is how you get to the bigger checks.”

Sure, every freelancer does some unpaid reporting and writing for the pitch itself. And some smaller stories may or may not garner paychecks. But only by doing the small gigs will you prove that you’re ready for the bigger projects, and with heftier stories comes higher pay rates.

Do I need a fancy portfolio?

It does help to have an online presence. Editors will Google you, so make it easy for them to find your best clips and blog posts. However, there’s no need for rookie journos to hire a web designer.

“For someone who’s starting, you don’t need to have all that in place. Just start,” Williams said.

Williams has an page, which costs no money to create or host. “Contently is free. is free. There is a section of Mediabistro where you can set up a portfolio,” she said. “There are tons of ways of going about it without having your own self-hosted website.”

Can I mass email editors with the same pitch?

Jennifer Armstrong, former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and current freelancer, says, “I think simultaneous submissions are fine. But if you’re going to do a story on, say, in vitro fertilization, you can pitch that to a lot of magazines. It’s a good idea to rejigger it to different publications—one way to an older women’s magazine, another way to a younger women’s magazine.”

Sole-Smith said, “Your whole goal is to show through your story pitches that you get the magazine, you understand their readers, you know what they are looking for.”

Therefore, a generic query and a mass email to a dozen editors won’t cut it. Tailor your pitch to each publication. Don’t just show them that you’re a good writer, show them why you’re the best writer for their specific magazine.

While reaching out to an editor can be a fraught process, think of it not in terms of “yes” and “no” but as an opportunity to build a professional relationship. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. So don’t worry about creating an expensive portfolio or getting a huge list of contacts up front.

Generate ideas, send them out, and be responsive to editors. They may reject you at first, but who knows? They may turn to you later with a juicy assignment — and then another.

Image courtesy of KJM·427/flickr

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