There aren’t a lot of thresholds freelancers can point to as our careers progress. But there is some common ground we should all cover if we want to build stable careers, specifically related to productivity and recognition.
With a hat tip to Malcolm Gladwell, here are five significant markers you should notch on your freelance belt.
1. Editors accept more than 50 percent of your pitches
A lot of newer freelancers may think it’s smart to send out a batch of similar pitches to multiple publications, but for me, the opposite turned out to be true. I reached a 50 percent hit rate on my story ideas by limiting pitches to a few publications I knew best.
I hit the tipping point by targeting specific editorial departments. For example, Lake Norman Magazine, a monthly regional lifestyle pub in North Carolina, highlights a regional travel destination, local arts coverage, and a main feature on a predetermined theme. I pitched local performing and visual artists who lived in the area and saw my acceptance rate skyrocket close to 100 percent. I then asked for an editorial calendar and started pitching travel locations to match the preferred locales.
2. You’re a regular contributor for at least one publication
For me, a “regular contributor” is someone who writes one story every other month for monthly publications and one story every week for daily publications.
I’ve published 45 pieces with the Charlotte Observer year-to-date. I’ve averaged one piece per week for the past two years and write for different sections including business, arts, regional, and home and living. All this work was born from an initial pitch six years ago for a regional section. I hit my tipping point when I recognized three keys about my work: Never miss a deadline; always be flexible with rewrites; and understand the finer details for each assignment before starting a draft.
All writers know not to miss a deadline, but actually being reliable enough to never turn in late work is easier said than done. If you want to become a regular contributor, you’re probably going to have to work with multiple sections in the same publication. That means recognizing different editors have different expectations. For me, the best way to deal with all the moving parts was to consistently handle everything in my control—mainly, keeping deadlines and staying open-minded with revisions.
3. Editors bring work to you
Regular editor solicitations mean being approached monthly by editors for specific assignments.
If editors contact you with pitches at least once a month, you’re doing something right. This is the holy grail of tipping points. When editors reach out to you, they usually have a fully-formed idea and suggested sources for you to contact. All that’s left is for you to pull the trigger.
American City Business Journals is a one such client for me. I write branded content for them, and my contacts routinely bring me ideas to develop. Likewise, at Ocean Home Magazine, editors regularly ask me to work on stories, such as this recent technology trends piece.
4. You’re published in a national publication
For freelancer Jeremy Markovich, his first national piece published on SB Nation, “Elegy of a Race Car Driver,” garnered praise, both in print and online, that raised his profile as a writer. The article was even included in The Best American Sports Writing 2014.
“Since writing the piece for SB Nation, I’ve been contacted by other editors letting me know that they’re receptive to my pitches,” Markovich, a regular contributor to Our State and Charlotte Magazine, told me.
Breaking through with a byline in a national publication is such an important tipping point for freelancers because getting your work in front of a substantial audience is a great way to secure more work.
I was fortunate to have my first national piece, a profile on The Dale Jr. Foundation, featured as the cover story for NASCAR Illustrated. The response from this story led to new gigs (The Business Journals work was a direct result of an editorial referral) and gave me the confidence to pitch more national publications.
5. Sources and contacts send you daily story ideas
I enjoy telling new freelancers that when I started eight years ago, 100 percent of my published stories were from ideas I developed. Today the figure is less than half; a number of leads now come directly from my network sources.
Sustaining a career as a freelance writer requires diversification. Brainstorming your own ideas is essential, but if you have to metaphorically hunt for your food every day, it helps to have other people offer potential stories.
Many of these stories are going to be off-target, but even one gem out of every 100 makes my job easier. When I wrote “The Art Of Seducing Sources” for The Freelancer, I underscored the importance of developing relationships with all manner of sources including PR firms, companies, cultural organizations, and anyone who works your beat.
Instead of just treading professional water, all freelancers should pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Those who recognize certain milestones along the way can learn from these tipping points and accelerate their careers.