The meek may inherit the earth, but they make lousy freelance writers.
With more than 30 years of professional writing experience under my belt – nearly 20 of them as a full-time freelancer – I’ve found that it takes a strong personality to be a successful journalist. Bottom line: you’ve got to take and maintain control over every aspect of your career. Let’s break it down:
1. Getting work. Landing an assignment with a new market is exciting, but what do you do for an encore? Upon completing that first assignment, the aggressive writer (and I’m using the word “aggressive” here in the best possible context) will immediately follow up with another strong proposal. He doesn’t wait for feedback or accolades – he forges ahead, confident that he has the editor’s eye.
Equally important is keeping your name on an editor’s short list of contributors after you’ve established a relationship. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a common phenomenon within publishing, so I make sure to let editors with whom I’ve worked in the past know of my availability on a regular basis, even if I don’t have anything to pitch to them. It takes only a few seconds to send a reminder e-mail – “I just wanted to let you know that I’m available if you have any assignments in need of a writer” – and the results can be spectacular. I’ve received many, many assignments from editors who just happened to have such a need when they received my note.
2. Working with editors. The writer/editor relationship is unique, and takes a while to gel. You should always be professional and polite when dealing with editors, but that doesn’t mean you should let them walk all over you or do nasty things to your work. When things go wrong, it’s important that you take the initiative in correcting the problem because, quite frankly, no one is going to stand up for you except you.
Only once in my career have I walked away from a magazine because I couldn’t stand my editor (thankfully, that editor left soon after, and I quickly returned to the publication in good stead) and I’m happy to report that the vast majority of editors with whom I’ve worked have been wonderful people who respected my opinion and my work. Occasionally, however, problems have popped up that have required me to file a verbal complaint. The meek writer might let the problem go, fearful of rocking the boat, but the aggressive writer will stand up for himself and make sure it is either corrected or will not happen again. After all, this is your career we’re talking about. Defend it – politely and professionally, of course.
3. Sources and interviews. It’s here, especially, that a strong personality is a necessity. Finding sources sometimes means calling people cold, which may mean rejection – something the meek writer will try to avoid. The aggressive writer, however, doesn’t give up until he gets what he needs. As an example, I recently wrote an article about war correspondents for Military Officer Magazine. I had been trying without success to reach a reporter with the Washington Post, and was about to give up when one of that reporter’s colleagues at the New York Times told me, “Don’t hesitate to be a pain in the butt – that’s what she would do! You’re a journalist; she’ll understand.” And he was right. I called a few more times, finally reached her, and was ecstatic when she agreed to a telephone interview. The result was an article that made my editor very, very happy.
It’s also important that you convey a strong, take-charge personality during interviews, whether in person or on the phone. If you come across as timid, it’s easy for a source to hijack the conversation and go wildly off topic. Always maintain control, and don’t hesitate to lead your source “back to the sidewalk” if he or she starts to wander. It’s easy to do: when they stop to take a breathe, leap in with, “That’s interesting, but I’d really like to ask you about...”
Being aggressive does not mean you should act like a jerk. In fact, being obnoxious won’t land you more work, it’ll only damage the relationships you may already have. So play nice – just don’t be a wimp.
-- Don Vaughan