5 Essential Tips For Freelance Travel Writers
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
I was recently invited to speak at the Contently.com headquarters here in New York City as part of a two-person panel discussion for their monthly Freelance Writers Meetup, an honor in it of itself, but even more so since I got to sit next to and speak along with the New York Times Travel editor Dan Saltzstein. Yes, I am fully aware that the majority of the people were there to see me in the same way that the majority of people were at the Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994 to see the Spin Doctors open for the Rolling Stones, but I didn’t care.
As expected, the room was packed with both journalists and non-journalists looking to learn more about the freelance travel writing world, a field that as one can imagine, attracts a high amount of interest for all writers, but especially for those whose everyday subject matters tend to focus on more mundane (but, likely, more employable) subject matters such as finance or Kardashian divorce proceedings.
But how does one get past the proverbial velvet rope that seems to circle the freelance writing world that is the New York Times? As Saltzstein noted, if one were looking to get published in the New York Times, in the words of Apple: Think different. “This will not come as a shock to anybody, but we have far more Europe and Asia stuff than we do anything else. There’s always the appeal of the counterintuitive.”
A statement I agreed with wholeheartedly, and one which is probably becoming more accurate as smaller online travel outlets grow and seek to differentiate themselves from larger print outlets. “Nothing against Rome, but go to some smaller towns, see what else is out there,” I recommended not only as good general advice, but also as a tip to find unique writing material.
I also made a point to get across to the freelancers in the room that the skill-set online travel editors are looking for in potential freelance writers are similar to those that non-travel online editors are looking for: a variety of technical skills.
I recommended that freelancer should learn CMS management programs such as WordPress and Joomla, familiarize themselves with HTML, become proficient in Photoshop, pick up basic video editing skills using Adobe Premiere or Final Cut, and most importantly, never stop learning.
You will be surprised, but given the competition that is out there, one or more of these skills may just be the thing that puts you and your writing above someone else’s. Why is that? Simple: as budgets shrink and editors become more overwhelmed, writers are going to be asked to do more. Those that can’t will be passed over.
Prior to the panel discussion, I thought it would be a good idea to reach out to a few of my friends who have found success as freelance writers to hear what advice they would give to new freelancers. (This, I will point out, was alleged by one writer to be a ploy by me to elicit free content to talk about during the discussion in case I fell short of credible points, anecdotes or witticisms of my own. I can neither confirm nor deny this charge.)
Here are a few highlights from the tips I received from those writers.
With the exception of the New York Times, newspaper travel editors don’t want to be pitched. They want the finished piece, totally polished and ready to go, including an “If you go” sidebar. This is good news if you haven’t any or a lot of published clips. The editor won’t care who you have or have not written for. S/he has your submission right there and if it’s good and s/he wants to run a piece on that place, s/he will use it. The bad news is that fewer and fewer newspaper travel sections are buying freelance these days. I got started by selling a couple articles to American newspapers this way. And after an editor buys a couple and you officially have a working relationship with that editor, you can start pitching. This is exactly how I broke into the Washington Post travel section.
Stay professional. Do your research and know who you are pitching. Writers with organizations have the benefit of the name of the organization, but freelancers only represent themselves, so it’s best to do your research beforehand. Know the name of the person and their work, and the most recent work of the publication.
Learn how to multi-task. This is crucial because your organizational habits stay with you, whether you want them to or not. You don’t have a lot of control over how many assignments you get at a time or when they’re due. There are no sick days or personal days with freelancing. You might be writing about ski vacations and interviewing a politician on the same day for totally different publications, while simultaneously fighting off the flu, packing for a trip and planning a wedding. It happens. There are never going to be enough hours in the day sometimes, so do your best to try to maximize the ones you have in a way that works for you.
Make sure to properly value your time and work. Lots of people will come to you offering opportunities for “exposure” in exchange for free content created by you. This is not to say you should never do this, but make sure to approach these opportunities with a healthy dose of skepticism. You really only control three things as a freelancer: your reputation, the quality of your work and your time. Make sure you value each of these assets as a precious resource that is not to be given up lightly without something return (actually real money, opportunities for future work, etc . . .). You’ll thank yourself for it in the future.
Never, ever plagiarize. Good editors can tell when it’s not natural and there are easy tools used these days to confirm. If you do plagiarize, you’re an asshole and you don’t belong in the business. Always check facts. Especially in travel, a good editor has either traveled a lot or read a lot about travel. He or she knows a lot and can easily spot material that hasn’t been properly researched by the writer. One or two such errors obliges a much closer check, which takes time and pisses people off. Do the legwork.
Always write clean copy. A sloppy writer is the bane of an editor’s existence and will never get asked to write again. Alarmingly, as an editor, I’d say that more than 80% of the copy I got was not clean. Misspellings (some easily caught by spellcheckers) meant copy wasn’t dutifully written or reread. Poor sentence and paragraph construction meant the writer was either lazy, rushed or just plain bad. Along the same lines, always carefully read and respect work briefs and house style guides. Submitting copy that isn’t written in the right style or doesn’t respect terms laid out in a brief — especially including word counts — is just unprofessional.
By Matt Stabile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheExpeditioner.com. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos, purchase the book he co-edited or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com. (@TheExpeditioner)