I’ve been on a bit of a freelance assignment roll lately — a really good one, the kind with high-paying assignments that are actually interesting and fun, for editors who are a dream to work with. (I know, at times I didn’t believe this was possible either.) I feel just fine bragging about this a little, mainly because it’s not bragging at all; I didn’t get these assignments through hard work or through being awesome. (I do, of course, dabble in both.) I got these assignments because I used to work with very nice people who have now gone on to jobs at publications that are cool and pay freelance writers well for their efforts. I am continuously grateful for the special family feeling former Entertainment Weekly staffers have, and I believe it comes from a tradition of simply hiring good people who care a lot about what they do.
But that doesn’t help you if you didn’t spend ten formative years of your career at EW like I did. What it does prove that applies to any freelance writer is that it’s good — imperative, really — to know editors on a personal level. Of course, this is one of those pieces of advice that teachers and writing books spew a lot, but if you don’t happen to have friends who are editors at major publications, you’re like, “Okay, so, what? I stalk them?” Kind-of. But in a nice way. Here are some of my ideas for ways you can meet editors that won’t take ten years of full-time work to execute:
1. Cold pitch editors until a spark develops with one. If you’re dutifully sending off your queries to editors you’ve never met, and they’re good enough, eventually an editor is going to respond to you in a human-like way. Instead of ignoring you or simply saying, “This isn’t right for us at this time. Good luck,” they’ll make a joke or tell you how much they relate to your story or tell you it’s not quite right for them for a specific reason but you’re welcome to pitch them again. I cannot emphasize this enough: If they say this, pitch them again. Feel free to respond in a brief, fun, equally human way. Then pitch them again, and again, and again, as long as they’re being even remotely encouraging. I romanced an editor at O magazine for more than a year this way until I finally got into the magazine earlier this year. By that time it felt like she was actively rooting for it to happen and was my ally inside the publication. This is the ideal.
2. Mentor other writers once you’re in a position to. I gave a lot of kids in their early 20s advice about breaking into media when they needed it. Now several of them top-edit magazines and websites that give me work. The kids grow up fast, you guys. It’s amazing.
3. Take a writing class. If you develop a strong relationship with the teacher, it can lead to better things. Maybe he or she is an editor who can give you work; maybe he or she knows editors who can give you work. I will tell you, as a teacher, that it will not work to simply hit up your former teacher for her contacts if you haven’t developed a specific and lasting relationship with her. If I give you a contact, I’m kind-of vouching for you, at least indirectly. And I’m not going to do that for some random person who sat in the back of my class sometimes and occasionally contributed a comment or assignment. Check out my rules for developing a relationship with your teacher before attempting this advanced maneuver.
4. Make friends with other writers. You will find them sitting next to you in those writing classes, or out on assignment with you (I made tons of my earliest media friends at press events), or at conferences. They can and usually will help you navigate the publications you haven’t cracked yet. They know things you don’t. Just make sure it’s a reciprocal relationship.
5. Do go to conferences and networking events, but make sure they’re the right ones. This feels like the most obvious way to make connections, though only a small percentage of mine have come from this. I used to go to local media networking events all the time in hopes of meeting some magical national magazine editor who would give me work. Guess who doesn’t go to networking events! That’s right, national magazine editors. Why? Because they don’t need to network. Who does go to these events? Mostly unemployed or underemployed 22-year-olds and freelancers who don’t know any other way to meet people. Unless you’re looking for some people to mentor, skip these and try to sniff out the good events instead. I had my best luck this year at the ASJA conference, and that’s because it’s a selective organization (there are specific publication requirements you must fulfill; they even made me send them a copy of my book contracts) that aims higher than novice level. So I met people who could teach me something. I also went to some seminars that changed my business life significantly.
6. Go to literary events. Again, however, pick the right ones: Not the blockbuster-author talk at the Barnes & Noble that will draw a massive crowd. You can go to that, but it’s not going to do you any networking good. Seek out the smaller readings at indie bookstores and bars. They are usually populated with the author’s friends and colleagues, who are almost always writers and editors. You won’t come out of the night with three major assignments. But you might come out of the night with a few business cards and a few potential new friends … who happen to know editors and writers. This is a long-game move, but it can be worth it — and fun, too. Simply Google for literary events in your area, or check out Togather.com (I’m doing an event with them soon), or go to my friend Julia Bartz’s blog BookStalker if you’re in New York.