Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Why You Didn't Get That Freelance Writing Gig.

This year, I've put up (and filled) several job postings looking for freelance writers.

Aside from drive-by applications -- you know, the kind that didn't even refer to the job at hand, and just basically throw their name into the ring without any justification -- the most frustrating responses I've received were those who in so many words said, "I can write whatever you want!"

This is not a reassuring statement.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean what you might think.

Coming up in the editorial ranks, I was told that a journalist should specialize. "You have a better chance at a job," my elders said.

This frustrated me, because I have the curiosity of a journalist -- meaning I don't see the world divided into "Things I won't write about" and "Things I will." Couture, computers or cloture, I'll write about it. Because I like learning. (This is probably why I ended up being an editor; I prefer to be a generalist.)

I suspect many journalists carry the same sentiment. But to get a specific gig, you need to show proof that you can write about a specific topic. Catch-22: so what's an intrepid writer to do?

First: recognize that showing specific proof doesn't preclude those who have no experience in that area. It's OK to be a generalist -- I repeat, it's OK to be a generalist --but you need to show me, the editor, that you can handle it.

Too many applicants over the years offered what amounted to "writing services" -- that is, whether its press releases or physics, they can handle it. And that may be the case, but it requires a tremendous leap of faith from the part of the editor, because there's no way for me to connect the dots.

Worse: inevitably, given a large enough volume of applicants, you'll get washed away by those who have better demonstrated that they're a good fit.

It's nothing personal. It's merely the quickest way to cut down the noise and get the slot filled.

It is surprising that so many professional storytellers fail to tell their own story adequately -- or for that matter, recognize that gap and attempt to bridge it.

Don't have any relevant clips to show? Write something up as an example. (This is why editors occasionally prompt applicants for example/test clips for the site in question; they don't want free work, they want reassurance.)

My worry as an editor is not that you can't put sentences together; I can figure that out pretty quick. It's that you can't approach a topic with enough rigor to do it justice. That's why showing me clips on a completely unrelated subject are only 50 percent useful: they help me determine competency, but they don't help me ascertain relevancy.

So if you're a generalist, don't fret. There's nothing wrong with it, and I'm firmly in the camp that you're better off in the long run because your potential client base is far wider.

On the other hand, you need to work harder than a specialist during that crucial application period to show you've got the right stuff. To do so, you need to frame your talents in a way that can be digested for the job in question. (It's what a cover letter is supposed to do, but I don't know anyone who bothers with such formalities anymore.)

And if you're unclear on the job in question -- I've seen some pretty slapdash job postings in my day, let me tell you -- ask more questions.

It's not that you're not up to the gig. You're just not telling the right story.

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