By Gianluca Russo
Writing is not easy. When I started out, I wish I had reached out to some professionals for advice. From my short time as a freelance writer, I’ve seen firsthand that breaking into the business can be incredibly difficult without a mentor to guide your every move. It can be very easy to make a bad impression and lose out on an opportunity that could have a big impact on your future.
Well now, as I begin my first summer as a full time freelance writer, I’ve reached out to one of my favorite writers/editors to get some advice for new writers joining the freelance game.
Rosemary Donahue is an editor and writer who I admire tremendously. I first read her work in Britt + Co, which she serves as a freelance editor for, and have continued to enjoy her work in Nylon Magazine, Allure Magazine (which she now serves as weekend editor) and more. Donahue’s pieces on mental illness, body image and other important issues are honest and relatable works that I immediately resonated with.
Donahue always loved reading and writing, but never saw it as a career until she took some time off in her early twenties. When returning to college, she pursued an English degree in creative writing and was immersed in the literary world. After spending time editing her school’s literary journal, she found that her passion was as an editor. “When you edit the work of other people, you can help others get help, you can see what you like and don’t like and can incorporate that into your own work,” said Donahue, “and that’s really where my skill and my passion are.”
Now, after years of experience both as an editor and writer, Donahue was incredibly kind to speak with me about tips for freelance writers and about some of the first things you need to know when venturing into the world of media.
On publications that are nailing it… “We definitely can’t discount young people, women, marginalized folk, etc. Everyone is multidimensional and can care about fashion, yes, but also can care about politics. Even if they can’t vote yet, these issues still affect them; they see what’s going on, they care about what’s going on, and I think that Teen Vogue is doing a really great job at covering everything that their readers care about.
“Racked is also doing a good job. Right after the election happened, they immediately kind of changed their course and were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to cover clothing, but we’re going to acknowledge how clothing is a function of identity and we’re going to talk about not just sample sales and things, but we’re going to talk about how fashion can sometimes be a way to protest.’”
On only writing about what you know… “A lot of people think that they should and can only write about what they really, really know about…but all of these things that are going on impact all of us, and we all have something to say. We all have something important to add to the conversation, and especially with what places like Teen Vogue are doing, they’re empowering people to be informed.”
On perfecting your pitches… “Know the publication you are trying to pitch and make sure that you not only know that your story is right for them, but even that your email and your tone are right for that publication. State a little about your qualifications and who you’ve written for before, but, personally for me, that doesn’t matter as much as why you’re qualified to write that story. Say why your take [on a story] matters, because with so much content being produced on any given day, it’s likely that a few other places are going to be covering it if it happened already. State to the editor why your take is important, why your angle is different, why you should be the person to write it, why they should pay you in particular to cover it and why they would want to work with you.
“The strongest thing I can say is show that you know the publication and why you’re the person to write for it.”
On following up with pitches… “I always follow up in a week if I don’t hear anything back, and then assume that they’re probably passing on it. You never want to bug an editor too much, but if you find that a majority of your pitches aren’t getting any responses at all or are getting rejected, I like to do trades with other writers where you swap pitches and say, ‘If you read this pitch, would you get what I’m trying to say?’ Sometimes we have blind spots with our own writing where…if someone else reads it, they don’t know what we’re talking about. If you do a swap with another writer, you’re both being benefited.”
On networking and making connections if you’re still in school or not in a big city… “Especially because of how prevalent Twitter and even just email are these days, you can still reach out. Find the writers and editors that you admire and send them a personalized email or DM them on Twitter or even just “@” them, because that’s what really makes a difference. A lot of editors and writers who you may try to make connections with are super busy, but also really want to feel like their work has made a difference. For me, even when I’m super busy, if someone reaches out and I can tell that they’ve actually read my work and know what I write and care about, I’ll definitely send them a long email back. Even if you’re living in the middle of the country somewhere, do your research on whichever person is in the beat that you want to be in and ask them how they got there.”
On accepting a flat rate or asking for a higher pay… “We’re all at different levels and I think that any money for writing is really great. I do think that you need to value your work, and if you think that your work has more value to it and you’re not getting paid enough, you should ask for more. If an editor likes your idea and you ask for more money for it, they’re not going to say that they don’t want the piece at all. Value your own time and think about whether or not you can get more money elsewhere. It’s just based on your personal idea of if you’re willing to pitch it elsewhere, but it’s always worth it to ask, and you should never feel bad about asking.”
On the difficulties of women and marginalized writers… “I can only speak from the standpoint of being a white, cis-gendered woman and from what I’ve seen from my other coworkers and friends who are coming from different standpoints, but I think it definitely is harder for us to compete for certain jobs. Once we have put something up, we get different levels of criticism on Twitter; there are lots of things that we have to contend with that more privileged people don’t have to contend with, and that’s something that I think people are starting to converse about, but I don’t necessarily know how quickly it will change.”
On the biggest mistakes she sees as an editor… “Sometimes writers get overly excited about an idea, especially with newer writers, and they’ll just pitch it to anywhere without really looking up what’s the right place for their pitch. Because of that, the editors will likely remember them and not be as likely to open an email or look among them favorably in the future.
“Also, not including a fully formed idea, like saying, ‘I want to write about heartbreak and how I dealt with it when my ex-boyfriend and I broke up,’ but they won’t include how they actually dealt with it, so the editor won’t have a clear idea of what the essay will look like. You really want to distill the idea down so that the editor can really see what the essay is going to look like, not just a one liner.”
For more about Donahue’s work, visit www.RosemaryDonahue.com, and follow her on Twitter @Rosadona.
Gianluca Russo is a freelance writer for Campus News. His words can be found in Playbill, BroadwayWorld, the Albany Times Union, 518Life Magazine and more. Visit www.GianlucaRusso.webs.com for more about him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @G_Russo1.