|The author, taking notes at her desk, has found a key to successful freelancing is identifying and finding others with whom to work repeatedly.
Freelance Files: Finding Repeat Work Means Gaining an Editor’s Trust
By Christine Woodside
In the nearly quarter-century since I began freelancing, I’ve learned to build relationships and try working more than once for an editor or client. The path to gaining trust is a simple one that can feel complicated.
The steps along the path have changed in the past several years, but the underlying structure has not.
It’s not a path that relies on serendipity. Many of us have randomly met someone who gave us work. I have.
Beer baron’s book project goes bust
Once, shortly after I started full-time freelancing, a board member of a nonprofit whose magazine I was editing introduced me to a conservationist who was the heir to a beer fortune. He wanted to hire a writer who would help him author a book about how people were ruining the planet.
He paid me $17,000 over several months to research a book proposal. I worked hard and long hours, but the problem was we didn’t understand each other. There came a day when I was walking around his expansive estate, and he asked me if I held any hope for the world. I said yes. He replied, “Then we can’t work together.”
It was clear over the months
I labored for his book idea that
he was the wrong client for me.
It was clear over the months I labored for his book idea that he was the wrong client for me. First, he didn’t know what he wanted the book to say. He kept bringing in more people: a nearby university’s medical student to “help” me with research; the medical school dean, who’d written a diet book; and the dean’s personal assistant.
We met for hours. I was the only one who drafted anything. They were dubious of my idea to focus on climate change and water. The diet doctor said we should write about desalination saving the world. The beer heir brooded. The project was dying, which didn’t stop me from working like a racehorse. I felt disgusted because I’d neglected other work to chase this.
‘You need to feed that family’
Around the same time, I cold-called an editor at The New York Times saying I could write a story about efforts to return salmon to the Connecticut River. I’d already written a story for another paper about this, so I knew the subject. He said yes. I did research and pitched the Times like crazy before an editor there promised me regular work.
I wrote for him and his successor for seven years, publishing more than 100 stories about the environment in southern New England. The editor I wrote for the most had warned me I should never count on them for regular income — but actually, after I’d written for him several times, he did give me weekly work. “You need to feed that family,” he said. I could get the next assignment in a three-minute call after that.
My work for the Times eventually stopped when it stopped publishing regular stories about Connecticut, which was then my beat. I found more work by calling up a nonprofit that publishes the country’s oldest mountain journal and asked to be its editor.
Cold-calling is not something
we do today, I know. But
there are modern equivalents.
Cold-calling is not something we do today, I know. But there are modern equivalents of this. Get introduced to someone at a conference. Introduce yourself via LinkedIn or some other networking platform, then make a plan to talk. Meet in person after that with a light agenda. Be ready to switch gears if they offer something different.
The key is identifying and finding others for whom we can work repeatedly. We show them they can trust us.
There was a time when journalists stood around bars drinking and noshing cheese cubes off toothpicks. I for one don’t miss that scene. But we must meet people.
Three things that tend not to work
- Social media — Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, X and Threads — certainly comprise a wild world. Starting in the mid-aughts, I began posting regularly to Facebook because my editors told me I should. No one really understood why, and I maintain we still don’t know why. I stopped most postings on Facebook and X over a year ago. Posting or not posting there has had no effect on my work life whatsoever.
- Trying to imitate what writers I admire have done to advance. They are themselves. You are you. What worked for them won’t necessarily work for you.
- Doing a lot of low-paying work for former employers at media outlets. I think this might work for some writers. I avoid doing this because many of the media outlets where I used to work don’t have much of a freelance budget. So it’s very low return for high effort.
Two things that tend to work for developing relationships
Personal connections. Maine-based environmental writer Laura Poppick told me that she relies on the old-fashioned methods of meeting editors at conferences.
“I think that making in-person connections can go a long way, even if those interactions are brief,” she emailed. “I have found it helpful to attend conferences and meetings where I might connect with other writers and editors, and I make an effort to follow up afterwards with a quick email expressing my interest in working together. Even if years go by before you do actually work together, the connection has been established and you can continue to build on it over time.”
Environmental writer Erica Gies told me she invites editors to coffee or asks to stop by their offices if she’s in their towns. “They usually say yes, and it offers two great opportunities,” she emailed. “First, it allows the editor to get to know me a little bit as an actual human, not just a sender of one of countless emails peppering their inbox. Second, it allows me to ask what the editor really needs, whether there are upcoming issues or sections I could target, and learn a bit from their responses about the pinch points and timelines they're dealing with.”
Erica said she’ll bring up a few ideas for stories at these meetings. Sometimes they assign them right there. Other times, they ask for a written pitch later, “even offering ways to shape the focus to suit them.”
Becoming known for your expertise. Seattle-based freelancer Elyse Hauser (who’s my co-editor for Freelance Files) told me, “The best way to establish ongoing relationships with editors is to offer something other freelancers don’t. If you have a uniquely relevant niche, access to hard-to-get sources, or great pitches no one else has thought of, an editor has a reason to keep coming back — and saves you the time of chasing new work.”
Hauser hits on the importance of spending time wisely. Work hard and work smart. Invest time in researching unique stories for editors and outlets that work for you. Then you don’t have to spend valuable time pitching new editors each time you want work. The editors you write for will come back for more. It’s easier for them, too.
What I have come around to in my many years on the freelance beat is this: Work hard, work with integrity and use your time wisely. Go after work you want, not work that you don’t feel suited to. On this foundation you can build strong relationships and a reputation.
Journalist Christine Woodside, Freelance Files co-editor, specializes in environment, American history and mountain adventure. She is the editor of Appalachia, a journal of mountaineering and conservation. Woodside writes for many outlets. This year she is working on stories for Yankee magazine. She wrote a lot for the former Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Her new book is “Going Over the Mountain: One Woman’s Journey from Follower to Solo Hiker and Back,” and her book “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books” (Arcade) traces the influence of the early libertarian political movement on the iconic children’s pioneer books. She teaches a journalism history course at UConn.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.