I know this is a terrible time to be getting into freelance writing, but here I am. I have wanted to pursue writing since I was young. I am a good student and willing to do the work. I have been reading craft books, taking webinars, writing every day, and sending out pitches. I want those bylines. I want those acceptance letters. I want to see my words in print. I have byline instant gratification syndrome.
My recent purchase was the Byline Bible by Susan Shapiro, and I should have bought it before I even started this little enterprise. Shapiro teaches pitching and personal essay classes at The New School, and since Covid, has been teaching online. I hope to take her class this winter, if it is still online. It is pricey ($750), but I think will be completely worth it. Below are some of the most valuable nuggets from her book (imho).
- Write the essays. Even if you plan to pitch rather than submit a completed manuscript, this gives you a polished draft to pull your golden lines from that will sell your pitch. I wrote three of her suggested prompts: the humiliation essay, the humor essay, and the secret service essay. I plan to revise, get another set of eyes and then start submitting.
- Good writing comes from revision. Just because you wrote a piece does not mean it is ready for the New York times. Do not proceed without fresh eyes on it. As a former English teacher, I know this to be true. First drafts are usually messy. I have a piece out to Modern Love (I know, I know, way to shoot for the moon out of the gate) that I revised 5 times and then had two different trusted writers look at and give feedback. My piece was better after that process. It has been 3 months so fingers crossed.
- Short, perfect cover letters can help sell even mediocre pages. I will admit, I suck at cover letters. I am good at the research aspect of them though- I never write a cover letter without reading the publication, locating the editor, reading whatever they wrote and making myself knowledgeable on their likes and dislikes. This takes time, but the rejections I have gotten have been personal, non-stock replies with invitations to submit something else or general good vibes. Now I have a connection I can reference when I submit my next piece to them. Shapiro provides examples of successful cover letters at the end of the chapter and I actually modeled one I sent out yesterday after hers.
Shapiro provides a number of lists at the end that summarize the main points of the book which you should buy because it is necessary for those trying to break into bylines.
- Figure out your audience, tone, and topicality by reading pieces from your target publication
- Write the three-page piece editors want
- Get a tough critique
- Revise more than once
- Craft a great 5-line cover letter with the right editor’s name and email
Buy the Byline Bible from your local bookstore and you get great writing advice, as well as supporting your local shop!