One of the hardest things about writing is that it looks so simple. It’s easy to read a smoothly written article (or blog post, or novel) and imagine that easy to read translates into easy to write. And that’s so wrong. Easy reading means hard writing. Which in turn means that craft and care and invention need to be working hard beneath the surface of your prose.
I’m a professional novelist myself but have done plenty of freelance work as well and I find that my training in creative writing pays real benefits when it comes to shorter pieces. So here are my top tips for freelance writers.
1) Be economical
If you write a 12 word sentence to say something that could have been said just as well in 9 words, you’ve wasted three words. That might not seem like much, but three words is an over-run of one-third. Apply that kind of overrun to a whole article and you have something that feels flabby and weak, instead of taut and direct. So every time you write an article, make sure it’s 20% too long, then cut 20%. Simple.
2) Avoid cliche
Everyone knows that you need to avoid cliches, but not everyone does so – and, after all, it can be tough to come up with your own original phrase time after time. So don’t. If you can’t find a brilliant new phrase, just be precise and clear without resorting to cliche. That’ll do fine.
3) Colloquial is good, sloppy is bad
It’s fine to be colloquial. In this post, for example, I’ve used contractions (like “I’ve” for “I have”) and started sentences with conjunctions (“And that’s so wrong …”) – which are both habits that an old-fashioned English teacher might disapprove of. But writing in a free, modern, uncluttered style is quite different from writing the same way that you speak. If you write like that, or try to, your prose will seem messy and indisciplined – and head straight to the rejection pile. That’s just as true of submissions which will only ever appear online as those which are destined for print. Good writing is good writing, online or not.
4) Know your pitch
Every article (or blog post, or book) needs a hook. You need to be able to explain that hook in a sentence or two. Many commissioning editors won’t spare more than a few seconds to consider your idea. Make sure you communicate it fast – and clearly.
5) Use humor – if you can
Everyone knows that an article with a light and upbeat tone is more likely to appeal – and if you can write like that, then do. But that approach won’t work for every writer or for every theme. Nothing is worse than forced humor or lightness. And you don’t need to play things that way if you don’t want. A strong idea or story told simply is still one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s arsenal.
6) Have a clear story
It’s pretty obvious that any piece of creative writing needs a story with beginning, middle and end, but most articles and blog posts do too. If you launch a question at the start of the piece, you need to resolve it at the end. If you start with an anecdote about old Ma Smith and her cocker spaniel, your piece should refer back to her at the end. Those little things give a sense of closure.
7) Be easy to work with
Oh, and most of all. Commissioning editors love freelancers who are easy to work with. Who work to deadlines. Whose work is of the right length, properly spelled, well-presented. Who can write to a set brief. Who can handle the odd awkward assignment without complaint. Who will be fair and easy around matters of payment. And so on. Those things count for at least as much as a nicely turned phrase or a wonderful piece of research. If you make an editor’s life easy, they’ll turn to you as their safe pair of hands.