The newspaper, magazine or web editor loves the freelance article you submitted and says “Yes!” Before you jump up and down and share the news to your 10,000 social media friends, beware the worst that has happened to more than one freelance writer:
The 6 Worst Things That Could Happen After Your Freelance Article Is Accepted
1. Your piece is killed.
Sometimes, through no fault of your own or your editor, something slotted won't run. It can happen because the news has taken over the publication. I'm sure there were thousands of light essays and op-eds all set to run the week of September 11, 2001 that never saw print or went live because the World Trade Center attacks changed the entire American literary landscape for a while.
Other reasons can be: Your editor leaves, focuses shift, something similar by someone more famous comes in, or your work is no longer timely or feels appropriate. If it's in your contract, you can get a "kill fee." Most often you can try to sell your story elsewhere.
2. It runs with mistakes.
Publications issue corrections all the time, so don't freak out if you see errors. Often you're not to blame for typos or changes that are inaccurate. Sometimes people you quote share misinformation that gets repeated. Other times, errors are totally your fault.
My rule is: Never lie to your editor or your shrink. If you realize something in your published piece is amiss, tell your editor right away. Mistaken lines can be fixed fast online. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, "When you know better, do better."
3. Serious trouble.
If you reveal something illegal you've done, the police, Internal Revenue Service, or creditors can come after you, whether it's mentioning you didn't pay child support, traffic tickets, or student loans. Make sure the statute of limitations on your crime or debt has run out, delete that part of your piece, or use an alias if you can. When you publish anything libelous using someone's name or identifying characteristics that damage their reputation, you can be sued. (In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine paid a University of Virginia administrator three million dollars because an article they ran on college rape unfairly portrayed her as a villain.)
You can be publicly accused of plagiarism, especially if you put your name on work not your own. It could be inadvertent, as it was with an editor I know who used anonymous bios from Wikipedia in something she wrote, without credit. (She remedied the problem.) Sometimes you can be falsely accused of stealing an idea, as I once was. Luckily, I'd kept a trail of evidence that completely exonerated me.
4. Comments can be cruel.
Unfortunately, there are angry people who hate everything everyone else publishes (perhaps because they can't get published themselves?). And these rage-balls share horrible barbs in the commentary section after your piece. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, some Americans, with different political views than you, are no longer civil when they disagree.
I advise people not to read the comments. If you're curious, have a friend or loved one peruse them first, to warn you whether or not to read them. You are usually not encouraged to say "thanks" to every nice reaction you get.
Never, ever answer a negative commenter. It will make you look bad and defensive to your editor, readers and the world. You're a published professional; let your piece speak for itself. You can calmly tell your editor since he can cut off the comments or monitor them better. When it comes to my own work, I ignore this advice, read all the bitchy responses, get fired up, answer way too many, look foolish, and then promise I'll never do it again.
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5. You can get trolled.
I've had students tell me that nasty anonymous "trolls" found or followed them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and used their regular e-mail, sometimes to flirt or taunt or trash their work. A male student who penned a piece on his special banana bread recipe had a few females phone him who wanted to see him cook. After my anti-marijuana piece ran in the LosAngelesTimes (about how, as a former pothead, I disagreed with people who said pot wasn’t addictive), hysterical readers found the number of my landline and called me to yell, as if I was personally stealing their stash. “My mother’s dying of cancer and you want to take away her medicine!” one guy screamed.
“Actually I had a line saying I have no problem with medicinal marijuana, but the editor cut it for space reasons,” I told him, and he chilled out.
That same day a grandmother from Texas phoned me crying to tell me that she admired what I wrote and feared her granddaughter was addicted to marijuana, like I was. I stayed on the phone with her for a half hour, gratified to think my issues and opinion might have helped a reader.
Alas, that’s not always what happens. A student had a horrific experience publishing an anti-noise op-ed, which mentioned rap music blaring in her new multicultural neighborhood. She was so upset when some readers found it racist coming from a white person and hassled her that she stopped writing op-eds. If the reaction to your work gets extreme, let your editor know. Sometimes they can take down an offensive post or the piece itself, or you could delete a Tweet or a Facebook post. Once an older student penned an opinion piece about her enlisted son's political affiliation, and he was the troll who hated what she'd written. He insisted she take it down or he could lose his job, and the editor complied. This is why you sometimes need to check with people you write about before you submit your work. You don't want to cause a loved one to lose a job or military posting or put anyone in danger.
6. Radio silence.
Sometimes the worst reaction is none at all. This can happen when you work for very small publications few people read, or when you've covered a mild-mannered trivial topic (like quitting your ice cream addiction) on a busy political news day, when Republicans and Democrats are fighting over a crucial health care vote. My colleague Amy Klein recalls getting no comments whatsoever for an infertility essay she sold to Narratively that posted on the same day as Hurricane Sandy. I've published pieces where there are so few comments that I've freaked out and begged my students or friends to pipe up for me. This is a good argument for aiming higher and being timely and provocative (though see #2, #3, and #4 for the risks).
On the brighter side, here are the best things that could occur after your freelance article is accepted:
The 6 Best Things That Could Happen After Your Freelance Article Is Accepted
1. Going viral.
Once in a while, a piece will be reposted and tweeted so often it will wind up trending and zooming into the zeitgeist. Often these are timely political screeds, for example the now-famous piece "Donald Trump is Gaslighting America" by Lauren Duca in TeenVogue, which led her to many more clips, bigger titles and job offers.
Sometimes, when my topics have involved quitting addictions or healing from mental health problems, I’ve had lots of e-mails, calls and letters from people asking advice. Remembering the word authority starts with author, I try to respond nicely to everyone sane who contacts me. I've also pointed out that I’m not a shrink, though I've been happy to recommend therapists and addiction specialists I admire.
2. More paid work.
If you publish a popular piece, your editor may want to continue working with you. Ryan Stewart's essay for Quartz magazine on earning six figures as a dog walker was so popular that the editor commissioned an encore that further explored the same topic. That was also the case with TheNewYorkTimes, who asked Sarah Gerard for a return engagement. Though sometimes a different editor may come calling. When Rich Prior sold an essay on how running helped him cope with his father's death to the HartfordCourant, an editor from Runner'sWorld contacted him to do more personal pieces. Likewise, the DailyBeast commissioned my former student Leora Yashari, offering her a similar assignment to the one they'd admired in TeenVogue.com. Sometimes good work begets more good work.
3. TV/radio interviews.
Several times, after a piece has run, I've received phone calls and e-mails from producers of news shows, asking me to appear. Once, when I mentioned in Woman’sOwn magazine that my old roommate Susan Rosenberg met her husband on the subway when she admired his fancy leather shoes, they flew her and her husband out to New York and paid for their hotel. He wore the infamous shoes on the show. This has happened to many of my students as well. In some cases, producers will provide transportation and a hair and makeup artist too. Not only can you get the word out on important subjects, you can often get a video or audio clip to post on your website, social media and online portfolio.
Though I always ask myself: Will this benefit me? Once, when Bloomberg News asked me to schlep uptown to discuss an Amazon petition I'd signed, I didn't want to waste a day being a free talking head to further someone else's agenda. So I said, "Only if you'll hold up my last book on screen and read the bio I wrote." They did and so did I.
4. Staff writer and editor jobs.
Once, as I finished my fifth book review assignment for a Newsday editor, he offered me my own paperback column, which I did for several years. After publishing short NewYorkTimes pieces as a freelancer, my former student Seth Kugel became a steady contract writer there, for several sections, most recently as their "Frugal Traveler." Though remember, it's presumptuous to pitch a column to an editor you've never worked with.
5. TV/film options.
After publishing a provocative piece, several students have received offers from filmmakers, documentarians and producers to take their work from stage to screen. I've had a few essays optioned myself. In my case, I was paid a few thousand dollars, though so far nothing has been made. On the other hand, my former student Judy Batalion recently sold her new short book proposal Daughters of the Resistance: Valor, Fury, and the Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos to DreamWorks Pictures for six figures. Batalion, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, had discovered firsthand accounts of young women in Yiddish.
6. Literary agents, anthologies and book editors want you.
After Kenan Trebincevic sold his first NewYorkTimesMagazine piece about surviving the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims in the Balkan war, the piece was taken by William T. Vollmann for The Best American Travel Writing series. He was asked to be on a radio show and received offers from several agents, including one from the William Morris Agency, who sold his book (which I coauthored). See, one new short piece can change your life and launch a whole new sideline or career.
If you don't get lucky right away, try writing something bigger and better. As my late, great, 105-year-old mentor Ruth Gruber told me when I was feeling impatient, "Just keep doing it well, someone will notice." She was right, they did.
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