Knowing where to find freelance writing jobs is only half the battle. If you don’t know how to submit an application that seals the deal, you’re wasting your time.
Like employers at traditional jobs, freelance writing clients and editors will be scrutinizing how you apply just as much as they scrutinize your experience and portfolio — if not more so.
After all, what you say and how you say it gives them insight into the type of writer, and worker, you may be, so you want to make sure your application screams “hire this person immediately!”
Here’s how to do just that.
Using a template is perfectly acceptable (it can actually save you a ton of time if you’re applying to a bunch of jobs at once) — just make sure it doesn’t look like you’ve used a template.
“Avoid robot-like pitches because those who REALLY know their industries, the automated pitch tools, and everything else related to it already knows that your pitch was not hand-made,” says Peterson Teixeira, a marketing expert and business consultant who’s received plenty of pitches himself.
Here are a few easy ways to make your cover letter or email look less cut-and-paste:
- Keep your tone “business casual.” You want to come across as polished and professional, but you don’t want to sound like a stiff aristocrat from a Jane Austen novel. A friendly yet respectful voice can’t go wrong; if the publication has a more laid-back tone, adjust accordingly (without getting too casual).
- Address it to a real person. A little sleuthing can make a big difference. “‘To Whom It May Concern’ is boring, and shows you didn’t put enough effort into finding out who’s reading your pitch,” says writer Mel Lee-Smith. “Find out who’s responsible for receiving pitches at the site, and address your email directly to them.”
- Start off with an attention-grabbing introduction. Hook the client by telling a joke or opening with a line like, “Some people dream of winning the lottery. I dream of being an SEO blogger with a focus on consumer products. No, seriously. That’s not the kind of thing worth lying about.” The person reviewing your application has likely seen a blur of other submissions, so grabbing their eye from the get-go can help them really take notice of what you have to say. (Bonus points if you can make a nod to an inside joke or reference only readers of the publication would “get.”)
- Show your personality. “Many freelancers think that ‘high-production’ promises are what business owners want the most,” says Teixeira, “but in the era where The New York Times and The Washington Post are both producing 1,200 articles PER DAY using robots, impact and conversions (are) what we care (about) the most.” Demonstrate your ability to create that impact by giving your application a “human touch.”
2. Don’t go overboard
Creativity in small doses is enticing; creativity that beats you over the head is a turn-off — especially if you’re applying for a more matter-of-fact gig.
Know your audience and keep the balance appropriate for the publication and the position.
“I have found that the most successful candidates are those that don’t supply me with cover letters that are superfluous in demonstrating creativity,” says Jake Tully, Editor-In-Chief of the blog at Truckdrivingjobs.com. “I’ve had people send over clearly fabricated origin stories when applying for a blog that focuses on issues of advocacy and informational posts. The creative writing isn’t impressive, nor does it show me that you are oriented towards nonfiction content writing.”
3. Don’t get too personal
Don’t go into too much personal detail unless it’s relevant to the position at hand.
If you’re applying to write for a blog about parenting, the fact that you’re a stay-at-home dad of eight is relevant and worth noting. If you’re applying to be a marketing content creator for a tech blog, including that piece of information may come across as useless information at best — or a sympathy play at worst.
“I know this sounds harsh, but when editors and hiring managers are going through cover letters, we’re usually on a time crunch,” says Joan Barrett, a freelance writer who’s also managed in-house writers for agencies. “It’s not that we don’t want to know people, but that is the reality…. When I’m applying for gigs, I assume that if (the client) wants to get personal, they’ll ask me more about myself outside of my professional experience.”
4. Know your audience
In an ideal world, you’d be totally familiar with the deepest recesses of every client’s archives.
But sometimes a freelancer’s gotta pay the bills, and plenty of us have written content on topics in which we don’t consider ourselves subject matter experts, especially when we’re just starting out. (I could tell you more than you’d ever want to know about the history of the bagpipe.)
You don’t have to be a rabid fan of a publication to write for it, but you do need to demonstrate a working awareness of what they cover, how they cover it and what they’re looking for in a writer. Check out their website, blog and social media stream. Study their tone. Identify their mission statement. Get a feel for their most popular pieces of content.
The more you know about the client, the better you can tailor your pitch to their needs.
5. Be clear and concise
Job applications aren’t a word count game, so keep it short, sweet and impactful.
“I sigh when someone sends me a 1,000-word document,” says Rick Sloboda, founder of Webcopy+. “Chisel it down to 150 words or so and you’ll make the recipient’s life easier. Plus, as is the case with web copy, less is more. When you convey your message with few words and high impact, you’re demonstrating a useful skill set and standing apart from the crowd.”
6. Show your work…
Whether the job post specifically asks for them or not, it’s always wise to send in 3-5 examples of pieces you’ve written for similar publications. Don’t assume clients will take the time to check out your archives; instead, deliver them a few well-crafted, laser-focused samples that will show them you’ve got the chops for their position.
“I personally don’t care about cover letters,” says Teixeira. “I prefer to see an in-depth article about a subject you master, so I can see how you can keep me trapped in your writing.”
7. Include a link to your portfolio
That said, be sure to show include a link to your full portfolio to demonstrate the breadth of your experience.
A client probably won’t care to click through every single one of the pieces you’ve written, but showing them you’ve been writing for years and have been published in a myriad of places is always a point in your favor.
8. Be the solution to their problems
Yes, your application is supposed to convince a client you’re awesome and they need to hire you, but the best way to do this is to focus on how you can make them better.
“Focus on what you can bring to the site,” says Lee-Smith. “Don’t tell the site you’re pitching to that getting accepted will be a great opportunity for you. That’s kind of obvious. Instead, focus on what YOU can do for THEM, and back it up with examples.”
This is where knowing your audience and can really pay off.
9. Proof, proof, then proof again
Mistakes like typos and grammatical errors on a traditional job application are frowned upon as they show a lack of attention, ability or both.
Mistakes on a freelance writer’s application are judged even more harshly because, you know, accurate writing is kind of part of the job description.
When such an easy mistake can have such a negative impact on your prospects, you can never be too careful. If you think you’ve proofed enough, let a few minutes pass and then proof one more time just to be safe.
10. Follow up
Don’t let a fantastic application fall through the cracks. There’s nothing wrong with checking back in if you haven’t received a reply within a reasonable amount of time.
“Familiarize yourself with how long the application process takes,” says Lee-Smith. “If you haven’t heard anything by then, forward your email back to them and tack on a quick note saying you want to follow up on your application. People are busy and sometimes forget to respond. (This worked for me with my most recent pitch, and I got the job!)”
Your turn: Do you have any other tips for making a freelance writing job application stand out? Share them with us in the comments!