You Don’t Get Buff On The Job Site, And Other Unconventional Tips For Freelancing
By Steve Macone
I. Know Your Gym From Your Job Site. Where is your gym and where is your job site? Anyone who’s worked in construction knows that, contrary to popular mythology, you don’t get buff on the job site. Sure, it’s exercise, swinging hammers and carrying 2X6s. But construction work is often jerky, bad for your back. Not the controlled, helpful, repetitive motions of the gym, where you get stronger and build muscles that protect you and get you ready for the job site. So in writing: know where your gym is, the place where you get better, stronger. Maybe it’s your writing group, a multi-week Grub Street class or those days where you sit and only write for yourself? Be sure not to confuse that place with the more commercial job site of pitching articles or tailoring a story to fit a specific literary magazine. Don’t assume that being out in the freelance publishing world, with its the jerky edits and deadlines and outside influences (“The back page of this magazine is reserved for feel-good relationship stories about how dating is like the Red Sox or like real estate…”) is necessarily going to get you in better writing shape. It can, of course. Some editors and publications are wonderful and help make stories infinitely better (the equivalent of the job at Google where everyone’s chair is a yoga ball?) But not all of them. Sometimes, freelancing is where you pull a muscle. So, in your writing life, don’t confuse movement with exercise.
II. Take it personally. Once you’ve learned not to take rejection personally—which is, come on, so important: a writer who can’t take rejection is like a boxer who can’t take a punch—try to start taking it personally again. There’s a truth to the mentality, especially when starting out, that you should handle the sting of rejection and criticism professionally, understand that everyone gets rejected and that your story was likely just not right for that publication at that time. But there’s also a danger that this “Well, who knows why it wasn’t accepted?” mentality will breed complacency and stagnation in your progress. Writing is personal. They are rejecting you. They’re rejecting you, the way your parents raised you and that shirt you’re wearing right now. When someone rejects something you’ve submitted you can either get offended or you can get better. Successful writers usually choose, consciously or unconsciously, the latter. A good rejection in your email inbox in the morning—those should be the days you don’t even need coffee to get going.
III. Aim for the best in all publications. Publications are like people, with personalities and good traits as well as flaws. Look for the best in them, and write toward the best of what you see in their pages. Before dismissing a mainstream magazine as silly or mindless, ask: is there a section where they occasionally run thoughtful pieces? Does an overly intellectual literary magazine actually have pretty down-to-earth policy of responding personally to all pitches? It’s an interesting, awkward time for lots of publications. Many are in a kind of bizarre adolescent transitional stage right now. Think of them as teenagers: they are always changing, they sometimes do stupid things, they often look funny and they don’t always know what they want exactly. But they usually mean well. So be kind to them, and write to the best things you see in their pages if you want to publish good writing.
Steve Macone started taking classes at Grub Street in 2010. His reporting, humor writing and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, New York Times, Atlantic Online, New Yorker, The Onion, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Phoenix, Salon.com, Morning News, Christian Science Monitor, The Drum, The Dig, and AOL News. He's been featured on NPR and had multiple stories named notable essays in the Best American series. His writing has been picked up by The Daily Beast, Longreads.com, and The New Yorker site's "to read" section.