Freelance writers like John Kessler are rare — the kind of writer editors can count on, who can tackle just about any story and come through at the last minute.
John is the full-time dining columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On the side, he freelances for Garden & Gun, Food Arts (recently deceased), GQ, and has written for Cooking Light and Every Day with Rachael Ray.
What does it take to be the writer editors call upon? Kessler has ideas:
Q. Do you pitch new publications or do editors come to you?
A. My best work always comes from magazines where I’ve developed a relationship with the editor. Getting to know the editors, knowing what they want and working well with them is key. Once they know me they’re more receptive to pitches.
Q. What kind of stories do you write?
A. My specialty is restaurant writing, but I’ve done food travel writing too. At Garden & Gun, the features editor wanted a story about a restaurant designer and how they created a look for an unusual restaurant. Then he asked if I wanted to do an Atlanta story about a master gardener who has wonderful boxwoods. And I said, “What’s a boxwood?” but I like to throw myself into something new.
Q. By then they trusted you, that you could branch (ahem) out.
A. They trusted me, they knew I could make a deadline, and that I could write stylishly enough and pull off a nice turn of phrase. What’s more important is to craft a story that has a narrative and a tone that supports the narrative. Some stories may need to be a little folksier or a little sharper, a little snarkier. But they all need a shape that will work well.
Q. A lot of restaurant writing seems to be about lists and round-ups, or does that just come with the territory?
A. Roundups can be boring if you’re just rehashing stuff you already know. I look at freelancing as icing, vacation money or tuition money for my kids. But I like to learn, so I look for a piece where I can do some research that’s fun.
Writing a 100-word blurb is a craft you have to polish. It has to have some energy, a new phrase you can sneak in, or a complicated sentence structure. There has to be some delight in your own writing.
Q. How often do you get second assignments?
A. A lot of the assignments are one-off, like a Delta Sky magazine series on Atlanta restaurants. I don’t expect them to come back to me.
But other ones like monthly magazines, most have at least come back for seconds, and sometimes we’ve developed nice relationships.
Q. How do you write the story the publication wants?
A. The most important thing is to read the publication and to understand right away that there are holes that need to be filled, that they have lists of stories that go in certain spots. They will need 10 to 12 pieces in the front of the book, and when one falls through, they’re going to be rummaging through a file of pitches to find something they think will fit.
So if you’re good at knocking out front-of-the-book pieces, that’s your way in — proving yourself with 500-700 words.
Also, figure out what’s good where you live. It pays to know who the interesting people are and what things are happening that you could get a leg up on. Then you feel that “aha” moment where it seems that there’s a good story for a certain magazine.
Q. What would you tell freelancers who want better assignments?
A. So much of a good freelanced piece is not in the turn of phrase or voice, but how well you can pull a reader through a block of copy. If you can do this without being reworked a lot, you can succeed. You have to convince an editor that you’re easy to work with with, and some editors are disorganized and you’re going to keep them in mind.
Some magazines are obsessive about fact checking. For a story on natural American river pearls, there was a lot of history about them, and I kept returning to online academic texts to check facts. I’m a little obsessive about it too.
Be a nice person. Be grateful when an editor comes to you with a freelance story. Be curious, thorough, and a non-problematic writer.
Q. What about editors who change your work?
A. Some editors barely edit and some change stuff and they don’t tell you, and it doesn’t sound like you at all. A friend of mine interviewed a famous chef for some lad mag, and they had inserted an anal sex joke into the copy. When it came out she was mortified and called the chef immediately.
I’ve seen a few things that are cringeworthy, like describing something as precious, but you know what? It’s their magazine, their audience and I’ve gotta go with it. Some editors will show me the pdfs to make sure that I’m okay with changes, but it’s mostly factual stuff.
I like an editor who makes the piece better. Even an okay editor can make your story better, and a great editor is a gift.
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