Pushing Your Limits

Scott Smith

In 2010, I was told that my 29 assignments for the “Leaders & Success” column of Investor’s Business Daily were more than any other freelancer and they needed to keep the others happy. Yet in both 2013 and 2014 I had 100 published. I learned some lessons along the way that should be applicable to other freelancers:

You can do more than you think.

  • When I started, I was spending an average 40 hours per story because I wanted to be an expert on the leader I was writing about, so I read one biography and skimmed another. But a few years ago, I realized I could fill 1300 words by skimming one and taking just 25 hours. I know others take far less time, but my stories get the highest traffic, so for me, this is a balance between being businesslike and maintaining the quality that keeps the assignments coming.
  • I also realized that I could waste less time on reading papers and magazines, email and social media and watching favorite programs on TV.
  • I could listen to biographies and history on CD while driving.
  • I got better organized, made sure my sources responded far in advance of deadlines, and I’ve learned to focus better when it comes to the actual writing.

Make Yourself Indispensable.

  • I received my first assignment from IBD because I had told the editor to call me in an emergency. It was Labor Day weekend and a sports figure had just achieved a record—I was able to deliver the story the next day. I respond to edited versions quickly, I answer fact-checking questions right before articles go to press, and I try hard to be accurate to begin with.
  • Mastering challenging formats is a competitive advantage. I have to come up with SEO keywords, write a variety of headings with an exact character count, and build business lessons into the story, even if the subject is Florence Nightingale.
  • I try to be easy to work. I will argue a point strongly once, and then move on. I pay attention to criticisms.
  • I say yes to every assignment. My editor was on vacation for most of October and wanted to be absolutely sure nothing would go wrong, so I had 16 out of the 22 slots that month. (“You always come through” is the nearest thing to job security a freelancer can get.)

Persistence Pays

  • I’ve had ideas repeatedly turned down. I waited a couple of years, then did a better job of pitching, with more detail on why the subject would be relevant to readers, supported by a more forceful presentation.
  • If a CEO doesn’t want to be profiled, I’ll send articles I’ve done about other leaders in that industry. I don’t set a deadline and make myself available 24/7. I promise to fact check with PR. I interviewed Michael Dell for another publication in 1998—he turned me down many times, but I now have him scheduled.