I was raised to be modest and retiring. If something good happened to me, I waited until someone else brought it up before I talked about it. If someone offered me a compliment, my instinct was to downplay it: "Oh, that old essay? I'm glad the editor liked it, but I probably should have shredded it long ago."
I floated along that way through the early years of my writing career, taking whatever the content mills would pay me and occasionally surprising myself by placing pieces with other publications as well.
Then reality, which has a nasty way of hitting people in the face, flew up and bitch-slapped me silly. I realized that I didn't want writing to be my hobby. I wanted it to be my career.
All of a sudden, quiet and modest was out. Marketing myself was in, and boy, did I flounder.
My first efforts at a query letter read something like this: "Dear Editor, I realize I don't have much experience and that this is probably a silly idea, anyway, but would you be the least bit interested in...?" Not surprisingly, the editors I contacted were not the least bit interested.
I complained bitterly to my best friend. "I don't get it. Those editors must be blind. I'm a good writer. "
"Then tell them that," my friend finally said tartly. "Stop telling them what you can't do and how dumb your ideas are, and show them that you're fantastic."
I can't say my approach to editors and prospects changed overnight, but it did start to change, and as it did, I got more writing assignments and clients. Today, I'm about one breath away from being a self-supporting writer. I've learned quite a few things about marketing since those early days, but three main lessons stand out in my mind:
1. Emphasize Strengths, Not Weaknesses
A few weeks ago, I applied for a job I'd found listed online for someone to write articles about debt. The poster was very clear about only wanting to work with an English major. Now, I'm not an English major. I'm a psychology major with a master's degree in social work. When I answered the ad, I glossed over those small details and instead highlighted my vast experience writing articles about personal finance. The client hired me almost immediately and ended up being very pleased with my work. To this day, I don't think he knows I'm not an English major.
2. Let Your Writing Speak for Itself
If you're shy about telling prospects and editors what a good writer you are, put together some samples of your best writing so that they can see for themselves what a pro you are. A word to the wise: be careful to proofread those samples before sending them out wholesale. I spent six months sending out a sample with an error in it. Very embarrassing.
3. Ask for What you Want
Any good sales person will tell you that it simply doesn't matter how smooth your presentation is or how eloquently you come across. If you don't ask for the sale, you probably won't get it, so make yourself say those closing words. "May I write this article for your publication?" "Would you like me to start proofreading your business correspondence next week?" "Would you like me to draw up a contract so that we can move further with this project?" Questions like these force your editor or prospect to make up his or her mind and give you a clear answer. If that answer is yes, terrific! If it's not, at least you won't waste any more time chasing after an uninterested lead.
If the answer is "maybe," of course, you have another opportunity to make the sale with more pointed questions such as, "What would turn that maybe into a yes?" or "Is there any more information you need from me before you feel comfortable making a decision?"
As I slowly got used to these tactics, I saw my client base grow, but it took a lot of time and practice to learn that it is not just "acceptable" for me to promote myself--it is absolutely mandatory.