I published a talent request for future of work writers over the summer and received around 200 applications in response. Some of these were excellent, of course, and it was fairly straightforward to source the handful of writers I needed for the project.
That said, I saw a lot of the same errors across the unsuccessful submissions, and thought it might be useful to share my insights. Whether you responded to this talent request or not, here are six common mistakes to avoid when applying for freelance gigs in future.
Don't say things that aren't true
It's amazing that this even has to be a point, but it's definitely the most stand-out lesson from my experience of reviewing applications.
Sometimes, and especially when you're trying to express yourself in a concise format, what you're saying just doesn't add up. This can come across as dishonest or confusing to your reader, so be mindful of how and what you communicate in your submission.
For example, here's what I said in my original talent request:
Please don't send me the one listicle you wrote about remote work in the time of Covid-19 and a link to your website that says you focus on something else. This isn't an opportunity for generalists. I'm specifically looking for specialists with proven experience and published links in the future of work space.
I included this because I'm also a freelancer, and I've been a chancer myself in response to opportunities in the past. Sometimes it works and it is, indeed, worth sharing your details "on the off-chance".
But on this occasion, I was as clear as possible that I was seeking specialists and that a small amount of experience with the subject matter wouldn't fly. There was no chance of being selected unless you were a future of work expert for this opportunity.
Yet many applicants claimed a future of work focus and then shared 1-2 clippings that were kind of related to the subject, along with a link to their website or social media saying they actually specialised in something else.
So, lesson number one, don't lie. If you have to play with the truth to apply for an opportunity, put your time into pursuing a different opportunity that is better suited to your skills and interests instead.
Actually follow the ad's instructions
Again, this one isn't really writing-specific – it's a fairly basic comprehension and communication tip – but it does feel necessary to say.
Here were my instructions on how to apply:
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a few lines about you and your background, 2-3 of your most relevant clippings, and a link to your website or strongest social media profile.
The application window is open until midnight CET on 31st August 2020. I'll send out a general message to everyone who's been in touch by 30th September 2020 with an update, so please feel free to follow up in early October if you haven't heard anything by then.
The vast majority of applications I received provided far more information than I had requested. Instead of a few lines, 2-3 clippings and a link, most people sent a bio of 200-600 words, 5-6 clippings, and a laundry list of links. Some of what they shared was relevant, some of it was irrelevant. It made the process of going through applications much longer and less enjoyable for me.
And, for you? Well, failing to follow clear instructions drastically decreases your chances of success. How can I trust you to follow a strict story brief when you can't even successfully follow a single-sentence instruction?
For this particular opportunity, I was also seeking writers who could express themselves concisely. Those who sent unnecessary materials failed to demonstrate an ability to select the information that is most important and express it well. I needed folks who could fulfil this criteria.
Don't be sorry (or self-deprecating)
Please don't say sorry for applying. Please don't apologise for being here. Please don't outline your faults or be otherwise self-deprecating.
When you prepare an application for a freelance gig, read over what you've written and ask yourself, "Do I sound convincing, confident, and persuasive?" If the answer is no, refine before you hit send. You may well be sitting in an inbox next to a middle class white man from Silicon Valley, and he's probably not as well-qualified as you are, but he has no quarms about making his case.
An initial application is your chance to shine and celebrate your achievements. If there are holes in your knowledge or skills, this will come up during the next steps of the process (interview, on-boarding etc), so there's no reason to shoot yourself in the foot early on in the process by apologising or focusing on your flaws.
Spend time on your application
There are no extra points for early submissions unless an opportunity is specifically stated to be time-sensitive or urgent.
Winning freelance work is not a race, nor should it ever be flinging shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. That approach makes the whole ecosystem worse for everybody – commissioning editors grow tired and grumpy with submissions and pitches, freelancers find it more difficult to get noticed for the right opportunities, and the actual work that gets made is all-round worse in quality and experience.
If your application arrives on the first day the job is posted or the last day before submissions close, your chances of success remain the same. The part that is in your control is when you hit send. So draft, redraft, check it against the ad, think about what other applications might say and how you can stand out.
Look at every communication as a chance to build a relationship. Even if you're not successful this time, by putting together a thoughtful application, you put yourself in a better position for the future. As an editor, I keep an ongoing list of promising freelancers who I can't use right now but whose work I'm impressed with, so I can call on them if and when when something relevant comes up.
(People always ask me this, so I'll mention it here: No, I don't keep an equivalent blacklist – nor does any editor I've ever worked with. But sometimes names do stick out in our minds, which is a strong incentive to avoid coming across like a dick.)
Don't rely on nepotism
It can be nice to rekindle a professional relationship that went well – but sometimes the tone of these messages absolutely sucks. Just because I know you doesn't mean the processes I've set out don't apply (especially since there are other decision-makers involved in most projects).
For example, some folks didn't bother to submit a full application for this one because we had worked together before. But consider this: I've been commissioning work from freelancers for more than five years now. For some of those years, I've worked with 2-3 different creatives every week. So, no, you really can't get away with offering to buy me a pint instead of acting like a professional.
On the flip side, if you're a Fucking Awesome freelancer, you'll often be the reason an opportunity like this one even gets listed publicly. A small pool of people exist who are always my first preference for projects because they deliver fantastic work and we've built a relationship over time. Sometimes they're not available, though, so I have to cast my net wider.
If you want to be one of these Fucking Awesome freelancers, my advice is simple: avoid the mistakes I've highlighted when applying for gigs, only choose jobs you're a good match for and will make a top priority, and build a human relationship with your commissioning editor or project manager.
Focus on the fundamentals, and the rest will follow.
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