Successful freelancers share their trade secrets on how they keep the work flowing.
Editor’s Note: Freelance writing can be an intimidating, solitary, precarious but exhilarating career path. You’ve got to hustle, dust yourself off and be your own boss. But in exchange for grit and perseverance, you get to write about the things you want to write about, set your own hours, and stack your portfolio with bylines in several different publications. In this series, we’re asking top freelancers in different beats — food, travel, fashion, news and technology for starters — to share their experiences along with their tips and tricks to making sure their pitches get commissioned and the work doesn’t dry up.
Part 1: Food writer Naomi Tomky
In conversation, freelance food writer Naomi Tomky is confident and self-assured.
You can hear it in her answers, delivered with little hesitation and believable authority. The kind of confidence that comes with knowing what you’re talking about.
By industry standards, Tomky is not a veteran, having just launched a full-time freelance career five years ago. But that’s what makes her success and awards so impressive.
Tomky’s byline has graced the pages of some of the most auspicious and well-read food and travel publications on the market: Saveur, Food and Wine, Serious Eats and the defunct Lucky Peach.
Her 2016 Serious Eats piece “A Day in the Life of a Singapore Hawker” won the Association of Food Journalists award for best food and travel writing. You can also find her writing in the 2017 edition of “Best Food Writing” anthology.
Along with food trendspotting and travel pieces, the Seattleite’s portfolio includes astute think pieces like “How not to be a restaurant racist” published in CityLab (“For starters, maybe you shouldn’t call it ‘ethnic’ food”) and takes readers into the kitchens of immigrant homecooks in the US.
Luckily for us, Tomky — who is also a pitch coach — was quick to share her experiences and generously offered up some of her trade secrets, including her winning strategy for getting editors to come back to her for commissioned assignments, and her signature “phrase that pays.”
How she landed in food journalism — and it didn’t involve J-School
For 10 years, Tomky worked as a marketing manager for restaurant groups, grocery stores and frozen food companies. A big part of her job was to read the food sections of her local newspapers every week. That led to an appreciation for food writing, the creation of her personal food blog, “The Gastrognome” and eventually, her first big break: clippings in Serious Eats and Seattle Weekly.
“I wrote a lot and read a lot,” she said. “I was reading writers who were doing well and who I wanted to emulate, like Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker,” she said. “The blog gave me a platform when I had no clippings.”
Finding inspiration for food stories that go beyond listicles
Tomky’s favorite story isn’t one of her award winners. In fact, it’s a piece that failed to get as much traction as she would have liked. Her Thrillist story “Kebabs and Comfort: Soldiers Find Solace in Seattle’s Afghan Food Scene” came about when her little brother told her about being mistaken for a soldier at a local Afghan restaurant. The owner told him they had a lot of American soldiers who had served in Afghanistan that returned to the US seeking Afghan cuisine. Tomky immediately seized on the idea and found soldiers via Reddit to share their experiences.
“The way it came about was both weird and typical of how I find interesting phenomena around food.”
Pitching success rate
Tomky says overall, most of her pitches land somewhere. On average, half of all her cold pitches are accepted at the intended publication, most on the follow-up email, she says. It may take a few more tries to land the balance of her unanswered pitches but most find a home. Tomky said she files an average of 15 stories a month that range from 300 to 2,300-word pieces. Her full-time job is writing for food publications — pitch coaching makes up about five percent of her income — and she said she makes more money as a writer than she did in 10 years working as a marketing manager.
Strategy for writing a successful query
Find the story, not the topic. That’s the overriding message she tries to teach the clients she coaches in pitching. A story has a beginning, middle and end and usually a character to tell the narrative. The most common mistake she sees in weak pitches is that the proposals identify a trend or idea, but fall short of going any further. Also, brevity is your friend.
“Don’t overwhelm editors. Make you give they have the information, but if you can present the idea in five sentences, do it. Editors love brevity.”
Tomky says that most of her pitches are accepted on the follow-up email, rarely on the initial send. Her strategy? If the pitch isn’t time-sensitive — and most of her stories are not — she’ll give a pitch two weeks before following up. If there’s still radio silence, she’ll then shop it elsewhere. The exception is if she feels strongly about having the story published in a particular publication. For instance, it took three tries for Saveur magazine to reply and accept a pitch, but she didn’t give up, only because the editor had expressed interest in the story when they met at a conference. In her third and final follow-up email, Tomky said she wanted to give Saveur one last chance to buy the story, before she would take it elsewhere.
Tomky’s biggest challenge in food writing
“I hate bothering people. But sometimes I have to nag a chef to get a recipe because they haven’t sent it. That is my least favorite thing about the job, having to nag people when they’re busy and have way better things to do than helping me.”
Tomky said another challenge in her own writing is to find stories that are “mainstream enough.”
“I tend to love the quirky, tiny places and little minutiae of how we eat and why we eat, and those aren’t always the most sellable articles.”
How Tomky cultivates a strong relationship with her editors to avoid being ghosted
Here’s what you need to remember, she says: “Your job as a freelancer, is to make your editor’s job easier.”
Along with turning in clean copy on time, Tomky suggests being proactive and anticipating the editor’s needs. The first time you file an invoice (relevant only for US publications), for instance, attach the W-9 tax form without having to be asked, and invoice on time. Also, be observant about the way they work. If you sent the document in Word but they sent it back in Google doc, send it back in the same format. If they’ve hyperlinked websites you’ve placed in brackets, make sure to embed links for future assignments. And include the names and contact information for sources used in the story.
Tomky’s strategy for negotiating more money
Always ask for what you want, be it more time or more money.
“I found that most of the time, editors are willing to accommodate,” she said.
Her phrase that pays? “Is there any wriggle room in that budget?”
In her experience, 90 percent of the time editors have found more money.
Also, recognize opportunities that can be used as leverage, she adds. For instance, if the editor comes back asking for a lot of time-consuming rewrites, edits or a rush job, ask for more money.
Having hired writers herself in her former life as a marketing manager on the other side of the table, Tomky has the advantage of being business savvy and skilled in the art of negotiation. She calls her corporate experience the most valuable asset in her freelance career.
But could asking for more money put you at risk of being ghosted and blacklisted on an editor’s freelance roster?
“I’ve never lost a gig for asking,” Tomky says. “And I have heard rumors of that happening where a person will ask for more money and an editor will say, ‘never mind, we don’t want to work with you.’ But trust me when I say if an editor says that, you don’t want to work with them.”
Pitching is a numbers game, she adds. The more pitches you send out in the world, the more likely you’ll net returns.
“Get stuff on paper and send it out there. That’s how you get published,” she said. “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
She also implores others not to sell their work for free as that’s “sinking all our boats.”
“Support your colleagues, support people trying to get in this industry,” she said. “The more raw voices that are writing, the more interesting food writing is and the better it gets for the entire food writing economy.”
Tomky offers a pitch coaching service that is catered to the writer’s needs, be it refining their pitch, making more money or improving their writing. After a starter four-hour package, clients are billed by the hour.
Check out Tomky’s portfolio and find more information on her coaching services at http://www.naomitomky.com/.
Noami Tomky Photo Credit: Celeste Noche
Header photo by:Joshua Anand