I was sipping a fruity drink, the kind with a colorful umbrella in it. When I set my drink down, I noticed my phone was full of notifications. Being on a tropical island, I hadn’t been online much. I grew anxious. Had I inadvertently tweeted something I shouldn’t have and it was just now catching up with me?
I clicked Twitter on my phone to discover that a piece I’d written for Fast Company had been published. Within a few hours my piece, Why I Stopped Calling Myself a Freelancer had gone viral. Eventually it was named one of their top 10 business lessons for 2015. It was a pretty heady time in my career. I’d accomplished something I’d long wanted.
Writing a guest post for a respected publication can be a real multiplier for your reputation, introducing you and your expertise to new audiences.
Getting this article published was a turning point for my confidence in my writing ability. I’ve met so many wonderful people from this experience. When people find out that I had an article in Fast Company, they want to know how I did it. Here are five things I did along with some advice I wish I’d had when I first started guest blogging.
Understand the submission process
Before you write a single word, do your research on your chosen publication. Do they accept unsolicited submissions? If so, take the time to understand their submission process. Many publications have a page where they outline their process and what they’re looking for. Find it and read it several times. For example, this is the page that describes the Fast Company submission process.
Once you know a publication's submission process, follow it. Some publications prefer a pitch while others want the entire written piece. Don’t send them a pitch if they prefer the article. If they tell you to submit your story (or pitch) to a particular email address, do that. If they advise you not to call, don’t call!
A word about getting an inside edge:
While many career opportunities come from networking your way into them, in this case, you might want to be wary. Just like you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) ask a random person on LinkedIn for an introduction to their boss, be wary of sending unsolicited messages to strangers. Unless you know the person well and they can vouch for your writing, they’re unlikely to be of much assistance. Even if you do know them well, a connection to an editor is no guarantee of getting published. Well-written articles with unique angles rise to the top of the pile. Focus on doing your research and then doing your best work. It's the very best way to get published.
Research, research, research
My article that eventually landed in Fast Company started as a rant in a notebook during a conference. When I realized it might be a good fit for Fast Company, I immediately started my research. Even though I was a regular reader and got their weekly newsletter, I wanted to maximize my chances for success. I combed through their archives to see if they’d run anything similar.
Study your chosen publications. Read as many of their pieces as you can. Figure out what they like to publish. Be sure that your article isn’t a carbon copy of one they recently published. Don’t send them the same thing you’ve seen ten other people write about. Make sure you have a fresh twist on your topic.
Don't underestimate this step. When you do this step thoroughly and well, you'll be much better at identifying appropriate publications. Always do your research.
Write your heart out
When I came up with my idea, I didn't know whether Fast Company would want it. It was a total gamble. I had what I thought was a perfect angle on a story. I figured at worst; I’d publish the piece on my blog. I started the article two months before sending it to the editor. I wrote and wrote.
Then I hired a copy editor to go over the piece with a fine tooth comb. I also got an outside perspective from friends who have written for large publications.
In the end, I wrote eight drafts and spent 40 hours on my Fast Company piece.
Even though they’ll edit your story before it runs, you want to send the publication your very best draft. Typos or cliches will just detract from your writing. Your article will benefit from having a fresh set of eyes on it. Ask for feedback before you submit.
A note: Spending this much time on something means we can get very attached. Once you send your piece on and it’s accepted, know that you will likely lose some control. You may not have final say over the title of your article or the final edit. Some places will allow you to see the final piece after it’s gone through their editing machine but fast turnarounds often mean you won’t.
Know what you’re willing to accept
After my article went wide, my inbox filled with requests to write on other blogs. I’ll be straight up — it felt terrific to be sought after. On the flip side, I had to figure out how to assess those opportunities. I quickly realized that I needed to have some policies.
Contributor guidelines aren’t standardized. Some publications will give you rights to work you create while others won’t. Some allow you to republish your story, while others want to retain exclusivity. This lack of standardization means you need to think about your boundaries — what you’re willing to accept and where you draw the line. Defining your policies for guest contributions will save you and publications a bunch of wasted time and effort. Knowing your policies means you’ll know quickly whether a publication is a fit or not.
Policies to consider:
- Are you willing to create brand new content for the publication?
- Do you want to be able to republish the article on your website?
- Do you want to retain the rights to your articles?
- Is hyperlinking to your site important to you?
- Can you add links to your site if they're relevant to the article?
Here’s a real life example.
I was approached by an organization with a 10k+ Twitter account and substantial traffic. Luckily they sent me contribution guidelines before we even exchanged article ideas. If they hadn't, I would have asked for them. They wanted me to write original pieces that hadn’t been published anywhere else. No, problem — that’s fairly standard for publications — they like to be the first to post a piece. It’s often a requirement for larger publications so it might be tricky to land a piece that’s already been published somewhere else first — even your blog.
Most of their contributor guidelines were just fine except for these:
- Unable to republish the article on my site ever
- The publication retained rights to my article
Not being able to republish my own article is important. However, the second one was a full stop for me. As a creator, I never want to give up the right unless there’s a big pile of money attached to it. I wouldn’t suggest that you give up the rights to something you created, but it’s a personal decision you make for yourself.
I find that when I mention my policies people are often gracious and understanding. Editors appreciate it when you objectively set clear boundaries.
Here’s how I responded.
Thanks for reaching out about your publication. I have a policy of retaining the copyright to everything I write and being able to publish on my own site after the original publication so unfortunately, we're not a good fit. I appreciate you thinking of me.
The publication wrote back immediately with a kind and understanding message. Both parties were professional and set their boundaries without being defensive, so no bridges were burned.
Follow your instincts
Listening to your gut is important. Throughout the entire process from submission to publication, I had a solid connection with my editor. The editor made sure I knew the process and policies upfront, so I felt respected every step of the way. The communication was impeccable. I never felt hoodwinked or confused.
I got lucky that my first big publication experience was such a good one. Still, this model helped me to see what a good working relationship with an editor looks and feels like.
If the communication is off and you can’t seem to smooth it out with the editor, you might consider pulling the piece. I know, this can feel hard — especially when you feel so close to something you might have dreamed about. But if there’s a lack of trust or you don’t feel respected before a piece is published, you’re likely not going to feel much better when it is.
Following your gut is also important while writing the piece. Let’s say you pitched an article, but while writing it, it’s just not coming together. It’s ok to step back and regroup with the editor. They might be able to offer helpful suggestions. Never ignore your gut. Getting the wrong piece in the right publication may not be the win you’re looking for.
Always listen to your instincts. True when it comes to blogging and really for most anything in life.