If you have systems in place, your writing life will run more smoothly in the coming year. It means those snatched moments you give to your writing will be given over to writing, not organization.
Take some time to organize your emails, to set up folders in your computer for various projects or publications for whom you regularly work.
Make sure your clip files are up to date, both electronically and on paper, so that when you have to send clips with your pitches or queries, they are ready to go, and you don’t lose hours hunting them down, making copies, scanning, etc. Keep at least 10 hard copies of each article in your file, ready to go; when you get down to 2-3 copies, take a few minutes to make another 10 photocopies. Make sure you’ve got your electronic clips saved in .doc. .rtf, and, best of all .pdf.
Set up Submission Logs, Pitch Logs, and, if you’re submitting novels, a Query Tracker for each novel. Yes, there’s some crossover between these, but it’s well worth it.
Here’s how I set them up. If it works for you, great; if not, keep playing with the format until you find something that does.
This document keeps track of all the pitches and queries I send out in a particular year, and the follow-ups.
At the left margin, I have the date.
I tab in a few times, then put in the email address, name of specific individual, name of publication or company. I space once or twice, and write what job/article/assignment I pitched, and if any materials were sent (i.e., resume, clips, etc.)
When I get a response, I note it in the log. If I land the assignment, the finished assignment is then entered in to the Submission Log, which also contains payment information.
Every month, I look over the log to see what needs to be followed up, or if any potential clients who couldn’t use me in my initial pitch, but suggested I keep in touch need a check-in. For instance, in April, I follow up on all unanswered January pitches, in May I follow up on February’s, etc. I note the date of the follow-up and whether or not there was a response.
Craig’s List addresses are usually good for only two weeks, so they aren’t worth following up. And, since I no longer write project-specific samples without payment for them, I don’t have to worry that work will show up somewhere unpaid. If the potential client wants a sample, they can get a clip or they can pay me a specially-negotiated rate for a project-specific sample. Far too many uncouth “clients” try to get writers to write samples for free, then tell the writer he/she wasn’t hired for the job. The initial site disappears, the “client” sets up a new site under a different name and uses content for which he did not pay the writer. A legitimate employer is savvy enough to tell from a previously published clip if you have the style he needs, and ethical enough to negotiate a special sample rate, complete with a separate agreement and a deposit, if he needs you to write a project-specific sample to get the job. Stay away from the others.
Many writers believe it’s best to do all follow up within two weeks. In some cases, that’s true, but for most of the types of work I pitch, it takes the potential client longer to work through the applicants, and the squeakiest wheel is more likely to be dumped than considered. Clients don’t like to be nagged. Especially not early in the courtship process.
The Pitch Log is also useful to keep track of clients who responded that they’d like to work with you maybe/someday. If you keep in touch every three months or so, chances are you’ll get the work. I have about a 25% success rate with maybe-someday follow-up. Not bad, when you consider direct mail response considers 1% return good.
Here’s where I keep track of actual submissions and contracted work.
These sheets are set up in the Landscape Orientation (feel free to do any of these in Excel or Keynote or any form that works for you).
At the left margin, I have the title of the piece. Under that is the byline (I publish under a half a dozen names). Under that is what type of piece it is, such as “short story”, “article”, etc.
I tab over a few bits and the next few lines contain the editor’s name, the publication name, the address, the email, and how the piece was submitted. Sometimes I note how long an editor sets in guidelines before follow-up. If an editor clearly states in the guidelines that you will hear back in 4 months and you contact said editor in two weeks, you’re headed for the reject pile, because there are several thousand writers just as good as you are who don’t nag and respect the guidelines.
Tab over and insert the date sent.
Tab over for the response.
When I get a response, I put it in. If it’s a rejection, I enter the date and any specifics. If it’s an acceptance, I enter that, contract date, publication date, payment date. Once the piece is paid, I enter the payment. Once it’s published, I confirm that it’s been published.
Again, regularly checking the log lets you know what’s out where and keeps you from making careless mistakes in the submission process. It helps you follow up, it will reveal patterns in publication history, and help you make decisions on future publications to which to submit, or where to stop submitting.
I think there are sites set up for this, but I keep a separate query tracker for every novel.
It contains the date, the name of the agent or editor, the name of the house, the address, the email address, what was sent (i.e. “query”, “query and first page”, “query and synopsis”, “synopsis and first 3 chapter”).
The response and the date of the response is noted. If additional materials are requested, that is also noted, along with the date the request was fulfilled (in general, fulfill requests for additional materials within 48 hours — writing back and saying you need more time to finish/polish a piece brands you as an amateur and there’s no reason for them to sign you. You should have the entire manuscript ready to go in an instant BEFORE you start the query process, not query as you’re revising. Once you have a solid publication record, there’s more wiggle room, but then you’ve already got the agent in place).
If you get a contract and still have submissions out, the tracker also helps you know who to contact to officially withdraw your work from consideration. Once you sign a contract, you must officially withdraw from all the other places to which you’ve submitted, even if you haven’t heard back and assume they’re not interested. Even if the agent or editor doesn’t have the courtesy to respond to your query in a timely manner (or considers non-response an acceptable form of rejection), it is up to you to maintain high standards of professionalism and courtesy.
Of course, none of these organizational tools are of any use if you don’t use them. If you set them up, but don’t keep the information up-to-date, it’s a waste of time.
And if you don’t sit down and write the best book, story, or article you can write in the first place, there’s no need to set them up in the first place.
–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. You can keep up with her exploits on Ink in My Coffee.