Erik Sherman of Massachusetts has been a full-time freelancer for 26 years. A writer and data analyst, he describes himself as “a generalist with many areas of specialization. Much of my work these days is in business, finance, and economics, with some politics thrown in,” he says. But over the past three decades, he has also written extensively about technology, business management, energy, supply chains, personal finance, data security and privacy, and healthcare.
Sherman shares several best practices for freelancers looking to succeed in this field, as well as tips for publications that employ contract writers. Here’s one tip that served him well at the beginning of his career: “Don’t use a stiff, formulaic style [unless specifically asked for it] in your writing. The audience is still made up of people, and if you bore them, they’ll be gone.”
How did you get your start as a freelancer and, more specifically, as a B2B freelancer?
I had done some stringing for the Boston Globe and some work in community radio news out of college then took a long break. In the 1990s, I was on my own in marketing consulting and decided I’d develop an authority profile by writing about business. That eventually took over my entire business and became my main focus.
When trying to develop that authority profile, I started approaching some tech trade magazines. I kept nudging a features editor at MacWeek, who finally let me have a chance. I wrote something that started with a reference to the 1946 version of the movie “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” After submitting the draft, I got a voicemail from the editor that started, “This isn’t the style we generally use…” and then I heard laughter and “…but I like it, so we’re going to use it.” I ended up writing for them for some years and expanded out to other tech titles.
What has been your favorite assignment so far?
Maybe my most famous was when I wrote about the design chain of the original iPod. Someone had taken one apart and listed the chips. Even though Apple wouldn’t talk to me, I went to each of the chip manufacturers and, without them breaking their NDAs, was able to put together the story of how Apple took a reference design using the parts in the iPod and then added industrial design and the user interface. For years after, I or the editor would get occasional emails about the piece.
What are some things writers can do to make themselves stand out to B2B publications?
Know their subject. Knowledge is critical because you need to get to deeper points that are relevant to professionals in the field who all know the basics.
Ask about the production process. You want to know how much time an editor needs for editing and when the publication may look to contact you for questions or changes.
What should freelancers avoid when working with B2B publications?
Don’t try to minimize the number of interviews and research to make a better hourly rate. If the pay won’t cover the assignment, don’t do it. If you do it, do it right. Having more material means a greater variety of voices to make points, an increased chance of insights that will prove valuable, and higher chances that, if an editor comes back with questions, you’ll have the answers in your notes.
What is your advice for magazine editors about how best to work with freelancers?
Be clear in what you want. If writers need to be familiar with your publication, be sure they have access to copies. If there are any stylistic or substantive rules, tell the writers up front.
Freelancers need to make a living. The less you pay, the less of a chance you have of getting the type of experience and professional attitude you’ll need.
Also, pay promptly and fairly. I remember a situation where probably four or five writers for a publication, all of whom knew each other, got tired of the editor lying to each of us about late payments and other things. We all ended up walking at the same time.