I’ve worked with some great authors on work-for-hire projects aimed at the school/library market. I would like to work with even more great authors. It’s not hard to become a standout work-for-hire author. Besides writing skills (of course), the magic ingredients are super simple: patience, diligence, and some self-awareness. If you’re thinking about giving it a try, especially in the kids’ school/library market, here are some basics to keep in mind.
Know your range. Are you comfortable writing for middle school kids? Kids in grades 3-5? Younger than that? Are you better at writing about science-related topics or social studies content? What’s totally over your head? Don’t try to write about it. Just don’t. Focus on your strengths, especially when you’re starting out. Be flexible, but don’t take on a project that’s out of your depth. Trust me, an editor will thank you for passing up a book you’re not qualified to write. And as you gain more experience, you can always expand the range of projects you’re comfortable taking on.
Craft a really good writing sample. This is about as obvious as “Have a really well-put-together resume” and about as frequently ignored. Seriously, work on that sample. Proofread it. Format it in a way that makes it clear it was intended for a human readership. (The old high-school essay look–Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-spaced–works just fine. No need to get fancy.) And before you send it to a potential employer, make sure it actually matches what that employer is looking for.
When you get a project, research your topic thoroughly. Sure, a publishing house worth its salt uses fact-checkers and content consultants to verify everything, but your original manuscript should be pretty airtight. We play the written version of “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” every day at Lerner. There’s probably actually plenty you don’t know about your topic, or at least plenty that you need to double-check with reliable sources. And you have to cite your sources anyway if you work for us, so you might as well find good ones that will hold up against a robust fact-check and a picky editor.
Don’t plagiarize. Like, make sure you don’t plagiarize. Keep your notes separate from your manuscript; put quotes around any material you’re taking word-for-word from a source; double-check as you go to make sure your wording hasn’t inadvertently veered queasily close to a source’s language. If this all seems incredibly, stupefyingly obvious–good. You are author material.
Revise when you’re asked to. An editor’s job is to edit; a writer’s job is to write. If an editor asks you to add or substantially rework material, it’s usually because it involves additional research that the editor herself doesn’t have time for. Tackle it with gusto, and win that editor’s appreciation.
Be chill. Your editor is going to change stuff in your manuscript. Possibly a lot of stuff. If you’ve written a good manuscript, you will probably see fewer changes–unless the specs for the book have changed, for any of myriad reasons I won’t get into, in which case, that’s not your fault. But your work belongs to us now (insert sinister laughter), so roll with it. If a change confuses you, feel free to ask about it. But if the editor has a good reason for making that change, or if she decides to exert her arbitrary whims upon your manuscript (hint: it’s usually the former), continue to roll with it.
Be personable. This makes a world of difference in any career path, but honestly, I’m more likely to remember whether you’re a pleasant person than how much work your manuscript needed (unless it was a total disaster, or the best thing since zipper-equipped snow boots). We want the book-creating experience to be a positive one for everyone involved. Going in–and staying in–with a polite, respectful, upbeat outlook makes the whole process more enjoyable and leaves a good impression on the people you work with.
This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but it’s a roundup of “seemingly so obvious that we don’t think about them and therefore sometimes actually forget about them” tips. I hope they serve you well if you’re pursuing or contemplating freelance writing–especially with us!