Q&A with Freelance Writer Rob Simbeck
Rob Simbeck is a Nashville-based writer who has published more than 400 articles in numerous publications including The Washington Post, Country Weekly, Field & Stream, and Guideposts. He's also a book author and even pens press bios for country superstars like Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton.
I asked this veteran freelancer how he got his start and what advice he has for new writers beginning the freelance writing journey.
Freelance Write Now: How did you become a freelance writer? How many years have you been writing professionally?
Rob Simbeck: I had written a few freelance articles, but most of my 20s I spent at a newspaper, as a reporter and then city editor, and then at a music magazine in Los Angeles. I moved to Nashille as a songwriter and when I realized that wasn't going to pay the bills, I decided to devote myself to making a living as a freelancer. I had a day job as a typesetter but I made myself write 20 hours a week and send things out to editors as often as I could. It took about five years before I was able to leave the typesetting job, but I've been making a full-time living as a freelancer since 1992.
FWN: You have worked on many types of writing projects, including articles. What is your main strategy for finding assignments?
RS: In the early days, I just wrote about things that interested me and then only looked for a market. I think you get more passion in your articles that way. I'd go to big libraries or book stores and look through the magazine racks, trying to find someplace that might take an article. That led me to outdoor/wildlife magazines, for instance, which I've written for ever since. In writing for The Nashville Scene and other newspapers, I would query with ideas or, again, write something and submit it. I still query magazines like Guideposts or Country Weekly with ideas.
FWN: How important is it for a new freelance writer to be flexible?
RS: I think flexibility is key. Yes, it's good to have subjects on which you're very knowledgeable, but I consider myself a freelance general assignment reporter. I follow my nose to whatever interests me at the moment and learn what I can about it. None of us can be expert on most of the things we write about. That's why we interview and research. I've written about religion, the funeral business, running, the oil industry, criminals, cops, wildlife, astronomy, music, and much more. That means I can pitch to all sorts of magazines and newspapers. Flexibility leads to increased opportunities.
FWN: You suggested to me that new freelancers be "diverse and adventurous." What did you mean by that? Can you provide examples from your own writing career?
RS: My favorite example is this: After I'd written a TV ad for the Nashville Symphony, they asked me to bid on their 50th anniversary history, a booklength project. I'd only been to four or five symphony performances in my life! But I had written a lot about rock and country acts and I'd written a lot of press bios. So I decided I could treat the symphony as a big rock band and look for the good stories, the big personalities, and the conflicts. I figured I could learn to spell "Mussorgsky." It worked. It turned out great and became my biggest payday to that point. I also branched off at one point into writing puzzles, word quizzes, meditations, and all kinds of other things most writers overlook.
FWN: Many new writers are focused on the web for writing opportunities. What is your opinion on web writing opportunities (particularly content sites like Demand Studios)?
RS: I have never aimed at the Internet. A lot of my stuff has wound up there, but I haven't aimed at it. Many of my magazine articles are reproduced online and artist bios always end up online as well.
I wrote one piece for Guideposts's website, but that was at their suggestion. I'm old enough and rooted enough in ink that I still write in that direction. The money's still better there too.
FWN: What is your overall advice for a total beginning writer trying to get started? What should she/he focus their attention on first in terms of marketing themselves?
RS: Forget marketing until you can write. Pick a weekly newspaper nearby and try to get something--anything--published there. And I mean starting with letters. Want a quick test of how good you are? See how far up the food chain you can get a letter. Start local and work your way slowly toward the New Yorker or Vanity Fair. What you'll learn there is how to be cogent, brief and interesting--all of which will serve you well in the long run. And then write, write, write. Write a minimum of 20 hours a week, rain, shine, death, divorce, whatever. No excuses. The single biggest problem young writers have is their inability to keep their butts in their seats long enough to turn out prose. Period.
FWN: Many print magazines are folding and of those that remain, many are running tight ships. What advice do you have for new writers in our post-recession market? (If we are even "post-recession" yet!)
RS: We are not post-recession. And blogs don't pay bills. People forget that you can write brochures, newsletters, reviews, speeches, and much more. The trick is that at first you start at the bottom. Writing is difficult to send overseas, so there are still opportunities. Hunt for them. Join writers' groups. Drop a line now and then to people whose bylines you see in magazines to which you aspire. And then reread the last two sentences in the last question/answer.
FWN: What are some common mistakes that new writers make when pitching editors?
RS: Submitting before they're ready. Most of us need an editor. Most new writers trip on the basics. When I was an editor, if a query or story came in and I saw that the writer wasn't tight as a corset on apostrophes and possessives, I would drop the manuscript in the trash. Learn grammar and punctuation. And read Strunk & White until your copy is tattered.
FWN: Any final words of advice?
RS: Butt in the chair. Write. Write. Write.
Thanks for the awesome advice, Rob!