You’re a “buffet of life” kind of person, curious to learn about this-that-and-everything. You love listening to people, recognizing everyone has a unique story to tell. You see extraordinary in the ordinary. You think like an entrepreneur, and seek to live life to the beat of your own writing drum.
In other words, you’re me.
I knew as a child I wanted to be a writer. My handmade library cards for my family to “check out” my collection of crayon-illustrated books should have been a clue. In college, I wrote as a student reporter for the university paper and loved the rush of seeing my name in print. There’s nothing like knowing others are reading my words, and (hopefully) my research is useful to them.
After graduating, I found myself relentlessly drawn to the writer’s section of the library, where I’d glean wisdom from established freelance writers. The idea I could get paid to learn fascinating things and meet interesting people intrigued me. I wanted to add my name to freelance writing circles. Eventually I rounded up enough courage to submit freelance articles to Utah’s Deseret News and KSL.com. That was four months ago, and I’ve now had 15 articles published in both print and online – with more than 89,000 online views.
While I’ll continue to contribute to the local news sources, my next quest is currently in progress: Build a portfolio of freelance magazine articles. My lofty goal is to see my byline in magazines across the country. I realize this will take time and organized effort. In my research, I’ve learned freelance writing is much more than haphazardly submitting story ideas. It takes a business-savvy, journalistically-sound person to make it in the competitive world of publishing.
The freelance journey is more than getting clips. “Freelancing teaches you valuable lessons about your business strengths and weaknesses while helping you establish published credits,” writes author Christina Katz in her book, Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids. “By practicing some basic journalism skills, you can work your way up the writing ranks and increase your chances of literary success in the short and long run” (p. 26).
With this Insider’s Guide to Freelance Writing, you’ll also be ready to board the rollercoaster called freelance writing. Despite the likeliness of experiencing rejection (even well-established freelancers do), remember it’ll be worth the effort with the thrill of seeing your byline in print. The following 10 tips will help you open the door of opportunity that awaits the brave souls who embark on the freelance writer’s journey.
10 Tips for Freelance Writing Success
1. Take Inventory of Your Interests
Make a list of topics that pique your interest. “Write down what sets you apart from, or connects you to, the norm,” suggests Katz. “Write whatever pops into your head and don’t be too picky” (p. 23). Remember, this isn’t a right/wrong test and it won’t be graded – anything goes.
Start with your hobbies – are you a closet knitter, expert networker, pro on a road bike, or marketing guru? What are your favorite things to do? Narrow down your list to the top four or five. These interests will be your starting place in discovering the best publishing markets for you to pursue.
Amy Wilde, freelance writer based in Utah, suggests, “Anything you can do that falls into your natural strengths is a great place to start. Focus on a couple areas where you already have strengths. Let your personality show through your articles.”
If, for example, you’re a better-than-average gardener, check out the gardening magazines in your local grocery store or bookstore. Buy copies of them to study their preferred tone, types of stories, and get ideas for what you can contribute.
2. Identify Your Audiences
When you’ve narrowed down your top interests, you’re on your way to understanding your audiences. Just like a face-to-face conversation, wise communicators know to vary their message according to who they’re addressing. “The most successful writers are intimately acquainted with their audiences and know the best way to speak to them,” suggests Katz (2007). “Spend time understanding your most natural audiences, because this step may well make the difference between writing for a specific readership and writing for no one at all” (p. 20). Indeed, if you’re speaking or writing to nobody in particular – why would they want to listen to or read what you have to say?
Katz recommends learning how to address audiences that may be out of your comfort zone. “If you want to learn how to write well enough for national publication someday, you might actually be better off studying articles written not for your chosen audience, but for one you wouldn’t typically read,” suggest Katz (2007). “What can you learn about magazine publishing, in general, and how to write for a targeted audience, specifically, by studying a totally different type of magazine that you usually read? A whole lot” (p. 24). Reading like a writer helps you hone in on what works for audiences – and what doesn’t.
3. Embrace Your Inner Idea Machine
One of the hardest parts of freelance writing is having a Big Idea and getting credit for it – before somebody else does. “Your Big Idea is all about finding a need and filling it. You don’t have to be the world’s best writer to make a living selling your words,” writes Jenna Galtzer, author of Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer: How to Win Top Assignments. “You need to be resourceful, creative, prolific, and crafty. You must find something worth telling to a mass audience and convince the ‘powers that be’ that you’re the right person to tell it” (p. 11). When you come across a valuable idea, claim it quick so you can be on the one to tell the tale.
Without recording your ideas, they might pass by without you. “Ideas are ephemeral…Before you can capture them on paper, Whoosh! They’re gone as quickly as they came,” writes Katz, who suggests writing ideas down. “Trust me, if you don’t, you will be sorry when you see someone else has written on and published your ideas” (p. 16). Carry around a small notebook so that when you are struck with brilliance, you can capture it fast.
4. Digest Writer’s Guidelines
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best idea in the world if it doesn’t fit the goals of the publication to which you’re submitting. How do you make sure your story aligns with what editors are looking for? “Almost every publication that works with freelance writers makes (writer’s guidelines) available to clarify their specific needs and wants,” writes Katz. “Think of writer’s guidelines as a recipe for success” (p. 40). Indeed, without reading the guidelines, you’re blinding yourself to potential roadblocks and opportunities.
Sometimes the guidelines don’t explicitly state the preferred style for the publication. How can you know you’re hitting the sweet spot for their readership? “Notice the style and tone of articles in magazines for which you’d like to write” suggests Glatzer. “Look at the way Family Circle handles heartwarming material in contrast to the way Woman’s World handles it” (p. 39). Paying close attention to the differences will clue you in on how you can be part of future issues.
5. Pitch Like a Pro
For all you baseball fans, we’re not talking Tom Seaver or Walter Johnson here. This kind of pitching means giving editors article ideas they can’t resist. “There are two kinds of letters you will use to submit work as a freelance writer: cover letters and query letters,” writes Katz. “When you send your writing with a cover letter, it’s a sign of your professionalism, so it’s a crucial skill if you want to see your writing in print” (p. 59). Making these pitches takes practice, and remember there are factors out of your control: availability in the next issue, someone else already submitted a similar idea, and if the editor is having a particularly bad day.
When you only have a certain amount of control over what happens to your cover or query letter, what’s a winning technique? Keep your letter succinct. Glatzer (2004) gives the inside scoop on what editors look for in query letters: “When I asked Melissa Walker, editor at ELLEgirl, what mistakes writers make in query letters, she said, ‘Queries have to be concise. If they’re long-winded, editors will think you’re a long-winded writer. Brevity is the beauty in a query” (p. 62). Practice communicating what you have to offer in one page, and making the most important points pop.
Since you only really get 10-30 seconds before an editor decides to keep or circle-file your letter, use your allotted space creatively. Glatzer suggests introducing queries with the proposed title centered and in bold. “Since you can’t express yourself with colorful stationery or cute graphics without making an editor cringe, if you can think of a legitimate way to make your words more visually appealing, all the better” (p. 75). Other ideas include using bold fonts for key items, and arranging the story ideas in an easy-to-read way.
6. Start Small, Grow Larger
Just as a child learns the alphabet before writing sentences, it’s expected that freelancers start in smaller circles and gradually widen their influence to larger opportunities. “The basic strategy behind acquiring clips is simple: You start writing for small, local publications and work your way up to large, national, or international publications,” suggest Katz (2007). “You can improve your chances of getting published at new publications by including clips with your submissions that who how well you have written for other publications” (p. 48). Using clips is key to winning future assignments, so leverage the best you’ve got. As you make your way up the freelance totem pole, you’ll have a wider range of clips to showcase.
7. Mind Your Own Business
Being a freelance writer means seeing yourself as a professional. “Writers who think of themselves as ‘artists’ should probably stick to poetry and diary entries,” warns Glatzer (2004). “If you intend to sell what you write, and make a living from it…(you) need to become a businessperson” (p.7). For those who take their writing seriously, freelancing can be a lucrative venture.
Take Carol Tice, for example. She’s a six-figure freelance writer and author of the award-winning “Make a Living Writing” blog. Tice knows her stuff and shares tips and tricks on her other site, Freelance Writers’ Den. She writes, “it’s the supportive place where freelance writers learn how to grow their income – fast.” She’s attracted so many freelance writers that the Den is currently not accepting new members. (I got on her waiting list.) Tice shows us that being a freelance writer can mean big money; but only if you take yourself seriously.
Glatzer also gives candid suggestions for those who want to make the leap into freelancing: “If you decide to freelance full-time, you may wish to incorporate or register your business as an LLC (limited liability company) at some point,” Glatzer recommends, “It’s a simple rule: Businesses prefer dealing with other businesses” (p. 9). Put these tips to practice, and you’ll find others will perceive your business value.
8. Submit Simultaneously
Submitting the same topic to more than one market at a time is part of the writer/editor game of cat and mouse. “If you waited for an answer every time you submitted a query letter, you’d wind up sending out about a dozen letters a year, and landing about two assignments,” points out Glatzer (2004). “To make any kind of reasonable living doing this, you must send out queries to several markets at once” (p. 86). There’s nothing wrong with asking many different publications to consider the same idea.
Be cautious, however, not to exasperate editors by bugging them for a reply. “Overeager writers sometimes forget how many queries an editor gets, or how much planning goes into each issue to determine which articles fit in which sections of which issues” writes Glatzer (p. 125). Know that it’s normal to have to wait to hear back – but if it’s been more than a month, generally the answer is no.
9. Recycle Your Work
When you keep the rights to your work, you’re allowed to sell it over and over in a reprint. If you use the same research and remold it to fit a new market, you’ve done a spin-off, rewrite, or reslant. “Reprints and spin-offs are often the lifeblood of freelance writers” writes Glatzer (2004). “It’s enormously difficult to make a living (and keep sane) trying to find brand new ideas every day, research them, package them, and market them.
Beware that some publications do not accept reprints. “Facts are reuable. However, it is not a good idea to write a very similar piece that will appear in direct competition with the magazine you initially wrote for,” recommends Katz. “The solution is to resell to noncompeting markets, which means two totally different types of markets or two publications with non-overlapping territories” (p. 193). Be mindful of the different rights available to writers and publishers (see sidebar “Rights to Write”) and seek to maintain rights to resell your words.
10. Stay Confident
It’s easy to get discouraged in the freelancing scene. Remember you have your own unique voice and with persistence, you’ll find publications that appreciate it. “Sometimes, when you know your writing belongs at a certain publication,” writes Glatzer, “you have to keep hammering away at the keys until the gatekeepers let you in” (p. 122). This process can be draining, but know that everyone – even the most prominent of writers – had to start somewhere.
Glatzer shares another encouraging thought: “Believe it or not, editors want to hire you,” writes Glatzer (2004). “They do not relish boomeranging your work back to you with a form rejection letter; most editors are searching for reliable and talented freelance writers, and will gladly hand you an assignment if you can prove yourself” (p. 5) Think of editors as business partners for you to win over.
If you have a down day, remember many resources are available to help you. For example, freelancewriting.com gives dozens of free sources for freelance gigs. Another useful site, worldwidefreelance.com, offers writing community forums for writers to help each other. A simple Google search of freelance writing delivers more than 34 million links – a freelance writer’s paradise.
Interview with freelance writer Amy Wilde
Amy Wilde, an award-winning freelance writer based in Utah, started off with nothing more than a dream of being a columnist.
“You don’t have to be the most polished writer to start writing,” said Wilde. “You have to have the will to learn.”
In her research, she learned it’s best to start at your local or regional paper. The Box Elder News Journal came to mind, and she pitched her story ideas by email three different times. After months, she was called in for an interview, and asked to contribute once a month.
“They said they couldn’t pay me, but I just wanted exposure and to write about topics that meant a lot to me,” remembers Wilde. “Immediately after landing the little gig with Box Elder News Journal, I thought other editors would like my writing too. I called the Deseret News and learned they were doing a new beta program for writers and contributors.”
Wilde remembers what an editor told her in that initial phone call.
“He said, ‘one thing every writer needs is determination. If you have determination and you are consistent and keep writing, you will one day end up on the front page,’” recalls Wilde. “I told myself I would be that person.”
Since that time two years ago, Wilde has had more than 50 articles published in the Deseret News or on KSL.com. She’s covered events like Sundance and Ogden city events. Her movie reviews have ended up being published in national publications, and she’s now finished the manuscript for her first book.
“Writing a book alongside being a freelancer and having a full-time job was quite the undertaking,” said Wilde. “But I have had that determination of staying with it. I write every night from nine to midnight.”
Learn more about Wilde’s writing and her upcoming book on her blog, amywildeatmosphere.blogspot.com.
Freelance Writing Site. http://www.freelancewriting.com/freelance-writing-jobs.php
Glatzer, Jenna. (2004). Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer: How to Win Top Writing Assignments. White River Junction, Vermont: Nomad Press.
Katz, Christina. (2007). Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books.
Tice, Carol. Freelance Writers’ Den. www.freelancewritersden.com
Wilde, Amy. Personal Interview, 29 June 2012.