Getting Started as a Freelance Writer

by August 1, 2012
filed under Life

I inherited my father’s stubborn, rebellious nature. I don’t do well working under someone’s thumb all day long. For that, and many reasons, I’d like to be a full-time freelance writer when I graduate from university this May. In order to prepare for that nearer-than-I-think future, I’m working to build on the successes I’ve had these last 4 years to go higher up the publication ladder. Here are my tips for getting started.

Read & Do Your Research

If you want to be a freelance writer, first and foremost, read everything. You likely have those magazines that you’ve discovered intuitively. But there’s so much out there. Download apps for your phone, email articles to yourself, subscribe to Jezebel’s email newsletter. Get as much content coming your way as possible. Then, be sure to read those boring-looking magazines at the doctor’s and dentist’s office. I’m sure you’ve heard it said, and it’s totally true, that the best way to learn to write is to read a lot. This applies to fiction writing, essay writing, features writing. Break it down. Study it. Highlight stuff, write notes in the margins. They’re your books, your magazines, your print-outs.

Also be sure to read reference books about journalism and freelance writing. Some of my absolute favorites are:

It’s important, also, to read blogs by more experienced freelancers. Some of the greats include Linda Formichelli’s The Renegade Writer, Steph Auteri’s Freelancedom, and Carol Tice’s Make a Living Writing, which focuses exclusively on how to make money in the business of writing.

Start a Blog

This one is something almost every writer I’ve met recommends. It’s a great way to practice your craft and hone your ideas, and your posts will work as clips in a pinch (although they’re not as respected as works that have gone through an external editing process, I’ve been told).

When starting a blog, pick a specific topic or niche. A blog all about you is pretty boring, but a blog about watching every Miramax film ever made? That’s specific and unique. It’s also good to focus on a topic that leaves room for you to do reported posts that include research and interviews with experts. Like Carol Tice’s Make a Living Writing blog, which is specific (and has helped her score gigs as a business blogger) and yet broad enough that she can come up with a variety of post subjects. Her posts are well-researched and well-written and really convince potential clients that she can blog for them or do that last minute assignment well. Go the extra mile with your blog and you’ll look great to editors.

Aim for Smaller Publications and Websites

Your first assignment will not be a 3,000 word feature for Vogue, unless you’ve already got a book deal or are the progeny of a famous person. Focus on smaller publications first, as you build a portfolio of published clips.

My first clips were for my high school newspaper. Then, I got into a journalism workshop before my senior year of high school and started working for a locally-based magazine. Then, in college, I wrote for the student-run paper at $10 apiece and used those clips to break into my neighborhood newspaper, which pays $50 for articles.

Definitely check with any local, small-time newspapers. They will likely pay, even if not much, and you can learn the ropes as you go. Usually the editor of a small-time newspaper produces all of the ideas and just hands one to you. That’s easy money and a clip is a clip is a clip.

Also try publications that are strictly online or pitch the web editors at print publications. They’re usually easier to break into.

Nurture Your Relationships

This one comes straight from my personal journalism guru, George W. Miller III. When you’re looking to freelance, it’s crucial to build and maintain great relationships with your editors. Personal relationships will keep you employed and writing.

My goal as a freelancer isn’t to constantly query new places. I’d like to break into a number of publications that will keep the wheels greased and that will, preferably, not require me to constantly generate ideas. I’d like to, ideally, be the writer my editors know they can call on with a difficult assignment or a short-notice one. As any journalist will tell you, editors love writers who will make their jobs easier. And editors who love their writers fight to get them paid.

If you’re in school or just starting out, try the informational interview approach. Send them an email, establishing a connection, flattering them a little and asking to meet them for coffee. Offer to buy them coffee. That’s always nice.

Once you’ve made a connection with an editor, keep in touch. Send them the occasional email with a link to an article you think might interest them or a link to your own recent article. Try to remember their birthdays and send them cards on major holidays.

Remember: It’s not what you do, it’s who you know.

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