Monday, August 31, 2015

How to become a freelance writer

I am the administrator of a Facebook group for writers. One member recently asked, "How do I become a free lance writer?" Here's my reply (slightly edited):

First of all, "freelance" is one word.

The term comes from medieval times, when a mercenary warrior would provide himself and his lance to a lord who would pay for his services, rather than to a lord he had a long-term relationship with.

I freelanced for dozens of magazines, newspapers and advertising agencies back in the 1970s. I had majored in journalism in college and then moved to NYC and got a job as ass't editor of a magazine. I used my contacts gained at that magazine, plus samples of what I had written, to sell work to other publications as well as ad agencies.

The specific paths may vary, but three vital ingredients are 

(1) experience that generates published writing samples,
(2) knowledge of potential media clients,
(3) story ideas. (In journalism, an article is called a "story" or a "piece.")

It will probably be tough to sell your first article if you have no experience. Many writers start writing for low-paying (or even no-paying) community newspapers. If you can write very well about even dull news events, such as school board meetings, Little League or high school sports, or community bake sales, your published samples should help you to move up to more interesting assignments at better-paying media.

It's important to become familiar with publications, broadcast stations and online media that might publish your work. My first job was at a "trade" magazine that went to hi-fi dealers. My knowledge of hi-fi equipment got me work writing for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Country Music magazines. My experience there helped me make the transition to more mainstream magazines such as Esquire as well as newspapers, ad agencies and PR agencies.

  • It's much easier to get freelance work if you have a specialty, or multiple specialties, hopefully with little competition.
If you are one of just three people in the world who know all about left-handed nuclear reactors, and an editor needs a story about that subject, it will be easier to get the assignment than if you are one of a million people who like to write about cars, decorating kids' rooms or cooking turkey.
  • You should constantly be sending out "pitch letters" (which can be emails), suggesting stories to appropriate media. Even if you don't sell the pieces you suggest, once you become known to editors, they'll probably contact you when they need a story in a field you are qualified to write about.
You have to learn the appropriate contacts at the media you are interested in. That info can be gleaned by reading the staff listings in the publications, and through directories. In general, publishers are concerned with finance, not writing, so don't contact them. At a small publication, contact the editor. If there are multiple editors, contact those who are in charge of departments that are appropriate for your work.

Don't pitch an article about do-it-yourself bicycle repair to a cooking magazine or a website for funeral directors.

  • While specialization makes it easier to get work, it's important to be able to write about anything. Even if you normally write about fashions or funerals, if you are first-on-scene at a train crash, particularly if it is not covered by others, try to sell the news report.
One other path to publication is blogging. With a blog you just have to make readers happy, not impress an editor. Over the years I've written blogs that specialized in multiple subjects, and some of them led to freelance writing gigs.
  • Be aware that there are probably as many writers looking for work as there are unemployed actors and singers. The oversupply reduces the money that publications will pay, except for the top tier of writers.
Freelancers can be paid by the word, by the "column inch" (in newspapers) by the number of pages published (in a magazine), or by other systems. In the early 70s I was paid from a dime to a dollar per word. I was shocked to discover that some current publications pay as little as two cents per word.

Writers Market is an excellent directory of possible buyers of your words and should be on your shelf. In addition to its directory function, it has lots of helpful advice on the business of writing.

1 comment:

  1. I do feel like a warrior with her lance, with a noble calling. Thanks for this excellent post. There's some great advice in here. I would like to think that there are more opportunities for writers now that content marketing is in full bloom. What do you think?