How do you become a freelance writer? How do you travel so much for so little money? What’s the deal with your cat?
If I had to rank them, these are the most common questions I get from you, lovely readers. Despite having written for newspapers and having an article in Glamour, I know approximately nothing about freelance writing! For shame!
But I do know some very talented ladies who freelance their cute butts off: Heather Hansman, Nicola Balkind, Amanda Lee, and Danai Christopoulou.
Each of these ladies hails from a different part of the world and specializes in a different kind of writing. And they’ve each been kind enough to share their knowledge! Let’s gobble it up, shall we?
How did you get your start as a freelance writer?
I went with some friends, on the cheap and with expenses paid, and fell in love with the whole madness of attending events, interviews, writing and publishing.
I started as an editor on my college newspaper. I was studying economics and political science, but I liked writing for the paper way more than I liked any of my classes, so I decided to pursue it further.
I sent some pitches to some newsweeklies and some music magazines and some web sites, and I had a fair amount of success right away, so I kept it up. In 2007, I took a course in proofreading and editing, and after that I developed a client base that took me on for both writing and editing – mostly advertising firms and corporations.
I started reading various magazines and trying to decide which one is right for me. Glamour was my first choice! Problem was, my resume was not impressive enough for them to notice, so I decided to send them a list “19+1 reasons to hire me in your magazine.” (As you may know, the Glamour List is a standard column of the magazine, at least in the UK and Greek Edition.)
One of the reasons was “I’m Aries, and my ascendant is in Scorpio. So, I’m quite fierce, a go-getter and a perfectionist”. Two days later, I received a phone call: “Hello, I’m the Deputy Editor of Glamour Magazine Greece – and I’m also an Aries with an ascendant in Scorpio. We should totally meet.” I guess you could say I had a lucky star…
Tell us about the art of the pitch!
What’s the best way to get editors to pay attention to you?
A snappy spec. email and a well-designed portfolio website has served me well. Brand yourself, be confident, and link them to your best work. Give them a couple of weeks and if they don’t respond, give it a few weeks of hard work and send them something even better.
You should always be one step ahead. No, really, being an information junkie is good for you. Read blogs, search for new cool stuff, discover new shops/designers/restaurants/cat salons in your area and mention them first.
Also, a distinctive personal style (and by that, I don’t mean a wardrobe full of Gucci and Louis Vuitton – blah) will always help get you noticed.
How much money can a novice free lancer expect to make?
What are some resources that you could recommend?
Books: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; On Writing Well by William Zissner
Websites: about freelancing, angela booth, chris guillebeau, get paid to write online, write to done
How do you deal with the inevitable rejection?
Ask for feedback if you can, work on your weaknesses, and be persistent. There will always be another exciting on the opportunity on the horizon – so concentrate on that instead!
One of my absolute all-time favorite personal finance/entrepreneurship bloggers, Ramit Sethi wrote once that he has a tag in Gmail called “failures”, and if he doesn’t tag at least five items a month with it, he knows he’s not trying hard enough.
I love this idea, because it accepts failure as a component in success. I’m thinking about implementing something similar for myself. Havi Brooks, who writes Fluent Self, writes about finding your “right people” – and on the way to finding them, you’ll meet a ton of people that will say no.
This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or a stupid person; and it doesn’t mean that they hate your work. It just means they’re not the right fit for you right now.
You try to figure out the why (Was your proposal blah? Was it not suitable for the magazine’s audience? Was it just bad timing?), and plan your next step, more carefully. Try to remember, love; each and every one of us has been rejected more than once. Doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you do!
Related: Track your efforts, not your accomplishments
What’s your best writing tip?
Read a ton and pay attention when you do. Look at writers you like and try to figure out WHAT you like about their work. For instance, I like how Susan Orlean uses sarcasm and how Truman Capote uses semicolons. Then, see how you can use those pieces to make your writing better.
Read! Read fiction, read non-fiction, read news, read magazines. Read good blogs and bad ones. Read your own work! Re-read your best work at a later date, rewrite it and see how much you can improve it.
Malcom Gladwell says that it takes ten thousand hours doing something to get really good at it, and I keep this in mind all the time. Writing is a very process-intensive craft, and if you don’t enjoy the process of writing all the time, it’s probably not for you.
It's not about ideas or talent; it's just about putting the time in. Click To Tweet You also have to be okay with producing terrible writing occasionally [or daily] in pursuit of writing something good.
Like Merlin Mann says, “I’ve learned that my job is to just sit down [at the keyboard] and start making the clackity noise. If I make the clackity noise long enough every day, the ‘writing’ seems to take care of itself.”
Don’t listen to the voices in your head. Listen to that little voice in your heart (or stomach) that will always tell you if you’re on the right path. Drink a beer, eat a cupcake and relax. If the voices persist, stop typing in your keyboard and visit a shrink…
Thank you ladies so much for sharing your knowledge! Are any of you freelancers? Any other advice you can share? Any questions for our writers?
P.S. The DIY writing retreat that – without exaggeration – has transformed my career and life
This was really helpful! thank you to everyone involved and the great advice 🙂
Thanks for giving us the chance to share, Sarah!
I've been a full-time freelancer for a year, and while I prefer writing assignments, what makes it float is that I take on copyediting and strange editing projects to keep the money coming in. It's good to have something like that (in the ballpark of what you truly enjoy, if not the perfect match) that lets you keep the lifestyle—For me, what I wanted was to get out of the office and make my own schedule and think my own thoughts. I'm doing that now. Getting writing gigs can be hard, but keep your eyes open to connections that cross your path (people, events, moments) and jump on ideas when you have them. There's no bigger forehead-smack than seeing something in a magazine or a book you thought of too, but never pursued. My best advice to anyone getting started, (as well as to myself since I fail at this often) is to make it a priority to pursue your ideas.
Great advice and insight ladies! As a mostly full-time freelancer, I wanted to add my thoughts 🙂
Be nontraditional: There are plenty of opportunities too copywrite that new manual for your local business association, posters for an event, etc. They're certainly not glamorous, but they almost always pay well, and you get one more publication and clip. It's great because then magazines and publications know you understand how to hit an audience and deliver a product on pitch and on time.
Go local!: It's great to have aspirations for national magazines, but start small. Your town's newspaper or local magazine is a great place to start pitching. They may not pay at all or very well, but if you're good and consistent, you'll have a running gig, which is better than one big publication if you want to keep freelancing. And the local gigs usually will turn you on to regional. It's still competitive, but a much better market than being one of thousands of pitches to a national. Once you get your chops up to snuff, then you can go after the big guys.
I love it! I've never really considered freelance writing, but I feel like this advice is very applicable to any sort of freelance career. Thanks!
This is a great post. Thank you so much for sharing!
There's a lot of great stuff in this post, Sarah, so thanks to the contributers! I tend to agree with them, as a freelancer myself.
I've been freelancing for local newspapers for about five years. In terms of getting in, my journalism education certainly helped, but it was also a lot of who I knew. I got my current gig because a good friend of mine is an editor at the paper. She knew the managing editor was looking for news freelancers, and she hand delivered my resume.
So, network! Try to meet people at the publications where you'd like to work. You'd be surprised who you know through varying "degrees."
Oh yeah, and never give up!
such a useful post! thanks 🙂 xxx
I'm so glad you guys are finding it useful! 😀
I'm really trying to get more serious about freelancing and this is so helpful! Great post!
Great article, as always 🙂 Nice to hear from freelancers & how they cope!
I just started a freelance writing gig this year – and it was really thanks to my blog and doing free stuff first that led to the actual paying gig. I now have a monthly feature in a Los Angeles visitors guide and I get paid to eat and talk about food. <3 <3 <3 Now if I can only add travel to that roster as well, I'd be set.
I really enjoyed these tips. Thanks so much!
This was a fantastic, super helpful blog post. Thanks so much for getting these smart and fab women together!
Yet another Yes and Yes post I've tagged for encouragement!
Thank you so much for this – it couldn't have come at a better time. As an aspiring writer for 5 years now, my career is finally starting to take off. It's a baby liftoff, but a liftoff nonetheless.
However, I still get so darn discouraged. I've become better at pursuing things, but I still lack the confidence I know I should rightfully have.
It's also tough because, the act of actually pursuing writing jobs is a full time job in and of itself. Hard when you work for the man full time, but I won't give up hope.
I guess the one lingering question I'm always toying with is…what do you SAY to a magazine editor? Most likely they have paid writers already and as the business is very who-you-know, by the time a position is posted it's already filled by a friend. But, they have to always be looking for contributors, right? So how do I land that!?
I have interviewed and been friendly with (at an event) the editor of a sister magazine to the one in my city. I have been composing an email to her for a couple of weeks, but have yet to send it. I mean, do I just say "Hey I'd love to write for X" and send a few samples? The magazines where they're not out actively looking for someone is always what stumps me.
Thansk in advance!
Sarah: Thanks to you and your panel for unmasking the murky world of freelance writing. I appreciate everyone's input!
I think this turned out great! Unqueittime, Freya ect. even more good ideas….keep 'em coming.
Laura Elaine, Jen is totally right: networking is a powerful tool, and you've already met the editor, so send that email with a few good, concrete story ideas in it.
Thank you ladies! Your advice is really helpful, it can be difficult to get honest advice in a competitive industry, so thanks for sharing your secrets. I particularly like Danai's advice to eat a cupcake or have a beer, I might just go and do that now!
I couldn't have found this post at a better time. Honestly. I really want to push myself to freelance more & this actually (despite the warnings!) inspired me.
On another note, has anyone taken any Media Bistro courses? I'm an AG member & after reading this, I kinda want to take a Copyediting course (I dropped out of mine in college. Woops.)
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Great post and amazing tips from some intelligent ladies. My dream is to freelance full-time and run a successful writing business and this post was just what I needed to read. Thanks!