10 Non-Fatalistic, Real-Life Tips for Freelance Writers

by Alaina Mabaso

This is what my cubicle looks like at the beginning of a day of writing copy at the office.

This is what my cubicle looks like at the beginning of a day of writing copy at the office.

I may look back on this blog post in a few years and cringe that I was callow enough to compose an advice article about writing professionally when I have been doing it for only five years. But a growing number of people have asked me for advice.

While this is aimed primarily at writers, I have an inkling that the same principles apply to current or aspiring professionals in graphic design, fine arts, photography, or any number of fields.

FYI, this ain’t a tutorial on the Art of Writing. It’s not about the pros and cons or financials of freelancing. And I am not a fiction writer. This is about finding and keeping freelance writing gigs in journalism, PR, marketing, copywriting and related fields. And each of the ten tips is accompanied by a holier-than-thou example from my own life – I am not foisting ideas upon you that I wouldn’t try myself.

Just so you know, I have no degree or formal training in writing, besides a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Arts and English (I know, I know, I practically have to beat the high-paying employers off wherever I go).  This is all stuff I learned on the job.

Also, nobody start salivating about using my tips to make tons of money. I am not rich. What we’re talking about here is paying the bills with enough left for an occasional movie or dinner out.

1)  Be a spider.

Ew, spiders.

Are you done?

Each person you build a good relationship with is a thread in your web. Each gig they hear about and each job list they subscribe to is like a bug flying into your sticky trap. (Like my stellar analogy? You’re welcome.)

Some people will advise aspiring writers to endlessly thumb the Writer’s Market and pitch, pitch, pitch (sell editors on a story) if they want to get published. I think your energy is just as well spent in building a network that will give you a shot at the assignments editors already have in mind.

Make lists. Set contact goals. Be friendly and bold. The worst someone can do is say no or ignore you. Do not be afraid to reach out to people of a different age, race, or sex. Don’t just stalk your idols on Twitter. Write to them. Swallow your shyness and brashly introduce yourself to the VIP at the party. If I can waltz up and introduce myself to Dr. Mehmet Oz that time we wound up at the same church service, you can too.

Unfortunately, he does not glow like this in person.

Unfortunately, he does not glow like this in person.

Ask people out for breakfast, lunch, dinner or coffee – even if you’ve never met. Spark friendships and pick their brains for opportunities or resume tips. Maintain the relationship with occasional friendly e-mails and invitations and always thank others for their time.

Holier-than-thou Example:

In the last five years, I’ve written for at least twenty different editors. Out of those, how many did I approach out of the blue with a pitch?

Only one.

The rest became interested in giving me an assignment when I contacted them via tips from my network, or because I had already worked with an editor or a writer they knew.

Maybe I’m a just a good networker and a bad pitcher. But if you’re pitching nonstop and getting nowhere, maybe you should work your way in with a different approach.

If any of my current editors are reading this, feel free to try and figure out which stick figure you are. If any future editors are reading this, please be assured that I am extremely respectful.

If any of my current editors are reading this, feel free to try and figure out which stick figure you are. If any future editors are reading this, please be assured that I am extremely respectful.

2)  The Networking Sandwich

And now you’re saying, “OK. Crap. It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

This is only partly true.

Finding gigs is a networking sandwich:

Quality work earns you admiring contacts. Network among those contacts to find new jobs. Then prove yourself to your new contacts with more quality work.

Holier-than-thou Example:

Even with a strong recommendation, those editors I mentioned in the first example began by asking me if I could provide some clips as a test of my skill and style.

If my work was lousy, those connections would be useless.

3)  Marshal the Troops

Once you’ve had some practice building your own network, position yourself as a leader. Think of ways you can bring people together to share the resources in your fields, and be an affirmative facilitator of the conversation.

Holier-than-thou Example: I joined a writers’ networking group that was about to fizzle because the original organizers didn’t want to continue the effort. I saw an opportunity and stepped up to take charge of it, organizing meetings and maintaining and expanding the contact and RSVP lists. It takes a lot of time of and effort, but the friends I’ve made and the work opportunities we’ve all shared have been worth it. I helped other members find new markets for their essays, and other members helped me find new work as a copywriter.

4)  Get in Their Faces

It can be easy for a freelance writer to slump behind a computer and a phone to meet the day’s deadlines. Nowadays, it’s possible to work with an editor – or your fellow writers – for months or even years without meeting face to face.

But don’t be that writer.

Invite your editors and colleagues out for lunch. Take advantage of local industry events. Be more than an e-mail address or another byline to the people you work with. Making that effort will give you one more way to stand out in a competitive field.

Holier-than-thou Example: I had written for a publication for about two years without meeting my editor in person, so when the publication began to host events for its readers and contributors, I made a point of going and introducing myself. Now, the relationship with that editor, plus my continued work, has grown into an Associate Editor job offer. I start next week.

5)  Think Hyper-Local.

Your career will never start until Psychology Today accepts your pitch, right?

Wrong.

Major newspapers and magazines aren’t hiring. Thanks, Internet. But the flip side of online media is that there are lots of new, highly-targeted local markets that are probably looking for good freelancers.

Is there a local news site in your town or a locally-focused magazine in your city? Research the site or publication and pitch that editor with your hometown knowledge, or leverage your network to get in touch.

Holier-than-thou example: About two years ago, the branch of NPR media in Philadelphia was launching a new series of websites targeted to specific neighborhoods. A former co-worker of mine was a former co-worker of one of the new editors, and I asked for an introduction. I now write a wide range of stories and essays for several editors there. Riches and glory? No. A paycheck and entertaining work? Yes.

6)  Work for free. (For awhile.)

You thought you could start your career with a big, fat contract? I admit, it’s not unheard of (I am beginning to suspect my downfall is my disinterest in young adult paranormal romance).

But get real. You need to get your foot in the door somewhere, and build up a body of bylines. It’s ok to volunteer your time and skills when you’re just starting out, if the experience is relevant to the career you want to build.

But be careful. You will run into people – even editors – who claim to think that the privilege of a byline in a competitive market should be more than enough compensation to you. Or they might tell you that the entry you get to shows or events as a writer should be enough of an incentive for you to provide your work for free. They are wrong.

You decide the line between unpaid experience that benefits you in the long run, and an editor or publication that tries to exploit your skills.  Once you’ve made the transition to paid work (unless you choose to volunteer for a good cause), stick to it.

Holier-than-thou Example:

I wanted to become an arts writer, so when I heard about a website that needed theater critics when I was a year or so out of college, I jumped. They didn’t pay their writers, but over two or three years, I amassed hundreds of bylines and took in hundreds of professional shows – a better education than four years of college. But I slowly quit writing for the site when my growing experience allowed me to pick up paying gigs. The editor tried to coax me back earlier this year, still without compensation, and I said no. I am grateful for the start I got, but right now I have too many assignments to spend time on work that doesn’t benefit my bank account or my own platform.

7)  Volunteer, Altruistic or Not.

If you think you have writing skills but need practice in a real-world setting, don’t have a professional network, or have yet to build your resume, you can kill all those birds with one stone.

Find a small, hard-pressed office of people nearby who are trying to do some good in this world and ask them if they need someone to write their blog posts, website or press releases or handle social media or PR.

Voila: experience, skill-building, and the start of your network.

Holier-than-thou example:

When my former playwriting teacher connected me to a nascent dance company that needed help developing original librettos, I met with the young and socially-conscious artistic director. I ended up joining the board and working on several librettos as well as managing PR campaigns for the company’s shows. It was like a second job for zero pay, but the experience was priceless, I felt good about the cause, and I don’t even know how many gigs I’ve landed over the years that were the result of networking among the esteemed friends and mentors I met through that company.

8)  Be Versatile.

A former editor once told me over Pad Thai that the key to a viable writing career was getting in good with one high-paying magazine.

Wrong.

I know because I did it. I began writing for an international trade journal that sometimes paid me upwards of two thousand dollars per piece. My whole month’s budget was made with one article. I was in heaven.

Then the mag ran into financial trouble and my apologetic editor told me they’d been forced to axe their freelancer budget. Good thing I had cultivated work in several other markets, just in case.

There are no guarantees for the freelance writer: even the sweetest gig could evaporate next month. Be willing to tackle a variety of fields and topics. A big reason I am able to pay the bills by writing is that I don’t let new arenas intimidate me. Arts, science, medicine, aviation, farming, business, architecture: whatever it is, I track down some experts to tell me all about it, and write that piece.

From an earlier post titled "What It Is Like to Be a Freelance Writer"

From an earlier post titled “What It Is Like to Be a Freelance Writer”

Holier-than-thou Example:

Often, to make ends meet, you must be willing to transition between different realms of work. I had been a blogger, essayist and journalist for years when an opportunity to become an agency copywriter came my way (thanks, networking). I didn’t say, “Oh dear, I have no advertising experience.” I showed up, scared witless, and began learning.

9)   Prostrate Yourself on the Altar of the Blogosphere

Yeah, yeah, the whole reason writers’ careers are crumbling everywhere is that witless scribblers are giving their stuff away for free on blogs.

Ahem.

That’s one way of looking at it. But I think that’s a pessimistic, no-fun view.

There are tons of reasons to maintain a blog, as long as you can commit to posts of consistent quality. Yes, any 21st-century writing manual can tell you that you need to build your own platform and audience as a writer – no big ol’ publisher is going to do it for you anymore (hence the difference between writing that builds your own presence and brand, and writing for free for a random publication that’s willing to exploit you).

But reasons for blogging go beyond this. I find that the more you write, the more you write. Blogs keep you sharp between assignments. They’re also an outlet for what’s personally important to you, keeping your drive and ambitions fresh. They can be your editor-free playground (believe me, tailoring your stuff to several different editors every week can get tiring). And on the other hand, I have landed work with new editors or employers because they checked out the blog, or even purchased pieces from it. I’ve also developed pieces on the blog that I later worked into paid, published essays.

And once you’ve built up a modest audience, a blog is a fantastic excuse to hit up other writers you admire for interviews.

Holier-than-thou Example:

I have been a huge fan of bestselling author Mary Roach for years. I got up my courage one day and contacted her through her website. She kindly agreed to an interview for this blog.

I found out that her early career was very similar to what I’m doing now. Later, she e-mailed me to say she had enjoyed the interview, and added “Keep at it. I expect to be saying, ‘I knew her back when…’”

Awesome.

10)  Be Big-Minded

If you want to be a writer, you’ll hear a lot about how competitive the field is. You will feel the impulse to hoard your leads, keep good markets to yourself, and shrug when others ask you for specific advice, lest they threaten your piece of the pie.

People have romantic notions about writing careers, and if you have some measure of success, others will come out of the woodwork to poach you for THEIR networks.

Remember, networking is a two-way street. If your editors are looking for new talent, share that with people who have the right skills. Don’t be stingy with useful tips to people who ask for them.

I had lunch with a contact once who happily took my advice on local editors to approach. But when I asked if my new colleague could offer any contacts to me, the person expressly refused to reciprocate, saying I would be too much competition (yes, I never said it wasn’t a jungle out there).

That is one way of doing business.

But to me, sharing valuable contacts is just one more incentive for me to stay at the top of my game. I don’t mind if editors add my colleagues to the team. I want work because my skills merit it, not because I froze out other people who might also be eligible.

And if you help someone today, who’s to say the tables won’t be turned tomorrow?

Let your confidence in your own skills translate into a helping hand for others, and watch your friendships increase as fast as your work opportunities.

Holier-than-thou Example:

This blog post.

Also of interest to bloggers, book-lovers and linguaphiles:

Pandora’s Inbox: One Blogger’s Favorite E-Mails from Would-Be Advertisers

Literary Lies: The Five Things You Really Mean When You Say, “It’s On My List”

The Linguist’s Comeuppance