Getting into specialised freelance writing
October 3, 2011 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to get into freelance writing in a specialist area - I have the specialist bit down, but need the other part spelled out for me.

I'm a postgraduate student in architecture (and I already have my Part II/equivalent of M.Arch), doing some research/writing/curating work on the side, and I'd really like to pick up some freelance writing to cover my income shortfall.

I like writing, with music writing as my main hobby, and I'm good at researching and keen to work further on communicating to a non-specialist audience in particular. I have done a lot of interviewing and have some of these available to use as clips, but will need to develop other non-academic types of work. (I assume that writing about architecture is the least flooded part of the market available to me, but please correct me if that's wrong.)

Most of my current work has come about through people kindly offering me opportunities (with or without networking), and I feel like it's time I did some hustling. Income-wise, I have 8 days a month available and would ideally need to make €600, and I'm much better at describing/defining/reviewing cities or buildings than suggesting 300 things to do with a throw cushion. Deadlines, word counts, working under my own steam and learning new things quickly - this is the stuff I do well.

What's my next step in this? Is it worth contacting publications to say "hello, I can do x and y and would be delighted to hear from you!" or should I only do this if it's a pitch letter? Do I need to fill the gaps in my writing samples before I do this? Does anyone have experience or a reality check to share from this specialised area?
posted by carbide to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any idea of what kind of market you have in mind -- such as marketing material, technical copy, or consumer publications?

Especially for consumer publications, study the book Writer's Market. It's mostly a breakdown of different publications, telling what they look for, etc. But it also has a few articles on making pitches and the like.

You might contact people you've previously written for and ask for referrals, who else might be interested in your work.

It's not clear whether you have anything published. That will make a difference.

Realize that the downturn of newspapers means more writers looking for work.
posted by maurreen at 3:24 PM on October 3, 2011

I think it all comes down to researching a number of publications that consider unsolicited freelance material, and then just sending them queries by email.

The queries have to be crafted just right:

1) First para is written in the style of the article, and should ask a compelling question. This acts as the hook, and demonstrates a) you can write in the style of the publication b) you understand the publication's audience c) you actually have a story to tell (that has not been covered by the publication in the past 12 months

2) Second para is a synopsis of the rest of the article, written in an engaging style

3) Third para is the actual query: I want to write an article for your publication. It should include your background, demonstrating your expertise, and should also talk about sources and your approach to the article.

End the email with a promise to follow-up with a phone call (unless they tell you otherwise).

Subject header of the email should be: submision query + article title

Give it a week or so, and follow up.

You can also avoid the opportunity cost of crafting a query by simply sending in an email asking about submission guidelines.

You'll also need a portfolio. I have mine on a basic Wordpress site. Most of the time people will just glance at your portfolio, so creating one should not be a huge labour of love.

The biggest challenge you will face is identifying publications that pay, because most do not.

You can go the glossy route, but there will be a lot of competition. You can go the technical route, but you'll have to analyze the publication to determine where the money comes from, and how much overhead they have.

I found the most profitable work came from writing for trade publications that publish regular newsletters or magazines.

It's a tough time for writers these days, thanks to the recession and the decline of print media.

However, I support my family from my writing, so it can be done.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:14 PM on October 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

The pitch letter, by the way, has to be very focused - you've got to provide the story idea.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:15 PM on October 3, 2011

I have a specialized writing niche, too, but I'm not sure it translate into your area of expertise. I'm going to throw out suggestions that worked well for me. You can try a few, and either adopt these approaches if they work or abandon them if they do not. In addition, I don't invest a huge amount of time into each strategy -- I will send out 20 emails and observe, test the response, and then decide whether it is worth looking for work in that area or not..

Here are alternate approaches that I would try (Early on I did approach publications with pitches, but abandoned it because it gobbles up time for you to chase things...whereas if you connect with companies, they send you the work, over and over and over again) -- it is up to you as to what you like to do and want to do, though:
• Identify companies that write the material you write (you mention having been approached by people before). Did they work for companies that wrote material in your specialty area? See if there are similar companies on LinkedIn or even try googling "architecture communications companies and list" and see if you can find a list of companies to approach. Then send them something similar to what you outlined above (that is all send, an email introducing me plus a list of a few things that I've done plus contact info...a few sentences max). Invest time now and contact lots of companies. These companies may come back to you instantly, a few months later, or even a year later with (a) project(s).
• Use LinkedIn. Make your specialty background obvious, list contact info, and make it obvious that you are an independent writer available for projects -- list your specialties.Companies in the UK and the US have found me this way, so I am assuming it should also work for you. Don't worry about contacts, by the way.
• Are there any specialty organizations for what you do? See if they offer listings for you to list your services.
• Do stress that you do research (people may hire you for this). If you are near a large city, also list your location and your availability to cover meetings if this this is something that you are willing to do.

Some other things that you can try (these did not work for me, but maybe it will work for your field):
• Approach journals
• Approach faculty (what do they write for their grant material?)

Also, I want to stress that make sure your rate is ~2 to 3X what you would get in an office somewhere; then in the short amt of time, you can generate that amt of $. Assuming that you will have to pay some of that $ to taxes and especially early on you will be looking for projects.

I don't necessarily worry about gaps because if a company/companies like what you do, they will give you more and more chances to expand and create/write other types of material. Just send out letters and test the markets.

I truly believe if your area requires a technical background, you are not going to have much competition. I was given the same warning here and in other places, was not a problem; YMMV.

posted by Wolfster at 4:56 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the advice, there's lots here to think about! One reason I asked was in case the response was a total thumbs down, and since it hasn't been, I think it's time to make my self-confidence and previous work look presentable, and give hustling a go.

Clarifications: No, I suppose I'm at the early stages of figuring out markets. I've only been published in an in-house, academic sense, but I've done quite a lot of different work there and could do with thinking how to present that as a positive range at this stage. (Wolfster, I really appreciate the comment about gaps, and have found your previous AskMe really helpful - delighted and also encouraged that it's worked for you!)

KokoRyu: The biggest challenge you will face is identifying publications that pay, because most do not.

I meant to say this in my question (along with deleting the snobbish-sounding aside!) but yeah, that's a huge issue here, both geographically and subject-wise. There's a couple of them that almost certainly do pay, so I should at least give them a chance to reject me instead of ruling myself out!
posted by carbide at 1:58 PM on October 4, 2011

Geography shouldn't stop you - you can aim for publications anywhere in the world.

Also, while the poor market conditions can be challenging, generally speaking, writers who focus on quality product (starting with the pitch) have a better chance. There are a lot of flakes out there.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:09 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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