How to be a writer
June 18, 2013 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I want to start writing freelance. Not necessarily full-time, but I want to try it.

I’ve attempted it a few times over the years, but I don’t know how to market myself, don’t know what to write, don’t know how to start making contacts. I’ve started contacting people on social media sites- I believe this is called “networking” but I’m really bad at it.

I am doing my Masters right now in a political science-related field. I am looking for full-time work, but times are a-changing, and after 7 years of floating around and being unable to find work in what I wanted to do (I wanted to be an editor/editorial assistant straight out of college/uni, but I couldn’t find anything- how do people find jobs in that?? I know people get employed at publishing houses all the time, but I couldn’t even get so much as an interview!), I’ve decided to try and be entrepreneurial in addition to looking for traditional work-a-9-to-5-and-take-home-a-paycheck kind of employment. I’ve done the obvious (Googled “how to start freelancing,” checked out past AskMes) and while I’ve found a lot of advice, I still can’t figure out what to *do.*I know that I’m a strong writer, researcher and that I can tailor my writing to different audiences. (I’ve taught children under the age of 3, essayed about historical human rights abuses, and come up with extremely raunchy and vulgar humour.) I also know that I suck at networking and hate talking myself up.

I concluded yesterday after one of my more fruitful Google searches that I need to make a website. I don’t know what to call my it, I don’t know what to put as the tagline. I write about social justice, human rights, gender, race , etc. I also write some pretty hilarious social/media commentary. I am willing to write about (nearly) anything. I’m willing to start for low/no pay to get noticed. Unfortunately, despite how (undeniably) hilarious and insightful I am, I am not creative. I’ve tried several times to start a blog. I have a lot of ideas that disappear as soon as I sit down to write a blog post. I have written guest posts on other people’s blogs, and those have always been pretty well received, but it’s different when I’m expected to come up with my own words every day.

I can’t come up with a website name. I can’t even think of a URL. (Should it just be my name? Should it be something related to the type of stuff I want to write about? Should it be cheeky?

So, I know I’m asking a lot. How do I actually get started? What should I call my website? How do I become a writer?
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper to Work & Money (14 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
I have lots of interviews with freelancers on my website which might help you, also stuff about my story setting up my own self-employment and now running a successful business (editing, localisation, transcription and writing but not a million miles away from what you're doing). Posting these links to help rather than self-publicise so hope that's OK!

It's also worth looking at thecreativepenn which is all about being a writer, primarily of books, but info on communities, social media, etc. too.

Good luck! You can get there, you just need to do it in stages.
posted by LyzzyBee at 1:35 AM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have a lot of ideas that disappear as soon as I sit down to write a blog post.

This is interesting and mildly troubling. Why do you have ideas that compel you to write that you cannot commit to? And you say you "don’t know what to write" but you clearly have all these fascinations. It may be that you're psyching yourself out; you're thinking that you have to write the ultimate thing on x topic. You don't! Stop thinking about the market, and refocus on what you are, and what you care about, and what you want to bring to the world.

You just have to write the things that only you would write. That's the whole battle.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:13 AM on June 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

Step1. Start a blog with articles you pen. It would be better if you started off with a niche at the beginning. It would be better if there was more than an esoteric interest in that niche. Set on simmer and wait for the offers to pour in.

If you need a step 0, keep a written journal with ideas, things that make you angry or sad, things you see, scenes, descriptions, bits of this and that, etc. Sometimes writing a little will make it easier to write a lot.

Without product nobody will buy what you are trying to sell.
posted by JJ86 at 5:57 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Start a website. It can be simple. Use it as the hub of your online presence. If you have content that's been published on other blogs, use your website to gather those into one place. Your website can just be Get more creative with your blog URL, though.

Oh yes, you'll need a blog. It doesn't have to be updated every day, or even every week. It's better to have less great content than more average content. If you're having trouble focusing your ideas, look for tools that will help you capture your thoughts and refine them. This could be an app on your phone or a notebook that you keep in your pocket. Write things down.

Look for publications (online or print) that accept submissions. Smaller and newer publications are great for this. I was published as second-year undergrad in an architectural criticism quarterly that was on their third or fourth issue ever. There are tons of niche startup publications right now. Find them! It's also important to note that you probably won't get paid for this kind of work. But it's well worth it for the experience and exposure.

Start using Google Authorship to link your published works to your Google profile. This is invaluable.

If you're not using Twitter, start using Twitter. Use your real name, and start engaging in discussions and communities that you are interested and want to contribute to. Whenever you write something, for your blog or elsewhere, tweet about it. You might get only a few people to read at first, but it your content is good, they'll share it, and so on and so forth.

Good luck.
posted by rensar at 6:22 AM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Writer and former managing editor here.

Yes, get a website. Second, if you want to be hired as a writer, you need to have your writing on that website. And lots of it. If it helps, stop thinking of it as a blog and start thinking of it as a portfolio of your favorite writing. Whatever you do, you, you need to start writing: every day. People have to be able to judge your skill to hire you.

For the paralysis when it comes to writing a new blog article, I'll give you the tip that helps me: write the introduction last. So often, I freeze up because I can't think of the perfect way to start, to ease readers into my Big Idea. So I don't write anything at all. Don't do that.

Instead, just start writing in the middle. Doesn't matter where--just whatever idea you can line up on paper. If you're not happy with it, reassure yourself that you're writing the introduction last and everything will polish up then. Whether you do that or not, it will still be a better article than the imaginary one you can only hold in your head. :)

Once you have an active personal site with a wealth of savvy writing, start writing more guest posts and make sure they link back to your site. Get friendly with editors, on the web, print, or otherwise. Find out which sites pay and which don't. Come with ideas, better yet, come with drafted articles (some sites will require that rather than pitches). Make friends, be active, have opinions, have even radical opinions. The best freelance writers are the ones who have a solid voice in their writing.

Good luck!
posted by ninjakins at 6:23 AM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

I do a fair amount of freelance work, and I don't have a blog. (I used to be a paid blogger, but that's not the same thing.) Most work comes via editors I've worked with in the past, who refer me to others, for both print and online. But you first have to have a subject to write about (and straight opinion stuff isn't very salable--even online outlets want original reporting.) So, you figure out a topic, write a query email in which you pitch that topic, and wait for a response. Latherrinserepeat.
Having your own POV and voice is important, but you need to get started somewhere, so write now, right now.

Having a blog or a website is a good place to showcase your work, but I think that depending on editors to find your site, be struck by your talent and offer paying jobs isn't realistic. You do have to pitch either the idea or the finished piece and figure out the approach that works best for the site.
I did a recent story on YouTube for a new social media site, and figured out half-way through that jokey and somewhat snarky was more appropriate than straight reportage.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2013

For a long time I wanted to start a career as a freelance travel writer.

One thing I learned very quickly is that, unless you're writing in a very small niche (which I don't think political/social commentary is), you have to somehow distinguish yourself. Why should someone hire YOU to write something instead of the million other people who also do that kind of writing? What special expertise do you have? Is there a smaller niche you can carve out for yourself within a wider field like political writing? A niche that is actually in demand?

A travel writer contact of mine recently got a book deal ultimately because she decided on a specific beat she wanted to cover and just specialized in that. Gradually she became the go-to person for a piece on that particular beat. Said beat is on a topic that comes up a lot in all levels of media, and there aren't many people who do it well and have her expertise. So that's one pathway.

You say you're willing to write anything. (Which, from experience, I would say that you should check to make sure that's true -- I quickly realized that there is a LOT of freelance writing I'm not interested in doing.) But if it's true that you're really willing to write anything, find out what areas are more in demand. You especially might want to think about how your areas of interest are monetizable or can be of use in the kinds of articles published in the wider actually functional media. Most freelance writers I know who do it professionally spend a lot of time writing pieces that are very commercial, mainstream, and fit well within what for-profit media outlets want to do.

Think of it this way:

1. Social justice issues.

2. ????


If you can fill in step 2, you should become a freelance writer about social justice issues. If the thought of steps 2 and 3 fills you with rage -- in general, with any given step 1 -- you should not become a freelance writer for money. Because nobody is handing out free paychecks for hilarious social commentary these days.

(That said, if you really want to write confessional memoir-ish "hilarious personal commentary" type stuff, maybe pitch The Hairpin and the like? I don't think they pay, but it's the sort of thing that "gets you noticed". You'll also want a blog, twitter, or other Home On The Internet for a site like that to attract attention to.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:11 AM on June 18, 2013

Oh, and I'd also like to comment on this:

I have a lot of ideas that disappear as soon as I sit down to write a blog post.

I found that having a blog really helped with this, actually. About 10% of my ideas for posts sat in evernote forever and never ended up on the blog. At first this really concerned me and I felt like a failure at blogging. Then I realized that this is OK, and not every idea I have is worth a blog post. And it's fine if I start doing the legwork to put together a post and it never goes anywhere. The blog police don't come to take you away if you write half a thing on Ostalgia and then never finish it, and then the gallery show that was the core of your whole post closes.

Part of the point of having a blog, in my opinion -- and I suppose this extends to Tumblr, Twitter, and other ways of making a habit of self-expression -- was to learn the process of working on a sustained creative project. To learn that it's OK to have an idea and then it doesn't work out. The point is that you keep plugging away, every day, making this thing. You learn to look at the world through the framework of your project. You learn to keep going even when it gets boring.

I think this is all training that you could use. It's certainly skills you'll need if you ever hope to make a living as a freelance writer.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This seems less a question about how to get a job as a freelancer and more a question of how to combat writer's block.

I am a former editor for a major alt-weekly . In March I left my job to go back to freelance full-time. So I have perspective from both sides of the coin here.

1. You absolutely need a blog, and you need to set yourself up as some kind of expert within some kind of niche. I don't necessarily mean narrow. There is a great website called Puttylike that focuses on taking multiple disparate interests and combining them. A good example of this is the website Nerd Fitness, where dudes who love video and RPGs also write about lifting weights and diet.

If you're having trouble with creating your own content, I would suggest starting, AT MINIMUM, a Twitter account where you share articles (written by others) that cater to your expertise — social justice, human rights, gender, race. Follow lots of other people, some big names and some small, who are also interested in these issues, and INTERACT with them.

For websites and blogs, I like to recommend Tumblr for people who are just getting started because sharing content there is SO EASY. Install the widget in your browser and with one click of a button you can share the NYTimes story you're fascinated by, or something from Mother Jones, or, better yet, stories you've written. It's a super-easy way to start and maintain a portfolio of links.

Opinions differ on this but I think if you want to set yourself up professionally the url of your site really should be your name. That way is anyone sees an article you've written and googles your name, your website will come up.

2. You need to start writing. And at the core of your question, this seems like the biggest issue. I have two suggestions. Start doing Morning pages every day, so that writing becomes less daunting to you and more of a habit. You can also start writing short commentary on the articles you are sharing on your Tumblr site. In my opinion, these are the best tumblrs out there. Go beyond just sharing that Mother Jones link — add your own perspective, even if it's just a paragraph or two.

You'll be killing two birds with one stone here — you'll be setting yourself up as an expert* on the topics you're interested in, and you'll be flexing that writing muscle so that when it comes time to write 500 original words for someone, or 1,000 words, you'll feel less paralyzed.

3. Start networking and pitching. You seem to already know how to do this — you just need to set aside those uncomfortable feelings and do it.

*I say "expert" here, but I want you to think of this term more loosely than the traditional definition. You don't have to know everything about your topic at hand. You just have to show people that your are interested in that topic beyond a cursory glance and are willing to expound upon it and learn more about it.

I used to have a really hard time with self-promotion until I worked at a social media job where my role was to get as many pageviews as possible. I had to promote our content, and that made me less shy about promoting myself. I also watched a lot of other writers who were MASTERS at selling themselves. Most of them were, quite frankly, not really great writers. They were just really good at ignoring that voice of doubt in their head and were also really good at acting like, or pretending to think, the world owed them something.
posted by Brittanie at 8:29 AM on June 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

Also, please do the rest of us freelancers a favor, and DO NOT WORK FOR FREE.

(Writing for yourself on your own blog is fine.)
posted by Brittanie at 8:31 AM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:58 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, AskMe, for all the great answers and ideas. They're greatly appreciated.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 11:41 AM on June 18, 2013

You are in a graduate program now? Can you get an internship with some publication that you'd really like to freelance for and make connections that way? I know you tried that before, but it may be easier as a grad student. This is a great opportunity to make that shift - when I was in a public policy program, several of my classmates parlayed journalism internships into successful careers as journalists/writers, freelance and otherwise.

Also, think about what's "buzzy" about what you're studying and start writing about that. For instance, if you're interested in democratic institutions, you could start building a name for yourself as someone who writes about governance and tech. If you're interested in electoral politics, maybe you could write about how campaigns are using behavioral science in campaigning. And so on. You can use your current studies/research as a way to position yourself as an expert.
posted by lunasol at 4:28 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I believe that was my most heartfelt MeFi reply yet and someone deleted it. :( I had replied while I was working on my own freelance writer website. It seems like you've gotten a lot of good advice already, so I won't retype all that I said, but I will say that you should go to Carol Tice's blog Make a Living Writing. She has been in this business for something like 25 years and she is devoted to helping freelance writers thrive. She has a free email e-course on marketing that is VERY helpful. Her website is All the best.
posted by Cybria at 5:32 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

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