How does freelance writing work?
February 5, 2018 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I've always wondered how do people find writers for magazines and online sites other than job listings. Are there writing contests? Do writers just submit articles for review?

I know The New Yorker accepts fiction submissions and you can sell small bits of writing like on Textbrokers. I realized apart from self-publishing and blogging I have no idea how freelance writing works. I have seen job posting for Polygon and RPS but I imagine it's difficult to stand out for games review. Do potential writers join writing contests for recognition? Any examples would be fine. Thanks.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Work & Money (9 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Word of mouth is a big one. Make yourself valuable to people who are already doing what you want to do. If you want to write news stories, send in news story tips to other writers or their editors. "I think this would be a great story, and if you don't have the resources to cover it I'd love to take a crack!"
posted by cjorgensen at 12:42 PM on February 5, 2018

Do not join writing contests for recognition. This may have been a reasonable starting point in the past (I doubt it, but maybe), but these days, the contract terms for the contest are usually "we own everything; we can do anything we want with it; we may give you a small prize or not, but either way, we now own these words forever." If they make the next blockbuster Pixar film based on your contest entry, your name won't be on it.

Several of the online "solutions/answers" sites pay people - HowStuffWorks and sites like it hire freelance writers. (They pay tiny amounts, but it counts as "real pro writing experience" when seeking other jobs.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:45 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

For reputable outlets (not content mills like "the online solutions/answers sites"), I think networking and references play a large role, in addition to having a portfolio or track record of work. If someone is a writer, they are probably active on Twitter, which is basically where journalists and writers hang out, and then they can get to know editors. Other writers and editors will come across your work there and you become familiar to them. Pitching people familiar with you will become easier and they may also reach out to you once you're on their radar. Having published work is a big part of it too - it doesn't need to be for a huge outlet because if it's good, it's good. I agree that writing contests are not a viable path.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:10 PM on February 5, 2018

It’s basically a snowball thing, in my experience. You write for one outlet, use that “clip” (published piece) to get something published in a bigger, better outlet. Rinse. Repeat.

Along the way if you have friends, colleagues or school chums who can help you out by connecting you with an outlet, so much the better.

Never heard of writing contents being a way forward. The “contest” is getting published and paid. That’s the win and the way forward.

It’s basically a buyer’s market for news and feature writing. There are so many people looking to get published, editors of most quality publications rarely (but not never) have to go out looking for people.

This is my experience in the general news/food/travel genre. Other niches may be different, but I’d be surprised if many of the same things weren’t broadly applicable.
posted by veggieboy at 1:10 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would start with where you want to see your byline and work backwards. Identify your market first, then see what they are asking for. Start with something reasonable. Don't go for The New Yorker as your first try. There are a lot of writers out there, many of them are good, and some of these people give it away for free, so competition is fierce. But there's also a great demand, so it's truly not that difficult to get paid to publish. It just takes persistence, practice, and a bit of luck.

You could consider joining a local writers' group or guild if there is one in your area. Figure out what you are a subject matter expert in and write up some articles in that. Or, if you want to publish poetry or short stories, get some written and send them out.

Whatever you do, expect a lot of rejection. Even experienced writers see pieces declined.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:26 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you mean non-fiction articles, you don’t generally send a full story, you send a query. In my previous career I hired writers based on queries; I’ll write more later. But look for query letter resources to get an idea.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:40 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're looking to write fiction for money, I recommend the following blogs:

* Kristine Katherine Rusch, especially her business articles
* Dean Wesley Smith, her husband; especially his "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" series. They are both pro writers of both short stories and novels; they now also own a small publishing house and teach workshops.
* J. A. Konrath - limited specific details; terrific for inspiration and emotional support of the "you can really truly be a pro writer" support. Also, "the mainstream publishing industry is out to screw you over, so use Amazon to grab every penny you can while that's what's working."
* Michael Stackpole, who has written a book called "21 days to write a novel," and regularly does writer-workshop posts
* An American Editor - a look at the writing industry from the non-content-creation side.

None of them focus on freelancing; all are supportive of self-publishing; all of them acknowledge that "can write awesome stories" is the starting point for being a professional author, not the end of it.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:07 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of calls for submissions posted on social media - Twitter's a really common avenue, and I'm also a member of a bunch of writers groups on Facebook where people often post callouts. Also if you go to websites directly there's often a Submissions page.

I've not joined a writers contest in memory. I look at the websites I enjoy and pitch ideas to them - if they take it on, I write it (there's been a couple I haven't managed to complete but it's OK, there's been plenty more). There was a list of diverse writers that went around and I had a piece published thanks to that list.

Submittable has a newsletter that regularly publishes calls for submissions (from clients that use their software). The Writers Bloc is primarily Australian but also has a lot of resources.

I did a lot of writing on my own avenues too (personal blog projects, Medium) and that helped serve as clips for when I pitched places.
posted by divabat at 4:02 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

OK so here’s my download. Notes: I worked in Canada, although I think the principles are the same in the US the pay is likely better. Each publication and editor had their own thing, too, so this is just my perspective.

So I was the assigning editor for a number of pieces of month. Mostly pieces went to writers I already knew would do at the very least a very good job. Here’s what would get my attention in a new writer.

1. A good query letter. I needed to know you had some sense of our audience, knew what the substance and hook of your article was, could see you could write clearly, and that it was short. No gimmicks, nothing twee, all in the body of a simple email. An idea of sources and length.

2. 2-3 links to your prior work. I did hire some bloggers, and I hired people who had only written for free in their local paper or whatever. But the writing had to be clear, succinct, and tell a story in a way that I could see it working for my publication.

3. Most important but least in your control would be timing. I had a basic editorial outline I was following. So a few things: don’t send queries for Valentine’s Day in late January unless it’s a very fast-paced hot take publication. My V-Day lineup for web was final in December. For print, even earlier. Even more headtbreaking though were all the queries for pieces we had on the go, that were too similar to something (or to something our competition had just run), in a staff member’s wheelhouse, already shot down, etc. etc. Write queries often. Send them off, and let them go.

Sometimes I would get a sudden need for say, 12 articles around a theme, though, and then I would go to my query folder and haul out people who had pitched certain topics and see if they were in. This is also where I might approach bloggers or self-published people along that line like...tiny house living or something.

4. Conversely, things that immediately grabbed my attention no matter what: Access to people or information that is hard to get.

Things to remember to get more jobs later:
- keep to your deadlines. If you say you can write an article and the editor calls you, be prepared to at least know when you can deliver it. It’s ok if it’s not “tomorrow,” but whichever date you set has to account for whatever will really happen
- sources: it will be assumed that if you queried, you know which experts/etc. You will be approaching. This is important. The editor may say “a minimum of three” so don’t assume your cousin will do. Responsible publications fact check so be aware of what that means and what information you will need to supply
- photos: if you can supply them, say so! There may or may not be interest or additional pay but it doesn’t hurt.
- respond quickly and communicate early. I sometimes had to assign things fast and honestly whoever replied first got a leg up. Also, I could help writers solve problems...if I knew before the deadline. Not the day of.

Networking...definitely helps. I have people in my social media who keep me up to date on what they’re doing, and I still notice, and if I ever dive back in they will still be top of mind. But they’re good at it because they’re passionate about what they do.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:55 PM on February 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

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