How does one become a freelance writer?
April 27, 2004 12:46 PM   Subscribe

How does one become a freelance writer? I've written for money before, but it's all been for assignments that fell in my lap. How do I begin to seek out places to write for? Do I just put together a portfolio and submit to various publications? Any tips would be appreciated, as I'm basically starting from square one.

I should mention my previous writing gigs (though far and few between) have been in the arts -- music, theatre, etc. I'm also looking to start at a local scale with local publications, in case that wasn't clear.
posted by Zosia Blue to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I've done this on and off, mostly for magazines. There are a few tricks to freelance writing, and a few things to keep in mind.

First off, when you freelance, unless you have good connections, you often start small. If your other writing has been published, start a clippings file. Larger publishers like to see this. Like the "takes money to make money" adage, it takes being published to get published. Most of the freelance writing I have done has been by writing queries to editors. Often I'll try to see if anyone I know knows anyone at the magazine/publisher/whoever and if so, I direct a personal note, otherwise I find the name of the editor, and write an email to them. Generally I'll include a link to my resume, an outline of what I am proposing to write, and possibly an intro paragraph or a paragraph explaining why my article is important and/or will be useful to their readership ["what's the hook?" in other words....]

If they go for it, then I write the article, usually "on spec" meaning that they haven't given me a contract yet, but they'll take the article if they like it. If you've done a good job outlining your abilities, they should like your article. Some writers [esp ones that need to do this as a paid job] don't write on spec because if they *don't* take your article, you get paid nothing.

Get a copy of The Writer's Market [book by people who put out the magazine Writer's Digest] which outlines tons of paying and non-paying writing opportunities, and mainly outlines what sorts of writing many publications are looking for, what they pay, what some of the guidelines are, where to go for more information. Googling for "writer's resources" is also a good way to get started. There are lots of fly-by-night sites that try to be a freelancer haven. I've found good work off of Craigslist and see good stuff at elance but haven't wanted to join.

If you're looking to start local, the best bet may be to try to make a personal connection with someone at the paper/magazine, offer to cover some interesting event you are going to, or something you have special knowledge about. Above all, you'd like to be thought of as "that guy/gal we can call for __________" [I write a bunch of articles about librarians and the PATRIOT Act for example]. Be persistent without being pushy. Friendly without being sycophantic.

Keep track of who you have written to and when. It's generally bad form to pitch identical articles to multiple editors, but variants on a theme are okay. If you don't hear back in a month or two, write again but don't be a pest. Keep sending out queries, even when you don't hear from people, keep a lot of topics in the hopper. You'll have to think about whether it's worth writing for low or no cost to get your foot in the door, many writers I know disagree strongly about this.

Once you get a writing gig or two, my advice is this:

- edit yourself quite well & proofread. the less editing you require, the more value you have as a starting writer
- stick to word counts [see above]
- don't miss deadlines, don't ask for extra time
- be professional, ask if you have questions, stick to agreements
- read contracts! many writer contracts are "take it or leave it" deals, make sure you understand what you are signing away and make sure this is okay with you
- if they like your work and publish you, feel free to continue to query them & approach the editor you have been working with

Keep in mind that there are many people who want to write, so find a way to positively distinguish yourself from the pack. As you get more and more experience, you can start dropping your less-professional gigs off of your writing resume, but for starters, add pretty much everything you have [though I'd downplay "personal web site" and posts on MeFi, for example]. If you've done any essay-length writing for your personal site/blog, think about expanding it into a writing submission.

Think about joining a group like the National Writers Union [who has good info on contracts on their sites] or a local group of writers just so you have someone to talk to or bounce ideas off of. Other than that, keep involving yourself in interesting things so you'll have something to write about, learn a bit about getting paid as an independent contractor [and tax ramifications thereof] and realize that it's tough to make a living wage off of this kind of work off the bat, but it's fun and interesting and if you're like me and writing anyways, a useful extension of what you do already.
posted by jessamyn at 1:20 PM on April 27, 2004 [7 favorites]

If you've got some clips, that's the first battle right there. The next thing is to scope out the publications you want to infiltrate, and get a feel for the sort of story they publish. Then come up with story ideas that you think would fit. Find out who the relevant editors are at your target publications, and send them the pitches. Expect a rejection rate of around 90%. It sucks, but that's the way it goes. On the bright side, when you get in, it feels pretty damned good.

Your pitch letter is pretty important. You need to show that A) you have an idea worthy of their time, B) you can use words, C) you know the mag, D) you have some sense of what you're doing (even if you're faking it), and E) you're reliable enough that you're not going to flake off the deadline. I'd polish up your pitches as much as you can; and be ready to send a lot of them out.

After you get some stories accepted, you'll have established a relationship with the editors, and at that point the stories will flow a little more freely. At that point, you sort of go back to step one, only this time pitching out to bigger and better-paying markets.

And you never know when you're going to get lucky…. right at the moment you think you're a pathetic failure, the first big acceptance is probably right around the corner.

The Loft has a couple of really good classes on the nuts and bolts of freelancing. Taking one of those was what really got me to get off my ass and start pitching articles.
posted by COBRA! at 1:20 PM on April 27, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, thanks. That's great advice. I do have an idea of what types of articles I want to write, so what I need to work on most is my pitch.

jessamyn, you're onf my favorite AskMeFi answerers -- you have thorough and thoughtful information for so many different types of questions. Thanks.

And COBRA! - always a valuable resource. I owe you a drink.
posted by Zosia Blue at 1:47 PM on April 27, 2004

Small related question: Is it okay to offer the same (prospective) story to multiple publictions at the same time? Do you just go with the first to bite or best offer?
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:10 PM on April 27, 2004

Ufez: Actually, I think that's the best way to do it. You just say SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSION at the bottom of the pitch. A very small number of places won't look at simultaneous submissions, but their Writer's Market listing would indicate that.

I've pretty much always gone with the first one to take it in those situations; unless you're a really hot commodity, there's always a pretty good chance that the first bite will be the only bite.

Zosia: if I can make it to the meet-up, I'll collect on that drink.
posted by COBRA! at 2:33 PM on April 27, 2004

Please tell more about pitching. Do a lot of freelance, but it usually fell in my lap. My weakness is how to pitch, and to whom.
posted by zaelic at 2:54 PM on April 27, 2004

There are two ways you can pitch to get work.

First, you can look for markets that already have freelance writing gigs in mind. Places like Writers Weekly, and Journalism Jobs have market listings and calls for submissions.

Second, as other have noted, you can send a pitch (or "query") letter. COBRA!'s discussion of the elements of one is pretty good. What I usually include in a pitch letter is:

-- Lede and 1-3 paragraphs about what the story is;

-- 1 paragraph about why it's right for their publication;

-- 1 paragraph about who you are, your experience, your particular expertise on the topic;

-- 1 paragraph about when you could deliver the story and how long it would be, where it would fit in their pub, etc.

Then, of course you include clips (work samples) as others have noted. I'd be happy to email you samples of my pitch letters if you like.

On simultaneous submissions of queries, I think it's pretty bogus that some places don't take them, but some choose not to. I'd say don't worry about it unless they expressly forbid them, though.
posted by jeffmshaw at 4:59 PM on April 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

Know that as a freelancer, you are a also a marketer of yourself. I got out of freelancing because I spent more time doing marketing and PR than I did writing. If you don't like marketing, understand that it will take up a great deal of your time initially.

I also found that the money wasn't great, but that's a different conversation.
posted by answergrape at 9:26 PM on April 27, 2004

Some interesting stuff here. One tip:

The rejection rate is high -- but also get used to editors who don't bother to write back.

Because so many don't write back, the ban on "simultaneous submissions" is silly, unless we're talking about pitching to a magazine you already have a relationship with. Just send that stuff everywhere, because life is too short to wait three months to make sure you don't offend Jann Wenner with your simultaneous pitch.

Oh yeah, and writing on spec blows. A contract is a wonderful thing to have.

I broke into a bunch of magazines using the advice in this book. It may initially seem cheesy but its advice works.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:36 PM on April 27, 2004

This advice from professional writer/metafilter member jscalzi is pretty good.
posted by tdismukes at 9:04 AM on April 28, 2004

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