How to Start Freelance Writing

I’m not wearing a bra right now, even though I’m at work. Do I live in a future-society where women can free-boob it without stares or accusations of “unprofessionalism”? Nope. I’m a freelance writer, free to lance about my city (or the world) — the free life of working from wherever, whenever. And I get to write! And I’m paying the bills!

I started trying to become a working writer in my spare time nearly 7 years ago, and it hasn’t been an easy path. To be honest, it almost definitely won’t be for you either; I don’t say this to discourage you, but to manage expectations. People often look at writing like anyone can do it, because technically, yeah — but there’s more to it than folks think, and you’ll be up against people who know what they’re doing.

It’s wise to be prepared, and you might have to work towards your 10,000 hours before you really get rolling. But, it’s the challenging paths that are the most worth walking, I highly recommend this journey. And at least I can pave it a bit for you! Here’s 8 things I wish I knew when I got started:

  1. Not Everyone Pays Writers, But Lots Do: If you’re just getting started, it’s wise to publish for free so you can get some links and bylines — but if you’ve got a decent handle on writing, there’s many options out there who pay at least something. When starting out, look for smaller websites that look like they sell ad space, or who sell products from their website; they’re more likely to pay than creative sites or community sites (who can be better for audience-building).
  2. Know Your Objective: Besides enjoying writing — mandatory! — why do you want to become a writer? Do you want to pay rent or get a book deal? There’s lots of kinds of freelance writing, and the most-reliable-best-paying-kind often won’t have your name on it at the end. Content marketing writing is ghost writing that helps promote a business in some way, often using tools like SEO or copywriting for behind-the-scenes company needs.

    But if you’ve written a book and are looking to start freelancing, you probably care about building an audience so you’ll be attractive to agents and publishers. In this case, you’re going to want to get published; which is a hell of a lot easier than it was pre-internet. (Getting published in print is still highly-revered.) This means your writing will be on/in someone else’s product, which is usually a website or a magazine. Many do a mix of both types.

  3. What to Write About: Clichés become cliché because people say them so much, and we repeat them because they’re true — writing what you know is generally wise. This can mean writing personal essays about your actual life; but usually means the things you’re really into, and/or topics that you live daily. For instance, I’m a medical cannabis patient and advocate who largely writes about medical cannabis, which has given me a plethora of knowledge and credibility on the topic. What do you know everything about? That’s a great place to start, niches are a great place to get rolling.
  4. On Who to Pitch: Your biggest concerns are likely to be audience and rates. Who do you want to talk to, and how much money do you need to make? On the internet, the publishers with the biggest audience aren’t necessarily the biggest payers; so if audience is hugely important, be willing to compromise your rates for some. (But never be afraid to respectfully negotiate.) And, again, companies who sell stuff besides writing are likely to be the most reliable and better-paying work, but you probably won’t be credited. Look for websites that have articles similar to ones you’d like to write.
  5. On How to Pitch: A pitch is an email you’ll send to an editor that describes what you want to communicate with your article. It sells it! Even if you’ve already written the full article, you need to send a pitch — editors are very busy folks. Keep it less than a page. Be sure to include your experience with the topic and list/link your favorite bylines (don’t expect them to navigate to your website to see your portfolio). Try to avoid pitching the general email, seek out specific editors of the topic area that you’re pitching. Ie, “Entertainment Editor” for “Emma Stone and Gael Garcia New Supercouple.” (That just popped out of my head, but I could totally see that…)
  6. On Rejection: It happens. A. Lot. And it’s nothing to take personally. Publications are factoring all kinds of things that have nothing to do with you. Maybe they already published a similar story (wise to check pre-pitch), have an investor that doesn’t want to be behind a topic, or are just currently focusing on another topic. If an editor doesn’t respond after about a week, politely follow-up in a way that resummarizes your pitch. If they don’t respond after that, reformat your pitch for another publication and repeat until a match vibes.
  7. On the Editing Process: Before your article gets to an editor, you need to edit it to the max! Editors don’t want to work with people who give them extra work. Also make sure that your voice coordinates the rest of their writing. And if you do all this — you may still wind up with many edits, or even rewriting it. Breathe. Let go of your ideas in regard to its perfection and appreciate that others’ and their work are now involved too. It’s just how it works. That being said, you don’t have to work with editors again if you don’t like their editing style; and if you’re unhappy with how it’s turned out, it’s okay to pull it (but be respectful and aware of that it can affect the relationship with the publication).
  8. Website: Love it or hate it, marketing is part of freelance writing. A writer’s website to showcase your work is absolutely necessary (once you’ve got some work to showcase, of course). Choose a domain that’s easy to spell and remember, and build it yourself; there’s tons of easy DIY builders now (NOT WordPress, trust me 🙄), and asking someone else to update it every time you write something will be a costly hassle. Post blogs as often as you can — if you get busy you can shuffle them around so it looks new (shhh, they’ll be new now!), but SEO will know that they aren’t.
  9. Join Writers Groups: Other writers are a priceless resource. Look for groups in your area and/or all over the internet. (It, and “letters to home,” are all I use Facebook for anymore!) Be sure to follow the group’s rules about posting, especially in regard to self-promotion. If there’s a search option, use that before posting a new question on the same topic.

I hope that I’ve helped pave your road to writing, or at least pruned up some of the shrubbery. Sending the best of juju to your writerly missions!!

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