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Excerpt: Get a Freelance Life's Insider Guide to Freelance Writing

By Margit Feury Ragland - April 25, 2006

EDITORS NOTE: In May, mediabistro's first book, Get a Freelance Life, by Margit Feury Ragland, goes on sale. It's a soup-to-nuts guide on being a success -- everything from deciding whether freelancing is the right choice for you, to getting and keeping key contacts, negotiating contracts and managing tight deadlines.

We're releasing this excerpt from Chapter 2 to AvantGuild members ahead of publication. And in May and June we'll be running panels in cities throughout the U.S. on how to "Get a Freelance Life," hosted by successful freelancers and experts. You can find the one nearest you on this page. Here's the excerpt:

Chapter 2

Invest in Yourself
The Bare Necessities for a Successful Freelancer

Launching a freelance writing career is like starting any new business: it takes money to make money. The nice thing is you don't need a storefront or a fully stocked warehouse to start this company. Not literally, at least. The storefront you need is a way to sell yourself — the ability to compose a flawless pitch letter, some decent clips, and perhaps a vibrant Web site or an intriguing résumé. And instead of a warehouse, you need a mind stuffed with brilliant ideas and a fully operational office in which to execute them.

The Basics of a Freelancer's Résumé

While the pitch letter — also called a query — is of utmost importance in launching a freelance career (more on that in Part III), an appropriately tailored résumé can get you noticed.

As a freelancer, you aren't out to land a full-time job. So details about your education and even past employment are not as important on your freelance résumé as information about your writing experience. Of course, that advice comes with a caveat. If you're looking to pitch beauty stories and you've worked in a trendy spa for the past four years, definitely highlight that work background. If you're pitching travel pieces about Italy and you spent the previous six months traveling through Tuscany, showcase that experience. And if you want to write health pieces and you just finished medical school, by all means play up your education.

If you have no published clips and no related experience — and, really, even if you do — your résumé and query letter must read like beautiful prose; otherwise they're destined for an editor's recycling bin. And as a beginner you'll need to work a little harder on your résumé to illustrate that you are well rounded and interested in the world around you. But that may be enough to conquer the lack of experience and clips — as long as it comes with a great story idea, of course.

Remember these key tips when creating your freelancing résumé:

  • Keep it relatively simple and straightforward. Nothing too fancy or flowery, unless you're hoping to pitch a gardening story to Martha Stewart Living. Use a clean font, in an easy-to-read size. Go with traditional, white or off-white résumé paper.

  • You might want to skip the "objective" (it's not necessary to say, "I'm hoping to obtain some freelance writing assignments") and instead consider including three or four bullet points illustrating why an editor should toss some assignments your way. For example, mention your nutrition background if you want to develop diet plans for women's magazines. Or play up your ability to meet tight deadlines, even if it's in an entirely different line of work. If you've worked as a physician's assistant, bring to the forefront your ability to interview people and get them to reveal personal information quickly and accurately — that's a valuable skill for an investigative reporter.

  • Keep it fresh. Because freelancers are often involved in many small projects at once, it's important to keep your résumé updated. For instance, if you have an article in a publication currently on the newsstand, be sure that fact is featured prominently on your résumé. If you are just finishing up two or three assignments that are scheduled for future issues of a publication, you might not want to reveal the title or specific topic of the article, but you can state the assigning publication. For example, under your list of recent work, you can write "Family Circle: How-to article to appear in upcoming issue." If you know the actual issue when the piece will run, list the issue date. Once that date arrives, update your résumé to list the exact title of the article and verify the issue.

  • Consider creating several different résumés if you plan to write on different topics for different kinds of publications. One version might focus on your background in finance and another on your culinary expertise. Tailoring your sales pitch always helps you close the deal.

  • Be sure to use strong, action words — it sells you better, and it shows you can write. Instead of saying you're "good at making things sound exciting," describe yourself as a "prolific writer." Instead of saying you'll "hand in error-free assignments," talk about yourself as "meticulous."

    How a Résumé Can Help
    A great résumé can show your expertise and credibility in a certain field — and help you get a gig — even if you have little experience pitching publications. For example, if you are a shopping addict, allude to that when pitching women's publications. "The most important thing to remember when introducing yourself is to highlight any expertise you have in scouting out home, fashion, or beauty goods," says Karen Catchpole, deputy editor at Shop Etc. "Send a résumé and a letter explaining any relevant experience or expertise in the world of shopping and, if possible, clips that do the same. …" One freelancer sent in clips and a résumé and referred to herself as a 'product junkie.' " That "beauty-obsessed" writer's work appeared in a recent issue.

    Now It's Time to Start Promoting Yourself

    As a freelancer, you're not just a writer; you're also your own marketing and public relations firm. The only person who will be promoting your work will be you.

    Clips: A good place to start is with your writing samples. If you don't currently have any, get writing — for your neighborhood flyer, your church newsletter, your office news alert, your local gossip bulletin, whatever. At this point, don't worry so much if you're not getting paid. The important thing is, you're going to need published samples of your work in order to get assignments from more established, well-paying publications. (More on clips in Chapter 7.)

    Once you've got some clips, display them in the best possible light. If you are going to send these writing samples to editors in the mail, don't simply photocopy them in black and white. Spend the extra dime for color copies. Even if your only clip is a six-line piece in your local podunk paper, make it look good. Get creative: reproduce the cover of the edition of the paper the article appeared in and plop your piece in the center. That doesn't mean you should doctor the cover so that it appears you had a cover story when you didn't. But you should make it look as attractive and substantial as possible — you don't want to send six tiny little lines in the middle of a blank sheet of white paper.

    How I Got My First Clip
    I didn't study journalism, so I didn't know where to start when I wanted to be a journalist. I was living in D.C. and working at a bar. One day I bicycled to the office of a free weekly, the City Paper. It was in some poor, sketchy neighborhood. I went in and said I want to talk to the editor. The staff was so amused that I showed up without an appointment that I actually got to see the editor. He wrote a phone number on a piece of paper and said, 'Call this guy and ask him how the city cable contract was awarded, and write an article about it.' I just had no idea — clueless, just totally clueless. But the city cable contract was awarded in a sort of sleazy way, and there was a lot of corruption in D.C. at the time, and I thought, Well, I don't know what I'm doing but I'll just concentrate hard enough and find out the answer.

    I think that's true — you know I have no idea how to repair a car engine but I feel like if I sat down with a shop book and a bunch of tools, I would eventually — maybe it would take months or years — but eventually I'd figure engines out. And that's sort of my approach to journalism.

    — Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who writes for numerous publications, including Outside, American Heritage, and Men's Journal.

    I was living in Chicago and at the time there was a new alternative weekly called New City. I just started doing music reviews — without even talking to anybody there, and just started sending them in. I did that for a couple of weeks, probably sent in two or three different pieces. Eventually they actually liked one of them, ran it, and paid me $30. "I don't know if there's a plan [for other freelancers] there, except to just set the bar relatively low for that first piece. That led to another piece, and like I said I was getting paid $30, which probably works out to be 5 cents a word.

    You have to be somewhat fearless and not be afraid of rejection and humiliation. Because the odds are that at least at the beginning you're going to get a lot of rejection and have to believe in your writing. Just kind of stick with it and keep plugging away until you get a break because I think that's basically it. You have to have enough faith in your stuff and set somewhat realistic goals. Don't think that a month after you get out of J-school you're going to be pitching stories to The New Yorker. Try to find something [a publication] that kind of speaks to your sensibilities that also seems attainable, whether it's a weekly or a monthly or whatever. A lot of alternative weeklies can give you that first opportunity.

    — Steve Rodrick is a contributing editor at
    New York and a writer-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine. He was previously a contributing editor at George, ESPN, and Men's Journal.

    Margit Feury Ragland worked as an editor at Woman's Day, Family Circle, Walking, Cornell, and Natural Health magazines before leaping headfirst into a successful freelance career. Her work has appeared in publications such as Self, Fitness, Health, Marie Claire, Parenting, and the Boston Globe.

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