So, you want to be a freelance writer, huh? It looks really glamorous with little-known writers getting a bajillion views for their work on Huffington Post, or gaining overnight success with a single viral article or hilarious concept.
Freelance writing appears to be a quick and easy way to write about whatever you want for whoever you want, all from the comfort of your own home.
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Freelancing is tough. I’ve done it for just three years now, and I’ve endured late payments, broken contracts and nail-biting periods of time with little or no food in the fridge. So, if you really want to do this, better be prepared.
Here are four things you absolutely must do before you even think of putting fingers to keypad.
1. Get Organized
With pitches going out and (hopefully) payments coming in, freelance writing can become a juggling act if you’re lacking an organization system.
For a rookie, here are the barest bones of an effective organization system: a calendar, a submissions log and a way to track your income. Your own system should make sense to you.
For example, I pin story ideas on a bulletin board so I can physically examine them, but I use Excel spreadsheets to track submission statuses, invoices and payments.
C. Hope Clark, creator of FundsForWriters.com, uses a hard copy calendar and organizes the rest using Excel spreadsheets. “I keep 13 queries outstanding at all times, whether editors, magazines, contests or [for a] copywriting gig,” she says. “When I receive a rejection, I stop and usually submit a rejected piece to another market and send a new piece to the editor that rejected me.”
“Each spreadsheet is sortable by a number of filters such as deadline, payment, contacts etc. There is nothing on paper at all. It’s very geeky, and it makes me very happy,” she says.
Personally, I like to use Google Drive to store my finished pieces. Though no technology is infallible, it’s wise to back up your work on multiple platforms.
Computers get viruses, hard drives crash or your toddler may develop an insatiable curiosity as to what happens when she submerges your flash drive in the toilet. Be prepared!
2. Research and Read
In my opinion, the difference between a casual writer and a professional (read: income-earning) is all in the research.
It’s no coincidence that the moment I started making money writing was shortly after I started examining the market for paying publications and decided to pitch only those with which I was somewhat familiar.
You don’t have to be an avid reader of every publication you pitch, but you should submit a story with confidence that your piece will fit the tone and mission of that publication.
It’s not about you, it’s about them: Write and submit with the intention of making the magazine/website/newsletter better.
Here are just a few publications you should read to keep up with the industry:
- Writer’s Digest
- The Writer
- Writer’s Market
- The Renegade Writer
- Worldwide Freelance
- Mediabistro (but, of course)
- Poets & Writers
- VIDA: Women In The Literary Arts
Depending on your genre and interests, there are many more resources available to you. For example, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers worlds of information specific to the children’s market.
And don’t underestimate the value of word-of-mouth: All the veteran writers I spoke with said they learned about new opportunities through casual conversations with friends and acquaintances. Don’t be afraid to tell others what you do for a living.
3. Make Connections
The old school Rolodex may be slipping into extinction, but the act of making contacts in the literary world is evergreen.
There are a million ways to create and maintain professional relationships: social media, writer’s conferences, organizations and local groups, workshops and college courses.
Help other writers out: If you discover a new culinary magazine searching for writers, alert your foodie friend. Your colleagues will remember and return the favor in the future (and if they’re of the mindset that more for you means less for them, it’s not worth it to maintain the relationship anyway).
Don’t burn bridges and remember to keep in touch with editors you’ve worked with in the past. Like any other industry, editorial jobs get shuffled around, and when Jane C. Editor goes to work for a new magazine, you could be on your way to an assignment simply because you’ve already fostered a relationship with her.
So how do you build relationships with writers and editors? When relevant, I like to mention briefly in my pitch letters what I enjoy about their publication.
Be professional before you get personal: Turn in assignments as early as possible, respond promptly and succinctly to emails, and unless you’ve just lost your fingers in a freak chainsaw accident, don’t make excuses.
And for the love of Shakespeare, always use proper grammar and punctuation.
4. Flesh Out Ideas Before Pitching
The worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is send a sloppy pitch letter or poorly edited piece to your dream publication.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t challenge yourself to pitch venerated publications, especially if you’re very familiar with what they publish.
But it’s much easier to build your body of work, get some help editing your pitch or story and then submit to The New Yorker than to fire off a submission at two in the morning on a wine-induced whim.
Create a strong first impression rather than spending time and energy recovering from a bad one: Before pitching a publication, Clark said she studies the masthead to find out who does what. She also looks for “archives of articles… I will also glance at the advertising in the publication or online to get a strong feel of the readership.”
Dominick also reviews the content of a publication thoroughly before submitting. “I look for circulation data and demographics on their audience/readership. I look at Alexa rankings for online opportunities.”
Again, the more time you spend getting organized and studying the market now, the more time you’ll have later to actually be creative and write.
My own piece of advice for rookies? Don’t quit your day job—or have a spouse, partner, roommate or really well-trained pet who can bring in some income, too.