How to make a living through writing?
Thoughts for aspiring writers and food writers on the questions I get asked most often.
“Hi, Jacqueline. My name is INSERT FEMALE NAME and I’m a JUNIOR/SENIOR studying JOURNALISM/MARKETING at AWESOME SCHOOL. I have some questions about the industry and am wondering if you’ll be willing to jump on a call…”
I’m a freelance writer. I spend my billable hours writing.
This is your first lesson.
My love for helping people often clashes with such an email introduction or LinkedIn message. So many badass women are stepping into these fields and I’m humbled they reach out to connect. I wish I had the time and energy to touch base with every individual. But I don’t. Making a living through writing is hard. The media industry rewards speed and volume, and I work best when calm, focused, and not watching a clock. I also have an illness that, while public about in some aspect of my work and online life, I don’t divulge to clients unless the content is directly related — I turn in work, and so need my physical energy to create it.
Plus, an admission: 80% of those who I do connect with bring questions that could be answered via a Google search or any of my essays or articles. They haven’t yet done enough work as interviewers. They’re not ready to be journalists.
And so, here I share a variation of smart questions recently lobbed to me.
Have more after reading? I’m here.
How/why did you go into freelance writing specifically?
I have a bachelors degree in fine arts, which set me up with skills in speaking, conversation, exploring the human mind through words and writing. I also have a chronic health condition that worsened in my late twenties. Shifting creative focus, I accepted that I am not healthy enough to work in an office environment. My business tactics — as hit and miss as they’ve been — have kept that reality in check.
How did you build a portfolio and client list with no journalism degree?
I started out writing for free, first for a now-defunct food blog, then as an unpaid intern-to-part-time-unpaid “staff” at a digital magazine startup (excellent learning experience). I also had my own blog on the side.
Then, I explored the kinds of stories food blogs I wanted to write for didn’t have. I wrote full samples for them (interviews and all) and pitched a ton. Eventually, I got a few columns. I worked my ass off and built relationships. Editors gave me more stories and took me with them when they moved publications. I pitched other places. Things grew.
I concurrently picked up secondary skills. I shoot and edit photos, record and edit audio, and can navigate design and marketing programs. I can negotiate higher rates this way, reach broader audiences, and have more to offer potential clients. Plus, it’s fun to learn new things!
How has media (and food media) changed the most since you started?
I used to have several regular columns, so I knew how many stories I was responsible for a month and how much space I had to fill with features and other work. Now, I have zero. Zero. Staffers are taking on more work. Freelance budgets are disappearing. More features, more pitching. Fun!
How do freelancers stand out when pitching editors?
The story idea — and assurance that you’re qualified to write it — is all that matters. You differentiate yourself with your idea, and you make it easy for them to see the story and publish it. You show that you’re smart, that you have a voice, and that you’ll be easy to work with.
You do this by following submission guidelines (Google to find them). You pitch only one editor who works on such stories (Google or put in the name of the publication and “editor” on Twitter to find them). You know no one has written something similar because you’ve done that search, too. You add specific hyperlinks to similar stories so they can quickly get an idea for your tone in published pieces. You attach resumes (for some jobs) and have your social media and LinkedIn in your handle.You don’t follow up that week (maybe two later).
You make it smart, fun, friendly, and short.
What is the balance like with the workload? How do publications vary?
There is zero regularity or balance.
Every publication and editor works differently. Deadlines are different. Time zones are different. Editing styles are different. Payment schedules are different. There is no built-in system like with school or a working-for-someone-else job.
It can be exhausting. It can be fun. Being a freelance writer means you figure out your balance and workload. You adjust as you go. You talk to other writers. Most freelancer writers I know fling toolboxes of coping mechanisms around trying to balance it out. I have a hypnotherapist and a dog and an entire book about self-care coming out about it. Others have… other things.
Do you always get to pitch your own ideas or are you provided with content ideas?
With food magazines and blogs, freelancers pitch. Staffers (pitch and) get assignments. With corporate clients or trade magazines, there’s more assigning.
This can vary — some clients I’ve worked with for a long time might have a quick story they need written. Or they’ll reach out if they know I’m a nerd in a specific niche. But most of it is me pitching. Pitching is a skill. I’m not great at it. I’m actively working to get better, using the amazing Gabi at Dream of Travel Writing. Her resources and cheerleading are super helpful.
What do you like best about freelance writing?
I love working for myself. I love setting my own schedule, working from home (alone!), altering my optimal working conditions, and being taking time to tend my body or space. We talk a lot about work burnout and self-care nowadays. I control these. For better and for worse.
And I love collaborating with various publications and editors. When it works — the subject, editor, publication, and my work work — it’s incredibly rewarding.
This all takes work. Don’t become a freelance writer if you are an extrovert or bad at time management.
And the greatest struggles?
Most things about a freelance writing career have nothing to do with writing. You are your boss and your assistant. You do all of the pitching, writing, editing, and correspondence. You beg to get invoices paid for work already published. You haggle for health insurance and watch hours. You fight editors and clients who don’t support you (that sucks!). It’s exhausting.
Don’t become a freelance writer if you’re not good at keeping that all in check or paying others for such business-y things.
Do you have any advice about trying to reach out to food publications with pitches?
Do your research. Find an editor. Pitch the kinds of stories they say they write or edit. Make it a good pitch — a smart story idea, written up well, with samples to your work (I can’t best explain the pitching process so do the work).
Be curious. Read. A lot. Think a lot. Talk a lot — especially to people who are not like you. Ask questions, and then just listen. Go away and think about it for a while.
Get to know yourself. Figure out what you love and celebrate it. Be really bad at writing some style of something, and then write and write and write until you’re better at it. Work social media but don’t get lured in by the non-real-human aspect of it. Don’t be afraid to be human.
Be a writer. Write. And write. And write. And write.