8 Tips For Becoming A Freelance Writer
What I’ve learned from four years as a full-time freelancer
There’s no one way to become a freelancer and it’s a career path that requires perseverance, scrappiness, dumb luck, and a willingness to live cheaply. But since I’m frequently asked for advice on how to break into the industry, I thought I’d share my 8 tips for becoming a freelance writer.
1. Write stuff
The best way to become a better writer is to write and the best way to get a job as a writer is to share what you write. Whether it’s Medium, Tumblr, or some other blogging site, find a platform you like and use it to figure out your voice, your interests, and your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Not only will this allow you to improve your craft, it also means you’ll have published pieces (i.e. “clips”) to send along when you start pitching actual publications. Unlike other fields that rely on resumes and cover letters, clips are the most important currency of freelance writing gigs. And it helps to have a handful of articles you’re really proud of, even if they’re just published on your own blog. I got started as a writer thanks to an internship at The A.V. Club and I got that gig partially thanks to a rom-com review blog I launched as a post-college creative outlet.
2. Master the art of the pitch
A lot of your time as a freelancer will be taken up writing and sending pitches for story ideas. If you’re lucky, one day you’ll be pitching editors with whom you have a solid working relationship. But especially in the beginning you’ll be sending out a lot of cold pitches. And, yes, that means you’ll be dealing with a lot of rejection and radio silence. Pitching is a confusing, frustrating, and isolating experience, and I’ve yet to meet a writer who really loves it. But it’s important not to let that get you down: rejection is a completely normal part of every freelancer’s life. There are a lot of different schools of thought about the best way to craft pitch and each outlet has its own preferences too. But here’s what generally works for me:
Make sure you’re well-versed in the tone and subject matter of the website you’re pitching to, then send a clean, succinct, and short pitch. Editors are busy people who read a lot of emails in a day. Get on their good side by making yours quick and easy to read. I keep my pitch emails to a maximum of 2–3 short paragraphs. In the first paragraph or two, I explain the “what” and “why” of my pitch: what my idea is and why it’s relevant to the site’s audience. If there’s a timely hook (i.e. an upcoming film release, an anniversary, etc.) I note that right off the bat. Then in my final paragraph I send along links to a couple of my relevant clips.
When it comes to pitching, the waiting is definitely the hardest part. Unless something is super timely, I don’t do anything to follow-up for two weeks. If I haven’t heard back in two weeks I’ll either send a short follow-up (“wanted to follow-up and see if you’re interested in this piece”) or just move on to pitching the piece elsewhere. It’s never a bad idea to let an editor know you’ll be pitching the piece to other sites, however I would never send more than one follow-up email to an editor I haven’t heard back from.
Also, unless you specifically note that you’re doing so in your initial pitch, never send the same idea to multiple outlets at the exact same time. You don’t want to run the risk of having to pull the piece from one outlet if they both accept. That also means that if you’ve got an idea for a piece tied to a specific date, you should start pitching it as early as possible (i.e. weeks or months in advance) so you have time to go through multiple pitch cycles.
3. Be great to work with
There are a lot of things you can’t control as a freelancer; even your writing skills are something that will take time to develop. Rather than let that overwhelm you, channel your energy into something you can control, like being really, really great to work with. Respond to emails quickly and politely, be gracious when receiving notes, turn in clean copy, and never, ever miss a deadline. If you give editors a reason to want to work with you beyond just the words you write, you’ll help ensure some stability in an often-unstable industry.
4. Know your value
While many outlets pay their writers, even more offer “exposure” as a kind of payment. It’s slightly ridiculous concept — no one expects a doctor or a dog walker to work for exposure — but it’s an all too common trend in the arts. And the reality is sometimes it is worth taking a non-paying job, especially when you’re starting out. Not only do you get another clip to share, the fact that it’s published on an external site (and not a personal blog) might make you look more legitimate.
However, you should think long and hard before taking an unpaid job. How much exposure will the piece actually bring? What you are getting out of the equation? Will you at least enjoy writing the article even if you don’t get paid for it? Writing for free can be an important stepping-stone, just make sure not to stay on that stone for too long. If you’re not getting paid anyway, it might be better to dedicate your time to writing strong pitches than to churning out free articles.
5. Never be embarrassed to ask about money
This is hands down the best piece of advice I got when I was just starting out as a freelancer. Talking about money is awkward, but you should always know how much you’ll be paid before you submit your final piece. Generally freelancers are paid per article and that can range anywhere from $15-$250 (or maybe more if you’re luckier than I am). Scraping together a living from small payments can be really difficult, so it’s important to stay on top of every dollar.
An easy way to broach the topic after you’ve had a pitch accepted is to ask, “How much do you generally pay for pieces like this?” Or if you’d like to gently suggest an amount you think is fair, you can write something like, “I usually receive $100 for pieces such as this. Are your rates comparable?” If you think you aren’t getting paid enough, politely inquire about whether the company would consider paying you a higher rate. It never hurts to ask — just be sure to be gracious no matter what the answer is. You should also ask if the company wants an invoice (most do) and when you can expect to receive payment.
6. Remember you’re running a business
When you first start out as a freelancer you’ll almost certainly need a second source of income (even established freelance writers often have full- or part-time jobs too). So probably don’t quit your day job to start freelancing, but do think of freelancing as a serious job. As a freelancer you’re not just your own boss, you’re also your own financial department too. Keep detailed records of what you write, when you submit it, and whether you’ve gotten paid for it yet. And don’t expect to get paid as quickly as you would in a normal 9–5 job. Best case scenario, an outlet will pay its freelancers once a month. Other times, it might take much longer and require several follow-up emails. Also depending on how much you make as an independent contractor, you might also have to start paying quarterly estimated taxes, so keep an eye on that too.
7. Take social media seriously
Networking is an important part of any profession and luckily for introverts, the freelance writing world conducts most of its networking online. Twitter is a huge social media platform for writers and while it might sound silly, you should kind of take Twitter seriously. If you come across an article you love, follow the writer on Twitter. (You can find me right here, by the way.) At the very least their feed will give provide insight into the industry, more stuff to read, and more places to pitch. Plus you never know when someone might tweet about a job opening or an opportunity. I’ve gotten a fair amount of writing gigs directly through connections I’ve made on Twitter.
Don’t worry too much about creating a “brand” on Twitter, but do think of your social media as a public platform. Assume your current and future employers are reading your feed and project a persona you want them to see. By all means be goofy, personable, and honest, but don’t passive aggressively tweet about your current editor and don’t badmouth a site unless you’re completely willing to burn that bridge. Instead, focus on creating a Twitter feed that reflects who you are as a writer. For the most part I tweet about pop culture, feminism, and social justice. Not coincidentally, those are the topics I write about too.
8. Find your work/life balance
Working from home as a freelancer feels like you’re simultaneously always working and never working. It’s easy to get super lazy and put off work in favor of just one more YouTube makeup tutorial. But it’s equally easy to slip into non-stop work mode, especially when your work involves pop culture. So it’s important to find some kind of routine that works for you. Some people might like the discipline of working from a home office from 9–5. Personally, I’m not an early riser and I find that if I allow myself a lazy morning, I’m way more productive in the afternoon. By all means take advantage of the opportunity to set your own hours. That’s one of the great joys of freelancing! But if your schedule is a fairly organic one, like mine, be sure to balance your work time and your non-work time, even if it’s on a weekly basis rather than a daily one. And don’t feel guilty about giving yourself actual time off to recharge either. That’s probably when you’ll get some of your best ideas.
Good luck and happy pitching!